What anyone familiar with the oil and gas industry knows, even if MDOT doesn’t (and you would think that Montana, with its century’s worth of shallow oil wells in the Williston Basin, would have learned by now), is that there is no end to the servicing and transportation of oilfield equipment. In the oilfield, parts and machines fail daily — big parts — and it is ridiculous to pretend that there will not be similar machines coming and going over the life of the tar-sands project, which is estimated to run for at least the next half century. Indeed, when pipelines fail, it is along these primary corridors that the oil itself may be shipped, in ceaseless high-density traffic.

And what about emergency vehicles? What happens when one of the 334,000-pound machines blows a gasket humping up over Lolo Pass and craps out, or winter-skates into the river? My guess is that it stays there forever, like an ornament, like trash: monument to a state’s folly. We don’t have a lot of 334,000-pound cranes lying around the state. There might be one somewhere up in Canada. Or maybe we can rent one from South Korea. 

Anyone who claims that 200 truckloads are all that would pass over the Montana highways and back roads — along nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers like the Lochsa and the Blackfoot, through Indian country, along the magnificent Rocky Mountain Front, and northward — is being disingenuous.

The administrators of the port of Lewiston, Idaho, know better. They’re trumpeting that a new route has been found — a great way to give their artificial inland, salmon-killing port more business, while reducing South Korea’s external costs and maximizing South Korea’s (and Imperial Oil’s) profits.

Doug Zenner, chair of the Nez Perce County Commission in Lewiston, Idaho, chides Lochsa fishing guides like Jim Hepburn, and others who oppose the monster transports along the Lewis and Clark National Scenic Byway, for their quaint concerns about safety and quality of life. “Oh, for crying out loud,” Zenner says. “Good Lord
, get on our end of the street.”

Zenner says that with the new industrial byway, Montana’s vast (and dirty) coal deposits can now be transported through Lewiston, presumably bound for overseas, rather than traveling as they do now by rail to the mills and power plants of the American Midwest.

MDOT is defending the project — a curious stance, since the public comment period hadn’t even begun when they began advocating for it.

Everyone’s asking, What’s in it for Montana? Why is MDOT so interested in this project? Why are they willing to construct so many giant turnouts, and put up with such endless disruptions? What’s the deal?

MDOT says the turnouts will be a good thing for the state’s residents, in that they will create opportunities for cell-phone users of the future. MDOT seems to have forgotten there’s no way to provide cell coverage in those narrow canyons, nor is there coverage along the lonely, lovely winding roads tucked against the spectacular Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

Schweitzer has already “negotiated” a $68 million contract, for about $34 million of concrete to create the industrial superhighway and $34 million for what Schweitzer describes as “flagging jobs.” He claims the deal will help keep Montana “in the black,” but the $68 million doesn’t go to the state treasury; it would instead pay for developing the High/Wide Corridor for Exxon, and for Montanans to stand on the side of the road and hold flags while the giant trucks go by.

The NOT-NOTS fight back

It seems for now that the only possible weak link in this proposed juggernaut is the college town of Missoula, home to the University of Montana, through which U.S. Highway 93 — the Lolo highway — runs. Calling themselves the NOT-NOTS (No Trucks, No Tar Sands), a diverse coalition in Missoula asked for, but did not receive, a 60-day extension for public comments. It’s also pushing for city ordinances and resolutions that would prohibit the driving of the massive trucks inside city limits. The comment period has now passed, and the state awaits a decision by the MDOT. 

No one really thinks the NOT-NOTS in Missoula will be able to shut down Canada’s vast tar-sands mining operations. But they’re drawing a line in their hometown. They don’t want to carry Exxon’s and South Korea’s externalized costs.

They are trying, by working locally, at first. This is an intensely local issue, and yet intensely global.

Who makes the final decision on matters like this? The feds have jurisdiction on federal highways. The state has jurisdiction on state highways. A city ordinance most likely won’t make a difference, unless the state or federal highway becomes blocked, necessitating a detour along city roads. Mostly, an ordinance will be symbolic.

But a symbol is a powerful thing, and a good place to begin the biggest of campaigns.