Strictly Business: Potash still holds hope for growth

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In 2008, the Port of Vancouver and BHP Billiton — the Australian mining giant — started talking about the possibility of the company's making the port's Terminal 5 into a home for its planned new potash export facility.

Four years later, the two parties remain locked in negotiations over a project that would create thousands of temporary construction jobs and bring to Vancouver at least $250 million in private capital investment.

That's nothing to scoff at, especially when you consider a Clark County economy that certainly could use a good jolt.

With 2013 just getting under way, it's not a stretch to imagine that the public, which owns the port (the port's 111-square-mile district encompasses 300,000 property taxpayers), might be wondering: When will the talk finally translate into action, to earth-movers' making way for BHP Billiton's export venture?

After all, the port — overseen by three elected commissioners — is all about building up its industrial, rail and marine facilities to spur job growth.

Well, it's not that progress hasn't been made on BHP Billiton's proposal. The company wants to lease up to 60 acres of Terminal 5, where it would build an export facility to ship potash, a fertilizer ingredient that environmental regulators consider nontoxic to aquatic organisms.

BHP Billiton, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, would ship potash by rail to the port, where it would then be loaded onto ships bound primarily for Asia. The company would haul the potash from a mine it's developing in Canada's Saskatchewan Basin.

So far, the company, which has a market cap of $210.33 billion (for perspective, Microsoft Corp.'s market cap is $229.35 billion) has done some prep work on the Terminal 5 site. The parties have a preliminary lease agreement, with the port's commission unanimously agreeing in December to an important extension of that agreement to Feb. 13.

Meanwhile, the port's executive director, Todd Coleman, is expected in the next several weeks to head to Saskatchewan, where he'll meet with BHP officials to discuss a new preliminary agreement that would take the negotiations beyond Feb. 13.

The point is to keep the ball rolling in hopes of eventually breaking ground on a project.

But much has changed between 2008 and now. Forcing the extension of negotiations is a weak global economy that prompted BHP to delay its potash project. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, global demand for potash in 2012 is "expected to (turn out to have been) 9 percent lower than its peak in 2007."

Landing BHP Billiton's facility would create jobs, significantly boost the cargo tonnage the port handles, inject private capital into the region, and secure a long-term stream of lease income for the port -- all of which would enable the port to plow more funds into additional public works projects, including its prized West Vancouver Freight Access rail project, to grow the economy.

Suffice it to say, the stakes for the port remain high.

What hasn't changed, said Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager, is the relationship between the port and BHP, which "is still very strong and positive."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.