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Marshall Swearingen | Feb 21, 2013 04:00 AM

Back in July 2011, a Montana judge prohibited Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of ExxonMobile, from trucking 200 "megaloads" of tar sands mining equipment over the company's preferred rural highway route. Even though Montana and Idaho state officials had backed the plan, and Imperial had secured the necessary permits, local governments and conservation groups had taken the company to court and won. Those more concerned with the route than the environmental damage caused by tar sands mining (see HCN 8/16/10 "Crude combat") celebrated a decisive victory. But when Imperial simply chopped the megaloads in half and shipped them on a less-direct route, others were disappointed by the tactic's limitations.

Monstertruck alley
Megaloads route from the Pacific Northwest into Alberta. Click on image for larger version.

The opposition's impact, however, was bigger than they knew. Reports this month reveal that the first phase of Imperial's $10.9 billion tar sands project is behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. An unusually harsh winter is partly to blame. But the cost of the re-routing, Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser told the Calgary Herald, "was the largest factor in the upward cost revision.”

In 2008, Imperial approached state officials with its plan to barge South Korean-made tar sands modules up the Snake River to the port at Lewiston, Idaho, then truck them over to Montana and north to Alberta (see HCN 8/16/10 "Monstertruck alley"). The route included Highway 12, which winds along the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers, plus a steep pass over the continental divide, a few miles through the heart of Missoula, Mont., and sections of narrow highway along the Blackfoot River. By using these rural roads, Imperial could truck loads that were too big to fit beneath interstate overpasses.

Imperial made deals with Idaho and Montana to install or upgrade highway turnouts, trim trees, and upgrade utility lines and traffic lights along the route. But when the company sent a "test validation module" down Highway 12 in April 2011, it clipped a power line and caused a power outage. The winding, 174-mile trip that Imperial said would take three days instead took 24.

By that time, the Haul was well embroiled in conflict. The first rounds of legal sparring favored Imperial and the state agencies. Other cases plodded along even slower than the megaloads. One of them was between Idaho Rivers United (IRU), a conservation organization, and the Forest Service. IRU argued that the agency had the authority to deny the shipments under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers along Highway 12.

In May 2011, a legal challenge by Missoula County and several conservation organizations stopped the Haul in its tracks. A court injunction forced the test module to pull off the road and park near the Idaho-Montana border. Later that summer, a Montana judge ruled that more environmental study was necessary, forcing Imperial to come up with a new plan.

But Imperial already had 33 modules at the port in Lewiston. The company started disassembling them, at a cost of $500,000 each, so they could be trucked on Highway 95 north to Coeur d'Alene and then on the interstate, in compliance with the Montana court ruling. The other modules were either disassembled in Korea or in Pasco, Wash., and then trucked through Spokane.

Even as Imperial scrambled to implement a contingency plan, it held onto hopes of using the original route. It wasn't until after the company had moved all of the modules -- 350 of them by the time they were broken into smaller loads -- on the new route that it withdrew its permit application. That was last June, at which time Rolheiser told The Missoulian that the company's future transport plans were uncertain, and that he “couldn’t (give) an estimate” of the cost that the re-routing had caused. That was before the company admitted its financial pain.

Kearl oil sands
Kearl tar sands in Alberta

A federal judge dealt another blow this month by finally ruling that the Forest Service did indeed have the authority to stop the megaloads under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and "acted unlawfully" by failing to do so. The decision will make it more difficult to haul industrial equipment on Highway 12 in the future.

That may come in handy for future opposition efforts. Imperial is now sourcing tar sands equipment in Alberta, and as of January was already 27 percent into the "expansion" phase of developing the Kearl tar sands, according to Rolheiser. But Highway 12 remains an attractive option for future hauls, and the Montana Legislature is considering a bill, HB 513, that would exempt oversized loads from the state's environmental review process. David Ohler, staff attorney for the Montana Department of Transportation, told The Missoulian: “I could say probably with 100 percent certainty there will be other companies that want to use that route."

Marshall Swearingen is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user jasonwoodhead23.

Kristen Walser
Kristen Walser
Feb 26, 2013 05:53 PM
Superb article, Marshall! Tomorrow Feb. 27 is 3rd reading on HB 513. Many Democrats voted for it on the basis of jobs in Great Falls. Bad plan, and won't give Bullock cover to veto.

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