HIBBING — When Andrew Reed in 2007 was graduating from high school in Orr, students were under the impression that northeastern Minnesota’s taconite industry was on its last legs.
Within two years – hammered by a national and global economic downturn - total iron ore pellet production plummeted to barely more than 18 million tons. With taconite plants idled, production was far below the industry’s annual capacity of about 40 million tons.
“When I went to school, people thought it was dying,” said Reed. “But no, it’s just getting started.”
Reed, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Lands and Minerals mineland reclamation specialist in Hibbing, today earns a living because of iron ore.
Every day, Reed monitors Minnesota’s iron ore industry, working closely with mining companies on permitting and helping ensure the protection of the region’s natural resources.
In analyzing the billions of crude ore tonnage that remains across the Iron Range, Reed is confident that he and thousands of others Minnesotans who benefit from the industry, will be working for decades to come.
“These mines were operating long before I was here and others were in the workforce,” said Reed. “And they will probably be here a long time after we are retired.”
The crude ore mined by northeastern Minnesota’s six taconite plants across the 130-mile long iron formation, is one of the most vital natural resources in northeastern Minnesota and the nation.
Called taconite — a unique Minnesota term — the crude ore contains low-grade iron. Iron contained within the ore is extracted at taconite plants and turned into marble-size iron ore pellets. Iron ore pellets are the primary ingredient used to make steel.
Steel made from northeastern Minnesota ore is used by domestic steelmakers to manufacture cars, trucks, appliances, ships, pipe, houses, skyscrapers, and dozens of other everyday steel-based items.
For decades, questions have lingered about the day when crude ore reserves on the Iron Range might be exhausted.
However, Reed and others at the DNR, say that day is a long way off.
Based on current identified crude ore mineable reserves, there’s more than a century of mining remaining on the Iron Range, according to Peter Clevenstine, DNR Division of Lands and Minerals assistant director
“There is existing taconite, like they are mining today, that would sustain mining for another 100 years,” said Clevenstine. “Beyond that, there is also oxidized (non-magnetic) ore in unmined areas on the west Range that with different processing could be utilized. It’s a little harder to pelletize, takes more energy to pelletize, and would require flotation and a different type of plant.”
Each year, all six northeastern Minnesota’s six taconite plants and the proposed site of the former Essar Steel project near Nashwauk, submit reports to the DNR which detail the tons of identified crude ore reserves at each facility that can be mined under existing permits.
As of Jan. 31, 2019 (see chart), the seven sites reported a total of more than four billion tons of crude ore reserves. It takes about three-and-a-half tons of crude ore to produce one ton of iron ore pellets.
“The taconite resource on the Iron Range is plentiful., said Kelsey Johnson, Iron Mining Association of Minnesota president. “We are fortunate to have innovative companies in this industry that will continue to mine Minnesota’s resources responsibly.”
Crude ore reserves range broadly, from 81 million tons at ArcelorMittal Minorca Mine to 1.2 billion tons at United States Steel Corporation’s Keetac in Keewatin.
Projected mine life varies from a scant five or six years at Hibbing Taconite to 62 years at Northshore Mining Co., and possibly 80 years at Keetac.
However, determining the exact life of a mine, is not a perfect science.
“They try to estimate the life of the mine, but every time they shut down and are not mining, it makes the life of mine longer,” said Reed. “In a general sense, they also develop better processes over time and get better recovery, which can extend mine life.”
Beyond the identified, currently permitted reserves, there’s also massive crude ore reserves across the Iron Range that aren’t detailed in the annual reports to the DNR under existing permits-to-mine.
“I’d be willing to bet there’s multiple billion of tons of reserves that are not yet permitted, drilled or explored,” said Reed.
Taconite operations, which all formulate long-range mining plans, continually work to identify future reserves.
“We know there are resources that fall outside of their areas and may not be under their control or have not gone through the environmental permitting process yet,” said Clevenstine. “At Minntac, they have lots of options going to the west that are beyond their current permitted reserves and they also have the ability to go further south in the East Pit toward Highway 169. They have lots of options going forward beyond what they are currently saying are their current reserves. There is a future for Minntac beyond what’s currently stated as reserves.”
Hibbing Taconite is currently facing a serious challenge to secure new reserves. DNR estimates show Hibbing Taconite has a mine life of about five to six years remaining under its current permits to mine.
“There’s room for Hibbing Taconite to expand, but not without going into a highway or a town or Keetac’s pit,” said Reed. “They have an interesting conundrum. Not that there isn’t ore to process, but that it’s under the control of someone else currently.”
Crude ore on the West Range is softer and easier to process. Ore on the eastern end of the Iron Range is harder and tougher to process.
“Northshore has the highest iron percentage rock, but the highest cost to process,” said Reed. “You have a lot of ore at Northshore. Northshore is not going to shut down anytime soon.”
That means different processing technology is needed at different taconite plants.
At Northshore, production of a higher-value DR-grade pellet means the plant will provide feed to a new Cleveland-Cliffs’ hot-briquette iron facility in Toledo, Ohio. At the same time, Iron Range taconite plants are investing heavily in new mobile equipment, environmental controls and plant technology.
“This year, we have seen investment in the industry that will connect Minnesota’s iron ore with the growing electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmaking market,” said Johnson. “This will open up opportunities for Minnesota’s iron mining companies to reach steel customers that are currently importing their feedstock. While expanding to the EAF market is important, there have also been improvements at the mines that will help them better serve blast furnaces in the United States.”
Blast furnaces that use iron ore pellets produced on the Iron Range, won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Iron ore pellets will continue to be produced on the Iron Range for many years to come.
Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, says Iron Range iron ore pellet production will remain strong.
“From everything I hear, there’s anyway from 50 to 100 years left at the mines,” said Tomassoni. “I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
Beyond tapping into new reserves, technological advancements that allow taconite operations to better process lower-grade ore, is helping extend the life of mines, said Tomassoni.
“The modern methods of mining are far different than what they used to be, so I’m encouraged about the future of mining,” said Tomassoni. “I think people who think we’re not going to be mining here are wrong.”
]Yet, as the nation’s electric arc mini mill steel industry continues to cut into the traditional blast furnace steelmaking market share, there’s questions about the future market for iron ore pellets.
Mini mills in 1980 produced about 28% percent of the nation’s steel. In 2018, mini mills produced 68% of the nation’s steel.
As mini mill steel production increases, the market for higher-value iron products such as pig iron or direct-reduced iron to feed the mini mills, continues to grow.
What it means is that more opportunities lie ahead for an iron ore or steel company to develop a value-added iron project on the Iron Range - using Iron Range ore - to feed the thriving mini mill segment.
“It’s not a question of are the iron units here (on the Iron Range),” said Clevenstine. “The iron units are here. The question is will there be customers? We need to move into supplying DRI pellets to meet the needs of the future of steelmaking – that’s what’s going to be the key in mining sustainability.”