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They are separate scenes, on opposite sides of the international boundary, but intrinsically linked.

It’s March 25, 2010, at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in Edmonton. Hugh MacDonald, a member of the opposition party, is questioning the province’s minister of finance.

“Does Imperial Oil get to deduct the construction and shipping costs of modules from South Korea from the royalty payments that they pay here in Alberta?” MacDonald asks.

“I have to wonder what world the honorable member (MacDonald) is living in,” Ted Morton replies. “It’s called the global economy.”

MacDonald believes the $250 million deal Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil sealed with Sungjin Geotec of Seoul last October – a deal that will have profound effects on the highways of Montana – was money better spent in Canada. He presses for an answer.


Will the oil company be able to deduct construction and shipping costs from South Korea from its corporate tax payments?

“There are 500 people from all over the world, Ontario and Quebec here to do the supply chain into the oil sands,” Morton says. “It’s good for all of Canada. You want a little wall around it. Welcome to the global economy is what I say to that.”

MacDonald said later he took that as a yes.

It’s Thursday night at Meadow Hill Middle School in Missoula.

Jean Belangie-Nye of Lolo is one of dozens of people who stream to the microphone at a public hearing in the gymnasium. The topic is the movement through Montana, starting this fall, of 200 or so super-sized modules, some of them 24 feet wide, 30 feet high  and close to 200 feet long when push trucks are added to move them up and down hills. Those trucks will be headed toward Alberta’s oil sands.

Belangie-Nye replays a scenario in which she was rushed by a private vehicle to a Missoula hospital with a medical emergency. She made it with few minutes to spare.

“If you had been in front of me,” Belangie-Nye tells Ken Johnson of Imperial Oil, “I would not be here tonight. I want you to consider that.”

“That’s a good fine-tuning of our plan,” Johnson agrees. “I guess we have to make sure that (for) a phone call to the hospital, we’d have to have a system to alert us so we know you’re coming.”


It’s last Monday, back in Alberta.

Nine weeks into a trial over the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a giant tailings pond near Fort McMurray in April 2008, a lawyer for oil-sands giant Syncrude asks a provincial judge to dismiss the charges. He maintains Syncrude was incorrectly accused of allowing hazardous waste to come in contact with the ducks.

“What has happened,” the attorney says, “is the ducks contacted the hazardous substance.”

If all goes as planned, an area the size of Florida will be mined of a tar-like petroleum called bitumen in northeastern Alberta over the next 50 years, Missoula attorney Bob Gentry tells a rally at the University of Montana the next night.

The event has been organized by groups in a still-forming coalition called the “No Shipments Network.”

“The astonishing harm that’s caused by this project isn’t just limited to birds and trees, and fish and wildlife and water resources,” Gentry tells a receptive audience. “There are First Nations people of Canada being displaced from their land because of this. The rivers and the forests are being destroyed and dewatered, the Athabasca River in particular. And they’re suffering all the hallmarks of industrial poisoning, everything from birth defects to environmentally linked cancers – in heartbreaking proportions.”

Few issues bounce from intensely local to global and back so quickly as the Kearl Module Transportation Project.

Imperial Oil of Canada is proposing, and the Montana Department of Transportation is considering, a plan to move some of the largest loads the state’s roadways have ever carried from Lolo Pass to the Port of Sweetgrass. The loads will occur almost nightly for a year. A detailed plan provides for mostly after-midnight travel and no more than 10-minute delays for other drivers.

There are indications from beyond state borders that costly alterations to the roadways to accommodate the modules will turn the intermountain route into a long-term high-wide load corridor.

The route stretches from the Port of Lewiston at the head of navigation on the Columbia/Snake River drainage to the oil sands region near Fort McMurray.

Imperial Oil will pay for all the necessary road improvements, and says Montana stands to reap $67.8 million by opening its roadways to the loads. Nearly half of that, $32 million, will come in the form of salaries to Montanans, broken down in the company’s report as “traffic control, security and Montana Highway Patrol.”


MDT’s permitting process calls for Imperial Oil to provide an environmental assessment, then submit it for review to the department and to the public. That’s what Thursday’s hearing and two on preceding evenings in Cut Bank and Lincoln were about. Nelson and MDT director Jim Lynch repeatedly reminded speakers in Missoula to limit their comments and questions to the Montana transportation plan.

Just as doggedly, some tried to expand the discussion.

“Is there a place in this process to ask questions about broader moral issues?” wondered Sterling Miller, a biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. “Just restricting ourselves to these very narrow engineering questions really misses the point.”

Miller wondered if someone wanted to ship uranium through Montana to Iraq to develop nuclear weapons if there would be anything other than a transportation plan to stop them. 

The environmental review of oil sands mining in Canada is over and done with, Johnson responded. It included a public hearing process for people to raise objections.


From the Port of Lewiston, Mammeot, a Dutch-based moving company, will lug the loads up Idaho’s Clearwater River along U.S. Highway 12, and then along the Lochsa River nearly 100 miles before reaching Montana at Lolo Pass. 

The latter stretch, along the Wild and Scenic Lochsa, isn’t covered by Montana’s environmental assessment. But the thought of daily modules crawling up the winding, narrow highway disturbs many, including Missoula river guide Jim Hepburn.

He’s distributing a petition through the new Lochsa River Conservancy. Signers believe the Lochsa corridor and the Lewis and Clark National Scenic Byway should not be used for transporting such oversized commercial equipment.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Doug Zenner said Friday. “Good Lord, get on our end of the street.”

Zenner is chairman of the Nez Perce County Commission in Lewiston, Idaho. The development of an intermountain highway transport route from the Port of Lewiston not only makes sense, he said, but it’s a boon – and not only to his county.

“If the port develops like it is, we could be the inland port for wind turbines to the Midwest, for gasification projects and coal fields in Wyoming and in Montana,” Zenner said. “Are you going to cut off your nose to spite your face?”

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at

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