To environmentalists across Australia, it is a baffling anachronism in an era of climate change: the construction of a 4,000-acre mine in New South Wales that will churn out carbon-laden coal for the next 30 years.
The mine’s groundbreaking, in a state forest over the winter, inspired a 92-year-old veteran to stand in front of a bulldozer and a music teacher to chain himself to a piece of excavation equipment.
The project had an unlikely financial backer in the United States: billionaire Tom Steyer, the most influential environmentalist in U.S. politics, who has vowed to spend $100 million this year to defeat candidates who oppose policies to combat climate change.
Steyer, 56, a former hedge-fund manager, emerged this election season as the green-minded answer to Charles and David Koch after vowing he would sell off his investments in companies that generate fossil fuels such as coal.
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An examination of those investments shows that Steyer’s divestment will do little to impede the coal-related projects his firm bankrolled, which will create tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years to come.
In the past 15 years, Steyer’s fund, Farallon Capital Management, has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that operate coal mines and coal-fired power plants from Indonesia to China, records and interviews show.
The expected life span of those facilities, some of which may run through 2030, could cloud Steyer’s image as an environmental savior and the credibility of his clean-energy message, which has won him access to the highest levels of U.S. government. A few weeks ago, Steyer joined President Obama for a group dinner at the White House, according to people told of the event.
Steyer’s political contacts also have included Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. The two met in 2013 and have jointly appeared in several climate-policy events. Inslee has been a dinner guest at Steyer’s home, and Steyer has lunched in the governor’s mansion.
The New York Times examined the coal-mining companies in which Farallon invested or to which it lent money during Steyer’s stewardship. Together, those mines have increased their annual production by about 70 million tons since they received money from the hedge fund, according to corporate records, government data and interviews with industry experts.
That is more than the amount of coal consumed annually by Britain.
“I am disappointed, I have to say,” said Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, who said he admired Steyer’s campaign to curb climate change. When it comes to large-scale investments in coal, Jamieson said: “You can’t undo what you’ve done in the past.”
Steyer sold his ownership stake in Farallon in late 2012, but he remains a passive investor, his aides said, though they declined to describe the size of his investment. Employees at Farallon screen out any fossil-fuel-related holdings from his portfolio, and he no longer earns a share of the profits from the fund, the aides said.
Farallon is still invested in carbon-generating industries; the aides declined to say whether Steyer had asked it to sell those holdings.
Windfall of millions
The Australian mine, Maules Creek, illustrates the complexities of Steyer’s efforts to distance himself. Farallon was a major investor in a 2009 deal aimed at developing the mine, lending an Australian entrepreneur hundreds of millions of dollars to buy out the previous owner, according to people involved in the transaction. Eventually, the entrepreneur took the mine public, turning Farallon’s investment into a large profit. An executive involved in the original deal estimated Farallon earned tens of millions of dollars.
Farallon remains an investor in Maules Creek. Mining at the site, expected to start in 2015, will last up to 30 years, yield as much as 13 million tons of coal a year and generate about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to Ian Lowe, former head of the School of Science at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
The company that owns the mine, Whitehaven Coal, disputes the carbon-dioxide projection.
Given Steyer’s reputation as an environmentalist, Australian foes of the mine were startled to learn of his firm’s role as an early investor. “It’s gobsmacking,” Philip Spark, president of the Northern Inland Council for the Environment, a nonprofit trying to stop construction of the mine, said in a phone interview. “It’s amazing that such a person could have been involved in this project.”
Asked why Steyer had allowed Farallon to pursue such investments in recent years, Heather Wong, a spokeswoman for Steyer’s political organization, said: “Given how major global funds are structured, they are by definition invested in every sector of the economy, which is why Tom stepped down in 2012.”
Loans spur mining
Since Steyer founded it in 1986, Farallon — named for a set of rocky islands off California — has grown to manage as much as $37 billion, from about $15 million in the beginning.
Throughout the early 2000s, the fund offered large, typically high-interest loans to companies seeking to buy undervalued coal mines in Indonesia. The buyouts proved profitable for Farallon, but they also encouraged the new owners of the mines to ramp up coal production to generate revenue to repay the loans, according to executives who participated in the buyouts.
In 2004, for example, Farallon lent at least $60 million to investors buying an Indonesian coal-mining company called Berau, giving the fund a right to a stake in the company, according to people involved in the deal. Within a few years, Berau’s value had doubled, delivering a hefty return for Farallon. Berau quickly sped up its operations: Its coal production soared to 20 million tons in 2012 from about 9 million tons in 2004.
Roger Suyama, a former Merrill Lynch banker who was involved in the Berau buyout, said Farallon was “like an anchor in the Indonesian coal industry.”
“By drawing money to an overlooked sector, they helped expand the coal industry there,” he said.
Steyer’s investments in coal-fired power will reverberate far into the future.
Farallon invested in a subsidiary of Indiabulls, an Indian financial conglomerate, in 2008, just as the subsidiary began expanding into coal-fired power. Two years later, Indiabulls began construction on two massive coal-fired power plants: the 2,700-megawatt Amravati plant in central India and the 1,350-megawatt Nasik plant outside Mumbai.
Indiabulls has signed a 20-year power-purchase agreement with a government-owned electric utility, locking in two decades of carbon pollution.
The Republican candidates Steyer is targeting in this year’s midterm elections said such investments undermined his cause.
“It blows a hole in his credibility,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, a Senate candidate in Colorado, whose Democratic rival, Sen. Mark Udall, has benefited from $100,000 from Steyer’s super PAC. “You can’t claim you are a great environmentalist and invest in the very same technologies you are railing against.”
In interviews, several prominent environmentalists argued that Steyer’s unrivaled spending to support climate-change policies outweighed the impact of the carbon pollution unleashed by his past investments.
“This is precisely what we want people to do: sell investments in fossil fuels and get to work solving the problem of climate change,” said Bill McKibben, a founder of the group 350.org, which pushes financial institutions to divest from fossil fuels.
Detractors see hypocrisy: As coal linked to Steyer’s previous investments burns in Asian power plants, he is spending a fortune earned from those investments to help shutter similar plants in the U.S. “If my side wins, it will create real costs for ordinary working people,” said Jamieson, the NYU professor. “Hits to their welfare will not be compensated by stacks of money.”
Unlike Steyer, he said, “they won’t have options.”
In Australia, environmentalists wondered what Steyer had to say about the giant new coal mine. Blair Palese, an environmental leader there, urged Steyer to “get Farallon to step back and get out of this investment.”
“It could be 30 years of coal production,” she said. “How can we keep doing this?”
Material from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.