Activist says meeting with Avatar director may spawn oilsands visit

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — “Avatar” director James Cameron’s recent criticism of Alberta’s oilsands industry has generated another invitation to visit the province to see the situation first-hand and both sides of the debate appeared eager to win his support.

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — “Avatar” director James Cameron’s recent criticism of Alberta’s oilsands industry has generated another invitation to visit the province to see the situation first-hand and both sides of the debate appeared eager to win his support.

An Alberta First Nations leader and environmental advocate says he hopes he has convinced Cameron to see the effects of the oilsands.

George Poitras, a long-time opponent of the oilsands, said he had a personal meeting with Cameron in the director’s hotel room in New York City on Saturday.

Both men attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where a special screening of Cameron’s environmental-themed blockbuster was arranged. The Ontario-born Cameron also took part in a panel discussion on indigenous issues.

Poitras, the former chief of the Mikisew Cree who live near Fort Chipewyan north of Edmonton, said he invited Cameron to visit Alberta to see what he calls the environmental “devastation” of the oilsands industry.

“He was happy to accept the invitation,” Poitras said Sunday in a phone interview from New York, though he noted that no formal arrangements for such a visit have been made.

“He was very interested and he wants to learn more about it.”

Cameron couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

It’s the second invitation Cameron has received to look at the oilsands. Premier Ed Stelmach recently said the director should come to the province to see areas of oilsands developments that have been reclaimed or hear about the careful monitoring of the industry — perhaps even take a canoe trip.

The famous director has said while he doesn’t know much about the oilsands, he knows they’re a “black eye” on Canada’s image as an environmental leader.

Cameron, who directed such hits as “Aliens,” “Titanic” and “The Terminator” also said during the recent DVD and Blu-Ray release of his latest epic that pursuing non-renewable energy sources was “dead-end thinking.” He urged Alberta to pursue green initiatives such as wind power.

If given the chance, a fly-over of the giant chemical waste ponds created by oilsands pit mining would be on Cameron’s to-do list, Poitras said. The scale of the sprawling mines also has to be seen to be believed, he added.

“Obviously we’re going to want him to speak to the governments of Alberta and Canada and the oil companies. It’s important for him to hear all sides of the story and to arrive at his own decision on what he thinks about the tarsands.”

Poitras said he identified with the indigenous people depicted in the movie, who are trying to stop the exploitation of the lush planet Pandora by invaders who want to mine its resources.

Many in Poitras’ home community of about 1,200 north of Edmonton have other concerns they’d like to tell Cameron about, he says. They include possible health effects of the industry, decimation of the boreal forest, and the lack of consultation by energy companies with aboriginal communities.

The environmental activist hopes that Cameron was sincere when he said he wanted to visit.

“He was very genuine to me, he appeared very committed and motivated to learn more about the impacts on indigenous people’s land by oil and gas,” Poitras says. He insists Cameron’s mega-star status didn’t faze him. “He was very down-to-earth and open.”

Mark Cooper, a spokesman for Alberta Environment, said the provincial government plans to get in touch with Cameron’s officials in the next several days to pitch a visit.

He says a fly-over of an oilsands operation wouldn’t tell the famed director everything he needs to know about the industry.

“That’s the problem sometimes with just doing a fly-over because the oilsands aren’t pretty to look at,” he said. “What we would like to do with Mr. Cameron is to sit down with him, with our scientists, with our experts to talk about the research the government is putting in to reducing tailings ponds,” Cooper said.

The government has given $25 million to the University of Alberta to do research on reclaiming the vast industrial sites, he said. “(There’s) some 65 square kilo meters of active reclamation (that’s going on.) It takes a long time to return the land to the state it was in but there’s an extreme commitment, a commitment by law, that industry must do that,” Cooper said.

The Alberta government has also dedicated $2 billion to projects that capture carbon from heavy emitters and store it underground. Cooper said the provincial government also requires the oilsands to reduce their greenhouse gases and if they can’t, companies must purchase carbon offsets or contribute to a technology fund. That fund boasts roughly $123 million that is earmarked for green energy projects, Cooper said.

To balance the first-hand look that Cameron might get, the province would show off some of its own environmental technology in the oilsands region. “I’m sure Mr. Cameron would benefit from seeing some of the monitoring being done there, extensive water and air monitoring,” Cooper said.

Stelmach himself has said the waste ponds, called “tailings ponds,” have got to go.

“Our goal is to ensure we eliminate tailings ponds. That’s what people are focusing on and that’s the direction we’re taking. It can’t be done overnight but the technology is there to start that process.”

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