Katie Fong and Luca Lezzi

There’s a giant, slow moving force out along the highway route from Montana to the Alberta Tar Sands of Canada. This “heavy haul” is transporting giant pieces of equipment called “megaloads” that will be used in extracting oil from the tar sands. The shipping method of these gargantuan megaload trucks is creating an uproar of opposition along their routes. 

Megaloads and What They Carry

A megaload is a massive truckload that, when hauled, takes up both lanes of a two-lane highway and cannot fit under most highway bridges. An example was a megaload on December 2, 2013 departed Umatilla, Oregon, and “was 380 feet long, 23 feet wide and 19 feet tall, weighing 901,000 pounds including the truck and trailer” (Read). These huge truckloads allow larger pieces and amounts of equipment to be shipped to other sites of bitumen extraction (See Bitumen). The Heavy Haul routes that connect Pacific Northwest ports with the Alberta Tar Sands go through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alberta (See Alberta Tar Sands).

Megaload hauling evaporator for bitumen extraction. (Credit: Peter Robitaille)

Megaload hauling evaporator for bitumen extraction. (Credit: Peter Robitaille)

The name “megaload” was invented by an Idaho activist named Borg Hendrickson, when creating a website called Fighting Goliath. Yet the Oregon Department of Transportation calls megaloads “Super Loads." These gigantic loads of equipment move incredibly slowly, but they are still capable of causing large amounts of damage. Recently companies have been hauling giant evaporators for recycling water which sounds efficient, except the water is turned into steam that is then injected underground to melt out bitumen, a substance that is refined into crude oil (Read).

Greatest Risks

Three main risks come up the most with megaload shipping: accidents/traffic, decrease of scenic value, and facilitation of climate change through tar sand production. The routes of these heavy hauls can cause traffic and possible backups, and if there is an ambulance or a medical emergency, this could delay treatment (Webber). A megaload hit the Skagit River Bridge, causing its collapse in 2013. The Washington Department of Transportation filed a lawsuit seeking at least $17 million to recover costs related to the collapse. The truck was over its height limit of 15 feet 9 inches, which caused it to hit the 15 feet 7 inch braces on the bridge before it collapsed (Corte).

The Skagit River Bridge collapsed in 2013 after hit by a megaload truck. (Credit: Dusty Starling)

The Skagit River Bridge collapsed in 2013 after hit by a megaload truck. (Credit: Dusty Starling)

Many rural areas along the megaload routes rely on tourism for their economic income. If the scenic value decreases, it affects the economy of these rural areas. Megaloads can have a negative effect for local businesses that depend on the value of nature (Webber).

The most significant impact of the megaloads is that they help expand the development of the tar sands themselves. The large loads “enable the development of tar sand mining at a lower cost margin” (Webber). The carbon footprint from the operations in the tar sands is enormous, and megaloads allow their continued expansion. More equipment arrives at the site quicker, and in turn facilitate more drilling. Any entity that makes development cheaper in the tar sands is responsible for climate change. The megaloads themselves create a significant amount of emissions due to the gas consumed in transportation.


Because of the direct connection between megaloads and tar sands development, many hauls have encountered opposition or protests. There was a blockade led by the Nez Perce tribal members led by Tribe Council members in Idaho.

“Exxon/Mobil, the parent company of Omega-Morgan, attempted to push through a megaload proposal. Exxon/Mobil did a test-run of a mega-load on Highway 12 that blocked traffic on both lanes; it scraped the sides of cliffs in some places, and took out some power lines that caused an entire community to lose power. The Nez Perce were able to get an injunction against Exxon/Mobil in 2011, but in 2013 Omega-Morgan began its invasion” (Honor the Earth). 
Nez Perce Blockade in Zoll, Idaho. (Credit: Tom Hansen)

Nez Perce Blockade in Zoll, Idaho. (Credit: Tom Hansen)

The Nez Perce met this invasion with a blockade and they were able to stop the second megaload from coming through with an injunction. Company representatives pleaded with the Nez Perce to lift the injunction but the tribe valued the land more than any settlement. Members of the Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes have also carried out blockades in Oregon, joined by their allies.

Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell stated that the federal agency will review any load that “requires traffic to be fully stopped, can’t complete the route in 12 hours, or that requires physical modification of the roadway or nearby vegetation.”  In 2014 a judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service had every right to get involved in the state’s decision to permit the large shipments. The judge also stated that the Forest Service had “acted unlawfully” by standing on the sidelines in previous megaload shipments. Brazell is asking that potential impacts be acknowledged before any permission is given (Mills).

Earth First members occupied the State Capitol in Helena, Montana, on July 12, 2011, demanding that the Governor pick a side. He had publicly chastised Exxon/Mobil, but the activists wanted the Governor to stand up against the Keystone XL pipeline and publicly oppose tar sands operations. The Governor is pro-clean energy but his actions showed his intentions to allow megaloads. One activist replied, “You can’t be clean and dirty at the same time” (Webber).

Occupation of Montana Capitol Building in Zoll. (Credit: Northern Rockies Rising Tide)

Occupation of Montana Capitol Building in Zoll. (Credit: Northern Rockies Rising Tide)

Environmental Asset Needed

With the weight of these megaloads getting close to exceeding 900,000 pounds, certain roads and bridges will not be able to withstand such a weight. The megaload shipping company Mammoet is attempting to reroute the cargo, yet the new routes are also controversial. The routes of these proposal loads include bridges that are not equipped or capable of handling the loads. Some of the routes that are being pushed by the shipping companies are going to be along U.S. Highway 95 and Idaho Highway 200 and “locals have expressed intense concerns about the possibilities of the giant loads cumulatively collapsing the Highway 95 Long Bridge south of Sandpoint and the two-year-old bypass around downtown, the Sand Creek Byway” (Wild Idaho Rising Tide). The Federal Highway Administration had required the company and Idaho Department of Transportation to provide a more stringent environmental assessment.

The “heavy haul” of the megaload has not been fully stopped. Yet there are those who are fighting to stop these slow moving, monstrous machines from getting to the tar sands to extract oil. Local citizens are becoming more aware of the destructive capabilities of these machines and are beginning to take action for their own homes. They are the key to know the facts and work for our planet’s climate future. 


Anderson, A. (2011, July 12). Over 60 people occupy Montana capitol protesting tar sands, megaloads, and government collusion with Big Oil. Peaceful Uprising.

Corte, R. (2015, February 2). State files $17M suit over Skagit River bridge collapse. Seattle Times.

Honor the Earth: Tar Sands Megaload Blockade with Winona LaDuke (n.d.) Last Real Indians.

McEnaney, B. (2011, April 14).  Exxon “megaload” shipment strikes power pole: Cut off electricity to Idaho residents. Native Resource Defense Council.  

Mills, K. (2013, June 22). Forest Service says no to Highway 12 megaload. Missoulian. 

Read, R. (2013, December 24).  What’s a megaload? The gigantic shipments bound for Canada’s tar sands carry controversy. Oregon live.

Weber, T. (2015, November 11). Phone interview with Katie Fong.

Wild Idaho Rising Tide. (2014, May 2). WIRT Newsletter: Congratulations, condolences, upcoming events, & highway 95/200 megaloads. Wild Idaho Rising Tide.

Zuckerman, L. (2013, October 25). GE drops legal fight over running tar sands megaloads on Idaho highway. Rewriters.