Apr 3, 2020

Axios Generate

Welcome back. Today's word count is 1,324 words, or a 5-minute read.

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1 big thing: The chaotic thaw in the oil price wars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This morning brings the news that the OPEC+ group will meet remotely Monday to discuss potentially steep production curbs, sending prices upwards on the prospect of easing the global glut as COVID-19 crushes demand.

Why it matters: The meeting, reported by multiple outlets, is the second concrete sign in two days of new coordinated efforts since the OPEC+ supply management alliance — led by megaproducers Saudi Arabia and Russia — collapsed a month ago.

  • Yesterday Saudi Arabia called for a meeting of OPEC+ and other producers to "restore the desired balance to the oil markets."
  • Reuters, citing an OPEC source, said the OPEC+ group is debating a global supply cut of 10 million barrels per day.

But, but, but: There's still all kinds of hurdles and confusion!

  • There's plenty of uncertainty about Russia's posture. The Russian news agency Sputnik, quoting a spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin, reports that he will meet today with Russian oil company executives.
  • Bloomberg reports that Russia is ready to take action to halt the slide in oil prices.
  • And another wildcard is the push by Saudi Arabia for countries outside the group to join the production-cutting effort.
  • The kingdom's statement Thursday calling for an urgent meeting said it should include other countries.

Between the lines: Bloomberg reports that for the Saudis, "it’s essential that producers including the Americans join in."

  • But President Trump yesterday evening said that he had not agreed to U.S. production cuts — and indeed hadn't discussed it — in his recent oil talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince.
  • And the U.S. market system doesn't enable the kind of top-down control employed by the Saudis and others.
  • However, market forces are going to push down U.S. output. And regulators in states including Texas, the heart of the U.S. industry, can theoretically impose curbs.

The intrigue: This afternoon Trump is slated to meet with a group of U.S. oil executives from companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as big independent producers like Occidental and Devon Energy.

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that the outcome of the OPEC+ talks will be influenced by Trump's meeting.

What they're saying: "The administration will continue to engage with Russian and Saudi leadership, OPEC countries, and America’s energy industry to identify solutions that will help stabilize oil markets and the global economy," a senior Trump administration official tells Axios.

Meanwhile, prices surged yesterday morning after Trump tweeted the unsubstantiated claim that the Russians and Saudis were preparing for joint cuts of up to 15 million barrels per day.

  • They came back down as confirmation of Trump's tweets didn't arrive, but then rose this morning on news of the OPEC+ meeting that signals the prospect of action.
  • This morning the global benchmark Brent crude is trading at around $33.54, well above the lows in the $22 range a few days ago.
Bonus: Reality check on supply

The unprecedented demand collapse — not the supply picture — is the biggest force acting on oil markets right now. Even a potential international agreement on production will not send prices back to pre-pandemic levels.

  • Some analysts and experts say the travel and economic freezes could be knocking 30 million barrels per day or more off of global consumption.

What they're saying: "It's very positive that the world's top three oil producers are talking about stabilizing oil markets but demand declines from coronavirus impacts are casting a huge shadow in the oil sector," oil analyst Joe McMonigle tells S&P Global Platts.

  • But he adds that production cuts can "at least place some kind of catalyst in markets for a floor" on prices.
2. Mnuchin: Oil companies can seek Fed aid

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that oil companies are eligible for aid from new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, but not direct loans from his department.

Driving the news: GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who heads the Energy Committee, on Wednesday sent Mnuchin a letter urging him to consider the distressed industry for loans under the recently signed $2.2 trillion economic rescue bill.

Where it stands: Mnuchin, when asked about her request at a White House briefing, said he has "very limited ability to do direct loans out of the Treasury," and that he can provide only for specific sectors including airlines and national security companies.

But he added: "Outside of that, we work with the Federal Reserve to create broad-based lending facilities, which we will do."

  • "Our expectation is the energy companies, like all our other companies, will be able to participate in broad-based facilities, whether it's the corporate facility or whether it's the Main Street facility," he said.
3. GM and Honda team up on EVs

General Motors and Honda will jointly develop two electric vehicles for Honda's product line that are slated for manufacture at GM's North American plants.

Why it matters: No company can go it alone when it comes to funding advanced technologies like electrification, per Axios' Joann Muller.

  • While Honda is known for efficient gasoline-powered engines, it needs help with battery-electric vehicles.
  • GM, for its part, gets added scale for its new Ultium battery platform, which should help drive down EV prices.

Details: Sales of the new vehicles are slated to begin in 2024.

  • The companies already work together on many fronts, including hydrogen fuel cells.
  • Honda is also an investor in GM’s self-driving unit, Cruise.

The big picture: It's among a growing number of major corporate partnerships over EVs, such as Ford and VW's alliance, Toyota and Panasonic's joint battery development, Ford's work with the startup Rivian, and more.

But, but, but: GM and Honda are on different sides of the debate over auto emissions policy.

  • Honda — along with Ford, VW, BMW and Volvo — are part of a preliminary deal with California to meet CO2 standards that are stricter than Trump administration rules.
  • GM is among the automakers on the administration's side in litigation to block California (and states that follow its lead) from imposing separate standards.

* * *

Speaking of EVs, TechCrunch reports...

  • "Tesla delivered 88,400 vehicles in the first quarter, beating most analysts expectations despite a 21% decrease from the previous quarter as the COVID-19 pandemic put downward pressure on demand and created logistical challenges."
4. The public pulse on the oil industry
Data: Brunswick Group survey, margin of error ±3 percentage points; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new Brunswick Group survey finds a largely supportive public view of the oil-and-gas sector but also backing for attaching strings — including environmental restrictions — to potential federal aid.

What they found: As the chart above shows, most adults surveyed believe the industry has a mostly or somewhat positive effect on the U.S. economy.

  • Support among Republicans is higher, but the survey conducted in late March showed a majority of Democrats in the "mostly" or "somewhat" positive camp too.
  • Over half the public (53%) supports providing some form of financial assistance, including nearly two-thirds of Republicans and slightly less half of Democrats.

But, but, but: 63% of respondents agree that financial assistance should be tethered to commitments to reduce pollution and invest more in "cleaner forms of energy."

The big picture: The polling comes as the industry, especially independent companies, face intense financial headwinds thanks to the collapse in demand and prices.

  • It largely stems from COVID-19, while the Saudi-Russia price war has compounded the challenges.

Threat level: Whiting Petroleum's Chapter 11 filing this week is just the first of a large wave of bankruptcies in the debt-laden U.S. sector if low prices persist, the consultancy Rystad Energy said Friday.

  • Rystad estimates that 70 producers will have trouble meeting interest payments with WTI prices at $30-per-barrel, and at $20-per-barrel, Chapter 11 filings could reach 140 this year. WTI is currently at roughly $27.43.
Bonus chart: Uneven support for policy options
Data: Brunswick Group survey, margin of error ±3 percentage points; Chart: Axios Visuals

The same Brunswick Group survey shows varying levels of support for potential forms of aid for the distressed industry.

What they found: Few back the idea of easing environmental regulations. There's more support for federal crude purchases.

  • But the recent Capitol Hill economic stabilization bill omitted $3 billion the White House is seeking to buy 77 million barrels for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

What we're watching: Today's White House meeting with oil producers and what potential steps the administration could take. 

  • Reuters writes that the "administration may offer ways to help the industry weather the crisis, including waiving royalty payments drillers must pay for oil produced on federal lands, or imposing an import tariff on foreign crude oil."
  • But, as Axios and others have reported, the industry is not unified on policy goals.