House Panel Questions Chu About Solyndra Loan

Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared before a House oversight subcommittee Thursday to defend his agency's decision to lend $500 million in federal money to Solyndra, a company that made solar panels and is now bankrupt. The company is the subject of numerous federal investigations.

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The political controversy over the collapse of Solyndra has not diminished. That solar panel maker got a half a billion dollar loan through a federal program aimed at encouraging alternative energy. That loan was approved by the Obama administration back in 2009, though the program was started under President Bush.

Now that the company has filed for bankruptcy, Solyndra is the subject of numerous federal investigations. Yesterday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was called to testify before a House oversight subcommittee about his agency's handling of the Solyndra loan. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: What the four-and-a-half hour hearing laid bare was that it's almost impossible to ask questions about Solyndra without wading into deep political divides. Here is subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, in the opening round of questions to Secretary Chu.

REPRESENTATIVE CLIFF STEARNS: Were you aware of that? That Solyndra was a bad bet? Yes or no.

SECRETARY STEVEN CHU: This is not - sir, that is not a yes or no question. Let me explain the context of what this email was about.

STEARNS: OK.

NOGUCHI: After gathering some quarter of a million pages of evidence, Republicans have said the White House tried to rush through Solyndra's loan for its political benefit. They said the Energy Department restructured the company's loan to benefit a big Obama fundraiser, and have suggested the agency even tried to postpone layoffs at Solyndra until after the 2010 midterm elections.

Democrats shot back, saying Republicans ignored evidence showing the administration did not try to influence the Energy Department. California Democrat Henry Waxman said, in fact, Republicans were using Solyndra as a platform to advance their own agenda.

REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: The agenda of congressional Republicans is clear: Do everything possible to maintain our addiction to fossil fuels and cripple clean energy companies that could compete with oil and coal.

NOGUCHI: For his part, Chu categorically denied having any contact with any Obama fundraisers, and said he was not pressured by the White House to speed up the loan process. Chu argued that if the country pulls its support for companies, even risky ones, that will mean ceding the technology race to places like China. He told members that last year alone China offered $34 billion in subsidies to its clean tech companies.

CHU: In the coming decades, the clean energy sector is expected to grow by hundreds of billions of dollars. We're in a fierce global race to capture this market.

NOGUCHI: But Republicans kept hammering away at the particulars of the Solyndra loan. Here, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn.

REPRESENTATIVE MARSHA BLACKBURN: Let me ask you this, why did you allow that company to continue to pull down millions of taxpayer dollars after you discovered the financial problems in that company.

CHU: OK, that's an excellent question. The loan was to build a factory. The factory was half built.

NOGUCHI: Chu said restructuring the loan gave taxpayers the best chance of recovering the most money. But this decision was where Republicans issued their harshest criticism. Renegotiating the loan meant private investors would get paid ahead of taxpayers if Solyndra failed. And Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise accused Chu of violating the law by subordinating taxpayers.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE: Does the taxpayer have first dibs on the $535 million when the first dollar comes in from Solyndra, if one even does?

CHU: At the time of the original...

SCALISE: That's a yes or no question.

CHU: Right now, after...

SCALISE: Yes or no, Mr. Secretary?

NOGUCHI: Chu eventually conceded, no. As it turns out, this may be a moot point. While Chu testified, Solyndra asked the bankruptcy court to push back its auction for the second time. It hasn't received any bids for its assets.

Yuki Noguchi NPR News, Washington.

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