Pipelines and other energy infrastructure in the world's oil producing regions are increasingly becoming the targets of violent attacks, exposing the industry's vulnerability. The number of such incidents has increased even in countries normally considered safe. In Canada, which the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks as the eighth most peaceful country in the world, the residents of Dawson Creek are wondering who is waging war on the local gas industry.
The frontier town of 11,000 people, from which the Alaska Highway starts its journey to the Arctic tundra, is not known as a global or even national hotbed of activism. But since last October, half a dozen explosions have ruptured pipelines and wrecked gas production facilities in the area. The so-called Peace district around Dawson Creek, named after the main river, is a sleepy pastoral area renowned for its honey. Gas wells mingle uneasily with beehives amid the lucerne and conflicts over land use are to some extent inevitable. Usually, though, they are settled with money and neighbourly discussions, not violence.
But at the dead of night on July 4, an area resident woken by a loud bang called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to investigate. "We were able to respond to this latest blast very quickly; this made possible by receiving the immediate public report of suspicious activity," says the Mounties' investigating officer, Cpl Dan Moskaluk. "The elements of this incident thus far are consistent with the previous blast sites and the RCMP considers this latest bombing linked to the others."
The strange thing is that no one has claimed responsibility. EnCana, the big Canadian gas producer that owns the damaged facilities, in January offered a C$500,000 (Dh1.5 million) reward for information leading to the capture of the miscreants, but the bounty has not been claimed. "Whoever is responsible for these bombings has got to be stopped before someone gets hurt," says Mike Graham, the executive vice president of the company.
Rhona DelFrari, an EnCana spokeswoman, says: "No one has been injured so far, but that might not be the case in future. It is very dangerous to be bombing and vandalising natural gas infrastructure, blowing up natural gas wellheads and pipelines. "These acts could result in very serious injury or death. Each time a repair has to be done, there is a safety risk to all those involved." Indeed, last week's explosion occurred within 1km of where a work crew was still repairing a pipeline damaged in a previous attack a week earlier.
Residents of Dawson Creek and farm settlements could also be endangered by a gas leak, as the region's sour gas deposits contain toxic hydrogen sulphide. The gas can be deadly at minute concentrations. EnCana has safety valves in its pipelines that automatically seal off damaged sections when they detect a drop in pressure. But a ruptured wellhead might cause a more serious problem. Canada's oil and gas industry has a long history of "knockdowns", in which unprotected well operators stumble into sour gas leaks and collapse. In the Peace district, two workers have died from hydrogen sulphide poisoning in the past two years, and the local workers' compensation board receives reports of four or five knockdowns a year.
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, considers sour gas exposure the most common cause of sudden death in the workplace. Peace district residents have been concerned about the risks associated with sour gas development for years, and this sometimes erupts into anger towards oil and gas companies. "Industry just does whatever it wants," says Stacy Lajeunesse, a director of the Peace Country Environmental Protection Association. "There's nobody out in the back country to watchdog this stuff."
But last autumn, the Dawson Creek Daily News received an anonymous letter calling for "EnCana and all other oil and gas interests" to close down their operations in the region. The letter vowed not to "negotiate with terrorists" taking part in the "crazy expansion of deadly gas wells in our home lands". The "home lands" reference set off a round of unsubstantiated speculation that the attacks might be the work of indigenous groups. Last summer a First Nations, or indigenous, group at Kelly Lake, about 100km south of Dawson Creek, staged a peaceful blockade of access roads to gas facilities.
But other environmental and community groups, such as the one in which Ms Lajeunesse in involved, have also attracted suspicion. In the 1990s, more than 100 incidents of sabotage at the oil and gas installations of an EnCana predecessor were linked to Wiebo Ludwig, the patriarch of a reclusive clan of Christian fundamentalists. Ludwig, a long-time anti-industry activist who blamed sour gas emissions for miscarriages and other health problems afflicting his family and livestock, eventually served two thirds of a 28-month prison sentence for vandalism. He was released in 2001.
Sgt Tim Shields of the RCMP says investigators are looking into possible connections between the recent bombings and the attacks that occurred between 1995 and 1998 in the area around the Ludwigs' compound at Trickle Creek Farm in the Peace district. Eco-vandalism is nothing new, but in North America and Europe some environmentalist and animal rights groups have been stepping up their assaults on corporate interests.
"There's been more and more of a hard edge to them," says John Thompson, the director of the Canadian think tank the Mackenzie Institute. "The current generation [of activists] is really nasty. They'll pick on particular individuals; target them. Jim Carter, the former president of Syncrude Canada, an oil sands consortium, knows all about that. Late last year, Mr Carter's home in Edmonton, the capital of the western Canadian province of Alberta, burnt down after being set ablaze with a Molotov cocktail.
Syncrude, the biggest Canadian oil sands producer, is a frequent target of environmentalist campaigns against the oil industry. In other attacks linked to environmental activism, a gang of about 15 masked men armed with steel bars, chains and nail-studded clubs last month attacked a gas pipeline at a remote site on Ireland's west coast. The pipeline's operator, Royal Dutch Shell, has spent four years battling opponents of an Irish offshore gas development project, in court and on the ground.
But in some parts of the developing world, attacks on pipelines and other oil and gas installations are more frequent. In Nigeria, political grievances, public health, environmental concerns and the chance for impoverished young men to become rich through extortion have led to violence that has shut down between a third and a half of the country's oil capacity, cutting the OPEC member's output by at least 1 million barrels per day.
The main Nigerian militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has claimed responsibility for recent attacks on facilities operated by international oil companies including Shell, Chevron, Eni and Agip. Last year, Kurdish rebels claimed responsibility for blowing up two major oil pipelines and a gas pipeline in Turkey, an important transit country for Central Asian oil and gas supplies to western countries. The Turkish government disputed that sectarian politics had sparked the explosions.
But it has spurred attacks on oil and gas facilities in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Yemen. In Dec 2004, Osama bin Laden, the al Qa'eda leader, called on his followers in a broadcast message to disrupt oil supplies to the US from the Gulf. A follow-up statement from the organisation's Saudi branch exhorted "all mujahideen" in the Arabian Peninsula to target "oil resources that do not serve the nation of Islam". Militant attacks on energy targets and oil workers in Iraq and Saudi Arabia followed.
Violence against the oil industry in those two countries has declined in the past two years, but some analysts fear a reversal of that trend in northern Iraq, where the country's Kurdish minority is vying with the Arab-dominated central government for control of territory around the city of Kirkuk that contains several large oilfields. "To prevent an outbreak of deadly ethnic conflict after it pulls out its forces, Washington should craft an exit strategy that encourages Iraqis to reach a series of bargains on power, resources and territory," says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group's MENA branch.
At least 54 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad and northern Iraq on Thursday, in the deadliest day since the withdrawal of most US troops from Iraqi cities at the end of last month. Baghdad has recently deployed 17,000 Iraqi military personnel, supported by helicopters and communications equipment, to protect energy installations in the country, including a 7,500km network of oil pipelines, according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank based in Washington.
In another sign of resurgent political violence against energy interests, Egyptian security forces last week arrested 26 suspected al Qa'eda loyalists on charges of plotting attacks on pipelines and foreign ships using the Suez Canal. "Pipeline safety is a critical concern on a global scale," says Claudi Santiago, the president of Houston-based GE Oil & Gas, which is developing monitoring technology to alert pipeline operators to "third-party attacks".
The company rates those as the leading cause of pipeline failure worldwide, outranking corrosion, metal fatigue, faulty welding and landslides. @Email:email@example.com