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Megaloads, Oil Sands and the Port of Lewiston

by Steve Bunk
New West, March 4, 2011

An interview with writer Steven Hawley on the Columbia-Snake river system and
how it plays into plans to ship massive refinery equipment through Idaho and Montana.

Amidst the public and media uproar over trucking so-called megaloads of oversized refinery equipment along the scenic Highway 12 through northern Idaho into Montana, fundamental questions about money remain unanswered. What's in it for the state governments, which risk damage to successful tourism industries? And what prompted the oil corporations to explore a new overland route to the massive Kearl Oil Sands development in Alberta, which is scheduled to come online late next year?

Last year, the Montana citizens' group, All Against the Haul, published a polemic against the proposed megaloads penned by noted writers Rick Bass and David James Duncan. Titled "The Heart of the Monster," it relied on research developed by Oregon journalist Steven Hawley. His new book, "Recovering a Lost River," concerning the politics and economics of the Columbia-Snake River System, will be out March 15 from Beacon Press, a Random House imprint.

Hawley's work on his own book had implications on his research for the megaloads book by Bass and Duncan. In the following interview, he explores the idea that trucking oversized loads along Highway 12 could be an extension of a larger economic scheme, which begins with the river system.

What interested you most about the prospect of oversized loads of equipment coming through Idaho and Montana, headed for Canada?

I started out being really interested in how it was that Exxon/Mobil identified the Port of Lewiston as their best possible option for getting this equipment up to the tar sands. What I discovered was the port, with regard to heavy hauls, is an extension of the history of the port generally. It's been in search of a legitimate reason for its existence for quite a while now, and it's still not clear to me whether Exxon approached the Port of Lewiston or vice versa, but I think there's a mutual benefit in these oil conglomerates taking advantage of one of the most highly subsidized transportation systems in the world: the one that takes barges up that Columbia River from Portland or Vancouver, Washington, 465 miles inland to Lewiston. It's a classic example of a transportation system that's utterly laden with pork.

How much is the subsidy of the river transportation corridor worth?

From the figures I was able to gather, the system of locks and dams, maintenance alone costs taxpayers somewhere around $150 million or $200 million per year. A study that's just come out recently shows that the system of locks is in disrepair, and to get them into good working order for the next generation of shipping needs will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 billion. This is all federal outlay. The shippers and barge companies that move up and down the river don't pay a single iota of the cost of maintaining these locks.

If federal subsidies to private enterprise brought the equipment downriver to Lewiston, what about the heart of the current debate, the overland route to Canada?

In the corporate world, it seems like subsidy begets subsidy. The water transportation system got them as far as Lewiston and, starting in about 2006, it was their objective to extend that subsidy all the way to the border at Sweetgrass in Montana. For the most part, they've been successful. I think the most remarkable part of that story is with a relatively small investment on their part, they've gotten this new industrial transportation corridor approved, so far. That's not to say things aren't going to get a lot more interesting as the saga of the Exxon loads unfolds.

Let's say you're right that subsidies made this route attractive to the oil companies. How do you think the whole plan of going this way arose?

One of the first things I did was try to answer the question of whose idea was this, and how did it wend its way from federal and state agencies through the Port of Lewiston? Did an oil company approach them, or vice versa? I think, based on what I was able to find, and with the help of the legal advocacy group, Judicial Watch, it might have begun as early as 2001 or 2002. If you remember the Cheney Energy Task Force, it was a secretive group of energy executives, and there was a subgroup in that group that was devoted to the development of the tar sands. And notes I saw from that subgroup identified, as one of their goals, a kind of road map of infrastructure and ports that would be of service in developing the tar sands operation. Of particular interest to them were near-shore shipping opportunities. In other words, systems exactly like the one that comes up the Columbia and Snake.

Once this equipment gets to the Port of Lewiston, how would the Idaho or Montana governments stand to benefit from this whole notion of a high-and-wide trucking corridor?

That's the strange part. I haven't heard a legitimate rationale for the long or short-term economic benefits from anybody other than Imperial Oil. And even in their own studies, the economic benefits are somewhat speculative and very short-term. And this is in a recreation economy that, when you combine Idaho and Montana, is worth well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Nobody from either state office, in Montana or Idaho, has come out and said, well, this is how we're going to follow through in benefiting the people of our respective states.

Even so, the plan has its popular backing, as well as strong opposition. You saw evidence of that when you attended a public meeting on the issue last July in Kooskia, Idaho.

What impressed me about that meeting was the diversity. The moment that really stuck in my mind was two consecutive speakers. The first was a Tea Partier with a .45 strapped to him, who introduced himself as a fellow with a concealed weapons permit, and then proceeded to give a rambling, 10-minute speech on the sovereign rights of counties and towns and states. The very next person to speak was a self-styled child of the Sixties, who stood up and gave her own rationale about the sacredness of the Earth's ecosystems, and save the whales, and save the salmon. And then the first fellow, the Tea Partier, piped up after the hippie spoke: 'You know, I agree with her, but for totally different reasons."

What struck me is, here's the broadest polarization or representation of the political spectrum that you could find. And a whole lot of people in between are standing up and saying, "This is not going to be good for the community."

Recent Developments

Even as the first two megaloads traversed Highway 12 recently, the heavy-haul controversy continued to grow. The initial ConocoPhillips load--bound for a refinery in Billings, not for Canada--took about an hour to get around one twist in the road, and needed longer than the allotted 15 minutes between pullouts on 10 other stretches. This prompted the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) to require further trucking strategies, which included steering the trailer independently of the trucks, changing night-travel distances, and warning other trucking companies that the giant rig would be on the road. Such adjustments were deemed necessary despite a transportation plan for these trips that encompassed more than 700 pages and had been years in the making.

The first load was then stranded by bad weather for five days before making it to Lolo Hot Springs, Montana. The second load also has been stalled en route by bad weather. The last two are not expected to leave Lewiston soon.

On Feb. 14, ITD director Brian Ness approved permits for 207 ExxonMobil modules to be transported along Highway 12. Exxon's subsidiary, Imperial Oil, has long claimed that the modules cannot be practically reduced in size and that Highway 12 is the only feasible route for their transport.

On the same day, Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser told the Missoulian that the company intends to cut down the size of the 33 modules currently at the Port of Lewiston and truck them to Canada by a different route than Highway 12. Another 60 modules already are at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, and will be trucked along an unspecified interstate north of Highway 12 to Canada, he said.

Just four days earlier, Rolheiser had told the same Missoulian reporter the company had no plans to divide the equipment into smaller pieces or use any route other than Highway 12. In his later about-face, he said the company's main plan remains to use Highway 12.

The decision by ITD's Ness to issue the Imperial Oil permits set the stage for a contested hearing between citizen activists and the company, a process that involves questioning of witnesses. No date has been announced for that hearing, but on Feb. 23, the Idaho intervenors, joined by the nonprofit environmental group, Friends of the Clearwater, formally petitioned ITD for reconsideration of the Imperial Oil permits, based on the new evidence that the modules can be reduced and other routes are feasible.

Earlier in February, Montana approved an environmental assessment for the Imperial Oil loads, and a test haul from Lewiston was scheduled for Feb. 23, but it has been postponed by Imperial until March 7.

In mid-February, a proposed Montana bill generated opposition and support for its intention to protect the highways from the environmental and economic impacts of oversized loads by requiring special-use permits that would include a detailed transportation plan and analyze cumulative impacts for more than one load.

Steve Bunk
Megaloads, Oil Sands and the Port of Lewiston
New West, March 4, 2011

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