lunes, diciembre 22, 2008

Is Steven Chu BFF With BP?

News: How Obama's DOE head got $500 million BP bucks to bankroll Berkeley research—and what it means for our energy future.

December 18, 2008

Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Energy, seems about as climate friendly as they come. As a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and director of the DOE-funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he has dedicated his career to weaning the globe from petroleum. But Chu, who declined to comment for this story, is also more industry friendly than his rhetoric suggests. Last year he sealed a deal between the Berkeley Lab, two public universities, and oil company BP, creating the largest university-industry alliance in US history, the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, to conduct biofuels research. The proposal sparked fierce opposition from faculty and students at the University of California-Berkeley, which will host the institute. Biology professor Ignacio Chapela called the partnership the "coup de grace to the very idea of a university that can represent the best interest of the public."

Chu's role in creating the Energy Biosciences Institute may inform his approach to governing the Department of Energy, a major governmental underwriter of research, and one that will face pressure to partner with corporations in pursuing technological solutions to climate change. As the incoming Obama administration prepares to spend liberally to develop cleaner sources of energy, the structure of corporate-government partnerships will determine how the profits of that research return to taxpayers, and how rigorously scientists evaluate the downsides of controversial technologies such as biofuels.

In 2004, when Chu left a teaching job at Stanford to direct the Berkeley Lab, research partnerships between oil companies and California universities were in vogue. In 2002, Stanford had formed the Global Climate and Energy Project with $225 million in funding from General Electric, Toyota, ExxonMobil, and oil-services company Schlumberger. In 2006, UC-Davis established a biofuels research project with $25 million from Chevron. Capitalizing on the momentum, Chu pitched the BP deal as a natural evolution of the new research paradigm. "The motivation is that you have to start working with companies at the get-go," he told a March 2007 meeting of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate. "I think the University of California-Berkeley and the Berkeley Lab are the perfect place for this, so you can…get largely CO2-neutral fuels in a responsible way, in a way that is sustainable."


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