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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.

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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