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Former Interior Department official remains bullish on offshore wind

Tommy Beaudreau: “I'm still a huge optimist. The case for offshore wind is too strong.”

January 19, 2024

Columbia Energy Exchange is a co-production of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy and Latitude Studios. Listen to all episodes here.

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Tommy Beaudreau

Photo credit: Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Tommy Beaudreau

Photo credit: Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Despite high profile setbacks for the offshore wind industry, Tommy Beaudreau, who recently stepped down as deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, remains confident the industry will find its footing. 

  • The current take: “The challenges that are in front of the offshore wind industry…have to do with..the cost of money and finance as well as supply chain impacts coming out of COVID,” Beaudreau told Jason Bordoff on a recent episode of Columbia Energy Exchange.
  • The market grounding: Last year many major developers scrapped offshore wind projects in the U.S. because of inflation and rising costs. But the setbacks have not deterred the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from pursuing a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts by 2030. Last week, it announced potential development of six more projects off the east coast.
  • The outlook: Beaudreau thinks the industry will move past the COVID-induced economic setbacks, which mostly have to do with pricing structures set before the pandemic. “A lot of..projects being terminated has more to do with the pricing of those projects and the need to take a step back and think about the right economics,” he explained. 

As the first director of BOEM, Beaudreau conducted the first offshore wind lease sale in U.S. waters in 2013. “Back then, that was the conversation of, ‘Can we ever get a lease sale done?’ and now the conversation is where it needs to be, which is, ‘How do we get these projects really built?’”

Over the past three years, BOEM has permitted five projects, all located off the Northeast coast. Beaudreau explained that the projects, which collectively total 5 gigawatts, are the best solution for siting new clean energy resources close to large population and load centers. 

Developing the industry remains a high priority for the government because it “hits all the important boxes” for economic impacts and job creation. Under the Biden Administration, companies have announced $3.5 billion for domestic offshore wind manufacturing and strengthening the supply chain. Those investments will lead to thousands of jobs across manufacturing, shipbuilding, and construction, “but the challenges that are in front of the offshore wind industry right now are real.”

Beaudreau hopes the local economic benefits will garner support from communities who have opposed projects in the past. “A lot of the opposition has always come from folks not being able to see..the benefits of these projects,” he said. “Bringing revenue and benefits into local communities directly from these projects..has to be part of the conversation.”

Meanwhile, pricing discrepancies and supply chain disruptions are just growing pains, said Beaudreau. “I say that not to minimize the challenges today, but rather to point out why I have confidence that an industry that's overcome significant challenges already in its relatively short history will figure out a way,” he told Bordoff.

Bordoff and Beaudreau also discussed oil & gas leasing, critical minerals mining, and managing public lands.

Columbia Energy Exchange is a co-production of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy and Latitude Studios. Listen to all episodes here.

Listen to the episode on:


Tommy Beaudreau: Now the conversation is turning to, what are the best ways to bring public lands this massive resource that, again, belongs to all Americans, is managed by the federal government? How do we bring those really huge and special resources to bear on the climate fight?

Jason Bordoff: The US Department of the Interior is a key player in the energy transition. The federal government owns about 28% of the 2.3 billion acres of land in the United States. The department's responsible for permitting oil and gas drilling, renewable development, and mining on its vast land holdings. At the same time, Interior is tasked with protecting America's national parks and wilderness holdings for future generations to enjoy. As the urgency of the climate crisis grows, the agency is at the heart of the difficult trade-offs between conservation and energy development that will define the clean energy transition. What does an environmentally and socially responsible approach to the energy transition look like and how does the federal government weigh the impacts and the benefits of energy development on public lands

This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I'm Jason Bordoff.

Today, on the show, Tommy Beaudreau. Tommy is the Co-Chair of WilmerHale's Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Practice, and he is a new distinguished visiting fellow here at the Center on Global Energy Policy. Tommy recently served as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior from 2021 to 2023. Tommy served in senior leadership roles in Interior for nearly a decade across two administrations, including as the first director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in 2011. Tommy joined me to discuss the challenges the Interior Department faces in its effort to protect public lands and support the development of a domestic clean energy economy. We also discussed the Colorado River crisis, controversial oil drilling projects in Alaska, and the outlook for offshore wind in the face of industry-wide challenges. I hope you enjoy.

Tommy Beaudreau, good to see you again. Thank you for your service and thanks for making time to be with us on Columbia Energy Exchange. It's good to have you with us.

Tommy Beaudreau: Yeah. Thank you, Jason. It's a real pleasure and I appreciate very much the chance to rejoin you and to be part of the Columbia community again.

Jason Bordoff: Yeah. Welcome to our newest class of distinguished visiting fellows and rejoining us after some time here before your latest stint in government. So, I just want to start with that, for people listening, who may be thinking often about the Department of Energy National Labs, clean energy technology regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency on power plants, and cars, and methane, why are we talking about the Interior Department? Give listeners a sense of what happens at the Interior Department and why is the Interior Department important for climate and the clean energy transition?

Tommy Beaudreau: All of the agencies you talked about, Department of Energy from a research funding policy perspective, EPA from a environmental impact regulatory perspective, are all obviously critical to the whole suite of issues front and center on the global stage right now, including, especially climate.

The Interior Department, because we're the public land manager, including more than 20% of the entire US landmass and out West, and some places upwards of more than 80% of states like Nevada, we're where the rubber hits the road on decision-making with respect to resource development. So, the conversations about what are, if any, responsible ways to think about oil and gas development and production in the United States, where and how significant should renewable energy development be both onshore and offshore, and then all of the questions about how to establish much needed transmission to bring renewable energy to population centers across the United States and in particular on the West Coast, all of those implicate lands managed by the Interior Department.

So, these questions about conflict, about appropriate use of lands that belong to all Americans, about our relationship with Indian Country and tribes come front and center to the Interior Department. And that's part of the reason why I love DOI. It is a always exciting place to be always in the crosshairs of very difficult and sometimes challenging questions, confronting all of those issues. And in large parts of the country out West, we're known as the landlord. So, that's always an interesting relationship and one that requires a lot of on the groundwork with local communities in order to have those types of partnerships and good relationships necessary to help our country see through an energy transition.

Jason Bordoff: Probably a great place to be too, because you get to spend a lot of time in our extraordinary national parks where at least I've taken my kids most summers since they were little.

Tommy Beaudreau: Yeah. I know you and your family are huge lovers of our national parks. And it's also what's great about the Interior Department is, we are, in the literal sense, the Department of America. So, again, all of those wonderful places that so many families go to enjoy, spend time outside and get to see America from a wilder perspective, it's really special to be part of that.

Jason Bordoff: And some places, I'm guessing, even my fellow New Yorkers are not aware of like Floyd Bennett Field, and Jamaica Bay, and areas like that that fall under the Interior Department. Do you have a favorite national park or is that like asking for someone's favorite child?

Tommy Beaudreau: Yeah, it is a little bit. So, I hope nobody's listening, but it's Denali. As you know, I grew up in Alaska and so Alaska has the largest national park in the system, in Wrangell-St. Elias, and huge, undisturbed landscapes that are really unique in the America, let alone the world. One of those is Denali where there aren't really any trail systems in Denali. There is a road that goes through the park and there's a bus that travels that road. You get your backpack and you get on the bus. Then you stop, get off the bus, and just go into the park, which is a really unique way to experience a national park and a really challenging one for outdoors people. So, that's part of the reason why I love it. I just think it's a really unique and special place.

Jason Bordoff: Yeah. And that legacy of Alaska and the national parks, and sadly we may be talking more about that in the context of Jimmy Carter's legacy soon, we'll see, but a really important part of his environmental legacy, why he was such an important environmental president was preserving so much of Alaska, which is also not always well understood.

Tommy Beaudreau: Yeah. ANILCA, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, is one of the most seminal pieces of environmental conservation legislation in American history and a huge part of President Carter's environmental legacy, which is really substantial.

Jason Bordoff: Something like a third of Alaska, if I remember correctly, preserved.

Just coming back to the role of Interior, you talked about the role of resource development from oil and gas to clean energy offshore, I was wondering if you could say a word about the other responses to climate, which could include other forms of mitigation like carbon removal through agriculture and forestry, or also the physical impacts of climate change and how Interior Department is seeing those and trying to cope with those.

Tommy Beaudreau: The framing for the public lands conversation and climate really is a fundamental shift I think historically... And when I say historically, I go back to the very beginnings of our country... the idea of public lands was more focused on economic development, resource development, settling the West, westward expansion, creating economies in new states. And that is sort of the positive framing on it. Other perspectives on it and other consequences include what that expansion meant in terms of removal of Indian tribes from these lands, resource development, forestry mining, oil and gas extractive resource development, who benefited from that, who suffered the environmental consequences of it are all part of the American experience and legacy when it comes to public lands.

Now the conversation is turning to, what are the best ways to bring public lands this massive resource that, again, belongs to all Americans, is managed by the federal government? How do we bring those really huge and special resources to bear on the climate fight? And some of that conversation is on renewable energy development, siding projects, wind, solar, geothermal, on public lands. Some of that conversation is the other side of the ledger when it comes to carbon, and that is keeping carbon sequestered and stored in nature.

So, when we talk about the nature-based solutions around climate and resiliency, a lot of that depends on public lands, because of the scale involved. So, keeping forests, including old-growth forests, intact. And the Biden administration has made some recent announcements through the Forest Service on exactly those issues. Sustainable agriculture, making use of wetlands, and investments through mechanisms including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to do large scale ecosystem restoration. All good from a nature, habitat, wildlife perspective, but also critically important from a climate perspective because those areas, in addition to being beautiful, in good habitat, and recreational opportunities, are enormous carbon sinks. And that is when you're talking about bringing every resource to bear on trying to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, the emissions part is important, but so is the storage part and public lands. Again, America's blessed to have resources available for that type of work.

Jason Bordoff: As you said, you're from Alaska. If I remember correctly, your father worked in the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. I mean, how did this experience inform the way you think about public lands, about the energy issues you dealt with in your position, and the tricky resource extraction versus conservation issues that often come up in Interior and in your home state?

Tommy Beaudreau: My background and my childhood, and coming from Alaska, and coming from a family that put bread on the table through oil and gas development has colored the way I view these issues and also informed the strategies that I think are necessary to have an effective and just energy transition. The key to all of it in my mind, and these are conversations you and I have had over time over many years, is trying to develop durable answers and durable solutions that bring communities along through the energy transition. And no places that brought closer to home than a place like Alaska where it is dependent, to this day, on resource development, including in particular oil, but not just oil, timber, mining, fishing. And at the same time, the reason people choose to live there, and there's easier places in the world to call home, is because of the wilderness, because of the beauty, because of the unique environments there.

The most stark experience I had in childhood, which brought all of those issues front and center was, I was a junior in high school when the Exxon Valdez spill happened. Again, my family and many of the families of my friends either worked directly in the oil and gas industry or, obviously, were connected to it because it was so central to the economy. Yet, that incident had such a profound and heartbreaking impact on the natural wonder that all Alaskans take so much pride in and enjoy so much. So, that was a painful and searing experience.

The reason I came into the Interior Department as an initial matter was in 2010 to help assist with the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And I remember, as I'm sure you do, the sense of frustration and anger when that oil spill occurred and you could see oil coming through in the Gulf of Mexico, marshes, and wetlands, and impacting birds, and sea turtles, and a host of natural resources. So, the chance to come in to the Interior Department, and be involved, and work to, one, try to ensure an incident like that doesn't occur again, but then, two, to be involved in the very serious conversation of how to disentangle our economies from fossil fuels, both for good reasons related to climate, but also environmental protection writ large. Those are very hard questions to answer and there's no easy solutions or quick fixes, because the other side of the issue is all of those communities including Gulf Coast, and Louisiana, and Western United States, they're tied to fossil fuels. It's literally how schools are funded, and emergency services are provided, and state budgets are established.

So, any serious conversation about energy transition can't be focused simply on the supply side, whether we can produce more, produce less. The conversation has to be around, one, demand, but then, two, how do we replace those fundamental services that extractive industries have provided? I think that's a very important conversation for the renewable energy industry to be having. That's where political durability is going to come from in the energy transition, is providing communities with the new economic paths, and state, and local governments with real solutions on how they provide basic services through an energy transition.

Jason Bordoff: You right there mentioned focusing on demand, not just supply. And I'm wondering for people listening, you mentioned Exxon Valdez, you mentioned Deepwater Horizon, people look at experiences like that, not to mention the urgency of bringing down oil use and carbon emissions. And for many, the response is, "Well, we shouldn't be doing more production and doing more drilling." And President Biden made some commitments to that effect during the campaign and then look at the policies that played out. And people sometimes see inconsistency where they say, "Well, there's still oil and gas production that is being permitted, is being allowed to move forward." And at the same time, we had some administration that wants to think about lower gasoline prices, the impacts on consumers that that would have, putting food on the table, as you said your family experienced. I mean, just say more about how you understand how this administration landed and how people should understand the approach of the Biden administration toward that tension.

Tommy Beaudreau: A lot of these issues were really coming into focus during the Obama administration. And I can say having just completed a tenure during the Biden administration, first, we have come an incredible distance in that conversation. And to come into the Biden administration where climate really was a central organizing principle from the get-go was different than any administration I'd been a part of, including early in the Obama years. So, that's significant in and of itself, that climate from the get-go was put front and center in a way that shaped and was a lens for policy across the administration. Then two, I think in terms of impact, the legislation that President Biden and the administration shepherded through in the form of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, I think really have been major accomplishments exactly because they go at demand, and provide unprecedented resources and funding to affect consumption, and where people get their energy from, and the infrastructure necessary to support new supply in the form of clean energy.

So, for me, that was the most heartening set of accomplishments coming out of the Biden administration so far, was real investment, real dollars, real programs focused on real solutions for energy transition.

Along the way, we have to continue to have the conversation about what's the best use of public lands in the offshore, including for oil, and gas, and fossil fuel development. That is a really difficult conversation, but I think one that is facilitated by having a context around a real strategy for energy transition, so that when we talk about phasing out or scaling back fossil fuel leasing on public lands, it's within a context of solutions, real solutions, to replace the services and resources provided there.

Having been in the middle of a lot of these discussions about how to think about public lands and whether fossil fuel development on public lands is appropriate, I see the trajectory and the direction as being much in line with the president's commitments to transform the energy economy and see a new day with how public lands are used in the public interest. That's not going to be as immediate, as we've all seen, as some people would like, but the real work of having a trajectory to get us there, I think there's been enormous progress on.

Jason Bordoff: So, I don't know if this is the right way to think about it, but if you step back and reflect on it as candidly as you can be out of your position, I'm just wondering if when people look at proposed DOI rules for drilling and development or the administration's approach more broadly, is the way to think about it, allow some, but not too much? Allow in some places, but not other places? Ideally, don't allow any at all, but we had to because it was legally required, because it was politically required, because of compromises on things like the Inflation Reduction Act. Is there a way you'd characterize the thinking in that along those lines?

Tommy Beaudreau: So, the framing I put on it goes back to the word durability. I think any strategy including around leasing for oil and gas on public lands has to come through the wash of durability. And as you just mentioned, there is a legal framework, some of which is more than a century old. A lot of it about requirements related to oil and gas leasing and permitting on public lands. That's a legal reality and I think a stark one that, again, serious policy consideration of how to approach all of those issues has to take into account. It may be a gesture in the right direction to say, "We're not going to lease anymore." Or, "We're going to restrict permitting under existing leases." But that's not a durable answer because when it comes into litigation, I think the experience has been pretty clear that those types of gestures end up not being effective.

So, the conversation, from a legal standpoint, does need to be around, what can you do that really stands up, that is really durable, that makes appropriate use of executive authority and executive discretion? And that requires a game plan and an approach that goes beyond I think what some of the observations from outside government would just say, "Hey, you control public lands, just turn it off." And one, the law doesn't work that way. Then two, even more importantly, from a political durability standpoint, you have to have a solution for those communities that are intertwined with and connected there.

So, I totally appreciate the urgency. I feel it myself. This is why you and I are involved in this work. It's why I've chosen to go into government. I also feel the frustration. These changes, as important as they are, never come quickly enough. But based on my experience, again, the acid test that has to be applied to any policy proposal, is it going to make a difference? Is it going to be durable? Is it going to withstand a change in administration or an election cycle? Because if it doesn't, you're not really doing a lot of good.

Jason Bordoff: Is that framework what people should understand about a very high profile, very controversial Willow Project? Or, what led to the outcome the Biden administration pursued there maybe that people should understand?

Tommy Beaudreau: No. I think that's exactly right. So, just taking Willow as an example, and it's a good example, of the existing legal frameworks and the policy pressures around all of these issues. The Willow Project, which, for those of you not familiar with it, is a oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, NPRA, which is on the North Slope in the Alaskan Arctic. It is the biggest oil and gas development on public lands in Alaska, very substantial development that has the potential to provide hundreds of thousands of barrels a year into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which, again, is the economic lifeblood of Alaska to this day. Many of those leases that are called the Willow Project actually go back to the 1990s. And when a lease is issued, a set of property rights and legal rights come with that. A developer and oil company has the right to produce under those leases as long as they comply with reasonable regulation, and that is the reality.

So, part of what had to be worked through on decision making with something like the Willow Project was, how do you make policy and make decisions when you're dealing with a legacy of property rights and lease rights that go back many decades and have been affirmed as legal across multiple administrations on the one hand. On the other hand, how do you do that in a framework where climate and emissions is imperative in the way that wasn't necessarily true when those leases were issued in the first place? That is proven to be a real challenge.

I think a couple of things on a project like Willow is, one, you do have to just confront the valid existing rights question and have that conversation about what is an appropriate project that can be permitted in light of those legal realities. And the Willow Project that was approved in the Biden administration was substantially scaled back. It was still an economic project such that the developer could move the project forward consistent with its rights, but it was also significantly scaled back. Two of the five pads that had been proposed by the developer were not approved, and the developer relinquished more than 70,000 acres of valid existing rights that they could have developed otherwise. So, that was a negotiated outcome, but again, one, informed by both sides of that equation, legal rights on the one hand, and trying to address policy concerns about environmental impacts and climate at the same time.

So, the lesson I take out of that and communicate to folks about is, again, any serious conversation about how to move forward through an energy transition needs to confront the legal realities around valid existing rights, and that it's not so simple to just say no because there's legal and economic consequences to those paths that, at the end of the day, may prove self-defeating.

All that said, there's a reason why it got as much attention as it did. It became a very powerful symbol for a lot of reasons, including where it is located in the Alaskan Arctic part of the world that is bearing the consequences of climate change much more rapidly than places in the lower 48. So, the painful irony of a new oil and gas development right in a place that is experiencing changes associated with climate is really powerful. And I completely understand the symbolism that came with that project, but I also think there's a lot of lessons to be learned on the realities of energy transition when viewed through, say, the Willow case study.

Jason Bordoff: I'm glad you're here as a fellow for a year, because I have a lot of follow-up questions about that, and I'm sure our students and other faculty will as well, but I want to make sure we cover several other topics in the limited time we have with you today. I want to shift to asking about an area where I think you, unquestionably, were trying to push the envelope as hard as possible to build new energy resources with renewables on public lands. And you can talk about what you did, what more can be done, and what the challenges are. I mean, we talk about permitting reform, how difficult it is to build infrastructure. And you're, as a responsible steward of public lands and an administration that is prioritizing climate change, trying to develop renewables. And it is also the case that putting large amounts of solar resources in areas with endangered species may have other impacts, or offshore wind farms may impact fisheries. Talk about that balance and how we navigate it.

Tommy Beaudreau: You encapsulated it perfectly, there's no free lunch, right? So, every source of power, electricity has its own consequences associated with it. And for me, the way to think about it is one of priority. So, as we think about public lands, and wind, and solar, and geothermal development on public lands, those projects have impacts just as you described. The truth is, a lot of the most straightforward, and obvious, and least impactful, and projects with the least conflict, folks have known where those are. And that low hanging fruit has been picked. So, even over the last three years when the Biden administration's put a big emphasis on wind and solar project developments on public lands, it's permitted about 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy onshore on public lands. So, that's impressive. That's a lot of projects. It's more than 35 wind projects and 50 solar projects, and that's something to be really proud of, I think.

On offshore wind, from zero projects permitted to five now, utility-scale offshore wind projects over the last three years I think is also something to be really proud of. At the same time, it brings into focus exactly that conversation about priority and the impacts associated with those projects, but viewing those consequences through the lens of climate I think is really important in terms of bringing focus on not only the impacts, but the benefits of those projects.

And those conversations are going to have to continue because, again, permitting gets harder, not easier over time in my experience. And I am a believer in having that conversation about permitting reform, and I know there are serious people on the hill from both parties who are interested in that conversation. Real permitting reform can't just be about gutting NEPA or short-cutting reviews because impacted communities won't stand for it, but real solutions that, again, prioritize climate, and carbon emission reductions, and view projects through those lenses, I think... Again, maybe I can be accused of being overly optimistic or naive here, but I do think there's room for legislation in this space that'll make it more straightforward permit climate beneficial projects.

Jason Bordoff: Just to get more granular for a second, what would that look like? What legislation would move the needle? A lot of the barriers... I mean, we spend time in the summer down the shore in New Jersey, and I see a lot of signs. No offshore wind. There's local, and community, and sometimes state challenges, legal opposition. What does permitting reform mean to you? What would be meaningful?

Tommy Beaudreau: So, a couple of things. One, greater deference from a legal standpoint to decision making. That's not to cut out communities, that's not to limit people's rights to go to court, but it is to reinforce the decision-making based on sound process. So, where agencies have gone through the appropriate process, I think it is important that those outcomes receive a deference and that decision-making by the secretaries receives the appropriate deference. I also think permitting reform needs to include incentives on community benefits. Again, that's where a lot of the opposition has always come from is folks not being able to see whether it's local communities or tribes, the benefits of these projects as opposed to just having to bear the burdens and consequences of them.

So, I view that as an important linchpin in the permitting conversation, not cutting corners or anything like that, but rather bringing revenue and benefits into local communities directly from these projects, I think, has to be part of the conversation. And it goes to the point we talked about earlier about why fossil fuels are as durable in this country as they are. It's because communities really do not just to get around in their cars, but they educate their kids, and trash pickup, and that sort of thing. They need revenue sharing off of fossil fuel development, and the renewable energy sector needs to have an answer for that, and that's something I think real permitting reform could help unlock as well.

Jason Bordoff: We've seen some high profile setbacks for offshore wind projects lately in an era of higher interest rates, higher cost of capital, disrupted supply chains. What do you see as the outlook for offshore wind and what is or should the federal government be doing to try to help overcome some of those new challenges?

Tommy Beaudreau: I'm still a huge optimist when it comes to offshore wind. The case for offshore wind is too strong. One, it is utility-scale new clean energy development into large population and load centers on both coasts, but especially on the northeast, there's just no alternative. Two, it is real new economy stuff. We talk a lot about wanting to have new manufacturing in this country, new jobs associated with large construction projects, offshore wind provides that. And there's also kind of a labor component to it as well, like real union labor projects or developments working on these projects. So, it just, from a positive impact standpoint, hits all of the important boxes. So, I just think an industry that has that much to offer will find a way, but the challenges that are in front of the offshore wind industry right now are real in their economic challenges that a lot of different sectors are having to confront. And they have to do with, like you said, the cost of money and finance as well as supply chain impacts coming out of COVID that are still having to be sorted out.

So, a lot of what you've seen in the headlines of projects being terminated has more to do with the pricing of those projects and the need to take a step back and think about the right economics of the projects, those prices being set pre-COVID. But at the end of the day, I'm very confident that we're going to see offshore wind in US waters because, again, it's the most viable alternative out there and it can be made to work. It also, like anything else, has a lot of growing pains. I conducted the first offshore wind lease sale in US waters in 2013. Back then, that was the conversation of like, "Can we ever get a lease sale done?" And now the conversation is where it needs to be, which is, how do we get these projects really built? So, I say that not to minimize the challenges today, but rather to point out why I have confidence that an industry that's overcome significant challenges already in its relatively short history will figure out a way here too.

Jason Bordoff: One of the resources that public lands are super important in not only energy resources themselves, but inputs to energy, the metals and minerals we need for the energy transition, lithium, nickel, copper, et cetera. And a very significant percentage of known reserves in the US are on public lands, are on or near Native American reservations. You talked about indigenous and tribal rights before and what we were talking about a moment ago, how to square that tension between the resources we need for a clean energy transition and the very real impacts of activities like mining, if you don't do it carefully, the potential environmental impacts, community impacts, tribal impacts. How do we get that right? Are we doing a good job today? What should the federal government be doing maybe differently than it is?

Tommy Beaudreau: I can't help myself because, as you know Jason, I'm a lawyer when it comes to it. The biggest challenge that we have with sourcing critical minerals, lithium, cobalt, nickel... I put copper graphite in that category too because they're important for energy transition... is the legal regime. I don't think most Americans appreciate that the mining law that applies in the United States is literally the 1872 mining law. So, I'm not saying that we need to rewrite America's mining laws every century, but maybe every other century. Taking a look to see if they serve our country well in light of the realities of the 21st century might be a good idea, our imperatives being somewhat different now than the grant administration. And-

Jason Bordoff: Things have changed since the first school of mining was created at Columbia.

Tommy Beaudreau: Is that right? That's great. But aside from just the absurdity of being subject to 19th century law, the history is real and it's real to those communities that you mentioned, including especially tribal communities. The 1872 mining law was a manifest destiny, westward expansion incentive, just like homesteading, to bring people to the west. And the folks who bore the consequences of that were largely Native American tribes. And those very hard feelings still exist and still color and provide a connotation to mining developments in the Western United States. So, we have to confront that. It's important that we do. There can be responsible mining and critical mineral development in the United States, which is absolutely important in a world of political uncertainty, but it's going to require, again, some work with especially tribal communities to shed that legacy that we've had from 1872 and have a real conversation about benefits, how tribes can benefit, how local communities can benefit from this activity and turn the corner.

I know there are responsible mining companies who are very interested in working right now on turning that corner, but, again, it needs to happen. And it's one of these legacy issues that come to bear when you start talking about public lands in the United States.

Jason Bordoff: In the Aspen Institute task force that my frequent co-author, Meghan O'Sullivan, and I chaired last year, we talked about concepts of free, prior, and informed consent of equity sharing in projects for tribal communities. I mean, are those the sorts of things that you think make sense and we should be doing more of?

Tommy Beaudreau: I think equity sharing, I think real community benefits, I think real partnerships are absolutely critical to this entire effort. The only thing I would say about free, prior, informed consent, FPIC, of course, consent, of course, genuine engagement is absolutely fundamental to, one, having better projects and, two, reducing conflict. But part of the reality too is, Indian Country and tribes are not monolithic. So, the idea that there's this such thing as one indigenous point of view is not the reality and you shouldn't expect it to be. So, that's a question I always have when folks bring up things like FPIC is like, "Whose consent are you talking about?" A lot of projects will be advocated for by one community or one tribe and opposed by another, and those are part of the issues that need to be worked out. And I'm not sure a blunt framework like FPIC would always serve that.

Jason Bordoff: We've talked a lot about the climate crisis, and that, of course, can manifest itself in other environmental and ecosystem crises. You know this much better than I, but one I think is the Colorado River system today, and the stress on that system from a combination of over-allocation and also climate-induced drought over-allocation from the, I think, 1922 Colorado River Compact. Give me a sense of where-

Tommy Beaudreau: There's a recurring theme here, Jason.

Jason Bordoff: Yeah. Exactly. Talk about the Colorado River, the state of that crisis today, what needs to be done to address it at both the state and federal level?

Tommy Beaudreau: Yeah. So, the pithiest summation of the Colorado River crisis that I ever heard came from the Commissioner of the Southern Nevada Water District, who said, "The challenge we have is 19th century law, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century climate."

The current guidelines governing how those allocations from the system work expire at the end of 2026. Earlier this year, I was involved in the negotiations to develop an agreement among the states to conserve three million acre feet of water from the system to ensure that the system continues to operate through 2026 while those new guidelines are developed. So, that's where the state of play is. The guidelines are being developed, and it's through those new guidelines that all of those issues you described are going to be addressed, including how to have a sustainable Colorado River system that delivers water to 40 million people, provides clean hydropower electricity, and supports agriculture in some of the most productive agricultural areas in the United States. But all of that is going to require a new way of doing business that is more inclusive, including of the 30 tribes on the Colorado River, and more realistic given the changing hydrology all driven by climate.

Jason Bordoff: I mean, some of the most productive, but just to be clear for people listening, a huge share of that water use in the Colorado River basin is agriculture, right? Something like 80%. I mean, does that have to change to address this crisis the way we think about agricultural water use?

Tommy Beaudreau: There has to be a real conversation about agricultural behavior, water conservation, and a lot of that agriculture has to do with cattle feed. So, that's going to be a set of issues that have to be confronted. Again, all important, all incredibly beneficial uses of that water, but in a scarcity environment, there's a lot of hard conversations that have to be had.

Jason Bordoff: Tommy Beaudreau, thank you so much, again, for your service. Thanks for being so generous with your time and being so candid with your reflections on your time as Deputy Interior Secretary, and a lot of takeaways for our audience here, including make sure to get to Denali, which is the best national park. Thanks, again, for making time to be with us today.

Tommy Beaudreau: Of course. Thanks, Jason.

Jason Bordoff: Thank you, again, Tommy Beaudreau, and thank you for listening to this week's episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by me, Jason Bordoff and by Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hardick from Latitude Studios. Additional support from Lilly Lee, Caroline Pitman, Marianne Kah, Abe Silverman, Gautam Jain, and Q Lee. Roy Campanella engineered the show. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, please visit us online at Or, follow us on social media, @ColumbiaUEnergy. And please, if you feel inclined, give us a rating on Apple Podcasts, it really helps us out. Thanks, again, for listening. We'll see you next week.

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