Imperial Oil appears to be changing its tune regarding the controversial shipping of 207 oversized loads on highways 12 and 200. The Canadian subsidiary of oil conglomerate ExxonMobil hasn't been up front about the fact, but evidence suggests the company is turning to the Pacific Northwest's interstate highway system as an alternative corridor between Pacific Rim nations and the corporation's tar sands mining operation in Alberta.
Media buzz on the big rigs the past two weeks has focused primarily on the downsizing of more than 30 modules now sitting at Idaho's Port of Lewiston. Specialized crews reportedly arrived at the port to begin chopping the loads down to accommodate interstate travel. At the same time, The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., ran a story detailing Imperial Oil's plan to ship four oversized loads a week to Spokane along interstates 5 and 90.
Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser initially dismissed news of the size reductions as rumor, apparently sticking to the notion promoted by the corporation last year that the loads were non-divisible. But Rolheiser flip-flopped last week when he confirmed that the company intends to use the interstate system to ship a significant portion of its modules. In fact, they already have. Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director Jim Lynch told the Independent this week that 11 oversized loads—shipped in groups of three or so—have passed through Montana to the Port of Sweetgrass on I-90 and I-15 since mid-December.
Imperial Oil public affairs officer Jon Harding says roughly 60 of the 207 loads included in the Kearl Module Transportation Project were interstate-ready from the get-go. He would not comment on how many more might be reduced, but the Indy uncovered a Feb. 14 review by MDT of a permit application for oversized loads on I-90 and I-15 filed by Imperial Oil's shipping company, Mammoet. Lynch says the application stands out from Imperial's other recent requests in that it seeks permission to transport roughly 50 modules along the route.
Harding says the corporation's preferred route for shipment is still the Highway 12/Highway 200 corridor. Load size reduction will cost Imperial a reported $500,000 per module. But we can't help feeling like Imperial, in the face of strident opposition, is frantically—and quietly—searching for a workaround. The furtiveness with which they've conducted themselves only affirms the suspicions of many in Idaho and Montana: that big oil will say—or do—anything to get its way.