March 29, 2006

Severe Cyclone Threatens Western Australia

CANBERRA -- A severe cyclone with winds exceeding 155 mph menaced northern parts of Western Australia on Wednesday, less than two weeks after a storm devastated homes and crops on the other side of the country.

Some oil and gas operations and key iron ore ports closed ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Glenda in an area known as "cyclone alley" because it is regularly swept by storms at this time of year.

The storm was downgraded later on Wednesday to a category four, one below the most powerful grade for cyclones, and was about 186 miles north of the town of Port Hedland and moving slowly west, the Tropical Cyclone Warning Center said.

"Tomorrow's really the day where things could happen," said forecaster Adam Conroy from the center in Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

The remote Pilbara region under threat is home to around 10,000 people and includes Woodside Petroleum's A$14 billion ($10 billion) North West Shelf liquefied natural gas project at Karratha, about 800 miles north of Perth.

"Residents of the central and west Pilbara coast are warned of the risk of very destructive winds with gusts exceeding 250 km per hour during Thursday as this very dangerous cyclone nears the coast," the Bureau of Meteorology said on its Web site (

Australia's northeastern coast was devastated last week by Cyclone Larry. It blew roofs off houses, uprooted trees and decimated sugar and banana crops, causing damage worth up to A$1.5 billion ($1 billion).

Woodside said on Wednesday that it had suspended production at its 100,000-barrel-per-day Cossack oilfield in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday as the sixth cyclone of the season approached.

Oil and gas producer Santos Ltd. shut its 40,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Mutineer-Exeter oil field on Monday and BHP Billiton's 10,600 bpd Griffin oil field has been closed since Saturday, after it was threatened by a smaller storm.

Mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto both have operations in the Pilbara, which has large deposits of iron ore.

Rio said its port operations at Dampier and Cape Lambert had shut and ships had gone out to sea, while BHP said it was loading its last ship and port operations at Port Hedland would close shortly.

Rio said on Tuesday bad weather meant the company would fall 5 million tonnes short of its first-quarter iron ore output target. It still expected 2006 output to rise 14 percent on last year's 158 million tonnes.