The two oil companies are looking to move giant oil extraction modules to the location of the proposed oil sands mine where production is likely to begin in 2012. To reach the mining site, the modules, 207 in number, will leave South Korea where they have been manufactured, and be transported to the port of Vancouver. From there they will be taken by barge up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the ports of the western Idaho city of Lewiston. In Lewiston, the equipment would be loaded onto specialized trucks, Self Propelled Modular Transporters (SPMT). The convoy of the 210-foot long juggernaut SPMT and its escort – three pilot cars and two police cars – would travel at night along the 134-miles of US 12 in Idaho and enter Montana at the summit of Lolo Pass on the third night. With top speeds of 35 mph, the 510-mile trip between Lewiston and the Canadian border would take one of the truck convoys nine nights to complete.
While the legalities have yet to be hammered out, ExxonMobile already started to ship its megaloads to the Port of Lewiston in advance of gaining any permits from Idaho or Montana.
According to the plans submitted by to regulators in Idaho and Montana, each shipment would be 24 feet wide, 30 feet tall and 162 feet long, with some weighing as much as 580,000 pounds. Because the two-lane roadway was not engineered to handle loads that wide, Imperial Oil plans to bury power lines and build 53 new turnouts, or improve or widen 22 existing ones along the U.S. 12 corridor. Additional turnouts are needed because Idaho and Montana have 10 minute rules for traffic; traffic cannot be held up for more than that amount of time, so the SPMTs would have to move aside every ten minutes to allow backed up traffic to pass.
No permits have been issued yet in Montana. But the Idaho Transportation Department granted a permit in August, as Idaho does not require an environmental review for oversized shipping projects like Montana does. However, local activists, concerned that U.S. 12 was going to become a permanent megaload transportation corridor, quickly sued the department. They argued that the ITD failed to adequately consider the safety and convenience of the public before issuing the permits, as stipulated by its own rules. While the loads will roll mainly at night, there is concern about what could happen if one of the convoys stops traffic and an emergency vehicle needs to get through. A lower court agreed with the activists, stating that the state did not address the “inevitable” accident or breakdown that could shut Highway 12, potentially for weeks, bringing a halt to everything. The case is now in the hands of the Idaho State Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Oct. 1. and should issue an opinion soon.
While Imperial Oil has stated that their use of U.S. 12 is meant to be a one-off program, other oil companies also want to use the route. In September, a subsidiary of Korea National Oil Corp met with Idaho transportation officials to look into being able to take their own over-sized loads via U.S. 12 en route to Alberta. ConocoPhillipps also wants to use the route to ship 4 massive coke drums to a Billings refinery.