Jul 23, 2019

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,143 words/~ 4 min read.

Situational awareness: Today top House Energy & Commerce Democrats will unveil plans that will "guide the Committee’s approach to tackling the climate crisis," the panel said.

  • Why it matters: It could offer hints around how Democrats will craft new policies if they gain more political power in the 2020 elections.

Onto music: Happy birthday to Slash of Guns N' Roses who opens today's edition...

1 big thing: The limited case for direct air capture

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Nascent tech that pulls CO2 from the atmosphere could "significantly" reduce the costs of fighting climate change, but achieving scale is hardly a sure thing and massive deployment would consume lots of energy, a new peer-reviewed study warns.

Why it matters: The paper in Nature Communications arrives amid increasing attention to direct air capture (DAC) and other negative emissions technologies.

  • They're important because it looks pretty unlikely that nations will cut emissions enough to meet the goals of the Paris climate deal.
  • The firm Carbon Engineering — whose backers include Bill Gates and oil giants Chevron and Occidental — recently announced plans for a big DAC plant in Texas.

What they found: According to the study, widespread deployment down the road would create a longer cushion to achieve steep emissions cuts.

  • In one scenario they modeled for holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C, it pushes the horizon for achieving "net-zero" emissions back from 2050 to roughly 2070, which would be "compensated by larger negative emissions thereafter."

Threat level: If policymakers wrongly bet on large-scale deployment, it could lead to a global temperature "overshoot" of up to 0.8 °C. That's a lot, given that Paris aims to limit the total increase to 1.5°C–2°C above preindustrial levels.

  • And large-scale deployment (think tens of thousands of big machines under one tech scenario), if even proven feasible would need to be really large, and that's not without consequences.
  • In theory, a huge buildout would consume as much as a fourth (!) of global energy demand to power and heat the systems by 2100, the paper notes.

The bottom line: The paper warns that DAC should not be viewed as a crutch, but rather as complementary to emissions-cutting strategies.

  • The authors recommend that policymakers speed up development and deployment, but "without easing near-term mitigation efforts" due to risks of the tech underperforming or failing.

Go deeper: Direct CO2 capture machines could use ‘a quarter of global energy’ in 2100 (Carbon Brief)

2. Chart of the day: gas pipeline approvals
Expand chart
Data: Federal Energy Regulation Commission; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Environmental opposition to natural gas pipelines has grown significantly over the last decade, but the impact on actual federal approvals of such projects is limited, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: Check out the chart above, which shows annual approvals via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of natural gas pipeline capacity over the past couple of decades. These approvals ebb and flow with fuel prices and other cyclical parts of the energy business.

One level deeper: The drop in pipeline approvals around 2011 is likely due most to declining investment after the financial crisis, says Jacques Rousseau, a managing director of the nonpartisan research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

  • Pipeline approvals rose quickly since then in response to an improving economy and booming natural gas production. That’s now slowing as those pipelines come online and the backlog eases.

Yes, but: Pockets of the country exist where far fewer natural gas pipelines are being built, especially New England as this recent Wall Street Journal article explains.

Go deeper: Energy regulators divided over natural gas and climate change

3. Petro-quote of the day
"We believe that oil prices have become a broken barometer for gauging the rising pressure in the region and are now much more of a lagging risk indicator."

Who said it: Helima Croft, a top analyst with RBC Capital Markets, writes the above in a note on geopolitical tensions with Iran, which seized a British-flagged vessel Friday. But, the move only had a modest upward effect on crude prices.

Why it matters: Oil markets are largely shrugging off the escalation of tensions around the Strait of Hormuz, a topic we explored a bit in yesterday's newsletter.

Threat level: The RBC note argues the slight uptick does "not reflect the severity the escalating crisis" in the region and that traders are more focused on bearish signals around trade wars and oil demand.

4. By the numbers: Q2 lobbying


Second quarter lobbying reports from big energy companies and trade groups are rolling in.

Why it matters: They're a look at how much money is sloshing around the Beltway-influence competition. Click on the links to see what topics they're lobbying on.

Here are a few snapshots...

5. Enviro groups offer rules of the sea for offshore wind

Several environmental groups are jointly making the case for how to harness large offshore wind resources while avoiding harm to marine life.

Why it matters: The guidelines floated Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups arrive as deep-pocketed developers plan large Atlantic Coast projects.

Driving the news: New York State officials last week announced the companies that had won rights to build 2 projects totaling 1.7 gigawatts, enough to power over 1 million homes.

  • New York's plan is one of several projects planned in U.S. waters, where analysts project offshore wind will grow from nearly nothing today to a large power source. The consultancy BloombergNEF forecasts 15.4 GW of U.S. offshore wind capacity by 2030.

What they're saying: The groups offer guidelines around siting, construction and monitoring, such as...

  • Limiting ship speeds to 10 nautical miles per hour to avoid striking marine mammals and sea turtles.
  • Using construction practices that minimize underwater noise, and avoid sensitive feeding and breeding areas for vulnerable species like right whales.
  • Timing construction during months when sensitive animals aren't present.
  • Adopting practices to avoid bird and bat collisions with turbine blades, including brief stoppages of blades during key bat migration times.
6. Catch up fast: UN, sanctions, EPA

United Nations: "UN chief António Guterres wrote to every head of state over the weekend, demanding they set out plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050," Climate Home News reports.

  • Why it matters: The story is a window onto the UN's prep for a major September summit in New York aimed at bolstering international emissions-cutting efforts, which are lagging.
  • "Guterres invited governments to send 'a brief summary or an indication of the plans' they are expecting to bring to the summit by 7 August," they report.

Sanctions: "The U.S. is imposing new sanctions against a Chinese company for transporting Iranian crude, a move that widens the U.S. campaign of pressure on the Islamic Republic amid weeks of escalating tensions," the Wall Street Journal writes.

Mining: "BHP, the world’s largest mining group, will set public goals next year on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its products even after they have been sold, as it looks to take an industry lead on tackling climate change," via the Financial Times.

EPA: The Washington Post reports that the EPA's internal watchdog is probing Bill Wehrum, who recently left his role as the agency's top air quality official after serving since late 2017.

  • "The EPA’s inspector general is looking at Wehrum’s interactions with his former law firm as well as several of its clients, who rank among the nation’s major emitters of greenhouse gases linked to climate change," they write.
Ben Geman