HELENA, Mont. -- An Exxon Mobil subsidiary has changed tack after months of being snarled in a legal dispute over plans to haul oversized refinery equipment along scenic two-lane highways in Montana and Idaho to Canada.
Imperial Oil has applied to the Montana Department of Transportation for permits to transport about 300 smaller versions of the so-called megaloads to Alberta via interstates 90 and 15, transportation officials said Friday. That application would include all of the modules destined for the Kearl oil sands project, Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser said.
The company originally planned to ship the loads from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, along U.S. Highway 12 into Montana, then up Montana 200 and other two-lane roadways to the northern border.
The proposed route was met with fierce opposition from residents, conservation groups and local governments. They said a proper study was not conducted on how the massive loads, which would slowly lumber at night along the historical roadway that follows a portion of the path that Lewis and Clark once traveled, could impact the environment.
Shipments along that route have been stalled since a judge in July granted a preliminary injunction requested by Missoula County and conservation groups that filed a lawsuit against the Montana Transportation Department. Imperial has since divided several of the modules into smaller loads and shipped a few dozen along the interstate.
Now the company has broken down all of its modules and made them ready for interstate travel, Montana officials said. This new application, if approved, would allow Imperial to haul them along the interstate route beginning next week through the end of March.
Transportation officials said the new route proposal might end the logjam.
"From a practical standpoint, if all the cargo is hauled on the interstate, there would not be a need to haul it on the (original route)," said Dave Ohler, acting chief legal counsel for the Montana Transportation Department. "In the end, if all the cargo is moved, I think that would moot the lawsuit."
Rolheiser said the company applied for the new route rather than jeopardize the company's plan to have all the equipment in Alberta and the project under way by late 2012.
"Because of the permitting delays and inability to acquire permits for U.S. 12, we have implemented a contingency plan," Rolheiser said. "It's premature at this point to talk about a specific number of modules on specific routes except to say we're looking at all options available to get to what's needed."
Imperial already is cleared to transport the loads through Idaho up U.S. Highway 95 from Lewiston to Interstate 90 and east into Montana. The company has moved about half of the 70 smaller loads now in Lewiston, with the other half in the works.
New shipments have been arriving from the manufacturer in South Korea to the port in Pasco, Wash., for easier access to the interstate system.
But even if all the loads go through the interstate route, it doesn't appear likely the lawsuit against the original route will go away anytime soon.
Jean Curtiss, chairwoman of the Missoula County Commission, one of the plaintiffs, said the county is still guarded against the scenic highways becoming a permanent corridor for oversized loads. She said she would like to see Imperial officially withdraw its U.S. 12 proposal.
"Our position all along has been the interstate is the preferred route to take these large loads through Missoula County," Curtiss said. "The one thing that we don't have is, `Will (Imperial) let these permits go?'"
Rolheiser said Imperial is not ceding the U.S. 12 route as a viable option for the loads, and Ohler said MDOT will continue to defend its decision to issue its original permit until Imperial withdraws its application.
___AP writer John Miller in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.