Avatar's Cameron doesn't slag oilsands

Sounding at times like a cabinet minister, director gives measured response
Graham Thomson
Edmonton Journal
Date published: 
Thu, 2010-09-30

Turns out the oilsands was not ready for its closeup.

But it might be -- in about five years, if it loses the unsightly open pit mines and ditches the toxic tailings ponds. And stops emitting so much greenhouse gas.

Hollywood movie director James Cameron passed judgment on the oilsands on Wednesday in a verdict that was remarkably measured and reasonable and didn't once repeat his notorious reference to the world's largest energy production project as a "black eye".

Neither did he call it a "curse" as did aboriginal leaders while co-hosting a news conference with Cameron.

"It will be a curse if it's not managed properly. It can also be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta if it is managed properly. Personally, I believe that this is an incredible resource ... It's the single-largest reserve of potential crude oil next to Saudi Arabia and in an energy-starved future that's going to be a piece that's going to really put Canada in a different position and help with energy dependence in North America."

Great gift. Incredible resource. Single-largest reserve outside Saudi Arabia. North American energy independence. You'll find these same words, slogans really, in any speech given by any Alberta cabinet minister on any day of the week. It's a wonder Cameron didn't wrap himself in the Alberta flag as he spoke.

He obviously is not blind to the upside of the oilsands. But he is not oblivious to the downside: "I'm practical enough and pragmatic enough and taking enough of a global view to understand what the forces are, what the powerful economic forces are, that are driving this. But on the other hand I think that what is critical here is for everyone to really take a look at what the fallout from all this is."

Words sprinkled throughout Cameron's talk to reporters that you'll never find in a speech given by a cabinet minister. Fallout. Not managed properly. Tar sands.

It is the much-anticipated opinion of the most powerful person in Hollywood -- as chosen by a survey of his peers -- whose three-day tour of the Alberta oilsands attracted more media attention than a royal visit.

When he arrived at the legislature for a meeting with Premier Ed Stelmach on Wednesday morning, Cameron had to run a gauntlet of 20 or so reporters, photographers and camera operators tripping over each other as they peppered him with questions.

That was outside the building. Inside another cadre of media followed him as he did nothing more newsworthy than sign for a security pass and then wait for an elevator -- their microphones and tape recorders at the ready in case he said anything before he went inside the premier's office. Anything.

The legislature hasn't seen this kind of buzz since the Queen's visit in 2004. Really.

And the Westin Hotel probably hasn't seen a news conference as packed at the one Cameron held afterwards -- more than 60 journalists, including a reporter from Time magazine and two camera crews from the soon-to-be-launched Oprah Winfrey Network (that is producing a documentary on Cameron).

Cameron talked for 30 engaging minutes without notes or a teleprompter, proving he knows this topic better than many cabinet ministers and he hit all the important issues without sounding like he was giving Albertans a lecture.

He politely argued for a moratorium on any new open-pit mines or new tailings ponds. He believes the future of the oilsands lies with an experimental method of in situ mining where bitumen is extracted by injecting relatively cold solvents -- not heated water -- underground. At times he sounded like a Syncrude executive.

Afterwards, in a sit down interview with The Journal, Cameron acknowledged his black eye comment last April was "ill-informed" and this trip has changed his opinion: "I understand one thing clearly that I didn't understand before, the upside of this thing is enormous, financially. That gives me a little bit of hope. It also scares the hell out of me because it means we're going to stampede after those profits as fast as possible."

Not a black eye now, perhaps, but it could be: "It has the capacity to be the biggest black eye in Canadian history or it's got the capacity to be a place in which Alberta and Canada rise to a challenge and show leadership."

What difference will this make to the oilsands? Not much if Premier Ed Stelmach's defensive comments are any indication: "We are doing our part to move the world toward a clean energy future."

Stelmach should have looked a bit happier. Cameron's message was the most positive and upbeat the government could have hoped for from the well-known environmental activist. Not only that, it made more sense than the government's usual head-in-the-oilsands denial about environmental problems downstream.

Besides, Cameron did not call for the oilsands to be shut down. He did not shackle himself to a large piece of mining equipment. He did not climb up the nearest tall building and unfurl a banner. To press home his point, though, he might make a documentary about the oilsands and the neighbouring First Nations. That is something the government wouldn't like.

After all, the oilsands industry is still not ready for its closeup.


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