Sep 17, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! You are invited to attend a Tuesday lunch event 1-2:30pm ET in D.C. (or by livestream here) hosted by The Atlantic Council, where I will be talking about the future of energy alongside two other journalists: Axios' Steve LeVine and Quartz's Akshat Rathi.

Now to the news: My latest Harder Line column looks at something we all take advantage of — energy. It's a particularly acute time with the Massachusetts natural gas explosions and the energy-infrastructure risks that Hurricane Florence (now a tropical depression) has posed. 

I'll share that and Ben Geman will get you up to speed on the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: Energy as our all-essential risk

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Natural gas explosions in Massachusetts and Florence’s threat on energy infrastructure remind us that energy can pose enormous, sometimes deadly, risks.

Why it matters: Energy is the thing we all need but many don’t notice until it is gone, expensive or going awry. Energy facilities — particularly nuclear plants — appear to be withstanding Florence well. We saw a tragically different outcome in Massachusetts Thursday, with one death and roughly two dozen injuries. They both inject a consciousness into our energy dependence we usually overlook.

Think about it:

  • We drive gasoline-powered cars.
  • We use plastics made from petroleum.
  • We live in homes with electricity. What kind? Most of us don’t know or care.
  • Our homes in America are increasingly powered by natural gas — particularly Massachusetts.

But we don’t actually think about this. We aren’t thankful when the lights come on. Reporters don’t bother writing stories about how nuclear power plants stood up well to hurricanes. As someone on Twitter told me last week, “Dog doesn't bite man is rarely newsworthy.”

Embedded in all of this is risk: how much we’re willing to take and what tradeoffs we’re willing to accept in order to minimize risk.

  • Some risk we’re aware of and can choose: driving a car or flying in a plane.
  • Then there’s risk we may be unaware of or have no choice to avoid: natural gas exploding in our homes, or a nuclear plant 30 miles away at risk of melting down.
  • The risks of these are infinitesimal, but the fear is real. And, in rare moments they happen: Massachusetts gas explosion, Fukushima nuclear meltdown, BP oil spill.

Some folks might be thinking right about now, "Hey, you’re forgetting renewables, they’re the answer." Yes, they are part of it. Renewables aren’t explosive (big plus), and their share of the world’s electricity mix is growing fast.

But the world is deeply dependent upon fossil fuels and tradeoffs exist with wind and solar. So even while a transition is underway to safer forms of energy, it's critical to make sure the risk of our current dominant sources is as close to zero as possible.

Go deeper: Read the rest of the column in the Axios stream.

2. Probing the gas explosions in Massachusetts

Massachusetts officials said on Sunday that residents of three communities hit with natural gas explosions last week can return to their homes, NBC News reports.

One person was killed, roughly two dozen were injured and dozens of homes were destroyed in the disaster that hit Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Thursday.

What happened: Per the Wall Street Journal, authorities have traced the accident to excessive amounts of gas pumped into a pipe owned by Columbia Gas.

  • "The National Transportation Safety Board 'can confirm at this time that this was indeed an overpressure situation,' NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a news briefing," the paper reports.
  • And via ABC News, federal officials say the probe into the disaster is "partially focused on pressure sensors that were connected to a gas line that was being taken out of service shortly before the blasts."

What's next: Federal and state probes are ongoing, while Columbia Gas said yesterday that it's "committed to completely replace the natural gas distribution system" in the region, which serves 8,600 customers.

The fatal catastrophe has sent shares of parent company NiSource tumbling by 12% in trading Friday, and earlier that day Axios' Courtenay Brown looked at what analysts are saying about the company.

3. Shell's new climate move

Royal Dutch Shell unveiled plans Monday to cut methane emissions from its worldwide operations to below 0.2% of the natural gas from their projects by 2025.

Why it matters: Shell, BP and others promote natural gas as a climate-friendly alternative to coal, thanks to its far lower carbon emissions when it's burned.

  • But methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, and leaks from oil-and-gas production (and elsewhere on the supply chain) erode some of that advantage.
  • Shell's move is similar BP's pledge in April, while Exxon unveiled a methane-cutting goal in May.

How it works: "Shell is implementing programmes, including using infrared cameras to scan for methane emissions, deploying advanced technology to repair leaks, and replacing high-bleed pneumatically-operated controllers with low emission alternatives," the company said Monday.

  • Shell said its current "baseline" leak methane leakage rate ranges from 0.01% to 0.8% across its assets.

The big picture: The move signals how some companies are pledging to forge ahead with methane cuts even as the Trump administration moves to scuttle U.S. regulations.

  • However, activists say the oil majors are still moving too slowly on climate efforts overall.

What's next: WSJ notes that the The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group of 10 huge companies — including Aramco, BP, Shell, Total, Eni and others — plan to announce methane targets by the end of the year.

4. Power outages follow Florence

Florence continues to wreak havoc as it gradually moves north-northeast, per multiple sources, causing at least 17 storm-related deaths and leaving 100s of thousands without power.

Power: Via CBS News, "Some 523,000 homes and businesses are still without power in North and South Carolina as of 5 a.m. Monday."

Fuels: Per Reuters, "Kinder Morgan Inc. reopened fuel terminals in South Carolina on Sunday after Tropical Storm Florence passed through the area." The company today plans to re-enter facilities in Wilmington, N.C., the story notes.

Coal waste: AP reports, "Duke Energy said Saturday night that heavy rains from Florence caused a slope to collapse at a coal-ash landfill at a closed power station near the North Carolina coast."

5. Petro notes: OPEC, shale, LNG, sanctions

LNG: Per the Financial Times, "Vitol, the world’s largest independent energy trader, has signed a flexible 15-year offtake deal with the marketing arm of US liquefied natural gas supplier Cheniere, as trading houses rush to expand in the market for moving gas by ships."

OPEC: S&P Global Platts unpacks the latest OPEC intrigue...

  • "With a critical meeting in Algiers fast approaching, a fractured OPEC and its allies are still searching for consensus on how members with spare output capacity can equitably distribute the extra barrels they intend to pump without upsetting those unable to produce more."

Shale: Via Bloomberg, "North Dakota’s oil production surged to a new record in July, putting the mid-western state on par with OPEC member Venezuela."

Sanctions: Per CNBC, "U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil industry are unproductive and there will be consequences to such a move, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told CNBC."

6. The rising profile of negative emissions

Amy reports ... Technology capturing and putting to use carbon dioxide emissions is gaining momentum, with a new initiative to be announced this week by Columbia University.

Why it matters: The initiative reflects growing interest in the technology among foundations and other groups. Scientists say it’s increasingly essential for limiting Earth’s temperature rise and avoiding the worst impacts of a warmer world.

This is because there's already so much buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we’ve reached a point that some needs to be taken out.

The details: The research initiative, housed in Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, will be led by Julio Friedmann, a former top Energy Department official under President Obama.

  • Friedmann didn’t disclose the amount of money being put toward it, but he noted it’s a significant priority for the university, including its Earth Institute.
  • One big goal of the effort, Friedmann said, will be to figure out how to improve the financing of projects so they can be attractive to investors in a way that renewable energy is today.

"If you want carbon to enter the market the way wind power has, what do you need to do? That’s a financing question," Friedmann said.

Read more of Amy's piece in the Axios stream.

7. Green aftermath of the financial meltdown

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Axios has a package of stories and graphics on the 10-year anniversary of the financial meltdown that's worthy of your time.

In one of the pieces, we looked at how the economic collapse did not take the renewables industry down with it — and in several ways it even proved a blessing.

The big picture: The 2009 stimulus law funneled some $90 billion into low-carbon energy initiatives, including grants for renewable electricity development in lieu of tax credits.

Those grants proved vital. Longstanding tax credits are key to building wind and solar power projects, but the tax equity market collapsed alongside the financial sector.

The Treasury Department quickly launched the grant program, which eventually provided over $26 billion.

"Deployment would have slowed down dramatically because these companies would have had to seek other financing, and it would have been more expensive even if it was available."
— Keith Martin, project finance specialist, Norton Rose Fulbright

Other provisions that aided low-carbon energy included:

  • The stimulus expanded and helped finance the federal loan guarantee program for various clean energy projects.
  • Despite some flops (most famously the panel manufacturer Solyndra), the program helped launch utility-scale solar power generation.
  • It provided the first funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which seeds R&D into next-wave tech and moves it toward commercialization.

Go deeper: Read the full piece in the Axios stream.

8. Dust settles on the climate summit

A few more pieces of news emerged from the big climate summit in California that closed Friday...

Money: Over two dozen philanthropies jointly pledged $4 billion ($3 billion in new plans) over five years to fund emissions-cutting efforts, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

  • Why it matters: Multiple funding sources — public, corporate and private — are needed to help get global emissions onto a path scientists call consistent with avoiding the worst effects of global warming.
  • The intrigue: The Chronicle provides some important context, noting that it stems from criticism that the philanthropic world has "chronically underfunded" climate work.
  • "Each institution plans to attack climate change using its own approach, whether it means developing alternative fuels, 're-greening' deforested lands, pressing for carbon-emission limits, or another strategy," they report.

Space: California Gov. Jerry Brown said the state is working to launch a satellite to track climate change and "help the world dramatically reduce these destructive emissions."

  • Axios' Lauren Meier reports California is partnering with San Francisco-based Earth imaging company Planet Labs to build the satellite which aims to track pollutants with "unprecedented precision," and is expected to be able to detect the "point source" of climate pollutants, including super pollutants.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle has much more here.

The big picture: The New York Times' Brad Plumer sizes up the week of announcements by city and state governments, companies and others, noting "it will take time to tell whether these local actions can scale up quickly enough to make a significant dent in global emissions."

Go deeper: Scroll down on this page on the summit website for a tally of the various announcements and pledges.

Ben GemanAmy Harder