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Oil Company's University Liaison Raises Questions

BP Beds Down with Berkeley

by JUDITH SCHERR

Seven years ago, the Atlantic Monthly published "The Kept University," a story about a $25 million five-year liaison between the giant Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and California’s premier public university, UC Berkeley.

Today, critics say the university has not sold itself so cheap, having announced last week that it sealed a $500 million deal with BP (formerly know as British Petroleum), ignoring a 2004 Michigan State University report on the Novartis-university experiment that cautioned the university against entering into future agreements with industry involving large groups of researchers.

The 10-year partnership with the oil giant, whose 2006 net income was $22.5 billion, also includes Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (which the University of California runs for the Department of Energy) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.UC Berkeley/LBNL will get $400 million over four years for the new Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) and the University of Illinois will receive $100 million.

"In launching this visionary institute, BP is creating a new model for university-industry collaboration," said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside, professor of molecular and cell biology, quoted in a UC Berkeley press statement.

The project is "dedicated to long-term research into the production of alternative fuels, converting fossil fuels to energy with less environmental damage, maximizing oil extraction from existing wells in environmentally sensitive ways, and finding ways to store or sequester carbon so that it does not get into the atmosphere," the UC Berkeley statement says.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at UC Berkeley for Thursday’s ceremonial announcement, said the state would kick in another $40 million to construct a building for EBI, proposed for the Strawberry Canyon area of campus, near, but not within, the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs property. The funds would come from bonds that would have to first be approved by the legislature. (Other politicos present to cheer on the partnership included the mayors of Berkeley and Oakland, State Sen. Don Perata and Assemblymember Loni Hancock.)

The deal raises a host of questions for UC Anthropology Professor Laura Nader: "Do they have academic freedom?" Nader asked in an interview with the Daily Planet Friday.

Nader’s concern was that if some scientists were to begin their research at the institute in one direction, they might not be free to shift gears to follow their inquiry in another direction, if they came to believe that more appropriate.

"The university has more to give BP than BP has to give the university," Nader added, noting that the link to the university is "one way for BP to clean up its reputation. BP is in legal trouble from Texas to Alaska."

Nader was referring to a March 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery that killed 15 people and injured 170. BP accepted full responsibility for the blast.

And she was talking about BP’s March 2006 leakage of 200,000 gallons of crude oil in Alaska, one of the state’s largest oil spills.

BP’s reputation has been further tarnished:

o According to CNN reports, in June 2006, the U.S. futures market regulator said BP tried to manipulate U.S. propane prices by cornering the market in February 2004, which BP denied.

o In July 2006, the Independent of London ran a story about a group of Colombian farmers who had won a multimillion-dollar settlement from BP "accused of benefiting from a regime of terror carried out by Colombian government paramilitaries to protect a 450-mile pipeline." BP was not accused of having direct involvement in the paramilitary activities.

o Building up to a boycott of BP that Rainbow/Push would announce the following week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote an editorial in the June 20 2006 Chicago Sun Times, blasting the oil companies for the high price of gas and heating oil and signaling out BP:

"BP made $5.3 billion in profits in the first three months of the year. African Americans are major consumers in the U.S. market that BP controls. But they aren’t in on the rewards. BP has 800 gas distributors who now own more than 10,000 gas stations around the United States. None are African American," he wrote.

"Of 1,200 senior managers in the United States, BP has zero African Americans. Of 33 vice presidents, zero African Americans. BP does some $16 billion in procurement each year-less than one-third of 1 percent of which goes to African-American businesses."

British Petroleum, originally known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company when it was established about 100 years ago, merged with Amoco, formerly Standard Oil of Indiana, in 1998 and renamed itself BP in 2000 at which time it adopted the tagline "Beyond Petroleum." Arco is a subsidiary of BP.

Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, is another faculty member questioning the wisdom of the new partnership. Chapela was one of the chief critics of the Novartis deal.

"I feel bad about this," Chapela told the Daily Planet. "I feel like a broken record. Ten years ago, Novartis tried to do the same thing."

Just like the announcement a decade ago, this one came as a surprise, he said. "There was no discussion."

Among the questions that need to be raised, in addition to the independence of academic research, is whether the university will be used by BP to shield it in questions of legal responsibility, he said. "The university is under a lot less scrutiny" than companies standing on their own.

"How come nobody asked these questions?" he asked.

In addition to legal protections involving BP research and product development, the university also shields private corporations in other ways: the public-private institute, on university property and exempt from city zoning regulations, will come under less strict environmental review when it constructs its building. It will also be exempt from city property and business taxes.

William Drummond, professor of journalism and chair of the Academic Senate, said he is happy Nader and Chapela are raising questions about researchers’ academic freedom.

"I don’t want a repeat of Novartis," he said. "Their concerns are valid."

However, he supports the venture. "This area of research is important to our future," he said. "It’s good for the campus, for the students and for the planet."

Drummond asked, "What is the alternative? Wait for the glaciers to melt?"

Still, Drummond said he doesn’t have an idealistic view of BP. "What do you expect of capitalists? They do bad things," he said. "We need to protect ourselves so that they don’t steal the farm."

One safeguard will be the vetting of new hires for the project through the Academic Senate.

A professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Miguel Altieri shares many of Chapela’s concerns, further pointing out possible environmental devastation that could be caused by the need for corn production for corn-based ethanol, the major alternative fuel to be studied in the project. Because there’s not enough land in the United States for production, companies would go to foreign countries to grow the crop, using herbicides and pesticides and depleting the land, he said.

"It would cause huge environmental damage, including deforestation," Altieri said. "We need an open discussion of this new deal."

Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of CorpWatch in Oakland and author of Iraq, Inc., said by putting money into research for alternative fuels, BP is "greenwashing" its reputation.

While it is not a bad thing to try to develop alternative fuels, he added, BP won’t be funding the critical need. "What we really need is public transportation-more buses and trains," he said. "Producing ethanol is not going to make a big difference-it’s just a diversion."

This article originally appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet

JUDITH SCHERR can be reached at: jescherr99@earthlink.net