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FEATURE-"King Coal" in Australia faces rising investment backlash
June 23, 2014 / 9:00 PM / 3 years ago

FEATURE-"King Coal" in Australia faces rising investment backlash

* Banks and funds join Australian anti-coal movement

* Funding shrinks for coal and other fossil fuels

* Australian PM staunch coal supporter, to end carbon tax

* Bank customers withdraw A$200 million over global warming

By James Regan

MAULES CREEK, Australia, June 24 (Reuters) - A farmer’s habit of rising before dawn finds Cliff Wallace alone most mornings while a rag-tag army of anti-coal activists camped in tents and tee-pees on his land catch a few more hours sleep.

When the protest camp finally awakens, talk around a makeshift mess hall over coal’s impact on global warming competes with analysis of plunging coal prices or the latest bank to come out against investing in fossil fuel extraction.

“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,” says Wallace, 62, who grows wheat on land bordering the Leard State Forest, where bulldozing of endangered Box-Gum Woodland trees to develop an open pit coal mine has drawn national attention.

Wallace is happy to host the anti-coal protesters as he is concerned about the impact the mine will have on his farm’s groundwater and says he is “deeply saddened” by the disruption to the region’s animal habitats.

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.

“Specifically, the bank does not lend to companies for whom the core activity is the exploration, mining, manufacture or export of thermal coal or coal seam gas,” says Australian lender Bendigo Bank, adding it was committed to minimising environmental harm.

Australia’s biggest asset manager AMP says its ‘Responsible Investment Leader’ fund won’t invest in companies deriving more than 20 percent 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, weapon makers, tobacco and alcohol.

“KING COAL” UNDER PRESSURE

To reach Wallace’s farm, drivers pass through a police checkpoint, where vehicles are searched for ropes and chains that could be used to climb trees or lock onto mining equipment - traditional guerrilla protest tactics used against coal mines.

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 Corp.

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 a year, comes from Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a staunch supporter of coal and plans to introduce legislation on July 1 to repeal a tax on carbon emissions, unswayed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for a 30 percent 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 from countries like Indonesia, where wages are lower and supply abundant.

“The concerted, well financed, and internationally coordinated campaign against fossil fuel producers carries with it great dangers and the potential to impose huge costs on the Australian economy,” according to the Minerals Council of Australia, the industry’s main lobby group.

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 $1 billion in assets, says it is ending fossil fuel investments.

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest bank, has declared it will not finance any of the multi-billion-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.

ICE CREAM PROTEST

The anti-coal movement has even enlisted giant U.S. 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,” says company spokeswoman Kali Swaik.

Since a divestment campaign began last year, Australian bank customers have withdrawn A$200 million ($188 million) in loans and deposits 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,” says Dr Helen Redmond.

Redmond moved her account from CBA last year 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.

Activists this month claimed a victory after Whitehaven Coal agreed to halt clearing in the Leard Forest during the winter hibernation period for bats, owls, and other wildlife.

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

The hoax temporarily wiped A$314 million from Whitehaven’s market value when investors panicked and dumped the stock.

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. ($1=1.0639 Australian Dollars) (Additional reporting by Swati Pandey in SYDNEY; Editing by Michael Perry)

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