Balancing the debate 

Montana Chamber of Commerce (MCC) President Webb Brown feels the discussion over ExxonMobil's Kearl Module Transportation Project has been decidedly unbalanced this past year. Critics of the proposal have drowned out proponents, he says, with passionate arguments on the impacts the big rigs could have on roadways, fisheries and scenic corridors in Montana and Idaho.

That's exactly why this October, the MCC jumped on board with a regional task force called Drive Our Economy. The coalition, composed of 12 other Montana- and Idaho-based organizations, touts the economic benefits of ExxonMobil's high-and-wide loads, and has emerged as the weightiest backer of the corporation's proposal to date.

"If we truly are going to try to develop our energy resources, there are some impacts positive and negative," Brown says. "[MCC's membership] was more from the position that the negatives are overbalancing or overweighing everything else, and we think there's a positive side of it, too."

Drive Our Economy claims the Kearl project will bring an estimated $80 million in permits, road improvements and jobs to the two states. While Brown admits he has yet to hear any promises of job creation from ExxonMobil, he assures the task force is dedicated to making sure the corporation "pays its way."

Brown says the MCC by no means supports ExxonMobil's proposal "carte blanche," but others with the task force have already railed against ExxonMobil's critics over the past month and a half. Pat Richardson of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation stated on the group's website that "outsiders like the Natural Resources Defense Council are using scare tactics around these 'mega-loads' to drown out a productive discussion about what's best for Idaho and effectively take this debate out of local hands."

For Brown, Drive Our Economy's interests go beyond ExxonMobil's immediate plans to use Idaho and Montana as a throughway to its tar sands mining operation in Alberta. He says the task force could prove useful in future discussions involving other resource development. One of the group's key goals is to keep the region's highways open to commerce, whether for oil interests or companies shipping wind turbines.

"This just makes sure that as we go forward, all the positives and negatives will be balanced out," Brown says.

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