Earlier this week, one of Europe's largest scientific research organizations, Germany's Helmholtz Association, announced it was pulling out of a research project on oil sands in Alberta, Canada. According to Canadian and German reports, the pullout appears to be rooted in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election bid. Germans vote this September, and environmental sensitivity often plays well there.
So what? Well, the Helmholtz role in the Canadian research project -- which apparently is looking at a range of issues related to the controversial energy source, including wastewater, carbon emission and energy production -- is small, less than $10 million (the local Alberta government put in more than twice that, $25 million). But any involvement at all with oil sands appeared to represent a risk of backlash from Germany's generally green electorate. Economists and political scientists studying trans-Atlantic relations will probably pay attention to the little dustup, which has thrown some key differences between North American energy priorities and European environmental constituencies into useful relief:
From Canadian Television's report:
...Pressure from both opposition and government politicians convinced the institution's board to back off. "Press releases were getting harsher and harsher...."
Officials from the German research group told reporters that German public opinion was critical of the North American failure to back international environmental treaties.
...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."