Sleeping With the Enemy?

The Nature Conservancy works routinely with extractive industries – like oil and gas and mining companies — industries with the potential to have some of the most significant environmental impacts.

Why isn’t that greenwashing, as some of our critics claim? Why is our “sleeping with the enemy” actually a good thing for nature — and a wave of the future for conservation?

As a scientist at the Conservancy, I was for many years highly suspect of the environmental ethics of extractive industries. It’s easy to take that position since these are industries with unavoidable environmental impacts. What I now realize is that the interests of industry, conservationists and society coincide more often than you would think:

  • Fast-paced development threatens some of our most cherished lands, waterways and species.
  • Over the next two decades, energy and mining companies will invest more than $20 trillion in projects around the world, with the potential for enormous environmental impacts.

We can choose to oppose development in a confrontational manner, or to face this challenge proactively. Why does the Conservancy choose the latter approach? By working with regulatory agencies and energy and mining companies, we can better conserve biodiversity by creating plans to mitigate for environmental damage before it happens. Confrontational approaches are rarely effective at achieving positive long term outcomes and often only serve to further entrench opponents and maintain the divide between them.

I now spend the bulk of my time working with industry partners on the siting of their activities for maximum ecological sensitivity as well as on mitigation projects. Mitigation provides a mechanism for maintaining or enhancing environmental values in situations where development is sought despite detrimental environmental impacts. The process we use for this work at the Conservancy is called Development by Design (DbD). Its goal is for development projects — mining, energy, and infrastructure – to have a net beneficial impact on nature. This is not a crazy notion: In fact, it is already a goal for some of the world’s largest mining companies, like Rio Tinto. We now have nearly a dozen ongoing projects with industry partners such as BP and Questar.

A standout example of how our DbD work has made a difference is our work with BP on the Jonah Field in Wyoming, where BP drills for natural gas. We worked to guide disbursement of $24.5 million in offsite mitigation funding. Approximately 12,000-ha of impact on the field was translated into more than 60,000 hectares of conservation, resulting in conservation easements on 7 ranches and 13 ongoing restoration projects. While the impacts of development on the Jonah Field are significant and the values of the offset actions will take time before the benefits are recognized, our preliminary analysis suggests this may result in a net gain for conservation.

If we can make offsets a normal part of project costs associated with development – as regular business practice for fully internalizing the costs of biodiversity impacts – funding available for conservation can exceed other funding sources by orders of magnitude.

But despite the benefits for nature, why isn’t this work greenwashing? Isn’t the Conservancy just providing cover for these industries to “trash” their development sites and “offset” that damage someplace else? Our DbD framework protects the process. It’s provides a rigorous structure for us to understand when we can and when we cannot use offsets and our principles of engagement ensure that the projects are focused on the best conservation outcomes. For example, by examining proposed development projects through the lens of our ecoregional goals we ensure that recommendations of avoidance or offset are consistent with our broader conservation objectives. In fact, as a normal part of our work on development projects we routinely make recommendations that avoidance or minimization of impacts is the preferred strategy.

Still, this work is controversial in some conservation quarters. And it certainly isn’t without its challenges. It requires more proactive thinking before projects even begin — about how to avoid siting conflicts, maintain wildlife and determine mitigation responses. It will also require shifts in how current mitigation regulations are implemented as well as the development of new regulatory policy.

The conservation community needs to recognize that not everyone wants to set aside the world into a series of protected areas or parks for the sole purpose of wildlife conservation. The importance of economic development for improving human well-being means that society will likely choose to value development over conservation if we continue to present it as an either/or option.

We can take the easy path and maintain the divide between conservationists and industry — or create a new paradigm and choose to work proactively with industry to balance development needs with environmental conservation. The latter isn’t greenwashing; it’s good conservation.

(Photo: David Stubbs, Oil and gas field equipment in Jonah Field.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. The Nature Conservancy’s former efforts to protect “The Last Great Places” motivated me to contribute a lot more than does its new initiative of “Development by Design”. For instance, why would I be inspired by photographs of pipelines? Perhaps TNC should turn itself into a for-profit, environmental mitigation company. Then again, perhaps it already has.

  2. The same thought occurred to me as Mr Harris. I came here looking for some facts not statements like .

    “We worked to guide disbursement of $24.5 million in offsite mitigation funding leading to bold emphasis is yours in the doesn’t cut nd paste.\
    If we can make offsets a normal part of project costs associated with development – as regular business practice for fully internalizing the costs of biodiversity impacts – funding available for conservation can exceed other funding sources by orders of magnitude.

    So I’m supposed to go away happy with that ? I’m reading on around your site but do feel a corporate speak leakage into a promising ecosytem ultimately doomed to destroy both your potential effectiveness. A common problem from Sleeping with the enemy Platonically they invariaby will try to seduce you and if they don’t get to Screw you they’ll Rape you anyway.

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