Two-hundred-foot-long, 600,000-pound megaloads traveling from Idaho to Canada’s tar sands are slated to roll through some of the nation’s most beloved wild areas.
It was a lie that first drew my attention—my alarm. It would not be the first lie, but it was quite a windy. One of the largest companies in the world—Exxon—had come to Montana, the fourth-largest state in the country but home to fewer than a million people, and had petitioned our governor and Department of Transportation to allow a continuous slow caravan of gigantic mining and refinery equipment to sledge over our ice- and snow-covered roads, winding up to the buried tar sands in Alberta—described as one of the largest industrial projects in the world. The first lie was that it would be a one-time deal.
Creeping and crawling at as little as 5 miles per hour, some of the trucks weigh more than 600,000 pounds. These “megaloads” can be well over 200 feet long, and three stories high. Cylinders—built in South Korea—would come across the ocean to the Pacific Northwest before being barged up the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho, through a series of dams that are currently preventing wild salmon recovery. In Lewiston they would be transferred onto giant trucks and hauled along the Lochsa River—a National Wild and Scenic River, used not only by people but also by mountain lions, osprey, black bears, and moose passing through at night—to Lolo Pass, on the Scenic Byway. The megaloads are 26 feet wide; the road itself, from cliff wall to cliff wall, is only two feet wider in places. Then on through Missoula, a liberal university town that’s already, despite its high density of bicyclists, encountering traffic jams. Once through the town the convoy would continue along the Big Blackfoot River, made famous in A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean’s novella and Robert Redford’s movie. And then, perhaps worst of all, megaloads would follow the narrow windswept roads along the iconic Rocky Mountain front, literally the heart of Montana. (Ironically, this is a place where U.S. taxpayers have invested millions to retire oil and gas leases, protect roadless lands as wilderness, and fund conservation easements.)
I once worked in oilfields—tiny fields in north Alabama and north Mississippi—searching for lenses of old Paleozoic sediments buried half a mile or farther beneath soybean fields, and I know of the ceaseless flow of traffic required to service the technological challenge of extracting anything from underground. Machines break hourly in the oilfield, under the heat and duress of the relentless friction. Oilfield service equipment—as if servicing an army—flows back and forth ceaselessly, to and from the fields, with replacement parts, specialty equipment, and personnel and all their needs and services, at all hours of the night and day. To extract oil from the ground is to engage in a war. Some wars are longer and more difficult than others.
Exxon denied it had petitioned Montana’s governor and Transportation Department to make the route a “High and Wide” permanent industrial corridor, but Freedom of Information Act documents show the company did just that. Governor Brian Schweitzer believes that converting Montana into a permanent industrial corridor is good for the treasury. He insists that unless you “live in a cave and eat nuts,” you are dependent on oil and should support this project because it is “conflict-free.” He appears not to view global warming and the mass displacement it will cause as a conflict. In addition to wrecking the carbon-absorbing lungs of North America by removing the boreal forest above the tar sands, the project itself requires vast amounts of carbon just to get the oil into the heated pipeline that will transport it to the global market so that we can burn more. It takes four barrels of water to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, through the steaming process. It takes the equivalent of four barrels of world oil to yield 10 barrels of tar sands oil.
And the native people of Fort Chipewyan, immediately downstream of the tar sands, would surely find the phrase “conflict-free” disingenuous. They are getting sick and dying at an alarming rate as the Athabasca River becomes a repository for the project’s mysterious effluents (see “Crude Awakening,” March-April 2010).
What does the permanent corridor bring to Montana that the state doesn’t have but needs? Exxon—which the Transportation Department required to hire and pay a third-party contractor to determine whether there might be any negative social and environmental impacts at all (surprise: the contractor reported that no, there would be few if any negative impacts)—has stated that developing a permanent High and Wide corridor would be good for Montanans and Idahoans because the dozens of giant pullout areas they’re constructing in the Lochsa River Wild and Scenic corridor could serve as cell phone turnouts—never mind that there’s no coverage in the steep, winding canyon. They also touted the part-time flag-holding jobs but conveniently neglected the way the project might, in each of the next 50 years, scare away the annual $1.6 billion-dollar tourist industry.
We all use oil, of course. But it is flat wrong-headed to assert that we should tear up every inch of earth in every way possible to obtain every last drop to feed our addiction, and that we should give leaders and politicians carte blanche to do industry’s bidding rather than the future’s bidding. It is our very complicity that gives us our authority. If we who use it will not speak against it and demand that it be set aside, then who else will?
Senators from the Pacific Northwest could oppose the haul, and could set about on some real economic development, removing the failing dams that clot the Snake River and that are preventing the recovery of a financially lucrative and economically and ecologically priceless wild salmon population. (The inland port at Lewiston, by contrast, where the megaloads are off-loaded, employs five people.)
Again, Governor Schweitzer—whose administration had been meeting privately for two years with Exxon before the proposal surfaced—could also stop it, but so, too, can Montana residents. Voters have the ability to pass an initiative preventing such passage. The state has passed initiatives like this before, outlawing the mining technique known as toxic heap-leach mining, and they can do it again. Some Missoula residents are hoping the city council will pass a resolution barring passage through the town’s boundaries.
Already, test shipments are encountering many of the difficulties that had been predicted for them. Two Conoco loads, bound for a refinery in Billings, Montana, have crept through, despite a series of blizzards that caused delays ranging from an hour to days. They’ve gotten stuck at some of the tight passes, rubbing up against cut Nez Perce boulders. (The Nez Perce oppose the haul, as it passes through some of the tribe’s most sacred sites.)
Montana can’t single-handedly shut down the Canadian tar sands. But the fight here can draw attention to the larger issue of ravaging North America’s great boreal forest in pursuit of dirty fuel, and perhaps even slow that devastation, buying a bit more time for courageous politicians to emerge. (For more on the pipeline, read “Tarred and Feathered,” also from the July-August 2011 issue.)
Rick Bass is the author of more than 20 books, including The Wild Marsh, about his home in northwestern Montana.
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