Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
October 2010

Vol. 15, No. 41 Week of October 10, 2010

Hollywood hoopla fizzles

Oscar-winning director says oil sands could be ‘great gift’ or ‘curse’; Alberta premier favors ‘quiet diplomacy and advocacy’

Gary Park

For Petroleum News

It was billed as Godzilla v. Vanilla — the Sept. 29 oil sands showdown between Hollywood movie mogul James Cameron and Ed Stelmach, the low-key, some say bland premier of Alberta.

Canadian-born Cameron, Oscar-winning director of “Titanic” and “Avatar” (the flick that has given him status as a global crusader for the environment), had described the oil sands as a black eye on Canada’s image and put development of the resource on the same level as the destruction of Brazil’s rainforest.

In the process, Cameron had been branded a hypocrite, with the Edmonton Sun insisting he had no qualifications as a scientist and had contributed nothing to the oil sands debate that had not been said a hundred times.

The critics noted that Cameron lives in greater Los Angeles, which sprawls over an area of 34,000 square miles, about the same size as the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta, raising questions about which of the two has done more to destroy the landscape and which generates more greenhouse gas emissions.

The Edmonton Sun also argued the oil sands belch 1/5,000th of the greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that come from U.S. coal-fired power plants.

“Go back to California, Mr. Cameron. If we need someone to shoot a picture here in 3-D, we’ll get back to you,” the newspaper said.

More fizzle than sizzle

But Cameron stuck with his schedule, which included a flight over the oil sands, a ground tour to inspect land reclamation efforts, private meetings with First Nations leaders, who say the health and livelihoods of their communities are endangered by oil sands pollutants, and finally his “summit” in Edmonton with Stelmach, who juggled his agenda to accommodate the visitor — a move some regarded as demeaning.

In the end, the visit contained more fizzle than sizzle. News media attention outside of Canada raised scarcely a ripple beyond a few blog postings and Cameron was, if nothing, middle-of-the-road — reasonably well-informed on his topic and nothing like the ogre the government and industry had anticipated.

He did not side with activists who are clamoring to shut the oil sands down. Instead, he politely suggested a moratorium on new open-pit mines or new ponds to hold the toxic tailings from bitumen extraction, allowing time for new technology to be developed, such as the injection of relatively cold solvents, rather than heated water, to force bitumen to the surface.

Cameron also acknowledged his black-eye comment, made last April, was “ill-informed” and that his trip to the oil sands had changed some of his opinions.

“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,” he said.

Curse or gift

Cameron said the oil sands will be a “curse if it’s not properly managed. 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 … help with energy dependence in North America,” he said.

Cameron said he now has the impression that a “lot of intelligent people are working on the (oil sands’ environmental) problem. The world is looking at what you in Alberta do and the decisions that are made here are really going to shape the energy policy of the future.”

In the end, his greatest concern is for the aboriginal people who live downstream from the oil sands and are “afraid to drink water (from the Athabasca River) and afraid to let their kids swim in the river. ... We need to look into this.”

Cameron urged Canadians to pay greater attention to what is unfolding in northern Alberta.

“Don’t live in denial. This thing is big. You guys are going to be in the center of the spotlight here. It’s going to be a world spotlight,” he said.

Stelmach — ‘quiet diplomacy’

Stelmach told a later news conference that Cameron’s visit was a chance for his government to “tell our story” on the value of oil sands development and the efforts under way to reduce the environmental footprint.

But, while caught up in the swirl of stardom, Stelmach said the government’s best answer to environmental attacks and oil sands boycotts is to meet regularly with decision makers — especially those in the United States.

“It is this quiet diplomacy and advocacy which really matters,” he said. “This is where we are able to share ideas on how to best manage this resource and to meet our long-term energy needs.”

Stelmach, in defense of his decision to meet Cameron, said the movie director’s “views on the Alberta oil sands, like them or not, will be listened to by many.”

He said the government made every effort to convince Cameron that the oil sands industry “operates under some of the most stringent regulations and standards in the world. Albertans know we share a responsibility to protect the planet.”

Simon Dyer, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta’s based environmental research organization, said industry and government can combat negative attention with demonstrated environmental improvements on the ground.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen that,” he said. “They seem to think the way to deal with criticism is to ramp up the public relations.”

Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the industry’s actions will speak louder than its words as it adopts an environmental performance that convinces the world about the sustainability of oil sands development.

In an effort to blunt whatever impact Cameron might have had, Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice followed the visit by appointing an advisory panel of scientists to examine environmental monitoring of the waterways in the oil sands region in response to concerns about pollutants in the Athabasca River and its tributaries.

The Alberta government is also setting up its own panel of experts to study the data, including reports of deformed fish and major illnesses among downstream residents.

US senators tilt to oil sands

While Canadian politicians, environmentalists, aboriginal leaders, oil industry executives and the news media worked themselves into a twist over the whistle-stop visit to the oil sands by movie director James Cameron, a far more momentous event occurred in Washington, D.C.

In fact, outside of Canada, Cameron’s visit attracted only scattered attention.

By any standards, two United States Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, stole whatever thunder Cameron might have hoped to attract.

Having toured the oil sands a few days before Cameron’s arrival and delivered a glowing assessment of the resource’s importance to U.S. energy security, they followed up by introducing legislation that would ensure U.S. government agencies could purchase fuel derived from the oil sands.

The Oil Sands Energy Security Act would repeal a 2007 U.S. energy law barring federal agencies from using fuels that generate more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil-based products.

Gary Mar, who heads the Alberta government’s office in the U.S. capital, said passage of the bill would allow an unrestricted flow of oil sands-sourced products into those agencies, arguing that was proof the Alberta government’s “advocacy” approach was working.

“We now have a bill that gives us a strong indication people are understanding our message about what the oil sands are and what they are not,” Mar said, crediting Premier Ed Stelmach with wielding a “great deal” of influence in meetings with U.S. legislators.

—Gary Park

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