A recent report says foundations and environmental groups partnering to improve Marcellus Shale gas drilling and development standards have substantial and undisclosed ties to the industry.
The report by Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit watchdog group, criticizes the 11-member Center for Sustainable Shale Development for a lack of transparency about those links and for "greenwashing" the industry's environmental image.
The Heinz Endowments, which spearheaded the partnership launched in March, was targeted by the report for not disclosing that its president since 2008, Robert F. Vagt, is on the board of directors at Kinder Morgan, a natural gas pipeline company, where he was paid $136,016 last year and where he owns $1.2 million in stock.
"That's a significant, undisclosed conflict of interest," said Kevin Connor, Public Accountability director and an author of the report released last week. "One of the main funders of the center has undisclosed ties to industry that people should have been informed of and groups involved should have been aware of. It's a violation of the public trust."
While the ongoing board relationship with Kinder Morgan isn't part of Mr. Vagt's biography at Heinz, that information was reported in Reuters, Businessweek, Forbes and The New York Times and is readily available from Kinder Morgan and many Internet sites.
Mr. Vagt declined a request for comment, and Heinz referred inquiries to the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which said the report's conflict of interest and greenwashing claims against member organizations have "no basis and disregard many decades of commitment to environmental issues which is clear in the records of the CSSD's participants."
Heinz and 10 partners launched the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which set 15 voluntary performance standards.
It challenged shale gas developers to meet those standards and receive independent, third-party certification that they were following industry best practices.
But according to Public Accountability, based in Buffalo, N.Y., Heinz and the center it helped fund should have disclosed more about the connections the foundations and environmental groups have with the oil and gas industry.
The 21-page report details a number of links between the gas industry and CSSD members. In addition to the Heinz Endowments, those members include the William Penn Foundation, and the environmental groups Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Defense Fund, Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Also members are the gas companies Chevron, Consol Energy, EQT and Shell.
Mr. Connor said the shale gas development certification process has been criticized by other environmental groups and "is, on its face, a greenwashing effort because the certification process is without a lot of teeth."
But that perspective doesn't reflect the reality of the Heinz-led effort, said Joe Osborne, legal director at the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, which is a member of the CSSD but does not have a seat on its board.
"I think it's entirely responsible for people to be skeptical about the legitimacy of CSSD given that we frequently encounter greenwashing efforts of industry in our daily lives," Mr. Osborne said.
"But anyone who approaches CSSD with a critical mind-set will find it's a legitimate organization and has the potential to significantly improve the environmental performance of the gas drilling industry," Mr. Osborne said.
An expert on foundation ethics, Indiana University professor of philanthropy Leslie Lenkowsky, said he sees no indication of any wrongdoing or conflict of interest by those involved in the center, but added that Public Accountability is asking good questions about an area of foundation operation where there is little public understanding.
"Part of the confusion is that foundations are often public-serving organizations, but they remain primarily private, and the policies that govern foundations are internal policies," Mr. Lenkowsky said.
Editors note: Don Hopey is president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, a professional journalism organization with 1,300 members, which has received grants from the Heinz Endowments.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.