May 4, 2020

Axios Generate

Happy Monday, did you miss us on May Day? Feels more like mayday in this grave new world.

Axios is hosting a live virtual event on gene therapy and the future of disease treatment today at 12:30pm ET.

  • Join Axios co-founder Mike Allen and reporter Bob Herman for a conversation with Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), senior adviser of the MIT FoCUS Project Jane Barlow, and FDA director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Peter Marks.
  • Register here. 

I'll share a glimpse of my column, which follows up on my civil rights leaders piece, then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news. Today's Smart Brevity: 1,407 words, 5.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Rev. Jesse Jackson’s pipeline push

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Breaking from other progressives, Rev. Jesse Jackson is calling to build a natural gas pipeline to serve an impoverished community near Chicago.

Why it matters: This is one example of the complex tug of war between energy affordability and tackling climate change. The tension is poised to grow as America and much of the world careen into pandemic-fueled recessions.

Driving the news: The move puts Jackson at odds with some Democrats and environmentalists who oppose fossil fuels because they drive climate change. The famous civil rights activist says the largely black community is being unfairly cut off from affordable energy.

The intrigue: For several months Jackson has been working with local, state and federal officials in Illinois to get an $8.2 million, 30-mile natural gas pipeline built for a community in a rural part of Illinois 65 miles south of Chicago.

  • Jackson, who has protested with environmentalists to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline, told me in a February interview: “I really do support the environmental movement.”
  • However, he said, the people of this community — called Pembroke — have no gas at all and are paying exorbitantly high prices to heat their homes with propane.
  • “When we move to another form of energy, that’s fine by me, I support that,” Jackson said. “But in the meantime, you cannot put the black farmers on hold until that day comes.”

Where it stands: The area has about 400 homes, no manufacturing and only a few commercial establishments, said Mark Hodge, mayor of Hopkins Park, a town in the region.

  • The community is 80% black and has an average annual income of less than $15,000, Hodge said. That’s compared to more than $60,000 nationally.
  • The region, due at least partly to its rural setting, has never had access to natural gas.

While natural gas is cheaper per unit of energy compared to other forms, the upfront cost is typically a deal-breaker in rural areas not already connected to a pipeline network — regardless of the income level and race of people living there.

By the numbers: Under current regulations, customers seeking natural gas access often have to pay for at least part of the cost of getting that service.

  • This would end up costing each Pembroke household on average $8,125 to be connected to natural gas.
  • “This is why propane is viable,” said Warren Wilczewski, an expert at the Energy Information Administration.

What we’re watching: A bill pending in the state legislature would designate Pembroke as a “designated hardship area,” which would allow a company (in this case Nicor) to pay for the entire cost of the pipeline, not just part of it.

  • Nicor would increase electricity rates throughout its service area to cover costs. With 2.2 million customers in the region, that’d equal about a penny a month, a Nicor spokesperson says.

Read the whole column.

2. The push to keep traffic at bay, post-COVID
Expand chart
Adapted from a Brookings Institution analysis of Streetlight Data; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Two Brookings Institution analysts say it's possible to revive the economy while maintaining the benefits of greatly reduced traffic — but only with important policy changes.

Why it matters: The radical decline in movement during the pandemic has caused steep reductions in car travel.

  • Going forward, the extent of the bounce back of vehicle and air travel will affect oil demand and emissions of CO2 and traditional pollutants.

The big picture: "[T]he COVID-19 lockdown has enabled the country to execute a transportation experiment at an almost unfathomable scale," write Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane in this new post.

  • "Those results should give us hope that it’s possible to reduce congestion, deliver a safer and greener transportation system, and still bring the economy back to full capacity."

By the numbers: Their piece gets to the scale of the driving decline, though traffic is already rebounding, as this Apple proxy data shows.

  • Even if driving rebounded completely by next month, 2020 would see the lowest nationwide vehicle miles traveled since 1998, they note.

What's next: As states begin easing restrictions, they call for several steps.

  • Allowing continued telework in sectors where that's possible.
  • Transportation departments should implement fees based on miles driven to make up for losses in gasoline tax revenue, which are under pressure anyway as cars get more efficient.
  • They back growing calls for using the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently revamp streetscapes to better accommodate bikes, pedestrians and other non-auto uses. (Check out #Covid19streets on Twitter for more on this.)
3. Big boost for battery storage


Power giant Southern California Edison has signed contracts to procure 770 megawatts of battery storage projects that are slated to come online in the summer of 2021.

Why it matters: That's a lot! The seven projects appear to comprise largest battery storage procurement announcement ever, per battery wonks talking about it here.

  • It exceeds the total amount of new storage capacity added nationwide in 2019, which was 523 megawatts per the Energy Storage Association and Wood Mackenzie.
  • (H/t to Greentech Media for that fact.)

The big picture: Most of the projects will be co-located with existing solar power plants, underscoring how batteries can help ensure renewable power is stored and then deployed during times of high demand.

  • Southern California Edison said the projects are part of its compliance with California Public Utilities Commission requirements aimed at boosting grid reliability while curbing emissions.
4. Sizing up the shale cutbacks

Oil producers' plans to throttle back output — including cuts to U.S. shale — in the face of the price and demand collapse have come into sharper focus.

Driving the news: ExxonMobil said Friday it's cutting production in the prolific Permian basin by 100,000 barrels per day in the second quarter as part of wider plans to curb 400,000 barrels per day of oil equivalent in Q2.

  • The company is also sharply cutting drilling rigs in the Permian, which means its estimated 2021 output there will be up to 150,000 barrels per day lower than prior plans.

Meanwhile, U.S. rival Chevron said Friday that its curtailing global output by 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent this month and going as high as 400,000 next month.

  • The cuts are expected to be divided about 50-50 between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The big picture: Those are two cases of companies of all sizes are cutting back as production in the U.S., the world's top producer, goes into reverse.

  • The EIA estimated in mid-April that U.S. production will decline by roughly 2 million barrels per day this year.
  • But Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and outside analysts say the amount could be much larger.

Catch up fast: Bloomberg published a company-by-company list of cutbacks and notes that U.S. production has already fallen by an estimated 1 million barrels per day since mid-March.

Go deeper: Small oil drillers are turning off taps more quickly than anticipated (WSJ)

5. The Trump administration's oil aid plan

We're learning more about federal efforts to aid struggling oil producers.

Driving the news: "The Federal Reserve on Thursday changed the terms for its Main Street Lending Program, making it easier for oil companies to borrow from a fund meant to help small and midsize companies hurt by the coronavirus pandemic," Roll Call reports.

The big picture: The global production cutbacks, and signs that the worst of the demand collapse may be over, have helped to boost prices since the April troughs.

  • But it's hardly enough to end the financial jeopardy and even bankruptcy facing many independent companies, and prices also dipped again this morning.

What we don't know: Are more financial aid efforts in the offing from the Trump administration?

  • President Trump tweeted on April 21 that he told the DOE and Treasury to create a plan.
  • But the White House and those agencies did not provide comment late last week when I asked if the changes to the Fed programs are the sum of the effort.

Go deeper: Fed expands coronavirus business loans, paving the way for oil relief

6. Coal is under pressure worldwide

Australia: "Westpac Banking Corp. said it would exit the sector by 2030, leaving Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. as the last of the country’s big four yet to commit to dropping the most polluting fuel." (Bloomberg)

India: Reuters looks at April data for the country and reports that "Electricity generation from coal — India’s primary source of electricity — fell 32.3% to 1.91 billion units per day, with its contribution to overall electricity generation falling to 65.5%, compared with an average of over 73.7% last year."

U.S.: "Last month, the largest round of coal mine layoffs in years swept through the Powder River Basin, the state’s epicenter of coal production, with over 300 miners losing their jobs." (Casper Star-Tribune)