James Cameron in Alberta’s oil sands

How the oil sands industry tried to convince him it’s not all bad

by Colby Cosh

James Cameron in Alberta’s oil sands

Photograph by Jeff McIntosh Ready, action!: Cameron toured a wetland that was once a Syncrude bitumen mine

Nature versus the machine: it’s the great theme of James Cameron’s visual poetry. He would have appreciated the vantage point that journalists and photographers had for his Hollywood-style arrival at Syncrude’s South Bison Hills reclamation area on Tuesday morning. As Cameron’s helicopter swooped in like a predator, showing off with lazy circles around the helipad, it set a nearby cluster of wood bison dashing off at a full-speed lope. Their brute power, as they fled nature’s self-appointed protector, was breathtaking. The contrast could not have been more Cameronian if he had been there, yelling, “Action!”

The man himself, clean-shaven and cheerful in his lime green Syncrude safety chapeau, disembarked from the chopper for a brief hike through Syncrude’s top environmental showcase. What was once a bitumen mine of the type that inspired the nickname “Canada’s Mordor” is now a mix of humdrum boreal forest, grassland and wetland. A modest little lake on the site teems with life. Once a traveller leaves the road behind, only the pen separating the Syncrude bison herd from their disease-bearing free-range fellow ungulates suggests a human presence on this land—land that, not long ago, was utterly eviscerated by petrocrats.

Cameron said little, but seemed impressed at how Syncrude had handled the problem of re-establishing biodiversity from scratch—a movie-director kind of problem, as he pointed out. After deflecting a few questions (“I’m still?.?.?.?finding out how all this works and getting my arms around it”), he was whisked off to view more oil sands vistas, ones carefully chosen to appeal to his green conscience.

Cameron’s visit to Alberta was divided into three acts. The oil companies, with Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner tagging along, had just a few hours in the morning to dazzle him with technology and impress him with their ecological bona fides. Later he would fly to Fort Chipewyan, a small Aboriginal-dominated community downstream of the oil sands. Along with George Poitras, the Cree environmental activist who personally invited him to visit the region in April, Cameron was set to meet with Ft. Chip residents concerned about their vulnerable position opposite the delta of the Athabasca River. Finally, the director made his way to Edmonton for a palaver with Premier Ed Stelmach and other officials.

In April, Cameron had called the oil sands a “black eye” on Canada’s environmental record. He claims to be keeping an open mind now. And the oil sands business is treating his visit, apparently quite sincerely, as an opportunity rather than a hassle. (The general consensus here appears to be that in the face of environmental opposition, the best option is to invite complainants up and show them around.) Not that they have much choice. In truth, this ought to be a period of relatively positive publicity for Mordor. On Sept. 23, Suncor Energy, which has been operating in the region since 1967, unveiled its own 225-hectare patch of reclaimed land that had once been the company’s original tailings pond. It’s another modest down payment on the industry’s promise to leave behind no ultimate trace of its vast mines and its tailings—the pools of de-oiled sand and clay left behind after most of the valuable hydrocarbons have been extracted.

Suncor also introduced a timetable for its tailings reduction operation—a scheme for using an inert polymer flocculant (a substance that helps fine sediments precipitate) to cut the settling time of tailings from decades to weeks. Shell Canada announced a pilot project to test a similar technique in August. Syncrude, the big dog of the sector, is trying its own ideas, involving centrifuges and gypsum. This outburst of innovation follows directive 074, a February 2009 order from the Energy Resources Conservation Board that requires them to reduce fluid tailings by 50 per cent before July 1, 2013.

The new projects fuelling growth in oil sands production, however, mostly involve “in situ” extraction, whereby the oil is separated from the bitumen underground. In situ plants have a small footprint and require no tailings. It’s a continual source of frustration for the Alberta government that international criticism of the sands has focused so much on the environmental effects of tailings—an obsolescing technology being downscaled through regulation where it already exists.

Slightly harder to dismiss are the claims that massive tailings are worse than anybody thought to begin with. On Aug. 30, University of Alberta water scientist David Schindler announced the publication of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that contained compelling evidence of elevated levels of EPA-designated “priority pollutant” metals in river water and snow near oil sands development sites.

In one regard, Schindler’s paper is actually good news for the tar patch; his team found that the water and snow of the Athabasca watershed was within guidelines for drinking with respect to all the primary pollutants (which include mercury, arsenic, thallium and cadmium, as well as more prosaic metals like nickel and zinc).

Executives and ministers who are constantly being challenged to “drink the water” of the Athabasca get the green light from this study. The concern is with developmental problems in aquatic life, and with the possibility of bioaccumulation in the fish and wild game that end up in the diets of Aboriginals living downstream. Although there is natural leakage of bitumen into the Athabasca and its tributaries, Schindler seems to have identified evidence of a specific industrial footprint. His independent study raised immediate questions about Alberta’s monitoring of metallic pollutants, funded by the oil industry through the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP). Schindler’s international prestige is so great that any direct fight with him over water issues would be unlikely to go well for RAMP, and last week Renner announced that an independent review panel of scientists would be chosen, with input from Schindler, and would investigate the differences in the results.

That leaves the government and the industry somewhat on the defensive as Cameron swoops in on his fact-finding mission. Aboriginals like Poitras will be giving Cameron anecdotal testimony to changes in water and wildlife downstream of bitumen mining. But they also—as the director will find if his visit is not too stage-managed—have skin in the oil sands game. Estimates of the native and Metis quotient in the overall oil sands workforce run at 10 per cent or more, and both Cree and Chipewyan bands own stakes in oil sands-related enterprises. A Chipewyan-owned factory in Ft. Chip, for example, knits Kevlar safety wrist guards. A hotel in Fort McMurray is owned by the commercial agency of the Mikisew Cree.

The patch also provides money to bands for social development and education, and occasionally pays them outright to back down from asserting their legal rights. On Sept. 22, the Mikisew band, of which Poitras is a former chief, announced that it was waiving a constitutional challenge to Total S.A.’s Joslyn North mine in exchange for an amount of money and a set of “social contract” guarantees. The details of the deal went undisclosed.

Even as Ft. Chip was preparing to receive Cameron, the Mikisew band was making quiet efforts to establish that Poitras no longer speaks for them officially. The current chief, Roxanne Marcel, wrote an op-ed for the Slave River Journal this month emphasizing her respect for Poitras but adding that “we see advancements in oil sands production activity that more align with our feelings regarding environmental stewardship, including Suncor’s advancements in dry tailings pond technology; we support this.”

Now Canada waits to see whether Cameron will carry a nuanced message like that to the wider world, or whether he will continue with angry talk of black eyes.




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James Cameron in Alberta’s oil sands

  1. Living in Alberta, we don't just get these ads from CAPP, we also get them from the Alberta government. Essentially, we're paying for the government to propagandize us that the oil sands are great and that things are going fine. I find this extremely frustrating, and i wonder why the government is spending money on PR rather than say, addressing the health issues up in Ft. Chip.

    While the in site sites don't have huge open pits, tailings ponds, and are not as obviously environmentally damaging there's still all sorts of issues surrounding water use and maintaining the boreal forest which the in situ projects do absolutely nothing to address.

    I work in a construction related industry so I recognize that the oilsands and all that comes from it directly contributes to my paycheque; it is very much in my self-interest (and in the interest of most people in the province) that oilsands development continues, but it seems to me that the cost we're going to pay is going to be the boreal forest up north and the Athabasca River, both of which are going to be pretty thoroughly trashed, in situ or no.

    • I'm not so sure about the source of the water for in situ. I was generally under the impression they use saline (non potable) water from other geological formations – and dispose of the brackish stuff in a similar manner.

      • A quick google search says about 1/3 of the water used for in situ production is expected to be from fresh groundwater.

        • Wanna guess what type of in situ op CAPP took Cameron to?

        • Well I can tell you that google is wrong.  I work for Devon Energy up at their Jackfish project and we use about 5 % make-up water, which is also brackish water.  We use absolutely zero fresh water for our plant.  Most of the water we use is condensate which is produced after we inject steam into the formation.  This is also brackish water.  I know that Cenovus also does the same thing with their SAGD projects so all I can say is there is a lot of bs going around.

          • Yeah. Pumping and heating cool groundwater instead of reheating hot condensate would be really very wasteful and not make much sense. And if brackish water is clean enough for process requirements, why draw groundwater at all? I don’t like the idea of mining petroleum from oil sands, but I don’t make stuff up to support my dislike.

  2. I think the PR money is being spent by the Alberta Government because various groups were making dubious claims about AB and the Oil Sands – this combined with the Toronto-based press that are all to eager to bash Alberta.

    In fact, I wrote Mr. Stelmach about two years ago (I am sure I am not the only one) and pleaded that we (Albertans) desperately needed to get more info out there. – call it self-interest if you want

    • Even if I were to agree with all of that (which I don't) it doesn't explain why that money is being spent on ads within Alberta: why are they trying to convince Albertans that everything is fine with super-short ads that barely touch on the issues?

      • OK I agree with that

  3. Mansbridge one on one interview with James Cameron after his tour of the tarsands. I agree with much of what he says:
    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/TV Shows/Mansbridge One on One/ID=1606959981

      • I agree with much of what Cameron says, too.

          • Sure, there's lots of PR, spin and dog-and-pony shows. There's also significant efforts in tailings reduction and water recycling. It's not all for show.

            The industry is responding to pressure from regulators, environmentalists and the general public. The long-term viability of the industry depends on it. Economics isn't the only factor.

          • correction: The long-term viability of the industry NOW depends on it.

            It's no different than what happened with old growth forest in Clayoquot Sound. The forest industry was pretty much in bed with the Socred /previous gov'ts in BC. They even hired the guy who was a labour leader for forestry unions to be a spokesperson for the forestry industry. It was only through pressure exerted by customers in Europe/US that forestry practices were changed. And I do recall cycling the road from Parksville to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island ïn the early 90s and seeing "demonstration forests" put together by industry ( they were clear cut if you ventured 100 m past them) for simply pr efforts.

            It is purely economics. Especially in Alberta. Your province is about 20 yrs behind awareness about these issues in BC. I know. I've lived in both places- and I've worked (yrs ago) with guys who actually have argued the oilsands industry perspective, publicly. Purely self interest or tunnel vision – characterize it as you wish.

  4. Dot, we appreciate that you are at least looking at the CAPP ads that feature real industry employees (not models, but might be considered by some as "babes").
    The CAPP ads are funded by industry and running across Canada, not just Alberta. We surveyed Canadians in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto (not Alberta) who told us the best goal when it comes to the oil sands is to develop them responsibly.
    Here's the research: http://www.capp.ca/oilsands/Pages/CampaignResearch.aspx
    Oh, and we just uploaded another photo of the unnamed bison for you, taken during Cameron's visit to the Syncrude reclaimed mine site: http://twitpic.com/2vf15f

    • Yes, I noticed another young female, Syrie Crouch of Shell (another open pit mining company) in two banners at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/ this morning when I visited their site, and just now I saw another young female engineer, Shelley Powell, Suncor in a CAPP tv ad airing on CBC's Power and Politics. You guys are so predictable.

      Well, at least it's a visual improvement over seeing bald middle aged white guys like former CAPP president Pierre Alvarez or VP Greg Stringham (apologies if this is you).

      Btw, showing bison near oil developments is so predictable. Canadian Hunter used to do this over a decade ago for at5 least one of their annual reports. Then throw in a few smiling visible minorities. Soooo predictable. (not that I want to pre-empt you next phase of "real industry employees".

  5. Millions of people in North America will be depending on oil for a long time to come. 70% of the oil used in rhe USA is for manufacturing. The oil sands is becomming the cheapest and most secure oil sorce for the USA. As the price of oil increases new sorces of energy will be needed. But for now its oil. Electric comuter cars can start to take the load of oil. Other sources of energy that use large amounts of fresh water to grow as fuel would be foolhearty since there is a growing shortage of fresh water in the world.. There are only a few alternitive energy sources that a practical to pursue at this time.

  6. anybody interested in finding out what oil production on a major scale does to water both underground and to fresh water. please read the book twilight in the desert. You will find that in time there will be no potable water left in northern AB and we will have to resort to taking water from the ocean to quench our thirst like the people in saudi arabia are forced to do. Are we prepared to do this??

  7. this enrages me … what is Cameron to us? He flies in and does lazy circle in a helocopter (probably not solar powered!) HIs life depends on fossil fuels … I am sure his movies' productions do not use green energy, and a lot of the financial backing for his endeavors relies on conventional energy. If we all had carbon footprints that matched Cameron's or even David Suzuki, the world would be dessimated, just from the amount of energy these clowns use flying to their protest sites! I respect people who are vociferous about energy and environment, but not when they are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Cameron go green yourself or shut the hell up! Do you drive a bicycle around Glamourwood, or do you rock the Escalade!? Idiot!

  8. As a Paramedic In industry James Cameron should stop his BS .. the Aboriginals profit tax except and compete in industry undercutting the “white” operations, the oil sands have been leaching hydrocarbons into the Athabasca River for thousands of years .. the evidence is clear they have been repairing canoes for 300 years with tar from the river banks .

    Yanks go home ! 

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