SUNDRE — The provincial government’s decision to reinstate the 1976 Coal Policy until a modernized version can be created following a public consultation process was welcome, says a resident who was among a vocal chorus of Albertans from all walks of life to express grave concerns.
However, the move falls short and failed to allay fears that any expansion of the industry puts Alberta’s precious Rocky Mountain headwaters at risk of not only pollution, but also increasing scarcity that would harm downstream users in agriculture and ranching, said Robert Beuck, an avid and passionate outdoor enthusiast from the McDougal Flats area of Mountain View County who is no stranger to exploring the West Country.
“On the one hand, I am happy that the government did take a step back,” said Beuck last week during a phone interview.
“They obviously did do it because of the amount of pressure that was there.”
On Feb. 8, following heavy public backlash that seemed to nearly universally unite Albertans from both sides of the political spectrum, Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the policy introduced by the Peter Lougheed government in 1976 following years of extensive consultation was reinstated after the UCP quietly and with little fanfare nor consultation rescinded it last spring on the Friday afternoon of the May long weekend amid a pandemic.
But Savage was also clear that six exploration permits — two of which were approved after the policy was rescinded — will not be withdrawn, and that those activities would continue.
“This means that core samples are being taken, perhaps roads are being built — it does not mean a project will be developed,” Savage said at the time.
Those words seemed to provide little comfort for Beuck.
“When it comes to exploration, I always do get concerned. Because if you’re doing exploration, you’re not doing that for nothing — you do ultimately have plans further down the road,” said Beuck.
“That does concern me, because I think that they should not go ahead until they have consulted with Albertans, and then see what Albertans have to say first,” he said.
“Because they obviously did go ahead with these projects without consulting us. And in a democracy, I do have a problem with that.”
In light of the fact the six exploration projects remain ongoing, he said the government’s announcement falls short.
“Just because of the geography of our province. The vast majority of our drinking water does come from there,” he said, citing as examples the North Saskatchewan River, the Oldman River, the Red Deer River and the Bow River.
“Too much of our drinking water does come from there,” he said about the Eastern Slopes.
“Water is strategic — you can bring countries down to their knees by cutting off their water. And we’re not like the rest of the provinces here that are blessed with water. We don’t have that much in Alberta,” he said, referring to the province’s climate, in which large portions, especially in the south, are considered semi-arid.
Satisfying the all-but unquenchable thirst of ranching and farming communities as well as meeting the needs of municipalities in the Badlands required massive irrigation infrastructure developments, and Alberta is no stranger to struggling to cope with devastating drought conditions.
“So, I’m a little bit concerned that they are going ahead with this,” Beuck said about exploration activities.
“I would hope that the next step the government would take is to bring all the facts on the table.”
That means outlining precisely how many jobs will be created for Albertans, how much royalties the province can expect and whether that revenue is even worth the environmental cost and impact to downstream users that number in the millions, as well as the potential dangers to the public that stem primarily from selenium contaminated water, he said.
“And of course what really bothers me are the water allocations, because they are not good for our ranching and agricultural communities, as far as I am concerned,” he said.
“If (the government) could give us the facts — all of the facts — and then we have all of those, then we can make a rational decision. I think that every responsible democratic government owes it to their people.”
A betrayal to Albertans
Prior to the government’s announcement earlier in February, Beuck had said the move to rescind the 1976 Coal Policy was a betrayal to Albertans.
“It wasn’t introduced by a bunch of — I mean, just for lack of better term — tree huggers and hippies. This was introduced by the Progressive Conservative party,” he said about the policy.
“I think he (Lougheed) made that decision in the best interests of Albertans, and also the people that actually did vote on that at the time,” said Beuck, a Canadian citizen with German roots who has been in the country for 23 years and has lived in the area since 2007.
“I think he would be horrified,” Beuck said during an interview on Feb. 2 when asked what he thought Lougheed’s response would have been to one of the former premier’s major legacies being rescinded without seeking input from the public.
“I personally think he was probably our best premier we’ve ever had. Because I think he did find a very a decent balance for industry, economy and for looking after our health and environment.”
Beuck emphasized that his opinions are his own, and he does not want to persuade anybody to think one way or another. But having researched the ramifications that coal project expansions could potentially herald down the road — primarily with regards to water quality as well as access to land — he added Albertans deserve to be provided with all the pertinent information to decide where they stand.
“I just think we have a right to information and a right to make a choice. Whatever the majority decides, so be it.”
But from his perspective, the pros presented by the government with regards to jobs and revenue are vastly outweighed by a slew of potentially devastating negative and costly impacts.
And expansions of existing mines and new projects could also result in lands being blocked off to outdoor enthusiasts from hunters and fishermen to hikers and horseback riders, he said.
“They need to know that.”
Himself an avid outdoorsman who loves spending every spare minute in nature either hiking, kayaking, or canoeing, Beuck also expressed concerns about unintended consequences that could negatively impact not only ranchers and farmers, but also the tourism sector.
“I really do feel sorry for the folks in the tourism industry who have established themselves in areas,” he said.
There are enterprises such as outfitting and guiding companies as well as wilderness lodges that have taken risks to establish themselves in some of the potentially affected areas, he said.
“If you are building an industry because people are coming over to your facility to enjoy the great outdoors, and now all of a sudden you are surrounded by coal mines, I think that’s absolutely terrible,” he said.
“You are just displacing one industry with the other.”
Although protecting the environment, and by extension human health, should be the government’s utmost priority, Beuck also wants to know how much coal companies — in large part foreign-owned — stand to profit in comparison to any royalties the province would receive.
“Because usually we get a few hundred million dollars, and it sounds huge, but then in the meantime, these companies make massive profits that go into the billions,” he said.
“They cannot make that money without our resource — we should be getting a bigger piece of the pie so that we can at least get some money back into our province” to invest in health care, education and infrastructure, he said.
The astronomical gap between a million and a billion — which broken down into seconds amounts to the difference between 11.5 days and some 32 years respectively — drives that point home, he said.
“That always annoys me. All of these companies come in here, and they always make it sound as though they’re coming here to help us. No company, no industry, does anything for the social welfare of the people where they’re going. It’s business,” he said.
Making unequivocally clear that he is not opposed to business, Beuck said the government’s job is to negotiate harder on behalf of Albertans to get the best deal possible for the province.
“If we’re only getting a few hundred million out of this, that’s bad negotiation on top of it.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, he said water is precious.
“Water is our most important resource and we cannot treat it like that,” he said.
“We don’t realize the value of water, and we got to start smartening up.”
A request for response from Jason Nixon, Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA and minister of environment, was answered by press secretary Jess Sinclair, who provided a prepared statement, which read, in part, “Alberta’s government will begin consultation on the development of a new and modern coal policy shortly.
“All future coal exploration approvals on Category 2 lands will be prohibited until this consultation is complete…there will be no free-for-all on coal mines in our beautiful mountain landscapes. Alberta’s government remains committed to responsible energy development (including coal development) and future projects will only be approved by the AER if it is clear they are in the public interest.”