Cliffs Natural Resources, which runs three iron mining and production facilities on Minnesota’s Iron Range, saw fourth-quarter sales plunge 54 percent as the company continues to restructure amid an ailing global industry.
The company’s losses were $58 million compared with a $1.4 billion quarterly loss in the same period a year ago, officials reported Wednesday.
About $30 million of the most-recent losses were tied to temporary plant idlings and layoffs at United Taconite and Northshore Mining in Minnesota and at Cliff’s Empire mines in Michigan.
Last month, Cliffs idled Northshore in Silver Bay, laying off most of its 540 employees there. In August, the company idled unionized United Taconite operations in Forbes and Eveleth, laying off 420 employees. Much to the relief of Minnesota and union officials, Cliffs did not announce new plant shutdowns Wednesday, although CEO Lourenco Goncalves told analysts Northshore and United Taconite would not reopen until at least the second quarter.
Cliffs also runs Hibbing Taconite, the only operation in Minnesota not to announce a shutdown during the recent industry turmoil caused by crashing iron ore prices and a flood of cheap steel imports. The iron ore mined in Minnesota’s vast Mesabi Iron Range Up North gets filtered and converted into taconite pellets that get shipped to other states and converted into pure steel.
Other companies that have idled ore plants and laid off workers on the Iron Range include Mesabi Nugget in Hoyt Lakes, Mining Resources in Chisholm, Magnetation in Bovey and Keewatin and United Steel’s Keetac and Minntac facilities in Keewatin and Mountain Iron. Essar Steel, a taconite plant under construction in Nashwauk, also recently curtailed progress on that facility and laid off workers and contractors.
Cliffs’ full-year 2015 revenue fell 40 percent to $2 billion. The company’s cost-of-goods sold fell 29 percent to $1.8 billion compared to $2.5 billion in 2014.
“Despite the severely negative impacts of global iron ore and domestic steel prices, in 2015 we achieved substantial cost reductions in all areas of the business,” Goncalves said in a statement. “On top of an outstanding year of operating performance, we checked a number of boxes in line with our U.S. pellet-centric strategy, most recently with the full divestiture of our North American Coal business.”
Cliff sold 4.5 million tons of U.S. iron ore pellets in the fourth quarter, a 42 percent decline from a year ago. Officials blamed the decrease on the termination of a customer contract, lower demand from U.S. steel mills and higher comparative sales in fourth quarter 2014 that resulted from the delayed start-up of the 2014 shipping season.
For 2016, Cliffs expects to sell 17.5 million tons of taconite from its U.S. Iron Ore business. “In order to reduce pellet inventory levels and generate cash flow from working capital,” the company currently plans to produce about 16 million tons of iron ore pellets within the United States. That’s down from the 17.3 million-ton sales volume achieved in 2015.
Cliffs officials said they remain “in active negotiations with the United Steelworkers.” The company has 2,200 U.S. union employees who have been working under a mutually agreed-upon extension since the contract expired in October. The union contract affects workers in Forbes, Eveleth, and Hibbing, Minn., and at its Tilden and Empire mines in Michigan.