Environmental groups ask Congress to force additional oversight of proposed shipments

By Eric Barker of the Tribune

Friday, September 24, 2010

Conservation groups are calling on the Northwest congressional delegation to force more oversight of proposed shipments of oil processing equipment on the Snake and Columbia rivers and along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho and Montana.

A coalition of 40 conservation, energy, fishing and outdoor organizations sent letters to U.S. senators and representatives from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, asking them to insist on a comprehensive review of the proposal.

Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. wants to ship about 200 loads of oil processing equipment from the Port of Vancouver to the Port of Lewiston and then truck them to northern Alberta, Canada, along the rural two-lane highway.

The oversized shipments would take up two lanes of traffic and cause rolling road-blocks as they travel along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, through Missoula and eventually to the Canadian border.

“Exxon’s project will harm people, towns, economies and environments in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. We hope you will oppose it, but now we ask your help to assure full environmental, economic and alternative assessments by the federal government takes place before any federal decision to permit it,” they said in a letter Wednesday.

The shipments are permitted by state highway agencies, but the groups believe federal oversight is warranted.

“Right now the Federal Highway Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, all the federal agencies that I think are concerned about this, are standing on the sidelines and Congress is standing on the sidelines while these major international corporations are making decisions that will affect the Northwest for decades,” said Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation at Missoula, Mont.

France said there are two main parts to the opposition to the loads. There is worry the shipments will pose threats to safety, recreation and the environment as they travel through Idaho and Montana, and they will contribute to intensive oil development in Canada as well as global warming.

“We need to make a collective decision if that is an industry we want to be helping to grow,” France said. “On a fundamental level the National Wildlife Federation would say no, that is not an industry we want to help grow. We need to move toward clean energy.”

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise said the permitting of the loads is piecemeal, but a big-picture look needs to examine the cumulative effects.

“If you just look at the little tiny aspects of it, like we widened this piece of road or we buried a utility line, you can’t see the forest through the trees,” Hayes said. “None of the individual jurisdictions along the way have the ability, or frankly the authority, to look at the big picture, so it is really incumbent on a larger federal agency look.”

Other signers to the letter include the Northwest Energy Coalition, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club, Friends of the Clearwater and the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs.

Barker may be contacted at [email protected] or at (208) 848-2273.