The international oil company that wants to move some 200 super-sized loads of processing equipment through the state to Canada says it's high time Montana gives it the go-ahead.
"We've played by all the rules here," Bob Delaney, major projects executive for Imperial Oil of Calgary, said Thursday. "We need to get on with this, and we think we've done everything to get on with it."
Imperial Oil, the Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, initially intended to begin the yearlong Kearl Module Transportation Project last month. Neither Idaho, where the truck loads will originate, nor Montana has issued the required oversized load permits.
Citing guidelines of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the Montana Department of Transportation required the project be subjected to an environmental assessment -- an unprecedented move for oversized loads, Delaney said.
A draft environmental assessment was vetted before the public in April and May. MDT says it has been working with Imperial/Exxon since then to address the thousands of concerns that were raised during the 30-day comment period.
The oil company is stockpiling 33 modules -- many of which will be 210 feet long and nearly 30 feet high when loaded on transport trailers - at the Port of Lewiston before locks on the Columbia and Snake Rivers are closed for repair in December.
Even as another oil giant, ConocoPhillips, shored up its defense for a Friday hearing in Idaho that will decide whether it can move four megaloads to Billings, Delaney and Cynthia Bergman, media relations adviser for ExxonMobil in Irving, Texas, met with the Missoulian editorial board.
Delaney said Imperial/Exxon began discussions in 2008 with Montana officials and companies integral to the Kearl Module Transportation Project.
"We started this project a long time ago, with the expectation of having an answer much earlier than we've had," the Calgary executive said. "We certainly allowed for some contingency time, but we didn't count on this much time."
The Kearl oil sands project north of Fort MacMurray in far northeastern Alberta is scheduled to go into production in late 2012. Delaney said there are currently 3,000 workers at the site on a fly-in, fly-out basis, and they're ready for the modules.
"These things go together. They're like your Lego building blocks. ... If there's one missing in the middle, it's hard to get it in later," Delaney said.
ConocoPhillips, in an affidavit filed with the Idaho Transportation on Wednesday in advance of Friday morning's hearing, said in the event of an extended delay of delivery of coke drum components to Billings, its refinery there could "reasonably be anticipated to lose up to $40 million."
Delaney wouldn't venture a figure for further delays in the Kearl project.
"Before I put a number on it, it'll be in an affidavit," he said, smiling.
You do have to wonder, Bergman said, in the face of these delays if other businesses or industries looking to transport through Idaho and Montana would now choose to move through the two states.
"Will it stifle investment here and send a message that it may not be the best place for businesses to have certainty?" she said.
"I'm not going to go there, per se," Delaney said. "But I think you have choices, and this is all about the choices you make for good business and good economic sense."
MDT director Jim Lynch said earlier this week the department is still working with Imperial/Exxon to refine the plan to be "situational specific."
"That came through the comments that came into us: What are you going to do when you do have an emergency? So they're being very specific about that rather than being very general," Lynch said.
Also still at issue is the language of a memorandum between the state, Imperial/Exxon and the oil company's mover, Mammoet, about "who's responsible for what" should an accident occur.
"We're getting close," Lynch said.
"I don't think we have an open question yet with the state," Delaney said. "We might have had two weeks ago. We don't today. To the best of our knowledge we have answered all their questions."
Lynch hasn't sensed impatience on the part of Imperial/Exxon officials.
"I don't think they'd disagree with you that they wanted to be able to start this a long time ago," he said. "But I don't think I've ever got anything that says they're impatient. I think they're trying to make sure that with the actions they take they can demonstrate to the public that they've taken everything into consideration. My hat's off to them in that respect."