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Should US Nationalize Fossil Fuel Industry? Warren Says No, Sanders Says Yes.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders often align on climate policy, but not on this question at the climate town hall.

While 2020 hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders often aligned on climate policy at CNN’s climate crisis town hall Wednesday evening, the candidates diverged on the question of nationalizing public utilities. Bernie is for the proposal, while Warren is against. We speak with journalist Kate Aronoff.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s turn to an audience member questioning Senator Elizabeth Warren.

ROBERT WOOD: Bernie Sanders has endorsed the idea of the public ownership of utilities, arguing that we can’t adequately solve this crisis without removing the profit motive from the distribution of essential needs like energy. As president, would you be willing to call out capitalism in this way and advocate for the public ownership of our utilities?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Gosh, you know, I’m not sure that that’s what gets you to the solution. I’m perfectly willing to take on giant corporations. I think I’ve been known to do that once or twice. But, for me, I think the way we get there is we just say, “Sorry, guys, but by 2035, you’re done. You’re not going to be using any more carbon-based fuels,” that that gets us to the right place. And if somebody wants to make a profit from building better solar panels and generating better battery storage, I’m not opposed to that. What I’m opposed to is when they do it in a way that hurts everybody else. You shouldn’t be able to externalize these costs. That’s the problem with fossil fuels right now.

I think that the best way we go forward here is we open up the opportunities. We open up the possibilities. We invest in the science. We invest in the manufacturing. We invest in the pieces that let us build a future together going forward. But yeah, I just want to be clear: We’ve got to have tough rules that we are willing to enforce. And that means we have got to be willing to fight back against these giant industries. And that’s where the whole thing starts for me. We put them on their back foot, then we have a real chance to make the changes we need to make.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Elizabeth Warren responding to a question by a writer and climate organizer from Brooklyn, Robert Wood, at the climate crisis town Hall Wednesday night. So, Kate, could you respond to Warren’s position on the public ownership of utilities and Sanders’ position, and also the fact that ahead of this town hall Greenpeace ranked all the candidates, and Sanders came first, followed by Warren? Do you agree with that assessment, and do you think that the town hall discussion confirmed that?

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And I think what, you know, last night really confirmed is — if it weren’t pretty obvious before, is that Sanders and Warren really are the top climate candidates in this race. They have the most serious plans for dealing with this problem. They also just seem more comfortable talking about it than basically anyone else on stage.

And so, I mean, that moment sort of talking about public ownership is really interesting, because both Sanders’ and Warren’s plans are hugely ambitious, and I think it illustrates a sort of key difference between them, right? So, you know, Sanders’ plan calls for massively expanding public ownership of energy, which is, of course, already pretty widespread in the U.S. We already have a lot of public utilities here. And sort of what he identifies is the fact that, you know, having these utilities, which can spend massive amounts of money sort of polluting the political system, as they do frequently, being able to extract profits instead of investing in things like safety and infrastructure and renewables, that that is a challenge to this transition, whereas I think Warren, in what she sort of articulates here, is that she wants to set a sort of level playing field. She wants to set a strong set of rules and regulations in which these companies can operate.

And I think the problem, which I would argue with what she said, is that it’s not just that these companies are doing harm because they’re allowed to create externalities in the world that aren’t being taxed properly or that there aren’t the right rules and regulations in place; it’s that they have a business model that actually is incompatible with solving this crisis. Their whole business model is to find and dig up and sell more fossil fuels. And there is no meaningful evidence that they’re about to change that.

And so, you know, I think that is a big sort of question for every candidate in this race, is: What is the future of the fossil fuel industry? And I think, you know, leaving a public option, essentially, off the table, either for utilities or fossil fuel companies, I don’t think is sort of an option we have. And I think what Sanders’s plan does is create a stick, really, for utilities to say that, you know, we can bring you under public ownership. There can be a — there are other ways of doing this that don’t involve your profit motive. And so, I think Sanders rightly kind of raises that.

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