BONNER - It's hard to predict which will be bigger: the 207 megaloads of oil processing equipment Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil wants to push-pull through Montana or the impacts they'll have down the road and on the road.
That was the consensus Thursday night at a panel discussion at St. Ann's Catholic Church that focused on the effects of the Kearl Module Transportation Project that Imperial/Exxon proposed nearly two years ago to feed its oil sands development in northeastern Alberta.
"The bottom line is that it really needs a much more in-depth analysis in terms of a complete environmental impact statement, and in terms of a broader public discussion with outside experts coming in that aren't hired by ExxonMobil to look at some of these issues," University of Montana economist Steve Seninger said.
Seninger and others poked holes in the environmental assessment the oil giant produced for the Montana Department of Transportation, a document that hasn't been released in finalized form yet.
While the EA talks of a $67.8 million boost to Montana's economy, Seninger said it doesn't address costs such as potential job and revenue losses in the travel/outdoor recreation industry, or costs to taxpayers from potential accidents, traffic delays and disruptions of emergency services.
It also doesn't look at the eventual cost to MDT and taxpayers for the accelerated deterioration of highway infrastructure, nor the costs to natural resources and the environment in western Montana.
The trade off?
"What you end up with is basically something less than 82 jobs for the ExxonMobil transportation project, and those jobs are primarily lower wage, lower skilled jobs in terms of flagholders and driving some of the advance cars and rear cars," Seninger said. "In my mind, you don't have to be an economist to say that's really not an employment machine."
The discussion was the first of several that big rig opponent All Against the Haul hopes to hold along the route. It was hosted by Friends of Two Rivers as part of its Sustainable Living Series.
The panel format included presentations by Seninger, Missoula and former MDT lawyer Bob Gentry, and SuzAnne Miller, who owns the small guest ranch, Dunrovin Ranch, in Lolo and represented the tourism/recreation industry.
All three are adamantly against the haul, and so it appeared was the vast majority of the 55-60 people who showed up. The one-sided informational meeting wasn't what organizers intended. Zack Porter, campaign coordinator for All Against the Haul, said Imperial/Exxon, ConocoPhillips and MDT were all invited to send representatives. None did.
Imperial/Exxon spokesman Pius Rolheiser sent a brief note that said the company appreciated the invitation but would not be participating. He added that its transportation plan and EA have been filed with the transportation department.
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Steven Steach, plant manager for the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, sent a note assuring that it was committed to transporting four oversized loads of coke drums safely and responsibly and said the company had developed a 700-page transportation plan that "has been recognized by several public officials as the most comprehensive of its kind."
MDT sent no response, said Judy Matson of Friends of Two Rivers. The state agency's absence was especially disappointing to Porter.
"We requested their presence to explain to us their thinking behind the decisions that they're poised to make with Conoco's and Exxon's loads," Porter said. "They are the decision makers on this issue, and as citizens living along the route we respectfully requested their presence and they turned us down."
Gentry has analyzed thousands of interdepartmental e-mails from MDT, his old employer.
"Throughout the process of MDT's work... MDT personnel repeatedly brought up objections to the project," he said. "They repeatedly, time and again, brought up impacts that should be addressed through the environmental review process, and by and large, most of those requests went unheeded when it came time to prepare a final environmental document."
Miller said she drives Highway 12 on a daily and nightly basis, often with a six-horse trailer behind. She worries that the highway shoulder can't handle the weight of the big rigs, many of which weigh more than 600,000 pounds and stretch 24 or more feet wide.
"Even though Exxon is telling us the probability (of a mishap) is near zero, the consequences if they are wrong would be huge - huge in terms of public safety, huge in terms of environmental impact, and huge in terms of economic impacts," Miller said.
Porter said All Against the Haul is interested in arranging similar meetings along the route, in Ovando, Lincoln and points further east.
"There were three meetings back in April, but many folks weren't able to attend or weren't even aware of this issue at that time," he said. "There are far more people in Montana who have knowledge of the proposal but who have lots of burning questions at this point, so our goal is to make sure those people who still have a lot of questions on their mind have a chance to ask them."