EDMONTON — An environmental group says an exchange of coal exploration lease applications in Alberta's Rocky Mountains suggests mining companies expect to be able to go ahead with their plans despite a provincial debate on the industry's future.
"They wouldn't be buying those lease applications if they didn't think they could do something with them down the road," said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Morrison said her group has found that Cabin Ridge Project Ltd., one of several companies hoping to develop open-pit coal mines in the Rockies, has purchased 2,000 hectares of coal exploration lease applications from a second company, Peace River Coal.
The purchases took place over July and August, after Alberta suspended exploration activity and the sale of new leases in response to public concern over the high-impact industry in one of the province's most beloved landscapes. The purchases also coincided with the work of a government panel tasked with hearing from Albertans about how or if they want industry on those summits and foothills.
The purchases concern so-called Category 2 lands, which are deemed the most environmentally sensitive and valuable.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage said she is baffled.
"I am puzzled why any coal company would want to purchase a lease application for Category 2 lands in that area given the strong concerns raised by Albertans," she said in an email. "We have been clear that all exploration activity in that region has been halted."
Cabin Ridge did not return a request for comment.
The Alberta Energy Regulator, which approved the transfers, referred questions to Alberta Energy.
New Democrat Opposition environment critic Marlin Schmidt said, despite Savage's statement, the lease transfers are in line with the United Conservative government's actions.
“Even when the UCP attempted to backpedal on their decision to open up the mountains for coal mining, Minister Savage said the government's goal was still to develop a coal policy, not a regional plan," he said in a release.
“I’m concerned that this continued approach by the UCP is what is leading these companies on to continue their investments in coal mining exploration."
Morrison said the lease transfers violate the spirit of the government's promise not to sell new exploration leases in the area. She said the transfers should not have been approved by the regulator.
"Allowing Cabin Ridge to buy a new coal lease is sending the signal that things are progressing as normal, that they'll get this coal engagement thing out of the way and then they'll be allowed to keep going despite the fact we've said, 'let's stop it all until we figure it out.'
"There's no public interest reason for (the regulator) to have approved the transfer of that application."
Alberta has been debating the possibility of more coal mines in a long stretch of the Rockies that covers most of their range in the province since the government revoked a 1976 policy that protected them. Those landscapes are favourite recreation destinations, as well as the source of most of the province's drinking water.
A public outcry against coal mines, including voices from urban environmentalists to small-town mayors and ranchers, forced the province to restore protections and strike a committee to hear from Albertans before making further moves.
The head of that committee, Ron Wallace, has said it's clear from the input he's received that Albertans want an overall policy for what happens on those landscapes, not just a list of where coal mines might be acceptable. His committee is slated to report in November.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2021.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press