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The Next Front in the Anti-Fossil Fuel Movement: Activists Pressuring Banks

The Democratic presidential field got a recent lesson that there is no appeasing a schoolyard bully. Ahead of the first political debate, a group of eco-activists staged a protest outside of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Their frustration? That the party hasn’t dedicated enough time to climate change.

It’s puzzling that these activists would call out their own when virtually all the candidates have rooted their campaigns on promises to fight climate change — many even demanding draconian measures that simply aren’t realistic. Perhaps the group wanted to make the point that no matter how far Democrats bend to pacify even the most progressive party members, any plan short of leaving all fossil fuels in the ground will be too little.

Or, maybe, the protesters were looking for yet another occasion to take punches at the oil and natural gas industry. After all, this is the same group that pressured at least 20 of the presidential hopefuls into signing a “No Fossil Fuels Money” pledge.

More likely it is some combination therein. This latest demonstration follows a pattern of strong-arming employed by environmental extremists. Ignoring the fact that traditional fuels supply roughly 80%  of our country’s energy, these camps have painted oil and natural gas as the antithesis to environmental stewardship. Never mind that the industry has helped cut emissions to historic lows or that it is leading changes to make fuels and infrastructure safer, cleaner and more efficient.  

It is alarming the influence this far-leaning minority has grabbed, and even more so the means by which they have done it – particularly with regard to the development of midstream infrastructure projects like pipelines. Skirting the regulatory process, activists have resorted to a playbook of interference and disruption. Guerrilla tactics have become common, like chaining themselves to equipment and materials, living in trees along pipeline easements, spreading spoiled meat to attract wildlife, and even recruiting indigenous groups as proxies.

Unsuccessful still, the anti-energy movement are now targeting the nation’s banks, pressuring them to divest from infrastructure and production development. These efforts have often taken on the same form as construction site protests: Storming bank lobbies and stopping customers to demand that they cease conducting business there. The same scenario has played out from Virginia to California and from Washington to Massachusetts. In several cases, activists have forced businesses to temporarily close.

Eco-activists are entitled to their opinion and their right to express it. But they are not allowed to violate the law, which, by encouraging banks to break their contractual obligations, they are. A new legal white paper points out that this pressure campaign to push financial institutions to abandon their relationships with pipeline developers infringes on contractual rights. There are legal recourses, the report adds that the industry can employ to fight back.

According to the study’s authors, forcing banks to break contractual obligations amounts to tortuous interference with valid contracts, and pipeline developers can and should retaliate in court. Whether they will is another question.

Unlike activists, the oil and gas industry is focused on securing our country’s energy independence. And it is succeeding. The U.S. reached record-high production and export levels in 2018. Domestic shale development is helping reduce costs for consumers, incentivizing business and creating jobs across the country. And contrary to the notion pitched by protesters, pipelines are protecting our communities and the environment by introducing new technologies and best practices and alleviating reliance on less reliable forms of energy transportation.

By contrast, many activists are doing the opposite. They have resorted to sabotage and vandalism, which puts communities at risk. They have refused to participate in the regulatory process, instead resorting to their own form of vigilante mobilization. The outcome is costly disruption that discourages growth and that moves the country no closer to meeting the energy demands of today.

So how does the Democratic Party handle those who refuse to deal in logic and fact? They might start by declining to let fringe groups dictate policy priorities. They might change the narrative to emphasize the merit of a robust energy portfolio that leverages existing resources to help bring online new capabilities, rather than giant space mirrors and other pie-in-the-sky fantasies. They might address the growing need for modern infrastructure and the value it adds for everyday Americans. Those messages resonate with liberals, conservatives and moderates alike.

Unfortunately, viewers witnessed little of that during the debates. Don’t be surprised if activists come away even more emboldened — or if moderate voters gravitate again toward Republicans next November as a result.  

Craig Stevens, a former senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, is the spokesman for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, a national coalition focused on promoting key infrastructure investments. Follow the Coalition on Twitter @GAINNowAmerica.

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