Port will be key link in controversial Canadian oil project

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Monday, the Port of Vancouver will display its ability to handle huge, odd-looking international cargo, generating revenue and fulfilling long-term economic-development objectives along the way.

But that cargo is at the center of a growing environmental controversy that stretches more than 1,200 miles from Vancouver’s docks. The port is about to become a key link in an oil giant’s effort to ship and haul the massive machinery required to construct an oil-processing facility in Canada.

The big, boxy pieces of oil-refinery equipment — some weighing as much as 155 tons — would be trucked through scenic areas of Idaho and Montana, spurring criticism from residents of those states. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are trying to halt the project, arguing development of the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada, pollutes the earth and exacerbates global warming.

Port of Vancouver officials said the public dispute isn’t their concern. The port handles a variety of cargo — everything from wind energy components to Subaru automobiles — and the oil equipment presents yet another opportunity to bolster its marine terminal business, they said.

Importing the equipment will bring in roughly $1 million to port coffers. The port’s total budget this year is about $59 million.

As the port hauls in the refinery equipment, the cargo will be barged up the Columbia and Snake rivers to the Port of Lewiston in Idaho. That’s where the controversy begins.

ExxonMobil Canada and several subsidiaries plan to run truckloads of the refinery equipment along Idaho and Montana highways until they reach their Canadian destination.

Each truck would move only at night but take nine days to cross Idaho and Montana. The rigs would be three stories tall, more than 200 feet long and eight times heavier than a loaded tractor-trailer.

Residents of Idaho and Montana worry that the scenic highway routes that will handle the cargo, which border national forests and feature historic sites, will be transformed into a permanent industrial corridor. But Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil in Calgary, Alberta, an affiliate of ExxonMobil, said the company only intends to truck the mega-loads of oil refinery equipment for which it has requested a permit. He said using railroads or interstate highways is not an option because the loads could not fit in most tunnels or beneath overpasses.

Once at its final destination, the equipment will be assembled into a processing plant that will be used to extract oil from sand, an energy-intensive process decried by environmentalists as destructive to the planet.

While the controversy simmers, Port of Vancouver officials said they’re focusing on successfully handling the shipments of massive oil equipment.

The port has been looking for opportunities to import more heavy-lift cargo to diversify its revenues, officials said. That diversification is key to financing the port’s planned rail expansions.

Todd Coleman, deputy executive director for the port, said the port’s ability to handle heavy-lift cargo such as the oil modules is one of the “competitive advantages that we have.”

The nine oil modules due on Monday will arrive in the first of 15 shiploads of an estimated 200 pieces of oil sands refinery equipment. The import operation will last from October to June 2011. The mega-pieces of oil equipment come in different shapes and sizes, with unusual centers of gravity that make handling them a challenge.

The port will deploy its two Liebherr LHM 500s heavy-lift mobile cranes to take hold of the modules.

The port has handled heavy-lift cargo, including rock crushers and giant drill-bit components, but the oil modules are “just a bit bigger than the stuff we’ve handled before,” said Alastair Smith, port director of marketing and operations.

The port’s role in handling the oil equipment is connected to a three-year contract it signed last year with South Korea’s Dong Bang Transport Logistics Company, which is shipping the Korean-built equipment to the port’s Terminal 2.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.