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The Changing World of Energy

Copyright © 2015 Columbia University. All Rights Reserved.


Q&A on the intersection of energy, economics, geopolitics and the environment.


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, Jason Bordoff joined Columbia University 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 (SIPA). ...

The center has become a leading global venue for high-level discussions and research about energy. Speakers have included Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, former National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, chief executive officers of multinational energy companies like Shell and Conoco, as well as presidents of non-governmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund.


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 analyses 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.


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. The 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 Washington, 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.


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 the 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.


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 (LNG). 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 four million barrels a day over the last four years, so import dependence has dropped from 60 percent to closer to 25 percent.


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.


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.


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 have 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.


Does this mean that we can be less concerned about the 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.


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 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.


After more than a decade in Washington, D.C. 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.

Georgette Jasen is a freelance writer and editor.