PREVIEW-Rio Tinto to beat 2012 iron ore guidance as prices rebound
* WHAT: Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Fortescue quarterly iron ore production data
* WHEN: Jan 15 (Rio), Jan 23 (BHP), Jan 24 (Fortescue
SYDNEY, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Rio Tinto is expected to beat its iron ore guidance for 2012 when it reports fourth-quarter production on Tuesday, as the world's No.2 producer and its rivals press ahead with expansion plans just as a revival in Chinese demand drives up prices.
Australia's two other major producers, BHP Billiton BLT.L> and Fortescue Metals Group, are also set to post strong quarterly performances when they report later this month.
Rio has shrugged off worries over the resilience of Chinese demand by sticking to aggressive expansion plans, while Fortescue has also resumed a stalled project after prices picked up.
Iron ore prices have soared than 80 percent since September as Chinese steel mills -- the single biggest buyers of seaborne-traded ore -- returned to the market on signs of a recovery in the Chinese economy.
Benchmark prices <.IO61-CNI=SI> hit a 15-month high of $158.50 a tonne last week, as China's iron ore imports topped 70 million tonnes for the first time in December helped by a resurgent economy and a cold snap that cut local production.
A further rally in prices will hinge on whether Chinese demand will be able to outpace an expected increase in global supply this year.
Rio Tinto, operating on a calendar year, is expected to report on Tuesday tonnage exceeded guidance for 2012.
"Key highlights for Rio Tinto should be a 3 percent increase in iron ore sales to 68 million tonnes and total iron ore production for 2012 of 254 million tonnes, above guidance of 250 million tonnes," Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Young said in a client note.
Output in the fourth quarter should be up 1 percent from the previous quarter to 62.1 million tonnes, according to Young.
That equates to an annual operating rate of 248.4 million tonnes, above the 237 million-tonne rate Rio Tinto Chief Executive Tom Albanese cited at an investor briefing in November.
Rio Tinto is targeting an annual rate of 290 million tonnes by the end of 2013 and aims to lift output to 360 million tonnes in 2015 pending board approval. The tonnage also includes output from the company's iron ore mines in Canada.
Rival BHP reports its fiscal 2013 December-quarter figures on Jan. 23 and Fortescue on Jan. 24.
RBC Capital markets analyst Des Kilalea sees BHP's output for the quarter rising 4 percent from the previous quarter to 41.1 million tonnes, ahead of a 5 percent increase in production overall in fiscal 2013 (July/June).
BHP aims to boost output to an annual rate of 220 million tonnes by fiscal 2014.
Australian miners took advantage of favourable weather free of violent tropical storms that typically barrel through the far west Pilbara iron ore belt by Christmas each year disrupting operations.
The first cyclone of the Australian season, running from November to April, developed only last week and largely remained well at sea before dissipating with little impact on the sector.
Cyclone Narelle forced Rio Tinto to suspend ship loading for two days last week but it kept its mines running. Any impact on shipping times is expected to be minimal.
By early Monday, Narelle had been downgraded and had moved about 1,000 km (600 miles) south of the Pilbara.
Operations at Port Hedland, used by BHP, Fortescue, Atlas Iron and BC Iron were not affected by the storm.
Port Hedland shipping data shows iron ore loadings climbed 2 percent to 69.4 million tonnes in the December quarter from the previous one, sweeping full year shipments 16 percent higher.
Iron ore exports to China from the port, a bellwether for Chinese industrial activity, surged 25 percent in December from the previous month to a record 20.23 million tonnes.
Based on port data, Fortescue is expected to show iron ore sales of just under 21 million tonnes in the December quarter.
Fortescue, too, is expanding at a fast clip, reaching a record 100 million tonne yearly operating rate through its loading facilities in December.
It is targeting annualised production of 115 million tonnes by the end of March and 155 million tonnes by late December.
(Editing by Ed Davies)