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Economic developers undergird top crop

Wrap your brain around 122 trillion BTUs. Without context, you’re likely lost. But a walk in the woods frames the number nicely. In Louisiana’s forestry sector, that’s the annual energy extracted from biomass for electricity generation.

Louisiana now ranks No. 7 for renewable energy derived from wood and waste, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis of states. It’s a higher-value application of lower-grade forest products, one that forms energy pellets for international markets.

Louisiana’s energy pellet success emerged from crisis in rural Northeast Louisiana. Amid consolidation and recession in 2008, International Paper announced the closure of its 550-job paper mill in Bastrop. Economic developer Kay King joined Louisiana Economic Development in a redevelopment plan for the area. Her Morehouse Economic Development Corp. commissioned an LSU wood basket study, and soon prospect calls were coming from Oregon, Turkey and South Korea.

The project that stuck — an energy biomass investment from the United Kingdom — helped save a critical short-line railroad and spare thousands of acres of forestlands from permanent clearing for other land uses.

“Drax Biomass is a wonderful project,” said King, who joined former Drax executive Brian Moran in Baton Rouge the day final incentive approval came for a $120 million project. “We were having this discussion about the future of energy that day. You need diversification. (Drax) is not producing every kilowatt of energy with wood, but the future of energy is going to be how we combine our resources to make the most efficient and environmentally friendly energy we can.”

Today, Drax employs 290 people. After targeting 47 jobs in Morehouse Parish, the company exceeded state goals and now employs 159 in Morehouse and LaSalle parishes. Drax created 59 more jobs in Monroe by moving corporate headquarters from Atlanta, and it operates a biomass plant in Amite County, Mississippi. Recently, Drax loaded 63,000 metric tons into the 100th ship dispatching pellets from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to the U.K.

“With Louisiana’s well-managed and sustainable timber industry, our business has been very resilient,” said Annmarie Sartor, Drax Biomass communications officer. In addition to supporting 12 percent of the U.K.’s renewable electricity, she said parent Drax Group hopes to be carbon-negative — taking more carbon from the air than it produces — by 2030.

Broad impact

While pursuing new prospects, LED devotes even more energy to strengthening mature forest products companies. Most are modernizing for changing markets. And modernization helps secure jobs in Louisiana’s rural communities.

In the past decade, state of Louisiana incentives helped attract the following projects:

• Graphic Packaging International — In a $274 million project spanning West Monroe and Monroe, LED and the Ouachita Industrial Development Board supported a new 1.27 million-square-foot carton folding and distribution facility, retaining more than 800 paper mill and packaging jobs and resulting in 160 new jobs.

• Hood Container — In St. Francisville, the company is investing $50 million to upgrade paper capacity and retain 306 jobs.

• International Paper — In Mansfield, a $102 million containerboard project retained 560 jobs; in Bogalusa, a $44 million modernization project retained 411 jobs.

• Jeld-Wen — In Winn Parish, a new $120 million engineered-door plant created 75 manufacturing jobs and resulted in 200 total jobs.

• Packaging Corporation of America — In DeRidder, LED supported a $111 million project to reconfigure a paper machine from newsprint to linerboard, retaining 440 jobs and resulting in 275 new direct and indirect jobs.

• Weyerhaeuser — In Natchitoches, a $6 million modernization retained 175 jobs and resulted in 77 new jobs.

• WestRock — A $250 million modernization retained more than 400 employees for a Jackson Parish containerboard mill that furnishes power for one village and wastewater treatment for three villages.

“Not only do we appreciate forestry’s $12 billion annual impact in Louisiana, we work every day to add value to our communities,” LED Secretary Don Pierson said. “That can be through expansion of a paper, pulp or saw mill. That can be through facilitating better port, rail or road infrastructure. And it even extends to international commerce, where we often attract prospects who value Louisiana’s wood basket.”

One of those prospects, Canada’s Tolko Industries, joined Ruston-based Hunt Forest Products to build Louisiana’s first greenfield sawmill in years. The 125-employee, $115 million LaSalle Lumber mill restored a legacy industry in Urania, where next-door Drax uses residual sawmill material.

“We were very excited to bring a high-tech sawmill and the skilled jobs it provides to Central Louisiana,” said Hunt Forest Products Chairman Trott Hunt, who cited an annual 850,000-ton supply of chiefly Southern Yellow Pine that feeds sawmill production of 200 million board feet of lumber. “The level of support provided to us by the state of Louisiana, from the Governor’s Office to LED, was a key to making this project happen and a great example of state government and the private sector working together to make a difference in Central Louisiana.”

Training talent

For the past 11 years, Louisiana’s LED FastStart® program has ranked No. 1 in the United States among state workforce and talent attraction programs. For forestry alone, FastStart has delivered more than 8,200 hours of innovative training to approximately 1,000 workers.

“The forest products manufacturers — lumber, paper, pulp, containerboard, energy pellets, plywood and OSB — fit right into our efforts to prepare students for future jobs through our Louisiana Community and Technical College System,” said Paul Helton, LED FastStart’s executive director.

Alexandria-based RoyOMartin worked with Central Louisiana Technical Community College and Northwestern State University to produce a 10-week course designed for underemployed workers. Called Certified4Success, C4S joined LED FastStart’s Certification for Manufacturing credential (C4M) and enabled a pipeline of graduates who earn 22 credit hours at the colleges and a production role at the company’s 700-employee Chopin plywood plant.

“At RoyOMartin, we pride ourselves on growing millions of trees,” Chairman Roy O. Martin III said. “Yet trees are not our most important asset. Our people are the No. 1 asset in the company, so we are really in the business of growing people to maintain our competitive advantage.”

In Morehouse Parish, where the poverty rate is twice the national average, Kay King is focused on opportunities for people. She recently watched with pride while stopped for an 81-car train hauling energy pellets to West Baton Rouge Parish. And she hopes rail improvements and a new Entergy substation near Drax can deliver more.

“We’re still looking for our timber or lumber mill up here,” she said, noting the parish is prepared for growth.

Jim Clinton concurs that the success of rural Louisiana is linked to forestry.

“Forestry is the historic cornerstone for Central Louisiana’s economy,” said Clinton, president and CEO of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. “During the past few years, we have experienced significant growth in wood-based manufacturing, including expansions in the RoyOMartin operations, Hunt Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser, with others expected to be announced soon. With the advent of new technologies in wood-based building materials, we think that forest-related enterprises will continue to be a strong contributor to our primarily rural region.” P

(Gary Perilloux is communications director for the Louisiana Economic Development.)


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