By MARK CARDWELL
For many places and industries, the unfortunate impacts of Covid-19 have made this a year to forget. But for the Port of Sept-Îles and its mining partners on Quebec’s rugged North Shore, strong demand for steel, bullish prices for iron ore and an ability to maintain flu-free operations are making 2020 a year to remember.
“Business has been booming since the start of the pandemic,” said Pierre Gagnon, the long-time President and CEO of the Port of Sept-Îles. “Our producers have the pedal pushed to the metal.”
As of Oct. 31, roughly 26 million tonnes of iron ore mined from the Labrador Trough had been shipped from the port’s docks and terminals in 2020.
Iron-ore shipments are expected to climb to 32 tonnes by end of December, making 2020 the sixth consecutive year in which the Port of Sept-Îles has experienced an annual increase in the shipment of this merchandise.
And that’s not all.
Port officials are still hoping to reach the 35.2-MT mark by year’s end which includes all other merchandise handled. That would be a new annual tonnage record for the Port of Sept-Îles, eclipsing the all-time record of 34.9 MT set in 1974.
“As of right now there’s an outside chance we’ll break the record because ships are still lining up,” Gagnon told Canadian Sailings in early November. “But even if we fall a few shiploads short, it’s still been a heck of a year for our facility.”
Twenty-twenty started off with a bang for the Port of Sept-Îles, with the facility’s four mining partners – Iron Ore Company of Canada (a division of Rio Tinto), Quebec Iron Ore (a division of Champion), Tacora Resources and Tata Steel – shipping 7.9 MT of mostly iron ore during the first three months of the year.
New monthly tonnage records were established for January, February and March, resulting in the best first-quarter result in the port’s 70-year history.
Similarly, 112 bulk carriers visited the port’s docks and installations during that period, a nearly 50-percent increase in ship traffic over the first three months of 2019.
After reaching a first-quarter monthly high of 3.1 MT in March, when the Covid-19 pandemic reached fever pitch in much of the industrialized world, shipped tonnage at the port slipped slightly to 3 MT in April, as economies went into recession and iron ore analysts revised their mining and metals production and consumption forecasts sharply downwards.
In May, however, monthly tonnage totals were on the rise again, hitting a year-high peak of 5 MT in July. That was a half-shipload shy of the Port’s monthly record of 5.1 MT set in 1979.
“Demand and prices for steel and iron ore remain strong,” said Gagnon. “And we’re optimistic that will continue well into 2021 and beyond.”
According to Gagnon, the pandemic created both unique and unexpected supply issues and demand conditions that have benefitted producers of iron ore in many parts of the world, including Canada.
Covid-19 cluster outbreaks and subsequent government lockdowns, for example, have forced mine closures and caused major operational and output disruptions in several of the world’s Top-Ten iron ore producing countries, including Brazil (second), China (third), India (fourth) and South Africa (sixth).
At the same time, global demand for steel and iron ore, the world’s most commonly used metal and most traded commodity, has risen sharply as countries implement massive infrastructure stimulus programs aimed at boosting their economic recoveries from the pandemic.
“Steel is a correlation vector married to economic cycles,” said Gagnon, a mining and mineral engineer from Sept-Îles who worked for Quebec Cartier Mining (later acquired by ArcelorMittal) before joining the Port as President and CEO in 2002. “On a macro scale the steel market is way up as industries retool worldwide and massive public works projects ramp up across Asia, Europe and the United States.”
He noted that demand for iron ore is especially strong in China, which is the world’s largest commodities consumer. “That’s helped to keep world prices high,” said Gagnon.
The Chinese, he added, are also buying more high-quality ore to blend with lower-quality material in an effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions in its steel production industry.
Though Canada ranks No. 8 among iron ore exporting countries with only 2 percent of the global market – almost all of it mined from the Labrador Trough, shipped 400 kms south by rail and loaded onto bulk carriers in both the ports of Sept-Îles and nearby Port Cartier (run by ArcellorMittal) – Gagnon said the quality of Canadian ore is second to none.
“Our product is purer with fewer contaminants,” he said. “That means better steel products and less slag for producers to get rid of after processing.”
An added bonus, said Gagnon, is that blending ores fetch an extra US$10-12 premium in the marketplace, where ore prices peaked at a US$130 a tonne in September – the highest price since the historical low of US$38 a tonne in 2015 and double the price of a year ago – though they have since pulled back to track around the US$120 mark.
“When you compare that to 2012, when prices were at an all-time high of US$180 and the Canadian dollar was trading at par with the U.S. dollar, our producers are making roughly the same amount of money now because our dollar is trading at around US$0.75,” he said.
Gagnon also credited the rigorous health measures put in place by the Port, its mining partners and their many subcontractors for helping to avoid the introduction and spread of Covid-19 in their mining, railway and port operations.
Those measures include screening of mine workers who fly in and out of the Quebec/Labrador mining towns of Fermont and Labrador City, and strict protocols regarding social distancing and mask wearing in the workplace and living areas.
The Port has also imposed strict on-site protocols and allowed many of its 15 staff members to work remotely from home.
“Like us, our mining partners have put the most stringent public health measures and guidelines in place and people are being very responsible in respecting and following those directives,” said Gagnon. “As a result, there have been no disruptions in production. And we’re working hard to ensure things stay that way.”