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Filming One Man's Battle Against Big Oil

image of Alyssa Noel
52 Media Inc.
Q&A with filmmaker David York

Editor's note: Wiebo Ludwig, the subject of the documentary film written about in this article, died in April 2012. Frequent OnEarth contributor Andrew Nikiforuk penned an obituary.

Tucked away in northern Alberta, living amidst the province’s booming oil industry, a sharp, passionate man named Wiebo Ludwig has helmed a small off-the-grid community of family and friends called Trickle Creek for the last 25 years.

The Ludwigs moved to the secluded spot hoping to lead a quiet life, at one with both nature and God. But oil and gas companies quickly encroached on their property, leading to a host of health complications in the community. What unfolded in the years following was a made-for-the-movies drama, culminating in Ludwig serving jail time in early 2000 in connection with the bombing of oil and gas installments.

Like many Canadians, filmmaker David York has followed Trickle Creek’s plight in the media over the decades. A few years ago, as the oil industry began to move into the area again, York approached the Ludwigs about telling their story in a documentary. Wiebo’s War came out last October and has been screened for enthusiastic crowds across Canada. It will be released on DVD for wider distribution this month. York recently spoke to OnEarth contributor Alyssa Noel about the film and Wiebo’s fight.

What drew you to this topic?

I was in Alberta a lot in the late ’90s and early 2000s and happened to be in Alberta a fair bit during Wiebo Ludwig’s original trial. I remember seeing the news coverage of this bearded Old Testament figure on the courthouse steps lecturing the public and media. He seemed like a fantastic, larger-than-life character. He stuck in my mind. In the last five or so years, as public awareness of abuses and recklessness of oil and gas and all the spills and incidents have happened, Wiebo Ludwig bounced back into my mind as someone worth a second look. I found out there was a new gas boom near his farm. Over the course of research, what I found was a man who, on some level, thrives on conflict.

How much convincing did it take for Wiebo to let you film at Trickle Creek?

It took a year of conversation. It wasn’t easy. At first they thought I was a cop, which isn’t a surprise, given they were infiltrated in the past. What I proposed is that I would have open access to them on an open-ended basis for a film I couldn’t describe, because the contention of the film was that something would happen as this boom grew. The issue for them was I’m an atheist, and their thoughts and actions and how they view the world are fundamentally drawn from their understanding of scripture and faith. Generally speaking, atheists and fundamentalist Christians don’t mix. That was a big problem. They ended their cooperation with me three times.

You were there two years ago when the Encana pipelines were bombed by a still-unknown oilpatch activist near Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Were you surprised when that happened?

I think it’s one of the oil and gas industry’s dirty little secrets that sabotage happens all the time. I have friends who have worked in oil and gas, and the reality is, landowners don’t like them. Oil and gas industry people have told me that it goes unreported because they don’t want to encourage people to do more of it. So I wasn’t surprised that somebody was taking direct action. I actually arrived for a shoot the day before the first bombing. We’d had an equipment malfunction and got another piece of equipment shipped up by plane. I was driving in to go get it. One of Wiebo’s sons made a point of saying, “Come back in time for the news.” Before I left they said it again. That was the moment I kind of thought this film I was making had likely taken a turn. In a way I have mixed feelings about the turn, too, because what I had was a very strong past-tense story about the family’s epic battle with oil and gas in the 1990s that culminated in the trial and the death of this teenage girl on the farm. [In 1999, a young girl was shot and killed while riding in a truck on the Ludwig property with other teens. No one has ever been charged in connection with her death.] I was, at that point, gathering a lot of material about their lives and how they live on a day-to-day basis. They’re self sufficient in food and fuel, and they have pronounced views on their neighbors. All of that got crowded out by the plotline that emerged after the new series of bombings. It was difficult to introduce another thread. There was, to me, a lot of interesting material that got crowded into the DVD extra.

You decided to show extremely graphic images of a deformed, stillborn baby delivered by one of the women in the community after a documented sour gas leak. [“Sour gas” is a term for natural gas with a high volume of hydrogen sulfide, which is poisonous and smells like rotten eggs.] Why did you decide to include this?

To me it’s a no-brainer. You can have interview accounts with people about terrible things they face, and you can have news reports of terrible things they face, and audiences can connect with that stuff. But if you really want an audience to have an emotional connection -- in this case with the Ludwig family’s struggle -- I had nothing stronger than those images. As disturbing as they are, they’re very real and an important part of the family story.

Were you convinced that all of the tragedies the people of Trickle Creek encountered -- the dead animals, the sick children, the miscarriages -- were because of the nearby oil sites and sour gas leaks?

I can’t have absolute certainty. I do and did carry some skepticism on those accounts. That said, the principle, known effects of sour gas exposure on humans are in the first trimester of pregnancy. For each of those miscarriages or stillbirths in Trickle Creek, there was a major documented gas leak in the first trimester. Beyond that, in the case of each of the mass livestock die-offs, there was a major documented gas leak in the first trimester of the animals’ pregnancy. I would classify that as very strong circumstantial evidence. The rashes, that’s pretty well documented, too.

Most of the land up there is kind of swampy. You don’t do your exploration drilling in the summertime because you can’t get around too easily. You do it in the winter when it’s frozen. The period of time when you get the most dangerous leaks is during test drilling, which is about a 30-day process. You’re drilling into a pocket of gas. You don’t know the percentage of sour gas and the casing isn’t sealed. That’s the time when everyone knows there’s a risk of leaks. One of the things that happens as a result of winter is you get stuff settling in the snow, and it gets more and more concentrated. When things thaw in the spring, you get a lot of chemical residue on fences and barn roofs. Anyone working downwind of sour gas is going to have a concentration of respiratory ailments and skin ailments when the snow melts. I’m satisfied as a skeptic that the evidence linking the difficulties they’ve had to sour gas emissions is so strong circumstantially that I don’t need to turn my film into a piece of investigative journalism.

Have the Ludwigs seen the film yet?

My arrangement with the family was they didn’t have editorial input, but I agreed to screen the film before it was seen publically. I agreed to include, if they wanted, a two-minute statement to the audience if they felt it treated them unfairly. Their reaction was that it was a fair telling of their story. They would’ve preferred I spent less time on the death of the teen on their farm. Over the course of the year we had religious and philosophical conversations that weren’t reflected in the film, so they recorded a rebuttal that I was and still am prepared to put in, but Wiebo reconsidered a few days later and decided it was unfair to give the audience a commentary on something they hadn’t seen. The family came to the premier at Hot Docs in Toronto, and then dozens of people from Trickle Creek came down to the theatrical opening in Edmonton in October. That’s also when Wiebo said publically that he was very ill. He has esophageal cancer. He’s not seeking conventional medical treatment for it. I spoke to him two days ago; he was in fact building his coffin. He’s not well.

Wiebo doesn’t seem like a conventional activist, but rather someone who was fighting to keep his family safe. Is that the sense you got?

I’d say that when they went up to Trickle Creek in the first place, they very consciously left the urban, secular, materialistic world behind them. They definitely went up there with the intention to live simply and sustainably and grow their own food, supply their own water, and live off the grid. So on one level that makes them more profoundly environmentally focused than anybody I know. So they did that, they separated themselves from the world -- then the oil and gas companies came knocking. As they started their fight, they quickly decided if they were going to fight something, they had to separate themselves from it entirely. They have vehicles, but they run on biofuels that they refine themselves, and their power comes from wind and solar, and they’re self-sufficient in food.

You mentioned Wiebo is sick. What do you think his legacy will be?

I’m not by nature a campaigner, nor am I a politician. I’m just a storyteller. I went at this telling what I thought was a great story, and I think one of the very sobering messages is if you’re going to take on oil and gas you have to know you’re taking on a very, very, very powerful adversary. And amongst people trying to live sustainably, there’s also a hopeful side of it. They did in many ways cut themselves some breathing room and manage to live apart. Weibo is somebody I have great sympathy for, but he’s not your classic hero. His legacy as a man will be a flawed and very powerful, articulate, conflicted campaigner.

image of Alyssa Noel
Alyssa Noel is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to New York she worked as a general assignment reporter at several newspapers in Canada, including the Edmonton Sun and the Vancouver Province. S... READ MORE >