* Sees iron ore exports rising 10 pct as China demand remains robust
* Figure in line with previous f'cast, mkt expectations
* Australia eyes boost in most mineral commodities next fiscal yr
* Says coal exports to soar in 2012/3
By James Regan
SYDNEY, June 27 (Reuters) - Australia, the world's biggest producer of iron ore, on Wednesday stuck to a forecast for a 10 percent rise in exports in the next fiscal year, as mining companies spend billions of dollars beefing up operations to meet demand from China.
The pace of growth, in line with market expectations, reflects massive work from mega-producers Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton to dig more mines amid predictions that China, the biggest buyer of Australian minerals, will weather the global economic malaise and maintain strong industrial growth.
"This is largely on the back of the enourmous work underway by the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto to dig up more iron ore," said Gavin Wendt, an analyst for MineLife in Sydney.
"We've been looking at somewhere around 500 million tonnes next year for some time."
The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) predicted iron ore exports of 510 million tonnes in the financial year that begins in July after downgrading its forecast for the current year by 10 million tonnes to 463 million tonnes, citing the impact of bad weather on mining operations.
"The increase in export volumes across the majority of commodities reflects recent expansions to mine and infrastructure capacity," said Quentin Grafton, BREE's chief economist.
Although economic growth has moderated in China since mid-2011, consumption and investment are expected to remain robust, Grafton said, adding that the country's economic growth was "sustainable" at around 8 percent through 2013.
With the exception of aluminium, exports of all major minerals and energy commodities are forecast to climb, with metallurgical and thermal coal both set to rise by 13 percent from a year earlier.
The largest increases, in percentage terms, are expected for liquefied natural gas, up 21 percent, and alumina, up 15 percent. Copper exports are forecast to jump 10 percent.
Based on the BREE data, Australian iron ore exports increased by 17 million tonnes in 2010/11 from the year before, and 56 million tonnes between 2011/12. They are slated to rise another 47 million tonnes by June 30, 2013 to 510 million tonnes.
Slumping commodity prices in general and escalating costs have squeezed cash flows, pushing BHP and Rio to reconsider the pace of mine expansion, though neither has shown signs of pulling back in iron ore.
According to government data, iron ore continues to remain a key part of the resources industry, with 15 projects, costing a total of $25.6 billion, in advanced stages of development.
Rio, the world's second-largest miner of iron ore after Brazil's Vale, currently runs its mines at an annual rate of 230 million tonnes and has already put in place work to take output first to 283 million tonnes, then 353 million tonnes.
At an expanded rate of 353 million tonnes, Rio's Australian mines would be supplying nearly a third of the world trade in iron ore.
BHP is mining iron ore at a rate of 165 million to 170 million tonnes per year, which is above its production guidance of 159 million tonnes in fiscal 2012.
But producers differ slightly on where the market is heading in the longer term. BHP expects 650 million tonnes a year of new seaborne iron ore supply to be needed by 2025, compared with a Rio forecast that 700 million tonnes of iron ore would be required by 2019.
Iron ore prices grew dramatically to a peak of nearly $200 per tonne on a cost-and-freight China basis in February 2011, boosted by supply constraints and Chinese appetite for the steelmaking raw material.
Since the second half of last year, however, slowing economic growth and increased supply have put pressure on prices.
Benchmark iron ore with 62 percent iron content stood at $135.40 a tonne on Wednesday.
According to mining consultancy Raw Materials Group (RMG), iron ore supply and demand are likely to be balanced in 2 years, slightly later than previously expected, as some new projects are constrained by political risk and difficult logistics. [ID: nL6E8HQ8BQ]
Australia's metallurgical coal exports should climb to around 161 million tonnes in 2012/13, BREE said, although total earnings on this are slated to decline about 2 percent due to a modest drop in coal prices.