After weeks of public pressure, Alberta has cancelled 11 coal leases and is pausing future sales in former Category 2 lands, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced Monday.

“We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in recent days, and thank those who spoke up with passion," she said in a statement.

“I want to be absolutely clear: Under the current terms, just as it was under the 1976 coal policy, coal leases do not allow for exploration, development or production without a comprehensive regulatory review.

"A lease holder has no more right to set foot on lease property than any other Albertan. The same rules apply now, as before."

The cancelled leases are a small portion of the coal exploration leases the government has issued since revoking a policy that protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies — home to endangered species as well as the water source for millions downstream — since 1976.

The decision came as more than 100,000 signatures had been collected on two petitions opposing increased mining on two related fronts.

One, sponsored by environmental groups on, was addressed to the provincial government and had 77,000 signatures Monday afternoon -- an increase of about 10,000 over the weekend.

Another, sponsored by a private citizen and addressed to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, had nearly 28,000 names opposing the Benga coal project in southern Alberta, which is undergoing a federal-provincial environmental review.

As well, a Facebook site called Protect Alberta's Rockies and Headwaters has more than doubled its membership over the last week to more than 10,000. The Benga review has received more than 4,000 statements of concern from members of the public, the vast majority opposing the project.

Alberta’s NDP Environment Critic Marlin Schmidt issued a statement soon after the announcement was made.

“Today’s backpedaling from the UCP on their removal of protections for Category 2 public lands is a small victory for the thousands upon thousands of Albertans who have spoken up against this UCP government’s reckless decision to rip up Peter Lougheed’s coal policy," he said.

“While the UCP government has agreed to cancel the 11 most recently issued coal leases, there are another eight leases they sold last May that remain in effect.

“Further, they still have not committed to reinstating the coal policy and to consulting before making further changes. Without these commitments, these precious wild spaces are still under threat.”

Katie Morrison, the conservation director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) said in an interview that the move was "actually not that significant of a change," saying it still leaves 420,000 hectares of land unprotected, including the area around Grassy Mountain, which has been the source of media interest because of comments from country musicians Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and kd lang opposing mining.

"It's a step that they're feeling the pressure," Morrison said, "but I think it still shows they are still not listening to Albertans."

"Albertans are saying we don't want you doing open pit coal mining. We want the coal policy back and this announcement in no way addresses those concerns of Albertans."

Savage said the pause "will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected."

“Coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy, especially in rural communities, but we are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta’s modern regulatory standards and processes," she said.

“This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review.”

With files from The Canadian Press