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SYDNEY, March 1 (Reuters) - Rio Tinto moved closer on Thursday to co-developing a 15 million-tonnes-per-year iron ore deposit in Australia's Pilbara iron belt after gaining government approvals to build a new rail haul line.
Rail and power are the lifelines for iron ore mining in the Pilbara, a 500,000-sq-km (190,000-sq-mile) sparsely populated desert and the single largest source of iron ore in the world.
The approvals clear the way for a rail and power supply project to connect the Hope Downs 4 iron ore mine, a joint venture of Rio Tinto and privately-held Hancock Prospecting, to the existing Hope Downs 1 mine, before being shipped to coastal export terminals.
Western Australian state political leader Colin Barnett said the partners had been given a special licence for a 53-km railway line and were cleared to build a 220-kilovolt electricity transmission line to let the project go forward.
"These approvals are the final step for development of the 15 million tonnes per annum Hope Downs 4 iron ore mine, at an estimated total cost of more than $1.2 billion," Barnett said in a statement.
Global supplies of iron ore need to increase by 100 million tonnes a year to keep pace with rising demand, according to Rio Tinto, the world's second largest producer after Brazil's Vale .
Rio Tinto has mapped out plans to lift its overall annual production of iron ore in the Pilbara to 283 million tonnes in 2013 from 225 million now by digging new mines and expanding existing ones.