UC biofuel institute a legacy from embattled BP

Missing from the lineup of BP executives undergoing what a British newspaper calls a “ritual flogging” is a man who should be quite well known on the UC Berkeley campus.

He’s the oil company’s former CEO, John Browne, under whose auspices BP gave UC Berkeley $500 million to set up the Energy Biosciences Institute to develop a “new generation of biofuels,” in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It was part of Browne’s attempted branding of BP as the world’s first “green” energy company – “Beyond Petroleum” was his invention – which produced spin-offs like BP Solar, whose CEO, Reyad Fezzani, is a board member of the Bay Area Council.

But had Browne, a former Stanford University grad student, now formally known as Baron Browne of Headingley, appeared under the congressional klieg lights with his successor Tony Hayward on Thursday, he might have been asked about the phrase “more for less.”

That was Browne’s “mantra,” according to British author Tom Bower, whose just-published book, “Oil: Money, Politics and Power in the 21st Century,” goes into detail about BP, its involvement in the gulf and Browne’s cost-cutting, corner-trimming drive for increased profit and higher share price, whose consequences we are now aware.

In a telephone interview, Bower said the gulf spill is Browne’s “poisoned legacy.” And it’s a legacy that Hayward knowingly inherited.

“Hayward had called Browne’s culture disastrous,” said Bower. “He came in knowing he had to remedy the defect. He had enough time to change it, but he didn’t change it fast enough. BP kept cutting corners, which led to what happened in the gulf.”

Bower doesn’t have much good to say about U.S. regulators – whose actions, or lack thereof, so far appear to have escaped Congress’ attention – nor does he think the disaster will serve as a wake-up call, as President Obama has vowed, on the way America consumes energy.

“No president has ever forged a successful energy policy. Every time the U.S. has some sort of oil emergency, everyone cries they’ll do things differently, but it doesn’t happen.”

Keeping the faith: As for Browne’s local legacy, the Energy Biosciences Institute, in its third year, employs more than 300 researchers and has funded 68 projects, including a 320-acre EBI Energy Farm in Illinois where various biofuel feed stocks are being evaluated ( http://www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org).

Asked whether the enterprise has suffered any blowback from the gulf spill, spokesman Ron Kolb said, “Apart from our understandable sadness, our research lives have been unaffected by the events.

“We have a 10-year mandate to develop renewable biofuels, and BP shows no indication of pulling out of that commitment.

“If anything, the oil spill has made our efforts even more urgent, in the sense that our success could lead the way toward weaning this nation off its reliance on fossil fuels.”

Last call? “After 7 yrs of kicking ass, getting drunk, and forgetting names, we have lost our lease and closing down!”

So went the announcement on a Facebook page, posted by bartenders at San Francisco’s House of Shields. The last day of the century-old saloon (“where time stands still”), according to the post, is June 26. The original owner’s lease isn’t being renewed, said the landlord, Coast Counties Properties Management Inc.

But is all lost? No, according to its new proprietor, Dennis Leary, who owns the Sentinel next door, and Canteen, on Sutter Street. House of Shields will close for the summer, for some “refurbishment,” he told me, to return, in greater glory, in the fall.

Naturally, we shall trust, but verify.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/06/17/BUC91E0AQ5.DTL

For more information about Biofuel Investments please visit www.sceptreinternational.com

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