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The Saboteurs

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Posted on Dec 1, 2013
AP/Mike Groll

A protester raises a fist during a rally against hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y., in 2012.

By Chris Hedges

CALGARY, Canada—Oil and natural gas drilling in the province of Alberta has turned Calgary into a boomtown. Glittering skyscrapers, monuments to the obscene profits amassed by a fossil fuel industry that is exploiting the tar sands and the vast oil and natural gas fields in Alberta, have transformed Calgary into a mecca for money, dirty politics, greed and industry jobs. The city is as soulless and sterile as Houston. The death of the planet, for a few, is very good for business.

The man who waged North America’s first significant war against hydraulic fracturing was from Alberta, an eccentric, messianic Christian preacher named Wiebo Ludwig who died last year. He, with his small Christian community in the remote north of the province, sabotaged at least one wellhead by pouring cement down its shaft and blew up others. The Canadian authorities, along with the oil and gas barons, demonize Ludwig as an ecoterrorist, an odd charge given that they are the ones responsible for systematically destroying the environment and the planet. And as the ecosystem deteriorates—and the drive by corporations to extract the last remaining natural resources from the earth, even if it kills us all, becomes more and more relentless—the resistance of Wiebo Ludwig is worth remembering.

“Wiebo felt that our society was in a spiritual crisis, rather than an environmental or an economic crisis,” David York, whose film “Wiebo’s War” is a nuanced portrayal of Ludwig and his fight with the oil and gas industry, told me when I reached him in Toronto by email. “He felt that our addiction to fossil fuels, rampant consumerism and materialism, addictions, breakdown of family units were all symptoms of a society that has lost its root connection to God. Further, he felt that we are in a kind of end times state, where the forces of good are in a terrible struggle with the forces of evil. He wasn’t so crass as to put a timetable on it, but in his view ‘any fool can see the times.’ ”

That one of our era’s most effective figures of resistance against the oil and gas industry was a devout Christian is perhaps not coincidental. I do not share Ludwig’s Christian fundamentalism—his community was a rigid patriarchy—but I do share his belief that when human law comes into conflict with God’s law, human law must be defied. Ludwig grasped the moral decadence of the consumer society, its unchecked hedonism, worship of money and deadening cult of the self. He retreated in 1985 with his small band of followers into the remoteness of northern Alberta. His community, called Trickle Creek, was equipped with its own biodiesel refinery, windmills and solar panels—which permitted it to produce its own power—a greenhouse and a mill. Its members, who grew their own food, severed themselves from the contaminants of consumer culture. But like the struggle of Axel Heyst, the protagonist in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory,” Ludwig’s flight from evil only ensured that evil came to him.

Ludwig’s farm happened to be atop one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. In Canada when you own land you own only the top six inches of soil; the mineral rights below it belong to the state and can be sold without the knowledge or acquiescence of the landowner. Beneath Ludwig’s farm lay a fossil fuel known as sour gas, a neurotoxin that if released from within the earth can, even in small amounts, poison livestock, water tables and people.

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“Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. And this is what happened to Ludwig.

The oil and gas companies soon began a massive drilling effort. At first, like many other reformers and activists, Ludwig used legal and political channels to push back against the companies, which were drilling on the edge of his 160-acre farm. He spent the first five years attending hearings with civil regulators, writing letters—he even wrote to Jane Fonda—and appealing in vain to elected officials, government agencies, the press, environmentalists and first nations groups. His family—he had 11 children—posted a sign in 1990 that decried “the ruthless interruption and cessation” of privacy; “the relentless greedy grabbing of Creational resources”; “the caloused [sic] disregard for the sanctity of the Lord’s Day”; the legislation of land and mineral ownership policy “that does violence to the God-given ‘right to property.’ ” Ludwig then presented the offending oil company, Ranchmen’s, with a bill for the sign.

“He was primarily motivated by his love for his family and a strong sense of justice,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, the author of a good book on Ludwig called “Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil.” I had dinner with Nikiforuk last week in Calgary. He told me: “It did not seem right to him that the oil industry could park a drilling well for sour gas in view of his family’s communal dining room. ‘Is a man not even master in his own house, let alone his own land, on matters like these?’ ”

“His war against industry illustrated the cost of our addiction to hydrocarbons: Our materialistic way of life is based on the destruction of groundwater, the devaluing of rural property, the invasion of rural communities, the poisoning of skies with carcinogens, the fragmentation of landscapes,” Nikiforuk said. “Urban people do not understand the sacrifices now being imposed on rural people.”

Ludwig’s first acts of sabotage were minor. He laid down nail beds on roads. He smashed solar panels. He blocked roads by downing trees. He disabled vehicles and drilling equipment. But after two leaks of hydrogen sulfide sour gas from nearby wells—which forced everyone on the farm to evacuate and saw numerous farm animals giving birth to deformed or stillborn offspring, as well as five human miscarriages or stillbirths within Ludwig’s community—and after the destruction of two of his water wells, he declared open war on the oil and gas industry. He began to blow up oil and gas facilities. He said he had to fight back to “protect his children.”


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