WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the national laboratory then headed by Steven Chu
received the bulk of a $500 million grant from the British oil giant BP to
develop alternative energy sources through a new Energy
Dr. Chu received the grant from BP’s chief scientist at the time, Steven
E. Koonin, a fellow theoretical physicist whom Dr. Chu jocularly
described as “my twin brother.” Dr. Koonin had selected the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at
the University of California, Berkeley, over other
universities in the United States and Britain in part because of Dr.
Chu’s pioneering work in alternative fuels.
Today, Dr. Chu is President
Obama’s energy secretary, and he spent Tuesday in Houston working
with BP officials to try to find a way to stop the unabated flow of oil
from a ruptured well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
Koonin, who followed Dr. Chu to the Energy Department and now serves
as under secretary of energy for science, is recused from all matters
relating to the disaster because of his past ties to BP, said Stephanie
Mueller, an Energy Department spokeswoman.
Dr. Chu, she said, “has never had a financial interest in BP.”
Ms. Mueller added, “No one in their right mind would suggest that Dr.
Chu is beholden to oil companies, especially since he’s spent the past
decade working to cut America’s dependence on oil and move us toward a
The relationships among Dr. Chu, Dr. Koonin and BP illustrate the
complexity of the ties between the company and the government now
playing out along the Gulf Coast as they struggle to cope with one of
the nation’s worst environmental disasters. Just as the Pentagon and
military contractors develop symbiotic business, technical and political
interdependencies, the government in this case needs BP’s offshore drilling technology and
well-control equipment; the company needs the government’s logistical
and scientific expertise, including that of Dr. Chu, a Nobel
Some critics say the Obama administration has relied too heavily on BP’s
assessment of the blowout and its solutions for addressing it. But
government officials say that BP is legally responsible for plugging the
well and cleaning up the oil. And they acknowledge that government
lacks the know-how to deal with the problem on its own.
While there is no evidence that Dr. Chu or Dr. Koonin have represented
BP’s viewpoints in internal deliberations or sought to influence
administration policy in a way that would benefit BP, the mere fact of
their shared history brought expressions of concern from
environmentalists and other critics of the White House’s response to the
“The fact that Steven Chu selected Steve Koonin, BP’s chief scientist,
to be his under secretary could predispose them to think that they could
maybe negotiate with BP, could be more like partners regarding the oil
cleanup,” said Jennifer Washburn, the author of a coming report by the Center for American Progress
called “Big Oil Goes to College,” which examines the BP-Berkeley
venture. “It makes it more likely for them to see BP as a legitimate
partner in handling the cleanup operation.
“Unfortunately,” Ms. Washburn added, “what people are questioning, with
good reason, is whether the government has been too soft on BP.”
Added John M. Simpson of Consumer
Watchdog: "From what I’ve seen, the Energy Department’s response
has been less than rapid to this oil
spill. This whole thing just underscores that corporate interests
have created, over time, these relationships that give them unfair
access to policy makers."
Ms. Mueller, the Energy Department spokeswoman, said that the accusation
that the agency reacted slowly to the spill was unfair, and that 150
people at national laboratories had been working on it.
Public anger is mounting at both BP, which says it will try again on
Wednesday to plug the spill using a method called top kill, and at Mr. Obama, who announced a
expansion of offshore oil drilling in March before first tending to
what Mr. Obama himself described two weeks ago as an often cozy
relationship between government regulators and oil companies.
On Monday, BP announced another $500 million grant, this one to study
the impact of the spill on the marine and coastal environment, with the
first award to go to Louisiana State University. An independent panel
will decide which institutions will receive the rest of the money, the
company said in a news
A White House official said Tuesday that the Energy Department “doesn’t
have jurisdiction over the oil spill.” Dr. Chu — who, according to an
Energy Department news release was in Houston on Tuesday “to continue
engagement on strategies to stop the oil spill” — is “just volunteering
because he’s one of the most brilliant scientists around,” the official
said. Dr. Chu canceled a trip to China in order to deal with the crisis,
the Energy Department said.
On May 12, Mr. Obama sent Dr. Chu to BP’s command center in Houston to
meet with top engineers and scientists. After meeting with BP, Dr. Chu
told reporters that he believed that “things are looking up,” and that
he felt “more comfortable than I was a week ago” with progress toward
containment. Along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar,
whose department has jurisdiction over the spill, Dr. Chu appeared
beside Mr. Obama in the Rose Garden the next day as Mr. Obama angrily
assailed the three companies involved in the oil spill.
No one has accused Dr. Chu or Dr. Koonin of direct conflict of interest
or questioned their scientific credentials. Before taking over the
Lawrence Berkeley laboratory, which is supported by the Department of
Energy, in 2004, Dr. Chu had been chairman of the physics department at Stanford
University and won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work
with laser-cooled atoms.
Dr. Koonin was a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology for nearly three
decades and served from 1995 to 2004 as Caltech’s provost. He was hired
by BP in 2004 as its chief scientist, responsible for long-range
planning for the company’s energy portfolio, as the company likes to
say, beyond petroleum. In his financial disclosure form submitted for
his government post, he said that he had tens of thousands of unvested
BP shares and options and that he was working out a fair value for them
with the company.
The BP-Berkeley project led to protests on the Berkeley campus when it
was unveiled in 2007, as student groups and some professors expressed
fears that the alliance could harm the university’s reputation for
academic integrity. Dr. Chu’s “name recognition and his backing” of the
project helped to ease some of those fears, said Ms. Washburn, an expert
in university-industry relations and a fellow at New