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Governor Touts Berkeley Biofuel Programs

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 22, 2007

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Berkeley Friday, declaring that market forces would solve one of the greatest issues in global warming. 

Backing him up was retired General Charles F. Wald, who described global warming as a national security issue, a “non-traditional security threat” in an increasingly complex world where the free flow of Middle Eastern oil to the United States is a military mission. 

“The governor, in a previous career, is known throughout the world as the quintessence of an action hero. Today he is calling for action, not just words, in addressing climate change while maintaining our economic prosperity,” said Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

“Thank you very much Dr. Chu for that great introduction,” said Schwarzenegger. “It was just the way I wrote it.” 

The event was the International Law Carbon Fuel Symposium, held at LBNL. 

But one critic who attended the event, a leading European environmental regulator, cast doubt on the program, warning that it lacked safeguards for both the people and the land most likely to be affected by the research now under way at the lab. 

“There are real issues about diversity and protection of the environment,” said Axel Friedrich, who directs the programs on transportation issues and noise reduction for the Umwelt Bundes Amt, Germany’s federal environmental agency. 

Gen. Wald, who retired last July at the four-star rank after serving as deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, responsible for military affairs in 91 nations, is now a private-sector consultant who serves on the Energy Security Leadership Council of the advocacy group Securing America’s Energy Future and advises the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-linked think tank. 

With “our national security dramatically influenced by the demand for oil,” Wald said, the best solution is development of alternative fuels. 

That mission dovetails perfectly with LBNL’s current push for a $125 million Department of Energy biofuel grant and with the lab’s central role in a controversial $500 million grant from BP (the erstwhile British Petroleum) to UC Berkeley, which relies heavily on the lab and its resources. 

As if to emphasize the point, UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau walked into the meeting room with the governor and Chu and left when they did, none of them staying for the full program. 

The governor, who announced an executive order in January mandating that the state reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels sold in the state by 10 percent by 2020, said the solutions would be found “by unleashing the power of market forces.” 

Indeed, the new standard “is our best weapon against rising oil prices and gas prices because a vibrant market in alternative fuels and alternative vehicles, alternative engines, gives customers a great choice, gives different choices, and that empowers the customers, of course, to say no to those high fuel prices, to say hasta la vista, baby.” 

And UC Berkeley’s efforts, the governor said, are “showing us what the world could look like in 2020 and way beyond, and they’re showing us what steps we actually need to take to create this low-carbon environment that everyone wants.” 

Wald and other speakers reiterated the governor’s position, and many of the presentations featured projections that relied on significant increases in productions of cellulose-derived biofuels to reach his targets. 

Behind Schwarzenegger as he spoke, a video display featured as its largest single element a stand of miscanthus, the energy crop which is the basic element in the proposal UC Berkeley used to win the BP grant. 

That proposal called for development of genetically modified strains of the crop to grow in normally inhospitable environments, to be transformed into fuels after harvesting by genetically modified microbes derived from those that inhabit the guts of termites, where they digest cellulose to feed their six-legged host. 


Friedrich’s concerns 

Only one critic, Axel *Friedrich, rose to speak during the question period following the morning session. 

Friedrich, who holds a doctorate in engineering, said he was alarmed at the rush into alternative fuel production without serious consideration on long-term impacts. 

Afterwards he explained his concerns in greater detail.  

“Clearly, they understand the problem, but you need to look at the effects 50 and 60 years down the line,” he said, noting that a British participant had said that efforts there would be evaluated only five years down the line. 

“You have to address the whole transportation system as well, and you have to address what the impacts on land use will be” for people in the areas where crops are grown. “You have to look at the environmental impacts. And you have to look at other pollutants that may arise and at quality of life.” 

One of the greatest concerns, he said, is that the likely sites of biofuel production are in lesser developed countries in areas with the greatest and most-threatened biodiversity. 

“You have to look at all these things before you start, not afterwards,” he said. 

He also noted that despite the claims of the governor and others at the conference, Germany has a much higher target for carbon reduction, 40 percent by 2020. 

“Maybe that’s why they didn’t let me speak on one of the panels,” Friedrich said. 

Friedrich also said Germany had an even more stringent goal than California, a 40 percent reduction by 2020, “and we are the only country in the world that is reducing our total fuel consumption, and that’s not just for transportation.” 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman. 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened a day-long conference on low-carbon fuels at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Friday as lab director Steve Chu and retired four-star general Charles F. Wald looked on. The retired officer declared climate change a national security issue, best solved by alternative fuel development.