Major banks are holding up coal plants in the U.S. by financing the parent companies that own them. A report by the Sierra Club’s Fossil-Free Finance campaign investigated the financing of the 10 most deadly parent utility companies that receive most of their financing from six banks. The six banks comprise 50 percent, or $83.8 billion, of the total financing given to the 10 companies since 2016.
All six banks have climate commitments restricting them from providing project-level loans to coal plants. They are all signatories of the Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), a banking industry pledge to finance climate action to transition the economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Part of the commitment is pledging to increase positive impacts while reducing the negative impacts.
In reality, there are loopholes in the banks’ commitments that allow them to continue lending and underwriting for companies that operate coal power plants in the U.S. Major global banks provided $166 billion to 10 of the most polluting publicly traded and federally owned coal utility parent companies. For example, Barclays, one of the six banks featured in the report, is the only one with a policy prohibiting corporate-level financing to some companies that operate coal plants. However, its policy contains several exceptions that allow financing for companies developing coal power. Barclays is the top non-U.S. financier of coal at $17.7 billion.
“With their flimsy financing policies and half-finished net zero targets, these banks have left billions of dollars on the table for major polluters to continue to operate and even expand the coal plants that kill thousands of people in the United States every year,” said Adele Shraiman, Senior Campaign Strategist, Fossil-Free Finance, Sierra Club. “By continuing to pour money into coal, these banks are telling their shareholders, clients, and regulators they aren’t serious about meeting their own climate commitments.”
The TVA and Coal
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is one of the 10 parent companies. TVA owns three coal plants, and none of them have “firm plans” to retire by 2030. Two of the plants plan to retire in 2031 and 2033, while the third has plans to retire between 2026 and 2027, but the plans are not yet approved. Provided that the retirement dates are upheld, then the air pollution from the coal power plants will cause 1,906 deaths.
The TVA is the largest public power utility company and one of the largest power producers in the country. It received the label “most deadly parent company” from the Sierra Club. Despite the label, TVA says that it delivers “affordable, reliable, and clean power. The power company brags about its carbon reduction achievements.
The Dirtiness of Coal Power
Coal power plants cause greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, according to a report by the Sierra Club. Coal combustion puts more carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere than natural gas or petroleum for electricity production. Coal use in the power sector represented only 23 percent of electricity in the U.S. in 2021. However, it accounts for 59 percent of carbon emissions from that sector. Coal power plants release soot pollution, and 3,800 people die from that pollution annually. Just 17 coal plants are responsible for over half of those deaths.
The 10 coal utility parent companies operate coal plants in 16 states and annually cause 1,719 premature deaths from exposure to air pollution. Soot pollution released by coal power plants travels far. Only an estimated four percent of premature mortality caused by coal power plants occurs in the same county where the plant resides. Two counties serve as a good example. Alleghany County, Pennsylvania, and Cook County, Illinois tie for the most premature deaths caused by coal. The difference between the two counties is that Cook County is hundreds of miles from large coal power plants.