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Seninger compared the limited job creation to the potential job losses the state will face if Imperial Oil rides through. He pointed to research by UM to highlight Montana's top five tourism attractions, in order: mountains and forests, Yellowstone Park, open space and land, rivers and Glacier Park. Tourism employs 33,000 people statewide, Seninger said, and in Missoula County alone tourism and outdoor recreation account for 3,100 jobs annually.
Yet conservation experts have struggled to find any real or potential environmental impacts to the Blackfoot River on which to hang their own opposition. Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling says he's so far been unable to come up with a tangible environmental concern resulting from the heavy haul.
"I've looked at this thing and I've thought about it a lot and I'm having a hard time finding a really significant nexus to, say, fish habitat issues or water quality," Farling says. "Personally, me and a whole bunch of people think this is a really, really bad idea. But relative to our mission of conservation and restoration of cold water habitats, we've got bigger problems."
The main problem commonly accepted among residents of the lower Blackfoot—and Farling—is a change in the culture of Highway 200. Farling says Imperial Oil's proposal will turn the pristine valley into "an industrial traffic corridor versus what it is now, which is a working landscape with a bunch of recreation." Greenough resident and official Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper Jerry O'Connell describes the opposition to the heavy haul as "unanimous until you get to Lincoln."
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- The Kearl Module Transportation Project would transport massive modules right through the center of several small Montana towns, including Choteau. Yet county officials claim the public is eager to see these loads roll through, and no organized opposition to the heavy haul has cropped up in these rural communities.
"We're trading what makes this state great—a spectacular, beautiful country canyon drive with beautiful vistas and water—and we're allowing it to be degraded and deluded by commerce that is wrong on so many levels," O'Connell says.
Last spring, MDT stated it would issue a decision on Imperial Oil's environmental assessment for the KMTP in summer 2010. (ITD told the Independent that "an environmental assessment is not required by either federal or Idaho law for the potential issuance of permits to ConocoPhillips or ExxonMobil.") But Montana is now months overdue with a ruling, a development that has generated mixed feelings among those on the heavy haul route.
"I hope one of the reasons is that the officials who are going to make the decision here are thinking a lot harder about it than they would have a year ago," Farling says, adding that the KMTP is under more of a "microscope" than other road projects due to widespread public concern. "When we signed off on a letter at least to the federal entities involved in this, [we said] we want really good environmental analysis done before there's approval for this."
The harsh views of Imperial Oil's heavy haul bid evaporate further up the Blackfoot, specifically in Lincoln. Although the loads will travel straight through the center of town, business owners have welcomed the proposal for the assumed economic boost it will bring. Restaurants and hotels maintain the Mammoet's rig drivers and shipping personnel will stop in for food and rest while their loads are parked outside of Lincoln. Former Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Mike Murray told the Indy last May that the only consternation generated by the big rigs' midnight rides would be among senior citizens who might have to stay up late to watch them drive by.
"I think that there's a kind of mentality in Lincoln, Augusta, rural areas that we need all the jobs we can get in Montana," says Derek Brown, Murray's successor as commission chairman. "There's some financial benefit from this, but they have no reason to oppose someone using public roads in a responsible manner that helps other people with jobs."
As for the potential impacts to tourism along the upper Blackfoot and beyond, Brown says the new pullouts constructed for Imperial Oil could actually benefit the visitor experience.
"I don't see the downside," Brown says. "Maybe I'm not out there looking, but I don't see a lot of people cruising around at three o'clock in the morning looking at the beauty of the Front."
The Rocky Mountain Front
Once over Roger's Pass, Imperial Oil's modules will crawl at low speeds through Lewis and Clark, Teton, Pondera and Toole counties, past ranch spreads and farm fields whose pastoral beauty is already dotted with hundreds of oil derricks. They'll roll through the sleepy Montana towns of Augusta and Choteau—homes to popular summer rodeos and bases of operation for dozens of outfitters—in the dead of night. And it's here that organized, grassroots opposition falls completely off the heavy haul map.
"The general population doesn't have any concerns," says Teton County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss. "There might be a few out there, but as a whole the population is eagerly anticipating them. It's going to be novel, I think, seeing those big loads come through. And it's going to be a pretty significant impact to the local economy because one of the places they're going to park is just south of Choteau here.
"There's only 6,000 people in our county," Hodgskiss continues, "so anytime you interject a little outside money, it's got to have a positive effect."
Hodgskiss and Brown both note that representatives from Imperial Oil have proven extremely accommodating when it comes to public concerns in Lincoln and other rural towns. During the first string of public meetings last spring, Brown remembers one Augusta area resident voicing opposition to the location of a heavy haul turnout. Imperial Oil, rather than disturb the individual's home nearby, opted to move the turnout site farther down the highway.
"What I perceive occurring is that there is an opposition to them using the roads because of the end use, and that's a political statement," Brown says. "That's not something I feel we should be involved with at this level."
Hodgskiss offers a similar hypothesis for the dramatic change in popular sentiment on the east side of the Divide. Imperial Oil has addressed the potential disruption to emergency services by employing highway patrolmen or local sheriff's personnel to escort the loads and communicate by radio with ambulances, allowing Mammoet drivers plenty of time to pull over. Imperial Oil will have to trim 21 cottonwood trees in Choteau to accommodate the loads, but Hodgskiss believes "they've got a pretty good game plan."
"It's just a different mindset over here," he says of the Front. "We have some oil and gas production going now, and it's kind of my personal feeling that the main opposition to those big loads is not the loads themselves but where they're going with them, to the tar sands. I'd rather buy my oil coming out of Canada than the Middle East."
Port of Sweetgrass
There isn't much at the Port of Sweetgrass but a shuttered café, a duty-free shop and the Canadian border. A busy afternoon amounts to a handful of Hutterites browsing the shop's wine and perfume selections. A few hundred yards away, the unassuming line of customs check stations are all that stand between Montana and Imperial Oil's final destination, Alberta. Officials here are almost mute on the subject of the KMTP, predicting no impacts whatsoever to Imperial Oil's last stop in America.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Imperial Oil’s last stop in the United States will be Montana’s Port of Sweetgrass. From here, the corporation’s modules will crawl through Alberta to ExxonMobil’s Kearl Tar Sands project—an oil extraction site strip-mining millions of acres of boreal forest.
"The shipments will be processed like any other wide-load, commercial shipment that is transiting through the U.S. to a foreign destination," says U.S. Customs and Border Protection Area Port Director Daniel Escobedo. "We do not expect port operations to be impacted by these shipments."
But if opposition to the heavy haul dies suddenly at Lincoln, it picks up again inside the Canadian border. Here the tar sands have caused untold devastation to the natural environment as 10.6 million acres of boreal forest are swallowed up by the Kearl Project's tailings ponds, strip-mining pits and processing plants. Critics consider the tar sands the single dirtiest method of oil extraction employed today, calling for the separation and dilution of bitumen from sandy soil deposits. The process uses up to four gallons of fresh water to extract a single gallon of crude oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and requires large amounts of natural gas to power the steam-based operation.
Environmental groups, First Nations activists and celebrities like film director James Cameron have loudly decried the Kearl Project for years. Endangered fisheries, polluted groundwater and increasing cases of rare cancers among tribal communities downstream from the tar sands on the Athabasca River rank among the top issues raised by Kearl Project opponents. A study conducted by the NRDC estimated that the tar sands tailings ponds could kill as many as 166 million migratory birds over the next 20 to 30 years. Yet the Kearl tar sands still account for roughly 60 percent of Alberta's total oil production.
"Animals are dying, disappearing, and being mutated by the poisons dumped into our river systems," wrote a group of youth from three indigenous First Nations in a 2009 letter to U.S. Sen. John Kerry. "Once we have destroyed these fragile eco-systems we will have also destroyed our peoples and trampled our treaty rights."
Duncan, Laughy and scores of others question the sustainability of the Port of Lewiston's dream, not just for its role in accommodating the tar sands, but for the impacts its actions will have on the region's communities, economies and natural assets.
"What's been good for the Port of Lewiston has been horrible for the entire rest of the Pacific Northwest, and never more so than now," Duncan says. "Now that the Port of Lewiston is trying to be a conduit connecting the Pacific Rim nations to the tar sands, never has that port so sorely needed to be shut down. That place is a disaster for the rest of the region."