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How Do We Prevent Banks From Funding Oil Pipelines? Aim Big and Keep Showing Up

Seattle climate activists are at it again with a tar sands petition for banks.

Demonstrators gather to protest Wells Fargo's funding of the Dakota Access pipeline on February 3, 2017. Many of the banks, including Wells Fargo, that fund the pipeline are also funding those that will funnel fossil fuels from the Canadian tar sands. (Photo: Joe Piette / Flickr)

On August 18, climate activists led by indigenous leaders and environmental groups gathered outside branches of JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo in downtown Seattle to protest their financing of tar sands pipelines. It’s not the first time the banks have been besieged by activists — and probably won’t be the last.

The action was part of a new nationwide campaign launched in May to put pressure on banks to defund four proposed tar sands pipelines. It builds on the movement that led cities, tribes, and individuals to divest billions of dollars from banks funding the Dakota Access pipeline over the past year.

Many of the banks that fund DAPL — including JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo — also fund the four tar sands pipelines. The 17 banks that fund all five pipelines are the primary targets of the campaign. And like the divest movement launched during the Standing Rock resistance last year, this new campaign is led by indigenous groups, including the 121 First Nations and tribes that signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion.

But there are some differences. While the Defund DAPL campaign goal was to get banks to pull out of loan commitments on a project already begun, this new campaign is trying to convince banks not to get involved in financing tar sands pipelines at all.

“Part of our thinking with amping up a lot of these actions is, let’s apply enough pressure now so that these banks will think that this is a risky investment,” said Matt Remle, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and co-founder of Mazaska Talks, one of the organizations coordinating the campaign.

Remle added that the strategies used by divestment organizers have also shifted since early divestment organizing, especially since February, when Seattle passed an ordinance terminating the city’s over $3 billion contract with Wells Fargo, and other cities followed suit. Then in April, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution to avoid making contracts with the banks financing the Keystone XL.

Now they’re hoping more cities will follow Seattle’s lead. That’s one reason why Mazaska Talks was established, Remle said. The grassroots organization hosts a website that serves as a clearinghouse for sample ordinances and resolutions that cities, tribes, and others groups can use as a model.

“Before, [we] focused primarily on getting individuals to close their accounts,” he said. “But a lot of the organizing changed once we started seeing that we have the power to go after extremely large amounts of money and pass legislation at the local level.”

Remle said that the organizers of the current divestment movement learned a lot from last year’s Standing Rock resistance about how to appeal to banks. “If you look back at this time a year ago when bulldozers were going over grave sites and sacred sites and dogs were biting people [in North Dakota], that wasn’t even enough to get banks to second-guess themselves. They don’t care,” he said. “We’re not going to win an argument with the banks … with an environmental or moral argument, or even with a treaty rights argument. We’re not going to win that way because they’re capitalists, and they’re out for the bottom line.”

At Seattle’s direct action Aug. 18 — coordinated by Mazaska Talks, 350 Seattle, and Greenpeace Seattle — activists attempted to deliver a petition signed by more than 150,000 people and calling on banks — particularly two JP Morgan Chase branches and one Wells Fargo branch — to defund the tar sands pipelines. The three branches targeted closed early and locked their doors before activists arrived.

Outside, climate activists read the names of petition signatories while indigenous leaders — including Roxanne White of the Yakama Nation and Paul Paul Che oke` ten Wagner of the Lummi Nation — led songs and prayers.

“We have the responsibility to witness things that are not right, and make them right, right now. And that’s what we’re doing,” Wagner said.

The campaign wants to stop funding for four tar sands pipelines: two new ones — TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Energy East — and two expanded ones — Enbridge’s Line 3 and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain. The lines will transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands region to oil refineries and shipping terminals across the United States and Canada.

Tar sands oil is a particularly dirty fuel. A recent study shows that extraction of oil from Alberta’s tar sands releases about 20 percent more carbon dioxide than making fuels from conventional crude oil. And oil spills from the tar sands are notoriously difficult to clean up. In 2012, climate scientist Jim Hansen called extraction of tar sands oil “game over for the climate.”

The Aug. 18 action targeted financing for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in particular. That proposed expansion would nearly triple the line’s capacity to transport tar sands crude oil to a terminal in British Columbia, leading to an estimated 348 additional tankers crossing the Salish Sea every year.

Increased tanker traffic would make an oil spill in the region much more likely, said Alec Connon, a facilitator with 350 Seattle.

“Trans Mountain — and Kinder Morgan — want to bring oil from the tar sands right to our shores. And these banks are funding it,” Wagner said. “That’s unacceptable. We’re making sure we’re standing up for all people, all life.”

Campaign actions have been building since May, when activists and indigenous leaders held a day of protest that resulted in 13 Chase branches being shut down throughout Seattle.

Then in June, a coalition of indigenous and environmental organizations and activists sent an open letter urging the 28 major banks financing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to stop doing so. Later that month, Dutch bank ING — one of the banks named in this letter — said it will not finance any tar sands projects. As reported by CNBC, ING stated that this announcement was a response to being targeted by defund Trans Mountain pipeline activists.

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