Skip to content Skip to footer

How Standing Rock’s Divest Campaign Can Stop Future Pipelines

As banks begin to respond, environmental movements are learning the importance of speaking clearly about the financial risks of fossil fuel investment.

Led by the women of Idle No More Bay Area, banks were visited in San Francisco's Financial District and accounts were closed at Wells Fargo, Citibank and Chase — all major funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline — on November 30, 2016. (Photo: Peg Hunter / Flickr)

Sasja Beslik, head of sustainable finance at Nordea, one of the largest banks in Europe, recently traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on a fact-finding mission. Originally from Bosnia, Beslik has seen his share of war and says that the Oceti Sakowin Camp reminded him of a war zone.

The Standing Rock movement has brought a wave of financial rabble-rousing to the United States.

Beslik says Nordea’s customers pressured the bank to investigate the situation. “My bank has received hundreds of emails and Facebook messages. It’s like a storm that is pushing the bank in a direction that the bank then needs to act on,” says Beslik. He says activism aimed at banks is common in Europe.

But the Standing Rock movement has brought a wave of financial rabble-rousing to the United States, and Beslik is just one of many people who believe it can strengthen the greater movement for divestment from fossil fuels, which is growing quickly. In just over a year, the value of the funds and other investments committed to selling off these assets has jumped to $5.2 trillion.

Think of divestment as the opposite of investment. By convincing firms to sell off stocks, bonds, and other investment assets in companies involved in extracting fossil fuels, activists hope to make it more difficult for these companies to get financing.

To prevent future projects like the Dakota Access pipeline, Beslik hopes that divestment advocates become more organized and “corporate” in their approach. “The world doesn’t need more oil,” he says. “The guys with good organization are the ones who win the revolution.”


Nordea has holdings in three companies behind the Dakota Access pipeline: Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco Logistics, and Phillips 66. Earlier this month, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe urged Nordea to divest from them via a letter delivered by Greenpeace and Sofia Jannok — an artist and a member of Sweden’s own indigenous population, the Sami. Nordea then sent Beslik to Standing Rock to meet with tribal representatives, including Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault II.

This week, Nordea came to a decision. The bank demanded that the companies behind DAPL reroute the oil pipeline so that it is does not pass near the reservation. Nordea also put the three companies in “quarantine” for six months, during which its managers may not make additional investments in those three companies. Further, Nordea’s sustainable finance team will recommend the bank sell all its holdings in these companies if they do not respect Nordea’s demand to reroute the pipeline, are found guilty of breaching the rights of the indigenous people, or if an altered political situation results in the companies being granted access to lay the pipeline through Standing Rock.

Greenpeace regards this decision as significant.

“It’s an important step that Nordea put its foot down and now has specific requirements that the oil pipeline not go through the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s land,” says Rolf Lindahl, Greenpeace’s Nordic climate and energy campaigner. “It sends a clear signal to the world that the rights of indigenous peoples must be respected. We encourage others to set the same demands for the companies that are building the oil pipeline.”

Nordea’s announcement, on the heels of similar ones by Norway’s DNB and Odin Fund Management, is the latest win in the growing divestiture movement coming out of Standing Rock. Its goal is not only to stop this pipeline completely but also others that imperil indigenous communities.

While there is widespread agreement on the goals of the divestment movement, advocates approach them differently.

Indeed, Standing Rock has set off campaigns focused on at least three major forms of divestment.

First is the individual withdrawal of funds and bank account closures by tens of thousands of concerned citizens.

Second is divestment by mutual funds and institutions, which sell off stocks and bonds invested in the companies. For example, the Norwegian bank DNB was recently celebrated for selling assets in the Dakota Access pipeline worth $3 million.

“These banks can exit these agreements.”

That may sound like a lot, but the numbers are relative. “DNB still owns Energy Transfer assets to the tune of over $200 million,” says Hugh MacMillan, a researcher for the nonprofit Food & Water Watch. “It’s important that these dispersed funds be considered assets.”

By “dispersed funds,” MacMillan is talking about the massive lines of credit that banks offer the companies behind the pipeline. Those are the target of the third type of divestment campaign coming out of Standing Rock, and the ones most essential to the companies’ operations. If environmentalists can convince the 38 financial institutions to withhold lines of credit, MacMillan says, they could truly challenge the companies’ ability to continue construction.

“There’s some leverage on banks that are providing the credit lines to the Energy Transfer companies because those credit lines are not maxed out, and these banks can exit these agreements and revoke what are essentially ‘credit cards’ they’re given,” MacMillan says. He points to the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has issued a statement saying it did just that.


Beslik says Nordea and other banks interested in responsible investing need more information to guide any divestments they make. “You can push investors to take responsibility, and many of us want to do that. But you have to tell us exactly what the companies are doing wrong,” he says. “We need to have data to prove these are financially risky investments.”

Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think-tank based in Seattle, agrees. “Forget about getting activists to change behavior of the oil companies,” he says. “Get sensible investors to encourage management to make rational long-term decisions about the contracts they’re entering into — decisions about whether these are really good investments.”

Beslik thinks the movement needs to get better at doing this. “There’s a big difference in the quality of the information that the oil, gas, and pipeline companies are providing vs. what the indigenous, environmental activist, and NGOs are providing us,” he says. “The former people know how to talk to the banks. The latter people don’t.”

“It’s clear the banks didn’t have all this information when they were funding the pipeline.”

Divestment activists should become more proactive in their strategies, he says, especially in regard to the financial, legal, and analytical data they provide banks. Prior to coming to Standing Rock, he slogged through 20 hours of reading material provided by the companies behind the Dakota Access pipeline. He says he would love to see indigenous communities, NGOs, and environmental organizations provide something comparable.

Greenpeace USA spokesperson Mary Sweeters says a number of NGOs already do this kind of work, including Rainforest Action Network, Food & Water Watch, and Bank Track. Greenpeace, too, has campaigners dedicated to engaging the finance sector.

“We know that a lot of these banks have their own internal policies that they are supposed to adhere to,” Sweeters says, but “it’s clear the banks didn’t have all this information when they were funding the pipeline.”

For example, Citibank has internal corporate responsibility policies on indigenous, human, and environmental rights. These are based in part on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet Citibank is a leader among the 38 banks offering credit to the Dakota Access pipeline companies.

“If banks have … policies saying they’re not going to invest in projects that go against their standards, then it’s their responsibility to satisfy them,” Sweeters says. The role of Greenpeace is to put pressure on the banks to make they really do that.

Indigenous financial advisers are joining the conversation, too. Chrystel Cornelius, a member of the Ojibwa and Oneida tribes, is executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corp., a nonprofit financial group that invested nearly $5 million in Indian Country in 2015.

“I don’t think that the tribes need to speak investment jargon,” Cornelius says, because they already have assistance from large organizations that help them with their divestment initiatives. Instead, she says, the priority is to coordinate the divestment movement that rose up against the Dakota Access pipeline with larger, global divestment initiatives.

“Native people are protecting the water for their communities, their future seven generations, and for humanity itself,” Cornelius says. “So this is a global issue.”

Jamie Henn, a co-founder of the environmental group, agrees.

“Money talks, and we need to make sure our dollars are saying the right thing.”

“The core message of the divestment campaign has always been: If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage,” Henn says. “If you’re invested in Wells Fargo, you own a piece of this pipeline. It’s that simple. Money talks, and we need to make sure our dollars are saying the right thing: No to Dakota Access, yes to clean energy solutions.”

Meanwhile, MacMillan says the movement to divest from the Dakota Access pipeline and its parent companies is “growing organically.” And its successes are having an effect.

“Moody’s has rated Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners just above junk status,” MacMillan says. “These companies are in a lot of distress — not just for this project alone, but they’re having difficulties raising cash.”

Not surprisingly, the companies behind the pipeline oppose the strategy. After DNB’s decision to sell its stocks, Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren likened the divestment movement to terrorism.

“The decision of Norway’s DNB bank was a mistake, he said. “And other banks are also getting attacked via social media in an effort to cut financing to the energy industry. That’s all that nonsense is. It’s just terrorism.”

But MacMillan says it’s the company itself that’s breaking the law. “People need to ask these banks if the funds they’ve provided these companies have been used for the highly militarized response and the violations of tribal sovereignty,” he says, “and why these banks are financing these companies who are focused on maximizing production of oil and gas, when it’s clear we need to maximize what we … keep in the ground instead.”

Truthout is fiercely independent yet uncompromisingly committed to justice, equality and truth. Support ethical journalism: Make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout now!

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $28,000 in the next 2 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.