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Economy

GOP directs culture war fury toward green investing trend

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By Sam Metz in Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republicans are coming out swinging against Wall Street’s growing efforts to consider factors like long-term environmental risk in investment decisions, the latest indication that the GOP is willing to damage its relationship with big business to score culture war points.

Many are targeting a concept known as ESG — which stands for environmental, social and governance — a sustainable investment trend sweeping the financial world. Red state officials deride it as politically correct and woke and are trying to stop investors who contract with states from adopting it on any level.

For right-wing activists who previously brought criticisms of critical race theory (CRT), diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and social emotional learning (SEL) to the forefront, it’s the latest acronym-based source of outrage to find a home at rallies, in conservative media and in legislatures.

ESG has yet to take hold as mainstream political messaging, but backlash against it is gaining steam. Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence attacked the concept during a speech in Houston. And on Wednesday, the same day he said on Twitter he planned to vote Republican, Elon Musk attacked it after Tesla lost its place on the S&P 500′s ESG Index. He called it a scam “weaponized by phony social justice warriors.”

The concept calls on investors to consider criteria such as environmental risk, pay equity or how transparent companies are in their accounting practices. Aided by recently proposed disclosure requirements and analysis from ratings agencies, they have adopted the principles to such an extent that those who use them control $16.6 trillion in investments held in the U.S.

In response, Republicans — historically known for supporting fewer regulations — are in many places attempting to impose new rules on investors. Their efforts reflect how members of the party are willing to distance themselves from big business to push back against those they see as ideological foes.

“I don’t think we’re the party of big business anymore. We’re the party of people — more specifically, we’re the party of working people. And the problem that we have is with big banks and corporations right now trying to dictate how we’re going to live our lives,” West Virginia Treasurer Riley Moore said.

Opponents criticize ESG as politicized and a potentially costly diversion from purely financial investment principles, while advocates say considering the criteria more accurately accounts for risk and promises steadier returns.

“We focus on sustainability not because we’re environmentalists, but because we are capitalists and fiduciaries to our clients,” Larry Fink, CEO of investment firm BlackRock and a leading proponent, told clients in a letter this year.

But Moore and others including Utah’s Republican state treasurer Marlo Oaks argue favoring green investment over fossil fuels denies key industries access to the financial system and capital. They have targeted S&P Global Ratings for appending ESG scores to their traditional state credit ratings. They worry that without changes, their scores could make borrowing for projects like schools or roads costlier.

In an April letter, Oaks demanded S&P retract analysis that rated Utah as “moderately negative” in terms of environmental risk due to “long-term challenges regarding water supply, which could remain a constraint for its economy … given pervasive drought conditions in the western U.S.”

The letter was co-signed by the governor, legislative leaders and the state’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Mitt Romney, whose former firm Bain Capital calls ESG factors “strategic, fact-based and diligence-driven.” It said ratings system “attempts to legitimize a dubious and unproven exercise” and attacks the “unreliability and inherently political nature of ESG factors in investment decisions.”

Though he likened ESG to critical race theory, Oaks said he was mostly concerned with capital markets and what he called attempts by fossil fuel opponents to manipulate them by pressuring investors to pick businesses with high ESG scores.

“DEI, CRT, SEL. It can be hard to keep up with the acronyms,” he wrote on an economics blog last month, “but there’s a relatively new one you need to know: ESG.”

Investors making carbon neutral or net zero criteria common were, in effect, Oaks said, limiting access to capital for oil and gas businesses, hurting their returns and potentially contributing to gas price spikes.

In more than a dozen red states, officials dispute the idea that the energy transition underway could make fossil fuel-related investments riskier in the long term. They argue employing asset managers with a preference for green investments uses state funds to further agendas out of sync with constituents.

In statehouses, anti-green investing efforts are backed by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute, a think-tank skeptical of scientific consensus on human-caused climate change that has backed bills that either divest state funds from financial institutions that use ESG or forbid them from using it to score businesses or individuals.

In Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky, lawmakers have passed bills requiring state funds limit transactions with companies that shun fossil fuels. Wyoming considered banning “social credit scores” that evaluate businesses using criteria that differ from accounting and other financial metrics, like ESG

After conservative talk show host Glenn Beck visited the Idaho Statehouse and referred to ESG as critical race theory “on steroids,” the Legislature passed a law in March prohibiting investment of state funds in companies that prioritize commitments to ESG over returns.

The American Legislative Exchange Council recently published model policy that would subject banks managing state pensions to new regulations limiting investments driven by what it calls “social, political and ideological” goals.

Though the policy doesn’t mention it outright, Jonathan Williams, the group’s chief economist, said ESG’s mainstreaming amid broader trends of political correctness was a driving force. He said his research shows that incorporating factors beyond traditional financial metrics can lower the rate of return for already underfunded state pensions.

Sustainable investing advocates deny that charge and say considering the risks and realities of climate change amounts to responsible investing.

West Virginia and Arkansas recently divested their pension funds from BlackRock in response to the asset manager adding businesses with smaller carbon footprints to its portfolios. Moore, West Virginia’s treasurer, hopes more will follow.

Though it’s drawing enthusiasm, the green investment discourse differs from recurring debates over gender and sexuality or how history is taught. Both proponents and detractors acknowledged they’re surprised pensions, credit ratings and investment decisions have become campaign rally fodder.

Last month at the Utah state party’s convention, thousands of Republicans roared when Sen. Mike Lee described green investment in similar terms to critical race theory — another acronym-based foil: “Between CRT and ESG and MSNBC, we get way too much B.S.,” Lee said.

Bryan McGannon, a lobbyist with US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, said opponents were wrong in framing sustainable investing trends as political. If states refuse to reckon with how the future will likely rely less on fossil fuels and limit how environmental risk can be considered, he said, they’re making decisions with incomplete information.

“If a state’s not considering those risks, it may be a signal to an investor that this might not be a wise government to be putting our money with,” McGannon said. “Investors use a huge swath of information, and ESG is a piece of that mosaic.”

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Associated Press writers Stan Choe in New York and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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Economy

Sri Lanka’s crisis rings alarm for other troubled economies

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By Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok

BANGKOK (AP) — Sri Lanka is desperate for help with weathering its worst crisis in recent memory. Its schools are closed for lack of fuel to get kids and teachers to classrooms. Its effort to arrange a bailout from the International Monetary Fund has been hindered by the severity of its financial crisis, its prime minister says.

But it’s not the only economy that’s in serious trouble as prices of food, fuel and other staples have soared with the war in Ukraine. Alarm bells are ringing for many economies around the world, from Laos and Pakistan to Venezuela and Guinea.

Some 1.6 billion people in 94 countries face at least one dimension of the crisis in food, energy and financial systems, and about 1.2 billion of them live in “perfect-storm” countries, severely vulnerable to a cost-of-living crisis plus other longer-term strains, according to a report last month by the Global Crisis Response Group of the United Nations Secretary-General.

The exact causes for their woes vary, but all share rising risks from surging costs for food and fuel, driven higher by Russia’s war on Ukraine, which hit just as disruptions to tourism and other business activity from the coronavirus pandemic were fading. As a result, the World Bank estimates that per capita incomes in developing economies will be 5% below pre-pandemic levels this year.

The economic strains are fueling protests in many countries, as meanwhile, short-term, higher interest borrowing to help finance pandemic relief packages has heaped more debt on countries already struggling to meet repayment obligations. More than half of the world’s poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it, according to the U.N.

Some of the worst crises are in countries already devastated by corruption, civil war, coups or other calamities. They muddle along, but with an undue burden of suffering.

Here’s a look at a few of the economies that are in dire straits or at greatest risk.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan has been reeling from a dire economic crisis since the Taliban took control as the U.S. and its NATO allies withdrew their forces last year. Foreign aid — long a mainstay — stopped practically overnight and governments piled on sanctions, halted bank transfers and paralyzed trade, refusing to recognize the Taliban government. The Biden administration froze $7 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves held in the United States. About half the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity and most civil servants, including doctors, nurses and teachers, have been unpaid for months. A recent earthquake killed more than 1,000 people, adding to those miseries.

ARGENTINA

About four of every 10 Argentines are poor and its central bank is running perilously low on foreign reserves as its currency weakens. Inflation is forecast to exceed 70% this year. Millions of Argentines survive largely thanks to soup kitchens and state welfare programs, many of which are funneled through politically powerful social movements linked to the ruling party. A recent deal with the IMF to restructure $44 billion in debt faces questions over concessions that critics say will hinder a recovery.

EGYPT

Egypt’s inflation rate surged to almost 15% in April, causing privation especially for the nearly one-third of its 103 million people living in poverty. They were already suffering from an ambitious reform program that includes painful austerity measures like floating the national currency and slashing subsidies for fuel, water and electricity. The central bank raised interest rates to curb inflation and devalued the currency, adding to difficulties in repaying Egypt’s sizable foreign debt. Egypt’s net foreign reserves have fallen. Its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $22 billion in deposits and direct investments as assistance.

LAOS

Tiny, landlocked Laos was one of the fastest growing economies until the pandemic hit. Its debt levels have surged and like Sri Lanka, it is in talks with creditors on how to repay billions of dollars worth of loans. That’s an urgent issue given the country’s weak government finances. Its foreign reserves are equal to less than two months of imports, the World Bank says. A 30% depreciation in the Lao currency, the kip, has worsened those woes. Rising prices and job losses due to the pandemic threaten to worsen poverty.

LEBANON

Lebanon shares with Sri Lanka a toxic combination of currency collapse, shortages, punishing levels of inflation and growing hunger, snaking queues for gas and a decimated middle class. It, too, endured a long civil war, its recovery hampered by government dysfunction and terror attacks.

Proposed taxes in late 2019 ignited longstanding anger against the ruling class and months of protests. The currency began to sink and Lebanon defaulted on paying back worth about $90 billion at the time, or 170% of GDP — one of the highest in the world. In June 2021, with the currency having lost nearly 90% of its value, the World Bank said the crisis ranked as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years.

MYANMAR

The pandemic and political instability have buffeted Myanmar’s economy, especially after the army seized power in February 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. That brought Western sanctions targeting commercial holdings controlled by the army, which dominate the economy. The economy contracted by 18% last year and is forecast to barely grow in 2022. More than 700,000 people have fled or been forced from their homes by armed conflicts and political violence. The situation is so uncertain, a recent global economic update from the World Bank excluded forecasts for Myanmar for 2022-2024.

PAKISTAN

Like Sri Lanka, Pakistan has been in urgent talks with the IMF, hoping to revive a $6 billion bailout package that was put on hold after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was ousted in April. Soaring crude oil prices pushed up fuel prices which in turn raised other costs, pushing inflation to over 21%. A government minister’s appeal to cut back on tea drinking to reduce the $600 million bill for imported tea angered many Pakistanis. Pakistan’s currency, the rupee, has fallen about 30% against the U.S. dollar in the past year. To gain the IMF’s support, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has raised fuel prices, abolished fuel subsidies and imposed a new, 10% “super tax” on major industries to help repair the country’s tattered finances. As of late March, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen to $13.5 billion, equivalent to just two months of imports. “Macroeconomic risks are strongly tilted to the downside,” the World Bank warned in its latest assessment.

TURKEY

Worsening government finances and a growing trade and capital account deficit have compounded Turkey’s troubles with high and rising debt, inflation — at over 60% —and high unemployment. The Central Bank resorted to using foreign reserves to fend off a currency crisis, after the beleaguered lira fell to all-time lows against the U.S. dollar euro in late 2021. Tax cuts and fuel subsidies to cushion the blow from inflation have weakened government finances. Families are struggling to buy food and other goods, while Turkey’s foreign debt is about 54% of its GDP, an unsustainable level given the high level of government debt.

ZIMBABWE

Inflation in Zimbabwe has surged to more than 130%, raising fears the country could return to the hyperinflation of 2008 that reached 500 billion percent and heaping problems on its already fragile economy. Zimbabwe struggles to generate an adequate inflow of greenbacks needed for its largely dollarized local economy, which has been battered by years of de-industrialization, corruption, low investment, low exports and high debt. Inflation has left Zimbabweans distrustful of the currency, adding to demand for U.S. dollars. And many skip meals as they struggle to make ends meet.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan and Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

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Alberta

First test production of plastic a milestone for Heartland Petrochemical Complex

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CALGARY — The $4.3-billion Heartland Petrochemical Complex, which has been under construction northeast of Edmonton since 2018, has produced its first plastic pellets.

Owner and operator Inter Pipeline Ltd. said Tuesday the newly commissioned facility has been producing test pellets steadily since late June, an important milestone en route to the expected start of full commercial operation sometime this fall.

The Heartland Petrochemical Complex will convert Alberta propane into 525,000 tonnes per year of polypropylene beads, an easily transported form of plastic that is used in the manufacturing of a wide range of finished products.

Steven Noble, spokesman for Calgary-based Inter Pipeline, said the facility will be the first integrated propane dehydrogenation and polypropylene production facility in North America. He said approximately 70 per cent of Heartland’s total production capacity has been already contracted out to long-term customers.

“Through the duration of the project’s construction, we’ve seen demand for polypropylene increase significantly … including at one point hitting an all-time record (market price),” Noble said in an interview. “The demand that we initially forecast certainly hasn’t gone away.”

The Heartland facility is being built with the support of a $408-million grant from Alberta’s provincial government. The cash grant, part of an incentive program aimed at growing the province’s petrochemicals sector, is to be paid to Inter Pipeline in equal instalments over three years once the complex is operational.

Noble said by creating a new market for propane, the Heartland facility is an example of how natural resource development in Alberta is diversifying.

“The fact that we’re now looking at our raw resources in a different way, and figuring out different ways to get value out of them and create other refined products right here at home … is really the part of the story that everyone here is excited about,” he said.

The Heartland Petrochemical Complex is expected to employ 300 people once fully operational.

The polypropylene produced at the facility will be branded as Heartland Polymers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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