Friday, November 19, 2010

Overflow Hearing on Oversized Loads

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 1:23 PM

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Lawyers spent Friday morning arguing over mega-loads of oil equipment that ConocoPhillips wants to haul across Idaho's U.S. Highway 12. Same players, same game plan. The difference is that the hearings are getting bigger and attracting more reporters. Nearly 150 people crammed into a meeting room at the Boise headquarters of the Idaho Transportation Department. A handful more spilled over into a side room and watched the proceedings on a monitor.

Conoco packed 55 employees on a bus for an 11-hour drive from the company's Billings, Mont., plant to attend the hearing. In solidarity, the refinery workers wore T-shirts that read: ConocoPhillips, Safe Reliable Energy and Jobs for the Rocky Mountain Region.

Hearing officer Merlyn Clark began the morning with a caveat.

"I practiced law in Lewiston, Idaho and I've fished every inch of the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers," said Clark. "I'm very familiar with Highway 12 and I'm very familiar with the river."

Clark told the gathering that he would spend the weekend and the first part of next week deliberating and "would have a decision before Thanksgiving."

Clark also set some ground rules.

"I am limiting my scope of examination today to the four loads that are proposed for this permit."

But before the morning was over, all sides had referred to the 200-plus loads of oil equipment that ExxonMobil wants to haul across the same highway.

Laird Lucas, attorney for the opponents of the loads delivered an impassioned plea that he had previously offered in District Court and before the Idaho Supreme Court. But he also offered compromise.

"Instead of putting on all our armor in a formal contested case, can we not talk quietly and informally about ways we can go forward?" asked Laird.

But compromise was not on the agenda. Conoco attorney Erik Stidham displayed a webpage from the opponents, warning of "Axles of Evil."

"This is about four permits for four shipments for four days," said Stidham. "This is not about a broader agenda."

Stidham said his client had already incurred $2.5 million in operating losses, including labor costs and stand-down fees at the Port of Lewiston. He further claimed that if the Billings refinery were forced to shut down, Conoco could face a $40 million loss.

Refinery Manager Steven Steach told Citydesk that the coke drums sitting in Lewiston are desperately needed in Billings.

"Our existing drums have been in service for over 20 years," said Steach. "They have some bulges and cracks."

Steach told Citydesk that the mega-loads were actually "four halves" which, when welded together, would create two giant coke drums.


"A coker takes heavy tarring material and bakes it at 900 degrees for 12 hours," said Steach. "It converts relatively low value tarring material and converts it into gasoline, jet and diesel fuel. It's a key unit to our facility."

Steach said Idaho has more than a passing interest in the coke drums.

"Our Billings refinery provides 7 percent of Idaho's transportation fuel," said Steach. "It's key to the energy security of Idaho."

Hearing Officer Clark said he'd have his recommendation on the desk of ITD Director Brian Ness next week.

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