The recent decision by PNC Financial Services Group to scale back lending to companies that conduct mountaintop-removal coal mining may have other banks mulling whether they should follow suit.
Environmental groups certainly plan to bring the pressure. From Bank of America to Citigroup to Barclays, groups like Earthjustice and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition intend to target institutions that provide financing to a type of coal mining that they say causes damage to the environment and to human health.
"Many banks are moving away from mountaintop-removal coal mining, but there are still some holdouts," said Amanda Starbuck, climate and energy program director at Rainforest Action Network, one of several groups fighting MTR coal mining.
The Rainforest Action Network had hoped Bank of America might put the issue up to a vote of its shareholders this year. The Charlotte, N.C., company had been expected to include in its proxy statement a shareholder proposal to encourage the bank to back off MTR coal mining. However, B of A's proxy, filed on Thursday morning, did not include the proposal.
The $335 billion-asset PNC based in Pittsburgh, close to the heart of Appalachian coal-mining country has been one of the nation's top financiers of MTR coal mining. It has provided loans to many of the nation's largest MTR companies, including Alpha Natural Resources in Bristol, Va., and CONSOL Energy in Canonsburg, Pa. In 2013, PNC provided loans and lines of credit to companies responsible for mining at least 15.9 million tons of coal through mountaintop-removal techniques, according to the Rainforest Action Network.
A helicopter ride might have been one of the key turning points in PNC's decision to disassociate from MTR. In 2011, Rainforest Action Network took George P. Long III, PNC's then-corporate secretary, on a helicopter trip to view MTR sites in eastern Kentucky.
"We showed him where the mining company, which was one of PNC's clients, was failing to do appropriate remediation" of the environmental damage it was inflicting, Starbuck said. "But it took the bank a number of years to really come to grips with the issue."
The aerial tour of the heavily damaged Appalachian Mountains came after years of persistent prodding by environmental groups. They first met with Bill Mills, a PNC executive in Philadelphia, in February 2010 to express their concerns, said Ingrid Lakey, co-founder of the Earth Quaker Action Team.
"We told him that if PNC did not change their policy we would begin a campaign to bring public attention to the hypocrisy of calling themselves a green bank while also financing the coal companies that blow up mountains," Lakey said.
PNC declined to comment on the environmental groups' meetings with its executives. But in announcing its decision to withdraw from some MTR financing, PNC said it consulted with "various national stakeholders" and that several factors played a role.
"Due to environmental and health concerns, as well as our risk appetite, our MTR financing exposure has declined significantly over time," CEO Bill Demchak said in the bank's corporate responsibility report.
PNC said that it will no longer extend financing to coal miners that get at least half of their production from MTR mining. Previously, PNC only excluded financing to companies that got a majority of their production from MTR mines.
PNC noted in its 2015 Corporate Responsibility Report that it has been gradually reducing its exposure to MTR mining for the past five years. PNC's exposure to companies engaged in MTR coal mining represents less than 1% of the company's total financing commitments.
"Our MTR financing exposure has declined significantly and will continue to do so moving forward," the company said in the report.
It is impossible to obtain a full accounting of how and where MTR coal-mining companies obtain financing, or the extent of an individual bank's loan portfolio involving coal mines. Banks are not required to break out details of their transactions with the coal industry.
Regulatory filings by publicly traded coal mining companies include some details on prior or current loans, but not necessarily all of their financing agreements. Arch Coal in St. Louis, for example, in 2011 entered into a $2 billion revolving credit facility that comes due in June 2016, Rainforest Action Network said after reviewing public filings. PNC served as the administrative agent and joint lead lender on the transaction. Numerous other banks are involved in the facility, including BB&T, Fifth Third Bancorp and Huntington Bancshares.
Privately held companies that environmentalists say are involved in MTR coal mining aren't required to report any details of their financing arrangements.
As is to be expected, coal companies in the Appalachian region are wary of the attacks on their industry, which is in the midst of a financial downturn. The total tonnage of coal produced in southwest Virginia has dropped by about 2 million tons per year since 2011.
Alpha Natural Resources, in its most recent annual report, said, "Mountaintop removal mining is a legal but controversial method of surface mining. Certain anti-mining special interest groups are waging a public relations assault upon this mining method."
Appalachian coal's decline and PNC's decision notwithstanding, environmental groups say that many banks are still heavily involved in MTR mining. In its most recent report on the industry, the Rainforest Action Network gave poor grades to several banks for their continued involvement. Citigroup, for example, was cited for being the lead financier of coal-fired power plants, and for being a lead financier of MTR mines.
Citi's corporate policies say it conducts an "extensive" due diligence program that it uses when engaging a client that uses MTR methods. Its policies also note that it "does not finance MTR extraction projects directly, [but] we do have banking relationships with clients that practice MTR extraction."
Bank of America also received a poor grade from the Rainforest Action Network, which cited the bank's lack of a specific plan to reduce its lending exposure to MTR companies. Bank of America's corporate policy on coal says the bank "will phase out financing of companies whose predominant method of extracting coal is through mountaintop removal."
Representatives of Citi and B of A Citi declined to comment beyond their companies' official policies.
Environmentalists want banks to know that they don't plan to let up, Lakey said.
"All banks need to seriously consider their own financial risks and the risks to communities and the environment of financing not just mountaintop removal, but all forms of extreme extraction," she said.