Biofuels Lab Threatens Strawberry Canyon 

UC Berkeley's BP facility would cut down three times as many trees as the controversial athletic center.

The public protest against the University of California's plan to build an athletic center in the middle of an oak grove was easily the top story in Berkeley over the past year. The tree-sitters attracted national media attention for their fight to save 41 trees next to Memorial Coliseum. But the university's little-noticed, yet sweeping plans just up the road from the football stadium have received much less scrutiny — and no protests — despite the fact that they could inflict significant environmental damage, and result in the loss of more than three times as many trees.

Ironically, the university's tree-cutting plans in beautiful Strawberry Canyon, a favorite for local hikers and nature lovers, involve an attempt to save the planet. One of the buildings the university plans to erect in the tree-studded canyon would be the Helios Energy Research Facility, a massive laboratory dedicated to developing a biofuel alternative to fossil fuels. The facility would house 500 employees next to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and is to be funded by a controversial $500 million grant from British petroleum giant BP.

Plans for the building recently returned to the environmental design and review stage after a lawsuit filed earlier this year by a small group of environmentalists and activists, known as Save Strawberry Canyon. But the university has no plans to abandon the Helios facility, and likely will return the $159 million building proposal to the UC Board of Regents for re-approval next spring. A Regents subcommittee originally approved the building's plans in May.

Lynn Harris, a spokesperson for Lawrence Berkeley Lab, said university officials plan to re-evaluate geotechnical concerns raised by the Helios facility construction proposal. The building would be erected not far from the Hayward Fault on weak colluvial soils in an area with a history of landslides. "The idea is that it will address some of the seismic concerns," Harris said of the redesign. University officials also intend to come up with a shorter and longer building design to address fears about blocking hillside residents' views of San Francisco Bay.

Stephan Volker, a Berkeley attorney who represents Save Strawberry Canyon, said he and his clients are pleased that the university is headed back to the drawing board. But they remain opposed to the construction of the 160,000 square-foot facility in the canyon. "The fragile Strawberry Canyon is an extremely poor choice," he said. The canyon is studded with oaks, redwoods, bays, eucalyptus, and laurels amid a chaparral landscape. It's also home to the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and the Lawrence Hall of Science. Members of Save Strawberry Canyon include Sylvia McLaughlin, founder of Save the Bay.

Along with the concerns about the loss of trees, Volker noted that the Helios facility it is to be built in a habitat for the endangered Alameda Whipsnake. In addition, the university's own environmental impact report notes that the facility is to be constructed down slope from a tritium plume — though the EIR claims that the "migration of the plume has generally slowed or stopped" and does not pose a risk. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The documents do not indicate the source of the plume.

Save Strawberry Canyon wants the university to build the Helios facility elsewhere. The group suggests the Richmond Field Station, an old research station, or on the UC Berkeley campus. "There are a number of locations they could be — other than a beautiful canyon," McLaughlin told Eco Watch. Save Strawberry Canyon also has cited environmental concerns in a lawsuit against the university's plan for another large building in the canyon, known as the Computational Research and Theory Project, a 126,000 square-foot facility.

But university officials have refused to seriously consider alternative sites for the two buildings because they believe their location in Strawberry Canyon will foster interaction and collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Research at the Helios facility will focus on finding and developing crop substitutes for fossil fuels. The research itself sparked controversy in the past few years after the revelation that it is to be funded by BP, raising questions in the academic community about the effects of huge corporate-backed endeavors at major public universities.

The members of Save Strawberry Canyon say they have no issue with the nature of research. The idea is to make ethanol from plant cellulose, which essentially is sugar. It's part of what some have termed the coming "Sugar Economy." To date, most of the attention on biofuels has focused on corn-based ethanol, which has proved to be an inefficient, costly substitute for gasoline. Corn fuels also have displaced valuable food-producing cropland. In addition, it remains unclear whether replacing gasoline with ethanol will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a story on National Public Radio last month, UC Berkeley researchers are currently examining miscanthus, a bamboo-like plant that's a relative of sugar cane and native to Southeast Asia. Miscanthus is much more efficient than corn and better for the environment, because it grows in extremely dense thickets without need for fertilizers and pesticides. Miscanthus reportedly can produce up to 2,500 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. By comparison, corn yields less than one-sixth as much — 400 gallons.

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