THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Banking on Change

Ending pipeline financing through public pressure

by Sara Van Horn

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 15, 2018


Last Thursday, the FANG Collective and the Shame on Citizens campaign celebrated a victory after learning that Citizens Bank had ended their financing of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), one of the prominent natural gas companies responsible for the construction of the Dakota Access, Mariner East, and Bayou Bridge pipelines. As of December, Citizens Bank has elected not to renew the $72 million loan to ETP that was created in March 2015.  While Citizens Bank did not attribute their withdrawal to the organizing done by protest groups, this undeniably represents a success for public pressure activism.

To build these pipelines, ETP and other natural gas companies rely on significant loans from financial institutions like Citizens Bank to fund the clearing of forests, excavation of trenches, and pipe assembly necessary for construction. In turn, loans themselves are financed with private client accounts.

The Dakota Access, Mariner East, and Bayou Bridge pipelines are all oil projects in the Midwest and Southern United States which are constructed on Indigenous land and pose significant environmental risk to the surrounding water resources.  Indigenous groups and activist allies oppose the construction of pipeline projects within treaty boundaries, citing the high risk of water contamination as well as the desecration of sacred land. Activist groups also protested the state violence involved in suppressing popular resistance. Council member for the Narrangansett tribe, Randy Noka, called The Dakota Access Pipeline, which leaked at least five times in 2017, another example of putting profit over human rights. “Corporate greed cannot come at the expense of the environment,” said Noka, addressing protesters in front of Citizens Bank last year, “and certainly cannot come at the expense of the aboriginal people.”

 

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Citizens Bank, headquartered in Providence since its founding in 1828, is the twelfth largest retail bank in the United States and one of the oldest financial service firms in the country. Last spring, Citizens contributed $72.5 million to a line of credit with Sunoco Logistics Partners, an oil and natural gas transportation company then in the process of merging with Energy Transfer Partners.

While Citizens itself has painted a rosy portrait of its community outreach—most recently boasting a National Philanthropy Day Award for “Outstanding Corporation”—their willingness to finance these pipelines has drawn ire and suspicion. Over the past year, activist groups have attempted to hold Citizens to its professed core values.  On March 2 of last year, protesters from the FANG Collective, an activist organization committed to environmental justice, blocked the entrance to Citizens’s headquarters.  Two activists locked themselves with bike locks to the front doors of the company while a third sat down in the revolving door.  The arrest and removal of the activists, involving both the police and fire departments, was recorded by FANG as a Facebook Live video that later garnered over 41,000 views. All three activists were charged with misdemeanors and released that same day. While this sort of direct action in Downtown Providence was already startling to many, Mayo Saji, a student at Brown University and one of the activists  arrested, emphasized the difference in the resources and consequences of FANG’s protests compared to the protests at frontline communities: “We can plan when we get arrested and have support during our arrest and plan for press to be there.”  In contrast, at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline the police used water hoses, rubber bullets, and tear gas to suppress nonviolent direct action last year.

The FANG Collective, founded in 2013, has been involved in a number of campaigns fighting the construction of natural gas pipelines and fossil fuel power plants. FANG has also supported the Shame on Citizens campaign, a group created in the first months of 2017 in an effort to increase public pressure on Citizens Bank. Shame on Citizens focused most of their efforts on persuading Citizens’s clients to close their bank accounts. The campaign recorded the testimonies of those who volunteered to publically close their accounts and shared them on social media. A couple of weeks after FANG’s lock-down action at Citizens’ headquarters, Shame on Citizens joined with FANG to protest outside the bank’s branch location in Providence in response to a call to action by front-line communities fighting the Mariner East Pipeline in Pennsylvania.

In addition to public protest, activist groups have also engaged in legislative efforts. Last year, the movement NoDAPL RI tried to exert pressure on all financial institutions in Providence by attempting to pass an ordinance that would require the City Council to divest from all banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. After a hearing that included testimonies from Indigenous activists, Providence residents, and business interests, the ordinance ultimately did not pass.

Recent activist pressure has not been exclusively focused on Citizens.  A few weeks ago, FANG interrupted a Morgan Stanley recruiting event at Brown University to protest the company’s financing of ETP.  Citing environmental hazards as well as the current resistance of frontline communities, members of FANG emphasized the tremendous influence of financial institutions on the construction of pipelines.  “Morgan Stanley says that they believe that capital can be used to create change,” one protester read. “It’s time to put those words into action and divest from ETP.” FANG then read a list of the Indigenous territories affected by the pipeline.

Because banks are often more accessible than the natural gas corporations they finance, applying public pressure on financial institutions is one way forward for environmental activism. “I think it’s a powerful statement to show that direct action and community organizing works,” said Nick Katkevich, an organizer from the FANG Collective.  While Citizens hasn’t released a statement, Katkevich firmly believes that the decision to withhold funding is due to public pressure. He highlighted the diversity of nonviolent tactics in bringing about change: “There are people closing their bank accounts, there are people doing public demonstrations, and there are the lock-down actions. It made it easy for a lot of different folks to engage.” Katkevich also emphasized the importance of the protest’s location. Because Citizens is headquartered in Providence, when actions were taken, “it was right in the face of the executives and higher-ups of Citizens Bank. I don’t think they wanted to face that type of public pressure in their home region.”

As much of the success of these protests comes from their location, coordinating protests for non-local fights can present a challenge. “It’s hard with the [Bayou Bridge] pipeline fight in Louisiana,” says Katkevich. “People may feel disconnected because it’s far away.”  Because financial institutions have such a global scope, it is increasingly important for protesters to be able to counter with interconnected activism. “We disrupted Morgan Stanley at Brown University for funding ETP, but Morgan Stanley is also the number one financier of the company trying to build the power plant in Burrillville, [Rhode Island.]” More connections, Katkevich believes, can be made between global and local fights. While power comes with location, making connections between protests across distance is essential, particularly as the systems these groups seek to confront are often global in nature. “Obviously all these fights are interconnected. What’s happening to the climate is interconnected to all of us.”

According to Bill McKibben, author, environmentalist, and co-founder of the climate justice organization 350.org, these activist groups have the right strategy for tackling big oil projects. Not only are banks, unlike planned construction sites, accessible places of protest for most Americans, but they are also susceptible to public pressure from the people they service. Scott Parkin, a senior campaigner at the Rainforest Action Network, agrees: “Oil companies are always going to drill for oil and build pipelines—it’s why they exist. But the banks funding [the Dakota Access Pipeline] have a choice as to where they put their money.”  Companies like ETP receive their funding from large banking institutions whose profit-driven priorities do not necessarily include moral considerations.  Banks, however, are ultimately beholden to their clientele. As McKibben writes in Yes! magazine, “It’s probably sustained public pressure that will do the most good.”

Saji emphasized the importance of both direct action when engaging corporate leaders and targeting the financial resources of these massive construction projects. “FANG has gotten really good at targeting the funders of these programs,” she says. “You’ve got to take away funding and change people’s values along the way.”  Public pressure, however, is limited. And Katkevich, similarly, still believes Citizens Bank has work to do—much of it internal to the bank itself. To build their headquarters in Johnston, Rhode Island, the bank recently bulldozed 70 acres of forest. “It’s obviously good that they stopped funding Energy Transfer Partners, but we still have to dig in to see what other types of relationships they have.  I hope they just continue to listen to folks in the community.”

 

SARA VAN HORN B’21 wants you to join a credit union.