Big Oil vs. Landowners

The community is polarized by Saboteurs and the issues it raises: conflicts between agriculture and oil companies, surface and subsurface land rights, sour gas and flaring. Is the book valid or not?

By Fred Stenson

Andrew Nikiforuk has done an admirable job of mapping the arc of Wiebo Ludwig’s radicalization: from acid-tongued critic of the oil industry to convicted and jailed saboteur. Nikiforuk examines several themes of importance to Albertans along the way: the rights of individuals versus industry; the law as it applies to industrial pollution; the dangers posed by sour gas.

The story that will capture and hold most readers is the Ludwig story. The picture is of an intelligent man with ironclad opinions and a sandpaper personality. As a pastor in Ontario, he rasped his flock with harangues about male dominance and the evil of working mothers until they sent him down the road. The road led to a farm in the south Peace River country, which by Ludwig’s account was a paradise until oil industry pariahs ruined it. The nearby Hythe-Brainard sour gas plant should have tipped him off that the area was not an industrial virgin.

As surface rights owner, Ludwig did not control the mineral rights to his land. When the mineral rights lessee wanted to drill, Ludwig stonewalled. The company made a deal with a neighbour, drilled the well close to the Ludwig property line, and struck sour gas. Once during the flaring of production test gas and once during a callous or careless illegal venting of raw gas, the Ludwigs got a serious dose of hydrogen sulphide. They became very ill. In the period following, two of the women miscarried, as did several farm animals.

Eventually, the Ludwig group fought back with more than words. So many nails appeared on the road that the local garage couldn’t keep up with tire repairs. More dangerous acts followed: acid spilled on valves and instrument panels, slashed tires and, worst of all from a safety point of view, holes drilled in a gas pipeline. Finally, an oil battery was bombed. Even those who think they know the story will probably be amazed at the scope and number of incidents. It is important to remember that Wiebo Ludwig was either not charged or not convicted of many of these crimes.

The story of the RCMP’s attempts to pin the crimes on Ludwig is sad. Finally, they resorted to an agent, a Judas, who was to infiltrate the farm wearing a wire, but Ludwig seemed to sniff it out immediately. Then an oil company and the RCMP collaborated to blow up a well shack to give their agent credibility. Ludwig and his associate Boonstra were finally convicted, but, with the garbled audiotapes and failures of surveillance, it was not a Perry Mason-esque piece of work. Perhaps the most ludicrous bit of policing was giving Ludwig back his .30-30 rifle while on bail. It was a .30-calibre bullet that killed teenager Karman Willis in Ludwig’s yard when she and her friends trespassed there for a lark. Another sad post- script is that a woman at the Ludwig farm gave birth to a deformed stillborn child.

Beyond the story are the issues, and, before discussing their treatment in Saboteurs,I should give my own experience relative to sour gas. In 1957, British American Oil built a gas plant two hundred yards upwind of our farm- house in southern Alberta. It was the first attempt in the history of the world to process gas that was both highly sour (24 per cent H2S) and high pressure (1500  psi). When the plant was put on line, its enhanced metallurgy was eaten like cheese. Valves popped off in operators’ hands. When they regularly put the gas stream to flare in self-defence, night turned to day; our house shook so hard the china rattled in the cupboard. Again and again, we were assured that all was well—as our new barbed wire snapped in our hands, as baby pigs took their first breath and died.

To their lasting shame, the Social Credit Government of Alberta did not shut that plant down, and neither did BA. They kept tinkering and producing while we remained their guinea pigs downwind. How do I know all this? Because in 1985, I wrote a book for the industry on the history of gas processing in Canada. Many thought I was a turncoat, and I didn’t do it for free, but I also found out what had happened to us. When the lawyer who represented my family in an air pollution lawsuit read the book, he was amazed. Even though the book was pro- industry, it contained a variety of revelations about very dangerous equipment failures. “How did you get them to say this?” he asked. The only answer was that the people interviewed wanted to tell the story as it had been.

More recently, I wrote another book about an environmental company that got its start testing emissions at Alberta sour gas plants. The same company developed technology for the capture of sulphur from sour oil and gas that pushed the potential for that capture close to 100 per cent. When they proved what could be done, the government raised emission standards. These Albertans exported their technology everywhere on earth that sour gas is found. Their knowledge kept millions of tonnes of sulphur out of the world’s atmosphere, and I don’t know anyone else who can claim that.

Hence, despite my childhood experiences, I am not an automatic enemy of the sour gas industry. Because the provincial government and BA chose royalties and profits over my health, I’m not a cheerleader either.

I was asked to review this book because the community is polarized on the issue. You’re either powerfully on one side or the other. My job, then, is to give an opinion of Saboteurs that comes from somewhere in the middle.

Though it does come down hard on the oil industry, I found the book about 90 per cent fair. The story is quite balanced, and most incidents have a ring of authenticity. When the oil company tells the Ludwigs that raw gas can never enter the atmosphere near them, and it promptly does—it was a blast from the past for me.

The other 10 per cent of Saboteurs is the giving of background on the oil and gas industry and the effects of sour gas, and here I was less convinced. Studies are mentioned that prove terrible side effects from even low-level exposure to H2S, but they are not quoted with much exactitude. The Canadian Petroleum Communication Foundation also cites sour gas studies, done in Alberta by respected scientists at U of A and U of C, that deliver a much less damning story. Saboteurs does not mention these, and I found that disappointing. Also, there is little mention of the progress the Alberta industry has made in terms of emissions in the last 30 years. At times, it was suggested that we are worse off than the United States, and frankly, that is laughable. We had fairly tough sour gas regulations before the American EPA existed. Our technology has consistently led theirs. The difference is that we have more sour gas and sourer sour gas in Alberta.

Albertans should take some of their anger at oil companies and aim it into the comfortable Tory pew. The government must take more responsibility for thrusting industry on top of its citizenry in return for fees and royalties.

The one statement tossed off in Saboteurs as true that struck me as least likely is: “Men who have worked Alberta’s sour gas fields tend to age rapidly and look old before their time.” This is going to come as quite shock to all the apparently robust sour gas field veterans I have interviewed over the last 15 years.

I am inclined to agree with Saboteurs that the enforcement of regulations in Alberta could be better. Government reductions in the number of people working for the Energy Utilities Board may be the cause. If you don’t have effective enforcement, tough regulations won’t do you any good. Also, “grandfathering” of older plants (allowing them to function at lower emission standards because that’s what they were designed for) is inappropriate when health is at issue. There is a mention of the industry’s voluntary reduction of flaring in Alberta and of a study of flaring that is currently being done, but Nikiforuk predicts it will come to nothing. I am personally impressed when industry goes beyond what the government insists they do. It shows they are listening and responding. As for whether the new study will come to naught, I hope Nikiforuk is wrong. If he is right, I promise to join the ranks of those who say the Alberta government is no longer trying to be a world leader in sour gas science and regulation.

Overall I am thankful to Andrew Nikiforuk for presenting this story so thoroughly and well, for presenting all sides that would co-operate with him. He has convinced me that the petroleum industry is still allowed to drill and process sour gas far too close to human habitation, and is too tolerant of its own workers’ mistakes. But let’s put the blame where it really belongs. Oil companies are businesspeople scrambling for an opportunity. They lease the mineral rights they are allowed to lease, and who leases to them? The Government of Alberta. Albertans should take some of their anger toward the oil companies and divert it to the comfortable Tory pew. The government must take more responsibility for thrusting industry on top of its citizenry in return for fees and royalties, and calling it free enterprise. If health and peace are worth anything, it is not free.

Fred Stenson has written more than 130 produced films and videos, and eight published books of fiction and non-fiction.


Crisis of Confidence

For more than 70 years,  ever since Imperial struck oil at Leduc No. 1 in 1947, Alberta has sought to both manage and benefit from what has proven to be the world’s third-largest store of hydrocarbons. For the last seven years, that task has fallen primarily to the Alberta Energy ...

Alberta’s Carbon Revolution

Alex Walk was captivated. He had flown to Edmonton because he had heard that Alberta researchers might have found the Holy Grail of materials manufacturing: a cheap feedstock for carbon fibre. The stakes were high. Abundant, inexpensive carbon fibre could revolutionize the auto industry, for example, by reducing the weight ...

Heritage Trust Fund

A decade ago, when Alberta was debt-free and staring at a $7.4-billion surplus, Premier Ralph Klein decided it was time to spread the wealth. He announced that every person who lived in the province—and, as it turned out, more than a few who didn’t—would receive a cheque for $400 as ...