JUICE: Smoke Gets in Our Eyes

By Published On: May 30, 2008

One recent Sunday morning, I was at a sidewalk café with a group of friends. A shiny new Hummer drove up on the curb and parked right in front of us. With the engine still running, the driver hopped out of the car and went into the café. The exhaust from his Hummer spewed all over our food and table. I was furious but my tablemates just shook their shoulders. I’ve seen some of these same friends, however, go berserk when a person lights up near them. I, too, loathe cigarette smoke but I find polluting emissions from vehicles far more objectionable. My dear friends’ disparate reactions reminded me of legislators’ disparate response to a climate change project pitched by state regulators and another deal between a public university and BP involving a new biofuels center. California lawmakers are trying to stub out the California Public Utilities Commission plan to create a $600 million, ratepayer-funded climate change institute at the University of California–the location is not yet decided. In spite of warnings, legislators, however, said little about an unprecedented $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. The commission and UC, however, are foundationally the same. Both are independent entities under the state Constitution. In addition to their autonomy, both are partially funded by the state. The budget hook is what legislators are using to pressure CPUC president Mike Peevey. They consider Peevey’s failure to first get their stamp of approval for the UC global warming institute as blowing smoke in their eyes. In contrast, the university’s budget was never threatened by Berkeley’s lopsided contract with BP, which could belch far more fumes. Why the disparate treatment? It’s because it is easier to slam the commission–particularly since the energy crisis. The university system has more clout and also is shielded by the “academic freedom” banner. That same freedom, however, was given short-shrift after Berkeley announced the proposed contract with BP, which could monopolize commercialization of energy discoveries and withhold inventions to boost its return on its investments. Much of the last year’s negotiations, which involve the largest deal between corporate America and a university, occurred behind closed doors. It allows BP full access to the university’s half of the institute, and allows the mega oil firm to exert strict controls over access to its area and research. In addition, BP’s research, unlike the university’s R&D, will be proprietary. University faculty, students and community members protested the unusually restrictive strings attached to BP’s $500 million, warning of the second hand smoke affecting the university’s standard governance processes. In particular, the one recommended against by an external review commissioner after a controversial arrangement with the private firm Novartis in 1998. The panel explicitly advised the university to “avoid industry agreements that involve complete academic units or large groups of researchers.” In contrast, the climate change institute proposed by the commission, while hitting consumers in the pocket book and not lungs, does not make one company the prime beneficiary nor allow a single firm or industry to call the shots. Last April, the commission unanimously approved using $60 million of investor-owned utility customer money every year for the next decade on researching and developing global warming reduction technologies. A couple of the regulators had reservations about the deal because of the burden on ratepayers, plus the fact that climate change impacts are not limited to utility customers. To win their support, Peevey agreed to add in safeguards, which include greater commission oversight of the institute, raising matching funds, tighter conflict-of-interest provisions, and subjecting the institute to performance reviews. Peevey, however, rejected pleas from those advocating for the health of ratepayers to require utility shareholders to also chip in. While the CPUC deal is far from perfect it smells like roses compared to the UC Berkeley-BP deal involving for profit ownership of academic research. And more so because the commission’s institute could provide needed competition to UCB-BP institute. It also doesn’t set a dangerous precedent. Some UC Berkeley faculty lamented that Berkeley set the corporate-university partnership bar at a new low. One professor told me that while visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faculty said oil companies proposed a similar deal with MIT but on “take it leave it” terms. It is problematic that utility ratepayers face continually rising utility bills. In addition, the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law, AB 32, should not be seen as an invitation to raid consumers’ pockets. But the CPUC climate change institute should be put in perspective in these times of dire global warming threats. Furthermore, the price of transportation fuels is at an all time high and expected to go higher. Policy makers and legislators wring their hands about the cost of fossil fuels to consumers, but fail to take meaningful steps to rein in oil companies. Hopefully, lawmakers, university officials, and some of my dear friends will soon see through the smoke and realize that oil company funded research is as troubling as that funded by tobacco companies. At a minimum, the former should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as cigarette money.

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