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Coal war: insurers in firing line as climate politics heats up

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Up until now, the Adani Group has preferred to keep a near-total silence in response to a barrage of protests from climate activists waging a relentless campaign against its Carmichael coal mine.

Even when pressed on whether it has the mandatory insurance to finish the construction of the project in central Queensland, it has given little away save for the oft-repeated line that it has the “requisite insurance requirements in place”.

But any diplomatic niceties have been thrown out of the window in a scathing submission the Indian conglomerate’s Australian arm made to a federal parliamentary inquiry examining the treatment of the country’s resources industries by domestic insurers and other financial services providers.

Adani Australia directed a chunk of its fury at IAG, QBE and Suncorp, the country’s three biggest insurers who each have set a self-imposed deadline to pull out from the thermal coal industry.

It describes the insurance industry’s “boycotting” of thermal coal as “misconceived” and warned of “consequential impact” on the Australian economy.

Adani says such action only “seeks to punish hardworking Australian miners”.

“These Australian insurance companies appear to have followed a global divestment push led by European insurance companies with little to no regard to their national responsibilities to the workers and companies of Australia,” the submission says.

“The consequence of the banking and insurance sectors removing support for the thermal coal sector has the immediate impact of increasing financing costs associated with developing new projects or maintaining existing operations.

“In short, by withdrawing services from the Australian thermal coal sector, the finance and insurance sectors are exporting Australian livelihoods offshore.”

The parliamentary inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth has given more than a peek at the scale of disruption inflicted on the country’s politically influential resources sector from the climate positions taken by insurers.

It has also very likely placed insurers in the firing line as Committee Chair, outgoing National Party MP George Christensen, and other members of the committee, prepare to report their findings after the deadline for submissions closed last month.

The inquiry was launched following a referral from Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt, who has been pushing for parliament to look into the climate policies of banks and insurers.

On February 17, the day the inquiry was launched, Mr Pitt made clear who he believes is responsible for the insurance woes of the resources industry.

“It is of great concern to me that a legitimate industry like coal mining, which makes a significant contribution to the national economy and employs thousands of Australians, is being held back by what can only be described as corporate activism,” he said.

“I’m not just talking about the big miners, but the ‘Mum and Dad’ small businesses who’ve told me they can’t access insurance… simply because they have some exposure to the coal industry.”

Multiple submissions from the resources sector say insurers’ refusal to underwrite risks associated with fossil fuels are jeopardising existing works and have thrown into doubt their plans to invest in new projects.

And even if they did find an insurance provider, it often comes at a high price. Not only are the premiums exorbitant – increases of as high as 600% from previous policies are not unusual – the contracts often contain very restrictive terms.

The insurance struggle extends also to their business partners. BMD Constructions says it has not been able to find insurance for a section of a rail line that it has been contracted to build at the Carmichael mine.

BMD says not being able to get insurance for public liability, environmental protection and directors’ and officers’ leaves it facing a “risk so substantial that if materialised could easily impair the company’s ability to trade”. It also leaves the business in breach of its contracts with Adani.

The contractor warns insurers’ moving away from coal will have a ripple effect on the broader construction industry, and eventually the Australian economy as well.

“It cannot be the case that companies performing lawful, government supported works on which the country is dependent, are not supported by the finance and insurance industries that allow these works to be performed,” BMD said.

“In response to this, BMD (and no doubt other contractors) will be forced to make pricing allowances in tendered prices to incorporate the additional risk. This results in higher cost to construct projects and will in turn increase the overall cost of infrastructure in Australia.”

The Minerals Council of Australia says in its submission the decades-long campaign against the mining sector, initially focused on stopping thermal coal exports in Queensland and NSW, has expanded into other states and broadened to include metallurgical coal and natural gas.

Combined with a heightened focus on environment, social and governance issues, a consequence of the campaign has been the increasing reluctance of financial institutions and insurance companies to support the resources sector, according to the council’s submission.

“The Australian mining industry understands the need to manage and disclose operational and financial risks associated with climate change,” the council said. “It shares this challenge with the financial sector.

“However, the absence of a constructive dialogue has seen action which appears to respond more to political pressure than risk management.”

Suncorp, QBE and IAG did not make any submissions to the inquiry. It was left to the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) to explain the industry’s climate stance to the committee.

ICA CEO Andrew Hall says major investor groups have issued calls for the treatment of climate change as a financial risk and a threat to assets and infrastructure exposed to the physical impacts of climate change.

At the same time, he says the industry will continue to support and enable the “effective risk management” of Australian exporters and associated businesses consistent with a contemporary understanding of regulatory guidance and statutory obligations as a prudentially regulated industry.

“There is a key role for insurers to articulate the risks presented by the impacts of climate change, and best inform and stimulate prudential decisions by business, community and governments,” Mr Hall said.

The committee has not said when it will report on its findings but understands there are plans for follow-up hearings.

Whatever conclusions the committee eventually reports on, the insurance industry might well come under further pressure to defend its decarbonisation polices before Mr Christensen, a vocal climate change skeptic.