The mad bomber of Montney Play

Too much growth, pushy oil companies. Something had to give.

The hamlet of Tomslake, B.C., home to some two dozen people, is spread thin across flat farmlands encircled by Rocky Mountain foothills. For the past several years it has found itself at the centre of the Montney Play, one of North America’s newest and most important sources of natural gas—a circumstance that has increasingly pushed out the community’s dairy farms and grain elevators in favour of pipelines and gas flares. “You look down on this valley,” says lifelong Tomslake resident Eric Kuenzl, “and it looks like a big cake with candles on it.”

Though gas brings jobs and money to the area, not everyone is happy about living on the Montney Play. Last Thursday morning, Tim Schram, the 44-year-old owner of a sporting goods store in nearby Dawson Creek, was following a corridor of pipeline cut through the bush in his Dodge truck looking for elk when he came across a disturbance in the dirt. “Something looked a little peculiar,” says Schram, who recalls wondering briefly whether this might be the site of the EnCana pipeline bombing the previous weekend.

That explosion, beneath a sour gas line not far from Schram’s home, created a two-metre crater in the earth, sparking fears of eco-terrorism. Whoever was behind the bomb had been helpful enough to write a little warning note, sent to local media, demanding that oil and gas outfits leave the area and reading in part: “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 home lands.” But Schram dismissed the idea and went on with his day. “I just thought well, if this were the site of the blast, they would surely have some ribbons and there’d be people around.”

On his way back from scouting for game, Schram encountered police. He had unwittingly been first at the scene of a second explosion—the hissing of a sour gas leak alerted EnCana workers—and Schram was now a suspect. “They darned near had their guns drawn and they wanted my hands out the window and the whole show,” he says. “It was pretty interesting.” Schram, who knew one of the officers, was able to explain himself. That’s how it is—or has been until recently—in northeastern B.C., a string of communities where, as local politician Wayne Hiebert puts it, “everyone knows their neighbour and their neighbour’s dog.” Yet with the growing industrial interest in the Montney Play, Hiebert adds, “now you have all of these other people coming and going and you’re not sure who’s driving by your place.”

The pace of work has been dizzying. Last week, B.C.’s monthly auction of oil and gas rights netted $151 million, bringing the province’s total auction revenue this year to $2.17 billion. An earlier auction, in July, earned a record $601 million. Most of the drilling licences centre on the Montney Play or just north of there, in the Horn River Basin, another gas bonanza. “The rest of the world may be having a recession,” says Kuenzl, who restores cars for a living. “We certainly are not.”

That’s not entirely a good thing, some say. A latticework of pipelines, often carrying potentially lethal sour gas, criss-crosses the region; locals complain they have been unable even to persuade government to regulate buffer zones between industrial installations and their homes. In winter, traditionally a busy drilling period because the frozen ground can support heavy equipment, the populations of places like Dawson Creek explode. Traffic snarls rural roads never meant to move industrial loads. And police struggle to rein in the Saturday-night impulses of rig workers celebrating their earnings in town. “The big problem is money and boredom—and money and boredom equals drugs,” says environmental consultant Brian Churchill, running for mayor in nearby Fort St. John.

So some understand, though don’t condone, what might drive a saboteur. “This is someone who’s been very deeply disturbed by basically their entire world being changed in very short order,” says Churchill. Locals speak of a sense of powerlessness in the face of the boom and an atmosphere of intimidation in a region where oil and gas companies are the major employers. “A lot of people who work in the patch can’t speak out,” says Rick Koechl, a junior high science teacher and spokesman for the Old Hope Road residents association. “If they did it would cause them grief—they’d be fired.”

One issue has been the plight of landowners, who say they lose control over their properties once oil and gas companies purchase the subsurface rights beneath them. “Probably the first time that he would know what was going on was when a land agent knocked on his door and wanted him to sign an agreement that would allow industry to come on his land,” says Gwen Johansson, president of the Custodians of the Peace Country Society, which has worked for a half-decade to improve the situation. “Last week we couldn’t have bought an interview with these major media outlets,” she adds. “Then somebody’ll go and do something stupid like this and that gets all kinds of attention.”

Kuenzl, who at 51 still lives in the home his grandfather built, has had enough. “I didn’t buy into an industrial park, my family’s been here since 1939,” he says. “If you’re going to change it into an industrial park, well then buy me out, let me leave. I don’t want to be here. The house is for sale if you want to buy it. So’s a lot of other people’s in this community. Now there’s another thing in here that none of us expected—some mad bomber.”

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