House Wants Info on Obama’s Involvement in Green Energy Subsidies

Fred Lucas | August 9, 2012 | 5:01pm EDT
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Vice President Joe Biden viewed an electric car that used Ener1 batteries as he toured the Ener1 battery factory in Greenfield, Ind., on Jan. 26, 2011. (White House photo/David Lienemann)

( – New government e-mails show stark division among top White House and Obama administration officials regarding federal subsidies to green energy companies, prompting Congress to seek more information about what President Barack Obama knew and how involved he was regarding the largely failed strategy of doling out money to wind, solar and other alternative energy companies.

Government e-mails show President Obama was scheduled to get a personal briefing on green energy loans three months before Solyndra’s bankruptcy, and his former chief of staff swatted away criticism from members of the White House economic team about the loans.

Moreover, an e-mail stated that Obama hears about the energy loans at political events where “he interacts with business community and Congressional members – many of them have some affiliation or interest in the numerous applications we have received that involve substantial funds.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Obama seeking answers on the matter.

“The failure of several companies that received loans under the program, including Solyndra’s August 2011 bankruptcy, led to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds,” said a letter from House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Trey Gowdy (R-N.C.).

“The newly-obtained documents show that senior members of the administration were aware of substantial risks to taxpayers and objected to the way the funds were being distributed. They were overruled,” they wrote.

The committee is seeking information about the 1705 Loan Guarantee Program that is intended to help solar, wind, advanced battery and other alternative energy companies grow and leverage more private investment. Numerous companies either failed or went into bankruptcy, notably the politically connected Solyndra, which received a $535 million loan from the Energy Department before going into bankruptcy.

A review by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, found that 19 of the companies that received loans or grants by the Obama administration have filed for bankruptcy or are in the process of doing so. This included Fisker automotive, which got $529 million; Beacon Power, which got $43 million; First Solar, which received $1.46 billion from the federal government; and Ener1, a subsidiary EnerDel that received $118.5 million.

The committee letter cited numerous e-mails between Energy Department officials. The e-mails demonstrated disputes between Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was pushing the green loans and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was critical of the loans.

Top White House officials such as one-time Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, were also skeptical, according to the e-mails obtained by the committee.

On June 16, 2011, Jonathon Silver, director of the loan program office for the Energy Department, and senior advisor Peter O’Rourke exchanged e-mails about the green subsidies

“Chu is right not to gloat publicly, but the full deal going forward minus a year is a close [sic] to an annihilation of the economic team’s position as you could possibly hope for,” Silver wrote. “Its [sic] actually [then White House Chief of Staff Bill] Daley giving them a fig leaf. Think about it. Let’s do some serious gloating when I get back. Total victory.”

O’Rourke responded, “Yeah, even more so given that Geithner chimed in. Kind of nuts that Chu defeated Treas Sec., OMB head and NEC head.”

An e-mail exchange a few days later makes it appear that Chu planned to make it clear to Obama there was “interagency angst” about the loan program, particularly about concerns that loan applicants were getting “unjust enrichment.”

On June 24, 2011, Chu’s Chief of Staff Brandon Hurlbut e-mailed Chu a draft version of slides to show to Obama at the forthcoming June 27, 2011 daily economic briefing.

“The president actually hears about [the loan guarantee program] because at official events and political events he interacts with business community and Congressional members – many of them have some affiliation or interest in the numerous [loan guarantee] applications [DOE has] received that involve substantial funds,” the Hurlbut e-mail said.

Chu responded to Hurlbut, “We need to tell the President the truth, as we see it. We need to also present the other side’s point of view as fairly as possible.”

Some OMB officials “felt that a better deal could have been brokered by DOE and asked us to renegotiate,” Chu further responded to his chief of staff. “Other agencies would sometimes argue that a particular loan is ‘not in the spirit of the Recovery Act,’” he added.

The letter specifically asks Obama to direct the White House counsel’s office to provide a “complete explanation” of his involvement in the 1705 Loan Guarantee Program; a list of individuals Obama met with at “official” and “political events”; a list of all loan projects discussed at these events; and any communications to or from White House officials about the loan program using either their government or personal e-mail accounts.

On Aug. 2, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated the White House assertion that the energy loans were merit-based after the House Energy and Commerce Committee released its report on Solyndra.

“The president firmly believes that it is the right decision to invest in clean energy technologies in this country, because if we do not, we will cede those industries to China and India and Europe and elsewhere,” Carney said. “The president is not willing to do that – because those industries will be essential to the economic growth of the United States in the 21st century and to the energy security of the United States in the 21st century.”

Obama took a question on Solyndra at an Oct. 6, 2011 press conference, saying the loans were merit-based and made entirely by the Energy Department.

“I will tell you that even for those projects under this loan guarantee program that have ended up being successful, there are those in the marketplace who have been doubtful,” the president said. He continued, “And all I can say is that the Department of Energy made these decisions based on their best judgment about what would make sense.”

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