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'Avatar' director urges slowdown for Canadian oil sands

September 29, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Cameron-oilsands-l9heknnc

The epically ruinous "unobtainium" mine on Pandora that provided the scene of most of the villainy in James Cameron's hit movie "Avatar" was modeled, he said, on an open pit copper mine. But that hasn't stopped many in his native Canada and elsewhere from comparing it to the massive oil sands developments underway in northern Alberta -- something the director has called a "black eye" on his homeland's reputation as an environmental leader.

This week, in the latest case of focusing star power on zones of environmental controversy, Cameron traveled to Alberta for a first-hand look at the oil sands, a coda to his much-publicized jaunts to the Amazon rain forest earlier this year.

"What you see in pictures is nothing compared to what you experience when you fly over it, and you just see this devastation going from horizon to horizon," Cameron said in a telephone interview at the conclusion of his trip. "And to think that only 3% of this resource has been developed so far. The scale of this thing is just unimaginable."

First Nations aboriginal representatives, who brought to the director emotional, sometimes tearful testimony of polluted waters, deformed fish and early cancer deaths, have begged Cameron to become a spokesman for the fight to stop the carbon-intensive extraction of heavy oil trapped in sands and clay -- one of the most important new sources of hydrocarbon energy for North America.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, in turn, pledged that the film director would get a different, more positive view of the massive new energy projects after their meeting on Wednesday, a helicopter tour of the region and on-the-ground demonstrations hosted by oil company engineers.

Cameron's take-away: Slow down and get more science.Cameron-oilsands2-l9hejznc

"There are a lot of people in the First Nations community and the environmental community who would love to see it stopped. I don't think that's practical, I don't think it's going to happen, and I'm not convinced it should be stopped," he said. "If we move aggressively to a renewable energy future, which we should be doing, we still have to have a viable interim plan that involves burning fossil fuels. And I'd rather see us, since we're going to be burning oil for a while, burning oil that is more secure, in the sense that it originates in North America, rather than OPEC oil."

Still, he said, his trip convinced him that there are unanswered questions that demand more research before large-scale development proceeds.

"When you've got this much money at stake, and we're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars, people are going to move too fast...There's a stampede right now, and I think they're spending a tenth of what they need for the research," he said.

"My advice to Alberta would be to be proactive. There's going to be a lot of money to be made by everybody here. Spend the money now to do the science. Stay ahead of the curve, anticipate the health risks, spend the money on controlling emissions, spend the money on [carbon] control and capture, if that's the answer."

Stelmach said he was glad Alberta officials had a chance to make their case, even if it took Hollywood to turn the cameras on.

"We have had two days to tell national and international media about our water monitoring research on the Athabasca River," the premier said at a news conference after his meeting with the director. "We've had the opportunity to showcase amazing improvements in land reclamation at oil sands mines."

Arriving at the beginning of the week in Fort McMurray, Alberta, 270 miles northeast of Edmonton along the Athabasca River, Cameron admitted that "Avatar" has, for better or worse, propelled him into the role of environmental advocate, and not just on the Amazon rainforests and the oil sands: Earlier this year, Cameron was opining publicly on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The funny thing is that when I made 'Avatar' I thought, 'Well, you know, I'm an artist, I'm a filmmaker.' I express myself through movies and documentaries. This will be my big statement and then I'll just go relax for a while. And it was quite the opposite," he told reporters there.
 
"That was just the start of this journey, which has become almost a kind of a mission in and of itself. And I can't make another 'Avatar' quickly enough to be able to comment on the things that are happening right now. A lot of major decisions I think need to be made by the human race in the next five to 10 years."

-- Kim Murphy

Top photo: Filmmaker James Cameron on his tour of the oil sands developments of northern Alberta, Canada. Credit: Shaughn Butts / Edmonton Journal/Postmedia News/MCT.

Bottom photo: An aerial view of Fort Chipewyan, where residents fear development is polluting water and thus endangering human health and fisheries. Credit: Ryan Jackson / Edmonton Journal/MCT

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