Agrofuel Lab Appears Twice on Regents’ Slate

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 12:12:00 PM

The UC Board of Regents will hold two meetings Wednesday, Sept. 16, on the controversial plans to build a new UC Berkeley lab to house research on turning plants into fuel for planes, trains and automobiles. 

The first session of the board’s Committee on Grounds and Buildings meets behind closed doors as members decide what to do about a pending court case that challenges their approval of a key environmental document needed to build the lab on a sensitive site above Strawberry Canyon at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

The second session, an open meeting, is slated to begin 25 minutes after the start of the first and would amend financing plans for the same lab, this time at a new site in downtown Berkeley. 

The Helios Energy Research Facility, now planned for the northeast corner of the site currently occupied by the vacant California Department of Health Services building north of Berkeley Way between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue, will house public and private labs conducting research funded by a $500 million grant from British oil giant BP, plc. 

The major focus of the facility will be research on synthetic fuels—called biofuels by proponents and agrofuels by critics—created from plants by genetically modified microbes. 

A second, smaller building is still planned for an existing site on the LBNL campus and will house research not related to plant-derived fuels. 

A coalition of Berkeley activists organized as Save Strawberry Canyon had filed suits challenging two proposed LBNL lab buildings. 

A decision handed down by a San Francisco federal judge last month halted plans for the $113 million Computational Research and Theory (CRT) building, planned for the Berkeley hills adjacent to Blackberry Gate.  

In that case, District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that the university, LBNL and the Department of Energy had violated federal law when they failed to conduct an environmental review under the provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). 

The second action challenges the fuel lab, and it is that lawsuit that regents will discuss in their closed-door session. 

The second session will consider funding amendments for the new downtown location. 

The regents will be meeting Wednesday and Thursday at the UCSF Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, 1675 Owens St., with the two Helios sessions set for 2:50 p.m. and 3:15 Thursday.