Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves was characteristically blunt Thursday: Hibbing Taconite will close in a few years if his company doesn't get mineral rights now tied up by the long-stalled Mesabi Metallics project in northeastern Minnesota.
Cliffs-owned Hibbing Taconite, an Iron Range economic anchor that employs 750, is expected to run out of ore around 2025. Meanwhile, the state has terminated Mesabi Metallics' mineral rights — a decision that has been upheld by two Minnesota courts — and plans to reassign the leases.
If Cliffs secures Mesabi Metallics' mineral leases near Nashwauk, Hibbing Taconite would use the ore there, extending that operation's life by about 27 years, Goncalves said at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel.
"I believe we are getting close" to securing the Mesabi leases, Goncalves said. "I believe we are one Supreme Court decision away."
Mesabi Metallics petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court in October to review the state Court of Appeals' ruling in favor of axing the company's leases. The high court, which accepts only 10% to 15% of the petitions it receives, has yet to make a ruling.
If the Supreme Court denies Mesabi Metallics' petition, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would reassign the leases. U.S. Steel, the other major player in the Minnesota iron ore industry, has also shown interest in the Mesabi leases.
The state could take either path.
"Given the ongoing litigation, the DNR has not decided how it will release the ore near Nashwauk," the department said in a press statement. The DNR is focusing on responding to Mesabi Metallics plea to the Supreme Court.
In an interview with reporters after his speech, Goncalves said that "if the Minnesota Supreme Court does not take the case — we expect that to happen — I believe the next thing will be sitting down with the DNR to finalize a deal, and that will be with the support of Gov. [Tim] Walz."
"If they put to bid, I am not even going to bid. So whoever wins, I don't give a rat's behind."
He said any winning bidder will simply tie up the land and its minerals and do nothing with them — as has been the case with Mesabi Metallics and Essar Steel Minnesota before it. "That place will be pristine forever," Goncalves said. "It will be gone for good."
Essar started building a taconite plant in Nashwauk in earnest in 2011 with a planned 2013 completion date. But the project was never finished; contractors were stiffed; and Essar failed to reimburse the state for about $65 million in infrastructure improvements for the project.
In July 2016, after myriad missed deadlines, then-Gov. Mark Dayton moved to terminate Essar's lease. Essar responded by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
By the end of 2017, the former Essar Minnesota — rechristened Mesabi Metallics — had financially reorganized with new owners and a new lease agreement with the state. But Mesabi Metallics quickly became a shambles.
Essar re-entered the picture in January 2019 by buying up $260 million of Mesabi's outstanding debt and eventually what was left of its equity. When the Essar-controlled Mesabi missed more deadlines by Jan. 1, 2020, the DNR could have yanked the leases.
But in the following December, the state crafted a last-chance deal with Mesabi Metallics — a decision fiercely opposed by Goncalves, who has said the Essar/Mesabi Metallics project is a chimera.
Referring to the project in his speech Thursday, Goncalves said he "was amazed how much my friends on the Iron Range [accepted] so many empty promises and b.s."
The DNR in May 2021 canceled Mesabi Metallics' leases after the company missed the deadline for a $200 million down payment to complete the half-finished taconite plant. Without the leases, Mesabi's project is not viable.
Mesabi challenged the DNR's lease termination, but Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb ruled in favor of the DNR in January, a decision upheld last month by the Court of Appeals.