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Nature Conservancy faces potential backlash from ties with BP

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By Joe Stephens
Monday, May 24, 2010

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.

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"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.


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