Backlash for bank's stance on fossil fuels

Bank of the West on 7th St.

When Stacy Razzano had to decide between continuing to remain with her employer of 27 years or sticking up for the industry that has sustained her family and her community, she handed in her notice.

Razzano, branch manager and vice president of the Bank of the West in Craig, is finishing up her work there and considering her future job options after telling the bank last week that she was resigning. That was shortly after becoming aware of a social media post the bank made laying out its position to largely eschew investments in coal, oil and gas.

"It's pretty heartbreaking for me," Razzano said of her decision to leave the place she has worked ever since getting out of high school.

Razzano's dad retired after 40 years as a coal miner, and her brother works at one of the local mines, two of which also supply coal for the Craig Station power plant. She said it was "very disappointing" to learn of Bank of the West's position.

"It was something that I knew, given the community I'm in and the community that I support, that I wouldn't stay at the branch," she said.

Bank of the West's stance is forcing a lot of decisions in Colorado's energy patch and in states such as Wyoming, although few may be as personally consequential as for employees such as Razzano. Moffat County's treasurer and county commissioners are making plans to shift the county's business from Bank of the West to another institution. That business tends to average about $25 million worth of checking and investment accounts, said Moffat County Treasurer Linda Peters.

"We cannot support a bank which doesn't support our community, which is coal, oil and gas and power plants," she said.

Peters said her son works at the power plant, and her parents worked at local coal mines.

She said Bank of the West's position "really hit home up here."

Moffat Commissioner Ray Beck said the county's top 10 taxpayers all are energy-related businesses, and energy development is a way of life for the county.

"For those that don't agree with that, if they're not going to support us we're not going to support them," he said.

He said the county's actions aren't based on the bank's local office and employees. He said he has been banking there for 40 years, and the bank has great customer service.

"My wife and I are seriously considering our options as well," he said.

Bank of the West has locations in Mesa County, although Mesa County Treasurer Janice Rich said the county has no accounts with the bank.

Susan Alvillar, interim director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said, "It is likely our industry and community will respond with their dollars after Bank of the West leadership took a public position against what we do for a living. The benefits of oil and natural gas are woven into our daily lives, making modern society possible, and we hope Bank of the West reconsiders its position."

She said that Bank of the West employees "are our friends and neighbors. Bank of the West is a valued member of our business community. I don't believe the new policies reflect western Colorado values or our way of doing business. In fact, it is obvious that these policies were developed far away from current realities in our community."

A representative of the Bank of the West location on Seventh Street in Grand Junction referred a reporter to the bank's corporate headquarters for comment.

Bank spokesman Joe Rauch released a statement Wednesday saying, "We have been a long-time member of the Grand Junction community and are looking forward to serving the community for years to come.

"The policies we have are neither anti-energy nor anti-oil and gas. We, along with those in the energy industry, are dedicated to accelerating energy transition through diversification and investment. Some of the largest investors in renewable energy technologies are those within the industry — investing billions to fund the future. Like them, we remain committed to the communities and companies we serve where energy, in all forms, is part of a way of life.

"We understand not everyone will agree with our approach and we respect that. Our decisions with these policies were not taken lightly and are focused squarely on how best to make a positive impact on society."

Bank of the West is based in San Francisco and is part of BNP Paribas, based in France.

Bank of the West says on its website, "We're investing where we feel we can make the most impact, like advancing diversity and women entrepreneurship programs, financing for more small businesses, promoting programs for sustainable energy, and withdrawing support from companies and business activities that are detrimental to our environment and our health.

"As a long-term partner of the energy industry, we are proud to work with companies in oil, coal and gas that are actively involved in the energy transition and committed to building a more sustainable energy future," it said.

But it said it is no longer doing business with companies mainly involved in any aspects of tar sands and shale gas and oil development, won't finance oil and gas projects in the Arctic, and won't finance coal mines or coal-fired power plants that are not actively involved in the energy transition. It cites cases such as plants involved with carbon-capture projects or owned by companies working to reduce coal in their power-generation mix as the kinds of factors it considers in making exceptions.

Bank of the West says it also is ending tobacco-related investment.

The Gillette News Record in Wyoming reported this week that officials in Sweetwater County have discussed possibly no longer doing business with the bank, and some banks in Gillette have responded to Bank of the West's position by supporting the energy industry.

A First National Bank of Gillette Facebook posting, reposted on the Friends of Coal—Wyoming page, says the bank is committed to serving all its customers, including those in the energy industry.

"We believe the local energy businesses and their teams operate responsibly while caring for the environment and our community. Northeast Wyoming helps provide our nation with these needed energy sources," the bank said in its posting.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., wrote to Bank of the West's chief executive officer Wednesday to object to the bank's position.

"While it may be fashionable today in San Francisco to exclude states like Wyoming from your lending plans, it will do little to discourage us from pursuing our best future on our terms," he wrote.

Bonnie Petersen, executive director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, said that group hasn't taken a formal position on the matter, although it could come up at the AGNC's next board meeting. She said AGNC is worried that with energy production being a huge driver for local economies, the kind of action being taken by Bank of the West could affect investment and job creation by local energy companies, many of which are smaller these days.

"There's very strong concern that it will limit the industry's ability to work in northwest Colorado and limit the ability of our small producers to have access to capital," she said.

Moffat County has done battle with businesses before over its coal-based economy. A few years ago some bars and restaurants in Craig stopped serving beer from breweries including New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins because of their support for WildEarth Guardians, which has taken on Moffat County's coal industry.

Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians said Bank of the West's position is just another recognition that "the world is going away from coal and financial institutions are realizing that coal is a terrible investment right now."

He said institutions like Bank of the West are making business decisions, even if they have moral underpinnings, and boycotts won't make a difference.

"There may be blowback but they're still going to make money," he said.

He said another result should be more investment in things like renewable energy, possibly including in Colorado.

"Fossil fuels will lose but there's going to be a lot more winners ultimately," he said.

For now, the immediate losses may be felt by Bank of the West branches like the one in Craig.

Said Peters, the Moffat treasurer, "I tell you what, my heart goes out to all the bank employees (in Craig). They're pretty devastated. It's a very sad situation."

Alvillar said that while the situation is unfortunate, "I think there are some tough choices that have to be made."

Razzano said her bank's seven staff members are supporting each other in an emotional time during which a second employee also has resigned over the issue.

"Everybody is just keeping their chin up because it was not a local decision, it was a corporate decision," she said.

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