BP Seeks Global Harvest of Berkeley-Born Biofuels

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 20, 2007

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on implications of the just-concluded $500 million agreement between UC Berkeley and BP. Part two will be published Friday.) 


In the hands of British oil giant BP, the $500 million biofuel research deal at UC Berkeley’s Energy Bioscience Institute could change the face of the world. 

That’s the one thing critics and admirers agree on. The program has been hailed by supporters as either “our moon shot” or—in reference to a more controversial chapter of UC Berkeley’s history—“our Manhattan Project.” 

While the Manhattan Project reshaped the realm of world politics and the Apollo program shaped generations of new technologies, EBI’s record-breaking corporate academic partnership that was finalized last week—should it fulfill the promises of its boosters—will transform landscapes across the globe. 

Powerful evidence that agrofuels—crops farmed for fuel—are changing the face of the earth comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory website. 

Consider the satellite photo of the Bolivian Chaco, the second largest South American old-growth forest. Vast star-shaped patterns repeat in quilt-like patterns, consuming the Chaco with cleared fields planted with genetically modified soybeans—a food crop grown not to feed humans but to fuel their cars and trucks with ethanol. 


BP’s image 

BP has sought to recast its image from British Petroleum to BP plc, and is selling itself as “Beyond Petroleum.”  

But by whatever name, BP is the same multinational which has plotted coups in the Mideast and bankrolled paramilitary terrorists in Latin America. In its earlier incarnation as Anglo-Iranian Oil, BP triggered the CIA-planned coup that overthrew Iran’s first elected government. 

It is the same company fined $373 million last month in criminal and civil penalties by the U.S. Department of Justice for: 

• polluting the Alaskan wilderness by failing to maintain the Alaskan Pipeline; 

• killing by criminal negligence 15 workers and injuring another 170 when a Texas City, Tex., refinery exploded on March 23, 2005; and 

• conspiring to corner the propane market for much of the eastern U.S. in the middle of winter in 2004. 

BP’s offshore ownership and worldwide focus required a special waiver from the Department of Energy (DOE) to allow it to partner with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which had recently executed an agreement with UC Berkeley requiring research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to be aimed at domestic industries. 

The waiver was based in part on the program’s promise of energy independence for a nation embroiled in conflict, actual and threatened, with the world’s major petroleum-producing lands. 


Third World crops 

While UC Berkeley and LBNL—along with their project’s third partner, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign—have hailed EBI as a project designed to make the U.S. energy independent, BP is frank to say its own interests are global. 

BP envisions that crops developed by Berkeley and Illinois scientists will be grown across the globe but concentrated in the tropics. 

Which is precisely what critics have claimed from the start. 

Tad Patzek, a Berkeley engineering professor and former scientist for Shell, reports that there are slave camps on Brazilian plantations where sugar cane is grown for ethanol. And UC Davis doctoral student Kregg Hetherington says he witnessed firsthand the killings of two campesinos challenging the spread of agrofuel soy plantations in Tekojoja, Paraguay, describing the events in the July 24, 2005, ACTivist Magazine. 

Monsanto Corporation, which owns many of the patented strains of genetically modified soybeans grown in the global South, also provided millions of dollars in research funding for Mendel Biotechnology, the private startup founded by EBI Director Chris Somerville. 


BP’s scientist 

As controversy spread about the impact of agrofuel plantations in South America and Africa, BP’s own chief scientist admitted that oil companies have blemished records when it comes to protecting the environment and the rights of indigenous people. 

His remarks came during a June 13 breakfast gathering sponsored by the U.S. Energy Association, a video of which has been available on the internet. 

“BP is a global company,” said Steve Koonin, a nuclear physicist on leave from his post as provost of the California Institute of Technology. “And of course, while the U.S. may be currently 25 percent of worldwide petrol use or crude use, there’s a whole other world out there. And so we are interested in feedstocks and fuels for many different locales around the globe.” 

As for where those crops will be grown, Berkeley scientists and university and LBNL officials have stressed that their goal is an energy-independent U.S., with fuels created from fibrous crops grown on currently marginal soils. 

Asked if the company was looking at Africa, Koonin was frank, telling the energy association meeting: “If you look at a picture of the globe ... it’s pretty easy to see where the green parts are, and those are the places where one would perhaps optimally grow feedstocks. 

“Beyond the physical and economical considerations, there are social considerations when you march into the undeveloped or developing parts of the world with large-scale enterprises,” he said. “We are familiar with that to some extent in the oil business ... We don’t do it well all the time. We’re trying to do it better.” 


FRIDAY: Land worries and critical questions.