By Erin Kelly
The Senate has passed global warming legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would help towns and counties throughout Vermont reduce their dependence on fossil fuel and create job training programs to teach workers to design, manufacture and install energy-saving technology in homes and office buildings.
Sanders' legislation was part of a major energy bill the Senate passed just before midnight Thursday.
The bill, which must be approved by the House, was hailed by environmentalists for provisions that would require cars, light trucks and SUVs to increase their average fuel efficiency from 25 to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Conservation groups have been pushing Congress for years to require cars to go farther on a gallon of gas.
"The overall bill is not as strong as I would have liked, but there is no question that this is a major step forward in breaking our dependence on fossil fuels and moving toward sustainable energy," Sanders, an independent, said Friday. "I'm especially delighted that we finally, after several decades, raised (fuel-efficiency) standards. What that means is that people will be spending less at the gas pump because their cars will be more efficient. It's a big step forward in taking on the oil companies and the auto manufacturers."
The bill includes a "green jobs" program by Sanders and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., that would train workers to build and install solar panels and other energy-efficient technology. A 2006 study from the National Renewable Energy Lab said that a lack of skilled workers in the field was a major barrier to making America more energy-efficient.
Sanders also wrote a provision in the bill to create a nationwide Energy and Environmental Block Grant Program modeled after the popular Community Development Block Grants that have helped local governments build affordable housing, construct community centers, and create parks.
The energy grants could be used by Vermont towns and counties to update building codes to require construction of energy-efficient homes and businesses, retrofit old buildings with newer technology, experiment with alternative energy, create incentives for residents to car pool or ride the bus, or organize voluntary efforts to encourage people to save energy.
The congressman said he believes the federal grants would help resolve a dispute between Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and the state Legislature over how to pay for efforts to reduce global warming.
"I think you're going to see a lot of experimentation and breakthroughs once local governments have the money to try some innovative things," Sanders said.
The bill also includes an amendment by Sanders to provide grants to the University of Vermont and other colleges to improve the energy efficiency of their classrooms, dorms and administration buildings. A fourth amendment pushed through by Sanders would require federal buildings to get at least 30 percent of their hot water from solar water heaters.
Sanders was able to have an impact on the bill because he is a member of the Senate Energy Committee, which drew up the legislation. That seat will help him ensure that his provisions survive into the final version of the bill after the energy legislation is passed by the House.
Critics of the bill, including conservative Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said it does nothing to reduce high gas prices because it fails to increase domestic oil drilling and exploration.
"This bill will continue to put already energy-starved Americans on a diet for years to come," Inhofe said.
Environmentalists said increased energy efficiency will save Americans' money over time.
"This will slash our oil dependence and cut global warming pollution," said Ann Bordetsky, an energy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.