Jul 9, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. Remember when I said last month we were halfway through the year? Some of you rightly pointed out July 1 is actually the halfway point. So now that we're slightly over that, it's time for me to check in on my 2018 predictions

My latest Harder Line column examines my own crystal ball from January and revisits my predictions. I'll give you the top line results of that, and then Ben Geman will you get up to speed on the rest.

1 big thing: Fact-checking my energy crystal ball
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In early January I laid out 8 energy and climate issues to watch this year. Here’s my rejiggered crystal ball — and a fact check for how my predictions are playing out.

1. Regulatory rollbacks: The pace of President Trump’s regulatory rollbacks at EPA is slower than I had predicted in January. This is likely due in part to former Administrator Scott Pruitt's tenure being a lot more scandalous than anticipated. This summer is gearing up to be a busy one though.

2. Trade: I predicted the rubber would meet the road, and it sure has.

3. Electricity market battles: This fight is meeting my expectations, despite no official action from the Trump administration.

4. Paris and Kigali climate agreements: I predicted we’d see words move to action on these two climate-related global accords the Obama administration agreed to. I’ve been more right on Kigali than Paris.

5. Carbon tax: The tectonic plates I predicted would be shifting here are moving — slowly and subtly.

6. Transportation fuels: I predicted a battle for America’s mostly stagnant transportation fuel mix would unfold this year, and it is — but it’s mostly a fight between ethanol and oil.

7. Oil prices: I was pretty spot-on with my prediction oil prices would trend upward, with gasoline prices rising accordingly.

8. Saudi Aramco IPO: I was mostly wrong about this being a 2018 issue.

Drill down: Read more details on each in the Axios stream.

2. Saudi Aramco's fading IPO

Multiple new reports suggest the initial public offering of Saudi Arabia's massive state oil company Aramco may be shelved, not just delayed.

Why it matters: Saudi officials had hoped to raise tens of billions of dollars to help fund the kingdom's economic diversification by going public with a small piece of the company.

  • The IPO has been a part of the wider agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the aggressive and ambitious heir to the Saudi throne, but has been mired in delays and uncertainty.

The latest: A newly published Financial Times interview with CEO Amin Nasser only grazes the topic, but in the article he says that the government had not determined whether it will happen.

  • That's a slight shift from Nasser's comments in recent months, like these in March, when he said the outstanding questions were about timing and listing venue.

More signs: The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that the IPO might be scuttled outright, and quoted an anonymous senior exec saying, “Everyone is almost certain it is not going to happen."

A weekend Bloomberg piece similarly says that many, including senior Aramco officials, doubt it will occur. Some key executives working on the offering have left or taken other roles, they report. Bloomberg notes that one headwind is...

  • The Trump factor: "With Republicans facing tough midterm elections in November, he’s pressured Saudi Arabia to pump more oil, and cheaper crude means a lower valuation for the company."

Of note: An Aramco rep has declined to comment to Axios in recent days.

3. Breaking news: the U.K.'s long-term EV plan

New plan: British officials on Monday published their long-term plan for transitioning away from traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles — a move aimed at cutting traditional pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Why it matters: While battery costs are falling and automakers are offering more electrics, policy will nonetheless play a major role in determining the speed of electric and plug-in hybrid penetration worldwide.

Highlights: The plan calls for — but does not require — new sales of cars and vans to be "effectively zero emission by 2040," with an interim target of at least 50% of new car sales to be "ultra low emissions" by 2030.

  • It also includes a new $530 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund to "accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure by providing funding to new and existing companies that produce and install charge points."

The intrigue: Via The Financial Times, "The release of the new policy has been delayed for months by intense lobbying, and the document reveals that the government is sticking to the 2040 target for ending the sale of conventional petrol vehicles, despite pleas from British mayors to bring the target forward to 2030."

Yes, but: Environmentalists and others pointed out that the plan has plenty of caveats and leaves plenty of room for gas-electric hybrids (h/t to Carbon Brief's Simon Evans for highlighting some of the reaction).

  • The plan notes that regulators "expect" that in 2040 the "majority" of new cars and vans sold to be zero-emissions and that all of them will have "significant zero emission capability."
4. "Red lines" on the Saudi nuclear deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with President Trump. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports ... Israel has presented the Trump administration with its "red lines" for the nuclear deal the U.S. is currently negotiating with Saudi Arabia to build reactors in the kingdom.

The big picture: A senior Israeli official told Barak the Israeli government realized it will not be able to stop the deal — set to be worth billions of dollars for the U.S. — and decided instead to attempt to reach an understanding with the Trump administration regarding the parameters of the deal.

  • Last March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised concerns about the deal during a meeting with Trump and other senior U.S. officials. Netanyahu was concerned such a deal, especially if it also includes a "right" to enrich uranium, will lead to further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Trump and his advisers told Netanyahu that, if the U.S. does not sell the Saudis nuclear reactors, other countries like Russia or France will.
  • The senior Israeli official told Barak that Netanyahu sent Yuval Steinitz, his energy minister in charge of Israel's atomic energy committee, to Washington 2 weeks ago to meet with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is leading the negotiations with the Saudis over the nuclear deal.

What we're hearing: Steinitz presented Perry and other senior U.S. officials with a set of parameters, including the request for a "no surprises policy" regarding the negotiations with the Saudis to ensure maximum transparency.

Go deeper: Click here to learn more in the Axios stream about what Israel presented to U.S. officials.

5. Making sense of EPA's tumultuous days
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

ICYMI: On Friday, we put out a special edition of Generate to size up the departure of Pruitt.

Between the lines: EPA is likely to see smoother processes and less ethical controversy, but a small number of potential policy shifts with Pruitt gone. Don’t expect the overall direction of the agency to change.

Why it matters: For months, Pruitt’s various scandals have dominated headlines and distracted attention from the agency’s regulatory rollbacks. With him gone, an agency scarred by a tumultuous run will be on the same policy track.

What’s next: Andrew Wheeler, EPA’s current deputy administrator, will be the acting administrator. He'll remain there until (and if) Trump appoints a replacement and successfully gets the nominee through what would be a grueling Senate confirmation process.

Go deeper: What will and won't change at EPA.

Our thought bubble: Pruitt's ouster could make life harder, not easier, for environmentalists and other opponents of EPA's agenda under Trump.

  • Pruitt's ethics missteps and scandals turned him a ripe and headline-ready target, and they'll be challenged to gain the same traction against Wheeler, who has a lower profile and deeper ties to Capitol Hill.
  • Wheeler's experience could also help EPA avoid some of the legal pitfalls that have bedeviled some of Pruitt's attempts to unwind Obama-era rules.

More on the EPA transition...

6. The stakes of Trump's plan to prop up coal

Potential Trump administration moves to prop up coal-fired and nuclear power plants for 2 years would cause an estimated 353–815 pollution-related premature deaths and modestly boost carbon emissions, analysts with a non-partisan think tank said.

Why it matters: The new study, by researchers working with Resources For the Future, represents an early attempt to quantify the effects of brewing, highly controversial plans to aggressively intervene in power markets on behalf of economically struggling coal plants and nuclear generators.

The backdrop: An internal White House memo that Bloomberg obtained in late May envisions sweeping use of federal powers to aid economically-struggling plants for two years.

  • In the two-year window, the plan helps coal much more than nuclear because more coal generation is at risk of closure during that period, leading to more emissions of traditional pollutants and greenhouse gases.

The details: The study, as a baseline, assumes the administration's plan would delay retirement of an estimated 7,800 megawatts of coal-fired generation capacity and 1,100 megawatts of nuclear capacity over 2 years.

  • Additional emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from those coal plants would cause as many as 815 deaths.
  • The net carbon emissions from the policy would be an estimated 22 million short tons over the 2 years, which the study notes is roughly the amount emitted annually by 4.3 million cars.

Go deeper: Read more in the Axios stream.

7. Big this week: oil, SCOTUS, Congress

A few things on our radar...

Oil: On Thursday, the International Energy Agency will release its closely watched monthly oil market report.

  • This will be the first edition since OPEC and Russia agreed to boost output, so we'll be looking to see how IEA sizes up the move.

SCOTUS: Tonight, Trump is slated to announce his nominee to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

  • Why it matters: The high court is likely to eventually make new rulings on cases related to climate change and other environmental topics.
  • Go deeper: The climate stakes of Kennedy's exit.

Congress: Hearings this week include a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee session Thursday that will explore interstate natural gas and electricity delivery networks.

Ben GemanAmy Harder