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The Big Rigs Run Through It

In Missoula, Mont., traffic signals will be moved and power lines will be buried later this year, because the big rigs are coming to town.

The Kearl Oil Sands Project in northeastern Alberta is scheduled to get under way in 2012. But, before Imperial Oil Resources and ExxonMobil Canada can begin extracting oil in an enormous strip mine that will be visible from space, they need to bring in the right equipment.

The right equipment happens to be really big. The largest of the trucks that will carry the machinery are about 12 times the size of a normal single-trailer semi - twice as long, twice as high and three times as wide.

The machinery that will be used in the Canadian oilfields will be prefabricated in South Korea. Once it is ready to go, it will cross the Pacific Ocean, then travel by barge along the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, Idaho. There, it will be loaded onto the trucks to begin its journey north, passing through Missoula, up through the Blackfoot Valley (setting for the story and film “A River Runs Through It”) and along the Rocky Mountain Front to the Port of Sweetgrass, where it will enter Alberta.

Getting the equipment to the oilfields will be no easy task. Imperial Oil, which owns a 70 percent stake in the Kearl project, estimates that it will take 200 loads, traveling over the course of an entire year, to move everything into place. Each one-way trip will take about 10 days.

Along the way, the logisticians will have to maneuver through an obstacle course of roads not built to handle trucks 24 feet wide and 30 feet high. The trucks must travel through towns like Missoula in order to avoid low overpasses on interstates, but, in those towns, they will have to deal with low-hanging lights and power lines. Montana law prohibits stopping traffic for more than 10 minutes, so Imperial will use a series of more than 500 pullovers, most of which will be constructed specifically for the operation, in order to let cars pass. Extra vehicles may be needed to push the loads from behind when they climb the two mountain passes that lie in their way.

Bruce Brockmann of Fluor Corp., which is engineering the transportation plan, said a wide variety of routes were considered. They contemplated moving the equipment along the St. Lawrence Seaway, by American or Canadian rail, or even up from the Gulf of Mexico.

In the end, the route across the Northern Rockies was deemed the most efficient and safest. So, sometime next fall, the giant trucks will begin regularly rumbling through the streets of Missoula during the dead of night. Equipment will pass through the town only at night in order to minimize disruption to residents.

Before the controversy over the route began, another debate centered on whether the oil should be extracted at all. The mine was originally scheduled to open in 2011, but the project was delayed when a lawsuit by the Sierra Club of Canada and other non-profit environmental groups resulted in the revocation of a key permit from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The permit was later reinstated.

Speaking of the government’s original decision to approve the project, Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada said, “The panel's conclusion that a strip mine the size of 20,000 football fields with toxic sludge-filled tailings ponds visible from space will have no significant environmental effects makes a mockery of Canada's environmental assessment process.” The mine’s backers say they will use “advanced technology and adaptive management to minimize impacts on the environment.”

The project is estimated to contain 4.6 billion barrels of bitumen, a thick, asphaltlike sludge that will be “upgraded” near the mine to a synthetic crude oil that can then be piped to refineries. The bitumen itself, which can be 1,000 times more viscous than light crude oil, is impossible to transport through pipelines at standard temperatures and pressures.

When all three of its phases are online, the Kearl project is expected to produce more than 300,000 barrels per day, over a 50-year life. The United States is keenly interested in seeing Canada develop its vast oil sands reserves, which will help the U.S. reduce its dependence on less-stable sources of foreign oil like the Middle East and Venezuela (which is trying to develop its own oil sands projects).

But even becoming less dependent on overseas oil is a global venture. Those who live along the equipment’s northbound route will soon get a close look at globalization, as that giant Korean-made equipment crawls along their American roads on its way to Canada.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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