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VICTORIA, B.C. – It has been two years since West Coast newspaper mogul David Black started travelling to Alberta, arguing with the oil community that its plans to put bitumen in tankers would never be accepted in British Columbia, pining for support for his alternative plan to build a giant heavy oil refinery in Kitimat, B.C. to export fuels that are less environmentally harmful and enhance the Canadian economy.
“They were tone deaf,” he said. “They just didn’t understand the difference in mentality between Alberta and B.C.” Today, Mr. Black’s grand plan remains poorly received in Alberta, while advancing in many right places in his home province and elsewhere, including support from the newly re-elected provincial Liberal government and promises of $25-billion in financing from the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the oil community’s two pipeline projects between Alberta and the West Coast are mired in controversy, raising the question: Can a shrewd newspaper publisher from Victoria beat the oil industry to the Asian market?
In an interview in his century-old, ocean-front mansion overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait, Mr. Black said he’s dead serious about moving forward with his plan, even if it means going at it alone. He’s talked to Enbridge Inc. about taking over its embattled Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. In case that doesn’t bear fruit, he is prepared to build his own pipeline and is also looking at a rail option — he’s in discussions with Canadian National Railway about transporting as much as 500,000 barrels a day across B.C.’s north to his proposed refinery site.
“I don’t think the oil patch will embrace [the refinery plan], and so that means I will have to build it,” he said. “And I probably have to run it. I don’t need them to put their money up, and I don’t need their expertise. I can get the money elsewhere and I can buy the expertise.”
It’s the second time that Mr. Black, 67, a soft talker with an iron will, has pursued a grand vision. The first began four decades ago. Backed by a degree in civil engineering from the University of British Columbia and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario, he launched into the newspaper business as a project analyst for Torstar Corp. in Toronto. The job took him across the United States, where he sized up for potential purchase suburban newspaper groups.
But Mr. Black had bigger plans of his own. He bought his first newspaper, the Williams Lake Tribune, a twice-weekly in the B.C. interior, in 1975 from his father Alan and partner Clive Stangoe. He then moved to the community with his young family, learning every aspect of the business, from reporting to advertising, and about running a business in the province.
A consummate dealmaker, Mr. Black expanded aggressively across Western Canada and the western U.S. and became very wealthy in the process. Today, his Victoria-based private company, Black Press Group Ltd., is Canada’s largest private newspaper publisher. With 150 newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, it has revenue estimated at more than half a billion. Black Press is expanding, even as the rest of the industry struggles from the weak economy and competition from the Internet.
Mr. Black has stepped away from day-to-day newspaper operations to focus on his refinery plan through another private company, Kitimat Clean Ltd.
Since publicly launching the project in August, 2012, he has lined up many of the building blocks to make it succeed.
In April, he secured a memorandum of understanding with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s largest bank, involving $25-billion in financial backing to build the refinery, a pipeline from Alberta, and provide 10 super tankers to transport the oil to China. He said more deals with Chinese companies are on the way.
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