Aug 20, 2018

Axios Generate

Good morning, I joined Greentech Media's Political Climate podcast last week to talk about fossil-fuel money in politics, the Kigali climate policy, and to what degree alarmism in the climate debate is good or not.

Check it out here, and then read my latest Harder Line column, which tackles similar topics. I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on what's shaping up to be a busy week. 

1 big thing: What fuels climate polarization
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

America’s hot summer is fueling wildfires — and a fierce debate over climate change, the single most polarized policy in the U.S.

The big picture: There are plenty of reasons for this divide. Fossil-fuel industry lobbying is one. Our elections that encourage partisanship and tribalism don’t help. A lot more is at play underlying these factors.

Here's a rundown of some issues that I see time and again inflaming our divisions:

1. Black and white rhetoric for a gray topic. Listening to some interest groups and politicians, fossil fuels are either terrible for the planet or a godsend to humanity. The truth is, they’re some of both.

  • Yes, most scientists agree humans’ burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of Earth’s rising temperatures over the last century.
  • Also yes, fossil fuels are the foundation of our modern-day economy, and they power most of our everyday lives, whether it’s electricity or petro-made plastics.

2. Ignoring science when it's not convenient. Many Republicans, industry officials and right-leaning news organizations continue to dismiss or openly mock the scientific community’s warnings about climate change.

  • This comes despite acceptance of science on other issues like genetically modified organisms.

3. Passive problem solving. More recently, Republicans indirectly acknowledge climate change is occurring — but still don't say it.

  • It’s like an alcoholic going to AA without acknowledging he has a drinking problem. It’s better than nothing, but you’re probably not going to get far.

4. Overplaying your hand. News outlets, politicians and interest groups sometimes exaggerate claims that then backfire.

  • Human-driven climate change is a slow-moving, complicated global problem. Anybody working in this space undermines their credibility if they make it more than what it is, even if the reality may be less dramatic.

5. What about-ism. This rhetorical device is common in politics: Attempting to discredit a position instead of responding to a question. Republicans do this as a way of avoiding acknowledging climate change.

6. Convenient problems. Some Democrats and environmental groups hide behind technological problems to avoid taking explicit positions. The upshot is often slowed progress. I see this with nuclear power and carbon capture.

Go deeper: Read the whole column.

2. EPA is about to show its power cards


The Environmental Protection Agency is slated to unveil a proposal this week to replace Obama-era rules to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants with a much weaker substitute, according to multiple reports.

The rollout could be tied to President Trump's Tuesday trip to West Virginia, a major coal-producing state.

Why it matters: EPA's 2015 Clean Power Plan was a central pillar of Obama's climate agenda, and was designed to achieve a 32% cut in nationwide CO2 emissions from power plants by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.

Go deeper: This Washington Post story over the weekend has details on the replacement plan.

  • EPA's analysis "projects that the proposal would make only slight cuts to overall emissions of pollutants — including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — over the next decade," WashPost reports.

Yes, but: It's not clear if the proposal will alter the trajectory of coal's decline in power markets, which has been driven largely by cheap natural gas, as well as the rise of renewables and separate regulations.

3. A push for batteries without "blood cobalt"

In Kawama, DRC, a miner prepares to descend. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Axios' Steve LeVine reports ... The U.S. government is funding a push to reinvent lithium-ion batteries so they contain little or no cobalt, an increasingly expensive metal found largely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where activists say workers often toil in inhumane conditions.

The big picture: Cobalt — contained in virtually every commercial lithium-ion battery on the planet — has unusual energy density and the ability to stabilize volatile electrochemistry. But its price has swung wildly given booming demand for electric cars in China, from Tesla, and elsewhere — in addition to electronic devices like smartphones.

  • By seeking to eliminate or seriously reduce the metal's use in batteries, the Department of Energy, along with several startups, may complicate what has been one of the primary quests of the last decade: to create a safer, cheaper battery that lasts much longer than current technology.
  • In a June speech in Washington, D.C., Peter Faguy, a senior manager in the battery research effort at DOE, used the term "blood cobalt" to describe the metal, suggesting that removing it from lithium-ion batteries is a moral issue.

Go deeper: Read Steve's full story in the Axios stream.

4. Total quits Iran and more petro notes

Breaking: Via AFP, "French energy giant Total has officially quit its multi-billion-dollar gas project in Iran, Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said on Monday, following the reimposition of US sanctions."

  • Why it matters: The news is among the most tangible industry fallout from the U.S. plan to resume energy sanctions against Iran.
  • Total has major U.S.-based assets, and as AFP notes, would have been "highly vulnerable" if it refused to abandon the Iranian project.
  • "The company has $10 billion of capital employed in its US assets, and US banks are involved in 90 percent of its financing operations, Total said in May," they report.

Trump and oil: The Associated Press found an obscure but consequential administration document published recently "without fanfare."

  • "Conserving oil is no longer an economic imperative for the U.S., the Trump administration declares in a major new policy statement that threatens to undermine decades of government campaigns for gas-thrifty cars and other conservation programs," they report.

LNG: Per Reuters, a sign of the expansion of the global liquefied natural gas trade.

  • "Bangladesh has started operations at the country’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, the country’s energy minister said on Monday, following delays related to technical problems and bad weather," they report.
5. The Saudi EV plot thickens


Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund may invest in luxury electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors, according to Reuters, which reports that recent discussions could result in the Saudis eventually investing over $1 billion and obtaining majority ownership.

Why it matters: The report comes just days after Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) was "eager" to bankroll his plan to take Tesla private.

  • The Reuters piece and Musk's claims, taken together, signal Saudi interest in EVs as one of the tech sectors that can help diversify their oil-dominant economy.
  • However, Reuters' framing of the potential Lucid deal creates even more uncertainty about the Saudis' readiness and ability to invest heavily in Musk's expensive take-private plan.
  • "A deal with Lucid Motors more in line with PIF’s limited resources, given that, despite its $250 billion in assets, PIF has already made substantial commitments to other technology companies or investments, including a $45-billion agreement to invest in a giant technology fund led by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.," they report.

Go deeper: USA vs. Elon Musk.

6. Axios Expert Voices: grid security and traffic

Pacificorp's 1440 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Castle Dale, Utah. Photo: George Frey via Getty Images

Grid security: The Atlantic Council's David Livingston takes a critical look at brewing White House plans to aid coal-fired and nuclear power plants. Livingston writes...

If the priority is to address cyber threats to the grid, the Trump administration might want to focus on the Department of Energy’s own “Multiyear Plan for Energy Sector Cybersecurity,” issued in March.
That plan doesn't have provisions for propping up uneconomic power plants, but instead includes steps far more likely to get the grid where it needs to go.

Transportation: UC-Berkeley's Gordon Bauer makes the case that concerns about ride-hailing companies creating more congestion in cities miss the bigger picture. Here's part of Bauer's take...

Privately owned vehicles driven for personal use still dominate our transportation system, in large part because using one is cheap, fast and comfortable after the initial investment.
Any regulatory solution to congestion must focus on personal vehicles first. Short of that, placing limits on Uber or Lyft will be a mere drop in the gas tank.
7. On our radar: Congress and grid threats

Congress, part 1: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources gathers Tuesday for a hearing on blockchain.

  • Why it matters: The digital transaction technology has an array of energy-related applications, such as enabling microgrids.
  • "The purpose of the hearing is to consider the energy efficiency of blockchain and similar technologies and the cybersecurity possibilities of such technologies for energy industry applications," the committee said.

Congress, part 2: A pair of other committee hearings will focus on Russia at a time when some lawmakers are pushing for new energy-related sanctions.

  • The Senate Banking Committee has a hearing on sanctions tomorrow and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also meets Tuesday as well to discuss U.S.-Russia relations.

Electricity: A Tuesday event hosted by the nonprofit Helena Group will look at intentional and natural electromagnetic threats to the power grid and the effect on national security.

  • "The issue has been heating up in the wake of revelations about Russian infiltration of US critical infrastructure," states an advisory from Helena, which has an ongoing project on the topic.
  • The public event is sandwiched between a classified Air Force summit on electromagnetic spectrum threats that's happening on Monday and Wednesday, according to Helena.