German institute pulls scientists out of Alberta oil sands project

A major German research institute has pulled scientists out of a Canadian government-funded $25 million joint research project that aims to find sustainable solutions to oil sands development. It says participation in such a project damages its environmental reputation.

The move comes after political pressure forced the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres to reconsider its connection to an industry regarded to be environmentally destructive by European Union standards.

An Alberta oil field. Source: Wiki Commons.

The scientists belonging to the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will not be involved in developing technologies that might improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat toxic bitumen from the oil sands development.

The HAI was commissioned with upgrading bitumen and lignite coal to reduce energy consumption, and to find ways to deal with spill over from the oil sands industry, such as the toxic lakes that now cover up to 176 square kilometers of Alberta, called ‘tail ponds.’

Founded in 2011, the HAI is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta. It is an independent international research partnership combining the technical expertise of the Helmholtz Association in Germany and the University of Alberta.

Its main objective, according to its website, is to “expand fundamental knowledge and to develop innovative technologies and system solutions in a research field of global relevance, such as coal and oil sands to meet future energy needs in an efficient and environmentally sustainable way.”

There are four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, and only one suspended its work in Canada, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig. The institute’s board voted in December to impose a halt on the UFZ’s involvement in the project.

The Harper government has faced criticism from the EU, because oil sands bitumen is one of the dirtiest types of oil to manufacture and not in line with EU values of environmental sustainability.

Harper also faced criticism in political circles in Germany for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, a move said to have played a role the UFZ’s moratorium.

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