Apr 21, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,262 words, a < 5-minute read.

🎵 And today marks 40 years since Pete Townshend (who moonlights with The Who) released the album "Empty Glass," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Aftermath of oil's march into the unknown

Illustration: AĂŻda Amer/Axios

U.S. crude oil prices have soared by almost $35 per barrel since the troughs of Monday afternoon, moving all the way back to around, uh, negative $5 this morning as we sent this newsletter.

Why it matters: Those numbers for West Texas Intermediate future prices aren't typos, and they reflect the wider tumult in the oil industry encapsulated in yesterday's first-ever negative futures prices.

  • The coronavirus pandemic is causing an unprecedented demand crash, so storage infrastructure is filling fast.

The big picture: The historic price collapse reflects two things at the same time.

1. More narrowly, it was about the calendar as the expiration of the May futures contract looms today. Speculative traders and companies were rushing to unload contracts for May delivery, but with the oil unwanted, they had to start paying to get rid of them.

  • "[W]ith adequate storage in Cushing [Oklahoma] unavailable to those who need it, selling intensified in the May futures contract," Wood Mackenzie analyst Ann-Louise Hittle said in a note.
  • "This issue is most intense for May WTI because oil demand is at its weakest."

2. Stepping back, yesterday's march into the unknown shows just how much the world's energy landscape has been turned upside down as the pandemic shuts down huge amounts of travel and business activity.

  • The over-saturation might be eased somewhat when cuts by OPEC+ nations begin next month and production falls elsewhere too, but it won't be enough to compensate for demand loss for a while.
  • Consider that prices for the global benchmark Brent crude are in free fall this morning too, as are prices for June delivery of WTI.

The bottom line: "Some may dismiss Monday’s fall into negative WTI prices as a quirk of the futures market on the last day before a contract ended," IHS Markit analyst Jim Burkhard said in a note.

  • "But the fact that prices went this low at all reflects brutal market forces that will not disappear with the expiration of a single monthly contract," Burkhard adds.
  • Bloomberg sums it up nicely, noting the negative prices reveal a "fundamental truth" about oil during the pandemic.
  • "The world’s most important commodity is quickly losing all value as chronic oversupply overwhelms the world’s crude tanks, pipelines and supertankers," they report.

What's next: Goldman Sachs analysts see price volatility remaining "exceptionally high" in weeks ahead as storage fills up.

  • "But with ultimately a finite amount of storage left to fill, production will soon need to fall sizeably to bring the market into balance, finally setting the stage for higher prices once demand gradual recovers," they write in a note.
Bonus chart: Historic day for oil markets
Expand chart
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

The chart above captures the wild day that unfolded as already-low prices went into a free fall — and then kept dropping, plunging to roughly -$40 per barrel at one point.

  • They later regained ground, but in this new funhouse mirror reality, it still meant less than zero.
2. How oil's latest collapse could affect policy

One thing I'm watching is whether the latest price swings will meaningfully revive White House efforts to aid the struggling domestic oil sector and perhaps affect other nations' policies.

Driving the news: President Trump yesterday said he would consider GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer's call to prevent tankers with Saudi oil from unloading in the United States.

  • "We’ll look at it. I heard just as I'm walking into the room. We certainly have plenty of oil," Trump said at a White House briefing yesterday evening.
  • But, but, but: Trump has thus far been reluctant to use such aggressive measures, instead touting his negotiations with the Saudis and Russians over production curbs.

Where it stands: Also yesterday, Trump renewed his push for the government to buy roughly 75 million barrels of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Or, offer part of the SPR as basically a rental storage unit for U.S. companies.

  • "This is a great time to buy oil," Trump said. Congress has not funded the effort thus far in the coronavirus economic response bills.
  • Trump also touted plans to use the SPR as storage space. "We're going to ... either ask for permission to buy it, or we'll store it," he said.
  • The Energy Department last week said it's negotiating with nine companies to store roughly 23 million barrels of oil in the SPR.

The intrigue: "Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members are considering cutting their oil output as soon as possible, rather than waiting until next month when the group’s recent production agreement with the U.S. and Russia is set to begin," the Wall Street Journal reports.

3. What's new: the Axios app is here

Image of the new Axios app.

We've launched an Axios mobile app — an efficient, elegant experience that I’m anxious for you to try.

  • Get the app for your iPhone or Android device, and enjoy all your Axios newsletters, stories, alerts and exclusive updates from me in one easy-to-access location. 
  • Let us know your thoughts, by emailing app@axios.com or shooting me a message via ben@axios.com.
4. Amazon's new climate move

Amazon announced this morning that it's putting $10 million into restoring or conserving 4 million acres of forest as part of its 2019 pledge to become carbon-negative within the next 20 years, Axios Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: This $10 million is the first project from Amazon's $100 million Right Now Climate Fund, which is focused on removing CO2 from the atmosphere via land use.

By the numbers: Amazon said Tuesday’s announcement would, over the next 11 years, result in a net reduction of up to 18.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by restoring or conserving forests, which naturally soak up CO2.

  • That's equivalent to 46 billion miles driven by an average passenger vehicle, per Amazon.
  • Amazon itself emits nearly 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, so this is a drop in the bucket to the overall picture.

Yes, but: Ensuring the authenticity of these types of emission-reduction methods is tricky because it can be hard to prove the trees would have been cut down absent, in this case, Amazon’s support.

  • An Amazon spokesperson said the company is quantifying its emission reductions through two carbon-standard organizations: the American Carbon Registry and Verified Carbon Standard.

Read more

5. Biden gets support from scientists on climate

Over 50 scientists, including prominent climate experts, are out with a new open letter endorsing Joe Biden just ahead of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Why it matters: The letter comes as Biden is seeking to consolidate support among progressives who prefer Sen. Bernie Sanders' more aggressive climate platform.

What they're saying: "We are confident that, unlike President Trump, Joe Biden will respect, collaborate with, and listen to leaders in the scientific community and public health experts to confront the existential climate crisis and other environmental threats," the letter states.

  • "Biden’s plan to address climate change leads with science and facts and pledges U.S. leadership on climate action," it states.

Who they are: Signatories include the prominent Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann and Jane Lubchenco, who ran NOAA under former President Obama.

Catch up fast: Biden yesterday signaled that he plans to expand his climate platform. And Sanders' endorsement of Biden last week included the announcement of plans to form joint policy "task forces," with climate among the topics.

6. Why nobody will pay you to fill your gas tank

No, negative oil prices don't mean you'll get paid to fill up at the gasoline station, Amy reports.

How it works: Several other layers of costs, including refining, transportation and various state taxes suggest negative gasoline prices are extremely unlikely, per Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

Where it stands: The price of oil makes up more than 50% of the price of a gallon of gasoline, but it takes several days for changes in the global oil market to make it onto gas stations’ billboards.

  • The way the global oil market works and prices oil into the future, this foray into negative territory is very unlikely to have an impact on domestic gas prices, De Haan tells Amy.
  • The prices that went negative were WTI, which is the U.S.-based benchmark. Brent prices, based in Europe, were hovering around $20 a barrel this morning.
  • The national average price for gallon of gasoline stands at $1.80, per AAA, but several states have prices significantly lower, GasBuddy writes.