The palace that gas rebuilt: Hare Krishnas welcome drilling

The first of two parts

NEW VRINDABAN, W.Va. — It was important to accept that gas drilling is exploitative, that it is unsustainable and “contributes to the culture of death and toxicity,” advised a treatise on how to spiritually negotiate signing a gas lease at the largest Hare Krishna farming community in the U.S.

The Krishna community, called New Vrindaban, is tucked away in an unlikely corner outside Moundsville, W.Va., where the earth is stuffed with gas. The landmen came calling in 2005, then in 2009, and again in 2013.

The internal controversy over the matter split the already bruised 200-member community which, since the 1980s has been healing from a major fall from grace. Allegations of sexual abuse, racketeering and other scandals eroded its membership, funds, and popularity as a tourist destination and the community's various holy sites fell into three decades of infrastructural neglect.

Only within the last five years has New Vrindaban begun to attract new blood, repair its crumbling buildings and think about the future.

It started around the time the Hare Krishnas took the gas money.


Drilling was on the horizon

In some ways, they felt cornered. Gas drilling was coming, first in the Marcellus Shale, with its valuable natural gas liquids in the West Virginia panhandle, and later in the deeper Utica Shale, with its bounty of dry gas. More than 50 percent of their neighbors had already signed leases.

After months of meetings and negotiations behind its 19-page Marcellus Shale lease with AB Resources in 2010, the company hosted a signing event at a local fire hall. New Vrindaban devotees made a cake and spelled out “Thank you, AB Resources” in blueberries.

Mark Van Tyne, then vice president of the Ohio-based company, was expecting something completely different.

He’s old enough to remember the Hare Krishnas hanging out at airports, “chanting and hawking various scarves and umbrellas on every street corner,” Mr. Van Tyne said.

Instead, Mr. Van Tyne negotiated the contract with a devotee named Gabriel Fried, a welder, whose son was in the U.S. Navy. He was knowledgeable and practical and drove a hard bargain.

Five years later, Mr. Fried negotiated a Utica lease with Fossil Creek Energy Ohio, a Texas-based company that plans to develop the acreage with Gulfport Energy Corp.

“They just happen to have their commune on top of some of the best gas in the country,” said Chris Rowntree, Fossil’s president. “They can’t stop development, so they might as well use it for a positive.”

In addition to a slew of environmental protections, the lease required that there would be no truck traffic on Mother’s Day, a major holiday for the Krishna community, and no coal dust spread on icy roads. Mr. Rowntree even agreed to allow the Krishnas to sap a certain amount of gas from the wellhead for use on their property, something he said he’s been reluctant to allow in other leases.

In preparation for the Utica lease decision, the Hare Krishnas asked a community elder to write a treatise on whether gas drilling can be reconciled with the principles of Krishna consciousness, a religious movement based on Hindu scriptures that was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian immigrant in New York City, in 1965.

“At this point, our individual and collective dependence on fossil fuel and technology is so entrenched into our daily lives that most of us could not live without them,” the document said. “This history of exploiting the land without restitution has made most of us so addicted to and dependent upon fossil fuels, that it could be viewed as hypocritical to now refuse on philosophical and moral grounds to derive some benefit from the drilling.”

Dependence on fossil fuels

The Krishna movement’s founder instructed his followers to embrace “simple living, high thinking.”

For years, New Vrindaban’s residents took care to ride bicycles instead of cars. They organized a shuttle to the temple to minimize traffic and used horse-drawn and oxen-drawn farm equipment.

“We really yearn to get back to that life,” Mr. Fried said.

But the reality is that most Hare Krishnas in New Vrindaban do have cars and TVs and computers. A life-size replica of their founder, seated on a couch in his study in the Palace of Gold, is warmed by a radiator. His never-used marble bathroom is lit up by electricity.

“The energy itself all belongs to the Lord,” Mr. Fried said. “It’s not like there’s earth and gas and all this material stuff and then God is something else. It’s all his manifestation. Or her manifestation.

“If we’re taking this and using it for his pleasure, we’re using it correctly,” he said.

The gas money, which was designated only for capital expenses, has already yielded twice as much as the community’s annual $2 million budget, mostly from the lease signing bonuses. No wells have been drilled on the community’s property so far. But there are three on neighboring parcels, some of which reach horizontally underneath New Vrindaban.

Purifying the asset

The treatise on gas drilling warned that any proceeds that come from the enterprise will be “infected” and in need of purification.

So the community drafted a sort of purification plan. It would use the money, in part, to build a cow protectorate and an eco-village. There are now solar panels at New Vrindaban. Oxen are being trained to plow fields and haul wood. 

At the same time, if New Vrindaban exercises its lease options to tap Utica gas at the wellhead, which it would use for heat and perhaps even to generate its own electricity, it would be further cementing its reliance on fossil fuels.

Even without the gas leases, New Vrindaban is hopelessly inextricable from the fossil fuel bounty below it. A coal company wants to build a longwall mine under its land and an infrastructure firm is threatening to use eminent domain to run a large gas pipeline through it.

To sign or not to sign

After years spent traveling around the country distributing books about the Krishna faith, Ananda Vidya das, 39, now tends to the cows at New Vrindaban, preparing them for daily worship, milking them, then using that to make butter.

The Maryland native learned about Krishna movement at a 1995 Grateful Dead concert, then visited and eventually settled at New Vrindaban, where he met his wife.

There’s no way to insulate the community from gas drilling, he said, and so he supported the community leaders’ decision to sign the leases and exercise a measure of control over the process.

“Just like the knife in the hand of a doctor can save a life, the knife in the hand of a murderer can do harm,” he said.

In 2010, three out of about three dozen landowners in the New Vrindaban community chose not to sign the lease Marcellus lease, and two abstained from the Utica lease last year. They declined to talk.

Their concerns centered on the environment. Would drilling and fracking taint water? Would it impact the health of the cows being raised on the property? Would it pollute the air or create traffic during busy visiting times at the temple?

“I get scared I’m going to be wiped out by one of those big trucks coming around the corner,” said Almeda Eckstein, 39, who arrived at New Vrindaban at the end of October.

“I just wonder mostly about the waste” said Patricia Thibeault, 69, who owns a 2.5 acre plot about a mile from New Vrindaban where she’s been a devotee since 1980.

To some extent, Ms. Thibeault was comforted that shale gas development had already punctured thousands of holes into the Appalachian landscape and “it hadn’t changed my life in any way.”

So the decision came down to taking a moral stand against industrial development or being able to pay off her credit cards and put a down payment on a car to replace her old clunker.

“It just seemed to me that the temple was going to sign, my neighbors were signing, so... it wouldn’t really get me anywhere not to sign it,” she said.

For the handful that took the philosophical stance, Mr. Fried said he respects their decision.

“I do feel that for one to fully embrace that mindset, they should also consider each time they turn on their light switch, jump in their vehicle, open the fridge, that they’re a contributors to that lifestyle, to that economy.”

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455. Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.

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