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An Old Story of Frustration And Murder on a Wellsite

 

Oil disputes happen every day in rural Alberta

02-01-01 On the morning of Oct. 3, 1998, Patrick Kent, the vice-president of KB Resources, rose early in his Calgary bungalow, as oil patchers are used to do. It was Saturday, and he had a job to complete near Bowden, an hour's drive north of the city.
He poured a glass of orange juice and told his wife, Linda, that he would call around four in the afternoon to let her know if he would be home in time for dinner. Linda and her four young children never heard from the 42-year-old man again. No one exits this world quite as suddenly as a murdered father and spouse.
Disputes between landowners and the $ 28-bn oil and gas industry happen every day in rural Alberta. Thousands are solved amicably; but in some cases, tempers fray, lawyers are called and even guns are drawn. But until 56-year-old farmer and welder Eifion Wyn (Wayne) Roberts fired five shots into Kent outside his home in front of eight witnesses, the oil patch had somehow managed to avoid murder for more than 40 years.
The shooting endeda three-year long feud between the two men that largely concerned contaminated soil at a suspended well on Roberts's land. Although Kent's death shocked and unsettled the entire oil and gas industry, including government types, it didn't clean up the well site.

That issue is now the subject of a $ 6-mm lawsuit. To this day, no one really knows what the source of the contamination is or how far it has travelled. It's just one of many bitter ironies that troubles this sad tale.
Just about everyone in the oil patch publicly agrees that Kent's death was totally senseless ("It's a real tragedy," goes the refrain). But most oilmen privately concede that the incident dramatizes just how tenuous relations can get with landowners as the industry's footprint in rural Alberta grows bigger. Every year more than 20,000 new wells and pipelines plump the countryside. "Is it any wonder that there are more issues to be dealt with between the public and the industry?" asked the provincial regulator, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB), in a 1999 report.
Roberts's three-week murder trial took place before a Calgary jury this fall. It ended on Nov. 11 with a conviction of second-degree murder and sentencing was scheduled to begin on Dec. 14. During the trial, a score of oil patch workers-including environmental consultants, land men and even tank truck operators-described one very bad day in the industry and the events that led up to the shooting. What emerged from their testimony, court documents, transcripts from a 1999 pre-trial hearing and post-trial interviews with Canadian Business is a truly alarming story. A lot of oil patchers admit that Kent's shooting has changed the way they do business.

But others say it didn't change things enough. Outside the courtroom a lot of oil patch wives openly confided, "That could have been my husband but for the grace of God." Patrick Kent, the fourth son of an accountant and military officer, was a big man with big dreams. His mother, Hope, still describes him as a determined boy. "The happiest day of his life was when he outgrew all his brothers and stood six feet, five inches," she recalls.
After attending Trinity College, a private Ontario high school, Kent started working in the oil patch to help support a car-racing habit. When his towering frame no longer fit safely into a Formula One, he got an engineering degree at the University of Alberta and joined a large US oil firm, Amerada Hess, working in Rocky Mountain House and then Fort St. John.
In 1995, Kent, an opinionated and direct fellow, teamed up with several colleagues and became the K in KB Resources, a Calgary junior producer. In 1998 it had just eight employees and 25 wells. After years of burning the midnight oil for big multinationals, Kent wanted to be his own boss. His wife, Linda, a short, open-faced woman who he called "Blondie," says they never talked about business at home. She only heard about Roberts and the disputed well after her husband's murder.

The man who shot Kent -- and there is no contest about that -- grew up in a modest farm home in Wales. As a youth, he delivered butter and coal for his mother, a shop owner. The former boxer and sailor compensated for his diminutive size (five foot, six inches) with a wry and stubborn outspokenness. "Wyn is a person who has his own very strong sense of morals," says his wife, Jean.
After working as a welder in Nova Scotia in the 1970s, Roberts moved to Alberta and started his own business. He repaired pipes and boilers for oil companies, including Amerada Hess, for more than 15 years. In 1989 he married Jean, a former nurse, and bought Eagle Ridge Ranch. They dreamed of raising Welsh cattle and converting a moneymaking gravel pit into a fish farm.

The destinies of Roberts and Kent converged in December 1995, when KB Resources bought two suspended wells and an old gas plant from Kent's former employer, Amerada Hess. One of the wells was located just east of Roberts's barn. The transaction highlighted a major trend in the industry.
For years now, large companies have unloaded their old or "dog" wells onto smaller firms. That way they avoid the expense of tidying up well sites, while the smaller firms get an opportunity to exploit what the multinationals, with their elephant-like vision, have missed-about 20 % of the province's oil and gas production. Some companies, such as Calgary's Rio Alto Exploration, have made big bucks on the leftovers of big players. More than 17,000 wells change hands this way every year in Alberta.
In 1993, Amerada Hess suspended a "dog" well on Roberts's property, assuring the landowner that it would be abandoned. As a consequence, Roberts declined to raise the rent on the site (he was then receiving $ 1,353 a year) and even dug up ground around the wellhead with the company's permission in order to establish how best to reclaim the land.
In the process, he found an illegal valve that made it impossible to properly test pressure at the well. No one ever explained how it got there -- or how many other wells might contain illegal valves. Roberts also noticed a lot of gas bubbling up from around the well and suspected some kind of leak.

When Amerada Hess abruptly resold the well, Roberts immediately expressed concerns about subsurface contamination to Kent. The hands-on executive came out and inspected the site and said the illegal valve shouldn't have been there, noting that Amerada Hess hadn't told him anything about contamination.
Roberts also called up the local branch of the provincial regulator, the EUB, in Red Deer. It receives more complaints from landowners than the board's seven other offices. Joe Gormley, an EUB inspector, checked out the well and ordered some tests. That action delayed the well transfer to KB for a few months-but the EUB ultimately concluded that the leak was "non-serious."
Gormley later testified that Roberts "didn't have a whole lot of trust in oil companies" and felt large interests shouldn't be allowed to sell off uneconomic properties to small ones. "He was concerned that KB would not have the financial resources to look after reclamation," the EUB official testified.
Roberts's concerns weren't unusual or far-fetched in rural Alberta. Cleanups of polluted land and water can take years, cost small fortunes, require court orders and breed a lot of stress. Wayne and Ila Johnston, for example, are ranchers who live 15 km from the Roberts' ranch. They fought Shell for six years to get compensation for all the damage a documented sour-gas leak caused their cattle herd. Alberta has scores of cases like this-and one Edmonton lawyer alone has launched 14 toxic torts against the industry.

A 1999 government report also found that landowners had lots of concerns about subsurface contamination. It noted that most of them didn't even know that the liability for polluted land lays with the well operator in perpetuity or with the government. Other landowners said operators didn't do a good job of "keeping them informed about activities related to the abandonment of a well" and that the whole inquiry process was "unpredictable."
In the 1990s, so many companies just walked away from suspended wells without reclaiming them (there are more than 30,000 suspended wells in Alberta) that the industry set up an Orphan Fund. All the details hadn't been worked out in 1998, but the plan now guarantees landowners that every well site will be cleaned up by the current operator or by the fund. The program collects a levy on every well transaction and now cleans up several hundred orphaned wells a year. Like most landowners, Roberts probably never heard about it.
Gormley, a dark-haired functionary with a serious demeanour, also told the court that Roberts was concerned about "a cover-up" and threatened "to shoot somebody" if the leak and contamination weren't properly addressed. Landowners issue these kind of warnings regularly in Alberta-and Gormley testified that he thought nothing more of it than if he had heard a hockey player vowing to kick another team's butt.
Roberts had other demands. He wanted KB Resources to install a new cattle gate after two of his animals got stuck in an unploughed Texas gate during a snowy winter. He also wanted a bigger rent cheque. The landowner felt that he had been burned by Amerada Hess's sale to KB and wasn't about to be taken again. Having worked in the oil patch, Roberts understood the industry well-and knew which buttons to push.

Faced with spiralling demands for a well site producing no revenue, Kent sensibly hired a land man, Jack Evans, to deal with Roberts. Land men and land agents do most of the negotiating with landowners and are the oil industry's real people handlers. They generally smooth the way for pipelines and gas wells by arranging to have fences fixed, roads upgraded and cattle guards installed.
They set compensation or annual rents for all the inconvenience of having a well in your backyard. They also clean up messy situations. Land men, who face more loaded guns and ugly threats than anyone would suspect, generally find the engineers' world of volumes, cm and dollar hard to fathom. They also have a saying: "Never send an engineer to do a land man's job, and never send a land man to do an engineer's job."
In the fall of 1996, Evans spent five hours one day talking to Roberts, touring his farm and inspecting his Welsh cattle. Evans-who had once dealt with the fiery oil patch vandal, Wiebo Ludwig-recognized Roberts as a "volatile and determined" man but "nothing close to a Wiebo Ludwig." He reckoned that Roberts really didn't want the well on his property. He agreed, however, that a rent review was long overdue.
Roberts says he eventually threw Evans off his property when the land man offered to buy him off with a lump sum of cash. Evans says the meeting ended amicably, but with no resolution. To deal with Kent and Evans, Roberts then hired a local lawyer, Dan Harder. He also scaled down his demands-but to no avail. According to Evans, Kent now viewed Roberts as a problem that was "costing his small company money."

As such, Kent's feelings toward Roberts grew personal. In a 1997 fax to Evans, Kent referred to Roberts as "shit head" and called his concerns about cattle guards and rent "dribble." Added Kent: "If Wayne wants $ 3,000 a year for access, then he can go fuck himself." (Normal rent in the area was $ 2,000; KB was then paying Roberts about $ 700 less.)
Around this time, Kent learned that Roberts had built both his barn and corral either within the well lease or close enough to violate the standard 100-metre minimum distance rule in the industry. But Evans advised Kent that it wouldn't be ethical or productive to play that "encroachment card" in negotiations.
Evans also knew that the industry and the EUB granted exceptions to the rule every day in the oil patch. After a year of fruitless talk, Evans concluded that both sides were too entrenched to resolve anything. "Wyn was not ready to reduce his position, and KB's was to give nothing," he wrote in one memo. "That made it nearly impossible to reach any agreement." From there, things got "worse and worse," says Evans. When Kent wrote out well-rent cheques to Roberts, he addressed them to the wrong party so they were returned uncashed.
Meanwhile, Roberts's concerns about contamination escalated. He observed more bubbling from the inactive well and even feared that the contamination might be leaching off onto pasture land and into his water supply. Gormley inspected the site again, confirming "gas migration to surface around the well bore," and ordered remedial work in 1997.
Kent paid more money for additional tests that found definite hydrocarbon contamination around the wellhead, a normal finding that didn't necessarily imply any danger. To avoid an expensive gas migration test, the KB exec reluctantly agreed to replace soil around the wellhead and do more tests to pinpoint the source of the trouble.

The matter, however, didn't go anywhere for 10 months-until Roberts, in a fit of frustration, threatened to dig up the well himself in July 1998.Gormley informed Roberts he couldn't mess around like that on a company's lease. After talking to the EUB inspector, Kent agreed to do some work "in two weeks." Roberts also asked Alberta Environment to do some testing.
During Roberts's trial, Gormley testified that the farmer again threatened to shoot someone if things weren't done properly, and said that he reported the death threat to KB Resources. Ken Wilde, a former geologist with KB, took that call and told the court that Gormley said no such thing. He said that the EUB official just told him that Roberts was angry about potential contamination and had threatened to sue the company. Wilde then passed on the message to Kent, who replied: "If he wants to sue, let him go ahead." According to Wilde, Kent looked quite frustrated about the matter.
An initial excavation of the site began three months later on Sept. 9, 1998, and got off to a bad start. Kent didn't bring any soil analysts along to determine the scope of the problem, the normal practice for a cleanup. The executive also balked at the price for disposing of contaminated soil at a nearby waste facility and dumped the load back at the wellhead. Roberts testified that when he complained about contaminated soil being left on top of gravel, where it could leach into the water table, Kent replied he should have left the soil in the ground and said: "I'm going to teach you a lesson."

On the afternoon of Oct. 2, a Friday, Kent informed Roberts that another excavation would take place on Saturday morning. Roberts immediately faxed KB Resources and the EUB saying he would oversee the whole project. He further warned that "any attempt at a cover-up of contamination or spreading contaminated soil or water on farmland will be subject to an arrest and criminal prosecution." Spreading oil field and drilling waste on fields happens routinely in Alberta-and Roberts didn't want to have any part of it.
The day of the shooting, a host of workers descended on the Roberts' farm. They included Kent; the EUB's Gormley; Terry Ringheim, a backhoe operator; Darren Tomecek, an environmental consultant; Jason Dach, Tomecek's assistant; Lloyd Ross, a tank truck operator; Michael Brown, a ditch man; and an unexpected pair of surveyors, George MacPhee and Karry Kerhoulas.
Kent directed the surveyors to measure and stake out the lease boundaries for the wellhead, an area of 4.5 acres. Everyone else concentrated their energies around the well site. Soon, the busy sound of a backhoe filled the air. Kent had instructed Tomecek to determine the extent of the contamination and make recommendations about a cleanup. Having witnessed a lot of ugly disputes between landowners and oil companies-including cases where landowners pulled out handguns-Tomecek arrived somewhat apprehensively.

Other consultants had warned him that this particular dispute appeared to be driven by egos: a big man didn't want to be pushed around by a little man, and vice versa. The environmental consultant, however, was pleasantly surprised by "how smoothly things worked out in the morning."
Kent and Roberts appeared cordial, and the landowner even helped out by filling up sampling bottles around the wellhead. When Roberts spied some obvious contamination, Kent replied, "That's what we are here for." Throughout the morning, Roberts talked to several of the workers. He told both Ringheim and Ross that the well had polluted his land with cancer-causing hydrocarbons such as toluenes and benzenes and that, if KB Resources had to dig up a swamp below the well, they would have to replace all the peat moss, even if the company had to buy it from Wal-Mart.
Ross remembers Roberts saying, "They are just a small oil company. I'll break them. It will cost $ 300,000 to reclaim this land. They can buy me out for a million dollar." To the workers, Roberts appeared to be just another "disgruntled landowner" and a "grumpy farmer."
The surveyors quickly established that morning that about three-fifths of Roberts's barn and corral were indeed on the well's lease site. The oilman asked the surveyors to stake out the lease three times and "mark it neon," as MacPhee later testified.

Ross, an observant fellow who gave the most exacting testimony at Roberts's trial, later remarked to Kent that the house and barn were pretty close to the well. In reply, Kent said he might fence the whole lease off and vowed to put the whole matter to rest "once and for all."
Fencing the lease was well within the company's legal rights-and would have made it impossible for Roberts to use his barn or house. "If push comes to shove, I can threaten to fence off the lease," Kent told Ross. "I don't want to do that, and I won't do it, but it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see those stakes there even if it costs me a day's pay for the surveyors." Kent then shot Ross a smile and walked away.
By all accounts, Kent spent the last few minutes of his life measuring the distance between his lease boundary and the house, a distance of 11 metres. The house-which had been built in 1996 without any objections from KB Resources-obviously violated the 100-metre rule. What was going through the engineer's mind as he tallied the figures nobody knows.
From about 45 metres away, Ross watched Kent in his white hard hat kneeling on the ground as he pencilled his measurements in his notebook. Roberts was drinking tea and smoking a cigarette in the kitchen of his unfinished two-storey home when Jean noticed Kent outside. Together they heard the snapping of a tape measure against an outside wall. Roberts said he'd go investigate-and grabbed his nine-millimetre Ruger pistol off a chest containing horse gear.

The landowner, who owned half a dozen guns, used the automatic handgun, a favourite among policemen, for target practice in his gravel pit and to shoot coyotes at night. He later told the jury that he picked up the pistol because of Kent's enormous size and because of the threats Kent had allegedly uttered a week earlier about "teaching him a lesson." As he walked outside, Roberts tucked the handgun to the side of his jeans.
He approached within about three metres of Kent, who stopped his measuring, stood up and extended his arms in a kind of "all-rise" position. It appeared to Ross that Roberts "hollered" at Kent, and then the two men talked for a minute. In court, Roberts testified that he asked Kent what he was doing. "I thought you were here to excavate and clean up," he said. "Not to survey."
According to Roberts's testimony, Kent replied (this is Roberts's version of events-no other witness heard this exchange due to the noisy hum of the backhoe): "Your barn is on the lease. Your corral is on the lease. Your house is too close to the well. Your barn is gone. Your house is gone. Tell your fucking wife to pack her bags. She's gone."
Roberts says he told Kent to get off his land and then threatened to arrest him for trespassing. According to Roberts, Kent then erupted: "Arrest me you shit head and I'll tear your fucking head off." During his trial, Roberts claimed that he "had never seen a more angry look on a man's face," and that Kent charged him like a middle linebacker. "He lost it completely, and I lost it completely," Roberts testified. "I never thought he would have reacted that way.... Surely you don't attack a man with a gun in his hand."

The first bullet ripped through Kent's right wrist and tore into his torso, while the second smacked the executive in the forehead. Roberts testified that the man kept on charging and that he doesn't remember firing any other shots. The death-dealing bullets hit the top and back of Kent's skull, shattering his brain so completely that even the provincial pathologist couldn't figure out which bullet went where. Roberts told the court he then leaned over the dying man and said, "My God, what did I do?"
The killing probably took less than four seconds. Jack Evans, who wishes he had been there that day to mediate things, guesses that Kent almost certainly "would have put his two cents' worth in about the house or barn being tooclose to the wellhead-and both parties knew the significance of that fact." The men working for Kent around the wellhead all saw something different.
Some just heard shots, while others saw Roberts standing over Kent firing. MacPhee, the surveyor, said he saw Roberts "put two bullets in him as though he were putting down an animal to make sure it wasn't suffering." A few minutes later, Roberts walked down from his house, past the crumpled body of Patrick Kent, and toward the disputed wellhead, where the excavators and surveyors were frantically dialling 911 on their cell phones from the safety of their trucks.

The sun was shining, and it was not too cold. Terry Ringheim, the backhoe operator, had medical training and thought he might help the fallen figure in jeans and a blue jacket on the ground. He started to approach Roberts. "What the fuck is going on?" he asked excitedly.
"He's dead," said Roberts. "Who the fuck shot him?" asked Ringheim. "I did," came the reply. As Ringheim later told the jury, "It finally dawned on my slow-moving brain that, yes, it was time to get out of there." The men gunned their accelerators and roared off the ranch.
Throughout the trial, Crown Prosecutor Larry Stein painted Roberts as a cold-blooded killer who didn't want a well in his backyard and who "picked the time and place to rid himself of Patrick Kent and KB Resources." Stein reminded the jury that Roberts killed Kent with four shots to the head. "That defies the laws of luck and reasonable force," he said.
The defence argued that the landowner acted in self-defence and didn't intend to kill anyone. To support its case, it even called in two prominent US ballistic experts and former Vietnam veterans. They testified that Kent could have been standing or semi erect when gunned down. In addition, no bullets were found beneath the body.
During his final argument, defence lawyer Blaise MacDonald unfortunately called Roberts a "straight shooter." But after regaining his metaphors, he argued that Kent had a"dark side" and that the two men "played a crazy game" in which they upped the stakes that day.

After 15 hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Roberts of second-degree murder. Linda Kent, who attended the trail nearly every day with a host of friends and relatives, cried in relief. Jean Roberts, who sat alone in the courtroom, cried in grief.
Since Kent's murder, the EUB has doubled its field inspections and set up an alternative dispute mechanism for landowners and oil companies. It has even published pamphlets on landowner rights and well reclamations. But tensions between landowners and the industry remain a top priority.
Environmental consultant Darren Tomecek says he doesn't think the contamination around the wellhead was worth anyone's life. But he now approaches landowners in an entirely different way. His company sends people into oil sites only in pairs. While cleaning up a major oil spill in northern BC, Tomecek repeatedly walked to his truck backward so he wouldn't have to take his eyes off angry landowners. "A rancher's idea of contamination is a lot different than the industry's," he notes.

After the shooting, the Alberta Association of Surface Land Agents held a safety course for its members that focused on how to resolve conflicts between land agents and landowners peacefully. Association president David Spear, a former farm boy, says 99 % of Alberta landowners are pleasant to deal with. "It's their kingdom, and we have to give them the respect they deserve and, in some cases, we get the wrong people doing the wrong talking."
Jack Evans, the land man Kent hired, doesn't think the oil industry paid enough attention to the shooting at all. "This should have been a huge factor in the way we do business," he says. "But the industry just goes with the flow. I think we are back to where we were 10 years ago and business as usual."
Linda Kent, whom friends call "a good old gal," has learned that the sorrow and grief caused by the murder of a loved one do not follow any known road. She has been left to raise four children -- Alex, 14, Patricia, 12, Alana, 9, and Emma, 6-alone. She says she never thought things like this happened in Canada.
Jean Roberts is now struggling with the County of Red Deer. It says she must move her house -- or the county will move it for her, unless the EUB and KB Resources give her a waiver for being too close to a wellhead. She is also suing KB Resources and seeking a court order to allow her access to her gravel pit. Since the shooting, KB Resources has not allowed Roberts use of its access road to haul gravel.
Eifion Wyn Roberts will likely end his life in prison. The Welshman now says he wishes he could relive the day that he shot Patrick Kent. The well that caused so much grief has been reactivated. It now produces some 15 barrels of crude oil a month worth about $ 450.

 

Source: Rogers Media


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