As energy and climate policy seem to become increasingly polarized at the national level, its often illuminating to look at states that have navigated the balance between oil and gas development and accelerating a transition to a clean energy future. One of those states is Colorado, which has significant oil and gas production but also is a very large renewable energy producer and home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
On a new episode of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff sits down with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to discuss energy and climate policy in Washington, D.C. and his home state of Colorado. They talk about what ‘working across the aisle’ entails in politics, the impacts of climate change on Senator Bennet's home state, and how Colorado is balancing environmental protection with all forms of energy production.
Other topics discussed include Senator Bennet’s thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; the expansion of oil and gas drilling across the U.S.; trade tariffs in the context of renewable energy; and the need for young people to participate in U.S. politics.
View the transcript
Jason Bordoff: As energy and climate policy seems to become increasingly polarized from drill baby drill on the one hand to a 100 percent renewables on the other it's interesting to turn to states that have navigated this balance between oil and gas development and accelerating a transition to a clean energy future. One of those is Colorado which has significant oil and gas production but also is a very large renewable energy producer, home to NREL the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as well. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado has a unique perspective on the state of course as well as on our nation’s capital. Senator Bennett has a reputation for pragmatism consensus building and compromise. At a time when those attributes seem increasingly derided in Washington D.C. And as one of the most thoughtful members of the United States Senate. A former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools and a chief of staff to then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Senator Bennett was appointed in 2009 and then was elected to a full term in 2010. I sat down with him recently in his office in the United States Senate for this conversation.
Senator Bennett thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Michael Bennet: Thank you very much for having me. Welcome to my office.
Jason Bordoff: Thank you. It's good to be here. Beautiful. Lots of things from Colorado which is one of my favorite states.
Michael Bennet: Good.
Jason Bordoff: So just for our listeners just as a starting point you're well known for your reputation for working across the aisle Republicans and Democrats on issues like education, agriculture, the deficit. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach the energy environment issue, what your priorities are and what's most important to you in this?
Michael Bennet: What I would say my priorities are driving economic growth in the United States. The wage growth and job growth. Making sure we're addressing climate and creating energy independence for the United States. Those I think are the priorities that should inform our energy debate. Whether you're a Democrat or whether you're a Republican how we achieve those objectives I think we certainly can have debates about. In Colorado which is a state, it’s a third Democratic, a third Republican and a third independent. There is a consensus. It's not that everybody agrees. You never get agreement universally in a democracy. But there is a consensus that that is achievable. That is to say we can drive jobs and wages. We can do it in a sustainable way that deals with climate and we can also benefit our independence in energy at the same time. That consensus for reasons we can talk about gets destroyed on the way to Washington D.C. And that's one of the things we need to fix.
Jason Bordoff: And as you said it's a state that's divided on partisan lines sort of you know stereo-, the classic purple state. It's also a really all of the above state, right.
Michael Bennet: Right.
Jason Bordoff: Important in oil and gas production, important to the state. It's also one of the leaders in solar and wind production has NREL in it. So how do you build consensus in a state like that where there are so many divergent interests with people who are saying it should be a 100 percent renewable others who were saying oil and gas is the driver, can be the driver for the state economy, federal economy. How do you bring people together?
Michael Bennet: Well I think you bring people together in a way that reflects the common sense of the state which is that we have a thriving energy economy renewable and non-renewable. We have a consensus that we'd like to get off of dirtier fuels and that renewables will be a big part of that. Natural gas if we capture the methane as we do in Colorado can be a big part of that and we need to approach it in a way that's practical you know. And I think what I mean by that is that we need to acknowledge the fact that we will have transitions. We're not going to flip a switch overnight and change the entire energy economy of our state or the country for that matter. I think people they understand it. The difficulty when you get to Washington is that there is a climate denial here among Republicans, an expressed climate denial that is very different from what Republicans in Colorado. So, you poll Republicans in Colorado, the majority of them say climate change is real and humans are contributing to it. You poll them in Colorado and Republicans say we want more renewables not less. In Washington for reasons that have to do with our campaign finance system you've got a bunch of people who say climate change isn’t real. That makes it very hard to have a practical conversation about how to move the country's energy agenda forward.
Jason Bordoff: Do you think there is a corollary to that on the other side? Keep it on the ground a 100 percent renewables. There can't be a role for oil and gas.
Michael Bennet: I don't think, I think that the observation I made about Republicans and climate, almost the climate denial applies almost universally to every elected Republican in the Senate in the house. Their kind of keep it in the ground approach that you mention exists but it is not in any sense the mainstream position of elected Democrats. I think there is a huge imbalance actually.
Jason Bordoff: So, you mentioned you know keep it in the ground is not the consensus view. So that's different and obviously in Colorado to go back to the states. You said you know you build consensus in the state, it's harder to bring it to Washington. And Governor Hickenlooper who you worked for has developed a reputation for doing that figuring out how to work with environmental groups, with the oil and gas industry, take on issues like methane emissions and try to bring people together around responsible production of energy resources of all types. I wonder if you think that is going in a more keep it in the ground sort of direction with Representative Jared Polis becoming the Democratic nominee for governor who has called for a 100 percent renewables by 2040 and has a reputation for being hostile to the oil and gas sector.
Michael Bennet: So, I guess the way I would look at it is that as I said earlier there is a consensus in our state that we need to do something about climate change. And we also want to keep the state the way it has been for generations. The reason why people want to come there. So that threshold question has always been at work in the backdrop of the negotiations that oil and gas industry has had with environmental groups through the governor's office. And we also will always have a diversity of views. So, you will have some people who say and now we turn to people in the state not here. Drill anywhere and you'll have other people say not one more molecule of hydrocarbon. And that's okay. I think people can have principled disagreements about these kinds of things. For policymakers and for political leaders the question then is how to use, martial the interests of a wide variety of people and try to move us in the direction that I mentioned earlier which is in a sense in a way that makes sense for our economy, in a way that makes sense for climate, in a way that makes sense for national security. And I think those principles are still the ones that are at work whether Jared Polis was nominated for governor or whether or not and I suspect that they will still be in place if he gets elected.
Jason Bordoff: What are the lessons you think we can take from the kind of cooperative approach that has been taken in Colorado to try to build more consensus on these issues in Washington?
Michael Bennet: Well, we have to, we need to, we have to.
Jason Bordoff: And you’ve worked on issues. For example, you've prioritized carbon capture as one piece of the climate solution, also advanced nuclear technology.
Michael Bennet: Exactly. And it's interesting because on both of those, on the carbon capture for a while I had a hard time finding Republican. Because the Republicans said by implication you're saying that carbon is bad and therefore coal is bad.
Jason Bordoff: There is no reason to do it if you don’t think climate change is real, right.
Michael Bennet: Exactly and actually there is a business case to do it and if you're, if you believe that there ought to be multiple technologies and some technologies you can actually make cleaner by capturing the carbon that should be seen as a plus not a minus. And so, we've all been able to find Rob Portman to work with on that, on the nuclear research. I mean the way I looked at that issue is that Bill Gates should not have to go to China to get financing for his innovative ideas around nuclear which may never work. I mean it's possible they won’t work. It's possible they will work and we shouldn't just leave that game to the Chinese. So, I think that if we can even without overcoming the campaign finance problem here which is a problem that we can find bipartisan ways to work together on these issues. And frankly I think no matter even if you are a keep it in the ground person or you are a drill it everywhere person which I don't think either of those views matches the consensus in America on these issues. In order for us to create an enduring solution you need bipartisanship. I mean it's inconvenient, it's irritating, it's aggravating. But look what's happened to so many of President Obama's initiatives which were initiatives that I agreed with. But 6 or 12 months into a new administration, there goes the Clean Power Plan. There goes the fuel standards for automobiles. I mean things that we wouldn't have ever imagined because we weren't able to build a consensus here on that. And I don't blame President Obama for that. But I’ve observed that it is important for us, for this country to have durable solutions that move the economy forward and deal with climate and deal with national security. You can't do that in two-year increments where one party wins an election and then the next party wins an election. There are countries we are competing with all over the world that are not inconvenienced by our form of democratic government.
Jason Bordoff: I just want to make sure I understand kind of the point you're making because is it ______ [00:10:18]?
Michael Bennet: It wouldn't be the first time that it was difficult to understand.
Jason Bordoff: Is it the case that your view of how to try to build consensus across the aisle on things that make progress on climate is to assume the problem we're trying to solve is not climate change because people won't agree on that. It's another objective. It's about you know economic opportunities from nuclear or from a market for carbon.
Michael Bennet: Well, so first of all I think people should agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is real. And I think we at our ______ [00:10:53], at our peril, we ignore facts. So once in Colorado I was asked by somebody at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association luncheon how do we push back on falsehoods in the media about the dangers of fracking? This was their question and I said it's really important that you think about that question in the context of a president who is attacking journalists and other curators of content as fake news. Because everything becomes fake nothing is real. And so, I think we need to let science be our guide whether it's climate or other kinds of things. Having said that there are people that won't agree that climate is real but may agree that we should move forward on renewables. In fact, there are in this very Senate of ours people that support wind because they see the jobs bring to their state without having to make a commitment on climate even though I think they secretly understand that we need to deal with climate. And I'm more interested in building that future together than I am in just kind of having a political conversation that goes nowhere which in my mind is not in any way mean that I'm less serious about dealing with climate.
Jason Bordoff: How have you seen climate change affect the state of Colorado and as we actually see the impacts of it? It's not just something in the distant future anymore. You see that changing the way people think about the issue.
Michael Bennet: I absolutely do. I absolutely do. We see it in drought. We see it in fires, fire season that almost doesn't end. We see it in beetle infestation. We see it in shorter ski seasons. I mean and all of that affects our economy in very negative ways and we have one of the strongest, most dynamic economies in America. And I want us to be able to protect that. Now recently the Outdoor Retailers Association moved their trade show from Utah to Denver because Utah wasn't sufficiently supportive of public lands. And I know it’s not exactly the same issue but it's related to this issue because our stewardship of those public lands and our stewardship of our climate and our environment are incredibly important to driving the economy in my state. So, I think as people see that threatened in shorter growing seasons, shorter ski seasons especially when you're in a challenging commodity environment like this. Farmers and ranchers are going to begin to ask what do we need to do to be resilient? How do we need… And those are practices I want to learn about and hopefully incorporate in things like the farm bill as we go forward.
Jason Bordoff: I want to ask you about a couple of the actions related to energy and climate that this administration has taken. You've been an advocate of solar energy in various respects including extending the tax credits to support solar. Your thoughts on retaliatory tariffs. You're also a supporter of International trade partners playing by rules. So, this administration has imposed tariffs on solar panels from China. Your thoughts on the intersection of trade and renewable energy.
Michael Bennet: So first of all, on the solar tariffs themselves I think it was such a bizarre set of circumstances you had with one company that was a Chinese owned company that was seeking to put tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States which is just driving up our costs. I mean anybody who has spent any time. It’s funny, you know it's funny how things change over time. When I was first running for office about 10 years ago I used to say this is terrible you know the Chinese have stolen our ability to make solar panels. We invented making solar panels right here in Colorado. In fact, I would claim that we had invented solar energy because ENRL was in Colorado. But what happened over the years was the China…
Jason Bordoff: For our listeners, the National Renewable Energy Lab
Michael Bennet: Right which you mentioned earlier.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah.
Michael Bennet: And for years and years the Chinese subsidized their solar panel industry to such a degree that the cost of solar dropped like this. It dropped like a straight line. I've never seen anything drop like that. Wind dropped a lot too but not in a straight line. And that has meant, that's been a boon for solar installations all over the United States of America. Jobs that can't be exported overseas. Guys standing on rooftops or building solar arrays in the desert. And the president's action hurts all of that. And so…
Jason Bordoff: The flipside obviously is it hurts solar manufacturing in the U.S. and even President Obama took action against China over that.
Michael Bennet: Right, right, right. And then more broadly I think we… Look I believe the Chinese have been taking advantage of the United States not necessarily in energy but in a lot of things. And we should have a concerted effort with our allies with Canada, with Mexico with the European Union to push back on China. But we're in a situation now where this administration in the name of our own national security has put tariffs on the Canadians, the Mexicans and the Europeans. I mean I never would have thought we'd see something like that. And it's not only antithetical to any idea of conventional Republican, you know American Republican thought think it's antithetical to mainstream thought and in America and I hope it doesn't do real lasting damage to our economy.
Jason Bordoff: And there's been some loss of support among Democrats for free trade too. I think it's fair to say. Do you agree with that?
Michael Bennet: It's definitely true. We just and I think that that is the result of there being enormous dislocation in our economy. Some of it caused by trade, some of it caused by other things. But there's no arguing the fact that we have the greatest income inequality now that we've had since the 1920s and this economy is not working well for enough people. The problem I have with the president's brand of protectionism is that it is actually possible to make matters worse. And instead of making matters worse I think we should be figuring out how to drive economic growth here in the United States and how we think about energy in the 21st century is a really big piece of that component. And how we think about the retrofit of buildings you know for instance is a huge part of it too.
Jason Bordoff: And this protectionism is not only about solar tariffs obviously the potential for a trade war more broadly is a concern to the energy sector among other sectors. China has now threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on US petroleum, petroleum exports as we become a bigger exporter. That's more of a vulnerability too if you start a trade war over the cost of steel to build pipelines and other things. So how do you see this trade conflict playing out? Do you think in the end sort of cooler heads prevail and people pull back?
Michael Bennet: Well I would never who would have thought. I thought the rhetoric grim was just that rhetoric. And it turns out that just as you were serious about blowing up the Iran nuclear deal and blowing up the Paris agreement the president is serious about you know provoking potentially provoking a trade war. And I would not count on the people on the other side of these terrorists from not acting very strongly in their own interests. And we have the largest economy. You know with China two largest economies in the world and we have a lot to lose if this trade war gets out of control. And so, I can't sit here and say to you candidly that I'm sure that cooler heads will prevail. I always hope that they will and I hope that what we will do is have a conversation in this country about what we can do to drive jobs and wages again in the United States. The last several periods of economic growth in this country have essentially been recessions for the middle class in America. Because people's purchasing power has been less at the end of the decade than it was at the beginning. That's not a sustainable model for the economy and it's certainly not a sustainable model for a democratic republic. I mean we don't do well as a form of government when our economy isn't growing in a way that distributes the benefit broadly.
Jason Bordoff: And one thing that affects the pace at which the economy grows is the price of energy. And so, I did want to ask you about two things you just mentioned Iran and Paris. You've been vocal in criticism of withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Many in the energy sector now are looking closely to see how strict this administration will be to actually pull barrels of oil off the market. There's a limited amount other countries like Saudi Arabia can do to ease pressure on gasoline prices if that were to happen. Do you have thoughts on how you see this kind of playing out and any sense of what the administration strategy will be in trying to put sanctions back on Iran or how we might get pulled back from this and negotiate something else?
Michael Bennet: I mean the whole way that we were able to get Iran to the table was that there was a multilateral regime of sanctions that were not just the U.S. and the Europeans but included the Indians, the Chinese and the Russians. That's a very tough coalition to put together and that coalition was put together not to change the regime in Iran, in Tehran but to try to see if we could get to a deal where we could slow down their breakout time to a nuclear weapon. And all the intelligence agencies said that that had been accomplished. So, to just rip it up without an alternative I think is a problem. I am unpersuaded they were going to be able to reboot that group of countries. You know I don't see the Chinese and the Russians particularly under the current circumstances saying that they're going to agree to new multilateral sanctions. So, I'm not sure what will happen there. Nevertheless, in Paris, yeah.
Jason Bordoff: But I was going to ask you about Paris because you've obviously been critical of the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. So, I wanted to ask you what you think the implications and what the impact of that will actually be for the pace at which the U.S. moves? You know part of the narrative has been states can pick up the slack. Cities can pick up the slack. Businesses can. Is that true or what does it mean if the U.S. is not part of an international approach?
Michael Bennet: Well first of all I think part of that is true. I mean and it's the reason why I say as pessimistic as I am on a lot of dimensions about a lot of things that are going on in our politics right now. One thing I'm not pessimistic about is our ability to deal with this issue of climate and the innovation that's going on in America and around the world. But I hope you know lead by America is going to lick this issue one way or another. It would help if we had policy impetus to move things along more quickly. And I can imagine a world someday where there is bipartisan support for putting a price on carbon. You know it's not impossible to imagine Republican. There are some now George Shultz for example who is saying look here we have an opportunity to replace a consumption tax or replace a form of tax on income, payroll taxes maybe with a consumption tax. That's a pretty traditional Republican idea and something people might be open to at some point. We're obviously not there now. In the meantime, I think it looks terrible for the United States to not be in an agreement that virtually every other country in the world has signed onto because their constituencies are not scared of the idea that we can address climate and drive our economy at the same time. In fact, I believe as I said earlier, I firmly believe that those two things are true. So, when I see the president for instance roll back the fuel efficiency standards on our cars. What I see is somebody who wants to make our auto industry less competitive around the world not more competitive around the world because what people are buying around the world are cars that are more fuel efficient. Not to mention people here that are lower income or middle class for whom the price of gas is a real expense and a real problem. But it is his policies whether it's the tariffs or the you know imagining that our future lies in producing electricity in the United States by with power plants that on their own market terms are obsolete and can't compete. That does not sound like a recipe for our creating jobs in this country to me.
Jason Bordoff: As you mentioned you have you know Statesmen like George Shultz, Jim Baker who've called for a carbon tax and almost any economist would tell you that's a smart economic approach to take. But do you see any possibility of that, something like that could build consensus on Capitol Hill?
Michael Bennet: Not today. But in the future, I do and I know that, I'm not just imagining that I know that because I've had conversations with Republicans who said that someday we are going to have to develop a set of bipartisan principles that leads us in a way that as I said earlier to create an enduring solution on climate. And I am optimistic that at some point we can do that especially if we can deal with money in our politics.
Jason Bordoff: So, we are talking about how states can step in and fill the void and I noticed Colorado recently passed a low emission vehicle standard sort of modeled after California's as the Trump administration rolls back national fuel economy standards. How are and that could lead to litigation because California has a waiver that other states like Colorado have joined onto. So how does this play out now? How do the states like Colorado and California respond?
Michael Bennet: I think inevitably you know you can't stand in the way of progress like this and I don't think he's going to be able to go backwards ultimately because of what consumer demand wants and what people states want. He’s created but I have not had a single manufacturer of automotives come to my office and say we need, these fuel standards are too burdensome. And I do think that a chequerboard is not a great answer here. But on the other hand, if you're California and you're Colorado and you want to move ahead I think you ought to be able to do that. And that's going to create a challenge for automobile manufacturers but I think it's the president who has created that challenge. Not people that are representing the interests of their states. And frankly representing policies that will make the country more competitive rather than less competitive.
Jason Bordoff: You've supported oil and gas development in Colorado with the right regulations, responsible development. The president has now proposed opening up lots of federal lands. Also, much of the offshore drilling which you've I think opposed ANWR for example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. How do you sort of draw the line on where oil and gas development should be allowed with the right regulations and where it needs to just be off limits?
Michael Bennet: I think there are some places like in Alaska as you describe that are iconic cultural touch points that just shouldn't be disturbed by oil and gas drilling. And I think there are places like that in my state. It's a place called the Thompson divide outside of Carbondale which Teddy Roosevelt hunted on and which has been an important place for ranchers in the history of Colorado to operate their ranches. We shouldn't drill there and I sometimes think that this obsession with trying to drill every square inch on the public lands is as much as anything springs from kind of an objection that they are public lands at all. And I can tell you that in Colorado the vast majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents want to protect our public lands and if they're are to be developed for extractive purposes that, that should be done reasonably and very carefully. This is the legacy of our parents and grandparents and people that came from before that. And I want to make sure we pass it on to the next generation of Americans as well.
Jason Bordoff: So, we're just about of time. I just want to conclude with sort of one or two questions for our listeners about you and your background which is in the private sector, in the business world before coming to public life. And one of the criticisms is you know in the energy sector Democrats who support regulation on the energy sector regulation is kind of killing business. I mean how did your experience in the private sector before you came to public life shaped the way you view the role of smart regulation, well-designed regulation and what's excessive regulation.
Michael Bennet: Well it's interesting. So, I… That's really interesting. So, I did spend time in the private sector and in fact the first and I bought distressed companies, companies whose balance sheets were upside down and the first one of those was a company called Force Energy which had assets in the Gulf and in Alaska. So that's how I actually got to know something about the energy industry. It’s a very embarrassing moment where my boss looked across the table at me and I some seismic data for me said Michael that's upside down. I said… So, I learned the hard way. But then strangely enough after I was in business, I was the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. And in that job, I used to spend a lot of time wondering why people in Washington were so mean to our teachers and to our students because of the unfunded requirements that were coming from Washington D.C. When I got here I found that they weren't mean. They just didn't know anything about what was going on in our schools and our classrooms. And I think that's true of business as well. We should be looking at whether our government is working well or not working. Whether regulations make sense or whether they don't make sense. I think it's very… I think it's impossible to argue that the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act haven't benefited our country's economy and that we're not better off economically as a result of those pieces of legislation being passed in the 1970s. That doesn't mean that every single regulation that's attached to those bills is working as well as it should or was intended and I think we always have to be on the lookout for things that aren’t achieved in the intended effect and that is one of the problems with government is that it can be slow to change once we’ve committed to a set of regulations. Republicans grab on this issue all the time and it has resonance because people do intersect unhappily with the regulatory environment sometime and I don’t think democrats should be defenders of bad government. I think we should be defenders of government that works well.
Jason Bordoff: And finally, we obviously teach students of Columbia. We have a lot of young people listening to this. You’ve now moved into the public sector. Your family has a long history in public service. Both your father and your grandfather back to the Roosevelt administration. For people who look at Washington now and see dysfunction and say why would I want to come down here and be part of this. What do you say to them?
Michael Bennet: What I say to them is your government is in fact dysfunctional and that but you live in a democratic republic which means that this is not as some people assert someone else’s problem. It’s your problem. It’s our problem. We are a society that was established to be a democratic republic. The founders knew when they set it up that we would have disagreements. That shouldn’t be surprising. People should have different points of view. The question before us right now is can we resolve these disagreements in a way that creates a result for the next generation of Americans, for the people who are listening to this program and for America’s role in the world. And nobody ever said it would be easy. It’s not easy. It’s hard. But we can’t do it without people of goodwill, willing to be part of it and I would just add also to your students that we can’t do it without people with an array of different experiences to help. I feel very fortunate to have spent my life outside of politics before I got here because I learnt something about business and I learnt something about schools and about the challenges that kids especially those living in poverty are facing in America’s public-school system. And there is not a day that those experiences aren’t brought to bear somehow on what the work that I do here. So, I hope people will help unravel with this function that we face is a failure of our responsibilities as citizen to say, it’s dysfunctional and then not do anything about it.
Jason Bordoff: I gather from the many people walking with handy notes, it’s a busy day in the senate so…
Michael Bennet: It’s time to go. We’re actually passing legislation today. That’s an incredibly unusual turn of events.
Jason Bordoff: So, our listeners can’t see what a good multi-tasker, the senator is that he answers my questions and looks at notes as well. But I know it’s a busy day, so thank you senator for spending time with us today on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Michael Bennet: Thanks for coming in and thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Jason Bordoff: For more information about Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us at columbiauenergy on social media. We’ll see you next week.