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."
Shipping coke drums and modules raise the same substantive and technical issues: The loads will fill the highway from shoulder to shoulder. They require special permits. State law and regulation say that such over-legal loads can't hold up traffic for more than 10 minutes at a time. The plans for shipping coke drums and modules envision 15. Opponents think even that is optimistic. One question the court avoided answering was whether or not the transportation department could unilaterally pick 15 minutes instead of 10.
Of course, the prospect of extra five minute delays isn't the real reason why a bevy of environmental groups, including the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, has lined up against the shipments.
For openers, virtually nobody likes Big Oil, and nobody on the green side likes oil produced from tar sands — which people who want to make the process sound more inviting call "oil sands" instead. ("Oil" sounds so much more attractive than "tar," doesn't it?) Canada is the largest single source of oil shipped to the United States, and oil from the sands of Alberta makes up about half of that total. Alberta's tar sands may represent the world's second-largest petroleum reserves, trailing only the fields of Saudi Arabia. Canada sends the United States more oil than any other foreign country. The Alberta tar sands yield half of Canada's oil production. Work has already started on — although the State Department has not yet approved — a pipeline network that would run from Alberta, through the Midwest, to refineries on the Texas Gulf. That would bring even more petroleum extracted from Alberta sands into U.S. gas pumps.
Tar sands or oil sands are mixtures of viscous, petroleum-bearing bitumen with clay and gravel. The mixture is strip mined from the ground, then dumped into big cells where hot water or steam separates the bitumen from the other consituents. The water slurry is agitated, completing the separation. Bitumen is skimmed from the surface. After it is purified further, it can be refined into oil. The 207 modules will be the cells in which bitumen is separated from sand and clay.
Opponents object to the strip mining, which is eating into Alberta's boreal forest, and to the massive infusions of water and energy. Between the refining and the end use, oil from the sands puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the air.
Local objections focus more narrowly along Highway 12. The highway follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers along a Wild and Scenic River corridor almost all the way to the border, passing a bit north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. People who visit the area to hike, fish, hunt, and just look out at the trees spend millions of dollars there. Opponents argue that the shipments will transform this scenic area into an industrial corridor. The shipments might undercut one of the area's few economic advantages.
They would certainly tie up traffic. That would be unavoidable. And it's the kind of thing that drives locals nuts. Beyond annoyance, the tie-ups would impede emergency vehicles. Even assuming it's just 15 minutes at a time, if an ambulance heading to a hospital with you, or your spouse or kid, on board were caught in that tie-up, you wouldn't be happy about it.
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