Principles versus Interests

December 8th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

The website of every large corporation these days has a section labeled Corporate Social Responsibility containing high-minded language about its commitment to sustainability, community development, human rights and the like.

For the most part, these positions serve mainly as a form of corporate image-burnishing and have little real-world applicability. Now, however, a group of large U.S. and foreign banks are being challenged to live up to their CSR principles in connection with one of the most contentious projects of our day: the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Following a recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to block the final permit needed to route the pipeline (usually referred to as DAPL) under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe and dangerously closely to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the project is stalled. Yet that could quickly change with the incoming Trump Administration.

Meanwhile, attention has turned to a syndicate of 17 lenders that have committed a $2.5 billion line of credit to the project.  Among the leaders of the pack are Citigroup and TD Securities, owned by Canada’s Toronto-Dominion Bank. Of the 17, all but two are endorsers of a CSR document known as the Equator Principles. (The list of endorsers is here; the two members of the syndicate not among them are China’s ICBC Bank and Suntrust Robinson Humphrey.)

The principles were drawn up in 2003 by a group of major banks facing increasing pressure from environmental and human rights groups over their involvement in controversial projects undertaken by mining, petroleum and timber corporations.

In adopting the principles, banks committed to providing loans only to those projects whose sponsors could demonstrate that they would be performed in a “socially responsible” manner and according to “sound environmental principles.” Sponsors were also supposed to conduct assessments that took into consideration issues such as the impact on indigenous communities.

The current version of the Equator Principles states that projects affecting  indigenous  peoples  should include “a  process  of Informed Consultation and Participation, and will need to comply  with the rights and protections for  indigenous peoples contained in relevant national law, including  those  laws implementing host country obligations under international law…Projects with adverse impacts on indigenous people will require their Free, Prior and Informed Consent.”

It is highly questionable that Equity Transfer Partners and the other companies involved in DAPL have met this test. On the contrary, the harsh response of the project sponsors and local law enforcement agencies to the peaceful protests at the site has demonstrated an utter disregard for the concerns of Native water protectors.

It is no surprise that opponents of the pipeline are calling the lenders to task. In November a group of more than 500 civil society organizations from 50 countries issued a joint letter to the 17 lenders citing the Equator Principles and calling on them to suspend their financial support of the project until the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are fully addressed.

So far there is no sign that the lenders are prepared to withdraw their support of the pipeline. This means there will be more clashes ahead — both between police and protestors, and between the profit interests of the lenders and their purported principles.

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