Jan 13, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. If last week is any indication of how this whole decade will go, well, we better buckle up! 

I'll share a glimpse of my latest Harder Line column that seeks to make sense of last week's disparate developments, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,037 words, 4 minutes.

1 big thing: Making sense of a chaotic new decade

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

We’ve had enough news in recent days to suggest we’re 13 months, not days, into this decade.

Driving the news: President Trump is pushing the most significant changes to environmental law in 50 years, the world’s largest investor is going big on global warming, and House Democrats are going it alone on climate policy. And this all just happened last week!

Where it stands: It was easy to miss those developments with all of the alarming headlines of the start of 2020 — America flirted with a Middle East war although the oil market surprisingly shrugged it off, a plane was shot from the sky, the impeachment saga continues, and Australia is burning.

Quick take: Cue a modern-day rendition of 1989’s "We Didn’t Start the Fire."

“How does one be productive in the midst of all the unpredictability? I think it forces you to choose between nihilism or pragmatism and loud or quiet.”
— Jason Grumet, president, Bipartisan Policy Center

The big picture: Big changes are happening on the energy and climate change front that suggest more polarization and acrimony that could last long after the presidential election.

1) Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee released an outline of sweeping legislation on Wednesday laying out policies that the lawmakers say could achieve net-zero U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within the next three decades.

  • It adds policy substance to what has otherwise been mostly rhetoric coming from House Democrats.

2) Trump announced proposals on Thursday to drastically narrow the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act, a law governing environmental reviews of America’s infrastructure, as a way to hasten the construction of everything from bridges to pipelines.

  • “Don’t expect any expedited permitting in the meantime ... in fact, [expect] the opposite. But it does have significant implications for long-term energy investments,” says Leslie Hayward of the Rapidan Energy Group.

3) BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, joined Climate Action 100+, an investor network pushing companies to be more transparent and aggressive in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Time will tell how aggressive BlackRock will be within this group, but even joining is significant.

Flashback: In August 2017, I wrote an article with the headline: “Chaos obscures Washington's biggest policy change.”

  • Its purpose was to underscore how the chaos unfolding in Washington at that time — Trump’s prolific tweeting, the FBI’s Russia investigation and the Mooch’s 15 minutes of fame — was diverting attention from Trump’s near-complete reversal of America’s environmental policies.
  • Today, we have different tweets, investigations and characters — but the same chaos.

The bottom line: “The chaos is now predictable," Grumet says. "I think anybody who is trying to advance policy recognizes that this is the boundary condition.”

Go deeper 

2. What we're watching: oil, politics and climate

Oil markets: The International Energy Agency's closely watched monthly analysis arrives Thursday.

  • Why it matters: It will be the agency's first since the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani rattled oil markets, which have since chilled out.
  • I'll be looking for hints of how IEA analysts size up the level of geopolitical risk, and of course their usual — and often market moving — assessment of global demand.

Politics: Tuesday brings the last Democratic primary debate before the election's first contest — the Iowa caucuses in early February.

  • What we're watching: If energy and climate come up, I'll be watching for what the candidates say about biofuels and wind, which are both a big deal in the state.

Climate: NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday will release their analysis of 2019's global temperatures and the year's major climate trends.

  • Why it matters: One or both agencies are expected to confirm other datasets showing that 2019 was the second-hottest on record behind 2016. (I say "one or both" because their differing methodologies could produce slight differences in the results.)
3. China hits pause on EV subsidy cuts

China announced it will "not make significant cuts" this year to subsidies on new energy vehicles including electric vehicles, via Reuters, "signaling that its policy will remain relatively stable, state media quoted the country’s industry ministry as saying on Saturday."

Why it matters: EV sales in China, which has the world's largest auto market, dropped sharply after the Chinese government significantly cut industry subsidies in July.

  • AP, citing a Chinese trade group, reported that purchases of EVs and hybrids fell nearly 44% in November compared to the prior year.

Driving the news: The Reuters story cites a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology statement plus comments from MIIT's Miao Wei, who told an industry forum there wouldn't be another subsidy cut in July.

Where it stands: "Shares of Chinese electric-vehicle makers including Warren Buffett-backed BYD Co. jumped after the government signaled it won’t continue reducing subsidies for the industry at the same pace this year," Bloomberg reports this morning.

What they're saying: BloombergNEF analyst Colin Mckerracher, on his personal Twitter feed, called the report "big news."

  • "I still think EV growth in China this year will be modest, but then pick up again in 2021," he said, citing the government's goal of having EVs and fuel cell vehicles comprise 25% of Chinese sales by 2025.

* * *

Speaking of EVs, General Motors plans to reintroduce the Hummer to consumers as an electric pickup truck under the GMC brand, unnamed sources familiar with the matter tell the Wall Street Journal.

4. Catch up fast: coal, Aramco, renewables

Coal: "Siemens has refused to rip up a contract to provide infrastructure for a controversial Australian coal project, despite mounting pressure from victims of the country’s bushfires, environmental activists and some of the company’s own employees," FT reports.

Oil: "[Saudi] Aramco, Saudi Arabia's giant state-owned oil monopoly, said late last week it had issued an additional 450 million shares, raising the size of its IPO $3.8 billion to a total of $29.4 billion," CNN Business writes.

Renewables: Per Bloomberg, "Governments should double total investment in solar, wind and other green technologies over the next decade to achieve 'a pathway to climate safety,' the International Renewable Energy Agency said."

5. Quote of the day
"Yeah, that’s nickel and dime."

Who said it: White House hopeful Bernie Sanders, in an interview with the New York Times editorial board published this morning.

The context: Sanders is answering a question about whether he'd recommit the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement. He responds that he would, but quickly pivots...

  • "[W]ould I rejoin the Paris agreement? Yeah. So what? That doesn’t mean anything. You got to go far, far, far beyond where the Paris agreement was," he said.
  • "The world has got to understand that we need bold and aggressive action now if we’re going to save this planet."
Ben GemanAmy Harder