By: Timothy P. Carney
Environmental policy is not driven by tree-hugging activists, earnest liberal bloggers, or ecologically minded citizens. Instead, it flows from the lobbyists and executives of well-connected multinational corporations and built-for-subsidy startups that see profit in the loan guarantees, handouts, mandates, and tax credits Congress creates in the name of saving the planet.
K Street is the epicenter of this green-industrial complex, and ground zero might be the firm founded by Democratic revolving-door earmark lobbyist Steve McBee.
McBee, a former top staffer for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and powerful House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., reportedly wrote key provisions in the stimulus bill to open the spigot of green corporate welfare. Also, he has hired up the Capitol Hill staff at the center of big environmental legislative pushes like cap and trade.
Exploring corporate lobbyists' central role in Obama's "green energy" push provides us two important lessons. First, it reveals as hypocritical the Democratic attack that opponents of cap and trade and other green policies are simply shills for big business.
Second, it ought to heighten our skepticism that these "green" policies are really crafted with an eye to helping the environment -- they are more likely skewed toward the bottom line of lobbied-up Big Business.
McBee's clients include SolarCity and the Green Tech Action Fund as well as electric-car maker Better Place Inc., waste-to-power company Ze-gen, and solar-power developer BrightSource Energy. But the big guys -- Boeing, JP Morgan, and Google -- also hire McBee to lobby for green-energy subsidies.
Electric car company Tesla signed on with McBee days after Obama's election, and soon won a $465 million loan guarantee to aid in building a new all-electric car.
With McBee's former boss being a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, McBee Strategic used to be an earmark factory. After Obama's election, though, McBee pivoted to green energy and saw revenues soar in 2009.
"I attribute it to the bets we've made on clean energy and energy," he told Roll Call.
Late last year McBee hired Kathleen Frangione, described by Politico as "Sen. John Kerry's top climate staffer." You see the play: advance green legislation, then lobby for the companies trying to make money off that legislation.
The case of one McBee solar-panel client, Solyndra, helps illustrate how the green-energy game is as perilous for taxpayers as it is lucrative for lobbyists.
The 2005 energy bill created a new Department of Energy loan guarantee program for renewable energy facilities. In order to protect taxpayers, the 2005 law required from the beneficiary a sort of "down payment," to cover the risk of default.
But the 2009 stimulus bill removed that requirement, allowing DOE to give out loan guarantees without the "down payment." Energy lobbyists on Capitol Hill say that this provision, which opened the spigot on the DOE loans, was written by Steve McBee.
"We definitely were pretty involved in that," said Ryan Hubbard, a McBee spokesman, referring generally to the stimulus' green subsidies. When I asked specifically if McBee helped lower the bar for loan guarantees, Hubbard said he would check, but then didn't get back with an answer.
The very first company to take advantage of the newer rules was Solyndra, a California company that received a $535 million loan guarantee to build a second factory to make its cylinder-shaped solar panels.
Obama, Vice President Biden, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu all have visited Solyndra's main plant, saying the loan guarantee would generate 1,000 new jobs. Obama declared last May, "The foundation of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra."
But soon things turned south for Solyndra, and rather than adding 1,000 new jobs at its new plant in California, Solyndra decided to close its old plant (also in the Golden State), and downsize its labor force.
One problem: Solyndra spends much more per watt than other solar panel makers -- and don't even compare the company's costs with those of coal-fired plants, which don't need direct government subsidies to get by.
House Republicans are investigating whether anything improper occurred in DOE's award of the grant to Solyndra. My colleague David Freddoso last year chalked the company's subsidy successes up to lobbying.
On Jan. 30, 2009, 10 days into Obama's presidency and in the midst of the stimulus debate, Solyndra hired McBee Strategic as a lobbyist on "Implementation of Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Programs," according to McBee's lobbying filing.
It looks like McBee lobbied to loosen the rules on subsidies, then got his clients the first subsidy.
Just because McBee and clients get rich off of green regulation doesn't mean they're bad. But it's important to remember that the people shaping these laws aren't just in it for the polar bears.