MPR Misses the Boat on DAPL Divestment Story

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) ran a piece today headlined: Protest appeared to misstate U.S. Bank’s role in Dakota Access pipeline.

At best, the story makes a technical point. At worst, the headline casts DAPL opponents in an unfair light, claiming they are “misstating” the facts — that is, misrepresenting them or even lying. The story certainly misses the larger political picture.

The story starts out discussing the anti-pipeline banner unfurled at U.S. Bank Stadium during a Vikings game with the word “Divest” writ large. Here is a key paragraph:

On that and other occasions, opponents of the pipeline have cast U.S. Bank and other banks as “investors” in the project. But U.S. Bank is arguably better described as a lender, or potential lender, to one or more companies working on the pipeline.

Perhaps that’s technically true, if you are an economics major. The point MPR appears to be making is that if U.S. Bank is not an “investor,” technically it can’t “divest.” It calls U.S. Bank “a potential lender.

Let’s break it down.

First, “divest” is the term that people equate with pulling money out of a project for moral reasons. One example is the 1980s Divest from South Africa campaign in opposition to Apartheid. Those “divesting” from South Africa had not “invested” in the country itself. They might have been buying South African-made goods and decided to stop those purchases. Or, they might have invested in South African-based companies and sold their stock. These economic transactions propped up an oppressive government and divestment undermined its ability to continue.

By providing a line of credit, U.S. Bank is supporting the pipeline. Even if it is just lending money to Energy Transfer Partners for general purposes, that loan frees up other corporate money for the pipeline. And while not technically an “investor”, U.S. Bank is making money off the project through interest payments. These economic transactions support the pipeline and its negative impacts on Native peoples and the environment.

The MRP story did not interview any of the groups opposed to the pipeline who use the term “divest” to ask them why they use it. Here is my theory. From an organizing point of view, they are trying to win the public’s hearts and minds. They are shining a spotlight on the pipeline’s financing in an effort to stop it. U.S. Bank is one potential players, so it gets the spotlight, too, and pressure to pull its support. Divest is the lay term people understand for this effort.

Lastly, let’s look at the dictionary definition of “divest.” Dictionary.com offers the following:

1. to strip of clothing, ornament, etc.: The wind divested the trees of their leaves.

2. to strip or deprive (someone or something), especially of property or rights; dispossess.

3. to rid of or free from: He divested himself of all responsibility for the decision.

4. Law. to take away or alienate (property, rights, etc.).

5. Commerce.

  1. to sell off: to divest holdings.
  2. to rid of through sale: The corporation divested itself of its subsidiaries.

So divest has a commercial definition, but many others, too. MPR’s story could have a technical point to make. On the other hand, the water protectors and pipeline opponents are saying to U.S. Bank: Strip yourself of anything to do with DAPL. It is a legitimate use of the word.

The MPR story offers the following analysis:

The bank’s financial ties to the project are fuzzy, as is the importance of any U.S. Bank lending in completing the pipeline. U.S. Bank is among many banks that have offered financing.

I expect this is a frame that banks would like to put forward: “This is all very fuzzy, too complicated for the average person to understand. … Ignore the little man behind the curtain.”

To pipeline opponents, the issue is not fuzzy. They want to dry up the pipeline’s money sources. The divestment strategy and language makes sense. It’s an effort to embarrass the banks into pulling their lines of credit.

Why did MPR run this story? Even the headline writer does not seem certain of the conclusion. Again, the headline reads: “Protest appeared to misstate U.S. Bank’s role in Dakota Access pipeline.”

Saying that protestors “appeared to misstate” the facts is a fuzzy statement indeed, and throws an unfair taint on the water protectors.

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One thought on “MPR Misses the Boat on DAPL Divestment Story

  1. I agree that the headline is biased. The story could just as easily have been titled “US Bank Refuses to Divulge Details of its Involvement with DAPL” since the article stated: “Spokesman Dana Ripley would not discuss U.S. Bank’s relationship with ETP, the extent to which it has lent money to ETP, or the bank’s role — if any — in funding the pipeline.”

    That said, the difference between investment and financing is an important one. When I talked to a banker at Wells Fargo he pointed out that distinction and said WF was just a lender and had its hands tied in relation to this. He claimed they are bound by law to lend money to Energy Transfer Partners even if they object to the project. He also said that Wells Fargo is not an investor in the project.
    I don’t know if any of that is true or not. I do know the language he used is virtually the same as that in the MPR story and I suspect it’s coming from ETP. I’d be interested in suggestions as to how to reply to a banker who makes this distinction. Does anyone out there know to what extent the bank is obligated to lend them money in a case like this?

    Like

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