James Cameron said today that the Canadian oil sands industry "will be a curse if it's not managed properly" and urged an independent review of the mining "gold rush" that will "shape the energy policy of the future."
"The world is looking," the Ontario-born film director told a news conference in Edmonton. "What is critical here is for everyone to really take a look at what the fallout from all this is—and what it could be. Only 2 to 3 percent of the tar sands deposits are currently being mined. Imagine what that could look like going forward."
Cameron called on peer-reviewed science in his quest to influence the creation of a greener oil sands industry. "We need funding to do an impartial study," he said.
The statements came after a sit-down with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach that wrapped up the Hollywood titan's three-day fact-finding expedition of the massive mining operations in western Canada.
Cameron's tour was the highest profile yet in a pressure campaign led by environmental and aboriginal groups against explosive growth of what they call the "the most destructive project on earth."
The Hollywood mogul came at the invitation of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The tribe lives downstream from huge mine pits that they say are poisoning their water and wildlife, and causing rare cancers among residents.
Cameron said Stelmach denied claims that oil sands mining is harming the health of First Nations.
"I find this inconclusive simply because the people...are afraid to drink their own water," Cameron said. "They're afraid to eat the fish."
Cameron's first meeting on Monday was with Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam. On Tuesday, a phalanx of industry executives and politicians took the director on a six-hour oil sands helicopter tour and gave him a look at Syncrude's facility near Fort McMurray. From there, he met with the Fort Chipewyan community members.
But it was his time with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach that was most anticipated.
"It was gracious and polite," Cameron said. "We agreed to disagree on a number of areas. I think there is a constructive way to move forward here, but it has to include the First Nations communities and leaders in that conversation right from the get-go."
The sticky bitumen of the oil sands is buried beneath boreal forests in western Canada. It is America's top source of foreign oil.
Mining it is about 300 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional crude extraction, environmentalists say. A new report by energy think tank IHS CERA says the lifecycle emissions of oil sands are only 6 percent higher than those of conventional oil.
Harder to challenge are the toxic tailings ponds that now span some 65 square miles. They are so contaminated that birds die from landing on them.
A study this year by the Canadian Liberal party slammed the federal government for failing to monitor water quality in the oil sands. Research by David Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta, has found levels of increased concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and organic toxins downstream from oil sands mines.
But industry-led studies claim that water pollution is a natural occurrence from bitumen seeping in from the riverbanks and is not from leaching of waste lakes.
With water at risk, Cameron said the government should err on the side of caution. "I would suggest seriously considering a moratorium on future tailings ponds until that's understand better."
When asked of the depth of his commitment, Cameron said it will be "lifelong."
"I'm in for the long term," he said. "I've given my commitment to the chiefs of First Nations."
Cameron's film Avatar is seen as an epic of tale of environmental destruction caused by corporate greed at the expense of indigenous groups. Drawing a parallel to the movie, advocates led by San Francisco-based nonprofit Corporate Ethics launched a website and campaign known as "AvatarSands."
"Canada's Avatar Sands....Where giant Hell trucks are used to mine the most polluting, expensive unobtanium oil to feed America's addiction," the website declares.
In a speech on Tuesday, Premier Stelmach berated the groups and the media for such "slander."
"I don't believe in giving any person or group credit or time when they slander Canada or Alberta, our National Parks and protected areas," he said. "They are not debating the issues, they are waging a mean and dirty PR campaign attacking Albertans—and they get lots of attention from a media that thrives on confrontation."
Stelmach added: "Our media cannot and should not give free publicity to groups who wrongly attack the people that work in our tourism industry and the families they support."
Cameron leavened his attacks, saying that the oil sands "can be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta."
"I believe the oil sands oil is an important resource for Canada and an important way for North America to wean itself for security reasons off of Middle East oil," he said. "But it has to be really tempered with a sense of what the costs can be."
(Image: Natasha Baucus via Flickr Creative Commons License)