[Northern Ontario] Forest fight is electric – by Christina Blizzard (Toronto Sun)

Christina Blizzard is the Queen’s Park columnist for the Toronto Sun, the city’s daily tabloid newspaper. This column was originally published March 10, 2011. christina.blizzard@sunmedia.ca

Is the industry dead or is government a killer by implementing high hydro rates?

When it comes to electricity prices, New Democrats say Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro can’t see the forest for the trees. A sure sign that the Liberals are under pressure from the NDP in northern ridings is a spat that’s erupted over forestry.

Mauro, a Liberal, slammed the NDP in the Legislature on Monday, saying it’s wrong to blame high electricity prices for the demise of forestry in northern Ontario.

And he blamed the NDP’s campaign to lower industrial hydro rates for misleading northerners to believe that if rates were lower, jobs will come back. They’re deferring decisions to move to the oil patch or to go back to school, he said.

“You were doing those people a disservice, because they needed to make life choices,” he said.

“You know what? There’s no market for the products that sawmills produce.”

(When I called him for clarification, he told me he was talking specifically about the local sawmill industry.)

Good thing. Because it sounded like he was sounding the death knell for an entire region — that it would be better for northerners to head to the oilsands.

Last one out turns off the lights, I guess. Kenora-Rainy River New Democrat Howard Hampton begs to differ.

As the guy who’s led the charge on energy pricing, he says there’s plenty of proof high electricity prices are killing jobs, not just in forestry, but in mining.

Hampton says forestry may be in a downturn now, but five years on, markets around the world will be looking to this province for wood fibre.

Forests in the B.C. interior have been decimated by a pine beetle epidemic and forest fires in the U.S. are wreaking havoc in places like Colorado, Oregon and California.

Hampton points to shut-down mills in northwestern Ontario and compares them to mills that are still operating in Minnesota.

The Domtar mill in Dryden was the most modern paper mill complex in the country, he said. Ten years ago, it employed 1,100 workers. The company shut down the paper machines three years ago and now employs only 300 producing pulp.

“They cut the trees, semi-process them into pulp and then they ship the pulp to their mills in the U.S. where they make the paper,” he said.

Meanwhile, its competing mill in International Falls, Minnesota, is still turning out white paper and still employing 500 people. So clearly there’s a demand for the product. The pattern is repeated right across the north.

Sawmills rely on “residuals” — leftover wood that can’t be sawed into two-by-fours — to break even. It was chipped and sent to pulp and paper mills and used in paper machines. That’s how they stayed competitive.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Sun website: http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/christina_blizzard/2011/03/10/17572986.html