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It's deep summer, and the lakes, rivers and huckleberry patches of western Montana are singing their siren songs.

As we gas up to get from here to there, we may (or may not) want to pause and reflect on where that fuel comes from.

"I'm sure there's a fair number of people that have never thought that through," noted Tom Richmond, administrator for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas.

Those in the know say most all the gasoline pumped on this side of the mountains comes through the Yellowstone Pipeline, from one of two refineries in Billings or another in Laurel.

According to a state board report, more than eight of every 10 barrels of crude oil received by those refineries and a smaller one in Great Falls are piped there from Canada - and have been for years.

"Without Canadian crude, those refineries in Billings probably would not be competitive," said Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association.

It's more problematic to determine how much is pumped from traditional oil wells in Canada vs. extraction from the oil/tar sands of Alberta and Saskatchewan, an environmentally unfriendly technique that has kicked up a storm of controversy in Missoula.

Galt said nobody will supply him with that information.

"But I will say this: A significant majority of the crude that's refined in Montana comes from Canada and the oil sands. And oil sands and northern Alberta crude oil is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our crude supply."

***

CHS Inc., which manufactures Cenex brand gasoline, owns the Laurel refinery.

"About half of what we use is traditional crude oil from Canada's western basin, about a quarter comes from Montana/Wyoming, with the remainder coming from the tar sands area," said Lani Jordan, director of corporate communication for CHS in St. Paul, Minn.

The two Billings refineries are controlled by ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, superpowers on the international energy scene. The three refineries are the chief distributors of gasoline and diesel in western Montana, and they're roughly equal in capacity, each capable of producing between 58,000 and 60,000 barrels of product per calendar day. They ranked 91st, 92nd and 93rd among 143 U.S. refineries in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Montana's fourth refinery, the Canadian-owned Montana Refining Co. in Great Falls, had a capacity of 9,500 barrels a day in 2009 - 132nd on the list. Most of its crude comes from Canada, and most if not all of its product stays east of the mountains.

According to Montana Board of Oil and Gas figures, the Cenex refinery received about 7 percent of its crude from Montana producers last year; ConocoPhillips got less than 1 percent, and ExxonMobile none at all.

The three Billings-area refineries all feature "coker units" which deal with the heaviest part of the crude.

"They can refine what's on the bottom of the barrel, and that's mostly to deal with the tar sands stuff," Richmond said.

ConocoPhillips is in the process of upgrading its coker system. Two slightly larger drums have sat at the Port of Lewiston since May, waiting clearance to be trucked to Montana.

***

In June, the Bellingham, Wash., city council became the first municipality in North America to pass a "no tar sands zone" resolution. It's aimed at weaning the city fleet off tar sands fuel as contracts expire. The resolution cited carbon impacts and other environmental concerns, including "permanent damage to Canada's boreal forest ecosystem and the Athabasca River ecosystem, destruction of scarce freshwater (and) generation of toxic waste."

A number of grass-roots groups have leaped into the tar sands fray since late last year, when the specter of the yearlong Kearl Module Transport Project raised its head. Imperial Oil, the Canadian arm of ExxonMobil, wants to move 207 modules through Missoula and western Montana to the Kearl oil sands starting this fall.

They would be among the largest and heaviest loads the state's roads have ever seen - too large, Imperial/Exxon said, to fit under interstate underpasses or through railroad tunnels and avalanche sheds in the Rockies.

The company is waiting for oversized load permits from the Montana and Idaho transportation departments. Montana is currently reviewing Imperial/Exxon's responses to public comment in an environmental assessment, which Missoula city and county officials have maintained is not a sufficient environmental review.

Some protesters have decried the harm the project could do to roads, rivers, recreation and tourism; others the fact the $250 million modules were manufactured in Seoul, South Korea, rather than in Canada or stateside; still others the appearance that the Kearl project will establish a permanent high-and-wide corridor through western Montana.

Many have focused on the same thing Bellingham is protesting, the damage and potential damage that mining the tar sands will have on the ecosystems of Alberta.

They've considered, but so far stopped short, of calling for a resolution that Missoula make itself a "tar sands-free zone," much as the county declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1978.

***

Zack Porter, who helped organize a rally against the Kearl project along Reserve Street in July, said Missoula would not be any worse off for not being connected to the tar sands network.

"We're not going to be two-faced in our approach to this issue," Porter said. "We know there are domestic sources of fossil fuels, as well as renewable energy sources, that can more than make up for the loss of fuel coming from the most environmentally destructive project on Earth, which is the tar sands.

"It's the sanctioned equivalent to the BP oil disaster, going on every day in northern Alberta."

Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist has publicly stated her distaste for the Kearl project. Would she consider declaring the county a tar sands-free zone?

"Boy, in an ideal world, yes," Landquist said. "But is this an ideal world? No. We'd certainly have to have a lot more information about it before we would or could do something like that. But it's really thought-provoking."

Those in the oil industry, both the profiteers and the regulators, have a hard time understanding such thinking.

Galt said the United States' No. 1 source of imported oil, offshore or on, comes from Canada.

Without crude from Canadian oil sands, "this country would be in a world of hurt, and that's the truth," said Galt. "My (Montana) oil producers compete with Canadian producers, but at the same time, from a U.S. perspective, aren't we better off bringing our crude out of Canada, or out of Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq?"

Canada, Galt said, is "our ally, it's an unprotected border, it's our biggest trading partner. I mean, it seems to me it makes sense."

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

 

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