Rio Tinto lifts iron ore shipments as economic outlook brightens

Mining giant Rio Tinto has lifted its shipments of iron ore during the March quarter, marking a strong start to 2021, as Chinese industrial activity drives greater demand and global economic growth begins to rebound.

Rio Tinto, the nation’s second-largest mining company, said its first-quarter iron ore exports had risen by 7 per cent compared to the same time last year, shipping 77.8 million tonnes of the steel-making raw material.

The price of iron ore, Australia’s top export, has defied repeated predictions it is overdue for a fall.Credit:Tony McDonough

The miner’s quarterly shipments, largely in line with analysts’ expectations, means it is on track to deliver its full-year target of between 325 million and 340 million tonnes at a time when the price of iron ore has surged to a 10-year high of around $US170 a tonne.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said the miner had achieved an “overall solid” operating performance in the first quarter and had successfully managed the effects of significant rainfall across its iron ore assets in Western Australia’s Pilbara.

However, Mr Stausholm added that the period had also been a time of “deep reflection” for Rio Tinto as it continues facing the fallout of its disastrous decision last year to blow up the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters at WA’s Juukan Gorge to make way for a mine expansion against the wishes of the land’s traditional owners.

“I have personally spent a significant amount of time listening, learning and taking actions, in particular to better manage Traditional Owner partnerships and cultural heritage,” he said.

Rio Tinto and other top iron ore miners – including BHP and Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group – have been posting bumper profits on the back of an extraordinary rally in the price of iron ore, Australia’s most valuable export.

Massive economic stimulus programs post-COVID-19 have been fuelling record-breaking demand for the steel-making raw material in China at the same time as disruptions are affecting rival iron ore suppliers in Brazil.

Globally, Rio Tinto said it expected “robust” economic growth in the near term, fuelled by strong fiscal spending and the roll-out of vaccines as the year progressed.

The remarkable rise in the price of iron ore has helped support the nation’s finances through the coronavirus pandemic. During 2020, iron ore accounted for $120 billion in export earnings – the first of any Australian export to top the $100 billion mark.

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