Pennies to Clean Energy, Billions to Big Oil -- Mainstream Media Missing the Real Story on Solyndra

Thu, 2011-09-15 09:53Steve Horn
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Pennies to Clean Energy, Billions to Big Oil -- Mainstream Media Missing the Real Story on Solyndra

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing yesterday on the ongoing and growing scandal in the wake of the bankruptcy of Solyndra Corporation.

Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after laying off over 1,000 workers, is facing a barrage of attacks by both politicians and the media. The GOP and its right wing media echo chamber in particular have sought to condemn the entire U.S. clean energy sector as a result of an FBI raid of Solyndra's offices.

Things have spun so far out of control inside the Beltway that Rep. David Vitter (R-La.) is disseminating a bill that would, “require an inspector general investigation into any company that receives federal money for renewable energy development and then goes bankrupt.”

But Vitter's so-called Federal Accountability of Renewable Energy (FARE) Act is hardly a fair assessment of accountability across the entire energy subsidies spectrum.

Besides serving as an opportunistic moment to dance on the grave of a solar company, in the wake of Solyndra's economic downfall, we're witnessing a true disdain among Republicans for a clean energy technology that was invented here at home, and possesses the potential to help wean the U.S. from deep reliance on foreign energy. In the currently toxic political environment, the GOP seems more interested in ceding that job-rich opportunity to China.

Explaining the bill further, The Hill's Andrew Restuccia wrote,

Co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the bill would require that federal agencies conduct a full audit of any renewable energy projects that have received taxpayer money from fiscal years 2009 to 2011.

The audit must determine how successful the project is, including how many jobs it has created and what its profits are. In addition, agencies would be required to identify which venture capital firms helped finance the project.

Any companies that declare bankruptcy or fail to meet the objectives required by the federal government would be subject to an inspector general investigation under the legislation. 

In other words, the clean energy sector would be held to a completely different standard than is the all-powerful fossil fuel sector. Why don't we hear even more outrage from these same supposedly budget-conscious politicians about the hundreds of billions of dollars dumped by American taxpayers into fully-mature polluting energy sources that we know are harming our health, our climate and our security? How could anyone consider solar power the enemy?

A Lack of Perspective From the Media on Clout of Fossil Fuel Industry

​Solyndra has received a vast amount of media attention since the beginning of September, but very few outlets have conveyed the real story - that the fossil fuel industry receives billions of dollars in government subsidies on an annual basis, and leaves solar and other renewables manufacturers far and away in the dust.

According to a March 2011 story by the Christian Science Monitor, gas and oil interests receive a steep $41 billion per year in subsidies.  Also, according to a July 2010 article in the New York Times​, the fossil fuel industry at-large benefits from tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies on an annual basis.

Honing in on the oil industry specifically, the Times​ discovered that Big Oil receives over $4 billion in tax breaks each year, as shown by an October 2005 Congressional Budget Office report.

In addition, the fossil fuel industry maintains a powerful armada of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. The Los Angeles Times covered the depths of the industry's influence in a May 2010 article,

All told, the oil and gas industry spent $174.7 million and registered 788 lobbyists to influence lawmakers and regulators last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization. Since 1998, the industry has spent $966.8 million on lobbying, making it the sixth-biggest-spending interest group in Washington, the center found.

Furthermore, in a well-researched article today, the Center for American Progress' Brad Johnson revealed that the members who hosted this morning's hearing were the recipients of a lump sum of over $11 million in campaign contributions from the gas and oil industry. Johnson closed his article by pointing out the core flawed premise of this phony scandal. 

The solar industry is truly dependent on subsidies,” subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said at the conclusion of the hearing. Stearns did not express similar outrage about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have gone into subsidizing the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. None of the Republican members of the panel worried about the $11 million in subsidies they have received from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries in campaign contributions.

Rather than examine the dirty energy subsidy implications of this story, opportunistic politicians and media have focused on the *tiny by comparison* $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra initiated by former President George W. Bush and approved by current President Barack Obama. The bulk of the media have instead flocked to the “alternative energy must not be viable” narrative.  

Solyndra Loan was Pennies By Comparison – Were they Set Up to Fail?

It is no wonder then, that handed a loan that was pennies by comparison to what the fossil fuel industry receives in subsidies and tax breaks on an annual basis from the government, Solyndra was bound to fail. The Chinese government, for one, recently handed $20 billion to solar panel corporations.  

Given no tax cuts, no extra subsidies after the initial loans, and handed an astronomical handicap in an energy industry dominated by oil and coal, journalists have yet to ask government officials the crucial question:

With members of both parties finger-pointing and laying the blame on Solyndra, was Solydra, all along, set up to fail by the federal government? Is that what's really going on here?

Dave Roberts of Grist may have hit the nail on the head

For a mix of financial and ideological reasons, U.S. conservative movement activists, operators, and politicos hate clean energy. They don't believe in climate change, they love fossil fuels and fossil-fuel campaign donations, and they think, or want the U.S. public to think, that clean energy is weak, unreliable, marginal, and dependent on government subsidies. They have been trying to make that case for a long while.

What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself. 

One can only hope the terms of the debate change, and quickly. 

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In a speech at an industry conference in June, surreptitiously recorded by an energy executive, Rick Berman, the foremost go-to guy for Republican smear campaigns, gave unusually candid advice to a meeting of drilling companies.

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