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The Oil Conservancy

June 4, 2010
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Things seem to have stagnated on the oil gusher front as BP tries, yet again, to figure out a way to salvage some of the streaming crude so they can sell it to waiting, jittery consumers.  I think much of the blame for this thing has been rightly apportioned to the massively immoral BP executives who thought, not completely unreasonably, that their reservoirs of cash could buy influence, and the massively incompetent government agencies, starved under 30 years of conservative leadership, who were essentially made up of former oil executives anyway.  The pressure continues to be placed on them, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the insidious tendrils of big oil are not just apparent in our government, but the very organizations to which we give freely to advocate for us.

In the wake of the oil spill, I was surprised to see the response from Mark Tercek,  the head of The Nature Conservancy, especially his admonition that “now is not the time for ranting”.  Not only did I take that as a personal affront, but it seemed odd to me that he would so clearly attempt to diminish the impact that people rising up together in anger can have.  While I agree that there’s no place for misplaced or aimless frustration, it was clear, at least to me, even in the early days of the catastrophe that it was going to be important to keep the pressure on the people in the position to do something about this.  We all know too well that given enough time, even disasters of the scope of the Deepwater Horizon explosion could easily pass out the public eye as soon as the mainstream media discovers some other shiny object that distracts them.  In fact, I’d wager that that was precisely what BP was counting on.

So for the head of the nation’s largest environmental non-profit advocated for a “serious” approach instead of mobilizing his membership for action seemed especially bizarre.  What was more bizarre however, is that Tercek’s post completely omitted BP from any discussion of the ongoing crisis, which seems fairly impossible.  BP was on the tongue of every single individual discussing the disaster, except here. The difference? Well, The Nature Conservancy has had a long-running and well-known relationship with BP, listing them proudly on their website as a corporate partner.

Now I’ve been involved in non-profits for awhile and I understand the need to shake the money tree from time to time to accomplish larger goals.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but Tercek didn’t say a single word about TNC’s relationship with BP leaving wide open the interpretation that TNC was unwilling to directly criticize a large donor.  So I commented, questioning Tercek’s “not time to rant” line and asking whether or not TNC was going to publicize their relationship with BP.

Minutes, and I mean minutes, later, a TNC public relations representative responded stating that TNC was in no way influenced by BP’s partnership, giving that standard line that TNC partners with BP for wildlife and ecosystems and that TNC’s involvement allows them to advise companies like BP on how to do extraction work in a more environmentally cognizant way.  The response was so sudden that it was noted by a reporter from the Washington Post who interviewed me for an article on the subject.  My concern was, and still is, that TNC is hesitant to use the full power of their voice to denounce BP because of this partnership that means money in TNC’s coffers.

I still think that is an absolutely what is going on here despite TNC’s equivocations.  The argument that TNC is having some sort of lasting positive effect on BP’s operations is utter nonsense, borne out time and time again as further evidence of BP’s malfeasance comes to light.  The partnership offers advantages for both groups, putting money in TNC’s pocket that they use to do some legitimate good in the world, but allowing BP to promote their “green” bonafides for doing relatively little in the whole scheme of things and worse, to keep perpetuating the myth that this energy is in any way safe, reliable, or without cost. It’s some consolation that those billion dollar efforts by BP to greenwash their image now lie in red, greasy ropes across the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s a shame that it had to blow up with so much harm done to vulnerable ecosystems and communities.

TNC is hardly alone either.  Audubon, the Sierra Club, and Conservation International also have ties to BP, though none as significant as TNC and I’ve heard the oil spill has prompted Conservation International, at least, to re-evaluate those ties.    Like I said earlier, I can sympathize to an extent, non-profits never have it easy and partnerships with corporate entities are inevitable, but the lack of transparency and the immediate inability to criticize the obvious villain in this situation was clearly disturbing.  It speaks to a larger, more worrying, issue here, the increasing corporatization of the larger conservation non-profits and what it means for their ability to effectively advocate for national environmental interests.

I’ve always felt the strength of such groups lies in their grassroots.  The reason Audubon is such a great organization isn’t because of anything they’re doing at the national level (though the magazine is nice), it’s the work that individual people put in day in and day out to lobby for environmentally responsible development in their communities, it’s the public park that they maintain when the municipal budget runs out, it’s the outreach programs to local schools.  I worry that the larger entities miss the boat there, and that by chasing money to advocate nationally they make themselves targets for those entities that consider our interests contrary to their bottom line.  TNC and others think that they’re in the position of influencing industrial interests, but the truth of the matter is that it’s far too often the other way around.

Most of the landmark environmental legislation in the United States was enacted well before national environmental non-profits were the norm.  All they have to show for their work with large corporations since is a litany of failures, one after another, and it’s become somewhat sad to see what these once proud institutions will do, or more likely not do, to angle for a few hundred thousand dollars a year from a oil company’s advertising budget.  Because if TNC, or anyone else, is unable to get BP to even consider the impact of what they’ve done and continue to do in the Gulf, and there’s absolutely no indication they have, they’re nothing but a lap dog begging for scraps.

To put this all in perspective, TNC has made a big deal of the fact that BP has given them $9.6 million dollars over the last 30 years.  That comes to a little more than $300,000 per year.

In 2009 alone, BP spent $16 million on lobbying, a record, often advocating against the very environmental regulations that TNC espouses in their mission statement.

I think that says volumes about BP’s priorities.  And no doubt should give us pause as to where The Nature Conservancy’s lie.

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