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Foundation's Funds Continue Flow to Fracking Critics

2:11 PM, Jul 22, 2013   |    comments
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By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY A year ago, Exxon Mobil, one of the largest companies in the world, quietly bankrolled a $2 million public-relations campaign in New York, calling on the state to allow shale-gas drilling through a series of full-page newspaper advertisements and 60-second radio spots.

At the same time, the Park Foundation, an Ithaca-based philanthropic fund, was doling out dozens of smaller grants to groups who are opposed or critical of hydraulic fracturing and unafraid to be vocal about it.

Since Gannett's Albany Bureau first examined Park's hydrofracking-related grants 15 months ago, the foundation has maintained its rate of spending on the highly charged issue, distributing more than $2.3 million since the beginning of 2012 to fracking critics active in New York.

Like the $3 million in fracking grants the foundation awarded from 2008 through 2011, Park's spending since then has touched on all aspects of the complex New York debate -- from $100,000 for a not-yet-produced second sequel to drilling documentary "Gasland;" to $140,000 for Earthjustice, a group providing a legal defense for a gas-drilling ban in the Tompkins County town of Dryden; to $540,000 for Food & Water Watch, a Washington D.C. group that has been one of the most active in organizing large anti-fracking rallies in Albany.

"I think it's been a remarkable phenomena here in New York, and we hear this from our colleagues in other states around the country who have fracking running rampant over them," said Jon Jensen, executive director of the Park Foundation. "I think it's a grassroots thing. I give credit to the individual communities, where people have risen up right and left on the issue."

The strategy of spreading grants to a variety of interests has proven successful for the Park Foundation, whose president, Adelaide Park Gomer, once boasted of funding an "army of courageous individuals and (non-governmental organizations)" to fight fracking in New York. Critics, such as the gas-industry-funded group Energy in Depth, have accused the foundation of being a "political organization that pretends to be a charity" whose "footprints are everywhere it seems."

Tax records and information found on the foundation's website shows Park has settled into a consistent pattern of grant giving when it comes to fracking, with many groups -- including Environmental Advocates of New York and Catskill Mountainkeeper -- on the receiving end of funds at least once each year.

Park's total assets were valued at $335.4 million at the end of 2011, according to its tax filings. It hands out a total of about $18 million in grants to colleges and non-profits each year, with many focused on journalism and water-quality issues.

Both proponents and opponents of high-volume hydrofracking agree Park's fracking spending has been effective, with both pointing to a de facto moratorium on the technique in New York that will have been in place for five years on Tuesday.

"We've been shut down for five years," said Thomas West, an oil-and-gas attorney and lobbyist based in Albany. "Has the money that the Park Foundation spent been effective? Yes."

But the two sides of the gas-drilling debate disagree on the merits of the Park grants. The gas industry and pro-drilling landowners have accused the philanthropic group of artificially boosting a movement touted as grassroots.

It's a charge denied by both environmental and anti-fracking organizations as well as Jensen, who said he "has yet to see a basis for that conspiracy theory." Park only distributes grants to those who apply first and doesn't seek out grantees, Jensen said.

Nationally, spending by pro-drilling interests has dwarfed that of the Park Foundation. The American Petroleum Institute, the largest gas-industry group in the country, spent $32.6 million on lobbying in 2011, according to its most-recent tax filing available on GuideStar, a database of information on non-profits.

API, through its New York chapter, spent about $625,000 on lobbying in the state in 2012, according to records from the state ethics board. The group launched a comprehensive advertising campaign on Monday, with television, print, online and radio spots airing across nine states, including New York.

The ExxonMobil-funded ad campaign in New York was enough to make the company Albany's second-biggest lobbyist in 2012. Of the $2.1 million the oil giant reported in New York lobbying, $2 million went toward the ad campaign, of which ExxonMobil wasn't revealed as the source of funding until its lobbying filings were made public earlier this year.

The Park Foundation's individual fracking grants, meanwhile, have ranged from $5,000 to $125,000, though some groups have received multiple grants in a year.

The money's ties stretch as far as the state's current top environmental regulator.

Park's first fracking-related grant in 2008 went toward the formation of Catskill Mountainkeeper, which has become a leading anti-fracking group. The grant was awarded to the Open Space Institute, a group that was headed at the time by Joseph Martens, the current commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

"There's no way we could match (the industry) dollar for dollar," Jensen said. "I think the best we can do is just provide support to those communities out there, and somehow it seems to have been working so far."

Scott Kurkoski, an attorney for the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a Binghamton-based pro-fracking organization, said Park gave a "callous" response when the coalition applied for a grant a few years ago.

The landowners group, Kurkoski said, has struggled for funding of its own.

"I think when you're at this level, the grassroots level without industries, the message is received better by people in Albany," he said. "We tend to be heard a lot better in Albany than the industry, but we still don't have the funds."

A top recipient of Park grants has been the Sustainable Markets Foundation, which has received $340,000 since 2012 and a total of $637,000 overall. The Washington D.C.-based group, which has also received significant grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has distributed funds to leading organizers of fracking opponents in New York, including Frack Action.

Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca-based environmental database firm that has extensively mapped oil-and-gas wells, spills and incidents in New York, has received $758,250 from the Sustainable Markets Foundation since September 2008, records show. The database company is owned by Walter Hang, an Ithaca resident who has been one of the Southern Tier's most-effective fracking organizers and an outspoken critic of the state's decision-making process on shale-gas drilling.

"We're a firm," Hang said. "We help engineers, we help consultants, we help municipalities, we help newspapers, and we just never reveal anything about who our clients are or what the scope is or anything like that -- just like, I'd imagine, all businesses."

Among the groups who had a Park grant routed through the Sustainable Markets Foundation -- whose director, Jay Halfon, did not return calls for comment -- was Elected Officials to Protect New York, which received $15,000 this year to help set up a website.

Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson, who leads the elected officials group, said it isn't fair or accurate to suggest Park's grants have fueled anti-fracking efforts in New York.

"I think the Park Foundation's money has been little tiny bits of money that have enabled volunteers --this is a volunteer-driven movement -- to have a little, tiny bit of money for maybe an office somewhere or a part-time employee," said Robertson, who is running for Congress next year. "It's because the passions are so deep and so strong that we are where we are."

Park has awarded 69 fracking grants to 35 organizations since 2011, while rejecting 57 requests from 47 groups, according to the foundation. Jensen said the group's giving strategy regarding fracking won't change as long as it proves to be successful.

"I really have to confess, I've just been astounded that this movement has been able to slow or halt hydrofracking in New York for this long a period," Jensen said.

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