Smith­so­nian’s slip­pery slope

Crit­ics see oil al­liances taint­ing its good name

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY KELLY HEARN THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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-

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