Veteran environmental watchdog and Ojibwe Indian Marty Cobenais is joining forces with a growing coalition of conservationists calling for Montana to block ExxonMobil's proposed high-and-wide corridor through the state.
An ExxonMobil subsidiary, Imperial Oil, asked the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) to approve a permit that would allow the company to transport massive oil processing "modules" over Lolo Pass and through Missoula en route to the Port of Sweetgrass. The 300-mile Montana leg constitutes just one segment of a long journey that would take the equipment from South Korea to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta.
Accommodating the modules requires about $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. MDT is expected to decide this month on whether or not to approve the proposal.
Cobenais, of the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network, says the project has the makings of an environmental catastrophe—and that's before the equipment even gets to Alberta, where it will help extract oil from beneath pristine boreal forest.
We caught up with Cobenais this week prior to his arrival for a speech about the proposal.
Indy: What's happening now at the Alberta tar sands mines?
Cobenais: They want to expand. Right now, they are building too many pipelines, so they can't meet production. They're having a hard time even filling up the pipelines that are just now coming online. Plus, they have another Keystone XL Pipeline that they want to create. They want to get more equipment up there. That's why the Missoula corridor is being created, so they can get more equipment up to the tar sands to get more oil out. That's what we're trying to fight. We're trying to stop the expansion. In the end, the tar sands will be equivalent to the size of Florida.
Indy: Why is Missoula important in this discussion? Why is it important that Montanans are engaged?
Cobenais: Right now Missoula is very important, because they're expanding the highway along the river between Missoula and Lewiston to create more space for these vehicles...You're going to build up the highways. You're going to disturb the waters, the rivers and everything else along the way to create all of this. If there's an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, it's one of those (trucks) falling into the river.
Indy: Northern Rockies Rising Tide and others have accused Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer of encouraging production of dirty fuel by supporting the high-and-wide corridor. Do you agree?
Cobenais: I'd have to say yes. He's also encouraging the Keystone XL Pipeline to go through eastern Montana...You look at the oil spill in the Gulf Coast... These pipelines will break and they will end up having oil spills.
Indy: Schweitzer has said that the project, if approved by MDT, will yield approximately $68 million in revenue for the state. That revenue, he says, provides a powerful economic incentive. Do you dispute the potential economic benefits of the proposal?
Cobenais: Economic blackmail is what's going on right now by these big companies. They can buy their way through and do whatever they want to do with no repercussions. The government will say, 'Yes, we can make this money. And we can also create these jobs.' Those are the top two things any government official is going to look at right now. And, unfortunately, the environment loses that fight every time.
Indy: I've read that the estimated carbon footprint resulting from oil extraction in the Alberta tar sands could be worse than any other oil extraction project in North America. Is that true?
Cobenais: This is going to be the second largest oil area in the world. It's also, unfortunately, the most damaging way of extracting oil. Right now they dig off the whole boreal forest and they dig down about 80 to 100 meters. And they claim to put things back the way they were afterward. But, looking at it, they're not. So, yes, there's a huge carbon footprint.
Indy: MDT has said it must comply with state law when deciding whether to approve the shipments. And what we're hearing from MDT is that its scope is limited to just looking at the immediate impacts of the actual corridor itself. The agency is not legally allowed to look any further than that—to look at, for instance, the broader environmental picture. What's your take on this legal rationale?
Cobenais: I think that government will find a way to allow it just because that's the government. They know the rules, the ins and outs, just like the oil companies do.
Indy: If Montanans don't want to see the corridor constructed or the larger project continue, what can they do to stop it?
Cobenais: I think people can still get up and voice their opinions and give strong reasoning for why the governor and the state departments and everyone else should not give these permits...Voices are still heard. If people are against it, they can get out and be active. They can do protests, nonviolently of course, get out and voice their opinions and say no. And if it does happen they can change the leadership.