A blind bet Taxpayers may never learn what their Range Fuels investment bought

hduncan@macon.comDecember 18, 2011 

U.S. taxpayers may never know the extent of what the government did -- or failed to do -- to protect its investment in Range Fuels.

The Colorado company received close to $90 million in taxpayer financing to build and operate the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in Soperton. But it closed early this year without ever producing commercially viable ethanol, and its plant is now in foreclosure.

Documents reviewed by The Telegraph for these stories represent only some Department of Agriculture information -- and none of the Department of Energy’s. A Department of Energy spokesperson has said that agency is working with Range Fuels on a report about what was learned, but that won’t be shared with the public to protect the company’s “trade secrets.”

An open records request filed with the USDA for its loan documents in January was fulfilled only in November, shortly after the USDA decided to liquidate Range Fuels’ assets. Federal open records laws required a response within 20 business days.

When the USDA did respond, it indicated that it had withheld some documents and blacked out information in others to protect the company’s “trade secrets,” which is allowed under the law.

But the law requires that the government identify documents being withheld, and in many cases the USDA failed to do so. Judging by the table of contents, large portions of Range Fuels’ loan guarantee application are missing. These include charts showing company ownership, reports by outside firms about the viability of the project, and Range Fuels’ responses.

Some, but not all, of the technical reviews of the project by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are missing.

The agency is also supposed to evaluate the company’s “trade secrets” claims to see which are legitimate. USDA allowed Range Fuels to redact everything related to the company’s financial health, the capital it was investing as a condition of the loan, and the appraised value of the property and plant as collateral.

The company was allowed to withhold its entire quarterly reports, which were supposed to include not only records of how the money was spent but also non-financial information like number of jobs created, feedstocks used, and timelines met or not met. These reports were the method by which USDA was supposed to track taxpayer investment.

USDA even allowed Range to black out information about other, unrelated companies’ technology as Range’s “trade secrets,” as well as segments of Range Fuels’ own news releases.

Hundreds of missing and blacked out pages mean there may have been even more warning signs that the project wasn’t sound -- or more government efforts to hold the company accountable and reduce the loan’s risk.

Those trade secrets are being protected as the intellectual property of a company that appears defunct because its technology didn’t work.

Ironically, the loan documents show that the patents and intellectual property behind that technology are actually part of the collateral that now belongs to the U.S. government.

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