Will protests hurt Citizens?

Three protesters were arrested earlier this month after chaining themselves to blockade an entrance into Citizens Bank headquarters in Providence.

The protest was led by The FANG Collective, a regional environmental group that’s actively trying to draw attention to Citizens Bank’s role in providing financing for Sunoco Logistics Partners, a pipeline company behind several polarizing infrastructure projects, including the much-publicized Dakota Access Pipeline.

“We will keep taking action targeting Citizens Bank until they cut ties with Sunoco Logistics,” said Nick Katkevich, FANG Collective spokesman.

How the protests and the FANG Collective’s message are resonating in the bank’s executive board room, however, is unclear, as Citizens has declined to comment.

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Michael D. Ice, professor of finance at the University of Rhode Island, says every boardroom decision is weighed by a laundry list of criteria, including public perception and what can be gained financially.

“You do care about public perception because whether you’re a bank, an airline, or a clothing store, your brand is your brand and that’s critical. … If you really think you have reputational risk, that’s an issue,” Ice said. “You run the risk of alienating another group if you bank the fracking business, but there’s a lot of money to be made in the fracking business.”

Citizens, a subsidiary of Citizens Financial Group Inc., is one of 24 banks to provide a cumulative $2.5 billion revolving line of credit to Sunoco Logistics. Citizens is providing a $72.5 million revolving line of credit, according to The Lakota People’s Law Project, a nonprofit law group fighting the pipeline.

The pipeline project is designed to carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of fracked crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline would run beneath the Missouri River, a primary water source for the 10,000-person Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has opposed the project since 2014.

Protests have taken different forms throughout the country, including in Providence where more than 100 people first protested Citizens on Feb. 8, and again on March 3. The FANG Collective says last month it handdelivered a letter to Citizens, urging executives to cut ties with Sunoco Logistics, and received no response.

“We tried multiple times to directly negotiate with Citizens, only to be ignored. We have no option but to take action,” Katkevich said.

Rhode Island protesters handed out leaflets, asking customers to contact Citizens executives, and to take their business elsewhere. If those efforts translated into real offsets to the gains realized through its business with Sunoco, Ice says Citizens would likely revisit its relationship.

But Citizens’ inaction thus far could suggest protests have not yet reached a level for concern.

“My guess is that they’ll manage this for a while,” Ice said. •