11/18/2014 07:10 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Federal minister says Ring of Fire 'front-end' infrastructure work going ahead

OTTAWA - Federal Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford says he remains bullish on the Ring of Fire mineral development in northwestern Ontario despite tough market conditions.

Rickford says the development requires considerable front-end work, whatever the current market dictates, and governments are moving ahead.

A slowing demand for steel and a glut of chromite used in its production is the latest trouble for long-promised development, which government ministers have likened to Alberta's oil sands in terms of economic potential.

The remote region to the west of James Bay holds one of the world's richest chromite deposits, discovered in 2007, along with nickel, copper and platinum — deposits worth an estimated $60 billion.

However the remote region lacks both an electrical grid and a transportation corridor and faces daunting public infrastructure costs estimated well in excess of $1 billion.

The major mining player anchoring the chromite development, Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. (NYSE:CLF), withdrew last year and just last month the American company's new CEO told the Financial Post he has "zero hope" the deposit will be developed in the next 50 years.

Rickford, speaking to reporters after a Canadian Mining Association luncheon, sound undeterred.

"We're moving forward," said the minister, who represents a northern Ontario riding.

He said he's been consulting local First Nations communities to see what's needed in terms of infrastructure and has been in regular contact with his Ontario counterpart.

"We expect the provincial government to be on board with that in terms of making those projects a priority," said Rickford.

Market conditions for the chromite development "might not be that great right now," said Rickford. "But this is a legacy resource development project and requires considerable front end work, and we're moving forward on that."

He noted that a proposed nickel development by junior mining company Noront Resources Ltd. (TSXV:NOT) is undergoing an environmental assessment.

"I've heard nothing but enthusiasm on the ground from smaller businesses that could participate in this opportunity," said the minister.

The Ontario Liberal government has pledged $1 billion to the Ring of Fire development, although how the money would be allocated has yet to be detailed. The province wants the federal Conservative government to match it.

Ottawa has responded that the province can access up to $11 billion in infrastructure funding from the federal Building Canada Fund and it is up to the province to prioritize its needs and apply for the cash.

Rickford suggested infrastructure funding decisions may finally be on the horizon.

"Our expectation and very early indications is that that discussion is going to take place very soon and it's going to include the private sector — companies actually involved in this who are very positive about it and First Nations communities as well," he said.

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