August 10, 2023

Good morning. Today's newsletter has a Smart Brevity count of 1,203 words, 4.5 minutes.

🎶 RIP to Robbie Robertson of The Band. We'll give thanks with today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Big Oil's new normal and its discontents

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Big Oil's tame second-quarter earnings and related plans were something of a new normal after a wild few years, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: Giants like Exxon and Shell saw lower Q2 profits as commodity prices eased from the shock of the Ukraine crisis.

  • But as a new HSBC research note argues, they're still billions of dollars in the black — and still devoting lots of cash to dividends and buybacks.

The big picture: "From an energy macro perspective, [second-quarter results] were the first (more or less) normal quarter since 2021, before the start of the war in Ukraine," the bank's analysts write.

  • "The new normal looks solid, with aggregate 2Q23 earnings and cashflow respectively 24% and 8% above mid-2018 levels, when the environment was fairly similar."
  • They suspect the Q2 numbers may be a "floor" at a time when oil prices are trending back upwards, along with prices at the pump.

The intrigue: For investors, this all looks pretty, pretty good for now (though your mileage may vary).

  • But from an environmental perspective, a prominent analyst this week argued that Big Oil isn't doing nearly enough, especially as extreme worldwide heat argues for more decisive action on climate.
  • Jason Bordoff, the founding director of Columbia University's energy think tank, penned a New York Times op-ed arguing supermajors should lean more aggressively into energy transition. He noted these business lines remain a very small share of spending.

What they're saying: "Industry leaders face a stark choice: Either match their rhetoric with actions demonstrating convincingly that they are prepared to invest at scale in clean energy or acknowledge that their plan is to be among the last producers and bet on a slower transition," he writes.

Quick take: The former Obama-era energy and climate specialist is a policy realist. While he's weighed in before on the need for scaled-up clean energy investments and specifically chided Big Oil, his forceful NYT critique still resonates as record-breaking heat swamps the globe.

State of play: Oil giants, while staying committed to their core fossil lines, are boosting their investments in "clean" sources.

  • The HSBC note name-checks moves like BP and TotalEnergies' recent multibillion dollar push into Germany's offshore wind market, and Exxon's $4.9B purchase of Denbury, which Exxon coveted for its CO2 pipeline network.

The bottom line: Bordoff's essay may signal that criticism of Big Oil's climate pace and posture will increasingly come from outside the green movement.

2. ⚛️ New fusion finance

💵 General Fusion has announced the first close of its Series F round at roughly $25 million and said it will construct a new "Magnetized Target Fusion" machine to speed its technical progress, Ben writes.

State of play: Existing investors BDC Capital and GIC led the round, which also included a grant from the Canadian government.

Driving the news: The hardware to be constructed at its Richmond, British Columbia HQ will help "leverage the company's recent technological advancements" as it aims to commercialize fusion by the mid-2030s, General Fusion said.

The big picture: It's far from the biggest fusion funding round ever as a suite of companies have been pulling in cash in recent years. But it comes amid growing confidence that fusion — long an elusive holy grail — might become viable.

Yes, but: Insert your standard caveat that big scientific, technical and financial hurdles remain here.

3. Making sense of Biden's "emergency" statement

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

President Biden offered an inadvertent window into how far the White House likely will and won't go with climate policy, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: When asked by The Weather Channel in an interview that aired Wednesday if he would declare a "national emergency" on climate, Biden said he'd "already done that."

  • He cited his work on conservation, rejoining the Paris Agreement, and the Democrats' big climate law that's steering unprecedented funding into low-carbon projects.
  • Biden then said "practically speaking, yes," an emergency had been declared.

Yes, but: That's very different than the formal designation that some activists who oppose pipelines and other projects — like the Sunrise Movement — have long sought, and called for again Wednesday.

  • They want to unlock executive powers that would be used for steps like thwarting fossil fuel exports and development.

Quick take: The hullabaloo is a reminder of the wider White House approach.

  • It's far more selective with oil and gas leasing than the industry and Republicans want. Biden also said the courts are limiting his ability to restrict development.
  • Still, the administration has pushed the industry for more near-term production in recent years.
  • And White House officials clearly see geostrategic benefits to U.S. resources — notably LNG exports that have helped Europe move away from Russian gas.

What they're saying: "The President was crystal clear: he has treated climate change as an emergency — the existential threat of our time — since day one," the White House said in a statement.

  • It also noted that Biden has previously used "emergency authorities" by invoking the Defense Production Act to try to boost low-carbon equipment manufacturing.

Go deeper: E&E News has a nice look at Biden's comments and wider initiatives.

4. Why EVs' next era won't be easy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Early adopters fueled the initial spike in electric vehicle (EV) sales, but the next wave of consumers — the more price-sensitive "early majority" — is more elusive, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

The big picture: Mainstream shoppers won't pay huge premiums over gas-powered vehicles, in part because they're still apprehensive about charging and think better EVs are coming.

Why it matters: The EV transition will likely be longer and bumpier than many experts predicted — which explains why some automakers are hedging their bets, cutting prices and recalibrating their strategies.

  • No automakers are doing an about-face on electrics, but many are acknowledging that they need to be flexible as they navigate the EV transition.

Driving the news: In late July, Ford Motor CEO James Farley backed off earlier sales targets for fully electric models and said the automaker will quadruple its hybrid offerings.

  • Ford is delaying its goal of scaling production to 600,000 EVs annually, from the end of this year to 2024, Farley said.
  • He also hedged on a previous target for producing 2 million EVs every year globally by 2026.

Read the whole story

5. What they're saying: the climate link to Hawaii's tragedy

Historic Waiola Church and the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames yesterday in Lahaina, Hawaii. Photo: Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

Researchers say climate change has likely been a contributing factor to the deadly wildfires in Hawaii, Ben writes.

What they're saying: "As always with wildfires, there are multiple interacting causes and climate is only a thumb on the scale," Stanford University climate researcher Marshall Burke tells me via email.

The big picture: At least 36 people have been killed in a blaze that swept parts of Maui. Burke notes the south and west of Maui was "exceptionally dry, which meant that fuels were more flammable than normal."

  • "As with most droughts, climate is...not the only cause, but an amplifier, typically via hot temperatures."
  • "Climate change likely contributed to the drought, and the drought contributed to making extreme wildfire activity more likely."

Zoom in: Multiple researchers are drawing similar conclusions. Per the New York Times:

  • "Experts attribute the surge in wildfires to the prevalence of nonnative grasses, which are especially common on Maui, and are more flammable than indigenous plants."
  • "This is coupled with extreme weather patterns connected to climate change: unusually hot and dry summers and shifts in rainfall patterns."

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🙏 Thanks to Chris Speckhard and Javier E. David for edits to today's edition, along with the talented Axios Visuals team.