The road to dependency on overseas oil: The astroturf campaign against Canadian oil sands

In their neverending quest to end energy production in North America, big environmental groups are waging a pitched battle over a road in Idaho and Montana.

Oil companies want to transport some huge industrial equipment from Vancouver, Washington to the site of oil sands in Alberta, Canada — and activists want to keep it from happening. Last month, the New York Times published a highly sympathetic profile of two local Idahoans opposed to the equipment being transported by a nearby road:

As U.S. Highway 12 hugs the serpentine banks of the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers here, road signs bear the silhouettes of the 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with Mr. Lewis pointing off into the distance.

He is not pointing the way for big oil companies, says Lin Laughy, whose gravel driveway abuts the road.

But to Mr. Laughy’s dismay, international oil companies see this meandering, backcountry route as a road to riches. They are angling to use U.S. 12 to ship gargantuan loads of equipment from Vancouver, Wash., to Montana and the tar sands of Alberta in Canada. The companies say the route would save time and money and provide a vital economic boost to Montana and Idaho.

The problem, said Mr. Laughy, is that the proposed loads are so large — and would travel so slowly — that they would literally block the highway as they rolled through. According to plans submitted to state regulators, some of the shipments would weigh more than 600,000 pounds, stand as tall as a three-story building, stretch nearly two-thirds the length of a football field and occupy 24 feet side-to-side — the full width of U.S. 12’s two lanes for much of its course through Idaho.

Sounds pretty bad, when described in these terms. But the Times doesn't quite do justice to the plans being proposed by the oil companies. The road has been surveyed multiple times with oil companies paying for millions of dollars in road improvements. There are 102 pullouts and stops in less than 175 miles of road in Idaho — the plan is to be pulling off the road every 10-15 minutes.  Further, the shipments are only going to take place late at night, minimizing with issues with traffic and negating claims that the shipments will block the scenery for other drivers.

Idaho had already issued permits for four different shipments, when an environmental group called Advocates for the West — based not in Idaho or Montana, but San Francisco, natch — sued to stop them. It's pretty clear that this is really an effort by left-wing environmental groups to halt resource extraction, rather than any objections about the safety or inconvienence of using this road to ship the equipment. 

Aside from the New York Times selective profiling of oil comapny opponents (“We’re really very nice people,” Mr. Laughy said. “Unless you’re a big oil company.”) local news reports find that opinion on the matter is much more balanced:

In Orofino, opinions are split. About half the people talked to on the street were against the transport, the others were in favor. But only those in favor were willing to share their names and talk on-camera.

“If the insurances are put on it, let them do it,” said Bill Heinrich. “It's commerce and the roads were built for commerce.”

“That road was originally built and designed as a traffic truck route,” said Leslie Stewart. “And as far as I'm concerned, it will not harm the environment or the recreational aspect of it because all of the moving will be done at night and they've got all of the safety aspects in hand.”

“It doesn't bother me a bit,” said Mary Davis. “I think they've put in all of their safety things that they need to do. And it's a highway, let them go.”

“I think it's great,” said Tristan Harvey. “There's nothing wrong with it to me. I think its kind of interesting they would use this corridor. I can't see how it would be easy to move that stuff anyway, but I have no opposition.”

Emphasis mine. And for what it's worth, here's local a Montana op-ed on how opposition to the shipments doesn't really reduce oil consumption so much as make us dependent on more oil from overseas. And if you needed any more proof that the campaign against these shipments is being ginned-up by out of state activists, check out this report from the Missoulian newspaper in Montana: 

He said there have been no delays in the Kearl assessment, which MDT [Montana Department of Transportation] says included 7,200 public comments, roughly 6,600 which came in a mass e-mail from the Natural Resources Defense Council and temporarily overloaded the department's e-mail capacity. Nearly 300 more were identical postcards from the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition.

The NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] says it relayed many more comments – nearly 26,000 of them from around the world – in bulk e-mail form on May 11, three days before the comment deadline. Not all were identical, said NRDC spokesman Josh Mogerman, who claims they were ignored by the department.

Again, emphasis added. So 96 percent of public comments that were accepted on the matter came from eco-astroturf campaigns — most of which came from the NRDC, a national enviornmental lobby with $232 million in assets.

Finally, defenders of the oil companies have noted that if they wanted to ship other equipment — such as wind turbines — on this route to the midwest — it would also block the road. Yet, somehow I don't think the NRDC would mobilize a campaign to stop this from happening. 

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