Quick Questions: Sen. Bernie Sanders

For this issue’s quick questions we talk to Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont who has been named the chairman of the Senate Green Jobs and New Economy Subcommittee. Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006 after spending sixteen years in the House. He has been a strong voice on energy and environmental issues and has been a supporter of LIHEAP and Weatherization.

Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders, you were the chief sponsor of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which received $3.2 billion in the stimulus package.  Do you intend to push for regular appropriations in the future?

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program provides funding for local energy efficiency projects, and gives states, towns, counties, and cities resources to create green jobs and fight global warming. While the funding in the stimulus package offers an immediate boost for local projects, I will work to see that this program receives annual appropriations so that we can continue to support our state and local governments in these efforts.

You have long supported LIHEAP, Weatherization, the State Energy Program and now the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant – would these mechanisms be appropriate vehicles for the use of allowances or for direct funding through a climate change bill?

It is clear that saving energy is a cost-effective way to reduce global warming pollution, while at the same time providing jobs and saving consumers money on their utility bills. Under global warming legislation, we should seek to increase funding for programs that provide assistance for weatherization and other conservation and efficiency measures because these programs will fight global warming and provide jobs. It is critical that in reducing our global warming emissions, we provide needed assistance through LIHEAP and other programs for low-income households.

The Administration has proposed reducing funding for LIHEAP from $5.1 billion to $3.2 billion. In terms of priorities, do you think that Congress will maintain funding at the $5.1 billion level for FY 2010?

LIHEAP is a lifeline to dignity for millions of senior citizens on fixed incomes and families with children.  For decades, LIHEAP has kept Americans warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  My office has received hundreds of e-mails from struggling Vermonters who have had to make the unacceptable choice of feeding their families, paying for their prescription drugs, or paying their heating bills during our frigid winters. In the richest country on the face of the earth, we cannot allow a single American to go cold in the winter, or die of heat exposure in the summer because they couldn’t afford to pay their home energy bills.

Due to a tri-partisan effort last year that I was proud to help lead, for the very first time, we were successful in doubling LIHEAP funding to the $5.1 billion level.  As a result, an additional 1.5 million Americans were able to receive LIHEAP assistance with the average grant increasing by nearly $200.  It is essential that Congress and the president work to provide the maximum level possible for LIHEAP in FY 2010 and the years that follow.

As a first step toward this end, I was proud to work with Senators Jack Reed, Susan Collins and others to increase the amount available for LIHEAP in FY 2010 to $5.1 billion during the consideration of the Budget Resolution.

A lot of work remains to be done during the appropriations process to make sure this funding level survives.  I look forward to working with the Obama administration and my colleagues in Congress to ensure that LIHEAP continues to receive the support it deserves.

The Administration has also proposed a trigger to provide additional funding when prices increase as a means of offsetting the proposed cut in LIHEAP. Do you think that is a viable alternative?

Providing automatic increases for LIHEAP funding during energy price spikes is an innovative approach that, if structured properly, could be an important tool in keeping Americans warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Over the years, I have been critical of the way emergency LIHEAP funding has been released.  I applaud the Obama administration for coming up with this idea.

I believe the trigger mechanism, however, should be in addition to fully-funding LIHEAP, not in lieu of providing states with the resources they will need each and every year for this critical program.  We know that during the winter, Vermont and other northern states will experience extremely cold temperatures; as southern states will experience extremely hot weather in the summer.  In addition, even when we provided full-funding for LIHEAP, as we did last year, millions of Americans who qualify for LIHEAP still were not able to receive the help they needed.

As Congress begins its work on the appropriation bills, I look forward to working with the Obama administration and my colleagues in the senate on this critical issue.

In the case of Weatherization, Congress approved an additional $5 billion as part of the stimulus package, enough to weatherize up to an additional 1 million homes. Do you support maintaining funding for Weatherization at this level over the long term?

One of the signature achievements of the economic recovery package passed by Congress earlier this year, was the inclusion of significant funding for the Weatherization program.  This funding will not only allow Americans to save money on their energy bills while conserving energy, but it will also put Americans back to work at livable wage jobs.  This could not have been possible without the leadership of President Obama and he deserves enormous credit for his work on this issue.  Weatherization reduces our dependence on dirty fossil fuels; saves Americans money; and puts people to work at decent-paying jobs.

Even with the funding for Weatherization that was included in the economic recovery package, millions of eligible Americans throughout this country will still be in need of weatherization assistance.  I would like to see the day when every home and building in this country is properly weatherized.  We have a long way to go toward achieving this goal, but it can and should be something that we should strive to achieve.

There has been a lot written about green jobs and the new economy. What role do you see state and local governments playing in helping to train workers to prepare for these jobs and support investment in this area? What actions do you see your subcommittee taking in the coming year to grow the federal commitment this area?

The opportunity for the United States to create and support green jobs is huge, and all levels of government can play a supportive role in preparing workers for these opportunities. Many state and local governments have already established green jobs training programs as well as programs like Efficiency Vermont, which drive green jobs growth through energy efficiency investments. It is important that state and local governments also focus on providing educational opportunities. For example, Vermont Technical College now offers a new Sustainable Design and Technology Program, which will prepare students for jobs in the green economy.

At the federal level, we need comprehensive energy and global warming legislation to create a strong incentive for investments in sustainable energy that will create green jobs. We also should commit to annual funding for the Green Jobs Act, which I sponsored in the Senate, and which Labor Secretary Solis sponsored when she was in the House of Representatives.

My Subcommittee will be a critical forum to discuss the need for a full transition to a green economy. It will work with the sustainable energy community and a number of stakeholders, including labor, to highlight the vast opportunity before us. It will examine how new energy and global warming policies can be tailored to create green jobs and promote a revitalized domestic manufacturing industry. Our nation should be putting people back to work not only on projects such as installing solar panels and insulating  homes and businesses, but also by leading the world in designing, manufacturing, and exporting solar panels and wind turbines and other sustainable energy products.

There is considerable interest among the states in supporting a national cap and trade program.  Are there opportunities to enact legislation that would build on existing programs, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, rather than pre-empting them for a one-size fits all federal approach?

In crafting federal global warming legislation, we should seek to incorporate the best elements of innovative state programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and provide incentives for states to go further than the federal government in fighting global warming. For example, in S. 309, the bill I introduced in the last Congress, we explicitly provided that states would continue to have the ability to do more. Federal legislation should set a floor for emissions reductions based on what we need to do to avoid the harmful impacts of climate change, and not a ceiling for how much states and local governments can do.

How should the government spend the money raised from emissions permits? President Obama has called for roughly 2/3 of the revenue to be returned to the public through tax breaks, to compensate for higher energy bills.

President Obama is right to push for the auction of pollution permits instead of giving them away to industry. With the revenues from an auction, we should be obliged to accomplish several major goals, including helping to provide assistance to families and communities that experience disproportionate impacts from global warming and our efforts to address it. We also should prioritize investments in sustainable energy and energy efficiency to help move quickly toward a green economy and save consumers money on their utility bills. Ultimately we must, as President Obama’s plan would, ensure that we transition to a low-carbon, green economy while minimizing the adverse effects on the public.

It has also been suggested that the revenues could be used to pay for other social concerns, such as providing national health insurance. Do you think that the funds should be targeted solely to energy efficiency and price offsets or should some of it also be used to address other pressing concerns?

We are suffering through the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Millions of American workers have lost their jobs, life savings, homes, their ability to send their kids to college, and their hope that their children will have a higher standard of living than they do.  Forty-six million Americans are un-insured; and 18,000 people die in America each and every year because they don’t have health insurance.  Thirty-seven million Americans are living in poverty; and we have the highest childhood poverty rate of all of the major industrialized countries in the world. President Obama has laid out bold and ambitious plans to confront the enormous challenges that our country faces.

As we continue to combat the scourge of global warming and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we also have to be cognizant of the other enormous ISSUES that need to be addressed.  If a viable plan to combat global warming can be combined with solving some of the other challenges this country faces, we should be open to that option.  But, without seeing the specifics, it would be difficult to comment on this at this time.

There have calls for several years now for a national Renewable Portfolio Standard.  The Waxman-Markey bill in the House for example calls for a national standard of 25% by 2025. Is that a realistic goal?

It is absolutely a realistic goal, and the 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 standard has been endorsed by 31 Governors and enacted into law in several states. Our nation has abundant wind and solar energy resources, as well as other renewable resources such as geothermal, biomass, and ocean energy. In Vermont we have even utilized our farm waste to produce sustainable energy. We can and should work toward meeting this goal.