In this Columbia Energy Exchange, Center on Global Energy Policy Inaugural Fellow David Sandalow is joined by Washington State Governor Jay Inslee at the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit for a conversation on how to bring clean energy lessons from Washington State to Washington, D.C., what the role of nuclear power and carbon capture sequestration should be in the U.S. energy landscape, and the value of perseverance and optimism for delivering on “a goal of a clean energy economy.”

Governor Inslee is a fifth-generation Washingtonian and graduate of the University of Washington and the Willamette University College of Law. He began his political career as a State Representative in 1989, then served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington’s 4th and 1st Districts until 2012. He has been Governor of Washington since 2013.

On April 10, the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit in New York City hosted top politicians, business leaders, and academics for a range of lively discussions on what to expect in changes to the oil and gas landscape, the latest research on powering the low-carbon transition, navigating U.S. political fields to advance climate solutions, how to assess risk and build grid resilience, and much more.

Columbia University does not support or oppose candidates for political office and any opinions expressed are not those of the University.

View the transcript


Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange. A podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I’m Bill Loveless. This episode of the Columbia Energy Exchange is part of a special series recorded in front of a live audience at the 2019 Columbia Global Energy Summit in New York City on April 10th. The gatherings are a variety of energy sector leaders with CEOs, politicians and researchers presenting and discussing cutting-edge research for climate solutions, emerging challenges in energy geopolitics, changes to the oil and gas landscape, the view on energy and climate from Washington and a whole lot more. You can catch the recording of all these conversations by visiting On this episode, we hear from 2020 democratic presidential candidate Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. One of the leading voices in the country on tackling climate change who’s made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign. He joined the center’s David Sandalow at the summit to layout a vision for a fossil free future. They also talked about the role of nuclear power today, energy lessons from Washington states, efforts to build a clean energy economy and trade opportunities on energy with China. Here is that conversation.


David Sandalow: I’m David Sandalow and I am told that we have Governor Jay Inslee backstage and I’m delighted to welcome him on stage. Great to see you governor. Thank you for coming.


Jay Inslee: Yeah, it’s about time. Thank you.


David Sandalow: Governor, we are honored and thrilled to welcome you here to Columbia University. Governor Jay Inslee doesn’t need much of an introduction. Anybody who works on energy issues. But let me offer it in way. He’s in a second term as Governor of the state of Washington. He announced last month that he is a candidate for president of the United States of America. Before serving as governor, he served in the U.S. congress, in the Washington State Legislature. He grew up in Seattle. He’s an avid cyclist and hiker. He’s grandfather of three. He’s the author of Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, which released in 2007 and according to his website, he enjoys writing and illustrating books for his grandchildren. Governor, welcome.


Jay Inslee: Thank you.


David Sandalow: Thank you for coming to Columbia. Let me start governor by noting that you’ve made clean energy and climate change your top priority issue throughout your career. Why?


Jay Inslee: Because I have half a brain. I don’t know, maybe. That’s all it takes is half at this point. Look, this is, you know, we are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. We are the last generation that can do something about it. Anyone who has been looking at the science even on a superficial basis would have known that since the early 1990s, and I’ve known that since the early 1990s and so since then, I’ve been dedicated myself to try to inspire people to recognize not only the urgent peril of this moment but the tremendous economic promise of this moment and I think both of them are important. So, I’ve approached this from not only a view that we need to alert our fellow citizens to the dangers inherent of carbon dioxide but also to the tremendous economic prospects of building a green energy economy. And as you mentioned you know, wrote a colossal book about this in 2007 which suggested that we are gonna have enormous growth in our economy associated with clean energy technologies. And verily it has come to pass and this has been very gratifying to me. At the same time, we’ve had an acceleration of the urgency of the moment. I just read yesterday that the melting of glaciers have actually increased by 18% since our last assessment in 2003 and it’s five times faster than 1960. The same rate of the urgency is matched by the same rate of the economic promise where we have now electric car companies building a little bolt and I’m now driving in ______ [00:04:28] Michigan where wind turbines are sprouting like corn stocks in contrary to the president’s prediction, cancer rates have not skyrocketed because of wind turbines. We’re building batteries like crazy in last Las Vegas and we are spinning carbon fibers that goes into electric cars. It’s really interesting when ______ [00:04:50] 2007, I wrote about a little company starting to make a little piece of BMWs that went into trunk and I thought that was very promising. It was a little piece where you could put the spare tire in the back of a BMW. This is in 2007. Now, we are making entire structure, the body of the car from carbon fiber. That’s just in one decade. So, I approach this with a great deal of optimism because I believe in the can do spirit of America. I think, we are gonna tame this beast eventually.


David Sandalow: So the green new deal has got a lot of attention. What are your thoughts on the green new deal?


Jay Inslee: I think it’s been very helpful from three directions. Number one, it has got it on the radar screen. I mean, look in the last three presidential debates, there has been exactly four minutes dedicated to what is an existential threat to civilization. That’s pathetic. The green new deal has helped elevate the discussion. So, it’s been helpful. Number two, it has raised the ambition level of what our ambition should be and I think that’s been helpful. Number three, it has engaged new communities in this discussion. Look, we know who the first victims of climate change are. They are the frontline communities, marginalized communities, communities of color. And this has now embraced a broader segment of the American society to be engaged in this mission statement. So, I think it’s been very, very helpful. But we have to understand, you know, it’s kind of like when Kennedy said, we are going to the moon, he didn’t say, he didn’t design the retro rockets during his first speech. He set the ambition level and I think that’s what the green new deal has done. Now, it’s up to all of us to work together to put policies behind that as we are doing in my state today. We are, I’m pleased to tell you that yesterday, my major committee passed a bill that will guarantee Washingtonians 100% clean electricity. Fossil free and that’s a goal that, and now gonna be in law that becomes law in the state of Washington. We’re moving forward. A bill passed yesterday that will ban hydrofluorocarbons. We will be the first state to ban super pollutants. We’re moving to build forward to have much closer to net zero commercial building, so that we don’t waste energy. We are leading one of the leading countries in the usage of electric cars. We are on target to meet my goal of 50,000 electric cars on the road in the next year. So, and we will be the first state next year to have 50% of all the cars we purchase using the procurement power of our state to be electric cars. We are spinning off companies now from our clean energy development fund. So, I think that what we are doing, we have a template for success in my state for the whole nation and I can’t wait to get going.


David Sandalow: So, the green new deal is, it’s been criticized even ridiculed for banning airplanes for, you know, banning beef. What’s your response? Are Americans really gonna buy an agenda in which we can’t fly to Hawaii because airplanes are banned and because beef is banned because it’s bad for the environment?


Jay Inslee: Well, first I would say, that’s a bunch of baloney and that’s what I told Megan McCain when I was on the view a couple of weeks ago and she said, you know, you democrats are gonna ban planes and railroads and cars and I said, well, that’s interesting because right now, literally that morning and I had a shiny blue general motors, all electric bolt made by the American workers in Orion, Michigan. That is a vision for the destiny of job creation in our country. So, no, that’s just a, it reminds me during Obama Care debate remember the death panels, the Republicans said, we are gonna have death panels if we had Obama Care. Well, I’ll tell you we got Obama Care, I get 800,000 people have insurance in my state and we are not gonna let Donald Trump take that away from them. Okay, so first off, it’s a bunch of bunk. Second, what I would say is those who have criticized the ambition level of that proposal, you know, during Kennedy’s and I have lived with John F. Kennedy. I remember, when he said, we are going to the moon in ten years and bring a man back safely, we didn’t sit around and say, no, no, I think it will take 11 and a half, you know, it will take 12, so let’s not start this project. Look, this is pushing the go button on a new clean energy economy, I welcome this discussion.


David Sandalow: So, there have been discussion among the climate community. There has been some climate hoax who say, our goal should be a 100% carbon free energy. And there is others who say, no, no, no the goal should be a 100% renewable energy. Do you have a view that’s between those two choices? What are your thoughts on that?


Jay Inslee: My belief is the urgency of this moment is so profound that the goal needs to be decarbonizing our emissions so that we are not releasing carbon dioxide by the giga tons in the next several decades. And that ought to be the goal and we ought to be open to technologies that allow us to achieve that end because it is a moment of such great urgency. So, my view is we ought to be open to technologies that will allow us to decarbonize our economy and not allow CO2 emissions. That ought to be the goal and that is, we don’t have a lot of time here. Right, we’ve got a few decades. So, we need to be moving and we need to be ambitious across all spectrums.


David Sandalow: And so, what are your thoughts on carbon capture innovation story? Just part of that.


Jay Inslee: If it could ever be made cost effective and physically effective, I don’t think, we should eliminate it. But there has been essentially with maybe one rare exception, there has been no place where it’s been shown to be really economically competitive by any stretch of the imagination except there is one plan, North Dakota, I think that’s used and there you’re just pumping out more gas that just continues the fossil fuel industry. So, there has really been no place where it’s been shown to be effective. But what I would also say is that, I’ll just tell you about the first conversation, I had with the second George Bush. It was a few weeks before his inauguration and I was talking to him. He was a real fan of coal sequestration technology and what I pointed out to him is I said Mr. President, it does cost more to sequester CO2, right. You do recognize that, right? You have to compress the CO2. You have to mine away to put it. It’s gonna cost a lot more money to do that. He goes, yeah, yeah, I recognize that. And I said, Mr. President why would anyone do that unless they are required to do that. Meaning, why would anyone make that investment unless, you have a cap on CO2 emissions or a price on CO2 emissions. And I swear, I saw this little glimmer of a light go off in the back of his mind going, yeah, why would anybody do that and my point was you’re not gonna do that and you wouldn’t even think about doing that unless we have a restraint on carbon emissions through a regulatory system or price on carbon. And that didn’t dissuade him. He didn’t change his policy because of that. Two minute conversation. Well, we have to recognize we have to have a constraint on carbon emissions to drive investments in these carbon free technologies and I’m all about those restraints in a variety of ways.


David Sandalow: Speaking of restraints and a price on carbon, you had a referendum in the state of Washington on carbon tax last November. Referendum went down. Could you just offer your thoughts about that and what happened and what are the lessons for those who are advocating for climate action?


Jay Inslee: Well, two essence there maybe three. Number one, when the oil and gas industry, the most powerful juggernaut politically in American history puts 32 million dollars in such things that really aren’t accurate about the initiative, it’s difficult and that was the situation. It was unfortunate. I’ll give you an example. We have, we’ve made a decision to close our last coal fired plant which is a good decision. And the way we’ve made that is to give the community a transition plan so that we can help the community through that transition as we close the only remaining coal fire plant in the state of Washington. The oil and gas industry is 32 million  dollars to make that look like an evil act because we basically are allowing the plant, a few years to close down. They try to make it look like a sweetheart deal. So, number one is when you are up against somebody with deep pockets, it’s tough at the ballot box. The number two lesson is that I’ve concluded and I’ve been working on this for a couple of decades now. The most important renewable fuel in this effort is perseverance and we have to persevere. So, we did not let that slow us down one iota and next morning, we came up with a suite of policies that are now going through my legislature that will achieve roughly the same degree of carbon savings as that initiative would have achieved. And one of the good things about this effort is to realize there is not just one tool in the tool box, there is multiple tools. There are clean fuel standards. There is an outright regulatory cap on carbon emissions which I place on our economy. I was the first governor to do this. It’s currently being challenged in the state’s Supreme Court. There are incentive programs like we have in place to incentivize and help people get, you know, people of middle class get access to electric cars. There are building code standards which we can improve. There is R&D which we are doing. I have a $120 million R&D fund which has already spun out some companies that are doing good work including battery storage technology. There are multiple things that we can do and we just need to embrace all of them and we are moving forward in that regard.


David Sandalow: Let’s go through some other technologies. What are your thoughts on nuclear power?


Jay Inslee: My thoughts are, I don’t think, we should eliminate the possibility of it becoming a cost effective technology with a huge ______ [00:15:09] for the capital I. There have to be four major things happen that do not exist now. Number one, it would have to become cost effective. As we know, it is way, way, away from being cost effective relative to wind and solar and other technologies in efficiency. Number two, we are gonna have to have truly passive safety systems that we do not, have not been developed yet. Number three, the waste stream issue would have to be resolved and number, you would have to have public acceptance. So, my view is, it is appropriate given the urgency at the moment to support R&D to see if there is possibility of surmounting any of those things. But they would have to be surmounted before it will become a meaningful measure of our portfolio.


David Sandalow: And how about the shale revolution? Shale revolution in the United States has, you know, turned us into the largest oil and gas producer in the world. Shale gas has replaced coal leading to drop in U.S. CO2 emissions. What are your thoughts on shale?


Jay Inslee: Well, we know, a couple of scientific and one economic fact. The scientific fact is, we cannot burn all of the oil and gas and coal that we have on the earth today. We know, if we burn just the proven reserves, the place we live and treasure will not be recognizable to us. This is a scientific fact. In my view as a policy, it’s ought to be driven by science. That means, that we have to restrict in meaningful ways, the usage of these proven reserves through a variety of measures that includes clean fuel standards. That includes incentivizing competing clean fuel measures. That includes caps on carbon pollution. That includes not allowing leasing on our public lands fossil fuels that if they become locked in for the decades to come will prevent us from actually decarbonizing our economy. So, my believe is we have to have a suite of policies that will not allow that technology to doom us to a climate change regime that makes this planet unrecognizable. And so, that means that we are not gonna allow in my view that it continue to expansion in dramatic ways to lock us in. It does not mean that we are gonna turn off the gas pump around the corner here in Washington DC tomorrow. But it does mean that we are not gonna make infrastructure decisions that will lock us in for 50 or 60 years that will prevent us from getting to a fossil fuel free economy by mid-century. And those are the decisions that we have to make and that’s based on science. To me, the most scientific literate people in the world history ought to be have the moxi rather than to allow the climate denier in chief to drag us over the cliff. By the way, I do want to make a comment that we are having success against this denial of science. Look, when he purported to pull us out of the Paris agreement and realize he has not pulled us out of the Paris agreement, only the next president could do that. We are still in the Paris agreement. But the next morning, we decided, we wanted to make sure the rest of the world knew that there was intelligent life in the United States. So, Jerry Brown and Governor ______ [00:18:39] and I within 24 hours stood up what we call the U.S. climate alliance. We now have 23 states that are members of the U.S. climate alliance. This is a powerful group. It would represent the third largest economy in the world today if it was a separate country. And I’m not suggesting that at the moment. But, but we have been successful giving the world confidence there is going to be hope for advanced scientific and economic thinking in this country and as a result, no one really has followed maybe an exception, maybe a ______ [00:19:16] of Donald Trump over this cliff. And we are going to, it’s interesting, if you do an overlay of these 23 states that are committed to a clean energy economy, Trump would say those are the states who’s economy should be tanking at this moment. There should be massive unemployment. There should be for sale signs on all of our companies in Seattle, in San Francisco. But in fact, if you do the overlay, these are the states with the greatest economic rates of growth. Look, my state according to Donald Trump should be an economic wasteland right now. Because we have embraced clean energy. We’ve got the best family medical leave in the nation. We’ve got the highest minimum wage tied with one other state. We’ve adopted the first net neutrality bill. I passed the first net neutrality bill in the United States. We have a radical notion that women should get paid the same as men. So we have the best gender pay equity in the United States. We have a transportation infrastructure bill where we have $70 billion of transportation infrastructure when they can’t built a boot house in Washington DC and 70% of that is in clean public transportation. According to Trump, we should just be in massive depression or guess what, Washington state has the best GDP growth, the best job growth, the best wage growth. It’s been named by business insider magazine as the best place to do business and Oxfam is the best place to work in the United States. That is a template for success in the United States and I hope we get to busy on that in 2020.


David Sandalow: There have been, we have a number of questions here for you, for governor. Somebody asked, what energy policy successes that Washington have that could be replicated in other states and then is there a failure that you’ve learnt from your experience in Washington state that you would point to?


Jay Inslee: Not willfully, not willingly but… Our success has been significant. Our renewable portfolio standard we passed by an issue and I was very active in that. It has been a spectacular success. People predicted it would, utility rates would skyrocket. In fact, we’ve been built a six billion dollar industry putting thousands people to work. We now have over 3000 megawatts of wind turbines in Washington state and we are continuing to expand. We’ve had a great success of our research and development programs and I think nationally, we have to have a huge expansion of our R&D. You know, we spent more money developing one kind of jeep several years ago than the entire clean energy budget of the federal government that needs to change. So, we’ve spun off a bunch of companies, one I particularly like, they talk about is we started this little clean energy development fund at about $120 million. It’s spun off a company and batteries now. We have the leading vanadium grid integration grid scale battery company in the Western Hemisphere. My neighbor’s kid went to work for me a year and a half ago. That’s been successful. Our clean, our electrification effort has been successful and part thanks to Cathy zoya who I believe is just here. Who just opened another charging station in Bellingham, Washington and as a result for that, that has been very successful.


David Sandalow: And she was thinking in the prices of Washington State on stage government.


Jay Inslee: So that has worked. But you mentioned the carbon pricing system that has not been successful and that’s why we are moving forward with a suite of other policies. So, we made progress but the point, I want to make is, we’re not there yet. We need to make significantly more progress in my state in order to meet our goals.


David Sandalow: Back to the oil and gas revolution in the United States. Since it had been on geopolitics, it affects our relations with a number of countries. Our ability to things like apply pressure on Iran for some of its behavior and a variety on Russia as well. Any thoughts on the geopolitics of the gas revolution?


Jay Inslee: Yes, with things you mentioned will be not forgiven a 100 years from now when our forests are burnt down, paradise California is rebuilt and burnt down again. Nebraska is under water. Miami beach is now formally known as nanny beach. None of those things will win the forgivenness of future generations. So, there may have been temporary benefits in that regard by more domestic energy production. But when you doom future generations, to a sort of uninhabitable planet, you won’t be forgiven for those short sighted decisions. And I would, and one of the difficulties when you’re in a leadership position about this is that when you look at the future, by the way, it’s not just two degrees, it’s three, four or five. The book, The Uninhabitable Earth, I recommend it. One of the points, the author makes is that we’ve kind of fooled ourselves by only looking at what’s gonna happen at two degrees. Because also, it won’t stop at two degrees or one and half. What he says is we blinded ourselves to the potential four or five and if you read this book, it really is a kind of an apocalyptic view and so we have to marry both a scientifically appropriate way of talking about this with an optimistic view of success. And I’m an optimistic guy. I think this is an optimistic country. I think this is a can do country. I think this is a place that has rises to challenges because we have the most entrepreneurial culture economically. We have the most adept way to build a skill base because of our college and apprenticeship program. By the way, we are starting to hold an apprenticeship program in my state because I believe we’ve got to stop telling our kids that if you don’t get a four year degree, you’re failure in life. So, we’re adopting a whole new apprenticeship model. We had our first computer coding apprenticeship, our first healthcare apprenticeship. So, I’m just a believer in the ability of America to reach a goal of a clean energy economy. We can’t let the scientific fact blind us to the character value of the nation that we need to now call forth from the White House. So, I’m optimistic about this.


David Sandalow: Governor, another foreign policy question. I think, Washington state is the closest state in the mainland United States to China. China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. What are your thoughts about engaging China and U.S. China relations on the topic of climate change?


Jay Inslee: It’s a very important relationship. We’ve understood it because we’re the number one trading state probably and that trade relationship is very, very important. One out of every four or three jobs in my state is related to trade. So, we know, how important it is. It’s one of the reasons, we are the most rapidly growing state in the country. The first thing, I would say is we want China to be vigorous in moving forward to a clean energy economy. And because of that, the dumbest thing we can possibly do to inspire China, to move in that direction is for us to say, we are not gonna go in that direction. If we want to challenge them and ask them to join us, we have to do things ourselves and we want China to move forward. So, the single most short sighted approach, if you want China to move forward is to say, you’re gonna abandon the Paris agreement. How does that inspire China to move forward? That’s the first thing, I would say. Second there is a lot of things we can’t do with China. Look our economies are now growing clean energy on both sides of the pacific on interrelated supply chain. We can do advanced manufacturing. We are doing advanced manufacturing in this country. Both in electric batteries, in solar panels, the largest manufacturer of poly silicates that goes into solar panels in the western hemisphere is in Moses lake Washington. We are part of that supply chain. We can be an advanced manufacturing country. I love seeing turbines being built in Iowa. I love Nevada’s batteries being built in Nevada. I picked those two states at random of course. But we know, we are growing jobs all across the country.


David Sandalow: Governor, we are down to our last minute or two and we promised to get you out of here in time and you got to leave. You’ve had a remarkable career in public service. We have students in the audience here, School of International Public Affairs at Columbia. Just step back and offer advice for anybody who is interested in a public career particularly in the issues that animate you. What advice would you give them?


Jay Inslee: My advice would be to be very cautious about the decisions you make early in life. I’ll just give you an example of two. I met a girl when I was 15 and now I’ve been married to her for 46 years. So, yeah it’s consequences for early decision making. Second consequence is, I got involved, be interested in energy in 1972 when I was a student at the University of Washington and we did a research project. We studied the energy policies of Seattle Washington compared to Stockholm, Sweden and we went to Stockholm for several months. And I went to the first United Nation’s first international conference on environment and world history actually. So, I was kind of at the birth of this movement and I’ve been involved in energy issues, you know, ever since that time and I think my caution would be, if this bug bites you, it might be with you for a long time. But you should welcome that and I’m really glad to report to those of us who are not in generation X or behind that, this is a generation that gets this. They are motivated big time on this. They understand the science. They want and demand my generation, this is the 50th year of Woodstock and they are demanding that the Woodstock generation do not live them a degraded future. And I’ve marched with this generation in New York, a few weeks ago with a march past Trump Towers holding up signs that said, there is no planet B. They are demanding action and the reason is it’s affecting their lives. I was at Dartmouth, a few weeks ago and a woman told me that she had two conversations a day before with young women who were asking themselves if it was a right thing to bring children into a degraded world because of climate change. Now, when people start to ask themselves that kind of question, we know, we need to act. So, I hope anybody below the age of 50 here makes this a lifetime goal and passion. I hope, if you’re a chemistry major, you stay at chemistry major to develop new sources of photovoltaics and battery storage. If you are poly ______ [00:30:18] major, go run for office as fast as you can. Let’s go win the clean energy battle. That is our goal in life and we ought to be dedicated to it. Thanks for everybody’s interest in this.


David Sandalow: Governor, thank you.


Jay Inslee: Thank you. Take care.


Bill Loveless: For more information about the Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at or follow us on social media at Columbiauenergy. I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll see you tomorrow.