Proposed Alberta Coal Mine Expansion Evades Federal Review
Alberta’s proposed Vista thermal coal mine has tweaked its expansion plans to just below the dimensions that would trigger a federal review, opening Canada to charges of hypocrisy on the world stage.
“While Canada champions a global shift away from burning coal for electricity, a new proposal—to build one of North America’s largest thermal coal mines—seems to tell a different story,” writes The Narwhal.
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
Canada has pledged to stop burning thermal coal at home by 2030 as part of its efforts to meet its Paris commitments, and proudly led the creation of the Powering Past Coal Alliance at COP 23, the 2017 United Nations climate conference in Bonn. But the country will continue to mine the climate-busting fuel for export, having calculated that “the emissions associated with burning that resource are accounted for elsewhere,” the B.C.-based e-publication states.
And there is still a market for thermal coal, especially in Asia. That means there is still a great deal of money to be made, and royalties to gather. “Average prices in 2018 were more than 60% higher than in 2016, making coal very profitable,” writes The Narwhal, citing December data from the International Energy Agency.
As well, expansion plans for the mine, located near Hinton, Alberta, not far from Jasper National Park, “will require removing 192 million cubic metres of what is known in the industry as overburden”—otherwise known as forest—from a region “bisected by small creeks and streams, including a tributary to the Athabasca River, which flows into the sole source of drinking water for the City of Edmonton,” The Narwhal says. The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada has identified “myriad” potential harms, including threats to local endangered species like bull and rainbow trout, and to migratory birds. The project could also put local Indigenous communities at risk, as well as important archaeological sites that are located near the mine expansion site.
And the Vista mine will cast a literal pall over climate action efforts, with Ecojustice calculating that an expanded mine “could produce anywhere between 22 million tonnes and 33 million tonnes of CO2 a year,” writes The Narwhal. “That’s the equivalent of adding 4.6 to seven million passenger vehicles to the road.”
That Canada should be preaching the removal of coal from domestic and international energy plans while exporting thermal coal and permitting coal mine expansions appalls observers like Clark Williams-Derry, Seattle-based energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“It’s like getting a temperance lecture from the bartender,” he told The Narwhal.
Federal review of a coal mine expansion is triggered if the area of operation is to increase by 50% or more and production capacity will reach at least 5,000 tonnes per day. While the second criterion was met in the Vista proposal—“by a factor of more than seven,” observes The Narwhal—the expansion nonetheless slipped the snare of a review by a mid-filing tweak in the area of operation to an expansion of 42.7% to 49.4%, just under the 50% threshold. Federal regulators denied climate campaigners’ request that they use their discretion and enforce a review.
With the project now subject only to an almost certainly less rigorous provincial review, news on the future of the Vista mine is now “a waiting game,” writes The Narwhal. For people like Jesse Cardinal, interim executive director of Keepers of the Water, hopes are not high.
“The norm and the standard in Alberta is to rubber stamp these projects without any meaningful action to protect anything,” she said.