Black Thor faces cost pressures, volatile markets, First Nations opposition
The timelines for Cliffs Natural Resources to develop a chromite mining project in the James Bay lowlands still remain somewhat murky.
Bill Boor, Cliffs' senior vice-president of global ferroalloys, spoke to a Sudbury Chamber of Commerce lunchtime crowd Nov. 6 to outline progress on the massive $3.3-billion Black Thor mine and Capreol furnace project, and also to tamp down reports that the Ohio miner's development timelines are slipping by one year.
Boor maintains that the company is still shooting for a late-2016 start-up for mining operations, despite earlier comments by his CEO, Joseph Carrabba, that cost pressures and volatile markets could push back the start-up of production to 2017.
“My simple answer is, it depends,” said Boor on the project scheduling. “A lot of things have to go right for this to happen.”
In an Oct. 25 third-quarter conference call with analysts, Carrabba said the company is curbing capital spending and is holding off on early site construction at the remote location in the so-called Ring of Fire until a detailed feasibility study is finished next summer.
While Cliffs believes Black Thor has great long-term potential, Carrabba said uncertain global economics and volatile commodity prices, particularly the sharp decline in prices of iron ore — Cliffs' bread and butter commodity — has the company taking a serious re-evaluation of the project in its 2013 business plan.
“This includes delaying the major capital spending outlays and could push the production target date beyond 2017,” Carrabba told analysts.
In an interview, Boor categorized Carrabba's comments as a “misstatement” that were later clarified.
Key challenges remain for Cliffs in striking a power agreement with Ontario, developing better relations with First Nations in the Far North, and sourcing the capital to invest in vital transportation infrastructure.
“Right now, the target remains 2016 and it's a schedule that's got some risk of slippage,” Boor told the crowd.
Cliffs' plan is to truck chromite 330 kilometres down an all-weather road from the Ring of Fire to a transload facility on the main Canadian National Railway line at Greenstone in northwestern Ontario.
About 1.1 million annual tonnes of concentrate will head west to China while 1.2 million tonnes of chromite heads east to Sudbury where a ferrochrome smelter will be built in Capreol.
Boor said the 560,000 tonnes of ferrochrome produced in Sudbury will represent between 10 and 12 per cent of world production.
Boor said as world demand for ferrochrome, used in stainless steel production, grows, the Capreol plant could expand with more furnaces added.
The project certainly has created some excitement among Sudbury's workforce.
In launching an Internet jobs website to gauge interest, the company received 1,629 applications with 962 seeking work with the furnace operation.
“It reaffirms the reason why we decided to come here.”
A major X-factor that threatens the pace of the mine development remain Cliffs' relations with First Nation communities in the Far North.
Almost three years after announcing it was player in the Ring of Fire, Cliffs is still working on reaching definitive working agreements with Aboriginal communities near the Black Thor deposit.
Boor said while they feel good about the progress made in discussions with First Nations, “we need to move the relationship to the point where they're willing to work with us in this project.
“We're not asking them to agree with the project, we're asking them to work with us to figure it out. And we do need a bit of breakthrough there.”
Some of the communities are taking Ottawa to court over the environmental assessment process for the project.
They say the federal comprehensive review process doesn't go far enough and they want a more expansive joint panel review. And there could be more legal action coming which could threaten and delay development.
“That is unfortunate and that has been a regrettable problem,” said Boor. “Some of the chiefs have gotten to the point in the relationship where they've said, let's work within the process, and others are stuck on the joint panel review. I wish we could bring them in.”
The negotiations are continuing between Cliffs and the Ontario government on a power agreement for the mine and furnace site.
Last May, in announcing the $1.8-billion ferrochrome smelter for Sudbury, Boor said he was “comfortable” in siting the furnace here based on his discussions with Queen's Park on the price of power.
“We are discussing a number, but because of the nature of the negotiations, I can't go there. I'm anxious to say the deal is done and now it's public.”
On the transportation front, Cliffs is considering a deep-pocketed joint venture partner as an option to fund the construction of the infrastructure.
“We're not committed to that path, but we're having discussions with people and we're talking to a broad range. It could be an Asian company or someone else, if we do it at all.”
- Ian Ross