RWE, the European coal giant (1), is demolishing the village of Lützerath for the expansion of its Garzweiler mine in western Germany,  trampling human rights and the climate in the process. And yet RWE is still supported by many major financial players, including Société Générale, BNP Paribas, Amundi and Natixis. We take stock. 

RWE’s refusal to adopt a real exit strategy from coal and give up the development of its mines has led many financial players to exclude it from their portfolios. Among them, AXA, which first disinvested from the company in 2017, and then excluded it from its insurance portfolios after adopting its 2019 policy.

Who still supports RWE?

But other financial players continue to provide finance for RWE, including many international banks. More than 20 of them participated in at least one of the two loans totalling €5 billion granted in March and April 2022, including the French banks Société Générale and BNP Paribas (2). Six of these banks also issued new RWE bonds for US$ 1.3 billion in August 2022.

Among the investors supporting RWE, Amundi, the asset management subsidiary of Crédit Agricole, and Natixis, a subsidiary of the Banque Populaire Caisse d’Epargne group, are among the main shareholders of the German company.

The 25 banks that financed RWE from January to August 2022 – Loans and share and bond issues – Source: Profundo

Banks Amount (US$M)
Commerbank 849
Société Générale 459
MUFG 299
NatWest 299
Intesa Sanpaolo 299
JPMorgan Chase 299
UniCredit 247
BNP Paribas 247
Mizuho 247
Deutsche Bank 247
SMBC 247
DZ Bank 247
Bank of America 247
Goldman Sachs 247
Morgan Stanley 247
HSBC 247
RBC 247
Barclays 247
Citi 247
LBBW 247
Helaba 247
BayemLB 247
BBVA 87
SEB 87
Santander 87

Top 25 RWE shareholders as of 20/01/2023 – Source: Bloomberg

Investor Amount (€M)
BlackRock 1786
KEB 1342
Vanguard 1000
Crédit Agricole / Amundi 918
GIC 839
Stadt Essen 777
Deutsche Bank 568
Fidelity Investments 451
JPMorgan Chase 318
TIAA 299
Pictet 290
Union Investment 272
DekaBank 207
Capital Group 187
MFS 181
GPIF 147
Allianz 139
Fidelity International 126
Causeway 102
Dimensional 93
Azimut 86
The Hartford 82
Jennison Associates 79
Natixis 78
State Street 76

Supporting RWE in 2022: a historic mistake?

The list of RWE’s backers and investors is intriguing because, with the exception of a handful such as Vanguard and JPMorgan AM, the majority have adopted policies to restrict their support for coal. It would be logical to expect a coal giant like RWE to be excluded.

But this is not the case. The reason is that these policies are notoriously inadequate or full of loopholes:

  • Limited scope: some policies, such as those of MUFG and SMBC, only cover direct project finance, not general corporate finance, which accounts for the vast majority of financial flows to the coal sector, as in this case for RWE;
  • Inadequate thresholds: despite the adoption of numerous versions of increasingly stringent policies, the relative exclusion thresholds of many of them remain insufficient to exclude RWE, even though it derives more than 22% of its revenues from coal. Banks with inadequate thresholds include Barclays (30% from 2023), Deutsche Bank (50% without a diversification strategy), HSBC (40%), Bank of America (25%, phased out by 2025), JPMorgan Chase (50%) and Morgan Stanley (20% from 2025);
  • Exclusions only for new customers: many banks have adopted exclusion thresholds that should exclude RWE, but these thresholds only apply to new customers, not to their historical customers like RWE. This is the case for Commerzbank, Santander and Citi. Mizuho and RBC even combine this loophole with the one above.
  • Tailor-made exceptions: many policies have exceptions, such as the Swedish bank SEB, which has a very strict exclusion threshold of 15% of revenue/energy mix but exempts companies operating in Germany, i.e. RWE. UniCredit made the same exception for  2022. There is also the case of BBVA, which excludes companies that have an energy mix of more than 25% from coal (RWE is at 33%), but exempts companies “with a diversification strategy”. Or finally Natwest, which has a strict exclusion threshold of 15% like SEB, except for companies with a transition plan aligned with the Paris Agreement. However, it should be noted that RWE does currently allocate the majority of its capital expenditure to renewable energy.

When carbon takes precedence over fair transition

But it is above all the presence of French financial players that raises questions. Société Générale and BNP Paribas, for example, are among those who adopted coal policies in 2020 which aim explicitly to to halt the expansion of the coal sector and support its exit by 2030 in Europe.

RWE’s expansion of the Garzweiler site initially appears to contradict the commitment of the two French banks to exclude companies that are developing new coal mines. But in fact, this extension cannot technically be considered as a capacity expansion. It is a physical expansion of the existing mine pit in an area that has been part of the mining estate since the first approval in 1987, with no additional approvals required, according to the NGO Urgewald (3)

On the other hand, RWE produced 52 Mt of coal in 2020 and 63 Mt in 2021, putting it well above the absolute exclusion threshold of 10 Mt adopted by the two French banks. But here too, RWE once again escapes because the exclusion applies only to the group’s subsidiaries that directly own or operate coal mines, and not to the group itself.

Finally, BNP Paribas and Société Générale have also called for the mandatory adoption of an exit plan from the sector by 2030 for OECD countries before the end of 2021, according to their coal policies adopted in the summer of 2020, but the two banks have played for time and postponed the date of application of their policy to RWE, claiming to be waiting for the German government’s conclusions and its negotiations with German companies.

Although RWE finally acknowledged the German government’s 2030 coal phase-out date in October 2022, the company has tried to derail the process by seeking to obtain maximum compensation from the German government. For years, RWE has opposed the adoption and acceleration of a plan to exit the coal sector, insisting that it would use its assets until the end of their lifespan, and that it would only exit the sector in 2050. The company also sued the Dutch government over its decision to phase out coal by 2030. Today, the company is pursuing the same strategy with its expansion in Lützerath. However, no French financial player, not even Amundi, which is at the top of the list of those who are happy to proclaim their commitment to a “just transition”, has intervened to even condemn RWE’s actions.

So big financial players are now happy to say they support both the exit from coal and the development of a renewables giant in the making. But their silence on the destruction of Lützerath is still deafening, and one has to wonder about their responsibility for this ultimate act against human rights and climate justice. Their lack of public reaction when a company needlessly razes a village 200 kilometres from the French border is enough to pass judgement: their financial interests take precedence over the issues of a just transition. 

Note:

  1. RWE produced 63 Mt of coal in 2022 according to the Global Coal Exit List, making it the largest producer in the EU.
  2. The two loans are broken down as follows: one loan totalling €3 billion in March 2022, and another loan of €2 billion in April 2022.
  3. See Agefi article,  Le projet minier de RWE met les banques et gérants face à leurs contradictions, January 2023.