07/21/2011 10:51 EDT | Updated 09/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Coal-Fueled Plant: A Canary in the Coal Mine

In 1792 a British surveyor and employee of the Hudson's Bay company named Peter Fidler reported finding coal in what is now Alberta. He recorded learning about something that he roughly translated from the local Cree and Blackfoot people as the "black rock that burns."

Over the next century more expeditions confirmed his findings, and in 1911 the first coal shipment left southern Alberta on the newly finished Canadian National railroad. During Alberta's first coal rush hundreds of mines were registered across the province, but by the mid 20th century, the rise of natural gas as a cleaner burning home heating fuel spelled the end of Alberta's first coal boom.

Today, over 50 years later, big coal is making a comeback, and whether or not it can plow ahead may prove to be one of the most important litmus test for the federal government when it comes to making good on the few commitments to fighting climate change they have made.

In late June, the Alberta Utilities Commission green-lit Maxim Power's proposal to build a brand new 500-megawatt coal fired power plant 20 kilometers north of Grande Cache Alberta. If it becomes operational, this plant alone will add around 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of adding over half a million vehicles to the road.

The Maxim approval comes less than a year after former Enviroment Minister Jim Prentice announced new regulations for coal fired plants across Canada. The regulations are set to come into effect on July 1, 2015, but in his announcement of the regulations Prentice also assured that "[the government] will guard against any rush to build non-compliant coal plants in the interim."

So cue the federal government intervention right?

Sort of, but not how you might hope.

According to a letter from Maxim's attorney's, any delay in getting this project operational would "kill the project." In that same letter, Maxim claims that they consulted with Environment Minister Peter Kent and received assurances that not only could the new non-compliant plant go forward, but that it would not be subject to any regulations provided that it began operations prior to the 2015 start date for the new rules. According to a report from the Globe and Mail, Environment Canada could not confirm whether Maxim had received these assurances.

In the same letter from Maxim they inform the Alberta Utilities Commission that "Maxim requires an approval from the AUC as soon as possible and no later than June 30th, 2011". It appears the Utilities Commission was more than happy to oblige, with the tacit support of the federal government.

This sets a dangerous precedent. The Harper government's climate policies already seem to be more of a public relations exercise than an actual commitment to fighting climate change. Now add the Maxim plant to that, and it paints of picture of a government not simply overseeing the unregulated expansion of the fossil fuel industry in Canada, but frighteningly beholden to that industry.

This coal plant itself is a canary in the proverbial mine when it comes to Canada living up to its climate responsibilities. If allowed to go forward unregulated, it will set a standard that with minimal industry pressure even the most minimal regulations will be bent and broken to pave the way for fossil fuel companies, and if that is the case our chances for stopping the worst impacts of climate change are pretty dismal.

So if the federal government wont step in, the environmental groups will, right?

Yes, and its exactly what you, and the government and industry would expect. Blogs have popped up in their usual places and letters have been sent, but does anyone honestly still think that this is enough?

The situation with the Maxim plant is not simply the result of a corrupt relationship between the fossil fuel industry and lobby and our government. With all due respect to my colleagues, much of the fault lies in our own hands. The predictable outrage letter/press release reaction of so many of us has made it clear time and again to the government and industry that they can run roughshod over us risking little more than a few nasty blogs and a negative press hit or two.

Many of the commentaries on the Maxim plant refer to these developments as a test for the federal government when it comes to regulating industry, and I obviously agree. At the same time, and maybe more importantly, this is a test for the environmental movement in Canada, and for every organization with a climate change file.

Will we stand by and watch while this government marches onwards in lockstep with industry, trampling any hope we have of a just and sustainable future, or will this finally be the moment that we break the cycle and decide to become a real force to be reckoned with?