Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy’s president and CEO, Glenn Prickett, the Conservancy’s director of external affairs, and Keith Ouchley, director of the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, answered your questions on Tuesday, May 25 on the Conservancy’s work in the Gulf, our response to the oil spill and our engagement with BP. The chat lasted about an hour.
See a transcript of the chat as it happened or read the complete transcript below. We received many more questions during the run-up to the chat and during the hour itself than we could answer — we will review the remaining questions and consider posting more answers later this week.
Hi everyone and welcome to the live chat, we will beginning in two minutes.
Welcome to our live chat with Mark Tercek and Glenn Prickett, we have been taking questions since yesterday. But you can submit your questions during the chat in the comments field below the chat window. Questions are being moderated, as with any chat, but we are striving to be transparent and to answer your pointed questions.
We’ve also asked Keith Ouchley, the director of the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, to respond to two specific questions we’ve had on our the effects of the Gulf spill.
OK, let’s begin.
Comment from Drew Albert: What are TNCs plans in terms of business relationships with BP in light of the Gulf oil spill? Will there be a top down look at other corporate contributors?
Mark Tercek responds: Thanks, Drew for your question. What we learn in the months ahead about this disaster and how BP handles the long-term clean-up and restoration will certainly influence whether we work with them in the future and in what ways. I don’t believe we should pull back from working with companies in places where their business activities affect the habitats we want to conserve. As I’ve said before, there’s just too much at stake. Our work with any company on their business practices must have clear conservation outcomes — outcomes that directly benefit our mission.
One of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves before working with a company on its business practices is “will that work advance our on-the-ground or in-the-water conservation goals.” If the answer is yes, we should explore further the opportunity. If the answer is no, we move on. I have been working at the Conservancy now for about 22 months, nearly two years. I’ve travelled to dozens of Conservancy project sites, from Papua New Guinea to Coffee Island, Alabama. Every single person I’ve met here is an incredibly passionate conservationist, as am I. Our mission is to protect the natural systems that sustain us all. There may be disagreement about what is the best set of conservation strategies to employ, and this dialogue with you and others is an important one to have. At the end of the day, however, I want you and all our supporters to know our only priority is getting real, tangible conservation results.
This dialogue certainly elevates in my mind the issue of our work with the business sector. We approach all our current and future work with companies with a critical eye and make sure that work is fully in line with our mission.
Daph asks: With hurricane season fast approaching, I was wondering what impact a storm would have. Obviously it would hamper clean up efforts, but would it also, say, bring more oil on land? Impact the formation of storms? Act as a dispersant?
Keith Ouchley, the director of the Conservancy’s Louisiana program, responds: On the hurricane question here’s what I am hearing from experts. A hurricane that pushed oil inland would make the situation worse. It would spread the oil to areas that perhaps we could otherwise keep it out of. On the other hand, some experts have opined that if a small storm were to pass through the gulf and not make landfall it may — emphasize may — actually help by the wind and wave action causing more of the oil to volatilize or be broken up into smaller droplets that can be acted on by naturally occurring bacteria and other organisms.
The how long question is a big unknown right now. I don’t think anyone has a good handle on that but you can rest assured that this will be monitored for many years to come. How long is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of this issue.
Comment from Tim Ahern: If you take financial support from BP, do you condition it on working with them on projects? In other words, are you able to impact what they do, or more specifically, where they do it? Does taking their support enable you to have a seat at the table when BP makes its choices?
Glenn Prickett responds: We do work with BP and other natural resource companies on their development practices, especially in places where their development sites overlap with places we target for conservation. Energy and mineral development is a reality in many of the places we work around the world. Not every grant we take from a company involves work on their practices, but we try to get involved early in the development process to influence where, when, and how development happens. In Wyoming, for example, we worked with the state, the federal government and BP on a plan to identify areas where money from a government-created mitigation fund could be used for habitat protection and restoration to offset the impacts of drilling. In this project, and other similar ones, we make the collected data and the project results publicly available so that others can learn from them and we draw on our field experience with companies to help shape government policies on development. We call this Development by Design and we are using this methodology in work on projects across the U.S. and in other countries. Engaging with companies certainly helps us have a seat at the table, but we don’t rely only on those voluntary activities. We also advocate for strong public policies to guide development.
Comment from Barbara DeGraw: As a long time supporter of TNC and a conservationist to my core, I am glad you have opened a forum on the subject of your relationship with BP. Given the potential for harm to the fragile coastal ecosystems, why has The Nature Conservancy not “engaged” the oil industry regarding their offshore drilling practices before now? This seems to be a serious lapse in judgment on the part of TNC or worse, looking the other way when it was in your financial best interest to do so. This may not be the case, but surely you can understand how your inaction may be construed as such.
Mark Tercek responds: We are engaged on offshore drilling, Barbara. We haven’t taken a blanket position for or against it because our economy consumes a tremendous amount of oil and gas and energy development anywhere has environmental risks. If we ban offshore drilling in this country, we increase the risk of environmental impacts in other places. We take positions on individual offshore leases through a case-by-case assessment of their risks to ocean and coastal habitats. This has led us to oppose energy development in some areas. Frankly, this disaster tells us that we — and many others — have underestimated the risks of offshore drilling, especially in deep water.
We support the President’s decision to suspend new offshore leases while an independent commission studies what went wrong and what additional safeguards, regulations, and policies are needed to protect our oceans and coasts. We are also fighting hard to enact comprehensive energy and climate legislation to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. That’s the most important thing we can do.
Moderator: We’re having a little trouble handing special characters in the comment box. Here is the next question:
SM asks: Would not a “science based planning approach” have shown that risks of this kind [e.g., the oil spill] were of greater possible significance and therefore priority than those of wind(!?) and inland gas extraction? So why work with companies [like BP] on issues of lower significance and ignore the issues of arguably higher significance? Is this because N.C. didn’t make the attempt (e.g. no N.C. properties at risk in the gulf?), or because the companies are choosing what they allow you to influence?
Mark Tercek responds: That’s a fair question. Yes, we have property along the Gulf that is at risk from the oil spill, not to mention the thousands of acres we helped conserve along with our local, state and federal partners. And, we have millions of dollars worth of shellfish restoration projects also under threat.
We have been involved with the federal government’s planning of offshore development. We’re working with the Obama administration, for example, on a nation-wide marine spatial planning initiative to identify areas that are suitable for various forms of development and those that need to be protected.
But this disaster shows that we need to devote pay much more attention to the fundamental risks of offshore drilling. So, I think we need to look harder at offshore oil and gas development and see if we can apply our expertise in conservation planning, ocean zoning and public policy to influence how and where that kind of development takes place.
Regarding your question about our involvement in other forms of energy development (i.e. inland gas extraction or wind), where you stand often depends on where you sit. We have programs in all 50 states. In Wyoming, gas extraction is an activity we identified as threatening important sagebrush habitat we want to conserve. In Kansas, we identified improper siting of wind turbines as a major threat to prairie chicken populations. For our programs in those states, influencing how and where energy companies site their development is a priority. No company chooses where we work. Our priorities are determined through a rigorous, science-driven conservation planning approach called Conservation by Design.
Comment from Nancy Schwartz: How does accepting funding from BP (and other corporations that profit from extracting natural resources) and not mentioning it even in your response to the spill and BP clean up strategies, mesh with your stated values of “transparency and values?”
Mark Tercek responds: We try to be as transparent as we can about our relationships with the companies we work with, including BP. You’ll find many references to this work on our website, in our magazine and in our annual report. However, in hindsight, I could have been clearer about our relationship with BP in my initial blog about the crisis.
At the time, my colleagues and I were focused on protecting our coastal work in the Gulf and figuring out how we could help address the immediate challenges of the leak.
Comment from Jean Villamizar: How long do they expect the effects of this spill to be felt, both in our coastal areas and further inland? The catastrophic nature of this surely must last generations.
Keith Ouchley, the director of Conservancy’s Louisiana program, responds: The how long question is a big unknown right now. I don’t think anyone has a good handle on that, but you can rest assured that this will be monitored for many years to come. How long we will have to do that’s and how long we will have to wait to know the full effects — is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of this issue.
Moderator: Hello all, this is the moderator. Thanks for all of your questions. We are getting lots of questions and posting the answers as quickly as we can. Thanks all for participating.
Hi, Moderator again. Having trouble with long questions as well. Here’s another question:
Jim Gilsenan asks: There’s nothing wrong with engaging the energy industry provided you know what you’re doing and what you’re in for. BP has positioned itself as an earth-friendly corporation. But its behavior since the beginning of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been anything but earth-friendly. In fact, it’s been downright earth-Hateful! Taking a moment to think only about the actual size of the spill versus the much smaller sized spill BP would have us all believe in…
It’s time for the Nature Conservancy, its members and all who support this amazing organization to cut ties with BP. This company is going the way of Union Carbide after Bhopal, only a much more universal scale. Does the NC want to go with it?
Mark Tercek responds: First, I agree with you, the Gulf oil spill is awful. I will never forget seeing in early May the first ribbons of oil beginning to wrap themselves around North Island at the tip of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana.
Obviously, working with companies is controversial, but I believe it’s a conservation strategy we should not abandon. Companies like BP are conducting their business in places we care about. We simply cannot ignore that reality. If we stop talking to them and stop trying to help them improve their practices, what will change? Long-term, we need to move to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels. That future, though, is a long way away. We still have to deal with the problems oil and gas extraction is creating today.
So, I don’t think we should cut ties with BP or any other company whose core business is or has the potential to affect the places we care about. We need to be able to influence their behavior. That said, we also need to continue working with federal and state governments to improve regulation and oversight of these companies and to ensure that we are making good, science-based decisions about where energy development should be allowed to take place and on what terms.
As conservationists, we need to be attuned to the fact that we have to explore a wide range of strategies to protect the planet’s natural systems. I look around and see that we are losing ground on many fronts. Forests are vanishing. Coral reefs are disappearing. Water resources are stretched to the limit. We are losing plant and animal species at an alarming rate. We cannot afford to write of any strategy, including getting companies to improve their business practices.
Comment from Steve Solarz: Have you ever pulled your punches with a company because you receive financial assistance from it?
Glenn Prickett responds: No, we don’t pull our punches. For example, we are one of the leading voices calling for comprehensive climate and energy legislation, something many in the business community still oppose. We do what’s best for conservation.
Comment from Molly: What is the best-case scenario for the clean up effort? It seems like every proposed projection is pretty grim. How about a ray of hope? Will the gulf eco-systems ever be the same? I am a big supporter of the Nature Conservancy. Thank you for all that you do.
Mark Tercek answers: Thanks, Molly, for your question. We are a field-based organization, so we are doing all we can to help with the response to this disaster. We are laying boom around coastal areas where work, and we have made all of our scientific knowledge available to federal and state governments so that they can set priorities for their response. We don’t know what the ultimate impact will be. We are saddened by the loss of life and the harm we are already seeing. We will do all we can in the months and years ahead to help restore the Gulf Coast.
The ray of hope I see is that all of the attention now focused on the Gulf will translate into much greater public support for restoration and conservation of the Gulf over the long-term. The Gulf environment is seriously degraded by over a century of poorly planned development and natural disasters. So when I say “restoration,” I don’t just mean restoring what was damaged by the oil spill — although that’s the first step. I mean restoring what we’ve lost in the Gulf over the last century. Such a plan will require major commitments and investments on the part of all the Gulf States, the federal government, the private sector, and organizations like the Conservancy.
One other thing…I also really hope that this spill leads to greater awareness of and support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation here in the U.S. If we don’t begin to aggressively move toward a clean energy future, the pressure to extract oil in frontier and hard-to-access areas in the U.S. and in other countries will only grow.
Comment from Fran Moskovitz: I think in some people’s minds, working with companies and “taking their money” is different. We keep saying that the amount of money donated by BP (or other companies) is miniscule compared to the amounts of money we bring in. Why then, asked several donors, did we take it at all?
Glenn Prickett responds: Because we work with them on important projects. For example, our Noel Kempff project in Bolivia with BP and others was the first demonstration of forest conservation as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Conservation projects such as Noel Kempff often require major capital outlays — while that project was small in the context of our overall budget, it still required a major capital outlay.
Moderator: Thanks for staying with us. We’re taking as many questions from yesterday and today as we can. We appreciate having the dialogue.
Bob Knott comments: I respect the Conservancy’s pragmatism in working with an oil company in helping to craft real-world solutions that balance humanity and nature. In a world where the dependency on fossil fuels won’t decrease anytime soon, this is what I expect of an environmental leader.
Mark Tercek responds: Many of these companies are conducting their business, whether we want them to or not, in ways that affect the places we care about. We have the on-the-ground knowledge and scientific expertise to try and make a difference. We do have a responsibility, though, to ensure this work results in real, tangible conservation outcomes. That’s something I expect as CEO and something I hold our teams accountable for. We also can’t rely only on companies’ voluntary initiatives. We need to work with state and federal governments on policies and regulations to ensure that companies’ activities are safe and environmentally sound.
Comment from Ben Upham: Does this controversy make the Conservancy less likely to partner with corporations in the future?
Mark Tercek responds: No. We need to partner with companies if we’re going to achieve our conservation mission. We take a hard look at companies to make sure our partnerships will achieve real results for conservation. Having said that, we do need to think harder about what the policies and regulations for offshore drilling should to be.
Comment from Rachel Carson: As TNC becomes known for this difficult compromise, will it be able to survive the loss of donations with its real estate holdings and corporate partnerships?
Mark Tercek responds: The Conservancy has a 60-year history of working collaboratively and focusing on results. This approach has not changed. We do not want to lose any supporters, and I hope that anyone thinking of abandoning the Conservancy will take a close look at our work before making a decision.
To the contrary, we need all the help and support we can get. I spend much of my time reaching out to engage new supporters of our mission.
The way I see it, the environmental community is vast, with hundreds of organizations employing a wide range of approaches and tactics. There are organizations that accomplish a great deal through lawsuits and others that bring about meaningful change through boycotts and other market campaigns. And, there are organizations like ours that focus on on-the-ground, science-driven conservation action. Every approach has merit and is important.
Jason asks via the blog: I do not think the partnership between TNC and BP should continue. I understand the larger goal of preserving biodiversity, but taken dirty money from BP is not the long-term sustainable solution for the largest land trust which has been given the public’s trust to preserve the heritage and cultural resources. BP has taken less precautions and sound engineering approaches to build these drilling platforms along the deeper oceans.
This is an environmental disaster and having spent my life growing up along the Indian River Lagoon, it hurts me know that the sub-surface oil may eventually impact the Florida coastline. For a company that promotes itself “Beyond Petroleum,” this is by far the most explicit example of why TNC needs to find new collaborative partnerships. BP is not an environmental company. It is a wolf in sheep’s lining.
Glenn Prickett responds: Thanks, Jason, for your thoughtful comment. I hear you and the others that have made a similar point. We take the public trust you describe very seriously, and we must think hard about which companies we partner with and the outcomes we expect from those relationships. What we learn in the months ahead about BP’s role in this disaster and how they handle the long-term clean-up and restoration will certainly influence whether we work with them in the future and in what ways.
Moderator: We’re going to take a couple more. Thanks again for all the thoughtful questions. We appreciate the response.
Comment from Ananda: BP and other major polluters sit on your International Leadership Council. This I assume means they get access to the CEO of Nature Conservancy and get to influence policy. This for a paltry $10 million over several years (I understand that all corporate donations are of the order of 5% of the Conservancy’s 1/2 billion dollar budget).
Glenn Prickett responds: Ananda, thanks for continuing to engage on this issue. Our International Leadership Council allows us to talk to companies, and the companies to talk with each other, about what they can do to support conservation in their businesses. They do have a chance to speak to our CEO and other Conservancy leaders, but they do not influence our policies. We set our policies based on our science and what we think is needed to achieve our conservation mission. We’re proud of our corporate partnerships because they help us achieve that mission.
Maria Cypriotis Little asks via Facebook: Is TNC lobbying to shut down all the other CURRENT deep water drilling rigs?
Glenn Prickett responds: No. Offshore drilling provides a major share of this country’s energy and is a significant driver of the local economies in Louisiana and other states. It would be unrealistic to halt existing production — and if we did we would displace that production to other countries where the environmental risks are no less. We support the President’s decision to halt new offshore leasing until a thorough evaluation of the oil spill has been completed. This spill has shown us that the risks of deepwater offshore drilling are immense. We are pleased that the President has asked former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly and former Florida Senator Bob Graham to lead an independent review.
We will be engaged in that review to offer our science and express our opinions. We need stronger policies, regulations, and safeguards to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.
In the long-term, we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We are fighting for comprehensive energy and climate legislation that would set our country on that path. I believe this is the most important political step our country should take in response to this disaster.
Comment from David Schackow: It is not possible for me to personally go to Louisiana to help. What are the BEST ways that a person can help from their own community?
Glenn Prickett responds: Thanks, David. Two quick thoughts on how you can help. First, support organizations that are working on Gulf restoration. Second, contact your members of Congress and let them know you want them to act this year on comprehensive climate and energy legislation that reduces carbon emissions and puts us on the path to a genuine clean energy future.
Moderator: We will take one more question and the we’ll have to stop. Thanks again for you participation.
Comment from Elaine: Exactly what are you doing right now — hands on — to protect and save wildlife and the region? I think those of us out here are really tired of a lot of talk and very little action from most of the people who are talking.
Glenn Prickett responds: We do field work throughout the Gulf Coast to protect and restore critical habitat. We have been working hard on the ground since the first days of the spill to lay boom around our shellfish restoration projects and to help guide state agencies to protect the most important areas. We have offered all of our science to the federal government to support their response. Most importantly, going forward we will support the Gulf states to restore coastal habitat that was already heavily degraded by a century of poorly planned development and natural disasters.
Moderator: That’s it for now. We couldn’t get to all of your questions — we will review them and we may post additional answers to the blog later. The transcript will be available here and on our blog. Thanks for all of your questions and for participating. We appreciate the concern and having the dialogue. Thanks!
(Image: Mark Tercek. Image credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC.)