Idaho official recommends permits for ConocoPhillips

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A hearing officer recommended Tuesday that the Idaho Transportation Department issue four permits to allow ConocoPhillips to ship oversized oil-refinery equipment from Idaho to Montana.

In his 57-page recommendation, Boise attorney Merlyn Clark said evidence shows the four loads can be transported safely and with minimum inconvenience to the general public along northcentral Idaho's U.S. Highway 12, which parallels the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.

He said foes of the shipments provided no "reliable evidence" that the loads would damage tourism, hurt the highway's scenic values or hamper businesses in the mountainous region, as they had argued at hearings this month.

"The evidence ... clearly establishes that ITD performed its duties and exercised its discretion in processing the application," Clark wrote. "ITD should issue the overlegal permits to allow (ConocoPhillips) to transport four oversize loads of equipment from Lewiston, Idaho to the Montana border over U.S. Highway 12."

Clark's recommended order won't become final until it's acted on by the transportation department.

Transportation Department director Brian Ness said he'll take the recommendation under advisement.

"There is no schedule for Ness' decision," said Jeff Stratten, a spokesman for the agency.

ConocoPhillips said in a statement that it was pleased with Clark's recommendation, saying it shows the oil company and state have a comprehensive plan to ship the big coke drums.

"We will soon put our plan into action, and we look forward to delivering the equipment to Billings safely so we can complete our important refinery maintenance plan," said Steve Steach, manager of ConocoPhillips' Billings Refinery, where the coke drums are bound.

Industry and farm groups banking on the shipments to inject millions into Idaho's and Montana's economy also cheered the recommendation.

"Highway 12 should remain open for commerce and the loads should be allowed to move immediately," said Frank Priestley, president of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and residents who object to the shipments said they were "disappointed and are evaluating their next steps." They have until mid-January to lodge an appeal.

They've argued the huge loads, which will travel at very slow speeds along a route near where explorers Lewis and Clark traveled in the early 19th century, present a threat to tourism, public safety and convenience and could harm the pristine rivers along the proposed route.

They said the decision issued by Clark on Tuesday doesn't cover separate plans of Imperial Oil, a unit of Exxon Mobil Corp., to truck more than 200 loads of oil equipment from Lewiston, Idaho to the tar sands of northern Alberta, Canada along U.S. 12.

Other companies are planning additional shipments of equipment to Canada, too, as exploitation of the oil-rich tar sands accelerates.

"The impacts of the 207 shipments, night after night for nearly a year, are a whole other story, as are the many more shipments likely to follow," said Linwood Laughy, in a statement. "We do intend to continue our role of keeping people informed of the issues involved with the megaloads."