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Welcome back. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,385 words, 5 minutes.

🎵 And on this date in 1981, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the album "Hard Promises," so we'll open the edition with a track for our times...

1 big thing: Pondering peak oil demand

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Here's a wild but no-longer-unthinkable idea: Is it possible that global oil demand will never exceed pre-pandemic levels again?

Why it matters: The timing of peak demand has big implications for carbon emissions, oil-producing nations and the industry.

  • Many prior analyses concluded that it's a rather remote horizon, ranging from the late 2020s to the 2040s or later, though needless to say there are lots of variables.

Driving the news: “Will demand ever go back to where it was? That is hard to say,” Shell CEO Ben van Beurden told Bloomberg late last week. He also said the odds of demand peaking this decade have risen.

Where it stands: Until recently the world used roughly 100 million barrels per day of oil.

  • But COVID-19 has crushed demand, with multiple analysts seeing a roughly 25%–30% decline or more at the height of the lockdowns, though recovery has begun.
  • The International Energy Agency estimated in mid-April that demand was down by 29 million bpd that month, the trough before a recovery that still brings a year-over-year drop of 9 million bpd.

What they're saying: BNP Paribas Asset Management analyst Mark Lewis believes 2019 may have been the peak.

  • He said in a mid-April Financial Times piece that some current demand loss could be permanent, such that consumption hangs around in the 95 million
    to 100 million bpd range for several years before long-term decline begins.
  • "[C]onsider the structural pressures on the oil market already in evidence before coronavirus hit and then add to these the behavioral changes prompted by the pandemic, some of which seem likely to stick," he wrote.

Meanwhile, CNN reports that while the consultancy IHS Markit sees demand coming back to 2019 levels by 2022, they've also modeled a scenario in which a second virus wave leads to demand never coming all the way back.

The intrigue: The idea that peak demand just happened is not the mainstream view, though Bloomberg notes a "growing minority" are speculating about it.

  • But what's clear is that COVID-19 could at least hasten arrival of the moment when it stops rising entirely.

What we're watching: How the next round of detailed projections account for the pandemic and its aftershocks.

  • The central scenario modeled by IEA in its 2019 long-term outlook sees growth, albeit slowing, through at least 2040, while BP's 2019 analysis sees a plateau arriving in the 2030s.
2. The uncertain case for peak oil

A scenario in which oil demand never fully recovers, or at least stops growing, would involve pandemic-fueled structural forces pushing in the same direction.

Those forces include...

  • Remote behaviors, notably telework, becoming a popular choice even when it's no longer a necessity.
  • Air travel, once seen as an important demand driver, never fully coming all the way back as the industry is changed forever.
  • Governments' massive economic rescue packages boosting support for alternatives like electric vehicles.
  • Structural changes to manufacturing and supply chains that hinder projected fuel use increases in trucking and shipping.

What they're saying: Veteran oil analyst Amy Myers Jaffe talked about that last point on the latest S&P Global Market Intelligence "Energy Evolution" podcast.

  • She said the pandemic could lead to countries crafting more national manufacturing strategies for vital goods, which would sap a key area of oil demand growth.
  • “That was a big part of where the oil industry thought it was going to get its growth, from all that moving of goods around in a global market,” she said.
  • “When we move to a more regional economy, we are going to find that we don’t use as many trucks to move goods, we don’t use as many ships to move goods. When we pivot to 3D printing I think we are going to find the same thing, that it will be easier to have local manufacturing.”

But, but, but: Oil demand is a pretty resilient thing, especially as oil-reliant activity expands in developing nations.

  • Also we're already seeing driving start to bounce back, and avoidance of mass transit could be bullish for road travel.

The bottom line: I know this is a lame cliche, but ... stay tuned.

3. The climate imbalance of trade barriers
Reproduced from Energy Institute at HAAS; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new working paper finds that trade barriers worldwide are generally lower for carbon-intensive goods than cleaner products, creating a large "implicit subsidy to CO2 emissions."

Why it matters: UC Berkeley economist Joseph Shapiro pegs this "subsidy" at $550 billion to $800 billion annually, making it harder to fight climate change.

How it works: The paper explores tariffs (shown above) and other import penalties on a vast array of goods.

  • Penalties are generally lower on "dirtier" sectors — think metals and petrochemicals for instance — used as manufacturing inputs for consumer goods.
  • Shapiro concludes that ending the trade restriction imbalance between "dirty" and "clean" industries would help curb emissions.

The bottom line: "The resulting change in global CO2 emissions has similar magnitude to the estimated effects of some of the world’s largest actual or proposed climate change policies," Shapiro writes.

Why you'll hear about this again: The EU is planning "carbon border adjustments" to keep domestic industries from being undercut by competitors in nations without climate policies.

  • Plus, White House hopeful Joe Biden's platform vows "fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations."
4. Oil lobby jumps into Arctic finance battle

The powerful American Petroleum Institute and GOP senators are attacking big banks’ financial restrictions on Arctic oil drilling — and mulling ways to go beyond just verbal pushback.

What they’re saying: “We don’t think it’s appropriate for banks to discriminate against fossil-fuel communities,” API president Mike Sommers tells Axios' Amy Harder.

  • “We’re working with the administration and others to ensure that does not occur," he said.

Why it matters: The growing number of banks vowing not to stake Arctic projects is another hurdle in front of White House plans to enable drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

  • More broadly, Arctic development is already facing strong headwinds due to low prices, low demand, and industry opportunities in less controversial regions.

Where it stands: The administration may try to use coronavirus relief policies as leverage to compel major U.S. banks to drop recent restrictions they’ve placed on Arctic oil and gas financing, per Sommers and President Trump himself.

  • “A number of these banks are seeking to participate in the programs that are part of the COVID response,” Sommers said. “And you’d think the administration would have significant leverage over these banks during this crisis.”

Meanwhile, Politico reports that GOP lawmakers plan to launch a "pressure campaign" against the banks.

  • It's not clear what realistic options they have in a divided Congress, but Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan offers this threat via Politico: "You think this is a cost-free action? Let's see about that."

Catch up fast: In just the last few months, five out of six of America’s biggest banks have announced new restrictions, Bloomberg reports.

  • The moves — the latest coming from Morgan Stanley in late April — are part of the banks’ broader pledges to support action on climate change and clean energy. 
5. Big Oil's "net zero" club grows

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Total, the French multinational oil-and-gas giant, said Tuesday it hopes to reach "net zero" emissions by 2050, joining European peers including Shell and BP in setting ambitious mid-century targets.

Why it matters: Total’s plan includes targets for Scope 3 emissions — that is, emissions from use of its products in the economy that comprise by far the largest share of total CO2 linked to the industry.

The big picture: The plan calls for increasing the amounts of climate-friendly energy in its product mix, including a vow to double the share of its capital spending devoted to low-carbon power to 20% by 2030.

Reality check: Plenty of details remain to be filled in when it comes to how exactly these behemoths will meet these long-term goals and even interim targets.

  • The plans also recognize that the goals — especially Scope 3 targets — rely on external forces the companies can influence but don't control.

One level deeper: Shell said when unveiling its plan last month that it would involve working with customers on their emissions-cutting efforts.

  • Total said it's aiming to reach net-zero "together with society." It's vowing to engage in "active" policy advocacy and work with other businesses to decarbonize their energy use.
  • Total also said it wants a "60% or more reduction in the average carbon intensity of energy products used worldwide by Total customers by 2050."

Of note: The plan arrived on the same day that Total posted a 35% decline in Q1 profits compared to the same period a year earlier, as low prices bite. CNBC has more.