BUSINESS
09/19/2011 01:24 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

Clark's job plan starts in Prince Rupert with $90-million rail-transport plan

VICTORIA - Premier Christy Clark launched her much-anticipated job creation plan Monday, prompting one economist to say it contained some good elements, but the Opposition New Democrats to pan it as a recycled plan from her unpopular predecessor.

Clark was in Prince Rupert on Monday to announce a rail and road expansion project for the city's port facility, her first major policy initiative since she became premier earlier this year.

She also travelled to Kitimat Village and met with First Nations to promote plans for a natural gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas terminal in northwest B.C.

The $90-million first phase of the port project will create about 570 construction jobs, with the potential of a further 4,000 operation jobs once the facility is fully developed, Clark said.

The B.C. government will kick in $15 million for the first phase of a port expansion project, while CN Rail and the Port of Prince Rupert will add $30 million each, Clark said.

"It's an opportunity for Canada and it begins here at this port in Prince Rupert," she said. "Our plan is called Canada Starts Here."

Clark said Prince Rupert, about 750 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, represents Canada's best opportunity to cash in on the burgeoning Asia-Pacific market because the city has an expanding port facility that is closer to China than any other seaport in North America.

"From here we are two or three days closer to any other port on the North American continent," she said. "A century ago this was where a lot of maps ended, but now this is where the map of the future begins."

The NDP has been calling on the government to invest heavily in skills training to ensure B.C. has a qualified workforce to take advantage of any new jobs.

New Democrat Opposition critic Carole James said she expected more from the jobs announcement, which she said was a recycled version of the 2006 announcement former premier Gordon Campbell made when he said B.C. must take advantage of the Pacific gateway.

"I really expected more than another slogan," said James. "I heard another great goal today just as you used to with Gordon Campbell."

B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins said the port project announcement was more about politics than jobs because the expansion must still pass environmental approval.

But Helmut Pastrick, chief economist of Central 1 Credit Union, said the longer capital investment in the port should help with job creation.

"This is certainly one element, and it's certainly a good one," he said.

Pastrick said improving port facilities in Prince Rupert and touting the area's geographical advantage could attract new business, but it's not a guarantee.

Other factors, including location of population centres and market products, also contribute to business decisions, he said.

Clark said the Prince Rupert project involves improving and expanding rail and transport access to port facilities that currently ship coal, potash, grain and container items.

The entire project will amount to $300 million in developments.

The first phase project includes investments of $30 million from CN and $30 million from the Prince Rupert Port Authority. The federal government has yet to determine whether it will kick in the remaining $15 million.

Construction is scheduled to start next year.

In Kitimat Village, Clark said B.C. will take several steps to help develop a liquefied natural gas industry, with a goal of opening an LNG plant in Kitimat by 2015, and possibly three LNG facilities in the area by 2020.

Clark outlined four steps to ensure the project proceeds: speeding the permitting process, skills development and training, attracting investment and marketing internationally.

Currently, the most advanced project is the Kitimat LNG terminal proposed by Apache Canada Ltd., EOG Resources Inc, and EnCana Corp. This terminal is located on Haisla Nation territory.

The proposed Kitimat terminal would receive natural gas from a pipeline from northeast B.C., where the natural gas would be cooled in Kitimat to the point where it turns to liquid that can then be exported to Asian markets.

The project, which could create up to 1,500 construction jobs and 140 permanent jobs, still requires federal approval from the National Energy board, which is considering a 20-year licence to export liquid natural gas.

Pastrick said he's not sure how much sway a provincial government has over federal bodies, but he believes the approval of an LNG pipeline and terminal would produce an expansion of B.C.'s natural gas industry.

Natural gas in Asia is currently selling at three or four times higher than the price in Canada.

Clark's jobs plan also takes her to Kamloops, Surrey and Vancouver, where she will unveil her entire agenda on Thursday at a Board of Trade luncheon.

She embarked on her jobs plan as the B.C. economy is projected to decline and job creation for the year is expected to be under one per cent.

"Defending and creating jobs is the primary mission of my government," she said. "It will be my primary mission until I finish this job as premier."

Clark has scheduled a trade mission to China and India in November.

She said the Prince Rupert port currently loads and exports coal from Tumbler Ridge, containers of forest products from Prince George, wood pellets from Houston and Quesnel and grain from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as potash from Saskatchewan.

Clark said her jobs plan, which does not include job creation estimates, involves the government encouraging innovation, production of sought-after goods and getting out of the way of business.

Don Krusel, Port of Prince Rupert's chief executive officer, said the port has an expansion vision that looks towards 2020 and targets Asia.

"That vision is to expand the port at the pace and size necessary to ensure those raw resources, those consumer goods and those materials and those agricultural products find their way to those 35 cities (in China) the size of New York that are going to be built in the coming years," Krusel said.

He said China forecasts that up to 350 million people will be moving to their cities within the next 10 to 20 years.

CN Rail president Claude Mongeau said the Prince Rupert port project is an investment in the future.

"It's an investment in infrastructure to create the transportation backbone that's required to connect Canada and British Columbia to the rest of the world."