Cliffs eyes acquiring Essar plant

Construction at Essar Steel near Nashwauk, Minnesota, as seen May 2015. (Aaron J. Brown)

Construction at Essar Steel near Nashwauk, Minnesota, as seen May 2015. (Aaron J. Brown)

As snow fades from the ditches of Northern Minnesota, the Essar Steel construction site north of Nashwauk remains frozen in time. Minor movement in and out of the site is but partial salve for the idled hope of hundreds of jobs from the region’s largest new mining project in a generation.

Essar has stated that it hopes to resume construction at the Nashwauk site. We’ve heard that repeatedly throughout the project’s history. With a fragile market for commodities around the world and a massive debt load by its parent company in India, building this innovative new plant has been a slow process.

That’s where comments made at a Cliffs Natural Resources breakfast Wednesday morning added fuel to the ongoing speculation.

Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves told reporters there that, pending new orders, Cliffs plans to reopen United Taconite near Eveleth. Cliffs is also moving ahead to develop on direct-reduced iron products for future electric arc furnace customers.*

In this, Goncalves confirmed that if infrastructure at the Essar site became available, Cliffs would consider buying it.

This is probably what Cliffs has wanted for years as it protested government aid to Essar, which sought to compete with Cliffs in a tough iron ore market. The Essar plant is designed to be the most modern iron mining facility in the Lake Superior district. It would not only capable of producing cheaper traditional taconite pellets, according to Essar’s claims, but ready to be converted to direct-reduced iron or other processing.

If run properly, the owner of the Essar facility could have the lowest cost ore products in North America, something Cliffs already claims. But with success at Essar comes increased risk that another Iron Range mine might find itself antiquated sooner than later. As we already see, United Taconite’s hopes of reopening are contingent on the closing of the Empire Mine in Michigan.

Right now Essar seems thoroughly stuck. Perhaps a new owner or owners could give the project the necessary push to completion? Essar has always maintained its independence and desire to complete the project itself. Yet, one can’t help but notice that Cliffs seems to be circling closer and closer to what it sees as an opportunity.

* The steel industry is currently going through technological changes. Big blast furnaces using specially formulated taconite pellets were the hallmark of 20th Century steel industry. Those are now giving way to electric arc furnaces, which are smaller and require nearly pure iron. All discussion of iron mining and steel requires one to consider the process of which ore is used, what products are made from it, and where those products are used to make steel.


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