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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Last month, when BP (formerly British Petroleum) announced a $500 million partnership with UC Berkeley for biofuels research, the company was hailed as a leader in pushing the oil industry toward cleaner energy. University officials were jubilant over the deal, which would establish Cal – and the Bay Area, where venture capitalists are funding energy startups at a level unseen since the early Web days – as a world center of alternative-energy research and development.

But a few weeks on, not everyone is happy with the shotgun marriage between the nation's most prestigious public university and the world's third-largest oil company. Berkeley faculty and students are asking loudly and impolitely if the Energy Biosciences Institute will be a vehicle for independent research that produces technological and policy change, or for BP to to greenwash its well-earned image as a notorious global polluter.

On a campus known for '60s-style dissent, Berkeley students have staged teach-ins and demonstrations, including a direct action in which protesters in BP lab coats poured gallons of black, sticky "oil" – later found to be organic molasses – at the entrance to California Hall.


At a special Academic Senate meeting, big-name faculty members, including former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, questioned whether the university could retain its integrity without letting BP's money influence the work. None was so critical as Ignacio Chapela, a professor in the College of Natural Resources.

“We are losing the trust of the people,” he said, "and the people are losing their trust in science. . . . The university has been penetrated and transformed from the inside.”

Chapela speaks from experience: Following his outspoken criticism of an earlier UC deal with chemical giant Novartis, Chapela was denied tenure and lost his job. (He has since been rehired and earned tenure.)

The same questions are being asked across the Bay at Stanford University, which has its own $100 million deal with ExxonMobil for research into global warming. Although faculty or student opposition hasn't been as strong as at Berkeley, last week one of the university's major donors canceled a $2.5 million gift to the school in protest.

The donor, millionaire film producer (The Polar Express) Steve Bing, last year put $50 million into a state initiative to tax oil company profits, which was defeated in part due to an advertising campaign funded by ExxonMobil. Bing's spokesman told the Guardian of London that the final straw was a cute-kids TV spot boasting that ExxonMobil has teamed with Stanford to find ways to deliver more energy while reducing greenhouse gases.

I'm not quite sure where I come down on this. Once I would have automatically and vociferously denounced anything that smelled of greenwashing. But it certainly is right that the companies that created the global warming crisis help bankroll the search for solutions. The remaining questions are whether the corporation has a meaningful commitment to change – ExxonMobil made $39 billion last year; BP about $22 billion, and against that a few hundred million seems paltry – and whether the universities can build in rigorous safeguards against corporate influence.

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