Bankers and investors join the fight against Australian coal project

An environmentally sensitive mine project in Australia sees bankers and investors unite with activists as a coal-divestment push gathers steam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 2:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 2:37am

Taking on Australia's powerful coal sector was once left to environmentalists like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, but now the anti-coal movement is attracting wider support, from farmers to banks and investment funds striving to be seen as ethical investors and not contributing to global pollution.

A rag-tag army of anti-coal activists are camped on the land of farmer Cliff Wallace and he is happy to host the protesters. Wallace is worried the mine will have an impact on his farm's groundwater.

"It's a diverse group we've got here and in their own way they all want to save our trees from the coal companies," said Wallace, 62, who grows wheat on land bordering the Leard State Forest in New South Wales, where bulldozing of endangered Box-Gum Woodland trees to develop an open pit coal mine has drawn national attention.

Australia's biggest asset manager AMP said its Responsible Investment Leader fund would not invest in companies deriving more than 20 per cent of earnings from thermal coal, oil from tar sands and other types of fossil fuel, the same restriction it applies towards companies that derive revenue from pornographers and weapon makers.

Until now, protesters have faced an uphill battle to rally the wider Australian population against the biggest names in the coal sector, including Rio Tinto and Peabody Energy.

Known as "King Coal" in Australia, tens of thousands of workers are employed in collieries and whole towns rely on mines for their existence. More than half the world's steel-making coal, worth A$40 billion (HK$292 billion) a year, comes from Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to introduce legislation on July 1 to repeal a tax on carbon emissions, unswayed by US President Barack Obama's call for a 30 per cent drop in carbon emissions by zeroing in on coal plants. But a corporate backlash against coal is now having an impact where protesters have failed, adding pressure to a sector already hit by falling coal prices, 12,000 job losses since 2012 and stiffer competition.

Banks and organisations like 350.org and Market Forces, which track investments by financial institutions and the effects on the environment, are increasingly aligning with the anti-coal divestment movement.

Hunter Hall International, which manages US$1 billion in assets, said it was ending fossil fuel investments. Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest bank, has declared it will not finance any of the multibillion-dollar expansion work for a coal port near Australia's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland have also stated an unwillingness to provide funding.

The movement has even enlisted giant US ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, owned by Unilever, which dispenses free cones around Australia to draw attention to plans for dredging near the Great Barrier Reef for the coal port.

"Using business as a tool for social and environmental change is just as important as sourcing the best ingredients to make ice cream," company spokeswoman Kali Swaik said.

Since a divestment campaign began last year, Australian bank customers have withdrawn A$200 million from the nation's Big Four banks, National Australia Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia , Westpac Banking Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Corp, according to Market Forces data.

"People like me who are worried about increasing global warming are pulling our money out and we don't want to be banking with a bank that's supporting it," Helen Redmond said.

She moved her account from CBA and leads a divestment movement, Doctors for the Environment Australia, to persuade doctors and medical students to transfer money out of banks financing fossil fuel projects.

The campaign is best known for an incident last year when campaigner Jonathan Moylan sent out a hoax e-mail to media claiming to be from ANZ announcing the bank was withdrawing a A$1.2 billion loan for the project.

The hoax wiped A$314 million from Whitehaven Coal's market value when investors dumped the stock. The miner had been clearing the Leard State Forest site.

Moylan was arrested and is due to stand trial on June 30.

"The government and the coal companies see him as a criminal, but to us he's a hero," said Murray Drechsler, one of the protesters camped on Wallace's land.

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