Republicans say a big reason to vote for them is that they want to "end corporate welfare" by getting the government out of the business of choosing which clean energy technologies to nurture. But by quietly, but repeatedly, pressing to bet taxpayer money on hydrogen fuel cells, they may have elimnated that policy distinction.
At the Republican national convention in Tampa later this month, the party’s stars are certain to trumpet their election-year mantra: the government needs to get out of the business of “picking winners and losers,” particularly in the energy sector.
Rep. Paul Ryan, now Mitt Romney's running mate, helped give life to that catch phrase more than a year ago in his Path to Prosperity budget plan –- saying the marketplace rather than government spending should decide which new energy technologies are successful. Romney himself, in his Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth, accuses the government of "chasing fads and picking winners."
Republican lawmakers have picked up the line to rail against grants and loan guarantees the Obama administration gave to clean energy “winners” like the now-failed Solyndra solar company or the struggling A123 battery maker while snubbing others who became the “losers.”
But what Republicans have preached in public hasn't always matched what they've practiced in private.
Congressional correspondence obtained by the Washington Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act shows Ryan and other prominent Republicans, including senior members of the House and Senate energy committees, petitioned the government behind the scenes for tens of millions of dollars to back their own clean energy favorites, particularly hydrogen fuel cells or more fuel-efficient vehicle power trains.
Their causes range from hometown companies that wanted their congressman to bring home the bacon to politically connected firms and donors seeking a position in the growing clean energy sector.
And some of the Republican petitioners echoed the same arguments as Obama: The expenditures would foster job creation and help the country get closer to energy independence.
"At a time when unemployment is at an all time high in the U.S., every effort must be made to promote American jobs and use Americans’ tax dollars prudently," reads one such letter that Ryan, R-Wis., signed with Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl and two House members from Wisconsin in May 2009.
The letter asked Obama's auto industry recovery czar, Steve Rattner, to use Energy Department funding to retool Chrysler’s Kenosha, Wis., plant for production of fuel-efficient engines. At the time, Chrysler was just about to emerge from bankruptcy with a significant foreign ownership by Italian automaker Fiat. The plant did not get the money and has closed. (Read here how Ryan's answers on his stimulus letters won the Washington Guardian Whopper of the Week.)
As a then-member of the Senate Energy and Energy Natural Resources Committee in 2009, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., urged a national energy strategy that focused on all sources. “We cannot afford to waste time picking winners and losers,” Burr implored in a Feb. 9, 2009 op-ed.
But two years later, Burr penned a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu picking his own winner, supporting funds for Microcell Corp., a North Carolina hydrogen fuel cell company. “These proposals could benefit the fuel cell and biodiesel industries with long term impacts on our nation’s energy independence,” Burr wrote in a March 31, 2011 letter that was unsuccessful but mirrored some of Obama’s own clean energy arguments. Burr supported another hydrogen fuel cell company’s request years earlier as well.
Though North Carolina-based Microcell isn’t a major political donor, its president Ray Eshraghi is listed in Federal Election Commission records as giving $1,490 to Burr and $500 to Rep. David Price, D-N.C., another lawmaker who wrote in support of its hydrogen fuel cell projects in 2011. Burr’s donations occurred in the 2010 election cycle, while Price got his just one month after writing his letter.
Likewise, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a House Energy and Commerce Committee member, has advocated the all-of-the-above, pick-no-favorites GOP energy strategy. “While there are technologies that sound good, if they take too many resources or are supporting jobs overseas, that does not help us in the long term," Terry writes on his congressional Web site.
But when the Obama administration tried to cut funding for hydrogen fuel cells after audits suggested the technology was still years away from commercial viability, Terry joined in signing a letter with several colleagues seeking to get the funding restored for their favored technology. “We find it troubling the Department chose to disproportionately cut funding for crucial fuel cell and hydrogen energy programs,” the lawmakers argued, criticizing corresponding budget increases in solar and wind funding.
Spokesmen for the lawmakers portrayed the letters to the administration as traditional efforts to help home-state businesses.
Burr’s written support for Microcell was simply “a function of our office’s role as a liaison between North Carolinians and the federal government,” his office said in a statement.
Ryan’s spokesman Bryan Buck declined to specifically address the Chrysler letter, but forwarded a generic statement about other Ryan requests that sought money from Obama’s economic stimulus program for Wisconsin companies, saying those were “treated as constituent service requests.”
But a former congressional colleague and taxpayer advocates see a touch of hypocrisy and demagoguery in the Republicans’ position.
“I think it’s clear that Ryan and the conservative Republicans have their share of fingers in the cookie jar,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “The lie that’s out there is that Democrats are big spenders and Republicans are small spenders and conservatives. Both political parties are tainted by their eagerness to not only support their friends but to get goodies for their congressional districts or states.”
The fact that congressional Republicans today find themselves arguing against funding for specific clean energy technologies is tinged with irony.
President George W. Bush was the first to unveil an ambitious plan to spur hydrogen fuel cell development with the hope it would one day lead to widespread use of hydrogen-powered cars. Numerous Republicans jumped on the bandwagon, creating their own congressional caucuses with Democrats to advocate for more funding.
Over the last decade, the Energy Department has spent $2.5 billion on hydrogen fuel and fuel cell development – more than four times the cost to taxpayers of the Solyndra loan guarantee loss.
But the Congressional Research Service has repeatedly questioned the cost impediments to commercialize hydrogen-fuel cell technology, whether it it less environmentally friendly when the original fuel source is coal or heavy crude, and whether the government should be picking this technology over others.
“Hydrogen fuel production is currently very expensive, as are fuel cells. In addition, depending on the original fuel source, overall fuel-cycle emissions can be a key concern,” CRS warned in a report in January.
The industry disputes such assessments, pointing to recent technological breakthroughs and partnerships with automakers as evidence its technology could be economically viable sooner than critics project. In particular, the recent drop in natural gas prices has provided a cheaper, cleaner source from which to create hydrogen.
A recent Energy Department report noted fuel cells are increasingly being deployed around the country, predominantly in large corporations such as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, for heavy duties like power backup. The report also noted that in the last year, 1,000 fork lifts were being powered by fuel cells. But their use in cars and road vehicles remains small and little re-fueling infrastructure has been built, officials said.
Whatever the future for hydrogen fuel, there’s little doubt Republicans once championed its cause and the very type of research and development funding they often criticize in public these days. For instance, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, long an influential player on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, helped craft the 2005 energy policy law that created many of the renewable energy loan guarantees that Obama would later leverage to pursue his solar and wind agenda.
At a congressional hearing earlier this year, Barton urged the Obama administration to “stop risking billions of taxpayer dollars on unproven sources of energy” like wind and solar from the very program he helped create.
But back in the Bush years, Barton sought money in an October 2004 letter for a corporate and academic consortium working on a nanoparticle solution for energy-efficient vehicles, and in an October 2002 letter for a Corporation for Renewable Energy Research plan to develop hydrogen vehicle refueling stations.
Just weeks ago, Barton raised objections to a House Republican bill to phase out the Energy Department's controversial loan guarantee program, on the grounds that it could hurt nuclear and other clean energy innovation.
Barton ultimately voted for the "No More Solyndras Act" in the committee on Aug. 1, but made it clear that he was concerned that its language blocking any new loan guarantees could hurt nuclear and other clean energy development. The bill, which allows pending loan guarantee applications to go forward, is expected to come to the House floor this fall.
His spokesman did not return phone and email requests for comment.
The hydrogen industry’s many congressional champions also include Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who founded a Senate caucus around the issue, and regularly petitioned the Bush and Obama administrations for more funding.
“The Congress is determined to accelerate progress toward commercialization, founded on the solid achievements of the Department of Energy’s programs,” Graham and several other members wrote to President Bush in 2005.
When Chu, Obama’s energy secretary, sought to phase out hydrogen car funding in favor of alternatives like solar and wind, Graham with Republican and Democratic caucus members jumped in to try to thwart the effort.
“We believe domestic manufacturers are on the verge of the full scale commercialization of fuel cell systems and energy technologies,” Graham and numerous Democratic colleagues wrote Chu in a May 3, 2011 letter.
Edgar, the former lawmaker who now runs Common Cause, said he recalls similar hydrogen fuel-cell car pledges from the automakers as far back as the late 1970s. “We are still waiting on that,” he said wryly.
This summer, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations committee approved a 2013 budget of $82 million for hydrogen fuel cell research and development, $2 million more than Obama sought. And the Senate proposed even more -- $104 million. A bipartisan coalition of Congress restored funding for hydrogen fuel cells in 2010 and 2011 as well, thwarting the will of the Obama administration.
The current record low price of natural gas, along with recent technical breakthroughs by the industry, have impacted Chu, a Nobel-winning scientist who for years questioned the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel cells but recently changed his tone.
“Several things changed my mind,” Chu said in a June interview, specifically explaining how cheap natural gas prices have made the production of hydrogen cheaper and cleaner. "…Now the economics are looking good. The carbon footprint looks much better. And it’s looking good."
Whatever the outcome of the debate over hydrogen fuel cells, the congressional correspondence obtained by the Washington Guardian is a reminder that politicians are often pragmatic and politically deft -- willing to advocate for policy change in public while using the existing system to help constituents or donors behind the scenes, federal spending experts say.
“Energy is a really good example where no matter how hard people seem to try to have all their votes and everything they do be consistent with a philosophy, the more you look at it, the more you find people are being pragmatic or political or both,” said Ryan Alexander, president of the non-profit Taxpayers for Common Sense.