Climate activists outside U.S. Bancorp’s headquarters in Minneapolis Credit: MN350

Minnesota climate activists say they are “pleasantly surprised” after Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp issued a new environmental policy in June that will reduce lending for coal-fired power plants, coal mines and other environmentally harmful projects.

Two bank officials have been meeting with MN350 members for the past several months on a new environmental policy that would discourage lending to fossil fuel interests. Advocates say the policy move — which they add could be stronger — is important because U.S. Bancorp (the parent company of U.S. Bank) is one of the largest financial services companies in the United States.

MN350 is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

A spinoff of, MN350 had been meeting with bank officials along with the groups Minnesotans For A Fair Economy and Cooperative Energy Futures.

MN350 previously called for customers to leave the bank unless it made significant moves to eventually eliminate financial support for the fossil fuels industry.

U.S. Bancorp’s new “environmental responsibility policy” states: “The Company prohibits direct project financing of coal-fired power plants and relationships that involve constructing such plants.”

The rest of the document called for greater internal and external oversight of all matters related to the environment.

The bank declined to comment on the new policy.

“The policy change was something that surprised me,” said Ulla Nilsen, MN350’s corporate accountability organizer. “We were all pleasantly surprised by the policy, especially after the bank’s tone in first meetings.”

After an initial “cold shoulder” attitude toward MN350 and other coalition members, Nilsen said the bank’s representatives began to seriously consider new policies.

The U.S. Bancorp document calls for restrictions on new coal mining projects and mountaintop removal mining practices, Nilsen noted.

She added that other banks have taken the same measures, including Wells Fargo (which has significant operations in Minneapolis), Bank of America, Citi and JP Morgan Chase.

While the decline in the coal industry and the rise of renewable energy and natural gas may have helped shape those new policies, they still represent progress, Nilsen said.

In fact, the bank’s environmental policy points out that the corporation invested $2 billion in clean energy projects in 2015.

Additionally, the bank’s commitment to not finance forestry, mining and pipeline operations on tribal land without first hearing from indigenous communities may even end up preventing pipelines in those areas because companies couldn’t get financing from major banks, Nilsen said.

However, U.S. Bancorp’s new policy still falls short of what MN350 prefers, which is an end to financing the extraction and transportation of tar sands oil as well as the fracking industry.

“That’s important, and we asked them to include it,” she said, in reference to the clause on indigenous populations. “But we don’t feel like they entirely got that.”

MN350 released a report last October that outlined U.S. Bancorp’s role in financing pipeline projects in Minnesota, many of which run through or near tribal lands. The report also detailed financing by U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo of strip mining, fracking and oil and gas interests.

The bank’s environmental policy calls out restrictions in several areas:

  • The forestry section prohibits working with any company involved in illegal logging and requires certification of companies working in sensitive habitats.
  • Calls for all clients to be in compliance with local, state, national and international environmental regulations. U.S. Bank promises greater due diligence in these areas.
  • Requires more due diligence in forestry, mining, unconventional oil and gas production, hydraulic fracturing, oil sands, Arctic, Alaska, or offshore oil extraction, electric power generation, nuclear and hydroelectric projects.
  • Encourages greater investment in renewable and clean energy, energy efficient real estate, brownfield development, recycling, waste reclamation, waste energy recovery and reforestation.
  • Continues the policy of improving internal operations through energy efficiency, recycling, reducing use of paper and buying environmentally friendly products when available.

MN350 representatives also spoke with U.S. Bank about the potential for financing community solar gardens through its the bank’s community development corporation, Nilsen added.

The group would like to see the bank support growing efforts for on-bill financing for customers who subscribe to community solar to support “clean power and save money,” Nilsen said. “On-bill repayment is a low risk investment because people always pay their utility bills.”

Talks between the bank and MN350 continue.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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