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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

HOUSTON — A huge gathering of oil industry titans underscores the gulf between their blueprint for the transition to cleaner energy sources and the demands of activists wielding new influence in Democratic politics and European debates.

Where it stands: Major executives at the big CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference here acknowledge the industry has to change with the times. Executives are talking up their investments in carbon-capture tech, renewables, and steps to cut methane leakage.

Yes, but: Alternative energy remains a very small part of their business.

What they're saying:

  • Equinor CEO Eldar Saetre said in a speech that the sector is facing a "crisis of confidence" and a "lack of trust" that will "increasingly reduce our ability to influence and shape our own future." "It is, in fact, a real threat to our license to operate, unless we proactively and collectively address it," he added.
  • BP CEO Bob Dudley is expected to give a speech tonight that will "call for the industry to do more to respond to new demands for climate action, even as energy use continues to rise," per the Wall Street Journal.

The other side: The sentiment here is a sharp contrast to the activism that's on display from youth-led movements in Europe to the Democratic primaries in the U.S.

  • Motivated by scientific reports showing the urgency of steep emissions cuts to avoid runaway warming, they argue the time for incrementalism has long passed.
  • In the U.S., that's evident in the prominence of the Green New Deal on the left, which has attracted support from several major Democratic presidential candidates.
  • It's all very different from the gestalt in Houston, where discussion centers on the evolution of business models that still rely on huge investments in oil and gas for decades.

The intrigue: Several moments captured the divide between the conference and where the energy is on the left.

  • For instance, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the Democratic lawmaker who addressed the conference. He's a coal advocate and one of his party's most conservative members.

I chatted with Maarten Wetselaar, a senior Shell exec, about whether they will increase the $1 billion to $2 billion per year they're investing until 2020 in low-carbon efforts.

  • Shell's out front among majors, but it was a reminder that the industry sees the transition happening on their terms.
  • "We're hoping to increase it. That is the base plan. But we need to prove to ourselves and to our shareholders that it is commercially attractive enough to do it," he said.

The bottom line: I asked former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz about the tenor of the conference compared to where things stand on the left.

  • "One discussion does not have the urgency attached that it needs to have to the carbon transition. On the other side, sometimes there are solutions offered that ... are impractical, and in my view that does not help advance the conversation," Moniz said.

My thought bubble: Despite the chasm between activists and the industry, both groups stand well apart from President Trump on climate change. A tweet this morning displayed, again, Trump's rejection of the scientific consensus on human-caused warming.

Go deeper: Geopolitics, oil collide at energy confab

Go deeper

CPAC Republicans choose conservatism over constituents

Rep. Matt Gaetz. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CPAC proved such a draw, conservative Republicans chose the conference over their constituents.

Why it matters: More than a dozen House Republicans voted by proxy on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in Washington so they could speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. And Sen. Ted Cruz skipped an Air Force One flight as President Biden flew to Cruz's hometown of Houston to survey storm damage.

Border Democrat warns Biden about immigrant fallout

Henry Cuellar (right). Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

A Democratic lawmaker representing a border district warned the Biden administration against easing up too much on unauthorized immigrants, citing their impact on his constituents, local hospitals and their potential to spread the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Axios he supports President Biden. But the moderate said he sees the downsides of efforts to placate pro-immigrant groups, an effort that threatens to blow up on the administration.

In CPAC speech, Trump says he won't start a 3rd party

Trump at CPAC on Feb. 28 in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Courtesy of C-SPAN.

In his first public speech since leaving office, former President Trump told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he would not start a third party because "we have the Republican party."

Why it matters: The former president aims to cement himself as Republicans' "presumptive 2024 nominee" as his top contenders — including former members of his administration — face the challenge of running against the GOP's most popular politician.