Growing financial links between the Smithsonian Institution and companies prospecting for oil in fragile ecosystems are raising concerns that the venerable scientific organization is compromising its scientific research mission.
Since 2000, researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo have received more than $5 million from oil companies to conduct biological studies, help choose sites for drill platforms and work with corporate public relations to publicize scientific data, according to research grants reviewed by The Washington Times.
The grants are in addition to millions of dollars in charitable contributions from companies including Shell, Exxon Mobil and the Spanish firm Repsol YPF, and they come amid a debate over whether the Smithsonian and other conservation and environmental groups should have close ties with the energy industry.
Smithsonian officials say these links present no problems and that scientists are trying to give companies scientific solutions to minimize the environmental impact of oil exploration and production. But critics see a slippery alliance that is further tainting the Smithsonian’s brand, already sullied by a scandal over excessive salaries and benefits for its executives. Now, as high oil prices drive companies deeper into pristine tropical forests, questions are focusing on the scope and nature of the partly federally funded institution’s links with oil companies.
“The Smithsonian has sold out to oil companies,” said Rudy Rudran, a Smithsonian scientist emeritus who worked as a conservation biologist at the institution for 40 years before retiring recently. “They are dancing with the devil.”
Major concerns include the role Smithsonian researchers are playing in a new oil boom under way in the Peruvian Amazon, as well as the institution’s involvement in an association of conservation groups and oil companies that tried to develop industry guidelines to protect the environment.
Now, Smithsonian officials say they are in talks to do biological studies for PeruLNG, a controversial Peruvian natural gas project that has been heavily criticized by conservationists and is headed by Hunt Oil, a Texas company with strong ties to the Bush administration.
Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman at the National Zoo, said the Smithsonian has nothing to hide and that oil companies have no control over scientific data.
“The Smithsonian does not permit sponsors or grantors to edit or change our data or research,” she said. “When the research project is complete, results are submitted for publication in an appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journal. This is the case with all research grants, regardless of the source of funding.”
The Energy and Biodiversity Initiative
Mr. Rudran was a vocal critic of the Smithsonian’s involvement in the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative (EBI). The initiative was created by four oil companies and four conservation organizations and worked from 2001 to 2007 to come up with corporate guidelines that brought biodiversity conservation considerations into oil and gas operations.
In pages of e-mails Mr. Rudran provided to The Times, he warned superiors, as early as 2003, that the Smithsonian was giving a stamp of approval to what he believed were oil and gas company business models that were inherently incompatible with the Smithsonian’s mission.
In a 2003 e-mail, he told a superior that “the idea of integrating biodiversity conservation with oil and gas development is like trying to mix oil with water” and is contradicted by scientific research. He also told top Smithsonian officials that oil money wasn’t a solution for cash-flow problems.
At least one Smithsonian scientist downplayed Mr. Rudran’s concerns, writing in a 2003 e-mail that the National Zoo already had conducted projects with companies including Exxon and Honda, as well as countries, including China and Burma, “known for their bad human-rights track record.”
However, David Challinor, who served as Smithsonian’s assistant secretary for science and research for 16 years, backed Mr. Rudran, who stressed during interviews that he was speaking as an individual not as a Smithsonian representative.
In a handwritten letter from 2003 that Mr. Rudran provided to The Times, Mr. Challinor, who died this year at 87, wrote that “the EBI case makes me uneasy,” stating that he was glad oil companies hadn’t used the alliance prominently in ad campaigns.
“I have not seen it mentioned in any of their ads, thank goodness,” he wrote.
In 2007, after a financial scandal caused the ouster of the organization’s then-director, Larry Small, both Mr. Rudran and Mr. Challinor sent an e-mail to the Smithsonian’s top leadership suggesting ways to rebuild public faith in the institution.
Referring to the EBI, they said the Smithsonian had lost credibility by endorsing the “business plan of a group of oil and energy companies.” That endorsement “compromised the Smithsonian’s scientific integrity and independence to make honest and impartial assessments of an important contemporary issue of global significance,” the e-mail said.
From 2001 until last year, when it issued its final report and ceased operations, EBI produced reports, models and resources, including a PowerPoint presentation designed as an educational tool that oil and gas employees could use to educate others within their companies, according to managers at Conservation International, the alliance’s original founding member.
Glenn T. Prickett, a senior vice president for Conservation International, described EBI as a kind of technical forum to bring opposing sides together. “We provided a way for technicians to get together,” he said. “It wasn’t a marketing entity.”
Exploring and exploiting the Amazon
Thousands of miles from Washington, in a sweltering section of jungle on Peru’s northern border with Ecuador, a team of Smithsonian biologists on a $635,000 grant from Repsol is working on the front lines of a rising Amazonian oil boom.
Scientists say the way the team interprets biodiversity data taken from inside an oil concession called Block 39 could have far-reaching consequences for the world’s last great rain forest.
An Aug. 13 study involving Duke University researchers showed that a largely ignored and unscarred piece of the Amazon the size of Texas, located mostly in Peru and Ecuador, is now covered in a record number of oil and gas concessions.
Scientists have identified the threatened lands along the western headwaters of the Amazon basin and the forested eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains as being, acre for acre, some the world’s most biologically important real estate.
With an oil boom set to explode — and climate change and deforestation worries deepening along with recognition of indigenous rights — oil companies such as Repsol sense a need to at least seem green. Smithsonian researchers have stepped not only into the center of a controversial rain forest oil rush, but into an apparent juxtaposition of spiking global energy needs and biodiversity conservation.
“There are going to be small scale and localized impacts no matter what happens,” said Alfonso Alonso, senior conservation biologist for the Smithsonian.
He said Smithsonian field biologists are using infrared, motion-triggered cameras to gather biodiversity data before, during and after Repsol conducts seismic line testing — a way of looking for oil that involves cutting long trails through the rain forest and detonating underground explosions to give engineers an acoustic picture of the subsoil.
“So far the data shows similar species composition and abundance when comparing the before and during sampling periods,” he said.
Much rides on the Smithsonian’s scientific thumbs-up, observers say. Matt Finer, a biologist with Washington-based Save America’s Forest, a conservation group, said the Peruvian Amazon is facing an unprecedented wave of seismic testing. “With so much at risk, the science needs to be rigorous,” he said.
Natives at risk
The fragile ecology of these remote regions also involves humans. As Amazonian developers push further into the western Amazon, run-ins with so-called uncontacted tribes have become a focal point for human rights groups.
One Peruvian native group, AIDESEP, has brought a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of Organization of American States, to keep companies away from territories thought to house them.
But threats loom large. Fifty-eight of 64 oil blocks in the Peruvian Amazon overlap Indian land, and 17 cross into current or proposed parks to protect natives living in voluntary isolation, according to Lily La Torre, a Peruvian lawyer who runs a Lima-based nonprofit group to protect natives.
For isolated natives, contact with oil intruders can mean deadly epidemics, studies have shown. And for oil companies such as Repsol, contact with isolated natives can mean public relations and legal headaches, as well as costly work stoppages.
In May, the Smithsonian team in Block 39 found itself in the middle of the issue. According to statements from the Smithsonian, as well as an account given by a renowned Peruvian biologist, stories began circulating at an oil base camp deep in the jungle that some Repsol contractors had seen “colatos,” or Indians who’ve had no contact with civilization.
In a written statement sent to The Times in response to an inquiry, Smithsonian officials said that one of its biologists “overheard conversations from a labor worker concerning the possible observation of people in the area who were not associated with the ongoing seismic operation.”
The Smithsonian field supervisor made inquiries. “Both the group leaders of the survey crews and field archaeologist of the operating company informed the Smithsonian Field Supervisor that they were unaware of the sighting and that they had not received any reports prior to [the] inquiry,” the statement said.
The organization’s statement also said the research team’s infrared camera system had detected no signs of “any person who was not associated with our field project.”
Repsol also denied the sighting. “There is absolutely no proof of any uncontacted person being in the zone where we are working,” said Jose Luis Ibarra, Repsol’s head of public relations.
Others aren’t convinced.
Jose Alvarez, a biologist and former missionary whose conservation efforts garnered him a 2006 award from the Chicago Field Museum, said he is certain uncontacted tribes are in the area, and that workers saw them.
In July, Mr. Alvarez, who runs a nonprofit Amazon conservation group in Peru, turned to Mr. Finer of Save America’s Forest and to Survival International, a London-based group that defends uncontacted peoples.
In an e-mail shown to The Times, Mr. Alvarez wrote about “a quick sighting of [uncontacted people] near the Ecuador border.” He said that on two occasion, two separate seismic line workers in Block 39 had reported seeing what he described as “an indigenous person without contact with civilization.”
Mr. Alvarez, who said he has looked into the rumors himself, reported in his e-mail that the sightings occurred in a zone some 12 miles from the Ecuadorean border, an area he described as being in the heart of a proposed territorial reserve meant to protect isolated tribes.
In a subsequent telephone interview, Mr. Alvarez dismissed suggestions that the sightings were just rumors, or that the people seen could have been part of an Indian group living nearby that has already had contact with modernity.
“I’ve worked in this area for years, and I can tell you that there aren’t any communities near there,” he said. “It is also known that if you are an oil worker and you see a calato, you keep your mouth shut or you’re fired. So they aren’t going to sit around and make up stories like that. It’s too risky for them.”
The Smithsonian has company
Other nonprofit organizations have taken fire for alliances with oil companies. Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network, were all part of EBI. And some conservation groups have sought one-on-one relationships with oil companies.
“As an organization that works on the ground in developing countries, we often face the practical challenges of working with companies to help them operate in an environmentally safer manner,” said Mr. Prickett, of Conservation International. “Governments ultimately make the decisions of whether or not to open lands for oil and gas activities. We have to work within the reality created by those decisions.”
Murray Jones, a former Shell Oil manager, worked with Smithsonian researchers in the 1990s when Shell gave them a grant to do a biodiversity assessment of Peru’s Camisea gas fields. Mr. Jones, who now works as a consultant, said that alliances between oil and conservation interests can work.
“If the deal is transparent and there is a high degree of honesty from the start, then both sides can gain,” he said, adding that Shell gave Smithsonian biologists complete control over their work and data, providing only logistical support.
Shell also made the Smithsonian’s data part of the public domain, he said. After Shell backed out of the Camisea deal, a consortium of companies led by Argentina’s Pluspetrol stepped in to develop the project in the early 2000s.
Patricia Rojas of the Inter-American Development Bank, which invested in Camisea, said the Smithsonian’s scientific studies were used by the new companies in making their biodiversity protection plans. Others, including Mr. Finer and Mr. Alvarez, also indicated that Smithsonian scientists can play a positive role if they do their jobs well.
Mr. Alvarez said he had high professional and personal regard for Smithsonian biologists and wished only that they would dedicate more effort to spotting signs of uncontacted peoples.
“One way to look at it,” said Mr. Finer, who has a doctorate in ecology, “is that if these seismic projects are going to move forward, it’s important to have biologists and anthropologists in there working on how to minimize impacts.”
But Clive Wicks, who once headed international programs for the World Wildlife Fund-UK and worked with oil companies to develop biodiversity programs, said he thinks conservation groups should steer a wide path around oil interests.
“The problem is that you would deal with good guys in the company. But when proposals went upstairs, they came back missing the private parts,” he said. He said he is amused to hear talk about equal partnerships.
“How can you have an equal relationship between a multibillion dollar enterprise and a nonprofit looking for money?” he said.
Mr. Wicks, who also once served on an IUCN commission, cited potentially deadly risks that such relationships can cause. He said he has worked often in the Nigerian delta, where oil extraction is linked with violent social turmoil and public anger at Shell Oil.
“When we are on the ground, the question is always, ‘Are you with Shell?’” he said. “We say ‘no, no, no.’ But then what happens if they find out your group gets funding?”
Mr. Wicks said that one conservation group he once worked with considered putting an oil company employee in its office as a liaison - an idea he said is ludicrous.
“Much of our information about oil companies comes from whistle-blowers,” he said. “That stops if you put an oil company employee inside your organization.”
Asked about the EBI, he said: “I think the proof lies in seeing what changed. Did the oil and mining companies really change? If they did, I, for one, did not see it.”
Trouble for Smithsonian
Amid broad concerns about conservation groups and oil companies rubbing elbows, critics say the Smithsonian’s special status as a quasi-public institution puts it in another category.
“For many environmentalists, it appears that companies are trying to appease financiers with the Smithsonian’s name,” said Peter Kostishack, a Yale-educated biologist who has worked for years on Amazonian conservation. “Smithsonian is a powerful name that gives environmental credentials to companies whether they deserve it or not. And that credibility is weightier because it’s associated with the U.S. government.”
Past controversies could make the Smithsonian more susceptible to guilt by association.
In November, after at least one Smithsonian regent pledged to nix the deal because of the nature of the funding, the American Petroleum Institute was forced to withdraw a $5 million grant that would have funded an oceans exhibit and Web site at the Natural History Museum.
Also last year, a media leak of internal memos and correspondence from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that scientists at those organizations believed that the Smithsonian had watered down references to climate change for political reasons.
A year earlier, it came under fire for cutting a deal with Showtime that filmmakers said restricted intellectual property at the publicly funded organization.
“I think that these kinds of commercial deals at the Smithsonian are driven by money over all other considerations,” said Stuart Pimm, a renowned biologist at Duke University.