The road leading to Alberta oil sands gets bumpy

As the lawsuits and citizen opposition mount up, the oil companies are looking at other routes and changing their story about the size of the huge modules they hope to haul by truck on a two-lane highway from Lewiston to Alberta's vast oil reserves.

Crosscut archive image.

Tailings from an open pit tar sands operation in Alberta.

As the lawsuits and citizen opposition mount up, the oil companies are looking at other routes and changing their story about the size of the huge modules they hope to haul by truck on a two-lane highway from Lewiston to Alberta's vast oil reserves.

At this writing, the first huge steel module to leave the port of Lewiston by truck en route — on a test run — to the Alberta  tar sands is stuck at Lolo Pass, immobilized by a Montana court restraining order.  The module, which with the trucks hauling it weighs roughly half a million pounds, left Lewiston on April 11 in the dead of night.  Its journey may pave the way for 206 other modules that Canada's largest oil company, Imperial Oil, which is 70 percent owned by Exxon Mobil, wants to ship up the Columbia, through Idaho and into Montana on two-lane Highway 12, and then on to Alberta.

Or it may not.

Missoula County, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club  have gotten the Montana restraining order.  They argue that the Montana Transportation Department, which has given permission for the modules to travel through the state, should have to file a state environmental impact statement before it modifies Highway 12 for the megaloads and turns it into an industrial corridor.

On the Idaho side of the border, Idaho Rivers United (IRU) has filed a suit in federal court. This suit alleges that by not acting to prevent the module shipments along the Wild and Scenic River corridor through which the state of Idaho has an easement for Highway 12, the Forest Service has violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and other laws.

Given all these obstacles, Imperial/ExxonMobil, which had the modules fabricated in Korea, has started cutting the ones already barged to Lewiston in half, so that they can fit under bridges and be trucked along freeways to Canada, bypassing Highway 12.  Meanwhile, the company is reportedly looking at other ways to get future modules from Korea to Alberta, possibly through the Panama Canal and then all the way around to the port of Churchill, on Hudson's Bay.

All this is a classic story of outsized, western-style engineering. Here are the basics of the saga, which has a lot of potential impact on the Puget Sound region, as we shall see. The Alberta tar sands (or oil sands or whatever you call them) represent the largest known reserve of petroleum outside Saudi Arabia.  Canada sendsto the United States more oil than any other foreign country. The Alberta tar sands yield half of Canada's oil production.

Tar sands are mixtures of viscous, petroleum-bearing bitumen with clay and gravel. The mixture is stripmined from the ground, then dumped into big cells where hot water or steam separates the bitumen from the other constituents. The water slurry is then agitated, and bitumen is skimmed from the surface.  After the substance is purified further, it can be refined into oil. The 207 modules that need to find a way to Alberta will be the cells in which bitumen is separated from sand and clay.

Opponents object to the stripmining, which is eating into Alberta's boreal forest, and to the massive infusions of water and energy needed to extract the sands and turn the goo into something you can use in your car.  The process puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the air.  Burning the finished product puts in a lot more. (The National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs in the Montana suit, is waging a related campaign against tar sands oil.)

Last I noticed, Americans haven't stopped driving, and dirty or not, the tar sands represent a whole lot of petroleum right at our door.  Work has started on a controversial Keystone XL 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 to U.S. gas pumps.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post editorialized that  "[o]il sands crude is nasty, and the sooner the world stops burning it, the better. But," the paper continued, "that's actually not much of a reason to kill the pipeline."  The New York Times disagreed, arguing that moving ahead with the pipeline "would be a huge error."

If the trade in tar sands oil goes global, it will have implications for Puget Sound.  The Post also noted that "Chinese firms are already buying stakes in Canadian oil sands production, and projects are planned or under way to increase exports from Alberta to Asia." And how would those exports get to Asia?  Craig Welch reported recently in The Seattle Times that one company's plans for shipping tar sands oil to Asia "would quadruple tanker traffic through Vancouver, B.C., and dramatically increase the amount of oil traveling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca."

Opposition in Idaho and Montana tends to focus on what may happen along Highway 12. The highway follows the Middle Fork Clearwater and Lochsa rivers along a Wild and Scenic River corridor through the Clearwater National Forest almost all the way to the border. People who visit the area to hike, fish, hunt, and just look at the trees spend millions of dollars there. Opponents argue not only that the shipments will transform this scenic area into an industrial corridor but also that by transforming it, the shipments would undercut one of the area's few economic advantages. The shipments of the massive machinery would certainly tie up traffic, inconveniencing locals and periodically preventing emergency vehicles from getting through.  In the first stages of the test run, the module now stuck at Lolo Pass clipped an electrical wire, cutting off power to hundreds of people.

The IRU suit alleges that the Imperial/ExxonMobil shipments through Idaho would be just the first of many; four other companies have expressed an interest in the same route.  It says that the Forest Service has erred by saying it has no jurisdiction over the loads because it has already granted an easement to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD).  The terms of the easement, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Forest Management Act not not only permit but require it to act, the plaintiffs say.  Besides, they argue, the module megaloads exceed the terms of the easement.  "An easement is usually for a normal and customary use," says IRU conservation director Kevin Lewis.  The shipment of megaloads represents "an absolute change" in use.

The Idaho Transportation Department has issued permits for the megaloads to move, but opponents objected, and the ITD held an administrative hearing.  At the hearing, the ITD argued that the loads couldn't be cut down. Imperial/ExxonMobil had made the same argument.

Oops.  It costs an estimated half-million dollars apiece, but the modules can be and are being cut in half.  Months ago,  "[o]n 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 [delays]."

This approach was not the world that the oil company had described until then.  “If the people behind the megaloads have been consistent about one thing, it was this," Lewiston Tribune Editorial Page Editor Marty Trillhaase wrote: "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 then 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."

The argument that you can't cut the modules down isn't likely to fly any more. Neither is the argument that you have to ship them up Highway 12. The next step will be for the hearing examiner to make a recommendation to the transportation department.  Then, the transportation department can do what it wants.  If the ITD decides to issue permits after all, opponents can go to court.  But that won't be as easy as it would have been last year.  In the final days of this year's session, the Idaho legislature passed a law under which anyone challenging megaload shipments may have to post a hefty bond.

 "That's the way it goes in Idaho," sighs Lewis.  "If you gain a small environmental victory, the legislature just changes the law." Lewis says that basically, "we knew it was going to happen."  That's why his group chose to sue in federal court.  He says the suit is based on pretty tried-and-true legal principles, but there's a new twist, because "rarely has Wild and Scenic been litigated."

Lewis obviously thinks shipping megaloads up Highway 12 is a very bad idea, but he doesn't blame Imperial/ExxonMobil for trying.   "They were encouraged to come this way," he says, citing the governor of Montana and the Port of Lewiston, among others.  "They had no idea what a buzz saw of opposition they'd encounter."


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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.