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German scientists quit oil sands research over public climate concerns

An oil worker holds raw oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta. Pressure over environmental concerns has forced Germany’s largest scientific organization to pull out of joint research with Alberta on better ways to upgrade oil sands bitumen.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Pressure over environmental concerns has forced Germany's largest scientific organization to pull out of joint research with Alberta on better ways to upgrade oil sands bitumen.

German scientists with the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative will no longer work on such projects, said Bernd Schneider, lead scientific co-ordinator.

"This bitumen upgrading will now be quitted," Mr. Schneider said from Potsdam, Germany.

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The initiative was created in 2011 with a five-year, $25-million commitment from the Alberta government, in addition to other funding. The plan was to bring together the University of Alberta and one of Europe's largest scientific groups to improve environmental and engineering performance in the oil sands.

The initiative focuses on topics including waste-water management, carbon capture, geothermal power and land reclamation. It also researches improved ways to upgrade bitumen – a subject that proved controversial in Germany, where climate change is politically prominent.

"There is an ongoing campaign here in Germany with regard to oil sands, but also with regard to climate protection," Mr. Schneider said. "We have this energy transition discussion here in Germany, which is quite intensive."

The Helmholtz Association is composed of 18 independent organizations, four of which are involved in the joint research with Alberta. One of those institutions, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, came under increasing fire over its involvement in developing a resource many believe is environmentally unsustainable.

Eventually, pressure from both opposition and government politicians convinced the institution's board to back off.

"Press releases were getting harsher and harsher," Mr. Schneider said.

"The environmental research centre, being more exposed to public discussion with regard to environmental issues, has decided to do this re-orientation. They have said 'We want to have a moratorium, and then we want to see how we would like to proceed.' "

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Mr. Schneider said Canada's environmental reputation and its decision to walk away from climate change agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol also played a role in the discussion.

"Of course – the Kyoto Protocol was one element that contributed to that discussion."

Germany's upcoming election in September also played a role in raising the temperature of the debate.

"This is the point that is really driving the story," Mr. Schneider said.

Other aspects of the Helmholtz-Alberta initiative will continue, including research on how to better upgrade low-quality lignite coal.

Spokespersons for the Alberta government and the University of Alberta could not immediately be reached for comment.

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