Sleeping with the Enemy

Why are leading green groups like Patagonia offshoot Freedom to Roam still in bed with BP?

Dirty money?     Photo: Phil Ashley/Getty

IN JUNE 2008, Rick Ridgeway, the mountaineer and Patagonia Inc.'s vice president of environmental initiatives, arrived at the annual Western Governors' Association meeting in Jackson, Wyoming, armed with a slick slide show about "the most badass wolverine on the planet." Ridgeway's purpose was to convince the 14 governors and four Canadian premiers in attendance, along with 500 audience members, that wildlife corridors in the Rocky Mountain West badly needed political support. To make his case, he told the story of M3, a wolverine that was tracked traveling hundreds of miles between Glacier National Park and Alberta, climbing Montana's 10,466-foot Mount Cleveland on the way. Tom Brokaw introduced Ridgeway, the wolverine bit got a standing ovation (M3 had summited Cleveland in the deep snows of February, hanging out for an hour to enjoy the view), and Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal gave Ridgeway a bear hug.

Afterwards, three representatives from BP America approached Ridgeway to ask how the company could participate. Since 2006, BP had been partnering with the Nature Conservancy (TNC) to mitigate the impacts of natural-gas drilling on sage grouse and pronghorn antelope corridors in Wyoming. "Rick's presentation moved me and spoke to some of what we were already doing," Lisa Hough, senior director of government and public affairs for BP America's Rockies region, told me recently. She then added, without a hint of irony, "It's what BP believes. To work in the community, you also need to protect the landscape."

That year, Ridgeway launched Freedom to Roam, a coalition that includes NGOs such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Wildlife Conservation Society, governmental groups like the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and businesses including Patagonia, Walmart, Southern California Edison, Microsoft, and BP. Looking back from the fouled beaches of 2010, this would seem an unfathomable alliance: Patagonia—a business so dedicated to sustainability that it eschews the notion of growth—and BP, a company so dedicated to profiteering that it brought about the partial death of a sea.

Of course, back in 2008, London-based BP was widely perceived as the greenest brand in oil. After assuming the now-mocked "Beyond Petroleum" tagline, in 2000, BP had invested some $4 billion in what it calls "low carbon" energy programs (remember actor Edward Norton's BP Solar Neighbors campaign?) and given millions of dollars to nonprofits, including TNC and Conservation International (CI). But in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon mess and BP's obfuscation—the barring of journalists from beaches, the gross underreporting of the size of the spill—you have to wonder whether it was all merely marketing spin. And you might also expect BP's new friends to drop the company like a hot coal. But just the opposite has happened: Green groups seem more determined than ever to engage Big Oil—which seems akin to asking your heroin dealer for cleaner needles following a nasty bout of hepatitis.

This raises an obvious question: Why?

IT'S WORTH REMEMBERING how we got here. The great new era of green cooperation began in 1990, when the Environmental Defense Fund helped McDonald's reduce the use of Styrofoam packaging. While groups such as the Sierra Club still stuck to their bread and butter—suing polluters—they added another tool to their belts: sitting down with corporations to work toward a specific goal. One example is the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative, which existed from 2001 to 2007 and saw CI, TNC, and Fauna & Flora International joining with BP, ChevronTexaco, and Shell to research Big Energy's impact on wildlife. Other alliances looked at the companies themselves. In 2008, Walmart partnered with Patagonia to overhaul its corporate philosophy. The retail giant now sells organic dairy products and Marine Stewardship Council–approved seafood. Its transformation has been held up as a model for dealing with the realities of development in a smart, nonreactive manner.

Even the combative Sierra Club came into the fold, endorsing a line of biodegradable Clorox bathroom cleaners called Green Works in 2008. Not surprisingly, such alliances have led to cries of selling out. The Sierra Club has received about $1.1 million so far from Green Works sales, CI has taken $1.63 million from BP since 2003, and TNC has accepted $7 million from the oil giant over the past 20 years. (Freedom to Roam is less expensive: Each corporate partner contributes $50,000 in membership dues.)

"If nonprofits took money from only 'good' companies, they'd be bankrupt," says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com and author of Strategies for the Green Economy. "That's not to say they should get in bed with every polluter on the planet. Somewhere in the middle is a good-faith partnership."

Collaboration shouldn't, in theory, prohibit confrontation. Environmental groups claim they can gently move a corporation toward better practices with one hand and slap them with a lawsuit with the other. Case in point: The Defenders of Wildlife is both working with BP on Freedom to Roam and suing it for violation of the Endangered Species Act in the wake of the Gulf spill.

But not everyone believes you can make a good deal with the devil. "Until the explosion, BP very successfully ran a massive PR campaign, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into lying to the public," says Kieran Suckling, whose Center for Biological Diversity is unapologetically litigious. While he allows that there's room for both kicking and nudging corporations, he believes there's a line. "Sure, you can get them to give you $2 million. BP pisses away $2 million at lunch. And if you take it, you are literally part of their PR campaign. If you don't comprehend that, you're getting used."

"Money almost always corrupts," says Michael Soulé, co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and head of the grassroots Wildlands Network. "Why do you think the big groups, including Freedom to Roam, hardly ever take controversial, place-based positions? Because their corporate donors would drop them immediately."

I put the greenwashing conundrum to Ridgeway. "If Patagonia were to conclude that BP were using its membership in the Freedom to Roam coalition only for green cover," he wrote in response, "and that no meaningful improvements were made that brought on-the-ground results that mitigated impact on wildlife habitat and corridors, then there would be only two options: Pata­gonia would have to leave Freedom to Roam, or BP would have to leave Freedom to Roam."

DEPENDING ON YOUR point of view, the Beyond Petroleum logo—yellow sun, happy green rays—has become a symbol of either sad irony or unprecedented malfeasance. In 1997, then–BP chief executive Lord John Browne became the first head of an oil company to acknowledge the existence of climate change. In the following decade, BP pledged to invest $8 billion in renewable projects by 2015; launched an aggressive solar campaign; and actively sought green partners.

A few of those partnerships produced concrete results. In 2003, the company invited CI to assess a liquid-natural-gas facility in wildlife-rich Papua, Indonesia, ultimately rerouting its tankers around the sensitive Raja Ampat archipelago. Three years later, it solicited input from TNC on its operations in Wyoming's Jonah natural-gas field, where BP and others engage in the controversial practice of chemical hydraulic fracturing on sage grouse habitat. BP, which had contributed $3 million to a $24.5 million mitigation fund to secure its drilling permits, asked TNC to produce a conservation plan, leading to the preservation of 90,000 acres.

"BP played an important role in the positioning of corporate America in the arenas of climate change," says Makower. "For all our distrust of corporations, we want companies we can point to and say, 'See, they're changing.' BP served that purpose, and that makes their fall from grace even more tragic."

The fall, it turns out, had been a long time coming. Even as BP rebranded itself, it mercilessly slashed costs. That fat-trimming led to an abominable safety record. In 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and resulted in $21 million in fines. A year later, BP had a 212,000-gallon spill in Alaska's North Slope—the worst there to date—that earned another $20 million in fines. Last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged BP America with 709 safety violations at its Texas City facility. This led to $50 million more in fines—an OSHA record. (ExxonMobil, which has spent millions denying climate change exists, has had fewer than three dozen citations at its three refineries since 2007.)

BP's desire to mitigate impacts in the Rockies seems sincere, to a point. After a recent visit to BP gas fields near Durango, Colorado, FTR executive director Jeffrey Parrish says he saw encouraging signs, like operations restrictions during periods of migration. "It's not all that wildlife needs, but it's progress," says Parrish. These best practices, however, may not yet extend to community relations. "BP likes to say they're a good neighbor," says Gwen Lachelt, director of the watchdog group Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability project, "but we see them trying to screw landowners out of every last penny for surface damages and taking shortcuts."

Recently, BP has decided that pushing "beyond" petroleum might not be the wisest strategy after all. Ninety-nine percent of its profits still come from oil, and while its $4 billion investment in renewable energy dwarfs any other oil company's, it represents less than what BP spends on exploration in a single year. In March, a month before the Macondo well blew, BP Solar stopped producing panels at its U.S. facility, in Delaware, and cut 320 jobs. Since April 20, the company has thrown vast resources into tin-eared ad campaigns, trying to save a lost message.

Now they say they've got a plan to make things better. In July, BusinessWeek reported that incoming CEO Robert Dudley hopes to recover the 30-odd billion dollars that the Gulf fiasco will cost by sticking to what the company does best: exploring risky offshore drilling projects that lead to big profits (and big spills). In the meantime, that green sun will go down as the symbol of the greatest greenwashing campaign in recent memory.

"Is BP's money forever tainted?" asks Makower. "I'm sure a number of groups are asking that right now. Every organization is going to have to look in the mirror and ask, 'What does this money say about us?'"

IN MAY, at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colorado, Ridgeway spoke again about the wolverine M3. He discussed Freedom to Roam's ongoing work: its use of pronghorn-friendly barbless wire; its new Witness for Wildlife program, in which "citizen naturalists" walk corridors and collect data; and its role as a model for collaboration.

In a panel discussion after Ridgeway's talk, Tim DeChristopher, the 28-year-old activist facing criminal charges for placing phony bids in a Utah oil-and-gas-lease auction in 2008, stood up. "It seems a little discouraging and disempowering to say that our best hope is just to beg those corporate leaders to be a little less destructive," he said. "How do you balance that need for taking small steps forward with the ultimate necessity of making corporations subservient to human beings?"

Or, as some enviros have put it, why not just kick BP out? Gary Ruskin, co-founder of the San Rafael, California–based nonprofit Green Change, has written to Beau Biden, attorney general of Delaware—BP filed its corporate charter there—asking that he revoke its charter. Former Labor secretary Robert Reich suggested that the government take BP America into receivership until satisfied with the Gulf cleanup effort.

Those options are about as likely as, say, passing a climate bill. And while making BP vanish would be satisfying, simply flogging the company is reductively misleading: How many $3 gallons of gas did you burn through this week? And what if BP America were to disappear? Another driller would take its place. Peak oil is coming, yes, but we don't yet have enough solar panels and wind farms to keep our highways full and cities bright. The fact remains: BP and Shell plan to drill in the (gulp) Arctic Ocean next summer, and despite any new regulations, a responsible method for inserting two-mile pipes beneath 5,000 feet of seawater does not yet exist.

This makes collaboration even more important, enviros argue—we can't let industry just regulate itself. In July, for example, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips put $1 billion into creating rapid-response modular units in the Gulf. That's like setting up portable firehouses down the block from a bomb test site. What we need are safeguards on the front end.

"An industry-only approach to regulation will lack credibility," says Justin Ward, vice president for business practices at Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, "and it won't bring marine conservation into the equation." CI, which manages an education program funded by BP, has decided to stay the course. "Now more than ever," says Ward, "engagement by NGOs with oil and gas is absolutely essential."

And still. The notion that the best we can do is lobby to put more regulations on offshore drilling, pray for legislative rain, and ask BP to please set aside a few thousand acres in the West for antelope is blood-boiling. I asked Ridgeway if he ever felt the same way.

"We are all of us complicit in the spill," he wrote. "One of the dangers of simply labeling the corporations that extract oil and gas as 'bad guys' is that it lures you into thinking that we the critics are consequently the 'good guys.' This is dangerous because it allows you to rationalize your behavior, and is equivalent to burying your head in the sand."

In June, Freedom to Roam met once again during the Western Governors' meeting, this time in Whitefish, Montana. The agenda included a number of issues: establishing best practices among the coalition's members; the launch of the Witness for Wildlife program; and, finally, the sticky issue of whether to oust its most notorious member.

"We looked around the room," says Parrish, "and we asked, from the farthest left to the farthest right, 'Should BP stay?'"

Then all 15 coalition members voted. The result was unanimous: BP would remain a member of Freedom to Roam.

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