We give Mitch McConnell some grief here, so I believe it’s important to recognize him when Team Mitch does something brave and commendable.
Recently, the Kentucky Coal Association sought to attack any Senate candidate who associates with wealthy individuals seeking to protect the environment from the environmental damage created by the coal industry. McConnell’s campaign commendably ignored such threats, accepting $2,000 in contributions from anti-coal activist David Litman of Texas, who fought successfully to block the construction of new coal-fired power plants in his state. (Seriously, read this Ronnie Ellis story to see how brave McConnell is.)
But McConnell has an even closer tie to a person leading the charge for corporate responsibility on the environment and the push to disinvest from harmful practices of the coal industry: his wife, Elaine Chao.
Chao joined the board of directors for banking giant Wells Fargo in 2011, serving on their Corporate Responsibility Committee as it made an aggressive push to improve their corporate leadership on the environment and coal.
Chao didn’t waste any time moving Wells Fargo in the right direction. In April of 2012, Wells Fargo announced this aggressive commitment to environmental leadership and a $30 billion investment in a greener economy. But the truly revolutionary step for Wells Fargo on the environment happened early the next year, when the company announced it would divest from mountaintop removal projects, companies that rely on mountaintop removal, and stand-alone coal-fired power plants. Here are some excerpts of the Chao/Wells Fargo announcement:
“We carefully consider companies who are engaged in surface mining in the Appalachian region of the United States. We recognize the significant concerns associated with this practice and we also acknowledge the significant investments made by our coal customers in their mine operations, which were entered into in good faith and in accordance with applicable regulations. As a result of our deliberate approach and the broader movement of the industry toward other mining methods, our involvement with the practice of MTR is limited and declining. Wells Fargo will not extend credit to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining.”
Coal-fired power plants are a large source of electricity in the U.S. and coal is anticipated to be a significant contributor to
the reliability of our nation’s energy supply for the foreseeable future. However, coal combustion is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.
Recent regulations and market conditions have significantly changed the power generation industry in the U.S., including decisions about fuel sources for future power generation projects and about plant retirements of existing assets. We have entered a transition period where the majority of baseload power plants developed in the U.S. are now natural gas-fired. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, and stable capital costs and attractive pricing make it a desirable source of new capacity.
We do not finance coal-power plants on a stand-alone basis. For example, we generally provide commercial banking services such as treasury management and general lines of credit that may be used for multiple purposes. We are actively accelerating toward a more sustainable economy and are leading the transition to cleaner energy sources. We have provided more than $11.7 billion in financing to
environmentally beneficial business opportunities since 2005. By 2020, we will provide more than $30 billion in financing to environmentally beneficial business opportunities.
These progressive moves did not go unnoticed by environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club, who raised Wells Fargo’s report card grade on mountaintop removal investment to a C, the best grade among the large banks they monitored. Wells Fargo’s progress has only improved since then, as their most recent grade from these environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, noted for their “Beyond Coal” campaign to shut down coal-fired plants — is a B.
While cynics like the Kentucky Coal Association might attack Chao and Wells Fargo for making such progressive moves — or attack Mitch McConnell by proxy for associating with Chao — I think they should be commended. Nor should Chao and McConnell be attacked because she has received over $600,000 in compensation from Wells Fargo since she came on board, with cynical attempts to say that McConnell has personally “profited” from a company that is actively accelerating the War on Coal.
It doesn’t happen very often here, but “Team Mitch” gets nothing but praise from me on taking this progressive stance for a cleaner environment.