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.
But the project had an unlikely financial backer in the United States, whose infusion of cash helped set it in motion: 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 billionaire former hedge fund manager, had vowed that he would sell off his investments in companies that generate fossil fuels like coal.
But an in-depth examination of those investments by the New York Times shows that Steyer's divestment will do little to impede the coal-related projects his firm bankrolled, which will generate tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years, if not decades, to come.
Over 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. Steyer sold his ownership stake in Farallon in late 2012, but he has not cut ties with it entirely.
The New York Times examined the operations of 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 industry experts. That is more than the amount of coal consumed annually by Britain.
Asked why Steyer had allowed Farallon to pursue such investments in recent years, spokeswoman Heather Wong 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."