Dec 7, 2018

Axios Generate

Happy Friday!

And happy birthday to Tom Waits, whose genius brings us into the weekend...

1 big thing: Crunch time for OPEC


Oil markets are on pins and needles this morning as OPEC members and Russia haggle in Vienna over potential output curbs.

Why it matters: The behind-the-scenes drama signals the challenge of getting the countries on the same page, so they can seek to lift prices by tightening a market that's awash in crude.

Where it stands: Well, that's not so clear as we sent this newsletter amid reports of haggling over how far Russia is willing to go.

  • "Discussions now center on a proposed reduction from OPEC and its allies of about 1 million barrels a day, with OPEC itself shouldering 650,000 barrels of the burden, delegates said," Bloomberg reports.

Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih said after yesterday's sessions that he's not confident a deal can be reached, according to multiple reports.

  • Reuters offers a window into the state of the negotiations on Friday morning, "Iran appeared on Friday to be the main obstacle for an OPEC deal to cut oil production, as the group’s leader Saudi Arabia had yet to agree exemptions for sanctions-hit Tehran, two OPEC sources said."

As for Russia, Reuter's story cites a Russian source saying that the country has increased its offer and is willing to cut up to 200,000 barrels per day, but that OPEC delegates want them to go even higher.

Stay tuned.

2. A U.S. oil milestone arrives


The U.S. narrowly became a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products combined for the first time in decades last week, preliminary federal data shows.

Why it matters: It's a stark sign of the re-emergence of the U.S. as a global oil market powerhouse — even if, as Bloomberg notes, it may only mark a brief return to the net exporter ranks for now.

In particular, oil from shale formations has added millions of barrels of daily production over the last decade, and a 2015 law that ended a ban on crude oil exports is sending more and more of those barrels overseas.

By the numbers: Net U.S exports of crude oil and refined products averaged 211,000 barrels per day last week, according to rough Energy Information Administration data.

The tally includes...

  • A record 3.2 million barrels per day of crude oil exports last week.
  • Over 5.8 million barrels per day in exports of petroleum products, a category that includes gasoline, diesel, natural gas plant liquids and more.

The big picture: It's the first time that the U.S. has been a net exporter in EIA's weekly data that goes back to 1991.

  • But none of the monthly import-export data that goes back to 1973 and annual tally's that extend back to the mid-20th century show net exports either, according to EIA.
  • The last time the U.S. was a net exporter on a yearly basis was 1947, the agency said.

Yes, but: The milestone does not signal that the U.S. is insulated from global energy markets at all, even as domestic crude production is at record levels of far over 11 million barrels per day.

  • The U.S. still remains a major importer of crude oil, even as that reliance on foreign suppliers has fallen significantly amid the domestic boom. And prices are also largely dictated by global supply and demand trends.
  • Last week the U.S. imported an average of 7.2 million barrels per day of crude oil, according to EIA.
3. Tesla has a new general counsel

There's another shakeup in Tesla's top ranks.

Driving the news: Tesla announced late Thursday that the prominent trial lawyer Dane Butswinkas, chairman of the Beltway firm Williams & Connolly, is joining the company as general counsel.

  • He's replacing Todd Maron, who's been the Silicon Valley electric automaker's top attorney for the last half-decade.

Why it matters: It's the latest in a series of moves over the past year or so that have overhauled Tesla's executive team.

Background: The move comes as Tesla and CEO Elon Musk are implementing settlements with the Securities and Exchange Commission reached in late September, which stemmed from Musk's early August statements about the subsequently aborted plan to take Tesla private.

  • The settlements require Tesla's board to have more independence from Musk and forces the company to impose new oversight of his shoot-from-the-hip Twitter style.

The big picture: CNBC notes that Butswinkas arrives as Tesla is dealing with a series of other regulatory and legal challenges.

  • And more broadly, the company is also transitioning into a bigger and more global player as it ramps up production of the Model 3 and plans to build a new factory in China.

There's a bit more in the Axios stream.

Go deeper:

4. Visualizing a biofuels policy failure
Screenshot of EIA report, "EPA finalizes Renewable Fuel Standard volumes for 2019, reflecting cellulosic biofuel shortfalls."

A brief new report lays out in stark visual detail how a 2007 law aimed at pushing next-wave, more environmentally friendly biofuels into large-scale deployment hasn't come close to working as planned.

Why it matters: It's a sign of the huge hurdles that have confronted efforts to expand the biofuels market beyond traditional ethanol and biodiesel.

  • Check out the chart above from this short EIA report.

Where it stands: Those large orange-ish bars on the left show the cellulosic biofuels volumes that were supposed to enter the fuel mix under the 2007 expansion of the national biofuels mandate, called the Renewable Fuel Standard.

  • Those tiny orange strips on the right? That's what EPA, which oversees the program, ultimately mandated in recognition of the limited commercial availability.
  • The blue bars show that other forms of so-called advanced biofuels have also not been commercialized as rapidly as lawmakers envisioned over a decade ago either.

By the numbers: "Cellulosic biofuels were intended to grow to 16 billion gallons by 2022, but the technology has not matured fast enough to meet the volume standards," EIA notes.

  • Instead, EPA's recent rule that set 2019 mandates 418 million gallons, or about 5% of what was envisioned for that year, EIA notes.
5. Latest in policy: Senate, drilling, wetlands

On Capitol Hill: Via Politico, "Senate Democrats are growing more comfortable with giving coal-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin a leading role in shaping climate policy."

  • The story lays out why Manchin is likely to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, despite opposition from some progressive activists.

Oil-and-gas: The Associated Press explains the latest Interior Department move in the long-running tussle over protections for a key bird species.

  • "The Trump administration moved forward Thursday with plans to ease restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling, mining and other activities that were put in place to protect an imperiled bird species across millions of acres in the American West," they report.

Water: "The Trump administration will propose to severely restrict the number of wetlands and waterways covered by the Clean Water Act in an announcement expected next week," reports E&E News, which obtained a copy of EPA talking points.

6. Dems draw climate line in infrastructure talks

The Senate's top Democrat is telling President Trump that any infrastructure deal must contain robust moves to bolster zero-carbon energy and build resilience to climate change.

Why it matters: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's demand — spelled out in a new Washington Post op-ed — is the latest sign that at least for now, climate is emerging as a priority for Capitol Hill Democrats.

Driving the news: Schumer writes that if Trump wants Democratic support on an infrastructure bill, it must have policies and money that "help transition our country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the United States already faces from climate change."

Reality check: Infrastructure is perennially floated as an area where there's potential for bipartisan dealmaking. But actually getting a sweeping political deal done is a far, far tougher thing to imagine happening.

  • And that was true even before Schumer's decision to demand provisions aimed at addressing a problem that Trump scarcely acknowledges, and doesn't accept is human-caused despite the overwhelming scientific consensus.
  • Schumer's op-ed also bashes Trump's moves to unwind Obama-era policies.

Threat level: Schumer's op-ed says Democrats have leverage because they'll control the House and Trump will need 60 votes in the Senate — and therefore Democrats' help there — to get an infrastructure bill through Congress.

Details: In the op-ed and an open letter to Trump, Schumer calls for provisions including . . .

  • Permanent tax credits for clean power production, electric vehicles, energy storage, efficient buildings and more.
  • Federal spending on new transmission to help move renewable power, as well as investments in smart grid and microgrid technology.
  • "Substantially" increasing federal spending on research, development and deployment of clean energy.
  • Money to help communities harden their infrastructure against extreme weather and disasters.
  • A new federal loan program to help communities build resilience, including "natural infrastructure solutions" like restored wetlands.

Go deeper: Climate politics moves up the Democrats' priority list

7. Evolution of corporate renewables buying

Jim McHugh, CEO of the big power supplier Constellation, pens an Expert Voices piece for Axios ...

U.S. businesses have started to accelerate reductions in their carbon footprints — a major change from just a few years ago, when only early adopters had drafted sustainability goals.

Today, thousands of companies are seeking carbon-free energy sources, with more than 150 firms pledging to transition to 100% renewable energy.

The big picture: Renewable energy certificates (RECs) — which track renewable energy from the point of generation — have been crucial in driving this shift. Increasingly, electricity suppliers are offering ways for businesses to get their power from specific projects or sources, bringing transparency to renewable energy use.

How it works: Led by Apple and Google, big corporations have moved beyond REC procurements to virtual power purchase agreements (VPPAs), which support the development of large-scale, off-site renewable energy projects.

  • For all their positives, VPPAs are complicated financial transactions and their price volatility poses risks. (Companies pay an agreed-upon fixed price, but depending on the actual cost of energy over time, could end up paying more than market price.)

What's new: Electricity suppliers are now letting companies choose offsite renewable power sources and combine energy purchases with RECs, broadening the market.

  • Companies are able to procure more renewable energy at a lower cost, expanding the amount of renewable supply on the grid. They can oversee their green energy options the same way they’ve managed their standard electric supply.

Broadening sustainability efforts to include all zero-carbon sources, such as nuclear energy, is another way companies are meeting their environmental goals when space or capital are unavailable for on-site renewables.

  • New emission-free energy certificates are like RECs but for non-renewable sources that do not emit greenhouse gases.

The bottom line: Electricity suppliers are responding to growing customer demand for clean energy by offering simpler products that let businesses source power from specific offsite renewable projects and other zero-carbon sources.

8. Quote of the day
"The lowest-cost emissions reductions — transitioning from coal generation to natural gas or renewable energy sources like wind and solar — exist in the states least likely to act on climate."

Who said it: Marc Hafstead, director of the Carbon Pricing Initiative at the nonpartisan think tank Resources For the Future.

The context: It's part of his new blog post on the limitations of state and local action on climate change.

Why it matters: "Subnational" climate moves are getting lots of attention these days. A suite of state and local governments are stepping up emissions-cutting efforts amid the White House retreat from Obama-era carbon policies.

But Hafstead cautions that they can only go so far. "[F]ederal action is necessary to achieve cost-effective emissions reductions on par with the Paris Agreement," he writes.