Mar 2, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. Let's dive in because we have a lot to cover. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,343 words, 5 minutes.

My latest column seeks to answer a question I get all the time: Will Congress really tackle a big climate bill after the election? I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

1 big thing: 2020 race doesn’t bode well for a big climate bill

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Don’t hold your breath for big climate policy changes — even if a Democrat wins the White House.

Why it matters: Congress is likely to remain gridlocked on the matter, leading to either more of the same with President Trump’s re-election or a regulatory swing back to the left no matter which Democrat wins — but far short of a legislative overhaul.

Here’s why, with potential scenarios mapped out...

1. Trump wins re-election.

  • While Trump is uniquely unpredictable, he's made it clear since moving into the White House that he’s not interested in pursuing any sort of actual climate legislation on Capitol Hill.

2. Any Democrat wins.

  • All Democrats have aggressive climate plans, but it’s an open question whether any would first push climate legislation over other priorities — especially health care.
  • Regardless of congressional priority, any Democratic president would swing Washington’s executive-action pendulum far back in the other direction of aggressive regulation and more.
  • Reality check: This pendulum dynamic is classic Washington. It’s inefficient and ingrains uncertainty for everyone involved, including corporate executives (who hate uncertainty), the environment itself and all of us affected by that environment.

3. A progressive Democrat wins ... like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

  • These senators are among the most progressive in the Democratic Party. The types of all-encompassing and hyper-aggressive legislation they would likely push is unlikely to get universal support among Democrats (to say nothing of universal Republican opposition) — which makes them extremely unlikely to get through the Senate even if legislative rules were changed.

4. A more moderate Democrat wins ... like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bloomberg.

  • I anticipate these politicians would be (relatively) more open to trying to work with Republicans on climate change than their progressive counterparts.
  • Research shows that bipartisanship is almost always essential to pass big policy through Congress.

The intrigue: A path to passage of, say, a clean energy standard or a carbon tax would require a grand bargain-type bipartisan compromise, like we saw in 2015 when Congress paired renewing clean-energy subsidies with lifting a ban on oil exports. Though this one would need to be a bigger and more complicated grand bargain.

Yes, but: The holdup comes from both sides. So far, few Republicans are publicly supporting anything bigger, like a carbon tax, while Democrats want even more aggressive policies.

What I’m watching: To what degree narrower policies, like a bipartisan Senate bill introduced last week, gain more congressional support given this landscape. Off the Hill, my focus is shifting to actions by states and corporations.

Read the full column

Bonus: Making sense of the 2020 field's winnowing

ICYMI: Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary Saturday. Pete Buttigieg followed last night.

Why it matters: Buttigieg was among the backers of carbon pricing and you can read his wider plan here.

  • But let's stay on Steyer, because he focused heavily on global warming, he's a prominent climate movement player, and he vowed to declare climate change a national emergency to unlock new federal powers.

His failure to gain traction signals a few things...

  • He had company. Despite Steyer's claim to be the only candidate who would make climate priority #1, in reality several hopefuls emphasize the topic — especially frontrunner Sanders.
  • Talking about climate doesn't help the talker per se. Recall Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's climate-focused run that ended in August. Inslee elevated climate's profile, but he barely registered in the polls.
  • It's not the electorate's top priority. While lots of polling shows climate is now among the top concerns for Democratic voters, it's typically well behind health care.

The bottom line: Focusing on climate was nowhere near enough to push Steyer's long-shot candidacy into the top tier against far better-known rivals.

2. Coronavirus looms over OPEC+ meeting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

OPEC and Russia are slated to meet in Vienna this week to decide whether to extend and deepen their production-cutting agreement as the novel coronavirus eats into global oil demand.

Why it matters: The economic slowdown from the spread of the virus has pushed oil prices down to their lowest levels in over a year — creating new tests for the 3-year-old OPEC+ alliance between the cartel, Russia and allied producers.

What they're saying: Via S&P Global Platts, Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that "for the Russian budget, for our economy, current oil prices are acceptable."

  • But per their piece and others, Putin also emphasized the need for "action" with their foreign partners.
  • The current supply-limiting deal expires at the end of this month.

What's next: Bloomberg took the pulse of analysts and found a widespread expectation that the March 5–6 meeting will yield new cuts.

  • "All but two of 29 analysts, traders and brokers in a global poll predicted that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies will announce new curbs, with an average expectation of 750,000 barrels a day," they report.

But, but, but: The price plunge is hitting the industry in the U.S. too as shale producers, already struggling to make money, feel the pinch. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Meanwhile, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus forced cancelation of the huge CERAWeek energy conference in Houston that was slated to begin March 9, organizers announced Sunday.

Why it matters: The week-long annual event is among the world's biggest and most prominent industry gatherings.

  • It draws CEOs of the world's most powerful energy companies, energy ministers, U.S. cabinet secretaries, OPEC leadership and more.
  • The event combines speeches and panel discussions with exclusive, closed-door gatherings.
3. The Senate's new energy and climate test

The Senate's debate over energy legislation this week is slated to bring fresh collisions over climate change overall and electric vehicles policy specifically.

Catch up fast: The Senate will consider a grab bag of measures introduced as a catch-all package by Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Joe Manchin, who head the Senate's energy panel.

  • Amy has more on the bill here.

The intrigue: Sen. Chuck Schumer, the chamber's top Democrat, is signaling that Democrats will use the debate to highlight differences over climate policy.

  • “Senate Republicans who claim to want to do something about climate change face a big test," he said in a statement.

What's next: A Democratic aide said they would push amendments including...

  • The bipartisan energy efficiency package that Sens. Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen have been pushing for years.
  • Bolstering tax credits for renewables and electric vehicles.

Quick take: Seeing where the GOP votes line up on efforts to expand EV tax credits should be interesting because the White House explicitly opposes them.

4. Data centers are less power-thirsty than expected

Overall energy use from data centers has increased slightly over the past decade, but improved efficiency means that they're using less energy per operation, according to a new analysis unpacked by Axios' Bryan Walsh.

Why it matters: Ultra-efficient server farms have kept energy consumption from growing as fast as data use. But with 5G and AI on the horizon, new innovations will be needed to prevent an explosion in energy use.

Background: As more of daily life migrated to the digital cloud, many environmentalists warned that the energy required to process all that data would create a climate catastrophe.

  • One widely distributed 2019 report estimated the energy needed to power online video streaming would emit over 300 million tons of carbon dioxide a year — 1% of global emissions.
  • The same report estimated the emissions generated by watching 30 minutes of Netflix was equivalent to driving almost 4 miles.

But the new analysis in the journal Science, the first major attempt in a decade to compile a global view of data center energy demands, found that between 2010 and 2018 energy use increased only 6% to 205 TWh — less than the amount of electricity consumed by South Africa.

Read more

5. Catch up fast: EVs, climate, coal

Electric trucks: "Proterra, a Silicon Valley-based maker of electric buses, is leveraging its heavy-duty vehicle expertise and branching out into commercial vehicles by supplying technology to power a new line of zero-emission delivery trucks for Daimler’s Freightliner unit." (Forbes)

Agencies: "An official at the Interior Department embarked on a campaign that has inserted misleading language about climate change — including debunked claims that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial — into the agency’s scientific reports, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times." (NYT)

Coal: "Barclays, HSBC and Standard Chartered could all face a legal challenge from the charity co-founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Christopher Hohn, who has promised to take action if the three banks do not stop lending money to coal-mining companies." (FT)

Ben GemanAmy Harder