By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- The first of what could be hundreds of "megaloads" of oil industry equipment travelling the rural highways of the Northwest arrived at a Billings refinery early Wednesday.
It took more than two months for the twin 300-ton loads to travel from a port in Lewiston, Idaho, to the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings.
Crews hauling the massive coker drums were hampered by weather delays, mechanical malfunctions and legal challenges that delayed their initial departure for months.
Hundreds more "megaloads" are expected in coming years. Those would follow a similar route through portions of Idaho and Montana before heading north to Canada's oil sands fields.
Opponents view the shipments as a threat to public highways -- with the potential to exacerbate environmental damage from the continued use of fossil fuels.
Emmert International spokesman Mark Hefty said the hauling company's crews will return to Idaho after a brief rest and begin moving two more loads to Billings within the next few weeks.
The company originally scheduled a 25-day delivery, planned for summer when the roads were in better condition. After delays caused by legal challenges to the proposed route the shipments left Lewiston Feb. 1, taking 65 days to arrive in Billings.
Much of the route was along the scenic U.S. Route 12 corridor through Idaho and Montana.
"Hopefully the weather will start to change and lift a bit. We're going to get back on a better schedule for the next two," Hefty said. "We had planned on doing it in the summer, when we wouldn't have slowdowns because of the weather, but because of the lawsuits and all, that delayed it."
Zack Porter of the group All Against the Haul said no protests were planned to mark the rigs' arrival. Demonstrations were held when they passed through Missoula several weeks ago.
Porter said efforts now are focused on stopping a proposal by Imperial Oil and Exxon Mobil Corp. to ship possibly hundreds of loads of modular equipment for use in the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta.
Imperial is the first of multiple companies expected to ship the Asian-manufactured equipment overland to Canada in coming years.
In response to opposition to the moves, Imperial has proposed breaking down the first 33 of its modules into smaller sizes that could be transported at least in part in 60 shipments along interstate highways.
"Conoco has proven this was a bad idea," Porter said. "Any reasonable analysis on that route and their performance along it -- whether it's mechanical issues or weather or driver delays -- makes it clear it's an infeasible option."
Last week, commissioners in Missoula County joined the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center in a lawsuit in state court that seeks to stop oversized loads.
The truckloads require a permit to travel through a state because they take up both lanes of the two-lane highway. The trucks travel at night to minimize traffic congestion.
ConocoPhillips revised its oversized loads travel plans across northern Idaho after the first shipment caused long traffic delays. The truckloads exceeded the allowable traffic delays of 15 minutes, with one delay at a sharp turn lasting 59 minutes.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.