DENVER — If Al Gore started a savings-and-loan, it might look something like the climate-conscious Bank of the West, and that’s become a source of friction in the coal-mining counties of Colorado and Wyoming.
State and local officials are seeking to close their accounts with the San Francisco-based bank over its recently publicized decision to withdraw from the fossil-fuel industry, part of the company’s mission to “address climate change” and “transform culture through corporate social responsibility.”
The revelation shook Moffat County, Colorado, where the Bank of the West branch in Craig has long been a part of the rural community steeped in oil, coal and natural gas.
First Stacy Razzano, the branch manager and self-described “coal miner’s daughter,” tendered her resignation after 27 years. Then the Moffat County Commission asked the county treasurer to make recommendations on where to transfer its Bank of the West accounts.
“We’re not going to support organizations that don’t support us,” said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck.
He said he and his wife had banked with the Craig branch for 40 years, but last week they closed their two joint accounts after learning of the company’s refusal to invest in coal projects and coal-fired plants, calling it a “no-brainer.”
“Here’s the deal: Our top 10 taxpayers are all energy-related. We’re a coal-reliant community, and a lot of our revenues come from the ground, whether oil and gas or coal,” said Mr. Beck. “We’ve got to stand behind our coal-fired power plant and those that work in the plant and the coal mines.”
In Wyoming, which shares a border with Moffat County, state treasurer Mark Gordon announced last week that his office would sever its relationship, while commissioners in Laramie County and Sweetwater County are also weighing their options.
Last week, Bank of the West acknowledged that it has “a long-term policy against financing Arctic drilling” as well as rules against investing in fracking, tar sands, and utilities that generate more than 30 percent of their energy from coal-powered plants, but not a “total ban.”
In a statement Tuesday, the bank said it “continues to work with companies large and small across all industries — including energy — and remains focused on financing a range of companies that we believe will be able to compete in tomorrow’s energy markets.”
“This includes oil and gas, renewables, and coal projects that use Carbon Capture and Storage Technology,” said the statement. “Bank of the West has been a part of the American Mountain West for more than 125 years, and looks forward to continuing to serve these communities.”
There are nations with less comprehensive climate-change policies than Bank of the West, a subsidiary of the French company BNP Paribas, one of several European banks that has pursued in recent years a progressive environmental agenda.
BNP Paribas’s corporate goals include lowering its greenhouse-gas emissions from 2.72 to 2.41 carbon-dioxide metric tons by 2020; achieving carbon neutrality; investing six million Euros in climate-change research projects, and sinking another 100 million Euros into energy startups by 2020.
The company has launched a “global multi-year, multi-billion dollar commitment to reduce and eliminate our relationships with industries that are detrimental to society,” including “exiting fracking, arctic drilling and tar sands exploration.”
BNP began moving several years ago to extricate itself from both fossil fuels and tobacco, but it wasn’t until the company posted on Facebook earlier this month about its policy stance that Westerners living in coal country took notice.
Bank of the West has since received a rash of critical comments on social media from those vowing to close their accounts and asking if the bank would still accept paychecks from coal miners and oil-field workers.
Bank of the West has about 600 U.S. branches located primarily in the West and Midwest, including 23 in Wyoming.
“While we’ve taken a stance on fracking, tobacco, and arctic drilling, we are neither anti-energy nor anti-oil and gas,” said Bank of the West on Facebook.
That’s not how critics see it. In Wyoming, Mr. Gordon, the Republican nominee for governor, said the bank has applied for and received $63 million in state deposits over the years as part of the state’s Time Deposit Open Account program, but no more.
“The Bank of the West has said they will no longer fund coal, oil and natural gas projects — key components to the Wyoming economy and Wyoming way of life,” said Mr. Gordon in an Aug. 9 statement. “Well, under my watch, Wyoming investment dollars will not be placed with the Bank of the West.”
He said he would proceed to “ask my colleagues on the State Board of Deposits to review the Bank of the West status as a public depository for the State of Wyoming.”
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, fired off a letter to BNP Paribas CEO Nandita Bakhshi, blasting the “misguided and politically expedient” policy against engaging with the oil, coal and natural gas companies.
“While it may be fashionable today in San Francisco to exclude states like Wyoming from your lending plan, it will do little to discourage us from pursuing our best future on our terms,” said Mr. Barrasso in the Aug. 8 letter.
In Craig, Ms. Razzano said she had worked at the local Bank of the West branch since high school, telling the Grand Junction Sentinel that her decision to put in her notice was “pretty heartbreaking.”
At the same time, she said in an open letter to the Craig Daily Press that she couldn’t stay, citing her father, who spent 40 years in the coal business, and her brother, who works in a local mine.
“It is unfortunate a ‘corporate’ decision is affecting a lot of families, including the wonderful employees at Bank of the West,” said Ms. Razzano.