Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has reinstated his decision to subject a thermal coal mine expansion in Alberta to a federal review after a court-ordered him to rethink it.

Wilkinson said the Alberta First Nation whose objections led to the court order concerning the Vista mine project have now withdrawn their concerns.

“We consulted very extensively with Ermineskin (First Nation) and Ermineskin has actually sent us a letter essentially withdrawing their objection to us going through the designation process,” he said.

Wilkinson repeated his pre-election warning that new thermal coal projects will have to surmount a high bar for approval.

“In a world that must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the first most important step that we can take, is to phase out the use of thermal coal,” he said. “We will not be looking for new thermal coal mines to be developed in Canada.”

Coalspur Mines is seeking to expand its existing surface mine near Hinton in north-central Alberta. The expansion would make Vista the largest open-pit bituminous mine in North America. The company also plans an underground test mine on the site.

A federal environmental review is required when a mine expands its footprint by 50% or more, or if it plans to produce more than 5,000 metric tons of coal per day. In the early stages of its development, Vista would come in just under those thresholds and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada ruled in 2019 that Ottawa wouldn’t get involved.

But in 2020, Wilkinson decided that the footprint was close enough and that production would eventually exceed the level triggering a federal review. He revoked the agency’s decision and ordered a joint federal-provincial process.

That decision was challenged in Federal Court by Coalspur and Ermineskin First Nation.

Ermineskin supports the project for its economic benefits and argued its treaty rights were violated when Wilkinson failed to consult with them. Court agreed with Ermineskin and ordered Wilkinson to reconsider.

Since then, the agency has met with 44 First Nations, including Ermineskin.

Coalspur’s application to the federal court was thrown out after the Ermineskin ruling.

Wilkinson said Ottawa’s involvement is justified by the size of the planned expansion and its potential threats to areas of federal jurisdiction, such as contamination of waterways and habitat loss for species at risk. He also said the expansion would affect the treaty rights of other First Nations who oppose the project.