By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dutch bank ING Groep on Tuesday said it has agreed to sell its $120 million share of the loan for the Dakota Access Pipeline, the first bank to offload its debt from the project, which faced fierce opposition from Native Americans and environmental groups.
The announcement came one month after ING's head of business ethics met with a representative of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which had led a months-long protest to stop completion of the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile (1,885-km) pipeline.
At that meeting, ING said it would either continue to "positively influence" the course of the project, or to distance itself by selling its stake in the loan," the company said in a press release.
With oil set to start flowing through the pipeline as soon as this week, after a U.S. judge last week ruled against the tribes seeking to stop its completion, ING said there was less room for lenders to influence the project.
ING was one of 17 banks financing the Energy Transfer Partners LP <ETP.N> pipeline, which will move crude from the Northern Plains to the Midwest and then on to the Gulf of Mexico.
ING said it would send "a valuable message" by selling its loan and calling for "respectful dialogue" with tribes in major infrastructure project transactions.
“We are heartened that ING has made the conscious decision to remove itself from a project that tramples on the rights of sovereign nations,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.
Under the agreement, the undisclosed buyer of the ING loan said it would "support the importance of a respectful dialogue with the Tribe and other affected groups."
"ING is grateful to the buyer for playing an important role in enabling a solution that allows ING not to breach its contractual obligations under the loan while at the same time delivering a valuable message in support of the Tribe," ING said in a statement.
ING was one of 17 banks financing the Dakota pipeline, led by Citibank, for a total of $2.5 billion in credit.
Law enforcement late last month swept through an encampment occupied since August on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, after President Donald Trump had issued an executive order directing the Corps to grant an easement allowing the project to proceed.
Some protesters have turned their focus to divestment campaigns targeting banks with a stake in the pipeline. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have divested from Dakota-invested banks.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler)