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Challenged by shareholders to more rapidly shift support from Canada’s oil and gas sector toward renewable resources, chief executives from Canada’s largest banks stressed how vital the energy industry remains to sustaining jobs and generating prosperity in the country.

As Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce all held annual shareholder meetings on Thursday, the banks’ CEOs maintained a delicate balancing act in response to pressure from investors over environmental concerns.

RBC CEO Dave McKay and his TD counterpart, Bharat Masrani, both touted efforts to channel funding toward greener alternatives, highlighting separate $100-billion commitments to sustainable financing over the coming years. But they also defended their banks’ support for carbon-heavy energy producers.

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When a shareholder challenged RBC’s carbon footprint and its financing of oil sands projects at its meeting in Halifax, Mr. McKay replied that “the economic dividend that comes from our energy resources is significant to this country. … It’s significant to our current way of life, and it’s significant to our future.”

He added: “I don’t think we’ve had a discussion about the sacrifices and job losses that could come if we just pursue a path of carbon reduction."

Canada’s six largest banks have a collective $52-billion in loans outstanding to the oil and gas sector, according to financial disclosures.

Under pressure to do their part to combat climate change, other major global banks have promised to stop financing some of the most carbon-heavy energy projects. British-based HSBC Holdings Plc announced it would no longer back coal-fired power plants, new oil and gas projects in the Arctic, and new greenfield oil-sands projects. French lender BNP Paribas SA similarly pledged not to finance shale or oil-sands projects.

Mr. McKay also said use of coal is still rising globally, and that Canada’s energy industries have a role to play in replacing it. “Why wouldn’t we want to take a leadership role in doing that?” he said.

On Thursday, RBC announced a target to provide $100-billion in financing for sustainable companies and projects by 2025 – an average of $14.2-billion annually, compared with $13-billion in financing and advisory transactions RBC completed last year.

In December of 2017, TD made its own pledge to put $100-billion toward low-carbon lending, financing, asset management and internal corporate programs by 2030. But the bank has reached 30 per cent of that goal less than a year and a half later, suggesting it is on track to blow past its target well ahead of schedule.

Outside TD’s annual meeting in Toronto, about three dozen people protested against the bank’s links to fossil fuel producers and support for pipeline projects. And inside the meeting, a proxy holder presented Mr. Masrani with a petition urging the bank to move away from funding fossil fuel projects.

“There’s no way to flick a switch here,” Mr. Masrani told reporters after the meeting. Canada and its global peers are working through a “transition period” as renewable energy gains ground. But until sustainable energy technologies have reached a level of maturity that offers a viable alternative to traditional fuels, he believes that “responsible energy development” remains “absolutely necessary and the right thing to do."

“As to when, from a macro perspective, the graphs cross, that will depend a lot on technology,” Mr. Masrani said. "It will depend a lot on how quickly those technologies become scalable. How quickly do those renewables start to be made available at a rate that the world is demanding from a consumption perspective?”

After CIBC’s annual meeting in Montreal, CEO Victor Dodig said in an interview that an innovation banking arm formed last year, which supports technology and biotech companies from the startup stage, has placed “an increasing focus on the energy sector and how to continue to innovate in that sector.”

But he also noted that when prices for Canadian oil recently plunged, “there was leakage there in terms of tax revenue – tax revenues that support health-care spending and education spending and make our country a better place.”

Canadian bank CEOs have been vocal advocates for pipeline projects and initiatives to make it easier to move Canadian oil and gas to global markets. In March, Bank of Nova Scotia CEO Brian Porter called for a national energy strategy to attract foreign capital. And Mr. McKay has argued that the country’s energy strategy is at a crossroads.

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Even if Canada chose not to develop its energy resources, "the world is still going to burn these fossil fuels,” Mr. McKay said, and will turn to countries with weaker environmental controls to meet demand.

“Would you rather have this energy supplied by companies and entities in North America, where you have strict standards, strict regulation, strict enforcement?” Mr. Masrani said. “Or do you want the world demand to come from places where they may not have a similar kind of protocol?”

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