Jul 23, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,114 words, < 4.5 minutes.

🎵And happy birthday to Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child, who has today's classic intro tune...

1 big thing: Elon Musk's chaos theory pays off — for now
Data: FactSet; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Shouldn't Tesla be kind of a mess right now? The economy stinks, CEO Elon Musk isn't far removed from his latest PR grenades, manufacturing quality concerns persist, and would-be competitors are circling.

Driving the news: Instead, the EV maker is enjoying arguably the best stretch of its 17-year history.

  • Tesla surprisingly announced that it eked out a fourth consecutive quarterly profit Wednesday despite disruptions from the pandemic.
  • That marks Tesla's longest stretch in the black, which paves the way to join the S&P 500.
  • Its stock, already in the stratosphere, is up almost another 4% in pre-market trading.
  • Musk announced a deal to make Austin, Texas, home to Tesla's second U.S. factory to produce an array of models.
  • Oh, and a new J.D. Power survey shows that Tesla owners have a strong emotional bond to their cars.

The big picture: "The results validate the unconventional efforts that Musk made to shore up earnings in the midst of the health crisis that’s expected to leave other U.S. automakers posting losses," Bloomberg reports, referring to Musk's bitter, highly public fight with county officials in California to reopen Tesla's factory despite public health concerns.

Why it matters: Beyond being a fascinating corporate drama, Tesla's success affects the pace of EV adoption, especially in the U.S., where it dominates what's still a rather niche market (more on that below).

What they're saying: "Right now in the EV market, it’s Tesla’s world and everyone else is paying rent, a dynamic shown front and center this quarter," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note, per Reuters.

  • A New York Times piece ahead of the earnings released points out that new EVs hitting the market are not really breaking through yet.
  • "Over the last year or so, several automakers, including Audi, Jaguar and Porsche, have added heralded new models intended to cut into Tesla’s electric dominance. But they have barely made a dent, at least in the United States," the paper reports.

Yes, but: Axios' Joann Muller's coverage of Tesla's earnings announcement shows why Tesla's profits are a nuanced metric.

  • About 8% of its revenues came from selling regulatory credits to other automakers, up almost 300% from the same period a year ago.
  • The higher income from emissions credits, along with savings on employee salaries during the factory shutdown, helped Tesla turn a net profit for the quarter.
  • But overall revenues fell.

The bottom line: Things could still go south for the volatile Tesla, but for now, for Musk and his company, chaos is not a pit — it's a ladder.

Bonus: Tesla's U.S. market share
Reproduced from Securing America's Future Energy; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla dominates the U.S. EV market.

  • This chart, via the group Securing America's Future Energy, shows its quarterly share compared to nearly everything else available in the U.S. combined.
2. Big Oil's Q2 lobbying falls

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big Oil's aggregate lobbying dipped in the second quarter, newly available public filings show.

Why it matters: The filings (which I've included here) provide a guide to specific bills and topics companies lobbied on, and an overall look at money spent.

By the numbers: Here are a few tallies for the biggest companies and their most powerful trade group.

  • The American Petroleum Institute, which represents companies across the industry, reported $1.31 million, their lowest quarterly tally in over a decade.
  • ExxonMobil, the largest U.S.-based multinational, reported $1.76 million, down from $2.67 million the prior quarter, and their lowest total since the Lobbying Disclosure Act was amended to require the quarterly filings over a decade ago.
  • Chevron reported $1.95 million, down from $3.05 million in Q1.
  • Shell reported $1.63 million, down from $1.87 million in Q1.
  • BP reported $1.04 million, which is similarly their smallest amount since the quarterly system began.
  • ConocoPhillips, a giant independent producer, reported $580,000 — a significant drop from the prior period.
  • Occidental, another huge independent, reported $640,000, down from $2.3 million the prior quarter.

What we don't know: Exactly what's behind the decline.

  • But one person who works in government affairs for a large oil-and-gas company tells me the smaller totals reflect a slowing down of lobbying work as people figure out how to navigate remote interactions during the pandemic.
3. How Biden could alter the oil landscape

The sharp eyes at Bloomberg Law noticed that Biden last week signaled his position on state and local climate litigation against oil companies.

Driving the news: "Biden’s sweeping clean energy plan, unveiled July 14, includes a pledge to instruct the attorney general to 'strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters,' a reference to more than a dozen lawsuits seeking money from fossil fuel companies for local harms related to global temperature rise," they report.

Why it matters: It would be a sharp break from the Trump administration, which the story notes has backed the industry in the lawsuits.

4. Catch up fast with the Beltway

"The House on Wednesday approved a major public lands conservation bill, sending it to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign it into law," The Hill reports.

  • Why it matters: The bipartisan measure ensures $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and sets aside billions of dollars over five years for National Park maintenance.
  • Our thought bubble: Via Axios' Amy Harder, Conservation funding and support for national parks has evaded the partisan acrimony that has plagued the related issues of climate change and energy, largely because the former doesn't require fundamental changes to the way our economy and energy systems run, as the latter does.

* * *

On the regulatory front, the New York Times reports: "The Trump administration on Wednesday made public the federal government’s first proposal to control planet-warming pollution from airplanes, but the draft regulation would not push the airlines beyond emissions limits they have set for themselves."

5. Quote of the day
"What we've done in this new study is found that rolling either a 1 or a 6 is a lot less likely than we previously thought."

Who said it: Zeke Hausfather, one of many co-authors of a big new climate study in Reviews of Geophysics.

How it works: The paper narrows estimates of eventual warming believed likely from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels.

  • It projects that "climate sensitivity" is likely 2.6°C to 3.9°C, compared to prior estimates of 1.5°C to 4.5°C — that is, the 1 and the 6 in the dice roll.

Why it matters: Raising the lower-bound estimate means "the current pace of human-caused carbon emissions is increasingly likely to trigger irreversible damage to the planet," per the Washington Post.

Threat level: Authors say unchecked emissions would mean CO2 concentrations could be twice as high as preindustrial levels within 60–80 years.

  • As the WashPost notes, that means a very high likelihood of warming surpassing 2°C above average pre-industrial temperatures.
  • That's a commonly cited threshold for avoiding some of the most damaging effects of climate change.

Yes, but: "If steep emissions cuts are made in the near-term, a doubling of carbon dioxide levels could be avoided," the WashPost reports.

Go deeper: Why low-end ‘climate sensitivity’ can now be ruled out (Carbon Brief)

Ben GemanAmy Harder