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Upskilling, rail upgrades needed for B.C. mass timber sector

Smart Prosperity Institute identifies opportunities, challenges for engineered wood in B.C.
Kalesnikoff Lumber in Castlegar manufacturers CLT used in mass timber buildings.

The NDP government in B.C. talks a lot about promoting mass timber and engineered wood products, but a report by the Smart Prosperity Institute suggests that, if it wants to walk the talk, it will need to address a major pinch point: lack of adequate rail capacity in Northeastern B.C., which is one of the few regions of B.C. with an ample timber supply.

The Smart Prosperity Institute, a “clean economy” think tank based out of the University of Ottawa, has produced three reports recently focused on regional economic growth opportunities.

For Ontario, the focus is zero emission vehicle manufacturing opportunities. For Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the focus is building on the production of pulse crops (peas, lentils and chickpeas).

For B.C., Smart Prosperity identifies mass timber as a clean growth opportunity, both for the forestry and construction sectors.

It notes that, as of 2023, more than 350 mass timber projects have been built or are under construction in B.C. It also notes that, to supply this growing market, B.C. would need to more than double the number of engineered wood manufacturing plants that it has within a decade.

“The BC Government projects ten new facilities in the province by 2035 which will create between 2,350 – 4,200 new jobs, and is supporting the initiative through its Mass Timber Action Plan,” the report notes.

“In order for the sector to grow, there are issues around fixing the fibre supply, incentives to small and medium-sized enterprises, but there’s also the issue of ensuring that there are enough skilled workers to help the industry reach its potential,” Hem Dholakia, senior research associate at the Smart Prosperity Institute, told BIV News.

Mass timber is made from an engineered wood product called cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is smaller segments of lumber fused together into larger blocks and beams using glue, dowels or nails.

The first major manufacturer of CLT in B.C. was Structurlam, which last year was acquired by a subsidiary of Mercer International (Nasdaq:MERC).

The Structurlam plants in Penticton and Okanagan Falls now belong to Mercer Mass Timber. Kalesnikoff Lumber in Castlegar also manufacturers CLT. StructureCraft in Abbotsford uses dowel-laminated timber (DLT).

Growing the mass timber sector will require new skills for both the wood manufacturing and construction sectors.

“Based on our research -- and we’ve looked at some examples in Europe – we’ve seen that the presence of skilled workers was absolutely catalytic in helping the mass timber industry grow in that particular continent,” Dholakia said. “The good news is that we only need a little bit of upskilling to orient people…to understand the basics around mass timber and wood construction.”

“Mass timber will change the skills required across the supply chain,” the Smart Prosperity report says. “Our detailed supply chain analysis – from production to adoption of mass timber – finds that workers will need to upskill (i.e. acquire additional skills to do the same job) versus reskill (i.e. learn new skills to do a different job).

“For instance, on the production side, lumber graders and other wood processing inspectors and graders may need to learn about new industry classifications for mass timber products. Meanwhile, on the adoption side, construction managers may need to be more involved in the design stages, meaning they would require greater knowledge of skills around modular construction techniques and mass timber manufacturing. Therefore, we need to prepare the workforce through educational training so that they are ready for these jobs.”

“Programs exist from post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), the College of New Caledonia, and Northern Lights College (NLC),” the report notes. “These institutions offer many of the degrees and diplomas required to fill skilled positions within the mass timber supply chain.”

One of the reasons the B.C. government has been aggressively promoting mass timber is that it is a higher value-added product. With B.C.’s timber supply in a long-term decline, the NDP government is promoting doing more with less.

The one region of B.C. that still has ample timber for manufacturing is the one area that has no manufacturing – Fort Nelson in Northeastern B.C.

It’s this area that Smart Prosperity thinks may have good opportunities for new engineered wood manufacturing.

In 2005, the Tackama sawmill in Fort Nelson shut down, followed by the loss of Canfor Corp. (TSX:CFP) plywood and oriented-strand-board (OSB) mills in 2008.

This left Fort Nelson with an undercut – i.e. an annual allowable cut that has been largely untouched.

“We feel the northern part of B.C. presents a unique opportunity for the rural and resource communities that are there, given that they have a supply of wood,” Dholakia said.

The Fort Nelson First Nation and Northern Rockies Municipality have been lobbying to resurrect their forest industry. Peak Renewables had agreed to start a new wood pellet mill there, but the company can’t make any investments there until a Canadian National Railway (TSX:CNR) line between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson is upgraded. 

This lack of rail capacity would be a major obstacle to developing engineered wood manufacturing there as well, Smart Prosperity notes.

“A lack of supporting infrastructure (such as a lack of railways and other transportation infrastructure to bring products to market), uncertain market demand tempering investment attractiveness for panel manufacturing, and the challenges small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) -- which the majority of mass timber producers are -- face in securing adequate timber supply all need to be addressed,” the report notes.

“In recent years, a wood manufacturing project in Mackenzie, did not come to fruition due to no local access to fibre. Similarly, in (Fort Nelson) the plan for a wood pellet plant has been put on hold due to a lack of railway infrastructure.”

As BIV News reported in 2022, a wood pellet plant and revitalized logging industry in Fort Nelson would require about 4,000 rail cars for logs and 8,000 for wood pellets annually. That extra rail traffic would require rail upgrades estimated to cost $60 million to $75 million.

The federal government has shown willingness to provide some funding, but it would require matching funding from the province, which has been reluctant to date to commit to funding any rail line upgrades.

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