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Oil Giant BP to Give $500 Million to UC Berkeley for Biofuels Research

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The deal would fund the development of “sustainable, commercially viable, and environmentally friendly” sources of energy. The newly created Energy Biosciences Institute claims to promote research into biofuels, as well as bacteria that would increase energy production from oil and coal. The partnership has split the campus community. We speak to two UC Berkeley professors. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a controversy raging at the University of California, Berkeley, where British Petroleum, where BP — they’ve called themselves now Beyond Petroleum — has promised to give $500 million to the university over the next 10 years. The deal would fund the development of “sustainable, commercially viable, and environmentally friendly” sources of energy. The newly created Energy Biosciences Institute, or EBI, claims to promote research into biofuels, as well as bacteria that would increase energy production from oil and coal.

Critics at UC Berkeley point to the corporatization of academic research, the ecological dangers of biofuels, and BP’s long history of environmental irresponsibility, they say. They call this an act of greenwashing by BP and have been protesting the deal since it was announced in February of this year. But supporters claim that the corporate-academic partnership allows the university to realize its renewable energy research agenda and provides the most effective and economical means of addressing the looming environmental crisis.

To talk about this issue, we’re joined by two professors at UC Berkeley. Miguel Altieri is a professor of entomology. He is a renowned expert in agroecology, or sustainable agriculture. He is opposed to the deal between BP and UC Berkeley. He joins us here at Link TV’s studios in San Francisco. Daniel Kammen is a professor of Energy and Resources, a professor of public policy and nuclear engineering. He directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and is on the executive committee of the Energy Biosciences Institute, which will carry out much of the research under this deal. Kammen is generally supportive of the deal.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Professor Kammen. Why do you think this $500 million that BP has promised over the next 10 years is good for the university?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, there’s a couple features. One is that we clearly need to learn more about biofuels, and we need to learn about them in a way that emphasizes the sustainability. The biofuel industry right now is taking off around the world, and it’s unfortunately being based largely on feed stocks that are bad on an energy balance and bad for many communities on a profit balance and bad for many communities in terms of trading off their food needs versus fuel needs. And so, the need to develop a serious research agenda to find out the better ways to do this or, in fact, whether we should do this at all, is in fact the reason why we need to begin these sorts of programs, not just at Berkeley, but hopefully around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the issue of BP giving this enormous sum of money, $500 million over the next 10 years, is this of concern to you, the issue of the privatization of a public institution?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I think that the size of the grant can be a concern, but not for the reasons that you’re raising. I actually think that this amount of money is relatively small change, both for the oil industries around the world and, in fact, for the amount of money it takes to bring new products to market. New cars and new drugs frequently take that much money — half a billion dollars — to bring them to market. And as a research pot of money to start with, I actually don’t regard it as that much money.

The chance, though, that this amount of money would alter what a university does is a concern to me, and the degree to which a university might see grants like this as a reason or as an excuse or as a mechanism to alter what they would work on — say, move away from some areas and move into others — is a concern if it was being done in a way that I thought that the company had that driving force.

And so far in the process here, I’ve been quite pleased with the degree to which the intellectual terms of the discussion, in terms of what to study, not the broader politics of biofuels, has been well represented. Whether that continues or not is something that we’re hopefully going to be vigilant to and look at, but I don’t think it’s a guaranteed feature that you will necessarily be able to steer clear of that. It’s going to take a degree of oversight to make sure that we don’t have corporate interests running essentially what U.S. or other universities would do.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Altieri, your concerns?

MIGUEL ALTIERI: Well, my concerns is that, first of all, Professor Kammen is saying, it’s very little money, and eventually it’s little money for BP, but a lot of money for UC Berkeley. And what they’re going to do with this money is basically skim off what 200 years of public investment has done. It would be very expensive for BP to build a university and a research facility. They will come with $500 million. They skim off what the public university has built over years, and then they bring 50 scientists from BP that are going to have access to students, and so therefore what they’re going to do is influence the research agenda of the public university. And it’s already happening.


MIGUEL ALTIERI: Well, a lot of fields that should be emphasized at Berkeley are dying off, like biological pest control, alternatives to pesticides, agroecologist sustainable agriculture. And they are emphasizing fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering and etc. And basically what the chancellor has done is basically has put in power, in a position of power, people that are chemists, engineers and chemists and genetic engineering, and so on, in charge of an agenda of complex ecological issues, rather than ecologists. Ecologists have been actually — most of them that are critic — have been actually taken out of any dealings with this, with this deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the deal been signed?

MIGUEL ALTIERI: No. As far as I know, not.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know, Professor Kammen? It sounds like there’s a lot of speculation, also a lot of concern, about the transparency of this. Have the heads of BP and the heads of the University of California signed on the dotted line?

DANIEL KAMMEN: No, they haven’t. There’s actually still quite a bit of debate still going as to how to structure it, largely around the reasons that Miguel mentioned, because the structure of the proposal that we wrote — and I was one of the authors of the initial proposal, not of the final legal deal, which is being handled by the legal teams, but of the final — but of the initial plan that we sent to BP — was in fact one that I thought addressed many of these issues, and they’re still being debated today, and that was that research done on the University of California side and that of our partners — and our partners in this deal include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is a government lab run by the University of California — and working out the arrangements so that work done on so-called “our side” of that equation is fully the intellectual property of our team members, not of BP, was a central point in the proposal that we wrote up. And those are the features that are now being discussed, and that’s why it has not been finalized yet, trying to work out that arrangement.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, Professor Altieri. How does this work? Do employees of BP — I said “Beyond Petroleum,” that’s what the commercials say; I don’t think that’s actually their name — it’s just BP, is that right?


AMY GOODMAN: The scientists at BP will work at UC Berkeley?

MIGUEL ALTIERI: Yeah, they will be housed at UC Berkeley. Actually, I understand that the state is going to put $4 to $7 million to build a facility for them in the campus. They’re going to have a status of visiting scholars, and they’re going to participate in academic life. Supposedly, they need to be invited to do that, but obviously they’re going to be doing it, and they’re going to be having access to students, having access to research facilities that have been built, but with public money. And they’re going to influence the research agenda. There’s no doubt about that.

And anybody that has protested — faculty — have been basically dismissed and disregarded as a colorful — as part of the colorful character of the campus. You know, we have to have these people that are always protesting.

And what worries me is that, on the one side, they’re promoting the wrong technology: biofuels is the wrong way to go. There’s no discussion, for example, in this proposal about alternative transportation systems, how to curb consumption patterns of petroleum and how to promote other alternatives that are much more viable. And biofuels are going to cause tremendous problems not only in the United States, but in third world countries especially, because if we devoted all the corn that is in this country, 125,000 square miles, we would only satisfy 12 percent of the gas needs. So obviously what’s going to happen is that it’s going to be grown in the third world, and basically the people in the third world are going to be paying the price for the over-consumption and the old-based style of living of Europe and the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kammen, your response?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I think there’s a couple really good points in what Miguel just said. The first one is I’m actually, as well, concerned, that I thought that the debate on campus is not one that has been as open as it could be. And you’re right, there has been sort of high-profile protests, but protests and actually having sit-downs between the sides has been somewhat lacking. And I actually really view that as a feature that the campus is responsible for the lack of that, not BP so far, and the campus needs to do a better job in that regard.

In terms of the fuel issues around the world, I actually take quite a different view than that by Miguel. It is true that if we devoted all of our corn to making ethanol in the U.S., we would only reach about 10 or 12 percent, so it wouldn’t be a significant effort, and you wouldn’t want to give up all that corn use for ethanol. But an interesting and, I think, a critical feature of the BP proposal is that, in fact, corn ethanol is excluded. Everyone who works on ethanol and biofuels worldwide recognizes that alternate fuels are available that are far better, the so-called cellulosic crops, that even include using garbage and using the waste carbon dioxide that comes out of power plants on just the land sitting next to those power plants. Those are areas for research in this proposal, not corn.

And so, if there was to be an approach that would look at alternatives that did not make the tension between food and fuel worse, it’s a project like this. In fact, in many parts of the developing world, the potential to grow crops that are useful for farmers locally at much higher efficiencies than they draw today — for food stocks, again, not corn — is an option that this proposal should be looking at. And the degree to which we do a good job there, I think, is very much due to the sort of things that Miguel said, and that is having this broader discussion and analysis not only of what we should be doing, but also how it goes on.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Altieri?

MIGUEL ALTIERI: I think it’s going to come too late, because right now what’s happening is that corn and soybean and sugar cane are the crops that the corporations — I mean, the University of California-BP deal is nothing compared to the tremendous alliance between corporations like ADM, the grain merchants — ADM, Bunge, Cargill — the corporations of petroleum, the corporations of biotechnology, the car corporations and some environmental groups. And actually, they are promoting already these types of feed stocks that are going to do a huge destruction, deforestation, more gas emissions, because of the industrial nature of the agriculture they’re going to practice, and so on. So the BP-UC deal is going to come too late with the cellulosic alternatives that Professor Kammen is talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, [inaudible] jump in there, because, on one hand, you’re saying that, well, this is a bad thing, but on the other hand you’re saying that, well, this is just an approach that could do it if we did it right. And I actually think that while it’s true that we have come relatively recently to cellulosic fuels in the last few years, to then say we shouldn’t work on them or that we have no chance to make them a big part of the equation is, I think, too early. That might be the case, but it’s not yet. And we do need to explore them.

And, in fact, one of the reasons that California and UC Berkeley was sited for this institute is that the State of California, in work that our lab and others at UC Davis have worked on in detail, is setting standards for our fuels for the future that would in fact be cleaner. And the way that we’re doing this is around something called the low-carbon fuel standard, which effectively means that if we want to use biofuels, corn is not going to be a feedstock. And the reason for that is that we’re rating fuels based on how much greenhouse gases come out.

Now, greenhouse gas is not the only environmental concern I have — there’s also water and erosion and local land use — but it’s the one that is a direct and a first step to allow us to say a fuel that’s worse than gasoline, in terms of its greenhouse impacts, is going to be disallowed in the state, and we’re going to push toward the cleaner ones. And BP, as well as campus researchers setting up this project, cited that effort and parallel efforts going on in Germany and in U.K. and in EU system-wide right now as part of that new framework. So you’re right, we might not make it. But I do believe we need to do the research to find out if it’s possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Altieri, last words. What are you calling for now? What are the organizations on campus and outside — because groups like Greenpeace, Essential Action, have also weighed in here, concerned about the corporatization of public institutions.

MIGUEL ALTIERI: I think what we need is, first of all, is to call again for an open debate, which has been suppressed, because basically the people that were questioning this have been accused of attempting against academic freedom. And basically what academic freedom now means in Berkeley is just that you cannot question the financial associations of faculty.

I mean, we need to look at the record of BP. We cannot associate with BP. It has a horrible record in terms of environment, in terms of human rights, and so on. And they have been, you know, destroying the environment for many years, and now they come as the doves of ecology.

We need to also put in place people that are going to be looking critically at the social, ecological impacts. We cannot leave in charge climate change and ecological questions to a bunch of engineers and chemists and genetic engineering people. We need to bring ecologists, social scientists, but also that are critical and are independent, that are not associated with this proposal and therefore open to debate, and also bring the public of California to question their public university that is being funded by them. They need to reclaim their university, their public university.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see any of this happening in the discussion?

MIGUEL ALTIERI: No, I don’t see that. Everything is secret. I don’t know anything. None of the faculty that are not associated with this know anything about the negotiation. Professor Kammen seems to be updated, but, you know, the rest of the faculty are not aware of what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there, but follow the discussion further. I want to thank Professors Altieri and Kammen for joining us from the University of California, Berkeley.

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