A new report from a consortium of environmental groups shows that big banks are reducing their investment in fossil fuel projects.
While this is welcome news to the movement led by tribes to get banks to divest from fossil fuels – most notably in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline – the truth behind the numbers isn’t so rosy: it isn’t enough to stop global climate change, and banks still invest in or lend money to fossil fuel companies.
“The financial industry needs to be held accountable for its fossil fuel financing and that takes a lot of forms,” says Jason Disterhoft, a senior campaigner for Rainforest Action Network. “We need everybody to continue to work and make that happen.”
The Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card graded 37 of the world’s largest banks on their policies and practices related to financing fossil fuels. The good news is that investments by these banks in fossil fuels dropped by a whopping 22 percent in 2016 from the previous year. The bad news is that banks still are funding fossil fuels at a rate that by the end of the century still will raise global average temperatures more than 1.5°C, the preferred limit in the Paris climate accord.
The report, published by Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack, Sierra Club and Oil Change International, tracks the lending decisions of the big banks in the first calendar year since the signing of the Paris Agreement. It covers “the most carbon-intensive, financially risky, and environmentally destructive sectors of the fossil fuel industry: extreme oil (tar sands, Arctic, and ultra-deepwater oil), coal mining, coal power, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export,” as well as “bank failures when it comes to respecting human rights.”
The grades, on an A–F scale, are cringe-worthy. Ds and Fs abound, especially in the area of tar sands exploitation and deep-water drilling for oil. A smattering of banks scored Bs for reducing their support for coal mining and coal-fired power generation. To earn a B, however, banks simply need to have a policy to reduce or phase out financing, which does not mean they adhere to it. To get an A, banks would have to prohibit all financing in the fossil fuel category graded. None of the banks gets an A.
Collective bank funding for extreme fossil fuels has fluctuated, rising from $92 billion in 2014 to $111 billion in 2015, then falling back to $87 billion in 2016. Even with the recent 22 percent drop in funding, that combined $290 billion over three years is new investment in the energy sources which contribute most to climate change and its impacts to human rights and ecosystems.
To meet the Paris Agreement’s emissions targets, banks would need to halt all new investment in those fossil fuels.
Yann Louvel, the climate and energy campaign coordinator for BankTrack, has mixed feelings about the report’s findings because they are somewhat contradictory. “The overall drop of 22 percent is a good thing, but I will feel way better if this trend continues next year. Next year will be crucial,” Louvel says.
Banks have a number of reasons for reducing their support of coal mining, Louvel says. Coal has been easier to blacklist politically since COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, partly because it has the most easily measurable negative impact on climate.
Coal is a smaller sector than oil and gas, and it is easier to replace with other sources of energy, even other fossil fuels like natural gas. Public mobilization against coal also has been more active than against oil or gas pipelines, Louvel says, and he credits massive campaigns in Australia, France, Germany, and the U.S. in 2014-15 with having an effect.
“It’s rare to have a big, broad mobilization [against the banks] and get absolutely no results. Banks are very sensitive to their reputations and as soon as you have a well-organized campaign most of the time you get a reaction,” Louvel says. “I totally expect the same movement from the banks on oil and gas.”
Disterhoft agrees that the improvement in banks’ policies on the coal mining side “has everything to do with the climate movement having won policies over the last 24 months from upwards of 20 banks in Europe. Those policies were the result of years of campaigning.”
He finds it striking that there is very little overlap between the banks that made project loans to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia. “There’s a direct correlation with amount of heat that banks got around DAPL, and those banks not being on the Trans Mountain list. Divestment campaigns absolutely moved the needle.”
The Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card also emphasizes that it is crucial to acknowledge the importance of tribal leadership in divestment campaigns. “The high-profile struggle against DAPL was a critical reminder that protecting Indigenous sovereignty is inextricably linked with protecting the environment,” it says.
“Indigenous people are specifically tied to the issue of fossil fuel extraction because 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is on indigenous land,” says Tara Houska, the national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, a nonprofit organization that supports Native environmental issues. “Indigenous people are impacted first and worst. When these projects happen, they happen out of sight and out of mind in rural areas. Having a human face is critical to seeing what is happening.”
Now that the Trump Administration has approved the Dakota Access Pipeline, Honor the Earth and its partner organizations are taking the fight to the banks, corporate boardrooms and city councils. They are asking banks about their indigenous and human rights policies, submitting resolutions to local city councils, and encouraging divestment campaigns and direction actions against banks that are funding it.
“Divestment is a long-term strategy and a way for people to participate in a movement without people having to chain themselves to a pipeline,” Houska says. “Direct actions keep banks aware of what’s happening and of what’s going. An oil company may be used to a demonstration or direct action, but banks are not used to being in this space.”
Both Louvel and Disterhoft stress that noting the distinction between project-level and corporate-level financing is crucial. Louvel points out that while 11 of the banks in the Banking Finance Report Card no longer directly finance coal mining and power projects, some of them have increased their financing of coal power companies.
Disterhoft says banks should not be let off the hook if they indirectly finance coal plants or oil pipelines by loaning money to the companies that are building them. “A major challenge going forward is confronting and fighting general corporate financing as well as project financing,” he says.
The indigenous-led pipeline divestment movement also is growing savvier about this distinction. Mazaska Talks is an indigenous-led organization that grew out of the NoDAPL movement and campaigns to defund the companies building DAPL and the Alberta tar sands projects, including Trans Mountain and the Keystone XL pipeline. It recently called out US Bank for touting its withdrawal from financing pipeline construction at the project level while still financing the pipeline companies. “Despite this new policy, US Bank continues to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate financing to pipeline companies for general use, including pipeline construction.”
Matt Remle, a Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and co-founder of Mazaska Talks, says that their mobilization strategies have evolved since the protracted ground battle at Standing Rock. “I’m not as interested in trying to sit down with the CEOs of large banks to urge them to divest and adopt free, prior and informed consent. We’re seeing how we can apply pressure to those banks within our local jurisdictions,” he says.
“There’s an opportunity for communities to move from divestment to outright disassociation, to keep their money in their own community to build sustainable energy systems and to siphon their money off of Wall Street,” says Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher at Food and Water Watch, which worked with Mazaska Talks to research the finances of US Bank.
Remle says they are pushing the city of Seattle to establish a public bank, modeling their efforts after a similar initiative underway in Santa Fe. “We’re also advocating for socially responsible municipal banking policies, which large banks must measure up to when they are bidding on city business,” he says.
“Banks are continuing to finance extreme fossil fuel at a time when we know the climate can’t afford that,” Disterhoft says. “I think the challenge is going to be recognizing and spotlighting the bad actors behind lots of projects. It’s easier to tell the more specific story, but there are bad actors that link a lot of these projects. Starting to surface that and toxify those corporations is going to be one of the next big challenges.”