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Columbia Energy Exchange

Re-Run: A Decade of Energy and Climate Policy Impact


Jason Bordoff

Founding Director, Center on Global Energy Policy; Professor, Columbia SIPA; Professor and Co-Founding Dean Emeritus, Columbia Climate School


Jason Bordoff [00:00:03] The reason I was excited to come to a university after serving in government is because they play a unique role in our society. Not only for their knowledge and their educational mission, but their independence, their breadth of expertise, their analytic rigor. But to have real impact with decision makers in the real world, outside academia, that research has to be accessible again in the formats and timeframes that decision makers need. And universities are not always great at that part. So that was really the idea for the Center on Global Energy Policy.

Bill Loveless [00:00:35] This week, on April 12th, the Center on Global Energy Policy celebrates its 10th anniversary. Our co-host Jason Bordoff founded the center after serving in the Obama White House during his time in the administration. He recognized a need for unbiased, evidence based research that examined energy issues across multiple dimensions economics, national security and environment and climate. So in 2013, with the help of a few friends and colleagues, Jason launched the Center on Global Energy Policy to fill that void. Ten years later, the institution is thriving and its mission to help address the world’s most challenging energy and climate problems through research, education and dialog. This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. I’m Bill Loveless. Today, I’m talking with Jason about his journey to start CGEP and why he chose Columbia University as its home. We also discussed publishing actionable research that is useful to policymakers and the role of education in responding to climate change. From 2009 to 2013, Jason served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Energy and Climate Change on the staff of the National Security Council. Prior to that, he held senior policy positions on the White House’s National Economic Council and Council on Environmental Quality. Earlier in his career, Jason was a scholar at the Brookings Institution, served in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration and was a consultant with McKinsey and Company. He’s also a founding dean of the Columbia Climate School. I hope you enjoy our conversation about this special milestone. Jason, It’s not often that we get to talk together on this show, so I’m looking forward to doing so today, and particularly now because it’s such an exciting time for the Center on Global Energy Policy and for you.

Jason Bordoff [00:02:49] Well, it’s great to be with you, Bill. Like you said, we’ve been doing this for, what, six years or something. And but we’re we’re on every other week, so we don’t get to do this together very often. But you’ve been a really important part of building this center and you’ve seen it grow from its earliest days as well.

Bill Loveless [00:03:06] I have. I still remember visiting with you and back in the day, I think it was 2015, you were a couple of years into it. But going up to what, the ninth floor of the International Building at the School of International and Public Affairs?

Jason Bordoff [00:03:20] That’s right.

Bill Loveless [00:03:20] Two people, as I recall, you and Jessie McCormick.

Jason Bordoff [00:03:24] Yeah, I was really lucky. Jessie McCormick is a brilliant young, young man who has since moved on to bigger and better things in clean energy finance, but worked with me in the White House. And then when this opportunity came up to start the Center on Global Energy Policy, I he was the first person I talked to and turned to and said, I have a really good idea. You should give up a job working in the White House every day and move to a new city for an institute that doesn’t exist yet. And for some reason he did, which I’ll never quite understand. But we couldn’t couldn’t have done it without him. And he really grew into a role where he was helping run the place on a day to day basis once it scaled and got bigger. Yeah. All right. Owe him a debt and like it. And the way you and I met, which really has been one of the ways we’ve built the institution, which is looking at things we enjoy out in the world, looking at best practices elsewhere out in the world, and just models that we can adopt here for energy. And so I was a fan of what you did on television with what was then Platts Energy Week, and I think I read that that was being abandoned by Platts. And I said, Well, one of the things we should be doing is providing in-depth content in discussions with senior energy sector leaders. I know whenever I travel around the world, you sit and meet with people, have a drink with people, and the conversations are always fascinating. And I thought, I think a lot of people might like to listen to these. And I asked you, since you’re far more skilled at it, if you would come continue to do that here. And I think it’s been successful and really fun.

Bill Loveless [00:04:49] I’ve enjoyed it and I appreciate you providing the opportunity to do it. It’s been a lot of fun and, you know, we’ve had several hundred shows, so it’s it’s been a great experience. Well, as you know, we often start the show by asking our guests to tell us something about themselves. Probably, you know, most of our listeners know who you are and, you know, know at least a little bit about you. But your family background is interesting. Jason, You talk about it from time to time. It’s no secret you’re proud of it. Tell us about it and what sort of influence it’s had on you, your life and your career.

Jason Bordoff [00:05:29] Yeah, thanks for asking. I talk about it a little bit. I don’t always feel just comfortable talking about myself, maybe, but it is very influential and not just who I am, but. But why I do what I do every day and why, Honestly, the Center on Global Energy Policy even exists. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. My mother was an immigrant to this country who fled religious persecution in Egypt, where she grew up, and my father worked every day in an auto repair shop in Brooklyn. I could see as a young kid Now I have sort of memories in my head, you know, how long it took to get the grease out from under his fingernails or just sort of seeing the bodily effects of breathing car exhaust in in a garage each and every day. I think that upbringing for me led to really three important things that I saw everyday growing up. First, energy matters that if we don’t get it right, people suffer. That can be environmental harms, that could be economic or geopolitical harms, My dad recalls. You know, fistfights that would break out over shortages of gasoline in the early or late seventies at his at his shop. The second was that public policy really matters. My immigrant family was able to rebuild their lives in this country because of government policy, because of immigration policy, because of public education investments, and it was government policy that eventually cleaned up a lot of the air and water that we had fouled in this country through the 50, 60, 70s and beyond. And then third, that education really matters again. That’s how my family was able to transform their lives in this country. And I saw what education did for me. I’m really excited to see what it’s going to do for my own daughter now. But she’s about to become a freshman at Columbia this fall. We’re really thrilled and proud of her. So those three things, energy policy and education, that’s that’s what I’ve devoted my career to. And that’s really what the Center on Global Energy. The policy is all about incredibly important issues. I think the stakes couldn’t be higher for our livelihoods, prosperity, national security, and of course, for the planet.

Bill Loveless [00:07:45] Yeah, And you went on, you know, you experienced had some energy experience early in your career. You know, once you had gotten out of school, once you had your law degree, you ended up at the White House working in the Obama administration there as an adviser. When when did you start first, think about creating a center like this. This all began. I mean, this emerged in your head back when you were at the White House, right? What what were you thinking then? Why were you thinking about it? And what did you feel as though was missing, you know, for policymakers like yourself?

Jason Bordoff [00:08:27] Yeah, Well, well, the energy and environment part sort of, you know, that evolved. I grew up caring deeply about the environment, loving the outdoors and being outside. And, you know, there’s not as much opportunity that when you grow up in Brooklyn. But people forget sometimes part of the National Park Service is is in Brooklyn, in Jamaica Bay, a pretty beautiful area actually, for birds and for kayaking and stuff. And we’d go out on the water off Brooklyn sometimes. And then and then what I studied in graduate school was Middle East politics, probably motivated by a desire, I think, to understand my own family background. As I said, my mom immigrated from that region and you can’t study the history of the Middle East or spend time in the region without understanding the dominant role energy plays in foreign policy and geopolitics. And then again, that led to serving in government, something I always knew I wanted to do. First, I worked in the Clinton administration, in the U.S. Treasury Department, and then had the chance to go into the White House in the in the Obama administration, first working at the Council on Environmental Quality, really important institution within the White House, focused on environmental protection and environmental impact statements and NEPA, and then moved to the National Security Council. Again, coming at Energy from the standpoint of foreign policy, geopolitics, international affairs. And I think the idea for the Center on Global Energy Policy emerged from that experience in a few respects. One is that experience of working in policy on energy issues through multiple lenses, working on issues through an environmental lens, and then an economic lens and then a national security lens, even within different offices in the White House that bring different equities to the interagency discussions you have. Because most energy issues have important implications for all of those things. They’re important economic issues, national security issues, and certainly environmental and climate issues. And you need to think about all of those things. Not enough organizations, in my view, do that. They’re really good on one of those pieces, but not the other. And what I really wanted to do was try to bring together expertise across all of those dimensions. And the other thing that I saw in government was how complex the issues are that are on policymakers desks, how rapidly the energy landscape is changing. You know, a decade ago in the Obama administration from the impacts of climate change, and we were seeing those play out increasingly frequently. We were there during, you know, Hurricane Sandy and many other disasters and or the shale revolution suddenly taking off with unprecedented speed and causing a whole bunch of new policy questions that that that people had to think about. And as a policymaker, you’re working on incredibly tight timeframes. You may or may not have the expertise you need. So you need to figure out where you can turn to get it. And you’re bombarded often by advocacy information. There are people, their interest groups, with an agenda and sometimes helpful information, sometimes pretty, pretty skewed and unhelpful information. But but always with an often with an agenda. And what you’re looking for is who’s an objective, independent, trusted source that can really help me, but but importantly, help me in the formats and timeframes I need. That’s not necessarily academic articles. And so I think universities, the reason I was excited to come to a university after serving in government is because they play a unique role in our society, not only for their knowledge and their educational mission, but their independence, their breadth of expertise, their analytic rigor. But to have real impact with decision makers in the real world outside academia, that research has to be accessible again in the formats and time frames that decision makers need. And universities are not always great at that part. So that was really the idea for the Center on Global Energy Policy. Can we build within a university an institutional capability to take the knowledge that exists in a place like this? It’s pretty remarkable how the breadth and depth of what an institution like Columbia has. And but can we measure our success by whether we’re bringing that knowledge to decision makers outside of academia?

Bill Loveless [00:12:30] And how did you end up at Columbia at. Bringing this at establishing this center at Columbia. I mean, who did you talk to? If you can tell us, who did you talk to when you were at the White House to get some input about is the sort of center organization I have in mind. I got a lot of questions of how it might be structured and perhaps most importantly, where it would be located.

Jason Bordoff [00:12:57] Well, I was biased toward Columbia from the start because I was born and raised in New York, and I love the city deeply and knew when I left D.C., I wanted to move back to New York. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do eventually. You know, serving in government, serving in the White House is an extraordinary privilege. By definition, it’s a temporary job. You’re going to do it for two years, four years, It probably at most, eight years. I had been there around three years or so when one of the people that I would call from time to time just to seek expertise on what was happening, particularly in energy markets and oil markets, was someone, you know, Ed Morse, who is now at Citigroup. And just as has has been thinking, he’s for he’s forgotten more about oil markets than you or I will ever know.

Bill Loveless [00:13:47] He is the global, global head of commodity research at that city.

Jason Bordoff [00:13:51] And he’s worked in different roles like that and taught at Princeton and, you know, other places like that. So he was one of the people that when I was trying to understand what was happening in complex markets and you may remember back in the Obama administration, oil prices surging above $120 a barrel. And those were things we were trying to understand what it would mean and what was causing it. So I was having a drink with that on Capitol Hill, where I lived after work one day and after talking a little bit about what was happening in energy markets, we just started talking about what I would do when it was time to leave government. And he made a comment to me that kind of changed my life. He said, You know, I was spending time with people at Columbia the other day and they were looking to do more in energy, but they’re not really sure what that means. You should go and talk to them. And I did. And that led to a conversation with a guy named John Coatsworth, who was then the dean of the School of International Public Affairs, eventually the provost. And then I gave a job talk and got an offer and started to talk to them about the idea that I had for what this kind of institute might look like. It was still vague at the time, and I don’t remember what that whole process looked like. But, you know, roughly a year or so later, my last day serving in government was the the the day of President Obama’s second inauguration. So I worked there for the first term and finished work on a Friday and started here in New York the following Monday. And it’s turned out to be under President Boulanger’s leave Bollinger, the president, Columbia under his leadership and the leadership of SIPA and even even even better home than I could have imagined for trying to build a place like this.

Bill Loveless [00:15:25] And I want to talk a bit about President Boulanger’s role here and the so-called fourth purpose that he’s been a strong advocate of. But tell me if I’m remembering this correctly, I thought I read or heard you say sometime that your visit with Dean Coatsworth was the first time you visited Columbia.

Jason Bordoff [00:15:42] It was the first time I set foot on the Columbia campus. That’s right. Even though I grew up in New York, Brooklyn is a little far away from the subway to get up here. And I remember taking taking the train to Penn Station and getting on the subway and coming up and you get off a 116th Street and walk through the majestic gates under the Columbia quad. There is something special about Columbia, Not only if you grew up in New York, it’s not just an iconic institution of higher learning. It is a little different than some other universities here because even though it’s right in the middle of Manhattan, when you set foot on campus and on the quad, it does feel a bit isolated from the city that the main quad we have with the iconic libraries on either side, Low Library and Butler Library. I remember my first thought looking at that view of low library was was actually that’s the opening scene of Ghostbusters. And that was very exciting to me that this is where Ghostbusters was filmed. But that was the first time, first time I’d ever been to Columbia.

Bill Loveless [00:16:39] Interesting. Well, course, President Bollinger has been there for some time. He’s retiring this year. He has been a monumental force there at the university in terms of supporting not only continued educational things like climate, but so much more in terms of the university’s impact on issues in society. Today. He is he talks a lot about and made a key aspect of his tenure there, the so-called fourth purpose. What what is the fourth purpose, Jason, and why is that relevant to the work that you do in the center does.

Jason Bordoff [00:17:19] Well, as I mentioned a moment ago, what was important to me was finding an institutional home where you could pursue independent, trusted, analytically objective research related to our big energy and climate challenges. But really. Wanted to engage in in helping decision makers, particularly policymakers. And, you know, to the extent I had any, I have been at Brookings for five years. So I had worked at one of the leading think tanks and of course, a think tank like that spends a lot of its time working in Washington policymakers. And if there was any concern about a university, my my concern at the time was made it feel too far removed from that kind of engagement with, for lack of a better term, the real world. And if you respects, one is, you know, I have an appointment here as a professor of professional practice. So universities are structured with the tenured faculty who have gone through the traditional process by which one gets tenure. And then there are professors of practice along with other appointments. And what was important to me is I had some confidence that this would be a university that could bring people in from the world of what they call professional practice, having been in government or business or something. But but really, you wouldn’t feel like a second class citizen. You’d be a meaningful, real part of the faculty. And I had more confidence that would be true at Columbia than other universities I talked to. And the other is, was there that institutional commitment to really engaging with the world, in addition to, of course, the educational mission, the teaching and the research. And so President Bollinger, who is a visionary leader, he’s stepping down after 22 years at the helm of this university, an extraordinary track record. And he’s often talked about what he calls the fourth purpose of universities, research, education, community service. In our case, a lot of work, say, in Harlem, right in our backyard, our three. And then the fourth purpose is are we intentionally focused on solving humanity’s greatest challenges? Are we using all the knowledge, all the resources, all the wealth of a university like this? Are we harnessing that with a very intentional aim to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges? And of course, climate change would be at or near the top of the list for sure. And that that that is that’s not true in every university. And I think he’s been particularly forward thinking in what it means for a university to organize itself, hire the kinds of people you need to hire and measure success by whether we are really living up to that.

Bill Loveless [00:19:46] Yeah, and mean. And part of his legacy there is the establishment of the Climate School, of which you are a co-founding Dean. I guess you know, here we’re talking about the establishment of the center some ten years ago. But Columbia as a university has gone far beyond just establishing a think tank, so to speak, on campus. It’s gone well beyond that in terms of its establishment of this climate school.

Jason Bordoff [00:20:13] Yeah, I think there’ll be a long, a long list of things in Lee’s legacy. But but I think near that near the top of a couple at least, would be the Columbia Climate School. And it was really an honor that he asked me to join a few of my colleagues in helping as co-leaders to launch that and get get that started. It was an incredible opportunity. As excited and proud as I am of what we built with the Center on Global Energy Policy and our our milestone that we’re celebrating this week of ten years in and how proud I am of the center and the people. So we have here now the 80 students that work here. You know, a school is a whole different magnitude of scale at which you’re thinking. And I think what Columbia did was say, as I mentioned a moment ago, let’s focus intentionally on solving some of humanity’s greatest challenges. Climate change is one of those. And the question we asked ourselves is, what does it look like to go big on climate change? If we really want to prioritize that across the university, what does that mean? And there’s a lot of ways to do that and lots of institutes and centers and other ways to do that. But the idea was there’s not that many schools, right? There’s only a couple engineering business law. You go down the list, you don’t start new ones very often, maybe once or twice a century. And it is a it is a bigger institutional commitment. It sends a signal externally as well as internally to our people about the priority. Columbia places on climate change and a school comes with different authorities. You can you can hire faculty, you can give tenure, you can grant degrees things that institutes and centers, for example, can’t do. And it’s a big lift. It’s a hard thing to build. It takes a lot more resources, a lot more philanthropy. And that’s what we’ve been working the last two or three years to do. And, you know, that’s really exciting in that we allowed other universities to Stanford, notably with the extraordinary gift John Dore and his wife gave there. That’s that’s really exciting as well. And, you know, hopefully if we’re successful, we’ll be will be dozens of climate schools and we will look back and wonder how we thought universities could tackle this problem without creating something on that on that scale.

Bill Loveless [00:22:15] You know, there are plenty of thinktanks around, including others that are devoted specifically to energy issues. And they do a lot of good work, too. What distinguishes the Center on Global Energy Policy from the others?

Jason Bordoff [00:22:29] Well, like you said, I don’t want to I’m proud of what we built and I wouldn’t disparage others in the course of. Explaining why. And I worked at Brookings for five years. It’s a fantastic place. And there are others like the Council on Foreign Relations or Energy and Environment, focused places like Resources for the Future. And again, I’m almost hesitant to name some because you’ll forget a lot of great organizations. There are some not great ones too. I definitely won’t name those, but there are some of those do. Why did I want to come to Columbia or a university as opposed to, say, go back to Brookings as as wonderful an institution as it was and great an experience I had there? I do think there’s a depth of of expertise and knowledge that exists almost in a unique way in a great research university. So when I think about how interdisciplinary energy is and climate is and the kind of knowledge you need, the kind of expertise you need, if we’re thinking about the future of oil demand and what that might mean economically or geopolitically, not to mention for greenhouse gas emissions and what well, what where do we think electric vehicle sales are going to go and what will how will that be affected by policy or by the cost of the vehicles? How will that be affected by mineral and supply chain problems as we’re talking about a lot now? Well, to understand that, you need to know how battery chemistry is going to evolve. Colombia has an electro chemistry energy center sitting within the School of engineering with a large number like Dan Stanger and Allen West and some of my my colleagues here of extraordinary faculty who are just some of the best experts in the world on batteries. And I could go down the list and give you, you know, many other examples. But on almost any topic that we might be working on here at the Center on Global Energy Policy, when we need to go really deep to understand something in engineering and technology or in law and regulation with people like Michael Girard at the Law School in Policy and International Affairs, in business on almost everything, not everything, but almost everything, there is real extraordinary depth of expertise in an institution like this. And I think that is a very rich environment that you just don’t find, even at the best, think tanks. And the second is, you know, the educational mission. It’s something I’m passionate about. And as I said, we have about 80 students who work at the center. If you’ll count up the students who are taught in the courses that our scholars here teach, several hundred more, we’ve just created a new program for future leaders that picks 20 of Columbia’s best students who are interested in energy and kind of puts them through a more intensive curriculum, including mentorship and help with summer jobs and hopefully future jobs. And, you know, I’ve been here long enough now. We celebrate ten years that you look back and you see some of the people who were your students out in the world doing extraordinary things and really becoming the leaders we need for the future. And it’s easy to look at where oil, oil and gas and even coal use are. Rising emissions haven’t started falling yet. It’s easy to look around the world and feel a little pessimistic sometimes that we’re going to be able to tackle these challenges. But when you spend time with the young people that we’re lucky to spend time with here at Columbia, it really is inspiring. They’re passionate, they’re brilliant, and they really, really are committed to tackling these huge challenges.

Bill Loveless [00:25:41] We were talking a minute ago about those early days of the center back and when it was you and Jesse McCormick. Now, by the way, there’s what, some 100 people at the Center on Global Energy Policy. I was recalling the inaugural event that was at the library back in April 25th, 2013. And among the speakers was then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke about the unfolding shale revolution in the United States and the need for policies that would back renewable energy and the dangers of climate change. You also had Tom Donilon, then the national security adviser for President Obama, who gave the keynote about the changing geopolitics of energy and the country’s new position as an energy superpower and the new face of energy security that was being racked by climate change. What are what are your what are your recollections of that day?

Jason Bordoff [00:26:41] Yeah, it’s remarkable how much has changed, but also how much things in some ways remain the same. And, you know, it was a very special day. I’d only been here a couple of months and we put this big event together in the library and we didn’t really have a team or a staff yet. So I remember me and Jesse and I think we had one or two other people were kind of doing everything, setting up the events and the the tables and the invitations, and we’re getting ready for our 10th anniversary celebration next week. And, you know, I’m fortunate now that we have a pretty extraordinary team to do a lot of that. But we were you know.

Bill Loveless [00:27:10] You don’t have to set up tables and chairs anymore.

Jason Bordoff [00:27:13] Not quite as much, but but but it’s an all hands effort now, and we have great people doing it. I remember taking the subway down to city hall with Jesse and meeting with Michael Bloomberg staff to persuade them that he should come do this in the first place. And we were really honored that Mayor Bloomberg came. And if you think about the things he talked about, it was just after Hurricane Sandy. He talked about the threats of climate change to an urban area like this near the water. He talked about the importance of resilience to climate impacts and also the resilience of our energy system. You’ll you’ll remember when you know, the fuel supply was was devastated. Right. And people had shortages of gasoline and stuff because of the impact of that hurricane on the energy system itself. He talked that was at a time when he was trying to deal with local air pollution in New York by getting the city off of fuel oil, which we were still burning in many buildings. And at the time he saw a shift to gas as a heating fuel as one of the ways to deal with local air pollution. Of course, now we’re having a different kind of conversation about the need to not just deal with local air pollution, but greenhouse gas emissions and electrify heating and and even Bloomberg’s own views. He sort of talked about the role shale gas could play and then I don’t know what five or six years later, he gave a very significant amount of money for an effort to move beyond gas because of how much the cost of renewables a change because our understanding of methane leaks had changed and because, you know, eventually we’re running out of time, the time you have to gradually reduce emissions, as the IPCC just warned us about, starts to look like less and less. The line of emission decline has to be steeper and steeper. And then Tom Donilon, you know, who was my boss in the White House, he was the national security advisor, and he talked about the geopolitical threats of climate change, conflict and migration and water scarcity. And then he also talked about the geo political implications of how the U.S. energy system is changing. You know, we went from a big energy importer to a to an exporter because of the shale revolution in oil and gas. And one of the things I remember him talking about was how access to U.S. natural gas could help the security of our allies and undermine the leverage that dominant gas suppliers have in places like Europe. And of course, if you just look at what’s happened in the last 12 months in Europe with Russia weaponizing gas, and part of what helped Europe was a big shift to clean energy and renewables and efficiency, but also the global LNG market. So it’s interesting to see how some of that stuff is playing out even today.

Bill Loveless [00:29:36] Yeah, I recall you wrote earlier in the year that looking back on those remarks by Bloomberg and Donilon, that the the issues, those those very issues have not only intensified, but they have also converged. That’s what you wrote earlier this year, and particularly in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You know, we’re certainly seeing that happen, you know, amid this disruption in energy markets since the war began. What what’s the center been saying and doing to help world leaders figure out what to do?

Jason Bordoff [00:30:19] Well, I’m really proud of the role we’ve played. I mean, first, how we have built a team with very broad expertise. We have people who are experts in clean energy and renewables and clean energy technology. We have people with expertise in oil and gas markets. We have expertise, people with expertise in national security and geopolitics and an expertise in in climate policy and really across the board. Coming back to that first point that to think about how you respond to a crisis like this, you need to be thinking about all those things. That’s what people are doing in government, right? If you’re thinking about if you’re sitting in government now, I would expect you have, at least for some administrations, maybe not all, but the Biden administration would say climate change is an urgent priority. We want to think about how do we not miss the opportunity to take advantage of a crisis like this. Of course you don’t want a crisis, but how do you not miss the opportunity if it can accelerate a transition to clean energy? But how do you think about the reality of meeting today’s energy needs and geopolitics and national security concerns and and factor those in because you have deep understanding in in those regions of the world. We have great expertise in the Gulf Arab countries, in in Russia, in Europe, in other parts of the world that are really important right now. And so we’ve been trying to help. We try to be a resource to help not just our students first and foremost, but the broader public. Helped journalists speak at conferences. Just help people understand what’s happening, what’s going on with this Russia Ukraine conflict and what it might mean for energy. This perennial mainstay, perennial has been that long, but this repeated question of is it going to accelerate or decelerate a transition? That’s been talked about a lot. We want to there’s a lot of rhetoric about in response to questions like that. And the question is, okay, but what’s the evidence? What let’s do the analysis and see what it shows. That’s where we try to trying to start from. And then to the extent we can be putting out and our goal is to put out actionable climate and energy solutions, so not only to do analysis but to then be as concrete as we can. And therefore here is what government policymakers should do about that.

Bill Loveless [00:32:22] And that’s what’s meant by actionable, right? Because that’s a term that’s often used. People say they want to they want to provide some results that are actionable. But I think often that term is not understood.

Jason Bordoff [00:32:34] Well, that’s what I think. That’s what we mean by it. It’s certainly something I’m I was thoughtful. I tried to think about and reflect on when I left government. You would often see great analysis, research, empirical analysis in academic papers or elsewhere when you were in government, and hopefully you had time to read them. Often you didn’t. So you were looking for a slightly more digestible versions of them. And we try to do that too, with a great communications and multimedia and digital team we have. But then the question is what do you do about it? And so I often found academic journal articles too often would be tremendous analysis, and then they would end with a paragraph like So government policymakers should think more about how to encourage energy efficiency and the like. Okay, but I actually have to do that. What tools do I have? Does that take a new law in Congress if that seems impossible? What what what existing authorities do I have? What regulatory authorities do I have within existing laws that are on the books and really try to provide a road map that a policymaker could pick up and do something with. And I think in order to do that, you need you need to have that as your motivation. You need to be thinking about that when you’re doing your research, but then build the team with the skill set that really knows that because they’ve spent time in the policy world, they know what those authorities look like, they know what it means to, you know, promulgate new regulations or proposed new laws in Congress or something else. And that’s why I think one of the things that’s been a little unique, not totally unique, but but has been very intentional about what we’ve built here. And key to our success has been, as you said, we have about nearly a hundred people now working at the Center on Global Energy Policy that includes about 60 or 65 research scholars. Those are people who are part of the research community at Columbia, but but usually come from nonacademic backgrounds. They have deep expertise. They’ve worked maybe in government or organizations like the International Energy Agency, maybe in the private sector, but they’ve worked in applied practical situations. They come with that understanding about how government policy really works. And then, you know, the magic happens when they are able to collaborate with the extraordinary research faculty, including the tenured faculty across this university, most of whom have spent most of their careers in academia. And when you get those two working together, the quality of the analysis and then the actual recommendations or actionable proposals that come out of it can be really exciting and powerful.

Bill Loveless [00:34:55] Well, how do you measure that impact, Jason? And can you can you describe a moment when you appreciated the impact that that center was having on the policymaking process?

Jason Bordoff [00:35:07] It’s a good question. I think it’s a hard question because, you know, ideally you want to measure success by something like there is a new national climate law, like the Inflation Reduction Act, and it emerged from your work or pieces of it from your analysis. And when that happens, as recently did, it’s very powerful that those things don’t happen very often. Right? Those are sort of once in a decade, maybe moment. So on a more regular basis, how do you measure impact? And as I said, you know, I start with education. The students that are working here, the number we can help train and support the programs we have for them. And then looking at what their goal they go off to do next, We we obviously count how many op eds we’re writing and times we show up in the press and testimony we give before Congress. And that’s one way to have impact. But I don’t think those numbers alone really, really tell you what you need to know. We’re both writing in academic journals, but also often in places that are more publicly and say publicly accessible, more, more broadly read maybe. I mean, myself, I often write in places like foreign affairs or foreign policy, not necessarily an academic journal. There are specific proposals I can recite where I think we helped put an idea out there that got picked up. I was just reading today in the paper about about some of the work that was happening, I think at Interior or with regard to the Biden administration’s pledge to put $1,000,000,000 to work plugging orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells to both put people to work but also reduce emissions. And and that was an idea that that we were I think one of the first by. Just to put a proposal out and analyzing that for people to pick up. And there are other examples like that. So you can point to those. But like I said, those don’t come up all the time. And then sometimes we spend a lot of time just trying to be a resource. When people have questions, people will reach out and say, Can we come visit or can you get on a zoom and can we talk about what’s happening in the world? And I think being a trusted place of analysis, like many other organizations are, is one of the important ways to have impact. You just don’t always know how to measure it and count it. But I think it’s really important that we people see us that way as a resource. They know they can turn to on a broad range of questions. And the important thing is will be a trusted source that will provide our best sense of what the evidence says, but not come to those conversations with a particular, you know, advocacy agenda or a predetermined view of what the right answer is. Before we do the analysis and look at the question that’s really important to us and our research team. It’s what guides me and Melissa a lot. My colleague here, who’s our research director and leads our research team, I mean, she and I talk about that all the time.

Bill Loveless [00:37:49] You know, I’ve been impressed, you know, and the work I’ve done with with the center, just again, by the diversity of the expertise, because you can bring in, as you mentioned, scholars there, researchers there who have been government officials, not only in the United States, but in Europe, South America, other places. You can bring in the expert on batteries. If if you’re doing something on renewable energy and learn that much more about the technical challenges of building a better battery. And then if there’s a big Supreme Court decision or whatever that affects EPA, you can go to the law school and get someone like Michael Girod to help break it down so that you can understand it. You mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act. Boy, I mean, it’s the biggest law of its kind. And when it comes to climate action and U.S. history, but it is big and people are scrambling to try to understand it. The government itself is in the process of writing many, many regulations to implement this law. What role does a place like the Center on Global Energy Policy played today in and delving into this this massive law?

Jason Bordoff [00:38:58] Well, as you said, it is massive. And there’s a bunch of issues that come up now in terms of implementation. It’s extraordinary. There was a whole multi-year effort that lots of organizations were part of in different ways, advocacy and some in research and analysis. And certainly we had a role in some of that to get the help provide the whole ecosystem that allowed something as transformational as the Inflation Reduction Act to happen. Now, the question is implementation. And, you know, it is hard to get Congress to authorize that much money to be spent on clean energy. It’s also hard to spend that much money and spend it well. And we don’t even know how much money we’re talking about because, you know, CBO estimate was around 400 billion, and private estimates are two or three times that much because these tax credits are not capped now. Now, even now, the hard work starts of what does the Treasury guidance look like over how you’re going to categorize different components of batteries? That might mean different shares of vehicles qualify for the tax credits. Huge issue. Now about that requires analysis about how you should think about the lifecycle emissions for green hydrogen and what what that means for who qualifies for the tax credit, the questions of additionality and monthly versus annual accounting. And it gets pretty technical, but it’s super important because we are an institution that has intentionally tried to build depth in not just domestic climate and clean energy, but international affairs and foreign policy. And we sit within a school of international affairs and and at the School of International and Public Affairs. When you look at what the barriers to implementation might be for, for the IRA, it certainly permitting reform is, you know, at the top of the list. And as a whole, you need to work with people who understand NEPA and work with local communities and indigenous communities to understand how you’re going to protect the environment, but still try to be able to build as much clean energy infrastructure as we need to as quickly as we need to. But also, how do you you know, I wrote a piece just after the IRA was passed about how I worried it could trigger a trade conflict because of some of the requirements for domestic manufacturing. And certainly we’ve seen that reaction from the Europeans or how do you navigate industrial policy that doesn’t fly in the face of trade, at least with allies and, you know, countries that we want to have more trade with? Maybe there are different concerns about, say, China, critical minerals supply chains. You get the tax credits for EVs, but a certain percentage of the batteries have to be made with components mined, refined or processed in the US or free trade partner countries. And that really. Piracy to bring many different skills together. You understand domestic climate policy, but you also understand US-China relations and supply chain issues and the geopolitical issues that that are incredibly important. And that’s that is those are big areas of focus for us, climate and trade, minerals, the things that really can be in our sweet spot of trying to bring bring some of the foreign policy and geopolitical expertise we have to bear.

Bill Loveless [00:42:08] You know, when you talk about these issues or when it comes to meeting clean energy and climate goals, there is ambition and there is reality. How do you navigate this difficult balance and how do you advise people at the center who are working on these issues?

Jason Bordoff [00:42:28] Well, we’re just trying to be as as clear eyed as we can about where where we need to get to and what motivates that. A walker. You know, I said we have great depth of expertise at Columbia. One of the areas of greatest depth and expertise is the hundreds of people working on climate science here at Columbia, including at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, just about I don’t know how many miles 40 minutes up the Hudson River from Columbia’s main campus. You don’t have to spend too much time with that community, the people, to know the urgency of climate change and targets like 1.5 degrees Celsius or net zero by 2050 are not random arbitrary numbers. They emerge from a base of science that tells us we’re going to move a lot faster to deal with this problem. And then there’s the reality of meeting today’s energy needs. And we’re seeing that, too. And that’s why we have invested a lot in work we’re doing in emerging and developing economies. Columbia is a great home for that because it has, I think, ten or 11 now, global centers, so institutions that Columbia has built around the world, including one in Nairobi. We just hired someone in Kenya to help us build out our work in the developing the developing world. Many people on our advisory board with expertise in that and scholars here. So so trying to understand how much energy it takes to to meet the world’s energy needs, particularly parts of the world that use very little energy at all. And many of those people are going to be worst impacted by climate change, not to mention didn’t cause it because most of the emissions haven’t come from those places. How do we think about energy security? I have a new article with my friend and frequent coauthor Megan O’Sullivan in Foreign Affairs just this week about how we need to redefine the concept of energy security, which was kind of defined in the 1970s. And and that and the response we created to it was to put oil in salt caverns called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or build the IEA. Good things, but they’re not quite fit for purpose alone anymore. We need them, but we need other things too. So in a multi-decade turbulent process of energy transition, what are the new risks we’re going to face to energy security and how do we build the toolkit we need to ensure it? So what we’re trying to do is look at all those multiple dimensions, taking a clear eyed view of where we are in the energy transition today. And the reality is oil demand is going to grow. 2 million barrels a day this year and supply is going to grow 1 million. And that is not may not be good for oil prices. It may not be good for the global economy. It may not be good geopolitically if you know other countries that are investing to grow production capacity like Saudi Arabia, like the United Arab Arab Emirates, if they just step in to fill the void. How do we how do we navigate this tension between meeting the energy needs of the world today and going forward, but at the same time dramatically accelerate the pace of decarbonization?

Bill Loveless [00:45:07] You know, you mentioned the establishment of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve back in the 1970s. And, you know, you know that I’m sort of always interested in exploring past history when it comes to U.S. energy policy, particularly as someone who as a reporter began early 1980s after the the what you remind me was not necessarily an energy crisis, but rather an oil crisis of the 1970s again.

Jason Bordoff [00:45:32] Yeah. And you just did a great podcast on on the 1970s and President Carter and his energy policy with with Jake that was really interesting thanks to.

Bill Loveless [00:45:40] To what extent do you go back and study history. You know, to the extent the past is Prolog how how you know, how relevant is that to you and how much time do you spend doing that sort of thing?

Jason Bordoff [00:45:52] A fair amount. We’re all kind of we’re pretty busy running, running the institution. So there’s. But, but but doing that kind of research is is very important. Now, this Foreign Affairs article, but the one previously where Megan and I talked about why we thought one of the consequences for us of this energy crisis we are in and I don’t think we’re done yet with the energy crisis, even though this winter has not been as bad in Europe as people had feared, talked about the kind of energy policies we had in the 1960s, the 1970s, and that kind of history. So. So I’m reading, reading that sort of stuff quite often. I just finished reading. I think you may have read it too, because we talked about having him on the podcast. Douglas Brinkley’s latest book, A History of the U.S. Environmental Movement through Kennedy and Johnson, the Nixon administrations. And that was 800 pages, and I think I finished it in two or three days. It was just a fascinating, fascinating book. Look, I’m really lucky because the stuff that I would read for fun is what I have to read for my job. And I just I find this space endlessly interesting. If you care about international affairs, if you care about the global economy and international economics, if you care about the environment. You know nothing brings those things together like energy.

Bill Loveless [00:47:06] I think you have a lot of fun at the center. But I have to say, Jason, I think one of the things you enjoy doing most is giving people rides on your electric bicycle in Manhattan.

Jason Bordoff [00:47:15] That has become like a bit iconic. And I got it at the start of the pandemic because I was trying to avoid the subway, a crowded place with other people. And one of my colleagues here who I mentioned earlier, Dan. Stanger, who is one of the top battery electrochemistry. People here at Columbia had one, and I saw it and I said, Where’d you get that? And I bought the same one. It has a passenger seat on the back. It’s how I take my son to school every morning. Now, because there wasn’t public transportation in New York. It’s just faster because we cut through right through Central Park. So it let him sleep. 20 minutes later and I. I made a deal with him that if he would allow me to put little intercoms in the helmet, I would take him to school every day. So it’s my ten or 15 minutes to talk to him every day. And and now when we have people visit us at the center, often we might say, have them come and talk to students or do a podcast, and then we’ll take them to a public lecture a few blocks away and we’ll take the bike bike there. And we have lots of photos of that and.

Bill Loveless [00:48:13] Some interesting photos with some rather prominent people who are having a lot of fun, although maybe a couple who look a little bit nervous as they were getting on the bike. And the thing is, what do you think is is what are some of the things that you think may be the biggest unknowns? I mean, I don’t know you. How do we know what’s an unknown? Right. But, you know, at the risk of of in actually phrasing that, you know, what are some of the biggest unknowns that you and others at the center are facing? You know, what worries you the most?

Jason Bordoff [00:48:40] Well, certainly what worries me the most right now is how large what you said a moment ago, how large the gap is between ambition and reality. We’ve spent many years elevating ambition again, driven by science, you know, two degrees well below to one and a half. The more we learn about climate, I think the more reason there is to be concerned about it, not the other way around, but for all the pledges and promises and net zero by 2050 commitments from companies or governments or others other than a recession or a pandemic, emissions still seem to be rising each and every year, and that gap between ambition and reality has to reach a breaking point. I mean, it just does. At some point, either the ambition has to give because this is just too hard. And the reality is we’re going to have to take a slower pace. I can understand why people might think that’s inevitable, because it is hard. I do think it is. It is hard when you study the global energy system, you look at how big the numbers are like, how much do you really have to scale clean energy to really start bending the curve? It can seem daunting. On the other hand, in order to believe that is true, you need to believe that people a decade from now or maybe beyond or sooner are going to be as complacent with simply experiencing the impacts of climate change as, you know, some parts of the world, certainly not all, are today. And I don’t think that is true either, given what we think we’re in store for. I think the sense of urgency we were talking about the 1970s a moment ago, you go back and look at that, that history we just read of Douglas Brinkley and you know, how the environmental movement, the modern environmental movement came about in the fifties and sixties and seventies, the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the smog and the air pollution, the just that people were living in an environment where you couldn’t couldn’t drink the water, you couldn’t go swimming in the local lake or river or or breathe the air. And it just reached a breaking point where, you know, on the first Earth Day in 1971, out of every ten Americans came into the street across across Democrat and Republican, urban and suburban, and just said, we can’t live like this anymore. You just have to do something about this. And that led to these landmark laws put in place by Congress and the Nixon administration, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the creation of the EPA, you know, go down the list and that that is building with climate change. But that pressure, that sense of social mobilization is going to continue to increase and we’re going to continue to see technological improvements and the dramatic cost declines we’ve seen in batteries and solar. I’m optimistic that we’re going to see that for additional clean energy sources because solar and wind are great, but they’re not going to get us everywhere we need to go. So so those sorts of things are the things that can give you optimism. We just need to make it happen faster.

Bill Loveless [00:51:25] Right. We mentioned President Bollinger a little while ago, but you also have Columbia also has a new president coming in as of July.

Jason Bordoff [00:51:36] Menu. Shafik. Yup.

Bill Loveless [00:51:38] Tell us about her and why those of us who are interested in the Center on Global Energy Policy, the Climate School, these issues generally will be interested in seeing what she brings to the campus.

Jason Bordoff [00:51:51] Yeah, I don’t know her well. We have met before and people who do know her well, including many in the climate world, was talking to Lord Nick Stern’s recently famous for the Stern report, Andrew Steer, and now at the Bezos Earth Fund. Some others just just rave about her. And she’s she’s extraordinary. And in the time we have spent together, that’s that’s evident. She is of Egyptian origin. She has run the London School of Economics. She’s not only been in academia, but to the point I mentioned a moment ago about engaging with the real world. She’s worked at important international institutions like the World Bank, and she’s just seems like an inspired choice for Columbia. And along with the new dean of CPA, Mary Jane, now replaced John Coatsworth shortly after I got here. And for most of my decade here, she’s been the leader of CPA and just played a really central role in our success. And in the last year or so, pass the baton to Karen Uribe. Miller, who’s just a force of nature, incredibly energetic, incredibly ambitious. And as you know, I set five priorities for CPA, one of which is climate and sustainability. And so I’m really I’m very proud of what we’ve built in ten years here at the Energy Center and even more excited about what the next decade is going to look like.

Bill Loveless [00:53:11] Jason, before we go, I want to talk a little bit about the students there. You mentioned a minute ago the developments that took place decades ago, that in terms of concerns, public concerns over energy and the environment, clean air, those sorts of things and how the public did respond. The public was engaged because of what it saw. How do you how do you know what are the students perceptions of these issues these days and what do you learn from them?

Jason Bordoff [00:53:49] It’s a great question because you learn so much more than I realized before coming to a university, having the chance to interact and work with students. Here we have we have so many who work here and research assistants here at the center. I’m sitting here talking to you on my podcast with Dan Prop, who was my student then, was my T.A. and now has worked with me day by day here and is just brilliant. And I don’t want to publish something until I’ve asked him to read it because I value his opinion so much. But when you or my research assistant now, Lily, Lily Lee, who’s just also brilliant, used to work at the International Energy Agency, just keep going down the list and the students are incredibly smart and really bring such a diverse and different perspective. So you learn a lot by seeing the world through their eyes. Some come from the environmental activist world. Some have worked for energy companies before coming here, the SIPA student body is more than half from other countries. So you have people from emerging and developing economies, people from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, from the Middle East. And when you’re talking about these issues, the urgency of climate, but also, as we were saying a moment ago, how much energy does that really take to meet the world’s energy needs? What does that look like? If you’re sitting in sub-Saharan Africa, how do we think about issues of national security, of geopolitics, about the role oil plays in an economy? If you’re coming from an opaque country or one of the Gulf Arab states, it’s really important to understand how those issues look from multiple perspectives. It’s why the world why we take the word global in our name so seriously, because we’re not going to be able to make progress if you’re just looking at it from the lens of what it might look like in New York City, you have to see it from multiple perspectives and the dialog we have, the engagement we have, and the conversations you have when you’re in student roundtables and office hours or teaching is is great for me and it’s also great for the students. They really learn from one another.

Bill Loveless [00:55:49] Well, it’s been an interesting ten years for the Center on Global Energy Policy, and I’m sure it will continue to be so for another decade, a decade. That’s especially important for the United States and nations around the world as they aim to meet energy needs securely and sustainably. Jason, thanks for taking the time to share your stories, your insight, and especially your enthusiasm to all of this work.

Jason Bordoff [00:56:13] Thanks for having this conversation, Bill. And thanks for being such an important part of our success for the last ten years.

Bill Loveless [00:56:23] Thank you all for listening and for your continued support over the years. And congratulations, Jason and the faculty, staff and researchers at the Center on Global Energy Policy for a decade of impactful work. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and by Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Stephen Lacy and Aaron Hartig from Post-Script Media. Additional support from Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk and Kyu Lee. Roy Campanella is the sound engineer. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy dot Columbia dot edu or follow us on social media at Columbia U. Energy and you can read or review the show on Apple or Spotify. You can also let us know what you think by tweeting at us. And if you really like this episode, share it with a friend or colleague. It helps us reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll see you next week.

In April of this year, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy reached its 10th anniversary. So this week, we’re bringing back the conversation between hosts Bill Loveless and Jason Bordoff about the special milestone. 

With the help of some colleagues, Jason founded CGEP in 2013 to produce unbiased, evidence-based research that examines energy issues in economics, national security, environment, and climate.

Ten years later, CGEP is busier than ever addressing the world’s energy and climate challenges through research, education, and dialogue.

Jason is the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy. He previously served as a special assistant to President Obama, and senior director for energy and climate change on the staff of the National Security Council. He has held senior policy positions on the White House’s National Economic Council and Council on Environmental Quality. Earlier in his career, Jason was a scholar at the Brookings Institution, served in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration, and was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. 

He is also a co-founding dean emeritus of the Columbia Climate School.


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