A big boys game: BHP ships 1bn tonnes iron ore to China

BHP Billiton may be shifting its attention to copper and potash, but last night in Shanghai, the world's number one mining company, took the time to celebrate the shipment of its one billionth tonne of iron ore to China.

BHP's first shipment of the steelmaking raw material left Port Hedland in West Australia 1973.

The Anglo Australian giant has tripled production over the past two decades and since 2004 has invested $25 billion in its Pilbara mines.

The Melbourne-based company will grow capacity further to reach 290 million tonnes per year by mid-2017.

CEO Andrew Mackenzie pointed out that "it took nearly 30 years for BHP Billiton to ship 100 million tonnes of iron ore to China and then only 12 more years to reach the one billion tonne milestone":

“We always strive to develop closer ties with China and contribute to its development by providing long-term, reliable and high-quality products at a transparent market price.

“BHP Billiton is very proud of the role it has helped play in China’s remarkable economic and urban growth through the trade in iron ore and other commodities. The rate of this growth, and the demand for iron ore, has been unprecedented."

China forges nearly as much steel as the rest of the world combined and consumes more than two thirds of the world's 1.2 billion tonnes seaborne iron ore trade.

Slipping below $70 a tonne again on Thursday, iron ore today trades near 5-and-a-half year lows and is down almost 48% this year.

Fears of weaker economic growth in China has taken some of the blame for the retreat in the price, but most of the weakness stems from a predicted supply glut this year, through at least 2018.

BHP's expansion lags that of the two top producers: Brazil's Vale plans to boost output to 450 million tonnes by 2018 from 306 million last year while Rio Tinto is well on its way to reach 360 million tonnes in the next few years.

As smaller, high cost producers outside China fall by the wayside the Big 3 is set to control more than 85% of the seaborne trade by the end of the decade.