Q&A: Minnesota climate activists push banks on fossil fuels

Ulla Nilsen is an advocate for MN350.

The climate change organization MN350 may ask supporters to withdraw their money from Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank unless the financial institution begins to eliminate support for the fossil fuel industry.

MN350 and has asked for a meeting with the bank executives and given them the deadline of Valentine’s Day to agree to that proposal. If there is no agreement on a meeting, the organization plans to initiate a “Break Up With U.S. Bank” action Feb. 16th.

The move would be in conjunction with a week of corporate accountability planned by MN350, Minnesotans For A Fair Economy, the religious coalition ISAIAH and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Collectively, the groups advocate for higher wages, a cleaner environment and investment in schools.

A spokesperson for U.S. Bank said the company had no comment for this story, but MN350 corporate accountability volunteer team leader Ulla Nilsen said she has been assured a meeting is forthcoming.

MN350 was invited to join the coalition because of U.S. Bank’s support for coal, oil and natural gas financing projects. “We work together with the coalition to encourage U.S. Bank to be a responsible lender, not just for fossil fuels, but other issues,” she said.

In October, MN350 released Financing Climate Chaos: How Minnesota’s Banking Giants Prioritize Profit In The Face of Climate Change, a reporting looking at investments made by U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo, another financial institution with a significant workforce and operations in Minneapolis. The report revealed the following:

  • U.S. Bank was the trustee for $400 million in securities issued by Enbridge Energy, which has several pipeline project proposals before Minnesota regulators. It served as a trustee for $1.5 billion in securities issued by an Enbridge subsidiary in 2014.
  • Since 2007 Wells Fargo has provided $2 billion in financing to tar sands companies, according to the Rainforest Action Network.
  • Over the past decade the two banks collectively financed $12.7 billion of spending in the coal industry, including firms doing mountaintop removal strip mining.
  • Since 2013 Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank have provided $22 billion in financing to the top 10 gas and oil companies.
  • The companies provided $24 billion to fracking interests in the past decade.

Nilsen spoke to Midwest Energy News about the U.S. Bank campaign and changes at Wells Fargo. The interview has been edited for clarity. (MN350 is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News).

Midwest Energy News: Has U.S. Bank agreed to meet?

Nilsen: So far they’ve been ignoring us. But we’re starting to get signs they’re willing to meet. We’ve heard they’re concerned about the action that could happen on Feb. 16th. If they make a significant commitment to meet then we’ll consider calling off the action.

Why the corporate week of action?

We’re calling on corporate Minnesota to take action on helping solve racial inequity in the state. Minnesota has the worst record on racial inequity in the country. Our piece of that is Enbridge’s pipelines are effecting the native communities while passing through several reservations, going against treaty rights and endangering wild rice fields. Climate affects people of less means first.

Has any other 350 chapter had success with getting banks to divest of fossil fuels?

350.org Australia had a very successful campaign getting the largest bank in Australia to not fund the Galilee coal (mine) project, one of the largest coal projects in the world. Many other banks have followed suit and that project has not gone forward.

What about American banks?

Most other major banks are starting to pledge to divest from coal, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup. U.S. Bank has not started that process, and it may be the only one.

Why didn’t you include Wells Fargo in your action?

Other groups have dealt with them, such as Rainforest Action Network. Wells Fargo made better progress than other banks – not completely adequate but decent. There is a ratings systems called the Coal Finance Report card that looks at what banks promise to do. Wells Fargo has B out of an “ABC Fail” (environmental) rating. No bank has got an A yet.

What would be the best next step for MN350 and U.S. Bank?

We want to meet bank leaders, but not just have a conversation and not see anything done. We want to talk to people who can make decisions about this and we’d like them to take steps other banks have taken and begin to divest from coal, tar sands oil and to stop financing Enbridge oil pipelines.

Are you optimistic?

These steps would not be just good for the planet, they make financial sense now – the price of coal is not expected to recover, and that’s why banks are divesting. The tar sands oil industry is in somewhat dire straits. We need to transition to renewable energy, and this is the time to do it.

U.S. Bank needs to move this pile of money over to things that create a positive future, like solar and wind. Clean energy is no longer just a pipe dream and we need financial institutions to invest in its success.

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