Regulators contend that overall, water and air pollution problems are rare, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research on those issues. The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, and many rules on air pollution and disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking are being strengthened.
Vagt said the Heinz Endowments simply believes that many questions about gas drilling still need answers.
"There are lots of positions being taken with a relative paucity of data. The potential consequences are serious and permanent," he said.
Heinz has also worked with gas drilling companies on projects, such as a study that EQT Co. supported that examines whether it makes environmental and financial sense to convert Pittsburgh's bus fleet to run on natural gas.
Andrew Johnson, a program officer with the William Penn Foundation based in Philadelphia, said that region's drinking water is a prime focus of the more than $2 million in grants they've awarded during the past year.
"The reason we're stepping up is to a large degree the Philadelphia water supply comes from the forested headwaters," Johnson said, adding that campaigns to get more federal oversight of gas drilling have been a priority.
"We've also tended to focus on efforts to encourage U.S. EPA to become more involved, mobilizing people to become actively engaged," he said of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "It wasn't clear to us that what had been done was sufficient," he said of local and state efforts.
State officials have criticized EPA's involvement with gas drilling issues.
"This organization is welcome to spend its money however it chooses; but the truth is that in Pennsylvania, DEP's strong regulations ensure that drilling is done right," said Katy Gresh, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's communications office. "EPA oversight has never been necessary for us to make that pledge, and it is not necessary now."
The William Penn Foundation has given money to the Sierra Club, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, the Delaware River Basin Commission, the National Resources Defense Council, Trout Unlimited and others. Those groups have a range of opinions on gas drilling, from outright opposition to cautious support.
All the foundations say they're responding to needs that match their core missions, as well as simply helping people who are concerned about gas drilling.John Rohe, the vice president for Pittsburgh's Colcom Foundation, said the group has provided about $4.8 million for gas-drilling-related projects, with a focus on helping people "who care about the land."