Representatives of Canada’s First Nations visited Edinburgh to tell the bank’s annual meeting that oil extraction could threaten their way of life and cause untold environmental damage in the event of a spill.
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The Scottish bank has raised well over £100 million in funding for Enbridge, the Canadian company behind the controversial Northern Gateway Pipelines in Alberta.
British environment groups also accused the bank of having raised more than £5.6 billion for companies involved in tar sands projects since it was bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008, though RBS said it did not recognise that figure.
Tar sands oil extraction is a deeply divisive issue, seen by some as a lucrative source of fuel and by others as environmental vandalism. It leads to more CO2 emissions than conventional crude oil wells, but as resources are used up elsewhere it has become more appealing for energy firms and their customers.
Jasmine Thomas, leader of Yinka Dene Alliance -- a forum of indigenous people in British Columbia -- called on RBS “to behave like an ethical, publicly owned, financial institution”.
She said: “RBS should not raise money for Enbridge, whose intention is to bring destructive tar sands pipelines through our lands even though we have said ‘no’, violating our human rights and harming my people.
“RBS should not make money from business with Enbridge, whose proposed pipeline will result in the pipeline spills that threaten our salmon economy, our water security and our cultural foundation.”
RBS boss Stephen Hester saw his controversial £7.7 million pay package rubber-stamped by the Government yesterday. UK Financial Investments (UKFI), which manages the taxpayer’s 83% stake in RBS, gave its support despite a widespread backlash over the deal.
Enbridge said RBS had not yet invested in its Northern Gateway Pipelines, though the firms do have other business ties. Spokesman Paul Stanway added that the Northern Gateway project would have to be approved by the Canadian Environment Ministry and Canada’s national energy board before it could proceed.
“We’re in the midst of a vigorous regulatory process here, the strictest in the world, and it requires by law consultation with all native groups affected,” he said. “Aboriginal people have real concerns with developments near their lands and we respect those concerns.”
The protesters yesterday urged RBS to make a similar pledge to the Royal Bank of Canada, which last year ordered its bankers to document where client activities have an impact on indigenous communities and check firms have “policies and processes consistent with the standard of free, prior and informed consent”.
Ms Thomas and her compatriots spoke for more than 15 minutes in front of shareholders and executives at the bank’s Gogarburn headquarters.
She said the Northern Gateway pipeline would pass through the territory of more than 80 First Nation groups, all of which are opposed to it.
“A spill will happen -- Enbridge has over 60 pipeline spills each year. A single spill could destroy our way of life and our culture,” she said. “I’m here to warn RBS shareholders of the legal and environmental risks of financing such controversial tar-sands companies, and to ask them to withdraw all corporate financing to Enbridge.”
However, Mr Stanway said the spills were almost all minor incidents inside Enbridge facilities, and pointed to “inaccuracies” in claims by the First Nation representatives. The pipeline would not run “through the heart of the world-renowned Great Bear Rainforest”, as some reports claimed, but beside it, he said.
Another First Nations representative, Melina Laboucan, warned shareholders that any accident in an RBS-funded operation could hurt their returns.
“Why is RBS risking shareholders’ investments by continuing to finance companies involved in tar sands when there are clearly reputational risks associated with it?” she asked.
The Royal Bank of Scotland said it wants to move towards a low carbon economy, and had invested more in wind power than any other type of generation in the past five years.
“As a large international bank RBS provides support for our customers across many industries reflecting the make-up and choices of our society and the economy,” an RBS spokeswoman said.
“We recognise the concerns raised regarding the extraction of oil sands and our lending is subject to the achievement of strict social and environmental standards.”
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