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Newspaper publisher David Black displays jars of oil in Vancouver on Aug. 17 while unveiling a plan to build a B.C. refinery.

BEN NELMS/REUTERS

Newspaper publisher David Black says he has found markets in China and Japan for processed fuel from a proposed $13-billion oil refinery he is promoting for Northern B.C.

The interest expressed by companies during his just-concluded 10-day visit to Asia makes the case, he said, that the two countries would rather purchase processed Canadian fuel than refine raw Alberta bitumen themselves.

"When people say, 'There's no market for refined fuel,' I don't know what they're smoking," he said in an interview upon his return. "I didn't have one meeting where anyone said, 'David. We'd rather refine it here.' "

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Mr. Black, who returned home last Thursday, declined to identify the companies he met with.

The trip was the latest turn in a mission for the founder and chair of Victoria-based Black Press Ltd. that began in August when he first disclosed the idea of the refinery, which would be built by 2020.

Mr. Black has cast the refinery as a boon for B.C. that would create 9,000 construction and operational jobs as it processed all the output of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

A refinery would also, Mr. Black says, diminish the threat of a heavy crude oil spill by transforming it into safer refined fuels. And it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues.

Since announcing the proposal in a news conference in a Vancouver hotel, the 66-year-old Mr. Black has largely vanished from the media spotlight.

But he has travelled thousands of kilometres to advance his idea of the refinery, which would be located on a 3,000-hectare site between Kitimat and Terrace.

He organized the Asia trip with the help of Canadian embassies in both countries, as well as consulting B.C. trade experts.

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That said, he noted he has not recently spoken to senior levels in the B.C. government. When Mr. Black first proposed the idea, B.C. Energy Minister Rich Coleman said it would have to successfully complete an environmental review.

His meetings in Asia, he said, were just a "first, very general approach. I really just went to talk, to discuss the matter, to see if it would fit into their plans."

He said the companies wanted to know if investment to build the refinery would be welcome. "I said yes." Despite the financial resources that come with owning 150 newspapers, Mr. Black has said he can't afford to buy a big stake in a $13-billion project.

Mr. Black said he is holding off on a detailed search for investors, preferring instead to focus on the environmental assessment and outreach related to the project.

He is paying the costs to begin preparing research for an assessment submission, and has also financed the now-completed preliminary engineering work on the basics of his proposal.

He would not offer a specific figure on how much the project has so far cost him, but said he will be in for a few million dollars. "It's not breaking my bank."

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While travelling for business that's related to his newspaper operation, Mr. Black has also pushed the refinery project. That meant a speech at a recent heavy oil conference in Calgary. He says he has also spoken to native leaders on Haida Gwaii. And on Oct. 11, he played host to a town hall, attended by about 100 people, in Prince Rupert.

The Black Press-operated Northern View weekly newspaper, based in Prince Rupert, reported that "numerous" members of the audience disputed a Black Press poll that found support for the project, with some saying they had not heard of anyone who backed the refinery.

The report also said audience members expressed concerns about the project damaging the environment. However, the paper also noted there was some support for the project because it would create jobs for youth.

"I listened to everybody and everybody had a chance to speak," Mr. Black said of the meeting. "It was all very Canadian."

He said it has been a challenge juggling work on the refinery with his role at Black Press. "I could put 80 hours a week into this and there would be more to do. There's not enough hours."

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