Filmmaker Glynis Whiting grew up in Alberta. She is no stranger to the kind of controversy over sour-gas development portrayed in Worst Case Scenario, a new National Film Board documentary she directed.
“It’s something that I think anybody with any kind of history in Alberta feels strongly about, or they know what the issues are,” she says.
But Whiting wanted to get past the experts and tell the stories of the people — both in the community affected by a large sour-gas well project and in the Calgary oil company proposing the development.
“The way I wanted to tell this story was through characters, through people living through a situation, rather than having a bunch of talking heads” on either side.
|National Film Board photo|
|Residents of Clearwater protest Shell's plans in 'Worst Case Scenario.'|
Whiting will be in Calgary on Sunday to attend a free public screening of Worst Case Scenario. She’ll be joined by broadcaster David Suzuki, who’ll premiere the film April 4 on CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things.
Suzuki calls the show inspiring, a real David vs. Goliath story.
“What this shows is that if you have a small group that are well educated, well informed and ready to do something, that it can happen,” Suzuki told Business Edge in an interview.
“What you’ve got is a dedicated group of people that has really raised enough concern to get onto the agenda.”
Some of the people who lived with and, in the end, fought the sour-gas well project for more than two years also will attend.
Whiting says she discovered many compelling stories among the 40 families who live along the Clearwater River valley near Rocky Mountain House, where Shell Canada Limited applied to drill the well. The Bertagnolli family homesteaded their land more than 50 years ago.
People in the valley have accepted the development of oil and sweet-gas wells, pipelines and three nearby sour-gas processing plants. The community as a whole isn’t anti-oil and gas industry, Whiting found.
“If we had, on either side, people who were extreme, it wouldn’t have been as interesting a story as seeing the two sides really trying to work through this in a way that would work for everybody.”
Suzuki called the rejection of the Shell application “quite remarkable when you look at the track record of the EUB.”
“I think this is a warning shot. My suspicion is the great majority of applications aren’t even seen by anybody except the EUB, which rubber stamps them,” said Suzuki.
““My bet is the EUB knew damn well this film was in the making. My hope is that it had an influence. They couldn’t just say automatically that it was OK.”
The idea for the documentary originated from NFB executive producer Graydon McCrea’s reading of Beyond Eco-Terrorism, The Deeper Issues Affecting Alberta’s Oilpatch.
The 1999 report, written by the Pembina Institute, looked at the increasing and sometimes violent disputes over sour-gas development. The environmental policy and research institute is based in Drayton Valley, not far from the site of the disastrous 1982 Lodgepole sour-gas well blowout that led to more stringent regulations for Alberta’s sour gas industry.
Whiting spent a 10-day research trip travelling to some of the areas affected by sour-gas projects, including Priddis-Millarville, Rimbey and Pincher Creek, and talking with the people.
She and her film crew followed the story in Worst Case Scenario from the time Shell sent a notice about its drilling plans to the 40 Clearwater River valley families in December 1998. They filmed during six months of mediation between the community and the company, and throughout a two-week public hearing in November last year.
“It was a huge education sitting in that room for two weeks,” Whiting says.
What surprised her most was the fairness of people. “How fair the landowners were, how respectful they were of what Shell was trying to do. And how Shell seemed to be trying to do what it could, short of withdrawing its application, to make people feel like they were being treated fairly.”
There are no villains in the piece, Whiting says. “To me, a good dramatic story is not black-and-white. That’s what gives it texture and makes it interesting.”
At the same time, the rejection by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board of Shell’s well makes it clear that the company made a mistake that proved fatal to the project. It failed to consult the 40 families affected before mailing them the notice that drilling would start in a month.
The community consultants hired by Shell afterward to try to repair the damage realized that the industry can no longer assume development will proceed like in the past, Whiting says.
“I think they realized from the beginning that you can’t do business the old way anymore. It has to be a partnership with landowners as much as it can be. In any business venture, they as stakeholders have a vested interest in what goes on.”
Suzuki adds he believes the reason more people aren’t protesting sour gas projects is due to the fallout from the Wiebo Ludwig case.
“I’ve always thought what Ludwig is objecting to is a very legitimate thing, but the whole idea of using violence has made everybody jump out of the boat and say ‘we don’t want to be associated with this’,” says Suzuki.
“I think what the film does is take a group of people without all of the emotional stuff associated with Ludwig, and make it a legitimate issue.”
“It’s absolutely inspiring,” he adds, “that a group of citizens going up against very entrenched powers would persist and ultimately win. It’s really a David and Goliath story that will inspire a lot of people.”
— With files by Lisa Dempster