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Ring of Fire Metals said in its release it intends to keep the Esker mining exploration camp open year-round, as opposed to the approximate three months that Noront was only able to afford.Handout

Wyloo Metals Pty Ltd. has renamed Noront Resources Ltd., the junior Canadian exploration company it recently acquired, to Ring of Fire Metals, as the Australian resource heavyweight moves forward in its attempt to build what could be a cornerstone mine for Ontario’s nascent electric-vehicle industry.

Perth-based private equity firm Wyloo acquired Noront this year for $617-million after winning a fierce bidding war against fellow Australia miner BHP Group Ltd.

Wyloo chief executive Luca Giacovazzi said in a release that it settled on the Ring of Fire name to recognize both the minerals district in which the nickel project is located, and to pay homage to Noront’s Canadian roots.

“We highly value the rich history associated with the Ring of Fire region, the importance of the region to Canada’s critical minerals future, and all that Noront Resources had achieved,” he said.

Located in the swampy James Bay Lowlands, 550 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Noront christened the region the “Ring of Fire” because the geographic outline of the mineral deposits resemble a ring, and an employee had an affinity for the Johnny Cash song of the same name.

Ring of Fire Metals plans to put its Eagle’s Nest high-grade nickel project into production before the end of the decade, and hopes to build a refinery in Ontario that would sell the mineral to the Canadian auto industry. Nickel, alongside lithium, cobalt and graphite, is a key mineral used in EV batteries.

Ontario has made small inroads over the past year in establishing an EV supply chain, and Ring of Fire Metals has ambitions to be a major player in the sector. Canada is playing catchup to China, which dominates both the electric-car industry and the refining of battery metals.

Over the course of about 15 years, Toronto-based Noront tried to get its nickel and chromite mineral projects in the Ring of Fire into production, but fell short because of the huge development costs, a shortfall in funding, occasional tensions with First Nations stakeholders and sporadic weakness in the metals markets.

Ring of Fires Metals, which is backed by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, who made his fortune in the iron ore market, appears to be much better positioned than Noront to move forward on development. Ring of Fire Metals said in its release it intends to keep the Esker mining exploration camp open year-round, as opposed to the approximate three months that Noront was only able to afford. It has also beefed up on staffing at the camp, hiring 44 new people at Esker, half of whom are Indigenous.

The Australian company still faces several large hurdles.

Cut off from both the provincial highway network and the electricity grid, the minerals district requires billions in investment, not only from Ring of Fire Metals, but also from government. A 300-kilometre access road and associated infrastructure connecting the mining camp to the highway network was last estimated to cost $1.6-billion. Ring of Fire Metals is hoping that the federal and provincial governments will pick up the bulk of that funding. While Ontario has repeatedly vowed to fund its share, the federal government has not yet committed.

Ring of Fire Metals must also carve out a working relationship with the roughly nine Indigenous communities who would be affected by either development of the mine or the construction of a road. Some are already pro-development, and welcome the job opportunities mining would bring, while others have expressed their opposition owing to concerns about the environmental impact.

The carbon footprint of any mine in the Ring of Fire is expected to be contentious, not only for Indigenous populations, but for climate activists as well. The region is home to one of the last untouched boreal forests in North America, and is situated in one of the world’s biggest expanses of peatlands, making it a major carbon sink. Among the carbon-lowering initiatives, Ring of Fire Metals is considering at Eagle’s Nest are wind power, the possible usage of electric mining vehicles underground and operating hydrogen-fuelled haulage trucks above ground.

Both provincial and federal levels of government have already invested hundreds of millions in battery minerals ventures in 2022. Among the companies to attract government funding this year were South Korean EV battery maker LG Energy Solution Ltd. and automaker Stellantis, who announced plans in March to build a battery plant in Windsor, Ont.

The federal and Quebec governments also committed funds to General Motors Co. and South Korea’s POSCO Chemical Co. Ltd. for the construction of a $400-million battery-parts plant in Bécancour, Que.

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