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Who Will Blink? 

Time's running out to decide whether to allow Big Oil to ship mega equipment along a scenic highway.

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This is a big week in the world of megaloads. OK, we know that “megaload” is a made-up word, but it works nicely to describe the enormous cargo shipments — the size of small office buildings — that are lining up at the Port of Lewiston for transport over the narrow, twisty Highway 12 over Lolo Pass, a federally designated National Scenic Byway.

Backers — mainly in the oil industry — say the route is the cheapest and most direct way to get the Paul Bunyan-esque equipment to a refinery in Billings and, more apropos, to the tar sands of northern Alberta, one of the richest remaining oil deposits on the continent.

FOUR: The battle starts small, as ConocoPhillips is seeking permits for four loads shipped from Japan and has a hearing this week in Boise.

MORE: If the door opens for ConocoPhillips, plenty more megaloads are in line. ExxonMobil’s Canadian subisidiary, Imperial Oil, has already stashed the first 34 of an announced 207 megaloads, built in South Korea, at the Port of Lewiston.

Harvest Energy, a holding of the South Korean national oil company, has been in talks with the Idaho Transportation Department for moving 63 megaloads.

In correspondence, both ITD and the Port of Lewiston acknowledge that once industry finds out about the route, more megaloads will follow.

AT STAKE: ConocoPhillips says it stands to lose $40 million if ITD doesn’t issue travel permits and the coke drums don’t make it to its refinery in Billings by some unspecified date in spring.

People who live along Highway 12 say the roadway — and three bridges, especially — face damage from the mighty weight of the loads if they’re permitted. Past megaloads have gone through Houston or the Great Lakes.

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One of the ConocoPhillips megaloads, as depicted in the ITD permit forms

HOW BIG IS MEGA? Even split in half, the ConocoPhillips’ coke drums are gigantic — more than two-thirds of a football field long, three stories tall. With trailers, dollies and pusher and puller trucks, the lower halves of the coke drums are just over 226 feet long. Each shipment weighs more than 600,000 pounds.

DON’T BLINK: If ConocoPhillips doesn’t prevail at the hearing (with a decision expected next week) — or it doesn’t get the megaloads on a barge downriver by the end of the week — they will be stranded at the Port of Lewiston until March or April. The Corps of Engineers is closing the locks on Friday for maintenance for more than three months.

Emmert International, the Oregon company that will do the hauling, says ConocoPhillips “is looking at different scenarios.”

WHO’S GOT MOJO? Megaload opponents are feeling good that they were even granted status to be a part of this week’s hearing. At a recent session to determine if they would be allowed in the door, testimony was limited to discussion of the four ConocoPhillips shipments.

WHO’S GOT MOOLAH? Oil company execs have spent recent weeks trooping into editorial board meetings with newspapers in Missoula and Lewiston to explain their side of the issue. They have hired a lobbyist in Boise and, shortly thereafter, announced the formation of a business group to support the shipments, casting the oil companies as friendly locals who will provide unspecified jobs and the opponents as outsiders who are against oil extraction.

Last weekend, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer reiterated support for the megaloads, citing jobs and a $64 million boost to the economy. However, a University of Montana economics prof (and other critics) say any jobs created are mostly in Canada — little money will come to Idaho or Montana. 

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