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Even as banks walk away, coal on the rise in Australia

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Standard Chartered has become the second bank in a week to walk away from a multi-billion dollar Australian coal project, leading environmentalists to claim a major victory in one of the world's top coal-producing nations.

But while coal becomes increasingly viewed as a "sunset" business in many developed countries - the U.S. Clean Power Plan unveiled last week aims to shift the fuel generation mix dramatically away from coal - production is rising in Australia.

"To say coal mining will stop in Australia is unrealistic," said James Wilson, an analyst with Morgans Financial in Perth, noting that some of the biggest and most efficient mines in the world are located in the country.

Banks have poured more than $3 billion into Australian coal projects in the past 18 months, seemingly oblivious to a 28 percent fall in thermal coal prices over the same period, according to Thomson Reuters Loan Pricing data.


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Australia's coal exports are forecast to rise this year to 202.9 million tons, second only to Indonesia and nearly twice that of Russia, government data shows.

While President Barack Obama is trying to wean the United States off coal, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has in contrast said coal "is good for humanity" and for his commodity-reliant economy.

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This year coal is forecast to generate A$346 billion ($253 billion) in foreign sales for Australia, right behind iron ore, the country's most lucrative export, according to Australia's Department of Industry and Science.

Another Australian miner, Whitehaven Coal, says that developing new coal assets is key to its future so that it can meet rising demand from Asia.

"Whitehaven's imperative is to grow by developing more assets," said its managing director Paul Flynn. "I am not hiding behind that at all."

Barrier reef

Standard Chartered announced on Monday it will not advise or help finance the Carmichael coal mine, being developed in Queensland by Indian conglomerate Adani Mining.

The move came after Commonwealth Bank of Australia, pulled out as a financial adviser on Aug 6.

Adani declined to comment, but both banks cited the firm's delays in gaining government approvals to proceed with construction of the project, estimated to cost $10 billion, as reasons for withdrawing and did not mention any environmental concerns on their part.

Located on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, critics say the mine will require massive seafloor dredging to allow in hundreds of coal ships, while contributing to global warming.

"This is a victory for anyone who cares about the future of both the Great Barrier Reef and the world's efforts to tackle climate change," said Greenpeace climate campaigner Nikola Casule.

While lenders may be under pressure to back away from coal, funding has by no means dried up.

Australia's four largest banks alone have lent more than A$36 billion ($26.4 billion) to fossil fuel projects in Australia since 2008, according to environmental group Market Forces.

If we don't, others will

Advocates for more coal mining in Australia warn if coal resources aren't exploited, India and other foreign buyers will turn to Indonesia and South Africa, eliminating economic benefits to Australia and doing nothing to cut emissions.

"If these countries cannot source our coal, they will simply seek it elsewhere, and that coal may not be as high quality, producing a worse outcome for global carbon emissions while denying Australia jobs," said Michael Roche, chief executive of mining lobby Queensland Resources Council.

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Adani has argued that its Australian mine is necessary if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to keep his promise to bring electricity to hundreds of millions of people living off the grid, replacing a reliance on wood and dung for heat and cooking.

The International Energy Agency predicts India will add 342 gigawatt of coal-fired generation capacity by 2040, equivalent to 300-500 large coal-fired power stations which will each need around 1.5 million tons of coal a year.

There are few signs that top miners are backing away.

Andrew Mackenzie, chief executive of BHP Billiton, has designated coal as one of its "four pillars of growth".

Glencore Chief Executive Ivan Glasenberg is on the record looking to acquire more collieries, solidifying the company's global ranking as the biggest shipper of thermal coal.