BP inks $500M research deal with UC-Berkeley

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BP and the University of California finalized a contract yesterday for the oil giant’s 10-year, $500 million dollar investment in a new biosciences center to conduct research into energy technologies.

The Energy Biosciences Institute, which also includes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will focus initially on biofuels, but it will also explore the conversion of heavy hydrocarbons to clean fuels, enhanced recovery from existing oil and gas fields, and carbon sequestration.

The alliance between BP and the institutions was first announced in February (Greenwire, Feb. 1). It is the largest industry-academic alliance ever, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.

The signing of the contract comes as industry, academia and government are banking on development of next-wave biofuels in an effort to move past traditional corn-based ethanol. Congress is mulling a plan to expand the national biofuels mandate to 36 billion gallons by 2022 — roughly six times the current production, with 21 billion of these gallons coming from “advanced” biofuels like cellulosic ethanol.

“Our mission is to harness the potential of bioenergy, to make discoveries and to help them become commercially viable so they can benefit the world,” said Christopher Somerville, who was announced yesterday as the director of the institute. “The institute will also examine the social, economic and
environmental implications of using cellulosic biofuels to meet a significant proportion of the earth’s energy needs.”

Somerville is joining the University of California’s faculty as a professor of plant and microbial biology. He had been a visiting scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The first slate of research projects is expected to be announced later this month. The institute already began soliciting research proposals over the summer and received strong interest from researchers at the two schools and the national lab, officials said. Controversy

The new center is not without controversy. The plan allows $15 million of the yearly $50 million BP investment to go toward “proprietary” company research with results owned solely by BP. The company will conduct this research at space rented from the two universities.

The proprietary and open research elements will be separate, but the center envisions “strategic interaction” between them; the proprietary labs will be located next to the other research areas of the institute.

A California-based watchdog group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, criticized the agreement.

BP researchers will be able to suck up the best of what Berkeley’s scientists have to offer, retreat behind locked, guarded doors and pursue their corporate agenda without giving anything back,” the foundation’s John Simpson said. “Academic research is based on an exchange of ideas and information. This is a one-way street benefiting only BP.”

The group took also aim at the governance structure of the institute. It will be overseen by an eight-member governance board, with four members appointed by UC-Berkeley and four by BP. The university’s initial plan for the institute had called for a board with a majority of university appointees.

But Robert Sanders, a spokesman for the school, defended the agreement.

BP felt that because they are giving us half a billion dollars, they needed to have a measure of control in the governance of the institute,” he said.

‘Perfect match’

An executive committee — which reports to the board — will select and steer the open research projects. The majority of this committee comes from the two universities and the national lab, although BP is also represented. “We wanted to make sure the academics had the main say in how the research was chosen,” he said. The governance board would have to approve the overall open research plan and budget, but has no authority over the proprietary aspect.

Sanders said the union between the schools and BP allows a way for beneficial research to be transformed into real-world use of cleaner energy technologies.

“It was a perfect match,” he said. “They were willing to fund it, and we had a lot of interest and expertise to throw at the problem. It is not either side taking advantage of the other. We have mutual goals here to find substitutes for the current polluting transportation fuels of today.”

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