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Pepe Lepew On December - 11 - 2010


Years ago, I was camping in Redwoods National Park, and I broke something in my camping equipment, a tent pole or something and I had to run into town to see if I could find a replacement part. I drove through Crescent City, Calif., on a weekday afternoon in early fall, and the place was an absolute ghost town. Barely a car on the street.

I went into a hardware store. Completely, utterly empty. I was literally the only customer in the store. This wasn’t a very big town, but I was just blown away at the ghost town feel.

A little bit later, I was working at a tiny weekly in Northern California (yes, there is such a place), and the State Department of Corrections was proposing building a prison outside of the town I was covering. Corrections officials showed up and said this would be great for the local economy, it would bring jobs, it would revitalize the town.

Some people from Crescent City showed up. I’ll never forget the bitterness and desperation in their voices as they told the locals, “Don’t do this. Don’t fall for it. It’s an empty promise.”

The Department of Corrections had used the exact same ploy in Crescent City, promised to revitalize a dying fishing town by building a prison nearby. The fishing industry collapsed after the Northern California salmon runs dried up. The people felt they had no choice, so they went along with it.

The prison was initially pitched as a minimum/medium security facility, but then the state changed its mind and said a maximum security prison was actually needed. Still, the townsfolk went along with it. Well, the maximum security prison, called Pelican Bay Penitentiary, then turned into a “supermax” prison, for the worst of the worst prisoners, gang members from L.A., murderers, rapists, etc.

Well, family members of these supermax inmates then drifted into Crescent City, so they could be near their loved ones. It turns out these were people themselves in and out of jails and prisons and the crime rate skyrocketed in Crescent City. A lot of the old families left town. Like that line from Star Wars, “This deal just keeps getting worse.”

That prison literally destroyed the town. I was talking to a friend years later whose father was a former district attorney in Del Norte County and she confirmed this. The crime rate went up and the locals all bailed after the prison arrived. With the promise of prosperity, all that prison brought was social ruin.

I don’t think that prison outside our town ever got built. I was long gone while the issue was still simmering.
Fast-forward to many years later. Imperial Oil/Esso came to Idaho and Montana promising jobs, promising cash, promising economic help.

What do they want in return?

They just want our roads. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of our roads. To help them trash the Canadian environment.
Imperial Oil/Esso is developing a very controversial site in northeastern Alberta called the Kearl Oil Sands. Billions upon billions of dollars worth of oil is trapped in that soil underneath the taiga of northern Alberta. It is the second-biggest petroleum deposit in the entire world. Just sitting there for the taking.

Canadians are somewhat of a mixed mind about the whole deal. Canadians are quite proud of their oil heritage and how oil makes them an economic powerhouse well beyond the size of their population. I know my uncles and many cousins made their living in the Alberta oil fields, sacrificing thumbs and fingers to the drilling equipment. There is literally oil is my blood.

Canada is the No. 1 oil exporter to the U.S. and the No. 6 oil producer in the world. And yet many Canadians are also dismayed at the devastation that will be wreaked from the oil sands and at this insane-sounding transport plan. The country is a bit schizophrenic about its oil resources. Pride, yet repulsion at the damage.

Remember, this oil isn’t drilled. It’s mined, like coal. The National Geographic Society did an excellent article about a year ago on the Alberta oil sands. Here is a paragraph from it:

From a helicopter it’s easy to see the indus¬try’s impact on the Athabasca Valley. Within minutes of lifting off from Fort McMurray, heading north along the east bank of the river, you pass over Suncor’s Millennium mine—the company’s leases extend practically to the town. On a day with a bit of wind, dust plumes billowing off the wheels and the loads of the dump trucks coalesce into a single enormous cloud that obscures large parts of the mine pit and spills over its lip. To the north, beyond a small expanse of intact forest, a similar cloud rises from the next pit, Suncor’s Steepbank mine, and beyond that lie two more, and across the river two more. One evening last July the clouds had merged into a band of dust sweeping west across the devastated landscape. It was being sucked into the updraft of a storm cloud. In the distance steam and smoke and gas flames belched from the stacks of the Syncrude and Suncor upgraders—”dark satanic mills” inevitably come to mind, but they’re a riveting sight all the same. From many miles away, you could smell the tarry stench. It stings your lungs when you get close enough.

Which brings us back to Canada. In order to harvest this oil, Imperial/Esso needs equipment. Really, really big equipment. Built in Korea. 300-ton (600,000 pounds) coke drums. How the hell do you get 300-ton coke tons from Korea to Northeastern Alberta? Well, they came up with an ingenious plan. Barge the drums up the Columbia River to Lewiston, Idaho, then drive them on specially modified “megaload” rigs up Highway 12, along the Lochsa River over a 6,000-foot pass, then through Montana. Why do they have to take such a circuitous route? The loads are so gigantic, they can’t go under underpasses.

These loads would move at 5 to 10 miles an hour. The plan has been all but approved in Idaho. Oil officials have been meeting with residents and officials in both Idaho and Montana. Meanwhile, a second similar proposal is in the works to bring similar gigantic pieces of equipment to a refinery in Billings (This is completely unrelated to the Kearl Oil Sands project). Promises are being made of millions of dollars will pour into Idaho and Montana. These guys remind of Daniel Plainview promising the people of Little Boston that they will become rich if they let him drill on their land. Only after he’s walked away with millions and their left with a pittance do they figure out how they have been bamboozled.
Here’s some of the problems. It turns out:

The loads are too heavy for some of the bridges.

They’re going to be putting down loads of plywood on the road in front of the rigs in case “shoulders begin showing distress.” Plywood vs. 600,000 pounds. That’s reassuring.

There are no turnouts for the loads to use.

The Lochsa River just happens to be a federally designated Wild and Scenic River.

And, oh, by the way, Highway 12 is an exceptionally steep and winding road, and tops out at 5,233-foot Lolo Pass. There are places where the road literally hangs right over the Lochsa. This country is so rugged that the road couldn’t even built until the 1960s.

To move these rigs over some of these bridges and grades, they are literally going to need one truck in the rear to push and one in the front to pull.

Beyond the obvious traffic snarl issues (these rigs will mostly be moved at night), I am personally convinced there are going to be huge problems with these rigs. These roads are not designed to take on 600,000-pound loads (most tractor-trailers weigh 50,000-80,000 pounds so you are talking 8 to 12 times more weight than a normal loaded tractor trailer. There’s going to be more damage to the roads then people are being told. Just ask Texas. They are going to damage bridges.

And I’m convinced one of these rigs is going to end up in the Lochsa River, and will spill its diesel into a Wild and Scenic River.

All so a massive swath of Northern Alberta can be torn a new asshole, to keep feeding our lust for more oil.

I am personally convinced that like Crescent City, the people who swallow Imperial/Esso’s empty promises of economic benefit are going to be deeply disappointed in the bill of goods. Haven’t people on the Gulf Coast learned that these people can’t be trusted. It’s happened many, many times in history. I have a feeling Imperial/Esso is going to drink our milkshake.

16 Responses so far.

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  1. MossyOak says:

    I understand the approvals (or denials) are making their way through the Montana DOT channels at this point. No one has specified a route through Montana yet that I am aware of. Our local news station said the tanks were ordered by the mining company without the prior transportation approvals and just shipped to the U.S. My sense is that once enough people are paid off they will start their ponderous, dangerous journey to Canada.

  2. Questinia says:

    Big rigs, oil, milkshakes, roads. Ain’t that America?

  3. bito says:

    I have worked in the steel mills, I have transported the coal to coke plants to make the steel that is used in vehicles and oil to the refineries to make gas for them. I have built the plants to refine mined phosphate ore to fertilizer to feed the food crops that we all eat. I have logged the timber and sawn the lumber for the homes we live in. And I was given a wage for my labors that allowed me to live in a modest home comfortably.

    I had to eat and breath, up close, so that many of us can live with abundant food, a warm home, a car to drive and fuel to power, grow and heat them.

    Yes, I have been up close an personal to raping the land, polluting the land and air on a daily basis for my daily bread. I have enabled many to consume. I confess, I am an enabler.

    And I am consumer.

    The people in the U.S.A. Consume more and waste more food, consume more and waste more energy per capita than any other peoples.

    We are all junkies.

  4. Khirad says:

    I’m not gonna even get into the oil sands issue here.

    But, those roads are so not made for this, as you said.

    If there were another way, we could debate the whole other asshole in the earth.

    Like Norway, Canada does benefit from its oil in giving its citizens social programs, etc. And, the trade-off there is understandable.

  5. javaz says:

    Not sure if this applies, Pepe, but another example of companies that impact the environment and taxpayers are mining companies.

    They pollute, you pay. Mining companies are the leading toxic polluters in the nation. The public pays for much of the staggering cost of cleaning up abandoned mines across the West, some of which were orphaned as recently as five years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that billions of dollars are needed to protect Western drinking water supplies from mine waste, and that cleaning up the estimated half a million abandoned mines across the country may cost $35 billion or more (EPA 2000).

    Taxpayers on the hook. Taxpayers will pay much of the cost for cleaning up mines because mining companies often fail to provide enough money to cover the full cost of cleanup, operate mines to the point of bankruptcy, and leave little or no money for reclaiming and cleaning up pollution at the site.

    Weak funding rules for companies. The federal government has struggled to set workable requirements for up-front financial assurances that will cover project reclamation and cleanup costs when the mines close, to combat mine abandonments that leave the mine cleanup bill to taxpayers. Mining companies remain in active discussion with the federal government on this issue, claiming that the current requirement for up-front financial assurances for mine cleanup is too stringent, and that bonding companies will not bear the risk of guaranteeing the cleanup cost. In a recent letter to the Department of the Interior, Newmont Mining Corporation notes that because of major losses suffered since 2000 “sureties are simply unwilling, or very reluctant, to underwrite reclamation bonds” (Newmont 2002).

    http://www.mining-law-reform.info/Cost.htm

    There is story after story on mining companies that go into an area and then pack up and leave once the jobs are done.
    They file for bankruptcy to get out of having to pay for cleanup costs, but they simply re-open under a new name and the cycle starts again.

    And to think that Republicans want less regulations!

    Knowledge is key in stopping the cycle and educating people about the ramifications of allowing large companies into their areas that promise jobs, but leave them on the hook for the cleanup.

    Are there groups in Montana and Idaho fighting Imperial/Esso?

    • MossyOak says:

      I’m in Montana and I’ve been following the situation with one eye for some time. There has been a long debate going on in Helena. We have a new Republican legislature and a very environmentalist Dem Governor, so the battle continues. It’s quite possible they cannot find a safe route and are still working on that. The bridge issue is a big one, we’re no better off than any other state in the failing condition of our roads and bridges due to extreme weather conditions.

  6. kesmarn says:

    The picture itself of that gigantic truck and its even more gigantic load is something to behold, Pepe. We Lilliputians seem to be able to create Gulliver sized ships and other equipment to satisfy our giant appetite for oil.

    I suppose the thought of transporting these things disassembled, in smaller pieces, to be assembled at the site has already been considered and — for whatever reason — rejected? (I realize that doesn’t really address the more essential issue, but even being able to mitigate the damage to roads and bridges would be a small step.) And apparently railway transport is also not an option?

    I dunno. There must be a tad of my dad’s engineer in me, because I’m always trying to figure out options to do things in a slightly better/less damaging way…given the fact that there’s probably no way to do the best thing possible here. Which is to head off the whole wretched project.

    In our area, the local nuclear power plant is seeking a 20 year extension of its operating license. This after a hair-raisingly close call with a meltdown a few years ago. (This would be the infamous Davis-Besse plant on Lake Erie.) And the Waste Management (what an Orwellian name) site near the lake is asking that its license be amended to include an increase in both the amount and the toxicity of the waste it can accept. There are already PCBs in the ground water near that site. This, too, is on Lake Erie. If fresh water is going to be in short supply in the future, how crazy is it to gamble with one of the world’s largest supplies of it?

    People who are children right now are going to be growing up in a world that may fairly rapidly be becoming unrecognizable.

    Thanks for reporting on this, Pepe, even though it isn’t the happiest news on the environmental front. Not by a long shot… :-(

    • Khirad says:

      I’ve heard of that one on Lake Erie, I think.

      Anyhoo, here’s what happened to our old one in ’06.


      • kesmarn says:

        That must have been a great moment for those people, Khirad!

        I get the arguments for nuclear power, but when you live close to one of those behemoths…it’s nerve wracking.

        • Khirad says:

          It is a little odd not to see it anymore, but now it’s as if it were never part of the skyline. I don’t know about your situation, but its power was just sold out of the area anyway before being deactivated long before this. The river it sat on (Columbia) is one of the most dammed in the US. Completely superfluous, it was. So, there was little debate about keeping it.

          • kesmarn says:

            Davis-Besse still actively supplies power to the area, but there always needs to be ample (coal-fired) backup because it seems to go down so often for “maintenance.”

            Its initial construction was sold years ago to the locals (I was living out of state at the time) on the grounds that it would supply “cheap and plentiful” electricity for decades to come! People were led to believe that their electric bills would be ridiculously low, when, in fact they turned out to be something like the 5th highest in the nation!

            What a surprise. You mean corporations lie to get what they want?

    • PepeLepew says:

      I know rail is not remotely an option. Can’t get this stuff through tunnels.

      I’ve wondered why they couldn’t bring it via rail from Churchill on the Hudson Bay. Too much hassle shipping them around Alaska and through the Northwest Passage, I suppose.

  7. escribacat says:

    Excellent story, Pepe. It really amazes me the lengths people will go to in order to get more oil (the modern human’s drug of choice). Just like those oil rigs in deep in the ocean, a place where they clearly don’t belong and clearly can’t be managed properly. I seriously can’t imagine how they’re going to move those monsters over a mountain pass. Here in Colorado, a single Winnebago can cause a huge traffic jam on a mountain road.

    Colorado also has “shale oil,” which is not even in dirt — it’s in rock. During the Arab oil embargo in the 70s, the “Colony Shale Oil” project got ramped up in western Colorado. In the early 80s, the price of oil went down and they canceled the project. This resulted in exactly the situation you describe in your article — a “Black Sunday” during which half the local town was laid off.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      yeah, Canada has shale oil too. And it’s only extracted (mined? squeezed? filtered?) when oil is high, because it’s such an expensive process. When the price goes down, it’s not cost effective to extract. So you get ruined landscapes, ghost towns, all the things Pepe is writing about. Just one big mess.

  8. whatsthatsound says:

    Great reporting, Pepe!
    Canada’s despoilage is one of the great under-reported tragedies of our times. As is the whole scary addiction of oil in our crazed society.
    Most people don’t realize it, but the tankers that carry oil have gone from big to HUGE in just over a decade. These new type tankers are possibly the largest things ever made by man, longer than the Empire State Building.
    There was a time when Liverpool was one of the world’s biggest ports. You couldn’t park ONE of these things in that harbor. Same with Kobe, Japan. As recently as twenty years ago, it was in the top five, but it can’t accommodate these behemoths. The Port of Los Angeles is still in the top five, but take a look at the rest. All Chinese, I believe.
    Why? Because only the ports most recently constructed can give berth to these new types of supertankers.
    It’s just like a drug addiction -- we need more and more just to get a fix.
    Gaia’s gotta be SCREAMING ANGRY about this! I think we’ve just about run out of chances to make it up to her.


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