Science in Society Archive

The BP-Berkeley Energy BioScience Institute

Drama at World's End

The biofuels boom is already having devastating effects on the world's poorest countries and on planet as a whole by accelerating deforestation and climate change

The US$500 million takeover of Berkeley by BP threatens to bring the world's end that much closer Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Manichean drama

It has all the elements of a Manichean drama. The world - at least as the human species has experienced in thousands of years of unbroken history - is about to end as global warming accelerates. Floods, hurricanes, droughts, disease, pestilence and famine fill the daily headlines. Prophets of doom, including politicians, are forecasting the end of civilisation in mass migrations of environmental refugees, social unrest, conflicts, and wars over fossil fuels, water and other scarce resources [1]. At the same time, ‘climate change sceptics' have stepped up their campaign claiming that human activities are not to blame, and there's nothing we can do in any case, so why not carry on business as usual.

The ‘climate change sceptics' refer to a very small band of critics that are generally not scientists engaging in serious scientific debates, but concentrate their efforts in targeting the media. They have received significant funding from coal and oil companies including ExxonMobil, and are connected to public relations firms that have set up industry-funded lobby groups to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”, as stated in a leaked memo. For an exposé read the article on the David Suzuki Foundation website [2].

Who can people trust to avert calamity on a universal scale that may happen within their lifetime? Will scientists in academia save the world by developing and applying new technologies before it is too late?

The academe – the traditional citadel of innovation and higher learning, the fount of wisdom and independent thought, the guardian of ethics, the purveyors of public good, the conscience of society, and the scourge of totalitarian oppressive regimes through the ages – is, alas, not what it was widely regarded to be. It has openly prostituted itself to wealth-creation, aligned itself with the forces of evil, and sold the people's hopes and dreams for a pittance to the very corporations that have brought the earth to the brink of imminent demise; and set to do even worse.

The sell-out

On February 1, 2007, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) administration announced an agreement between a consortium led by UC B and BP (or British Petroleum before rebranding) to fund an Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) for biofuels and ‘synthetic biology' research to the tune of $500 million over the next ten years [3].

BP invited UCB as one of five universities to compete for the Institute back in August 2006; the others were Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California at San Diego in the United States, and Cambridge University and Imperial College in the United Kingdom.

The announcement created a furore among UCB faculty and students. The agreement with BP was concluded at breakneck speed, and practically no one else knew of it, and even some of those written into the agreement confessed to hearing about it for the first time.

Most serious of all was the bad science behind the push for biofuels and bioenergy crops, which could seriously damage our chances of surviving global warming [4, 5] ( Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits , Biofuels Republic Brazil , SiS 33). Already, tropical forests are cut down at the rate of more than 14 m hectares a year, releasing an estimated 21.3 Gt of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, only a fraction of which would be sequestered back into the plantation. The additional pressure from bioenergy crops will mean yet more deforestation, and a greater acceleration of global warming and species extinction.

Similarly, ‘synthetic biology' is nothing but hyped up genetic modification that has failed to deliver its promises in 30 years [6] ( Puncturing the GM Myths , SiS 22) while evidence is accumulating that the genetically modified food and feed may be inherently unsafe [7] ( GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham , I-SIS scientific publication, also SiS 33).

The chair of UCB Academic Senate William Drummond explained [3] that the Academic Senate has been involved in the BP project. The Vice Chancellor of Research, Beth Burnside, a key player in negotiating the deal, has sought advice and input from the Senate committees; and she and others also met with the chairs of the committees on several occasions, and the issues raised by the EBI were discussed in the Divisional Council last fall. But there had been no open Academic Senate meeting on the EBI before the agreement was announced.

A hasty campus conference was put together on 8 March 2007, in which the protagonists would show what a good award they have landed for the University, and various apologists would remind the University of the safeguards to put in place.

As an afterthought, they agreed to give Ignacio Chapela from the ranks of those opposed to the EBI, eight minutes to speak. In the event, Chapela did not even have time to finish reading his prepared speech, which, fortunately, had been posted on the web before [8] ( Prof. Ignacio Chapela speech on the Berkeley-BP Deal , SiS 34).

Chapela, a professor of molecular genetics, is an outspoken critic of the biotech industry and of the University's ties to it. He objected to Berkeley's Bioscience faculty taking money from Novartis in 1998, and took a strong stand on the issue. In 2001, he and his graduate student published a paper in Nature on the contamination of indigenous maize landraces in Mexico by GM maize [9] ( Transgenic Pollution by Horizontal Gene Transfer? , SiS 13/14). He was denied tenure by the University in 2003, but eventually won his case when he threatened to take the University to court.

A Greek tragedy

The campus conference had the elements of a Greek tragedy unfolding. Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside was the first to speak. She has led the EBI protagonists, together with Chancellor Birgeneau and Steve Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Both Birgeneau and Chu were given time to speak from the floor in support of the EBI. (The LBNL was the foundational stone of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atom bomb during World War II by the United States, the UK and Canada.)

Jay Keasling , “Scientist of the Year” ( Discovery Magazine ), chemical engineer and director of the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology explained why the EBI was needed to research and produce biofuels, and it would involve ‘synthetic biology' to make the right organisms.

Among the apologists was David Vogel, Solomon P. Lee Distinguished Professor in Business Ethics, who unashamedly showered paeans of praise on BP for corporate responsibility and green credentials, admonishing his audience to accept that “corporate responsibility is a relative concept”, and BP was a lot better relative to other corporations.

Many critics spoke from the floor, among them, Miguel Altieri, a professor of sustainable agriculture, who reminded the Senate that the report on the 1998 Novartis buyout of the UCB Bioscience department had recommended that no deals should be struck with corporations without consulting the University as a whole.

Despite the numerous voices of dissent, one could not help feeling that the EBI was a done deal, and the best to hope for would be some form of safeguard against BP taking over the academic agenda completely. For example, the company could dictate what research will be done and which people to hire and fire. It could mean that all research not aimed at making profit will cease to exist. It could mean the erosion of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and research results.

All that seems distinctly likely, when one reads the fine print of the proposal , as a group of graduate students and faculty who call themselves “Stop BP-Berkeley” has done.

The deal

The EBI proposal was made public 1 March 2007, a month after it was announced. Burnside had to reveal at the campus conference that the EBI agreement was not as generous as it appeared. Some 30 percent of the $500 million was “proprietary” to BP, and hence out of the control of the universities involved, UCB and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, (UIUC), a member of the consortium. Only $25 million a year would come to UCB. In return for that, UCB agreed, not only to provide the site and buildings for the EBI, but also to create 7 full time equivalents, and take in 50 scientists from BP.

The EBI would be divided into two parts, one for “open” research, where faculty and students work, and the other for “proprietary” research, where BP employees develop profitable technology.

Most of all, BP will be able to use Berkeley's facilities and reputation to project a green image to the public that it hardly deserves. Stanford University has already lost credibility on account of a smaller deal (US$250 million) it struck with ExxonMobil.

The proposal presented EBI as [10] “an extraordinary marshalling of human and infrastructure resources” to “seek total-system solutions to the production of biofuels that are cost effective and carbon neutral.” The inspiration came at least partly from the “development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos”, among other examples of how large-scale problems were solved by “establishing the proper multidisciplinary scientific culture.”

But that is precisely what worries the critics: “technically brilliant scientists cut off from society's needs”, proposing to solve problems but “creating the threat of global annihilation” instead.

The primary goal of EBI would be to produce biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel from food crop residues, or new energy crops. Researchers are to investigate how to do this on an industrial scale by breeding and genetically modifying both crops and microorganisms. Crops would be genetically modified to change the structure of cell walls and new types of lignin to facilitate fermentation, and the microorganisms would be genetically modified to better break them down and ferment them. The new energy crops, such as perennial grasses and poplar trees, would be genetically modified for intensive cropping including making them herbicide tolerant.

There is no proposed research on the potential hazards involved. A few EBI-associated researchers would work on the social and environmental implications of biofuels; not restricted to the negative impacts, as among the major projects are identifying and overcoming “barriers that could prevent deployment” of newly developed biofuels, “modelling social adoption”, and “paying significant attention to the evolving regulatory framework and societal response to genetically modified organisms.”

The EBI would also include significant programmes related to fossil fuels, such as microbial-enhanced oil recovery” to help BP get more petroleum out of difficult underground deposits, while fossil fuel bioprocessing would help BP refine petrochemicals.

Most worrying for the critics, the structure for governance and oversight outlined in the proposal is described as “a starting point for discussion”, which means BP could push for even more control. Already, the proposal says that the EBI would be headed by a director selected by BP and approved by a joint panel of BP UCB, LBNL and UIUC, which means that BP would have more influence on allocation of funding and direction of research than any one of the public institutions.

Any publications coming out of the EBI are subject to a several-months “pre-publication review” period, during which BP “will be able to check that publications…do not include any inadvertently included confidential information belonging to BP and/or to request that UCB, LBNL and/or UIUC file a patent on certain subject matter prior to its public disclosure.”

More significantly, “BP will have an exclusive, time-limited, first right to exercise a pre-defined option to obtain an exclusive licence” to any inventions fully funded by BP.

As the critics say, BP will effectively be able to choose which technologies are developed for large-scale adoption. And there is no indication of when, if ever, new technologies would pass into the public domain.

Biofuels unsustainable and unpopular

The EBI is being set up as biofuels are increasingly recognized to be socially and environmentally unsustainable, as we have predicted [11-13] ( Biofuels for Oil Addicts , Biodiesel Boom in Europe? Ethanol from Cellulose Biomass Not Sustainable nor Environmentally Benign , SiS 30); even for the world's top biofuel crop, sugarcane in Brazil [5,14] ( The New Biofuel Republics , SiS 30).

But George Bush is committed to substituting 20 percent of US' petroleum use with ethanol by 2017, and hopes to create an “Opec for ethanol” to replicate the frenzied investment into biofuels across the Americas that gave rise to the petroleum boom [15]. Ten thousand protestors greeted Bush in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the start of his Latin American tour to promote biofuels in March 2007 [16]. One month before that, tens of thousands turned up in Mexico City to protest against the rising price of tortillas, of over 400 percent, blaming the demand for corn to make biofuels in the United States [17] that has created a corn-ethanol bandwagon.

Ethanol production has quadrupled in the US since 2000 to 21 billion litres, and expected to double again in the near future. The US ethanol industry is already expected to use up to 20 percent of the country's corn crop in 2007 [18].

However, the bandwagon has gone into a rut. Investors are deterred as corn price more than doubled in a year, building costs are rising and qualified engineers and technicians increasingly hard to find.

Some, like Tad Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCB and a critic of the EBI, is not surprised. He has been telling people to calculate their energy returns on a full lifecycle analysis, let alone including the environmental costs, before proceeding [11, 13]. The EBI programme can only bring disaster to the nation, if not to the world at large. It would take 2 to 3 times the cropland area of the entire US growing the most productive perennial grass, with the most efficient conversion ratio of 70 percent, to provide enough biofuel for the country's energy needs [11].

The “billion ton vision” unveiled by the US Department of Energy /Department of Agriculture (DoE/USDA) of making available 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass for the biofuel industry by the middle of this century to provide 30 percent of the US's fuel use was based on unrealistically optimistic assumptions [19] ( How to be Fuel and Food Rich under Climate Change , SiS 31), and there are infinitely more effective ways to address climate change and the food and energy crises the world is facing [19, 20] ( Dream Farm 2 - Story So Far , SiS 31)

Patzek estimates that at most 2 to 3 percent of US energy consumption today could be sustainably produced as biofuel [21], the DoE/USDA vision, now taken over by the EBI, is “to capture in real time most of the net growth of all biomass in the US, while at the same time mining soil, water, and air over 72 percent of our land area, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. This biomass would then be devoured to feed our inefficient cars. We would have little food production, as well as little wood for paper and construction. In effect, the new brave US economy would be dedicated to feeding cars, not people .”

Worse yet, the rush for biofuels in the US and Europe is already having devastating effects on the tropics. Massive deforestations and destruction of the Cerrado in Brazil [5], and recently, violent, bloody evictions by the military police of some 120 families that had worked for years on land abandoned by the sugar baron, Joao Santos, who owns hundreds of thousands of hectares [22].

Currently 83 percent of the world's palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the UN predicts that 98 percent of their rainforests will vanish within 15 years to make way for palm oil plantations. Deforestation in Indonesia is estimated to send 2 000 m tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, catapulting it to the world's third largest emitter from the 26 th [23].

How much longer can the planet hold out against this mad race to the world's end?

Article first published 10/05/07


  1. “Climate change threatens security, UK tells UN”, Andrew Clark, The Guardian , 18 April 2007.
  2. Solving Global Warming, Science: the Skeptics, Suzuki Foundation,
  3. Academic Senate, Berkeley Division,
  4. Ho MW. Biofuels: biodevastation, hunger & false carbon credits. Science in Society 33 , 36-39, 2007.
  5. Ho MW. Biofuels republics Brazil. Science in Society 33 , 40-41, 2007.
  6. Stephens A. Puncturing the GM myths. Science in Society 22 , 23-25, 2004.
  7. Ho MW, Cummins J and Saunders PT. GM food nightmare unfolding in the regulatory sham. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2007; also Ho MW. GM food nightmare unfolding and the regulatory sham. Science in Society 33 , 32-35, 2007.
  8. Chapela I. Professor Ignacio Chapela's speech on the Berkeley-BP deal. Science in Society 34.
  9. Ho MW. Transgenic pollution by horizontal gene transfers? Science in Society 13/14 ( i-sis news13/14 ), 2002.
  10. The Proposed Energy Bioscience Institute (EBI) summary, 23 March 2007, Stop,
  11. Ho MW. Biofuels for oil addicts, cure worse than the addiction? Science in Society 30 , 29-30, 2006.
  12. Ho MW. Biodiesel boom in Europe? Science in Society 30 , 31-32, 2006.
  13. Ho MW. Ethanol from cellulose biomass not sustainable nor environmentally benign. Science in Society 30 , 32-35, 2006.
  14. Bravo E and Ho MW. The new biofuels republics. Science in Society 30 , 36-37, 2006.
  15. “The big green fuel lie”, Daniel Howden, The Independent , 5 March 2007,
  16. “Angry crowds hunt Bush as protests mark start of Latin American tour”, Tom Phillips, The Guardian 10 March 2007,,,2030717,00.html
  17. “Mexicans stage tortilla protest” BBC News, 1 February 2007,
  18. “Biofuels bandwagon hits a rut”, Lucy Odling-Smee, Nature (Business) 2007, 446.
  19. Ho MW. How to be fuel and food rich under climate change. Science in Society 31 , 37-39, 2006.
  20. Ho MW. Dream farm 2 – story so far. Science in Society 31 , 40-43 2006.
  21. Patzek T. First Comment on the UCB-UIUC Proposal to BP, 3 March 2007 (Courtesy of author)
  22. Brazil's sugarcane: eviction of the poor to make space for the rich.
  23. “Palm oil: the biofuel of the future driving an ecological disaster now”, Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, 4 April 2007,,,2049671,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=12

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