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Alex LaBeau and Ken Burgess

The politics and semantics of large loads


Ever since ExxonMobil first publicly unveiled its mega-load plans in a small room at Moscow City Hall on June 28, 2010, BW has been following the story. The oil giant hopes to roll more than 200 oversized loads up to the Kearl Oil Sands Project from the Port of Lewiston, across U.S. Highway 12, into Montana and up to Alberta, Canada. When ConocoPhillips also asked to move four oversized loads across U.S. 12 to its Billings, Mont., refinery, mega-load opposition grew dramatically. But those in favor of allowing the shipments to roll across Idaho raised their voices as well. Drive Our Economy, a coalition of more than 300 businesses and individuals, began pumping out its message that the oversized loads were good for Idaho. The face of Drive Our Economy is Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry since 2006. LaBeau and Drive Our Economy spokesman Ken Burgess sat down with BW to talk about how their organization has evolved and whether there is life for the coalition after the mega-loads.

Did the debate over using U.S. 12 for the mega-loads push the creation of Drive Our Economy?

LaBeau: I'm not entirely convinced it was just Highway 12. It was a recognition that we needed to have some sort of mechanism to communicate on transportation issues.

How did you solicit membership for the coalition?

LaBeau: IACI was one of the early participants. So we worked with Ken to go out and tell folks why they should be a part of it.

Burgess: The original genesis had to do with the precedent of the oversized-load permitting process and the broader implication to commerce across the state.

Was there a sense among your coalition members that there was misinformation floating around the mega-load issue?

LaBeau: That's the nature of the beast you deal with, in the instantaneous nature of today's information trade. Rumors can get out of hand very, very quickly.

Early in the mega-loads debate, ConocoPhillips took a lot of the heat because they were, quite simply, the first to ask to move giant loads across U.S. 12, even though they only had four shipments. They invested a fair amount of money and time to move those loads, but meanwhile, ExxonMobil waited in the wings with more than 200 giant rigs.

LaBeau: Unfortunately, that's the case. Did Conoco take an unnecessary amount of heat in this? Absolutely. But this a commerce issue. We deal with 65,000 oversized loads every year in Idaho. Why would we start singling out individual companies? That's really what raises our concern.

Burgess: I would argue that, in some respect, the Conoco guys got caught up because Exxon was coming. And that introduced the issue of the Kearl Oil Sands. Had it not been about the Kearl Oil Sands and Exxon, I think Conoco would have gotten through fairly easily.

LaBeau: The argument evolved into not being about the loads anymore but about the oil sands. Plus this is about the viability of the Port of Lewiston. And there are those who simply don't want those dams in there [on the Columbia and Snake rivers] and don't want the port to be viable.

But back to the loads themselves. U.S. 12 had not previously seen any rigs of this weight or size ever before.

LaBeau: I would dare say that loads of this size are fairly unusual anywhere in the world. That's a true statement. They are going to draw some attention. But the commerce side of this is that these are shipped in a safe manner that far exceeds any requirements or scrutiny that most other oversized loads receive.

Burgess: There have already been oversized loads going up Highway 12--boats, silos. It's not an unusual thing.

But even the Idaho Transportation Department acknowledged that this weight and size was highly unusual for U.S. 12.

LaBeau: That's a fair assessment.

And what would you say to those who ask why are we having these shipped across the ocean as opposed to manufacturing them here?

LaBeau: We have too many constrictions and regulations on fabrication operations in the United States for us to construct a lot of equipment. That's not just oil equipment. That's a commerce and industry problem that the United States has placed on itself.

After more than a year of scrutiny on the mega-loads issue, what lessons did you learn?

Burgess: The contested case hearings were thoroughly impressive to me, especially the amount of effort that ITD went though in working with the companies before finally issuing any permits.

LaBeau: One of the good things about living in a state like Idaho is access. I think we need to be able to question things legitimately.

Burgess: ITD has said that this is the first time an oversized permit was challenged. I think they were caught off guard and kind of felt their way through it.

When and if ITD puts permits in the hands of ExxonMobil, will Drive Our Economy take any credit for that result?

LaBeau: I think we were successful in getting good information out to policy makers, decision makers and citizens up and down the state. The ultimate success will be the movement of the loads through the Port of Lewiston, ensuring the viability of the economy, and the port's part in that.

You don't like the term mega-load.

LaBeau: Mega-load is a term designed for demagoguery.

Burgess: I believe it's a term coined by environmental groups to place a picture in a person's head.

What do you prefer?

Burgess: We call them oversized loads. The technical ITD term is over-legal loads.

It's pretty overwhelming to consider how many loads that are over the legal limit regularly travel on Idaho roads.

Burgess: 65,000 permits last year.

If ITD is granting that many permits over the legal limit, isn't something wrong with where they're drawing the mark.

LaBeau: A lot of times an oversized load has a lighter footprint than your average legal load because they have more axles in place and the distribution is wider.

But to issue that many over the legal limit still has to raise a red flag.

Burgess: Legal limit could be weight, height or width. It's the stuff you and I see going down the road every day.

ITD charges about $1,000-$1,500 per permit per load. Isn't that too low?

LaBeau: No. If anything, nationwide, we might be on the high end.

But for a load of this size, it seems like we could be charging a bit more.

LaBeau: Look at what the company put into the route. Plus they were asked to put up a $10 million bond. They were asked to do things no other company was ever asked to do.

Are you saying our expectations of the oil companies were unreasonably high?

LaBeau: I would say that both companies have been extremely generous in their willingness to work with the state in ensuring that those loads roll safely up Highway 12.

Is there life for Drive our Economy after the mega-loads?

LaBeau: You don't always keep coalitions together for the sake of staying together.

Burgess: The final chapter of this story hasn't been written. We anticipate, given the past modus operandi of the opposition, even if the permits are granted, they will probably file suit in district court.

Do you consider any of that opposition to be radical?

LaBeau: I think people can take their statements for what they are. We can do our best to make sure that we're putting out legitimate information, and if people want to put things out that stir up hysteria or unfounded accusations, so be it. But that's not what we're about, and I'm not going to be in the business of throwing labels around.

Presuming that Exxon is successful and they begin moving loads on a regular schedule, do you anticipate U.S. 12 becoming a corridor for similar shipments on an ongoing basis?

LaBeau: Highways are designed for a lot of reasons, one of them is commerce. If you can expand on the Port of Lewiston's viability by being able to move shipments across the Continental Divide, using that system efficiently and effectively, then by all means, we should be able to use it.

You do acknowledge that U.S. 12 is a very tricky road at night.

LaBeau: I grew up in Idaho. It's not much different than many other mountain roads I've been on.

And you believe that we should encourage the use of the route for regularly scheduled future mega-load shipments.

LaBeau: Absolutely. You have to be able to look at the commercial viability of any highway. That's why we have institutions like the Idaho Transportation Department issue permits in the first place. We just want to make sure it's a rational and complete decision, and not based on hearsay and hysterical reaction.