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Federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson suddenly gives Alberta coal mine proposal the fish eye

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Jonathan Wilkinson during a press conference in June, 2020. Image: Jonathan Wilkinson/Twitter

Yesterday we learned that Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal environment minister, is reconsidering a decision he made in December to leave it up to the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator to decide if a huge coal mine expansion should be approved near Hinton, just east of the Jasper National Park gate.

Even way back then, cynical observers of Alberta enviropolitics could have told Wilkinson that leaving the decision to the AER was tantamount to handing a blank cheque to the kings of carbon out here in Wild Rose Country.

How bad is the Vista mine plan? Well, Vista will dig out thermal coal -- the kind used to generate electricity that makes people sick all over the planet while it pumps millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We're talking about the kind of coal Canada is supposed to phase out as a source of electricity by 2030.

According to The Narwhal, the proposed expansion of an existing mine at the site would add about 4.2 million tonnes of coal a year for a decade to Canada's production -- which would add up to 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the planet's atmosphere every year for the expected 10-year lifespan of the mine.

But back in December, for all their environmental talk, that seemed to bother the federal Liberals led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau less that the idea of having to have a scrap with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's carbon-loving Conservatives.

So what's changed, if indeed something has? And why now?

Who wouldn't have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where that decision was made?

Could it be the Liberals feel the need to strengthen their environmental street cred, such as it is, in advance of a federal election that may come sooner than we think? Wilkinson is MP for North Vancouver.

After all, it's not as if Kenney and his United Conservative Party will sit out the next election and refuse to campaign for their federal brethren. Not only will they pull out all the stops to defeat Trudeau, what do you want to bet they'll break campaign-finance rules again just like they did last time?

Or was it the startling revelation last week that the Kenney government has appointed a vociferous climate-change doubter to head the technical science and external innovation division of he very same Alberta Energy Regulator?

News media coverage of the appointment of the AER's new senior vice-president focused on how John Weissenberger used to be Kenney's campaign manager, and before that Stephen Harper's.

Well, patronage and nepotism are the UCP way, and to be fair to Weissenberger he does have a PhD in geology from the University of Calgary, but the more startling revelation concerned the fact he has called climate change a "popular delusion" and anyone who believes in it a victim of "collective psychosis."

In a couple of newspaper op-eds in 2006, he and co-author George Koch also accused media of driving the climate change debate, which they dismissed as a false narrative, and called anyone who believes in it "intellectually lazy."

Koch, by the way, is the editor of C2C Journal, the right-wing publication that published the notorious piece by Kenney's former speechwriter Paul Bunner that called Canada's residential schools a "bogus genocide story." As far as anyone knows, Bunner remains employed in the Premier's Office.

For his part, according to the CBC, Premier Kenney denied knowing anything about Weissenberger's appointment, which was not acknowledged by the AER until after the new VP revealed it in his LinkedIn resume.

Of course one wonders if Wilkinson's reconsideration of the Vista mine approval process had anything to do with the AER's most recent hire.

Whatever the reason, we'll see soon enough if the minister actually follows through in a meaningful way on his newfound concern.

If Ottawa does something to block the project, or even put conditions on it, we can expect to hear outraged squeals about the benefits of Alberta's "ethical coal" from UCP friends like Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada.

The phrase seems to have been coined by Campbell, once upon a time a union boss in Hinton and later Progressive Conservative MLA for that community from 2008 to 2015, who briefly served as minister of finance in premier Jim Prentice's short-lived PC government.

Inside baseball: Former Wildrose Alliance leader Paul Hinman is back! (Maybe)

Paul Hinman doesn't seem to have tweeted anything for at least a couple of years, but yesterday a brief mention of the former Wildrose Alliance leader and would-be United Conservative Party leader's name caused a flurry of excitement on Twitter.

Someone with the Wildrose Independence Party tweeted a press release saying Hinman been chosen to lead the separatist party, at least until its members can find someone better for the job.

The tweet disappeared within seconds, but not before sharp-eyed political blogger Dave Cournoyer grabbed a screenshot.

So is the 61-year-old Hinman the Wildrose interim leader, or isn't he? Whatever the answer is, Cournoyer has taken a look Hinman's political career on the rightward fringe of Alberta politics.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jonathan Wilkinson/Twitter

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