Road tripping

Energy mogul ConocoPhillips is fast approaching its desired deadline for finalizing a high and wide transportation project through Montana. But a number of formal measures have yet to be completed before the four enormous coke drums can hit the road from Lewiston, Idaho, to the company's refinery in Billings.

Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), says the ball is very much in ConocoPhillips' court. MDT can't green-light the shipments until it has verified that the Idaho Transportation Department has approved the project. ConocoPhillips is also still negotiating with the Missoula Electric Cooperative about shutting off power along Highway 12 while power lines are temporarily relocated.

"We just received their information on their detours—one in Harlowton and one in Helena—where they want to access local roads," Lynch says of the latest progress. "Their goal is still to have all this done by the end of the month."

If the project seems rushed, that's because it is. ConocoPhillips only announced its intentions to ship the coke drums through western Montana in late spring and hopes to have the first two drums on the road in early July. Each load will take about three weeks to travel the full 700 miles.

Despite the size of the shipments, the project has generated few organized protests in Montana compared to the overwhelmingly unpopular Kearl Module Transportation Project proposed by Exxon-Mobil. Even Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT), the grassroots climate justice group that has hosted a number of rallies opposing ExxonMobil's actions, has hardly touched the ConocoPhillips issue despite claiming it indicates a precedent for accommodating oil companies and their oversized equipment.

Leaders with NRRT declined comment as they're currently at a protest in Detroit and "out of the loop."

Lynch suspects the muted opposition to ConocoPhillips is largely due to the nature of the project. The role ExxonMobil's shipments will play in the controversial tar sands operation in Alberta make it an easy target for rankling, he says. ConocoPhillips may get lumped into the complaints because the loads are similarly high and wide, but there's less reason—political and ideological—to publicly protest them.

"It's fielded in the same way, but the ConocoPhillips [project] isn't about developing oil in Canada," Lynch says. "It's about a need at the refinery."

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