The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.Peter Kareiva is chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

A passionate environmental scientist and good friend recently sent an e-mail chiding me. “So, given what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico,” he wrote, “are you still glad The Nature Conservancy works with BP wind energy and BP natural gas exploration in the western United States?"

My answer: Yes. Here’s why:

In order to protect and rebuild our environment, the Conservancy identifies the species and habitats necessary for a sustainable future.

Then we assess the threats to these systems. One of those threats is the energy industry (and not necessarily just oil and natural gas, but also the siting of renewable energy infrastructure like wind turbines).

We next ask how to reduce those threats. In the case of energy industry threats, there are a range of possible responses, including:

• Regulation (required safety valves, drilling depths, etc);
• Improved technology;
• Careful siting of activities (zoning); and 
• Offset or mitigation funds to make up for the damages.
Each of these is part of our Development by Design framework, which is science-based and rooted in our long-standing tradition of conservation planning that uses the best available data. We’re applying that framework in projects from Colombia to Wyoming to Mongolia.

We engage with BP and other extractive industry companies in order to identify “no-touch” areas for such development and to optimize mitigation efforts for the ecological damages done by such development.

For example, the Conservancy is working with BP and state and federal agencies in Colorado and Wyoming to prevent and mitigate the environmental impacts of natural gas extraction in these states. We assess the ecological importance and sensitivity of various potential sites. BP provides some of the funding to pay for data collection and analysis, which is peer-reviewed and publicly available.

In Wyoming, these data are being used to help direct $24.5 million in mitigation funding that energy companies pay into a multi-agency government fund. Money from this fund is being used to protect more than 80,000 acres and improve management for more than 200,000 acres.

We need more data

Coming back to the Gulf disaster, there is a lot of science in general, and Conservancy science in particular, that needs to be done. Most of what we know about oil spills is from ships, not wells. The other big oil well blowouts (Santa Barbara and the North Sea) were in very different ecosystems. And oil comes in a lot of forms — the damage depends on the type of oil. In addition, the dispersants being used now as part of the cleanup are known to have toxic impact on fish eggs.

We have extensive sets of baseline regional data for the habitats of the Gulf as well as site-based data from conservation sites in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Data from these sites will be invaluable in assessing impacts and damages.

I for one am not ready — based on this one event, whose impacts and causes are as yet unknown — to abandon the idea of conservation working with the energy industry. In fact, although we have never engaged with BP or other energy companies on their offshore Gulf drilling, maybe we should have — we might have been able to help site their activities to reduce the risk to the Gulf’s globally significant habitats.

I have to admit: My friend’s concern about “conspiring with the enemy” irked me. This is not an issue of environment versus energy – people need both. “Working with” does not mean “selling out.” Anyone who drives a car is a supporter of the oil industry — should we propose no one drives?

Look, I know that energy extraction is sometimes environmentally damaging, just as roads, ports, biofuels and even desert solar panels can be. In fact, Conservancy scientists engage with the energy industry precisely because that industry often does harm the environment.

But the point is: We need energy and we also need nature — we have to figure out how to do this energy thing with minimal environmental damage. We have to find the right energy policies and regulations that help meet the United States’ need for fuel and protect our natural ecosystems and the livelihoods they provide.

And at the Conservancy, our scientists work with our policy experts to not just do science, but to help inform policy. The reason I love my job (and I even love getting angry e-mails about “selling out”) is because we do science that is in the thick of it — science that uses our on-the-ground data and experience to understand impacts and tradeoffs and advise the most creative and pragmatic policy thinkers I have ever worked with, all in the service of nature and the benefits it gives us.

I do not know enough to give any advice at this moment, however. Right now, my focus is not on judgment or reaction, but rather on assessment and action. I will leave judgment to my friend.

Text by Peter KareivaCool Green Science Blog