BP funds search for green fuels at Berkeley - East Valley Tribune: Living Green

BP funds search for green fuels at Berkeley

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Posted: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 10:51 am

A picture of an oiled bird is taped to the wall above Charlie Anderson's desk inside a University of California, Berkeley lab. The cormorant, drenched in reddish-brown oil, lies limp on a Louisiana shore, water rippling around its splayed wings.

On a hook next to the picture hangs Anderson's white lab coat, embroidered with the words "Energy Biosciences Institute."

The connection between the crisp lab coat in Berkeley and the oiled bird more than 2,000 miles away is BP, the petroleum company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history. BP sponsors the Energy Biosciences Institute at the school, a buzzing lab of 300 researchers trying to make fuel out of plants.

It may seem incongruous that an oil company responsible for such environmental devastation is funding this effort to find green fuels and reduce oil use. But the scientists here say that what they're doing is more important than where they get the money.

"Everybody here at EBI is interested in coming up with solutions that will eliminate the need to search for oil in ways that are dangerous," Anderson said.

"What the oil spill has done is add urgency to that mission."

For some, however, the spill also has raised new questions about a research partnership that has been controversial from the start, marrying the profit-driven interests of a global oil company with the brains and cachet of one of the world's top universities.

The $500 million BP pledged in 2007 to form the Energy Biosciences Institute was the largest corporate sponsorship ever of university research. The gift -- doled out over 10 years to UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- created an institute to research plant-based fuels such as ethanol.

Critics accused BP of "greenwashing," trying to buy a more environmentally friendly image. Others questioned whether the university could maintain its academic integrity while taking such a large corporate gift. They feared the deal would blur the lines between the company's mission to make money and the university's to create knowledge.

Now, with BP oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental disaster is causing some to wonder whether Berkeley should continue the relationship. The contract allows the university to pull out if "a discrete event were to occur" that violates UC Berkeley's principles.

And those principles say the university "should avoid any collaboration that would render it an active participant in criminal conduct, human-rights violations or environmental despoliation."

No criminal charges have been filed in connection to the April 20 oil-rig explosion, but federal authorities say they are investigating whether crimes occurred.

Paul Willems, a BP employee who serves as deputy director of the center, said the company has "not had any indications" that UC Berkeley is re-evaluating the relationship.

"Our motivation for being involved in this research is to get to more sustainable energy solutions," he said. "In the two and a half years we've been here, the people on campus who have worked with us have seen the truth of that intent."

Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor for research, said he doesn't expect to cut ties with BP.

"We don't want to sacrifice our research when it has such promise," Fleming said.

UC Berkeley had set renewable-energy research as a priority years before it struck its deal with BP, Fleming said.

"We had no clue where the money would come from," he said. "And we were very surprised to get the letter from BP one day asking us if we wanted to compete for the EBI. This wasn't something where we went chasing the money. We had this idea all along."

Many of the institute's scientists said they don't see much difference between getting money from a company and getting it from the government, the other major source of funding for scientific research. Both have agendas that drive research, said Chris Somerville, a plant biologist and the institute's director.

"People ask how I feel about the fact that BP has had this big accident, and my response is we certainly don't endorse everything BP does. But we don't endorse everything the federal government does, and we take money from them as well," Somerville said.

Melinda Clark, a 29-year-old postdoctoral student who works at the institute, said she feels BP's influence in small ways. As a graduate student elsewhere, Clark said she was used to sharing her discoveries openly with other scientists. Now, when Clark prepares to present her research at conferences, she first must run it past BP. The company gets dibs to license anything institute researchers invent.

"There have been a few things that they've asked me to be a little bit more vague about," she said. "But they are fairly hands-off. You get to pursue your own ideas."

Partnerships between companies and colleges go back to the 1800s, said Jennifer Washburn, author of "University, Inc.," a book about corporate influences on universities.

But the nature of the deals changed significantly in the 1980s, she said, when Congress passed a law giving universities the right to patent and license their discoveries for commercial use.

"It put a new kind of profit motive into the heart of the university that did not exist in those earlier academic-industry relations," Washburn said.

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