Ali Zaidi
Deputy Secretary for Energy and Environment, Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Ever since Thomas Edison lit up lower Manhattan in 1882, New York has long been at the forefront of many energy and environmental issues, and that remains true today. New York recently adopted groundbreaking targets to decarbonize the state’s electricity, and eventually its entire energy system. This comes on the heels of an innovative set of regulatory initiatives to modernize and decarbonize New York’s electric grid, called Reforming the Energy Vision, led by Richard Kauffman, now an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy. As the Cuomo administration emerges from the hardest-hit days of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions remain as to how the state plans to achieve these ambitious goals and perhaps show the rest of the nation what a pathway to decarbonization might look like. 

In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff is joined by Ali Zaidi, Chairman of Climate Policy and Finance and Deputy Secretary for Energy and Environment in the Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Ali served as top energy official at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration, among other positions. Since leaving the Obama administration, Ali has also worked as a transactional and regulatory attorney, co-founded Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy, and was a Non-Resident Fellow at CGEP.


Jason Bordoff:  Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.  I’m Jason Bordoff.  On this podcast we cover the world from the Middle East to Russia to China and much more.  Today we’re going to take a deep dive into what’s happening here at home in New York State, both my hometown and of course the home of Columbia University.  Ever since Thomas Edison lit up lower Manhattan in 1882, New York has long been at the forefront of many energy and environmental issues and that remains true today.  

It recently adopted ground breaking targets to decarbonize the state’s electricity and eventually entire energy system.  This comes on the heels of an innovative set of regulatory initiatives to modernize and decarbonize New York’s electric grid called reforming the energy vision led by Richard Kauffman now a colleague of mine, at the Center on Global Energy Policy.  As the Cuomo administration emerges from the hardest hit days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to hear how the state plans to achieve these ambitious goals, and perhaps show the rest of the nation, what a pathway to decarbonization might look like.  So I turn to my friend and former Whitehouse colleague Ali Zaidi.

Ali is chairman of Climate Policy and Finance and Deputy Secretary for Energy and Environment in the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.  During the Obama Administration he served as the top energy official at the Whitehouse office of Management and Budget among many other positions in the Whitehouse since, leaving the Obama Administration Ali has also worked as a transactional and regulatory attorney cofounded lawyers for a sustainable economy and was a non resident fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy.  Ali, thanks for joining us today on Columbia Energy Exchange.

Ali Zaidi:  Pleasure to be on.

Jason Bordoff:  So I want to start with what you’re doing now, you’ve held a top jobs in Energy and Climate in Whitehouse, practice law for a bit, some academic stents and now running Energy Policy for the State of New York.  What brought that about, what why the move to the state level, what excited you about it and tell us, top things kind of on the agenda for you in New York and then we’ll go deeper into each one of those, I’m sure.

Ali Zaidi:  Well first of all, let me say great to be on here, and in part frankly you have learned a lot about what’s going on in the state from work that you’ve done, work that my cohort has done, others at Columbia, I'm so grateful for that scholarship.  Part of what drew me to New York at this moment in time is just, you read the IPCC Reports, you see the fires, you see the floods and you just start to feel, really impatient.  In my private practice, I’ve gotten a great opportunity to start to train capital to focus on sustainable investment.

But one thing that was obvious was that more regulatory signal needed to come down the hike for that capital to chase the solutions at the scale and speed that we needed.  Last year Governor Cuomo and his team passed an incredible piece of legislation in the climate law and what I loved about it and watched from afar, was not just the speed and scale on the emission side, but was also the ambition on environmental justice and climate justice.  So it’s not just about doing it really big, but also doing it in the right way.  When the call came, I was excited to be part of the team that implemented that law.

Jason Bordoff:  So I’m going to ask you about that law and the environmental justice which you signed legislation on as companion as well, you’ve played a central role in the Obama Whitehouse at the office of management, budget, thinking about, and how we’re going to deploy, huge amounts of government spending on climate and energy issues.  How do you think about the role of states versus the Federal Government, I talked about this with Mary Nichols when I had her on about a week ago, obviously California has been a leader on pushing the envelope very hard and pass their own Cap and Trade bill, right around the time, people thought federal legislation might be coming soon after and it never did, how far can a state push if a Federal Government isn’t cooperative, it’s not going to go to same place of their limits, to what a state can do without Federal Government?

Ali Zaidi:  Look there is a tremendous benefit and you know that’s from harmonization, on a sort of multi plane level right so, if you got a State and a Federal Government, and frankly even city government and then international consensus all rolling in the same direction, you get there faster.  But there is a tremendous amount that states can do, I mean all of what Mary and her team have done, not just this round, but frankly the last round, she was in government as well, doing some path breaking work that we can learn from.

But what we’ve learned from the California model on the regulatory side, I think we’ve also invented in New York on the public utility side, on the market work that Richard Kauffman, who is -- now works with you, was able to do, over the last decade and on the procurement side, really, really having transformative approach of looking at clean energy, growing the procurement power of the government behind things like offshore wind and restarting an industry on our own terms.

Jason Bordoff:  So I want to turn to you about what New York, is doing, you mentioned, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act sort of landmark legislation, first just very quickly remind people, what it does, the targets it sets and then the process, for how we figure out, how we’re going to meet those targets and what the actual policy will be?

Ali Zaidi:  At a high level what the CLCPA, our climate law does is set a series of targets for the power sector, for the economy and then for environmental justice and climate justice, and the sort of macro piece to all of this, is this really powerful admonition that’s included in the law that requires the entire state to really recalibrate around hitting these goals so, there is a direction for all agencies to advance the goals of the climate law.  

So just taking through it really quickly at an economy wide level, we’re talking about an 85% reduction in Green House Gas emissions by 2050 at the heart of that a power sector that’s fully decarbonized by 2040, that’s made up of renewable energy, 70% by 2030 and sitting underneath that is these really big procurement targets, 9000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, 3000 megawatts of energy storage by 2030, six gigs of solar by 2025.

So, at a high level really using the power sector to transform the economy by decarbonizing the power sector and then increasing its reach economy wide.

Jason Bordoff:  So these are really ambitious targets, New York, has about 30% of its electricity mix that’s renewable today, most of that hydro and you’re talking about scaling up solar and wind, just a huge degree and I think the climate action council is having its second meeting this week so, there’s a sense among some and obviously we’ve had lots of other things intervene including a pandemic.  Has it been off to a little bit of a slow start and how is it going to ramp up and when do we figure out, how we’re going to meet those targets?

Ali Zaidi:  So you mentioned the climate action council which is a critical part of the mix here, this is core to the way, the Governor likes to do business in the state and it’s codified in the law, which is to bring the stakeholders around the table so, we’ve got folks from labor, we’ve got folks from industry EJ, renewable, generators all around the table.  And these guys are going to help us shape the scoping plan that ultimately helps us, drive those multi decade goals so that’s the key thing.

What I found is I started in April in New York, certainly signed on the dotted line, before COVID hit and before a recession had set in, and I’ve hit the ground running, where we’ve got a state that really sees the economic opportunity, the public health opportunity in going harder at climate than ever before.  This is the way we build back better, that’s the mantra from the governor and it’s what we’ve been implementing through our agencies, these past few months and certainly what you’re going to see us do very vigorously and very deliberately in the coming months.

Jason Bordoff:  There are huge economic opportunities there, do you sense the impact the pandemic has had on the economy and obviously we’re focused now on stimulus and aid to states and localities because they’re cash trapped and can’t run deficits, is that going to be a hindrance to moving as fast as one needs to,  to meet these targets? 

Ali Zaidi:  We always talk about the first fuel of energy efficiency so, there are definitely places where there’s literally money sitting on the sidewalk and we just need to pick it up, we need to make that frontloaded investment in a very low interest rate environment, get people to work, doing that important retrofit work, upgrading our built environment.  So that’s one place where it’s very obvious.  The second, you’re not going to see us what our foot off the accelerator on the transformation on the renewable side, we see this as part of the netting that we grab on to and sort of pull ourselves up to a better and stronger economy.

There are certainly constraints from a spending perspective, but this is something, the people of New York, have committed themselves to, they see the billions of dollars of upside in continuing to advance this program.  It’s something that’s built in large part from this clean energy fund, that’s been sourced by New Yorkers, through the rates and I think it’s something that a lot of folks have, a lot of excitement about this sort of democratically sourced transition to a clean energy future.

Jason Bordoff:  And in terms of the policy instruments that, will achieve that is it going to be a standard utilities need to meet, maybe there’s tradability of permits between them, or the New York ISO has been studying the issue of carbon pricing extensively, New York already being a part of RGGI Regional Cap and Trade system.  What’s the view of New York on the carbon pricing study and proposal and do you think that will be an important component of how these targets are met?

Ali Zaidi:  Look we have to do a full accounting of the value that we unlock by taking pollution out of the sky, that’s obvious.  It’s only to help us understand the incredible impact that we are having, we’re actually underway in the state developing our own approach to the social cost of carbon, looking at the best signs that’s out there from places like resources for the future and work frankly you guys have done.  So, we think there is a lot of value in the tons that we are going to abate.

What we found that’s worked, is this sort of direct shoulder to the wheel approach with the clean energy standard, with the procurements that the states been able to advance on large scale renewables onshore, on offshore renewables, distributed solar through our New York sun program so, that’s where you’re going to see us continue to ratchet up, because  it’s a tool that we know, works and in fact last week, we actually put forward a revised clean energy standard proposal, which reorients our entire power sector program with a laser focus on 70% by 2030, and laying that foundation that we need to get on the light path for 2040.

Jason Bordoff:  The 9000 megawatts of offshore wind also a very ambitious goal, what are the most significant challenges there around leasing, permitting, grid readiness, supply chains, and again that’s an area where the federal government threw the offshore leasing process can play an important role, how important is federal action going to be for the state to meet that target?

Ali Zaidi:  We hope that the Department of Interior pulls more resumes off of U.S.A jobs got gov, and hires more people into that office and accelerates the phase of approvals there, it’s a real shot in the arm for economies, not just along the eastern sea board, but the supply chains that extend deep into the country.  Iron casting, the steel fabs, all of that, that it’s going to take the bill book stuff so, that feels like a pretty no brainer thing could do to beep up that personal capacity, for us in the state, the opportunities that this presents, one is the economic opportunity presented with the transmission that’s going to be needed.  

The governor is been really focused on setting us on a course to build that electron highway that we’re going to need, to debottleneck resources to bring more of these renewable resources into the load pocket.  If I may go on a tangent for a second, one of the things that’s really stunning about New York and the New York, ISO talks about this colorfully as a tail of two grids, but we’ve got the upstate that supplied three fourths by clean energy and we’ve got a downstate that supplied three fourths by fossil fired energy.

A big reason for that is because we don’t have the transmission lines so there is a huge economic opportunity there.  The second place we see a huge economic opportunity is building up the core infrastructure that we’re going to need and you’ll see us make progress on all of these things, over the course of this summer because we really feel like now is the time to keep building, but this is going to bring new life into ports that have long been shuttered.  It’s going to give folks who have been involved in the marine industries a new mission to go and build and operate these structures.  

So yes there are challenges, but really we see a ton of economic opportunity whether it’s the transmission lines or supports, or the massive supply chains that need to be built, and we’re doing all of this stuff with project labor agreements and prevailing wages so, we see this as a high union density set of operations and we’re excited to that.

Jason Bordoff:  I saw your neighboring Governor Murphy just announced plans for an offshore wind port facility, I guess not far from Philadelphia, also seeing I suppose some of the economic opportunities that are created by building the supply chains for this kind of stuff.

Ali Zaidi:  Yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for a lot of ports, and that’s why we’re taking a multi port approach to building up this infrastructure, started down this path in a phase one, that started last couple of years, and we’re looking forward to continuing to build that out, with additional investment from the state and frankly rules of the road that are going to catalyze, a bunch more private money flowing into the space.

Jason Bordoff:  And you mentioned the transmission constraints for clean energy from upstate or even Hydro from Canada, and there was opposition to that including some environmental opposition, where do things stand there, do you think that transmission like Champlain Hudson will get sited.

Ali Zaidi:  Well let me speak to Hydro first, we’ve got to bring on clean electrons in ways that are responsible and in ways that are additional.  So one guiding principle for us is going to additionality, we can’t be pulling Hydropower that then is just giving new market for fossil fire somewhere else.  That’s a really critical thing for us.  The second is been around impoundments and the issues related to even the methane that might get released as a part of expansion so, we’re really, really going to be through our values on the environmental side as we think about how to integrate this resource smartly.

And then in terms of transmission lines, our modeling suggests and I feel it in my gut that there is a lot of room for north, south electron flow, not just pulling Hydro from Canada, but also pulling new renewables from upstate, we’ve got a real expansion upstate that can help New York City meet its local law 97 and help us, and sort of relieve that tail of two grids that we talked about just a moment ago.

Jason Bordoff:   And down that principle of additionality let’s add zero carbon electrons to the grid obviously we, we’re seeing over the course of the next year, nuclear reactor just north of New York, Indian Point shut down around 10 or 12% of electricity.  So, and obviously there are other considerations there besides climate other environmental consideration, safety considerations that drove that decision, we won’t revisit it, but I guess that’s in a sense is it fair to think of that it’s like a little bit of a hole to dig out of, that might be replaced with natural gas to some extent, you’re going to add renewables to the grid, and you have those targets to get do, those targets just you have to work a little bit harder to get to them given that you need to now replace that zero carbon electricity.

Ali Zaidi:  The commitment to nuclear through the zero emission credits that New York has advanced then stood behind, I think continues and we’re going to continue to need those electrons on the grid for the foreseeable future certainly part of our 2030 road map, is to maintain that resource.  We are transitioning out of Indian Point, and I think it speaks to those values of being very sensitive to local concerns to other environmental issues, balancing all of those things.    The opportunity we have in particular with offshore wind is to fill that gap with clean power, and I think that’s why we’ve got to be so quick on our feet through this next decade to make sure that that’s what we’re incentivizing coming on to the grid.

Jason Bordoff:  That obviously takes a little bit of time so, gas may plug, some of that hole at least for a period of time, can you talk about the role of natural gas in meeting the energy needs of New York, and that’s electricity, that’s heating, especially how one thinks about balancing near term needs, which national grid has talked about, the constraints they have, with what decisions maybe made today and how consistent they may or may not be with 2050 targets.

Ali Zaidi:  Yeah, the budget deal that came together in April this year, codified the fracking ban in the state and in some ways, stapled shut the commitment that the governors made, ensuring that we’re not going to be adding to the challenge, the mountain is already too steep, on climate, we don’t need to make it more steep by investing in long life infrastructure that’s going to have a hard time depreciating during the time period we need to decarbonize.

So one of the things we’ve started to do is integrate the climate law into all the decision making that we make around long life infrastructure.  Holding that in a rigorous way against the climate targets that we have so, we’ve got essentially in place a climate that’s for long life infrastructure and then we’ve got an aggressive strategy to try to meet the demand side with alternatives.  One of the challenges that you notice the challenge that national grids faced in the fast, that’s being met by incredible level of investment in energy efficiency and growingly I think there’s an opportunity for electrification of core appliances like boilers, that will allow for that fuel switching to take place and we’ve got to figure out how to deal with heat, ground source heat pumps and other similar tools are going to be critical.

And I think we need to be looking frankly as a state at that same big think procurements swing for the fences innovation that has gotten us, where we are on offshore wind, we’ve got to do that same thing for the heat challenge.  Otherwise we’re going to be beholding to a fuel that we don’t want in the system beyond 2030, 2040 and certainly just can’t afford from a science perspective to have in our system, that time horizon.

Jason Bordoff:  And so does that mean, unless your – let’s leave aside for the moment possibility of gas for CCS or maybe renewable natural gas or something you can talk about that, if you knew that is part of the answer to this question, but I’m wondering if what I hear you saying in such as New York, more broadly is, if one has a very ambitious net zero or close to it kind of goal by 2050 or anything on pace with one and a half  or two degrees kind of targets.  

But you see constraints today, that might mean in the near term, that more investment would be needed in gas and maybe it even delivers some benefits, because it’s substituting, we’re still using a lot of oil for heat in New York or, I grew up in New York City, when black smoke was belching out of every building, because that’s how we heated our buildings and we transitioned away from that to gas with air pollution benefits and hopefully some carbon benefits, if you control methane, but it’s still not sufficient at all to get to where one needs to be by 2050.

So when you think about infrastructure decisions today, do we make them based on where we need to be on 2050, or is there a sense in which you can still allow some of that infrastructure to come online, but then you kind of need to plan to retire maybe before the end of its normal life?

Ali Zaidi:  We’ve got to keep that north star in front of us, I think that’s the bottom-line, you know, to the extent we need to, invest in upgrades to existing infrastructure or to the efficiencies of existing infrastructure to get there, that maybe in balance, relative to where we want to be on our climate goals.  But that’s where this tests kicks in and where the rigor is so important.  I think it’s easy to live in a binary, we either like something or we don’t, it’s really not about what we like and what we don’t like, it’s about whether it helps us get closer in a fastest way possible to meet the science and meet the climate goals.

So that’s the test we’re going to apply and it’s not going to yield necessarily the same answer, every single time, it’s going to really depend on the fact and the circumstances, but in general I think what it’s going to demand is that we looked for alternatives beyond fossil fuels and you put your finger on oil, I mean good grief, the fact that in 2020 we’re relying on oil to heat buildings is just bonkers, talk about a – anachronistic fuel source for building heat.

I just think of like a New York City building with a nest thermostat and then oil heating the building, it just feels like it’s two different century.  So we’ve got to get serious about that and I think heat is a long neglected challenge and we’ve got to attack it with the same fierceness that we’ve focused on the power sector.

Jason Bordoff:  Do you think policies approaches we’ve seen some cities in California and Massachusetts and elsewhere take of just banning natural gas for heat in new construction is a sensible way to go?

Ali Zaidi:  I think a net zero building approach makes a ton of sense at something that New York City has advanced and it’s a place where you’ll see us and time from an innovation perspective making that as cost effective, as humanly possibly because again the mountain is steep, we shouldn’t be making it steeper for ourselves, we replace that sort of growth, of commercial buildings is probably a percentage point or so a year.  So it’s – we’re not doing a massive turn over every year, but those percentage points add up and we should be doing net zero as much as we can, through a combination of incentives, but then ultimately standards matter and localities in cities like New York, have started to push through that path.

Jason Bordoff:  I mentioned a minute ago, things like CCS or renewable gas, but just more broadly, how you think about the role of technology and innovation and we’re scaling up solar and wind, we have some battery storage, but maybe not for multi day or seasonal.  When you think about buildings or industry or some of the heavy duty pieces of transportation, what role do you think we’ll see for hydrogen and carbon capture, maybe carbon removal and how to do think about federal state, what’s the role of states in that kind of technological push even that you have seen, and sort of in New York, which invest a lot in technology.

Ali Zaidi:  We’ve started to figure out how to do this in the power sector right, we’ve got tools on the generation side and on the storage side and innovation in moving those electrons in terms of transmission and smart metering, what we have not figured out with the same level of agility, is how to decarbonize in, high heat applications in the industrial space or in the major challenging elements of our transportation sector.  

Transportation for us from an emissions perspective in New York is going to be our really challenging area to decarbonize, not just because of the cars on the road, but because of those heavier vehicles and because of aviation and other things.  So we’ve got to be really technology neutral and maximize our shots on goal in terms of starting to make a dent on those sectors as well.  Now one core strategy is going to be, try to electrify as much of that as possible and bring it under the tent of something we already know how to decarbonize.

But part of it is going to be hydrogen and part of it is going to be capturing the carbon emissions related to some industrial processes.  And that frankly might have grid balancing benefits too, right so, if we have hydrogen and we can use it as a medium of storage, and then also have it be a source of fuel for industry, what a great opportunity.  So, I think that’s a place where the United States has lagged behind, we’ve seen our friends in Europe really make progress with these energy parks that are running on hydrogen so, it’s an opportunity for us, we’ve got an incredible manufacturing base here, that can benefit from that.  So that’s a place where we’re focused.

The other place we’re focused is on the natural solution side too, you’ve seen New York, the really, I think ambitious, on the resiliency side with natural solutions, shell fish and artificial reefs that’s stuffed at this governors pioneer that are just I think really, really creative solutions to the challenges that we face.  So we’ve got the largest state park in the country the Adirondack.  We can use the tools that we’ve got in the parks in our Ag sector, which has been very inventive to really move the ball on natural solutions as well, and make that frankly a profit center for farmers and ranchers and dairy folk here in the state.

So, I’m really excited for the innovation agenda, I think that’s going to be a big component of how we get passed, the power sector and think more broadly about decarbonization aimed at that economy wide puzzle that we’ve got to solve.  

Jason Bordoff:  You mentioned the transportation sector a minute ago, I guess one of the key policy instruments there is this regional transportation and climate initiative just tell me where that stands now and I guess the idea, I had seen is for sort of a cap and trade or it’s called cap investor I suppose for transportation to send a price signal is that kind of where you think that’s going?

Ali Zaidi:  I think like power we’re going to continue to do the things we know work so, one thing we know works is if we make it easier, to build the infrastructure and then have the infrastructure for charging around the state, we know that’s going to help bring those vehicles to market.  So, you’ll see us in the coming month again, focus on investment to make ready the infrastructure that we need to expand electric vehicle charging massively across the state.  You’ll see us continuing to deploy electric vehicles and other zero emission vehicles across the state.  

And there is really no solution to something like transportation that’s got this interstate element without interstate collaboration and so, we continue to remain engaged with our neighbors up and down the northeast corridor here, on ways to move the ball and that’s been a really fruitful approach for us in the past, in the last few weeks we advanced our regulations around RGGI which is the Regional Green House Gas Initiative, to implement the next ratchet down of reduction there and frankly, I was very excited about the way we did it, we included much smaller facilities in our cap this time, which has huge environmental justice benefits because often times, we sort of ignore those facilities that have really terrible local air pollution impacts for the friends of on communities, but look transportation is a big focus, we’re going to continue try to move the needle there.

Jason Bordoff:  Let me ask you, you mentioned environmental justice at the beginning too and we haven’t had time to talk enough of that in this conversation, it’s incredibly important and I just want to ask you to talk a little bit more about the role you think it is playing and should be playing moving forward and how we think about climate policy design, it is really interesting, I was talking with Mary as I said a week or so ago and she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, she was at the march in Washington in 1963, which I didn’t even know it’s extraordinary.  

And then we were talking about the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and the observation she made was these felt separate, the Civil Rights Movement and the Environmental Movement.  And you’ve probably heard the Environmental Movement sort of criticized for in some sense being too white is how I’ve heard it called and we’re seeing this convergence where issues of equity and race and justice are tied much more tightly I think now then was the case, not long ago, into the discussion about how we solved climate change.  Just tell us your thoughts about what role you see it playing and how you design policy and what does that mean for activism and the likelihood of climate policy moving forward that there is this broader discussion.

Ali Zaidi:  Yeah, it’s so central and for me it’s central in part because, that’s how I stumbled in the thinking about the environment in the first place.  I actually was on the board of an organization that have been started by Colin Powell, and at the time it was shared by his wife Alma and we were visiting a school in Spanish Harlem here in New York City.  And it was supposed to be a show case of what it looks like to integrate services with education.  So there was a dentist office and farmers market all in that school, and we’re walking around the school and it’s just a tremendous facility that delivers so much benefit to a truly disadvantaged community and the seats in the classrooms weren’t full.

And I remember asking the Principal, gee, you would think, that a school that’s doing so much, that’s so tremendous in its accomplishments would be bursting at the seams with students.  And she said, well actually we are bursting at the seams from an enrollment perspective, but the kids in our school have a disproportionately high rate of asthma, and so we actually have a bunch of kids that are very frequently missing days of school because of their respiratory health challenges.  

We walked out of that school and I remember seeing the highway passing by and looking at the heavy-duty trucks and starting to connect the dots, about a kids chance for advancement wanting to show up to that school, and maybe not being able to because we had been as a collective as a society, maybe not as thoughtful about the placement of that infrastructure, maybe not as courageous about investing in the innovation needed to get cleaner trucks going on that road.  So for me it all really connects, that’s what stepped me into this policy space, and it’s got to manifest in every single thing that we do, because we can’t just get to neutral here.  We’re digging out of a ditch, on environmental justice and so we’ve got to put extra cycles against this challenge.

Jason Bordoff:  And what does that mean for a policy design, and I mean if you’re talking about the benefits, and we know disproportionally low income communities live near congested highways and suffer the harms of pollution, we were talking about things like cap and invest before, which sends a price signal and energy prices and then you can use that to invest in technologies that can disproportionally fall differently on different community.  So, how do you think about designing policy to account for those equity issues as well?

Ali Zaidi:  It’s not enough for the benefits to flow to these communities, the ideas and the inspiration and the leadership has to come from these places as well.  One of my earliest phone calls in taking this job was with Peggy Shepard and so for WE ACT which is based here in New York, focused on Environmental Justice, to hear from them, what we could do, and one of the things I heard was make a visible difference in these communities, and that’s something we’re really focused on doing, but the other was hire from these communities.  

You’re talking about all these really cool jobs and wind and solar, where the hell you’re going to hire those people from, you’re going to hire them from the same old, same old or you’re going to create new roads of opportunity into the communities that have been taxed in six different ways from this pollution over the years and so, I’m really proud that in this proposed clean energy standard that we put out last week, we actually included a whole section on Environmental Justice and we said, as we put together these offshore wind and large scale renewable procurement, we’re going to focus not just the benefits, but the job creation on these communities.  

So one thing you’ll see when we roll out procurements going forward is a specific advantage to develop or to come forward and say here is my strategy for making sure that the job creation that’s going to go with this procurement, the economic opportunity that’s going to go with the procurement, is going to be a wind in the sales of these communities that till date have only gotten polluted on.  They’re going to have an opportunity to source the workforce, the creativity, to implement that stuff.  

Jason Bordoff:  I want to use just our last couple of minutes, you mentioned, how you came to this work and getting to know Alma Powell and, on this podcast at least we have fascinating people on, and we mostly talk about issues of the day, not their own personal stories, but your – sometimes we do, and your personal story I think is particularly fascinating, at a time when it seems like there’s a backlash against immigrants, there’s a backlash against the technocratic work of government civil servants.

And, one of my favorite books, not just, because lot of my friends were mentioned in it was The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, you are one of those people in that book, where he talked about your story, an immigrant from Pakistan who moved to a small real town and then was going door to door for republican candidates or office, before becoming a senior advisor to President Obama, well learning a law degree and now working for Governor Cuomo, that’s the ten second version of it.  But it is extraordinary, and so just tell everyone a little bit, about your story and how you came to do this work?

Ali Zaidi:  Yeah, growing up in Karachi, I don’t remember that much, but I do remember how startling it felt to come to United States and I know that sense of opportunity and optimism that brought my parents to jump on a plane and with eight suitcases and two little kids, start a whole new –

Jason Bordoff:  You were how old at the time?

Ali Zaidi:  I was five on the door to six, which by the way if I may take a tangent, watching the Supreme Court and it’s doctor decision last week, lot of those dreamers came to this country around that same age, five and six.  So that’s been a code that’s really close to my heart and we went to a community that just opened up to us embraced us with the really big heart and it wasn’t the community, a lot of immigrants I think moved to.

Jason Bordoff:  And that was where?

Ali Zaidi:  Edinboro, Pennsylvania right off of Lake Erie, middle class monochromatic if I may yet so, so big hearted in its embrace of me and my family.  The thing I didn’t realize at that time was that in addition to this incredible community I got the chances that I got in my life because there were folks who had fought for policies in Washington, policies like food stamps, policies like subsidized housing through the USDA, policies like ESL classes and Pell Grant.

And so for me it felt pretty natural to then figure out a way to rebuild that ladder for those who are here, for those who are newly here, those who strive to be here, not just into the middle class but into their fullest and best selves their ambition, their desire to give back, in this journey one of the thing that struck me that’s been transformative in my approach to policy and politics is the appreciation that I had it really lucky because people did have those battles in Washington and a lot of people didn’t because there were lot of battles we were – were in the fight as hard.  

There is a reason why we’ve got the disparities that we’ve got among African American students and white students.  There is a reason why for the same work women get a different wage and it’s because yeah maybe people did go to bat so that I could get free school lunch, but maybe they didn’t go to bat hard enough on equal pay for women or on the civil rights policies that we needed to enact so, so much work left undone and one of my board mentors actually from America’s Promise guy Harris Wofford who was Senator from Pennsylvania and then Instrumental Peace Corps, Instrumental in standing up AmeriCorps and he would always quote this old line from a poem, In Dreams Begin Responsibility.

My take on that is I love the American dream and from that came a responsibility to make it more accessible to folks.  

Jason Bordoff:  And just we even spent a whole podcast just on your story, but how you came into politics and came to initially work for President Obama as I said sort of after dabbling a bit on the republican side of the aisle leading to the White House work, just talk about that for a second.

Ali Zaidi:  There was always a notion; at that George W.  Bush did a right job of articulating that on the republican side that you could lift yourselves up by your bootstraps.  Young me or more naïve me thought that that’s what I had done, I think that was a combination of the arrogance of youth and of an idealism that I wanted to believe and then you realize no man I didn’t do that.  Communities in Edinboro, in college time and time again got me off my feet and when I was knocked down, picked me up, by the way I started out with a bunch more managers than a lot other folks do, I had bootstraps to begin with.  

So, that transformation is sort of what led me to the political philosophy I think that President Obama articulated felt really attractive to me and it was that we sort of are shared in our fortunes and we fall together, stand together and we got to bring everybody up, but part of it is also instilled me a sense of there’s no otherness in politics.  Republicans folks who live in the center of their states rather than on the coast side, they don’t feel far away to me, these are the people I grew up with and I'm just as grateful to them and owe to them the values and insights I've been able to grow up with as anybody else, so I think instilled the sense of humility on that side as well.  

Jason Bordoff:  And folks who listen to this podcast are following me at least on social media know as a son of an immigrant that’s an issue that strikes close to home and then I feel strongly about and that’s part of what makes America so strong.  So, I was fortune enough to see in person serving in the Obama White House as well the combination of skill and smarts and idealism and generosity you brought to the job and get into work you is one of the highlights of it so, thank you for that and thanks for your commitment to public service all the work that you’re doing and thanks for making time Ali to be with us today in Columbia Energy Exchange.  I really appreciate it.

Ali Zaidi:  Jason, thank you for all that you have done and all you continue to do as a guide and a counsel and as a fellow public servant, thank you.

Jason Bordoff:  Thanks.  And thanks to all of you for making time to listen today.  For more information about the center on global energy policy visit us online at or follow us on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy.  Thanks again for listening, I'm Jason Bordoff.  We’ll see you next week.