Obama Officials Defend Solar Loan to Bankrupt Firm as Emails Show Past Concerns

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Obama administration officials on Wednesday defended a $528 million loan to a solar-panel company that went bankrupt this month, claiming the firm fell victim to global economic trends but that federal investment in alternative energy must continue.

The testimony came as Republican and Democratic lawmakers raised sharp questions about the decision that ultimately left taxpayers on the hook for millions, and as newly released emails show administration officials were raising doubts about the loan proposal to Solyndra months before it was finalized.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the program was "shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty," questioning whether the loan represented "one bad bet" or the "tip of the iceberg."

Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the White House budget office, acknowledged that Solyndra's bankruptcy will "limit the government's recovery of funds." He called the outcome "very unfortunate."

But at a hearing Wednesday, he said administration officials provided a "thorough examination and analysis" of the loan proposal and said a "challenging global solar market" has made business harder for companies like Solyndra.

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    Jonathan Silver, director of the Energy Department's energy loan office, also said a combination of factors -- namely China flooding the marketplace with cheap solar panels and the European buying market tightening as a result of their economic troubles -- has caused solar-cell prices to plummet.

    "These changes were particularly damaging to Solyndra," he said.

    Silver said Solyndra's projects were considered "advanced" dating back to 2008. "In 2009, Solyndra appeared to be well-positioned to compete and succeed in the global marketplace," Silver said.

    But emails released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee show that the relevant credit committee decided "not to engage in further discussions with Solyndra" in the final days of the Bush administration. After the change in administration, officials restarted the loan review process for Solyndra.

    "A half a billion dollars that was not supported in January under the Bush administration was ... conditionally recommended in March," Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, pointed out.

    Asked whether political influence played a role in the loan being approved, Silver said, "I don't believe so."

    The emails at least show budget analysts felt rushed by the White House to review the loan guarantee in time for an announcement by Vice President Biden in September 2009.

    The concerns flared in August 2009, when staff with the Energy Department wrote of a "major outstanding issue," relating to the project's solvency. They noted an estimate said the project would run out of cash in September 2011.

    But other administration officials presumed the parent company, as well as private investors, would cushion the project and ensure its completion.

    The company filed for bankruptcy this month. The FBI raided the company on Sept. 8.

    The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday is part of a seven-month investigation.

    One Republican aide said the emails released as part of that probe show the White House was more concerned with press events surrounding the loan than the soundness of Solyndra. The aide said "corners were cut."

    According to the House committee, the average review time for White House budget officials screening Energy Department loan guarantees is 28 calendar days. The committee said that for Solyndra, the first such loan guarantee made by the department, the review took just nine days.

    Officials expressed concern about the review process in the run-up to the Biden announcement.
    One White House budget official asked that the announcement "be postponed." Another email complained about "rushed approvals," and said "we are worried" about Solyndra. However, the announcement went forward as planned

    The emails show White House officials repeatedly checking with the Office of Management and Budget on the progress of its review of the loan ahead of the high-profile groundbreaking for the company's new factory.

    One email from a budget official referred to "the time pressure we are under to sign-off on Solyndra."

    One exchange showed a budget analyst in March 2009 warning the deal was "not ready for prime time."

    But the White House denied that it was trying to influence the result of the financial reviews, and it has defended the federal loan.

    "This loan guarantee was pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "The Department of Energy's overall portfolio of investments -- which includes dozens of other companies, continues to perform well and is on pace to create thousands of jobs."

    He said private-sector investors, "who put more than $1 billion of their own money on the line," also saw potential in the firm.

    Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of energy, wrote in a USA Today column that "expanding production has coincided with short-term softening demand," suggesting Solyndra was the victim of economic circumstance.

    Democratic lawmakers, while raising questions about this particular loan, said it's important to keep funding clean energy projects.

    "We are in danger of losing this industry to our competitors, especially China," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said.