My Turn: Citizens Bank supports the pipeline, so I can’t support Citizens Bank

  • A Dakota Access Pipeline protester defies law enforcement officers trying to force them from a camp on private land in the path of pipeline construction on Oct. 27 near Cannon Ball, N.D. AP

For the Monitor
Friday, February 17, 2017

This is an open letter to the officers and the board of directors of Citizens Bank, which was prompted by two things.

First is the wish for the well-being and a high quality of life for your grandchildren. The second is that my wife and I are closing our accounts with Citizens Bank. These two seemingly disparate subjects are related.

For months, there has been a standoff between the indigenous people of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota and their supporters on one side, and those backing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the other. The Native Americans are blocking the pipeline with the goal of protecting their water and the water for millions of people downstream, their burial grounds and their land under their treaty rights. They are supported by 300 North American tribes, environmental groups, church groups, and those concerned about this country’s mistreatment and exploitation of its native peoples.

On the other side, the DAPL is buttressed by an enormous accumulation of wealth and political power. On this side is arrayed at least 35 of the world’s largest and most powerful financial institutions marching in lockstep with multibillion dollar oil companies. Food and Water Watch states that the financial institutions have ponied up a $10.25 billion line of credit to the oil companies responsible for building the pipeline and similar projects in the future. Now the Trump administration has jumped in with both feet on the side of the banks and oil companies.

Citizens Bank is one of the financial institutions backing the pipeline and other similar projects by committing to a $72.5 million line of credit to Sunoco Logistics Partners, which is one of the primary companies involved in the construction of the pipeline. My wife and I are joining with people around the country who are withdrawing their accounts from the banks supporting the pipeline. As a part of the divestment movement, the city of Seattle is taking steps to divest $3 billion from Wells Fargo.

My wife’s and my objection to Citizens financing the pipeline is both specific and general. Specifically, this pipeline is going through land that by treaty belongs to the Sioux. The U.S. has historically made treaties with the American Indian and then has systematically broken those treaties, taken more land and made more treaties which were again broken. We have used our economic, military, legal and police powers to abuse and marginalize these people. That’s not who my wife and I want us to be as a country. We want to be part of a country that treats all its people with respect, integrity and honesty.

It’s time for us to stop the pattern of abuse. One way to do that is to oppose the pipeline.

The Sioux are aware that pipelines break and leak. EcoWatch reports that there have been 3,032 pipeline spills in the U.S. since 2006, prompting the clice that it’s not a matter of if a pipeline will break, but when. The dollar cost of these leaks was $4.7 billion. The native Americans rightly want to protect their water and the water for all the people living downstream on the Missouri River, but also implicit in their stand is the recognition that clean water is more important than oil.

The banks and oil companies don’t see it, but these disenfranchised native Americans are fighting for all of us, including your grandchildren. They are not just attempting to block a pipeline, but are sounding an alarm that the fracked oil these pipelines carry is an assault on the entire ecosystem that sustains all life. They are warning us that our present patterns of behavior put us on an unsustainable trajectory of destroying the interconnected web of life on which we are all dependent.

The indigenous people have always had a sense of the sacredness of the earth and through that a closer relationship with other forms of life on the planet than we Caucasians have had. Their culture has recognized the relationship and interdependency of all forms of life. They have seen other life forms as being their brothers and sisters who need to be treated with care. In this time, when before our eyes, the climate and life on our planet is changing even more rapidly than the scientists predicted, these disrespected native people who have been pushed to the fringes of society, appear to be the ones with the wisdom and courage to sound the alarm and lead us toward a sustainable vision of life on our mother earth.

However, as officers of a bank, these spiritual values may not be persuasive for you. So, in monetary terms, we are already paying for climate change. Extreme weather events that are intrinsically a part of global warming are already costing many billions. We are already paying for extreme weather events of larger and more powerful hurricanes, droughts, longer lasting and massive wildfires caused by droughts, microburst rain storms with heavy rainfall causing floods, and much more.

With extreme weather events come extreme costs. It has been estimated that hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cost a total of $186 billion. One would hardly know how to estimate all the costs for abnormal weather events we have witnessed in recent years. Your children and grandchildren will see these events increase in frequency and intensity, and in one way or another will be paying for them. Of course, we haven’t even begun to talk about the real estate and infrastructure damage of rising sea levels and the accompanying costs of coastal erosion, and the removal of homes, the construction of dams and dikes in an attempt to hold back the water.

The profit Citizens Bank may earn from the pipeline investments will mean destruction and massive costs for the country and the planet.

I’m sure that you, officers of Citizens Bank, who have grandchildren want to do everything possible to love and care for them. However, I’m suggesting that these native people who are fighting to protect the water and their rights are also fighting for the quality of life for future generations. However much you love and want good things for your grandchildren, the investments that you are making through Citizens Bank in these oil companies are creating an unlivable world, undermining life on the planet and, subsequently, the life that you want for your grandchildren.

Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, has known since 1977 that carbon dioxide from oil causes climate change. Yet Exxon executives covered that up and denied what they knew to be true. As the decision makers of Citizens Bank, I encourage you to choose a different moral path. Withdraw the line of credit you have in building these pipelines and reinvest that $72.5 million in projects that will create a sustainable future for the generations to come. Invest in industries that will heal the earth. Become a bank your grandchildren will be proud of. Be leaders you can be proud of.

(Gray Fitzgerald of Concord is a retired United Church of Christ pastor.)