Weyerhaeuser VP touts woody biomass during Longview visit

Weyerhaeuser Co.’s operations in Cowlitz County — including a year-old sawmill, newsprint manufacturer Norpac, log exporting and timberlands — are performing well, even as the company struggles through the recession, a top-ranking Weyerhaeuser Co. executive said in Longview Thursday.

Ernesta Ballard, the company’s vice president for corporate affairs, spoke to about 60 community leaders two days after the Federal Way-based company announced a $264 million loss for the quarter ending in March — a steep hit, but not as bad as investors feared.

Ballard deflected a question from the audience about whether she sees a reduced company presence in the Cowlitz County area, where Weyerhaeuser is the second-highest employer, but she had high praise for the company’s local operations.

The timberlands in Cowlitz County are among the most Weyerhaeuser’s most productive, which enhances the value of the Industrial Way sawmill, she said at the Cowlitz Expo Center.

Norpac, which the company co-owns with Japan-based Nippon Paper Products, has struggled with the decline of newspaper circulation, but the mill has made up for it by increasing production of book publishing paper, she said.

The company is looking to a warm summer in Japan, which would boost sales of juice containers and other liquid packaging products produced in Longview, she said.

However, Weyerhaeuser needs to look at different business models to remain competitive in the wake of the nationwide housing slump, such as selling leftover wood chips as fuel for “biomass” power plants, Ballard said.

Weyerhaeuser has already partnered with Chevron to explore the possibility of producing fuel from woody debris, and the federal stimulus package includes $800 million to encourage development of renewable energy from wood.

But the company needs the state to include woody biomass in its renewable energy mandates for utilities, Ballard said.

“If that’s not included, along with wind, solar and geothermal, we will miss a great opportunity,” Ballard said.

Two big obstacles are in the way: One, the wood chip supply might not be adequate. Two, so much investment and attention have gone into the ethanol boom, which has gone bust, she said.