PROTESTERS have picketed coal giant Whitehaven’s annual general meeting in an effort to encourage shareholders to reconsider their support for the contentious Maules Creek mine near Boggabri.
The meeting was held in Sydney yesterday with up to 70 protesters making their point outside.
Maules Creek farmer Phil Laird was among the group, saying it was also a worthwhile exercise in keeping the issue in the media spotlight.
The message to investors was clear though, he said: reconsider your support for the Maules Creek project because it’s too risky from an environmental and financial point of view.
That risk was in part highlighted inside when shareholders were warned by company chairman Mark Vaile that despite the slight improvement in coal prices in recent months “we must be realistic about the subdued coal price outlook, and the probability of a continuing strong (Australian dollar)”.
“Whitehaven’s focus will remain on cost reduction, improving efficiency and optimising each of our operations,” he said.
“As the world moves towards cleaner sources of thermal coal it will increasingly benefit both Whitehaven and Australia.”
Output from its managed mines is estimated to rise 25 per cent this financial year to an estimated 10.7 million tonnes.
After slicing $5 off its cost of producing each tonne of coal in fiscal 2013, Whitehaven forecast a further $2 a tonne reduction this financial year.
And with the Australian dollar holding above 94 US cents, “we are very focused on costs”, chief executive Paul Flynn told shareholders.
By 2017, by which time the delayed Maules Creek project will be in full production, the average cost of producing a tonne of coal across the group will stand at $65 a tonne, he said.
First shipments from Maules Creek are expected in 2015, and when it is fully operational, group output will rise to 23 million tonnes of coal annually, from the present level of 4 million tonnes.
“We are already very competitive ... but it will drive it down even further,” he said of the impact of the Maules Creek mine in reducing costs.
Even with the company’s optimism, investor sentiment towards the shares remained subdued, with investors marking them down another 3 per cent to $1.56 in mid-morning trading.
Mr Laird said the protest group had members inside the meeting with proxy votes, asking questions of Mr Vaile, former federal leader of The Nationals, about the impact on water tables from the Maules Creek project and the arrangement for offsets.
“They were answered like a typical politician,” Mr Laird said.
“Any question is an opportunity to put your own position out there.”