Major banks sideline Gomeroi, farmers over China Shenhua mine

Lawyers representing traditional land owners and farmers opposed to the controversial thermal coal mine near Gunnedah in regional NSW claim they have been sidelined by major banks.

Environmental planning law firm Beatty Legal sent letters to each of the big four banks – Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, Westpac and the National Australia Bank – in December last year but only ANZ and CBA responded.

Gomeroi man Steve Talbott overlooks the land China Shenhua plans to turn into a mine. Credit:Dolly Talbott

The letters dated December 8, obtained by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, asked if the lenders had any financial relationship with China Shenhua Energy, the parent company behind the proposed mine, and requested a response by the end of the following week.

The mine has been opposed by the Gomeroi people and local farmers for the impact it will have on cultural heritage and local water resources. It has yet to receive the necessary government approvals to mine 10 million tonnes of coal each year.

The correspondence included print-outs of reporting by this masthead from June last year that revealed the world’s largest asset manager Blackrock and construction fund Cbus held passive stakes in the Chinese Communist Party majority-owned company.

Prior to this reporting, the groups were unaware the company had private ownership and are now seeking to launch a campaign modelled on the anti-Adani protests that have targeted financial institutions and engineering firms involved in the mine.

‘Not to have even an acknowledgement of that correspondence suggests it’s something they consider to be unimportant.’

Beatty Lawyers director Andrew Beatty said association with the Gunnedah mine could cause reputational damage due to fierce opposition by environmentalists, farmers and traditional land owners.

“This is a brand new open-cut coal mine and it’s going to be developed on and in close proximity to the most arable land in Australia,” Mr Beatty said. “Any money lender or business wanting to support the mine should only do so if they have weighed up the consequences.”

ANZ’s head of legal Inge Kinderman responded in mid-January to apologise for the delay and confirm the bank does not hold shares or have investments in China Shenhua.

ANZ launched a climate policy last year that included banning credit for new thermal coal mines, in a move chief executive Shayne Elliott said was based on economic risk rather than pressure from activists.

CBA and Westpac acknowledged the receipt of the letter on December 22 and December 29 respectively, but Westpac has failed to provide further information and CBA did not respond until contacted by this masthead.

The National Australia Bank did not acknowledge or respond to the letter.

“Not to have even an acknowledgement of that correspondence suggests it’s something they consider to be unimportant,” Mr Beatty said.

“All four of these banks, in virtually every branch have displayed at their front door have a statement about acknowledging the traditional owners.

“It doesn’t say much for the connection to barely consider an inquiry about this infamous mine site.”

Contacted for comment, a NAB spokeswoman said it could not discuss details of individual customers or transactions but added the bank stopped financing new thermal coal mines in 2017.

CBA responded to Mr Beatty on Friday evening to say it does not hold direct interests in China Shenhua Energy but holds indirect interests through related trustees, trusts or funds.

A spokesman for Westpac said it did not have any banking relationship with China Shenhua.

The letters come at an important juncture for the future of the mine. Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro told media in January in the government was in negotiation with China Shenhua, adding the mining environment and investment out of China “had changed” since when the project first gained approval in 2011.

In 2016, the NSW government bought back BHP’s mining license in the same region after it determined mining operations would damage the surrounding agricultural land. Mr Beatty predicted China Shenhua was looking for a similar bail-out.

“We think Shenhua are now asking Australian politicians to give them a large amount of money to walk away from the project,” Mr Beatty said. “I suspect they’re in Canberra or Macquarie Street, rattling the can so this weeping sore will go away.”

Mr Barilaro’s office declined to comment.

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