Ecojustice’s efforts to challenge the Alberta Utilities Commission’s (AUC) approval of a controversial coal-fired plant expansion have been shut down.

The decision was handed down by Alberta’s court of appeal on Friday.

The AUC hastily green-lit the project in question, an expansion of Maxim Power Corp.’s Milner plant in Grande Cache, Alta., resulting in the company avoiding new federal greenhouse gas regulations, which effectively require a 50 per cent cut in emissions.

Acting on behalf of the Pembina Institute, we sought to overturn the AUC’s hasty approval of the project, arguing that the commission failed to explain how allowing Maxim to avoid the new regulations was in the public interest — a key factor of the approval process went ignored.

In short? We think the AUC made an irresponsible decision without reviewing all the evidence. 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 strict conditions on plant operations, including a requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 50 per cent during the life of the projects.

Unfortunately, the court found that the appeal was moot given that the AUC issued a final approval of the plant expansion after the early interim decision. Justice Patricia Rowbotham also stated that the court would not intervene and tell the AUC when to set dates for its approvals.

The approval, now final, cannot be appealed further.

Maxim gets the greenlight without public input

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 June 30, the AUC ruled that no public hearing would be held and gave the project the go-ahead.

If the Milner expansion were required to comply with incoming 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.