Imperial Oil has taken a new tack in the problem-plagued transport of massive pieces of oilsands equipment from Idaho to one of its projects in northern Alberta.

The petroleum company has decided to break some of the equipment down into smaller pieces and transport them to Edmonton for reassembly over a different route than originally planned.

It said Monday it will still try to get permits for its initial scheme, which was to truck the oversized loads across Idaho, into Montana and then north to its Kearl oilsands project.

That route would use two-lane highways, but the equipment modules are so large, they take up the entire road. A 220-tonne test module sent out in April from the river port in Lewiston, Idaho, was three storeys tall and set a record for the heaviest load ever moved by road in the state. It ran into several snags, snapping a big tree branch, causing traffic delays and then snaring on a guy-wire — which knocked out power to 1,300 customers for several hours.

The test load moved 101 kilometres in six hours before it had to be parked for nearly a week while damage reports were filed and a judge's permission was sought before entering Montana.

Potential $100M cost

Breaking the modules down into smaller parts will be costly but may help the company avoid the "lengthy permitting delays" besetting its plans as it strives to get the Kearl project started on time, its statement said said.

"It certainly is a big job in terms of technical complexity and cost. We estimated the disassembly of each module would cost in the neighbourhood of half a million dollars per module and would require between five and six thousand person-hours of work," spokesperson Pius Rolheiser said.

Imperial, which is majority owned by U.S. petroleum giant ExxonMobil, wants the Kearl project to begin operation in late 2012 — two years later than originally scheduled.

As of April, the company said work was 60 per cent complete, but the following month, Imperial revised its cost estimate for the project's first phase to $10.9 billion from $8 billion.

Most of the equipment for Kearl is being built in Canada, but some 200 modules have been ordered from a company in South Korea and were to be shipped via Idaho.

The arrangement to transport it through Idaho and Montana along U.S. Route 12 requires construction work to modify roads. Legal challenges were launched in both states, saying the plan would hurt tourism, roadways and the environment.

Rolheiser said the change in approach hasn't caused any delays to the project so far.