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PITTSBURGH — In the fierce debates over the safety of fracking for natural gas, one group is giving both sides a chance to make their points.
Pittsburgh’s Heinz Endowments is funding groups that say fracking can’t ever be done safely. It is also working with major energy companies and environmentalists who believe the drilling can be done without hurting the environment or public health.
“The Endowments actually tries to encourage the democratic principle of airing various (and sometimes opposing) points of view on complicated and important issues,” Heinz spokesman Doug Root wrote in an email. That includes funding “different approaches to advocacy on environmental issues” because at any point in time one approach may be more effective than another.
Heinz doesn’t have a problem with the diverse views, but over the past two months dozens of environmental groups have criticized a new initiative the Endowments helped found— the Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development. That’s a partnership between energy companies, including Shell and Chevron, and national and regional environmental groups. In announcing the effort, Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt said he believes fracking “can be done in a way that does not do violence to the environment.”
One anti-fracking group that received funding last year from the Heinz Endowments, which is separate from the food company, said it doesn’t approve of the Sustainable Shale effort.
“Yes, we absolutely raised serious concerns” with the Endowments, said Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a New York-based group. She said she asked Heinz “where you’re going with this.”
Arrindell called the Sustainable Shale effort “terribly silly” and a “distraction” from efforts to examine health and environmental impacts from fracking, but said she recognizes that the Endowments, like other large organizations, contains people with different views. She said her group “kind of have to live with” the situation.
Others note that some criticism of the Sustainable Shale project uses a selective brush, attacking the energy companies and certain environmental groups for working with them — but not the Heinz Endowments.
When some environmental groups issued an open letter criticizing the Sustainable Shale Center in late May, a pro-drilling website noticed the omission.
“We doubt they’ll send a nasty-gram to the Heinz Endowments because Heinz funds the very kinds of groups” that criticize drilling, noted the Marcellus Drilling News, an online publication for landowners who support drilling.
Fracking, which involves injecting large volumes of water with sand and hazardous chemicals underground to break apart rock, has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas, but also has raised concerns about air and water pollution.
Until Heinz went public with the sustainable shale effort this year, the situation seemed far more clear-cut. The Endowments has given out more than $10 million in gas drilling-related grants over the past three years. Many of the grant recipients have criticized the industry.
One scientist who has been in the crossfire over fracking praised the Heinz Endowments approach.
“I kind of admire Heinz for funding different things,” said Rob Jackson, and environmental professor at Duke University. “Why should a foundation be any different than a company in hedging its bets?”
Jackson and his colleagues at Duke have done studies on potential water contamination related to the recent gas drilling boom. The ones that found evidence of contamination have been loudly praised by environmentalists and criticized by industry. The Duke studies that don’t find evidence of contamination provoke the opposite reaction.
One expert on foundations said the Heinz approach is somewhat unusual.
“It’s not unheard of, but it is more common for a foundation to come down clearly on one side,” said Aaron Dorfman, the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Dorfman said that the Heinz Endowments approach of “funding multiple paths” is just its way of trying to find “a sustainable way to deal with a challenging issue.”
But he wondered about the future.
“Are they going to continue to fund groups that are opposed to fracking?” Dorfman asked.
The most recent list of Heinz Endowment grants suggests the answer is yes. In mid-May, the Natural Resources Defense Council was approved for a project “empowering communities to safeguard against the risks of hydraulic fracturing,” and Yale University was funded to study “Natural Gas Extraction Hazards” to humans and animals.
Root said the Heinz Endowments doesn’t want to constrict “the exchange of varying points of view among grantees in testing solutions to serious problems.”
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said it’s heartening that the Heinz Endowments and some others “are finally acknowledging these clear environmental and economic benefits” of the drilling boom.
“That said, it would be troubling if these same organizations continue to finance activist groups calling for a ban on natural gas production,” coalition spokesman Steve Forde wrote in an email.