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POUCE COUPE—The Peace River region, a rugged frontier on the Alberta-BC border, is anything but peaceful these days. Six hours from Edmonton, once serene cattle and canola country, the area is in the midst of a massive transformation, fueled by vast unconventional sour gas reserves lying some two kilometres under the earth’s surface.
Since October 2008, someone has blown up six sour gas pipelines operated by EnCana, North America’s largest gas corporation, in controlled acts of sabotage. In Wild West fashion, EnCana is offering a one million dollar bounty for information leading to a conviction. It is likely the largest reward in Canadian history.
The Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), a mix of top law enforcement officials investigating the attacks, have sent some 250 officers to the region. The force includes masked officers with high powered machine guns who have been spotted in the woods by local residents, and a sniper flown back directly from Afghanistan. INSET labels the sabotage as “eco-terrorism” even though no one has been hurt.
The bomber apparently sees it differently. “Return the land to what it was before you came every last bit of it… before things get a lot worse for you and your terrorist pals in the oil and gas business,” wrote the bomber in a July 15 letter sent to the Dawson Creek Daily News. The badly printed hand-written letter demanded EnCana cease operations in the area. The alleged bomber promised to suspend attacks during a three-month grace period so “we can all take a summer vacation.”
At a July press conference, police accused the saboteur of “terrorizing these communities of Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek.” But the mayor of Pouce Coupe, a village of 749 residents at the epicenter of Peace River gas activity, does not see it that way.
"I have discussed this [sabotage] with some pipeline workers," said Mayor Lyman Clark, a vocal supporter of the gas industry, during an interview at the village’s office. "One just frankly told me ‘I am more afraid of the bears.'" He added, "The whole area is in a boom right now, unlike the rest of the world economy."
While Alberta’s finance minister complains that low natural gas prices have been a “real kick in the head” to the provincial treasury, drilling activity continues at an almost frantic pace on the BC side of the border. Shiny new pickup trucks line the roads from Dawson Creek to Fort St. John. In 2008, the BC government collected more than $3.6 billion from selling drilling rights and reaping royalties. But some locals are unhappy with changes brought by sour gas.
“Sour gas is deadly; 500 parts per million will kill you dead,” says Woody Ewert, an organic farmer living near Pouce Coupe. Natural gas extraction “became the prime economic driver of the Peace River country just kind of overnight,” says Tim Ewert, Woody’s father, over cups of black coffee at the family’s farm house. “There were never any baseline studies done on air or water. They never checked to see what size or how deep the local aquifers were before starting the whole drilling program.”
Industry’s incursions into previously pristine land is “changing the way of life, our hunting, trapping, berry picking, even just going camping,” says Cliff Calliou, hereditary Chief of the Kelly Lake First Nation, an aboriginal community 30 minutes away from sabotaged sites with some 500 residents.
After the first attacks in fall 2008, police and media speculated—without evidence—that the bomber came from Kelly Lake. “They [police] threw two people in jail with no charges,” said Chief Calliou during an interview at Kelly Lake’s community centre. He describes police actions in the community as a “witch hunt.” In addition to the unwarranted jailing of Kelly Lake residents, which hadn’t until now been reported in the media, police also accused 76-year-old Regina Mortensen, a grandmother recovering from hip surgery, of sabotaging the pipelines.
The Kelly Lake First Nation, which maintains traditional governance structures outside of the Indian Act, has not surrendered its traditional land base via a treaty. Yet despite the region’s resource wealth many houses in Kelly Lake are ramshackle trailers. The community says the gas is being stolen from their unceded land and they have launched a $5.2 billion land claim for compensation.
Most people who live near sabotaged sites are not against extracting gas, per se. Rather, they say regulations favor corporations over landowners and the environment. Companies, with their teams of lawyers, engineers and experts, often understand the regulations better than the government who is supposed to be overseeing extraction.
Making laws less favorable to oil companies is not easy, especially for provinces dependent on petroleum revenues. An article in the Journal of Environmental Management argues that Alberta is a “first world jurisdiction” with a “third world analogue” in its lax environmental and political regulation of the oil industry. Farmers say BC is even worse than Alberta in its third world analogue.
Drilling rigs are moving from Alberta across the border to BC in record numbers, says EnCana’s Brian Lieverse. “The BC government has some excellent programs to stimulate their economy and oil and gas activity in the area,” he said during an interview at EnCana’s field office in Dawson Creek.
Critics of the current regulatory regime say gas companies can buy political support at their expense. EnCana, as one example, donated $255,470 to the governing BC Liberals between 2005 and 2008. The Liberals, in turn, have used monies from their economic stimulus to build roads and other infrastructure primarily to facilitate gas extraction in the region.
Ewert says EnCana has done a good job trying to deal with basic concerns such as dust from oil service trucks and speeding from contractors. But the company has not dealt with larger issues, such as potential water contamination or flaring from natural gas wells.
While not one Peace River resident, including harsh critics of the oil industry, supported sabotage, some were happy that complaints are finally being noticed.
“I don’t condone what this person [the bomber] is doing,” said Rick Koechl, a junior high school teacher living 40 minutes from the bombed sites and an activist pushing for sour gas wells to be set back at least a kilometre from houses and schools. “But at least it’s bringing attention to the situation up here; we’ve had legal organizations help us with this fight, but that’s not very sexy, is it?”
Sabotage, as a means of demanding action, is nothing new. Nor is it exclusively a tactic of environmentalists and the marginalized. In an interview with Al Jazeera, leading Republican Newt Gingrich recently advocated for American sabotage against Iran’s gas facilities in order to create social unrest.
Nor are the attacks in northeastern BC the first case of high profile sabotage against Canadian sour gas pipelines. On April 20, 2000 an Alberta court convicted Wiebo Ludwig, a farmer and preacher, of bombing gas wells owned Alberta Energy Co. Ltd. (AEC). Ludwig claimed his wife miscarried a child because of sour gas exposure. During their investigation of Ludwig and his associates, police admitted to blowing up a gas well themselves in order to gain credibility for an informant.
In 2002, AEC merged with PanCanadian to form EnCana, initially valued at $30 billion dollars. EnCana reps refused to comment on what, if anything, the company learned from the Ludwig saga.
In Alberta alone there were “more than 160 incidents of sabotage” against resource industries (oil, gas, hydro and forestry) between 1997 and 1999 causing “millions of dollars in damages,” according to documents released from a freedom of information request to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The heavily censored documents do not provide figures for 21st century sabotage. Sources familiar with the issue say the numbers are far higher than 160 incidents.
Sucking unconventional gas from the ground is expensive: up to $10 per well compared with $1 dollar for conventional shallow wells. World gas prices have fallen drastically in recent years, but drilling continues in the Peace River region due to a combination of low royalties, new technologies for accessing gas, and political stability.
Stability: an asset Canadian petroleum producers seem to value above all else. But stability is what is under attack in northeastern BC. Pipelines can be repaired, bounties offered, elite police sent in, but once investors loose confidence in stability, Canada’s petroleum industry will change drastically. This is what worries EnCana and the rest of western Canada’s oil patch: that fear will trump greed in the psyche of investors thus reversing the current market paradigm. Costs will increase; investment will drop. The market will demand the same thing environmentalists in both Alberta and BC have been demanding: slow down.
Chris Arsenault is a graduate student writing a history of sabogate and the oil patch.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.