Sep 10, 2021

Axios Generate

🎈It's Friday! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,345 words, 5 minutes.

📊 Data point of the day: 76%, the share of Gulf of Mexico oil production that remains offline after Hurricane Ida, per the Interior Department. Go deeper

🚨 Situational awareness: Harvard will no longer invest in fossil fuel companies and wind down current holdings. Read more

🎶 Today marks nine years since Bob Dylan's album "Tempest" arrived, and he's in fine form on today's snarling intro tune...

1 big thing: Taking stock of America's hottest summer
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Reproduced from NOAA/NCEI; Chart: Axios Visuals

The last three months of disaster-filled weather across the Lower 48 states tied with the Dust Bowl summer of 1936 as the hottest on record, new federal data shows, Andrew and Axios’ Jacob Knutson report.

Why it matters: This summer was a calamitous and deadly period for the U.S., one rife with devastating flooding in the East, and unrelenting heat and record drought across the West that helped fuel some of California's largest wildfires on record.

  • These extremes garnered international attention and, together with a major climate science report published in August, showed the escalating consequences of human-caused climate change and extreme weather events.

By the numbers: In a report released Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that during meteorological summer (June-August), the average temperature for the Lower 48 states was 2.6°F (1.8°C) above the 20th-century average.

  • This nominally eclipsed the extreme heat observed in 1936 by about 0.01°F, NOAA stated.
  • Compared to 1936, a greater portion of the Lower 48 states saw extreme warmth this summer. The NOAA analysis found that a record 18.4% of the contiguous U.S. experienced record-warm temperatures for the season compared to just 13.7% in 1936.
  • Five western states — California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah — had their hottest summers on record. Sixteen additional states had a top-five warmest summer on record, and not a single state was cooler than average.

Between the lines: The season featured a split picture when it came to water, with far too little precipitation falling across the West, which descended deeper into the worst drought of this century.

  • Large wildfires have burned nearly 3 million acres so far this year, according to National Interagency Fire Center estimates from Thursday.
  • Two of California's 15 largest wildfires on record are still burning, with one, the nearly 930,000-acre Dixie Fire, likely to take the top spot on the list. The fires across the West fouled air quality clear across the country at times.
  • The blistering summer and a climate change-related mega-drought pushed western reservoirs to historically low levels. The federal government formally declared the first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir by volume, last month.
  • Yet the East had too much water, with deadly and expensive flooding events. Flash flooding last month killed at least 22 people in Tennessee.

The big picture: Globally, July was the world's hottest calendar month on record. Europe also had its hottest summer season, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

2. The stakes of the natural gas branding battle

A new study finds that the future of natural gas could rest at least partly on whether the widely used fuel keeps going by that name, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Yale University researchers, in a survey, found lower support for several other titles. Those included "natural methane gas," "methane," "fossil gas" and "fracked gas."

It notes that prior polling shows favorable public attitudes toward natural gas.

How it works: Part of the paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology involved asking over 2,900 adults if they had positive or negative feelings for different names, and then to what general degree.

  • Other options all fared worse than the fuel's common name. However, there are also partisan differences, with Republicans more supportive than Democrats of all names, and among Democrats, only "natural gas" is viewed favorably on average.

What we're watching: How much alternatives to the fuel's common name, which the industry prefers, might catch on. Already, some activists and experts have been avoiding the term "natural."

The intrigue: Senate Democratic leaders are looking to impose new fees on methane emissions in the wider spending and tax package they're hoping to move on a party-line vote.

  • Industry groups spelled out their opposition in a recent letter to lawmakers that cites the sector's ongoing moves to rein in methane leaks and supports direct EPA methane regulations.

The bottom line: The paper says that "climate communicators" seeking to speed the transition away from gas should use the term "methane gas" or "methane."

Meanwhile, "fossil gas" and "fracked gas" should be "used with caution" depending on the audience, given how they're differently perceived among Republicans, who are supportive, and Democrats, who aren't, it says.

Read the whole story.

Bonus: Charting industry methane emissions
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Data: International Energy Agency; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Speaking of natural gas, a new International Energy Agency note about oil-and-has industry methane emissions caught Ben's eye.

The big picture: While upstream emissions from wells and other equipment get lots of attention, don't sleep on downstream emissions — think refineries, pipelines, distribution, and so forth — and chances to reduce them, IEA analysts say.

It calls for "more attention and effort to regulate" the downstream sectors. "[A]bout 75% of downstream emissions can be avoided with the help of existing technologies," the analysis states.

Keep reading.

3. Biden's new FERC pick and more Beltway notes


Democrats are closer to gaining a 3-2 majority on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a body with powerful influence over natural gas pipelines, power markets and more, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: President Biden is nominating Willie L. Phillips Jr., currently D.C.'s top power official, for the seat just vacated by Republican commissioner Neil Chatterjee.

Why it matters: FERC makes decisions on market structures and transmission that affect how much renewables and storage are added to power grids.

  • A Democratic majority would also likely intensify FERC's efforts to inject consideration of greenhouse gas emissions into natural gas pipeline decisions.
  • While FERC is an independent body, ClearView Energy Partners said in a note that Phillips would likely "support FERC facilitating" clean energy policies under development elsewhere in the administration.

What we're watching: The nomination process in the Senate. ClearView considers Phillips less controversial than proposed names that some environmentalists wanted Biden to consider for the post.

The Washington Examiner reports that he "represents a safe choice" and is a "moderate respected by the utility industry."

* * *

Here's more policy news on our radar...

Congress: "House of Representatives Democrats unveiled details on Thursday of a proposed $150 billion payment program aimed at wringing greenhouse gas emissions out of the electricity sector, a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s plan to address climate change." (Reuters)

Aviation: "The Biden administration announced a goal Thursday of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050, setting forth a plan to dramatically boost production of fuels made from waste or plants to drive down the environmental cost of flying." (Washington Post)

4. How AI can find clean energy materials

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A startup is using artificial intelligence to find new sources of metals that power electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: The world desperately needs new supplies of lithium, cobalt and other metals to accelerate the shift to EVs and renewable energy, and machine learning can help narrow the search.

Driving the news: This week the Silicon Valley-based startup KoBold Metals — which is backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, among others — announced a partnership with the world's largest mining company, BHP Group, to use its technology to locate battery metal deposits.

The partnership will focus on a more than 193,000-square-mile area of Western Australia, a region KoBold CEO Kurt House notes is "bigger than California."

The big picture: "We need roughly $10 trillion worth of new discoveries of lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth minerals just to be able to fully electrify the world's passenger vehicle fleet," says House.

Read the whole story.

5. Catch up fast: Walmart, Chevron, GM

Big retail: Walmart just raised the largest green bond ever in the U.S. corporate bond market, Axios’ Hope King and Kate Marino write.

The $2 billion bond deal illustrates that U.S. investors’ interest in green bonds is not going anywhere. Go deeper

Big Oil: "Chevron Corp. has inked eight deals in little more than two weeks to invest in hydrogen, green jet fuel and renewable natural gas." (Bloomberg)

Big auto: "General Motors is extending downtime at a Michigan plant that produces its Chevrolet Bolt EV as it works with battery supplier LG Chem to fix manufacturing defects that cause some cars to catch fire, leading to a massive recall to fix the problem." (CNBC)