Apr 14, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,281 words, a 5-minute read.

🎵And we're a few days past the moment 30 years ago when Public Enemy released "Fear of a Black Planet," so a track from the album opens today's edition...

1 big thing: Why the stars aligned for Trump on oil diplomacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's re-election campaign is wasting no time touting his role in brokering the new global oil-cutting pact, which featured days of direct talks with leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

Reality check: Trump's petro-diplomacy was important, yet just one of many forces that pushed Saudi Arabia and Russia toward reviving their cooperation on supply management, analysts say.

Why it matters: Trump's team is seeking a political lift from the deal, which the president himself has repeatedly touted via Twitter and during his press briefings.

  • His campaign yesterday circulated a release boasting that Trump "delivered results" for energy sector workers and is "protecting millions of American oil and gas workers from further harm."

Catch up fast: OPEC+ reached a final agreement Sunday to cut production by 9.7 million barrels per day for two months beginning in May, with shrinking but still-large cuts slated to continue through April of 2022 (though they'll be re-assessed along the way).

  • Additional curbs from some OPEC members, combined with declines in the U.S. and elsewhere due to market forces, increase the scope of production curbs by millions of barrels, but there's no precise tally.

What they're saying: "Of all the deals [Trump's] done in his life, this has to be the biggest and most complex. He had to be not only dealmaker but also divorce mediator, after the [OPEC+] relationship split up six weeks ago," energy historian Daniel Yergin said in remarks circulated to reporters.

But, but, but: Analysis from Yergin and other experts highlight deeper market and geopolitical forces beyond Trump's control that set the stage for the final agreement.

  • “A lot of this deal is making a virtue out of a necessity. Storage was filling up. There weren’t buyers for this production,” said energy consultant David Goldwyn at a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council yesterday.

The intrigue: RBC Capital Markets' Helima Croft, speaking at the same event, said Trump's intervention "changed the trajectory" of the crisis.

  • But she also noted that the Saudis had wanted to avoid the prior OPEC+ rupture in early March, pointing out it was Russia who balked at additional cuts.
  • Flash forward, after flexing their muscles in the price war, the Saudis wanted a big reduction, so they were willing to tolerate only a loose U.S. commitment. “I think the stars aligned because they wanted that cut from the beginning,” she said.

Between the lines: Another panelist, Russia expert Anders Åslund, pointed to internal power shifts in Russia that helped set the stage, arguing that Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin lost some influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • “It was only Sechin among the oil executives who wanted to have this price war,” he said.
Bonus 1: More on why the deal came together

Another aspect is that Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to U.S. pressure right now, which GOP lawmakers sought to exploit as they also pushed the Saudis to cut.

What's happening: In recent days and weeks, these lawmakers have not-so-subtly reminded the Saudis of their military reliance on the United States.

  • Two U.S. senators from oil-producing states even floated legislation in late March to pull U.S. troops from the kingdom.

The big picture: “I do not know what cards [Trump] played with Saudi Arabia, but he has very very big cards to play," Rapidan Energy Group president Bob McNally said on the new episode of the Platts Capitol Crude podcast.

  • "Trump is Saudi Arabia’s biggest friend in Washington at a time when Saudi Arabia needs friends in Washington,” he said.

Meanwhile, at that same Atlantic Council event (I'm getting lots of mileage from it!), Middle East expert Kirsten Fontenrose noted that Saudi Arabia has already lost standing with Democrats due to human rights concerns.

  • “Prior to the price war, Republicans in the Senate prevented the passage of legislation intended to punish Saudi [Arabia], drafted by Democrats concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and other things,” she said.
  • “If Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to teach Saudi [Arabia] a lesson, as it looks like what happened, then that legislation would fly through Congress,” Fontenrose said.

Quick take: Needless to say I wasn't in the room when Trump was talking to the Saudis, and the White House did not provide specifics on the calls.

  • But Trump holds a lot of sway over the congressional GOP, so if the White House didn't want to see ongoing threats from lawmakers in recent weeks, they could have put a stop to it, and didn't.
Bonus 2: Oil market resists optimism for now
Expand chart
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Crude oil prices did not get a sustained lift Monday from the new international pact, an early sign of how energy companies still face jeopardy amid collapsing demand, even with the new supply curbs set to take effect.

What they're saying: “The output cut may help somewhat, but the market situation remains stacked against the producers, especially in the short term,” Again Capital’s John Kilduff tells CNBC.

  • "This will stabilize things a bit. It will slow the bloodletting," Matt Smith of ClipperData tells CNN. "But it's absolutely not enough to rebalance the market."

But, but, but: BNP Paribas analyst Harry Tchilinguirian, via Reuters, says the production-cutting agreement provides a near-term floor under oil prices.

Why it matters: If prices stay low, a substantial number of U.S. producers are expected to fall into bankruptcy in the coming months, and it has already started.

Where it stands: WTI crude oil was trading around $21. 18, and Brent at $31.07, this morning.

2. Biden and Sanders vow joint climate work


Part of Bernie Sanders' endorsement of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is a new plan for them to form joint "task forces" on six big topics including climate change.

Why it matters: Time will tell, but I'll be watching to see if it leads to substantial changes in Biden's climate platform, which has disappointed the left even though it goes far beyond Obama-era policies.

  • Biden already rolled out changes to his health care and student debt policies last week designed to appeal to Sanders' backers.

Driving the news: The two men said they would form task forces on climate, health care, criminal justice, immigration, the economy and education.

  • Axios' Alexi McCammond writes that it's a sign of Biden's continued outreach to the progressive wing of the party.

What we don't know: Who will be on the climate task force, but I'll write more when I know something.

  • “They will be comprised of policy experts and leaders that represent the diverse viewpoints of the Democratic party,” a Biden campaign aide tells me.
  • “The groups will work together to identify shared policy goals that build upon Vice President Biden’s progressive vision for America,” the aide said.

Go deeper: The energy stakes of Bernie vs. Biden

3. The shale slowdown takes hold

The Energy Information Administration sees U.S. oil production from shale formations falling from roughly 8.71 million barrels per day this month to less than 8.53 million in May.

Why it matters: The latest estimates published yesterday show how the price and demand collapse is taking hold as producers scale back operations in the saturated market.

  • The biggest decline is slated to occur in the Permian Basin region of west Texas and New Mexico, which has been the heart of the U.S. boom.
  • The same report also revised the April production levels downward substantially compared to the prior version of the monthly tally.

Go deeper:

4. Catch up fast: oil leak, Tesla, solar

Oil-and-gas: "A leak in a pipeline that carries oil from U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore facilities has halted production at two fields, ExxonMobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell said on Monday." (Reuters)

Electric vehicles: "Tesla Inc. has reached out to at least some of its landlords seeking rent reductions, according to firms contacted by the car company, as the auto maker looks for cost savings in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that has closed much of its business." (Wall Street Journal)

Renewables: "Wood Mackenzie slashed more than 20 gigawatts off its forecast for global solar deployments in 2020, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic comes into sharper focus." (Greentech Media)

5. Quote of the day
"There is no existing playbook that we have to reference to give us direction to move through this crisis."

Who said it: Gary King, chief workforce officer for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, is quoted in this wide-ranging Utility Dive story about the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The big picture: Their piece gets into how utilities are trying to minimize worker exposure, as well as other effects like revenue declines, potential capital project delays and supply chain woes.