A Conversation With Dan R. Brouillette

Friday, October 9, 2020

Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy; CFR Member


Vice Chairman, IHS Markit; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette discusses the future of American energy strategy.

YERGIN: Thank you very much, and hello to everybody joining us for this conversation with Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. You have Dan’s biography, but he’s long experienced in energy after a career in the U.S. Army. He was chief of staff for the Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s been assistant secretary of energy, deputy secretary of energy and of course, now secretary of energy. And during his time in the private sector, he was with Ford Motor Company, where he certainly saw a varied perspective from the transportation point of view of energy policy. So Secretary Brouillette, it’s great to have you here today. Thank you for joining us at the Council.

BROUILLETTE: Thank you, Dan. It’s great to be with you. And I really look forward to our conversation.

YERGIN: Thank you. I know today you’ve been dealing with Hurricane Delta, and what it means for electricity resilience in Louisiana, and more broadly, the question of energy resilience. So I thought we might just start with what’s happening and how you see this question of energy and electricity resilience.

BROUILLETTE: Sure. Thanks, Dan and to all the good people in Louisiana, we wish you well, we wish you safety, Godspeed, as you work through another hurricane. To all of my family down there, hope to see you again very soon. I was born and raised down in that part of the country, so I’m very familiar with this area. I was down there just six weeks ago, Dan, and I saw some of the damage that was brought on shore by Hurricane Laura, and it was quite extensive. And, you know, one of the things that became just immediately obvious, was the integrated nature of our energy industry here in America. You know, as the electricity lines fell, so did the ability of people to fuel their cars or fuel generators, to begin the basic things that you need to do to recover from one of these natural catastrophes. And it’s a reminder for us, it’s always a reminder for me personally because of my background in Louisiana, but as the energy secretary it’s always a reminder to me how important this infrastructure is, and how much we’ve become dependent upon it, not only here in America but all across the world.

YERGIN: And I guess, I guess the Department of Energy has taken on a responsibility for resilience, and integrating the concerns about resilience.

BROUILLETTE: We have. It’s one of our charges, it’s one of our missions. Years ago, I think it’s 2015 to be exact, the Congress passed the transportation bill, the acronym was called FAST. And forgive me, I’ve forgotten what the acronym stands for at the moment. But as part of that, it directs the U.S. secretary of energy in the department to engage in conversations that made us what’s known as the sector-specific agency for energy. And as part of that we are responsible for things like cybersecurity of the electric grid and other matters that are related to the infrastructure. So it’s a very important part of what we do here. We created, as a matter of fact, a brand new office in 2017 that is wholly dedicated to catastrophe response, to cybersecurity issues, and other matters that are related to the electric grid, as well as some efforts in the, or some areas in the pipeline grid.

YERGIN: Do you want to say something about where things are in terms of cybersecurity, and how, how you see the problem and what the government does to allay it working with industry?

BROUILLETTE: Sure. Well as you know, Dan, and I know I’ve read, if not all, at least most of your books, you point this out several times as a growing threat. And as we’ve seen nation-states around the world change their doctrines toward the United States and change their relationships toward the United States, it’s become an increasing concern for those of us with these responsibilities. China, in particular, has been very aggressive over the course of the last five, perhaps six or seven years, challenging us in ways that we could not have imagined a decade ago. And we’re going to be ever vigilant about that activity.

But I guess the point I’d like to bring to you and to maybe share with some of the audience is some of the newer technologies that are coming online, that may help us in the future. And what I’m speaking to directly is the creation here at the Department of Energy of new quantum technologies. I was just up at the University of Chicago a few weeks ago, where our Fermilab and our laboratory at Argonne, the Argonne National Laboratory, have developed roughly fifty miles, fifty-two miles of an entangled internet, it’s called quantum-entangled internet. And the importance of that is that, you know, it may obviate or may mitigate, you know, the cyber threat, because it’s very difficult, if not impossible, at this point in time to hack that sort of internet. So cybersecurity as we know it today may become a thing of the past, if we can develop these types of quantum technologies.

YERGIN: Well that gets to a point that some of the people in this call will know, and some will not know, which is the degree to which the Department of Energy is also the "Department of Science" and the role of the National Laboratories you mentioned, work in quantum computing. I think it would be very timely and people would be surprised to know the role of these national labs in terms of COVID-19.

BROUILLETTE: Sure. You’re absolutely correct about that, Dan, we are often internally called, we call ourselves the "Department of Science." Sometimes, because of the scientific work we do with our partner agencies like NASA, rather than DOE being known as the Department of Energy, we sometimes call ourselves the "Department of Exploration" because we do a lot of space work as well. It’s a little-known fact for folks who are outside of the department. But to your point, we do have seventeen national laboratories, we own three of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Probably next year, I’ll make a little bit of a prediction, we will own the fastest. We did have that title up until this year, and the Japanese beat us to it. But we expect to be the world champions here very, very shortly.

That technology, the supercomputing technologies, the application of artificial intelligence, the things that we do here in the laboratories, was very, very beneficial in the early stages of this pandemic. We were able to do things like scan billions of pages of research in very short amounts of time, and find those articles that were most relevant and share them immediately with our health-care counterparts at CDC, as well as the other health-care facilities and universities and medical institutions around the country. We were also able to use light sources here in the National Laboratories to identify, very early in the stage, the protein strains that are associated with this particular coronavirus. That information was also very valuable to our health-care counterparts in the government as well as in the private sector. So while we’re not thought of as a health-care agency, and nor should we be, much of that work was very beneficial in the early stages of this pandemic.

YERGIN: While we’re talking about the National Laboratories, which is, you know, perhaps the greatest employer of PhD scientists in the world, I think, two other areas to ask you about work that’s going on there. One is on clean energy innovation, and the other would be on x-generation nuclear.

BROUILLETTE: That’s an exciting area for us here at the department. We’re very engaged with our private sector counterparts in the nuclear industry to develop newer, smaller, more efficient, safer nuclear reactors. And, you know, they’re sometimes referred to as modular reactors, small modular reactors, or simply advanced reactors. And the beauty of these types of reactors is that one, you don’t have to spend the equivalent of a small country GDP in order to build an electric generation facility. We are familiar with, you know, the larger facilities that produce one gigawatt or two gigawatts, very large amounts of electricity, those things are quite expensive. These smaller ones can be scaled up anywhere from one megawatt to twenty-five megawatts or fifty megawatts, which allows a smaller entity like a state or community to site these very effectively and afford them much more so than they could in the past.

But importantly for the technology, we’re developing new fuels, and these fuels are accident-tolerant, meaning if the cooling system were to shut off in the reactor, you couldn’t have a Chernobyl-type event, it doesn’t melt down, you can simply walk away from it and the reactor will shut down without any release of radioactivity. Importantly, as well, the types of fuel that we’re developing here at DOE are nonproliferant, so you can’t make a warhead from the fuel itself. We think it’s an exciting new world, we think it answers the question for many who are concerned about climate change, or seeking, you know, decarbonization or lower amounts of carbon emissions in their respective governments. This is an emissions-free technology and we think a very important part of any energy portfolio in anywhere in the world.

YERGIN: So any sense of timing? I mean, obviously, that will jump to everybody’s mind, or is it still too soon to know?

BROUILLETTE: It’s, you know, we’re looking for market signals. And we’re starting to see some early signs of that. We began a project here at the Department of Energy about a year and a half ago now, to create some high-assay LEU fuels that would be used in these advanced reactors. We’re doing that work in Ohio, as well as at our Idaho National Laboratory. And we’re in the early stages, but I can foresee a time in, you know, the next five to seven years, we’re working with our counterparts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other regulatory bodies, we can start to see some of these products coming to market.

YERGIN: So let’s turn to oil markets and wind the clock back, is it about six months roughly to last April, when the U.S. government played an extremely important role in stabilizing the oil market that was looking at negative prices and really at a collapse, alarming even to many energy-consuming countries. When you look back on what happened, tell us A, you know, kind of what happened in a nutshell, but B, how do you look at the role of the U.S. as you think back to that now?

BROUILLETTE: Well, the role of the United States was different in this case than it would have been say forty years ago, when we were an importing nation. I mean, I don’t know what the exact number is, Dan, you probably have it as part of your relationship to IHS Markit, you guys, we rely on you quite a bit. I’m sure our own Energy Information Administration has the precise number, but we imported roughly 60 percent of our oil back when I was growing up as a kid and entering the energy business. We’re no longer there. So now we’re the number one producer as of 2018 of oil and gas in the world, and part of what’s known as the big three with Saudi Arabia and Russia. And our ability to engage in a conversation with OPEC and OPEC Plus members to help resolve a dispute that began in that March timeframe I think was absolutely key.

Just to recap some basic facts, a dispute had grown between Russia and Saudi Arabia about production numbers. And as a result of that dispute, each took an individual course of action that was complicated by a downturn in demand given the pandemic. In the case of the Saudis, they decided to announce an increase in production and a reduction in price in an effort, I assume, to capture some market share at a moment in time in which they thought they could do so. The Russians initially matched some of that rhetoric in the public markets and that created a real distortion in the marketplace. And it was complicated as the pandemic took hold and economies began to close. We saw demand for refined product, diesel, gas, jet fuel, just literally fall off the edge of the table. So you had a decrease in demand, an increase in production and increase in supply, and something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime, negative $37-a-barrel oil. And it was a traumatic moment. The president at that time directed me very quickly to engage with my counterparts around the world, which I did. And we got into some really good conversations. To be polite, it was a very direct conversation—

YERGIN: Good is in quotes, right? (Laughs.)

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) Good is in quotes. Because there were some here in the United States Congress that thought that the actions, in particular on behalf of Saudi Arabia, were taken to address what they saw as a threat from our U.S. shale industry. They saw it as a direct attack on our producers, and they wanted some resolution to it. So you know, my counterpart, His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz, and I engaged in some very serious conversations over a long period of time. And at the end of that process, it was very clear to me that these were going to be resolved at the head of state level. And President Trump stepped in, he spoke directly to the King of Saudi Arabia, he spoke directly to the president of Russia, we engaged in several conversations at the head of state level. The president led those conversations. And at the end of it, we were able to resolve a matter and it ended up with the final result being a roughly $9.7 million barrel per day reduction from OPEC and OPEC Plus members, which helped to stabilize the market at that time. So a very important interaction. But I guess the most important point here is that we would not have been part of that conversation had our production numbers increased over the course of the last five to ten years.

YERGIN: Right. So inevitably, people will want to know how the Department of Energy sees the global market, the oil market today.

BROUILLETTE: Well, I think, you know, overall, things have stabilized. I think, you know, the pandemic still has created a bit of a challenge for the oil markets. Until demand comes back at levels that we saw perhaps pre-pandemic, you won’t see the production numbers that we saw pre-pandemic. Just earlier this year, February I think is the exact month, we touched thirteen million barrels per day of oil production here in America, which was a record. That’s down now to about eleven million barrels per day, give or take. We see the Saudis are somewhere around nine and I don’t have the number for Russia right off the top of my head. But those levels of production are, you know, historically high, I suppose. But in the last two or three years, it’s been a dramatic reduction. And until we see these economies recover, until we see the economies come fully back online, we’re not going to see those production numbers touch thirteen million barrels per day here in the United States. So it’s going to be a gradual uptick. But we are starting to see it. I mean, we’re starting to see some of the traffic data coming in here at the department. People are driving again, that’s raising the demand for refined product. We’re still seeing some real declines in jet fuel as jet travel, or international travel in particular, has declined quite dramatically.

YERGIN: So if we turn from oil to gas, now one of the things you focused on is the role of U.S. LNG, globally, the impact of it and what it means for energy security.

BROUILLETTE: Well, it certainly changed the world dynamic. There’s no question about that. The increase in production of natural gas, perhaps more specifically the export of LNG from the United States to other parts of the world, we think has added to energy security all around the world. In places like Europe, in particular, we’ve seen a lessened dependence to some degree on Russian gas, or Gazprom. We’ve seen nation-states come to us, you know, primarily Poland, Lithuania, others, former Baltic States, former satellite states of the Soviet Union, come to us and asked for our product to be brought to their shores. And they feel very strongly that that gives them a level of independence that they are desperately seeking. And we think that that’s going to continue. We also think that there are going to be larger countries like India who are going to continue to want to seek their own independence and their own security. And they’re looking to the United States to provide much of that gas from our shores. So that creates an enormous economic opportunity for us and also, might I add, for them. We’re one of the few countries in the world that does not have what is known as a destination clause in our contracts, meaning you can buy the gas, and once it’s on the open ocean, if you get a better price for it, or if somebody makes you a better offer, you can turn that ship around and sell it on the open ocean. And that creates an economic opportunity at today’s pricing for many of these countries.

YERGIN: And Prime Minister Modi in India has made clear that he sees U.S. LNG as a very important issue, contribution both to his energy in India, but also to energy security. And so I know that’s a relationship that you’ve given some focus to.

BROUILLETTE: We have. I’ve met with Minister Modi a few times, and I’ve met more often with the energy minister, Minister Pradhan, my counterpart there, and we’ve had quite extensive conversations about what this means to their energy security. It’s also important for India and its climate goals, it’s set some pretty aggressive climate goals for itself. They still produce or use a fair amount of coal in their electricity generation facilities. They’d like to switch over to natural gas to the extent that they can. And that’s a healthy thing for all of us.

YERGIN: A moment ago, you were talking about demand not having come back yet to where it was. Has the department tried to assess yet what the impact of the COVID crisis will be on the future course of demand, or is it too soon to do that? Do you think?

BROUILLETTE: I think it may be a bit too soon to do that. And it also depends on some of the technology transitions that we’re starting to see in the marketplace. You know, we’re moving, I was just in Michigan just a few short weeks ago, saw some of the newer electric vehicles that are coming to market, saw some of the newer battery technologies that are associated with those vehicles. So if that transition occurs at a faster rate than perhaps we expect, or if the nature of work changes, and that people are just not traveling as much, because they’re doing Zoom calls like this one, or they’re doing virtual meetings. It’s a little early to tell what those things mean to the overall demand in the long run.

YERGIN: Right. Let me switch now to domestic energy policy and something that I know has been on your agenda a lot, which is, and you started, we started when you talked about electricity, infrastructure permitting, the ability to get pipelines built, how do you see those challenges?

BROUILLETTE: It’s becoming quite challenging. You know, as we’ve seen, more recently, legal challenges to things like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, made the product uneconomic for the two utilities that were involved with that product in Virginia, North Carolina, in the Appalachia region. That activity is concerning, because, you know, as we’ve talked about, you know, the production numbers in the United States having gone up dramatically. That’s only one part of the issue. You can produce as much as you like, if you can’t get it to market, you’re going to have a challenge. And I think, you know, some in the environmental community have picked up on that, and then figured out legal strategies that just make these things very, very costly. I think it harms all of us, though, when we think about it in the long run. In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, you know, that natural gas may have replaced some coal facilities down in the eastern part of the country. Which is, you know, for the environmentalist a bit of an irony, they may have killed a project that would have helped with emissions in the region. So it’s going to be interesting to see. We’re going to be very engaged with some of the legal fights that are occurring across the country here domestically. We’re also just going to be looking for opportunities for U.S. companies to build additional infrastructure all around the world.

YERGIN: Let me turn to two international questions before we open it up for discussion. One is China. On the one hand, China has become an important market for U.S. oil and gas exports. On the other hand, it’s a, the term is a strategic rival as we hear, you know, across the aisles in Washington. And then the third aspect of it is the supply chains for renewable energy. Can you take that mix and kind of say how these pieces fit together?

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) That’s a pretty broad question. The relationship with China is certainly changing. There’s no question about that. And, you know, there was a period of time just a few years ago, where we saw China as perhaps an economic partner. And there was their admission to the World Trade Organization, there was a number of events that occurred that, you know, led one to that conclusion. We did see them as a partner. I don’t think China sees themselves as a partner to the United States any longer, and here in the United States, if there is anything that nears a consensus in Washington, DC, it might be on this issue of China. Depending on where, it doesn’t really depend too much on where you are on the political spectrum, everybody I think today comes together on the point of China, and they see them now as more of a perhaps threat than they do as an economic partner. You know, perhaps that changes in the future, but I don’t see it in the near term. And you know what that means, the implications of that are obviously very large. Over the last, you know, a few years, we’ve moved much of our manufacturing base to China. And that creates a challenge for us, not only for things like what we mentioned earlier, the electric grid, the electric infrastructure here in the United States. If you think about where renewable technologies have been, you know, recently, the large, the vast majority of them are manufactured, things like solar panels are manufactured in China. Importantly, for us, China has been very aggressive in buying up things like lithium mines all across the country. So not only do they control the majority of manufacturing of the panels themselves, in the case of solar, they also control much of the battery technology or much of the resources that are necessary for battery storage, as well. So it’s an important question I think policymakers here have to address at some point. I don’t know that I have the answer today, though.

YERGIN: Yeah. What about the other side of it? Of course, China is an important market, isn’t it, for U.S. oil and gas? So, makes it a little more complicated.

BROUILLETTE: It does, indeed, China today, imports, I think it’s something north of 70 percent of crude, its crude oil needs. I don’t know, the gas number I would have to look up. But, you know, that obviously would be an enormous opportunity for U.S. producers to supply, and they have over the years. But to your earlier question about infrastructure, one of our larger challenges here in the United States is actually developing a permitting, I should say, an export facility on the western coast of the United States. If we had that ability, if we had a port, for instance, in Washington or Oregon or California, that would allow the export of natural gas or crude oil from the West Coast, it would make our products much, much more competitive for the China market. I think over time, look, you know, as you pointed out, I think, I don’t know if it was The Prize or The Quest or The New Map, Dan. You had a conversation about, you know, rising countries and established countries or developed countries versus undeveloped countries. At some point, the tensions usually rise between the two. And I think that’s a point where we are now with China, but it will be resolved over time. There’s no question about that.

YERGIN: Yeah. It’s The New Map, because that’s—

BROUILLETTE: There you go, The New Map. (Laughs.)

YERGIN: —as you say, I mean, it’s quite a remarkable change from say six or seven years ago about China as an economic partner to, as you say, how striking across the aisles, the agreement on that. Maybe one last question before we turn to, because I think there are a lot of questions that will come from our audience. You spend a lot of time interacting with, of course, your opposite numbers in Europe. And maybe, you know, there’s some hot issues there. Just talk about what you find are different perspectives on energy security between the United States and Europe right now.

BROUILLETTE: Well, I think one of the bigger security challenges we face is the, you know, the dependence, in particular, of Germany on Russian gas. And we’ve gotten into a fairly good conversation around Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that’s being built from Russia and would land on the German shores, the northern part of Germany. We feel very strongly that Germany has become a bit dependent on Russia for the provision of things like natural gas. And, you know, as the president pointed out at a NATO conference recently, it’s very difficult for us to ask the American people to provide funding for the defense of Germany, in this case, for the defense of NATO members more broadly, and protect them against a country that they’re providing economic assistance to in the form of the purchases of gas. So we asked, we have to ask ourselves, and we have asked them as well, some very fundamental questions around this dependency. And we’re beginning to see some progress on this. I mentioned earlier, Poland, Lithuania, some other Baltic states have moved quickly away from Russian gas. And that’s created a level of energy security that we think is important, not only for them, but all of Europe.

YERGIN: Yeah, well, thank you Secretary Brouillette. Let me now turn it over to Laura who’s going to bring in people with their questions.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll take the first question from Ken Morse.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you talked a little bit about new nuclear, the importance of it being modular, cheaper, and without risk of providing fissionable material for warheads and the like. Could you say a little bit more about the interest of the department in alternatives such as thorium-based molten salt atmospheric pressure reactors, which apparently can be built on barges and floated right up to a site which is currently generating, and plug into the grid rather easily? Thank you, sir.

BROUILLETTE: Sure. Thank you. Thank you for the question. I appreciate the opportunity. You know, we’re looking at various forms of reactors. Thorium is one of many that we’re looking at. As a matter of fact, next week, we’re, I can’t get ahead of the announcement but we will be making some funding announcements on two important projects that are somewhat related to your question. I hope that you will tune in perhaps next Wednesday afternoon and you can see what we’re doing. We think those are very, very important. But we’ve worked with several in the private sector to help develop these technologies.

One of the things that, you know, I think is exciting, at least for me personally, is, you know, the progress that’s being made in the private sector. I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention company names here, we don’t have any lawyers in the room so maybe I should just stay away from that (Laughs.). But you know, some of the private sector companies that we’re working with, in conjunction with our National Laboratories, the work has been quite, quite good. And as I mentioned earlier in one of the questions, I think that there are going to be two, perhaps three of these companies coming to market in the next five to seven years. That’s going to change the fundamentals of the marketplace in nuclear technology. So we’re excited about that. We’ll continue to work with them very closely. We’re going to be funding some of them actually, here in the department.

YERGIN: Laura, next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Hani Findakly.

Q: Thank you very much. And thank you, Secretary, for a very good presentation and thanks, Dan, for the questions you asked. A few months ago, there was a one-upmanship game between the OPEC oil producers led by Saudi Arabia and Russia that brought about a collapse in oil prices. And public reports suggest that President Trump had to intermediate between the two and bring about some stabilization in the price of oil. I realize that there are many trade-offs involved in the U.S., and my question, basically, is that on a net basis, does the U.S. economy benefit from lower oil prices? Or from stable or higher oil prices?

BROUILLETTE: It’s a great question. Well certainly there’s been a fundamental shift in our view on that. I mean, back in the 70s, perhaps when we had oil embargoes and long lines for gasoline here in the United States, I suppose it was in our interest to see cheaper oil because we imported so much of it here to meet our energy needs. Now, we’re in a different position. As the number one producer of oil in the world, you know, our industry would prefer perhaps higher prices for their products, I can’t speak for them individually, we’re obviously not a state-run company here at the Department of Energy so we have no interest in the actual absolute price of oil. That’s for our private markets to address and to figure out. But I think, you know, on balance, if you look at it, folks are interested in stable prices. I think they’re interested in stability in the marketplace. As Dan certainly knows, and others perhaps on the call certainly know, it’s a very volatile business and boom and bust is nothing new in this, you know, this particular business. Places like Texas, and Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota, can tell you firsthand what that means. But, you know, with regard to the pricing of the product, we’re just in a fundamentally different position than we were in 1973.

YERGIN: I mean, if I can add to that, we’ve seen that obviously, economic impacts of the shale revolution reach right across the economy in so many different dimensions, including manufacturing in the Midwest. I think probably the answer to that question, to reiterate what the secretary said is, stable prices, and neither high nor low prices, but kind of medium prices.

BROUILLETTE: Medium is a good word for it. But you know, the impact, Dan, as you pointed out in The [New] Map and several pieces I’ve seen that you’ve written, the impact of the shale revolution in terms of our overall economy has just been so dramatic. So it’s, you know, yes, it’s the price of oil directly. But the economic impact of the increased production here in the United States has just been enormous. And the ability to export it has led to some really tremendous economic numbers. I think our trade deficit was lowered by about $10 billion, just as a result of the shale revolution over the course of the last few years.

YERGIN: And I think just to add to another obvious point, I think an industry doesn’t want high prices either, because that affects demand in their long-term interest. So kind of the notion of stable prices, if that’s possible, that you know, works for consumers who really like it at the gasoline pump, and works for an important industry. Laura, let’s go to the next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from David Merkel.

Q: Thank you very much. David Merkel with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Dan, good seeing you again. Mr. Secretary, I’d like to return to energy security. The only new source of gas in Europe is obviously LNG, or gas, from Azerbaijan. And I wonder how you look at the instability in Nagorno-Karabakh and the prospects of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline. So gas from the eastern side of the Caspian can get to European markets.

BROUILLETTE: Yeah. Well, it’s obviously concerning for anyone. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in that region, is going to disrupt that area for quite some time if it’s not resolved very, very shortly. The ability to move gas throughout Europe has been an issue that we’ve worked on quite closely with our counterparts. Again, back to the question of infrastructure. It demonstrates yet again the importance of the pipeline you just mentioned, but others, like the MidCat pipeline perhaps from Portugal to France. We have to be able to move the product from point A to point B and get it to the consumers where they want it. And we still see increased demand all throughout Europe for things like natural gas. So we’re going to work closely with, you know, some of the exciting developments that’ve occurred in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, the Leviathan field and other finds that have occurred there recently. To the extent that we can provide support to or encourage the development of pipeline capacity to run from Greece up into the southern part of Europe. We think all of those things over time add to energy security and provide some level of stability to these areas.

YERGIN: Laura?

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Ed Cox.

Q: Yes, Mr. Secretary, thank you for your presentation. I in fact, until recently, I was a director of Noble Energy, which developed the Leviathan field. But we’re also very big in—

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) So you know all about this.

Q: Well, somewhat. But we’re also very big in the Permian, which had its own difficulties, it was not as good as people anticipated. And my question goes back to the question of pricing. At $40 a barrel, which seems to be where the deal between Putin and MBS, which our president brokered, that seems to be where it’s ended up. Can the, what’s the impact if it stays stable at that level, on shale production over the long term in the United States? And secondly is, in the interest of Putin, who sees pricing as a weapon, which he would certainly like to permanently damage our shale production which certainly hurt him, and yet at $40 a barrel, with his foreign exchange reserves he can make his budget work out. Saudi Arabia probably can’t. And if he can damage our ability to produce from shale on a permanent basis, that would be a benefit to Russia, and that would mean him cheating on the deal. Do you think, one, what damage? And secondly, would he be, can he cheat on that deal in a way that could keep the price at a level that could cause that damage?


YERGIN: The big question.

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) It is. I don’t know about his ability to cheat on the deal. You know, that’s something that, we’re not a member of OPEC, or OPEC Plus, I don’t know how those things work inside of that cartel, or inside of that agreement. But let me just start with the beginning part of your question that, you know, the $40 a barrel that you see in the marketplace today, in my personal view, is probably driven as much by the lack of demand as a result of the pandemic than, you know, any agreement that was struck in March or April, that timeframe. You know, it’s not to say that that had nothing to do with it, it did. But I think today, what we’re seeing is simply a lack of demand, which brings the pricing down. As the economies open up, like we talked about earlier, I think you’ll start to see that pricing come back up.

At $40 a barrel, there are going to be some in the Permian, there are going to be some in North Dakota, others perhaps around the country that are simply not going to survive that, their breakeven costs are just, you know, much higher than that, as you know. But that’s a function of, you know, either where they’re producing from, their corporate structure, their cost structure within their company. Did they borrow too much money? Did they get, you know, a bad interest rate? There are other factors that go into that breakeven point. So it’s, you know, I think it’s somewhat obvious. And we’ve already seen some of this, some are going to exit the marketplace. And that’s the way the free market system works here in the United States. You hate to see it occur. But the fact of the matter is, it happens. But there are still going to be many here in the United States who are going to be just fine at $40 for the time being. And I think we’re starting to see that as well, as our production numbers begin to come back up. I know the rig counts are very low in historical terms, but we have seen some increases over the last few weeks. So that’s an early indicator that as demand comes back up production will as well. 

The ability, you know, to your point about Mr. Putin, there’s no question. There’s no question, and I think Dan can tell you a couple firsthand stories, that he views shale as a viable threat to his economic future. The ability of Russia to make money at $40 a barrel, a little bit opaque in their government structure so I don’t quite know what their breakeven point is, but I’m told that it’s actually a little bit higher than $40. So we’ll have to wait and see over time what their production numbers produce. Your point about Saudi Arabia is exactly right. Their social structure, the social construct they have, based on what we can see, requires something north of $40 in order to break even. Not their lifting cost, but their social societal cost, if you will.

YERGIN: Laura, next question.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll take the next question from Chip Pitts.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Um, you’re talking about technology innovation, which of course is science-based and it’s so disheartening to hear from you, the president, and the vice president in the last few weeks about climate change, denying the anthropogenic causes, the human causes, that even the Trump administration’s own national climate assessment [inaudible]… NOAA, you know, has agreed with the IPCC that it is human-caused. And it’s almost like, you know, we’re talking about these two different universes as we are with the masks and COVID. You know, the carbon majors have written down, in some cases $20 billion, sometimes $17 billion, they made commitments to transition from fossil fuels, trying to meet emissions targets. And I just wanted to ask you, you know, how do we reconcile this contradiction between your embrace of science and technology innovation, and yet you’re also describing something like natural gas, methane, as a clean energy source, when we know it traps more than eighty times or more heat in the atmosphere than CO2?

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) It is a great question. I appreciate it. Look, I think, you know, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the approach toward clean air. There’s no disagreement as to what we want and the end result, that’s clean air and clean water. The question is, how do you get there, and we’ve chosen an approach that involves innovation rather than regulation. We think that we can do a better job with technology, with science, to answer these questions over the long term. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do here at the Department of Energy. We spend roughly, it’s north of $6 billion or $7 billion on basic science here at the department. That’s up roughly 30 percent over the course of the last three years. And we’re going to continue to do the work that we need to do to bring the technologies to market that we just discussed, things like smaller reactors, advanced reactors, because they’re emissions-free. But it’s important for us to set up the right incentive to allow people to make that transition.

In our view, dictates, you know, from either a governor or the federal government or any other governmental body you may want to name, it is not going to produce the result that we want over time. We know for a fact that over the course of the last few years, we’ve grown our economy by roughly 17 or 18 percent. And at the same time, by pursuing all of the above type strategies, using natural gas as perhaps a transitional fuel from things like coal, more carbon-intensive fuels, we’ve been able to reduce carbon emissions from energy production by 14 percent. So we’ve grown the economy and reduced our carbon emissions from energy by roughly 14 percent. There’s no other country in the world that can make that claim credibly. So I think the track record shows the result. And it’s our view that we should continue along this path.

YERGIN: Thank you, Laura. If we go to the next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Fred Hochberg.

Q: How are you Dan?


I’m good, there’s two Dan’s though, which Dan? (Laughs.)

Q: Oh my goodness, I didn’t think—

YERGIN: We really have two Dans at the same time. (Laughs.)

Q: Dan squared, since we’re dealing with the science community. Quick, two questions. They’re somewhat unrelated. To what extent do some of the OPEC nations have a sense of reality of that is that, you know, with renewable energy becoming less expensive, with electric vehicles, that this is, ultimately they may have an asset in the ground that is, may diminish in value over time? And then if I can ask a second sort of related question to that, with advances in battery technology, and I dealt with this when I chaired the Export-Import Bank, it seems the economics of nuclear power become more in question, because of the time it takes to put a nuclear plant together and the cost. You know, and that in the next decade, we may find battery storage to have improved so much that renewable energy could be stored in batteries and therefore become baseload and therefore obviate some of the need for nuclear power. So, sorry for two separate questions.

BROUILLETTE: No, but they’re great questions. Thank you for that. Let me start with the last question and then go back to your first question, which I may have to ask you to remind me what the question was, I apologize for that—

YERGIN: I’m making notes. I got it down.

BROUILLETTE: Oh, perfect, Dan. Thank you. I appreciate that. So you know, as we see, you know, with battery technologies, what we just did out in the West, I’ll talk about what we’re doing here at DOE. We just established a brand new facility, or we’re in the process of building a brand new facility out in Washington State, near our Pacific Northwest laboratory. The purpose of that facility is to allow us to develop what we hope will become grid scale battery storage, twenty megawatts and above, something that’s large enough to accommodate a large amount of load, and to do so for more than just a few hours. You know, we’re looking for something that’s going to provide us with storage for days. And that’s an important first step in that technology. And as we do that, we’ll start to see an uptick, we think, in some of the renewable technologies that are coming online.

You know, you mentioned, you know, the Middle East obviously, solar is doing quite well there. I’m aware of the pricing recently, as recently as a few months ago, perhaps a year ago, some of the auction prices there, had it at two cents a kilowatt hour. It’s a phenomenal development. And the pricing of solar, the decline in the pricing of solar has just been dramatic over the course of the last decade. That has, you know, a number of factors included or attached to it, you know, things like lower manufacturing costs in China, where the panels are now a lot cheaper. Some of the battery storage technologies that were novel ten years ago are now cheaper. So, there’s a number of reasons why it’s so cheap. And we’re going to see that transition occur in places like the Middle East, because they want to reserve some of their oil and some of their natural resources for export markets. So we’re going to see them shift from using those, you know, natural gas, perhaps in the case of certain countries, see them shift from using that for electricity generation to solar and other renewables and freeing up those resources for export.

Now, with regard to, you know, the decline in the use of cars, or combustion engines. You know, again Dan may know this better than I but, you know, cars make up roughly 20 percent, give or take, of the oil demand in the world today. Roughly 80 percent of the oil demand comes from other industries. So it’s things like petrochemicals, you know, other manufacturing processes that depend upon these feedstocks. And I don’t see that demand slowing down because as we begin the transition, in certain cases, to renewable technologies, that’s what these windmills are made out of. That’s what some of these products are made out of. So that demand for oil, and that feedstock, in my view, will continue for quite some time, perhaps another decade, perhaps another two decades. So I don’t think the transition to electric vehicles or the transition to alternative technologies, maybe hydrogen vehicles at some point, I don’t think that that has at least a near-term immediate impact on the demand for oil.

YERGIN: Thank you, Laura. If we can go to the next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Andrea Jennetta.

Q: Thank you, Laura. Thank you, Secretary Brouillette, this is Andrea Jennetta from S&P Global Platts, and actually I just want to clarify a few things that you said, Secretary. The first is with respect to advanced reactors. I believe you said that DOE plans to make an announcement on an award? And that would be the winner of the demonstration and deployment funding. Is that right?

BROUILLETTE: Yeah, we have a demonstration project that we’re going to be announcing sometime next week.

Q: Okay, now it’s sometime next week, okay. Alright. That’s all I care about, because I’m a reporter. All right. And—

BROUILLETTE: It’s out there in the public domain. If you Google it (Laughs.), you’ll start to see it. It’s out there.

Q: Okay. The next question I have, or the clarification really, then you said that two to three of those companies will be coming to market in the next X number of years, and I wasn’t sure if it was like two to three business companies, not the products?

YERGIN: Well, Andrea, I think it’s got to be, we’re getting a little bit into kind of, I don’t know how many of these questions you have, but really we’ve got to get on to other questions. So I hope that’s your last question.

Q: Sure. Yeah.

BROUILLETTE: So I’ll answer real quickly. Yes, we’re going to be announcing very shortly, you know, some winners in a competition that we had to join us on a demonstration project. That’s coming up next week. And I don’t know if it’s going to be, you know, the companies that were part of this project, or it’s going to be other companies who are going through the regulatory process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other places who are going to beat each other to market. But I fully suspect that within the next five to seven years or so, we’re going to start to see some of these products, and some of these advanced reactors, be ready for market adoption and find their way into the private markets.

YERGIN: Next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Hank Cohen.

Q: Thank you Mr. Secretary for the presentation. I’m a retired U.S. ambassador, I spent most of my career in Africa. And just a quick comment about battery storage. You know, lithium is very important for battery storage, and most of it in the world is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So I would recommend some heavy diplomacy in a very unstable country.

YERGIN: I think if I can just, you’re right about, but it’s not lithium that’s concentrated there. It’s cobalt, I believe, but we’ll take the diplomacy question, Secretary.

Q: It’s also the major source of cobalt. Yeah. But my question is domestic. Could you update us on the apparent dispute between the administration and California on requirements for automobiles’ efficiency?

BROUILLETTE: Well, that’s, you know, if you’re talking about—

YERGIN: Actually, if I can interrupt, it was more than automobile efficiency, it was the end of the internal combustion engine in 2035. To clarify.

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) Yeah. So, you know, I think you’re talking about the ICE announcement or the requirement that only electric vehicles can be sold in California I think, after fifteen years or so. You know, one, the dispute I think you’re referencing is actually between the EPA and the state of California as to whether or not, and the issue there is whether or not EPA is going to grant California the exemption, or the ability to set higher standards as they have and as they’ve been able to do under federal law for quite some time now. That’s not an area that I’m familiar with. I’ll just, I’ll defer to my colleagues at EPA and the Department of Justice and others who are going to engage that, that conversation.

The thing that is interesting to me, however, is the, you know, potential transition to electric vehicles. California, obviously, as we read about in the papers is having a very difficult time meeting its electricity load today. We have rolling brownouts, rolling blackouts, and in our view that’s a direct result of their lack of baseload power. They’ve chosen to adopt the strategy of 100 percent renewables and they’re moving aggressively in that regard. That fundamental decision is, you know, not of any concern. It’s just the problem, you know, as we pointed out earlier, with some of the questions around battery technologies, we can’t provide steady-state, non-intermittent power from wind and solar today. So if we can’t do it today, and we don’t have the battery technology that allows us to do it today, then these types of renewable technologies obviously need a partner. And today that partner is both natural gas, or in certain cases nuclear or hydro or even coal power for generation. Without that partner, you don’t have baseload, you don’t have that steady-state electricity generation throughout California. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they reconcile mandates to use electric vehicles with an environmental policy, and a lack of technology today that allows them to provide the amount of electricity they need.

YERGIN: Laura, next, next question.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Peter Zimmerman.

Q: I’m trying to unmute, it finally worked. This has been a conversation with the energy secretary and it’s had, as long as I’ve been listening, only to do with energy. And yet your major line of business is nuclear weapons. And so I wonder if you can give us some idea of where we are headed, particularly as far as stockpile stewardship and the retention of the moratorium on testing?

BROUILLETTE: Hmm. Wow, that’s, you’re the first person I’ve ever met on one of these calls that actually knows the other half of our business here at the Department of Energy. (Laughs.)

Q: That’s the reason you were set up, is nuclear weaponry.

BROUILLETTE: (Laughs.) That’s exactly right.

YERGIN: It’s where a lot of your budget goes.

BROUILLETTE: It is indeed. It is, indeed. And the gentleman’s absolutely correct. Our lineage, we do trace our lineage back to the Manhattan Project in World War II, the old Atomic Energy Commission, AEC, that is our parent, or our predecessor agency. With regard to your question, though, the scientists at our three weapons labs have indicated to me that at this point in time, there is no need to do atmospheric type testing. So we have no plans to do that whatsoever. With regard to the stockpile, one of the things that we are working very aggressively on is to understand the aging process of plutonium. So Sandia Laboratories, as well as Los Alamos and Sandia Livermore out in California, are engaged in a number of different scientific experiments to help us understand how that process works, and what impact does that aging have on other components within the warheads itself. For those who are not familiar with plutonium, it’s not something that’s been around very long, actually. It’s only about seventy-five years old or so. So we’re still learning much about this important material. But I’m happy to tell you, I’m happy to reassure the listening public. The stockpile is safe and sound, it’s doing fine. And we hope to continue the management of that in a very safe manner for years to come.

YERGIN: Maybe one last question before we wind up. Mr. Secretary. One thing we haven’t talked about internationally, of course, is Iran and oil relations, you know, what it means in terms of oil and sanctions and so forth? And just any thoughts you’d like to share on that?

BROUILLETTE: Well, you know, I think, I don’t want to speak on behalf of my colleague, Secretary of State Pompeo, he’s engaged in the diplomatic efforts with Iran. But I will say that we have seen nothing but deviant behavior from the regime in Iran. We hope sincerely that they will rejoin the world community, in an economic endeavor that we think would be good for the Iranian people. The maximum pressure campaign, as it’s referred to in the press, will continue. I don’t think that we’re going to allow any relief for the Iranian regime. And as I said earlier, to the extent that we can help neighboring states and ensure their security, we’re going to continue to do that. We’re excited about some of the activities recently, the Abraham Accords, specifically between the UAE and Israel. We think that there is a shifting tide in the Middle East, we think that that’s going to continue. There were other states who have already indicated interest in rejoining a world community and engaging in diplomatic dialogue with Israel. We think that they’re going to do so very, very shortly. So I’m excited about those activities. Yeah.

YERGIN: And I guess it’s striking that the world is doing fine without Iranian oil. There’s no shortage.

BROUILLETTE: There’s no shortage today, Dan, as you know.

YERGIN: Yes. Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. This is really, we’ve covered a broad range from the role of the DOE as a “ministry of science,” its role in weapons, and of course, in terms of energy and all their dimensions. And we thank you for bringing both your broader perspective and your deep experience to this. We know that you’re going to spend the next hours and days or so on questions of resilience, electric power, with Hurricane Delta, and we wish you and your colleagues and of course, the people of Louisiana the very best, and we do want to thank you very much for joining us at the Council on Foreign Relations today. Thank you very much.

BROUILLETTE: Thank you, Dan, and thank everyone who joined. It’s great to be with you.


Top Stories on CFR

Middle East and North Africa

Turkey’s geography and membership in NATO have long given the country an influential voice in foreign policy, but the assertive policies of President Erdogan have complicated its role.

United States

The National Guard is a special part of the U.S. military that answers to both state governors and the president. While it began as a “strategic reserve,” the guard has grown into a pivotal partner in military operations.


Sadanand Dhume, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the political, economic, and climate crises roiling Pakistan.