The White House contends that all energy loan guarantees, including the more than $500 million given to now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra, are awarded solely on the merits of the project, with no political influence from President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden or other administration officials.
But a series of emails from solar power giant BrightSource Energy Inc. show how the company applied political pressure and used behind-the-scenes cajoling to win a $1.6 billion loan guarantee in April 2011.
Emails obtained by The Washington Times show BrightSource leaders discussing in great detail how to best push the Energy Department to green-light the loan to fund the company’s massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert, the largest loan guarantee issued by the administration.
“We have a lot of force gearing up to leaverage [sic] them now, including the WH and VP office [Sen. Harry] Reid and [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein, and Gov. [Jerry] Brown” of California, reads an early March 2011 email from Arthur Haubenstock, the company’s vice president of regulatory affairs.
Mr. Haubenstock goes on to question whether the company should push its administration contacts to immediately arrange a call between Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar, a project proponent, or keep it in their back pocket “to blast through any last roadblock that may appear.”
The emails, which date from 2009 to April 2011, lay out lobbying strategies and key themes to be repeated to administration officials in the hopes they would exert influence on Mr. Chu and others at the top of the loan program.
Other emails from 2009 and the first 10 months of 2010 show apparent political calculations that BrightSource and affiliate companies hoped to use to their advantage. On Dec. 3, 2009, Bernard Toon — formerly Mr. Biden’s chief of staff who later became a lobbyist for Bechtel Corp., a mammoth construction company and contractor for the Ivanpah project — lays out how the project could help two influential Democratic senators.
“Calls are in to Biden’s staff and I will be approaching the political affairs office at the White House tomorrow as well, as this project could benefit two senators who are in cycle and whose races will be tough next year — [Barbara] Boxer and the Majority Leader, Sen. Reid,” he wrote in the message to BrightSource CEO John Woolard.
Emails also highlight other points to be hit during conversations with administration officials, one of which is that “1,000+ jobs” could be created in time for the 2010 midterm elections.
The vice president’s office contends that the loan not being approved until after the 2010 elections is proof that politics wasn’t involved.
“The fact remains that the Department of Energy made the loan guarantee based on its assessment of the project’s merits at the time, not on input from the White House or the office of the vice president,” Mr. Biden’s office told The Times.
The administration made similar arguments about the more than $500 million it awarded to the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra LLC.
BrightSource — whose investors include Google Inc., BP Global, Chevron Corp. and Morgan Stanley — doesn’t dispute the fact that it touted the project to influence-peddlers and the most powerful in Washington. While admitting that it ramped up the pressure in early 2011, BrightSource says politics played no role and that Ivanpah was simply deemed a worthy candidate for federal dollars.
“The Ivanpah project is an example of the [Department of Energy] loan guarantee program’s success. Today, the Ivanpah project is more than 60 percent complete and is on track to deliver power to the grid by 2013,” said Joseph Desmond, the company’s senior vice president of government affairs and communications. “In early 2011, we increased our efforts to get [the Energy Department] to make final its decision. We spoke to anybody who would listen about this great project — the largest and most technologically advanced of its kind in the world.
“The project was completely consistent with Congress’ intention when it established the loan guarantee program — to support the commercialization of technically innovative projects,” he said.
Mr. Desmond also pointed to the 2,100 construction workers currently on site, and to how it eventually will generate $650 million in wages and $300 million in state and local taxes over its 30-year life. It also will provide $400 million in interest payments to American taxpayers, he said.
Bechtel, the construction company involved in the Ivanpah project, also defended itself. Spokeswoman Michelle Michael said the company frequently talks about the importance of the loan program and the need to move “solid projects” forward in a “timely” manner.
But some critics aren’t buying the explanations of BrightSource and its partners. BrightSource, which would have been on shaky financial footing had the California project not gone forward, may have benefitted from years of political pressure, said Benjamin Cole, spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research, which conducts research and analysis of the government’s regulation of global energy markets.
“The American people deserve to know whether Vice President Biden, his staff or other White House political personnel were involved in the decision to provide hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to companies the administration already knew to be in trouble,” he said. “Congress has yet to fully explore” the issue.