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Oil and ink: Publisher’s bold refinery plan raises eyebrows

Publisher David Black looks over the Strait of Georgia from his backyard in Victoria, B.C.

ARNOLD LIM/The Globe and Mail

He has no backers, partners or investors.

But what David Black does have is a strong business pedigree to support his bold vision for a $13-billion oil refinery in northern British Columbia, putting him smack in the middle of the most divisive political issue in Western Canada.

It's his solid reputation in newspaper publishing that made people sit up and take notice Friday when he called a news conference to unveil his plan.

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The 66-year-old founder and chief of Victoria-based Black Press Ltd. is even putting up the "few million dollars" it will cost for an environmental assessment application to be submitted to the province.

What Mr. Black is offering is a compromise in the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline project, one he believes will ease environmental concerns while helping to open the gateway to Asia for Canadian energy from Alberta's oil sands.

It's not, he said, a great business investment for him.

But, describing himself as a "quiet" environmentalist, Mr. Black described the proposal as "nation building" and "the right thing to do for the province."

Mr. Black, who, over more than three decades, has quietly amassed a fortune by pruning costs and spending judiciously to squeeze profits from a stable of 150 local newspapers, said the proposed refinery would create thousands of new jobs in British Columbia and greatly increase provincial tax revenue.

He said he believes the refinery, which would be located near Kitimat, would able to process all of the output from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

While the federal and Alberta governments have aggressively supported Gateway as a means to find new customers in Asia, opposition in British Columbia is galvanizing, following several spills and accidents at other Enbridge pipelines.

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Mr. Black said his plan to process up to 550,000 barrels a day of Alberta oil sands bitumen would greatly reduce the likelihood of a heavy oil spill from a tanker in B.C. waters.

Unlike heavy crude oil, a spill of refined gasoline, diesel or kerosene would evaporate and require "no extensive remediation" if there were an accident, he said.

The refinery plan was met with skepticism from both business and political leaders.

Having worked on the project for a year, Mr. Black has, so far, failed to attract any of the partners or investors he would need. Enbridge is not backing the proposed refinery nor are any energy companies.

Unlike crude oil production, refineries are generally considered low-margin businesses that are currently suffering from a glut of global overcapacity. A new refinery has not been built in Canada since the 1980s and not since the 1970s in the United States.

Some in the industry said the proposed refinery might benefit producers in Alberta by creating a new buyer for production, though Chinese customers – a key target – may not be pleased.

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"The Chinese would likely prefer to buy raw bitumen as they are building their own refineries to process heavy oil," said Randy Ollenberger, an analyst at BMO Nesbitt Burns in Calgary.

"It does not make a lot of sense to build a refinery in Canada to ship clean products. The experience building cokers – partial refineries in Alberta – shows how costly these projects can be," he said.

Mr. Black said he hopes China will be a key partner in his project, owning up to one-third of the refinery.

His plan calls for much of the plant to be built in China and then shipped to Kitimat in module pieces.

Peter Boag, president of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, said he couldn't comment to the specifics of the plan.

"Both from a regulatory and economic perspective, this is an interesting proposal but there are a lot of hurdles to be overcome," said Mr. Boag, whose group represents Canadian refiners.

He said refiners in the fast-growing Pacific market are faring better than those in the Atlantic basin, which are hampered by old plants and stagnant demand.

The International Energy Agency has forecast that virtually all the growth in demand for petroleum products will occur in emerging markets, particularly Asian giants such as China and India.

But those countries have built massive new refineries that supply both domestic and export markets.

In a statement, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman said the proposed refinery would, like all major projects, have to successfully complete an environmental review.

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About the Authors
Asia-Pacific Reporter

An award-winning journalist, Andy Hoffman is the Asia-Pacific Reporter for Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. More

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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