Axios Generate

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February 22, 2022

☕ Good morning during these scary and dangerous times. Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,286 words, 5 minutes.

🎶 20 years ago, Ja Rule and Ashanti were hitting #1 on the Billboard charts with today's infectious intro tune...

1 big thing: Ukraine crisis shakes energy markets

Photo of military equipment in Ukraine
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman on Feb. 21, 2022. Photo: Aleksey Filippov/AFP via Getty Images

Crude oil prices are moving closer to $100-per-barrel after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into eastern Ukraine and recognized the independence of two Kremlin-backed separatist regions, Ben and Andrew write.

Why it matters: Further escalation would push prices higher and shake energy markets more broadly as tensions with Russia — the main oil and natural gas supplier to Europe — reach their highest levels since the Cold War.

  • Brent crude prices topped $98 this morning before easing slightly.

What's new: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced today that the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be halted after the Kremlin's troop order, saying that "the situation has fundamentally changed," Axios' Zachary Basu reports.

Natural gas prices in Europe jumped this morning.

What we're watching: The exact shape of sanctions the U.S. and European Union will impose on Russia — and the Kremlin response — as it moves closer to a fuller invasion of Ukraine.

  • It's less likely that the Russian move yesterday will trigger the most punishing Western sanctions, but a further push into Ukrainian-controlled territory held since 2014 may be a different story.
  • Another question is the Biden administration's domestic response to further increases in gasoline prices — already a political problem for the White House — that will follow the crude price increases.
  • The Washington Post reports that White House aides are reviewing whether to release more oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve if Russia curtails supplies.
  • The potential energy ripple effects along with the most effective responses may have been anticipated through White House "tiger team" exercises in recent weeks.

Threat level: "Russia might not even wait until Western sanctions arrive; Putin could use his 'energy weapon' to fire a warning shot of his own (or launch cyberattacks against energy infrastructure) to focus minds in Western capitals," ClearView Energy Partners said in a note yesterday.

  • They say Russia's interest in appearing to be a reliable supplier may prevent an "overt declaration of energy war." But it's possible Russia would seek "plausibly deniable" reasons for curbing supplies, such as cuts via maintenance and allegations of cyberattacks.

The intrigue: While sanctions may not take direct aim at Russian energy, they can still affect the energy sector significantly, the Financial Times reports.

  • "[T]he G7’s threat of financial and economic sanctions on 'a wide array of sectoral and individual targets' could still hit oil companies such as BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, and commodity traders such as Glencore, Vitol and Trafigura, which all have important business relationships in the country," it reports.

Go deeper: What to watch for as Russia orders troops into eastern Ukraine

2. Biden officials: CO2 ruling has "dramatic" impact

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A federal judge's recent ruling that blocks regulators from using a key estimate of the harms from carbon emissions is delaying drilling permits, lease sales and environmental rules, federal officials say, Ben and Andrew write.

Driving the news: Administration lawyers are asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to stay its sweeping preliminary injunction that prevents using the White House's social cost of carbon (SCC) in decision-making.

The SCC is a dollar estimate of the damages caused by emitting one additional metric ton of greenhouse gases.

On Feb. 11, a Trump-appointed judge sided with conservative states in halting federal use of the interim-Biden administration social cost of carbon estimate of $51 per metric ton.

Why it matters: The request Saturday warns of "dramatic" consequences if the injunction remains intact during the administration's appeal, arguing it prevents many cost-benefit and environmental analyses.

"[It] has disrupted the functioning of multiple Cabinet agencies," the filing states, claiming it has "frozen, delayed, or derailed numerous activities."

Zoom in: The injunction will likely delay Interior Department oil-and-gas lease sales, and review of drilling permit applications for at least 18 wells in New Mexico, the administration told the court.

The effect on drilling applications more broadly is still being assessed, the filings state.

By the numbers: The filings say the Energy Department has initially identified about 21 affected rulemakings in areas like efficiency standards for manufactured housing.

Rules at EPA and the Transportation and Interior Department are also affected, such as Interior regulations on methane, and dozens of environmental analyses.

Catch up fast: The social cost of carbon helps policymakers incorporate future climate damage into today's decision-making.

Bonus: What they're saying about the case

Jay Austin, a senior attorney with the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute said the Justice Department's argument for a stay is based in part on demonstrating the myriad unintended consequences, Andrew writes.

  • "Many of these effects may well contradict statutory mandates or other court rulings; halt processes that could address this court’s stated concerns; or, ironically, run counter to the plaintiff states’ or industry’s own interests," Austin said via email.
  • Such a list, he said, helps demonstrate the administration's main legal argument, which is that any court intervention with the social cost of carbon at this point is premature.

Max Sarinsky, an attorney with NYU’s Center for Policy Integrity, called the ruling “legally incoherent” and said he expects a stay to be granted.

3. Power emissions interrupt long-term progress

Reproduced from EPA; Chart: Axios Visuals

New EPA data shows the long-term decline in emissions of key electricity sector pollutants, but also a recent uptick and the long road ahead to deeply decarbonizing the sector, Ben writes.

Driving the news: The figures show that last year sulfur dioxide emissions rose 20% compared to 2020, while nitrogen oxides rose 6% and CO2 climbed 7%.

  • Emissions of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin not pictured in the chart above, increased 13%, EPA said.
  • The increases reflect the rebound in coal-fired generation amid higher energy demand and high natural gas prices last year, the agency said.

What we're watching: The trajectory of EPA plans to tighten emissions rules using executive powers as legislation to greatly bolster zero-carbon power incentives remains stalled in Congress.

Go deeper: EPA: Power plant emissions spiked last year (E&E News)

4. The push for a domestic mineral supply chain

Illustration of a construction hat on Earth.
Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

The White House announced new moves this morning aimed at bolstering U.S. development and processing of key minerals used in electric cars and other energy applications, Ben writes.

Why it matters: Demand for materials like lithium, cobalt, rare earth minerals and more is slated to soar in coming years and decades, and the U.S. is dependent on China and other nations for raw materials.

Driving the news: The White House is touting a mix of new federal aid and private sector efforts, including...

  • The Defense Department is providing MP Materials $35 million to process rare earth elements from its mining site in Mountain Pass, California. The company will announce a $700 million investment in its magnet supply chain, a White House summary states.
  • Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables plans to break ground on a demonstration project in Imperial County, California, to test sustainable lithium extraction from geothermal brine. The region includes the Salton Sea, where California Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes to enable lithium development.
  • Federal agencies are also taking steps to emphasize critical minerals more broadly, such as Defense, Energy and State Department coordination on stockpiling.

Yes, but: "Even as he works to boost U.S. minerals production, the president has blocked several proposed U.S. mines," Reuters reports.

5. Shell's LNG warning

Chart showing projected LNG supplies and demand
Image courtesy of Shell

Liquefied natural gas markets grew last year amid increased U.S. exports and Chinese import growth, part of the wider worldwide gas demand recovery from COVID-19, per new Shell data, Ben writes.

The big picture: Global LNG trade grew by 6% over 2020, with Chinese imports rising almost 18%. Shell also confirms other analyses showing the U.S. moving past Qatar and Australia to become the world's largest annual exporter this year.

Threat level: It warns that more investment is needed as Asian demand keeps rising.

"The global LNG market is expected to remain tight in the near term, with a supply-demand gap forecast to emerge in the middle of the current decade," it states.