German research institute pulls out of Canadian tar sands project

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EXCLUSIVE / Germany’s largest and most prestigious research institute has pulled out of a Canadian government-funded CAN$25 million research project into sustainable solutions to tar sands pollution, citing fears for its environmental reputation.

As many as 20 scientists at the world-famous Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres have ceased involvement in the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative (HAI), after a moratorium on contacts was declared last month.  

“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,” he said.  

The HAI had been tasked with upgrading bitumen and lignite coal to reduce energy consumption, and finding ways to deal with overspill from the tar sands industry such as ‘tail ponds’- toxic lakes that now cover up to 176 square kilometers of Alberta.

But in reply to a written question from the German socialist MP Frank Schwabe, a statement from the country’s education and research ministry on February 20 said that a moratorium had been imposed on collaboration, pending an independent assessment into its environmental bona fides which will conclude in June.

“The assessment evaluates whether a project conforms to sustainability principles,”  Thomas Rachel, the education and research minister said.

“The purpose of the procedure is to ensure that sustainability criteria are being adhered to and that the research carried out as part of HAI can contribute significantly to the improvement of sustainability outcomes.”

The suspension of research ties follows intense debate within Germany’s scientific and political communities, and will not go unnoticed in Ottawa.

“It’s a clear signal that Canada’s energy and climate policy is not accepted by the international community, especially Germany,” Messner said.

High-polluting tag

The EU is inching forward plans to assign fuel from the controversial tar sands a high-polluting tag under its Fuel Quality Directive, which mandates a 6% decarbonisation of Europe’s transport fuels by 2020, as measured against a 2010 baseline.

Canada has the world’s third largest crude reserves – after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – overwhelmingly in the form of tar sands.

Mining the sands currently involves the use of huge amounts of water and chemical solvents to extract oil from bitumen, a viscous substance found in sand and clay. The extra energy required by the process of steam injection, strip mining – removing large stretches of overlying soil – and refining is a turbo-booster to CO2 emissions.

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. 

Punch and Judy

Europe imports very little of the unconventional fuel but Canada fears that an EU ruling will influence other markets, such as the US and China and that has set the scene for a lobbyist Punch and Judy, in which science has often been used as a stick.

A 2011 report commissioned by the EU from Adam Brandt, an Assistant Professor at Stanford University, found that the lifecycle emissions of fuel from tar sands – also known as oil sands – were between 12-40% higher than conventional crude, with the most likely barrel being 22% more carbon intensive.    

Brandt wrote that tar sands were “significantly different enough from conventional oil emissions that regulatory frameworks should address this discrepancy with pathway-specific emissions factors that distinguish between oil sands and conventional oil processes.”

That led the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission to task a rival paper to Jacobs Consultancy, which found that output from better-performing tar sands was “within 12% of the upper range of carbon intensity for diesel from representative crude oils refined Europe.”

On paper, this should still be enough to have it assigned a high-polluting default value, albeit by slightly less than the 107 grams of CO2 per megajoule – compared to 87.5g for conventional crude – in the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive.

But Canada’s interpretation has been different.

Canada fears persecution

Speaking at a press briefing in Brussels in January, Alberta’s environment minister Diana McQueen told journalists: “We look at the Jacobs study and they said that the oil sands should not be discriminated against and be taken out of that basket [of conventional crudes].”

Canada says it is being discriminated against because emissions from its tar sands operations are more transparent and better-reported than other unconventional fuel sources such as shale gas.

“We ask why the oil sands from Alberta would be singled out and unfairly targeted, especially if the intent is truly about climate change and reducing emissions in the EU,” McQueen said.

Canada has previously threatened to launch a suit against the EU at the World Trade Organisation if it proceeds with the Fuel Quality Directive as planned, and has raised the issue in the context of a planned $20 billion EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

Within Canada though, it is often climate scientists that say they are being persecuted against

Atmosphere of patriotism

An atmosphere of patriotism has been stirred around tar sands by a massive PR campaign involving advertisements on national TV and in cinemas.

Environmental and climate science budgets have been axed, and one of the world’s top Arctic research stations for monitoring global warming has been closed.

Hundreds of scientists have lost their jobs, and those that remain have been forbidden from talking to the media without a government minder present.  

As such, environmentalists welcomed the pushback from Germany. “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.”

Timeline: 
  • Spring 2013: EU Impact Assessment into the Fuel Quality Directive expected
  • June 2013: Helmholtz to take final decision on complete withdrawal from HAI project
  • Summer 2013: US expected to decide whether to proceed with Keystone XL pipeline, bringing oil from Albertan tar sands to Texas
  • October 2013: Environment Council may vote on the Fuel Quality Directive
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