A retired judge and sitting hearing officer ruled this week that permits should be granted to ExxonMobil for sending oversized truckloads of specialized equipment up Highway 12 through Idaho and Montana, the Idaho Department of Transportation reported.
In his legal findings of fact, hearing officer Duff McKee said he could not find a legal basis to deny the oversized load permits. Idaho transportation officials properly followed the existing permit process, he concluded. The permits, if issued, would enable ExxonMobil to move its shipments from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Montana border.
The so-called megaloads, which can run more than 200 feet long and easily take up two highway lanes, have drawn widespread condemnation from opponents who have variously argued that they pose a safety hazard, an environmental threat and an eyesore. Manufactured in Korea, the equipment is bound for the Kearl oil sands in Alberta, Canada, a joint project between ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil. About 200 shipments are in the works.
The Rural People of Highway 12, also known as FightingGoliath.org, continues to actively oppose to the shipments. In addition to following the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers, both federally designated “Wild and Scenic” waterways, for more than 70 miles, the highway is popular with both cyclists and bikers, offers access to public lands and runs through historic Nez Perce territory. Also known as the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, the road itself is a National Scenic Byway, an All-American Road and considered one of the top 10 scenic routes in the Rockies. More than a few temporary inconveniences may be at stake; New West reported last year that the group’s founders, Idaho’s Borg Hendrickson and Lin Laughy, had been collecting documents and noting activities suggesting that transportation and government officials wanted to permanently change Highway 12 from a narrow, curvy, scenic mountain road to an accommodating freight route.
In an e-mail to New West, Hendrickson said she and her colleagues were “disappointed with the findings” and believed “the hearing officer misunderstood some of the facts and evidence presented.” The group is still determining whether to request a review. There is a two-week deadline to file for reconsideration. In the interim, Hendrickson said, two lawsuits are still pending, one filed by the Missoula County Commission against Montana’s transportation department, and the other brought by Idaho Rivers United against the Federal Highway Administration and the USDA Forest Service.
Montana’s Gov. Brian Schweitzer has pitched a partial solution. As reported by several publications, in a meeting with Exxon executives last week, Schweitzer suggested the company consider simply building some of the required oil sands equipment in Montana instead of attempting to transport it over controversial roadways.
Canada’s oil reserves are thought to be second only to Saudi Arabia’s — an estimated 173 billion barrels are tied up in oil sands — and according to Imperial Oil, the country has three major deposits. Oil sands are a mix of sand, water and a thick oil called bitumen that cannot flow without being heated or thinned first. The basic extraction process for surface deposits involves mining the sands, extracting the water and sand, and diluting the bitumen with chemical solvents. About 80 percent of deposits are too deep to be mined and instead require in-situ processes. These leave the sand in place and essentially involve using steam to heat the bitumen inside the sands until it can be pumped.
If the ruling is appealed, McKee has three weeks to respond, according to the Idaho Department of Transportation. The resulting decision can be further appealed to Brian Ness, director of the transportation department, who would then have eight more weeks to accept, amend or reject it.
Kate Schwab is an intern at New West.