A number of years ago, when I was an Idaho Statesman reporter, I was fortunate enough to cover a speech by Daniel Kemmis in Boise. Kemmis is a former Montana legislator and mayor of Missoula who is a consultant and known for his ability to find consensus in difficult situations.
Kemmis’ book “Community and the Politics of Place” (he signed my copy!) is influential in public policy circles and has some important lessons for the current controversy about hauling massive oil drilling equipment through Idaho’s mountains.The Spokesman-Review sums it up the issue well:
ConocoPhillips Corp. wants to send the loads, which are so wide they’ll take up both lanes of the two-lane road, across the route immediately to get the equipment to its refinery in Billings, Mont., though it still must receive permits from the state of Montana.
They’re just the first mega-loads proposed for the route, however; Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has a proposal in the works for 207 giant loads to start traveling this month and continue for a year, to run from the Port of Lewiston through Montana and up to its Alberta oil sands project in Canada.
Residents and business owners along the route sued to block the loads, saying the Idaho Transportation Department violated its own regulations in issuing permits to ConocoPhillips.
I’m not expert on Kemmis, but I think I know enough to apply some of his ideas here.
One of the leading principles in “Community and the Politics of Place” is: The best solutions come from citizens on opposing sides working out their own solutions – compromising and sharing responsibility – and then presenting their contract to officials, who may enforce it. Too often, citizens dump their problems in the laps of public officials, when the public officials may not have a stake or the ability to craft a good solution. As Kemmis notes, there is precious little listening going on in a public hearing and no effort by stakeholders to resolve their problems among themselves. The results satisfy no one and produce continual lawsuits, hearings and challenges.
The responsibilities and interests are clear. Idaho relies out-of-state fossil energy for about 80 percent of its electricity, according to Jessica Ruehrwein of the Sierra Club (counting electrical generation and gasoline transportation energy) Idaho is eighty percent fossil fueled, yet we have zero fossil resources! We in Idaho depend completely on other states to extract and send us fossil energy for electricity and transportation and we therefore have a responsibility to do our part to help that process. For their part, the oil companies that want to use Idaho roads have a responsibility to not burden Idaho residents, to recompense them adequately if they must burden them, and leave the route in better condition than they found it.
Opponents of the plan are pressing for public hearings, where they hope to delay or stop the shipments. Instead of court battles and attempts at administrative delays, I think the people along the route, environmental groups and other concerned people should have a conference with the businesses wanting to ship the equipment. Business owners along the route and state officials could present information about how much lost tourist reveue the shipments would create, how to deal with environmental concerns, how to protect the roadway and how to deal with liability. Oil companies may need to post a higher bond and create a special fund for affected residents and demonstrate the ability to address a worst-case disaster.
Opponents will say this reckoning will be too complex, but it is no more complex than developing, extracting and refining fossil fuel, a process from which Idahoans are spared (although they pay millions to fund it buying gasoline). Oil companies will say citizens are trying to place exorbitant costs on business, even as these companies stand to profit greatly by selling fuel.
Both sides are right and both have legitimate claims. As someone who believes in collaborative democracy, I believe both sides could resolve their differences, continue getting what they need and serve the common good.