CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Oil sands may not be the black eye on Canada that James Cameron asserted earlier this year, but the director of "Avatar" said after a high-profile visit that the energy resource could become one without more stringent controls on development.
Cameron, wrapping up three days of touring oil sands plants and meetings with industry officials, native leaders, scientists and politicians, said Alberta's energy wealth stands to be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it is managed.
Priorities must include funding independent scientific studies of the environmental impact, halting approvals of new toxic tailings ponds until better technology is available and increasing the involvement of aboriginal people in development decisions, the Ontario-born director said.
"I don't see this as black-and-white as I did before I came here. You see pictures of the big holes in the ground and the giant tailings ponds, and you get briefed by environmentalists. It's a total gloom-and-doom picture and one's knee-jerk impulse is, well, you've got to just stop this," Cameron told Reuters on Wednesday.
"Of course it's more complex than that. I'm much more appreciative of the boon, the upside of this whole thing in terms of energy independence for North America and all that."
Cameron's visit had been widely anticipated in Alberta, whose oil sands are the largest crude source outside the Middle East. It included tours of Syncrude Canada Ltd's mining and processing facilities and a Cenovus Energy Inc's steam-driven project.
The resource is a target of criticism by international green groups, who say the energy-intensive development harms land, air, water and local communities. They are fighting a communications war against the Alberta government and the oil industry.
The industry's supporters had branded Cameron as an outsider who was riding on his Hollywood fame to attack their livelihoods with little knowledge of what was really being done to improve technology and reduce environmental impact.
In fact, at a news conference following his tour, he showed a strong grasp of the key issues and opinions on both sides.
Environmentalists had seized on "Avatar", comparing the exploitation of the film's fictional world Pandora and its native people to oil sands extraction and its impact on northern Alberta's environment and the Cree and Dene communities.
Indeed, Cameron, flanked at the news conference by native leaders, including Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, criticized government and industry for downplaying aboriginal concerns.
He met in Edmonton on Wednesday with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, a fervent supporter of the oil sands industry, and his top ministers.
"I wouldn't say that I agreed necessarily with everything that was said, but everybody heard everybody. It was gracious, it was polite," Cameron said. "He's a guy who has historically taken the high ground and I appealed to his sense of compassion for the First Nations community to really include them in these discussions."
Among controversial issues is the possible link between oil sands development and the high incidence of rare cancers downstream in the native community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Studies have so far failed to prove or disprove a connection.
In terms of connections between the oil sands and "Avatar", Cameron said the mine portrayed in the film was actually based on a South American copper mine.
"But Pandora is not meant to condemn any one particular place or any one particular industry. It's basically meant be a kind of general statement about how we as human beings have forgotten to respect nature and how that's going to come around and bite us," he said.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson