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Tag: Benga Mining

View of Grassy Mountain coal pit on mountainside with blue sky and mountain range in the background

Application made to explore Grassy Mountain deposit

A proposed coal development project in Crowsnest Pass could show renewed signs of life if a deep-drilling permit is approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Known as the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, the plan first put forward in 2015 by Benga Mining Ltd. would have seen the construction and operation of an open-pit steel production mine.

Estimates, at the time, were that the facility would be able to produce up to 4.5 million tonnes of processed coal each year, but a provincial-federal joint review panel ruled in 2021 that the controversial project was “not in the public interest.”

Acting on the panel’s recommendation, the federal government then rejected the project, saying it would likely cause “significant adverse environmental effects.”

Earlier this month, Northback Holdings, formerly Benga, submitted an application to the AER for exploratory work at the site, about seven kilometres north of Blairmore.

The related permit request is for the purpose of drilling “to depths deeper than 150 metres and no deeper than 550 metres on a combination of Crown land and Northback’s privately owned land, commencing on Oct. 15, 2023,” said an application letter from Northback’s senior manager of regulatory approvals, Donna Venzi.

The permit request was received by the AER on Sept. 6.

 

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Shootin’ the Breeze contacted Northback for clarification and more details of their proposal, but was told there likely wouldn’t be any comment.

A letter from Jennifer Mizuik of Calgary is the only letter of objection relating to the application on the AER website, as of the writing of this story.

“The proposed mining activity raises concerns about the possibility of contaminating local watersheds. These watersheds are vital components of the region’s ecosystem, and their contamination could have far-reaching ecological consequences,” wrote Mizuik in her statement of concern.

“The project has the potential to pose significant threats to aquatic ecosystems in the area. The health of these ecosystems is essential for the well-being of local wildlife and overall environmental balance.”

A local environmental group at the centre of the long-running debate over coal exploration, and this project in particular, is the Livingstone Landowners Group.

“We were heavily involved in the whole Grassy Mountain mine application and opposed it during the regulatory process,” said Bobbi Lambright, the group’s communications director.

In 2021, facing a large swell against the project from not only the environmental movement but a growing number of Albertans, the provincial government reinstated a 1976 coal policy protecting parts of the Rockies.

 

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“Our understanding of it was that they were suspending all approvals of new coal exploration activities,” said Lambright. “So, (our) focus has been on trying to get the existing coal exploration impacts remediated.”

While agreeing with the points brought out in Mizuik’s objection letter, the group feels the issue goes much deeper.

“There’s not much of a mechanism in place right now to ensure that after a company has gone in and created roads and done drilling and really disrupted the landscape in a significant way, that it actually gets cleaned up and restored as closely as possible, to its previous state,” Lambright said.

Livingstone Landowners Group has said it plans to send its own statement of concern.

Besides Northback, Shootin’ the Breeze also reached out to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s media representative for further comment on the process, but was referred to its website and a link to the specific deep-drilling permit.

We also contacted federal Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who in 2021 made the decision to not approve the project, as well as Foothills MP John Barlow and Livingstone-Macleod MLA Chelsae Petrovic.

We are waiting to hear back.

 

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Mined mountainside with greenery in foreground and blue water pond

‘Winds of change’ bring renewable energy project to Tent Mountain

Peter Doyle, CEO at Montem Resources Ltd., said the company plans to sell half of its stake in the Tent Mountain site to the Calgary-based electricity wholesaler TransAlta Corp. TransAlta will lead the development of a 320-megawatt pumped hydrogen energy storage facility on the mountain.

The Tent Mountain Renewable Energy Complex (TM-REX) will be powered by an off-site wind farm that will feed into a new transmission line, Blain van Melle, TransAlta’s vice-president, told Shootin’ the Breeze in a Feb. 24 video conference with Doyle. The project meanwhile envisions an off-site hydrolyzer that will generate “14,000 tonnes each year of clean, green hydrogen.

“This is the equivalent of displacing 50 million litres of diesel each year, or taking 2,000 heavy trucks off our highways,” Doyle says in a promotional video on Montem’s website. 

Doyle and van Melle declined to specify where the companies might build the wind farm or the hydrolyzer. 

With plans still in the distant offing, Doyle said Montem has been in talks with the Piikani Nation, which he said “has aspirations to build a significant wind farm.” 

 

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“Anything that we do on [the wind farm] is most likely going to be in unison with either Piikaani by itself, or the entire Blackfoot confederacy,” he told the Breeze

Van Melle said it’s for the Alberta Electric System Operator, the non-profit company that manages Alberta’s electricity grid, to determine the transmission line’s exact specifications. 

Montem said in a Feb. 17 press release that the project would create about 200 construction jobs and about 30 permanent jobs after TM-REX comes online. 

Doyle said the Tent Mountain mine, unreclaimed since it was abandoned in 1983, had roughly enough capacity to produce one million tonnes of metallurgical coal every year for 13 years, whereas TM-REX will generate emissions-free energy for up to 80 years. 

Peter Loughheed’s Progressive Conservative government halted coal exploration along the eastern Rockies in 1976 because the slopes feed environmentally sensitive headwaters. 

 

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The United Conservatives under Premier Jason Kenney announced in the spring of 2020 that they would lift the ban, but quickly reversed course when the initiative provoked strong opposition. 

Doyle said Montem realized “the winds of change were blowing” in 2021, when Ottawa asked for an environmental assessment for the proposed reboot of the Tent Mountain coal mine. The Alberta Energy Regulator then rejected Benga Mines’ (another Australian coal company’s) application to reboot an open-pit mine on nearby Grassy Mountain, stating that the project wasn’t in the public interest.

At that point, Doyle said, “It became increasingly clear that there was too high a risk to continue with the [Tent Mountain] coal mine.” 

The mountain’s coal deposits will be “sterilized,” Doyle said, using an industry term that means the hydrocarbons will stay in-ground. 

Doyle and van Melle said Montem and TransAlta would continue to meet with Pass stakeholders moving forward. 

Doyle said he expects Montem’s shareholders will approve the TM-REX sale in late March or early April.

 

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Oldman River Dam near Pincher Creek

Proposed water allocation changes cause local turbulence

One of the great blessings of living in Alberta is access to clean water.

For the last 130 years, water from streams and rivers in the South Saskatchewan River Basin has been divided among users.

The provincial government manages allocations to ensure enough water remains in the environment to support aquatic habitats while still providing enough for human consumption. At least 50 per cent of available water must also flow into Saskatchewan.

With the area’s population and agricultural industry growing, water in the river basin has become overallocated. Less water is being left in rivers, running the risk of unfulfilled demand in the event of a drought.

Given the tenuous situation, many have grown increasingly concerned with proposed changes to the Oldman River Basin water allocation.

 

Pig roast at wedding venue — the Cowley Lions Campground Stockade near Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.

The government announced last November that it was considering changing the rules that determine how the 11,000-acre-feet limit — over 13.5 billion litres— is distributed among local sectors.

With several proposed coal mines around Crowsnest Pass at various stages of the exploratory and regulatory process, many feel the changes are simply the government opening the floodgates for coal development under the pretext of underutilization.

The situation is complex, however, and getting to the bottom of it requires a bit of a deep dive.

 

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Oldman allocation history

Back in the 1920s, a weir was constructed outside Fort Macleod to redirect the river’s flow into the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District.

Irrigation helped provide water for farmers’ crops, though high summer demand coincided with low flow levels in the river. To address shortages, the Oldman Dam was constructed in 1991 to store excess water during the high spring discharge until it was needed in the drier months.

The dam’s reservoir can hold up to 400,000 acre-feet of water, though areas within the MD of Pincher Creek, MD of Ranchland, and Municipality of Crowsnest Pass became flooded. To accommodate the lost irrigation and agriculture potential, the Oldman River Basin water allocation was established in 2003.

The order applies to areas of the Oldman River upstream from the western boundary of the Piikani reserve, including the Castle River, the Crowsnest River and their respective tributaries.

The allocation originally set aside 11,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation purposes, available via licensing through the government. The order was amended in 2010 to allow a total of 1,500 acre-feet for municipal, agricultural and commercial purposes, with 9,350 acre-feet still reserved for irrigation. An additional 150 acre-feet was permitted for industrial use.

According to Alberta Environment and Parks, only 1,296 acre-feet is currently licensed for irrigation and 326 acre-feet for all other uses.

With only 16 per cent of the allocation actually being used, 9,229 acre-feet of water is going unclaimed — and although the South Saskatchewan River Basin plan stopped issuing water licences in 2006, licences for the Oldman allocation are still allowed.

The new conceptual allocation would remove the limits imposed on each sector while mandating that 2,200 acre-feet be reserved for environmental concerns.

 

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Why the changes?

The available licensing stems from a lack of irrigation investment, says Stewart Rood, a professor of biology at the University of Lethbridge who specializes in water resource management.

“There’s been very little uptake on that intended irrigation development,” he explains.

Irrigation works downstream, he continues, because the flatter topography allows gravity to move the water where it’s needed. The hilly region upstream would require expensive pumping. Since the area also doesn’t favour cash crops, the development initially intended by the allocation order is uneconomic.

“At one level, changing the terms of that allocation licence makes some sense,” Mr. Rood says.

However, he acknowledges that the main issue with opening up more allocation for industry comes with concerns of coal mining in the area.

 

Water stewardship

Benga Mining’s proposed Grassy Mountain coal project is currently under federal review. The company has applied for 454 acre-feet of water, an amount it says is triple the actual amount it will consume but is required for recycling processes, with most of the water being treated and safely returned.

One hundred and fifty acre-feet falls under a licence Benga holds for collecting run-off that would normally enter Blairmore and Gold creeks. The remaining requested allocation would come from licence transfers from Devon Canada at York Creek, and the municipality at the Crowsnest River.

No water from York Creek or Crowsnest River will actually be extracted, though the licence transfers are required to reflect the quantity of water that will be used for the coal cleaning process at the mine.

Despite being a very small portion of the 11,000-acre-feet allocation — which in turn makes up a fraction of the 400,000-acre-feet capacity of the reservoir — the amount, says Cows and Fish executive director Norine Ambrose, needs to be contextualized to location.

“If you change the hydrology — whether you’re diverting it, or reducing it or even adding to it — you change how much water is available to the ecosystem,” she says.

Allocation orders, she says, are an important way to ensure water remains for natural uses.

“Alberta has recognized this quite a few years ago, and is doing a much better job at trying to mimic nature and allocate the flows that are needed for nature, or what’s called the instream flow needs,” Ms. Ambrose adds.

 

Table setting of wedding venue — the Cowley Lions Campground Stockade near Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.

Determining allocations

Given the sheer number of rivers, streams and creeks in Alberta that have individual characteristics, the specific levels that must remain in each for a healthy ecosystem are nearly impossible to determine.

To address this, Alberta Environment and Parks uses what’s called the desktop method to set standards that establish allocation amounts: only 15 per cent of a river or stream’s natural flow can be removed, or a minimal 80 per cent exceedance of the natural flow must be maintained.

The exceedance limit may sound overly technical but is easier when you remember rivers have different levels of flow over time. The amount of water flowing over the course of the year starts low in the winter, increases through the spring run-off and rains, and peaks before decreasing in the late summer and autumn months.

Graphing that change gives you a bell curve; the 80 per cent exceedance simply requires at least 80 per cent of that bell curve to remain in the river throughout the year.

 

Aerial view of the Cowley Lions Campground on the Castle River in southwestern Alberta

Ideal versus reality

Despite allocations aiming to let water run its natural course, much of the Oldman River is used downstream from the reservoir.

The area is currently allocated 170,250 acre-feet, 90 per cent of which is used for irrigation. Demand is so high that the allocation order requires that only 45 per cent of the water remains in the river.

Even with such high use, Alberta has been able to honour its water commitment to Saskatchewan with about 75 per cent of water flow passing across the border, though a drought in 2001 dropped that amount quite close to the 50 per cent requirement.

Deciding who gets water in times of shortages is tied to licence seniority, known as “first in time is first in right.” With water usages evolving past agriculture and irrigation, however, identifying water rights has shifted to be based on priority. Drinking water for towns and cities takes precedence, followed by livestock.

Other sectors would then each take a cut, or “share the shortage,” to make sure no one goes without.

 

The issue with freeing up licences upstream from the Oldman reservoir, says Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, is licence seniority is usually enforced over sharing the shortage.

“We have concerns about those dry years where every drop counts,” she says. “Having additional licences does add a bit more pressure to the system overall and those with junior licences could get no water.”

Establishing allocations also depends on knowing what the natural needs are for the environment.

“It’s not just which of us get the water; we also have to think about the health of the river and how much we can leave in the water for the fish and the trees and the overall health of the watershed,” says Ms. Frank.

Since river flows naturally have variation, adds Mr. Rood, the natural ecosystem has evolved to deal with some variation.

“If we’re paying attention, we should be able to pick up the stress due to insufficient flow before it is irreversible or lethal,” he says.

The problem, he continues, is gathering the required information.

 

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A Benga problem

Since the riparian health of creeks and streams is site-specific, the generalizations of the desktop method may not be adequate for every location.

As such, the effects of allowing coal companies to draw water from smaller streams in the headwater aren’t known.

Benga has 10 hydrometric stations in place, which have been measuring water flow at Gold and Blairmore creeks for the past several years. The company also states operations will reduce Gold Creek’s flow by only about 10 per cent, which is within environmental limits.

Although data is being gathered, scientifically accurate measurements on flow must allow for the wide swing in variation creeks experience. The typical standard is 30 years worth of data — a difficult mark to reach, considering the limited personnel and resources available.

“We’re challenged right now because the data on allocations isn’t done at that small of scale usually,” Ms. Ambrose says. “I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any removal of water — I think we just have to make sure that the water we do take, relative to that place, is acceptable.”

Solid data is doubly important, Ms. Frank adds, given the location of many of the proposed mines in the Oldman’s watershed.

“That’s one thing we have been asking for before we withdraw water from any of these headwater streams,” she says. “That would tell us how much we could withdraw without having a big impact.”

Issues surrounding climate change, such as earlier snow melts and declining summer flows, also mean future conditions should be accounted for. Such foresight is especially important for Gold Creek, which is home to one of the last remaining Alberta populations of westslope cutthroat trout.

 

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Not water under the bridge yet

Although the government says altering the allocation would attract new industrial investment to the area, prospective coal mines would be first to benefit.

With water use upstream from the reservoir not as taxed as farther east, the minimal amount of flow data for the smaller headwater creeks and streams the mines would affect raises questions about local environmental stewardship — along with other water-related issues, such as pollution and treatment.

For now, further information about the changes is on hold as public consultation will resume after the province establishes its new modern coal policy, prompted by the reinstatement of the 1976 coal policy.

Public consultation on the government’s coal policy is set to begin March 29.

Current water licences can be viewed online www.alberta.ca/alberta-water-licence-viewer.aspx.