Course:CONS370/Projects/Coal mining on the eastern slopes of Alberta, Canada and its impacts on First Nations

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Theme: Resource extraction
Country: Canada
Province/Prefecture: Alberta

This conservation resource was created by McIvor Kennedy.
It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0.

In this case study, Coal mining on the eastern slopes of Alberta, Canada and its impacts on First Nations, we discuss the environmental issues which come from coal mining. The variety of tenure and administrative arrangements are also explained in this paper. This case study discusses the First Nations groups that are being affected by the coal mines as well as other stakeholders who are being affected. The interested stakeholders are also mentioned in this paper. The main critical issues of the coal mines is explained and how much of an issue they are. This case study goes over the governance and how much power that the stakeholders have. Lastly, the final recommendations of how reduce coal mining or what the government should do to accommodate to everyone is explained at the end of the study.


Historic coal mine in Bellevue, Crowsnest Pass

In May, 2020 Alberta’s United Conservative government rescinded the province’s 1976 coal development policy. The policy has since been reinstated, but before that occurred large tracts of otherwise protected category 2 lands (Administrative arrangements) were opened to coal mining. Since the policy was reinstated only a small portion of leases were cancelled, and only amidst public backlash[1]. Some coal mines, including the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine, were in the process of consultation and planning prior to the provincial policy changes. Both Northern and Southern Alberta are affected, but as one of the key issues is water quality and availability, the water-scarce Southern portion of the province is of particular concern (Discussion).

Industry in the Southern portion of the Eastern slopes has historically been dominated by coal, with the Crowsnest Pass region West of the Piikani reserve being of significance in both successful and catastrophic coal mining endeavours. Most historical mines in the region were subsurface mines, but even they had some sometimes quite severe impacts on the environment. Most of the new coal leases in this region are to the North of the Crowsnest Pass in category 2 lands.

Northern Alberta will also be impacted, as many of the coal leases in the Northern portion of the Eastern slope are near the headwaters of many rivers, including the North Saskatchewan, which, like the Oldman River, feeds farms and communities in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Tenure arrangements

In Alberta both freehold and leasehold tenure over mineral rights exist. For leasehold tenure mining companies must secure Metallic and Industrial Minerals Leases[2] in order to extract minerals like coal. This tenure, granted under the Alberta Mines and Minerals Act lasts 15 years and may be renewed for another 15 years, given that the lease has not yet expired[3]. Leases may be up to 2304 hectares and yearly rent of $3.50 per hectare must be paid to the government of Alberta, in addition to royalties from the extracted coal. Royalties for the bituminous coal in the Eastern slopes are 1% of mine mouth revenue before payout and 1% of mine mouth revenue plus 13% of net revenue after payout[4] (mine mouth revenue: gross revenue minus permitted costs and allowances; payout: the point at which “cumulative gross revenues equal... cumulative costs and allowances”[5]).

Administrative arrangements

In order to operate in Alberta coal mining companies must navigate 7 federal acts, and 20 provincial acts and regulations[6][7]. Federal regulation on mining focuses on environmental protection, and safe transport of dangerous goods. Federal case law from the Haida/Taku Supreme Court case obliges the Crown to consult with First Nations on resource allocation decisions[2]. The main provincial legislation on coal mining regulate allocation of and exploration for coal resources, taxation and sale of coal, reporting coal extraction and storage, and material removed, where mining and exploration may occur, and standard measurement practices, with other regulation existing to protect worker safety, property, and the environment[7][8]. The main provincial legislation regarding coal is given under the authority of Alberta’s Ministry of Energy[9], and includes the Coal Conservation Act, the Coal Conservation Regulation, the Coal Sales Act, the Freehold Mineral Rights Tax Act, the Mines and Minerals Act, the Coal Royalty Regulation, and the Mines and Minerals Administration Regulation.

Mining companies must submit monthly reports of coal production, coal disposition and storage, the value of sold coal, and the amount of material removed from the mine site[8]. Yearly mine plans and reports including mine progress and reclamation data must also be submitted to the Alberta Energy Minister.

Alberta’s 1976 coal development policy classifies 4 categories of land with regard to coal exploration and development.

  • Category 1: No exploration or development of coal resources may occur in category 1 lands, as other land uses such as protection of watersheds, are a greater priority than coal.
  • Category 2: Limited and strictly controlled coal exploration may occur, but surface mining would not usually be considered. Contains areas in which no exploration or development should occur due to “high environmental sensitivity”.
  • Category 3: Exploration and surface or subsurface mining may be permitted, but with special care to restore agricultural productivity during reclamation.
  • Category 4: Other areas in which exploration and surface or subsurface mining may be permitted.

The 1976 coal policy does not, however, extend to freehold tenure holders, who may negotiate the use of their land with interested companies[10], though environmental protections apply to both forms of tenure holders[11].

Affected Stakeholders

Many people pay attention to the effects that coal mining in Alberta may have on the land and people, typically in Alberta on the Eastern slopes. However, there is a smaller number of people and communities that are truly affected by the decisions of coal mines in Alberta.

Flag of the Blood Tribe

Firstly, the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe) is affected by the coal mines and their land is affected as well. One of the main concerns that the Kainai First Nation has about the coal mines is the potential amount of selenium that can enter the Oldman River[12]. Ingesting selenium can be toxic for your body and can make you sick if you consume too much of it. The reason why the Kainai Nation is an affected stakeholder in this situation is because if selenium finds its way into streams and rivers, it has the potential to contaminate the drinking water of more than 200,000 Albertans including the Kainai Nation[12]. The significant changes of land use in Alberta is dangerous to the Kainai Nation because there may be undisclosed deals on water licenses and changes to water allocations, which will impact the water availability for the Blood Tribe[12][13]. The reason why the Kainai Nation is so concerned about the availability of water is because they are already in a water-stressed area and are continually getting worse due to the effects of climate change[12]. Many communities are also struggling with the lack of water infrastructure and availability. Since communities are already struggling with the lack of water, they are extremely opposed to the idea of coal mining and extending the mines. This is due to the fact that the mines require access to large volumes of water in order to operate[12].

Another affected stakeholder of Alberta’s coal mines is the Piikani First Nation[14]. In particular, the Piikani Nation is most affected by the Grassy Mountain Coal Project since they are within the impacted area[14]. The air quality and climate are what they are mostly affected by due to the emissions of the mining equipment, the dust (dirt and coal dust) emissions from roads and other surfaces, and other gaseous emissions that can potentially be in the air[14]. The odour from the coal mines will also affect the Piikani Nation because nitrogen dioxide(NO₂) levels exceed the odour thresholds adopted by Riversdale Resources. The air and odour quality is due to the blasting of the mines so Piikani Nation wants to keep the amount of blasts that the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine does daily low, and they want them to do the blasts at appropriate times[14]. The Piikani Nation's land will also be affected from the land clearing and deforestation to create new mining sites. By clearing the land, not only will the land be taken over by coal mines, but the land that is not being mined will be covered in wood debris[14]. To clear the land, the company brush burned the area which also negatively affects the Piikani Nation because there will be forest fire smoke in the air regardless of how well controlled the brush burning is. Not only are the air, odour, and land quality affected, but the noise level will also be affected[14]. There will be a numerous amount of noise coming from the blasting and machinery being used and the noise emissions are expected to reach approximately 1.5 kilometres from all directions. Even though the noise level is already high, they did not account for the background noises of vehicles and rail-line activity[14]. Water availability is also a concern for the Piikani Nation because the mines require 60,000m³ of water annually and groundwater is insufficient. The footprint of the coal mine project will directly affect approximately 12km² of the Blairmore and Gold Creeks watersheds which will reduce peak flow by 8-12% for both creeks, and decrease low flow of Gold Creek by 9-11% and increase it in Blairmore Creek by 91-128% from mine site discharges[14].

Another affected stakeholder group is the Siksika First Nation and they are affected by the decisions of open pit mines on the Rocky Mountains[15]. The Province of Alberta has cancelled many coal mining leases and the Siksika assume that it was just a political gesture and that the Province still will not protect the highly valued Rocky Mountains that are extremely fragile. Compared to the Piikani First Nations, the Siksika First Nations Peoples are actually in favour of the 2800 hectare Benga Resources Grassy Mountain Coal Project[15]. The Grassy Mountain Coal Project is set to operate in category 4 land[15]. With the current Coal Policy, the Siksika Nation supports the project, however, they support it with several binding conditions agreed to by Benga[15]. Like most of the other affected stakeholders, the Siksika Nation are concerned about how coal mines will affect the environment and water quality. Currently, communities are already trucking in water due to the river contamination in their own area[15].

Besides many of the First Nations that are being affected by the coal mines in Alberta, farmers and ranchers are also being affected just as much. Farms and ranches are very reliant on the local rivers and streams for irrigation and these water sources are susceptible to being contaminated from the nearby coal mines[13]. Not only is it likely that the water will become contaminated, but the government of Alberta has proposed a change to the Oldman order, which would allow coal companies to have access to water from the nearby rivers and streams for virtually no cost[13]. The region already has strict limits on the amounts of water that people can withdraw from streams and rivers due to the droughts and water shortages which is likely caused by climate change[13]. Allowing the coal companies access to water sources will definitely add to the water shortages that are already happening. Albertans are concerned with what may occur with more coal projects opening up since looking at the statistics of only two proposed coal projects, they already intake approximately 2.5 billion litres of water[13]. According to Lorne Fitch, it seems like it is nearly impossible for headwater tributaries to satisfy coal mines, the aquatic environment, and local users[13]. Most of the areas where farms and ranches are, are already at extreme limits of the pressures they can handle and the open-pit mining is adding to the pressure on the land[13]. Over a quarter of irrigated land in Canada is in the Oldman watershed and if coal mining companies are given access to the water that feeds this irrigated land there will be impacts on the quality of food coming from Alberta[13]. There is a large area of grassland in Alberta (3600 hectares of the Bluebird Valley ranch) and cattle are able to graze this land[16]. Ranchers are extremely concerned about the proposed coal projects because not only will the land be destroyed, but the mines will also take up the land that cattle and other wildlife species has previously roamed and relied on[16].

The Livingstone Landowners Group is comprised of land owners in the Porcupine Hills, directly west of the Rocky Mountain, and the supporters of the region and those in it[17]. The group engages with leaders at all levels of government, as well as with industry to ensure the interests of its members are met with regards to development and policy changes[17]. Although not all of its members own land in the area they share a connection to it, and the impacts on water and air quality, as well as to animal behaviour are likely to impact their shared connection to the land.

The impact that coal exploration and development is already having on tourism is evident. Land previously quite isolated is feeling the impact of access roads for coal companies, and decreased access to Crown lands and water for citizens, and tourism businesses and their clients[18].

Many communities in Alberta are affected stakeholders in this situation about coal mines because they rely on where they live and what the environment can offer them. There is a vast array of different communities all across Alberta that rely on the land that they live on and the water sources that are near them. At least eight different communities such as Lethbridge, Turner Valley, High Level, and Okotoks have shown their concerns about the coal mines and have asked the government and coal mining companies to think more about if and where they should create the mines in Alberta[15].

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The government of Alberta is considered as interested stakeholders. They are considered as interested because they are not affected by the decisions of how the land and resources are being used and they are focused on the monetary gain of coal mines. The Alberta government sold 2,000ha leases which cover approximately 420,000 hectares of land to Australian mining companies[16][19]. Some of the Australian mining companies include Atrum Coal and Montem Resources[16]. They are only interested in the coal mines because they know that they can sell the land to large companies and make a large profit from it. In 2017, the government of Alberta had collected approximately CAD$15.7 million in coal royalties to a variety of coal mining companies[16]. The government does not care what goes on with the land and it is shown when they completed many leases but then cancelled 11 pending leases for coal mines due to the public backlash[12]. This shows that they are not affected by the decisions that they make and are willing to do anything with the land that they think is suitable. The government has full control over where and when any developments or coal mining projects take place because they are not permitted unless the government is satisfied with the outcome and how the health of the environment will be affected[11]. This shows that the government is only interested in the coal mines because what occurs in Alberta will not fully affect them.

Exposed coal at Riversdale Resources Grassy Mountain Coal Mine

The coal mining companies are considered interested stakeholders because they will not be affected by what may occur on the land. The coal companies are only interested in how to solve any problems with the project or how successful the project will be. They are not affected by the coal mining because they are the ones who are doing the mining and are interested in what they can get out of the mining project. The government decisions and where they choose to do the mining only interests them because if they are not granted access to a particular area, then they can find another location. In particular, Atrum Coal, Montem Resources, and Riversdale Resources are not affected at all by the decisions of the coal mining projects because they are Australian mining companies[20][21]. The mining locations are not in their country so they can only be interested in the decisions that the government of Alberta makes. Cabin Ridge Coal company is only interested in the land of Alberta because they have already been given access to the land[22]. They plan on having 197 drill sites and adding many new roads for vehicles to get to the mining sites[22]. This will greatly affect the environment, local Albertans, First Nations communities, and wildlife but will only interest the Cabin Ridge Coal company. The Elan Coal company is only interested in coal mining because they will not be affected on how they leave the land or how Albertans feel about the mines[22]. Elan Coal is creating many drill sites (456) and are adding an estimate of 66 km of new roads[22].

Canadian Infrastructure and public companies are used in the transportation of coal both nationally and to ports for export[23][24].


The coal that is extracted in the Eastern slopes is bituminous, generally with low to medium volatility[25], and can be used for electrical generation or steel production[26]. The goal of the government of Alberta is to increase production of coal for exportation[27]. As of 2019 95% of Canadian coal exports were for steel production. In that same year Alberta extracted 35% of the 57 megatonnes of coal extracted across Canada, with 62% of Canadian exports being sold to South Korea, Japan, and India[28].

Critical Issues

Cross section of lungs affected by CWP

Many coal companies’ consultations with First Nations were done only through elected band officials rather than throughout the Nations[29]. In the case of the Blood Tribe the band claimed there was insufficient funding to provide full community level consultation. There were no consultations with any Albertans on changing Alberta government policies, which caused several First Nations to file court cases against the Government of Alberta[30]. Latasha Calfrobe, founder of Niitsitapi Water Protectors, does not expect there to be any consultation over the proposed changes to water allocations in the Oldman Watershed either[30].

Major environmental concerns regarding coal mining involve air and water pollution. Inhalation of coal dust can Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP), otherwise known as black lung disease. CWP can lead to emphysema[31], and about 10% of cases lead to progressive mass fibrosis[32]. The prevalence of CWP is related to the rank of coal, with mines extracting higher rank coal having higher prevalence of CWP[33]. Although bituminous coal is not the highest rank overall, it is the one of the higher ranks[26] and the highest rank coal in Alberta[25]. Air pollution from coal mines is of particular concern in Southern Alberta as the region frequently sees severe Westerly winds[34].

One of the key issues with water is the high concentration of selenium (Se) associated with surface mining[16]. High concentrations of Se are toxic, both to humans[35] and livestock, with toxic effects being seen in monogastrics such as pigs at 5-6ppm in feed, and at 20ppm for cattle[36]. One potential solution to keep drinking water safe for human consumption with increased Se is to dilute it by decreasing the amount of water allocated to irrigation and ranching[36]. If the dilution solution needs to be implemented there still may not be enough water available to reduce Se concentration to safe levels as Alberta’s UCP government proposed changes to water allocations in the Oldman River Basin. The proposed changes allow for up to 80% of water from the Oldman Dam, River and its tributaries to be used for industrial purposes, whereas currently only 1.4% of water from the Oldman Dam is available to industry[30]. Not only the quality of water, but also the quantity, which is already decreasing, is at risk[30]. This is a major driver of the conflict between the agricultural and fossil fuel industries, which have both been traditional staples of the Albertan economy. First Nations like Piikani that are close to proposed coal mines are likely to see both positive and negative impacts of said mines, those downstream like Kainai will most likely only see the negative impacts associated with reduced water quality and quantity. The reduced water quality and quantity will put increased pressure on the already threatened westslope cutthroat trout[30]. In the nearby Elk River Valley, BC a release of toxic chemicals including Se by a Teck Resources coal mine killed 93% of westslope cutthroat trout downstream of the mine in 2018[37].

The impact that coal mines in the Eastern slopes will have on water will be felt beyond just Alberta. Saskatchewan’s Lake Diefenbaker, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to much of the province, and being set for an expansion, is fed largely by Albertan headwaters where mines are proposed[38]. This lake is also home to an infrastructural expansion for its irrigation capacity, which may be put at risk by water pollution and increased upstream water use[39], as well as putting more staple crops and livestock feed at risk of being contaminated with Se[35].

Riversdale Resources’ Bellevue lease contains part of Turtle Mountain South of the town of Frank[40], which in April 1903 suffered a catastrophic landslide known as Frank Slide. This lease also contains the entirety of Frank Slide’s path, which is still largely covered by stone from the event. Although there is currently a low risk for another major landslide in the near future[41], the historical value and the inevitable public outcry if Riversdale is to explore or mine in this area are likely enough to prevent them from mining this particular portion of their Bellevue lease.

Assessment of Governance and Power

The Government of Alberta has the greatest authority over natural resources in the province, and has recently been abusing that authority and going over the heads of its citizens. They have used tactics ranging from timing the rescinding of the 1976 coal policy to be largely unnoticed, and difficult to challenge[1], to canceling only 1800 hectares of the over 420,000[19] in an attempt to avoid backlash from and conflict with Albertan citizens, while promoting industrial interests.

Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe), Piikani First Nation, Siksika First Nation, and other First Nations groups do not have a large amount of authority over their reserve lands, but are ultimately under the authority of the federal government. On provincial lands, where coal leases exist these nations have much less authority and often have to lobby the provincial government to include them in discussions[29]. Even in consultation First Nations are not always given the power to veto a project[26]. Another way First Nations can influence authority is through the judicial system, which several nations did in response to the rescinding of the 1976 coal policy[19].

Farmers and ranchers have a say in what occurs on their land because they generally have freehold tenure and water allocations, which coal mining companies must buy from them[18]. No development or mining can occur on their land unless they are granted access or have bought the land to develop on. Similarly to First Nations, farmers and ranchers can and did launch court challenges to the policy changes made by the provincial government[19].

Local communities in Alberta have little to no say in any developments in coal mining that may occur within or around the community. They have very little say in the developments because typically, the provincial government owns the land and if the government wants to allow mining or developments to happen on the land, then they will grant the companies access to the area. The power these communities have is in lobbying their MPs and higher offices in the provincial government.


Many Albertans think that it is smart to devote the eastern slopes of Alberta to watershed protection, recreation tourism, and the slopes should be respected in the way that the First Nations treat the land[12]. Current exploration and projects approved since the rescinding of the 1976 coal policy should be halted until meaningful consultations between the Government of Alberta and the people of Alberta. Mining companies should also be required to consult with those within First Nations communities rather than just band councils, as without full consultation some community and or cultural interests may be forgotten. The Government of Canada should require band councils to ensure full community level consultations occur for industrial and development projects to ensure the ability to provide free, prior, and informed consent is given to the nation, and ensure that these consultations are properly funded. Alberta’s opposition government introduced a bill that, if passed, would prohibit mining and cancel leases in category 1 and 2 land[42] . Additionally mine development on category 3 and 4 land would be halted pending consultation with affected stakeholders. This bill was introduced in response to public outcry regarding the changes to coal policy and although no public consultation was provided on it, it would provide an opportunity for the government to seek consultation from the public and free, prior, and informed consent from First Nations which mines in category 3 and 4 lands affect. Passing this bill would cause some short term economic pain to Piikani Nation who expect employment and investment from the Grassy Mountain Mine as the mine is on category 4 land. Although there are drawbacks to this bill, passing it will likely be better in the long run, as the opportunity for consultation between the provincial government and the citizens on category 1 and 2 land use may be provided in the future. When consulting on category 3 and lands the Government of Alberta should take steps to ensure that the band councils of affected First Nations are not the only members of those nations consulted.


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