From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published March 19, 2013 12:57 PM

German Research Institute Drops Canadian Tar Sands Project

The Helmholtz-Association of German Research Centres has just backed out of a CAN$25 million research project funded by the Canadian government that would study sustainable solutions for tar sands pollution.


Canada is home to the world's third largest crude reserves in the form of tar sands. Tar sands are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit and are considered part of the world's oil reserves as new technology can extract oil from these sands.

However, the mining of these sands requires huge amounts of water and chemical solvents in order to extract the oil from the bitumen, a viscous substance found in the sand and clay. Not only is extra energy required in the refining process, but damage to the landscape and ecosystem is also expected.

Because of this reason, 20 scientists from Germany's most prestigious research institute have removed themselves from the project, fearing their environmental reputation.

"It was seen as a risk for our reputation," Professor Frank Messner, Helmholtz UFZ's head of staff said stiffly over the phone from his offices in Leipzig. "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's tar sands deposits contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in human history, according to James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

"If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate," Hansen famously wrote. It would elevate global temperatures to levels not seen since the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, he added.

Environmentalists say that by 2020, a planned expansion in Alberta's tar sands operation would sprawl to an area the size of Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.

As such, environmentalists find victory from the pushback from the German research institute. "A number of high level EU decision makers have stated that the Canadian lobbying effort goes beyond what is considered acceptable," Darek Urbaniak of Friends of the Earth told EurActiv.

"The fact that a renowned scientific institute from Germany has decided to pull out of cooperation with Alberta is a further blow to this strategy."

While more research needs to be conducted on the effects of tar sands, representatives from Canada are claiming that they are being discriminated against because emissions from tar sands operations are better-reported than other unconventional fuel sources such as shale gas.

Read more at EurActiv.

Oil sands development in Northern Alberta image via Shutterstock.

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