One morning last June, a handful of villagers in Tomslake, B.C., a rural community just south of Dawson Creek, gathered on a road not far from where EnCana Corp. planned to sink a new natural gas well. The residents, worried about the health and safety impacts of the development, didn’t so much block workers from the job site as they did serve them coffee and doughnuts. They did the same when security arrived and, later, when media came to report on the day’s events, which ended as peacefully as they’d begun.
Today, many of those who participated in the get-together fear they’re now on an RCMP list of suspects in six EnCana pipeline bombings that began in October, went dormant in January, and started again last week with two new explosions—one on Canada Day, the other on American Independence Day. “The major people that are on that list, every single one of them was on that line,” one told Maclean’s in a telephone interview. “It wouldn’t surprise me right now if you and I weren’t being listened to.”
The mystery surrounding the bombings, which have targeted mainly sour gas installations in northeast B.C.—the gas is “sour” because it contains toxic hydrogen sulfide—has only deepened since the first blast. That explosion was preceded by handwritten letters sent to EnCana and two local news outlets demanding energy companies active in the Tomslake area shutter their operations and adding: “We will no longer negotiate with terrorists, which you are as you keep endangering our families with crazy expansion of deadly gas wells in our homelands.”
Though locals don’t condone the bombings, the letter articulates a general sense of unease in the Peace River region over the swift pace of development there, as well as worry that oil and gas infrastructure is being built too close to homes and schools. But such health and safety concerns are now overshadowed by fear of the bomber (or bombers) and—for some—fear of getting caught in the wide RCMP net set to catch him.
Paranoia is widespread. In Dawson Creek, residents talk of neighbours who spoke too loudly of the bombings in local coffee stops, only to find police knocking at their doors. Townsfolk in Tomslake hesitate to discuss the issue with media, worried they’ll be singled out by investigators. Others worry their past criticisms of gas developments have already made them suspects. Police surprise “persons of interest” at work, demand DNA and handwriting samples, only to return again and again for repeated grillings.
“They’ve got tunnel vision, big time,” says one area resident. There’s even talk EnCana is sabotaging itself, just as its earlier iteration, the Alberta Energy Company, once did in cahoots with the RCMP, part of an investigation that eventually snagged Alberta eco-saboteur Wiebo Ludwig a decade ago.
Yet the RCMP has been wary of drawing the Wiebo comparison. Only after last week’s explosions did an RCMP spokesman call the EnCana blasts “domestic terrorism,” a shift assistant commissioner Bob Paulson, head of the National Security Criminal Investigations unit, says does not reflect a change in strategy. The force last year dispatched a Vancouver-based anti-terror squad, he notes. “Now that we’re into the fifth and sixth blast, we anticipate that there will be a seventh and an eighth and a ninth. We absolutely have to find this person.” (University of Calgary terrorism expert Gavin Cameron believes the force now speaks of “terrorism” because, he says, “They’re going to invoke the full counterterrorism tool box”—including surveillance provisions.)
The explosions have so far resulted in no deaths or injuries, though it seems only a matter of time before someone gets hurt. “If he’s got some sort of altruistic bent to him, he’s got to understand that there are people who service those lines, that there are people downwind of those explosions,” says Paulson. That urgency has prompted EnCana to put up a $500,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest and prosecution. Still, the bomber eludes authorities, somehow even failing to show up on security-camera footage from the drugstore where he sent his letter. Whoever’s behind the blasts, “they’re not amateurs anymore,” says University of Alberta eco-terrorism researcher Paul Joosse.
Police admit they’ve received less public co-operation in this case than others, and acknowledge how much they need the help—consternation over gas developments notwithstanding.
But that doesn’t indicate local sympathy for those behind the blasts. “They have in their own head some sort of noble pursuit, which may initially have been a dissatisfaction with the state of oil and gas development,” says Paulson. “As we go on past that, the typical criminal mind gets sucked in to the excitement and the criminality that they’re engaged in.” It’s a taste for the forbidden that will eventually get the bombers caught. “Then people can get back to their lives, and disagree on whatever they want to disagree about.”