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.
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.
“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.