Sometimes epic social justice fights can be so big and overwhelming as to be challenging to wrap our head and hands around. Below is a powerful and very helpful guest post from Alex Johnson of the All Against the Haul campaign – it brings the movement to stop the Canadian Tar Sands into a clear and grounded focus, and offers a clarion call of tangible action.

Of all the solutions to the climate crisis, ours might be the most ironic: protecting a highway. We call ourselves "All Against The Haul" and we are a group of concerned citizens, small-business owners, and organizations from the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies which have banded together to keep Tar Sands megaloads off our rural two-lane highways and away from our rivers and communities.

If you've heard of the Alberta Tar Sands project, then you know enough to be worried. If fully developed, it would cover an area the size of Florida, destroying a vast swath of one of the largest intact ecosystems and carbon sinks in the world–the Canadian boreal forest. All of it in the name of dirty oil extraction–mining a tarry, oil-laden substance called bitumen using techniques that produce three times as much carbon as conventional oil drilling. At full throttle, the project would emit an average of 3.7 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, year after year for decades. Already, the Tar Sands is the largest source of greenhouse gasses in Canada. As James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, succinctly states, "the carbon emissions from tar shale and tar sands would initiate a continual unfolding of climate disasters over the course of this century." Disturbingly, the Canadian government has decided to bank on this continual unfolding of disasters.

Knowing that the whole Tar Sands project would be cooked if the world's nations agreed to strict greenhouse gas emission standards, the Albertan and Canadian governments lobbied harder than any other nation to block a strict agreement at Copenhagen. They have also strongly lobbied the United States Congress for minimal standards in order to ensure a continued U.S. market for their dirty Tar Sands oil. In short, Canada stands between the citizens of the world and climate justice.

Let's disregard the Tar Sands' effects on climate change for a moment. The scale of the Tar Sands is so immense that it is the single largest industrial project in human history. Water and air pollution from Tar Sands development have led to lesions and mutations in fish populations in northern Alberta’s Athabasca River system, and in turn, abnormally high rates of rare diseases among First Nations people living downstream in the community of Fort Chipewyan, where a cancer epidemic threatens residents and could mean the end of their traditionally subsistence lifestyle.

The economic and political inertia of a project so massive seems impossible to stop. Yet, the Tar Sands' enormity is also its weakness. The First Nations people of northeastern Alberta have been working to draw global attention toward the Tar Sands for many years. Now that Tar Sands development is increasing full-throttle, its many tentacles are attracting the attention of people across the continent. Heavy haul supply routes, thousands of miles of pipelines, and new refineries are springing up from Houston to Thunder Bay to Vancouver. The Tar Sands are now a local issue for everyone who lives in North America–along with the rest of the world.

Rather than construct mining equipment on site, Tar Sands developers such as Imperial Oil, a Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, have decided to manufacture gargantuan pieces of machinery in east Asia, where costs are lowest. Then, despite the presence of existing Tar Sands supply routes through Canada, corporations want to take an entirely new path, a route involving barge transport up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, and then truck transport through Idaho and Montana, over two mountain passes, and along 1,000 miles of rural roads to Alberta.

These are not your average oversized loads: clocking in at 750,000 pounds, nearly 30 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 220 feet long, the shipments are heavier than the Statue of Liberty and three-quarters of the length of a football field. As for the route they’ve chosen, it would have been difficult to pick one with more accolades: the megaloads will travel along one of only thirty Congressionally-designated All American Roads and the Trans-America bike route, they will parallel two of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers, they will follow the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National Historic Trails, and they will traverse the setting of Norman Maclean’s book-turned-movie, A River Runs Through It.

In the spring of 2010, after several years of hushed communication between the Idaho and Montana departments of transportation, ExxonMobil, and another actor in the drama, ConocoPhillips, the public learned that plans called for moving a total of 211 megaloads over hundreds of miles of mountainous, two-lane state highways. But while the state transportation agencies, as well as the oil companies, claim that the 211 megaloads will be a one-time project, all signs point to the contrary. The Port of Lewiston, which exacts a fee from each megaload that passes through its gates, has said, “If one oil company is successful with this alternative transportation route, many other companies will follow their lead.” The Port has stated that a number of other corporations, including Korean-based Harvest Energy, intend to use the same route to the Tar Sands, and billions of dollars in contracts with east Asian manufacturers that were recently uncovered are further indication that the 211 loads are just the tip of the iceberg. Jim Lynch, the director of the Montana Department of Transportation, was caught on tape saying, “We are actually setting the stage for a high-wide corridor through the state of Montana to be used probably for things we haven’t even imagined yet.”

Aside from the global implications of Tar Sands exploitation, the direct consequences of the Heavy Haul on our region are many: thousands of tourism and recreation jobs – the backbone of our economy – will be negatively impacted, the safety of the traveling public will be put at risk, tribal sovereignty will be violated, and communities will suffer as they are turned into pit-stops on an international Tar Sands supply route.

Fortunately, a wide variety of concerned citizens have banded together to stop the Tar Sands megaloads, protecting our local state highways, and even more importantly, slowing down the Tar Sands' deadly contribution to the climate crisis. Local tribes, river guides, lodge owners, fly-fishers, hunters, writers, artists, photographers, watershed coalitions, energy groups, students, grandmothers, square dancers, and certainly not the least, climate change advocates, are all working together to stop Big Oil’s plans. Through grassroots action, legal challenges, legislation, and lobbying, Exxon and Conoco’s projects have suffered set back after set back, and what once seemed like a done deal has become a front page controversy with no certain conclusion.

For instance, Exxon is now looking to alternative routes that they claimed didn't exist: like breaking down the megaloads so that they can fit under interstate overpasses, allowing them to bypass the mountainous Highway 12. They are also contracting with companies in Chicago and the eastern US. While we don't want Exxon moving any shipments up to the destructive Tar Sands, we do want to make it as expensive as possible for them while they are.

More recent breakthroughs in our region's efforts to stop the Tar Sands Heavy Haul include a federal lawsuit in Idaho against the Clearwater National Forest for their laissez faire protection of Wild & Scenic River characteristics on the Lochsa and Clearwater Rivers. Also, just this past week, a district judge in Montana issued a temporary restraining order on all Montana Heavy Haul corridor construction until a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Transportation has been heard.

We believe we can stop Big Oil in their tracks, but we’ll need your help to make it possible. Visit our website at to learn more and to sign the petition of opposition to Big Oil’s plans for a permanent industrial corridor to the Tar Sands. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter in order to stay on top of the latest developments. If you'd like to learn even more about the Tar Sands and the Heavy Haul, order a copy of The Heart of the Monster, a book written by David James Duncan and Rick Bass. And please contact your legislators and tell them why you don't want the United States to support Canada's dirty oil.

The Tar Sands are our "lethal dose" of fossil fuels: if fully developed, they could single-handedly prevent us from getting back to 350 ppm CO2 anytime in the foreseeable future. And that's worth protecting a road for.

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