Green credentials of world’s largest investor questioned over oil industry emails

Emails have revealed the high-wire act performed by major banks and the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, as they privately soothe oil industry concerns about their public support for greener investment.

In his annual letter to chief executives, BlackRock boss Larry Fink said that pursuing climate action policies was not about being “woke” but was about pursuing profits on behalf of clients.

The comments were widely seen as a signal that the asset manager, whose clients have entrusted $10tn to its care, would wield its investment clout to support greener ventures.

But emails – obtained via a freedom of information request by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the thinktank InfluenceMap – show that a regulator in oil-rich Texas left a meeting with BlackRock believing the company had undergone a change of heart.

After the meeting with BlackRock staff, on 7 January 2022, the chair of the Texas oil regulator, Wayne Christian, wrote to the company expressing his relief.

He said he had been concerned by the asset manager’s promotion of investments governed by environmental and social guidelines (ESG), which typically involve selling out of oil and gas stocks.

He said that it was “nice to hear that BlackRock didn’t mean – or no longer believes – many of the disagreeable things the company and … Mr Fink have said about the oil and gas industry”.

In an attached letter, Christian said BlackRock’s staff had referred to “media misrepresentations” about its environmental stance and had also declared themselves “supportive” of the oil and gas industry.

Replying to Christian, a BlackRock employee did not question his interpretation of the discussion but pointed to comments made by Fink, saying that “traditional” energy companies were “part of the solution” alongside environmental investment policies.

BlackRock said there was no contradiction between its public statements and its private conversations with Christian.

“BlackRock has been clear and consistent since January 2020 that climate risk is an investment risk that will impact returns in investors’ portfolios as companies navigate both the physical and transition risk associated with climate.

“Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to our clients.

“In addition, BlackRock has long stated that energy firms play an important role in the global economy and in a successful transition.

“We expect to remain long-term investors in carbon-intensive sectors. We do not pursue broad divestment from sectors and industries as a policy.

But Anusha Narayanan, climate campaign manager at Greenpeace USA, said it appeared BlackRock was “trying to have their cake and eat it”.

“We need to stop falling for this false choice between a healthy planet or a healthy economy. Fossil fuels give us neither. Last week’s IPCC report made it clear that climate change is already causing widespread damages and losses to people and ecosystems around the world, with increasingly irreversible consequences.

“Financial regulators are calling the climate crisis an emerging threat to the stability of the US financial system.

“For companies like BlackRock, investing in a carbon-free future must mean the immediate divestment from coal, oil, and gas.”

While BlackRock walked the line between greener investments and staying on the right side of oil industry advocates, US banks have faced similar pressure from oil-rich states, in one case apparently forcing a change of policy.

In November, the treasurers of 15 US states – responsible for more than $600bn in funds – wrote an open letter to the banking industry in which they threatened to withdraw from financial institutions that boycott fossil fuel companies.

A second freedom of information request shows that US Bank wrote to the state treasurer of West Virginia, who coordinated the letter, saying it hoped to maintain its relationship with the state, a major coal producer, for many years to come.

In a note, Tim Rieder, senior vice-president of US Bank, added: “Personally, I totally agree with the [treasurers’] letter.”

US Bank subsequently appeared to change its investment policy, removing a pledge to boycott coal investments.

US Bank said it had not changed its policy under pressure from US states and that its investment policy had not prohibited financing coal-fired power since October 2020.

However, its 2021 environmental responsibility policy, displayed on the bank’s website until last week, did prohibit US Bank from financing coal-fired power.

A host of other banks have also issued reassurances to Texas, after it implemented a law requiring financial institutions to certify that they do not boycott energy companies in order to remain eligible to do business with the state.

Barclays, Citigroup, UBS and Wells Fargo were among 39 institutions that made the pledge.

Barclays said: “We are aligning our entire financing portfolio to the goals and timelines of the Paris [climate] agreement, on the way to becoming a net zero bank by 2050.”

UBS said it supports the goals of the Paris agreement and added: “We view engagement with companies in all industries as fundamental to any sustainable investing approach.”

Citigroup said: “Our policies are focused on responsibly managing the energy transition, not boycotting the energy sector. This position has been communicated consistently to all of our stakeholders.”

Wells Fargo declined to comment.


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Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters