WASHINGTON - Republicans accused the Obama administration on Wednesday of purposely delaying disclosure of Chevy Volt battery fires to avoid criticism of its General Motors Co bailout and to protect its interests in electric car development.
Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Oversight regulatory subcommittee, said at a hearing that a six-month delay last year was inexplicable and disturbing.
He also said auto safety regulators had not fully cooperated with a congressional investigation of disclosure and other issues involving the Chevrolet Volt, made by GM.
"While it remains to be seen whether GM received special treatment during (the investigation) of the Volt fires, it's clear that the administration has tremendous incentives to protect the political investment it has made in the company and the vehicle," Jordan said.
Volt battery fires first erupted at government test sites in May and then again in November, the last prompting a formal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
There were no "real world" fire incidents, and NHTSA closed the investigation last week without finding any defects and expressing satisfaction with GM's remedies to better protect the lithium-ion battery pack.
GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson was also making accusations that politics played a role in the Volt probe.
Akerson said in testimony prepared for the same hearing that political pressure over Obama administration support of alternative fuels and controversy over the auto industry bailouts has fueled the extended investigation of the Volt.
NHTSA has denied allegations it delayed public notification or that its handling of the matter was politically influenced.
David Strickland, the agency's administrator, said investigators first needed to analyze why the fires occurred. He said the agency had no real-world data on Volt fires and used "every second" over a six-month period for engineers to perform a thorough investigation.
Strickland said there was no unreasonable risk to public safety and said he would have sounded a public alarm had there been a reason to do so.
"We would have clearly disclosed it," he said under withering questioning from Jordan and other Republicans on the committee. "The Chevrolet Volt is safe to drive."
The heavily promoted Volt is the centerpiece of GM's efforts to lead on fuel efficiency. Its development has been supported by President Barack Obama, who envisions electric cars as a game changer in reducing oil imports and tailpipe emissions.
The administration, which authorized much of the $50 billion in taxpayer support used to bail out GM in 2009, has aggressively backed funding of suppliers and other research that spurred development and production of the Volt and battery systems used in electric vehicles.
There are roughly 8,000 Volts on the road today and another 6,500 have been manufactured. All will undergo retrofits to better protect the battery from damage in crashes. GM will also take steps to reduce chances of coolant leaks, which can trigger fires. (Reporting By John Crawley; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)
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