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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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.