CALGARY, CANADA — Oil and natural gas drilling in the province of Alberta has turned Calgary in 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.
“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.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, accompanied by private security agents hired by the oil companies, spent millions to investigate and attempt to halt the sabotage. Ludwig’s farm was occupied by police five times and searched for incriminating evidence. The police and Encana Corp. infiltrated Ludwig’s tight community with an agent provocateur who, to prove he could be trusted, blew up a well owned by what was then Alberta Energy Corp., now Encana. The explosion, although orchestrated by the police and Encana, was publicly blamed on Ludwig. The oil company also brought in a “terrorism expert” from Toronto to speak at local town hall gatherings—York captures one of those talks in his film—and the expert warned residents of the rising “terrorism” of religious cults led by fanatic, charismatic leaders.
Ludwig was undeterred. “People are talking here that maybe someone should be shooting guys in pinstripe suits to get them to stop,” he said.
Ludwig, whose knowledge of the terrain allowed him to outfox hundreds of police officers, was never caught in an act of sabotage, but he probably had a hand in damage at hundreds of remote well sites estimated at $12 million. The federal government in Ottawa, in desperation, considered sending in the army. Ludwig was finally arrested in 2000 on five counts of property damage and possession of explosives and imprisoned for 18 months. He spent his time in prison reading a treatise in Dutch on the nature of hell.
Ludwig referred to the biblical story of David and Goliath in justifying his struggle against colossal forces, saying “the war is won before it is fought.” He believed that if you fought for righteousness you always were ensured spiritual victory, even if you were defeated in the eyes of the world. “It’s not size,” he said. “It’s whether a man is right or not. The fight is won on principle.” In his home he kept a poster of activist and journalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian hanged in 1995 after he campaigned against Shell Oil’s exploitation of his country. The poster read: “The environment is man’s first right. Without a clean environment man cannot exist to claim other rights be they political, social or economic.”
Ludwig once invited visiting civil servants who worked for oil and gas regulators to dinner. He fed them homemade cheeses, preserves, jams and wild cranberry wine. The pièce de résistance, which Ludwig unveiled with his usual flair, was the skull of a horse killed by sour gas. “It’s just a symbol of all the death we’ve had around here,” he informed his startled guests.
On another occasion he dumped noxious sour crude on the carpet in the office of local regulators to see if it “bothered” them.
The sabotage did not end with Ludwig’s 2012 death. There are reports of ongoing sabotage along the path of the XL pipeline and in the Alberta oil fields.
“I’d also say that sabotage in the oil patch is one of the oil and gas industry’s dirty little secrets,” York said. “It is widespread, and to many landowners it is a natural consequence of the industry’s attitudes and behavior to those whose land they are occupying. The industry doesn’t make a big fuss because they don’t want to encourage the response.”
But violence begets violence. And the more Ludwig blew up facilities the harsher became the intrusion of the state.
“Meeting industrial violence against livestock and families with more industrial violence against oil and gas installations is not the answer,” said Nikiforuk. “It is an act of frustration as well as a reflection of the captured state of regulators. And it submits an entire community to a reign of industry- and state-sanctioned terror. A second war broke out in the bush in the 2000s during an intense period of hydraulic fracking. Six bombings occurred at Encana well sites in northern British Columbia just 50 kilometers from Ludwig’s farm. The government sent in 250 officers to investigate. They treated rural citizens like members of the Taliban. The campaign ended as mysteriously as it began and had all the earmarks of Ludwig. It did not change industry practices.”
Ludwig’s gravest mistake was his decision, or the decision of someone in his small community, to fire on two trucks carrying rowdy teenagers. The sons and daughters of oil and gas workers roared through the group’s compound at about 4 a.m. on June 20, 1999. Karman Willis, a 16-year-old girl, was fatally shot by someone on the farm, and a second teenager survived a wound. York in his film shows Ludwig family members repeating like automatons that they thought they were under attack because the backfiring of the vehicles sounded like gunshots. No one on the farm took responsibility for the shooting, and no one was charged. The killing of the girl saw the neighboring communities cut off Ludwig and his band in revulsion. Local businesses put up signs that read: “No Service for Ludwigs.”
Ludwig, before he died at age 71 after refusing chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, turned away from violence. The renunciation came a year or two after his final bombing campaign. He would read, with his family, Jacques Ellul’s 1969 book Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective. Ellul, like Ludwig’s Dutch father, had fought in the resistance against the Nazis in World War II.
“What constantly marked the life of Jesus was not nonviolence but in every situation the choice not to use power,” he wrote. “This is infinitely different.”
“The Christian should participate in social and political efforts in order to have an influence in the work, not with the hope of making a paradise (of the earth), but simply to make it more tolerable—not to diminish the opposition between this world and the Kingdom of God, but simply to modify the opposition between the disorder of this world and the order of preservation that God wants it to have—not to bring in the Kingdom of God, but so that the Gospel might be proclaimed in order that all men might truly hear the good news,” Ellul wrote.
Ludwig said: “We feel weak in all the things we are fighting. I think the match is very unequal. But it’s all right. Instead of griping about it, we might as well give ourselves to it.”