These days it seems like Big Oil gets to do what it wants, when it wants, and wherever it wants, no matter which political party is dominant or who's in office. It's rare as hen's teeth to see Exxon, BP, Shell or Chevron take one in the chops. But that's just what happened this week thanks to the determined efforts of "the little people" in Idaho and Montana who decided to derail Goliath's plans to ship megaloads of Korean-made equipment through the beautiful and fragile river valleys of our states and on to Alberta's tar sands. The battle isn't totally over, but the moral is clear: You can't win if you don't fight back.
Here's a quick recap: Exxon Mobil decided it would be cheaper to have the enormous tar sands equipment for its Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil, made by low-cost labor in Korea than to fabricate it in the U.S. or Canada. Then it had to be shipped across the Pacific and up the Columbia River to the Port of Lewiston in western Idaho. From there, the plan was to truck the monstrous loads—which measured up to 300 feet long and three stories high and wide, and weighed up to 600,000 pounds—up the Clearwater River to its confluence with the Lochsa and then up and over the narrow and winding Lolo Pass into Montana. The proposed route then descended the pass, followed the Bitterroot River into and through Missoula and then paralleled the Blackfoot River corridor to the Rocky Mountain Front, where it would head north to Alberta.
The travesty of the plan is that it was years in the making with the full knowledge of both Idaho's Republican Governor Butch Otter and Montana's Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer. For the most part, they and their departments of transportation had been nodding their heads like good little servants of Big Oil's needs and assuring Exxon and its fellow Big Oil cohorts that there would be no problems with the chosen route for more than 200 megaloads.
It wasn't until both states finally had to enter the environmental analysis stage of the game that the public finally got to find out what our politicians were planning for our lives. And when we did, the proverbial feces hit the fan. Montana tried to stuff through a wholly inadequate analysis instead of doing a full-on Environmental Impact Statement. Idaho did the same. It was, from all appearances, a "done deal," made and sealed in a backroom by two governors from two different parties who were both willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of their roads, bridges, rivers and citizenry to the whims of Big Oil.
But then a strange thing happened. A couple of folks in Idaho decided to fight back. As residents of the Lochsa River area, they knew well the narrow confines of the roadway, it's inability to handle monstrous loads, and what it would mean to have the only access to hospitals or emergency services blocked by giant trucks with no chance whatsoever to get around the oversize loads. And that says nothing about the degradation of the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Rivers up which the loads would travel.
The names of those Idaho folks, just so everyone remembers, are Borg Hendrickson and Linwood Laughy. With their friends and neighbors, they started a group called Fighting Goliath, took their case to the public, challenged the permits, and rallied a like-minded contingent on the Montana side of the border to fight to protect those precious river corridors.
Here in Montana, the resistance came from the Missoula County Commission, the Montana Environmen-tal Information Center, Northern Rockies Rising Tide, and many others who formed All Against the Haul and took Montana's Department of Transportation to court for its inadequate environmental analysis. In the meantime, Montanan Paul Edwards, the former writer of Gunsmoke, produced a video exposing the tar sands for what they are, one of the greatest environmental travesties on the face of the Earth.
The Lilliputian resistance cast so many tiny ropes over Exxon's plans that the plans began to fail. With production schedules at stake, every delay, appeal, and court hearing cost Exxon considerably more than their planned route was worth. Eventually, they decided to cut the giant modules in half and begin shipping them on the interstate in an attempt to get them to the tar sands. When a state district judge in Anaconda issued a temporary restraining order to stop the loads because the Montana Department of Transportation had done such a flimsy job on the environmental analysis, it was the final straw.
On Tuesday, Exxon announced it would be re-routing its equipment to Washington's port of Pasco instead of Lewiston. Now it's seeking permission from the state of Washington to ship the reduced-size loads on the interstate.
"Needless to say, Imperial's plan looks to have gone 'belly up' as the final leg has been dogged with problems," wrote Ian McInnes, of the Canadian publication Industrial Fuels and Power. "Imperial thought it would easily get permits to shift the giant loads up highway 12, a backdrop of outstanding natural beauty... But this has not proved to be the case and Imperial has faced a fierce battle at almost every turn."
"Belly up" has a nice ring to it coming from an industry journal, but it also has an important message: You can't win if you don't stand up and fight. And sometimes that means fighting your own politicians, your own government agencies and those who would willingly prostitute the beauty and environment of our state for more Big Oil money.
The "little people" needed some good news this week and we got some. So here's a big thank-you to all those who fought back and, for once, busted Big Oil's chops.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.