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.

Crosscut archive image.

Tailings from an open pit tar sands operation in Alberta.

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.

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.

And then, there's the possibility — opponents say inevitability — of an accident. Sooner or later, one of the drivers steering half-million-pound loads through the mountains will run out of luck. A module may wind up in the Lochsa River. To get it out, the shippers would have to bring in a huge crane from Seattle or Salt Lake, pour a concrete pad on which it could stand, and tear hell out of the river.

In granting the injunction, district Judge John Bradbury wrote that "there was not substantial evidence to support the Department's decision that the public's safety and convenience was given the priority that (Idaho law) requires. Its failure to address the 'inevitable' accident or breakdown that could shut down Highway 12 for days or weeks overlooks the quintessential disaster and its effects on the users of Highway 12 that (the transportation company) itself forecasts as possible.”

Why choose this particular route? Interstate highways aren't an option, because the modules couldn't clear the overpasses. Shipping via a more roundabout route — including a passage through the Panama Canal — would, of course, cost a lot more. Does this make the Highway 12 route necessary? The "record reflects no evidence that the Highway 12 corridor was the 'only viable option,' " Bradbury wrote. The transportation department had a duty "to 'predicate the issuance of a (sic) overlegal permit on a reasonable determination of the necessity …. of the proposed movement.' (Emphasis added). There is no substantial evidence for such a reasonable determination."

Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, who just announced that Idaho will stop managing wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act, says he believes that the modules can travel safely through the state. Not everyone is convinced.

Otter also suggests that the shipments would bring jobs and revenue to places that badly need them. A few of those jobs would be created at the port of Lewiston. Not everyone would welcome that. Underlying some opposition is a fear that the shipments would give the Port of Lewiston a new lease on life.

Wild salmon advocates have long wanted the federal government to breach the four dams that impede salmon migrations and increase salmon mortality on the lower Snake River. Most say they'd gladly settle for an honest weighing of costs against benefits; they're sure the economic benefits generated by the dams fall short of the environmental costs.

The Biological Opinion on operation of the federal dam system, currently — or, still — before the federal court doesn't include breaching, even as an option. Just in case the acts that the government does contemplate fail to save the fish, long-suffering U.S. District Judge James Redden has proposed "developing a ... plan to study specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."

So far, Redden's advice has fallen on deaf ears. Plainiffs in the BiOp litigation filed a motion for summary judgment on Oct. 29. The feds are scheduled to file reply their reply brief next month. The judge is expected to rule before the young fish try to make their way downstream in the spring. Needless to say, that won't be the end of it. The issue of dam breaching will remain central.

A big economic benefit of — and a source of political pressure for — retaining the dams is the fact that their lock systems have made Lewiston, 465 miles from salt water, into a deep water port. But it's not much of a port. It has never weaned itself from tax subsidies. (Neither has the Port of Seattle, however.) And its traffic has dwindled. It wasn't much of an economic engine to start with, and that engine is slowing down. But if the port serves as a transshipment point for oil sands modules, it will gain a new raison d'etre, and breaching the dams will become even less politically tenable.

This would all be less of a big deal if the shipment were a one-shot proposition, even if that shot took quite a while to complete. The oil companies insist it is one-shot. Opponents argue, though, that the company plans to be shipping modules along this same corridor for the next decade. The company has denied it. But the Natural Resources Defense Council has translated documents indicating that the Korean manufacturer of the modules looks forward to a long production run.

"Despite claims by Exxon and its supporters that this plan is a one-time only proposal," the NRDC argues, "in reviewing a number of Korean language documents detailing the financial relationship between Exxon and Sun Jin Geotec, NRDC asserts that there exists inordinate evidence that Exxon's plan is far from being (a) 'one-off' proposition. Rather, Exxon has embarked upon a ten-year commitment to provide Sun Jin Geotec with $1.5 billion for the construction of further modules. These plans will result in potentially thousands of oversized shipments, creating a de facto industrial 'high-and-wide' corridor in the region.”

Already, the environmental organization says, "a number of other companies have indicated interest or already have plans to take advantage of what would be a newly minted passage through the Rocky Mountains to ship oversized equipment." And, from a very different perspective, backers of the shipment say the same thing. David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston, told The New York Times that "he had been approached by several other companies interested in using the corridor.:

The real point of contention has never been five minutes — it has always been at least 10 years. Whenever the first loads leave Lewiston, the clock will start running.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.