Berkeley-BP Deal Only Looks Worse Post-Spill

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In 2007, British Petroleum donated $500 million in research funds to UC Berkeley and partners to develop new sources of energy - primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops. Robert A. Malone, chairman and president of BP America Inc proclaimed BP was "joining some of the world's best science and engineering talent for improving and expanding the production of clean, renewable energy through the development of better crops." With what for BP was a relatively small investment, UC Berkeley's academic expertise, built over decades of public support, was recruited into a corporate partnership at the service of private interests. In fact in the Energy Biosciences Institute's 2009 annual report the Director was not shy in stating that "the mission of the institute is to provide ideas and innovations that supports the company's commitment to find new, more sustainable energy technologies." But all this public recruited talent did not help BP in preventing nor containing the oil spill that gushed more than 90 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, constituting the worst ecological disaster in US history.

This Berkeley-BP deal was signed without wide consultation with the faculty and despite warnings from a great number of faculty opposing such deal, UC Berkeley's administration chose to disregard the fact that BP is the oil company with the worst safety and environmental record of any oil company operating in the United States. British Petroleum has been the subject of roughly 8,000 reported incidents of spills, emissions and leaks of oil, chemicals and gases into the environment.

The ecological costs of the oil spill yet to be revealed, will certainly result in the decline of dolphins, whale sharks and sea turtles, whose populations may not recover for years. Fish and shrimp-breeding habitats will have been destroyed. Deep coral reefs, which can take centuries to grow, will surely be affected, not to mention the livelihoods of thousands of people that depend on the Gulf's marine and coastal resources. Even if BP pays the full cost of damages, this sum which will cause little strain on BP's finances, will not cover the long-term and unpredictable ecological impacts that will last well beyond the time when lawsuits have been settled.

But the ecological crisis of the Gulf started many years before the oil spill. Each year, nitrogen used to fertilize corn leaches from Midwest croplands into the Mississippi River and out into the gulf, where the fertilizer feeds giant algae blooms. As the algae dies, it settles to the ocean floor and decays, consuming oxygen and suffocating marine life. The Gulf's dead zone is an area roughly the size of New Jersey. No doubt that the oil spill will worsen the shallow-water dead zone.

What is certain, however, is that the size of the dead zone fluctuates seasonally, as it is exacerbated by modern farming practices. The final irony is that BP's funded biofuel research at Berkeley is contributing to expand the "dead zone" by promoting large scale monoculture production of corn needed to yield the projected crop mass for ethanol, which requires the use of huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, major culprit for algal blooms and depletion of dissolved oxygen in coastal areas.

The potential consequences for the environment and society of BP's funded research on biofuels at Berkeley are deeply disturbing. Many scientists have long predicted that the large-scale industrial boom in biofuels will be disastrous for farmers, the environment and consumers and now marine ecosystems.

Under the circumstances, how can UC Berkeley justify in front of California's civil society its association with BP? A serious public debate on this whole program is overdue not only to hold the university accountable for its corporate funded research, but to explore initiatives that support truly sustainable and socially responsible alternatives to the energy and environmental crisis affecting the planet. It is time to apply the section of the UCB-BP agreement which refers to termination by Berkeley or other research collaborators, which reads: "In recognition of the public institutional nature of Berkeley, LBNL, and Illinois, if a discrete event were to occur or a change in facts and circumstances were to arise after the date of this Agreement, that Berkeley or any one or all of the other Research Collaborators were to reasonably determine that a continued association with EBI was not in accord with its fundamental principles, then at any time within one hundred eighty (180) days after the occurrence of such event Berkeley may terminate this Agreement" I would argue that a major change in facts and circumstances has already occurred.


Miguel Altieri is a professor at UC Berkeley. Reply to opinion@dailycal.org.



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