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In Alberta, Intense Lobbying by Australia’s Coal Baron

Billionaire Gina Rinehart hired a firm with federal Conservative ties to press for Grassy Mountain mining.

Andrew Nikiforuk 27 Sep 2023The Tyee

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart and coal industry representatives are pressuring Alberta’s government to change a ministerial order that bans coal mining activities in the Rockies until land use planning has been completed.

The intense lobbying over the past two months accompanies an application by Rinehart’s Northback Holdings Corp. to conduct a large coal exploration program on private and Crown land on Grassy Mountain in the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

Rinehart, Australia’s richest person, wants to resurrect an open-pit mining project for steel-making coal in the headwaters of the Oldman River that Albertans and regulators rejected a year ago.

Rinehart’s lobbyists include Barbara Fox, CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national strategic communications firm based in Toronto. It has close ties to the Conservative Party of Canada.

According to Alberta’s Lobbyist Registry Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting engaged Enterprise Canada on Sept. 15 to represent its interests just as its subsidiary Northback approached the Alberta Energy Regulator for new coal exploration drilling permits.

Federal and provincial regulators rejected the Grassy Mountain project in 2021 as not in the public interest because it would threaten water quality and availability in southern Alberta.

Nearly a year later after months of public protests against other mining proposals combined with public hearings by the Coal Policy Committee, Energy Minister Sonya Savage issued an order directing the Alberta Energy Regulator to suspend “all approvals for coal exploration or development on Category 3 and 4 lands in the Eastern Slopes… and no new applications will be accepted until such time as written notice is given by the Minister of Energy and/or Minister of Environment and Parks.”

The failed Grassy Mountain project is located on Category 4 lands where there exists a previously abandoned mine.

In spite of Savage’s order, Fox had meetings with several ministries including Alberta Energy and Mines, Alberta Environment and the Alberta Energy Regulator where she sought “support in securing meetings to educate elected and department officials about information on all relevant aspects of the proposed project, including expected economic and environmental impacts, support from Indigenous communities and local stakeholders.”

Among principals for Enterprise Canada is Brian Cox, who was said in a legal filing by the firm to be “a longstanding member of and contributor to the Conservative Party of Canada [who] participated in the recent leadership process to support Mr. [Pierre] Poilievre.”

Most Albertans regard the eastern slopes as a critical watershed or geography of solace that should be off limits to mining of any kind because of its impacts on water quality and availability. Coal mining threatens both.

The recent spate of coal lobbying started in early August when Mike Young, CEO of Northback, approached half a dozen ministries and the premier’s office on decisions and approvals related to the Grassy Mountain project.

In his lobbyist registration disclosure Young said he was working to ensure “elected and department officials are provided with information on all relevant aspects of the proposed project, including expected economic and environmental impacts, support from Indigenous communities and local stakeholders.”

Young, a veteran mining executive with years of experience in Western Australia where mining magnate Rinehart made billions, describes his company’s business as essential. “Grassy Mountain will produce steel-making coal, a basic building block for any economy. The project will go a long way to provide work opportunities for people in Alberta and Crowsnest Pass.”

Shortly after Young’s lobbying, Northback applied on Sept. 5 to the Alberta Energy Regulator for permits to divert water, drill boreholes and conduct a coal exploration program on Grassy Mountain beginning next month.

Two days later Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada, appeared in Edmonton to lobby half a dozen ministries on the issue of land use planning and coal mining. He wanted to make sure any new land use plans would “consider the socioeconomic benefits of current or proposed coal mining activity in Alberta as they are developed or amended to support safe, socially responsible and economically sustainable coal mining.”

Campbell is a former conservative environment minister and one of the key advocates of former premier Jason Kenney’s ill-fated plan to revoke the 1976 Coal Policy and open the entire Rockies to largely foreign coal developers.

That plan was halted after public outcry. The Kenney government reinstated the 1976 Coal Policy and placed a moratorium on any new developments in the Rockies in 2022.

This order specifically banned mining on Category 2 lands as well as further development on Category 4 lands, which include places where coal development had occurred. The only exceptions were to coal mining already underway or projects approved.

Opponents to Northback’s new proposal to mine Grassy Mountain say it does not fit the exceptions because the earlier similar effort by a different Rinehart company was stopped cold by a joint review panel in July 2021.

But Campbell, who called the rejection of the Grassy Mountain project “incomprehensible” when the decision was made, lobbied the government on Sept. 7 of this year “for regulatory certainty of decision-making process as it relates to coal mining activity in Alberta.” He pushed “to have coal mining expertise in decision-making roles in order to allow for meeting of stated regulatory approval timelines.”

Campbell also championed coal mining as a driver of “economic opportunities, primarily from steel-making coal exports, that coal mining in Alberta offer to Albertans by way of jobs, government revenues and stimulation to local and often rural economies.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith last year said she would be in favour of open-pit coal mining in the Rockies on already disturbed land if local Albertans approved the project in a referendum.

Meanwhile lawyers, ranchers, municipal districts and landowners are questioning the legality of Northback’s recent application to do exploratory coal drilling on Grassy Mountain.

The Livingstone Landowners Group, which played a central role in defeating Grassy Mountain’s first application, has asked citizens to put pressure on their MLAs to respect the law and the ministerial order.

In a news release the group explains that 2022 Ministerial Order remains in force “following the Coal Policy Committee report. It clearly states that no new coal exploration is permitted in the Eastern slopes unless it is for an ‘approved’ or ‘advanced’ project. Northback’s application is neither.”

The NDP have asked Energy Minister Brian Jean to immediately quash Northback’s application for coal mining exploration.

“How much bureaucratic space and time and resources are we going to spend on saying ‘no’ repeatedly?” asked Alberta NDP energy critic Calahoo Stonehouse.  [Tyee]

Read more: Alberta, Environment

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