Nfld. & Labrador

Botwood biofuel project dead, emails show bureaucratic tangle

A $185-million project will not happen in a central Newfoundland town after more than a year of speculation and hope, sources tell CBC News.

Emails obtained by CBC News show government fumbled the file on multiple occasions

Botwood is still frequented by Coast Guard ships, but the town is hoping to find a new industry partner to ship its most valued asset — lumber and its byproducts. (Submitted by Linda Lane)

It was a project capable of changing the future of a small town in central Newfoundland and being on the cutting edge of renewable energy.

But it's not moving forward.

A $185-million biodiesel production plant will likely not be constructed in Botwood, sources tell CBC News.

Newgreen Technology, a Corner Brook-based company, said the project would have created between 400 and 600 jobs during the construction phase, and another 100 permanent jobs afterwards. 

The company reached an agreement in principle with the province last February for access to a massive swath of timber rights — a deal that was dependent on the resubmission of a business plan with additional information, and work starting as soon as possible.

The agreement would expire within six months if no progress was made.

The business plan was never updated and construction never began, so the rights to 285,000 cubic metres of forest will remain in control of the Crown.

The proposed biofuel project in Botwood would have seen a sawmill, fuel plant and shipping port bringing jobs to the town. (Google Maps)

Jeff Penney, president of Newgreen Technology, declined an interview with CBC News.

In a brief conversation, he acknowledged the company takes some responsibility for failing to move forward with the project, but said it was slowed down by government bureaucracy.

Too many hands on the file

CBC News obtained hundreds of emails from the provincial government through an access to information request, related to Newgreen Technology. 

Those emails show frustration between the company and the government over the speed of the process, the allocation of timber rights and questions about the technology being used.

They also show frustration within government about multiple departments being involved on the same issues.

"This file is one of those too many dept. involved ones," wrote Ted Lomond, deputy minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation, to his colleagues when a request from Penney went unanswered for several days.

"I think this just highlights the need for leadership on major projects so that we have a clear, well-understood path forward by government and proponents on these projects," wrote Darryl Genge, another senior staffer in the industry department.

Sides butt heads over trip to U.S.

Proving the technology behind the project also proved to be a painful hurdle for Newgreen Technology and a source of confusion within government.

In March 2016, the forestry department wrote to Penney and requested proof of technology. The company arranged for a member of government to tour several facilities operating in Tennessee on biodiesel technology from Proton Power Inc.

A month later, a senior staffer in the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture replied and said it couldn't afford to send anyone until after the business plan was accepted.

However, in the following months, the government rejected the business plan and cited proof of technology as an issue.

"This is a source of extreme frustration for [Newgreen]," Penney replied in an email. "Any shortfall in understanding does not lie with [us]. We have made every reasonable effort to satisfy any concerns."

Botwood was hit hard by the closure of its shipping port in 2009 when the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill closed in Grand Falls-Windsor. Since then, the town has been looking for a new way to create jobs. (CBC)

Within government, at least two senior staffers with their hands all over the file were unaware that Innovation Minister Christopher Mitchelmore had already visited the Proton Power plant in Tennessee and signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding their technology.

"It seems everyone is in on this file except you and I," Mitchelmore's deputy minister wrote to Rita Malone, an assistant deputy minister in the department.

Lomond signed off on the email by saying, "Oh my."

That email was on Aug. 11, 2016 — three months after Mitchelmore visited the plant, and two months after CBC News reported on it.

Other issues the government wanted clarification on were sources of financing and a completed marketing plan.

Botwood Mayor Scott Sceviour said he hasn't dealt with Newgreen Technology in several months and believed the deal was dead. The town is now speaking with a different company about using its facilities for a wood-fibre industry.

One councillor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company came to town and raised people's hopes with promises it couldn't keep.

Penney, meanwhile, said the company will keep trying to work with government and it has not given up on the Botwood project yet.