Forestry minister not ready to contemplate closure of Northern Pulp just yet
Premier pledges help to diversify industry while opposition urges government to get contingency plan in order
Iain Rankin isn't ready to consider what the fallout would be for Nova Scotia's forestry industry if Northern Pulp closes.
"We will look at that, but we're not there yet," Rankin, the province's lands and forestry minister, told reporters in Halifax following a cabinet meeting Thursday.
"We don't think that we're at a juncture where we can say a mill will close."
Rankin and Premier Stephen McNeil said they expect the Pictou County-based mill will meet a legislated deadline to get a new treatment facility in place, with McNeil adding the government will "continue to [look at] how do we best diversify the sector" if the mill does close.
"The sector has been built and these [sawmills] have been built on being able to sell those residuals back into some of our paper mills. That's going to be a challenge if something happens in Pictou," said McNeil.
"We understand the challenges associated with mills and we're working hard to see what to do with the residual stuff."
Rankin and McNeil may be two of the last remaining people in the province who believe it's possible for Northern Pulp to have a new treatment facility in place ahead of a legislated closure date of January 2020 for Boat Harbour.
Northern Pulp has yet to even submit an application for an environmental assessment of its plan, and the company itself has indicated meeting the deadline isn't a reality.
In the face of an increased lobby effort by the mill, its parent company and supporters to get an extension to keep using Boat Harbour beyond January 2020, McNeil and Rankin remained steadfast Thursday they would stick by the deadline of the Boat Harbour Act.
"That's the deadline," said Rankin. "The community deserves to be treated with fairness."
The premier and Rankin said when the act was passed in 2015, the deadlines were clear for everyone involved. How people prepared for and responded to those deadlines was up to them, said McNeil.
Rankin said that while the government is willing to work with industry to find new markets for products that right now are destined for Northern Pulp, he "philosophically" does not believe it should be the government leading those efforts.
"If sawmills want to work with us to find new markets, we'll be there to do so," he said.
Markets for low-grade wood and wood chips have faced challenges in the past and Rankin acknowledged it would probably happen again if Northern Pulp closed. Members of the industry, including sawmills and people who work in the woods, have painted a bleak picture of what it would mean not to have the mill as a customer.
"I think that this industry has been around for a long time in Nova Scotia and it continues to be important to rural Nova Scotia," said Rankin.
"But in order for them to be sustainable in the long term, they're going to need to diversify their markets and they're going to need to adapt to the realities that we have today, which includes looking at changing their harvesting practices."
Jeff Bishop, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, said there is a growing conversation within the industry about how it might look in the future and what changes are required to ensure it remains viable.
"Discussions about forestry and forest management could be very different in a year and a half if there is no Northern Pulp operating," he said.
Bishop said exploring new markets is something that primarily happens on a company-by-company basis. Right now, he said, there is a mix of people looking at existing products that might be able to be slightly shifted and people who are looking at new products and technologies that could replace a market they might lose.
Taking a customer the size of Northern Pulp out of the market would have sweeping effects, and Bishop said he hopes the government is considering the potential impact. There is the question of what a mill failure would mean to the industry, but also what it would mean to the overall economy, he said.
The loss of tax revenue from stumpage and incomes of people that work in the industry, and the increased need for income assistance for people who find themselves without work, are all effects that "really are in the wheelhouse of the government," said Bishop.
"They have to understand and look at what the impact could be to the people of this province."
'Having a plan'
Both opposition leaders said the government must do contingency planning now, to be prepared if Northern Pulp does go down in 2020.
Tory Leader Tim Houston, who represents one of the three electoral districts in Pictou County, said people are concerned about what the future holds for the forestry industry and he'd like to see the government more involved in finding new markets for timber.
"We want to know that the government is thinking of a way forward no matter the outcome," he said.
"Government's role is to be thinking of all the different things that can happen and having a plan for each of them."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill was part of a former government that had to scramble to find ways to deal with the sudden collapse of two pulp and paper mills during its mandate. The "hands-off approach" by government isn't good enough, he said.
"There's a real failure to get the hand on the wheel that we need to have on the wheel," he said.
"There are huge parts of Nova Scotia that are dependent in an amplified way on the woods business, on the forest economy."