science,” he says.
Finally, there is logistics. Any restart depends on rejigging port access at Sept-Ils, in tandem with the government, to do away with trans-shipment. Cliffs had been part loading boats, because its berth was too shallow, but a new government-backed terminal is deep enough for Chinamax vessels, potentially saving another $8 per tonne.
“It's a moving target,” O'Keeffe cautions. “Two variables in this are the shipping rate and your currency and sure as hell, if the iron ore price goes up, fuel prices go up, your Canadian dollar strengthens. I think we're okay on freight rates for a while and we'd take some of the doubt out with some hedging on currency.”
That leaves the spot price, currently hovering around $51 per tonne. “It's good to get yourself established and then you sit and wait for the market to come. If the world wants to sit with forty dollar iron ore, I'm not in that business, because I can't make money. If it's fifty plus, I can. We'll make a decision at the end of the year: either we defer any works for another six months, or we press the button to go.”
There is also the question of further deals. O'Keeffe has had “a super clean-out” at Champion, he says, which he has recapitalised, buying 9 per cent of the stock. He has looked at merging with other companies in the Labrador Trough, but has little need for additional greenfield assets when he has Bloom Lake, newly built. In the current market, capital intensive projects are “a blueprint for disaster,” he says, “a train smash waiting to happen.”
What looks more plausible is an agreement with ArcelorMittal. O'Keeffe declines to comment, but Champion's two biggest assets, Bloom Lake and Fire Lake North, are both bordering Arcelor properties. The steel group is famously independent-minded, but has swapped blocks of land with Champion in recent months, tidying-up operations on both sides of the fence. It was also an investor in Riversdale.
Arcelor's privately-owned Cartier railway in Quebec is “maxed out”, O'Keeffe says, though he does not rule out a partnership. “When I first turned up here you couldn't talk to Arcelor and no-one would. They're happily doing their own business.”
O'Keeffe points to the money thrown around in the Labrador Trough at the top of the market, as an indication of what is to come. Champion's market cap is currently A$96m ($71m), but its Quinto concessions, which were bundled in with Bloom Lake for nothing, once changed hands for $150m. Its undeveloped Fire Lake North deposit commanded an even bigger market cap of $180m in 2012. Asian steelmakers meanwhile
paid $1.1bn for a 15 per cent stake in Mont-Wright three years ago. “You can see how things are valued when the market's running.”
Critics say O'Keeffe has torn off a ten-year project in his 60s. Try telling him that. “We'll work hard on this whole bloody thing,” he says, fixing you with a stare. His pupils narrow and suddenly you realise that you're dealing with a man who has spent his life behind mine gates, or on Glencore's trading floor.
“It's like a retreating tank. It has fourteen reverse gears and one forward, in case it gets attacked from the rear. Don't look backwards, just keep going forward and something changes every day.”