Stand Your Ground, Make Your Point, Have a Voice

By Christopher Romano Schmitt and The Healing Family Group

Today our family woke up to Facebook posts indicating that PNC Bank was financing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). As supporters of the activists courageously resisting the construction of the pipeline, we were stunned and horrified that our bank, the bank that we so carefully selected to hold our mortgage and our life savings, would be supporting such an egregious project. Although this is not “new” news, it was news to us. We did some research and quickly determined that, although PNC was not directly lending money to build the pipeline, PNC had extended a $270 million line of credit to Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners, who are financing and building the pipeline on behalf of Dakota Access LLC, the pipeline owner. However, this is not what we read on the official PNC website, nor in several newspaper editorials and media interviews about this subject of PNC financing DAPL; instead, what we saw was an attempt by PNC to obfuscate the truth.

On 12/7/16, David Chamberlin, Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer of PNC stated in a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “PNC does not provide, and has never provided, project financing for the Dakota Access Pipeline. We understand that there is a specific, bank-provided project financing facility for the Dakota Access Pipeline, but PNC is not, and never was, part of it.” This is not true, PNC has provided a $270 million line of credit to the pipeline builder.

We decided to call PNC and let them know that we disagree with their attempts at obfuscation and to hold them accountable for their actions. We spent the day speaking with senior corporate employees at PNC Bank in Pittsburg, including people in investor relations, corporate relations and the office of the president. Everyone at PNC that we spoke with tried to claim that PNC has no direct involvement with DAPL. When we attempted to correct them with the facts, they merely just repeated that PNC was not involved in financing the pipeline. Despite asking to speak with a staffer’s superior each step of the way, each successive supervisor repeated the same false statement. We were getting nowhere and were getting discouraged. We wanted to make a difference, to be heard. We did not want to give up.

So we did some deep digging on the Internet and finally found what we were looking for: we found the cell phone number of the President and CEO of PNC Bank, William Demchak. We couldn’t believe our luck. Right then and there, we decided to make the call directly to the top man at PNC. We hastily made some notes of talking points, decided on an approach to focus on a few major issues, and we dialed the number. The man on the other end said “Hello?” and we asked “Is this Mr. Demchak”. He said “Yes” and we said “We would like to talk to you about PNC’s financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline”. Then we heard “CLICK”. Oh well, he hung up on us. But being the stalwart social activists that we are, right away we called him again and got his voicemail. We left a very nice, polite voicemail that we must have gotten disconnected (!!), that we were PNC customers and that we wanted to speak to him briefly about how PNC can be a leader in financing clean energy projects rather than oil and gas projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

And wouldn’t you know, Mr. Demchak called us back later that evening…

Mr. Demchak apologized for hanging up on us (when we first called him, he was just getting into an elevator) and said he now was driving to a swim team practice and could speak with us for a few minutes. We quickly moved into our talking points. We told Mr. Demchak (“Bill”) that we were devastated to learn that PNC financially supports the Dakota Access Pipeline and that we want PNC to invest our money in renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Surprisingly, Bill was very frank and open with us and he told us that we are correct that PNC has provided financing to Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners. He went on to say that he regrets the decision to finance these DAPL partners, but that he is now stuck with it. He said that PNC cannot legally back out of the financing agreement because the agreement put no constraints on how Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners could use the funding. Bill said that DAPL was “poorly planned, designed and executed.” He said that PNC thinks that pipeline projects, in general, are a good investment and the best way to transport petroleum across the country, but that DAPL was a big mess.

We told Bill that we thought that PNC should become the leader in large national banks that advocate for clean energy and to finance these types of projects. Bill replied that PNC currently has about $1 billion in solar energy project investments, but that they are all money losers without strong Federal subsidies. He said he was concerned that the Trump administration will cancel or roll back renewable energy subsidies in favor of oil, gas and coal energy and make renewable energy financing difficult or impossible. We said that we were pushing hard on our end of the Federal government to support clean energy. We said we wanted PNC to listen to our concerns. He told us that he was glad that we had been able to speak with several of his senior staff members today and that they had been helpful to us. We responded that, no, pretty much all of his senior staff members had fed us the same rote (and incorrect) line about PNC not being involved in DAPL; only Bill had told us the truth. Bill said that in today’s political climate, people are afraid of saying anything controversial. We told him that the truth is never controversial. Bill stated that, wasn’t it great that we had the chance to speak with the CEO of a major American bank without an appointment at night on his cell phone as he is missing out on his swim team practice? We pushed back on this and responded respectfully that “our money is just as green as his” and that we had not been able to do our jobs teaching our kids today because of this DAPL mess; our time and work are just as valuable as his.

We then discussed our concerns about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fears of their water source being contaminated by any potential leak from DAPL, and Bill agreed that even his own family has expressed the same concerns to him. He is left trying to explain to his kids how this happened. He told us that PNC serves four customers: PNC employees, PNC stockholders, PNC depositors/borrowers and the PNC community. He said that PNC has been putting more and more weight on the PNC community to bring that part of their mandate into more balance with the other stakeholders. We then told Bill that we wanted to feel proud to be PNC customers again who support the “Main Street Bank” values of community that we thought PNC was all about; we told Bill that PNC Bank should make some sort of reparations to the Standing Rock tribe as a show of support for their commendable cause and the hardship that they have had to endure because of the poor planning of the DAPL project. Bill said that he would definitely do that. We thanked Bill for his time and ended the call. We had talked to him for almost 15 minutes.

Although the phone call with Bill Demchak did not result in PNC changing its position with respect to financially supporting the DAPL project, it did feel good to speak up and make our voice heard. It was important to us to stand our ground and make a point to our bank that we wanted our money invested in smart science with smart technology and smart community interest in both thought and action. It was so critically important to have Bill hear that reparations to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were in order, and it was so rewarding to hear him agree with us. As a family, we seek the truth and the intelligent answers to the most compelling problems in our society. We require others to see the truth in their daily lives and to take the necessary actions to support that truth. Every small step and every small action has an effect, it means something to someone somewhere. Today, as a family, we used our combined attributes — wisdom and creativity, strength and compassion, assertiveness and passion — to stand up to obfuscation, fear, half-truths and dismissiveness. Today, we succeeded as a family of four. And, if Bill Demchak, as CEO of PNC Bank, upholds his promise to us and makes direct reparations for his company’s involvement in the harm caused to the Standing Rock community by the construction of the DAPL, we will have succeeded as a family of many more.