Apr 9, 2020

Axios Generate

Welcome back. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,104 words, a 4-minute read.

🎵 Monday will bring the birthday of the great soul singer Al Green, who has today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Zero hour for oil diplomacy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The next two days will be pivotal for determining whether large oil-producing countries can partially stabilize an industry reeling from very low prices and the historic, pandemic-fueled collapse in demand.

Driving the news: The OPEC+ group led by Saudi Arabia and Russia begin meeting remotely later this morning to discuss production cuts, to be followed by a virtual Friday meeting among G20 energy ministers that includes the United States.

Where it stands: Russia has signaled that it's willing to cut production by 1.6 million barrels per day, or roughly 15%, per multiple reports. Saudi Arabia was also discussing a cut of 15% to 17% on Thursday, delegates said, asking not to be identified because the talks were private, according to Bloomberg.

But, but, but: It's not clear how much the U.S. posture might limit the scope of a potential deal or muddy the path to reaching one.

  • President Trump and the Energy Department are not offering firm commitments, instead pointing to what are slated to be market-driven declines in U.S. production.
  • DOE's independent statistical arm projects that U.S. production will start falling significantly, dropping to roughly 11 million barrels by year-end and staying there in 2021. That's roughly 1.8 million barrels per day below levels at the end of 2019.

Reality check: Even a new deal is unlikely to bring prices back to anything close to where they were before the outbreak spread, due to the near-term demand loss that some analysts see in the range of 25 million–30 million barrels per day.

  • The global benchmark Brent crude has risen significantly in recent days on the prospect of an agreement, but at roughly $34-per-barrel, it's around half the early January price.

What they're saying: Goldman Sachs' analysts, in a new note, say that a coordinated cut is "now more likely than not."

  • But "the key question will be whether its size and timing will improve global oil balances sufficiently to support prices above current levels."
  • Even a coordinated cut of 10 million bpd, they write, would not be sufficient. And, a larger cut in the 15 million range would be a heavy lift at the talks.
  • Overall, the magnitude of the demand shock points to more near-term pressure on prices, they note. Reuters has more on their analysis.

The intrigue: U.S. lawmakers are ramping up pressure on Saudi Arabia ahead of the talks.

  • Yesterday nearly 50 House GOP lawmakers, led by Minority Whip Steve Scalise, wrote to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman urging cuts.
  • The letter include the not-so-subtle warning: "The U.S. military presence in the Middle East region has maintained the stability that provides for the economic prosperity and ensures the security of our two nations."

Plus, the White House has not ruled out the prospect of imposing tariffs on Saudi and Russian oil.

Go deeper: OPEC and allies to decide on historic oil production cut as coronavirus ravages demand (CNBC)

2. COVID-19's toll on power demand

New analysis from a University of Chicago energy think tank takes stock of the steep declines in power consumption in multiple regions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: While the stunning drop in oil demand is forcing a geopolitical reckoning (see today's top item), changes in electricity consumption provide their own metric of economies thrown into reverse.

What they found: Fiona Burlig, an assistant professor of public policy at UChicago, says the U.S. decline already matches what happened during the great recession over a decade ago.

  • "This is particularly striking because we haven't even reached the apex of virus caseload yet, from everything the epidemiologists seem to be saying," she said.
  • And when it comes to India, Burlig provides a sense of scale, noting that power demand there has been growing rapidly for many years.
  • "The electricity consumption in India from April 1 to April 6, 2020, is back at 2013–14 levels — a pretty shocking decline," she said in an email exchange.

Go deeper: Another Way to See the Recession: Power Usage Is Way Down (New York Times)

3. Sanders' new climate plan: Moving Biden

Joe Biden isn’t about to become Bernie Sanders, but he’s signaling that there’s potential for more common ground on issues such as health care, student debt, climate change and more in the weeks ahead, Axios' Alexi McCammond and Margaret Talev report.

What to watch: As Biden courts Sanders' endorsement, their teams will hold policy discussions in the next few weeks with the expectation that Biden will incorporate some elements of Sanders' agenda, a person familiar with those plans tells my two colleagues.

  • Sanders ended his campaign Wednesday with kind words for Biden but no formal backing. He'll try to use that leverage — and the delegates he still holds — to get concessions from Biden and the Democratic Party ahead of the nominating convention in August.

Reality check: There's no chance Biden will adopt Medicare for All as part of those discussions. But he could at least move in Sanders' direction on big issues like health care and climate change, as well as others like labor and corporate responsibility.

What's next: Pro-Sanders groups on the left flank of the environmental movement, such as 350 Action, signaled yesterday that they'll push Biden too.

  • But it's not clear whether Biden will see political benefits in moving left on climate in the general election.
  • And his climate plan, while less aggressive than Sanders', would nonetheless go much further than Obama-era policies.
  • Finally, here's my standing reminder that the gap between the plans shrinks when you consider what could get through Congress and what executive steps would survive the conservative-leaning judiciary.

Go deeper: The energy stakes of Bernie vs. Biden

4. Visualizing the collapse in air travel
Adapted from Rystad Energy; Chart: Axios Visuals

New analysis from the consultancy Rystad Energy shows the remarkable plunge in demand for jet fuel as the COVID-19 pandemic freezes much travel, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

The big picture: Global oil demand for jet fuel has evaporated to 35% of normal levels in April and May, consultancy Rystad Energy projected Wednesday.

  • The Transportation Security Administration screened a record low 97,130 people at airport checkpoints on Tuesday, compared to more than 2 million this time last year, a TSA spokesperson said on Twitter.

What we're watching: Rystad predicts that jet fuel demand will gradually pick back up, but by December will still be far lower than pre-coronavirus levels.

Go deeper: Coronavirus fuels huge drop in gasoline demand

5. Catch up fast: Saudi Arabia, BlackRock, Rivian

Big Oil: "Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund has amassed stakes worth roughly $1 billion in four major European oil companies, according to people familiar with the matter, buying assets it perceives as undervalued in a market depressed by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices." (Wall Street Journal)

  • The companies are Shell, Equinor, Total and Eni.

Congress: "A group of powerful Republican senators wants to make sure the bailout program being administered by BlackRock Inc. on behalf of the federal government won’t leave fossil-fuel companies behind." (Bloomberg)

Electric vehicles: "Rivian, the electric truck startup looking to bring vehicle manufacturing back to downstate Normal, will have to wait until next year to begin production." (Chicago Tribune)

  • The novel coronavirus is delaying production of the company's electric pickup and SUV.