Former White House Advisor Directs Center on Global Energy Policy at SIPA

January 05, 2015
Jason Bordoff. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

Jason Bordoff, a former member of the White House staff and a top energy policy expert, started learning about the industry at an early age. His father and grandfather owned gas and auto service stations in Brooklyn when he was growing up. His mother emigrated to the U.S. from the Middle East with her family as a teenager.

“I kind of joke that one side of my family is from where the energy was produced and the other side delivered it to drivers,” says Bordoff.
 
After four years in the Obama administration, most recently as special assistant to the president and senior director for energy and climate change on the staff of the National Security Council, Bordoff joined Columbia in January 2013 as founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy and professor of professional practice at the School of International and Public Affairs.
 
“There is nothing like working in the White House. It was an extraordinary experience and a privilege,” he says. “I was starting to think about doing something else and was incredibly excited about what Columbia was looking to build in the area of energy policy research.”
 
 In less than two years, the center has become a leading global venue for high-level discussions and research about energy. Speakers have included Ernest J. Moniz, the current Energy Secretary, former National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon and the CEOs of multinational energy companies such as Shell and Conoco, as well as the presidents of non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund.
 
The center publishes research papers about the intersection of energy, economics, geopolitics and the environment, including U.S. energy export policy, the future of nuclear technology, natural gas and solar energy in China, international climate negotiations, energy sanctions and Mexican energy reform. It has launched a Women in Energy program to support women interested in entering the field, inviting women executives in the energy sector to speak and offering the opportunity to network with them informally.
 
Bordoff also teaches a course in U.S. energy policy at SIPA and is supervising several capstone projects, in which a team of students does a research paper and presents it to a real-world client seeking to solve a particular problem. Former senior government officials and policy experts who have joined the center as fellows also teach and do research, including Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine and later special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department, and David Sandalow, who served as Acting Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy.
 
“Energy is a pressing global policy issue—it must be engaged from economic, geopolitical, and environmental perspectives—and we are proud to have Jason adding to SIPA’s leadership in the field,” said Merit Janow, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Bordoff, who is a regular commentator in the media, put that thought leadership on display when he appeared on one of the final episodes of The Colbert Report to explain the impact of falling oil prices.
 
Q: Why create a Center on Global Energy Policy now?
 
The energy world is changing quickly and fundamentally. We are seeing a hydrocarbon revolution in the U.S. that has huge economic, geopolitical and environmental implications. The impacts of climate change are being felt more frequently and severely. The utility business model is being reinvented. The cost of renewable technology is dropping quickly. And energy is playing a key role in geopolitical crises like the Russia and Ukraine conflict. All of these things have important policy implications. There is a need for more sources of objective, rigorous analysis coupled with a thorough understanding of the industry and financial markets, as well as deep insights into how policy gets created. And all this must be done with a truly global focus.
 
Q: Why do it at Columbia?
 
There are very few institutions that put all these things together the way we have the opportunity to do here. Support from Merit Janow, [Provost] John Coatsworth and [President] Lee C. Bollinger, and from so many others across the University, has been important to our rapid growth and success. Columbia is one of the world’s most respected institutions, with strong programs and institutions to complement what we’re building at the center. We have SIPA and the Earth Institute and the Global Centers. We have done workshops in Istanbul on eastern Mediterranean energy issues. We had events in Beijing and Israel in partnership with the Law School and another in Ethiopia with Vijay Modi in Engineering. I don’t think I realized when I left the White House how much of an advantage it would be to build this type of policy center outside D.C., particularly in New York City, with its unique ability to include finance and commodity perspectives, an international community and a global media presence.
 
Q: How important is climate change in formulating energy policy?
 
It’s one of the most pressing challenges we face. More severe storms, floods and heat waves, among other impacts, threaten all nations. Think about the amount of energy it takes to power the global economy. Look at energy demand growth in China or India, and the energy it will take to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, to give them access to refrigerators, air conditioners, cars and other things that improve the quality of life. Meeting that growth in energy demand alone would be difficult; trying to do it in a way that dramatically reduces greenhouse gas emissions is a staggering challenge. It’s going to require trillions of dollars in new capital over the next several decades. It will require everyone in the U.S. and the global political system to agree that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, to put in place stronger policies and provide the right incentives for capital to flow into more sustainable forms of energy. I’m hopeful that will happen, but it is by no means certain.
 
Q: What exactly is the hydrocarbon revolution?
 
The phrase “game changer” gets used a lot, but it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the change in the U.S. energy outlook over just the last four or five years. If you look back just six or seven years ago, every projection was for a dramatic increase in U.S. natural-gas imports, and all that growth was in the form of very costly liquefied natural gas. We were going to be importing very large volumes of oil as far as the eye could see. All that has turned around very quickly. We will soon be a net exporter of natural gas. U.S. oil production is up 4 million barrels a day over the last four years, so import dependence has dropped from 60 percent to closer to 25 percent.
 
Q: How did this turnaround in U.S. energy production happen?
 
There were important government research programs early on, but a lot was private sector innovation and technology improvements. For example, we had been doing hydraulic fracturing for 60 years. The major innovation was the ability to combine hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling to extract hydrocarbons from shale formations in an economical way. This happened in the U.S. in part because we have a very entrepreneurial mindset; we have lots of small, independent operators who had access to capital, who could try things in a way you wouldn’t if you have two or three state-owned enterprises that dominate your economy.
 
Q: Is it a blip, or can it continue?
 
It’s going to continue. Perhaps not at quite the same pace, particularly given the recent drop in oil prices. Extracting oil and natural gas is a complex process, and the industry—by necessity—has become very innovative in figuring out how to produce resources. But there is also a lot of uncertainty about how much U.S. production will grow, particularly given how daily output falls sharply compared with traditional wells after an initial burst of oil and gas production from a new shale well. We still have much to learn about some of the geology.
 
Q: What has been the impact of this turnaround?
 
The oil and gas boom has been among the brightest spots in the U.S. economy. It contributed to the recent decline in oil prices. It has reduced our import dependence and our trade imbalance, which has important geopolitical and security benefits. Of course, it has raised environmental concerns, which need to be taken very seriously and addressed with the right rules, regulations and enforcement. It has also raised a host of policy questions, such as whether we should export energy or whether it is safe to move more oil using one of the greatest innovations of the 19th century—trains.
 
Q: Does this mean that we can be less concerned about events in the Middle East?
 
I don’t think this fundamentally changes the U.S. interest in global energy-market stability or the Middle East. If there is a supply disruption in the Middle East, if there is conflict that affects Saudi Arabian oil production tomorrow, the price of oil is going to go up all around the world. That’s going to affect U.S. consumers whether we import a lot of oil or not, and we have many other security and geopolitical interests in the Middle East aside from energy. But it can give us more flexibility, more leverage in diplomatic negotiations. For example, we see energy playing a bigger role in trade negotiations, with the Europeans pushing for access to U.S. oil and gas. Additional U.S. supplies made it easier for countries to comply with sanctions against Iran by preventing a price rise from lost Iranian exports.
 
Q: What are the implications for the natural gas market?
 
Natural gas typically moves between Point A and Point B through a pipeline, and historically there were few other options. Point A and B thus depend on each other as buyer and seller. That’s why Europe is so concerned about Russia’s ability to turn off the taps. Over the next decade, however, we are going to see much more sold as liquefied natural gas (LNG) that can move on ships, and natural gas increasingly priced based on supply and demand for gas rather than linked to oil. The U.S. natural gas supply has freed up gas for the global market, and soon the U.S. will export LNG. This will contribute to a more integrated global gas market, with more diversity of supply and more competition, which can help improve security of supply.
 
Q: After more than a decade in Washington making policy, what’s it like to be teaching?
 
It’s wonderful. The students here are some of the best in the world, and it’s inspiring to see how much passion and energy they have for solving the problems we have been talking about. As pessimistic as one can be about whether our political system is capable of addressing the climate challenge, meeting the world’s growing energy needs, or resolving some of our most difficult geopolitical conflicts, it gives you more than a little bit of optimism to spend time with the students here at Columbia. The amount of talent and the focus they are putting toward trying to tackle these problems is what’s going to make it possible to solve them in the end.

— Interviewed by Georgette Jasen