Megaloads: Winter looms, oil company says in request

ConocoPhillips wants state high court to announce decision before it’s written

By William L. Spence of the Tribune

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
ConocoPhillips is asking the Idaho Supreme Court to give an inch so it can take about 170 miles.

The company wants to send four oversized shipments of refinery equipment from Lewiston to Montana along U.S. Highway 12. It’s currently awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit that questions whether the Idaho Transportation Department followed its own rules when it issued four travel permits in August.

In a motion filed Monday, ConocoPhillips asked the court to announce its decision in the case as soon as possible, even before a written ruling is available. Should the decision be in its favor, the company said, it may still have time to move the loads over Lolo Pass this year, before winter sets in.

The oversized loads are currently parked at the Port of Lewiston.

In previous court filings, ConocoPhillips indicated that delaying the shipments until next year would cost the company millions of dollars and prevent the company from refurbishing its Billings refinery.

The Supreme Court recognized the urgent nature of the case when it agreed to conduct an expedited hearing. Consequently, rather than add to the delay by taking time to issue a written brief – one that explains the court ruling and addresses other issues that aren’t time-sensitive – ConocoPhillips is suggesting the court make a determination in the case as soon as it can, with the written opinion to follow at a more leisurely pace.

The court has taken a similar approach in other time-sensitive cases, the company said. For example, it issued a determination just a few days after oral arguments were held in a 1984 redistricting case. Other courts have done the same.

“The gravity of the situation and the consequences and expenditures at stake for ConocoPhillips, as well as for other parties, justify an early release of the court’s determination, prior to the court’s written opinion,” the company noted in its brief.

Oral arguments in the lawsuit were on Oct. 1. The Supreme Court historically takes an average of about 60 days to issue a ruling.

In a separate development, three environmental groups have asked Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter to stop all shipments of hazardous material along a major portion of U.S. 12.

Friends of the Clearwater, Save Our Wild Salmon and Palouse Group Sierra Club based their request on the recent accident in which a diesel truck overturned and spilled about 7,500 gallons of fuel into a ditch beside the highway.

“This spill is not the first that has occurred,” the groups noted in a letter to the governor. “Crashes in 2002 and 2003 spilled thousands of gallons into the river, and a crash in 2005 spilled 1,600 gallons on the north side of the road.”

The Lochsa and Clearwater are cold, clean rivers that provide water for various municipalities and support internationally renowned fisheries, the groups said. To ensure their protection, they want Otter to work with the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Transportation Department to stop further shipments of hazardous material along the Lochsa River portion of U.S. 12 and to reduce such shipments along the Middle Fork Clearwater segment.

The groups also reiterated their opposition to the oversized shipments proposed by ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil and most recently by Harvest Energy Co.

“The nature of this route dictates that it isn’t appropriate for hazardous materials and is not appropriate for massively oversized loads either,” they said.

Oil company officials have indicated the refinery and processing equipment is made of inert metals and therefore isn’t hazardous.

Spence may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2274.