Despite a court order against the environment ministry earlier this year, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson reinstated his decision to subject a thermal coal mine expansion in the province of Alberta to an environmental review.
Wilkinson said the Alberta First Nation, who objected to the added federal oversight that led to the Vista mine project's court order, has since withdrawn their concerns, reported Kelowna Daily Courier.
"We consulted very extensively with Ermineskin First Nation, and Ermineskin has actually sent us a letter essentially withdrawing their objection to us going through the designation process," he said.
Wilkinson continued that new thermal coal projects would have to surmount a high bar for approval.
"In a world that must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the first most important step that we can take ... is to phase out the use of thermal coal," he said. "We will not be looking for new thermal coal mines to be developed in Canada."
Coalspur Mines seeks to expand its existing surface mine near Hinton in north-central Alberta, making Vista the largest thermal coal mine in North America.
The company also planned an underground test mine on the site.
A federal environmental review is required when a mine expands its footprint by 50 percent or more or intends to produce more than 5,000 tonnes of coal a day.
Impact Assessment Agency of Canada ruled in 2019 that Ottawa wouldn't get involved as the early stages of the mine's development declared it would fall below those thresholds.
But in 2020, Wilkinson decided the footprint was close enough, and that production would eventually exceed the level, triggering a federal review. He revoked the agency's decision and ordered a joint federal-provincial process, considered more rigorous than a purely provincial assessment.
"New thermal coal mining projects or expansions are not in line with the ambition Canadians want to see on climate," said Wilkinson in July.
In a policy statement Thermal Coal Mining, the environment department said the "continued mining and use of coal for energy production anywhere in the world is not environmentally sustainable and does not align with the Government of Canada's commitments."
That decision was challenged in Federal Court by Coalspur and Ermineskin First Nation.
Justice Henry Brown wrote that Indigenous supporters of coal mining were "inexplicably frozen out of this very one-sided process," adding the Minister failed to consult with or give notice to them.
The Department of Environment only spoke with First Nations as opposed to the mine, he said. "I find as a fact Ermineskin was not given an opportunity to have any input."
Ermineskin supported the project for its economic benefits and argued the review violated its treaty rights when Wilkinson failed to consult with them. The Federal Court agreed with Ermineskin and ordered Wilkinson to reconsider.
"If the mining activity is not approved, these valuable economic, community and social benefits will be lost to Ermineskin," wrote Justice Brown. The Court quashed the 2020 order halting construction. "Losses have already been incurred," said the ruling.
Since then, the agency has met with 44 First Nations, including Ermineskin.
"The agency documented and included the feedback from Indigenous groups consulted during the reconsideration process to ensure their views were included in the analysis provided to the minister," reads a statement from agency spokesperson Stephane Perrault.
A spokesperson for Ermineskin was not immediately available to comment.
The Federal Court threw out Coalspur's application after the Ermineskin ruling. A spokesperson for the company wasn't immediately available to say if that application would be refiled.
Wilkinson's latest decision is based on reasons similar to those he initially cited.
He said Ottawa's involvement is justified by the size of the planned expansion and its potential threats to areas of federal jurisdiction, such as contamination of waterways and habitat loss for species at risk. He also said the development would affect the treaty rights of other First Nations who oppose the project.