John Podesta on big oil, extreme weather and wind woes

Executive Editor
Graphic of John Podesta
Illustration by Samson Awosan.

John Podesta is halfway through his promised two-year White House position leading the rollout of the biggest climate law in United States history, the Inflation Reduction Act, and its climate and energy incentives estimated to cost (at least) $369 billion over the next decade.

The veteran Washington operative has held senior positions in three White Houses over three decades. He’s seen a lot of change in that time, including the climate variety.

We caught up in a video interview on August 31, less than a month after the one-year anniversary of the IRA becoming law and a few days before the one-year mark of his appointment on September 2, 2022. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Q: Some people, especially those living in fossil fuel and lower income communities, are concerned about the environmental justice impact of new clean energy technologies, including direct air capture facilities and carbon dioxide pipelines. What are you doing to address these concerns while also supporting these new technologies?

Podesta: At the cabinet level, there’s been a very strong commitment to listening to those communities. It’s been particularly an issue in the Gulf [of Mexico], which has borne the brunt of decades of cumulative impacts of fossil fuel pollution in environmental justice communities.

There’s an opportunity for people who have often been left out of the benefits of economic growth to be part of it by participating in the construction and buildout of some of these new technologies, including through pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, to ensure the communities themselves are benefiting from these projects, and the environmental impact is properly assessed and minimized.

Q: To what degree do you see the oil industry as a good faith partner in the energy transition? 

Podesta: I think they’re all paying attention to what’s happening around the world.

They know there’s a lot of pressure coming for a transition towards clean energy, and they’re in different stages and different places. They’re not all the same, but they’re engaged in the process of trying to anticipate what a clean energy world looks like and how to use their expertise to benefit. And particularly in the carbon management space, you see a lot of that happening.

But the question is, what’s the pace? We need to go at this, and we need to go at it faster. And we need to keep the pressure on those companies if they’re going to transition from the principal cause of pollution that’s leading to climate change to being positive actors in spaces that allow the clean energy economy. Then they’ve got to step on the gas, as it were. It’s probably a bad metaphor.

Q: But a lot of these companies are shifting their strategies back to more oil and gas. You say they need to pick up the pace, but they’re going in the opposite direction. What’s your response?

Podesta: That’s a phenomenon that really was set off by Russia’s decision to conduct this illegal war in Ukraine. And that roiled the markets. It sent prices rising, and it caused the Europeans to understand their strategic vulnerability to being dependent on Russian fossil fuels. They had to ship quickly, but the net effect was to increase both the price and the profits of these companies.

It would be a mistake, in my judgment, to think the general shift away from fossil fuels towards clean energy has been permanently interrupted. If anything, it’s been accelerated by the understanding that dependence on fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure both has a profound and devastating climate effect and also makes you more strategically vulnerable and economically vulnerable to fluctuations in price and supply.

Q: Let’s turn to permitting. In May, you said “I might not be popular among my friends in the environmental movement” for urging more support for clean energy and streamlined permitting. Have you made inroads with environmentalists and congressional Democrats on this issue since then?

Podesta: We’ve made some progress with particularly those environmental organizations that are very focused on the principal environmental threat to the planet, which is climate change. There’s a little more understanding that we’re going to have to build. We can’t just stop things, and I think that puts an obligation on us to engage in communities early, to listen to voices who are concerned about particular projects to try to find appropriate mitigation.

Q: Recent polling shows more people are experiencing extreme weather, and some 60% say global warming has a major role. Yet, we saw in the Republican presidential debate how climate continues to be this black and white football of ‘is it real, is it not?’ What’s your response and what kind of impact could those divisions have on your job of rolling out this climate law?

Podesta: I’d say a couple of things. One is the urgency of tackling the climate crisis is just more apparent every day, whether that’s the extreme heat in the southwest and 31 days of Phoenix above 110 degrees; the extreme flooding in the northeast and Vermont and upstate New York; the intensification of Hurricane Idalia over the hot waters of the Gulf; the fires and smoke coming from Canada; the continued fire threat in the American West. People are feeling this and experiencing it every day, and I think the public gets it.

The Republicans, particularly at the presidential candidate level, some at a congressional level, are out of sync with that reality. I think it’s usually a bad bet to deny facts and deny reality in politics. In the short term, some people can take advantage of living in a fantasy world. But over time, that’s usually a bad strategy.

And when I deal with Republican governors around the country, for the most part — those who are not running for president — they’re enthusiastic about both deploying clean resources and attracting the clean manufacturing that has been really triggered by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Q: We saw the stock of Orsted, the world’s leading offshore wind producer, recently tumble 25% after it said it was writing off $2.3 billion because its U.S. wind business was slammed by interest rates, supply chain constraints and more. How worried are you about these challenges for clean energy writ large?

Podesta: Offshore wind has been particularly challenged by headwinds from higher interest rates, from supply chain issues. We’re working hard and have been engaged fully with them to try to give them greater certainty on things like domestic content, so that they can really understand what the landscape looks like. We’re still optimistic that we can hit the target of 30 gigawatts by 2030.

Q: On the hydrogen tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act, do you plan to allow existing nuclear power plants to be eligible?

Podesta: I think the questions around how to utilize existing nuclear and the production of hydrogen are definitely on the table.

Q: Some hydrogen developers, like Air Liquide and Plug Power, say they may consider offshoring their business to Europe if the U.S. comes out with overly stringent guidelines. Is that a legitimate concern?

Podesta: The Europeans all come and tell me they’re all worried that they’re going to offshore all the European investment to the United States because of the [hydrogen]. Probably somebody’s right.

Q: How long are you planning to stay in the White House?

Podesta: I told them that I would stay for two years. I don’t have any specific deadline. I work for the President of the United States. I’ll do what the president wants. If he gets sick of looking at me, he’ll throw me out. And if he wants me to stick around, I’ll stick around.