Consumer group attacks UC-Berkeley for ties to Big Oil

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The San Jose Mercury News (California)

First it was Hollywood producer Steve Bing taking Stanford University to task for its partnership with oil giant Exxon Mobil. Now a consumer rights group is attacking UC-Berkeley for its multimillion-dollar deal with oil producer BP aimed at creating an institute to study new and cleaner energy.

A day after the Mercury News reported that Bing rescinded a promise to give $2.5 million to Stanford — citing the use of the university’s name in Exxon Mobil’s advertising campaign — the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights sent letters to every UC Regent stating it is “deeply concerned” about the $500 million Berkeley-BP partnership announced last month.

Saying that Berkeley should learn from Stanford’s “mistakes,” Foundation president Jamie Court said the regents should do everything they can to protect the public university’s academic autonomy and integrity as it partners with Big Oil.

“The University of California must not allow itself to be, as Stanford has become, a greenwash for one of the world’s largest oil companies,” Court wrote. The foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan consumer group based in Santa Monica.

He urged the regents to carefully scrutinize the proposed arrangement with BP, paying special attention to wording that he says gives the British-based company some exclusive rights to the research developed at Cal, as well as rights to use UC-Berkeley’s name in BP‘s advertising and marketing efforts.

Stanford, which is receiving up to $100 million over 10 years from ExxonMobil to fund climate and energy research, has been criticized for allowing the oil company to use the school’s name and logo in newspaper and television spots. One ad appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal late last month, and others have run in the New York Times and during major television events.

Academic autonomy

Stanford officials have strongly disagreed with suggestions that the university has failed to protect its academic autonomy or has given Exxon Mobil too much power — and even intellectual property — in the deal.

“Intellectual property is owned by the academic institution performing the research,” Franklin Orr Jr. said in a statement issued Tuesday. Orr is project director of the school’s Global Climate and Energy Project, which receives the ExxonMobil funding.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a regent who called Exxon Mobil a “grotesque profiteer,” said the foundation has good reason to be wary of oil companies’ motives. But he called the research project between UC-Berkeley and BP an “extremely important one” to the school, the state and the environment.

“I can assure you I and other regents are aware of the potential concerns and we’ll be following it carefully so those are avoided,” he said. He added that the university “has many protections already in place to address the concerns the foundation has expressed.”

Under the arrangement, BP is giving UC-Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory a half-billion dollars to explore how bioscience can be used to increase energy production and reduce the impact of energy consumption on the environment. The deal will create the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Berkeley has also come under fire from some professors and students unhappy with the deal.

Last week, Ignacio H. Chapela, an associate professor in ecology, asked the university’s Academic Senate a tough question: “After signing the contract with BP, will anyone ever believe our objectivity and advice?”

Following policies

But Berkeley officials said that many of the concerns are unwarranted.

“Any time that there’s an advertisement or endorsement, UC-Berkeley has clear policies we follow and we work with our trademark and licensing office,” said campus spokeswoman Marie Felde.

“A “great number” of details have yet to be written into a contract with BP,” Felde said, and “there may be input from a wide range of people that will be taken into account as that contract is prepared.”

BP, for its part, “will not do advertising that the host institutions object to,” said BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell.

The oil company did publish basic ads in mid-February announcing the formation of the partnership in a handful of publications, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Chappell said.

It was unclear Tuesday how much control the university had over what BP said in the advertisements, but university officials haven’t seemed to be too opposed to them.

The ads say that “developing new energy solutions requires new schools of thought” — and mention UC-Berkeley as one of BP‘s partners.

While the university has its trademark and licensing office review proposed advertisements, it isn’t opposed to some advertisements hyping the deal.

Said Felde: “The leadership of the Berkeley campus does wish to celebrate the winning of the opportunity to work on biofuels in such a big way.”
MediaNews reporter Roger Sideman contributed to this report. Contact Julie Sevrens Lyons at [email protected] or (408) 920-5989.

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