In a recent op-ed for the Indianapolis Star I discussed the symbiotic relationship between federal and state government when it comes to doling out corporate welfare subsidies. The focus was primarily on Indiana, but the issue is a national concern.
A good example is the $2 billion Shepherd’s Flat wind farm in Oregon that was largely financed with federal and state taxpayer support. Ted Sickinger, a reporter for the Oregonian, has done an excellent job of digging into details behind the project (see here then here then here) and it appears that Shepherd’s Flat was one big taxpayer handout. In fact, the Obama administration signed off on the federal government’s share of the subsidies even though it knew the project didn’t need any support from taxpayers:
In 2010, Shepherd's Flat attracted national notoriety for its subsidies. In a briefing memo for the President leaked to the media, Obama's top advisors worried that the U.S. Department of Energy's loan guarantee program was subsidizing projects that didn't need it.
Shepherd’s Flat was their case in point.
Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, energy czar Carol Browner, and Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain said Shepherd’s Flat was “double-dipping” on $1.2 billion in federal and state subsidies – 65 percent of its projected cost. The incentives included a $500 million federal grant, $200 million in federal and state tax benefits from accelerated depreciation, $220 million in premium power prices attributed to state renewable energy mandates, and a $1 billion loan guarantee with a value of $300 million to the developers.
They concluded that Caithness has “little skin in the game” – about 10 percent of the project's cost – but stood to earn a 30 percent return on its investment. It also speculated that Shepherd’s Flat would likely go ahead without the federal loan guarantee because “the economics are favorable for wind investment given tax credits and state renewable energy standards.”
Caithness Energy is the wind farm’s owner and operator. General Electric supplied the wind turbines (a $1.4 billion contract with Caithness) and part of the financing – financing backed by the federal loan guarantee. Both companies made sure they had Washington’s attention:
Nationally, powerful interests were pushing in the same direction. A new president's desire to build environmental credibility became an economic keystone to restore the collapsed economy. The Obama administration fast tracked loan guarantees to pump stimulus money into job-generating projects. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed companies with powerful lobbying arms were busy greasing the skids.
The political action committee, employees and affiliates of General Electric - Shepherds Flat’s turbine supplier and an equity investor - gave more than a half million dollars to Obama's 2008 campaign. The PACs for both GE and Caithness also have sprinkled sprinkled money among Oregon's congressional delegation during the last five years, including Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio.
According to e-mails released by the House Oversight Committee investigating federal subsidies after the bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra, the Obama administration pushed hard on incentives for Shepherds Flat. Months before officials at the U.S. Department of Energy approved a loan guarantee for the project, General Electric was being told it was a done deal.
In April 2010, Kevin Walsh, managing director of GE’s renewables business, emailed the director of the U.S. DOE's loan program: “We have been advised by the White House and other sources that we are likely to get the “green light” this week to move forward with the Shepherds Flat wind project...Les Gelber (a partner at Caithness Energy) and I will be in DC tomorrow and would like to stop by any time between noon and 2pm to briefly discuss.”
The deal took more time to fully bake. Four months later, DOE Loan Program Office Credit Advisor Jim McCrea emailed a contractor: “Pressure is on real heavy on SF due to interest from VP.”
Later that day, McCrea sent staff an all points bulletin to promptly provide answers on Shepherds Flat: “To do otherwise would leave us firmly on the political path and give agencies an opportunity to blame us when they are pressures (sic) to make decisions. As you all know, the pressures to make decisions on this transaction are high so speed is of the essence.”
But the shenanigans don’t stop at the federal level.
Even though the wind farm is clearly a single entity, it somehow managed to qualify for three separate $10 million state tax credits after the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) agreed with Caithness’s claim that Shepherd’s Flat was three separate entities. According to Sickinger, the ODOE’s decision was bogus:
Yet limited and often non-responsive information about the review provided to The Oregonian suggests it was neither rigorous nor consistent with state rules governing tax credits. In its review, ODOE ignored clear evidence in its own files and additional records identified by The Oregonian that should have disqualified $20 million of the $30 million in tax credits. It failed to ask for contracts or other documentation to answer fundamental questions that state rules pose about ownership, financing, construction, operation and maintenance.
Instead, ODOE made assumptions, relied again on statements made by developers before the project was built, and reversed its own analysts’ earlier conclusions. Its review apparently tapped only one new source: a report by ODOE's own staff for an entirely different purpose and largely irrelevant regarding tax credit eligibility. In the end, ODOE failed to apply its rules on separate and distinct facilities to Shepherd’s Flat.
The result: “free” money for Caithness:
The company, like many other tax credit recipients, received approval to sell the credit in exchange for cash. The pass-through option will net Caithness $20 million, but leave the state’s general fund out the full $30 million.
There are more stories like the crony Shepherd’s Flat deal out there waiting to be uncovered. More state and local reporters should follow Sickinger’s example and start digging into these shady government-private collaborations that politicians and the financially-benefitting interests want the public to believe are so critical for “creating jobs.”