Despite having generated quite a bit of heat among reluctant students and faculty, a BP-funded alternative energy initiative at Berkeley has officially begun to function, the U.K.-based oil company and its research partners said today.
The Energy Biosciences Institute, as the partnership is known, has a $500 million commitment from BP to seek a long-term solution to the fossil fuel crunch. The money represents one of the largest investments ever made by Big Oil in alternative energy, and one of the largest collaboration deals ever signed between the private sector and academia. BP, one of the first major oil firms to recognize the threat of global warming, had its green credentials tarnished in recent years as its Alaska operations suffered damaging leaks and a Texas City refinery exploded, killing many workers.
BP’s woes added fire to stiff opposition from many around campus who argued that signing the deal would render Berkeley’s research hostage to BP’s interests. Some prominent members of the faculty – such as environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela – also opposed the partnership on the grounds that biofuels could have serious social and environmental consequences for the tropical nations that are likely to grow the majority of energy crops.
But the institute got the green light from university authorities, and its research is now underway at the Berkeley campus. Other partners, besides the University of California and BP, include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.