Back in September, researcher Hugh MacMillan helped create an infographic tracing the money behind the Dakota Access pipeline. Using public data, MacMillan and his colleagues at the environmental nonprofit Food & Water Watch showed which 17 financial institutions have directly loaned money for the pipeline’s construction and which 38 banks were offering hundreds of millions of dollars in open lines of credit to the parent companies controlling the pipeline project.
“It’s an illustration of how decisions about our energy future and our climate future are being made,” MacMillan said.
The infographic caught on the with public in a big way, especially after YES! Magazine published the contact information for the CEOs of each of those banks. Banks have reported being increasingly inundated with calls and letters since September as consumers and climate activists worldwide looking to help the Standing Rock Sioux use the information to wage a divest and boycott campaign. Although the pipeline has been halted by the Army Corps of Engineers, activists are bracing to see what the incoming Trump administration will do.
Much of the media attention has been on violent confrontations between militarized police and water protectors camped outside the Standing Rock reservation. But at the same time a financial front line has grown, targeting bank support for the project: phone calls and emails to express opposition, bank accounts and mortgages moved, and protests at bank branches.
The pressure on the banks is producing results.
1. A Norwegian bank set up conditions for investment
After talks with Greenpeace, financial services group Nordea—among the largest banks in Europe—announced it will insist that the companies involved in the Dakota Access pipeline make assurances that any project avoid the Standing Rock reservation—or else Nordea would sell off all holdings in Energy Transfer Parters, Energy Transfer Equity, Sunoco Logistics, and Dakota Access LLC.
Nordea’s head of sustainable finance, Sasja Beslik said in a statement in December, “I don’t actually believe either that the world needs another oil pipeline, but it’s not the construction itself that the tribe wants to stop. There are already eight pipelines under the Missouri River. It’s the location, close to the reservation, that the tribe wants changed.”
2. California plus other major accounts weigh legislation to divest from Wells Fargo
California lawmakers will debate a newly proposed piece of legislation that would divest the state’s two pension funds for public employees from the companies building the pipeline. Assembly Member Ash Kalra proposed the legislation after visiting Standing Rock in November, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, the cities of Seattle and Minneapolis are looking into ending municipal contracts with Wells Fargo, a major DAPL backer. Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant has introduced legislation that would end the city’s $3 billion banking relationship with Wells Fargo over the pipeline, while the Minneapolis City Council requested that the city explore the possibility of divesting from banks that are invested in pipeline projects.
A Nov. 22 resolution by the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation urges the leadership of the Navajo Nation to move its $2 billion in various financial instruments held by Wells Fargo: “Navajo money that could be part of Wells Fargo’s investment in the pipeline.”
3. Protests at bank branches spread
There have been many smaller pressure campaigns against banks invested in DAPL both in small cities—in Camden, New Jersey, activists at TD Bank urged it to divest—and large ones—rallies at Wells Fargo branches have taken place in several cities, including Seattle and San Francisco. In December, climate activists at Yale demanded that the university divest its endowment from DAPL-related firms.
Wells Fargo officers agreed to meet with Standing Rock Sioux elders about their concerns after protesters targeted the company’s Minneapolis corporate office. Wells Fargo had also reached out to the elders in a letter, saying: “We deeply value our relationships with tribal communities and consider these relationships a point of pride for our company. We have been supporting Native American Tribes across the country for more than 50 years and are committed to continuing to nurture these relationships long into the future.”
4. Scandinavian banks sell off their holdings
The Norwegian firm Odin Fund Management sold off $23.8 million in investments in DAPL-related companies, as did Norwegian banking giant DNB, which said it sold $3 million in holdings. While these asset sales may appear impressive, DNB is still funding the pipeline companies, offering lines of credit that total more than $400 million, according to Food & Water Watch.
5. At least one bank is considering canceling its line of credit
Even larger and more important than the stocks and bonds held by the banks behind DAPL are the lines of credit—energy companies need access to large amounts of fast cash to keep projects moving. More than 400 environmental, human rights, and other social organizations worldwide sent a letter last month demanding that the banks withdraw credit lines for DAPL. One bank so far has said that it will do its own investigation of the social and environmental impacts of the project, especially as it pertains to indigenous rights abuses. “If our initiative does not provide us with the necessary comfort, DNB will evaluate its further participation in the financing of the project,” Harald Serck-Hanssen, a vice president at DNB, told Canada’s CBC News.
6. Individuals withdraw nearly $30 million from DAPL-financing banks
At the individual level, the website DefundDAPL.org encourages people to pull their assets from banks backing the pipeline. So far, it says, individuals have pulled $28.2 million from those firms. Caleb Buchbinder, co-founder of DefundDAPL.org, said that the divestment through his website represents a “realization that the only way to irrevocably stop an industry that’s bent on short-term profits at all costs is divestment.”
Buchbinder believes that the divestment strategy was inspired by the water protectors’ physical resistance at Standing Rock. “It was like a realization in the collective consciousness: Let’s follow this back and see where it starts.”
7. And momentum is building
“There is certainly momentum right now,” said Mary Sweeters, a campaigner with Greenpeace. “It’s my hope that financial institutions change their policies and that the standard is raised for the types of investments that they make in the long term.” Sweeters admitted that banks in Scandinavia have been most receptive to divestment concerns, but that pressure is mounting on U.S. banks, too.
“It’s a new awareness for Wells Fargo to realize that there actually is a large population who accept scientific consensus about climate change and who don’t approve of the way Energy Transfer Partners has violated the sovereignty of the Sioux,” said Food & Water Watch researcher MacMillan. “In terms of the effect on the banks? I think it’s early days. There’s no doubt there’s a carbon bubble. There’s no doubt we can’t afford to burn all the oil, gas, and coal banked as reserves.” In other words, investments in fossil fuel companies and reserves are going to become less and less stable for a variety of reasons, and banks will eventually need to shift their investment activities accordingly.
Rainforest Action Network is another activist organization that has focused on the U.S. banks providing loans to DAPL, and it says it has seen some movement from the companies.
“The most visible outcome has been [that] Wells Fargo and Citibank and a few other banks [are looking] at their due diligence around human rights in particular, so that’s a good outcome,” said Jason Opeña Disterhoft, climate and energy senior campaigner at RAN. “It is good that this overall experience has forced the banks to recognize that they can’t fall back on what the federal government is doing—they need their own policies that do justice to human rights principles. … The pause in the project gives the banks the opportunity to reconsider their involvement.”
Rainforest Action Network doesn’t know if there are covenants in the contracts between the banks and the pipeline companies regarding human rights violations, but if there were, that would allow the banks to drop the loans.
“The ball is in their court,” Disterhoft said of the banks. “Are they more afraid of these firms, or what their ongoing participation in this project will do to their reputation? That’s the question for them.”