Toxic Downwinds: No Redress
By David Orton                

              Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil, by Andrew Nikiforuk,
              Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 2001, 283 pages, hardcover,
              ISBN: 1-55199-053-9, $35.00.

                    “Extremists are ordinary people with their backs against the wall.”
                                                                                    Disciplined RCMP Sergeant

            This is a “must” book to read, for anyone who wants to understand how the oil and gas
        industry negatively impacts on people and the environment. Andrew Nikiforuk dedicates
        his book “To all downwinders” -- those who live downwind of oil and gas wells and sour
        gas processing plants.

            The book is grounded in the impact of the oil and gas industry, over the past ten years,
        on the fundamentalist Christian Reverend Wiebo Ludwig and his extended Trickle Creek
        farm-commune ‘family’ of about 36 persons, the “Church of Our Shepherd King,” as well
        as many other peoples’ experience in Alberta. The farm-commune (on what originally was
        an unspoilt 160 acres) is in the Peace River area of northern Alberta. It is a simple,
        eco-alternative lifestyle, religious community, seen by Ludwig “as a viable visionary
        alternative to the prevailing destructive lifestyles around us.” (p. 239) From 1990 onwards,
        Trickle Creek residents were frequently gassed, through “flaring” with hydrogen sulphide
        from sour gas wells on and surrounding their farm. The pro-industry regulatory body, the
        Energy and Utilities Board (EUB), largely financed by industry itself, while consistently
        refusing Ludwig's request for a public inquiry, stated that in 1998, within a ten-kilometer
        radius of the Trickle Creek community, daily flaring “released enough gas to heat more
        than 5,000 homes.” (p. 255) Apart from this incredible waste, there is the pollution, truck
        traffic and other inconveniences associated with industrial exploitation, all having a general
        regulatory government approval. (One thinks of “best farming practices” legislation, which
        has often been used to defeat anti-pesticide campaigns or to deflect criticism of industrial
        hog farms.) Flares are described in the book as looking “like giant candles” but also
        roaring “like jet engines.” Flares can discharge through high stacks or at ground level. (p. 26)

            About 40 per cent of Alberta gas is “sour,” meaning it contains hydrogen sulphide or
        sulphur. As the author notes, those who work around sour gas suffer a number of health
        problems: “Men who have worked Alberta's sour gas fields tend to age rapidly and look
        old before their time.” (p. 20) Naturally, the oil and gas industry and government has a
        different view: “Both industry and government argue that no conclusive body of scientific
        evidence supports the claim that small doses of H2S (hydrogen sulphide) are harmful.”
        (p. 23) About one third of Alberta's government revenues come from oil and gas. Yet
        for over forty years now, as Nikiforuk shows, rural Albertans exposed to sour gas
        emissions have had bloody noses, respiratory problems, premature births, nausea, cancer,
        asthma, and dead or sick livestock. (p. 255)

            Why does flaring occur? Nikiforuk explains that “oil wells flare to burn off gas that
        doesn't warrant the cost of a pipeline. Gas plants flare to convert H2S into water and less
        toxic sulphuric dioxide. Both wells and plants often flare during routine, cleanups or
        emergency burn-offs of gas called ‘upsets.’ (p. 26)

            What is in the flares? According to a 1994 Alberta Research Council study, withheld
        by the government for two years, it was found “that flares didn't burn efficiently and left
        anywhere from 16 to 38 percent of the gases intact. While the burning of waste gas
        destroyed some toxins, it created others -- as many as 250 compounds, including
        known cancer causers and brain fuddlers such as benzene, styrene, carbon disulphide,
        hydrogen sulphide, and carbonyl sulphide.” (pp. 83-84)

            Ludwig's experience, and that of others chronicled in this fine, progressive, yet
        anthropocentric book by Nikiforuk, shows what many rural Canadians have come to learn
        first-hand -- that there is no permanent unspoilt space for one's family which cannot be
        fundamentally disrupted by capitalist economic activity. In Alberta, only about ten per cent
        of forest land remains unfragmented by seismic lines, pipelines, oil and gas wells,
        clearcutting, and roads. According to Saboteurs, in 2001 over 20,000 oil and gas wells
        were to be drilled in the province. Nikiforuk notes that in the year 2000, the regulatory
        EUB only turned down one application, out of thousands, to drill an oil and gas well.
        Coincidently, the one application turned down was the subject of a National Film Board
        documentary concerning the treatment of landowners. (p. 256)

            Anyone living in a rural area knows that one can have one's life turned upside down
        by so-called development nearby, e.g. clearcutting, oil and gas or other mining activities. In
        Alberta, Nova Scotia or any other province, while a person may “own” land, under the
        capitalist economic system one cannot own the mineral rights underneath the land. These
        reside with provincial governments. (Deep ecology inspired radical activists believe that to
        speak of the “ownership” of Nature in this way, is the height of human arrogance. Property
        rights, from a deep ecology perspective, must protect Nature and all the non-human living
        creatures, and they must protect social justice within a society.) Capitalist property “rights”
        are sold or leased on industry's demand. The oil and gas industry operates as though those
        persons, with whom they must ‘negotiate’ entry for well sites, or pipeline rights of way,
        have no deep attachment to place of residence or to preserve the ecological integrity of a
        piece of land. They cannot apparently comprehend that the Land can be part of a person.
        In Alberta, wells have an “exclusion zone” of one hundred meters. In the Maritimes, there
        are more than 4,000 landowners having to deal with the overland high pressure natural gas
        pipeline to markets in the United States. As well as a right-of-way, within this there is an
        exclusion zone on either side of the pipe, which restricts normal farming or forestry activities.
        For the industry, opposition from landowners is seen as a negotiating ploy to increase
        monetary compensation.

            The fossil fuel industry can buy out down-wind rural “trouble-makers”, but there is usually
        a “confidentiality” agreement to sign. This means for the industry, no public admittance of
        wrong-doing and hence no precedent-setting cases for other aggrieved landowners to use.
        Wiebo Ludwig was not offered a serious buy-out offer, only one with impossible conditions
        if he signed.

        An unlikely role model
            Wiebo Ludwig is an unlikely role model for environmentalists. He is quoted in the book
        as saying that he does not consider himself an environmentalist, but only someone
        defending “my family from harm” and “not an environmentalist who is trying to save the
        world from burning by the petrochemical industry.” (p. 205) An anti-oil and gas video
        “Home Sour Home” was produced at Trickle Creek and widely distributed. Yet this is a
        person who also has a picture of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the executed Nigerian who fought the
        ecological and social destruction of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria, in the main cabin at
        the farm.

            Ludwig's environmental consciousness may not have come initially from “intellectual
        conversion,” as is the case for many in the environmental movement, but through fighting
        to defend the spot where he wanted to live. But as he became more of a thorn to the oil
        and gas industry, more and more people with similar grievances contacted him for help.
        He also came in contact with other home-grown environmentalists who were taking on
        the oil and gas industry, and with Earth First! Ludwig received many bomb and death
        threats at his home. In April of 1999, in Edmonton, his van was bombed. Ludwig made
        what I thought was a personally revealing comment, which all of us can learn from:
        “Most of the pain in life was really the fear of pain.” (p. 235)

            The RCMP are shown in this book to have consistently worked in the interests of the
        oil and gas industry, to re-establish oil business as usual. They totally disregarded the local
        peoples’ health and safety concerns. By sponsoring town hall meetings, the police worked
        with oil and gas industry supporters to whip-up sentiment against Wiebo Ludwig. They
        went well beyond the call of duty, by blowing up an oil shack to provide “deep cover” for
        an informant, whose testimony eventually put Ludwig and one other member of the farm
        community in prison. Of course, the car bombing directed at Ludwig remains unsolved.
        The only police officer who was at all sympathetic to the oil patch problems was
        transferred and eventually disciplined. His quotation about what makes an “extremist”
        starts this review essay.

            But Wiebo Ludwig, this intelligent, witty, resolute, and unpredictable fighter, is also a
        fundamentalist Christian with a literalist view of the Bible, and someone quite patriarchal
        towards women, who for example believes in “headship” -- women should cover their
        heads in his church, to symbolize their subordination to men.

        Atlantic lessons
            Reading this book should help to cast away illusions that the fossil fuel industry can ever
        be a “good neighbour,” or, in a marine sense here on the East Coast, that oil and gas
        activities can “co-exist,” as oil industry executives and their apologists swear up and down,
        with commercial fishing, eco-tourism, preserving the marine habitat of marine mammals
        and sea birds, etc. Who will be looking out for the inevitable pipeline leaks, breakages,
        well blow-outs, release of toxic drilling muds, human errors, etc.? One Dalhousie
        University scientist wrote recently that seismic blasts from exploration can be heard
        half-way across the Atlantic. We know that sour gas has now been “discovered” and a
        huge project is in the works by PanCanadian Energy. The farce of the hearings into the
        Sable gas project established what will be the “model.” It showed that the mountains of
        company literature presented to environmental assessment panels, all come to an identical
        conclusion: “no significant adverse environmental or adverse socio-economic impacts are
        likely to occur.” (See Sable Offshore Energy Project Application to National Energy
        Board, June 11, 1996, p. 8, section 1.) This is totally dishonest and the conclusion has
        been predetermined. (The book also shows how the industry “leans” on reporters to
        achieve the correct slant in news stories.)

            Just imagine the further opportunities to despoil in marine areas, where there are few
        humans without vested economic interests to watch over big oil and gas? (Unfortunately,
        oil and gas exploration, which started on the Scotian Shelf in the late 1960s, was
        essentially unopposed.) Those of us living in the Atlantic region face a full-throttle
        expansion of an, as yet mainly marine-based, oil and gas industry in the service of the
        insatiable energy demands of the US economy. We have similar lap-dog regulatory
        agencies to those in Alberta, such as the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.
        This book shows us, based on Albertan experience over many years, that there is no
        rectification or mitigation possible of oil patch problems, given the existing industrial
        capitalist economic system, where minimal government regulation is striven for.

            “Sweet” natural gas is not environmentally friendly. Methane makes up about 90 percent
        of sales-quality natural gas. Methane leakage is one problem. Methane is a much worse
        green house gas than the ‘normal’ carbon dioxide from the combustion of natural gas.
        Natural gas is no ‘bridging’ fuel to a more environmentally friendly world. When we know
        the destructive role of increasing climate change gases, rising fossil fuel consumption
        should rightly be regarded as a major criminal activity. We should start listening to the
        advice of the International Panel on Climate Change, which calls for over a 60 percent
        reduction in green house gases, merely to stabilize the existing climate situation. In a wider
        sense, which Nikiforuk's book does not really cover, fossil fuel is central to the continuing
        ecological destructiveness of the global industrial economy. George Bush has made it clear
        that Canada has a major role to play in servicing the American colossus. Our Canadian
        politicians are prostrating themselves to answer Bush's energy call.

            Wiebo Ludwig was eventually sentenced to 28 months prison time for his ecotage
        (industrial sabotage) of oil and gas installations. But this book makes clear Ludwig had a
        lot of support in rural Alberta. Given the new “anti-terrorist” climate in Canada, and the
        passage of legislation like bill C-36, interference with the fossil fuel industry will likely be
        considered “treasonous.”

            Nikiforuk's book is full of stories of how in Alberta, the industry and the government
        promote “denial,” not rectification. There is a lot of rage in Alberta, and it will be heading
        our way to the East Coast. Oil and gas activists and the interested public need to read
        this book. Knowing the true face of the enemy is part of any intelligent battle preparation.

                                                                                                                January 10, 2002

        Printed in an edited version in the Earth First! Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3, February-March 2002.
        Also printed in the Watershed Sentinel ( Downwinds), Vol. 12,
        No. 1, February/March 2002, and in the Socialist Studies Bulletin, No. 66, January-March 2002.

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