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UC Biofuel Grant Expected, Contractor Sought For New Lab

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday June 26, 2007

Federal officials will announce today whether or not a coalition of UC Berkeley-affiliated labs will capture a $125 million grant to fund a new biofuel lab. 

That project would be in addition to the half-billion-dollar biofuel lab funded by a British oil giant, with would-be contractors for that project scheduled to gather Thursday afternoon to hone their bids. 

Word that the regents had already voted to fund the lab building for the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) lab building stunned critics of the $500 million grant from the former British Petroleum. 

While dissenting faculty and students were still marshaling their opposition to the controversial biofuel program funded by BP plc (the initials stand for “public liability corporation, the British equivalent of “inc.”), UC Regents had already approved plans for the project’s building. 

University officials are now seeking a contractor to build the structure, a $125 million, 160,000-square-foot building planned for a steep hillside site in Strawberry Canyon at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

Meanwhile, LBNL scientists will learn this morning (Tuesday) if they’ve won the $125 million Department of Energy grant to fund the second biofuel lab—a program headed by the same scientists who will direct the BP program. 

That project would be housed in yet another building, possibly at a South Berkeley site that includes property near the Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland city limits. 

Both projects have won the strong endorsements of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and would make Berkeley a leading researcher in the rush to replace vanishing petroleum reserves with fuels refined from living plants. 


BP-funded EBI 

In a little-noticed action March 15, the UC Regents approved construction of the building that will house the EBI. 

Their action came one week after Berkeley’s Academic Senate held its first forum on the project, where critics charged that the university was rushing to embrace untried technologies that could wreak havoc on Third World farmers and devastate the world’s last remaining rain forests. 

Even before the forum, the Committee on Grounds and Building (CGB) of the Board of Regents had received a proposal to approve a radical expansion of a building at LBNL they had already approved on a smaller scale in November. 

Schwarzenegger announced in December his intention to provide $40 million in state bond funds to help build the EBI lab if BP awarded the project to one of the two UC campuses it had picked to be among the five university applicants for the funds. 

UC San Diego was also in the running, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University and the Imperial College, London. 

On Nov. 16, CGB had approved $60 million for a building for the Helios Project, the lab’s biofuel project that was already under way before BP announced the $500 million bonanza on Feb. 1. 

Construction had not commenced, so after Berkeley was declared the winner, the proposal was reconfigured, raising the projected size from 90,000 square feet and the project cost to $159.4 million. 

In the months since, the university hired its architect—the Smith Group, a national architecture firm with a staff of 800 and a local office in San Francisco—to design the lab building. 

Both civil and structural engineering firms have also been hired, and the university is looking for a general contractor and a geotechnical engineer to ensure that the structure is isolated from vibrations that might interfere with experiments. 

Two days before the regents’ March 15 vote, the GBC approved the budget for the reconfigured lab building. 

There was no mention of the highly controversial BP-funded program, though a link in the announcement does lead to a document on the regents’ website that cites EBI’s inclusion in the project. 

The next morning, LBNL’s “Today at Berkeley Lab” website announced only that the committee had approved “the 160,000-square-foot Helios Energy Research Facility.”  

One day later, the regents gave their final approval in an action that escaped the notice of the public and press. 


Building details 

The building, which will feature two underground levels and up to four more above them, will be constructed on the steep Strawberry Canyon site near the southern end of the lab complex. 

Of the total building area, only 88,000 square feet would be “assignable” space, specifically allocated to labs. And of that total, 16 percent—or about 14,100 square feet—would be reserved exclusively for corporate-only research by scientists from the British oil giant. 

Of the building’s total useable area, EBI would grab the lion’s share—46,000 square feet—with the Helios Project occupying 32,000, and 10,000 assigned for shared use, including a food service area and a 250-seat auditorium. 

While biofuel research had been included in the original program for the Helios project, lab documents indicate that the program’s emphasis will shift more to photovoltaics and other alternative energy technologies, with the EBI assuming the biofuel role. 

BP would lease space from the university, paying $1.48 million in 2011 and about $2 million a year thereafter, according to a report prepared for the regents prior to the March votes. 

Of the total funds, $70 million would come from state lease revenue bonds (including the $40 million pledged by Schwarzenegger for the EBI), $15 million from gifts, and $74.4 million would be borrowed at interest from the university’s education funds. 

None of the gift money had been raised at the time the regents approved the project in March. 

The lines between Helios and EBI are murky, given that the only “Helios in the News” stories listed on the Helios Project website are newspaper accounts of the BP grant to fund EBI (see 

The two programs share many of the same staff members, as would the Department of Energy lab to be announced this morning. 

News of the building’s approval came as a surprise to several critics of the BP proposal, and though the vote of the Grounds and Building committee to approve the building came just one day after the first academic senate forum on the EBI proposal, neither LBNL Director Steve Chu nor UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau mentioned it during their presentations. 

Neither lab nor university officials mentioned the building’s approval in two subsequent forums, including a second academic senate gathering where faculty voted on competing resolutions calling for oversight of negotiations of the contract between the university and the oil company. 



BP is a controversial firm, with a history of funding and backing covert military and intelligence operations, including a coup that overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1953 and the alleged sponsorship of murderous paramilitaries in Colombia as recently as last year. 

Campus critics of the BP project have said they are concerned about their university’s involvement in a project which focuses on the development of genetically modified plants and microbes as a means of keeping American cars and SUVs rolling. 

A major concern of researchers like Miguel Altieri and Ignacio Chapela of the UCB College of Natural Resources is the potential of biofuel crops forcing out food crops in Third World nations, as well as the loss of small farms to incorporate biofuel plantations. 

Berkeley’s Academic Senate rejected a call for a strict oversight regime on April 19, opting instead for an advisory-only role for a committee composed primarily of project supporters. 

No mention was made during that meeting that construction of the lab building had already been approved. 

In addition to joining the academic efforts of one of the world’s leading universities to a leading oil giant with a checkered history, the university has also pledged to join its own public relations staff with the oil company’s in what the grant proposal described as an effort “to ensure that the EBI maintains national and international visibility as the world’s premier energy research institute.” 

The proposal approved by the regents in March is available online at 

A detailed description of the building and its uses may be found at the lab’s wesite: 


Second lab 

Meanwhile, university and lab officials will know today if a coalition of three university-affiliated labs will receive a $125 million DOE grant for a second biofuel project. 

The $125 million Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) would be one of three federally funded centers, each receiving up to $25 million a year over the course of five years. 

Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories made a joint application. 

All three labs are operated under the aegis of UC Berkeley and the regents in partnership with the Department of Energy. 

If the Berkeley affiliates win, one possible site for the new lab would be the Marchant Building at 6701 San Pablo Ave. Recently sold by the university to private developers, the property drew the attention of the lab and the Economic Development Alliance for Business, a partnership of local governments and business organizations which has helped in preparing the application. 

DOE officials announced Monday that the winners would be announced during a press conference at 8:15 a.m. today (Tuesday) Berkeley time at the National Press Club in Washington.  

Both the EBI and the JBEI would be headed by Jay Keasling, a chemical engineering professor with dual appointments at the university and as director of LBNL’s Physical Biosciences Division. Working closely with Keasling is the lab’s Chris Somerville, who also holds appointments at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford. 

Both are GMO entrepreneurs with their own companies.