Wolverine2018 5369

RBC becomes first major Canadian bank to refuse to fund oil drilling in Arctic refuge

‘We are looking to all major banks in Canada to come into the sunlight with RBC,’ says Vuntut Gwitchin Chief

Canada’s largest bank, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), has quietly become the first major financial institution in the country to refuse to fund any oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

“Due to its particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability, RBC will not provide direct financing for any project or transaction that involves exploration or development in the ANWR,” reads RBC’s updated policy guidelines for sensitive sectors and activities posted on Friday. 

RBC is “committed to finding ways to balance the transition to a low-carbon economy while supporting efforts to meet global energy needs and our energy clients,” Andrew Block, an RBC spokesperson, said in an email to The Narwhal.

The refuge, the largest of its kind in the United States, is home to myriad sensitive species, including polar bears and the Porcupine caribou, a transboundary herd that undertakes one of the largest land mammal migrations on Earth.

The bank’s pledge comes on the heels of a controversial U.S. decision to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. The decision prompted swift reaction, with 13 environmental organizations taking the Department of the Interior to court.

Block said RBC has never financed any oil and gas development in the refuge, and noted the policy update is a “proactive decision” to ensure development isn’t funded in the future by the institution.

The bank also placed restrictions on financing the development of coal-fired power plants, thermal coal mines, mountain-top removal coal mines and development in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. RBC also now requires “enhanced due diligence” of any financing of energy exploration in the Arctic. A report by the Rainforest Action Network released earlier this year found RBC to be the biggest funder of fossil fuel development in Canada. 

New title

Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism

Vuntut Gwitchin, Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society have been putting pressure on major Canadian financial institutions to refuse to finance development — and withdraw any existing financing — in the refuge since last fall. 

Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said RBC’s commitment marks the first time a Canadian bank has taken meaningful strides to consult with affected First Nations and made a decision based on those deliberations.

“This is a wonderful acknowledgement and vindication of our Elders, who spoke to the importance of the caribou. We are looking to all major banks in Canada to come into the sunlight with RBC,” he said, adding that meetings have also occurred with TD Canada Trust, the Bank of Montreal and Scotiabank, among others.

The Porcupine caribou, which migrate into Yukon, are of great cultural importance to the Gwich’in, who have harvested them for thousands of years and exercise subsistence harvesting rights.

“This is what true leadership looks like,” Tizya-Tramm said. “This movement speaks to responsible financing. They’ve really opened up a vacuum and created a whole new discussion.”

RBC joins other U.S. banks that have made similar commitments 

Earlier this year, five major U.S. banks, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase, pledged to not finance development in the refuge.

Chris Rider, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said RBC’s decision sends a clear message that investment in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is risky. 

“This is sending a strong message that this is a project that is not going to work and that this is a project that companies aren’t going to be able to get capital for, if they do want to pursue it,” he said.

“It shows that banks like RBC are recognizing both the moral importance of protecting landscapes like the Arctic refuge and also simply that it makes good economic sense.”  

When Goldman Sachs committed to not fund development, others followed its lead “almost immediately,” Rider said.

He said this domino effect could occur in Canada, too.

“We hope to see the rest of Canada’s major banks follow suit,” Rider said. “We will be stepping up the campaign in the coming months until they do that.”

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Map showing overlap of 1002 area lands, proposed for oil drilling, and the Porcupine caribou herd range. Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

How RBC assesses projects that may come with a risk

RBC evaluates all potential transactions through an environmental and social risk management process.

“A client’s environmental and social issues can affect their cash flow, their ability to operate, or the ability to grow their business,” according to a policy summary. “Our experience and knowledge along with our policies and processes help us identify and manage risks associated with a client’s environmental and social issues, minimizing our exposure to credit, reputational, regulatory and legal risk.”

Risk could be foisted onto RBC if a company has a history of spills, costs related to fines and remediation efforts or they default on loans, it says.

The bank assesses risk by visiting sites and conducting third-party environmental assessments, the summary says. 

Resource and energy development in the Arctic is deemed as “high risk” in a policy guidelines document.

“RBC recognizes the natural and cultural significance of the Arctic ecosystem that is threatened by a number of factors, including climate change,” it says. “The harsh conditions and fragile ecosystems make it a particularly vulnerable and challenging region for energy and resource development projects.”

Updated at 3:15 p.m. PST to add more detail about RBC’s new policy guidelines and add reference to a report by the Rainforest Action Network.

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists in less than a year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,200 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make this year our biggest yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

UN committee rebukes Canada for failing to get Indigenous Peoples’ consent for industrial projects

In a rebuke to Canada, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has expressed regret that work continues on the Coastal GasLink...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism