Coal mine in the Alberta mountains. Photo: iStock/bgsmith

Saving the Eastern Slopes: Lougheed’s other policy

Alberta’s coal conflict is is a new chapter of an old story.

Independent journalism for Albertans.

Sign up now!

We’re crowdfunded by 2,000+ monthly members who make it possible for us to have reporters in Calgary and Edmonton. That’s huge, because it means we can dig into even more local stories that other outlets won’t—and all without a paywall. Support independent journalism by becoming a Sprawl member today!

Albertans have always had a complicated relationship with the land.

We value the beauty of our big-sky prairies, northern forests and staggering mountains. We write songs about them and put them on postcards.

But we have a long tradition of taking from the land—not merely for sustenance but harvesting resources to export for profit.

From the fur trade in Rupert’s Land and the near-extermination of the bison, to logging, mining and oil and gas, the unbroken line from Alberta’s settler colonial origins to the present-day province shows this dynamic has always been part of our culture, often pillaging the treasure in our own backyard under the guise of job creation.

The current government’s do-se-do with scrapping—and then promising to temporarily reinstate—Peter Lougheed’s 1976 policy that protected sensitive areas from coal strip-mining is only the latest example.

Lougheed himself wrestled with the notion that protecting the environment hurts the economy. And while many are holding up the 1976 coal policy as evidence of how far we’ve fallen, it’s the story of a lesser-known Lougheed policy that shows recent developments as just the latest chapter in an old story.

The battle for the Eastern Slopes

The Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, aside from their beauty, have two important and conflicting characteristics: they have a lot of metallurgical coal of the sort used to make steel; and they serve as vital headwaters for a significant downstream watershed. One of the many destructive aspects of coal mining is its impact on the watershed.

We have to force ourselves to look longer term and past our immediate needs.

John Kristensen,

Former assistant deputy minister, Alberta Parks

The Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes, released by the Alberta government in 1977, was intended to provide guidelines for conservation, recreation and development for approximately 90,000 km² of mountains and foothills.

It was not legislation, and therefore not legally binding. But it sought to provide clear guidelines for decision-making about a sensitive region.

Years in the making, the work began with the Environment Conservation Authority (ECA), a government body of experts. Following hearings to gain public opinion and input, the ECA released a 1974 report of 23 recommendations that would form the basis for the eventual 1977 policy.

The ECA report didn’t prescribe a ban on surface mining, but said limits should be placed on the annual amount extracted, and that one area should be mined and the land fully reclaimed before other areas were opened for development.

The Calgary Herald praised the report as a milestone in Alberta environmental policy.”

Today, ideas like these might get the ECA on the Alberta war room hit list, but they undoubtedly left the Eastern Slopes open for business, albeit with restrictions.

In a lengthy editorial that ran on October 8, 1974, the Calgary Herald praised the report as a “milestone in Alberta environmental policy.”

The paper supported the report’s premise that non-renewable resource industries should take a back seat to environmental protection and recreation. “There’s a lot to be said in defence of this scheme of things.”

On coal, the editorial noted that the ECA “reserves its toughest language for surface coal mining, an activity it says is ‘in conflict with virtually every other use to which the slopes might be put.’”

Though the Herald agreed with the report’s stance against coal mining in the Eastern Slopes, the editorial made an ominous prediction that would prove prescient: “If Alberta didn’t have other huge revenue sources, however, coal mining might look more attractive… Rising coal prices and a desire for industrial diversification in Alberta some day may regrettably tip the balance away from the ECA’s wholly commendable desire to preserve the province’s natural beauty.”

Coal lobbyists take up the fight

Then, as now, industry lobbyists were not shy about pushing back.

On October 23, a few weeks after the Herald ran its editorial, the paper devoted an entire page to the issue.

The industry’s missive is striking for the familiarity of its arguments and language.

On the left side of the page, the president of the Coal Association of Canada wrote a lengthy reply to the Herald’s pro-conservation editorial.

The industry’s missive is striking for the familiarity of its arguments and language. The Herald’s editorial was “misleading.” Coal could provide jobs for “many thousands of people.” Once exhausted, surface mines can be rehabilitated, restoring “the land to its beautiful condition.”

Rather than present a direct rebuttal to this reply, the Herald made a pointed but shrewd decision. They filled the rest of the page with summarized points and lengthy excerpts from the ECA report, putting the words of experts next to the coal industry’s.

Meanwhile, the passages of the report highlighted by the Herald also feel like familiar points: Mining companies operating in Alberta are often foreign entities; the employment opportunities provided by surface mining are small; surface coal mining often leads to serious water contamination.

The Herald did allow itself a closing editorial note: “All that, coming from an authoritative source like the ECA, is a serious condemnation of the coal industry’s past performance in the Eastern Slopes.”

‘Betrayal’ in the 1980s: the PCs back down

Lougheed was still premier when the government revised the Eastern Slopes policy in 1984. But much else had changed.

The collapse of oil prices had brought Alberta’s oil-dependent economy crashing down. With no other industries anywhere near as large or lucrative as fossil fuels, the province saw jobs and government revenues quickly evaporate.

Lougheed himself wrestled with the notion that protecting the environment hurts the economy.

The good times were over. And after a landslide re-election in 1982 in which the PCs won all but four seats, public pressure was on Lougheed to bring them back.

This was the context in which the provincial government revised the Eastern Slopes policy, loosening environmental protections and restrictions on development, making it easier for companies to come in.

The government made no secret about why it was revising the policy. The new preface mentioned the words “economic” and “development” four times each; “environmental” appeared just once.

The revised policy was “intended to reflect the realities of the economic situation in Alberta… Resource potentials and opportunities for development are identified with a view to assisting in the economic progress of Alberta.”

The 1977 version had focused on conservation while allowing for restricted and regulated development. The 1984 revision seemed to flip this equation, seeking first and foremost to find ways to spur the economy—and, it seems, making sure to be seen doing so by both industry and Albertans suffering a downturn.

Albertans certainly noticed. With no public consultation for the revision, many were outraged.

Newspapers ran columns and letters railing against the “betrayal” of the government’s revisions and calling for public lands minister Don Sparrow to resign.

John Kristensen, a former assistant deputy minister for Alberta Parks, delivered a paper at a 2008 parks conference that explored the history of conservation in the Eastern Slopes, including a comparison of the 1977 original and 1984 revised policies.

“[T]he 1984 revision,” he wrote, “was so flexible that some have characterized it as being a policy that permits almost anything, anywhere.”

With no public consultation for the revision, many Albertans were outraged.

In his paper, Kristensen argued that, had the 1977 policy remained, it would have meant officials in ministries like Environment or Parks or Tourism would have played a larger role in land-use planning and recommendations to cabinet.

But thanks to the 1984 document “and its emphasis on natural resource development and extraction rather than on a more balanced ecosystem-based approach, it has been Alberta Energy, Forestry and Public Lands staff who have played significantly greater roles in these important processes.”

Today, Kristensen, who retired in 2007, speaks admiringly of Lougheed overall.

He described Lougheed’s approach to conservation by citing an aphorism he said the former premier was fond of: The economy, the environment and social issues represent the three legs of a stool, and if any of the legs are shorter than the other, the stool tips over.

In other words, Lougheed sought to strike a balance between these three categories.

It’s this conflict between what we know is right, and our immediate needs.

John Kristensen,

Former assistant deputy minister, Alberta Parks

Soon after he became premier, the price of oil skyrocketed and Alberta’s economy followed, and so environmental concerns were given priority. By the early 1980s, the economy had crashed into the ground, and suddenly those measures intended to protect the environment from resource extraction seemed like an easy change to make to help re-balance the stool.

“This need for balance was something that was very important” to the government, says Kristensen.

Alberta at a crossroads today

Part of the UCP’s defence of eliminating the 1976 coal policy was that it was redundant: Other policies and regulatory mechanisms, they said, did essentially the same thing.

Even if that were true, the move still reduces the obstacles to industry at the expense of conservation. As such, it’s in the same spirit as Lougheed’s 1984 revisions.

The metallurgical coal inside our mountains is worth a fair bit of money, and we could generate a modest number of good-paying jobs by allowing it to be mined. No one is fighting over the truth of that statement.

As our history shows, this issue goes beyond coal or this political moment.

What people are fighting about is whether those mountains are worth more than the coal and jobs we could extract by tearing them open. As in 1984, Alberta is in a period of economic pain, and once again we are looking to sell our valuables at bargain prices.

“We have to force ourselves to look longer term and past our immediate needs,” says Kristensen.

Environmental conservation and fighting climate change “are things that most people intuitively feel or know we should pay attention to,” says Kristensen. “But then when it comes down to, ‘What kind of career am I going to have? What kind of job opportunities are there for my kids?’ It’s this conflict between what we know is right, and our immediate needs.”

The Alberta government says it intends to introduce a new coal policy after public consultation. But as our history shows, this issue goes beyond coal or this political moment.

There is a bigger question: Will Albertans continue to see plundering the environment as a viable, sensible long-term path to prosperity? Or will we view this as a harmful, dangerous and outdated mindset—one that will not get us out of our current economic mess, but in fact helped create it?

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

If you appreciated this story, please support our work!

Sign up now!

We’re crowdfunded by 2,000+ monthly members who make it possible for us to have reporters in Calgary and Edmonton. That’s huge, because it means we can dig into even more local stories that other outlets won’t—and all without a paywall. Support independent journalism by becoming a Sprawl member today!