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Wilkinson Orders Federal Environmental Assessment for Vista Coal Mine Expansion

Environment and Climate Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is earning praise for ordering a federal environmental review of the proposed Vista coal mine expansion near Hinton, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, reversing an earlier decision after facing intense pushback from the Louis Bull Tribe, the Stoney Lakoda Nation, and Ecojustice.

The two proposals by Coalspur Mines Ltd. would double or triple the amount of coal Vista produces and exports each year, mostly to Asia. Combined, the expansions would increase the mine’s output by 20,000 tonnes per day and increase its size by 49.7%, Wilkinson told the Globe and Mail. Under the new federal Impact Assessment Act, a federal review should have triggered automatically with a proposal for 5,000 tonnes and a 50% increase.

The two side-by-side proposals, one of them filed just a couple of months ago, “would lead me to be concerned that this is, perhaps, an exercise in project-splitting for the purpose of avoiding a federal assessment,” the minister said. “When we saw the second project come forward, we looked at the two—as we should in the context of the overall increase in the production of coal and the environmental impact—and made the determination that we really should be thinking about the two as a single project.”

“They’re actually at the same site. They’re the same project. They’re very close in terms of timing. So, we want to look at them as one project,” he added in an interview with CBC.

Wilkinson said the review could take about 18 months.

Ecojustice Climate Program Director Alan Andrews said Wilkinson “has made the right call, and I’m sure it’s not been an easy one. He’s shown real leadership on this issue, and it’s really important to give credit for that.”

“Thermal coal has no place in the 21st century. It is the dirtiest fossil fuel and is devastating to both human health and the climate,” agreed Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence. “An environmental assessment is our best chance of generating and evaluating the information required to ensure this expansion is rejected based on its threat to our climate.”

Andrews added that the decision was that much more significant given the designation requests Ottawa received from two First Nations affected by the expansion. “It would have been really damaging had this project been given a green light in the face of those concerns, and would have made a mockery of the government’s commitment to follow through on their adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he told The Energy Mix. “So we’re looking forward to engaging the process and working with those First Nations where we share concerns about this project.”

Vista is a very new mine, operated by Coalspur and owned by Cline Group, the same U.S. coal giant that recently shut down the Donkin mine in Cape Breton. Vista began exporting six million tonnes of Alberta coal per year, mostly to Asia, in May 2019.

After the company proposed the dramatic increase in output, 47 environmental, Indigenous, health, civil society, and faith organizations issued an open letter to Wilkinson demanding an assessment, and an online petition generated 31,928 individual signatures.

Beyond the domestic impacts of Coalspur’s expansion plans, the Globe says the federal review “will also take into account the country’s membership in the Powering Past Coal Alliance—an international group jointly launched in 2017 by Britain and Canada, which aims to convince the world’s wealthiest countries to eliminate coal as a source of electricity by 2030” and drive a global phaseout by 2050.

“I think Canadians expect us to look at whether or not we should continue to be exporting thermal coal at a time when we’re telling other governments they shouldn’t be using it,” Wilkinson said.

“If the minister allows this project to go forward without an impact assessment, it will really cast a harsh light on the rift between Canada’s talk about powering past coal and its willingness to translate that into action,” Ecojustice lawyer Fraser Thomson told The Mix in a feature interview earlier this month. “If we’re not okay with burning coal at home, we shouldn’t be okay feeding the consumption of other countries overseas….It’s hard to go around the world and ask countries to phase out the commodity you’re selling them.”

Thomson and Andrews also pointed to the toxic message Wilkinson would have sent to other project proponents if he’d given Coalspur a regulatory pass.

“If you are a proponent planning to build an expansion in Canada, you would obviously be following what Coalspur is doing, and if you wanted to avoid an impact assessment, you would probably replicate that,” Thomson said before the decision.

But now, “I hope in boardrooms across Canada, executives and their advisors are paying attention to this decision and have learned a valuable lesson that they must comply not just with the letter but the spirit of impact assessment laws,” Andrews said yesterday. “They won’t get away with project-splitting, with artificially segmenting larger projects into smaller chunks to evade environmental assessment.”

The Jason Kenney government in Alberta was predictably “disappointed that Ottawa would intercede in the Vista mine project approval,” Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, told the Globe. “As Section 92A of the Canadian Constitution guarantees Alberta the right to jurisdiction over our own resource development, we will be studying the issue over the coming days and taking all appropriate action.”

Andrews said Wilkinson’s decision ran counter the recommendations of the federal impact assessment agency, which was content to have most of the project review conducted by provincial regulators. “Certainly there seems to be an assumption that the provincial assessment process would take care of our concerns, and I think we treat those with a healthy dose of skepticism given Alberta’s current stance on coal and fossil fuel expansion,” he said.

Three days ago, The Narwhal took a close look at the Kenney government’s decision to rescind a decades-old policy that restricted coal mining in parts of the Rocky Mountains and foothills, and its implications for mining, parks, and species at risk. While the province is driving for economic recovery, the B.C.-based publication writes, some Albertans are concerned “that the government’s open-for-business stance on coal threatens to destroy a landscape that is important to First Nations and serves as critical habitat for grizzlies, caribou, and the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout, listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act.”

So now, “alongside the Alberta Energy Regulator’s review, the federal Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will study how the coal mine expansion might affect matters of federal jurisdiction. That includes effects on fish habitat, species at risk, Indigenous people, and their treaty rights to hunting and fishing,” CBC says.

The Globe and CBC both said Coalspur declined to comment on the decision.