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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Energy Secretary Steven Chu was on Capitol Hill today answering questions about an issue that may come to define his time in Washington. That issue can be boiled down to one word: Solyndra. The solar-panel maker received a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee under the stimulus package, part of a green energy program administered by the Energy Department. Two years later, it filed for bankruptcy. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, Chu was called by a House subcommittee to defend his agency and its handling of Solyndra.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Secretary Chu told members of the House the U.S. government must help clean energy companies compete against the heavily subsidized firms in China, and that the loan to Solyndra was not driven by politics.
SECRETARY STEVEN CHU: Over the course of Solyndra's loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations. My decision to guarantee a loan to Solyndra was based on the analysis of professional - experienced professionals and on the strength of the information they had available to them at the time.
NOGUCHI: Compared to some of the previous hearings on Solyndra, this four-and-a-half-hour affair was, for the most part, civil. Texas Republican Joe Barton told Chu he felt the loan program was mismanaged, but that he had faith in Chu's answers.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE BARTON: And I know as a man of integrity, you're going to do your best because I do sincerely mean that, that you are a man of integrity.
NOGUCHI: But there were plenty of sharp questions for the energy secretary, a physics Nobel laureate. Some, like Texas Republican Michael Burgess said he felt Solyndra was too risky a bet.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL BURGESS: Do you understand how people are uncomfortable with this concept of the Department of Energy behaving as a venture capitalist?
CHU: Well, as I said before, this loan program was set up by Congress, and Congress appropriated in the 1705 program $2.4 billion to account for the losses.
BURGESS: As someone who was sitting in this committee in 2005 when the loan guarantee program was approved, I don't think any of us could have foreseen what was around the corner.
NOGUCHI: Republicans have held Solyndra up as an example of abuse of power, saying the Obama administration tried to rush the process to advance its clean-energy agenda. They've said the Energy Department tried to benefit a big Obama fundraiser, and that it even tried to influence the timing of layoffs at the company until after the 2010 midterm elections. At the hearing, Democrats rushed to make their own case, saying Republicans cherry-picked emails, and that they were taking potshots at green energy to please their oil and gas political donor base.
Chu repeatedly and categorically denied all the allegations of undue political influence; here, responding to Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette.
REPRESENTATIVE DIANA DEGETTE: Did any Obama campaign donor ever contact you and ask you to take any action relating to the Solyndra loan guarantee or to the restructuring of that loan guarantee?
CHU: No, no one did. No Obama campaign.
DEGETTE: You're under oath.
NOGUCHI: But Republicans weren't finished. They zeroed in on energy's decision to restructure Solyndra's loan. Chu called it a difficult decision but said he approved it in the hopes of salvaging taxpayer investments. But the restructuring meant private investors would get paid before taxpayers in bankruptcy. And Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise took Chu to task for not taking advice to consult the Justice Department about whether it was legal to subordinate taxpayers.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE: The Treasury Department's saying you ought to go to the Department of Justice, because we don't think it's legal to put the taxpayer in the back of the line on a $535 million loan. Why didn't you at least do that due diligence?
NOGUCHI: Chu said his legal counsel told him it was not necessary. Several Republicans suggested Chu might want to apologize to taxpayers, but he offered only regrets; here, to Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN SULLIVAN: Knowing what you know today, would you approve that loan?
CHU: Certainly knowing what I know now, we'd say no. But you don't make decisions you fast forward two years in the future and then go back. I wish I could do that.
NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, Solyndra pushed its bankruptcy auction back a second time - to January - after failing to receive any bids. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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