Indigenous delegates said they had been amazed at the “wilful ignorance” they encountered when demanding global banks cease financing new fossil fuel projects on their ancestral lands in what is today North America.
The representatives of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and the Nahua nation in Mexico met with executives from HSBC, Barclays, and Credit Suisse in London this week to urge them to stop backing oil and gas pipelines and fracked gas export terminals.
Christopher Basaldú, a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe, said he had been appalled at the lack of awareness of the pollution caused by fracking — a high-pressure drilling technique that has revolutionised America’s energy industry, but caused huge environmental damage.
“I had to give a fracking 101 lesson to this bank official. It’s appalling their level of ignorance. They really do not know how potentially permanently destructive fracking is to groundwater,” Basaldú told DeSmog. “It’s incomprehensible to me that these wealthy, privileged, European people can be so wilfully ignorant and draw such tremendous salaries.”
Fracking works by using contained explosions and a mix of water, sand, and chemicals to fragment oil and gas-bearing layers of shale rock. The technique can taint groundwater, degrade landscapes and threaten wildlife, according to environmental organisations.
In addition, fracking sites release a toxic stew of air pollution that can cause severe headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, and birth defects, and some of the 1,000-plus chemicals used in the process are known to cause cancer, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council.
Basaldú is fighting plans by Houston-based oil and gas company NextDecade to build a $10 billion facility on the South Texas coast near his hometown of Brownsville. The scheme would supercool fracked gas from the Permian Basin for export as liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Community members say the Central Park-sized project — known as Rio Grande LNG — would blanket low-income Latinx and Indigenous communities with harmful air pollution, cause irreversible harm to precious wetlands, threaten endangered wildlife, and accelerate climate breakdown via its associated carbon emissions.
The future of Rio Grande LNG and other planned export terminals had looked looked increasingly in doubt as demand for energy slumped during the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, 2020, French utility Engie dealt the sector a further blow when it pulled out of negotiations over a long-term deal to buy LNG cargoes from Rio Grande LNG amid reports that the French government was concerned over methane emissions from the Permian Basin.
But the picture has since changed dramatically as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a European scramble for alternatives to Russian gas — bringing once moribund projects back to life. In May, NextDecade announced that Engie had returned to the negotiating table and signed a 15-year contract to buy cargoes from Rio Grande LNG starting as early as 2026.
The project took another step forward in September, when Credit Suisse helped NextDecade launch a private share placement in anticipation of a final investment decision, Offshore Energy reported.
Barclays and HSBC are linked to the scheme through their role as big financiers of oil majors ExxonMobil and Shell, which have also signed contracts to purchase shipments from Rio Grande LNG, according to a report by the Sierra Club and allied organisations. The two banks also have smaller exposures to Engie, according to Banking on Climate Chaos, a report by advocacy groups.
Barclays, HSBC and Credit Suisse declined to comment.
Basaldú made the trip to London with Bekah Hinojosa, an artist and community organiser who has also been campaigning against Rio Grande LNG since the project was proposed eight years ago, and serves as the Sierra Club’s Gulf Coast campaign representative.
The pair were accompanied by Oliveria Montès Lazcano, the coordinator of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples in the central Mexican state of Puebla. Lazcano is fighting TransCanada’s project to build the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline to import gas to central Mexico from Texas. HSBC, Credit Suisse, and Barclays finance TransCanada, campaigners say.
Indigenous networks have been mobilising increasingly effective opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure in recent years, playing key roles in the defeat of flagship projects in North America including the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the Atlantic Coast gas pipeline.
A report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International published last year found that Indigenous communities resisting more than 20 fossil fuel projects analysed had stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least 25 percent of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.
With the world’s 60 largest private banks extending $4.6 trillion of finance for fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, according to Banking on Climate Chaos, indigenous groups are increasingly seeking to persuade bankers to pull the plug on polluting projects.
In 2017 French Bank BNP Paribas pledged to stop granting dedicated financial support for fracked gas pipelines and export terminals in North America several months after a previous delegation of Indigenous leaders from South Texas visited Paris and gained significant attention, speaking on radio shows and at rallies and shareholder meetings.
Indigenous groups from Ecuador and Peru scored further concessions in 2021 by persuading BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, ING, and other European banks to stop financing the export of crude oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon after advocacy groups Stand.earth and Amazon Watch published data revealing their multi-billion dollar exposure to the trade.
Nevertheless, the gulf between the overwhelming sense of urgency felt by Indigenous peoples struggling to save their homelands and slow climate change, and the priorities of banking executives, can loom large.
In May, Stuart Kirk, then head of sustainable investing at HSBC’s asset management arm, faced widespread criticism after he dismissed warnings about the climate crisis as “unsubstantiated” and “shrill” and asked: “Who Cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years,” suggesting the city would be able to adapt. Kirk has since left HSBC.
Basaldú, who volunteers with the South Texas Environmental Justice Network, said he had the impression the bank executives he had met this week were hiding behind “self-perceived identities as technocrats” preoccupied with internal procedures.
“I feel that they imagine themselves innocent, rather than complicit, or committers of, both climate crimes, and the associated crimes and human rights violations of ongoing genocide of Native and Indigenous communities all over the world, simply to extract resources that make European nation states comfortable in their over-consumption of energy use,” he said.
Lazcano echoed this impression, saying she had the sense that the bank officials they met had “lost connection with reality.”
“There was no evidence that they understand what being human is — the community that we need as fellow humans,” Lazcano added. “I’d like to think that we were able to touch their hearts a little bit, speak to them human to human, and that there might be some consequence of the meetings that we had with them.”