The Nature Conservancy “has just lost its moral compass,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that works extensively on endangered species. “The very idea of oil drilling inside a reserve is utterly wrong, and it’s especially disturbing in this case because the Attwater’s prairie chicken is one of the most endangered species in the entire country. It could very well be the next species to go extinct in the United States.” -- Justin Gillis, New York Times, Aug. 3, 2014
Those concerned about the University of California building its San Joaquin Valley campus on top of the densest fields of vernal pools containing the richest variety of 15 endangered species associated with the pools in the nation openly opposed The Nature Conservancy's so-called conservation easements in the area to mitigate for the damage UC is doing. These easements are now non-managed by TNC's vaunted staff of professionals because no endowments for management expenses were written into ,amu of the easements. The ranchers refused to accept them and TNC/UC simply spent millions in public money and foundation-grant money for the appearance of hundreds of acres of unenforceable conservation easements.
The TNC easements are just one of the manifold acts of corruption that went into the founding of this "boondoggle land deal" that caused the biggest real estate boom and bust the north San Joaquin Valley has ever seen. Let us recall that for months on end from 2008-2011, Merced, Modesto, and Stockton vied with one another for the national title of being the City with the Highest Per Capita Foreclosure Rate in the Land.
But, it's OK. Members of the UC Regents in the finance, insurance and real estate community, along with their political lackies, did just fine. It's true that a local bank controlled by local developers went belly up but that was due simply to an effusion of "animal spirits," as the economists say. -- blj
New York Times
Group Earns Oil Income Despite Pledge on Drilling
By JUSTIN GILLIS
The nation’s largest environmental group is earning money from an oil well on land it controls in Texas, despite pledging a decade ago not to permit new oil and gas drilling on land supposedly set aside for conservation.
That revelation is contained in a forthcoming book about climate change by the writer and activist Naomi Klein, and the essential facts of the case were confirmed last week by theNature Conservancy, the environmental group in question.
The Nature Conservancy — which says it helps protect about 20 million acres in the United States — argues that it has had no choice in the case of the well. Under the terms of a lease it signed years ago with an oil and gas company and later came to regret, the group says it had to permit the drilling of the well in 2007.
But the lease contains termination clauses, and Ms. Klein argues in the book that the Nature Conservancy could most likely have stopped the 2007 drilling. The group has earned millions of dollars over the years from gas and oil production on the property, though the 2007 well was not especially lucrative.
The property is supposed to be a refuge for the Attwater’s prairie chicken, one of the most critically endangered birds in North America. The birds appear to have disappeared from the site, though it is unclear whether the drilling had anything to do with that. The Nature Conservancy contends it took exhaustive steps to protect the birds, which continue to exist in small numbers elsewhere in Texas.
The new book — “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” — is due for publication on Sept. 16, and word of Ms. Klein’s finding has been filtering out.
The Nature Conservancy “has just lost its moral compass,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that works extensively on endangered species. “The very idea of oil drilling inside a reserve is utterly wrong, and it’s especially disturbing in this case because the Attwater’s prairie chicken is one of the most endangered species in the entire country. It could very well be the next species to go extinct in the United States.”
James R. Petterson, a spokesman for the Nature Conservancy, said the organization would prefer to get out of the oil-and-gas business entirely, but that it had been unable to do so on the Texas property. Among the group’s highest priorities is the conservation of the ecologically delicate lands it controls, he said, and its 3,600 employees are deeply committed to that cause.
With more than $6 billion in assets, the conservancy is by far the largest environmental organization in the United States. One of its basic strategies is to acquire ecologically threatened land, or rights to such land, in order to prevent or limit development. The group says it has helped to preserve more than 120 million acres around the world.
Some of the group’s money has come from corporations, or wealthy donors with corporate ties. The group has been dogged for decades by questions about whether it is too close to those corporate interests, as well as whether it has permitted too much development and other economic use of its lands.
The Texas property, known as the Texas City Prairie Preserve, has a complex history.
Mobil Oil donated the 2,300-acre property, near Galveston Bay, to the Nature Conservancy in 1995, in a bid to save the Attwater’s prairie chicken. That bird, known for its colorful mating dance, was once widespread on the Texas coastal prairies, but was devastated by hunting and destruction of its habitat.
Gas and oil were being produced on the Texas City property at the time the land was donated, but relatively far from the breeding grounds of the prairie chicken. In 1999, the Nature Conservancy’s Texas chapter decided to permit new drilling there, with the idea of dedicating the money to prairie chicken conservation. It sought out a deal with an energy company and a new well was drilled, about a half-mile from the primary breeding grounds.
The drilling was exposed by The Los Angeles Times in 2002, and explored in more detail a year later by The Washington Post, in a series of articles that raised broad questions about the activities the Nature Conservancy was permitting on conservation lands. A two-year Senate investigation sharply criticized the Nature Conservancy.
The group instituted reforms, including a pledge by its then-president that it would not permit new oil drilling or mining on its lands, and the managers of the organization have largely been replaced in the intervening years. The no-new-drilling pledge had one important caveat: that the conservancy would honor existing legal agreements.
Documents show that the well on the Texas City preserve petered out in 2003, and efforts to revive it were abandoned in 2004. The oil company holding the lease sought to drill a replacement well.
Mr. Petterson said the Nature Conservancy was reluctant to allow that, given the no-drilling pledge, and sought a legal opinion. An outside lawyer ruled that the terms of a 1999 lease, as well as a related legal settlement over royalties, effectively gave the oil company the right to drill again.
Internal Nature Conservancy documents suggest that drilling and production on the property at times disturbed the Attwater’s prairie chickens, despite the protections built into the lease. Yet the conservancy chose not to use that information to attempt to terminate the lease.
Mr. Petterson acknowledged that the Nature Conservancy could have chosen to fight a legal battle with the drillers, but said the outcome would have been uncertain and perhaps costly to the environmental group. Instead, the conservancy permitted the drilling of a new well in 2007.
“We are living with the consequences of a 1999 decision,” Mr. Petterson said, referring to the granting of the original lease. “We would not make the same decision today.”
The birds disappeared from the reserve in 2012, though the primary reason seems to have been a decision by the federal government to stop renewing the wild population with birds bred in captivity. Those birds are now being released at a larger preserve where they are thought to have a better chance of survival. Biologists have struggled to maintain a wild population above 100 birds.
In her book, Ms. Klein questions whether the Nature Conservancy tried hard enough to escape the 1999 lease. She cites the Texas case in making a broader argument that certain environmental groups have been ineffective in fighting climate change because of corporate influence on their boards and finances, sometimes including direct influence from the fossil-fuel industry.
“We all need to get off fossil fuels,” Ms. Klein said in an interview. “If the largest environmental organization in the world can’t figure out how to stop pumping oil and gas, how are they going to help the rest of us figure it out?”