Like Native Americans in the nineteenth century, Imperial Oil must now see the Canada-U.S. border as something of a Medicine Line: On the American side, persecution; on the Canadian side, freedom.
The irony, of course, is as grand as Imperial’s plan to transport hundreds of giant pieces of industrial equipment — most larger than the space shuttle — from South Korea to Alberta’s oil sands. Where once Canada offered protection to the persecuted and the downtrodden, now it seems inclined to protect only the interests of Big Oil.
Whether Imperial can actually get the goods to the border, however, is an open question. While the “modules,” as they are known, pile up at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, a growing army of discontent Americans have so far blocked Imperial Oil’s desire to truck them across Idaho, Montana and, eventually, Alberta. The building blocks of the $8 billion Kearl Oil Sands Mine in Alberta’s oil sands, these behemoths and the Big Rigs that haul them would all but block highways along the way and impose environmental and social risks that local opponents say are simply untenable.
“We have no idea what will happen on these narrow, cliff-side canyon roads, especially in bad weather,” Montana writer and activist Annick Smith told me on one of winter’s first blustery days. “The black ice on Highway 200 [which runs by her front door] is legendary. If these things tip over and spill into the river, there’s no crane, no machinery, around here that could take it out. You’d have to go all the way to Portland or Seattle to find one. Will it dam the river? What will it do to the banks? What will it do to the flow?”
Annick and other opponents are pulling out all the stops, including the possibility of lawsuits, to prevent some of the American West’s most iconic landscapes from being turned into one big industrial transportation corridor.
“All roads, literally and figuratively, lead through Montana with this project,” said Robert Gentry, a self-employed, Missoula-based lawyer who used to work for the Montan Department of Transport (MDT). “I’m working with groups who are preparing litigation responses to a bad decision from MDT, and the Montana Supreme Court has set pretty strong precedents in this regard. But we’re also encouraging MDT to make a good decision.”
Not so on the Canadian side of the border, in part because although the transportation permits for the Big Rigs have been all but granted, most Albertans have no idea they’re even on their way.
“There are no concerns from Alberta’s perspective,” Alberta Transportation spokesman Trent Bancarz told me. “Basically, we didn’t have some of the legal issues that they’ve had down there [in the U.S.]. There is no reason to deny the permits.”
It’s impossible to say whether there is or isn’t, because in Alberta, decisions like these are made in a black box, safe from the prying eyes of members of the public who might just disagree. Banzarc said Alberta Transportation did assess Imperial’s plan to ensure public safety, minimize inconvenience to the travelling public, and minimize any damage to the highway infrastructure, but when I asked to see Imperial’s plan or the government’s assessment, he said that I couldn’t. “I used the word in its general sense rather than in its specific sense,” he said. “There is no ‘assessment’ document available.”
Well, what about the communities on the route? The big rigs will pass right through Coaldale, Alberta, I asked Banzarc. Have they been notified or consulted?
“Most of the route” doesn’t pass through “developed, urban communities,” he said, and besides, “provincial highways are under the jurisdiction of the Alberta government.” Although municipalities are “generally given advance notice” the loads will be rolling through, the only one mentioned in the pending hauling permits is the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, which gets 24-hour notice. The others? They appear to be on their own.
God Bless, America is all I can say. For all it’s pimples and warts — of which there are many — it’s far better than the alternative. Just think: If Great Britain had won the American Revolutionary War, the United States would be far less democratic, perhaps even a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry, just like Canada.