26 October 2005

ACI gets government subsidies for Stephenville

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador today released some details of an agreement with Abitibi Consolidated [ACI] that will see the mill continue in operation for 15 years.

Under the framework agreement, ACI will commit to maintaining the Stephenville mill at current operating levels (194, 000 metrics tonnes of newsprint per year) for a total of 15 years. The company will also install a new boiler at Stephenville by the end of 2006, at an estimated cost of up to $13 million.

The provincial government will $10 million in subsidies to ACI for Stephenville, either directly or through Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. The subsidies will total $150 million.

ACI's original proposal, as released by the provincial government in July, was for a 30 year subsidy agreement of between $7.0 ands $14.0 million per year, with an estimated total of between $210 and $420 million. The framework agreement represents an intermediate figure between the extremes for half the term of the original proposal. If the new agreement were extended to the full term of the original proposal, the cost would be $300 million, the estimated high cost option for constructing new hydro generating capacity for Stephenville.

The new framework agreement also commits both ACI and the provincial government to work on a long-term solution to the Stephenville mills power cost problem. That likely means that ACI and the province's hydro corporation will negotiate construction of new power generation facilities on ACI's watershed holdings to feed the Stephenville mill.

Missing from the announcement is any reference to ACI's Number Seven machine at Grand Falls-Windsor which was slated to close. Expect to see the machine shut down with ACI's associated fibre holdings being transferred to address the fibre supply problem at Stephenville.

This agreement is one possible version of a solution suggested in the Bond Papers in July. At that time, we identified the problem as power rates, an issue created under the Grimes administration.

As we put it at the time: "[a]ll things considered, it is possible the provincial government is not as angry at Abitibi as it might seem. Abitibi may be pushing back at a government which was already playing hard ball at the negotiating table. Read between the lines of government's news release, add in a few other considerations and you get the sense the provincial government will be putting some new cash into Abitibi through reduced power rates."

Today's announcement is exactly that: The provincial government will provide ACI with power subsidies amounting to $150 million over the life of the current agreement.

The announcement also contradicts the Premier's suggestion in September that ACI's divestiture of its PanAsia holdings would allow the company to reinvest in Newfoundland and Labrador. As ACI stated at the time and repeated today, its divestiture will provide $600 million which will be used solely to reduce its current corporate debt load. The divestiture is part of a long term corporate plan to reduce debt and improve its financial position. The investment of $13 million for a new boiler represents a marginal amount and can easily be categorized as routine replacement of equipment. It's a normal capital expenditure or capex as opposed to a dramatic change in the Stephenville operation.