Chromite competition [Thunder Bay/Greenstone] Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (November 18, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

THUNDER BAY and Greenstone have both made their pitches to host the facility that will process chromite ore from the Ring of Fire, Ontario’s most promising mineral deposit in years. Both sent delegations Wednesday to the Cleveland offices of Cliffs Natural Resources, the key player, and both came away confident they’d made the case for this important development.

Both have benefits and drawbacks, and without knowing what went on in Cliffs’ boardroom it is impossible to ascertain who may now enjoy an edge. But Greenstone appears to have put more effort into selling itself. It hired former Ontario energy minister now consultant George Smitherman to bring his influence to bear. It is also working with a public relations company.

Greenstone issued an opinion piece to this newspaper timed to coincide with Cliffs’ open house in Thunder Bay Monday and the trip to Cleveland two days later. It made a compelling case involving proximity to the proposed ore transfer point and a regional energy grid which is the key to such a power-hungry development.

Upon its delegation’s return, Greenstone issued a statement outlining the nature of its meeting and the fact they met Tuesday with provincial officials at Queen’s Park. It even thought to add the tantalizing fact that the Cliffs meeting ran overtime.

In a region of such high unemployment, the chromite processor will mean hundreds of quality jobs and provide a major economic stimulus to the whole region. Thunder Bay and Greenstone are up against Sudbury, already a mining powerhouse and used by Cliffs as its “base case” model to plan for the ferrochrome production facility.

Thunder Bay appears to have opted for a quieter approach. There is no powerful former deputy premier, no PR firm and its post-trip presentation consisted of a media scrum at the airport. Meetings with provincial officials have occurred, but local delegates aren’t saying what went on. They do see a potential partnership.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs spoke about working with Greenstone to ensure the processor is built somewhere in the Northwest. If it goes northeast to Sudbury, he said, the benefits to this region will be minimized. He went so far as to say that if Cliffs doesn’t choose Thunder Bay, he hopes it picks Greenstone. Which is not to say that Thunder Bay is fading from the running, not by a long shot. Its public face this week may not have been as shiny as Greenstone’s, but this city has as many benefits for Cliffs to consider.

Both communities stressed the importance of their alliance with First Nations. But while Hobbs and other Thunder Bay leaders travelled to Cleveland with Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins, the Greenstone delegation did not include a representative from Matawa First Nations with member communities closest to the Black Thor chromite deposit. Matawa recently withdrew its support for the project in a dispute over environmental review. Greenstone instead met Cliffs with Charles Fox, a former grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which includes Matawa. As such, Fox could be signalling he may be able to help get Matawa back on side.

Whereas the Municipality of Greenstone encompasses the sites where the ore’s road and rail transportation routes meet, Thunder Bay has the huge additional benefit of a seaway port. Thunder Bay also counts among its partners Thunder Bay Hydro, a potential bonus as Cliffs presses the province for a better break on electricity pricing. This is the biggest drawback for any Northern Ontario site. Neighbouring Manitoba and Quebec enjoy lower industrial power rates, as do U.S. states on the other side of the Great Lakes.

One big plus for Thunder Bay is the existence of its Ontario power plant which produces just the right amount of electricity needed to power the electric arc furnaces that will process the chromite ore.

Central to a longstanding Northwest argument for a homegrown power rate is the fact more power is produced here than is needed. Ontario’s plans to modernize its power grid could easily accommodate the electricity needs of the region and the processor.

One final nugget: As Hobbs and Collins peered out the window of their flight home Wednesday, they agreed vacant land on Mission Island next to the power plant would be the perfect place for Cliffs to build is processor.