Dec 11, 2019

Axios Generate

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,303 words, 5 minutes.

Situational awareness:

  • "Saudi Arabia’s oil company Aramco began trading for the first time on Wednesday, gaining 10% in its first moments on the market in a dramatic debut that pushed its value to $1.88 trillion, higher than any other listed company in the world," AP reports.
  • Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has become the youngest person, at 16, to be selected as Time Magazine's Person of the Year, Axios writes.

Plus, in honor of the greatest Pink Floyd shout-out ever in an analyst's research note, that truly original band has today's intro tune...

1 big thing: The oil industry's lobbying evolution

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The American Petroleum Institute is now supporting the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and, separately, technology for capturing carbon dioxide, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: These are subtle but important shifts from the oil industry's most powerful lobbying group. They reflect the sector's reluctant and uneven embrace of climate change as a problem the government should address.

Driving the news:

  • "API supports the ambitions of the 2015 [Paris] agreement, including global action that reduces emissions and alleviates poverty around the world,” spokesperson Ben Marter said.
  • Asked whether API supports the deal’s primary ambition to limit Earth's temperature rise to well below 2°C within this century, Marter said: "Even though the technology does not yet exist to get us there, our companies are investing billions to get us there."
  • On carbon capture, Marter said API is lobbying for legislation pending in Congress that would encourage more of the tech.

The intrigue: Given that API is the largest and most diverse oil group, its public policies must encompass the views of its most progressive members, led by European producers, and its least progressive, such as many smaller, domestic producers and refiners.

Between the lines: The trade group is walking some fine lines here, including…

  • It doesn’t say that it supports the Paris deal itself, but the ambitions of it. That’s a subtle distinction likely made to distance itself from the extreme cuts in fossil fuel emissions the deal implicitly calls for.
  • API CEO and president Mike Sommers hasn’t commented much (if at all) on the Paris deal publicly. His predecessor, Jack Gerard, made general statements about the need to address climate change when asked about the Paris deal.

Go deeper

2. The limits of Exxon's big legal victory

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

ExxonMobil notched a big win in the New York Supreme Court, but don't expect the victory to inoculate Big Oil against several other courtroom challenges over global warming.

Catch up fast: A judge ruled yesterday that the state's attorney general failed to show that the oil giant misled investors about the costs of addressing climate change. The decision called the claims "hyperbolic." Amy wrote more here.

The big picture: Big Oil is facing a widening set of legal fights on climate change. Multiple attorneys said the decision based on New York fraud statutes will not spill into the cases that rest on separate allegations about costs to local governments from climate change.

  • "I don’t see today’s ruling as having any real effect on the other climate litigation involving municipalities alleging that oil companies created a public nuisance," UCLA law professor Ann Carlson tells Axios.
  • "The New York case involves is a very specific set of facts under a very specific state statute that is unique to the state," said Carlson, who does pro bono consulting for some municipalities that have brought cases.

But, but, but: The ruling could affect litigants who bring cases with securities fraud claims in other jurisdictions, one expert tells Axios.

  • "[W]hile the New York opinion is certainly not precedential in federal courts or another state court, the judge’s opinion will be relevant to other cases considering similar questions," Harvard's Hana V. Vizcarra says.
  • "There is nearly no previous case law directly addressing climate-related information, so this case will definitely be looked to as a reference in cases involving corporate assessments of climate change risks," says Vizcarra, a lawyer with Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program.

Where it stands: In October, Massachusetts filed a fraud case against Exxon in state court there.

  • This Boston Globe piece explores the similarities and differences between that suit — which also goes after Exxon's claims in its advertising — and the New York case.

Editor's note: This piece was updated to add info on Ann Carlson's pro bono work.

Bonus: A key line from the Exxon decision

Amy also notes that the New York decision, while a clear win for Exxon, had a thin silver lining for activists as Judge Barry Ostrager noted what the decision wasn't about.

"Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products."
3. A $250M VC plan with roots in oil

A recently formed venture capital firm backed by Malaysian oil-and-gas giant Petronas is going into launch mode.

Driving the news: The San Francisco-based Piva today announced a $250 million fund to invest in "breakthrough technologies needed to usher in a new era of energy and industry."

Why it matters: It's the latest sign of how some of the world's largest oil companies are putting more resources into startups.

  • The industry's VC cash is going to companies with tech that aids development of traditional fossil sources, but also areas like storage, efficiency and renewables.

How it works: Petronas is Piva's sole limited partner. But Piva says it will operate independently from the company, which also has a separate corporate VC fund.

  • They argue this structure provides the agility and speed to make decisions on their own, but keeps the ability to leverage the mothership's resources and expertise.
  • Piva plans to invest in early to growth-stage companies in areas like AI and robotics, electric and digital mobility, and advanced chemical and materials technology.

Piva CEO Ricardo Angel, in an interview, said they'll focus on emerging energy sources but also technology that makes developing fossil fuels more efficient and "greener and safer."

Background: Angel was previously the managing director at GE Ventures and before that a principal at Chevron Technology Ventures.

  • Others execs include partner Adzmel Adznan, who was a top official at Petronas' separate corporate VC arm; and Bennett Cohen, who's worked for Shell's venture arm and consulted for the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.

What's next: Angel says Piva could unveil its first deal within days. Overall, the firm plans to invest in 15–20 companies over the life of the fund.

4. The message behind Chevron's big write-down

Chevron announced a $10 billion to $11 billion write-down on several natural gas assets and one of its oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

Driving the news: The company said yesterday that the downward revision in its long-term price outlook means that it will "reduce funding to various gas-related opportunities."

  • The decision largely focuses on shale gas holdings in Appalachia, but also the Kitimat LNG project in Canada and other international holdings.
  • The company is exploring options including asset sales.
  • It also said its revised oil price outlook led to the impairment charge on its Big Foot project.

The intrigue: There's a couple ways of looking at this. One is that it's simply a way to be judicious with capital when there's lots of your product in a competitive market when prices are low and you think they'll stay that way.

  • In particular, there's a gas glut in North America that has made the resource very cheap.
  • CEO Mike Wirth said in a statement that "capital discipline and a conservative outlook" require "tough choices" to benefit shareholders.

But, but, but: Another view would be that it says something deeper about the industry in a world slowly transitioning to cleaner sources and, in fits and starts, getting more serious about global warming.

This Wall Street Journal piece gets to the second point. They write (emphasis added)...

  • "The sobering reappraisal by one of the world’s largest and best-performing oil companies is likely to ripple through the oil-and-gas industry, forcing others to publicly reassess the value of their holdings in the face of a global supply glut and growing investor concerns about the long-term future of fossil fuels."

Bloomberg goes there too, noting:

  • "Chevron follows Schlumberger Ltd. and Repsol SA in ascribing a lower value to their assets at a time when the growing adoption of cleaner energy stokes speculation that demand for fossil fuels may peak in a few years, while supplies keep rising."
5. Catch up fast: climate and venture capital

Climate: The Washington Post writes that a major new federal assessment on profound changes to the Arctic climate includes this key finding...

  • "Especially noteworthy is the report’s conclusion that the Arctic already may have become a net emitter of planet-warming carbon emissions due to thawing permafrost, which would only accelerate global warming."

VC: "Arcadia, a startup with software that’s connecting hundreds of thousands of U.S. households to cleaner, cheaper energy options, raised $30 million Tuesday to fuel its expanding community solar and retail energy services business," per Greentech Media.

More climate: "The Swiss central bank could be required to pull its $800 billion balance sheet out of investments in fossil fuel companies in a move by one of the world’s biggest reserve banks to tackle climate change," Reuters reports.