Permit to Pollute: Dodging New Law, Agency Approves Alberta Coal Plant

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In Alberta, coal was first mined near Edmonton as early as 1850, and commercial coal operations took off in 1874. After the coal rush where hundreds of mines popped up across the province, the “black rock that burns” fell out of favour by the mid 1950s with the advent of natural gas.

While no new coal plants have been approved in Alberta in over a decade, it seems history is repeating itself. On June 30th, the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) approved the Milner Expansion Project, a 500Mw coal-fired generating facility to be built west of Edmonton. The final decision by the AUC to approve the coal plant is a serious black eye for the AUC and its ability to protect the public interest.

The project gives Calgary-based Maxim Power Corp. license to produce some of the filthiest power on the planet for 45 years while emitting 3Mt per year of greenhouse gas emissions. Alberta’s filthy tar sands are already the scourge of the planet, and this approval adds insult to injury.

in May, the Canadian government committed to reducing carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Canadian government will begin by regulating greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity, and will follow with tar sands regulation later this year. 

Luckily for Maxim Power Corp, they got in just in the knick of time. The Pembina Institute argues that the Alberta Utilities Commission deliberately rushed the approval of the plant to help the company avoid the new rules. On June 7, 2011, Maxim requested that the AUC approve the plant no later than June 30th, 2011 in order to qualify as an Existing Plant under new federal legislation. This is because all power plants completed after July 1, 2015, will have to comply with new regulations, and plants completed before will be ‘grandfathered’. 

A letter from Maxim’s lawyers to the AUC spells this all out explicitly:

Maxim has consulted with the Minister on this new legislation and understands that the Milner expansion will be considered an Existing Plant if it is commissioned by July 1, 2015. As a result of the anticipated financing, construction and commissioning timeframes, Maxim requires an approval from the AUC as soon as possible and no later than June 30th, 2011 in order to qualify as an Existing Plant under this new federal legislation. Maxim has no chance to complete the power plant expansion by July 1, 2015, unless it receives an approval from the AUC by June 30, 2011. Any regulatory delay, even from today’s date, in issuing an AUC approval magnifies the risk of irreparable harm to Maxim. Maxim’s plant is accommodated by the pending federal legislation

Canadian Minister of the Environment Peter Kent explicitly committed to not allowing plants to be rushed through before the legislation came into effect. And yet that’s exactly what happened. Before the new rules have even come into force, they have effectively been subverted. 

In addition to evading federal regulations, the Millner facility will essentially cancel out Alberta’s entire commitments to reduce GHG emissions. In its Climate Change Strategy, Alberta committed to “stabilize GHG emissions by 2020”, and as a part of the initiative, will spend $2 billion on CCS projects to reduce GHG’s by 4Mt/yr. This project will pump 3Mt/year of those savings back into the atmosphere. 

According to Pembina, Alberta does not need the power for its domestic use if they invest smartly in renewables and conservation. What does Alberta need 500 megawatts of power for 45 years for? One possible explanation is for tar sands expansion. 

The Alberta Utility Commission’s mandate is to ensure that, “(Alberta’s) regulatory system is effective, responsive to concerns raised by directly affected landowners and interested third-parties, and promotes responsible development in the best interests of the public.”

Maxim’s permit is not in the interest of the public, and failed to respond to public concerns. The AUC unilaterally determined that no parties had reason to intervene in a hearing, and determined that the project was in the public interest without demonstrating that they had adequately completed their review of the evidence. According to environmental economist Andrew Leach, they also shut down at least one interested third party in the process.  

Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy and Simon Fraser University argues that Stephen Harper cannot achieve his promise to reduce GHGs by 17 percent by 2020 and allow this new coal-fired electricity plant to be built. Why then are we keeping Alberta and the planet in the stone-age of environmental policy by approving it, and undermining public confidence in government and the regulatory system in the process?

Mark Jaccard ends his piece with a provocative question to the reader. He asks, “What do you do when your government knowingly permits investments that prevent it from meeting its promises? Do you simply stand by and watch the construction of a coal plant that contributes great harm to the planet? Or is the only remaining ethical option to use every legal avenue and perhaps even peaceful civil disobedience to try to stop the plant?”

The answer is clear. 

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