Feb 1, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Happy Friday and happy birthday to the talented Mike Campbell, the guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who bring us into the weekend...

1 big thing: The polar vortex is everything

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The extreme (and deadly) cold in the midwest is an important look at the complicated effects of climate change, and an event that could have political and policy ripples in Washington.

Why it matters: Let's start with the latter, which brings me to this piece in Bloomberg. Jennifer Dlouhy reports...

  • "A natural gas supply disruption forcing Michigan residents to lower thermostats and automakers to suspend operations could bolster President Donald Trump’s effort to keep coal plants operating possibly by invoking national security powers."
  • Her piece gets into how advocates of federal aid for economically struggling coal-fired and nuclear plants are already citing the record-setting cold to push for revival of stalled support plans.

But, but, but: Absent broader signs of grid problems, it's not clear that the extreme cold can provide a political lift for the controversial efforts.

The big picture: Axios' Andrew Freedman reports that the polar vortex's arrival in the U.S. this week is a reminder that it's possible to have extreme cold in a warming world.

  • That's partly because there will always be weather variability. But there's also some evidence that, paradoxically, global warming may be leading to more frequent disruptions of the polar vortex — which can cause extreme cold and high-impact winter storms across the U.S., Europe and Asia.

The big question: Researchers want to know how Arctic climate change is altering the major circulation patterns in the Earth's atmosphere.

  • Melting sea ice and warming oceans are causing more heat and moisture to escape into the atmosphere in the Far North, but increasingly, mild and wet air masses from lower latitudes are intruding into the Arctic as well.
2. Exxon's quarterly profit dips but stock rises

ExxonMobil reported full-year profits of $20.8 billion Friday and a Q4 haul of $6 billion, results that sent the oil giant's stock slightly upward in pre-market trading upward despite a decline in quarterly earnings.

By the numbers: The quarterly result of $1.41 per share topped analysts expectations of $1.18 per share, according to Reuters.

The big picture: Via Bloomberg, "Strong crude flows from North America’s most-prolific oil field — the Permian Basin — softened the blow of plunging oil prices at the end of 2018. For the first time in five quarters, Exxon posted a year-over-year increase in production."

Separately, as we were about to send this newsletter, Chevron announced a $3.7 billion Q4 profit and full-year earnings of $14.8 billion.

  • Shares of the second-largest U.S.-based major are trading higher Friday too.
  • CNBC notes that their quarterly results also beat Wall Street expectations "as a drop in earnings in its main business lines from a year ago were offset by lower expenses."
3. BP agrees to wider climate disclosure

BP is supporting a proposal by activist investors that calls on the multinational giant to disclose how its spending and strategies sync up with the Paris climate agreement.

  • In a related move, BP said progress on greenhouse gas cuts will factor into the pay of 36,000 employees, including executive directors.

Why it matters: Friday's move is the latest sign of how some of the world's biggest fossil fuel producers are responding to pressure from advocates — including some large investors — on global warming.

  • It comes 2 months after Royal Dutch Shell, after consultation with the same investor network called Climate Action 100+, agreed to set short-term carbon emissions goals for its products.

Where it stands: BP is supporting a resolution from Climate Action 100+ to be adopted at BP's annual meeting later this year.

  • Provisions include a call to show how billions of dollars of capital expenditures on oil-and-gas exploration and development, and investments in other technologies, are consistent with the Paris agreement.
  • The resolution recognizes BP's prior moves on climate, including "best in class" management of methane, but says more is needed.
  • "Based on current disclosures, it is not possible to evaluate the extent to which the Company’s investments in fossil fuel reserves or resources are consistent with the Paris Goals," it states.

Details: The group says its 310 members collectively manage $32 trillion in assets. Members include Hermes EOS, Allianz Global Investors, Calpers, the Church of England Pensions Board, and HSBC Global Asset Management.

What they're saying: “This additional reporting will give investors better clarity about how BP can continue to deliver value through the energy transition in a way consistent with the Paris goals,” BP chairman Helge Lund said in a statement.

When it comes to compensation, BP is linking annual bonuses with progress toward a 2018 pledge to cut emissions from its own operations by 3.5 million tons by 2025.

Go deeper:

4. There's a coming EV and AV workforce gap...

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We're on the cusp of the most dramatic shift in transportation in a century, but red flags from a series of experts warn that America's workforce is not prepared to meet the needs of the digital mobility era, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

Why it matters: The advent of self-driving and electric cars will require a workforce with new, advanced skills to create, manage and maintain them.

But there's likely to be a serious shortage of people with those skills — so experts say governments, corporations and educational institutions need to work together to create modern training programs to fill the gaps.

The big picture: Truck drivers and taxi drivers are often singled out as the most likely to be displaced by autonomous vehicles. But the Brookings Institution estimates that digital mobility, including AVs, will change the jobs of more than 9.5 million workers — or more than one out of every 20 U.S. workers.

New jobs will be created, too. Self-driving and electric cars will help create more than 100,000 U.S. jobs in the next 10 years, says Boston Consulting Group.

  • As many as 30,000 broadly trained computer engineers will be needed to develop these cars of the future, according to BCG — but that's six times the expected number of graduates.
  • Instead of specialists like today's chassis or powertrain engineers, these new engineers will need to be cross-functional “tinkerers,” with expertise in math, physics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, data sciences and software, per BCG.
  • Another 70,000 skilled trade workers will be needed to support AVs — everything from electric vehicle mechanics and AV safety drivers to remote-support staff and fleet operators.

Read more

5. ... and maybe a supply demand mismatch too
Screenshot of chart from Deloitte report, "New market. New entrants. New Challenges."

A recent Deloitte report that caught my eye offers a different kind of warning: They say EV sales will grow very sharply but there may be too many players vying for a piece of the pie.

Why it matters: The report offers a look at how electrification is poised to shake-up the industry in ways that offers opportunities and peril for both the big legacy automakers and startups.

What they found: The report sees EVs as reaching an inflection point on costs very soon.

  • There will be a "tipping point" in 2022 when ownership costs reach parity with internal combustion cars, which will lead sales to start growing fast.
  • They project global sales reaching 21 million worldwide in 2030 (which is nonetheless a much less aggressive growth forecast than BloombergNEF's outlook).

Threat level: Deloitte sees the industry supply of EVs nonetheless outstripping demand despite the rapid growth as companies bring more and more offerings to market.

  • That brings peril for original equipment manufacturers (or OEMs, i.e. the big incumbent automakers) and new entrants.
  • "Based on our analysis, the overall industry capacity ... is approximately 14 million units above the forecast consumer demand for EVs in 2030," they state.
  • "Based on these figures, it is not inconceivable that some incumbent OEMs will be out of business beyond 2030, while it is highly likely that not all EV startups will survive."

What's next: The report recommends strategies around branding, battery supply chains and more to help companies navigate the rise of electrification.

6. The shakeup at FERC

Cheryl LaFleur, a Democratic member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Thursday that she's reluctantly leaving the commission later this year.

  • "While this is not the outcome I had hoped for, I feel very lucky to have served on FERC for more than eight years (and counting)," she said via Twitter.

Why it matters: It paves the way for another new face on the independent agency that plays a key role overseeing power markets and vetting proposals for natural gas pipelines, among other roles.

The intrigue: An adviser to LaFleur told Utility Dive that Senate leaders made clear to LaFleur this week that she would not be renominated. But the exact reasoning remains vague, the website reports.

  • "LaFleur did not announce the reason for her departure. Though some of her votes on natural gas infrastructure had run counter to the White House’s priorities, she has also clashed with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the past over electricity policy," their piece states.

What's next: She plans to remain until her term ends June 30 and maybe longer, depending on the status of a successor.

  • Via E&E News ($), LaFleur's exit "may provide an opportunity to pair a Republican and Democrat nominee together and ease confirmation for both picks."
7. PG&E's bankruptcy worries its employees

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PG&E employees say they are worried about what's at stake for pensions, the health of their 401(k)s and other unpaid obligations from the company as it enters the bankruptcy process, Axios' Courtenay Brown writes.

Details: Though PG&E said it will continue to pay employees' wages, health care and other benefits, many employees expressed major concerns that the company will renegotiate worker contracts in an effort to cut costs. The bankruptcy process is expected to be lengthy and complicated.

Background: PG&E filed for bankruptcy earlier this week, seeking protection on potentially billions of dollars in liability costs for its role in deadly wildfires across California.

Several union members are worried about receiving payments — uncashed paychecks, paid out vacation and severance agreements — owed by the company before it filed for bankruptcy.

The volatility of PG&E's share price has hit employees' 401Ks. The stock has rallied in recent days, despite the bankruptcy filing, but has recently fallen as low as $7 from $48 in November, before the deadly Camp fire broke out.

Go deeper: Read the full story here, and sign up for the Axios Markets newsletter here.

Ben GemanAmy Harder