How fitting that a barrage of comments on Imperial Oil's plan to roll enormous oil sands modules through western Montana proved too big to pass through the state's e-mail system. That's what happened last week when the Natural Resource Defense Council sent 6,500 messages on behalf of citizens who oppose the proposed yearlong, 300-mile big rig parade between Lolo Pass and the Port of Sweetgrass en route to Alberta. Unfortunately, the lesson of the "glitch" was lost on the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).
Despite the fact that hundreds of e-mail comments on the contentious Kearl Module Transportation Project bounced back, and that in general the project has raised more eyebrows than Ooh La Latte, MDT chose not to extend the comment period beyond last Friday, clearing the road for the department to make its decision in the coming weeks.
MDT Director Jim Lynch says the comments he's read so far are a "mixed bag." Some don't buy officials' repeated denials that the project would create a permanent high-and-wide corridor. And many—including Missoula City Council—asked the department to require Imperial Oil, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, to write a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
"It isn't like they're building a brand new road somewhere," Lynch tells the Indy of the department's decision to forego an EIS. "If they were actually going to build a brand new roadway or going to have significant impacts that couldn't be mitigated within the transportation corridor, then you might be looking at a different document."
No, Imperial Oil may not be building a new road. But we might not recognize some of our existing ones should MDT allow $22 million worth of highway modifications. The company would raise or bury utility lines in 572 locations, modify or install 33 traffic structures, modify or build 75 highway turnouts, and trim dozens of trees in Bonner and Choteau. That's an awfully big investment for what's supposedly a one-off deal.
Lynch says a decision could be made within 30 days. The comments hardly seem the most important consideration, not when Gov. Brian Schweitzer boasts of $68 million in economic activity the project would, according to Imperial Oil's math, bring to the region.
But no amount of money justifies the state rubberstamping this project without appropriate review. And no matter the reassurances, we can't look past our very justifiable distrust of oil companies. The next glitch could have far bigger consequences.