Feb 25, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,340 words, 5 minutes.

Mark your calendars: Season 3 of “Axios on HBO” kicks off 6 pm ET/PT Sunday, March 1! 

And 30 years ago today, political rockers Midnight Oil released "Blue Sky Mining," which provides today's propulsive intro tune...

1 big thing: Why big banks are breaking up with (some) fossil fuels

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

JPMorgan Chase is the latest financial giant to unveil new climate commitments, and like its peers, it is hard to disentangle how much is motivated by pressure, conscience or making a virtue of necessity.

Driving the news: Via Axios' Amy Harder, JPMorgan said Monday that it will not provide project finance for Arctic oil-and-gas projects or coal-fired power plants unless they trap CO2 emissions.

Some of the other pledges include...

  • Refusing lending, capital markets and advisory services to companies that derive the majority of their revenues from coal extraction.
  • Increasing financing for clean energy and sustainable development projects.
  • Creating an environmental, social and governance (ESG) "solutions group" to advise clients on cutting emissions.
  • Having its asset management arm join Climate Action 100+, an investor group that pushes energy companies to make new emissions commitments.

The big picture: Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, tells me JPMorgan's decision to define project categories it won't finance reflects "tension" that banks feel.

  • There's rising pressure to align their portfolios with international climate goals, but also "the reality that global oil and gas demand is likely to keep rising as national policy efforts around the world fall well short of pledges and promises," he notes.

Why it matters: JPMorgan is the banking sector's largest provider of fossil fuel finance, per analysis from several green groups led by the Rainforest Action Network.

  • And as Amy notes, the move comes as grassroots and shareholder activists are targeting the financial sector's fossil energy finance, especially amid federal inaction on climate.
  • JPMorgan is the latest banking powerhouse to make new pledges in recent years. Among U.S. giants, Goldman Sachs unveiled similar policies last year, while European banks have in recent years taken similar and stronger steps.

But, but, but: While JPMorgan is emphasizing its engagement on climate and clean energy, it's also following market trends as energy companies move away from some forms of carbon-intensive and expensive projects.

  • Eurasia Group senior analyst David Livingston says that when it comes to Arctic oil, JPMorgan's pledge also makes financial sense. He called it a "lagging indicator."
  • "With the advent of short-cycle oil production options like shale, and the mid-term oversupply in the oil market, no serious private financial player is really thinking of Arctic oil as even a top 10 oil project to finance," he tells Axios.
Bonus 1: The green response to JPMorgan

Environmentalists welcomed JPMorgan's new climate moves while also calling them insufficient, noting they leave many types of projects untouched.

  • “The hard restrictions in this new policy only affect a small portion of their fossil lending,” Rainforest Action Network (RAN) senior campaigner Jason Opeña Disterhoft tells Amy.
  • RAN and the Sierra Club also noted that even the sectors covered by the new pledges are not totally frozen out of the bank's services.
  • They point out that several mining conglomerates that derive less than half their revenues from coal are still huge players in the coal sector.

The intrigue: One question now, as the Trump administration prepares to sell leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is whether other U.S. banks will adopt similar anti-Arctic drilling policies.

  • “Now that Chase and Goldman Sachs have drawn a line in the sand, all eyes are on Wells Fargo, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America," the Sierra Club's Ben Cushing said.
2. Taking the election-season pulse on climate
Expand chart
Data: Brunswick Group survey of 1,000 registered U.S. voters conducted Dec. 3–13. Margin of error ±3.02; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Over one-third of registered voters consider climate change a crisis and 59% say the Trump administration is doing too little to address it, newly released polling shows.

Why it matters: The Brunswick Group survey released Tuesday arrives as climate is playing a more prominent role in the 2020 election cycle — and the policy stakes are high.

  • Major Democratic hopefuls have plans that call for more aggressive federal steps than former President Obama took.
  • The White House, meanwhile, is continuing its efforts to roll back Obama-era rules and policies.
  • The findings tend to show deep partisan splits in voters' views.

The big picture: Here are some of the other findings from the wide-ranging survey...

  • 36% agree climate change is a crisis that requires immediate policy changes, though as the chart above shows, the partisan gap is wide.
  • 28% listed climate among the top two topics that will influence their vote in November, making it tied with the economy but well behind health care.
  • 67% are either somewhat or very worried about the affordability of energy.
  • 61% back the Green New Deal, which the survey defined as a 10-year national mobilization to cut emissions to the maximum extent possible.
  • 51% agree a carbon tax is a "good idea," including 41% of Republicans. A quarter of the overall respondent mix were unsure.
  • 66% agree that California and other states should have power to regulate vehicle carbon emissions at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to prevent it.

The intrigue: One theme in the findings, Brunswick's polling memo notes, is that "Trump’s brand affects how his supporters view climate policy."

  • In one case, Trump voters' support for thwarting California went up when told it was a "Trump administration" policy as opposed to a "U.S. government" move.

Note: The Brunswick Group paid for and conducted the survey of 1,000 voters in December. Questions for the full sample have a margin-of-error of plus-or-minus 3%.

Bonus 2: Oil companies blamed on climate
Expand chart
Data: Brunswick Group survey of 1,000 registered U.S. voters conducted Dec. 3–13. Margin of error ±3.02; Chart: Axios Visuals

Oil companies' moves on climate have been in the headlines lately, so check out how the Brunswick Group took the pulse on it.

What they did: Voters could select three parties "most responsible" for causing climate change from a menu of seven options (including oil companies, "big business," individuals, government and more). A similar question was asked about addressing it.

What they found: As the chart above shows, oil companies face the most blame.

3. Big Oil's K Street moment of truth

A new Financial Times interview with American Petroleum Institute president Mike Sommers helped remind me that two oil majors are on the cusp of big decisions about their lobbying posture.

Where it stands: BP, which two weeks ago unveiled new climate pledges, said at the time that it would announce the results of the review this month. Well, this month is almost over!

  • New CEO Bernard Looney said BP would advocate for their views within the groups, be "transparent" about differences, and "where we can't reach alignment, we will be prepared to leave."
  • Separately, the oil-and-gas major Equinor has said it will announce the results of its membership review during the first quarter of this year.

Why it matters: Depending on the results, the decisions could signal a reshaping of oil giants' relationship with K Street groups as companies face pressure act more aggressively on climate.

  • Some other majors have undertaken similar reviews but thus far stuck with lobbying powerhouses like API and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Shell and Total have, however, both bailed on the group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers last year.

What they're saying: Bringing it back to API, Sommers tells FT: “I'm confident that we're going to be able to continue to represent this industry, including Total, including BP, including Shell, including Equinor, for many, many years to come.” 

4. Catch up fast: EVs, politics, storage, drilling

Climate: "Republicans in the Oregon Senate fled the Capitol on Monday to stop Democrats’ bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions after the plan cleared a legislative budget committee earlier in the day." (Oregonian)

  • Why it matters: State emissions policies are taking on increased importance at a time when the Trump administration is curtailing federal efforts.

Electric cars: "South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd said on Tuesday it will exclusively supply electric vehicle (EV) batteries to U.S. electric carmaker Lucid Motors, which plans to start production of its Lucid Air sedan later this year." (Reuters)

Storage: Long duration grid storage company Highview Power announced Tuesday it had raised a major equity investment to support its journey to market. (Greentech Media)

  • Details: Global industrial conglomerate Sumitomo Heavy Industries invested $46 million in Highview, becoming the largest minority shareholder in the company.

Offshore drilling: "Equinor ASA has dropped plans for oil drilling deep in the ocean off Australia’s south coast following a sustained campaign from environmentalists who said the project posed too big a risk to the vast and unique marine ecosystem." (Bloomberg)

5. Quote of the day
"This may be the nail in the coffin."

Who said it: Laura Lau of the investment firm Brompton, quoted in Bloomberg on Teck Resources' decision Sunday to scrap plans for the big Frontier sands mine in Canada.

Why it matters: Their piece says that there may never be another big new mine built in the Canadian oil sands.

  • "It’s not clear that any other proposed mine would be able to clear the hurdles that felled Frontier in the years to come, possibly spelling the end of an era of megaprojects that transformed North America’s energy landscape by turning Canada into the top foreign crude supplier to the U.S.," Bloomberg reports.