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Birgeneau: UC-BP Deal Criticism is ‘Abhorrent’

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 09, 2007

Critics who say UC Berkeley shouldn’t taken $500 million from a British oil company to develop alternative energy espouse an “abhorrent” attitude and threaten academic freedom, declared Chancellor Robert Birgeneau Thursday. 

He spoke during a meeting held for members of the University’s Academic Senate which was also attended by students and a few members of the Berkeley community. 

Most of the speakers on the panel praised the half-billion-dollar contract with the former British Petroleum, though one—Ignacio Chapela—came down clearly against the contract, and another—former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich—said it raised serious questions which remained to be answered. 

Moderated by journalism faculty member Linda Schacht—perhaps better known to Berkeley residents as a member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee—the panel spoke in response to criticism of the proposal unveiled last month by the chancellor, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of officials. 

While most faculty members, seated in the front of the audience, appeared to applaud speakers who praised the agreement, many others and a majority of the students cheered the critics. 

By the time the meeting ended, critics still hadn’t received what they promised—more open discussion among the faculty and students, and promises that the final agreement would be aired and discussed publicly before it was approved. The university had even held its winning proposal secret—a non-binding agreement offering generalities, only promising to release it after it had already leaked to the press, and then declaring that all names would be excised. 

The document was finally posted in its complete form this week at, the website of the Energy Biosciences Institute, as the resulting institution will be known. 

Speakers included: Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside, a professor of Molecular and Cell biology: Jay Keasling, a designated EBI faculty scientist and director of the Physical Biosciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where many of the institute’s functions will be housed; Ignacio Chapela, a professor of microbial ecology and a leading critic of corporate academic partnership; Haas School of Business Professor David Vogel; S. Shankar Shastry, a professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, and Reich, who is a professor at the Goodman School of Public Policy. 

“I am extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities of this project,” said Keasling, who described it as “a moon shot for all of us ... we can’t afford to fail.” 

Chapela delivered an impassioned plea that Schacht ended after he went over the prescribed eight-minute time limit condemning an agreement that would bring “the tragic aspects out our insatiable consumption to the corners of the Third World.” 

He ended to enthusiastic cheers from students and some of the faculty. 

Vogel said that while no corporations could be said to wear white hats, BP—now renamed Beyond Petroleum—wears a paler shade of gray as the first oil company to acknowledge global warming and voluntarily reduce its emissions. 

Shastry, who is also director of the university’s Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society, hailed the pact as one more in a series of academic corporate partnerships than had improved society through new technology.  

But Reich cautioned that academic freedom has always been endangered, first by the church and state, then by the corporation. 

But when it came time for the questions, the overwhelming number of speakers criticized the university’s handling of the agreement, the lack of faculty consultation and what they called the agreement’s potential to stifle other research into areas like conservation and alternative forms of energy. 

LBNL Director Steve Chu said his staff had already committed to working on global warming—the critical issue of the time—as well as biofuels before the possibility of the BP agreement had arisen.  

During the questioning Keasling acknowledged the proposal had flaws, including the placement of oversight at the end—promising that oversight of both social and environment impacts would be conducted throughout the project. 

But the answers didn’t satisfy critics like graduate student Ali Tonack, who had been arrested last week after dumping molasses in front of the campus administration building. 

He cited the significance of the misdemeanor charge for which he was arrested—“obstructing business”—and vowed, “If you think things are sticky now, I promise you, the situation is going to become a lot more stickier.” 

While the Academic Senate was meeting, President George W. Bush was flying to Sao Palo, Brazil, eager to promote an ethanol development deal in that largest of South American nations. 

According to a story posted on the New York Times website, Bush is using the agreement—which will result in more greater production of the alternative fuel from Brazilian lands—as an economic weapon against the oil reserves of Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chavez, one of Bush’s harshest critics in Latin America. 

A day earlier, 900 Brazilian women from Via Campesina in São Paulo state occupied a sugar mill after its sale to agricultural giant Cargill, which plans to use sugar cane for processing into ethanol. 

The protesters charged that monoculture impoverishes small farmers, the assertion also raised by UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri during a teach-in held to protest the BP proposal.