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OCC Suggests "Fair Access" Rulemaking to Require Banks to Finance the Oil and Gas Industry

posted by Adam Levitin

Just when you think it can't get more ridiculous... The Office of Comptroller of the Currency, which hasn't taken racially discriminatory lending seriously, is concerned about banks' discriminatory refusal to serve the oil and gas industry. In fact, the OCC is so concerned that it is suggesting legal theories so farfetched that would be laughed out of a courtroom if it actually tried to act on them. 

The underlying issue here is that banks seem have gotten cold feet about financing fossil fuels. Why? Any number of reasons, including that their investors don't like it (ESG), that global warming threatens their own balance sheets, that oil and gas prices right now are so low that investment in the sector might not be a good business move, and that there's huge risk to fossil fuel projects' value based on the 2020 election outcome. But Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska wants to drill in the Arctic and has expressed concern about banks' unwillingness to fund global warming to the OCC.

In response, the Acting Comptroller of the Currency, Brian Brooks, wrote a letter to Senator Sullivan that can only be described as verging on legal malpractice in the service of political expediency while pushing a vision of economic regulation that looks like communist China. 

Acting Comptroller Brooks argues that 12 U.S.C. § 1(a):

requires the OCC to ensure that banks provide "fair access" to financial services. Decisions by major banks to deny the oil and gas sector, among other targeted industries, access to financial services may violate that statute. Accordingly, the OCC will examine the possibility of issuing regulations defining fair access to provide clarity to banks and customers alike.

Let's take a look at 12 U.S.C. § 1. The relevant section states:  

There is established in the Department of the Treasury a bureau to be known as the “Office of the Comptroller of the Currency” which is charged with assuring the safety and soundness of, and compliance with laws and regulations, fair access to financial services, and fair treatment of customers by, the institutions and other persons subject to its jurisdiction.

12 USC 1 is a general expressive statement of the general purposes of the OCC. It's not even a "be excellent to each other" sort of exhortation. It is not by any stretch a provision creating any substantive rights or obligations. If OCC tried to use this as the basis for a "fair access" rulemaking, as Brooks suggests, the rulemaking would get thrown out by a court on an APA challenge in a hot minute. 12 USC 1 authorizes the OCC to do precisely nothing. 

Whatever 12 USC 1 is, it is not a roving commission for the OCC to undertake rulemakings about "fair access" and "fair treatment", etc. It is not a free-standing authorization to undertake any sort of rulemaking. It is very plainly not a delegation by Congress. Furthermore, the suggestion that "Decisions by major banks to deny the oil and gas sector ... access to financial services may violate that statute" is risible. 12 USC 1 is at most an obligation on the OCC, not on banks. It's embarrassing to see the OCC put forth such a legal argument.  

Note that what Brooks is proposing is the flip-side of the allegations made against Operation Chokepoint, namely that regulators were discouraging banks from lending to certain disfavored industries. Now Brooks is talking about forcing banks to lend to certain favored industries. That sounds like ... communist China. It makes my head spin. 

(btw, where are the conservatives who bitch about affordable housing goals and the CRA? Aren't they up in arms that a financial regulator is talking about forcing banks to lend to someone?)  

But let's say that I'm wrong and Brooks is right. Consider the implications. Imagine what a Comptroller with a different political tinge might have with provisions such as "fair treatment of customers" and "fair access to financial services". Who needs UDAAP when you've got "fair treatment"? Who needs CRA, when you've got "fair access"? If Brooks wants to weaponize 12 USC 1, he might want to first recognize that "fair" is a word that progressives can do a lot more with than he can.  

Comments

Excellent points. 12 USC 1 was enacted in 1863. Considering the state of banking at that time, it's difficult to believe that Congress could have anticipated the section would be construed this way.

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