Sep 24, 2018

Axios Generate

Good morning from New York, where I'm making a quick trip for some Climate Week-related energy events. Are you here too?

D.C. readers: Join Mike Allen for breakfast at our News Shapers tomorrow. He'll go deeper on the rapid rise of vaping and why it matters with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, American Vaping Association President Gregory Conley, and CATCH Global Foundation CEO Duncan Van Dusen. RSVP

And, my latest Harder Line column is catching onto a very big trend in climate change. I'll share a bit of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: Earth's climate liposuction

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Addressing climate change isn’t just about moving to cleaner forms of energy anymore. It’s about literally taking out some of the heat-trapping gases already in our skies.

Why it matters: There's so much buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists say we’ve reached a point that some needs to be removed to limit Earth’s temperature rise and avoid the worst impacts of a warmer world. Technology exists to do it, but it’s costly, zany-sounding and not well known. That's starting to change now.

“The big story is you can’t get there simply by lowering carbon emissions. I think that window has closed. That’s a pretty revolutionary concept.”
— Andrew Steer, president, World Resources Institute

Driving the news: A seminal report to be released Oct. 8 by a United Nations scientific body is expected to underscore the need for transformative technologies in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to more than a century ago.

  • The report is expected to include an emphasis on removing carbon dioxide already emitted into the atmosphere, according to multiple people familiar with it.
  • After the UN report is issued, the National Academy of Sciences also is set to release several influential studies on this topic.

The big picture: Momentum among foundations, universities and other experts in this space is growing rather suddenly. That’s notable, given that it’s addressing what is a centuries-long problem.

“If you’re not tackling carbon, you’re not actually tackling the problem. Everything else we’ve done so far has been a bank shot. Now is the time to step up.”
— Julio Friedmann, former Obama official and head of Columbia University's new initiative

Removing CO2 from the air can be done a few different ways, including planting trees that naturally soak up carbon dioxide. A leading line of research is backing technology capturing far more CO2 faster than trees ever could.

A small handful of companies around the world are pursuing this, including:

  1. Switzerland-based Climeworks, which opened its first commercial-scale plant that captures CO2 from the air.
  2. Canada-based Carbon Engineering, whose investors include Bill Gates. Its CEO Steve Oldham told me recently to stay tuned for potential news soon on new partnerships, including possibly with oil and gas companies.

What’s next: There needs to be a business case for capturing CO2. That means turning what has long been seen as a waste product — carbon dioxide — into a product that can make money.

  • Putting a price on carbon emissions, such as through a tax, is the simplest way to do that.
  • But absent comprehensive policy on that front either nationally or even globally, a patchwork is emerging.

Two things to watch:

  1. To what degree California’s recently adopted aggressive clean-energy law provides economic incentives for companies like Carbon Engineering.
  2. Whether Congress passes bipartisan legislation encouraging government investment and coordination for technologies sucking CO2 from the sky and related efforts.

Go deeper: Read the whole thing in the Axios stream.

2. Oil rises as OPEC stands pat

Crude prices are climbing in trading Monday, a day after OPEC and allied producers — notably Russia — declined to commit to further production increases, arguing there's enough crude on the market.

  • Brent crude is trading around $80 per barrel while WTI, the U.S. benchmark, is about $72 per barrel.

Driving the news: A meeting in Algeria ended with a statement declaring "satisfaction regarding the current oil market outlook, with an overall healthy balance between supply and demand."

  • The meeting comes ahead of reimposition of U.S. energy sanctions against Iran in early November.

However, the committee monitoring the production-management agreement, which was relaxed in June, also said it had "urged countries with spare capacity to work with customers to meet their demand during the remaining month of 2018."

The intrigue: The meeting happened on the heels of President Trump's Thursday tweet demanding that OPEC "get prices down now!" The New York Times offers a good summary of the tricky dynamic...

The Saudis and their allies appear to be trying to walk a fine line between accommodating Mr. Trump and not putting so much oil into the market that prices crash — as they did in 2014, damaging their petroleum-dependent economies.

What they're saying: Per Reuters, "Commodity merchants Trafigura and Mercuria said on Monday that Brent could rise to $90 per barrel by Christmas and even above $100 in early 2019 as markets tighten once U.S. sanctions against Iran are implemented from November."

3. OPEC steers clear of peak demand club


OPEC's latest long-term forecast sees global oil demand rising through at least 2040, effectively rebuffing analyses released since last year's edition that project an earlier peak in the world's crude thirst.

Why it matters: The timing of the eventual peak in crude oil demand is relevant to the long-term planning of oil producers and companies — not to mention the trajectory of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

By the numbers: The cartel's 2018 World Oil Outlook released Sunday sees global demand growing to reach 111.7 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2040, which is actually a tad higher than last year's 2040 projection of 111.1 million bpd.

The intrigue: The report underscores the lack of consensus on when the world's demand for oil — which is currently around 99 million bpd and rising — will eventually crest.

  • The International Energy Agency, like OPEC, also sees global crude demand growing through at least 2040 (the final year of their forecast period).
  • But a recent analysis by the energy-focused risk advisory firm DNV GL projects a peak in 2023.
  • Royal Dutch Shell, with several caveats, has said a peak could occur by the late 2020s.
  • The central scenario in BP's long-term outlook released in February said a peak could arrive as soon as the mid-2030s.
  • The middle scenario in Norwegian energy giant Equinor's latest collection of outlooks, released in June, sees a peak around 2030.

What's next: In the nearer-term, the report sees demand for OPEC crude declining for several years after 2020, thanks to surging output from the U.S. shale boom and some other sources.

  • However, the report sees the U.S. boom peaking in the late 2020s. "Demand for OPEC crude only returns to 2017 levels by the late 2020s, when US tight oil peaks, and rises steadily thereafter," the report notes.

Go deeper: S&P Global Platts breaks down the OPEC report in detail here.

4. Big today: a nuclear decision

Owners of a troubled, over-budget nuclear power project in Georgia will decide today whether to cancel the ongoing construction of the two new reactors.

Why it matters: The expansion of Southern Company's Vogtle site is the only nuclear power project in the country. Its demise would be a major blow to the industry that has seen hopes for a U.S. renaissance fade.

Where it stands: Southern subsidiary Georgia Power, which has the largest stake in what has ballooned into a $27 billion project, has signaled that it supports pressing ahead.

  • But the two other major stakeholders — Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Oglethorpe Power Corp. — must also sign off on moving forward.

The intrigue: The project is supported by federal loan guarantees agreed to under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration supports completion of the reactors.

  • “It’s important that the U.S. maintain its leadership in nuclear technology, nuclear expertise,” a senior DOE official told reporters on a call Sunday evening.
  • On Friday, the Energy Department sent letters to the owners warning that if it's canceled, the department is "prepared to move swiftly to fully enforce its rights" to repayment. Thus far, $5.6 billion of the $8.3 billion loan guarantee has been disbursed.

Go deeper: The Associated Press has more on the DOE letters to the project owners here.

5. GM makes internal EV moves ...

General Motors is overhauling its electric vehicle management with several internal moves as the automaker works to have 20 EV models launched worldwide by 2023.

Why it matters: The moves signal increased focus on EVs by major automakers — even though they hold only a tiny share of the market today.

Driving the news: Pam Fletcher will take the newly created position of VP for innovation that reports directly to CEO Mary Barra, GM said. She's currently the VP of global EV programs.

  • Doug Parks, who is the VP for autonomous and EV programs, "will also assume primary responsibility for the growing global electric vehicle team," GM tells Axios.
  • And Mike Ableson, who is currently VP for global strategy, will become VP for EV charging and infrastructure, reporting to Parks in the newly created role.
  • The changes were first reported by Automotive News.

The details: Parks, in a statement, said Ableson will "develop the partnerships, incentives and investments needed to create the necessary electric vehicle charging infrastructure to remove a critical barrier to acceptance of electrification."

6. ... while Porsche sharpens EV focus too

GM wasn't the only important automaker to announce news this weekend. Porsche said Sunday that it will no longer offer cars with diesel propulsion and instead focus more of its attention on hybrid and electric vehicles.

The big picture: Porsche stressed that it's "not demonizing diesel," and that the decision is simply a case of demand for hybrid models skyrocketing at the same time interest in diesel is falling.

  • The automaker, a unit of Volkswagen, said in February that it's investing $7 billion on electrification-related initiatives by 2022, with a focus on plug-in hybrids and pure electrics.

The intrigue: The move also can't be untethered from the effects of VW's diesel emissions-cheating scandal.

  • "The decision also comes as diesel car sales have plunged as part of a wider backlash of the emissions-cheating scandal with European cities beginning to ban older diesel models from their roads to meet emissions reductions targets," the Wall Street Journal notes.