Category Archives: Global Corporate U.

Quote of the day: National Security U., Berkeley

From reclaim UC, on the appointment of Minister of State Security Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as president of the Univerisity of California:

Napolitano does signal a change, the recognition that it is no longer “business discipline” but “martial discipline” that is key to the university’s continued operation. It is an acknowledgment that the university in general, and the UC in particular, will continue to be a site of struggle. If the Occupy movement drew heavily from the student occupations of 2008-2009 in New York and the UC, perhaps Napolitano’s arrival reflects the state’s recognition of the possibility that struggles over the university can resonate and explode in unsettling and unpredictable ways.

UC President Napolitano, in other words, could be seen as presiding over the first fully “securitized” public university, in the dual senses of the word. Of course, the university has long formed part of the military-industrial complex. Napolitano’s appointment is meant to double down on the UC’s turn to federal research dollars and weapons development. The Washington Post’s article originally stated that “the university’s search committee was drawn to her experience in Obama’s Cabinet, believing that she might help the UC system advance its federally funded programs, including . . . nuclear weapons labs.” (Strangely this sentence, which we tweeted yesterday, seems to have been silently removed, although it’s still quoted in this piece in the Examiner.) Likewise, Napolitano is not the first member of the United States’ security apparatus to become president of the UC. Charles J. Hitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1961-1965, was appointed UC president two years later and served in that capacity for eight years.

But the specificity of Napolitano, perhaps, is seen in the convergence of these two forms of “security,” one financial and the other repressive. If our classic slogan “behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops” responds to the intimate ties between austerity and policing, the violence of financialization clarified and crystallized in the UC regents’ decision suggests that the terrain of struggle, while structured in many ways by continuities, has shifted in important ways. Maybe it’s time to update that slogan.

Read the rest.

Quote of the day: Cavities without dentists

A little satire from Just An Earth-Bound Misfit, I:

UC Freshman Orientation to Include Cavity Searches

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, will step down from her post to lead the University of California system.

Because nothing qualifies someone to deal with “academic freedom” as someone who has run what is probably the one Federal cabinet department that is most opposed to individual freedom and liberty.

Minister of State Security picked to head UC

Yep. The Secretary of Homeland Security, the agency that’s done so much to transform the nation into a panopticon police state, will be the new presuident of the University of California.

What’s more, the UC Board of Regents sought her out, no doubt with the strong prodding of board member Richard Blum, when he isn’t busy selling off the nation’s post offices or otherwise adding to the riches he needs to support his lifestyle as the spouse of Sen. Diane Feinstein.

God, what a state California be!

Of course Janet Napolitano will be well-placed to ensure the continued militarization of the UC Police Department, what with their training by Israel Border Police [instituted under Napolitano’s watch] and the increasing role played by campus cops in those Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

And, of course, she’ll be ideally placed to ensure the continued role played by the university’s National Laboratories in furthering the reach of the military/industrial/academic complex a former general-turned-President warned us about in his farewell address:

“[T]he free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.”

What was simply inconceivable to Dwight David Eisenhower was the addition of corporate power to the mix, a phenomenon embodied here in Berkeley by the largest corporate grant in the history of public higher education in America, the $500 million grant from BP to fund the Engergy Bioscience Institute.

With the increasing and deeply corrupt fusion of the corporation and the national security state, Janet Napolitano is the perfect choice to head the University of California, intimately familiar with all the major corporate players and knowing all the cozy phrasing designed to entice them into opening their wallets.

As for a univrersity to serve the common good? Well, everything has it’s costs, right?

Headlines of the day II: Meanwhile, in Berkeley

From the Daily Caller:

Berkeley’s new stadium put it $445 million in debt

From the East Bay Express:

UC Berkeley Seeks China Gold

The university is working on a new research facility in Shanghai that promises to attract more money from foreign students who pay higher tuition.

Supremes strike down human gene patents

The nation’s highest court ruled today that your DNA belongs to you, and any corporate efforts to patent it are unconstitutional.

In a unanimous decision [PDF] the court held that naturally occurring human genes fall under the “law of nature” exception to the patent laws, invalidating a corporate patent on a human gene linked to breast cancer.

Jesse J. Holland of the Associated Press writes about the decision’s flip side, which will come as a significant encouragement to UC Berkeley’s crew of “bioengineers”:

[T]he high court also approved for the first time the patenting of synthetic DNA, handing a victory to researchers and companies looking to come up with ways to fight – and profit – from medical breakthroughs that could reverse life-threatening diseases such as breast or ovarian cancer.

The decision “sets a fair and level playing field for open and responsible use of genetic information,” said Dr. Robert B. Darnell, president and scientific director of the New York Genome Center. “At the same time, it does not preclude the opportunity for innovation in the genetic world, and should be seen as an important clarifying moment for research and the healthcare industry.”

Read the rest.

The BBC reports more on the issues behind the litigation, sparked by a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union:

The genes at the centre of the lawsuit are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad Genetics developed a pioneering test to look for mutations in those genes that might increase the risk of developing cancer.

Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, argued that the genes in question had been “isolated” by the company, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable.

But the ACLU argued that genes are products of nature, and therefore cannot be patented under US laws.

Read the rest.

John Yoo, a name forever linked with Berkeley

How so? Well, in addition to serving as the author of the Bush II regimes torture justification, the UC Berkeley law prof is deeply identified with the city that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement.

Just consider these prompts when folks Google his name [via Wonkette]:

BLOG Yoo who

From Berkeley, the city henceforth and forever linked with war crimes and torture.

UC Berkeley wants to mow down urban forest

We’ll begin with the opening of a stunning report from Randy Shaw at California Progress Report:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is moving to chop down 22,000 trees in Berkeley’s historic Strawberry and Claremont Canyons and over 60,000 more in Oakland. This destructive plan is rapidly moving forward with little publicity, and FEMA cleverly scheduled its three public meetings for mid and late May while UC Berkeley students were in finals or gone for the summer.

UC Berkeley has applied for the grant to destroy the bucolic Strawberry and Claremont Canyon areas, claiming that the trees pose a fire hazard. The school has no plans to replant, and instead will cover 20% of the area in wood chips two feet deep. And it will pour between 700 and 1400 gallons of herbicide to prevent re-sprouting, including the highly toxic herbicide, Roundup. People are mobilizing against this outrageous proposal, which UC Berkeley has done its best to keep secret.

Read the rest.

The massive deforesting operation in one of the East Bay’s most scenic areas is part of a FEMA project officially entitled “East Bay Hills Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction.”

Targets of the chainsaws will be non-native trees, especially eucalyptus.

Details from the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement [posted here]:

UCB submitted two grant applications under the PDM [Pre-Disaster Mitigation — esnl] program: one for a 56.3-acre area designated Strawberry Canyon-PDM in this EIS and one for a 42.8-acre area designated Claremont-PDM. To reduce the potential for these areas to support and spread wildfires, UCB proposes to eliminate eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and other non-native trees that promote the spread of wildfire. Oak and bay trees and other native vegetation present under the larger non-native trees would be preserved and encouraged to expand.

The environmental review did consider alternatives, including a required “no action” version in which existing management practices would continue. Here’s the relevant portion for the UC Berkeley land:

UCB would continue annual removal of grass and light, flashy fuels (such as twigs, needles, and grasses that ignite and burn rapidly) from UCB roadsides, UCB turnouts, and within 100 feet of UCB structures and adjacent private residences. UCB would also work to maintain the strategic areas where fuel reduction projects have been completed during the past 10 years to ensure eradication of target species of vegetation that have already been removed. UCB would continue to pursue fuel reduction within 30 feet of private and public structures to create defensible space in accordance with its 2020 Hill Area Fire Fuel Management Program.

And some more details from the environmental statement focusing on the Berkeley part of the project:

The UCB grant application includes two project areas in which approximately 22,000 non-native trees would be cut down, including all eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia trees. The goal is to reduce the amount of fuel in the project areas by allowing the forest to convert from a eucalyptus-dominated, non-native forest to a native forest of California bay laurel, oak, big-leaf maple, California buckeye, California hazelnut, and other native tree and shrub species currently present beneath the eucalyptus and other non-native trees. The native species would provide less fuel to potential wildfires than the non-native species currently provide.

Felled trees up to approximately 24 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) would be cut up into chips 1 to 4 inches long and the chips would be spread on up to 20% of each site to a maximum depth of 24 inches. UCB expects the chips to largely decompose within 5 years.

Branches from trees greater than 24 inches DBH would be cut up and scattered on the site (lopped and scattered). The trunks of these trees would typically be cut into 20- to 30-foot lengths. Some tree trunks would be placed to help control sediment and erosion or support wildlife habitat. Some tree trunks may be moved to an adjacent portion of the hillside or shipped for use as fuel, a source of paper pulp, or horse bedding.

Three temporary access roads are anticipated to be required for the proposed Claremont-PDM project. The three roads would be 12 feet wide and total approximately 2,600 feet long.

Completion of the initial vegetation reduction work is expected to require up to 40 weeks spread over 2 to 3 years. Maintenance would continue for up to 10 years after initial tree cutting.

The last chance for spoken public comments will come tomorrow [Saturday] morning in Oakland, with a hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon at the Claremont Middle School, 5750 College Avenue.

Written comments will be received until 17 June at the following places:

  • At the project website.
  • By email at
  • By snail mail sent to P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579
  • And by fax at 510-627-7147

Project opponents have created their own website here.

And here, from the environmental statement, is the site of the proposed action in Strawberry Canyon:BLOG Forest cuts


Occupy the Farm returns to UC Berkeley land

It was three days short of a year since UC Berkeley campus cops evicted Occupy the Farm from their three-week takeover [previously] of the university-owned Gill Tract in nearby Albany when protesters returned to their occupation today.

From vlogger Em Raguso:

Judith Scherr reports for the Oakland Tribune:

Chanting “Whose farm? Our farm!” some 150 people marched from Albany City Hall to a weed-strewn plot of University of California-owned land where they yanked out 3-foot-tall weeds and planted squash and tomato seedlings.


Protesters want the Gill Tract to become an urban farm, while the university said it uses the land for agricultural research. A development is planned for an area adjacent to the land which has not been agriculturally zoned in decades, university officials have said.

As protesters entered the area Saturday, bringing with them two chickens, three goats and a rabbit, police informed them via bullhorn that they were trespassing and subject to arrest. As of late Saturday afternoon, no arrests had been made.

Read the rest.

And from the Occupy the Farm website, a report on today’s action:

Three days after UC Berkeley’s new development proposal on the Gill Tract was voted down at the City of Albany’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on May 8th, the organizing group Occupy the Farm has again taken a stand for public education and urban agriculture, setting down roots on the hotly contested land.

“People have been fighting to preserve this land for farming for decades, because they recognize that because this is UC land, all residents of the East Bay have a stake and a say in what happens to this public resource,” said Lesley Haddock, a third year student in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “After fifteen years of trying to work through UC’s undemocratic process, public protest is our last option.”

Since 1997, coalitions of local residents, non-profits, and UC students and faculty have brought forth proposals to the UC administration for the creation of a sustainable urban agriculture curriculum on the entire Gill Tract. Administrators consistently rejected these proposals, and have been accused of not giving the proposals due consideration.

“Today we’re planting on the site of the proposed commercial development because we want to remind people what they will lose if a chain store and parking lot get built here,” stated Ashoka Finley, urban farmer and UC alum. “The UC, Albany even, could be on the cutting edge of participatory, community-based urban ag research, and they’re just throwing that opportunity away.”

Building on Occupy the Farm’s action in April-May 2012, today’s protest was focused on community education around food production . Farmers and activists were seen planting vegetables together, watering crops and passing out free plant starts to passers-by. There was a range of educational activities, including a seed-ball making workshop organized by a seven year-old. The young girl stated, “I just wanted to do it at a time when I knew a lot of kids would show up.”

As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential for shifting our communities towards self-sufficiency through large-scale urban agriculture education. Occupy the Farm will be working all weekend to turn the south plot of the Gill Tract from an empty lot into an urban farm and community asset.

For more visuals and interviews, see this brief clip from ABC News 7 in San Francisco.

And here’s a report from the Daily Californian on the 14 May 2012 police raid ending the last occupation:


‘How Your Tax Dollars Are Actually Spent’

Via Orwellwasright, a dramatic Al Jazeera visualization of the real budget battle’s driving engine, that military/industrial/academic complex Ike warned us about 52 years ago.

We suspect the real number’s larger. Nor were real impacts on, for example, academia made clear. Berkeley, with it’s bandolier of National Laboratories spawned by the search for The Bomb and expanded into engines of imperialism, as in the genetically engineered cops designed to conquer land rights and demolish peasant sovereignty on behalf of private profit and the interests of the U.S. military and their CIA drone-firing gunslingers now busily setting up shop in Africa, along with AFRICOM, the new military command launched by an Air Force general who lead the air war of Afghanistan.

And it was that same general who devixsed the strategy for converting the air force in agrofueled fleet.

Africa was also the first destination of crews from Berkeley’s BP-funded, national lab participating $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, who launched searches for suitable crops to be turned into fuels using genetically engineered microbial refineries. If all those oil countries rebelled, at least there’d be fuel plantations, operating under the watchful missile-armed eyes droning overhead.

And that’s just one on many avenues in which the single largest burner of money shapes the landscape of possibilities. . .

Quote of the day+: Berkeley’s biggest landlord

Just to remind Cal students who live the the Gaia Building, Berkeleyan, and other apartment buildings owned by Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell’s Equity Residential, their landlord was the man who bankrupted the Los Angeles Times.

That paper’s up for sale again [as noted yesterday, even the Koch brothers may offer some cash], and a timely piece in LA Weekly on the latest buy offers provides a nifty little vignette about Berkeley’s number on private sector landlord.

Hillel Aron writes about what happened when. . .

the spoils went to Sam Zell, the real estate mogul who looked like a character from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth dressed for a night at a disco.

Zell’s nickname was “Grave Dancer,” and his crassness disgusted many journalists — he once suggested that Tribune papers allow X-rated ads because “everyone loves a good blow job.”

“He was the most vulgar, repellent rich person I’ve ever met,” says Tim Rutten, a journalist at the Times for 40 years, who was laid off in 2011.

Any journalism students who reside in one of Zell’s apartments must feel a bit of shame every time the rent check is signed.

But Haas students can rejoice that they’re living a place that made a very tidy fortune for David Teece, one of their plutocratic profs, who put up cash and clout to get them built, then made a pile selling to Zell at the peak of the market.

Quote of the day: The deep politics of online ed

From Patrick Bigger and Victor E. Kappeler, writing in anthropologies:

The decline of the traditional campus in favor of online education has the added bonus of post-Fordist dispersion of dangerous populations and elimination of sites of struggle and resistance. It’s also cheaper. Furthermore, the reassignment of educational costs to students and families through rising tuition mirrors the neoliberal tactic of shifting the cost of workforce training from the private sector to the public, as in decades prior. This has the added bonus of propping up the financial industry that holds more than $150 billion in private student loan debt. This debt is different from almost any other form of debt, in that it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings. It does not require much imagination to speculate as to what private financiers might do with $150 in debt assets, or its potential effects on the broader economy.

Finally, we note that in addition to having hugely negative ramifications for students and society at large, faculty will not emerge unscathed. The shift towards adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty labor is well documented, as is the move to abolish the tenure system. However, these are only precursors of academic labor restructuring which the ‘training-ization’ of education promises. On offer is a three-tiered labor system consisting of a ruling class of content creators who designate what constitutes appropriate learning content and outcomes and who make course modules that can be licensed to individual institutions. The institutions (or individual academic units) would designate a content coordinator to select the modules best suited to their training programs. Finally, the vast majority of faculty would be relegated to the inauspicious position of “content deliverer,” clarifying the message of the content creator, contextualizing the material in the overall training program, and assigning grades to students who are overpaying for such certificates with extortionist private loans.

The shift toward training through the growth of online education is detrimental for students, educators, and society alike. But if this is the case, then why pursue this disruptive path? As in most things political-economic, this is a question best answered by asking ‘who benefits?’ In this case, the answer is fairly transparent: financiers backing for-profit education, private student-loan originators, and venture capitalists supporting online education software developers. As usual, the economic rationality is cloaked in the normatively positive language of ‘democracy’, ‘access’, and ‘efficiency’. In other words, the shift toward training is an explicit class project engineered to more effectively transfer wealth toward to those who already control a lot of it. Consequently, our response must recognize this transition as such and respond in kind.

Video alert: The Rise of the ‘Biotechnosciences’

A critical debunking of the genomics craze from two different perspectives, by way of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce [RSA]:

The program notes:

Leading-edge bioscience promised so much — but did it really deliver? Renowned neuroscientist Steven Rose and sociologist Hilary Rose visit the RSA to tackle the claims of the bioscience industry head on.

Bear in mind that the same hype and promises of vast wealth tackled by the Roses is also at the core of UC Berkeley’s new direction as the self-designated scientific hub of the “green energy revolution,” premised on the use of genetically engineered microbes and plants to replace our addiction to fossil fuels.

Charts of the day: The UC fish rots from the head

BLOG UC admin

From the redoubtable Charles Schwartz, who has been carefully documenting for decades the history of University of California finances:

This shows the continuing outsized growth of the management cadre (defined as the employees classified in Senior Management Group and Management & Senior Professionals): their numbers grew by 252% over the 21 year period while total employee numbers grew by a mere 51%. (The total number of employees shown in this graph is scaled down so that one can compare the relative growth, over time, of each population.)

For another comparison, the latest total number in this management category (SMG + MSP) is 9,457 FTE (full time equivalent employees) while the number of Regular Teaching Faculty is 8,657 FTE.

A second chart from his campus-by-campus analysis [PDF] reveals that bureaucratic bloat has been soaring right here at UC Berkeley, though UC Santa Cruz runs a close second:

BLOG Cal bloat

One wonders what students will think when they discover that their radically soaring tuition costs aren’t going to pay their teachers but a rapidly growing omnivorous caste of supernumeraries.

Quote of the day: Madness from the laboratory

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is one of the world’s leading research centers in nanotechnology, the fabrication of incredibly small particles of chemicals that behave in strange ways because of their very tiny size.

But there’s the potential for billions, even trillions in profits, so the rush to develop commercial applications surges forward, while concerns for the health of humans and the rest of the biosphere lag far behind.

From Heather Millar, writing in Orion magazine:

Some published research has shown that inhaled nanoparticles actually become more toxic as they get smaller. Nano–titanium dioxide, one of the most commonly used nanoparticles (Pop-Tarts, sunblock), has been shown to damage DNA in animals and prematurely corrode metals. Carbon nanotubes seem to penetrate lungs even more deeply than asbestos.

What little we know about the environmental effects of nanoparticles—and it isn’t very much—also raises some red flags. Nanoparticles from consumer products have been found in sewage wastewater, where they can inhibit bacteria that help break down the waste. They’ve been found to accumulate in plants and stunt their growth. Another study has shown that gold nanoparticles become more concentrated as they move up the food chain from plants to herbivores.


As a society, we’ve been here before—releasing a “miracle technology” before its potential health and environmental ramifications are understood, let alone investigated. Remember how DDT was going to stamp out malaria and typhus and revolutionize agriculture? How asbestos was going to make buildings fireproof? How bisphenol A (BPA) would make plastics clear and nearly shatterproof? How methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) would make gasoline burn cleanly? How polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were going to make electrical networks safer? How genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were going to end hunger?

Read the rest.

Quote of the day: Austerity and the university

Bob Samuels teaches writing at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, and he’s also president of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents libraries and faculty who aren’t members of the university systems academic senate.

Writing at his blog, Changing Universities, Samuels comments on the recent resignation [health reasons] of University of California president Mark Yudoff, who has overseen the steepest tuition hikes in the institution’s history:

As many are now judging President Yudof’s time as the head of the UC system, what we have to consider is that the biggest effect of austerity is the austerity of our own imagination and policies. In the Age of Austerity, we do not have leaders with a broad vision; what we have are managers who manage a crisis but cannot imagine any real significant changes.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to present my plan to make all public higher education free in America by simply using our current resources in a more effective manner. Although it would cost around $128 billion to fund the total cost of tuition and related expenses for every student currently in public higher ed (80% of all college students), I have shown that if you add up all of the financial aid, institutional aid, tax breaks, tax credits, and tax shelters, we are currently spending over $200 billion. In other words, the only thing stopping us from making all public higher education free is leadership.

When I have made this demonstration, the first response of many people is that while you might be right, this can never happen in America. The reason why people do not think it is doable is because they cannot imagine that any major change is possible.

Read the rest.

Chart of the day: Dysprosium, empire, Berkeley

As we reported in detail last February, UC Berkeley is at the forefront of the government’s push to develop more efficient ways of using rare earths that are key to a range of so-called “clean energy” technologies, including one especially critical element, dysprosium.

From a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announcement we included in a post last February:

Belonging to a family of elements known as lanthanides—also called rare earths—dysprosium and other rare earths are used in almost every high-tech gadget and clean energy technology invented in the last 30 years, from smart phones to wind turbines to hybrid cars. Although the United States was self-sufficient in rare earths or obtained them on the free market until the early 2000s, the vast majority are now mined in China and the supply has been subject to fluctuations. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) aims to change the status quo by reviving the study of these critical materials to better understand how to extract them, use them more efficiently, reuse and recycle them and find substitutes for them.

Read the rest.

With most of the world’s developed dysprosium supplies in China, along with other critical rare earths, the Obama administration has launched a major military shift, concentrating American naval forces in the Pacific while using legal pressure to force China to part with more of its stockpiles, resources critical for American high tech industry.

Now comes a new report from the Department of Energy revealing that no matter how much of China’s dysprosium goes on the market, it’s not going to be enough.

From the U.S. Department of Energy Critical Materials Strategy [PDF]. Click on the image to enlarge:

BLOG chart of the day

From the report:

Figure 4-4 illustrates the ranges of projections of global requirements for dysprosium oxide in magnets for wind turbines and vehicles, as well as non-clean energy use during the period of 2010–2025. These amounts are given in terms of dysprosium oxide because it is the commercial feedstock from which dysprosium metal is refined and NdFeB magnets are fabricated. Also included in Figure 4-4 are supply estimates for 2010 and 2010 plus additional individual mines, as well as an estimate for 2015 supply.

Figure 4-4 shows that the basic availability of dysprosium oxide is tight in the short term. Anticipated new mines will provide relatively little new supply—an additional 10%—by 2015. Global demand meets or exceeds projected 2015 supply under all four trajectories in the beginning of the medium term. Non-clean energy demand alone will lead to a supply-demand mismatch by the middle of the medium term under the assumed trajectory, highlighting the need for corresponding material intensity improvements or substitutes in non-clean energy technologies. Clean energy demand makes up a growing share of global dysprosium demand, increasing from 11% in 2010 to 52% in 2025 under Trajectory C. Demand for dysprosium oxide is roughly four-times as much for vehicles compared to wind turbines in 2025. In order to meet demand under Trajectory C, global production of dysprosium oxide needs to more than double by 2025. The developing supply-demand imbalance in the medium term under all trajectories highlights the importance of R&D on alternative approaches to heat management (a main function of the dysprosium content) in magnets or substitutes for NdFeB magnets in general in clean energy technologies.

Chart of the day: Debunking Chris Somerville

As we noted in the yesterday’s post on agrofuels, UC Berkeley biomillionaire Chris Somerville, who heads the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute on the Cal campus, sold the project to campus colleagues and the public on the premise that crops grown for fuel would be raised on what he called marginal land east of the Mississippi.

We also noted that the EBI was concentrating on miscanthus, and that a company founded by Somerville controls the world’s leading miscanthus seed bank and is partnering with Monsanto to exploit it. [Somerville himself has divested himself of his interest].

Imagine our surprise, then, on discovering this nifty little map from a U.S. Geological Survey report [PDF] by Bruce K. Wylie and Yingxin Gu published in October and titled “Mapping Grasslands Suitable for Cellulosic Biofuels in the Greater Platte River Basin, United States”:

Mapping Grasslands Suitable for Cellulosic Biofuels in the Great

Now note this excerpt from the report, including the specific reference to the production of miscanthus fuel crops west of the Mississippi:

Biofuels are an important component in the development of alternative energy supplies, which is needed to achieve national energy independence and security in the United States. The most common biofuel product today in the United States is corn-based ethanol; however, its development is limited because of concerns about global food shortages, livestock and food price increases, and water demand increases for irrigation and ethanol production. Corn-based ethanol also potentially contributes to soil erosion, and pesticides and fertilizers affect water quality. Studies indicate that future potential production of cellulosic ethanol is likely to be much greater than grain- or starch-based ethanol. As a result, economics and policy incentives could, in the near future, encourage expansion of cellulosic biofuels production from grasses, forest woody biomass, and agricultural and municipal wastes. If production expands, cultivation of cellulosic feedstock crops, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) and miscanthus (Miscanthus species), is expected to increase dramatically.

The main objective of this study is to identify grasslands in the Great Plains that are potentially suitable for cellulosic feedstock (such as switchgrass) production. Producing ethanol from noncropland holdings (such as grassland) will minimize the effects of biofuel developments on global food supplies. Our pilot study area is the Greater Platte River Basin, which includes a broad range of plant productivity from semiarid grasslands in the west to the fertile corn belt in the east. The Greater Platte River Basin was the subject of related U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) integrated research projects (Thormodsgard, 2009).

Agrofuel roundup I: Scams, schemes, dreams

It’s been a while since we’ve covered the agrofuel scene, that wondrous playground of billionaires, Al Gore, and UC Berkeley millionaire patent-mongering profs.

There’s a whole lot to report, but we’ll start with one of the sweetest scams ever, in which a clever Canadian figured out how to make millions off Uncle Sugar simply by shipping trains full of agrodiesel south across the border, then bringing them right back to Canada without ever unloading a drop.

Then we’ll look at the latest news from BP and the university it owns right here in Berkeley.

In a second part we’ll give you a brief update on one of Berkeley’s agrofuel startups that isn’t and the fate of another partnership spearheaded by the same prof who launched the startup.

Canadian newsies investigate

The Canadian scam, which appears to have been perfectly legal, was first reported 3 December by John Nicol and Dave Seglins, a pair of intrepid journalists for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In their first story, the reporters cited reports that the tasnkers made their down-and-back trips between 15 and 28 June 2010, earning CN Rail a potential $23.6 million [Canadian] in charges.

From their report:

“In 25 years, I’d never done anything like it,” one railway worker told CBC News on the condition he not be named for fear he might be fired. “The clerk told me it was some kind of money grab. We just did what we were told.”


According to internal CN records, Train 503 shipped the biodiesel to Port Huron, Mich., from Sarnia, Ont.; Train 504 brought them back. The number of cars on the train would remain mostly the same, but cars were added and removed, between 68 and 89 cars at a time. As soon as the paperwork and car shuffling was completed, the trains made the return trip.

“This unit train will move at least once daily to Port Huron starting on Tuesday, June 18,” said an email written by Teresa Edwards, CN’s manager of transportation for Port Huron/Sarnia.

It will “clear customs and return to Sarnia. If we can get in more flips back and forth we will attempt to do so. Each move per car across the border is revenue generated for Sarnia/Port Huron.

“It will be the same cars flipping back and forth and the product will stay on the car.”

Damned fishy, right?

Why the hell would a company send a total of 1,984 tank cars full of fuel into the U.S., then bring them back without ever unloading them?

The reporters were back with a second story on the 20th, and it’s just as sordid as you might imagine.

They note:

It turns out the shipments were part of a deal by a Toronto-based company, which made several million dollars importing and exporting the fuel to exploit a loophole in a U.S. green energy program.


Bioversel Trading hired CN Rail to import tanker loads of biodiesel to the U.S. to generate RINs, which are valuable in the U.S. because of a “greening” policy regulating the petroleum industry. The EPA’s “Renewable Fuel Standard” mandate that oil companies bring a certain amount of renewable fuel to market, quotas they can achieve through blending biofuel with fossil fuel or by purchasing RINs as offsets.

Because RINs can be generated through import, the 12 trainloads that crossed into Michigan would have contained enough biodiesel to create close to 12 million RINs. In the summer of 2010, biodiesel RINs were selling for 50 cents each, but the price soon fluctuated to more than $1 per credit.

Once “imported” to a company capable of generating RINs, ownership of the biodiesel was transferred to Bioversel’s American partner company, Verdeo, and then exported back to Canada. RINs must be “retired” once the fuel is exported from the U.S., but Bioversel says Verdeo retired ethanol RINs, worth pennies, instead of the more valuable biodiesel RINs. Bioversel claims this was all perfectly legal.

However, one of the companies Bioversel approached to be the ‘importer of record’—Northern Biodiesel Inc. of Ontario, N.Y. — discovered that the same fuel was going back and forth across the border and the same gallons were being used to repeatedly generate new RINs under their company’s name. The company called the EPA and also sent a letter that would become an open letter to the biodiesel industry, accusing Bioversel of “trying to perpetrate a fraud against NBI and the Renewable Fuel Standard program.”

And what was the result? Were the whistleblowers rewarded for their virtuous reporting of their inadvertent involvement in a potential ripoff of American taxpayers?

Yeah, right.

The CBC reports:

Northern Biodiesel insisted the RINs issued were not valid because it had never received any bills of lading or chemical analysis reports from Verdeo, and thus Northern Biodiesel never reported/certified them with the EPA. However, millions of these RINs were sold in its name.

As a result, Northern Biodiesel RINs became tainted within the industry and [company owner Bob] Bechtold said that put him out of business.

“That was about the dumbest thing we ever did,” said Bechtold about the letter and coming forward to the EPA. “We thought we were saving the industry, doing good to protect the industry, but it ended up being the kiss of death for us, because we are no longer able to participate in the field.”

Why are we not surprised?

BP turning sour on cellulosic?

One of the most prominent names in Berkeley campus politics has been BP, once known as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company.

The oil giant’s $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute [EBI] effort to create next generation fuels at th Helios lab at UC Berkeley was the largest corporate funding ever on an American college campus, and the subject of some intense faculty politics after the school’s administration accepted the cash without the requisite consultation with the academic senate [which eventually voted an ex post facto approval].

The research, conducted in a purpose-built taxpayer-funded lab complex in downtown Berkeley, with the corporation occupying most of the space for its own proprietary research and the rest of the complex protected from prying eyes by campus security.

While the research has been going on for the past five years, one thing that hasn’t happened is the development of the technology for production of cost-effective internal combustion fuels from plant cellulose, the widely truumpeted goal of most of the research.

Chris Somerville, the multimillionaire bioentrepreneur who heads the Energy Biosciences Institute [EBI], admitted as much in an interview published earlier this month on the EBI website:

[I]t is probably premature to build a biorefinery for production of lignocellulosic fuels. Academic work in the field has not yet converged to an optimal process. As I said, we think that such an optimized process will be continuous. When we get to a situation where academic studies have converged on the most efficient process and predict economic feasibility without subsidies, then it will be appropriate to start building biorefineries. Some companies appear to have started building lignocellulosic fuel biorefineries because they have adequate confidence in their own technologies, they want to capture possible business advantages of being early movers, and (because of) pressure from the government to get on with it in order to preserve the subsidies that are currently available for advanced biofuels. I cannot evaluate the merit of these possible motivations.  However, based on technical progress in the field, I remain very optimistic that we will eventually have a very large industry based on lignocellulose feedstocks.

Somerville has a habit of omitting inconvenient truths, as we learned early on when covering the birth of the EBI for the late Berkeley Daily Planet.

Back when he was selling campus colleagues and the community on the BP grant, he repeatedly claimed that the crops used for the new miracle fuels would be grown only on marginal land east of the Mississippi.

Chris Somerville

Chris Somerville

That was at best a gross distortion. First, the “marginal lands” were those which had been taken out of production under the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which was created to end farming on lands susceptible to catastrophic erosion. Lobbyists for Big Agra and Big Oil managed to get a law passed that removed the protection if the land is used for growing fuel crops — thus gutting a program created to head off a return of the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

The land also provides critical habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife Continue reading

Quote of the day: Mitt’s loss, Yoo mommy’s gain

UC Berkeley law prof and Bush II torture enabler John Yoo, quoted in New York:

My mother is a geriatric psychiatrist. I thought after the election this could be really good for the family business.

Björk’s musical “Mutual Core”: Science meets pop

Icelandic singer Björk [Guðmundsdóttir] loves science, and her latest album, Biophilia, combines her passion for music with her fascination with science, exemplified here in the video for “Mutual Core,” comparing the passion between between two people with the meeting of tectonic plates.

Directed live by Andrew Thomas Huang in Reykjavik and with computer graphics crafted under his direction in Los Angeles, the video was also the subject of an entertaining Scientific American blog post by Ferris Jabr.

We propose the video as the official Cal Bears football anthem, since they play in a stadium built directly over the San Francisco Bay Area fault the federal government predicts as the most likely source of the region’s next major shaker.