BHP Output Strong, But Warns on Escondida Mine

BHP Billiton, the world's biggest miner, reported strong quarterly production gains on Wednesday led by copper and iron ore, but warned of a looming decline from the world's biggest copper mine.


Like close rival Rio Tinto, BHP has been running its mines and refineries around the world hard amid strong demand in China and across much of Asia for raw materials, and analysts expect the hefty gains to add to BHP's profit.

"They are producing more oil, copper and iron ore at a time when prices for these commodities have never been higher, which has to translate into much higher profits," said DJ Carmichael & Co analyst James Wilson.

BHP's fourth-quarter copper output rose 14 percent versus the comparable year ago period, while iron ore rose 15 percent, though coal used in steel making dropped 18 percent, BHP said.

Those rates were broadly in line with Rio, the target of an all-share hostile takeover offer by BHP worth around $140 billion, which saw its own output of iron ore rise about 13 percent and mined copper production climb 15 percent.

BHP's share of copper output from the Escondida mine in Chile, which produces nearly 10 percent of the world's copper, climbed 4 percent to 178,200 tonnes in the last quarter, while cathode production rose 7 percent to 40,300 tonnes, BHP said.

But BHP warned that Escondida's total output would drop 10-15 percent in the 2009 financial year and stay that way in subsequent years due to lower ore grades, a well-known problem that appears to be more significant than initially thought.

"Maybe that's a slightly bigger decline than some people would have expected," said Peter Chilton, an analyst with Constellation Capital Management, adding that capital costs continue to be an issue.

BHP also said it had found a rich copper deposit near Escondida measuring 1 billion tonnes of ore containing between 0.6-1.0 percent copper.

BHP's shares were down 1.3 percent at A$38.49 in a broader market up 1.25 percent.

"I think the share price fall is more symptomatic of resource indices being off overnight, rather than results," said Peter Chilton, an analyst at Constellation Capital Management.

"I don't think there was anything in its results that was disappointing." Analysts expect BHP's second-half profit to be $6.05 billion, pushing full-year profit to more than $13 billion.

Rio is expected to report a first-half profit of $4.258 billion versus $3.353 billion last year, according to Reuters Estimates.

Escondida Output To Fall

Overall, annual production rose in 13 commodities despite rising costs across its operations, with a sharp 54 percent jump in fourth-quarter oil and condensate output from a year earlier.

Production of coals used in power generation was in line with the last quarter of the previous year.

"This was achieved in an environment in which supply disruptions and input costs pressures are placing challenges on the industry response to continued strong global demand for commodities," BHP said.

London Metal Exchange-traded three-month forward aluminum hit an all-time high of $3,380 a tonne this month, while three-month copper reached a record $8,940 a tonne.

BHP and Rio have also secured a near-doubling in contract iron ore prices.

BHP Chief Executive Marius Kloppers has argued combining BHP and Rio would lead to billions of dollars in cost savings at mine sites, ports and refineries.

Rio Chief Executive Tom Albanese has countered that the offer of 3.4 BHP shares for each Rio share is too cheap given Rio's assets and growth potential.