Land use plan could hurt Crowsnest coal development: mining company

By Amanda Stephenson, Calgary Herald October 28, 2013

CALGARY – One of the companies hoping to bring coal mining back to the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass is raising serious concerns about a new draft land use plan for southern Alberta.

Calgary-based Altitude Resources Inc. said it will express its fears about the proposed South Saskatchewan Regional Plan at upcoming public consultation sessions. Altitude chair Gene Wusaty said if left as is, the plan could clip the wings of southern Alberta’s fledgling coking coal industry and serve as a roadblock to economic development.

“The way we look at it, there’s no real balance (in the plan) for economic activity,” Wusaty said. “We’re going to have, I think, one kick at the cat here to be heard. Because if it passes, the chances of us going back and getting it changed are going to be pretty slim.”

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan — unveiled by the Alberta government earlier this month — is meant to guide future decisions on development, recreation and conservation in the province. Touted as a balance between development and conservation, the plan proposes 32 new and expanded recreation and conservation areas, with nine new or expanded provincial parks and three new or expanded recreation areas.

The majority of the proposed new protected areas lie along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. The problem, Wusaty said, is that the eastern Rockies are the only place in Alberta where coking coal — coal used in the production of steel — can be found.

“A good chunk of these lands have already been removed from any possibility for development over the last several decades, as wilderness areas have been established and provincial parks have been established,” Wusaty said. “From that point of view, we’re concerned. Every time (the government) comes out with a new plan like this, it diminishes the opportunity for us.”

There hasn’t been a working coal mine on the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass for decades. But growing Asian demand for steel is driving up prices for coking coal, and companies are paying attention. This year alone, two companies — Altitude and Australia’s Riversdale Resources — have announced plans to commence exploratory drilling in the area. Altitude is currently preparing its permit application, while Riversdale will kick off its coal quality drilling program in November.

But Wusaty said some of the smaller proposed protected areas lie right in the middle of Altitude’s properties. In addition, the boundaries of the proposed new Livingstone Range provincial park would butt up against the coal company’s lands.

Wusaty said Alberta already has a strict regulatory process in place that determines whether mining applications can go ahead. He said the environmental impact of proposals should be considered on a case-by-case basis, not by making blanket land use rules that could stop industry in its tracks.

“Crowsnest Pass does not have a big revenue stream from any industry, and now they have the possibility to develop some coking coal mines in the area,” he said. “Let’s get the regulatory system to look at this from the broader view, rather than just cherry-pick certain areas and remove them from possible development.”

A government spokesperson said it is too early to speculate on how the draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan could impact specific projects or proposals.

“If the draft SSRP plan is approved, government will determine how existing tenure will be managed through consideration of feedback received during consultation and existing policy,” said Mike Feenstra, press secretary for Energy Minister Ken Hughes.

For their part, environmental groups believe industry has little to fear. Both the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Alberta Wilderness Association say there are fewer new protected areas in the draft plan than they had hoped for. They say what new additions are there are largely concentrated in higher elevations.

“In general, it’s pretty much business as usual in terms of protected areas, so I’m not really sure why they think this plan would impact development for coal,” said Brittany Verbeek, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Steve Mallyon, managing director of the Australian company Riversdale Resources, said he is still uncertain about the impact of the draft plan, though he believes there is room for it to accommodate coal.

“I think the Crowsnest Pass area has been regarded as a previously mined region, which should assist us,” Mallyon said.

Public consultations about the draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan will take place across Alberta, starting November 5.

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