Apr 22, 2020

Axios Generate

Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,222 words, 4.5 minutes.

Heads up: Axios’ Amy Harder is moderating a virtual Earth Day discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute and Energy Futures Initiative today at 3pm ET with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and others. Tune in here.

Earbuds in: I joined the Axios Pro Rata podcast to talk about the implosion of oil futures markets. Listen here.

🎵 And this month marks 30 years since A Tribe Called Quest released their debut album "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," which brilliantly opens today's edition...

1 big thing: The uncertain global attempt to save oil

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Policymakers worldwide are eyeing new moves to shore up collapsing oil markets and, in the U.S., help distressed companies — but there is probably no safety net big enough.

Driving the news: President Trump yesterday said he told the Treasury and Energy Departments to come up with a financial aid plan for the oil sector.

  • Saudi Arabia said it's "prepared to take further measures jointly with OPEC+ and other producers," while some OPEC+ ministers held a videoconference yesterday but did not announce any new steps.
  • Australia today announced a US$60 million plan to take advantage of low prices to buy oil for strategic stockpiles, some of which will be held in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
  • International Energy Agency boss Fatih Birol called for three steps, including faster and deeper cuts from countries that have committed to throttle back production.

But, but, but: The measures, most of them inchoate for now, are unlikely to be enough to substantially reverse the trajectory of oil markets responding to the collapse in demand from the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The global benchmark Brent crude is still trading at around $20 per barrel this morning, up a little after tumbling to $16 earlier in the day.
  • But it's still down from nearly $70 in early January, a roughly 70% drop, and the collapse in U.S. prices has been even steeper (more on that below).

The big question: What precise form the Trump administration efforts will take, and whether there's a deal to be made with Democrats for potential steps that would require Capitol Hill action.

  • "We look forward to both looking at both existing capabilities we have, and that will be something we may need to go back to Congress and get additional funding for," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at a White House briefing last night.
2. How the White House could try and help U.S. producers

There are various ideas kicking around, in addition to previously floated proposals — which Congress has yet to approve — to buy 77 million barrels of oil for the SPR.

Threat level: Steps that don't require new Capitol Hill actions could be key for the White House. Edward Moya, an analyst with the firm OANDA, warned in a note that President Trump "will see strong resistance from Congress in giving out any funds to oil and gas companies."

Driving the news: "The Trump administration is considering offering federal stimulus funds to embattled oil-and-gas producers in exchange for government ownership stakes in the companies or their crude reserves," the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • The research firm ClearView Energy Partners said in a note: "Treasury could guarantee loans to distressed firms in return for equity stakes or senior debt, and Washington could use its voting shares to compel shut-ins (i.e., as part of a bargain with OPEC+)."
  • Mnuchin said recently that oil companies can seek to use new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told Bloomberg yesterday that the administration is working to ensure that access.

Other ideas: There have also been reports in Bloomberg and elsewhere that administration officials have weighed plans to pay companies not to produce. It would involve buying large amounts of oil to be part of the nation's emergency stockpile — but without extracting it first.

  • Meanwhile, the American Exploration & Production Council, an industry group, yesterday urged administration officials to pressure China to make good in pledges to significantly boost purchases of U.S. energy as part of the recent trade agreement.
Bonus chart: Visualizing oil's decline
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

The chart above provides a look at the depth and slope of the crude oil price declines this year.

3. Breaking: Inslee backs Biden

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee endorsed Joe Biden this morning "after extensive private conversations in which Mr. Biden signaled he would make fighting climate change a central cause of his administration," the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: Inslee is deeply respected among climate activists, some of whom have been cool to Biden's campaign, and it's also the latest of several signs that Biden is preparing to add new elements to his platform.

  • The NYT reports that Inslee is convinced that that Biden is "preparing to greatly expand his policy proposals for reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy."

Go deeper: Biden signals expanded climate plan as a "key objective"

4. UN: Tie coronavirus bailouts to green performance

The UN's Earth Day message calls on governments to do something that's not happening in America: Attach green strings to public aid for corporations in coronavirus rescue packages.

What they're saying: "[W]here taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it needs to be tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in prepared remarks.

Catch up fast: Republicans rebuffed a Democratic push to tie billions of dollars in airline assistance to new emissions mandates in the "phase 3" coronavirus rescue package a few weeks back.

The big picture: That's just one part of Guterres' much wider set of recommendations to "protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption."

  • More broadly, it calls for using the huge pandemic economic rescue packages to "deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition."
  • Another pillar in the six-part plank is that "public funds should be used to invest in the future, not the past, and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate."

The intrigue: This comes as the White House is weighing options to aid U.S. oil producers in dire straits as the pandemic crushes demand and prices collapse.

  • Politico, which obtained the remarks early, casts the speech as a direct challenge to the Trump administration.
5. By the numbers: Big Oil's lobbying

First-quarter U.S. lobbying totals are rolling in, including tallies for powerful oil-and-gas companies and their trade associations.

Why it matters: The filings, which I've included here, provide a guide to specific bills and topics companies lobbied on, and an overall look at money spent.

By the numbers: Here are a few first-quarter comparisons to the fourth quarter of last year, and you can find plenty more in the Lobbying Disclosure Act database.

  • ExxonMobil, the largest U.S.-based multinational, reported $2.67 million, just a tad higher than the prior three months.
  • Chevron reported $3.05 million, well above the $1.81 million in Q4.
  • Shell reported $1.87 million, down from $2.16 million.
  • BP reported $1.34 million, down from $1.39 million.
  • ConocoPhillips, a giant independent producer, reported $2.1 million, up from $1.18 million.
  • Occidental, another huge independent, reported $2.3 million, down from $2.76 million.
  • The American Petroleum Institute, which represents companies across the industry, reported $1.44 million, compared to $1.98 million.
6. 2020 could be the warmest on record
Reproduced from NOAA; Chart: Axios Visuals

2020 is certain to be among the warmest years in modern temperature records that date back to the late 1800s, and stands a very good chance of beating 2016 to top the list, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Why it matters: The recent estimate (which I learned about in this Washington Post piece by former Axios colleague Andrew Freedman) shows the ongoing march of global warming, even as policymakers are consumed with responding to COVID-19.

What they found: "Based on current anomalies and historical global annual temperature readings, it appears that it is virtually certain that 2020 will be a top-10 year," said NOAA, which also released this comparison to other years.

  • They see a nearly 75% chance that it will be the warmest on record, and a nearly 100% chance of a top-5 ranking.

The intrigue: "This is somewhat unexpected, since there is no declared El Niño event in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which tends to provide a natural boost to global temperatures that are already elevated due to the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," Freedman writes of the 75% chance.