Common Questions on Coal in Alberta
What kind of coal will be mined in the Eastern Slopes?
These mines will produce metallurgical/coking coal which is used to make steel. A different type of coal–thermal coal–is used to generate electricity.
Don’t we need more coal for steel?
Much of the coal in this area is not top tier coking coal. While lower tier coal can be used by the steel industry, it fetches lower market prices.
New steel manufacturing technologies such as electric arc furnaces and direct reduced iron processes are decreasing the need for coking/metallurgical coal.
Steel can be recycled repeatedly, further reducing the need for coal.
Who is opposed to coal mining in the area?
A diverse group of people oppose open-pit mining in the Eastern Slopes: ranchers, landowners, grassroots Indigenous groups, recreation and tourism owner/operators, farmers, environmental groups, residents of southern Alberta and people all across the province.
What are the potential impacts on health and the environment?
Coal mining releases selenium into the water. Water with toxic concentrations of selenium causes deformities, nerve damage, and reproductive failure in fish, mammals, and migratory birds. These effects are being seen already from coal mining activity in the Elk River Valley and resulted in a multi-million dollar fine being imposed on Teck Resources.
Farmers and ranchers who live in the area’s watershed are worried about the potential harm water-borne selenium could have on livestock.
If people are exposed to high amounts of selenium in their drinking water, it can cause serious health issues. People exposed to high levels of selenium can suffer from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss and neurological problems.
Currently, there are no proven technologies that can adequately control the release of selenium when a mine is operating, nor are there any that can successfully remediate it after a mine closes.
Coal mining and wind erosion of waste rock piles also produce dust that is a toxic blend of lead, mercury, nickel, tin, cadmium, antimony, and arsenic. There may be no safe threshold for human exposure to coal dust. People living near coal mines are more likely to experience chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease, as well as increased risks of lung and digestive system cancers.
Black lung still kills coal miners to this day. This disease does not only affect coal miners who work underground. Surface miners, such as those who would work at these proposed mines, also develop black lung.
Mines in the Eastern Slopes pose a threat to a number of at-risk species including Grizzly bears, westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, whitebark pine, limber pine and more. Mining operations will destroy habitat and impact wildlife corridors.
Jobs and the Economy
What about the jobs this will bring?
Coal mining would create some jobs, but there are questions as to how many and how long they would last.
Coal prices fluctuate widely on the international market. This means that mines can open and close depending on market prices (swing mines) and are unreliable as a source of steady employment. Coal mines in North Eastern BC and the Grande Cache Mine in central Alberta provide a cautionary tale of this nature.
If mines are open only intermittently, the indirect jobs created by coal also risk being lost.
Coal development risks harming existing business in the region, especially the tourism and outdoor recreation industries. Active coal mines and decapitated mountains will not draw visitors and outdoor enthusiasts looking to experience the majestic beauty of the Eastern Slopes.
Won’t these mines bring in revenue for municipalities and the province?
Mining companies pay royalties and taxes to various levels of government. Alberta receives 1% royalties on top tier coal and 1% plus 13% of net revenue on 2nd tier coal. For example, Grassy Mountain estimates annual royalty payments of $32 million per year based on a high market price for their coal. Some experts question if it is a realistic estimate given fluctuations in coal prices and concerns around the quality of Grassy Mountain’s product. While this sounds like a substantial sum, the average cost to build one new elementary or middle school in Calgary is $28-$32 million.
Tax revenue would be generated for neighbouring municipalities and the province when the mines are operating. However, given the volatility in coal prices and the possibility of intermittent closures, this may not be a long-term or reliable revenue stream.
Won’t this help to diversify the economy?
These mines could provide a new economic opportunity for some areas, but the reality is that the coal mining industry is past its peak. Demand for coking coal fluctuates. The International Energy Agency predicts that coal demand overall will flatten by 2025. Instability in prices and demand means it is likely that the province will find itself in another boom-and-bust situation.
These proposed mines also have relatively short lifespans, so this may not be the best strategy to expand our long-term economic horizons.
Policy and Regulations
Didn’t the government put the old coal policy back in place in February?
The 1976 Land Use policy was reinstated temporarily while a new policy is under development.
A Coal Policy Committee was struck to design and guide a public engagement process around future coal development, and “provide recommendations about the province’s development of a modern coal policy.”
However, the majority of Albertans do not support new coal development in the Eastern Slopes.
The terms of reference for this public engagement process are extremely limited. They do not include the impact of coal mining on land use, water use, wildlife protection, proper Indigenous consultation and existing regional plans and interprovincial agreements around land and water use.
Didn’t coal exploration stop back in April?
Exploration was suspended only in some areas (Category 2 lands) and only until a new coal policy goes into effect. This decision was made in response to thousands of Albertans raising significant concerns about coal exploration as part of the public engagement process. Exploration and development can continue in other parts of the Eastern Slopes. For instance, Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain can still legally continue activities (they are on Category 4 lands).
The categories are as follows: Category 1—National Parks, Wilderness Areas, proposed or present Provincial Parks, and wildlife sanctuaries; Category 2—parts of the Southern Rockies and Foothills; Category 3—Northern forested regions and eastern regions of the Eastern Slopes; and Category 4—areas not covered under the other categories.
Alberta Beyond Coal
Who is funding this campaign?
Protect our Water – Alberta Beyond Coal receives 100% of its funding from small donations made by Albertans. All donations go to cover the costs of campaign materials and coordination.