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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source

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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source

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You could be invested in fossil fuels and not know it: CWRU’s partnership with PNC Bank

Each year during Discover Week, a truck sits on Bellflower Road directly in front of the entrance of Tinkham Veale University Center—except instead of selling food it sells bank accounts. PNC Bank partners with Case Western Reserve University to park its bank-on-wheels at one of the busiest walkways on campus right as the school year kicks off, helping new students open their accounts. As an extra incentive to students, PNC offers them a virtual wallet account with multiple perks such as limited overdraft forgiveness for the first year, fee-free banking for the first six years and even a snazzy Spartan debit card when you open your account. This is the perfect strategy: According to Access Services at CWRU, over 2,000 students have started banking with PNC since 2018 because of this partnership

This partnership originated in 2012 when PNC agreed to pay CWRU upwards of $70,000 per year—plus a $100,000 signing bonus—to be the university’s “preferred” bank. This means PNC operates ATMs in university buildings and CWRU markets PNC to its students. As a result, PNC is convenient to bank with on campus—nearly 20% of the 140 CWRU students that responded to a survey I conducted in October said that they banked with PNC.

However, the convenience students receive comes with a high hidden cost to the environment. PNC, a Pittsburgh-based bank, has a history of investing in coal and other fossil fuel projects, including the Dakota Access Pipeline. In 2020, PNC was the seventh largest bank in the U.S., but ranked third for their investment in fossil fuels. Although PNC has pledged $30 billion in “environmental” investments by 2025, its annual investment in fossil fuels still exceeds its annual investment in sustainable projects. According to the Banking on Climate Chaos’s 2023 report, PNC increased fossil fuel investment by the second most out of the 60 largest banks in the world in 2022. It was also one of only 13 of the world’s largest banks to increase fossil fuel investment that year.

Where does PNC get the money for these fossil fuel projects? Deposits, including the deposits of CWRU students. Whenever you put money into your bank account, only a small fraction of it stays in your account as cash. Banks lend the rest to borrowers in the form of mortgages, loans and investments. Those borrowers include fossil fuel companies.

Although CWRU committed to fully divest from fossil fuels in 2021, it continues to partner with PNC and encourages unaware students to invest in fossil fuels. I didn’t know that PNC was putting my savings into oil and gas projects until this semester—and I’m not alone. When I was running around Tink and Kelvin Smith Library asking people to complete my survey, most people I interacted with were confused. When I asked Elyssa Hawkins, a fourth-year student at CWRU, to fill out the form, she responded to me in a text conversation by saying, “Why would I invest in fossil fuels!? … And why specifically PNC?” The connection between PNC and fossil fuel investment was unclear to her, to me and to many other students.

This partnership is dangerous. It preys on students’ ignorance of PNC’s contribution to the climate crisis. Although nearly half of students that responded to my survey said they would not like to have their savings invested in fossil fuels, it’s likely that many of them are already financing oil and gas companies. Given that, on average, people switch bank accounts once every 17 years, these savings could be stuck in the fossil fuel industry for a long time.

The university is knowingly incentivizing students to keep their savings in a bank whose investments are not only ecologically damaging, but also financially risky. Future government regulations, the declining demand for fossil fuel energy and increasing legal risks associated with environmental damages could limit the viability of these investments in the long run. Some critics have gone as far as to call our financial institutions’ entanglement in fossil fuels “the carbon bubble.” This is because if climate policy were implemented such that the two-degrees Celsius cap on global warming were to be reached, as much as 80% of the world’s largest fossil fuel company’s declared reserves would be considered “stranded assets.” This means they would hold far less value than anticipated, making fossil fuels financially devastating to invest in.

Given this, CWRU should ditch its partnership with PNC. It might appear costly to opt out, but the $65,000 the university is gaining this year is chump change compared to the $17 million surplus CWRU has budgeted for the 2024 fiscal year. Plus, with the tuition hikes we’ve seen in the past two years, admitting one more student would cover the costs of the partnership and then some.

Alternatively, CWRU could partner with a bank or credit union that does not invest in fossil fuels. University Credit Union is one example. It serves several U.S. universities, doesn’t invest in fossils and caters to college communities—so it might be worth looking into.

Ultimately, students should not be encouraged to risk their savings in a bank that funds fossil fuel projects through a partnership with PNC that violates the university’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels. If students want to invest in oil and gas, it should be up to them. Let us do our own research instead of blinding us with convenience.

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