BP Chief Scientist Named Undersecretary of Energy

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:49:00 PM

Berkeley’s Washington ties grew stronger with the March 20 announcement in Washington by President Barack Obama that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has picked Steve Koonin as undersecretary for science. 

As chief scientist for British oil giant BP, Koonin had overseen the company’s $500 million research grant headquartered at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics who served as lab director at the time Berkeley was successfully applying for and implementing the grant, now oversees the nation’s energy policies, in which plant-derived fuels are expected to play a major role. 

Koonin, an outspoken scientist who came to BP from the California Institute of Technology, oversaw the inauguration of the Berkeley-based, BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute. 

Chu played a critical role in winning the grant for a consortium consisting of LBNL, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

According to the DOE press release announcing the appointment, Koonin, who holds a doctorate from MIT, “has served on numerous advisory bodies for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy and its various national laboratories. Koonin’s research interests have included theoretical and computational physics, as well as global environmental science.” 

A sometimes controversial figure, Koonin had refuted statements by EBI head Chris Somerville that the program was aimed only at developing crops on marginal farmlands east of the Mississippi. 

The BP scientist accompanied EBI scientists to a gathering of the U.S. Energy Association two years ago, where he said, “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.”