* Coal debate intensifies as Allianz posts 22 pct Q4 profit fall
* Internal working group looking at coal insurance
* Company expects stable 2018 profit, increases 2017 dividend (Recasts, adds quotes)
By Tom Sims
MUNICH, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Germany’s Allianz is considering whether to stop insuring new coal power plants but told environmental campaigners it would stay in the business for now.
The 22 percent slide in fourth-quarter earnings reported by the insurer on Friday brought into sharp focus the debate raging within its Munich headquarters over how to balance the need to maximise profit with the desire to address environmental concerns.
The company has put together a working group to study the issue of insuring new coal plants, a spokeswoman said on Friday, with a decision expected in late April or early May.
Allianz’s Chief Executive Oliver Baete was a leader in a drive to exit coal investments several years ago - a significant move by one of Europe’s largest investors.
“It’s not a question of if, but rather a question of when and how to manage the transition from coal,” said a source familiar with Baete’s thinking.
Environmental campaign group Unfriend Coal last week published a scathing report that highlighted Allianz’s leadership of a consortium underwriting a large coal-fired power plant under construction in Poland.
Allianz, which got out of the business of investing in coal in 2015, said it would continue to offer insurance for the coal-powered energy industry for the time being. “The most important point for us is various countries have an energy need that needs to be fulfilled. They need to be insured,” said board member Guenther Thallinger.
“We believe that with dialogue with various companies over time we can hopefully work down to a much lower level of coal,” he said.
Campaigners remain unhappy with Allianz’s stance.
“Allianz is still blind to the contradiction between its ambition to be a climate champion and its support for coal, and its new policies will do little to protect the climate,” Regine Richter, energy and finance campaigner at Urgewald, said on Friday.
The company earlier posted a worse than expected fourth-quarter net profit of 1.43 billion euros ($1.79 billion), hit by a U.S. tax overhaul, a weak dollar and a spate of natural disasters. Analysts had forecast net profit of 1.587 billion euros in a Reuters poll.
“2017 was an especially difficult year for our industry,” Baete said.
For the full year, Allianz posted operating profit of 11.1 billion euros, in line with analysts’ expectations of 11.04 billion and the company’s own target.
Allianz forecast that profit would be little changed in 2018.
Last year insurers had to pay record claims of about $135 billion after a spate of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires in North America.
The series of natural disasters has rocked the insurance industry after years of muted losses, compounding pressure from low prices caused by fierce competition and low interest rates.
Allianz, which is sitting on a cash hoard and has been buying back shares, said it would increase its annual dividend to 8 euros per share, up from 7.60 in 2016. ($1 = 0.7972 euros) (Reporting by Tom Sims; Editing by Georgina Prodhan and David Goodman)