- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Heinz Endowments are continuing to strongly support research and advocacy relating to environmental and health impacts of natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in spite of significant turnover in its senior management.

The Pittsburgh-based Endowments told the Associated Press that it gave out over $3.3 million in 2013 for grants specifically related to gas drilling. That estimate doesn’t include grants to other groups who spend only part of their time on drilling issues.

The more than 20 grantees included many regional groups, but also universities such as Yale, Harvard and Cornell. The projects ranged from studies of potential air and water pollution to films, community organizing, and support for a sport fishing group that monitors drilling impacts. The largest single grant - $766,400 - went to the FracTracker Alliance, a group that researches and maps oil and gas drilling activity and impacts across the nation.

Brook Lenker, FracTracker’s director, said Heinz Endowments is an important and valued partner, and currently their largest funder. But he also noted that as the shale gas drilling boom keeps expanding “more funders are becoming interested” in the issue.

“Our intent, like most nonprofits, is to diversify our funding,” Lenker said.

In 2012 Heinz estimated that it had already awarded about $12 million in gas drilling-related grants. The large majority were for institutions or organizations that were asking tough questions about the impacts of the drilling boom.

But last August the Endowments suddenly dismissed Caren Glotfelty, its longtime head of environmental grant making, leading to speculation that its priorities might change. At the time Glotfelty told reporters in an email that “the board has indicated that it is moving in a different direction with regard to the Environment Program.”

Then in October, Endowments president Robert Vagt announced that he planned to retire, and his last day is January 24. Endowments spokeswoman Carmen Lee says a search is underway for a new president but there’s no timetable. Teresa Heinz Kerry is the head of the charity, which is not connected to the global food company with the same name.

The departure of Vagt and other staff members came after the endowments received criticism from some environmental groups for the formation of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a partnership among other environmental groups, charities, and the oil and gas industry that was announced last spring. Endowments officials never formally mentioned a connection between the criticism and the departures. In 2012, the Endowments provided at least $95,000 in grants to help launch the CSSD, but it’s not clear if there was any further support last year.

Vagt played a leading role in launching the CSSD, and Lee said it’s unclear who will take his place on that project. The Endowments did not comment on the matter.

The Heinz Endowments, with assets of $1.4 billion, is the 49th largest foundation in the United States. The charity gives out an average of about $60 million in grants each year, but that includes other program areas such as arts and culture; children, and community and economic development.

In the past, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a leading industry group, criticized the Endowments for supporting organizations that are opposed to natural gas drilling. A Coalition spokesman said they had no comment.

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