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BP Project Impractical, Dangerous, Critics Charge

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Questions of scientific feasibility and environmental responsibility dominated a Thursday night teach-in called by critics of UC Berkeley’s $500 million biofuels pact with a British oil company. 

BP p.l.c. and the university are currently hammering out the details of a contract that will create the Energy Biosciences Institution, which the school and the former British Petroleum plan to market as “the world’s premier energy research institute.” 

But UC Berkeley Professor of Geoengineering Tadeusz Patzek and Professor of Ecosystem Sciences and Energy and Resources John Harte raised questions about the science and claims made for the project—the largest corporate funding package in American university history. 

And James Thorlby, Catholic priest and activist who works with the Pastoral Land Commission in Brazil, said that land barons in that nation are seizing state-owned land, evicting small farmers with troops and hire gangs to transform vast tracts into sugar cane fields for ethanol production. 

Patzek charges that the output from biofuels simply can’t match the energy inputs needed to grow the plants and transform the harvested crops in fuels like ethanol, while each American continues to consume enough calories of energy every year to grow “a big, fat sperm whale.” 

Patzek, one of the nation’s leading critics of the rush to biofuels, said conservation, including alternative forms of transit, is one solution, while production of the nation’s total energy needs from biofuels would require the sacrifice of all the nation’s crops and two-thirds of the annual growth of its forests. 

“All of the biological systems are quite inefficient compared to solar cells and wind,” said Patzek. 

Harte said that reliance on a crop like switchgrass as a source of biofuels would require enough land to produce significant climate changes in the United States. 

While biomass effectively captures about 1 percent of solar energy per acre for conversion into fuel, Harte said solar cells—photovoltaics—are now so efficient that only 1/20th of the land area would be needed, and Patzek said technology is now even more efficient. 

Harte called for tax incentives for the solar and wind energy industries. “The encouragement of clean energy through incentives is the best way to do it,” he said. 

“We have a judiciary here in the pocket of the elite of this country,” said Thorlby in a telephone interview recorded for Thursday night’s program. “I call it the scum of the country.” 

“Millions and millions of hectares” have been usurped, he said, to make way for an unsustainable agriculture enforced by armed gangs. “You could call it Neanderthal, but I have more respect for our ancestors,” he said. 

Environmentally devastating, the sugar cane super-plantations “put an end to the culture of the society,” he said. 

Thorlby received the Brazilian government’s Human Rights Award for Elimination of Slave Labor in 2003. 

Alice Friedemann, a science journalist who specializes in energy issues, said her special concern was with destruction of soil and water caused by mass planting of corn, currently the dominant source of ethanol in the United States. 

The writer said she was troubled “by the lack of any kind of input by social scientists” in the BP proposal. “Their voice needs to be heard.” 

Friedemann also cited three decades of lobbying by agricultural industry leader Archer Daniels Midland—a firm that holds patents on many crops—calling for development of ethanol-based based fuels. “Ethanol will bankrupt our soils,” she said. 

Richard Register, a Berkeley advocate for green city design, argued for an end to urban design based on the automobile. 

“As long as we keep building the same things, as long as we keep driving the same things, we’re not going to solve this problem,” he said. 

Thursday’s forum was the first of two scheduled teach-ins sponsored by Register’s Ecocity Builders, the Green Century Institute and, the student activists who have been organizing protests challenging the pact between their university and the British oil firm. 

Another teach-in will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St. 

That forum will feature three speakers intimately familiar with UC Berkeley’s last controversial corporate research package, the Novartis agreement, a five-year pact between a Swiss-based multinational and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM) at the university’s College of Natural Resources. 

Speakers include: Jennifer Washburn, who examined the Novartis pact in her 2005 book University, Inc.: The Corruption of Higher Education; ESPM Associate Professor Ignacio Chapela, a leading critic of the deal; Berkeley geography Professor Jean Lave, who helped develop a proposal for an external review of the project conducted by Michigan State University; and anthropology professor Cori Hayden, who will address impacts on government, patent regimes and ethics. 

Also slated to appear is Hillary Lehr, a student and slam poet.