After the spill: Should green groups take donations from BP?

The BP disaster unleashed a gusher of a different sort – complaints from donors to The Nature Conservancy who are upset that one of the world's largest environmental organizations accepts big money from BP. But it's far from the only green cause to get cash from the oil giant.

Small protests have erupted over a jaw-dropping $500 million gift from BP to University of California-Berkeley to create a biofuels research facility. And a California aquarium recently opened a BP Sea Otter Habitat, prompting an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail to ask: "Should a sea otter habitat be associated with a polluter that is causing enormous harm to the aquatic wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico?"

Think hard about this: Is it greenwashing when green causes accept money from BP, this year's biggest environmental villain? The same question could be asked – and in some circles is -- about corporate gifts from less-obvious offenders. Greenpeace International, for example, refuses money from any corporation. Doctors Without Borders declines cash from corporations whose core activities may conflict with its goals. While the above gifts arrived before the Deepwater Horizon well gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP's past environmental record drew ire from critics.

Arguments cover the spectrum and can be broadly summed up in four categories detailed below. You be the judge. Eventually we'll circle around to conclusions below.

BP oil spill protest
"BP gains a great deal of green legitimacy for their measly $10 million contribution to The Nature Conservancy," wrote Alison Ward, one of many commenters to a Nature Conservancy blog that explained why BP is a good partner. "The Nature Conservancy used to stand for something. If you can say with a straight face that you are partnering with energy companies like BP 'for nature' you need to remove your blinders." A couple commenters complained of "blood money" and greenwashing.

Marketing consultant Nancy Schwartz, who helps nonprofit organizations maximize their impact, contends "there's simply no way an environmental organization should be funded by a natural resources mining company – their key principles are radically opposed. Yes to pragmatic consultation as a productive partnership. No to taking funding and participating in BP's greenwashing."

The Nature Conservancy takes pains to explain its position, as seen here, here, and in Position No. 3 below.


"Our bottom line is the public good, and their bottom line is profit," Berkeley environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela told the Associated Press and reaffirmed with me. He and Berkeley professor Miguel Altieri openly opposed from the start, in 2007, a $500 million BP gift to the university and its partners to develop the school's Energy Bioscience Institute. Its mission is to create new energy sources through crops. Complains Altieri: "With what for BP was a relatively small investment, UC Berkeley's academic expertise, built over decades of public support, was recruited into a corporate partnership at the service of private interests... How can UC Berkeley justify in front of California's civil society its association with BP?"


Peter Kareiva of The Nature Conservancy maintains that he's glad that his organization works with BP in exploring wind energy and natural gas development in the West. Example: His group engages with BP and other energy companies to identify "no-touch" areas for such development and make up for ecological damages in Colorado and Wyoming. Some BP money pays to collect and analyze data. "I for one am not abandon the idea of conservation working with the energy industry," he writes. "This is not an issue of environment versus energy – people need both. 'Working with' does not mean 'selling out.' Anyone who drives a car is a supporter of the oil industry - should we propose no one drives?"


Rather than raise doubts, recent events in the Gulf of Mexico "only serve to strengthen our conviction" that the mission of the BP-backed Berkeley alternative-energy research lab "is both urgent and essential," maintains Graham Fleming, Berkeley's vice chancellor for research. "I have not changed my position," he reaffirmed with me. He said the BP donation amounts to 2.5 percent of "our total funding. Most energy work would continue, and we would seek other support if ties were severed with BP."

The university is NOT considering terminating its relationship with BP, however. Ron Kolb, a Berkeley spokesman, says BP money has given the school an opportunity it might not otherwise have; without it, such research would proceed "at a much smaller and slower rate. And that is a circumstance we feel would be a great detriment to society."
The Nature Conservancy and the aquarium likewise are glad for the help. "I hope they continue to support us," Jerry Schubel, president of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, toldThe Los Angeles Times. (An aquarium spokeswoman, however, says it has nothing else in the works with BP.)

In the end, this kind of stuff looks worse in retrospect because we know about the oil spill fiasco. BP faces a public relations embarrassment for gifts that appeared forward-looking when the company dispensed them, but self-serving now -- because we know how careless BP was with deep-drilling technology.

It's no skin off BP's nose if nonprofit groups decide to turn down its money. "Obviously we wouldn't comment on what other groups have decided to do," London-based spokesman Toby Odone told me.

And whether it's greenwashing for green causes to accept money from BP likely boils down to your world view.
It's greenwashing, say Chapela, the Berkeley professor, and Schwartz, the marketing professional. She told me: "BP is a corporation known for its ruthless, self-serving behavior. This is right in line."

But Altieri, while standing as a critic of the BP donation to his university, says it's not greenwashing. "No," he told me, "it is a good investment for them. With few dollars, they skim off the expertise and facilities at UC."
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