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Energy Fact Check: The VP Debate

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (front) and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (back) depart the stage following their debate at the Norton Center at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, October 10, 2012. | Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

There was plenty of energy in last night's Vice-Presidential debates, but it was mainly confined to Joe Biden's gesticulations and Paul Ryan's eyebrows. Aside from the sitting Vice President catching his opponent in a bit of double-talk over Department of Energy stimulus grants, the topic of the country's energy future hardly came up -- and where it did, it was by way of Ryan repeating Republican talking points that have been repeatedly debunked.

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Midway through the informal debate, Representative Ryan veered from his economic plan into a criticism of the Department of Energy's loan program, most famous for its involvement in the Solyndra bankruptcy:

That's what our entire premise of our pro-growth plan for a stronger middle class is all about: getting the economy growing at 4 percent, creating 12 million jobs over the next four years. Look at just the $90 billion in stimulus, and -- and the vice president was in charge of overseeing this, $90 billion in green pork to campaign contributors and special interest groups. There are just at the Department of Energy over 100 criminal investigations that have been launched into just how stimulus [funds] are being spent...

Biden countered within seconds, addressing debate moderator Martha Raddatz:

Martha, look. His colleague runs an investigative committee [which] spent months and months and months going into this: months and months. They found no evidence of cronyism. And I love my friend here. I -- I'm not allowed to show letters, but go on our website: He sent me two letters saying, by the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin? We sent millions of dollars. ... I love that. I love that. This is such a bad program, and he writes me a letter saying -- writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, the reason we need this stimulus -- it will create growth and jobs... his words. And by the way, that program -- again, investigated -- what the Congress said was, it was a model: less than four-tenths of 1 percent waste or fraud in the program. And all this talk about cronyism -- they investigated, investigated; did not find one single piece of evidence.

Checking into Biden's claims, the Associated Press's Jack Gillam wrote today:

Much of Ryan's correspondence is similar to other lawmakers performing constituent duties, describing problems that residents have reported. They include requests such as assisting a family missing airline baggage and helping a man who didn't receive a pancake maker he had ordered.

But in other correspondence, Ryan explicitly supports programs and encourages federal agencies to take actions. He supported in his congressional letters some Wisconsin farms' share of an $11.8 million loan guarantee but later criticized other loan guarantees, such as the $535 million loan that went to now-defunct solar panel maker Solyndra. He asked transportation officials for a grant for green technology and alternative fuels, although his proposed budget as House budget chairman called loans for electric car development "corporate welfare."

Despite the immediate fact-check from Biden, Ryan forged ahead into deep talking points country:

Was it a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on electric cars in Finland or on windmills in China?

It may or may not have been a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on Anaheim-based Fisker Automotive, which is indeed building its Karma electric vehicle in Finland. Time will tell whether that investment was wise: the company's been having some tough times. But the taxpayer dollars the company received were part of a Bush-era program unrelated to the stimulus bill, and the company says -- with independent auditors' backing -- that all the federal money it's received has been spent in the U.S.

As for the "windmills in China" talking point, which the Romney campaign essentially borrowed from a 2010 Facebook post by Sarah Palin, there's a germ of truth there. A number of wind projects in the U.S. received stimulus funding, and many of the turbines in those projects -- such as the massive Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in Oregon -- contain parts made in China. According to the American Wind energy Association, 50% of all wind turbine parts used in the U.S. in 2010 were built in the U.S. That figure likely rose since, and it is almost certainly falling again in the face of expiration of the Wind Production Tax Credit in December. A number of U.S. manufacturers have closed up shop fearing a lull in business.

So some Chinese wind turbine parts companies almost certainly benefited from the Department of Energy's stimulus money. But none of that money went to building windmills in China.

Biden didn't challenge the Finland and China allegations in his response. Instead, he launched into an energetic if disjointed rebuttal to a statement from a different debate altogether: Mitt Romney's allegation in the first Presidential debate that half the stimulus-funded energy companies had closed.

Let me tell you it was a good idea. It was a good idea -- Moody's and others said that this was exactly what we needed that stopped us from going off the cliff. It set the conditions to be able to grow again. We have -- in fact, 4 percent of those green jobs didn't go under -- or went -- went -- went under -- didn't work. It's a better batting average than investment bankers have. They have about a 40 percent -- (inaudible) -- loss.

Awkward, but more of a rebuttal than Obama offered at the time.

Make sure to also read...
- Presidential Debate: Romney's $90 Billion Untruth

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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