WHITEHAVEN Coal managing director Tony Haggarty yesterday described the hoax press release claiming the ANZ Bank had pulled a $1.2 billion loan facility for a key project as "outrageous".
On Monday, Jonathan Moylan, an anti-coal activist with a group called Frontline Action on Coal, admitted he had sent out a fake announcement purportedly from ANZ saying it had withdrawn its financing for Whitehaven's new Maules Creek mine near Boggabri in the NSW Upper Hunter region.
The hoax, which briefly knocked 8.9 per cent off the Whitehaven share price before being officially denied, is being investigated by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission.
"What's happened is just another example of the fact that these guys don't appear to have any respect for the law," Mr Haggarty said.
The protest group is understood to have had a camp at Maules Creek for four months, and is well known to the major coal companies.
"They seem to do whatever they like to advance their cause," Mr Haggarty said.
He said his company had been through "the full planning process" that had taken nearly two years to get the mine approved.
"As a company in our operations and development activities, we've had to adhere to a very stringent regime," he said, "with full-scale environmental studies and everything that goes with that."
He noted Maules Creek was "around 30km-40km" fromthe highly fertile Liverpool Plains, where farmers have been protesting about possible coal-seam gas drilling, and where some reports have placed Maules Creek.
"That seems to be a deliberate tactic by the Greens, where they deliberately muddy the issues. If there's something that's unpopular they'll draw a connection," he said. "For a group that gets a maximum of around 10 per cent of the vote, you have to hand it to the Greens that they know how to get publicity."
Mr Haggarty also said Whitehaven would look to sell part of its Maules Creek project provided the buyer also agreed to take coal. "There's an opportunity there for us to introduce another partner," he said.
"The right reason would be about underpinning the offtake."
David Galbally QC, a prominent Melbourne commercial barrister at Madgwicks, said the sending of the hoaxpress release should be covered by the Crimes Act as well as the Corporations Law.
"It's a harm to our society," Mr Galbally said, adding that it was likely that imitators might try the same tactic after seeing how much publicity the fake document generated.
"If it was made an offence under the Crimes Act, as well as the Corporations Law, it could be extended to cover individuals rather than just corporations: chairmen and CEOs for instance," he said. "We need to have it in the Crimes Act so people know it's a criminal offence."
Mr Galbally said he fully expected an increase in hoaxactivity because of the proliferation of social media.
"We need to sheet home the message that the penalties are significant, as the damage such hoaxes cause can be considerable," he said.
The Corporations Law already considers such a hoax a criminal offence, with up to 10 years' jail and/or a fine of $495,000.
John Walker, executive director of litigation funder IMF, said he doubted there would be a class action by investors who lost money during Whitehaven's market lurch on Monday, and who incidentally have not been able to have their trades cancelled by the ASX because the share price moved by 8.8 per cent, less than the 10 per cent drop that could have triggered a cancellation.
"The main problem in any such claimis the costs involved," he said, noting that it was necessary to get in touch with a large number of potential claimants. Contacting institutions was relatively easy, he said, but "as a broad rule of thumb we'd only end up with between 25 and 30 per cent of the trades" to form a class and initiate an action.
He also added that "the trouble with actions against greenies is getting paid".
Mr Moylan himself said he had yet to talk to investigating regulator ASIC, "although they did leave two messages for me while I was on the phone to other people", he said.
He said that he and members of his Frontline Action on Coal group had been camped at Maules Creek for 157 days now, about 25km from Boggabri, the nearest town.
Whitehaven shares fell 1c to $3.49 yesterday.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances. Madgwicks is a member of Meritas, one of the world's largest law firm alliances.