During the furor over plans by ExxonMobil and other major oil companies to use tiny, twisting Highway 12 through northern Idaho as a shortcut to Alberta’s tar sands, activists developed an explanation of the relationship between megaloads, Canadian oil, and the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that bears repeating.
Transport of massive infrastructural equipment to mine the oil is the first leg of a “tripod.” The second leg is use of this equipment to produce oil from the tar sands, and the third leg is transport of the crude to refineries, principally via the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline through America’s heartland to the Gulf of Mexico.
Many hundreds of megaloads, each of them roughly the size of a three-story building, were to travel along Highway 12. The advantage to Big Oil of this route was twofold. First, it would save about 5,300 nautical miles in transport of the machinery from manufacturers, who are mostly in Asia, because the freighters could travel straight across the North Pacific to the U.S. West Coast, rather than taking the usual, more southerly route to the Panama Canal and then up through the Gulf of Mexico.
Second, it would save about 1,400 road miles. Instead of going north from the Gulf through a half-dozen states to Canada, the megaloads could be unloaded in Oregon or Washington ports, sent on barges up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston, Idaho, and then trucked across northern Idaho and through Montana to Alberta.
By preventing Big Oil from violating federal protections to Highway 12 provided by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and other laws, activists forced the companies to find less environmentally destructive ways to complete the first leg of their tripod. This engaged Big Oil in three years of struggle, not counting several years of advance plan-laying done in secret between oil companies and state and local governments. It also cost the companies a huge amount of money in delays, extra labor, and lost profits.
ExxonMobil, the world’s richest corporation, reported it lost several months on its production schedule and added $2 billion to its costs, principally because of the Highway 12 battle. Another big loser was Athabasca Oil, the biggest Canadian producer, which had megaloads of equipment made in Washington that it barged to Lewiston, Only one load went down Highway 12 before a federal judge stopped the others. Several other oil companies that had intended to go through northern Idaho dropped their plans after realizing what they were up against.
Knocking out the first leg of the tripod didn’t mean Big Oil couldn’t just put another one in its place, but all the activists knew this from the start. The point is they showed that the juggernaut could be stopped cold, if people were determined enough to make it happen.
Similarly, the XL Pipeline is not the only way crude oil can reach refineries on the Gulf. But the victory over the megaloads is heartening to people throughout the US and Canada who recognize that the true threat of the pipeline is not that it would cost-effectively complete the tripod, but that it would virtually assure Big Oil of energy dominance for decades to come.
Given what scientists know about the devastation climate change will wreak if we don’t slow pollution now, the XL Pipeline is far more than just a rallying cry. It’s a line in the sand.
Steve Bunk is author of Goliath Staggered: How the People of Highway 12 Conquered Big Oil. You can read more about the book here.