NASA boss investigated for possible conflict of interest on biofuel project

Charlie Bolden asked Marathon Oil for its opinion on Project OMEGA — but he has financial interest in Marathon, which has a competing project

While millions of barrels of spilled oil choke the Gulf of Mexico, NASA is working on an ocean-based biofuels venture that could revolutionize clean-energy production at sea and treat wastewater at the same time.

The scientist running the $10 million experiment, called Project OMEGA, uses words such as groundbreaking and exciting to describe his baby. But there’s a hitch.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden doesn’t believe in OMEGA — and has sought to slow it down.

The reason: He was advised against it by Marathon Oil — the Texas-based company on whose board Bolden sat until he was named NASA administrator last year. The former astronaut and Marine Corps general also still holds as much as $1 million worth of Marathon stock.

So far, the project is proceeding without any signs of obvious interference, according to scientists and officials. But Bolden’s decision to vet OMEGA with a company in which he has a significant financial interest — and that also has invested in a competing biofuels proposal — has prompted an investigation by the NASA inspector general.

For the full story, including a very interesting illustrated primer on this algae-to-biofuel based technology, go to
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/space/os-nasa-administrator-scandal-20100620,0,4126603.story

Our Take:
Whether it is NASA administrators owning oil stock while they make decisions on alternative fuel projects, or public officials like Mary Nichols, the director of California’s Air Resource Board, who impact such public policies as low carbon fuel standards while owning significant capital in the oil industry—this shows what is wrong with the current model of energy production and distribution in the U.S.—it is owned by megawealthy multi-national corporations with no incentive to see “beyond petroleum,” as BP used to claim in its public relations materials. The number of interested parties involved in government and the resulting cozy arrangements that arise do not serve America’s public interest. Big Oil is a dinosaur, and one that’s size by its very nature taints energy policy. The oil companies have very little incentive to act in the best interest of local communities or the environment.
Farmer-owned energy, specifically ethanol and biodiesel production offer the groundbreaking model for locally-owned energy. A farmer-owned ethanol plant represents a major capital investment in a specific locality, an investment that may be the sole capital investment of its company, and in any case will not be easily packed up and moved overseas. As a major employer and fixture in its community, a farmer-owned ethanol plant has a huge stake in being a good neighbor, and assuring that the local environment and residential neighbors are safeguarded.
Now that gooey tar balls are reaching the white sands of the Florida panhandle and gulf coast, we have to say we think BP doesn’t have the same incentive to be a good neighbor or they never would have undertaken the risky venture that has led to the environmental disaster that has dominated the news for two months now.
We hope leaders at every level have the vision and the will to clean house and sever ties between Big Oil and those who shape energy policy. And we hope NASA starts by handing Holden a pink slip.

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