Using tech to fight injustice
Darren Walker is calling on young techies to resist the allure of big companies
A new presentation from the Dallas Fed has a chart that caught my eye. It shows how employment in one key part of the industry — extraction and supporting activities — has not bounced back alongside U.S. production, which fell sharply in 2015 after prices collapsed but has been moving up again for a year and heading for record levels.
Data: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Between the lines: Kunal Patel, a senior research analyst with the Dallas Fed, offered some insight in an email exchange:
"There are likely a variety of factors causing employment to not keep up with rising production. Primarily, efficiency gains (faster drill times and more production output per well) are allowing operators to produce more with less people," Patel said.
"Additionally, greater use of technology is likely leading to automation of some tasks and allowing operators to be streamlined and more efficient. Big data has also allowed the industry to be more efficient," Patel said.
One of the splashier announcements at the Bonn climate talks this week has been the rollout of the Powering Past Coal Alliance — a pledge by roughly 20 countries (so far) to phase out use of coal in power generation by 2030. The countries include Canada, the U.K., several other European nations, New Zealand and more.
Data: Energy Information Administration; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios
Reality check: The chart above compares coal use in the countries that have adopted the pledge against global coal consumption in 2015 as reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (It does not include pledges by some provincial governments or the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon.)
Why it matters: Coal currently accounts for around 40% of worldwide power generation. Cutting emissions from coal — the most carbon-intensive fossil energy source — is vital to eventually ensuring the steep global greenhouse gas cuts that scientists call necessary to avoid the most dangerous levels of global warming.
What's next: The organizers of the pledge say they plan to add many new partners ahead of the next big UN summit a year from now. Stay tuned.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios
BONN, Germany -- The future of coal in a carbon-constrained world depends on technically feasible but prohibitively expensive technology that captures emissions from coal power plants. That technology, in turn, has become politically and inextricably linked to coal, despite the fact that most of it right now is used for purposes separate from coal.
Why it matters: Coal has been a popular topic here at a global climate conference hosted by the United Nations precisely for its unpopularity among many of the thousands of political leaders, activists and experts attending. On Thursday, 15 nations announced plans to phase out coal by 2030. Meanwhile, the capture technology itself is getting caught up in the political theater.
Coal's technology problem
The U.N.'s scientific body concluded in its most recent assessment of climate science in 2014 that if this technology isn't widely deployed, it would be 138% more expensive to keep global temperatures below a roughly 2-degree Celsius rise over the next century.
Today, only 17 such projects exist around the world, according to a report released at the conference this week by the Global CCS Institute, which was founded in 2009 and funded by fossil-fuel companies and others to more widely deploy the technology. Just two of those are capturing carbon from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel that needs the technology the most.
Technology's coal problem
The other 15 large-scale carbon capture projects around the world are capturing industrial emissions of one kind or another, which are often processes that inherently emit greenhouse gas emissions and can't easily be swapped out with renewable energy.
"We keep saying, 'I'm not here to promote coal use or oil use or natural gas use," said Brad Page, head of the institute, in an interview at the conference. "We, the institute, only exist because climate change is a problem. There is no other reason for us to exist."
The environmental group Clean Air Task Force, which works to promote the technology as a solution to climate change, cites World Bank data to say that if China's industrial emissions, which come from processes that make steel, cement and related products, were their own country, they would be the third-largest emitter in the world.
But many liberal politicians, including those who traveled to the conference, say the technology, which has the acronym CCS, is just a prop the Trump administration uses to push coal without it. Top White House officials hosted an event here earlier this week touting the role cleaner fossil fuels and nuclear power should fill in addressing climate change.
"CCS is is principally used by the Trump administration to camouflage their interest just to burn coal without it," said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, in an interview here. "If they came here and said, 'We're not going to promote coal-based technology unless it is in fact CCS, that would have—."
He pivoted mid-sentence to tell a story about a conversation he had with then-President George W. Bush about the viability of the technology, which was facing economic challenges back then much like it is today.
Screenshot from Tesla live feed
In a typically showy ceremony in Southern California last night, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled a sleek prototype electric semi-truck that he said will travel 500 miles on a charge, go zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds fully loaded, and charge most of the way in 30 minutes while a driver rests and eats. He appeared to say that the vehicle will be able to operate semi-autonomously in convoy, which would be the first step to self-driving trucks.
Why it matters: Musk did not say how much the truck will cost, but that it will be cheaper to operate than a standard diesel. If he is able to deliver the semi-truck as described, it seems likely to shake up the freight market just as he has the car business. Experts expect semi-truck traffic to surge in the coming decades as the global population grows to 9 billion people.
The unveil in an airport hanger in Hawthorne, CA., came as Musk is confronting doubts about his ability to pull off arguably his most important project of all — the scale-up of the Model 3, the flagship mainstream-priced electric that he has touted as Tesla's route to the mass market, and the jump-starting of a global electric car industry.
Tesla has taken more than 450,000 reservations at $1,000 apiece for the Model 3, which launched in July, and he was supposed to be turning out 5,000 of them a week by now. But, while making high-profile announcements about a Hyperloop, Space-X launches and now the prototype semi-truck, he has failed to create a standard automated assembly line for the Model 3, so his workers are building them in part by hand, and only by the dozen. As a result, Tesla's sky-high share price has plunged by about 19% over the last two months, closing at $312.50 yesterday.
Norway's trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund has asked the government for permission to drop oil and gas stocks from its main index in an effort to reduce the bank's, and in turn the Norwegian government's, vulnerability to fluctuating oil prices, per Reuters.
Why it matters: If the bank's proposal is approved by the finance ministry and adopted by parliament, oil and gas companies would be hit with a significant cut in investments. According to Reuters, the energy stocks, which currently represent about $37 billion of the fund's benchmark equity index, would be entirely eliminated in the coming years.
Tesla is hardly the only player in the nascent electric truck market — as Bloomberg notes — as big companies like Daimler and Cummins are moving toward commercialization.
Why electric trucks matter: Trucks, especially big rigs, are a small percentage of vehicles on the road but use lots of oil. (Check out the chart above, reconstructed from the International Energy Agency's new World Energy Outlook 2017.)
Data: IEA World Energy Outlook 2017, OECD/IEA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios
In what amounts to IEA's base case (a model of existing and officially announced policies), oil demand for trucking swells to 20 million barrels per day in 2040, led by that sharp increase you see in diesel demand for heavy-duty freight.
The bottom line: Widespread deployment of electric heavy-duty trucking — alongside other alternative fuels and stronger fuel efficiency mandates for diesel-powered rigs — could alter the trajectory of oil demand in coming decade if Musk and other players can make it cost-effective.
The coal-burning Longview Power Plant in Maidsville, W.Va. Photo: Michael Virtanen / AP
Big news from the UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany, today is that multiple countries are forming a coalition to phase out power generation from coal before 2030.
Why it matters: Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and cutting emissions from coal-fired power generation is key to driving global greenhouse gas output downward in the future.
Ganging up: "At least 15 countries have joined an international alliance to phase out coal from power generation before 2030, delegates at U.N. climate talks in Bonn said on Thursday," via Reuters.
The nations: Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Chile, Mexico and the Marshall Islands, according to the story.
Yes, but: The world's biggest coal-consuming nations — notably China, the U.S. and India — are not currently part of the initiative.
The other side: George David Banks, a top White House adviser who is in Bonn this week, said the administration is considering forming a "clean coal alliance," adding to comments Energy secretary Rick Perry made recently in Africa.
"The administration is interested in the idea and would like to explore exactly what that means," Banks told Axios' Amy Harder and other reporters at a briefing Wednesday.
Trump aide George David Banks speaks at climate event in Bonn, Germany, on Nov. 13. Photo: Lukas Schulze / Getty Images.
Bonn, Germany – A top adviser to President Trump on international energy issues, George David Banks, sat down with a small group of reporters at the United Nations climate conference here Wednesday. Here are the highlights — and reality checks:
On what Banks says the administration is doing to mitigate climate change, which he says is a priority, despite actions and rhetoric indicating otherwise:
On a pending trade case, where two U.S.-based solar manufacturers are asking Trump to impose remedies on a flood of cheap imports.
On progress of the actual negotiations at the climate conference, which are hashing out boring but important details of the Paris deal that Trump said in June the U.S. will withdraw from, citing Obama's pledge being unfair compared to other commitments.
On the circumstances the administration would decide to stay in the Paris deal:
On the emphasis that the impacts of climate change have dire impacts on migration and public health issues.
On the World Bank's restrictions funding new coal-fired power plants.
On how many times he has met with the president himself on this issue:
The image Tesla released on its invitation to tomorrow's unveil of its electric semi-truck prototype (Photo: Tesla)
In a move to capture a piece of one of the most promising sectors of robotization, entrepreneur Elon Musk plans tomorrow evening to unveil a Tesla semi-truck, a prototype electric with self-driving technology. According to one estimate, its enormous battery could make it double the price of a standard diesel-propelled vehicle. But Musk has said he already has customers waiting for the vehicle.
The jobs impact: There are about 3.5 million truckers in the U.S., in addition to about 5 million workers in other parts of the industry. Many of those jobs are threatened in a future of autonomous freight transportation.
Much is made of the future of self-driving, but the biggest early impact — with huge money on the line — is likely to be cargo trucks, and not passenger vehicles.
In a paper earlier this year, Shashank Sripad and Venkat Viswanathan of Carnegie Mellon University estimated that a lithium-ion battery that could take a truck 300 miles on a charge would weigh about seven tons and cost roughly $150,000. The price of a diesel semi-truck is about $120,000 to $130,000; while an electric drive train would lower the cost, you would be talking a total of about $250,000 for the electric self-driving truck.
A bigger battery, allowing a truck to go say 600 miles, would cost $300,000, too much to be cost-effective, they said.
A thought bubble: Musk may introduce a creative approach to the autonomous electric trucking future, such as leased batteries or battery swapping. But whatever he has to say and show us, he seems likely also to face more than his share of doubters. There is reason for that: He is arguably distracting himself from his core mission, which is to work out the bugs and reliably produce hundreds of thousands of his currently troubled mainstream Model 3 sedan per year.
The group represents just 35% of America's total greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Martin Meissner / AP
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Gov. Jerry Brown and other leaders representing more than a dozen states and hundreds of U.S. cities are in Bonn, Germany, this week to tell the world America is still on board with tackling climate change. The group just released a report that said if these non-federal entities were a country, their economy would be the third largest in the world. It also said the group represents nearly half of all Americans and more than half of the U.S. GDP.
The group largely represents America's coasts, where a lot of people live in big cities, but that's not where most of the greenhouse gases are emitted from coal, oil and natural gas production. The group represents up to 35% of America's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report's appendix data. That means this group represents roughly less than 5% of the world's emissions, despite comprising an economy that's the world's third-largest.
The report released here in Bonn is seeking to be optimistic, but it also concedes more action will be necessary. The biggest reductions would need to come from the fossil-fuel emitting states not currently on board.
The 35% figure -- not highlighted as part of the report's release -- underscores why federal action is essential in making sizable cuts in greenhouse gases. That's clearly going to be harder at a time when President Trump has said he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate deal.