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How was a Controversial Coal Plant Approved with no Public Hearing?

People are outraged by the Alberta Utilities Commission's fast-tracked interim approval of a 500-megawatt coal plant that would produce three mega tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. How did this happen? There is a pervasive flaw Alberta's approval system.

Many people are outraged by the Alberta Utilities Commission's (AUC) interim approval of the Milner Expansion project; a 500-megawatt coal plant north of Grande Cache, Alta.

Not only would the plant generate about three mega tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, its approval was fast-tracked by the AUC so that the plant can be completed before new federal greenhouse gas regulations come into place. In fact, the proponent had no qualms informing the AUC that it needed the project to be approved by June 30, 2011, in order to avoid having to comply with the new federal regulations.

Funny thing, the AUC then went on to issue the interim approval on that very date.

As a lawyer who works in this area, I am not terribly surprised with the AUC's decision. One of the reasons this was allowed to occur was because of a pervasive flaw in the approval system in Alberta, one that extends far beyond the approval of the Milner coal plant.

I am speaking about the issue of standing - whether an individual has the right to intervene and be heard when projects are proposed.

In Alberta, the test to determine standing is whether an individual '"may be directly or adversely affected" by a proposed project. While those words themselves are not inherently problematic, the trouble lies in how they are being interpreted.

Decision-makers in Alberta, whether it be the AUC or the Energy Resources Conservation Board or another government agency, continually seek to limit the application of the directly or adversely-affected test to such an extent that rarely is anyone found to have standing. The result is that interested individuals are not given a chance to voice their concerns.

For projects that require AUC approval, it also means that project hearings are not held (Hearings are only required if the AUC determines that there are individuals who may be directly or adversely affected).

Excluding input from those who have a right to be heard is unjust and does a great disservice to the public at large. Public participation is vital to ensuring that projects are not approved unless they are in the best interest of the public (as per the AUC's mandate).

In the case of the Milner expansion project, the AUC decided that none of the individuals that sought intervener status would be directly or adversely affected. As a result, no hearing was held. That means that the AUC was able to expedite the approval of the 500-megawatt coal plant without any public input or consultation. This lightening-speed approval is the perfect example of what happens when concerned citizens are banned from participating in the approvals process.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time that affected Albertans will be denied the right to voice their concerns. If changes are not made to Alberta's standing test, projects that do not serve the public's best interest will continue to be approved. You can help ensure that changes are made by writing to Alberta's Minister of Energy, Ron Liepert, and demanding a greater role in the approval process.

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