BOMB: The bomber dividing Tomslake
Bill Mazanek will not soon forget the time, two years ago, when his peaceful ranch in northeastern British Columbia turned into a little slice of Texas.
He could walk to his front yard and see six drilling rigs and a dozen natural-gas flares, their flames licking high into the sky. When the wind wasn't blowing, the air bore a metallic tang.
“Have you ever been to a welding shop when everybody's quit welding? There's still that little taste in the air,” he said. “That's what it would be like first thing in the morning.”
Mr. Mazanek's home was in the throes of a huge transformation. Tomslake, his community of 375 households, was no longer the backwoods cattle-and-canola country it had long been.
It began in 2003, when EnCana Corp., a Calgary-based oil and gas company, announced a record-breaking $500-million purchase of 200,000 hectares – about one-third the size of PEI. The rest of the industry flocked to the area, and drilled hundreds of wells, many near Tomslake. In the past six years, EnCana alone has drilled 185.
Mr. Mazanek loves it. As the local fire chief, he is the closest Tomslake has to a mayor, and he has made his own 461 acres of land a welcome mat for industry. Thirteen wells have been drilled on his ranch; nine more are in the works.
The smell worried him, though, so he had an air-quality monitor installed at the fire hall, to test for anything that could be dangerous.
“It's never tripped,” he said. “So far, everything's hunky-dory.”
But as anyone here will tell you, it's no longer the air they're worried about. It's everything else – including their lives.
Not everyone likes the oil and gas industry, which has brought clouds of dust, a barrage of noise, and the threat of deadly sour-gas leaks to a once-tranquil part of the country. Some murmured their displeasure, some fought the gas companies in court.
Almost no one noticed.
Then, last October, local news outlets received an anonymous letter that demanded the “terrorists” of industry pack up and leave. Two days later, a blast damaged a sour-gas pipeline in the area. In the following 10 months, five more blasts followed. RCMP labelled the bomber a “terrorist” who was attacking critical energy infrastructure and endangering lives.
The country took notice. And Mr. Mazanek grew angry.
“I believe in vigilante justice. There's a whole bunch of us that do. Our necks are kind of red down here,” he said. “I wish I knew where the bomber was from, believe me. He would be in one of my muskeg holes.”
But in Tomslake, not everyone agrees.
On a warm summer evening, a steady stream of cars trickled onto the gravel parking lot at the old Tomslake Community Cultural Association hall.
Inside, 30 people gathered. Farmers wearing mesh ball caps and plaid shirts sat next to women in Gap sweatshirts. They are Rural Crime Watch volunteers. Many have dedicated unpaid hours to patrol local roads to find the bomber.
They listened as RCMP Staff Sergeant Stephen Grant outlined his plans to catch whoever is responsible, which includes a new temporary detachment in Tomslake. This crowd has a personal stake in putting the bomber behind bars, and many were happy to hear it. Their meeting fell on the same day police revealed the contents of a second anonymous letter from the person they believe to be the bomber, who warned that if EnCana did not begin to pull back from the area in three months, “things will get a lot worse.”
Then a woman raised her hand to speak. She feels differently. She has watched natural-gas wells form an unwanted perimeter around her land, company helicopters spook her cattle, and equipment shatter the silence on a road to her home that, in the past, rarely saw more than a vehicle a week.
She wants the industry gone.
“The bomber is at least giving us a bit of a voice,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Grant, commander of the detachment at Dawson Creek, 30 kilometres to the northeast, has heard this before. While the explosions could easily kill someone, there are plenty who feel more sympathy for the bomber than the infrastructure he or she has damaged.
“This person would like to think they're Robin Hood,” he said. “But they're endangering the people that live here.”
The regular morning crowd at the Dawson Creek Tim Hortons rises early, and sips coffee late. Pulp workers, businessmen and pipeliners, they have a lot to say about the energy industry, especially the evils of what John Miller calls “the flipping oil field mentality.”
Mr. Miller, a welder and long-time resident, outlined the many ways the industry has shown disregard for long-established community protocols. The oil and gas companies take too long to pay their bills. Their semis dangerously speed down local highways. Their pickup trucks block driveways. They fly up high-powered lawyers to fight ranchers looking for small increases in land access fees. “Their attitude, it stinks,” Mr. Miller said.
Sitting next to him, Fred Lumnitzer, a construction worker, pointed to EnCana as the worst offender. “They remind me of a sandbox where all the kids are playing and a bully comes along and says, ‘I'm going to play with that truck,'” Mr. Lumnitzer said.
Both he and Mr. Miller know the industry has brought new wealth. Houses have tripled in value in the past decade. The roads are full of shiny pickups. The recession has skipped over this place.
EnCana has worked diligently to win local hearts. It began a Courtesy Matters campaign, aimed at making the company more responsive to complaints about traffic, noise and garbage. Its most visible presence in the community is its large logo on the Dawson Creek EnCana Events Centre, an arena and swimming-pool complex it sponsored.
“With the vast majority of our relations with surface land owners and stakeholders, we work through the challenges and their concerns,” said company spokesman Alan Boras. “And a measure of that is in the probably 200 leases that we have in place up there: Only two have gone to mediation or third-party arbitration.”
The company also offered a $1-million reward for information leading to the bomber's capture.
Still, mistrust of EnCana runs deep. Mr. Lumnitzer and many others see the bomber as a vandal attacking the companies that have damaged the area. They refuse to call the bomber a terrorist – they say they don't feel terrorized, and don't believe he is out to hurt anyone.
But if the bombs don't much frighten the Tim Hortons crowd, they've cast a tremor through many in the community who live near the energy infrastructure – and especially among those work in it.
“If the idiot keeps going, somebody's going to get hurt or killed,” said one EnCana employee, worried he would lose his job if he were identified. A well-placed hit on one of the many natural-gas compressor stations in the area would “be like a little atomic bomb,” the employee said.
Doug Harper got a preview of what that might look like when, early on July 4, his usually calm neighbour banged on his door, looking terrified. Not far from Mr. Harper's house, a huge explosion had ripped through the night followed by the sound of natural gas roaring into the air. “I went out practically undressed,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘Jesus Christ Get a move on Let's go or we'll die'”
The explosion, set on a pipeline, was the bomber's sixth. It was set just 500 metres from where crews were working to fix the fifth explosion.
Mr. Harper, whose ancestors were among the first to settle the area, acknowledges that industry has damaged the landscape. Some of his favourite grouse-hunting trails have vanished beneath oil and gas roads, and his 194 hectares are no longer as peaceful as they once were.
But he has little but praise for EnCana. One snow-heavy winter, the company dispatched a bulldozer to help clear his driveway, unprompted, and at no charge. In summer, when the dust starts to build on nearby gravel roads, he places a call and the company sends someone to water the road.
“They do really make an effort,” he said. “Although there's a lot of people that have resentment towards them, I think they really try to be a good corporate citizen.”
The disturbance is the price to pay for a society that depends on hydrocarbons, he said. And while he doesn't have a well on his land, he wishes he did.
Tomslake is filled, said Mr. Mazanek, with a silent majority that has tallied the gains and losses of natural-gas production, and come out in favour of industry. He is one of them.
Where others protest, Mr. Mazanek profits. He has signed contracts with companies such as EnCana to bulldoze land for roads and wells. He grinds straw, erects fences, digs water dugouts – and pulls in good margins on it all.
Agriculture, once the lifeblood of this area, is dying. Mr. Mazanek has sold all but 16 of a cattle herd that once numbered 165. “It's just not worth it,” he said.
Now he makes $4,000 a year to lease out land for a single 1,600-square-metre oil lease.
“My great- great- great-grandkids could farm that sucker, and they aren't going to make that much,” he said.
Industry, he concluded, arrived just in time.
“Not all of us are against the oil companies,” he said. “To the ranchers and farmers that have oil and gas on their land, it's a lifeline.”
First came the energy boom. Now, the bombsPete McMartin
August 1, 2009
Few in Peace River country back violent action against oil and gas companies. But there is a deep well of discontent
Since 2000, when the boom really got going, just over 10,000 gas and oil wells have been drilled in the Peace River region. Three of them are on Ken and Loretta Vause's 1,200-acre spread.
The boom transformed the Peace. The tangled infrastructure of the energy industry was set down amid farmland and forest. In the space of a decade, the bucolic nature of the landscape changed.
Locals had little say in the pace of that change. Under provincial law, subsurface mineral rights superseded the surface property rights of landowners, and if an oil or gas company wanted access to a farm or acreage, there was little a landowner could do about it. Leases and rents could be negotiated, and sometimes the location of wells, but that was about it.
The only recourse a landowner had if he or she disagreed with the terms being offered was appealing to the provincial government's Mediation and Arbitration Board, an arm of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. If mediation failed, disputes went to arbitration. Arbitration involved a formal hearing, and the arbitrator could direct compensation to either of the parties.
Many landowners, however, quickly came to mistrust the MAB. Many felt its only purpose was to grease the way for the oil and gas companies.
"There's no doubt about it," Ken Vause said. "They're a kangaroo court.
The MAB became such a standing joke among landowners that one disgruntled audience member at a hearing showed up wearing a kangaroo costume.
There were more extreme expressions of dissatisfaction. In 2008 and 2009, a series of bombs damaging pipelines and property belonging to EnCana Corp. made national headlines. Despite hundreds of police officers and investigators being put on the case, no arrests have been made.
The case appears to parallel that of Wiebo Ludwig, an Alberta man and eco-activist who campaigned against sour-gas wells, arguing they harm human health. He was sentenced to 28 months in prison for possession of explosives and mischief in connection with blowing up one well and vandalizing another.
On the B.C. side, EnCana, desperate to put a stop to the attacks, on Thursday doubled its offer of a cash reward -- to $1 million -- for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of whoever is responsible for the current bombings.
Meanwhile, some officials have admitted there were problems with the mineral rights issue that had to be addressed.
When Cheryl Vickers, the MAB's new chairwoman, took over in July 2007, she found an organization, she said, that "did not have a positive reputation."
"It was a mess," Vickers admitted. "[The MAB] had no credibility."
Many landowners felt bullied, and when she ventured north to Fort St. John to hear their concerns they told her so. Oil and gas companies were going to the board to get entry to landowners' properties even before the technical aspects of drilling and well sites were worked out.
"What was happening," Vickers said, "was we were being put in the position of making entry orders without resolving the issues of entry and location of where a well was supposed to go. . . . It was all sort of ass-backwards, if you like."
Vickers tried to improve the board's relationship with landowners by drawing up a memorandum of understanding with the province's Oil and Gas Commission, the body responsible for regulating the industry. The memorandum sought to coordinate the two boards' work, and improve "relationships" with the landowners by simplifying the process and being more open.
But problems persisted. Some landowners felt the companies were offering pittances for leases and rents. The companies not only had teams of lawyers to back them up, they had a provincial government and urban population happy with the wealth the industry was generating. Landowners and farmers not only felt their way of life was being changed, but that the windfall the province and industry were enjoying was at their expense.
Despite this, landowners weren't necessarily anti-oil-and-gas. The Vauses, for example, had not only accommodated the industry, they had been a part of it. Ken worked on drilling rigs himself. It helped pay for his farm, he said. And the relationship he had with the company that owned the three wells on his property had been a cordial one.
But the Vauses still found themselves in the fight of their lives with oil and gas.
Another company, Spectra Energy Midstream Corp., wanted access to their land to lay a pipeline. At first, the Vauses thought they could live with it, but then they found out it would run straight through one of their working fields. When the Vauses expressed concern about the pipeline's route, and the fact that they didn't know the amount of compensation Spectra was offering, they ended up going to mediation, then arbitration.
The Vauses hired a lawyer: Spectra brought a battery of lawyers and industry professionals to the table. Both stages went against the Vauses.
Spectra was granted access to the Vauses' spread. The couple then asked the B.C. Supreme Court for a judicial review of the MAB decision, but were refused because of time limitations. The Vauses were ordered to pay 90 per cent of Spectra's legal costs for the judicial review application.
FUNDS DIDN'T COVER COSTS
The money the Vauses ended up getting from Spectra for access to their land -- about $19,000 -- didn't cover half their legal fees and expenses.
(Spectra spokesman Rosemary Filba said the Vauses had "a somewhat unrealistic idea what fair compensation would be" and that Spectra has good relationships with the thousands of other landowners it deals with in the region. "It's an unfortunate situation," she said.)
It was during that time, while the Vauses were embroiled in their battle with Spectra that something happened to unnerve the entire industry.
In early October 2008, someone set off a bomb in the Tomslake area, south of Dawson Creek. It damaged a 30-cm EnCana pipeline carrying sour gas to its Steep Rock gas plant.
A handwritten letter arrived at a Dawson Creek newspaper on Oct. 10. The script was shaky, as if the author was arthritic. (It has been speculated that the writer did not use his or her dominant hand to write them.)
Addressed to "EnCana and all other oil and gas interests in the Tom's Lake Area," the letter was blunt and threatening:
"You have until Oct. 11 of 2008 (Saturday 12:00 noon) to close down your operations (including the Steep Rock plant) and leave the area until further notice. We will not negotiate with terrorists which you are as you keep on endangering our families with crazy expansion of deadly gas wells in our home lands."
There were five more explosions in the months following. All targeted EnCana property. The last, three weeks ago, ruptured a pipeline. A second letter, again sent to a Dawson Creek newspaper and addressed only to EnCana, North America's largest natural gas producer, arrived July 15.
It upped the ante, and the rhetoric. Demanding that EnCana and its "terrorist pals" dismantle their plants, leave the area within five years and use their "excessive earnings to install green energy alternatives instead," the bomber wrote there could be no negotiation, "FULL STOP!!"
There was also something in the tone of the second letter that had not been in the first: hubris.
Noting that the RCMP and security personnel had not been able to stop the bombings, the letter writer rubbed their faces in it. The six "minor and fully controlled explosions" were demonstrations of their vulnerability, and that they could "be rendered helpless despite your megafunds, your political influence, craftiness, and deceit."
The bomber was enjoying the game.
"He really wants to impress upon these people that he's the man in charge," said B.C. criminal psychologist Mike Webster. "This is sometimes called 'duping delight.' This is a kind of person who is torn and conflicted between staying at large and fencing with the oil companies and police."
By this time, the police were referring to the bomber as an eco-terrorist, with the implication that he or she was a crazed loner.
SYMPATHY FOR THE BOMBER
But an unexpected dynamic had developed in the area. Many people -- mostly those rural landowners whose lands the oil and gas wells sat on -- publicly expressed sympathy with the bomber's anger.
While none condoned the violence, and few expressed any sentiment like demanding the industry withdraw from the region, they did say they understood the sense of frustration the bomber had with the oil and gas industry and with the government boards that oversaw it. Some wanted the pace of industrialization to slow. Some, like the Vauses, wanted the industry to be more conciliatory.
"I don't agree with his method," Ken Vause said of the bomber, "but I understand where the frustration comes from. If there wasn't a lot of frustration up here, that person who was lighting those firecrackers . . .
That fact, that 250 police officers and special intelligence squad members had not been able to catch the bomber, and that no one had responded to a $500,000 reward that had been offered, was suggested as an indication that perhaps the region's residents weren't as terrorized by the "eco-terrorist" as the police thought they should be.
Criminal psychologist Webster concurred.
"He's not a terrorist," Webster said. "Terrorism is a strategy of violence to instill fear in the general public. But he doesn't want to instill fear in the general public. He wants to instill fear in the oil and gas companies, and I'd say he's done that.
"I think that the people in the community are more afraid of the police than they are of the bomber, because of [the police's] heavy-handed tactics."
Landowners in the rural areas complained of what they considered intimidating and threatening tactics by police and the security personnel of the oil and gas companies -- of being stopped on the road and questioned, of having lights shined into their homes, of being interrogated up to eight times. In late 2008, the RCMP set up a website (www.dawsoncreekbombings.com) which initially included photographs of people who police said were of interest to the case. The photographs were removed after a letter threatening legal action was sent to the RCMP from a lawyer for one of the people. One man complained that members of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, brought into the area for the investigation, followed him into a café and publicly accused him of being the bomber.
"They sat down at my table," said Dennis MacLennan, who runs a 160-acre tree nursery in Tomslake, "and accused me, in a raised voice, 'You're the bomber, you're the bomber, you're the bomber,' three times, like that. To which, I got up and left the restaurant."
That scene in the café, MacLennan believed, came about because of a lengthy letter he had written to several newspapers, including The Vancouver Sun, and to the Oil and Gas Commission. In it, MacLennan detailed his own fight with EnCana over the placement of a gas pipeline on his property, and the subsequent arbitration hearing he had at the MAB.
The initial compensation EnCana offered him, MacLennan said, was laughably small -- $399.07 -- and he considered the arbitration hearing a farce.
The judge granted EnCana access to MacLennan's land.
"I'll probably have to try and seek some satisfaction in a higher court,"
It hasn't, he said, left him anti-industry.
"It isn't Us against Them. One person [the bomber] has a grievance with one company. That doesn't mean we're all against the industry. We're not against oil and gas development."
His problem, he said, was with the government boards overseeing the industry. "If you look at the system, it probably would work, if it were administered correctly. But it's not."
MacLennan said he is now considering selling his inventory and property.
firstname.lastname@example.orgPosted by Arthur Caldicott on 02 Aug 2009