Tar sands oil: Northwest issues swirl

Giant modules for petroleum production in Alberta are making their way through the Northwest. And raising questions about the environment.

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Highway 12 in Idaho

Giant modules for petroleum production in Alberta are making their way through the Northwest. And raising questions about the environment.

It turns out they can be cut down to fit the Interstate after all: The huge steel modules, destined eventually for use in Alberta's tar sands, that had been barged up the Columbia to Lewiston, Idaho, last fall.

At Lewiston's port, where the modules are now a part of larger environmental controversies, they have sat for months, awaiting shipment to the Alberta tar sands oil fields. In Canada, they are to be used in the process of separating petroleum-bearing bismuth from the sand and gravel with which it's found to make a substance that can be purified further and then refined into liquid petroleum.

Canada's largest oil company, Imperial Oil, which is 70 percent owned by ExxonMobil, wants to ship 207 huge modules through the Northwest to Alberta. The modules are being manufactured in South Korea by Sun Jin Geotec, shipped by freighter to the port of Vancouver, Washington, 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, where they're unloaded again. The plan is to re-load them onto huge trucks for the rest of the journey north.

The largest will be a couple of hundred feet long, a couple of dozen feet wide, and weigh several hundred thousand pounds. They all are — or were — too big to fit through the underpasses along Interstate 90, so the oil company planned to truck them at night up Highway 12 through Lolo Pass into Montana, then through Missoula and along several two-lane highways to Sweetwater on the Canadian border.

The modules would exceed legal load limits on the highway, so they required permits from the Idaho and Montana transportation departments. So, too, did huge replacement coke drums ConocoPhillips wanted trucked to its refinery in Billings, Montana. Presumably, if ConocoPhillips could ship its half-million-ton loads over much the same route, ExxonMobil could do it. Last year, ConocoPhillips got permission from the state of Idaho. Then, opponents got a court injunction to stop the shipments. The company appealed, and the state supreme court, avoiding the underlying issue, ruled 3-2 that basically kicked the decision back to the state transportation department.

The whole thing has hung in limbo ever since. ExxonMobil got tired of waiting. The company has started cutting the modules down to sizes that can slip through underpasses, and trucking them through Montana on Interstate 90. As a Valentine's Day present, the company also got permission to send a single big test load up Highway 12. (The first ConocoPhillips load left Lewiston on February 1.) “On a day that the Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport a test load up U.S. Highway 12 to Montana, the company admitted the ones stranded in Lewiston are being modified to get them to the Kearl project faster,” Kim Briggeman reported in The Missoulian. Briggeman quoted an Imperial/Exxon spokesman as saying, “Because of delays in getting the oversized permits from both Idaho and Montana, Imperial is planning to begin reducing the size of the 33 modules in Lewiston to mitigate further schedule and cost exposure to the construction site."

When the transportation department issued a permit for a test load, it triggered a hearing process that will allow opponents to present evidence and arguments against further shipments. Pius Rolheiser, an Imperial spokesman in Calgary, said Thursday (March 10) that the company remained committed to equipment shipments to Lewiston via barge, then sending the full-size units by truck up Highway 12. But he said, that the permit delays had forced the "difficult and very costly" decision to cut down all of the 33 modules already in Lewiston. None have left Lewiston so far, he said.

The oil company hadn't even hinted that it would be willing to cut down all its modules and take the freeway. In fact, it has hinted otherwise. But its earlier statements that it had no alternative to shipping huge loads up Highway 12 have lost credibility with some observers.

Lewiston Tribune Editorial Page Editor Marty Trillhaase wrote: “If the people behind the megaloads have been consistent about one thing, it was this: Their shipments could not be made any smaller. . . . They even certified to the Idaho Transportation Department that the oversized loads were reduced to their 'practical minimum dimensions.' "

But the delays mounted up, and local opposition grew. “So ExxonMobil needed a miracle," Trillhaase wrote. "And it got one. Those loads that were reduced to their 'practical minimum dimensions'? Those non-reduceable loads? Suddenly, they weren't."

Certainly, the fact that the loads could be reduced, that in fact the company is cutting some of its modules down seems to run into the question, raised by Idaho law, of whether or not over-legal transport up Highway 12 is reasonably necessary. The " 'record reflects no evidence that the Highway 12 corridor was the 'only viable option,' " district judge John Bradbury wrote in granting the injunction. 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.”

Imperial spokesman Rolheiser took issue with the suggestion of credibility questions. "The modules are being manufactured to their minimum-size specifications," he said. He compared the disassembly at Lewiston to cutting a car into two pieces, shipping it in two parts, and then reassembling it: something that could technically be done but is not a practical option.

Shipping those first modules down the freeway renders moot — at least temporarily — the fears about traffic tie-ups, industrialization, and potential accidents 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. Opponents argue that the shipments will transform this scenic area into an industrial corridor. They also argue that sooner or later, one of the drivers steering half-million-pound loads through the mountains would run out of luck, and a module might 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.

Opponents certainly don't think the issue will stay moot for long. On Thursday (March 10), Idaho Rivers United filed a complaint in a Boise federal court alleging that the Forest Service violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, or the National Forest Management Act, or both by letting the Idaho Transportation Department accomodate megaloads along its easement through the Clearwater National Forest.

The complaint suggests that ConocoPhillips' shipment of coke drums — which allegedly blocked turnouts, scraped against the rocks, and kept locals from using the road — proved that hauling big loads up Highway 12 was a bad idea. And it argues that the first couple of hundred megaloads shipped along the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers wouldn't be the last. Five companies have already expressed interest in the route, and “[t]hese five companies —Exxon-Imperial, Harvest Energy, Conoco, Premay, and Nickel Brothers — are only the beginning. As ITD itself predicted in a grant request submitted to the federal government in 2009 to help fund infrastructure improvements to facilitate shipments of such mega-loads from the Port of Lewiston up Highway 12, 'If one oil company is successful with this alternative transportation route, many other companies will follow their lead.' The Forest Service has likewise opined, 'authorizing these loads will ultimately lead to future  additional proposals.'”

Even if the loads stay off Highway 12, cutting the modules down to freeway size doesn't erase the fact that in Alberta, the modules will facilitate a very dirty process for manufacturing more carbon-based fuel. Shipping these modules up the river en route to Alberta raises the same questions as shipping Powder River Basin coal down the Columbia River en route to China. If you accept climate change as a real problem — which not everybody does, of course; a poll indicates that 43 percent of freshman Congressmen don't — then emitting greenhouse gases anywhere on earth adds to the problem.

To dutifully reduce our own emission of greenhouse gases here in the Northwest while enabling other people to emit them elsewhere doesn't add up to much progress. In addition to the fact that carbon from the refined tar sands ultimately gets blown out millions of automobile exhausts, the strip mining in Alberta is eating into the boreal forest, the refining process uses a lot of energy and water, and the refining generates plenty of greenhouse gases itself — three times as many as conventional crude oil production.

Finding a less-risky way to get the modules from Lewiston to Canada also doesn't allay environmentalists' implicit fear that shipping them to Lewiston in the first place gives the Idaho port a new raison d'etre that may complicate the long-running argument about breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Those dams lower the survival odds for threatened and endangered Snake River salmon. They make it harder for salmon to get to and from spawning habitat in the mountains of Idaho — which may, in a warmer world, be just about the only good habitat left in the Pacific Northwest.

The Biological Opinion on operation of the federal dam system, currently before U.S. District Judge James Redden, doesn't include breaching, even as an option. But 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."

Of course, breaching the dams on the lower Snake would carry a price. The main cost would be losing the 1,075 average megawatts of electricity they generate. The other major cost would be losing Lewiston as a port.

Now, one could argue that wouldn't be much of a loss. Lewiston is a minor port that generates few jobs and has handled a shrinking volume of cargo. If the port weren't available, farmers who currently barge grain down the river to Portland or Kalama would need an alternative. And there are alternatives. There have had to be: the lock system has been shut down since December for repairs. The economic impact of the shutdown has yet to be analyzed, but the world hasn't ended. The only real question is cost. Certainly, if the public and private sectors invested in improving local rail connections, grain could just as easily reach the coast by train. The task of moving grain down the river seems manageable.

However, if Lewiston becomes a key supply link for a major petroleum-producing region — the Alberta tar sands contain more petroleum than anywhere else except Saudi Arabia — the equation may change.

At least some of the shipments are bypassing Lewiston entirely. Rolheiser said that some modules had been engineered and manufactured to be shipped, with special permits, on the Interstate highway system. They have gone to the Port of Vancouver, Washington, where they have been unloaded from ocean-going ships, and sent by up I-5 to I-90, then on east to Montana. Those loads will never touch a barge. Maybe others won't have to, either.


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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.