Mar 20, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Welcome back. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,418 words, 5 minutes.

In this week’s must-see “Axios on HBO,” we dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is upending politics, business and global affairs. Don't miss:

  • A rare in-depth interview, where China’s ambassador to the U.S. discusses the spread of COVID-19 and so much more (clip)
  • CEO of Carnival Corporation defends its response to the Diamond Princess outbreak and addresses whether this could sink the cruise industry
  • Microsoft's CEO on the remote work surge

Tune in Sunday 6 pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Finally, I hope you're all doing OK, and I thought this late-period Springsteen song would be a good one to open this week's final edition...

1 big thing: Trump tiptoes toward oil engagement

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The potential for new U.S. responses to the oil price collapse has seemingly grown since our last edition — enough to send prices back upward, even though it's all inchoate and fluid right now.

Driving the news: President Trump says he's eyeing some kind of intervention in the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, telling reporters yesterday that he would get involved "at the appropriate time."

  • Separately, word emerged yesterday that Texas regulators are weighing the extraordinary step, last taken in 1973, of imposing production curbs in the state at the heart of the U.S. oil boom.
  • The Wall Street Journal first reported the discussions, and this morning a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry, floated the idea in a Bloomberg op-ed.
  • The commission's chairman says no decisions have been made and staff is looking into what it would entail from a "practical standpoint."

Why it matters: The collapse of the Saudi-Russia joint supply curbs, combined with COVID-19's economic toll, has pushed prices sharply downward, creating financial jeopardy for U.S. producers.

Where stands: Oil prices jumped yesterday but they're still low (and gave back some of the gains this morning). The U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) is around $26-per-barrel after plummeting to $20 earlier in the week, an 18-year low.

However, prices are still well over 50% below early January's levels.

What they're saying: Texas Railroad Commission member Ryan Sitton's piece floats the idea of Texas cutting production by 10% if the Saudis and Russians are also willing to cut output 10% from pre-pandemic levels

He notes that it would take the federal government to cut that deal.

What we don't know: How exactly the White House might seek to persuade Saudi Arabia or Russia to come back to the table on supply restraints and whether there's much of an opening.

Plus, Trump signaled mixed feelings yesterday, noting low fuel prices were helpful to consumers, but he also said the price decline "hurts a great industry and very powerful industry."

He said he wants a "medium ground."

The big picture: There's now a whole bunch of ideas flying around the Beltway. They range from diplomatic outreach to using blunt instruments. For instance...

  • The WSJ, citing an unnamed administration official, said the U.S. is weighing potential sanctions against Russia.
  • GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a big producing state, wants Trump to embargo oil from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. producers.
  • Also, the administration has previously said it's hoping to buy around 78 million barrels of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (more on that below).
Bonus: What they're saying about the oil landscape

"We expect Washington to pursue some degree of 'diplomatic engagement' with Riyadh in coming days, both bilaterally and/or within the auspices of the G20 (over which the Kingdom currently presides)," ClearView Energy Partners said in a note.

Oil analyst Ellen Wald tells me: "The best option for U.S. interests right now is for the Trump administration to pursue some diplomatic efforts to calm things down."

  • "Efforts such as sanctions and/or embargoes aren’t realistic and would end up having a negative impact on the United States," Wald said via email.
  • She also said it's unclear whether the Trump administration is making addressing the oil collapse a priority.

OANDA analyst Jeffrey Halley says via Reuters: “The outsized gains by WTI reflect the hope and not the reality of the U.S. shale industry. Russia and Saudi Arabia have zero interest in helping US shale survive."

2. A pandemic's side effects: cleaner skies and water

Photos: Images from Twitter (@Kaveri and @soandso), NASA website

As millions of humans stay home around the world, pollution is alleviating — temporarily, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Why it matters: Please click on these images of clear skies over China and California or fish swimming in Venice’s canals. They're a glimpse of what it might look like if we took better care of the Earth.

But, as much as people seem to love sharing those images now, none of it's likely to last.

Reality check: Much of this temporary environmental reprieve will diminish once the economy picks back up again.

  • And of course, no one should want to curb pollution and tackle climate change via a deadly global pandemic, given the grave health and economic impacts the crisis is creating.

But one expert says images like these could instill in people more appreciation for clean skies and water, and motivate them to retain some of that even as we hop back into polluting cars, boats and airplanes again.

“This unfortunate massive slowdown in our global economy is also providing a glimpse of what nature could look like with clean waters in Venice and clean skies in China.” — Valentina Kretzschmar, director of corporate research with Wood Mackenzie

One level deeper: Locking down large parts of China to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus could have saved nearly 80,000 lives by reducing pollution in those areas, a new study found.

3. Stimulus things to watch: oil and renewables

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Here's what's on my radar as Congress weighs fiscal responses to COVID-19: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, renewables incentives, and whether a link between them emerges.

Driving the news: The Energy Department wants congressional approval for roughly $3 billion to fully fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and yesterday issued a solicitation to begin buying 30 million barrels of the roughly 77 million needed.

Meanwhile, renewables companies and environmental groups have now gone very public with something we wrote about in yesterday's edition: a push for industry aid in a coronavirus stimulus package.

Where it stands: Renewables and storage trade groups yesterday sent this letter to lawmakers urging them to extend deadlines to use tax credits and make it easy to quickly monetize them, and create new incentives for battery projects.

  • Separately, the Carbon Capture Coalition is asking Congress to make it easier to use expanded tax incentives that were contained in a 2018 budget law.
  • They want extended deadlines and, like the renewables sector, the option for developers to receive direct Treasury payments rather than relying on collapsing tax equity markets.

These measures are not in the current legislation Congress is weighing, but the bill is still being negotiated and there could also be subsequent stimulus measures.

The intrigue: Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, in a press call on the SPR plan, yesterday said: "We are working closely with Congress. We expect that they will appropriate funding for this purpose."

  • But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have not yet weighed in on the proposal, at least as far as I can tell.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer's office did not respond to requests for comment.

My thought bubble: I'm old enough to remember 2015 when a year-end Capitol Hill budget deal both extended clean energy tax incentives and lifted the decades-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports. I'll be watching for any similar tradeoffs.

4. Tesla says it can weather the coronavirus storm

Tesla said it has enough resources to deal with an "extended period of uncertainty" as the electric automaker announced it will suspend production at its California factory.

Why it matters: Tesla can't be untethered from the future of electric vehicles, especially not in the U.S., where it dominates sales and plays a big role in pushing EVs closer to the mainstream.

Where it stands: Tesla did not estimate the length of the suspension. The company said it had $6.3 billion in cash at year's end, and that was before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise. More from its announcement...

  • "We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty."
  • "At the end of Q4 2019, we had available credit lines worth approximately $3B including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of our Shanghai factory."

What they're saying: Morgan Stanley analysts, in a note released before the announcement, projected that a month of lost production would reduce estimated full-year deliveries by 30,000 cars to 420,000.

They say Tesla would have "sufficient liquidity and access to capital during this time."

But, but, but: The note also models a "bear case" of a three-month hiatus and 100,000 units of lost volume, which is more severe but not fatal.

"We note that the company’s recent $2bn capital raise is roughly equal to the $2bn of burn in this bear case. In hindsight, the capital raise was extremely well timed and helped further bolster Tesla’s liquidity during this extraordinary time," it adds.

5. Quote of the day
"Coronavirus will shift global attention and resources away from addressing climate change, putting the issue on the backburner.”

Who said it: The Eurasia Group, in its first-ever update to its annual Top Risk report that explores big geopolitical trends.

Why it matters: Via Amy Harder, the consultancy's conclusion is an early sign of repercussions from the hard economic times emerging worldwide.

The big picture: Eurasia joins other analysts who see new headwinds for climate efforts. Eurasia predicts...

  • Weaker green investment efforts "as investors and companies pursue recovery and growth above all else."
  • Countries will largely devote fiscal responses to "targeted measures" to blunt COVID-19's effect.
  • Collapsing oil prices undercut alternatives, while civil society activism is curtailed and driven online.
Ben GemanAmy Harder