With open pit coal mines planned in the picturesque eastern Rocky Mountains, musician Corb Lund has helped unite disparate opponents to coal expansion
By Chris Arsenault
CALGARY – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – With hits like the “Roughest Neck Around” that celebrate oil workers, Canadian country rocker Corb Lund might not be an obvious choice as a campaigner against fossil fuel expansion.
But the music star has taken on an unexpected new role, as a leader of efforts to stop new open pit coal mines in western Canada’s iconic Rocky Mountains.
Alberta province, dubbed “Canada’s Texas” by political scientists for its petroleum industry and conservative political culture, has been hit by the cancellation of the planned Keystone XL pipeline to the United States, as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration steps up action on climate change.
Now it is looking to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountain foothills – but Lund has helped pull together an unlikely coalition of opponents including ranchers, rural landowners, indigenous groups, urban environmentalists and some oil industry workers.
“This isn’t a left-right issue. This issue seems to be resonating across the political spectrum – conservative, rural, urban and First Nations,” Lund told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It has been moving to see, in these super divided times, people agree on something.”
As climate change threats – from runaway wildfires to record heat – strengthen, building such unlikely coalitions will be key to winning consensus on slashing fossil fuel use and driving broader climate action, analysts say.
Lund, a sixth-generation southern Alberta rancher as well as an award-winning musician, says digging for more coal in the rugged Rockies – the postcard image of Western Canada – doesn’t make sense.
“I am biased because I am from this area. But I have travelled a lot in my career as a musician and I haven’t seen anything as beautiful,” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense to rip up our mountains and poison our water for something already in production in other places.”
Lund is not a climate activist – “for me, it’s more about the water or the landscape than climate change,” he said.
But “I can’t imagine coal being a positive for the climate,” he admitted.
‘NOT A HIPPY CROWD’
Supporters of new coal mines in the Rockies argue they will create jobs and tax income for the government and can be operated in a sustainable manner.
Coal from the area would be used for steelmaking, rather than heat or electricity – two uses of coal rapidly being phased out around the world.
Creating steel with renewable energy, however, is more challenging and companies argue they may need to continue using coal for this purpose a little while longer.
But critics say open pit mining will permanently destroy the picturesque mountain area. They also worry chemicals used in the extraction process, including selenium, will poison the province’s ever-scarcer water resources.
Alberta’s Department of Energy, the government body responsible for approving new mining permits, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The campaign against coal mining, featuring images of ranchers riding their horses through rivers in the shadow of the mountains and traversing grassy valleys, has helped rally to the cause local people who might not normally take an interest.
“This is not a hippy environmentalist crowd,” said Bobbi Lambright of the Livingstone Landowners Group, an organization in southwestern Alberta opposed to open pit coal mining.
When the campaign started, “one of the biggest challenges we were having … (was) the vast majority of Albertans had no idea about this threat,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lund’s decision to join the campaign in January changed that, she said.
“When Corb became aware and started putting facts out on social media, people started to pay attention.”
Alberta’s government opened parts of the eastern Rockies to coal exploration in May 2020, rescinding a decades-old prohibition.
Coal companies then began applying for leases and exploring for deposits.
Between June 2020 and February 2021, 169 new leases were issued covering about 188,000 hectares (465,000 acres), said Katie Morrison, an official with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in Alberta, a conservation group opposed to coal mining.
Those leases have led to growing opposition, she said.
“The government, I think, misjudged Albertans on this when it comes to these really special places and our water,” Morrison told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I have never seen a movement like this around an issue in Alberta before,” she said. “I feel like the tide is turning a bit.”
Following a public outcry, the Alberta government started public consultations in March 2021 and later suspended exploration on some land as comments continued to pour in.
A few companies still have permits for mining but are not actively exploring while consultations are underway, Morrison said.
Lund’s involvement has made it easier for people who were concerned about coal mining but didn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly to take a stand, she said, noting she “really saw a change” after he became involved.
On Lund’s Facebook page, where he frequently posts articles and updates about the mining fight, many fans have backed his activism.
“Thank you for taking the time to educate us all and fight for such an amazing and beautiful area,” wrote fan Shannon Lee Booth.
Others have tagged their elected representatives, urging them to take action.
But some have been more critical.
“While I like and enjoy your music, I do not agree with you on this,” wrote fan Jason Thornhill. “Many families are counting on these mines to contribute to their survival.”
In response to public opposition, Alberta officials have created a Coal Policy Committee to make recommendations to the government on use of the province’s coal, with a final report due in November.
“The protection of our lands and water remains of critical importance as we develop our natural resources,” the province’s energy and environment ministries said in a statement last month, as they cancelled one coal mining project.
Lund called the dropping of that Grassy Mountain coal project “a major victory” for the movement, though stressed the campaign is far from over.
In its decision, the government cited concerns from regulators about protection of water quality and fish habitat.
“All proposed coal projects are subject to stringent review to ensure development is safe, environmentally responsible and meets all requirements,” the statement noted.
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; editing by Laurie Goering – Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)