Research, rail and beet ethanol

Here is a link to my column this morning on the importance of R&D. I take a little swipe at the NBIF in the column – but not really. The NBIF could have never been the ‘cornerstone’ (as former Premier Bernard Lord called it) of the innovation agenda that was supposed to see New Brunswick join the top four provinces in Canada for R&D spending. It wasn’t given even a fraction of the funds or the mandate for this.

The TJ has an article today on the importance of rail transportation. I have thought for the last 20 years that investing and developing the rail system made perfect sense – particularly in a place like Atl. Canada where the cost of road shipping goods to market is considerably higher than if a manufacturing plant was close to the market. Rail shipping levels the playing field at least a little but we decided (led by the nose by CN) to tear up the rail and make bike trails. Hmmm.

A company hoping to turn so-called energy beets into ethanol has toured the idle TrentonWorks lant in central Nova Scotia for a third time. Ron Coles, spokesman for Atlantec BioEnergy, says the company has officially expressed interest in acquiring a section of the plant. I have a couple of points here: 1) TrentonWorks employed several hundred people at above average wages. I think that any reuse of that facility should try to keep the economic bar high. 30 people being paid $14/hour to work in a beet plant would not be the best use – IMO. However, you might argue there would be a significant value chain from the project because of the beet farming and harvesting. True enough – but again – these things have to make sense – we can’t just jump at projects because there is a desperate need to replace those jobs.

APEC tells us the forestry industry in New Brunswick has shed 3,000 jobs and the bottom has not yet been reached. I think that is a fair statement in more ways than one. I’ll bet at least half of those 3,000 are working in Alberta/Saskatchewan and sending paycheques back to New Brunswick. When they decide a) to move back and go on pogie or b) move out to Alberta permanently, then we will have come full circle on it.

I agree there needed to be some structural changes in the forestry sector and I agree there are some opportunities for future growth – but let’s not get crazy. I talked with a guy very knowledgeable about the industry who says the current level of sawmills is about right for the available saw longs in the province. He further said there is likely some additional room for an expanded chemical pulp operation in Northern NB and some limited opportunity for things like pellet mills. But biomass into electricity or biofuels or some type of massively expanded wood furniture manufacturing activity is not viable. Let’s make sure our existing sawmills and forest product mills are competitive and successful and lets try and ensure that the wood is not being exported to be used in mills in other countries (as was reported recently).