War in the Peace

In northern British Columbia, close to the Alberta border, there is currently a war going on. This war is being waged by persons unknown against what they see as “terrorist” oil and gas companies, namely EnCana Corp., who they feel are encroaching negatively upon the land.

Since October 2008, the communities of Tomslake and Kelly Lake, south of my hometown of Dawson Creek, B.C., have been the epicentre of what have been dubbed “eco-terrorist” attacks on EnCana sour gas pipelines and infrastructure. In mid-July 2009, a letter, purportedly from the bomber, was sent to the Dawson Creek Daily News giving EnCana a three-month “vacation” from any further action. This “vacation,” however, is contingent upon EnCana ceasing operations in the area, shifting to green, renewable energy alternatives, and removing all oil and gas installations within the Treaty 8 territory within five years. Fat chance of that happening.

These first six explosions, the letter claims, were “minor and fully controlled” and intended to “to let [EnCana] know that you are indeed vulnerable, and can be rendered helpless despite your megafunds, your political influence, craftiness, and deceit in which you trusted.” The Globe and Mail quoted one anonymous (for the legitimate fear of losing his job) roughneck to the effect that “this guy who’s doing this — he’s not out there to hurt nobody . . . He’s just trying to get back at the oil companies.”

EnCana, a Calgary-based company, posted a $500,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the bomber(s) in January 2009. On July 30, EnCana raised that reward to $1 million.

RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields, Dawson Creek Mayor Mike Bernier, and EnCana spokesman Alan Boras are all appealing to the public to co-operate with the ongoing police investigation, which, so far, has proved completely fruitless. After nearly nine months of investigation, wherein over 450 people have been questioned, no charges have yet been laid, despite reports in the press of continued police harassment of “persons of interest.”

The RCMP long ago said that they have already ruled out infamous local malcontent Wiebo Ludwig as a suspect. Ludwig, who made international news in the mid to late 1990s for his often violent struggles with the oil and gas companies in the Beaverlodge and Hythe, Alberta area, is no stranger to police investigation or public harassment. Andrew Nikiforuk’s governor-general’s award winning book, Saboteurs, details how, after years of investigation during the late ’90ss, the RCMP had to resort to criminal behaviour to eventually bust Ludwig for charges of conspiracy and mischief endangering life. In late 1998, the RCMP themselves detonated an explosion at an abandoned well-site north of Hythe, and then had a Ludwig associate cum informant, Robert Wraight, take the credit.

Having grown up in Dawson Creek during the Ludwig years, I believe it is safe to say that an eerie sense of déjà vu clouds the current situation in the Peace region. If anything, the stranglehold that the oil and gas industry enjoys over the economy of the Peace has strengthened, despite much work by those opposed to such development.

Indeed, it is this sense of industrial strangulation that has many questioning industry’s seemingly boundless ability to impose itself upon the landscape and lives of those who live, and intend to keep living, in an area that was once pristine, but is now criss-crossed with pipelines. Concerned citizens have started energy co-ops and Facebook groups to counter the “tidal wave” of development thrust upon them. There are many organic produce and livestock farms in the area, and many progressive thinkers on city council. The city of Dawson Creek itself is working to become carbon neutral by 2012, and is already a provincial leader in use of solar and green technology.

But still, the industry and the government (provincial and federal) are loath to admit that emissions from oil and gas development are detrimental to the health of living beings. However, science seems to say otherwise, as does anecdotal knowledge of those living next door to (or surrounded by) sour gas lines.

Sour gas, or hydrogen sulfide (H2SO4), is extremely deadly when released into the air and inhaled by living organisms. Anyone, even medic-aids (my sister was one), who work in or around natural gas fields are required to have H2S training, as exposure to vented gas is so toxic it can kill or render a person unconscious — and likely brain-dead — in a matter of seconds. Ranchers and farmers have detailed extensive health problems with livestock when exposed to flaring from sour gas lines during the 1980s and ’90s, and many human respiratory, pulmonary, and reproductive problems have been associated with flaring or accidental releases of the noxious gas. According to the epilogue of Nikiforuk’s book, the Peace region of Alberta has the highest rate of cancer in the province by far.

In Hythe, Beaverlodge, and Sexsmith, during the time of the Ludwigs’ woes, the sky was often lit up at night along Highways 43 and 59 by gas flares. The entire area stunk to high heaven. When I travelled to those towns to play in hockey tournaments, we brought our own water from Dawson Creek, as the tap water available for between shift refreshment tasted like rotten eggs. These effects are both well-documented byproducts of rampant natural gas development.

When the bomber takes up his (or her) war against Big Oil again in less than two months, tensions in the already stressed area have nowhere to go but up. Scattered talk of vigilantism, much as in Ludwig’s day, has already been raised in coffee shops and beer joints in the area, or so I’ve heard from a long time buddy of mine who lives in the Tomslake area.

At the same time, some welcome the bomber’s actions. “We don’t feel any more threatened by the bomber than we do the industry. If anything, we feel more a threat from the industry,” organic farmer Tim Ewert, whose son I worked and went to school with, told the National Post. The Ewerts are certainly not alone in this sentiment.

As the clock ticks on, there is little for residents, or those watching from afar, to do but wait. Regardless of how the war unfolds, there is much to be learned from this ongoing saga. When development — spurred onward by an unrelenting drive for money and often directed from a boardroom thousands of kilometres away— clashes with the everyday lives of real people living on the ground, it is likely that sparks will fly.

With luck, a balance can be found wherein the two interests can coexist. However, as is clear in the Peace region, often the Goliath of industry is unwilling to give any ground. The question, then, is how big the fire these sparks light will become.

Sheldon Birnie graduated from South Peace Senior Secondary School in Dawson Creek, B.C. in 2001, and now takes environmental studies at the U of M.