Three peat mining companies were given initial authorization to level thousands of hectares of Manitoba's boreal forest, just days after a provincial ban on peat mining leases took effect last summer, and despite objections from the government's own experts.

The Save Lake Winnipeg Act became law on June 16, 2011, and prevents the province's Mining Department from issuing new leases for peat lands.

But three corporate entities — Sun Gro, Jiffy, and Berger — received environmental licences to mine peat moss in eastern Manitoba, on June 29, July 18 and July 20, respectively.

The licences for Sun Gro and Berger are currently being appealed. The province would not say who is appealing the licences, except to say a First Nation and a cottage owners' association are behind both appeals.

Those companies cannot mine peat while their licences are under appeal, according to the provincial government.

The companies either declined or did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

All three licences were grandfathered, meaning they were granted before the moratorium was imposed.

"Well, those peat mine licences were based on rights that existed, going back many years," explained Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh.

"Should there be even a broader pause? That's a question that is at hand."

The government stopped 147 pending peat leases since the Save Lake Winnipeg Act came into effect in June.

The province says there are 201 pre-existing peat quarry leases that are not affected by the moratorium, but only four of them — including the two that are being appealed, the Jiffy project, and another proposal by Sun Gro — are currently active.

Against spirit of act, says environmentalist

The peat moss will be harvested for use in gardening products.

"This is completely against the spirit of the Save Lake Winnipeg Act," said Eric Reder, campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.

"We're destroying wildlife habitat, threatening the health of Lake Winnipeg, and we're dealing a terrible blow to our chances of climate change mitigation."

Environmental licensing documents show government officials inside Manitoba Water Stewardship and Manitoba Conservation also opposed the companies' peat mines, over climate change and water quality concerns.

"Decisions on new peat mining development in the province should be postponed until the peat land strategy is further along in the process," wrote Manitoba Conservation manager Glen Holmes.

Reder said the Manitoba government is more interested in protecting the interests of the mining industry, than the environment.

Back in late 2009, Premier Greg Selinger suggested peat lands would get more protection. He said so just as he was about to jet off to Copenhagen, Denmark for a UN summit on climate change.

"Manitoba will be a leader in the preservation of boreal peat lands with a new stewardship strategy," Selinger said in a press release at the time.

Greenhouse gas emissions a concern

At stake in the peat mining debate is 3,680 hectares of pristine boreal wilderness of their trees, in bogs north of Riverton, and another near Lake of the Woods.

If approved, the companies would be able to spend decades "vacuuming" the peat with specialized tractor equipment.

Sun Gro is also in the process of obtaining environmental approval for a proposed peat mine in the Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park. It is currently in the public consultation phase.

An online petition shows nearly 500 signatures of people against the project. A big concern is greenhouse gases.

"It's a stunning amount of carbon if we allow this to go forward," said Reder.

A CBC News analysis shows the Sun Gro, Jiffy, and Berger mines could produce as much as 3.9 megatonnes of carbon emissions over several decades — an amount equal to adding 12,000 cars to the road.

Figures disputed

The data comes from "life cycle" emission estimates of the projects, from the province's air quality and climate change departments.

The province and the industry disputed the figures on Wednesday, saying the emissions will be much less, if you factor out the end-use of the peat, which is often out-out-province.

The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association also downplayed concerns raised by Manitoba scientists, that the draining of bogs for peat mines will contribute to algae blooms that choke Lake Winnipeg.

"Peat industry operations do not contribute to the nutrient loading challenges that have created the concerns for Lake Winnipeg," said association president, Paul Short.

He added, Manitoba's 10 peat mines in operation provide 124 full time jobs, and 122 part-time jobs.

The Wilderness Committee held a rally with other groups on the legislature steps on Thursday to oppose the new mines. 

Peat lands store more carbon than any terrestrial ecosystem on earth, according to the province.