City Desk

It’s a Gusher: Outrage Erupts at D.C. Green Groups’ Ties to BP

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WaPo's story yesterday about the cozy ties between BP and the nation's leading environmental groups  has let loose a deluge of angry comments from members of the Arlington-based Nature Conservancy and other groups that have taken millions of dollars from the disgraced oil giant.

Here's a good one from Cindy D., a Nature Conservancy member who last night accused the organization of censoring comments to its blog: "Why are my comments not being posted? Are the moderators afraid to leave up criticism of NC? I notice that my posts and those of others who are critical of NC have been removed. Even more reason to revoke my membership. Oh, and remember, you don’t moderate the world; there are plenty of other venues in which to expose your hypocrisy."

You can read more of the e-wrangling between the group's executives and its members here (provided these comments have not been similarly erased).

The British oil conglomerate has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade to transform its image from that of a dirty old oil company into “Beyond Petroleum” – a company so environmentally friendly it had transcended oil drilling (and spilling) for happy, sunny and clean technologies such as wind and solar. Never mind that the  so-called "renewables" never received anywhere near as much investment as the company puts into exploring for and extracting oil and gas.

Most of the money went to the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide but, as the Post’s Joe Stephens points out, the oil giant has shelled out to prominent environmental groups – including several headquartered in the D.C. area. The Nature Conservancy has received nearly $10 million from the company. Crystal City-based Conservation International has received millions more and even gave BP chief executive John Browne a seat on its board from 2000 to 2006. (Browne relinquished his seat about the time a sex scandal ended his reign at BP.) And, the company has had dealings with the Sierra Club, Audubon, Environmental Defense Fund, among others.

While it may seem incongruous to their mission, the environmentalists haven't tried to hide the corporate dough. They have, in fact, trumpeted their ties to corporations, arguing that these partnerships lead to better corporate environmental policies and less damage to the planet.

So it's understandable that BP's latest environmental debacle does not look good for its environmentalist friends – many of whom have been partnering with the company for a decade or more.

For BP, it's been a decade replete with felony charges, criminal fines and consent decrees with various federal agencies. The Department of Justice ordered BP to pay $70 million in criminal fines and restitution to settle felony charges related to an pipeline leak on Alaska’s North Slope and an explosion at its Texas City, Texas, refinery that left 15 dead. And that ’s just a partial recap of BP’s various run-ins with the feds.

The unraveling of BP’s “green” marketing efforts would almost seem comical -  perhaps poetic justice – if the accident wasn’t wreaking so much havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. By some estimates, it's already gushed more petroleum than the Exxon Valdez. But much has changed in corporate-environmentalist relations in the 21 years since the Valdez hit a reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The most telling quote in Stephens' story is from Justin Ward, a Conservation International vice president: “Reputational risk is on our minds," says Ward, eluding to the risk that people may lose all faith in environmental groups that get too close to corporate polluters.

Well, duh! But the interesting thing is the way Ward expressed the growing angst at the conservation group. The term "reputational risk" is a buzzword of companies like BP that have given lavishly to nonprofit organizations as part of their quest to be seen as (but not necessarily to become)  "socially responsible" corporations.

It kinda makes you wonder if the environmentalists have been influencing the corporations or if it's the other way around.

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  • Rick Mangus

    What's the difference between a whore and the Nature Conservancy? The answer is a whore can clean herself off!

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  • Heather

    I just feel a need to point out that just because organizations have PARTNERSHIPS with companies doesn't mean they're accepting "corporate dough." EDF, for example, has worked with BP in US-CAP (, but never took any donations from them.

  • Christine MacDonald

    Heather - It's true the EDF doesn't take money from companies, which is why I put the group in the category of organizations with which "the company has had dealings."

    However, EDF has built its reputation as an environmental group with entree into the corporate world. Unfortunately not all of EDF's corporate friendships have panned out for the environment. Here's one example:

    In 2000, EDF and Federal Express unveiled a new hybrid vehicle and the company announced plans to roll out as many 30,000 hybrid trucks by 2013.

    With the trucks, FedEx established a reputation as a "green" corporation. Executives at EDF, meanwhile, enhanced their credibility as environmentalists able to bring corporations to the negotiating table.

    By the end of 2009, however, the company said it was on track to have 325 of these hybrid electric vehicles on the road - far from the tens of thousands it originally envisioned. To be fair, it also says it has more than 1,800 "alternative fuel vehicles and equipment around the world." Those numbers sound good until you look at the size of FedEx's fleet--more than 120,000 vehicles plus hundreds airplanes.

    If you do the math, the FedEx has "greened" 1.7 percent of fleet over the last decade.

  • Amy

    I'm intrigued by your line: "Crystal City-based Conservation International has received millions more." As written, it implies that the organization received "millions more" than the $10 million that TNC received which was noted in the sentence immediately preceding that one. The Washington Post article clearly state that CI received $2 million.

    Make no mistake, BP certainly deserves to be taken to task for what has happened, and their pitiful response. It is also your right to not point out that perhaps some good has been accomplished by the environmental community by engaging with the corporate sector.

    It is, however, still important to get the basic facts correct to allow readers draw their own conclusions.

  • Christine MacDonald

    Amy, by "more" I meant "in addition" - a definition that has the full endorsement of Merriam-Webster dictionary. So the basic facts here are not in dispute. Neither is the fact that John Browne sat on CI's board and helped run the environmental group for several years while he was CEO of BP.

    But perhaps you work for CI and already know all this?

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