Category Archives: Global Corporate U.

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.

GMO labeling defeated, Berkeley mayor loses two

The huge influx of corporate cash and a deceptive ad blitz convinced California voters to go against their own interests and defeat Proposition 37, which would’ve required the labeling of food derived from genetically modified organisms.

The gutted news media failed to report on the true scale of deception involved in the campaign, and the source of the paychecks for all those “experts” who appeared in the corporate-sponsored ad blitz. The corporateers won, and handily.

Here in Berkeley, neoliberal Mayor Tom Bates, who rolls over the instant he hears a corporateer’s or a real estate developer’s wallet open, win reelection, but two of his pet measures didn’t.

One, Measure S, was designed to “cleanse” the streets of the homeless, the victims of neoliberalism, by barring them from sitting or lying on the city’s sidewalks. Measure S was defeated by a narrow margin, losing by 1,055 of a total of 33,767 votes cast.

The mayor’s second major proposal, Measure T, would have gutted a citizen-crafted plan for the city’s shoreline region, allowing high-rise development in hopes of attracting “synthetic biology” and other corporate startups spawned by would-be billionaire scientists from the university up the hill.

The measure went down to defeat by 123 votes of a total of 31,611 votes cast.

For complete results from local races, see the Alameda County Registrar of Voters web page and click on “open all categories.”

And now for a word from our sponsor [not]

We’re voting yes on California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that requires labeling foods containing the fruits of genetic modification.

Living in Berkeley, when “bioengineering” reigns supreme at the little college up the street, we’re rather bemused at the millions corporations are spending to defeat the measure, using the classic forms of deception previously employed to convince folks that smoking was equivalent to breathing pure mountain air.

You’d think corporateers would be delighted to have the efforts labeled and acknowledged. But no. They want to conceal their “contributions” to our dietary intake.

So here are two of the many excellent video spots produced by Vote Yes on Prop 37 featuring some very familiar faces:

Trust Us: Vote Yes on Prop 37

Grocery Costs: Vote Yes on Prop 37

Please join us in voting yes. Let’s give the corporateers their due acknowledgment.

And, no, we have no sponsors other than our own peculiar sense of obligation.

UC Berkeley forum on neoliberalism, student debt

Leading off tomorrow night’s event will be Bob Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations [CUCFA] and Professor of Political and Social Thought at UC Santa Cruz. Click on the image to enlarge:

From Reclaim UC:

Debt is a permanent feature of most of our lives. Yet the socialization of risk debt represents isolates individuals, locking us in the private misery of our dealings with banks and creditors. Medical debt, student debt, consumer debt, foreclosures — these social forms mark so many personal failings and moral obligations, we are told. Debt, in other words, not only insures our continued servitude to the corporate pursuit of dwindling private profits. It also serves to alienate us from one another, and foreclose the possibility of collective resistance. Debtors’ Assemblies, then, are a first step in fighting back to reclaim our stolen futures. Please join us Wednesday, October 24th from 5-6 in front of California Hall for the first in a series of weekly Debtors’ Assemblies to learn more about the many forms of debt and discuss ways to resist debt’s claim upon our lives. Robert Meister will speak briefly at the beginning of the first assembly.

Another small shaker, next to Cal Stadium

The latest quake, striking six minutes before this post, hit just four buildings south of U. C. Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium, directly in front of the  Alpha Chi Omega house at 2313 Warring Street.

Here’s the date from the quake’s  U.S. Geological Survey web page:

Magnitude 2.3
  • Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 03:02:24 UTC
  • Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 08:02:24 PM at epicenter
Location 37.869°N, 122.251°W
Depth 7.7 km (4.8 miles)
  • 2 km (1 miles) E (99°) from Berkeley, CA
  • 5 km (3 miles) ESE (123°) from Albany, CA
  • 5 km (3 miles) NE (41°) from Emeryville, CA
  • 8 km (5 miles) NNW (346°) from Oakland, CA
Location Uncertainty horizontal +/- 0.2 km (0.1 miles); depth +/- 0.3 km (0.2 miles)
Parameters Nph= 56, Dmin=1 km, Rmss=0.14 sec, Gp= 22°,
M-type=duration magnitude (Md), Version=1

A reminder: Tonight’s the night for GMO meeting

A very important meeting tonight in Berkeley will confront some of the most important issues of the day, both for folks concerned about the future of the University of California and for the world.

We hope to see you there.

A reminder: Questioning the Green Agenda

An important talk coming up this Thursday here in Berkeley with some excellent speakers, some of whom we know and respect.

Important talk: Questioning the Green Agenda

For local readers, here’s an important event coming up next week. See you there! Click on the image to enlarge.

Scientists Under Attack, corporate power run amok

Scientists Under Attack, Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money, a 2010 documentary by Bertram Verhaag for Denkmal Films, focuses on the confrontations between two biologists and the power of the genetic corporateers.

The first is Árpád Pusztai, a respected scientist who lost his job with the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, after a furor erupted over then-unpublished results of experiments revealing that a genetically engineered potatoes changed the epithelial cells in lab animals.

The second scientist, UC Berkeley’s own plant micobiologist [and friend] Ignacio Chapela [previously], was targeted by Monsanto for research demonstrating that genes from the company’s genetically modified corn had infiltrated native seed stock in Mexico, the land of origin for modern maize and the source of its greatest biological diversity.

As a result of the campaign, he was denied tenure at Cal, winning it only though a court battle, events we covered when we reported for the Berkeley Daily Planet.

From Denkmal Films:

Árpád Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela have two things in common. They are distinguished scientists and their careers are in ruins. Both scientists choose to look at the phenomenon of genetic engineering. Both made important discoveries. Both of them are suffering the fate of those who criticise the powerful vested interests that now dominate big business and scientific research. Statements made by scientists themselves prove that 95% of the research in the area of genetic engineering is paid by the industry. Only 5% of the research is independent. The big danger for freedom of science and our democracy is evident. Can the public – we all – still trust our scientists?

UC Davis’s pepper-spraying cop skeedaddles

Lt. John Pike, the UC Davis campus cop who became a figure of infamy after blasting peace UC Davis Occupy protesters with an industrial-sized canister of pepper spray, has departed university employment and left for parts unknown.

From Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times:

The UC Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed students during a campus protest last fall no longer works for the university, the Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday.

The employment of Lt. John Pike, who was captured on cellphone video in the act of spraying peaceful demonstrators, “ended on July 31, 2012,” UC Davis spokesman Barry Shiller said.

Shiller would not comment on the circumstances of Pike’s departure, citing privacy restrictions governing the release of such information. Pike declined to comment to the newspaper, saying he wanted to consult an attorney before speaking. Pike had been on paid administrative leave.

His actions Nov. 18 sparked widespread outrage with the dissemination of a video showing him repeatedly spraying the chemical irritant into the faces of seated students. Pike and other campus police officers contended that the spray was the “most appropriate” tool on hand to deal with what they described as an unruly mob that encircled the officers and refused to disperse.

Read the rest.

Lt. Pike servced as an exemplar of the University of California’s growing intolerance toward dissent, and inspired a considerable amount of ridicule.

Notably, his actions made him an iconic image, incorporated into at least two Tumblr websites. Some of our favorite images:

Where we’ll be today: Forum on UC Berkeley lab

The University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is planning a new billion-dollar-plus lab complex for the shoreline of Richmond, just north of Berkeley, where much of the work will focus on what’s blithely called “synthetic biology.”

The site of the complex, the university’s Richmond Field Station and the adjacent Campus Bay property, housed chemical plants that polluted the soil with scores of toxic metals and compounds and has been subject to a complex environmental cleanup.

The university fought the transfer of cleanup oversight from an agency with no toxicologists on its staff to one that does, and it took a long and often bitter fight by worried Richard residents to force the regulatory regime change.

Now site has been named the “preferred alternative” for the lab complex, which will be run by the university under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Energy, which is now headed by the lab’s former director, physicist Steve Chu.

Synthetic biology is being cast as the panacea for a wide range of urgent problems, but it’s a worrisome technology, given that lab-created life forms can’t be confined to the lab, as we’ve seen in the case of the technology’s earlier manifestations, genetically modified organisms, where genes inserted into crop plants have escaped into the environment and given rise to so-called “superweeds” resistant to powerful herbicides.

Our own expertise is in the politics of the toxic waste cleanup at the site, and the university’s history of resistance to citizen and local government efforts to ensure scientific oversight of the massively contaminated site.

Today’s gathering is part of the month-long LaborFest events in the Bay area.

Here’s their program for the event, which begins at 1 p.m. in the Richmond Public Library, 325 Civic Center Plaza:

The Richmond UC Synthetic Biology Laboratory, Labor Safety And The Environment — A Speakout and Discussion

What are the potential dangers of the new proposed lab in Richmond? These will be one of the issues discussed at a meeting on the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) & U. C. Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI) laboratory being brought to Richmond.

Speakers include:

  • Richard Brenneman, Research Journalist
  • Dr. Henry Clark, West Bay Toxic Coalition
  • Dr. Larry Rose M.D. Retired Ca OSHA Senior Public Health Medical Officer M.P.H. Occupational Environmental Medicine Assistant Professor at UCSF
  • Dr. Joany Chou, Injured Workers National Network IWNN and California BioSafety Alliance (for information only)
  • Jack Dwayne Thrasher, Ph.D., Toxicologist, immunotoxicologist, fetal toxicologist
  • A speaker From California Coalition For Workers Memorial Day

Hosted by California Coalition For Workers Memorial Day; Endorsed by United Public Workers For Action.

UC Berkeley’s infamous tank proposal tanked

UC Berkeley, the university that gave us the Free Speech Movement, wanted to become the first West Coast university with a tank, submitting a grant proposal to the Department of Homeland Security to buy a $169,000 Lenco BearCat — the name being an acronym for the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck.

The grant application included the university and the cities of Bverkeley and Albany, with the university claiming ownership and the cities having rights to use the “Counter Attack Truck” on an as-needed basis.

The notion of delpoying a tank [complete with rotating turret] against student protesters struck some folks as both sinister and ludicrous, and a barrage of adverse publicity ensued.

Here’s the outcome, posted on the university’s website:

The University of California Police Department, in collaboration with the Berkeley and Albany city police departments, recently pursued a grant for an armored emergency rescue vehicle. Law enforcement’s interest in obtaining a vehicle that would protect officers during situations involving oncoming gunfire (or to rescue victims during such situations) — such as occurred at Oikos University in Oakland a few months ago — is understandable.

However, the planned acquisition of the vehicle recently came to the attention of campus and city officials. Campus administrators evaluated the proposal and concluded that such a military-style vehicle is not the best choice for a university setting. UC Berkeley officials are in the process of canceling the order for the vehicle. Officials in Berkeley and Albany agree with the University’s decision.

Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
Tom Bates, Mayor of Berkeley
Farid Javandel, Mayor of Albany

“Not the best choice for a university setting”? Heck, it would mesh perfectly with Cal’s role as linchpin of that military/industrial/academic complex Ike warned us about.

And they wouldn’t have to go through the nasty inconvenience of cops actually having to club students and faculty, as you’ll see in this promotional video of the beast at work via vlogger matisSVK:

Headline of the day: Global Corporate University

From AlterNet:

What Happens When Public Universities Are Run by Robber Barons

Monsanto loses major Brazil GMO case

And the subject is soybeans, presumably including strains developed by UC Berkeley’s Chris Somerville, who made millions selling genetically modified soy to Monsanto.

Somerville currently serves as head of the campus side of the Energy Biosciences Institute [EBI], funded with $500 million of BP money to develop GMO crops and microbes BP can use to produce transportation fuels.

The Brazilian case centers on one of Monsanto’s most insidious practices: Turning farmers into corporate serfs by banning the the practice at the heart of agriculture since its beginngings — saving seeds to plant next year’s crop — and imposing royalties on farmers whose crops by be contaminated by their own GMOs.

The story from Subodh Varma of the Times of India:

Five million Brazilian farmers have taken on US based biotech company Monsanto through a lawsuit demanding return of about 6.2 billion euros taken as royalties from them. The farmers are claiming that the powerful company has unfairly extracted these royalties from poor farmers because they were using seeds produced from crops grown from Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds, reports Merco Press.

In April this year, a judge in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, ruled in favor of the farmers and ordered Monsanto to return royalties paid since 2004 or a minimum of $2 billion. The ruling said that the business practices of seed multinational Monsanto violate the rules of the Brazilian Cultivars Act (No. 9.456/97).

Monsanto has appealed against the order and a federal court ruling on the case is now expected by 2014.

Read the rest.

A telling quote defines the essence of the farmer lawsuit:

“Monsanto gets paid when it sell the seeds. The law gives producers the right to multiply the seeds they buy and nowhere in the world is there a requirement to pay (again). Producers are in effect paying a private tax on production,” Jane Berwanger, lawyer for the farmers told the media agencies.

Here’s a video report from RT

Featuring am interview with Shelly Roche of ByteStyle.TV:

Luisa Massarani, writing for Nature, describes the potential impacts:

Brazil is the second-largest producer of genetically-modified (GM) crops, after the United States. Last year, it farmed 30.3 million hectares of the crops, mostly soya beans, but also corn and cotton. It legalized the growing of GM crops in 2005, after it became clear that about three-quarters of the soya crops produced in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul were already being grown from Roundup Ready seeds that had been smuggled in from Argentina. Because the crop is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup, farmers can spray they fields with the chemical to control weeds without risking damage to their crops.

Since the legalization, Monsanto has charged Brazilian farmers 2% of their sales of Roundup Ready soya beans, which now account for an estimated 85% of the nation’s soya-bean crop. The company also tests Brazilian soya beans that are sold as non-GM — if they turn out to be Roundup Ready, the company charges the farmers responsible for the crops some 3% of their sales.


On 12 June, the judges of the Brazilian Supreme Court of Justice ruled against Monsanto, deciding unanimously that the ruling by the Justice Tribune of Rio Grande do Sul, once it is made, should apply nationwide. Monsanto has declined to comment on the case.

Some scientists fear that if the company is forced to repay royalties, it could trigger cuts in funding for biotech research.

Read the rest.

If they prevail in the end, the farmers could have a major impact on Somerville’s BP project, which aims at creating massive industrial-scale plantations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for proprietary agrofuel crops.

Scientists vs BP: Guess who won?

When two scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute [WHOI] learned of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the promptly volunteered their expertise to assess the extent of the massive underwater oil spill.

Little did they know that two years later they’d find themselves in court, on the losing end of a motion filed by oil giant BP that would force them to reveal both the raw and spirited contention that goes into scientific research but the secrets of their own inventions as well.

And the net result could prove chilling to both the scientific deliberative process and to the willingness of scientists to give themselves freely when their help is needed.

The events that have shocked the scientific community should also serve as a reminder to UC Berkeley scientists that their emails could well be targets of the company that effectively bought the university with the largest corporate research grant in the history of American academia.

Dampening the volunteer spirit

We being with a summary of the what happened, from Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian:

A pair of scientists have accused BP of an attack on academic freedom after the oil company successfully subpoenaed thousands of confidential emails related to research on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

The accusation from oceanographers Richard Camilli and Christopher Reddy offered a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes legal manoeuvring by BP in the billion-dollar legal proceedings arising from the April 2010 blow-out of its well.

It also heightened fears among scientists of an assault on academic freedoms, following the legal campaign against a number of prominent climate scientists.


The two researchers turned over some 50,000 pages of research notes and data to BP. But BP demanded more, and obtained a court subpoena for the handover of more than 3,000 confidential emails.

Read the rest.

Now for some background

Christopher M. Reddy and Richard Camilli are scientists at Woods Hole. A marine chemist, Reddy directs the Director of the Institution’s Coastal Ocean Institute, while Camilli is an associate scientist with a specialty in oceanic physics and engineering.

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion on 20 April 2010, the two volunteered their time, expertise, and equipment to survey the extent of the oil spill, but found themselves block by BP.

Here’s Camilli’s testimony to the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling on 27 September 2010:

And here’s what they discovered when they were finally allowed in, via a 19 August, 2010 report from WHOI:

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have detected a plume of hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a residue of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the study, which appears in the Aug. 19 issue of the journal Science, the researchers measured distinguishing petroleum hydrocarbons in the plume and, using them as an investigative tool, determined that the source of the plume could not have been natural oil seeps but had to have come from the blown out well.

Moreover, they reported that deep-sea microbes were degrading the plume relatively slowly, and that it was possible that the 1.2-mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume had and will persist for some time.

The WHOI team based its findings on some 57,000 discrete chemical analyses measured in real time during a June 19-28 scientific cruise aboard the R/V Endeavor, which is owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the University of Rhode Island. They accomplished their feat using two highly advanced technologies: the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry and a type of underwater mass spectrometer known as TETHYS (Tethered Yearlong Spectrometer).

Read the rest.

And the lawyers play games

Having spent nearly five years covering litigation in Southern California’s most elite court venue, we can pretty much parse the reasons why BP wanted the emails.

The answers to be found in a two-word phrase: Exculpatory evidence.

Science can be a rather messy affair before it gets to the stage of the well-crafted journal article or heavily footnoted report as scientists “blue sky” a whole range of hypothesis, not a few of which are simply off the wall. There’s good reasons for doing it that way, throwing out all manner of ideas and concepts while honing down the focus to the set that best fits the data.

But to a lawyer defending one of the world’s biggest corporations against massive civil suits, getting hold of those spontaneous communications can prove a wonderful thing in court, allowing a crafty litigator to create alternative scenarios aimed solely at discrediting an adverse witness.

And the reality of modern communications technology is that its residues last forever, providing a potential gold mine for advocates consumed by the notion of dazzling or bamboozling a jury.

And so, being the zealous advocates they are, BP’s lawyers struck for the jugular, and when the dust had settled, they got everything — including sensitive proprietary information about costly hardware they scientists had invented.

Before the age of emails, scientists would debate their evidence through old media, from phone calls to letters, and much of those exchanges would simply vanish, either forgotten or relegated to the wastebacket.

The scientists were alarmed, writing to the Boston Globe:

Ultimately this is not about BP. Our experience highlights that virtually all of scientists’ deliberative communications, including e-mails and attached documents, can be subject to legal proceedings without limitation. Incomplete thoughts and half-finished documents attached to e-mails can be taken out of context and impugned by people who have a motive for discrediting the findings In addition to obscuring true scientific findings, this situation casts a chill over the Continue reading

From RT, The Greekification of California

We suggested last week that California is the next Greece, and now someone with more academic luster posits much the same:

The program notes:

The state of California has been in a downward spiral when it comes to it’s financial situation. Governor Jerry Brown is now proposing implementing austerity measures to pull the Golden State out of the red. Social programs such as welfare and healthcare for the poor are the first to be slashed and Dr. Caroline Heldman, politics professor at Occidental College, joins us with her take on the situation.

CaliforniaWrap: Austerity ravages the Golden State

Is California the next Greece?

It’s a legitimate question given the attacks on the California commons that began with Proposition 13 and continue with the ongoing ravaging of the institutions built up over the generations.

Starved of cash by a powerful set of interests organized by the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Taxpayers Association, and other industry-backed lobbies, the state is looking very Grecian these days.

Jerry Brown, the Swidden governor

Back in the days we were studying anthropology in the Groves of Academe, slash and burn was the name given to the practice of primitive forest agriculture where farmers burned the existing vegetation, then planted their crops in the ash-enriched soil. Once the soil is depleted, the farmers move on to slash and burn again.

Today the practice is called Swidden,

But unlike the practitioners of old, California’s slash-and-burn governor will have no new forests to burn once this one’s consumed.

From Guy Adams of The Independent:

Taking a deep breath, California’s most powerful man strode to a lectern and unveiled the fiscal policy that he hopes will keep America’s most populous state from falling into bankruptcy.

“You name it,” he declared, “and we’ve got to cut it!”

It wasn’t the most nuanced announcement. But this is no time for subtlety. After years watching his state fall deeper and deeper into the red, Governor Jerry Brown used a gloomy Monday night press conference to unveil what aides described as the ultimate in austerity budgets.

Welfare payments, healthcare for the poor, and benefits for elderly and disabled Californians will be immediately slashed by around $8.3bn (£5.2bn), which equates to roughly 17 per cent of Mr Brown’s entire discretionary budget. And state offices, which employ roughly 200,000 people, will switch to a four-day, 38-hour work week.

The radical proposals came days after it emerged that the Golden State, which is currently suffering 11 per cent unemployment, has a projected annual deficit of $16bn, far higher than the $9bn predicted in January. Its total debt is now around $40bn, giving it the lowest credit rating of any US state in recent history and prompting fears of a Greek-style default crisis.

Read the rest.

As with most government cuts under the austerian regime, the poor and the young will be those most hurt.

More details from Steven Harmon, Josh Richman, Sharon Noguchi, and Karen de Sá of the Oakland Tribune:

In his revised budget, Brown also proposed cuts to hospitals and nursing homes to reduce Medi-Cal costs; barring colleges and universities that can’t meet minimum performance standards from taking part in the Cal Grant program; reducing state workers’ pay by 5 percent through contract renegotiations; and using assets that used to belong to local redevelopment agencies.

K-12 schools and community colleges would be hit hardest if the tax proposal fails at the ballot, a $5.5 billion plunge that would drop their funding to $48.2 billion. In the current fiscal year, schools, which get about 40 percent of the state’s general-fund revenues, received $47 billion.

Read the rest.

And the downgrade warning follows

Note the perversity of the modern financial game: If you don’t impose austerity, you get downgraded. In other words, you’re only rewarded for inflicting misery. And unlike S&M games, there’s no “safe” word to temper the violence of the market.

One bond rating agency was quick to respond to Brown’s apocryphal pronouncement, reports Chris Megerian of the Los Angeles Times:

The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s warned on Tuesday that it could downgrade California’s financial outlook if lawmakers don’t pass a credible budget plan this year.

A final budget is due June 15, and lawmakers’ task has become increasingly difficult as the state’s deficit has swelled to nearly $16 billion.

“We could change the outlook to negative or lower the rating if we believe the state’s credit quality weakens through the budget process,” said a report from Standard & Poor’s.

The ratings agency had upgraded California’s financial outlook from “stable” to “positive” in February. That means California’s credit rating of A-, the lowest of any state, is poised for improvement.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal is a solid starting point, said Standard & Poor’s, but there are many political and policy hurdles left to go.

Read the rest.

Hitting hard at California’s college students

Naheed Rajwani of UCLA’s Daily Bruin reports on the impacts of Brown’s proposal of concern to students in the state’s higher education system:

Under the revised budget proposal, both the University of California and the California State University systems would each need to absorb $250 million, which is $50 million more than what was proposed earlier this year.

These cuts will not materialize if Brown’s proposed tax measure passes in November. The measure would raise the sales tax by a quarter percent and increase income taxes on the wealthy, raising an estimated $8.5 billion in extra revenue for the state.

In his proposal, Brown also revised the amount of money that can be allocated to the UC Retirement Plan, from $90 million to $52 million. That number will not be affected by the passage of the tax measure.

The California Legislature will now review the proposal and is expected to pass a final budget in mid-June.

Read the rest.

Canadian students would be up in arms

That’s because yet another tuition hike is certain, following on a wave of increases that have sent the costs of attending UC campuses soaring to levels that ensure many enrollees will be forced to take out those odious student loans to cover the costs.

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Nanette Asimov reported a week ago:

The University of California will need to charge students at least 6 percent more for tuition next fall – an extra $732 – to stave off more layoffs and program closures, say UC leaders who will ask the regents next week to consider raising the price in July.

“At minimum we’ll need 6 percent,” said UC’s budget czar, Patrick Lenz, noting that an increase of that size would take care of most of the $139 million shortfall expected for next year.

The problem, Lenz said, is that all of those numbers could get worse.

Read the rest.

When the Regents met in Sacramento to discuss the tuition hike yesterday the discussion was derailed, at least for a time, when students rose to protest.

Here’s a clip of their action va the UCLA Daily Bruin:

Pat Flynn of San Diego’s U-T [formerly the Union-Tribune] reports on the outcome of the delayed discussion:

The UC regents will consider boosting tuition again, by 6 percent, at a meeting in July. If approved, it would raise the cost to $12,923 a year, nearly double what it was five years ago. That does not include the Continue reading

Faculty warns of Brown/Yudof assault on UC

A very important alarm from the combined membership organization of the faulty of the University of California:

The Council of University of California Faculty Associations is a coordinating and service agency for the several individual Faculty Associations — associations of UC Senate faculty — on the separate campuses of the University of California, and it represents them to all state- or university-wide agencies on issues of common concern.

From the Council:

What Governor Brown’s May Budget Proposal Means for UC

UC President Mark Yudof and Governor Jerry Brown are working out a deal behind closed doors that will loosen the most important ties between the university and the state.

Although they will both praise the deal by saying that it “stabilizes” funding while granting greater “flexibility,” its essence is that each will let the other off the hook: UC will mute complaints that it does not get enough money from the state and the state will stop holding UC accountable for the money it still gets.

The likely result is that UC will dump a larger number of eligible Californians onto the CSU and Community Colleges, which will in turn pass on their overflow to for-profit schools, where students take on inordinate amounts of debt with a very high likelihood of default.

Here are some key elements of the deal:

* UC will continue to raise tuition-at least 6% based on the Governor’s January budget proposal, likely more now that the Governor’s May revise reduces UC funding by $38 million, and much more if the Governor’s fall tax initiative fails to pass. (, pg. 2)

* UC will no longer promise the state that it will admit a fixed number of California students in return for the enrollment funding that the state provides. For next year, and presumably from now on, UC will be allowed to use taxpayer funding as it pleases, without being accountable for the number of in-state students it educates (, pg. 19). This means that UC is likely to enroll fewer California students, and to replace them with out-of-state and international students who pay more. The likely result is that UC will be able make more on average from its enrollments, that the state is likely to pay less, and that middle-income Californians will get less access to UC.

* UC will henceforward be allowed to commingle the state funds it uses for operations, such as teaching, with the funds it uses to pay debt service on new construction (, pg 43). UC has said that this added “flexibility” in its use of both state and non-state funds will allow it to squeeze out more for operations by delaying or stopping unnecessary construction projects. But since 2004 it has been doing the opposite, squeezing operational budgets that could be funded by higher tuition to leverage more construction. The state should have held UC accountable for its use of higher tuition on California students to gain greater access to the construction bond markets, which were impressed by its ability to increase enrollments while raising prices. Instead, the state will give UC carte blanche in its use of both state and non-state funds. It might use this greater flexibility to spend more on construction. But from now on no one will ask, and no one will know.

Finally, UC will be able to say that how much it spends to educate Californians and how many of them it enrolls is its own business, and not the state’s. If UC thinks its traditional mission is a money-loser, it can now use its continuing, but declining, revenues from the state to diversify into fields where it sees a brighter future. It will not be expected to draw on its other, more entrepreneurial, activities to subsidize public higher education, but instead will be allowed to use state educational funds to subsidize these other activities — and especially the capital projects necessary to get them off the ground.

The core of the agreement between the Governor and UC is that UC will no longer be held accountable for its priorities in the use of any of its resources (public or private) — and especially for making it a priority to educate Californians.

Under Governor Schwarzenegger, UC got the state to agree that it should provide only as much public higher education for Californians as the state is willing to pay for. Under Governor Brown it will be free to provide even less than the state is willing to pay for. Unless this agreement is reversed, state funding for UC will continue to fall as UC separates itself from the rest of California’s Master Plan. We are reaching the point of no return.