Smithsonian’s slippery slope
Critics see oil alliances tainting its good name
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 peerreviewed 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 farreaching 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, motiontriggered 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. Fiftyeight of 64 oil blocks in the Peru-