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Sept. 1 Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune editorial

ConocoPhillips' shipments may have passed as an extremely large but limited series of truck loads. Instead, it has become the focal point of another oil company's controversy.

LEWISTON, Idaho -- Twice last week, 2nd District Judge John Bradbury asked what a lot of people would like to know:

Why would ConocoPhillips spend $9 million barging massive oil processing equipment to the Port of Lewiston before getting the permits required to truck those mega loads up U.S. Highway 12?

To make that kind of commitment without assurances would be, Bradbury said, "odd."

The judge didn't get much of an answer. One lawyer said the oil company "had a sense" the permits would be issued. Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness said the department hadn't prejudged the matter.

Since Bradbury ultimately halted the truck shipments and his ruling won't get to an expedited Idaho Supreme Court hearing for another month, it would appear ConocoPhillips made a bad bet.

But here's a guess: ConocoPhillips had a sense its oversized truck permits would go through because so many others had been approved before it.

To travel along U.S. Highway 12, any truck heavier than 80,000 pounds, longer than 75 feet, taller than 14 feet and wider than eight and half feet requires a special ITD permit.

In the past 10 years, the department has said yes 245 times.

Oversized shipments along U.S. 12 have hauled air ducts, houses, generators, turbines and mining equipment.

Of those, 95 were sufficiently wide -- at least 16 feet -- to require closing both lanes of the highway at some point.

Some of these extra-wide loads have traveled comparatively short distances. For instance, a mega-load carried a house 29 feet wide, 16 feet high and 83 feet long from Kooskia to Kamiah five years ago.

When the load involved heavy machinery, however, it typically meant a longer haul along the east-west corridor. Some examples:

In June 2002, an oversized load carrying a dryer measured 18 feet wide, 142 feet long and 235,600 pounds. Idaho permitted it to travel from Montana west to the Washington state line.

Two years later, a compressor followed the same route, from Montana to Washington. It came in at 17 feet wide, 15 feet, 10 inches tall, 160 feet long and 235,600 pounds.

In April 2009, equipment associated with gas and oil wells moved from Montana to the Washington border. Its dimensions were 20 feet wide, 16 feet, 4 inches high, 190 feet long and 256,000 pounds.

All took place without incident or protest.

ConocoPhillips' four loads are larger and heavier -- up to 27 feet tall, 227 feet long, 29 feet wide and weighing 675,500 pounds. The Japanese-manufactured equipment is bound for the company's refinery at Billings, Mont. But you could argue it falls within the range of shipments ITD had already allowed.

The difference isn't so much ConocoPhillips' four loads.

The difference is Imperial Oil's plan to run more than 200 huge loads of Korean-manufactured mining equipment from the Port of Lewiston, over U.S. 12 and then through Montana to its Kearl oil sands mine in Alberta, Canada.

At most, Imperial's loads would come in at 210 feet long, 24 feet wide, 30 feet tall and weigh more than 290 tons.

In one year's time, Imperial Oil would run more than twice the number of these "rolling roadblocks" up the river corridor as have traveled the highway in a decade.

ConocoPhillips' shipments may have passed as an extremely large but limited series of truck loads. Instead, it has become the focal point of another oil company's controversy. Four loads may not undermine the tourist economy. But 200 loads eclipse everything that's come before. Throw in the fact that in the summer of the BP spill, an oil company is behind the move and that it is buying massive equipment from foreign factories at a time of pain-fully high unemployment.

ConocoPhillips was caught short. So was the Idaho Transportation Department. Both were looking backward. Only now are they grasping how Imperial Oil changed the game. -- M.T

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