Nature Conservancy’s ties to BP (+ Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, Etc.)

Nature Conservancy faces potential backlash from ties with BP

By Joe Stephens

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 23, 2010; 12:30 PM

In the days after the immensity of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico

became clear, some Nature Conservancy supporters took to the

organization’s web site to vent their anger.

“The first thing I did was sell my shares in BP, not wanting anything to

do with a company that is so careless,” wrote one. Another added: “I

would like to force all the BP executives, the secretaries and the

shareholders out to the shore to mop up oil and wash the birds.” Reagan

De Leon of Hawaii called for a boycott of “everything BP has their hands


What De Leon didn’t know was that the Nature Conservancy lists BP as one

of its business partners. The organization also has given BP a seat on

its International Leadership Council and has accepted nearly $10 million

in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations over

the years.

“Oh, wow,” De Leon said when told of the depth of the relationship

between the nonprofit she loves and the company she hates. “That’s kind

of disturbing.”

The Conservancy, already scrambling to shield oyster beds in the region

from the spill, now faces a different problem: a potential backlash as

its supporters learn that the giant oil company and the world’s largest

environmental organization long ago forged a relationship that has lent

BP an Earth-friendly image and helped the Conservancy pursue causes it

holds dear.

Indeed, the crude emanating from BP’s well threatens to befoul a number

of such alliances that have formed between energy conglomerates and

environmental non-profits. At least one conservation group acknowledges

that it is reassessing its ties to the oil company, with an eye toward

protecting its reputation.

“This is going to be a real test for charities such as the Nature

Conservancy,” said Dean Zerbe, a lawyer who investigated the

Conservancy’s relations with its donors when he worked for the Senate

Finance Committee. “This not only stains BP but, if they don’t respond

properly, it also stains those who have been benefiting from their money

and their support.”

Some purists believe environmental organizations should keep a healthy

distance from certain kinds of corporations, particularly those such as

BP, whose core mission poses risks to the environment. They argue that

the BP spill shows the downside to what they view as deals with the devil.

On the other side are self-described pragmatists, such as the

Conservancy, who see partnering with global corporations as the best way

to bring about large-scale change.

“Anyone serious about doing conservation in this region must engage

these companies, so they are not just part of the problem but so they

can be part of the effort to restore this incredible ecosystem,”

Conservancy Chief Executive Mark Tercek wrote on his group’s web site

after criticism from a Conservancy supporter

The Arlington-based Conservancy has made no secret of its relationship

with BP, just one of many it has forged with multi-national

corporations. The Conservancy’s web site identifies BP as a member of

its Leadership Council.

BP has been a major contributor to a Conservancy project aimed at

protecting Bolivian forests. In 2006, BP gave the organization 655 acres

in York County, Va., where a state wildlife management area is planned.

In Colorado and Wyoming, the Conservancy has worked with BP to limit

environmental damage from natural gas drilling.

Until recently, the Conservancy and other environmental groups worked

alongside BP in a coalition that lobbied Congress on climate change

issues. And an employee of BP Exploration serves as an unpaid

Conservancy trustee in Alaska.

“We are getting some important and very tangible outcomes as a result of

our work with the company,” said Conservancy spokesman Jim Petterson.

Reassessing Relationships

The Conservancy has long positioned itself as the leader of a

non-confrontational arm of the environmental movement, and that position

has helped the charity attract tens of millions of dollars a year in

contributions. A number have come from companies whose work takes a toll

on the environment, including those engaged in logging, homebuilding and

power generation.

Conservancy officials say their approach has allowed them to change

company practices from within, leverage the influence of the companies

and protect ecosystems that are under the companies’ control. They

stress that contributions from BP and other large corporations

constitute only a portion of the organization’s total revenue, which now

exceeds a half billion dollars a year.

And the Conservancy is far from the only environmental nonprofit with

ties to BP.

Conservation International has accepted $2 million in donations from BP

over the years and partnered with the company on a number of projects,

including one examining oil extraction methods. From 2000 to 2006, John

Browne, who was then BP’s chief executive, sat on the board of

Conservation International.

In response to the spill, executives at the nonprofit said they plan to

review the organization’s relationship with the company, said Justin

Ward, a Conservation International vice president.

“Reputational risk is on our minds,” Ward acknowledged.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which has a policy of not accepting

corporate donations, joined with BP, Shell International and other major

corporations to form the Partnership for Climate Action, which promotes

“market-based mechanisms” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And about 20 energy and environmental groups, including the Conservancy,

the Sierra Club and Audubon, joined with BP Wind Energy to form the

American Wind and Wildlife Institute, which works to protect wildlife

through “responsible” development of wind farms.

A Rude Awakening

On May 1, Tercek posted a statement on the Conservancy’s site, writing

that it was “difficult to fathom the tragedy” that was unfolding but

adding that “now is not the time for ranting.” He didn’t make any

mention of BP.

Nate Swick, a blogger and dedicated bird watcher from Chapel Hill,

chastised Tercek on the site for not adequately disclosing the

Conservancy’s connections to BP and not working to hold the company

accountable. Swick said in an interview that he considered BP’s payments

to the organization to be an obvious attempt at “greenwashing” its image.

“You have to wonder whether the higher-ups in the Nature Conservancy are

pulling their punches,” said Swick, who admires the work the Conservancy

does in the field.

A Conservancy official quickly responded to Swick’s accusations, laying

out the organization’s ties with BP. A subsequent post by Tercek named

BP and said the spill demonstrated the need for a new energy policy that

would move the United States “away from our dependence on oil.”

“The oil industry is a major player in the Gulf,” he explained. “It

would be na?ve to ignore them.”

There may be a sense of d?j? vu among longtimers at the Conservancy.

Years ago, worried officials there quietly assembled focus groups and

found that most members saw a partnership with BP as “inappropriate.”

The 2001 study, obtained by The Washington Post, found that many

Conservancy members felt a relationship with an oil company was

“inherently incompatible.” And to a minority of members, accepting cash

from these types of companies was viewed as “the equivalent of a payoff.”

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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