BOMB: "It's Like the Wild West Out Here" (2/2)
By Chris Arsenault*
DAWSON CREEK, British Columbia, Aug 30 (IPS) - The once serene road to Tim and Linda Ewert's organic farm near Tomslake in northeastern British Columbia has become a mess of dust clouds, drilling rigs and hordes of pick-up trucks as the area transforms into the newest frontier of Canada's natural gas boom.
Someone, or a group of people, is unhappy with area's petroleum-fuelled transformation. In the last year, six attacks have blown up pipelines near the Ewert's farm, drawing attention to a region rarely discussed by Canada's urban chattering classes.
"Use your excessive earnings to install green energy alternatives instead," wrote the alleged bomber in a Jul. 15 letter, the most recent communique. "That can be negotiated here but there will be no negotiation with you on fossil fuel activities."
"The pace of the development hit us like a tsunami," said Tim Ewert, an organic farmer living near Tomslake.
"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 programme," Ewert told IPS over hot coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes at his family farmhouse.
The lack of baseline data makes it difficult, if not impossible, to analyse the cumulative impacts of gas activity.
"We counted 82 trucks pass the house one day before noon," said Woody Ewert, Tim's son, who came into the house fresh from plowing the fields.
"The amount of dust that traffic generates on our gravel road is incredible. Our lawn would look like we were in a fog bank but it was just dust," Woody told IPS.
Farmers in the area frequently complain about excessive noise, dust, bullying from company land agents, environmental contamination and other irritants from the gas industry.
"It's like the Wild West out here," said Ken Vause, a farmer who says unlicensed land agents from a gas company are hounding him into accepting a sour gas pipeline on one of his fields that could pose harm and hurt the land's value.
"I don't condone what this person [the bomber] is doing," said Rick Koechl, a junior high school teacher living some 40 minutes from the bombed sites. "But at least it's bringing attention to the situation up here. We've had legal organisations help us with this fight, but that's not very sexy, is it?"
Koechl thinks new wells producing dangerous sour gas, which is contaminated with hydrogen sulfide, should have to be at least one kilometre from people's homes. He also wants the companies to stop flaring sour gas as the wasteful process creates carbon disulfide, a neural toxin, and other dangerous by-products.
"We have people in the neighbourhood who work in the industry, but they fought alongside us to keep companies at a reasonable distance," said Koechl. "They know how dangerous this stuff [sour gas] is."
While several gas companies operate in the region, the bomber has exclusively targeted EnCana. That company has been a better neighbour to the Ewerts than other firms, says Tim.
"We've put together a programne called 'courtesy matters' to deal with some of the nuisance issues residents have complained about," says EnCana's Brian Liverse. The company also sponsors plenty of charitable organisations in the area, including hospital associations; minor sports teams, youth groups, and the Salvation Army.
Farmers like Ewert and Koechl think the provincial government refuses to enact fair environmental legislation because it is dependent on gas revenue. Woody Ewert thinks British Columbia should double the royalties it charges gas companies.
"When I'm my dad's age, I'd like to be able to burn gas. At the rate we're going, there won't be a drop left," Woody Ewert told IPS.
"The B.C. government has some excellent programmes to stimulate their economy and oil and gas activity in the area," said EnCana's Liverse, noting that drilling rigs are moving to B.C. from neighbouring Alberta, the traditional heart of Canada's petroleum industry.
Alberta's environmental regulations are notoriously lax. An article in the Journal of Environmental Management argues that the province is a "first world jurisdiction" with a "third world analogue" in its treatment of the oil industry. That companies would move across the border in part because they find the political climate more favourable is troubling, say the Ewerts.
Attacks near Tomslake aren't the first case of high-profile sabotage against Canadian sour gas pipelines. On Apr. 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 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 1997-1999 causing "millions of dollars in damages", according to documents released to IPS from a freedom of information request to CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The heavily censored documents did not provide figures for 21st century sabotage. Sources familiar with the issue say the numbers are far higher than 160 incidents.
While sabotage against EnCana has drawn significant attention to northeastern British Columbia, residents say the government is still listening to industry at their expense. Even Tom Flanagan, a conservative professor at the University of Calgary, the brain trust of Canada's petroleum industry, thinks grievances from farmers may be legitimate.
"My wife thinks so, she grew up in rural Alberta and says oil companies don't give farmers a fair shake," Flanagan told IPS.
* This is the second of a two-part series on the sabotage of gas pipelines in Northern Canada, and the impacts of energy development in the region. Part 1 is here.