Montana gets into the megaload business 

Lauren Engineers and Construction came to Teton County last fall with big promises. Like other companies tied to big oil, the Abilene, Texas-based energy contractor said it could stimulate the economy, provide jobs and bring more money to rural Montana. Lauren purchased land near Bynum, opened an office in Choteau and prepared to assemble oversized modular equipment for oil projects in the U.S. and Canada.

Then, everyone waited. Months went by without an update on potential contracts or future hires.

Now that wait is over. According to Lauren corporate marketing director Jody Lee, the company signed its first contract for the Bynum fabrication facility late last month and will begin an initial round of hiring in the community. Locals shouldn't start celebrating quite yet, though. Lee says the scope of this project, set to begin this fall, is far smaller than what Lauren hopes to snag in the future.

"It would just involve employing a handful of people," Lee says. "But this is just the beginning of what hopefully will be larger work for us in the future. We have two other contracts that are right on the cusp of being signed for us right now that are much larger and would allow the Bynum yard to become operational much more quickly than the fourth quarter [of 2012]."

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  • Photo courtesy of Fighting Goliath
  • An Imperial Oil module destined for the Alberta tar sands is transported by Dutch shipping company Mammoet in Idaho last year.

Lee says the catalyst for setting up shop in Montana was the state's proximity to major oil projects in the Alberta tar sands. As a prominent supplier of equipment for industries ranging from solar power to pulp and paper, Lauren Engineers wanted a piece of the action. However, "there's a ton of shops up in Canada already," Lee says. "Penetrating a market such as Edmonton in Alberta would be much more difficult than penetrating a market on the U.S. side."

There were other factors that made the Bynum site more cost-effective, Lee adds. For example, the new facility is well positioned on Highway 89, with a clear path to the Port of Sweetgrass. That route "will accommodate these large mega-module shipments," Lee says. "My understanding is all the power lines have been raised and the road infrastructure will accommodate the size loads we want to ship."

If any of this is starting to sound familiar, that's because Lauren Engineers' desired route is the tail-end of Imperial Oil's proposed Kearl Module Transportation Project. In 2010, Imperial came to Montana seeking permission to ship 200-some oversized loads of Korean-built modular equipment through the state to Canada. The proposal received a frosty welcome in Idaho and western Montana. Communities along highways 12 and 200 rallied against the use of narrow, scenic roads for what they termed the "heavy haul." And Gov. Brian Schweitzer questioned why such equipment wasn't constructed "in some place like Great Falls or Cut Bank or Havre, as opposed to being built in Korea."

Lauren Engineers' move to open a mega-module assembly shop in rural Montana seems like an answer to some of those arguments. Heavy-haul critics scoffed at Imperial's talk of economic stimulus for Montana, pointing out that the jobs associated with shipping foreign-made equipment through the state were largely short-term and low-wage. Now, Lauren's megaloads appear primed to create jobs in counties with unemployment rates ranging from 4.9 to 11.2 percent.

"The feedback we've gotten from the community and from those in government whom we've talked with in Montana has been very positive," Lee says. "Obviously, whenever we get this thing ramped up ... it's going to be a good job creator for the community. We look to staff a lot of the resource requirements, the labor requirements, from the local area."

Many of those jobs will require trained laborers like welders and fitters. Lee says the company's promise to hire qualified locals is a "verbal commitment."

The company's ability to make good on that commitment, however, hinges on a lot of ifs. And if heavy oil contracts come pouring in, the route to the tar sands will necessitate frequent oversized load travel. That means increased wear and tear on state highways, traffic congestion and a host of other public and environmental safety concerns all raised during the KMTP discussion. The region of the state now home to megaload construction was largely silent on Imperial Oil's proposal, however. Officials in some of those counties supported the heavy haul.

Lauren Engineers has partnered with Mammoet, the same Dutch shipping company hired by Imperial two years ago, to execute its transports. According to a Mammoet proposal currently under review by the Montana Department of Transportation, the desired route would cross many two-lane bridges and cut through a number of towns, including Bynum, Dupuyer and downtown Cut Bank. The proposal also includes a comprehensive emergency response plan.

"I know there's been problems in the past with determining whether the routes these modules would follow have adequate turnouts and things," Lee says of the potential issues of traffic congestion. "We've looked into those." Mammoet, he says, has "driven the route, they've drawn maps."

Teton County is already bracing itself for the potential spread of the Bakken oil boom. Community forums held earlier this year highlighted concerns over sustainable infrastructure, population increases and the inevitable bust that will follow. Lee insists that Lauren Engineers, at least, has taken steps to work with the community to alleviate those concerns.

"We're very cognizant of the fact that projects can and do, many times, come in and have a negative impact on communities if there's not that commitment from the very beginning," Lee says. "We have that commitment at heart."

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