The Hudson Bay Route Association predicts more than 500,000 tonnes of grain will be exported this season
The Port of Churchill’s 2013 grain-exporting season began Aug. 4 when the Atlantic Dreamer arrived to load 30,000 tonnes of wheat destined for Mexico.
There was enough grain on hand to load three more vessels, Hudson Bay Route Association (HBRA) president Sinclair Harrison said in an interview.
Last year Manitoba’s only seawater port exported 432,434 tonnes of grain — mostly wheat and durum, but also barley and canola — down about four per cent from the 10-year average of more than 450,000 tonnes.
It was also the first crop year after the Canadian Wheat Board, formerly almost the only grain exporter to use Churchill, lost its wheat and barley sales monopoly.
Wheat board officials have said exporting grain through Churchill could save farmers up to $20 a tonne depending on the destination. Port supporters fear grain companies will prefer to use their own terminals on the West Coast or on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway corridor.
To assist the port owned by OmniTRAX, which also owns the rail line to Churchill, the federal government is paying users a $9-a-tonne subsidy totalling $25 million over five years.
“It’s my understanding it (subsidy) has all been spoken (for 2013),” Harrison said. “So that brings us to (exports) over 500,000 tonnes. I think there are some shipments going out without the incentive, which is a good sign.”
Climate change pros and cons
The port’s biggest shortcoming is its short shipping season, which most years runs from around July 31 to Oct. 31. But renowned Arctic expert and University of Manitoba professor, David Barber says the shipping season could be expanded at least a month now and even longer in the future because of climate change.
“Right now the open water is 30 days longer than it used to be,” Barber said during a seminar last year at the University of Manitoba.
“The date of shipping into Churchill is just artificially assigned right now. It needs to be defined based on scientific evidence.”
A committee is working to get the season extended, Harrison said.
“Certainly the science is there to support it, it’s just to get the insurance agencies and some federal regulations up to current times,” he said. “The most beneficial extension would be in the fall… so we’re shipping new-crop grain.”
There’s also talk of exporting potash and importing urea fertilizer through Churchill and improving the oil storage facilities.
The same warmer weather that is extending the season may also affect the viability of the rail line by melting the permafrost underneath. However, Harrison says improvements have been made thanks to investments from OmniTRAX and the federal and Manitoba governments.
“There are fewer derailments and things are running much more on time,” he said.
There’s also interest in building a winter road from Churchill north to supply remote mines. That would mean more business for the railway, Harrison said.
This week, Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed announced he was resigning his seat to become the new president of OmniTRAX.
The Hudson Bay rail line was completed in September 1929 at a cost of $45 million, and the grain terminal began operating in 1931.
In 1944 the Hudson Bay Route Association was formed to lobby for more grain shipments through the port. The association’s membership consists of individuals, as well as rural municipalities with grain production within Churchill’s catchment area.