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Nonprofit Conservation Group Has Ties to Oil Interests, Gulf Oil Spill

An article in The New York Times about the scope of the BP oil disaster quoted the executive director of the nonprofit Gulf of Mexico Foundation. It did not mention that the group has some close connections to the oil industry.

This post has been updated.

With crude oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day, the conventional wisdom about last month's explosion and spill has been that this is an environmental disaster of unpredictable scale. The New York Times, in a story published today on Page One, challenged this conventional wisdom by citing several experts. One of those was from a nonprofit group called the Gulf of Mexico Foundation:

"The sky is not falling," said Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Tex. "We've certainly stepped in a hole and we're going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn't the end of the Gulf of Mexico."

Anonymous Tipline: If you work for BP or a contractor on a rig in the Gulf, or anywhere else, we'd like to hear from you. Tell us about your work conditions, your management, and your observations of what is happening. We will not publish your identity. Call 917-512-0254, fax documents to 212-514-5250 or e-mail Abrahm.Lustgarten

The Times doesn't offer any more information about the foundation. So we decided to poke around. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation's website says it was "founded in 1990 by citizens concerned with the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico." Its site shows it has sponsored conservation and educational programs and partnered with the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The site also says the group represents a "wide range of interests," including "agriculture, business, fisheries, industry, tourism, and the environment."

But as it turns out, industry appears to be the most represented of those interests.

At least half of the 19 members of the group's board of directors have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry. One of them is currently an executive at Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Seven other board members are currently employed at oil companies, or at companies that provide products and services "primarily" to the offshore oil and gas industry. Those companies include Shell, Conoco Phillips, LLOG Exploration Company, Devon Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Company and Oceaneering International.

The Gulf of Mexico Foundation's president is a retired senior vice president of Rowan Companies Inc., an offshore drilling contractor.

Meanwhile, Transocean hosted the group's winter board meeting in January and sponsored a dinner for the board of directors. Past board meetings have been hosted in full or in part by Anadarko Petroleum Company, Shell Exploration and Production, Valero Refinery and Marathon Oil Corporation.

We have reached out to the Gulf of Mexico Foundation to ask about its ties to industry, but have yet to receive a response. We've also called Transocean for comment and are reaching out to the New York Times reporters who wrote the original piece citing the Foundation.

Update I: Quenton Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, just got back to us. Dokken acknowledged his group's ties to the oil and gas industry, saying that the industry has "never tried to dictate the direction of the Foundation or change the mission of the Foundation."

"We've always tried to work with every industry," Dokken told me. "Oil and gas is an industry that always steps up when we need money for educational products or habitat restoration projects. It steps up to plate and says, ‘How can we help?'"

According to Dokken, the Foundation has a budget of about $2 million. A quarter of its funding comes from private sector sources, including oil and gas companies. The other three quarters, he estimates, comes from federal and state government grants.

Update II: The New York Times' Tom Zeller Jr., one of the reporters on the original piece citing the Foundation, has also responded. His response in full:

We were aware of GMF's industry partnerships -- and for what it's worth, I believe they also have members from the agriculture and fishing industries, among others. As you'll note from Dr. Dokken's bio, the group also includes marine scientists.

You could certainly mount the argument that such co-mingling might influence his assessment of the oil slick and how bad it might get, but as I understand it, the bulk of GMF's operating budget comes from federal and state grants, so that wasn't my sense.

Of course, it's probably always better to err on the side of full disclosure (ditto for Oceana, another group quoted in the article), but we operate within space constraints as well -- and I believe we did link out to the various Web sites, so enterprising readers could peruse their boards and sponsors.

Update III: The NYTPicker, an anonymous group blog that watches coverage by The New York Times, had a post up this morning that pointed out the Gulf of Mexico Foundation's ties to the oil industry. Their post also raised questions about other sources in the story. And a UC Davis professor, blogging at the Huffington Post, noted the ties at 2am this morning.  

Update IV: The New York Times has now issued an editor's note, saying the story "should have included more information about the organization." Read the full note here.

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