Jun 24, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,348 words /~5 minute read.

  • Did you catch the latest episode of "Axios on HBO" last night? We'll have more episodes later this year — stay tuned! 
  • I'm heading to the Aspen Ideas Festival this week to moderate three panels on climate change and energy. Email me if you'll be there! 

For today, I'll share a glimpse of my latest column, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

1 big thing: 2020 Dems move left on climate

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

This week’s Democratic presidential debates are poised to showcase just how far left the party has moved in the last several years — especially on energy and climate change.

Why it matters: The Democrats’ eventual nominee could be one of the most progressive in decades. Proposed policies could cripple oil and natural gas, direct trillions of dollars to renewable energy, and reassert U.S. leadership abroad on climate change. It’s an open question whether most Americans would support them.

The big picture: The trend to embrace more progressive energy and climate policies is part of the Democratic Party’s broader leftward shift over the last decade on various issues. (Republicans have moved to the right, but this column isn’t about them. This one is).

  • The rise of the Green New Deal (GND) in the last 8 months has accelerated and crystallized the Democratic Party’s leftward move. But that lofty proposal is an effect, not a cause of this shift, which has been underway for years.

The intrigue: The drivers of these shifts are many and interwoven. Including…

  • A stronger economy compared to the last few presidential contests.
  • Increasing urgency from scientists about climate change.
  • Growing concern for the environmental footprint of natural gas.
  • Plummeting costs of renewable energy.

Between the lines: These factors, combined with President Trump dismissing climate change, have supercharged activists successfully pushing Democratic politicians to adopt ever-more aggressive goals in the face of inaction at federal and global levels.

What they're saying: Former Obama administration official Jeff Navin tells Axios...

“Climate change is a unique public policy issue, in that it gets harder to solve the longer you wait. Since we haven’t taken adequate steps to solve the problem, the tools to solve the problem by definition have to become bigger, more aggressive and with shorter time frames.”

The bottom line: This presidential contest will be one of the clearest tests of people’s appetite to support aggressive climate policies.

Read the full column and see some examples of the party’s leftward shifts.

2. Exclusive: Vetting Trump's energy team
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Nearly 100 internal Trump transition vetting documents leaked to "Axios on HBO" identify a host of "red flags" about officials who would get senior positions in the U.S. government — including top energy and environmental jobs.

Why it matters: The trove, and the story behind it, sheds light on the slap-dash way Trump filled his cabinet and administration, and foreshadowed future scandals that beset his government, reports Axios' Jonathan Swan and several colleagues.

A few energy highlights...

Scott Pruitt: The former EPA boss, who ultimately lost his job because of serial ethical abuses and clubbiness with lobbyists, had a section in his vetting form titled "allegations of coziness with big energy companies."

Rex Tillerson: The former Exxon CEO's vetting document identifies the oil giant's and Tillerson's extensive work in Russia among the "red flags."

  • One of the questions, listed under "political vulnerabilities," asks, "Is there anything related to your ties to Russia that could create public relations turbulence should you join the administration?"
  • The document also explores Tillerson's past statements acknowledging human contribution to global warming among "controversial statements."

Rick Perry: The Energy Secretary was among the multiple people who had said highly critical things about Trump and got jobs anyway.

  • "Perry described Trumpism as a 'toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition,'" the vetters noted.
  • Per his vetting document, they also wanted to know about his position on the Paris climate agreement, which Trump eventually announced plans to abandon.

On the record: Perry's office declined to comment, while Pruitt and Tillerson did not respond to requests for comment.

Go deeper: Click here and here for more from Jonathan and Axios' Juliet Bartz, Alayna Treene and Orion Rummler.

3. Trump urges nations to protect Strait of Hormuz oil

Breaking Monday: Trump complained via Twitter this morning that Asian nations heavily reliant on oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz weren’t doing enough to safeguard tanker traffic.

  • “[W]hy are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” he said.

Why it matters: It’s the latest wrinkle in the escalating tensions with Iran around the Strait of Hormuz (presumably what Trump meant when he cited nations’ reliance on the “Straight”).

  • The narrow passageway near where 2 tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman this month is the world’s biggest oil chokepoint, handling nearly 19 million barrels per day of oil, as well as major traffic in other oil products and LNG.

Trump also asserted via Twitter that “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

Reality check: It’s true that U.S. imports from the Middle East are at their lowest levels in decades thanks to the U.S. domestic production surge.

  • But, the U.S. remains deeply connected to global oil markets. A major conflict in the region, especially one that disrupted oil traffic, would cause prices to jump, affecting U.S. businesses and consumers.

Separately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said via Twitter that he held "productive" talks with the Saudi king Monday on the "need to promote maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz."

Go deeper:

4. Inslee's roadmap to "freedom" from fossil fuels

Democratic White House hopeful Jay Inslee unveiled plans Monday aimed at weaning the U.S. off of reliance on coal, oil and gas.

Why it matters: The mix of legislative and executive proposals to restrict fossil fuel development comes just ahead of this week's first debate.

  • And while the Washington State governor is very low in the polls, his climate-focused campaign has raised the topic's profile in the race.

How it works: A few pillars of the 27-page "Freedom from fossil fuels" plan...

  • Ending tax breaks and other incentives for petroleum and coal companies.
  • Ending new federal fossil fuel leasing, taking steps to curb development on non-federal lands, and imposing a national ban on hydraulic fracturing.
  • Re-imposing a ban on crude oil exports and restricting other fossil fuel exports.
  • Adding some ideas for helping industry workers transition, including a “G.I. Bill for Energy Workers.”

The intrigue: The plan calls for legislation to impose a "climate pollution fee" — it's not clear how high — on various industries that would cover carbon dioxide, methane and other gases.

Quick take: That part of the plan encapsulates where much of the left (including GND backers) stands on carbon pricing these days.

  • They want it, but it's not the tip of the spear in plans that emphasize massive public investments, tough mandates and other steps.
  • Pricing isn't a "silver bullet," but it's an "effective tool for both ensuring that polluters pay and for generating new revenue to address the harms caused by those emissions," the plan states.

The big picture: Inslee's campaign said the overall proposal is part of his goal to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2045. Per the plan...

"These climate pollution reduction goals simply cannot be achieved unless America as a nation is prepared to take on the greatest and most powerful special interests that are holding back our clean energy future: fossil fuel corporations."

But, but, but: This is a standing caveat with all these plans, but anything that needs Congress would be a super-heavy lift.

Go deeper: Jay Inslee unveils his energy plan

5. Catch up fast: markets, policy, science

Crude oil: Per Bloomberg, "Oil rose to the highest level in more than three weeks as political tensions between the U.S. and Iran continued to simmer, with President Donald Trump announcing plans for further sanctions against the OPEC member."

Deals: "Qatar Petroleum has signed an agreement with Chevron Phillips Chemical to build a new petrochemicals complex, part of plans by the world’s top liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter to broaden its energy interests." Reuters reports.

  • Why it matters: It's the latest sign that the industry sees petrochemicals as a major growth area amid questions about long-term demand for transportation fuels.

Policy: Per The Washington Post, "The White House proposed Friday that federal agencies no longer have to take a project’s long-term climate impacts into account when assessing how they will affect the environment, reversing a major Obama administration policy."

Ben GemanAmy Harder