HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's premier says he's keenly aware of the continuing need to diversify the province's economy in 2019, especially with the future of a key economic player up in the air.
Questions around the potential closure of the Northern Pulp mill in Abercrombie, N.S., will grab a share of the headlines in the coming year and Stephen McNeil isn't downplaying the need to prepare for the worst.
The paper mill has become a flashpoint — it proposes to dump more than 62 million litres per day of treated waste into the rich fishing grounds of the Northumberland Strait.
The plan has pitted forest industry workers against fishermen, environmentalists and even the P.E.I. government. Halifax-born movie star Ellen Page has attempted to rally her 1.4 million Twitter followers against it.
But time is quickly running out on the legislated Jan. 30, 2020, deadline for the closure of the mill's effluent treatment plant in Boat Harbour, the heavily polluted lagoon on the edge of the Pictou Landing First Nation. Northern Pulp has yet to submit an environmental assessment application for a new effluent pipe and seismic testing is still incomplete.
Northern Pulp officials have said that no pipe would mean no mill, and McNeil knows its closure will have a significant impact on the forestry sector province-wide.
"There is no easy solution here and we are going to continue to look for options," McNeil told The Canadian Press in a year end interview.
The premier said while he expects the mill will submit an environmental assessment application, his government is also turning its mind to what happens if it doesn't, or if the application is rejected.
"The sawmill industry is so integrated into that particular mill, so if that mill is not there what do we do to keep the viability of our sawmills?" he asked.
McNeil said the future of the mill's workers and retirees will also have to be considered, along with the stability of the employee pension plan.
"We are working towards that," he said.
Despite the risk of a looming economic blow, McNeil insists Northern Pulp will be held to a deadline that was legislated in 2015.
"This has been a five-year window," he said. "It's not like we said do this in 12 months."
Last week, mill officials won an injunction in Nova Scotia Supreme Court against protesters trying to prevent seismic work in the Strait.
The company laid out the impact the mill's closure would have on the province's economy in an affidavit submitted in the case.
It said closure would mean the layoff of 277 employees, while 40 nursery and woodlands employees with affiliated companies would lose their jobs. Work would also disappear for about 600 employees of contractors who harvest wood for the mill, it said.
The document also said the mill supplies about 40 per cent of the logs used by major sawmills in central and eastern Nova Scotia and purchases almost all of the wood chips produced by sawmills in the province.
Northern Pulp is also the largest shipper at the Port of Halifax, and pays about $78.3 million for wood chips, hogfuel and pulpwood, while providing $44 million to private woodland contractors.
Finance Department officials say they haven't included the possibility of a shutdown of the mill in the province's economic projections for the months ahead, though they say it is a risk they are monitoring as the forestry industry continues to restructure.
Officials added that when the Bowater Mersey mill closed in Liverpool in 2012, the province's GDP declined, but there were other factors including reductions in federal and military spending and a slowdown in natural gas production.
Earlier this month, the Conference Board of Canada also said the end of natural gas production in Nova Scotia is weighing on economic growth, with predicted gains of just 0.9 per cent this year and one per cent in 2019.
In its budgetary update last week, the provincial Finance Department said it expects economic growth to slow in 2019 after modest growth in each of the past four years. It also said that after years of export growth, the province's economy may require new investments to "sustain and expand production capacity for further export growth."
"We need to continue making sure that we build the export competency of our companies to make sure they realize they can compete in the global marketplace," said McNeil. "We've demonstrated that in China with the large growth in the export of our seafood."
Regardless of gloomier forecasts, McNeil believes the province needs to continue recent momentum that has seen record population growth and gains in the numbers of young people who are staying in the province to work.