US: Nature Conservancy faces potential backlash from ties with BP

Publisher Name: 
Washington Post

In the days after the immensity of the oil 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
in."

What De Leon didn't know was that the Nature Conservancy lists BP as one of its business
partners. The Conservancy 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 group she loves and the company she hates. "That's
kind of disturbing."

The Conservancy, already scrambling to shield oyster beds 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.

The crude emanating from BP's well threatens to befoul a number of
alliances between energy conglomerates and environmental nonprofits. At
least one group, Conservation International, 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 groups should keep a healthy distance
from certain kinds of corporations, particularly those 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 who, like the
Conservancy, see partnering with global corporations as the best way to
create 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 County-based Conservancy has made no secret of its
relationship with BP, just one of many it has forged with multinational
corporations. The Conservancy's Web site lists BP as a member of its
International 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 ties

The Conservancy has long positioned itself as the leader of a
nonconfrontational arm of the environmental movement, and that position
has helped the charity attract tens of millions of dollars annually in
contributions. A number have come from companies whose work takes a toll
on the environment, including those engaged in logging, home building
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 corporations make up only a
portion of the organization's total revenue, which exceeds half a
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 nonprofit's board.

In response to the spill, the nonprofit plans to review its 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
that "now is not the time for ranting." He made no mention of BP.

Nate Swick, a blogger and dedicated bird watcher from Chapel Hill, N.C.,
chastised Tercek on the site for not adequately disclosing the
Conservancy's connections to BP and for 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 added that he 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 said. "It would be
naive to ignore them."

There might be a sense of the past among long-timers at the Conservancy.

Years ago, worried officials 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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