More proof that the Wall Street bailout was ill-conceived

Remember how urgent it was for Congress to approve the Wall Street bailout last fall to free up credit? Not surprisingly, things didn’t work out that way:

A new report out of the Treasury Department Tuesday confirmed what many lawmakers, housing advocates, small businesses and individual consumers have known all along: That despite hundreds of billions of dollars flowing from Washington to the finance industry, bank lending among recipients of the Troubled Asset Relief Program fell in the last three months of 2008.

Among the 20 largest TARP recipients, median mortgage and business lending both fell by 1 percent over that span, Treasury found, while median credit card lending rose 2 percent, “reflecting greater reliance on existing credit lines by consumers.”

The findings were based on a survey of the 20 banks receiving the most federal help under the TARP, and marks the first in what will be a series of monthly reports analyzing the lending trends among bailed-out banks.

It would be nice to know what the banks are doing with the bailout money, but they don’t want to tell anyone.

How disappointing that Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wants to continue the misguided effort begun by George Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson.

Here are some more links on why Geithner’s plan “fails on almost every level.” Excerpt:

Robert Kuttner offers a strong analysis of Geithner’s strategy to salvage the banking industry in The American Prospect, noting that Geithner is explicitly avoiding the simplest and cheapest solution in favor of propping up the current Wall Street regime. The current plan is designed to support a financial architecture that has proven completely ineffective in maintaining the nation’s basic economic functions.

Someone who works for a non-profit organization told me last week that he has filled out a detailed six-page application for a $1,000 federal grant, while Geithner wants to get $350 billion on the basis of a vague two-page proposal.

Josh Marshall notes that “a lot of key political appointments at the Treasury haven’t been made yet, let alone been confirmed.” He takes a stab at explaining why:

one of the big issues is that it’s actually hard to find people with the requisite knowledge of banks and the capital markets who aren’t also compromised — either in policy or business terms — by the housing bubble and the rest of the financial collapse. And that raises again as a question: why have none of the people who were financial orthodoxy dissidents and saw what was coming been brought in to the administration. I know I’m hardly the first one to bring this up. And we know that the big appointees — Summers and Geithner — were part of the mix. But there aren’t even any of them further down into the appointment structure. They’re all still on the outside.

Disturbing.

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Yes, the Waterloo coal plant is dead

On Saturday I asked whether the proposed coal-fired power plant near Waterloo was dead now that Dynegy has pulled out of a joint venture with LS Power and Associates.

I am pleased to bring you the answer to the question:

LS POWER AFFILIATE WILL FOREGO FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF ELK RUN ENERGY STATION

01/06/2009

WATERLOO, IOWA (January 6, 2009) – LS Power affiliate, Elk Run Energy Associates, LLC, announced today that it will forego further development of the Elk Run Energy Station in Waterloo, Iowa.

Given the slowing load growth in the region due to the current downturn in the U.S. economy, and the fact that LS Power has more advanced projects under development in the region that could serve the same need, the Company will redirect its development efforts to other projects.

“Elk Run Energy has been a proud member of the Greater Cedar Valley community, and appreciates the unwavering support of so many individuals and organizations throughout the development process,” said Mark Milburn, Assistant Vice President of LS Power.

LS Power continues to develop a portfolio of coal, natural gas, wind and solar generation facilities and transmission projects with ongoing development activities in Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and other locations.

Did you catch that bit about “slowing load growth” in the region? That means that future electricity usage is projected to be lower than previously thought, because of the current recession. People are tightening their belts, and conserving energy is a good way to save money. We could do even more on this front with aggressive state or federal policies on energy efficiency.

Thanks again to all the environmental and community advocates who helped doom the Elk Run project. One coal-fired power plant down, one to go.

Will Alliant and its subsidiary IPL keep trying to build a new coal plant near Marshalltown? I don’t know, but it’s worth noting that Dynegy’s stock went up 19 percent the day they withdrew from the joint venture on developing new coal plants. Alliant’s stock price could use a shot in the arm right now.

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Is the Waterloo coal plant dead?

The Houston Chronicle reported on January 2:

Stingy credit markets and high regulatory hurdles have spurred Houston-based Dynegy to step back from new coal-fired power plant projects by ending a joint venture with LS Power Associates.

Dynegy will keep the right to expand its 27 existing coal, natural gas and oil-fired plants in 13 states, and it retains stakes in a pair of Texas and Arkansas coal projects.

But Dynegy will pay New York-based LS Power $19 million as part of the split and let it take full ownership of new projects under consideration in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and Nevada.

Shares of Dynegy closed up 38 cents, or 19 percent, to $2.38 on Friday.

Dynegy Chairman and CEO Bruce Williamson said the power plant development landscape has changed since the company entered into the joint venture with LS in the fall of 2006. Funding new projects is much more difficult given the worldwide credit crunch and the possibility of new climate change legislation under the Obama administration.

“In light of these market circumstances, Dynegy has elected to focus development activities and investments around our own portfolio where we control the option to develop and can manage the costs being incurred more closely,” Williamson said in a statement.

Here is the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier’s take on the story:

The future of a proposed coal-fired power plant near Waterloo became a little cloudier Friday when Texas-based Dynegy Inc. announced that it and New Jersey-based LS Power Associates were dissolving their joint venture to develop that plant and others in several states.

The move transfers to LS Power full ownership and developmental rights associated with various “greenfield” projects in several states, including the 750-megawatt Elk Run Energy Station proposed for construction northeast of Waterloo.

[…]

Separation from Dynegy puts the Elk Run plans in doubt, said Don Shatzer, a member of Community Energy Solutions, which opposes the Elk Run Energy project.

“LS Power has no experience developing/operating coal plants and so is unlikely to proceed (without) a new partner,” Shatzer said in an e-mail note.

Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, shares Shatzer’s opinion, according to The Houston Chronicle.

This sounds quite promising, although neither the Houston Chronicle nor the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier were able to get a comment from LS Power on whether it will continue to pursue this project.

Incidentally, the Waterloo plant is not needed to meet Iowa’s energy demand; most of the electricity the plant would have generated would have gone out of state.

Many thanks to all those who have worked hard to prevent this plant from being built, notably the Waterloo-based grassroots organization Community Energy Solutions, the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, Plains Justice of Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa Environmental Council (with which I am involved).

Well-organized activists helped prevented LS Power from annexing some farmland for the coal-fired plant.

In March 2008, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied a construction permit for the project. Apparently the county zoning for that land was not in order, so the DNR concluded that LS Power “hadn’t met our requirement to have the full ability to put the power plant on that property.”

These small victories were not themselves enough to kill the project. However, the setbacks delayed the process until “external credit and regulatory factors that make development much more uncertain” prompted Dynegy to walk away.

Lesson for environmental activists: it is worth exercising every legal option to put up obstacles to a bad project.

Lesson for Alliant, which wants to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown: Dynegy’s stock shot up 19 percent in one day after they pulled out of the joint venture with LS Power. The market favors abandoning new coal projects. Dropping your plans to build a power plant near Marshalltown would not only be good for public health and the environment, it could boost your stock price.

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