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JPMorgan Chase takes baby step toward curbing fossil fuel loans

Climate change activists demonstrate outside the offices of JPMorgan Chase in Portland, Ore., in 2018.
Climate change activists demonstrate outside the offices of JPMorgan Chase in Portland, Ore., in 2018. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/AP)

JPMorgan Chase, one of the world’s biggest lenders to fossil fuel projects, announced Monday that it would curb loans to coal firms and bar the financing of oil and gas developments in the Arctic.

But in a move that disappointed climate activists, JPMorgan will still provide loans to oil and gas projects in the Lower 48 states or other parts of the world.

The bank has increasingly become a target of activists, who have denounced it for providing $196 billion in financing for coal, oil, natural gas and pipeline projects from 2016 through 2018, following the Paris climate accord. Among American banks, JPMorgan was the top financier of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and of tar sands extraction in Canada during that three-year period.

The bank has also come under criticism because its board includes former ExxonMobil chief executive Lee R. Raymond, who has a long record of dismissing concerns about climate change.

“JPMorgan has been the biggest banker of fossil fuels,” said Ben Cushing, a climate campaigner at the Sierra Club.

Bill McKibben, an environmental studies professor at Middlebury College and leading climate activist, said the bank’s new commitments were disappointing and resembled pledges made recently by Goldman Sachs.

“It seems like weak beer to me, basically just copying Goldman,” McKibben said. “But it shows that even the biggest bank on Earth feels citizen pressure, so we will keep supplying that!” He added that JPMorgan would “retain the title of the doomsday bank.”

Climate activists have staged protests at JPMorgan branches in recent months over the bank’s outsize role in underwriting the oil, gas and coal industries.

Earlier this month, for example, Monica Nelson, a student at the University of California at San Diego, helped organize a protest at the campus’s Chase branch where activists held up a banner reading “CHASE THEM OUT.” “We would like the university not to give them the next five-year lease,” she said.

Since President Trump’s election in 2016, environmental groups have turned their attention to Wall Street banks, insurance firms and other private-sector players as their increasingly urgent calls to address climate change have largely fallen on deaf ears in the White House and the GOP-controlled Senate.

Climate activists “have been looking for other ways to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry,” Cushing said. “Getting major Wall Street firms to take climate change seriously is important no matter what party is in power.”

The Sierra Club has issued a report called “Banking on Climate Change.” And McKibben, who was arrested for protesting at a Chase ATM in New York on Jan. 10, has rallied people online around the slogan “Stop the Money Pipeline.”

JPMorgan’s announcement said that it would complete — five years early — a commitment made in 2017 to facilitate $200 billion in financing for projects that meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. The bank said it would include $50 billion for “green initiatives.”

It spelled out terms for lending to the coal industry that will effectively end such loans. It said it would not refinance loans on existing coal plants or provide money or advice to firms making most of their revenue from coal. Existing loans would be phased out by 2024.

Yet under that policy, the bank could still do business with big coal-mining companies that have other major revenue streams. “That’s a big loophole,” said Jason Disterhoft, a campaigner at the Rainforest Action Network.

The bank also said it would join the Climate Leadership Council, a group that has been promoting a carbon “fee” that would be fully returned to Americans through a dividend. It is one of many climate proposals in Congress.

The International Energy Agency said that all energy investment — including renewables, energy efficiency, coal, oil and gas, and the power sector — totaled $1.85 trillion in 2018, stabilizing after three years of decline. There was an increase in investment in fossil fuel supplies. And the largest growth in investment came in the United States, mainly due to oil and gas supply and electricity networks.

Other leading lenders to such projects include Wells Fargo, Citi­bank and Bank of America.

Pavel Molchanov, senior energy analyst at the investment firm Raymond James, said that divesting from coal and curtailing lending to coal companies were among the first things any firm should do when adopting a policy for environment, sustainability or governance.

“Oil and gas activity in the Arctic is so slim anyway that lending for such activity is essentially meaningless,” he said.