Feb 25, 2020 - Economy & Business

Why big banks are breaking up with some fossil fuels

Illustration of big banks leaving oil companies
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

JPMorgan Chase is the latest financial giant to unveil new climate commitments, and like its peers, it is hard to disentangle how much is motivated by pressure, conscience or making a virtue of necessity.

Why it matters: The move comes as grassroots and shareholder activists are targeting the financial sector's fossil energy finance, especially amid federal inaction on climate.

  • JPMorgan is the banking sector's largest provider of fossil fuel finance, per analysis from several green groups led by the Rainforest Action Network.
  • Among U.S. giants, Goldman Sachs unveiled similar policies last year, while European banks have in recent years taken similar and stronger steps.

Some of JPMorgan's other pledges include...

  • Refusing lending, capital markets and advisory services to companies that derive the majority of their revenues from coal extraction.
  • Increasing financing for clean energy and sustainable development projects.
  • Creating an environmental, social and governance (ESG) "solutions group" to advise clients on cutting emissions.
  • Having its asset management arm join Climate Action 100+, an investor group that pushes energy companies to make new emissions commitments.

The big picture: Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, tells me JPMorgan's decision to define project categories it won't finance reflects "tension" that banks feel.

  • There's rising pressure to align their portfolios with international climate goals, but also "the reality that global oil and gas demand is likely to keep rising as national policy efforts around the world fall well short of pledges and promises," he notes.

But, but, but: While JPMorgan is emphasizing its engagement on climate and clean energy, it's also following market trends as energy companies move away from some forms of carbon-intensive and expensive projects.

  • Eurasia Group senior analyst David Livingston says that when it comes to Arctic oil, JPMorgan's pledge also makes financial sense. He called it a "lagging indicator."
  • "With the advent of short-cycle oil production options like shale, and the mid-term oversupply in the oil market, no serious private financial player is really thinking of Arctic oil as even a top 10 oil project to finance," he tells Axios.

The other side: Environmentalists welcomed JPMorgan's new climate moves while also calling them insufficient, noting they leave many types of projects untouched.

  • “The hard restrictions in this new policy only affect a small portion of their fossil lending,” Rainforest Action Network (RAN) senior campaigner Jason Opeña Disterhoft tells Amy.
  • RAN and the Sierra Club also noted that even the sectors covered by the new pledges are not totally frozen out of the bank's services.
  • They point out that several mining conglomerates that derive less than half their revenues from coal are still huge players in the coal sector.

The intrigue: One question now, as the Trump administration prepares to sell leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is whether other U.S. banks will adopt similar anti-Arctic drilling policies.

  • “Now that Chase and Goldman Sachs have drawn a line in the sand, all eyes are on Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America," the Sierra Club's Ben Cushing said.

Go deeper ... Exclusive: IEA to track oil companies’ efforts on clean energy

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