Jul 8, 2019 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Fact-checking my energy crystal ball in 2019

Illustration of a crystal ball with check marks and plus signs inside

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In early January I laid out 9 energy and climate issues to watch this year. Here’s my modified crystal ball — and a fact check for how my predictions are playing out in the halfway mark of 2019.

1. Climate politics

This issue is raging — about as much as I thought it would. Democrats have held more than a dozen climate change hearings and most Democratic presidential candidates have made it a focus in their campaigns.

  • Yes, but: The topic is still not paramount compared to other pressing topics, such as immigration and health care. I expect this to continue.

2. Regulatory lawsuits

President Trump’s regulatory rollback wears on, albeit unevenly and slowly.

Columbia Law School issued a report recently documenting progress on this. It concludes the administration has “achieved far less than meets the eye, due to the statutory safeguards for federal agency rule-making and judicial intervention to enforce those safeguards.”

Driving the news: The Environmental Protection Agency just issued a final rule replacing President Obama’s signature carbon rule for power plants, facing immediate litigation from both detractors and backers of big climate action.

What I’m watching: The EPA is set to issue another final rule rolling back and likely freezing Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. This will set up a legal showdown with California, which as part of the rule-making may see its waiver to issue tougher standards revoked.

3. Ailing coal and nuclear

Trump has struck out trying to support economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants, though the president may push the issue more as his re-election campaign progresses, one person close to the administration told me recently.

Driving the news: A lot is happening on the state front in the wake of inaction at the federal level. Two big developments:

  • I had written in January that states were pursuing legislative solutions to save nuclear plants but not coal plants. I was proven wrong with Ohio pursuing just that — but its final outcome is uncertain.
  • The iconic Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the site of America’s worst nuclear-energy accident 40 years ago, is shutting down this fall after the state legislature in May opted not to pass measures helping it.

4. Protectionist spillover

Trump’s on-again-off-again Chinese trade war continues to hit the energy sector, particularly natural gas.

  • Trump is trying to have it both ways. He’s touting America’s exports of liquefied natural gas while doubling down on his trade war with China, a major potential market for U.S. LNG. Government data shows a clear drop in LNG exports to China.

5. Carbon taxes

There’s mixed movement, both in the U.S. and Canada.

  • Two Canadian courts have dismissed provincial challenges to Canada’s national carbon tax, which went into effect in January. The politics of the controversial policy remain an open question ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-election bid this fall.
  • Corporations of all stripes are ramping up lobbying campaigns calling for some kind of price on carbon dioxide emissions, including a straight carbon tax. But this pressure is not yet leading to changed public positions among congressional Republicans, most of whom remain publicly opposed to the policy.

6. Oil-demand levers

I wrote in January that I was watching how the increase in electric car mandates and the growing public worry over plastics could impact oil demand. I’ve covered movement on the latter.

More than two dozen companies across the plastic supply chain, including ExxonMobil and Procter & Gamble, formed a coalition earlier this year seeking to pour more than $1 billion into improving the world’s abysmal recycling record.

  • The aim is to protect profits from plastic while responding to the growing pressure to clean up the world’s oceans and lands that are littered with the stuff.

7. Oil prices’ wild ride

Oil prices are facing immense, countervailing pressure from two sides. The end result: prices not too high or too low.

  • On the one hand, you have significant geopolitical uncertainty around critical oil chokepoints, namely the Strait of Hormuz, where roughly one-fifth of total oil demand flows daily. In theory, this should be a catalyst for skyrocketing oil prices.
  • But on the other hand, you have Trump’s Chinese trade war and expectations for a slowing global economy, both of which are putting downward pressure on economic growth and thus oil prices.

8. Growing climate disconnect

I wrote in January about the upcoming high-profile United Nations summit on Sept. 23 that’s calling on nations to ramp up commitments to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement despite slow progress on current goals.

Against that disconnect, I’m noticing another one: People are growing more concerned about climate change, but that’s not translating into supporting aggressive policies addressing the problem, as we've seen recently in France, Washington state and ...

9. Election consequences, globally

Recent elections around the world are having big repercussions.

  • Australia’s conservative government in May won re-election where aggressively acting on climate change featured prominently. The results suggest voters there either don’t care as much about the issue compared to others or they prefer less aggressive measures like what the current leadership is pursuing.
  • Reuters recently reported that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest sped up in May to the fastest rate in a decade “as experts pointed to activity by illegal loggers encouraged by the easing of environmental protections under [newly elected] President Jair Bolsonaro.” Forests suck up CO2 and are critical to mitigating climate change.
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