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Ottawa passes on review of AB coal mine expansion, promises strategic assessment instead

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 1/3/2020 12:51:00 PM

The federal government has decided not to review the proposed Vista Coal Mine Phase II Project near Hinton, Alberta, reasoning that the project’s adverse environmental effects will be mitigated in a review by the Alberta Energy Regulator or through permits required under federal law. The proposed Vista Coal Mine Phase II Project is a proposed expansion of the existing Vista Coal Mine Phase I Project.

Instead, Ottawa has announced it will undertake a strategic assessment to help guide how future new thermal coal mine projects will be assessed under the Impact Assessment Act. This strategic assessment will be the first under the new Act.

But that didn’t satisfy the project’s critics. Ecojustice says the decision highlights the rift between Canada’s “powering past coal” talk and its willingness to take action. Canada and the UK were the founding members of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a 2017 agreement to encourage the transition away from coal for power generation. As of December 10, 2019, the Powering Past Coal Alliance counts 97 members.

The proposed expansion has the potential to increase maximum coal production at the mine by six million tonnes per year, with a predicted 10-year project life, according to an analysis by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. The analysis found that the proposed expansion would likely have adverse effects on fish and fish habitat, including the critical habitat of aquatic species at risk, migratory birds, and may have adverse effects on Indigenous peoples.

According to Ecojustice, the proposed expansion could triple the mine’s maximum capacity to extract thermal coal, which will then be shipped overseas for consumption and could generate up to 33 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

“Canada has committed to fighting climate change and ending coal use at home. If we aren’t okay with burning coal in Canada, we shouldn’t feed coal consumption overseas,” said Ecojustice lawyer Fraser Thomson in a statement.

Draft terms of reference for the strategic assessment of thermal coal mining will be released early in 2020 for public comment. The federal government says the strategic assessment will include environmental and health impacts of thermal coal mining, a market analysis of projected demand for thermal coal, and the impact of thermal coal mining on Canada’s international commitments and initiatives.

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