Ring of Fire still emerging – Editorial (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – March 26, 2015)

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

When the bottom fell out of iron-ore giant Cliffs Natural Resources last year and the company’s big plans for Northern Ontario began to unravel, a competitor remarked that development in the Ring of Fire would still happen one day, “not just on Cliffs’ timetable.”

The remark was unfair because, up until the fall of 2013, Cliffs was the real deal: It had spent $500 million in pre-development work on its RoF properties, and was very close to operating the remote region’s first mine.

Few will forget Cliffs’ thoughtful RoF point-man, Bill Boor, especially his candour and willingness to field questions from all comers.

But many got carried away by the idea that Cleveland-based Cliffs, an established company that floated the prospect of 1,000-plus jobs, could pull it off, even as metal prices dropped.

Earlier this week, Noront Resources announced the move that many expected — the potential purchase of Cliffs’ RoF properties. The US$20 million deal, which includes the big Black Thor chromite deposit, is expected to close next month.

In announcing the plan, Noront president Alan Coutts wisely cautioned against any expectations that his company would be able to quickly pick up where Cliffs left off.

The market for chromite is down, Coutts noted, and vital RoF infrastructure, like hydro power and a main access road, still do not exist.

Noront says it will focus on getting its proposed Eagle’s Nest nickel mine up and running first, which should establish a toe-hold for the company in the mineral-rich belt.

Noront isn’t anywhere near as large a player as Cliffs, but it does enjoy the backing of some financial heavyweights, including Toronto’s Franco Nevada Corp. and China’s Baosteel.

During the heady days of Cliffs’ Ring of Fire foray, some politicians may have been justified in feeling caught-off guard, as critics accused them of being too slow to react as expectations took off.

There’s a feeling now that development will still happen, but at a slower pace than before, which may give government power-brokers the time to research and prepare recommendations for financial support that will really make a difference.

That doesn’t mean they should sit on their laurels just because the rush of a few years ago has worn off and, in fairness, they haven’t.

Earlier this month, undoubtedly aware of Noront’s intentions to buy Cliffs’ deposits, both the provincial and federal governments jointly provided $785,000 for a First Nation-led study into an alternative access road.

Hopefully, this will result in the east-west route that Noront has long argued will best accommodate both mining and First Nation interests.

But as, Coutts says, these things take time.