Nov 16, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,222 words, < 5 minutes.

🚨 Situational awareness: Oil prices are up roughly 4% Monday morning, with a jump following Moderna's announcement that preliminary results show its coronavirus vaccine candidate is 94.5% effective.

✏️ My latest Harder Line column is part of our Day 1 Crises series, on the challenges that President-elect Joe Biden will face, where I examine the factors at play in his climate agenda. I share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman gets you up to speed on other news.

1 big thing: Biden’s day 1 climate-change crisis

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden will face constraints of both politics and time when it comes to pursuing his aggressive climate-change agenda.

Driving the news: Biden will enter a White House after four years of President Trump rolling back climate policies when time is running out to substantively address the problem.

Where it stands: The highest profile parts of Biden’s agenda, and the ones that will be quickest out of the gate on Inauguration Day, will be initiatives to reverse Trump’s rollbacks on a host of fronts across the environmental and energy spaces.

Between the lines: Trump's rollbacks aren't actually the biggest impact of his presidency — it’s lost time.

  • This temporal hiatus is essential to understanding how Biden is caught between urgency and politics.
  • “The impact of the Trump administration on emissions has been significant, but the actual regulatory rollbacks were only part of it,” says Trevor Houser, partner at the consulting and research firm Rhodium Group.
  • “The bigger impact was four years of lost federal policy action.”

The big picture: Climate change is cumulative. The longer we wait, the harder it gets to solve. Trump’s presidency has coincided with rising alarm and evidence of a warming planet, but the world has been methodically cooking itself for decades.

“We’ve had 30 years of inadequate response to climate change, and the last four have been dramatic because there was actually an intention to not respond as opposed to just an inability to respond.”
— Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank

How it works: Biden has 2035 and 2050 goals to reduce U.S. emissions, which are in line with scientific consensus but are also going to be herculean political tasks to begin solving (let alone achieve).

The intrigue: One relatively ambitious policy that some Washington insiders believe is possible is a clean energy standard for electricity, which would help achieve Biden’s 2035 carbon-free power goal.

  • A bipartisan version exists in the House, and Republicans in both chambers have increasingly acknowledged the government should do something about climate change.

But, but, but: Such a substantive debate on climate policy is unlikely to occur out of the gate of a Biden presidency given the twin health and economic crises. Some experts say that would be a wise move.

  • “I don’t think we want the biggest climate battles to happen in the next six to 18 months,” Grumet says.
  • “We're more likely to be successful once we are through the trauma and fear of the public health and economic crises.”

Read more

2. On our radar: OPEC+ discussions

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

OPEC+ committees are holding talks today and tomorrow ahead of pivotal meetings in two weeks that will decide the next steps in the group's production-limiting agreement.

Why it matters: The OPEC+ group — led by Saudi Arabia and Russia — could send more signals that they'll delay plans to lower the amount of joint production cuts in order to avoid undercutting the limited and fragile price recovery.

Where it stands: Under the current deal struck in April, the group would lessen the joint cuts by 2 million barrels per day starting in January. But the pandemic's spread is still badly blunting demand, leading analysts to predict they'll hold off.

What they're saying: "The oil trading world is expecting, and has likely gambled on, the alliance to scrap plans of boosting its oil production by 2 million bpd from January," Rystad Energy's Bjornar Tonhaugen said in a note this morning.

  • Tonhaugen said signals "point to a roll-over of current targets for 3 or 6 months, as OPEC+ ministers know that anything less will lead to a huge disappointment in the market and sub-40 oil prices very quickly."
3. The U.K. is reportedly prepping a big EV move

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is slated to announce this week that sales of new internal combustion vehicles will be banned by 2030, the Financial Times reports.

Why it matters: It would be among the world's most aggressive policies to bolster deployment of electric vehicles and curb transportation emissions.

  • The 2030 target is five years earlier than plans unveiled early this year, which themselves were an acceleration of a previous 2040 date.
  • However, under Johnson's imminent plan, sales of new petroleum-electric hybrids could continue until 2035, they report.

Yes, but: Via Bloomberg, "three senior government officials said no decision had been taken yet."

The big picture: "Johnson is expected to move the date to 2030 in an attempt to jump-start the market for electric cars in the U.K. and propel the country towards its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, according to government and industry insiders," per FT.

  • It's part of a wider set of climate policies Johnson is expected to announce this week.

* * *

Speaking of EVs, here are a couple more pieces of news...

  1. "Volkswagen AG plans to invest around $86 billion in the development of electric vehicles and other new technologies over the next five years, as the world’s largest auto maker races to overtake Tesla Inc. as the leading maker of electric cars," the Wall Street Journal reports.
  2. "General Motors Co. is voluntarily recalling 68,667 Chevrolet Bolt EVs  manufactured between 2017-2019 as it works with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to pinpoint what caused multiple battery fires," per the Detroit News.
4. Next step in Arctic refuge drilling fight

The Interior Department will imminently take the next step toward selling drilling leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before President Trump leaves office, Bloomberg reports.

Driving the news: They report that as soon as today, Interior will issue a "call for nominations" for parcels to auction at a sale of drilling rights in 1.6 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain.

Why it matters: The Arctic refuge is thought to hold billions of barrels of recoverable oil. But the sensitive ecosystem is home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife.

Where it stands: President-elect Joe Biden opposes drilling in the refuge, so look for his administration to try and stymie the effort.

  • But the 2017 law that opened the refuge after a decades-long fight requires leasing there, so he can't just wish the whole thing away.
  • However, there are several ways Biden could delay development efforts or try to reimpose restrictions.

Go deeper: How Biden could thwart Trump's Arctic push

Bonus chart: Alaska's long crude decline
Expand chart
Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

One reason why Alaskan politicians are keen to open ANWR is the prospect of adding new revenues to a state where oil production has long been declining.

The big picture: The U.S. crude oil production boom of the last decade has instead been centered in a few lower-48 states — none more than Texas.

5. Catch up fast: batteries, utilities, politics

Venture capital: "Form Energy, a startup planning to make battery systems that can efficiently store wind and solar energy for long periods of time, recently landed its biggest batch of funding, its chief executive told Reuters on Friday." (Reuters)

  • By the numbers: CEO Mateo Jaramillo said they closed a series C round of over $70 million, per Reuters.
  • Why it matters: Long-duration storage will help enable very high levels of intermittent renewables on power grids.

States: "Arizona utility regulators approved new clean-energy rules on Friday that will require electric companies to provide 100% carbon-free energy by 2050, with interim benchmarks between now and then." (Arizona Republic)

  • The intrigue: Greentech Media's coverage points out how state-level decisions about zero-carbon power "do not mirror the national political discourse."
  • "With ample sunlight and a dry climate, solar paired with batteries began beating out new gas plants in competitive solicitations back in 2018," they report.

Election fallout: "Defund the Police" rhetoric and fears that progressive climate policies could cost oil jobs boosted Trump's performance in blue, largely Latino Texas counties bordering Mexico, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) tells Axios' Stef W. Kight.