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Watchdog group faults center for links to oil and gas industry



A nonprofit watchdog group has released a new report criticizing the Center for Sustainable Shale Development for continuing to maintain what it perceives as questionable links to the oil and gas industry, but the center said the criticism is unfair.

The report, released Wednesday by the Public Accountability Initiative, said in the year since it last issued a study on the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, the Downtown-based organization “appears to have doubled down on its energy industry ties” because of connections it has to energy concerns through one of its philanthropic funders, staff members and a board member.

“While credibility may be CSSD’s aim, the direction the group has taken in the past year does little to diminish the group’s appearance as an oil and gas front,” the Buffalo, N.Y.-based nonprofit said in the new report.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development was launched in March 2013 as an effort between energy companies and environmental groups to find best practices for tapping the energy resources of the Marcellus Shale region.

One of the environmental groups that helped to found the center, PennFuture, is no longer a “strategic partner” with the organization, according to the PAI report.

Responding to the report, Susan LeGros, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, said the center “is about collaboration so we work with groups and individuals with different viewpoints on the shale gas topics.”

“That’s what we do,” she said. “We’re focused on trying to be part of the rational middle and look at issues from different perspectives, and come up with reasonable and prudent ways to deal with them. It sounds like we’re being criticized for that.”

In its June 2013 report, the Public Accountability Initiative blasted the Center for Sustainable Shale Development and the Heinz Endowments, one of the center’s original partners and funders, for not disclosing that Robert Vagt, former president of the endowments, sat on the board of directors and owned stock in Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based natural gas pipeline company.

The 2013 report set off a heated controversy that resulted in two endowments staff members being let go, Mr. Vagt’s departure from the charity earlier this year, and an effort by the endowments to distance itself from the center.

In its newest report, which can be viewed below or by clicking here, PAI said a new Center for Sustainable Shale Development sponsor, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, was “founded with oil money” and “maintains extensive ties to the oil and gas industry” through the Benedum family and some foundation board members who work in the energy industry in West Virginia.

The Downtown-based foundation was founded in 1944 by the late oil magnate Michael Benedum, a West Virginia native. The foundation joined the Center for Sustainable Shale Development in January as a “funder” and provided a grant of $25,000 to the organization, said Ms. LeGros.

Foundation officials could not be reached for comment.

PAI criticized the Center for Sustainable Shale Development for hiring Ms. LeGros in January because she was formerly an attorney with the energy practice at Philadelphia law firm Stevens & Lee.

In its report, PAI said the center downplayed Ms. LeGros’ industry ties “while stressing her environmental bona fides.”

Ms. LeGros’ career also includes work for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I worked as a lawyer for 40 years starting with EPA,” said Ms. LeGros in a telephone interview. “The last 25 years of my career I was in private practice and represented all kinds of clients. The last six to seven years of my private practice, most of my efforts were in representing the renewable energy industry and solar industry in particular.”

Also coming under scrutiny in the Public Accountability Initiative report were board member Jared Cohon, past president of Carnegie Mellon University; and Timothy O’Brien, whose public relations company works for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development.

PAI criticized Mr. Cohon’s past chairmanship of the Science Advisory Board of the Center for Indoor Air Research. That organization was founded by major tobacco companies to address public concerns about the health effects of secondhand smoke. The nonprofit cited studies that concluded the tobacco industry financed projects through the center “to enhance its credibility, to provide good publicity, and to divert attention from [secondhand smoke] as an indoor air pollutant.”

As a board member at the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, PAI said, “Cohon seems to serve a similar function” and, along with “the remainder of the purportedly independent CSSD are enhancing the credibility of and providing good publicity for the fracking industry while diverting attention from its ill effects on the environment and public health.”

Mr. O’Brien, who owns O’Brien Communications, was criticized by the nonprofit because his business website in the past noted that he has provided communications consulting for companies engaged in developing the Marcellus Shale.

“My only comment is that [energy] is one of the many industries I have served,” said Mr. O’Brien. “CSSD is my primary focus in this area. I don’t work with any energy companies right now.”

In response to the new report, the Heinz Endowments said it provided $95,000 to help launch the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, but that “we are no longer a funder of the group.”

It continued: “We disagree with the position suggested by the organization’s name that fracking can be made environmentally ‘sustainable’ and, given the pace of shale development, we do not believe that the goals of protecting environmental and public health are best served at this point by standards that are voluntary and unenforceable.”

 

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580. First Published August 6, 2014 12:00 AM

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