COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

More questions than answers in BP-Berkeley deal

What does a giant international corporation known for polluting and environmental depredation do when it wants to clean up its reputation and enlist top environmentalists as dedicated allies?

Sometimes it opens up its purse. That's what appears to be happening now, as the University of California's elite Berkeley campus gets set to build an "Energy Biosciences Institute" funded entirely by BP, the oil behemoth first known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., then as British Petroleum. BP also is the parent company and owner of Arco, whose stations abound in California.

BP's $400 million (another $100 million goes to the University of Illinois) deal with Berkeley and its neighboring Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was instantly hailed as "fantastic" by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who never met a predatory businessman he didn't view as a future campaign donor.

"I'm proud that the private sector has once again recognized the world-class stature of the University of California and our state's unshakeable commitment to transforming to a clean energy future in an economy-boosting manner ..." Schwarzenegger intoned while promising $40 million in state bond money to build the new institute.

As Schwarzenegger suggested, there is precedent for what BP is doing. Back in 1998, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical firm Novartis provided $25 million to Berkeley for research on genetically-altered crops, including strawberries and other fruits and vegetables commonly grown in California.

The fact that subsequent experiments were conducted by university professors and graduate students rather than Novartis staff scientists led to a gradual lessening of protests against placing genetically altered fields beside fields with normal plants and contributed to today's wide acceptance of new food breeds.

BP critics at Berkeley see the oil company similarly trying to make use of the campus' reputation for academic excellence. It is consistently ranked among the top five public universities for undergraduates and usually ranks first in overall excellence in graduate studies.

From what might BP want to shield itself? For one thing, its profits from West Coast refining operations are about twice the global average, meaning it takes disproportionate profits from California motorists -- even though Arco prices are usually a bit lower than others because of the chain's dealing mainly in cash, not credit cards.

Even after a year that included a 200,000 gallon crude oil spill in Alaska, a pipeline shutdown and a federal investigation into possible propane market manipulation, BP managed a profit of $14.59 per barrel of oil on the West Coast, compared with a worldwide average of $6.30.

BP also came under fire last year from black activists who pointed out that of the company's 800 U.S. gasoline distributors, none are African-American. They noted that none of BP's 1,200 senior managers is black.

A close association with a major university, with BP getting credit every time a Berkeley scientist rolls out a report on a new biofuel or some partial replacement for gasoline, can only help the company. Considering it made profits of more than $20 billion last year, its 10-year deal with Berkeley (averaging $40 million yearly to the university) is a tiny price to pay for image cleansing.

Berkeley faculty accepted the deal only after getting assurances that BP will not be able to disburse money to individual scientists, as Novartis was allowed to do. The university also says it will try to make sure it gets full rights to any inventions by its researchers working with BP subsidies. There may be some problem with that, since UC President Robert Dynes said in helping announce the deal that BP will retain exclusive control over "certain discoveries." These have not been publicly spelled out.

That's one reason why, just as with the Novartis deal, there are suspicions that he who pays the piper will call the tune.

Before the deal was announced, faculty leaders sought to make sure that salary subsidies from the BP money would bolster underfunded academic areas like the humanities. And they were adamant that BP should have no influence over faculty promotions and assignments.

But it's hard to see how scientists working in supermodern labs funded by BP and using technicians paid with BP cash won't be able to achieve more than colleagues without such subsidies. And professors who make the most prestigious discoveries usually move up in rank fastest. So it's likely the BP money will influence faculty promotions, prestige and research, at least indirectly.

No one knows yet the exact shape of the final deal between the university and the oil giant. "We are just beginning to draft the agreement," Beth Burnside, the university's vice chancellor for research, told a reporter last month.

If the agreement doesn't completely protect faculty freedom to choose their own research projects and if it doesn't make sure the university controls all rights from discoveries by its employees -- not just some -- Berkeley might as well hang a "property of BP" sign over Sather Gate.


Elias is author of the book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." Send comments to thomas.elias@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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