Oct 29, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count is: 1,248 words, < 5 minutes.

Situational awareness: "Shares in Saudi state oil giant Aramco will start trading on the Middle Eastern country’s stock exchange on Dec. 11, television news channel Al Arabiya reported, without identifying the source for the information," per Bloomberg.

  • Quick take: It's a big deal if it happens, but the IPO has been delayed repeatedly, so take this with a grain of salt.

Plus, this week marks 25 years since the late Tom Petty released the beautiful album "Wildflowers," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Why automakers splintered over Trump

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's stark new evidence that big automakers are divided over how to navigate White House moves to upend mileage and carbon emissions policies.

Driving the news: GM, Toyota, Fiat-Chrysler and others are now backing the Trump administration's move to yank California's power to impose CO2 rules — and by proxy mileage rules — that exceed federal standards.

  • Last night's move to intervene in litigation on the matter splits them from Ford, VW, Honda and BMW — the quartet that struck a deal with California on toughening standards through the mid-2020s.

The intrigue: Axios' Joann Muller points out that where automakers stand largely depends on their future product pipeline and where they think the market is headed.

  • Volkswagen is betting heavily on electric vehicles in the wake of its diesel emissions scandal. Ford is aligned with VW.
  • Honda is already the industry’s most fuel-efficient carmaker.
  • GM, on the other hand, doesn't think California's plan provides enough EV emissions credits to offset the sale of high-margin pickups it needs to finance its bets on future technologies like autonomy.
  • Some foreign automakers, especially, are worried about angering Presdient Trump, who is still weighing big tariffs on auto imports that could wreak havoc on their business.

Why it matters: California is the nation's biggest auto market and about a dozen states follow its lead on emissions rules.

  • Automakers want to avoid a split national market, but they're at odds over how to get there — and how stringent the single standard should be.
  • Plus, transportation is the nation's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

What they're saying: "The automakers that made a previous deal with California may be questioning their actions if Trump wins a second term and successfully revokes California’s ability to set its own standards," Autotrader executive publisher Karl Brauer tells Axios.

  • "Ultimately there’s no clear path here, and every manufacturer taking a position on this topic risks being on the losing side when it’s finally resolved," he said.

Catch up fast: Don't forget the backstory to all of this.

  • The auto industry started balking a few years ago at stringent Obama-era standards that extend through 2025.
  • But they don't like the draft 2018 White House plan to freeze the standards, and instead say there should be some level of annual increases.

What's next: Look out for final EPA and Transportation Department rules to revise the Obama-era standards.

  • EPA has hinted that the final version require slight increases.
  • But that's extremely unlikely to satisfy California regulators, allied states and environmentalists, so look for this battle to drag on.
2. The electric stakes of the auto regs battle

A new note from the Rhodium Group helps explain why there's so much interest in the Trump vs. California fight.

What they did: The research firm modeled two scenarios out to 2035.

  1. Keeping Obama-era rules and California's waiver, which enables the state and others that follow its lead to adopt its zero-emissions vehicles rule.
  2. Revoking the California waiver and implementing Trump's plan to freeze the Obama-era standards.

What they found: Freezing the standards and yanking the waiver would knock 7%–8% off nationwide ZEV sales — largely electric models — in 2035 relative to keeping the programs.

  • That means 12–14 million fewer ZEVs on the nation's roads in 2035 compared to keeping the tougher rules, Rhodium said.
  • Three-quarters of the sales reduction stems from weaker mileage rules, while the balance is from rolling back the California ZEV rule.

Why it matters: It underscores how policy is a key driver of EV adoption rates, even as more — and more affordable — models enter the market.

3. Breaking: U.S. coal giant files for bankruptcy

Murray Energy, the country's largest privately held coal company and third largest U.S. coal producer, announced Tuesday that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Why it matters: The filing, the latest in a string of coal sector bankruptcies, underscores how power markets are moving away from coal in favor of natural gas and renewables.

  • Coal, which once provided well over half of U.S. electricity, is at around 25% of the power mix today and it's slated to be 22% next year, per Energy Department data.
  • The industry's woes also signal how Trump administration plans to prop up coal-fired power plants have yet to come to fruition.

Where it stands: Via Bloomberg, the filing is aimed at restructuring more than $2.7 billion worth of debt, and the bankruptcy court filing shows that it has reached a "support agreement with a group of lenders that provides a new $350 million loan to keep operations going during the reorganization."

Go deeper:

4. California to investigate PG&E, while fires continue to rage
Flames reflected on fire truck as the Getty fire burns in Los Angeles. Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The California Public Utilities Commission announced Monday it will open an investigation into a series of power shutoffs by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) that were meant to curtail wildfires, Axios' Ursula Perano reports.

Where it stands: PG&E began to cut power to more than 2 million people over the weekend in an attempt to prevent further fires.

  • The Commission says it will examine how public safety power shutoffs are conducted in the future and seek to "drive down risks of ignitions from utility infrastructure, risks that result from power loss, and the disruption to communities and commerce."
  • Backers of the investigation argue utilities can be too reliant on using shutoffs that impede on citizens' lives.
  • The company said Monday that it has begun restorations, with approximately 30,000 customers getting power back Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Californians were without power Monday night, as firefighters raced to contain massive wildfires in Los Angeles and the wine country ahead of a forecast return to low humidity and extreme winds, Axios' Gigi Sukin and Rebecca Falconer write.

  • Per the National Weather Service, the potentially "historic event" poses the most dangerous conditions since the 2017 wine country fires that killed 22 people.
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency.
  • Power cuts designed to prevent further fires are set to affect 3 million people in total, the New York Times notes.

What to watch: As 15 major fires burned from Southern to Northern California Monday evening, some 605,000 customers in 29 counties could lose power in the winds Tuesday through Wednesday, per NYT.

Bonus: PG&E stock under pressure too
Expand chart
Data: Money.net; Chart: Axios Visuals

The embattled utility's stock tumbled another 24% Monday and has lost half its already low value over the past few days.

Where it stands: Via AP, "Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines may have started two wildfires over the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, the utility said Monday, even though widespread blackouts were in place to prevent downed lines from starting fires during dangerously windy weather."

The big picture: "The larger the damage claims against the company, the less value will be available to distribute between bondholders and shareholders when the company comes out of bankruptcy court protection," WSJ reports.

5. BP profit tumbles and climate update looms

BP announced a steep drop in profits Tuesday, citing lower oil prices, maintenance, and July's Hurricane Barry in the Gulf of Mexico that disrupted operations.

By the numbers: The oil-and-gas giant reported $2.3 billion in Q3 net profits, down from $3.8 billion in the same period last year.

  • However, when adding in a $2.6 billion charge related to asset sales, it brings the company to a net loss of roughly $700 million for the period.
  • The results nonetheless exceeded analysts' expectations.

What's next: Shell, Total SA, ExxonMobil and Chevron report their earnings later this week.

The big picture: A top BP official said this morning that the company will be offering new information, likely in the first quarter of 2020, about its approach to climate change.

  • CFO Brian Gilvary told Bloomberg TV that CEO-in-waiting Bernard Looney, who is slated to take over in February, will offer "guidance about how we are thinking about the company going forward and what our ambitions are in the low-carbon space."
Ben GemanAmy Harder