PITTSBURGH – The head of an influential charity is being criticized for his ties to the oil and gas industry, but some experts say the allegations are misguided.
The Public Accountability Initiative, a liberal-leaning group that investigates corporations and businesses, released a report last week claiming that Robert Vagt, the president of Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, hadn’t fully disclosed his ties to the oil and gas industry and his current membership on the board of Houston-based Kinder Morgan Inc., the largest operator of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. The report also criticized the Endowments, which are separate from the giant food company, for providing funding for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which works with the gas drilling industry to reduce pollution.
“I don’t think it’s a fair criticism,” said Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation. “There is a lot of work to be done to correct the problems of the gas industry, and sometimes we get things by vinegar, sometimes we get it by honey. And both pathways are acceptable.”
One scientist who has researched the pollution impact of natural gas drilling said the allegations against Vagt are fundamentally different from past Accountability Initiative work that uncovered major universities’ reports that didn’t disclose industry ties. The Endowments doesn’t publish scientific reports but rather gives grants to other groups.
The criticism of Vagt “is part of a growing trend to disqualify anything that one side or the other doesn’t like,” said Rob Jackson, a Duke University environmental professor who added that the Kinder Morgan tie alone “is not a deal breaker for me.”
Jackson said that while there are legitimate questions about whether the Sustainable Shale effort will be effective, it openly includes members of the industry. Vagt’s industry experience might also help the effort, he said.
Jackson and others note that the Endowments have provided tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups and scientists who examine and criticize the fossil duel industry’s effects on public health.
Kevin Connor, the director of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Public Accountability Initiative, wrote in the report that Vagt’s presence on the Kinder Morgan board creates a conflict of interest for Heinz, particularly as it relates to support for the Center for Sustainable Shale.
But after the report was published, Connor told the Associated Press that he hadn’t realized Vagt wasn’t a member of the Heinz Endowments board of directors and thus doesn’t vote on which grants they choose to support. But he still believes the disclosure of Vagt’s ties was insufficient.
The Endowments are led by Teresa Heinz Kerry, who has a long history of supporting environmental and liberal causes.
Far from being hidden, Vagt’s position with Kinder Morgan has been openly disclosed on that company’s website and in national news stories. Vagt’s oil and gas industry background is also listed on his Heinz Endowment biography and at Davidson College in North Carolina, where Vagt served as president from 1997 until he took the Heinz position in 2008.
An expert on philanthropies said the Accountability Initiative report misses a key point.
“The fact that the president is on the Kinder Morgan board is not really a problem” unless the Endowments do something to specifically benefit Kinder Morgan, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University. He added that some might see it as an “appearance” of a conflict of interest, and so discussion of the matter is appropriate.
Lenkowsky noted that the Endowments “is legally a private institution” that can choose to support whatever groups it wants to.
Vagt and the Heinz Endowments declined to comment.
The Environmental Defense Fund, a national group that is also a part of the Sustainable Shale group, said the Accountability Initiative report “takes the untenable position that anyone who has ever worked in the energy industry, or invested in it, should be barred from supporting or working on behalf of environmental protection.”
“In reality, we need more industry leaders and investors to stand up for environmental protection,” EDF said.