President Barack Obama likes to brag that his energy secretary, Steven Chu, won a Nobel Prize in physics. You would think that means that Chu is a brainiac who makes shrewd decisions and is extremely aware of whatever is happening around him. But as his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday revealed, there's a world of information that escapes Chu's notice.
The subcommittee is investigating Chu's decision to make Fremont, Calif., solar power company Solyndra the first recipient of a federal energy program loan in September 2009. Two years and $528 million later, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy, and it looks as if taxpayers will not see a dime of it. The Nobel Prize winner's pet pick was a bust.
Thursday was supposed to be Chu's moment to take responsibility for this high-profile bad "bet" -- as Obama once put it. Chu did say, "The final decisions on Solyndra were mine." Yet by the end of the hearing, Chu was using the passive voice and putting the onus on other people. As he looked back at the whole thing, Chu said that "competent decisions were made by the people in the loan program," that green energy is important and that everyone knew "there were risks."
If the White House was pushing for the Solyndra deal because Obama campaign contribution bundler and frequent White House visitor George Kaiser owned an equity firm that backed Solyndra, it was news to Chu. Ditto on communications between Solyndra backers and top White House operatives. Who knew?
The Nobel laureate was "not aware" of staffers' predictions that Solyndra would go broke, even run out of cash in September 2011.
In September 2009, Chu approved the Solyndra loan. He clearly missed the Office of Management and Budget staff's recommendation that the deal be "notched down" in light of "the weakening world market prices for solar generally." When he showed up at Solyndra's groundbreaking, Chu announced, "If you build a better solar panel, the world will beat a path to your door."
As Rick Perry would say, "oops."
In March 2010, PricewaterhouseCoopers warned that Solyndra's recurring losses and negative cash flows raised "substantial doubt about (its) ability to continue as a going concern."
And still, Chu was a booster. In May 2010, Obama appeared at a Solyndra event, chatting up Chu's Nobel history and proclaiming, "The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra."
A month later, Solyndra canceled a planned $300 million public offering.