February 24, 2022
☕ Hi, readers. Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,279 words, 5 minutes.
🙋 Thanks to the many of you who responded to yesterday's critical minerals quiz. If you guessed that Nuristrium was the made-up mineral, you were correct!
🚨 Situational awareness: Follow Axios' live updates on the war in Ukraine.
1 big thing: Russia's war shakes energy markets
Oil prices jumped above $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014 and European gas prices surged after Russia invaded Ukraine, an assault with far-reaching consequences for energy markets and geopolitics, Ben and Andrew write.
Driving the news: The global benchmark Brent crude is up by around $8, trading at roughly $105 per barrel, while U.S. futures are also up similarly sharply at over $99 per barrel.
- Already high natural gas prices in Europe, which relies on Russia for about 40% of its gas imports, soared, too, with futures climbing around 40% on the Dutch TTF exchange.
Why it matters: Beyond the tragic human toll of the Russian invasion, higher energy prices — especially amid wider inflation — will touch everything from the cost of goods as industries pay more for commodities to U.S. drivers' wallets as pump prices climb.
What we're watching: Here are a few things on our radar as the crisis unfolds ...
1. Physical supplies. The assault brings the potential for supply disruptions. Roughly a quarter of Russian gas shipments to Europe move through Ukraine, and these pipelines are vulnerable to bombing or sabotage. Russia is also Europe's largest oil supplier, though overall crude transit through Ukraine is more limited.
2. The sanctions response. President Biden said he plans to meet with G7 leaders today and vowed "our allies and partners will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia." A special meeting of E.U. leaders in Brussels is working to coordinate their response as well, vowing "massive, targeted sanctions."
- U.S. and European sanctions thus far have not targeted Russia's energy sector, though they can have indirect effects.
3. Domestic politics. High gasoline prices are a political problem for Biden and Democrats ahead of the midterms. Biden has said he'll seek ways to address consumer costs, but his options are limited. One thing to watch: the potential for more releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
4. Energy transition. Europe's reliance on Russian fossil fuels could accelerate its decarbonization efforts, something European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for earlier this week.
- But, more broadly, it joins COVID-19 as a factor that will sap attention from global climate efforts.
- The crisis is also underscoring the ability of the U.S. to use liquefied natural gas exports as a geo-strategic tool. And as Axios' Hans Nichols points out, administration officials have recently called on U.S. producers to expand output.
- The surging oil prices could also put new pressure on the Biden administration to loosen its posture on domestic oil-and-gas lease sales.
5. Russian response: Russia has a formidable cyberwarfare capability. It could be difficult to contain its cyberattacks, including those against energy infrastructure, to Ukraine. Deliberate moves against the West are possible.
- A key senator warned Axios' Jonathan Swan and Zach Basu of this on Wednesday.
2. What they're saying about the energy fallout
Analysts are trying to wrap their heads around the crisis that's shaking oil and natural gas markets, Ben writes.
The big picture: S&P Global Platts reports that "oil markets are understandably on edge due to Russia's outsized market position and 2.7 million barrels per day of crude exports to Europe."
- But their analytics unit does not expect sanctions that will significantly curtail supplies, or that Russia will hold back large volumes, the story adds.
- Nonetheless, tight global markets amid the increased demand coming out of the pandemic mean upward pressure on prices as traders weigh the risks from the military invasion.
- "Russia is the third largest oil producer, and second largest oil exporter. Given low inventories and dwindling spare capacity, the oil market cannot afford large supply disruptions," UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo said via Reuters.
The intrigue: The Russian aggression is putting more focus on the possibility that nuclear talks with Iran could revive a deal that brings more Iranian barrels back onto global markets — some of them soon, given that Iran has some crude waiting on tankers.
- “The only real option that the Biden administration has to increase oil supply in the near term is signing an Iran deal and then convincing Saudi Arabia to produce more," Rapidan Energy Group president Robert McNally told Axios' Hans Nichols.
3. Visualizing Europe's reliance on Russian gas
The map above shows key natural gas pipelines connecting Russia to Europe.
- Note the pipelines traversing Ukraine, and the dashed line marking Nord Stream 2, which has not gone into operation and has been halted in the wake of the Russian invasion.
4. Exclusive: Big money for small(ish) solar
Aspen Power Partners is launching with $120 million in funding to support its focus on smaller scale solar developments, the company tells Axios' Alan Neuhauser.
Why It Matters: The announcement is the latest sign of surging investor interest in distributed and community solar, especially community.
- 2021 transactions included acquisitions of developers Pivot Energy, Dimension Renewable Energy, and Community Energy, each with a large footprint in community solar. Community Energy was bought by Fortune 500 firm AES Corporation (AES:NYSE).
- Also last year, Arcadia announced a $100 million Series D to expand its work in community solar.
- Aspen, which was incubated at the prominent clean-energy VC firm Energy Impact Partners, represents one of the first significant deals in the space this year.
Read the whole story
Alan Neuhauser will co-author the Axios Pro Climate deals newsletter. Join the waitlist now.
5. Making sense of Biden's EV charging plan
Experts say the Biden administration's $5 billion electric vehicle charging plan — while far short of what's needed — is a psychological play meant to ease Americans' anxiety about driving an EV, Axios' Joann Muller reports.
Why it matters: EV owners drive less than 40 miles a day, on average, and most charge their vehicles at home or at work. But, by strategically placing fast-chargers along interstate highways, the government aims to reassure consumers they'll never be stranded.
The intrigue: It's a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Consumers won't buy EVs until they're confident they can always find a charger. But most companies won't invest in charging infrastructure until there are enough users to make it profitable.
The big picture: By 2025, 25% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will be fully electric or plug-in hybrids, according to the latest forecast from Boston Consulting Group.
- That means the U.S. will need at least 1 million public chargers by 2025 — up from about 131,000 publicly available plugs today.
6. DiCaprio deepens ties to gravity storage startup
Actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio has joined the newly formed strategic advisory board of Energy Vault, one of a few startups looking to commercialize gravity-based storage tech using solid materials, Ben writes.
Driving the news: The move by DiCaprio, who is also an investor in the company, is part of Energy Vault's wider announcement this morning of new advisers and board members.
- Other strategic advisory board members working with Energy Vault — which recently went public in a SPAC deal — include officials from CEMEX Ventures, BHP Ventures, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Enel Green Power and more.
What they're saying: DiCaprio, who recently starred in the climate-focused Netflix hit "Don't Look Up," praised the company's "innovative" tech that "allows clean power to be used around the clock," and use of recycled and waste materials to make the composite blocks in its system.
Quote of the day
"This short-sighted decision will take us backwards when the rest of the federal government is focused on transitioning to a clean energy future."— EPA Administrator Michael Regan, via Twitter
That's Regan criticizing the U.S. Postal Service for finalizing plans to replace its current fleet with mostly gasoline-powered vehicles. Go deeper