Remember the last time a fleet of semis roared past you on the interstate? Now triple the size of the trucks and halve the size of the road, and you have a rough image of a plan to ship 207 loads of oversized mining equipment through Idaho and Montana to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.
The equipment is too massive to be moved on the interstate -- it wouldn't fit under overpasses. Instead, Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, plans to renovate smaller highways and send loads up one or two at a time, always at night, over about a year starting this fall, assuming the plan is approved by state transportation departments. Imperial Oil estimates the economic benefit to be around $60 million in Montana, and $12 million in Idaho.
But the proposal has drawn the ire of environmentalists, who are pressuring state agencies to reject it. "This is not normal highway traffic, not even normal oversized highway traffic," says Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater, an Idaho environmental group. "This is extraordinary."
Opponents worry that widening Highway 12 will increase sediment runoff into rivers, disrupt emergency traffic and turn the scenic byway into an industrial corridor. They fear catastrophic accidents, too. If a piece of the immense equipment became lodged in a river near the highway, for example, it would create an instant dam, preventing salmon from swimming upstream to spawn.
"They told us that isn't going to happen," says Macfarlane. "Well, the rig wasn't supposed to blow in the Gulf of Mexico, either."
See related story, "Crude combat."