Oversized cargo docks at Lewiston

Megaloads bound for Alberta arrive

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Friday, October 15, 2010

For the second time in less than a year, the Port of Lewiston received oversized cargo Thursday as crews began to unload the first four of more than 200 Imperial Oil modules.

Imperial Oil, which is mostly owned by ExxonMobil, hopes to ship the equipment along U.S. Highway 12 to a processing plant it’s building at the Kearl Oil Sands Project about 45 miles northeast of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

How soon the cargo will start the rest of its journey depends on if the transportation departments in Idaho and Montana grant permission for it to pass through those states, said Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil in Calgary, Alberta.

The arrival of the shipments came as more questions surfaced about what plans oil companies have for Highway 12. The road follows the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers through a twisty, narrow canyon on its way to the Montana border.

The Natural Resources Defense Council contends instead of just 207, Imperial Oil has financial commitments that will likely mean “thousands” of oversized modules will be sent through the Pacific Northwest. That belief is based on its translation of Korean business documents and press reports.

The contract Sung Jin Geotec has with ExxonMobil to make modules for the Kearl Oil Sands project is worth $1.5 billion over a 10-year period and only $250 million of that is for the first 207 modules, according to a news release the Natural Resources Defense Council issued recently.

Rolheiser dismissed the content of the news release. “We’ve been quite clear on the fact we have no plans beyond the 207 we’re currently moving.”

At the same time, other energy companies have interest in the corridor. ConocoPhillips has four megaloads bound for a Billings, Mont., refinery stranded at the Port of Lewiston after arriving in the spring. They’re awaiting the outcome of an Idaho Supreme Court case challenging the permits the Idaho Transportation Department issued allowing them to travel to Montana on Highway 12.

Harvest Energy Co. met with the Idaho Transportation Department in September inquiring about what permits might be required to take 40 to 60 oversized loads through the region on their way to the Alberta oil sands.

Work has been ongoing at the Kearl Oil Sands Project for two years where a crew of about 2,500 is building a plant, Rolheiser said.

Imperial Oil will take bitumen, a heavy oil it’s removing from the earth in an open pit mine, and separate it from clay and sand.

The equipment in Lewiston will be used in a “paraffinic froth treatment” to make the bitumen light enough to be transported by pipelines to refineries where it will be turned into products like gasoline and diesel fuel. The plant is expected to be completed by 2012.

Having the modules prefabricated in Korea will allow the plant to be completed more quickly and makes it possible for components to be finished in a controlled factory environment instead of outdoors, Rolheiser said.

Getting the modules unloaded in Lewiston was a painstaking process. It involved a crew of at least a dozen people, many wearing red work suits and reflective vests. A trailer was inched underneath each module that sat on cylindrical pedestals on a barge parked perpendicular to the port’s dock.

An operator drove the trailer – controlling its movements with two joy sticks on a console connected to the trailer with a yellow cord. Crew members then secured the modules to the trailer with large chains before pulling them off the barge.

They were taken to a yard and placed on pedestals where they’ll wait for the next segment of the journey, where they’ll consume two lanes of road pulling over every 15 minutes to allow vehicles to pass. They’ll travel at night in a trip that will take three days to go from Lewiston to the Montana border.

All the maneuvering took place under recently added security. A uniformed attendant of a Portland security company with a clipboard kept track of vehicles entering the port’s container yard. Newly constructed fencing as well as empty containers made it difficult for anyone outside the yard to view the activity.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.