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For tar sands developers, a long and winding road leads through the Northwest

Big Oil's plans for developing Alberta's sands involve shipping huge equipment up the Columbia to Lewiston, Idaho, then by truck to the north. Environmentalists fear the plan will keep four Snake River dams operating.

Highway 12 in Idaho

Highway 12 in Idaho Peg Owens/Courtesy of Idaho Tourism

Tailings from an open pit tar sands operation in Alberta.

Tailings from an open pit tar sands operation in Alberta. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The first huge loads — each truck with its cargo will weigh more than half a million pounds — may leave Lewiston any day now. The cargo — coke drums for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Montana — has been awaiting permits from the Idaho Transportation Department and a decision by the Idaho Supreme Court.

The court spoke on Nov. 1, and on the following Sunday and Monday, the drums were hooked up to semi-trailers. The Idaho Transportation Department still hasn't issued final permits. If it waits much longer, the coke drums may not reach Billings before the snow falls.

Other huge loads lie beside the Snake River, waiting for rides to Alberta. They're probably just the first of many.

Canada's largest oil company, Imperial Oil, which is 70-percent owned by ExxonMobil, wants to ship 207 huge modules for processing tar sands through the Northwest to Alberta. The largest will be a couple of hundred feet long, a couple of dozen feet wide and weigh several hundred thousand pounds.

The modules are being manufactured in South Korea by Sun Jin Geotec, shipped by freighter to the port of Vancouver, Wash., unloaded, then loaded onto barges and pushed up the Columbia and Snake rivers (through the — heavily subsidized — lock systems at eight dams) to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, where they're unloaded again. The plan is to re-load them onto huge trucks.

Filling the blacktop from shoulder to shoulder, traveling at night, the trucks would creep up Highway 12 through Lolo Pass — a mile-high passage through the Bitterroots that Lewis and Clark used both coming and going — into Montana, through Missoula, and then along several two-lane highways to Sweetwater on the Canadian border.

Even before the oil companies got a legal green light to ship the modules by road, they seemed confident that the light would turn green: The first modules reached Vancouver in early October, and had already been barged up the river to Lewiston. The coke drums for Billings arrived in May.

Actually, the Idaho Transportation Department had already given ConocoPhilips permits to ship overlegal loads — the coke drums — over the same corridor that the modules would take. But several Idaho residents had sued, and a judge reversed the state's decision. If it wasn't legal to ship the coke drums, it probably wouldn't be legal to ship the modules, either. But the state appealed, and the Idaho Supreme Court didn't decide whether it would be legal or not. Rather, a 3-2 majority said the court had no jurisdiction, and at that stage, the department's decision couldn't be appealed.

"It is entirely possible that Respondents have real grievances with the . . . decision in this case," the court said, but "the Constitution and the Legislature have limited the Court's power to act here."

The court noted that the Idaho permit wouldn't become final until Montana had issued a permit of its own. Montana has said it won't issue a permit until Idaho does. Somebody had to make the first move.

The Idaho court ruling left the door open for the transportation department to reconsider the issue in a much more public setting. Some people hoped the department would do exactly that. The court ruling "gives the Idaho Transportation Department a second chance to handle this issue the right way," the Spokane Spokesman-Review suggested.

"Litigants who opposed permits for the late-night rolling roadblocks on U.S. Highway 12 hope that the agency heeds the call from the many critics who have decried the informal and rather secretive process,” the paper said. “We concur. Formal hearings that seek public input ought to be held before a precedent-setting decision is made." But the court didn't order the transportation department to hold hearings. And it hasn't.

Now that the Idaho Supreme Court has spoken, however equivocally, the plaintiffs may try other venues. In fact, their attorney has already said that his side has been "looking at federal court lawsuits, because we think there's a role federal agencies play here."


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 2:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I just thank God that the water from the tar sands flows the other way... I just hope God helps those on the receiving end.

Why indeed did they choose this particular route? Why not east from Prince Rupert?

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 7:46 a.m. Inappropriate

To answer Snoqualman’s question, this was the only route available from the West Coast with proper clearances. Idaho had to rebuild highway bridges and straighten corners to accommodate them. I don’t know just who paid for that “gift.”

The real problem lies in the concern about breakdowns, if a breakdown occurs; US 12 may be closed several months. To get a crane large enough to pick such a load requires, if one is available; two weeks to mobilize, a week to erect, a place to operate from (large pad of dirt to level things out) and a week to break down. All this if things go perfectly. And that is only the crane; we cannot begin to address repairs because of a breakdown.

Frontier Refinery in Kansas just received last summer, a similar load. By rail. It took three weeks to get the unit off the rail, and that was a planned move.

All these loads could go thru the Panama Canal, up the East Coast and into the Great Lakes. For Fort Mac, it would be a shorter land route. For Billings, it might be longer, I am not sure.

The real reason everything is planned to go through Lewiston? Money, cost of shipping is cheaper over somebody else’s roads, rental for heavy moving transports does not compare to a ship or rail car. Best of all, if the road disintegrates, it’s the state’s problem.

Again, the only reason for this route is cost of transportation. State governments help support oil profits, it’s the American way.

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

I worry about the road itself. Rt 12 was not designed for these heavy loads. The state will be on the hook if the bridges are degraded or fail.

Environmentalists shouldn't care about the Snake River Dams and this bit of trucking, it's the tar sands oil extraction which is the true disaster here. Yes it's happening in Canada but it's to feed our oil addiction.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Watch the video here:

http://vimeo.com/6597349

just disgusting.

GaryP

Posted Mon, Nov 15, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, the reason the planet's most profitable corporations want to use the Columbia-Snake-Highway 12 route is the same reason they use South Korean workers -- instead of American or Canadian -- to build their modules, and the same reason they have ignored many environmental regulations while developing the tar sands: to make more profits.

In the tar sands region, Big Oil has demonstrated total disregard for land, air, water and people. They have stripped acres upon acres of carbon-absorbing boreal forest and forest floor. The air and water pollution they have caused is being linked to increased cancer rates among the indigenous people who have long lived in the region. Due to the oil companies' practices, the Athabasca River has become toxic and fish increasingly deformed, and waste ponds have killed thousands of birds.

So we should not be surprised now that they care nothing about the fact that the U.S. Highway 12 corridor through north central Idaho is a remarkably beautiful and wild place. They do not care that their desire for a cheap industrial megaload truck route may well cause the de-designation of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, 1 of the nation's 27 All-American Roads, and 3 of the nation's original 8 Wild and Scenic Rivers. They do not care that they will be running an industrial truck route through a national park: the Nez Perce National Historic Park, and through 70 miles of the Nez Perce Reservation. They do not care that the route is designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, as well as a segment of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route and has been identified as the #1 recreational motorcycle route in the nation (174 miles of curves and scenery). They do not care that the single growing industry of rural north central Idaho -- tourism -- will decline as the corridor is transformed from a scenic byway into an industrial truck route. A 10% decline will equal a $15 million loss for the people of the corridor; a 40% decline, a $60 million loss. Livelihoods will vanish.

Big Oil doesn't care, and the Idaho Transportation Department and Governor Butch Otter don't care -- not even enough to listen to or respond to the concerned citizens of their own state! Only Big Oil has ITD and Otter's ear. So, indeed, the citizens RESIST.

Idaho66

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