WASHINGTON — Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and other Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for awarding billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for renewable energy projects, including a $528 million loan to a now-bankrupt California solar panel maker. But the GOP lawmakers haven’t always been so critical of the program.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show the Louisiana Republican wrote to the Energy Department at least seven times since 2009 seeking money for projects that would benefit his home state.
One of the projects backed by Vitter — for a company that makes activated carbon to reduce pollution at coal-fired power plants — has received preliminary approval for a $245 million loan guarantee.
Numerous GOP senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have sent letters to the Energy Department seeking assistance for projects in their home states.
On the Senate floor last week, McConnell called the first stimulus law “a national punch line” that featured “turtle tunnels” and “ sidewalks to nowhere.”
But in 2009, McConnell wrote two letters to Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking for federal loans for a plant that would build electric cars in Franklin, Ky. McConnell said the loans said could help create 4,000 jobs..
“I hope you will realize the importance of such job creation to Kentucky,” he wrote in a July 2009 letter supporting ZAP Motor Manufacturing. The plant did not receive DOE money.
In April 2009, Vitter urged Chu to approve a loan for Red River Environmental Products, saying the Coushatta, La., company could help meet a growing demand for products that help power plants comply with stricter federal regulation of mercury emissions.
“I understand the importance of accessing the domestic energy resources we have, like coal, in an environmentally conscious manner,” wrote Vitter, who also backed projects for nuclear power, renewable diesel fuel and a company that makes fuel-efficient cars.
Vitter and other Republicans have pounced on the bankruptcy of Fremont, Calif.-based Solyndra Inc., saying the White House rushed to approve a loan guarantee to the politically connected company without adequate oversight
Vitter said in a statement Monday that he has “always pushed for an ‘all of the above’ energy policy which certainly includes renewables,” but added: “In the age of Solyndra, we need full transparency and accountability.”
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who chairs a subcommittee that is investigating the Solyndra deal, also has supported projects that promote green jobs.
Stearns, who heads the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, endorsed a battery manufacturing plant in Jacksonville. The Saft America Inc. plant makes lithium-ion battery cells for military hybrid vehicles and solar and wind energy storage. The plant received a $95.5 million grant from the Energy Department through the stimulus law.
Stearns and other lawmakers from Florida also backed a Florida company’s bid to win a loan guarantee for biofuel refinery plant in central Florida. New Planet BioEnergy LLC received $50 million from the Energy Department and a $75 million loan guarantee from the Agriculture Department.
“I am honored to join in welcoming Saft’s Li-ion battery manufacturing facility,” Stearns said in a March 2010 press release announcing the battery plant’s groundbreaking. “I recognize the contributions of these advanced rechargeable batteries in meeting our energy needs.”
A spokesman for Stearns said the congressman did not attend the groundbreaking last year, but merely provided a statement in support. Stearns also did not attend a ceremony last week when the plant formally opened with 100 employees, spokesman Paul Flusche said. Several Florida members of Congress attended the opening event.
Stearns said in a statement Monday that he supports clean and renewable energy and the jobs they produce, nationally and in Florida, “as long as taxpayer dollars are not put at risk.”
In Saft’s case, the company received a federal grant, not a taxpayer-guaranteed loan, Stearns said. “I had no role in Saft securing that grant; there is no indication that Saft, a French company, is financially troubled; and it has not been raided by the FBI,” as Solyndra was.
In response to the Solyndra Inc. debacle, Vitter has co-sponsored a bill that would require an inspector general investigation into any company that receives federal money for renewable energy and then goes bankrupt.
“We can’t afford any more crony capitalism where the federal government picks winners and losers and then leaves taxpayers on the hook when everything falls apart,” Vitter said in a news release announcing the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Vitter’s bill would also require that federal agencies conduct a full audit of any renewable energy projects that have received taxpayer money since 2009.
The audits would examine how many jobs were created and what the company’s profits are. Any company that declares bankruptcy or fails to meet the objectives required by the government would be subject to an inspector general investigation.
Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and laid off its 1,100 employees. The Silicon Valley company was the first renewable-energy company to receive a loan guarantee under a stimulus-law program to encourage green energy and was frequently touted by the Obama administration as a model.
The company’s implosion and revelations that the administration hurried Office of Management and Budget officials to finish their review of the loan in time for a September 2009 groundbreaking have become an embarrassment for President Barack Obama.