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Vaughn Palmer: Forest companies won’t invest in B.C. without changes by government

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Premier David Eby offered the usual government solution to this week’s news of the permanent closure of pulp production at the Canfor mill in Prince George.

Eby expressed sympathy for the 300 workers who’ll lose their jobs add said the government is dispatching a crisis response team to the community.

The team will offer “training, transitioning to retirement, or other supports,” the premier told reporters in Vancouver on Thursday.

Welcome relief for those facing permanent job loss. But scarcely reassuring to anyone hoping the industry has a future.

“I’m getting a little tired of retirement packages and retraining,” said Jeff Bromley, chair of the Steelworkers Wood Council, when the NDP government made a similar response to an earlier round of layoffs. “I don’t believe that this is a sunset industry. It’s an industry that is sustainable and then renewable.”

Eby did hint at more encouraging relief, when he was asked about the proposal from a coalition of pulp and paper producers for a “value-added transformation” of the industry.

In a submission last July, the coalition proposed almost $3 billion worth of investment in plant and equipment to produce specialty papers, packaging, and other value-added products.

Government would first need to address the emerging shortfall in woodfibre for pulp and paper mills and take other steps to reduce the gap in production costs — estimated at $100 a tonne — between B.C. mills and their less-costly European competitors.

Without those changes, the presentation warned B.C. could be headed for the closure of two or three pulp mills and 10 sawmills.

A shortage of cost-competitive fibre was the main reason Canfor gave for halting pulp production at its Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill.

“I’m aware of the proposal,” Eby said of the coalition submission. “In terms of the specific proposals around support for innovation, we’ll have more to say in the coming days.”

The premier is scheduled to deliver two major speeches on forest and resource themes next week. Tuesday, he’ll be in Prince George to deliver the keynote address to the 20th annual B.C. Natural Resources forum. Thursday he will be in Vancouver to address the annual convention of the Truck Loggers Association.

The challenge for Eby is to show where he stands in comparison to his predecessor, John Horgan, who was comfortable addressing resource industry audiences.

Horgan hailed from the hard hat wing of the NDP, having worked in the forest industry and cultivated connections to its unionized workforce.

Eby’s background is urban, environmentalist and activist.

In his initial statements as premier, Eby spoke of increasing deferrals of old-growth logging, a process that has a cascade effect on the available supply of fibre.

Nor did his marching orders to ministers herald immediate relief for an industry that has recorded a 30 per cent decline in lumber production in recent years.

He acknowledged that the industry has “never been under greater stress’ and spoke of the forests having been “exhausted” by “short-term thinking on the land base.”

But he put the blame for the current crisis on the “mountain pine beetle, unprecedented forest fires, inadequate land use planning and replanting efforts by previous governments, unfair softwood lumber tariffs in the U.S., and the unchecked export of raw logs.”

No mention of the NDP government’s impact on higher operating costs and reduced access to fibre through regulations, taxes, permitting delays and the cumulative impact of logging deferrals, tenure changes and habitat protection.

Still, Eby acknowledges that the government needs to take steps to address the shortage of fibre in B.C.

“We do have a shortage of timber and feedstock,” he told reporters Thursday. “So, we need to get more jobs out of the trees that we do have, and that will only come through innovation and using materials wisely.”

But getting there entails considerable corporate investment in a province with high production costs and limited access to fibre — scarcely an inviting climate for companies that can readily invest elsewhere.

Take Canfor. On the day the New Democrats launched the last round of old growth deferrals in 2021, Canfor announced it was spending $420 million to buy 630 million board feet worth of production in Alberta.

The Canfor board includes former NDP Premier Glen Clark. He retired at the end of last year as president and chief operating officer of the Jim Pattison group. But Pattison asked him to stay on as his representative on the Canfor board.

Clark is also a lifelong New Democrat, who has lately offered to help the current government.

“I’m not desperate for work or anything.” he told Jas Johal on CKNW this week. “I’m just saying I’m prepared and interested, but it’s up to others to decide whether they think I can help.”

Eby said “that’s great news, and I look forward to working with him.”

Clark, mindful of his continuing connection to the Pattison empire, had suggested he could help out on housing issues.

But oh, to be a fly on the wall if Eby dared to ask Clark for advice on what to do in the forest sector.

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