Appeared in the North Shore News – August 31, 2012
PUNDITS and politicians may gas away all they want about oil pipelines and refineries, but let us turn to a local, hard-nosed expert for an informed opinion.
West Vancouver Mayor Mike Smith retired last year from more than a quarter of a century as owner-manager of M.R. Smith Ltd., wholesale distributor for Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.
So what’s Smith’s take on the latest angle (or sideshow) of the giant Northern Gateway pipeline project – David Black’s out-of-the-blue suggestion of a refinery in Kitimat?
Blue, as in blue-skying. It’s a let’s-look-at-this idea, an industry outsider’s invitation to the old bulls of oildom to think afresh – rare and usually stonily resented in any industry.
To be sure, Black quietly studied the issue and made high-profile financial contacts. Interviewed, he’s been commendably open and has dodged no hard questions about his proposal. If he doesn’t know, he responds with a monosyllabic “no” – not the usual weaseling.
He’s put up his own money for an environmental assessment, sure to be duplicated and triplicated by industry, the federal government, provincial governments, environmental groups and native interests if his proposal turns out to have legs. Building the refinery would cost an estimated $13 billion, far beyond Black’s reach.
Then there’s the NIMBY factor: Everybody needs oil; nobody wants its infrastructure in their backyard. This explains the score in the last 30 years in B.C. Refinery closures: five; still operating refineries: two. (And let it be clear that if a refinery were suggested for, say, Kew Beach in West Vancouver, it would not find a champion in the undersigned.)
Which leads back to West Van Mayor Smith’s views as a long-time player in the oil an gasoline business.
“In my opinion, there is virtually zero chance of a refinery being built in Kitimat,” Smith said, in response to my request. “No one in their right mind would finance one.
“Refined product is not needed in Northwest B.C., so there is no demand. The capital cost of a refinery in that remote part of the province would be very high, and the products produced would need to be shipped enormous distances to find a market. You notice that there are no proposals to build a refinery in Alaska to process their crude oil and ship finished product south.
“It is not a coincidence that three of the four Vancouver refineries have closed,” Smith noted. “The refining and marketing of petroleum is not nearly as profitable as the production of crude oil.
“There is also the important matter of getting the crude to Kitimat. The Northern Gateway project is highly controversial, as it passes through very challenging terrain and many pristine wilderness areas. .
. . I would personally bet against the project ever being approved.
“There are other alternatives to get Alberta crude to market. Eastern Canadian refineries and those in the U.S. would make more sense as a destination.”
No mealy-mouthed equivocation there.
. . .
A footnote: Why couldn’t the Vancouver Sun and the National Post clearly spit out the identifier, the media term, for David Black? He’s an “industrialist.” He’s “a successful B.C. entrepreneur.” Only Keith Baldrey in this paper put it plainly: He’s a “newspaper mogul,” owning about 150 U.S. and Canadian newspapers, mostly small.
. . .
Aw, don’t you columnists ever have anything positive to say? Not often, but here’s one: Victoria Times Colonist writer Rob Shaw’s scoop on B.C. New Democratic Party’s then-leader Carole James, a superb story picked up by the Sun, confirms that James is a person of outstanding character (as the present writer contended at the time – while slamming the NDP rebels who undermined her in favour of Adrian Dix).
James courageously stood by her troubled son in wrenching crises, once on the eve of her election debate with Gordon Campbell. This story is must-read, major-league journalism, and proof again that the beleaguered dailies remain utterly indispensable to the serious reader.
. . .
“We’re right out of food,” smiled Joan Cox, an hour or two into West Vancouver’s 100th anniversary celebration by the West Van Historical Society last Saturday. Last year – leftovers. Dozens gathered this year at the Gertrude Lawson House, where Ann Brousson, who chaired the marketing committee for the society’s centenary book, Cottages to Community: The Story of West Vancouver’s Neighbourhoods, had very youthful memories of the house.
Jim Carter, who chaired the committee steering the handsomely produced book, gave up-to-the-minute sales figures: 2,630, only a few hundred copies still available for this sure keepsake. And author (aided by curator John Moir) Francis Mansbridge, a historian whose PhD in fact is in Canadian literature, was present, and smilingly confided there are shady bits of West Van history not in the book – like current grow-ops in certain neighbourhoods.
Wait for the 200th anniversary book, maybe.
© Trevor Lautens, 2012