Oct 29, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning. I'm filling in for Ben Geman, who took a well-deserved day off yesterday (though he already jumped in this morning to cover Shell earnings; thanks Ben!).

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,181 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Pandemic scrambles Americans’ acceptance of science

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is throwing a wrench into Americans’ understanding of science, which has big implications for climate change.

Driving the news: Recent focus groups in battleground states suggest some voters are more skeptical of scientists in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while surveys reveal the persistence of a deep partisan divide.

Why it matters: Science is at the heart of understanding the impacts of a warming world and what kind of policies governments should enforce.

  • The world’s response to COVID-19 is providing what some experts say is a hyper-fast glimpse into how the world might address climate change over a longer period of time.
  • Climate change, because it’s slower moving and its impacts more diffuse, is going to be even harder to tackle than a relatively fast-moving pandemic.

Where it stands: Swing voters in five battleground states surveyed over the last six months expressed increasing skepticism about science as the pandemic took over America.

  • Focus groups with nearly 60 swing voters in Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin answered questions on several topics, including science and climate change, on a regular basis. (Most of the voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012, then Donald Trump in 2016.)
  • These focus groups, part of a broader project conducted by the nonpartisan research firms Engagious and Focus Pointe Global, are a small handful of voters and unlike polls do not offer a statistically significant sample.
  • The responses nonetheless provide a richer snapshot inside the minds of voters in key states.

How it works: The voters were asked whether, during the pandemic, scientific experts are a net-plus or net-minus when it comes to guiding public policy.

  • In more recent months — August, September and October — the voters were more evenly divided on the question.
  • In earlier months (April to July), more voters said scientists were a net-positive than said they were a net-negative.
  • “I trust them a little less since COVID,” said Taylor, an Obama-Trump Michigan voter. “They have gone back and forth too many times. First, it was wear masks, then it was don’t.”

The intrigue: These snapshots provide a rich backdrop to surveys that suggest a mixed picture of Americans’ acceptance of science.

  • Nearly a third of voters in several battleground states say they have greater confidence in scientists since the pandemic, while 22% say their trust in science has weakened, according to a survey conducted by centrist think tank Third Way and ALG Research.
  • That survey reiterated what Pew Research Center has found, which is that any increase in trust with experts has occurred almost exclusively among Democrats.

Methodology: Third Way’s survey polled 1,500 likely voters across seven battleground states from July 23-29, with oversamples of 100 Black Americans and 100 Latinos. Its margin of error is +/- 2.5%.

Go deeper: Beyond America, trust in science rose during the pandemic

2. Chart of the day: Fracking battlegrounds

Natural gas production has increased significantly over the past 5-10 years in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Why it matters: With all the talk of fracking on the campaign trail, I thought it would be worthwhile to show the production increase. Virtually all of this is coming via fracking.

Expand chart
Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

How it works: Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is an extraction method whereby a mix of water, sand and chemicals are injected underground to unlock fuel stored in rock formations.

The big picture: Fracking has also unlocked a lot of jobs—and controversy—in these states and others over the last decade as the technology’s use became more widespread across the country. Naturally, the tech then injected itself into politics.

Where it stands: The Trump administration is working on an executive order that would study the economic benefits of fracking, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said on Fox Business Tuesday, confirming a WSJ story from the night before.

What they’re saying: The White House “may intend it as a means of outlining a continuing pro-production trajectory during a second Trump term to multiple ‘swing’ states,” writes an analysis Wednesday from research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

  • Pennsylvania, especially, is critical because its Electoral College votes (20 out of the 270 needed to win the White House) “could potentially determine the election, and messaging on fracking could potentially make a small but crucial difference," ClearView writes.

Yes, but: Pennsylvanians are split about whether or not they even like fracking, polling shows.

3. Shell posts profit and boosts dividend

Royal Dutch Shell reported a nearly $1 billion third-quarter profit Thursday, beating analysts' forecasts, and announced a slight increase in dividends, Axios' Ben Geman reports.

Driving the news: Its stock is up 3% in premarket trading this morning but remains at roughly 25-year lows as the sector faces headwinds from COVID-19's effect on prices and demand.

  • The profit is higher than last quarter but still 80% below Shell's haul in the July-September period in 2019.
  • Shell increased dividends by 4% this quarter and vowed unspecified annual increases ahead, which follows the 66% cut six months ago.

Where it stands: Shell's announcement warns of "significant uncertainty in the macroeconomic conditions with an expected negative impact on demand for oil, gas and related products."

More broadly, the industry's market position has waned in recent years amid questions about future demand, pressure over climate change and other forces.

The big picture: Shell, like its peer BP, is cutting costs and jobs as it navigates COVID-19 and moves deeper into low-carbon sectors, though fossil fuels remain its dominant business.

  • Shell said decisions about its portfolio — like focusing its oil-and-gas production on nine "core" regions — will bring enough money to grow its low-carbon business while boosting shareholder payouts.
  • February will bring a "comprehensive" update on its repositioning and plans to be a "net zero" company by 2050, Shell said.

What's next: Exxon and Chevron report their earnings Friday.

4. Catch up fast: Exxon, GM and more
  • ExxonMobil is keeping its dividend flat, which is the first time it's done that in nearly 40 years (Reuters)
  • E&E News published a second part of an investigation into General Motors. This one focuses on the challenges facing a female scientist at the automaker.
  • Trump made final moves to remove protections from the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which we wrote about in September.
  • Payment firm Stripe lets customers make carbon removal purchases (TechCrunch)
  • Check out the video of our Axios event Wednesday, where Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich and Ali Zaidi, a top climate adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, spoke on renewables, environmental justice and more.
5. One personal thing: Mobility update

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Flashback: In June, I wrote about how the pandemic is creating new health worries and exacerbating economic woes for the whole concept of shared cars, bikes and scooters, challenges I'm experiencing firsthand as I try to get around in the car-dominated Seattle sans car.

Where it stands: Things have improved! A new car-sharing company launched in Seattle, e-scooters and bikes materialized on the street, and studies emerged suggesting public transport and other shared transport options weren't as bad as some have feared.

The intrigue: Just as I published that aforementioned column, GIG Car Share, a California-based car-sharing firm backed by AAA Northern California, launched in Seattle (delayed from a planned March rollout).

  • Its cars are either hybrid or electric, "so you can feel good knowing your adventure has an itty-bitty carbon footprint," the company touts on its website.
  • When reached for comment, it also cites a 2016 academic study that found each car-sharing vehicle removes four to seven metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year—and between seven and 11 privately owned vehicles from the road.

The bottom line: I will probably get a car someday. But for now, I'm one of the people avoiding my own partly due to GIG.