German scientists pull out of oil sands work, worried about tarring reputation

The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research was working with the University of Alberta on oil sands monitoring …More evidence oil sands development is giving Canada an international black eye: a respected German research organization is halting scientific work in the sector for fear its reputation will be tarred, so to speak.

The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig was working with the University of Alberta on oil sands monitoring and finding biological ways for cleaning up tailings created by oil sands mining.

But the Globe and Mail reports its board of directors imposed a moratorium on the work, fearing the association with oil sands was hurting its reputation.

It's another blow to the industry's public image, which is already under attack in the United States where environmentalists are trying to stop the TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries.

The Europeans, who see themselves as environmental leaders, don't like the oil sands, which are seen as a much more carbon-heavy source of greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil and gas extraction.

[ Related: EU executive thwarts Canada lobby on tar sand oil ]

“The Germans are very much against the oil sands and they are painting the oil sands as polluting the world,” Lorne Babiuk, vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, told the Globe. “With Canada pulling out of [the Kyoto agreement on reducing carbon emissions], that’s been a thorn in their side, and they say, ‘Why is Germany working with oil sands?’”

Babiuk said three other research centres associated with Helmholtz are also abandoning their environmental work with oil sands and switching to other sectors such as coal or copper mine.

“Rather than having all the limelight on the oil sands, it’s going to be on sustainable energy and environment,” he told the Globe.

Helmholtz Leipzig chief of staff Frank Messner spelled out his organization's stance in an interview this week with EurActiv, a news site that specializes in policy issues.

“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” he said. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol."

Canada in 2011 signaled its withdrawal from Kyoto, which sets national targets for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions by signatories to the treaty, and made good on the pullout last December.

Helmholtz was part of a $25-million government-funded research project on sustainable solutions to pollution from oil sands, referred to by its old-school label of tar sands by the Europeans. About 20 German scientists were involved.

The Helmholtz Alberta Initiative's (HAI) mandate was to find ways to upgrade oil sands bitumen and lignite coal to reduce energy consumption and find ways to deal with the vast tailings ponds that now cover up to 176 square kilometres of Alberta, EurActiv said.

Helmholtz scientist Bernd Uwe Schneider, lead science co-ordinator for the initiative, told the Globe a turbulent political environment leading up to this fall's elections in Germany are responsible for the move.

“It’s a mixture of media and policy-driven discussion which is harshly affecting research," he said. "This is a problem we are facing."

Helmholtz, Germany's largest scientific organization, gets most of its money from the German government and its oversight boards include representatives from government, industry and members of the public, the Globe noted. Its Alberta work has been on the radar of German politicians, Schneider said.

The Germans reacted particularly badly to Canada's Kyoto pullout, the Globe said. Condemnation crossed party lines and the widely read news magazine Der Spiegel, reported the decision with the headline: "The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands."

[ Related: Kyoto Protocol gets second phase as first fizzles out, but key players move on to new climate-change treaty ]

According to EurActiv, a letter from the German Ministry of Education and Research to a German MP said the moratorium was imposed pending an independent assessment into the work's "environmental bona fides," which is expected to be done by June.

“The assessment evaluates whether a project conforms to sustainability principles,” said Thomas Rachel, the education and research minister.

“The purpose of the procedure is to ensure that sustainability criteria are being adhered to and that the research carried out as part of HAI can contribute significantly to the improvement of sustainability outcomes.”

EurActiv reported that Europe imports very little crude sourced from oil sands but Alberta worries European antipathy to it could influence other important markets such as the U.S. and China.

Canada argues it's being discriminated against because emissions from oil sands operations are more transparent and better reported than those from other unconventional sources such as shale gas, of which production is soaring in the U.S., said EurActiv.

“We ask why the oil sands from Alberta would be singled out and unfairly targeted, especially if the intent is truly about climate change and reducing emissions in the EU,” Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen complained during a January visit to to European Union headquarters in Brussels.

[ Related: U.S. billionaire joins fight against Keystone XL pipeline ]

McQueen was careful in her reaction to the Helmholtz decision.

“The University of Alberta will follow up with Helmholtz, and then we’ll talk to them about it, but Alberta’s proud of our environmental record," she said, according to the Globe.