Jason Bordoff of Columbia University talks to Stephen Power.
When it comes to explaining energy and climate policy, not many academics are as comfortable fielding questions from Stephen Colbert as they are a panel of US senators. Jason Bordoff is one of them. Since founding the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy in 2013, Bordoff has become the go-to authority on energy policy for politicians, journalists, corporate heavyweights—and the occasional late-night comedian. Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, cited Bordoff’s skill at making energy research “accessible” to non-academics in recently naming him a Co-Dean of Columbia’s new Climate School—the first new school at Columbia in more than 25 years.
In an interview with Brunswick’s Energy & Resources team, Bordoff—who served as special assistant to President Obama on energy and climate change—discussed what he sees as the widening gap between climate ambition and energy reality; why energy and climate policy is likely to become “messier” and more “disruptive” for businesses; and how growing up the son of a gas-station owner and an immigrant influenced his career. Below are highlights from the interview, which has been edited for brevity.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had a falling out in July over oil policy that caused prices to spike to six-year highs. What does this conflict between traditional allies say about the state of energy policy globally and in the US?
One thing it’s revealed is the fragility of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [in a carbon-constrained world]. When oil demand may be barely rising in the future, it changes the dynamic about whether oil producers think it makes sense to participate in a cartel or not. It’s also exposed the tension between energy policy and climate policy. You have, on one side, people criticizing the Biden administration for coming out in favor of a deal to increase oil production, on the grounds that we’re supposed to be moving away from oil. But if the administration hadn’t taken the position it did, other people would have said, “oil prices are rising because of your Green New Deal policies.” I’m not characterizing it that way, but others would. Administration officials are sort of damned if they do push for more production and damned if they don’t.
What’s been the biggest surprise of 2021 so far when it comes to energy policy, markets and technology?
The Exxon board shareholder vote was pretty surprising. I wouldn’t have expected a company of that scale to lose three seats on its board and that the world’s largest asset managers would get behind that effort. A question I have is whether it would have happened if they had been more profitable and paying a hefty dividend.
What is a misunderstood aspect of energy and climate policy?
I don’t think people realize how different it is to go from setting a goal of holding temperature increase to 2°C to setting a goal of 1.5°, and how quickly things need to change. Another thing that’s not fully understood is the way that issues of environmental justice and racial equity are going to change climate and energy policy. It’s a fundamental shift that has hugely important consequences for what climate policies will be on the table, what environmental advocates can support and what philanthropies will fund.
Can you give an example?
If you look at the recent report of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, you’ll see there is complete opposition to carbon capture, direct air capture and a whole range of other technologies that many energy companies are advocating as solutions to climate change. This is a new dynamic that will affect how people, particularly on the left, think when they design climate policy.
What should energy corporate leaders—and their advisors—be keeping an eye on?
The growing gap between climate ambition and energy reality. I think this is going to be the major focus of the next decade and that it has to reach a breaking point.
It’s easy for me to see why people in oil and gas corporate boardrooms might look at rising energy demand in Southeast Asia and Africa and the mix of GDP growth and population growth and feel complacent about the risk that climate change poses to their business. But in order to feel complacent, you also need to believe that in five or 10 years the world’s going to be totally fine with falling completely short by a very large amount of the climate goals everyone’s talking about. Something has to give, and I don’t think it’s going to be the ambition. I think it’s only going to increase.