Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raises concerns about Wells Fargo and Standing Rock

Should banks be on the hook for investments in projects that contribute to climate change?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, had questions for Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer and President Timothy Sloan about the bank’s involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline March 12.

Sloan sat on the panel during the hearing held by the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services titled: “Holding Megabanks Accountable: An Examination of Wells Fargo’s Pattern of Consumer Abuses.”

Sloan has been president of the bank since November 2015 and became CEO in October 2016. John G. Stumpf was CEO of the bank from June 2007 to October 2016 and president from August 2005 to November 2015.

The hearing was set to examine the bank’s 2016 scandal when it opened fake bank accounts under customers’ names without their consent or knowledge, according to a committee memorandum. More customer abuses piled up and bank employees were eventually fired as a result.

In February 2018, the Federal Reserve said they wouldn’t allow the bank to grow unless it cleaned up management. 

However, Ocasio-Cortez shifted the conversation to the bank’s financial contribution to the Dakota Access Pipeline picking up on an earlier statement by Sloan when he said, “Wells Fargo does not put profits over people.” (He also said the bank didn’t fund the Keystone XL Pipeline.)

Wells Fargo loaned $120 million, which is 4.8 percent of the total costs, to the pipeline developers Energy Transfer Partners. It was one of 17 banks to do so.

Six months into the Dakota Access pipeline operations there have already been five spills, Ocasio-Cortez said. The freshman representative asked the CEO if banks should be responsible for the damages of these projects since they financed them.

Sloan responded, “I don’t know how you would calculate that congresswoman.”

The New York representative extended the hypothetical question to include reinvestments in infrastructure. He still wasn’t aware of the five oil spills the congressional representative described.

Ocasio-Cortez, who was inspired to run for Congress while at Standing Rock, asked again, “So hypothetically if there was a leak from the Dakota Access Pipeline, why shouldn't Wells Fargo pay for the cleanup of it since it paid for the construction of the pipeline itself?”

Sloan stood behind what the bank has told the public numerous times.

“Because we don't operate the pipeline. We provide financing to the company that's operating the pipeline,” he said. The bank reviewed the environmental impact assessment and “concluded that it was a risk that we were willing to take.” 

The bank published a statement two years ago about their perspective of funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Wells Fargo “fully respect concerns being expressed, as with other financing agreements, the bank is legally obligated to satisfy the requirements as a lender if all conditions of the credit agreement are met,” said Bart Schouest, head of the Wells Fargo’s Energy Corporate Banking Group.

Schouest continued to say, “Wells Fargo is a company that serves a broad range of industries and constituents by providing financing that supports economic development to satisfy needs within our markets. While there are times when constituents have different interests around a particular project, our businesses will continue to support our customers on both sides of the issue — in this particular case, the pipeline owners and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”

Tribal liaison Cora Gaane of Wells Fargo met with tribal entities in the country to listen to their concerns at the height of the Dakota Access protests. One tribe she met with was Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, according to Wells Fargo.

The bank’s involvement went as far as to push the Seattle City Council to cut its ties in Feb. 2017 because they wanted to work with a bank who shared similar values. However, the city had to return to Wells Fargo in May 2018 because the “main piece of city business -- handling depository services -- could only be done by a large bank, and there were no takers in that limited class.”

The three-year contract started on Jan. 1, 2019, with the option of a one year extension.

Seattle’s situation showed how controversial banking has become in the age of climate change. The city raised concerns about the bank’s commitment to clean energy and Native communities. The bank said it does invest in renewable energy and clean technology.

The fight over big oil is also contentious among tribes and has been for decades. Some tribes say it’s the the only form of economic development that promotes a strong revenue stream while others say banks should be more respectful of environmental issues.

Wells Fargo says it’s one of the few banks, if not only bank, to serve tribes for more than 50 years by “providing capital and financial services to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and more than 200 tribal entities in 27 states.”

“Wells Fargo has loaned $2 billion to tribal entities, and made $44 million in tax credit investments, including financing Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects in nine states (Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), and sponsoring Affordable Housing Plan subsidies for tribal housing projects.”

They also award grants to Native programs and organizations.

“Since 2013, Wells Fargo has also provided more than $16 million to tribal nonprofit organizations, and in 2016 announced a three-year, $3 million educational grant to benefit students from both federally and state-recognized tribes,” the released said.

They also worked with tribal leaders and other stakeholders to create the Indigenous Peoples Statement. That document said: “We respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights to determine their own way of life on their own lands, according to their time-honored cultures, traditions, and beliefs. We recognize the rights of these communities to meaningful and appropriate consultation regarding issues affecting their sacred lands and natural resources – traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used – today and for future generations.”

Ocasio-Cortez said that remained a problem because the bank’s investments in fossil fuel-extracting companies has worsened the climate crisis, trampled human rights, and endangered the country’s drinking water supply.

The values statement from Wells Fargo was clearly not part of the discussion at Standing Rock when the pipeline was under construction.

Since Standing Rock, Wells Fargo said it created a five-year grant, worth $50 million in total, to help American Indian and Alaskan Native communities and organization that focus on environmental sustainability, economic initiatives, and diversity and inclusion.

The first year’s 25 grantees were announced in February and include: Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corp., Americans for Indian Opportunity, American Indian Chamber of Commerce Education Fund, American Indian College Fund, American Indian Engineering and Science Society, American Indian Graduate Center, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Cook Inlet Lending Center, Enterprise Community Partners, First Nations Oweesta, GRID Alternatives’ Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, Housing Assistance Council, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Minnesota Housing Partnership, Native American Finance Officers Association, National American Indian Housing Council, National Congress of American Indians Fund, National Indian Council on Aging, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Neighborhood Reinvestment, Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, ONABEN, Operation Tiny Home and Prosperity Now.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribal council made a resolution to end 20 years of banking with Wells Fargo on Oct. 4, 2016.

“Per SRST Council Resolution 591-16. The council moves to end its financial relationships with banks, mutual funds, security companies or other financial entities that invest in, or otherwise financially support any aspect of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” the tribe said. 

Twenty-three tribes in New Mexico introduced a memorial to the state legislature in February 2017 that declared their support for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the pipeline. The joint memorial was called “All NM Tribes Standing Strong with Standing Rock,” which stated that “there is no natural resource that is greater or more precious to the twenty-three New Mexico nations, tribes and pueblos and Native American tribes in the United States than water…”

Six of the 25 organizations are committed to improving the education of Indian Country. (Wells Fargo advertises in Indian Country Today.)

According to Amanda Tachine’s Op-Ed, who is an advocate for higher education, Native students worry about the affordability of college.

“College affordability is a huge concern for Native students. A recent report revealed that Native students pursuing a graduate degree are overwhelmingly attending for-profit institutions, with master’s degree recipients accruing an average debt of $48,820 and doctoral degree recipients (87%) accruing an average debt of $120,100. These figures speak to how colleges are gatekeeping enrollment and how students who make it into college are leaving with high debt. Promising efforts are underway at tribal colleges and universities, which strive to make college affordable by keeping tuition low with an average tuition at $2,947.”

The report Tachine cites that addresses creating visibility of Native students in higher education is funded by the American Indian College Fund, who is also one of the 25 Wells Fargo grantees.

This year’s grantee wasn’t the first time the American Indian Graduate Center has been receiving funds from Wells Fargo.

The bank has been providing scholarship money to the organization for Native students since 2007, years before the height of the Dakota Access pipeline protests.

“It is this kind of support that allows AIGC to award an average of $15 million annually to deserving undergraduate and graduate students,” said AIGC in a 2018 statement. “AIGC is proud to empower tribal students from 274 tribes in 43 states, with over 20 educational funding opportunities and support services.

Tribal communities are diverse on many levels. We may seem like one to the country in the way we are constantly generalized, but we also exist as 600-plus tribal nations with different ideas about development, banking, and the future.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.

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