Jun 16, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,297 words, 5 minutes.

🚨 Situational awareness: "Chesapeake Energy Corp is preparing to file for bankruptcy as soon as this week, said three people familiar with the matter, becoming the largest oil and gas producer to unravel after an energy market rout caused by the coronavirus outbreak." (Reuters)

🎵 And happy birthday to Eddie Levert of the R&B legends The O'Jays, offering today's fantastic intro tune...

1 big thing: BP's revealing oil accounting move

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

BP's mammoth asset write-down is certainly a big story, but whether it's a big climate change story is a trickier question. Let's give it a qualified yes.

Catch up fast: The oil-and-gas giant yesterday made several announcements rooted in its view of the "enduring impact" of COVID-19 on the economy and demand, and where it sees clean energy going.

  • BP cut its long-term crude price assumptions steeply, said it will write-down up to $17.5 billion on its assets, and signaled that some of its oil discoveries will never be developed.

Why it matters: That latter piece — an acknowledgement of what are known as "stranded" fossil fuel assets — made lots of waves yesterday.

  • Rachel Kyte, a veteran of international climate diplomacy and now dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School, tweeted that it's "hard to overestimate" the significance of yesterday's announcement.
  • A Financial Times editorial notes (emphasis added): "Bernard Looney, the new boss at BP, is more upfront than some peers in stating that meeting climate change targets is triggering financial charges. There will be plenty more where these ones came from."
  • Oh, and a number we didn't mention in yesterday's quick-hit: BP has sharply raised the carbon price it builds into its investment planning to $100-per-ton in 2030, a sign that it sees the world getting more serious about climate.

But, but, but: A couple notes of caution are probably warranted.

  • One is that BP, which said the pandemic reinforces its long-term climate framework rolled out in February, expects COVID-19 to "accelerate the pace of transition to a lower carbon economy and energy system." But the jury is still out.
  • Another is that BP's prior long-term crude price assumptions — now slashed 27% to a Brent price of $55-per-barrel — were higher than some peers, per this new note from the Westwood Global Energy Group.
  • Oil analyst Arjun Murti said via Twitter that its old assumptions were simply too high, and that pointing to the pandemic and the low-carbon transition is an "excuse" for yesterday's write-down of assets.
  • "I wouldn’t confuse unprofitable investments based on too high of a price deck with 'stranded' in the sense normally used by enviros," he said.

What we're watching: How other players might respond to BP's steps. The New York Times points out that BP's price assumption change "could put pressure on rivals to take similar steps."

The bottom line: "In the longer term, this is about BP’s strategic shift away from oil and gas," Wood Mackenzie analyst Luke Parker said in a note.

  • "While that will be a multi-decade affair, BP is already getting to grips with the idea that its upstream assets are worth less than it believed as recently as six months ago. Indeed, some of them are worth nothing."

Go deeper: BP submits to brutal reality on the future of oil (Bloomberg)

2. Fallout from the SCOTUS pipeline decision

View from the Appalachian Trail near Goshen Pass in Virginia. Photo: Getty Images

A Supreme Court ruling Monday that removes a key hurdle for two natural gas pipelines could have ripple effects for future projects, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: In a 7-2 ruling, the court said the U.S. Forest Service has the power to grant the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline right of way under the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

  • Another pipeline proposed in the same area, the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, has faced similar challenges.

Where it stands: At issue was which federal agency controls the land the pipeline would traverse: the U.S. Forest Service or the Interior Department's National Park Service.

  • Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said under the lower court ruling that Monday’s decision overturned any pipeline crossing at similar "footpaths" controlled by the Park Service would need an act of Congress for approval.
  • 21 such footpaths exist across the country comprising at least tens of thousands of miles, per Thomas’ opinion, according to Gary Kruse, managing director of research at LawIQ, an energy regulatory analytics and advisory firm.
  • "That would have been a severe restraint on pipeline development throughout the country," Kruse said.

The other side: "There is a serious concern that areas of lands long to be considered off-limit for pipeline construction will now be perceived as worthy for potential investment and construction," said Gillian Giannetti, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed an amicus brief opposing the pipeline.

  • This could include opening up protected Park Service areas like the Timpanogos Cave National Monument and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to gas pipelines, according to a blog post she co-authored earlier this year about the decision’s potential implications.

Read more

3. The wild numbers behind oil

Here’s a stat that would have been jaw-dropping before everything changed: The International Energy Agency sees oil demand surging by an unprecedented 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) next year, but even that would leave it 2.4 million bpd below 2019 levels.

Why it matters: This morning's report is the first time that IEA's closely watched, detailed monthly market analysis has looked ahead to 2021.

  • IEA sees a major return to activity (which is already underway), but also expects the collapse in air travel will drag on oil demand until 2022 — or even well beyond.
  • The sharply lower demand projected in 2021 compared to the pre-COVID era of 2019 is "largely explained by the dire situation of the aviation sector," IEA notes, citing industry estimates that passenger traffic will still be down about 55%.

Where it stands: Prices were up this morning, with Brent trading around $41.16 and WTI at $38.65.

The big picture: IEA also now sees global demand down 8.1 million barrels per day this year compared to 2019, which is an unprecedented collapse but not quite as steep as they had once projected.

  • "While the oil market remains fragile, the recent modest recovery in prices suggests that the first half of 2020 is ending on a more optimistic note," IEA said.
  • "If recent trends in production are maintained and demand does recover, the market will be on a more stable footing by the end of the second half," they said, citing production cuts by OPEC+ and other nations.

But, but, but: Take these recovery estimates with a grain of salt. Or chunks of salt. "[W]e should not underestimate the enormous uncertainties," IEA said.

***

Speaking of oil and gas, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports: "Pennsylvania’s Office of Attorney General is charging Cabot Oil and Gas for environmental crimes related to one of the most notorious cases of water contamination from Marcellus Shale drilling in the state."

4. China's electric trucking dominance
Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

To say that China dominates the electrified trucking market would be kind of an understatement, but the vehicle sales appear poised to grow more globally — and soon.

Driving the news: Check out the chart above, which shows data in IEA's latest snapshot of EV trends and policies.

  • The vast majority of annual sales are in China, while in the U.S. and Europe, "most heavy-duty electric truck activity is in demonstration and customer trials."

But, but, but: Tesla plans to bring its semitruck into volume production. More broadly a suite of companies — including startups and legacy players like Daimler — hope to scale up production of battery-powered models.

  • Most recently there's been a burst of attention on the startup Nikola Motors, which is planning to start building battery-powered and hydrogen fuel-cell models.
  • Nikola says it has 14,000 preorders for its fuel-cell heavy-duty truck slated to begin production in 2023, and a spokesperson tells me they're mostly in the U.S., Europe and Canada.

What we're watching: The shifting policy landscape that could broaden adoption outside China, where vehicle electrification has lots of domestic policy support.

  • Later this month California regulators will consider plans to mandate major increases in deployment of zero-emissions trucks.
  • European climate regulations are expected to drive increased sales there, while Joe Biden has signaled that heavy vehicles would be one focus of his climate policy.

Go deeper: 8 electric truck and van companies to watch in 2020 (GreenBiz)

5. Number of the day: 400

The Verge reports: "The Tesla Model S Long Range Plus now has an EPA-rated range of 402 miles, making it the first electric vehicle to receive a rating of over 400 miles from the agency. "

Speaking of Tesla, Bloomberg writes: "Tesla Inc. will buy cobalt from from Glencore Plc, the world’s biggest miner of the metal, as the carmaker looks to avoid a future supply squeeze on the key battery metal, a person familiar with the matter said."

Ben GemanAmy Harder