The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Bernie Sanders announces a $16.3 trillion Green New Deal

with Paulina Firozi


Bernie Sanders released a comprehensive plan to address a “climate crisis” on par with the threat America faced during the Second World War, vowing to declare the global buildup of planet-warming gases a national emergency and to spend more than any other Democratic candidate has proposed to address the issue.

The independent Vermont senator, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, published a nearly 14,000-word “Green New Deal” on Thursday that aims to eliminate the use of fossil fuels from power plants and cars by the end of the next decade and to completely decarbonize the rest of the U.S. economy by the middle of the century.

It is also distinguished from the plans of his 2020 rivals by the fact that it would attempt to empower Sanders, if he were to be in the White House, to impose many of its components through executive action, a popular tool during the Trump and Obama administrations to enact environmental change.

But the self-proclaimed democratic socialist's proposal comes with a steep price tag of $16.3 trillion, far eclipsing that of former vice president Joe Biden's $1.7 trillion climate plan.

Sanders is the last among the 2020 race's top-tier candidates to release a comprehensive climate plan. Spurred in part by dire warnings from climate scientists and regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration, the issue of climate change is being transformed from an electoral afterthought into a top issue in the Democratic primary. At the same time, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who was running a single-issue campaign on global warming, on Wednesday night dropped out of the presidential contest.

Many of the 2020 contenders have embraced some form of a Green New Deal — a pitch to dramatically and quickly roll back carbon emissions and guarantee jobs for all — but the version backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who supported Sanders in his 2016 run, was defeated in the Senate.

As oil field workers, coal miners and other laborers would lose their jobs under such a plan, Sanders is promising a “fair transition” by providing them with job training, health-care coverage, five years of unemployment insurance and, for those who want them, early retirement packages.

Typical of the senator's sharp-elbowed style, Sanders leaves little room for compromise with fossil-fuel interests. Like his stances on health care and college education, Sanders's purist approach to addressing climate change may endear him to the Democratic Party's left flank while turning off more moderate members.

“We need a president who has the courage, the vision, and the record to face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action,” his Green New Deal reads. “We need a president who welcomes their hatred.”

At the same time, Sanders is keen to court unions, many of which have expressed skepticism of the Green New Deal as articulated by Ocasio-Cortez over fears that aggressive environmental regulations could eliminate jobs. Sanders hopes to allay those fears with a comprehensive set of benefits for laid-off industrial workers. He made a similar tweak to his Medicare-for-all program yesterday by endorsing a move to increase the power of unions in negotiating with health-care providers.

“He just has a lot of credibility to say, 'This is what I’ll be fighting for,' " said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that reviewed parts of the plan for the Sanders campaign.

The high cost of Sanders's plan is due in part to eschewing partnership with the private businesses to erect the wind turbines and solar panels needed to hit his goal of 100 percent renewable energy in the power sector by 2030. Instead Sanders wants to establish a new federal electric utility to provide power to Northeast and Midwestern states while expanding the four existing federal power administrations that cover most of the rest of the Lower 48.

The Sanders campaign says it will pay for the plan through a combination of cutting military spending, increasing corporate taxes and suing fossil-fuel companies.

Echoing legislation he introduces perennially in Congress, Sanders wants to eliminate government subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. And going a step further than his two main Democratic rivals, Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he promises to pursue a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial technique for extracting gas that can sometimes contaminate groundwater.

Sanders's plan, like most Democratic climate proposals, has virtually no shot of being passed by a Republican-controlled Senate. But it is Sanders's willingness to marshal the emergency powers of the executive branch that set him apart from most of the rest of the Democratic field. 

“If the Senate and Congress are going to be bogged down, he will have the authority to enforce many of the pieces he needs to enact to address the climate crisis,” Pica said. “This proposal recognizes the presidential power he would have.”

President Trump's own embrace of emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall has spurred Democrats to talk more openly about ways to wield executive power. Most of the Democratic field, including Sanders, has said they will end coal, oil and natural gas leasing on federally controlled lands, for example.

While there is some precedent for such a moratorium — the Obama administration implemented one for coal — it is an open question as to whether the conservative majority on the Supreme Court would sanction Sanders's use of emergency powers to reshuffle federal funds to address climate change.

Many of Sanders's ideas would also face stiff resistance from within his own Democratic caucus over what Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Clinton White House climate adviser, calls his “radical climate purity.”

“I’m afraid it’s going to be written off by moderates,” Bledsoe added.

Citing the Fukushima meltdown and the Chernobyl explosion, Sanders's plan calls for a moratorium on not just new nuclear power plants but also on the license renewals of existing ones — despite the fact that currently one fifth of U.S. power comes from nuclear reactors, making it by far the nation's largest sources of low-carbon energy. Sanders also rejects the use of technologies that do not yet exist at scale — such as the capturing of carbon dioxide before it exits coal plants' smokestacks — calling them “false solutions.”

To transform the way Americans move around on the ground, Sanders wants to provide $2.09 trillion in grants for consumers to buy electric passenger vehicles and $407 billion for school districts and other local governments to buy electric buses. He also wants to resurrect an Obama administration plan to invest $607 billion in building a high-speed rail system.

But the goal of taking every gasoline-guzzling car, pickup truck and SUV off the roads by 2030 is simply unrealistic, said Josh Freed, head of the clean energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way.

“It undermines the seriousness of the plan, and shows that it's just a political document,” he said.

While he promises to rejoin the Paris climate accords, Sanders calls the agreement brokered by the Obama administration “not perfect” for falling short of emissions reductions needed to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. On the international stage, Sanders wants to invest $200 billion abroad in Asia, Africa and South America for building out renewable energy and adapting to rising seas and other effects of climate change.

To readers: As the summer winds down, this is the last edition of The Energy 202 for the month of August. We return to our full schedule after Labor Day.


— Jay Inslee drops out: The two-term Washington governor, who made climate change central to his bid for president, announced on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” that he was leaving the 2020 race.

Why he's leaving: As The Post's Eli Rosenberg reports, Inslee "struggled to gain name recognition and wide support among his more nationally famous peers in the contest, with his poll numbers hovering around 1 percent or lower. An aggregate of polls by the site RealClearPolitics showed Inslee with a national average of 0.2 percent." That put him in a position for not qualifying for the next Democratic debate, as well as for a CNN climate forum in September.

In his own words: "We started seeing that climate change had to be the number one job of the United States," he said on MSNBC. "I felt very good saying that the first days of my campaign. I feel very good saying that now."

Praise from other Democrats: Shortly after announcing his departure, Inslee received accolades from a number of his 2020 rvials for elevating the issue of climate change.

— “Foolish executives!” Trump dinged four “politically correct” automakers — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America — that struck a deal with California to produce vehicles that meet pollution standards nearly as rigorous as the Obama administration’s for the nation’s cars, pickups and SUVs. The Trump administration is trying to get rid for those tailpipe rules.

One of those four automakers — Ford — is American, and Trump called out the storied company by name.

What prompted the outrage? Probably a New York Times story this week suggesting more automakers may join the deal. In a statement sent to reporters, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency said it read “like a press release” for the state’s clean air agency. 

Is Trump right? The administration’s argument has been that tougher regulations will make new cars more expensive and spur drivers to keep older, less safe vehicles. But according to Politico, “Contrary to Trump’s claims, one study found that the White House plan would cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars and force car buyers to pay an extra $3,300 per vehicle — on average — in base prices and fuel purchases.”

— Let the Endangered Species Act lawsuits begin: Eight of the country’s biggest environmental groups, including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the Trump administration over trying to change protections for imperiled plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act. As expected, the litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California came quickly after the new rules were finalized last week by the Interior and Commerce departments.

What the new wildlife regulations do: Among the changes are an end to blanket protections for species at risk of being deemed endangered and a curtailment of the use of climate models to predict how warming could impact wildlife. Finally, for the first time, federal officials will be allowed to consider the financial cost of protecting a particular plant or animal. 

Why environmentalists think it’s illegal: According to the plaintiffs, the new rules strike at the heart of the 46-year-old law. They say the Trump administration failed to give the public sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the changes and failed to analyze the full impacts of the new rules as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

— Hiring practice Scott Pruitt was criticized for was actually legal: That’s the conclusion of the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which found that appointments former administrator Pruitt made using an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act were indeed compliant with that law. To the objections of administration critics, Pruitt and his staff used the law’s hiring power — which circumvents the usual review process (ostensibly for times of crisis) — to hire a number of ex-lobbyists, schedulers and spokesmen. In its report released Wednesday, the watchdog agency found that because the law “does not require that appointees work on drinking-water related issues, the agency’s use is consistent with the authority provided by the statute.”

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is ablaze, turning day into night in the city of Sao Paulo (Andrew Freedman)