* Australia raises export forecasts for iron ore, metallurgical coal
* Raw material shipments feeding China’s steel mills
* Reflects massive expansion by Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue
* Gold exports waning on lower price, high costs
By James Regan
SYDNEY, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Australia raised its forecasts for exports of iron ore and metallurgical coal -- its two top export revenue earners -- reflecting massive expansion work underway to meet demand for raw materials to make steel in China.
Despite moves to curb industrial growth rates and close some ageing steel works, China continues to produce more than 2 million tonnes of crude steel daily, almost 10 times the rate in the United States.
Australia, the world’s biggest producer of iron ore, forecast a 23.3 percent rise in exports to 650 million tonnes in the 2013/14 fiscal year, data from Australia’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) showed on Wednesday.
The forecast was raised from an estimate of 615 million tonnes just three months ago.
“The super cycle is not over yet,” said Keith Goode, an analyst for Eagle Mining Research in Sydney, referring to unprecedented commodity demand driven by Chinese demand.
“In China, the main demand still appears to be for iron ore.”
Australia’s troika of big producers are spending billions of dollars to dig more, betting on greater economies of scale to enable them to ride out troughs in the demand cycle
Rio Tinto is preparing to raise output capacity by about a fifth to 360 million tonnes by 2015. BHP Billiton is also boosting production.
Fortescue Metals is in the early stages of setting up its next stage of growth in iron ore production beyond an annualised rate of 155 million tonnes.
China has plenty of its own iron ore. But much of it is so low grade its cheaper to import ore with three times higher iron content from Australia than mine it at home.
Australia’s exports of metallurgical coal used in making steel for the year are forecast to increase by 6 percent to 163.9 million tonnes, according to BREE.
China alone is expected to boost its imports of metallurgical coal by 8 per cent to 99 million tonnes in calendar 2014, BREE said.
The Australian data underscores continuing strength in iron ore shipments and a resurgence in coal, while other major commodities produced in the country wane.
China buys the lion’s share of Australia’s iron and coal.
China’s overall iron ore imports are expected to climb to a record 850 million tonnes next year, up from an estimated 800 million tonnes this year, in step with steel output and demand.
Still, according to Australia & New Zealand Bank, markets for raw materials used in steel making face pressure as higher freight rates and falling steel prices curb Chinese buying leading into the Chinese New Year.
China rebar futures -- a barometer of activity -- hit a 2-1/2-month high last week, though the May 2014 contract has declined more than 2 percent since then.
And while still above 2 million tonnes, China’s average daily crude steel output fell for the third straight 10-day period this week and declined 3.7 percent in the first 10 days of December, data from the China Iron and Steel Association showed.
Also, steel mills in China are facing more shutdowns next year under China’s latest economic reform agenda as the government steps up its fight against air pollution.
A slower Chinese economy is also expected to halve the growth pace of steel demand to around 3 percent next year.
Nonetheless, after falling below $87 a tonne in September 2012, the steel-making mineral now fetches around $134 .
By contrast, rising costs and declining gold prices are cutting or wiping out profits of Australian gold producers.
Exports by Australia, the world’s second-biggest gold producer behind China, are forecast to decrease by 4 percent in 2013/14 to 270 tonnes, BREE said.