Jan 15, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,260 words, 4.7 minutes.

And we're almost exactly 40 years past the release date of The Pretenders' self-titled debut album, which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: A telling debate broke out for a moment

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Climate change wasn't front and center in last night's Democratic primary debate, but the topic produced some noteworthy moments.

Why it matters: It was the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, and multiple polls have shown that climate is among voters' priorities there.

A brief but telling scuffle broke out when a climate question arrived near the end.

Amy Klobuchar, asked why she doesn't support calls to ban fracking, said natural gas is a "transition fuel" on the path to carbon neutrality by midcentury.

The other side: Bernie Sanders shook his head as she spoke. His plan includes a fracking ban and is generally far more aggressive than Klobuchar's.

  • Klobuchar also touted carbon pricing, which has lost cachet on the left and isn't in Sanders' plan.

Quick take: It highlighted the divide between moderate and left Democrats over the role of natural gas in the energy mix.

  • A standing reminder that a fracking ban is DOA in Congress (though a Democratic president could restrict fracking federal lands), and getting to net-zero emissions by 2050, let alone sooner, would be immensely difficult.

The big picture: Several moments captured the way climate is now stitched into the fabric of Democrats' discussion of lots of topics — and why Sanders' approach excites young activists.

Take the moment when Sanders cited the absence of climate provisions to explain his opposition to the USMCA trade deal.

  • When his USMCA answer veered into a mini-speech on climate, The Des Moines Register's Brianne Pfannenstiel interjected, "We're going to get to climate change, but I'd like to stay on trade."
  • Sanders replied, "They are the same in this issue."

My thought bubble: That view of climate as the mother of all cross-cutting topics is a reason Sanders is so popular in the Green New Deal camp.

Bonus: More debate takeaways

1. Candidates knew their audience as they made the case that their plans would help Iowa farmers.

For instance, after frontrunner Joe Biden said, "We're the only country in the world that's ever taken great crisis and turned it into great opportunity," he added:

  • "And one of the ways to do it is with farmers here in Iowa, by making them the first group in the world to get to net-zero emissions by paying them for planting and absorbing carbon in their fields."

2. The heat from Australia's fires has made its way into the U.S. contest. Sanders, Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg all cited the fires. "This is no longer theoretical and this is no longer off in the future," Buttigieg said of the effects of climate change.

3. Biden didn't emphasize climate as much as Sanders and Steyer. He stuck to his message of citing his past work (including green energy spending in the 2009 stimulus) and job opportunities from building out climate-related infrastructure.

  • But, but, but: Biden gaffed a bit when he touted "12 billion gallons of gasoline — barrels of gasoline to be saved immediately" by reinstating mileage rules implemented when he was VP.
  • He's presumably referring to 2012 estimates that standards imposed through 2025 would save 12 billion barrels of oil over the life of the covered vehicles.
2. The limits of BlackRock's climate plan

BlackRock's climate strategy rolled out Tuesday won't leave anyone confusing the asset management giant with Greenpeace, despite the suite of big new pledges.

Driving the news: Take the plan to dump producers of thermal coal — the stuff used in power plants — from their active portfolios.

  • It targets companies that generate more than 25% of their revenue from thermal coal.
  • But Bloomberg points out that "large, diversified miners — which also rank among the largest coal producers — won’t be affected."
  • Coal revenue for mining heavyweights Glencore, Anglo American, and BHP Group are all under the 25% threshold, Bloomberg notes.

But, but, but: A new update from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says BlackRock's coal policy is nonetheless consequential.

  • They note it would likely capture firms including China Shenhua, China National Coal, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal Inc., Contura Energy, Adani Enterprises and many others.
  • And, they note, BlackRock's vow to "closely scrutinize" companies that use lots of thermal coal could bring divestment from big power companies like Duke Energy.

The big picture: Most of the trillions of dollars BlackRock manages for clients are in passive funds, which means the company isn't directly picking the investments.

  • Nonetheless, BlackRock's strategy does address passive investment vehicles. The firm is expanding offerings of sustainability-focused exchange-traded funds.
  • Part of that plan would allow clients to select funds that do not include certain companies and sectors, including a "fossil fuel screen."

The bottom line: Environmentalists generally applauded BlackRock's moves but also acknowledged their limits.

As the NYT notes, "Because of its sheer size, BlackRock will remain one of the world’s largest investors in fossil-fuel companies."

Go deeper: BlackRock vows focus on climate change

3. Wind and solar dominate new U.S. power capacity
Expand chart
Reproduced from EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Via Axios' Amy Harder...Wind and solar make up more than three-quarters of the electricity capacity coming online in the country this year, new U.S. Energy Information Administration data show. 

Why it matters: These two renewable sources of energy are increasingly becoming cost-competitive, even while government subsidies for them is lessening, compared to traditionally dominant sources, such as natural gas and coal.

Yes, but: This data represents capacity, not actual electricity generated. Because it’s not always windy or sunny, wind and solar have a lower capacity compared to, say, natural gas or nuclear power, which can be turned on and off on demand. 

Go deeper: As wind and solar grows, so do their challenges

4. A new push for coherent recycling policy

Over a dozen trade groups led by the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) this morning launched a coalition to help craft federal policy that would "fundamentally reimagine the U.S. recycling system."

Why it matters: The coalition includes some prominent K Street players and hopes to create "consistent rules and practices" around what's now a crazy-quilt of recycling systems nationwide.

  • "The United States is facing a packaging and plastic waste crisis greatly exacerbated by nearly 10,000 unique recycling systems," said CBA President Geoff Freeman in a statement.
  • Petrochemicals used in creating new plastic is a big source of oil demand.

Where it stands: Other members include the American Beverage Association, the Consumer Technology Association, the National Retail Federation and others.

  • The coalition is planning a series of "regional roundtables." The eventual goal is a major policy push in 2021, Meghan Stasz, CBA's VP for packaging and sustainability, tells Axios.
  • She said some of the ideas could end up as legislative proposals. "We don’t want to start with too narrow of an idea of what the final outcome would be. What we do know is that we want it to be national in scope," she said.

The big picture: Stasz said companies working to boost the use of post-consumer materials in their packaging are hampered by lack of supply. They also have financial reasons to want more recycling.

  • "Right now there is not nearly enough supply and that is because recycling rates are so low," she said, adding that more supply would also lower the cost.
  • She notes that right now, "virgin plastic is much cheaper than recycled plastic."
5. Catch up fast: Oil, PG&E, climate

Oil and gas: Via Reuters, "Tullow Oil is to take a $1.5 billion (1.15 billion pounds) writedown after cutting its long-term oil price assumptions by $10 to $65 a barrel, a downgrade to reserves in Ghana and disappointing exploration wells, the company said on Wednesday."

Utilities: Bloomberg reports that power giant PG&E appears to be moving a step closer to emerging from bankruptcy.

"PG&E Corp. is nearing a deal with a group of noteholders led by bond giant Pacific Investment Management Co. and activist investor Elliott Management Corp., who’ve repeatedly sought to derail the company’s $46 billion restructuring plan," it reports.

Media: Per CNN, "Rupert Murdoch's son and his wife are lashing out against his father's sprawling media empire for how it covers the climate crisis, especially in light of the fires raging in the family's native Australia."

Ben GemanAmy Harder