* Tropical storm in Australia shuts Rio, BHP, Fortescue iron
* Storm set to intensify to cyclone strength
* Offshore oil and gas fields also shut
* Second storm on other side of Australia halts zinc
By James Regan
SYDNEY, Jan 23 A tropical storm intensifying off
Australia's northwest coast brought nearly half the world's iron
ore trade to a halt on Wednesday, idling huge ports used by
miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton
Port Hedland closed on Tuesday evening as the tropical storm
gathered strength in the Indian Ocean, sending dozens of vessels
in search of safe harbours.
Port Hedland is used by BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals Group
and Atlas Iron which expect to ship more than
200 million tonnes of ore this year, accounting for a fifth of
global sea-borne trade in the steel-making raw material.
Rio Tinto, which ships more than 200 million tonnes of iron
ore through Dampier and Cape Lambert, said it expected to also
shut operations at Cape Lambert and Dampier Port.
At 02:00 WST (18:00 GMT) a tropical low was estimated to be
120 kilometres northwest of Port Hedland and 150 kilometres
northeast of Karratha and moving west at 16 kilometres per hour,
according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Iron ore prices have gained support from
concerns that Australia's cyclone season, which runs from
November until April, will reduce supplies.
Most of the iron ore mined in Australia is contracted by
Chinese steel mills, with Japanese and South Korean mills also
Total iron ore shipments from Port Hedland in December
reached a monthly record 26 million tonnes.
The region between Port Hedland and Dampier is known among
mariners as "cyclone alley", with at least half a dozen cyclones
hitting from November to April each season.
The current storm is forecast to intensify to a Category 1
cyclone -- the weakest on a scale of one to five -- early on
Wednesday. Gales of up to 100 kph (60 mph) could develop between
Port Hedland and Dampier on Wednesday, the Australian Bureau of
BRACING FOR THE STORM
Oil and gas producers in the area were also bracing for the
storm. Apache Energy said it had suspended operations at
the Stag and Van Gogh oil fields due to the cyclone threat.
The Stag field is located in 161 feet (49 meters) of water
60 km (37 miles) off Dampier. Apache is the operator of the Stag
field and has a 33.3 percent stake. Santos has the
remaining 66.7 percent.
Apache also holds a 52.5 percent interest in the Van Gogh
field, with Inpex owning the rest.
A separate tropical storm in Australia's remote northeast
briefly reached cyclone strength and forced China's MMG Ltd
to temporarily halt shipments of zinc concentrate from
its Century mine, the second-largest zinc mine in the world.
The storm crossed the Queensland state coast with heavy rain
and wind gusts of up to 100 kph (60 mph). It is forecast to move
further inland before tracking south on Wednesday.
MMG has also restricted zinc processing at its mine, located
about 300 km (185 miles) from the port of Karumba, it said, but
expected to resume shipping on Wednesday if the weather eased.
The Century mine has a production capacity of 500,000 tonnes.