Jan 8, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,254 words, < 5 minutes.

And happy birthday to the late David Bowie, who brings us into today's edition...

1 big thing: Why oil markets aren't going bananas
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Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Despite rising unrest in the Middle East — including the targeted killing of an Iranian commander — America’s average gasoline prices have remained under $3 a gallon, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Practically speaking, it’s great for drivers’ pocketbooks — and President Trump’s re-election campaign. It also shows the remarkable cushion created by America's booming oil production, which has doubled over the last decade.

“The U.S. oil boom is the primary reason nobody is seriously discussing triple digit oil prices even with everything that is going on and went on this summer.”
Ashley Petersen, senior oil market analyst, Stratas Advisors

Driving the news: Several events in the Middle East over the last few years, and especially the last nine months, have put the reliability of production in the oil-rich region at risk, including...

  1. The U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
  2. September's attacks on Saudi's oil facilities, which the administration blamed on Iran.
  3. Attacks last spring and summer on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
  4. Sanctions on Iran’s oil industry.

By the numbers:

  • The national average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. has been steady at around $2.60, more than half of which is driven by global oil prices.
  • Global oil prices are hovering below $70 a barrel (Brent was trading around $67.69 this morning).
  • Oil prices have risen to varying degrees immediately following many of those events — including nearly 20% after the September attacks on Saudi oil facilities — but they've always dropped quickly.

How it works: No country can ever be truly “energy independent” (as the popular political messaging goes) because oil is traded on a global market. But America is as close to it right now as it’s ever been.

  • The oil-production increase in the U.S. — from under six million barrels a day in 2010 to nearly 13 million today — is reducing its dependence on foreign oil and creating a global supply surplus.

Yes, but: Even the best cushion can’t protect against everything. If an extreme (albeit unlikely) scenario were to occur — like Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz for an extended time — that would likely cause global oil prices to rise substantially and show the limits of America’s plentiful oil supplies.

Go deeper

2. DOE looks to unlock energy storage advances

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Energy Department hopes to better leverage department-wide expertise to spur advances in energy storage, drive them into the market, and ensure U.S. industry reaps the benefits.

Why it matters: Storage improvements are important for bringing high levels of renewables onto power grids and improving the performance and cost-competitiveness of electric vehicles, among other benefits.

Driving the news: Today, the DOE is rolling out the "Energy Storage Grand Challenge," which Secretary Dan Brouillette will talk about in remarks at CES in Las Vegas.

  • The DOE hopes to "create and sustain global leadership in energy storage utilization and exports, with a secure domestic manufacturing supply chain that does not depend on foreign sources of critical materials, by 2030," a summary states.
  • Senior officials tell Axios the effort will look at a range of technologies — new and improved battery chemistries, advancements in pumped hydro storage, thermal storage with molten salt, hydrogen, and more.

It has five big goals over the next decade:

  1. Technology development with "ambitious, achievable" performance goals.
  2. Technology transfer to speed up the process of moving from research to system design to use in the private sector.
  3. "Policy and valuation" to enable the "most effective value proposition and use cases for storage technologies."
  4. Bolstering the U.S. manufacturing and supply chain for storage technologies.
  5. Workforce training to help U.S. workers "meet the needs of the 21st century electric grid and energy storage value chain."

The other side: DOE and the Trump administration more broadly have sought to bolster federal support for incumbent fossil fuel technologies that compete with renewables and EVs.

Read more

3. House Democrats to reveal climate plans

Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee are slated this afternoon to unveil a legislative framework for plans to create a "100% clean energy economy" by 2050.

Why it matters: As we reported in yesterday's edition, this is a crucial year for Democrats to figure out what policies can gain traction if a political window for enacting legislation opens after the 2020 elections.

The big picture: The rollout arrives on the same day the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service released data confirming 2019 was the second-warmest year in temperature records that date back to the 1800s.

  • Copernicus reported that 2019's average temperature was 0.59°C above the 1981–2010 average, behind only 2016. AFP has more.

* * *

Speaking of Congress, the Washington Examiner reports: "Republican Rep. Tom Reed will unveil a bipartisan bill Wednesday to provide federal tax subsidies for 'first-of-a-kind' clean energy technologies for combating climate change."

4. New data on the U.S. emissions picture
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Reproduced from a Rhodium Climate Service Report; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yesterday's newsletter barely grazed a new analysis showing that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions ticked down by 2.1% last year, so let's go a tad deeper.

Driving the news: The Rhodium Group analysis tells the story of why the dramatic changes in the power sector are helping to drive down U.S. emissions.

  • But it's hardly enabling deep cuts or putting the U.S. on track to meet its pledges under the Paris Agreement of cutting emissions by 26%–28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

What they found: Carbon emissions from power plants dropped 10% amid the the ongoing decline in coal-based generation that's now at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, the research group said.

  • But emissions from other sectors of the economy are proving more persistent (check out the chart above).
  • "Unfortunately, there was little good news outside the power sector, continuing a trend we have observed for the past several years," the analysis states.

The bottom line: "Beyond the year-to-year fluctuations in weather and economic growth, it’s clear that U.S. decarbonization success is still largely limited to the 27% of net emissions that come from the power sector," it states.

Go deeper: U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by estimated 2.1% in 2019

5. Big Auto's lobbying shakeup

The auto industry's two major trade groups — Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — confirmed today that they're merging.

  • The new organization, called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, is headed by John Bozzella, who was CEO of Global Automakers.

Why it matters: The union comes as the industry is grappling with a suite of headwinds, ranging from sluggish sales to trade tensions to uncertainty about U.S. emissions rules.

  • The auto industry has splintered over its approach to White House moves to greatly scale back Obama-era mileage and carbon emissions rules.
  • I'll be watching to see whether the new structure brings any tactical changes.

Go deeper:

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Speaking of lobbying and trade groups, Amy reports that the American Petroleum Institute is coming out swinging against proposals pushed by Democratic presidential candidates to greatly restrict fracking.

  • Why it matters: The emphasis, made at an annual luncheon attended by hundreds of energy executives, shows how worried the industry is about the potential impact of such proposals.
6. Catch up fast: big oil find, Barclays, gas pipeline

Discoveries: "Apache Corp. and Total SA said that they have found 'significant' deposits of oil off the coast of Suriname, fueling investor excitement that it could be the second big discovery in the region recently after a major strike in offshore Guyana by Exxon Mobil Corp.," the Wall Street Journal reports.

Activism: "Barclays is under pressure to stop financing some fossil fuel companies after a group of shareholders filed a landmark climate change resolution for the British bank’s annual investor meeting, thrusting the European financial industry to the centre of the debate on global warming," the Financial Times writes.

Natural gas: "Russia is poised to officially open its TurkStream natural gas pipeline on Wednesday, further diversifying export routes to Europe amid a backlash from the U.S.," per Bloomberg.

Ben GemanAmy Harder