Bank of the West stance on fossil fuels draws local ire

Sheriff pulls public dollars from bank

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Bank of the West’s decision to cut ties with certain fossil fuels has government agencies across Wyoming cutting ties with the bank.

State Treasurer Mark Gordon and Gov. Matt Mead have announced their intent to pull tens of millions of state dollars from the Bank of the West in response to the bank’s policies and many cities and counties across the state are following suit.

The Park County government had only a small amount of money with the bank in Cody and Sheriff Scott Steward is closing those accounts.

Steward said his decision stemmed from fossil fuels’ critical importance to the state.

Bank of the West leaders “can throw out their opinion and write their policy based on what their beliefs are, but I certainly believe we should not have taxpayers’ funds in an institution that is basically, in a sense, anti-the way Wyoming is,” Steward said Tuesday.

He added that the issue is not with the people working for Bank of the West locally, “but it’s coming from their corporate headquarters, so I believe it’s just right to move it [the money] out,” Steward said.

The policies are effectively a moot issue for the City of Powell and the City of Cody, as neither municipality has any business with Bank of the West; the bank closed its Powell branch in early 2014.

As for Meeteetse, the town government is “kind of prisoner,” because Bank of the West is the only financial institution in town, Meeteetse Mayor Bill Yetter said last month. However, Yetter said the town council is “actively” investigating whether there’s a way to switch to another bank.

“What we don’t like about the [Bank of the West] policy is basically they said, ‘We don’t like what Wyoming does for business, but we’re willing to take your money,’’’ Yetter said. “And I’m sorry, that just doesn’t cut it with me. If you don’t like our gate, don’t swing on our hinges.”

The massive French bank BNP Paribas, which owns Bank of the West, made fighting climate change a part of its corporate mission some time ago; the banking group’s policies on fossil fuels were generally announced between 2015 and last October.

“What has changed,” The Associated Press explained, “is that [Bank of the West] has become more vocal about its stance, advertising it in social media and on subway billboards throughout San Francisco.”

The bank says it’s generally working to cut ties with companies involved with unconventional oil and gas production — such as fracking and production from shale or tar sands — and will not finance oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, coal mines or coal-fired power plants.

“We believe solar, wind and other renewable energy sources are far more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel drilling and exploration, or coal mining,” Bank of the West says on its site. “Therefore, we will cease to finance players who are not actively part of a transition to a lower-carbon economy.“

The company’s policies on fossil fuels are listed on a webpage that also highlights the bank’s refusal to do business with tobacco companies, its efforts to fund renewable energy projects and support of other initiatives, such as boosting small businesses and female entrepreneurs.

“There’s no slower word in the English language than ‘progress,’” Bank of the West says on the site. “We need change now — not incremental change for the distant future. By making tough but necessary choices about what we fund (and what we no longer fund), we are accelerating important transitions in energy, employment equality and social programs that we believe will have a positive impact. We’re anti-waiting, pro-action, and that’s how real change happens.”

On the site, Bank of the West leaders pitch their policies as an example of why customers should do business with them.

But in Wyoming and parts of Colorado, the company’s stance has generally prompted the opposite reaction, with government agencies and some citizens announcing their intent to pull their funds from the bank.

Bank of the West currently holds around $63 million of State of Wyoming deposits, but the company won’t be receiving any more money from the state during Treasurer Mark Gordon’s tenure.

“Bank of the West needs to hear this: If they do not support Wyoming, our economy and our working families, then I don’t support them,” Gordon said in an Aug. 9 statement. If the bank asks for more Time Deposit Open Account money, Gordon said he’ll deny the request. He and Gov. Mead say they’re also reviewing whether to continue allowing the bank to be a depository for public funds, The AP reported.

The vast majority of the Park County government’s funds rest with other financial institutions, but a couple of accounts related to the Park County Detention Center — around $15,000 in total — had been with Bank of the West.

Park County Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf said he was “definitely” supportive of the county ending its business with the bank.

“I guess I’m more supportive of businesses staying neutral on social issues,” Grosskopf said. “Personally, I don’t think banks and other businesses should be advocating for social change based on what the chairman of that board says ...”

“He has the right to do that, I guess, but there may be consequences,” Grosskopf added.

Yetter, the Meeteetse mayor, predicted potentially dire results for the bank.

“I personally think that this will lead to a sale of Bank of the West assets in Wyoming,” he said, wondering if that might have been the intent of the company’s announcement.

There’s no sign of that in Cody, as the bank is currently upgrading its signs to the institution’s new logo that includes the BNP Paribas name.

“While we’ve taken a stance on fracking, tobacco, and arctic drilling, we are neither anti-energy nor anti- oil and gas,” a Bank of the West spokesperson wrote on Facebook in response to criticism. “We, along with those in these industries, are dedicated to accelerating energy transition through diversification and investment. Some of the largest investors in renewable energy technologies are those within that industry — investing billions to fund the future.”

The bank’s Facebook comment goes on to describe that future as “inevitable.”

Responded Gillette resident Jolie Ingram, “Closing my accounts. Along with all of my family members. Goodbye. Good riddance.”

In terms of the actual impact of Bank of the West’s policies on the state, the Casper Star-Tribune reported that “the decision is not likely to throw a wrench in Wyoming’s bustling oil and gas industry.”

Citing Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Bruce Hinchey, the Star-Tribune said oil and gas development in the state is generally funded by private equity groups, with some financing from large banks in Texas and small local banks.

Officials generally estimate that about 70 percent of the State of Wyoming’s revenue comes from the minerals industry.

“I get it,” Sheriff Steward said. “... There’s a lot more revenue sources and we need more revenue sources than just fossil fuel, but again I think it [pulling taxpayer dollars from Bank of the West] is the right thing to do.”

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