Megaload oil-sands equipment in Idaho could be rerouted

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Facing a series of expensive delays, a Canadian oil venture trying to ship towering convoys of equipment three stories high through scenic U.S. 12 in Idaho and Montana appears poised to back down -- a crucial development in a long-running fight over one of the most scenic river corridors in the West.

ExxonMobil and its partner Imperial Oil Resources, which have spent months battling conservationists and residents along the pristine Clearwater and Lochsa rivers in an attempt to move the two-lane-wide megaloads, say now they will try to dismantle the shipments and move them in smaller loads on bigger highways.

Though it doesn’t end the conflict -- the oil giants said they would keep pushing for the original plan to get the equipment to oil fields in Canada -- it represents a major turnaround on an issue that has been taken on by some of the biggest conservation groups in the country seeking to protect what they describe as a national treasure.

U.S. 12 parallels the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for more than 80 miles of sun-dappled canyon and high-country grasslands bordering the famous Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Opponents say moving shipments weighing half a million pounds up the narrow, winding highway threatens to turn one of the nation’s premier recreational areas into an industrial zone.


State officials in Idaho and Montana have said the shipments, destined for the Kearl oil sands development in northern Alberta, can be safely moved at night using specially constructed turnouts to allow other traffic to pass by.

Many in the area of Lewiston, Idaho, the Snake River port from which the megaloads would set off after being barged up the Columbia River, have welcomed the shipments as the potential beginning of many new transport jobs. But last month, a judge in Montana issued a preliminary injunction blocking shipment of the megaloads through that state until additional environmental studies are done.

In a sign that the delays are forcing them to consider new options, ExxonMobil and Imperial announced they will also seek permission to deliver the Korean-made equipment to a secondary destination in Washington state and ship it on to Canada along alternative highway routes.

The proposed ‘additional route’ will use four-lane divided highways and will not require road closures or upgrades, the companies said.

‘Smaller loads will have reduced dimensions and weight. These shipments can be moved safely and we are working with state authorities to confirm that our transportation plans meet or exceed environmental and safety requirements,’ Chris Allard, Kearl senior project manager, said in a statement.

Allard said the companies had ‘met or exceeded’ the normal requirements for large-sized shipments and would continue to pursue permits for the U.S. 12 route, which he said is more cost-effective.

‘However, we need to move forward with our contingency plan to maintain project schedules,’ he said.

Borg Hendrickson, an Idaho resident who with her husband has led the court fight against the shipments, said opponents welcome the companies’ admission that an alternate route is possible.

‘Exxon needs to admit the truth -- Highway 12 is the wrong route for their megaloads and they need to find a better path if they want the Kearl project to be built in the foreseeable future,’ she said.

Bobby McEnaney, land policy analyst for the the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the alternative route alliance proves ‘Goliath can be stopped.’

‘Exxon, in all of its considerable arrogance, seemingly assumed that turning one of the most wild and scenic parts of the United States into an industrial transportation corridor was a fait accompli,’ he wrote on the group’s website. ‘But while developing these plans in secret, Exxon incomprehensibly failed to grasp how beloved this area is.’


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Proposed industrial route through scenic Idaho raises alarm

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Video: one of the ConocoPhillips shipments crosses Maggie Creek in Idaho. Credit: Roger Inghram.