Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders.

As a member of both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee it is my view that the time is long overdue for Congress to go beyond deal making and “politics as usual” in addressing the crisis of global warming. The droughts, floods and severe weather disturbances our planet is already experiencing will only get worse, potentially impacting billions of people, if we do not take bold and decisive action in the very near future.

While the Lieberman-Warner cap and trade bill is a step forward, it goes nowhere near far enough in creating the policies that the scientific community says must be developed if we are to avert a planetary catastrophe. It is also lacking in paving the way for the transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies. Here are some of my concerns with the Lieberman-Warner bill:

  • First, virtually all of the scientific evidence tells us that, at the least, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 if we stand a chance to reverse global warming. Lieberman-Warner, under the very best projections, provides a 66 percent reduction.
  • Second, this legislation allows major polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases for free until 2036. In fact, old-fashioned dirty coal burning plants could still be built during this period. That’s wrong. The “right to pollute” should not be given away for up to 24 years. Further, in calculating emission reductions, the bill relies much too heavily on “offsets,” a process which is difficult to verify and which could significantly undermine the actual emissions caps.
  • Third, this bill provides a massive amount of corporate welfare to industries which have been major emitters of greenhouse gasses while requiring minimal performance standards and accountability. According to a report by Friends of the Earth, the auction and allocation processes of the bill could generate up to $3.6 trillion dollars over a 38 year period. While a large fund exists in the bill for “low carbon technology,” there is no guaranteed allocation for such important technologies as wind, solar, geo-thermal, hydrogen or for energy efficiency. But, there is a guaranteed allotment of $324 billion for the coal industry through an “Advanced Coal and Sequestration program” and $232 billion for the auto industry for “Advanced Technology Vehicles.”

The time is late, and if Congress is serious about preventing irreversible damage to our planet because of global warming we need to get moving in a bold and focused manner. And we can do it.

In 1941, President Roosevelt began the process of rearming America to defeat Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. Within a few short years, tanks, bombs, planes and guns were rolling off assembly lines at such a scale that, within a few short years, our military had the resources to overwhelm our enemies. We did it.

In 1961, President Kennedy called upon our nation to undertake the seemingly impossible mission of sending a man to the moon. NASA was greatly expanded, the best scientists and engineers were assembled, billions were appropriated and, in 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. We did it.

As a result of global warming, the challenge we face is no less daunting and no less consequential. Quite the contrary! Now, we are fighting for the future of the planet and the well-being of billions of people. And, once again, if we summon up the political courage I have absolutely no doubt that the United States can lead the world in resolving this crisis. We can do it.

In that context let me take a moment to suggest some of the ways that we can strengthen the Lieberman-Warner bill to aggressively reverse global warming. Most importantly, significant resources in this bill must be explicitly allocated for Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy, the areas where we can get the greatest and quickest bang for our buck.

In terms of energy efficiency, my home city of Burlington, Vermont, despite strong economic growth, consumes no more electricity today than it did 16 years ago because of a successful effort to make to make our homes, offices, schools and all kinds of buildings more energy efficient. In California, which has a growing economy, electric consumption per person has remained steady over the last 20 years because of the state’s commitment to energy efficiency.

Numerous studies tell us that by retrofitting older buildings and by establishing strong efficiency standards for new construction we can cut fuel and electric consumption by at least 40 percent. Those savings will increase with such new technologies as LED light bulbs, which we expect will consume one-tenth of the electricity of an incandescent bulb, while lasting 20 years.

In terms of saving energy in transportation it is beyond comprehension that we are driving cars today which get the same 25 miles per gallon as cars in this country got 20 years ago. If Europe and Japan can average over 44 miles per gallon, we can do at least as well. Simply raising CAFE standards to 40 miles per gallon will save more oil than we import from Saudi Arabia. We should also be rebuilding and expanding our decaying rail and subway systems and making sure that energy efficient buses are available in rural America so that travelers have an alternative to the automobile.

In terms of sustainable energy, wind power is the fastest growing source of new energy in the world and in the United States – but we have barely begun to tap its potential. In Denmark, for example, 20 percent of their electricity is produced by wind. We should be supporting wind energy not only through the creation of large wind farms in the appropriate areas, but through the production of small, inexpensive wind turbines which can be used in homes and farms throughout rural America. These small turbines can produce up to half the electricity that an average home consumes and are now reasonably priced. Without tax credits or rebates, a 1.8 kilowatt turbine is now being sold for $12,000 including installation – with a payback of 5-6 years. That’s pretty cheap electricity.

The possibilities for solar energy are virtually unlimited. In Germany, a quarter of a million homes are now producing electricity through roof-top photovoltaic units and the price per kilowatt is rapidly declining. In California, the state is providing strong incentives so that one million homes will have solar units in the next ten years.

But the potential of solar energy goes far beyond roof-top photovoltaic units. Right now, in Nevada, a solar plant is generating 56 megawatts of electricity. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy; “Solar energy represents a huge domestic energy resource for the United States, particularly in the Southwest where the deserts have some of the best solar resource levels in the world. For example, an area approximately 12% the size of Nevada (15% of federal lands in Nevada) has the potential to supply all of the electric needs of the United States.”

More significantly, Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest electric utility in the country, has recently signed a contract with Solel, an Israeli company, to build a 535 megawatt plant in the Mohave dessert. This plant, which should be operating in about 4 years will have an output equivalent to a small nuclear power plant and will produce electricity for about 400,000 homes.

Most importantly, the price of the electricity generated by this plant is competitive with other fuels today and will likely be much cheaper than other fuels in the future. News reports indicate that the 25 year purchase agreement signed by Pacific Gas and Electric with Solel calls for electricity to be initially generated at about 10 cents a kilowatt with very minimal increases over the next 25 years. My guess is that electricity at, say, 15 cents a kilowatt in the year 2035 will be a very, very good deal.

The potential for solar plants in the southwest is very strong. While there will be no magical silver bullet in the production of new, non-polluting energy sources, experts tell us that we can build dozens of plants there and that this one non-CO2 emitting source could provide some 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States.

Geothermal energy is the heat from deep inside the earth. It is free, renewable, and can be used for electricity generation and direct heating. While geothermal is available at some depth everywhere, it is most accessible in western states where hydrothermal resources are at shallow depths. Currently the U.S. has approximately 2,900 megawatts of installed capacity, which is just 5% of the renewable electricity generation in the U.S. The installed geothermal capacity is already expected to double in the near term with projects that are under development, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

A recent report for the U.S. Department of Energy by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that geothermal could provide 100,000 megawatts of new carbon-free electricity at less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, comparable to costs for “clean coal.” Drilling technology from the petroleum industry is the key to unlocking this huge potential. Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) tap energy from hot impermeable rocks that are between 2 and 6 miles below the earths crust.

An investment of one billion dollars, less than the price of one coal-fired power plant, could make this resource commercially viable within 15 years. The potential payoff is huge. It is estimated that electricity from geothermal sources could provide 10 percent of the U.S. base-load energy needs in 2050.

In terms of the future of our planet the bad news is that scientists tell us that they have under-estimated the speed and destructive aspects of global warming. There is less time than we previously thought before irreversible damage is done. The good news, however, is that we now know what we have to do to solve the problem. We know how to make our homes and transportation systems more energy efficient and we are making huge progress in driving down the costs of non-polluting sustainable energy technologies. What is lacking now is the political will to stand up to powerful special interests, and move our energy system in a very different direction.

I look forward to working with grass-roots America to make that happen.

This statement was originally delivered on the floor of the Senate on Nov. 13, 2007.