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.
"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.
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 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."