HSBC's shift on energy lending has Suncor throwing its toys out of the pram
Canadian tar sands giant Suncor Energy last week split noisily with HSBC over the bank’s new Energy Policy. Suncor announced to the Financial Post that it will “sever all ties” with the bank in response to HSBC’s move, unveiled in April this year, which puts an end to new financing for tar sands projects and related pipelines.
“I have a very long list of bankers”, Suncor CEO Steve Williams has insisted. “The world’s capital is coming to offer itself to Suncor and companies like us so, no, it’s not having an impact. It’s not driving up our costs.” Perhaps Mr Williams protests too much?
Significantly, HSBC has not ruled out general finance for the likes of Suncor, and still has exposure to a dozen or so other tar sands companies to comfort it. Yet, Suncor is not alone in its anger at the bank’s partial rejection of tar sands. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers “expressed its displeasure with the bank’s updated lending policy”, while conservative Canadians came out in support for Suncor on Twitter. The hashtag #BoycottHSBC started doing the rounds, for once for the wrong reasons.
And let’s be clear about these wrong reasons: Suncor’s core business is extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands, in a process that results in significantly higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, as well as huge local impacts on Alberta’s boreal forest, water and communities. (Just look at the pictures.) Globally it is the second biggest company in the industry by reserves, and its recently completed Fort Hills open pit mine has an expected life span of 50 years. So this is a company that still hopes to be pumping out tar sands oil beyond 2060.
HSBC has provided Suncor with more than US$2 billion in financing over the last three years, and was the company’s third biggest bank financier over this period. Clearly a lot was at stake in the Suncor-HSBC relationship. So why was Suncor so quick to very publicly give up access to the kind of money HSBC was – and still is – providing to tar sands players? It might be that Suncor wanted to publicly hit back at HSBC for not doing what it was told, after Mr Williams claimed in June that he may have persuaded HSBC to backtrack on its new policy. Seeing the final version of the policy still exclude greenfield tar sands projects must have been humiliating.
Still, Suncor is posturing as the stronger party, claiming that HSBC’s move does not matter and that the company has “numerous financial institutions express interest in taking place.” With HSBC out of the picture, we assume the company can rely on the support of its main existing financers – the largest being Canada’s CIBC, RBC, TD Bank and BMO, together with JP Morgan Chase, Citi and Mizuho – for now at least. And BankTrack will certainly be watching to see if other banks step in to fill the HSBC-shaped hole.
But HSBC is far from being the only bank taking a step back from tar sands these days – indeed this is fast becoming standard practice among the major European banks. At least 11 major European banks beat HSBC to it in stopping tar sands project finance, including ING, Rabobank and the big three French banks.
With a bank exodus from coal in full swing and widespread, disruptive anti-tar sands activism continuing to ramp up in North America and elsewhere, finance for new tar sands projects looks like it is fast becoming a no-go area for the banking sector – as it must if the world is to have some chance of hitting the Paris Agreement targets. Behind Suncor’s petulant reaction, perhaps the company realises its hand is not so strong, and that HSBCs policy move is a sign of things to come.