Against all odds, a swarming legal strategy that has produced more individual defeats than victories seems to have placed the opponents of oversized oil equipment shipments on Highway 12 in the driver’s seat.
ExxonMobil, whose subsidiary, Imperial Oil, has been attempting to gain court permission to truck about 200 so-called megaloads along the pristine byway through Idaho and Montana en route to the Kearl Oil Sands development in Canada, announced Monday that it is pursuing alternative routes for shipment of smaller modules.
The statement was not a surprise. In a contested case hearing in Boise in May, Kearl project manager Ken Johnson testified that 60 of the modules could be shipped from Korea to the Port of Vancouver for trucking to Alberta, because they would be small enough to fit under existing highway overpasses.
Johnson said 33 of the remaining larger modules were being disassembled in Lewiston to send them by another route to Alberta. Simply put, they were being cut in half at a cost of $500,000 per module, he testified.
“We will continue to pursue the permits for those full-sized modules through Idaho and Montana, which is more efficient and cost-effective,” Kearl senior project manager Chris Allard declared in Monday’s press release. “However, we need to move forward with our contingency plan to maintain project schedules.”
“Exxon needs to admit the truth,” the Fighting Goliath citizens’ opposition group of Idaho responded in a statement. “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.”
Public opposition to the megaloads arose in Idaho in the spring of 2010. In the summer, a district court ruled in favor of the opponents, but the Idaho Supreme Court decided that jurisdiction belonged to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD).
That agency arranged a contested case hearing concerning the first megaloads, four shipments of oil refinery equipment bound for Billings, Montana. The hearing was presided over by an attorney, rather than a judge, who was hired by ITD.
The opponents lost, but the loads experienced long delays in reaching their destination, because of damage they caused along the narrow route, heavy weather, and permitting delays from Montana.
The opponents then mounted a legal challenge against Imperial Oil, but similar conditions pertained. A retired judge was hired by ITD to preside over the contested case hearing, and he also ruled in favor of the agency and the corporation.
In between these major events, the two sides engaged in much legal sparring.
“We’ve won some, we’ve lost some, but when you step back and look at it, we have won,” Laird Lucas, lead attorney for the Idaho opponents of the megaloads, told New West. “The legal strategy has succeeded. ExxonMobil expected to have 200 or more of those things in Canada already. They ain’t there. They’re still sitting in Korea, mostly.”
Even though Idahoans spearheaded the legal challenges, Montanans likewise rose up, and eventually dealt the biggest blow to the hopes of several corporations that have expressed interest in using Highway 12 for megaload transport to the oil developments in Alberta.
A Montana district court judge decided in July to place an injunction on the Montana Department of Transportation and Imperial Oil preventing oversized load transport until more complete environmental impact assessments are made by the state.
Not only was this a court decision, rather than a decision from a hearing conducted by a state agency, but it also set an important precedent.
For example, the conservation group Idaho Rivers United (IRU) has filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration for allegedly failing to protect the Northwest Scenic Byway and Wild and Scenic Clearwater/Lochsa Rivers from degradation by megaloads.
Lucas, whose group is representing IRU, indicated that the Montana district court ruling could be useful in the federal case.
Imperial Oil has indicated that it is now moving equipment north on US 95 from the Port of Lewiston, Idaho. It also intends to truck loads along US 395 toward Canada, and 50 such loads reportedly have arrived at the start of that overland route, the Port of Pasco in Washington.