At the university, the United Nations, and the jungle where biofuels crops are replacing rain forests, the world debate is growing on the proper role for the fast-growing crops-to-fuel industry. This week, UN Energy unveiled an international report on the potential opportunities and pitfalls of the growing multibillion-dollar bioenergy market. Meanwhile, opposition to a $500 million deal between BP and the University of California, Berkeley, to create a bioenergy center increases. The contract with the huge U.K.-based fossil-fuel developer is problematic for those both in and outside the university. Opponents fear that the UC system and the public will be the losers in the scandal-ridden oil company's deal because of its size and terms. "It sets a dangerous new precedent," warned Jennifer Washburn, who authored the book The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. She and others fear that the Berkeley-BP agreement will turn the bioenergy center into a BP for-profit subsidiary. It is also troubling because the conflict-of-interest-riddled deal could taint our future energy mix. BP could dominate the partnership to keep a corner on the transportation fuel market, whether by monopolizing commercialization of inventions to propel biofuels forward or by holding back inventions to jack up the return on its conventional petroleum-based investments. The practice of suppressing technology or scientific information is not without precedent. Just watch Who Killed the Electric Car to learn of the widespread allegations that Detroit suppressed breakthrough battery technology that could have thrust the electric vehicle to commercial success. BP, after all, is a business that must profit or die, just as the professors at UC must publish or perish. At the same time, corporate-funded research at public and private universities continues apace. However, the BP-UC deal announced in early February is 20 times as large as the $25 million, 5-year deal that Chevron and another public university, UC Davis, signed last year. It is twice the size of the biggest previous deal between a corporation and a private university. That one was a 10-year, $250 million pact between ExxonMobil and Stanford University to research energy and climate change. Given its sheer size and strategic location, there can be little doubt that the BP-Berkeley partnership will wield major influence over the world's energy future. Also, there should be no surprise that BP chose UC Berkeley. The campus is the premier public university for a state that is laying the U.S. groundwork for a carbon-constrained future in accordance with state law AB 32. Moreover, California is pursuing a low-carbon fuel standard that is expected to open a major market opportunity for biofuels, which include ethanol and biodiesel made out of organic matter, instead of fossil fuels. Under the deal, BP will be in a key position to commercialize any inventions that grow out of the new bioenergy center. The company is a big, powerful player - and one with far more financial clout than any private or public utility or alternative fuel developer. And, like its oil company brethren, it does not want to lose market share. This could be good news, but consumers and regulators must be wary of the potential for such a powerful oil company to use the UC Energy Biosciences Institute to monopolize research and development in a way that impedes other novel sources of energy for transportation. For instance, one of the most promising technologies is to use off-peak electricity to fuel plug-in hybrid cars. In turn, plug-in hybrids have the potential to store off-peak power, particularly that supplied by wind projects. These cars are also possible mini distributed-generation systems that could power home appliances, reducing demand on the grid. Giving BP too much clout on alternative fuel development could also relegate other renewable energy supplies and energy efficiency to the sidelines. So with the potential merger of the grid and the transportation sector in the offing, the market stakes are huge in the final outcome of the BP-Berkeley deal. Impacts on the environment and world economy also loom. The UN report Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers predicts that biofuels produced from plants could supply one-quarter of the world's energy demand. "Global production of biofuels alone has doubled in the last five years and will likely double again in the next four," it states. It also warns of the fuels' varying ability to cut greenhouse gases, particularly if forests or fallow land are cleared to plant fuel stock. If nonfossil fuels take off as expected, it could mean idle refineries and lower returns on oil investments. Thus, I won't bet on unbiased research results from the bioenergy center. Juggling information coming in on biofuels, I also see that while ethanol production and the number of cars that can run on the currently corn-based fuel soar, ethanol pumps are few and far between. Federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blame oil companies for the shortage (see story below). In addition, while oil companies insist that cellulosic biofuel is not ready for prime time, the U.S. Department of Energy said otherwise this week. Cellulosic ethanol will be commercially viable by 2012, according to Alexander Karsner, DOE's assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. No more research and development is needed, he testified before a House panel this week. Instead, according to Karsner, the trick is to put in place policies that will attract capital needed to build commercial-scale production plants for cellulosic ethanol. Karsner said the Bush administration's proposed 35-billion-gallon-a-year renewable fuel goal would provide a big enough market to stimulate commercialization of a cellulosic ethanol industry. However, that will presumably tread on current oil company turf. So what is happening on the ethanol front highlights potential pitfalls of the UC-BP deal, particularly given how it's skewed in BP's favor. For example, BP has the right to propose the institute's director. The associate director would be employed by BP. In addition, 50 BP employees would have full access to UC research and staff in the lab, which is to be built with part of the $500 million. Moreover, part of the lab would be controlled by BP. The oil company's research there will be proprietary, and access to its part of the lab is to be restricted. Robert Sanders, UC spokesperson, confirmed that research done in BP's section of the lab would not be open to the public but limited to select UC staff. BP's work would also be proprietary. However, all research done in the UC section is to be "open and published," he said. In addition, BP, along with UC researchers, will bid for funding from the $500 million research pot. Sanders was not aware of a dollar limit on BP employees' access to the bioenergy center funding. The center's touted mission is to develop alternative energy sources and reduce the carbon impact of energy consumption. Sanders called the collaboration particularly valuable because of BP's "knowledge of what works in the marketplace." Negotiations between the university and BP continue in private, and the deal is expected to be signed July 1. I can see the allure of the deal to UC, particularly as public research money continues to dry up. However, its fundamental flaw is best summed up by The Jungle author Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."