Apr 17, 2020

Axios Generate

Welcome back readers. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,241 words, a 4.5-minute read.

Situational awareness: Domestic violence appears to be worsening during the COVID-19 crisis.

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline could use your help if you can during these economically tough times.
  • Donate here and reach out by calling 1-800-799-7233 or texting LOVEIS to 22522 if you have concerns about yourself or someone else.

🎵And finally, a belated happy birthday to Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett. They'll play us into the weekend...

1 big thing: Coronavirus drives coal to new low
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Data: Rhodium Group analysis of EIA data. Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a years-long decline in coal-fired electricity, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: Weaker demand and super-low natural gas prices, both driven by the pandemic, have prompted coal to drop to just 15% of the U.S. electricity mix for the first time in modern history, per new analysis of government data by consultancy Rhodium Group.

  • Rhodium analyzed hourly electricity data from the Energy Information Administration to conclude that wind and solar generated more electricity than coal for several days over the past week.
  • "That’s never happened before," said Trevor Houser, a partner at the firm.

Flashback: A decade ago, coal powered nearly 50% of America’s electricity, by far the largest share.

  • The one-two punch of cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and tougher environmental regulations during the Obama administration pushed coal far from its traditional perch as America’s top power source.

Two factors are driving coal’s relative demise now compared to other power sources.

  1. Existing wind and solar plants have fixed costs and no marginal cost, which means they "generally get priority" when deciding which types of plants to run, Houser said.
  2. Natural gas prices are very low due to relatively warm weather and rock-bottom oil prices, which have also been driven lower by the pandemic. This means gas is beating out coal for whatever piece of the shrunken pie is left.

Of note: The chart above excludes natural gas, the largest source of electricity, because it’s stayed relatively constant in this time frame, as has hydropower and nuclear power.

What we're watching: Is this a temporary blip downward for coal that will change once shutdowns are lessened or will this acceleration cement a permanent new low?

2. Shell provides a glimpse inside its lobbying

Royal Dutch Shell paid the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's most powerful lobbying group, at least $12.5 million in 2019, the oil giant revealed.

Driving the news: The tally, which Shell tells Axios is consistent with recent years, shows up in a report Shell published yesterday on its trade group memberships.

Why it matters: The report, posted the same day Shell announced new climate pledges, provides a look at how much a major oil company pays to be part of various associations.

  • In 2019, the payments to API, which Shell says were between $12.5 million and $15 million, were far more than what they paid other groups listed in the report.
  • The next tranche lists payments of $1 million–$2.5 million to groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the European Chemical Industry Council.

Where it stands: Shell's first-time publication of the per-group payments arrives in an update to its April 2019 report that lays out areas where it disagrees with the posture of some associations.

  • Shell's latest review did not find grounds to quit any more groups after bailing on the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers last year over climate policy differences.
  • However, Shell says that it still has areas of "some misalignment" with several groups and will continue to push from the inside, for instance noting it will advocate that API should back carbon pricing.

The intrigue: The outcome includes staying with the Western States Petroleum Association, a group that BP abandoned in February, saying they were "unable to reconcile" their views.

  • Shell said it will press for the group to support the goal of the Paris climate agreement.

Go deeper:

3. Notes from the oil demand cliff...
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Reproduced from EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

If you're in the market for a sense of how much the coronavirus pandemic is crushing oil consumption, we've got more evidence.

Driving the news: U.S. jet fuel demand is at its lowest level in decades, Amy reports, citing weekly data that dates back to 1991, which you can see in the chart above.

  • Monthly data that goes even further shows a decline to its lowest levels since the 1960s.
  • And U.S. gasoline demand dropped a similarly staggering amount the week before, Amy writes.

By the numbers: The consultancy Rystad Energy updated their global demand reduction estimates this week for oil overall and separate fuel categories.

  • For road fuels, they now see a decline of almost 10% in 2020 compared to 2019, which assumes significant recovery of consumption later this year.
  • For April, they estimate that road fuel demand is roughly 32 million barrels per day, down 33% from the same period last year.
  • Overall, they estimate global oil demand has fallen 27.6 million barrels per day this month compared to last year, which is similar to the International Energy Agency's estimate two days ago.
...and the industry cutbacks

The huge oil producer ConocoPhillips said yesterday that it would cut its North American oil production by 225,000 barrels per day and slash capital spending more deeply than it planned even a month ago.

Why it matters: It's North America's "largest pandemic-related oil cutback to date," Bloomberg reports, noting it amounts to over a fourth of the company's production in the continent.

  • Over half the production cuts will be in the lower-48 states. The announcement arrives as prices for West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, are hovering around two-decade lows.
  • ConocoPhillips said it's reducing its planned capital spending this year by another $1.6 billion, adding to a smaller cut announced a month ago bringing the total cut to $2.3 billion.

The big picture: It's the latest sign of spending and production-cutting plans as the COVID-19 pandemic crushes demand and prices.

  • "Overall, U.S. and Canadian producers have chopped 729,000 [barrels per day] from their goals," Reuters reports, citing its own tally.

What they're saying: A Barclays note this week lays out how the oil industry's retrenchment is hammering oilfield services companies.

  • "Simply put, 1Q20 earnings really won’t matter much … it’s about how bad the next couple of quarters are going to get," they write.
  • "With the oilfield services landscape dramatically changed, investor focus has shifted to identifying those companies who will survive once the dust settles, much less about positioning around quarters."
4. The post-pandemic landscape may favor cars

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Early evidence suggests public transit will struggle to recover from the pandemic, according to Bloomberg's Nathaniel Bullard.

Driving the news: He looks at data in post-lockdown traffic in China and finds that by early March it was above the levels from a year earlier.

  • "When we exit our however-long-it-will-be of weekdays that feel like Sundays, people will start moving again. China’s example suggests that personal car traffic will more than rebound — and that public transit will not," he writes.

Why it matters: It's an early data point in what will be a complicated question going forward, which is how the coronavirus crisis may affect long-term oil and electricity use — and what it means for carbon emissions.

But, but, but: As we noted late last month, some analysts believe that what's now enforced behavior that cuts oil demand — notably working from home and avoiding flying — could stick around to some extent when the pandemic ends.

Go deeper:

5. Catch up fast: EPA, climate, Europe

Regulations: "The Trump administration on Thursday gutted an Obama-era rule that compelled the country’s coal plants to cut back emissions of mercury and other human health hazards, a move designed to limit future regulation of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants." (AP)

Research: "A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows." (The Washington Post)

EU policy: "European Green Deal investments will remain a priority as part of the EU's efforts to jump-start its economy after the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday." (S&P Global Platts)