As fierce resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline played out on the North Dakota plains this fall and winter, other activists were putting pressure on the banks financing the pipeline. They called executives, held protests in branches, and moved their money. At least $52 million has been withdrawn so far, according to organizers.
In December, the Standing Rock tribe requested meetings with the 17 financial institutions that are directly funding the project.
“Citi and Wells Fargo have their reputations on the line in a lot of ways right now.”
The response was mixed. Ten of them either said no or didn’t respond at all. The ones that declined included eight foreign banks, along with U.S.-based SunTrust and BBVA Compass. But seven others agreed to meet with tribal leaders, according to a press release issued by the environmental group Friends of the Earth. These included TD Bank, Wells Fargo, and Citibank.
Asked to explain SunTrust’s decision not to meet with the tribe, spokesperson Sue Mallino wrote in an email that the bank supports “the actions by the lead bank on behalf of all lenders,” referring to Citibank. “We will let that process complete its course and hope for a peaceful resolution to this matter,” she said.
That position does not satisfy the tribe.
“We are pleased that some of the banks behind DAPL are willing to engage Standing Rock Sioux leadership, but maintain that all 17 should not be helping a company who deliberately ignores our concerns,” Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said in a statement. “We call on the remaining banks to agree to a meeting with the tribe.”
The fact that most of the U.S.-based banks agreed to meet shows the pressure that pipeline opponents have been able to apply, says Daniel Apfel, a researcher at the Croatan Institute who has focused on divestment campaigns since 2011. He points out how similar tactics—a mix of meetings, protests, and account closures—successfully forced the bank PNC to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining in 2015.
“Citi and Wells Fargo have their reputations on the line in a lot of ways right now,” he said.
But meetings don’t necessarily deliver a change in how business is done. “It’s pretty typical for banks and other corporations to meet with activists,” Apfel added. “Sometimes they’re interested in working with them, and other times they want to get people off their backs and pacify them.”
“Here’s an opportunity for banks to do the right thing.”
Hugh MacMillan, a researcher at the environmental group Food & Water Watch, shares Apfel’s skepticism. He points out that a consortium of banks lent $1.5 billion to Energy Transfer Partners this month, while another group lent $610 million to Sunoco Logistics, the parent company, in December.
The details of that lending show the banks in a different light. Several of the European banks that declined to meet with the tribe—such as BayernLB from Germany and BNP Paribas from France—did not contribute money. Meanwhile, the same U.S. banks scheduled to meet with the tribe continued to fund the pipeline.
“At the same time they were discussing meeting with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Wells Fargo put up $72 million, TD Bank put up $75 million, and Citibank put up $38 million,” MacMillan said. “Clearly, these banks are banking on Dakota Access to help maximize oil and gas production, including for export. In light of climate science, that is insane.”
Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners has asked banks to commit another $2.2 billion in loans by Friday, Jan. 27.
“Here’s an opportunity for banks to do the right thing,” said Jason Opeña Disterhoft, senior campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network. “Stay away from funding this loan and steer clear of investing in Energy Transfer again.”
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an order intended to push through the Dakota Access pipeline, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the project an easement in December until a full Environmental Impact Statement is completed. Trump is requesting that the Army Corps speed up approval and finish the project.
The move sparked outrage among indigenous water protectors. “The Trump administration’s politically motivated decision violates the law and the tribe will take action to fight it,” said Archambault. Jan Hasselman, the tribe’s lawyer, promised a lawsuit.
Whatever the outcome of that legal effort, Trump’s order does not guarantee that the pipeline will move forward. The Army Corps must make its next move.