Australia's annual gold production is set to rise for the first time in 12 years in 2009 as new mines start up and existing operations expand in response to the precious metal's price soaring towards $1,000 an ounce.

The country's output of the precious metal rose 3 percent in the first quarter this year from the same quarter a year earlier to 54.5 tonnes or 1.75 million ounces, gold industry consultancy firm Surbiton Associates said in a report released Sunday.

Although first quarter output was little changed from the December quarter, Surbiton said production should rise through the remainder of the year, barring any unforeseen mine closures.

It did not give a forecast production figure for 2009 but said it should exceed the 219 tonnes produced in 2008.

On Friday, the gold price rose to a three-month high, trading around $966 an ounce, as the dollar weakened against the euro amid fears over rising U.S. government debt.

Surbiton director Sandra Close said firming gold prices might encourage more exploration for gold in Australia, setting the scene for further production expansion. In recent years China's rising gold output has knocked Australia out of the world's top-three gold producers. Last year Australia was fourth, behind China with 282 tonnes, the United States with 229 tonnes and South Africa with 220 tonnes.

In Australia, first quarter output was boosted by OZ Minerals Ltd's (OZL.AX: Quote) start-up of its Prominent Hill gold-copper project in South Australia.

Apex Minerals Ltd (AXM.AX: Quote) reopened the Wiluna mine in Western Australia and ATW Gold Corp (ATW.V: Quote) started production at its Burnakura mine, also in Western Australia.

Close said the biggest boost to output would come with the mid-year commissioning of Newmont Mining Corp's (NEM.N: Quote) low-grade Boddington project in Western Australia.

Being developed at a cost to $2.6-$2.9 billion, Boddington is expected to produce about 1 million ounces per year for the first five years of operation.

In the first quarter, Surbiton said Newcrest Mining Ltd's (NCM.AX: Quote) Telfer mine was the country's top producer, producing 162,035 ounces. Second-placed was the Superpit mine on the outskirts of the outback mining town of Kalgoorlie. Jointly owned by Newmont and Barrick Gold Corp AB.TO, it produced 158,000 ounces.

(Reporting by Bruce Hextall; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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