10 November 2010


For the better part of this year, Idaho and Montana residents and environmentalists have locked horns with the governors of Idaho and Montana over their approval of a plan by Canadian oil giant Imperial Oil (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Canada) to transport more than two hundred loads of massive oil processing machinery -- first by ship from Korea to the port of Vancouver, Washington; then by barge (see photo above, click on any image to enlarge) up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the port of Lewiston, Idaho; then by truck (see photo below) across Idaho, Montana, and Alberta to the Kearle Tar Sands. There the machinery would be used to extract oil by squeezing and boiling and steaming tar out of porous sands. The oil would be shipped to (where else?) the U.S. See the maps at bottom for the entire route of the project, and the overland portions in Idaho, Montana and Alberta.

There are nearly 2 trillion barrels of tar-sands oil lying beneath Alberta -- which is being bladed away, mile by mile, in preparation for extraction. Due to the steam and water and fuel involved, tar sands oil results in 45 percent more carbon emissions than oil from traditional drilling. As with coal, the true cost of the resource is not being measured or accounted for. ExxonMobil benefits, but everyone else (including displaced First Nations peoples) carries the oil companies' externalized costs. The tar sands' footprint is so huge that some have called the project the biggest environmental crime in history -- though that estimate was issued before the Gulf oil spill. Ecological damages will include gigantic mining pits, ponds of toxic mine waste, destruction of the world's largest intact forest, and threats to populations of native birds and animals.

Along the proposed truck route, the Idaho portion traverses some of the most pristine wilderness in the continental United States, crossing several Wild and Scenic Rivers (see the Lochsa River, above) as it follows US route 12 along the Lewis and Clark Trail to Lolo Pass. The Montana portion of the route would disrupt already-congested Reserve Street in Missoula before proceeding over Rogers Pass on state route 200, then turning northward on US 93 along the incomparably beautiful Rocky Mountain Front (see photo below).

The truck loads would be gargantuan -- as large as 24 feet wide by 30 feet tall and up to 160 feet in length, weighing as much as 167 tons. Their passage would disrupt local traffic (including emergency vehicles), destroy already-threatened native species habitat, disrupt wilderness recreation, and negatively impact local lives and economies. Due to complicity by the Departments of Transportation under Idaho governor Butch Otter and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, no environmental impact statements were required for the project. State officials were eager to believe the oil company's assurances that the current project is a one-time proposal. One observer wryly noted that you don't build a railroad and then use it only once.
To date, political protests and civil lawsuits have held this obscene project at bay. My fingers are crossed that it will be abandoned, though my hopes are not high. Why should Big Oil be allowed to despoil U.S. or Canadian wilderness, or disrupt U.S. or Canadian lives? This is a project conceived in greed, written in blood, and carried out without the consent of those whose lives will be disrupted or destroyed. Numerous local, regional and national reports have condemned the project as being wasteful and dangerous -- see here and here and here and here and here and here and here -- and especially fightinggoliath.org/, an impressive clearinghouse of information assembled by the citizens of northern Idaho.

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