Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson makes an announcement in Calgary, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Environment minister restores federal assessment of Alberta coal mine expansion

Wilkinson repeated his warning that new thermal coal projects will have a high bar for approval

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has reinstated his decision to subject a thermal coal mine expansion in Alberta to a federal review after a court ordered him to rethink it.

Wilkinson said the Alberta First Nation whose objections led to the court order concerning the Vista mine project have now withdrawn their concerns.

“We consulted very extensively with Ermineskin (First Nation) and Ermineskin has actually sent us a letter essentially withdrawing their objection to us going through the designation process,” he said from Milan, where he is attending a climate conference.

Wilkinson repeated his pre-election warning that new thermal coal projects will have to surmount a high bar for approval.

“In a world that must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the first most important step that we can take … is to phase out the use of thermal coal,” he said.

“We will not be looking for new thermal coal mines to be developed in Canada.”

Coalspur Mines is seeking to expand its existing surface mine near Hinton in north central Alberta. The expansion would make Vista the largest thermal coal mine in North America. The company also plans an underground test mine on the site.

A federal environmental review is required when a mine expands its footprint by 50 per cent or more, or if it plans to produce more than 5,000 tonnes of coal a day. In the early stages of its development, Vista would come in just under those thresholds and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada ruled in 2019 that Ottawa wouldn’t get involved.

But in 2020 Wilkinson decided that the footprint was close enough and that production would eventually exceed the level triggering a federal review. He revoked the agency’s decision and ordered a joint federal-provincial process, considered to be a more rigorous than a purely provincial assessment.

That decision was challenged in Federal Court by Coalspur and Ermineskin First Nation.

Ermineskin supports the project for its economic benefits and argued its treaty rights were violated when Wilkinson failed to consult with them. Court agreed with Ermineskin and ordered Wilkinson to reconsider.

Since then, the agency has met with 44 First Nations, including Ermineskin.

“The agency documented and included the feedback from Indigenous groups consulted during the reconsideration process to ensure their views were included in the analysis provided to the minister,” said a statement from agency spokesman Stephane Perrault.

A spokesman for Ermineskin was not immediately available to comment.

Coalspur’s application to Federal Court was thrown out after the Ermineskin ruling. A spokesman for the company wasn’t immediately available to say if that application would be refiled.

Wilkinson’s latest decision is based on reasons similar to those he initially cited.

He said Ottawa’s involvement is justified by the size of the planned expansion and its potential threats to areas of federal jurisdiction, such as contamination of waterways and habitat loss for species at risk. He also said the expansion would affect the treaty rights of other First Nations who oppose the project.

– Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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