Sneak Attack: Citizens Bank Divestment Snuffed Out

The Providence City Council's Committee on Ordinances blocked a proposal to divest from Citizens Bank. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

The Providence City Council's Committee on Ordinances blocked a proposal to divest from Citizens Bank. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Citizens Bank brought out its big guns March 22 to stop the city from divesting its funds from the Rhode Island-based financial institution over environmental concerns.

The proposed ordinance, put forth by City Council member Seth Yurdin with support from local environmental activists, was a protest of Citizens Bank and other financial institutions with links to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

But what started out as preliminary hearing ended up as a full-blown vetting of the proposal, with opposition coming from 20 union members, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and top officials from Citizens Bank, including its Rhode Island president, Marc Paulhus.

Marc Paulhus, second from left, president of Citizens Bank Rhode Island, attended the hearing but didn't offer any remarks.

Marc Paulhus, second from left, president of Citizens Bank Rhode Island, attended the hearing but didn't offer any remarks.

Paulhus didn't speak, and sat with a group of company executives watching the proceedings.

Union leaders Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, and Scott Duhamel, of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, both insisted that divesting from the bank undermines a prominent Rhode Island business and creates a slippery slope that would lead to pulling funds from other local companies.

“This is just another opportunity ... to penalize a good corporate citizen that has made its home in Rhode Island for one specific issue and one specific project,” Sabitoni said.

“What could be in the crosshairs next, doing business with companies that sell soap, or garden hoses or polka-dot ties, or provide paper towels?” said Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. “This kind of random thinking is an infringement of free enterprise.”

Narragansett Indian tribe leader Randy Noka said divestment was about stopping the destruction of sacred land in North Dakota.

“Who in this room would want to see their ancestral ground of their family being desecrated?” Noka asked. “No disrespect to Citizens Bank, they have an opportunity to make a decision whether or not they get involved with these ventures that are violating these people’s rights.”

Other activists said the action was about applying local pressure to stop environmental destruction.

“Citizens could invest in solar, Citizens could invest in offshore wind. They have made the choices to invest in these fossil-fuel projects that rip up communities, that pollute the water and ultimately will pollute the air,” said Kate Schapiro of No DAPL Rhode Island.

Supporters of the resolution equaled the opponents in number, but more likely would have attended had the meeting not been downplayed by city officials as a mere formality, saying a full public hearing would be held on another day.

“Tonight’s meeting sounds like it will be brief and is mainly about scheduling a public hearing for DAPL. And at the public hearing there (will) be an opportunity for you guys to take the floor and speak,” Nigel Fleming of the City Council staff wrote in an e-mail to one of the organizers of the divestment movement. “I think it’s best if you prepare your speakers for the public hearing date instead of tonight.”

That public hearing won’t happen now that the Committee on Ordinances voted to permanently table the resolution.

Yurdin said the vote effectively kills his proposal, because he must reintroduce it to the full City Council before it can brought before the committee. But council member Terrence Hassett insisted that the resolution could be brought back. Hassett and other members of the ordinance committee instead voted to create a commission that will examine policies for ethical investing of city funds.

In 2013, the City Council approved divesting its pension funds from the top coal polluters in the country. So far, the pension has divested from 15 of the so-called “dirtiest” fossil-fuel companies.

Divestment from fossil-fuel companies was a popular cause about five years ago as students from Rhode Island universities pushed their colleges to rid their endowments from fossil-fuel companies to combat climate change. Brown University students led a high-profile divestment campaign that was ultimately rejected by the school's board of trustees.

Students from the Rhode Island School of Design succeeded in having their school divest from fossil fuels.

In a series of recent protests, activist groups No DAPL Rhode Island and The FANG Collective drew attention to Citizens Bank for lending to oil and natural-gas pipeline projects. According to FANG, Citizens Bank is part of a consortium of financial institutions that offer $2.5 billion in funding to Sunoco Logistics. Citizens contributed $72.5 million to the loan, according to the environmental organization.

Philadelphia-based Sunoco Logistics is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas. The Texas company is building the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Texas, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline proposed for Louisiana and the Mariner East Pipeline in Pennsylvania.

Most of the city’s assets are held with Citizens Bank. The city also has accounts with some 35 local and global financial institutions.