In the opening scenes of the documentary Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands, a helicopter glides over Alberta's Athabasca River. Wending through a boreal forest the size of Greece, the river and its attendant countryside is as rugged and beautiful as any in the world. Then, over a rise, gargantuan smokestacks suddenly spear the sky, lording over a landscape that can only be described as apocalyptic: the single largest source of CO2 emissions in North America.
These are the oil sands, a geological formation in which vast quantities of bitumen lie just below the earth's crust--the largest proven reserves of oil in the world.
More than 1,000 miles to the south, cities like Moscow and Coeur d'Alene, along the I-90 and U.S. 95 corridors, are front and center in the development's debate.
Massive coke drums must be shipped overland from inland ports, and while the so-called "megaloads," which can weigh as much as 600,000 pounds and span two highway lanes in width, have been effectively halted on Idaho's scenic Highway 12, the new route takes them from the Port of Pasco, across the Idaho Panhandle--either from Spokane on I-90 or from Lewiston to Moscow and Coeur d'Alene on U.S. 95--and through northwest Montana to the Canadian border.
While push-back on the Highway 12 route pulled major media attention, the new alignment hasn't yet stirred much controversy. That's something Helen Yost, of Moscow-based direct action group Wild Idaho Rising Tide, would like to change.
"We're concerned in Moscow because we saw those loads wreak terrible havoc on Highway 95," she said. "We're opposed to the oil sands project as a whole, but we're aiming at the transportation route because they're using our roads."
So far, though, Wild Idaho Rising Tide hasn't had the legal success enjoyed by groups that opposed the US 12 shipments.
"Legally, I suspect there's a lot of stuff we could get them on but you're just going to lose because the judges are picked by the Idaho Transportation Department," she said. "Nobody wants to fight a battle they know they're going to lose."
Of course, "nobody" doesn't include Yost, WIRT or their allies.
"They see us as saboteurs and eco-terrorists," Yost laughed, adding that a request for riot gear from the Moscow City Police Department was recently approved by the City Council. "It's good that we're a threat to them, though I can't imagine that we are. People just need to keep pushing back."