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A tailings pond as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta.

JEFF McINTOSH/The Canadian Press

A prestigious German research centre has declared a moratorium on oil sands environmental work amid fears that its reputation could be sullied by association with development around Fort McMurray.

The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research was participating in a co-operative research effort with the University of Alberta on oil sands monitoring and biological methods for cleaning up tailings, the toxic waste left behind by companies mining crude around Fort McMurray. But with an international furor growing over the energy industry and Canada's environmental record, the Leipzig centre's board of directors ordered a stop to the work.

"The Germans are very much against the oil sands and they are painting the oil sands as polluting the world," said Lorne Babiuk, the vice-president of research at the University of Alberta. "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?'"

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In an interview with EurActiv, a Brussels-based policy publication, Frank Messner, Helmholtz Leipzig's head of staff, was more blunt. Continued oil sands work "was seen as a risk for our reputation," he said.

The Leipzig centre is one of four with the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres that had worked with the University of Alberta. The remaining three are also changing their research, abandoning oil sands inquiries and directing their studies – on topics such as mine reclamation and carbon capture and storage – to other industries, such as coal or copper mines, Mr. Babiuk said.

"Rather than having all the limelight on the oil sands, it's going to be on sustainable energy and environment," he said.

Bernd Uwe Schneider, a Helmholtz scientist who is the lead science co-ordinator on the Alberta venture, blamed the changes on a turbulent political environment in the lead-up to German elections in September.

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

Helmholtz is Germany's largest scientific organization, and its centres draw their funding primarily from the country's Ministry of Education and Research. Centre oversight boards are therefore not purely scientific, with representation from the government, industry and broader society.

The work with Alberta has been the subject of multiple inquiries from concerned German parliamentarians, Dr. Schneider said.

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"It's now up to the boards of those centres, and the board of the environmental research centre, to say in which areas we should maintain this co-operation," he said. Several German PhD students will be allowed to finish their thesis work, despite the moratorium, he said.

The Canadian withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol in late 2011 was met with outrage among German political leaders of all stripes, who called it "dishonest and cowardly" and "a fatal flight from responsibility." A headline atop an English-language oil sands report in Der Spiegel, an influential news outlet, in the fall of 2011 blared: "The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands."

Canada has also generated controversy with its bid to change a European directive on fuel quality that would penalize oil sands crude imported to Europe for its high carbon content. The fact that Canadian energy has achieved sufficient public stature to become a matter of concern in a foreign election campaign suggests to critics that the country's international image has suffered deep damage.

"It's the result of turning our backs on climate change," said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada. "People are not wanting to be associated with Canada."

In Alberta, Environment Minister Diana McQueen distanced herself from 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. We're proud of the record we have, and we continue to work with groups like Helmholtz and others," Ms. McQueen told reporters on Tuesday.

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The University of Alberta, meanwhile, is in the midst of a broad expansion of its ties with Helmholtz and is setting up co-operative research efforts in infectious diseases, remote sensing and prions, which are associated with mad cow disease. "So the relationship will be maintained and strengthened," Mr. Babiuk said.

With a report from Josh Wingrove

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