BP’s lax operations and corporate culture contributed to the series of events that caused the spill. (See, e.g., this WSJ article.) What’s ironic about this is it was not so long ago that environmentalists were lauding the oil giant for its “progressive” approach to environmental issues (and substantial financial contributions to environmental causes). One CEO even sought to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” to reflect its commitment to alternative energy sources. Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that BP’s commitment to the environment was just window dressing.One of the barely kept secrets of the modern environmental movement is the introduction of corporate money. What better way, after all, to get an environmental organization on your side than to lavish it with funds that could be taken away the moment it dares to criticize you.
[Jay Hair – the president of the National Wildlife Federation from 1981 to 1995] found that the big oil and gas companies were happy to give money to conservation groups. Yes, they were destroying many of the world's pristine places. Yes, by the late 1980s, it had become clear that they were dramatically destabilising the climate – the very basis of life itself. But for Hair, that didn't make them the enemy; he said they sincerely wanted to right their wrongs and pay to preserve the environment. He began to suck millions from them, and his organisation and others gave them awards for "environmental stewardship". Companies such as Shell and BP were delighted. They saw it as valuable "reputation insurance": every time they are criticised for their massive emissions of warming gases, or for events such as the massive oil spill that has just turned the Gulf of Mexico into the "Gulf of Texaco", they wheel out their shiny green awards to ward off the prospect of government regulation and to reassure the public that they Really Care.What is the consequence of the dependence on corporate case? I expect you already know.
At first, this behaviour scandalised the environmental community. Hair was vehemently condemned as a sell-out and a charlatan. But slowly, the other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups swelled – so they, too, started to take the cheques. Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work for CI in 2006. She told me: "About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organisation's media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country... But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organisation, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren't supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were 'helping' us, and that was it."
On its website, the Sierra Club says: "If the level stays higher than 350ppm for a prolonged period of time, it will spell disaster for humanity as we know it."It isn't that environmental groups can't do good work while taking corporate money - it's just that they will bend to the will of their corporate masters, muting criticism of companies like BP and shifting their focus to environmental issues that their corporate sponsors don't care about - those that don't affect corporate profits - while in the worst case scenario lobbying against needed environmental reforms that might imperil the flow of corporate cash.
But behind closed doors, they tried to stop this becoming law. In 2009, the EPA moved to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to ensure that the levels of pollutants in the air are "compatible with human safety" – a change the Sierra Club supported. But the Center for Biological Diversity – an independent group that doesn't take polluter cash – petitioned the EPA to take this commitment seriously and do what the climate science says really is "compatible with human safety": restore us to 350ppm. Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the centre, explains: "I was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly. They said it should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA do it, they would probably intervene on EPA's side. They threw climate science out the window."