* Cyclone Bianca swings along west Australia coast
* Major iron ore port suspends exports
* Oil operations batten down as cyclone nears (Adds Mutineer-Exeter shutdown, background and quotes)
SYDNEY, Jan 26 (Reuters) - A tropical cyclone forced Australia’s major iron ore port and several oil facilities to suspend operations on Wednesday, as forecasters predicted the tempest would intensify as it swept along the country’s northwest coast.
Cyclones are a normal feature of an Australian summer but the national weather bureau has warned of above-average cyclone activity this season, on top of devastating floods that recently hit the coal and grain industries in the northeast.
Port Hedland, the country’s biggest iron ore export terminal, suspended loading ships on Wednesday with the approach of Cyclone Bianca, which is forecast to intensify on Thursday and generate winds of up to around 160 km per hour.
The port’s harbour master, John Finch, told Reuters he was closely monitoring the path of the cyclone and expected to be able to reopen to shipping within 12 to 24 hours.
The waters off northwest Australia are also home to some of the country’s biggest oil and gas operations, and several of them on Wednesday took the precaution of suspending production.
Chevron Australia put its oil-processing facilities on Barrow and Thevenard Islands on alert for the cyclone.
“This includes the evacuation of non-essential workers and the tying down of equipment to secure sites,” a Chevron spokesman said. “Production is being shut in and wells secured.”
Australian energy firm Santos said it had also idled its offshore Mutineer-Exeter field on Wednesday, moving its floating production, storage and offloading platform out of the path of the cyclone.
Santos’s partners in the 8,000-barrels-per-day field, which includes an offshore production and offloading facility, are KUFPEC, a unit of Kuwait Petroleum Corp, Nippon Oil and Woodside Petroleum .
Reporting by Rebekah Kebede and Mark Bendeich; Editing by Clarence Fernandez