Local shipyards to consider bid for new ferries

Union head says three new mid-sized vessels should be built in B.C

NORTH SHORE shipbuilders say they hope to be in the running for contracts to build three new B.C. ferries.

B.C. Ferries announced Tuesday it plans to build three new intermediate class vessels to replace aging vessels between 2014 and 2017, and will award a construction contract in January 2014.

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Heads of both Seaspan and Allied Shipbuilders in North Vancouver called the announcement good news for their industry.

"It's good to see the announcement. It's exciting," said Jonathan Whitworth, chief executive officer of Seaspan. Whitworth said the company will have to see more details before deciding whether to bid.

Chuck Ko, head of Allied Shipubuilders, said his company is also "seriously looking into it," calling the announcement "exciting times."

Both Canadian and international shipyards have been invited to put their names in for a pre-qualification process, which will determine who gets to bid on the contract.

In 2004, the ferry corporation launched a storm of protest from local shipbuilders after handing a $325 million contract for construction of three Super C class ferries to a German shipyard. The corporation said at the time the deal was more than $150 million cheaper than what it could have negotiated with local shipbuilders.

George MacPherson, spokesman for the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Industrial Union, is hopeful it will be different this time.

"We think they're probably a perfect fit to be built in British Columbia," said MacPherson about the intermediate class vessels. "We think that we have the capacity and the manpower to do these jobs, so we think it will work well for the industry here."

Seaspan is currently about a quarter of the way through a $150-million to $200-million modernization of the shipyard to accommodate construction of several large vessels for the federal government. In 2011, the company was awarded an estimated $8 billion federal contract to build at least seven non-combat vessels. The first of those ships - an offshore fisheries and science vessel - is expected to get underway next year.

Contracts for the two largest vessels - the joint support ships for the navy, budgeted at $2.6 billion - will come later in the project.

Whitworth said this week the timing of the federal vessel construction will likely determine whether Seaspan bids on the ferries contract. "It all depends on the specifications and the timing of deliveries," he said. "We've got a tall order to deliver on the federal government projects and it was always designed that we could do both federal vessels and third party, like B.C. Ferries, but it all depends on whether or not we have capacity in the shipyard."

"If there's something that we can fit into our programs then we look forward to doing it," he added.

B.C. Ferries is hoping to have the new vessels fuelled by liquefied natural gas, though more technical and financial details will have to be ironed out before it can be finalized.

"It really won't affect that much from the shipyards standpoint," said MacPherson. "It certainly drives up the cost of the vessel and I think B.C. Ferries certainly understands that."

LNG is a direction a lot of the frontrunners of ferry operators are heading towards, said Ko. "It would be cutting edge technology that's being introduced in British Columbia and we have LNG resources so it all makes sense," he said.

If Seaspan did make a bid, the LNG fuelled ships would be the first they have dealt with, said Brian Carter, president of Seaspan Shipyards. "The biggest impact there would be the containment system for the LNG fuel, but that's not brand new technology," said Carter. "It is the way of the future and I think it'd be great if B.C. Ferries does head in that direction. It burns much cleaner, that's the main difference, and as a fuel it's less expensive than diesel."

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