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DOE Secretary Chu: Solyndra Was Based on Merits, Not Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

How far is the Obama administration willing to go to foist ‘green’ jobs onto a pedestal? Why are politics coming before the stewardship of taxpayer dollars? Why was this administration so dedicated to propping up the solar power company Solyndra? What did Secretary Chu do to address repeated concerns over Solyndra’s financial health? Was this whole affair ever meant to be a good deal for anyone other than its hedge fund investors?

Although several Democrats resisted Solyndra’s failure as anything resembling a ‘scandal,’ these were some of the questions asked by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Florida), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, in his opening  statement during the House Energy and Commerce hearing on “The Solyndra Failure: Views from DOE Secretary Chu” Thursday morning.

Predictably, Secretary Chu’s prepared line of defense argued that, because China has aggressively extended more than $34 billion in subsidized credit lines to solar energy companies, and governments like Germany and Canada offer strong support to their domestic clean energy industries, the United States government must either “compete or accept defeat.” The price of solar has plummeted more than 40% in the past year alone, and with deteriorating market conditions, manufacturing companies in particular have a difficult time getting off the ground. The DOE was facing the choice, Chu said, of either forcing Solyndra’s immediate bankruptcy, or restructuring the loan guarantee to allow the company to accept emergency financing. Ergo, instead of calling their losses, Secretary Chu decided to forge ahead, offering Solyndra multiple injections of taxpayer dollars.

After Republicans’ questioning, and making much use of the passive voice (i.e., “decisions were made”), Secretary Chu insisted that there was no direct White House influence of a political nature. He denied ever having spoken with either President Obama or his campaign donors about whether to refinance Solyndra’s loan, and that, at the time, he was unaware of the e-mails that came through his department asking that Solyndra delay the announcement of layoffs until after the 2010 elections. The decisions to refinance Solyndra’s loans were his own, said Chu, based on what he believed to be the company’s merits and potential.

Secretary Chu maintained that he always acted with the best interest of the taxpayer in mind rather than the desire for green energy jobs, although, when asked how much of the ‘invested’ taxpayer money he expected might be recovered, Chu said, “I’m anticipating not very much.”

Many of the Republicans’ points revolved around the multiple red flags and warnings that came from the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury, the DOE’s own staff and legal counsel, and the company’s auditors, concerning the health of Solyndra’s finances. Also, Republicans argued, Secretary Chu technically violated the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which prohibits the subordination of public money (in this case, to Solyndra’s private investors). Although Chu said he did not believe he had broken the law, he admitted that, after refinancing, taxpayers no longer had “first dibs” on any potential returns.

Democrats’ questioning, however, took rather a different, yet familiarly talking-point-laden, tack: One, it’s the previous administration’s fault; and two, the government’s actions are unassailable if they were done in the quest to combat global warming. Many used their allotted time, not so much to question Secretary Chu and get to the truth of the situation at hand, but rather to preach about the Bush administration and the necessity of subsidizing the “solar energy revolution” and creating a green-energy world.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) was adamant that the loan guarantee was recommended to be preceded upon by the Bush administration as they were leaving office. However, no loans were actually issued until after Secretary Chu took office in January of 2009.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) reprimanded Republicans for manufacturing a scandal against the Obama administration, and reamed Reps. Stearns and Upton for provoking a conflict with the White House. He touted Republicans’ aversion to admitting to the facts of climate change, blaming their ‘anti-science, anti-progress’ views and their powerful fossil-fuel allies for doing anything possible to foil clean energy. “Stop dancing on Solyndra’s grave,” Waxman scolded, and get serious about energy policy.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) took the dramatic line, saying that, instead of an “Occupy” movement, Republicans are creating a “Preoccupy” movement with Solyndra to distract from the tens of billions of dollars worth of subsidies that go to the fossil fuel industry, and are content in their complete ignorance of the solar-energy revolution going on.

But as Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Republican from Tennessee, reminded the Committee, “this is not a hearing on solar energy,” but rather a hearing on the possible abuse of executive power and taxpayer dollars. “I find it troubling that there was so much you weren’t aware of,” she told Secretary Chu.

After nearly five hours, Chairman Stearns concluded that Secretary Chu has shown he does not have the financial acumen for the job, and that the President should reconsider his position as Secretary of Energy. "I think the secretary is unaware of so many things that have happened that would question his financial ability and his management of very complex corporations," Stearns said. "So I just think he has failed the test."

After all, how many more half-a-billion dollar loans can the American taxpayers afford to lose?

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