Obama energy chief says he deserves high marks for trying to lower gas prices

Energy Secretary Steven Chu stood firmly behind his department’s efforts to address volatile gas prices and invest in clean-energy projects Tuesday amid aggressive attacks from House Republicans.

Chu, during a tense House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, defended the Energy Department’s embattled loan program and gave the agency high marks for working to develop a long-term plan to protect consumers from soaring pump prices.

At one point, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked Chu whether he’d give his efforts to control gas prices an “A-,” the same grade he gave to the department’s work on the loan program.

“The tools we have at our disposal are limited, but I would say I would give myself a little higher in that since I became secretary of Energy, I've been doing everything I can to get long-term solutions,” Chu said.

The Energy secretary, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is a top target for Republicans as they criticize the administration over soaring gas prices and taxpayer-backed investments in energy projects.

Chu, speaking to reporters after the hearing, said his gas-price grade was based on the limited tools the Energy Department has to address costs.

"There’s lots to be done, much more to be done," he said. "Anything the administration can do to bring down gasoline prices, it will do."

Chu said lawmakers are "obsessed" with giving out letter grades.

"Let’s try to rise up above letter grades and this and that because, again, we will do the best with what we have," he said.

Energy experts say that federal policymakers have few options to lower gas prices in the short term, as they are tethered to oil prices, which are set on world markets. Chu has said that there are no silver bullets to rising pump prices.

The Republican National Committee quickly jumped on Chu’s gas price comments, forwarding a video of them to reporters.

Republicans have sought to blame the Obama administration in recent weeks for high gas prices, which reached a national average of almost $3.85 per gallon Tuesday, according to AAA.

The GOP has pounced on Chu’s 2008 comments about increasing gas prices to European levels, arguing that the administration wants high prices in order to incentivize a shift to cleaner energy sources. Chu disavowed the comments at a recent hearing and again distanced himself from them Tuesday.

“Since I became secretary of Energy, that is no longer my goal,” he said.

The tussle over gas prices was one of several confrontations at Tuesday's hearing.

Committee Republicans blasted Chu’s oversight of stimulus-law programs to grant taxpayer-backed loans for clean-energy projects and to weatherize homes. Issa issued two reports Tuesday raising questions about the programs.

One report alleged that the loan program “exposed taxpayer funds to excessive risk as a result of DOE’s bias toward approving loans without regard to warning signs.”

The Energy Department, ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, aggressively pushed back against the allegations. Dan Leistikow, a top spokesman at the department, said the report is part of the GOP’s pattern of “cherry-picking individual emails from the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents the Department has provided to Congress with the sole purpose of inventing false and misleading controversy.”

The House GOP has pummeled Chu over the loan program in recent months, spurred by the September collapse of Solyndra, a California solar panel maker that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the department in 2009.

Republicans have alleged that the department missed warning signs that hinted at loan recipients' financial problems, and they’ve claimed that the administration approved loans to please Obama’s campaign donors.

A year-long House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation has uncovered no evidence that the Solyndra loan was granted for political reasons. But it has uncovered documents that are embarrassing and politically damaging for the White House, including that officials raised questions about the wisdom of granting the loan guarantee.

Chu aggressively defended the loan program Tuesday, dismissing the allegations of political influence.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, we evaluate each loan application on its technical merits,” he said.

In his opening remarks, Chu said that oversight of the loan program is a “top priority,” and welcomed outside review.

“Rigorous peer review and double-checking someone else’s findings are fundamental to a sound scientific process — and I believe the same is true in government,” he said. “So I welcome any and every sincere effort at oversight, and where we find mistakes, we have and we will move swiftly to correct them.”

Another report authored by committee Republicans called the Energy Department’s weatherization program “a stunning example of how the Obama Administration has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars in a misguided effort to achieve energy savings but ultimately commissioning work that put people’s lives and homes at significant risk.”

The report documents instances of poor and in some cases potentially dangerous work conducted by companies that weatherized homes as part of the program.

Chu defended the program, insisting that the vast majority of the weatherization projects were done properly.

“We are not happy with those instances that were shoddy workmanship,” he said, adding that the program had “robust oversight.”

“In those instances that there has been shoddy workmanship, we went back and insisted that they fix it with no cost to the taxpayer,” he said later.