Alberta Rushes To Embrace Coal

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Recently we did a story about two major Japanese banks writing off their investment in the Bluewaters coal fired generating station in Western Australia and a decision by Lloyd’s of London to stop insuring investments in coal and tar sands projects in the near future. A corollary to that story is that Alberta, the Canadian province famous for pushing the liquid death derived from its tar sands on the world, has seen the light. With oil prices so low and the market in turmoil, Alberta has shifted to Plan B — mining more coal and shipping it to global markets.

The panic is understandable. Alberta’s economy relies heavily on oil from the tar sands. If that source of income dries up, it has to transition to something else. But surely Alberta could find another way to power its economy other than pimping for the coal industry, couldn’t it?

Ripping Up Existing Policies

According to The Guardian, Alberta has had a strict coal mining policy in place designed to protect the drinking water for millions of people from pollution caused by coal operations for the past 44 years. But now the new conservative provincial government has rescinded that coal mining policy without consulting the people of Alberta. In the dark of night and behind closed doors, it has spent the past several months wooing a number of Australian coal companies to come to Alberta to mine its coal.

In 2015 the previous Alberta government announced a plan to eliminate coal fired electricity by 2030, a goal Canada’s federal government embraced three years later to help fulfill Canada’s greenhouse-gas-reduction commitments to the Paris Agreement. Yet a total of 6 new coal mines are contemplated, including some located in provincial parks. To accomplish its nefarious new policies, the provincial government has fast tracked the approval process for the new coal mines. To sweeten the deal, the province has lowered the corporate tax rate from 10% to 8% and agreed to a 1% royalty on the coal removed. In Australia, the royalty rate on coal is typically 7%.

“Through this approach, we are striking the balance of ensuring strong environmental protection with providing industry with incentive to increase investment” in export coal production, Alberta’s environment minister Jason Nixon said in a recent press release. The coal is expected to be used mostly for making steel, not generating electricity. At present, the steel industry accounts for nearly 5% of all global emissions but there are new technologies that use hydrogen as a reducing agent in the steel making process instead of coke derived from coal.

Mountain Top Removal

Grassy Mountain coal mine
Credit: Riversdale Resources

The first of the new operations will be the Grassy Mountain mine. Australia’s Riversdale Resources hopes the open-pit mine will produce 93 million tons of metallurgical coal over its expected 23 year useful life. Permission to proceed is pending the completion of an environmental impact assessment but with the province hell bent on moving forward such approval, at least at the local level, is virtually assured. There are significant environmental concerns. “The proposed mine will do far more damage than can be reasonably justified on any level,” wrote Dennis Lemly, a former US Forest Service research biologist and associate professor at Wake Forest University, in a recent peer reviewed analysis of the environmental impacts.

Located 5 miles from the historic mining town of Crowsnest Pass, the controversial project involves removing the top of Grassy Mountain and digging a pit near the sources of two major tributaries of the Crowsnest River. Even the local golf course would need to be reconstructed to accommodate a rail loop and coal-loading facility.

“It’s all pretty shocking,” said Katie Morrison, conservation director of the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “The government is saying this is going to be the next economic boon for the province, but it’s just another boom-and-bust economy. And there’s a good chance [the mines] will go bust before they ever clean up their mess, and the public will be left with the clean-up costs.” That certainly is the lesson that should be learned from past practices in the industry. The coal companies pillage the land, then leave the taxpayers to clean up the pollution and the scarred landscape they leave behind.

Steve Mallyon, a former CEO of Riversdale Resources, told the Sydney Mining Club recently the reasons he was so keen to proceed with the new mines were the low coal royalties his company would have to pay to the provincial giovernment and the withering of Alberta’s oil economy. “It is all about the timing, particularly with the downturn with the oil sands sector. The long term strategy for us is to really become a multi-mine producer in that region.”

Economic Equality = Social Justice = Racial Justice

We at CleanTechnica are forever going on about equity for workers, as we believe that any plan to transition to a low or zero carbon economy should not victimize workers while it makes corporations richer. The renewable energy revolution is critical to keep the Earth habitable for humans but that doesn’t mean people should suffer while gigantic global corporations take a quick bankruptcy bath and move on.

Alberta has plenty of winds that could spin turbines and lots of open land that could be used for solar farms. It has a built environment that could benefit from an aggressive campaign to improve energy efficiency. Its reliance on  19th century technology to meet a 21st century need is an admission by its leaders that they do not have the vision necessary to provide a vibrant economic basis for their people while supporting global objectives to address concerns about an overheating planet. It’s all about short term goals and consequences be damned. That isn’t leadership. It is the folly of small minded people who haven’t the ability to see beyond the end of next week.

Indigenous People Sell Out

Most indigenous groups in southern Alberta and politicians from nearby communities have backed the mine proposals for their potential economic benefits. “Piikani Nation proudly supports the Grassy Mountain Coal Project,” wrote Chief Kiaayo Tamisoowo in a January 2019 letter. “We need economic development to bring further leadership, opportunities and prosperity to our people.”

Perhaps the Chief should spend a little time talking to the members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes in Arizona who have dealt with coal companies for generations. While the water the tribes rely on was diverted to help move the coal to the Navajo Generating Station, up to 70% of the people living on the nearby reservations have no access to electricity in their homes.

There are modern means of communication, Chief. It would take you about 10 minutes to find out about the destruction coal has visited on the Navajo and Hopi people. Your people have a tradition of thinking 7 generations ahead. This deal for short term gain followed by long term pain is not in their best interests. In a new book called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, Sherri Mitchell, a Native American and attorney writes, “The great contribution that Indigenous peoples may be able to make at this time is to continue providing the world with living models of sustainability that are rooted in ancient wisdom.”

Federal Vs Provincial

The Canadian government is generally deferential to provincial plans for industrial development but Alberta’s plans to expand coal mining within its borders could put federal and provincial governments on a collision course. A coal mine that opened in 2019 — the first in Alberta in 30 years — recently applied for permission to expand its operations and more than double its output. Public pressure has forced the federal government to intervene and assess what damage the expansion could cause. The review panel will also decide Grassy Mountain’s fate by next summer and that decision could determine the success or failure of Alberta’s push to become a major player in the global coal industry.

The Canadian government has a rather schizophrenic attitude toward fossil fuels these days. It has recently instituted a national carbon tax designed to alter the economic calculus for the use of coal, oil, or gas, but it also recently purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline for $3.5 billion. That pipeline is intended to move oil from the Alberta tar sands to ports on Canada’s west coast, but with the pressures being put on those tar sands operations, it may end up being a pipeline to nowhere.

In the end, Alberta is committed to fossil fuels of whatever description. Ten years ago, that may have seemed like an effective strategy but the wheel has turned in the past decade. Now relying on fossil fuels to keep its economy afloat may be tantamount to financial suicide and an enormous disservice to the citizens of Alberta who depend on their government to preserve their environment rather than destroy it.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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