Friday, June 11, 2010

UCB Sold Out to BP – a Money Gusher in Downtown Berkeley

Anyone visiting downtown Berkeley lately will notice the advancing demolition of the nine story slab that used to be the California Department of Health Services Building. Big machines munch into its gray concrete like steel-jawed dinosaurs ripping up clouds of dust tamped down by fountains of water. It’s quite spectacular, actually. The site’s next incarnation will be as the UC Berkeley Helios Energy Research Facility whose mission is to guess what? Generate profits for BP while researching how to turn plants into road fuels for gas tanks. Is this a worthy project to prevent future oil spills like BP’s big one in the Gulf of Mexico an assault on the world’s farmlands, forests and grasslands and a campaign to make cars and the car-based city look good forever?

Seven years ago I was flying over Malaysia on my way to speak at a conference. I remember a strange sensation building looking down from 35,000 feet at the oddest forest I’d ever seen. It looked like Astroturf from horizon to horizon and it was going on and on as the plane sped forward at 570 miles per hour. Suddenly I realized those weird tiny green star shaped things carpeting the world below must be palms trees. With a shock I realized they had to be oil palms, millions and millions of them. I learned shortly after that approximately 40% of the whole country (now more than 50%) was stripped of its rich forests for oil palm plantations. The Malaysian government is promoting biofuels refineries, subsidizing the fuels and forcing “gas stations” to switch to biofuels. On the island of Borneo, Indonesia is clearing forests for oil palms too, joining the ranks of biofuels providers. And of course China, India, Turkey and many other countries are building automobile dependent cities like crazy, following our historic lead here in the USA where when looking for blame for the Gulf Oil Spill only one out of one hundred see the connections going back to car drivers navigating the cities built for the automobile.

Back in Berkeley, if you read the sign on the fence at the Health Services Building site, you will see BP and the University trying to appear as green as possible. You will learn on the sign they are going to make the building LEED silver certified with energy conserving design, though green points there will be nullified every day by just a few of its employees driving to work. Green mini plaza? Nice! But the object of the entire enterprise? We learn on the sign on the fence that those working there will be “…using biotechnology in the quest to reverse global climate change.” Over the last three years and five months since announcing their $400 million grant to the University, BP and representatives of UC’s Energy Biosciences Institute to be housed in the Helios Energy Research Facility have taken pains to describe their efforts as benign and healthy. They say they are not interested in turning corn crop lands into fuel producing lands, despite the fact that their research partner getting the other $100 million of the half billion dollar BP grant said in its press release announcement of the deal, “Initiative will put Illinois at forefront of farm bioenergy production.”

Their stated purpose: working on “second generation” biofuels that will not compete with farm land, despite the fact that biofuels production is growing rapidly on farm land right now. In 2009 over 30% of the land in the United States that used to grow corn now produces biofuels, not food. They speak of learning from termites about the chemical reactions that go on inside their guts and reproducing it in labs, reducing cellulose into liquid fuels. Then go on to commercial production with profitable patents for BP, researched largely by UCB professors and grad students. So they don’t appear unsustainable, they say they will get the raw material from wasteland. Wasteland? That’s land that’s too cold or hot, dry or flooded, land that needs massive energy and chemical inputs, irrigation or drainage, for plants grow. There is a reason it’s called wasteland. In fact it is the last of the planet’s biodiversity in forests and brush and grasslands.

Remember this: as Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute points out, one tank of biofuels requires the same amount of land that would feed a person for a year. Even if we were to transform all of American’s food growing land to producing biofuels it would not be enough to run the cars America has today, much less put a dent in the growing car dependent, fuel craving growth in other countries. Notice that convincing people they can drive with green fuels promotes further driving and expansion of a disastrous land pattern dependent in turn upon the car. It’s time to break that vicious cycle. That’s what climate change and deep-sea drilling disasters are warning us about.

What is BP really up to? Their literature speaks about the coming end of oil – and they should know. So the goal looks like it has to be cornering the market for alternative fuels after using up all they can get of the oil we are still dependent on. And they are not talking about fewer cars at all. They are promoting them.

The real solution is to build cities for people, not cars.

- Numerous web sites by UC, and the Energy Biosciences Institute
- My own experience in March and May of 2009 when my organization and a group of UCB activist students organized two teach-ins featuring UC professors Ignacio Chapela, Cori Hayden, That Patzek, Claudia Carr and others
- Lester Brown, “Plan B 4.0,” Norton, 2009, New York
- Posted information on the fence at the demolition/construction site