I'll confess that I had a few tough questions -- mostly for myself -- at around 8 a.m. this morning.
For example, why was I standing out in a driving rain, watching a handful of environmental activists -- nearly outnumbered by the cops across the street -- singing about coal? ("Take me down to your coal / Take me down where the earth is old," I think it went -- my notes got smeared in the rain.)
But more importantly: What was I doing here -- in the parklet across from PNC's Firstside Center? PNC has a good environmental reputation, after all -- thanks in no small part to the "green" Firstside building itself. Anyway, if you're going to protest coal mining, why do it in front of a bank?
Because, activists say, PNC helps finance coal companies like Massey Energy, whose mining practices can cause environmental damage elsewhere. West Virginina-based Massey has attracted considerable controversy for using a mining process known as "mountaintop removal." As the name implies, the technique involves lopping off the tops of hillsides to get the coal beneath: The left-over rock and soil is often dumped into valleys.
"PNC is doing green buildings, and cultivating a green image," said activist Jessica McPherson, of Garfield. "But they're profiting from coal companies. We want PNC to do the right thing and divest."
PNC spokesperson Fred Solomon wouldn't confirm the bank's investments in coal companies ... but he didn't exactly deny them, either.
"Our practice is to not identify clients," Solomon told me. "There are strict regulations about that. But clearly, we've been a backer to a lot of our region's large industrial organizations for a long time."
Did PNC feel that it had an obligation to police the environmental practices of firms it does business with? "PNC has multiple obligations to the customers it serves, and to the community too," Solomon said. "We work hard to balance those ... and community growth would be one of them."
In any case, it's not difficult to show connections between PNC and mining companies. For example, PNC holds a sizable ownership stake in BlackRock, an investment-management company based in New York. (The bank owns just under half of BlackRock's common stock.) And one of BlackRock's mutual funds, the BlackRock Energy & Resources Fund, has significant holdings in both Massey Energy and Consol.
PNC has other ties to the industry as well. For example, it is helping to arrange financing for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, one of the country's largest mining companies. Arch Coal has also engaged in mountaintop-removal in the coal fields of West Virginia.
Such connections may seem remote to many of us. (So ... PNC is a bank that owns stock in an investment firm ... that has a mutual fund ... in a coal company? Have I got that right?) But that's part of the reason for coming to Pittsburgh, say protesters. The decisions that get made here in Pittsburgh during the G-20 will have an effect well beyond its borders. For that matter, so can the decisions made by Pittsburgh's corporate honchos every day of the week.
In fact, not long after the rain stopped, the group marched a block away, to where a bus was parked in front of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh: The bus, it turned out, was being used by executives attending a coal-conference being held just before the G-20. Protesters marched in circles beside the bus, chanting, until the bus pulled way. They also hung a banner from a parking garage across the Boulevard of the Allies: "G-20: Quit Coal / $$$ / Fund Climate Recovery" it read.
A garage security employee cut the banner down after a few minutes. But the fact remains: While Pittsburgh hosts a handful of Fortune 500 companies, we're mostly an office park for them. Ever since the region deindustrialized two decades ago, we've been comfortably removed from the actual work those companies do -- and the environmental consequences that follow from it.
"The people in Pittsburgh aren't going to be the families of miners," said Deborah Hollingsworth, who traveled here from western North Carolina. "These are the executives, so for them [the issue] isn't close to home. And if [the mining technique] is invisible, it can be as ugly and devastating as it wants."