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Students Protest Controversial BP-Cal Accord

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday February 27, 2007

Two protests—one Monday and another this Thursday—are adding new fuel to the growing controversy over the proposed $500 million pact between a British oil company, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. 

While hailed by politicians ranging from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, the proposal has drawn the fire of students and faculty on the Berkeley campus. 

The students have created their own website——and enlisted the support of a growing number of faculty members, said Maren Poitras, an organizer who is an undergraduate at the College of Natural Resources (CNR). 

“We come from a lot of different backgrounds and for different reasons,” she said. “We are opposed to the growing influence of corporate research at a public university.” 

In addition to a teach-in held Monday evening at Morgan Hall, the students have scheduled a second demonstration at 1 p.m. Thursday outside California Hall, the seat of university administration and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. 

“We have a petition campaign online, and we are planning on taking our concerns to the chancellor,” Poitras said. 

“In the short term we are asking him not to sign the agreement, and in the long term we are looking for the development of a procedure for corporate funding of research projects that will assure more involvement by students, faculty and community organizations,” she said. 

Several of the critics of the proposed agreement with BP—the oil giant formerly known as British Petroleum—are faculty members at the College of Natural Resources who played leading roles in criticizing another corporate/academic research accord, the $25 million deal signed with Swiss agro-pharmaceutical firm Novartis, now known as Syngenta. 

Among the critics of that pact who support the students are CNR professors Ignacio Chapela and Miguel Altieri, both critics of the Novartis agreement. 

More questions are coming from off-campus environmental groups. 

Helen Burke, a Sierra Club activist and a member of Berkeley’s planning commission, was one of a group of environmentalists and downtown business representatives who met with the students Monday. 

“This really has national implications because research will be done [at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)],” she said. “A lot of people are saying they don’t want the university to sign, but that’s clearly the intent.” 

Burke said Monday afternoon that she planned to meet with Sierra Club members Monday night to discuss the notion of holding a public forum where all sides of the issue could be presented and discussed. 

“It sounds like a good idea on the surface, but the more I look into it, the more questions there are,” she said. 

Chapela, the CNR associate professor who had to take the university to court to keep his job after he challenged the Novartis accord, said he was glad to see the growing involvement of students in challenging the proposed BP agreement. 

“I think it’s great to see such incredible response,” he said. “As soon as students started hearing about it, they were outraged and shocked. As a result, my feelings have changed from despondency a few weeks ago to a sense that we can really do something about this.” 

The program proposed—dubbed the Helios Project at LBNL—will concentrate on creating ethanol from the cellulose of a strain of super-grass to be developed in the program by using microbes harvested from termite guts. Genetic engineering will be used to tweak both organisms for maximum efficiency. 

Chapela, Altieri and other critics of genetically modified organisms point out that GMOs have escaped into the environment, including engineered grasses. 

In response to criticism using colorful terms like “frankenfoods,” GMOs have been rebranded by corporations and academia. They’re now dubbed “synthetic biology,” a term Chapela mocks. 

The students also point to BP’s controversial environmental and human rights records. Earlier this month, the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit activist group, declared that the BP refinery in Texas City, Tex., is the nation’s “largest emitter of carcinogens.”