Jan 23, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,012 words, < 4 minutes.

Situational awareness: Via the NYT, the Trump administration will finalize rules today that remove protections for streams and wetlands, handing a win to farmers, developers and energy producers who said Obama-era policies created onerous burdens. Go deeper.

And this week marks 43 years since Pink Floyd released "Animals," so that's a great reason to open with a cut from the album...

1 big thing: Climate glare focuses on banking

An Extinction Rebellion activist stands on top of the Wall Street Bull during an Oct. 7 protest. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Big Oil often takes center stage, but big finance is having its climate moment this year, between the 2020 presidential elections and events at Davos.

Driving the news: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who's running for president, BTW) is pressing eight banking giants on what they're doing to assess climate risks to their investments and the financial system.

Where it stands: Her new letters to the banks, which Reuters covered here, point to how a Warren presidency would push the financial sector.

  • Her Senate office rollout of the letters touts proposals to force public companies to make detailed disclosures about climate risks to their businesses.
  • Warren also backs legislation to require the Federal Reserve to add climate to "stress tests" for the financial sector.

Why it matters: It's the latest sign of how Wall Street is increasingly at the center for climate advocacy in at least two ways — and how White House hopefuls are part of those efforts.

  • Beyond pressing banks to assess climate risks, which large swaths of the sector are doing on a voluntary basis, a more confrontational set of campaigns is pushing banks to abandon fossil fuel finance.

Threat level: Those activists could have White House allies, depending on how the election shakes out.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders' climate platform backs the divestment movement, promising rules to push it forward and overall vowing, "we will support these movements in the White House."
  • Warren's plan also vows to "hold the financial industry accountable for its role in the climate crisis."

But, but, but: Reporting from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, highlights banks' pushback against wholesale divestment and work with fossil fuel industries, even as some banks are abandoning finance for projects like coal mines and Arctic oil. Here's the Financial Times...

"The leaders of some big banks and other financial companies have rejected suggestions that they are not doing enough to combat climate change and resisted calls that they should refuse to work with clients that are major polluters."

Go deeper:

2. PG&E moves closer to bankruptcy exit

Firefighting operations near PG&E powerlines try to control the Kincade Fire in California on Oct. 26. Photo: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

PG&E announced a deal with creditors Wednesday that the bankrupt power giant called a major step toward emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but the company is still at odds with California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Why it matters: The company's missteps and massive liabilities from wildfires have put a spotlight on how the industry must grapple with conditions likely to be worsened by climate change.

What they're saying: "This agreement helps achieve our goals of fairly compensating wildfire victims, protecting customers' bills and emerging from Chapter 11 as the utility of the future that our customers and communities expect and deserve," CEO Bill Johnson said in a statement.

The big picture: Via The Wall Street Journal...

"A series of settlements with victims of the wildfires that drove PG&E into bankruptcy last year capped PG&E’s damages exposure at $25.5 billion. Now bondholders have been appeased with a new deal that could mean revisions to its exit financing."

But, but, but: "Newsom is urging a federal judge to reject Pacific Gas and Electric's blueprint for getting out of bankruptcy and renewing his threat to lead a bid to turn the beleaguered utility into a government-run operation," AP reports.

  • They note that Newsom "has tremendous leverage because the company's plan hinges on its ability to draw upon a special insurance fund California created last summer to help insulate utilities from potential wildfire losses in the future."

* * *

Speaking of big power companies, "Arizona Public Service, the largest utility in the sunny Southwestern state, committed itself Wednesday to 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050," Greentech Media reports.

  • The big picture: They note that APS joins a growing list of huge utilities vowing to decarbonize their generation in coming decades, including Xcel Energy and Duke Energy.
3. Big corporate players launch new EV group

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Amazon, AT&T and IKEA are a few members of a new corporate alliance launched Wednesday that's aimed at deploying more electric vehicles in corporate fleets.

Why it matters: The players in the Corporate Electric Vehicle Alliance are big. And corporate fleets are seen as ripe for more EV adoption, given the advantages of centralized charging, bulk purchases and more.

  • It's also the latest sign of the flowering of new alliances among companies, states and local governments at a time when the federal government is scaling back climate initiatives — including vehicle emissions rules.
  • The new alliance is coordinated through Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainability.

What's next: It will "help member companies make and achieve bold commitments to fleet electrification, and is expected to boost the electric vehicle market by signaling the breadth and scale of corporate demand for electric vehicles," the announcement states.

  • One audience is the auto industry — the group hopes to make the "business case" for the "production of a more diverse array of electric vehicle models."
  • It's also designed to help coordinate and mobilize corporate advocacy for more supportive state and federal policy, organizers say.

Go deeper: Amazon, DHL and IKEA front new group that’s pushing for more electric vehicles (MarketWatch)

4. Chart of the day: vehicle usage by state
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Data: Michael Sivak, Sivak Applied Research; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Speaking of cars, analyst Michael Sivak this week published an interesting comparison on which states have the largest absolute amount of driving and which states have the most miles per capita.

Quick take: On the absolute numbers, it shows why aggressive electrification programs in California and New York could have a substantial effect on transportation emissions.

Meanwhile, the high levels of driving per capita in states with low population densities, like Wyoming, show why EV charging infrastructure will be essential to overcoming drivers' range anxiety.

5. Catch up fast: oil markets, climate, China

Crude oil: Per MarketWatch, "Oil futures tumbled to the lowest level in weeks on Thursday, amid increasing fears over a demand hit from the coronavirus outbreak in China, where authorities have been forced to lock down a city of more than 11 million people."

Climate: CNBC reports from Davos, "U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sharply criticized the financial credentials of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg on Thursday, saying the 17-year-old should study economics at college before lecturing the U.S. on fossil fuel investments."

Renewables: Via Bloomberg, "The European Union’s executive will decide over the coming months whether to recommend increasing the bloc’s goals for renewables and energy savings under an unprecedented plan to reach climate neutrality by the middle of the century."

Renewables, part 2: Also via Bloomberg: "China proposed to halve its subsidy budget for new solar power projects this year to 1.5 billion yuan ($216 million) as the government steers its renewable energy sector away from a reliance on financial support."

Ben GemanAmy Harder