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Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF)

Q4 2011 Earnings Call

February 16, 2012 10:00 am ET

Executives

Steven R. Baisden - Vice President of Investor Relations & Corporate Communications

Joseph A. Carrabba - Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President

Laurie Brlas - Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President of Global Finance & Administration

Analysts

Kuni M. Chen - CRT Capital Group LLC, Research Division

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Mitesh Thakkar - FBR Capital Markets & Co., Research Division

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Anthony Robson - BMO Capital Markets Canada

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Wes Sconce - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

Garrett S. Nelson - BB&T Capital Markets, Research Division

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Cliffs Natural Resources Fourth Quarter 2011 Earnings Call. [Operator Instructions] As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded. Now I'll turn the conference over to Steve Baisden, Vice President of Investor Relations and Communications. Please begin.

Steven R. Baisden

Thank you. I'd like to welcome everyone to this morning's call. Before we get started, let me remind you that certain comments made on today's call will include predictive statements that are intended to be made as forward-looking within the Safe Harbor protections of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

Although the company believes that its forward-looking statements are based on reasonable assumptions, such statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially. Important factors that could cause results to differ materially are set forth in reports on Form 10-K and 10-Q and news releases filed with the SEC, which are available on our website.

Today's conference call is also available and being broadcast at cliffsnaturalresources.com. At the conclusion of the call, it will be archived on the website and available for replay.

Joining me today are Cliffs' Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Joseph Carrabba; and Executive Vice President, Finance and Administration, and Chief Financial Officer, Laurie Brlas.

At this time, I'll turn the call over to Joe for his initial remarks.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Thanks, Steve, and thanks to everyone for joining us this morning. With the full year results recorded in last night's press release, Cliffs continues to achieve record growth by nearly every measuring stick.

Looking back on 2011, I'm extremely pleased with the record financial performance our management team accomplished, particularly in light of the strategic transactions and operational expansions and challenges we faced in the year. In addition to completing the $5 billion acquisition of Consolidated Thompson, we also remained on track to complete our 11 million ton per year expansion at the Koolyanobbing complex in Australia on time and within budget. We restored Oak Grove's overland conveyor system and prep plant after severe damage caused by a tornado. We restarted the Pinnacle Mine after shutdown earlier this year and achieved significant lower cash cost per ton. We also achieved the 8 million ton run rate at Bloom Lake Mine and completed approximately 20% of the mine's Phase 2 construction.

I would also point out that excluding Bloom Lake Mine's contribution, Cliffs still have achieved a record-breaking financial performance for the year. Our strategy of placing more products into the seaborne market, along with successfully increasing our legacy assets with [ph] more exposure, is directly impacting our bottom line results.

We believe the world's emergent economies will continue to urbanize and, as a direct result, will continue their need to produce record amounts of steel. Specifically, in China, fundamentals of urbanization, household formation and labor force growth remain strong. We believe monetary policy is likely to ease and already strong growth by western standards will continue. In China, we anticipate crude steel production to reach 730 million tons in 2012. This 7% increase from 2011, coupled with a steadily improving outlook for the U.S. economy, will continue to support demand for steel making and raw materials. As previously disclosed, we anticipate 2012 average pricing for seaborne volumes product with a 62% iron content to be $150 per ton. We also believe it's likely that any recovery within the European markets could support an even higher average full year price for iron ore.

Now turning to the performance of our core businesses during the quarter. U.S. Iron Ore's fourth quarter and full year sales volume were 7.8 million tons and 24.2 million tons, respectively. The quarter volume included approximately 700,000 tons of pellets from our U.S. operations going into the seaborne market. On a full year basis, we placed a total of 1.2 million tons of pellets into this market, more than doubling 2010's full year seaborne volume from our U.S. operations. During the fourth quarter of 2011, North American steelmaking utilization rates averaged 74%, approximately 5% higher than 2010's fourth quarter. Despite the fact, production in our customers' end products, including autos, light goods, heavy machinery and construction, remain below historical level. Today's utilization rate is expected to sustain a healthy demand for our products. We believe this supports our anticipated 2012 North American utilization rate range of 70% to 75%, and our expected 2012 U.S. Iron Ore sales volume guidance of approximately 23 million tons. This level is essentially flat with last year's volume, considering we had approximately 1 million tons of volume recognized in 2011 that we collected cash for in 2010.

In Eastern Canadian Iron Ore, full sales volumes reached 7.4 million tons, more than double 2010's of full year sales volume of 3.3 million tons. This increase was driven by the incremental sales volume for Bloom Lake Mine, which was acquired in May as part of Consolidated Thompson acquisition. Eastern Canadian Iron Ore sales volume for the quarter was 1.9 million tons, which was made up of approximately 1.2 million tons of iron ore concentrate from Bloom Lake and 700,000 tons of pellets from Wabush. Although this segment's fourth quarter sales volume was significantly higher than 2010's comparable quarter, frankly, I am disappointed with the operational challenges we experienced at Wabush. These challenges, largely driven by equipment failures and the dryer operation of the mine, have led [ph] to increased downtime, resulting in lower production and sales volume out of Wabush Mine. They currently have temporary repairs in place and are studying the long-term solution. In addition, we have made operational leadership changes, putting one of our strongest operators over all of Eastern Canada as we look to better coordinate our production there.

At Bloom Lake Mine, our ramp-up to the 16 million tons is on track. And today, construction for Phase 2 is approximately 20% complete. As mentioned in last night's release, we intentionally mined lower grade ore, allowing rationalization of the production needed to meet the fourth quarter shipping schedule. Excluding this, we believe we would have achieved approximately $67 per ton cash cost at Bloom Lake Mine during the quarter. As we work to diversify the mine's customer base, we will continue to adjust production to match the shipping schedule. Ultimately, we believe our commercial strategy to place the ore directly with the mills and away from the trading relationships inherited as part of the acquisition is the right approach. During the quarter, we successfully delivered Bloom Lake cargoes to new customers in Asia.

Last week, we did experience a minor fire in the concentrating facility at Bloom Lake. While there was some structural damage that will be repaired over the next few weeks, I am thankful to report that other than some minor smoke exposure, all of our employees and contract personnel are okay.

While we are down for the structural repairs, we will bring forward some maintenance work that was originally planned for the second quarter. We anticipate our first quarter and full year shipping and sale schedule will remain intact. However, it's too early to assess the Q1 cash cost impact, but we will plan to achieve about $60 per ton for the year.

On the logistics front, we had reduced our vessel load time in Eastern Canada from approximately 9 days to about 5 days. This is primarily being driven by increased use of transloading capacity. We are also on track to have a permanent conveyor system in place between the 2 docks at Point Noire, replacing the temporary system currently being used. Also, we are in the process of developing an expanded laydown area for concentrate using our existing yard at Wabush.

For 2012, we expect to produce and sell approximately 12 million tons from our Eastern Canadian Iron Ore business segment, which will be comprised of approximately 1/3 pellets and 2/3 concentrate.

Now turning to Asia Pacific Iron Ore. Fourth quarter and full year sales volumes were 1.8 million tons and 8.6 million tons, respectively. The year-over-year quarterly decrease resulted from the combination of a plant shutdown at the port related to our expansion project and weather-related timing to 2 vessels at the year end. Like the other major producers in Australia, we also experienced industrial action within the logistics network, which also contributed to the lower year-over-year volume. Our Asia Pacific Iron Ore expansion to 11 million tons per year is nearly complete, with only a few items still in process. This project continues to be on time and on budget, a testament to the project execution skills of our operators. As such, we are maintaining our 2012 sales and production volumes in Asia Pacific Iron Ore of approximately 11 million tons.

During the fourth quarter, we saw tighter credit conditions for some of our smaller market participants in Asia, fueled by the ongoing European sovereign debt crisis. Recently, we have seen these tighter credit conditions ease, making way for traders and small nodes [ph] to return to the market. As a result, market conditions appear to be improving, which is supported by the rebound of iron ore pricing from 2011's fourth quarter lows.

Now turning to the North American Coal segment. I'm very enthused by the strong performance Pinnacle turned in for the quarter and the fact that we reported profitability in this segment. Sales volume for full year 2011 reached 4.1 million tons, nearly 1 million tons more than 2010's full year volume. Although this segment's sales volume for the quarter was nearly flat at about 1 million tons, I think it's a respectable performance, considering we have virtually 0 sales contribution from Oak Grove as the mine's prep plant remained down due to the severe weather damage reported in 2011.

While we still have improving to do, I believe our turnaround of this business is beginning to gain momentum. Since Pinnacle Mine resumed production in early October, it has achieved production volumes in excess of 200,000 tons for 3 consecutive months. This meaningful increase has significantly lowered Pinnacle's realized cash cost to approximately $94 per ton during the quarter.

At Oak Grove, we continue to mine in our year-round operations throughout the quarter. At year end, we had approximately 1.9 million tons of raw coal or 745,000 tons of clean coal equivalent on the ground ready to be washed. This represents more than 1/3 of our expected sales volume for Oak Grove in 2012. In addition, the Oak Grove's prep plant construction is complete. And while not fully ramped yet, we have restarted the prep plant and now currently processing coal. We have also completed installation of a new shear on the longwall and have begun utilizing the mine's new portal. Development work at both our longwall mines is running well, well ahead and ahead of schedule. In 2012, sales volume is expected to reach 7.2 million tons, with production of about 6.6 million tons. As of today, at the 6.1 million tons of met coal we plan to sell in 2012, we have approximately 60% contracted and priced at an average of $160 net back to the mine or an equivalent of about $225 per metric ton on an at-the-port basis. This includes the low vol and high vol products.

I'm enthusiastic with the early success the team had achieved in the North American Coal and I look forward to reporting continued improvement within the business segment as the year progresses.

In closing, as you may have seen during the end of 2011 at the beginning of 2012, we made a few announcements to dispose some of our non-core assets. These included the sale of renewaFUEL and the dissolution of our Michigan Iron Nuggets joint venture with Kobe Steel. These 2 announcements are indicative of our executive leadership team's focus in allocation of resources to areas where we believe we can have the most impact for our shareholders. We have a robust organic project pipeline and a number of operational milestones within reach. Over the next year, our management's focus will be on delivering these projects.

And with that, I'll turn the call over to Laurie for her review of the financial highlights.

Laurie Brlas

Thank you, Joe. Following on Joe's comments, our record-breaking performance for 2011 can be attributed to our long-term focus on diversifying our market participation and enhancing our organic expansion initiative. We expect this consistent strategy to continue yielding impressive financial performance, as well as significant cash flow generation moving forward.

Looking at the P&L, in the fourth quarter, revenues improved 17% to a record $1.7 billion, helping to accelerate full year revenues to a record $6.8 billion and topping last year's all-time high of $4.6 billion by more than 45%. Additionally, diluted EPS for the full year 2011 of $11.48 per share is significantly higher than our 2010 diluted EPS of $7.49. This bottom line performance reflected a combination of higher iron ore pricing and meaningful contributions from the Bloom Lake Mine during the year.

Continuing with fourth quarter consolidated results, sales margins during the quarter expanded modestly to $496 million from 2010's $483 million. The volume increase was partially offset by higher electricity cost in North America and planned increases in shipping.

Operating income declined to $370 million compared to just under $400 million in 2010's final quarter. The decline was primarily driven by a $28 million impairment charge related to the 2010 purchase of INR Energy's coal cooperation.

Income tax expense increased from $11 million in 2010's final quarter to more than the $123 million in 2011's comparable quarter. During the fourth quarter, our effective tax rate increased to 35% compared with the full year rate of 19%. This was the result of a remeasurement of our deferred tax liability at Bloom Lake and the recording of a nonrecurring adjustment related to the Québec mining duty. Conversely, 2010's fourth quarter income tax expense was artificially low as we recorded a tax planning benefit related to Amapa. Primarily due to the tax rate change, fourth quarter net income attributable to Cliffs' shareholders declined to $185 million or $1.30 per diluted share, compared with last year's $384 million or $2.82 per diluted share.

Turning to our U.S. Iron Ore reporting segment, revenue for '10 in the quarter was up 21% to $120, driven by the higher year-over-year seaborne iron ore pricing and supply contracts that have more exposure to the seaborne market placing. The year-over-year increase was partially offset by sales mix as it was heavily weighted to customer contracts with lower sales rates versus seaborne rates. Quarterly cash costs increased 12% to $66 per ton. U.S. Iron Ore's increased cash cost was primarily due to higher supply and maintenance expenses, electricity rates and stripping activity versus the comparable quarter in 2010. The net result of this was a 34% increase in sales margin per ton from $38 last year to $51 in the current fourth quarter.

Fourth quarter revenue per ton in Eastern Canadian Iron Ore was $124, 18% lower than 2010's fourth quarter. The decrease was primarily driven by sales mix as last year's fourth quarter sales were comprised exclusively of premium pellet product, whereas the sales mix in our most recent quarter included about 2/3 iron ore concentrate product. In addition, with the weaker market for steelmaking in Europe, we're also seeing a compression of the pellet premium compared with the prior year's fourth quarter.

Average cash cost per ton in Eastern Canadian Iron Ore was $102, 9% higher than last year's $94 per ton, reflecting the production challenges at Wabush, which Joe addressed earlier in the call. The impact of the equipment failures were approximately $9 per ton in maintenance and repair spending during the quarter, which is included within our cash cost per ton results. Partially offsetting the higher year-over-year cash cost at Wabush was the comparably lower cash cost at Bloom Lake of $75 per ton. This also included the volume-related negative impact of approximately $8 per ton due to the lower production to accommodate the fourth quarter shipping schedule.

Looking ahead to 2012 for the Eastern Canadian Iron Ore segment, as part of our integration of the Bloom Lake Mine, we will reengineer Ontario's [ph] management plans for the longer term. This new design will take into account our current scoping study which anticipates increase in the mine's production capacity to 24 million tons per year. We anticipate the impact of this work on the mine's cash cost per ton will be about $4.50 in 2012, which is included in our Eastern Canadian Iron Ore cash cost guidance of $70 to $75 per ton. Nevertheless, assuming our 2012 average seaborne iron ore expectation of $150 per ton, we would anticipate the Bloom Lake Mine to contribute over $500 million in cash margin to post [ph] expected results in 2012.

In Asia Pacific Iron Ore during the quarter, we saw a slight decline in average revenue per ton to $130 from last year's $135 as average spot pricing for 52% iron content product declined by about 11% compared with last year. Average cash costs were up 34% to $69 per ton, compared with $52 per ton last year. This was due to the development of multiple pits, the strong Australian dollar and lower fixed cost leverage.

While we recognize that there was a significant year-over-year increase in our reported full year cash cost per ton at our Asia Pacific Iron Ore operation, we expect a much more moderate increase in 2012. Our outlook of $65 to $70 per ton assumes we achieve 11 million tons in sales volume, and a U.S. to Australian dollar exchange rate of $1.03 for 2012.

In our North American Coal segment, average revenue per ton improved to $125 versus $113 last year. This reflects a greater proportion of higher priced low vol met coal year-over-year, including significantly increased sales and production volumes from Pinnacle Mine. The lower cash cost per ton of $94 achieved at Pinnacle during the quarter helped lower average cash cost in this segment to $98 compared with $118 last year, an improvement of 17%. Combined with the higher pricing, this resulted in positive sales margin, reversing the trend of negative sales margin we've experienced.

In 2012, we expect Pinnacle's impressive cash cost per ton performance will continue to help drive down average cost in this segment. However, partially offsetting this will be sales from inventory at Oak Grove that carry higher cost. As you know, a significant amount of our 2012 Oak Grove sales will be from the stockpile that we have built, and those tons carry a fairly high cost due to the fact that they were produced only while running at reduced volumes. We quantify this at approximately $5 per ton for the year. Taking all of this into account, we anticipate North American Coal's 2012 cash cost per ton range to be $105 to $110.

Turning to the balance sheet, at the end of December, we held approximately $0.5 billion in cash and equivalents and had total long-term debt of $3.6 billion with no borrowings drawn on our $1.75 billion revolver. We generated an all-time high of $2.3 billion in cash from operations for the year, up 73% from the record $1.3 billion reported in 2010. We continue to be focused on maintaining our investment grade rating and enhanced our capital structure in 2011 with new debt and equity offerings. In addition, during the year, we also doubled the quarterly cash dividend rate.

For 2012, we're maintaining our business segment expectations that were disclosed in the January 26 press release. In addition to these, we anticipate 2012 full year SG&A expenses to be approximately $325 million, reflecting increased growth-related corporate initiative. These include investments in staffing for enterprise-wide system, for HR, finance, environmental and other areas that will support our anticipated growth and regulatory compliance.

Additional cash outflows expected to be incurred in 2012 include approximately $90 million for exploration and $75 million for our chromite project. Our exploration spend is focused in a few primary area. It includes drilling programs in Western Australia and around our Bloom Lake, Lamelee and Tapler [ph] deposits in Eastern Canada, which could ultimately expand our existing operations in these regions. It also includes scoping work on the Decar project in British Columbia. The spend in chromite will include outflow for feasibility studies, including engineering, geotechnical and product testing, mine site operation, including drilling, environmental baseline monitoring and sustainability activity, including First Nation support.

We expect a full year effective tax rate of approximately 25% and 2012 DD&A to be about $620 million. Based on current expectations, we anticipate generating approximately $1.9 billion in cash from operations in 2012. We are also maintaining our previously disclosed CapEx budget of $1 billion, comprised of approximately $700 million of growth and productivity-related capital and $300 million of sustaining capital.

Looking forward in 2012 and beyond, I'm very comfortable with our financial flexibility and position, including our prospects for cash generation and the opportunities that will present for funding organic growth projects and possibilities for returning cash to shareholders.

With that, Steve, I think we're ready to open the call for questions.

Steven R. Baisden

Ron, can you please cue the participants on how to ask a question?

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We have a question from Kuni Chen of CRT Capital Group.

Kuni M. Chen - CRT Capital Group LLC, Research Division

I guess, just on Wabush. Can you talk about how you expect that to run in the first quarter or the first half year and to what extent you are still struggling through some of the operational issues? Your cost guidance for the year in Eastern Canada doesn't seem to bake in any unusual items related to Wabush. So I just wanted to get your sense on how to reconcile your comments that there are still some issues going on there but it doesn't seem to be reflected in your formal guidance.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well, I think it is, Kuni, reflected in. This isn't -- it wasn't a catastrophic failure. This has just been some deterioration of maintenance, particularly around the dryer right now. I'd say the guys have done a good job debottlenecking the other maintenance problems as they worked towards the dryer. We do have all 6 mills running now, which has been a while since we've seen that. But we did have some structure that slumped, if you will, into the concrete. They've had to raise that temporarily and have to do the structural repairs around that dryer to get it going. It will not be a quick fix and I think it would -- particularly with the weather in Wabush, when it comes to the repairs slowing down, it will be a slow slog through the first half to get Wabush back up and going. But I do think it's baked into the numbers.

Kuni M. Chen - CRT Capital Group LLC, Research Division

Okay. And then just as a quick follow-up, can you give us some color on what you've been seeing out of Australia over the last couple of weeks. Things appear somewhat slow right now due to high iron ore stockpiles in China. So I just want to see what you guys are seeing on the ground and if it kind of jibes with a slower market right now if things starting to pick back up.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well, I was just in Perth last week, reviewing the operations and actually went through the shipping schedule while I was down there with that. We've got a very healthy shipping schedule in the first quarter. I mean, the guys have to work a little harder to place the tonnage. There's no question about that. The market has slowed somewhat with the credit tightening that we all experienced through the fourth quarter and into this quarter as well. Stockpiles, as we watch very closely, not only in the ports but I think just as important, we look at our customers' stockpiles, we don't see those growing. They're pretty low given the credit tightness that they've had to experience. And we do see a normal seasonal fluctuation, if you will, at the ports, with the build always going into the Chinese New Year and then the steel industry picking up after the New Year. I do have to say it's a bit sluggish, picking up after the New Year, but we still anticipate our customers to come on a little stronger on the latter half of the year, if you will, as we watch the credit loosen up.

Operator

The next question is from Michael Gambardella of JPMorgan.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

I have a question on the chromite project. I think you've put in about $300 million, $400 million to purchase the property and then some more additional funds, $75 million this year, you're saying. But when you -- I thought when you initially purchased the properties, the estimated capital cost to develop the property was about $1 billion or less than $1 billion. And most recently, I think you were around $3 billion now, maybe even higher with the roads. Can you comment on that? And the change and the scope of the project, inflation on the cost, what's changed so dramatically?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Mike, I think your -- well, number one is you are correct. Initially, we did go out with $1 billion price tag for this project and we are in about the $3.3 billion range. I think what's really happened is, one, the sharpening of the estimate as we go through prefeasibility. And we are not through prefeasibility. So we expect to cross that line in May, June. We're going to stay in prefeas as long as we need to and get the appropriate work done to try and get this thing framed up. So we'll have an even better number on that. But as you know, when you come out with these numbers initially, they've got a wide plus or minus 30% or 40% onto your side. So one is the sharpening of the estimate. I think the second thing, certainly, is the transportation on the road. It has gotten more expensive in this segment than we expected. And everything else is falling in line with that.

Laurie Brlas

The original estimate didn't include any mode of transportation in the original billing that we talked about, Mike.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, it did not. And I will say this, Mike, just to go on there for a little bit of the fare problem while we're engaged right now with the government in Ontario. We've got very strong support to work through the project, both from the environmental panel review that we're going through right now, as well as the structure on the transportation. And those conversations are going on right now, but they're very positive.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Right. But I mean, your initial take on -- your internal take on the returns on this project on $1 billion cost versus $3 billion plus cost must have changed dramatically. I mean, is this still a viable project?

Laurie Brlas

Yes, sure, Mike. They definitely have changed, but at this point, it is absolutely still a viable project with a return that exceeds our cost of capital. And at every phase along the way, we will continue to evaluate that.

Joseph A. Carrabba

I would point out, too, that the original project scope was just built around about 600,000 tons of ferrochrome. We've also added about 1 billion tons of chrome concentrate to the design of the volume that we'll do. So the economics around the project have changed somewhat, too.

Michael F. Gambardella - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Okay. Will you be releasing any more details on that?

Laurie Brlas

Probably not until summer when we finish prefeasibility. We really -- because the numbers are still so imprecise and moving, we don't want to go into that kind of detail at this point in time. I would guess sometime in the summer, we would be ready to do that. But rest assured, we do continue to evaluate the returns and it is still above our cost of capital based on everything we understand at this point.

Joseph A. Carrabba

And we're still very excited about it, Mike, to add to this business unit, and we look forward to releasing more information to everyone. Once we get through the prefeasibility, we can pin the numbers down.

Operator

Our next question is from Timna Tanners of Bank of America.

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

My question is along the same lines. I wanted to ask to the extent that you're also increasing the amount that your spending on exploration, should we also conclude that, that organic growth is really where you're steering your efforts? And also on cash use, we noticed that you bought back more shares in the quarter. Can you talk a little bit about general cash use allocation?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Let me take the exploration question first and then Laurie will do the cash and the capital structure. On the exploration, we're definitely spending more. We are -- we have spent a lot of time and effort and money, as you know, to grow the company through M&A. Now that we've done that, it's not that we will be completely finished with M&A if the right opportunity comes up, but we are turning more into a project execution phase of this business, as well as the defined areas that we have now in the Labrador Trough that comes with Consolidated Thompson, comes out in Australia as we continue to look to try and expand our Australian assets and in the Ring of Fire, where we've only concentrated so far only on the ferrochrome, which is the right thing to do. But we have a lot of claims on a lot of land out there with additional potential of other minerals on that. Yes, we've paid the price of the M&A and now, we're executing the organic piece of the exploration.

Laurie Brlas

And then turning to your question on cash use, and we did complete the stock buyback as I'm sure you remember, our Board authorized a stock repurchase in August. And we really looked at that as somewhat of an offset to the equity offering we had committed to keep the equity offering as low as possible. And it exceeded our expectations in terms of execution and also the exercise of the green shoots that we obtained more cash through that than we originally expected. So we embarked on the stock buyback to somewhat mitigate that and minimize the dilution to our shareholders. And we completed that early in the fourth quarter. And now, as we look at our cash use with all the cash we're going to generate throughout the balance of the quarter, our objectives haven't changed. We will still continue to look at growth. But as Joe said, we think it could probably be more likely focused on organic growth in the near term. And then we'll continue to look at the dividend. As I said, we doubled the dividend in the last year, and I think our Board will continue to look at that as a means to return cash to our shareholders.

Timna Tanners - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Okay, that's really helpful. I'd like to ask one more. I just wanted to understand the assumptions in your guidance. So the -- we understand the HRC price makes sense. It's not too far from where it is today and the forecast for iron ore makes sense. But the one that kind of surprised us is the blast furnace utilization number because that's actually well below where the current operating rates are. Is there any logic or explanation that you can help us with for why -- how to think about that?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I think it's just an annualized rate. I mean, as we look at this and you look at blast furnace schedules of repairs that go in, which we work close with our customers with, we just see that as an annualized rate going in. We hope we're wrong and you're right and the blast furnace utilization stays higher, that's only good. But I think there are some blast furnace outages planned for later this year.

Operator

Our next question is from Mitesh Thakkar of Friedman, Billings.

Mitesh Thakkar - FBR Capital Markets & Co., Research Division

My follow-up question -- my first question is just on the chromite project, following up from Mike. What are some of the key milestones? I know one is prefeasibility study, but how should we think about timeline and the scheduling over the next year or 2?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well, I think we are working forward in the environmental review. That is always the longest and most critical path. When it comes to any of these projects, Mitesh, that is on target right now to meet our goals of a late 2015, early 2016 start-up of that. Again, as I said, the road and the transportation route, we've settled on the north-south route versus the east-west route and we're in conversations with the government on how that, what that looks like from a structural -- a funding standpoint from there. And we are still into furnace selection sites as well, which works around the electrical usage. That's the highest cost of the furnaces over there. They're very power intensive. And we're in conversations with the government as well. I think those are the 3 highlights you can look for to watch the progress of this project over the next year or 2 [ph]

Mitesh Thakkar - FBR Capital Markets & Co., Research Division

Okay, great. And just a follow-up on the Eastern Canadian Bloom Lake operations, it looks like if you annualize the Bloom Lake sales this quarter, it ran at about 4.8 million tons rate. And you mentioned that you had just started production for some shipping schedules and those kinds of things. Can you not run all in and sell the rest of the pellets on the spot market -- sorry, concentrate on the spot market instead of taking back production?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I'm not sure I understand the question.

Laurie Brlas

Well, we can certainly -- the issue is finding new customers and that takes our commercial team a little bit of time. As we've talked about, we are looking to increase the number of customers that we have that take the Bloom Lake concentrate as opposed to being focused on just 1 or 2. It really is consistent with our overall diversification strategy. And we all tend to forget that we've only owned this property for 7 months, so it takes some time to work through that, and we did ship some cargoes to some new customers. So as we grow those relationships with them in the future, I think it's the original customers that Consolidated Thompson had are not as interested in product. We will have a larger array of customers to choose from. But we just have to go through that trial, both process and work through it with them.

Mitesh Thakkar - FBR Capital Markets & Co., Research Division

Great. So it is just finding suitable customers for it, right?

Laurie Brlas

Yes.

Operator

Our next question is from Sohail Tharani of Goldman Sachs.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

The charges of cost related to chromite project, $75 million, is that something should we consider that will be expensed over the next several years every year? Or is this just a one-time?

Laurie Brlas

That's the amount that we will expense in 2012. And I would think that there will be a dissimilar and perhaps higher number in 2013. Again, we haven't concluded that process. And by the summer, when we finish the prefeasibility, we'll have a lot more detail. But there will be spending, both expense and we'll into capital in another couple of years when we start building the mines. But there will be expense to operate the mine site and so forth every year.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Okay, great. And do you have the number for the Sonoma cost for the year, cash cost? You gave $80 for the fourth quarter, I know.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Sohail, I'll give it to you after the call.

Sohail Tharani - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Okay. I just was wondering why the cost is going up so much from fourth quarter to the yearly guidance of $110, considering that your volume is actually going to be up in that mine. Is there something happening over there?

Laurie Brlas

There's more stripping. It's a consistency throughout Australia with these smaller mines. The strip ratio is going up.

Operator

Our next question is from Tony Robson of BMO Capital Markets.

Anthony Robson - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Two questions, please. First one, maybe two, Laurie, $1 billion of total spend this year is reasonably -- a reasonable sum of number. Of the $700 million in the project CapEx, can you give us a bit more of breakdown of that, please? Where is it going to?

Laurie Brlas

Yes, most of it is going to be for Eastern Canada to complete that part of the mine. And then there's a bit still, the 11 million tons, in Australia. That is ramping up. And then we have some for Lower War Eagle. Our met coal mine that's coming on in West Virginia. Those are probably the 3 largest items in there.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes. The majority, Tony, would be the ramp-up in Eastern Canada from 8 million to 16 million.

Anthony Robson - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Okay, great. Actually, that leads me to my second question. Given that terms of the ramp-up schedule for Stage 2 -- last year, it was about 20%, 25% complete. Given that Stage 1 took a reasonable amount of time and admittedly a lot of that was not under your ownership, how should we be thinking about how long it will take Stage 2 to get to full capacity, please, going forward?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I think that's a great question. There's been a lot of changes that we've made to Phase 2 that was based on the learnings in Phase 1. So I think we've done a lot of correction going into this, and I would expect the ramp-up to be a much shorter timeframe from the learnings we've had and the operator experience that we now have with that ore body. I think, also, Tony, in the fourth quarter, we did slow down production in the mine to match the sales the we had. We're also really taking advantage to experiment, if you will, with the different blends and blending schedules that we have out of that mine with the ore types that will make the ramp-up just that much smoother when we get into Phase 2. So I would expect it to come down considerably.

Anthony Robson - BMO Capital Markets Canada

Can I pin you -- Joe, can I pin you down to a total time on that? Or do you prefer to keep it open at this stage?

Joseph A. Carrabba

I -- ask me next quarter and I'll have the answer, Tony. I just don't have it today and I don't want to speculate on it without talking to the operators.

Operator

Our next question is from David MacGregor of Longbow Research.

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

Just a couple of questions. First of all, where is the pellet premium today? You said it was under pressure? Is that just weakness in Europe or are there other factors to think about there?

Joseph A. Carrabba

It's a moving target. Nothing is published when it comes in with it. A lot of it is the -- with change that we've had recently with the pricing and there's change from the lagged pricing on a quarterly basis to the spot prices, to the almost landed prices. It's just all over the map right now with that. So it would be hard to give you a generic number. A lot of it is negotiation on a customer by customer basis.

Laurie Brlas

But I would say Europe has a lot to do with it because in China, they don't generally use pellets. So the U.S. and Europe are the primary markets for pellets. So you've got a pretty significant percentage of that market under a bit of pressure.

Steven R. Baisden

Yes. In the past, David, we've seen it in the 40s and as Joe said -- I mean, it's a point of negotiation now.

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

Yes, if you can't give us sort of a level, can you at least give us a sense of how much it's changed? You said it's coming out. I'm just trying to get a sense of the delta.

Joseph A. Carrabba

No, we really can't at this point in time with the sensitivity around customer negotiation.

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

Secondly, just on the coal business, can you just talk a little about the development work you've done there? And I know during the production curtailments due to the outages you were continuing to develop -- in developed panels, specifically, I guess. To what extent should we expect lower cash cost as a result of that? How much sort of cost pull forward, in other words, has occurred there?

Laurie Brlas

I don't think I would think of that as a cost pull forward. I would think of that as stabilizing our cost. It's what we need to do to achieve the long-term consistent cash cost targets that we've had. You have to be ahead in your development in order to maintain consistent production so that's how I would think about that.

Joseph A. Carrabba

I think that's right, David. This is all a combination, particularly with Pinnacle, if you will, of the new longwall getting up and getting ramped up. This is a big complex piece of equipment. It's running very well now. We're in a more stable part of the mine at this point in time. When we did have that downtime last year, that significant downtime with the CO2 problems that we had, we spent a lot of time putting new beltways in and a lot of maintenance. As you know, we've got new management down there as well. And that's allowed the -- we were allowed to go ahead and develop while the longwall was down. So they've gotten significantly in great shape from there. Same thing in Oak Grove, while we were decoupled, if you will, we could really concentrate on the mining. And again, I think the guys had a great year in mining down in Oak Grove with the 1.9 million tons that they did and they got their development back in balance as well.

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

Last question, if I could, just a clarification. Laurie, I think you said $5 per ton impact at Oak Grove as a consequence of -- from selling off the stockpile to selling other production. Can you just elaborate on that number a little bit? You mentioned that as sort of the change to the annual average. But how do we think about the ongoing cost production at Oak Grove once that stockpile is done on a run-rate basis?

Laurie Brlas

Certainly, it will come down and the way -- what I wanted to make sure that you could think about is our cost in 2012 will be $5 higher because of the pull forward of the product that was produced under a higher cost scenario. So we'll be artificially impacted. So our ongoing cost of production in 2012 will be about $5 less than what we ultimately report. So if nothing else changes going into 2013, you would just see a $5 drop on that.

David S. MacGregor - Longbow Research LLC

So you've got the new shear head, you've got the new shaft going in there, you got a new prep plant, plus you're going to have more scale, I would have thought that would have contributed to more than $5.

Laurie Brlas

And it very well may. We'll work that out through the year. But the higher cost products that we've got stockpiled now versus what we're running at in the early part of the year, that's the number we'd see.

Operator

Our next question is from Brian Yu of Citi.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

My first question is on Bloom Lake. I just want to make sure I understand the cost structure there. Joe, I think you said that Bloom Lake cash cost was about $60 and then Laurie mentioned that the reengineering, the tailings would add $4 or $5 per ton. Is it fair to assume that, that implies cash cost on a go-forward basis of about $55? What would that look like once the few [ph] comes online without trying to make assumptions about the Canadian dollar or where it stands today?

Laurie Brlas

Yes. I don't think I would imply that you take Joe's $60 and that includes the $55. We've got -- that's an increase to that $60.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes. Brian, we're at $60 for the year. That's where we think we'll achieve. I think it's probably a little too early to speculate where that number goes once we get to Phase 2.

Laurie Brlas

When we get to Phase 2, yes. We're not ready to...

Joseph A. Carrabba

But we think we can achieve $60 for the year. We achieved $67 in the quarter -- in the fourth quarter if you eliminate the lower volume impact from adjusting the production to the actual shipping schedule. So we weren't building up inventories.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Would that $60 include the cost that Laurie mentioned about reengineering the tailings?

Laurie Brlas

Yes, it does -- yes.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, they've got it.

Brian Yu - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Okay. And then the second one I have is just on Amapa. It looks like it's doing a little bit better now. Can you give some update on what's happening there and then maybe what sort of strategic plans, if that's changed in any way?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes, it's stable. I think Anglo [ph] is doing a good job operating at the current levels they have. They certainly have a great focus, particularly on safety when it comes to that. And that's really the underpinning of the whole organization. It's positive, the money it makes. Again, I think, as I've reiterated many times, that it's a stagnant asset for us. We don't have the management control or the input that we'd like to get with it. And again, we're working through that with Anglo [ph] as we did last year, as well as we speak. But it's stable and we're looking at the asset right now.

Operator

Our next question is from Wes Sconce of Morgan Stanley.

Wes Sconce - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

This one is for Joe. When you look at valuations today for met coal assets, would you say your bias is to get bigger in coal? Are you still waiting to see how 2012 shapes out as your existing operations get back at full speed?

Joseph A. Carrabba

Well, I think, West, first, we've got some proving to do, as we said earlier today in our conversations. We're comfortable with the large projects we've talked about through the -- last year, we had a big setback in Oak Grove with the tornado in April. But if things go, we're going to come out pretty well with that with a pretty modernized prep plant, which we think we'll get a little more busy [ph] as it comes out with. So as the year goes on, if our improvement and stabilization, we get it embedded and all that, then, yes, of course, as we've said, we've always looked at the business, the platform for growth for additional met coal. We still think met coal is one of the better minerals to be in. But we've got a couple of quarters of work to do first before we would think about anything like that.

Wes Sconce - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

And just a follow-up on U.S. Iron Ore, could you remind us again what the sensitivity is for your U.S. pellet prices or changes in IODEX and HRC?

Steven R. Baisden

Yes. So for the 2 seaborne businesses in Eastern Canada and Australia, we really have a lot of one-to-one correlation for the $10 change. And the spot price average for the year would probably equate to about a $10 change in our revenue per ton. In the North American iron ore business, the sensitivity is more about $4 for every $10 change.

Wes Sconce - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

And that's for your pellets?

Joseph A. Carrabba

That's right. For the U.S. Iron Ore business. That's right.

Operator

So our final question is from Garrett Nelson of BB&T Capital Markets.

Garrett S. Nelson - BB&T Capital Markets, Research Division

At Wabush, the equipment and operational issues have been a drag on cash costs and margins for the Eastern Canadian segment in the last few quarters, which is -- unfortunately, it's getting some pretty good results at Bloom Lake. Is Wabush a mine you might just consider idling until the issues are fixed?

Joseph A. Carrabba

No, we wouldn't. We still -- with the purchase price we made with the partners a couple of years ago, this is still one of our better investments of all time, if you will. As some mines go through, Wabush is a pretty old property as it will. It was managed previously, where there wasn't a lot of capital that went in. And we knew that going into it, and we just got to work through the issues. But there's -- we've got to take care of our customers. There is demand for the pellets and it is seaborne. And we'll continue to work through it for the next few quarters.

Garrett S. Nelson - BB&T Capital Markets, Research Division

Okay. And then just switching over to coal. What capacity rate is in the Oak Grove prep plant currently running at? And when do you expect it to hit full capacity if it's not already there?

Steven R. Baisden

Yes, we're currently only running 1 of the wash circuits at the preparation plant. We think by the beginning of the second quarter, we'll -- there are 2 circuits there. We'll run those circuits and we'll also move into operation, applying coal recovery circuit. So we've got a lot of capacity left to ramp up to in the prep plant at Oak Grove.

Garrett S. Nelson - BB&T Capital Markets, Research Division

And then if you could just repeat the 2012 coal commitments?

Joseph A. Carrabba

60% of our coal was committed and that is the high vol and low vol, all the met coals. So it's 60% commitment.

Steven R. Baisden

And that was at $165 short ton in the mine. So if you look at it on a BHP equivalent basis, you'd be looking at about $225.

Garrett S. Nelson - BB&T Capital Markets, Research Division

Right. So that excludes the 1 million-or-so tons of thermal coal?

Steven R. Baisden

That's right.

Laurie Brlas

Yes.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Yes. That's right.

Steven R. Baisden

Thanks, everyone, for joining us on today's call. Certainly, if you have follow-up questions, we'll be -- the Investor Relations team will be available for the rest of the day. You can certainly reach out to us. Again, we appreciate your interest and look forward to sharing our results in the future.

Joseph A. Carrabba

Thank you.

Laurie Brlas

Thanks.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your participation in today's conference. This concludes the program. You may now disconnect. Have a wonderful day.

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