Biofuels, BP-Berkeley, and the New Ecological Imperialism

British Petroleum, Beyond Petroleum . . . Biofuel Promoter, Biosphere Plunderer.  Regardless of what the BP abbreviation actually stands for, one thing is clear: this oil giant knows a good deal when it sees one.  For a relatively small financial contribution, BP appropriates academic expertise from a leading public research institution, founded on 200 years of social support, to maximize its return on energy investments.  These investments, in turn, are focused primarily on promoting the market for biofuel, the newest darling of those in power who stimulate change while maintaining “business as usual.”  This means working-class people in the core developed countries will subsidize the extraction of even more ecological goods from the developing world to serve elites, who never mind taking food out of the mouths of people to put gold in their pockets.  Socializing the costs for private economic gain is not a new phenomenon in the capitalist system.  However, this case represents a new twist in the combination of debunked science, ecological imperialism, and the sophistry of “sustainable development.”

New Fuel, Old Barrels

In February 2007, BP announced plans with the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, in partnership with the University of Illinois and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to lead the largest academic-industry research alliance in U.S. history.  The $50 million-a-year bone that BP will throw to Berkeley will create the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), primarily focusing its research on biotechnology to produce biofuels.  “In launching this visionary institute, BP is creating a new model for university-industry collaboration,” said Beth Burnside, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research (quoted in Sanders 2007).  In light of the historic record of capitalist accumulation, this “new model” for university-industry collaboration looks like old wine in a new bottle: appropriate a social good (public university), privatize the property (intellectual development), and commodify the output (energy-intensive products).  And in this instance, BP has recruited a public institution to be its profit-making subsidiary.

Appropriating Academia

This is not the first time UC Berkeley fed at the corporate trough, and as government expenditures for social goods continue to decline relatively, it is likely that it won’t be the last.  Berkeley entered into a research deal with the seed giant Novartis ten years ago, after which an external review of the UCB-Novartis interaction recommended avoiding such partnerships (Altieri and Holt-Gimenez 2007).  Nevertheless, on November 15, 2007, BP, the UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced the signing of a controversial ten-year pact forming the Energy Biosciences Institute.  The current deal with BP is ten times larger than the Novartis deal.  A brief description of this BP partnership follows:

As part of its continuing drive to find longer term commercial alternatives to oil and gas, BP announced in 2006 that it would invest $500 million over the next 10 years to establish the institute, the first public-private institution of this scale in the world.  The institute’s emphasis on new fuels meshes with UC Berkeley’s and Berkeley Lab’s research aims to develop sustainable sources of energy and the University of Illinois’ efforts to develop biofuel feedstocks.  The three academic institutions formed a strategic partnership to submit to BP a proposal that was selected in February 2007 from among five international proposals.  (Burress 2007)

As details of the final contract came to light, the public learned of how BP will gain profit-making technology and expertise by externalizing much of the cost of research and development.  The benefits to BP include access to leading scientists and laboratories, first rights for patent negotiations, and the rubber stamp of academia and science on its new projects.  The benefit for the university is purely financial, though at least one third of the money goes to BP’s own private projects on campus.  The benefit for the public is hard to find.  Politicians, university officials, and pro-market pundits laud this public-private partnership, while those critical of the “prostitution” of the university, including experts on biofuels’ social and environmental impacts, are marginalized.  This is not surprising given the undemocratic nature of the process whereby the details of the deal were negotiated without any public input.

Private (Intellectual) Property

Jennifer Washburn, examining the corporate corruption of higher education, explains that the deal with BP will expand the control that private firms wield over university agendas (Washburn 2007).  Indeed, as scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin point out in their most recent book, Biology Under the Influence (2007), so-called public-private partnerships are on the rise, and funding, an important factor in guiding research, is increasingly determined by the needs of private industry with the backing of governments.  These “partnerships” are ideologically accepted and promoted, as were the earliest land enclosures and contemporary privatization schemes, as a natural and inevitable evolution of society’s institutions.1  Debates concerning the cultural, political, and technological viability of market-based solutions to environmental and social problems are directly influenced by how science interacts with dominant ideology to mold and reinforce decisions that affect the world.  The seemingly natural process of the degrading trends of capitalist development must be confronted.

No Free Lunch in Crop-Based Biofuels

Like the Aesopian rhetoric used under capitalism to promote war and imperialism in the name of democracy, the way in which the 10-year plan to “research” (aka promote) biofuels blatantly dismisses potential ecological damage is unsettling.  There is no evidence that biofuels can actually satisfy the energy appetite of capitalism — they have so far only helped to destroy both ecological and social relationships.  This critique does not only come from those who suffer the immediate consequences of biofuels’ advance, but also from ecologists within UC Berkeley’s ivory walls.  Dr. Miguel Altieri, agroecologist, explains:

By promoting large-scale mechanized monocultures which require agrochemical inputs and machinery, and as carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops, CO2 emissions will increase not decrease.  The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in             consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny towards.  (Altieri 2007)  2

The damages from biofuel production are growing.  For instance, a recent UNEP/UNESCO report projects the loss of 98% of Indonesia’s forests by 2022, due in large part to land cleared for plantations of palm trees to produce biofuel (Nellemann and Virtue 2007: 6).   Indonesia is home to one of the largest rain forests in the world and a repository of a great deal of the world’s biodiversity.  Along with deforestation, habitat destruction, decreased biodiversity, and increased industrial mono-cropping and agricultural inputs (including fertilizer, herbicide, genetically modified seed, and water), we see the removal of sensitive lands from conservation programs and more water pollution.

So, BP-Berkeley project’s claim of ecological concern raises many questions.3  Not least is BP’s own track record of environmental destruction.  And “alternative” fuel represents only the most publicly discussed venture of the new institute.   Other research endeavors include: “the conversion of heavy hydrocarbons to clean fuels, improved recovery from existing oil and gas reservoirs and carbon sequestration” (Brenneman 2007).  Given this research agenda, it is easy to see why environmentalists, farmers, and other critics around the world understand that the main thing “green” coming out of the EBI will be money.

Who Loses?  Naked Ecological Imperialism and Biopiracy

While the U.S. military kicks in the front door of Baghdad and secures Middle Eastern and African oil fields, Western corporations sneak in the back doors of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to secure land and labor for biofuels.  The U.S. is not alone in this endeavor, as much of Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada are also excited by the chance to put a green face on business as usual.  The consequences of capitalism’s business as usual are well known. Farmers are proletarianized in the global south by the wealthier and more technically savvy northerners.  Genetically modified crops and the private patenting of the materials of life threaten the food and environmental security of millions in the name of technological “progress” and efficiency in agriculture.  Nevertheless, cynical racist, sexist, and imperialist justifications for the consequences of biofuels production abound.  You can hear them all from supporters of the BP-Berkeley deal.

The removal of indigenous people from rainforests cleared for palm oil (Indonesia) and sugar cane (Brazil) plantations is justified by the new “democratization” of fuel production.  The soaring costs of basic food staples worldwide is justified by the need to provide women with energy resources since it is they who suffer most from the struggle to make ends meet without contemporary “clean” energy products.  These seemingly “humanitarian” justifications are all coupled with ridiculous claims by some politicians that biofuels may end wars for oil — as if the energy type, rather than the role of energy in capitalist society, causes the global race for resources.

These excuses for the recurrent pillaging of the developing world by the over-developed capitalist countries are nothing more than an update to liberal, imperial rhetoric.  Though these obfuscations are now under the banner of “sustainable development,” they are not unlike those used by supporters of the invasion of Afghanistan who wished to “liberate” Muslim women.  However, victims of the “civilizing” and more recently, “democratizing,” forces of capitalist imperialism have understood the bloody hypocrisy of the Dutch, the British, French, and now the U.S.  In the case of biofuels, people worldwide have come together to protest the outrageous claims made on the human and ecological resources of the globe by the wealthiest countries that can’t quit their addiction to liquid fuels, suburban sprawls, and capital accumulation at all costs.


The case of BP-Berkeley, biofuels and the new ecological imperialism display the “irrationality of a scientifically sophisticated world” (Levins and Lewontin 1985).  The absurdity of expecting the cause of social and ecological degradation to solve it is just as confounding as the arguments supporting more liquid fuels and alternative autos over mass transit.  It is crucial to question the science used to legitimate the pillaging of people and the planet and give honest evaluations of what it may take to move toward the common good.

Like other sectors of a class society, there are insurgent scientists who use their resources to expose and resist oppression.  Still, due to the restricted and unequal access to educational and research facilities, most Western scientists are removed from the harshest of oppressions and often removed from the consequences of policies they support through research.  It is not difficult to imagine that the urgency of reducing U.S. fuel demand may be different for the Ogoni in Nigeria or the Bidayuh in Borneo, both losing people and land to fuel (petrol and biodiesel), than for scientists at BP’s new institute at Berkeley.  Just as the larger society is increasingly dominated by the imperatives of an oppressive system of private property, “knowledge and ignorance are determined, as in all scientific research, by who owns the research industry, who commands the production of knowledge.”  Indeed, “there is class struggle in the debates around what kind of research ought to be done” (Lewontin and Levins 2007: 319).

We are facing increasingly unequal power relations, due to the development of weaponry and toxic industries that are both deadlier to humans and the environment than anything seen before in human society.  To confront the organization of capitalists, scientists must join with others in society to refuse our labor to those in power while making it more difficult for collaborators with the current system to undermine our efforts.  The insight of Lewontin and Levins (2007: 217) may provide our most effective guidance:

There is…a growing conflict between the urgent need of our species for the integration and democratization of science, and the economics and sociology of commercialized knowledge that impedes such development.  We might attempt merely to predict, detect, or tolerate the outcome of that conflict.  Or we could join  the struggle to affect what happens.


Altieri, Miguel A. and Eric Holt-Gimenez.  2007.  “University of California’s Biotech Benefactors.”   The Berkeley Daily Planet.  Berkeley, CA.  February 6.

Altieri, Miguel A. and Eric Holt-Gimenez.  2007.  “Biofuel and the BP-UC Berkeley Research Deal: A ‘Win-Win’ Agenda?”  California Progress Report. February 7.   

Brenneman, Richard.  2007.  “UC/BP Pact Worries Critics, Concerns of Land and Legacy.”  The Berkeley Daily Planet.  Berkeley, California.  November 23.

Burress, Charles.  2007. “UC Berkeley and BP Finally Sign Contract for Research Project.”  Checkbiotech Biofuels News.  November 16.

Drummond, William.  2007.  “Message from the Chair.”  Chair, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.  November 16. 

IEA-Bioenergy.  September 2007.  “Potential Contribution of Bioenergy to the World’s Future Energy Demand.”   International Energy Agency.

International Energy Agency- Office of Energy Efficiency Technology and R&D.  2004.  “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective.”   OECD.

Levins, Richard and Richard C. Lewontin.  1985.  The Dialectical Biologist.   Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lewontin, Richard C. and Richard Levins. 2007.  Biology under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health.    New York: Monthly Review Press.

Nellemann, C., Miles, L., Kaltenborn, B. P.,  and M. Virtue, and Ahlenius, H. (Eds).  2007.  “The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia’s National Parks.”   UNEP/UNESCO, GRID-Arendal, Norway.

Ollman, Bertell.  2003.  Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method.    Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Research and Innovative Technology Administration.  November 2006.  “Transportation Research, Development and Technology Strategic Plan 2006-2010.”   U.S. Department of Transportation.

Sanders, Robert.  2007.  “BP Selects UC Berkeley to Lead $500 Million Energy Research Consortium with Partners Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, University of Illinois.”   UC Berkeley Press Release.  February 1.

United Nations Energy.  April 2007.  “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers.”   United Nations.

Washburn, Jennifer.  2007.  “Big Oil Buys Berkeley.”   Los Angeles Times.  March 24. 

World Resources Institute, Britt Childs and Rob Bradley.  2007.  “Plants at the Pump: Biofuels, Climate Change and Sustainability.”   WRI in conjunction with Goldman Sachs Center for Environmental Markets, Washington, D.C.

York, Richard and Brett Clark.  2006.  “Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology: Social Gravity and Historicity.”  The Sociological Quarterly 47:3:425-450.


1  Quote from the chair of the academic senate at Berkeley on the new deal with BP, in spite of the outcry of university faculty and students: “None of us saw in the EBI any threat to the public nature of the university.  In fact, the traditional tripartite mission of land grant institutions– teaching, research, and service –is being served by this project.  The research program of EBI is directed toward solving one of the paramount current problems of society, that is what the third leg of our public mission– service or applied research in general — is all about.  So, I see the EBI as enhancing our public mission.  Cooperation with the private sector is increasingly a part of carrying out this mission, but we need to structure our relationships with the private sector in ways so as to preserve the integrity of the university.” — William Drummond, Chair, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, (Drummond 2007)

2  Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation will not be focusing on mass transit either, but will be contributing a pretty sum to the development of biofuel use.  (Research and Innovative Technology Administration November 2006)

3  Many supporters of this deal say we must invest in the future of so-called “second-generation” biofuels.  However, even in “best-case” scenarios, these biofuels remain an anti-ecological, anti-social solution to our energy problems.  A recent UN report finds,

The second generation of liquid biofuel production facilities will create a market for far greater amounts of agricultural biomass, and promises to create higher-value co-products (and thus greater wealth generation).  However, it will also require development of more capital intensive, complex production facilities, giving a further edge to large companies.  Already, large investments are signaling the emergence of a new “bio-economy” in the coming decades.  (United Nations Energy April 2007: 24)

Echoing the many critics of biofuels, this report shows that even the most optimistic predictions regarding biofuels can’t solve the problems of scale and increasing energy demand.  See also “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective,” “Plants at the Pump: Biofuels, Climate Change and Sustainability,” and “Potential Contribution of Bioenergy to the World’s Future Energy Demand.”

Rebecca Clausen and Hannah Holleman are doctoral students at the University of Oregon.

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