BOISE — A big oil company is invoking the spirit of famed explorers Lewis and Clark to help make its case before the Idaho Supreme Court to ship four oversized loads of refinery equipment along a northern Idaho highway.
Lawyers for ConocoPhillips cite the Corps of Discovery and its mission of finding a Northwest Passage in their legal fight to overturn a state judge’s ruling blocking the shipments from Lewiston to its refinery in Billings, Mont.
Last month, 2nd District Judge John Bradbury revoked travel permits issued by the Idaho Department of Transportation after finding the agency failed to adequately consider the impact the shipments would have on public safety and convenience.
The company wants to haul the massive equipment along U.S. Highway 12, a curvy, two-lane roadway that passes through a protected river corridor and covers some of the same ground trekked more than 200 years ago by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and crew.
ConocoPhillips attorneys said one goal of the expedition was to find a water passage to across the rugged Northern Rockies to aid early American commerce. Using the roadway to assist modern day commerce is consistent with those historic principles, company attorneys said.
“It should not be surprising that … (Idaho Department of Transportation) identified this same route of passage in the U.S. 12 corridor as a feasible route for commerce,” company attorneys wrote.
The Lewis and Clark reference is a tiny piece of the argument the company is making to the Idaho Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Oct. 1.
The oil company’s lawyers aren’t the first to use the nostalgia and sentiment of Lewis and Clark to gain leverage or sway opinion on the trucking proposal.
In their initial lawsuit, opponents listed the expedition’s historic footprints as one of the reasons why plans for hauling heavy, massive loads along the roadway is inappropriate. The 172-mile stretch of Highway 12 that cuts across north-central Idaho begins in Lewiston and ends at Lolo Pass, on the Montana border. Along the way, it traces the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, waters that carry the federal Wild and Scenic designation.
Laird Lucas, the attorney for opponents of the shipments, said it’s absurd to link modern day shipping to the historic, commercial intentions of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“This claim underscores that big oil will take any step it can to suppress the individuals and business owners who are concerned about what is happening to their local communities,” Lucas said.
The ConocoPhillips shipments are just the first oversized loads planned for the corridor. Exxon Mobil Corp. is proposing to haul more than 200 oversized loads of heavy oil machinery from the port in Lewiston along Highway 12 into Montana, then north to the Kearn Oil Sands project in Alberta.
Like the Exxon trucks, ConocoPhillips’ loads would also consume both lanes of the highway. Trucks would run between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. and pull over at one of 78 turnouts along the route to let traffic pass. Only 11 of those segments are estimated to take more than 10 minutes of travel time, company attorneys said.
ConocoPhillips is asking Idaho’s Supreme Court to overturn the lower court and allow the state to issue travel permits. The company claims IDT gave ample concern to public safety and convenience in its review and accuse Judge Bradbury of improperly second-guessing the agency’s review process.
Opponents contend the shipments could harm tourism, pose a risk to public safety and, in the event of an accident, cause significant damage to the pristine river corridor.