British Petroleum’s Berkeley biofuels bet

Everyone is all smiles when Gov. Schwarzenegger and Big Oil come to Berkeley bearing half a billion dollars.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

A cool half a billion bucks buys a lot of smiles, and so it was Thursday morning in Berkeley, Calif., when a gaggle of politicians, university administrators and media professionals gathered to hear an announcement establishing the Energy Biosciences Institute, a “strategic partnership” between British Petroleum, U. C. Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

U.C. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s eyes were twinkling throughout the entire event: It’s not every day you score a major new research institute for your campus that just happens to be targeted at one of the world’s most red-hot topics of economic, political and scientific enthusiasm. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, even as he limped to the podium while leaning on a crutch, was cracking jokes and basking in his aura as the can-do political leader who is actually doing something about global warming. Steven Chu, a winner of the Nobel Prize for physics and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, looked pleased as punch at the prospect of adding another gleaming research facility to a complex in the Berkeley Hills that already includes a brand-new nanotechnology research center, a state-of-the-art materials science center, and LBNL. BP chairman Bob Malone, the writer of the $500 million check, simply looked relieved. BP has received a fair amount of bad press the past two years, but here was his company doing the right thing for “Mother Earth,” putting some serious money down for “basic and applied biological research for energy.” If you could have generated energy from the sheer sense of self-satisfaction choking the auditorium, Berkeley would have been fossil fuel-free in a split second.

I felt it necessary to attend, not just because the event was held about a mile from my house, or because of my own budding interest in all things biofuels, but because I simply couldn’t resist comparing this gala event, this paradigmatic merger of public university research power and oil industry corporate largesse, with the gathering of do-it-yourself biodiesel homebrewing geeks I had attended in January in San Francisco, brought together for an informal lecture on the science of making biodiesel from algae.

The two events might seem separated by more than just the San Francisco Bay, a few hundred million dollars, and some major political star power, but a common thread did run between them. I hadn’t sat down for more than a minute when I heard the public affairs manager for the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, located just down the road in Walnut Creek, discussing JGI’s work sequencing algae strain genomes. He also had some intriguing things to say about the possibilities latent in termite guts. Biofuel geeks — in these parts, you really can’t hide from them.

But there is a big difference, of course, between the homebrewers and the industrial strength researchers. When the do-it-yourselfers talk about sustainability and renewability they say the words with a near spiritual reverence that traces directly back to generations of green hippie dreaming in Northern California. But when those very same words emerge from the mouths of Schwarnezegger and Malone, you hear a reverence for a different shade of green, the one that colors the almighty dollar. The clearest message you could take from the announcement of the Energy Biosciences Institute was that biofuels have hit the big time.

As BP’s chief scientist Steven Koonin noted, “Biology is the most rapidly advancing science” today and it will be so for decades to come. The intersection of civilization’s demand for energy with the astonishing advances achieved daily in our understanding of the basic structure of living things will be one of the biggest stories of the 21st century.

No wonder everyone was so gleeful in Berkeley Thursday morning, ready to laugh rip-roaringly at whatever horrible joke the assembled politicians shoveled out. To be at the forefront of this biotechnological homesteading rush is a big, big deal, and it was a feather in the cap of everyone involved to have landed the big score. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, doing his best JFK imitation, may have been exaggerating just a little bit when he said, “this will be our generation’s moonshot … What NASA did for space, the Energy Biosciences Institute will do for biofuels,” but he was not far off in the significance of what biotechnology holds for the human future. (Provided, naturally, that we don’t screw up horribly in some dreadfully apocalyptic fashion, but such techno-skepticism was quite out of place at this Berkeley gathering.)

Birgeneau and others also made a point of stressing how wonderful it was that two “public” universities were part of this new strategic partnership. Which raised an obvious question, one that I and other reporters were quick to bring up at the media breakout session following the announcement. In this kind of public-private partnership, who owns the intellectual property that results?

University of California President Robert Dynes didn’t bat an eyelash when I asked him precisely that. “What’s public is public and what’s private is private.” In other words, if a researcher employed by Berkeley patented something, it was owned by Berkeley. Likewise for a BP researcher. This was standard practice with such partnerships, he told me. Later, Robert Birgeneau added, “And what’s shared will be shared.”

But BP’s Koonin also noted that “as things become more advanced they will get more proprietary.” The final details on issues of licensing and patent ownership, he added, “have not been worked out at this point in time.”

Maybe not, but one doubts that BP is ponying up $500 million without some ironclad guarantees in writing promising a return on its investment. And if we needed any additional proof that the titans of yesterday’s energy industry are going to be very much involved with tomorrow’s energy future, whether or not there is any oil left in the world, BP’s bet on biofuels provides it.

As readers of How the World Works over the last year are well aware, the question of how biotechnology, advances in computing, intellectual property control, economic development, global trade, energy and the environment all intersect via the narrative of biofuels has become one of the predominant themes here. Now, one of the world’s leading centers of research into precisely that subject will be built in a neighborhood of the Berkeley Hills where I ride my bicycle nearly every weekend.

We’re going to get to know this place pretty well.

UPDATE: I mistakenly conjoined two quotes that belonged to different people. Robert Birgeneau made the “moonshot” reference; Blagojevich made the “NASA” reference.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>