BP’s Biofuel Lab Heads to Downtown Berkeley

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 31, 2009 - 02:45:00 PM

UC Berkeley is moving the site of its BP-funded agrofuel research from the hills above Strawberry Canyon to the heart of downtown Berkeley. 

The Helios Energy Research Facility West will rise in the northeastern quadrant of the site now occupied by the eight-story building formerly occupied by the state Department of Health Services. 

That building occupies much of the two-block area between Berkeley Way on the south, Hearst Avenue on the north, Oxford Street on the east and Shattuck Avenue on the west. 

In a letter to members of the Berkeley City Council, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau wrote that the Helios West building would enclose “about 64,000 square feet of useable interior space.”  

A call for a general contractor to build the new structure posted on the university’s website late last week describes the overall structure at 113,000 square feet. 

Birgenau said the building size is “consistent with the amount of development anticipated in the UC Berkeley Long Range Development Plan 2020.” 

A lawsuit challenging that plan led to a settlement which mandated creation of a new Downtown Area Plan, which was approved by the City Council in June to accommodate more than 800,000 square feet of development the university plans in the city center. 

“It’s consistent with what we would like to see on the site,” said city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks. “They’re still doing massing studies and architectural work, but what I’ve seen is within the parameters of the Downtown Area Plan.” 

UC Berkeley Executive Director of Public Affairs Dan Mogulof agreed, adding that the remaining site could still accommodate the public health campus that university planning staff told the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) had been the university’s intended use of the two-block site. 

But one DAPAC member who also serves on the city’s planning commission has doubts. 

“That could blow the whole downtown plan out of the water,” said Gene Poschman. That plan was adopted less than three weeks ago by the Berkeley City Council after significant changes—by both the council and the Planning Commission—had been made to the original plan submitted by DAPAC. 

Jesse Arreguín, the city councilmember whose district includes the proposed site, said he had been surprised by the move and would be closely monitoring the project as it develops. 

Stephan Volker, the environmental law attorney who had challenged the university’s environmental review of the lab’s earlier site on the hillside above Strawberry Canyon, called the move “a classic example of the university’s arrogance.” 

“What’s wrong here,” Volker said, “is that the university never comes clean and ask the public to help in their decisions. Instead, they hold themselves arrogantly aloof from the public and follow their own internal objectives and jam them down their throats.” 

Documents about the move are posted at the university’s Facilities Services web page announcing calls for bids of prequalifications at www.cp.berkeley.edu/AdsForBids.html. They are last two items on the web page, listed under the heading “Request for prequalifications.” 

Michael Lozeau, who has also repeatedly challenged university plans in court, laughed when told of the move. 

“How are they going to collaborate, man?” he asked, chuckling. His comment targeted the statements of lab scientists earlier in the approval process for the LBNL site, when they said Helios had to be on the hill so scientists on the project could readily consult with other lab scientists working on similar projects. 

Lozeau said the simple fact that the lab had been relocated was proof in itself that the lab could move further away, perhaps to the university’s Richmond Field Station. 

Mogulof said the new site was chosen over Richmond because scientists could still readily meet with each other on the campus, just across Oxford from the new site. 

Forcing researchers and grad students to drive or bus to Richmond would be a hindrance to collaboration, he said. 

Volker said two of his clients in his suit against the original site were pleased that the lab had moved off the hill. 

“We are pleased that Helios as moved out of Strawberry Canyon, and I’m certainly gratified that our litigation prompted its removal from a very sensitive environmental resource that should be preserved for all time.” 

But Volker said he was “concerned that if British Petroleum continues to be involved, it augers for the continued privatization of a a public university.” He said he was also concerned that there wouldn’t be adequate public oversight of proprietary corporate research that will be conducted behind security locks inside BP’s proprietary portion of the facility. 

Mogulof said the university would ensure that adequate safeguards were in place to protect both those working inside the lab and the Berkeley community and university on the outside. 

Research on turning plants into fuels has been deemed a national security issue, but critics, including some internationally known members of the UCB faculty, have worried that turning to plants for fuels could wreak ecological havoc and lead to corporate colonization of the grasslands and rain forests of the Third World—the subject of a recent major article in the German magazine Der Spiegel. 

Students and other activists, including several faculty members, protested before the university and the UC Board of Regents approved the project. Several students were arrested during the protest. 

Mogulof said there are still several steps remaining before the project can move forward. 

First, the regents must approve the change of plans, the new site and the funding. Currently $70 million in state bond revenues are allocated for the lab, The remainder will come from private contributions and external funding sources, he said, and BP is not putting up any construction money. 

The first step before construction can begin is demolition of the existing building. If all goes as planned, construction on the new lab could begin in summer, 2010, with completion by the fall of 2012. 

Mogulof denied that the move was a response to Volker’s suit, and said the decision was made because of the CEQA process. 

    “The change was based on what the environmental review revealed about the site. That’s just the way CEQA is supposed to work,” he said.