Divestment in fossil fuels has been gradually increasing over the last several years, but its focus seems to have narrowed and perhaps reached critical mass in one area: coal.
Pressure is increasing from environmental groups, scientists concerned over global warming and investors, too. That’s particularly true considering the impending release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change later this month, expected to exhort meaningful global action later this year at the December climate conference in Paris, and the conference itself, the stated purpose of which is to adopt a new agreement on climate change that will provide a protocol for countries to reduce emissions.
Whether the Paris conference succeeds in imposing binding requirements on countries across the globe remains to be seen, but that focus on coal is sharpening, and investors in energy had best keep abreast of its impact. Here’s a look at eight of the most visible recent forces working on the coal market.
1. Bank of America backs off from coal ventures.
At its May shareholder meeting, Bank of America said that it was cutting off financing for coal extraction projects.
The bank has previously been a major source of financing for coal ventures, so the move marks a major policy change. In fact, in reports Bank of America spokeswoman Laura Hunter was quoted saying that in addition to supporting carbon capture and storage measures, the bank would also work with clients, including mining companies, “that are diversifying to other fuel sources.”
2. Standard Chartered pressured over Australian “coal bomb.”
London-based Standard Chartered is feeling the heat from shareholder groups to terminate financing connected with the Carmichael mine and railway in Queensland, Australia.
The project, under the direction of a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate Adani, is worth $16.5 billion Australian dollars ($12.58 billion U.S.), and the bank had denied providing any funding, saying that it was advising Adani on the project.
However, in legal testimony before a Queensland court, an Adani mining subsidiary executive disclosed that the bank had provided a loan of $680 million to the company. The bank, for its part, characterized the loan as “a preexisting refinancing facility that was not part of the expansion of the port or construction of the mine.”
Standard Chartered’s corporate motto is “Here for good,” and most British pension funds have invested in the bank. The mine, which would be the largest in Australia and one of the largest in the world, would export most of its coal to India; it’s been termed a “carbon bomb.” But it’s only the first in a planned series of at least eight more mega-mines in Western Queensland, in the Galilee Basin.
3. Australian aboriginals sue.
Standard Chartered isn’t the only firm being pressured over Australian coal mining. Two Aboriginal landowner groups have filed suit challenging Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and have said they are determined to halt the project.
The Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) people, who are the traditional owners of the land, are challenging “the decision of Australia’s National Native Title Tribunal that the Queensland government may issue mining leases for Carmichael,” W&J traditional owner and spokesperson Adrian Burragubba said in reports.
The groups intend to warn off global financiers, as well as to accuse banks of human rights violations if they fund the project without the consent of indigenous peoples.
4. Zombie koalas demonstrate.
Protestors dressed as koala corpses protested at ANZ Bank in Brisbane, Australia, and promised additional demonstrations across the country at other bank branches because of ANZ’s involvement with the Whitehaven coal mine at Maule’s Creek in New South Wales.
Not just native wildlife is being killed, according to activists; higher exports of coal will necessitate a port project that also threatens the Great Barrier Reef. All this is in addition to climate concerns should the mining projects proceed.
5. World Bank criticized over principles violations.
While the World Bank no longer supports the financing of coal-fired electricity projects except in poor countries where there are no other options, it’s not so picky about where it parks its staff pension funds.
In May headlines revealed that of the $18.8 billion invested on behalf of its employees, about 40% is actively or passively invested in index funds that do not screen for the same environmental or ethical standards the World Bank touts to the rest of the world. In a May report, the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, which advocates that asset owners address climate change risks, rated the pension fund a “laggard” in transparency and managing climate risk. The pension funds of British Coal and Azerbaijan, among others, ranked higher in that report, by the way.
6. University endowments rethink coal.
Even if the World Bank isn’t divesting, others are. This month Georgetown University became the latest to decide that it will no longer make direct investments in coal companies. It joins Stanford University, which took the step in May of last year after its students demanded divestment from all fossil fuels.
And of course last September the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it would divest from all fossil fuel investments.
7. Insurers rethink allowance of “self-bonding” by coal companies.
Coal companies in the U.S. have been taking advantage of self-bonding, a federal program that went into effect in 1977 that has allowed them to pay discounted insurance rates to cover cleanup costs in the event they go bankrupt.
However, the drop in coal prices and lower demand for the stuff have squeezed companies’ bottom lines, calling into question whether they are actually able to self-bond and thus qualify for the program’s discounts. In fact, this month it was reported that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is reviewing coal companies’ financial health to see whether they still qualify.
One company in the spotlight is Peabody Energy, which reported a loss of $787 million in 2014. At the end of March of this year, it had approximately $1.38 billion in cleanup liabilities insured through the program; it is among the group of companies currently being reviewed. But at least one coal company has already been stripped of its ability to self-bond, because its finances have fallen along with its stock price.
8. Norway divests from coal.
This is a biggie: Norway has announced that it will order its $900 billion sovereign wealth fund to divest from coal companies because of their effect on climate change.
It may strike some as ironic—divesting money gained from one fossil fuel from investing into another—and, indeed, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, which is where the country’s oil and gas income is parked against the day when wells run dry, is often referred to simply as the “oil fund.”
But Norway’s parliamentary committee was unanimous in its decision. According to Greenpeace and other environmental groups, that could mean that 122 companies across the world could feel the effects of the withdrawal of $8.6 billion in investments, which will begin next year.
According to Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), other pension funds invested in coal should do likewise. In a statement, Sanzillo said, “It s a clear signal that these companies are losing favor with investors. Other institutional investors should take notice, too, including university endowment funds and corporate pension funds.”
Sanzillo continued, “Pension funds, which have a fiduciary duty to make money, have no business owning any of these companies. The coal industry is deaf to investor inquiries, backward on innovation, arrogant in the face of public concerns about the environment and climate and unprepared to handle rising competition in the new-energy economy. The same can be said of its utility-industry allies.”
If things keep on at this rate, perhaps Santa will be the only one looking for coal come winter.