Goldman Sachs just became the first big U.S. bank to say it will no longer finance new drilling or oil exploration in the Arctic. It may not be the last.
That’s the hope of some Native Americans and environmentalists in Alaska who for years have pressured Wall Street to rule out financing oil and natural gas work in the world’s fastest-warming region.
Among the major banks next on their target list are Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, which together have conducted nearly a half a trillion dollars in fossil fuel financing since the signing of the Paris climate accord at the end of 2015.
And at the top of their list is JPMorgan Chase, which from 2016 to 2018 financed more oil, gas and coal work than any bank in the world, according to an analysis by the Rainforest Action Network.
“They’re the biggest player,” said Jason Disterhoft, a senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, of the bank that did nearly $196 billion in fossil fuel financing over that three-year period. “They need to take the most urgent action.”
The new environmental policy from Goldman Sachs, outlined Sunday as international climate talks in Madrid wrapped up, prohibits financing for not only Arctic drilling but also for coal-fired power plants that don't have carbon emissions reduction technology as well as for coal mines that extract fuel for those power stations.
The bank also promised to invest $750 billion in “sustainable finance” over the next decade.
“Profitability will always matter,” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon wrote in an op-ed in the Financial Times explaining the decision. “But finance must also address climate transition and inclusive growth while achieving and sustaining those returns.”
Other major banks abroad, such as Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland, have also ruled out financing for Arctic drilling. But Goldman is the first to do so among major U.S. firms.
The move by the bank, seen as one of the most prestigious on Wall Street, raised hopes that other major financial institutions in the United States will follow its lead. Between 2016 and 2018, American banks made up six of the top 12 financiers of coal, oil and gas work.
The dominos have fallen like that before. Leading up to the climate talks in Paris in late 2015, and shortly thereafter, those six major U.S. banks each promised one after another to reduce their credit exposure to coal mining companies or outright end financing for certain coal projects in developed countries.
“These big six banks move in absolute lockstep,” Disterhoft said. He added that other financial institutions will feel pressure to ratchet up their commitments to forgo financing fossil fuel projects ahead of the next round of climate talks in Glasgow in November.
Andrew Gray, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, said he would not comment on any future actions. But in an email, he said the bank has “a significant amount of work underway to further build upon our efforts on climate-related risk and opportunity and we look forward to sharing more in the coming year.”
And E.J. Bernacki, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, said the bank has restricted some financing in the Alaska Arctic since 2018. "While we will continue to support the responsible development of conventional energy, Wells Fargo is committed to accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy," he added.
Goldman’s decision comes after Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and other activists met with the bank multiple times — and after the Trump administration said it wanted to lease off portions of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas drilling.
“My heart is really humbled,” said Demientieff, whose people live outside the refuge but rely on its caribou herd for sustenance and worry how oil and gas development may harm their food source.
“Our people are living in ground zero of climate change,” she said.
Backed by the oil interests and Alaska’s entirely Republican congressional delegation, the Trump administration said in September it would seek to open the refuge’s entire coastal plain up to oil and gas exploration. The nearly 1.6 million-acre area, home to polar bears, wolves and migratory birds in addition to the caribou, had long been closed to drilling. President Trump's team is also seeking to expand drilling in Alaska’s massive National Petroleum Reserve, with the Bureau of Land Management last week leasing 1 million acres for just under $11.3 million.
The Arctic is not the only place where Wall Street is feeling the heat. So is Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, green groups from the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands asked seven of the largest banks in the world — including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — not to underwrite the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, the kingdom-own oil giant.
Environmentalists put pressure on the private sector to reduce climate-warming emissions at a time when governments fumble to act as quickly as needed to avert worsening disasters, according to climate scientists.
The U.N. climate talks this month in Madrid ended on a sour note, with the world’s largest carbon emitters failing to pledge to tackle global warming more aggressively beginning in 2020, which was the goal of the conference.
— More from those U.N. climate talks: After two weeks of discussions in Madrid, the international summit ended over the weekend as negotiators “failed to achieve their primary goals,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chico Harlan report. "Negotiators were at loggerheads while crafting rules around a fair and transparent global carbon trading system, and they pushed the issue to next year. Fights also dragged on about how to provide funding to poorer nations already coping with rising seas, crippling droughts and other consequences of climate change.”
- Record-long talks: Delegates negotiated for more than 40 hours past their planned deadline — making it the longest in a quarter-century of these annual talks — but the outcome “underscored how international divisions and a lack of momentum threaten the effort to limit the warming of Earth and avoid dangerous levels, only four years after the Paris agreement produced a moment of global solidarity.”
- The reaction: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shared The Post’s story and said that “failure is not an option.” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “This is the biggest disconnect between this process and what’s going on in the real world that I’ve seen.”
— Congress released details of a $1.3 trillion federal spending bill: Negotiators worked well into the night on a compromise over government spending next year. The bill, details of which are still emerging, is expected to pass the House and head to Trump’s desk by the end of the week. Included in the 2,313-page bill are:
- A boost in agency funding: The package includes a $208 million increase in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, per The Post’s Mike DeBonis. The Energy Department would also see an increase in its budget — a $2.9 billion spike, with part of the increase meant for clean and renewable energy research, per E&E News.
- A win for miners: The bill includes language securing health care and pension plans for coal miners. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who led a bipartisan effort to ensure the benefits, praised the bill while United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts called it a “tremendous victory for tens of thousands of retired miners, their families and their communities.
- And a win for parks: The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for the conservation of parks and wildlife preserves, would get $495 million. That's a $57 million increase from last year and is the highest funding level for the program since 2004.
— One ExxonMobil blowout leaked more methane in 20 days than all but three European nations emitted over an entire year: A 2018 blowout at an Ohio natural gas site turned a well there into a methane “super-emitter,” scientists discovered via satellite data. In the nearly three weeks it took to get the blowout under control, the well leaked more methane — a potent greenhouse gas — than all but three European nations emit in a year, The Post's Steven Mufson reports.
- The details: The incident in rural Ohio occurred at a well that had been fracked. It was owned XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. “The new report gauges that the mishap spewed 60 kilotons of methane into the atmosphere — five times the amount ExxonMobil estimated,” Mufson writes.
- Why it matters: “The accident shines a light on the use of natural gas, which has spread widely, especially in the United States, thanks to the sharp increase in fracking and to opposition to coal-fired power. Natural gas emits only half the greenhouse gas as coal at the point of combustion.”
— Mike Bloomberg seems to have changed tack on gas: The former New York mayor has been expressing his concerns about natural gas since he entered the 2020 Democratic primary. It’s a “half-step that's unlikely to earn him much support from the party's progressive wing,” E&E News reports, that which added it's still a “notable change for someone who used to hail natural gas as a ‘godsend’ for displacing coal-generated electricity. Experts said the move underscores the rapid shift of climate politics and policy on the left.”
- Not a complete 180: In announcing the first part of his climate plan, Bloomberg called gas emission the “next big problem” and said it’s “going to be worse than coal.” But he did not completely turn away from fracking. “We're not fighting fracking because it's probably a lost cause,” he said, per the report. “What you can do today is stop the [methane] leaks, and I think that's gotta be the focus.”
- Flashback: In a 2012 op-ed in The Washington Post, he wrote alongside fracking pioneer George P. Mitchell that “production of shale gas through fracking is the most significant development in the U.S. energy sector in generations, and it affords four major benefits that people on both sides of the debate should welcome.”
— Grijalva wants more information on controversial BLM plan: House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is again calling on the Trump administration to provide more information about the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out of Washington, E&E News reports. In a letter, Grijalva asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt about how many employees are moving, citing concerns about reports that “more than 80 percent of BLM employees asked to … decline the reassignment and leave the agency. This new development demonstrates that our concerns about this reorganization have been justified, and that this hastily planned effort will severely undermine the BLM and the management of our public lands.”
— A troubling rise in acidity off California coast: A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said waters off the state’s coast are increasing in acidity at twice the rate of the global average, the Los Angeles Times reports. That acidification could put fisheries at risk, and the findings “come at a time when record amounts of emissions have already exacerbated the stress on the marine environment. When carbon dioxide mixes with seawater, it undergoes chemical reactions that increase the water’s acidity,” per the report. “…Scientists call it the other major, but less talked about, CO2 problem.”
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a business meeting on pending legislation and on the nomination of Robert J. Feitel, of Maryland, to be Inspector General, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds hearings to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability and efforts to mitigate wildfire risk and increase grid resiliency on Thursday.
- The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the economic effects of climate change on Thursday.
— Always a good reminder: From The Post's Felicia Sonmez: