Essar sues state but misses deadline; Cliffs hungry for ore

A truck hauls fill at the Essar Minnesota construction site in 2015. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Essar Steel is fighting the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over attempts to debar the company, but in doing so reveals it will miss another deadline in this long-beleaguered iron ore project.

Meantime, Cleveland-Cliffs hungrily seeks new ore reserves, weighing whether to reopen the Empire Mine in Michigan or wait to develop its property near the Essar site.

Cliffs bought critical land throughout the previous Essar mine plan in 2017 with hopes of developing a source of iron for its hot-briquetted iron (HBI) initiative. HBI would allow Cliffs to sell directly to steel companies that use newer electric arc furnaces.

Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves told a Michigan newspaper that he will probably reopen the company’s shuttered Empire Mine near Palmer on the Marquette Iron Range before building a new plant near Nashwauk on the Mesabi.

This news is at the heart of a conundrum I’ll be talking about in my column this Sunday. The U.S. iron ore and steel industries are positively giddy right. Heavy demand creates high prices for their products. However, the domestic iron business still faces long term questions over how it will adjust to new technology in steelmaking.

Just how many blast furnaces survive long term? How many iron mines will the more flexibly-fed electric arc furnaces support in the long run?

I feel comfortable predicting long term demand for American steel, but less convinced that this will support as many miners on the Mesabi as we have now. Between automation and alternative sources of iron, we’re entering a new period of industrial history. Gradually, the mining workforce will become better educated, more technical, and less numerous.

This became even more evident when I talked to Dan Stewart, a metallurgical engineer from Wales, last week. He explained what he saw happening at brand new steel mills in China. Industrial conveyance and automated systems keep making leaps in development and implementation.

It would be better for Northern Minnesota’s mining industry if the means of producing steel were located closer to the mouthes of our mines. Then at least we could leverage supply to attract manufacturers.

Lacking that, we’re watching the arrival of a new normal that will create a much smaller industry. Good jobs, if you can get them. And you’ll need at least four years of college or more to get them.

More on Sunday.


  1. Alan Muller says

    It’s been my understanding that the reason there was steel production in Duluth is that state officials insisted on it as a quid pro quo for various giveaways to the industry. So why is it that these days state officials seem to only give to the industry and ask nothing in return? The mining interests have all the leverage and the state none? They figure that people stupid enough to vote for trump don’t deserve any attention? Pray enlighten me.

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