Climate Change & Banking: Follow the Money

February 14, 2007

  When covering the climate change implicationsf specific major deals, trends, or projects (such as new power plants, or coastal development), it helps to follow the money: Who funds these projects, and how does climate change factor into their calculations, projections, and decisions?

Now might be an especially fruitful time for environmental reporters to start hanging out more with colleagues from the business and finance news sections. And whenever a new power plant or other emissions source starts up on your beat, consider the banking angle and start following the money.

A current glaring example of how finance decisions affect climate change is Texas Utilities' (TXU) plan to build 11 new coal-fired, standard-technology power plants in TX. This move alone would significantly increase the nation's overall carbon emissions for decades. According to a Feb. 9 Wall Street Journal story by Clint Riley, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup are arranging financing with banks around the world for this $10 billion project (subscription required; free preview).

The TXU deal is being financed despite the fact that, as WSJ noted, "A lengthy report to investors prepared last summer by Citigroup's investment-research arm ...concluded that utilities account for about 32% of total greenhouse emissions in the US. ... Citigroup hasn't taken a public position on whether a carbon-emission cap-and-trade system should be instituted in the US. That could change. Citigroup and other big banks are expected to endorse such limits as soon as next week. ...Already, competitors such as Lehman Brothers are actively lobbying lawmakers for a nationwide carbon cap. ...Citigroup joined the Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Leaders Program and this month was ranked 16th among more than 40 big companies for the amount of clean energy it used. ...At the same time, Citigroup served as the largest arranger of corporate financing for the power and oil and natural-gas industries in 2006, according to ...Thomson Financial. Citigroup controlled 10% of the $272 billion power-lending market and 8.7% of the $310 billion oil and natural-gas lending market."

Citigroup is one of many global banks that have adopted the Equator Principles, "A financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social & environmental risk in project financing." While this document does not specifically mention climate change, it outlines general strategies that can be applied to assess climate change impacts and risks. Contact.

Of course, banks are in business to earn returns, not to protect the environment. So is funding TXU's coal plants a sound financial decision? That's open to debate. In a Jan. 19 Dallas Morning News Op-Ed, US Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jeff Bingaman wrote of TXU's plans, "Apparently part of the motivation for building these plants is that the companies mistakenly believe that these new plants will garner 'grandfathered' emission allowances under some future law. ...[This is] a dangerous business strategy for the utilities' investors and shareholders, who are putting money into technology that will be obsolete the very day it goes into service."

The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Environmental Defense are leading the charge against TXU's financiers. According to a Feb. 5AlterNet article, "RAN has sent letters to 56 global banks urging [them] to reject requests to finance the project. In the Netherlands four banks were being approached for financing despite the fact that TXU's project will produce six times the pledged CO2 reductions of their country - negating the efforts (six times over) of the Dutch people to limit their contributions to climate change."

  • Rainforest Action Network: Dec. 14, 2006 release. Press: Sam Haswell, 415-659-0519; or Brianna Cayo Cotter, 415-659-0557.
  • Environmental Defense info on TXU. ED Press: Colin Rowan, 512-691-3416; or Jim Marston, 512-289-5293.

On Jan 22 TXU announced its vision for reducing greenhouse gas emissions - which includes plans to build "two to six gigawatts of new nuclear power generation capacity at one to three sites." Press: Kimberly Morgan, 214-875-8016; or Lisa Singleton, 214-812-5049.

Bank of America is one major bank that is acting to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the projects they fund. Its most recent position paperon climate change says, "[Our] goal is to realize a 7% reduction in indirect emissions in accordance with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets within our energy & utility portfolio." Press: Eloise Hale, 704-387-0013.

Banks are responsible to their investors, too. A Jan. 31 Ceres report on climate-related disclosure showed "severely lacking" disclosure by S&P 500 companies - in particular "poor responses among retail, bank and insurance industries." Ceres release, with links to full report. Press:Peyton Fleming, 617-247-0700 x20.