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NewsMaker: How an Obama insider tackled New York's meanest hurricane — and moved on

NewsMaker: How an Obama Insider Tackled New York’s Meanest Hurricane — and Moved On 

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013


NEW YORK — Jason Bordoff’s swan song as a senior energy aide to President Obama came right before last year’s election, when he found himself stuck on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the worst of Superstorm Sandy.


With LaGuardia International Airport and Pennsylvania Station flooded out, Bordoff, then the head of energy and climate affairs at the National Security Council, was stranded — but also ideally situated for the crisis to come. His accidental dislocation turned into a plus and helped the administration cope with vital, real-time insights, according to his own and several insider accounts of the week that followed the storm.


Bordoff’s week scrambling to address a quickly moving energy supply mess became an unexpected and pivotal moment in his career, before he left the administration last month to become director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.


The 40-year-old Harvard Law School graduate split his time that week on the phone with energy industry executives and senior White House officials while driving around the city to gather direct observations, in order to shuttle information on regional fuel shortages and possible solutions back to the president.


Like a lot of native New Yorkers, Bordoff was shocked at what he saw, with most of downtown Manhattan blacked out, large sections of the coast wiped away or in flames, and gas stations all over the region coming to resemble post-apocalyptic movie scenes. Police officers were stationed on street corners to manage desperate residents who were dealing with no electricity, no access to gas or both.


But Bordoff may have been more prepared than most wonks for stepping beyond the policy grind to help the White House dig out.


He knows New York gas stations: His father and grandfather both managed retail gas outlets in Brooklyn and saw the famous long lines during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. His mother emigrated from the Middle East. And he became an economist who cut his teeth at the Brookings Institution and as associate director for climate change at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


Still, around the five boroughs, the scenes were dramatic and accurate information was scant.


“There were times when there was a little bit of a fog of war atmosphere, it was very hard to get information,” Bordoff said. “It was all pretty extraordinary to see.”


That first week became a test case of how a low-lying city copes with intense storm surges and flooding thought to be linked to climate change as well as the near-collapse of its energy delivery infrastructure. The White House aide was able to work from an apartment he owns in Morningside Heights, an elevated area of the city that was spared power loss and flooding.


Michael Froman, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for international economics, says Bordoff should get much of the credit for helping to realize on the fly that heating oil from the Northeast Heating Oil Reserve could be accessed and adapted for diesel trucks that run on ultra-low-sulfur diesel. Froman added that Bordoff was also instrumental in identifying supply bottlenecks that set the stage for waivers from U.S. EPA fuel restrictions and the Jones Act to get the region the supplies it needed.


Such concerns were part of his job, Froman explained: to closely monitor energy markets in the event that the White House would have to intervene for security reasons. But the rest of it came from on-the-ground observations.


“Jason was literally on the phone at times identifying gas stations that had gas but no electricity and vice versa,” Froman said. “It was challenging, but that’s where Jason and his contacts were extremely helpful. It was a real-time effort to help manage the response.”


‘A player in every major energy decision’

Froman described Bordoff as a “terrific” adviser on energy markets because of his intellectual background in economics combined with a more practical understanding of how markets adapt to real-time changes and human variability. Froman said the former White House aide used his contacts and location during the storm to help a number of federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better address supply disruptions.


That kind of know-how was typical of Bordoff’s three-plus years at the White House, said Gene Sperling, the current director of the National Economic Council under Obama. Sperling worked with Bordoff before the superstorm and after, and said he was “a player in every major energy decision that came to the White House and often reached the president’s desk.”


“He has the combination of expertise, tenacity as a researcher and a 24-7 work ethic that made him an invaluable part of the economic, security and environmental teams during his time at the White House,” Sperling wrote in an email.


Bordoff himself described the superstorm crisis as changing by the minute and symbolic of how a senior presidential adviser has to be ready for anything. At one point, for instance, the White House received reports that the area’s refineries had escaped damage, but then, he said, “it quickly became evident that the situation was quite severe, that the storm had caused extensive damage to the terminals, truck racks, ports and other pieces of the energy distribution infrastructure.


“It was hard for all of us to gather information about where the choke points were and where the key bottlenecks were in the system, and which pieces of the infrastructure were most heavily damaged,” Bordoff said. “At one point, I recall driving my car around the Bronx and Queens during one of the daily interagency coordination phone calls and reporting back to the team where I was seeing the longest lines.”


Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman played the lead role in coordinating calls between the administration and industry. He described Bordoff as on top of the situation throughout, even before the storm hit, when the energy aide reported on refineries, storm surges and “how to start thinking in terms of recovery before the surge was touching the coasts.”


After the storm made landfall, Bordoff became “very involved in some of the things we had never done before,” such as tapping the Northeast Heating Oil Reserve. Poneman argued that the decision worked because it sent a calming signal to traders, truckers and industries that may have been on the leading edge of a slide into market chaos.


“It all morphed into a quick battle rhythm, a battle rhythm of daily conference calls,” said Poneman, who cited Bordoff’s executive-level contacts within industry on pipelines, refineries and other major pieces of the energy infrastructure puzzle. “Jason was integrally involved. … He brought a lot of fresh thinking to work that had not happened before.”


Like Bordoff, Poneman underlined the president’s role. The response to Sandy was a “reflection of the president” because the orders had come down that restoring electricity and fuel access were top priorities, Poneman said during an interview from Washington. Obama himself often sat in on the conference calls, he said.

“When the president says, ‘This is your highest priority,’ you’re not going to be doing policy papers,” Poneman said.


Poneman said Bordoff will be better for the experience as he launches into the fuzzy world of energy market academics, to teach graduate courses at Columbia and help the institution further an already strong emphasis on climate, energy and environment.


“To have somebody with Jason’s unique background, being very strong academically but now having tempered that theoretical knowledge with the cold, hard reality of government, I think he’s going to come out of government strongly,” he said. “That’s going to be a very powerful combination.”


Froman offered a similar assessment.


“Jason made major, major contributions,” he said. “I’m sure he will continue to do so wherever he is.”


To build on energy’s ‘transformational moment’

Bordoff’s passion for energy started when he was young. He credits his mother’s background as an immigrant from the Middle East, which sparked an intellectual interest in the region, as well as the rare confluence of growing up around Brooklyn gas stations and the men who ran them.


“You can’t study the Middle East without studying oil,” he said, laughing about his unique childhood. “I guess I’ve been around fuel for a long time.”


The former Marshall scholar has decided to trade late nights at the White House for new Ivy League digs in Manhattan, to head a reconfigured energy center at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Bordoff’s goal is to make the center into a leading research vehicle for policymakers who often have trouble getting reliable, objective data on energy markets.


Bordoff’s inclusion at Columbia beefs up its already robust, universitywide emphasis on subjects like energy and climate change. Columbia’s Earth Institute and faculty are considered influential thought leaders in their fields and were widely quoted in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.


But Bordoff will not be part of the Earth Institute; he will instead look to shore up the energy side of things and pursue research interests at the intersection of economics, energy, environment and national security. Columbia has essentially relaunched the Center on Global Energy Policy in that vein with Bordoff at the helm.


Before his time at the White House, Bordoff led policy at the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative housed at the Brookings Institution. Bordoff says this blend of experience as a policy adviser and a researcher demonstrates the need for academic centers focused on the national security and geopolitical side of energy.


He wants to make global energy markets a prime focus of that enterprise, as Columbia’s SIPA vies with other leading international policy centers at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University to train thought leaders on “how the whole energy system works as a whole,” he said.


He cited global natural gas markets as an example of an area where the Center on Global Energy Policy might distinguish itself. Bordoff said more work needs to be done on the U.S. end on how downward pressure on prices in Europe from increasing U.S. exports might conflict with Russia, which has long held a monopoly on gas into Europe.


He also wants to look at how China’s emerging coal dependence fits within the international affairs picture, to build on his work within the administration and weigh whether a national petroleum reserve makes sense in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.


“Columbia has some ambitious plans to do some good things in the energy space,” he said.


Bordoff also described a “transformational moment” on global energy, since just a few years ago U.S. policy experts were dealing with domestic energy scarcity and how to lower imports. Today, “all of these things have been flipped on their heads,” Bordoff said, given the emergence of shale oil and gas exploration and huge finds in previously forgotten places like North Dakota.


As an aide at the White House, Bordoff said he was “an avid consumer of policy research,” and he sees opportunity at the university level to help policymakers understand complex issues. He drew a contrast between nonpartisan work that he would hope to produce and analysis from often-biased private firms or nongovernmental organizations.


When asked whether he would model his center on Columbia’s Earth Institute, which often gets involved in political questions at the United Nations under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs, Bordoff said he wants to “draw out all arguments on both sides and really help people understand what to make of these energy transformations we’ve seen.”


“There’s a host of really interesting questions where I hope we can contribute,” he said. “I have my mind on some very specific policy questions.”


Bordoff would also like to do a better job of communicating with the general public. For instance, he wants to release analyses in “actionable” form, in other words “something that can be absorbed on their BlackBerrys.”


“Often academics don’t tease out real-world connections and lead economic research,” he said.


No political ‘ax to grind’

Discussing Sachs, considered by many to be a polarizing figure given his aggressive rhetoric on the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Bordoff acknowledged that his new counterpart on the Upper West Side is an academic celebrity and “a high-profile person.” He would not say whether he thought Sachs conducts his department with the sort of bias he would like to avoid, though he did dismiss any notion that he comes to his job with an agenda.


“Leading academic institutions like [Columbia] shouldn’t be seen as having an ax to grind,” he said. “I’m not here to drive any particular agenda.”


Bordoff appears inclined to focus on more practical market questions, such as the emerging debate over whether to establish a national petroleum reserve that would mimic crude oil reserves but contain refined product. Bordoff said he is spearheading a “capstone workshop” with Columbia graduate students to analyze “several interesting questions about how we think about strategic reserves.”


Columbia’s energy center, he said, is “pretty much a new thing” that could go any number of directions in the space.


Poneman said he would be open to looking at Bordoff’s research, once it is complete. The administration is “even now looking very, very intently at a whole range of action items,” he said.


“All options are on the table,” Poneman added. “It’s not as if once the storm physically blew over, people stopped thinking about it. … We are always looking for good ideas. We are always trying to diversify the source of those ideas.”


As for his time at the White House, Bordoff cast it as a success even though the administration failed to see a cap-and-trade climate bill passed through Congress in Obama’s first term. Bordoff would not comment on whether it was a mistake to spend so much of the president’s political capital on health care reform early in the first term, when it looked like a national climate bill had a good chance of making it on Capitol Hill.


“I think the administration has huge achievements it can point to for the first term on climate,” he said, citing the decision to double fuel-economy standards, for one. “We made a very strong push for cap-and-trade legislation that was ultimately not executed.”


Asked whether he had a part in climate’s prominent mention in Obama’s second inaugural address, Bordoff would only say he was pleasantly surprised the issue made it into the speech. He insisted the administration is “deeply committed” to doing something forceful on climate change in the second term.


Overall, Bordoff called his time at the White House an “extraordinary privilege.” And he’s happy in the energy space, which he calls “endlessly interesting” because it brings together economics, national security and climate change under one umbrella.


“I learned an enormous amount every single day,” he said. “There’s no subject that brings all of these subjects together.”


Has the White House seen the last of him? Frank Verrastro, senior vice president and chairman for energy and geopolitics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he suspects not.


“Jason is an extremely talented guy,” Verrastro said. “You will definitely see this young man again — in future administrations.”