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Sabotage in oil country

Pipeline attacks are back in an oil-rich part of northern Alberta

Sabotage in oil country

It’s been five years since Wiebo Ludwig died, but someone is carrying on his legacy: Attacking oil pipelines in the the heart of Canada’s oil country.

Unidentified vandals racked up between $500,000 and $700,000 in damages to a pipeline on January 15, near Hythe, Alberta, using construction equipment to dig up part of the pipeline, which was not operational and caused no spill.

It’s not as brazen as the tactics employed by the infamous Ludwig, but it’s right in his backyard.

The environmental activist and oil industry saboteur was the face of a rural backlash against oil and gas development in northwestern Alberta during the 1990s and 2000s, which saw bombing campaigns against the industry in the region and caused millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure.

Ludwig liked to portray the Spartacus image: “The story of ultimate solidarity amongst the people who are all fighting this common enemy,” said Dr. Paul Joosse, who interviewed the family and other landowners for his doctoral dissertation in the late 2000s.

“Many people in the area are similarly motivated to engage in tactics of sabotage and vandalism. They’re making the argument from that side,” Joosse said.

The latest act of sabotage is just part of a string that has targeted oil infrastructure: Activists sabotaged Enbridge’s Line 9, which carries 300,000 barrels per day from Alberta to Montreal, last January. In 2011, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. pipeline was vandalized, spilling 30,000 litres of oil and water near Clear Prairie, Alberta — around 200 kilometres north of Hythe. No arrests have been made in the most recent incident.

With new pipelines like Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement awaiting construction, some security experts expect acts of vandalism to increase.

Recently, Reuters reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warned the country’s oil and gas companies about an increased risk of both cyber espionage and attacks on oil and gas companies, and cited an unnamed official claiming that even large-scale attacks are “technically simple” to pull off.

Speaking to VICE News, Wiebo’s son Josh said he doesn’t endorse the kind of “destructive engagement” of last week’s vandalism. But he acknowledged the frustration many people in the area feel toward the industry.

“You have an industry that’s doing serious damage, that’s seriously dug-in. They’re not going to go easy,” Ludwig said. “They have their hands on the levers of power.”

“They proved that you could do millions of dollars of damage against infrastructure, in the bush, because it is almost impossible to protect.”

Wiebo moved to the area in 1985 from Ontario and started a Christian community outside Hythe called Trickle Creek. The Ludwigs found themselves surrounded by oil and gas development “in a rather ferocious boom in the mid 1990s,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, who published a book in 2002 called “Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil.”

The village sits above the Montney Formation, a 127,000-acre formation that stretches across the border of northeast British Columbia into Alberta. It contains an estimated 450 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 15-billion barrels of oil.

“They had no idea that they had settled on this very large natural gas field, and that much of the gas was sour — that means it contains hydrogen sulphide, a very potent neurotoxin and has a long history in Alberta of killing workers, damaging the lungs of livestock, devaluing property, and has a very dark history,” Nikiforuk said.

After multiple sour gas leaks forced evacuations, caused livestock to get sick and allegedly caused Wiebo’s daughter to miscarry, NIkiforuk said he “essentially went on the war path and declared war against the industry.”

There were over 160 acts of vandalism at oil and gas sites in northwestern Alberta between 1996 and 1998, including bombings. Wiebo was convicted of bombing a Suncor site near Hythe in 2000, and also faced charges of counselling an informant to possess dynamite. He served 19 months of a 28 month sentence. Wiebo died of cancer in 2012. 

Nikiforuk said the Ludwigs have never been the sole family involved in “monkey-wrenching” the industry. He added that much of the vandalism isn’t done by activists, but by disgruntled workers.

“Nobody has claimed responsibility for it, but it wasn’t just the Ludwigs. Who the saboteurs were, to this day, has never been fully identified,” Nikiforuk said. “But what they proved is that you could do millions of dollars of damage against infrastructure, in the bush, because it is almost impossible to protect.”

Joosse said companies don’t like to give the impression that vandalism to oil and gas sites is as widespread as it is. He said that might raise awareness that some people don’t like what they’re doing, and that acts of sabotage are easy to pull off.

“For years, farmers have been able to acquire dynamite to clear beaver houses on their lands. This presented a real difficulty when it was discovered that it was dynamite being used in this last bombing campaign because the police realized this is something almost anybody could do,” Joosse said. “We’re not talking about a real complex operation here.”

As for Josh Ludwig, he said he has “heard the odd tidbit” around Hythe about last week’s pipeline vandalism, but wouldn’t talk about the details.

He raises awareness on issues like fracking any way he can, but added that Trickle Creek is too preoccupied with tending the farm and working toward full self-sufficiency to engage in any formal environmental activism.

“So many people wage the larger battle and lose the home battle. I think it’s important for us to continue to be responsible in our own back yards first and foremost.”

Cover: Illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart/Vice News

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