At a shareholder meeting this past spring, U.S. Bank announced it would be the first large American bank to completely stop issuing loans for oil and gas pipeline construction projects.
Environmental groups, indigenous activists, and divestment advocates hailed U.S. Bank's announcement as a triumph.
Yet that triumph — and the bank's commitment — seems less sure with the news that U.S. Bank has entered into a new $4 billion loan deal with the company behind the contentious Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).
For months, the bank had been under fire for financing the Dakota Access pipeline by providing over a quarter billion dollars worth of funding to its builder, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). Environmentalists famously dropped a banner calling on U.S. Bank to divest from DAPL at the New Years 2017 Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears football game.
The language of the bank's new policy seemed blunt.
“The company does not provide project financing for the construction of oil or natural gas pipelines,” U.S. Bancorp, parent company of U.S. Bank, wrote in its April 2017 Environmental Responsibility Policy.
Divestment advocates cheered. “We applaud this progressive decision from U.S. Bank,” an Honor the Earth representative said in a statement, as the bank's new policy made headlines.
Some advocates remained skeptical, however, pointing out that the line of credit extended to Energy Transfer Partners wouldn't be covered by that language, because it could be considered a loan for the company as a whole, not the more specific “project financing.” And U.S. Bank's CEO told shareholders that his bank wouldn't end its existing Energy Transfer Partners deal, saying that instead it would “fulfill that contract and commitment.”
“We know there are always loopholes through which banks will try to pass off responsibility,” Rachel Heaton of Mazaska Talks and a Muckleshoot Tribe member told Yes Magazine, “but we will continue to resist until these banks completely divest from all pipeline and fossil fuel corporations and incorporate the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples into their corporate lending structures.”
Even if that specific contract wasn't going to be torn up, environmental groups hoped that in the future, the bank would limit its funding of fossil fuel projects.
CEO Andy Cecere “strongly implied that the bank would pull back from pipelines and ETP in particular — aside from its obligations under its 'contract with ETP' (i.e. its existing credit facility),” Brant Olson, Program Director at ClimateTruth.org, told DeSmog.
U.S. Bank's new environmental policy added that any new deals the bank did with companies in the oil and gas pipeline industry would have to undergo additional scrutiny, including a look at their environmental record.
“We want to confirm that a firm’s policies and processes are sound and effective as they relate to the environment and the community in which it operates,” the policy adds. “In accordance with our environmental responsibility commitment, we prohibit relationships with customers who participate in any illegal activities.”
Transferring More Money to Energy Transfer Partners
That's why it was so striking when Energy Transfer Partners quietly announced in a December 1 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that U.S. Bank was part of ETP's new $4 billion credit deal.
ETP's projects include numerous controversial fossil fuel pipelines nationwide, including not only Dakota Access, but also Mariner East 2, Rover, Bayou Bridge, and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline.
Asked whether Energy Transfer Partners had passed muster during the additional due diligence in U.S. Bank's much-lauded environmental review policy, U.S. Bank's spokesperson Cheryl Leamon declined to comment. “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss customer relationships,” she told DeSmog in an email.
Environmentalists hoped that this was a chance for U.S. Bank to end its dealings with ETP. StopETP.org, a coalition of national and local environmental and indigenous rights groups, wrote a letter to the bank in November, urging it to use the chance to cut ties with ETP, which was seeking to renew its $4 billion credit line in a deal involving numerous major banks.
But U.S. Bank has apparently refused, said Food and Water Watch senior researcher Dr. Hugh MacMillan, “after having scored praise back in May for its new pipeline finance policy.”
U.S. Bank did not respond when asked about the types of law-breaking that might cross the line and cause a borrower to fail the bank's new due diligence requirements.
The bank's professed wariness of fossil fuel companies had drawn an angry response from the Energy Equipment and Infrastructure Alliance, which had fired off a letter to U.S. Bank protesting the new policy. “This creates the presumption that firms and people involved in these areas, including those providing construction, equipment, materials, services or other support to these operations, are more likely than all others to be 'bad actors',” the trade group wrote, “thus requiring a higher level of scrutiny.”
That additional environmental record review was widely expected to be particularly bad news for Energy Transfer Partners, which has an environmental record that includes over 300 pipeline incidents in the past decade, causing over $67 million dollars in property damage, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
“From January 2010 through June 2017, ETP spilled hazardous liquids near water crossings more than twice as frequently as any other pipeline company in the United States this decade [and w]as responsible for almost 20 percent of all hazardous liquid spills near water crossings,” a recently published report by the Waterkeeper Alliance notes.
In November, one of Energy Transfer Partners' pipeline projects was sued by Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency over 13 violations of the state's environmental laws, including spewing millions of gallons of drilling fluid into the state's wetlands.
“Among other things, ETP has caused seven industrial spills during the construction of the $4.2 billion natural gas pipeline through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan,” Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. and Maria Cantwell, ranking members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Energy and Natural Resources, respectively, wrote in a July 27, 2017 letter to federal regulators decrying ETP's track record on complying with environmental laws.
The company's spill record has even drawn concern from investors, with The Street reporting, “'Energy Transfer seems to have an approach where they stick to the minimum requirements instead of exceeding them,' Genscape natural gas analyst Colette Breshears said.”
Sunoco Logistics, which merged into ETP last year, had the worst oil spill record of any company in the industry, a 2016 Reuters investigative report found.