Jan 31, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,167 words, 4.5 minutes.

And this weekend marks 41 years since the punk band Stiff Little Fingers released their debut "Inflammable Material," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: The electric pickup arms race goes nuclear

GMC Hummer's grille and the Tesla cybertruck. Photos courtesy of General Motors and Tesla

Automakers are competing to make the buzziest, strongest, fastest electric truck that would fare well in a dystopian future — albeit one with a reliable grid and eco-conscious drivers.

Driving the news: Ok I'm being flip (it's Friday!), but yesterday brought news that GM is indeed reviving the gas-guzzling Hummer as a fully electric
and powerful "super truck" with seriously gaudy specs.

  • The company has bought Super Bowl advertising and plans to unveil the vehicle, which will be built in Detroit, on May 20.
  • It has not yet released images, beyond the grille above, of the vehicle to be sold under its GMC brand in 2021.

Where it stands: The announcement comes just two months after Tesla unveiled its powerful Cybertruck that's explicitly designed to look like something out of a science fiction movie.

  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk, on this week's Q4 earnings call, said they wanted to build a "badass, futuristic, armored personnel carrier."

Why it matters: A number of automakers hope a chunk of the huge pickup market can be electrified — and that consumers are interested in muscle and design, not just the environment, and will pay a premium.

The offerings in the pipeline include...

  • GM says the electric Hummer will have 1,000 horsepower, go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3 seconds, and have 11,500 lb-ft of torque.
  • Tesla says the high-end version of the Cybertruck, slated for production in 2022, goes from 0-60 in 2.9 seconds and has a towing capacity north of 14,000 pounds. Production of other versions is slated to launch in 2021.
  • Ford is planning to launch an electric version of its hugely popular F-150 in the coming years. They've circulated a video of a prototype pulling rail cars weighing a combined 1 million pounds.
  • Rivian, the well-funded Michigan-based startup, will start selling its futuristic-looking R1T pickup late this year.

But, but, but: Plenty of the offerings will be aimed at a more mainstream market than the Cybertruck and Hummer.

  • The Ford prototype looked rather conventional, and the Hummer is just one of several electric pickups GM is planning.
  • "We will offer not just one pickup, but multiple models with multiple variants, for multiple customers — a vehicle and package for everyone," GM president Mark Reuss said in a blog post yesterday.

The big picture: There's opportunity for automakers if electric pickups can catch on. Per the firm Edmunds, pickups were 14.4% of the consumer vehicle market last year, the highest level since 2005.

Bonus: More on the electric Hummer

Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said it will be difficult to stand out in the emerging electric pickup market, which helps explain GM's strategy. In comments circulated to reporters, she says...

"GM is smart to use the Hummer name, which already has a lot of built-in equity compared to other brands."
"But it is pretty ironic that the nameplate of the biggest gas-guzzling beast that consumers rebelled against during the recession is now going to be resurrected as an EV."

Autotrader executive editor Brian Moody said in a statement: "GMC has firmly established themselves as a premium truck brand with workhorse capability so having Hummer fall under the GMC umbrella makes sense."

2. Exxon and Chevron Q4 earnings

Lower crude prices is a consistent theme among other factors in the lower bottom lines of major oil companies, as seen by Q4 results posted this morning by ExxonMobil and Chevron.

Exxon reported a 5.2% drop in Q4 profit as as net income fell to $5.69 billion in the quarter ending Dec. 31. This compares with $6 billion the same period last year.

  • TheStreet writes that Exxon "posted weaker-than-expected fourth quarter earnings Friday, as oil major around the world see profits declining alongside global crude prices, sending shares lower in pre-market trading."
  • CNBC also points to a "weakness in the company’s chemicals and downstream divisions.
  • Go deeper: ExxonMobil reports worst core profit in 3 years (Financial Times)

Chevron reported a Q4 loss of $6.61 billion in the quarter ending Dec. 31, mostly due to write-offs. This compares with a profit of $3.73 billion same period in 2018.

  • The company posted the loss "as the oil major booked an impairment charge of $10.4 billion related largely to a deepwater Gulf of Mexico project, shale gas assets in Appalachia and the Kitmat LNG project in Canada," Reuters reports.
3. Back to the future on Capitol Hill

A bipartisan House duo is floating a new plan that's both a throwback idea and a sign of today's climate politics.

Driving the news: Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) want to require utilities to greatly cut carbon emissions by mid-century.

  • They laid out the broad strokes of their planned bill in a USA Today op-ed Thursday and through information circulated to reporters.

How it works: It would create a "clean energy standard" requiring an 80% cut in power sector emissions by 2050 while providing the industry all kinds of leeway to determine how to get there.

  • The mandate would not begin for up to 10 years, to be preceded by "public and private investments in clean energy innovation and infrastructure development."
  • It would also inoculate the industry from Clean Air Act carbon emissions regulations during the 10-year ramp-up.

Why it matters: The plan says a lot about the state of climate politics. It signals the GOP shift away from rejecting or at least challenging consensus climate science.

  • McKinley was in that camp years ago but the new op-ed calls climate change the "greatest environmental and energy challenge of our time."

But, but, but: It's far less aggressive than what senior Capitol Hill Democrats and the party's White House hopefuls are promoting.

  • "The plan is modest, compared to other Democratic proposals aiming to reach net-zero emissions by midcentury across the entire economy, and many states that have imposed immediate clean electricity standards without delay," the Washington Examiner notes.

The intrigue: It's a back-to-the-future moment. Ideas for a federal "clean energy standard" of some sort have been rattling around for a decade.

  • I first started noticing them when Republicans floated them as an alternative to Democratic calls for renewables-specific mandates, and then-President Obama floated his own version in 2011.
4. Catch up fast: markets, climate, FERC

Markets: "Energy was the S&P 500’s worst-performing sector each of the past two years — and so far, 2020 isn’t looking any better. The group has dropped 8.3% this month, on pace for its worst January since 2008." (Wall Street Journal)

Climate: "The Church of England is investing £600 million ($780 million) in a new stock market index packed with companies that are aligned with the goals of the Paris climate agreement." (CNN Business)

Pipelines: "The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday supported the view of companies developing the $1 billion PennEast natural gas pipeline that they can use federal eminent domain to gain access to properties owned by New Jersey." (Reuters)

Batteries: "French oil giant Total and European automaker Opel will collaborate on electrical vehicle cell manufacturing, with a maximum potential capacity of 48 gigawatt-hours." (Greentech Media)

5. EPA official heads to mining group

EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson is leaving to become the SVP of government affairs at the National Mining Association, a trade group whose members include key coal producers, Bloomberg reports.

Where it stands: A spokesperson for the group tells Bloomberg that Jackson will focus solely on congressional work because his EPA position means he'll be restricted from lobbying the executive branch for five years.

The big picture: The move comes at a tough time for the coal industry, which is seeing its share of the U.S. power market continue to wane.

  • He'll undoubtedly be busy. Democrats and some Republicans are pushing a suite of energy and climate proposals that would affect the industry.
  • The group also represents other forms of mining.
Ben GemanAmy Harder