Coal, climate change collide as customers query Aussie banks' green credentials

SYDNEY Mon May 19, 2014 5:00pm EDT

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SYDNEY May 20 (Reuters) - After 35 years of banking with big Australian banks like National Australia Bank, Paula and Peter Samson closed their accounts to protest the lenders' exposure to the polluting fossil fuel industry.

The Samsons, who live in Perth and drive an electric car, are part of a hundreds-strong, environmentally-driven movement that is taking hold in Australia after sweeping through the United States over the past year or so.

Protesters like the Samsons have withdrawn about A$200 million worth of deposits from the "Big Four" banks - NAB, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Corp - since the divestment campaign began last year, according to data from Market Forces, an independent environmental group that tracks the operations and investments of banks and their effects on the environment.

The amount is minuscule compared to the collective A$19 billion ($17.79 billion) Market Forces said these banks have loaned to Australian coal and gas projects since 2008, but it highlights a potential risk for lenders in an economy that is heavily reliant on resources for growth.

Mining, which includes coal, oil and gas extraction as well as support services, accounts for about 10 percent of Australia's gross domestic product. Since it started in the United States, the campaign has spread beyond banks to funds and university endowments that invest in coal companies.

"We are worried about climate change," Paula Samson, a retiree, said in a phone interview. "The only way to make a change is to take money out of the fossil fuel industry. On a small scale, we need to be doing this."

Australia is home to the world's biggest coal export terminal and coal is its second-largest source of export revenue, with overseas sales this year expected to be worth some A$40 billion.

The burning of coal to generate electricity is a major source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which environmentalists say triggers droughts and other natural disasters.

The grassroots campaign against fossil fuels aims to pressure institutions to pull their money out of the industry. In recent months, the drive has gathered momentum globally, targeting banks, pension funds, investors and universities with large endowments.

"It's more like a reputational risk that we're targeting," said Charlie Wood, who is spearheading the anti-fossil fuel campaign for environmental group 350.org in Australia.

"Customers will keep coming and closing their accounts until banks take notice and make a change," she added. Wood said she had sent letters to universities, banks and funds around Australia, urging them to get rid of fossil fuel-linked investments.

Australian bank loans to businesses stood at A$730 billion at the end of December, the central bank website shows.

SHIFTING BUSINESS

The organisation is taking heart from the fact that more than a dozen U.S. foundations representing more than $2 billion in assets have said they will stop investing in fossil fuel companies. Earlier this month, Stanford University announced it would drop coal company holdings from its $18.7 billion endowment fund.

A spokesman for third-largest lender ANZ told Reuters that about 25 customers had shut their accounts over the last 12 months in protest at its funding for fossil fuel firms. By comparison, the bank added 110,000 new customers during that period.

Other banks did not specify how many customers they lost to the campaign. NAB and Westpac both said they assess economic, environmental and social risks when providing loans while Commonwealth Bank did not respond to requests for comment.

The Australian Bankers' Association said it did not expect a "significant shift" in customer numbers due to the environmental campaign. "No bank likes to lose a customer, however," the association said in an email to Reuters.

"Banks will not stop lending to the fossil fuels industry today, but will continue to assess community views into the future," it added.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

While the effect of the campaign on the banking industry appears negligible so far, some smaller Australian banks which do not invest in fossil fuel are reaping its benefits.

Victoria-based lender Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, as well as regional creditors such as Bank MECU and People's Choice Credit Union are among the banks that 350.org's Wood identified as having environmentally sound credentials.

Bendigo said it does not lend to companies "for whom the core activity is the exploration, mining, manufacture or export of thermal coal or coal seam gas".

"We recognise causing harm to our environment also causes harm to the people and communities we serve," it said in a statement.

Spokeswoman Lauren Andrews, however, cautioned it was too early to tell how much the bank stood to gain.

"We're still having lots of conversations with people who are looking at switching banks," she said.

One depositor who has already made the switch is Craig Lamba, a 35-year-old IT consultant from Melbourne.

Lamba said he was a long-time customer with Commonwealth Bank of Australia but pulled out because of the bank's lending to fossil fuel companies. He is now in the process of moving at least A$5 million worth of business from NAB to MECU.

"They were pretty unhappy with the fact that we were moving our account," said Lamba. "I have banked with them for more than 30 years. I submitted the letter to close my account and I've never heard anything back, which is unusual."

"I think Commonwealth Bank's net-banking is the best in the world so I miss that. But, I was really upset with them for their business practices," he added.

($1 = 1.0680 Australian dollars) (Additional reporting by Ian Chua in SYDNEY and Sonali Paul in MELBOURNE; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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