A California electric car maker that announced Friday that it was shutting its doors earned the support of a pair of Republican lawmakers who are at the center of the political battle on Capitol Hill over the Department of Energy's renewable energy loan program.
One of those supporters of Aptera Motors was House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the man who has vowed to scrutinize the Obama administration's loan program efforts over questions of whether there was an objective process in analyzing loan applications.
The other, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), is a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that has made the Department of Energy's loan program front-page news in recent months with its investigation of the Solyndra solar energy company.
Aptera most recently was headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif., in Bilbray's congressional district. The company moved there earlier this year from a larger Oceanside, Calif., facility in Issa's district. Both cities are in Southern California.
On Jan. 14, 2009, Issa wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging that Aptera's request for a loan under DOE's Alternative Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) program be given "full consideration."
"Funding will allow Aptera to establish U.S. manufacturing facilities for the commercial production of its plug-in and hybrid electric cars," Issa wrote. "Aptera Motors plans to purchase and equip manufacturing facilities to begin commercial scale production of its energy efficient electric vehicles. Awarding this opportunity to Aptera Motors will greatly assist a leading developer of electric vehicles in my district."
Just last week, before Aptera announced it was shutting down, Issa discussed his ongoing efforts to probe the loan program.
"These loan guarantees and grants all go back to the question of is there an objective process," Issa said. "Is that process well monitored, is it controlled by career professionals and is there a predictability of outcome?"
Issa has already requested documents on the loan program from the White House after Solyndra went belly up less than two years after receiving more than half-a-billion dollars in loan guarantees through DOE. The chairman and Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee have accused the administration of pushing DOE career staffers to make the Solyndra loan because the company was backed by President Obama's political allies and wealthy campaign donors.
Issa is also in the midst of a document request involving a $730 million loan that was granted to the Detroit-based Severstal steel company.
On Friday evening, Issa released a statement that, in part, blamed Solyndra for Aptera's downfall.
"With officials playing the role of venture capitalist and picking favorites like Solyndra, success for companies like Aptera that have to compete against others with government sponsorship can be especially difficult," Issa said. "Nearly three years after Aptera sought assistance from the Department of Energy -- and my request that their application receive full consideration -- I'm sure it must be frustrating for Aptera and their employees that the clock ran out on their proposal before they received a yes or no answer."
A DOE official said last week that the reason Aptera never received a loan is because it did not make it past some the early hurdles in the agency's review process.
This morning a senior Democrat who is involved in the escalating political battle over Solyndra remarked that if DOE had given the loan and Aptera still went under, "Issa would have been first in line attacking them for backing a failed company."
Bilbray, meanwhile, helped sponsor legislation in 2009 that laid the groundwork for making Aptera's three-wheeled electric vehicles eligible for ATVM loan guarantees. Prior to 2009, Aptera's cars were defined as motorcycles and were ineligible.
His website features an article from greencarreports.com on the legislation's benefit to Aptera. It includes a press release from Aptera saying that it had reapplied for the loan guarantee because of the change in law.
"This bill shows Congress and the Obama Administration support real American green tech innovation and are behind companies that create manufacturing jobs in America," Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur said in that October 2009 press release. "Our hope is that we can use the DOE loan to accelerate our march to that goal."
During the Energy and Commerce Committee's Solyndra probe, Bilbray, who represents a swing district that leans liberal on energy and environmental matters, has been less virulent in his criticism of the loan program than most of his fellow Republicans. He has even praised Chu's abilities as a scientist while questioning some of the choices that were made in running the loan program.
This morning Bilbray's spokesman Travis Considine released a statement on Aptera's bankruptcy.
"The federal government has historically played a role in incentivizing domestic energy production and innovative technology. This is consistent with Congressman Bilbray's support for the DOE loan program," Considine said. "But it is important to note that Aptera received no federal funding. What concerns Rep. Bilbray about the Solyndra scandal is the politicization of the green industry over a technology that was high-risk and left taxpayers with the bill."