Q&A: David Black’s oil ambitions

David Black | BCBusiness

David Black isn’t done with newspapers, but the trained engineer would like to add “oil baron” to his business card

We’re midway through our unorthodox late lunch of hazelnut and maple ice cream when David Black announces that not even he thought he’d still be spearheading the campaign to refine bitumen from the Alberta oilsands.

For two years, the Victoria-based newspaper mogul has been pushing the ambitious idea of building an oil refinery in Kitimat—with less risk to the ocean as well as the creation of “10,000” direct and indirect jobs—rather than sending it directly to Asia by tanker. Establishing Kitimat Clean Ltd., a company devoted to planning and operating the refinery, he has spent “many millions thus far” and journeyed to China to secure further financing.
But, as the president of the Victoria-based Black Press Group Ltd. admits, “I thought I’d be a catalyst, and then the oil companies would take over.” Now the 68-year-old has the “bit between my teeth” after their reluctance to be involved with the refinery (he believes the large firms are not willing to invest because they already have refineries offshore and want more than a 10 per cent return on investment). “If Canada is dumb enough to let them, then all they will want to do is ‘rip it and ship it,’” he says.

So here today—at Arc restaurant, in Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel—he’s explaining how the refinery would be “nation-building at its best.” While admitting that only now does he realize just how many more stakeholders are involved, Black is confidently pressing on, having just launched a five-month-long feasibility engineering study for its cost and design (Black estimates the refinery will cost $21 billion to build, with around a 100-year oil supply and annual revenues of $25 billion). He hopes to see shovels in the ground as early as 2017.

On the surface, Black is driven by seeing the industrial “value-added opportunity” during his recent three years as chair on the B.C. Progress Board, which studies the province’s economy. He joined after four decades moulding a successful business out of 150 community and daily publications plus 50 magazines in Western Canada, Washington, Ohio, California and Hawaii that he says yields half a billion in annual revenues. (Black started as a junior business analyst at Crown Life and then the Toronto Star before buying the Williams Lake Tribune from his father in 1975.)

David Black’s Favourites

1. “For a business dinner, I’ll head to Deep Cove Chalet (11190 Chalet Rd., North Saanich; deepcovechalet.com): wonderful atmosphere, good food.”
2. “I can look out over the water and I can choose my pasta toppings at the chef’s station at the Pan Pacific (300-999 Canada Place, Vancouver; panpacificvancouver.com). ”
3. “I have almost all my meetings at home in Victoria. Occasionally I have lunch at the restaurant at my golf club, Victoria Golf Club (1110 Beach Dr., Victoria; victoriagolf.com)

Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find his refinery bid is the confluence of far more personal passions: not only a lifetime’s sailing up the “pretty special” west coast on his 77-foot-long boat with his late wife, Annabeth, but a throwback to his UBC degree in civil engineering and a summer job in Alberta for Esso in the ’60s.

“Always in the back of my mind, I did rue the fact that I never practised engineering,” says Black, who has an MBA from Western University. “It’s ironic that here at the end of my career, when I should be retired, all of a sudden I am into one of the biggest engineering projects ever in the history of Canada.”

Besides, when you no longer feel the lure of sailing and golfing and have already enjoyed a “wonderful and long” business career and family life, the father-of-four and grandfather-of-nine appreciates the new venture. (Not that he has any intention of retiring soon from Black Press, either: he’s currently involved in buying several more papers.) 

“I’m enjoying being immersed in this new project when I am not working on Black Press,” he concludes. “My wife died, the kids are all grown up and I’m left, so what else am I going to do?”