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Shelling Out?

Nature Conservancy's 'partnership' with oil giant Shell rankles donor.

Andrew MacLeod 1 May

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Protest in the Klappan.

A Prince George forestry professor who has donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada every year since 2000 said this year he will send his donation elsewhere.

The problem is the organization's work with the oil and gas company Shell Canada Limited, said Paul Sanborn, at a time when Shell's pushing controversial plans to extract coalbed methane from the Klappan area of Northern British Columbia. "I've not given anything this year."

The agency has a long history of protecting Canadian land, he said. He supports the goals, and has donated an average of over $100 annually for seven years. "They've done some very good work," he said. "There's no question they've got some very concrete accomplishments they can point to."

And while many fundraising organizations enter partnerships with corporations, Sanborn said the coziness between Shell and the Nature Conservancy bothers him. "For some reason this one just leaves a bad taste in my mouth," he said. "Shell is getting more public brownie points out of this than they deserve."

Coalbed methane push

Sanborn informed the Nature Conservancy of his decision in a March 28 letter. "It's really quite simple," he wrote. "You are too close to Shell Canada, and they are using this association to try to acquire an undeserved greenish aura."

That closeness is especially galling in British Columbia, he wrote. "Shell is pressing ahead with a very divisive and unwise coalbed methane project in the Klappan area of the Skeena headwaters, against strong opposition from local First Nations. People and groups that I have no problem making common cause with are opposing Shell's project."

He called the amount of support Shell has given the conservancy "chickenfeed," a tiny amount compared to the fortune the company will make in the Klappan.

A search of the Nature Conservancy's website turns up 61 documents mentioning Shell. They include a November 2007 announcement celebrating 25 years of "partnership." Shell has provided $4 million in "financial resources, volunteer support and land and mineral rights," it said.

Royal Dutch Shell plc, based in the Netherlands, owns Shell Canada Limited. According to un-audited results released April 29, the parent company had $114 million in revenue in the first quarter of the year. That's up 56 per cent from the same period a year ago.

'Not an endorsement'

The Nature Conservancy's B.C. office is closed until May 5. Nor did a national media contact in Toronto return calls.

A representative of the agency, Sabita Maharaj, did write back to Sanborn. "NCC accepts donations from any individual or organization that shares our passion for the land," she wrote in the April 9 letter. "We do not wish to deny anyone the opportunity to support our work and help preserve Canada's essential biodiversity."

The organization works with a variety of groups to make "win-win solutions" that benefit the environment, she said. Shell's support has helped protect areas in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, she wrote. They also funded 16 interns to do conservation field work last summer.

The "partnership," she added, is "not a general endorsement of this corporation and its overall practices." She defended the conservancy's "non-confrontational" approach, saying it has worked well to protect some 7,300 square kilometres since 1962.

"We're very proud of our relationship with the Nature Conservancy," said Patty Richards, Shell's social investment manager in Calgary. "We chose the NCC because we wanted a relationship with a conservation organization that has a national focus."

While the conservancy is willing to work with businesses, she added, it has a scientific approach to conservation that Shell finds appealing.

Shell gives about $10 million a year to non-profit groups, she said.

Reputation at risk

Sanborn said the agency's reply was what he expected, and it shows the group's directors may be out of touch with what is happening in B.C., where First Nations, residents and environmental groups have expressed outrage at Shell's plans.

"It's clear Shell is not welcomed unanimously by people in that part of the province," he said.

While the conservancy shows a lack of "street smarts" by associating with Shell, Sanborn added, some members doubtless disagree with the approach. "I'm sure there must be people in that organization who are feeling some discomfort."

He added, "They risk damaging a good reputation if they don't show some good judgement in whom they choose to be publicly associated with."

As a donor there are few opportunities to direct the agency's decisions, he said. The only "vote" he gets is to withhold his cheque.

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