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Ottawa will re-examine a major expansion planned for the Vista coal mine in Alberta, saying Thursday a federal environmental assessment is necessary given how much the project would increase the site’s size and production.

The existing Vista coal mine is nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, near the town of Hinton. Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The Globe and Mail the expansion project would have “significant” environmental effects that fall under federal jurisdiction, thus triggering the need for an assessment.

Mr. Wilkinson had originally decided last December to keep the federal government out of the approvals process for the mine’s expansion. But he said Thursday he was worried that Vista lodged two separate expansion applications for what he says amounts to a single project.

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“That would lead me to be concerned that this is, perhaps, an exercise in project-splitting for the purpose of avoiding a federal assessment,” he said.

The Vista mine, owned by the U.S. coal giant Cline Group, is operated by Coalspur Mines Ltd. It began shipping coal for export in May, 2019, and is looking to double – or possibly even triple – its output. It currently produces about six million tonnes a year of thermal coal (which is burned to generate electricity), that it exports to mostly Asian markets. The expansion would increase output to between 13 million and 15 million tonnes.

Coalspur did not respond to a request from The Globe for comment.

Also on Thursday, Mr. Wilkinson released the terms of reference for the federal government’s strategic assessment of all mining of thermal coal in Canada. The review will consider the health and economic effects in the context of Canada’s international commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It will also take into account the country’s membership of the Powering Past Coal Alliance – an international group jointly launched in 2017 by Britain and Canada, which aims to convince the world’s wealthiest countries to eliminate coal as a source of electricity by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2050.

“I think Canadians expect us to look at whether or not we should continue to be exporting thermal coal at a time when we’re telling other governments that they shouldn’t be using it,” Mr. Wilkinson told The Globe Thursday.

The results of that assessment will not play into the Vista mine review, which will only be subject to guidelines from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), the federal agency that reviews all major resource projects.

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Mr. Wilkinson said the second application – lodged just a couple of months ago – led him to change his mind about a federal assessment.

“When we saw the second project come forward, we looked at the two – as we should in the context of the overall increase in the production of coal and the environmental impact – and made the determination that we really should be thinking about the two as a single project,” he said.

Together, the expansions would increase coal production by 20,000 tonnes a day, and increase the mine’s size by 49.7 per cent, he said. The limits that would have automatically triggered a federal assessment are 5,000 tonnes and 50 per cent.

When combined with requests from the Louis Bull Tribe and the Stoney Nakoda Nation for a review, and concerns from the public and several environmental groups, Mr. Wilkinson said it was clear the project needed a second look.

The IAAC will now work with the Alberta government and provincial regulator to align their reviews of the project, he said, which will take about a year. The Alberta government did not return requests for comment.

Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, said in an email Thursday evening the United Conservative government was “disappointed” that Ottawa would intercede in the Vista mine project approval.”

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“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,” Ms. Sinclair said.

Mr. Wilkinson rejected the notion that stepping in with a review would send a negative signal to investors, saying if anything it would provide market certainty by ensuring the integrity of regulatory processes.

The move to designate Vista for a federal environmental assessment comes after a group of 47 environmental, Indigenous, health and faith-based organizations wrote to the minister earlier this month, urging him to reconsider his December decision.

Among those signatories was Ecojustice. Alan Andrews, a lawyer with the group and its climate program director, said Thursday he was “absolutely delighted” that Ottawa will launch a review.

“If [Mr. Wilkinson] had allowed this to go through, it would have made a mockery of the new impact assessment regime and would have sent a really dangerous signal to project proponents that they can get away with this kind of skullduggery of splitting big projects down into smaller, bite-sized pieces just to avoid the regulatory impact assessment,” Mr. Andrews told The Globe.

Mr. Andrews is also pleased Ottawa is launching a broader strategic review of thermal coal, saying Canada needs to undertake a full assessment of where the fuel fits within its climate commitments.

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“Canada can’t claim on the world stage to be leading on climate, it can’t claim to be powering past coal, while it’s prepared to continue selling this stuff on world markets,” he said.

- With a report from The Canadian Press

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