Nature Conservatory Stands By Corporate Partnerships, Including With BP

Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy’s president and CEO, defended the environmental group’s past relationship with oil company BP in an online chat today with the public that included many angry Conservancy members.

The chat followed negative publicity stemming from news reports that the Conservancy had received nearly $10 million in cash and land donations from BP and affiliated corporations going back several years.

The reports had led to surprise and consternation among many of the Conservancy’s membership that their venerable environmental organization could be tied to the worst oil spill in US history.

Some members said they will renounce their membership because of the Conservancy’s ties to BP, while others demanded that the Conservancy sever ties with BP. In a written response during the chat, Tercek said he would not commit to such an action at this time.

“What we learn in the months ahead about this disaster and how BP handles the long-term clean-up and restoration will certainly influence whether we work with them in the future and in what ways,” he wrote.

He added, “I don’t believe we should pull back from working with companies in places where their business activities affect the habitats we want to conserve. As I’ve said before, there’s just too much at stake.”

In a blog post about the spill May 1, Tercek wrote “now is not the time for ranting,” presumably referring to some of the criticism of BP, but did not mention the oil company’s connection to The Nature Conservancy. Instead, the connection was brought up in the comments section, rapidly dominating the discussion there.

Tercek wrote in the chat Tuesday that he “could have been clearer about our relationship with BP” in the earlier blog post.

The non-profit group also came under criticism for not investigating the potential impact of off-shore drilling before the Gulf spill, criticism Tercek acknowledged. “I think we need to look harder at offshore oil and gas development,” he wrote.

The Conservancy works with companies like BP to improve the siting of energy projects so as to reduce harm to the environment, and also partners with them in other ways, such as a greenhouse gas forest sequestration project in South America.

Environmental-corporate partnerships called into question

Whether to take money from “the enemy” — or even work with them at all — is a long-standing debate in environmental circles. While The Nature Conservancy has long partnered with private companies, organizations like Greenpeace and others have taken a much more confrontational approach.

If the Conservancy’s ties to BP are seen as having a serious negative impact on the 59-year old organization’s reputation, it could have an effect on such partnerships between private corporations and environmental organizations.

Bob Deans, Director of Federal Communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the NRDC does not accept money from corporations involved in large scale pollution, “including the oil industry,” but added that “these are the kinds of decisions every organization has to make for itself.”

Dean said the reality is that corporations have become a central part of modern society. “We recognize that this is the world we live in,” he said.

When asked whether the controversy surrounding the Conservancy’s connection to BP would influence the NRDC’s own corporate relationships, Deans said he couldn’t make a blanket statement about the future.

“But there may come a time down the road, because we are constantly reviewing and reevaluating our approach to the kind of partnership we form, to make sure [those relationships] reflect where we are as a nation.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.