Alberta Utilities Commission faces court challenge over Milner coal plant expansion


Coal Power Plant

Calgary – Ecojustice and the Pembina Institute are taking the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) to court over its decision to grant Maxim Power Corp’s coal plant expansion interim approval without a public hearing.

As the AUC itself made clear, the expedited approval was given in a blatant attempt to beat the federal government’s deadline for new greenhouse gas regulations.

Ecojustice, on behalf the Pembina Institute, has filed a motion for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal of Alberta. “We intend to prove that the AUC made a decision that affects the public interest without reviewing all the evidence,” said Barry Robinson, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “We will also show that the AUC was wrong in its decision that skirting pending federal regulations is in the public interest.”

In a June 7 letter to the AUC, Maxim asked the commission to forego a hearing and issue an approval by June 30 for a proposed 500 MW supercritical coal generator expansion of its existing Milner facility.

In documents submitted to the AUC, Maxim argued that it had received assurances from the federal Environment Minister that it could avoid being subject to future federal regulations — which will limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity — if it could get its plant into service by July 1, 2015. Maxim said that it could only meet this deadline if the AUC approved the expansion by June 30. On that day, the AUC ruled that no public hearing would be held. The regulator also gave the expansion interim approval, noting that Maxim needed the accelerated decision “to address the potential impact of pending federal carbon legislation on this plant.” No new coal plants have been approved in Alberta for a decade.

The last two plants to receive approvals, Genesee 3 and Keephills 3, were only approved by the AUC (then called the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board) after extensive public hearings. These hearings resulted in the regulator imposing environmental conditions on plant operations, including a requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 50 per cent during the life of the projects.

If the Milner expansion were required to comply with future federal coal regulations, its greenhouse gas pollution could be nearly cut in half. This translates into preventing 1.5 million tonnes of emissions per year during the project’s 45-year lifespan — equivalent to taking 300,000 new vehicles off the road. “We were absolutely stunned by this snap decision that clearly benefits Maxim but harms the environment and the interests of companies seeking to build cleaner electricity,” said Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute, a national sustainable energy think-tank. “The Pembina Institute and local interveners alike were simply denied the opportunity to make their case.”

The plant will substantially impact the region’s air, land, and water. “The local impacts of this project, along with its significant contribution to pollution that causes climate change, are simply not justified in light of Alberta’s abundance of cleaner electricity options, such as wind and natural gas,” said Severson-Baker. “The AUC has the opportunity to reverse this decision, one that is clearly not in the best interests of Albertans and Canada’s environment.”