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Big Oil in Idaho: On the Roads, in the Courts

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New developments have arisen in the ongoing conversations surrounding a proposal to ship more than 200 oversize loads across U.S. Highway 12. BW covered the controversy in "Taking the Scenic Route" in the July 7 edition.

Idaho's Department of Transportation officially closed its comment period on the issue last week and more than 400 comments were logged. ITD promises to answer the questions and concerns "sometime in August" before deciding whether to issue permits to Exxon/Mobil/Imperial. The oil superpower wants to ship the massive oil drilling equipment from South Korea over the Pacific, up the Columbia River, across U.S. Highway 12, through Montana and up to the Kearl Lake region of Alberta, Canada.

Among the comments is a 10-page missive from three non-profits--Advocates for the West, Idaho Rivers United and Friends of the Clearwater--saying they want ITD to review state code regarding "legal limits" before offering the permits. Mel Coulter, a spokesman for ITD, said the issue has been referred to Idaho's Attorney General's Office for review.

Meanwhile, there are some interesting developments in Montana, where Exxon is spending millions of dollars to raise or bury hundreds of utility lines to possibly make way for the loads. Exxon has confirmed that it will be spending more than $21 million for relocation of the power lines at approximately 200 crossings. About 50 have already been taken down and buried. The majority are in and around Missoula, but there are others in the Helena and Great Falls districts.

One more wrinkle: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to shut down barge traffic on the Columbia River system for extended repairs beginning in December. Might that hamper Exxon's plans? Not a chance. Exxon plans to position about 40 of the loads (some bigger than a T-rex) before the barging is halted. Forty would be enough for them to stay "on schedule" when the river traffic resumes in mid-March.

One more big story involving big oil is about to play out in a federal courtroom in Boise. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has hand-picked a panel of seven federal judges to decide how to proceed with lawsuits related to BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

To date, BP faces more than 300 lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in potential claims as damage from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The Boise panel, also known as a Multidistrict Litigation, will be split into two phases. One MDL will cover economic loss and environmental damage claims in a dozen states. The other MDL will cover lawsuits by investors in BP U.S. shares who claim the company's officers failed to disclose safety problems or artificially inflated stock value.

No word yet on who the judges will be, but an Associated Press analysis of financial disclosure reports found that 37 of the 64 active or senior judges in Gulf Coast districts have links to the oil and gas industry. Citydesk will cover the history-making MDL beginning Thursday, July 29, at boiseweekly.com.