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Analysis: US pipeline controversy causes Nordic issues

The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has split opinion in the US and divided pension funds in the Nordic region.

While many pension funds have chosen to divest from equities and bonds issued by the companies behind the 1,900km pipeline, others have retained the assets.

The DAPL is being built to transport oil from the Bakken Formation in northwest North Dakota to southern Illinois. The main problem has arisen from the pipeline passing under a lake supplying the Standing Rock Sioux tribe with drinking water. Protestors have also complained about a lack of consultation with local residents, the inadequacy of environmental assessments, and disputed ownership of the land in question.

More than 6,000km away in Norway, investors have faced pressure from the Nordic region’s own local indigenous population, the Sami, who have spoken out to defend the rights of indigenous people in solidarity with the Sioux tribe. Spread across native lands in the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsular, the Sami have on many occasions defended their own land against mining and mineral prospecting activities.

Emotions have been running high over the matter, with some protestors frustrated at the apparent lack of action taken by the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) – at NOK7.9trn (€862bn) one of the world’s largest investors. 

In March, a group of indigenous women from the US travelled to Oslo to meet the Council on Ethics, which advises on the GPFG’s investments. They came away disappointed at what they felt was a lack of response shown by the council’s officials and others at the meeting, according to a representative of the delegation.

The GPFG has a large amount – about €1.2bn – invested in five of the companies behind the pipeline project, in the form of equities and corporate bonds, according to its published investments.

Vibeke Larsen, the president of the Sami Parliament in Norway, joined the US women at the meeting with the Council on Ethics.

The parliament has also put pressure on other investors including municipal pension fund KLP and Norwegian bank DNB, both of which have divested their holdings, as has Storebrand.

Defending Storebrand from accusations it had been too slow to act, Harald Holm, sustainability expert at the group, said: “Perhaps the easiest thing would have been to wash our hands of it and leave the matter to the other investors who would have bought our shares.”

But he said past experience showed it was important for investors to remain in order to have an influence, citing Storebrand’s seven-year involvement with Statoil over its oil sands project.

Statoil sold the business last year.

Nordea, meanwhile, decided in early February to exclude Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco Logistics, and Philips 66 – three of the DAPL companies. The day before it did so, the US Department of the Army announced it intended to grant the final permit for the pipeline, allowing it to be constructed according to the current controversial route.

Nordea said it had tried to talk to the three companies behind the pipeline about an alternative route, but said they “declined any form of dialogue”.

Late last year KLP sent a member of staff to the US to investigate the pipeline situation. Despite initially finding no breaches of its environmental, social, or governance guidelines, the fund later divested its holdings, citing human rights concerns.

Whether the companies have been willing to engage with Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM) – which manages GPFG – is unknown.

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