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Saturday, January 18, 2020

week ending Jan 18

Fed Pays $35 Billion to Banks, $6 Billion to Reverse-Repo Counterparties in Interest for 2019, Remits $55 billion to US Treasury - In addition to a lot of smaller activities, the Federal Reserve does two financially huge things: in 2019, it held about $4 trillion in interest-bearing assets, mostly Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities (MBS); and it owed banks about $1.5 trillion in interest-bearing reserves. Among its other activities, are its reverse-repo activities, and the costs of its own operations. On Friday, the Fed reported its preliminary results for 2019, including how much it paid the banks ($35 billion), how much it paid the counterparties of its reverse repos ($6 billion), how much it remitted back to the US Treasury Department ($54.9 billion), and how much it paid in dividends.The Fed earned $102.8 billion in interest income from the Treasury securities and MBS it held in 2019. This was down 8.5% from the $112.3 billion it earned in 2018, in part because Quantitative Tightening, with extended into July, reduced the pile of interest-bearing assets on the Fed’s balance sheet. It also earned $444 million from “services.”

  • What it paid the banks: The Fed paid its member banks (there are over 3,000 of them) interest due on required and excess reserves that banks have on deposit at the Fed. Those reserves on deposit at the Fed — liabilities on the Fed’s balance sheet — averaged about $1.5 trillion in 2019, but had been declining through September. Also, starting at the end of July, the Fed cut rates three times, including the rate it pays on reserves. So the interest the Fed paid the banks on these reserves fell 9.1% from a year earlier, to $35.0 billion. Note that if banks had not deposited those funds at the Fed, they would have likely bought Treasury securities for at least part of it and would have earned about the same or a higher rate of interest from the US government. When banks sit on large amounts of reserves, they’re going to try to make money off them, one way or the other.
  • What the Fed paid its reverse-repo counterparties: The Fed paid $6.0 billion in interest to its counterparties on securities it sold under reverse repurchase agreements (the opposite of repos). Reverse repo balances are liabilities on the Fed’s balance sheet. The Fed has been doing reverse repos for a long time. Balances started surging in 2014, peaking at over $500 billion. Then in 2017, balances started declining. In 2019, they averaged around $270 billion.
  • The Fed’s own operating expenses amounted to $4.5 billion.
  • Other expenses: The Fed also incurred expenses of $837 million related to producing, issuing, and retiring currency; $814 million for Board of Governors expenditures; and $519 million to fund the operations of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  • Net income and where it went: After it was all said and done (income minus expenses), the Fed had an estimated net income of $55.5 billion in 2019. Final data will be published in its audited annual report.

Are the Fed’s Repo Loans Being Repaid by Wall Street’s Trading Houses or Just Rolled Over and Over? --Pam Martens -- Last Friday, the usually reliable and fact-intensive financial website, Wolf Street, threw a hissy fit over how the Wall Street Journal (and by extension, Wall Street On Parade) is reporting the tallies for the repo loans that the New York Fed has been pumping out every business day since September 17, 2019 to the trading houses on Wall Street.The inflammatory headline blared: “The Wall Street Journal (and Other Media) Should Stop Lying About Repos.” The author of the piece, Wolf Richter, explained his criticism as follows: “Here is the ‘in’ of a repurchase agreement [repo loan]: The Fed buys securities (mostly Treasury securities and some agency mortgage-backed securities) in exchange for cash. This adds liquidity to the market. “Here is the ‘out’ of a repurchase agreement: Every repo matures on a set date when the counterparties are obligated to buy the securities back from the Fed at a set price. At this point, the repo unwinds, and it drains liquidity from the market.”   The key flaw in Richter’s analysis is that last sentence: “At this point, the repo unwinds, and it drains liquidity from the market.”Neither the public nor Congress have any proof that these repo loans are being unwound. One or more of the 24 trading houses on Wall Street (primary dealers), that are authorized by the New York Fed to borrow from its money spigot at super cheap interest rates, could simply be rolling over the same loans or using term money to pay off one loan while taking out another loan. There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what is going on. The first piece of evidence is that this is exactly what went on the last time the New York Fed turned on its $29 trillion money spigot to Wall Street from December 2007 to July 21, 2010. When the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was forced under legislation to look at the alphabet soup of lending programs the New York Fed had set up to disguise the astronomical sums it was spewing out to Wall Street’s trading houses (including their trading desks in London) it found that $16.1 trillion cumulatively had been pumped out – also at super cheap interest rates. It provided data for the peak amounts outstanding and also a cumulative total.

Fed Injects $82BN In Liquidity As Term Repo Is Most Oversubscribed In One Month -It was supposed to be a one-time, year-end "liquidity event." Instead, it has transformed into the latest liquidity addiction within the financial community. Just days after we reported that yet another disturbance appears to be brewing below the calm surface of the repo market again, we got another indication just how strong the market's addition to the Fed's easy repo money has become, when moments ago the Fed announced that its latest 2-week term repo operation was also the most oversubscribed since December 16, as $34.3BN in securities ($27.65BN in TSYs, $15.5BN in MBS) were submitted for today's $35 billion operation, as dealers continue to scramble to the Fed for liquidity which they are no longer using for "regulatory" year-end purposes (since it is no longer year-end obviously), but are instead using it to pump markets directly.  Today's operation, which was the most oversubscribed in 2020, also saw the most submissions since Dec 16, and suggests that as repos are now maturing at a rapid burst (as we noted in "Mark Your Calendar: Next Week The Fed's Liquidity Drain Begins"), dealers remain as desperate as ever to roll this liquidity into newer term operations. And just in case there was any doubt that the liquidity shortage isn't getting better, moments later the Fed announced that in its daily Overnight repo operation, it also accepted $47BN in securities ($22.5BN TSYs, $24.5BN in MBS) for a total liquidity injection of $82 billion.   The latest repo operations also confirmed what we discussed overnight in "Top Repo Expert Warns Fed Is Now Trapped: "It Will Take Pain To Wean The Repo Market Off Easy Cash"" in which we noted that according to Curvature Securities' repo expert Scott Skyrm, something appears amiss as recently the total overnight and term Fed RP operations were greater than on year end! On year-end, the Fed had pumped a total of $255.95 billion into the market verses $258.9 billion last week..  In short, just as the market got addicted to QE and the result was a 20% drop in the S&P in late 2018 when markets freaked out about Quantitative Tightening, the Fed's shrinking balance sheet, and declining liquidity, Skyrm cautions that "it will take pain to wean the Repo market off of cheap Fed cash" since "it's a circle"   The problem is that stopping RP ops could spark another repo market crisis, especially with $259BN in liquidity pumped currently - more than at year end - via Repo. It also means that the Fed is now unilaterally blowing a market bubble with its repo and "NOT QE" injections, and yet the longer it does so the more impossible it becomes for the Fed to extricate itself from the liquidity pathway without causing a crash.

Fed’s Kaplan Warns Central Bank Actions Are Driving Up Risk Taking – WSJ - The Dallas Fed leader would like to find a way soon to pare back the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas leader Robert Kaplan said Wednesday central bank actions, most notably its injections of liquidity into financial markets, are boosting investors’ risk taking, adding he would like to find a way soon to pare back the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet. “Many market participants believe that growth in the Fed balance sheet is supportive of higher valuations and risk assets,” Mr. Kaplan told reporters after an appearance at the Economic Club of New York.

Fed Considering Lending Cash Directly To Hedge Funds In Next Repo Market Crisis - At the beginning of December, the Bank of International Settlements, presented a formerly unknown explanation for the September repocalypse, one which in addition to a sharp drop in liquidity by the "Top 4" banks, was amplified by an imbalance in demand for repo by hedge funds: "High demand for secured (repo) funding from non-financial institutions, such as hedge funds heavily engaged in leveraging up relative value trades," was a key factor behind the chaos, said Claudio Borio, head of the monetary and economic department at the BIS. The BIS's finding was novel, and surprising, as it highlighted the "growing clout of hedge funds in the repo market" which in retrospect is to be expected: as we noted over a year ago, hedge funds such as Millennium, Citadel and Point 72 are not only active in the repo market, they are also the most heavily leveraged multi-strat funds in the world, taking something like $20-$30 billion in net AUM and levering it up to $200 billion. They achieve said leverage using repo. In short, and as shown in the chart above, some of the world's biggest hedge funds are active in the repo market to boost their returns. The problem is what happens when repo rates get unhinged as happened on September 16: for the best example of how market players react when their underlying correlations go tilt, look no further than what happened to LTCM in 1998. This also explains why the Fed panicked in response to the GC repo rate blowing out to 10% on Sept 16, and instantly implemented repos as well as rushed to launch QE 4: not only was Fed Chair Powell facing an LTCM like situation, but because the repo-funded arb was (ab)used by most multi-strat funds, the Federal Reserve was suddenly facing a constellation of multiple LTCM blow-ups that could have started an avalanche that would have resulted in trillions of assets being forcefully liquidated as a tsunami of margin calls hit the hedge funds world. So with hedge funds now emerging as the weakest market transmission link in any future repo market flare up, the Fed has to act, and sure enough, as the WSJ reports, in order to minimize risk during any and all upcoming repo market crises, Fed officials are considering a new tool to ease repo market stress: namely bypassing the existing system entirely, and lending cash directly to smaller banks, securities dealers and hedge funds through the repo market’s clearinghouse, the Fixed Income Clearing Corp., or FICC. How is this different from the current system? Well, as the BIS explained last month, hedge funds currently borrow through a process called sponsored repo, in which a large bank effectively act as a middleman or guarantor, pairing their government bonds with money-market funds willing to lend cash. The bank then guarantees that the parties will fulfill their obligations—repaying the cash or returning the securities. In the new proposal, firms trading through the FICC, would contribute to a fund that would cover a borrower’s default. However, as the WSJ notes, critics of the new plan say if the Fed lends cash directly through the clearinghouse, it could end up contributing to a hedge-fund bailout.

Trump Nominates Chris Waller, Judy Shelton To Fill Fed Vacancies -President Trump intends to nominate Christopher Waller and Judy Shelton to fill the two vacant posts on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, according to a White House memo released to the press Thursday evening. Both have been rumored to be candidates for the two open seats, with rumors about Shelton's candidacy inspiring an intense discussion over her reputation as a "gold bug" and opponent of liberal central bank monetary policies. In the past, she has advocated a return to the gold standard. She currently serves as the US director for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.and there it is. Trump nominates Shelton and Waller to Fed pic.twitter.com/x0KYr5Nq1V — Catherine Rampell (@crampell) January 16, 2020Waller is currently the head of research at the St. Louis Fed, and a much less controversial pick. He was purportedly approached by the administration about filling the seat back in June.Trump's picks to fill the vacancies on the Fed board have been enmeshed in controversy since last year, when Trump nominated Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to the fill the posts, only to withdraw them in the face of controversy. Just yesterday, President Trump intimated during ad libbed remarks at his trade-deal press conference that he wishes he had nominated former Fed governor Kevin Warsh to lead the Fed instead of Jay Powell, whom Trump has mercilessly bashed for having the audacity to raise interest rates.It's possible that Trump following through with nominating Shelton - who was rumored to be a top pick for one of the empty Fed governor seats as early as last July - might spook markets, given her longtime opposition to the type of MMT-lite monetary policy that President Trump favors. Though we imagine Trump wouldn't nominate her unless she swears to uphold his vision for monetary policy. Both picks must still be confirmed by the Senate.

 Fed's Beige Book: Economic Actvity Expanded "Modestly", Labor Market "Tight" - Fed's Beige Book "This report was prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York based on information collected on or before January 6, 2020."  Economic activity generally continued to expand modestly in the final six weeks of 2019. The Dallas and Richmond Districts noted above-average growth, while Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Kansas City reported sub-par growth. Consumer spending grew at a modest to moderate pace, with a number of Districts noting some pickup from the prior reporting period. On balance, holiday sales were said to be solid, with several Districts noting the growing importance of online shopping. Vehicle sales generally expanded moderately, though a handful of Districts reported flat sales. Tourism was mixed, with growth reported in the eastern seaboard Districts but activity little changed in the Midwest and West. Manufacturing activity was essentially flat in most Districts, as in the previous report. Business in nonfinancial services was mixed but, on balance, growing modestly. Transportation activity was also mixed across Districts, with a majority reporting flat to weaker activity. Banks mostly characterized loan volume as steady to expanding moderately. Home sales trends varied widely across Districts but were flat overall, while residential rental markets strengthened. Some Districts pointed to low inventories as restraining home sales. New residential construction expanded modestly. Commercial real estate activity varied substantially across Districts. Agricultural conditions were little changed, as was activity in the energy sector. In many Districts, tariffs and trade uncertainty continued to weigh on some businesses. Expectations for the near-term outlook remained modestly favorable across the nation. ... Employment was steady to rising modestly in most Districts, while labor markets remained tight throughout the nation. Most Districts cited widespread labor shortages as a factor constraining job growth, and, in a few cases, business expansion. A few Districts noted brisk demand for professional, technical, and managerial workers. A number of Districts reported job cuts or reduced hiring among manufacturers, and there were scattered reports of job cuts in the transportation and energy sectors. Wage growth was characterized as modest or moderate in most Districts—similar to the prior reporting period—and there were scattered reports of wage increases from year-end hikes in minimum wages. A few Districts also noted the use of benefits, incentives, training programs, and automation to reduce vacancies.

Beige Book Cites Even Worse Labor Shortages (But No Wage Increases), Some Tariff Costs Passed On To Consumers - Three months after the Fed "modestly" downgraded its outlook on the US economy from "modest to moderate" growth to "slight to modest pace", and two months after Fed appeared to give its outlook a modest uptick saying that at the national level, economic activity expanded "modestly" from October through mid-November, in the just released January Beige Book, the Fed kept its economic assessment broadly unchanged, saying "economic activity generally continued to expand modestly in the final six weeks of 2019" with the Dallas and Richmond Districts noting above-average growth, while Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Kansas City reported sub-par growth. In welcome news for the economy, the primary driver behind US GDP, consumer spending grew at a modest to moderate pace, with a number of Districts noting some pickup from the prior reporting period. On balance, holiday sales were said to be solid - although Target may beg to differ - with several Districts noting the growing importance of online shopping. Some more big picture details:

  • Vehicle sales generally expanded moderately, though a handful of Districts reported flat sales.
  • Tourism was mixed, with growth reported in the eastern seaboard Districts but activity little changed in the Midwest and West.
  • Of note, manufacturing activity was essentially flat in most Districts, as in the previous report, while business in non-financial services was mixed but, on balance, growing modestly.
  • Transportation activity was also mixed across Districts, with a majority reporting flat to weaker activity.
  • Banks mostly  characterized loan volume as steady to expanding moderately.
  • Home sales trends varied widely across Districts but were flat overall, while residential rental markets strengthened.
  • Some Districts pointed to low inventories as restraining home sales. New residential construction expanded modestly.
  • Commercial real estate activity varied substantially across Districts. Agricultural conditions were little changed, as was activity in the energy sector.
  • In many Districts, tariffs and trade uncertainty continued to weigh on some businesses.
  • Expectations for the near-term outlook remained modestly favorable across the nation.

Still, even though the Fed said there was no material change from December, an analysis by IFR observed that the latest Beige Book depicted economic activity that was "more modest and less moderate" based on a word count analysis. In this way, Reuters analysts said that they viewed the latest Beige Book "as a deterioration from the last version on November 27, 2019."

Q4 GDP Forecasts: 1.2% to 2.0% - From Merrill Lynch: On balance retail sales cut our 4Q GDP tracking by 0.2pp to 2.0% qoq saar. [Jan 17 estimate]  From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report:  The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 1.2% for 2019:Q4 and 1.7% for 2020:Q1. [Jan 17 estimate]  And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNow: The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in thefourth quarter of 2019 is 1.8 percent on January 17, unchanged from January 16 after rounding. After this morning’s housing starts report from the U.S. Census Bureau and industrial production release from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, a decrease in the nowcast of fourth-quarter real personal consumption expenditures growth from 1.6 percent to 1.4 percent was partly offset by an increase in the nowcast of real residential investment growth from 4.3 percent to 5.5 percent. [Jan 17 estimate]CR Note: These estimates suggest real GDP growth will be between 1.2% and 2.0% annualized in Q4.

  97% of CFOs Believe A Recession Is Coming In 2020, Survey -Ninety-seven percent of CFOs (corporate financial officers) surveyed in a new poll believe that the United States will be in recession by the end of 2020.   Eighty-eight percent of CFOs represented in the survey work at companies generating greater than $1 billion in annual revenue. Corporate financial officers are forecasting an impending economic downturn, according to a new survey of around 150 chief financial officers conducted by the consulting firm Deloitte. In its CFO Signals report covering the last quarter of 2019, Deloitte found that 97 percent of CFOs queried believe either an economic slowdown or recession will occur before the end of 2020. This is up from 88 percent one year ago. –Newsweek According to a report by Newsweek, by the end of 2018, many CFOs surveyed “began to cite external factors” such as trade policy “over internal factors as the dominant constraint on their companies’ performance,” the report noted. And increasing concerns about a reversal of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history come amid related anxieties about Trump administration policies that may be hampering growth. The external risk most frequently cited by CFOs in the survey was a combination of trade policy and tariffs. The second-most cited external risk is political turmoil and general instability. Companies are also growing increasingly worried about upcoming election. While the impact of the 2020 election was only cited by a relative handful of respondents, its placement on the chart has moved substantially upward since the third quarter of 2019. –Newsweek The CFOs surveyed expect very low interest rates and 10-year bond yields. They again expect a strong U.S. dollar as well in the upcoming year. At the same time, consumer and business spending expectations have fallen; CFOs are less likely to expect higher industry revenue and prices, according to the press release at PRNewsWire. Expectations for a U.S. economic downturn have risen since earlier this year, with 97% of CFOs saying that a downturn in the economy (a slowdown or a recession) has already begun or will occur by the end of 2020.  That’s up quite a bit from the 88% reported in 1Q19. Overall, 12% of CFOs say they believe a downturn has already commenced, and 14% say they already see signs of a downturn in their company’s operations.

The Dismal Forecasts of the Dismal Scientists  - James Galbraith --So it was in San Diego in early January at the annual meetings among the gathered economists, dismal professionals to a man and (occasional) woman. The New York Times on January 8 aptly summarized the concerns: high deficits and public debt, low interest rates, trade wars, and slow productivity growth. According to the Times, these warnings were echoed by economists from the World Bank, the Federal Reserve, from Washington think tanks and, of course, from Harvard. Beneath the ominous prognoses lie two impulses. One is the natural human desire not to be embarrassed—yet again—by failing to have warned that things may go bad. The academics quoted in the Times were in several cases architects of past disasters, or at best blind and mute as disasters approached. It would not do to have the same said again, and if a disaster does not occur, few will remember the warnings. The other impulse is intellectual inertia: The economists, like France’s Bourbons, learn nothing and forget nothing; they cast their omens in terms of parables read in textbooks many decades back. To change ideas now would call into question the very foundation of their careers. Thus we read that trade wars are bad for growth. For a country running a large deficit, the opposite is actually true: Tariffs divert demand from imports and so support domestic expansion, unless the retaliation against exports is even more extreme, which has not been the case. Economists cannot admit this because they are tied to the doctrine of comparative advantage and the virtues of free trade, textbook principles at odds with the whole history of successful industrialization and development, including in the United States. Low interest rates are said to be a risk because some day they will end. But the Federal Reserve has been trying to raise rates—or at least talking about it—for almost a decade. Every move in that direction brings financial turmoil, here or in the wider world, and the Fed backs off. The reality, at last bleakly admitted by the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, is that low interest rates are locked in—in technical terms, by the shallow yield curve. That is, you can’t raise short-term rates without pushing them up above sticky long-term rates, which is perhaps the world’s most reliable recipe for credit market chaos. But if the likely permanence of low interest rates were fully admitted, then the Congressional Budget Office would have to revise its forecasts for future interest rates, which have for many years projected that they would rise far above current levels. And lowering those forecasts would, to a large degree, make the scary projections of high future federal deficits and rising debt ratios go away. This would undercut the third pillar of the pessimistic case, already weakened by devastating criticism of its feeble theoretical foundation and flawed empirical support. And yet, amazingly, there at the meetings was Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff yet again, preaching to a large crowd about the public debt.

 US Budget Deficit Blows Out To Nine Year High In First Quarter Of Fiscal 2020 - The gaping US budget deficit hole is getting bigger with each passing month. Earlier today, the US Treasury announced that in December (the third month of fiscal 2020), the US spent $13.3 billion more than it pulled in, and while the month's budget deficit was modestly better than the $15 billion expected, it was virtually unchanged from the $13.5BN deficit recorded in Dec 2018. Total December spending of $349billion, was 7.5% higher than a year earlier, with the biggest outlays for the month as follows: social security ($88BN), national defense ($62BN), Health ($49BN), Income Security ($39BN), Net Interest ($34BN), which was more than Medicare spending for the month ($26BN) and so forth. Meanwhile, receipts increased by an almost identical amount, rising 7.4% from $312.6BN to $335.8BN, thanks to $153BN in individual income taxes, $103BN in Social insurance and retirement receipts, and $58BN in corporate income taxes. For the first three months of fiscal 2020, total Outlays rose to $1,163BN while Receipts were a far more modest $806BN, as broken out in the chart below. This means that the cumulative deficit for the first three months of the year has surged to $357BN. It also means that the deficit after one quarter of fiscal 2020 is now in the history books, was the widest going back all the way to 2011, when the US was still spending like a drunken sailor under President Obama, in response to the financial crisis, and when the final deficit for the full year soared to $1.3 trillion. And while in 2020 nobody is predicting a full-year hole as big as 2011's, with every passing month we get closed to a number hinting that the US is spending as if it is emerging from a recession and a major economic crisis. That, or it is about to enter one. One more thing to keep in mind: if it wasn't for $21BN in customs duties collected mostly from China as a result of the trade war tariffs, the cumulative US budget deficit through December would be even worse than that in 2011.

US To Start Issuing New 20-Year Bond In First Half Of 2020 To Fund Soaring Deficit -- After more than three years of careful consideration whether to issue 50 or 100 year bonds to take advantage of record low yields and an unprecedented scramble for duration, late on Thursday the Treasury announced the outcome of that process when it unveiled plans to issue... 20 year bonds. As we have periodically reported over the past several years, the Treasury had explored a range of potential new debt products, including 20-year, 50-year, and 100-year bonds, as well as floating-rate notes linked to the Secured Overnight Financing Rate—all with the goal of expanding borrowing capacity to finance the soaring federal deficit at the lowest possible cost. The decision to pick 20 year bonds is not surprising in light of persistent pushback by the Primary Dealer community against longer durations. Furthermore, the fact that the Treasury previously issued 20 Year bonds means it is familiar with the mechanics and market demands (the Treasury discontinued the issuance of 20Y bonds in 1986).  "The Treasury Department appreciates the input of market participants, including the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee and primary dealers, for their contributions to Treasury’s decision to launch a 20-year bond," said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “We seek to finance the government at the least possible cost to taxpayers over time, and we will continue to evaluate other potential new products to meet that goal.” The announcement of the 20Y bond will probably not come as a surprise: in its August presentation to the Treasury, the TBAC stated that "market participants do not expect meaningful ultra-long supply."

Nation’s defense contractors promise no attack against US will go unprofitable — Following calls for revenge after a U.S. strike which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, American defense contractors have promised that no attacks against the U.S. will go unprofitable.“Let us assure the American people right now, any strike against the United States and its citizens will be met with swift and costly acquisitions programs,” said Raytheon spokesman Derg Douglas. “With the full weight of our lobbying and manufacturing infrastructure behind us, Congre—I mean Iran will have no choice but to bend to our will.”Industry executives have promised that many of the programs they develop will be so expensive and irrelevant to the war effort that Iran will be constantly on its heels, with no idea what it will be hit with next.“Are we going to hit you with a gold plated-fighter aircraft or a 100 million dollar piece of gearthat doesn’t do anything at all?” said Lockheed Martin spokesman Skipper Rice. “Even we can’t figure out what some of these things do, so imagine how Iran must feel.”Iranian hackers reportedly altered the U.S. Federal Depository Library Program’s website on Saturday in retaliation, but defense industry officials have promised that their response will be frighteningly more long term and random than anything Iran can muster. “The timelines to take these programs to full operational capability will be so long that Iran will be looking over their shoulder for decades wondering when the death blow will be dealt,” said Rice. “Well, Iran, let us assure you that we can drag this thing out as long as we want. Heck, we might even be selling weapons to you guys by the time it’s over!”

Rand Paul says Trump keeps appointing advisers who “love Dick Cheney’s position”  - Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that President Trump "keeps getting policy that's not his policy" because he has surrounded himself with hawkish advisers who "disagree" with the president's instincts to withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East.  "He keeps appointing people to represent him that think the Iraq War was just great. They love [former Vice President] Dick Cheney's position, and they still don't admit there was a mistake. So that's why he keeps getting policy that isn't his policy. But I do think his instincts are pure. He's been saying it ... for a long time that the wars have drained our treasury and that he's not in favor of these wars." — Rand Paul    Trump ran in 2016 on ending "endless" wars in the Middle East, but his administration has deployedthousands of troops to the region in response to increased tensions with Iran. The president's order to kill Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani makes it unlikely that the U.S. military will end its presence in the Middle East anytime soon.  Despite claiming to be opposed to foreign intervention, Trump has appointed hawks like former national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to key positions. They have helped shape the "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign against Iran that has contributed to heightened tensions over the past year.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both reported that Trump told associates he was under pressure to kill Soleimani from GOP hawks in the Senate whose support he will need in the upcoming impeachment trial. Axios has not independently confirmed this reporting.

“Iran Must Begin Acting Like A Normal Nation,” Says Totally Normal Nation - Caitlin Johnstone -The government which runs a globe-spanning empire led by a reality TV host keeps talking about the lack of normality in the nation of Iran.“What we want all countries to join in,” said State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in a recent Fox News interview, “is to help us not only to de-escalate any tensions with Iran, but to help us bring Iran to a place where they are ready to stop their terrorist and malign behavior, and where they are ready to discuss with the United States, with Europe, with everyone, about how they can change their behavior to act like a normal nation.”“We want Iran to simply behave like a normal nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press statement the other day. “We believe that the sanctions we imposed today further that strategic objective.” These would be the additional sanctions which have been expanded to include virtually the entire Iranian economy, deliberately targeting Iran’s already sanction-starved populace, with the explicit goal of fomenting a civil war in that nation. Which is of course a perfectly normal thing to do, from a perfectly normal nation. So what can Iran do to become a “normal nation”? Well, since it’s the United States making this demand, we can safely assume that it’s the model Iran should look to. In order to become a normal nation, Iran will need to expand its interests from the region and begin toppling noncompliant governments and invading nations all around the world. In order to become a normal nation, Iran will need to circle the planet with hundreds of Iranian military bases. In order to become a normal nation, Iran will need to obtain thousands of nuclear weapons, and actually use a couple of them.

For one shining moment, liberals loved Fox News - For years, Donald Trump’s advisers and allies have watched as the president changes his policy positions within hours, if not minutes, of something he sees on Fox News. But never had the stakes as high as the past week, when he immediately walked back the threat of war with Iran after his favored Fox hosts counseled against it on television.  On Tuesday, Fox’s prime-time talent stable urged the president against escalation, from hawkish supporters like Sean Hannity, who praised the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani but argued that “Washington swamp creatures [want to] send our kids to war,” to the more dovish Tucker Carlson, who hammered the decision repeatedly from the moment the Iranian general’s killing became public. One viral segment saw Carlson arguing that the very intelligence agencies the president attacked for their roles in the Mueller investigation were the ones now counseling him toward war.“It seems like about 20 minutes ago, we were denouncing these very people as ‘the Deep State’ and pledging never to trust them again without verification,” Carlson said. “But now, for some reason, we do seem to trust them, implicitly and completely. In fact, we believe whatever they tell us, no matter how outlandish.” Hannity, for his part, offered a solution Wednesday that would sate Trump’s desire to flex military muscle while keeping troops off the ground. “I would imagine that those refineries and maybe even those nuclear sites that are buried deep underground could be potential targets” for drone strikes, he suggested during an interview with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), adding that it could plunge the country into “major poverty.”  “The view on Wednesday is that Tucker was totally supportive of what Trump was doing and Tuesday night we didn’t see any divide between" Carlson and Hannity, an administration official said. In conversations with several White House sources familiar with Trump’s decision-making process, the president had indeed monitored the chatter of cable news, the internet and print media after his decision to kill Soleimani, following that with various tweets threatening to ratchet up sanctions and even destroy 52 Iranian sites, including some cultural ones. White House officials have grown wise to reporters’ queries about their boss’ viewing habits, wary of the inevitable stories that ascribe one weighty decision or another to the mighty influence of Fox News.  While they acknowledged that Fox opinions on the strikes had reached the president’s ears, aides downplayed the extent to which they moved him. But their protestations usually run into one stubborn fact: The president really does watch and absorb copious amounts of cable news, whether in the bank of screens near the Oval Office or via the souped-up DVR he uses in the White House residence. In 2019 alone, Trump tweeted at least 558 times responding to Fox segments, according to a forthcoming study by Media Matters for America, a liberal group that tracks conservative media.

Putin Caught on Camera Making Fun of Trump With Assad  - Vladimir Putin has been caught on camera making fun of Donald Trump with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who joked the president should follow in the footsteps of one of Jesus' disciples so 'everything will become normal with him'. In television footage that aired on Russian-1 Sunday, the Russian president is seen laughing with Assad who explains that Paul the Apostle – who persecuted some of Jesus' disciples – traveled to Damascus to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem. However Saint Paul was struck blind by a resurrected Jesus and his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus at the gate of Damascus in the Syrian capital city where the two leaders met on Tuesday. Paul - previously known as Saul - then began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth was the true Jewish Messiah and son of God. 'If Trump arrives along this road, everything will become normal with him too,' Assad laughs to Putin during the trip to the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Damascus. It prompts Putin to quip that Trump would snap up the offer and if not, he'll convince him to visit the country's capital. 'It will be repaired… invite him. He will come,' Putin replies, according to a Twitter video shared online. When Assad says he's ready to invite Trump, according to a translation, Putin smiles: 'I will tell him.' The group including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All East John X Yazigi, are seen laughing amid the banter.

Canada’s PM Trudeau: US to Blame for Ukrainian Plane Accident in Iran - — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that victims of the Ukrainian plane accidentally downed by Iran would still be alive if the US hadn’t triggered tensions in the region. In an interview with Global television, Trudeau suggested America’s assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani had brought about the tensions in the region, and the subsequent response from Tehran to target a US military base in Iraq. The Ukrainian flight was accidentally hit by a missile which was intended for the American base.He said: “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families.” “This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it.” Trudeau also said that the US did not warn Canada in advance that it was planning to assassinate Soleimani on Iraqi soil.He said: “The US makes its determinations, we attempt to work as an international community on big issues, but sometimes countries take actions without informing their allies.” He also expressed that he would have “obviously” preferred to have had warning of the US plans to take action against General Soleimani.This comes after protests were launched in Iran over the downed passenger flight, demanding the resignation of the country’s leadership. Iraq has also formally told US troops to leave the country, resulting in threats from US President Donald Trump of crushing sanctions. Tensions in the region have been escalating rapidly since the US’ assassination of top Iranian General Soleimani, resulting in retaliatory missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, despite bellicose warnings on Twitter from Trump that he would target 52 Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated to the assassination – a move which would counter international law – no further action has been taken. Trump’s claims that Soleimani posed an “imminent threat” to the US’ security are now being questioned as he has provided little to no evidence that this was the case.

'Collateral damage': Canadian CEO says 'narcissist' Trump to blame after Iran downs Ukraine airliner – The chief executive of a Canadian company whose colleague lost his wife and son when Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane last week said in a series of tweets that the real blame for the tragedy belongs to President Donald Trump. Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods – which employs more than 12,000 people, according to its website – posted his "personal reflections" on the tensions between the U.S. and Iran from the company's Twitter account. "I am very angry, and time isn’t making me less angry. A MLF colleague of mine lost his wife and family this week to a needless, irresponsible series of events in Iran," McCain said. Protests have roiled Iran since officials admitted an air defense system incorrectly identified Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 as an incoming cruise missile and shot the jet down. All 176 people on board were killed, including 82 Iranians and 62 Canadians. Iran's military was in a state of heightened readiness when the plane was downed, hours after the regime fired ballistic missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in response for a drone attack that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran's top military and political leaders, in Baghdad. McCain denounced Trump as "a narcissist" who "tears world accomplishments apart." He called the downed plane "collateral damage" from the U.S. government's "irresponsible, dangerous, ill-conceived behavior." "63 Canadians needlessly lost their lives in the crossfire, including the family of one of my MLF colleagues (his wife + 11 year old son)! We are mourning and I am livid," McCain said.

Trump administration warns Iraq could lose New York Fed account if US troops forced to leave: WSJ  - The Trump administration this week warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region, Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal. The State Department’s warning follows the U.S. airstrike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander and the face of the Islamic Republic’s interventions across the Middle East. The strike led to Iraq’s parliament voting to force out American troops — a move some officials argued would hurt Iraq — and a counterstrike by Iran on two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq last week. Shutting down Iraq’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York could be detrimental to its financial system. The country puts its revenue from oil sales there, and takes out that money to pay government salaries and contracts. The Fed held almost $3 billion in overnight deposits at the close of 2018, according to the most recent financial statement from the Central Bank of Iraq. President Trump threatened to place economic sanctions on Iraq after parliament voted to request that Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi oust about 5,300 American troops. Those sanctions would also extend to Iran. The White House could also end waivers that allow Iraq to buy Iranian gas to fuel generators that supply a large portion of the country’s power, placing another pressure on the prime minister over addressing U.S. troops without enduring economic and financial loss. Mahdi has argued that forcing out American troops is the only way to avoid conflict in Iraq. He was warned about the central bank account in a call on Wednesday, an Iraqi official told The Journal.

"If The US Does That, It'll Lose Iraq Forever" - Trump Threatened To Cut Off Baghdad's Access To Its NY Fed Cash -- -After rejecting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's request to begin talks on the withdrawal of American troops, there are now more signs of the eroding ties between the two countries. The Wall Street Journal reports that according to Iraqi officials (yes, Iraq has anonymous sources too), the Trump administration warned Iraq this week that it risks losing access to a critical government bank account if Baghdad kicks out American forces.  We are sure, to Schiff et al., that sounds a lot like 'quid pro quo', but how will they balance the need to hammer the president with their neocon/establishment desire to keep boots on the ground, whatever it takes? The warning regarding the Iraqi central bank account was conveyed to Iraq’s prime minister in a call on Wednesday, according to an official in his office, that also touched on the overall military, political and financial partnership between the two countries. When Iraq needs hard currency, its central bank can request a shipment of bills that it then distributes into the financial system through banks and currency exchange houses. While the country’s official currency is the dinar, U.S. dollars are commonly used. “The U.S. Fed basically has a stranglehold on the entire [Iraqi] economy,” said Shwan Taha, chairman of Iraqi investment bank Rabee Securities. The potential economic and financial fallout is weighing on Iraqi officials “Whenever you have any amicable divorce, you still have the worry about the children, pets, furniture and plants, some of which are sentimental,” said a senior Iraqi politician. The New York Fed, which can freeze accounts under U.S. sanctions law or if it has reasonable suspicion the funds could violate U.S. law, said it doesn’t comment on specific account holders, but as WSJ notes, this financial threat isn’t theoretical: The country’s financial system was squeezed in 2015 when the U.S. suspended access for several weeks to the central bank’s account at the New York Fed over concerns the cash was filtering through a loosely regulated market into Iranian banks and to the Islamic State extremist group. The New York Fed doesn’t publicly disclose how much money it currently holds for Iraq’s central bank. But according to the Central Bank of Iraq’s most recent financial statement, at the end of 2018, the Fed held nearly $3 billion in overnight deposits.

 US Secretly Threatened To Damage Europe’s Economy If EU Continued Iran Support — United States (US) threatened to impose 25% tariffs on European car exports if the European Union (EU) had continued to support Iran’s nuclear deal, German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced yesterday.  Speaking at a press conference in Britain’s London, Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that US President Donald Trump had “secretly” warned France, Germany and the UK that the US would impose a 25% tariffs on European cars” if the European countries did not activate the mechanism for the settlement of disputes (MRD) of the Iranian international nuclear agreement reached in Vienna in 2015. “This expression or threat, as you will, does exist,” she reiterated.  Kramp-Karrenbauer remarks came following a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 plane was shot down last week outside Tehran, leaving all 176 crew and passengers dead. Relations between Tehran and Washington have strained since the US pulled out last year from the 2015 nuclear deal, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions. The tensions were heightened after a recent US drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who the White House accused him of plotting an earlier embassy attack in Iraq and planning to carry out attacks on US diplomats and service members in Iraq and the region.

Will The US Obsession With Sanctions Destroy The Dollar? - When the US places financial sanctions one one country, it de facto sanctions many other countries as well — including many of its allies. This is because not all countries and firms are interested in participating in the US sanctions-based foreign policy. Sanctions, after all, have become a favorite go-to strategy for American policymakers who seek to isolate or punish foreign states that don't cooperate with US international policy goals. In recent years, the US has been most active in imposing new sanctions on Russia and Iran, with many consequences for US allies who are still open to doing business with both of those countries. The US can retaliate against organizations that violate US sanctions in a variety of ways. In the past, the US has sued firms such as the Netherlands' ING Groep and Switzerland Credit Suisse. Both firms have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines in the past. The US has been known to go after individuals . US bureaucrats like to remind firms that penalties await them, should then not buckle under US sanctions plan. In November 2018, for example, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced: I promise you that doing business in Iran in defiance of our sanctions will ultimately be a much more painful business decision than pulling out of Iran. Fear of sanctions has caused some firms to stop work mid project, such as when Swiss pipe-laying company Allseas Group abandoned a $10 billion pipeline that was nearing completion. Not surprisingly, these firms — who employ people, pay taxes, and contribute to economic growth — have put pressure on their governments to protest the mounting interference from the US into private trade. As a result, some European politicians are increasingly looking for ways to get around US sanctions . In a tweet last week, Germany's deputy foreign minister Niels Annen wrote “Europe needs new instruments to be able to defend itself from licentious extraterritorial sanctions.”Another "senior German government official" concluded, “Washington is treating the EU as an adversary. It is dealing the same way with Mexico, Canada, and with allies in Asia. This policy will provoke counter-reactions across the world.”But how is the US so easily able to sanction so much of the world, including companies in huge and influential countries like Germany? The answer lies in the fact the US dollar and the US economy remain at the center of the international trade system.

Esper Contradicts Trump- Didn't See Specific Evidence Of Iran Plot To Attack 4 Embassies -  - When late last week President Trump first referenced a Soleimani-directed plot to "blow up" the US embassy in Baghdad, which during a Friday Fox interview became in the president's words “I believe it would’ve been four embassies” senators which had been given a classified briefing Wednesday balked, saying no such intelligence was referenced but should have been if there was evidence.  And now no less than Secretary of Defense Mark Esper appears to have publicly contradicted the White House's rationale for taking out the "imminent" threat of Qasem Soleimani. Esper told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday that he "didn't see" specific evidence for embassy attacks, while adding that he still believes such an attack was likely. Defense Secretary Epser: "I didn't see" specific evidence that showed Iran planned to strike four U.S. embassies. pic.twitter.com/4j2GgIIirL  "The president didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said was he believed," Esper said.  “What the president said was that there probably could be additional attacks against embassies. I shared that view,” Esper said. “The president didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence.” When pressed on whether intelligence officers offered concrete evidence on that point he said: “I didn’t see one with regards to four embassies.” — Reuters During a separate CNN interview on Sunday, the Pentagon chief continued to awkwardly dance around the question of whether specific intelligence showed such an attack was being planned. Esper described that Trump merely "believed" it to be the case, while refusing to confirm any particular intelligence.   But earlier statements of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who before reporters defended Trump's assertion about the IRGC targeting the embassies, suggested there was specific intelligence. At first it was unclear whether President Trump was claiming to have seen specific intelligence outlining such a threat, or perhaps was just speaking generally and in his usual hyperbolic style ("blow up" the embassy) of the pro-Iranian mob's actions besieging the US embassy in Baghdad days prior to the Soleimani assassination. Let's be clear - if there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing. They didn't.  So either Fox News gets higher level briefings than Congress...

 Seems Increasingly Likely Trump Just Made Up the ‘Imminent Threat’ Posed by Soleimani -  — New reporting out Monday further erodes the White House narrative that President Donald Trump was justified in ordering the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this month because Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat to American targets. According to NBC News, Trump authorized Soleimani’s killing in June—seven months ago—on the condition that Iranian actions resulted in the death of an American. The assassination was pushed by Iran war hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who wanted the U.S. to carry out the killing in retaliation for Iran shooting down a US. drone in June. Trump responded to the push by responding “that’s only on the table if they hit Americans,” according to a person briefed on the discussion. Discussions on targeting Soleimani began even earlier. Middle East analyst Juan Cole added to the mounting scrutiny over Trump’s “imminent” threat narrative on Monday. Writing at his Informed Comment blog, Cole noted: [Soleimani] does not appear to have killed or had killed any Americans at all in the past decade, and from 2015 because of the U.N. Security Council nuclear deal with Iran, Soleimani was not an adversary of the US in recent years. In fact, he was often a de facto ally and the U.S. Air Force gave him air support at Tikrit and elsewhere in the campaign against ISIL (ISIS, Daesh). In fact, for a while there Soleimani was fighting ISIL and al-Qaeda-linked militias in Syria in tacit alliance with the Kurds supported by the United States at a time when Israel allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate in the Golan Heights. Cole suggested the Trump administration appeared to be taking a page from the George W. Bush administration, which set up the Office of Special Plans to amass sketchy evidence to push the narrative of a threat of weapons of mass destruction posed by Iraq. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have also found evidence presented to them by administration officials to be unconvincing.

Telling lies: Trump's trouble with the truth in Soleimani's death - The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq violated international law, unless it was clearly an act of self-defense against an imminent threat. Revenge is not enough. The Trump administration has claimed there was an imminent threat, but the evidence for the claim mostly referred to past Iranian actions. Belief that America faced an imminent threat rests on trust in President Donald Trump and his administration, yet the president has consistently denigrated his own intelligence agencies. And his looseness with the truth has debased the currency of trust that is needed in a crisis. According to a new Pew poll, only 29 percent of people surveyed in 32 countries trust Trump. Cynics dismiss such facts by saying that all politicians lie, particularly about international politics. Yet, behind this current controversy lurks a serious question about how honest we want our leaders to be. Sometimes we do not want them to tell the literal truth, but that raises many problems. Sometimes, democratic leaders have objectives that differ from their followers and, rather than revealing the differences, they deceive the public. If such actions are self-serving, as in cases of corruption or narcissistic ego gratification, moral censure is easy. In other instances when leaders have different objectives from their followers in a democracy, we expect them to invest in educating the public. But what if they cannot do so in time, or their followers are too deeply divided to reach a consensus? As Franklin Roosevelt complained to an aide about American isolationist opinion in the 1930s, what is a democratic leader supposed to do if he looks over his shoulder and no one is following? FDR decided to deceive the public for what he saw as their larger, and later, good. The fact that leaders’ ends may sometimes justify violating honest means does not indicate that all lies are equal, or that we must suspend our moral judgment. Machiavellian deception is often part of a strategy, for example, in bargaining or even in bringing a group to accept new goals. But a president’s intentions matter. Deception that is purely self-serving distorts a strategy — especially one that may benefit others — into mere self-serving manipulation.

Pompeo says Soleimani killing part of new strategy to deter U.S. foes - (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said Qassem Soleimani was killed as part of a broader strategy of deterring challenges by U.S. foes that also applies to China and Russia, further diluting the assertion that the top Iranian general was struck because he was plotting imminent attacks on U.S. targets. In his speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, Pompeo made no mention of the threat of imminent attacks planned by Soleimani. It only was in response to a question that he repeated his earlier assertion that pre-empting such plots was the reason for the Jan. 3 American drone strike on Iran’s second most powerful official. His speech, “The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example,” focused on what he called an administration strategy to establish “real deterrence” against Iran following earlier Republican and Democratic policies that encouraged Tehran’s “malign activity.” Pompeo said there was “a bigger strategy” behind the killing of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign espionage and paramilitary force. “President Trump and those of us in his national security team are re-establishing deterrence – real deterrence ‒ against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said. “Your adversary must understand not only that you have the capacity to impose cost but that you’re in fact willing to do so,” Pompeo said, adding that the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018 had emboldened Tehran. “America now enjoys the greatest position of strength regarding Iran we’ve ever been in,” he said, pointing to the damage done to the Iranian economy by U.S. sanctions that Trump re-imposed following his withdrawal from the nuclear deal. “The importance of deterrence isn’t confined to Iran,” Pompeo said. “In all cases, we must deter foes to defend freedom. That’s the whole point of President Trump’s work to make our military the strongest it’s ever been.” He cited the resumption of lethal military aid to Ukraine for defense against Russia-backed separatists, Trump’s withdrawal from an arms control accord with Moscow and tests of a new U.S. intermediate-range cruise missile.

Trump gives dramatic account of Soleimani's last minutes before death: CNN - (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump gave a minute-to-minute account of the U.S. drone strikes that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in remarks to a Republican fund-raising dinner on Friday night, according to audio obtained by CNN. With his typical dramatic flourish, Trump recounted the scene as he monitored the strikes from the White House Situation Room when Soleimani was killed. The president spoke in a ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, at a Republican event that raised $10 million for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and for the Republican National Committee. Reporters were not allowed in for the event. CNN said it obtained an audio recording of Trump’s remarks. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Jan. 3 killing of Soleimani at Baghdad airport prompted Iran to retaliate with missile strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq days later and almost triggered a broad war between the two countries. “They’re together sir,” Trump said military officials told him. “Sir, they have two minutes and 11 seconds. No emotion. ‘Two minutes and 11 seconds to live, sir. They’re in the car, they’re in an armored vehicle. Sir, they have approximately one minute to live, sir. Thirty seconds. Ten, 9, 8 ...’ “ “Then all of a sudden, boom,” he said. “‘They’re gone, sir. Cutting off.’” “I said, where is this guy?” Trump continued. “That was the last I heard from him.” It was the most detailed account that Trump has given of the drone strike, which has drawn criticism from some U.S. lawmakers because neither the president nor his advisers have provided public information to back up their statements that Soleimani presented an “imminent” threat to Americans in the region. CNN said that in the audio, Trump did not repeat that Soleimani was an imminent threat. Trump said Soleimani was “saying bad things about our country” before the strike, which led to his decision to authorize his killing. “How much of this shit do we have to listen to?” Trump asked in the audio. “How much are we going to listen to?” 

Trump exploits Iran war crisis to incite violence against political opponents - On Monday, Trump retweeted a photoshopped image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a hijab and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in a turban, superimposed on an Iranian flag with the caption “the corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue.” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham gave a prepared statement in an appearance on Fox News in which she doubled down on the provocation. “I think the president is making clear that the Democrats have been parroting Iranian talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists and those who were out to kill the Americans,” she said. “I think the president was making the point that the Democrats seem to hate him so much that they’re willing to be on the side of countries and leadership of countries who want to kill Americans.” Given the fact that Trump had just ordered the murder of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, considered the second highest-ranking official in Iran, the tweet and the subsequent statement were nothing less than an incitement of violence against his political opponents. Trump’s latest provocations come amidst bitter factional conflicts within the state apparatus, with the House of Representatives expected to vote today to formally send articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate for trial. Alongside the divisions within the ruling class, there are growing class tensions and broad-based hostility to inequality and war. Under these conditions, Trump is engaged in a campaign to criminalize domestic opposition to war and attack the nominal opposition party as “radical left” and “socialist.” In a fascistic speech last Thursday in Toledo, Ohio, Trump mocked the constitutional requirement that the president obtain congressional authorization for military intervention. He told his supporters that he could not give Congress advance notice of the attack on Suleimani because the Democrats would have leaked the information to the “fake news” media in order to thwart the strike and protect the Iranian leader. This branding of the Democrats as traitors goes hand in hand with Trump’s illegal invocation of a national emergency to build his border wall with Mexico, his deployment of troops to assist in the incarceration of immigrants in concentration camps, his talk of “civil war” in response to the impeachment inquiry, his repeated “jokes” about remaining in office past the constitutional two-term limit, and his efforts to build a far-right base among police, soldiers and immigration agents.

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter remove accounts and content opposing the illegal assassination of Iranian General Suleimani - In a major escalation of online censorship, Google, Facebook and Twitter have deleted accounts and removed social media posts on multiple platforms that are opposed to the criminal assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani by the Trump administration in a drone missile strike on January 3. There are indications that these censorship moves have been carried out at the direction of the US government. YouTube, the video sharing platform owned by Google, on Monday deleted the account of Iran’s Press TV UK, under orders from the US government, and Facebook and Instagram have removed posts expressing support for Suleimani by dozens of Iranian journalists and other social media influencers. Reports by alternative news sources said on Tuesday that YouTube terminated the account of the British wing of the Iranian-based Press TV without warning or explanation. As of this writing, no major corporate news organization in the US has reported Google’s blatant censorship. On Monday, Press TV UK posted on Twitter that its YouTube account had been permanently disabled without justification “amid US-led anti-Iran sanctions and hostility.” Press TV is a 24-hour English and French language news and documentary network affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) with headquarters in Tehran. Press TV UK’s YouTube channel has 28,000 subscribers. Press TV UK journalist Ahmed Kaballo posted a video on Twitter in which he said, “Google acted as the judge, jury and executioner. We don’t know what we’ve done wrong, we don’t know what laws we’ve violated and there is no right to appeal. ... Even if you don’t agree with what we say, I urge to defend our right to say it because first they came for Press TV, who knows who will be next?” A statement from Press TV said, “After the illegal assassination of Lieutenant General Suleimani by the United States, Facebook began removing all social media posts and banning users for sharing information which painted a picture of Iran’s most beloved general, which went against the Western media narrative. Included in this anti-Iran purge from social media and Google is now Press TV UK’s YouTube account.” Indicating that the censorship is being directed by the US government, a Facebook spokesperson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Tuesday that it had removed pro-Suleimani social media posts and accounts because they were in violation of US sanctions laws. ABC reported that the accounts of Iranian journalists had been deleted by Facebook, according the Association of Iranian Journalists in Tehran (AIJT). The Facebook statement said, “To comply with these [US] sanctions, we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of a sanctioned party as well as remove content posted by others that supports or represents the sanctioned group or individual. ... "  In every instance, social media users impacted by the censorship were sent messages saying that their posts or accounts had been deleted because they violate community standards or guidelines with no further information or directions as to how the accounts can be restored.

 US Clearing Anti-War Voices Off the Web in Vast Censorship Operation — Instagram and its parent company Facebook are removing posts that appear to be in support of the late Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in order to comply with U.S. sanctions, a company spokesperson recently told CNN. “We operate under U.S. sanctions laws, including those related to the U.S. government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” the spokesperson said in a statement.  The Iranian government has responded by calling for legal action against Instagram, going so far as to create a portal for the users to submit posts that have been removed by the social media giant. Iran’s government spokesperson, Ali Rabiei called the move “undemocratic.”  Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is not blocked in Iran. Despite this, Twitter’s position on the matter is that as long as users abide by its rules the social media platform will not seek to remove posts. That being said, independent news outlet the Grayzone reported that Twitter suspended dozens of accounts run by people in Venezuela, Syria, and Iran—including Iran’s supreme leader—during the first two weeks of January. Instagram removed Soleimani’s own account last April shortly after the U.S. government designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization. Less publicized is the recent decision by Iran’s parliament to designate all U.S. forces as “terrorists” following the assassination of Soleimani.The pressure on social media companies to give effect to U.S. sanctions has also led to the removal of posts by Instagram which were posted by outspoken critics of the IRGC, including human rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi. Unsurprisingly, the International Federation of Journalists released a statement declaring Instagram’s actions as going “against global standard principles including freedom of speech and media.”However, Instagram and Facebook are not the only companies cracking down on speech that could be construed as supporting Soleimani. According to the Grayzone’s Ben Norton, a French reader attempted to donate $10 to the independent media outlet, writing “I am making this donation to The Grayzone for the sake of free speech and balanced reporting, particularly in regard to recent events in Iraq and Iran.” PayPal then froze the payment as it did with many others.

Trump Brags About Selling Troops to Saudi Arabia for $1 Billion — During a recent interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, U.S. President Donald Trump made some telling comments about the true motives behind the foreign policy of the United States. When speaking optimistically about the country’s diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia, Trump bragged bout how much the oil-rich dictatorship paid the U.S. for military support. “Saudi Arabia is paying us for [our troops]. We have a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia. I said, listen, you’re a very rich country. You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us. They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank,” Trump said. In effect, Trump was suggesting that U.S. troops are acting as mercenaries for Saudi Arabia.  “We are going to help them, but these rich countries have to pay for it. South Korea gave us $500 million… I said, ‘You gotta help us along. We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea protecting you from North Korea. You’ve gotta pay‘,” he added.  Anti-war conservative Rep. Justin Amash, who recently split from the Republican Party, was quick to point out this gross misuse of military power. Amash has been a critic of Trump’s foreign policy for the duration of his presidency and was equally critical of Obama. Amash was one of the few Republicans who supported the recent measure to impeach President Trump. On Meet the Press in October, Amash spoke of this specific practice of hiring troops out to countries like Saudi Arabia. “There are people who support the president, who believe things he says, but it’s pretty clear he’s not bringing home the troops. He’s just moving them to other parts of the Middle East. He’s moving troops back into Iraq, he’s moving other troops into Saudi Arabia and using our forces almost as mercenaries, paid mercenaries who are going to come in, as long as Saudi Arabia pays us some money, it’s good to go,” Amash said.If the United States military is “selling” its troops to anyone willing to pay, then it stands to reason that the stated goal of fighting terrorism in the region may just be a cover story for less noble goals, especially if countries like Saudi Arabia are able to call the shots.

The War in Afghanistan Is a Fraud (and Now We Have Proof) -  Lee Camp - Bombs have numbers. Humans have names. Our American military boasts a skill and passion for using numbers to turn names into yet more numbers. But these numbers have grown so gargantuan and out of control that one struggles to comprehend them.In just 10 months in 2018 — the latest numbers made available — our military dropped 5,982 munitions on Afghanistan, turning many thinking, living and loving names into cold, lifeless numbers. Over the span of the war, 43,000 Afghan civilians have been numberized. We, as Americans, essentially never even notice when it happens. Statistically speaking, it will happen again many times today, and no one in America will really care. (At least not while the game is on.)Sixty four thousand Afghan security forces have been numberized since 2001.Our government has known for years that the war in Afghanistan is a jaw-dropping disaster on the level of “Cats,” the movie. How do we know they knew? The Washington Post actually published some impressive reporting recently, taking a step back from its lust for pro-war propaganda.  WaPo unearthed a trove of thousands of internal government documents that expose the catastrophic war. And it turns out there are Tinder dates between a young neo-Nazi and an old Jewish lady that have gone better than this war.  “[The document trove] reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” the paper reported. Let me translate The Washington Post’s fancy-pants language: U.S. officials didn’t “fail to tell the truth;” they fucking lied. The phrase “failed to tell the truth” oozes around the brain’s neural pathways, strategically dodging the anger receptors. “Failed to tell the truth” sounds like veracity is a slippery fish U.S. officials just couldn’t catch. Nearly 20 years later, if you ask a U.S. general or president (any of them) what the goal is in Afghanistan, they’ll feed you a word salad so large it’ll keep you regular for months. In fact, we now know that even during some of the earliest years of the war, the Pentagon and the Bush administration didn’t know who the bad guys were.

China is the ‘most serious threat’ to the United States, says former security advisor to Obama    - Beijing has been forthcoming about its long-term goals and is the “most serious threat” to the U.S., according to a former U.S. national security advisor. “China has been very clear about what its long-term goals are strategically,” James Jones, who served as NSA under former President Barack Obama, told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble. “We need to take that very seriously.” One Chinese goal is “total control of their own people using technology,” he said at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. “They’re making astonishing progress to control every single citizen, whatever he or she does.” “They’re giving grades for citizenship, which will affect their jobs you’re going to hold, the travel you can do and everything else,” he added, seeming to refer to China’s social credit system. “Where they’re moving is scary,” he said. “They obviously want to export that to other countries.” He said Beijing is using a “Trojan horse” strategy to gain influence in “many parts of the world.” “They penetrate the economies, they buy up everything they can, pay off everybody they can...get a chokehold on the economy as much as they can and then make demands for the behavior of the government,” he said. That’s something the U.S. should address, said Jones. “One of the things that concerns me a little bit is that we’ve stopped talking about values in the world...even in the democratic countries. We should talk about human rights,” he said. Asked if the U.S. should support protesters in Hong Kong even if it puts trade talks with China at risk, Jones said: “Is trade more important than human values?”

China slams US for congratulating Taiwan’s Tsai - China on Sunday slammed officials from the United States and other countries for congratulating Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen after she was re-elected with a landslide victory in a stunning rebuke of Beijing’s campaign to isolate the self-ruled island. Tsai, who had pitched herself as a defender of liberal democratic values against an increasingly authoritarian China, secured a record-breaking win in Saturday’s presidential election. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as top diplomats from Britain and Japan, issued statements congratulating Tsai and the island’s democratic elections. But Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of its territory, denounced their actions as violating the one-China principle. “The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “We oppose any form of official exchange between Taiwan and countries that have established diplomatic relations with China,” he said in a statement. Chinese state media also sought to downplay Tsai’s victory and cast doubt on the legitimacy of her campaign by accusing the Taiwanese leader of “dirty tactics” and cheating. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) used “dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation to get votes, fully exposing their selfish, greedy and evil nature,” said official news agency Xinhua in an op-ed Sunday. Xinhua also accused Tsai of buying votes, and said “external dark forces” were partly responsible for the election results. Beijing, which has vowed to one day take Taiwan – by force if necessary – loathes Tsai because she refuses to acknowledge the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China.”

Trump Accused of Playing Politics With Treasury Report on China  -The U.S.’s abrupt declaration on Monday that China is no longer a currency cheat -- two days before the signing of a trade deal with Beijing -- shows how President Donald Trump has turned a routine, technical report on foreign exchange into a political cudgel.“It’s absolutely being used as a bargaining tool,” said John Doyle, a foreign currency strategist at Tempus Inc. in Washington. “We will look at that report now and wonder: Who are they going to flip on next if it’s politically convenient to get a deal done?”Treasury’s semi-annual report has long offered markets crucial signals about U.S. policy toward countries it deems to be manipulating their currencies. Using the report for other means -- such as leverage to finalize a trade deal -- risks undermining the weight of the designation if markets start to take it less seriously. In the first five reports released by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, he refrained from labeling China a currency manipulator, despite increasing pressure from the White House. Mnuchin told the White House multiple times that there was no justification for such a ruling, but in August Trump overrode that decision after the yuan dropped dramatically in response to U.S. trade tariffs, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump was even involved in drafting the press release. He called Mnuchin multiple times to discuss how the message would be transmitted, directing Mnuchin to refer to China as a “Currency Manipulator,” using capital letters, according to a person familiar with the matter. It was the first time the U.S. had labeled another country a currency manipulator since 1994, when it also took aim at China. To justify the decision in August, Mnuchin used a 1988 trade law with alooser definition of manipulation, rather than the more current 2015 law that requires the twice-a-year report to Congress. Under the more recent law, China does not meet the three criteria to be designated a currency cheat. The International Monetary Fund declined to endorse Trump’s view on the yuan, saying last year that the currency was “fairly valued.” In the latest currency report released on Monday, Treasury said that no major trade partner is manipulating its currency, and named 10 countries on its monitoring list, including China.

Phase one trade deal could be less than market hopes: ‘Tariffs have now become a roach motel’ - Investors have been waiting for details of the phase one trade deal, expected to be signed between the U.S. and China Wednesday, but they may already know most of what’s in it and there may be little new. Stocks have been buoyed by optimism around the deal for weeks now. Tuesday was no different, and the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500 were at all-time highs before a trade-related headline from a news service rattled markets and sent the indexes into negative territory. Analysts have said there could be some volatility around the release of the trade deal details. A deal that is very light on details with no teeth to stop trade abuses could potentially be seen as a negative. So stocks were rattled, when Bloomberg news service Tuesday afternoon reported that tariffs were not expected to be lifted until a phase two deal. The report also said the phase two deal was not expected until after the November election, but strategists say that was not a surprise, and a market, looking to sniff out a positive surprise, was dealt a temporary set back. The deal is expected to stop any further tariffs and roll back some 15% tariffs to 7.5% on some Chinese goods.

Here’s what’s in the phase one China trade deal Trump is signing this week - U.S. and China trade representatives will end years of intense bilateral negotiations with a "phase one" deal on Wednesday that promises billions of dollars' worth of agricultural purchases and the beginning of reforms to China's longstanding practice of forced technology transfer.For all the pomp and circumstance expected at the signing ceremony — and repeated assurances from American negotiators — many are still unsure of exactly what the two nations are agreeing to.On paper, the deal includes a "dramatic expansion of U.S. food, agriculture and seafood product exports" as well as an agreement by China to end its long-standing practice of forcing or pressuring foreign companies to transfer their technologies to Chinese companies, according to a U.S. Trade Representative document.The USTR has also said the deal reiterates U.S. opposition to currency manipulation and a commitment by China to buy at least $200 billion in U.S. exports over two years including manufactured goods, food, agricultural, energy products and services. Estimates of the value of goods by industry the White House believes Beijing will buy include about $80 billion in manufactured goods, $53 billion in energy, $32 billion in agriculture and $35 billion in services. P.J. Quaid, a corn options broker at the CME Group in Chicago, said he's eager to learn how the White House plans to enforce the tenets of the phase one deal if Beijing skirts its obligations."This thing's been a crazy roller coaster since it started. A lot of people have become pessimistic because a lot of the purchases they said they're going to make seem hard to attain," Quaid said."If this thing comes in under expectations, you could see sell-off," he added. "It's been a rough time for people trading Ags." The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not return CNBC's request for comment.Others were cautious after a Chinese media report suggested that Beijing isn't as upbeat on the prospect for future trade talks. Taoran Notes, a blog run by a state-owned newspaper called Economic Daily, published its first blog post in two months on Sunday."We need to bear in mind that the trade war is not over yet. The U.S. hasn't removed all the tariffs on Chinese imports and China is still imposing its retaliatory duties," the blog wrote according to a CNBC translation. "There are still so many uncertainties ahead." For Don Roose, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based brokerage U.S. Commodities, China's commitments to farm purchases are key."We're anticipating $35 billion [of farm purchases] the first year and $40 billion in the second," he said. "It doesn't look like we're creating any new world demand." But unresolved, Roose said, is whether the Chinese will — after years of haggling — actually end up buying more U.S. farm goods than before President Donald Trump opened the trade spat nearly two years ago..

China Agrees To Buy More Cars, Airplanes, Energy From US In Phase 1 Trade Deal --Sources familiar with the Phase 1 trade deal told Reuters China has agreed to purchase $80 billion of additional manufactured goods from the U.S. over the next 24 months, as part of the "Phase 1" trade deal that's expected to be signed on Wednesday. China is preparing to buy $50 billion more in energy products and increase purchases of U.S. services by $35 billion over the next several years, a source told Reuters. Meanwhile, China will increase purchases of U.S. farm goods by $32 billion over 24 months, or by about $16 billion per year. When added to the $24 billion export baseline pre-trade war in 2017, the new total is around $40 billion in annual agricultural purchases. President Trump will sign the Phase 1 agreement with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, as President Xi Jinping opted not to attend the signing event. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, on Monday, said the Phase 1 agreement is a "huge step forward" for US-China relations and "a really, really good deal for the United States." "We expect them to live up to the letter of the law. We'll bring cases, we'll bring actions against them if they don't," Lighthizer said. However, analysts and traders who spoke with Reuters had doubts that China could boost agricultural, auto, and energy purchases to such levels. President Trump has tweeted about the Phase 1 trade deal on several occasions, as it serves as an optically pleasing deal for his reelection. There are concerns about whether the agreement will be implemented in full and how to enforce China. Another source told Reuters that an $80 billion increase of manufactured goods includes purchases of autos, auto parts, aircraft, agricultural machinery, medical devices, and semiconductors. Reuters said, "the source providing the purchase figures expressed skepticism about manufactured goods pledges by Beijing since the U.S.-China trade deal does not address any of the non-tariff barriers that have kept these U.S. goods out of the Chinese market for decades, including procurement rules, product standards and subsidies to Chinese state-owned firms." 

Here Is The Full Text Of The "Phase One" US-China Trade Deal - The full text of the 94-page US-China "Phase One" Trade deal is below, and here, courtesy of Bloomberg, are some of the top highlights: Agriculture details:

  • China Purchases to Include Oilseeds, Meat, Cereals, Cotton
  • China to Buy Add'l $19.5B U.S. Agriculture Products in 2021
  • China to Buy Add'l $12.5B U.S. Agriculture Products in 2020
  • China to Approve Pending Applications for U.S. Bond Raters

-- As Bloomberg notes, China is committing to buying about $32 billion in additional U.S. farm products over the next two years, that's coming on top of levels seen in 2017 (pre-trade war). Specifically, China committed to importing at least $12.5 billion more agricultural goods this year than in 2017, rising to $19.5 billion next year. It's unclear just how this will happen without China's destroying existing supply chains. China will also “strive” to purchase an additional $5 billion a year in farm products. Energy details:

  • China to Buy Add'l $33.9B U.S. Energy Products in 2021
  • China to Buy More U.S. Nuclear Power Equipment in Trade Deal
  • China Energy Purchases to Include LNG, Oil, Products, Coal
  • China to Buy Add'l $18.5B U.S. Energy Products in 2020

- Chinese Purchases: This addresses some of the complaints American companies have about doing business in China:During the two-year period from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021, China shall ensure that purchases and imports into China from the U.S. of the manufactured goods, agricultural goods, energy products, and services identified in Annex 6.1 exceed the corresponding 2017 baseline amount by no less than $200 billion.

- Intellectual Property: This is at the heart of the U.S.’s 301 case against China that started the trade war: The U.S. recognizes the importance of intellectual property protection. China recognizes the importance of establishing and implementing a comprehensive legal system of intellectual property protection and enforcement as it transforms from a major intellectual property consumer to a major intellectual property producer. China believes that enhancing intellectual property protection and enforcement is in the interest of building an innovative country, growing innovation-driven enterprises, and promoting high quality economic growth.

Trade deal will not affect China's other agriculture suppliers - vice premier - (Reuters) - China’s other suppliers of agricultural commodities will not be impacted by the Sino-U.S. trade deal since buying will be based on market principles, Vice Premier Liu He said, according to a report from state-owned CCTV on Thursday. Liu was speaking on Wednesday at a press briefing after signing the Phase 1 trade deal with U.S. President Donald Trump. The agreement includes a pledge by China to buy an additional at least $12.5 billion worth of agricultural goods in 2020, and at least $19.5 billion more than the 2017 level of $24 billion in 2021. Chinese companies will import U.S. agricultural goods according to consumers’ need, and demand and supply in the market, Liu told the reporters, according to state-owned CCTV. “The China market is a very important part of the international market now. It is not that like any country can export as many products (to China) as they want. Rather you need show the competitiveness of the product,” he said. Liu’s comments underscore the uncertainty that remains about the deal and how China will implement the uptick in U.S. imports after an 18 month trade dispute that caused Chinese agricultural buyers to shift their supply chains. To reach the purchase target, China will need to increase its buying by intervening in the agricultural products market without upsetting its current trade partners, said a China-based grains trader with an international trading firm who is not allowed to speak to the media. “The government will intervene to some extent, like asking state firms to buy or providing some quotas,” but China is basically letting all nations compete and offer better priced products, the trader said. Under the deal, Beijing did not reduce or remove additional tariffs on U.S. farm products introduced in retaliation to U.S. tariffs. Competition between U.S. and Brazilian soybean supplies will be a focus as there are concerns China could cancel some Brazilian imports to bolster its U.S. purchases. China buys about 80% of Brazil’s soybean exports.

Senate to move Trump trade pact before impeachment trial - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled that the upper chamber will sign off on President Trump's trade deal with Mexico and Canada before it descends into the weeks-long impeachment trial. "Before the Senate shifts into the trial, we hope to complete an enormous accomplishment for this administration, and most importantly for American families," McConnell said from the Senate floor. The GOP leader's comments come as Senate committees are racing to sign off on U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on Wednesday, paving the way for it to be brought up on the floor. The House is expected to vote on Wednesday to formally appoint the impeachment managers and transmit the articles to the Senate. But lawmakers will have a window to take up other legislation, with senators not expected to debate the trial rules resolution and start opening arguments until next week. The House signed off on Trump's trade deal in December after months of closed-door haggling between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Trump administration. McConnell had initially indicated that the trade deal would have to wait until after the impeachment trial wraps next month. But the standoff between McConnell and Pelosi delayed the articles, and therefore the start of the Senate trial, giving senators an opening to approve the trade deal before impeachment gets underway. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, told reporters on Tuesday that Republicans were hoping to get the USMCA through the chamber this week, though he stressed it would depend on cooperation on the Senate floor. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters that she had also been told from GOP leadership that they would try to get the trade deal done this week.

China: 'Core concerns' must be addressed in future trade talks - China on Thursday welcomed the signing of the first phase of a trade deal with the U.S. but said the two sides’ “core concerns” must be addressed in future negotiations. The “Phase 1” agreement signed Wednesday shows Beijing and Washington “can find appropriate and effective solutions to relevant issues through dialogue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press conference Thursday. “It is imperative that both parties work together, uphold the principles of equality and mutual respect, strictly abide by the agreement, address each other’s core concerns, and work hard to implement the Phase 1 agreement.” The first phase of the trade deal includes a commitment from China to boost purchases of U.S. goods and services by $200 billion over the next two years, including $77.7 billion for manufactured goods and $32 billion for agricultural products. It also halves 15 percent tariffs on $120 billion of Chinese imports, but leave 25 percent tariffs on an additional $250 billion of imports in place. The agreement halted a planned rise in the tariff rate in October and a new round of tariffs in December. However, it did not include vows from China to drop its tariffs. Geng did not expand on what he meant by “core concerns,” but Beijing is known to want tariffs on most of its exports to be rolled back further. The White House has maintained that some penalties must remain in place to ensure that China abides by any deal. President Trump has said he plans to fly to Beijing to begin negotiations on a second phase to the agreement but has said he may wait until after the 2020 election to try and complete the deal.

Concerns linger after U.S. and China sign initial trade deal (Reuters) - China will boost purchases of U.S. goods and services by $200 billion over two years in exchange for the rolling back of some tariffs under an initial trade deal signed by the world’s two largest economies, defusing an 18-month row that has hit global growth. Key world stock market indexes climbed to record highs on news of the deal, before stalling on concerns it may fail to ease tensions, with numerous thorny issues unresolved. Oil prices rose, helped by expectations of more Chinese purchases of U.S. oil and gas. While acknowledging the need for further negotiations with China to solve a host of other problems, President Donald Trump hailed the agreement as a win for the U.S. economy and his administration’s trade policies. “Together, we are righting the wrongs of the past and delivering a future of economic justice and security for American workers, farmers and families,” Trump said in rambling remarks at the White House alongside U.S. and Chinese officials on Wednesday. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He read a letter from President Xi Jinping in which the Chinese leader praised the deal as a sign the two countries could resolve their differences with dialogue. “While markets seemed to take this deal as a risk-on signal, we should all be aware that headlines about trade, particularly U.S. China trade, are going to be a constant feature of 2020,”

Yes, It's Possible- This Is How China Can Boost US Imports By $200 Billion -- Almost one month ago we showed in one chart why the core concession in the Phase One trade deal by China - namely the promise for a "best effort" to purchase $40 billion in agricultural products from the US - appeared impossible. In short, assuming a similar export mix as in 2017, this would translate into an unprecedented 235% volumetric increase in 2020 US agricultural exports to China over 2019. The problem is that while US exports to China had declined sharply in 2018, other nations stepped in, in many cases with long-term bilateral contracts in place ensuring the long-term delivery of ag products from mostly Latin American substitute markets. This, as Goldman points out, means that such an increase in Chinese purchases from the US "would likely be hugely disruptive to global agriculture markets, primarily crowding out Argentine and Brazilian supplies that have taken substantial market share since 2017 due to the trade war and much weaker currencies." Fast forward to today when Reuters writes that commodity traders and analysts are similarly struggling to map out how China will reach the "eye-popping" amounts it is committing to buy from the United States under Phase 1 of their trade deal. As we reported previously, China has pledged to buy $50 billion more in U.S. energy supplies, and will raise US agriculture purchases by some $32 billion over two years above 2017’s $24 billion baseline, according to a source briefed on the deal to be signed on Wednesday. The deal also stipulates purchases of an additional $80 billion in manufactured goods, although details still remain scarce. Overall, it was reported that, as a part of the deal, China will buy $200bn more US goods and services than 2017 cumulatively over the next two years. Those totals would certainly trim the roughly $300 billion annual trade gap between the countries. However, analysts who study Chinese commodity flows remain skeptical that Beijing can absorb such quantities of U.S. goods without threatening trade ties with other suppliers, hurting its own domestic producers, and making substantial changes to import standards and quotas. “Either China massively increases imports and reduces current account surplus from the current 1.5% of GDP, or it engages in trade diversion away from current providers of goods which compete with the U.S.” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, Chief Economist Asia Pacific at Natixis in Hong Kong. “I see this second scenario as much more likely.” According to Chinese trade sources and analysts, China will have to include U.S. crude, liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments and imports of petrochemical raw materials such as ethane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to meet the target. But it would still struggle unless new supply deals are signed that displace other exporters. The $50 billion target is “too aggressive and unlikely to achieve”, said Seng Yick Tee, an analyst at SIA Energy in Beijing, adding that energy product exports from the United States to China were about $8 billion in 2017 and 2018. “To achieve $25 billion a year, all the imports need to be tripled.”

The US China Phase 1 Deal Interpreted: Break Thing, Claim to Fix Thing, Repeat -Through 2018M03, US exports to China were growing smartly. The Section 232 and Section 301 actions were announced. The “deal” essentially restores real exports to China to the pre-shock trend for 2020, above for 2021 (if you believe!). If the commitments to the deal’s export provisions are upheld, then there is a quantitatively important impact, at least insofard as the US-China bilateral balance is concerned.However, what if nothing had happened in the US-China trade war. Well, me might have gotten  to where we are supposed to be with the deal… Figure 1: US goods exports to China, log transformed, seasonally adjusted using ARIMA X11, deflated by price index for all US commodity exports (blue), forecast based ARIMA(1,1,1) in logs 2016-18M03 (red), 90% prediction interval (gray lines), and implied deal levels based on 2017 baseline (green), using implied level of export prices for 2019M12 extrapolated from 2016M03-2018M06. All in bn 2000$, SAAR on log scale. Source: BEA/Census, BLS, and author’s calculations.

The “Deal”: Much Ado about Nothing -- Menzie Chinn - Take a look at what exports to China will look like, with an additional $200 bn exports to China over two years, using the 2017 levels, as reportedFigure 1: US exports to China, bn$ at annual rate (blue), and implied exports to China above 2017 levels, all on log scales. Source: BEA/Census via FRED, USTR, and author’s calculations. It’s hard to see what’s going on, so I do an ad hoc seasonal adjustment using Census X-11 (probably could do better with accounting for shifting Lunar New Year).  This is shown below. Figure 2: US exports to China, bn$ at SAAR (blue), and implied exports to China above 2017 levels, all on log scales. Note seasonal adjustment on log transformed series using Census X-11. Source: BEA/Census via FRED, USTR, and author’s calculations.  Can you tell what’s changed? It’s all lost in the noise, at least for me. Note that China might have raised imports from the US even in the absence of the deal, given shocks in China (African Swine Fever, etc.). More comprehensive analyses, first from Eswar Prasad (formerly at the China desk at the IMF). While hailing progress on some issues pertaining to intellectual property and technology transfer (commitments at least), he writes: As part of the deal, China has agreed to increase its purchases of products from the United States. This is largely a symbolic issue meant to mollify President Trump, since this will not, by itself, affect the United States trade deficit with China in a durable way. Such deficits are more of a reflection of other policies that influence a country’s consumption and output. What of the key issue of industrial subsidies and Made in China 2025: The United States has deferred its more substantive demands to the next phase of trade talks. These include China’s corporate subsidies, which give its companies a leg up on foreign competition, the dominance of state-owned enterprises in its economy, as well as a mechanism to review China’s progress on meeting its commitments on these issues.Brad Setser is also more upbeat than me on the trade issue more narrowly. No matter what measure you use, China’s imports from the US had stalled after 2012 (well before Trump’s trade war). And if China delivers its commitments, there would be a meaningful increase in US exports to China (tho not necessarily US exports to the world).

The US-China Nothing Burger Trade Deal - There has been much hype about the signing of Phase One (and probably only) US-China trade deal. However based on a front page story in today’s Washington Post, there is not much there. The US did not raise tariffs as planned, but tariffs still remain on two thirds of the sectors that had them, although some were halved. But numerous US sectors see no change at all and are now viewing the situation as not likely to improve, with them suffering losses of business likely to return. Among those are chemicals, apparel retailers, and auto parts. In these and other sectors there is not much reduction of uncertainty regarding US-China trade, so not likely much increase in investment. The main items in it besides no worsening of tariffs, China has made promises not to pressure US firms to turn over technology and also to increase imports from the US by $200 billion over the next two years, especially in energy and agriculture. So maybe US soybean farmers will no longer need the bailouts of billions of $ Trump has been providing to them. However, such promises have been made in the past. As it is, I am watching commentators on Bloomberg, and about the most any of them are willing to say is that this “puts a floor” on the “deterioration” of US-China trade relations. That is far from some dramatic breakthrough, and most of the tariffs put on as part of the US-China trade war remain in place.

US-China trade deal leaves basic conflict festering - In a somewhat bizarre and deranged political extravaganza at the White House yesterday, US President Donald Trump signed a supposed “phase one” trade agreement with China, claiming it to be “the biggest deal there is anywhere in the world, by far.” Clearly, Trump was desperate to proclaim some kind of “victory” in the US economic war against China. For almost an hour, Trump rambled through a long list of congratulations aimed at his closest advisers, cabinet members and dozens of the business leaders gathered at his feet. The assembly included the CEOs of some of the world’s biggest financial, industrial and technology companies, such as News Ltd, Boeing, Honeywell, Citibank, UPS, AIG, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical and ConocoPhillips, Blackstone and Citadel, a prominent hedge fund. “Most of you, I can say, you’re doing fantastically well,” Trump told the business leaders. “Thank you Mr President,” he said, as if on their behalf. He nervously noted that while the confrontation with China had triggered stock market falls—more than $US1 trillion in one day in August—since his arrival in the White House there had been “141 days where we had all-time” highs. For all the bombast, the interim deal—arrived at after two years of aggressive “America First” trade-war measures against China, disrupting and reducing global trade, triggering financial market meltdowns and fuelling a worldwide slump—resolves none of the fundamental issues at stake. Not only does it leave most of the punitive US tariffs and Chinese counter-tariffs in place. It does not address the core demands issued by Washington, which have been for the wholesale restructuring of the Chinese economy to prevent it from overtaking that of the US, particularly in high-tech industries. This underlying offensive has been set aside, for now, for a so-called phase two deal, for which no timetable has yet been set. Trump said he would remove tariffs on more than $US300 billion of Chinese goods only “if we do phase two.” He added: “Otherwise we have no cards to negotiate with.” While expressed in the gangster language of a billionaire speculator, this epitomises the drive by the US ruling elite to escalate the confrontation with China in order to shore up the global supremacy that it secured by victory in World War II. As China’s delegation, led by Vice Premier Liu He, stood in stony-faced silence, America’s TV networks gradually tired of the spectacle, switching their coverage away to moves in the House of Representatives to send articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Trump’s China Trade Deal Handwave --- Yves here. No one is terribly impressed by the “Phase 1” sort of ceasefire with China. First a high level take from Barkley Rosser in The US-China Nothing Burger Trade Deal:The US did not raise tariffs as planned, but tariff still remain on two thirds of the sectors that had them, although some were halved. But numerous US sectors see no change at all and are now viewing the situation as not likely to improve, with them suffering losses of business likely to return. Among those are chemicals, appa rel retailers, and auto parts. In these and other sectors there is not much reduction of uncertainty regarding US-China trade, so not likely much increase in investment.The main items in it besides no worsening of tariffs, China has made promises not to pressure US firms to turn over technology and also to increase imports from the US by $200 billion over the next two years, especially in energy and agriculture. So maybe US soybean farmers will no longer need the bailouts of billions of $ Trump has been providing to them. However, such promises have been made in the past.As it is, I am watching commentators on Bloomberg, and about the most any of them are willing to say is that this “puts a floor” on the “deterioration” of US-China trade relations. That is far from some dramatic breakthrough, and most of the tariffs put on as part of the US-China trade war remain in place. Notice the “China made promises” part. It’s hard to see Chinese practices changing much; the most I’d expect is an end to the most egregious practices, and then only vis-a-vis US companies that might be able to get a hearing back home.  SafeHaven has more detail but reaches the same conclusion: The siging of the Phase 1 deal will certainly put at least a temporary floor in the increasingly fractious relationship between the U.S. and China and buying some time is what both sides want. From Trump’s perspective, de-escalating the trade war with China, at least to the extent that it is no longer perceived to be meaningfully damaging U.S. economic grow th is good for his popularity ratings ahead of this year’s Presidential Election…. BBC has an interesting take on winners and losers. Trump and Xi are winners, and interestingly, Taiwan/Vietnam/Mexico. The last three benefitted from $165 billion in redirected trade, only some of which will be reversed as a result of this agreements. The Loser: American companies and consumers.

From The US-China “Phase One” Deal — No Text, No Translation. What, Me Worry? -  China Law Blog - The United States and China are scheduled to have a grand signing ceremony on January 15 for the “Phase One” deal that is supposed to solve the U.S.-China trade war. Though more than 200 guests have been invited to attend the ceremony, no one knows exactly what they will be signing because the text of the “Phase One” deal has not yet been released…Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has dismissed “rumors” that China’s commitments in the deal had been changed in translation. Of course, since no one has seen either the English or Chinese versions of any drafts of the deal, it is impossible to do a side-by-side comparison to see if the English and Chinese versions are consistent or what, if any, changes were made from prior drafts, also undisclosed. There is though a very significant possibility the Chinese version will not be entirely consistent with the U.S. English version and the Chinese will think they have agreed to something different from what President Trump and his team believe they have agreed to. The Trump Administration’s cavalier attitude that the Chinese translation of what is reported to be an 86-page English version of the deal is just a minor technical matter is a bit shocking. In general, if treaties and other international agreements are authenticated in two or more languages, the text is equally authoritative in each language, unless specifically provided that one language will prevail over the other. It seems likely that the Chinese side will insist that the Chinese language version be considered equally authoritative as the English version.

A $50 Billion Hole Emerges In Trump's China Trade Deal - The implication of this is that the chart for US exports to China should basically look like this for the next two years: As Rabobank's senior economist Bjorn Giesbergen writes, there are probably very few economists that would deem such a trajectory feasible.According to the document “the parties project that the trajectory of increases … will continue in calendar years 2020 through 2025.” But "to project" does not sound as firm as "shall ensure." So, as the Rabo economist asks, "are we going to see a repetition of the 2019  turmoil caused by the phase 1 trade negotiations after those two years? Or is this supposed to be solved in the phase 2 deal that is very unlikely to be made? What’s more, while the remaining tariffs provide leverage for US trade negotiators, they are still a tax on US importers and US consumers of Chinese goods." But before we even get there, going back to the chart shown above, Bloomberg today points out something we have pointed out in the past, namely that China’s $200 billion, two-year spending spree negotiated with the Trump administration appears increasingly difficult to deliver, and now a $50 billion "hole" appears to have opened up: that is the amount of U.S. exports annually left out and many American businesses still uncertain about just what the expectations are. The administration has said those new exports in manufactured goods, energy, farm shipments and services will come over two years on top of the $130 billion in goods and $57.6 billion in services that the U.S. sent to China in 2017 -- the year before the trade war started and exports were hit by Beijing’s retaliatory measures to President Donald Trump’s tariffs. And while Goldman said it is certainly feasible that China can ramp up its purchases of US goods, going so far as providing a matrix "scenario" of what such purchases could look like... ... that now appears virtually impossible, because as Bloomberg notes, the list of goods categories in the agreement covers a narrower group of exports to China that added up to $78.8 billion in 2017, or $51.6 billion less than the overall goods exports to the Asian nation that year. The goods trade commitment makes up $162.1 billion of the $200 billion total, with $37.9 billion to come from a boost in services trade such as travel and insurance.Here, the math gets even more ridiculous:The target for the first year that the deal takes effect is to add $63.9 billion in manufactured goods, agriculture and energy exports. According to Bloomberg economist Maeva Cousin’s analysis, that would be an increase of 81% over the 2017 baseline. In year two, the agreement calls for $98.2 billion surge in Chinese imports, which would require a 125% increase over 2017. Importantly for China, the deal requires those purchases to be “made at market prices based on commercial considerations,” a caveat which spooked commodities traders, and led to a sharp drop in ags in the day following the deal's announcement.

China trade deal will not restore 3.7 million U.S. jobs lost since China entered the WTO in 2001 --The White House has announced plans for a ceremony to sign a “phase one” trade deal with China on Wednesday, although details of the agreement have yet to be announced. As one analyst noted, this deal may not amount to more than a hill of soybeans. It is unlikely to significantly reduce massive U.S. job losses due to growing U.S. trade deficits—the difference between imports and exports—which are dominated by trade deficits in manufactured goods. As shown in a forthcoming EPI report to be released later this month, growing U.S. trade deficits with China eliminated 3.7 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2018 alone (see Figure A), including 2.8 million jobs in manufacturing (details will be provided in the forthcoming report).Trade deficits and jobs losses with China continued to grow during the first two years of the Trump administration—despite the administration’s heated rhetoric and imposition of tariffs. The U.S. trade deficit with China rose from $347 billion in 2016 to $420 billion in 2018, an increase of 21.0%. U.S. jobs displaced by those China trade deficits increased from nearly 3.0 million jobs lost in 2016 to 3.7 million jobs lost in 2018, an increase of more than 700,000 jobs lost or displaced in the first two years of the Trump administration. Although the bilateral trade deficit with China has declined in 2019 (through November), the overall U.S. trade deficit in non-oil goods, which is dominated by trade in manufactured and farm products, has continued to increase, suggesting that trade diversion has grown in importance. These are important topics for future research. While growing exports support some American jobs, growing imports eliminate existing jobs and prevent new job creation—as imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers. As a result, growing trade deficits result in increasing U.S. job losses. The top half of Table 1 shows just how much the trade deficit has grown: The U.S. trade deficit with China increased from $83.0 billion in 2001 to $420 billion in 2018. While U.S. exports to China increased in this period, growing exports were overwhelmed by the massive growth of imports from China, which increased by $437 billion in this period.  U.S. trade deficits with China displaced 956,700 jobs in 2001 when China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the number of jobs lost due to the trade deficit increased to 4,661,400 in 2018, leading to a net 3.7 million jobs lost, as shown in the bottom half of Table 1.

Champagne Tariffs Could Double Prices In US, Trigger 50,000 Job Losses - The Trump administration is considering 100% tariffs on French goods, including wine and champagne, in response to the country’s planned digital services tax, reported Reuters. This would mean a $70 bottle of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage could cost $130 if the new round of tariffs is implemented. Trump administration officials have already said if France goes ahead with its controversial new tax on the profits of large tech firms such as Facebook and Google, a 100% tariff on $2.4 billion of French Champagne, handbags, cheese, and other products would be seen.A 25% tariff on non-sparkling European wines remains in effect since October after the Trump administration got into a dispute with the European Union over Airbus’ subsides.Industry experts told Reuters that French companies were able to absorb 25% tariffs, though, at a 100% rate, this would be impossible and would have to pass it through to consumers.Next week, E.U. Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will discuss trade disputes in a meeting.David Parker, chief executive of Benchmark Wine Group, a top U.S. supplier of wines, warned that 100% tariffs could cost the industry upwards of 50,000 jobs.The U.S. is the largest foreign market for French sparkling wine. If tariffs are increased, U.S. consumers will reject higher prices and shift to other brands. French companies would have to rework their supply chains towards Asia and South American markets.

Senate Passes USMCA Trade Deal 89-10 The Senate has passed President Trump's USMCA trade accord that revamps the 1994 NAFTA agreement. The final count: 89 to 10, with several high-profile Democrats, including Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer, opposing the measure. By allowing Trump to sign USMCA into law on Thursday, the vote will enable his administration to celebrate two back-to-back wins on trade policy. The vote on H.R. 5430 is ongoing, but a majority of senators have voted to approve the deal. It was passed by the Democrat-controlled House nearly one month ago. The Commerce, Foreign Relations, Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committees all approved the deal on Wednesday, removing the final obstacle to a floor vote. The Senate's approval will come more than a year after the underlying deal, which would replace the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, was reached between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. As Politico reminds us, passage of the deal fulfills Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA, a key part of his promise to rework international trade arrangements to the benefit of American workers. As the bill's overwhelming passage suggests, Democrats also regard the deal as a win due to major changes they secured in negotiations with the Trump administration. But that didn't stop 10 Democrats from voting against it. Dem leader Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Dem, acknowledged that although the treaty is a win for workers, it doesn't do enough to combat climate change, and thus he didn't vote for it. The new treaty won't take effect until Canada approves the pact, which it's expected to do in the coming weeks. Mexico already passed the revised deal back in December.

EconoFact: “What is the Toll of Trade Wars on U.S. Agriculture?” -- By Menzie Chinn and Bill Plumley, at EconoFact, posted a few minutes ago: U.S. agriculture has been caught in the tit-for-tat of the trade wars. Retaliation by China, Canada, Mexico, Turkey and members of the European Union to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration have taken a bite out of U.S. agricultural incomes. Tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum in the United States have also raised costs for machines, equipment and structures used by the agriculture sector. Agriculture incomes would have shown no growth in 2019 but for massive and unprecedented federal assistance. Even with this assistance, however, the agriculture sector shows signs of stress, with a rise in debt, a decrease in solvency and an increased number of bankruptcies. Were it not for Federal government support, farm value added would’ve been flat going from 2018 to 2019.

Trump Admin Looking To Significantly Expand Travel Ban- Report -- The Trump administration is considering a dramatic expansion of its highly-controversial travel ban to add several countries to the list, according to the Associated Press, citing 'six people familiar with the deliberations' and a 'document outlining the plans' which has been circulating within the White House. According to two of AP's sources, seven new countries are under consideration. Of note, the most recent iteration of the travel ban includes Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and North Korea.  A different person said the expansion could include several countries that were covered in the first iteration of Trump’s ban, but later removed amid rounds of contentious litigation. Iraq, Sudan and Chad, for instance, had originally been affected by the order, which the Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 vote after the administration released a watered-down version intended to withstand legal scrutiny. ... The countries on the proposed expansion list include allies that fall short on certain security measures. The additional restrictions were proposed by Department of Homeland Security officials following a review of security protocols and “identity management” for about 200 countries, according to the person.AP While Trump's critics have framed this as a 'Muslim ban' due to the fact that affected countries are Muslim majority, many have noted that the travel ban in its original form would have affected fewer than 15% of Muslims worldwide.  "I have trouble understanding why we're supposed to infer religious animus when in fact the vast majority of Muslims would not be affected," noted appeals court Judge Richard Clifton in 2017, who also pointed out that the seven countries included in the original travel ban came from a list created by the Obama administration. While the White House wouldn't confirm the plan, spokesman Hogan Gidley praised the travel ban for making America safer. "The Travel Ban has been very successful in protecting our Country and raising the security baseline around the world," he said in a statement. "While there are no new announcements at this time, common-sense and national security both dictate that if a country wants to fully participate in U.S. immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counter-terrorism measures -- because we do not want to import terrorism or any other national security threat into the United States."

Trump Administration Makes Supreme Court Appeal on Immigration Plan -The Trump administration filed an emergency appeal Monday that asks the Supreme Court for permission to implement rules that would make it easier for the government to deny immigrants residency or admission to the U.S. because they use public-assistance programs or might use them in the future. The administration last August adopted the rules, which would expand the pool of people considered likely to become a “public charge” under U.S. immigration law. The designation prevents an immigrant from obtaining a green card... 

Texas governor to reject new refugees under Trump order - The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has said the state will not accept new refugees under the US government's resettlement programme. The decision means Texas will become the first state known to do so. Last year US President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing states to opt out of the programme. On Friday, Mr Abbott said Texas had done "more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process". Refugee agencies have criticised the move, with one calling it "deeply disappointing". Texas has large refugee populations in several of its major cities. In the 2018 fiscal year, Texas took in 1,697 refugees - more than any other state, but a large drop from 4,768 in the previous fiscal year. Justifying his decision in a letter to the US State Department, Mr Abbott argued that the state should be focused on "those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless - indeed, all Texans". On that basis, Mr Abbott said he "cannot consent to initial refugee resettlement" in 2020, but added that the decision "does not deny any refugee access" to the US. Refugees who are already settled in other states, Mr Abbott said, will be allowed to move to Texas if they choose. However, resettlement agencies say they would not have access to federal resettlement benefits, such as housing.

New migrant caravan departs Honduras defying stepped-up controls - A new caravan of more than 1,000 migrants left the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Wednesday on its way to the United States. Following the example of the October 2018 caravan that grew to over 7,000 migrants and reached the US border, the workers and peasants organized the caravan for several months through social media and chat groups. A smaller group of about 400 migrants left San Pedro Sula on Tuesday and had already crossed into Guatemala at the town of Corinto after breaking through a line of Guatemalan police who ordered them to get processed at the border station. Given the intensified crackdown against migrants by the regional governments, the caravan speaks to the desperate social and economic life in Honduras and is expected to grow. In 2018, the caravan also began with only a few hundred migrants in Tegucigalpa, but was joined by thousands from across Central America and southern Mexico. The UN reports that 42,710 Central American migrants arrived at Mexico between July and December 2019, a 70 percent drop compared to the first half of the year, which was marked by tens of thousands of migrants in caravans being intercepted in Mexico. Apprehensions by US border authorities declined from 114,000 in May to less than 33,000 in December. “These tendencies could be related to the fact that Mexico and the United States are implementing stricter migration policies as social and economic conditions in the Central American countries continued to deteriorate,” wrote the UN Humanitarian Coordinator last week. These conditions that Hondurans are escaping en masse are rooted in the century of US imperialist plunder and military rule, exacerbated dramatically after the 2009 military coup backed by the Obama administration. Those seeking refuge from the resulting poverty and violence now face illegal US troop deployments across its southern border, the unconstitutional building of Trump’s border wall, 21,000 Mexican soldiers tasked with rounding up migrants, US detention centers compared by specialists to “torture facilities” under whose custody at least seven children have died, and the destruction of asylum rights.

Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from Pentagon for border wall construction: report - President Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from the Pentagon to go toward border wall construction this year, an amount five times greater than what Congress authorized in the budget, the Washington Post reported. This would be the second year in a row that money is redirected to the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border from military construction projects and counternarcotics funding. The administration will take $3.5 billion from counter-drug programs and $3.7 billion from military construction funding, according to internal planning figures obtained by The Post, compared to $2.5 billion and $3.6 billion, respectively, last year. The Defense Department told The Hill that it deferred to the White House to comment. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment. A total of $18.4 billion in federal funds has gone to the border wall during Trump’s presidency. The plans indicate that this new boost of funding would allow the administration to build about 885 miles of new fencing by spring of 2022, more than the 509 miles planned for the border, according to the Post. So far, the administration has finished 101 miles of new barriers as the end of 2020 deadline by which the president promised 450 miles of new border wall approaches. Legal controversy has surrounded the president’s campaign promise with a federal district court in El Paso freezing the $3.6 billion for new barriers because Congress designated it for something else. The Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed that ruling last week. Administration officials told The Post that the New Orleans ruling influenced the president and his administration to redirect money again this year. Several dozen military construction projects have been delayed or suspended from last year due to the redirection of funds, according to the Post.

US Expels Saudi Servicemen Over Extremist Ties And Pedophilia In Wake Of Pensacola Shooting -- More than a dozen Saudi servicemen training at US military installations will be expelled from the United States after a review that followed the deadly shooting last month at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, multiple sources told CNN.The Saudis are not accused of aiding the 21-year-old Saudi Air Force second lieutenant who killed three American sailors in the December shooting, two sources said, but some are said to have connections to extremist movements, according to a person familiar with the situation.A number are also accused of possessing child pornography, according to a defense official and the person familiar with the situation. The FBI and Justice Department declined to comment."In the wake of the Pensacola tragedy, the Department of Defense restricted to classroom training programs foreign military students from Saudi Arabia while we conducted a review and enhancement of our foreign student vetting procedures," said Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. "That training pause is still in place while we implement new screening and security measures." About a dozen Saudi trainees at the Pensacola base had been confined to their quarters as the FBI investigated the shooting as a potential terror attack, and the Pentagon initiated a review of all Saudi military trainees in the country, numbering around 850 students.

Trump Attaches Severe Restrictions to Puerto Rico’s Long-Delayed Disaster Aid - The Trump administration imposed severe restrictions on Wednesday on billions of dollars in emergency relief to Puerto Rico, including blocking spending on the island’s electrical grid and suspending its $15-an-hour minimum wage for federally funded relief work. The nearly $16 billion in funding, released while Puerto Ricans still sleep on the streets for fear of aftershocks from last week’s earthquake, is part of $20 billion that Congress allocated for disaster recovery and preparation more than a year ago, in response to the commonwealth being hit by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. Puerto Rico will be barred from paying its $15-an-hour minimum wage to workers on federally funded projects. And none of the funds can be used on the electrical grid, although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has yet to release nearly $2 billion that was allocated for Puerto Rico’s electrical system. White House officials acknowledged that rolling blackouts continue in Puerto Rico but insisted there was no need for new money. The requirements were first reported by The Washington Post. A congressional aide involved in the issue said the White House and its budget office appeared to have chosen restrictions that would be politically difficult for Puerto Rican officials to carry out. That way, the aide suggested, the federal government would not appear responsible for withholding the aid. The administration’s disparate treatment of Puerto Rico is not new. In August, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would release billions of dollars in federal disaster mitigation funds in two funds: one for nine states on the mainland, and the other for nonstates like Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands.

Coming for Your Coverage, Trump’s Plot Against Health Care Continues - Trump in a tweet: “Mini Mike Bloomberg is spending a lot of money on False Advertising. I was the person who saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare, you have it now, while at the same time winning the fight to rid you of the expensive, unfair and very unpopular Individual Mandate…..” As one reporter noted, President Trump was not in office when the PPACA established a unpenalized right to healthcare even if you had pre-existing conditions. Much of Trump’s efforts since taking office has been to wipe away President Barack Obama’s legacy of which the PPACA was a major accomplishment in spite of the well known resistance to his even being in office coming from Republicans “even” before he took office. Due to President Trump’s efforts, key parts of the PPACA have been removed and legislation pushed through a majority Republican Congress attempting to repeal the PPACA. The DOJ is now attempting to have the PPACA repealed before . . . nope, now after the election so the blame can not impact it. Prior to this latest lie by Trump, an earlier lie in 2019 had the Administration work through the CMS to take action against protections for people with pre-existing conditions by allowing states to let individual market insurers vary premiums and cost sharing based on “health outcomes.” A new CMS project allowed up to ten states to apply and then establish “health-continent wellness programs.” The state programs would let insurers vary premiums and cost sharing by as much as 30 percent based on upon an enrollee’s meeting designated health outcomes, a return to charging sick people more than healthy people.  So there has been an unending stream of efforts to repeal or stymie.  A day ago Paul Krugman noted; “Health care will be on the ballot this November, but not in the way ardent progressives imagine.” “Democrats running for president have spent a lot of time debating so-called Medicare for all, with some supporters of Bernie Sanders claiming that any politician who doesn’t demand immediate implementation of single-payer health care is a corporate tool, or something. But the reality is that whatever its merits, universal, government-provided health insurance isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  I say this because  .  .  .  even if Democrats take the Senate in addition to the White House, the votes for eliminating private health insurance won’t be there; nor will the kind of overwhelming public support that might change that calculus. In practice, any of the Democratic candidates — even Sanders — will, if victorious, end up building on and improving Obamacare.” And if Trump takes the presidency, you can be assured he will keep looking for a way to repeal the PPACA and disenfranchise tens of million more, well beyond what is occurring in states today which did not expand Medicaid, beyond the rising healthcare insurance premiums, deductibles, and copays, and those increases due to the healthcare industry’s continued upward pricing adjustments. And neither is there any assurance after an end to the PPACA, there would be a move immediately to Single Payor.

Supreme Court to take up Trump appeal in ObamaCare birth control case - The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the Trump administration's appeal in a legal fight over religious exemptions for ObamaCare's requirement that employer-based health insurance plans cover birth control. The administration is seeking to expand exemptions for religious objectors to the Affordable Care Act’s so-called contraceptive mandate. It will mark the third time the Supreme Court weighs in on the mandate, a controversial provision of ObamaCare that has been fiercely opposed by conservatives and religious groups for years. The Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court to overturn a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court blocking the rule from taking effect in a case brought by attorneys general in New Jersey and New York. The Department of Justice was joined in its appeal by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that objects to the mandate. “We are grateful the Supreme Court has decided to weigh in, and hopeful that the Justices will reinforce their previous decision and allow us to focus on our lifelong work of serving the elderly poor once and for all,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire in a statement. ObamaCare requires insurance plans to cover preventive care, including contraception, with no out-of-pocket costs. But the requirement has sparked years of legal challenges from groups and employers arguing it violated their religious beliefs. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit brought by Hobby Lobby that closely held companies with religious objections didn’t have to comply with the mandate. In 2016, the Supreme Court sent back to lower courts a lawsuit brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, ordering the administration to find a compromise with the Catholic order. The Trump administration issued its new rules in 2017 in part to resolve the issue with the sisters, who would have been exempt from providing contraception to their employees under the proposed changes. The mandate already provided exemptions for some religiously affiliated organizations. But the changes would allow most businesses to claim a religious exemption to the mandate, including nonprofits, for-profit companies, private colleges and universities and other non-government employers. Civil rights groups argue the rules would essentially let employers discriminate against employees who use birth control.

Bloomberg's Plan for Addressing Economic Inequality: not a wealth tax  Linda Beale - A week ago (Jan 8, 2020), the New York Times described Michael Bloomberg's plan1 for addressing the income and wealth inequality in the United States that has been a constant topic of discussion by Democratic candidates.  Briefly, as with the robber barons of Teddy Roosevelt's age, the wealth of the global commerce titans and particularly the private equity fund buyers and sellers of companies (and layers off of employees) has exploded over the last four decades in the US, beginning in earnest with Ronald Reagan's presidency.  Most of the benefits of productivity gains have gone to a very few people at the top, and the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution actually owns a smaller share of the nation's wealth than 40 years ago.  The top 1% have gained enormously, and the top 0.5% have been even more enriched.  We have ultra multibillionaires like Jeff Bezos who can pay $9 billion to his wife in a divorce settlement and still be the wealthiest man in the world with more than $130 billion in net worth.  He earns about $78.5 billion a year (counting value of his Amazon shares) or more than $6.5 billion a month2 and thus exemplifies this new "gilded age" of ultrawealthy tycoons.  This exists at the same time that the Trump administration proposes work requirements that willeliminate food stamp aid for 700,000 of hungry Americans and, with other initiatives, will take  food stamps from 3.7 million beneficiaries who simply cannot get work that pays well enough to fund a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their families.3  This will "save" the U.S. about $5.5 billion over five years--least than Bezos 'earns' in a month.  This disparity--$5.5 billion to feed 3.5 million hungry Americans versus provide a month's additional wealth for a person already wallowing in wealth like Jeff Bezos--is why it is clear that the US needs to figure out how to respond to the inequality crisis in order to protect American democracy and ensure Americans have a decent standard of living. Bloomberg's plan seems to be a moderate stance like Obama and Biden that attempts to focus on factors other than the wealth gap and the accompanying power gap that wealth provides.  As the NY Times reports, he "frames the economic divide primarily in regional terms--and not along ... rich-versus-everyone-else class lines."1  The Times article notes that his plan is not unlike the charge Obama gave to Joe Biden for the Middle Class Task Force.1

PolitiFact Wrongly Lets Biden Off the Hook: The Truth About Social Security Cuts - Recently, a newsletter from the Bernie Sanders campaign laid out Joe Biden’s long record of supporting cuts to Social Security. The website PolitiFact weighed in on one part of that record, a speech Biden gave in 2018 in which he expressed enthusiasm for former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans to cut Social Security.PolitiFact wrongly ranked the statement from the Sanders newsletter as “false” because they willfully refused to understand what Biden said in the speech—and how it represents decades of Washington establishment consensus on cutting the American people’s earned Social Security and Medicare benefits.In the speech, Biden says, “we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare” and that Social Security “needs adjustments.” Biden did not elaborate on what these “adjustments” were, but a look at his long history on Social Security is telling.In the 1980s, Biden sponsored a plan to freeze all federal spending, including Social Security. In the 1990s, Biden was a leading supporter of a balanced budget amendment, a policy that theCenter for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (two center-left think tanks who are hardly in the tank for Bernie Sanders) agree would be a catastrophe for Social Security.More recently, Biden led “grand bargain” negotiations with Republicans during his time as vice president. This “grand bargain” would have given Republicans structural, permanent cuts to Social Security in return for tax increases on the wealthy that would be rolled back as soon as a Republican president got elected to office.Time and time again, Biden kept coming back to the negotiating table, insisting that Republicans were dealing in good faith. Ultimately, the grand bargain fell through only because of hardline House Republicans refusing to make even an incredibly lopsided deal. Biden was fully prepared to make a deal that included Social Security cuts, including reducing future cost-of-living increases by implementing a chained CPI. When Washington politicians talk about Social Security cuts, they almost always use coded language, saying that they want to “change,” “adjust,” or even “save” the program. That’s because cutting Social Security is incredibly unpopular with voters of all political stripes. When corporate-friendly politicians like Biden use those words, they are trying to signal to elite media and billionaire donors that they are “very serious people” who are open to cutting Social Security benefits, without giving away the game to voters.

GOP leadership: There aren't 51 votes to dismiss Trump articles of impeachment - Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters on Monday that the Senate Republican caucus doesn't have the votes to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Trump, who endorsed an "outright dismissal" over the weekend. "I think our members generally are not interested in a motion to dismiss. ... Certainly there aren't 51 votes for a motion to dismiss," Blunt, the No. 4 Senate Republican, told reporters after a closed-door leadership meeting. Republicans have warned for months that they will not dismiss the two articles of impeachment against Trump, predicting a trial will end with votes on either acquitting or convicting him. But Trump revived talk of trying to dismiss the articles over the weekend, saying the Senate was "giving credence" to the allegations against him by having a trial. "Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, 'no pressure' Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have. I agree!" Trump tweeted on Sunday. Dismissing the articles of impeachment would require 51 votes. Because no Democrats would support the effort, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could afford to lose only two GOP senators and still successfully dismiss the articles. Multiple Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), have indicated they would oppose a motion to dismiss, arguing that both Trump's legal team and House impeachment managers should be able to make their case. The resolution on the Clinton impeachment trial rules in the 1990s had a motion to dismiss built into it. The motion, made after opening arguments and questions from senators, was ultimately unsuccessful. Republicans are still crafting the rules resolution for the Trump trial, but some GOP senators have suggested they will not include a specific motion to dismiss in the resolution. That would not, according to aides and senators, prevent a senator from trying to make a motion to dismiss during the trial.

Pelosi names impeachment managers - Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped seven impeachment managers on Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation over who in the House will step into the political spotlight and make the case to impeach President Trump before the Senate. Some members who the Speaker tapped were considered shoo-ins, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who both had leadership roles during the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s contacts with Ukraine. Others picked for the high-profile role of managers include Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Val Demings (Fla.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas), and Jason Crow (Colo.). The announcement comes one day before the House votes on a resolution to send the two articles of impeachment accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress to the Senate. "Today, I am very proud to present the impeachment managers," Pelosi said during the press conference. The Speaker noted that her gamble to delay sending the two articles of impeachment to the Senate to demand witnesses in the trial has proved beneficial, ticking through the new information that has come to light during that time. "Time has been our friend in all of this," she said, noting that Democrats have "uncovered" new evidence during the delay.

Trump accuses Democrats of a 'con job' as impeachment managers are announced - President Trump on Wednesday accused House Democrats of a “con job” shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the lawmakers who would be managing the case to impeach him in the Senate. “Here we go again, another Con Job by the Do Nothing Democrats. All of this work was supposed to be done by the House, not the Senate!” Trump tweeted, seemingly referring to Democrats' push for the upper chamber to call witnesses in the impeachment trial. Trump’s tweet suggested he was watching Pelosi’s press conference announcing the impeachment managers on Wednesday morning. The president is scheduled to participate in the signing of the “phase one” trade agreement between the United States and China later in the morning. The House is expected to vote Wednesday on submitting the impeachment articles to the Senate, after Pelosi delayed submitting the articles for several weeks, accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in order to gain leverage for Democrats in the trial. Pelosi has raised concerns about the fairness of the process in the GOP-controlled Senate after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was in “total coordination” with the White House counsel on how to handle the trial. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats have pressed for witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton to be called to testify. Pelosi announced Wednesday that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) will serve as the lead manager, joined by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas). Pelosi and Schiff have been frequent targets of criticism from the president throughout the House impeachment proceedings, which began in late September in culminated in the vote to impeach the president last month.

McConnell makes case for Trump acquittal ahead of trial - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday ripped House Democrats and made the case for the upper chamber acquitting President Trump as he waits for the articles of impeachment to be transmitted. McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, did not directly call for senators to vote to acquit Trump but argued that senators cannot follow the House's lead and agree that the president deserves to be impeached and ultimately removed from office. "Speaker Pelosi and the House have taken our nation down a dangerous road. If the Senate blesses this unprecedented and dangerous House process by agreeing that an incomplete case and subjective basis are enough to impeach a president, we will almost guarantee the impeachment of every future president," McConnell said. He added that the House impeachment inquiry was "the kind of anti-democratic recall measure that the founding fathers explicitly, explicitly did not want." McConnell's comments come as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named the House impeachment managers on Wednesday. The House is scheduled to vote later Wednesday to formally appoint the managers, who will make the House's case during the Senate trial, and transmit the articles to the Senate. Senators are expected to be sworn in this week with the trial getting underway as soon as Tuesday, when the chamber will debate a rules resolution and start opening arguments. With 67 votes needed to convict Trump, his acquittal at the end of the weeks-long trial is all but guaranteed. But McConnell has come under criticism for pledging to be in “total coordination” with the White House. "Do you think [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is impartial? Do you think [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren is impartial? [Sen.] Bernie Sanders is impartial? So let's quit the charade. This is a political exercise. ... All I'm asking of Schumer is that we treat Trump the same way we treated [President] Clinton," McConnell said.

House forwards impeachment articles, triggering Senate trial of President Trump - On Wednesday, the House of Representatives in a party-line vote passed a resolution to approve seven House impeachment managers and send two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate, triggering a Senate trial that will either acquit the president or convict and remove him from office. The action marked only the third time in US history that a sitting president was impeached, the first being Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the second, Bill Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted in the subsequent Senate trials, where conviction requires a two-third vote. Richard Nixon resigned his office in August of 1974 in the face of a virtually certain vote by the House to impeach him. The Senate is set to formally accept the articles of impeachment on Thursday, one for abuse of power and the second for contempt of Congress, initiating preliminary formalities. The trial is expected to begin in earnest with opening arguments next Tuesday, following the recess for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The onset of the Senate trial, which will be presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, and in which the senators will essentially serve as jurors, takes place in the context of an explosive political and social crisis and internal warfare within the American state without parallel since the Civil War. The explosive character of the crisis that has produced the impeachment drive was expressed Monday in Trump's retweeting of an image of Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer dressed in Islamic garb and standing in front of an Iranian flag, accompanied by charges from Trump that the Democrats are allied with Iranian terrorists who are killing Americans. The Democrats, for their part have based their impeachment drive on the claim that Trump is a threat to US national security because he temporarily withheld military aid to Ukraine, depicted as engaged in a "hot war" with Russia. The effort to either remove Trump from office or force him to adopt a more aggressive anti-Russian posture is an extension of the McCarthyite-style campaign against Moscow that has been at the center of the Democrats' opposition to Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign. The impeachment and Senate trial are part of a bitter conflict within the ruling class over foreign policy issues. The Democrats are aligned with disaffected factions of the intelligence and foreign policy establishment that consider the removal of Russia as an impediment to US hegemony over the Eurasian landmass a precondition for confronting and defeating the greater threat to US imperialism, China. Trump speaks for factions that consider the confrontation against China as the first priority and believe that it may be possible to enlist Russia in this drive.

Graham on impeachment trial: 'End this crap as quickly as possible' - Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally, said Wednesday that he wants the looming impeachment trial to be wrapped before the scheduled Feb. 4 State of the Union address. "The best thing for the American people is to end this crap as quickly as possible, to have a trial in the Senate, bipartisan acquittal of the president. And on Feb. 4, when the president comes into the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union, he will have been acquitted by the Senate," Graham said during an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity. The Senate's impeachment trial is expected to formally begin when senators and Chief Justice John Roberts are sworn in on Thursday. Senators are expected to pass a resolution on the rules for the trial on Tuesday and start opening arguments later in the week. Republican senators initially hoped to finish the trial by the State of the Union, but Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who previously predicted it would be wrapped by the speech, said this week he no longer views that as a realistic timeline. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, also warned that it would be a "fairly tight deadline." The first phase of the trial — opening arguments and questions from senators — is expected to last roughly two weeks. That would put the end of that phase up against or potentially past the State of the Union. After that senators are expected to have to decide on whether to call additional witnesses or request documents, a decision that is putting a spotlight on divisions within the Senate Republican caucus. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he wants to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton, while a handful of other Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), are viewed as potential swing votes. Democrats have requested four witnesses, including Bolton and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. They need four GOP senators to give them the simple majority needed to call a witness. However, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and conservatives are warning that if Republicans vote to help Democrats subpoena Bolton, they will force votes on subpoenaing controversial figures such as Hunter Biden and the whistleblower at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Graham on Wednesday said he hopes that "nobody will be called as a witness" and warned Republican senators against believing that Democrats want to get to the bottom of Trump's decision to delay Ukraine aid. 

 GAO finds Trump administration broke law by withholding aid from Ukraine - The Trump administration’s decision to freeze the release of security assistance to Ukraine last year violated federal law, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report Thursday.The independent watchdog said the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld the appropriated funds last summer, not as a programmatic delay but in order to advance the president’s own agenda.Doing so, the watchdog concluded, violates the Impoundment Control Act, a law that governs Congress's role in the federal budget process.“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the report says. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). ... Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.” The decision by the White House to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Kyiv as the country fights pro-Russia separatists is at the center of impeachment proceedings in Congress against President Trump.The report's release comes as the GOP-controlled Senate is expected to set a time on Thursday for the House impeachment managers — who will be arguing the case to impeach and remove Trump before the Senate — to formally exhibit the articles of impeachment accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

A newly revealed letter from Rudy Giuliani — Trump's own lawyer — destroys the president's last defense in Ukraine scandal - The House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released a trove of previously unseen documents that dramatically raise the stakes of the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Among the documents is a letter that Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani sent to Ukraine's newly inaugurated president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in May. Dated May 10, the letter showed the former New York mayor telling Zelensky he wanted to meet in person on May 13 and May 14. "Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as President of the United States," Giuliani wrote. "This is quite common under American law because the duties and privileges of a President and a private citizen are not the same." rudy giuliani letter zelensky House Intelligence Committee One day before Giuliani wrote the letter, The New York Times reported that he wanted to meet with Ukrainian officials to discuss former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter. Specifically, he wanted the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden's involvement as a board member of the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings. "We're not meddling in an election, we're meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do," Giuliani told The Times when asked whether by going to Ukraine and pressing for the inquiry he was inviting foreign interference in the 2020 election. Trump and Giuliani's efforts to pressure Ukraine into delivering dirt on the Bidens and Burisma make up the center of Congress' impeachment proceedings against Trump. Last month, the House of Representatives impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president has said his request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was linked to an interest in rooting out corruption, which would be in the US's national interest.

Text messages show a Giuliani associate discussing how to stalk 'that b---h' Marie Yovanovitch in Ukraine in a bid to get her fired - Newly-published text exchanges involving Rudy Giuliani's associate Lev Parnas show him discussing efforts to stalk former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and refer to her bluntly as 'that b---h'. The conversations were made public by the House Intelligence Committee, along with letters and handwritten notes that illustrate Parnas' role in President Donald Trump's pressure campaign in Ukraine. Yovanovitch, who testified during President Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry, was abruptly recalled from her position in May after she what she characterized as a smear campaign. The conversations back up Yovanovitch's testimony, showing Parnas and his associates plotting to "get rid" of her. Parnas texted his associate Robert Hyde, a Republican running for Congress in Connecticut, in which Hyde called Yovanovitch a "b---h" for being anti-Trump. In a poorly-spelled follow-up, Hyde said he "can't believe Trumo hasn't fired this b---h. I'll get right in that." hyde texts to parnas House Intelligence Committee Hyde later sent several texts suggesting he was keeping tabs on Yovanovitch in Ukraine, adding, "They are willing to help if we/you would like a price." Afterward, Hyde wrote, "Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money." parnas texts House Intelligence Committee At the end of March, Hyde texted Parnas updating him on Yovanovitch's location and the state of her security. parnas text on yovanovitch security detail House Intelligence Committee He followed up saying how they "have a person inside." lev parnas texts House Intelligence Committee A separate text exchange, between Parnas and former prosecutor general of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko, saw Parnas describe Yovanovitch as a "fool". Lutsenko had been criticized in the past by Yovanovitch for alleged corruption. In one exchange with Parnas, he wrote, referring to Yovanovitch: "And here you can't even get rid of one fool." Parnas replied: "She's not a simple fool, trust me. But she's not getting away."

Pundits Go Nuts Over New Russian Hacking Conspiracy  — The New York Times reports that GRU operatives launched a successful “phishing attack” on the Ukrainian gas company at the heart of scandalous allegations about Joe Biden, and establishment pundits are falling all over themselves to tweet the hottest take on this exciting new Russia conspiracy.  The story itself fails the smell test on a number of fronts. It falsely claims that allegations of Biden’s corrupt dealings with Ukrainian officials as vice president have been “discredited”, and its only named source is a cybersecurity firm with foundational ties to the NSA and to Crowdstrike, which you may remember as the extremely shady Atlantic Council-tied company at the heart of the plot hole-riddled 2016 Russia hacking narrative (whose founder is now a billionaire). The article also of course lacks any hard evidence for its claims, and is of course completely silent on any details as to how the security firm knows that the alleged hackers were both (A) Russian and (B) tied to the Russian government. This is par for course with mass media news reporting on anything negative about Russia, where all journalistic standards have gone out the window and nobody suffers any professional consequences for even the most egregious misreporting on that nation.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a man trying to run with an erection, but FYI it’s the most ridiculous-looking thing you can possibly ever witness. And the mad scramble of conservative Democrats to say something viral about this new angle on an entirely exhausted theme puts one in the mind of a whole platoon of men running completely tumescent at full sprint.“I hope my fellow editors will think hard — really hard, a lot harder than they did in 2016 — before publishing any material hacked by the Russians,” tweeted editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast Noah Shachtman in response to the NYT report. It is very revealing that the head of a major mainstream publication believes news outlets should sit on a story exposing the corruption of a leading presidential candidate–no matter how newsworthy–if it’s believed to have come from “the Russians”. How many major stories are being spiked for no other reason than a loyalty to the US government’s geopolitical agendas against noncompliant nations, exactly?

Mary McCord Is The Key - How The Entire Impeachment Operation Got Started - CTH has some explosive new information which has been shared with Mr. Nunes on both issues; but we start with the interview and ICIG Michael Atkinson. Since our original research into Atkinson, there have been some rather interesting additional discoveries. The key to understanding the corrupt endeavor behind the fraudulent “whistle-blower” complaint, doesn’t actually originate with ICIG Atkinson. The key person is the former head of the DOJ National Security Division, Mary McCord.  Prior to becoming IC Inspector General, Michael Atkinson was the Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Senior Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General of the National Security Division, Mary McCord. It is very safe to say Mary McCord and Michael Atkinson have a working relationship from their time together in 2016 and 2017 at the DOJ-NSD. Atkinson was Mary McCord’s senior legal counsel; essentially her lawyer.McCord was the senior intelligence officer who accompanied Sally Yates to the White House in 2017 to confront then White House Counsel Don McGahn about the issues with Michael Flynn and the drummed up controversy over the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak phone call.Additionally, Mary McCord, Sally Yates and Michael Atkinson worked together to promote the narrative around the incoming Trump administration “Logan Act” violations. This silly claim (undermining Obama policy during the transition) was the heavily promoted, albeit manufactured, reason why Yates and McCord were presumably concerned about Flynn’s contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It was nonsense. However, McCord didn’t just disappear in 2017 when she retired from the DOJ-NSD. She resurfaced as part of the Lawfare group assembly after the mid-term election in 2018. Mary McCord joined the House effort to impeach President Trump; as noted in this article from Politico: “I think people do see that this is a critical time in our history,” said Mary McCord, a former DOJ official who helped oversee the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and now is listed as a top outside counsel for the House in key legal fights tied to impeachment. “We see the breakdown of the whole rule of law. We see the breakdown in adherence to the Constitution and also constitutional values.” “That’s why you’re seeing lawyers come out and being very willing to put in extraordinary amounts of time and effort to litigate these cases,” she added. (link) Former DOJ-NSD Head Mary McCord is currently working for the House Committee (Adam Schiff) who created the impeachment scheme.

"A Ridiculous Choice" - FISA Court Sparks Firestorm, Appoints Conflicted, Anti-Trump Attorney To Oversee FBI Fixes -- Sharyl Attkisson reports that on Friday, the FISA Court posted an order naming anti-Trump lawyer David Kris to “assist the court” in assessing the FBI’s response to the court-ordered cleanup of lapses and abuses identified by Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz.  In a report released last month, the IG found FBI officials violated rules, policies and law in their applications to wiretap former Trump volunteer Carter Page. Horowitz testified the FISA surveillance process needs to be fixed “from top to bottom.” To some, the appointment of Kris is as mysterious as why the FISA Court’s judges failed to flag the FBI abuses on their own. In social media posts, Kris has called Republican Congressman Devin Nunes “a politicized, dishonest [Intelligence Community] overseer who attempts to mislead.”  He tweeted that Trump and his advisors should be “worried” that the “walls are closing in on him” regarding the Mueller probe. Kris also bought into the now-disproven conspiracy theory about Trump colluding with Russia and Putin.  But even more importantly, since that time, Kris has advocated for President Trump’s removal. Kris’s vocal opinions on President Trump and politics present numerous, obvious conflicts of interest.  In addition, Kris writes for the anti-Trump blog “Lawfare” and called Lawfare’s chief, Benjamin Wittes, “incisive.” Wittes is the man who wrote of the need for an “insurance policy” against Trump prior to Trump’s election. Wittes is also a friend of ex-FBI Director James Comey who was referred for criminal charges for mishandling and leaking government information in his anti-Trump efforts. (The Justice Department passed up charges, with officials stating they didn’t believe Comey meant any harm.)

Dem lawmaker says Nunes threatened to sue him over criticism -Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that a lawyer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) threatened to sue him if he did not apologize for saying last month that the Republican conspired with an associate of Rudy Giuliani. . Lieu’s comments were made in light of an interview Nunes gave on Fox News claiming he had spoken with Lev Parnas, a Giuliani associate, but that he “didn’t know his name.” Nunes’s interview was the same night Parnas sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, leveling new accusations against President Trump related to the White House pressure campaign in Ukraine in light of the evidence he had recently supplied the House committees overseeing the impeachment process about the communication with the country. “Amazing Lev Parnas interview on #Maddow,” Lieu tweeted. “Also, I’m disclosing that the lawyer for @DevinNunes wrote a letter saying Rep Nunes will sue me if I didn’t apologize for saying last month that Nunes conspired with Parnas.” “Devin, I’m adding to my statement: ‘Your pants are on fire,’” Lieu added.

 Mueller Probe Witness Faces 30 Years In Jail After Guilty Plea To Second Child Porn Charge - Having been previously convicted of transporting child pornography in 1991, George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who served as a witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, pleaded guilty to two charges relating to sexual exploitation of children on Monday, according to The Washington Post. As we detailed in July 2019 when Nader was indicted, Mueller’s team discovered child pornography on his phone while interviewing him about a meeting between Blackwater founder Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and a high-level Russian official with ties to President Vladimir Putin, according to WaPo.Soon after the images were discovered, prosecutors reportedly filed a criminal complaint against Nader over the images, but they kept the charges under seal, and Nader's lawyers were never informed of his impending arrest all the while that he continued to cooperate with the Mueller probe.That means Mueller kept a suspected child abuser and pornographer on the streets while it used him as a witness. And when Nader was no longer useful, he was finally being charged. Nader has claimed the images were not child pornography but admitted to having received an email including violent sexual images of infants in 2012.WaPo details the disgusting acts of this key Mueller witness, noting that according to Czech court documents, he paid at least five teenage boys to engage in sex acts, four of whom were under 15.

Mike Flynn Withdraws Guilty Plea Due To Government's 'Bad Faith, Vindictiveness, And Breach Of Plea Agreement' -One week after federal prosecutors changed their tune in the Michael Flynn case - recommending he serve up to six months in prison for lying to investigators regarding his contacts with a Russian diplomat, the former National Security Adviser withdrew his guilty plea Tuesday afternoon.In a 24-page court filing, Flynn accuses the government of "bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement," and has asked his January 28th sentencing date to be postponed for 30 days. According to Flynn's counsel, prosecutors "concocted" Flynn's alleged "false statements by their own misrepresentations, deceit, and omissions." "It is beyond ironic and completely outrageous that the prosecutors have persecuted Mr. Flynn, virtually bankrupted him, and put his entire family through unimaginable stress for three years," the filing continues. “The prosecutors concocted the alleged 'false statements' (relating to FARA filing) by their own misrepresentations, deceit, and omissions." pic.twitter.com/o47WO8qClXThese parts are very important - the DOJ's allegations of guilt don't match up to the record.  Link to Exhibit #9: https://t.co/uVa4pWDHV0 pic.twitter.com/Nj71GANpDs— Techno Fog (@Techno_Fog) January 15, 2020  Prosecutors initially recommended no jail time over Flynn's cooperation in the Russiagate probes, however they flipped negative on him after he "sought to thwart the efforts of the government to hold other individuals, principally Bijan Rafiekian, accountable for criminal wrongdoing."The 67-year-old Rafiekian, an Iranian-American and Flynn's former business partner, was charged with illegally acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Prosecutors accused Flynn of failing to accept responsibility and "complete his cooperation" - as well as "affirmative efforts to undermine" the prosecution of Rafiekian."

Not The Onion: Kimbal Musk Dated Jeffrey Epstein's Ex-Girlfriend After Epstein Hooked Them Up --Just when you thought you couldn't handle any more wonderful factoids about Elon Musk's total airhead of a brother/Board Member, Kimbal, we find out that he was fixed up with a previous girlfriend by sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. Even better is the fact that the woman was reportedly Epstein's ex-girlfriend, too. Epstein was in "regular contact" with Kimbal Musk, who serves on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX, according to a stunning new report from Business Insider.  BI reports that although it was "unclear" how Epstein met Kimbal, Elon's brother began dating a woman in "Epstein's entourage" who lived in an apartment building that Epstein's brother owned. The building had also been used by Epstein himself to house people close to him, including Eastern European models.   Nothing to see here... Musk and the woman reportedly dated from 2011 to 2012 after being set up by Epstein personally. Their relationship is said to be what brought Epstein in touch with the Musk family, as we have previously reported on.

Ocasio-Cortez's Revolt Against DCCC 'Exactly What We Need' Say Progressive Democrats - For bucking a key arm of the Democratic Party establishment that has stood in the way of attracting and supporting progressive candidates, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) received applause over the weekend after she announced the launch of a new political action committee designed to directly challenge the power of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by helping insurgent, left-leaning challengers like herself take on both Republican incumbents and centrist Democrats. "The rumors are true," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Saturday. "Today we're announcing the Courage to Change PAC—and we need your help.  We are pushing the envelope in D.C. by rewarding those who reject lobbyist money, fight for working families, and welcome newcomers.  When community leaders, activists, and working-class candidates try to run for office, organizations like the DCCC discourage them. These potential progressive leaders are asked: "Can you raise $300,000 from your friends and family? If not, don't bother trying." We're stuck in this situation because there has been a structural effort to keep people like Alexandria, and people like you, out of power. But today, that changes.HuffPost's Daniel Marans, the first to report on the new PAC, noted: Ocasio-Cortez is taking steps to mount an independent political operation capable of rivaling the establishment party organs with which she has jousted. The mere creation of a PAC to support other candidates ― an entity commonly known as a "leadership PAC" ― is typically the type of endeavor limited to members of party leadership or other seasoned members of Congress. The PAC expands her reach in more tangible ways as well. A PAC allows her to contribute a larger figure to candidates than she otherwise would be able to give. Candidates can give only up to $2,000 a year from their own campaign to another candidate per election cycle, but PACs can contribute up to $5,000 per election cycle. Since the primary and the general elections are considered separate cycles, she can transfer $10,000 to a candidate from the start of a primary to the close of a general election.

Warren Claims Bernie Gave Her Smallpox Blanket - As the feud between the two democratic presidential candidates escalates, Senator Elizabeth Warren now claims that Senator Bernie Sanders offered her a smallpox-infected blanket in an effort to push her out of the race. Warren’s allegation comes a day after she told reporters that Sanders privately told her that a woman could not win the presidency, a charge Sanders denies. Reached by The Mideast Beast, Warren said that Sanders also told her that Americans would never accept a Cherokee as their commander-in-chief.“I told him, Bernie, I believe that I am the right person to unite the Democratic Party and beat Donald Trump,” Warren recalled. “And he said, ‘White man very smart, must be chief. Red woman only good for hunt and build tepee.’ I was really taken aback.” Sanders then handed Warren a blanket, telling her, “sleep with this tonight. Problem will solve itself.” For his part, Sanders denied having such a conversation and said he only gave her the blanket because “women tend to get cold very easily, which is why we probably shouldn’t put one in the White House.”

Elizabeth Warren demands probe of whether Trump resort guests profited on Soleimani tip -  Presidential contender Elizabeth Warren is demanding a federal investigation into whether President Donald Trump provided advance notice of the deadly strike on Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani to stock traders who may have profited illegally from the tip.The Massachusetts Democratic senator made her demand in a letter dated Monday to the chairmen of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. It cited a Daily Beast report that Trump had told guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort days before the Jan. 3 strike to expect a “big” response to Iran “soon.” “If this report is true, it raises a number of troubling national security questions regarding President Trump’s handling of classified and other sensitive national security information,” Warren wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees securities and investments. The senators wrote that the president’s Florida resort guests may have obtained “confidential market-moving information and had the opportunity to trade defense industry stocks or commodities or make other trades based on this information.”  The senators noted that defense stocks rose precipitously between the announcement of the attack and the close of trade on Jan. 3. They cited a 5% rise in Northrop Grumman, a 3.6% rise in Lockheed Martin, and a 1.5% rise in Raytheon. “We have no way of knowing which individuals received information from President Trump in advance of the attack, what precise information they received and when they received it, or whether they may have made any securities or commodities trades based on that information,” the senators wrote.

Trump Goes After Bloomberg: Starting March 1, BLS Will Ban Lockup Computers, Hitting HFT Revenues - As first reported on Tuesday, moments ago the BLS confirmed that starting March 1, the Trump admin will ban all electronics including computers from the room where journalists receive early advance access to major economic reports such as the monthly payrolls report, in an effort to "ensure a level playing field", a U.S. official told the same wire services that stand to suffer the most from this major overhaul of how economic data is disseminated in a time of HFTs, when a 1 millisecond delay can mean the difference between profit and loss.As discussed on Tuesday, currently, the Labor Department hosts "lockups" for major reports lasting 30 to 60 minutes, where journalists receive the data in a secure room, write stories on computers disconnected from the internet, and transmit them when connections are restored at the release time.And confirming our speculation that this was a way for the Trump admin to hit Mike Bloomberg and his eponymous organization where it hurts, the U.S. official, speaking on a conference call with journalists, said "the change is being made because several news organizations that participate are able to profit by providing the numbers to algorithmic traders in a format that provides them an advantage."Translation: Trump is now going after the source of Mike Bloomberg's wealth - the selling of zero-latency market-moving information to HFTs. The overhaul will take effect March 1, the official said. Labor Department officials were asked if the change was specifically aimed at Bloomberg News, which participates in the lockups and whose founder and majority owner, Michael Bloomberg, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The official denied any political motivation and cited a prior recommendation by the Labor Department’s inspector general.

 U.S. Considers New System for Releasing Key Economic Reports -The Trump administration plans to restrict the news media’s ability to prepare advance stories on market-moving economic data, according to people familiar with the matter, in a move that could create a logjam in accessing figures such as the monthly jobs report.Currently, the Labor Department in Washington hosts “lockups” for major reports lasting 30 to 60 minutes, where journalists receive the data in a secure room, write stories on computers disconnected from the internet, and transmit them when connections are restored at the release time.The department is looking at changes such as removal of computers from that room, and an announcement could come as soon as this week, said the people, who spoke on condition they not be identified. While the rationale was unclear, the government has cited security risks and unfair advantages for news media in prior changes to lockup procedures.Lockups, which are permitted but not required by government regulations, have been a mainstay for U.S. media for almost four decades. They have been designed to give reporters time to digest figures on market-moving data and make sure they are accurate before distributed en masse to the public. Statistics agencies and central banks in the U.K. and Canada use similar lockup procedures.The U.S. move would upend decades of practice, and media organizations including Bloomberg News and Reuters have challenged prior changes to procedures. The shift could also spur an arms race among high-speed traders to get the numbers first and profit off the data, raising questions about fairness in multitrillion-dollar financial markets.Michael Trupo, a spokesman for the Labor Department, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. The Commerce Department -- which provides advance access to its reports such as gross domestic product and retail sales at the Labor-hosted lockups -- referred questions on the matter to Labor. Without news services transmitting their reports at the release time and allowing additional access points, the government may have to prepare its websites to handle potentially heavier loads under the new system, which could mean adding security measures or increasing the traffic capacity. “Obviously some firms are bigger than others, some have more resources than others, and some will make a choice in the environment that might ensue to dedicate more resources to this, so I do think the playing field at the margin would be less level,”

House passes bills to require more reports from bank regulators — The House passed a bill requiring prudential banking regulators to give annual testimony to the Financial Services Committee, as well as a bill that aims to bolster cybersecurity at the regulators and the financial institutions they supervise. The Prudential Regulator Oversight Act, which was authored by Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., would also require prudential banking regulators to submit semiannual reports on supervisory and regulatory activities. The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga. Unlike the Federal Reserve Board, there is no current statutory requirement for officials at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the National Credit Union Administration to testify before lawmakers on a regular basis. “These agencies are responsible for monitoring the safety and soundness of our financial system, as well as compliance with federal banking laws approved by this Committee,” said Phillips when he introduced the bill to the House Financial Services Committee in October. The Cybersecurity and Financial System Resilience Act of 2019 was introduced by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and would require regulators from the Fed, the OCC, FDIC and NCUA to provide an annual report and briefings to congressional lawmakers on each of their respective cybersecurity efforts. “While I appreciate our regulators’ growing sensitivity to cyber-related risks, we can and must do more,” McHenry said on the House floor Monday. “As the Fed acknowledged in its most recent Financial Stability Report, cyber resiliency is a potential risk for financial stability that doesn’t yet fit neatly into existing risk frameworks. This bill will help our regulators, including the Fed, incorporate cybersecurity into those risk assessments more effectively.” Both bills passed the House by voice vote late Monday.

Trump Tax Cut Hands $32 Billion Windfall to America’s Top Banks -- Savings for the top six U.S. banks from President Donald Trump’s signature tax overhaul accelerated last year, now topping $32 billion as the lenders curbed new borrowing, pared jobs and ramped up payouts to shareholders. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley posted earnings this week showing they saved $18 billion in 2019, more than the prior year, as their average effective tax rate fell to 18% from 20%. Bloomberg News calculated the haul by comparing the lower tax rates to what they paid before the law took effect, which averaged 30%. Debate has raged over the tax overhaul’s impact since Trump signed it into law near the end of his first year in office, with critics saying it’s worsening inequality by favoring the wealthy and inadequately stimulating economic growth. Because banks used to pay higher tax rates than many other industries, they were among the biggest beneficiaries. Proponents predicted lowering rates would give lenders more cash to fuel the economy, helping companies invest in expansion, hire workers and raise pay. Here are the trends at the top six banks since then: The tax savings have spurred the banks to record profit. The six firms posted $120 billion in net income for 2019, inching past 2018’s mark. They had never surpassed $100 billion before the tax cuts. On conference calls with analysts to discuss earnings this week, some bank executives predicted the tax rates may tick back up slightly to between the levels of 2018 and 2019. That suggests some of last year’s savings may also have been attributable to temporary factors. But in at least one case, a bank’s rate was elevated last year by legal expenses that aren’t tax deductible. Trump, who’s also pushed to ease financial regulation, indicated Wednesday he’s aware that his efforts have helped banks boost profits.  “They just announced earnings and they were incredible,” the president said of the nation’s largest bank. “I made a lot of bankers look very good. But you’re doing a great job.”

JPMorgan’s Historic Earnings Confirm that Fed Loans Are Subsidizing Profits on Wall Street - Pam Martens -  The New York Fed is back to subsidizing billions of dollars in profits at Wall Street’s trading houses, just as it did during the financial crisis.  Yesterday, JPMorgan Chase reported that its profits for the quarter ending December 31, 2019 hit an all-time record. (The bank has been around for more than a century, so that’s saying something.) The quarterly profits were $8.52 billion – for the same three-month period in which the New York Fed has been flooding unnamed Wall Street trading houses with hundreds of billions of dollars each week in super cheap loans. The so-called “repo loans” by the New York Fed are being made at a fraction of where the free market would price loans to these Wall Street trading houses. On September 17, 2019, the first day the Fed began this open money spigot to Wall Street, the market wanted to price these loans at 10 percent. The New York Fed intervened with a flood of cheap money to bring the rate down and has been making the loans at less than 2 percent since then. Yesterday, the New York Fed pumped out $82 billion to unnamed trading houses on Wall Street at interest rates of between 1.55 and 1.57 percent.  On October 1, 2019 Reuters’ David Henry reported that actions taken by JPMorgan Chase may have sparked the repo crisis, thus triggering the reopening of the Fed’s money spigot: “Analysts and bank rivals said big changes JPMorgan made in its balance sheet played a role in the spike in the repo market, which is an important adjunct to the Fed Funds market and used by the Fed to influence interest rates… “Publicly-filed data shows JPMorgan reduced the cash it has on deposit at the Federal Reserve, from which it might have lent, by $158 billion in the year through June, a 57% decline.” Reuters also reported that JPMorgan’s draw down on its cash “accounted for about a third of the drop in all banking reserves at the Fed during the period.” (See related articles below.)

New York Fed Considering Becoming Sugar Daddy to Hedge Funds as their Distress Grows -  Pam Martens - It’s apparently not enough of a billionaire subsidy for the U.S. Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service to give a monster tax break to hedge fund titans by allowing them to pay Federal taxes on the basis of “carried interest,” meaning that they have a special loophole to pay a lower tax rate than many school teachers, nurses and plumbers. Now, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve is actually considering opening its super-cheap repo loan money spigot to hedge funds. It doesn’t get any crazier than this.  Morphing from a central bank mandated to set monetary policy on the basis of maximum employment and stable prices, to the lender-of-last-resort to the criminally-charged trading houses on Wall Street and now, potentially, to the insider-trading/Big Short hedge funds, the New York Fed has totally lost its way if not its mind. (Unless, as many suspect, the New York Fed is simply the poorly-disguised money puppet of the one percent.) The talk of a hedge fund bailout comes at a time when multiple hedge funds and illiquid mutual funds have locked their gates, preventing investors from getting back their money. It also comes after a year of giant net withdrawals from hedge funds. Equally noteworthy, in the past two years over 1200 hedge funds have shut down according to Hedge Fund Research. According to a report at eVestment which tracks hedge fund flows, investors pulled $29.37 billion from hedge funds in the third quarter of last year, bringing the total net outflows through the third quarter to an eyebrow-raising $76.86 billion. eVestment subsequently reported that another $6.20 billion was pulled in October, bringing the year-to-date total to $83.06 billion. Those outflows come on the heels of multiple hedge funds suspending withdrawals by investors. In the month of December 2019, York Capital Management and Southpaw Asset Management set up gates that prevent clients from getting all of the money they have requested to withdraw. The Wall Street Journal’s Juliet Chung reported as […follows two days before Christmas: […]  That scary news followed an equally troubling missive earlier in the year. On June 3 the $4.7 billion Woodford Equity Income Fund in the U.K. froze withdrawals by investors. The fund was slated to open for withdrawals in December but the U.K. regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), announced in October that the fund will not reopen and will be liquidated instead. The FCA has an ongoing investigation into the matter. The problem, according to the FCA, is that the fund was holding illiquid and hard to price assets. On December 4, the U.K. based M&G Property Portfolio announced it would suspend dealings, stating that it could not meet redemptions due to difficulty in selling commercial property. Investors had pulled an estimated $1.2 billion from the fund in the first 10 months of last year. Just yesterday, the Korean hedge fund manager, Lime Asset Management, announced that it was suspending withdrawals from its various hedge funds that would impact $1.7 billion in assets. The hedge fund manager had reported earlier last year that it was halting withdrawals on $700 million of funds. The problem at Lime is also reported to be illiquid assets. Supporting the idea that a spike in hedge fund withdrawals is partly responsible for the Fed restoring its cash feeding tube to Wall Street, the Financial Times reported on October 1 that the CFO of a “top-10 US bank” told it that “We have plenty of liquidity. We are just choosing not to lend it out overnight to hedge funds.”

SEC With Investment Managers: “Like the FBI Sitting Down With the Mafia” – Yves Smith -  It is probably hard to believe that the SEC was once a respected and feared agency. Today’s example shows severity of its capture by the firms it nominally oversees and how it shirks duties mandated by Congress. The agency is operating in such a cozy manner with private equity firms that as one investor described it:It’s like FBI sitting down with the Mafia to tell them each year, “Don’t cross these lines because that’s what we are focusing on.”That behavior stands in stark contrast to how the SEC operated in its heyday. And even though today’s case study makes for a tidy example of the agency’s decline, it also epitomizes the sort of cronyism we’ve been chronicling for years.  Regular readers may recall that Dodd Frank required the SEC to take on the supervision of the fund management activities of private equity firms with over $150 million in assets. Its initial exams found that more than half of the firms were engaged in serious abuses, including what in any other line of work would be called embezzling. And contrary to the agency’s experience in other fields, the scamming was more prevalent at the largest firms.So what did the SEC do? Despite a series of high profile articles by Gretchen Morgenson, then at the New York Times, and Mark Maremont of the Wall Street Journal, detailing specific frauds and naming perps, the SEC engaged in wet noodle lashings. Its pattern was to file only one major enforcement action over a particular abuse, and went to some lengths to spread the filings out among the biggest firms, which meant it was pointedly engaging in selective enforcement, punishing only “poster child” examples and letting other firms who’d engaged in precisely the same abuses get off scot free.1And the fines and disgorgements were of the “cost of doing business” level. On top of that, the then head of examinations at the SEC, Andrew Bowden, started air-kissing private equity firms in interviews.  One way to find out how much regulators coddle the entities they nominally oversee is to go to conferences where agency officials speak to audiences of lawyers. You’ll often see an unseemly amount of chumminess, in large measure due to how many conference-goers themselves once worked for the agency.A law firm has done the great unwashed public the favor of showing how captured the SEC is in a tidy document. Partner Jahan P. Raissi of Shartsis Friese, a well-regarded San Francisco boutique law firm that focuses on venture capital and smaller private equity firms, released an updated version of a speech he gave in October on SEC examinations of investment advisers.The big point of this missive is to clue firms in that haven’t yet gotten the memo, that SEC exams, which are supposed to be about whether the firm is obeying the law and complying with its legal agreements, are “cooperative” exercises! Nothing to worry about! Let’s go through the key paragraphs, starting from the top:

Alphabet, Google's parent company, hits trillion-dollar market cap for first time - Google parent-company Alphabet has hit $1 trillion in market capitalization, making it the fourth U.S. company to hit the milestone. Apple was the first to hit the market cap milestone in 2018. Then, Microsoft and Amazon followed. Apple and Microsoft are still valued at more than a trillion dollars while Amazon has since fallen below the mark. Analysts are bullish on the company’s newly appointed CEO, Sundar Pichai. In a surprise announcement in December 2019, Alphabet founder Larry Page announced plans to step down as CEO, along with co-founder and president Sergey Brin. Pichai had already been the CEO of Google, which includes all the company’s core businesses -- including search, advertising, YouTube and Android -- and generates substantially all its revenue and profits. But he reported to Page, who also oversaw other businesses making long-term bets on experimental technology like self-driving cars and package delivery drones. Now, he’s in charge of the whole conglomerate, although Page and Brin still have control over most of the company’s voting shares, giving them significant influence in major decisions.

It's Time To Pay Attention To Commercial & Industrial Loans -  This solid recession indicator is starting to concern me again... Commercial and industrial loans (C&I loans) at all commercial banks fell to $2.33 trillion as of January 1, the lowest since March 2019, according to Federal Reserve data on commercial banks, released on Friday. C&I loans peaked in August last year at $2.38 trillion and have since fallen 1.7%. This has occurred despite three rate cuts by the Fed over the period. C&I loans are used by businesses for working capital or to finance capital expenditures. Working capital loans are usually collateralized by receivables and inventories. Capital expenditure loans are collateralized by equipment and the like.These loans are often credit lines with floating interest rates – which are very low and very appealing for borrowers. And banks are eager to extend these loans and are offering them aggressively, even to my little company. So there is no issue at this side of the equation.But demand from businesses for these loans is a sign of economic activity, a sign that businesses are expanding or curtailing their activities. And demand is sinking. The chart shows the year-over-year percentage change of these loan balances. Note the relationship between the year-over-year declines (below the red line) and recessions. If loan demand suddenly bounces back over the next two or three months, I’d say the US economy has cleared this particular hurdle. But if the trend since August continues to go south and ends up in the -3% or worse neighborhood, a different scenario would emerge:  Year-over-year growth rates were in the red-hot neighborhood of 10% from late December 2018 through March 2019, then demand began to fizzle. By January 1, 2020, year-over-year growth was down to 0.6%.  The drop in 2015-2016 was associated with the Oil Bust and the industries related to oil and gas extraction, including manufacturing, trucking, and specialized segments of the tech and services sector.  But the growth rate never turned negative on a year-over-year basis, and a recession was averted. In 2016, GDP growth was only 1.6%, the slowest since the Financial Crisis. Now we’re back in the same scenario, only worse: So far, loan balances have dropped by $42 billion in four months, from the peak in August 2019 through January 1, 2020. The rekindled left-over oil bust has something to do with it, though the price of oil remains over twice as high as during the low point in 2016, and the oil bust today is not nearly as ferocious as it was back then. Today, there are additional elements triggering the lack of demand for C&I loans, such as the broader slowdown in manufacturing and in the freight sector (outside of last-mile delivery for ecommerce). C&I loans are a broader measure of the economy, not limited to manufacturing. Many services businesses have C&I loans to fund equipment purchases or for working capital, collateralized by receivables.

GOP lawmaker's bill would repeal small-business loan rules -- A Republican congressman introduced legislation Friday to repeal a legal requirement — nine years old but yet to be implemented — that aims to address discrimination in small-business lending. The bill from Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, has the support of the Consumer Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America. While it is unlikely to be passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, it lays down a marker in opposition to the 2010 measure. That provision, which was part of the Dodd-Frank Act, calls for the collection of data that could be used to identify lending discrimination — similar to the longstanding requirement that residential mortgage lenders collect and report information about the race and gender of applicants. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has yet to write rules that would implement the 2010 mandate. The agency still needs to make important decisions such as how much data will be collected, about which products and from which companies. At a CFPB forum in November, financial industry representatives who spoke did not call for the provision’s repeal. In fact, some of them said that the long-awaited rules can help protect against discrimination and shine a light on unsavory practices in the market for small-business credit. The bill introduced Friday would stop the CFPB from proceeding with the rulemaking process. Its supporters argue that the data-collection rules would be too burdensome for financial institutions. “The result of these new requirements would not have been better information, but less credit for small businesses on Main Street,”

Lawyer picked to defend CFPB before high court backs agency structure - A former Republican solicitor general urged the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arguing that the framers gave Congress “considerable flexibility” in creating executive-branch agencies. Paul Clement, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and court-appointed defender of the agency in a landmark case challenging the agency's structure, filed a brief Wednesday with the court arguing that the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure does not violate the separation of powers. "In sum, this case presents a remarkably weak case for invalidating an Act of Congress," Clement, who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush, wrote. In the lawsuit, a California debt collection law firm claims the Dodd-Frank Act gave a CFPB director too much power by allowing the president to remove the head of the agency only when there is cause. Clement said the constitutional challenge is unnecessary under the agency's current leadership. "There is no actual contested removal, and the current Director [Kathy Kraninger] views herself as serving at the pleasure of the President," he wrote. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 3. How the justices rule will determine whether a president has the discretion to fire the head of the independent agency without cause. Congress said the director can be removed only in cases of “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” 

Senate Dems urge CFPB watchdog to investigate restitution practices -- Fifteen Democratic senators have asked the inspector general of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigate a recent sharp drop in restitution provided to consumers under Director Kathy Kraninger. In a letter to Inspector General Mark Bialek, who also serves as the chief watchdog of the Federal Reserve, the senators cited four specific cases in which they said Kraninger refused to provide restitution to consumers in a departure from established standards set by the courts. The senators said Kraninger rejected an offer by a company to repay $1.3 million to harmed consumers, and in another settlement only gave restitution to consumers who specifically complained about a false threat or misrepresentation. “The Bureau appears to be ignoring existing legal authority for calculating restitution in order to reduce the amount of restitution returned to harmed consumers or undercount the consumers who should receive restitution,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio The 15 senators, including Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the CFPB "appears to be ignoring existing legal authority for calculating restitution." Bloomberg News “The Bureau’s approach to restitution under Director Kraninger also creates a perverse incentive for companies to violate the law by allowing them to retain all or nearly all of the funds they illegally obtain from consumers,” they wrote. The senators include three presidential candidates: Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Sanders caucuses with Democrats in the Senate.) in settlements last year, the CFPB fined but did not ask for any refunds or restitution from Sterling Jewelers, the online payday and installment lender Enova International, the online payday lender NDG Financial and the debt collector Asset Recovery Associates. The letter provided more details of the cases and cited an October investigation by the House Financial Services Committee that found Kraninger overruled career staff in not asking for restitution. Among the more surprising cases was a settlement in August in which the CFPB alleged that Asset Recovery Associates, a Chicago-area debt collector, had threatened to sue and garnish the wages of consumers since 2015, in violation of federal law. Yet the CFPB limited restitution "only to those consumers who affirmatively complained about a false threat or misrepresentation,“ the senators wrote. The CFPB required the company pay $36,800 in restitution and a $200,000 civil money penalty. “The result is that consumers whom ARA subjected to illegal threats and misrepresentations in order to induce them to make payments but did not complain received no restitution,” the senators wrote. “In all four cases, the Bureau made a conscious decision to disregard legal precedent in order to allow companies that violated the law to keep all, or nearly all, of the money they illegally collected from consumers." "This new approach to providing restitution to consumers is fundamentally at odds with the Bureau’s mission: it fails to provide relief to victimized consumers, it allows bad actors to retain the profits from their illegal conduct, and it is unfair to those companies who follow the law,” the letter stated.

 In rebuke of CFPB, states look to get tough on debt collectors - As states flex their regulatory muscle in response to a pullback in enforcement activity by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they are zeroing in on debt collection as an area needing more oversight. Governors in New York and California both have recently pushed for their states to have more authority over debt collectors. The state proposals come as the CFPB works on instituting regulatory reforms for debt collectors that critics say are a gift to the industry. “Debt collection is one more avenue for states to be exercising oversight and inquiry into a rapidly expanding area, where they might want to ensure things are okay to the general public,” said Stefanie Jackman, a partner at Ballard Spahr. California and New York have been among the last holdouts in bringing debt collectors into the state regulatory fold. Neither state currently licenses debt collectors. While consumer advocates say the states could fill a regulatory void left by the CFPB, some debt collection advocates say new licensing regimes could in fact help their industry. Both states’ plans are in the early stages and require legislation. In December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — as part of his 2020 State of the State program — proposed a new licensing and oversight process for debt collectors. Meanwhile, the new California consumer protection agency proposed last week in Gov. Gavin Newsom's annual budget plan — seen as a mini-CFPB — would extend state oversight to debt collectors as well as other types of firms not currently subject to state licensing rules.

 Waters urges regulators to ensure integrity of CRA public comments — House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters sought details on regulators' practices for accepting public comments in light of potential "astroturfing" concerns, as two agencies seek feedback on Community Reinvestment Act reform. Astroturfing generally refers to a coordinated campaign of template-designed comments that imply grassroots support for a given policy. Certain groups can portray broad support for their position with form letters for senders to submit on a large scale. In letters to the heads of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Waters cited reports suggesting that some parties went further in prior campaigns by fabricating comments. "The Committee is concerned by reports alleging that certain special interest groups have submitted comments in other rulemakings while posing as consumers, small business owners, and other stakeholders," Waters said Wednesday in letters to Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting and FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams. "These fraudulent comments undermine legitimate debate on proposed rules by creating the false appearance that a position has widespread, grassroots support." A 60-day comment period began Jan. 9 for the OCC and FDIC's CRA proposal. Waters' letter did not allege astroturfing efforts related to CRA reform comments. Submitting form comment letters on behalf of individuals is relatively common among both industry and consumer groups for rulemakings that draw a lot of interest. But Waters noted a case from last year when she said "Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton quoted comments that were submitted under suspicious circumstances in a recent rulemaking."

 Regulators aren't only ones at odds over CRA reform — As the effort to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act unfolds, a proposal championed by Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting is struggling to win supporters as lawmakers in Congress are divided over the process and community reinvestment advocates have largely assailed the plan. CRA reform up to now has been driven by the regulatory agencies. But just as the process has divided those agencies, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have vastly different views on the OCC plan. Republicans largely laud the proposal, while Democrats say that it would harm communities and that the lack of consensus among regulators will lead to confusion. “This is regulatory chaos,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., at a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing Tuesday, referring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issuing the Dec. 12 proposal without the support of the Federal Reserve. Meeks charged that the rulemaking process has been "railroaded." But Republicans on the whole backed Otting's plan for modernizing what all parties agree is an outdated CRA framework. "This is a common-sense proposal to ensure increasing transparency from institutions, for consumers, all while improving banks’ ability to serve their communities,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., the ranking of the consumer protection and financial institutions subcommittee. The proposal would expand CRA assessment boundaries and establish a new measure of what constitutes sufficient CRA activity by a bank. A key aim is to extend CRA projects to areas not served by physical bank branches. But community reinvestment advocates, with some exception, have blasted the proposal, saying it would unduly ease banks' obligations and dilute CRA resources in low-income communities that need them most.

Recent shifts in housing may be related to GSE activity -  Kevin Erdmann - There has been a bit of a mystery recently in housing markets. For a couple of years, the square footage of new homes has been declining.  This could be because of a decline in demand for housing, in general.  Or, it could be from a compositional shift to more entry level homes.  That would be bullish.    Rent inflation remains high, suggesting that demand for shelter remains strong.  Residential investment has levelled off at really low levels.  Rates of homebuilding have levelled off, both in total, and specifically for single family homes.  This suggests that it is a decline in demand (at least for homeownership, if not for shelter) is the cause.  That would point to a retraction in lending markets, or sentiment, or an effect of the progressive housing elements of the 2017 tax law.  There has been a bit of a recent rise in homeownership among young families.  But they are flat among older families.  That calls for some optimism that there is rising demand for entry level homeownership and homebuilding, to meet the existing demand for entry level shelter.  But, the New York Fed's Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit doesn't really show any rebound in the number mortgages outstanding or in rising originations among buyers with low FICO scores.  That would suggest that the rebound among young homeowners is limited to those with very good credit.  Yet, if that was the case, why is the average new home size declining?   I think a clue to what is happening is here, in this AEI update on housing markets.  Here is a slide from AEI.  Notice that at the GSEs, there has been a recent clampdown on high Loan-to-Value and high Debt-to-Income lending.   I suspect that there is a combination of things happening:
1) Some continued tepid improvements in the ability of high-tier buyers to buy or trade-up as equity continues to recover, the economy grows, etc.
2) Still no compositional shift to low tier buyers that have been locked out of the market since 2007.
3) A decline in demand among some subset of those high tier buyers, as a reaction to new tighter standards at the GSEs.  These buyers might be somewhat reducing their demand for units. But the amount they can borrow with conventional loans has been capped by new GSE standards, so they may also be reacting by buying smaller homes.  If this is the case, then I don't think we should be particularly bullish about housing.  I don't think smaller new homes reflect a recovery of low tier borrowing.  But, we also shouldn't be particularly bearish.  The decline in new home size and the levelling off of housing starts may just be a temporary reaction to the change in lending standards to the existing pool of qualified buyers under the current regime.  This might mean that housing will return to a moderate level of growth.  A level of growth that isn't particularly vulnerable to a pullback because there is so much pent up demand for shelter.  And, also a level of growth that could really accelerate with any reasonable expansions in lending standards.  I would call that a bullish expectation in housing, but it's not as bullish as the context where smaller new homes were the result of already expanding the set of potential homebuyers.

 Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest MBA Weekly Survey -  Mortgage applications increased 30.2 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending January 10, 2020. Last week’s results included an adjustment for the New Year’s Day holiday. ... The Refinance Index increased 43 percent from the previous week and was 109 percent higher than the same week one year ago. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 16 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 51 percent compared with the previous week and was 8 percent higher than the same week one year ago. ... “The mortgage market saw a strong start to 2020. Applications increased across the board, and the 30-year fixed mortgage rate hit its lowest level since September 2019,” said Joel Kan, Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Refinances increased for both conventional and government loans, as lower rates provided a larger incentive for borrowers to act. It remains to be seen if this strong refinancing pace is sustainable, but even with the robust activity the last two weeks, the level is still below what occurred last fall.” Added Kan, “Homebuyers were active the first week of the year. Purchase activity was 8 percent higher than a year ago, and the purchase index increased to its highest level since October 2009. Low rates and the solid job market continue to encourage prospective buyers to enter the market.” ... The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($510,400 or less) decreased to the lowest level since September 2019, 3.87 percent, from 3.91 percent, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.

 UCLA Prof- We Need To Seriously Question Ideal Of Private Home Ownership -  University of California-Los Angeles professor made her views on climate change public in a recent op-ed, questioning American private homeownership in response to climate change, particularly California’s forest fires.   Professor Kian Goah, assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA, whose expertise includes urban ecological design, spatial politics, and social mobilization in the issues of climate change and global urbanization, argued in an op-ed for The Nation that what makes the California forest fires even worse is urban planning. Its subtitle reads, "if we want to keep cities safe in the face of climate change, we need to seriously question the ideal of private homeownership." “Yes, climate change intensifies the fires—but the ways in which we plan and develop our cities makes them even more destructive. The growth of urban regions in the second half of the 20th century has been dominated by economic development, aspirations of homeownership, and belief in the importance of private property,” she writes. Goah compared two ideas of thought: The American tradition of private property ownership and the collective property theories. She suggesting the cause of the issue is private homeownership and advocated for "more collective" cities.  . Another solution would be cooperative housing, and community land trusts. She argues that public housing would put more power into the federal government as opposed to the “Jeffersonian agrarian ideal." The “Jeffersonian agrarian ideal”, cheap energy, and individual property “have created the scorching landscapes we see today.” Goah concluded with how one should seriously question the American Dream with obtaining private property in the face of modern issues.  “The ideals of the American Dream that have been instilled for more than 150 years will be difficult to dispel. Those deals have blinded us to other possibilities... We need another kind of escape route—away from our ideologies of ownership and property, and toward more collective, healthy, and just cities.”

Housing Starts increased to 1.608 Million Annual Rate in December - From the Census Bureau: Permits, Starts and Completions:  Privately‐owned housing starts in December were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,608,000. This is 16.9 percent above the revised November estimate of 1,375,000 and is 40.8 percent above the December 2018 rate of 1,142,000. Single‐family housing starts in December were at a rate of 1,055,000; this is 11.2 percent above the revised November figure of 949,000. The December rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 536,000.An estimated 1,289,800 housing units were started in 2019. This is 3.2 percent above the 2018 figure of 1,249,900.  Privately‐owned housing units authorized by building permits in December were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,416,000. This is 3.9 percent below the revised November rate of 1,474,000, but is 5.8 percent above the December 2018 rate of 1,339,000. Single‐family authorizations in December were at a rate of 916,000; this is 0.5 percent below the revised November figure of 921,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 458,000 in December. An estimated 1,368,800 housing units were authorized by building permits in 2019. This is 3.9 percent above the 2018 figure of 1,317,900.  The first graph shows single and multi-family housing starts for the last several years.  Multi-family starts (red, 2+ units) were up in December compared to November.   Multi-family starts were up 68.6% year-over-year in December.  Multi-family is volatile month-to-month, and  has been mostly moving sideways the last several years. Single-family starts (blue) increased in December, and were up 29.6% year-over-year. The second graph shows total and single unit starts since 1968. The second graph shows the huge collapse following the housing bubble, and then eventual recovery (but still historically low).  Total housing starts in December were well above expectations and revisions were positive.

Housing Starts Soar To Highest Since 2006 As Permits Plunge - Following October and November's bounce in starts and permits, and despite solid sales and mortgage application data, analysts expected a mixed picture for housing data today (with growth in starts slowing and permits shrinking). However, the data was extreme to say the least with Housing Starts soaring 16.9% MoM (highest since Oct 2016) and Building Permits shrank 3.9% MoM (worse than the -1.5% exp). This pushed Starts to their highest since Dec 2006, but permits declined to weakest since September. All four regions posted a gain in starts, with the Midwest, South and West showing the best pace since 2006. Starts in the Northeast were the highest since August. Under the hood, Starts were dominated by a 32% surge in multi-family units (though single-family starts rose 11.2% MoM)... Multi-family Starts soared 75% YoY... But, the more forward-looking permits disappointed... ...as multi-family permits plunged 11.1% (single-family -0.5% MoM)... Even so, the strong overall reading on starts corroborates a jump in developers' confidence. U.S. homebuilder sentiment posted the highest back-to-back readings since 1999 in December and January amid a jump in prospective buyers and a bump in the sales outlook. Bloomberg notes that the data indicate residential construction added to fourth-quarter growth after contributing in the previous quarter for the first time since the end of 2017. While weather may have played a role in the month's data, demand has been fueled by mortgage rates near a three-year low as the job market remains resilient and wage gains help put money into the pockets of potential homebuyers.

Comments on December Housing Starts -- Earlier: Housing Starts increased to 1.608 Million Annual Rate in December. Total housing starts in December were well above expectations and revisions to prior months were positive. The housing starts report showed starts were up 16.9% in December compared to November, and starts were up 40.8% year-over-year compared to December 2018. These were blow out numbers! This was the highest level for starts since December 2006 (end of the bubble). However, the weather was very nice in December, and the weather probably had a significant impact on the seasonally adjusted housing starts number. The winter months of December and January have the largest seasonal factors, so nice weather can really have an impact. Note that Permits were more inline with expectations (still solid). Single family starts were up 29.6% year-over-year, and multi-family starts were up 74.6% YoY. This first graph shows the month to month comparison for total starts between 2018 (blue) and 2019 (red). Starts Housing 2018 and 2019 . Starts were up 40.8% in December compared to December 2018. For the year, starts were up 3.2% compared to 2018. Last year, in 2018, starts were strong early in the year, and then fell off in the 2nd half - so the comparison was easy in December. Below is an update to the graph comparing multi-family starts and completions. Since it usually takes over a year on average to complete a multi-family project, there is a lag between multi-family starts and completions. Completions are important because that is new supply added to the market, and starts are important because that is future new supply (units under construction is also important for employment). These graphs use a 12 month rolling total for NSA starts and completions. Multifamily Starts and completionsThe blue line is for multifamily starts and the red line is for multifamily completions. The rolling 12 month total for starts (blue line) increased steadily for several years following the great recession - but turned down, and has moved sideways recently. Completions (red line) had lagged behind - then completions caught up with starts- although starts are picking up a little again. Single family Starts and completionsThe second graph shows single family starts and completions. It usually only takes about 6 months between starting a single family home and completion - so the lines are much closer. The blue line is for single family starts and the red line is for single family completions. Note the relatively low level of single family starts and completions. The "wide bottom" was what I was forecasting following the recession, and now I expect some further increases in single family starts and completions.

NAHB: Builder Confidence Decreased to 75 in January - The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported the housing market index (HMI) was at 75, down from 76 in December. Any number above 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor. From NAHB: Builder Confidence Begins Year Strong as Single-Family Growth Continues Builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes edged one point lower to 75 in January, according to the latest National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). The last two monthly readings mark the highest sentiment levels since July of 1999. Low interest rates and a healthy labor market combined with a need for additional inventory is setting the stage for further home building gains in 2020.  The HMI index charting traffic of prospective buyers increased one point to 58, the highest level since December 2017. The gauge measuring current sales conditions fell three points to 81 and the component measuring sales expectations in the next six months held steady at 79. Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the Northeast rose one point to 62, the Midwest increased three points to 66 and the West moved one point higher to 84. The South remained unchanged at 76.

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Decreases Year-over-year - From HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotel results for week ending 11 January The U.S. hotel industry reported negative year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 5-11 January 2020, according to data from STR. In comparison with the week of 6-12 January 2019, the industry recorded the following:
• Occupancy: -3.1% to 51.7%
• Average daily rate (ADR): -4.7% to US$120.43
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): -7.7% to US$62.30
The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average. The red line is for 2020, dash light blue is 2019, blue is the median, and black is for 2009 (the worst year probably since the Great Depression for hotels). The early average occupancy rate in 2020 is tracking last year. Seasonally, the 4-week average of the occupancy rate will increase over the next several months..

Leading Index for Commercial Real Estate Increased in December --From Dodge Data Analytics: Dodge Momentum Index Moves Higher in DecemberThe Dodge Momentum Index increased 1.5% in December to 156.2 (2000=100) from the revised November reading of 153.9. The Momentum Index, issued by Dodge Data & Analytics, is a monthly measure of the first (or initial) report for nonresidential building projects in planning, which have been shown to lead construction spending for nonresidential buildings by a full year. Both components of the Momentum Index rose over the month – the institutional component gained 2.3%, while the commercial component rose 0.9%. For the full year, the Momentum Index averaged 141.9, a decline of 3.7% from 2018’s average. In 2019, the commercial component was 2.3% lower than the previous year, while the institutional component dropped 5.9%. Last year’s slip in the dollar value of projects entering planning suggests that construction spending for nonresidential buildings could see a setback in the year to come. However, the Momentum Index did end the year on a high note indicating that a decline in 2020 construction is likely to be modest in nature. This graph shows the Dodge Momentum Index since 2002. The index was at 156.2 in December, up from 153.9 in November. According to Dodge, this index leads "construction spending for nonresidential buildings by a full year". After declining late 2018, this index moved mostly sideways in the first half of 2019, and increased recently. So this suggests a pickup in Commercial Real Estate in 2020.

Shopping Mall Vacancies Hit Two-Decade High - Shopping malls across the country are under severe financial distress, with vacancy rates hitting two-decade highs in 2019, reported the Financial Times, citing a new report from Reis Moody's Analytics. US retailers announced 9,300 store closings in 2019, according to Coresight, indicating that the retail apocalypse and a massacre of malls are far from over. Mall operators saw a surge of store closures in 2H19 and ahead of Christmas despite a relatively stable consumer that has been leveraging up via the use of credit cards. Barbara Denham, a senior economist at Reis, said one notable trend during the 2019 holiday season was the shift in spending habits from brick and mortar stores to online. Denham said recent vacancy statistics paint a disastrous picture for shopping malls as vacancy rates have surged to a record high of 9.7%.The latest trend of record-high mall vacancies could be a warning to investors who own retail REITs that are exposed to regional malls and outlet centers. Mastercard data for the 2019 holiday season confirmed Denham's view that consumer shifts are underway from brick and mortar to online. Retail sales growth at physical stores between Nov. 1 through Christmas Eve was about 1.2% Y/Y. Overall retail sales, including online sales, for the same period was a modest 3.4%. Roxanne Meyer, an analyst at MKM Partners, said sales promotions at brick and mortar stores were "shocking" in late 2019. Many of these stores heavily discounted items to attract consumers but even that wasn’t enough to draw in crowds.Mall landlords have sought to find alternatives for ailing properties; one option has been designating 50% of the mall to retail space and the other 50% to entertainment, such as sports fields to amusement parks. Another option has been the construction of multifamily complexes on the property to keep consumers close to stores.The death of American malls is real, and it's not being overstated, the worse has yet to come as more stores are expected to close in 2020.

Retail Sales increased 0.3% in December - On a monthly basis, retail sales increased 0.3 percent from November to December (seasonally adjusted), and sales were up 5.8 percent from December 2018. From the Census Bureau report: Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for December 2019, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $529.6 billion, an increase of 0.3 percent from the previous month, and 5.8 percent above December 2018. Total sales for the 12 months of 2019 were up 3.6 percent from 2018.This graph shows retail sales since 1992. This is monthly retail sales and food service, seasonally adjusted (total and ex-gasoline). Retail sales ex-gasoline were up 0.1% in December. The second graph shows the year-over-year change in retail sales and food service (ex-gasoline) since 1993. Year-over-year change in Retail Sales Retail and Food service sales, ex-gasoline, increased by 5.5% on a YoY basis. The increase in December was at expectations, however sales in October and November were revised down.

Retail Sales: Up 0.33% in December - The Census Bureau's Advance Retail Sales Report for December was released this morning. Headline sales came in at 0.33% month-over-month to one decimal and at below the Investing.com forecast. Core sales (ex Autos) came in at 0.75% MoM (to two decimals).  Here is the introduction from today's report:  Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for December 2019, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $529.6 billion, an increase of 0.3 percent (±0.4 percent)* from the previous month, and 5.8 percent (±0.7 percent) above December 2018. Total sales for the 12 months of 2019 were up 3.6 percent (±0.4 percent) from 2018. Total sales for the October 2019 through December 2019 period were up 4.1 percent (±0.5 percent) from the same period a year ago. The October 2019 to November 2019 percent change was revised from up 0.2 percent (±0.4 percent)* to up 0.3 percent (±0.3 percent)*.[view full report]  The chart below is a log-scale snapshot of retail sales since the early 1990s. The two exponential regressions through the data help us to evaluate the long-term trend of this key economic indicator.T he year-over-year percent change provides another perspective on the historical trend. Here is the headline series. Here is the year-over-year version of Core Retail Sales. The next two charts illustrate retail sales “Control” purchases, which is an even more “Core” view of retail sales. This series excludes Motor Vehicles & Parts, Gasoline, Building Materials as well as Food Services & Drinking Places. The popular financial press typically ignores this series, but it a more consistent and reliable reading of the economy. 

Against meal kits  - Delivery meal kits were a nonexistent concept 15 years ago; by 2017, the market for them was worth $4.65 billion. The conceit of these kinds of subscription companies — which include the behemoth Blue Apron as well as smaller companies like HelloFresh, Plated and Sun Basket — is so simple it seems strange that it to exist. Consumers do not buy, but rather subscribeto regular delivery — a key point that preserves profits, as all corporations prefer to rent you a service forever rather than have you buy it once. Inside these boxes, they will find a recipe and a normal assortment of raw ingredients like fruits, veggies and meats that they then must cut, chop and cook themselves. To those that enjoy cooking, this sounds like a needlessly complex addition to two simple life tasks. If you can shop at the grocery store and Google a recipe, these subscription boxes seem superfluous. The concept feels like a get-rich-quick scheme, a form of arbitrage. And yet, consumers, particularly upwardly mobile millennials, have flocked to these services — as have investors. That should tell you something profound about our culture's relationship with cooking, food and convenience. Why do these companies exist, and in such numbers, and what causes investors to continue to throw money at them? The answer to that question has less to do with the quality of the food, and  more to do with marketing and work culture.

BLS: CPI increased 0.2% in December, Core CPI increased 0.1% -- From the BLS: The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) rose 0.2 percent in December on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.3 percent in November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 2.3 percent before seasonal adjustment...The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent in December after increasing 0.2 percent in November...The all items index increased 2.3 percent for the 12 months ending December, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending October 2018. The index for all items less food and energy also rose 2.3 percent over the last 12 months, the same increase as the periods ending October and November.Core inflation was slightly lower than expectations in December. I'll post a graph later today after the Cleveland Fed releases the median and trimmed-mean CPI.

Consumer Price Index: December Headline at 2.29% - The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the December Consumer Price Index data this morning. The year-over-year non-seasonally adjusted Headline CPI came in at 2.29%, up from 2.05% the previous month. Year-over-year Core CPI (ex Food and Energy) came in at 2.26%, down slightly from the previous month's 2.32% and above the Fed's 2% PCE target.Here is the introduction from the BLS summary, which leads with the seasonally adjusted monthly data:The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) rose 0.2 percent in December on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.3 percent in November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 2.3 percent before seasonal adjustment.The indexes for gasoline, shelter, and medical care all rose in December, accounting for most of the increase in the seasonally adjusted all items index. The gasoline index increased 2.8 percent in December. Other major energy component indexes were mixed, and the energy index rose 1.4 percent. The food index rose 0.2 percent in December with the indexes for both food at home and food away from home increasing over the month.The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent in December after increasing 0.2 percent in November. Along with the indexes for shelter and medical care, the indexes for apparel, motor vehicle insurance, recreation, and new vehicles all increased in December. The indexes for used cars and trucks, household furnishings and operations, and airline fares were among those to decline.The all items index increased 2.3 percent for the 12 months ending December, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending October 2018. The index for all items less food and energy also rose 2.3 percent over the last 12 months, the same increase as the periods ending October and November. The food index rose 1.8 percent over the last 12 months, while the energy index increased 3.4 percent. [More…]Investing.com was looking for a 0.3% MoM change in seasonally adjusted Headline CPI and a 0.2% in Core CPI. Year-over-year forecasts were 2.3% for Headline and 2.3% for Core. The first chart is an overlay of Headline CPI and Core CPI (the latter excludes Food and Energy) since the turn of the century. The highlighted two percent level is the Federal Reserve's Core inflation target for the CPI's cousin index, the BEA's Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index. The next chart shows both series since 1957, the year the government first began tracking Core Inflation.

Cleveland Fed: Key Measures Show Inflation Above 2% YoY in December, Core PCE below 2% -The Cleveland Fed released the median CPI and the trimmed-mean CPI this morning: According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the median Consumer Price Index rose 0.2% (2.1% annualized rate) in December. The 16% trimmed-mean Consumer Price Index rose 0.1% (1.8% annualized rate) during the month. The median CPI and 16% trimmed-mean CPI are measures of core inflation calculated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland based on data released in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) monthly CPI report. Earlier today, the BLS reported that the seasonally adjusted CPI for all urban consumers rose 0.2% (2.7% annualized rate) in December. The CPI less food and energy rose 0.1% (1.4% annualized rate) on a seasonally adjusted basis. Note: The Cleveland Fed released the median CPI details for December here. Motor fuel increased at a 39.6% annualized rate in December.

 Industrial Production Decreased in December - From the Fed: Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization Industrial production declined 0.3 percent in December, as a decrease of 5.6 percent for utilities outweighed increases of 0.2 percent for manufacturing and 1.3 percent for mining. The drop for utilities resulted from a large decrease in demand for heating, as unseasonably warm weather in December followed unseasonably cold weather in November. For the fourth quarter as a whole, total industrial production moved down at an annual rate of 0.5 percent. At 109.4 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production was 1.0 percent lower in December than it was a year earlier. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector fell 0.4 percentage point in December to 77.0 percent, a rate that is 2.8 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2018) average.This graph shows Capacity Utilization. This series is up 10.3 percentage points from the record low set in June 2009 (the series starts in 1967). Capacity utilization at 77.0% is 2.8% below the average from 1972 to 2017 and below the pre-recession level of 80.8% in December 2007. Note: y-axis doesn't start at zero to better show the change. Industrial ProductionThe second graph shows industrial production since 1967. Industrial production decreased in December to 109.7. This is 25.6% above the recession low, and 3.8% above the pre-recession peak. The change in industrial production and decrease in capacity utilization were below consensus expectations.

 NY Fed: Manufacturing "Business activity grew to a small degree in New York State" - From the NY Fed: Empire State Manufacturing Survey: Business activity grew to a small degree in New York State, according to firms responding to the January 2020 Empire State Manufacturing Survey. The headline general business conditions index was little changed at 4.8. The index for number of employees held steady at 9.0, indicating that employment expanded for the fifth consecutive month. The average workweek index came in at 1.3, a sign that the average workweek was essentially unchanged … Indexes assessing the six-month outlook suggested that optimism about future conditions remained restrained. This was slightly higher than the consensus forecast.

Philly Fed Manufacturing Suggests Activity Increased in January --From the Philly Fed: Current Manufacturing Indicators Suggest Growth in January -- Manufacturing activity in the region increased this month, according to results from the January Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey. The survey’s indicators for current activity, new orders, shipments, and employment were all positive and increased from their readings in December. The survey’s future activity indexes remained at relatively high readings, suggesting continued optimism about growth for the next six months. The diffusion index for current general activity increased nearly 15 points this month, from a revised reading of 2.4 in December to 17.0 … Manufacturers continued to report expanding employment this month. The employment index increased 3 points to 19.3. This was well above the consensus forecast. Here is a graph comparing the regional Fed surveys and the ISM manufacturing index:

Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims Decrease to 204,000 - The DOL reported: In the week ending January 11, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 204,000, a decrease of 10,000 from the previous week's unrevised level of 214,000. The 4-week moving average was 216,250, a decrease of 7,750 from the previous week's unrevised average of 224,000. The previous week was unrevised. The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.

 BLS: Job Openings "Fell" to 6.8 Million in November - In November there were 6.800 million job openings, and, according to the November Employment report, there were 5.811 million unemployed. So, for the twenty-first consecutive month, there were more job openings than people unemployed. Also note that the number of job openings has exceeded the number of hires since January 2015 (almost 5 years). From the BLS: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary The number of job openings fell to 6.8 million (-561,000) on the last business day of November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the month, hires and separations were little changed at 5.8 million and 5.6 million, respectively. Within separations, the quits rate was unchanged at 2.3 percent and the layoffs and discharges rate was little changed at 1.1 percent. ... The number of total nonfarm quits was little changed in November at 3.5 million and the rate was unchanged at 2.3 percent. Quits increased in retail trade (+118,000), wholesale trade (+26,000), and nondurable goods manufacturing (+19,000). Quits decreased in other services (-63,000). The following graph shows job openings (yellow line), hires (dark blue), Layoff, Discharges and other (red column), and Quits (light blue column) from the JOLTS.  The difference between JOLTS hires and separations is similar to the CES (payroll survey) net jobs headline numbers. This report is for November, the most recent employment report was for December. Note that hires (dark blue) and total separations (red and light blue columns stacked) are pretty close each month. This is a measure of labor market turnover.  When the blue line is above the two stacked columns, the economy is adding net jobs - when it is below the columns, the economy is losing jobs.Jobs openings decreased in November to 6.800 million from 7.361 million in October.The number of job openings (yellow) are down 11% year-over-year.Quits are up 4.6% year-over-year. These are voluntary separations. (see light blue columns at bottom of graph for trend for "quits"). Job openings are at a high level, but have been declining - and are down 11% year-over-year.  Quits are still increasing year-over-year.

Real wages declined slightly in Q4 2019; nearly flat since last January --In December consumer inflation was +0.2%. Since in last Friday’s jobs report average hourly earnings also increased +0.1%, real average hourly earnings declined slightly:   In a longer term perspective, this means that real wages also declined from 97.8% to 97.5% of their all time high in January 1973: The YoY measure of real average wages also declined sharply from +1.6% to +0.7%:  [Note however that this is subject to the same quirks as I discussed yesterday in terms of YoY nominal wage growth for December, so a rebound in January would hardly be a surprise]  Aggregate hours and payrolls improved significantly between July and September, but have declined slightly in the three months since, so real aggregate wages - the total amount of real pay taken home by the middle and working classes - have declined from 30.4% to 30.0%  above their October 2009 trough at the beginning of this expansion: Real aggregate wage gains have only been +0.8% in the past 11 months. As with so much other data, this is on the cusp of warranting at least a yellow flag.  I’ll have more to say once retail sales are reported later this week.

 Working through injuries, bomb threats and tornadoes: Amazon workers describe conditions at Spartanburg, South Carolina warehouse --“My facility has become extremely unsafe,” says Meghan King. She has been injured twice while working at Amazon’s GSP1 warehouse in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 2018, a fellow worker at her facility committed suicide. “She got pushed and bullied by management until she literally could not take it anymore,” Meghan says. The worker took paid time off, saying she needed time to cope with the stress. At home, she slit her wrists. Her body was discovered after she stopped answering her phone. Meghan is one of a number of workers from GSP1 who contacted the World Socialist Web Site to expose the brutal work environment at the warehouse. They described dangerous conditions, psychological stress and the failure to provide compensation and treatment for injuries. While shocking, their stories are common among Amazon warehouse workers throughout the country. In 2018, the World Socialist Web Site first published the story of Shannon Allen, a former Texas Amazon worker who became homeless after Amazon refused to pay for a workplace injury. After Shannon became widely known as an Amazon whistleblower, many other workers contacted the World Socialist Web Site to share their own stories about working at Amazon. Her first injury was in September of last year. Driving a pallet jack and racing to make rate, she turned her head suddenly to make sure an approaching vehicle would stop and felt a sharp pain in her neck. “That happened at 7:20 a.m. and they made me wait until 2:30 p.m. to see a worker’s compensation doctor. They told me that if I left work I would not get paid. They forced me to stay at my job in pain. On December 18, she was injured a second time, slipping and falling on a wet floor in a bathroom. The floor had just been mopped but no wet floor sign had been put up. Two days later, she was diagnosed with a displaced coccyx and fractured sacrum. Amazon again disputed the injury, first alleging that she was she was not working that day. When Meghan submitted proof that she was working on the day of the injury, Amazon announced that she must have been engaged in “horseplay” in the bathroom, ignoring witnesses who saw Meghan fall.

City knew ferries have been for the rich since day one, documents reveal - Ferries help the poor? That’s rich.Mayor Bill de Blasio has insisted that his administration’s heavily-subsidized ferry service would help poor New Yorkers get around, but newly revealed data shows it’s been a plaything of the richalmost from the jump — figures the city sat on for months.An internal survey taken in July 2017 — two months after the service’s inception — found that the median rider’s income ranges between $100,000 and $150,000, a trend that held as of another poll conducted in the winter of 2018. The results of the surveys were obtained by The Post through an eight-month Freedom of Information Law battle with the Economic Development Corporation, the city-controlled non-profit that manages the ferry service and solicited the data.

Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi. —During her shifts at a Church’s Chicken, Annita Husband looked like the other employees.  But after clocking out, Husband, a mother in her 40s, had to wait for a white van with barred windows and the seal of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on its sides. It delivered her to the Flowood Restitution Center, a motel converted into a jail surrounded by razor wire, nestled among truck stops and an outlet mall. Here, Husband slept in a room with seven other women, sharing a mirror to get ready in the mornings, enduring strip searches for contraband at night.  The corrections department took her paychecks, she said, giving her back just $10 a week—all in quarters—so she could buy things like soap and deodorant.  Mississippi appears to be the only state where judges lock people up for an indefinite time while they work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts. While there is no comprehensive data, legal experts who study fines, fees and restitution say Mississippi is unusual at the very least. “We don’t know of any other states that have a program quite like Mississippi’s,” said Sharon Brett, a senior staff attorney with Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. A handful of states experimented with restitution programs starting in the 1970s, but abandoned them as expensive and ineffective. Mississippi Today is an independent nonprofit newsroom covering statewide government, politics and culture. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or sign up for their newsletters. Not Mississippi. Judges have sentenced hundreds of people a year to four restitution centers around the state, almost always ordering them to stay until they pay off court fees, fines and restitution to victims, according to four years of government records analyzed by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project. People sent to the centers had been sentenced for felonies but didn’t commit violent crimes, according to the program rules. When we tracked down the cases of more than 200 people confined there on Jan. 1, 2019, we found that most originally got suspended sentences, meaning they did not have to go to prison. They didn’t usually owe a lot of money. Half the people living in the centers had debts of less than $3,515. One owed just $656.50. Though in arrears on fines and court fees, many didn’t need to pay restitution at all—at least 20 percent of them were convicted of drug possession.

Homeless Californians Adapt to Camp Sweeps and ‘The Caltrans Shuffle’ - It’s 5 a.m., and the thermostat reads 44 degrees. Cars round the bend of an off-ramp of state Route 24 in northern Oakland, spraying bands of light across Norm Ciha and his neighbors. They wear headlamps so they can see in the dark as they gather their belongings: tents, clothes, cooking gear, carts piled with blankets, children’s shoes and, in one case, a set of golf clubs.  Every other week, the residents of this thin slice of state-owned land just off the freeway pack up their possessions and move to another empty lot nearby that they aren’t quite sure who owns. They do it in anticipation of the routine homeless sweeps ordered by the California Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the state’s highways and exit ramps.The highway crews check that the area is clear of people and their belongings, throwing away any items that remain. Once the trucks leave, the residents move back in. Ciha and his neighbors call it “the Caltrans Shuffle.”Their makeshift neighborhood of tarps and tents is built on one of thousands of public spaces across California where people have set up camp. The state’s homeless population has ballooned in recent years; in 2019, there were more than 150,000 homeless people in California, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and 72% of them did not have shelter. A range of health concerns has spread among homeless communities. A few years ago, hepatitis A, spread primarily through feces, infected more than 700 people in California, most of them homeless. Ancient diseases such as typhus have resurged. Homeless people are dying in record numbers on the streets of Los Angeles.Communities up and down California, increasingly frustrated with the growing number of homeless people living on public property, have tasked police and sanitation workers with dismantling encampments that they say pollute public areas and pose serious risk of fire, violence and disease. The roustings and cleanups have become a daily occurrence around the state, involving an array of state and local agencies. But the response from officials has prompted a public health crisis all its own, according to interviews with dozens of homeless people and their advocates. Personal possessions, including medicines and necessary medical devices, are routinely thrown away. It’s a quotidian event that Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, described as a “cruelty” that she hadn’t seen in other impoverished corners of the world.

Two children, ages 12 and 13, shot by driver after throwing snowballs at cars – CNN - Two children, ages 12 and 13, were shot after throwing snowballs at passing cars in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, police said.The pair was hurling snowballs at passing cars with a group of children on Saturday evening, Milwaukee police said in a series of tweets.One of the snowballs struck a white Toyota, and the driver of the car shot at the children, police said. Police found the 12-year-old girl and the 13-year-old boy minutes apart. Both of their injuries were non-life-threatening.Both children are being treated at a local hospital, police said. Milwaukee police asked tipsters with information about the suspect or the incident to contact the department at 414-935-7360 or Milwaukee Crime Stoppers at 414-224-8477.

Trump to highlight updated guidance on prayer in public schools - President Trump will hold an Oval Office event on Thursday to celebrate the release of updated guidance on religious prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan told reporters Thursday morning that the guidance, which hasn’t been updated since 2003, “will remind school districts of the rights of students, parents and teachers, and will empower students in others to confidently know and exercise their rights.” “President Trump is committed to making sure that people of faith, particularly children, are not subjected to illegal punishment or pressure for executing their constitutionally protected right,” Grogan added. Trump is scheduled to announce the updated guidance in the Oval Office at 2 p.m. on Thursday, which is National Religious Freedom Day. The updated guidance is one of three actions the Trump administration is taking on Thursday that Grogan described as a continued effort by the president to “defend the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religions.” Among the actions touted by the administration, nine federal agencies — including the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Education — are releasing proposed rules that will remove what Trump administration officials describe as “discriminatory regulatory burdens” that the Obama administration placed on religious organizations that receive federal funding. In particular, the proposed rules remove the alternative provider requirement established by a 2010 executive order signed by President Obama. The executive order required faith-based organizations running social service programs to refer a beneficiary to an alternative provider if he or she objects to the religious character of the organization. The Office of Management and Budget is also releasing a memo that officials said would require federal agencies to ensure that the grant-making processes of state recipients of federal funds comply with the First Amendment, officials said.

Trump admin seeks Michelle Obama school lunch rollback The Trump administration has announced plans to cut back school lunch nutrition standards led by former first lady Michelle Obama.The proposed rule announced Friday would increase “flexibility” for vegetable requirements and allow schools to change fruit servings during breakfast in favor of meats or meat alternatives, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The USDA said the rules are “intended to help state and local program operators overcome challenges and deliver great meals more efficiently.” The proposal takes a hit at one of Obama’s key achievements under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as she celebrated her birthday Friday. The law, signed in 2010, set a minimum for fruit, vegetables and whole grain servings and set a maximum for sodium, sugar and fat content among other requirements..   Some schools faced challenges under the new requirements as the cost of lunches increased. One school district in North Carolina saw school lunches increase 55 cents between 2015-2018. Before the 2016-2017 school year, the district hadn’t raised prices since 2010.Still, the program saw success. One study of 1,030 students by Harvard School of Public Health researchers found the amount of fruits students picked increased by 23%, and the amount of vegetables eaten per student increased 16%.“The new school meal standards are the strongest implemented by the USDA to date,” the researchers wrote. “And the improved dietary intakes will likely have important health implications for children.”Trump administration officials have already rolled back some Obama-led school lunch regulations. In 2017, the USDA announced it would grant exemptions for whole grain requirements and reduce targets for sodium content. It also said it would allow schools to sell 1% flavored milks instead of only nonfat flavored milk or 1% white milk.

More pizza, fewer vegetables: Trump administration further undercuts Obama school-lunch rules -On Friday, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Brandon Lipps proposed new rules for the Food and Nutrition Service that would allow schools to cut the amount of vegetables and fruits required at lunch and breakfasts while giving them license to sell more pizza, burgers and fries to students. The agency is responsible for administering nutritional programs that feed nearly 30 million students at 99,000 schools. Friday’s proposals would allow schools to cut the amount of fruit included in breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria from one cup to a half cup. The remaining calories could be filled with sweet pastries and granola bars. For lunches, the proposals would allow schools to offer potatoes as a vegetable every day and gives them the flexibility to provide things like pizza and burgers as a la carte items that students may choose over more nutritious full meals. The proposals will be entered in the Federal Register on Jan. 23, and will be open for public comment for 60 days. Kids can get more than half of their daily calories from school meals. About two-thirds of the 30 million children who eat school meals every day qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a reduced price. Low-income kids are disproportionately affected by obesity and are less likely to be fed healthy meals at home, so the nutritional makeup of school meals is impactful. And while Perdue has argued that healthier food offerings mean more food waste and lower participation in the programs, the USDA study revealed that there was greater participation in school meal programs at schools with the highest healthy food standards and that food waste remained relatively unchanged.

 Texas high school faces backlash for biology assignment about rape  - A Texas school district reportedly said it is investigating the “source of the materials” after a question about rape appeared on a high school homework assignment and prompted backlash from some members of the community. Klein Independent School District confirmed to multiple news outlets that the “inappropriate” question about a rape appeared in a ninth-grade homework assignment on Friday. The question was part of a biology DNA assignment, KPRC-TV reported. “Suzy was assaulted in an alley and is a victim of rape. The police collected a sample of sperm that was left at the crime scene and now have three suspects in custody. Which of the suspects raped Suzy?” the question reportedly asked. Parents of some of the high school’s students spoke to the network to express concerns about the question. “It’s upsetting and I know girls this age, just the thought ... they know that rape is forced non-consensual sex and that upsets them,” Cookie VonHaven, who has a daughter in 10th grade, told KPRC-TV. “That’s why I can’t fathom a teacher putting that on a test.” “Wouldn’t (the teacher) have to get that approved by the school board or teachers or something to put that in there,” Dana Duplantier, who has a ninth-grader but was unaware whether her student received the assignment with the question, told the station. The Houston-area school district said in a reported statement that the assignment was not part of the district’s approved curriculum.  “Klein ISD acknowledges that an inappropriate homework question was distributed by a teacher to some 9th grade biology students at Klein Collins High School. The assignment is not part of the District’s approved curriculum and is by no means representative of the District’s instructional philosophy,” the statement said.

Rank-and-file teachers in San Diego County initiate fight against layoffs and school cuts  Just before the Winter Break teachers in San Diego at both the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and Sweetwater Unified High School District (SUHSD) were notified of looming layoff notices, which district officials claim are needed to make up for $70 million and $26 million respective budget shortfalls for the 2020-2021 school year. SDUSD employs roughly 10,400 full-time staff and enrolls about 103,000 students at 113 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, four atypical schools, 10 alternative schools, 27 high schools and 25 charter schools. SUHSD, which is also part of San Diego County, is the largest secondary school district in California with 34 schools and 1,500 teachers. The district teaches 40,000 students and 22,000 adult learners. Running along California’s US-Mexico border, these districts serve some of the most vulnerable populations, including thousands of students who cross daily to attend school in the US. Parents of children with special needs across the border in Tijuana work especially hard to ensure their children can access services in US schools. The issuing of pink slips to hundreds of teachers will have a devastating impact on the quality of education in these two San Diego school districts. The layoffs, which are expected to come in March, will not only strip newer teachers of their livelihoods and access to vital health benefits. With schools already understaffed, the layoffs will further undermine learning conditions for thousands of students. Remaining teachers will face higher class sizes, class schedules will be uncertain and chaotic for weeks and school sites will rely on substitute teachers to fill in for cut positions. In addition, special education departments will take the brunt of the budget cuts and will be forced to operate without the minimum staff legally mandated for safety, let alone optimal learning. This is not the first set of layoffs to hit San Diego County schools. In 2017, SDUSD issued 1,500 pink slips to counselors, library clerks, custodians, art instructors, food service workers and occupational therapy specialists. Teachers, students, parents and community members flooded board meetings to oppose the layoffs. Their pleas, however, fell on deaf ears and the board voted 5-0 to proceed with the layoffs. Officials from the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) did not lift a finger to fight the layoffs, saying instead that their jobs were to “make sure that everyone is being laid off properly.”

Thousands of Florida educators rally to demand increase in pay and school spending  --On Monday, thousands of teachers and their supporters from across the US state of Florida rallied in front of the Old Capitol Building in Tallahassee to demand better pay and school funding. Defying threats of firings and massive fines for engaging in what some officials called an illegal strike, teachers rode chartered buses and car-pooled from as far away as Miami, nearly 500 miles from the state capital. As the new year begins, Florida teachers are joining a nationwide and international battle of teachers to defend the right to a living wage and high-quality education for all students. Over the last two years, more than 700,000 teachers and school employees in the US have been involved in strikes and protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Indiana and other states along with major cities like Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago. This has been part of an international trend, which includes strikes by educators in France, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, India, Australia and many other countries. Teachers in Tallahassee expressed their determination to fight Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a backer of Trump and his right-wing education secretary Betsy DeVos, who oversees the largest school voucher program in the US, aimed at diverting public funds to private and for-profit schools, along with standardized testing beginning in kindergarten. Florida has served as ground zero for the attack on public education for the last 20 years, beginning under former Republican Governor Jeb Bush. Each year, nearly a billion dollars are drained from education spending to be spent on various privatization schemes, from education spending accounts to vouchers and tax credit programs. At the same time, federal education spending fell in Florida by nearly a billion dollars between 2010 and 2012 under the direction of former Democratic President Barack Obama, and state and local funding of Florida schools was cut by 23 percent. Florida now spends almost $1,000 less per public-school student, adjusted for inflation, than before the Great Recession. The state ranks 46th in teacher pay and 43rd in per-student spending, compared with other US states.

 Workers at Cleveland Public Library cast near-unanimous vote to authorize strike action - On January 8, roughly 400 librarians, assistants and custodians at the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) cast “an overwhelming, and nearly unanimous vote” to authorize a strike, according to a statement sent out by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199. The vote took place only a few days after the previous three-year contract negotiated between the SEIU and CPL administration expired on December 31. Despite the vote, the SEIU bargaining committee has not set a strike date and is required to give 10 days notice to the library administration before a walkout. SEIU and library administrators are scheduled to sit down for negotiations on January 17 and 23. The last strike of library workers was in 2004, when the SEIU called a token one-day strike. According to statements by SEIU officials, the library administration is proposing between 30 and 40 contract issues that workers will not find acceptable. A central focus in SEIU’s statements is the proposed 1.5 percent raise for library workers—many of whom are still impacted by a five-year wage freeze implemented in 2009, failure to adequately increase staffing and concerns over library security. CPL administrators, meanwhile, are paid top dollar. CPL CEO Felton Thomas Jr. will receive a raise from $184,000 to $220,000 after signing a new employment agreement at the start of this year. He also received a $10,000 bonus and a 5 percent annual pay increase. Jeremiah Swetel, the CPL’s Chief Operations Officer, is slated to receive a $50,000 bonus in 2024 based on a contract approved last September. The CPL is also in the middle of a project to renovate all 27 neighborhood branches of the library system over the next 10 years with an estimated cost of more than $100 million. The project will be funded by bonds backed by an increase in the property tax levy. A separate project costing another $65 million is planned to renovate the main library. 

Loughlin, other parents accused of withholding evidence in college admissions case: report -Federal prosecutors are accusing parents involved in the college admissions scam case, such as actress Lori Loughlin, of withholding evidence, according to CNN. In a case filing Friday, prosecutors say most of the parents accused of bribing university officials to admit their children have not submitted their discovery materials. The 55-year-old who played Aunt Becky in "Full House" and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of bribing administrators at the University of Southern California and paying a third-party fixer $500,000 so their daughters could pose as athletes at the competitive university.When the case began last year, the couple pleaded not guilty to the charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and bribery.Loughlin and Giannulli’s attorneys have also accused prosecutors ofhiding evidence that would benefit their defense in the college admissions scandal.In that motion, the couple claimed they did not know the money they gave USC was being used for unofficial, malicious transactions.

On Taxpayers' Dime, Foreigners Get Free College In US - As thousands of American college students struggle to afford the rising cost of college, the U.S. State Department is helping to fund community college for more than 300 foreign students, according to a recent report released by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.).  The program, called the Community College Initiative Program (CCI), received $15,825,000 in the 2019 fiscal year to pay for community college costs for foreign students from up to as many as 12 different countries. CCI provides scholarships for visa assistance, round-trip travel to and from the United States for program dates, one year of community college tuition and fees, meals, books, housing, and other incidentals. Students are only eligible for one year of studies.According to a State Department website, students will “return home with new skills and expertise to help them contribute to the economic growth and development of their country.”The CCI website lists a number of requirements which include: being 18 years of age, having a “basic knowledge of English,” and have a diploma from a secondary school. Participants can also select from several field areas, such as: “agriculture, applied engineering, business management and administration, early childhood education, information technology, media, public safety, and tourism and hospitality management.”Paul’s office also used tuition estimates from Community College Review to note that the CCI’s full funding could be used to fund one year of community college for more than 3,000 American students. David North, a resident scholar on the interaction between education and migration at the Center for Immigration Studies, told Campus Reform that while the CCI is an example of waste, he wishes Paul would focus on the Optional Practice Training (OPT) program for foreign students.

‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses NYT - In 2006, Claire Stapleton, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, faced the same question over and over: What did she plan to do with that English degree? She flirted, noncommittally, with Teach for America. Then, a Google recruiter came to campus and, Ms. Stapleton said, she “won ‘American Idol.’” The company flew her out to Mountain View, Calif., which felt to her “like the promised land” — 15 cafeterias, beach volleyball courts, Zumba classes, haircuts and laundry on-site. But for Ms. Stapleton, now 34, the real appeal in a job at Google was what seemed to be a perfect balance of working for income and according to one’s conscience. Naturally, she said yes to an offer in the corporate communications department. “There was this ambient glow of being part of a company that was changing the world,” Ms. Stapleton said. “I was totally googly-eyed about it.” More than a decade later, college seniors and recent graduates looking for jobs that are both principled and high-paying are doing so in a world that has soured on Big Tech. The positive perceptions of Google, Facebook and other large tech firms are crumbling. Many students still see employment in tech as a ticket to prosperity, but for job seekers who can afford to be choosy, there is a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley’s most lucrative positions aren’t worth the ethical quandaries. “Working at Google or Facebook seemed like the coolest thing ever my freshman year, because you’d get paid a ton of money but it was socially responsible,” said Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan. Now, he said, “there’s more hesitation about the moral qualities of these jobs. It’s like how people look at Wall Street.”  The growing skepticism of Silicon Valley, sometimes referred to as the “techlash,” has spared few of technology’s major players.In 2019, Facebook was fined nearly $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Amazon canceled its plans for a New York City headquarters after residents, union leaders and local legislators contested the idea that the behemoth should receive $3 billion from the state to set up shop. Google, in 2018, faced internal protests over its plans for a censored search enginein China and handling of sexual harassment. The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

US students and youth speak out against the threat of war with Iran - The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) held a series of meetings across the United States on the threat of war in the aftermath of the criminal assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani. The meetings garnered significant attention and many youth demonstrated a genuine concern over the consequences of further escalation of conflict in the Middle East. There is widespread opposition to war among youth, whose entire lives have been overshadowed by consecutive imperialist wars.  Exorbitant sums are secured to fund the US war machine, as workers and students struggle to make basic ends meet and are told that there is no money for healthcare, education and other social programs. Students increasingly struggle with food insecurity and homelessness, and incidents of gun violence and police brutality occur with an unnerving regularity. IYSSE members asked youth who attended meetings about their opposition to war, inequality, and the role of the Democratic Party and politicians like Bernie Sanders. Many of the responses are impassioned and reflect a deep hostility to war and the capitalist system. Steven, a student at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, said, “I’m opposed to war with Iran because it’s going to create an economic downslide. It will be the working class who are forced to fight the war. I think young people should get involved and fight for socialism because these are the issues that address how we live as human beings. To ignore them is to ignore the future of our world and our country.” Jack, another WSU student, told IYSSE members, “I’ve grown up with multiple wars throughout my lifetime and now to see my classmates from high school in Iraq. For 18 years of my life I’ve watched this war and seen nothing but the profiting, extraction of resources, and the misery and desolation that’s been brought there. Why would I want to see more than that? There’s no reason for us to be anywhere else in the world—we aren’t the world police. The reality is that we’ve manufactured these imperialist wars to profit. Not for us to profit but for those above us—for the ruling class to profit. It’s being carried out for oil execs, Raytheon execs. “You see it everywhere, every day—the promotion of war. Raytheon is now one of the sponsors of the Girl Scouts of America. This is becoming ingrained in our culture but there has to be some point that we say this is enough. And if we’re not going to say no now, when are we going to say it?”

Babson College Professor Terminated for Satirical Facebook Post - PEN America - – Babson College in Massachusetts has suspended, investigated, and terminated an adjunct professor after he posted a satirical comment on Facebook. PEN America today said that the college grossly overreacted, and that it should immediately move to reinstate the professor. Asheen Phansey, Babson’s director of sustainability and an adjunct professor, wrote on Facebook earlier this week that Iran should make a list of 52 cultural sites in the U.S. to bomb, offering the Kardashian’s home and the Mall of America in Minnesota as examples. His post was in direct response to a tweet by Donald Trump, in which the president threatened to bomb 52 Iranian cultural sites. Phansey said the post was meant to be satire. “This is a straightforward case – there is no reason why Babson should have terminated or even suspended Phansey for his Facebook post,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s campus free speech project director. “Firing a professor over comments with clear satirical intent, and with no whiff of harassment or any other unprotected category of speech, should send shivers of concern throughout the academic community. “If professors face such extreme consequences for comments that contain sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, or irony on social media, it will perpetuate self-censorship and a culture where honest discourse is paralyzed. College leaders must not rush into formal investigations and decide on severe repercussions in response to speech that contains no nexus to a professor’s role, and no clear indication of violent intent.”

Reporting Recipe: How to Investigate Professors’ Conflicts of Interest  -When professors moonlight, the income may influence their research and policy views. Although most universities track this outside work, the records have rarely been accessible to the public, potentially obscuring conflicts of interests.That changed last month when ProPublica launched Dollars for Profs, an interactive database that, for the first time ever, allows you to look up more than 37,000 faculty and staff disclosures from about 20 public universities and the National Institutes of Health.We believe there are hundreds of stories in this database, and we hope to tell as many as possible. Already, we’ve revealed how the University of California’s weak monitoring of conflicts has allowed faculty members to underreport their outside income, potentially depriving the university of millions of dollars. In addition, using a database of NIH records, we found that health researchers have acknowledged a total of at least $188 million in financial conflicts of interest since 2012.We hope journalists all over the country will look into the database and find more. Here are tips for local education reporters, college newspaper journalists and anyone else who wants to hold academia accountable on how to dig into the disclosures.   We were able to collect records from about 20 public universities, as well as for NIH-funded researchers across public and private universities, hospitals and research centers. Our database includes records related to a wide range of outside funding, such as:

  • Founding companies or nonprofits;
  • Sitting on advisory and scientific boards of companies;
  • Assuming executive, managerial or board director roles;
  • Presenting research at industry workshops and conferences;
  • Participating in promotional talks for industry;
  • Consulting;
  • Testifying as expert witnesses;
  • Receiving industry research support;
  • Other outside employment.

All of these activities could potentially create conflicts of interest for faculty members, if their outside income relates to the same subject as their teaching or research.  For the first time ever, you can see conflict of interest and financial disclosure records for employees of universities across the country. Many large industries work closely with professors, who can leverage their academic prestige to help companies influence government policymaking, courts and the public. We’ve reported on how a group of health policy professors in California set up a consulting firm representing pharmaceutical companies, pushing studies that defend high drug prices. We looked at an elite group of economists who specialize in antitrust law and make more than a thousand dollars an hour advocating for corporate mergers. Lots of other industries frequently hire academics to help them pass laws or sell products.

 Harvard Professor Sues New York Times for Defamation Over Jeffrey Epstein Donation Story - Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig sued the New York Times for defamation on Monday, claiming a story about Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT that referenced Lessig amounted to “clickbait.” The story in question was published on Sept. 14, 2019 under the headline, “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.” Its lede, or introduction, read, “It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying.” The lawsuit, filed in Massachusetts, states, “Defendants’ actions here are part of a growing journalistic culture of clickbaiting: the use of a shocking headline and/or lede to entice readers to click on a particular article, irrespective of the truth of the headline. Defendants are fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait and that their takeaway concerning the target of the headline is limited to what they read in the headline.”It also states that Lessig asked the paper to change the headline and lede, but his request was not granted. In a Medium blog post published concurrently with the lawsuit, Lessig contended that an essay he wrote, which was the central conversation piece for the interview the Times’ story was based on, calls soliciting money from convicted sex offenders a “mistake.” Lessig argues that the Times’ headline suggests the exact opposite.

Student debt is over $1.6 trillion and hardly anyone is paying down their loans - The rapid increase of student loan debt has slowed over the past few years, but individual borrower balances aren’t going down mostly because hardly anybody is paying down their loans. Total indebtedness over the past year or so has stopped its meteoric rise, according to a study that Moody’s Investors Service released Thursday. Nevertheless, the study showed a number of factors are constraining borrowers from lightening their loads. Outstanding loans total more than $1.6 trillion, more than doubling over the last decade and tripling since 2006. Since the explosion of student debt following the Great Recession, annual repayment rates, or the amount of existing balances lowered, have been just 3%, Moody’s said. Just 51% of borrowers who took out loans from 2010-12 have made any progress at all in paying down their debt. “While in the past, higher enrollment and rising tuition were the main drivers of growing student loan balances, more recently, slow repayments have become the primary driver,” Jody Shenn, senior analyst at Moody’s, and others said in the report. “Over the next few years, the combination of slow repayments and elevated, if no longer growing, levels of new borrowing will likely fuel further increases in outstanding debt.” There are multiple reasons why the debt levels are not going down. One is that many borrowers are taking advantage of repayment plans based on borrowers’ incomes, along with some opting for longer repayment options. Presidential candidates, particularly on the Democratic side, have made reducing or eliminating student debt cornerstones of their campaigns. Moody’s said those kinds of proposals “would stimulate the US economy but have negative effects for some financial institutions.” In the meantime, the burden of student loans continues to be felt with an 11% default rate that is the highest of any debt category. Education also is now second only to mortgages as the highest form of debt for all Americans. “Increased reliance on student debt crowds out an individual’s access to other forms of household credit, which likely delays business formation and homeownership, important drivers of economic growth and wealth creation,” Shenn wrote.

Who Owns, and Who is Accountable for the New US For-Profit Medical Schools? -Mysteries still abound in the not so wonderful world of health care dysfunction, so once again, quick, the game’s afoot…The current mysteries involve beneficial ownership.  Beneficial ownership questions are important to anti-corruption campaigners.  Beneficial ownership simply refers to “anyone who enjoys the benefits of ownership of a security or property, without being on the record as being the owner.” (per Wikipedia). Concealing who really owns a company enables concealing sources of funds (as in money laundering), market power (when the owner also owns competitors), and sources of political influence, and enables those benefiting from the actions of the company to escape responsibility for their consequences.We recently discussed the mystery of the beneficial ownership of a local pharmaceutical company, an issue that became more interesting when it was revealed it was owned by the Sackler family, the owners of the now somewhat infamous Purdue Pharma.  A while back we discussed the mysteries surrounding the ownership of several offshore medical schools (look hereand here).I was recently involved in a conversation about the rise of onshore, that is US based for-profit medical schools, four of which are now known to exist.  It turns out that their ownership is also rather unclear. That for-profit medical schools now exist in the US is not widely known.  The best, and nearly only public discussion of the topic appeared in a 2017 article in JAMA [Adashi EY, Krishna GR, Grappuso PA. For-profit medical schools – a Flexnerian legacy upended.  JAMA 2017; 317: 1209-10.  Link here.]  It listed four such schools that were operating or in development.

More States Are Reconsidering Medicaid Work Requirements  Six states — Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia — have reversed or suspended their plans to take Medicaid coverage away from people who don’t meet work requirements. Other states with similar approved or pending waivers from the federal government also should reconsider these harmful policies.The six states reconsidering their work requirement policies cited legal challenges and significant pending coverage losses, among other reasons:

  • In early 2019, newly elected Maine Governor Janet Mills withdrew a waiver that would have let the state take Medicaid coverage away from low-income parents, with about 5,000 people losing coverage under the state’s own projections. Mills said the waiver would have left “more Maine people uninsured without improving their participation in the workforce.”
  • New Hampshire policymakers acted on a bipartisan basis in July tosuspend its policy. New Hampshire was on the brink of ending Medicaid coverage for almost 17,000 people when Governor Chris Sununu and the legislature hit pause.
  • Arizona told the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in October 2019 that it was suspending its policy “until further notice,” citing court challenges in other states and “the evolving national landscape” for such policies. Even before the suspension, Arizona appeared to be experiencing problems with implementation and had delayed the effective date of the work requirement, saying that it needed more time to implement it in “regions with limited employment, educational and training opportunities, accessible transportation and child-care services.”
  • Indiana, facing a lawsuit challenging its waiver, announced in October 2019 that it was suspending its policy until its lawsuit is resolved.
  • In December 2019, CMS honored Virginia’s request to not act on the state’s work requirement proposal. Governor Ralph Northam notedthat “the changed makeup of the General Assembly” made it unlikely that the state would move forward with a program that “could cause tens of thousands of Virginians to lose health coverage,” a concern the state raised to CMS. The state initially projected that more than 25,000 people would lose coverage. Estimates that take into account actual coverage losses in Arkansas, the only state to reach the point of taking away coverage, suggest that closer to 75,000 Virginians could have lost coverage.
  • Similarly, newly elected Kentucky Governor Andy Beshearcampaigned against the state’s Medicaid waiver and withdrew it in December 2019 as one of his first acts in office. Affirming that, “health care is a basic human right and every Kentucky family deserves to see a doctor and receive treatment when they are sick,” hestated that he would “not allow burdensome roadblocks and unnecessary red tape to stand in the way of the health and well-being of Kentuckians.” The decision protected health coverage for nearly 100,000 low-income state residents.

Other states with approved work requirements — Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin — or those considering such policies should take note. Indeed, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer urged suspension of her state’s work requirement, which took effect onJanuary 1. Michigan’s policy is expected to cause between 61,000 and 183,000 Michiganders to lose coverage, in part because, as the governor rightly noted, “Michigan’s statute is more sweeping than Arkansas’s waiver, threatening a broader range of adults with more exacting reporting demands.” State law requires Whitmer to implement the waiver, but she has called on state lawmakers to consider legislation similar to New Hampshire’s and to suspend the policy entirely now that the state is facing its own legal challenge. The legislature has so farrefused.

Inside Google’s Quest for Millions of Medical Records - Wall Street Journal.  The company has struck deals that grant it access to troves of patient data; ‘We want to be helpful’ .—Roughly a year ago, Google offered health-data company Cerner Corp. an unusually rich proposal.Cerner was interviewing Silicon Valley giants to pick a storage provider for 250 million health records, one of the largest collections of U.S. patient data. Google dispatched former chief executive Eric Schmidt to personally pitch Cerner over several phone calls and offered around $250 million in discounts and incentives, people familiar with the matter say.

Google can view millions of patient health records in most states -Through its partnerships with health care providers, Google can view tens of millions of patient records in at least three-quarters of states, the Wall Street Journal reports. Some of these partnerships allow Google to access identifiable information about patients without their or their doctors' knowledge, raising fears about how this data may be used. Google is developing a new search tool — designed to be used by doctors, nurses and potentially patients — that stores and analyzes patient information on its servers. The company and some health systems say argue that data-sharing can improve patient outcomes.  Google says its health endeavors aren't connected with its advertising business.Intermountain Healthcare has a deal that gives Google access to patients' records, similar to Google's deal with Ascension.Google announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic in September, and although Mayo officials said then that patient data would remain private and unidentifiable, the contract permits Mayo to share personally identifiable health data in the future. Go deeper: Google develops AI system that outperforms radiologists in detecting breast cancer

Forget 98.6°F. Humans Are Cooling off — Here’s Why --The "normal" body temperature of 98.6°F (37°C) is actually not so normal. New research finds the average human body temperature of Americans has dropped. "What everybody grew up learning, which is that our normal temperature is 98.6, is wrong," said Dr. Julie Parsonnet, a professor of medicine as well as health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine.The 98.6°F standard was established by a German doctor in 1851. Recent studies have indicated that's too high; research on 35,000 British people found their average was 97.9°F. Parsonnet's study published this week in eLife. It found that temperature changes since 1851 reflect a historical pattern instead of an error. They contend the decrease is the result of environmental changes over the past 200 years that have affected human physiology.Parsonnet looked at data from 1862 through 1930, 1971 through 1975, and 2007 through 2017. It included 677,423 temperature measurements.The body temperature of men born in the 2000s is 1.06°F degrees lower, on average, than men born in the early 1800s. Women have temps about 0.58°F lower than those born in the 1890s. That means body temperatures declined 0.05°F every decade. Parsonnet's team also found a decline in temperature since the 1960s, not just since the Civil War.

For Her Head Cold, Insurer Coughed Up $25,865 - Alexa Kasdan had a cold and a sore throat. The 40-year-old public policy consultant from Brooklyn, N.Y., didn’t want her upcoming vacation trip ruined by strep throat. So, after it had lingered for more than a week, she decided to get it checked out. Kasdan visited her primary care physician, Dr. Roya Fathollahi, at Manhattan Specialty Care just off Park Avenue South, and not far from tony Gramercy Park.The visit was quick. Kasdan got her throat swabbed, gave a tube of blood and was sent out the door with a prescription for antibiotics.She soon felt better and the trip went off without a hitch.Then the bill came: $28,395.50 for an out-of-network throat swab. Her insurer cut a check for $25,865.24. When Kasdan got back from the overseas trip, she said, there were “several messages on my phone, and I have an email from the billing department at Dr. Fathollahi’s office.”The news was her insurance company was mailing her family a check ― for more than $25,000 ― to cover some out-of-network lab tests. The actual bill was $28,395.50, but the doctor’s office said it would waive her portion of the bill: $2,530.26. “I thought it was a mistake,” she said. “I thought maybe they meant $250. I couldn’t fathom in what universe I would go to a doctor for a strep throat culture and some antibiotics and I would end up with a $25,000 bill.” How could a throat swab possibly cost that much? Let us count three reasons. First, the doctor sent Kasdan’s throat swab for a sophisticated smorgasbord of DNA tests looking for viruses and bacteria that might explain Kasdan’s cold symptoms. Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, said such scrutiny was entirely unnecessary. There are cheap rapid tests for strep and influenza.The second reason behind the high price is that the doctor sent the throat swab to an out-of-network lab for analysis. In-network labs settle on contract rates with insurers. But out-of-network labs can set their own prices for tests, and in this case the lab settled on list prices that are 20 times higher than average for other labs in the same ZIP code.  The third reason for the high bill may be the connection between the lab and Kasdan’s doctor. Kasdan’s bill shows that the lab service was provided by Manhattan Gastroenterology, which has the same phone number and locations as her doctor’s office.

Woman who waited hours leaves Froedtert ER – and dies soon after – Tashonna Ward, a 25-year-old day care teacher from Milwaukee, died Jan. 2 while trying to find a doctor to help her. Ward's family is seeking answers from Froedtert Hospital, where she spent more than two hours in the emergency department before she left to find quicker care and, later, collapsed. She had reported chest pain and tightness of breath.The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office has not determined the cause of death. Its report doesn't say whether Ward was admitted or seen by a doctor at Froedtert before she left. Ward's family says she was kept in the waiting room and was not under any monitoring when she decided to leave. A spokesperson for Froedtert Hospital provided a statement: "The family is in our thoughts and has our deepest sympathy. We cannot comment further at this time." Ward's family said they are scheduled to meet with representatives from the hospital next week."How can you triage someone with shortness of breath and chest pain and stick them in the lobby?" said Ward's cousin, Andrea Ward. "Froedtert needs to change their policy."

Sales Income for Drugs have Exceeded Risk Adjusted R & D Costs - I have been beating the drum for transparency of cost information before granting exclusivity for drugs via patents. With a patent, companies can charge what the market  will bear and have demonstrated they will do so on particular drugs such as insulin, Vimovo, EpiPens, etc. as well as other drugs identified in recent papers on Drug Pricing also. The following chart depicts cancer drug Sales Income as it relates to R & D Costs. It is an example of how quickly R & D costs can be recouped for Cancer drugs with the median being 2 to 5 years.To get to the point quickly,  of the 156 US FDA-approved cancer medicines identified, 99 had data for more than half of the years since approval and were included in the WHO (Page 23) analysis. Total sales from this set of medicines (US$ 106.9 billion) represent 80.4% of the estimated global revenue of cancer medicines in 2017 (US$ 133 billion). At the end of 2017, forty-nine (49.5%) of the cancer drugs had cumulative sales of over US$ 5.0 billion and at the end of 2017, five drugs had accrued sales incomes of greater than US$ 50 billion for the originator companies: rituximab (US$93.7 billion), trastuzumab (US$ 88.2 billion), bevacizumab (US$ 83.4 billion), pegfilgrastim (US$ 64.0 billion), imatinib (US$ 63.8 billion) (Fig. 3.5, p.26). Pricing of Cancer Medicines and Its Impacts Technical Report. The median time to generate revenue to fully cover risk-adjusted R&D cost of US $794 million was 3 years (range: 2 years; 5 years, n=73). For the maximum estimated risk-adjusted cost of R&D (US$ 2.827 Bn), the time to cost recovery was 5 years (range: 2 years; 10 years, n=56).  A threshold analysis found that 99% of the 45 cancer medicines with sales data for 10 years from their first year of launch had generated incomes sufficient to at least offset the risk-adjusted R&D costs irrespective of the assumed threshold values for R&D costs (Fig. 3.4).

California considers selling its own generic prescription drugs - California could become the first state to introduce its own brand of generic prescription drugs in an effort to drag down stratospheric healthcare costs.The plan for state-branded drugs is part of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal, which he is expected to unveil Friday, January 10.“A trip to the doctor’s office, pharmacy or hospital shouldn’t cost a month’s pay,” Newsom said in a statement. “The cost of healthcare is just too damn high, and California is fighting back.” A plan for California to sell its own drugs would “take the power out of the hands of greedy pharmaceutical companies,” Newsom said, according to the Associated Press.Under the plan, the state would contract with one or more generic drug companies, which would manufacture select prescription drugs under a state-owned label, according to an overview of the plan reported by the Los Angeles Times. Those state generics would presumably be offered to Californians at a lower price than current generics, which could spark more competitive pricing in the market overall.So far, much of the plan’s details are unclear, though, including which drugs might be sold and how much money they could save residents and the state.The conceptual plan so far has garnered both praise and skepticism from health industry experts.Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Health Access California, told the Associated Press that “Consumers would directly benefit if California contracted on its own to manufacture much-needed generic medications like insulin—a drug that has been around for a century yet the price has gone up over tenfold in the last few decades.” Geoffrey Joyce, who heads the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, meanwhile, speculated to the Times that the state might end up focusing on drugs that currently have little competition—which may mean manufacturing drugs that are less commonly used. “In terms of savings to a typical family, it would be very modest,” he predicted.

6,000 Dead From Measles Outbreak In Congo, WHO Says -- (AP) — The death toll from a measles epidemic in Congo has surpassed 6,000, the World Health Organization said Tuesday as it warned that more funds are needed to save lives during the world’s worst outbreak of the infectious disease. Measles has killed nearly three times as many people in Congo than an Ebola outbreak in the country that has garnered far more international attention, particularly after health teams came under attack from armed militias operating in the area. “Lack of funding remains a huge impediment to successfully curbing the outbreak,” WHO said in announcing its appeal. While $27.6 million already has been mobilized to curb the measles epidemic, WHO said that $40 million is needed for a special six-month plan to vaccinate older children between the ages of 6 and 14. A vaccine against measles has existed for decades but some 310,000 cases have been reported in Congo since the beginning of 2019. Health workers in Congo struggle to access remote parts of the vast country, and vaccination rates remain low in areas where armed groups operate. Many health resources in Congo this year also have been devoted to the simultaneous outbreak of Ebola, which has become the second worst in history after the 2014-2016 West Africa epidemic. At least 2,231 people have died of Ebola since that outbreak was first identified in August 2018.

New strain of coronavirus behind lung infections in China  - Experts think they have determined what caused mysterious lung infections in a group of over 50 people in China's Wuhan region. A new coronavirus is likely behind the outbreak, doctors believe.  On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) country office in China was informed of 27 patients with pneumonia of unclear cause in Wuhan — a metropolis with 19 million inhabitants in Hubei province.The municipal health commission reported that many of the infections could be attributed to visits to the fish market, which also sells live animals other than fish. The market hall was then closed until further notice and has been disinfected.By February 5, 2020, 59 patients had been identified. Seven of them are in a critical condition, according to a report by the Robert Koch Institute; no deaths were reported. In addition, South Korea reported that its first suspected case involved a 36-year-old Chinese woman who visited Wuhan last month, according to authorities. She is being treated in a hospital in Bundang, south of Seoul.   The pathogen's gene sequence has been deciphered, according to the head of the team of Chinese experts, Xu Jianguo.  He said the cause is a new type of coronavirus found in the blood and saliva of 15 patients. An investigation into what brought about the outbreak will continue. Gauden Galea, a WHO representative in China, also confirmed the discovery of the new strain of the coronavirus in a statement. According to the WHO, the quick preliminary identification of the novel virus is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks. However, coronaviruses are also dangerous and can mutate. They are RNA viruses and have high genetic variability, meaning they can easily overcome barriers between different species. Often, an outbreak among humans originates with other mammals, rodents or birds. As a consequence, the infections also can take more severe paths, causing respiratory distress and pneumonia, which can even lead to death.

China: One dead from mysterious new virus, dozens sick -- One person has died from a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, health authorities said on Saturday. China's official Xinhua news agency said Thursday that preliminary lab results indicated a new coronavirus had been detected. In total, 41 people have been diagnosed with the pathogen and seven are in critical condition, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some coronaviruses are spread between animals, while others are transmitted from person-to-person and others not. According to Chinese health officials, the new virus causes severe illness in some patients and does not transmit easily between people. Illnesses from the virus were first detected in Wuhan on December 12 and no new cases have been reported since January 3. The 61-year-old man who died frequently visited a seafood market and had abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease, Chinese health officials said. Treatment failed to improve his symptoms and he died on January 9 due to heart failure. The Wuhan health authority said that infected patients were primarily vendors and purchasers at a seafood market in the city.  The WHO said Thursday new coronaviruses are occasionally identified in different regions and that as surveillance improves more of the pathogens are likely to be detected. It said over the past week people with pneumonia who traveled to Wuhan have been identified at international airports, but that based on current information the health body did not recommend travel or trade restrictions.   Since 2012, 858 deaths have been linked to MERS, the majority of cases in Saudi Arabia. A SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 killed 774 people in dozens of countries.

First Case Of SARS-Like Pneumonia Reported Outside China As Scientists Scramble To Develop New Test -  The World Health Organization has confirmed that a woman traveling from China to Thailand is infected with a SARS-like mystery virus at the heart of an outbreak in Wuhan.  The woman was hospitalized January 8, making it the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus detected outside China.  "The possibility of cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected, and reinforces why WHO calls for ongoing active monitoring and preparedness in other countries," the WHO said in a statement.  In total, 41 people have been diagnosed with the new virus, while a 61-year-old man has died according to the Wuhan municipal health commission. Seven patients have been discharged while six remain in critical condition, reports The Guardian. Meanwhile, a team of Hong Kong experts few to Wuhan on Monday to meet with health officials as seven suspected cases have been reported in the city across six hospitals. All had been to the mainland city of Wuhan in the past two weeks, after which they developed a fever, respiratory infection or pneumonia symptoms. Of note, none of them had visited the meat markets linked to the outbreak. The Hong Kong Center for Health Protection confirmed on Sunday that China's National Health Commission had shared the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus with the World Health Organization, as scientists scramble to develop a test for the strain. In a statement, the center said that relevant institutions had uploaded the genetic sequence into an online database called GISAID, which "is cross-checking the information and will publish it upon completion." "The [Center's] Public Health Laboratory Services Branch ... as one of the users [of the genetic database], will obtain the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus. While [the branch] is conducting molecular testing for a number of coronaviruses, it will develop specific tests based on the information of the new sequence," the announcement continues.

Mystery SARS-Like Virus Spreads To Japan - A new mystery disease which has sickened dozens in Wuhan, China has made its way into Japan, after a Chinese national traveled from the eastern Chinese city to his home in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, according to the Japan Times. The man, in his 30s, returned from Wuhan on January 6, and was hospitalized four days later where he recovered and was discharged on Wednesday, according to a hospital official.On Monday, the World Health Organization announced that the new coronavirus with SARS-like pneumonia symptoms had struck a woman traveling from China to Thailand - after she was hospitalized January 8th.Chinese officials said on Wednesday that human-to-human infection cannot be ruled out after forty-one people received a preliminary diagnosis of the new coronavirus, after a 61-year-old man died of the disease on Saturday.While preliminary investigations indicate that most of the patients had worked at or visited a particular seafood wholesale market, one woman may have contracted the virus from her husband, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said in a public notice.The commission said the husband, who fell ill first, worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Meanwhile, the wife said she hasn't had any exposure to the market.It's possible that the husband brought home food from the market that then infected his wife, Hong Kong health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a news briefing. But because the wife did not exhibit symptoms until days after her husband, it's also possible that he infected her. -CBS News That said, authorities believe the risk of human-to-human transmission remains low. Still, the US Embassy in Beijing issued an alert to Americans traveling in China last week, warning anyone who has been to Wuhan to avoid contact with all animals and sick people, and to wash their hands frequently.

US Begins Airport Screenings After Second Patient With SARS-Like Pneumonia Dies In China -The US will begin screening airline passengers beginning Friday after a SARS-like pneumonia outbreak in central China has claimed a second life after a 69-year-old man died on Wednesday, according to the Straits Times. "To further protect the health of the American public during the emergence of this novel coronavirus, CDC is beginning entry screening at three ports of entry," said CDC official Martin Cetron, adding "We're expecting that the screening over the next couple of weeks could include as many as 5000 people" starting Friday night.The three airports are; San Francisco International, New York's JFK, and Los Angeles International.The second death from the new coronavirus occurred at the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in the Hubei province. He had been ill approximately two weeks before experiencing multi-organ system failure, according to Bloomberg, citing a Thursday statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. As of Friday, the city has reported 45 cases of the coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV. According to the report, five patients are in critical condition, twelve have been cured and discharged, and two have died. Authorities in Japan reported a case Thursday in a resident of Kanagawa prefecture aged in his 30s, who had spent time with an infected person in Wuhan. That’s the second time someone outside China was found to be infected with the novel coronavirus, which has captured international attention because of similarities with the one that sparked Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, 17 years ago.Unlike SARS, which killed almost 800 people, the new virus doesn’t appear to spread easily between people. Much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus, which was first identified in China earlier this month, the World Health Organization said in a statement Thursday in response to the case in Japan. –Bloomberg  It is unknown how the virus is spread, however it is believed to be concentrated among a Wuhan fish market which carries other meat as well.

New Chinese virus ‘will have infected hundreds’ BBC - The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December. "I am substantially more concerned than I was a week ago," disease outbreak scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, said. The work was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the World Health Organization (WHO). 'Sars-family' virus claims second victim in China Mystery Chinese virus: How worried should we be? Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities announced similar measures starting on Friday at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. "That caused me to worry," said Prof Ferguson. He added: "For Wuhan to have exported three cases to other countries would imply there would have to be many more cases than have been reported." It is impossible to get the precise number, but outbreak modelling, which is based on the virus, the local population and flight data, can give an idea. Wuhan International Airport serves a population of 19 million people, but only 3,400 a day travel internationally. The detailed calculations, which have been posted online ahead of publication in a scientific journal, came up with a figure of 1,700 cases.

 'A Recipe for Disaster': Consumer Safety Groups Sue USDA Over Trump's Effort to Privatize Inspections for Pork Industry - A lawsuit filed Monday against President Donald Trump's loosening of regulations in pork inspection plants aims to stop the rules from taking effect to protect consumers from illness and death. The suit, which targets Trump's New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), was filed by Food & Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and two supporting members. "There is no gray area here," said Food & Water Watch senior staff attorney Zach Corrigan in a statement. "The new rules curtail the ability of federal inspectors to detect serious food-safety problems and expose those who consume such pork products to serious health threats like salmonella." According to a press release from the two groups, the new Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules are "a draconian reversal to the swine slaughter inspection system that has existed in the United States since 1906." "We're suing the crap out of USDA for... feeding us crap," tweeted Food & Water Watch commmunications manager Jackie Filson. Under the new regulations put forth by the Trump administration, federal inspectors are no longer responsible for examining the animals before and after slaughter and will see a reduced role on the line. According to Food & Water Watch: The new rules prevent such inspection and hand over these responsibilities to the slaughter companies themselves. They also surrender federal control over removing contamination from carcasses to slaughter companies without any minimum training requirements for slaughter-plant employees.

Gone Fishing? No Fish, but Plenty of Pesticides & a Public Health Crisis  - There is mounting evidence that a healthy soil microbiome protects plants from pests and diseases. One of the greatest natural assets that humankind has is soil. But when you drench it with proprietary synthetic chemicals or continuously monocrop as part of a corporate-controlled industrial farming system, you can kill essential microbes, upset soil balance and end up feeding soil a limited doughnut diet of unhealthy inputs. Armed with their synthetic biocides, this is what the transnational agritech conglommerates do. These companies attempt to get various regulatory and policy-making bodies to bow before the altar of corporate ‘science’. But, in reality, they have limited insight into the long-term impacts their actions have on soil and its complex networks of microbes and microbiological processes. Soil microbiologists are themselves still trying to comprehend it all. “We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth.” And it’s the same where ‘human soil’ is concerned. People have a deep microbiological connection to soils and traditional processing and fermentation processes, which all affect the gut microbiome – the up to six pounds of bacteria, viruses and microbes akin to human soil. And as with actual soil, the microbiome can become degraded according to what we ingest (or fail to ingest). Many nerve endings from major organs are located in the gut and the microbiome effectively nourishes them. There is ongoing research taking place into how the microbiome is disrupted by the modern globalised food production/processing system and the chemical bombardment it is subjected to. The human microbiome is of vital importance to human health yet it is under chemical attack from agri-food giants and their agrochemicals and food additives. As soon as we stopped eating locally-grown, traditionally-processed food, cultivated in healthy soils and began eating food subjected to chemical-laden cultivation and processing activities, we began to change ourselves. Along with cultural traditions surrounding food production and the seasons, we also lost our deep-rooted microbiological connection with our localities. It was traded in for corporate chemicals and seeds and global food chains dominated by the likes of Monsanto (now Bayer), Nestle and Cargill. Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason says that glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway within these gut bacteria and is a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. In addition, it kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria to flourish. She adds that we are therefore facing a global metabolic health crisis linked to glyphosate. Many key neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking. There is strong evidence that gut bacteria can have a direct physical impact on the brain. Alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome have been implicated in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, chronic pain, depression and Parkinson’s Disease.

  Living robots created as scientists turn frog cells into ‘entirely new life-forms’ - The world’s first living robots have been built using stem cells from frog embryos, in a strange machine-animal hybrid thatscientists say is an ‘entirely new life-form.’ Dubbed ‘xenobots’ because they are constructed of biological material taken from the Xenopus laevis frog, the little bots are the first to be constructed from living cells.  Researchers are hopeful they could be programmed to move through arteries scraping away plaque, or swim through oceans removing toxic microplastic. And because they are alive, they can replicate and repair themselves if damaged or torn.  “They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.” Living organisms have often been manipulated by humans in the past, right down to their DNA code, but this is the first time that biological machines have been built completely from scratch. Scientists first used the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at the University of Vermont to create an algorithm that assembled a few hundred virtual skin and heart cells into a myriad forms and body shapes, for specific tasks.  Based on the blueprints, a team of biologists from Tufts University, Massachusetts, then assembled the cells into living bots, just one millimetre wide.  They gathered stem cells, harvested from the embryos of African frogs and used tiny forceps and a miniature electric knife to cut and join the cells under a microscope into a close approximation of the designs specified by the computer. Assembled into forms never seen in nature, the cells began to work together. The skin cells formed a ‘body’ while contractions of heart muscle cells were repurposed to create a forward motion, allowing the robots to move on their own. These organisms were able to explore their watery environment for days or weeks, powered only by embryonic energy stores. Later tests showed that groups of xenobots would move around in circles, pushing pellets into a central location - spontaneously and collectively.  Others were built with a hole through the centre, in which drugs could be placed, so they could be carried to specific parts of the body.

Big Pharma Won’t Let Us Import Drugs From Canada, But Insists on Sending Carcinogen-Contaminated Pills to the Public -  -- Big Pharma spends a small fortune every year buying politicians to make sure we can’t import prescription drugs from Canada, but they’re more than happy to sell us contaminated medications from countries with weak manufacturing controls and exploitable labor that ensure high profit margins.  A toxic compound that doesn’t belong anywhere near medicine known as NDMA was first discovered in some blood pressure medications in 2018, and the FDA issued an alert and wrote a complaint letter to the raw materials supplier to Big Pharma companies. It turns out the meds follow the very common pattern of being made in India with raw ingredients coming from China. And they are sold by big companies for obscenely high prices to U.S. consumers. More recently, NDMA contamination provoked a nationwide recall of the popular anti-heartburn medication Zantac and all its generic versions. And now the world’s most widely prescribed drug of all, which is used to treat and prevent Type 2 diabetes called metformin, is contaminated with NDMA. NDMA (N-Nitrosodimethylamine) is, according to the World Health Organization, produced by “the degradation of dimethylhydrazine (a component of rocket fuel) as well as from several other industrial processes. It is also a contaminant of certain pesticides.” And it’s one of the world’s most potent carcinogens, at least for humans and other mammals. Our livers produce an enzyme that converts it to methyldiazonium that then leads to O6-methylguanine, both of which alter a process at the cellular level called methylation that is a cancer turbocharger.   It’s so poisonous that the FDA has set the “acceptable” amount for human daily intake at 96 nanograms, or 0.000096 of 1 milligram (a single grain of salt is about a milligram). In some of the generic brands of the blood pressure medication, just one tablet was found to have NDMA levels almost 20 times higher than the “acceptable” 96 nanograms, and nearly all were drugs that are taken daily. Once it gets into groundwater, NDMA is wicked hard to get out, as citizens of numerous Californiacities found out in the late 1990s. Its “miscibility” (rapid solubility) with water is extreme, meaning that a few drops of it rapidly spreads through miles of underground aquifers or other water supplies in a matter of hours or days at most. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to isolate the contamination once it happens, the only solution then being radical and expensive water treatment everywhere in the aquafer, principally using ultraviolet light.

'Cancer clusters' are popping up in towns across the US and the environment may be to blame - In a North Carolinian town, a teen's cancer diagnosis led her mother to discover a potentially cancer-prone neighborhood, reports NBC News.   Susan Wind's 16-year-old daughter Taylor was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2017 — she later learned that three people living on her street also battled with the same form of cancer, and another two had thyroid tumors.  "If she had been the only one to have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I would have accepted this as a card we had been dealt," Wind wrote in a USA TODAY post. "However, that was not the case." Wind noticed an alarming pattern and turned to experts for advice. After confirming that the thyroid cancer rates in her neighborhood are much higher than they should be, she set out to raise $110,000 to fund a study on her town's groundwater, soil, and air. The mother is still waiting for the test results.   Wind's home in Mooresville, North Carolina, may be on its way as one of the 1,000 suspected cancer clusters reported to state health departments each year, according to the American Cancer Society.The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a cancer cluster as a geographic region in which cancer cases are more concentrated within a group of people.  A similar case of the north Houston neighborhoods in Texas identified a cancer cluster near a rail yard site with creosote, a potential cancer-causing chemical, reported the Houston Chronicle.Though the state department assessment found plausible evidence of the contamination in August, residents weren't notified until December. Some other ongoing cluster investigations are located in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and Waycross, Georgia.  Substantial research suggests that certain jobs like firefighting and rubber manufacturing come with more health risks. The CDC provides resources on cancer rates by state — giving breakdowns of the illness by sex, age group, and cancer types. Nevertheless, researchers still struggle to find a direct link between cancer and the environment.  Of the 567 state and federal cluster investigations conducted between 1990 and 2011, only 72 of those cases were confirmed,according to a 2012 Emory University study. In other words, cancer clusters are hard to prove.   NBC News reports that the open docket prompted residents impacted by cancer clusters to voice their opinions — including an Indiana woman who shared that four children living within a one-block radius were diagnosed with brain tumors and other commenters who regret moving to a cancer hotspot without federal warning.

  Flame retardants and pesticides overtake heavy metals as biggest contributors to IQ loss - Adverse outcomes from childhood exposures to lead and mercury are on the decline in the United States, likely due to decades of restrictions on the use of heavy metals, a new study finds. Despite decreasing levels, exposure to these and other toxic chemicals, especially flame retardants and pesticides, still resulted in more than a million cases of intellectual disability in the United States between 2001 and 2016. Furthermore, as the target of significantly fewer restrictions, experts say, flame retardants and pesticides now represent the bulk of that cognitive loss.NYU Grossman School of Medicine researchers found that IQ loss from the toxic chemicals analyzed in their study dropped from 27 million IQ points in 2001 and 2002 to 9 million IQ points in 2015 and 2016.While this overall decline is promising, the researchers say, their findings also identify a concerning shift in which chemicals represent the greatest risk. Among toxin-exposed children, the researchers found that the proportion of cognitive loss that results from exposure to chemicals used in flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs), and organophosphate pesticides increased from 67 percent to 81 percent during the same study period.

House passes sweeping new PFAS bill with waste implications - The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 535 along a 247-159 vote. The bill targeting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) notably gained support from around two-dozen Republicans, despite opposition from President Donald Trump, who has said he will veto the bill if it comes to the White House. After its overwhelming passage in the House, the bill is likely to lose momentum now, with Republicans in the Senate averse to taking up the measure.  H.R. 535 would nationally regulate at least some per- and polyfluoruoalkyl substances (PFAS). Among other significant components, the PFAS Action Act of 2019 would require the U.S. EPA to establish destruction and disposal guidance for a range of materials, including landfill leachate, biosolids, and "solid, liquid, or gas waste streams" from facilities that manufacture or use PFAS.    While some waste companies have been wary of PFAS legislation, others are open to the potential upside. Bill Fahey, a senior vice president with Veolia North America, told Waste Dive in a statement that regulations could create "an interesting and challenging opportunity in the hazardous waste space."   The 47-page bill is the first major piece of legislation taken up by the lower chamber in 2020.   Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) originally introduced H.R. 535 in January 2019, seeking to declare PFAS as hazardous substances under Superfund law. The new iteration includes 11 other pieces of legislation following a review by the Energy and Commerce Committee late last year. Language requiring EPA to promulgate regulations for the disposal of PFAS-laden materials like firefighting foam is now included, mirroring themes from the PFAS Waste Incineration Ban of 2019 introduced last May by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).    PFOA and PFOS, two of the most notorious PFAS, are the main target of H.R. 535.  PFAS are likely in all landfills given their presence in the waste stream, but it still remains unclear just how Superfund designation might impact those sites. Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group, told Waste Dive that Superfund cleanup processes are typically slow and it is hard to predict how regulations might play out.

Trump threatens veto as House considers PFAS action -US President Donald Trump has threatened to veto landmark legislation addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) that is due for a vote in the House of Representatives this week.The PFAS Action Act (HR 535), which advanced through the House Energy and Commerce committee in November, incorporates text from 11 other bills addressing the controversial class of substances (see box). The legislation has come in response to growing public concern over PFAS contamination in the environment, and the potential health impacts the substances pose to human health. The bill is expected to go to a vote by the full chamber before the end of the week; several amendments proposed by the House rules committee in a 7 January meeting will also be up for consideration by the chamber. However, ahead of the vote, the White House issued a statement stating that the administration "strongly opposes" the bill. If the legislation were presented to the president, says the 7 January statement of administrative policy, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto it. According to the policy statement, the legislation would supersede existing requirements for the EPA to regulate chemicals in the environment using the weight of available information. Circumventing this process, it said, "would create considerable litigation risk, set problematic and unreasonable rulemaking timelines and precedents, and impose substantial, unwarranted costs on federal, state, and local agencies and other key stakeholders in both the public and private sectors.""The regulatory process works best when EPA and other agencies are free to devise regulations based on the best available science and careful consideration of all the relevant facts. By truncating the rulemaking process, this legislation risks undermining public confidence in the EPA’s decisions," it added.

 A lasting legacy: DuPont, C8 contamination and the community of Parkersburg left to grapple with the consequences - Tommy Joyce is no cinephile. But there's a film that opened Dec. 5 at the Regal Cinemas at Grand Central Mall that's attracting a lot of attention in his community. "Dark Waters" — a legal thriller starring Mark Ruffalo, with a script inspired by a 2016 New York Times article — tells the epic story of the DuPont corporation's failure to inform residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley of the considerable health risks of a perfluoroalkyl substance [PFAS] called perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, for its chain of eight carbons.The chemical was used in DuPont's production of Teflon and other household products at its Washington Works facility just outside Parkersburg, along the Ohio River. C8 is found in nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers and hundreds of other products. According to a 2007 study, C8 is in the blood of 99.7% of Americans. It's called a "forever chemical" because it never fully degrades. DuPont had been aware since at least the 1960s that C8 was toxic in animals and since the 1970s that there were high concentrations of it in the blood of its factory workers. DuPont scientists were aware in the early 1990s of links to cancerous tumors from C8 exposure. But company executives failed to inform the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] or the public. Joyce graduated from Parkersburg High School in 1992, went off and earned three degrees and came home. He now serves as mayor of the city of Parkersburg — population: 30,000.  Joyce said he's heard more about his community's long struggle with corporate environmental malfeasance in the past few weeks than in his previous two and a half years in office.  "DuPont has been in the Ohio Valley for 70-plus years, and has been a tremendous employer," he said.  Many of his classmates grew up in DuPont families.  Doug Higgs graduated from Parkersburg High a year after Joyce, and Joyce's mother, Barbara, taught him Sunday school. "Everybody knows everybody's business," Higgs said, but nobody talked about C8. It was a matter of "not wanting to bite the hand that fed you."  Higgs, now an emergency room physician living in Richmond, Virginia, recalls returning from road trips with his family asleep in the back seat, awakened as they approached home by the familiar waft of chemicals. Two of the Higgs' most immediate neighbors died in their early 50s of renal cell cancer. Higgs' father has ulcerative colitis, and his brother received treatment for polycystic kidney disease in high school. "We all have stories of friends and family, neighbors, dying too young or being diagnosed with various medical problems," Higgs said. DuPont's own documentation specified that C8 was not to be flushed into surface waters, but the company did so for decades. The chemical seeped into the water supplies of the communities of Lubeck and Little Hocking, immediately west of Parkersburg, and the city of Belpre, Ohio, just across the river; and three other water systems.

Plane Dumps Fuel On California Schoolchildren After Emergency U-Turn To LAX -  A Delta flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Shanghai made an emergency U-turn on Tuesday, dumping fuel on a group of schoolchildren as it returned to LAX, according to CBS Los Angeles. The plane departed shortly after 11 a.m.  LA County firefighters report that students at Park Avenue Elementary School report that 17 children and 9 adults were exposed to an unknown type of fuel, and were evaluated by paramedics on scene. BREAKING: #Delta Flight 89 dumps fuel on approach to Los Angeles International Airport; fire crews are assessing dozens of children at a Cudahy elementary school pic.twitter.com/gFBjKuw21h— FNR- FRUM NEWS REPORT (@FrumNewsReport) January 14, 2020  UPDATE*** Patient count updated to 17 children, 9 adults. All minor injuries w/ no transports to local hospital from school. There are no evacuation orders for the immediate area. Substance was confirmed JET FUEL.  Refer to school regarding plans for child pick-up. #LACoFD — L.A. County Fire Department (@LACoFDPIO) January 14, 2020   LA Unified school officials told CBS they are aware of the situation and are looking into it. There is no word on why the fuel was dumped.

Plastic Watch: Senate Passes Save Our Seas Act 2.0 - The Senate unanimously passed the Save Our Seas Act 2.0 Friday, a measure intended to reduce pollution of plastic waste. The first Save Our Seas Act of 2018 became law in 2o18 and has made no appreciable difference to the scourge of plastic pollution. A companion measure was introduced in the House of Representatives in July and action is  now needed before the legislation can become law. Alas, the limited measure  passed by the Senate on Friday falls far short of what’s necessary to tackle seriously the problem of ocean-bound plastic waste. How to do we know this? Well, the bill enjoys bipartisan backing, as well as the support of industry players such as the Grocery Manufactures Association, the American Chemistry Council, and the Plastic Industry Association;; suffice to say it fails to gore any oxen. On this issue as on so many others, the US lags the European Union, which has implemented controls on single use plastics, and countries such as France and Thailand, which have enacted nationwide bans that came into effect at the start of the new year (see EU Plastics Ban: “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”). Many environmental groups opposed the US bill, which they condemned in a letter of opposition to Senate co-sponsors Sheldon Whitehou and Dan Sullivan.  From the letter: We need Congress to pass legislation that reduces the generation of plastic, particularly single-use plastic packaging. This bill does not do that.

EPA’s Superfund program, a Trump priority, is in shambles – Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, a career ally of polluting industries, blamed languishing cleanups on the failures of former President Barack Obama’s administration.  What Superfund needed, Pruitt said, was the Trump administration’s touch. “It’s not a matter of money,” Pruitt boasted to a friendly Fox audience. “It’s a matter of leadership and attitude and management.” The administration has repeatedly called Superfund a priority. Pruitt described it as part of EPA’s core mission and “an area that is absolutely essential,” even as the administration proposed sweeping cuts to the program and the agency as a whole. Upon launching a Superfund task force in May 2017, Pruitt said he was “confident that, with a renewed sense of urgency, leadership, and fresh ideas, the Superfund program can reach its full potential of returning formerly contaminated sites to communities for their beneficial use.” Andrew Wheeler, who replaced Pruitt as EPA chief in February, has made similar comments, and President Trump crowed of the “tremendous work” he and his team have done on Superfund during a July speech on the environment. But three years into the Trump administration, Superfund appears to be in worse shape than ever. The number of sites on the National Priorities List, which require long-term remediation, stands as 1,335 — up from the 1,322 that Pruitt told Fox & Friends was “unacceptable.”  The number of unfunded toxic cleanup sites has ballooned, from 12 in 2016 — Obama’s last year in office — to 34 in 2019, according to EPA figures released late last month. It’s the biggest backlog in at least 15 years, according to The Associated Press. While there is historically some ebb and flow to the number of unfunded sites, 34 is a “striking number,” said Mathy Stanislaus, a former EPA official under Obama who oversaw Superfund as part of the agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. He is not aware of any measure by which Superfund improved over the last three years.

  Trump seeks to roll back environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects - The Trump administration last week announced a proposal that seeks to fundamentally alter the environmental review process for a wide variety of infrastructure projects, opening another front in his war on environmental safeguards. The new proposal targets regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a 50-year-old statute that has served as a cornerstone of environmental law in the United States. NEPA mandates the documentation of potential environmental impacts of proposed infrastructure projects and the examination of potential alternatives. The rollback, if successful, would prevent agencies from meaningfully considering climate change impacts, fast-track the review process, limit litigation and exempt a major category of projects from the entire process. Like dozens of other efforts underway to roll back environmental rules, Trump’s attempt to undermine NEPA serves to remove any constraints on oil and gas production, mining, and other highly polluting industries at the expense of human health and the environment. The NEPA law itself is extremely limited. It carries no requirements to comprehensively plan infrastructure projects. It does not stop projects that seriously harm the environment or even require that the impacts be mitigated. Nonetheless it has come under increasing bipartisan attack for allowing legal challenges and delays, prolonging the approval process for many projects, including the high-profile and environmentally reckless Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Prior to Trump, the Obama administration tinkered around the edges of NEPA, reducing the review process for transportation projects and further expediting the permitting process for dozens of other major projects. In justifying his latest regulatory assault on NEPA, Trump deployed the well-worn trope blaming the deplorable state of the nation’s infrastructure not on financial speculation or absence of planning, but on environmental regulations. “We will not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again,” he said at a White House press conference. “It used to be the envy of the world, and now we’re like a third-world country. It’s really sad.”

 NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal 2019 Second Warmest Year on Record - According to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Earth's global surface temperatures in 2019 were the second warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880. Globally, 2019 temperatures were second only to those of 2016 and continued the planet's long-term warming trend: the past five years have been the warmest of the last 140 years. This past year, they were 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (0.98 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. “The decade that just ended is clearly the warmest decade on record,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt. “Every decade since the 1960s clearly has been warmer than the one before.” Since the 1880s, the average global surface temperature has risen and the average temperature is now more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (a bit more than 1 degree Celsius) above that of the late 19th century. For reference, the last Ice Age was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder than pre-industrial temperatures. Using climate models and statistical analysis of global temperature data, scientists have concluded that this increase mostly has been driven by increased emissions into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by human activities. “We crossed over into more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warming territory in 2015 and we are unlikely to go back. This shows that what’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Schmidt said.

NASA and NOAA: Last Decade Was the Hottest on Record - The last decade was the hottest since record-keeping began 150 years ago, according to the latest data from U.S. agencies the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).The studies, released Wednesday, also confirmed that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, The New York Times reported. Their findings echo the conclusions of the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service, which also found 2019 to be the second-hottest year of the hottest decade."What is important is the totality of evidence from multiple independent data sets that the Earth is warming, that human activity is driving it and the impacts are clearly being felt," Gavin Schmidt from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies told The Guardian. "These announcements might sound like a broken record, but what is being heard is the drumbeat of the Anthropocene."NOAA concluded that 2019's average temperatures were almost one degree Celsius above the average for the 20th century. They were also 1.1 degree Celsius above the average from 1850 to 1900, before the burning of fossil fuels began in earnest, according to The Guardian.2019 was only a fraction of a degree cooler than the warmest year on record, 2016, The New York Times reported. That year, temperatures were boosted by a strong El Niño. But temperatures have been steadily rising since the 1960s, with every decade since then being warmer than the one before it. The heating has been especially pronounced in the last five years, which were also the hottest years on record.All of these broken records have devastating consequences. The New York Times pointed to the case of Australia, which was 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than its mid-twentieth century average during the summer of 2019. The heat has contributed to an ongoing drought, and to a historic wildfire season that has killed more than a billion animals.

It's official: India just experienced its hottest decade on record -- The past decade was India's hottest on record, with extreme heat directly killing about 350 people last year, the national meteorological department's chief said on Tuesday.India has faced some of the fastest-rising threats from climate change, environmentalists say, with increases in blistering heat, powerful cyclones, drought and flooding.Between 2010 and 2019, temperatures were 0.36 degrees Celsius (0.65 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981-2010 average, making it the hottest decade since records began in 1901, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).   Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, IMD's director general of meteorology, said it was difficult to pinpoint a definite cause for any single incident of record-breaking temperatures, but global warming and climate change were definitely "factors to consider"."    According to the IMD, 2019 was the seventh warmest year on record in India. Overall about 1,630 people died in extreme weather events over the year, it said.The South Asian giant - home to 1.3 billion people - last year experienced a longer summer as well as monsoon rains that were delayed but ultimately the biggest in 25 years.It also saw a record number of cyclones, and later record cold, with Delhi seeing its coldest day in over a century last month.

2019 was the soggiest in Midwest history - — As the year’s near-historic flooding would suggest, 2019 left a soggy spot in the regional record books. The St. Louis area had its fifth-wettest year on record, and its greatest number of rainy days ever, as shown by year-end climate data — continuing a trend of remarkable saturation and capping the wettest decade in the Midwest’s history. The year’s 54 inches of precipitation were more than 30% greater than normal for the St. Louis area, according to the local forecast office for the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, the 88 days with measurable precipitation were more than in any other year, clearing the previous record of 87, set in 1993 — a year made infamous by unmatched levels of flooding. Similar, and more extreme, stories rang true throughout the Midwest in 2019. Many places in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, for instance, saw more moisture than ever recorded.Altogether, the Midwest logged its wettest year on record.  “It’s just been an unprecedented year for precipitation,” said Bryan Peake, a climatologist for the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, based in Champaign, Illinois. Peake added that the record was sewn up even without December data. All that moisture, however, helped ward off extreme heat, said Jared Maples, an area meteorologist for the National Weather Service. The temperatures were still higher than historical averages: Nationally and globally, rising heat helps fuel the potential for extreme moisture, because warmer air can hold more water vapor. Heavy downpours are increasingly common in the U.S., with the Midwest and the Northeast seeing the largest increases in the events, the National Climate Assessment states.“Every single year, we’re setting a new record, when it comes to wettest 10-year period,” said Peake, the climatologist. And those totals even include the 2012 drought that dried Midwestern rivers and ravaged crops.

New England Will See More ‘Winter Heat Waves’ As Climate Warms, Scientists Say | New Hampshire Public Radio - Scientists say winter warm spells – like the one the Northeast saw this past weekend – are in line with predictions for climate change. Nearly every New Hampshire city and many in surrounding states set daily high temperature records on Saturday and Sunday, with peak warmth in the high 60s. "New England's a warming hotspot,” says UNH research assistant professor Elizabeth Burakowski. “We're seeing warmer winters, we're seeing less snow, and having these events doesn't necessarily bode well for the future."  She says recent studies find that these heat waves are starting to happen year round. "It's not just in summertime,” she says. “This winter heat wave phenomenon is also something we can expect to see increasing as well."  Burakowski says the region's snowpack took a big hit in this weekend's rain and record warmth, which she calls "winter whiplash."  The melted snow exposed bare ground that absorbs more of the sun's energy, causing more warming and release of stored-up carbon, according to another recent study.  And Burakowski says some plants may have bloomed this weekend, well ahead of spring.  But she say the warm snap didn’t last nearly as long as some, more damaging winter heat waves have in recent years.  Forecasters say the region will see more snow and mostly normal temperatures this week.

Winter heat having odd effect on Outer Banks wild horses — Freakishly warm January temperatures are having a strange effect on the wild horses roaming North Carolina’s Outer Banks, prompting a warning to drivers. The notoriously independent horses are sleeping on the beaches at night — in the path of recreational vehicles. “Please be careful!” the Corolla Wild Horse Fund posted Sunday on Facebook. “We don’t normally expect to see horses on the beach this time of year, but the unseasonably warm weather has them acting more like it’s June, not January.” Temperatures have been in the 60s and 70s across the Carolinas for days, and that warmth will continue much of this week, forecasters say. This is typically the time of year when wild horses stay hidden in the maritime forest, shielding themselves from cold winds. If temperatures get too warm, the bugs come out and the horses are forced to the beaches for a reprieve from being bitten, experts say. Myers said he was driving a truck on the beach when he saw the horses, and he feared an accident could occur. The beach in the Corova area “is the only way for residents and visitors to reach the areas north of Corolla,” according to Outer Banks news outlet OBX Today. “I sat there with my flashers on so they couldn’t get hit. Very hard to see a horse on the beach,” he said in a Facebook message to McClatchy News. “This time of year, it is rare. … They’re out there enjoying the beach like everyone, but sleeping.” Four-wheel drives are welcomed by law on some Outer Banks beaches, but the vehicles (and pedestrians) are required to stay 50 feet away from the wild horses, according to VisitCurrituck.com. Collisions with vehicles have been a chief cause of death among the wild horses on the Outer Banks, including incidents of horses crossing paved highways during the height of the tourist season.

Storms kill at least 8, with tornadoes, flooding and crippling ice still in the forecast for East - More than 20 million people were under a flood watch Saturday as severe weather responsible for at least nine deaths continue to pound parts of the country.The storms also brought damaging tornadoes to Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi.Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power as winds whipped and trees fell. Forecasters at the National Weather Service say temperatures over much of the East Coast will remain well above average, even after a cold front moves through.   Across the central US and the South, severe storms marched east, impacting the entire Mississippi River and Ohio River valleys.Tornadoes were reported in Kentucky, Arkansas and Alabama, and five million people were still under tornado watches. The National Weather Service issued a watch Saturday afternoon for parts of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina until midnight EST. The storms have led to the deaths of at least eight people across the South since Friday night: two in Texas, three in Louisiana and three in Alabama:

  • • In Texas: A vehicle fatally struck a firefighter and a police officer on an icy Interstate 27 in Lubbock while the pair were dealing with two previous crashes on the highway, Lubbock Police Chief Floyd Mitchell said. A second firefighter was struck and was in critical condition at a hospital.
  • • In Alabama: Storms killed three people in Pickens County, in the western part of the state, Sheriff Todd Hall said. The severe weather also wiped out the homes the people were, the sheriff added. The deaths happened near the town of Carrollton, emergency management officials said.
  • • In Louisiana: A severe storm demolished a home in Bossier Parish on Friday night, and an elderly couple were found dead nearby, authorities said. And in Oil City, a tree fell on a home, killing a man, Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator said.
  • • In Ohio: The Cleveland office of the National Weather Service said Saturday afternoon the strong weather front made for a 29-degree temperature difference between Cleveland's airport (70 degrees) and Lorain's airport (41 degrees), which is 20 miles away.
  • Heavy rain and strong winds were pounding parts of the South, downing power lines along the way. More than 350,000 homes and businesses were without power in 10 states - Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia -- by 7 p.m. ET, according to the online project PowerOutage.us.

Zimbabwe drought: UN warns food will run out ‘by the end of February’ - Around half of all citizens in Zimbabwe are facing another grim reality ahead of 2020. The United Nations (UN) have warned that their food reserves – which go towards feeding millions of people in the country – will be gone by next month.  The startling claim comes as experts shared a horrific forecast. Our neighbours to the north are facing another dry, unforgiving season that threatens everything on the production line, from livestock to crops. Planted seeds have failed to germinate, and 2019’s maize is down 50% on 2018’s haul.   Niels Balzer is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) deputy country director. He has made it abundantly clear that Zimbabwe needs donations and pledges by the bucket-load (it’s estimated that about R3-billion is the desired total) to help stave-off the threat of drought and starvation. Around 200 000 metric tonnes of food is wanted to alleviate this crisis:  “As things stand, we will run out of food by end of February, coinciding with the peak of the hunger season – when needs are at their highest. Firm pledges are urgently needed as it can take up to three months for funding commitments to become food on people’s tables,”   “While WFP now has the staff, partners, trucking and logistics capacity in place for a major surge in Zimbabwe, it is essential that we receive the funding to be able to fully deliver. The lives of so many depend on this.”  According to the UN, the deepening hardship is forcing families to eat less, skip meals, take children out of school, sell off livestock and fall into a vicious cycle of debt. Stories of family members resorting to prostitution and sexual exploitation to survive have also been rife. The reports coming out of Zimbabwe are utterly devastating:

  • Bread now costs 20 times more than what it did in July 2018.
  • Maize prices have also tripled. This is due to rampant inflation and a lack of foreign currency flows in Zimbabwe.
  • Around eight million Zimbabweans – or half the population – are officially “food insecure”.
  • Due to logistical challenges, all emergency food supplies to Zimbabwe must come through South Africa or Mozambique. This could take months, and Balzer has stressed the need for officials to act urgently.

Furthermore, the country is also gripped by rolling blackouts. One of the main hydro-electric plants is too empty to function, reducing Zimbabwe’s generational capacity by a significant amount. It never rains, but it pours for Zimbabweans, who are facing yet another 21st-century disaster.

Australia urges quarter of a million to flee as winds fan huge bushfires  -  Jan 10th (Reuters) - Australia urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as authorities said the next few hours could be "very, very challenging" even as rain poured down in some parts. Defence personnel stood ready to move to bushfire grounds if conditions became extreme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters, as soaring temperatures and erratic winds create dangerous conditions. Authorities sent emergency texts to 240,000 people in Victoria, telling them to leave. People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia were also urged to think about leaving, but officials did not say how many. Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area roughly the size of South Korea. Here are key events in the crisis:

  • * Of 160 fires ablaze across New South Wales (NSW), about 46 were uncontained. Two were burning at an 'emergency level', eight blazes were in the "watch and act" category, with the rest at the "advice" level, the lowest alert rating.
  • * Neighbouring Victoria had 36 fires, with more than 1.3 million hectares burnt. Nine fires were at an emergency level.
  • * In the alpine region on the border of the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales, two fires were poised to merge and create a blaze over almost 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).
  • * Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville said some communities had been provided with large containers of satellite phones, baby formula, food, nappies, and torches in case they are cut off.
  • * Campaigners protested in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday as part of a wave of demonstrations planned in major world cities, to spotlight concerns about Australia's climate change policies.
  • * Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.
  • * Australia's wildfires have dwarfed other catastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged this year by fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

Australia fires: Aboriginal planners say the bush ‘needs to burn’ For thousands of years, the Indigenous people of Australia set fire to the land. Long before Australia was invaded and colonised by Europeans, fire management techniques - known as "cultural burns" - were being practised. The cool-burning, knee-high blazes were designed to happen continuously and across the landscape. The fires burn up fuel like kindling and leaf detritus, meaning a natural bushfire has less to devour. Since Australia's fire crisis began last year, calls for better reintegration of this technique have grown louder. But it should have happened sooner, argues one Aboriginal knowledge expert. "The bush needs to burn," says Shannon Foster. She's a knowledge keeper for the D'harawal people - relaying information passed on by her elders - and an Aboriginal Knowledge lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Much of the ancestral information she shares relates to the bush, says Ms Foster. "It's the concept of maintaining country - central to everything we do as Aboriginal people. It's about what we can give back to country; not just what we can take from it."  While modern-day authorities do carry out hazard reduction burning, focusing on protecting lives and property, Ms Foster says it's "clearly not working".  "The current controlled burns destroy everything. It's a naive way to practise fire management, and it isn't hearing the Indigenous people who know the land best.”

Australia Airdrops Thousands of Carrots, Sweet Potatoes to Wallabies Starving From Wildfires -- In an effort to help one of the many animal species threatened by Australia's devastating wildfires, officials in New South Wales (NSW) are air-dropping more than 4,000 pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes into the fire-ravaged habitat of the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, an endangered species in the state."This is the most widespread food drop we have ever done for brush-tailed rock-wallabies," NSW Minister of Energy and Environment Matt Kean said, according to CNN.Kean called the airdrop "Operation Rock Wallaby" on Twitter and explained in a statement why it was so important:"The provision of supplementary food is one of the key strategies we are deploying to promote the survival and recovery of endangered species like the Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby," Mr Kean said."Initial fire assessments indicate the habitat of several important Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby populations was burnt in the recent bushfires. The wallabies typically survive the fire itself, but are then left stranded with limited natural food as the fire takes out the vegetation around their rocky habitat."The wallabies were already under stress from the ongoing drought, making survival challenging for the wallabies without assistance."

Push to export koalas to New Zealand in effort to save iconic marsupial  - So disenchanted with raging bushfires sweeping across Australia, some people are turning to the far-fetched possibility of shipping one of our most loved animals introduced to New Zealand.A group calling itself the ‘Koala Relocation Society’ has launched an online petition to have the cuddly creatures sent across the Tasman following Australia’s horrific bushfire season.The World Wildlife Fund estimates around 1.25 billion animals have already perished in the perilous conditions, with thousands of koalas, kangaroos and other native species among those killed.More than 10 million hectares of land and fragile habitat has been lost as a result of the bushfires.That's prompted serious action from some, with a change.org petition now calling for urgent action, arguing New Zealand’s ecosystem is ideal for ensuring the long-term survival of the koala. “New Zealand has 28,575 hectares planted in eucalypts, most [are] located in the Central North Island, and are similar to much older forests from Australia, as they grow fast here.” Injured koalas rescued by the Australian Army soldiers, New Zealand Army sappers and RSPCA members are transported from the Hanson Wildlife Sanctuary. Almost 7,000 people have already lent their support to the push, with some New Zealanders even strongly backing the push.“Keep them alive. Would be cool to have them here too,” one Napier resident said. The Queensland government has developed a draft strategy that identifies more than 570,000 hectares where land clearing could be limited in order to protect the state’s koala habitat.

Australia fires: The farmers burying their own cattle – BBC - Belinda Attree walks towards a ditch in a paddock that has been blackened by Australia's massive bushfires. "We'll get as close as we can without probably getting a bit sick," she says. In the ditch - now a grave - are 20 dead cattle and a kangaroo. All were badly burned when the fire swept through Corryong, about half-way between Melbourne and Sydney. Warning: Some may find the following pictures of dead animals distressing Belinda, her husband Travis, and their children made a terrifying last-minute escape as the fire swung around unexpectedly and roared through their property. But when they returned after the fire-front had passed, they found 11 dead cows, and others that were too injured to keep. "It destroys you, mate, to shoot your own cattle," Travis says. "I take pride in my cattle, to have them in good condition. And to do this, it's just not right." He tears up a bit. They've lost lots of other things too: all their hay, the hay shed, another shed full of football memorabilia, two boats, and an all-terrain vehicle. But losing animals hurts the most. When asked why he hasn't covered the animals' grave, the answer is simple. "My neighbour hasn't found all of his," he says. "There could be more to go in there yet." Belinda recorded a video as they returned to the property. In it, she tearfully follows their injured herd through the choking haze, knowing they won't have any choice but to euthanise many of the stock. "They must have just been in so much pain," she says. "And that's what's hard. What's really really hard." Much of their property is an ashen moonscape. There's nothing for their remaining livestock to eat. They have rolls of hay on their front lawn, all of them donated. But they've already sent 30 of their animals to the abattoir, and more might go. .

Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock - Smoke from this season’s bushfires has turned the sun red, the moon orange and the sky an insipid grey. It has obscured iconic views tourists flock to see. Far more than an aesthetic problem, it has forced business shutdowns, triggered health problems and kept children indoors for weeks. City dwellers in southeast Australia have been forced to take a crash course in the finer points of air pollution. We’ve learned about the dangers of inhaling tiny PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or fewer in diameter). We’ve learned that only a close-fitting P2 mask will do much to protect us. Still, we wear disposable paper masks and hold handkerchiefs to our faces, hoping any amount of filtering is helpful. Even for an historian of air pollution like me, this situation is a shock. It is not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality is unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent. In recent weeks, apps such as AirVisual have confirmed what we city dwellers can already see and smell: since the fires on the north coast of NSW began in late October, our air quality has plummeted. The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra. Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020. Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached a choking 5,185 at 8pm on New Year’s Day.  When Australia begins the recovery from these fires, our business-as-usual approach requires a rethink. Measures to protect air quality should be a major part of this. It is time that corporations, governments and societies which contribute to global heating be held to account for more frequent, intense and widespread bushfires, and the smoke which billows from them.

Australia's bushfires are producing so much smoke that NASA expects it to travel all the way around the world and return to Australia - NASA predicts that the massive bushfires devastating Australia will produce enough smoke to make at least one full circuit around the planet and return to Australia. NASA's Goddard research center said the smoke had already "traveled halfway around Earth" as of January 8, "crossing South America, turning the skies hazy, and causing colorful sunrises and sunsets." It continued: "The smoke is expected to make at least one full circuit around the globe, returning once again to the skies over Australia."   NASA drew particular attention to Australia's neighbor New Zealand, saying: "The smoke is having a dramatic impact on New Zealand, causing severe air quality issues across the county and visibly darkening mountaintop snow." The fires have turned skies in parts of New Zealand sky orange, even though the country is about 1,200 miles away.

Australia fires: PM admits mistakes in handling of crisis - Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison has expressed regret over his handling of the bushfire crisis ravaging the country. The PM has faced mounting criticism over his government's response to the bushfires and its climate policy. Since September, bushfires have killed at least 28 people and destroyed thousands of homes. On Sunday, Mr Morrison conceded there were "things I could have handled on the ground much better". In recent weeks, Mr Morrison has been heckled by locals when visiting fire-hit communities in the states of New South Wales and Victoria, where the worst blazes are concentrated. In the town of Cobargo in New South Wales, one woman demanded more resources for the fire service, while others called Mr Morrison an "idiot" and said "you won't be getting any votes down here". "These are sensitive environments, they are very emotional environments," Mr Morrison said in a TV interview with ABC. "Prime ministers are flesh and blood too in how they engage with these people." Acknowledging the pressure fire services were facing, Mr Morrison said there was a "new appetite" for the government to take a more direct role in responding to the disaster. The PM said he would seek a royal commission review - a type of public inquiry - into the country's response to the bushfire crisis. Last month, Mr Morrison was criticised for going on holiday to Hawaii as the bushfire crisis worsened. The rising public anger at his absence eventually forced him to cut that trip short.

Australian bushfires: The canary building the coal mine - As 2019 drew to a close, there were 12 houses on Jack Egan's street in North Rosedale in New South Wales. Today, only four remain.  Egan, who has Rural Fire Service training, stayed to defend his home even after his neighbors heeded official warnings and evacuated. But once the "firestorm" rolled in from two directions on December 31st, it "went up like a torch," he told DW.  Jack says fire-ravaged streets like his look the same across the country: "There's the rubble of the houses, the corrugated iron from the roof collapsed on top of it, all the timber's been incinerated, the bush around is completely denuded and black." As the Australian bushfires continue to savage towns and ecosystems, take human lives and kill billions of animals, environmentalists say one of the world's worst climate offenders has become a grave example of its impacts.  "There's a white hot anger across our community," Egan, a support worker for the elderly, says. "Not so much about the drought and fire, but the lack of climate change action across decades."  On Friday, that anger spilled onto city streets from Sydney to Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth, with thousands of protestors demanding emissions cuts and an end to multi-billion dollar fossil fuel subsidies. Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter. Last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government approved Adani's controversial Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin, set to be one of the world's biggest coal mines. Another six coal mines in the area are awaiting approval. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last out of the 57 countries for its climate policy, describing Morrison's conservative government as a "regressive force." Back in 2008, the Garnaut Climate Change Report predicted that without action on climate change, Australia would face earlier and more intense fire seasons by 2020. While Morrison has been reluctant to admit a link between climate change and the current bushfires, for many that prediction appears to have been horribly realized. With two months of summer still to go in the southern hemisphere, authorities have already rated this fire season Australia's worst on record. "Australia is a country that's almost becoming accustomed to major natural disasters, and as yet none of them have galvanized people to action," Williamson said.

Climate Activists Outraged as Siemens Backs Adani Mining Project in Australia- Siemens has announced it will remain involved in a controversial coal mining project in Australia, despite massive environmental criticism as the country continues to be ravaged by bushfires.  The German engineering conglomerate has a contract worth roughly €18 million ($20 million) which requires Siemens to supply rail infrastructure for the Carmichael mine in Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef. But climate activists from Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion staged protests last week in a dozen German cities against the mine, including outside Siemens' Munich headquarters, hoping to change the firm's stance on the project.But on Sunday, Siemens' CEO Joe Kaeser tweeted: "We have just finished our special meeting .... We have evaluated all the options and have concluded that we must fulfill our contractual obligations." Kaeser did promise, though, that the company would better "manage in the future the questions of protecting the environment."

Australia fires: 'Apocalypse' comes to Kangaroo Island - Kangaroo Island in South Australia has been likened to a Noah's Ark for its unique ecology. "It's the third largest island off the coast of Australia, and it was separated from mainland Australia many thousands of years ago," says Prof Dickman. "A lot of the flora and fauna there are distinctive because a lot of the island's habitats remained fairly pristine. It's like stepping back in time when you cross to Kangaroo Island.  But after fierce bushfires tore through island this week, there are fears it may never fully recover. "The fire, on 9 January, was the second major blaze to ravage Kangaroo Island in less than a week. Two men had died in a blaze on 4 January. Authorities believe they were overrun by flames as they drove along the highway. The fires on Kangaroo Island have been shocking for their speed and extreme behaviour. Driving through the fire trail in Kangaroo Island, there are rows upon rows of blackened trees, some still burning from inside. The scorched earth smoulders and smoke fills the air.  At least a dozen charred koala and kangaroo carcasses lay on the side of the road. You cannot escape the death and destruction. It's an ecological disaster so big, the army have been called in. Some have helped dig trenches to bury the thousands of sheep and cattle killed. At Hanson Bay in the island's west, we watch Australian and New Zealand soldiers fan out across paddocks, collecting the remains of hundreds of koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and birds.With masks to help keep out the stench, they silently  move the charred carcasses into piles - which are then transferred to a hire truck and offloaded by hand into a deep trench.Kangaroo Island is one of Australia's most important wildlife sanctuaries, renowned for its biodiversity. Now it's feared that half of the island (more than 215,000 hectares) has been scorched. In some parts of Vivonne Bay, the fires burned right up to the sea. The south-western area is home to the island's national park. Now the whole has been ravaged by fires that have burned since 20 December. "We're struggling to look for remnants of intact vegetation where some species may still be present,"

The Australian bushfires have killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals - Around 1.25 billion animals may have been killed during Australia's horror bushfire season, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)."This heart-breaking loss includes thousands of precious koalas on the mid-north coast of NSW, along with other iconic species such as kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, potoroos, cockatoos and honeyeaters," WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O'Gorman said in a statement on Tuesday.   "Many forests will take decades to recover and some species may have tipped over the brink of extinction. Until the fires subside, the full extent of damage will remain unknown," he said."Australia is a land of bushfires, but this season's unprecedented mega-fires are not normal. Climate change does not cause bushfires, but it does make them much worse." Mr O'Gorman said the 1.25 billion number was "calculated using methodology that estimates the impacts of land clearing on Australian wildlife and extrapolates upon the science of Professor Chris Dickman from The University of Sydney".Earlier, Professor Dickman put the number at "more than one billion" before revising it."I think there's nothing quite to compare with the devastation that's going on over such a large area so quickly. It's a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected," he told National Public Radio in the US.

Tree Ghosts’ Are All that Remain in Parts of Burnt Out Australia - Walking through the wreckage of a bushfire disaster zone, one of the first things you notice is the trees. Those left standing are usually skeletal, stripped naked by wind and blackened by flames. Others lay fallen and shattered on the ground, branches strewn around, their mangled stumps still smoldering. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of burned trees in the bushland of southern New South Wales recently, where some of the most devastating bushfires Australia has ever seen swept through just 10 days earlier. And then, after a while, I started noticing something else: not quite trees but the outlines of trees, stark white silhouettes printed like x-rays onto the bone-dry soil. The strange, arterial shapes were blurrily defined against the charred earth, often with a shallow hole at their root where it seemed the base of a trunk had once been. And they were everywhere: eerily beautiful designs spider webbing across the dirt. “Tree ghosts,” said the woman who was leading me through the debris. “Aren’t they magnificent?” In the early hours of New Year’s Eve, a fire front blazed through this area of bushland, incinerating almost everything in its path. Hundreds of hectares of centuries-old native forest were turned to charcoal. And this is what’s left: the skeletons of trees and their pale ghosts. “What you’re seeing is the ashen remains of trees that have been consumed in fire, either where they’ve fallen or where they were lying,” David Keith, Professor of Botany at the University of NSW, explained over the phone. “Generally what happens after very intense fire events—which this one was in certain areas—is that there’s enough heat for long enough to initiate combustion of all large pieces of wood.” In the case of the southern NSW bushfires, this “slow combustion” likely took place over the course of a week as the fallen trees were exposed to incredibly high temperatures. tree ghosts “We’re talking hundreds of degrees celsius, possibly over 1000,” said Professor Keith. “It takes a massive input of energy to get a living tree to burn to the core, right down to ashes... [and] these trees could have been uprooted [in the firestorm] or they could have been standing dead.”

In Australia's Burning Forests, Signs We've Passed a Global Warming Tipping Point - As extreme wildfires burn across large swaths of Australia, scientists say we're witnessing how global warming can push forest ecosystems past a point of no return.  Some of those forests won't recover in today's warmer climate, scientists say. They expect the same in other regions scarred by flames in recent years; in semi-arid areas like parts of the American West, the Mediterranean Basin and Australia, some post-fire forest landscapes will shift to brush or grassland.More than 17 million acres have burned in Australia over the last three months amidrecord heat that has dried vegetation and pulled moisture from the land. Hundreds of millions of animals, including a large number of koalas, are believed to have perished in the infernos. The survivors will face drastically changed habitats. Water flows and vegetation will change, and carbon emissions will rise as burning trees release carbon and fewer living trees are left to pull CO2 out of the air and store it.In many ways, it's the definition of a tipping point, as ecosystems transform from one type into another. The surge of large, destructive forest fires from the Arctic to the tropics just in the last few years has shocked even researchers who focus on forests and fires and who havewarned of such tipping points for years. The projections were seen as remote, "something that would happen much farther in the future," said University of Arizona climate scientist David Breashers. "But it's happening now. Nobody saw it coming this soon, even though it was like a freight train. "It's likely the forests won't be coming back as we know them."

Australia's fires could change global climate patterns for the worse - Mixed into the devastating images of burned koalas and scorched homes from the Australian wildfires are apocalyptic images of rare weather phenomena:orange haze over the North Island of New Zealand, monstrous pyrocumulonimbus fire clouds that vault into the atmosphere in New South Wales, and smoke snaking all the way to South America.Though they may feel remote to you, the Australian bushfires have kicked off acascade of weather events that may impact weather systems around the world, even your hometown.One of the most striking weather phenomena are massive, explosive pyrocumulonimbus or “pyroCb” clouds.  These lightning-filled clouds are often seen after volcanic eruptions and have been seen in other large-scale wildfire events like the 2018 fire season in California. And similar to a chimney, they funnel smoke up into the Earth’s stratosphere with “lingering ill effects,” according to NASA. In 2018, climate scientists found pyroCb clouds can perturb the atmosphere at levels similar to volcanic eruptions, injecting smoke plumes that persist in the atmosphere for months after the fire cloud disappears.  The Australia fires have produced a huge volume of carbon dioxide, aerosols, soot, fine particle pollution, and greenhouse gases — filling not only Southern Australia’s sky, but also parts of New Zealand and South America. These emissions are responsible for the strange glowing haze seen in recent days across New Zealand skies.Scientists estimate that wildfires around the world are responsible for about five to ten percent of total CO2 emissions annually. These toxic gases have a complicated relationship with global temperatures. Some aerosols can have a temporary cooling effect by making the atmosphere more reflective and blocking sunlight, while other emissions, like black carbon, trap heat and lead to rises in atmospheric temperature, according to InsideClimate News.The smoke from large-scale fires can move thousands of miles across the globe, spiking air pollution in distant lands. A 2018 study showed smoke from Canadian wildfires led to dangerous spikes in aerosol levels thousands of miles away in Europe — 20 times higher than those seen with the 1991 Pinatubo volcanic eruption. At the same time, emissions from wildfires like those across Australian contribute to a widespread air pollution problem, which threatens the well-being of millions of people globally.  Research shows wind can also carry smoke up to alpine regions like the Arctic, Alaska, and Greenland, where soot may accelerate the melting of ice sheets and glaciers.

“Rain Bomb” Falls Over Australia As Thunderstorms Put Out Bushfires In Drought-Stricken Region -Heavy rains have begun to fall in parts of Australia this week, helping to weaken the flames and put out some of the fires that have been spreading across the country since September.Sky News reported that some areas of Melbourne, which were among some of the areas most affected by the fires, saw up to 66ml of rain in just a few hours on Wednesday night. The rains are expected to continue for at least a few days, but meteorologists are unsure about which way the storm will proceed, so it is hard for them to predict exactly how much rain the area will see in the coming days.The much-needed rain did not come without consequences though. Many areas were flooded, and residents lost power because of downed lines. Flights were also canceled in parts of the region until the storms pass. Since the area has recently been hit by a drought and wildfires, much of the wilderness and foliage have been burned, leaving the rain with no place to go and adding to the potential of flooding.Prof Stuart Khan, an environmental engineer and water expert who works at the University of New South Wales, told the Guardian that the conditions seen in the country over the past few months has made the land even more vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and even landslides, because all of that ash sitting on a catchment will eventually become unstable.Unfortunately, while the rains have given emergency crews a break, it is not expected to put out all of the fires, which experts fear could be burning for the next two months at least. The bushfires in Australia have burned over 25.5 million acres of land, making these fires the largest in the world. Since they began in September, these fires have scorched more than ten times the amount of land lost to fires in the Amazon this year. To put this into perspective, this is an area equal to the size of South Korea.

Storm, flooding misery follow bushfires in Australia - Thunderstorms and torrential rain have wreaked havoc in the fire-devastated states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. Despite the wet weather, hundreds of blazes continue to burn and many areas remain dry.Torrential rains and thunderstorms caused further misery for Australians in states already suffering from devastating bushfires. Several major highways were cut off, while theme parks closed in southeastern Queensland after some of the heaviest rain in months fell in the state. Local media showed video footage of dozens of vehicles being swept away in flash flooding. Standing water reached 330 millimeters (13 inches) in some areas and Australia's Bureau of Meteorology tweeted over 100 millimeters of rain was expected to fall across the night and early Saturday morning in many other locations. The Bureau of Meteorology for Queensland also told drivers "take care on the roads — if it's flooded, forget it." New South Wales, where 4.9 million hectares have been destroyed by fire, saw power cuts due to the heavy rainfall. Firefighters in the southeastern state were hopeful the weather change would bring much-needed respite for areas where dozens of bushfires still raged. The Rural Fire Service said Saturday it was continuing "to make the most of benign conditions to contain 75 bushfires, of which 25 are still to be contained." The fire service also noted that some parts of the state had yet to receive any moisture, particularly in the far south coast.

 Australia fires: Heavy rains hit some blaze-hit regions - Heavy rains and thunderstorms have lashed parts of Australia's east coast, dousing some of its fires but bringing a new threat of flooding to some areas. There have been downpours in the states of Victoria, New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, which have all been badly hit by the bushfire crisis. Major roads were closed in Queensland and power cuts were reported in parts of NSW as a result of the weather. But fire officials said the rain was helping to tackle some of the blazes. Fires have been raging in Australia since September, killing at least 28 people, destroying thousands of homes and scorching millions of acres of land. What's the latest? NSW reported severe rainfall and storms in several areas, and warned of potential flooding. Firefighters in the state said they were making the most of the "benign conditions" of rain and cooler temperatures to try to tackle the remaining bushfires. Some 75 fires were still burning in the state on Saturday, down from well over 100 a few days ago. "Rain continues to fall across a number of firegrounds, however the Far South Coast and along the border are still yet to receive any moisture," the Rural Fire Service said on Twitter. It also urged people to "take this time to discuss your bush fire survival plan". The state of Queensland has had some of the heaviest rainfall Australia has seen in months. Some major roads were closed and residential areas flooded, but no deaths or injuries were reported. "Heavy, intense rainfall has eased, but showers and thunderstorms still possible through the weekend. Forecasters in Victoria said thunderstorms were possible across much of the central and eastern state on Saturday. "Thunderstorms could become severe due to heavy falls across the northeast of the State. Damaging winds and large hail are a slight risk," the state's Bureau of Meteorology said. Major bushfires continued to rage on Saturday in regions in the south and south-east of the country - including on Kangaroo Island - which have so far missed out on the rain.

Hundreds of thousands of fish dead in NSW as bushfire ash washed into river -Hundreds of thousands of native fish are estimated to have died in northern New South Wales after rains washed ash and sludge from bushfires into the Macleay River. Parts of the Macleay River – favoured by recreational fishers – have been turned into what locals described as “runny cake mix” that stank of rotting vegetation and dead fish. One freshwater ecologist told Guardian Australia the impact of the fish kill might be felt for decades to come, with long-lived species like Australian bass hit hard. The NSW Department of Primary Industries has been receiving reports of “hundreds of thousands” of fish dead in the river since December 2019. Locals say rain in the past 10 days has seen more ash and mud from the parched and burned landscape running into the river. The disaster on the Macleay River is one of eight fish kills reported to the department this year, with the cause of most linked to lack of rainfall. Larry Newberry, a recreational fisher from Frederickton, near Kempsey, said he drove 100km to George’s Creek to survey the river last weekend. “I would say from what I’ve seen I would not be surprised that it’s wiped out every fish in at least 100 kilometres of the river,” he said. “The stench was overwhelming – it stank that much it made you heave. It’s the dead fish, the rotting vegetation and the ash from the fires and maybe the fire retardant. It is just like brown sludge. “I’ve been fishing the river for 50 years and I have seen fish kills before, but nothing of this magnitude. This will be happening in every east coast river that’s been hit by bushfires.”

Queensland flash flooding: highways cut and residents stranded among torrential rain - Major highways were cut and residents flooded in as more than 300mm of torrential rain bucketed down on south-east Queensland overnight. Two people were stranded after trying to drive through floodwater on the Gold Coast, with police receiving more than 50 reports of flooded roads across the city on Saturday morning. The deluge hit the Gold Coast the hardest with 325mm of rain falling at Loders Creek and more than 200mm in the Gold Coast hinterland. Floodwater closed the M1 at Helensvale as emergency crews tried to pump water away. Heavy trucks were being allowed to pass through but cars continued to be diverted. There was flash flooding reported on the Gold Coast highway at Miami, as well as at Chelmer, Kenmore Hills and Birkdale. According to the weather bureau, triple the monthly rainfall has fallen on the Gold Coast in the past 12 hours. The SES said it had responded to more than 160 callouts on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Sunshine Coast. The Bureau of Meteorology said 95mm had fallen in the space of one hour at the Gold Coast suburb of Carrara and 145mm had fallen within two hours at Monterey Keys. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services advised the public to beware of fallen trees and power lines and not to attempt to drive, walk or ride through floodwaters. Parts of parts of drought-stricken NSW also received drenchings, with some regions recording 250mm of rain in 24 hours.

  Philippines: lava gushes from Taal volcano as alert level raised - Red-hot lava gushed out of the Taal volcano in the Philippines on Monday after a sudden eruption of ash and steam forced villagers to flee and shut down Manila’s international airport, offices and schools. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage from the eruption south of the capital, which began on Sunday. But clouds of ash blew more than 100km (62 miles) north to Manila, forcing the shutdown of the country’s main airport, with more than 240 international and domestic flights cancelled. The airport partially reopened later on Monday. The government’s disaster-response agency reported about 8,000 villagers had moved to at least 38 evacuation centres in the hard-hit province of Batangas and nearby Cavite province, but officials expect the number to swell with hundreds of thousands more being brought out of harm’s way. Some residents could not move out of ash-blanketed villages due to a lack of transport and poor visibility, while officials said others refused to leave their homes.“We have a problem, our people are panicking due to the volcano because they want to save their livelihood, their pigs and herds of cows,” the mayor of Balete, Wilson Maralit, told DZMM radio. “We’re trying to stop them from returning and warning that the volcano can explode again any time and hit them.” Maralit, whose town lies on Taal Lake surrounding the erupting volcano, appealed for troops and additional police to be deployed to stop distraught residents from sneaking back to their high-risk coastal villages.After months of restiveness that began last year, Taal suddenly rumbled back to life on Sunday, blasting steam, ash and pebbles 10-15km (6-9 miles) into the sky, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. The government volcano-monitoring agency raised the danger level around Taal three notches to level 4, indicating “an imminent hazardous eruption.”

 As Philippine Volcano Belches Ash And Lava, Authorities Warn Of New Eruption The Philippines remained on alert Tuesday as authorities declared a "calamity zone" around Taal Volcano, which began spewing ash and lava over the weekend. They warned of indications that it could be on the cusp of a new, more powerful eruption.Authorities said they feared the possibility of an event similar to the massive 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which killed hundreds and blanketed large swaths of the countryside, causing massive mudslides and large-scale economic hardship.On Tuesday, Taal was spurting lava a half-mile into the sky along with a towering plume of volcanic ash — punctuated periodically by flashes of static lighting.  Since the eruption on Sunday, authorities have set the alert level at 4. Level 5, the highest, is reserved for an eruption in progress.In hardest-hit Batangas province, the government declared a calamity zone — a move meant to smooth coordination between levels of government.Forty miles to the north in Manila, a bustling city of 13 million was at a virtual standstill, with ash casting a gray pall over nearly deserted streets after businesses, schools and government offices were closed. The city's international airport, shut down on Monday, partially resumed flights on Tuesday after some 500 were canceled.Taal, a popular tourist site situated on an island surrounded by a freshwater lake, sprung to life on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of some 30,000 people from a 9-mile radius around the volcano. Even so, that exclusion zone is home to about 560,000 people, and the effort to relocate them, amid the imminent threat posed by the volcano, appears to be far from complete.Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who is also the head of the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, recalled that in the Pinatubo eruption, "the entire mountain collapsed." "That's what we're fearing, that the eruption would cause the entire island to rise and scatter debris on the nearby areas," he said. "Hopefully this won't happen. We can never predict the actions of this volcano."

Get Ready for More Volcanic Eruptions as the Planet Warms -- Throughout its history Earth has gone through periods of massive natural climate change such as entering and leaving ice ages. Scientists have noted volcanic eruptions tended to increase as glaciers melted. In a recent study published in Geology researchers looked at smaller-scale changes in glacial coverage to see if these incremental differences had any effect. When the scientists compared the volcanic record with glacial coverage, they found the number of eruptions indeed dropped significantly as the climate cooled and ice expanded. “There’s a big change in the record in the mid-Holocene [epoch], where we see no volcanic ash in Europe and very little in Iceland,” says Swindles, an associate professor of Earth system dynamics at the University of Leeds. “This seems to overlap with a time where there’s cold climate conditions, which would have favored glacial advance in Iceland.” He says his team observed an approximately 600-year lag between when glaciers advanced and volcanic activity diminished. “That’s because it takes a long time to grow ice masses,” he explains. The new study is “looking at maybe the smallest-magnitude climate change yet to show it has influence on volcanic activity,” says Ben Edwards, an associate professor of geology at Dickinson College. “To see this change in an interglacial period indicates that there’s an even more subtle relationship between climate change and volcanism” than scientists previously thought. Julie Schindlbeck, a volcanologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, says the work shows “maybe even small changes in ice volume can really affect volcanism.”Although scientists do not fully understand why glaciers appear to weaken volcanic eruptions, they believe the mechanics may be fairly straightforward. When glaciers expand, all that ice puts immense pressure on Earth’s surface. “It can affect magma flow and the voids and gaps in the Earth where magma flows to the surface as well as how much magma the crust can actually hold,” Swindles says. When glaciers retreat, the pressure lifts and volcanic activity surges. “After glaciers are removed the surface pressure decreases, and the magmas more easily propagate to the surface and thus erupt,” Swindles wrote in an e-mail to Scientific American.

On land, Australia’s rising heat is ‘apocalyptic.’ In the ocean, it’s even worse.— Even before the ocean caught fever and reached temperatures no one had ever seen, Australia’s ancient giant kelp was cooked. Rodney Dillon noticed the day he squeezed into a wet suit several years ago and dived into Trumpeter Bay to catch his favorite food, a big sea snail called abalone. As he swam amid the towering kelp forest, he saw that “it had gone slimy.” He scrambled out of the water and called a scientist at the University of Tasmania in nearby Hobart. “I said, ‘Mate, all our kelp’s dying, and you need to come down here and have a look.’ “But no one could do anything about it.” Climate change had arrived at this island near the bottom of the world, and the giant kelp that flourished in its cold waters was among the first things to go. Over recent decades, the rate of ocean warming off Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state and a gateway to the South Pole, has climbed to nearly four times the global average, oceanographers say. More than 95 percent of the giant kelp — a living high-rise of 30-foot stalks that served as a habitat for some of the rarest marine creatures in the world — died. Giant kelp had stretched the length of Tasmania’s rocky east coast throughout recorded history. Now it clings to a tiny patch near Southport, the island’s southern tip, where the water is colder. Climate scientists say it’s essential to hold global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times to avoid irreversible damage from warming.

Huge ‘hot blob’ in Pacific Ocean killed nearly a million seabirds - A million seabirds died in less than a year as a result of a giant “blob” of hot ocean water off the coast of New Zealand, according to new research. A study released by the University of Washington found the birds, called the common murre, probably died of starvation between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016. Most dead seabirds never wash ashore, so while 62,000 dead or dying murres were found along the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, researchers estimate the total number is closer to 1 million. Alaska saw the most birds wash up. In Prince William Sound in southern Alaska, more than 4,500 bird carcasses were found every kilometer, or 0.62 miles. The murres’ population also took a hit. According to the study, a limited food supply resulted in reduced breeding colonies across the entire region. Between the 2015 and 2016 breeding seasons, more than 15 colonies did not produce a single chick. Researchers say those estimates could be low since they only monitor a quarter of all colonies. The seabird has not replenished in numbers after the mass die-off. “The magnitude and scale of this failure has no precedent,” said John Piatt, the lead researcher. “It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem.” Researchers cannot determine how long it would take for the population to rebound – or if it ever will. “In light of predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves”, the study concluded, this could be a stark warning about the impending effects of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, another huge heat blob has formed off the Washington coast and up into the Gulf of Alaska, and is growing.

Climate change: Oceans hotter than ever before, new study reveals - The world's oceans are warmer than ever — and they are getting warmer faster, according to a new report.In a development that provides yet further evidence of global warming, the study, published inthe Chinese journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, found that ocean temperatures in the last decade have been the warmest on record.In addition, the research illustrates the influence of human-induced warming on the Earth's waters and indicates that sea-level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather could get worse as the oceans go on absorbing excess heat.  "The pace of warming has increased about 500% since the late 1980s," John Abraham, one of the researchers behind the study, told NBC News. "The findings, to be honest, were not unexpected. Warming is continuing, it has accelerated, and it is unabated. Unless we do something significant and quickly, it's really dire news." The rate of ocean warming is increasing at an alarming rate, according to the report. It showed that, from the period 1987 to 2019 compared with the period 1955 to 1986, the rate of warming accelerated almost 4 1/2 times in the latter timespan. Abraham and his colleagues found that in 2019 alone, average ocean temperatures were 0.075 degrees Celsius (0.135 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981-2019 median. While that may not seem a lot, it represents an enormous amount of heat spread across the world's oceans.  The study's lead author, Lijing Cheng, an associate professor at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing, equated the increase in ocean heat over the past 25 years to that of "3.6 billion Hiroshima atom bomb explosions."

Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates - The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet.The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities. The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night. Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires, as well as an inexorable rise in sea level. Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, with the number of marine heatwaves increasing sharply. “We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.  “When the world and the oceans heat up, it changes the way rain falls and evaporates. There’s a general rule of thumb that drier areas are going to become drier and wetter areas are going to become wetter, and rainfall will happen in bigger downbursts.” Hotter oceans also expand and melt ice, causing sea levels to rise. The past 10 years also show the highest sea level measured in records dating back to 1900. Scientists expect about one metre of sea level rise by the end of the century, enough to displace 150 million people worldwide.

2019 Was the Oceans' Hottest Year on Record --The world's oceans just had their warmest year on record. A study published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences Monday found that ocean temperatures reached record highs in 2019, and this is not an anomaly: The past five years have also been the warmest for the oceans since reliable measurements began in the 1950s. This is a big deal because the oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the extra heat generated by the burning of fossil fuels. "The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming," study coauthor and University of St. Thomas professor John Abraham told The Guardian. "Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news." The oceans in 2019 were 0.075 degrees Celsius above the average for 1981 to 2010, according to a press release. This means they have absorbed 228,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules of heat.  The Hiroshima atom-bomb exploded with an energy of about 63,000,000,000,000 Joules. The amount of heat we have put in the world's oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions,"  That means we've dumped the heat content of four bombs into the ocean every second for the last 25 years,according to CNN. But the oceans aren't just getting warmer, they are also getting warmer faster. Warming was 450 percent greater between 1987 and 2019 than it was between 1955 and 1986. And heat increase in 2019 was the greatest in the past decade, The Guardian reported.  "We are now at five to six Hiroshima bombs of heat each second," Abraham told CNN.  The study was based on data from the Argo network of 3,000 floats that measure temperature and depth, The New York Times explained. That system was put in place in 2007, but researchers were able to calculate overall ocean temperatures from earlier years based on readings taken off the sides of ships. The measurements cover the top 2,000 meters (approximately 6,562 feet) of the ocean, which is where most heat is stored and most marine life lives, The Guardian explained.

This Year Will Mark the Lowest Solar Activity in Over 200 Years - A 2010 study looked at temperature records going all the way back to 1659, which are contained within the Central England Temperature record. The scientists found that "Average solar activity has declined rapidly since 1985 and cosmogenic isotopes suggest an 8% chance of a return to Maunder minimum conditions within the next 50 years." Other sunspot minima have occurred in 1450 – 1540, which is known as the Spörer Minimum, and 1790 – 1820, which is known as the Dalton Minimum. A surprising conclusion of a 2002 study was that the Sun's surface rotation slowed during the deepest part of the Maunder Minimum, which was the winter of 1683-1684. This is the coldest winter on record according to the Central England Temperature record. The Sun's radiance also varies with the solar cycle. The solar luminosity is 0.07% higher during the solar maximum than it is during the solar minimum. The ratio of ultraviolet to visible light varies. Predictions for solar cycle #25 made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), NASA and the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) anticipate a deep minimum, and a maximum that will occur between the years 2023 and 2026. During that maximum, they predict the Sun will have between 95 and 130 sunspots. A bad space weather day The Sun's magnetic field gives structure to its corona. This is the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere which can only be seen during solar eclipses. When there are disruptions in the Sun's magnetic field, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can occur. These send ultraviolet and X-ray radiation and energetic particles towards Earth where they can have a serious impact on Earth's upper atmosphere. Today, this is called "space weather". The high energy particles can be dangerous for astronauts who are outside of Earth's protective magnetic field. NASA designs for future Mars missions include a radiation "storm shelter" where astronauts can ride out a space weather storm. CMEs are 50 times more frequent during solar maxima than they are during solar minima. An exception to this rule occured during December 2006, which was near to the solar minimum, when one of the brightest CMEs on record occured on December 5, 2006. The new solar cycle, #25, officially starts in 2020, and will reach its maximum sometime in 2025. 

 Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' - President Trump on Saturday ripped the "sea wall" that was proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect New York City from damaging natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, calling the plan costly, foolish [and] environmentally unfriendly." "A massive 200 Billion Dollar Sea Wall, built around New York to protect it from rare storms, is a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway," the president tweeted. "It will also look terrible. Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!" he added. The proposal, which would create a six-mile long barrier of man-made islands with retractable gates, is expensive, but not $200 billion like Trump claims in his tweet. The Corps estimates that the barrier would cost $119 billion and 25 years to build. While the barrier would protect New York from storm surges, it would fail to protect against flooding from high tides and storm runoff, according to The New York Times. The barrier could also trap sewage and toxins, which could prove harmful to the New York's surrounding ecosystem. However, a final decision on the sea wall is still far off, as Congress would have to approve of the plan. The Corps has announced that it won't present a finalized plan to Congress until 2022 at the earliest. 

Salty water in Bangkok is new 'reality' as sea pushes farther inland - Thai authorities are trucking drinking water to parts of Bangkok and urging residents to shower less as a worsening drought and rising sea levels have increased salinity, a growing risk faced by many Asian cities, climate researchers said. Bangkok's water authority said the capital's tap water was becoming saline as seawater pushed up the depleted Chao Phraya river, a source of much of central Thailand's water. Prime Minister Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha this week asked the public to save water by taking shorter showers. Making matters worse, Thailand's dry season began in November and usually lasts through April, but this year authorities said it could last until June and drought has been declared in 14 provinces. The drought conditions have worsened saltwater intrusion, which can have major impacts on farming and on health as drinking water is contaminated, said Suppakorn Chinvanno, a climate expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Many of Asia's biggest cities, including Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, are coastal and low-lying, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme climate events such as more frequent and deadlier cyclones. Indonesia plans to move its capital to the island of Borneo, as Jakarta - on the north coast of Java island - is slowly sinking and suffers regular flooding. Cities located in deltas have to increasingly deal with saltwater intrusion, "Bangkok is controlling groundwater extraction but is suffering from subsidence, making it more vulnerable to sea- level rise. As sea levels continue to rise, it is likely that salinity is going to become a growing threat," she said. Elsewhere in the Mekong Delta, saltwater intrusion is already a problem, with some cities in Vietnam monitoring salinity levels to alert farmers on whether the water is safe for irrigation, Archer said. "Farmers may need to adapt their crops to those more suited to brackish water,"

China mourns as Yangtze River’s paddlefish declared extinct - It’s farewell at first sight, said China Youth Daily, noting that many were lamentably unfamiliar with the paddlefish before learning of its demise. Users shared similar sentiments on the Twitter-like Weibo platform. So named for its distinctive shape, the Chinese paddlefish, or Chinese swordfish, had a lineage dating back at least 34 million years, scientists believe. It could grow as long as 7 meters (23 feet), but in the end, it couldn’t survive the overfishing, habitat fragmentation and loss of biodiversity in its native Yangtze River, according to a research paper in the Science of The Total Environment, a peer-reviewed environmental science journal. As no individuals exist in captivity, and no living tissues are conserved for potential resurrection, the fish should be considered extinct, the paper said, pointing to criteria for inclusion on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. The paper said since the late 1970s Chinese paddlefish populations declined drastically. The decline corresponded with major dam construction in the Yangtze. During that time, the Gezhouba Dam was built on the main stream of the river, and the opening of the Three Gorges dam project followed in 2003 the last year a live Chinese paddlefish was sighted. A survey in 2017 and 2018 found 332 fish species in the Yangtze, but not a single specimen of Chinese paddlefish. The researchers estimate that the fish became extinct some time between 2005 and 2010.

 UN proposal calls to protect 30 percent of Earth by 2030 as species face extinction - A draft plan released Monday by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called on world governments to take steps to protect 30 percent of lands and oceans worldwide by the end of the decade in the face of rising climate change. The plan advises putting at least 10 percent of the land and sea under “strict protection” and reducing nutrient and plastic pollution by at least half. “The theory of change for the framework acknowledges the need for appropriate recognition of gender equality, women’s empowerment, youth, gender-responsive approaches and the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in the implementation of this framework,” it says. “Further, it is built upon the recognition that its implementation will be done in partnership with many organizations at the global, national and local levels to leverage ways to build a momentum for success. It will be implemented by taking a rights-based approach and recognizing the principle of intergenerational equity,” it adds. The framework will be taken up at an October summit in China and could replace the largely unachieved goals agreed to in 2010. The plan comes amid devastating Australian fires that have killed an estimated 1 billion animals. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, chief program officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the language in the 2030 framework was “not ambitious enough,” according to HuffPost. “We are witnessing whole swaths of a continent burning ― devastating entire species before our eyes ― and the need for dramatic change could not be more blatant,” she said in a statement. “To reverse the cataclysmic changes occurring in nature, countries around the globe must heed scientists, who warn that heading off this rapid decline will require transformative action.”

Global coalition focusing on ocean energy established, and it has some big backers - A global coalition focusing on ocean energy was announced Monday, with its members saying they want to advance the “sustainable deployment of ocean-based renewable energy” and, in addition, mitigate the impacts of climate change. Led by Denmark’s Orsted and Norway’s Equinor, members of the Ocean Renewable Energy Action Coalition also include organizations such as Shell, MHI Vestas and Siemens Gamesa. The coalition is set to have a strong focus on offshore wind but will also look at technologies including wave and tidal power. “If we’re serious about fighting the climate crisis, it’s vital we decarbonise the world’s energy use as quickly as possible through technologies like offshore wind,” Benj Sykes, vice president at Orsted, said in a statement issued Monday. Sykes added that the new coalition would work together to “accelerate the opportunity presented by ocean renewables to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.” The last few years have seen the development of several major and innovative offshore wind energy projects. These include the 659 megawatt Walney Extension facility, in the Irish Sea, which was officially opened in 2018. The scale of that project is considerable: it is capable of powering more than 590,000 homes, has 87 turbines and covers an area of around 20,000 soccer pitches. Orsted owns 50% of the project, with Danish pension funds PFA and PKA owning 25% each.

Swiss Judge Clears Climate Crisis Protestors, Says Actions Were ‘Necessary and Proportional’ - A Swiss court on Monday cleared a dozen activists of wrongdoing and a hefty fine for a stunt they pulled in a Credit Suisse bank in November 2018. The protestors had occupied the bank and played tennis to demand an end to fossil fuel funding and to ask tennis star, Roger Federer, to end his endorsement deal with the bank, as the AP reported. The case went to court because the defendants refused to pay fines for protesting without a permit and resisting police. The protestors were charged with trespassing and ordered to pay 21,600 Swiss francs ($22,200). However, the judge in the appeal said the protestors had acted proportionately and waived the fine, as Reuters reported.None The judge, Philippe Colelough, said the protestors who wore completely white tennis outfits and wigs were justified because of the imminent threat posed by the climate crisis, according to Deutsche Welle."Because of the insufficient measures taken to date in Switzerland, whether they be economic or political, the average warming will not diminish nor even stabilize, it will increase," he said, noting Switzerland's melting glaciers, as Deutsche Welle reported."In view of this, the tribunal considers that the imminence of danger is established," the judge continued. "The act for which they were incriminated was a necessary and proportional means to achieve the goal they sought." The packed courtroom, in a suburb of Lausanne, erupted in applause and gave a standing ovation to the judge's decision, as Reuters reported.

Environmental Concerns, Including Water Crises, Dominate Global Risks Report Rankings for First Time in History - The world's business elite, apprehensive about turbulent geopolitics after a year of international turmoil, nonetheless sees the biggest risks to society in the next decade coming from changes outside boardrooms and parliaments. Degradation of the planet's natural systems — its air, land, water and living creatures — is the most worrisome threat to social and political stability in the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum's annual survey of leaders in business, academia, government and civil society. For the first time in the history of the Global Risks Report, respondents ranked environmental factors, including extreme weather and failure to respond to climate change, as the top five risks that are most likely to occur.  On a second measurement — impact, or the damage that a risk can cause — four of the top five risks are environmental: climate change inaction, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises. The other highly damaging risk: weapons of mass destruction. The fifteenth edition of the report comes as local and national leaders face the intensifying consequences of a warming planet and man-made environmental harm. Some 400,000 displaced residents of Jakarta are reeling from the worst flooding in the Indonesian capital in decades, while Australia struggles to contain record-breaking bush fires that flared during the country's hottest and driest year ever measured. In the face of these disasters, millions of protestors took to the streets last year, calling for government and business leaders to take action before the window closes for avoiding the most severe climate impacts. António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, warned in December that that point is "in sight and hurtling toward us." The boardrooms and government chambers that are registering concern for the consequences of climate change and environmental risk are the very locations in which actions to confront the hazards should be taken. Aquifers do not drain themselves and rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are a result of policy decisions made decades ago and fossil fuel subsidies that continue to this day. Collaboration on all fronts is needed to counteract the hazards, says Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum. And yet the politics of the moment — trade spats between China and the U.S., disdain by the Trump administration and other nationalist leaders for multilateral organizations like the United Nations, cleavage within the European Union — are straining traditional levers of collaboration, he argues. "While these changes can create openings for new partnership structures, in the immediate term, they are putting stress on systems of coordination and challenging norms around shared responsibility,"

BlackRock vows tougher stance on climate after activist heat - (Reuters) - BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink warned company boards to step up efforts to tackle climate change, a significant shift by the world’s top asset manager as it faces mounting concerns about its fossil fuel investments. In his annual letter to CEOs posted on the company’s website on Tuesday, Fink forecast a “fundamental reshaping of finance” and said companies must act or face anger from investors over how unsustainable business practices might curb their future wealth. Fink also said BlackRock would “be increasingly disposed” to cast critical proxy votes tied to sustainability, and said in a separate letter to clients that the firm will by mid-2020 sell off from its actively managed client portfolios stakes in companies that derive more than 25% of their revenues from thermal coal production. Climate activists hailed Fink’s revamped stances and said they would put pressure on rivals, though some cautioned the New York-based asset manager must still back up its new rhetoric. “As the biggest financial institution in the world, BlackRock’s announcement today is a major step in the right direction and a testament to the power of public pressure calling for climate action,” said Ben Cushing of the U.S.-based environmental group Sierra Club, in an emailed statement. A shift in global investing trends has sent trillions of dollars into passive funds run by BlackRock and rivals Vanguard Group and State Street Corp, bringing all three powerful new leverage on top corporations. A Vanguard spokeswoman said the firm aims to address climate change “while adhering to our obligations to deliver long-term value to our fund holders.” State Street did not immediately respond to requests for comment. All three companies count clients with a wide range of political views and tried to represent their actions in terms of investment strategy rather than politics.  A Reuters analysis in October found the top index fund managers rarely challenge company management and have largely opposed climate change proposals. In 2018 and 2019 BlackRock and Vanguard only backed around 10% of climate-related shareholder resolutions.

Larry Fink: Climate change risks are bigger than 2008 financial crisis — and no Fed to save us - BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink is warning that the financial risks of climate change are bigger than any crisis he’s experienced in his career on Wall Street. “We don’t have a Federal Reserve to stabilize the world like in the five or six financial crises that occurred during my 40 years in finance,” the head of the world’s biggest money manager told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin in an interview that aired Tuesday. Sorkin also wrote about the interview in Tuesday’s New York Times. “This is bigger,” he argued, calling on investors and corporate America to help combat climate change. “It requires more planning. It requires more public-private connections together to solve these problems. And I do believe many of these problems could be solved, but the actions have to begin now.” Fink, whose BlackRock has nearly $7 trillion in assets under management, used his annual letter to the world’s biggest companies to sound the alarm. “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. … But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” BlackRock will put “sustainability at the center of our investment approach,” he wrote — from portfolio construction to launching new investment products that screen fossil fuels. “For now over eight years, I’ve been writing CEO letters about ‘long-termism,‘” Fink told CNBC. “Nothing could be more ‘long-termism’ than climate change.” “I believe in the science. But I did not write it as an environmentalist. I wrote the letter as a capitalist,” he said. “My job is, as a capitalist, to help prepare our clients for the redistribution of capital. And more importantly, through that is to provide them with an investment portfolio that will outperform.”

'A Massive Victory': BlackRock CEO Promises to Center Climate Change in Investment Strategy - In a letter to investors Tuesday, Larry Fink, CEO of money management firm BlackRock,announced the company would prioritize the climate crisis in deciding on investments and strategies going forward—a major victory for the environmental movement. The new direction for BlackRock, the largest investment firm in the world which manages assets of around $6.96 trillion, is the result of a hard-fought effort by a group of dedicated activists, tweeted 350 Action co-founder Bill McKibben."This is a massive victory for a small band of fighters," said McKibben.  As Common Dreams reported last week, a new campaign called "Stop the Money Pipeline" is aimed at stopping financial support for the fossil fuel industry and has BlackRock as one of its primary targets.Fink says in his letter to investors that he believes "we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.""The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance," Fink wrote.According to the New York Times: The firm, he wrote, would also introduce new funds that shun fossil fuel-oriented stocks, move more aggressively to vote against management teams that are not making progress on sustainability, and press companies to disclose plans "for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized." Diana Best, senior strategist for the Sunrise Project, said in a statement that Fink's letter was a welcome first step.  "BlackRock beginning its shift of capital out of fossil fuels, including today's divestment of coal in its actively managed funds, is a fantastic start and instantly raises the bar for competitors such as Vanguard and State Street Global Advisors," said Best. "We will be looking for additional leadership from the company in, as Larry Fink put it, 'fundamentally reshaping finance to deal with climate change,' including additional shifts of capital out of fossil fuels." Sunrise Project is a key player in the BlackRock's Big Problem campaign. Climate advocates celebrated the letter as a victory for years of activism and protest, but warned that the firm would have to be held accountable for its behavior going forward. In a statement, the Sierra Club's campaign representative Ben Cushing said BlackRock's decision was a watershed moment while warning the letter needs to be backed up by immediate and concrete action to divest from dirty investments.

Why Extinction Rebellion is wrong about BlackRock - Last week, the world’s largest fund manager BlackRock finally yielded to high-level pressure to step up its activism on matters ESG and climate. On Wednesday the asset manager further announced it had offloaded $500m in shares from companies that generate a quarter or more of revenue from thermal coal.But according to an emailed statement from Extinction Rebellion (XR) on Tuesday, BlackRock’s decision to sign up to the Climate Action 100+ initiative isn’t enough, because: BlackRock remains waist-deep in fossil fuel investments and the world’s top backer of companies that destroy the Amazon rainforest and ignore the rights of indigenous people. BlackRock can rest assured that we will continue to pile on the pressure until they act to protect our children and the natural world. The comment was followed by XR’s usual stance that:  Time has almost entirely run out to address the ecological crisis which is upon us, including the sixth mass species extinction, global pollution, and abrupt, runaway climate change. Societal collapse and mass death are seen as inevitable by scientists and other credible voices, with human extinction also a possibility, if rapid action is not taken. XR’s motives and objectives are good. But climate pressure groups like it are much more likely to inspire investor-led change if they acknowledge the bitter truth that “societal collapse and mass death” is equally likely to occur if fossil-fuel producers are deprived of financing too quickly, or are shamed into dropping core operations in favour of renewables before cost-comparable options are amply available. This is especially the case for renewable sources that aren’t yet competitive with fossil fuel (ie most of them) and which thus, ironically, demand the expenditure of more fossil fuel in the short term than there would otherwise be if they weren’t being manufactured at all.  Meeting the climate change challenge is essential. Obviously. But killing the patient while curing the disease is hardly optimal either. This, however, is exactly what would happen if power became prohibitively expensive to large swaths of the global population if and when oil producers buckled to pressure and suspended fossil fuel production outright or switched into more expensive options overnight. So while diminishing fossil fuel dependence is a good objective in the long run, stigmatising anything and everyone connected to the production of a fuel that is still vital for keeping the global economy ticking over seems the opposite of constructive. By XR’s logic, anyone even remotely connected to the industry — from coal miners to BP station retail workers — would otherwise be deprived of financing or even mortgages. This seems wrong on many levels.

Vanguard refuses to sign up to climate crisis commitment - Vanguard, the world’s second largest asset manager, has refused to sign up to a group of major investors demanding that polluters respond to the climate crisis, despite its rival BlackRock relenting to pressure to do so. The US investment manager’s decision leaves it increasingly isolated after BlackRock last week joined Climate Action 100+ (CA100+), a group of asset managers that pushes the largest fossil fuel producers to show how they will meet carbon dioxide reduction targets. CA100+ counts among its members asset managers controlling more than $40tn, giving it clout to push large oil companies and other fossil fuel extractors to address climate issues. Last year, it forced British oil multinational BP to describe how its strategy aligned with goals laid out at the 2015 Paris climate summit. Vanguard on Monday revealed that its assets under management surpassed $6tn during 2019, after a net gain of $230bn in new investments, much of it in passive investments that track stock market indices, giving it large stakes in many fossil fuel companies. It has also gained regulatory approval to launch a new UK investment advice service, adding to the funds service that it started offering in the UK in 2017. Vanguard chief executive Tim Buckley has repeatedly insisted that it will focus on engaging with companies rather than voting for action. “We have to make sure we’re talking to companies on how they are dealing with and addressing these issues, but not crossing the line and telling them what to do,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times published on Sunday. Jeanne Martin, campaign manager at ShareAction, highlighted the voting records of both BlackRock and Vanguard. Both investors opposed more than 80% of climate-related shareholder motions at fossil fuel companies between 2015 and 2019, according to Guardian analysis of data provided by Proxy Insight – far higher than many counterparts.

Energy markets are in transition, and investors are retreating. Here’s why - While the stock market has boomed, energy stocks have not. Indeed, they have been the worst-performing sector over the last decade. Moreover, energy has dropped from 15% in 1990 to only 5% of the S&P 500 sector weightings in 2019. This is particularly ironic, since U.S. oil and gas production has boomed over the same period, making the United States the world’s largest producer of oil and gas — and making the country virtually self-sufficient. Why the retreat from the energy sector? Is it because of poor economic performance by companies themselves, compared to the overall market and other sectors, such as Big Tech? After all, this 10-year period encompasses the 2014–2016 oil price collapse. Or is it because of the growing impact and scale of ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing? To answer the “why,” IHS Markit Corporate Solutions’ Investment Perception group recently completed in-depth interviews with institutional and private equity investors with a total of $98 billion of energy assets under management, a population that encompasses focused energy investors, generalist portfolio managers and large multinational PE firms. The methodology is that which IHS Markit applies for companies to assess sentiment among investors. The results come to the clear conclusion that economic performance is significantly more important than ESG considerations at this time. But the survey also finds that ESG and climate are weighing on overall investment attractiveness of the energy sector and will continue to grow in importance. The investors identify commodity price volatility, low return on invested capital and long-term supply-demand imbalances as the main factors that lead to investment underperformance historically. As one of the respondents puts it, “There is a general apathy towards the sector as a result of not having made money over a one-, three- or five-year period. Investors have really pushed for a conversion into a more returns-based model, where they can get real visibility over what kind of cash flow they can look at.” Still, 67% of respondents believe that there is potential for the industry to experience a cyclical reversion in the stock market and come back into favor with equity investors. They believe that a rotation back into the energy sector is contingent on the supply-demand balance, conservative capital strategies and an improving outlook for the global macro and trade tensions. Sixty-three percent of respondents agree that the oil and gas sector is currently undervalued. A minor portion of respondents, who are less optimistic, believe that current valuations are fair when considering their outlook for commodity prices and long-term uncertainty around terminal values.

Homeland Security Listed Climate Activists as 'Extremists' Alongside Mass Killers -Internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security reveal that non-violent demonstrators targeting the oil industry were classified as "extremists," with some organization members listed alongside known white supremacists, as The Guardian reported. Five members of Climate Direct Action — Michael Foster, Ken Ward, Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, and Leonard Higgins — have been dubbed the Valve Turners after a coordinated effort on Oct. 11, 2016 to cut through fencing and turn off valves on a pipeline in four states. The pipeline carried crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries. The activists alerted the oil companies of their actions, filmed it and waited patiently for authorities to arrive and arrest them, as The Guardian reported. For a few hours, the oil stopped flowing. Those pipelines carried 15 percent of the daily U.S. oil consumption in 2016. Chargers for three of them were dropped, but Michael Foster, who turned a valve in North Dakota, spent six months in jail and is now on probation. During his trail, prosecutors compared him to the 9/11 terrorists and the Unabomber, according to Common Dreams.More recently, the Department of Homeland Security described the Valve Turners as "suspected environmental rights extremists." The Guardian reported that the document, which evaluated domestic terrorism threats from 2018 to 2020, also categorized the group alongside Dylan Roof, the white supremacists who murdered nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina and James Fields, who plowed his car into a group of people protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. "Equating mass murder by white supremacists with what Michael and I did is totally obscene," said Sam Jessup, one of the activists named in the documents, in an email to The Guardian. "This whole infrastructure of so-called security has done little more than secure the future of the fossil fuel industry by terrorizing people into silence." Mike German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote an email to The Guardian stating that Homeland Security's framing was "highly misleading because white supremacists are responsible for the bulk of this violence and almost all of the fatalities that result. There is little that environmentalists have engaged in the types of deadly violence that would meet the statutory definition of domestic terrorism, as codified by Congress."

Bloomberg says he'll cut carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030 -  Presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pledging to slash carbon pollution by 50 percent in the U.S. economy by 2030, according to a climate plan unveiled Wednesday. "Mike will cut carbon pollution economy-wide in the U.S. by 50% by 2030 and put us on the pathway to full decarbonization before mid-century," said a fact sheet outlining the plan. "This includes immediately prioritizing a push for cleaner buildings in his first term, expanding programs to reduce energy costs for underserved households while simultaneously improving health and safety," it continued. Bloomberg's plan aims for new buildings to have carbon-zero and "hyper-efficient" performance by 2025, through methods including "aggressive clean building codes that maximize energy savings." The White House hopeful also wants to incentivize pollution-free and electric options for people looking to replace appliances or equipment in their buildings or homes such as buildings and hot water heaters. "My clean building initiative includes measures to help homeowners, building owners and tenants to upgrade their homes and buildings to save energy and eliminate pollution," Bloomberg tweeted. The billionaire has previously advocated for limiting fossil fuel emissions, including through funding for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

 Power plant emissions down 47% under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative » Yale Climate Connections - The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is often described as a cap-and-trade program.It’s not.This first-in-the-nation regional effort to lower carbon emissions from power plants is actually a cap-and-invest program. Power plants buy emission allowances through quarterly auctions for the right to pollute above a set cap. The states get the money, most of which they’re supposed to invest in consumer benefits such as energy efficiency programs that help lower energy use further.From 2009, when RGGI – pronounced Reggie – officially kicked in, through 2017, that system sent $2.4 billion back to the nine current member states, according to the most recent report from RGGI. Power plant emission reductions exceed those in rest of U.S. by 90%According to a 10-year report by the northeast regional advocacy group Acadia Center, proceeds since the time of the first two auctions (a year before RGGI officially got under way) had totaled nearly $3.3 billion by the end of June 2019.The Acadia report also says emissions from the plants covered by RGGI are down 47% – outpacing the rest of the nation by 90%. The gross domestic product of the RGGI states, all in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, also grew by 47% – again outpacing the rest of the country, which grew by 31%.“I’m not shocked by the direction of the impact here,” says Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director at Acadia. “But I am surprised by just how strong the direction is. The fact that we’re outpacing the rest of the country in electric sector emission reductions by 90% is staggering. … It’s an important demonstration that taking on climate change doesn’t mean economic sacrifice.” That observation is not lost on other states. New Jersey, among RGGI’s original 10 states, has now re-entered the program after dropping out in 2012 under then-Gov. Chris Christie. And at least two more states – Virginia and Pennsylvania – are looking to join.

EIA expects U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions to decrease annually through 2021 - In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 14, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts year-over-year decreases in energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through 2021. After decreasing by 2.1% in 2019, energy-related CO2 emissions will decrease by 2.0% in 2020 and again by 1.5% in 2021 for a third consecutive year of declines.These declines come after an increase in 2018 when weather-related factors caused energy-related CO2 emissions to rise 2.9%. If this forecast holds, energy-related CO2 emissions will have declined in 7 of the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. With the forecast declines, the 2021 level of fewer than 5 billion metric tons would be the first time emissions have been at that level since 1991.After a slight decline in 2019, EIA expects petroleum-related CO2 emissions to be flat in 2020 and decline slightly in 2021. The transportation sector uses more than two-thirds of total U.S. petroleum consumption. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) grows nearly 1% annually during the forecast period. In the short term, increases in VMT are largely offset by increases in vehicle efficiency.Winter temperatures in New England, which were colder than normal in 2019, led to increased petroleum consumption for heating. New England uses more petroleum as a heating fuel than other parts of the United States. EIA expects winter temperatures will revert to normal, contributing to a flattening in overall petroleum demand.Natural gas-related CO2 increased by 4.2% in 2019, and EIA expects that it will rise 1.4% in 2020. However, EIA expects a 1.7% decline in natural gas-related CO2 in 2021 because of warmer winter weather and less demand for natural gas for heating.Changes in the relative prices of coal and natural gas can cause fuel switching in the electric power sector. Small price changes can yield relatively large shifts in generation shares between coal and natural gas. EIA expects coal-related CO2 will decline by 10.8% in 2020 after declining by 12.7% in 2019 because of low natural gas prices. EIA expects the rate of the coal-related CO2 decline to be less in 2021 at 2.7%. The declines in CO2 emissions are driven by two factors that continue from recent historical trends. EIA expects that less carbon intensive and more efficient natural gas-fired generation will replace coal-fired generation and that generation from renewable energy—especially wind and solar—will increase.

New electric generating capacity in 2020 will come primarily from wind and solar - According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest inventory of electric generators, EIA expects 42 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity additions to start commercial operation in 2020. Solar and wind represent almost 32 GW, or 76%, of these additions. Wind accounts for the largest share of these additions at 44%, followed by solar and natural gas at 32% and 22%, respectively. The remaining 2% comes from hydroelectric generators and battery storage.

  • Wind. Operators have scheduled 18.5 GW of wind capacity to come online in 2020, surpassing the record level of 13.2 GW set in 2012. More than 60%, or 11.2 GW, of wind capacity is scheduled to come online at the end of the year, in November and December of 2020, which is typical for solar and wind applications. Expiration of the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) at the end of 2020 is driving the large wind capacity addition. The phase-out of the PTC extension is also reflected in the amount of wind capacity additions that came online in 2019, which EIA expects will total 11.8 GW. Five states account for more than half of the 2020 planned wind capacity additions. Texas accounts for 32%; followed by Oklahoma at 6%; then Wyoming, Colorado, and Missouri at 5% each.
  • Solar photovoltaics. EIA expects 13.5 GW of solar capacity to come online in 2020, surpassing the previous annual record addition of 8 GW in 2016. More than half of the utility-scale electric power sector solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity additions will be in four states: Texas (22%), California (15%), Florida (11%), and South Carolina (10%). The residential and commercial sectors will also experience record growth as a result of new distributed PV or rooftop systems. According to its Short-Term Energy Outlook, EIA expects an additional 5.1 GW of small-scale solar PV capacity to enter service by the end of 2020.
  • Natural gas. Planned natural gas capacity additions for 2020 are 9.3 GW. Combined-cycle plants account for 6.7 GW and combustion-turbine plants account for 2.3 GW. More than 70% of these additions are in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Louisiana. Scheduled capacity retirements (11 GW) for 2020 will primarily be driven by coal (51%), followed by natural gas (33%) and nuclear (14%). Other smaller renewable, petroleum, and hydro capacity account for the remaining 2% of 2020 retirements.
  • Coal. Of the 5.8 GW of coal-fired capacity that EIA expects to retire in 2020, half of the capacity is located in Kentucky and Ohio. The retirement of Unit 3 at the Paradise plant in Kentucky (0.97 GW) will be the largest coal-fired unit to retire in the United States this year. The next-largest retirements will be at Elmer Smith in Kentucky and at Conesville (Unit 4) and W H Sammis (Units 1–4) in Ohio.

Transmission Emerging as Major Stumbling Block for State Renewable Targets - Demand for renewables from the growing number of states and utilities with 100 percent clean energy goals is almost certain to outpace their ability to supply it from within their own borders. But the time needed to build transmission lines to move the power around is running out. On Wednesday, research firm ScottMadden released a new in-depth study that describes the complicated, region-by-region state of play for the U.S. transmission grid. It’s an exhaustive update of key policy developments, largely focused on the regional transmission organizations and independent system operators that manage the transmission system for about two-thirds of the country — from the effects of “polar vortex” winter events on grid reliability to California’s moves to expand its energy market across the Western U.S. The study was commissioned by Wires, a nonprofit group representing utilities, grid operators, transmission owners and developers. Many of its arguments for transmission investment are familiar from years past. But they have a new sense of urgency from the increasing number of states and utilities setting 100 percent clean energy goals, Larry Gasteiger, Wires group executive director, told GTM. “One of the key takeaways is the mismatch between where renewable supply is versus where it’s going to be needed to meet the various mandates and renewables goals being made in states and regions,” Gasteiger said. In simple terms, the cheapest wind power is from the Great Plains and Intermountain West, and the cheapest solar power is from the Southwest and Southeast regions, and both need a way to reach faraway coastal markets. New England, New York and California are bearing the brunt of this pressure, with estimated clean energy demand set to outstrip forecasted supply by 2030. Meanwhile, the Upper Midwest, Texas and the Southeast are expected to have more supply than demand, while the Midcontinent Independent System Operator and the Southwest Power Pool face challenges integrating wind-rich northern regions to fossil-fuel-dependent southern regions.

Could Ameren's New Transmission Line Make Congestion Worse? - The U.S. transmission grid is facing the unprecedented challenge of a shifting generation portfolio stemming from massive additions of intermittent renewable energy. However, there is a serious issue regarding transmission expansion plans: The process of building new generation happens much faster than building new transmission. This means that attempts to alleviate congestion or deliver power to a new area can sometimes have unintended consequences. Ameren’s new 100-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line in the region overseen by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, dubbed the Mark Twain Transmission Project, is the latest example of the challenges regional transmission organizations face when it comes to the shifting grid in the Midwest. The Mark Twain project was conceived to allow more wind capacity from Iowa and Missouri to travel east into Illinois at the Marblehead transformer. Wind farms in the area had been injecting zero-marginal-cost power into the grid near Palmyra and causing new patterns of transmission congestion. Ameren began construction on the line in May 2018, and it officially went into service on December 19, 2019. The Marblehead transformer is one of the most constrained areas in MISO, located in a part of the grid that bottlenecks the amount of wind generation that can flow from Iowa and Missouri into Illinois. The addition of the Mark Twain line also happens to coincide with the retirements of four Illinois coal plants totaling over 2 gigawatts of capacity: Coffeen, Havana, Hennepin and Duck Creek. The first three retirements happened in August 2019, and the final plant, Duck Creek, retired on December 13 — just days before the new line was scheduled to going into service. The latter three plants provided reactive power to the Marblehead transformer. With the retirement of these plants, the grid is poised to be thrown out of balance as additional power flows over those lines and directly through the Marblehead transformer. On high wind days in Iowa and Missouri, power from new wind capacity in the region will flow toward Marblehead via the new line — making the bottleneck worse and causing congestion. In other words, rapid wind development since 2011, combined with the retirement of several major coal plants, means the new Mark Twain project will cause additional congestion at Marblehead even as it eases congestion issues near Palmyra. The increased congestion will result in large price discrepancies between locations, disincentivizing new wind farm development in Iowa and Missouri and causing a less efficient dispatch of generation.

 Hydro-Quebec Could Face Fine For Late Disclosure Of Efforts To Sway Maine Voters On CMP Project | Maine Public radio (audio) -A ballot question committee representing the Canadian energy company Hydro-Quebec could face a significant fine from state election regulators for the late disclosure of campaign activity. Meanwhile, a state lawmaker is trying to stop the company’s efforts to convince Maine voters to approve a controversial $1 billion transmission project at the ballot box in November.Hydro-Quebec formed its ballot question committee last fall and announced that it would work to defeat a referendum aimed at scuttling a project Central Maine Power calls the New England Clean Energy Connect.Hydro-Quebec's sole shareholder is the government of Quebec, and that has raised questions about foreign influence in a Maine election.And then last month, Hydro-Quebec amended its campaign finance report, showing nearly $100,000 in spending — a month before it had formed the ballot committee.“The law is in place to make sure that folks who are participating in ballot question committees are transparent and forthcoming about what they’re doing," says state Rep. Kent Ackley.Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, has filed a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission asserting that Hydro-Quebec’s ballot committee has broken a law requiring timely disclosure of campaign activity.The Maine Ethics Commission, which enforces the state’s election laws, also spotted the late filing. And Commission Director Jonathan Wayne confirmed in an email that the committee could face a penalty in the "tens of thousands." A fine could be determined by the commission’s five-member board next month, but in the meantime, Ackley is hoping to convince legislative leaders to allow an emergency bill that would prohibit Hydro-Quebec or other foreign entities from participating in a Maine election.

India's annual electricity demand grows at slowest pace in 6 years (Reuters) - India’s annual electricity demand in 2019 grew at its slowest pace in six years with December marking a fifth straight month of decline, government data showed, amid a broader economic slowdown that led to a drop in sales of everything from cars to cookies and also to factories cutting jobs. Electricity demand is seen as an important indicator of industrial output in the country and a sustained decline could mean a further slowdown in the economy. India’s power demand grew at 1.1% in 2019, data from the Central Electricity Authority showed, the slowest pace of growth since a 1% uptick seen in 2013. The power demand growth slowdown in 2013 was preceded by three strong years of consumption growth of 8% or more. In December, the country’s power demand fell 0.5% from the year-earlier period, representing the fifth straight month of decline, compared with a 4.3% fall in November. But in India’s western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, two of India’s most industrialised provinces, monthly demand increased. In October, power demand had fallen 13.2% from a year earlier, its steepest monthly decline in more than 12 years, as a slowdown in Asia’s third-largest economy deepened. Industry accounts for more than two-fifths of India’s annual electricity consumption, while homes account for nearly a fourth and agriculture more than a sixth. The slower demand growth is a blow for many debt-laden power producers, who are facing financial stress and are owed over $11 billion by state-run distribution companies.

Why Texas missed a nationwide drop in power prices -  Wholesale electricity prices last year fell nationwide except in one place — Texas. Here, they soared when an August heat wave gripped the state and repeatedly sent wholesale power prices up to the state’s maximum price of $9,000 per megawatt hour. In most of the U.S., average annual wholesale prices fell 15 to 30 percent in 2019 compared with the previous year, a reflection of lower natural gas prices, according to the Department of Energy. But in Texas, day-ahead wholesale electricity prices averaged $38 per megawatt hour in 2019, an increase of 13 percent over the 2018 average, according to the Energy Department. The higher average price was caused by the state’s tight power supply cushion, record demand and surcharges.Monthly wholesale prices in Texas were the highest in August, a month when punishing triple-digit temperatures and record-setting demand forced the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to issue emergency alerts, including voluntary conservation measures, to prevent rolling blackouts. The surge in demand set off price signals that prompted power generators to produce more power and for consumers to use less, according to the Energy Department.State regulators agreed last year to increase the amount that generators could charge during times of peak demand. The surcharges, known as price adders, were triggered in August during the heat wave. Average prices in Texas that month were $162 per megawatt-hour, compared with $38 per megawatt-hour in August 2018.The surge in prices was especially difficult on Texas consumers that buy wholesale power on the spot market from retail electric providers such as Griddy, the California-based company. Griddy, which provides tools to customers to make on-the-spot changes in electricity use when wholesale prices change, said it lost some customers as a result of the record-setting prices.

One subsidy charge out, another back in for utility customers in Dayton, Ohio - A Dayton utility’s effort to collect a surcharge has been thwarted by an Ohio Supreme Court decision, but that doesn’t mean ratepayers are off the hook.   Despite being told its “distribution modernization” rider was unlawful, Dayton Power and Light will now collect another charge under a different name.  And it won’t have to refund any of the $219 million it collected from customers under the earlier charge, which was rejected by regulators in November.The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel claims the move basically replaces one unlawful charge with another improper subsidy. The maneuver also bears out challengers’ fears from an e arlier Dayton Power case that such swap-outs could let Ohio regulators and utilities evade judicial review.At issue now is the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approval of the utility’s rate plan swap-out on Dec. 18. Less than a month earlier, the PUCO told Dayton Power it could no longer charge a distribution modernization rider the regulators had previously allowed. The PUCO had previously reasoned that the charge would boost the financial strength of the utility and its parent company. In November, though, the PUCO found that Dayton Power’s credit support charge “was fundamentally similar,” to a similar charge that was held unlawful by the Ohio Supreme Court in a FirstEnergy caselast June.The PUCO initially approved the rider for Dayton Power’s customers in 2017, and the utility began collecting the charge that fall, even while the case was on appeal. After the court ruled in the FirstEnergy case, the PUCO hearing examiner in the Dayton Power case asked for additional briefs on the lawfulness of that charge. The PUCO’s November ruling found the charge had to be dropped.Instead of doing that, however, Dayton Power moved to withdraw its rate plan altogether. That would let it go back to a previous rate plan and a “rate stability” charge.That maneuver substitutes basically the same plan that was challenged three years ago after a different Ohio Supreme Court decision had found another charge to customers was unlawful. Then, as now, Dayton Power withdrew the plan with an unlawful charge and basically substituted the rate stability charge for it.

Judge recommends approval of cost recovery for wind farms – - An administrative law judge recommended Monday that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission approve a settlement to recover costs from three wind farms being developed in north-central Oklahoma by Public Service Co. of Oklahoma.

Report: Feds to bill fire victims if utility doesn't pay $4B -  (AP) — Federal officials are prepared to bill wildfire victims for a portion of the nearly $4 billion the government says it's owed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., if the debt isn't resolved as part of the utility's bankruptcy case, according to a newspaper report Sunday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked for reimbursement from PG&E to cover costs from the government’s response to destructive fires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Under PG&E’s current plan to resolve its bankruptcy, any payment to FEMA would have to come from the $13.5 billion the utility intends to reserve primarily to settle claims from wildfire victims, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Victims’ lawyers are fighting FEMA’s claim, which would take up nearly 30% of the settlement. But FEMA told the Chronicle it is compelled to seek compensation from PG&E. Otherwise, individual victims would be responsible if they get settlement funds that duplicate money already paid by the federal government, according to Bob Fenton, the agency’s regional administrator. Fenton said FEMA has “no interest” in reducing the amount of settlement funds available for fire victims. “What we are interested in doing is holding PG&E responsible and accountable for the billions of dollars taxpayers provided to assist individuals and communities affected by the wildfires,” he told the newspaper. “The last thing I want to do is have to go after these individuals that have received claims from the bankruptcy where certain parts of that claim may duplicate funding that we’ve already given them. ... It’s much easier up front to go ahead and simply deal with PG&E directly.”

Feds To Bill California Fire Victims If PG&E Doesn't Pay $4 Billion Owed- Report -  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is prepared to bill California wildfire victims to recover a portion of some $4 billion it says it's owed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), in the event the debt isn't resolved under the utility's bankruptcy case, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  The reimbursement would cover costs from the government's response to fires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. According to the report, any payment to FEMA would have to come from the company's $13.5 billion allocation intended to settle claims from fire victims. FEMA's claim would consume around 30% of the settlement. Victims' lawyers are now battleing the agency, which told the Chronicle that it is compelled to first seek reimbursement from the utility - otherwise "individual victims would be on the hook if they get settlement money that duplicates funds already paid by the federal government," according to the report, citing FEMA regional administrator Bob Fenton.  FEMA has "no interest" in reducing the amount of settlement funds made available to fire victims, said Fenton.  "What we are interested in doing is holding PG&E responsible and accountable for the billions of dollars taxpayers provided to assist individuals and communities affected by the wildfires," he added. "The last thing I want to do is have to go after these individuals that have received claims from the bankruptcy where certain parts of that claim may duplicate funding that we’ve already given them. ... It’s much easier up front to go ahead and simply deal with PG&E directly."

U.S. coal-fired power plants closing fast despite Trump's pledge of support for industry -(Reuters) - U.S. coal-fired power plants shut down at the second-fastest pace on record in 2019, despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to prop up the industry, according to data from the federal government and Thomson Reuters. Power companies retired or converted roughly 15,100 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired electricity generation, enough to power about 15 million homes, according to the data, which included preliminary statistics from the Energy Information Administration and Reuters reporting. That was second only to the record 19,300 MW shut in 2015 during President Barack Obama’s administration. The replacement of coal with power generation from natural gas and renewables has cut total U.S. carbon emissions in four of the past five years. Gas emits about half the carbon dioxide, a leading contributor to global warming, as coal. The coal industry has been in steep decline for a decade due to competition from cheap and abundant gas and subsidized solar and wind energy, along with rising public concern over coal’s contribution to climate change. Trump has downplayed climate change threats and sought to revive the coal industry to fulfill pledges to voters in coal mining states like West Virginia and Wyoming, mainly by rolling back Obama-era environmental protections. Still, since entering office in 2017, an estimated 39,000 MW of coal-fired power plant capacity has shut. If that trend continues, more coal plants will have shut during the first four years (2017-2020) of the Trump administration - an estimated 46,600 MW - than during Obama’s second term (2013-2016) - around 43,100 MW.

US power generators set for another big year in coal plant closures in 2020 - U.S. coal consumption is likely to decline sharply again in 2020, though the current roster of planned and completed coal plant retirements suggests the year may not be quite as rough as the past two. At 13,703 MW, 2019 marks the highest level of annual coal capacity retirements in the U.S. since 2015, a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of federal data shows. The amount of coal capacity planned for retirement in 2020 is expected to exceed the amount retired in each of 2014, 2016 and 2017. Another retirement has already been announced. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. said Jan. 9 that it was closing its 247-MW Escalante power plant in New Mexico by the end of 2020. Since 2014, U.S. power generators retired nearly 62,000 MW of coal-fired generation capacity, with another 26,947 MW of retirements teed up through 2025. "I would say, overall, utilities seem pretty keen to retire coal … sooner rather than later,"  Morgan Stanley forecast in a December 2019 report that about 70,000 MW to as much as 190,000 MW of coal-fired generation is "economically at risk" from the deployment of a "second wave of renewables" in the U.S. The research firm said these projections exclude about 24,000 MW of coal generation already set to shut down. "[W]e believe that carbon-heavy utilities that have not historically led the pack in clean energy deployment will accelerate their earnings growth by pursuing a 'virtuous cycle': shutting down expensive coal plants and investing in cheap renewables," the analysts wrote.U.S. domestic coal consumption for power is estimated to fall another 5% in 2020, said Matt Preston, Wood Mackenzie's research director of North America coal markets. Coal plant operators in the PJM Interconnection have retired more than 18,800 MW of coal capacity since 2014 with more than 3,100 MW of shuttered coal plants on the horizon. The Midcontinent ISO will have shut down 20,433 MW of coal capacity between 2014 and 2025 based on completed, approved and announced retirements. Meanwhile, coal plant operators in the Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc. have pulled the plug on 4,973 MW of capacity since 2014. American Electric Power Co. Inc.'s, or AEP's, plans to shut down the 650-MW Oklaunion coal plant in Texas this year is the only announced retirement in ERCOT through 2025, data shows.

Merkel Inks Deal For Stalled German Coal Exit - German Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally hammered out a deal for Germany's stalled exit from coal-fired power generation, after state leaders agreed to shut down the industry by 2038. We would note that this falls outside the 12-year window of doom predicted by US climate expert Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but better late than never when environmental apocalypse is on the line. Germany's plan includes 40 billion euros ($44.6 billion) in compensation for impacted regions, according to Bloomberg. The country's largest coal-fired power producer, RWE AG, will receive 2.6 billion euros according to an insider - sending the stock up 1.7% in mid-morning trade on Thursday. In eastern Germany, utility Lignite operators will receive 1.75 billion euros according to German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. Merkel has been in a tight spot on the issue, facing pressure from environmentalists and miners alike. Climate tops voter concerns, and Germany will already miss its 2020 targets under the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, the poorer states in the former Communist East, where the bulk of the mines are, fear a growing gap to the West. Her predicament feeds into a broader political challenge, with the Greens party and the far-right Alternative for Germany gaining support on both sides of the political spectrum to squeeze Germany’s traditional mainstream parties, including her Christian Democrats. The AfD has been particularly strong in the eastern mining states. “It was a long night -- it lasted until 2 a.m. -- but we were able to achieve a sensible agreement,” Armin Laschet, premier of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio. “The time frame that we’ve agreed on is ambitious, but realistic.” -Bloomberg (via Yahoo!) According to Laschet, approximately 3,000 jobs will be lost to the closures, which will occur more quickly in west German states. The biggest resistance to the plan comes from states in the former communist east, which heavily relies on coal and has a lower income per capita than in the west. 

Water scarcity accelerates plans to close Xcel's Tolk coal plant by a decade -Xcel Energy intends to shutter the 1,067 MW Tolk coal-fired generating station, which provides power to Texas and New Mexico, by Dec. 31, 2032, according to a stipulation endorsed by subsidiary Southwestern Public Service (SPS), environmental advocates and the utility division staff of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (NMPRC). Per the stipulation, SPS will recruit an independent evaluator to assess possible ways to replace the coal facility, and submit a report to the NMPRC by June 2021. The utility has also agreed to study earlier retirement scenarios for the plant, given its dependence on a rapidly-depleting source of groundwater. The NMPRC will need to formally approve the agreement before it can go into effect. A hearing examiner is scheduled to assess the stipulation — which is also signed by Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates and other parties —​ in February, and recommend a final decision to the commission. New Mexico lawmakers passed Senate Bill 489 last year, setting the state on a path to generating 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, and increasing the state's renewable portfolio standard requirements to 50% and 80% by 2030 and 2040, respectively. The ambitious targets require all of New Mexico's utilities to "transition very quickly to renewables," Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of Sierra Club, told Utility Dive. Both units of the Tolk coal-powered plant began commercial operation in the 1980s. But the facility requires water to cool its boilers and relies on only one source —​ the Ogallala aquifer, in the Texas Panhandle, which is drying out due to excess agricultural, industrial and urban usage. The utility reduced operations at the plant to minimum load during off-peak months in 2019, and intends to keep the plant idle during off-peak months starting in 2021, if regulators in Texas and New Mexico allow it. Even with new well infrastructure, the aquifer will not be able to support the Tolk facility until 2042, when the first of its units is currently scheduled to retire, according to SPS. The utility requested commission permission to abandon Tolk's Units 1 and 2 in 2032 as part of its July 2019 general rate case application, which also sought a $50.8 million —​ or 18.7% —​ increase to its case rate revenue.

Kansas coal plant plans abandoned amid industry shift | The Wichita Eagle Two companies that battled for more than a decade to expand coal power in Kansas say they’ve abandoned their plans to build a $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant.Sunflower Electric Power Corp., based in Hays, announced Wednesday that it will let its air permit for a proposed coal-fired plant in Holcomb expire in March, signaling an end to a project that drawn criticism from environmentalists. It was first blocked by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007 and then cleared for construction by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2017. But during that time, coal fell out of favor for environmental and economic reasons. It has been on a decline nationwide for at least a decade as public concerns about coal’s contribution to climate change have risen. At the same time, competing energy sources, such as cheaper natural gas and heavily-subsidized solar and wind energy, have taken off. The Kansas plant would have been the first one brought online in the United States since 2015.

Indiana bill would require Trump administration blessing to retire coal early   - Indiana utilities may be prevented from retiring their coal plants early, or even reducing operations, unless explicitly directed by the Trump administration under a bill introduced Wednesday by the state House of Representatives. House Bill 1414 would only allow the state's utility regulators to permit a premature plant retirement if the utility is given a direct mandate from the federal government, excluding the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill also specifies a utility may not "materially and adversely affect the operation, safety, capacity, economic useful life, or any other aspect of the electric generation facility," which policy analysts say could impact a broad array of practices that would reduce a power plant's operations.The bill's sponsor Rep. Ed Soliday, R, last year introduced a bill that would place a moratorium on building new power plants in the state, intended to reduce competition for coal-fired plants under pressure from low-priced natural gas and renewables. Coal and renewables interests say the U.S. will likely see more legislation of this kind in coal-reliant states, as plant retirements stack up. Indiana is a traditionally coal-heavy state — it's one of the top 10 coal producers in the U.S., and the sector supports thousands of jobs and adds millions of dollars to the state's economy every year. Coal made up just under 70% of the state's electricity consumption in 2018. But like many other coal states in the U.S., Indiana is grappling with a new economic reality where low natural gas and renewables prices are pushing coal plants offline early, a trend that's only expected to grow. Under this bill, utilities in the state would be prevented from doing anything to reduce their coal plant's generation, unless they are directly mandated by the Trump administration which seems "unlikely," said Inskeep. One of President Donald Trump's campaign promises was to end the "war on coal" and leadership in his Department of Energy has also expressed partiality to coal and other fossil fuel generators. But some of Indiana's major coal consumers — the Northern Indiana Public Service Company and Vectren — have announced plans to move away from coal-fired power and toward renewables and natural gas in resource plans filed last year.

KY coal miners block train over lack of pay | Lexington Herald Leader -- Coal miners frustrated over not being paid blocked a load of coal from moving in Pike County Monday. Kenny Collins said he and another miner, who asked not to be identified, and their wives got to the tracks at Kimper about 2 p.m. Monday and prevented a load of coal from moving. Collins said the two miners work at Quest Energy and haven’t been paid for three weeks of work. “They won’t get their coal until we’re paid,” said Collins, who operates a shuttle car at the underground mine. Collins, who is financially responsible for two children and a grandchild, said the lack of pay has been a hardship. His power got cut off Monday, and it was the last straw for him.“If it hadn’t been for my mom, I don’t know how we would’ve made it,” said Collins’ wife, Melissa. “This is the last thing we wanted to do.”More miners were gathering as darkness fell early Monday evening, and residents near the site were pledging to bring firewood and pizza.The miners at the tracks said there were 120 cars in the train, and 100 held coal they’d produced at the Quest mine.The miners said about 50 employees are owed for three weeks of work, totaling $2,000 to $3,000. Collins said he is owed more than $3,000.The blockade echoes a protest that miners in Harlan County carried out last summer when a coal company called Blackjewel filed bankruptcy.The final checks the company issued to hundreds of miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia bounced, leaving many overdrawn.

Bankrupt coal company Blackjewel accuses former CEO of fraud (AP) — Attorneys for bankrupt coal company Blackjewel LLC and its creditors are asking a federal judge to let them examine the finances of former CEO Jeff Hoops, alleging that he took millions of dollars for personal gain, according to court documents.In documents filed Friday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, lawyers for West Virginia-based Blackjewel said the company was “woefully insolvent” by the time it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.“This level of insolvency and inevitable bankruptcy filings were the result of a years-long effort by Mr. Hoops to transfer tens of millions of dollars of the Debtors’ assets for his benefit and the benefit of his family and other Hoops-Related Entities,” the filing said.Hoops said he had been advised by his attorney not to comment on the allegations.The bankruptcy filing followed by the loss off a crucial creditor shut down operations at Blackjewel’s 32 coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.At the time of its bankruptcy filing, Blackjewel owed about $146 million in unpaid taxes and also owed workers unpaid wages and retirement funding. The vast majority of former Blackjewel workers have not received the full compensation they were promised, according to investigations by Wyoming’s Labor Standards Office. Only 33 workers out of 506 owed money have filed a compensation claim with the state.

Coal ash should be treated like trash - Toxic coal ash should be treated like trash according to a bill introduced in the Georgia Legislature this week. If passed, House Bill 756 , sponsored by Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, would require coal ash be disposed of under guidelines at least as stringent as those for standard household trash.Georgia law currently requires household trash to be disposed of in municipal solid waste landfills with bottom liners and collection systems that help make sure garbage and liquid waste do not seep into groundwater. But disposal for coal ash — waste from coal-fired plants that may contain arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals that can be toxic to humans —  comes with no such regulation, and can sit in unlined pits that allow the toxic contents to come in contact with groundwater. The bill states that permits should not be issued or modified for a coal ash unit or a municipal solid waste landfill that accepts coal ash unless it has a liner or system to collect any polluted water running off the landfill.Georgia Power is in the process of closing its 29 coal ash ponds, said Aaron Mitchell, general manager of environmental affairs for Georgia Power in an August interview with the AJC. Some plans for closing the ponds would leave the coal ash in unlined ash ponds.Other states have taken a different path. Earlier this month, Duke Energy agreed to one of the largest clean-up efforts in the country when it announced it would close the majority of its coal ash basins in North Carolina by excavating 80 million tons of ash and moving it into lined landfills.The Georgia bill targets the unlined ponds at five Georgia Power plants and would require them to also be excavated and moved into lined pits, said Fletcher Sams, Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. Of the five plants, Plant Scherer in Juliette, just north of Macon, is of particular concern to residents and environmental advocates. “Everyone that lives in the area is drinking well water ... The same stuff leaking out of the ponds is in the wells in the surrounding areas,” said Sams.

How Duke and its foes agreed to the largest coal ash cleanup in U.S. history - The agreement seemed almost too good to be true. Duke Energy and North Carolina activists had been at odds over coal ash for years, and the company had spent the better part of 2019 suing the state for ordering it to excavate the toxic byproduct from six dumpsites perched on rivers and lakes.Yet regulators, the utility, and even some of its harshest critics insist: There is no catch. The agreement, completed on New Year’s Eve and announced two days later, forces Duke to dig up nearly 80 million tons of ash and move it to lined storage. It will be the largest such cleanup effort in U.S. history, and an unmitigated win for the environment.“We are thankful for the settlement,” Rev. Gregory Hairston of the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, one of the many groups represented in the deal, said in a statement, “and count it a major victory for our air, water and environmental justice in the state of North Carolina.”  Even before two pipes failed in 2014 at a Duke dump site near the Virginia border, sending 70 miles of toxic sludge into the Dan River, the utility and its critics have argued over what to do with coal ash.Scientists and environmental advocates say the ash — which contains carcinogens like lead, mercury, and other heavy metals — should be dug up from unlined pits near waterways and moved to dry, lined landfills. Duke has maintained that some, if not all, of its ash could stay put without threatening public health.Even before the latest settlement, the environmental position was in some ways prevailing: settlements over federal Clean Water Act lawsuits – buttressed by state law following the Dan River disaster — required eight relatively small coal ash dumps around the state to be excavated. But until the Jan. 2 announcement, the fate of the state’s remaining six and larger coal ash dumps was still in question. In April, the administration of first-term Gov. Roy Cooper, who campaigned in 2016 on protecting drinking water from coal ash, ordered the pits completely excavated by 2029. But Duke sued to fight the order later that month, then again in August. After losing twice, the company said in October it would continue to appeal.

Duke Energy customers in store for a rate hike to cover coal ash excavation - The Daily Tar Heel - Duke Energy will introduce a rate hike after agreeing to excavate the nearly 80 million tons of coal ash from unlined landfills to lined landfills. But now, communities are fighting for a different kind of environmental justice. After a years-long clash over the clean-up between Duke Energy and North Carolina activists, the excavation to come will be the largest effort in United States history. The new question is who will pay for the historic clean-up.Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, said consumers will not be safe from potential rate hikes to pay for this clean-up because of language in the agreement.Before Duke Energy could enact a rate hike for consumers, the company must first get it approved through the Utilities Commission. Sanders said he thinks the settlement directs the Utilities Commission to allow the rate hike and that public outcry may not accomplish much. “When the request is made, people can file notice with the Utilities Commission, but I don't know how much good that will make,” Sanders said. “I'm certain that several consumer interest groups will do so.”

Midwest coal producers attempt to cut costs, escalating pollution worries - A southern Illinois coal company’s fight to dump mine water into a nearby river is a sign of things to come, experts say, as the industry looks to cut costs to stay afloat amid worsening market conditions. A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) predicts coal production in the Illinois Basin, which underlies Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky, will largely disappear within two decades. The area is particularly at risk because its coal is burned in power plants and not used for industrial purposes like steel-making, the report notes. “They’re trying to cut regulations and to cut corners,” IEEFA energy data analyst Seth Feaster said of the coal industry. “Whatever they can do to try to cut their costs, they’re doing, because that’s the only way they can stay competitive.” In southern Illinois, coal mining company Williamson Energy LLC is embroiled in a battle with locals and environmentalists over a permit it has requested to dump water from its Pond Creek Mine into the Big Muddy River, a Mississippi River tributary. Albert Ettinger, a lawyer who specializes in water pollution issues and is working with the Sierra Club on the fight, argued these drastic measures are too burdensome on the local environment. “The Big Muddy is far from a pristine river,” Ettinger said, “but it would recover if we quit doing bad things to it.”

Coal pollution turned an Appalachian creek orange. Locals are using it to make paint. - In the rolling Appalachian foothills of Ohio, Sunday Creek runs bright with shades of red and orange. The 27-mile-long tributary flows through the ruins of abandoned coal mines, which sprawl beneath the southeast part of the state like a labyrinth. The companies that dug the century-old mines are long gone. But residents in this rural region still live with the mess that’s left behind. The creek’s vibrant colors are from “acid mine drainage,” which spills into watersheds nationwide. Iron sulfides from the mines react with air and water, forming acidic runoff. In high concentrations, it can kill aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. Communities and government agencies spend millions of dollars on cleanup every year, but the problem is so pervasive and expensive that many streams remain polluted. At Sunday Creek, a broad group of locals have found a way to help foot the clean-up bill: by turning mine pollution into eye-catching paints.  A set of tanks and tubs sits near the grassy creek banks in Corning.  Guy Riefler, a civil engineering professor at Ohio University, developed the water treatment plant there over the last decade, working with students, researchers, and the local nonprofit Rural Action. In three steps, the pilot plant captures runoff from a mine seep, then uses oxygen and bacteria to separate iron from the water. The metal settles and forms a sludge, and the clear, filtered water returns to the creek. Riefler then hauls the sludge to the university campus in nearby Athens. John Sabraw, an artist and OU professor, washes, dries, and bakes it in kilns, producing bricks of brown ochre, rusty red, and earthy violet pigments for paint.

Whose job is it to reduce toxic mercury in the Ohio River? -  Mercury, which damages young brains, is flowing through industrial wastewater into the Ohio River. But the multi-state agency tasked with keeping the waterway clean hasn't tightened controls on this pollution because it doesn't have the authority to do so. While coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers and other facilities along the Ohio River are piping mercury directly into the river and there's a permitting process to regulate that, the more significant source appears to be mercury blown into the atmosphere from smokestacks — both locally and across the globe from mining, energy and other industries. The mercury eventually settles on land and flows into water. Figuring out how much of the toxic is coming from local industries or wind currents remains a challenge. The efforts so far to get a handle on it have spurred a patchwork of states to make rules that leave it up to consumers whether it's worth the risk to eat their catch of the day. Fish are the most important source of exposure to humans. There's a legal pathway for further ratcheting down mercury releases directly to the river, but the regulated industries say they already meet strict permit requirements and that path has hit diminishing returns. The industries say the problem lies in regional and global air emissions, but the legal levers there aren't as easy to pull. The tension between blaming airborne or wastewater sources is one factor among many that have played into controversial decisions around mercury over the past decade at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] — an interstate water quality agency created in 1948 when the Ohio River was an open sewer for cities and factories and the Clean Water Act was still decades away. Mercury takes a complicated path from industrial and natural sources through water and air to humans. Environmental groups have looked to ORSANCO to tighten mercury standards on wastewater discharges. Industries arguing against tighter water standards say that atmospheric sources are a bigger problem, and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in a chemical form unlikely to move through the food chain into fish. ORSANCO has moved away from regulation, a path the agency said reflects the reality that it doesn't have the same authority as its member states' environmental agencies or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. "ORSANCO doesn't set rules for the states," said Richard Harrison, the agency's executive director. "The states set rules for the states. The states agree to work through ORSANCO as a collaborative body to work globally for the Ohio River basin." ORSANCO's strengths, Harrison said, are monitoring and research.

Judge refuses to toss ex-coal CEO Blankenship's conviction  (AP) — A federal judge in West Virginia on Wednesday refused to toss the misdemeanor conviction of former coal CEO Don Blankenship for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley rejected a recommendation from a federal magistrate judge. Berger ruled that despite the prosecution’s failure to disclose numerous documents to the defense during the discovery phase of Blankenship’s trial, the conduct ”resulted in no prejudice” toward Blankenship. At issue were dozens of witness statements, along with emails and disciplinary records from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, that Blankenship said were not disclosed to him and his attorneys. Blankenship “has failed to meet his burden to establish that a reasonable probability exists that the outcome of the trial might have been different had the suppressed evidence been disclosed prior to trial,” Berger wrote. “Specifically, after thorough review, nothing has been presented to undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict.”

Plant Vogtle hoping to do what no one else in the nuclear industry has -— When units three and four go on-line, Plant Vogtle will stand alone in the nuclear power industry. “If these two units go into operation, it will be the only four-unit nuclear plant in the United States,” said U.S.NRC Spokesperson, Roger Hannah. “It will be the biggest nuclear power plant in the country.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to approve the reactors before they’re operational. “When we are satisfied that they have built it according to the design that was already approved, and they have tested it, and that system operates like it is supposed to, then we are good with that to move on the next item, ” explained Hannah. Georgia Power’s communication manager says 8,000 workers are on site for the construction of the two units. “All four units will provide enough electricity to power over 1-million homes and business here in Georgia,” said Jeff Wilson. Even after the project is finished, the local job market will still get a boost. “Even though we won’t have 8,000 construction workers, there will still be 800 permanent jobs, as well as people from all over the country to see these units,” said Wilson. Wilson also says safety for those who live near the site remains the top priority. “This project is vital, and we continue to expect that we will bring these units on-line,” said Wilson. “November 2021 for unit three and November 2022 for unit four.”

AG Wilson tells Dominion it can’t have Santee Cooper money -South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has intervened in a bitter dispute between two of the state’s largest power companies, blasting Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s effort to try to recoup its legal costs in a recent legal action — possibly up to $1 billion — from Santee Cooper. “How can Dominion now reasonably seek to stick some two million of Santee Cooper’s ratepayers, located in all 46 counties, with 45 percent of the cost of your multi-billion dollar purchase of SCE&G,” Wilson wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to Dominion’s top lawyer. In October, Dominion demanded Santee Cooper, a state-owned electric utility headquartered in Moncks Corner, chip in for legal costs Dominion incurred in reaching a $2 billion settlement with customers of SCE&G over that utility’s failed effort to expand the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County. Santee Cooper has not offered to pay. SCE&G and Santee Cooper were partners in the failed nuclear venture, together racking up $9 billion in debt before canceling the doomed project in 2017. Last year, in what is known as the Lightsey case, Dominion settled with SCE&G ratepayers — who were charged higher rates for years as SCE&G oversaw the project’s construction — as part of its purchase of the Cayce-based utility in January 2019. In an October letter to Santee Cooper, Dominion argued that since Santee Cooper owned 45% of the V.C. Summer expansion project, it should bear 45% of the legal costs SCE&G and Dominion incurred in the Lightsey case. “Dominion’s demand of Santee Cooper to bear a major portion of the Lightsey settlement is quite troubling,” Wilson responded in his strongly worded Wednesday letter. Dominion’s demand, coming after Lightsey was settled, is an unfair surprise that raises this question: “How can Dominion now reasonably seek to stick some 2 million of Santee Cooper’s ratepayers, located in all 46 counties, with 45 percent of the cost of your multi-billion dollar purchase of SCE&G?” Wilson wrote.

Nuclear Power ‘Cannot Rival Renewable Energy’ - Nuclear power is in terminal decline worldwide and will never make a serious contribution to tackling climate change, a group of energy experts argues.Meeting recently in London at Chatham House, the UK's Royal Institution of International Affairs, they agreed that despite continued enthusiasm from the industry, and from some politicians, the number of nuclear power stations under construction worldwide would not be enough to replace those closing down. The industry was disappearing, they concluded, while the wind and solar sectors were powering ahead.The group met to discuss the updated World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019, which concluded thatmoney spent on building and running nuclear power stations was diverting cash away from much better ways of tackling climate change.Money used to improve energy efficiency saved four times as much carbon as that spent on nuclear power; wind saved three times as much, and solar double.Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, told the meeting: "The fact is that nuclear power is in slow motion commercial collapse around the world. The idea that a new generation of small modular reactors would be built to replace them is not going to happen; it is just a distraction away from a climate solution."On nuclear and climate change, the status report says that new nuclear plants take from five to 17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or on-shore wind power."Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster," the report says.There was considerable concern at the meeting about the possible danger to nuclear plants caused by climate change. Mycle Schneider, the report's lead author, said the reason why reactors were built near or on coasts or close to large rivers or estuaries was because they needed large quantities of water to operate. This made them very vulnerable to both sea and coastal flooding, and particularly to future sea level rise. He was also concerned about the integrity of spent fuel storage ponds that needed a constant electricity supply to prevent the fuel overheating. For example, large wildfires posed a risk to electricity supplies to nuclear plants that were often in isolated locations.  Loss of coolant because of power cuts could also be a serious risk as climate change worsened over the 60-year planned lifetime of a reactor. However, he did not believe that even the reactors currently under construction would ever be operated for that long for commercial reasons. "The fact is that the electricity from new reactors is going to be at least three times more expensive than that from renewables and this will alarm consumers. Governments will be under pressure to prevent consumers' bills being far higher than they need to be.

Top-Secret UFO Files Could ‘Gravely Damage’ US National Security if Released, Navy Says -- In November 2004, several U.S. Navy pilots stationed aboard the USS Nimitz encountered a Tic-Tac-shaped UFO darting and dashing over the Pacific Ocean in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. Navy officials dubbed the strange craft an "unidentified aerial phenomenon," but they have remained mum on what, exactly, that phenomenon could've been. Now, unsurprisingly to anyone who's ever considered making a hat out of tinfoil, the military has confirmed they know more than they're letting on.In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a spokesperson from the Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed that the agency possesses several top-secret documents and at least one classified video pertaining to the 2004 UFO encounter, Vice reported. According to the ONI spokesperson, these documents were either labeled "SECRET" or "TOP SECRET" by the agencies that provided them, and that sharing the information with the public "would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States." These top-secret files included several "briefing slides" about the incident, provided to the ONI by an unnamed agency. (Because ONI officials did not classify the slides personally, they are unable to declassify them, the spokesperson added).  The ONI also admitted to possessing at least one video of unknown length, classified as "secret" by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). ONI didn't reveal whether this footage is the same 1-minute video that was leaked online in 2007 and widely released by The New York Times in 2017. However, in November 2019, several naval officers who witnessed the incident aboard the Nimitz told Popular Mechanics that they had seen a much longer video of the encounter that was between 8 and 10 minutes long. These original recordings were promptly collected and erased by "unknown individuals" who arrived on the ship by helicopter shortly after the incident, one officer said.

Utica Shale well activity as of Jan. 11 -

  • DRILLED: 147 (128 as of last week)
  • DRILLING: 141 (158)
  • PERMITTED: 473 (473)
  • PRODUCING: 2,423 (2,423)
  • TOTAL: 3,184 (3,182)

Four horizontal permits were issued during the week that ended Jan. 11, and 10 rigs were operating in the Utica Shale.
TOP COUNTIES BY NUMBER OF PERMITS:

  • 1. BELMONT: 670 (670 as of last week)
  • 2. CARROLL: 525 (525)
  • 3. HARRISON: 496 (496)
  • 4. MONROE: 428 (428)
  • 5. GUERNSEY: 280 (280)

National Geographic writer coming to Belmont County – A well known scientific journalist who’s work has been featured in magazines such as Rolling Stone and National Geographic, will take part a presentation in Belmont County later this month.  Justin Nobel has spent the past two years reporting on the the issue of radioactivity caused by the oil & gas industry. He says his work has revealed possible contamination that is posed to the industries workers, communities and the environment.  Noble will take part in a forum called Radioactive Risks Posed by the Oil & Gas Industry. It will take place at Ohio University Eastern on Friday January 24. “This is very relevant for local industry workers and their families,” said Jill Hunkler, a local environmental activist. “This information might effect them more than anyone but also may effect community, those concerned about injection wells. This information will alarm them even more about the risk imposed by the irresponsible placement of the injection wells and fracking waste processing facilities “   The presentation will get underway at 5:30 p.m. and will also feature Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice. She is an environmental scientist who has studied the oil & gas industry of over 40 years.  There will also be a question and answer service with those in attendance.

Cleaning up after Ohio’s oil and gas industry brings a growing price tag - Plugging the myriad orphaned oil and gas wells around Ohio costs, on average, more than $110,000 per well, according to a new analysis of Department of Natural Resources data.The research, which pulled from contracts the state awarded in 2019, was shared exclusively with the Energy News Network by the ARO Working Group, a network that studies the decommissioning of oil assets and is affiliated with environmental group Earthworks. Compared with Ohio’s actual cleanup costs, operators are only required to put up a fund, called a bond, of $5,000 per well or $15,000 for all of their wells. This money, a fraction of the true price tag, is returned to operators once they plug their wells, which is meant as an incentive to do so.“My big concern is that the business models here in Ohio are premised on cheap water, cheap waste and cheap landscape change,”    About 900 orphaned wells are currently confirmed around the state, although that is a small percentage of the true number, according to Gene Chini, manager of the Orphan Well Program for Ohio’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. “There are thousands more out there that have yet to be found or identified in this state,” Chini said. “We get calls every day from people building homes or plowing fields that come across these wells.” By one state count, there are as many as 19,000 orphan sites in Ohio, where the first oil well was drilled in 1814. Applying current reclamation costs to that number suggests the state could face a $2 billion cleanup bill. , which has plugged more than 1,000 deserted wells to date, is experimenting with an aerial magnetometer, a tool that measures magnetic fields, to identify more wells. “Orphan wells have been found and plugged in a school gymnasium, in building basements, amongst homes, in farm fields, in waterways and wetlands, along shorelines, and within forests,” read a recent department presentation.  Some estimates place the number of orphan wells nationwide as high as 3 million. If Ohio’s cleanup costs serve as a rough per-well estimate, fully solving the U.S. orphan well problem could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Ohio Activists Rallying Against Bill To Criminalize Pipeline Protests - An advocacy group is opposing an Ohio bill that would restrict protests at sites that are considered "critical infrastructure facilities,” including oil and gas pipelines. Organize Ohio hosted a meeting in Cleveland on Monday to discuss opposition to SB 33, which was passed by the Ohio Senate in May 2019. The measure would criminalize protests occurring at places such as pipelines or utility poles. Backers say they aim to protect the facilities from serious harm. But Jacie Jones of Organize Ohio believes the bill would have a "chilling effect" on free speech. She says that’s happened in other states where similar laws have passed, such as Louisiana and Texas."When they hear about this bill and the effects, they become scared to go out and protest different environmental issues or concerns because they don’t want to be charged with felonies and subjected to the fines and prison sentences that would entail,” Jones says.NPR reported in September that a U.S. district judge blocked South Dakota’s law, saying it was unconstitutional, while protesters arrested under Louisiana’s law were never formally charged. Jones says that the legislation was developed as a response to demonstrations like Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Residents rally against cracker plant  -- More than 30 people from communities such as Wheeling, Bridgeport, Moundsville, Shadyside and Weirton held signs and stationed themselves on both sides of W.Va. 2 at the Moundsville Plaza, located across the Ohio River from the proposed plant site. Many drivers honked horns as they passed, and some shouted encouragement and gave thumbs-up signs. PTT Global Chemical America and Daelim Industrial Corp., based in Thailand and South Korea, respectively, obtained an air permit-to-install and a modified wastewater discharge permit for the project in 2018. Environmental groups opposed to the project immediately challenged one of those permits, but that issue was resolved in September, when a settlement was announced. Vincent DeGeorge, representing the activist organization Concerned Ohio River Residents and president of Ohio Valley PEACE, said the protesters have environmental and health concerns. “We’re a group of local citizens who think the truth, all the information about this cracker plant, hasn’t come out, and we’re confident when that information comes out, the environmental concerns, the economic concerns, the health concerns, Ohio River residents will be convinced that this cracker plant is not the way to go, that there are much better alternatives,” he said. “(We’re) letting other people who have concerns about the cracker plant know that they’re not alone.” DeGeorge said they were concerned there would not be baseline monitoring of pollutants from such a plant. He said their projects include seeking funding to monitor the area for emissions and compile data. He also raised concerns that the plastics such a cracker plant would produce would not be regulated and would find their way into the environment. Members of the group also spread word of a petition on the Concerned Ohio River Residents website, Facebook page and at NoCrackerPlantOV.com.

Greenhouse gases from oil and gas projected to continue to increase - — The fracking boom across the country has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions steadily climbing each year since the United States has become the largest producer of oil and gas in the world. As a result of the boom, there are plans over the next five years to build or extend 157 petroleum and natural gas drilling sites and chemical manufacturing and refinery plants across the country, according to federal records. That expansion will result in greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. totaling 990.5 million tons per year by 2025, according to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project. The nonpartisan and nonprofit group, established in 2002 by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attorneys, said that’s the equivalent of 50 new coal-fired power plants.The emissions estimate includes the proposed Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical America ethane petrochemical plant in Belmont County. The so-called “cracker” plant, which would use natural gas and create ethylene, an ingredient used in plastics, would emit an estimated 1.785 million tons of greenhouse gases each year.“It’s company-supplied information. The big picture, especially for Appalachia — Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — is this facility would create demand for even more oil and gas extraction and kind of lock this region into that economy,” said Courtney Bernhardt, research director for the Environmental Integrity Project. “Right now, renewable sources of energy are available. And I know that this facility would be creating plastic, ultimately, but there are other ways to make plastic.”Ohio officials say the estimated $5 billion plant, first announced in 2015, would be one of the state’s largest economic development projects ever — if it goes through. To construct the plant, thousands of construction jobs would be needed, and once the plant is up and running, there would be about several hundred permanent jobs.While there has been no official announcement to move forward with the plant, permits have already been secured. JobsOhio, the state’s economic development nonprofit agency, awarded $30 million to prepare the site. PTT Global Chemical America spent more than $100 million to conduct engineering designs.The company also contributed $10,000 to Gov. Mike DeWine’s campaign fund a year ago.

 We’re past time for global plastic intervention - Randi Pokladnik - - Civilization stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice. Warning signs are all around us. We are destroying our home. The bushfires in Australia serve as another example of the many ways climate change has exacerbated extreme weather across the planet.  Scientists say an area twice the size of the country of Wales, nearly 14 million acres, has burned.  Scientific facts confirm the massive amounts of man-made greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere are changing the planet’s climate systems. However, what is not surprising is that the fossil fuel industry was aware that burning coal, oil and gas would increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to increases in the planet’s temperature. Their scientists knew this more than 50 years ago. We must remember that this industry is responsible for: 11 million gallons of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989; 168 million gallons of oil that contaminated the gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010; and locally, the well pad explosion in Belmont County in 2018 that spewed out 90 tons of methane an hour for 20 days.   The plans to create a petrochemical hub in the Ohio Valley happened behind closed doors with little to no input from the public.Given the alarming amount of plastic wastes and microplastics in our water, food, and air, many countries are now banning single-use plastic packaging which makes up close to 50 percent of plastic waste and is discarded within minutes of use. More than 60 counties have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.Countries like China that once accepted our plastic wastes, which totaled 39 million tons last year, are now refusing our wastes. By 2021, Thailand and Malaysia will ban imported plastic waste. Where will all that plastic go?Incineration creates deadly emissions like dioxin and furans. The United States recycles only 9 percent of plastic wastes. We will be drowning in plastic if the fossil fuel industry has its way.According to ICIS, a global energy and petrochemical research firm, “U.S. producers of polyethylene plan to increase their production capacity by as much as 75 percent by 2022,” and much of this increase will be exported to foreign markets.It is beyond time for a global plastic intervention, but don’t count on our politicians to take a leadership role. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

Massive oil refinery leaks toxic chemical in the middle of Philadelphia — Last May, an air monitor on the border of the East Coast's largest oil refinery recorded a level of benzene, a cancer-causing gas, more than 21 times the federal limit. In June, an explosive early morning fire rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, terrifying nearby residents. Weeks after the disaster, as PES filed for bankruptcy and wound down operations, another air monitor in the network that rings the facility quietly registered the same sky-high reading for benzene. Long-term exposure to the sweet-smelling chemical has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma and a host of blood and immune system disorders. That monitor, on the edge of this 1,300-acre complex of steel and pipe, is across an expressway from schools, parks, a strip mall and hundreds of homes. Charles Reeves lives less than a mile and a half north of both air monitors in the largely African American neighborhood of Grays Ferry. A community organizer in this area of low-slung row houses, Reeves keeps tabs on the news in the neighborhood. He said no one informed him or his neighbors that they may have been exposed to benzene until he was contacted by NBC News, E&E News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit newsroom based at American University. "Poor people don't get information," said Reeves, 61, a grandfather and prostate cancer survivor. "Whichever way that blows, we're going to be affected." The refinery disaster in June unleashed over 5,200 pounds of deadly hydrofluoric acid. A 4 a.m. leak inside a unit that produced high-octane gasoline caused a series of explosions that sent a ball of fire into the night sky. One blast hurtled a slab of metal bigger than a school bus across the river. Quick action by workers meant no one was killed or seriously injured. The refinery ceased production in August. The catastrophic blaze provided a stark illustration of the hazards the refinery has long posed for Philadelphians. But even in its wake, officials gave no formal notice to residents that the same facility had registered among the highest benzene levels of any refinery in the country, according to data submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Philadelphia Energy Solutions, or PES, is just one of a dozen refineries of the more than 130 refineries operating across the country that have consistently exceeded the EPA's "action level" of 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group that advocated for the fenceline monitoring program now required at all refineries. former EPA officials who examined the hard-to-access data compared ongoing high benzene concentrations around the Philadelphia refinery and near other top benzene emitters to levels more often seen in China and India. And they criticized local and federal officials for failing to address the problem or adequately warn the public.

Future of PES refinery may be decided at Friday auction - The future of the 1,300-acre site by the Delaware River, currently occupied by the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, could be decided Friday behind closed doors in New York. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, a month after a catastrophic fire and explosion destroyed part of the refinery’s capacity. The refinery shut its operations right after the fire, laying off nearly 1,000 employees. The refinery complex has been in the midst of a sale process since November. By then, 15 parties had expressed interest in acquiring the facility. Final formal bids were submitted Jan. 10, under nondisclosure agreements. The assets of PES could be sold to one or more buyers. An auction is expected to take place Friday at the New York City offices of the company’s law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, to maximize the sale price and provide the biggest value to PES. But the company also could decide to take one bid and call the auction off. “It’s very much an inside decision process, and it’s very hard to tell,” said Peter Winslow, a representative of SMART, a coalition of environmental organizations, who has been closely following the proceedings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington. In December, Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross approved the company’s restructuring proposal, which lacked critical information for creditors. According to court documents, PES will send that information after the sale and insurance recovery process — the company is expecting a $1.25 billion insurance payout — for creditors to vote on the plan before Feb. 3. The restructuring plan and the winning bidder would be presented in bankruptcy court at a confirmation hearing on Feb. 6.

Lake spill earns Mariner East pipelines another $2 million fine - The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection added a $2 million fine this month to the tally of penalties racked up by Sunoco Pipeline for violations during construction of its Mariner East 2 pipeline project. The fine, announced Thursday but issued on Jan. 3, is on top of more than $13 million that Sunoco, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, has already been levied by DEP for spills and other damage the company caused while installing its cross-state natural gas liquids pipelines. The $1.95 million penalty is for a series of spills of lubricating drilling fluids in 2017 while the company was boring paths for parallel pipelines under Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. More than 208,000 gallons of drilling fluids emerged in the lake, covering 8 acres of its bottom, DEP said. “In numerous cases, the company failed to immediately report those releases,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said. Some spills were not reported until 537 days after they occurred, according to the settlement document. On top of the fine, Sunoco will commit at least $1.15 million to improve fish habitat in Raystown Lake. It also will implement a plan to control invasive aquatic plants in 110 acres of the lake. Energy Transfer spokeswoman Vicki Granado said the company is "pleased to come to an agreement with the DEP regarding our work at Raystown Lake," which she noted is an important recreational area. "This will allow us to move forward to complete our construction activities in this area and others," she said. The Mariner East project includes three pipelines that traverse southern Pennsylvania, carrying propane, butane and ethane from southwestern Pennsylvania shale gas wells to the Philadelphia area, mostly for export. DEP recently issued Energy Transfer a $30.6 million fine for the explosion of its Revolution pipeline in Beaver County in September 2018. Under that agreement, DEP resumed reviewing environmental permits for Energy Transfer projects, including Mariner East, for the first time in nearly a year. DEP recently issued Energy Transfer a $30.6 million fine for the explosion of its Revolution pipeline in Beaver County in September 2018. Under that agreement, DEP resumed reviewing environmental permits for Energy Transfer projects, including Mariner East, for the first time in nearly a year.

Pennsylvania orders gas well plugged in fight over methane - — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Monday told Range Resources that it must fix a Marcellus Shale natural gas well “once and for all” that it maintains has leaked methane since 2011 and contaminated groundwater and streams in north-central Pennsylvania. Wolf’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2015 issued — and then later rescinded — $8.9 million in fines over the well to its Fort Worth, Texas-based owner, which contends that the Lycoming County well is not the source of the methane contamination. The department insisted Monday that the Harman Lewis well’s cement casing is defective and that Range Resources’ cooperation is sporadic. The department’s 13-page order issued Monday gives Range Resources two months to submit a plan to reduce the gas migration and, after the department approves the plan, four months to submit a plan to plug the well and a bore hole next to it. “We have attempted to resolve this in good faith but after numerous attempts, the operator still has not completely addressed these violations,” Patrick McDonnell, Wolf’s environmental protection secretary, said in a statement. Range Resources’ refusal to accept responsibility and address the problem “is unacceptable,” McDonnell said, and the order is designed to solve the problem “once and for all.” A Range Resources spokesman, Mark Windle, said the company strongly disagrees with the department’s order. “We have worked tirelessly to fully cooperate with both regulators and nearby residents for years despite extensive third-party studies and analysis that determined the methane in the groundwater is naturally-occurring,” Windle said in a statement. Attempts in 2015 and 2016 to patch the cement well-casing on the Harman Lewis well apparently didn’t work and, in one attempt to reenter the well bore in 2016, Range mistakenly drilled outside the casing of the gas well, leaving an open bore hole near the gas well, the department said. Department inspectors continued to find combustible gas in groundwater, in soil surveys in nearby farm fields and surfacing on Greg’s Run and Sugar Run, the department said.

Bill to rollback natural gas drilling regulations clears House committee - Despite the looming promise of Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto, a Pennsylvania House panel has advanced a bill loosening regulations for conventional gas drillers. The bill sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, cleared the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee 16-9, with all Republicans, and one Democrat, voting in favor. The proposal rolls back an eight-year-old regulatory regime for the state’s natural gas drillers, known as Act 13, that was signed into law by former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett. The law set standards for typical gas production drilling — imagine an oil derrick — as well as unconventional drilling, or fracking. Included in the law are rules for land restoration around wells, conventional and unconventional, that the state’s chief oil and gas regulator has previously praised. But those same standards appear onerous to many conventional well operators, which are often smaller, independent companies, according Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association president Dan Weaver. Conventional drilling is a $1.2 billion industry, according to Weaver. Fracking, meanwhile, has contributed to four times that total in fees, taxes and royalties to the commonwealth’s coffers alone, according to industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition.   If the law passed, the industry would be governed by 1980’s vintage regulations, with some adjustments to raise the threshold for reporting spills to the state. Such a rollback “poses an undeniable risk to the health and safety of our citizens, the environment, and our public resources,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in an email. For example, under the proposal advanced Monday, only spills greater than 210 gallons of drilling waste water, or five standard oil barrels, and 48 gallons of oil, or two barrels, would have to be reported — barring a risk to “downstream users of waters of the Commonwealth.” Previously, the state has required drillers to report spills of as little as five gallons of drilling waste water, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonell told the state Senate in a letter last October. Those new reporting standards were already a compromise. On Monday, the House panel included an amendment that assigned the new standards, and removed a provision that would allow drilling waste water to be sprayed on state dirt roads as a dust deterrent. The practice was allowed in Pennsylvania until 2018, when the state reversed its stance.  A 2018 Penn State University study found that the use of drilling waste water risks the run off of heavy metals into local water supplies. Despite the changes, Wolf’s veto threat holds, Abbott said.

Wolf says despite GOP compromise, drilling bill still poses too much environmental risk - — State House and Senate lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill that would loosen some of the laws that govern certain oil and gas drillers. But despite a significant amendment intended to win over skeptical Democrats, Governor Tom Wolf and others say the measure still allows too much pollution.The legislation, SB 790, is sponsored by GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. It would give conventional oil and gas drillers looser environmental standards than the ones the state imposes on unconventional operators. Conventional drillers tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower wells. They’ve long complained they shouldn’t be subject to the same rules as unconventional drillers, which are generally major corporations extracting oil and gas from the Marcellus Shale.  Among other things, the bill would allow conventional operators to spill more drilling wastewater — often referred to as brine — without notifying the Department of Environmental Protection, and likewise change the standards for crude oil spills. A 2018 Penn State study found that brine can contain contaminants like radium, a radioactive element and known carcinogen, “often many times above drinking water standards.” It also found that the water has the potential to leach metals, salts and radioactive material into surface or groundwater, soil and air. An amendment, added Monday in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, softened the bill somewhat, reducing the amounts of oil and ​brine it would allow conventional drillers to spill before reporting it — from five to two barrels of oil, and from 15 to five barrels of brine. Republicans, like Butler County’s Daryl Metcalfe, said they compromised because they’re worried conventional drillers are struggling. “This is an issue that we’ve been working on,” he said. “I mean, how long do you expect companies to exist when they’re being overregulated to the point of losing the people and resources that they actually need to continue to have a business?” Several Democrats in Monday’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing said they agree conventional and unconventional drillers require distinct rules. Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who serves as the committee’s minority chair, noted that he and others have traveled to well sites across the state to see the differences for themselves. But, he maintained, the bill needs work. “It doesn’t address the rollback of water supply protection [or] the avoidance of erosion and sediment control,” Vitali said. “There’s still a weakened protection for public resources [and it] still allows more wells to go unreported.”

Report: 21% drop expected in 2020 natural gas impact fee - A state agency is predicting a 21% drop in natural gas impact fee revenue in 2020, largely because of falling natural gas prices. The Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Officee stimates that impact fee collections will total $198.2 million this year — down from $251.8 million last year. The 2019 fee must be paid by natural gas producers by April 1 and will be disbursed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in July. The impact fee is the annual fee that the state applies to each new unconventional (i.e. horizontal) well drilled into the Marcellus shale. Some of the money is distributed directly to counties to offset the costs of increased drilling activity. Some is made available to individual communities through grants. The impact fee is highest in a well’s first operating year and can range from $60,000 in the well’s first year to $5,000 in the well’s 15th year, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition. The IFO said the primary reason for the expected 21% drop was natural gas prices which dipped below the $3 trigger in the law (Act 13 of 2012), causing a $5,000 per-well decrease in the impact fee. The average annual price of natural gas on the New York Mercantile Exchange for 2019 was $2.63 per million British thermal units, according to IFO. Per Act 13’s provisions, impact fee revenue is distributed according to four broad categories: state oversight agencies; counties and municipalities directly affected by well drilling activity; all 67 counties for conservation, recreation and bridge repairs; and statewide environmental grant programs, such as the Marcellus Legacy Fund.

Time to Overturn Precedent on FERC Orders, Landowners Tell Court - Federal judges should seize an opportunity to reverse a “fundamentally flawed” precedent that keeps pipeline opponents out of court until it’s too late to halt a project, lawyers for landowners and environmentalists said in new court filings. “The United States Constitution and federal common law guarantee property owners a meaningful opportunity to be heard in opposition to a faulty public use determination before their property can be permanently taken,” the Jan. 10 brief says, referring to a stretch of the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania. The filing is the opening salvo in a high-stakes case set for argument in March before the full slate of active judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Energy and administrative law experts say the outcome could have broad implications across the natural gas and power sectors. The case centers on how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission fields challenges to its gas pipeline approvals, a process one D.C. Circuit judge deemed “Kafkaesque.” If landowners, environmentalists, or others want to challenge a FERC permit, they must first file a petition with the commission and wait for it to be resolved before pursuing a lawsuit. The Natural Gas Act gives FERC 30 days to take action on a challenge, but the agency routinely issues “tolling orders,” which indefinitely extend the deadline for resolving the petition. FERC litigants have long criticized tolling orders as unfair and unconstitutional. Challengers often can’t get to court to challenge a project before construction has begun—or sometimes finished.

Low Gas Prices Crush Appalachia Shale Boom  - Low natural gas prices have finally brought the decade-long shale gas boom in Appalachia to a halt.  Gas production in Appalachia declined by about 1 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) over the past 30 days, bringing output down to an average of 32.7 Bcf/d, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. That helped drag down overall U.S. gas production to 91.8 Bcf/d, a 1.7 percent decline from 93.4 Bcf/d in November.  The Permian hogs a lot of attention in the press, but the Marcellus shale has been growing at a blistering rate for about a decade. That is now coming to an end as the shale gas industry struggles with oversupply and low prices, lack of profits, debt, investor skepticism and also competition from associated gas in the Permian.  Natural gas prices fell sharply last year, ending the year down more than 25 percent. The rig count in the Marcellus fell by 1 last week, dropping the total to 40. Eight months ago there were 65 rigs operating in the area.  Front-month gas contracts are trading at about $2.12/MMBtu, although at the wellhead prices can be much weaker. S&P said that prices at Dominion South, a hub in the Marcellus, have averaged just $1.78/MMBtu in the past month. S&P says that average breakeven prices are $1.80/MMBtu, but that likely understates the price level that drillers need, given the struggles that many have gone through.  “Gas prices are down. It has a big impact, the difference between $2.75 gas and $2.50 gas,” Toby Rice, EQT’s new president and CEO, told the West Virginian legislature in December “A lot of this development doesn’t work as well at $2.50 gas.” An IEEFA analysis from last November found that seven of the largest producers in Appalachia spent nearly a half billion dollars more than they generated in the third quarter. With natural gas prices wallowing down close to $2/MMBtu, the cash burn rate may grow worse, unless the spending cuts continue. Range Resources announced on January 6 that it would take an ax to its spending plans, cutting capex by 29 percent for 2020 compared to last year’s levels. The company also suspended its dividend, saving $20 million annually,  Chevron recently announced a write down on the order of $11 billion for the fourth quarter, with its assets in Appalachia the principle cause.The situation in the Appalachia is worse than for oil drillers in North Dakota, Colorado or Texas. To be sure, unconventional oil drilling is also riddled with financial problems and is based on a questionable business model. Oil wells still suffer from steep decline rates.

Is Chevron's $11B Write-Down an Oilpatch Warning? - In December 2019, American oil major Chevron announced a major write-down of some $11 billion in the value of its assets, including its gas holdings in the Appalachia region, a deep-water Gulf of Mexico project and its proposed Kitimat LNG export project in British Columbia. In fact, Chevron’s Appalachian shale projects contributed to more than half of a massive impairment charge that the company reported for the last quarter.This write-down is in response to Chevron’s own long-term forecast for oil and gas prices, which predicted much lower energy prices than previously. In December Chevron Chief Executive Mike Wirth in an interview with the Wall Street Journal said: “We have to make the tough choices to high-grade our portfolio and invest in the highest-return projects in the world we see ahead of us; and that’s a different world than the one that lies behind us.”Decision makers at Chevron have realized the company is facing a market surplus in both oil and gas worldwide, which is impacting profit margins. As a result of such factors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify investment in large gas fracking projects, especially with the prospect of slowing demand. Is it time to change the industry’s exploration strategy to more profitable targets? It is likely that this California-based oil major will not be alone amongst oil companies announcing that their holdings in terms of market value are likely to be worth significantly less than previously estimated. This is because of current market conditions that are resulting in many American fracking projects failing to break even, and fluctuating public/investor concerns about the long-term future of the industry. A recent study by Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that for many operators, investing in Appalachia fracking operations has resulted in losing money. In its recent study published in November 2019, Negative Cash Flows Highlight Struggles of Appalachian Fracked Gas Producers,[i] the results found that at least seven of the largest frackers in the region had burned through half a billion dollars in the third quarter of 2019. The writers of the report found that, “Despite booming gas output, Appalachian oil and gas companies consistently failed to produce positive cash flow over the past five quarters.” The IEEFA study discovered that of the seven companies examined, five enterprises were losing money, including Antero Resources, Chesapeake Energy, EQT, Range Resources, and Southwestern Energy. However, only Cabot Oil & Gas and Gulfport Energy were making a profit in the third quarter.

Is the US Shale Boom Really Slowing Down? -Since taking flight in 2008, the American shale oil revolution has probably been the biggest energy story since the end of World War II. U.S. crude oil production has leaped 160 percent to almost 13 million b/d. Shale has transformed global energy markets and obliterated the long-held notion that U.S. crude production peaked in 1970 at 9.7 million b/d. In fact, thanks to shale, the U.S. has accounted for almost all new global oil production over the past five years. For 2019 alone, the shale industry added some 1.2 million b/d of crude, enough to even cover new global demand. The emerging question now is whether or not the U.S. shale oil boom is slowing down. In truth, however, the more poignant question is whether or not the industry is just “growing more slowly.” Indeed, these are fundamentally different questions that too often get conflated. Regardless, already accounting for a rising 80 percent of U.S. crude production, without shale there may be no new U.S. supply. For sure, rapid shale well decline rates mean more drilling, higher debt, and smaller profits. The question of peaking shale though really lies in West Texas’ Permian basin. The Permian is now one of the largest oilfields in the world and accounts for over 35 percent of U.S. crude production. The Permian though has some 3-4 million b/d of new pipeline capacity coming within the next few years, with numerous additional gas pipelines meaning less flaring and more oil. Further, if oil prices can stick above $65 or $70, U.S. shale would be given the proverbial “shot in the arm” to better its finances. Such low prices in recent years have already forced the industry to slash costs and greatly increase efficiency. Many producers have sharpened their knife so much that they have breakevens in the $40 range. But the real driving force behind more U.S. oil production is the ongoing importance of oil. Let us be clear: oil supplies some 33 percent of global energy and projections of absolutely declining demand are speculation since oil currently has no material substitute. Although lower in 2019, global oil demand usually rises at 1.3 million b/d. Any slower growth in oil demand comes more from slower economic conditions than any structural change. Electric cars are overstated since they are not affordable. The average Tesla buyer, for instance, makes a whopping $400,000 per year. The rise of gas-guzzling SUVs in the still developing nations will likely compensate for oil demand reductions that come from electric cars. Indeed, an ever-expanding U.S. oil export complex will mandate more domestic production. We already know that the oil is there: in December 2018, the “largest U.S. oil and gas discovery ever” was made in the Permian basin. Nationally, proven reserves have more than doubled over the past decade to 65 billion barrels. The resource available is many times that.

EIA expects lower natural gas prices in 2020 as production outpaces demand - In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that average U.S. natural gas prices will be 9% lower in 2020 than in 2019. EIA expects lower natural gas prices will be the result of continued production growth primarily in response to Improved drilling efficiency and cost reductions, higher associated gas production from oil-directed rigs, and increased takeaway pipeline capacity from the Appalachian and Permian production regions   This production growth outpaces the growth in domestic demand and exports. EIA expects the natural gas spot price for the U.S. benchmark Henry Hub will average $2.33 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020, about 24 cents lower than the 2019 average of $2.57/MMBtu. Following a year of decline, EIA expects 2021 natural gas prices to rise by 9% because of upward pricing pressure from declining growth in natural gas production.  EIA expects record volumes of U.S. dry natural gas production to continue through 2020, from an estimated 92.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2019 to 94.7 Bcf/d in 2020. Most U.S. production will come from the Appalachian Basin in the Northeast, followed by the Permian Basin in western Texas and New Mexico and the Haynesville shale formation in eastern Texas. Cost reductions in drilling and well completions and improved drilling efficiency will support continued record-production levels in 2020. In addition, a growing share of natural gas production is coming from oil wells that produce natural gas, also called associated gas. Increased takeaway capacity from the highly productive Appalachian and Permian production regions will further enable growth. However, in 2021, EIA expects dry natural gas production to decline by less than 1% to 94.1 Bcf/d in response to lower forecast natural gas spot prices in 2020, which would reduce Appalachian Basin production.  EIA forecasts natural gas consumption to decrease slightly in the residential and commercial sectors as a result of expected milder weather that will require less energy for space heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Based on forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, EIA forecasts 1.8% fewer heating degree days (HDD) in 2020 compared with 2019, which had a colder-than-normal first quarter. EIA expects U.S. natural gas use in the electric power sector to increase 1.3% in 2020 as a result of natural gas-fired generation additions that continue to displace coal-fired generation. However, in 2021, because of a forecast of higher natural gas spot prices and increased competition from renewables, EIA estimates that natural gas consumption in the electric power sector will decline 3.2% in 2021. EIA expects the natural gas share of electricity generation in 2021 to be 37%, about the same as its 2019 share, while coal’s share of electricity generation will fall from 24% in 2019 to 21% in 2021.

US working natural gas in underground storage drops by 109 Bcf: EIA — US working gas stocks fell by a larger-than-anticipated margin last week, prompting meager gains to Henry Hub following the Thursday morning announcement. Storage inventories fell 109 Bcf to 3.039 Tcf for the week ended January 10, the US Energy Information Administration reported Thursday morning. The pull was more than an S&P Global Platts' survey of analysts that called for a 92 Bcf draw. It even proved to be greater than responses from analysts polled, with the largest estimate expecting a 101 Bcf draw. The withdrawal was also stronger than the 84 Bcf pull reported during the corresponding week in 2019, but less than the five-year average draw of 194 Bcf, according to EIA data. As a result, stocks were 449 Bcf, or 19.4%, more than the year-ago level of 2.545 Tcf and 149 Bcf, or 5.2%, more than the five-year average of 2.890 Tcf. The draw was more than double the 44 Bcf pull reported for the week ended January 3. Total demand was 6.3 Bcf/d higher on average for the reference week as residential-commercial demand, and power burn gained 3.2 Bcf/d and 2 Bcf/d, respectively, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. The Northeast saw the largest increase at 3 Bcf/d, although demand there is still lower than normal after nearly a month of significantly warmer-than-normal weather. Another 0.8 Bcf/d of the total US demand growth during the week came from higher exports to Mexico. Upstream, supplies were marginally higher, thanks in no part to production, which fell by 0.8 Bcf/d on the week, mostly a drop in Texas. Canadian imports and LNG sendout helped offset this drop in supplies, leaving total supplies 0.3 Bcf/d higher from the week before. The NYMEX Henry Hub February contract rose 4 cents to $2.16/MMBtu in the minutes of trading following the larger-than-expected weekly storage report. The February-March strip traded down by nearly 7 cents Wednesday, bringing the contract pair to an average $2.10/MMBtu price. Expectations for structurally weak gas prices go unchallenged at this point given the massive supply growth the US has seen in the past year. It also leaves open several possibilities for prices to climb in the medium to long term. Further clarity should come as producers release updated guidance in the coming weeks, with many major producers expected to announce far-more conservative upstream development plans than in years past. A forecast by S&P Global Platts Analytics' supply and demand model calls for a draw of 70 Bcf for the week ending January 17, which would increase the surplus to the five-year average by more than 100 Bcf. US demand is down by roughly 3 Bcf/d overall, after cooler weather in the Midwest helped offset sizable demand declines in the Northeast and Southeast, according to Platts Analytics. The Northeast alone has seen demand fall by 4.5 Bcf/d week on week, as temperatures there are trending 8 degrees warmer over the same period.

Natural-gas futures log lowest finish since 2016; oil prices post a second weekly decline - Natural-gas futures fell Friday as ample U.S. supplies and forecasts for milder-than-normal weather in much of the nation pushed prices to their lowest finish since May 2016. Oil futures, meanwhile, ended slightly higher Friday, but marked a weekly decline for a second week. February natural gas lost 7.4 cents, or 3.6%, to settle at $2.003 per million British thermal units, with prices down about 9% for the week, according to FactSet data. February West Texas Intermediate oil CLG20 added 2 cents, or 0.03%, to settle at $58.54 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, with front-month contract prices down nearly 0.9% from the week-ago finish.

EQT, Largest US Natural Gas Producer, Takes $1.8 Billion Write-Down, Admits it Can’t Succeed in Low-Price Shale-Gas Environment - The largest natural gas driller in the United States just announced a massive write-down for its assets, offering more evidence that the shale sector faces fundamental problems with profitability. In a regulatory filing on Monday, Pittsburgh-based EQT took a $1.8 billion impairment for the fourth quarter, as the natural gas market continues to sour. EQT said that the write down comes as a result of the “changes to our development strategy and renewed focus on a refined core operating footprint,” which is a jargon-y way of saying that some of its assets are now worth much less.EQT also slashed spending for 2020 to between $1.25 and $1.35 billion, down by another $50 million compared to the guidance the company provided in the third quarter of last year. Although not a household name, EQT is the largest gas producer in the country, and is a giant in the Marcellus shale. EQT purchased Rice Energy in 2017, growing into a huge gas producer and pipeline company, but it has posted disappointing results in the last few years.  So far, the company’s problems continue. Natural gas prices slid sharply in 2019, and are at rock-bottom levels, particularly for the time of year. According to the FT, while Henry Hub natural gas prices for February delivery trade at $2.24/MMBtu, they are only trading at around $1.83/MMBtu at the Dominion South hub in Pennsylvania.  EQT itself admits that it can’t succeed in this environment. “Gas prices are down. It has a big impact, the difference between $2.75 gas and $2.50 gas,” Toby Rice said in December “A lot of this development doesn’t work as well at $2.50 gas.”EQT hopes to cut $1.5 billion in debt by selling assets and boosting cash flow. However, the cash flow part will be hard to pull off with prices stuck in the doldrums.Moody’s cut EQT’s credit rating on Monday to Ba1 with a negative outlook, moving it into junk territory after the gas giant said it would issue new bonds to refinance debt. “EQT’s significantly weakening cash flow metrics in light of the persistent weak natural gas price environment and the company’s intent to refinance its 2020 maturities in lieu of debt reduction through repayment drives the ratings downgrade,” Moody’s senior analyst Sreedhar Kona said.The agency also noted the “volatility associated with the cash flow of pure-play natural gas producers necessitate a higher retained cash flow to debt ratio threshold than EQT can deliver over the medium term even with significant debt reduction.” “Additionally, EQT’s cash flow metrics compare poorly to other Baa3 rated oil producing companies, despite EQT’s size and scale,” Moody’s concluded

U.S. Gas Giant Downgraded To Junk Status - The largest natural gas driller in the United States just announced a massive write-down for its assets, offering more evidence that the shale sector faces fundamental problems with profitability.In a regulatory filing on Monday, Pittsburgh-based EQT took a $1.8 billion impairment for the fourth quarter, as the natural gas market continues to sour. EQT said that the write down comes as a result of the “changes to our development strategy and renewed focus on a refined core operating footprint,” which is a jargon-y way of saying that some of its assets are now worth much less.EQT also slashed spending for 2020 to between $1.25 and $1.35 billion, down by another $50 million compared to the guidance the company provided in the third quarter of last year.Although not a household name, EQT is the largest gas producer in the country, and is a giant in the Marcellus shale. EQT purchased Rice Energy in 2017, growing into a huge gas producer and pipeline company, but it has posted disappointing results in the last few years. The poor performance led to an internal battle for control of the company. Toby Rice, who co-founded Rice Energy and maintained small ownership stakes in EQT after the tie up, wrestled control from management, convincing the company’s board that he could right the ship. He became CEO last year.So far, the company’s problems continue. Natural gas prices slid sharply in 2019, and are at rock-bottom levels, particularly for the time of year. According to the FT, while Henry Hub natural gas prices for February delivery trade at $2.24/MMBtu, they are only trading at around $1.83/MMBtu at the Dominion South hub in Pennsylvania. EQT itself admits that it can’t succeed in this environment. “Gas prices are down. It has a big impact, the difference between $2.75 gas and $2.50 gas,” Toby Rice said in December “A lot of this development doesn’t work as well at $2.50 gas.” EQT hopes to cut $1.5 billion in debt by selling assets and boosting cash flow. However, the cash flow part will be hard to pull off with prices stuck in the doldrums.

EIA forecasts slower growth in natural gas-fired generation while renewable energy rises --In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 14, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that generation from natural gas-fired power plants in the electric power sector will grow by 1.3% in 2020. This growth rate would be the slowest growth rate in natural gas generation since 2017. EIA forecasts that generation from nonhydropower renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, will grow by 15% in 2020—the fastest rate in four years. Forecast generation from coal-fired power plants declines by 13% in 2020.During the past decade, the electric power sector has been retiring coal-fired generation plants while adding more natural gas generating capacity. In 2019, EIA estimates that 12.7 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity in the United States was retired, equivalent to 5% of the total existing coal-fired capacity at the beginning of the year. An additional 5.8 GW of U.S. coal capacity is scheduled to retire in 2020, contributing to a forecast 13% decline in coal-fired generation this year. In contrast, EIA estimates that the electric power sector has added or plans to add 11.4 GW of capacity at natural gas combined-cycle power plants in 2019 and 2020.Generating capacity fueled by renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind, has increased steadily in recent years. EIA expects the U.S. electric power sector will add 19.3 GW of new utility-scale solar capacity in 2019 and 2020, a 65% increase from 2018 capacity levels. EIA expects a 32% increase of new wind capacity—or nearly 30 GW—to be installed in 2019 and 2020. Much of this new renewables capacity comes online at the end of the year, which affects generation trends in the following year.Forecast generation mix varies in each of the 11 STEO electricity supply regions. A large proportion of the retired coal-fired capacity is located in the mid-Atlantic area, where PJM manages the dispatch of electricity. EIA forecasts that coal generation in the mid-Atlantic will decline by 37 billion kilowatthours (kWh) in 2020. Some of this decline is offset by more generation from mid-Atlantic natural gas-fired power plants; EIA expects generation from these plants to grow by 23 billion kWh. In the Midwest, where the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) manages electricity, EIA expects coal generation to fall in 2020 by 33 billion kWh. This decline is offset by an increase in natural gas electricity generation (12 billion kWh) and by nonhydropower renewable energy sources (13 billion kWh). The regional increase in renewables is primarily a result of new wind generating capacity.

The U.S. Natural Gas Boom Is On Its Last Legs - Weak natural gas prices amid abundant supply and a falling rig count across the United States will slow down U.S. natural gas production growth this year, and some basins will even see production declines, analysts say. Due to the shale revolution, natural gas production in the U.S. has been growing rapidly over the past decade, and growth accelerated over the past two years. But now companies are struggling with negative cash flows as prices stay low, and investors are not rewarding production growth if they don’t have returns.The natural gas glut created from the continuously rising production amid insufficient pipeline takeaway capacity has been recently aggravated by the gushing associated gas in the oil wells in the Permian, where pipeline capacity is not nearly enough to accommodate additional natural gas volumes. Gas flaring has hit record highs as producers are unable to find any useful and reasonably cost-efficient application for that gas.Due to continuously rising U.S. natural gas production, natural gas prices at the U.S. benchmark Henry Hub averaged US$2.57 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2019—the lowest annual average price since 2016.Lower prices and fewer rigs are expected to slow down U.S. natural gas production growth this year. Some regions in the Mid Continent could see declines in their gas production, according to estimates from S&P Global Platts Analytics. For example, the SCOOP/STACK play in Oklahoma saw its active rig count drop to a multi-year low of 23 this week, according to data from energy data analytics company Enverus cited by Platts. This year, gas production in the SCOOP/STACK is set to slow down to 3.2 Bcf/d, down from the 3.4 Bcf/d average production in 2019, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. In the broader Midcon Producing region—including the SCOOP/STACK, Cleveland Tonkawa, Mississippi Lime, and Granite Wash plays—production in 2020 is set to average 6.6 Bcf/d, down from 6.8 Bcf/d in 2019, according to Platts Analytics’ forecasts based on the current rig count in the areas.  In 2019, the Marcellus and Utica basins saw pipeline relief but “aggressive gains in production continued to surprise and caused renewed price weakness this past fall,” Enverus said. In the Permian, promising economics will continue to be challenged by pipeline capacity shortages, while Haynesville’s growth last year was likely limited to Tier 1 acreage, “which is the only area reliably in the money with a $2.13/MMBtu gas breakeven,” according to Enverus.

 'Raging granny' faces music for pipeline protest: 'Happy that I did it' - Activist and self-identified “raging granny” Glenna “Duff” Benjamin traveled to Montgomery County in September to lock herself to a sideboom pipelayer and block construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for five hours. On Monday, she returned to face the consequences of her act of non-violent civil disobedience. The 76-year-old Benjamin pleaded not guilty to a charge of trespassing, but acknowledged the evidence against her would be enough to return a conviction. In return, she received a $200 fine that would be suspended on the conditions that she keep at least 100 yards away from the pipeline and its construction sites and that she not harass MVP employees or contractors. Four other related charges were held under advisement by General District Court Judge Gino Williams and will be dismissed in 12 months if Benjamin abides by the court’s conditions. “You understand I’m going to get to be the referee about what harassing is from here on out, as long as it’s within the jurisdiction of this court, OK?” Williams told Benjamin. “Do you understand that? I don’t want to cut you off from doing the things you’re legally allowed to do, but if there’s a question in your mind about what’s harassment, it would be a good idea not to do that.” Benjamin meekly acquiesced. But a few minutes later, as she walked out of the courtroom, she grinned like the cat that ate the canary. “I’m happy that I did it,” Benjamin told reporters outside the courtroom, as a crowd of pipeline protesters and supporters listened. Her lawyer, former Montgomery County supervisor Chris Tuck, added, “She doesn’t have any regrets. In channeling the teachings of Martin Luther King and his actions, she’s committed to nonviolent protest, and that’s what she did. She’s appreciative of the compassion the commonwealth’s attorney showed her in this case. She will continue to be a voice in protecting our environment and a cause she believes in with all of her heart.”

In Virginia, anti-pipeline activists feel ‘justice was served’ with court ruling -- The momentous decision by a three-judge panel from the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is potentially a huge setback for Dominion Energy’s pipeline and a gargantuan gain for environmental justice in a state where that topic is only recently being broached.  Union Hill, a tiny rural community in Buckingham County settled after the Civil War by free blacks and formerly enslaved people, has been tracked by pipeline opponents nationwide as a test case. It’s 70 miles west of Richmond. Chief Judge Roger Gregory of Virginia joined judges James Wynn Jr. of North Carolina and Stephanie Thacker of West Virginia in issuing the 47-page opinion. The judges basically reprimanded the seven-member board for following the Department of Environmental Quality’s lead and choosing to ignore reams of substantive evidence that petitioners had submitted about the pumping station’s impact on a vulnerable community.   For instance, Dominion and the board didn’t acknowledge the community’s makeup as majority African American. Many of the residents are elderly and suffering from respiratory and heart ailments. As well, the board didn’t account for either the 60 homes within a mile of the 68.5-acre site for the compressor station or the impact of the noise and pollutants emitted during its construction and operation.  Dominion claimed the wooded acreage near Rose’s house on Highway 56 was ideal for the compressor station because of a necessary connection to Transco, a separate and existing natural gas pipeline. The permit application stated that four turbines — with a combined 58,162 horsepower — would burn gas 24/7 to pump natural gas through the pipeline. The board failed to even consider replacing those turbines with technology such as electric motors, which would have eliminated the on-site air pollution.In the fall of 2018, the board opted to delay its vote on the compressor station permit because several members wanted more information on environmental justice issues. That November, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam caused an uproar in anti-pipeline quarters when he replaced two board members who had voiced concerns about the disproportionate harm to Union Hill. The reconfigured board’s final vote for approval came in January 2019.  “What matters is whether the Board has performed its statutory duty to determine whether this facility is suitable for this site, in light of EJ [environmental justice] and potential health risks for the people of Union Hill,” the judges wrote. “It has not.”

15 states oppose Trump plan to allow LNG shipments by rail (AP) — The attorneys general of 15 states said this week that they oppose a Trump administration proposal to allow rail shipments of liquefied natural gas, arguing the trains will share tracks with passenger trains and travel through congested areas. The protesting states included Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the Trump administration issued a special permit in December to ship LNG by rail. The rulemaking by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration stems from Trump signing an executive order in April that, in addition to seeking to speed up oil and gas pipeline projects, directed the transportation secretary to propose a rule allowing liquefied natural gas to be shipped in approved rail tank cars. In their 18 pages of comments submitted Monday, the states said the Trump administration’s proposed rule would put residents, first responders and the environment at greater risk of catastrophic accidents. The administration failed to adequately analyze those risks and failed to consider the environmental and climate effects of allowing LNG to be shipped in rail tank cars, the states said. The flammable and odorless liquid would be transported “through densely populated areas, potentially in unit trains of up to 100 tank cars operated by just one person, on the same rail lines used by high speed passenger trains, with inadequate safety precautions,” the states said. They asked the pipeline administration to withdraw the proposed rule pending the completion of more safety studies and the development of an environmental impact statement. Federal hazardous materials regulations allow LNG shipments by truck, but not by rail, except for with a special permit. In December, the Trump administration issued a special permit to a New Fortress Energy subsidiary to ship LNG by rail from northern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas fields to a yet-to-be-built storage terminal at a former explosives plant in New Jersey, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia. From there, the LNG would be exported to foreign markets. Monday was the deadline for comments to be filed. The other objecting states were California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

9 Arrested In Latest Protest At Weymouth Compressor Plant — The protest groups Extinction Rebellion and 350 Mass Action are claiming nine more arrests Thursday in the latest in a series of demonstrations at a Weymouth natural gas compressor construction site. For the third time in the past two months, protestors blocked the entrance of the site of the 7,700-horsepower compressor construction site with ensuing arrests. The groups on Thursday took credit for delaying entrance to the plant for three hours. The nine arrests Thursday makes it 19 arrested for civil infractions since Dec. 5. "We thank these brave individuals for putting their bodies on the line to protect people and the planet from further climate destruction," the protest groups said in a joint statement. The groups are calling on Gov. Charlie Baker and the Department of Environmental to reconsider approval given to the project in light of fierce opposition from climate activists and some local officials. They cite what they call the "industrial environmental hazards" associated with the project with posing a danger for the densely populated coastal community with two schools and 3,100 students located within an mile of the compressor site. "Governor Baker and the agencies he oversees are responsible for protecting citizens from health risks and initiating real change to protect the environment. The fossil fuel industry will not voluntarily sacrifice its profits for the greater good," said Amanda Nash, a vocal member of the recent protests. "That industry has spent the last 30(-plus) years lying to the public about the severity of global heating and the industry's role in creating it. Governor Baker and the legislature need to stop acting on behalf of the fossil fuel companies and take drastic measures to protect our communities and ensure a livable future."On Dec. 5, protestors from the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station were out in force in Weymouth where they said about 30 protestors blocked the national gas compressor station entrance on Bridge Street. Four were arrested that day in what they called "an act of civil disobedience.Later that week, six more protestors from the group were arrested after they laid down in front of the gates of the station during an hours-long protest.

Weymouth councilors raise concerns over trucks at compressor site - — Town councilors want federal regulators to enforce a traffic plan after residents say crews working to excavate contaminated fill at the site of a planned natural-gas compressor station are not following agreed-upon routes and allowing hazardous materials to spread. Town Council President Arthur Mathews this week sent a letter to Kimberly Bose, secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, outlining concerns of residents and officials regarding traffic at the compressor station site since crews have started remediation of hazardous materials at the Bridge Street site ahead of compressor station construction. The compressor station is being built by Algonquin, a subsidiary of Enbridge, and is part of the Atlantic Bridge project, which would expand the Houston company’s pipelines from New Jersey into Canada. Algonquin got the final go-ahead from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November after a series of health, safety and environmental reviews. Mathews said contractors have not been following the traffic plan and using residential streets in Weymouth, rather than the designated route through Quincy and Braintree on Routes 53 and 18. Mathews said the council also wants to make sure the vehicles are properly washed prior to leaving the site. “This construction will come with the removal of approximately 11-18K tons of arsenic laden soil. Some levels of the arsenic are as much as 500% over the safe standards,” the letter reads. “There is also concern that the parcel contains asbestos as the entire peninsula has been filled with industry debris throughout the years. ... Given the significant health risks of asbestos, more thorough testing should be conducted in this regard prior to offloading these truckloads of contaminated soil.”

MAINE: Federal judges send pipeline fight back to state court -- Monday, January 13, 2020 -- A federal appeals court is seeking clarification on Maine state law in a legal dispute over whether a city can halt an oil infrastructure project.

Michigan seeks extensive records about underwater oil pipes (AP) — Michigan officials demanded an extensive set of records Monday from Enbridge Inc. in an investigation of the company’s oil pipeline that runs beneath a channel linking two of the Great Lakes. In a letter to the Canadian company, the state Department of Natural Resources requested documents dating back to 1953, when two 20-inch pipelines were placed across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. They are part of Line 5, which carries crude oil and natural gas liquids used in propane from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. The straits connect Lakes Huron and Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last June ordered a review of Enbridge’s compliance with an easement that set conditions for the company to place the pipelines on the Great Lakes bottomlands. The Democratic governor, who has echoed environmentalists’ concerns that the pipes are unsafe and could leak, said violations of the easement could justify an order to shut down the line. “The documents requested today from Enbridge will provide important information in the department’s continuing review” of the company’s performance, said Ed Golder, spokesman for the natural resources department. The Canadian company, based in Calgary, Alberta, issued a statement saying it had received the information request. Spokesman Michael Barnes said the company had no comment on how it would respond. The underwater pipeline segment “has been operating safely and reliably since it was constructed more than 60 years ago,” Enbridge said. In the letter, natural resources director Daniel Eichinger asked Enbridge to provide all company letters, emails, reports and other materials involving any spills or leaks from Line 5. He also requested documents involving gaps that have appeared beneath the pipelines and damage to the pipes’ outer coating, as well as curves that might have formed in the piping and strikes by ship anchors or other objects. The pipes were dented by an anchor dropped by a tugboat in April 2018, although Enbridge said they remained intact.

Opinion: Line 5 tunnel is a high-stakes gamble - Should Michigan allow a Canadian oil company to risk the Great Lakes for its own profit? A Line 5 oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac does that for Enbridge Energy. Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administrator Skip Elliot said, “You will not find a more sensitive area anywhere in the United States” for an oil pipeline. Yet Enbridge pursues the shortest, most profitable route to its East Coast markets.At 66 years, Line 5 is damaged and needs replacement, so a new pipeline in a tunnel is planned. However, continued operation of old Line 5 while building the tunnel increases risk. A September accident left drilling equipment embedded in the lake bottom and leaning against Line 5, yet went unreported. This is the fateful beginning of the tunnel, which Enbridge says will “make a safe Line 5 even safer.”Drilling 100 feet into bedrock for an oil tunnel in such narrow confines as the Straits is unprecedented and risky. Doing it next to an aged pipeline carrying a million gallons of oil each hour is a high stakes gamble. Gov. Snyder’s lame duck deal stipulated Michigan will own the tunnel and lease it to Enbridge for 99 years. It allows Enbridge to back out. Unlike Michigan, Enbridge has almost nothing to lose and everything to gain from a tunnel that keeps oil flowing in the old pipeline until it is replaced in five years or more. Enbridge, backed by ExxonMobil and big oil, created the Moving Michigan Campaign to convince Michigan it needs a tunnel — when 90 percent of Line 5’s oil and 98 percent of its propane liquids go directly to Sarnia. Gov. Whitmer pledged to shut down Line 5 to protect the Great Lakes and Michigan’s economic future. Her UP Energy Task Force finds that the U.P. need for propane, like Michigan overall, isn’t dependent on Enbridge. She doesn’t believe a 99-year commitment to fossil fuels during a climate crisis is wise. An Oct. 29 study by American Risk Management shows Enbridge’s pledge to cover cleanup costs of a Line 5 spill is hollow because the parent company, Enbridge Incorporated, isn’t responsible for liabilities incurred by its subsidiary, Enbridge Energy. Michigan is left holding the bag. The tunnel represents an unacceptable and completely unnecessary risk. Michigan could lose more than money if Canadian oil keeps passing through the heart of the Great Lakes until the pipeline finally fails.

Appeals panel decision means Michigan must process Enbridge permits — A state Court of Appeals ruling Thursday reaffirmed Enbridge Energy’s right to move forward with plans for tunnel construction to house the controversial Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac. In a brief 2-1 decision from the Court of Appeals, judges Michael Gadola and Patrick Meter denied Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s request to stay a lower court opinion that overruled Nessel’s objections to the agreement that allowed for the tunnel construction. Appeals Judge Amy Ronayne Krause wrote she would have granted Nessel’s request, noting that arguments for and against the constitutionality of the tunnel agreement “seem very well-reasoned and a stay should be granted until the appeal on this issue in this court is resolved.” The appellate decision came after the Michigan Court of Claims in October ruled Enbridge Energy’s tunnel construction agreement with the state of Michigan — entered into under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder — was valid. Nessel filed a brief Thursday with the Court of Appeals to reverse the decision, arguing the agreement was unconstitutional because it violated the title-object clause of the state Constitution and involved two unrelated objects: the tunnel and the Mackinac Bridge. Nessel's request would have temporarily halted the implementation of the Court of Claims opinion pending appeal. Without the stay, the agreement remains in effect, overruling Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March executive directive ordering agencies to stop processing permit applications for Enbridge. “If Enbridge applies for permits needed for the construction of the proposed tunnel, state agencies would have the responsibility to process the applications as provided by law; the potential unconstitutionality of Act 359 is not a basis at this time for declining to do so,” said Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.

Hearings set on We Energies gas line project  - Public hearings on a new 46-mile natural gas pipeline that will run from Whitewater in Walworth County to the Town of Paris in Kenosha County will take place in February. The hearings were triggered by the Thursday release of the final environmental impact statement, a 297-page analysis of the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts that could result from the construction of the project, known as the Lakeshore Lateral Project. The report was prepared jointly by the state Public Service Commission, which is expected to make a determination on the project proposal by April, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Two routes for the gas line were presented by We Energies, which designated the route that travels through Elkhorn, Burlington and Brighton as its preferred route. The route has been altered to reflect landowner requests at previous public hearings.

 Chesapeake Energy is Drowning in Debt, Without a Life Raft in Sight -  Chesapeake Energy is the very definition of a “dead man drilling.” The only reason to keep it alive is to try and pay off some of its roughly $9 billion in debt. This is working for its bankers, but not CHK stock investors.  The other analogy that comes to mind is the dead parrot in the Monty Python sketch. You can argue all you like about whether the Oklahoma City-based oil and gas producer is resting, or perhaps pining for the fjords. But its situation is hopeless. The fact can be seen by looking at one number, its annual interest expense. In 2016 Chesapeake paid $286 million to service its loans, on revenue of nearly $7.9 billion. Last year it paid about $518 million. In 2020 it will pay nearly $700 million. Revenue is expected to remain under $10 billion.The company is the very definition of a “dead man drilling.” The only reason to keep it alive is to try and pay off some of its roughly $9 billion in debt. This is working for its bankers, but not its investors.Most have finally figured that out. The shares fell decisively under $1 each in November and open for trade this morning at about 68 cents each. Chesapeake Energy is the poster child for the latest boom-bust cycle in oil. Chesapeake came to prominence early in the last decade, under Aubrey McClendon, by fracking the Marcellus Shale, a formation in the Appalachian Mountains containing huge reserves of untapped natural gas. It later made investments in nearly all the other big plays of the decade, from Ohio to Colorado to Texas and its Permian Basin.McClendon himself died in a March 2016 traffic mishap, while under indictment for trying to rig auctions on oil and gas leases. The company has struggled without him, trying to pay down or put off the mountain of debt accumulated during its glory days.

Florida agrees to buy swath of Everglades to protect it from oil drilling - (Reuters) - The state of Florida has reached a deal with a private real estate firm to buy a large swath of environmentally sensitive wetlands in the heart of the Everglades to spare the tract from oil drilling, the governor announced on Wednesday. Florida’s agreement to purchase 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) of land from Kanter Real Estate LLC, if consummated, would mark the largest wetlands acquisition by the state in a decade, Governor Ron DeSantis said in a statement. The deal was reached after a Florida appeals court last year sided against the state Environmental Protection Department’s bid to deny the Miami-based real estate company a permit to explore for oil on the land in question. The Kanter family agreed to sell the property for $16.5 million, but the price would jump to $18 million if the deal closes after June 30. Acquisition of the Kanter property would bring to nearly 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) the amount of wetlands placed under permanent protection within a key Everglades conservation area set aside for environmental restoration and recreation, the state said.

New Enterprise Plant Begins Service at Mont Belvieu - Enterprise Products Partners L.P. reported Monday that its isobutane dehydrogenation (iBDH) plant near Mont Belvieu, Texas, recently began service, adding that volumes should continue ramping up during the next two weeks. “The completion of the new iBDH facility extends our butane value chain by allowing us to increase production of both high-purity and low-purity isobutylene to be used primarily as feedstock to manufacture lubricants, rubber products and fuel additives,” A.J. “Jim” Teague, CEO of Enterprise’s general partner, commented in a written statement. According to Enterprise, the new iBDH plant – supported by long-term, fee-based contracts – will ultimately be able to process approximately 25,000 barrels per day of butane into nearly 1 billion pounds per year of isobutylene. Enterprise stated that market demand is growing for isobutylene – a byproduct of ethylene production plants – amid increased use of low-cost, light-end feedstocks such as ethane rather than more expensive crude oil derivatives. The firm pointed out the iBDH facility will turn plentiful, cost-advantaged natural gas liquids into a higher-value product using the company’s integrated midstream network. “I would like to commend the performance of our construction contractor, Optimized Process Designs, and our employees whose expertise, diligence and more than 25 years of experience with the Oleflex technology allowed the project to be completed on-time and under-budget,” stated Teague. Teague added that Enterprise is applying the same technology and project execution strategy on the propane dehydrogenation plant (PDH) under construction at its Mont Belvieu complex. The PDH plant is slated for completion in the first half of 2023, he stated. 

Company inspects former Pegasus Pipeline in county -Inspection and testing of the pipeline that ruptured and released 5,000 barrels of crude oil in a Mayflower subdivision in 2013 is underway in Garland County. Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of the 859-mile conduit formerly known as Pegasus Pipeline, informed Garland County last week that tests would be conducted Wednesday through Friday. The 20-inch pipeline's 648-mile northern segment from Pakota, Ill., to Corsicana, Texas, has been out of service since the oil spill. A digital map maintained by the Pipeline and Hazard Materials Safety Administration showed the pipeline, now called Permian Express, runs northeast to southwest across the county, crossing Highway 7 north between Jessieville and Blue Springs and Lake Hamilton near the Treasure Isle Road area. Its path takes it across numerous creeks and streams in the lake's watershed. "We are performing integrity tests to ascertain the status of the pipeline as it has been inactive since 2013," Amanda Gorgueiro, who works in Energy Transfer Partners' media and public relations department, said in an email. "As with all of our pipelines, these tests are performed per PHMSA regulations. The testing involved the use of a smart pig, which has magnetic sensors to examine the inside of the pipeline. "At this time, our primary focus is on performing the integrity of the pipeline per PHMSA regulations. All appropriate notifications have been made to landowners within the area." The Dallas-based energy services company acquired the pipeline in 2016 through a joint venture with Exxon Mobile. The latter's pipeline subsidiary owned and operated the Pegasus line when it ruptured. According to the accident report, a 22-foot section failed in the Conway-to-Jessieville segment, spilling 5,000 barrels of crude oil flowing from Illinois to Texas and causing $57.5 million in property damage. The report said it took 16 minutes from the time of detection to isolate the failure, with upstream and downstream valves closing off an 18-mile section. An estimated 2,000 barrels collected in ditches and a cove south of Lake Conway. The report said the pipeline is buried 2 feet underground. The northern section was manufactured and installed in 1947.

Pipeline responsible for Mayflower oil spill being inspected - — The Permian Express pipeline, formerly known as Pegasus, that spilled half a million gallons of crude oil in Mayflower in 2013 is being inspected. According to its new owner, Energy Transfer, they are going through the over 600 miles of pipeline testing out its integrity. They're doing so by way of a "smart pig" which is a device that has magnetic sensors to examine the inside of the pipeline. Energy Transfer didn't disclose why they are conducting this inspection or if there are any future plans with this pipeline, but if it does get back online at some point, Central Arkansas Water has some concerns considering it runs right along Lake Maumelle. "Oil and water don't mix, and that pipeline runs through several watersheds just in Arkansas alone. Ours just happens to be the largest drinking water reservoir in the state," said Doug Shackelford, director of public affairs for Central Arkansas Water. The pipeline also runs straight through Garland County. Its judge, Darryl Mahoney, never thought he'd see that pipeline working again, saying, "I really didn't after the event in Mayflower, just an assumption on my part, I just assumed they would never charge it again because it caused so many problems in Mayflower and I'm sure they're not through there yet." Mahoney says his main concern is the safety of the county residents especially since the pipeline was originally constructed in the 1950s. "Although there are probably pipelines running everywhere right now that never have a problem, we don't want to have that problem here at all or any part of the state of Arkansas for that matter," he said. Both parties plan to request the findings from Energy Transfer once they have completed the inspection. In the event of a spill, Central Arkansas Water says they have an extensive plan in place to try to limit the damage. Garland County is in the process of working with their emergency management department to create one as well.

The battle over pipelines, population and property rights in Texas’ Hill Country -  Hershey Ranch covers 1,565 acres and is the largest protected property in Gillespie County, located west of Austin and in the heart of Hill Country. Samson and his wife, Nona—both in their seventies—split their days between Austin and the ranch, where they have devoted much of their time since 2011 when Andy Samson inherited the property as a life estate. They work on restoring the native habitat at least five hours a day, three or four days a week. Samson wishes he could put in longer hours, but Texas heat is a limiting factor. The Samsons spent years stewarding and restoring their land. But this month, Hershey Ranch could face an upheaval: bulldozers would clear a 150-feet-wide path, ripping out trees to make room for a 42-inch natural gas pipeline. It started a year ago, in October, when the couple received a letter from Kinder Morgan, one of the largest oil and gas infrastructure companies in the United States. The two-page memo dropped a bombshell: the company planned to build a 432-mile pipeline, stretching all the way from the Permian Basin in West Texas to the Gulf Coast. The pipe would cut straight across Hill Country, Hershey Ranch included. It would snake under rivers and highways, cut across ranches, and burrow near houses and future developments. The Samsons are among roughly 30,000 landowners within three miles of the proposed route. In the letter, Kinder Morgan asked landowners for permission to set foot on their property to survey the land. But the company didn't need permission: they needed to submit a four page application to the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), who would then grant them the power of eminent domain.

Kinder Morgan mobilizes for pipeline construction in Central Texas; opponents prepare to sue --After more than a year of community meetings, negotiations, resolutions and legal action, the pipeline company Kinder Morgan is getting ready to begin construction on the Permian Highway Pipeline in Central Texas—at least if legal challenges do not stop it.Work has already begun on the westernmost section of the 430-mile, $2 billion natural gas conduit, which stretches from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast, nearly bisecting Hays County. But in the Central Texas area, the company is waiting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to issue required permits.It is what happens with those permits that will most likely determine how soon Kinder Morgan can break ground. The permit issue is at the heart of two letters of intent to sue—required before filing a lawsuit against a federal agency—filed in the last six months to try to force Kinder Morgan to perform a full and public environmental review.The first letter, filed with the U.S. District Court on July 17, focused on the impacts of the pipeline on the golden-cheeked warbler; the second, filed Oct. 16, focuses on aquifer-based species such as salamanders. Hays County and the Travis Audubon Society signed onto the July letter, while plaintiffs in the second included Austin, San Marcos and Kyle, in addition to Hays County. Both letters charge that the Permian Highway Pipeline passes through endangered species habitat and that the company is trying to avoid rigorous environmental review by seeking a general nationwide permit from the Corps, which would not require it.

Valley Crossing maintenance could pressure Texas exports, prices — Maintenance on Valley Crossing Pipeline will begin restricting all receipts and deliveries on the intrastate pipeline beginning later this week, potentially putting downward pressure on South Texas gas exports and prices. From January 16 to January 22, the planned maintenance on Valley Crossing will halt shipments along the Nueces Header and Brownsville portions of the pipeline, according to a recent critical notice posted by operator Enbridge. On January 3, a similar maintenance event also halted transmissions on Valley Crossing, resulting in a steep decline in volumes delivered to Mexico from the Sur de Texas-Tuxpan cross-border pipeline. During its single-day duration, exports on Sur de Texas fell to just 130 MMcf – a decline of nearly 400 MMcf/d and the lowest daily transmission volume on the pipeline since it entered service in September. A nearly commensurate increase in exports on NET Mexico at the time of the maintenance helped to backfill for the drop on Sur de Texas, with no appreciable impact on South Texas gas exports or prices, S&P Global Platts data shows. The longer, seven-day duration to the upcoming maintenance event, though, could test NET Mexico's capacity to backfill for the Sur de Texas decline. In that case, cash prices at Texas Eastern STX and locations as far north as Houston Ship Channel could come under downward pressure as stranded supply pushes it way back into the Texas market. After entering service in February 2019, shippers on Valley Cross waited over seven months to deliver export volumes to Mexico on Sur de Texas amid construction delays and an extended contractual setback. The Valley Crossing and Sur de Texas pipelines combined have enabled shippers in Texas to significantly boost exports to points south of the border. In the fourth quarter, Texas exports to Mexico averaged nearly 4.6 Bcf/d – about 600 MMcf/d or 15% higher compared to the year-ago period. In January, outflows from Texas have averaged just over 4.4 Bcf/d, having come under downward pressure earlier this month when the extended holiday period kept Mexico's gas demand to a minimum.

U.S. Sees Most Available Oil And Natural Gas In History - Recent data shows that the U.S. had more minable oil and natural gas reserves than ever before. “Proved” oil and gas reserves are the amount that drillers could get out of the ground affordably and with current technology. The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that in 2018, those reserves reached historic peaks. After decades of decline starting in the 70s, the advent of fracking in the mid-2000’s boosted the amount of oil and gas we could get leading to these recent highs. Peter Maniloff, an assistant professor of economics at the Colorado School of Mines, says more reserves may mean more employment in oil and gas states, but, “There’s the saying that the stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones. We have vast quantities of fossil fuels in the ground. If we’re going to address climate change, then we’re going to have to leave some of them in the ground.” He says there also isn’t a guarantee that oil and gas industries will out-perform increasingly cheap renewable energies and electric vehicles. Mountain West oil and gas reserves were mixed. Natural gas reserves decreased between 2017 and 2018 in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. Meanwhile oil reserves in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah all went up.

 Experts Insist Permian Output is Approaching a Peak - -- Such is the extent of the shakeout in the U.S. shale industry that Permian Basin oil production is closer to peaking than many forecasts suggest, according to one energy investor. Adam Waterous, who runs Waterous Energy Fund, regards the sector’s financial position as unsustainable after years of disappointing returns for investors and negative free cash flow. With capital markets now largely shunning shale producers, the impact will begin to show in oil and natural gas output from the largest U.S. oil patch, he said. “We think we are at or near peak Permian” production, Waterous said last week in an interview. “The North American oil market has been grossly overcapitalized, which is not sustainable.” Predicting peak Permian output for 2020 isn’t a mainstream view. There’s plenty of debate about how much production growth in the West Texas and New Mexico patch may slow this year as shale drillers slash capital spending, but the consensus is that supplies will rise, albeit at a slower pace. Tai Liu, an analyst at BloombergNEF, said in a report Tuesday that the pessimism may be overdone. Such considerations have global ramifications, as the U.S. is expected to account for a large portion of worldwide supply growth this year. As head of investment banking at Bank of Nova Scotia, Waterous had a direct hand in mergers and acquisitions that reshaped the energy sector. But he says the model those deals represented, one in which oil and gas companies prioritized production gains and M&A, is now a relic. “The capital gains model is broken,” he said. “The M&A market is gone and it’s not coming back.” The kind of industry rationalization Waterous describes may work to his advantage. His Calgary-based private equity firm, which he founded in 2017, controls two Canadian oil producers. One of them, Cona Resources Ltd., agreed to buy Pengrowth Energy Corp. in November for C$28 million ($21 million) after Pengrowth’s share price cratered as the company buckled under a huge debt load. Waterous Energy is looking for more assets in Canada and the U.S. Waterous likens the plight of U.S. shale in recent years to the five stages of grief. The first stage, denial, is characterized by a belief that the M&A market will return, he said. That’s followed by anger (“the market is wrong”), then bargaining, by trying to operate within cash flow, followed by depression -- moving to the free cash-flow model that many shale operators have been touting. The final stage, acceptance, is defined by Waterous as the industry finally resolving to provide investors with cash payouts via dividends so that they recover their initial investments.

Trump Admin Ordered ‘Climate Censorship’ in Plans to Lease Texas Public Lands for Fossil Fuel Extraction - An environmental group has uncovered another case of "climate censorship" ordered by the Trump administration. Administration officials had references to the climate crisis removed from a Forest Service notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement on opening national forests and grasslands in Texas to oil and gas leasing. "The Deputy who is reviewing the NOI requested every reference to 'climate' and 'greenhouse gasses' be removed. We did," Robert Potts, the Forest Service's natural resources and planning team leader in Lufkin, Texas, wrote in a July 25 email obtained by environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).  CBD obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request after it noticed something strange about two different versions of the NOI posted in the Federal Register, E&E News reported Wednesday. The first, posted Aug. 26, mentioned climate change and greenhouse gases. The second, which replaced it the next day, did not. "This is another example of climate censorship that we've been seeing as a pattern under the Trump administration," CBD senior public lands campaigner Taylor McKinnon told the Houston Chronicle/ The drilling plans concern areas of the Sam Houston National Forest, Davy Crockett National Forest, Angelina National Forest, Sabine National Forest, Caddo National Grasslands and LBJ National Grasslands, which are parts of the Haynesville and Barnett shales. The Obama administration barred new oil and gas leasing on the lands in 2016 over concerns about the health and environmental impacts of fracking. The Trump administration is now looking to open them to new leasing once again and is working to supplement the last oil and gas analysis of the area, which was conducted in the 1990s, according to E&E News.

Texas’ Biggest Oil And Gas Industry Group Accepts Role In Climate Change – The head of the Texas Oil and Gas Association said Tuesday that his industry group agrees fossil fuels contribute to global warming but industry will find ways to reduce emissions.“I think Texas is at risk if we don’t have a very real, factual-based conversation about our climate, about our environment, and about the progress that needs to be made,” Todd Staples, president of TXOGA, said in a media conference call. “I think Texas-based oil and natural gas companies are committed to making climate progress. They’re committed to a lower emissions future.”Scientists have said for more than a century that emitting carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels heats up Earth’s atmosphere. But, until recently, industry representatives and their political allies have avoided acknowledging the link publically.Before taking over at TXOGA, Staples was Texas’ agriculture commissioner. He was among a group that sued the EPA in 2010 to stop it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, claiming the rules were based on “fabricated science.”Staples said his comments Tuesday were “fairly consistent” with other statements he’s made recently. But while he has addressed methane emissions and climate in the past, the remarks appear to be his most unambiguous linking oil and gas to global warming.But that doesn’t mean his group will support regulation to curb emissions.Since arriving at TXOGA, Staples has criticized the Paris climate agreement, EPA methane reduction rules and local efforts to combat warming like a plan adopted last year in San Antonio.The comments come amid a public relations push from the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil and gas lobby, to paint the industry as a proactive force in the fight against climate change.The goal seems to be to highlight innovations like carbon capture technology to argue fossil fuels should remain a major energy source in a decarbonized economy. That rebranding has been described as “embarrassing” by environmental groups.

Texas oil and gas industry could see a major slowdown in 2020 - The oil and natural gas industry paid a record-setting $16.3 billion in taxes and royalties to local governments and the state in 2019, the Texas Oil and Gas Association announced Tuesday. It is the highest sum since the 100-year-old association began tracking payments in 2007 — an indicator of the historic nature of the oil and gas boom that's gripped the state in recent years. The frenzy has driven U.S. fossil fuel production — and exports — to record levels. But the announcement comes as the industry appears on the precipice of a major slowdown as high production rates, softened global demand and a host of other economic and political factors have shifted the calculus. While fossil fuel production continued to rise in Texas in 2019, major cracks emerged in the latter half of the year: a significant drop in the number of active oil rigs, thousands of industry job losses and a spate of bankruptcies. Some analysts have said that already modest oil prices could drop below a key level of $50-per-barrel, which would deal a further blow. Texas Oil and Gas Association President Todd Staples said on Tuesday to expect more of the same in 2020. "With production strained by prices, we may have additional bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions as companies work to maintain a competitive [advantage]," Staples said during a conference call with reporters. "Job growth may continue to lag further than we’ve enjoyed in recent years." Aside from more industry-specific pressures, Staples said there's "no question the trade war with China has put a strain on U.S. natural gas producers." The announcement of a final trade deal, he said, was "welcome news." Citing the tax and royalty figures released Tuesday, which are broken down in a report that emphasizes support for K-12 and higher education, Staples repeatedly emphasized that fossil fuel production, transport and processing remain a crucial factor in the state's economic well-being. At the same time, Staples openly acknowledged that manmade climate change is a threat and said the industry is "absolutely committed to climate progress" — definitive comments that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. "We believe that all emissions contribute to climate change and we believe that our industry is committed to doing our part to make improvements," he said.

Tallgrass/Rockies Express's Recontracting Efforts for Rockies Gas Flows -  Tallgrass Energy’s Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) has been through a lot in its 10-plus years of operation. Since its first eastbound-only segments started moving natural gas out of the Rockies in 2008, flows on the pipeline have evolved due to market events, primarily the onset of the Shale Revolution, which has resulted in a surge of gas supplies in the Eastern U.S. and increasing gas-on-gas competition across North America. Rising to the challenge, REX has undergone a number of transformations to adapt to the shifting gas flow patterns and price relationships, including reversing flows on the eastern zone of the pipe to move gas west from Ohio. In 2019, REX was again put to the test, this time on the western end of the pipe, where the bulk of its legacy long-term contracts for eastbound flows out of the Rockies expired, with the last of them rolling off on November 11, 2019. Some of that has since been recontracted, and the in-service of the REX Cheyenne Hub Enhancement and Cheyenne Connector projects could further shore up REX mainline flows. Today, we begin a short series providing an update on REX’s eastbound gas flows and contract changes. You could say REX is the Madonna of gas pipelines. The Queen of Pop’s four-decades-long (and still going) career has been attributed to her habit of constantly reinventing herself. Similarly, REX’s long-term success has depended on its ability to morph, particularly given the rapid-fire changes that have buffeted the gas market over the past decade, all driven by the dramatic effect the Shale Revolution has had on the geographic distribution — and sheer volume — of gas supply across the Lower 48. The large-diameter, long-haul pipeline is now a robust bidirectional cross-country system that behaves like a massive header system for interregional flows. But it didn’t start out that way.  As we’ve recounted many times in the RBN blogosphere (see Get Back to Where You Once Belonged, Walking Talland Big Deal! for a few of those instances), REX began as a much-needed outlet for surplus Rockies gas supply, initially only extending east to delivery points in the Midcontinent and terminating at the Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line (PEPL) interconnect in northeastern Missouri (blue dot on Figure 1 map). But by November 2009, the easternmost section was completed, allowing REX to flow as much as 1.8 Bcf/d all the way east to Clarington, OH (lavender dot to the right), for further delivery into the Northeast’s premium consuming markets along the Atlantic seaboard. This eastern section of REX — or Zone 3 (aqua line) — added more than 15 interconnects with other interstate pipelines running generally perpendicular to REX and feeding Midwestern and Eastern markets plus a number of local utilities in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. This all made sense at a time when Rockies natural gas producers were looking to sell into the Eastern U.S., and when the Northeast region — the biggest heating demand region in the U.S., then and now — had little local supply of its own to help balance its consumption.

Emails Reveal U.S. Justice Dept. Working Closely with Oil Industry to Oppose Climate Lawsuits  In early 2018, a few months after the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued several major oil companies over climate change, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice began a series of email exchanges and meetings with lawyers for the oil companies targeted in the litigation. At one point, Eric Grant, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, sent an email to Indiana's solicitor general saying that his "boss" had asked him to set up a meeting to go over a plan for the government to intercede in the cases on the companies' behalf.  The cities were arguing that oil companies should be held liable for catastrophic flooding, sea-level rise and other harmful consequences caused by climate change. The DOJ was preparing an amicus brief in support of the industry, and the Indiana solicitor general was leading the charge by Republican attorneys general from 15 states to also file a court brief supporting the industry. In another email, an assistant U.S. attorney general referred to the DOJ attorneys and industry lawyers—many of them former DOJ environmental lawyers—as a "team." The messages were among 178 pages of emails exchanged by government and industry from February through May 2018 as they worked together to oppose the cities' lawsuits. They were obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) under a federal Freedom of Information Act request and shared with InsideClimate News.

Trump Moves to Limit Environmental Reviews, Erase Climate Change from NEPA Considerations - President Donald Trump on Thursday proposed sharply limiting environmental reviews of pipelines and other major federally permitted infrastructure projects, a move that would sweep away a hurdle slowing his agenda for unfettered fossil fuel development. The new guidance would curb federal agencies from considering climate impacts by specifying that agencies are only required to analyze impacts that are immediate, local and direct. The administration's proposed rule, which will be open for public comment before being finalized, also would relieve agencies of any duty to consider cumulative environmental impacts. "Many of America's most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously burdensome federal approval process," Trump said in an address from the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority. For the first time in 40 years, we're going to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions." The move to overhaul implementation rules for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which marked its 50th anniversary on Jan. 1, was portrayed by Trump as a modernization. But critics argue that the president is proposing changes that would undermine the bedrock environmental protection law, which establishes the duty of the federal government to act "as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations." They vowed to fight the effort. "While our world is burning, President Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm," said Gina McCarthy, the new president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). McCarthy, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, added: "We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop this dangerous move and safeguard our children's future." Flanked by men in hard hats and orange construction vests, industry officials and members of his economic team, Trump stressed his aim to speed the building of highways, roads and bridges. But the NEPA impact that has proved most nettlesome to the administration has been stalling the oil and gas pipelines and coal leasing Trump's administration has sought to push. Trump's move follows a series of federal court rulings that have stymied his efforts to spur fossil fuel projects—most notably the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline to expand U.S. imports of carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands oil. Trump had signed an executive order within days of taking office to reverse President Barack Obama's decision to halt the project over climate concerns. But Keystone XL has been tied up in litigation since then, with a federal judge ruling last August that federal agencies "cannot escape their responsibility" to evaluate alternatives under NEPA.

Revealed: US listed climate activist group as ‘extremists’ alongside mass killers - A group of US environmental activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience targeting the oil industry have been listed in internal Department of Homeland Security documents as “extremists” and some of its members listed alongside white nationalists and mass killers, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal. The group have been dubbed the Valve Turners, after closing the valves on pipelines in four states carrying crude oil from Canada’s tar sands on 11 October 2016 which accounted for about 15% of US daily consumption. It was described as the largest coordinated action of its kind and for a few hours the oil stopped flowing. The five climate activists, members of Climate Direct Action, cut their way through fencing and turned the valves. The activists notified the energy companies whose pipelines were being disrupted and posted videos of their protest online and waited patiently to be arrested. They have since been dubbed the “Valve Turners”, profiled in the New York Times magazine and featured in a recent documentary titled The Reluctant Radical. Their trials have also tested the willingness of courts to allow climate activists to make use of the necessity defense – the idea that a criminal action is justified if it helps to prevent greater future harm – as part of a legal strategy. But the group’s actions attracted the attention of the DHS. In a recent intelligence bulletin evaluating domestic terrorism threats between 2018 and 2020, the department included the Valve Turners and described the group as “suspected environmental rights extremists”. The document also listed two of the group’s members alongside violent white supremacists and other extremists who have engaged in mass killings, including the man behind the racist 2015 slaying of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

 Two separate oil spills confirmed in North Dakota - State environmental officials say a spill of oilfield wastewater caused by a faulty valve has affected some pastureland in western North Dakota. The state Department of Environmental Quality said the 12,180-gallon produced water spill happened on Saturday at a well pad about 14 miles east of Watford City. State environmental scientist Bill Suess said only about 168 gallons of produced water escaped the well site. He said about 800 square feet of pastureland was affected. He said no water sources were harmed. Another pipeline spill of oilfield wastewater has affected cropland in northwestern North Dakota. State environmental scientist Bill Suess said regulators were notified Monday of the 8,400 gallon pipeline leak in Renville County. The pipeline is operated by Wichita Falls, Texas-based Cobra Oil and Gas. The spill of produced water happened 2 miles north of Sherwood, and within a 1 mile of the U.S.-Canada border. About 1,000 square feet of cropland was affected.

Faulty valve blamed for North Dakota oil wastewater spill (AP) — State environmental officials say a spill of oilfield wastewater caused by a faulty valve has affected some pastureland in western North Dakota. The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality said the 12,180-gallon (46,000 liters) produced water spill happened on Saturday at a well pad about 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) east of Watford City. Minot-based Landtech Enterprises notified regulators of the spill on Monday. State environmental scientist Bill Suess said only about 168 gallons (635 liters) of produced water escaped the well site. He said about 800 square feet (74 square meters) of pastureland was affected. He said no water sources were harmed. Produced water is a mixture of saltwater and oil that can contain drilling chemicals. It’s a byproduct of oil and gas development. Suess said a berm around the well site contained most of the spill but some escaped through a gate at the facility.

Hydraulic oil spill occurs near Williston - minotdailynews– A failed seal on a water heater unit caused the release of 30 gallons of hydraulic oil at a site 7 miles northeast of Williston on Sunday. The spill occurred while Zavanna, LLC was pumping water from the Little Muddy River to use for enhanced oil recovery. The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality (NDDEQ) was notified of the spill on Tuesday. Zavanna estimates about 10 gallons were recovered. The remainder of the oil dispersed on the ice of the Little Muddy River, with an estimated 5 gallons released into the river. Personnel from the NDDEQ have inspected the site and will continue to monitor the investigation and remediation.

Oil spill reported in Williams County - A 30-gallon release of hydraulic oil in was reported in Williams County. The spill occurred while Zavanna, LLC was pumping water from the Little Muddy River to use for enhanced oil recovery. The incident took place about 7 miles northeast of Williston on January 12 and was reported to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality two days later. The cause of the spill was a failed seal on a water heater unit. To date, 10 gallons have been recovered. The remaining oil spill onto ice along the Little Muddy River, with an estimated 5 gallons spilled into the river. NDDEQ has inspected the site and will continue to monitor the investigation and remediation.

Pipeline fights class certification in California oil spill suit (CN) – A company responsible for an oil spill that dumped more than 123,000 gallons of crude oil off the California coast in 2015 asked a judge Monday to decertify a federal class action brought by beachfront property owners and business owners seeking damages from the environmental disaster. On May 19, 2015, thousands of gallons of crude oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean along the Gaviota Coast north of Santa Barbara. The ruptured pipeline, owned by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline, spewed oil through a storm drain under Highway 101 and into the ocean for several hours. The disaster forced the closure of multiple state marine conservation areas and public beaches as well as fishing and shellfish businesses. Plaintiffs in the ensuing class action include property owners, seafood suppliers, a petrol company that suffered lost wages and an international trading company that were impacted by the disaster. They claim Plains All American Pipeline should have had a shut-off valve on its 10-mile long, 24-inch wide pipeline.  On Monday, attorneys for Plains All American Pipeline argued an analysis by class witness Igor Mezić, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor, on the dispersion of crude oil is inaccurate. Mezić’s analysis involves the amount of oil that washed ashore after the disaster, what areas it covered and where it became submerged on the ocean floor. The pipeline’s attorney Daniel Levin with Munger Tolles Olson called Mezić’s findings “a “methodological failure” because he didn’t include important data points in his analysis, like the amount of oil that was cleaned up from specific sites.  But class attorney Leila Noel with Cappello Noel said Mezić’s formula was peer-reviewed and while some sites may have been cleaned, oil residues remained.  The defense seeks to decertify the class because the amount of oil found on the affected properties varies from property owner to property owner, and the case should therefore be handled individually rather than as a class action.   Levin said there are multiple variables related to lessees and owners, those with property easement that goes to the beach from further inland and other individualized claims for damages from each class member. “You can’t do it with a class,” Levin told U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez.  For the plaintiffs, Robert Nelson with Lieff Cabraser Heimann Bernstein said the class has already been narrowed down once before by Gutierrez to deal with the common questions. Nelson said the class attorneys have expert analysis on where the oil went and who was affected. Nelson also noted conventional use of the beaches was affected – a wrongful occupation and therefore a cost to the property owners.

Green groups sue Trump administration over California fracking plans analysis - Environmental groups sued the Trump administration Tuesday over its fracking plans in California, arguing that a federal analysis it adopted didn't adequately review "serious environmental and health impacts." The lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and others accuses the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of opening public lands "to harmful oil and gas leasing and development, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)." It seeks to prevent the agency from carrying out oil and gas leasing under a 2014 resource management plan "pending compliance with NEPA." The groups argue that the analysis adopted by BLM's Bakersfield, Calif., office "unlawfully minimizes the number of wells predicted to be fracked on new leases, and fails to adequately analyze the impacts of fracked wells on existing leases, leading to an underestimation of the impacts to air quality, climate, water quantity and quality, human health and safety, recreational uses, national park units and other public lands, and seismicity." A BLM spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency "will be reviewing" the lawsuit. "The BLM’s supplemental analysis on hydraulic fracturing did not make any new public lands or Federal minerals available to oil and gas development, nor did it issue any new leases or approve any permits to drill. If proposed, those actions and the potential impacts would be addressed at the site or project-specific level in subsequent tiered environmental analysis," the statement read. Michelle Ghafar, one of the lawyers on the case, said in a statement that BLM was choosing the oil industry over health and safety. "We’re returning to court once again to ensure the agency properly analyzes the impacts of devastating fracking activities in its plan,” Ghafar said. The Trump administration also announced last year that it would open up 725,000 acres in California to oil and gas lease sales, ending a five-year pause. That decision is facing a court challenge.

Democratic debate: the best case for and against a fracking ban – Vox - In the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was asked why she hasn’t called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing of oil and natural gas like some of the other candidates.“I actually see natural gas as a transition fuel,” Klobuchar said. “It’s a transition fuel to where we get to carbon neutral.” But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, argued that the harms to the climate outweigh the benefits. “If we as a nation do not transform our energy system away from fossil fuel ... the planet we are leaving our kids will be uninhabitable and unhealthy,” he said.Most of the Democratic presidential contenders agree that the United States should zero out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while helping the workers and communities that may suffer job losses in the switch to clean energy. But candidates differ on some of the details, and the role of fracking in the fight against climate change is a key point of contention. Activists have pushed the candidates to address fracking — which involves pumping high pressure water, sand, and other chemicals into a rock formation to create fractures that can release trapped oil and gas — because it has radically reshaped the US economic, energy, political, and environmental landscape. It’s turned the United States into the largest oil producer in the world. It helped pull the country out of a recession. It’s created boomtowns flush with cash in once sparsely populated parts of the country. At the same time, fracking has led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Wastewater injection from fracking wells has also caused a spike in earthquakes. It has caused local air quality and safety problems. And while they’re cleaner than coal, oil and gas from fracking are still fossil fuels. For policymakers, the difficult choice is deciding whether the benefits outweigh the harm, and if fuels from fracking can be a stepping stone toward cleaner energy. “

Fracking ban warranted to protect some of British Columbia’s biggest dams, FOI documents reveal - Fracking should be immediately banned close to BC Hydro’s two existing Peace River dams as well as the Site C dam construction project until a full public inquiry determines whether a comprehensive ban is warranted, the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says. The CCPA issued the call today after reviewing hundreds of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which shows that BC Hydro’s Peace Canyon Dam could fail in the aftermath of an earthquake triggered by fracking operations. “Allowing natural gas industry fracking and disposal well operations to occur anywhere near these dams is lunacy and that includes Site C,” says Dave Unger, a former BC Hydro construction manager who oversaw $350 million in refurbishment projects at the Peace Canyon and W.A.C. Bennett dams in 2007, and who is speaking out publicly for the first time about his concerns. “There should be outright bans on activities that could trigger earthquakes near the region’s dams, otherwise we may reach a dangerous tipping point where one of these dams fails,” he said. Unger personally experienced three “felt events” while working at the Peace Canyon Dam in 2007—events that coincided with encroaching natural gas drilling operations. In November 2018, the second-largest fracking-induced earthquake in BC was triggered at a fracking operation 20 kilometres from the Site C project, resulting in a “strong jolt” at the site. Ben Parfitt, CCPA resource policy analyst who filed the FOI request, says while the risk of a dam failure may be remote, the FOI documents indicate that it could happen with potentially deadly consequences for residents and workers downstream. “We need an immediate ban on fracking within 10 kilometres of the Peace River from the W.A.C. Bennett to Site C dams, and strict limits on fracking for 15 ki lometres beyond that unless a neutral body of experts rules there is no possibility for induced earthquakes,” Parfitt said. “Then the BC government must do the right thing and launch a full public inquiry into whether fracking is acceptable in any form whatsoever in the Peace River region given the known risks.”

Canada Faces A New Oil Price ‘’Blowout’’ --Prices for heavy crude in Canada have fallen to $36.66 per barrel, once again coming under pressure because of limits on pipeline capacity.  Western Canada Select (WCS) typically trades at a discount relative to WTI, due to quality differences and because of the long-distance it needs to travel. But the discount tends to increase – or, put another way, the price of WCS tends to drop – when oil producers run into pipeline bottlenecks. In severe cases, such as late 2018, there is a “blowout” in the price differential between WCS and WTI, which can be interpreted as a kind of glut of oil trapped in Alberta.Last year, Alberta put mandatory cuts into place to rescue WCS prices, which had dropped as low as $13 per barrel in late 2018, which meant that it was trading roughly $50 per barrel below WTI. The cuts the provincial government put into place helped to rescue WCS prices almost immediately.Fast-forward to early 2020 and WCS is once again trading at much lower levels compared to the U.S. benchmark.“Canadian crude failed to participate in the relatively constant price increase since October, remaining largely below $40 per barrel,” JBC Energy said in a note on Friday. WCS prices have been trading at a discount relative to WTI of about $23 per barrel so far in 2020, which is a larger discount than was seen even after the Keystone pipeline leaked a few months ago.WCS is now trading at its widest discount since December 2018, the month just before Alberta’s mandatory production cuts went into effect.  “The suppressed prices are coming on the back of strengthened supply, in particular of heavy crude amid upgrader maintenance,” JBC added. Oil sands production was up 80,000 bpd in November, compared to the same month a year earlier. “Furthermore, Albertan stock levels jumped to 74 million barrels in November, within grasp of the all-time highs seen in 2018 and earlier last year,” JBC Energy said. The surge in inventories is also the result of the Keystone pipeline leak, which kept the pipeline offline for a period of time and resulted in Canadian oil exports falling by 500,000 bpd in November.

Norway Suffers Setback In Quest For Arctic Oil Discoveries - One of the most active companies on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, Lundin Petroleum, said on Monday that it had revised downwards its resource estimate for a recent discovery in the Barents Sea, and that it no longer considers that a stand-alone development would be commercial.Although Lundin Petroleum reported overall increased reserves and contingent resources as of December 31, 2019, its estimate for the Alta discovery in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea “has been adjusted downwards,” based on the high specification 3D seismic survey and extensive data and analysis from the well drilled for the extended well test conducted in 2018.  Initially, Lundin had expected that the combined gross resource range for the Alta discovery and nearby Gohta discovery was at between 115 and 390 million barrels of oil equivalent (MMboe). As of September 2018, the development concept for Alta was a subsea field development connected to a standalone floating production and storage vessel.But now, Lundin is revising down its resource estimate, although it did not say by how much, and notes that “a standalone development of the Alta and nearby Gohta discoveries is no longer considered to be commercial.”The options for development now include a subsea tie-back development to either the Johan Castberg oilfield or another future host development in the area, Lundin said on Monday.The decreased resource estimate is another blow to the hopes of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) that major discoveries in the Barents Sea could sustain Norway’s oil and gas production into the next decades.  The operators offshore Norway are exploring for oil and gas in both mature areas and in frontier regions in the Barents Sea in the hopes of finding the next giant Johan Sverdrup, which started pumping oil in early October 2019.

Norway Arctic Oil Vision Suffers Another Blow -- Norway’s vision of establishing a new major oil province off its northern tip has suffered another blow. Lundin Petroleum AB, one of the most active explorers in the Norwegian Arctic, cut resource estimates for its Alta discovery in the Barents Sea and won’t develop the project independently, the company said on Monday. The field and the nearby Gohta find represented one of the hottest candidates for new projects in the Barents, an area estimated to hold two-thirds of the country’s undiscovered oil and gas. Lundin didn’t provide a new estimate for Alta, which together with Gohta was previously thought to have resources of as much as 390 million barrels of oil equivalent. The company said the two discoveries could be connected to Equinor ASA’s Johan Castberg field, which is due to start production in 2022, or to another future development. Regardless, unless Lundin finds more oil nearby, the two projects on their own won’t bring much-needed infrastructure like platforms or production vessels to the area, which in turn could have made other developments possible. Despite the potential for vast resources in the Barents Sea, only two fields have started production. Lundin’s latest downgrade for Alta follows other disappointments for the region, where the first four wells drilled by Equinor in a new area failed to produce commercial discoveries. After a record exploration year in 2017 with 17 wells, the total tally fell to seven in 2018 and five last year, according to the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. ‘Limited Pipeline’The reduction at Alta shows a “limited pipeline” of projects for Lundin in a portfolio where the bulk of reserves is linked to the massive Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea, Citigroup Inc. analysts said in a note to clients. The cut also highlights “the lack of meaningful exploration success recently,” it said. In a first sign its Barents optimism had limits, Lundin said in 2018 that it would need to rethink its efforts in the region if no significant new oil discoveries were made by the end of 2020.

Why U.S. LNG Can’t Win In Europe -- When Washington imposed sanctions on companies, the move drew criticism not just from Russia but from Germany as well. The sanctions, targeting firms building the pipeline that will increase Gazprom’s export capacity for Europe, were seen as interference in Germany’s internal affairs while the legislators who approved them saw them as a tool for deterring Russia’s energy influence in Europe. For some, however, the reason for the sanctions was the U.S.’s own energy plans for Europe. The Trump administration is following an agenda of energy dominance, and this dominance has to include Europe, which is one of the biggest markets for natural gas and, what’s more relevant to the U.S., liquefied natural gas. However, lessons from history, and that’s a history of Gazprom, would suggest that the energy dominance approach won’t work--not in Europe.Bloomberg’s Liam Denning recently reviewed a book by an IHS Markit expert on Russian energy, Thane Gustafson, titled The Bridge. The Bridge, according to Denning, contains, among other things, a cautionary tale for U.S. gas ambitions in Europe. The gist of it is that the European gas market is a lot more open and transparent than it used to be, and while this has served to reduce the influence of Gazprom on the continent, it has also served to deter anyone else that might want to try to take Gazprom’s place.  The truth is that today, Europe has developed a continental gas network, and that network features LNG terminals. This means that many European countries are today a lot more flexible in their gas imports than they were 30 years ago, when Russia and Norway dominated the market. There is just one catch: the LNG has to be cheap enough to beat alternative supplies.  Poland is already buying U.S. liquefied natural gas. The country is ready and willing to pay more if it has to, in order to reduce its dependence on Russian gas for a number of historical reasons. Yet last year Bulgaria, too, bought two cargos of U.S. LNG from Cheniere’s Sabine Pass liquefaction plant.  Even so, Poland and Bulgaria are small potatoes. Germany is the biggest gas market in Europe and it will become even bigger as the country aims to shut down all its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. This is why Gazprom is building Nord Stream 2 with Angela Merkel’s blessing, after all. And this is why the U.S. is sanctioning it if we leave aside the ideology that every government uses to advance its purely pragmatic agenda.

Livestock carrier spills fuel oil at port of Ceuta - The captain of the port of Ceuta has requested that the livestock carrierHolstein Express pay a bond of about $410,000 after the vessel allegedly spilled five tons of fuel oil into the harbor during bunkering operations. It is reportedly the largest spill at the tiny Spanish autonomous territory in two decades, according to local TV media.   The bond amount includes funds to cover a possible future fine, plus the costs of cleanup. The owner, operator, insurer and ship's master are jointly liable for the cost of the bond, according to local media.  The spill occurred during bunkering operations in the early hours of Friday morning. Initial reports indicate that human error led to a tank overflow, and an investigation into the root cause.  is under way.  Pollution containment and abatement began immediately when the spill was detected. Cleanup work was completed over the weekend, allowing the port authority to free up the pier where Holstein Express had been located. Before departing the dock, the ship's hull was cleaned off as well to prevent her from spreading pollution elsewhere in the harbor, according to El Faro Ceuta.  Before her arrival at Ceuta, the Holstein Express delivered a consignment of 3,000 head of cattle to Alexandria, Egypt. As of Monday night, she was still moored alongside the breakwater in Ceuta's harbor.

 Oil thieves behind major spills in Nigeria – FG -- The Federal Government on Friday attributed most of the oil spills in Nigeria to the activities of oil thieves. The Minister of State for Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, stated this during the opening of the office and laboratory of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital. She lamented that oil spills had impacted negatively on communities through the degradation of the environment, air and water pollution, adding that communities also faced disease and death as a result of oil spills. Explaining that oil spills had also caused the depletion of national revenue base, the minister said, “These illegal and inhuman practices must be stopped if we are to develop and progress as a nation. It is very sad to note that a majority of the oil spills that occur almost on a daily basis in Nigeria are caused by artisanal refining, pipeline vandalism, oil theft and illegal bunkering. “Only recently, the National Economic Council noted with concern that oil theft and other sources of leakages in the oil sector accounted for the loss of 22 million barrels of crude oil between January and June, 2019.” She said government was working with other stakeholders on the review of the NOSDRA Establishment Act in order to strengthen the agency and make it more effective in the discharge of its duties. On Ogoni clean-up, Ikeazor pointed out that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) had begun the implementation of the United Nations Environment Report on Ogoniland through the setting up of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project. According to her, remediation was ongoing at different sites, while the target is to ensure that remediated sites are restored to all practical extent.

 Chennai oil spill- Panel to evaluate remedial measures undertaken - Nearly three years after the devastating Chennai oil spill, southern bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT) has constituted a joint expert committee to assess the remedial measures by the State government to restore the coast and submit a report in three months. This follows complaints of government’s inaction in taking up full-scale restoration works. Now, the panel, comprising expert members from Union Environment Ministry, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and State fisheries department, has been mandated to check the quality of aquatic life, look for residual remains of oil spill in seabed and river mouths. After the oil spill off Ennore coast on January 28, 2017, the coast has been cleaned, but sufficient efforts were not made to assess the extent of environment damage caused by the spill, it is pointed out. A detailed long-term monitoring programme on health of larvae, benthic organisms, turtles and birds during the post-spill period is what is needed to understand the extent of recovery of biological system and the likely period that would take for complete recovery of the ecosystem in the oil spill affected Ennore and Marina coasts. Committee on Assessment of Environmental Impact of Oil spill, constituted by State Department of Environment three months after the incident submitted its report, which gathered dust even as Central and State research institutes awaited funds for long to commence the studies on various aspects, including fisheries. Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management Project Directorate (ICMAM) carried out analysis of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) in edible fish caught using trawl nets operated by fishing trawlers at depths of about 10m. The analysis showed 21 species were contaminated by TPH measuring 4.51 µg/g. No data on safe limits for TPH in fish is available, which makes it difficult to interpret whether the observed value of 4.51 µg/g in fish is within safe limit. Experts are concerned about the probable environmental impacts. Experts concerned Considering the high viscosity of bunker oil, low reactivity and persistency in environment, it is certain that the oil will continue to be present in sediments and organisms at least for a period of five-eight years, experts say.

 Misfired explosion behind Pertamina oil spill in West Java - A misfired explosion during the drilling of the YYA-1 oil well caused a massive oil spill in West Java in July last year, according to an Energy and Mineral Resources investigation team. The ministry’s oil and gas environment director Adhi Wibowo said on Tuesday that the explosive – whose function was to perforate the bore pipe to allow gas inside – should have been detonated 6,600 feet below the surface. Instead, the explosive was detonated at 700 feet, where the lower pressure enabled greater damage. “It damaged the bore pipe and the geological formation such that the drill rig became tilted,” he said, referring to the fact that the YYA-1 oil rig, owned by state-owned oil company Pertamina, was tilted 13 degrees following the oil spill. Pertamina had even deployed tug boats to ensure the rig did not tilt any further. The broken well is one of three wells underneath Pertamina’s offshore platform in the ONWJ Block, 2 kilometers north of Karawang. The spill had reached nine islands in Thousand Islands regency as of September, with islands such as Untung Jawa and Lancang suffering the most. Officials from the Environment and Forestry Ministry previously estimated environmental cleanup efforts would take as long as six months. “We are still investigating why this premature explosion happened. There might have been unexpected pressure from the rock formation that triggered the explosive," Adhi said. He added that the investigative team, consisting of academics and industry practitioners, was expected to have the final investigation result out by next month. They determined a "premature explosion" as the oil spill’s cause in December last year. The oil spill was caused by a gas well kick – the release of gas caused by low pressure in a wellbore – on July 12, 2019, that worsened two days later. The spill is estimated to cost "hundreds of billions of dollars" to clean up, according to a source.

China's 2019 annual crude imports set record for 17th year - Last year, China imported a record 506 million tonnes of crude oil, according to data from the General Administration of Customs. That is equivalent to 10.12 million barrels per day (bpd), according to Reuters’ calculations based on the data. Chinese crude imports have set records every year since 2003, according to customs data on Refinitiv Eikon. December arrivals were 45.48 million tonnes, customs reported. That is equivalent to 10.71 million bpd, according to Reuters’ calculations, the third-highest ever on a daily basis and down from a record of 11.13 million bpd set in November. The annual increase equates to 882,000 bpd in incremental purchases, largely because of demand from new plants that added 900,000 bpd to China’s oil-processing capacity, although some of the units started operating only in December. December imports were boosted by private refiners using up their annual import quotas, while state plants stocked up on oil before the holiday shutdown that accompanies China’s Lunar New Year festival, which falls in late January this year. “Chinese independent refineries, including two mega projects Hengli and Rongsheng, stepped up purchases before year-end to maximize the utilization of crude import quotas,” However, state refiners likely slowed down opportunistic purchases amid elevated freight rates in October, resulting in slightly lower December arrivals, said Chen. Last year marked the biggest penetration of private chemical companies into China’s refining business, after the emergence between 2016 and 2018 of smaller independent oil processors often known as “teapots”. Hengli Petrochemical and Zhejiang Petrochemical Corp, controlled by Zhejiang Rongsheng Holdings, each added 400,000 bpd in processing capacity, mainly focused on petrochemical output. That boosted China’s crude oil imports notably from Saudi Arabia, helping the kingdom reclaim its title from Russia as China’s top crude supplier. Meanwhile, natural gas imports, including fuel supplied as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and via pipeline, were 9.45 million tonnes, the third-highest on record on a monthly basis. The hefty December purchases included LNG imports that rose to a record last month with China overtaking Japan the world’s top importer of the fuel for the second month in a row.

Middle East tensions draw crude oil eyes, but China may matter more - (Reuters) - What’s the bigger risk to global crude oil markets this year, the threat of escalating conflict and even war between the United States and Iran, or a surge in exports of refined products from The obvious answer is the possibility of military confrontation between the United States and Iran, but if the question is swapped to which factor is more likely to influence crude markets, then China comes to the fore. While the actions of both U.S. President Donald Trump and Iran’s hardline leaders are challenging to predict, the chances are that both sides manage to hold off from an outright war, while still trying to undermine each other’s position in the volatile Middle East region. This is the pattern seen again with the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the subsequent missile attacks by Tehran against U.S. military bases, which killed nobody and seemed calculated not to draw a further round of retaliation. The tensions in the Middle East are likely to remain front and centre in media headlines, meaning that the issue will occupy crude producers, traders and buyers, even if the actual impact on oil prices is muted. But assuming some kind of lid can be kept on war in the Middle East, a more pertinent issue for the crude oil market may be what’s happening in China, the world’s largest importer. Last year saw a sharp increase in both China’s imports of crude and its exports of refined fuels.While official December figures have still to be released, it looks like China’s crude oil imports will have risen by around 10% in 2019 from the year earlier. In the first 11 months of the year they were up 10.5% to the equivalent of 10.1 million barrels per day (bpd). Refinitiv data points to Chinese imports of about 10.7 million bpd in December, which if achieved would mean full year imports of around 10.1 million bpd, an increase of about 906,000 bpd over 2018. This means that China is by far and away the most important driver of global oil demand growth, given the expectation by the International Energy Agency that world demand growth was about 1.2 million bpd in 2019.

What happens if China really does try to buy $52 billion of U.S. crude, coal, LNG?: Russell - (Reuters) - The problem for energy markets isn’t whether China can actually buy the amount of crude oil, coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) it has apparently committed to under the trade truce with the United States. The real issue is what happens if Beijing tries and succeeds? The terms of the deal imply an absolutely massive increase in Chinese imports of U.S. energy, and if this actually comes to pass, it will have serious disruptive effects across global markets. U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a deal in Washington on Wednesday that cut some U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods in exchange for Beijing agreeing to substantial increases in purchases of energy and agricultural commodities, as well as manufactured goods and services. As part of the agreement, China agreed to buy at least $52.4 billion in additional energy purchases over the next two years, from a baseline of $9.1 billion in 2017. That will be broken into $18.5 billion in 2020 and $33.9 billion in 2021. For this year the deal implies that China will have to buy about $27.6 billion in energy products from the United States. It’s worthwhile to look at a little history to put this figure in context. For crude oil, the best-ever month for China’s imports from the United States was June 2018, when 14 million barrels arrived, according to Refinitiv data. If that record performance is annualised, it would mean that China would buy about 170 million barrels, which would be worth about $9.82 billion at the current price for West Texas Intermediate futures of $57.81 a barrel. For LNG, the record month for China’s U.S. imports was January 2018, when 452,000 tonnes of the super-chilled fuel arrived. If this top performance is annualised it would mean imports of around 5.42 million tonnes of LNG, which at the current North Asian spot price of $5.30 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) equates to a value of about $1.54 billion. For coal, the record month of Chinese imports was February 2017, when imports from the United States were 957,000 tonnes. Annualising this figure results in a value of $1.77 billion, and that’s assuming all of the U.S. exports to China are higher value coking coal, which hasn’t been the case as there have been small volumes of cheaper thermal coal in the mix. Under this hypothetical scenario, the combined value of the highest-volume years for these three energy products comes out to $13.13 billion. This means that for China to reach the 2020 target of $27.6 billion in energy imports from the United States, it would take more than a doubling of the record months achieved in the past.

OPEC brings crude oil output below 2020 cap ahead of schedule: Platts survey - OPEC pared its crude oil production by 100,000 b/d in December, the latest S&P Global Platts survey finds, putting the bloc under its new, more-stringent quotas a month early. OPEC pumped 29.55 million b/d, according to the survey, with kingpin Saudi Arabia producing well below its cap as usual and compliance laggards Iraq and Nigeria improving their discipline. Now entering their fourth year of production cuts to prop up the oil market, OPEC, Russia, and nine other countries agreed last month to deepen their cuts to 1.7 million b/d — of which OPEC would shoulder 1.2 million b/d — from January to March. The 10 members with quotas under the accord, which exempts Iran, Libya, and Venezuela, produced 25.06 million b/d in December, making good on their new collective ceiling of 25.15 million b/d. Despite the reduced output and concerns about supply disruptions because of escalating hostilities in the Middle East, OPEC officials have said the market is in no danger of a shortage and that they see no reason to reverse their cuts for now. Indeed, many analysts continue to forecast a supply glut through the first half of the year and say additional production restraint from OPEC and its partners may be needed to prevent an oil price slump. Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest producer by far, trimmed its production in December to 9.82 million b/d, according to the survey, after surging it in November to replenish stocks depleted in the wake of the September 14 attacks on the Abqaiq processing facility and Khurais oil field. That is far below its quota of 10.31 million b/d under the deal that expired at the end of December, and also well under its new cap of 10.14 million b/d. Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman has pledged to hold the kingdom’s output at around 9.74 million b/d starting in 2020, as long as other members respect their quotas.

Oil Glut Overshadows Geopolitical Risk In 2020 - The risk of oil supply disruptions from around the world has diminished, and rising non-OPEC production provides a “solid base from which to react to any escalation in geopolitical tension.” In its January Oil Market Report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that there is plenty of oil sloshing around, despite the U.S. and Iran nearly going to war.“We cannot know how the geopolitical situation will play out over time, but for now the risk of a major threat to oil supplies appears to have receded,” the IEA said. “As was the case following the attacks on Saudi Arabia in September, once the initial fears of a sustained supply shock subsided, the Brent price rapidly gave up its $4/bbl spike.”Oil inventories held in OECD countries is 9 million barrels above the five-year average, and there are also plenty of strategic stockpiles to call upon in the event of an outage, the agency said.Still, while geopolitical risk has “faded,” it has not gone away entirely. The Trump administration may have refrained from all-out war against Iran, but the assassination of General Soleimani took the confrontation to new heights.While Trump’s speech earlier this month was widely interpreted as one of “de-escalation,” he also prefaced his comments by saying Iran would never have a nuclear weapon. But, sanctions, “maximum pressure,” and the assassination of one of its top leaders will obviously provoke a response. With little left to lose, Tehran is backing out of most of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement, a deal that the U.S. already exited nearly two years ago.All of which is to say the countries are seemingly locked on a collision course. The world breathed a sigh of relief when the two countries backed away from the brink, but there are decent odds that the conflict flares up again in the not-so-distant future. There are few pathways for actual de-escalation, absent an overhaul of U.S. policy. At the same time, Iran has already lost much of its oil supply due to sanctions. So, the additional supply risk is concentrated in Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran conflict is actually playing out. “Recent events have shown that Iraq is a potentially vulnerable supplier, just as its strategic importance has grown,” the IEA said. The agency noted that Iraqi oil exports have doubled since 2010, from 2 million barrels per day (mb/d) to 4 mb/d. China and India each import roughly 1 mb/d of supply from Iraq.“Iraq’s rising capacity has been very welcome as sanctions have reduced Iran’s exports to only 0.3 mb/d and Venezuela’s production has collapsed,” the IEA wrote. Left unsaid was that those outages were both the result of U.S. sanctions.

IEA- The Oil Glut Is Going Nowhere - - Global oil markets will remain well supplied this year, with a possible overhang of some 1 million bpd, the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Bitol, told Reuters. “Non-OPEC production is very strong. We still expect production coming from, not just United States, but also Norway, Canada, Guyana, among other countries,” Birol said, adding “Therefore, I can tell you that the markets are, in my view, very well supplied with oil, and as a result of that, we see prices remain at $65 a barrel.”  Norway is about to experience a sharp jump in oil production in the next four years, a new forecast from its Petroleum Directorate has shown. After a steady decline over several years, production is set for a 43-percent increase between 2019 and 2024, the NPD said, reaching 2.02 million bpd in 2024. This will be thanks to the start of production at the Johan Sverdrup offshore field along with several smaller fields. In Guyana, Exxon has just begun production from the Liza-1 well. Daily output from the deepwater field should reach 120,000 bpd before the end of 2020. Exxon is also building a second production vessel that should raise the total to 220,000 bpd.In Canada, meanwhile, oil production is also set to grow despite a government-imposed curtailment aimed at supporting prices. The curtailment was relaxed twice in 2019 and it only concerns large producers, allowing smaller ones to pump as much as they can sell. Based on this, the Canadian Conference Board recently forecast oil production in the country will be growing at 4.2 percent annually between this year and 2024.Demand growth, however, will be slow, according to Birol.“We are expecting a demand growth of slightly higher than 1 million barrels per day,” the top IEA man told Reuters. This means that except sudden spikes in prices due to geopolitical factors or possible production outages in a major producer, oil prices this year will remain largely range-bound.

Oil markets will soon have to rethink predictions of ‘ample’ global supply, minister says - There could be a recalibration of oil market expectations regarding an “ample” global oil supply, Bahrain’s oil minister said Monday, despite expectations that U.S. shale oil production could be hurtling towards 14 million barrels per day in the next few years. Speaking at a CNBC-moderated panel at the International Petroleum Technology Conference (IPTC) in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s Oil Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa said that an abundant supply of oil, currently seen amid rampant U.S. shale production, might not be so reliable as we progress through 2020. “Going forward, all eyes are on U.S. production again, if there’s going to be an extra million barrels (of production a day), yes, this will suppress oil prices but the current indicators of rig counts ... are telling you that maybe that is going to be a challenge,” he told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble, speaking on the panel in Dhahran. “So, my recommendation is all eyes on U.S. production, if they can hit 14 million (barrels) then yes oil prices will extend a bit further but, eventually, this sentiment that there is ample supply will have to shift, there will be a scarcity impulse in supply and when that happens in the next few years, definitely, it could be as early as the end of this year, we will have to see.” Al Khalifa cautioned that there had been few major oil discoveries recently and investment was ebbing; “So we are challenged, I think the future is challenged in terms of supply, more than people expect today.” “We can see that investments are not as bold as they once were, then perhaps that inflection point isn’t that far away,” he added. At that point, he said the challenge would be making sure that other producers “can meet the demand that keeps rising.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects American oil production to average 13.2 million barrels a day (b/d) in 2020, an increase of 0.9 million b/d from the 2019 level. However, growth in supply is slowing from the last few years with 2018 growth of 1.6 million b/d and 2019 growth of 1.3 million b/d. In September 2019, the U.S. exported exported 90,000 b/d more total crude oil and petroleum products than it imported, the first month recorded in U.S. data where it had exported more than it had imported. But in its latest short-term energy outlook released in January, the IEA noted that slowing crude oil production growth will result from a decline in drilling rigs over the past year and that it expected this trend to continue into 2020.

 Oil price slides as hedge funds' buying fades: Kemp - (Reuters) - Despite the increase in tensions across the Middle East after the killing of an Iranian general by a U.S. air strike, hedge fund managers added only modestly to their bullish position in petroleum last week. Hedge funds have gambled heavily on an oil price recovery this year, pricing in accelerating global growth, restrictive output policy by Saudi Arabia and continued tension short of war between the United States and Iran. As a result, the potential to add further bullish positions is more limited than a couple of months ago and prices are vulnerable to a sharp correction if growth disappoints or the threat of open conflict diminishes. Hedge funds and other money managers increased their bullish position in the six most important petroleum futures and options contracts by only 19 million barrels in the week to Jan. 7 (https://tmsnrt.rs/2tQ0WzD).  Bullish positions increased by the smallest amount for five weeks, according to position records published by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and ICE Futures Europe. On the eve of the air strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, funds had already amassed a large bullish position in crude and refined fuels such as gasoline and diesel, which may have discouraged further buying. Moreover, the crisis that erupted on Jan. 3 already appeared to be contained by Jan. 7, probably contributing to the limited rise in bullish positions evident in the weekly records.  Funds have been net buyers of petroleum futures and options in 11 out of the past 13 weeks, increasing their combined position by a total of 533 million barrels since early October and helping to propel prices higher. Portfolio managers have anticipated an acceleration in global economic growth and oil consumption during 2020 as well as continued output restraint by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the OPEC+ group of major oil exporters. But the number of bullish positions is now at its highest for 15 months and is already in the 82nd percentile for all weeks since 2013, which may have made fund managers wary about increasing their exposure any further. 

Oil Prices Turn Negative as Supply Worries Overcome Initial US-Iran Tensions - Oil prices turned negative for the year after dropping on Monday as traders and investors focused on the possibility of oversupply in crude amid dissipating tensions that initially threatened tanker movements in the Middle East.Brent, the global benchmark for crude, was down 65 cents, or 1 per cent, at $64.33 per barrel by 11:37 a.m. EST (15:37 GMT), continuing its slide from the middle of last week when the United States and Iran moved away from an outright war after Tehran fired missiles at US airbases in Iraq.West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the US crude benchmark, was down 74 cents, or 1.3%, at $58.28 per barrel.As of Monday, Brent was down 2.6% on the year while WTI showed a 4.5 per cent loss.Brent hit four-month highs of $71.75 last week, while WTI surged to an eight-month peak of $64.72, reacting to the Tehran action which was in retaliation to the US killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3. But the missile attacks on the Iraqi airbases did not kill anyone and US President Donald Trump stood down from escalating his fight with Iran, easing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, which often send oil prices higher. Oil tankers avoided the Strait of Hormuz that straddles Iran last week as a precautionIran was rocked by street protests on Monday in response to the Islamic Republic’s accidental downing of a Ukraine Airlines flight while firing at the US airbases in Iraq. But the unrest was contained and did not threaten the movement of oil in any way. Easing geopolitical tensions aside, analysts said oil prices were also pressured by worries that crude supplies could balloon from seasonal lows in demand.

Oil prices expected to stay around $65-70 through 2024 - (Reuters) - Long-term expectations about oil prices remain firmly anchored around $65-70 per barrel, according to the latest annual survey of energy professionals conducted by Reuters.   Plentiful supplies from U.S. shale plays and other sources outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries are expected to keep prices close to their recent range for the indefinite future. Fears about peaking oil supplies, common ten years ago, have disappeared; now there are some indications that expectations about peaking oil demand are taking hold.Brent is forecast to average $65 per barrel in each of the next five years based on the median, or $67 this year rising slightly to $69 by 2024 based on the mean.Most forecasters expect average prices to remain between $60 and $75 per barrel in each of the next five years, with only a very small number expecting them to dip below $50 or rise above $90.The results are based on a questionnaire sent to over 9,000 energy market professionals, with responses received from 950 between Jan. 7 and Jan. 10 (https://tmsnrt.rs/2FNjC5J).Price forecasts are very close to last year’s survey and previous years, though in most cases the average has fallen by $1 or $2. In earlier surveys, there was some slight upward drift in price expectations for the out years, but there is no sign of that this year. Most respondents seem convinced there will be enough oil to meet conceivable demand at around $65 per barrel in the medium term. Fewer than 5% thought oil prices would average $100 or more in 2024, prices that would signal pressure on production, which were once common between 2011 and 2014. In contrast, nearly 16% of respondents thought prices would average less than $50, a possible a sign of softening consumption and market saturation as part of the transition away from an oil-based transportation system.

Citi explains why there’s an ‘ultimate cap’ on oil prices   - The cost of producing electricity from solar energy has in the last two years been lower than that of fossil fuels — and that “permanent change” will limit how high oil prices can climb, according to Citi. That shift is coming at a time when global oil supply is running ahead of demand, which is already weighing down on energy prices, David Bailin, chief investment officer at Citi Private Bank, said on Thursday. As evidence of the limited upside in oil prices, Bailin pointed to last year’s drones attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. The attack on two Saudi Aramco facilities — claimed by Iran-aligned Yemen’s Houthi rebels — cut Saudi oil production by half and the world’s daily output by 5%. “We saw an 11-day impact in the markets: The initial spike of as much as 8% in oil prices, and then it was 4% and then ultimately down to zero,” Bailin told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.” “It’s going to take something much bigger to make a permanent impact on oil prices and have them sustainably higher than that,” he added. A shift from oil, natural gas and coal to solar power in electricity generation will be “the ultimate cap” on prices of fossil fuels, said the CIO. “We believe that’s a permanent change. In fact, our clients were investing in that as an unstoppable trend because now you can identify that cost point, it’s a great opportunity,” he said. A report released last year by the International Renewable Energy Agency predicted that electricity generated by onshore wind and solar will be consistently cheaper than any fossil fuel source starting 2020, reported Reuters. The agency is an inter-governmental body that aims to help countries transition to sustainable energy sources.

‘Very high’ chance of oil falling toward $40 if Iran sees regime change, says JBC Energy  - Oil prices could plummet toward $40 per barrel if the Iranian regime collapses, according to the chairman of an energy research institute. Johannes Benigni, chairman of JBC Energy, made the comments on CNBC’s “Capital Connection” amid continuing unrest in Iran. Demonstrations erupted on Saturday and have continued for three days since, following the government’s announcement that its military was responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane. Protesters reportedly chanted slogans including “they are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here,” outside a university in Tehran. Iran’s economy has also been under immense pressure from U.S. sanctions that were reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. Former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor on Sunday said Iran is closer “than ever before” to a possible collapse in the regime. “So you take the removal of (top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani), you take the accidental downing of the civilian aircraft coupled with the amount of popular unrest — the needle towards possible collapse of a regime has to be something that people think about,” General James Jones told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble. “It’s probably not politically correct to talk about it, but you have to think about it.” JBC Energy’s Benigni said a change in leadership in Tehran would have a major impact on energy prices. “For the oil market, it would mean that the likelihood of oil prices dropping towards $40 is very high,” he said on Tuesday. Brent crude traded around $64.23 on Tuesday afternoon in Asia.

Oil snaps five day losing streak as Street eyes US-China trade deal - Oil prices climbed on Tuesday after five days of declines as the United States and China prepared to sign a preliminary trade deal and as Middle East tensions eased. Brent crude gained 31 cents, or 0.5%, to trade at $64.51 per barrel. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose 15 cents or 0.3% to settle at $58.23 per barrel. That put WTI front-month futures on track to close below the second month for the first time since Nov. 19, which is known in the trading industry as contango. In addition, oil also found technical support after WTI fell to a more than five-week low of $57.72 before bouncing off the 200-day moving average. The outlook for oil demand was supported by the expected signing of a Phase 1 U.S.-China trade agreement on Wednesday, marking a major step in ending a dispute that has cut global growth and dented demand for oil. “Oil prices are tentatively rebounding after seller exhaustion kicked (in) as investors await the next developments on the trade front and whether we see a strong pickup with global demand following the phase-one trade deal,” Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA in New York, said in a report. China has pledged to buy more than $50 billion in energy supplies from the United States over the next two years, according to a source briefed on the trade deal. Despite the trade dispute, China’s crude oil imports in 2019 surged 9.5% from the previous year, setting a record for a 17th straight year as demand growth from new refineries propelled purchases by the world’s top importer, data showed. However, gains were limited as concerns about possible supply disruptions eased due to a decline in tensions in the Middle East.

 Oil prices settle higher for the first time in 6 sessions - Oil futures settled higher Tuesday, snapping a five-day losing streak that dragged the U.S. benchmark to its lowest level since early December. “The broader energy market is likely falling back into its familiar range with WTI trading between $52 and $63” a barrel, analysts at Sevens Report Research wrote in their latest newsletter. Fundamentals are largely bearish due to oversupply concerns, especially given the huge build in stockpiles reported in the refined products for the week ended Jan. 3, Sevens Report said. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have eased, though the “threat of more geopolitical unrest still exists and is likely to keep a floor under the market, preventing a decisive breakdown in the near term.” West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery CLG20, +0.74% rose 15 cents, or 0.3%, to settle at $58.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, while March Brent BRNH20, +0.73% added 29 cents, or about 0.5%, to $64.49 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe. WTI, the U.S. benchmark, closed Monday at its lowest level since Dec. 3, while Brent, the global benchmark, saw its lowest close since Dec. 12. Analysts said oil was buoyed in part by upbeat expectations around the expected signing Wednesday of a so-called phase one U.S.-China trade deal. The terms include a call for China to buy more than $50 billion in energy supplies, Reuters reported, citing a source familiar with the details. Oil jumped earlier this month as tensions between Iran and the U.S. flared following a U.S. military strike that killed a top Iranian military commander in Iraq. But crude prices gave back gains last week as tensions appeared to ebb following a retaliatory strike by Iran aimed at bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq that produced no casualties. Analysts said the focus returned to market fundamentals as geopolitical worries faded. “Unfortunately for the bulls, the fundamental outlook over the first half of this year is not overly constructive. The market is set to see a sizable surplus, which should mean weakness for both the flat price and time spreads,” said Warren Patterson, head of commodities strategy at ING, in a note.

WTI Dips After Surprise Crude Build - After 5 straight down days, oil managed modest gains today with WTI bouncing off $58.00 on the heels of some optimism surrounding the imminent signing of the trade deal."The broader energy market is likely falling back into its familiar range with WTI trading between $52 and $63" a barrel, analysts at Sevens Report Research wrote in their latest newsletter.Fundamentals are largely bearish due to oversupply concerns, especially given the huge build in stockpiles reported in the refined products last week, so all eyes will be on tonight's API data (barring any geopolitical headlines)... API:

  • Crude +1.1mm (-1.1mm exp)
  • Cushing -69k (-1.0mm exp)
  • Gasoline +3.2mm  (+3.4mm exp)
  • Distillates +6.78mm (+1.1mm exp)

After the prior week's surprise build, analysts expected a small draw in crude (but continued builds in products). However, crude saw a build and products saw significant builds... WTI hovered around $58.40 ahead of the data, and dropped modestly on the surprise build... "Unfortunately for the bulls, the fundamental outlook over the first half of this year is not overly constructive. The market is set to see a sizable surplus, which should mean weakness for both the flat price and time spreads," said Warren Patterson, head of commodities strategy at ING, in a note.

WTI Extends Losses After Massive Product Inventory Build, New Record Production - Oil prices are extending losses after last night's surprise crude build reported by API, with WTI trading below $58 following OPEC’s latest forecasts suggesting a weaker outlook for global oil markets this year as surging supplies from competitors from Norway to Guyana threaten the group’s efforts to defend crude prices.  DOE:

  • Crude -2.55mm (-1.1mm exp)
  • Cushing +342k (-1.0mm exp)
  • Gasoline +6.678mm (+3.4mm exp)
  • Distillates +8.171mm (+1.1mm exp)

The prior week was dominated by a surprise crude build and huge product inventory builds. This week saw crude inventories drop modestly (-2.55mm) but gasoline and distillates inventories soar (and the first Cushing build in 9 weeks)  US Crude production pushed higher, hitting 13mm b/d for the first time...  WTI traded sub-$58 ahead of the API print, and dropped notably after the huge buiulds in products.

 Oil down slightly after U.S.-China trade deal, U.S. product build – (Reuters) - Oil prices were down slightly on Wednesday, pressured early by data showing big increases in U.S. refined products but recovered some of the losses later by the signing of a Phase 1 trade deal between Washington and Beijing. Brent LCOc1 futures lost 49 cents, or 0.8%, to settle at $64 a barrel, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude CLc1 ended 42 cents, or 0.7%, lower at $57.81. “The bullish impetus that we had expected off of today’s weekly EIA report failed to develop and as a result, the complex appears headed for lower levels than we had anticipated despite the late session recovery,” Under the Phase 1 trade agreement, China will buy $18.5 billion more in U.S. energy products in the first year and $33.9 billion in the second. However, commodity traders and analysts remained cautious - struggling to map out how China will reach the eye-popping amounts it is committing to buy from the United States. Trump said he would remove all U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports as soon as the two countries completed Phase 2 of their trade agreement, adding he does not expect there to be a Phase 3 pact. Earlier, oil prices fell to their lowest in over a month after the U.S. government reported big increases in gasoline and distillates inventories and a record crude output. U.S. gasoline stockpiles last week rose to their highest since February, while distillate inventories jumped to their most since September 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “I think they were able to look past the build in gasoline and distillates, realizing that it will probably work itself out in the next couple of weeks,” Flynn said. The EIA report also showed crude production for the week ended Jan. 10 rose to 13 million barrels per day (bpd) and a much-bigger-than-expected draw in crude inventories.

Oil prices fall back to multiweek lows as U.S. gasoline, distillate supplies jump - Oil futures declined Wednesday with U.S. prices at their lowest in six weeks after weekly government data revealed hefty increases in domestic supplies of gasoline and distillates.Petroleum products, especially heating oil, “had an eye opening, much larger build than was expected,” Tariq Zahir, managing member at Tyche Capital Advisors, told MarketWatch. Also noteworthy, inventories at the U.S. trading hub of Cushing, Okla. “saw a build for the first time in several weeks.”The move lower for crude oil came despite an unexpected decline in U.S. crude stockpiles and the official signing of the Phase 1 U.S.-China trade agreement. West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery lost 42 cents, or 0.7%, to settle at $57.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after gaining 0.3% on Tuesday. The settlement was the lowest for a front-month contract since Dec. 3, according to Dow Jones Market Data. March Brent shed 49 cents, or 0.8%, to $64 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe for the lowest finish since Dec. 11.The Energy Information Administration data showed supply increases of 6.7 million barrels for gasoline and 8.2 million barrels for distillates for the week ended Jan. 10. Analysts polled by S&P Global Platts had shown expectations for a smaller climb in supplies of 3.3 million barrels for gasoline and 1.3 million barrels for distillates, which include heating oil.The build in distillates is “among the highest in history,” and it comes with a weather forecast that is calling for a mild February,” said Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at Price Futures Group.

Oil ends higher as U.S. trade deals with Mexico, Canada and China boost demand prospects - Oil futures finished higher on Thursday as news of the Senate approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, along with the signing of the China-U.S. trade deal on Wednesday, boosted prospects for energy demand. Crude-oil prices were supported by the signing of the trade deal with Beijing that “could mean more U.S. oil headed for China, in addition to the prospects for improved global economic growth this year, which ought to improve oil demand growth,” said Marshall Steeves, energy markets analyst at IHS Markit.The Senate approval of the USMCA on Thursday added to those earlier gains, “in theory,” he told MarketWatch. “It remains to be seen how much new trade actually results from the agreement, but there should be some improvement at the margins.” Mexico and Canada are the top two destination countries for U.S. petroleum exports.In a broader context, however, the U.S. benchmark crude oil price is “back where it was just a few days ago, so today’s gain marks no apparent change in trend,” he said.West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery CLG20, +0.46%  rose 71 cents, or 1.2%, to settle at $58.52 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after trading as high as $58.87. Prices on Wednesday settled at $57.81, the lowest for a front-month contract since Dec. 3, according to Dow Jones Market Data. March Brent BRNH20, +0.77%, the global benchmark, picked up 62 cents, or 1%, to end at $64.62 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, following its lowest finish since Dec. 11 in the previous session.

Oil up Most In 2 Weeks, Betting on U.S.-China Deal - - There are still uncertainties that the Chinese will deliver, but oil traders seem willing to take their chances. Crude prices jumped their most in two weeks on Thursday in anticipation of big orders from China following its much-awaited phase one deal with the United States. New York-traded West Texas Intermediate, the benchmark for U.S. crude, settled up 71 cents, or 1.2%, at $58.52 per barrel. London-traded Brent, the global crude benchmark, settled up 62 cents, or 1%, at $64.62. Thursday’s rebound was the biggest in two weeks for both the benchmarks, although WTI remained below the psychologically-important $60 per barrel level and Brent under the key $65 mark. U.S. crude had raced to eight-month highs of $64.72 and Brent four-month peaks of $71.22 after Iran fired missiles at U.S. airbases in Iraq on Jan. 6, heightening geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, the biggest production hub for oil. A calmer world since then pushed oil prices to six-week lows, with WTI touching $63.56 and Brent $58.36. Thursday’s rebound was a belated reaction to the previous day’s phase one agreement, which saw China agreeing to buy $50 billion in U.S. crude oil, liquefied natural gas and other energy purchases over the next two years under a larger $200 billion deal. “The consensus expectation is that if the deal is respected, China’s crude oil imports from the U.S. will rise to at least 500,000 barrels per day from zero in last October,” said Olivier Jakob, founder of Petromatrix, an oil risk consultancy in Zug, Switzerland. “However, at this stage, it is difficult to see how China would do this with its current import tariffs; something must change there,” Jakob added. He explained that if China were to increase its U.S. energy consumption to fulfill the deal, the United States would account for almost all of Chinese oil import growth in the next 12 months “to the detriment of OPEC+ and the North Sea (the production hub for Brent.” But Jakob said he doubted that would happen. Balancing some of oil’s upside on Thursday was major political uncertainty in Russia following the en bloc resignation of the government in Moscow, while Vladimir Putin remained as president. The Russian crisis is an important one in oil since the country is the second-largest oil producer after the United States.

Oil falls on China growth concerns - Oil prices fell on Friday as sluggish economic growth in China, the world's biggest crude importer, raised concerns over fuel demand.Brent crude futures fell 9 cents to $64.55 a barrel. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures shed 20 cents to trade at $58.35 per barrel.For the week, both benchmarks were little changed. Brent was due to fall 0.5%, while WTI was on track for a 0.9% loss.China's economy, the world's second-largest, grew by 6.1% in 2019, its slowest expansion in 29 years, government data showed on Friday."Mounting downward economic pressure will perhaps limit oil's upside in the mid- to long-term," said Margaret Yang, market analyst at CMC Markets.But surging Chinese demand, as seen in refinery throughput figures, helped offset the less positive economic growth data.In 2019 Chinese refineries processed 651.98 million tonnes of crude oil, equal to a record high 13.04 million barrels per day (bpd) and up 7.6% from 2018, government data showed. Throughput also set a monthly record for December."The increase in China's refinery capacity is reshaping the trade flows of refined products, while the increase in U.S. crude oil production is reshaping the trade flows of crude oil," said Olivier Jakob of consultancy Petromatrix.Prices rose on Thursday after China and the United States signed their Phase 1 trade accord. As part of the deal, China committed to an additional $54 billion in energy purchases.But still, some were skeptical about fallout from the deal."China has agreed to purchase a massive amount of U.S. oil that may prove difficult to digest," Jim Ritterbusch, president of trading advisory firm Ritterbusch and Associates, said in a note. "This has contributed to the oil market's muted response to Phase 1 thus far."The market was also lifted by the U.S. Senate's approval of changes to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement.Looking ahead, the International Energy Agency (IEA) on Thursday offered a bearish view of the oil market outlook for 2020.Supply from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will exceed demand for its crude, the IEA forecast, even if OPEC member states comply fully with output cuts agreed with Russia and other producers in a grouping known as OPEC+.The IEA view is somewhat reflected by OPEC's own view, which found non-OPEC supply this year growing by more than overall demand.OPEC+ has been curbing oil output since 2017 to balance the market and support prices.

 Oil futures suffer a second weekly decline -Oil futures ended with a modest gain on Friday, but registered a loss for a second week in a row as traders continued to weigh the prospects for energy demand in the wake of the China-U.S. trade deal and Senate approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact this week. Oil prices had spent the front half of the week moving lower “largely thanks to lingering oversupply concerns and a continued unwind of the geopolitical fear bid that was triggered by the U.S.-Iran tensions at the turn of the year,” said Tyler Richey, co-editor at Sevens Report Research. “Trade deal optimism stemming from the phase-one deal signing ceremony between the U.S. and China on Wednesday, as well as the[Senate passage of the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement Thursday “are both bolstering demand expectations, which has helped oil stabilize into the weekend,” he told MarketWatch. “While there are energy specific details within the respective trade deals, the more important and overarching theme is that the progress is positive for the broader global growth outlook, and ultimately, that is bullish from a demand standpoint,” Richey said. West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery ended little changed, up 2 cents, or 0.03%, to settle at $58.54 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after rising 1.2% on Thursday. March Brent, the global benchmark, advanced 23 cents, or 0.4%, to end at $64.85 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, following a 1% gain a day ago. However, for the week both contracts suffered declines for a second week. Brent saw a weekly loss of about 0.2%. while WTI saw a nearly 0.9% weekly skid. Among the petroleum products, February gasoline RBG20, +0.41% fell 0.9% to $1.6406 a gallon, building a weekly loss of 1.1%, while February heating oil HOG20, +0.43% shed 0.04% to $1.8592 a gallon, for a weekly loss of 3.6%. Oil prices dipped lower Friday shortly after Baker Hughes BKR, +0.43% reported that the number of active U.S. oil rigs rose by 14 to 673 this week. That followed declines in each of the past three weeks.

Oil Market News: How It Learned to Live With Middle East Tension –  - A dramatic U.S. drone strike kills Iran’s most important general. Tehran vows retribution and oil prices jump almost 5% as traders rush to cover the risk of a Middle East war. Then the selling starts. It’s a trading pattern that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but has become increasingly familiar. The threat of conflict loomed over the heart of the global oil market this past week, but the usual panic buying by traders and consumers was met quickly by a wave of U.S. shale drillers grasping the opportunity to lock in prices for future production. The sudden price spike was blunted, and when the dust settled the plunge back down was steep. These trades, known as hedges, combined with a massive expansion of oil stockpiles in Asia and surging U.S. crude exports, are the recipe for a market that’s capable of quickly shrugging off disruptions that until recently were considered nightmare scenarios.  “When prices spike in response to geopolitical events, producers tend to lay on more hedges,” said Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup Inc. in New York. “The higher the price the more they hedge,” which makes any increase short-lived, he said. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, has slipped back below $60 a barrel as the last of the gains from President Donald Trump’s standoff with Iran faded. That didn’t just reflect the easing tensions after Tehran’s retaliation for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani inflicted no U.S. casualties. It was a manifestation of how the shale revolution has changed the psychology of the market. The same day that American missiles killed Iran’s most important military leader near Baghdad airport, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced record net oil exports of 1.73 million barrels a day. That’s a historic change for a country that a decade ago was one of the world’s biggest importers, and it has transformed the way the market responds to a crisis. The shale boom that triggered this shift has been led by a multitude of independent drillers that are less able to absorb the financial impact of price swings than giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp. or Royal Dutch Shell Plc. Unlike the era that was dominated by the supermajors, any oil rally today finds a natural seller as smaller companies minimize their risks by hedging.

Saudi energy minister on Trump’s actions in the Middle East: ‘He can do whatever he wishes’  - Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said Monday that President Donald Trump should be able to do as he chooses when it comes to international security. Speaking during a panel session at the International Petroleum Technology Conference (IPTC) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz said: “The president of the United States is the president of the United States, he can do whatever he wishes.” He’s “certainly” not accountable to me or “anybody in this room,” he added. Abdulaziz’s comments come as energy market participants continue to closely monitor heightened tensions in the Middle East. The U.S. killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani earlier this month, triggering a dramatic escalation that many feared could result in a widening regional conflict. Iran, an arch-rival of Saudi Arabia in the region, responded to the U.S. attack by launching missiles at two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has since said the missile attacks were a “slap on the face” of the U.S., but such military actions were “not enough.” The situation remains tense, but both sides have sought to back off from intensifying the conflict over recent days. Stable oil markets “The U.S. is a strategic partner and it has a big role in terms of international security,” Abdulaziz told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble. “We are leaving it to our friends of the U.S. to conduct themselves in a manner they see fit in attending to a situation like this,” he added.

Aramco Supersizes IPO, Issues More Shares - Aramco has exercised the greenshoe option attached to its initial public offering, issuing another 450 million shares to raise an additional $3.8 billion, the company said as quoted by CNN. As a result, the already record-breaking IPO of the Saudi energy giant has been pushed up to a total $29.4 billion. Aramco listed 3 billion of its shares on the Tadawul exchange in early December and quickly touched the much-hyped $2-trillion valuation Crown Prince Mohammed was after when he decided to list a minority stake in the company. After that, however, the shares retreated, and last week took a nosedive on the renewed tension between the United States and Iran, which indirectly threatens the security of Saudi oil supply due to its proximity to Iran and the mutual hostility between the two largest countries in the Middle East. Using the greenshoe option, as CNN’s Claire Duffy notes in her report on the news, is commonly used by issuers to keep the stock from falling below the issuing price. This, however, is not the case with Aramco. The additional shares were allocated to buyers before the listing and they will not be floated on Tadawul. Even so, the stock was down by 10 percent since the listing as of January 6. The top concern among investors is geopolitical right now, but this can change when the holding period instituted by the Saudi government for retail investors expires. The holding period is meant to prevent a quick selloff the moment Aramco’s share price rises enough to be turned into a fat profit. Once it expires, six months after the listing, a selloff may still happen. 

Saudi Arabia Carried Out Record Number Of Executions In 2019 - Saudi Arabia's shortage of executioners didn't stop the kingdom from carrying out a record number of death sentences in 2019, according to the non-profit Reprieve, which monitors how KSA handles capital punishment. According to figures provided to ABC News, KSA executed 184 people last year, including 90 foreign nationals. The most common crime committed by the prisoners who were put to death was drug smuggling (82 were executed for smuggling narcotics) while 57 were executed on murder charges. That's compared to a total of 22 executions in the entire US. Notably, KSA has seen a rise in killings since 2015, when Reprieve first started keeping track. In 2014, 88 people were executed, with that number nearly doubling to 157 executions in 2015. Executions stayed at around that level until last year, when the state killed 35 more people than they had in 2018. As we reported at the time, the Saudis killed 37 people in a single day, including a student who was supposed to be on his way to college in the US, which prompted Rep. Rashida Tlaib to lash out at the kingdom. It's not publicly known how many prisoners are currently on death row in Saudi Arabia. However, among those awaiting "imminent execution" are Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, all of whom were sentenced to death for their roles in anti-government protests during the Arab Spring, nearly a decade ago.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos dies; successor vows to pursue peace - (Reuters) - Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, one of the Middle East’s longest- serving rulers who maintained the country’s neutrality in a turbulent region, died on Friday and his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said was named as his successor in a smooth transition. With his death, the region loses a leader seen as the father of modern Oman, who balanced ties between two neighbors locked in a regional struggle, Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the north, as well as the United States. In a televised speech, Haitham promised to uphold Muscat’s policy of peaceful coexistence with all nations while further developing Oman. “We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said. Oman and other Gulf states declared three days of official mourning with flags at half-mast for the Western-backed Qaboos, 79, who ruled since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of former colonial power Britain.

A Dangerous New Era in the Middle East - Der Spiegel - U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley traveled from Washington, D.C. on Dec. 28 to Florida, where Trump was vacationing in his luxury property, Mar-a-Lago. Outside, tourists were strolling along the beach. Inside, U.S. leadership was discussing how best to effectively punish Iran. The day before, Tehran allies had carried out a rocket attack on a military base in northern Iraq, killing an American. The U.S. was certain that Tehran had ordered Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Shiite militias Iran cooperates with, to carry out the assault. U.S. military leaders prepared a retaliatory attack and presented Trump with several options, most of them conventional military targets such as, according to an account in the New York Times, ships, missile facilities or Kataib Hezbollah positions. But as they generally do, the Pentagon officials also included a more extreme option: killing General Qassem Soleimani, the second-most powerful man in Iran and the country's chief military strategist. Soleimani had long been considered untouchable due to his senior position in Tehran. As commander of the Quds Force, he was in large part responsible for Iranian activities in the Middle East. Trump's predecessors in the White House, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had both rejected the idea of killing Soleimani due to the very real risk of it triggering an uncontrollable war with Iran. Trump, too, was initially wary of making such a move, instead authorizing the Air Force to bomb Kataib Hezbollah positions on Dec. 29. But that did little to quell the burgeoning crisis. On the contrary, Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad two days later, again likely at the behest of Iranian leaders. Trump was furious as he followed the events on television. The images were reminiscent of the 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the American ambassador. Back then, the Republicans tried to pin responsibility for the attack on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Jan. 2, Trump then made a decision that surprised even his closest advisers: He ordered the killing of Soleimani. It was the most extreme of the options available to the president and one that had, until then, only been discussed in largely theoretical terms in the Pentagon. It was a momentous decision, the most important foreign policy move of his tenure thus far, and one with deep and unpredictable implications for the Middle East and beyond. And he did so, according to U.S. media, without consulting his Iran experts – an impulsive decision. Just hours later, Soleimani was dead, killed by an American drone.

“Act of Divine Intervention:” ISIS Celebrates Killing of Iran’s Top General -  It is no secret even to western media, particularly now that the U.S. has extinguished him completely, that the late Quds commander Qasem Soleimani fought ISIS to great effect. While not often talked about, the US essentially used him as an unofficial ally at one stage in the fight against the extremist group. It shouldn’t be a surprise therefore that ISIS has heralded the death of the late commander as an “act of divine intervention.” They are now reportedly planning a regroup in Iraq as the U.S. paused all of its anti-ISIS operations. Shortly before Soleimani’s death, many major newspapers were reporting that ISIS militants were already regrouping in Iraq. A top Kurdish official described the extremists as being like “Al-Qaeda on steroids” (something he already warned about two years prior).  The corporate media is now alleging that if the U.S. were to leave completely, as per Iraq’s wishes, that this would also benefit ISIS. There is some merit to this argument as well, however, it only holds true as long as the U.S.-led coalition is genuine in its attempts to eradicate the organization (and not, say, secretly give them safe passage from one territory to another).  If this is all hard to swallow, consider that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the mastermind who rallied Trump to deliver the strike on the prominent Iranian official. Pompeo is the new and improved Kissinger, receiving tips straight from the horse’s mouth on a regular basis.  While it may sound counter-productive to some, it would make sense that the U.S. would want to postpone the defeat of ISIS as it gives the world’s superpower a never-ending excuse to operate its military inside the region. It has already made itself clear that withdrawing its troops, even at the serious request of the host country, is completely off the table—so the media need not worry about the potential end of U.S. imperialism in Iraq. Whatever the intentions, the immediate outcomes following the assassination are crystal clear. The U.S. may have ignited a spark in the region between Iran and itself to prolong the threat of an antagonized Iran, all the while keeping alive a terror threat that can also justify its presence for the next few years at least.

Protests in Tehran after Iran admitted shooting down plane - A group of Iranian protesters has demanded Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior leaders step down after Tehran admitted its forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board. "Commander-in-chief [Khamenei] resign, resign," videos posted on Twitter showed hundreds of people chanting in front of Tehran's Amir Kabir University on Saturday. Protesters chanted slogans denouncing "liars" and demanded the resignation and prosecution of those responsible for downing the plane and allegedly covering up the accidental action. Others on Twitter asked why the Boeing 737-800 was allowed to take off on Wednesday, at a time when tensions between the United States and Iran were so high - Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed moments after departing from Tehran, hours after Iran struck bases housing US troops in neighbouring Iraq in retaliation to the US assassination of a top Iranian commander last week. Fars news agency reported that Iranian police dispersed students that were chanting "destructive" and "radical" slogans during the gathering in the capital. The United Kingdom confirmed its ambassador, Rob Macaire, was arrested briefly during the demonstrations, accused of "inciting" the protesters in front of the Amir Kabir University. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the arrest was a "flagrant violation of international law" and repeated calls for Iran to de-escalate tensions. Earlier on Saturday, after days of denials, Iran said its military had shot down the Ukrainian plane, calling it a "disastrous mistake" but blaming the US for heightened tension. The military claimed air defences were fired in error during an alert which was imposed after the missile struck against US targets in Iraq. Authorities promised to bring those responsible to justice.

Canada's Trudeau: Iran plane victims would be alive had there been no regional tensions -  (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that the victims of the Ukrainian airliner shot down in Iran would still be alive if the recent escalation of tensions in the region had not happened, according to a transcript of an interview with Global News TV. The U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in a Jan. 3 drone strike prompted Iran to launch a missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops on Jan. 8, hours before the passenger jet was shot down. All 176 aboard were killed, including 57 Canadians. “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” Trudeau said in the interview. Trudeau said Canada did not receive a heads up before the United States killed Soleimani, and that he “obviously” would have preferred one. “The U.S. makes its determinations. We attempt to work as an international community on big issues. But sometimes countries take actions without informing their allies,” he said. Trudeau said that while the government was working as quickly as possible to bring the bodies home for burial, it was likely to take weeks or “perhaps even months.” Canada said on Monday that Iran had signaled that Canadian investigators would take an active role in the probe of the crash, which Iran said at the weekend had been caused by a missile it fired in a “disastrous mistake.”

Pompeo: Killing Soleimani Part of ‘Broader Strategy’ Applying to China, Russia— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still has not totally abandoned the pretext that the US assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani was based on an “imminent threat,” but is moving to rebrand the operation as part of a broad new strategy “that also applies to China and Russia.”  Pompeo set this rather disturbing claim out in talks at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. He avoided mention of the “imminent threat” talking point that President Trump has since abandoned. He says that killing Soleimani was part of the Trump Administration’s goal of “real deterrence.”He said nations have to understand that the US is not only capable of imposing cost on nations by killing their leaders but “willing to do so,” saying that the killing put the US in the “greatest position of strength ever.” Pompeo presented the killing of Soleimani as part of the same strategy that has seen the US sending lethal military aid to Ukraine, and withdrawal of the US from arms control deals and testing of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. He also said sending more ships through the South China Sea was “restoring credibility.”

Iran: Mass protests call for leaders to resign --Protests took place across Iran on Sunday for the second day in a row following revelations that the fatal crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet was caused by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. Riot police and soldiers were deployed in large numbers around the capital, Tehran, especially to key sites like Vali-e Asr Square and university campuses.About 3,000 people took part in protests at Azadi Square in western Tehran, while hundreds more convened on university campuses. Protesters called for the resignation of many members of Iran's ruling elite. It appeared that much of the nationalist sentiment that the government had hoped to capitalize on following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani by US forces in Iraq has begun to evaporate, particularly as the Revolutionary Guards did not admit their role in the airplane tragedy until Canada, the US and the UK announced they had evidence the jet was downed by a missile. The aircraft was shot down on Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a missile attack on two US air bases in Iraq. Iran also indicated on Sunday that a de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the US could be the only way forward. "We agreed... that the only solution to these crises is de-escalation from everyone and dialogue," said Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, after diplomatic talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday.  On Twitter, US President Donald Trump called on Iranian security services not to react violently to protests, referencing the hundreds of demonstrators who died in anti-government actions in the fall.. Later he tweeted that he "couldn't care less" if Iran agrees to negotiate with the US, but also urged Iran: "don't kill your protesters."

Iranians take to social media to push for more protests: 'We're coming to the streets'- Iranian anti-government protestors have used social media to continue their calls for further protests in Tehran, Reuters reports. Protestors have been holding daily protests in Tehran and other cities around the country since the Iranian government admitted last week that it mistakenly shot down a Kyiv-bound commercial plane. All 176 people on board the plane — most of whom were Ukrainian, Canadian and Iranian — were killed. The Iranian government said that its military misidentified the plane for a U.S. missile. The plane went down Jan. 8, just hours after Iran launched a retaliatory missile strike on two Iraqi military bases that house U.S. troops. The attack was in response to a U.S. air strike that killed Iran's top military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad the week before. A social media post on Wednesday reportedly read: “We’re coming to the streets,” and urged people to stand and protest against a “thieving and corrupt government." Immediately following Iran's admission, there was widespread unrest in Tehran. Videos surfaced on the internet of Iranian authorities beating protestors with electric batons, according to the wire service. However, protests Tuesday didn't end in violence, so it's unclear if continued protesting will lead to sustained violence. The political unrest follows the events of two months ago, when hundreds of Iranian protestors were killed by authorities after an outcry sparked by fuel price hikes.

"You Killed Our Geniuses" - Regime Crackdown Intensifies As Iranians Flood Streets In Third Day Of Protest --Despite an aggressive crackdown by the Iranian regime that reportedly included soldiers and riot police firing into crowds of civilians - in open defiance of President Trump's warning to Tehran not to "kill your protesters" - anti-government protests over Iran's mistaken shoot-down of UIA Flight 752 continued on Monday for a third straight day, following the regime's admission of responsibility on Saturday. During the protests, which erupted out of anger over the regime's initial lies about Flight 752 (it initially insisted that a "mechanical error" was responsible despite video evidence suggesting a missile strike), Iranian security forces fired both live ammunition and tear gas into crowds of angry demonstrators. Some of the video and images have shown what appear to be casualties, though death tolls and counts on the number of injured have been difficult to pin down. As Reuters explains, the protests against the regime "are the latest twist" in the Trump Administration's campaign of maximum pressure against Iran and its government. Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted a couple of messages of support for the protesters on the ground, including one tweet sent in Arabic: مشاور امنیت ملی امروز عنوان کرد كه تحریم ها و اعتراضات، ایران را«به شدت تحت فشار»قرار داده است و آنها را مجبور به مذاكره می كند.در واقع، اصلا برایم اهمیتی نداردکه آیا آنها مذاکره می کنند یا نه.این کاملاً به عهده ی خودشان است، اما سلاح هسته ای نداشته باشیدو«معترضان خود را نکشید.» https://t.co/DBGGs8QFcJ  — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020   Videos posted to social media on Sunday recorded gunshots in the vicinity of protests in Tehran’s Azadi Square. The wounded could be seen being carried off on stretchers as riot police fired what looked like rubber bullets. Other videos showed riot police beating protesters with batons, while others nearby screamed "Don’t beat them!"Moreover, shouts of "Death to the dictator" could be heard in footage circulating on social media. It showed protesters shouting, directing their fury at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the system of clerical rule."They killed our geniuses and replaced them with clerics," demonstrators chanted at a one protest outside a university on Monday, a reference to the dozens of Iranian students who were returning to school in Canada who were aboard the flight.

How fragile is Iran’s regime? Smartphone videos of anti-regime protests in Tehran circulated in global news media this weekend, after the Iranian government admitted it shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner. The latest demonstrations followed a national wave of protests last November in which up to 1,500 demonstrators were killed. Hard information about the origins and extent of the anti-regime protests is difficult to find. But there is a good deal of evidence of extreme dissatisfaction with the regime due to economic stress. Iran’s average monthly after-tax wage was US$318.53, according to the website Numbeo, which tallies thousands of user inputs to arrive at wage and price data. Using Numbeo’s prices I constructed a monthly survival budget in US dollar equivalents: One average salary pays for a small apartment outside the center, utilities, enough calories to keep body and soul together, and bus fare, which is subsidized. Throw in cell phone service, clothing, fruits and vegetables, and one or two meat meals a month, and an Iranian couple will require two average salaries. According to official data, food price inflation was 28% year-on-year as of December. Medicine is another matter. Some imported items, for example, insulin pens, can’t be found at pharmacies in some provinces, according to a Persian-language report by IRNA. The Chancellor of the University of Isfahan told the national news agency that imported medicine such as chemotherapy drugs was in short supply, but that most other medication was available. Import controls to spare foreign exchange have put autos outside the range of most Iranians. A VW Golf costs the local-currency equivalent of $48,000, according to Numbeo, or about 14 years’ average pay. Reduced consumption has taken a toll on Iranian family life. According to the Tehran Times, citing Mohammed Javad Mahmoudi, head of the committee on population studies of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. According to Mahmoudi, the number of babies born in Iran fell by nearly 25% between 2015 and 2019. That short-term decline in absolute numbers of births is unprecedented outside of wartime. The number of Iranian women of child-bearing age increased slightly over the same period, so the collapsing birth rate clearly reflects decisions not to bear children. As I have reported in the past, Iran faces a demographic crisis over the next two decades as its population ages rapidly. There are five prime-age Iranians supporting every Iranian over the age of 65, but by mid-century, the ratio will collapse to just 1.6 to one. Strangely, the Iranian authorities have reported an increase in the “total fertility rate,” namely the estimated number of children that the average woman will bear during her lifetime. The increase evidently is due to optimistic assumptions about the future rather than observed behavior in the present.

Europe stands by Iran nuclear deal for now, defying US calls to abandon it  - The leaders of Germany, France and the U.K. have said they will stand by the Iran nuclear deal, defying a call from President Donald Trump to abandon the 2015 pact. But they warned Iran that it must comply with the commitments within the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), chiefly, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. “Despite increasingly difficult circumstances, we have worked hard to preserve the agreement. All remaining parties to the JCPOA, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran, with the EU as coordinator, have stated their continuing commitment to preserve the JCPOA,” the leaders of Germany, France and the U.K. said in a statement issued Sunday evening. “We urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the agreement and return to full compliance; we call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation; and we remain ready to engage with Iran on this agenda in order to preserve the stability of the region. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in the statement that “it is essential that Iran return to full compliance with its commitments under the agreement” and expressed “deep concern at the actions taken by Iran in violation of its commitments since July 2019.” Iran announced last summer that it had breached the deal by exceeding its stockpile limit of low-enriched uranium. “These actions must be reversed. We reserve recourse to all the provisions of the JCPOA to preserve it and to resolve the issues related to Iran’s implementation of its JCPOA commitments within its framework,” the European leaders said Sunday. The statement comes after EU foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss heightened tensions in the Middle East and how (and whether) to keep the nuclear deal — dealt a severe blow when the U.S. withdrew from it in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran — alive. The summit came after Iranian airstrikes on Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops, in retaliation for the U.S.′ assassination of its top military commander Qasem Soleimani. The meeting happened before Iran’s military admitted accidentally shooting down an Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 passengers. Last week, Trump had said the time had come for Europe to abandon the JCPOA. Speaking Wednesday, Trump said “Nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior. Those days are over.” “The time has come for the U.K., Germany, France, Russia and China to … break away from the remnants of the Iran deal or JCPOA.”

Putin & Merkel Urge All Parties Back To Iran Deal - Vow To Preserve By All Means - Amid the ongoing US-Iran crisis German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Saturday in her first visit since May 2018. Crucially it also comes the same day Iran's leadership admitted to shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane amid launching ballistic missiles on US bases in Iraq, killing all 176 passengers and crew. Also topping the agenda for the Saturday afternoon working meeting was Syria and Libya. But the Iran nuclear deal was front and center, with both leaders agreeing they must seek to preserve the 2015 JCPOA "by all means".  Merkel stressed to reporters soon after coming out of talks with Putin that “everything must be done to keep the JCPOA going” and committed to using “all the diplomatic tools to help this agreement.” She explained further, "It is not perfect but it is still an agreement and it involves responsibilities for all the parties involved. And we want to keep it." “We agreed that we should do anything to preserve the deal, the JCPOA. Germany is convinced that Iran should not acquire or have nuclear weapons," Merkel said during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This after within the past two weeks as Washington and Tehran essentially enter open war, Iran's leaders have declared they consider "no limits" are currently in place on their nuclear energy program, which they've said remains for peaceful purposes.  Putin also said the “tremendously important” deal must be preserved and that all parties must “come back to the deal” in statements chiefly aimed at the United States. Putin said to reporters, according to the early Russian media translation: "After the US refused to abide by the agreement, Iran announced suspension of its obligations as well. I would like to underscore that these obligations were voluntarily embraced by Iran. Iran is ready to come back to full compliance with the JPCOA."

Europeans trigger dispute mechanism in urgent bid to save Iran nuclear deal - — After more than 18 months of sticking up for the Iran nuclear deal after the U.S. administration left it in May 2018, European Union signatories have triggered a dispute mechanism in the accord over Tehran’s suspension of compliance.  France, Germany and the U.K. (the E3) in a joint statement informed the EU on Tuesday that they had set off the mechanism, which they say is aimed at saving the deal, also known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The motion does not reimpose sanctions; rather, it appears to allow the E3 to officially “register our concerns” that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the deal. What concrete consequences the mechanism actually has is unclear. Iran responded by dismissing the European measure as “passive,” with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi saying it “practically” is not a new measure. Still no sanctions “We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPoA,” the statement read. “Iran’s actions are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications.” The statement went on to say that the E3 “have therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPoA and to refer this matter to the Joint Commission under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism” set out in the agreement. At the same time, the three countries stressed their commitment to upholding the deal and their desire for a diplomatic solution.

Trump’s Iran adventure has Japan over a barrel  - Of all the things Shinzo Abe thought might undo his legacy as economic savior, Iran may well have been the furthest risk from the Japanese Prime Minister’s mind. But less than two weeks into 2020, the specter of renewed chaos in the Middle East is upending the calculus in Tokyo. Japan limped out of 2019 as trade-war headwinds slammed exports. It barely avoided a recession, imperiling its longest expansion since the 1980s.Now, Tokyo confronts the risk of skyrocketing oil prices as US President Donald Trump ratchets up tensions with Iran.Energy prices are surprisingly stable following the Trump-ordered assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the de facto commander of Iranian expansionist efforts in the Middle East. It is unclear if this stability will last.That puts Asia’s energy-hungry manufacturing powerhouses – notably China, Japan, and South Korea – in harm’s way.These are the dynamics wrecking Abe’s 2020. The first – the shadow of recession – can be addressed with government stimulus moves. The $121 billion spending jolt that Abe unveiled last month will paper over many a crack.It is the second that presents a two-pronged challenge, and an unpredictable one at that. On the one hand, Japan’s economy is uniquely vulnerable to a surge in oil prices, particularly in the Middle East. Oil stands at the center of Japan’s energy mix, accounting for 76% of all sources. And nearly 90% of Japan’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. This leaves Japan over a proverbial barrel should Middle Eastern hostilities escalate and unleash fresh energy-market chaos. Energy has become an increasingly complicated – and contentious – topic for Japan. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, the majority of its 54 nuclear power plants have been idled. That has left Tokyo importing more and more coal, increasing its carbon footprint. At present, coal accounts for 17% of the mix. The next largest source is hydroelectric at 4.4%, followed by liquified natural gas at 1.6%, renewables at 1% and nuclear at 0.6%. Japan, in other words, is about 94% dependent on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel dependency makes Japan’s economy increasingly sensitive to oil spikes. The World Bank sees Japan growing 0.7% this year, which doesn’t leave much of a cushion should Trump intensify his trade war. Odds are, he will amid anger over impeachment and election-year wrangling. What better way to change the headlines than slapping new taxes on China or auto imports?

US Still at Risk of Iran Retaliation on Oil and Other Fronts - by Yves Smith - Overmuch has been made of US claims to energy independence and how that reduced US exposure to Iran using oil infrastructure as an avenue of retaliation. The fact that US gas prices have increased after perceived or actual threat to Middle Eastern supplies shows that the US is far from decoupled from the Gulf States. Two new articles, one at Bloomberg, the other at OilPrice, explain how the US still depends on Middle Eastern oil. The OilPrice story also describes how Iran and its allies have many other Middle East targets for missile and cyber attack, such as water infrastructure and desalination and power plants.  The fallacy of much of the commentary on US energy is to equate being a net energy exporter with energy independence. If you instead look at gross flows, the US still depends on Middle Eastern oil, albeit not as much as in the past, and that situation will not change soon.  The Bloomberg story by Julian Lee makes no bones about its position: Trump Is Wrong. The U.S. Does Need Middle East Oil. A key observation is that oil is not all that fungible. The US is a big consumer of the light, sweet crude that is well suited for refining into gasoline. That comes out of Saudi Arabia and Iraq (if their oil infrastructure were in better shape).  Even though US imports of Middle Eastern crude have fallen thanks to the shale oil boom and now account for only 5% of the oil shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, also making the US the #5 importer of that oil, it’s a misperception to think the US isn’t in need of Middle Eastern oil:  Lee at Bloomberg also points out that Gulf Coast refiners, who had tuned their operations to process heavy, sour crude (think Venezuela but also Iran and other Middle East exporters ex the Saudis). Since 2012 have been switching to lighter, sweet shale gas, but many still process heavier crudes. And those refiners even more than ever look to the Middle East:  And with tension now flaring with Iran, the fact that there are fewer sources from which to import the heavy, sour crude (containing high concentrations of sulfur) on which Gulf coast refineries depend is coming into relief. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports in January 2019 and Mexico and Colombia are facing declining output as a result of a lack of new investment. For now, while Canada remains the biggest supplier to the U.S., the Middle East delivers most of the rest.  Dr. Cyril Widdershoven at OilPrice adds that cheery OPEC reassurances that it could handle any supply hiccups don’t align well with facts: The spare capacity of OPEC is at present almost totally in the hands of two main players, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while the rest of the members are struggling to reach even their own set targets. In case of a military confrontation between Iran (or proxies) and the US, a real possibility exists that total OPEC spare capacity is taken out. No other producer could substitute a possible loss of Saudi oil production. Dr. Widdershoven dismissed the notion that Iran might choke the Strait of Hormuz as riskier for Iran than its opponents.

‘Danger tomorrow’: Iran’s Rouhani makes veiled threat to US and EU troops in Middle East - In an angry speech on state television, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at the U.S. and Europe for its presence in the Middle East and for what he described as the latter’s failures in upholding the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. U.S. troops are “insecure” in the region today, and EU troops “might be in danger tomorrow,” Rouhani declared, according to a Reuters translation, marking the first time the leader has directed a threat toward European forces in the region. He demanded the U.S. leave and accused it of making the region insecure, saying it should “apologize to Tehran” for its “previous crimes.” The U.S. has significantly increased its troops presence in the Gulf in the past year as shipping and oil facilities have come under fire from attacks blamed on Iran, which Tehran denies. The U.K. has about 400 forces in Iraq, spread around Irbil, Baghdad and Taji, all locations that have been targeted by Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iran’s Quds Force, the external operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. EU forces are also stationed in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and France and Britain have small numbers of special forces in Syria. A number of EU countries have personnel in Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-IS coalition, stationed in Iraq. Former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, the most dramatic escalation between Washington and Tehran in a series of tit-for-tat attacks. Western forces and embassies in the region have been on high alert since then

Reading Sun Tzu in Tehran - - Iran is not done. General Hajizadeh, Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force, said in a briefing yesterday that the strike “was the starting point of a great operation”. He also underlined that “the strikes were not meant to cause fatalities: We intended [rather] to deliver a blow to the enemy’s military machine”. And the Pentagon is saying, too, that Iran intentionally missed US troops at the bases. This is tantamount to the Pentagon admitting that Iran can land missiles with extreme accuracy over a distance of several hundred miles – and further, this occurred with not one missile being intercepted by the US forces.  To completely avoid targeting soldiers at a large military base is no mean feat – it suggests an accuracy within a meter or two – not ten meters – for Iranian missiles. Isn’t this the point? It suggests that advances in Iran’s guidance systems can land missiles with extreme precision.. Haven’t we seen something similar happen recently in Saudi Arabia (Abqaiq)? And was it not clear from Abqaiq that highly expensive US air defence systems do not work? The IRGC satisfactorily have demonstrated that they and their allies can penetrate US manufactured air defence systems, using domestically produced ‘smart’ missiles, and by using their electronic warfare systems. The US bases around the region – in short – now represent vulnerable US infrastructure – and not strength. Ditto for those expensive carrier battle fleets. The Iranian message was clear and very pertinent to those who understand (or want to understand). To others, less strategically aware, it might seem that Iran pulled its military punch, and showed weakness. Actually, when you have just demonstrated the ability to upend the military status quo, there is no need for a hail of trumpets. The landing of the message itself is the ‘blow’ to a ‘military machine’. Neatly calibrated: it avoided head to head-on war. Trump stood down (and claimed success). So then, is it all over – all done and dusted? Finished with? Not at all. Both the Supreme Leader and Gen. Hajizadeh said (effectively) that the strike represented an outset – ‘a beginning’. But much of the MSM – both in the West and some in Israel – lend a cultural ‘tin ear’ towards how Iran manages asymmetric war – even when it is spelled out explicitly. Asymmetric warfare is not a ‘dick swinging’ exercise. It is more David and Goliath. Goliath can crush David with a blow from his clenched fist, but the latter is nimble; quick on his feet, dancing around the giant – just out of his reach. David has stamina, but the giant lumbers heavily around, and is easily angered and exhausted. Eventually, even a well-aimed pebble – not even a Howitzer – brings him down. 

Iranian Military Now Claims US Cyberattack Brought Down Passenger Plane -The Iranian military is now blaming the US (again) for the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, after it admitted that IRGC commanders shot the plane out of the sky last week, and in the wake of a new video emerging showing a SECOND missile was fired at the civilian airliner.Iran Guardian Council chairman Ahmad Jannati stated Wednesday that “enemy sabotage” cannot be ruled out, while Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi directly suggested that US military forces hacked Iran’s radar systems to make it appear that the airliner, containing 176 people, was an incoming missile.Abdollahi also seemed to suggest that the US military hackers could have actually shot down the plane as part of a cyber attack to make Iran look bad, according to the report. After initially claiming “mechanical error” caused the plane to crash, then admitting they shot it down ‘by mistake’ after evidence of a missile strike could no longer be denied, Iran has now pivoted back to directly blaming the US.There is no evidence that the US took any military or other action in Iran on the evening the airliner was struck.Iran’s flip-flopping comes after intense protests over the airliner downing and attempted cover-up, and the emergence of a new video showing a second ‘kill shot’ missile was fired, throwing the ‘mistake’ e xplanation into serious doubt.

More Rockets Hit Iraq Air Base Housing US Troops - At least six mortar shells fell inside the Balad air base north of Baghdad on Sunday, wounding four Iraqi soldiers, Iraq's military said. The base, which lies about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital, also houses US troops, but most of the Americans stationed there had already been pulled out amid rising tensions in the region between the US and Iran. "There are American experts, trainers and advisers at the base,'' said one Iraqi defense official. Defense officials would only speak to the press on condition of anonymity. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was "outraged" by reports of the attack. "These continued violations of Iraq's sovereignty by groups not loyal to the Iraqi government must end," he added in a second tweet. Read more: Why the US and Iran are not at war A statement from the Iraqi military said eight Katyusha rockets had been fired at the Balad base in Sunday's strike, hitting the runway and gate. There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. One air force officer and three enlisted men, all Iraqis, were wounded, but none were killed.

US Troops Forced to Hide in Saddam-Era Bunkers During Iran’s Missile Attack— US troops were ill-prepared to fend off Iran’s ballistic missile attacks last week, with American soldiers forced to take cover in bunkers built by Saddam Hussein’s administration, CNN reported. While the US had built its own bunkers at the Ain al-Asad airbase, those shelters were not built to deflect long-range missiles that Iran fired, CNN said, citing testimony from military personnel. “You can defend against (paramilitary forces), but you can’t defend against this,” Captain Patrick Livingstone, the US Air Force Security Forces Commander on the base, told CNN. “Right now, this base is not designed to defend against missiles.” Iran’s attack last week came in response to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general. No casualties were reported during the retaliatory strikes, but 10 of Iran’s 11 missiles targeting the base hit, managing to “shred sensitive US military sites” CNN said. A special forces compound, two hangars, and the US drone operators’ housing unit were destroyed. Troops and personnel at the base were reportedly made aware of Iran’s plans to attack the base several hours before the strikes took place, CNN reported, giving troops plenty of time to take cover. Most of the base had been on lockdown for around two hours before the first missile hit, the news agency said. But the US had not built structures on the base, one of the oldest and largest in Iraq, to protect against a large-scale missile attack like the one Iran had planned. US troops who had been at the base the night of the strikes said they were not certain the bunkers would hold up under attack. “I was sitting in a bunker and I was like man, maybe I made the wrong decision [to come down here],” Lieutenant Colonel Staci Coleman, one of the team leaders who moved troops into one of the Saddam-era bunkers, told CNN. “About 10 minutes, after I said that to myself, it went boom boom boom boom boom and I said well there’s my answer.” “The whole ground shook. It was very loud,” she said. “You could feel the blast wave in here. We knew they were close.”

At Least 11 US Troops Wounded in Iran’s Jan 8 Missile Attack on US Base in Iraq— — Though President Trump has said that there were no American casualties in Iran’s missile attack on the Ayn al-Asad airbase, the US military now says that 11 troops actually were taken out of the base for treatment after the strike. U.S. defense and military officials have confirmed to Defense One: “Nearly one dozen American troops were wounded in Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on Iraq’s al-Asad air base. This week, they were medically evacuated to U.S. military hospitals in Kuwait and Landstuhl, Germany, to be treated for traumatic brain injury and to undergo further evaluation.” Iran attacked Ayn al-Asad in retaliation for the US assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian government gave the US and several other nations advance notice to try to reduce the possibility of casualties. It is unclear why the Pentagon went along with the reports of no casualties for so long before coming out with this. It may suggest they were trying to help with cooling down tensions by not heavily publicizing it. Troops took cover before the attack, and were subsequently not hit. The 11 US troops who needed to go to treatment showed symptoms of a concussion owing to the blast. CENTCOM confirmed that the troops were taken for “follow-on screening” as a measure of caution. While concussions potentially have serious long-term ramifications, the CENTCOM comments seemed to downplay that risk, saying they expect those 11 troops to return to Iraq as soon as they are deemed fit for duty.

Iraq now has an opportunity to create more independence from Iran, Atlantic Council says - The death of Iran’s top general has created a chance for Iraq to gain more independence from Tehran, the chief executive of a think tank told CNBC this week. “I think the Iraq situation...is maybe the most underestimated of all the things we’re looking at,” Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, said on CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Monday. “There’s actually an opening for Iraq to create more independence for itself, from Iran,” he said. “That’s what I’d be watching.” His comments came amid heightened tensions in the Middle East following an American airstrike in Iraq that killed Iran’s top commander Qasem Soleimani. Tehran retaliated by attacking U.S. targets in Iraq, but both sides now appear to have backed away from military actions. “If you listen to some members of the U.S. government, they believe that Iraq over time has fallen more and more under the sway of Iran,” he said. America has been trying to push Iraq toward being more energy independent, but faced opposition from two individuals, he added. “One of them was named Soleimani, one of them was named Muhandis,” he said, referring to Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who was killed in the same airstrike. “They’re both gone.” ″(The infrastructure and militia forces are) still all there, but the leadership that was so crucial is gone,” he said. The prospect of Iraq shaking off Iranian influence would decrease, however, if U.S. forces leave, he predicted. Iraq’s prime minister last week asked the United States to start working on withdrawing troops from the country.

'Keep your war away': Iraqis revive protests amid US-Iran tension - - Thousands of protesters demanding an overhaul of Iraq's political system turned out in cities across the country on Friday, in the first mass demonstrations since the US assassination last week of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Organisers had called for a million-person march against foreign interference in Iraq's affairs, and in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, demonstrators continued to arrive from across the country late into the night. Protesters took aim at foreign interference in Iraq, after a long week in which tensions between the United States and Iran played out extensively on Iraqi soil. The demonstrations came as caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to begin discussions over the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, in line with a vote by Iraq's parliament on Sunday, two days after the US air strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhandi and others near Baghdad's international airport. The US State Department rejected Abdul Mahdi's request. In the capital's Tahrir Square, scores of young men climbed the Turkish Restaurant, a half-constructed high-rise that has become a monument of the revolution, for panoramic views of the crowds and into the Green Zone. Atop the building, two young men unfurled a banner which read "Keep your war away from Iraq".

 Iraqis to the United States: What Part of “Go Home” Don’t You Understand?  --Iranian forces launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against two military bases housing US troops in Iraq early hours of Wednesday morning. The al-Assad airbase in western Iraq was hit by 17 missiles, and 5 targeted at a base in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.  No US casualties were immediately reported.Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the attack a “slap in the face” of the US, and observers seem to question whether the attack was designed to kill or inflict casualties, or was it carefully orchestrated to produce closure to a situation which could have escalated into a regional or perhaps world war. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he was informed of the attack by Iran ahead of time, which acted as a safety valve after he, in turn, informed US commanders. Iraqi militias may now begin attacks of revenge for the US assassination of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who died alongside Soleimani in the drone strike on Friday.  Iraqi militia leader Qais al-Khazali said today his group’s retaliation should be “no less than the size of the Iranian response.” Al-Muhandis was the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi militia group that is an official component of the Iraqi armed forces.  Previously, the US had attacked Iraqi PMF troops in Qaim and killed 24 Iraqi soldiers and wounded dozens more.  The Iraqi military, militias, and government consider the recent US attacks on Iraqi troops and leaders on Iraqi soil as an act of aggression and more than enough reason to request the US military leave Iraq.

 US Prepares To Cut All Military Aid If Iraq Asks Troops To Leave - Days after the Soleimani assassination and a move in Iraq's parliament to begin the process of expelling American forces from the country, Trump issued threats of severe economic reprisal against Baghdad should it move forward with booting US troops. "We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it," he said at the time in an initial veiled threat.And now the US State Department has confirmed it and the Pentagon are preparing to cut all $250 million of foreign military aid for Iraq from the 2020 military aid budget already approved. Further they've already requested the budged office should prepare to additionally cut $100 million from the 2021 request.  There are currently some 5,300 American soldiers stationed in Iraq, ostensibly as part of the 'anti-ISIL coaltion' however Pentagon priorities have shifted to "curtailing Iran" in the region after the dramatic recent events which have seen the US and Iran clash both directly and indirectly via Iraq's paramilitary Shia proxies. The Wall Street Journal reports that while no final decision to cut the aid has been made, emails confirm it's being discussed and planned for at the highest levelsThe State Department and the Department of Defense have discussed the military assistance funds in emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The emails indicate that the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs is working to cut all $250 million in funds under the U.S. foreign military financing program for Iraq for the current fiscal year. As a reminder of where things stand and America's "popularity" or lack thereof inside Iraq, parliament already voted to expel US troops and all foreign forces in a clearly decisive 170-0 vote. However, that vote only began or initiated the political process.  Since 2017 Washington has given $250 million annually in military aid to the Iraqis, most of which goes back into purchases of US defense hardware, as well as training and other military support efforts.  "Cutting or reallocating the military-financing funding, which is appropriated by lawmakers to allow Iraq to purchase American military equipment, would require approval from Mr. Trump, as well as congressional notification, and the State Department is currently working on all necessary steps, the emails indicate," the WSJ report continues.

Could ISIS Take Control Over Iraq's Largest Oil Field? - As always, it’s the fear of sanctions that provides the leverage Trump seeks in this cat-and-mouse game with Iran. And this time, the leverage is over Iraq, which would like to see both American and Iranian forces out of the country, for obvious reasons.  There is nothing ISIS would love more than this. It would also devastate Iraq because the sanctions threatened would include blocking access to Iraq’s U.S.-based account where all the oil revenues are kept. That threat stands if Iraq moves to kick U.S. forces out of the country.That would mean victory for Iran (temporarily). Kicking out Iranian forces is not nearly as simple because the line between state and non-state actors is blurred, at best. A few weeks ago, a U.S. drawdown of military forces in Iraq was already expected, but that now seems unlikely because of the implications. The very military base that Iran attacked following the assassination of General Soleimani was already preparing for a drawdown. In addition to the threat of sanctions on oil money, a U.S. withdrawal would likely open the door for an ISIS return.  There is no consensus on this question, other than the fact that no one wants Iraq to be the proxy battleground between the United States and Iran. It’s a fair point, and Iraqis have had a very difficult time enjoying anything close to sovereignty since the fall of Saddam Hussein. While the Iraqi parliament has voted for U.S. troops to leave, they do not represent a unified voice. The Sunni elements of parliament did not participate in the vote. Neither did the Iraqi Kurds.  Shia factions in Iraq are, of course, pushing for a U.S. withdrawal, but the Sunnis and Kurds see this as a dangerous opportunity for pro-Iranian Shia factions to take even more control of the central government in Baghdad.

Israel's Hand in the Soleimani Assassination -- Once again, it looks like Israel has got its way when it comes to America's dealings with Iran.  According to the Times of Israel, Israeli intelligence played a key role in the extrajudicial assassination of Iran's Qassem Soleimani.  Here is the report: […] This tells us that not only is Washington using this as a "wag the dog" moment with the purpose of distracting Americans from the ongoing impeachment circus but that Tel Aviv is also in on the act in yet another attempt to distract Israelis from the never-ending Benjamin Netanyahu legal quagmire.  According to Reuters, Syrian and Iraqi informants are suspected of providing the information that led to Soleimani's demise when they reported Soleimani's secret flight from Damascus to Baghdad which allowed the Americans to confirm the arrival of Soleimani's Cham Wings Airlines Airbus A320 in Baghdad.  His convoy of armoured vehicles was targeted by Hellfire missiles fired from an American drone as he left the airport at 12:55 am local time.  It was Israel's intelligence community that confirmed the validity of Soleimani's arrival and whereabouts.   Just in case you were curious, here is a video showing the type of damage that a drone-launched Hellfire missile can do to a vehicle:

Israel confiscates sole medical vehicle serving 1,500 Palestinians – Israeli occupation forces have confiscated the only vehicle available to a medical team serving the needs of some 1,500 Palestinians in an isolated region of the southern West Bank, reportedHaaretz.According to the paper, this is the second time that the vehicle – which serves the residents of Masafer Yatta in the south Hebron hills – has been seized within a year, “cutting off healthcare to an isolated and impoverished population” living inside an Israeli military firing zone.The medical team make weekly visits to the area’s Palestinian communities, which lie roughly one hour’s drive on dirt roads from the nearest town of Yatta. The jeep in question “is the only vehicle available for providing medical services to these communities”. Last Thursday, Haaretz reported, Israeli occupation forces intercepted the medical team at Khirbet Al-Majaz, claiming that they were not allowed there “without prior coordination”. The patrol then impounded the jeep and held the medics for half an hour. In February 2019 the vehicle was confiscated “under similar circumstances”, stated the paper, and only returned six months later after the medical team paid a 3,000 shekel ($865) fine. On that occasion, the team were unable to provide medical care for the entire six months. The Israeli military commented that “the vehicle was impounded by supervisors at the Civil Administration since it was traveling in a fire zone, a forbidden area for vehicles by law”.

Israel Bombs Gaza Strip in Response to Incendiary Balloons (MEE) — The Israeli military said an attack helicopter struck a Hamas target in the northern Gaza Strip late Thursday in response to the launch of incendiary balloons into Israeli territory earlier in the day, the Associated Press reported.“A short while ago, an attack helicopter struck infrastructure used for underground activities” of Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip, an army statement said, according to AFP.It said the strike was in response to balloons with attached explosive devices that were floated across the separation fence during the day. Such balloons are sometimes used to try and start fires in the Israeli farmlands and neighbourhoods near the border.Israeli police said the balloons touched down in southern Israel and a bomb squad was dispatched. Police said there was an explosion, but there were no injuries, AP reported.A security source in the Palestinian enclave confirmed the strike had hit a base belonging to the military wing of Hamas, with no injuries reported.On Wednesday evening, Israeli forces had also struck Hamas targets in Gaza in retaliation for four rockets fired from the strip.  The last time Palestinians fired rockets at Israel was about three weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was attending a campaign event in the southern port city of Ashkelon, Haaretz said. The rocket fire forced Netanyahu to leave the stage mid-speech and seek shelter.

UN’s Warning that Gaza Will Not Be a “Liveable Place” by 2020 Has Been Realised  - In 2012, the United Nations published an alarming report on the future of the Gaza Strip warning that by 2020, without urgently needed remedial action, the territory would no longer be a ‘liveable place’. The report added: ‘There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most’. These dire forecasts of a creaking infrastructure unable to meet the needs of two million Gazans have been sadly realised. According to Save the Children, 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is unfit for human consumption, electricity is available for just 2-4 hours per day, water-borne diseases are spiking, health and emergency services are breaking down and fresh food is unavailable because of a lack of refrigeration. With over 108 million litres of untreated sewage discharged daily into the Mediterranean Sea, over 60% of the sea is contaminated and the ground water increasingly compromised with pollutants. Gaza has truly become an unliveable place and, yet, two million Gazans are forced to live in what is famously described as the world’s largest open air prison.  The primary cause of this ‘unliveable’ environment is a highly restrictive Israeli blockade, now in its 13th year, which has reduced Gaza to the point of ‘systemic collapse’. Ostensibly imposed on the basis of a security protocol following the election of a Hamas government in Palestinian elections in 2006, Amnesty International believes that Palestinians in Gaza are being ‘collectively punished’. What distinguishes the humanitarian crisis in Gaza from the disasters and emergencies that normally push civilian populations to the edge of catastrophe, is that it is not the result of a hurricane, flood, tsunami, drought or famine but a human-made policy that is entirely avoidable.  The blockade has choked off Gaza’s economy, described by the UN as ‘fundamentally unviable’, given tight restrictions on the trade of goods and services. However, the effects of the blockade have been exacerbated and compounded by other factors not foreseeable in the 2012 report. In October 2014, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah Crossing to the south of Gaza was effectively closed by the new military ruler, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who also severed the economic lifeline of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Also in 2014, Israel launched Operation ‘Protective Edge’ in Gaza, its third military operation in the territory since 2007, which resulted in 2,251 Palestinian fatalities, of whom 1,462 were civilians and 551 children; six Israeli civilians and 63 troops were killed in the conflict. Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was also greatly diminished with 18,000 housing units damaged or destroyed, together with several hospitals, clinics and schools.

200 Palestinian children arrested by Israel forces in Jerusalem neighbourhood – Israeli forces have detained an estimated 200 Palestinian children in the Issawiya neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem over the last few months, in many cases violating their basic rights. According to data from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), reported by Haaretz, more than 600 residents have been arrested since the launch of regular police raids in Issawiya, with residents and lawyers saying that “about a third of those who have been held are minors”. The report added that these raids have been characterised by “the violation of the rights” of detained Palestinian children, including “the use of force, night-time arrests, questioning not in the presence of their parents, rides in patrol cars for intimidation and unnecessary handcuffing”. ACRI has stated that the Israeli police “systematically violate the rights of minor suspects” in Issawiya, adding that while “the law may allow the police to not follow these rules in extreme cases”, it is “unfeasible that such exceptional circumstances existed in all these cases and in any case the police have never presented evidence of such a need”. ACRI’s report cites a number of disturbing example, including the arrest three weeks ago of an 11-year-old boy (the age of criminal responsibility is 12). READ: Israel arrests mother, 12-year-old son in Jerusalem “The police officers put him in a police car, took him for a ride around the neighbourhood and then took him to the police station,” Haaretz reported, adding that in “a video clip of the arrest spread on social media, the child’s great fear and anxiety [were] on display.” When Samar, the boy’s father, was summoned to the police station, he was told that his son had been throwing stones. The policeman showed me a video and said that’s my son, and I told him it’s not him. Only then did they look and it turns out there was nothing. They released him Samar said.

Turkey Muscles-In On Israel-Greece-Cyprus EastMed Gas Pipeline Deal -  Israel, Greece and Cyprus have signed an agreement for a pipeline project to ship natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean region to Europe. The deal comes amid increasing tensions with Turkey as Ankara seeks to expand its claims over gas-rich areas of the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, along with their energy ministers, signed the so-called EastMed pipeline deal in Athens on January 2.The 6-billion-euro ($6.6 billion) project envisages the construction of a 1,900-kilometer (1,180-mile) undersea pipeline that would carry up to 20 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Israeli and Cypriot waters to Crete and then on to the Greek mainland. From there, the gas would be transported to Italy and other countries in southeastern Europe.Israel, Greece and Cyprus hope to reach a final investment decision by 2022 and have the pipeline completed by 2025. The EastMed project, which would bypass Turkey, could eventually supply up to 10% of Europe's natural gas needs.The signing of the EastMed pipeline project came a month after Turkey and Libya reached a bilateral agreement on maritime boundaries in the southeastern Mediterranean Sea. The deal, signed on November 27 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the UN-backed leader of Libya, Fayez al Sarraj, attempts to redraw existing sea boundaries so that Libya ostensibly can claim exclusive rights over 39,000 square meters of maritime waters that belong to Greece.The bilateral agreement — which establishes a new Turkey-Libya economic zone that the EastMed pipeline would now have to cross — appears aimed at giving Turkey more leverage over the project. Referring to the Turkey-Libya deal, Erdoğan said:"Other international actors cannot conduct exploration activities in the areas marked in the Turkish-Libyan memorandum. Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey's consent." In mid-December, the Turkish Foreign Ministry reportedly summoned Israel's top diplomat in Ankara to inform him that Israel's plan to lay down a natural gas pipeline to Europe would require Turkey's approval.

Turkey's Underwhelming Invasion Of Libya - On January 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had sent troops to Libya to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). No Turkish soldiers will reportedly participate in direct fighting. Instead, they will create an operation center and coordinate operations. Erdogan pointed that “right now”, there will be “different units serving as a combatant force.”   So far, over 600 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters have arrived. According to media reports, the officially dispatched Turkish troops included military advisers, technicians, electronic warfare and air defense specialists. Their total number is estimated at around 40-60 personnel. A day after the Erdogan announcement, on January 6, the defense of the GNA collapsed in Sirte and the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA), took control of the town. Several pro-GNA units from Sirte publicly defected to the LNA with weapons and military equipment, including at least 6 armoured vehicles. With the loss of Sirte, only two large cities – Tripoli and Misrata – formally remained in the hands of the GNA. Misrata and its Brigades in fact remain a semi-independent actor operating under the GNA banner. From January 7 to January 12, when the sides agreed on a temporary ceasefire proposed in a joint statement of the Turkish and Russian presidents, the LNA continued offensive operations against GNA forces near Tripoli and west of Sirte capturing several positions there. The GNA once again demonstrated that it is unable to take an upper hand in the battle against forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The GNA formally requested “air, ground and sea” military support from Turkey on December 26th, 2019, in the framework of the military cooperation deal signed by the sides in November. Even before the formal approval, Ankara already was engaged in the conflict. It sent large quantities of weapons and military equipment, including “BMC Kirpi” armoured vehicles, deployed Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles at airfields near Tripoli and Misrata, and sent operators and trainers in order to assist GNA forces. Turkey could increase military supplies, deploy additional private military contractors, military advisers and special forces units, but it has no safe place to deploy own air group to provide the GNA with a direct air support like Russia did for pro-Assad forces in Syria. Approximately 90% of Libya is under the LNA control. Tripoli and Misrata airports are in a strike distance for the LNA. Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan refuse to play any direct role in the conflict, while the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is still too far away. Egypt, alongside with the UAE and Russia, is a supporter of the LNA. 

Pentagon Confirms ISIS Resurgent In Libya At Moment Turkey Transfers 2,000 Syrian Fighters - This might come as a surprise to the broader American public and a mainstream media which has largely ignored recent escalating events in Libya, but guess who's back? "The Donald Trump administration is seeing a “small” resurgence in the Islamic State’s numbers in Libya since strongman Khalifa Hifter began a bloody march on the capital Tripoli more than two months ago, the Pentagon’s second-ranking military official said" reports Al-Monitor's Pentagon correspondentThe Pentagon official, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva, described the currently stalemated fight for Tripoli between Benghazi-based Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the UN-recognized and Turkey-backed GNA in the capital as giving breathing space for the Islamic State's return to the country.Within the past three years, amid the chaos in the wake of the US-NATO 2011 war which toppled Gaddafi, ISIS actually had a stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte before being booted by US-backed Libyan forces.   But now, as General Paul Selva explains: “Because they’re now going after one another in the capital, it’s actually taking their attention off of IS and we’ve seen a small resurgence of those [IS] camps in the central region.” Alarmingly, per Al-Monitor's report, this gives an opening for ISIS to become a "third party" in the war:

Libya strongman Haftar agrees ceasefire after calls from Kremlin, Ankara -- Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar on Saturday announced a ceasefire in his months-long battle to control the capital Tripoli after calls for a truce from Russia and Turkey. The North African state has seen an escalation of the turmoil that erupted after a NATO-backed uprising killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with Haftar trying to capture Tripoli from Libya's UN-recognised government. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week called for a truce in Libya starting Sunday from midnight, but Haftar had initially vowed to fight on. Haftar's forces on Saturday agreed to the ceasefire from midnight on Sunday (2200 GMT), but warned of a "severe" response to any violation by the "opposing camp", a reference to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj. Before Haftar's statement, Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met earlier on Saturday in Moscow and called for international efforts to address the crisis in Libya. Germany and Russia are both acting as mediators in a conflict Berlin has warned could become a "second Syria" and the topic topped the agenda as they met for talks at the Kremlin. Hafter's forces, who began their offensive on Tripoli in April, did not give any details in their short statement on how the ceasefire would come into effect.

Heads of Libya’s warring sides hold talks in Russia - Talks in Russia aimed at agreeing on an unconditional and open-ended ceasefire in Libya failed to achieve a breakthrough on Monday and have been adjourned for the night. The head of the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, signed a draft ceasefire agreement, while Khalifa Haftar - commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) - requested more time to consider it. "They have a positive view of the document and asked for extra time until the next morning to decide," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said of Hafter and his delegation. "I hope they will make a positive decision. Russian and Turkish representatives will continue to offer their assistance." Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, urged the factions on Monday to sign a binding truce to end a nine-month-old war and pave the way for a peaceful settlement. More than 280 civilians and about 2,000 fighters have been killed and 146,000 Libyans displaced since Haftar launched his assault to seize the capital Tripoli, according to the United Nations. Turkey was working to ensure the truce became permanent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Speaking alongside Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Ankara, Erdogan said he will attend a summit in Berlin on Sunday to discuss developments in Libya, along with Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I especially hope for the signing of a permanent ceasefire agreement some time soon," Erdogan told the press conference. The Moscow talks were held a day after a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey came into force in Libya. It was unclear if the two leaders al-Sarraj and Haftar would meet face to face.

Erdogan’s dream, Istanbul’s nightmare - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well known for his penchant for gigantic construction projects in Istanbul. Be it a new airport, Turkey's largest mosque or a tunnel that goes under the Bosporus – he has built it all within a short time. But these objects of prestige are nothing compared to his latest construction project: The Istanbul Canal.The Turkish government is planning nothing short of the creation of a second Bosphorus – a copy of the strait that meanders through the middle of the 16-million metropolis of Istanbul. To the west of the city, the artificial 45-kilometre canal is to be built parallel to the Bosphorus, linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. According to government sources, the intention is to relieve the heavy shipping traffic on the Bosphorus and to avoid accidents.Planning for the project began as early as 2011, then stagnated for years. But now the Turkish government has brought the plans to life again. Erdogan announced that tendering for construction of the canal will begin soon. The Ministry for Environment and Urban Development has examined the environmental compatibility of the construction project and assessed it as "positive".But the realisation of Erdogan's latest mega-construction project is being hampered by a shift in the balance of power in the Bosphorus metropolis in June. Since then, Social Democrat Ekrem Imamoglu of CHP has been mayor — marking the first time in 25 years that Istanbul's mayor is not part of Erdogan's AKP party. And the city's newest leader has made his opposition to the planned construction known.  Imamoglu has called the project a "betrayal of Istanbul" and a "murderous project", vowing that "16 million people will resist." He has also taken political action by terminating a protocol of cooperation that the previous municipality had agreed with the government.

Are Pakistani Leaders Slaves of Arab Royals?  by Riaz Haq - Are Pakistani leaders slaves of Arab Royals? Or simply doing what is in Pakistan's best interest? Why did Imran Khan not attend the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Summit that was organized by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and attended by Turkish President Erdogan and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani? Why did he yield to Saudi pressure to skip it? What are Pakistan's key economic and security interests in Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC)? Is labor Pakistan's biggest export earning over $20 billion a year? What is the biggest export market for Pakistan's labor? What would happen if Pakistan joined Malaysia and Turkey in creating a new Muslim bloc competing with the Arab-led Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC)? Will OIC try to live up to Pakistan's expectation of a tougher stance against India's Modi vis a vis Indian Occupied Kashmir and Indian Muslims? Who makes Pakistan's foreign and security policies? How influential is Pakistani military in making these policies? Is Imran Khan free to pursue whatever policies he personally prefers? Would any other Prime Minister have pursued a different policy with GCC nations? ALKS host Faraz Darvesh discusses these questions with Sabahat Ashraf (ifaqeer) and Riaz Haq (www.riazhaq.com). Are Pakistani Leaders Slaves of Arab Royals? - YouTube

Entangled US-China-Taiwan relations likely just got more complicated after President Tsai Ing-wen’s big re-election victory SCMP - Taiwan may face retaliation and increased pressure from Beijing afterPresident Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election victory, adding uncertainty to the already tense relationship between China and the United States, analysts said.Tsai, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won a record-breaking 8.2 million votes, or 57 per cent of the total, in Taiwan’s election on Saturday against 5.5 million votes for her main opponent, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, in what was widely seen as an endorsement of the Tsai administration’s tough stance against Beijing.Observers said Beijing was likely to further squeeze Taiwan – a self-ruled island that it claims as part of its territory – in the international space, complicating its intensifying strategic rivalry with Washington.While strong US support ofTaiwan under Tsai would be expected to continue amid heightened tensions with China, the triangular relationships would also hinge upon the outcome of the US presidential election in November and progress in trade talks between Beijing and Washington, analysts said.Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan expert at the University of Nottingham, said that neither China nor the US wanted a conflict over Taiwan, but that there were unknowns including US President Donald Trump’s volatility and his re-election bid, as well as how the major powers would manage the two nations’ deteriorating relationship.“In general terms, neither side wants a confrontation over Taiwan, and certainly the US is thankful that Tsai has not rocked the boat, a careful posture I expect her to continue,” he said. “The wild card is Beijing, which has painted itself into a corner with regards to Taiwan. There just isn’t room for them to concede the bit of space Tsai needs to start talking again.”

China Car Sales Plunge 7.5% In 2019 And 3.6% For December, Marking The 18th Fall In 19 Months - Passenger car vehicle sales in China fell yet again in December, plunging 3.6% to 2.17 million units, according to the China Passenger Car Association. This marks the 18th drop in the past 19 months for the country, which feels to be single-handedly spearheading a global recession in the industry. For the full year, sales in China declined 7.5%, marking the second straight annual decline. Automakers continue to struggle with a slowing economy and tariff uncertainties, despite "Phase 1" of the U.S./China trade deal supposedly being finished (even though it still has not been signed), according to Bloomberg. GM said on Tuesday that its sales were down 15% in China and said that pressure into 2020 would likely continue. But, some analysts say there's reasons for optimism: namely, that the pace of declines has slowed for four months in a row as comps have become easier. This will only hold true heading into 2020, where 2019's comps will be much easier to catch than those of years prior, while the auto market was booming. The China Association of Auto Manufacturers predicts that vehicle sales will drop 2% in 2020, marking a third straight annual decline. Sales fell 7.5% in 2019 and 6% in 2018.

Indian Supreme Court finds 150-day Internet blackout in Kashmir illegal - The Indian region of Kashmir has had most Internet service blacked out since August. The government of Narendra Modi says the online blackout is a necessary security measure in the face of growing unrest in the region triggered by a change in Kashmir's status under the Indian constitution. (Kashmir's status within India has been a topic of controversy for decades.)  "The government says it was necessary to block the Internet to stop agitators orchestrating mass, potentially violent, protests against its decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status," Reuters reports.  But on Friday, India's highest court rejected the government's rationale, arguing that the blackout violated Indian telecommunications laws.  “Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right,” justice N.V. Ramana said. The Kashmir blackout isn't the only time Modi's government has restricted Internet access in the face of protests against government policies, Reuters notes. But the 150-day blackout in Kashmir is the longest ever in India—or any other democracy. The blackout has imposed significant hardships on area residents. People in Kashmir have found it difficult to communicate with friends and family elsewhere. And Kashmiri firms that do business outside the region have been hit particularly hard. The Supreme Court ruling won't lead to an immediate restoration of Internet access in Kashmir, however. Instead, India's highest court has given the government a week to revise its policies. The court also required the government to be more transparent about its Internet shutdown orders.

India Is Abandoning Fundamental Rights, Say US Human Rights Lawyers - In a statement, a group of human and civil rights lawyers of South Asian descent have expressed grave concerns about “ongoing legal abuses and human rights atrocities” in India. Their statement covers the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens, and the way protests against the two have been cracked down on by the government, as well as the Central governments actions in Kashmir. “The crisis unfolding in India today is rooted in a long history of impunity and failed democratic institutions,” the signatories have said. They say that India has not been able to keep its minorities safe, and violence against the marginalised has become commonplace. “The BJP and Prime Minister Modi have built upon this troubled history with a Hindutva nationalist agenda,” they continue. To counter this, they argue, US lawmakers must raise their voice and take action, by condemning the CAA and NRC, and also demanding that legal observers and foreign journalists be allowed complete access in Kashmir. The full statement is reproduced below.

India’s About to Hand People Data Americans Can Only Dream Of - India has more than 560 million internet users, all generating data by the terabyte. Soon they’ll have an unprecedented amount of control over their digital financial footprints, with the ability to decide what to share, with whom, and for how long. India’s top banks are getting ready to roll out a system that gives consumers access to a wide swath of their financial data and allows them to share it instantly. Backed by the Reserve Bank of India, it’s an ambitious approach that combines privacy protection with credit reporting: if it works, it could unlock the credit market for millions of Indians while offering new levels of data security and consumer control. India’s effort is one of a handful of initiatives around the globe to return control of data to consumers, notably with the “open banking” movement in Europe and Australia. India’s approach is unique -- it relies on third parties to mediate the often complicated process of information sharing -- and so is its target population, which is predominantly poor and, as of now, excluded from the formal banking system.  “Only India has a solution for such a scale,” said Infosys chairman Nandan Nilekani, who’s been an adviser to this initiative and other major tech reforms. “This is the future.” The “account aggregator” system will be offered by banks and licensed by India’s central bank, which will also regulate the data collection and sharing. By logging into authorized apps, users will be able to pull together all kinds of financial data -- spending patterns, bill repayment, tax returns, business transactions -- that they can then choose to share instantly and temporarily in pursuit of loans, investment products or even insurance. A prospective borrower might, for example, release part of his goods-and-services tax filings to convince a lender of credit-worthiness. A vegetable vendor without collateral to back a loan might share a cash-flow statement or use a mobile phone repayment history to demonstrate reliability. India’s newly established digital rules and practices lay the groundwork for this kind of system. The central bank now requires financial data to be reported in a standard, machine-readable format, which means it’s easier to automatically slice and share. India also has a history of collecting and protecting massive personal data sets, including biometric and payments information.

Putin consolidates power as Russian government resigns - Russia’s government resigned Wednesday to make way for major new constitutional changes, according to the Tass state news agency, citing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Without giving much detail, the news agency said President Vladimir Putin thanked Medvedev’s government for its work. The move was reportedly made so Putin can carry out sweeping constitutional changes he spoke about at his annual address just hours earlier. “For my part, I also want to thank you for everything that was done at this stage of our joint work, I want to express satisfaction with the results that have been achieved,” Putin told a meeting of ministers, according to Tass. “Not everything was done, but everything never works out in full,” Putin said. Later, Russian news agencies reported that Putin wants to appoint Mikhail Mishustin, the head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, as the new Prime Minister. News of the governmnet resignation came after Putin’s annual address to lawmakers. The Russian leader proposed a national vote on constitutional changes that would push power toward the prime minister and the parliament, and away from the presidency. It’s seen as potentially limiting the power of Putin’s successor if he steps down in 2024. “After those amendments are adopted ... there will be significant changes not only to a variety of constitution articles, but to the balance of power, namely to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power,” Medvedev said, according to Tass. The government in Russia consists of the prime minister, deputy prime ministers and federal ministers and their ministries and corresponds to the Western Cabinet-style structure. However, Moscow’s political system is widely seen as being an autocracy with Putin possessing much of the power.

 Euro zone slowdown has bottomed but no big bounce in sight- Reuters poll (Reuters) - The slowdown in euro zone economic activity has probably bottomed out, according to a Reuters poll, which showed while the outlook for growth and inflation remained lukewarm the chances of a recession have faded somewhat. FILE PHOTO: A woman walks with shopping bags through a mall ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Berlin, Germany December 23, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo That comes after the European Central Bank aggressively eased policy, including cutting its deposit rate deeper into negative territory in September and later resuming its asset- purchases program. Economists polled by Reuters Jan. 13-16 were slightly more upbeat compared with the previous few months, amid improved sentiment around the U.S.-led trade war. But the majority made little change in their point forecasts for growth and inflation for this year, next year and 2022. Nearly 80% of economists who answered an additional question said euro zone economic activity had bottomed out. “Economic growth has bottomed out, but we don’t think it will pick up by much anytime soon, either. It is going to flat- line at the current low levels,” said Moritz Degler, senior economist at Oxford Economics. “Any pick-up would likely need to come from the industrial sector and that situation would improve only if there was a permanent resolution to the trade conflict between the U.S. and China. We don’t think that is very likely.” The poll of over 100 economists predicted euro zone economic growth would average 1.0% this year. That would be lower than last year’s 1.2% and would the weakest pace of growth since a recession in 2013. Growth in the euro zone’s major economies was also forecast to be tepid. Germany - the biggest economy in the region - was predicted to average 0.7% growth in 2020, inching up from 0.6% in 2019, which was its slowest growth in six years.

French govt offers compromise in bid to end transport strike - France's government Saturday proposed a compromise to end a crippling transport strike against pension reform, with an offer to withdraw a key proposal on raising the retirement age, but trade unions gave the announcement a mixed welcome. The overture from Prime Minister Edouard Philippe came as protesters smashed storefronts in clashes with police in Paris, with the transport shutdown against the pension overhaul dragging into its sixth week. "I am willing to withdraw from the bill the short-term measure I had proposed," said Philippe, offering to scrap the most contested initiative that would in effect have raised the retirement age by two years to 64. French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the plan as "a constructive and responsible compromise." The hardline CGT union, which has taken a leading role in the strike action, swiftly poured cold water on the government's offer, calling the compromise proposal "a smokescreen to get some unions to sign on" to the overall reform. The more moderate CFDT and UNSA unions welcomed Philippe's offer, meaning the government may succeed in splitting the unions on the reforms. An inter-union body which includes the CGT and fellow hardline union the FO among others called for a new days of protests next week. The government's move came a day after they met with unions in a bid to end the labour action that has frustrated Paris commuters, ruined December holiday travel plans, and carved away at business bottom lines. Demonstrators in the capital, some masked and hooded, broke shop windows along their protest route Saturday, set fires and threw projectiles at police in riot gear, who responded with tear gas. Several stores were ransacked as marchers brandished union flags and chanted defiantly: "We are still here!" and "Macron resign". Protests were also held in Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon, Nantes and elsewhere. The interior ministry said 149,000 people had turned out throughout France. The CGT put the overall figure at half a million, saying the 150,000 marched in Paris alone. In one of Macron's signature reforms, the government seeks to fuse 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system it says will be fairer and more transparent but which unions fear will see millions work longer for a smaller retirement payout.

Macron Abandons Plan To Raise Retirement Age As Rock-Throwing Protesters Get Tear-Gassed French President Emmanuel Macron has scrapped plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, as tens of thousands of anti-government activists - many donning yellow vests - returned to the streets of Paris and elsewhere on Saturday to protest the proposed - pension reforms, according to the New York Times.The mood was militant, and the more violent demonstrators once again clashed with the police, even as they sowed a trail of damage through eastern Paris. A bank branch was sacked, and bus shelters smashed and fires set. Unions said 150,000 protesters were in the streets of Paris on Saturday. -NYTCoup de pied gratuit filmé par @MTGphotographe @davduf #reformedesretraites #greve11janvier #ViolencesPolicieres pic.twitter.com/c46ZVwSgSP— Capitaine Memes ✊ (@CapitaineCombat) January 11, 2020   Saturday's demonstrations included exchanges between rock-throwing protesters and the police, who used tear gas, water cannons and other crowd control measures as the day wore on. At one point a building was set on fire. The government of France plays a major role in retirement pensions - both providing and guaranteeing funds and overseeing the entire system.The bid to boost the retirement age infuriated moderate unions Macron relies on, despite his insistence that French citizens need to work longer in order to keep the pension system - which may be facing a $19 billion deficit - financially sound.In a Saturday letter from Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, the Macron administration said that it would "withdraw" the new age limit, and postpone major decisions on how to keep the system solvent until it can better assess the situation "between now and the end of April."Macron described it as a "constructive compromise," which French union CFDT applauded. The CGT union called the measure "a smokescreen," however, which protesters agreed with as they took to the streets on Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands protest pension cuts in France - Yesterday, over a half-million French strikers and youth marched for a 43rd day of strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension cuts. They rejected Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s announcement this weekend of a “temporary” withdrawal of a planned two-year increase in the pension age from the text of the bill, which Philippe intends to rework and add back into the bill after four months of talks with the unions. According to the unions, 550,000 people marched across France, including 150,000 in Paris and tens of thousands in cities including Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes. In Toulouse, they interrupted a ceremony held by right-wing mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc, holding a banner saying “Emmanuel Moudenc, mayor of the rich” and singing “yellow vest” songs. Among workers, there is growing opposition to Macron and support for the strike. An Odoxa poll for France-Info and the right-wing daily Le Figaro found that 66 percent of the population still considers the strike “justified,” even though 57 percent would like it to stop, as rail and mass transit strikes lengthen commutes to work. Moreover, 67 percent told Odoxa they agreed that Philippe’s announcement this weekend was “a half-measure that comes too late.” Philippe’s proposed talks with the unions to identify possible spending cuts only underscore that such talks are a dead end for the workers. There is nothing to negotiate with Macron. The way forward is to organize independently of the unions, in committees of action mobilizing broader layers of workers in a struggle to bring down Macron. Emma, a schoolteacher protesting in Paris, told the WSWS: “We demand the pension cuts not be implemented. Philippe can say whatever he wants to anybody about his announcements on the pension age, we don’t care—at all.” She added, “What is unprecedented is that the strike belongs to the strikers. The workers have escaped the control of the unions. So, the union leaderships can negotiate whatever they want. We will not give up anything.”

Germany To Cut 400,000 Auto Jobs In Next Decade As Car Production Crashes  -- The start of approximately 400,000 job losses in the German automotive industry is already underway as the industry shifts towards electric vehicles, reported the Financial Times. Germany's workforce is likely to contract by 1% in the next ten years as carmakers such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, and Porsche transition to electric car sales.  The shift from a combustion engine to electric, and the resulting factor it might lead to job losses is merely a cover, or a narrative by the German press, likely created by the government, to shield the public's view from collapsing car production in the country. Why frighten consumers and tell them German car production has crashed to 23-year lows when narrative creation in the press can assure everyone that the slump is because carmakers are doing away with dirty fossil fuel engines for a greener future.  The German government expects carmakers to produce 10 million electric cars by 2030. With the addition of automation and artificial intelligence in factories, the need for humans will continue to wane and displace even more. The automotive industry in the country supports 800,000 jobs and indirectly supports 3 million more.  "It is the joint responsibility of industry, trade unions, and politics to promote reskilling so that negative effects on the labor market can be kept to a minimum," said Kurt-Christian Scheel, the VDA's managing director that represents Germany's carmakers.

German Industry Stuck In Recession, No Signs Of Bottom, Warns BDI -Germany's Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI) warned Thursday that economic growth in Europe's largest economy was "stuck in a recession,” with little hope of an economic rebound.BDI said economic growth in Germany would continue to decelerate in 2020 as there are no signs of improvement in the struggling manufacturing sector. "Industry remains stuck in recession, and there are no signs for the sector bottoming out," BDI President Dieter Kempf said Thursday. BDI forecasted economic growth at 0.5% in 2020, adding that adjusted growth will print around 0.1%. Kempf said the government needs to increase public investment in infrastructure as a countercyclical buffer against the slowdown. He also said tax cuts are needed for corporations. The warning from BDI comes as Germany's economic growth rebounded slightly in the fourth quarter but slowed last year to its weakest level in six years as trade tensions escalated, exports plunged, and a steep downturn in the automotive industry was seen. Official government statics show Wednesday morning that GDP growth rate in the last three months of 2019 was 0.6%, the lowest since 2013's 0.4% expansion.

Will A Credit Crisis Threaten Boris's 2020 Brexit Plans? -Boris and the Conservatives won the General Election with a very good majority. In truth, opposition parties stood little chance of success against the Tory strategists, who controlled the narrative despite a hostile media. At the centre of their slick operation was Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Brexit leave vote, winning the referendum against all the betting in 2016. It was Cummings who arranged for the Tory Remainers to fall on their swords, which by removing the whip reduced the Tory ranks, making them appear vulnerable enough for the opposition parties to tear up the requirement for a supermajority and vote for a general election. It was straight out of Sun Tzu’s playbook: “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” The way the Remainers were removed was both brutal and public. On September 3, fifteen of them went for a meeting in Downing Street, obviously convinced, with Johnson only having a parliamentary majority of one, that they were in a very strong position to negotiate either for a second referendum or Brexit in name only. Dismissing them, Cummings was blunt to the point of rudeness: “I don’t know who any of you are.” And they left with nothing. Observers at the time saw this as suicidal, but Cummings appears to have known what he was doing. The hapless rebels had no coherent plan other than to threaten, and their bluff was called. Better, it seems that Cummings concluded, to purge the parliamentary party of serial rebels than to be beholden to them. Much has been written about how the election victory was won. About the focus groups, about listening to Labour voters. About the "Get Brexit Done" slogan. But Sun Tzu Cummings also encouraged Labour to hang themselves. The Tories kicked off addressing the number one concern of ordinary people, tackling crime. Then came the NHS — more nurses and hospitals. This was a carefully set trap, getting the Marxists in Labour to outbid the Tories on spending to patently ridiculous levels. Having set down that route, they added nationalising water, trains, and broadband. Everyone then knew that Labour promises were not only a joke, but downright dangerous. The Conservatives' promises were just deliverable, particularly since they were prepared to sacrifice an earlier promise to cut corporation tax. What Now?Obviously, Britain will leave the EU on or before January 31 next. All of 2020 subsequently is set to be taken up in trade negotiations with the EU, which will not be extended. The first post-Brexit negotiation of note will be over fisheries policies and the right of access to British waters for EU fishing vessels, due to be agreed by July 1 and implemented after the transition period.

Government will struggle to ‘Get Brexit Done’ by December 2020 - Very little will change when UK leaves the EU on 31 January. The transition period (or implementation period) will kick in and the UK, despite leaving the political institutions of the EU, will largely continue to follow EU rules and take part in EU programmes.But the Brexit task will be far from over. While much of the first phase of negotiations focused on being able to agree the terms of withdrawal from the EU, the government will instead need to use the next 11 months to make sure the UK is ready for all the practical challenges that the UK’s changing relationship with the EU will entail. It will need to pass legislation, prepare for new domestic policies and make sure businesses are ready for huge changes in how they interact with the EU. All this without yet knowing the details of the UK's future relationship with the EU.Given how much effort this will involve, the proposed timeframe looks positively heroic. The biggest change from Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was in the Northern Ireland protocol, with Boris Johnson agreeing to create a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border of the island of Ireland. This commits Northern Ireland to continue following EU regulations for goods, and means that Northern Ireland will need to follow EU customs rules even though it will remain in the UK customs territory. How this will actually work is yet to be agreed. The EU and UK deferred some of the big decisions to the joint committee which oversees the withdrawal agreement. The committee, which will be made up of EU and UK representatives but is not yet established, will need to look at how the complex customs arrangements – and regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – will work in practice. The level of ‘unfettered’ access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is also unclear. Making practical changes on the ground will also be influenced by the nature of the future trading relationship between Great Britain and EU.Given the complexity of these challenges, it seems highly unlikely that the government will be ready to have a post-Brexit border in operation by December 2020 – and a failure to fulfil its obligations under the withdrawal agreement could see the European Commission launch infringement proceedings against the UK government. This could ultimately see the UK up in front of the European Court of Justice.

Recession: Almost half of UK firms expect economy to contract in 2020 Almost half of UK businesses expect there will be an economic recession this year, while one in three believes the contraction could be as much as 4 per cent, according to a survey of senior directors.The research, based on 250 senior executives at medium-large sized businesses across the UK, also revealed that well over a third (37 per cent) also expect to see a global recession or international global crisis in 2020.The survey by trade finance provider Stenn found that almost two-thirds of firms ranked increased geopolitical tensions, such as trade tariffs,Brexit or regional instability, as the number one risk to businesses in 2020.Increased environmental concerns and climate change came in as the second largest risk (50 per cent), while changing consumer behaviour, such as shopping online rather than in store, took third place (48 per cent). Stenn’s survey also showed that almost one in five (16 per cent) of US firms expect the economy to shrink in 2020, most likely by 1 to 3 per cent.

Minister says Britain must reduce military dependence on U.S. – report (Reuters) - Britain must invest in military hardware to become less reliant on U.S. air cover and spy planes in future conflicts, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was quoted as saying in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper. A steadfast ally of the United States that places its “special relationship” with Washington at the heart of its foreign policy, Britain has also traditionally been a pillar and strong advocate of NATO. But in unusually frank comments, Wallace said fears that the United States under President Donald Trump would pursue increasingly isolationist policies kept him awake at night, according to the Sunday Times. A “I worry if the United States withdraws from its leadership around the world, that would be bad for the world and bad for us. We plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Wallace was quoted as saying. “Over the last year we’ve had the U.S. pull out from Syria, the statement by Donald Trump on Iraq where he said NATO should take over and do more in the Middle East.” He said the assumption that Britain would always be part of a U.S. coalition was no longer valid and the government should plan accordingly. “We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We need to diversify our assets,” Wallace said. As it prepares to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, the British government has made clear that relations with Washington are of paramount importance, with trade talks at the top of the agenda. 

UK Police Refuse To Turn Over Information That Could Prove Prince Andrew Is Guilty - The infamous UK Police department Scotland Yard is refusing to reveal Prince Andrew’s location on the night that he is accused of being with Virginia Giuffre, one of the young girls trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein who was underage at the time she claims the Duke had sex with her.  Members of the royal family are regularly accompanied by police guards in their day to day activities and there are records of where and when the officers were sent—or at the very least a record of which officers worked on which day. If these records were to be made available investigators could easily determine where Prince Andrew was on the night in question, but police are saying that handing over such information could pose a threat to national security.During his disastrous BBC interview, Andrew claimed that he was at a Pizza Express in Woking on the night then 17-year-old Giuffre (nee Roberts) says the pair visited a club and later had sex. If the Duke is indeed telling the truth, then his claims could be very easily corroborated by whichever guard was on duty at the time.Unfortunately, Scotland Yard has not been willing to cooperate.In a statement responding to the inquiry, Scotland Yard said that revealing information about the disgraced prince’s whereabouts on the night in question could “undermine the safeguarding of national security,” according to the Sun.