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Taking the Scenic Route

Trafficking big oil equipment in central Idaho

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The muggy summer air was thick with skepticism in central Idaho last week. A room packed with Idahoans had just been told that a pending transport project would generate more than 10 million dollars in the Gem State's economy.

"Bullshit," whispered Jeanne McHale of Moscow. "I don't trust them."

"Them" is Exxon/Mobil/Imperial, one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. Not including Imperial (the company's Canadian operations), Exxon/Mobil is the largest of the oil "supermajors" with daily production of nearly 4 million barrels. One of its many global projects is located in the oil sands of Kearl, in the remote northeast corner of Alberta, Canada. In a complex 10-step process, ore would be mined from the oil sands, crushed, hydrated and diluted into bitumen, which ironically is sold to road and paving contractors.

Why the irony? Because for any of this to happen, huge loads for the Kearl project would need to travel across U.S. Highway 12. By all accounts, U.S. 12 is one of the most picturesque drives on the continent; it's an east-west highway that connects the Pacific Ocean to downtown Detroit. In Idaho, it begins at the stateline in Lewiston, runs along the Clearwater River to Orofino, winds past the Lochsa River in remote sections of the Clearwater National Forest and then up to Lolo Pass as it approaches Montana. It's designated as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Passions run high along U.S. 12. Generations of central Idahoans have camped and fished there. More than 150 Idaho businesses line the highway, most of them mom-and-pop operations. So their dander got up when rumors started to circulate nearly two years ago that more than 200 loads of giant equipment could convoy through their playground. But it was only last week when they got their first opportunity to give any feedback, or so they thought.

Three meetings were scheduled in the region: in Moscow, Lewiston and Kooskia. At the first, on June 28 in Moscow, opponents were ready. Some carried signs: "Our Shoulders Can't Bear Your Loads." "Oil and Water Don't Mix." "Axle of Evil." One even came in costume, dressed as a giant truck. He purposely bumped into people and knocked over stacks of papers to make his point. The only problem was that this was no public hearing. As a matter of fact, Idaho has no requirement to hold a public hearing on the matter. Securing a permit to transport such a controversial load requires only an informational meeting.

A nicely dressed, button-downed team from Exxon hung up a series of colorfully illustrated posters promising all kinds of positivity: "Minimizing Impact," "Safe and Efficient."

Surprisingly, the one poster that most attendees were craning to see, a map of the proposed route, was blurry even when magnified. Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Exxon, a tall soft-spoken man, was unprepared to answer a number of direct queries.

"How about the 5,000 employees of businesses along Highway 12?" asked one attendee.

"It's hard for us to gauge the impact on businesses," diverted Johnson.

"Are you prepared to reimburse businesses for any potential losses?" asked another.

"We'll look at everything on a case-by-case business," said Johnson.

"Will it be only these truckloads? What's to keep you from shipping and shipping and shipping endless loads?" asked another protestor.

"We have no additional plans beyond these shipments," Johnson said cautiously.

"Forever?" asked the protestor. Johnson smiled but didn't answer. "C'mon," pleaded the protestor. "Please say forever." Johnson offered only nervous laughter.

This was clearly not the meeting the folks from Exxon had envisioned. Somewhere between Moscow and Lewiston, the site of their next meeting, they regrouped. The next meeting had a totally different vibe. It was more of an open house, minus the buffet or cash bar. The same friendly posters were up. But the Exxon team had most of the chairs removed from the room, and there was no podium. The room once again filled with frustrated residents, but this time they spent most of their time complaining to each other.

By the time the third "meeting" rolled around, this time in Kooskia, central Idaho residents had heard about the two previous sessions. It was clear they wanted a voice, much like the first meeting in Moscow. But Team Exxon was having none of it. In front of the crowd of about 200, Johnson denied a request to answer questions. Lin Laughy, author and PhD from Kooskia, walked around the room, encouraging support of his request for a public forum. Johnson finally agreed, but in no time, it was clear that he regretted giving in.

"I want to know how many people are going to have to die on Highway 12 to pack this stuff through," said Ric Downing of Orofino.

"This is a shameful scheme to alter and ruin the Clearwater and Lochsa," said Shelley Dumas of Grangeville.

Johnson stuck to his talking points: negligible impact to tourism; traffic would not be delayed more than 15 minutes; $10.6 million impact to Idaho's economy in the form of temporary jobs, hotel rooms and meals.

The representatives from Exxon were not the only ones in the firing line. Jim Carpenter is a district engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department. For all of his experience managing central Idaho's highways, he spent an inordinate amount of time verbally juggling crowd management and spin control. He answered as many questions as Team Exxon, if not more. How much will Idaho charge for a permit?

"ITD will charge only about $1,000 a load," Johnson said. "Idaho code restricts the amount the state can charge."

Why is the state allowing such a project to travel a federally designated scenic byway? "Because it's still part of the nation's highway system, and those roads are used to transport goods and services every day," Johnson said.

Why is the state allowing a load that exceeds the legal limits? That's when the Moscow meeting took a wide turn.

"Idaho code allows us to issue permits over legal limits," said Carpenter.

He then slipped in a piece of trivia that produced an audible gasp across the room. "As a matter of fact, since 2000, nearly 250 separate loads have exceeded Idaho's legal limits on Highway 12." Attendees shook their heads and looked at each other slack-jawed. "It's not uncommon for us to issue those permits," reaffirmed Carpenter.

A few minutes later, Antone Holmquist of Moscow said, "I hope someone in the Idaho Legislature can do something about this." In a moment of pure coincidence Moscow Republican Rep. Tom Trail was walking nearby and was asked what he and his colleagues were planning.

"We simply don't have a formal hearing process required by law," conceded Trail. "I want to change that, but it will be the next legislative session ... at the earliest."

Asking him to handicap the mood in the room, he said, "They're clearly 80 to 20 percent against this thing. But all we can do right now is mail in our comments."

He was talking about ITD's formal comment period, during which citizens can express their concerns through snail mail or e-mail before July 14.

In spite of almost two years of conversations and planning--mostly private--many Idahoans are just getting word of the Kearl Transport Project. If Exxon has its way, ITD will publish answers to many of the public comments by the end of July and then run a test load across Highway 12 sometime in August. Then, Exxon will place equipment orders with a South Korean manufacturing company. The giant equipment would sail across the Pacific, up the Columbia River to the Port of Lewiston. The loads would then travel across Highway 12 (one load a time), with plans for more than 200 loads. Which means that the transport process could take a year to complete. Twelve months of rain, snow and heat. But it still probably won't be as heated as last week's meetings in central Idaho.

Later, Jeanne McHale shook her head. "Can you imagine more than 200 loads, 500,000 pounds each, traveling across more than 40 bridges on Highway 12?" Clearly, the team at Exxon can. They've been imagining it for more than two years. But Idahoans only have a matter of days to have their say.