According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, 50 globally significant financial institutions have introduced policies restricting oil sands and/or oil and gas drilling in the Arctic

Arctic oil and gas

Greenpeace's analysis shows that almost 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent were released in the five years to 2019 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CSIRO)

Global financial corporations are cracking down on major oil and gas lending as investor appetite for high-polluting fossil fuels continues to dwindle.

According to a new tracker developed by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), 50 globally significant financial institutions have introduced policies restricting oil sands and/or oil and gas drilling in the Arctic – including 23 to date this year.

This comes as investors are starting to turn their attentions towards increasingly-cheap renewable alternatives such as wind and solar.

Tim Buckley, the IEEFA’s director of energy finance studies and co-author of a new briefing note on global financial institutions divesting from oil and gas, said “momentum is building against financing oil and gas projects”.

“Over 140 global financial institutions have already restricted thermal coal financing, insurance and/or investment and we are now seeing a similar accelerating shift of capital away from oil and gas exploration, starting with high risk oil sands development and drilling in the Arctic.

“This momentum in fossil fuel divestment globally means we expect a continuation of new announcements from other financial institutions seeking to better manage increasing climate risk.”


Tighter regulations on carbon-intensive projects is “narrowing margins”

The IEEFA has identified 50 significant global financial institutions to date with restrictions on financing oil sands and/or Arctic drilling projects, including HSBC, Banco Santander, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley.

Of those, the world’s largest multilateral lender, the European Investment Bank (EIB), has the “strictest and best policy”, according to the IEEFA – after announcing in 2019 that it will exit all oil and gas by the end of 2021.

China oil and gas investment
50 globally significant financial institutions have introduced policies restricting oil sands and/or oil and gas drilling in the Arctic (Credit: Flickr/ShashiBellamkonda)

Buckley said that many financial institutions started with divesting coal and then moved to Arctic and oil sands exclusions.

But with pressure mounting on plastic pollution, and fossil gas no longer being viewed as a bridge fuel, he believes financial restrictions are likely to “expand to ethane crackers and new gas investments soon”.

“Tighter regulations on carbon-intensive projects is narrowing margins, which means that risks are going up while the promised returns are looking increasingly elusive,” he added.

“These latest oil and gas exits are representative of the increasingly challenging economics of the fossil fuel sector, and the increased investment risks, as identified in the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2020 last week.”


Oil and gas exploration projects at “significant risk of being stranded”

The World Bank, BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole Group and AXA were the first major financial institutions to introduce exclusion policies in 2017, according to the IEEFA.

Five more announced exits in 2018 accelerated to 18 in 2019 and then in the first half of 2020, a further 23 announced restrictions, doubling the total from the previous three years.

Buckley said: “The ongoing wealth destruction by oil and gas companies evidenced in the equity markets globally, the growing investor pressure to commit to net-zero emissions targets, and the scrapping of projects have led financial institutions to formulate policies restricting the financing of new oil and gas exploration.

“As well as avoiding reputational and climate risk, it makes clear financial sense for companies to progressively reduce fossil-fuel investments.

“There is no financial rationale for the world’s financial institutions to remain invested in fossil fuel companies developing yet more reserves.”

Buckley claims that high risk oil and gas exploration projects today are at “significant risk of being stranded”.

He highlights that a combination of “demand destruction” due to the oil trade war between Saudi Arabia and Russia at the start of 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis have “further exposed their financial vulnerabilities”.


European financial institutions have taken the lead in stopping oil and gas lending

European financial institutions have taken the lead in exiting oil and gas, with 36 companies so far having announced a formal policy, including HSBCBanco SantanderBNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank.

In the US, six financial institutions have proceeded down the same route, with five of them – Goldman SachsJP Morgan ChaseCitigroupWells Fargo and Morgan Stanley – all releasing formal exclusion policies against Arctic drilling within the past four months.

Saurabh Trivedi, research analyst and co-author of the briefing note, said: “While some policies are stronger than others, these are still important announcements showing the increasing shift away from risky fossil-fuel investment.

“A best practice policy would include prohibiting any sort of financial product or service for new unabated fossil-fuel operations across the globe with a speedy phase out from existing fossil-fuel investments, similar to what EIB has presented.”


Current oil and gas exit policies may be “too weak” to reach Paris Agreement targets

The IEEFA said the financial institutions exiting oil and gas that are closest to achieving “best practice policy” are ABN AmroBNP Paribasand Banco Santander.

It added that these agencies have policies containing “fewer loopholes”, while those with the “most stringent policies” are Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and Crédit Agricole group.

“The EIB and the French development bank have seen the writing on the wall,” said Trivedi.

“Both of their restrictive policy actions are 100% aligned with the Paris Agreement. Other global financial institutions such as Robeco, Citigroup and JPMorgan have weaker policy restrictions that may allow financial institutions to continue lending to risky sectors in the long run.”

Predictive maintenance oil and gas
European financial institutions have taken the lead in exiting oil and gas (Credit: Mat Fascione)

Although the IEEFA believes the recent policy adopted by Norway’s $1.1tn Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) to divest from all oil and gas exploration companies is “noteworthy”, the fund will continue to remain invested in refineries and vertically integrated oil firms such as Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil.

Trivedi notes Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) recently announced policy contains restrictions on Arctic drilling projects but “does not mention any measures against oil sands projects”.

“RBC is one of the largest financiers of oil sands projects along with JPMorgan Chase and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce,” he added.

“No restrictive policy measures against oil sands by such large investors raises clear questions over the financial institution’s commitment towards the Paris goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C.”

While the IEEFA notes many of the current oil and gas exit policies may be “too weak” to keep temperatures below 1.5C to 2C, it believes Storebrand’s recent move out of Exxon and Chevron is “significant”.

Buckley said that oil majors BP, Shell, Total, ENI and Equinor should “not rest easy”.

“Their recent strong rhetoric needs to be followed up by continued, accelerated action,” he added.

“We expect global financial institutions exiting oil and gas to continue to tighten loopholes in subsequent policy measures to show a greater commitment towards the global Paris accord.”