Background for Northwest Senators on Exxon’s Planned Shipments to the Tar Sands on Northwest Rivers and Roads

Beginning in late 2010, Exxon and Imperial Oil plan over 200 shipments of massive South Korean-made mining equipment up the Columbia and Snake Rivers, over the Lewis & Clark Trail on U.S. Highway 12, across 332 miles of Montana from Missoula to the Blackfoot River and Rocky Mountain Front, and thence to the tar sands in northern Alberta. There the equipment will be used to strip-mine the northern boreal forest for oil- bearing rock, cook it into oil, and transport it out in new pipelines.

These initial shipments, which will occur over one year, are huge – most of them 24’ by 30’ by 200’ feet, two-thirds the length of a football field. After leaving the river, they will travel on mountain, valley, and city roads now used by people in pursuit of their lives and businesses, along nationally renowned and protected rivers, and through vital fish and wildlife habitats including for endangered species. Much of the route is narrow, winding, and affected by harsh winter driving conditions. Yet it appears the project will create a permanent “high and wide” industrial transportation corridor, on this same route, that will be used for decades.

This 800-mile project has been “piecemealed” by federal and state agencies, with each examining only a narrow slice of the total project. Even those reviews have been cursory, accepting Exxon’s definitions and justifications without independent inquiry. We believe state and federal laws have been broken, and large investments in the route have already been made in advance of necessary permits being issued. Federal agencies have so far refused to acknowledge the public need for, much less conduct, a full analysis of the project’s purposes, costs, benefits, risks, and alternatives. This bureaucratic shuffle mimics the irresponsible conduct of federal agencies on BP’s Deepwater Horizon project in the Gulf. It serves Exxon’s purposes well, but disserves the people you represent.

The Damages and Risks to Northwest People and States. The risks to Northwest people come from the shipping itself and the tar sands development the equipment will serve.

In Idaho, the shipments will crawl up narrow and winding Highway 12, disrupting emergency, business, recreational and other uses, risking public safety, and threatening the clean waters and endangered salmon and steelhead of the Lochsa River. The route is a National Wild and Scenic River corridor and National Scenic Byway, and follows the Lewis & Clark Trail. Fishing, recreation and tourism-based businesses will suffer from the shipping itself, and any accidents will compound that harm. Nearly 3000 residents of the rural area affected have petitioned to stop this project, yet they face the prospect of decades of such use, on a road vital to their lives and safety, if the shipments are allowed.

In Montana, the shipments will travel 332 miles on U.S. and state highways, disrupting emergency, business, recreational and other uses, and risking public safety, particularly in treacherous winter conditions common in Montana. Water quality, prized fisheries, and endangered bull trout in the renowned Blackfoot River will be threatened by accidents. Scenic and outdoor values of the Rocky Mountain Front will be degraded. Impacts to local people and uses will be severe in the city of Missoula and Missoula County, which is why both the city and county oppose the shipments. In Idaho and Montana, Tribal sovereignty and resources are also threatened, leading affected Tribes to either oppose or express serious concern about the project.

In all four states, lands, waters, people, wildlife, and economies are threatened by tar sands development itself. This is one of the dirtiest energy projects on earth, generating 2-3 times as much carbon pollution as traditional oil, while also destroying huge swathes of one of earth’s most valuable carbon storage sites, the northern boreal forest. The climate chaos caused by this double-barreled damage is not distant or ethereal. Today, Northwest water temperatures are rising, forests dying, fires intensifying, fish and wildlife being squeezed. Outdoor economies and ways of life are being disrupted, coastal sea levels are rising, and snowpack – our main water storage for uses from agriculture to municipal water supply – is shrinking. The equipment Exxon is shipping will accelerate this damage, further binding us to an energy path with worse climate disruption.

No scientifically sound assessment of climate risks could conceivably lead to the conclusion that dramatically increasing carbon emissions, as this equipment is designed to do, is a prudent or responsible course of action for the Northwest. Exxon’s project raises a profound question about our autonomy as Northwest citizens. In recent years, Northwest citizens, businesses, communities, and legislatures have taken thousands of actions, large and small, to speed our transition to clean energy and reduce our carbon footprints. Oregon and Washington state laws are pioneering this path. Communities from Seattle to Sandpoint, Missoula to Portland, Eugene to Walla Walla, are saving carbon, saving money and creating jobs. Yet in just a few months, the tar sands development Exxon wants us to enable will swamp those carbon savings, and in a few months more cancel out all the savings of our coming years.

Some of you tried to take the patriotic problem-solving of Northwest local initiatives to the federal level; but Congress has thus far failed to enact a national energy and climate policy. The federal government having failed to act against the clear and present danger of climate chaos, initiative must return to us. Northwest people have a responsibility, and right, to decide ourselves whether to acquiesce in Exxon’s plan to further chain our economy to the dead end of oil dependence. That dependence is draining resources from today and tomorrow’s economy, and causing climate disruptions that will impose economic costs far greater than continuing investments in clean energy solutions to prevent that damage.

While those who contend that more fossil fuel dependence is necessary for jobs aren’t doing the math, our competitors are. Each day the Northwest deepens dependence on oil, we fall further behind in our century’s defining economic competition: for clean energy leadership. The Northwest’s future is not in the Alberta’s tar sands or Exxon’s drive to mine them. It’s in our abundant, indigenous natural and human resources – our proven capacity to innovate and invest in a cleaner, more efficient energy future.