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Potential impacts of the Kearl Module Transportation Project through Montana compare to those of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project and should be treated as such, a National Wildlife Federation representative said Tuesday.

Tom France of Missoula, regional executive director of the wildlife federation, called on the Montana Department of Transportation and Director Jim Lynch to recognize the environmental issues inherent to the two massive oil transport projects.

In a letter to Lynch dated July 23, France re-emphasized the federation's claim that Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's proposal to move 207 massive modules of oil sands extraction equipment to Canada over Montana's highways be subjected to an environmental impact study.

The U.S. Department of State said Tuesday it would postpone for 90 days its decision to issue a permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would clip a part of eastern Montana on its route from oil fields in Canada to the upper Great Plains and, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico.

The State Department's decision comes in the face of fresh criticism by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA found a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone project inadequate, in part because it failed to consider the effects associated with increased greenhouse gas emissions of expanded oil/tar sands extraction.

The criticism is just as true for the less-intensive environmental assessment required for the Kearl project by Montana's transportation department, France claimed.

MDT has stated that the question of issuing 32-J permits for the Kearl project is limited to whether the roads and bridges along the Montana route can accommodate loads that will be up to 24 feet wide, nearly 30 feet high, will weigh as much as 168 tons and require Montana Highway Patrol escorts.

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The EPA panned the Keystone pipeline study, which addressed a similar narrow scope of transport.

"While the EPA recognized that the stated objective of TransCanada's proposal is to construct a pipeline to transport oil sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries in the United States, the agency believed that the purpose and need to which (the State Department) was responding is broader," France's letter to Lynch read. "Specifically, and similar to the (Kearl transport project), the broader purpose and need of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project is the facilitation of increased tar sands development in Canada."

EPA recommended discussion in the Keystone study be expanded "to include, in particular, an estimate of the extraction-related greenhouse gas emissions associated with long-term importation of large quantities of oil sands crude from a dedicated source," France wrote.

"Much like the causal relationship identified by EPA between a cross-border permit for a pipeline project and increased extraction of oil sands crude in Canada, a permit for over-dimension loads carrying essential components of tar sands equipment is clearly related to, and indeed is a necessary precondition for, increased extraction of Canadian oil sands crude."

He added that the fact that MDT recognizes that issuing 32-J load permits beyond the Kearl project is "reasonably foreseeable" only serves to strengthen the relationship between the transport and more extraction in the oil sands.

"Because of this relationship, and in order to fully inform decision makers and the public," his letter concludes, "MDT must consider the increased extraction related GHG emissions that will inevitably result from granting over-dimension load permits for the transportation of modules used in the tar sand production process."

Lynch didn't respond Tuesday to a request for comment on France's letter. An MDT official said in mid-July the department is considering Imperial/Exxon's responses to concerns raised during the environmental assessment process.

France noted in an interview that Lynch, as deciding officer, "has to make the decision that his environmental analysis has been adequate."

The National Wildlife Federation's is one of a number of voices that claim it hasn't been. It's been joined by, among others, the Missoula City Council, Missoula County Commissioners and assorted conservation groups calling for the more intensive Environmental Impact Statement as provided for by the National Environmental Policy Act.

"I've been a bit surprised at just how upset people are about this," France said. "I've seldom seen in western Montana more letters to the editor and more of an outcry, and I think it's backed MDT off a little bit."

So have the legal arguments that his group and others have made, he said.

"With the EPA letter on the pipeline, Director Lynch now has analogous precedent, I think, that he can look at and say, ‘Geez, we should be looking at this the same way,' " said France.

"Whether MDT will go over the hurdle and say the public's right, the lawyers are right, the politicians are right, that we need to do an EIS on this, that's a pretty big decision and I'm sure Jim Lynch is wrestling with it," said France. "I think he can be legally compelled to do that. I think litigation is certainly a possibility here."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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