Sep 19, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,240 words, < 5 minutes.

And this month marks 40 years since the Buzzcocks released "A Different Kind of Tension," so one of those propulsive cuts is today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Trump vs. California is so 2019

President Trump's effort to yank California's power to impose vehicle carbon emissions rules that are tougher than federal standards is soooooo of-the-moment.

Driving the news: EPA this morning announced that they’re indeed revoking California’s waiver, stating it’s needed to ensure “there will be one, and only one, set of national fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles.”

  • EPA said the move won't scuttle California's ability to carry out programs that address other forms of tailpipe pollution.
  • Yanking the waiver is a precursor to rolling back the Obama-era emissions and mileage mandates.
  • Read EPA's summary here.

The big picture: Here's my scientific analysis of the reasons why the wider battle over vehicle emissions and mileage rules captures the zeitgeist of 2019...

  • It's important. Transportation has overtaken electricity production as the biggest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It's messy on K Street. Like a number of Trump moves, the business community reaction is conflicted and complicated. In this case, automakers don't like the related White House effort to freeze Obama-era emissions and mileage mandates. They chafed at the Obama rules but say Trump's plan goes too far. The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees with the automakers.
  • It's political and cultural too. The move is the latest salvo in the wider White House battle with America's most lefty state. As Axios' Mike Allen noted yesterday, Trump is at war with California over the environment, homelessness, tax returns, immigration and more.
  • It's on Trump's phone. He announced the move on Twitter before his own agencies unveiled the plan (though to be fair this has previously surfaced in draft form).

The intrigue: EPA boss Andrew Wheeler this morning left open the possibility that when his agency and the Transportation Department finalize their rules, there might be some increases as opposed to an outright freeze at 2020 levels.

  • “We have not made a final decision yet on what the standards will be,” he said at a press conference, adding, “The final will not look exactly the same way that we proposed it.”

Go deeper: This Politico story unpacks Trump's claims about the vehicle safety and emissions effects of the administration plans.

Bonus: The state of vehicle fuel economy
Expand chart
Data: EPA; Note: 2018 value is preliminary; Chart: Axios Visuals

Amid all the fighting over the future of vehicle standards, let's look at the past.

The chart above shows the progression of average mileage of cars and light-trucks sold in the U.S.

Why it matters: While fuel efficiency has been increasing, the gains sometimes stagnate, which is one reason why advocates are upset about weakening federal mandates.

  • Per EPA data, mileage of the U.S. fleet under real-world driving conditions was somewhere in the 24 miles-per-gallon range for model years 2013–2017.
  • Preliminary results show an increase to 25.4 mpg for model year 2018, the most recent year in the EPA dataset.
  • Under the Obama-era plan, real-world mileage standards would be roughly 36 mpg in 2025.
2. UN boss tries to steer spotlight to climate

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres labored to keep the focus on climate change as other topics grabbed the spotlight during a press conference ahead of a major UN summit next week, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: The topic often struggles for prime spots in diplomatic agendas, especially during other crises.

  • At Wednesday's event, the conversation was dominated by last weekend's attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure — which produces the very products helping warm Earth’s temperature.

What's new: Guterres fielded questions on the Saudi oil attacks and President Trump’s rollback of environmental rules as he sought to preview next week’s UN Climate Action summit.

  • "Our overarching focus for our meetings next week will be sustainable and inclusive development, leaving no one behind,” Guterres said in his opening remarks.
  • On the Saudi attacks, Guterres said: "I don’t think there is a more serious threat in the world than what’s happening in the Gulf."

One level deeper: Guterres also deflected questions about Trump’s dismissal of climate science and his administration's move to roll back fuel efficiency standards.

What’s next: Guterres said he intends for at least some leaders to present specific plans on Monday toward reaching a 2050 goal of "carbon neutrality."

  • "I told leaders not to come with fancy speeches but concrete commitments," Guterres added.
3. How much pump prices rose after Saudi attacks
Expand chart
Data: AAA; Explore the data. Graphic: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Gasoline prices have gone up across more than half the country following last weekend’s attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, Amy reports.

Where it stands: Since Monday, the national gasoline price average has increased 9 cents to $2.65 a gallon, according to AAA, which predicts it could jump as much as another dime this month.

One level deeper: The greatest increases are in the Midwest and Great Lakes region, which AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano says is not atypical because this region often sees high volatility.

The big picture: Gas prices remain pretty low, as they have the last few years, compared to a decade ago when they were hitting the $4 mark.

What’s next: Saudi officials hope to fully restore oil supply by month's end, and say half the 5.7 million barrels per day of production knocked offline is back.

  • The duration of the effect on gas prices will greatly depend on how soon Saudi facilities are back up and running as well as crude oil prices, which account for more than 50% of the price at the pump, per Casselano.
4. The role of electric vehicles in GM strike

Axios' Joann Muller explores an important part of the conflict between GM and its 46,000 striking workers: Both sides are unclear about where the industry is headed.

The big picture: Some of the uncertainty is around trade, some around emissions and mileage standards, but let's zoom in on her look at electric vehicles' role.

Why it matters: The shift toward EVs is a major source of anxiety for the union.

  • EVs have 80% fewer parts, and are easier to assemble, which means they'll require a lot fewer workers, including those that manufacture parts like engines and transmissions, according to a UAW analysis.

But EVs could also create new jobs making things like batteries, electric motors, electronics and thermal systems.

  • The union's worry is the production of these EV components could shift to new players that are more likely to import them from overseas.
  • The UAW wants companies like GM to commit to re-tool plants, re-train workers and produce new components in the U.S.
  • GM has said its offer to the union includes a new electric pickup truck to be built in Michigan and a new battery facility in Ohio.
5. The climate and energy ad wars

Exclusive: The Michael Bloomberg-backed Beyond Carbon campaign has launched a 6-figure digital ad buy just ahead of the 2-day climate forum with 2020 Democratic hopefuls that MSNBC is co-hosting today and Friday.

Where it stands: The campaign — running on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube — features commentary from Bloomberg, Hip Hop Caucus CEO Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. and others.

  • "We're not waiting for the next administration. We're acting now to put America on the path to 100% clean energy," says Bloomberg, whose work promotes state and local emissions efforts, in one of the spots.

Who they are: Bloomberg launched the $500 million Beyond Carbon effort earlier this year. It aims to wean the U.S. off coal and halt construction of new gas-fired power plants, among other priorities.

But, but, but: It's not the only deep-pocketed interest running new ads. A few days ago the powerful American Petroleum Institute launched a 7-figure buy with TV, digital spots and more.

  • The goal of API's pro-natural gas campaign is to "provide balance to the energy debate as Congress returns and the presidential primary continues," the group said.
  • The spots are here and here.
6. Quote of the day
"I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists."

Who said it: Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who offered a very brief prepared statement at a congressional hearing yesterday.

  • She submitted last fall's big UN scientific report on what's needed to hold warming within 1.5°C and the effects of breaching that threshold.
Ben GemanAmy Harder