U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski may not tout herself as a "maverick" like fellow Alaska Republican Sarah Palin, but that doesn't mean she isn't one. And she showed off her independent streak this week, breaking party ranks to defend the Department of Energy's loan-guarantee program — despite its ties to GOP punching bag Solyndra.

[skipwords]"Unfortunately, what we have seen this past year with some of the failures in the loan-guarantee program, it has tainted that whole program to the point where some are suggesting the plug just needs to be pulled," Murkowski said Tuesday at an energy forum in Washington, according to the Hill. "I don't think that is the case. I think we need to make sure that the loan-guarantee program operates as Congress intended."

It's a cautious defense, yet also effusive by recent GOP standards. The DOE's loan program has faced widespread scrutiny lately over a $535 million loan guarantee it gave to California solar firm Solyndra in 2009, two years before the company filed for bankruptcy. Many Republican pundits and politicians have since used this scandal to attack the loan program itself, which finances a variety of clean-power projects nationwide. Just last week, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech in front of Solyndra headquarters in Fremont, Calif., where he criticized the Obama administration for "picking winners and losers" in private industry.

Murkowski, meanwhile, says it's myopic to focus so heavily on Solyndra while ignoring successful DOE loan recipients. "I think we need to get through this period and be able to reflect on what it is that actually comes out of these loan guarantee programs," she tells the Hill. "We are focusing right now on the failures instead of also recognizing that we have done good things [with] the loan guarantee program."

That's a rare attitude among Republicans, especially in the House, where investigations into the DOE loan program have led lawmakers to subpoena the White House and repeatedly call Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other officials to testify. Murkowski isn't backing off, though, and even acknowledges the novelty of her stance. "I do believe there is a role, and perhaps that sets me apart from some of my other colleagues on Capitol Hill," she says. "I think we need to do a critical, hard assessment and make sure it is doing that which we had intended."

The DOE loan program dates back to the George W. Bush administration, which created it as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act in hopes of coaxing the private sector to embrace cutting-edge energy technologies. It has awarded some $34 billion in loan guarantees since then, which the DOE Loan Programs Office says has created more than 60,000 jobs and spurred industrial accomplishments from electric-car factories and large-scale wind farms to cellulosic ethanol plants and nuclear reactors.

According to a December 2011 analysis by Bloomberg Government, 87 percent of the DOE's current loan-guarantee portfolio contains "low risk" power-generation projects, suggesting Solyndra may not be "just the tip of the iceberg," as some critics describe it. The other 13 percent consists of 10 manufacturing, fuel-production and storage projects, which the Bloomberg report notes are riskier because they don't need to have buyers lined up before receiving a loan guarantee.

As for Murkowski's call to ensure the loan program is doing what Congress intended, the LPO offers this explanation of its raison d'être:

"The mission of LPO is to accelerate the domestic commercial deployment of innovative and advanced clean energy technologies at a scale sufficient to contribute meaningfully to the achievement of our national clean energy objectives — including job creation; reducing dependency on foreign oil; improving our environmental legacy; and enhancing American competitiveness in the global economy of the 21st century. "LPO executes this mission by guaranteeing loans to eligible clean energy projects (i.e., agreeing to repay the borrower’s debt obligation in the event of a default), and by providing direct loans to eligible manufacturers of advanced technology vehicles and components."

For a full list of DOE-financed projects, see this summary on the LPO website.[/skipwords]

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