Chase Says It’s Fighting Climate Change. So Why Is It Financing the Fossil Fuel Industry?

Here’s why climate justice campaigners protested the big bank’s shareholder meeting last week.

Kate Aronoff May 21, 2018

The JP Morgan Chase building is seen March 24, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

JPMor­gan Chase (“Chase”) talks a big game on cli­mate change. The Wall Street bank has com­mit­ted to becom­ing entire­ly reliant on renew­able ener­gy by 2020, and facil­i­tat­ing $200 bil­lion in clean financ­ing — of low-car­bon fuel sources — by 2025. Busi­ness must play a lead­er­ship role in cre­at­ing solu­tions that pro­tect the envi­ron­ment and grow the econ­o­my,” CEO Jamie Dimon said in a state­ment announc­ing the pledge last summer.

As pro­test­ers at the company’s Texas share­hold­er meet­ing last week point­ed out, Chase is lead­ing on an entire­ly dif­fer­ent front: financ­ing fos­sil fuel infrastructure.

Chase tripled their fund­ing of tar sands over the last few years, and have dra­mat­i­cal­ly ramped up their invest­ment in fos­sil fuels,” says Tara Hous­ka, a mem­ber of the Couch­ich­ing First Nation, an attor­ney and nation­al cam­paigns direc­tor for Hon­or the Earth. Chase has also helped Enbridge finance its pro­posed Line 3 pipeline, which would car­ry tar sands oil through Ojib­we land in the upper Mid­west. The heart of my people’s cul­ture would be oblit­er­at­ed if and when Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline breaks in Minnesota’s vast water­sheds and rich wild rice beds,” added Hous­ka, who was in Texas for the share­hold­ers’ meet­ing this week. Chase can play a major role in pre­vent­ing this from hap­pen­ing by end­ing its cred­it rela­tion­ships with Enbridge and all destruc­tive fos­sil fuel actors.” 

Accord­ing to Hous­ka, demon­stra­tors whose orga­ni­za­tions had pur­chased shares were large­ly pushed into an over­flow room at the annu­al share­hold­er meet­ing in Plano, giv­ing those who showed up lit­tle space to make their case heard. One mea­sure pro­posed in the main room would have increased trans­paren­cy around invest­ments in geno­cide. It was vot­ed down.

The gulf between Chase’s pub­lic com­mit­ment to social respon­si­bil­i­ty and its actu­al busi­ness mod­el isn’t unique. In recent years, many banks have talked up their invest­ments in green bonds — mon­ey set aside for envi­ron­men­tal­ly-mind­ed projects — and com­mit­ment to envi­ron­men­tal, social and gov­er­nance (ESG) fac­tors in mak­ing invest­ment deci­sions, as opposed to sim­ply short-term prof­its. The elites who gath­ered in Davos for the World Eco­nom­ic Forum in Jan­u­ary ranked cli­mate change among the world’s most press­ing issues. Just last month, Chase and invest­ment giant Black­rock teamed up to offer a new suite of glob­al fixed income indices that incor­po­rate ESG concerns.

Yet despite their stat­ed focus on green bonds and ESG, major banks last year actu­al­ly upped their financ­ing of coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas infra­struc­ture projects by 11 per­cent to $115 bil­lion. Financ­ing of tar sands projects alone swelled by 111 per­cent through 2017. Chase is help­ing dri­ve this trend: Accord­ing to a study released this spring by the Rain­for­est Action Net­work, it’s now the third-largest financier of fos­sil fuel projects, and the largest among pri­vate bank fun­der of fos­sil fuel projects over­all. In the last three years, the bank has poured $26.1 bil­lion into oil, coal and gas projects, trail­ing behind the Chi­na Con­struc­tion Bank and Roy­al Bank of Cana­da. Despite pass­ing a pol­i­cy in 2016 to stop financ­ing new coal mines or coal-fired pow­er plants in high-income OECD coun­tries, the bank’s financ­ing of coal projects was 21-times greater than it was in pre­vi­ous years. Chase’s three-year con­tri­bu­tion to fos­sil fuels is near­ly as much as the total val­u­a­tion of green bonds issued by the world’s 200 largest banks in 2017 — just $27 bil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing just 1 per­cent of those banks’ nom­i­nal amount of total bond issuance over the same year. As an S&P Glob­al study finds, only one fifth of those 200 banks have ever issued a green bond.

The demon­stra­tion at the share­hold­ers’ meet­ing came just a week after a wave of protests around the coun­try, call­ing atten­tion to Chase’s role in financ­ing Kinder Morgan’s Trans Moun­tain pipeline, recent­ly stymied by British Columbia’s provin­cial gov­ern­ment after years of pres­sure from First Nations and envi­ron­men­tal groups. One action in Seat­tle that shut down a Chase bank branch and saw 14 peo­ple arrested. 

Divest­ment work has been hap­pen­ing glob­al­ly, as well. As part of the Indige­nous Women’s Divest­ment Del­e­ga­tion, Hous­ka has met with bank exec­u­tives in the Unit­ed States and Europe in addi­tion to plan­ning protests like the one this week. They’ll talk about one-off projects that they’re help­ing to sup­port, lit­tle tokens of com­mu­ni­ty invest­ment,” she said of those meet­ings. That does not in any­way coun­ter­act or over­come the harm done by their financ­ing fos­sil fuel projects.”

Work­ing close­ly with the Sámi peo­ple — indige­nous north­ern Euro­peans — the del­e­ga­tion has pres­sured Norway’s tril­lion-dol­lar sov­er­eign wealth fund to drop fos­sil fuels from its hold­ings, a mea­sure that’s been pro­posed by the fund’s lead­er­ship and will be for­mal­ly decid­ed on in the fall. A num­ber of cities are look­ing to sev­er their ties to banks that fund fos­sil fuel projects, and New York City recent­ly announced it would divest $5 bil­lion from fos­sil fuels and sue oil com­pa­nies over their con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate change. 

Bank­ing bet­ter — with­out Wall Street

There have been ongo­ing efforts over the last sev­er­al years for uni­ver­si­ties and pen­sion funds to drop their invest­ments in fos­sil fuels. Activists fight­ing moun­tain­top removal coal min­ing suc­cess­ful­ly tar­get­ed banks like PNC to stop financ­ing the prac­tice, and the fight against the Key­stone XL pipeline spawned its own push against Bank of Amer­i­ca. This most recent wave of ener­gy in the fos­sil fuel divest­ment move­ment — tar­get­ing banks’ financ­ing of fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture, in par­tic­u­lar — was spurred by the momen­tum gen­er­at­ed in the fight against the Dako­ta Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Matt Rem­le, who lives in Seat­tle, is a mem­ber of the Stand­ing Rock Sioux tribe, and one of the lead orga­niz­ers behind the protest against Chase ear­li­er this month. Like Hous­ka, he was deeply involved in the encamp­ment there to halt the Ener­gy Trans­fer Part­ners project. Both see that on-the-ground work as deeply tied to divest­ment efforts. They’re all con­nect­ed in the sense that folks have real­ized you have to have a lot of tools in the toolk­it to take on multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions,” he says. You can’t rely sole­ly on one tac­tic, be it divest­ment or direct action. You have to apply pres­sure wher­ev­er you can.”

In Seat­tle, he and sev­er­al orga­niz­ers first took aim at Wells Far­go over its sup­port for DAPL, hold­ing protests in bank lob­bies and encour­ag­ing indi­vid­u­als, insti­tu­tions and — even­tu­al­ly — the city itself to close their account with the bank. 

The idea caught on. We start­ed get­ting a lot of phone calls from peo­ple around the coun­try and around the world ask­ing how we can imple­ment sim­i­lar divest­ment cam­paigns,” Rem­le tells In These Times. After that, he helped found the group Maza­s­ka Talks, which offers sam­ple res­o­lu­tions and ordi­nances to those look­ing to start their own munic­i­pal divest­ment cam­paigns, along with resources on how to run divest­ment cam­paigns, where to re-invest funds and fig­ure out which banks are fund­ing which com­pa­nies. Giv­en banks’ ubiq­ui­ty in towns and cities around the coun­try, divest­ment efforts also pro­vid­ed a way for peo­ple who couldn’t join on-site direct actions or protests against fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture projects a way to help stop them.

With the sup­port of pro­gres­sive city coun­cil mem­bers, Seat­tle City Coun­cil vot­ed to removed its $3 mil­lion oper­at­ing account from Wells Far­go, and passed a res­o­lu­tion to pro­hib­it any bank who funds tar sands pipelines from bid­ding on city con­tracts. It was recent­ly announced, though, that the Coun­cil would reopen the account after fail­ing to find anoth­er bank that would take on the account.

That’s a large part of why in Seat­tle and sev­er­al oth­er cities, divest­ment efforts are also tied to push­es to cre­ate a pub­lic bank. The Bank of North Dako­ta is cur­rent­ly the country’s only state-run bank, though Sen. Kris­ten Gel­li­brand (D. NY) recent­ly intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate a nation­al pub­lic option for bank­ing through the U.S. Postal Ser­vice. Rem­le says he and oth­ers look­ing to bring pub­lic bank­ing to Seat­tle are look­ing more close­ly at a long-run­ning effort to do the same in San­ta Fe. Rem­le says they’ve also tak­en some inspi­ra­tion from trib­al­ly-owned finan­cial insti­tu­tions, which are numer­ous in the South­east, as alter­na­tives to Wall Street banks, their tox­ic invest­ments and their lon his­to­ry of dis­crim­i­na­to­ry lend­ing practices.

We know that as a city or as a tribe, when we are bank­ing with a Wells Far­go or Chase or Bank of Amer­i­ca, that mon­ey isn’t being rein­vest­ed back into our com­mu­ni­ties. We are very clear when we are push­ing our bank­ing ordi­nance that it’s not a vic­to­ry to jump from one Wall Street bank to anoth­er,” he says. Our ulti­mate goal for Seat­tle is to take our mon­ey com­plete­ly out of there and have con­trol over our own finances.” Accord­ing to Rem­le, com­mu­ni­ties must cre­ate finan­cial path­ways to build out afford­able hous­ing and make low-inter­est loans avail­able to peo­ple of col­or-owned small businesses. 

The city is now in the ear­ly stages of a fea­si­bil­i­ty study for pub­lic bank­ing, over­seen by a rep­re­sen­ta­tives from labor, envi­ron­men­tal groups, indige­nous tribes and small busi­ness­es. At the behest of cam­paign­ers there, Los Ange­les, San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land and Port­land are now involved in sim­i­lar processes.

To be blunt,” Rem­le says of big banks’ embrace of green financ­ing, they’re full of it.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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