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Rio Tinto South Embley bauxite project.

Rio Tinto has executed its ramp up of the Amrun project in Far North Queensland as planned, with the operations driving strong performance in the company’s bauxite division.

The company’s overall bauxite output shot up 9 per cent in 2019 compared with the previous year to 55.1 million tonnes.

Rio Tinto credited the increase to the successful ramp up of Amrun, which reached its design capacity during the December quarter.

The Amrun site also guided Rio Tinto to a 21 per cent improvement in third party shipments of bauxite, at 40 million tonnes.

Rio Tinto’s 2020 production guidance for the commodity is 55 to 58 million tonnes, subject to weather and market conditions.

In the Pilbara, Western Australia, Rio Tinto shipped 86.8 million tonnes of iron ore during the December 2019 quarter, giving it 327.4 million tonnes for the year.

The company’s iron ore output was 3 per cent lower than 2018 due to weather and operational challenges in the first half of 2019, including 12 days of limited rail capacity for 12 days from extended maintenance.

In the United States, Rio Tinto recorded a 5 per cent drop in copper production at the Kennecott mine against 2018 (to 577,000 tonnes) because of lower grades being mined.

Rio Tinto expects that lower grades will persist well into 2020 until it has access to higher grades from the end of the calendar year due to phase one of the south wall pushback project.

There will also be a 45-day planned maintenance shutdown at Kennecott in the second quarter of 2020, which is a standard rebuild completed at the site every three years.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques said despite the operational challenges across its commodities, the company finished the year with good momentum.

In 2020, the company will focus on strengthening its pipeline of opportunities, according to Jacques.

“We are increasing our investment, with $2.25 billion of high-return projects in iron ore and copper approved in the fourth quarter,” he said.

“We also boosted our exploration and evaluation expenditure to $624 million in 2019.”

Rio Tinto is continuing work at the Oyu Tolgoi project in Mongolia and made the decision to remove two of three mid-access drives during the fourth quarter to improve the project’s development schedule.

“We will retain one mid-access drive on the apex level of the mine design of panel 0,” the company stated.

“We continue the detailed work on mine design, which we still expect to complete in the first half of the year, with a definitive estimate in the second half of 2020.”

The company will make key decisions to other underground design elements during the first half of the calendar year, considering impacts on cost, schedule and ore reserves.