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New Vrindaban Boards Sign Gas Leases for Utica Shale

By: for ISKCON News on March 20, 2014
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"Opponents of the Utica signing feared that the drilling would be inconsistent with Srila Prabhupada’s instructions for the New Vrindaban community, would entail grave risks of air and water pollution and other environmental harm."

Dayavira dasa & Navin Shyam dasa are Board Chairpersons, on behalf of the ISKCON New Vrindaban & ECO-Vrindaban Board of Directors, respectively:

The boards of ISKCON New Vrindaban and ECO-Vrindaban, the two landholding entities in New Vrindaban, voted on February 20th and February 23rd, respectively, to sign leases for the Utica Shale, a deep natural gas formation.  In 2010, both boards signed similar leases for the Marcellus Shale.  As with that decision, this one was fraught with controversy.

Prior to the Marcellus signing, New Vrindaban management and concerned residents arranged several meetings, complete with slide shows, guest speakers expressing opposing views, and vigorous debate on the philosophical, environmental and economic issues implicated.  This time around, similar meetings were also arranged.  In addition, the boards received questions and comments via e-mail from a newly formed resident group, the New Vrindaban Community Advocacy Sanga.  

Opponents of the Utica signing feared that the drilling would be inconsistent with Srila Prabhupada’s instructions for the New Vrindaban community, would entail grave risks of air and water pollution and other environmental harm (as dramatically highlighted in the documentary film “Gasland 2”), and would damage the reputation of New Vrindaban in the eyes of the younger generation, potential new residents, pilgrims, and visitors.  Some residents were also concerned that the decision was being made by nonresident board members who were uninformed and/or underinvested as to these risks, or by resident board members who had ulterior financial motives in securing the signing.

The boards ensured that the decision-making process was robust.  They were vigilant to involve all directors (with the exception of those excluded based on a conflict of interest) in both the preliminary discussions and the final votes.  Many directors conducted independent research and shared those results with the full boards.  Finally, outside legal opinions confirmed that the boards’ procedures for dealing with directors with potential conflicts of interest were appropriate and consistent with all relevant laws and ISKCON standards.

After prolonged debate and discussion, the boards voted in favor because of the unavoidability of drilling in the vicinity, and the opportunity that signing gives us to both limit the potential for harm and to make the best use of a bad bargain.  

Approximately 98% of the land around and between INV and ECOV-owned properties has already been leased, most of it pursuant to 2 ½ page contracts providing little to no protection in terms of water and air pollution, traffic, or noise.  In addition, in the vicinity of the temple alone, there are 9 active wells and 4 new permits in process within a 2-mile radius, and 24 active wells and 67 new permits in process within a 5-mile radius.  Because the lands owned by INV and ECOV do not form one contiguous block, even a decision not to sign would not prevent wells from being drilled in our midst.  Rather, we would simultaneously be confronted with any accompanying risks, and yet lose our own gas to capture without deriving any financial benefit. 

The 19-page contract presented to the boards was negotiated by two devotee representatives and an environmental lawyer working with a smaller gas company.  It contains strong protections in regard to air and water pollution, noise, and traffic.  Thus, by signing, we have created an opportunity for our neighbors to also sign under these strong terms, rather than under weaker contracts that would bring any negative side-effects right to our borders. 

For ourselves, we determined that the potential risks of signing were significantly outweighed by the certain benefits.  Our investigations have shown that many of the concerns raised in high-profile media reports are not based on sound data.  In any event, in addition to the strong protections already mentioned, the contract also contains a provision that limits drilling to two uninhabited parts of New Vrindaban.  Finally, history has shown that the Marcellus signing did not deter visitors and devotees from continuing to support and visit New Vrindaban. 

The benefits, on the other hand, are both tangible and substantial.  The contract contains even higher payments for drill pads, royalties, and shut-in fees than those secured under the Marcellus lease, which were already higher than what other landowners in the area have been receiving. 

Proceeds from the Marcellus signing were used by INV and ECOV to:

-       install new roofs on the temple and guest lodge,

-       renovate the restaurant, the lodge rooms and residential ashrams,

-       upgrade the water system,

-       install solar panels at and renovate the main cow barn,

-       install filtered water stations around the temple and lodge area to reduce the use of plastic bottles,

-       plant food-bearing trees and berries throughout New Vrindaban,

-       construct a prototype rammed-tire cabin,

-       construct an irrigation system for the Garden of Seven Gates,

-       demolish dilapidated buildings on the Bahulaban site,

-       develop an architectural plan for restoring Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, and

-       fund Gopal’s Garden School.

Proceeds from the Utica signing will similarly be used, in a spirit of yukta vairagya, to implement Srila Prabhupada’s vision for New Vrindaban, including significant commitments from both boards to renovate the Palace, ramp up local food production, and develop an eco-village based on plain living and high thinking.

The decision to sign was not an easy one, or one that INV or ECOV board members took lightly.  Rather, after receiving input from concerned community members and soberly weighing the pros and cons, both boards ultimately decided that signing was, under the circumstances, in the best interests of New Vrindaban.  

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