Even before Imperial Oil's test module shorted out power to 1,300 residents and excessively delayed traffic in Idaho Tuesday, opponents of the Kearl Module Transportation Project (KMTP) detected a hint of victory in the air. More often than not, opposition groups have faced defeat—most notably last month's release of a Finding of No Significant Impact by the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).
But Imperial began publicly shifting its focus in recent weeks, away from the hotly debated rural highways and toward the Interstate Highway System.
According to the corporation's March presentation to MDT, repeated permit delays caused by review and litigation have led to "escalating cost/schedule implications," forcing Imperial to implement a contingency plan. Imperial originally aimed to finish shipment of 207 oversized loads to Alberta by the end of 2011; four months into the year, not a single module has hit highway 12.
"There's no question that it's an initial victory, when a longstanding proposal to travel these rural river corridors is abandoned," says All Against the Haul campaign coordinator Zack Porter. "But it's only an initial victory."
The tides seem to have turned for heavy haul opposition two weeks ago, when Imperial Oil CEO Bruce March announced to Canadian press that the corporation intends to "revisit" its call to purchase modular equipment from a South Korean manufacturer. March's announcement came less than a month after Imperial said it had reduced 33 loads in Idaho to accommodate interstate travel. Imperial Oil spokesperson Pius Rolheiser confirms the reductions are part of the contingency plan, though he maintains that the corporation hasn't given up on the original KMTP.
"We currently have work underway to disassemble them to reduce the size and weight such that they could be moved via an interstate route, should that become necessary," Rolheiser tells the Indy. "But our original plan remains our preferred option."
For Porter and his opposition fellows, the new contingency plan isn't the only indicator that victory is in the wings. MDT approved a request from Imperial Oil to ship a test module through the state this month. That module—which weighs just under 500,000 pounds—left the port Monday night. It knocked out power to locals and blocked traffic for an hour shortly after departing, prompting Idaho to delay further transportation. Rolheiser says once the load reaches Lolo Hot Springs, it will remain there until turnout modifications are completed along the rest of the route.
Unlike Idaho, Montana does not require movement of a test module.
"We don't have to move the test validation module through Montana—but that is our intention," Rolheiser says.
Borg Hendrickson, co-founder of the Idaho-based Fighting Goliath, questions the definition of the incoming load as a "test." The 200-foot-long blue building is one of several loads that cannot be reduced for interstate travel. Rolheiser says the module isn't a "specific piece of equipment required by the Kearl project." Hendrickson alleges that, given the load's non-reducible nature and the presence of three similar modules at the port, this appears to be Imperial's way of shipping a load through under the guise of a test.
"We see signs of perhaps a fracturing of determination on their part," Hendrickson says. "If they hadn't thought about alternatives before, they're thinking about them now."
Says Porter, "I think we're going to see increasingly desperate attempts by Exxon and their supporters to get these [loads]squeezed through, and that includes the test module. They know they've hit a brick wall, a dead end. They can either shoot this thing back down the Columbia and the Snake and around to the Gulf of Mexico, or they can sneak it through as a test module."
Porter says Imperial Oil keeps altering its story, which helps the opposition.
For example, Imperial never mentioned the interstate system as a potential alternative to the scenic river corridors of highways 12 and 200. Yet Rolheiser told the Indy this week that the decision to manufacture modules that are too big for interstate travel was made from an engineering perspective, and wasn't the only option.
"Yes, theoretically they could have been manufactured in smaller dimensions," Rolheiser says. "But from an engineering, technical, risk-safety perspective, that simply wasn't the best alternative."
As Imperial continues to be hammered with court proceedings and permit delays, however, that might be their only option. The Missoula County Board of Commissioners joined a lawsuit early this month to prevent MDT from issuing the oversized load permits Imperial requires to execute its original plan. Litigation is still pending, but the commissioners intend to stop the heavy haul until Imperial can address a range of concerns, from environmental impacts to disruption of tourism and commercial activity.
Hendrickson stops short of calling the latest developments an outright victory, but she agrees with Porter's sentiments that the fight is looking more promising.
"We can't look at what Imperial Oil has said [and] we can't look at the county commissioners' decision to join in this without feeling more hope for this cause than we ever have," Porter says. "That being said, it ain't over 'til it's over—and for all we know, we're still only at the beginning."