JPMorgan’s War on Nature: How the Wall Street darling underwrites environmental Armageddon.
by Andy Kroll
Unlike virtually all of its competitors, JPMorgan Chase steeled itself early for the collapse of the subprime market and emerged from the rubble of the global financial meltdown with both its balance sheet and reputation intact. But the storied firm stands alone among its Wall Street rivals in another area, too. JPMorgan backstops one of the most destructive mining practices in the world: mountaintop removal coal mining. And it continues to do so even as other major banks have cut ties to this practice.
"Chase is the single largest remaining player in this game," says Scott Edwards, advocacy director for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy group comprised of lawyers, scientists, and activists, among others. "They just absolutely refuse to take responsibility for their role in this absolutely devastating industry."
Mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, focused in Appalachian states like West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, involves deforesting huge swaths of land and blasting the summits off of mountains to expose the black veins of coal underneath. The waste and rubble from the demolition is then dumped into nearby rivers and streams, burying local water sources in toxic byproducts, choking off tributaries that feed into larger rivers, and wiping out plants and wildlife, according to numerous scientific studies. Despite the mining industry's claims, there are no successful ways to mitigate the effects of MTR, according to Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The effects on the nearby environment, she says, are long lasting and often irreversible.
The impact of MTR mining is global, too. When mining companies deforest a mountaintop before demolition, they engage in a practice that overall contributes 25 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Between 1992 and 2012, MTR will have leveled 7 percent of Appalachian forests in areas studied by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Nonetheless, over the past 17 years, JPMorgan Chase has helped to underwrite nearly 20 bond or loan deals, worth a combined $8.5 trillion, for some of the biggest players in the MTR mining business, according to data from Bloomberg. Other large banks have either halted financing companies engaging in the practice outright or signaled their intent to do so. In December 2008, for instance, Bank of America publicly announced plans to "phase out financing of companies whose predominant method of extracting coal is through mountain top removal." Wells Fargo has cut ties with coal giant Massey Energy. And a Credit Suisse official says the bank has a "global mining policy" that ensures "we explicitly do not finance the extraction of coal in a mountaintop removal setting." But JPMorgan continues to back the practice.
By underwriting MTR, JPMorgan ties itself to some of the nation's biggest polluters. Take Massey Energy, which leads the nation in MTR mining. In 2008, the company extracted more than 21 million tons of coal using mountaintop removal mining, according to opensourcecoal.org, an online database for coal production statistics. That same year, JPMorgan acted as lead manager on a $690 million bond offering by Massey, according to financial records.
Over the past decade, Massey has mined nearly 190 million tons of coal in Appalachia using mountaintop removal, according to opensourcecoal.org—and it has essentially disregarded the law and surrounding landscape to do so. Between 2000 and 2006, Massey violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times by dumping sediment and leftover mining waste into rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia, the EPA said in 2008. (Environmental groups say the EPA's tally is a lowball figure; they estimate that the true number of violations is more than 12,000.) As a result of these breaches of the law, the company agreed to pay the EPA a $20 million settlement.
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