In a possible sign that the Heinz Endowments is shifting away from support for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Robert Vagt announced Monday that he is stepping down as president of the Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization.

“It has been my privilege to serve the Heinz family and the people of this region for six years, and to be associated with great colleagues at the Endowments and in this philanthropic community,” Vagt said. “As looming on the horizon is my 67th birthday, this seemed to be an appropriate time for me to step down.”

Carmen Lee, spokeswoman for the Heinz Endowments, told NGI’s Shale Daily on Tuesday that “no timetable for [Vagt’s] departure has been set,” adding that the organization’s board of directors would immediately begin a search to find a successor.

Sherry Miller Brown, an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, told NGI’s Shale Daily that Vagt’s departure was a significant development.

“Any time there is a change at the top, particularly at a large foundation like Heinz, that has significance,” Brown, who teaches a nonprofit management course, said Tuesday. “Especially since the Heinz Foundation has been such an institution in Pittsburgh in terms of community development, education and all of the many things that Heinz does.

“I’m not familiar with [Vagt] and all of his own individual agendas, but any time a major foundation head retires or leaves it’s going to have an impact.”

Vagt is the third top official to leave the Heinz Endowments this year. In August, Caren Glotfelty was fired as the organization’s environmental program director (see Shale Daily, Aug. 7). Also that month, Douglas Root left his post as communications director.

Although the Heinz Endowments has given millions to both supporters and opponents of fracking, changes at the top of the organization are fueling speculation that it is shifting away from supporting the practice. According to reports, Andre Heinz — a board member, a son of the late U.S. Sen. Henry John Heinz III, an environmentalist and a supporter of wind and solar power — may have been behind the staff changes.

Under Glotfelty and Vagt the Heinz Endowments joined a diverse coalition to form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) in March (see Shale Daily, March 21). The CSSD’s industry participants are Chevron Corp., Consol Energy Inc., EQT Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell plc. The William Penn Foundation, another charity, is also a member.

“It was my understanding that, for the most part, the Heinz family was pretty much out of what the foundation did,” Brown said, but added the speculation of Andre Heinz’ involvement in the personnel changes “certainly seems reasonable, given the direction [Vagt] was taking with the Heinz Foundation.”