The Alberta government is changing its coal policies intended to make it easier to develop open-pit mines. “Government is placing a strong focus on creating the necessary conditions for the growth of export coal production,” a press release said.

The changes, which came into effect June 1, abolish graduated protections that have been in place since 1976 for land in Alberta’s southwestern foothills.

It has also been logged and mined for decades. Mines in the region produce metallurgical grade coal, which is exported to Japanese steel mills through Vancouver.

Under the old rules, top protection was applied to the most sensitive land where no development was allowed. That classification remains.

Three lower levels allowed progressively more activity in proportion to the environmental value of the land. Those regulations were applied in advance of any assessment by the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Nissa Petterson of the Alberta Wilderness Association said it was an attempt to handle overall land management on a busy landscape. “It operated at a higher level than a project-by-project basis,” she said. “It was a high-tier, overarching policy.”

Now, all coal mine applications are to go straight to the regulator for a case-by-case assessment.

The regulator will apply the same standards as before, said Alberta Energy spokesman Kavi Bal. “None of the rules have changed,” he added.

The intent was to bring coal assessments in line with those the regulator uses for oil and gas proposals, Bal said.

“[The previous policy] didn’t line up with anything else we do.”

Those assessments have often been criticized as leading to piecemeal decision-making. It is also extremely rare for the regulator to turn a proposal down.

Kevin Van Tighem, spokesman for area landowners, pointed out the regulator is currently considering a number of coal applications.