Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oil, A Wild and Scenic River and Messy Situations

They came from over mountains: up the Lochsa to Lolo Pass and on through Missoula during the winter and spring of 2011, Behemoths by any measure of the term. Like nocturnal monsters, traveling only at night, yet indicators of a rapacious appetite and an impassive policy response. The media calls them megaloads; to transport operators, they are simply “oversized” and to the environmental community they are the “big rigs”. But at over 300 tons each encompassing 225 feet of length and carried by a trailer with 96 wheels, they can only be termed gargantuan sized loads (GSL).

First Gargantuan Sized Load (GSL) Crosses into Montana at Lolo Pass Early in the Morning Mid-February 2011.
Designed to enhance the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Billings, Montana the first pair of two-piece coking drums took over 65 days to travel from Lewiston, Idaho to Billings, far longer and with much more difficulty and fanfare than anticipated. While the trip from Missoula to Billings was simply long, the travel up the twisting road alongside the Lochsa River during winter's icy grip and the equally meandering highway down Lolo Creek proved to be more difficult and challenging than planned.

Moving the drums and preparing the highways is a complicated task. Since the GSL is as wide as the two lane highway that runs from Kooskia, Idaho to Lolo, Montana, traffic must be managed, pullouts prepared and loads secured. The height of the load required power lines to be moved or raised. Traffic signals in Missoula were taken down or turned to accommodate the drums as they passed through. Moving the GSLs requires dozens of people, representing the transport company, Conoco-Phillips, law enforcement, traffic management firms, and state transportation departments. Even an ambulance accompanied the loads to Missoula.
GSL Makes Turn onto Reserve Street in Missoula in Mid-March

The Conoco-Phillips GSLs were not the only ones expected. Exxon/Imperial had shipped 200 similarly sized GSLs to travel from Lewiston to Missoula and then up to northern Alberta as part of the Kearl  tar sands oil development projects. Manufactured in South Korea and shipped up the Snake River to the Port of Lewiston, the GSLs were scheduled to travel this route as the most efficient of any alternatives.
Crews Prepare to Remove Traffic Signals on Reserve Street in Missoula

These plans exploded into apprehensions, protest and legal action. Some of the protests, particularly in Idaho, involved the appropriateness of GSLs on the narrow Lochsa highway. The serpentine highway, designated a Scenic Byway and located along a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, simply was not designed nor managed for such large scale cargo. Many residents living along the scenic highway raised concern that modifications to the highway and power lines would result in a “high and wide” corridor suitable for additional industrial loads. Protestors argued that the loads would threaten tourism and recreationists, an important foundation to the local economy since the nearly fatal demise of the local wood products industry in northern Idaho. Several residents pursued action to prevent the Idaho Department of Transportation from issuing the permits needed for the over-sized loads.

Many environmentalists contended that it was “big oil’ that was plundering the locals, taking advantage of their weaker legal capabilities and making back room deals with highway departments. Environmentalists argued that extracting oil from the tar sands was environmentally destructive and permitting the GSLs to pass would represent complicity in this making these unacceptable impacts happen.

Demonstrators Protest GSLs and the Kearl Tar Sands Project in
Front of Module Temporarily Parked on Lolo Creek
Montana’s Governor Brian Schweitzer joined the fray by arguing that banning the loads would hurt efforts to attract business to Montana, thus upsetting chances for economic growth. The state has struggled recently, and spending by tranport crews was argued to be a diversifying effect. A decision to permit the GSLs to travel over the state’s highway would signal the private sector that Montana encourages a pro-business regulatory environment.

In Montana, several demonstrations and protests were also initiated and eventually accompanied by a suit by Missoula County over the adequacy of the environmental analyses conducted by the Montana Department of Transportation.  This suit focused on the potential impacts of highway pullouts on the environment. Such pullouts are needed to allow backed up traffic to pass by. Many were scheduled to be constructed along the two lane portion of the planned route.
Demonstrators Represented a Variety of Groups and Perspectives

Oil is the life blood of the North American economy and thus of its society. Under current conditions, without a plentiful and cheap supply of oil, we travel less, we produce less, we employ fewer. Tax revenues drop, government safety net and education programs receive less revenue. A growing appetite for petroleum—not only for gas and diesel, but also for plastics and other products—has not been mitigated by recession nor conservation. North American dependency on petroleum from overseas and frequently unfriendly governments remains high. While there has been modest declines in the U.S. in per capita consumption of energy, these have been more than offset by increases in population over the last 40 years.  The result is that more sources of energy are needed to maintain the quality of life we expect.

Oil companies and many political conservatives argue that domestic sources can help reduce the dependency on foreign sources if not demand. The Kearl tar sands development would add about 300,000 barrels per day to the North American oil supply. Current consumption is around 21 million barrels per day, so the project would, theoretically, reduce imports.
Not All Local Residents are Opposed to the Big Rigs or GSLs

For many, the controversy was never really about the GSLs and their potential impact on the Lochsa River and its scenic highway, but rather what they represented. In their eyes, GSLs reflect an unmitigated appetite for oil; fulfilling that appetite results in the environment being sacrificed. And, our appetite is large: 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the global production of energy.  Two hundred loads passing through Missoula almost daily for a year would be an in-your-face reminder of failures in energy conservation and management policy, aside from its practical disruption of traffic. Two hundred massively sized oil extraction equipment loads would represent a complicity with “big oil”.

Failures in the political system to develop a national energy policy since the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s continue to plague efforts to reduce consumption and encourage alternative sources of energy. While conservation has had a modest effect, an active, assertive energy conservation policy is still absent from North America. Of course, we have replaced incandescent light bulbs with mercury lined fluorescent ones. And some people have purchased hybrid automobiles. But what have we done more comprehensively? How often, when we make daily choices, such as where to shop and what to buy, does conservation become a large part of our household decision process? And what about decisions at other scales?  When does conservation become part of local zoning and subdivision ordinances and decisions? Is conservation in the mindset of the North American consumer?

Oil development, GSL's, scenic highways and livelihoods have converged here, creating a cauldron containing a complex and wicked set of tradeoffs. The values involved are real, but many are intangible. Traditional economic and policy analysis is incapable of measuring these intangibles nor are they suited for framing the character of the trade-offs. Venues for public discourse were limited to formal hearings and adjudication procedures, hardly the enabling fora for learning and productive deliberation called for by contemporary natural resource decision-makers and academics. The conflict involved more confrontation than collaboration. Science was absent. Procedures for dealing with future decisions of a similar kind (outside of the "oversized load" permitting process) were never discussed. In short, the strengths of a variety of social institutions were never brought to bear on decisions of enormous social import.

The decision to transport the GSL “modules” over Lolo Pass was influenced largely by the Director of the Port of Lewiston who convinced Conoco/Phillips and Exxon/Imperial to ship them there from South Korea. The Port Director’s mission is to create jobs in Lewiston, not to consider potential social and environmental impacts elsewhere. Thus, this locally focused decision carried with it latent consequences for other places and for other values. A scale mismatch occurred. Scale mismatches often have the devastating effect of displacing problems and producing surprises for other constituencies. In this case, the decision to ship GSLs to the Port of Lewiston impacted other people and the values of a Wild and Scenic River, but were not considered.

With the world's population set to exceed 9 billion by 2050, 28% higher than today, its enormous demand for energy and other resources will continue to confront local communities with what is termed  a "tragic" choice—conflicting values. These situations, where there is no good alternative, will challenge society to adopt new approaches to decisions and to engage all institutions available. There is no easy choice, contrary to what all sides in the GSL conflict argued. But with demands accelerating and diversifying, how many other protected areas may be surprised by decisions made elsewhere?
Very Large Load Parked in Lolo, Montana. Resident Fears
of a "High and Wide" Industrial Transportation Corridor have been Realized

The protests had a point, and civil society listened. In the fall of 2011, courts in Montana supported Missoula County's legal efforts to prevent the issuance of over-sized permits. But by then, Exxon had modified most of the GSL's awaiting transport and moved on an alternative route more acceptable to contending groups. As the environmental community and local residents predicted, the high and wide corridor is now being used to move very large loads for other industries.

All images (c) 2011 Steve McCool. Reproduction by permission only.