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ASGA News: The road to Bill 31

Coming together and standing up for Alberta's sand and gravel industry


December 15, 2020
By John Ashton

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Bill 31 worked its way through the Legislature in 16 days. It passed with unanimous support and was given Royal Assent on July 23. Photo: adobestock/Aerial Mike

On May 21, the Alberta Sand & Gravel Association’s board members and I sat in a video conference. Each of us stared at a screen full of faces that went from stoic, to wide-eyed, and then to pale and ashen.

We all watched as ASGA member company Yellowhead Aggregates delivered devastating news. The Court of Appeal of Alberta had made a decision on a case called Alexis v Alberta, ruling that aggregate pits and quarries were the same, and that Environmental Impact Assessments would be needed to get an approval from the provincial government. This was as opposed to the custom process that the provincial government had used for years.

Put another way, 500 applications for environmental permits for gravel pits in Alberta came to a screeching halt. Alberta Environment and Parks staff nor anyone else would be able to restart them.

The Alberta aggregates community had been already hit by infrastructure cuts, an economic slowdown from COVID-19 and a rainy spring that had delayed production. The ruling could not have come at a worse time.

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That day, ASGA board members overcame the shock and started looking for potential solutions. We decided that the consequences of the decision demanded the scrutiny of the Environment & Park Minister Jason Nixon, MLA. Within a couple of days, we wrote to the Minister, as well as Assistant Deputy Ministers with oversight of the application process.

For years, ASGA has had standing committees with experts from producer and consultant firms on several topics. This included the Land & Environment committee chaired by Aspen Land Group’s Lesley Foy. This committee was tasked by the Board to work on a solution to propose to government.

After hours of meetings, the committee members saw that the only vehicle to get applications moving again was also the most drastic measure we could possibly recommend. A Bill would have to be passed through the Legislative Assembly of Alberta to redefine aggregates as separate from other mined minerals.

Gravel-specific legislation had not been introduced in the Alberta Legislature in decades. It had taken massive effort from the ASGA to just get attention paid to basic permitting delays. Getting a bill passed would be daunting, to say the least. Nevertheless, a six-part list of potential legislative remedies was drafted by the committee and quickly approved by the Board of Directors.

Support for ASGA’s position was not unanimous within the member companies. The court ruling would change Alberta’s municipal government from permitters to stakeholders. Many producers faced municipalities that were challenging to work with and preferred that change in roles. However, the prevailing majority view was that getting 500 applications moving again was more urgent.

The full-court press to get the Minister for Environment and Parks’ attention began in earnest by June. Affected members began to reach out to MLA’s, in particular Shane Getson, MLA for Parkland-Lac Ste Anne, where the court case originated.

ASGA began by stating the need for a Bill to Alberta Environment & Parks staff, who were themselves surprised by the court ruling and unsure how to respond. We also sought allies with “cousin” organizations like the Alberta Chamber of Resources and Concrete Alberta, whose members rely on aggregate supply, to amplify our message.

Bill 31 worked its way through the Legislature in 16 days. It passed with unanimous support and was given Royal Assent on July 23. Photo: adobestock/Aerial Mike

One crucial ally was the Rural Municipalities of Alberta. This umbrella group for municipal governments had three reasons to be worried: losing permitting status, losing aggregates supply from 500 pits that couldn’t start, and losing aggregate industry jobs.

As ASGA began to build a coalition, we also started routine, almost daily, internal communications to our member companies via e-mail, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and our website. Some of our member companies’ entire business plan depended on the approval of now-frozen applications. Their communication with their MLA’s assisted in creating urgency within government.

On June 12, only five weeks after the court ruling, ASGA president Joe Hustler, Land & Environment Chair Lesley Foy, and myself were on a conference call with Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, MLA (who also serves as Government House Leader). ASGA attendees pressed their six points and the need for legislation to remedy the court decision.

Rules stated that we, nor anyone else outside the Legislature, would not see a bill until it was tabled for first reading. We waited for three weeks and kept up dialogue with allies, association members, and government. We also reached out to opposition politicians, articulating our six points, how they match their values, and the need for speedy, unanimous passage.

On July 7, Bill 31: Environmental Protections Statutes Amendment Act, 2020 was tabled for first reading. It was a very stripped-down bill that redefined aggregates as separate from other minerals and removed redundant mentions of silica. It did not resolve all our six points, but it would get the 500 applications moving. It was the first gravel bill in the Legislature since the 1970’s.

Roughly twenty MLA’s from both parties spoke about our industry over the course of debate on Bill 31. That included remarks on the value of ASGA’s contribution from UCP MLA Shane Getson and NDP MLA Marlin Schmidt.

The bill worked its way through the Legislature in 16 days. It passed with unanimous support from both parties. Royal Assent was given on July 23. Applications started moving again the next day, 10 weeks after the court decision that stopped them.

I could go through the various tactics and strategies that ASGA used to survive and thrive in a crisis. But it really all boiled down to a single choice: ASGA decided that we were worth it.

In that fateful meeting in May, it would have been easier for all of us to have responded with fatalistic resignation. It would have saved a lot of time and work. We could have just waited and hoped that government would have solved it for us. Perhaps an appeal would have sorted it out in a couple of years. We could have told the companies with applications in peril that we couldn’t help them.

Among Canadian resource industries, we are very small. ASGA is arguably one of the smallest industry associations in Alberta. With the exception of myself, everyone at ASGA sits on the Board and these committees are volunteers.

But nothing gets made without aggregates. We play an irreplaceable role in Alberta’s economy. We decided to remind ourselves and government of that.

Not all of our campaigns go this well, or this quickly. Government relations is like making sedimentary rocks: it’s all time and pressure. But, a copy of Bill 31 now hangs on the wall of the ASGA office as proof that we are an association, and an industry, that delivers positive change.