Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his government are on the defensive, fighting multiple lawsuits and on the receiving end of public outcry over poor environmental decision-making. In this blog, David Khan, the latest addition to Ecojustice’s Alberta team and former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, breaks down what you should know about what’s making news in the province right now:
Not only did his government end the previous year mired in scandal over international travel during a global pandemic, January saw renewed public criticism of the inquiry into “Anti-Alberta” energy campaigns, while backlash from local communities forced the government to backtrack on a controversial coal policy, after earlier backtracking on a plan to sell some provincial parks. The Kenney government also faces multiple lawsuits right now and continued criticism over the contentious Critical Infrastructure Defence Act. And now, Premier Kenney is defending his failed investment of billions of dollars in the KeystoneXL pipeline, cancelled by President Biden on his first day in office, as he has been promising for years to do.
Kenney’s unrelenting attacks on climate action, dismal environmental policies, and attempts to undermine Albertans’ right to free speech are some of the key reasons I decided to join Ecojustice as a staff lawyer.
Before joining Ecojustice, I served as the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party. For three years, I had a front row seat to the ways the current government’s policy agenda threatens Albertans’ futures.
Now, I’m pleased to return to my roots as a litigator and join Ecojustice’s efforts to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment for all. I’m also eager to leverage my political experience to hold corporations and governments to account – no matter who is power.
In that spirit, here is a look at some of the province’s trending environmental stories – and how Ecojustice is involved:
Public inquiry into ‘anti-Alberta’ activity approaches hearing date
Since the inquiry’s inception, we’ve criticized it as an unlawful, biased, unfair exercise that is also an inappropriate use of political power. That’s why we’re asking the court to quash it once and for all.
In the court of public opinion, the inquiry isn’t gaining any favour either.
Originally scheduled to last just 12 months, the inquiry has dragged past its original deadline – requiring two extensions and another $1 million in funding – and will hit the 18-month mark at the end of this month. The inquiry has already cost Albertans $3.5 million – $100,000 of which, University of Calgary professor Martin Olszynski notes, went towards paying for reports that deny or are skeptical of climate science.
A coal comeback threatens the Rockies
Last spring, the Kenney government quietly – and with no consultation – scrapped Alberta’s coal policy, a set of rules that once provided protection for iconic ecosystems and landscapes, including the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The move opened up an area of 1.5 million hectares to coal development, including mining operations and mountain-top removal.
The decision spurred a groundswell of public opposition. More than 100,000 people have signed onto various petitions opposing the expansion of coal mining in the Rockies’ eastern slopes. The outpouring of public discontent put the Alberta government on the defensive and, earlier this week, the province cancelled 11 coal leases and hit pause on future sales.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of this fight. As CTV notes, the cancelled leases only cover “a small portion of the coal exploration leases the government has issued since revoking a policy that protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies.”
There are also still other coal projects on the table, including a massive expansion of the Vista thermal coal mine. Last year, Ecojustice successfully called on federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson to designate Coalspur’s Vista coal mine expansion for an environmental impact assessment. Now, however, Coalspur is challenging that decision and taking the government – and Ecojustice – to court over it.
In the coming year, Ecojustice also expects to participate in a federal strategic assessment on thermal coal that could have major ramifications for the future of this dirty fossil fuel in Canada.
Defending the Impact Assessment Act
Ecojustice will also soon be in court to protect the Impact Assessment Act (IAA), one of Canada’s newer environmental laws, from a challenge by the Kenney government.
Ecojustice lawyers, thousands of Canadians from all backgrounds, and the federal government worked together to shape the IAA into a law that balances industry, environmental and Indigenous interests. Compared to its predecessor, the law provides more transparency about how decisions are made and brings important issues surrounding major projects to light early in the planning phase, which helps avoid headaches and litigation in the future.
The Alberta government, however, does not see it this way. Instead, it has characterized the law as an overreach of federal power, turned its implementation into a political fight, and filed a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality.
Ecojustice will be in court on Feb. 22 to make sure the Alberta government doesn’t succeed in its attempt to thwart the IAA, so all Canadians can enjoy a future protected by strong environmental laws.
Keeping an eye on the controversial Critical Infrastructure Defence Act
In the wake of national protests in support of members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s fight against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Kenney government passed one of its most controversial bills to date: Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.
The act, which experts have called unconstitutional, introduces broad prohibitions on protests that damage, block, disrupt, or even enter spaces deemed as “critical infrastructure.” This could include train tracks, highways, pipelines, even sidewalks and back alleys! Violating the act could carry a hefty fine of up to $25,000 or six months in jail.
As COVID-19 restrictions continue to limit public gatherings, it is still unclear how the government will enforce this contentious law – but Ecojustice lawyers will be closely monitoring the situation and are prepared to speak up for Albertans’ rights to speak out about the climate crisis if and when the situation calls for it.
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This piece was written with contributions from Emily Chan, of Ecojustice’s communications team.