Fool the state once, shame on you. Fool the state twice, shame on it.
Consider the state looking sufficiently foolish after Monday when Essar Global, the former parent company of Essar Steel Minnesota and its primary driver into bankruptcy, paid of about $1.75 billion in global debt — including that of Essar Minnesota — and spent another $260 million to buy out Mesabi Metallics’ debt on the Nashwauk project.
After hard tones and harsh words from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, in the final hours of his administration, Essar and Ruia family snuck in the back door after months of speculation of their involvement in the project’s reboot.
It wasn’t dissimilar to the way the company creeped into a $1.1 billion bankruptcy in July 2016 as the state prepared to pull their mineral leases — a move that first took months of Essar misleading Dayton about its direction with the project.
And here we are again, with somehow fewer answers on how we arrived here than when we last left Essar more than two years ago.
It amounts to more layers of misleading statements, and a state seemingly all-too-willing to work with anyone not named Cleveland-Cliffs.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, it was unaware of Essar had returned to the project as of Monday. It was still reviewing a financial disclosure by Mesabi Metallics submitted Friday.
Mesabi Metallics says it still owns the assets and would control and operate the project, but as of later this week were still unsure how the Essar deal would play out. The company also couldn’t shed light on the involvement of Mercuria Energy and its $650 million potential investment, which came with a financial link to Essar in September.
As this plays out, it is interesting to note the state has shifted to a new administration under Gov. Tim Walz and a new DNR commissioner. What they can change before the project’s year-end deadline to complete the pellet plant is unknown — if they can do anything. But it would be wise for the Walz administration to take note of this project early, review its agreements with a fine-tooth comb and not allow Mesabi Metallics or Essar any leeway on its deadlines — one of which was already missed on Dec. 31, 2018.
The state of Minnesota allowed Essar back in the door on this one. It has to own that. What exactly can be done might require some soul searching by state officials, remembering of course, the goal is to mine and process ore. Not for two sides to haggle over construction timelines long extended or the state to act foolishly as a power play move.
There’s only so much shame to pass around on this project, and the Iron Range residents and workers don’t need to shoulder any of it.