Black, white or green?

Black, white or green?

So is the Bank of America an environmental hero? A villain? Both? Or neither?

Those questions buzzed around my head when a pair of emails zipped into my mailbox, literally within a few hours of one another.

Here's the first, a press release, edited slightly, from the activist Rainforest Action Network:

Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis Named Fossil Fool of the Year
Thousands Participate in Online Contest to Determine Year's Biggest Fossil Fools

SAN FRANCISCO - Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis has been voted 2008's Fossil Fool of the Year in an online contest sponsored by Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Energy Action Coalition and Co-op America. Lewis was nominated for the award because of Bank of America's massive support for dirty coal. The financial giant is the leading financial backer of mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States and a top funder of new coal-fired power plants.

...Lewis won a clear plurality in the Fossil Fool of the Year category...His competition for this year's top prize included General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Dynegy CEO Bruce Williamson, and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

"Ken Lewis faced a who's who list of polluters, but voters deemed him the worst of a very deserving crop. We'll see if he's as willing to accept responsibility for his company's role in the climate crisis as he is to accept praise for its minimal environmental efforts," said Rebecca Tarbotton, director of RAN's Global Finance Campaign, which is pressuring Bank of America to stop funding the coal industry.

No offense to RAN, which can be an effective thorn in the side of corporate polluters, but this bit of fake news was on its way to the virtual trash bin on my laptop until this announcement came in from the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Mayor Bloomberg and Bank of America's Ken Lewis Honored for PlanNYC and the World's Greenest Skyscraper

New York, NY (April 1, 2008) - The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today will honor New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bank of America CEO Kenneth D. Lewis for their outstanding work and leadership in the political and business arenas on behalf of the environment at the 10th Annual "Forces for Nature" benefit.

Mayor Bloomberg created PlanNYC, an environmental roadmap designed to make New York City efficient and sustainable in the 21st Century. Bank of America's $20 billion environmental initiative invests and finances efforts that address climate change, as reflected in the new Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Place in NYC that, when completed in 2009 will be one of the most ecologically friendly and efficient office skyscrapers in the world.

"As important as it is to recognize those who are protecting our wildlife and natural resources, it is equally important that we recognize those who are working in the political and business worlds to bring about important environmental changes," said NRDC President Frances Beinecke.

Ah, there's never a dull moment on the green business beat. But what to make of these dueling news releases? Well, RAN is certainly the more aggressive, hard-line enviro group, but the folks at NRDC are no slouches. In fact, NRDC has put together a parody of the coal industry that takes a few digs at mountaintop mining of coal, which is carried out by companies financed by the Bank of America. What's more, NRDC attorneys have gone to court to try to stop mountaintop mining, as well to oppose coal plants being built by utilities financed by BofA. Indeed, I'm told that there was some discontent inside NRDC when staffers learned that Ken Lewis was going to be honored by the group.

I called Jon Coifman, an NRDC spokesman, to ask him how the organization squared its decision to honor BofA with the group's opposition to conventional coal. "Ken Lewis is discovering that he's operating in a complicated world," he said, "One in which environmentalists can walk and chew gum at the same time."

The NRDC honor, Jon noted, was intended, not as a blanket endorsement of the bank, but as recognition of meaningful progress at BofA. The bank's $20 billion commitment to renewable energy is real. (Schools in San Jose, Ca., will be powered by solar energy, thanks to a deal with BofA and Chevron, as my Fortune colleague Todd Woody reported last year.) Its New York skyscraper is green and very cool. At the NRDC dinner, Lewis announced that the bank is adopting the Carbon Principles, a set of guidelines that helps leaders to power companies evaluate carbon risks when making financing decisions. The bank also offers credit cards and mortgages with "green" features.

"We have to give credit where credit is due," Coifman said. At the same time, he noted: "Does Bank of America lend money for things we don't like? Yes, and so does every other significant financial institution."

Rebecca Tarbotton of RAN has a different view. "All the banks are deeply implicated," she said. But RAN singled out Bank of America because "they are so heavily invested in mountaintop removal, and lot of the groups we work with are really concerned about that. We're seeing them do deal after deal after deal in the coal sector. If they are serious about going green, they have to shift away from coal."

She also was skeptical about BofA's endorsement of the Carbon Principles. "Bank of America has quite a track record of announcing bold commitments and then not following through. Case in point: their commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of their utilities portfolio by 7% over 4 years: the actual reduction was only 2%. Our job is to keep holding their feet to the fire for what's happening INSIDE that green skyscraper," she wrote on RAN's blog.

My takeaway? Aside from the timing of the announcements, this is business as usual when it comes to the complex and sometimes contradictory network of relationships-think of it as an ecosystem-among NGOs and big companies. One day, enviros are suing Duke Energy because it wants to build coal plants. The next, they are in an alliance, USCAP, to support climate change legislation.

Besides, there are different ways to get companies to change. They're like children. Sometimes they respond to the carrot. Other times they need the stick.

Activist groups like RAN, Greenpeace and Forest Ethics (with their sticks) have their roles to play, as do more collaborative NGOs like Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund (with their carrots). NRDC and Environmental Defense deploy both carrots and sticks. Sometimes the activists function as the business development arms of the mainstream groups. Protesters raise hell. Then companies run to the friendly enviros, seeking help in making the protesters go away.

As for BofA, it is no different from GE and Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola and Duke Energy, all of which have a mix of "dirty" and "clean" business practices. They're not green. They're not black. They're not white. They're gray.