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Fortescue Expected To Give Go-Ahead For Solomon Project At AGM Friday

By David Fickling Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES SYDNEY -(Dow Jones)- Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. (FMG.AU) is expected to give the go-ahead for its 80 million ton a year Solomon iron ore project Friday ahead of the company's annual general meeting in Perth. Fortescue is expected to vote on a feasibility study for the Solomon project at a board meeting in Perth Friday morning before the company's shareholder meeting at 0600 GMT. The Solomon project, in Western Australia's iron-rich Pilbara region, should more than double the production of Australia's third-largest iron ore miner from its current 40 million tons a year to 120 million tons a year when the main stages of the project are complete. However, capital spending in the region of US$5.4 billion will lead to further cost pressures on the Western Australian resources sector, where investments in iron ore and offshore petroleum are booming. Committed resource sector capital projects at the end of October totalled A$93.05 billion of planned spending in Western Australia, around 70% of the total Australia-wide, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics said Thursday. BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) on Wednesday also announced an extra US$635 million of spending on its growth projects in the Pilbara, which accounts for around a third of global seaborne iron ore exports. Fortescue has previously said that ore production from the 30 million ton a year north and south Firetail mines at the Solomon project will start from June 2012, with the project reaching a full 60 million ton a year capacity in 2014. However, in an environmental review lodged last week the miner left the door open to raising capacity to 80 million tons a year and said the project would hit full capacity in the third quarter of 2013. Construction of the first stage of the 2.86 billion ton project will involve building a 127 kilometer railway to link up with Fortescue's existing railway northwest of Newman. Fortescue grew rapidly to become the third-largest Australian iron ore miner by taking on large volumes of debt to build its own railway line to compete with the proprietary lines owned by BHP and Rio Tinto PLC (RIO). The company's net debt peaked at US$6.11 billion at the end of June 2008, at a time when the company's annual earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation amounted to just US$45.9 million. However, conditions attached to its bonds limited its ability to grow beyond its existing Cloud Break and Christmas Creek mines, leading to a refinancing of US$2.04 billion of bonds to less circumscribed notes last month. The company's US$100 million 2006 loan note agreement with Leucadia National Corp. (LUK) also commits it to pay 4% of revenues from the Cloud Break and Christmas Creek mines as interest, net of government royalties, leading to US$172 million of payments to Leucadia in July this year. The miner is expected to tour investors in Europe and the U.S. before the end of the year to raise interest and inspect equipment for the project. Under the terms of the revised debt agreement in October, Fortescue is able to raise an additional US$4 billion of secured debt and further unsecured debt equivalent to around 2.5 times its annual operating profit, suggesting an overall debt ceiling of US$7.3 billion to the end of December. -By David Fickling, Dow Jones Newswires; +61 2 8272 4689; david.fickling@dowjones.com

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