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.

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