The province is turning to the private sector to answer the question blocking progress of the Ring of Fire: How will ore be transported from the remote site in northwestern Ontario to markets in the east.
In a webcast from Thunder Bay on Friday morning, Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said Deloitte Canada has been hired as a “neutral third party” to assess transportation options and prepare a report recommending the best route and means.
“This is an important step,” Gravelle said. “We're going to take advantage of their very specific expertise ... to prepare a neutral assessment of the (transportation) options that are out there.”
With chromite reserves worth as much as $60 billion, the Ring of Fire deposit and its economic potential has been held up by legal battles between Cliffs Natural Resources and KWG, a junior minor that owns land in the area best suited for a transportation corridor.
Cliffs lost an appeal to the Ontario Mining Commission late last year that would have allowed the company an easement on the property to begin planning the necessary infrastructure.
Coupled with lack of agreements with First Nations in the area, the company announced it was suspending work on the Ring of Fire until the major hurdles were dealt with. That stopped work all on the $3.3-billion development, including plans to build a $1.8 billion refinery near Capreol.
Cliffs has appealed the decision, and the province has stepped in, as well. Pressure has been building on Gravelle and Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government to end the impasse and get the project moving again.
When asked how long the report would take, Gravelle said Deloitte knows time is of the essence, but he said it's also important to get it right.
“I'm keen to see it prepared quickly,” he said.
He declined to say how much the report would cost, and whether it would be made public once complete.
Gravelle had better news on negotiations with First Nations who live near the Ring of Fire. He said “significant progress” has been made in talks with former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who is representing the communities in the negotiations.
“There is still work to be done,” Gravelle said. “But I feel comfortable speaking publicly that we are making progress ... on the key elements.”
There's also progress on environmental approvals and other regulatory processes that must be completed before work can begin, Gravelle said.
The province was disappointed there was no mention of the project in this week's federal budget, he added.
“We are prepared to make a significant investment in infrastructure,” he said. “The Ring of Fire is a project of national significance … The federal government needs to be at the table.”
In a release Friday, Gravelle said Deloitte will help guide the development corporation the province created specifically for the chromite discovery.
“Deloitte LLP will work with Ring of Fire partners to set clear paths and timelines for decision-making, create guiding principles for the development corporation, and seek consensus on the corporation's next steps,” the release said.
“A third-party research report will examine existing infrastructure proposals and establish a common technical basis to inform decisions to maximize the economic and social potential of the Ring of Fire region.”
At a glance:
-Deloitte LLP is one of Canada’s leading professional firms in consulting and corporate negotiation.
-The Ring of Fire is the largest chromite deposit ever discovered in North America and has a known mineral potential worth $60 billion.
-Chromite is a key ingredient of stainless steel.
-Regional framework negotiations are being led by Frank Iacobucci for Ontario and Bob Rae for the local Matawa-member First Nations communities.