Australian mining firm Mineral Resources (MinRes) plans to ramp up its iron ore export capacity in Western Australia (WA) to 92mn t/yr over the next 3-5 years, from a target of 19.5mn-21.2mn in the 2020-21 fiscal year to 30 June.

It aims to achieve this by increasing sales from the Yilgarn region of WA, where it operates the Koolyanobbing mine, to 13mn t/yr from the 8mn t/yr it achieved in July-September. It will also increase production at its existing Pilbara hub that is centred on its Iron Valley mine to 14mn t/yr from 7.5mn-8.5mn t/yr. It will add a further 25mn t/yr through trans-shipping ore from the Pilbara town of Onslow and is negotiating with the WA government to build two new terminals at Port Hedland to add 50mn t/yr of capacity through its South West Creek project.

Beyond the Yilgarn and Iron Valley expansions, the plans are ambitious and will require significant upfront investment. The new mines would operate at a higher cost than those run by major Pilbara rivals BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals because they will not have access to rail and will rely on road haulage over hundreds of kilometres in the Pilbara.

The projects are underpinned by strong iron ore prices that can support higher cost operations even for lower grade iron ore mines. MinRes currently ships ore with around 58-60pc Fe. Argus on 20 November assessed the 58pc Fe grade at $118.10/dmt cfr Qingdao, up from $77.95/dmt on 1 January. Argus also assessed the ICX 62pc Fe at $129.45/dmt cfr Qingdao on 20 November, up from $91.15/dmt on 1 January.

MinRes may struggle to gain approval for its South West Creek project, because there is insufficient capacity to meet all the expansion plans put forward for the port, according to WA port minister Alannah MacTiernan. BHP, Fortescue and Roy Hill have all submitted development plans for the port, but the existing inner harbour is not big enough to contain them all and an outer harbour will cost at least $10bn to build.

MinRes has been ramping up production at its iron ore mining operations since it acquired Koolyanobbing from US mining firm Cleveland Cliffs in June 2018 and restarted it in August 2018. Several other mining firms are working to increase iron ore exports from Australia as strong prices improve the economics of previously marginal projects.