Environment Forum

Surprise ending to director’s oil sands visit

October 1, 2010

James Cameron did not meet expectations with his high-profile visit to Alberta’s oil sands, and that’s probably to the Canadian-born filmmaker’s credit.

An earlier contention by the director of “Titanic” and “Avatar” that development of the massive energy resource was a black eye for Canada had industry supporters in a tizzy.

Surely, his trip to oil sands plants and native communities in the region would be just another example of some celebrity seeking to burnish his green cred without knowing the real story, they said.cameron

On the other side of the emotional debate, some green groups staunchly opposed development expected Cameron to fully side with them. They had trumpeted comparisons between the oil sands and resource extraction portrayed on the fictional planet Pandora in “Avatar.”

In the end, he proved them both wrong.

After his tour this week, he told Reuters he realized the complexities of what is the largest crude deposit outside the Middle East and a major environmental battleground, and that there are no easy answers.

Cameron impressed oil industry, environmental and political officials alike with a firm grasp of the key issues facing Alberta and Canada as the continent thirsts for the oil, and a pragmatic approach to many of them.

He also proved to be a quick study on why the oil sands are important to North American energy security and what the pros and cons are with the two main extraction techniques — mining and steam-assisted gravity drainage.

To be sure, he was adamant that aboriginal people must be more involved in the development process. More independent scientific study into the impact of oil sands activity on waterways is needed and the spread of toxic tailings ponds should be halted until technological fixes are in place, he said.

The resource can be either a curse of a great gift for Canada, he said.

But, really, what’s the big deal? Cameron does not hold public office and does not even live in Canada. Yet his tour dominated front pages across the country and prompted Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to summon many of his top ministers for a meeting with him.

Notable names tour the oil sands all the time. Last month, U.S. Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Democrat Kay Hagan of North Carolina — lawmakers representing Canada’s largest energy market — visited and created nowhere near the buzz.

Certainly, the oil industry in Canada, which has struggled to spread the message that it is doing all it can to improve environmental performance, realized the influence the Oscar-winning director has on public opinion in Canada and around the world.

Syncrude Canada Ltd and Cenovus Energy Inc toured Cameron through their facilities and walked him through the technology they are developing to reduce land disturbance, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We had to be there and we were,” said Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry’s main lobby group.

Davies said Cameron impressed many in the industry with his knowledge and pragmatism.

The same goes for the major oil sands critics, including the Pembina Institute, an environmental think thank that is opposing Total SA’s plans for a new northern Alberta mine.

“He’s obviously a very smart fellow and he understands the nuance of the issue,” said Simon Dyer, Pembina’s oil sands director. “So much with the oil sands has been extremely black and white — the idea that there are no impacts or that criticism is trying to shut down the oil sands.”
(Photo – James Cameron speaks at a news conference with First Nations leaders regarding Alberta’s oil sands and its impact on the health of people living in affected communities, in Edmonton, September 29, 2010. Credit: REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)

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