Fossil Fuel Finance
Wind turbines stand beside a coal-fired power plant near Bergheim, Germany, Feb. 16, 2016. Volker Hartmann/Getty Images

Major U.S. and global banks say they are steadily scaling back support for new coal projects to help confront global warming. But many of the same financial institutions are still investing billions of dollars in fossil fuel supplies that, if burned, would drastically boost global greenhouse gas emissions.

A new review of 25 large U.S., Canadian and European banks found the financial institutions invested a combined $784 billion from 2013 to 2015 on “extreme” oil projects — such as Arctic drilling and Canadian oil sands mining — as well as infrastructure to export liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal mines and large coal-fired power plants. The combined projects could undermine the global goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, environmental groups said.

“These investments are only going to pay off for the financial industry if these fossil fuels get burned,” said Amanda Starbuck, the San Francisco-based climate and energy program director for Rainforest Action Network, one of authors of Tuesday’s report. “Banks are placing a bet that we are going to fail to address climate change,” she added.

Rainforest Action Network had previously tallied only bank investments in coal projects for the group’s first six finance reports. But after nearly 200 nations agreed to join a landmark climate change deal in Paris last December, the organization decided to expand its focus to include unconventional oil production and LNG exports. Scientists estimate that 82 percent of today’s fossil fuel reserves must be left underground in order to stave off catastrophic levels of global warming, according to research published in the journal Nature in January.

“Banks have started to take coal so seriously, yet the other fuels seem to be complete blind spots for them right now,” Starbuck said.

Nearly a dozen of the top U.S. and European banks have all made commitments in recent years to dial down support for new coal projects amid growing uncertainty about the sector’s future. Competition from cheap natural gas and China’s sluggish economy have curbed demand and lowered prices in recent years, while in the long term the growing global push to reduce carbon emissions could permanently hinder the fuel’s prospects as a major energy source.

JPMorgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank by assets, said this spring it would no longer finance new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. or other wealthy nations. Wells Fargo, the nation’s fourth-biggest bank, said it would cut back on lending to coal mining companies. Morgan Stanley, the sixth-biggest bank, pledged to reduce its exposure to coal mining and said it would apply more scrutiny to financing coal plants. Other major lenders — including Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. — have also promised to limit support for coal projects.

Yet those banks have not adopted similar limits on investments in high-carbon, energy-intensive, environmentally invasive oil projects such as deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil production or Canadian oil sands development, a process that requires either mining or melting thick bitumen crude to extract it from the ground. LNG exports also remain a booming energy market: Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc recently acquired British gas giant BG Group for $54 billion to tap this growing field.

Representatives for Bank of America and Citigroup did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase declined to comment but shared a link to the bank’s environmental and social policies. Morgan Stanley later provided links to its environmental policy statement and coal policy statement.

The 25 banks surveyed in Tuesday’s report together invested $306 billion in companies that drill “extreme” oil and $282 billion in companies building LNG export infrastructure, according to the Fossil Fuel Finance Report, whose co-authors include Sierra Club, Oil Change International and BankTrack, a global network of NGOs that studies global commercial banks. Industry analysts expect production of these fuels to accelerate in coming decades as global energy demand balloons — unless governments and companies adopt renewable or lower-carbon alternatives.

“None of these banks can claim to support the Paris agreement ... if they continue to finance these destructive sectors,” Yann Louvel, BankTrack’s climate and energy coordinator, said in a statement.