Dec 18, 2019

Axios Generate

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,260 words, < 5 minutes.

And Sunday marked the 1975 release date of Parliament's "Mothership Connection," so let's blast off...

1 big thing: Congress rebuffs Trump on energy spending
Expand chart
Data: Congressional Record via ClearPath Foundation; Chart: Axios Visuals

Congress is set to pass a budget doubling down on a yearslong trend of increasing clean-energy funding, despite President Trump's repeated attempts to cut spending, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: The spending bill the House passed on Tuesday would increase energy research and development spending by nearly 14% compared to this year’s levels and more than 50% compared to 2014.

Why it matters: Federal R&D is a key part of scaling up and making affordable technologies needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as advanced nuclear power and new innovations with solar and wind energy.

The big picture: Democrats, most environmentalists, and more and more companies are calling for sweeping government policies, such as carbon pricing and carbon-free energy mandates.

But as those debates stall over deep partisan divides, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have agreed on higher R&D spending.

By the numbers: The chart above shows how five key areas within the Energy Department saw increases since fiscal year 2014, per federal data compiled by the ClearPath Foundation, a conservative clean-energy nonprofit.

  • The fiscal year 2020 spending package includes a total of $5.5 billion for these areas. (This excludes the office of science, which has a far larger budget than these others because its work ranges well beyond energy.)
  • Combined, these five areas had an increase of 51%, or $1.86 billion, between fiscal years 2014 and 2020.
  • Energy storage technology, within the electricity office, saw the biggest percent increase but has the smallest budget ($56 million in the latest budget).
  • From a top-line perspective, the biggest budgets are for the offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy ($2.79 billion in fiscal year 2020) and Nuclear Energy ($1.5 billion).

What we’re watching: Democratic White House hopefuls want far larger federal funding increases for clean energy R&D, which will largely mean the Energy Department.

Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for $40 billion a year over 10 years.

Go deeper

Bonus: A tough day for EVs and renewables

While the congressional spending package deal boosts clean energy R&D, the year-end Capitol Hill deal on taxes omits several new or extended deployment incentives.

Driving the news: The year-end tax package does not extend tax credits for solar projects, which begin phasing down after this year.

It also omits a proposed new incentive for energy storage projects and, in a defeat for Tesla and GM (among others), does not raise the per-manufacturer cap on availability of consumer tax credits for electric cars.

The intrigue: Bloomberg reported — and my Axios colleague Orion Rummler confirmed — that the White House opposed the expansion of the EV credit and that its inclusion would have been a deal-breaker.

Go deeper: US Lawmakers Stiff Solar, Wind Gets Modest Victory in Tax Deal (Greentech Media)

2. The shale slowdown hits jobs

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A new Dallas Fed report provides the latest evidence of how the slowdown in U.S. oil production growth is rippling through the shale patch.

Driving the news: The latest energy data shows that job losses in Texas — the heart of the U.S. oil boom — are "deeper than initially estimated."

  • It shows that the state's "mining" sector — largely a proxy for the industry —  lost 8,100 jobs from December of 2018 to October of this year, a deeper decline than seen in prior Labor Department data.

Why it matters: It signals the effect of U.S. production growth cooling off compared to 2018's dramatic rise.

"Support activities for mining (mostly oilfield services, the more cyclical component of oil and gas mining) has been following the rig count down in 2019," the Dallas Fed notes.

What they're saying: The latest episode of the Platts Capitol Crude podcast explores the industry's belt-tightening.

  • Antoine Halff, founder of the data analytics firm Kayrros, says that until relatively recently, “Shale was more like a tech startup in terms of the model. There was a lot of interest in the growth potential.” But now "the model has changed," he said.
  • “As recently as a couple of years ago, investors were rewarding production growth at any cost. Now production growth is not really a goal in itself, and budget discipline, profitability is much more important.”

The big picture: A weekend Wall Street Journal feature on the shale slowdown looks at the effects in several oil-producing areas of the country. The reporting shows "emptier hotels, choosier employers and less overtime for workers."

3. A revived fight over oil industry disclosure

Today's Securities and Exchange Commission meeting opens the next phase of a decade-long battle that has pitted the world's most powerful oil companies against human rights advocates.

Driving the news: The SEC is scheduled to propose rules that require U.S.-listed oil and mining companies, in filings with regulators, to disclose payments to foreign governments connected to projects in their countries.

Why it matters: The rules, required under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, are aimed at lessening the "resource curse" — the poverty, conflict, and corruption in many resource-rich nations in Africa and elsewhere.

But the oil industry has long argued that while it supports some disclosure, prescriptive rules will place SEC-regulated companies at a disadvantage when bidding for projects abroad.

Catch up fast: The rules faced a slow, yearslong path to completion after Dodd-Frank, including a federal judge striking down one version in 2013.

  • The SEC, in a victory for activists, completed final rules in 2016 with detailed requirements.
  • But in 2017, the GOP-led Congress, under a rarely used procedure called the Congressional Review Act, passed legislation that President Trump signed which killed the rules.

The intrigue: Under the CRA, when an agency rule is voided, the replacement measure cannot be "substantially the same."

Pro-disclosure activists are bracing for the Trump-appointed SEC commissioners to propose a rule that's weaker than the 2016 version.

Go deeper: The Resource Curse, Big Oil, and the Dodd-Frank Battle That Won't Die (National Journal via The Atlantic)

4. PG&E reaches deal with California over fires

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) reached a proposed $1.7 billion settlement with state regulators and had a revised agreement for people impacted by California's fatal 2017 and 2018 wildfires approved Tuesday, AP reports.

Why it matters: Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports that the steps mark significant progress for the utility as it seeks to emerge from bankruptcy in the coming months after Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected its financial rehabilitation plan Friday for falling "woefully short."

It also puts the victims closer to being compensated for the fires started by PG&E equipment.

Where it stands: The California Public Utility Commission said Tuesday under the agreement, PG&E would pay $50 million for shareholder-funded system enhancements "and community engagement initiatives to strengthen its electric operations and maintenance in an effort to mitigate the risk of wildfires."

Go deeper

5. Imagining a Bernie Sanders' cabinet


A new Politico magazine story that imagines Bernie Sanders as president lists potential cabinet officials if Sanders won — including the climate activist Bill McKibben at EPA and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee as energy secretary.

Why it matters: This is putting the cart way, way, way, before the horse, but it gets at an important (if obvious) thing: personnel will matter a lot in the next administration.

Even if Democrats take the White House, they'll have — at best — a very narrow Senate majority, so administrative steps and the ability (or lack thereof) to cajole potential allies across the aisle on funding will both matter.

Where it stands: Inslee's name has popped up in chatter about energy-related positions in a Democratic administration, but I hadn't heard McKibben's name surface before.

The story notes that Sanders actually floated the idea during his first presidential run. I'd be a little surprised, but that said, surprises are so 2016.

6. Catch up fast: Nord Stream 2, climate, oil

Pipelines: Via Bloomberg, "The U.S. conceded it won’t be able to stop completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, acknowledging the failure of a years-long effort to head off a perceived threat to European security."

Climate: Per E&E News, "The bankrupt Murray Energy coal company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last two years funding groups that deny mainstream climate science and other entities that have sought to weaken carbon regulations, documents show."

People: Via Reuters, "Norway's prime minister appointed Sylvi Listhaug, an outspoken right-wing lawmaker who once described wind farms as 'white monsters', as its oil and energy minister on Wednesday in an unexpected reshuffle of the post."