Dec 19, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning and welcome back!

It's day 2 of our Keith Richards 75th birthday celebration, so he'll play and sing us into the news...

1 big thing: Oil crashes through the floor

The commentary atop the IEA's monthly oil market report a week ago was headlined "A floor under prices?" and said Brent crude "seems to" have found one around $60-per-barrel.

That question mark, in retrospect, is doing lots of work.

Where it stands: Prices plummeted by several dollars per barrel in trading Tuesday, the latest sign of volatility that's carrying the day despite the OPEC+ efforts to stabilize the market.

  • Brent crude fell to roughly $56-per-barrel, while WTI, the U.S. benchmark, dropped sharply into the $46-per-barrel range.
  • But they're more or less holding steady on Wednesday morning, trading around $56.58 for Brent and $46.85 for WTI.

Why it matters: The falling prices create challenges for petro-states and could hinder the U.S. shale patch if the doldrums remain.

  • Here's Bloomberg: "The plunge in U.S. oil prices has wells in some parts of the Permian Basin below break-even levels, threatening to put the brakes on the record flow from the prolific field."

The big picture: Concerns about a slowdown in economic growth and trade battles eating into demand, the robust amount of crude sloshing around, and broader market woes are all creating downward pressure on prices.

  • Brent has come down from $86 in early October, its highest level in 4 years, while WTI has come down by around $29 since then.

What they're saying: “The market is experiencing price carnage, maximum pain and considerable downside pressure,” Robin Bieber of the brokerage PVM oil tells Reuters.

  • "Enveloping supply concerns is the increasing likelihood of a protracted economic downturn in China that continues to stoke fears of demand slowdown," Stephen Innes of the trading platform Oanda said in a note quoted by MarketWatch.

What's next: Late this morning the Energy Information Administration will release its closely watched weekly data on U.S. oil storage levels.

2. Eastern states team up on transportation CO2
Screenshot from Rhodium Group report on U.S. carbon emissions sources; data from the EIA and Rhodium

Nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states are teaming up to cap and reduce carbon emissions from transportation in the region.

Why it matters: Cars, heavy trucks and other transport have surpassed electricity production as the largest source of U.S. emissions in recent years (check out the chart above).

The big picture: The rough plan announced Tuesday is a stark new example of states pushing ahead with climate initiatives as the White House is dismantling federal policies.

  • EPA and the Transportation Department recently proposed plans to greatly pare back Obama-era vehicle mileage and emissions standards for the years 2021–2025.

Where it stands: The states are Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. Washington, D.C., is on board too.

But, but, but: The program design, including the emissions pricing mechanism, isn't yet clear. The states intend to create the specifics of the program over the next year.

  • They intend to funnel the revenues into "low-carbon and more resilient transportation infrastructure."
  • Their joint statement touts the benefits of public transit, transit-oriented development, zero-emission vehicles and more.
  • But the states did not lay out specific emissions-cutting or revenue goals.
3. Exxon to EPA: Regulate methane

A flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota. Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images

ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest publicly traded oil company, is calling on EPA to regulate emissions of methane from all new and existing oil and natural gas wells across the country, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is the primary component of natural gas and is sometimes purposefully or inadvertently leaked in the production and transport of the fuel, as well as when drilling for oil.

The EPA has been slow in its approach toward rolling back Obama-era methane rules, in part due to industry divisions.

The big picture: Through subsidiary XTO Energy, Exxon is one of America’s biggest producers of gas. It has two reasons to back such a regulation.

  1. Exxon is facing pressure from investors and lawsuits over climate change. The company's call for regulations is an attempt to show it wants gas to be as clean as possible, even if those regulations never happen.
  2. As a massive global company, Exxon is positioned to benefit financially over smaller companies. It can easily afford pollution-control equipment that others have a harder time obtaining.

Between the lines: This is a subtle evolution in Exxon’s positioning. The company has previously said it backs federal methane regulations, but — until now — had not asked EPA to do so in writing.

  • It’s also significant that Exxon is asking the agency to regulate methane emissions from existing wells, which would affect hundreds of thousands of wells.
  • Under President Trump, the EPA is very unlikely to do this. President Obama's EPA had started the initial groundwork for such a rule, but didn't get far before Trump took over.

What's next: This letter is in response to a technical rollback EPA is undertaking. The agency is expected to propose a broader rollback of the Obama-era rules soon.

4. EV notes: startups, solar charging, VW plans

China: Quartz looks at plans by the Chinese EV startup Qiantu Motor to break into the U.S. market:

  • "Qiantu (the name is Chinese for Dragonfly) plans to start building its K50 electric vehicle (EV) in 2020. The electric luxury sports car will be a joint US manufacturing effort between Chinese automaker CH-Auto and Southern California-based startup Mullen Technologies."

Tech: Fast Company reported today on efforts by the Dutch startup Lightyear to launch an electric car that can charge with solar cells on its roof. From their piece...

  • "Though the car can also charge with a traditional plug, with solar power built into the car, 'you don’t need charging points anymore,' says Lex Hoefsloot, the CEO of Lightyear, the startup building the new car, which it plans to have hit the market in 2020."
  • Hoefsloot adds, “That means you get rid of the whole chicken-and-egg problem you have around electric cars: There’s not many electric cars because there’s no infrastructure, and there’s no infrastructure because there’s no electric cars. You can kind of [circumvent] that process by making an electric car that doesn’t rely on infrastructure.”

Volkswagen: Via Reuters, "Volkswagen may have to step up its plans for mass production of electric vehicles in order to meet tougher-than-expected European targets to cut greenhouse emissions from cars, its chief executive said on Tuesday."

5. How carbon capture could get off the sidelines

Analysts with the risk advisory firm DNV GL have a good look at what's needed for carbon capture and storage (CCS) tech to make a real contribution to cutting global emissions.

The short answer — a lot.

Why it matters: Their post crossed my screen the day after the International Energy Agency's Monday report on coal sounded the alarm that CCS remains "woefully off-track with what is required for a sustainable energy future."

What they found: "CCS will not advance meaningfully without an extraordinary shift in commercial incentives," analysts Kaare Helle and Anne Louise Koefoed write.

  • Their forecasts show CCS capturing will be just 1.5% of global emissions in 2050.

Why? The report says CCS isn't picking up enough speed because...

"The carbon price signal is too weak and/or carbon capture and storage of CO2 emissions are not mandated by law."
"The snowball effect of technology and cost learning curves has not been unleashed, keeping CCS costs high."

What's next: The analysts write that it would have to "start with a bang, not a whimper."

  • That bang would mean adding 60 new plants globally, which would bring cost reductions of roughly 30% from today's levels, with more to come.
  • This doesn't happen without private-sector and government efforts pushing hard in the same direction.
"Government-driven deployment policies (e.g., mandates, technology investment support, operational support as well as carbon pricing) are needed to meet the de-risking needs of projects."

The big picture: IEA sees momentum building, but not nearly enough. Its latest report takes stock of commercial-scale CCS projects that have launched at coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities and what's on the drawing boards.

  • Projects operational and in the early development stages have the capacity to capture 50 million metric tons of CO2 per year.
  • But, but, but: IEA's scenario for holding the increase in global temperatures to 2°C sees a need for capturing 760 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030.

Go deeper: The disconnect over climate and coal

(h/t to @JesseJenkins for flagging the DNV GL analysis on Twitter.)

6. State of the Paris climate agreement

Have you been looking for an extended analogy that compares the Paris climate agreement to a low birthweight child with a tough early life and parents with their own problems? Then read on...

Where it stands: Sue Biniaz, a top State Department climate negotiator under Obama, has a detailed post that checks in on the health of the Paris agreement in the wake of last week's UN conference in Poland, where nations agreed to some implementation rules while punting on other decisions.

Here's part of her piece published this week by Harvard's Energy & Environmental Law Program...

"Socially, Paris is thriving. It has had a significant influence on its peers. Its goals are now the common reference points for climate-related efforts, whether or not formally under the Agreement and whether carried out by countries, cities, businesses, or other actors.
"Based on my examination, however, the patient’s longer-term prognosis is uncertain, and continued vitality should not be taken for granted. Proper care and nurturing should be exercised to prevent anemia. In addition, Paris’ parents should work more constructively together to ensure that Paris will thrive."

Go deeper

Ben GemanAmy Harder