James Cameron’s visit to the oil sands this week caused quite a splash of publicity and media frenzy. He came at a perfect time, given the results of a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Reid for the CBC, which indicated that 30% of Canadians have not heard of the oil sands, including an unbelievable 14% of Albertans. Based on these data, even if all the high-profile visit accomplished was to get more people talking about and raising awareness of the oil sands, then I am all for these visits.
What the same poll also found was that Canadians are evenly split over the debate to develop the oil sands because of environmental and economic risks. This makes sense as Canadians have good reason to be divided. A decrease in provincial government revenue from the oil sands not only impacts every Albertan (because it helps pay for things like health care and education) but a reduction in oil sands development would affect people all across Canada. Alberta currently contributes over $20 billion a year in transfer payments to other provinces. Oil sands development supports jobs, profits and investments in all parts of the country.
At the same time there is a growing environmental imperative and if oil sands producers are not able, or willing, to clean up their environmental act there will be increasing domestic and international pressure to use alternative energy resources. It is imperative that the oil sands industry takes appropriate steps to address problem areas. As Cameron described it, the oil sands are a “curse” or “gift” depending on how they are managed.
If visits like the Cameron trip (apparently he arrived with an Oprah Winfrey camera crew in tow!) can engage more in people in conversation regarding the oil sands, then the public will be able to influence the public policy process in a positive way. In the Calgary Herald, Syncrude Chairman Marcel Coutu recently acknowledged that for a long time the oil sands industry has not communicated well with Canadians but there has been a stronger initiative to engage the public. Understanding the importance of reputation and public perceptions will help contribute to better management of the oil sands.
If the purpose of Cameron’s visit was to engage public discussion, promote global awareness and encourage oil sands producers to take environmental responsibility, then mission accomplished. One day after Cameron’s visit, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced the appointment of a six-person advisory panel to look into the water-testing regime in the Athabasca River, an issue Cameron mentioned as a major concern. Was this a coincidence in timing or a strategic media plan by Prentice who knew he would get the most press following Cameron’s visit? It’s hard to say, but if celebrity-status brings more public attention to this important policy issue, I say, roll out the red carpet. But, let’s just make sure we are ready for the party that follows.