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Interview: David Black spills the beans about proposed oil refinery

Newspaper publisher David Black pauses as he speaks about his proposal to build a refinery in Kitimat, B.C., to refine oil from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday August 17, 2012.


David Black, founder of Victoria-based Black Press, surprised many last week when he called a news conference and proposed a $13-billion oil refinery in the province's north.

The 66-year-old chairman of the company that operates more than 150 newspapers across North America and Hawaii said he was ready to pay the environmental-assessment costs for such a project, which he believes will create thousands of jobs, especially for young people.

The B.C. NDP has dismissed the proposal, with its energy critic calling it "half-baked." If the NDP wins power next spring, where would that leave your proposal?

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I don't know. Depending how you look at their response so far, they have kind of left the door half open. If I can show that it isn't half-baked, maybe they will be okay with it. I don't mind the skepticism. Heck, I'd be skeptical too at this point. I am not a big oil company. I am an unusual man to make this proposal. And I am not a well-known figure. I am not a billionaire. If I were Jimmy Pattison, there would be a lot less skepticism. I can back up what I have said so far, and I do think this is quite viable. I think I have got to talk to them before the next election and talk to the Liberals more. I am not so sure that the first order of business for a new government if we got a new government would be to try to put a spoke in the wheel of this.

What kinds of timelines do you see for the next few months?

It's going to be busy. First of all, one of my objectives is to inform B.C. of the concept and get the debate started.

I think we started that with a good, initial press conference and lots of press coverage. I want to follow up with community meetings, both with town-hall type meetings but also first nations, and let people discuss it with me. We've got the environmental-assessment application to get in and we're going to do that in September.

How are you going to juggle working on this with your responsibilities at Black Press?

It is a huge amount of work. I just keep saying that. There's a couple answers. First of all, I haven't been involved in the day-to-day of Black Press for a few years now really. I'm not even the president anymore. As of this spring, we made Rick O'Connor the CEO of Black Press. He's responsible for the day-to-day. I'm the chairman of the board and the majority owner, of course.

There's a full-time job doing what I am doing with Black Press, no question about it. But over the years, I have developed an ability to try and find the right people to do the day-to-day and back off and let them run things and then keep an eye from further on up.

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I do have the time to do this. My wife died. I'm not doing a lot of travelling or anything really. Business is what I am doing right now so it's a good outlet. There's lots of weekends and evenings I can work.

Since Friday, have any investors come forward in any way?

No. Lot's of private people. E-mails, a couple phone calls saying, 'Are you going public? We'd like to invest. Do you need some money now?' I think it struck a chord with a number of people saying, `Yeah. This is something we should be doing.' I've e-mailed them all and said, 'Thank you very much for your support and your confidence, but I've got the money to do [the assessment process].'

Do you see a role for yourself in this beyond the environmental assessment?

I don't want to find that somebody changes the rules of the game and it becomes a real problem for that Kitimat valley. I wouldn't like that at all. So I'd like to stay in to make sure whoever owns it carries on with the original concept.

During the news conference, you described yourself as a quiet environmentalist. What did you mean by that?

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I think I mean I'm like most British Columbians. We're all conscious of litter. We're all separating our garbage into various waste streams and so on. We're worried about global warming and burning of fossil fuels and so on. We're worried about keeping our shorelines clean. I am not sure my environmentalism, if you like, is running at a higher or hotter level than anybody else's, but it's there and most of my friends, the people I talk to, it's the same for them. We're all aware of how beautiful this province is and we want to keep it clean.

How does this project then fit into being a quiet environmentalist?

It's why I got started. I've sailed my boat up the Douglas Channel, and I've sailed it in those islands and I've sailed it over Haida Gwaii and I know how beautiful the country is. I would rather we were tankering out products that can't destroy it.? Not that I think it's likely. I just don't think an accident is likely. That Douglas Channel is a big, wide thoroughfare.

In the press release with this announcement, you made it clear that you were hoping that your papers will be forthright in calling it as they see it on this issue. Why did you want to make that declaration?

I just knew it was going to be a hot button for CBC and people like that. So I thought I'll get it right out there. Also, I think my editors legitimately worry that others will see them as not as credible if I step out and do something like this, and how do they write about it if nobody knows how I am going to approach what they write. So I thought I would just lay it out. I mentioned Terrace and Kitimat specifically because they're the ones that will have the refinery in their backyard, and our papers are really local. We write about local things. .

Despite your declaration, you are the boss. Are you concerned that your newspapers may treat this with kid gloves?

No. I don't think so. If they were all young editors, yes. But they're not. We've got some old hands. They have worked with me for a long time, probably 30 years. And they will take me at their word, and they will set the tone for the others.

I do think that the editorial itself, the unsigned editorial itself in a paper, is a grey area, a confusing area. I would hope if my editors want to write opinion pieces against it or even for it that they do so in an opinion columns and op-ed pieces and so on where it's clear who's writing it. If you do it otherwise in the editorials, you confuse them. Here's the owner saying one thing, and the editorial says another. Who owns this paper and who's responsible for it? Editorials are an area that we've got to be careful in. Other than that, they're welcome to do whatever they want.

Of course, the thing that's best read in a newspaper are the letter to the editor so if you aren't choosing those objectively to cover all points of view, you start to swing the debate in your paper. If you just choose the ones which support your personal feeling. That's a key area as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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