Open-pit coal mining in Wyoming’s Wyodak mine. Source: Rawpixel Ltd, Flickr

Black gold

Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) is fond of talking about the oil fields. Sometimes it feels like it’s all they talk about. But their attention has shifted to another black gold: coal. 

Years of downturns, tax cuts, and layoffs in the oil sector—which in 2013 provided $2.48 billion in royalties—have left thousands of working Albertans financially ruined and the UCP desperate for revenue. 

This is a problem every government around the world is facing, especially as the economic pit of the pandemic deepens. But in Alberta, the crisis seems even more acute. Unemployment is among the highest in the country, and the UCP is set to post a $18 billion deficit this year. Last year’s provincial budget aimed to raise more money from tuition from college and university students ($1.35 billion) than it did from oil and gas royalties ($1.2 billion).  

The UCP is attempting to claw their way out of this hole with austerity, already laying off 11,000 healthcare workers, cutting millions from post-secondary education, and slashing budgets of schools, all while giving billions in handouts to corporations, like the $7 billion to TC Energy for the now all-but-dead Keystone XL pipeline. This is on top of seemingly endless scandals that the UCP can’t stop fumbling their way through.

Now the UCP is looking for a way to turn their fortunes around, preferably one which hands out a few crumbs to soothe working-class anger without inciting Canadian and foreign capitalists in turn. Jason Kenney thinks the solution has been hiding away in the Rocky Mountains for hundreds of million of years in the form of steelmaking coal. 

Steelmaking coal has been open-pit mined in neighbouring British Columbia since the 1960s just a few minutes from the Alberta border. Revenues like the $7.3 billion Teck’s Coal division posted in 2018 are irresistible to Kenney’s government. More investment, more jobs, more taxes. That’s the idea, at least.

This type of coal has been used to smelt iron since the 1800s, and even though it differs from thermal coal used for power generation, which was mined around Edmonton and Drumheller for generations, coking coal is still burnt for fuel. It still releases 1.63 giga tonnes of CO2 a year, and mining it requires highly destructive and energy-intensive techniques. 

These mines would extract coal for use in the Asian steel industry, where high prices have led investors to name it the commodity which could fuel a post COVID-19 economy as countries like China attempt to kick-start their economies through infrastructure projects. 

Parts of Alberta where steelmaking coal is found—the Rocky Mountains and its foothills—were protected by a policy in 1976 which divided the land into four categories and restricted open-pit mines in categories one (national parks, proposed provincial parks, wilderness areas), and two (parts of the Rockies and foothills). 

Source: Alberta Wilderness Association

Pressure from the world crisis, the promise of several hundred full-time jobs, and a simple lack of revenue led the UCP to scrap the coal policy which protected categories one and two from development in May 2020, claiming the policy was “out of date” and needed updating. Category one would remain protected, but the UCP said protections for category two were no longer needed. 

Saying the UCP did no consultation before scrapping this policy is inaccurate. They consulted the Coal Association of Canada, as well as several coal mining companies who knew about the plan to scrap the policy months before it was revealed to the public. 

But why was this policy in place to begin with? Revenue from oil, and resistance from conservationists, farmers, and working Albertans made past Conservative governments unwilling to delve into coking coal. Modern open-pit mining (which is cheaper than underground variants) involves blasting millions of tonnes of mountaintop and moving them out of the way one truckload at a time until the mountain has been removed and the coal stripped away. It was simply too politically expensive, and the government was not desperate enough to open up the Rockies to mining.

But now all bets are off, and 1.5 million hectares were made available for as little as $36 a hectare after the lifting of the coal policy. A hectare is half of a square city block, which in rural Alberta could go for $20,000, and would cost billions in downtown Toronto. 

Montem Resources—a mining subsidiary owned by Australia’s richest billionaire—nabbed some of the 11 coal leases sold, paying $66,562.62 for nearly 2,000 hectares. Their proposed open-pit mine would remove the top of Grassy Mountain in Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass to extract 3.8-4.5 million tonnes of coal every year for 23 years. 

Montem Resources CEO Peter Doyle went on CBC’s show Eyeopener on Jan. 28 to discuss the mines. When asked why the people of Alberta should welcome back coal mining to the Rockies, Doyle said, “I think the fundamental reason is the prosperity it brings. There’s a very valuable resource in the mountains… it’s a fundamental material which underpins our way of life.” To this we should ask: prosperity for who and for how long?

On top of rock-bottom lease prices, the UCP is offering some of the world’s lowest royalty and tax rates to attract investment. Alberta’s residents are no strangers to getting a meagre share of the exploitation of our natural resources while footing the bill for cleanup. One calculation showed Norway realized revenues of $87.69 per barrel of oil in 2013, Alaska realized $38.54, and Alberta just $4.38. 

The province’s high unemployment rate of 9.1 per cent—the second highest in Canada—will also place a downward pressure on wages, and even though Montem’s Tent mine is only promising 190 full-time jobs, it’s easy to see why the mines can be enticing not only to the UCP, but to out-of-work tradespeople and surrounding First Nations. Areas like the Crowsnest pass have been hard-hit by unemployment, the opioid epidemic, and an exodus of people for years, and their communities are in desperate need of jobs. 

Australian mining company Riversdale Resources, which is spearheading another proposed mine, boasts letters of support from all five Treaty 7 nations—Piikani, Kainai (Blood Tribe), Siksika, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina—as well as the Métis Nation of Alberta Region three and the National Coalition of Chiefs. 

But Latasha Calf Robe, member of the Kainai Nation, told Alberta Native Views this support is superficial, saying the “consultation” amounts to companies merely telling Indigenous leadership what they’re going to do. She added that the dire economic situation on reserves makes First Nations leaders more willing to accept harmful resource extraction projects in the name of job creation. The average annual income of Blood Tribe members is about $20,000, almost half the provincial average. “We need jobs in our communities,” said Calf Robe, “but these aren’t the types of jobs we need.”

Two of Alberta’s largest First Nations bands have written letters saying they will oppose development and fight for fair treatment of their treaty rights in court. Indigenous elder Many Guns told Global News that land in southwest Alberta has been traditional Blackfoot territory for thousands of years. To this day it remains a hunting ground, a garden of edible and ceremonial plants, and a gathering site. 

When faced with the impact of open pit mines in the Rockies, Alberta’s Energy Regulator, along with Environmental Cabinet member Jason Nixon are optimists. Nixon, in a published statement in May 2020, said, “Our government is continuing to protect our natural resources, including critical watersheds and biodiversity along the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Through this approach we are striking the balance of ensuring strong environmental protection with providing industry with incentive to increase investment.”

Where Nixon gets this talk of “balance” is hard to say, especially because dangerous minerals like selenium have been found in Alberta’s rivers from mines shut down decades ago. 

Selenium is a mineral we all need to live, but in high quantities can cause acute toxicity in humans and massive die-offs of wildlife, especially stream fish like the endangered Westslope cutthroat trout. Selenium problems in B.C. and Alberta were neglected for decades, and now no one knows how to stop it. 

Some BC towns report drinking water selenium levels 50 times higher than the government’s guidelines. And because they’re guidelines, not laws, mines can continue to operate as normal—and make record profits while polluting. 

These are problems Nixon and many mining companies have said they can manage, but the technology simply does not exist or has been shown to fail repeatedly. Teck Coal built a $45 million state-of-the-art facility to filter selenium from water, yet this elaborate technology merely released a more toxic form of selenium, resulting in the death of rare, federally protected fish. The company was recently fined $60 million by the Provincial Court of British Columbia for polluting waterways—the largest penalty ever issued under the Fisheries Act. Yet this amounts to 1.3 per cent of Teck Coal’s 2012 profits of $4.5 billion, and the selenium problem continues and will continue for decades to come. 

These are just some of the prospects facing Albertans were these mines as proposed. And it’s not just First Nations opposing the ill effects of the mines and the lack of public consultation. The past year has seen Alberta’s ranchers, cities downstream, conservation groups, and even country singers put up a fight against the UCP’s plans to steamroll ahead with mines in the eastern slopes. 

Katie Morrison, conservation director Canadian Parks and Wilderness (CPAW) Southern Alberta said opposition to the mines “have engaged Albertans almost like I have never seen before,” adding, “It’s not just urban folks or rural folks, it’s people across the province, it’s across all political spectrums, ages, and income levels. We saw in our poll that regardless of where people live or what their background is, people support more protection of this landscape.”

The poll commissioned by CPAW found that 76 per cent of Albertans are in favour of more protections for nature and recreation in the eastern slopes. Another recent survey showed nearly 70 per cent of Albertans surveyed oppose expanded development of formerly protected areas of the province. 

Court challenges, media attention, and a growing popular movement against the UCP led to the reinstatement of the coal policy in February 2021, a ban on “mountain-top removal” mining, the cancellation of leases issued in December, and the start of a “public consultation” program which includes a set of questions any Albertan can answer online. This is a partial victory, but it does not apply to any of the large number of leases already issued. Montem’s 1,886 hectare lease was one the UCP cancelled, but it is only 0.13 percent of the 1.4 million hectares made available for development. There isn’t even a single proposed project which fits in the category of “mountain-top removal,” which is a method primarily used in the US Appalachians. 

Mounting political pressure has pushed the UCP to pause coal exploration on category two lands citing the 25,000 responses so far received in its online survey. Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in an April 23 conference that “The suspension will stay in place at a minimum until public engagement is completed, at which point the results of the consultation will dictate the next steps,” meaning the halt is temporary and exploration could continue at any moment.

This announcement coincided with news that the Alberta opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) raised twice as much in donations during the first quarter of 2021 than the UCP. It’s likely the NDP would form a majority government were an election to happen tomorrow, and the issue of coal mining is certainly helping. But even if the NDP were to win, they would be subject to the exact same economic pressures to develop mines as are the UCP. We cannot forget Notley’s government were the biggest cheerleaders for the oil industry when they were in power in 2015-2020. Any party in power must answer a fundamental question: who should benefit from resource extraction and who should pay the price?

Time and temperature

All the environmental destruction, human cost, and meagre tax revenues of mines under capitalism is justified by mining executives’ and governments with the simple phrase, “If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it.” And in a sense, this is true. Human life would be impossible without mines.

Mine owners often pit workers’ interests against those who care about the environment. Their message is clear: if you are for mines, you are for jobs, prosperity and progress. If you are against, then you care little for workers’ livelihoods and the well-being of society. 

So we arrive at a predicament. You are either for the environment, or for the economy. For jobs, or for drinking water. But this contradiction only remains unsolved if we don’t ask where the billions in mining profit end up, who decides what to mine, and who pays for environmental reclamation when mines are exhausted. Alberta’s own history of resources gives us clues on how to escape this seemingly endless, dark pit.

Coal was first discovered in what is now Alberta in 1792, but it wasn’t until the 1800s when the railroad made its exploitation profitable. Exploitation of another kind soon followed. Underground coal mining was marked by child labour, severe injuries, death, low pay, brutal treatment, miserable living conditions, and disease. It was estimated one man was killed for every hundred thousand tons of coal mined in Alberta. Miners complained that the ponies used to haul coal inside the mines were treated better than the men. After all, mine ponies cost a lump sum. Workers were replaced for free. 

Mines were concentrated in the Crowsnest Pass, where coal was essential in settling the Prairies. It supplied fuel for railways and heating for homes. The rate and breadth of settlement would have been impossible without the coal to power steam engines. 

Immigrant families mined the hills of the Crowsnest Pass for decades, always fearful of the next accident and always at the whim of the bosses. Workers could be fired, blacklisted, or deported for organizing trade unions. They lived through endless boom and bust cycles, the cruelty of bosses, and bloody labour struggles before Alberta was established as a province. 

Today, it might be tempting for environmentalists to blame coal miners and paint them as, at best, apathetic drones who collect a paycheque and at worst, as complacent stooges of the bosses.

But history is not so simple. Today’s discussions are nearly identical to those had in 1968, almost 15 years after underground mines closed down, and when coking coal open-pit mines first opened in BC minutes from the Alberta border.

California-based Kaiser Resources discovered massive deposits totaling billions of tonnes of coal in the Rocky Mountains, which was in high demand for the booming Japanese car industry. They arrived at the Crowsnest Pass and purchased shuttered underground mines and the company-owned towns of Michel and Natal along with them. These were towns where generations of miners and their families had been born, lived, and died. The slump in coal demand from a shift in trains to diesel left Michel and Natal dirty and derelict. 

Kaiser said the expansion of the mine required the destruction of the two towns and the relocation of families, many of whom could not afford to move to nearby towns. Some left forever and never returned. Others, such as thirty-five local women, were prepared to fight out the relocation, with plans to sue the coal company and march on the legislature in Victoria.

But the coal company won out, and by 1978 every building was demolished. In the end, Kaiser never mined the area the towns sat in. 

At the same time, conservation officers and scientists warned of the impact mining would have on the watersheds, with the siltation of riverbeds and concentration of selenium. Kaiser either promised they’d do their part to keep streams clean, or simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was the price to pay.

The mines fed the Japanese car industry for years, but by 1992 Kaiser went bankrupt and workers lost all or most of their pensions. Teck Coal took over the mine in 2004, but because of the earlier pension loss, and because the defined contribution pension plan Teck offered had not been particularly generous, some miners were forced to continue working at the mine even though they were beyond retirement age. Others salvaged as little as $200 a month for their pensions.

Alberta’s miners have been maimed, killed, and exploited by the bosses for centuries. Many of them, like the tens of thousands opposed to the mines, do not trust them to have their interests at heart. Those who do the mining, those who drink the water, and those who live in the shadow of the mines, have absolutely no say as to what we mine and how we mine it. Alberta’s coal miners have known this throughout their history, which is why many of them organized unions and became dedicated communists.

Mine Workers’ Union of Canada strike in Coleman, 1932.
Crowsnest Museum Archives

The miners of Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass fought some of the fiercest labour battles the province has ever seen. They fought away scabs, fought bosses who hired thugs to shoot and kill them, lived through countless boom and bust cycles, and won key victories for better pay, safety, and pensions. These traditions have been largely forgotten, but the current economic situation is radicalizing all layers of society. An alliance of militant, organized miners alongside Indigenous people, farmers, and all workers and oppressed would be an unstoppable force bosses would be powerless against.


Anyone opposed to mines should be turning towards the organized miners’ labour movement, not away from it, if they are to have any hope of stopping destructive development for the profits of billionaires. Miners, Indigenous people, and those negatively affected by private resource development have a common enemy: the bosses and their mining companies. Solidarity between Indigenous peoples and mine workers recently on display at the Baffinland iron ore mine give a glimpse into the massive untapped potential of convergent struggles. 

Nationalizing our resources is a key first step, but an organized Alberta working class could go much further. They could fight for full healthcare, an end to unemployment, democratic workplaces, and an end to the capitalist system which places us all in this nightmare to begin with. 

The resistance put up by Indigenous groups, ranchers, downstream municipalities, and even country singers, is a start. But barring a massive mobilization of workers, the mines will be built. The profits are simply too high and the UCP too desperate.

The UCP’s plan for developing the coal mines are not plans in the interests of Albertans, a majority of whom reject the proposed expansions. If the UCP cared about jobs they wouldn’t be trumpeting the 800 positions coming out of these mines months after laying off 26,000 public education staff and 11,000 healthcare workers during a pandemic. 

Alberta has also been left with $100 billion worth of cleanup for decades of abandoned oil and gas wells dotting the prairies. Even the Alberta Energy Regulator, an industry-funded entity, states it could take up to 2,800 years for companies to reclaim inactive oil and gas sites to their natural environment. This is on top of the human toll where decades of workers were either killed, maimed, or were given chronic illnesses from exposure to noxious chemicals. 

The province’s unemployment could be erased if we tasked out-of-work tradespeople with the task of remediating these abandoned sites. The surplus from mining could be used to help fund our schools, hospitals, and universities, which could be staffed according to need, and not what their meagre budgets allow them to hire. 

As long as the ownership of the means of production remains private and in the hands of the capitalist class, production and energy extraction will continue at the expense of society and the environment, for the sake of the profit of the few. Nationalization won’t cure our problems overnight, but you cannot plan what you don’t control, and you cannot control what you don’t own. Under workers’ control, we can begin to determine which mines are needed for the immediate benefit of society, and which ones are not, and allocate resources accordingly. 

Over half of the steel we produce goes to building construction, but what is never asked is why the average life of a non-residential building in Canada is 18 years, or why millions of tonnes of steel go into making apartment buildings in downtown Toronto which sit empty. How much coal could be left in the ground and how many homes could be filled if we rationally planned resource extraction and construction? 

We could develop other ways of making the materials we need, some of which are in stages of research and development. None of this is being developed for the simple fact of not being profitable. High-speed public transportation won’t be a reality as long as oil and individual cars remain immensely profitable. This is the same reason open pit mines in the Rocky Mountains are being developed, even though they will irreparably destroy millions of hectares of land and poison drinking water for hundreds of years. 

Capitalism demands that we choose between preserving the environment and offering well-paid jobs, while in reality being unable to deliver either. Open pit mines in the eastern slopes, with rock-bottom royalties, few jobs, and high profits for the bosses is a story Albertans know well, and it’s a story older than the province itself. The UCP has been forced to backtrack temporarily on this question, but that could change at any time. 

Socialist planning offers the only way out of the contradiction between the environment and the economy that has been established by capitalism. By removing the private ownership of industry and production for profit, we could begin to bring resource extraction and production generally into harmony with both the needs of society and the environment.