Jul 24, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Welcome back. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,297 words, < 5 minutes.

And this weekend will bring the birthday of The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, so they'll play us into the weekend...

1 big thing: The GOP politics of clean energy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Several of the most politically vulnerable Senate Republicans are urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to include clean energy provisions in COVID-19 economic recovery legislation.

Driving the news: Seven members signed a letter calling for "policies that will bolster jobs and innovation" around renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, efficiency, advanced transportation and storage.

The intrigue: Of the five facing reelection this year, three are in races listed as a "toss-up" by the respected Cook Political Report: Colorado's Cory Gardner, Maine's Susan Collins, and North Carolina's Thom Tillis.

Cook lists the contest of another signer, Arizona's Martha McSally, as "lean Democratic."

Why it matters: I know, I know, correlation is not causation. But the list of signatures is certainly a sign that vulnerable Republicans see a political upside in calling for clean energy policies.

It also shows, once again, that energy politics can be quite regional, even in the era of hyper-partisanship.

What we don't know: Whether this might lead to the inclusion of energy-related provisions in the next economic aid package, which GOP leaders have opposed in prior pandemic response bills.

There are also pressures in the other direction. Earlier this week, nine GOP senators signaled opposition to extending the availability of tax credits for building new wind projects.

The big picture: For months the renewables sector has been pushing for changes to existing policies, including the ability to quickly monetize tax incentives, but have not succeeded in the Senate.

  • The clean energy sector, broadly defined, has shed several hundred thousand jobs during the crisis, according to the BW Research Partnership.

What they're saying: "We can’t presume to know what Leader McConnell will decide to do, but it’s certainly meaningful that seven Republican Senators wrote to him and urged him to include clean energy policies," said Solar Energy Industries Association president Abigail Ross Hopper.

She notes that polling shows that backing renewables is "clearly a winning election issue."

2. A surprising start to Big Oil earnings season

Big Oil's second-quarter financials are going to be a rough scene, but this morning brought a surprise when Equinor announced $350 million in adjusted earnings for the quarter.

Driving the news: The Norway-based multinational's profit was far below the $3.15 billion from the same period a year ago. But analysts had been expecting a loss, Reuters reports.

"Our financial results for the second quarter were impacted by very low realized oil and gas prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by a strong trading performance in volatile markets," CEO Eldar Sætre said in a statement.

Yes, but: The results "could prove to be an outlier in a quarter that’s set to be the most painful yet for the industry since the global pandemic destroyed demand earlier this year," Bloomberg reports.

What's next: Companies including Shell, BP, Exxon and Chevron will report second-quarter earnings over the next week and a half, and they will reflect the collapse in oil prices this year.

"Oil and gas majors are likely to report 'horrendous' second-quarter results over the next two weeks, energy analysts have told CNBC, with the three-month period through to the end of June widely expected to mark the 'low point' of 2020," CNBC reports.

3. The pandemic's toll on urban cycling
Expand chart
Reproduced from Streetlight Data; Map: Axios Visuals

Biking in America’s biggest cities has dropped due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the decline is less than for driving, according to new data shared exclusively with Axios' Amy Harder.

Why it matters: Skyrocketing bike sales and anecdotal evidence suggest cycling could emerge a winner in the pandemic. But this data suggests a bike boom is — so far — unlikely to materialize or make a dent in oil demand.

Where it stands: Cities where commuting by bike is most common, like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, are also the ones that saw the sharpest declines in bike travel in May compared to last year, according to research from Streetlight Data, a transportation analytics firm.

  • "The commuting slice that falls out of cities like New York and San Francisco where that mileage on bikes is just not there because bike commuting isn’t there," said Martin Morzynski, Streetlight’s vice president of marketing. "And recreational activity isn’t necessarily enough to offset the difference."
  • The data shows, though, that cycling dropped less than driving. In Portland, Ore., for example, bike miles traveled fell by 10%, but vehicular miles traveled dropped by 35%.

The intrigue: Cycling doubled in smaller cities, including some known more for recreational cycling, including Ogden and Provo, Utah. The baseline number of bike miles traveled is far less than it is for larger metropolitan areas though, Morzynski says.

How it works: Streetlight Data uses location-based data, essentially pings from cellphone apps, that can differentiate between driving, cycling and walking based on the cadence of pings.

What we’re watching: Although we know bike sales are skyrocketing, we don’t know if people will actually end up riding them long term.

“It might be like the kid who buys the toy and throws it out a week later,” said Morzynski. “Our hope is that this actually starts to create new habits.”

4. Stopping the ocean plastic wave

Waste on Santa Lucia beach in Acapulco, Mexico, on June 7 on the eve of World Oceans Day. Photo: Francisco Robles/AFP via Getty Images

Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports...Currently available solutions could halt up to 80% of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean and the ground annually within 20 years, per a new analysis published in Science Thursday.

Threat level: Without urgent action, the yearly flow of plastics into the ocean globally is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons by 2040 — and remain at that level for hundreds of years.

Even under the best-case of curbing pollution, plastic's long degradation time means there'll still be a large amount, or roughly 710 million metric tons, of cumulative plastic pollution, researchers warn.

Details: The analysis, conducted by an international collaboration by Pew Charitable Trust, SYSTEMIQ and others over two years, modeled six scenarios (including business-as-usual) that quantified the flow and amount of plastic in the global system and compared the quantity of pollution between 2016 and 2040.

  • "This was really the first comprehensive study of the full plastic system, from production to the various ways plastic is treated when it's at the end of its useful life," says Winnie Lau, senior manager with Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics project.

Between the lines: "There is no silver bullet. None of the single-focus strategies for dealing with plastic pollution can get us really past where we are today," Lau says.

  • The report points to eight current strategies that nations and governments could utilize now.
  • Lau says three of the biggest changes could be from significantly reducing plastic production and use; substituting other materials like biodegradable materials or paper with plastic coating; and, doubling the amount we recycle.

The intrigue: Those strategies have ramifications for the oil industry. Absent policies that cut plastics use, use of petrochemicals to make them is projected to be an important source of oil demand in coming decades.

Go deeper with Eileen's whole story

5. Catch up fast: Tesla, Ohio mess, deals

Electric vehicles: "Tesla Inc. accused Rivian Automotive Inc. in a lawsuit of an 'alarming pattern' of poaching its employees and stealing trade secrets." (Bloomberg)

States: "Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reversed course on Thursday and called for a nuclear bailout energy law to be repealed in the wake of the state's $60 million bribery scandal." (Associated Press)

Natural gas: "Centrica will sell its US business to local group NRG Energy for $3.6bn in cash, in a move aimed at reducing the British Gas owner’s debt that pulls the plug on its international ambitions. (Financial Times)

6. Quote of the day
“In my optimistic answer, there is a huge amount of opportunity around taking those experiments that cities and [transportation] agencies have been running and then turning them into permanent fixtures.”

Who said it: Remix CEO Tiffany Chu, whose firm works with cities to improve transportation sustainability and access, speaking on the new episode of The Interchange podcast.

The big picture: Chu is discussing design and transit policy changes cities are making during the pandemic, like adding cycling lanes and changing street uses to bolster socially distanced pedestrian access and commerce while limiting car access.

Yes, but: The crisis is putting immense financial and logistical pressures on mass transit agencies.

And Chu fears the pandemic could bring greater prioritization of cars and highways, with more traffic as a result. “That is a very, very possible future in the U.S.,” she said.

I'm just grazing the interview, which touches on emissions, access equity in communities of color, and more. It's worth a listen.

Ben GemanAmy Harder