Jul 7, 2020

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,382 words, 5 minutes.

 🎵 The world learned yesterday that legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone died at 91, so his brilliance opens today's edition...

1 big thing: Pipeline struggles highlight 2020 stakes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two new court actions — one by the Supreme Court and another by a federal judge — together highlight and raise the energy stakes of November's election.

Driving the news: Late Monday, the high court thwarted a Trump administration push to revive construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

  • But the order simultaneously cleared the way for a suite of other pipelines to proceed under a contested permit program called Nationwide Permit 12.
  • Separately, a judge ordered the shut down of the existing Dakota Access Pipeline until the Army Corps of Engineers completes a new environmental review.

Why it matters: The legal actions mean the results of the 2020 election could very well decide the fate of Keystone XL and Dakota Access, two projects at the heart of battles over fossil fuel infrastructure.

Where it stands: Biden opposes Keystone XL. And if the decision to halt operations of Dakota Access withstands challenge, the Corps' review is estimated to continue far beyond the election. A Biden White House may not allow the pipeline to resume operations, analysts say.

  • "A potential Biden administration would likely refuse to conduct a new environmental review, resulting in a permanent shutdown of the 570 kb/d pipeline," Rapidan Energy Group said in a note.
  • And via ClearView Energy Partners: "We think there is a strong possibility that the new Biden administration could decide to not reissue the authorizations now that the permits have been vacated."

The big picture: More broadly, November is approaching fast, so the outcome will certainly affect the regulatory environment for fossil fuel projects more broadly.

  • Biden has vowed to closely scrutinize fossil fuel projects for climate effects and take steps to speed up the transition to low-carbon fuels.

Catch up fast: While Monday's high court order should allow some contested projects to proceed, overall the Trump administration is having a tough time realizing its goal of successfully knocking down regulatory barriers.

  • Yesterday's action came just a day after two huge energy companies, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, scuttled plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas line from West Virginia to North Carolina, amid legal and permitting challenges.

What they're saying: One analyst tells Bloomberg that the one-two punch of that project's demise and the Dakota Access decision highlights a shift in the business landscape.

  • "I would expect this to be a turning point for new investment," Katie Bays of Sandhill Strategy says in Bloomberg's piece. “There is real investor fatigue around this parade of legal and regulatory headwinds to energy projects.”

Go deeper: Major oil and gas pipeline projects, backed by Trump, flounder as opponents prevail in court (Washington Post)

2. New deal brings consolidation to U.S. solar

Sunrun, the largest U.S. home solar provider, is buying rival Vivint Solar in a $3.2 billion all-stock transaction, the companies announced Monday night.

Why it matters: The deal between major players brings new consolidation to the U.S. sector, a growing market that has been hindered of late by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The companies, who have a combined customer base of 500,000, said the deal would provide $90 million in annual cost "synergies."
  • It says they see room for significant growth, noting that residential solar is only at 3% penetration in the U.S.

What they're saying: "Vivint Solar adds an important and high-quality sales channel that enables our combined company to reach more households and raise awareness about the benefits of home solar and batteries," Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich said in a statement.

What's next: Both companies' boards have approved the deal, but still need signoffs from shareholders and regulatory approvals. It's expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of this year, they said.

  • Sunrun's stock is up over 2% in pre-market trading on Tuesday.

How it works: Greentech Media notes that while the companies' regional sales overlap considerably, they have also pursued different strategies.

  • Sunrun has aggressively pushed its paired solar and battery storage systems, while Vivint "has a strong ground game and has long been a leader in door-to-door solar sales."
3. Oil's recovery is stuck in neutral
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Crude oil is languishing in the "friend zone," and that's not enough for substantial swaths of the ailing sector.

Driving the news: U.S. prices have hung out in the roughly $40-per-barrel range (and sometimes lower) for the last month after sharply recovering from the depths of April's price and demand collapse.

Why it matters: “I don’t think that $40 oil is enough to turn around the shale industry,” oil analyst Andy Lipow tells the Wall Street Journal.

  • “This price is still not enough to cover all the debt and costs that have been incurred during the boom," he said.

Threat level: There's other evidence that $40-per-barrel doesn't cut it for a number of oil-and-gas companies.

  • An April Kansas City Fed survey of companies in their region found that roughly one-third said they do not expect to remain solvent at $40, even if prices stay there for less than a year.
  • On the brighter side, a Dallas Fed survey in June of companies in their area, which includes Texas, found that the vast majority expect to remain solvent for the next year.
  • However, a number of U.S. companies have already declared bankruptcy during the current crisis.

Where it stands: This morning, Brent crude was trading around $42.92 and WTI at roughly $40.40.

  • The worsening spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. is creating headwinds even as output cuts domestically and worldwide have succeeded in tightening the market.
  • "Over the last few weeks, traders have put more weight on how supply evolves, but from now everyone’s eyes are on demand again and how COVID-19 expands in the U.S.," Rystad Energy analyst said in a note Tuesday.

Yes, but: While low prices jeopardize some companies, Bloomberg reports the shale industry is getting more than $2.4 billion in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

4. New lobbying for carbon removal

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The nonprofit group Carbon180, which advocates for deployment of emerging carbon removal technologies and methods, has brought on The Coefficient Group to lobby, a new filing shows.

Why it matters: Technologies like direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture are getting increased attention from policymakers, and the filing signals that the group sees an opening.

  • The group's prior registered lobbying activities were limited to brief retention of the firm Cassidy and Associates in mid-2018, filings show.

What they're saying: "We think there is a growing, non-partisan opportunity to advance significant legislation related to carbon removal, and the Coefficient team is helping us engage with congressional offices in greater depth than we have in the past," Carbon180 executive director Noah Deich tells me.

Where to stands: The Coefficient Group's Tom Lawler, a former aide to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts, will lobby on their behalf.

  • He'll work on "climate policies that incent natural and engineered carbon removal systems," the filing states.
5. Wanted: A new U.S. energy strategy

The Center for Strategic and International Studies is out with a big report calling for a major overhaul of U.S. energy policy, arguing that "old strategies will not work" despite the country's rise into a huge oil-and-gas producer.

Why it matters: The analysis says the country's posture must evolve to be competitive in a world of emerging clean energy technologies, even as hydrocarbons dominate now.

  • Elsewhere it delves into the need for a more sophisticated approach to dealing with China's rise, and the growth of authoritarianism and nationalism elsewhere.

What they're saying: I won't try and describe the whole thing here.

  • But the strategies include making some big bets in R&D, deployment and manufacturing strategy for some specific clean energy technologies, rather than a more risk-averse, wishy-washy approach.
  • "There is a hesitation in the United States, healthy in many respects, to not overdo government direction in the economy. But there is a fine line between not wanting to choose a lane too soon, to 'pick winners,' and just wandering aimlessly around the road with no sense of direction," it notes.

What's next: CSIS is holding an online event about the report tomorrow with experts including the Harvard Kennedy School's Meghan O'Sullivan and Amos Hochstein, a former State Department energy official.

6. Catch up fast: EVs, Big Oil, offshore wind

Electric cars: "Chinese EV startups Byton, Nio, and Karma Automotive were among the companies that received the largest loans from the government’s COVID-19-related Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in April, with each receiving loans of between $5 million and $10 million." (The Verge)

Oil-and-gas: "Italian energy group Eni said it would write off around 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) from the value of its assets after revising down its long-term outlook for oil and gas prices due to economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis." (Reuters)

Renewables: "The Interior Department plans to issue two proposed rules this month for offshore wind, expected to streamline permitting requirements and to eliminate unsolicited leasing on the outer continental shelf." (Utility Dive)

Ben Geman