Big Writers Vs. Big Oil

ExxonMobil hopes to drive huge trucks full of equipment for the Alberta Tar Sands through the twisty mountain roads of Montana and Idaho—and the plan has two literary heavyweights, David James Duncan and Rick Bass, steaming mad.

Scenes from along the proposed route     Photo: Frederic Ohringer

This article, by David James Duncan, is an adaptation from The Heart of the Monster, a book written by Duncan and Rick Bass to protest ExxonMobil's attempts to turn the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies into an industrial corridor. The book can be ordered at allagainstthehaul.org.

The single largest petroleum project in the world, the Alberta Tar Sands, sits some 700 miles north of my home in Western Montana, and until recently seemed a foreign and abstract threat. I'm a very busy man, happily employed on a novel-writing project. The crises of the world fade into white noise once I've given myself to my work. Sure, I'd heard that the Tar Sands are the single largest energy-consuming project in the world. Sure, Tar Sands carbon-dioxide emissions could quadruple in the next ten years, and have been likened by leading climatologists to an act of war by Canada against itself and every other nation in the world. Sure, forty million acres of pine forests in the North American West have died and turned to tinder thanks to those same CO2 emissions, and yours and mine. But my church consists of trout streams, and trout rise to a fly even among dead trees, so I could still conduct my kind of worship. As I say, I was a busy man.

Then, two years ago, ExxonMobil decided to convert 1,100 miles of beautiful American rivers and roads—including my home rivers and road—into a so-called "High and Wide industrial corridor" connecting the industrialized nations of the Pacific Rim to the Tar Sands.

The 1,100 mile conduit's purpose will be to ship mega-loads of giant stripmining modules from South Korea to Vancouver, Washington, barge the gear upriver to Lewiston, Idaho, load it onto the most gigantic trailers ever to attempt an American highway, drag it along three of our most beloved rivers and over two formidable mountain passes in Idaho and Montana, then creep the gear north to the Tar Sands. The concerns of four states, their residents, and millions of annual tourists are not being seriously weighed. Thousands of sustainable jobs in Idaho's and Montana's leading industry—outdoor recreation and tourism—could be diminished or lost. Access points to rivers and wilderness will be barricaded for the sake of ExxonMobil and its loads. Some of the gear creeping through our designated American wilds will be longer, taller and heavier than the Statue of Liberty.

ExxonMobil, which claims it will run the loads only at night, has conducted its own environmental assessment, finding that the project will have "no significant impact." No other enviro, economic or engineering analysis has been seriously considered. And Exxon's self-assessment carries the weight of smoke: this company's history of environmental debacles, catastrophic oil spills, and junk climate science speak for themselves. The giant stripmining gear is stockpiled at the Port of Lewiston at this writing, temporarily delayed by local activists and two lawyers. Among the American treasures slated to be pierced, bilked, culturally warped and degraded are the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the historic and heart-breaking Nez Perce trail, the epoch-making Lewis and Clark trail, the homelands and treaty rights of three sovereign Indian tribes, the steelheaders' paradise that is the Clearwater River, the kayaker's paradise that is the Lochsa River, Montana's Bitterroot, Clark Fork, and Big Blackfoot River of A River Runs Through It fame, two formidable mountain passes, Motorcycle Magazine's number one rated long-distance American joy-ride, and the federal highway system's number one rated Scenic Byway.

If ExxonMobil's plan is not stopped, tourists en route to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the glorious Front Range of the Rockies, or the Sturgis Motorcycle Fest could soon be waiting in line for hours, then darting around police cars escorting 220 foot-long, three-story-tall loads of Tar Sands stripmining gear. ExxonMobil's South Korean refinery equipment will creep along behind super-tractors towing two twelve-axle trailers. The loads will be nearly the length of a Fenway Park home run, three stories in height, and will weigh up to 670,000 pounds—about four times the legal federal load limit. For 200 miles of the journey, Exxon will try to maneuver these 26-foot-wide loads around the tight curves of a byway that, from painted fogline to fogline, is only 22-feet wide and overhangs the trout- and salmon-rich waters of the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.

Exxon spokespersons gloat about the money—$67.8 million—the company is paying to "upgrade" 600 miles of America's wilderness-piercing roads. This is rather like turning the roads through Yellowstone and Glacier into industrial conduits and asking to be thanked for it. The scenic byways through Idaho and Montana are among America's most wild and beautiful, and a crucial part of that beauty is their scale. This is my home address. I know these roads very well. The deer, elk, foxes, coyotes, eagles, ravens, bear, flocks of wild turkey and quail, moose, and squirrels I so often encounter survive because the roads are modest, curved, often steep, and must be driven with extreme (but rewarding!) caution.

The transportation of the first 220 or so modules of mining equipment will create eighty-two temporary jobs for flaggers, pilot car drivers, and (already employed) police. Meanwhile, in Missoula County alone, more than 32,000 residents are gainfully employed by the tourist industry. In 2007, annual spending by out-of-state, non-resident visitors for outdoor recreation and tourism was $422 million. Even a five-percent reduction in tourism caused by the industrialized corridor could result in the loss of thousands of jobs. Real estate prices are predicted to plummet by 20 to 40 per cent. And the first big beneficiaries of this hijacking will be Exxon and a South Korean steel company hired by Exxon. Canadian steel workers could have manufactured the same gear right next door to the Tar Sands. The financial losers will be the residents with the green recreations jobs, and the American people who own and—through taxes—pay for these rivers, roads and wild places.

The Northwest and Northern Rockies thrive economically, biologically, and spiritually because of quality of life. This is our regions' priceless source of shared wealth and health. Our residents and millions of annual visitors enjoy some of the cleanest air and water and wildest places left in the world. We live in the company of magnificent birds, wildlife, and—hell yeah!—trout, salmon and steelhead. We cut free firewood on public lands. Our small towns and country roads are quiet. Our daily bread is given amid stunning scenery in close proximity to National Parks. Our region offers a plethora of outdoor delights, from poking around for chanterelles and morels, to summitting or skiing down rugged peaks, to kayaking some truly lunatic whitewater, to downing three beers too many while floating downriver in an inner tube on a blazing August day. These gifts are vouchsafed by hard-won protections such as Wild and Scenic River designations, All American Road designations, wilderness and cultural and historic designations.

ExxonMobil demands that these designations must suddenly mean nothing. The resulting impacts on visitors and residents will be immense. A single example: Exxon plans to commandeer more than one hundred of the highway turnouts built by and for the American people at the people's expense, barricading them for Exxon's use. Kayakers, rafters, fishermen, hunters, and wilderness users could be denied access to their own forests, fields and rivers for days and weeks at a time. Tourists who like to pull over to watch kayakers work the Lochsa whitewater, identify a passing raptor, or ogle the elk, moose and bighorn sheep that roam the region, will be unable to do so.

So what are the Tar Sands, anyway, that they demand this level of sacrifice? The Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta comprise 66,000 square miles of fields containing bitumen, a viscous type of crude oil. Exxon, Shell, and Imperial oil, among others, do business here. The bitumen strip-mining process begins with the clearcutting of northern boreal forest, which comprises one of Earth's two great lungs. (Boreal forests sequester twice as much carbon as rain forest in their permafrost, peat bogs, and living timber.) This entire carbon load is blasted into the atmosphere as the industry clearcuts the trees and rips up the peat and permafrost to reach the bitumen. Then there are the species at risk. The northern boreal forest is the most important breeding and nesting grounds for South, Central and North American birds. A recent study by the National Resources Defense Council predicts that the Tar Sands will kill between six and 166 million birds in the next ten to twenty years.

Once Tar Sands mining begins, two tons of earth must be excavated to make a barrel (42 U.S. gallons) of tar. The tar must be steamed out of the sand and converted, by extreme heat, into crude oil. The natural gas burned to steam out the tar is a comparatively clean fuel, leading to bitumen-derived oil that is as dirty as fuel gets. Burning massive quantities of natural gas to produce this oil is as counter-intuitive as, say, raising factory-farm chickens by feeding them wild elk.

Since 2008, the Tar Sands have doubled in size. Perhaps the most worrisome threat is that Enbridge, the company that produces the pipelines to transport Tar Sands' crude, hopes to construct thousands of miles of oil pipelines across eight Canadian Provinces and more than 30 American states. Some would reach to Maine, some to California, some to Alaska, others to the Gulf of Mexico. If constructed, these pipelines will cross hundreds of America's most important agricultural aquifers, rivers, wetlands and farmlands, invading human and wildlife communities. In July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline spilled 819,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan, creating havoc for fish, wildlife, aquifers, and human communities.

But before all that comes the invasion of Idaho and Montana. The Wall Street Journal, bless its cosmopolitan heart, recently tried to grasp the apparent insanity of ExxonMobil's Idaho/Montana industrial route. In October 2010, a Wall Street Journal pundit conceded that the Lochsa River byway and Lolo Pass looked like quite a challenge for the mega-load drivers. Then he wrote, "From Missoula, the modules can be hauled across flatlands to the U.S.-Canada border at Sweetgrass, Montana." This sentence caused me to put out a call to Exxon's Heavy Haul drivers to purchase a topographical map before The Wall Street Journal kills them. Among the "flatlands" features the writer fails to describe is a serpentine road up the Big Blackfoot River (of A River Runs Through It fame), followed by a certain landscape known to us locals as THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, where drivers must attempt tortuous mid-winter crossings of the Continental Divide at 5,700 foot Rogers Pass, home of the coldest temperature ever recorded in the lower 48 (the thermometer broke at minus 70º!).

We who have lived our lives in this terrain and climate don't consider it fussy to warn Exxon that their money makes no difference here: wintry mountains will not let stripmining mega-gear pass on to the Tar Sands without putting up a hell of a fight.

Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana are not, as Exxon seems to think, a Big Oil colony or a shabby Third World petro-state. These regions are a weave of places, weathery forces, flora, fauna, and wild intricacy to which people from all over the world flock like grateful birds simply to see earth being earth; see wildness intact; see beauty on all sides. Exxon's stripmining modules have been and still could be manufactured in Canada. The Korean modules could be shipped in pieces by train. And several alternative routes to the Tar Sands exist. Exxon has targeted this route to save itself pennies at every American's expense. The Northwest and Northern Rockies can't be everything to everyone. The words "A River Runs Through It" mean something here because a Tar Sands tentacle does not. ExxonMobil's proposed industrial corridor through the heart of our region is not "economic stimulus." It's a corporate hijacking.

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