Douglas Hengel on the direction of climate and oil policy, and whether Trump’s election could change the game

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Last week, Professor Douglas Hengel arrived in Bologna from Washington D.C. for a conversation on the United States’ energy diplomacy and reliance on oil.

Professor Hengel worked as a foreign service officer before coming to SAIS D.C. as an adjunct professor. He was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy, Sanctions and Commodities in 2007 and has worked in climate diplomacy for decades.

At Hengel’s lecture, the small room was packed tightly with mostly Energy, Resources and the Environment (ERE) students, as well as some students from other concentrations and a few campus visitors. While the initial focus of the conversation was on the U.S.’ move from relying on foreign oil to having a resource abundance, many of the students in the room asked more specific questions about what President-elect Trump’s administration could mean for the country’s oil sector, and for climate change more broadly.

After explaining the general topic of “the geopolitics of energy,” Hengel explained that the U.S. production of unconventional oil in the Bakken oil fields climate change can be seen as a movement toward security for the country: security of demand and of price. While Saudi Arabia and Russia have both implored the U.S. to cut production in order to raise international oil prices, Hengel argued that “there is a big psychological component to this production.”

“Domestic natural gas and oil production symbolically means that the U.S. is no longer in decline,” he said. “There are geopolitical shifts underway.”

Conflict Management M.A. student Diane Bernabei noted that she was particularly interested in hearing a public sector representative speak on the topic of oil supply and demand because the one ERE class being offered this semester in Bologna is taught by Professor Manfred Hafner, a private sector consultant.

“Professor Hengel’s perspectives and predictions…are very similar to Professor Hafner’s,” she said. “It just goes to show that perspectives on energy aren’t necessarily predicated on one’s nationality or career background. The trends are real.”

One such trend is the geopolitical attitude toward climate change. Despite persistently low prices of oil since around 2012, Hengel pointed out that the increased production has occurred as the international community begins to take active steps toward sustainability. Climate change has served as a foreign policy “catalyst”; because the world’s atmosphere is shared across nations, cross-border cooperation when it comes to emissions and efficiency is crucial.

“Can I see the US switching to renewables as a base load?” Hengel asked. “Perhaps. We’re moving toward renewables everywhere; they are becoming increasingly competitive everywhere.”

However, when questioned about what can be done about politicians like Trump who refuse to believe in the existence of global warming, Hengel’s attitude was less optimistic.

“It’s a combination of those who don’t believe, and those who believe but don’t think there’s anything we can do,” he said. “We seem to be in a post-factual age, both generally, and regarding climate.”

Despite this, some of the reluctance around federal government action on climate change can be mitigated by the fact that so much progress is happening on the state or market level. Technological progress and local or state regulation forms the bulk of US progress on sustainability. In response to the concerns that several students expressed about the consequences of the Trump presidency for the rapidly-warming world, Hengel expressed his assurance that even an abolishment of the Environmental Protection Agency would be unlikely to steer the country away from its trend toward increased efficiency. ERE student Caroline Zechter voiced the relief of many of the students in the room about this news.

“I appreciated [Professor Hengel’s] insights on what Trump can and cannot do, as far as limiting our progress on climate changes goes,” she said. “His confidence that the worldwide trend toward renewables is largely irreversible was relieving.”

Lisa Martine Jenkins is the Bologna Bureau Chief for the SAIS Observer. She is an MA student concentrating in Energy, Resources, and the Environment at SAIS Bologna. You can find her on Twitter at @lisa_m_jenkins, or on her website


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