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German scientists quit oilsands research over heated public climate concerns

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

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

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

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 oilsands.

The German share of the research funding is eight million euros over five years.

The initiative focuses on topics including waste-water management, carbon capture, geothermal power and land reclamation. It also researches better 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 oilsands, but also with regard to climate protection," Schneider said. "We have this energy transition discussion here in Germany, which is quite intensive."

The Helmholtz Association is made up 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 Germans 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," Schneider said.

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

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.

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

Germany's upcoming election in September also raises the temperature of the debate.

"This is the point that is really driving the story."

The Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative remains in place and is even expanding into areas such as infectious disease control, said Lorne Babiuk, the University of Alberta's vice-president of research. Bitumen upgrading is the only area affected by the moratorium.

"They did not feel they wanted to be engaged in what they consider to be dirty oil," Babiuk said. "It's a political decision to say they're not working in the oilsands area."

Babiuk said no decision has been made yet on where the funding formerly earmarked for the bitumen research will now be spent.

Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen, from whose department the funding came, said provincial officials are trying to confirm what the Germans have decided. She said the department first heard about the moratorium Tuesday morning.

"We continue to work with Helmholtz and we value our relationship with them," she said.

Even if some of the initiative's research has ended, McQueen said most of it will proceed.

"It's good work that we'll move forward on. Land reclamation and those will be proceeding for sure."

She said the Alberta government will continue to make its case that the oilsands are well-managed and their greenhouse gas emissions not wildly different from many other oil sources.

Other aspects of the Helmholtz-Alberta initiative that will continue, without notable public concern in Germany, include research on how to better upgrade low-quality lignite coal.

Babiuk confessed he didn't understand why upgrading high-carbon lignite was more palatable to German public opinion.

"You explain to me the logic," he said. "The environmentalists haven't jumped on that bandwagon as much as they have on oilsands"

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