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Falcon slams NDP's response to forest industry struggles

B.C. Liberal leader calls for "proper dollars and incentives" to deliver slash to the pulp mills
B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon fields questions from local media on Wednesday.

B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon roundly criticized Wednesday the governing New Democrats' recently-announced plan for generating new manufacturing jobs in the wake of the permanent closure of a line at Canfor's Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill.

Fielding questions from local media during a gathering at Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond's office, Falcon said the plan lacks details and will do nothing to help displaced workers in the short term.

"Rather than announcing $90 million over three years with uncertain details and all the rest, why can't they practically deal with big slash piles that are being burned that could actually be, with the proper dollars and incentives, delivered to the pulp lines so the pulp mill actually has some fibre? There is potentially 1.2 million cubic metres of fibre out there that is currently being burned that could be utilized to keep that mill operating," Falcon said.

In announcing the closure on January 11 of the mill's pulp line, Canfor Pulp president and CEO Kevin Edgson cited "reductions in the allowable annual cut and challenges accessing cost-competitive fibre," as the reasons for the step. 

The closure is expected to be completed by the end of March, and result in about 300 jobs lost, 220 of them unionized. The mill's specialty paper facility will continue to operate.

On Tuesday, Premier David Eby said the government will earmark as much as $90 million over three years to encourage job development in the value-added forestry sector.

Through the fund, the province will contribute up to $50,000 towards completion of business plans and technical assessments for fledgling capital projects and up to $10 million for "investment-ready" capital projects. Examples of the latter include "adopting innovative processes to manufacture value-added forestry products from biomass or other alternatives," according to a government backgrounder.

Those interested will have to wait until February 28 to get a program guide and proposal form, leading Falcon to question whether the government really knows how it wants to spend the money. He accused the government simply "blowing out" more of an unexpected $5.7-billion budget surplus before the fiscal year ends, "and I feel that is irresponsible."

The NDP's refusal to let Canfor sell excess electricity generated through the mill's $140-million cogeneration plant also drew criticism.

"That provided a lot of revenue to the mill which helped the competitiveness," Falcon said.

Falcon mocked Premier David Eby's promise to create a one-stop approach to processing natural resource projects permits.

"Their solution to red tape to hire up to 200 more bureaucrats to help make the permitting process go faster, which is actually laughable when you think about it," Falcon said. "What they need to do is fix their current process for getting permits issued, not add a whole new layer of bureaucracy and hope that that bureaucracy can speak to this bureaucracy to try and make things move quicker. It doesn't make sense."

However, Falcon acknowledged that, thanks to the last of the beetle-killed timber now being logged out, the forest industry is going through a transition and suggested the industry will become more locally based and conducted on a smaller scale.

"For a lot of the bigger companies, maybe that's not a space they can get to and have the scale to be able to do," Falcon said. "But there are a lot of companies, especially smaller, mid-sized companies that are quite willing to operate in that kind of environment."

Asked about companies' decisions to invest elsewhere and particularly in Alberta, Bond said B.C. is the highest cost producer in North America.

"We just basically taxed ourselves out of being competitive," Bond said.