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No need for federal involvement in Alberta coal mine review, First Nations say

First Nations considered Canada will not consider economic aspect of decision
Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson makes an announcement in Calgary on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. An Alberta First Nation says it continues to doubt the need for a federal environmental review of a proposed thermal coal mine expansion in the province.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Two Alberta First Nations say they’re not convinced the federal government needs to be part of an environmental review for a large thermal coal mine expansion proposal in the province.

And both the Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake First Nations say they’re concerned the review promised by federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson won’t consider the economic impact that turning down the planned expansion would have.

“The scope of consultation must include (Whitefish Lake’s impact and benefits agreement),” said a letter to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada from Darryl Steinhauer, Whitefish Lake’sconsultation coordinator.

“In response, Canada has been clear that consultation on the reconsideration will not address the (agreement) or directly related matters.”

The statements come after Jonathan Wilkinson said Friday that First Nations had dropped their objections to federal involvement in a review of Coalspur Mines’s project, which would create North America’s largest thermal coal mine in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Edmonton.

Wilkinson was announcing the reinstatement of a federal review, which is considered to be more rigorous than strictly provincial reviews. He had originally announced the review in 2020, after concluding the mine’s footprint was large enough and its production big enough to cross federal thresholds.

But Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake support the project for its economic benefits and argued their treaty rights were violated when Wilkinson failed to confer with them. They took the federal government to court, requesting a judge order the minister to rethink his decision.

After the court suspended Wilkinson’s decision and ordered him to reconsider, a series of meetings were held with affected First Nations. On Friday, Wilkinson said their concerns had been answered.

“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 from Milan, where he was attending a climate conference.

But Carol Wildcat, the band’s consultation director, said in a letter to the Impact Assessment Agency that Ermineskin still doesn’t think Ottawa is needed.

” (Ermineskin)’s position is that a review of the (project) by the Alberta Energy Regulator is sufficient and that a review under the Impact Assessment Act is not necessary,” she wrote. ” (Ermineskin) neither supports or opposes a federal review of the projects.”

But she also said any review must consider the band’s financial concerns.

” (Ermineskin) will expect the (agency’s) consultation process to address the potential impacts of (its) decisions about the projects on (the band’s benefits agreement).”

A federal spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Wilkinson has said several times that new thermal coal projects don’t fit with Canada’s climate change policies and any new projects will have to surmount a high bar for approval.

—Bob Weber, The Canadian Press