Apr 15, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. My latest Harder Line column checks in on President Trump's efforts to save coal and nuclear power plants 2 years into his time at the White House.

I'll share that and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on the rest of the news. 

1 big thing: Trump striking out on coal and nuclear

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump is coming up empty handed on his promises to bolster America’s ailing coal and nuclear power industries.

The big picture: For a president who has pushed legal and political boundaries on other priorities, particularly immigration, the lack of action in this area is striking.

Between the lines: People familiar with the dynamics offer several reasons for the contrast.

  • Trump’s positions on immigration resonate more widely and emotionally with his political base than his stances on coal.
  • Nuclear power has never been a top-tier political concern for Trump.
  • White House officials have successfully argued that big actions to prop up economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants would fail in court.

Where it stands: It’s a messy road to nowhere, for now.

  • Nuclear power and coal don’t share many attributes other than they’re both economically struggling for similar reasons: competition from cheap natural gas and, to a lesser extent, renewables.
  • On top of inaction, trade policies under consideration could make matters even worse for the nuclear industry — like new restrictions on uranium they use for fuel.

Flashback: For the last year and a half, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been trying — but failing — to find ways to help ailing coal and nuclear plants across the Eastern states.

  • He asked the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take action. He was rejected.
  • He considered using a little-known law called the Defense Production Act to invoke national security to save certain plants. That’s been on ice for months after White House resistance.
  • More than a year ago, bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions asked Perry to keep certain plants open in the name of national security. An Energy Department spokeswoman said the petition is still pending but declined further comment.

The bottom line: “I’ve thrown a lot of jello over at the wall on this one trying to find some solutions that we can all, or at least a majority of us can get behind to support that,” Perry said last month.

The other side: This is a triumph of a diverse and broad set of energy interests — ranging from natural gas to wind — that rallied together to oppose the administration's efforts, arguing they would upend market forces and could increase electricity prices for consumers.

What we’re watching: As Trump’s re-election campaign picks up, he's likely to revive calls to save coal and nuclear plants. But that puts the administration's policy experts in a bind, because they’ve exhausted most options.

  • “They’re totally stuck. I don’t know how they’re going to fix it,” one person familiar with the dynamics said. “The likelihood that Trump comes back to them at some point and says ‘do something’ is pretty high.”

Read more

2. Following up: Uber and mass transit

Jalopnik's Aaron Gordon noticed something important in Uber's big IPO filing that underscores how ride-hailing can cannibalize mass-transit.

What they found: "While the filing does mention the company’s efforts to offer riders 'multi-modal trips' that may include public transportation should they choose, the vast majority of the filing’s mentions of public transit make plainly clear the company sees buses and trains as a competing service," Gordon writes.

  • "Far from being a partner in helping people move around cities, Uber regularly slots public transportation as 'competition' or an obstacle to the company’s 'growth strategy,'" the piece adds.

Why it matters: As we wrote about Friday, some analysts fear that the growth of Uber and similar services will stymie efforts to wring carbon out of transportation and lead to more congestion.

Our thought bubble, per Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva: It’s no surprise that multiple ride-hailing companies, including Uber and Lyft, were born in San Francisco — it’s a proven market where the local public transit doesn’t meet the needs of some residents.

  • Though it recently shut down, the Ford-acquired Chariot commuter bus service was a prime example as it provided a more comfortable alternative to popular bus routes for commuters willing to pay a bit more or who weren’t served by the city’s subways.
  • Similarly, Uber and Lyft’s carpooling options have also become popular among commuters, Kia adds.
3. Flying cars, Uber and climate change
The Ford Mach I Levacar, 1959. It never went into production. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty

Another Uber thing: The IPO prospectus highlights $457 million in spending last year on their Advanced Technologies Group and other initiatives, including their flying car program called Uber Elevate. It states...

"Our initial efforts through Uber Elevate focus on shared air transportation between suburbs and cities, with the goal of ultimately addressing air transportation within cities."

The big picture: Flying electric cars could play a "niche role" in sustainable transportation, but using them for short commutes would not be climate-friendly, a recent study in Nature Communications concludes.

Why it matters: In addition to Uber, companies including Boeing are developing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs). Deployment timelines are uncertain, but it's no longer a distant fantasy.

  • University of Michigan and Ford researchers compared emissions from hypothetical VTOLs with ground-based cars.

What they found: Trip length matters a lot. VTOLs use lots of energy to gain altitude, but then run more efficiently.

  • For trips of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, a VTOL with a pilot and 3 passengers would generate 52% fewer emissions per "passenger kilometer" than an internal combustion car and 6% less than an EV. (That result assumes 1.54 occupants per ground car.)
  • Overall, VTOLs are better than gas-powered cars for trips of around 22 miles or more. But for the average commute of around 11 miles, it doesn't make sense from a climate standpoint.
  • The LA Times has a good look here.

What they're saying: "The implications are we shouldn't use VTOLs for urban taxis, but rather for longer trips inside or outside of a metropolitan area," Carnegie Mellon University's Costa Samaras, who was not involved in the study, tells Axios.

  • He notes internal combustion cars sold today will be around for 20 years, and believes VTOLs for some passenger and freight uses will arrive in that window.
  • "[W]e should be thinking about policies to encourage sustainability, safety, and livability with urban air mobility systems pretty soon," he said in an email.

Go deeper: A sky full of driverless flying cars in just a decade

4. What's next after the Chevron mega-deal

Chevron's blockbuster, $33 billion stock-and-cash deal to buy Anadarko could herald more consolidation in the shale patch as the majors expand their positions.

What they're saying: “If you have large acreage positions like Pioneer and Concho, or lesser but more contiguous positions like Parsley Energy, and you’re a pure-play Permian producer, there’s no doubt that you are on the radar screen for these majors," Rob Thummel of Tortoise Capital Advisors told Reuters.

  • And via CNBC, John Kilduff of Again Capital said, “Shell may be hearing footsteps in terms of competition, and I think BP will be looking around again. I do think this will start a land rush of deals.”

Go deeper: Chevron to buy Anadarko in oil mega-deal

5. EV lightning round

Debut: "Volkswagen is expanding its range of all-electric concept vehicles with the debut of the mid-size I.D. Roomzz SUV at the Shanghai auto show," Car and Driver reports.

Deal: Via Reuters, "Toyota Motor Corp has agreed to sell electric car technology to Singulato, its first deal with a Chinese electric vehicle startup, allowing the fledgling firm to speed up development of a planned mini EV."

The big picture: Bloomberg has a wide-angle look at the EV market in China, where sales are surging but not everyone will survive. The story notes there are 486 (seriously) EV-makers registered in China.

  • "While sales of passenger EVs are projected to reach a record 1.6 million units this year, that’s likely not enough to keep all those assembly lines humming, prompting warnings that the ballooning EV market could burst and leave behind only a few survivors," they report.
6. Weekend read: Moving past carbon pricing

A big New York Times Magazine piece explores the movement away from emphasis on carbon pricing — via taxes or permit trading — among key advocates pushing for new U.S. climate policies.

Why it matters: Democrats are laying the groundwork for initiatives to advance if a post-2020 political window opens.

  • The NYT's David Leonhardt takes stock pricing's struggles, dating back to the collapse of Democrats' cap-and-trade bill a decade ago to more recent setbacks in France and elsewhere.

The politics have gotten tougher, Leonhardt argues, thanks to U.S. households' continued economic struggles and a GOP that has become "radicalized."

  • He sizes up other ideas like subsidies, and options pushed with success at the state level like performance standards (although advocates he quotes see some role for pricing too).

Quoted: "[E]fficient is not always what can be attained from a political perspective. I would rather move now on what we can do than wait for economists’ perfection," says Christiana Figueres, the former top UN climate official.

The bottom line: "By the time a price on carbon took effect, it might not be so unpopular anymore. But we can’t wait for the politics to change to begin taking action," Leonhardt writes.

Quick take: It's an illuminating look at the political landscape. But it also leaves the impression that environmentalists have only recently come around to focusing primarily on the economic and health benefits of clean energy.

  • I'd argue that this has been the main message for a decade or more, even when cap-and-trade still a central policy instrument (but hardly the only one).
  • One data point: The name of the main environmental coalition that pushed the House cap-and-trade bill a decade ago? "Clean Energy Works."
Ben GemanAmy Harder