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BP buys Berkeley – oil company employs university to greenwash their image

The Energy Biosciences Institute (or EBI) was created by the largest deal in US (and possibly world) history between a corporation and a university. In February 2007 The University of California and BP (formerly British Petroleum) announced that BP would commit $500 million to UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in order to establish a center for biotechnology research, development and deployment for energy production. The main focus of the research center will be “next-generation biofuels”, which are being touted as the solution to global warming, but will also include research on biological technologies that will increase fossil fuel extraction.

The EBI will introduce onto the Berkeley campus a large, sealed-off, private research facility — a base for fifty BP employees to work closely with university researchers who are looking to develop bio-technologies with the most money-making potential. BP will get first pick of any new technologies and it will also decide what gets researched, as it has an equal say with all of the academic partners combined.

When people got wind of the deal, opposition quickly mounted, and the University went on the defensive. A protest with a fake “oil spill” (really molasses) attracted attention, and students organized teach-ins where professors spoke about the problems with the project. Faculty members denounced the deal in public and EBI opponents quickly won the battle of public perception. Chancellor Birgeneau switched from talking about “this generation’s moon shot” to saying that the EBI wasn’t all that big, or that groundbreaking, really. The deal was reported in the media as “controversial” and as a question of how much influence big corporations should have in public universities, rather than as a chance for idealistic scientists to do good for the environment.

The BP/Berkeley contract was signed in November 2007, but opposition continues, particularly to the construction of ten buildings that Lawrence Berkeley Labs plans to build in the hills above the Berkeley campus over the next decade. Meanwhile, the university has continued entering into similar deals, such as the Joint Biosciences Energy Institute (funded by $125 million from the Department of Energy, best known for managing the nation’s nuclear arsenal), and a $10 million “sustainable research” deal with Dow Chemical, who so far has brought us napalm, Agent Orange, and the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984.

Next-generation Biofuels?

Most folks these days know about biodiesel and ethanol, two proposed plant-based substitutes for gasoline. The theory is that they are carbon-neutral fuels, since plants are part of the global carbon cycle the carbon released when they burn was taken up by the plant from the atmosphere, so no net carbon is released. But remember: these are plants; they have to grow somewhere. Biodiesel sold in Europe was recently calculated to be responsible for ten times more carbon than gasoline, since Indonesian rainforest is being razed to plant oil palms to meet the increased demand. This illustrates a fundamental problem with any plant-based fuel: planting fuel crops will compete with other uses of the land, reducing the amount of land for native habitat and for food. By any estimate, the amount of land needed to replace fossil fuel consumption with a plant-based fuel would be huge, putting first-world consumption in direct competition with third-world bellies and ecosystems.

Already the increased demand for biofuels is causing increased food prices (mostly due to the use of corn for ethanol) around the world and intense deforestation in Brasil (for sugar cane), Indonesia (for oil palm), and other places.

The proposed solution to all these problems is the promised “next-generation biofuels”, which are still far enough out of reach that all kinds of wonderful things can be said about them. Foremost is the idea of ”cellulosic ethanol”, which will be made by genetically engineered microbes out of the inedible portions of plants, supposedly removing the pressure on the world’s food supply. Even if the technology comes to fruition, only the most starry-eyed claim that we’ll be able to keep consuming as much energy as we currently do without continuing global ecological disaster.

However, this is precisely what UC Berkeley researchers will be working on, under the direction of BP, a technological “solution” that trivializes the social and ecological realities of the situation. The researchers will have high-profile, high-budget lifestyles working to “save the world”, BP will get to greenwash its image, and possibly glean very lucrative patents, and the rest of us get no voice and business as usual, while support for research into real alternatives, like sustainable agriculture and transportation, dries up.

Technological Solutions

The research-industrial complex in general, and UC Berkeley specifically, has a long history of providing technological solutions to major world problems. The best-known example was supposed to end all wars: the nuclear bomb. Pushers of the EBI strove to highlight this connection, drawing parallels between the Manhattan project and future research at the EBI.

Today’s biofuel boom is a reaction to one specific crisis that modern, industrialized society is facing: global warming. Industrialized biofuels are one proposed way to get around that particular crisis, but as they are envisioned, even if they help reduce carbon emissions, they will likely worsen many of the other problems associated with industrialized agriculture: global economic inequality, deforestation, topsoil depletion, soil salinization, loss of biodiversity, and water pollution. Industrialized biofuels will not threaten the profits of agroindustry, the auto industry… or of BP, if they control the technology.

Throwing our weight and resources at this particular capital-intensive solution diverts attention and funding from other solutions that address the root causes of the issue, like decreasing consumption and localizing agriculture. BP is not interested in funding research that will allow people to drive less, nor will technology that allows small farming communities to become energy-independent allow them to continue to profit.

Climate Justice

The BP/Berkeley partnership represents a clear choice of one vision of the planet’s future – a global corporate consumer car-culture for the lucky and a miserable life of toil for the rest – as opposed to an egalitarian, democratically sustainable alternative future. As the changing climate transforms from a fringe issue to a global economic crisis and corporations and governments scramble to seize control of the new energy economy, climate justice movements are sprouting around the world. Landless peasants organizing against slave labor on sugar-cane plantations that produce Brazilian ethanol, South Africans fighting to keep communal land from being taken for biofuel production, and Brits sitting-in to stop a new runway at Heathrow airport are all part of the same movement: it is now clear that while the climate crisis is an environmental issue, what we do about it is a global justice issue. Like the Dineh (Navajo), Brazilians, South Africans and others, the people in Berkeley who have organized against the EBI are fighting to prevent global corporate energy projects from destroying their community. It is our responsibility and a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to create a sustainable and just new world. Corporations that have spent the last century promoting internal combustion, plotting the overthrow of foreign countries, and investing in propaganda to discredit climate change research can only stand in our way.