Thursday, December 18, 2008

Biofuels surge under Obama?

Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, apparently can't be faulted for his dedication to dealing with climate change. Praise for the nomination ranges from Greenpeace to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But in a cabinet filled with ethanol boosters, his coziness with corporate sponsors of biofuels research makes me wonder what solutions to the climate crisis will get top priority, and top dollar after January 20th. Chu's biggest "get" was half a billion dollars from BP for biofuels research at UC Berkeley. Is Steven Chu BFF With BP? in Mother Jones magazine recounts his story and raises questions:
"Chu's role in creating the Energy Biosciences Institute may inform his approach to governing the Department of Energy, a major governmental underwriter of research, and one that will face pressure to partner with corporations in pursuing technological solutions to climate change. As the incoming Obama administration prepares to spend liberally to develop cleaner sources of energy, the structure of corporate-government partnerships will determine how the profits of that research return to taxpayers, and how rigorously scientists evaluate the downsides of controversial technologies such as biofuels."
Corporate sponsors have an outsized influence on universities these days. UC has done lots of work on fuel cells because the auto makers came up with the dough. UC is doing consumer studies today that exclude battery electric cars but include hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Can you spell Toyota? Berkeley will do lots of biofuels research because BP came up with the money.

Bush threw one billion dollars at hydrogen and fuel cells. Industry and universities have been feeding at the trough, but actual contributions to reducing global warming or petroleum dependence have been less than negligible.

Just when it seemed the overhyped promise of biofuels was diminishing, it may prove to have a second life under Obama.

Plug-in advocates are going to have our work cut out for us.