Oil pipeline opponents try going after the money

Opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline has persuaded some banks to stop supporting projects that might harm the environment or tread on indigenous rights, but calling the divest movement a success might be a stretch.

It doesn't appear to be hurting the ability of energy companies to get financing and it doesn't seem to concern lenders broadly. Yet pipeline opponents see victory in the fact that they have made financial institutions more aware of indigenous rights — and they're intent on keeping up the fight on projects such as Keystone XL even after failing to stop the Dakota Access line.

"We aren't ignoring the fact we couldn't stop that pipeline," said Vanessa Green, a campaign director with the DivestInvest initiative. "There's a battle, and then there's a war."

The $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois will be fully operational by June 1, a half-year later than planned by Texas-based developer Energy Transfer Partners. The project was delayed by lawsuits from American Indian tribes who fear it threatens cultural sites and drinking water, and months of protests by tribal members and their supporters. President Donald Trump pushed the project through shortly after taking office.

While the protests centered on a camp in North Dakota that at times housed thousands of people, opponents also picketed banks in major U.S. cities and urged banks in Europe and even Japan to take a stand against the pipeline.

Some did. Paris-based BNP Paribas USA, Netherlands-based ING and Norway-based DNB sold off their shares of a Dakota Access loan. Private investor Storebrand and Odin Fund Management, both in Norway, sold shares in companies linked to the project. Dutch bank ABN-AMRO stopped providing credit to a parent company of ETP.

Pipeline opponents also targeted cities with some success, including in Seattle, where leaders in February voted to cut ties with San Francisco-based banking giant Wells Fargo in part due to its role in funding Dakota Access.

In all, the DefundDAPL movement claims that divestments from that project total more than $80 million from individuals and $4.3 billion from cities.

But that didn't stop ETP from completing the Dakota Access pipeline, and the company has a number of other projects underway across the U.S.

"We do not have a concern about our current or future financing options," ETP spokeswoman Vicki Granado said.

TransCanada Corp., which is planning the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline through the central Plains, wouldn't say whether it has secured the necessary financing. But its first-quarter 2017 financial report indicates that finding funds overall hasn't been a problem: The company raised $2.6 billion toward a $23 billion capital program.

As for Wells Fargo, which lists $2 trillion in assets, it calls the city divestitures "symbolic" and notes that other communities and tribes are still clients.

"Certainly, the protests have had some limited negative impact to the company's reputation, which is a shame because it overshadows all of the tremendous work our team members and the company does to support those very same communities and local nonprofits across the country," spokesman Alan Elias said.

In the meantime, opponents of such projects continue to seek to broaden their efforts to educate people about the potential effects not only on the environment, but on Native Americans.

"There's a whole widening narrative woven into what was once an environmental movement," said Green, with the DivestInvest initiative. "Now it's much more integrated, with a social justice, indigenous rights focus."

In March, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in partnership with First Peoples Worldwide, an indigenous advocacy and funding group, convened an educational meeting in Washington for global investors with Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe that started the opposition to Dakota Access.

"We're just going to continue to build awareness for companies that have no regard for the environment, have no regard for people, and hopefully the companies, banks, lenders, financial institutions understand that if you want to be socially responsible, not to invest in companies like ETP," Archambault said in an interview.

Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said that while market forces ultimately determine industry practices, public opinion can be a factor.

"Market factors and public opinion worked together to substantially reduce the market share of coal," he said. "You have those two factors working together, that's how change takes place."


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