Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire, Ring of Fire – by David Robinson

Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. His column was originally published in May 2010 issue of Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

One way to get attention in the mining world is to mention the Ring of Fire. Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether your column is really about the Ring of Fire. Just mention this new wonder of the world and you get noticed.

I am far too proud to use such a sleazy technique, but the Ring of Fire (three mentions so far) is an enormous opportunity for the mining supply and services sector.  In fact, the Ring of Fire offers a chance to move Northern Ontario’s mining supply and services sector to a new level.

Cliffs Natural Resources intends to process as much as 800,000 tons of chromite annually, which would place the company in fifth place among producing countries – between Russia and Brazil. Production at that rate could continue for a hundred years. At 2007 prices, the annual value would exceed $250 million. Current prices are lower but expected to rise as demand for stainless steel surges.

For the province, developing the Ring of Fire will produce a huge building boom. It will provide jobs for miners and for the 1,200 people in three small First Nation communities: Webequie, Neskantaga and Marten Falls.  Since these are fly-in communities, the new mines will have to pay for all-weather roads and a rail line.

Environmental groups are bracing to fight the project. The province should respond by making development in the Ring of Fire a model for mining development around the world. Ontario could set the standard and Ontario’s mining suppliers could become the world’s leaders in sustainable mining technology, community and environment.

If the Ring of Fire is to be a springboard for the province, the government has to have a plan for developing the supply sector starting now. It is a mistake to think that the wealth from mining flows mainly from developing the mines. In fact, the supply industries already produce more value than the mines in Sudbury. It is obvious that as machinery makes labour more and more productive, the real money is in building the machines, making the communication systems, reconditioning equipment and even in research and training.

The knowledge industries matter. The province has an opportunity to make the Ring of Fire a springboard for research and development. To borrow a phrase from leading mining commentator Stan Sudol, the province could make Laurentian University the Harvard of Mining.

If Ring of Fire chromite is converted to ferrochrome before it is shipped south, there will be still more opportunities. Most chromite-producing nations convert chromite to ferrochrome before they ship it to China. It cuts transportation costs, lets railcars run full in both directions and produces a larger and more sustainable economic base.

But crushers, concentrators, smelters and electric arc furnaces take a lot of power. If we want to get really imaginative, there are huge peat and methane sources that are in danger of turning themselves into carbon dioxide as peat bogs dry out. The region has good potential for wind power. Creative use of wind, peat and methane could meet demand and even earn carbon credits. A more environmentally friendly solution might be to put a small nuclear plant in. There will be more mines near the Ring of Fire and there will be more competition for the power in the Greenstone area, so it doesn’t make sense to ship ore south just to take advantage of a temporary surplus.

Facilities should be designed to have almost no environmental impact. Towns should be designed so than no one needs a car. They should run on renewable energy. They should have greenhouses built in. They should be designed from the beginning to be recycled as tourism facilities when they are no longer needed. There should be on-site university and college training for everyone. All buildings should have high-speed Internet.  They should be places where people want to raise kids.

And do we have to cut a monstrous scar through the boreal forest for power lines, rail lines and roads? Could we build a world-beating monorail, or a cable-tethered heavy-lift balloon system?

The Ring of Fire gives us a chance to be the most creative and most technically advanced mining jurisdiction in the world – if we have the guts to dream.