What is the Ring of Fire? "The Ring of Fire is one of the most promising mineral development opportunities in Ontario in almost a century. Located in Ontario's Far North, current estimates suggest the multi-generational potential of chromite production, as well as significant production of nickel, copper and platinum." The italicized material is quoted from the Ring of Fire Secretariat of the Government of Ontario, Ministry of Mines and Northern Development.
Where exactly is the Ring of Fire? The Ring of Fire is located in the James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario, Canada just south of Hudson's Bay. The James Bay Lowland Region of Ontario may be politely described as a subarctic, mosquito infested swamp in summer and a frozen wilderness in winter. Descriptions used by geologists and mineral exploration personnel who have worked in the region would be, undoubtedly, censored by the Seeking Alpha editors. Conditions are bad and exploration and mineral development is and will remain very expensive; at least until massive investments are made for infrastructure. Even then, mining operations will be high cost relative to mines located further south. The Ring of Fire is located approximately 350 km due north of any all-weather roads, power grid or rail service.
How and when was the Ring of Fire discovered? The Ring of Fire was discovered as a result of De Beers' diamond exploration efforts in Ontario beginning in the 1960's which resulted in the discovery and development of the Victor diamond mine by the early 2000s. Actual construction of the Victor Mine began in 2007. In the course of De Beers' regional exploration efforts, which included drilling of numerous geophysical anomalies, an exploration drill hole in 2002 discovered volcanogenic copper and zinc mineralization near McFaulds lake. However, this was of little interest to De Beers given the focus on diamonds. The VMS (Volcanogenic Massive Sulfide) was optioned to a junior company who did some drilling and stirred up a moderate degree of activity. Among the limited number of junior companies initially active in the area was Noront Resources. In 2007, Noront drilled a spectacular copper nickel PGE intercept which generated a major rush to the area and significant exploration drilling and activity. Freewest Resources, one of the active junior companies, discovered the first major Chromite ore zone (Black Thor) shortly thereafter when drilling a geophysical anomaly. Since that time, additional chromite zones have been discovered or extended by several junior companies. Cliffs, in an effort to gain entry into the Ring of Fire, acquired Freewest at a substantial premium to its market price in late 2009.
Mineral Deposits and Economic Potential of The Ring of Fire: There are numerous moderate to medium-sized mineral deposits which have come to light due to the relatively high level of exploration activity in the area since the early 2000s. A number of these known deposits are of sufficient size and grade that they would certainly be in active development if located further south with easier access to infrastructure, support and skilled labor. However given their location they are not large enough to support the requisite infrastructure. Presently known deposits include magmatic copper & nickel with PGEs; Volcanogenic Massive Sulfide copper, zinc deposits with associated gold and silver and a number of Chromite deposits not under the control of Cliffs. There are also known occurrences of vanadium and titanium that may have economic grades and tonnages with more exploration work. Regional exploration continues and competent geologists, who are familiar with the region and the current exploration programs, confidently expect additional discoveries.
The Chromite Deposits: Those already known and defined are the largest in North America and among the highest grades known in the world. It is reasonably believed that the chromite deposits of the Ring of Fire will rival those of South Africa (currently the largest and richest in the world) in size and grade. They will certainly support the development of the necessary infrastructure and are projected to be a major world source of chromite for the next century.
Lack of Infrastructure; the 500 Pound Gorilla in the Room: Depending on the exact locations and routes, the Ring of Fire district will require 350 to 450 kilometers of road and 350kw power line in addition to an equivalent length of railroad. There are two routes presently under environmental study and analysis: a generally east-west route to Pickle Lake Ontario and a north-south route to the municipality of Greenstone. Cliffs has stated a preference for the north-south route. This route will require over 100 water crossings including the Albany, Ogoki and Attawapiskat; all major rivers. Approximately 250 kilometers or so of this route would be located on solid ground and roughly 100 kilometers in the muskeg swamps of the James Bay Lowlands.
At present, Cliffs' plans envision a gated, controlled access road with Cliffs controlling the traffic so as to maximize the efficiency of the mine's ore, supply equipment and personnel transport. This may not be politically feasible as the affected First Nation and other stake holders are strongly advocating against exclusive control by Cliffs. Infrastructure such as power and all weather road access for the reserves is believed to be one of the major factors involved in First Nation sign off on the project. Other stakeholders who will be heard are the various other mining companies with projects that will benefit from the infrastructure corridor.
Political Issues: Two major political issues stand to put development of the Ring of Fire at risk: 1) First Nations concerns over development and infrastructure issues, and 2) Section 91 of the Ontario Mining Act.
First Nations, including leaders of Lake Nipigon and the Ring of Fire North/South Alliance, have been heavily involved in discussions regarding development in the region. Perhaps the most impacted First Nation; Martin Falls (whose traditional lands are where the chromite deposits are located), is wary of development, stating last year that, "The companies want to come in and exploit the resources and leave nothing behind for local long-standing benefits such as an electric grid connection and road access - both a boost to the local economy." Recently, the Neskantaga First Nation issued a statement referring to Cliffs development plan that, "Our constitutionally protected aboriginal rights and title and treaty rights are not appropriately addressed in the amended terms of reference. Therefore, numerous fundamental issues of concern arise on the amended terms of reference as submitted". Until these First Nations concerns are addressed, no progress will be made towards development.
On the second issue, Cliffs would like to ship concentrates or direct-shipping (DS) ore to export markets prior to building a ferrochrome plant near Sudbury. This would allow Cliffs to get the project up-and-running and returning positive cash flows before moving on the commitment to build the plant. However, Section 91 of the Ontario Mining Act states that,"… all ores or minerals raised or removed therefrom shall be treated and refined in Canada so as to yield refined metal or other product suitable for direct use in the arts without further treatment, in default whereof the Lieutenant Governor in Council may declare the lease, patent or other form of title of such lands, claims or mining rights to be void…". To say the least, this puts Cliffs' export plans in jeopardy. For a company with a market cap of just over $2.75 billion, any additional costs to the projected $3.3 billion development plan for the Ring of Fire is unwelcome news. In reality, Cliffs will need to find a major partner (or partners) for the project; however, the difficulty of such a large capital commitment could make this task problematic and in such a remote area - overruns are likely.
Portfolio Mix for Exposure to the Ring of Fire: The Ring of Fire is the perfect example of a high-risk, high-reward investment. It will likely take years to come to fruition. However, if and when it does - the potential payoff is enormous. Below is a list of some of the companies (including a short description from their websites) that have exposure to the Ring of Fire and a potential portfolio mix for exposure to the region:
· Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF): Owner of the Black Thor chromium project, among others.
· McDonald Mines Exploration Ltd. (BMK.V): A mineral exploration company with established exploration experience in the James Bay Lowlands. MacDonald Mines has set upon a strategic direction of exploration with particular focus on Copper and Zinc (VMS), Nickel and Chromite in the "Ring of Fire" area of the James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario.
The company has 386 million fully diluted shares outstanding. They have a large land position, which can be a pro and a con. The carrying costs can be significant and the investment to conduct a full exploration will be substantial. The fact that Hudbay is involved adds some stability. Good potential as an exploration bet but, given the amount of stock already circulated coupled with the weak junior mining markets, money and future dilution could be a problem. The amount of already issued stock probably limits the upside.
· KWG Resources Ltd. (KWG.V): An exploration stage company that is participating in the discovery, delineation and development of chromite deposits in the James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario.
The company has 686 million shares of stock issued, which limits any upside. They own several properties with attractive drilling results. However, they are involved in some convoluted deals and joint ventures. The company owns a minority joint venture interest in the Big Daddy Chromite deposit which is substantial deposit (with the majority owned by Cliffs). The Canada Chrome subsidiary is a promotional hype of questionable value since the company probably has no exclusive surface rights to the proposed infrastructure corridor under the mining act.
· Fancamp Exploration Ltd. (FNC.V): A Canadian junior mineral exploration company with an exceptional inventory of resource projects covering more than 1,713 km2.
They own several interesting properties; however, the McFaulds Lake holdings are very early stage and could not be classified as being in the discovery stage. They have some interesting long-term prospects.
· Bold Ventures Inc. (BOL.V): A forward thinking, technology engaged team of geology experts, dedicated to breaking new ground in the field of resource exploration.
They own some promising early stage grassroots properties and have good financial backing. In addition, there are also some very reputable people on their Board of Directors and Advisory Boards. Their Kopers Lake prospect has high-grade chromite but is too deep to mine as an open pit. On the down side, they are also involved in a pretty convoluted set of joint venture agreements involving Fancamp and KWG.
· Probe Mines Ltd. (PRB.V): The McFauld's Lake projects include Probe's high-grade Black Creek Chromite Deposit.
The Probe Black Creek deposit has significant reserves at a good grade immediately adjacent to the Black Thor (Cliffs) deposit. It is not certain that the Black Creek deposit and the Black Thor deposit are continuous but the geophysical data strongly support that they are; if so that clearly indicates that the Black Creek reserves will be mined in conjunction with the Black Thor deposit. Probe Mines also has a very interesting, likely-economic gold deposit near Chapleau, Ontario.
· Northern Shield Resources (NRN.V): A Canadian-based mineral exploration company concentrating on platinum group element (PGE) exploration in under-explored regions of Canada.
Northern Shield's Wabassi joint venture is not technically in the Ring of Fire but Cliffs' preference for a north-south access/infrastructure corridor passes directly through the Wabassi joint venture claims. Wabassi is a VMS discovery which will almost certainly form a camp or district scale play with multiple VMS deposits. It is currently a 49% Northern Shield 51% Discovery Harbor (a private company) joint venture. NRN also has 100% owned claims, the Storm Group in the Wabassi area with some early stage discovery holes and the Ikertoq nickel prospect in Greenland a 50/50 JV. Since it is currently selling at seven cents per share the leverage is very good.
Below is a sample portfolio mix to gain exposure to the Ring of Fire. There is no doubt that this is a long-term investment; however, the payoff has the potential to be significant.
Additional disclosure: My co-author (jimmy11) is long CLF and NRN.V