Gas Heat

A small foundation uses focused academic, media, and activist grants to redirect a policy debate

Dan Fitzsimmons remembers that blustery day in March 2011 when he traveled to the offices of the Park Foundation in Ithaca, New York, asking for help. He was hopeful and a little desperate. The landowners he represented in the southern tier were in the grip not only of the Great Recession but of New York state’s long, suffocating economic decline.

There was, however, one reason for new hope, Fitzsimmons and his neighbors believed. For deep underneath the rolling hills of upstate New York lay a massive sheet of untapped wealth in the form of shale gas. They had witnessed their neighbors just over the border in Pennsylvania experience a remarkable economic recovery because of that state’s decision to tap its gas. Vast reserves existed under their property as well, but New York was (and is) in policy gridlock.

Fitzsimmons was hoping to get backing for an education campaign for homeowners interested in responsibly leasing their property, so any extraction could be done in accord with the wishes of the local community. It seemed in line with what he knew Park Foundation founder Roy Hampton Park had always supported—smart conservation that honored private enterprise and respected property values.

Park launched the foundation in 1966 with money he made growing the food company Duncan Hines and later a string of communications firms. The foundation now has an estimated $350 million endowment. Last year it handed out more than $27.5 million in grants for education and environmental outreach and other efforts, mostly in Park’s birth state of North Carolina—particularly at N.C. State University—and near his adopted hometown of Ithaca, where it contributes to both Ithaca College and Cornell University.

Fitzsimmons and Bob Williams, another local landowner, met with Park Foundation president Adelaide Park Gomer, Roy’s daughter, and director Jon Jensen, known to many as her “activist” gatekeeper. Jensen had come to Park after many years at Cleveland’s Gund Foundation and, before that, Pew Charitable Trusts, where he developed a reputation as a devoted environmentalist with deep suspicion of the energy industry.

The meeting lasted more than two hours, but according to both sides it did not go well. Fitzsimmons and Williams were not aware that Park had quietly begun funding anti-shale gas groups and that the founder’s daughter was steering the trust in a radical new direction, away from conservation toward a shriller environmentalism. Gomer and Jensen made it clear that they were fiercely opposed to shale gas and the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking: the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals into rock to release the oil or gas locked within. Natural gas was an environmental disaster, they said, and the foundation was committed to leveraging public opinion to ensure that New York’s temporary moratorium on shale-gas extraction would become permanent.

But what about the impact on struggling farmers and other locals facing decades of economic stagnation, rising tax bills, and wrenching population flight? If the locals could not take advantage of the riches underneath their land, so be it, they were told.
In a matter of days, Gomer and Jensen’s quiet campaign would suddenly become a global headline. An explosive anti-shale-gas study by Cornell oceanographer Robert Howarth—a project funded by the Park Foundation—would be released, transforming the debate over natural gas into a cause célèbre.

The big flip on natural gas

It’s hard to believe that natural gas was a favored fuel of leading environmental groups as recently as six years ago. In 2008, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change heralded its promise: “We also need to consider…how to better support natural gas as a bridge fuel to a more climate-friendly energy supply,” said president Eileen Claussen in a widely circulated speech. 

This was a common view and had been for years. In 1997, when shale-gas reserves were beginning to be identified, the progressive D.C.-based Renewable Energy Policy Project waxed optimistic. “Natural gas is inherently cleaner than coal or oil,” the nonprofit wrote. “Since renewables will be unable to meet most energy needs for some time, gas is an essential bridge to a renewable energy era.”

Natural gas used to be seen as a marriage of enlightened capitalism and pragmatic progressivism. It was welcomed as a relatively low-impact fossil fuel, much superior to America’s previous industrial and power-generating workhorse, coal. It was available in reserves of modest size but sufficient to carry us over until the price of alternative energies became competitive.

But over the past few years, the rhetoric has completely changed. Sharp criticism of fracking and shale gas is now a staple of green activism. The online environmental magazine Grist regularly runs articles bashing shale gas, such as the recent “Will Obama allow fracking to endanger his own water supply?” The Nation launches anti-fracking broadsides conjuring “contaminated water wells, poisoned air, sick and dying animals, industry-related illnesses.” Earth Island Journal raises the specter of “water contamination, air pollution, global warming, and fractured communities,” and mocks Claussen’s “bridge fuel” reference, calling natural gas a “bridge to nowhere.” 

The morphing of natural gas from promising next step to “worse than oil and coal,” as some activists now claim, happened almost overnight. What’s behind this abrupt turnaround? For one thing, advances in extraction technology have made gas inexpensive and caused it to be used much more extensively (usually as a substitute for coal). And while most scientists and economists see in shale gas an inexpensive fuel with relatively modest environmental impact compared to coal and oil, some environmentalists view it as a Trojan horse that is giving fossil fuel a new image—clean, abundant, not purchased from overseas tyrants—and thus a new lease on life.

This swing against gas has been spurred by a carefully coordinated outpouring of research, media, and advocacy grants by the Park Foundation, headquartered at the epicenter of one of the most promising shale gas regions in the U.S., and home to Cornell University, the academic base for the country’s most vehement anti-shale activists. 

Publications such as Grist, the Nation, Earth Island Journal, Mother Jones, American Independent News Network, Yes! Magazine, the American Prospect, and numerous other media elements have one thing in common. They have all received donations from Park in recent years to conduct anti-fracking journalism and related environmental reporting. Along with advocacy groups like Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and more than 50 large and small groups, they were the recipients of anti-fracking grants from the Park Foundation that totaled $3 million in 2013. Park has a plan, and a savvy one, to kill the American shale-gas revolution.

A calculated risk

Shale gas has already proven a boon to the U.S. economy. According to the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration report, the United States is the world leader in natural gas reserves—if we can tap them. “The shale gas revolution is firing up an old-fashioned American industrial revival, breathing life into businesses such as petrochemicals and glass, steel and toys,” the Washington Post wrote recently.

While we are awash in inexpensive natural gas, many loudly trumpeted “energy alternatives” have proven impractical on a mass scale. Vast research, production, and operational subsidies for ethanol, solar panels, windmills, and other panaceas have only backfired in white elephants and scandal. There are still no practical means on the horizon to make these hoped-for solutions efficient, cost-competitive, or even environmentally friendly. Ethanol squanders energy and farmland, solar generation fields create eyesores, windmills are hard on wildlife, and all of them survive only with heavy subsidies.

By comparison, natural gas—cheap, clean, and produced domestically rather than purchased from overseas autocrats—suddenly no longer looks like a short-term bridge to an alternative energy future. It is our energy future.

Like every energy technology, extracting shale gas does raise health and environmental issues. The process can cause mini-quakes. The issue is considered manageable so long as areas with major geological faults are avoided.

Air pollution is another worry. Fracking can release methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, raising climate-change concerns. Wells and pipelines need to be maintained to avoid “fugitive” emissions (which of course are also economically wasteful of a saleable product, which is why market forces are also squeezing out leakage). Regulators are also monitoring the potential for release of various chemicals near compressor stations, although cause and effect has not been established.

Keeping gas wells from mixing with water supplies is important. To avoid problems, drillers and state regulators have put great effort into fail-safe measures to seal well casings. Perhaps the clearest threat where sensible regulations are needed would come from accidental spills at the well site or other discharge of the water used in fracking. According to the General Accounting Office, more than 90 percent of the water involved in fracking in the U.S. is emptied into deep EPA-licensed wells, while less than 10 percent is reused, evaporated, used for irrigation, or discharged to surface streams under varying federal and state guidelines.

Is fracking safe? That depends on one’s risk tolerance. While key opponents promote fears and “not in my backyard” protests, the federal government and most mainstream scientists believe fracking is no less safe than other forms of energy extraction as long as regulations are frequently updated. Scientists at many universities, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other organizations reject a black-and-white view of shale gas.

“At the EDF, we don’t pick fuels. We are realists; we recognize that fossil fuels will be around for a while,” says senior policy adviser Scott Anderson. Noting that most states have considerable experience in regulating well construction and operation, he says, “if wells are constructed right and operated right, hydraulic fracturing will not cause a problem.”

But the emphatic message coming from the Park Foundation and its beneficiaries is that only a total ban on fracking is acceptable. Opposition to shale gas is being transformed into one of the ideological litmus tests of our time.

The Park Foundation provided the funds for reams of anti-fracking articles, some of which are shown here.

Drilling for dissent

Over the past four years, a few researchers at Cornell University have emerged in the vanguard of activists challenging shale-gas drilling, and their alarms have found a worldwide megaphone in the New York Times. The Times helped transform Cornell marine ecologist Robert Howarth into a hero of anti-shale-gas activists. Within a few days in April 2011, the paper twice promoted stories on an academic brief that Howarth and co-author Anthony Ingraffea had just published in the letters section of Climatic Change.

The authors claimed that the extraction process releases rogue methane gas that generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the production and use of an equivalent amount of coal would entail. Fracking could push the world over a tipping point, sending global temperatures irreversibly higher. Natural gas and fracking, they concluded, were a catastrophe in the making.

“All this talk that it’s a clean fuel, as some say, is not based on any scientific analysis,” Howarth told me. “There is a lot of money invested in shale-gas development. Our research is threatening that, which makes it political.”

Howarth is a longtime environmental activist. Until his controversial letter he had never published any university-level research on natural gas. The obscure letter was initially ignored by scientists and the media until the Times featured it. It would be difficult to overstate the influence its coverage generated. It led to thousands of headlines around the world and was debated in the British parliament and the European Union.

How did Howarth come to write what has become a seminal script of the movement against shale gas? Howarth told me he had been approached by the Park Foundation in 2010 to consider writing an academic article that would make a case that shale gas was a dangerous, polluting fuel. That led to the first of numerous grants from Park. Howarth has also said that his conclusion was not influenced by Park’s request: “$35,000 won’t buy my opinion.”

While the study and subsequent Times coverage generated thousands of media stories, the paper was widely criticized by scientists across the ideological spectrum. The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory reviewed the same data, concluding that natural gas, even from shale, results in far lower emissions than coal.

“His analysis is based on extremely weak data, and also has a severe methodological flaw (plus some other questionable decisions), all of which means that his bottom line conclusions shouldn’t carry weight,” concluded Michael Levi, energy and climate-change scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, in a study partly funded by the Sierra Club, subsequently concluded that shale gas has significantly less impact on global warming than coal. “We don’t think they [Howarth et al.] are using credible data and some of the assumptions they’re making are biased,” Paulina Jaramillo, one of the lead researchers, told Politico. The Worldwatch Institute reported, “despite differences in methodology and coverage, all of the recent studies except Howarth et al. estimate that life-cycle emissions from natural gas-fired generation are significantly less than those from coal-fired generation.”

Howarth’s conclusions were sharply challenged even at Cornell. Professors Lawrence Cathles, Larry Brown, and Andrew Hunter combined their expertise in earth and atmospheric sciences and chemical engineering to pen a stinging response, calling the work “seriously flawed.” They wrote, “the assumptions used by Howarth et al. are inappropriate and…their data, which the authors themselves characterize as ‘limited,’ do not support their conclusions.”

When I interviewed Howarth at the time, he insisted that his analysis and conclusions were “solid,” the shale-gas disaster his models predicted was inevitable, and laggard environmental nonprofits like EDF would turn against shale eventually. “They’re still heavily invested in their prior statements that shale gas is a win-win solution,” he said. “It will take them some time to come to grips with the new data and move toward a new position. Science moves slowly.”

Building a movement

While science was moving slowly, the Park Foundation moved quickly. By simultaneously funding an interlocking triangle of sympathetic scientists, anti-fracking nonprofits, and media outlets, Park helped move the idea that natural gas is environmentally unfriendly from the activist fringe to the mainstream.
The foundation has continued to provide numerous grants (in the range of $50,000-$60,000) directly to Howarth and his research colleagues. And the Howarth argument, despite its dismissal by scientists of various ideological stripes, has taken on immortal life among many progressive organizations that are supported by Park.

The foundation’s mostly unknown ties to scientists, journalists, and activist groups were on display last September in the brouhaha over a methane gas and fracking study that contradicted Howarth’s claims. Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin released a study done in cooperation with the Environmental Defense Fund which found that the national rate of leakage of methane during natural gas production was equivalent to four tenths of one percent of total U.S. extraction, vastly lower than Howarth’s claims. This was the most comprehensive shale-gas emissions study ever undertaken, covering 190 well pads around the country.

Howarth and his co-authors denounced the UT/EDF findings, and other groups funded by Park joined in the criticism. Media stories quoted a heretofore unknown organization, Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, portraying the university and the environmental nonprofit as shills. UT was quite open in disclosing that the study received industry support, but few noted that the physicians group, characterized as “independent” in many stories, had been recently founded by one of Howarth’s co-authors, Anthony Ingraffea, with Park Foundation money, specifically to promote an aggressive anti-shale-gas agenda.

This script repeated itself again and again. In 2011, the New York Times began running a new series it called “Drilling Down,” billing it as an exposé of “the risks of natural-gas.” Over the next year and a half, the Times churned out more than a dozen scathing articles, such as a story asserting that many “insiders” in the natural gas industry harbored serious doubts about its long-term viability, but were keeping mum to cash in on the short-term exuberance over rapidly growing shale-gas reserves. The author, Ian Urbina, quoted Deborah Rogers—portrayed as a “member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas”—as saying “we have a big problem,” appearing to spill the beans on industry corruption.

Rogers, a former stockbroker for Merrill Lynch whose term on the advisory committee had expired, now raises goats and makes artisanal cheeses, and is also a community organizer and outspoken national critic of shale gas. Urbina failed to mention her longstanding involvement with multiple activist organizations, including Earthworks—an anti-fracking group that has received more than $300,000 in Park money in recent years. A careful review of Urbina’s articles finds no less than a dozen examples of interview subjects in his stories being portrayed as independent, aggrieved citizens while they were actually activists linked to organizations funded by Park.

The Times coverage was so widely recognized as blundering and biased that the paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, launched an internal investigation of Urbina’s reporting. In two reports, Brisbane warned that the stories painted a complex issue with “an overly broad brush and didn’t include dissenting views from experts who aren’t entrenched on one side or another of the subject.”

According to e-mails later produced by the Times at the behest of a Senate investigation, Urbina’s stories relied on sources and background fed to him by the Natural Resources Defense Council—a group which has collected more than $350,000 from the Park Foundation for anti-fracking work.

Park-supported groups like the NRDC weigh in on many Park-supported projects. In February of this year, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News (ICN) teamed up with the Weather Channel to produce a series of reports on the Texan Eagle Ford shale formation.

“Their reporting now shows clearly that Texans in the area of Eagle Ford are having trouble breathing, and regulators are having trouble noticing,” said NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.

“People who suffer the effects of oil and gas emissions have few places to turn for help other than to the politicians and regulatory agencies that are often cheerleaders for, and financially beholden to, the industry,” said one ICN story.

The series was supported by a $25,000 Park grant “to report and publish articles on…air and water pollution related to hydraulic fracturing.” Many of the sources in the series, as well as the outlets promoting it (the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, Public Citizen, the NDRC) also received Park funding.

“What they do is have one group write on an issue, another quote them or link to them, and so on,” Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center told the Washington Free Beacon. “It keeps going until they create this perception that there’s real concern over an issue and it bubbles up to top liberal sites like Huffington Post and from there into the traditional media.”

Roy Park’s legacy

Adelaide Park Gomer, and her daughter, Alicia Park Wittink, who is also on the Park Foundation board, are openly hostile to natural-gas development, and corporations in general. Today’s foundation has a very different profile from the one Roy Hampton Park left to his heirs upon his death in 1993. In his day, funding went mostly to education, religious organizations, public broadcasting, and conservation—all passions of the founder.

“None of the environmental grants were political,” says his son Roy Park, Jr. “We focused on animal welfare, rainforests, marine life, oceans—doing what we could to promote environmentalism. We didn’t focus on causes.”

But Roy Hampton Park’s will left no roadmap of his intentions for the foundation. Soon a rift developed between the younger Roy and his sister and niece. They were out to “save the world,” he says.

Roy’s mother, Dorothy Park, ultimately sided with Adelaide and Alicia, cleaving the Park Foundation in two in 2003. The bulk of the funds stayed with them, while Roy was given a third to start the Triad Foundation with his two children. Like the Park Foundation, it continues to fund education programs at Cornell, but also supports more traditional conservation efforts and some conservative causes, which he believes are more in line with his father’s wishes.

“My father’s legacy…what he worked for all his life, should not be ignored or refuted,” says Roy, mourning what he sees as the “erosion of his hardworking lifetime ideals” by today’s Park Foundation. “Despite the absence of his intentions for the foundation’s mission in his will, his philanthropic objectives…were evident in the previous 30-year history of its grantmaking.”

The Park Foundation declined requests for an interview, but Gomer has elsewhere said that she believes her father would be proud of what they’re doing. Since he came from farm country in North Carolina, she told EnergyWire, he would never have wanted his home “to be turned into a moonscape, despoiled by hundreds of toxic, unidentified chemicals.”

Next generation, new approach

Both Gomer and Wittink are well known for their acid condemnations of fracking. “Hydrofracking will turn our area into an industrial site,” Gomer stated in a 2010 petition. “It will ruin the ambience, the beauty of the region. But, moreover it will poison our aquifers. We can live without gas, but we cannot live without water. As a cancer survivor, I am especially concerned about the health repercussions! It is obvious that the 600+, as yet undivulged, chemicals that are used to extract the gas will not promote long healthy lives.”

Her view of fracking is “somewhat like how an Iraqi must have felt in reaction to ‘shock and awe,’” she said in a speech before Common Cause, which in 2011 gave her its Civic Advocacy Award for environmental advocacy in the public interest. (A steady stream of Park grants to Common Cause since 2009, including $100,000 in 2013 alone, helped the group churn out a series of reports about energy industry spending.)

“Governor Cuomo might decide to welcome an army of corporate mercenaries to ravage and plunder,” she warned in her speech. “Do we want another Love Canal, on a much vaster scale?” “It’s such a dangerous process,” she told EnergyWire in a later interview. Farmers’ fields “will be a wasteland. Their animals will die.”

Gomer’s foundation regularly sponsors anti-shale-gas shareholder resolutions at the annual meetings of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Ultra Petroleum, and other energy companies. It coordinates with activist groups like As You Sow, which Park supports as part of its belief in “socially responsible investing.” Wittink has served on the boards of the Environmental Working Group, Mother Jones magazine, and the Center for a New American Dream, all nonprofits noted for their anti-shale-gas zeal.

Beyond Howarth’s controversial studies, Park’s support for fracking-related research at Cornell includes gifts for “continued evaluation of global warming and other environmental impacts of shale gas.” With more than $100,000 from Park, the university’s department of city and regional planning produced a paper and webinar contending that the benefits of shale drilling are overstated and that its boom-bust cycle will ultimately undermine the economy.

Park also funds fracking research at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Sandra Steingraber, an Ithaca College biologist and activist who has been jailed for civil disobedience and believes shale gas should be the litmus issue for progressives, is another academic recipient of Park money. “I have come to believe that extracting natural gas from shale using the newish technique called hydrofracking is the environmental issue of our time,” Steingraber wrote in Orion magazine, another Park-backed publication.

Here a man ignites that gas that occurs naturally in his tap water. (National Geographic/Getty Images)

In terms of splash, among Park’s most successful donations have been those for Gasland, the 2010 Oscar-nominated HBO documentary that incited the backlash against shale gas. The foundation has provided more than a quarter of a million dollars for campaigns to promote the movie and its sequels. They feature what are now iconic images of homeowners setting tapwater ablaze, implying that methane in their wells is the result of fracking.

But flaming faucets and fiery springs caused by leaking methane have existed in gas-rich regions for decades before fracking arrived on the scene. And investigations conducted prior to the films’ release found that the Colorado man whose kitchen faucet lit up Gasland 1 had the misfortune of drilling his water well into a preexisting methane pocket, and the Texas man whose garden hose became a torch in Gasland 2 had knowingly hooked the hose up to a gas vent rather than a water line.

The U.S. Geological Survey and other sources have revealed dozens of other misrepresentations in the films, yet the Gasland movies are now staples at anti-fracking organizing meetings and are regularly shown in thousands of public-school classrooms as if they are objective journalism.

Fueling an army

Although the Park Foundation has taken the lead in funding anti-fracking groups, it’s not alone among major philanthropies. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported, Google chairman Eric Schmidt has set up a family fund to rally the public against shale gas, and the Chorus Fund has amassed $40 million for the same purpose. The Heinz Foundation has handed out some $12 million in recent years, mostly to stir opposition in Pennsylvania, where shale-gas extraction has proceeded with bipartisan support

The 11th Hour Project gives about $3 million in annual grants to feed “grassroots” anti-fracking campaigns, targeting California, Maryland, and New York. It also supported the Gasland series. Others pouring anti-fracking money into the Marcellus region include the New York Community Trust and the Citizens Campaign Fund for the Environment. A survey in 2012 by the Health & Environmental Funders Network, a grantmakers group opposed to fracking, found its members gave $18 million to block shale-gas development. “The actual dollar figure is probably higher than that,” HEFN director Kathy Sessions told the Chronicle.

Tom Shepstone of Energy In Depth, an industry-backed group that supports shale-gas extraction, estimates there are about ten environmental “pressure” groups on the ground in upstate New York alone, most funded by Park. (Other donors like Michael Bloomberg and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation have taken a very different approach to fracking, offering grants to research and promote smarter safety methods and regulations.)

Natural gas supporters, particularly landowners whose property values are frozen as the conflict drags on, say Park money is targeted to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in free media publicity, echoed in cyberspace and social media. Its impact is far more influential, they believe, than traditional lobbying.

Gomer rejects these characterizations as conspiratorial thinking. “In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs,” she has said.

Philanthropists have a right to support causes of their choosing. The Park Foundation has been very savvy in getting its funding into the hands of three levels of actors with a capacity to influence the policy debate on natural gas: academics, activist groups, and the media.

For a relatively small investment, strategically distributed, with an appreciation for how bloggers, filmmakers, journalists, college researchers, and local activists can interweave their efforts, the Park Foundation has almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York state, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country. Whatever one thinks of the cause, the tactics are impressive. And the results of Roy Hampton Park’s failure to stipulate into the future the causes he wanted his money to support ought to be instructive to others.

Jon Entine is a senior research fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and at the Statistical Assessment Service.

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