What Does Avatar Have In Common With Canada’s Oil Sands?
And God gazed upon the vastness of the Canadian oil sands and pronounced them to be a curse.
Correction: an incipient curse—one that would materialize unless Alberta orders an immediate halt to development and cleans up its environmental act.
And no, it really wasn’t the Supreme Being in that helicopter over the blighted landscape near Fort McMurray. It was famed movie director James Cameron, the genius behind Titanic and Avatar. It was just the Canadian media that gave the impression that God had come down for a visit, dogging every step of his three-day tour and parsing every word he uttered. The media seemed to be looking to somehow paint Alberta’s oil sands development as a threat to its native peoples in the same way big business was hell bent on ruining the lives of the peaceful blue people of Pandora in he movie Avatar.
Even before he arrived on the scene, Mr. Cameron had made clear his distaste for the oil sands and the havoc they wreak upon the environment. Anyone who has seen Avatar will recognize the parallels between its plotline and what critics say is happening in Alberta: a proud and noble indigenous people under attack by money-grubbing outsiders bent on pillaging their resources even if it means the destruction of their way of life.
In fact, it was an invitation from the first nations people of Fort Chipeywan that brought Mr. Cameron to Alberta in the first place. They have complained for years that pollution from oil sands projects was fouling their drinking water and making the Athabasca River unsafe for swimming and fishing. The director was outraged by that. “I can’t imagine being told by my mom that I can’t swim in the river,” he told reporters.
During his visit, Cameron met with oil industry officials, environmental groups, and senior politicians. He described himself as a “sponge,” soaking up all the available information before reaching conclusions. But in fact his mind was made up long before he arrived on the scene. It’s hard to believe the oil sands weren’t somewhere in the back of his head when he conceived Avatar. On his way out the door, he allowed during an interview with The Globe and Mail that he might make a documentary on the oil sands. You can guess what the message will be. Think of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth set in Alberta.
At least Cameron has the bona fides to act as an oil sands critic, unlike anti-seal hunt crusaders from Brigette Bardot to Sir Paul McCartney. Mr. Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario in 1954 and received his elementary and high school education in Chippewa (a village near Niagara Falls) and later at Stamford Collegiate School in Niagara Falls. He left Canada at age 17 when his family moved to California. He is still a Canadian citizen, having withdrawn his application for U.S. citizenship in 2004 as a protest against the re-election of George W. Bush as U.S. president. So he has every right to speak his mind on the oil sands, or anything else Canadian, without being branded as an outsider.
That said, let’s consider the realities of the situation. While most people support the principles of environmental protection, few would want to go back to the 18th century, living without electricity, central heating, air travel and automobiles, all of which rely primarily on hydrocarbons to function. Ideally, that will change in the future but no one suggests it will happen within the next decade or perhaps even within a generation. Weaning ourselves off oil will be a long, expensive, and sometimes painful process.
Although demand is growing in emerging economies like China and India, the United States is still the world’s number one oil consumer. Where is that oil going to come from in the years ahead? The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently estimated that domestic production will increase by an average of 70,000 barrels a day (b/d) in 2010 while demand will grow by 200,000 b/d. The situation will become even worse in 2011 when the EIA predicts U.S. production will actually decline while demand rises by another 170,000 b/d. The result, says the agency, will be an increase of 190,000 b/d in petroleum product imports.
Where will that new supply come from? According to the EIA’s latest statistics, Canada is the number one foreign source of U.S. oil, by a wide margin. Through the first seven months of 2010, American imports of Canadian crude oil and petroleum products averaged 2.55 million barrels a day, up by 91,000 b/d from last year. The other top five U.S. sources were:
Mexico. U.S. imports from Mexico are running at about half the level as those from Canada and there does not seem to be much likelihood of significant increases in the near future. Production from some of the country’s key oil fields is declining rapidly and is not being replaced quickly enough. Average daily exports to the U.S. are about flat compared to 2009.
Nigeria. Average daily imports from Nigeria are up almost 50% from 2009 but are still only 40% of Canada’s level. Moreover, Nigeria’s oil-producing region is politically unstable with frequent reports of pipeline sabotage and oil worker kidnappings.
Venezuela. U.S. imports from Chavezland are down from last year and no one wants to be dependant on the whims of the country’s mercurial leader. Come to think of it, much of the country’s reserves are heavy oil, similar in some ways to the Alberta oil sands. Why aren’t the environmentalists on their case? I’m sure President Chavez would be delighted to give Mr. Cameron a tour of the Orinoco Belt, which is said to contain as much as 513 billion barrels of recoverable oil. On second thought, maybe not.
Saudi Arabia. The one-time number one supplier of U.S. foreign oil has dropped to number five on the list with an average of about 1.1 million b/d. Not surprisingly, America wants to be less reliant on Middle East oil.
So back to the question: where will the extra 190,000 b/d come from in 2011 if not Canada? It’s an issue the environmentalists may wish to ponder before they go too far down the “boycott the tar sands” road.
This is not to say that Canada, Alberta and the oil industry don’t need to clean up their act. They do. No one can look at that devastated northern Alberta landscape and not be repulsed. If Cameron’s visit adds to the political pressure to take action, it will be a positive result. But if all it does is inspire environmental zealots to ratchet up their anti-Canada rhetoric another notch, it would have been better if he had stayed in Hollywood.