VANCOUVER, Wash. - Washington is closely watching a battle in the Idaho Supreme Court over whether to allow massive oil exploration equipment to be trucked across scenic roadways of Northern Idaho and Montana to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Some of the Korean-made equipment has already arrived at the Port of Vancouver, and is set to go by barge on the Columbia River to Lewiston.
Environmental and sportsman's groups say the mega-loads will end up costing Northwest taxpayers, by damaging roads and bridges and setting back salmon restoration efforts. Pat Ford, who heads the group Save Our Wild Salmon, says they wish agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers shared their concerns.
"I think their position is that these shipments are just normal, everyday commerce and, as such, do not require any special permits that would lead them to delay the shipments. We don't think that is the right position, but I think that's the Army Corps' position."
Proponents say the shipments provide badly-needed business for the ports. But conservation groups are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to assess their environmental impact on the Northwest.
The groups also say the shipments run counter to the Northwest's push for cleaner energy. K.C. Golden, executive director of Climate Solutions, says oil from tar sands is dirtier and harder to extract than other types of fossil fuels. And in this case, it's located in Canada's pristine boreal forests.
"What we're talking about is ripping up one of the Earth's most important and largest carbon sinks to extract oil from tar sands, which produces about twice as much climate pollution as conventional oil."
Ford notes a longer-term concern is whether the Northwest will allow oil companies to dictate the uses of its rivers and roads because of their economic clout.
"They won't be a pro-salmon force, they'll be an anti-salmon force. And we just think that's bad for the Northwest, to have companies who don't care about this region, throwing their weight around - and it's considerable weight - on management of these rivers."
Only one oil company's shipments have been delayed in the Idaho Supreme Court case, which involves the road portion of the trip. But two other oil companies also have dozens of giant rigs bound for Canada.