Aug 2, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning and welcome back! A couple notes before we get started.

Axios has a very cool new podcast. Listen to Dan Primack to get smarter, faster on the collision of tech, business, and politics in 10 minutes. You can subscribe here.

Yesterday, Axios' Andrew Freedman hosted a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" on climate science and climate journalism, and it's worth a read.

And finally, at this moment in the summer of 1995, TLC was atop the Billboard charts with today's lovely intro tune...

1 big thing: The left's new EPA problem

EPA's plan to weaken vehicle standards underscores a broader problem facing Democrats and their environmental allies: They have little leverage against the man now leading the agency compared to his predecessor.

Driving the news: EPA and the Transportation Department are floating draft rules today that would dismantle Obama-era vehicle mileage and carbon emissions regulations.

  • One option under consideration is to freeze the standards at 2020 levels while revoking California's waiver to set tougher emissions rules that roughly a dozen other states follow.

Why it matters: It shows the challenge of wringing carbon emissions out of transportation, which has recently supplanted electricity generation as the largest source of U.S. CO2 output.

  • But here's the political challenge for Democrats on this move and others: EPA chief Andrew Wheeler is no Scott Pruitt. That means they'll have a harder time getting political traction against him and his policies.

Between the lines: Pruitt attracted massive press attention, but that was largely thanks to his big ethical problems and the bizarre trappings of the scandals. Yes, there has been ample coverage of his policy moves, but those weren't the political problem for the White House.

  • Now, Wheeler is advancing a very similar agenda — but without the heavy ethical baggage.
  • In addition, his experience and knowledge of the Clean Air Act could make his efforts less vulnerable to successful court challenges.

What they're saying: An exchange at a Senate hearing Wednesday at the Environment and Public Works Committee captured this dynamic nicely. Here's what Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Wheeler:

“As you know I viewed your predecessor’s tenure as one characterized by tawdry personal behavior in office, a desire to do damage to the agency that he led, a flagrant absence of transactional integrity, and horrible environmental policies. ... I see you as a remedy to three of those four.”

What's next: The Trump administration proposal slated to be unveiled today at 9am would upend Obama-era standards for cars and light trucks that extend through 2025.

  • One key option would freeze the combined standards at 2020 levels of roughly 35 miles per gallon through 2026.
  • Wheeler told lawmakers yesterday that the agency will take comment on a range of options from that "flatline" approach to maintaining the Obama standards (which amount to around 50 miles per gallon in 2025).

Go deeper: The Washington Post breaks down the proposal here.

2. Tesla targets 1 million cars by 2020

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

Axios' Steve LeVine reports ... Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the company will be profitable in the last half of the year, and that by 2020 it will produce up to 1 million cars in the U.S. and China, about four times current production.

  • Tesla's share price is up almost 9% ahead of the market's opening today.

Why it matters: Musk has faced tremendous scrutiny in recent months after numerous missed deadlines and a high cash burn. If reporting in the coming quarters appear to bear out his projections, they are likely to burnish Tesla's image, and could keep the company's already-elevated share price moving up.

Musk made his remarks in a call with analysts after reporting a loss of $520 million last quarter, twice as much as the first quarter, but also much higher revenue. The share price got an immediate boost.

  • Musk said he does not expect he will move to sell more shares to raise money for his aggressive ramp up.
  • But he said he will borrow money from Chinese banks to build a factory in Shanghai.

In terms of the production surge, Musk said he expects the company's current two U.S. factories to pump out about 600,000 cars by 2020, and to add about 200,000 cars in Shanghai. He said the production between the three factories could rise to as many as 1 million.

3. Capitol Hill's faint climate signals

Axios' Amy Harder and I report ... Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko of New York is working on a cap-and-trade bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Axios has learned. Tonko’s measure is the third comprehensive climate change measure to surface in the last couple of weeks in the House.

The bottom line: These bills won't attract broad support any time soon, and they offer competing ways to address climate change. But they signal some of the early positioning if a political window on climate legislation — now firmly shut — opens in the future.

  • Tonko is the top Democrat on the environment subcommittee of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the topic.
  • The other two bills include a carbon tax bill introduced earlier by GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, and another carbon pricing bill that Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat also from Florida, is working on with other Republicans, Deutch told Axios last week.

One level deeper: Second-quarter lobbying filings by Shell and BP reflect their engagement on these bills, particularly the Curbelo and Tonko measures.

  • Tonko’s office confirmed he’s working on the bill and is soliciting input from stakeholders including companies, but a spokesman didn’t provide details. His bill creates a cap-and-trade system where companies buy and sell credits of carbon while staying below an overall emissions limit.
  • Curbelo met with oil companies and other stakeholders before he introduced his bill last week, which would likely prompt increased disclosure on the matter in federally required filings. A BP spokesman confirmed that company's participation.

What's next: The midterm elections could have a big impact on whether the issue gets closer to the front burner in the next Congress if Democrats win control of the House.

4. On my screen: nuclear R&D and oil politics

Pieces from academia and a think tank caught my eye...

Nuclear: A pair of Harvard experts are making the case for overhauling U.S. nuclear energy R&D to preserve its viability as a zero-carbon option in the decades ahead while recognizing that new commercial development isn't in the cards for a long time.

  • The solution, their new commentary in Nature Energy argues, is a "nuclear tortoise" approach that has the best chance of enabling nuclear to eventually help achieve deep decarbonization of power.
  • Michael Ford and Daniel Schrag envision an "advanced nuclear programme designed to be slow and steady, but to provide multiple technology options with high confidence so that commercial deployment is viable by mid-century."

Oil: An informative new Brookings Institution paper looks at the state of oil-and-gas investment in South America and what's next for countries including Guyana, where Exxon has made huge offshore discoveries.

Author Samantha Gross writes...

Guyana will face significant challenges in using the oil and gas industry to bring development without the "resource curse," where oil and gas revenues bring concentrated wealth and harm the competitiveness of other industries within the country.
Policies that encourage investments in parallel industries can spread the oil and gas wealth and help prevent the resource curse.
5. The NYT's huge and controversial climate story
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Axios' Henrietta Reily reports ... The New York Times dedicated their entire magazine this week to the subject of climate change, with one piece looking at the decade when the scientific consensus on the subject solidified and humans failed to act.

Why it matters: It is rare to see media outlets dedicate substantial coverage to the Earth's rising temperature and the subsequent impacts, let alone a nearly book-length piece. But the magazine isn't being lauded unanimously.

What you need to know: At 30,000 words, this piece is long, and takes its time detailing narratives of those who've participated in the climate fight for decades. Journalist Nathaniel Rich focuses on the largely-ignored decade from 1979–1989, before the public became more aware of the science, and the energy industry mounted an organized disinformation campaign to emphasize scientific uncertainty.

The intrigue: The piece tells a relatively narrow story about a huge issue by focusing only on one decade. That's drawn criticism from some experts who say that faulting "human nature" excuses the multi-million dollar campaigns by fossil fuel companies and lobbyists that have focused on challenging climate science.

  • It also fails to acknowledge that public awareness of the issue, let alone support for action, was lacking during the period the story discusses.
  • In addition, the piece ignores some of the most important attempts to address the problem, from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015.
  • The article, however, argues that: "There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance."

Read more of Henrietta's piece on the Axios stream.

6. Quote of the day
“As one of the former congressional staffers who helped write that section of the law, I wish we had spent a little more time on some of the details of it now that I’m helping to implement it."
— Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler

The context: That's the EPA boss and former Senate aide talking about the decade-old Renewable Fuel Standard — the mandate for increasing use of ethanol and other biofuels — before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee yesterday.

Wheeler fielded questions from multiple farm-state lawmakers concerned about EPA giving small oil refiners waivers from the ethanol mandate.

Why it matters: The wry observation is a nod to the seemingly endless and intractable battles over implementation of the biofuels policy — a topic that consumed large chunks of the hearing.

Ben GemanAmy Harder