Newcastle: home to the world’s biggest coal export port. Photo: Darren Pateman Newcastle’s council voted to curb its links to banks that back the fossil fuel industry. Photo: Simone De Peak
‘Birthplace of Queensland’s coal calls an end to industry
Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal export port, has voted to curb its links to banks backing the fossil fuel industry in a move described by a dissenting councillor as taking the city “back to the Stone Age”.
Newcastle City Council on Tuesday voted 6-5 to alter its policies to steer its $270 million in funds into banks involved in “environmentally and socially responsible investments” and avoid those in “harmful activities”, such as greenhouse gas pollution.
Preferred activities included renewable energy, social housing, resource efficiency and recycling.
Declan Clausen, a Labor councillor who brought the motion to council, said the move would send a signal that it was time for the city to diversify away from coal.
“It’s foolish to believe Newcastle can ride off coal far into the future,” Cr Clausen said. Coal exports from Newcastle rose 6 per cent to a record 159 million tonnes in 2014, and comprised 97 per cent of the port’s volume, according to Port of Newcastle data.
The council stopped short of immediately dumping term deposits and other transaction activity with the big four banks – ANZ, Commonwealth, NAB and Westpac.
However, when deposits come up for renewal, council staff will be instructed to switch funds away from the large banks – all active funders of the coal industry – provided rates of return and the ratings of the alternative banks or credit agencies are similar.
Brad Luke, a Liberal councillor, described the move as “incredible”, and one that “would punish the biggest employer in the region” and the unions.
“It sends a signal that Newcastle Council does not support the creation of jobs in this area,” Cr Luke said. “It will take Newcastle back to the Stone Age.”
Therese Doyle, a Greens councillor, dismissed the criticism.
“It is coal that will send us back to the Stone Age,” Ms Doyle said. “It’s very clear that we need to get out of fossil fuels.”
The city had seen “very little social and economic benefit” from the coal industry and instead had to suffer from the health impacts of coal dust, noise and traffic disruption from coal trains.
“Coal production is increasingly automated,” Cr Doyle said. “The way of the future is away from coal.”
Stephen Galilee, chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, said it was up to the city council “to decide how they invest ratepayers’ funds, and to explain why, and the ratepayers of Newcastle will make their own judgement on whether it’s really the right way to go”.
Newcastle’s move was echoed by Ipswich City Council in Queensland. Despite coal being mined in the region since 1843, the council has called on the state government to block new mines and expansions as well as coal seam gas operations.
“Westpac has a robust Sustainability Risk Management Framework and all transactions are subject to an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credit risk assessment process as part of our normal credit risk procedure,” a spokesman for the bank said.
A spokesman for NAB, meanwhile, said: “NAB has a long and strong relationship with the Newcastle City Council and we regularly meet to discuss their banking requirements.”
A spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Bank declined to comment and the ANZ is yet to respond.
Cr Clausen, who is a member of the Labor Environment Action Network, said unions including the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union recognised that the coal industry in the Hunter Valley would likely shrink in the future.
“There will be far more jobs in sustainable industries than in the traditional fossil-fuel ones,” he said, noting the CFMEU had seconded Labor’s target for Australia to reach 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 at last month’s ALP conference.
Tim Crakanthorp, another Labor councillor and also the member for Newcastle, welcomed the city’s decision”
“Newcastle is a diversified economy with increasing clean technology including a CSIRO energy centre and the Newcastle Institute of Energy Research,” Mr Crakanthorp said. “This only builds on this base.”
With Melissa Grant