Alberta Politics
Part of the existing Vista thermal coal mine near Hinton, Alberta (Photo: Bighorn Mining).

What’s making Ottawa’s environment minister suddenly give the Vista coal mine proposal the fish eye?

Posted on July 17, 2020, 3:21 am
8 mins

Yesterday we learned that Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal environment minister, is reconsidering a decision he made in December to leave it up to the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator to decide if a huge coal mine expansion should be approved near Hinton, just east of the Jasper National Park gate.

Even way back then, cynical observers of Alberta enviropolitics could have told Mr. Wilkinson that leaving the decision to the AER was tantamount to handing a blank cheque to the kings of carbon out here in Wild Rose Country.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson (Photo: Government of Canada).

How bad is the Vista Mine plan? Well, Vista will dig out thermal coal — the kind used to generate electricity that makes people sick all over the planet while it pumps millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We’re talking about the kind of coal Canada is supposed to phase out as a source of electricity by 2030.

According to the Narwhal, the proposed expansion of an existing mine at the site would add about 4.2 million tonnes of coal a year for a decade to Canada’s production — which would add up to 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the planet’s atmosphere every year for the expected 10-year lifespan of the mine.

But back in December, for all their environmental talk, that seemed to bother the federal Liberals led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau less than the idea of having to have a scrap with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s carbon-loving Conservatives.

So what’s changed, if indeed something has? And why now?

Who wouldn’t have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where that decision was made?

Could it be the Liberals feel the need to strengthen their environmental street cred, such as it is, in advance of a federal election that may come sooner than we think? Mr. Wilkinson is MP for North Vancouver.

After all, it’s not as if Mr. Kenney and his United Conservative Party will sit out the next election and refuse to campaign for their federal brethren. Not only will they pull out all the stops to defeat Mr. Trudeau, what do you want to bet they’ll break campaign-finance rules again just like they did last time?

Recently appointed Alberta Energy Regulator Vice-President John Weissenberger (Photo: LinkedIn.)

Or was it the startling revelation last week that the Kenney Government has appointed a vociferous climate-change doubter to head the technical science and external innovation division of he very same Alberta Energy Regulator?

News media coverage of the appointment of the AER’s new senior vice-president focused on how John Weissenberger used to be Mr. Kenney’s campaign manager, and before that Stephen Harper’s.

Well, patronage and nepotism are the UCP way, and to be fair to Dr. Weissenberger he does have a PhD in geology from the University of Calgary, but the more startling revelation concerned the fact he has called climate change a “popular delusion” and anyone who believes in it a victim of “collective psychosis.”

In a couple of newspaper op-eds in 2006, he and co-author George Koch also accused media of driving the climate change debate, which they dismissed as a false narrative, and called anyone who believes in it “intellectually lazy.”

Coal Association of Canada President Robin Campbell in his days as a Progressive Conservative MLA (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Mr. Koch, by the way, is the editor of C2C Journal, the right-wing publication that published the notorious piece by Mr. Kenney’s former speechwriter Paul Bunner that called Canada’s residential schools a “bogus genocide story.” As far as anyone knows, Mr. Bunner remains employed in the Premier’s Office.

For his part, according to the CBC, Premier Kenney denied knowing anything about Dr. Weissenberger’s appointment, which was not acknowledged by the AER until after the new VP revealed it in his LinkedIn resume.

Of course one wonders if Mr. Wilkinson’s reconsideration of the Vista Mine approval process had anything to do with the AER’s most recent hire.

Whatever the reason, we’ll see soon enough if the minister actually follows through in a meaningful way on his newfound concern.

If Ottawa does something to block the project, or even put conditions on it, we can expect to hear outraged squeals about the benefits of Alberta’s “ethical coal” from UCP friends like Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada.

The phrase seems to have been coined by Mr. Campbell, once upon a time a union boss in Hinton and later Progressive Conservative MLA for that community from 2008 to 2015, who briefly served as minister of finance in premier Jim Prentice’s short-lived PC government.

Former Wildrose Alliance Leader Paul Hinman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Inside baseball: Former Wildrose Alliance leader Paul Hinman is back! (Maybe)

Paul Hinman doesn’t seem to have tweeted anything for at least a couple of years, but yesterday a brief mention of the former Wildrose Alliance leader and would-be United Conservative Party leader’s name caused a flurry of excitement on Twitter.

Someone with the Wildrose Independence Party tweeted a press release saying Mr. Hinman been chosen to lead the separatist party, at least until its members can find someone better for the job.

The tweet disappeared within seconds, but not before sharp-eyed political blogger Dave Cournoyer grabbed a screenshot.

So is the 61-year-old Mr. Hinman the Wildrose interim leader, or isn’t he? Whatever the answer is, Mr. Cournoyer has taken a look Mr. Hinman’s political career on the rightward fringe of Alberta politics.

22 Comments to: What’s making Ottawa’s environment minister suddenly give the Vista coal mine proposal the fish eye?

  1. Bob Raynard

    July 17th, 2020

    I am sure the UCP will tell us that Dr. Weissenberger’s views have evolved over time. Just like Paul Bunner, though, we will have to take the UCP’s word for it because they won’t be able to get Dr. Weissenberger to announce it himself – or maybe they know how damaging it could be to put either fellow in front of a microphone.

    Reply
  2. Kang

    July 17th, 2020

    Australia exports thermal coal to China. Their distance to deep water is around 300 km on more or less flat terrain. The rail distance from Jasper to either Vancouver or Prince Rupert is around 900 km through seven different mountain ranges. That is a huge disadvantage for any bulk commodity producer to over-come. It means “our” coal, ethical or not, has to be sold for less than Australian coal to compete.
    It gets worse: Vancouver is 5,300 nautical miles from China while Australia is only around 3,500 nt miles from China. Another disadvantage and reason Alberta’s coal will fetch a lower in-country price.

    China has lots of natural gas and solar and wind are now so cheap that thermal coal no longer makes sense, especially when it is so distant. Even here in Alberta thermal coal use for electricity has gone from around 90% market share down to 30% and falling. One of Alberta’s largest coal generators is building wind turbines along with grid scale Tesla batteries. Over the past 15 years the economics of electrical generation have changed leaving coal behind. As is happening elsewhere, grid scale batteries are pushing natural gas out of the electricity market as well. That’s economics, and carbon emissions are just another shovel of dirt on fossil fuels.

    Reply
    • Murphy

      July 17th, 2020

      I don’t trust anyone involved in “energy biz” as I believe that the population explosion that occured since Haber figured out synthetic nitrogen has doomed humanity, and energy consumption is the rock on which every single modern society depends, in a global economy predicated on infinite growth. But nevertheless, I find this interesting:
      “Battery storage is quite another matter. Consider Tesla, the world’s best-known battery maker: $200,000 worth of Tesla batteries, which collectively weigh over 20,000 pounds, are needed to store the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil. A barrel of oil, meanwhile, weighs 300 pounds and can be stored in a $20 tank. Those are the realities of today’s lithium batteries. Even a 200% improvement in under lying battery economics and technology won’t close such a gap.”
      https://poweringcalifornia.com/oil-gas-investor-batteries-cannot-save-the-grid-or-the-planet/

      Reply
      • Kang

        July 18th, 2020

        Good morning Murphy: “Oil and Gas Investor” is a less than optimistic source and the article really just sets up a number of strawman arguments. Many renewable energy critics of that ilk ignore the other part of the energy equation, which is “utilization efficiency.” How much of that energy source (wood, oil, wind, solar PV) is actually converted into useful work? For internal combustion engines (or any heat engine that burns stuff to make mechanical energy) about two thirds of the source energy is wasted as heat. On the other hand, a typical solar PV to electric car efficiency is in the order of 80% useful and 20% lost to conversion, transmission, friction etc. Almost half our energy budget is devoted to land transportation, so switching that out from fossil fuel to renewables would actually increase the energy available for other useful purposes. Solar PV is now so cheap that even generating so-called green hydrogen for high torque applications like freight trains looks to be economic.

        The other argument against renewables is they never produce enough energy to manufacture their replacements, much less a surplus. This is nonsense. The following summary article links to a couple of studies from Australia showing solar PV pays for its energy cost of manufacture in about two years and large-scale wind in three to six months.
        https://reneweconomy.com.au/unsw-busts-myth-on-energy-returns-says-renewables-will-boost-economy-77473/

        In both Australia and California, solar PV, wind, and grid scale batteries are driving out the natural gas fired “peaker” plants that once stabilized their grids. It looks like wind, solar PV, and battery storage will end that natural gas market this decade. Britain went off coal last year and later this year Denmark and Britain will complete a two billion Euro under sea electrical transmission cable to connect their renewable electrical grids.
        It is no coincidence that every time Alberta doubles down on fossil fuel, its credit rating takes a hit. The world has changed.

        Reply
    • Keith McClary

      July 17th, 2020

      Is Australia more or less hostile to China than Alberta (Kenney, the guy responsible for Canada’s worst Covid outbreak, loudly blamed it all on China)? He should re-appoint Dave Rodney as agent general to Beijing to try and smooth that over. Aren’t we also trying to sell bitumen and Canola to China?

      Reply
  3. ronmac

    July 17th, 2020

    It’s getting to be the UPC and Conservative parties everywhere should seriously consider changing their name. The brand “Conservative” should be changed to “Carbon.” As in United Carbon Party. It has a nice snappy ring to it.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    July 17th, 2020

    I would not be surprised if the Federal Government becomes unenthusiastic about this project. I think everything about it politically would point to that.

    First, the Federal Liberals did make climate change a big issue in the last election and this would give them an opportunity to show something behind that. Second, I suspect the Liberals already realize that climate change is one of the achilles heels for the Federal Conservatives, so this is a fight they might relish to have with Kenney and or whoever the Federal Conservatives chose as a leader. Third, the Federal Liberals owe no favors to Kenney and have no seats to lose in the area.

    The Federal Liberals stuck themselves out for the Trans Mountain pipeline and got little credit or political reward for it in Alberta and in fact were pummeled by Kenney anyways. So, I doubt they are inclined to take much if any political risk for projects like this.

    I suppose Mr. Kenney can be very vocal and complain about it and even threaten to stoke western alienation again, but really those who are inclined to support separatism are probably voting for the Federal Conservatives or the UCP, so I am not sure politically this would work for Kenney either. If the Federal Liberals do not support this project, I suspect Mr. Kenney will grumble about it a bit, but really politically there is not much he can do about it and I think he already knows that.

    Reply
    • Political Ranger

      August 2nd, 2020

      Good call Pogo!

      More than ever we need Sixshooter’s to shoo these buggers six ways to Sunday.

      Reply
  5. David Bridger

    July 17th, 2020

    All of the ultra right groups are acting with or at the request of Kenney. It may seem otherwise but it is coordinated with Kenney to fire up the base and to keep pressure on the feds.

    The problem for the environment is that both Libs and Cons get their funding from corporate sources which want a payback.

    Only the federal pandemic abd the minority situation is keeping the Libs in check.

    Reply
  6. Murphy

    July 17th, 2020

    “The changes we have already seen in response to COVID-19 prove that a reset of our economic and social foundations is possible.
    This is our best chance to instigate stakeholder capitalism – and here’s how it can be achieved.
    There are many reasons to pursue a Great Reset, but the most urgent is COVID-19. Having already led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the pandemic represents one of the worst public-health crises in recent history. And, with casualties still mounting in many parts of the world, it is far from over.”
    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/now-is-the-time-for-a-great-reset/

    “Total Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths (ever) among COVID-19 cases in Alberta by age group

    Total cases 9114
    Total Hospitalized 439
    Case rate hospitalized 4.8
    Pop rate hospitalized 10”
    https://www.alberta.ca/stats/covid-19-alberta-statistics.htm

    “Number, population rate (per 100,000 population), and case rate (per 100 laboratory­ confirmed influenza cases)
    of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths (in hospital) among those with laboratory­confirmed influenza
    2017­-2018 Total hospitalized 3, 097
    Case rate hospitalized 34.0
    Pop rate hospitalized 73.0
    2010­-2011 Total hospitalized 416
    Case rate hospitalized 42
    Pop rate hospitalized 11.1
    https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/9044e65d-a97e-43cb-8357-9c890422f069/resource/dcd1cc27-57c2-4cf4-8078-3869f19b6390/download/health-influenza-summary-report-2018-2019.pdf

    “Total ICU 87
    Case rate 1.0
    Pop rate 2.0”
    https://www.alberta.ca/stats/covid-19-alberta-statistics.htm

    2015-­2016 Total ICU 274
    Case rate 5.2
    Pop rate 6.6
    2010-2011 Total ICU 76
    Case rate 7.7
    Pop rate 2″
    https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/9044e65d-a97e-43cb-8357-9c890422f069/resource/dcd1cc27-57c2-4cf4-8078-3869f19b6390/download/health-influenza-summary-report-2018-2019.pdf

    “23 April 2020 Total tests 4473. Positive rate 8.14
    15 July 2020 Total tests 8211 Positive rate 1.73”
    https://www.alberta.ca/stats/covid-19-alberta-statistics.htm

    Whatever can it all mean?

    Reply
    • Anon

      July 18th, 2020

      What can the Great Reset as envisioned by the capitalists mean you ask? Does their site mention wealth re-distribution, aggressive regulation of business in the public interest, democracy in the public interest etc.? Not easy to see beyond the feel-good and meaningless generalities. It does yammer on about “stakeholders” which is a term designed to negate the concept of “citizenship” with equal rights and responsibilities. It calls for “stakeholder capitalism.” That means we get to pay for the stake the capitalists drive through our feet. Back to the good old days of merry old England where it was a capital crime to travel more than three miles from your village or failing to doff your hat and tug your forelock before the Lord of the Manor. Jason’s police are on their way.

      Reply
  7. Just Me

    July 17th, 2020

    Wow.

    Another Alberta project that no one needs.

    Pipelines to no where and empty holes in the ground.

    All these make-work projects paid for with public money.

    Free-market is awesome? Socialism is bad? Communism is evil?

    Strange days, indeed.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    July 18th, 2020

    This is absolutely pathetic, by the UCP. Full stop at stupid. Jim Prentice was part of Stephen Harper’s CPC cabinet, in the role of the Environment Minister. Jim Prentice made it clear that he wanted coal fired power plants gone in Canada, by the year 2020, because he said they were a major source of pollution. Jim Prentice was also the Alberta PCs last leader, and as the premier, he wanted coal fired power plants gone in Alberta, because of the pollution they cause. Lo and behold, his cabinet minister, Robin Campbell has changed his tune on coal pollution, and is now in a conflict of interest position, as the president of the Coal Association of Canada. In 2015, there was a provincial election, in Alberta. One of the campaign promises from all the political parties, was to get rid of coal fired power plants in Alberta, because of the pollution they were known to cause. They all wanted to get into some type of green energy sources. The UCP are backtracking and compromising the environment. What a shame!

    Reply
  9. Farmer Brian

    July 19th, 2020

    What is B.C.’s largest export? Well coal of course. It accounted for $3.32 billion of economic activity in 2016. While the majority of the coal is metallurgical coal B.C. does export thermal coal as well. In fact Vancouver is North America’s largest exporter of coal. If this is purely a conservative problem why hasn’t NDP premier Horgan shut this down?!

    Reply
    • Kang

      July 20th, 2020

      Dear Farmer B: extra transportation costs mean Alberta gets less for the same coal BC exports which makes the whole thing much less valuable to Alberta. That big coal port at Vancouver (well its not really that big compared to grain) handles coal from the US as well. As to the BC NDP shutting down coal exports, why should they? Their hydro electric and concentrated population means they have lots of room in their carbon budget. Alberta, not so much. So what should Alberta shut down to keep within our carbon budget to allow these pointless and short term open pit mines? If you like your abandoned gas wells, you will just love those abandoned mines.

      BTW, thermal coal use in Alberta has dropped from providing 80% of our electricity to around 30% this morning and often less than that at other times. Given technological changes, even metallurgical coal is starting to look like a very small niche market.

      Reply
  10. Caron

    July 20th, 2020

    According to Stats Can, in 2018 BC exported just under $3 billion dollars worth of electricity to the United States. That is real hard currency earnings as compared to the much less firm “economic activity” for coal you mention. Little boys breaking windows generate economic activity.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)