GOP’s Solyndra probe threatens to ensnare Energy Secretary Chu

The controversy over a $535 million loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt California solar firm Solyndra is threatening to dim the star of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a physicist and Nobel Prize winner who had, until now, rarely been thrust into the political spotlight.  

Republican lawmakers have set their sights on Chu, who for three years has managed to avoid being dragged into a litany of political battles waged by Republicans and the White House on energy and environmental issues.

The GOP has for weeks lobbed a slew of allegations at the administration, arguing officials rushed a final decision on the loan guarantee and missed a series of red flags that hinted at the company’s financial troubles. Solyndra declared bankruptcy two years after receiving the Energy Department loan, resulting in layoffs for 1,100 workers. 

{mosads}Now, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are increasingly turning their attention to the role that Chu played in overseeing the loan guarantee program.  

The ongoing fight over Solyndra could put Chu, who is not known as a political brawler, in uncharted waters.

Republicans are pointing to a recent Los Angeles Times story that says Chu disagreed with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others when they raised concerns about the loan guarantee program during a meeting last October.

“We need to hear from Secretary Chu and [White House Office of Management and Budget Director Jack] Lew to fill in some of the blanks,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who sits on the Energy panel’s investigative subcommittee, told The Hill in a phone interview Wednesday. “The buck has to stop someplace, and presumably it stops with the heads of those agencies.”

Burgess and other Republicans on the subcommittee have called on Chu to testify on the Solyndra loan guarantee.

Republicans on the panel wrote to Chu last week to request all communications between the Energy Department and the White House on the Solyndra loan guarantee.

The document request is part of a broader effort by Republicans to determine if the White House rushed consideration of the loan guarantee.

The committee, which launched its investigation into Solyndra in February, has already received more than 35,000 documents and has released select emails that Republicans say show that the White House tried to rush a decision on the company’s financing so that the loan guarantee could be announced at the Sept. 2009 groundbreaking of the company’s factory.

The administration has insisted that it thoroughly reviewed the project, and has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Though Republicans say they want to hear from Chu, Sean Bonyun, spokesman for committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), said the panel has not yet formalized plans for the secretary to testify.

Democrats and clean-energy advocates have criticized Republicans for their investigation, arguing it is a transparent attempt to score political points.

“This is not about Solyndra, this is not about the loan guarantee program, this is about Republicans going after the president,” said Marchant Wentworth, who focuses on clean energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Before Obama chose him as his Energy secretary, Chu had little experience running a massive bureaucracy like a federal agency. In 2004, Chu became the director of the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. The laboratory employs about 4,000 people.

By contrast, the Energy Department employs about four times that number.

Chu represents an unfamiliar target for the GOP, which has frequently sparred with top administration officials on energy policy.

Republicans bashed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the aftermath of last year’s oil spill, arguing he imposed a “de facto ban” on drilling in the Gulf.

And Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has testified before Congress so many times one congressman even joked that she should have her own parking space. Jackson has borne the brunt of more criticism than any other top administration official for moving forward with a series of air regulations that Republicans say will place a massive burden on the economy.

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Though Chu has largely avoided controversy, he came under fire from Republicans before he was confirmed by the Senate for calling coal his “worst nightmare” during a 2008 speech. Chu walked back those comments slightly during a Senate hearing in 2009, after he was confirmed, calling over-reliance on coal a “bad dream” but stressing that it will remain a major part of the country’s energy portfolio.

Chu has won the praise of clean-energy advocates and is generally well-respected by Republicans, too.

“He’s been public about renewable energy and energy efficiency and knowledgeable in a way that we have not seen in an Energy secretary for a long time,” Wentworth said.

{mossecondads}Chu is best known for offering detailed and nuanced analyses of the energy landscape.

He has been a staunch advocate of making large and consistent investments in clean energy, arguing that it’s the only way that the United States can compete with countries like China, which have put billions into solar and wind.

Even amid growing criticism from Republicans, Chu has said the Energy Department will continue making such investments. The department, for example, announced the finalization of two loan guarantees for solar companies Wednesday totaling more than $1 billion

At an event in Washington this week, Chu delighted a crowd of energy industry officials with a rough history of the automobile – an anecdote he used to encourage long-term investment in low-carbon technology to ensure the United States wins what he calls the “clean energy race.”

Chu told the crowd, “The United States didn’t invent the automobile, it actually became the dominant automobile manufacturing force in the 20th Century by becoming the low-cost producer.”

After the meeting, Chu huddled in the corner with a group of scientists and listened intently for about 10 minutes.

“These are his people. He’d stay here all day if he could,” one of Chu’s aides remarked.

Tags Michael Burgess

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