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It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. At least when it comes to mining coal. After years of decline, demand for the polluting fossil fuel has surged this year as Europe scrambles to replace Russian gas, and coal miners are making money hand over fist.

With coal prices hitting record highs, companies would normally expand their operations, but projects are being left on the table as most Western banks stand by climate pledges to restrict lending to the sector, according to a dozen mining company executives and investors.

“If you are a business with a bank right now it’s easier. If you want to build a new mine, forget it, that has become impossible,” said Gerhard Ziems, chief financial officer at Australian coal miner Coronado Global Resources Inc.

Demand for the fossil fuel is so strong some miners say they are selling coking coal used by steelmakers to electricity companies instead. The lower-value thermal coal used in power plants traded above coking coal for the first time ever in June.

“It’s a crazy situation,” said Coronado’s Ziems, likening it to silver trading at a higher price than gold.

Benchmark Australian Newcastle thermal coal was languishing at about $50 a tonne at the start of 2020 before climbing to above $150 tonne at the start of 2022. It then surged to a record high above $400 a tonne in September as countries desperately sought alternatives to Russian gas.

But with Western banks under pressure from shareholders to show action on climate change, coal executives say they are having to scout for alternative funding to take advantage of the favourable backdrop, via public markets, pre-sale finance, trading houses, private equity firms and investment funds.

For some, it’s even just a question of finding a lender for basic financial services.

Shortly after North American miner Bens Creek Group listed on London’s AIM in October last year, Lloyds Banking Group withdrew its banking services from the company due to a change in policies regarding coal.

Lloyds said in February it would stop financing miners that generate more than 5% of their revenue from thermal coal by the end of this year, and would no longer provide general purpose banking to new coking coal customers.

It took the managers of Bens Creek months, and dozens of rejections, before they managed to open a bank account at the State Bank of India’s branch in Britain, chief executive Adam Wilson told Reuters.

“Nobody had these issues five years ago,” he said.

Lloyds declined to comment on individual client relationships.

It’s a similar story for Minergy Limited, a startup listed in Botswana looking to fund its expansion plans.

“We are exploring all the options at this stage, but commercial banking is not necessarily available,” said Minergy Chief Executive Morne du Plessis.

The company is now looking to reduce its debt and fund its project to double annual mining capacity to about 3 million tonnes by selling additional shares, as well as listing on the London Stock Exchange next year.

Du Plessis said Minergy had struggled to secure simple banking services, such as overdrafts or loans to purchase vehicles. “Because we are in coal, because we are a startup business, they wouldn’t even consider that,” he said.

Despite the pressure on Western lenders, global investments in coal supply are expected to rise by about 10% this year to $116 billion, with China leading the way, the International Energy Agency said.—Reuters

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