Hinton coal mine expansion to be subject to federal environmental review after all

Plans to expand the Vista Coal Mine must now be scrutinized by the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, the federal environment minister says.

Assessment could be first major test of how new agency handles thermal coal mine applications

The existing Vista mine near Hinton is owned by the U.S. coal giant Cline Group and began shipping coal for export in May 2019. (Bighorn Mining)

Plans to expand the Vista Coal Mine must now be scrutinized by the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, the federal environment minister says.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson previously decided one phase of a proposed expansion to the open-pit mine near Hinton wouldn't need federal review.

Environmental and Indigenous groups protested, saying two planned expansions at the mine made the project large enough for federal consideration.

On Thursday, Wilkinson said he agreed

"What we said is, 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," Wilkinson said in an interview.

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.

Big test for Impact Assessment Agency

Owner Coalspur Mine Operations has applied to expand the Vista mine to the west, excavate an underground mine for coal that can't be reached from the surface, relocate the storage of its explosives and accelerate the construction of a central dump on the site.

Application documents say the expansion would allow the mine to more than double its output to as much as 15 megatonnes of coal per year.

Unlike some other proposed coal projects in Alberta, the Vista mine produces thermal coal, which is burned to generate electricity. Most of it is sold overseas.

Meanwhile, both Alberta and Canadian governments have committed to stop burning coal to generate electricity by 2030.

Coal mining has come under fire from environmental organizations with both federal and provincial authorities promising to phase out its use for electricity production by 2030. (CBC)

University of Calgary law Prof. Sharon Mascher will be watching the application closely. It could be the first big test of how the recently revamped federal agency considers the downstream implications of climate change in approval of coal projects, she said.

The Impact Assessment Agency was last year borne out of Bill C-69, a bill unpopular with both the United Conservative Party government and former NDP government for its potential implications for future oil pipeline approval.

The new review process is supposed to prevent approved projects from being ensnared in court challenges.

In September, the Alberta government launched a court challenge of the law, saying the federal government was treading on provincial jurisdiction.

Jess Sinclair, press secretary for Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said in a statement the province is "disappointed" to hear the federal government would intercede in the Vista mine approval.

"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," she said.

No one from Coalspur, which runs the Vista mine, returned a call for comment.

Environmental groups cheer decision

Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager for advocacy group Environmental Defence, said in a statement thermal coal has no place in the 21st Century, given its environmental and health effects.

"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," her statement said.

Ecojustice, on behalf of several groups, had asked Wilkinson for the federal environmental review of Vista. Lawyer and program director Alan Andrews said in a statement the decision to proceed was "absolutely necessary to show Canadians and our international allies that it is serious about tackling the climate crisis and upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples."

Canada is one of the co-founders of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which seeks to aid and convince other countries to move away from coal-generated electricity.

Environment and Climate Change Canada last year launched an assessment of whether the country should be selling thermal coal to other countries while encouraging them to abandon it.

"I think there is a legitimate question to be asked of Canada as to how it should be, whether it should be continuing to export a substance that we have been saying to folks that they should be phasing out," Wilkinson said, adding that he wouldn't pre-judge the outcome of the assessment.

Law Prof. Mascher said it would be "wrongheaded" for an environmental assessment to disregard emissions from coal combustion — regardless of where in the world they happen — when they know greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.

"It's important from an international perspective that if we believe a product like thermal coal should be phased out that we're not speaking with one voice in the Powering Past Coal Alliance and then, on the other hand, not taking a close look upon what it means to approve a proposal like this," she said.

Wilkinson said the time for reviews varies, but could take about 18 months.