Q&A: Avatar Director James Cameron on Oil Sands and Environmentalism

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I’ve spent the last few days flying, coptering and driving around northern Alberta with the director James Cameron, taking a close look at the massive oil sands developments in the Canadian province. (As this 2008 piece from TIME shows, Alberta’s underground oil sands reserves have made Canada a world player on the global energy stage—it’s now the number one exporter of petroleum to the U.S.—but mining the oil has a heavy environmental cost, locally and globally.) Cameron was in Alberta on the invitation of a group of First Nations people (to put it simply, Canada’s native Americans, who live downstream from the oil sands mines in Fort McMurray, and who argue that pollutants from the developments have poisoned their water and led to higher than normal rates of some cancers.

Cameron—a Canadian who was born and raised in southern Ontario—has been shifting into environmental causes, inspired in part by his own movie Avatar, a film with a hard to miss green message. (Earth—or Pandora— good, indigenous people also good, energy exploitation bad.) So it wasn’t surprising when Cameron—whose visit has generated tremendous media interest in Canada, some of it less than appreciative—told reporters in a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday, flanked by First Nations leaders, that Alberta should put stricter regulations on oil sands exploitation:

It will be a good investment in the future to do the science and to make sure that the science is transparent, that it is open to the public, that it’s not funded by industry, that there’s independent oversight, that there’s proper peer review.

But when I sat down with Cameron later in the day, he struck a more realistic note on oil sands and the future of energy in North America. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of Cameron on oil sands, global energy politics and Avatar‘s impact on the environmental movement:

Time: How was the meeting with the [Alberta premier Ed Stelmach]?

Cameron: It was good, respectful. They welcomed me as they would any business leader, or anyone with a serious foundation in what we were talking about—which is pretty weird for a Hollywood director. But I understand where they’re coming from. They’re nice and positive about the story and the enormous wealth that is going to come to Alberta as a result of this tar sands development. And it was a chance for me to air our views and the areas I am deeply concerned about and offer some constructive observations, whether they listen or not.

Time: Going ahead, are your concerns on oil sands chiefly about the toxins that might be a result of the development and the impact it has on local people? Or the larger scale threat of the greenhouse gases that result from developing that much more oil?

Cameron: There are different scales on this. In the immediate scale I’m concerned about the contaminations that come from the tailing ponds and the various emissions that are affecting the immediate region, the negative effect on wildlife and people. And because of my pledge of support to the First Nations people, that should be our primary focus. But I can’t help because I’m also involved in energy and can’t help thinking about this on a global level. Climate change is a clear and present danger, and we face national and global risks. Coming to Canada, one of the things the premier here pointed out was that they are already in front with a carbon levy. It’s pretty token, but it is on the books and it does establish the concept that greenhouse gases are bad—and they can only be bad if it’s relative to climate change. It’s still a heck of a lot more that we are doing in the States right now. I’ve spoken to senators who say you can’t even mention climate change, or it’s a non-starter for an energy bill. How do you ignore the elephant in the room?

Time: Is there going to be a way to develop these resources in a clean way? There is an amazing amount of oil sands buried beneath Alberta. Is there any way to burn that without locking the world into dangerous climate change?

Cameron: That depends on the pace of that extraction and burning versus the pace of the conversion to a renewable energy economy. You want to convert to renewables, so maybe you only need half of that resource, but I’m not sure it can be done. I want to see the green economy progress because dirty oil just becomes obsolete over the course of time. But in the meantime we’re going to need it. We need it for energy security. That is something of an epiphany on this trip—or maybe it’s just me asserting my Canadian spirit, but the idea that Canada can play a pivotal role in the energy security of the U.S. and North America in general is cool. I think that’s cool but it has to be done right.

Time: So if we’re going to get oil, you’d prefer we get it from Canada?

Cameron: We’re going to need it regardless no matter how fast you move off oil. We’re not there yet—renewables make up maybe 3% of the grid, even if it’s changing fast. The curve is moving up, but we have a long way to go and we need certain technologies like wide scale energy storage. You can’t just use big batteries—you need to build a case for storage. You need to have wind and solar and geothermal roll out fast, and you need to level the playing field so that coal is not subsidized. I’m speaking from a U.S. perspective, and you still need oil—you need it for trucks and airplanes. You need it for fuel.

Time: And better from a political sense if it comes from a country other than the Middle East?

Cameron: That’s my point. If we have to choose something we can produce onshore in North America versus something made in the Middle East in an even more egregious way. Right now we’re funding both sides of the war on terror. We send a billion dollars or two a day to Saudi Arabia, and that is not a country that we should be admiring for their civil rights and their policies to women and so on. They are very fundamentalist. Why help them prop up their enormous power base? That makes no sense.

In my mind it is pointless to stand in front of the freight train and self-immolate. It’s 10 seconds and then you’re irrelevant. I’d rather stay and focus on what is constructive and that is finding ways to do this that is more energy efficient. But I would stop with all surface mining and just go to in situ. There’s a way to do this much better.

Time: Is that a realistic option for Alberta?

Cameron: Probably not, but if they do what’s right and fund the research and find that the tailing ponds are just untenable from an environmental point of view, then what choice do they have? Then you accelerate in situ which has so much more headroom to improve than the existing surface mining method.

Time: So what will you be doing in the future on tar sands and other environmental issues?

Cameron: You have to follow this up. We’re going back down to Brazil and we’ll be involved in that until a turning point is reached there. If you win one small battle another comes up—this is a huge, huge issue right here, in terms of both its upside and it’s something that has the potential to be an environmental disaster. I feel I do need to be involved. It’s not like what I did after Titanic when I got so focused on deep ocean exploration that I stopped making movies. I won’t take all my focus off myself as a filmmaker. Avatar is a part of this too—the future Avatars will continue thematically where the first one left off. They aren’t going to be preachier—they will still be a great epic adventure that plays out over two films but the themes don’t change. And that does some good, but it’s a different kind of good. I’ll also be focused on these issues and working with the people who work on this every day, the people who have to fight for this because they have no other choice.

Time: Do you have a feeling that that there is a longing out there among some people for a greater connection to nature, the sort you see from the reaction to Avatar?

Cameron: My optimistic side says that Avatar did as well as it did for that reason, that there’s a time for a change, for a recognition that we have to answer for the way that we’ve been and remember our respect for nature. We have to find a better way than the way we live today. It’s not that the movie converted people—it resonated with something that was already there, to find something inside for people and gave people a way to think about this. And if that manifests in people cutting down on their energy usage or recycle or buy a Prius… The challenge for me is to try to help people figure out what to do with that feeling that they’re feeling. I do think that part of my job—to show them what to do. Maybe we’ll do feature documentaries, or TV because that has a shorter lifecycle. I’ll ramp up on that side.

For me, I have some money and I’m between films now. I want to put some of that money to work in investments in the renewable sector. The best way to win an argument is by making money on the clean energy economy.

Time: Any stock tips on renewable energy companies?

Cameron: [laughs] I’ll let you know.