Sep 9, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning, lots of news to share so let's get to it. Today's Smart Brevity: 1,128 words, ~ 4 minutes.

My latest Harder Line column analyzes IRS filings to show how environmental group fundraising surged after President Trump's election. I'll share that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Situational awareness: Saudi Arabia's newly minted energy minister signaled Monday that "OPEC and its allies will continue with production cuts as the group prepared to gather in Abu Dhabi," Bloomberg reports. We've got more on the Saudi leadership shakeup below.

1 big thing: Environmental fundraising spikes under Trump

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Nearly all major environmental groups saw their donations increase, some significantly so, with President Trump in the White House, according to an Axios analysis of tax filings.

The big picture: This is classic Washington. When one side is in power, interest groups on the other side often see more financial support. That's why environmental groups are on the rise during one of the most aggressive regulatory rollbacks in American history.

Driving the news: Between 2015 and 2017, donations to 10 of America’s most influential environmental groups increased between 20% and 149%.

  • That’s the last full year before Trump’s election and the first full year since his victory. (2017 is the most recent year with widely available forms.)
  • The chart shown below, adjusted for inflation, shows 10 of the total 18 we analyzed.

By the numbers:

  • Oceana's 149% increase was by far the biggest. CEO Andy Sharpless said fundraising jumped partly because of its campaign to stop the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore oil drilling. He also cited big donations from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Wyss Foundation to expand global ocean conservation efforts.
  • Earthjustice and the League of Conservation Voters saw their fundraising nearly double between 2015 and 2016, suggesting a sharp spike in donations after Trump’s November 2016 election.
  • All but two saw growth.

What they’re saying: “Americans see the damage the Trump administration is doing to our environment and know that we are nearing a point of no return on climate,” says Sam Sankar, SVP of programs at Earthjustice.

What we’re watching: If this trend will accelerate or flatline if Trump wins re-election in 2020. If a Democrat wins, we’ll be watching to see if donations drop off as the threat to environmental policies lessens.

Go deeper: Read the full column here.

Bonus: Tracking the fundraising
Expand chart
Data: Forms 990; Get the data; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios
2. Making sense of the Saudi oil shakeup

Saudi Arabia shook up its oil hierarchy Saturday by ousting Khalid al-Falih as oil minister and replacing him with Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman.

Why it matters: The kingdom is grappling with the U.S. production boom, sluggish global demand growth, and trade friction that's holding down oil prices.

  • It also comes amid revived preparations for the IPO of state oil giant Aramco.

The big picture: Abdulaziz is the son of King Salman and the half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

  • It's the first time a member of the royal family has been the nation's top oil official.
  • Abdulaziz has had a high-level, decades-long career in the Saudi oil sector in his own right, and in 2017 was named minister of state for energy affairs.

Between the lines: Analyst Robin Mills tells the Wall Street Journal that the move is part of MBS "trying to stamp his control."

The intrigue: Saudi expert Ellen Wald tells Axios the move comes with some risk despite Abdulaziz's petroleum background.

  • "Abdulaziz is definitely experienced and he could be very good in the position," says Wald, author of the 2018 book "Saudi, Inc."
  • "However, the government must be careful not to alienate experienced Aramco employees too much because they can leave the company and the country and Saudi Arabia would be at a huge loss," she adds.

What's next: Several analysts, in published reports, said they don't see major near-term shifts in the Saudis' posture.

  • “I expect no policy change — the objective is to deliver higher prices and the IPO for Aramco,” Amrita Sen of the consultancy Energy Aspects tells Reuters.

Separately, CNBC reported Sunday that J.P. Morgan Chase is "close to winning the lead advisory role" for the Aramco IPO. Read more from Axios here.

3. The Saudis' crude price challenge
Expand chart
Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

One big challenge facing Saudi Arabia is that crude prices are well below the roughly $80–$85 per barrel the country needs to balance its budget.

The chart above shows the U.S. Energy Information Administration's estimate of the kingdom's crude revenues alongside the wider OPEC tally.

Where it stands: Brent crude is currently trading at nearly $62-per-barrel.

4. The stakes of Warren's fracking move

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is moving more aggressively to the left on energy as she battles Sen. Bernie Sanders for backing from progressives in the Democratic 2020 primary.

Driving the news: On Friday afternoon, Warren tweeted that if elected, she would ban fracking "everywhere."

  • That position was news to me and, based on my deeply scientific survey, it was news to plenty of activists and experts in the think tank and academia orbit.
  • The Washington Post's tally of candidates views — which now lists her support for a ban — was updated Sep. 4 to adjust her position "after a clarification from her campaign."

One big question: An obvious but important one is whether Warren's "ban fracking" position would be a political liability if she was in a general election matchup against Trump.

  • The oil-and-gas industry is a big economic force in places including Pennsylvania and Colorado.

But, but, but: This is hypothetical politics right now. Warren can't ban fracking "everywhere" without Congress, which isn't in the cards. Her campaign acknowledges that banning it would require legislation.

  • Executive power is also limited by the concentration of the boom on state and private lands, although environmental laws provide some federal leverage.
  • The executive has more sway over federal lands, where the Interior Department controls permitting.
  • Warren's federal lands platform says she'd block issuance of new fossil fuel leases.

Another big question is what a theoretical ban would mean for greenhouse gas emissions. I'm outsourcing this to Carnegie Mellon University's Costa Samaras. He posted an interesting Twitter thread on Friday night (paaaarty!).

  • He notes there are tradeoffs: lower methane emissions and higher oil prices that make EVs and efficient cars more competitive.
  • However, higher natural gas prices mean coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, becomes more competitive.
  • But higher natural gas prices would also help existing nuclear plants.
5. Trump plays hardball on auto regs

From "life-moves-pretty-fast files": Since our last edition, the Trump vs. California battle over auto emissions and mileage rules has gone to 11.

The big picture: Trump is pulling out all the stops to shut down an effort by California to enlist automakers on a plan that would undermine efforts to freeze Obama-era mandates, Axios' Joann Muller and I report.

Driving the news: 2 big developments were reported Friday.

  • The Justice Department is exploring whether 4 companies — Ford, VW, Honda and BMW — have run afoul of antitrust laws by cutting a deal with California to increase emissions standards, the WSJ and others report.
  • Top lawyers for EPA and the Transportation Department, in a letter to California regulators, said the deal with the 4 automakers “appears to be inconsistent with federal law” and warn of “legal consequences.”

What they're saying: The letter says Congress has “squarely vested” authority over both mileage and GHG emissions standards with the federal government.

  • It argues that federal preemption over mileage standards effectively trumps the emissions deal too, given the “direct” link between emissions and fuel economy.

The other side: California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a statement to news outlets about the reported DOJ probe, said the state is "undeterred."

  • "California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families," he said.
Ben GemanAmy Harder