Axios Generate

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May 22, 2019

Good morning and welcome back!

The Who's Pete Townshend celebrated a birthday over the weekend, so we'll open today's newsletter with this lovely deep cut...

1 big thing: A new project to suck CO2 from the sky

Illustration of Earth being sucked into a tube
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Two companies together have set their sights on Texas oil country for building the world's largest facility for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a project that would use the trapped CO2 for boosting oil production.

Driving the news: Carbon Engineering and Occidental Petroleum said Tuesday they're going ahead with engineering and design for a plant in the booming Permian Basin of Texas.

Why it matters: A major UN-led scientific report last year concluded that pathways for holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius all require atmospheric carbon removal in addition to steep emissions cuts.

  • Canada-based Carbon Engineering — whose investors include Bill Gates, the venture arms of Occidental and Chevron, and private equity backers — hopes to commercialize a direct air capture (DAC) technology.
  • Occidental, which specializes in using CO2 injections to boost production from oil wells, can use that trapped CO2.

Where it stands: They're weighing plans for an initial plant that would capture around 500 kilotonnes of CO2 annually, and then scale up with additional facilities around twice that size.

  • If the project moves forward, construction of the first plant would likely begin in 2021.
  • One thing helping to make the project possible are expanded tax credits for carbon-trapping projects signed into law last year.

The big picture: If this project indeed moves ahead, it'll be an important move. "This project shows that this technology isn’t 10 or 20 years away," said Erin Burns of Carbon180, a nonprofit that advocates for negative emissions tech.

  • "The first few projects like this are important not just because of the carbon dioxide they’ll pull out of the air, but because they’ll help pave the way for next tens and hundreds of these plants," she said.

The intrigue: Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham told me the plant would cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

  • He said Carbon Engineering is looking at multiple funding options, including existing investors and other parties. “We have some interested third parties who like the look of the business model,” he added.
  • Carbon Engineering had closed a $68 million financing round earlier this year.

But, but, but: There's a tradeoff in using CO2 for producing oil that's later burned in engines.

  • But Oldham said that the crude produced using the captured CO2 would pencil out to be carbon-neutral or even negative.
  • And, he added, it's a big step toward helping DAC become a tool in fighting global warming.
  • “This is proving the technology to achieve what the [UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says is utterly necessary,” he said.

2. Saudi Aramco dives into U.S. LNG

Saudi Arabia's state oil giant announced plans Wednesday to purchase gas from Sempra Energy's planned Port Arthur LNG project in Texas and hopes to buy a 25% equity stake in the development's first phase.

Why it matters: It's a big step in Saudi Aramco's push to diversify its business lines beyond crude oil, and a sign of intense interest in the growing U.S. LNG sector.

  • Exports are rising and a number of companies are planning new projects amid record U.S. gas production and growing global thirst for the fuel.

Where it stands: The companies are negotiating a 20-year deal for Aramco to buy 5 million metric tons annually from the project, according to the release.

What they're saying: Aramco CEO Amin Nasser noted in the statement that global LNG demand is slated to rise by 4% annually and said Aramco will "continue to pursue strategic partnerships" in the sector.

  • He called the Sempra deal a "major step" in Aramco's efforts to become a global LNG player.

Go deeper: Saudi Arabia lines up deal to buy U.S. natural gas (WSJ)

3. Chart of the day: China's fast auto rise

Reproduced from Rice University's Baker Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals 

Reproduced from Rice University's Baker Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals 

If you want a nice snapshot of China's rapid rise this century, this chart of car ownership from a new Rice University paper isn't bad.

By the numbers: "Beijing’s car ownership reached a level in 10 years that took 50 years to attain in New York City," it notes.

Where it stands: That's wild, but the underlying paper from Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy discusses its energy impact too.

  • It explores how tiny EVs — called Low Speed Electric Vehicles (LSEVs) — selling in large numbers in China can displace gasoline. There's already several million on the roads.

Why it matters: Curbing pollution — CO2 but also smog and particulates — from vehicles in China is important for climate change and public health.

One interesting finding is that in Beijing, vehicle ownership is approaching "saturation," which makes gasoline demand even "more exposed to potential demand disruptors such as LSEVs."

The big picture: "4 million LSEVs could capture an amount of incremental gasoline usage equivalent to the nearly 64,000 [barrels per day] of gasoline demand growth in China between 2016 and 2017," the paper states.

4. Catch up fast: Tesla, offshore wind, sanctions, coal

Nord Stream 2: A top European official is cautioning against the U.S. imposing sanctions on a natural gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

  • Why it matters: President Trump and Europe have shared interests in exporting U.S. natural gas across the Atlantic, but interests diverge over this pipeline.
  • Read more from her discussion with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

EVs: "Tesla has reduced the prices of its two most expensive models, raising concerns about fading interest in its cars and whether the company can generate enough cash to pay all the bills," AP reports.

Coal: Per Bloomberg, the CFO of mining giant BHP said Wednesday that thermal coal, used for electricity, could be phased out "potentially sooner than expected."

Renewables: Via Greentech Media, "Portuguese power firm EDP and French utility Engie announced a joint venture focused on achieving a ranking among the world’s top-five largest offshore wind developers."

5. Scoop: EPA official steps down after 2 years

Troy Lyons, one of the longest-serving senior Trump administration officials at the EPA, is stepping down and joining lobbying firm Massie Partners, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Lyons, an associate administrator, was instrumental in helping EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and several assistant administrators work through the Senate confirmation process. He was also involved in handling ethical inquiries into Wheeler’s past work.

What they’re saying:

"I am deeply grateful for Troy’s service to the Agency and for guiding my two confirmations through the Senate."
— Andrew Wheeler

6. BP agrees to weigh lobbying group ties

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BP, under pressure over climate change, is the latest oil giant to agree to review its membership in trade associations.

Why it matters: Activist investors are increasingly pushing fossil fuel producers to abandon lobbying groups that oppose policies like mandatory emissions curbs and carbon pricing.

  • Among oil majors, BP joins Equinor, which plans to release results of its review by Q1 2020. Shell has already completed its assessment.

Where it stands: Chairman Helge Lund announced the move at BP's annual meeting Tuesday. A spokesperson did not provide specific memberships that will be assessed, but said the review will be informed by this existing position statement on trade groups.

The big question: Will K Street lobbying powerhouses spring a leak, or alter their stances, if Big Oil companies threaten to bail over differences on climate?

  • This hasn't happened yet.
  • Shell reviewed a suite of memberships and said in early April that it's leaving one group: American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.
  • But, it's sticking with more powerful players including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute.

What's next: Activists investors will be watching. Climate Action 100+ said they will be looking to "ensure BP’s lobbying activity supports the Paris goals."

Go deeper: BP bosses get public grilling on climate from largest investors (Bloomberg)