ANZ Bank is blowing the carbon budget

ANZ's board are exposing shareholders and depositors to a very risky business by lending money to coal projects. Approvals by Australian state governments won't save them from global concern to act on climate change.

I vividly recall seeing a screening of The Bank, a film in which David Wenham played a technical whiz who sabotaged a bank’s financial system. Asked why he did it by a perplexed manager, Wenham’s character replied “I just hate banks!”. The audience around me spontaneously applauded.

At the time, about twenty years or so ago, the community was angry about the way the big banks were crushing family budgets with crippling interest rates, while making huge profits. Today the anger is more likely to be about the way the big banks are blowing the family’s carbon budget, while still making huge profits. 

This week, I attended the ANZ Bank AGM in Brisbane. It showed me that the board of ANZ is totally out of touch with community feeling on climate change.

A series of questions was asked about the bank's willingness to risk its shareholders' and depositors' funds on coal projects. The chairman's standard response was that they are happy to fund coal mines as long as they have been approved by the relevant State government. Given the smell around approvals in NSW, currently being investigated by ICAC, and the desperation in Queensland for any development that would get the Newman government out of its financial mess, this approach did not impress the questioners.

Pressed on the financial and reputational risk, after being reminded that the World Bank is now questioning the viability of new large export coal mines, the chairman said he was not prepared to answer any further questions about the bank's funding of the resources sector. Several more speakers attempted to probe the issue, but they were told to leave the microphone and sit down – even an Indigenous woman who had travelled 700 kilometres to ask her question..

One observer pointed out that the 2013 Annual Report states that ANZ’s purpose is to “achieve sustainable growth and prosperity for its customers, shareholders and people and the communities in which ANZ operates.” The comments of ANZ Chairman John Morschel reveal that there’s actually a caveat missing from this sentence, which is: ”… unless the government of the day gives us the green light to do the exact opposite, in which case, all bets are off.”

It turns out that there’s a gulf the size of the Grand Canyon between what the bank says its goal is, and what they are doing. One person asked for reassurance that the bank wouldn’t really fund the development of the Galilee Basin thermal coal deposits in Queensland, given that the projected development of that province would make the Galilee by itself the planet’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The response was essentially that as long as the projects are approved by governments, and they’ll make some money for the bank, ANZ will fund them.

In fact, ANZ is prepared to go further than that. One of the questioners the ANZ chairman tried to shut down was Phil Laird, who has been campaigning against Whitehaven Coal’s proposed Maules Creek mine because of the devastating impact it would have on the Leard forest. While that mine was initially approved by the NSW government, it is being held up in the Federal Court because of questions about its carbon offsets.

The company has also been referred to the regulator, ASIC, because of claims that misleading information was provided to the State government during the approvals process. Eventually the chairman assured the AGM that the Bank “would not advance monies until a clear approval was given”, but Laird pointed out that ANZ had just last month renewed the company’s $1.2 billion debt facility to develop the mine.

The bank proudly says that its own operations have been carbon-neutral since 2010. That boast is a farce when the bank is happily supporting coal export facilities and even holding talks with companies proposing the massive Galilee Basin development, which would almost certainly lock the world into a future of disastrous climate change.

The bank’s directors were being verbally challenged by unhappy shareholders when the meeting broke up for lunch. The awful irony in all this is that ANZ proudly said that it was the least awful of the large Australian banks according to a leading international sustainability index.  

Ian Lowe is the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Griffith University Emeritus Professor.

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