Apr 6, 2020

Axios Generate

Morning, and welcome to another week in our grave new world.

My latest Harder Line column looks at Trump's uneven and evolving comments on the oil industry in turmoil. I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,124 words, 4 minutes. 

1 big thing: Coronavirus tests Trump's love for cheap oil

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump is working to help an oil industry imploding as the coronavirus crisis chokes demand, but listen closely and you’ll hear his enduring love for cheap prices.

Why it matters: He’s like most Americans, who worry about energy only when it’s expensive or gone. As president, Trump has been slow and uneven in responding to the sector’s turmoil because of his inclination to cheer rock bottom prices.

The big picture: Trump often says — wrongly — that the oil industry was doing great before the pandemic.

  • Companies have been producing more oil and gas than ever, which empowered Trump’s tagline of “energy dominance.”
  • But all of that supply is actually a core reason many were already struggling before coronavirus hit.

How it works: Click here to read my full column with a representative timeline of Trump’s evolving comments on oil over the past month: March 9, 12, 19, 26, 30, and April 2 and 3.

The intrigue: "Up until recently, he has had very little sympathy for oil companies," said one person familiar with Trump's thinking, who requested anonymity to talk candidly about the president's sentiment.

  • "He approaches this issue as a true populist, up until this crisis."

Reality check: Storing more oil and most other options Trump has at his disposal are limited, and the industry is divided on what the government should do. Turmoil, both in the short- and long-term, is all but guaranteed for the embroiled sector.

  • In the short term, expect bankruptcies and layoffs.
  • In the longer term, experts are warning that oil prices — and therefore gasoline prices — will rise more in the coming years than they would have absent the pandemic due to how classic boom and bust cycles work.

The bottom line: The irony, of course, is that right now, most of us can't take advantage of these rock bottom prices as we're locked down. When we can drive and fly again like normal, prices are poised to rise.

2. A pivotal moment in the oil crisis

The new few days are slated to bring new efforts to achieved a coordinated cut in global oil production, but success is hardly a sure thing.

Why it matters: COVID-19 is fueling an unprecedented collapse in demand and has cratered prices, so new cutbacks could at least temper — though hardly alleviate — the market's tailspin.

Driving the news: The OPEC+ group — led by megaproducers Saudi Arabia and Russia — is tentatively scheduled to meet remotely Thursday, per multiple reports.

  • But Saudi and Russian officials, as well as other OPEC members, want an agreement that includes other big producers outside the group, notably the United States.
  • Officials from Alberta, Canada — the country's main producing province — are slated to take part in the meeting, per the Financial Times and others.
  • Norway, Europe's largest producer, on Saturday signaled a willingness to cut, per Reuters.

The big question: Whether there's an opening for U.S. participation in a deal, even though the U.S. market and legal system does not enable top-down production decisions or coordinated industry action.

  • However, U.S. production is slated to start falling in the months ahead anyway thanks to the collapse in prices and demand.

But, but, but: Trump has also hinted at more of a stick than carrot approach, while repeatedly claiming in recent days that the Saudis and Russians are closing in on a deal to enable a cut of 10-15 million barrels per day.

  • He said at briefings on Saturday and Sunday that he's weighing tariffs on imported oil if the Saudis and Russians don't reach an agreement.
  • Trump administration officials have not said whether they would take part in Thursday's OPEC+ session in any way.

Where it stands: Prices surged Thursday and Friday on the prospect of a Saudi-Russia agreement, but fell when markets opened last night after weekend signs of the fraught path to a deal.

  • The OPEC+ meeting that had been slated for today was postponed Saturday amid sniping between the Russians and Saudis.
  • Brent crude ended Friday around $34-per-barrel, compared to the $22 range a few days earlier. It has bounced back to $33.08 this morning after tumbling last night.
3. What they're saying about prospects for a deal

Tea leaves this morning seem to be pointing toward a deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia to revive their joint supply curbs.

Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund, tells CNBC that they're "very close" to an agreement.

  • "I think the whole market understands that this deal is important and it will bring lots of stability, so much important stability to the market, and we are very close," he said.

Amrita Sen, analyst with the firm Energy Aspects, tells Bloomberg that she thinks chances for major deal are low, but that said, she points out the forces prodding the Saudis.

  • “[Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman is under heavy political pressure from Trump to demonstrate the Kingdom isn’t trying to bankrupt the U.S. shale industry," she said.

The big picture: Regardless of how the diplomatic initiatives play out, the most powerful market force by far will remain the demand collapse from the pandemic.

  • "We expect Brent to average US$20/bbl in April and possibly, at times, to dip lower. Thereafter, much depends on how long demand is suppressed by the effects of Covid-19," the consultancy Wood Mackenzie said in a note Monday.
4. G20 emerges as option for talks

The G20 is emerging as a venue for cooperative efforts to try and calm the oil market, and Bloomberg and others report that a potential meeting of G20 energy ministers could be Friday.

Driving the news: U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette discussed the G20 role during a wider discussion over the weekend with his Saudi counterpart, a DOE spokesperson tells Axios.

  • "Secretary Brouillette participated in a productive discussion with Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia, about ongoing challenges and instability in global oil markets," according to Shaylyn Hynes.

What they're saying: "[T]he two energy ministers agreed to continue this dialogue through a G20 Energy Ministers meeting in the near future," Hynes said.

Catch up fast: The Saudis currently hold the G20's rotating presidency.

  • International Energy Agency head Fatih Birol tweeted yesterday that he spoke with Seamus O'Regan, Canada's natural resources minister, and they agreed the G20 "could play a leading role in boosting market stability."
  • Birol has also held recent talks with U.S. and Brazilian officials.
5. EV notes: Toyota and Tesla

Deals: "Toyota Motor Co. and Chinese electric automaker BYD Co. announced a partnership Thursday to develop battery-powered vehicles, adding to a flurry of industry tie-ups to share soaring development costs." (AP)

Coronavirus: "In a new video posted on the company’s YouTube channel, Tesla’s engineers show off two versions of the ventilator, a prototype model with its components laid out across a desk, as well as a packaged model that shows how it might look when used by a hospital." (The Verge)

6. Chart of the day: Gasoline demand craters
Reproduced from Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

Federal data shows that the amount of gasoline American drivers are consuming dropped to levels not seen in more than 25 years, Amy reports.

Driving the news: When most of us are staying home and not driving, this is one of the most predictable — but nonetheless still staggering — upshots of the unfolding coronavirus crisis.

By the numbers:

  • Gasoline consumption dropped nearly 30% in the week ending March 27, compared to the week prior.
  • The current average price for a gallon of gasoline is $1.93, compared to $2.40 a month ago, according to AAA data.
  • Expect both consumption and prices to keep dropping for weeks.

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