reality is only those delusions that we have in common...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

week ending Mar 31

Fed's Bostic: time for interest rates to rise to neutral rate - The U.S. Federal Reserve should continue to raise interest rates back to the long-term neutral rate given how close the central bank is to its goals, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic said on Wednesday.  “For me personally, I think we need to get back to neutral,” Bostic, who is a voting member of the Fed’s policy-setting committee this year, told an audience of finance and investment professionals in Atlanta. The longer-run neutral rate of interest is a level that is neither expansionary nor contractionary for the economy. The Fed currently forecasts it at 2.9 percent. “Unemployment is very close to something that is equivalent to a full employment position and inflation is approaching back to our 2 percent target. If things are running at close to where we...hope that they’ll be, then our policy doesn’t need to be super accommodative,” he said. Bostic added that staying on a gradual path of rate rises would be more appropriate rather than bigger jumps in interest rates that could trigger volatility.  Last week Bostic said he voted for the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates to a target range of between 1.50 and 1.75 percent at its latest policy meeting and forecast another two rate rises in 2018, although he added it could be one more or less depending on the economy’s health.  The central bank raised its benchmark lending rate three times in 2017 and the median forecast of policymakers on the rate-setting committee is for another three this year.

 Fed's Harker, Seeing Stronger Inflation, Lifts His Outlook for Interest Rates - —Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Patrick Harker said he expects officials will need to raise short-term interest rates a total of three times this year, up from his earlier projection of two, due to stronger inflation.Fed officials voted unanimously last week to raise their benchmark federal-funds rate by a quarter percentage point to a range between 1.5% and 1.75%, and they penciled in two more such increases for this year.“We saw some firming of inflation,” Mr. Harker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, explaining his new projection.Updated forecasts released last week showed Fed officials project faster economic growth, higher inflation and lower unemployment in coming years than they anticipated in December. Some Fed officials have cited potentially stronger economic growth from tax policy changes and increased federal spending. Mr. Harker said he had placed greater emphasis on inflation data than on fiscal policy in revising his outlook.“It’s more the firming of inflation that has moved me from two to three” projected rate increases this year, he said. Mr. Harker said he had penciled in three rate increases for 2019, in line with the median projection released last week.Mr. Harker said he expects inflation to rise slightly above the Fed’s 2% target in the coming years. Inflation has run below that level for most of the past six years, leaving markets guessing about how the Fed would react to inflation above the target. The pace of any movement in price pressures requires as much attention as the level of annual price rises, Mr. Harker said. Inflation that rises rapidly past 1.9% annually would be more troubling than 2.1% inflation that is creeping slowly higher, he said.Mr. Harker said the risk of increased trade tariffs and other barriers presented one source of uncertainty about current projections of the interest-rate policy path. “Trade tariffs increase costs,” he said. Mr. Harker said it was too early to judge the effect of potential trade actions. An escalation in tariffs between the U.S. and its trade partners “is a risk” that could require higher interest rates, he said, though it isn’t his current expectation. “We’d have to steepen the policy path,” he said.

 The Fed's Dot Plot Would Bury The Indebted US Consumer - The new Federal Reserve chairman’s first FOMC meeting last week, and subsequent press conference, confirmed that Jerome Powell is not an egghead obsessed with macroeconomic models. This is refreshing given the highly academic nature of his predecessors Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, and suggests that he will alter his view on the economy based on the reported data rather than theoretical projections of the future. This also suggests that the so called ‘dot plots’, which are nothing more than the forecasts of individual Fed governors, should become less important. But for now the financial markets will still pay attention to those dots, most particularly as they are showing three rate hikes next year on top of the three projected this year (though that three has nearly become four). This would take the upper end of the federal funds rate target range to 3.0% by the end of 2019. That is a level of interest rates which Grizzle has a hard time believing will happen given the sensitivity of the indebted American economy to higher interest rates. But if short-term rates really go that high, the view here is that the yield curve will by then have inverted in terms of short-term interest rates moving above long-term interest rates. On this point, the yield curve has already begun to flatten again of late. The spread between the 10-year and the 2-year Treasury bond yields has declined from a recent high of 78bp reached in mid-February to 54bp (see following chart). Meanwhile, it remains remarkable how the US dollar still cannot rally given the relative optimism on the American economy suggested by this week’s Fed statement and given the hawkish signal provided by the ‘dots’ with the US Dollar Index declining by 0.9% since the Fed rate hike on Wednesday. This is a further sign that investors should continue to assume for now that the US dollar remains weak (see following chart), which remains a positive for emerging markets.

PCE Price Index: February Headline & Core --  The BEA's Personal Income and Outlays report for February was published this morning by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The latest Headline PCE price index was up 0.19% month-over-month (MoM) and is up 1.75% year-over-year (YoY). The latest Core PCE index (less Food and Energy) came in at 0.23% MoM and 1.60% YoY. Core PCE remains below the Fed's 2% target rate. Revisions were made to figures for October through January. The adjacent thumbnail gives us a close-up of the trend in YoY Core PCE since January 2012. The first string of red data points highlights the 12 consecutive months when Core PCE hovered in a narrow range around its interim low. The second string highlights the lower range from late 2014 through 2015. Core PCE shifted higher in 2016 with a decline in 2017 only to bounce back later in the year. The first chart below shows the monthly year-over-year change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index since 2000. Also included is an overlay of the Core PCE (less Food and Energy) price index, which is Fed's preferred indicator for gauging inflation. The two percent benchmark is the Fed's conventional target for core inflation. However, the December 2012 FOMC meeting raised the inflation ceiling to 2.5% for the next year or two while their accommodative measures (low FFR and quantitative easing) are in place. More recent FOMC statements now refer only to the two percent target. The index data is shown to two decimal points to highlight the change more accurately. It may seem trivial to focus such detail on numbers that will be revised again next month (the three previous months are subject to revision and the annual revision reaches back three years). But core PCE is such a key measure of inflation for the Federal Reserve that precision seems warranted. For a long-term perspective, here are the same two metrics spanning five decades.

 Newsflash: The Libor’s outpacing the Fed funds rate. Whussup with that? -- Jared Bernstein - Financial markers are on shpilkes.  I don’t try to explain daily ups and downs, but clearly jitters about a trade war are also in the mix, as are higher interest rates. It’s that last bit that interests [sic] me, as for years, the cost of borrowing was uniquely low, both here and abroad. As that changes, it introduces some new dynamics both in financial markets and the real economy. Higher rates are partly due to the Fed, of course, as they’re well into their normalization campaign. They’ve diligently telegraphed their every move, so little surprise there. Other rates tied to the Fed’s, like mortgage rates, are going up as well, and that’s weighed a bit on mortgage lending and refis. But rates still remain low, historically speaking–the Fed’s now targeting an FFR (Fed funds rate) of just 1.25-1.5%–and inflation remains below the Fed’s target. The job market is particularly solid, and real US GDP growth continues to wiggle about its long-term 2% trend. So, WTF (that’s “why the face?”), markets? Well, there are a few anomalies in play. Despite rising rates, which should boost the value of the dollar, it’s been on a slide. Another anomaly worth watching is the Libor running ahead of the Fed. The Libor–the rate at which international banks lend to each other–is the other main benchmark interest rate in the global economy, and as the figure shows it (that’s the 3-month Libor) closely tracks the FFR. Yes, the Libor spiked relative to the FFR back in the Great Recession, but that was a function of pervasive and well-founded fears over credit risk, while the Fed was quickly taking the FFR down to zero.  Why is the Libor ahead of the Fed now? I don’t know, but it’s raising the cost of debt servicing more than expected for lots of banks and businesses that borrow in the short-term debt market.  So, as usual, don’t pay much attention to the market swings, but do keep an eye out for unusual developments, like the Libor>FFR. And watch the interest rate. It’s a key price in any economy, and after a long hiatus, it’s finally on the move.

How Many Trillions In Debt Are Linked To Soaring LIBOR? - Over the past month as Libor continued its relentless upward creep and is now higher for 37 consecutive sessions, the longest streak of advances since November 2005, and rising to 2.3118% while blowing out the Libor-OIS spread to a crisis-like 59bps, a cottage industry has developed to explain what is behind the dramatic move in Libor, and which - as we noted 2 weeks ago - can be roughly summarized as follows:

  • an increase in short-term bond (T-bill) issuance
  • rising outflow pressures on dollar deposits in the US owing to rising short-term rates
  • repatriation to cope with US Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and new trade policies, and concerns on dollar liquidity outside the US
  • risk premium for uncertainty of US monetary policy
  • recently elevated credit spreads (CDS) of banks
  • demand for funds in preparation for market stress

But no matter what the reason is behind the Libor move, the reality is that financial conditions are far tighter as a result of the sharp move higher in short-term rates in general, and Libor in particular, which for at least a few more years, remains the benchmark rate referenced by trillions in fixed income instruments.Which brings us to a logical follow up question: ignoring the reasons behind the move, how does a higher Libor rate spread throughout the financial system, and related to that, how much notional debt is at risk of paying far higher interest expense, if only temporarily, resulting in even tighter financial conditions.  For the answer, we look at the various ways that Libor, and short-term rates in general "channel" into the economy. Here, as JPMorgan explains, the key driver is and always has been monetary policy, which controls short-term rates, which affect the economy via various channels and pahtways. Below we list those channels along with a brief description:

Is The Fed Panicking: Yield Curve Tumbles To Fresh 11-Year Lows - Despite the stock market's Amazon-bounce gains, US Treasury yields are lower and the yield curve flatter once again - tumbling to its flattest since Oct 2007.Deja vu all over again... 10Y Yields are holding below 2.80%... And the yield curve has crashed to fresh flats not seen since Oct 2007...  The entire curve is rolling over... As a reminder, Bloomberg notes that according to the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s Jan. 30-31 meeting, the most recent for which minutes are available, showed that some policy makers thought it important “to monitor the effects of policy firming on the slope of the yield curve,” noting the strong association between curve inversions and recessions.Which confirms what The San Francisco Fed warned... about the flattening of the yield curve..."[it] is a strikingly accurate predictor of future economic activity. Every U.S. recession in the past 60 years was preceded by a negative term spread, that is, an inverted yield curve. Furthermore, a negative term spread was always followed by an economic slowdown and, except for one time, by a recession." Furthermore, as the two Fed authors explain below, the recent decline in the Treasury curve is sending recession probabilities notably higher.

 10-Year/2-Year Treasury Yield Spread Falls Below 50 Basis Points - Two Federal Reserve officials have recently dismissed it. But a research note published this month by the San Francisco Fed paper advises that the yield curve is still a relevant economic signal for monitoring the business cycle. The disparate views within the central bank arise as the yield difference between the 10-year and 2-year rates continue to plumb new post-recession lows.This widely followed spread fell to 49 basis points yesterday (March 28). The slide marks the lowest print since October 2007, just two months before the Great Recession started. Not everyone sees this as a warning, but the San Francisco Fed reminds in a research commentary from earlier this month that the yield curve has shown strong “predictive power” in forecasting US recessions. Is this time different? Yes, according to some analysts, including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Last week, he effectively dismissed the value of the yield curve as a recession predictor because inflation is low and stable, in contrast with previous decades. Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester echoed that skepticism on Monday, asserting that there is “no evidence” for thinking that a flatter curve signals a weaker economy at this time.The San Francisco Fed begs to differ, explaining that “while the current environment appears unique compared with recent economic history, statistical evidence suggests that the signal in the term spread is not diminished.” The debate about the relevance of the yield curve is sure to heat up if the spread continues to slide. Although the rate difference is still mildly positive, the latest dip follows downgrades in first-quarter GDP growth via the Atlanta Fed’s widely followed GDPNow model. The March 23 update trimmed the Q1 estimate to 1.8%, more than a percentage point below the 2.9% gain in last year’s Q4. 

Chicago Fed "Index points to a pickup in economic growth in February" - From the Chicago Fed: Index points to a pickup in economic growth in February Led by improvements in production-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) rose to +0.88 in February from +0.02 in January. All four broad categories of indicators that make up the index increased from January, and three of the four categories made positive contributions to the index in February. The index’s three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, increased to +0.37 in February from +0.16 in January. This graph shows the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (three month moving average) since 1967.  This suggests economic activity was above the historical trend in February (using the three-month average).

Q4 GDP Revised up to 2.9% Annual Rate --From the BEA: Gross Domestic Product: Fourth Quarter and Annual 2017 (Third Estimate)Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the third quarter, real GDP increased 3.2 percent.The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "second" estimate issued last month. In the second estimate, the increase in real GDP was 2.5 percent. With this third estimate for the fourth quarter, the general picture of economic growth remains the same; personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and private inventory investment were revised up. Here is a Comparison of Third and Second Estimates. PCE growth was up to 4.0% from 3.8%. Residential investment was revised down from 13.0% to 2.8%. This was above the consensus forecast.

Q4 GDP Third Estimate: Real GDP at 2.9% -  The Third Estimate for Q4 GDP, to one decimal, came in at 2.9% (2.89% to two decimal places), a decrease over 3.2% for the Q3 Third Estimate. had a consensus of 2.7%. Here is the slightly abbreviated opening text from the Bureau of Economic Analysis news release:Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 (table 1), according to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the third quarter, real GDP increased 3.2 percent. The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "second" estimate issued last month. In the second estimate, the increase in real GDP was 2.5 percent. With this third estimate for the fourth quarter, the general picture of economic growth remains the same; personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and private inventory investment were revised up (see "Updates to GDP" on page 2). [Full Release] Here is a look at Quarterly GDP since Q2 1947. Prior to 1947, GDP was an annual calculation. To be more precise, the chart shows is the annualized percentage change from the preceding quarter in Real (inflation-adjusted) Gross Domestic Product. We've also included recessions, which are determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Also illustrated are the 3.22% average (arithmetic mean) and the 10-year moving average, currently at 1.47%.

US Q4 GDP growth revised up to 2.9% from 2.5% - The pace of growth in the economy in the fourth quarter of 2017 was boosted to 2.9% from 2.5%, reflecting the biggest increase in consumer spending in three years and higher investment in business inventories.  Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast an annualized 2.8% reading in the government’s latest revision of gross domestic product.  The U.S. fell just short of a closely watched 3% growth marker after racking up gains of 3.2% in the 2017 third quarter and 3.1% in the second quarter. It would have been the first time since 2004-2005 that the economy expanded 3% in three straight quarters. Corporate earnings in the fourth quarter were effectively flat. The economy got a big lift from consumer spending at the end of the year and businesses also increased investment.In the government’s latest GDP update, consumer spending was revised to show a 4% increase instead of 3.8%. That’s the largest gain since the end of 2014. The increase in spending was mostly tied to higher outlays on transportation services such as plane rides and package delivery. Businesses also spent a bit more than previously estimated. Investment in structures such as office buildings and drilling platforms was raised to 6.3% from 2.5%. The value of unsold goods, or inventories, was also revised up sharply to $15.6 billion. Other key figures in the GDP report such as imports, exports, government spending and inflation were basically unchanged. Adjusted pretax profits fell 0.1% in the final three months of the year, but they increased 4.4% in 2017, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Profit figures are adjusted for depreciation and the value of inventories. The U.S. economy ended 2017 on fairly high note, but it may have gotten off to a softer start in the new year. Most economists predict GDP will grow less than 2% in the first quarter owing to slower spending by consumers and businesses. That’s been a common theme for years. The economy appears to slow in the first quarter, only to speed up later in the year. Winter weather is one cause, a problem compounded by persistent troubles by the government in smoothening out seasonal quirks. The overall economy, however, appears to be in good shape. Hiring is strong, unemployment is low and recent tax cuts are putting more money in people’s pockets. Accordingly, the U.S. is likely to grow even faster this year than it did in 2017, when GDP rose 2.3%.

Q4 GDP Revised Sharply Higher To 2.9% As US Economy Grew 2.3% In 2017 -  After the virtually unchanged first revision to the original 2.5% Q4 GDP print, analysts were expecting a modest improvement in today's final revision to the GDP estimate from the last quarter of 2017. However, the final number ended up being materially higher than expected, with the 3rd Q4 GDP estimate rising at an annualized 2.9% (2.88% to be precise), above the 2.7% estimate, and well above the 2.5% revised number, entirely due to a small upward revision in personal spending, and a smaller drag from inventory destocking. And with the final number now in, we now know the US economy grew at a rate of 2.3% in 2017, well above the 1.5% 2016 growth rate (if below the 2.9% in 2015), thanks to the following quarterly growth rates: 1.2%, 3.1%, 3.2%, and 2.9%. The upward revision to real GDP growth was accounted for by revisions to consumer spending on services and to  private inventory investment:

  • Personal Consumption rose from 2.58% to 2.75% of the bottom line GDP
  • Fixed Investment was virtually unchanged (from 1.29% to 1.31%)
  • Private Inventories were a far smaller drag, shrinking from -0.7% to 0.53%
  • Net Trade was also flat, revised from -1.13% to -1.16%
  • Government also barely moved, from 0.49% to 0.51%.

Consumer spending rose at an annualized 4.0% in 4Q after rising 2.2% prior quarter, beating estimates of 3.8% (as noted above, this contributed 2.75% of the final 2.88% Q4 GDP number).  In terms of numbers that the Fed will focus on, prices of goods and services increased 2.5% in the fourth quarter after increasing 1.7% in the third quarter. Excluding food and energy, prices rose 2.0% after increasing 1.6% . Meanwhile, the GDP price index rose 2.3% in 4Q after rising 2.1% prior quarter; while core PCE q/q rose 1.9% in 4Q after rising 1.3% prior quarter, in line with expectations. Today's release also disclosed that corporate profits decreased 0.1 percent at a quarterly rate in the fourth quarter after increasing 4.3 percent in the third quarter.  Profits of nonfinancial corporations increased 1.5% in the fourth quarter, profits of financial corporations decreased 3.0%, and profits from the rest of the world decreased 1.3%.  On an annual basis, corporate profits were up 2.7% in 4Q after rising 5.4% prior quarter.

Q4 Real GDP Per Capita: 2.09% Versus the 2.89% Headline Real GDP -- Earlier today we learned that the Third Estimate for Q4 GDP came in at 2.9%, down from 3.2% in Q3. With a per-capita adjustment, the headline number is lower at 2.1%. The Third Estimate for Q4 GDP came in at 2.9% (2.89% to two decimals), down from 3.2% in Q3. With a per-capita adjustment, the headline number is lower at 2.09% to two decimal points.The adjacent chart includes an exponential regression through the data using the Excel GROWTH function to give us a sense of the historical trend. The regression illustrates the fact that the trend since the Great Recession has a visibly lower slope than the long-term trend.Here is a chart of real GDP per capita growth since 1960. For this analysis, we've chained in today's dollar for the inflation adjustment. The per-capita calculation is based on quarterly aggregates of mid-month population estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which date from 1959 (hence our 1960 starting date for this chart, even though quarterly GDP has is available since 1947). The population data is available in the FRED series POPTHM. The logarithmic vertical axis ensures that the highlighted contractions have the same relative scale. The chart includes an exponential regression through the data using the Excel GROWTH function to give us a sense of the historical trend. The regression illustrates the fact that the trend since the Great Recession has a visibly lower slope than the long-term trend. In fact, the current GDP per-capita is 9.2% below the pre-recession trend.

Q1 GDP Forecasts --Here are few Q1 GDP forecast. From Merrill Lynch: The data sliced 0.3pp from 1Q GDP tracking, bringing it down to 1.6%. [March 29 estimate].And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNowThe GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2018 is 2.4 percent on March 29, up from 1.8 percent on March 23. The forecast of the contribution of inventory investment to first-quarter real GDP growth increased from 0.66 percentage points to 1.21 percentage points after yesterday’s advance releases of wholesale and retail inventories by the U.S. Census Bureau, yesterday's GDP release by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), and this morning's release of the revised underlying detail tables for the National Income and Product Accounts by the BEA.From the NY Fed Nowcasting ReportThe New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 2.7% for 2018:Q1 and 2.9% for 2018:Q2. [March 30 estimate] CR Note: It looks like another quarter around 2% or so, although there might still be some residual seasonality in the first quarter.

U.S. Recession May Come Just in Time for Trump’s Re-Election Bid - Here’s another reason to circle the 2020 election year on the calendar. It may well be the year of the next U.S. recession. Hefty tax cuts, stepped-up government spending and robust global growth should help insulate the economy against a downturn over the next two years, in spite of last week’s stock-market swoon. That would allow the expansion that began in 2009 to become America’s longest ever. But after that, watch out, economists warn. Fading fiscal stimulus, higher and rising interest rates, and cresting world demand could leave the economy vulnerable to a contraction -- just in time for the presidential campaign. “2020 is a real inflection point,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc., in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s not only President Donald Trump who needs to worry after claiming his policies of deregulation, deficit-widening fiscal measures and trade protectionism will lift the world’s largest economy out of a decade of mediocre growth. Investors should fret, too. A recession -- or more accurately, the anticipation of one -- is often the trigger for bear markets in stocks. Economy watchers admit they don’t have a great track record predicting downturns. Forecasting a recession in 2020 is a “mug’s game,” given all the uncertainties involved, said Krishna Guha, vice chairman at Evercore ISI in Washington. But what seems clear is this: The fiscal sugar rush that’s ginning up growth in the short run could be setting the stage for a letdown later, especially if the Federal Reserve feels compelled to take away the punch bowl before inflation and asset prices like stocks get too out of hand. 

Government set to borrow nearly $1 trillion this year, an 84 percent jump from last year - It was another crazy news week, so it's understandable if you missed a small but important announcement from the Treasury Department: The federal government is on track to borrow nearly $1 trillion this fiscal year — President Donald Trump's first full year in charge of the budget. That's almost double what the government borrowed in fiscal year 2017. Here are the exact figures: The U.S. Treasury expects to borrow $955 billion this fiscal year, according to a documents released Wednesday. It's the highest amount of borrowing in six years, and a big jump from the $519 billion the federal government borrowed last year. Treasury mainly attributed the increase to the "fiscal outlook." The Congressional Budget Office was more blunt. In a report this week, the CBO said tax receipts are going to be lower because of the new tax law.The uptick in borrowing is yet another complication in the heated debates in Congress over whether to spend more money on infrastructure, the military, disaster relief and other domestic programs. The deficit is already up significantly, even before Congress allots more money to any of these areas. "We're addicted to debt," says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He blames both parties for the situation.

Foreign Money to Fund the Government Flooded the U.S. Last Year, And It’s Set to Continue - Foreigners poured money into U.S. debt by the largest margin in three years in the fourth quarter​, ​as widening federal budget deficits drive up U.S. demand for foreign funds. Portfolio investment by foreigners and foreign entities into debt securities like treasury bonds and notes increased by 7.0% in 2017’s fourth quarter from the prior year​ to $11.6 trillion​, the largest jump since the middle of 2014, according to fresh data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. . “We don’t have enough domestic savings to fund the increasing budget deficit,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. “We need to rely more on foreigners, and that’s why [foreign investment] went up.” The Trump administration’s tax overhaul passed at the end of 2017 is projected to ​crimp federal revenues by $1 trillion ​over the next 10 years and spending is ​slotted to continue to grow. So the U.S. must borrow money to fund the government, but Americans aren’t saving enough to buy the debt in its multiple forms. The saving rate in the U.S. fell to a historic low in 2017. Foreigners are coughing up the cash, and analysts project they will continue to invest as the U.S. government continues to spend. “If we’re going to ramp up spending, we’re going to have to fill that gap,” said Oren Klachkin, lead economist at Oxford Economics. “Foreigners will become a larger and larger part of sales.” Meanwhile, the gap between investments Americans and American entities hold abroad and investments foreigners make in the U.S. grew to $7.8 billion at the end of 2017, with inflows of foreign money eclipsing U.S. investments made outside of the country. ​American’s hold $27.6 trillion in foreign assets, including direct investments and securities. Foreigners hold $35.5 trillion in U.S. assets. Still, a weakening dollar could help shrink the gap, making U.S. investments look cheaper on paper when compared to more expensive foreign investments in places that have strengthening currency, like the euro  

Republicans consider ‘balanced-budget amendment’ after adding more than $1 trillion to the deficit - House Republicans are considering a vote on a “balanced-budget amendment,” a move that would proclaim their desire to eliminate the federal deficit even as they control a Congress that has added more than $1 trillion to it.The plan is expected to have virtually no chance of passing, as it would require votes from Democrats in the Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Republican lawmakers have pushed for the vote as a way to signal to constituents ahead of the midterm elections that they have tried to reduce the nation's deficit.The amendment emerges out of an agreement brokered in the fall between House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, a senior GOP aide said. In December, Republicans slashed the corporate tax rate and temporarily reduced taxes for individuals through the new tax law. The Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress's official scorekeeper, determined that the law will add more than $1 trillion to the nation's deficit over the next decade.  Earlier this month, Congress also approved a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that increased funding for the military, infrastructure and programs to combat the opioid crisis, among other spending priorities. And Republicans are also considering votes for more tax cuts, which would further drive up the nation's deficit. A vote on the balanced budget amendment, first reported by Politico, may be held in early April. Congressional Democrats were quick to rip into the GOP over the proposed amendment. “House Republicans bringing up a balanced-budget amendment now is shameless. They just exploded our debt and deficits with more than $1 trillion of tax breaks for millionaires and corporations,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said in a statement. “Now they’re trying to use a balanced-budget amendment to force massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs millions of families rely on.”

Trump’s economic team needs to grow up — fast – Catherine Rampbell - Last week, for the 10-year anniversary of the Bear Stearns failure, Marketplace released an  hour-long interview  with the key economic policymakers involved: former Federal Reserve chair Ben S. Bernanke, George W. Bush administration treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and former New York Federal Reserve president Timothy F. Geithner , who would later become President Barack Obama’s treasury secretary . Listening to their recounting of the start of the financial crisis, I found myself unexpectedly . . . wistful. Not for the ensuing panic, or market crashes, or foreclosures, bankruptcies and layoffs that would lay ruin to millions of innocent bystanders. That was all unequivocally awful. The resulting scars, both economic and political, still have not fully healed.What I missed was the sense that grown-ups, even if imperfect ones, had once been in charge.Yes, they made plenty of mistakes. Some mistakes were enormous, and even today remain unacknowledged by the principals themselves, as you can hear in spurts of defensiveness and denial throughout the interview.   Their deepest regrets, these former officials said, were not about specific policy decisions but general communication strategy. And their communications were indeed woefully inadequate; they were never able to sufficiently explain to the public why the instinct to “let the thing burn” might seem just but would also lead to “a decade of breadlines across the country like what happened in the Great Depression,” as Geithner put it. Nevertheless, it was a formidable team. They came from different political parties and professional backgrounds, and yet managed to work together to pull us back from the brink — that is, to prevent the Great Recession from turning into another Great Depression. Bernanke, in particular, was indispensable, given his research on the lessons of the financial collapse of the 1930s. And but-for the fact that the presidential candidates in 2008 — Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — agreed not to exploit the escalating crisis for political advantage over one another. They released a joint statement shortly after Lehman Brothers collapsed, about the need “to rise above politics for the good of the country.” Imagine such a thing. It makes one wonder, and then shudder: What if instead, a decade ago, we had had the political and economic leadership we have in place today?

Is Trump Assembling a War Cabinet? | Patrick J. Buchanan  - The last man standing between the U.S. and war with Iran may be a four-star general affectionately known to his Marines as “Mad Dog.”Gen. James Mattis, the secretary of defense, appears to be the last man in the Situation Room who believes the Iran nuclear deal may be worth preserving and that war with Iran is a dreadful idea.Yet, other than Mattis, President Donald Trump seems to be creating a war cabinet.Trump himself has pledged to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal — “the worst deal ever” — and reimpose sanctions in May. His new national security adviser John Bolton, who wrote an op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” has called for preemptive strikes and “regime change.”Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo calls Iran “a thuggish police state,” a “despotic theocracy,” and “the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East.” Trump’s favorite Arab ruler, 32-year-old Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, calls Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei “the Hitler of the Middle East.” Bibi Netanyahu is monomaniacal on Iran, calling the nuclear deal a threat to Israel’s survival and Iran “the greatest threat to our world.” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley echoes them all. Yet Iran appears not to want a war. U.N. inspectors routinely confirm that Iran is strictly abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal. While U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf often encountered Iranian “fast attack” boats and drones between January 2016 and August 2017, that has stopped. Vessels of both nations have operated virtually without incident. What would be the result of Trump’s trashing of the nuclear deal? First would be the isolation of the United States. China and Russia would not abrogate the deal but would welcome Iran into their camp. England, France and Germany would have to choose between the deal and the U.S. And if Airbus were obligated to spurn Iran’s orders for hundreds of new planes, how would that sit with the Europeans? How would North Korea react if the U.S. trashed a deal where Iran, after accepting severe restrictions on its nuclear program and allowing intrusive inspections, were cheated of the benefits the Americans promised? Why would Pyongyang, having seen us attack Iraq, which had no WMD, and Libya, which had given up its WMD to mollify us, ever consider given up its nuclear weapons — especially after seeing the leaders of both nations executed? And, should the five other signatories to the Iran deal continue with it despite us, and Iran agree to abide by its terms, what do we do then?

Stockman Warns Trump's New War Cabinet Will Create A Fiscal Doom Loop – by David Stockman: Last week the Donald's incipient trade war got Wall Street's nerves jangling, but that wasn't the half of what's coming. To wit, Trump has now essentially formed a War Cabinet and signed a Horribus spending bill that is a warrant for fiscal meltdown. Indeed, the two essentially comprise a self-fueling doom loop which means Washington’s descent into fiscal catastrophe is well-nigh unstoppable; it’s all over except for the screaming in the bond pits. That is, Trump's new War Cabinet of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Gina Haspel and Mad Dog Mattis is arguably the most interventionist, militarist, confrontationist and bellicose national security team ever assembled by a sitting President. We cannot think of a single country that has even looked cross-eyed at Washington in recent years where one or all four of them has not threatened to drone, bomb, invade or decapitate its current ruling regime. That means Imperial Washington's rampant War Fever owing to the Dem-left declaration of war on Russia and Putin is now about to be drastically intensified by the complete victory of the neocon-right in the Trump Administration. The result will be sharpened confrontation, if not actual outbreak of hostilities, across the full spectrum of adversaries---Iran, Russia, China, Syria and North Korea----and an escalating tempo of military operations and procurement to implement the policy. At the same time, the Donald's pathetic Fake Veto maneuver on Friday cemented the special interest lobbies' absolute control over domestic appropriations. Of course, Chuckles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi crowed loudly about the $63 billion annual domestic spending increase they got in return for the Donald's $80 billion defense add-on, but the victory was not partisan; it belonged to the Swamp creatures who suckle the politicians of both parties and own the appropriations committees lock, stock and barrel. To be sure, upon folding at mid-day from his four-hour’s earlier veto tweet, the Donald promised "never again", but his reason for signing the most wasteful, pork-ridden appropriations bill of this century tells you all you need to know. 

"If You Want An Arms Race, We Can Do That" - Trump Challenged Putin During Phone Call - The mainstream media is convinced that all of the measures President Trump has taken to sanction Russia and push back on its expanding influence - in the Middle East and in its own back yard - have been mostly for show. But once again, an NBC News report shows that there's more to one-sided stories like a report in the Washington Post claiming that Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his recent electoral victory against the explicit advice of Trump's foreign policy advisors.As it turns out, during the same conversation, President Trump didn't hesitate to challenge Putin to an arms race, and boasted that the US would almost inevitably win.Two officials said Trump told Putin during a phone call last week: "If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I'll win."Afterward the president gave no hint of tensions when he told reporters the two leaders had "a very good call" and that he plans to meet with Putin soon to discuss curtailing an arms race. Within days the split between Trump's Russia policy and public rhetoric was again on display.Of course, as anybody with even the most glancing familiarity with global nuclear weapons stockpiles would tell you, Trump isn't wrong. Still, NBC News tries to play down the significance of Trump's defiance of Putin - which included a clash between Russian fighters and US-backed coalition forces in Syria that left hundreds of Russians dead.On at least one punitive policy - the authorization of an arms shipment to Ukraine to combat separatists in the country's restive east - NBC said Tillerson "wore him down" - referring to Trump.

Who Will Stop the US-Russia Arms Race? -- naked capitalism - Jerri-Lynn here: This Real News network interview with Professor Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton and NYU,  about the insane arms race between the United States and  Russia is terrifying. Cohen concludes by discussing how the state of debate over detente has deteriorated since the ‘70s and ‘80s, when “the pro-detente people, the anti-Cold War people had lots of very senior allies many in Congress. Even in the State Department. Even among presidential aides. It was always a fair fight.” Yet now:  There is no one today. Only the Schumers and the Pelosis. And they have become with this Russia gate stuff, claiming that Putin attacked America and it was like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. I mean I never call people names, but this is warmongering. That’s exactly what it is. If you claim Russia attacked America, the assumption is we have to attack Russia. And we’re talking about nuclear war potentially. So what kind of political leadership is, we have descended into a morass of degraded commentary on Russia that has never even when the Soviet Union existed, even during the worst days of the Cold War, we didn’t have this kind of discourse. (video and transcript)

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess - The Military-Industrial Complex Wins - Military spending is the second largest item in the US federal budget after Social Security. It has a habit of increasing significantly each year, and the proposed 2019 defense budget is $886 billion (roughly double what it was in 2003). US military spending exceeds the total of the next ten largest countries combined. Although the US government acknowledges 682 military bases in 63 countries, that number may be over 1,000 (if all military installations are included), in 156 countries. Total military personnel is estimated at over 1.4 million. The reader could be forgiven if he felt that a US military base was rather unnecessary in, say, Djibouti or the Bahamas, yet the US Congress will not allow the closure of any military bases. (The Bi-partisan Budget Act of 2013 blocked future military base closings under the argument that they’re all essential for “national security.”) And Congress has a vested interest in keeping all bases open and consuming as much in tax dollars as possible (more on that later). Of course, those bases need to be kept well-stocked with small arms, tanks, missiles and aircraft. Yet, in spite of the admittedly incredible number of US military bases across the globe, the additional stockpile of weaponry is so great that the government has difficulty finding places to put it all.  One storage location is pictured in the photo above - Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In spite of the size of the photo, it shows only a portion of the aircraft located there. (And bear in mind, such aircraft often cost over $100 million each.)If asked, the military states that, although these aircraft are in dead storage and many have never seen any use whatever, they might possibly be called up for service, “if needed.” Of course, if they’re needed, they’re unlikely to be of use if located in Arizona. And, in addition, they may not be useful for warfare, as war technology has moved on since the days when such aircraft designs were suitable.

There’s Still No Finish Line in Sight for the F-35 Program - The F-35 has now entered an unprecedented seventeenth year of continuing redesign, test deficiencies, fixes, schedule slippages and cost overruns. And it’s still not at the finish line. Numerous missteps along the way—from the fact that the two competing contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, submitted “flyoff” planes that were crude and undeveloped “technology demonstrators” rather than following the better practice of submitting fully functional prototypes, to concurrent acquisition malpractice that has prevented design flaws from being discovered until after production models were built—have led to where we are now.  According to the latest annual report from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, 263 “high priority” performance and safety deficiencies remain unresolved and unaddressed, and the developmental tests—essentially, the laboratory tests—are far from complete. If they complete the tests, more deficiencies will surely be found that must be addressed before the plane can safely carry our airmen and women into combat.  Despite this, the F-35 Joint Program Office now intends to call—quite arbitrarily—an end to the plane’s development phase and developmental testing. Instead of completing the presently planned development work, the Program Office is now proposing to substitute a vaguely defined F-35 upgrade program called “continuous capability development and delivery.” The DOT&E report states flatly that this plan, as proposed, is “not executable due to inadequate test resources” in the rapid timelines proposed. It doesn’t require inside information to understand that the proposed plan is just a way to hide major development delays and cost overruns while facilitating increased annual production buys of incompletely developed F-35s. Twenty-three fully designed, fully combat-capable F-35s are supposed to begin the all-important—and more rigorous—operational testing before the end of 2018, yet it is impossible to fix the 263 known Priority 1 and 2 deficiencies in time to meet that schedule. This clearly doesn’t bother the senior Pentagon officials who are pushing to move forward with production despite the unresolved deficiencies. Already, 235 of the deficiency-ridden aircraft have been nominally designated “combat ready” and delivered to active Air Force and Marine Corps squadrons. Defense Department officials who approved cutting short the F-35’s development phase should, and hopefully will, be held accountable when the inevitable consequences in safety, combat effectiveness, and cost overruns emerge.

 15 Years Of War: To Whose Benefit?  - Setting aside the 12 years of "no fly zone" air combat operations above Iraq from 1991 to 2003, the U.S. has been at war for almost 17 years in Afghanistan and 15 years in Iraq. (If the word "war" is too upsetting, then substitute "continuing combat operations".)   Since the burdens and costs of these combat operations are borne solely by the volunteers of the U.S. Armed Forces, the American populace pays little to no attention to the wars unless a household has a family member in uniform who is in theatre.  Permanent combat operations are now a barely audible background noise in America, something we've habituated to: the human costs are invisible to the vast majority of residents, and the financial costs are buried in the ever-expanding mountain of national debt. What's another borrowed trillion dollars on top of the $21 trillion pile?But a nation continually waging war should ask: to whose benefit? (cui bono) As near as I can make out, the nation has received near-zero benefit from combat operations in Afghanistan, one of the most corrupt nations on Earth where most of the billions of dollars "invested" have been squandered or stolen by the kleptocrats the U.S. has supported.What did the nation gain for the tragic loss of lives and crippling wounds suffered by our personnel and Afghan civilians?As for Iraq, the implicit gain was supposed to be access to Iraqi oil. As near as I can make out, the U.S. imports about 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq, a relatively modest percentage of our total oil consumption of 19.7 million barrels a day.(Note that the U.S. was importing around 700,000 barrels a day from Iraq before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in March 2003--and imports from Iraq declined as a result of the war. So what was the energy-security gain from launching the war?) Meanwhile, Iraq exports over 2 million barrels a day to China and India, where the presumed benefit to the U.S. is that U.S. corporations can continue to produce shoddy goods using low-cost Asian labor that are exported to U.S. consumers, thereby enabling U.S. corporations to reap $2.3 trillion in profits every year.

Trump Plans Expulsion of Russian Envoys Over U.K. Attack - President Donald Trump is preparing to expel dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K., two people familiar with the matter said Saturday. Trump agreed with the recommendation of advisers and the expulsions are likely to be announced on Monday, the people said, though they cautioned that Trump’s decision may not be final. Trump is prepared to act but first wants to be sure European allies will take similar steps against Russia, aides said. U.S. officials are working through the weekend to develop a coordinated response with the Europeans, one of the people said, after British Prime Minister Theresa May this week rallied support for a tough rebuke. As early as Monday, a number of European nations also are expected to expel Russian officials, including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. France and Germany backed May’s call for tougher action, though their exact plans are less clear. The U.S. considers the diplomats to be spies, carrying out intelligence activities under cover as embassy staff, one of the people said. Trump’s action would follow a similar move by May, who ordered 23 Russians that she said were spies to leave Britain over the attack on the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. The advisers reached recommendations for a U.S. response to the U.K. attack at a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday and honed the proposals on Friday. Trump discussed the issue Friday with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, FBI Director Chris Wray, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others, two people said. All of the people familiar with the discussions asked not to be identified.

Russia Vows Imminent Response To Diplomat Expulsion "The US Only Understands Force" - President Trump has reportedly ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians from the United States on Monday, including 12 people identified as Russian intelligence officers who have been stationed at the United Nations in New York, in response to Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.   As The New York Times reports, the expulsion order, announced by administration officials, also closes the Russian consulate in Seattle. The Russians and their families have seven days to leave the United States, according to officials. The expulsions are the toughest action taken against the Kremlin by President Trump, who has been criticized for not being firm enough with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. In a call with reporters, senior White House officials said that the move was to root out Russians actively engaging in intelligence operations against the country, and to show that the United States would stand with NATO allies. The officials said that the closure of the consulate in Seattle was ordered because of its proximity to a U.S. naval base.RIA Novosti reports an unnamed foreign ministry official protested the decision by EU, NATO nations to expel envoys, and  confirmed that Russia will respond to each country expelling diplomats, w arning that the "expulsions won't go unanswered."  U.K.’s allies are “blindly following” principle of Euro-Atlantic unity at the expense of common sense.Additionally, Russia's ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said that, with regard to the US response, "US only understand force.""I mentioned in my statement in the State Department that I consider these actions counterproductive," Antonov said.  "I said that the United States took a very bad step by cutting what very little still remains in terms of Russian-American relations."

Russia To Expel 60 US Diplomats, Close US Consulate In St. Petersburg - This is why it's called tit-for-tat. The Kremlin had vowed to retaliate against the "provocative gesture", denying it had any role in the attack; and now it has. Just days after Trump announced he - together with much of the Western world - would expel 60 Russian diplomats from the US, and close the Russian consulate in Seattle, moments ago the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been summoned to the Foreign Ministry. Huntsman was given notice that Russia is responding quid pro quo to the U.S. decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out. Lavrov said Moscow will also retaliate to the U.S. decision to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle by closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Earlier this week, Haaretz reports that the Russian Embassy in the United States tweeted a poll quickly after the U.S. announcement asking which U.S. consulate they should close in retaliation. Forty-seven percent of the responders said the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg should be closed. However, that is just the response to Washington. In total, dozens more Russian diplomats were expelled from numerous other nations: 

 20 More Questions That Journalists Should Be Asking About The Skripal Case -- To my knowledge, none of the questions I wrote in my previous piece - 30 questions That Journalists Should be Asking About the Skripal Case – has been answered satisfactorily, at least not in the public domain.Yet despite the fact that these legitimate questions have not yet been answered, and many important facts surrounding the case are still unknown, the case has given rise to a serious international crisis, with the extraordinary expulsion of Russian diplomats across many EU countries and particularly the United States on March 26th. This is a moment to stop and pause. A man and his daughter were poisoned in the City of Salisbury on 4th March. Yet despite the fact that investigators do not yet appear to know how they were poisoned, when they were poisoned, or where they were poisoned, a number of Western nations have used the incident as a pretext for the co-ordinated expulsion of diplomats on a scale not witnessed even during the height of the Cold War. These are clearly very abnormal and very dangerous times.  I pointed out in my previous piece that it is not my intention to advance some sort of conspiracy theory on this blog. It remains the case that I simply don’t have any holistic theory — “conspiracy” or otherwise — for who carried this out, and I continue to retain an open mind. But since the Government of my country has rushed to judgement without many of the facts of the case being established, and since this has led to the biggest deterioration in relations between nuclear-armed nations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems to me that it is more important than ever to keep asking questions in the hope that answers will come. And so, for what it’s worth, here are 20 more important questions that I think that journalists ought to be asking regarding this case:

Integrity Has Vanished From The West – Paul Craig Roberts -  Among Western political leaders there is not an ounce of integrity or morality. The Western print and TV media is dishonest and corrupt beyond repair.  The Western politicians and presstitutes are morally outraged over an alleged poisoning, unsupported by any evidence, of a former spy of no consequence on orders by the president of Russia himself. These kind of insane insults thrown at the leader of the world’s most powerful military nation—and Russia is a nation, unlike the mongrel Western countries—raise the chances of nuclear Armageddon beyond the risks during the 20th century’s Cold War.  What can this be other than an orchestrated effort to demonize the president of Russia? How can the West be so outraged over the death of a former double-agent, that is, a deceptive person, and completely indifferent to the millions of peoples destroyed by the West in the 21st century alone. Where is the outrage among Western peoples over the massive deaths for which the West, acting through its Saudi agent, is responsible in Yemen? Where is the Western outrage among Western peoples over the deaths in Syria? The deaths in Libya, in Somalia, Pakistan, Ukraine, Afghanistan?  The corruption in the West extends beyond politicians, presstitutes, and an insouciant public to experts. When the ridiculous Condi Rice, national security adviser to president George W. Bush, spoke of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction sending up a nuclear cloud over an American city, experts did not laugh her out of court.   If they spoke the truth, they knew that they would not get on TV, would not get a government grant, would be out of the running for a government appointment. So they accepted the absurd lie designed to justify an American invasion that destroyed a country. This is the West. There is nothing but lies and indifference to the deaths of others. The only outrage is orchestrated and directed against a target: the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Iran, Assad, Russia and Putin, and against reformist leaders in Latin America. The targets for Western outrage are always those who act independently of Washington or who are no longer useful to Washington’s purposes.

Dear America: Please Stop This Shit. Signed, The Rest Of the World - Caitlin Johnstone - They want you arguing over who should and shouldn't be called a terrorist based on what ideology you subscribe to and what color the latest killer's skin was. They do not want you talking about the way the label "terrorist" itself is being used to justify unconstitutional detentions, torture, mass surveillance, and wars.They want you arguing over whether to support the Democrats because the Republicans will take civil rights away from disempowered groups or Republicans because the Democrats will take away your guns and force you to bake gay wedding cakes. They don't want you talking about the fact that both parties advance Orwellian surveillance, neoliberal exploitation and neoconservative bloodshed in a good cop/bad cop extortion scheme to keep Americans cheerleading for their own enslavement.They want you arguing about whether Trump did or did not collude with Russia.They do not want you looking at what preexisting agendas the CNN/CIA Russia narratives are advancing and who stands to benefit from them.They want everyone fighting over table scraps while they pour unfathomable riches into expanding and bolstering their empire. They psychologically brutalize you with propaganda day in and day out, and then expect you to look to them for protection from the phantoms they invented.They don't want you paying attention to the growing number of signs that the current administration is gearing up for a major military bloodbath which may lead our species into a third and final world war.   They want you talking about Stormy Daniels instead. And by "they" I of course mean the loose transnational alliance of plutocrats and defense/intelligence agencies who control the US-centralized empire, whose primary agenda is always to expand their own power and influence.

A Madman on the National Security Council - Would that John Bolton were only a clown. The mustachioed alleged diplomat, briefly of the Bush administration - and initially criticized as too controversial even for that team - has now been appointed national security advisor. That position will give him the president’s ear on matters of foreign policy, as well as control over which other administration principals enjoy such access. Donald Trump pledged that if elected he would be a different kind of Republican president, and he’s delivered: under the last GOP administration, Bolton occupied a slightly lower-ranking position than he does now. Bolton is indeed no circus act: he’s one of the sharpest and most dangerous national security operatives in Washington. To take just one example, last summer, Trump made it known that he was considering pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, a campaign promise he wanted fulfilled but that had been discouraged by his then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Sensing an opportunity, Bolton wrote an essay for National Review explaining in breezy (i.e. Trump-digestible) terms just how to abrogate the agreement. The piece is chockablock with nonsense: at one point it claims sans any evidence that the Obama administration believed the JCPOA was “disadvantageous to the United States.” It also offers scant evidence to underpin its claim that Iran was in violation of the deal, an assertion that’s been repeatedly repudiated by the authorities at the IAEA. But the truth wasn’t the point: the piece was meant to water a seed in the president’s mind, to lend expert opinion to Trump’s burning preference that the JCPOA be reversed. That Bolton did this shouldn’t surprise anyone because this is how Bolton works: shrewdly and always towards the goal of more war. As Gareth Porter detailed in a rigorously reported piece for TAC, during his tenure under Bush, Bolton maneuvered behind the scenes to pump up a pretext for conflict between the United States and Iran. Among his methods was to pretend that satellite images of a military base at Parchin demonstrated Iranian nuclear experimentation. That supposed smoking gun is cited to this day by neocons as proof of Iran’s atomic dreams.

Why conservatives are worried about John Bolton - On Thursday, President Trump announced that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster would be stepping down in April and that John Bolton, an extreme hawk and former ambassador to the UN, would replace him.Liberals and Democrats do not like Bolton, and for rather obvious reasons. Among other things, he has advocated for preventive war with Iran and North Korea, championed — and still defends — the disastrous war in Iraq, wrote the foreword to a book by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, two prominent counter-jihadists, and has generally become the most hardline defender of military force on the American right. But how is Bolton viewed in conservative circles? Is he aligned with mainstream Republicans, or is he too extreme?  I reached out to Tom Nichols, a professor of national security studies at Harvard and the Naval War College and the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, to find out. Nichols is a conservative who previously advised Republican Sen. John Heinz (who died in 1991) on defense and security affairs. I wanted to know what he thought of Bolton, and if he’s as worried as people on the left are.  A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Mattis isn’t sure he can work with Bolton: report - Defense Secretary James Mattis has told colleagues he’s unsure if he can work with John Bolton, President Trump’s new pick for national security adviser, The New York Times reported.Mattis reportedly told staffers he would find it difficult to work with Bolton prior to Trump’s announcement last Thursday that Bolton would replace H.R. McMaster.Bolton is said to be an unpopular pick with both Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly. The president tweeted last Thursday evening that Bolton, the hawkish former George W. Bush administration official, will take over for McMaster on April 9.  McMaster, an Army lieutenant general, will retire from the military, a White House official said.Bolton served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush administration, and as undersecretary of State in the years leading up to the Iraq War, and had a focus on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.  Democrats have expressed concerns about Bolton and his past pro-war views.

John Bolton’s History of Tirades and Dirty Tricks - As dangerous as Bolton’s foreign policy views are—which, if one were to sum them up, consist of bombing any adversary callous enough not to succumb to America’s wishes—his cutthroat, take-no-prisoners approach to policymaking should be just as nerve-wracking. With experience across three administrations, Bolton’s bureaucratic chops are as ruthless as his mustache is bushy. He takes the national security bureaucracy by the horns and is not afraid to play dirty. During his previous tenures in government, Bolton was not at all concerned with smashing heads. He wasn’t there to make friends, but to advocate for his hardline principles and marginalize those who were too weak, squishy, or stupid to agree with his wisdom. If he found himself running up against a wall of resistance, he pushed harder until all his governing muscles atrophied. Bolton’s colleagues in the George W. Bush administration have detailed horror stories, describing a man who is irascible, difficult to work with, and churlish when he doesn’t get his way. Emails disclosed by the New York Times in 2005 show Bolton and his top staffer battling with career intelligence officers over specific wording in a speech he was prepared to deliver at a think tank. When the intelligence community refused to clear Bolton’s comments about Cuba developing a biological weapons program, Bolton had a fit, summoning the analyst responsible to his office and screaming at him for being insubordinate. And when the analyst refused to be intimidated by his antics, Bolton appealed to the official’s superiors to get him removed. Another 2005 article in the Washington Post reported that Bolton would block Iran-related memos from Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, which contributed to dysfunction at a time when the Bush White House was deliberating about whether to take the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council. Just the other day, a former Israeli ambassador recollected his time working with Bolton at the U.N. Bolton, another case of Bolton doing everything in his power to scuttle an initiative he vehemently opposed.

“We Know Where Your Kids Live”: How John Bolton Once Threatened an International Official - “John Bolton is a bully,” José Bustani, the retired Brazilian diplomat and former head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told me when I reached him by phone in Paris earlier this month. There are a number of people who claim to have been bullied or intimidated by Bolton — including Bustani. The latter’s criticisms of the famously mustachioed hawk have been public for many years now, but some of the details of his tense encounter with Bolton at the OPCW have never been reported before in English. In early 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration was putting intense pressure on Bustani to quit as director-general of the OPCW — despite the fact that he had been unanimously re-elected to head the 145-nation body just two years earlier. His transgression? Negotiating with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to allow OPCW weapons inspectors to make unannounced visits to that country — thereby undermining Washington’s rationale for regime change. In 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had penned a letter to Bustani, thanking him for his “very impressive” work. By March 2002, however, Bolton — then serving as under secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs — arrived in person at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague to issue a warning to the organization’s chief. And, according to Bustani, Bolton didn’t mince words. “Cheney wants you out,” Bustani recalled Bolton saying, referring to the then-vice president of the United States. “We can’t accept your management style.” Bolton continued, according to Bustani’s recollections: “You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.” There was a pause. “We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.”

"The Obama People Better Start Packing Their Shit" - John Bolton Expected To "Clean House" At The NSC -  The cautious and considered HR McMaster is leaving the White House to be replaced by one of the most polarizing, irascible figures operating in contemporary national security circles: Former UN Ambassador John Bolton. Bolton, who recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that a preemptive strike against North Korea would be both legal AND desirable, is widely believed to be one of the most interventionist figures to ever hold a senior position in the US government. Case in point: Before 9/11, Bolton helped found a group calling for the unilateral overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Rand Paul declared that Trump was wrong to trust someone who is "unhinged as far as believing in absolute and total intervention." So it should hardly come as a surprise that Bolton plans to shake up the National Security Council staff when he arrives in the West Wing.  Foreign Policy reports that Bolton, Trump's third NSA in 15 months, is preparing to begin firing staff and replacing them with his own allies, as well as a few allies of former NSA Michael Flynn, who share Bolton's hawkish views. As one might expect, the Obama holdovers and McMaster loyalists will be the first to go. But they won't be the only ones: Those targeted for removal include officials believed to have been disloyal to President Donald Trump - especially those who have leaked about the president to the media."Bolton can and will clean house," one former White House official said.Another source said "He is going to remove almost all the political [appointees] McMaster brought in."A second former White House official offered a blunt assessment of former Obama officials currently detailed or appointed to the NSC: "Everyone who was there during Obama years should start packing their shit."

Trump Urges Pressure Against North Korea After Kim’s China Trip - U.S. President Donald Trump called for continued pressure against Kim Jong Un, after China said the North Korean leader expressed an openness to disarmament talks during a surprise visit to Beijing.Trump struck an optimistic tone after the unexpected summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying in a pair of early morning tweets Wednesday that Kim might “do what is right for his people and for humanity” and give up his nuclear weapons. “In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!” Trump said. Trump’s tweets followed Chinese and North Korean statements confirming Kim’s secretive four-day swing through China, his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Kim expressed an openness to discussing his weapons program during a planned May summit with Trump, while North Korean reports made no mention of denuclearization.“North Korea sees an opportunity with these summits to message to the world that it’s not isolated and that it has diplomatic options,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said by email. “The Kim-Xi summit is the latest step in that game.”Kim’s clandestine visit -- Chinese officials refused for two days to confirm reports of his motorcade and train movements -- shakes up the diplomatic landscape ahead of the potential Trump meeting. Chinese media reports included Kim’s first public remarks indicating he would discuss his nuclear arsenal with Trump, who has upended decades of U.S. policy by agreeing to meet the North Korean leader without a clear disarmament plan. “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said, according to Xinhua.

MBS feted in the US despite war atrocities in Yemen | Asia Times: The current US tour of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is a triumph of multi-million-dollar post-truth public relations. The fact that MBS also happens to be destroying Yemen is just a minor glitch. Smooth PR is always able to secure the maxim that not all dictators, Arab or otherwise, are equal; after all “our” bastards can get away with everything. MBS’s PR orb sucks up everything, from a softball 60 Minutes interview to schmoozing with a galaxy of high-profile figures such as Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, close pal Jared Kushner, James Mattis, Barack Obama, John Kerry, David Petraeus, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Tim Cook, and the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Amazon, Uber and the Walt Disney Company. MBS might as well be enshrined as the geopolitical Bono – and he doesn’t even need to sing “One Love.” All that is supported by a glossy 97-page hagiography by the media group AMI, which publishes ‘The National Enquirer’ and ‘US Weekly’, hitting all the crucial talking points (“our closest Middle East ally destroying terrorism”; “transforming the world”; “the most influential Arab leader”; “improving lives of his people and hopes for peace”). MBS was welcomed by both Harvard and MIT. He was lauded for his unprecedented – at least in Arabia – wisdom to build the world’s biggest solar power plant, a project expected to create up to 100,000 jobs and save billions of dollars. He was reverentially allowed a free pass on virtually any subject – from refusing to admit the global march of Wahhabism as a key source of terrorism to his alleged promotion of “religious tolerance.” Of course, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, is, by comparison, in the Crown Prince’s own words, “a Hitler.” 

US Admits "Doing The Planning" For Saudi Strikes In Yemen - In a new meeting with reporters, Defense Secretary James Mattis has offered new details about US involvement in the Saudi invasion of Yemen, providing specifics about what the US is doing that contradict long-standing claims of a very limited, non-combat involvement. Mattis now admits the US is “doing the planning” in Yemen strikes, and has shown the Saudis how the concept of a no-strike zone is supposed to work, and engaged in a maturing process of “battlefield management” intended to see Saudi strikes killing fewer civilians. Mattis also tried to spin the already established US involvement in mid-air refueling as beneficial for civilians being bombed. He warned Saudi bombers would make “rash or hasty decisions” if they had to worry about running out of fuel before bombing a place, and might take less time to avoid hitting civilian targets. Obviously all of these US efforts to avoid hitting civilian targets in Yemen aren’t working, as Saudi airstrikes are still killing a shocking number of innocent bystanders. The comments are more noteworthy than just another half-hearted attempted to spin US involvement in the war as innocuous, however. That’s because the Senate just debated measure on the Yemen War, with Mattis and other top Pentagon officials defending their involvement as limited. Throughout this, officials have long presented the civilian toll as something distinct from their own involvement in the conflict, and suggested that the US has nothing to do with targeting.

Saudi Prince Denies Kushner Is in his Pocket -  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Thursday it would be “really insane” for him to trade classified information with presidential son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, or to try to use Kushner to promote Saudi aims within the Trump administration.That kind of relationship “will not help us” and does not exist, he said. Speaking in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, Mohammed denied U.S. media reports that he had claimed Kushner was “in his pocket,” or that, when the two met in Riyadh in October, he had sought or received a green light from Kushner for massive arrests of allegedly corrupt members of the royal family and Saudi businessmen that took place in the kingdom shortly afterward.   The detentions were solely a domestic issue and had been in the works for years, the prince said.  While “we work together as friends, more than partners,” Mohammed said, his relationship with Kushner was within the normal context of government-to-government contacts. He noted that he also had good relations with Vice President Pence and others in the White House.  In the 75-minute meeting at The Post on the last day of his four-day stay in Washington, Mohammed was animated and engaged, fielding questions on a range of topics, from the war in Yemen to the Middle East peace process, Iran, his domestic reform agenda, human rights and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plans. Although the meeting, conducted in English, was held off the record, the Saudi Embassy later agreed that specified portions could be used in an article about the session.

 US Charges 9 Iranians With Hacking Into Hundreds Of Universities, Gov't Agencies - The United States on Friday charged and sanctioned nine Iranians and an Iranian company for attempting to hack into hundreds of universities worldwide, dozens of firms and parts of the US government, including its main energy regulator, on behalf of Tehran’s government between 2013 to 2017. US officials claimed that the nine Iranian worked on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to carry out the hacking. The US Treasury Department said it was placing sanctions on the nine people and the Mabna Institute, a company US prosecutors characterised as designed to help Iranian research organisations steal information. It is unlikely that the accused Iranians would be prosecuted in an American court because there is no extradition treaty between the US and Iran. According to the Justice Department, the group breached computer systems at 144 American universities and 176 universities in 21 other countries, 47 American and foreign companies, the US Department of Labour, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the State of Hawaii, the State of Indiana and the United Nations. US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the nine Iranians were considered fugitives who may face extradition in more than 100 countries if they travel outside Iran. 

Trump Will Scrap Iran Deal On May 12: Report - What was widely seen as a forgone conclusion, just got (unofficial) confirmation.According to Israel's Channel 10, President Trump will scrap the Iran deal on May 12, the next deadline Trump set for the US's European partners to propose a fix to the deal.#Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with #Iran on May 12” - @BarakRavid impeccably sourced in #Israel.— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) March 26, 2018But even before Trump appointed Bolton to succeed McMaster as National Security Advisor, the termination of the Iran deal was already in the stars, particularly after Trump fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and appointed former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take Tillerson's place.Trump also hinted his plans following a meeting with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House earlier this month. It's widely expected that Iran will resume its enrichment of uranium as soon as the deal collapses, while the US formally excludes Iran from SWIFT - again - curbing the amount of oil Iran can export by approximately 1 million barrels daily, and potentially sending the price of crude higher in the summer months.

Don’t Blow Up The Iran Deal. Trump’s Strategy Is Working. - It looks like the Iran nuclear deal will not survive past May 12. That is the next occasion President Donald Trump will have to end waivers on crippling sanctions against Iran, withdrawing America from the agreement. Unless European allies commit to fixing its main flaws -- the sunset provisions, lack of restrictions on Iran's missile tests and the hampered inspection process -- Trump will withdraw. The president is already setting the stage. He replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the most vocal proponent of the deal, with one of its toughest critics, former CIA director Mike Pompeo. Then there is the new national security adviser, John Bolton, who six months ago drafted strategy for getting the U.S. out of the agreement altogether. There are strong arguments for following through on this course. As Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, likes to say, Iran gets to become a breakout nuclear power down the road by adhering to the agreement's terms for now. The limitations on low enriched uranium and prohibitions on-advanced centrifuges expire between 2026 and 2031. What's more, the nuclear bargain -- with its secret understandings and complex structure -- is designed to spur a gold rush for America's allies to invest in the economy of the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. This would not only normalize Iran's opaque banking system and corrupt state-owned businesses, but would create a powerful constituency inside Europe to oppose sanctions later on that would threaten the investments the nuclear bargain is supposed to make kosher. As the Israel Project's Omri Ceren argues in Commentary this month, that risk alone merits blowing up the deal. All of that said, to withdraw from the Iran deal now would be a mistake. The U.S. and its allies now enjoy the best of both worlds: Iranian compliance without the international investment Tehran had counted on. 

US Reaches Trade Deal With South Korea; Mnuchin "Hopeful" Of Trade Truce With China - In some welcome news amid escalating global trade war fears, on Sunday the U.S. and South Korea reached an agreement on revising the existing 6-year-old bilateral trade deal as well as Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel imports, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mnuchin said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reached “a very productive understanding” with South Korea on the tariffs to reduce imports and the existing trade deal known as Korus, and added that he expects "to sign that agreement soon." The resolution means that the US now has tariff exemptions with the EU, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and South Korea. As a result of the agreement, which he called "an absolute win-win", South Korea "will reduce the amount of steel that they send into the United States." South Korea - the world's 7th largest export economy, whose exports amount to a whopping 45% of GDP - had a trade surplus with the U.S. of about $18 billion in 2017, down from $23 billion in 2016, with cars accounting for more than 70% of the value of the surplus.Bloomberg adds that S.Korea Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong also said trade negotiators from the two countries agreed “in principle” on both issues.  Oddly, Kim said South Korea made no concessions to further open its agricultural market to U.S. exporters - something he described as a red line. He also said that there’s been “no retreat” on tariffs removed in Korus, which is strange because somehow the two sides are said to have reached a compromise, yet neither admits to "retreating" on policy issues.

 Lesson for Trump: 38 Americans work in industries using steel or aluminum for every worker making steel or aluminum -  The US maps above show: a) the share of each US county’s employment in steel- and aluminum-producing industries in 2016 (top map) and b) the share of each US county’s employment in steel- and aluminum-using industries (bottom map). The maps were featured in a recent New York Times article titled “How Trump’s Protectionism Could Backfire,” here’s a slice: Tupelo was once home to a vibrant business in upholstered furniture. But as Chinese imports flooded in, the local economy buckled. There are fewer jobs in Tupelo today than there were at the millennium. Middle-income families are making almost 20 percent less, after inflation, than they did then. Mr. Trump’s offer to build a wall against Chinese imports was just what Tupeloans wanted to hear. Mr. Trump carried Lee County, where Tupelo sits, by a 38-percentage-point margin over Hillary Clinton — nine percentage points more than Mitt Romney’s lead over Barack Obama four years before. And yet it’s not working out great for the working men and women of Tupelo. Indeed, President Trump’s first big trade barrier — tariffs against steel and aluminum imports — is, again, threatening to undermine their livelihood. For every job in Tupelo producing steel or aluminum, there are 200 jobs in industries that consume them that could be put at risk as tariffs push up the prices of these metals, according to research from Jacob Whiton and Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution. This is true across the country (see maps). The lesson the White House has yet to figure out is that the tariffs meant to protect the businesses that make these metals will end up hamstringing the industries that rely on them. As Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy pointed out in the New York Times earlier this month (“The Trump Tariffs Will Cost Americans Job“): Mr. Trump will raise the cost of doing business in steel- and aluminum-consuming companies. In turn, it will make life much harder for the 6.5 million workers those industries employ. Many will lose their jobs — possibly more than the 170,000 workers currently employed in the steel and aluminum producing industries. And that’s exactly what happened following President Bush’s steel tariffs in 2002, according to a study that found that steel-using industries lost 200,000 jobs, which was more than all the jobs in the steel industry itself at that time.

US trade report lays bare Chinese government cyber-espionage | Asia Times: China’s government is engaged in a systematic program of cyber attacks on American and foreign companies, according to a US government trade report made public last week. The cyber intrusions into corporate networks are one of four areas identified by the office of the US Trade Representative as unfair trading practices. These have prompted the administration of US President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on Chinese products in the coming weeks. The other areas outlined in the USTR report include restrictions on businesses operating in China designed to induce technology transfers, and systematic acquisitions of technology companies to obtain advanced commercial know-how.The report is the result of a special USTR investigation initiated last August. American officials say that in response to China’s unfair practices the Trump administration will seek to narrow the trade deficit between the countries by imposing tariffs on up to US$60 billion worth of still-to-be-identified Chinese goods. “It’s a very conservative estimate of harm, because it does not include one of the other four points of the USTR compass, which is the cyber theft,” said Peter Navarro, White House director for trade and industrial policy and a key architect of the new tariffs. He added: “Estimates of the losses of cyber theft alone are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” 

Beijing has more weapons to use against US in a trade war, Chinese analysts say | South China Morning Post: On Thursday, the White House announced plans to introduce tariffs on US$60 billion worth of Chinese imports. The following day, Beijing hit back, saying it would levy 15 per cent tariffs on 120 types of US products, including fruit, wine and steel pipes, worth US$977 million, and 25 per cent tariffs on a further eight other categories of goods, including pork and recycled aluminium, worth US$2 billion, if the tit-for-tat spat was not resolved. On Saturday, China’s former Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said Beijing’s retaliatory measures were “relatively mild” and that tougher steps should be taken. “If I were in the government, I would hit soybeans first, then cars and planes,” he told a forum. Here we look at why Lou suggested soybeans and what other American goods Beijing might target to cause the most damage to its rival: China is the world’s biggest importer of soybeans, most of which are used for animal feed. In 2017, it was also the second-largest importer of US agricultural products, buying US$19.6 billion of goods, with 63 per cent of that money going on soybeans. Any punitive tariffs on soybeans would have a huge impact on American farmers, many of whom in the nation’s Midwest were big supporters of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.In 2017, the US sold more than US$10 billion worth of vehicles to China, its second-largest export market after Canada. From 2010-17, General Motors sold more cars and trucks per year in China than it did in the United States. Last year alone, the totals were 3.9 million for China – or almost 39 per cent of its global total – and just 3 million in the US. The company said it expects its sales in China to grow to at least 5 million by 2020. Boeing Corporation delivered 202 planes to China in 2017 – or 26 per cent of its global total – making the country its largest market outside the US. The company said that in the 2017-36 period, China will need 7,240 new planes, with a value of almost US$1.1 trillion.

U.S. Asks China to 'Immediately Halt' Ban on Foreign Waste - Last year, China —the world's largest importer of waste announced it no longer wanted to take in other countries' trash so it could focus on its own pollution problems.This unexpected policy shift, which took effect Jan. 1, has left exporters in the U.S., Canada , Ireland ,Germany and other European countries scrambling for solutions for their growing mountains of trash, the New York Times reported.But rather than using this as an opportunity to improve and reshape domestic waste management and to force manufacturers to produce less waste, Washington has asked Beijing to reverse the ban.On Friday, a U.S. representative at the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Council for Trade in Goods expressed concerns that China's foreign waste ban could cause a fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials, Reuters reported."We request that China immediately halt implementation and revise these measures in a manner consistent with existing international standards for trade in scrap materials, which provide a global framework for transparent and environmentally sound trade in recycled commodities," the official said at the meeting in Geneva."China's import restrictions on recycled commodities have caused a fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials, directing them away from productive reuse and toward disposal."The request will likely fall on deaf ears amid President Donald Trump's threat to impose penalties on up to $60 billion in Chinese imports. He has also called China an "economic enemy" of the U.S. and announced steep tariffs on solar panels, steel and aluminum imports.

 US, China Said To Near Deal To Avert "Tit-For-Tat" Trade War - With its long-anticipated petroyuan contract only hours old, senior government officials in Beijing are reportedly working with the US to try and reach an agreement that would stave off a tit-for-tat trade war between the world's two largest economies, according to the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin along with trade representative Robert Lighthizer on one side,  and Vice Premier Liu He, effectively China's economy czar and President Xi Jinping' "real second-in-command" on the other, have been negotiating behind the scenes, according to the FT.And although nothing has been finalized, Liu has assured Mnuchin that China would cave on several US demands, including allowing foreign investment in Chinese securities firms and offering to buy more semiconductors from US semiconductor firms, the FT reported. There's also been talks that China could loosen restrictions on foreign investment in manufacturing, telecom, medical and education. Mnuchin, who is reportedly considering whether he should plan a trip to Beijing to expedite the negotiations, said Sunday after the US and South Korea reached a trade deal to exempt the South from US aluminum and steel tariffs that he was optimistic the US might reach a similar agreement with China. The Treasury secretary has reportedly handed Liu a list of US priorities, including loosening restrictions on US auto imports. Chinese officials had initially been working to allow foreign majority control of securities companies by June 30, but Liu is now aiming for formal State Council approval as early as May. The liberalization would raise the 49% foreign ownership ceiling for securities firms to 51%. It was first outlined by China’s finance ministry in November. At the time, Zhu Guangyao, vice-finance minister, also said the cap would be lifted within three years.

U.S., China Quietly Seek Trade Solutions After Days of Loud Threats -- China and the U.S. have quietly started negotiating to improve U.S. access to Chinese markets, after a week filled with harsh words from both sides over Washington’s threat to use tariffs to address trade imbalances, people with knowledge of the matter said. The talks, which cover wide areas including financial services and manufacturing, are being led by Liu He, China’s economic czar in Beijing, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer in Washington. In a letter Messrs. Mnuchin and Lighthizer sent to Mr. Liu late last week, the Trump administration set out specific requests that include a reduction of Chinese tariffs on U.S. automobiles, more Chinese purchases of U.S. semiconductors and greater access to China’s financial sector by American companies, the people said. Mr. Mnuchin is weighing a trip to Beijing to pursue the negotiations, one of these people said. Mr. Mnuchin on Saturday called Mr. Liu, President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, whose promotion as vice premier during the just-concluded annual legislative session essentially makes him the country’s economic captain. “Secretary Mnuchin called Liu He to congratulate him on the official announcement of his new role,” a Treasury spokesman said. “They also discussed the trade deficit between our two countries and committed to continuing the dialogue to find a mutually agreeable way to reduce it.” Mr. Trump last week hinted the U.S. was employing both carrot and stick. “We’ve spoken to China and we’re in the midst of a very large negotiation,” he said on Thursday as he announced he was threatening China with tariffs on as much as $60 billion in imports and other restrictions. “We’ll see where that takes us.” Although Beijing reacted angrily to the U.S. tariff threat, Chinese officials have been careful not to escalate the fight by much. China’s Commerce Ministry accused the U.S. of “setting a vile precedent,” and rolled out penalties against $3 billion in U.S. goods including fruit, pork, recycled aluminum and steel pipes. The ministry said those measures were aimed directly at new U.S. tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum.

Global Times: US To Unveil China Tariff List "In A Few Hours"; Beijing Will Respond -- Last Friday, when the word was wondering why China "responded" with just $3 billion in US tariffs to the proposed 60 billion in "Section 301" duties to be levied by the Trump administration on China, it was Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of China's state-owned nationalist tack-on of the People's Daily, Global Times, who explained that the $3 billion in tariffs targeting 128, mostly agricultural products, was in response for the formerly revealed "Section 232" steel and aluminum tariffs which, while exempting much of the world, clearly had China in their crosshairs.I learned that Chinese govt is determined to strike back. Friday's plan to impose $3b tariffs is to retaliate tariffs on steel and aluminum products. China's retaliation lists against the 301 investigation will target US products worth $ tens of billions. It is in the making.— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 23, 2018Fast forward to today, when the otherwise unassuming twitter account of the Global Times editor in chief was once again the focus on global macro traders, when shortly before 9am ET, he wrote that as far as he knows, "the US will release a list of products that it will impose higher tariffs based on 301 investigation in a few hours. China will put forward its retaliation list later, but the list will definitely come out. The US had better not think China will back off."As far as I know the US will release a list of products that it will impose higher tariffs based on 301 investigation in a few hours. China will put forward its retaliation list later, but the list will definitely come out. The US had better not think China will back off.— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 27, 2018 So is this return of last week's angry tone out of China an indication that yesterday's "trade war truce" rally was built on quicksand, and that once the US reveals the details of its second round in Chinese tariffs, Beijing will respond immediately. Or is this just the editor of China's main US-facing propaganda outlet seeking to drum up page views and clicks?

Why Not to Expect Much from US Trade Talks With China -- Yves Smith - Even though Mr. Market is now in a tizzy about the future of tech high-fliers, he was very happy last week when the US backed off from its trade war saber-rattling against China and the two sides agreed to talk.  The Administration still has its threat of a 25% tariff on $60 billion of yet to be determined Chinese goods in play, and has said it will launch a Section 301 trade action against China’s unfair technology licensing rules. Keep in mind that past Section 301 cases have served as bargaining chips to force trade concessions. Trump has said he wants the trade deficit with China reduced by $100 billion and also wants more reciprocity. Bear in mind that even a $100 billion improvement would only be a dent in a yawning trade gap of $375 billion last year. As Treasury Secretary Mnuchin put it, per Reuters: Mnuchin told Fox News that he was pursuing an agreement with the Chinese “for them to open up their markets, reduce their tariffs, stop forced technology transfer. These are all the things we want to do.”The Administration is out to throw sand in the gears of China’s economic strategy. From the Financial Times:But behind the tariffs is what analysts consider to be a broader objective from the White House to disrupt a high-level Chinese strategy, called “Made in China 2025”, that aims to make a number of companies world leaders in sectors such as robotics, semiconductors, aviation and computing.A crucial element of Beijing’s development plan has been to partner with foreign companies or acquire overseas technologies that will help Chinese groups rise to global dominance in their respective industries. It is these companies the US is expected to take action against. It is a awfully late for the US to be waking up to the Chinese buying as well as appropriating US technology. The Section 301 case is expected to target the well-established practice of Chinese firms requiring US partners to make substantial technology transfers as a condition of establishing joint operations. I am hardly connected, but I have been hearing for a very long time of Chinese companies also engaging in intellectual property theft, and I don’t mean bootlegging movies.  The current state of play is that the Administration gave temporary waivers on its steel and aluminum tariffs to major trade partners like Canada and the EU so as to force the economic impact onto China. So even though Trump says he doesn’t do cooperation, this is effectively a joint action against China.

China warns US not to open “Pandora’s box” of trade war: Reuters (Reuters) - China warned the United States on Thursday not to open Pandora’s Box and spark a flurry of protectionist practices across the globe, even as Beijing pointed to U.S. goods that it could target in a deepening Sino-U.S. trade dispute. China could target a broad range of U.S. businesses from agriculture to aircraft, autos, semiconductors and even services if the trade conflict escalates, the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday. President Donald Trump’s move last week to slap up to $60 billion in tariffs on some Chinese imports has since provoked a warning from Beijing that it could retaliate with duties of up to $3 billion of U.S. imports. China’s biggest U.S. imports are aircraft and related equipment, soybeans and autos, with the total bill about $40 billion last year. “The malicious practices of the United States are like opening Pandora’s Box, and there is a danger of triggering a chain reaction that will spread the virus of trade protectionism across the globe,” a commerce ministry spokesman said. The official line from China continues to be stern even as Beijing says it is all for dialogue and negotiations. The feedback from U.S. and Chinese officials on the nature and extent of trade talks remains mixed, media reports show. The Financial Times reported only on Monday that China had offered to buy more U.S. micro-chips and move more quickly to finalize rules allowing foreign firms to take majority stakes in Chinese securities firms, citing people briefed on the negotiations. Chinese customs data shows the U.S. accounted for just $2.6 billion, or 1 percent, of China’s total semiconductor imports last year by value, with suppliers in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan commanding a bigger share.

    Ross Ignores Beijing's "Pandora's Box" Warning, Says China Tariffs Imminent -- Despite warnings overnight from Beijing that US should "not open pandora's box" with regard trade tariffs, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed on Bloomberg TV this morning that President Trump will announce sweeping China tariffs, aimed at countering IP theft, shortly. The US "is not strong-arming" China, Ross argued, "we're defending ourselves."This comment follows Reuters reports that China warned the United States on Thursday against sparking a flurry of protectionist practices across the globe, even as Beijing pointed to U.S. goods that it could target in a deepening Sino-U.S. trade dispute.“The malicious practices of the United States are like opening Pandora’s Box, and there is a danger of triggering a chain reaction that will spread the virus of trade protectionism across the globe,” a commerce ministry spokesman said.While stocks took an initial hit from AMZN, they are legging lower on the Ross trade-war confirmation. Clearly aware of the impact the administration's trade-war antics are having, Ross concluded his interview b y urging investors to: "act rationally, not hysterically."

    China’s Empty Threat of Dumping its US Treasuries - Wolf Richter - In an interview about the trade sanctions that President Trump is throwing at China and at Corporate America – whose supply chains go through China in search of cheap labor and other cost savings – Ambassador Cui Tiankai defended the perennial innocence of China, as is to be expected, and trotted out the standard Chinese fig leafs and state-scripted rhetoric that confirmed in essence that Trump’s decision is on the right track. Speaking on Bloomberg TV, he also trotted out all kinds of more or less vague and veiled threats – such as, “We will take all measures necessary,” or “We’ll see what we’re doing next” – perhaps having forgotten that China and Hong Kong combined export three times as much to the US as the other way around, and the pain of a trade war would be magnified by three on the Chinese side. When asked about the possibility of China’s cutting back on purchases of US Treasuries – the ultimate threat, it seems, these days as Congress is piling on record deficits leading to a ballooning mounting of debt that requires a constant flow of new buyers – Ambassador Cui Tiankai said:“We are looking at all options.” So let’s dig into this threat.China held $1.17 trillion in Treasuries as of January. That’s about 5.5% of the $21 trillion in total Treasury debt. So it’s not like they have a monopoly on it. These holdings have varied over the years and are down nearly $100 billion from November 2015: So over the years, the Chinese haven’t been adding Treasuries anyway. Instead, they’ve been shedding some. At the moment, they’re replacing securities that are maturing and nothing more. So they could decide not to replace any maturing Treasuries or they could decide to sell Treasuries. How much impact would that have? If China dumped its Treasury holdings, in theory, new buyers would have to emerge to buy them, and these new buyers would have to be induced by higher yields. Hence long-term Treasury yields would have to rise. The vast majority of Treasury debt is held by pension funds of the US government and of state and local governments, and by Americans, either directly or via bond funds, or via stocks in companies like Apple and Microsoft, whose “offshore” cash is invested in all kinds of US securities, including large amounts of US Treasuries, and shareholders of those companies own those securities. Then there’s the Fed. It holds $2.42 trillion in US Treasuries, or $1.64 trillion more than before the Financial Crisis as a result of QE. If push comes to shove, the Fed could easily mop up a trillion of Treasuries, as it has done before.

    Trump is winning the trade war — for now --Economists like to argue that everyone is a loser in a trade war, but U.S. President Donald Trump is chalking up some early victories. Deploying the same bullying tactics he used to squeeze rivals in the real estate business, Trump has used the threat of steel and aluminum tariffs to exact a string of big concessions. After letting allies beg for two weeks to be spared from the new duties, the president announced last week that he would grant temporary reprieves to those countries that would agree, by May 1, to help America combat its yawning trade deficit. While French President Emmanuel Macron insists that the EU will not be forced into helping out America at gunpoint, many countries seem to be lining up to give Trump what he wants. In sectors ranging from steel to cars, countries and big business groups from Germany to South Korea are flinching in the face of Trump’s hardball onslaught. “It doesn’t matter to Trump whether this will hit back at the U.S. economy in the longer term,” said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE). “It’s a political initiative, not an economic measure. Just by keeping the initiative, you are forcing the others to engage.” Trump will not, however, be satisfied with just slashing back U.S. deficits in Asia. His eyes are also focused on the EU’s €115 billion trade surplus with the U.S. Despite protestations that the EU won’t be strong-armed into doing Trump’s bidding, Brussels has given indications that it is ready to work with his game plan, particularly in cracking down on China’s overproduction of highly subsidized steel. After years of treading ultra cautiously with Beijing, Brussels suggested this week that it would consider stronger action in line with the Trump administration’s wish list. On Monday, Brussels launched a safeguard investigation into how it could combat surges of steel imports. Ostensibly, this measure is supposed to help protect the EU from inflows of Japanese, Chinese, Turkish and Russian steel that would be diverted away from the U.S. because of Trump’s tariffs.

    Mexico rejects idea to tie auto rules to wages in NAFTA -- Mexico is knocking down U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s latest idea to revamp the automotive rules of origin in the NAFTA agreement before it has even formally reached the negotiating table.  U.S. negotiators are considering putting forward a proposal that would include workers’ salaries in the calculation to determine which cars qualify for reduced duties under the agreement. The development, which was first reported by Inside U.S. Trade and confirmed by the Canadian Press, has been floated informally over the past week and is aimed at incentivizing car companies to pay wages far higher than the current average rate in Mexico."Of course, Mexico does not agree with" the reported proposal, a source close to the talks told Morning Trade. Mexico rejects the idea "because it makes North America less competitive. If you artificially increase wages for one industry, you can be sure of that." In one sign of progress, Lighthizer has agreed to take off the table a domestic content provision that both Canada and Mexico declared unworkable — it would have mandated that cars include at least 50 percent U.S.-sourced content in order to avoid tariffs. "We're hearing that USTR took off the 50 percent domestic content off the table because he wants to balance things out through wages — by increasing wages in Mexico," the source said. Pro’s Sabrina Rodriguez has more here.

     Perspective | Measuring trade flows is tricky. Good trade policy, however, is pretty straightforward. – Jared Bernstein - A stopped clock is right twice a day, and, at least by one measure, President Trump was right about the United States running a trade deficit with Canada. The episode serves as a good reminder of a) the challenges that global supply chains pose to measuring trade flows; b) the need to stop treating unilateral trade balances as scorecards; and c) a signpost toward smarter trade policies.This dust-up starts with Trump complaining to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the U.S. trade deficit with Canada. By his own admission, Trump didn’t know what he was talking about. He just felt like saying it. As Canadian trade representatives were quick to underscore, the U.S. data reveals a trade surplus with Canada.What’s surprising, however, is that the Canadian data reveals the opposite. The way they count the flows across our border, we are importing more from Canada than we are exporting to them (see Bloomberg figure below). By their accounts, Trump was right.   If you’re confused, trust me, you’re not alone. In this case, it comes down to the different ways we and the Canadians score re-exports, or goods that pass through Canada, as opposed to being produced there. In Canada’s accounts, a Chinese washing machine that passes through a Vancouver port on its way to the United States gets counted as a Canadian export. In the U.S. data, that is a Chinese export. Thus, the Canadian data will show more exports flowing our way than will the U.S. data.

    Trumponomics, the Left and the Return of Protectionism -- So if you believe a simplified version of conservative views on the economy, Trumponomics is pretty contradictory (and yes they are contradictory, even if one may doubts about why). Tax cuts should lead to growth, via supply side economics, and the recently proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum do exactly the opposite. Protectionism (not a very good name, I prefer managed trade, as I discussed here before) has made a come back, but while many heterodox economists have suggested that ‘free trade’ is not always beneficial to all, and those concerned with the fate of manufacturing and the working class in the United States have decried Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) over the years, it seems that the association of these ideas with Trumponomics has made them less keen on the recent tariff proposal. A typical example is the recent op-ed by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker in WAPO, and I cite them exactly for my respect for their economic views in general, and their commitment to progressive causes. In their view: “The bigger dangers to our economy are twofold. One, that our trading partners will retaliate by taxing our exports to them, thus hurting a broad swath of our exporting industries, and two, by leading an emboldened, reckless Trump administration to enact more bad trade policy.” Essentially, they agree that tariffs would have a negative effect on employment, but perhaps not as big as some Cassandras have suggested, and that this ‘bad protectionist’ policies would continue. A similar argument can be found in Brad DeLong’s op-ed, another progressive economist, in which he argues that the tariff is a tax hike for consumers. Brad, I should note, has recently published a very good book in which he praises the Hamiltonian system, that is,  the use of managed trade to promote industrial development (I discussed it here).* It’s worth remembering that while on other issues Trumponomics is essentially Reaganomics (low taxes for the wealthy and increased military spending), on trade his views are a break with more recent Republican positions (and hence the push back in his own party against the tariffs) and closer to what many Dems, particularly those connected with trade unions, often defended. He has not signed TPP, has really started renegotiating NAFTA (something Obama promised to do as a candidate, but did not deliver as president) and now has imposed some tariffs (like, btw, Bush, so I’m not suggesting this is unprecedented; just that he has been more consistent on this topic).

     This Is Tax Simplification? --I happen to support tax simplification that does not increase regressivity of the tax system, and I recognize that there are a few parts of the Trump tax change that do that.  But mostly it massively increases regressivity, along with massively increasing the budget deficit at a time when we are not too far from full employment.  As it is, however, the new tax law turns out to be riddled with all kinds of ridiculous unintended consequences that complicate the tax code absurdly and that in some cases were not meant to be put in and are creating major problems for  certain groups of people.  One that is reportedly hurting especially are farmers, and GOPs in Congress now want to fix some of these blunders.  Of course much of this is due to their super hurry to get the bill passed without proper hearings and vetting that obviously were called for in the case of such a massive change in our tax laws.  We are going to be discovering these gliltches for some time to come.There was an article in yesterday’ Washington Post (“Tax ‘planning frenzy’: The hunt for loopholes,” by Jeff Stein) noting some of the nonsense that is going on, especially regarding professionals.  Stein  says that “doctors are going berserk” and they are the ones especially caught up in the “tax planning frenzy.”  To give some idea of what is going on I shall simply quote the opening paragraph of the article, which provides further details.“In hopes of paying less in taxes, several surgical centers in Louisiana are considering spinning off their parking garages into separate businesses. Eye doctors in Florida are looking at separating their eyeglass business from their medical practices. And small and midsize law firms around the country are pondering treating their offices as distinct real estate companies.”One of the virtues of real tax simplification is that it would reduce our society’s massively wasteful use of tax accountants for rent seeking tax avoidance.  But this new law is clearly going to provide a major bonanza for that socially useless profession. Oh, one final tidbit.  Apparently there are (at least) 39 “unresolved tax problems for which the American Institute of CPAs, the nation’s leading association of accountants, has asked for ‘immediate guidance'” on from the IRS.  But the IRS is swamped, with its budget cut, and in no hurry to resolve these matters.  Such fun and games.  No, tax simplification this is not.

    President Donald Trump Slams Amazon Over Taxes It Pays and Impact on Other Businesses - President Donald Trump lashed out at Inc. AMZN 1.11% over its business practices and economic impact, escalating his long-running feud with the e-commerce giant at a time of intensifying political and public agitation over the power of big technology companies.In a Thursday morning tweet, Mr. Trump took aim at Amazon’s role in people’s everyday lives, from where they shop to the taxes the company collects from sales to how it delivers packages to them.It was the latest attack the president has levied against the online retailer since before his election, a series that also has targeted Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. Mr. Trump, who has carried on a fight with the Post and other media companies, has tweeted more than a dozen times mentioning Amazon, frequently suggesting that the company should pay more in taxes. He pressed that case again Thursday, adding that the company is taking advantage of the U.S. Postal Service.“They pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!” Mr. Trump tweeted.  An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment about the tweet. Amazon says it collects sales taxes on its own inventory in all 45 states that have such a tax and has voluntarily started collecting taxes in some municipalities. Brands worry about Amazon’s shopping dominance and its sale of its own private-label goods, while investors fear the potential for regulation targeting the company. Those concerns crystallized this week as Amazon found itself once again in Mr. Trump’s crosshairs.

    Was Robert Mercer’s Vast Operation to Put Trump in the White House Just About Tax Avoidance? -  Pam Martens - While Robert Mercer was donating $25 million to Republican campaigns in the 2016 election cycle and building a vast network of social media projects like Cambridge Analytica to digitally target voters “inner demons,” James Simons, the founder of the hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, where Mercer made his billions, was working the other side of the street. Simons pumped $27 million into the coffers of Democratic candidates and related campaign committees. Included in that amount from Simons was $11 million that went into Priorities USA, a SuperPac supporting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for the presidency. What “hedge” funds do is hedge their bets in the markets. It’s common sense to think they would also hedge their political bets. Mercer and Simons both made billions of dollars at the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies through a secret sauce of trading formulas that are heavily guarded; both have a vested interest in keeping a brazen tax-rule in place at hedge funds that allows their profits to be taxed at an abnormally low rate (carried interest); and both men’s names turned up in the Paradise Papers, a trove of millions of leaked files from offshore tax havens. According to a November 2017 article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, Simons had squirreled away over $8 billion in the tax haven of Bermuda. The newspaper also separately reported that Robert Mercer shows up in the Paradise Papers “as a director of eight Bermuda companies” which it says were used to “legally avoid a little-known US tax of up to 39% on tens of millions of dollars in investment profits amassed by the Mercer family’s foundation” which were then used to fund conservative groups and a “$475m retirement fund for the staff of Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies.” Renaissance Technologies and its principals have a lot at stake at the Internal Revenue Service. In 2014, the hedge fund became the target of an investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, culminating in a charge of avoiding $6.8 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) in taxes. The Senate Subcommittee took testimony at the July 22, 2014 hearing from Steven M. Rosenthal, a Senior Fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Tourists Will Be Required To Turn Over Their Social Media History - The State Department will unveil new rules on Friday requiring most visitors or immigrants to the United States to turn over their recent social media histories, in accordance with one of President Trump's key national security enhancements contained in his "extreme vetting" executive order. In addition, travelers would be required to provide previous phone numbers, email addresses and a history of international travel from the preceding five years - as well as disclose any immigration problems they've had anywhere in the world, or any potential family ties to terrorism, according to the Washington Times. Moreover, people from countries where female genital mutilation is common practice would be directed to a website to ensure that they know the practice is illegal in the United States. The Friday publication will begin a "comment period" before the government finalizes the policies. “This upgrade to visa vetting is long overdue, and it’s appropriate to apply it to everyone seeking entry, because terrorism is a worldwide problem. The aim is to try to weed out people with radical or dangerous views,” said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies - who called the effort to discourage female genital mutilation "innovative." "The message needs to be sent that ‘we don’t do that here,’ " she said. Vaughan also says the State Department should also request information on whether female travelers intend to enter the United States in order to give birth - a practice known as "birth tourism" in which women visit the U.S. so that their child born on American soil is a U.S. citizen. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has entertained plans to track the social media accounts of immigrants entering the country, however the State Department's Friday proposal would apply to tourists and others entering the country on temporary visas. In all, some 14 million people would be affected by the request for information, according to the department.

    Trump administration to add citizenship question to US census - The US Department of Commerce announced late Monday that the 2020 Census will include a question for respondents asking whether or not they are US citizens. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the action was taken in response to a request made by the Justice Department, which claimed it needed data on that question in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. The pretext insults the intelligence, given that the Trump Justice Department and the Republican Party generally have sought to undermine and abolish the Voting Rights Act, rather than enforce it. But identifying the Justice Department as the source of the request is significant, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one of the leading advocates of stepped-up persecution of immigrants. Asking about citizenship status serves the anti-immigrant witch-hunt in two ways: just posing the question will intimidate millions of immigrant families, whatever their own immigration status, if they have undocumented family members; and to the extent that any immigrants do respond, the information will be used as a blueprint for future enforcement actions, highlighting the neighborhoods and communities to be targeted for raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This move has been widely criticized by immigrant rights advocates, demographers and experts including several former directors of the census, all of whom have warned of reduced response rates, and inaccurate answers, particularly given the climate of fear and mistrust pervading migrant communities.

    Census 2020: US adds controversial citizenship question - BBC News: The 2020 US Census will ask respondents whether or not they are US citizens for the first time since 1950. California and New York vowed to sue to block the move, saying it will deter immigrants from participating. Trump administration officials say the data will help the government allocate resources and enforce voter laws designed to prevent discrimination. The census is mandated under the US constitution and takes place every 10 years, counting every resident.Critics say Republican administration aims to alter the political balance of power in legislative maps. Census data helps the US government calculate funding distribution and draw up districts for state and local elections. Democratic states with large immigrant populations argue a citizenship question will produce undercounts because fewer people will participate. They fear losing congressional and state legislature seats along with federal funding. Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Reuters news agency the question exposed "xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from [the Trump] administration". The US Department of Commerce , which oversees the census, said on Monday night it had added the question after a request from the Department of Justice. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the 1965 Voting Rights Act required a tally of citizens of voting age to ensure minority groups were not discriminated against. He said even if the citizenship question had an effect on responses, "the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns". Mr Ross' agency pointed out that other, smaller population surveys also ask respondents whether they are American citizens.

     Blue states sue Trump over census citizenship question | TheHill: Democratic attorneys general in several states said Tuesday they would bring legal action to stop the Trump administration from adding a question on citizenship to the next U.S. census, a question they said would lead to serious undercounts that could reverberate for years to come. The administration said late Tuesday it would include a question on the decennial survey that would ask whether respondents are American citizens. That question has not appeared on a census questionnaire since 1950. Civil rights groups and Democrats in blue states said the question, combined with the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward immigrants, could lead to undocumented immigrants avoiding the census altogether, creating an underestimation of the number of residents who live in certain states.   An undercount could put at risk billions of dollars in federal aid, in programs ranging from health care to education and even law enforcement funding for some states. Figures from the census are used to allocate federal money through programs across the government.California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to block the question from appearing on the census, which will take place in 2020. “Having an accurate Census count should be of the utmost importance for every Californian,” Becerra said in a statement. “The Census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade. California simply has too much to lose for us to allow the Trump administration to botch this important decennial obligation.”

     California, NY sue Trump administration over addition of citizenship question to census - The state of California sued the Trump administration Monday night, arguing that the decision to add a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census violates the U.S. Constitution. The state’s attorney general acted just after the Commerce Department announced the change in a late-night release.The action was followed Tuesday by an announcement from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman that he will lead a multi-state lawsuit to preserve what he said was a fair and accurate Census.The suits are just the start of what is likely to be a broader battle with enormous political stakes that pits the administration against many Democratic states, which believe that the citizenship question will reduce the response rate for the census and produce undercounts. As a result, opponents say, states with significant immigrant populations stand to lose seats in state legislatures and Congress, along with electoral college votes in presidential elections and federal funding based on census counts.Republicans gained a significant advantage in redrawing maps after the 2010 Census, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has reported. Democrats worry about a repeat.California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was among several Democrats who vowed to challenge the addition of the question.Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, among other things, that the data could help identify potential voting-rights violations by providing more accurate information than currently available about the proportion of a congressional district’s population that is eligible to vote by virtue of holding citizenship. Information about citizenship currently comes from a survey that samples a small percentage of the population. In raw political terms, it has been estimated that an undercount feared by Democrats could cost California at least one seat in the House of Representatives and, on the national level, shift political power from cities to more rural communities with the benefits falling to the Republican Party, as The Post’s Michael Scherer has written.

    LGBTQ Americans Won't Be Counted In 2020 U.S. Census After All -- LGBTQ advocacy groups are outraged after proposed questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were quickly removed Tuesday from a just-released draft of the 2020 U.S. Census.  The U.S. Census Bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is required to issue a list of categories it plans to track three years before the survey is conducted. Tuesday's list showed categories ranging from race and gender to the type of plumbing in homes and the length of a person's daily commute to work. Each category is followed by a table showing the federal agencies that rely on the data to make decisions about law enforcement, health care, equal employment opportunities and more.No previous U.S. Census has ever included LGBTQ Americans, which makes it challenging for federal agencies and researchers to accurately track the size, demographics and needs of the community. In addition, the more detailed American Community Survey also leaves out LGBTQ categories. Tuesday's initial release from the Census Bureau proposed including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on both surveys.Advocacy groups have been campaigning for years to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, and were briefly elated when the 2020 Census draft was released. But hopes were dashed when the proposed addition suddenly disappeared, and a statement was issued by the Census bureau that called the LGBTQ inclusion a mistake. The National LGBTQ Task Force published both versions of the 2020 Census plan to its website, showing the removed row in the “Subjects Planned for the 2020 Census and American Community Survey” section.

    Democrats green-light Trump’s escalating war on immigrants - Without any opposition from the Democratic Party and little attention in the corporate media, President Donald Trump and his fascist advisors are quietly carrying out the most dramatic rightwing shift in US immigration policy in a century. They are laying the basis for mass roundups and the brutalization of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in an expanding network of internment camps nationwide. The Trump administration announced a series of new policies on Thursday. The first policy change targets the poor and working class by blocking immigrants who have used a broad array of social programs from receiving legal permanent residency. While immigrants were previously denied permanent residency if they had used cash programs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a change on Thursday that adds almost all forms of government support to the list of banned services, including noncash programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), food programs for women and infants (WIC), school lunches, housing and heating assistance, health care subsidies, and the earned income tax credit, which is used by about 20 percent of the population.Any immigrant who uses a social program will be labeled a “public charge” and found ineligible for legal status. Immigrant parents will be penalized even if their US citizen children use social programs to which they are legally entitled. As a result of this policy change, hundreds of thousands or millions of workers will go without food, health care, housing and other basic needs for fear of deportation.

    US Congress passes FOSTA law attacking internet freedom --The US Senate’s passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill on March 21 is the latest step in the American political establishment’s drive to censor the internet. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority of 97-2, with one Democrat and one Republican voting against, and now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.The legislation alters Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). This law, which was passed as the internet was emerging in 1996, protects internet service providers, websites and other platforms from being held legally responsible for content that is posted by users. FOSTA modifies the act to “prohibit construing section 230 to limit state criminal charges” for facilitating prostitution or child sex trafficking. It is necessary only that the platform “knowingly” assisted or facilitated such activity, or that it was in “reckless disregard” of the fact that such activity was taking place.Underscoring the chilling effect of the bill, internet companies have already responded to the Senate vote by pulling down forum pages in order to avoid prosecution. Craigslist, which publishes classifieds and advertisements, removed its “Craigslist personals” section, which is used by people seeking romantic relationships and sexual encounters, as well as for prostitution. Craigslist stated of the removal, “Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline.”On March 21, Reddit updated its policies to ban any forums allowing users to “solicit or facilitate any transaction or gift” including not only “paid service involving physical sexual conduct,” but also firearms, drugs, and a range of other illicit goods. It has shut down a number of subreddits. The purpose of the legislation is to provide a precedent for holding internet platforms legally accountable for the content posted by users. At present, the bill targets prostitution and sex trafficking to provide an apparently benevolent veneer to the change in policy. Sooner rather than later, an ever-broader number of other activities will be added to the list. The ending of Section 230 will allow for government authorities to place even greater pressure on internet platforms to censor and control what content is published online.

     Congress Just Quietly Formed A Committee To Bail-Out 200 Pension Funds - The US pension system has gotten so bad, Congress is actually planning for its failure.  As the government was working on the recent, new budget deal and subsequent boost in government spending, Congress quietly snuck in a provision that forms a committee which would use federal funds to bail out as many as 200 “multi-employer” pension plans – where employers and labor unions jointly provide retirement benefits to employees. As is often the case, this rescue “plan” is too little too late. The US pension system is beyond repair. And if you’re depending on pension income to carry you through retirement, it’s time to consider a Plan B.  Pensions are simply giant pools of capital used to pay out retirement benefits to workers. Typically, employers and employees contribute a percentage of the employees’ salary to a pension throughout his or her career. Then, upon retirement, the pension is supposed to pay a fixed, monthly amount to the retiree.There are both government and corporate pension plans. Boston College estimates the nation’s 1,400 multiemployer plans (corporate) are facing a $553 billion shortfall. And around one-quarter of those are in the “red zone,” meaning they’ll likely go broke in the next decade or so.But Congress’ committee, assuming it works, wouldn’t even rescue the red zone plans, much less the remaining 1,200. And it doesn’t even begin to address the real problem – the $7 trillion funding gap faced by the government’s own pensions. Congress is stepping in because the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) – the pension equivalent to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) – is completely insolvent.

     Trump Administration Retreats on Tip-Sharing Plan in Compromise - The Trump administration has backed away from a proposed regulation that would have allowed restaurant owners and managers to pocket the tips of their workers.The change was negotiated by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta after the proposal encountered months of opposition. Labor advocacy groups argued that the regulation would transfer billions of dollars from workers to employers.The restaurant industry had backed the proposal, saying it would allow the tips given to waiters and waitresses to be shared with so-called back-of-house workers, like cooks and dishwashers.Under the compromise, inserted into the congressional spending bill that won final approval early Friday, federal law would be revised to make clear that employers cannot under any circumstances keep any portion of the tips earned by their workers.Tips could be redistributed to non-tipped workers only if employers pay all their employees the regular minimum wage in their jurisdiction, as opposed to the lower minimum wage that most states allow for tipped workers. The tip pool would also have to exclude supervisors, managers and owners. Under the Labor Department’s proposed regulation, a tip pool could have included those groups.   “This protects workers from employers and managers skimming their tips and sets up conditions for better wage justice in restaurants and bars across the country,” Angelo I. Amador, a senior official at the National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group, said in a statement that he was pleased that the new legislation would make it possible for cooks, dishwashers and other workers to share tips. But he expressed concern that “the enforcement and penalty language for unintentional violations goes too far.”

    Cuts to small agency part of larger Trump hit on federal unions, agencies and services - The Federal Labor Relations Authority is a tiny speck among Uncle Sam’s arsenal of agencies, akin to a freckle next to the big muscle of his Defense Department. Yet the FLRA is emerging as a noteworthy example in President Trump’s efforts to undermine the ability of labor organizations to represent federal employees, while shrinking government and diluting services.  Following White House directives on reorganization and workforce reduction, the FLRA plans to close two regional offices, in Boston and Dallas, leaving just five. An agency budget justification for fiscal 2019 cites “workload, costs, and operating efficiencies.”  Describing the move as “mean spirited,” Debbie Jennings, president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 4, which represents workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, said “it would be very difficult to adjudicate any unfair labor practice that we would file.” Eight former FLRA regional directors condemned the plan, calling it a “serious error” and saying it would “negatively impact the very significant progress which has been made in recent years to reduce reliance on confrontational labor relations in the federal sector.” In a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the former officials, who are retired Senior Executive Service civil servants, said the value of having staff available in regions “was demonstrated again and again over the years” and pointed to regularly scheduled regional training for both labor and management. Three of the former directors worked in Boston or Dallas. The FLRA confronts a big mission with about 120 staffers. It administers and resolves labor-management relations and disputes involving more than 2 million federal employees, including 1.2 million represented in 2,200 bargaining units. Among its duties is deciding unfair labor practice charges that can be filed by unions or agencies. Federal unions represent all employees in a bargaining unit, not just those who are dues paying members.Because the overwhelming number of unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints are filed in regional offices by unions, closing Boston and Dallas will weaken the ability of federal labor organizations to rectify workplace wrongs.

    Trump signs bill that kills Obama-era rule targeting wage theft, unsafe working conditions -  President Donald Trump signed a bill Monday that killed an Obama-era worker safety rule that required businesses competing for large federal contracts to disclose and correct serious safety and other labor law violations. Earlier this month, the Senate voted to eliminate the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which applied to contracts valued at $500,000 or more. Votes on the bill in both the House and Senate divided along party lines.The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces regulation was finalized in August but most of it was never implemented. Within days of it being finalized, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) sued, securing a temporary injunction that prohibited the federal government from implementing it. In a last-minute effort to fight for the rule earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a staff report that showed that 66 of the federal government's 100 largest contractors have at some point violated federal wage and hour laws. Since 2015, the report says, more than a third of the 100 largest OSHA penalties have been imposed on federal contractors. Warren criticized the Republican-led effort during a speech on the Senate floor moments before the vote. "Instead of creating jobs or raising wages," she said, "they're trying to make it easier for companies that get big-time, taxpayer-funded government contracts to steal wages from their employees and injure their workers without admitting responsibility." 

    How Trump favored Texas over Puerto Rico - —  A POLITICO review of public documents, newly obtained FEMA records and interviews with more than 50 people involved with disaster response indicates that the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico.  “We have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. We go anywhere, anytime we want in the world,” bemoaned retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the military’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. “And [in Puerto Rico] we didn’t use those assets the way they should have been used.” No two hurricanes are alike, and Harvey and Maria were vastly different storms that struck areas with vastly different financial, geographic and political situations. But a comparison of government statistics relating to the two recovery efforts strongly supports the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston.  Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico. Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims. During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico. Nine days after Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria.It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico.

    Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens Calls For Second Amendment Repeal -- Calling it “a relic of the 18th century,” retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called Tuesday for the outright repeal of the Second Amendment, saying it would achieve “more effective and more lasting reform” than other efforts to curb the country’s scourge of gun violence. In a New York Times op-ed, Stevens ― who as a high court justice dissented on a key gun rights case in 2008 ― praised the student demonstrators at Saturday’s March for Our Lives protests, saying that the thousands of marchers, led by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, “demand our respect.”Beyond pushing for stronger legislative measures, such as banning assault-style weapons and mandating background checks, he advised the movement to “demand a repeal of the Second Amendment:”That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence. In 2008, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller was widely considered a victory for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights advocates, helping to cement a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment and limiting legal grounds for gun control measures. The ruling barred Washington, D.C., which has among the country’s strictest gun laws, from enforcing a ban it had on handguns and other gun requirements because they violated the Second Amendment.

    The NRA Is A Public Charity That Doesn’t Pay Taxes - The National Rifle Association has hit more turbulence since 17 people died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, than the nation’s biggest gun advocacy group is accustomed to after such tragedies. Anti-NRA memes implying that the nonprofit abuses its tax-exempt status went viral. A petition calling on the authorities to audit the group and consider revoking its exemption circulated. At least 10 companies dropped the special deals they used to offer its millions of members amid widespread concern about the NRA’s role in squelching gun control and a growing interest in how the group operates. As a law professor who teaches and writes about tax-exempt organizations, I   would like to explain how the NRA retains its nonprofit status despite the vast amount of influence it exerts over politicians.

    Backlash? NRA's Political Fund Donations Spike In Wake Of Parkland Shooting - It probably wasn’t the shooting at a Florida high school itself that caused donations to the NRA to triple since Valentine’s Day. But it was more likely than not the wave of anti-gun illogical and emotionally charged outbursts demanding those who are innocent of the shooting give up their rights that did it.  Supporters of the Second Amendment donated about $779,000 in February to the NRA’s political arm, the Political Victory Fund, according to recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) data. The figure marked a more than threefold increase compared to January when the PAC received nearly $250,000 in donations and was the fund’s second-best month over the last year.Last weekend, thousands of people rallied in support of gun control during the “March for Our Lives” protest, with many placards openly attacking the NRA. The increasing onslaught against the organization, however, correlated with more donations going to the group’s PAC. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, two weeks before the fatal school shooting, the NRA’s PAC received $27,100 from itemized contributions – donations that exceed $200 – from 51 donors. Over the next two weeks after the shooting, the itemized contributions skyrocketed to nearly $71,000 from 226 donors.Most donations to the group – totaling $685,099 – came in small donations that did not exceed $200. This means that normal, average, everyday Americans propped up the NRA in the wake of protests. Multiple politicians are facing the fury of anti-gun activists who criticize them for accepting the NRA’s support and donations. Yet there’s little to no criticism of the Antifa thugs who accept money from George Soros to fund their violent Communist temper tantrums. The NRA is obviously not going anywhere, and this wave of marches has only added to their funding.  NRA memberships have been on the rise as well.

    NRA Responds To Accusations Of Funneling Foreign Funds To Trump Campaign - The National Rifle Association says it received foreign funds, however none of the money was used for election purposes, the gun lobby wrote in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).  “Our review of our records has found no foreign donations in connection with a United States election, either directly or through a conduit,” said John C. Frazer, the NRA’s secretary and general counsel, in March 19 letter that was made public by Wyden’s office.Wyden had previously asked the NRA to comment on its fundraising efforts - noting that Alexander Torshin, a Russian lawmaker, ardent gun rights advocate and ally of Vladimir Putin, had attended the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in 2016. U.S. authorities are probing whether the NRA funneled Russian funds into the 2016 presidential election - as the NRA spent over $50 million on the last election cycle, including $30.3 million which went towards support for then-candidate Donald Trump according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In federal elections, the NRA typically ranks among heavyweight outside spending groups. For the second cycle in a row, it has earned a place in the top ten. But 2016 was a unique year for the organization, owing to the fact that many super PACs, like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS, which spent roughly $115 million to elect Mitt Romney in 2012, declined to back Trump. The NRA stepped in to fill the void, putting at least $30.3 million on the line to help elect the real estate mogul, more than any other outside group — including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations,” Wyden wrote to the NRA. He sought details of any transactions with Russian nationals, as well as details of procedures that “ensure that funds from foreign sources are not used to influence U.S. elections.”

    Trump Unable To Hire diGenova, Toensing Over Conflicts, Mueller Strategy In Limbo - On Friday, we reported that President Trump would be "F---ing doing it my way" after "hitting the roof" over his legal team's cautious approach to dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller, and after Trump had brought on D.C. veteran attorneys Joe diGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing last Monday to lead the Mueller probe just as Trump's head Russian probe lawyer, John Dowd, was about to resign. diGenova and Toensing were reportedly recommended to Trump by Dave Bossie and Jeanine Piro - both of whom are outside advisors to Trump. That said, Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Napolitano thinks Dowd's resignation and the decision to put Trump in front of Mueller's team would be a "disaster" for the President. Well, 48 hours later, it appears that Trump will be facing special counsel Robert Mueller without the diGenova and Toensing over conflicts of interest - however they will still assist in other matters.“The president is disappointed that conflicts prevent Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing from joining the president’s special counsel legal team,” said Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow on Sunday morning. “However, those conflicts do not prevent them from assisting the president in other legal matters. The president looks forward to working with them.”   While some outlets reported that Trump had a bad feeling about diGenova and Toensing, the reason the husband and wife legal team will not be joining President Donald Trump’s personal legal team representing him in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is due to a determination that their firm’s existing work presents a conflict.  Toensing already was representing other clients involved in Russia investigations, including the president’s former campaign aide Sam Clovis and Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team.

    Manafort attorney: Special counsel hiding reason for search  — Attorneys for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are arguing that the special counsel leading the Russia investigation is hiding what led agents to search a storage unit in connection with Manafort's ongoing criminal case. A new court filing reveals that special counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors redacted a page and a half of information related to the search in documents they produced to Manafort. Manafort attorneys Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle say the move is blocking their ability to determine whether the search was proper. They are asking a judge to force the special counsel to turn over complete copies of all search warrants. The filing does not disclose the storage unit's contents. Manafort faces numerous charges alleging financial crimes and that he acted as an unregistered foreign agent. 

    House Dems call for subpoena on Chicago banker linked to Russia probe -- The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee is facing pressure from across the aisle to issue a subpoena in connection with a bank CEO who has been swept up in the Russia probe.Stephen Calk, the CEO of Federal Savings Bank in Chicago, has been under scrutiny since it was reported that his bank made $16 million in mortgage loans to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in 2016 and early 2017.Manafort, a key figure in the sprawling investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, faces numerous criminal charges, including providing false information to banks in order to obtain loans.

    Witness in Mueller probe 'aided UAE agenda in US Congress' - A top fundraiser for President Donald Trump received millions of dollars from a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last April, just weeks before he began handing out a series of large political donations to US legislators considering legislation against Qatar, the UAE's chief rival in the Gulf, an Associated Press (AP) investigation has found.George Nader, an adviser to the UAE who is now a witness in the US special counsel investigation into foreign meddling in US politics, wired $2.5m to the Trump fundraiser, Elliott Broidy, through a company in Canada, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said Nader paid the money to Broidy to bankroll an effort to persuade the US to take a hard line against Qatar, a long-time US ally but now an adversary of the UAE.A month after he received the money, Broidy sponsored a conference on Qatar's alleged ties to Islamic "extremism". During the event, Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced he was introducing legislation that would brand Qatar as a "terrorist-supporting" state.In July 2017, two months after Royce introduced the bill, Broidy gave the California congressman $5,400 in campaign gifts - the maximum allowed by law. The donations were part of just under $600,000 that Broidy has given to Republican Party members of Congress and Republican political committees since he began the push for legislation fingering Qatar, according to an AP analysis of campaign finance disclosure records.Broidy said in a statement to the AP that he has been outspoken for years about what he called "militant" groups, including Hamas. "I've both raised money for, and contributed my own money to, efforts by think tanks to bring the facts into the open, since Qatar is spreading millions of dollars around Washington to whitewash its image as a terror-sponsoring state," he said.

    James Comey Cashing-In With Upcoming Book, McCabe Nears $400,000 On GoFundMe - Former FBI Director James Comey, who oversaw the FBI's involvement in what appears to have been a coordinated effort between U.S. intelligence agencies and the Obama administration to launch the Trump-Russia probe, is set to make a mint with his new book; "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership."  Comey's book is already a best seller based on pre-orders alone, while the lanky Clinton-exonerating Director raked in $2 million when he signed the book deal with Flatiron, a Macmillan imprint.  The former FBI Director is also taping an audio version, and will make promotional network appearances on ABC and CBS before embarking on a 10-city tour. In five of these cities, reports Page Six's Richard Johnson, Comey will give lectures for $95 / ticket (which are being resold for as much as $850 on StubHub). He also earned $6 Million dollars in one year as Lockheed’s top lawyer – the same year the egregiously behind schedule and overbudget F-35 manufacturer (whose top lobbyists were the Podesta Group) made a huge donation to the Clinton Foundation. Comey was also a board member at HSBC shortly after NY AG at the time Loretta “tarmac” Lynch let the Clinton Foundation partner slide with a slap on the wrist for laundering drug money. In 2016, Comey came full circle - a full 20 years after he exonerated Hillary in Whitewater, when the former FBI Director exonerated "Madame Citizen" again in her email investigation - after his staff, spearheaded by former Deputy Director Andy McCabe - heavily altered the language of the agency's official assessment - effectively "decriminalizing" Clinton's conduct.  Reviewing the list of post-bureaucrat roles for Obama admin-era characters involved in an (ongoing) attempt to take down Trump:

    Meanwhile, Comey's #2 Andrew "bag man" McCabe was just fired a day before he was set to receive his full pension - on the recommendation of DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.  While several dozen GoFundme campaigns have been set up in McCabe's name, the "friends of Andrew McCabe" has set up an official fundraiser for the former Deputy FBI Director's legal defense, which has raked in over $388,000 (well over its $250,000 goal).

    White House Conducting Internal Investigation Into $500 Million Kushner Loans - White House attorneys are conducting an internal probe of two loans totaling over $500 million to Jared Kushner's family business from Citigroup and Apollo Global Management LLC. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) revealed the internal West Wing probe into whether the loans violated criminal or ethical statutes, in a letter to Illinois Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who sits on the House Oversight Committee.The Office of Government Ethics told a Democratic lawmaker in the letter that the White House is probing whether a $184 million loan from the real-estate arm of Apollo Global Management LLC and a $325 million loan from Citigroup Inc. may have run afoul of the rules and laws governing the conduct of federal employees.  Both loans went to the Kushner Cos., the private real-estate company founded by Mr. Kushner’s father and run by members of his family. Mr. Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and serves in a senior position in the White House, met with top executives of both Citi and Apollo before each loan was disbursed, the New York Times reported last month. -Wall St. Journal“   I have discussed this matter with the White House Counsel’s Office in order to ensure that they have begun the process of ascertaining the facts necessary to determine whether any law or regulation has been violated,” wrote the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, David Apol. “During that discussion, the White House informed me that they had already begun this process.”

    Stormy Daniels interview with 60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper discusses Daniels' alleged affair with Donald Trump - full interview transcript - A week and a half before the 2016 election, Donald Trump's personal attorney paid a porn star named Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her alleged relationship with the Republican candidate for President. Today, that arrangement is well on its way to becoming the most talked-about "hush agreement" in history, with potential legal and political implications for the President. Through his spokesman, Mr. Trump has denied having an affair with Stormy Daniels, and his lawyers are now threatening her with financial ruin, saying she has to pay one million dollars every time she violates her agreement to stay silent. But that didn't stop her from coming on 60 Minutes.

    Dunno Why There’s No Sun Up in the Sky  - Kunstler - Newsflash: President Donald J. Trump had sex with a whore twelve years ago... Let that sink into your limbic lobes, you poor, opiated, Facebook-addled, morbidly-obese, fly-over nation of lumbering, deplorable, gun-gripping, Jesus-haunted voters. A hoor! Do you hear? Wait a minute, you say. Stormy Daniels is no such thing, She’s an actress in, and director of, adult films, an auteur, if you like, at least a sex worker, toiling in the rolling mills of eros, sweating and grunting as much as any Mahoning Valley steel worker, or hood ornament buffer on the Tesla assembly line. And anyway, three times over the years she denied having sex with that man, at least once in writing, though last night on CBS’s Sixty Minutes she stated that she actually did have sex with the Golden Golem of Greatness. In which case, she may be some kind of a lyin’ hoor... or savior of a nation yearning to cast off the loathsome rule of this odious president-by-mistake. The Sixty Minutes make-up and costume crew knocked themselves out coming up with her on-camera look Sunday night: WalMart Shopper. Stormy accepted Trump’s invitation for dinner… in his hotel suite. Just the two of them, ahem. They watched a TV show about sharks. It apparently lacked aphrodisiac punch. So he showed her a magazine with his picture on the cover, perhaps to get the point across that he was a really important person in case she didn’t already know. She said she ought to take it and spank him with it. He concurred, dropped trou, and presented the rear of his tighty-whitey small-clothes to facilitate that proposal. After that ice-breaker, he said, “I really like you!” and “You remind me of my daughter” — instantly be-sliming the proceedings with overtones of incest. Stormy went to the bathroom and emerged to find Trump perched on the bed. “Here we go,” the thought popped into her head, she says. But she didn’t say “no.” After all, was this performance that much different from the… I dunno, just guessing… 1043 previous scenes with co-stars she had enacted amorous relations with on-camera? Surely not all of them were husband-material, or crushes. Oh, she didn’t ask him to wear a condom, and he didn’t gallantly volunteer to do so. (A love-child was not conceived.) At some point in the proceedings, Trump dangled the possibility of a role on his fabulous TV show, Celebrity Apprentice. But I suppose that was just the cherry-on-top of a romantic confection baked in the oven of America’s great dream industry. As it happened, Stormy didn’t get on the show. I suspect she didn’t try hard enough.

    Stormy Daniel’s Three-Way (Contract) & Donald Trump’s Performance Problem  -  Adam Levitin, Credit Slips - I want to return to the Stormy Daniels-Donald Trump-Michael Cohen Three-Way Contract.  It's actually really interesting from a contract doctrine perspective (besides being of prurient interest). The continued media coverage and scholarly commentary seems to be missing a key point, namely that this is a contractual ménage à trois, not a typical pairing. The fact that there are three parties, not two to the contract actually matters quite a bit doctrinally. Let’s start with a point on which I think everyone agrees.  For there to be a contract, there needs to be mutual assent. This assent may be manifested in different ways—it may be manifested expressly, say through a signature, or implicitly, say through performance or, in rare cases, through silence.  The complication we have in this contract is that it is a 3-party contract, not the standard 2-party contract.  That’s a problem because basically everything in contract doctrine is built around 2-party contracts.  Traditional contract doctrine is monogamous and doesn't really know what to do with three-ways, especially when one party has a performance problem.  It's not, for what it's worth, that multi-party contracts are rare--they're not. In fact, they're the common arrangement in corporate finance where a contract will involve numerous affiliates. But traditional contract doctrine developed in an era in which these multi-party contracts were rarer (indeed, look at how the Bankruptcy Code is not drafted with the contemplation of multi-entity debtors!) and there's always been a wink-wink, nod-nod about the separateness of corporate affiliates.  If Stormy (Peggy Peterson=PP) and Donald (David Dennison=DD) had a traditional, monogamous contract, this would be very easy. The problem is that this is a 3-party contract.  It calls for EC to pay PP; PP to give DD releases and turn over certain materials to DD; and for DD to give PP releases.   Notice that EC only contributes to the deal, but does not receive any benefit. Yes, there is language that indicates that EC and DD are on "one side" of the contract, and PP on the other, but I don’t think that really does anything—presumably DD would have been able to sue EC if EC had failed to perform.  Likewise, EC cannot provide PP the litigation releases she was supposed to get in the contract; only DD can provide them.  And PP can only give litigation releases to DD, as she has no claim against EC. I think it’s hard to run away from the fact that EC and DD are separate entities and that this is a 3-way contract, although I'll return to an agency law argument below.     Here’s why that matters.

    Behind Stormy's Saga: Trump's Systematic Payoff Machine Is the Real Story - Digby -Any decent public relations professional would have done anything to avoid footage of President Donald Trump arriving back at the White House on Marine One and sullenly trudging across the lawn alone as reporters shouted questions at him about the highly anticipated "60 Minutes" interview with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. But that's what they got on Sunday night when the president returned to Washington, leaving the first lady behind in Florida. Considering that this major television interview came on the heels of another one, with former Playboy model Karen McDougal -- who says she had a full-fledged love affair with Trump during the same period -- one cannot blame Melania if she told them all to go to hell. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported that Trump had dinner on Saturday night with his attorney Michael Cohen and Melania was not in attendance. It's possible the dinner conversation was a bit stilted, considering that Trump's trusted henchman is at the center of this scandal. Indeed, his behavior is one of the issues that takes this out of the realm of creepy marital misbehavior into something else entirely.What's unfolding isn't just a story about a rich man's extracurricular liaisons or his alleged episodes of illegal sexual misconduct. The first isn't really of much interest except to the extent that it exposes the flagrant hypocrisy of his supporters, who rent their garments over the personal immorality of presidents of the past and now profess to be uninterested in such private matters. The second is a disgrace that may yet have a reckoning if another accuser, Summer Zervos, gets her day in court. But beyond the cultural and social aspects of this scandal and what it says about the privileges of rich, white men and the exploitation of women, there is another serious issue of national civic importance. This is a story about a rich (and now extremely powerful) man who is so worried about being exposed or blackmailed that he has everyone who works for him sign nondisclosure agreements. Now it appears that he set up an elaborate system for paying hush money to keep people quiet. If Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels are telling the truth this system may include coercion, conspiracy and threats of violence.

    Michael Cohen's lawyer made a bombshell admission about the $130,000 'hush agreement' with Stormy Daniels - The attorney representing Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney, made a statement that could have resounding implications for the ongoing legal fight with the porn actress Stormy Daniels. On Wednesday, Cohen's attorney, David Schwartz, suggested that Trump was not aware of the nondisclosure agreement that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, signed in October 2016. She says the agreement was designed to keep her from talking about an affair she says she had with Trump in 2006. Cohen has acknowledged paying Daniels $130,000 but has denied the affair. Schwartz suggested Cohen had acted independently of Trump in orchestrating the agreement. "Because he's that close to him, he had great latitude to handle these matters," Schwartz said in a CNN interview.  "Michael was the 'fixer,'" Schwartz said. "It could be anything. There were a ton of matters that took place that Michael fixed. And Donald Trump wasn't involved in every single matter."But Schwartz said Trump leaned on Cohen for many things."It could be any business problem," Schwartz said. "And believe me, Michael Cohen got calls at 3 in the morning, Michael and I would be at dinner, the boss would be calling him all the time. So there were always problems. In any business there's always a problem." The former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti scrutinized Schwartz's argument after the CNN segment aired, tweeting that the attorney's suggestion that Trump was unaware of the agreement could actually be good news for Daniels. It would mean "there was no contract between Trump and Daniels, and Daniels can release the materials," Mariotti argued on Twitter.

    The Resistance to Trump Mostly Entails A Lot of Waiting Around for Someone Else to Actually Do Something - Democrats and wimpy pacifist progressive insist on calling their complaints about president Donald Trump “the resistance.” But what exactly does this militant sounding political action entail? A lot of waiting around. Waiting for Democrats to take back the House of Representatives and the Senate. Waiting for impeachment. Even though Nancy Pelosi says the Democrats will never impeach Trump. Waiting for the special counsel to come up with something against Trump even though there’s not much evidence that he has anything. Waiting for some future election after more people are registered to vote, presumably after the Democratic Party starts to allow progressives to be nominated to high office. Waiting for the Russia collusion stuff to catch fire. Whatever this is, it ain’t resistance.

    Zuckerberg Scrambles To Calm Facebook Employees - Following a horrendous week of damage control through a choreographed game of MSM softball, Mark Zuckerberg is now trying to calm down Facebook employees in the wake of a massive data harvesting scandal. A March 18 exposé by The Guardian detailing how 28-year-old programmer Christopher Wylie "made Steve Bannon's psychological warfare tool" missed its intended Trump-linked target and landed squarely on Facebook's doorstep, after revelations that Facebook's Orwellian data collection combined with sloppy oversight of what apps and their creators do with your data has resulted in disturbing violations of privacy.What's more - Facebook was helping the Obama Campaign target voters using harvested data, similar to what Cambridge Analytica was doing. Obama's former campaign director admitted over Twitter that Facebook not only knew of the campaign's data harvesting to "suck out the whole social graph," but th at they "didn't stop us once they realized that was what we were doing." And WikiLeaked emails released during the 2016 election revealed that Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg really wanted "Hillary to win badly," after Hillary came over to Sandberg's house and was "magical with her kids." Adding more fuel to the fire is the fact that one of the psychologists who created the data-harvesting app which gathered information on over 50 million Facebook users before selling it to Cambridge Analytica and others works for Facebook. The co-director of a company that harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook users before selling it to the controversial data analytics firms Cambridge Analytica is currently working for the tech giant as an in-house psychologist. While Zuckerberg attempted to extinguish fires outside of Facebook, the beleaguered CEO has taken multiple steps over the past few days to assuage the concerns of his company's 25,000 employees, according to the NYT. "Calming employees was particularly vital because morale had sunk at the company," writes Sheera Frenkel in The Times. "Earlier this week, some Facebook employees had said that colleagues had started looking to transfer from the main social network product to other branches of the company, such as to messaging app WhatsApp and photo-sharing site Instagram, which have been relatively unscathed by the recent scandals."

      Facebook Acknowledges It Has Been Keeping Records of Android Users’ Calls and Texts -- On the same day that the state of Illinois sued Facebook over its alleged misuse of data that allowed Cambridge Analytica to download information on more than 50 million users, Facebook confirmed that it had been collecting and storing call logs and text message metadata for millions of Android users. Last week, one user who downloaded his data to learn what Facebook knew about him in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal found that the company had a record of the date, time, duration, and recipient of calls he had made from the past few years. On Saturday, the tech news site Ars Technica published an account of several others—all Android users—who found similar records. In response, Facebook published a post Sunday denying that it ever logged call or text history without a user’s permission. But it did acknowledge that it was collecting and storing these logs, attributing it to an opt-in feature for those using Messenger or Facebook Lite on an Android device. “This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook,” the company said in the post. “People have to expressly agree to use this feature.“We introduced this feature for Android users a couple of years ago. Contact importers are fairly common among social apps and services as a way to more easily find the people you want to connect with.”  Ars Technica refuted their claim that everyone knowingly opted in. Instead, Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher claimed, that opt-in was the default setting and users were not separately alerted to it. Nor did Facebook ever say publicly that it was collecting that information. On Monday, in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Federal Trade Commission announced it was launching a probe into Facebook’s privacy practices.

      Facebook Has Been Storing Logs Of Phone Calls, Text Messages For Years: Report - As the #deletefacebook campaign gains traction in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, a number of people have reported that Facebook has also maintained a comprehensive record of phone calls and text messages on Android devices. If you granted permission to read contacts during Facebook's installation on Android a few versions ago—specifically before Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)—that permission also granted Facebook access to call and message logs by default. The permission structure was changed in the Android API in version 16. But Android applications could bypass this change if they were written to earlier versions of the API, so Facebook API could continue to gain access to call and SMS data by specifying an earlier Android SDK version. Google deprecated version 4.0 of the Android API in October 2017—the point at which the latest call metadata in Facebook users' data was found. Apple iOS has never allowed silent access to call data. -Ars TechnicaLast week, New Zealander Dylan McKay requested his data from Facebook. Upon unzipping the downloaded file, McKay discovered that Facebook had stored around two years' worth of metadata from phone calls he had made or received. Downloaded my facebook data as a ZIP fileSomehow it has my entire call history with my partner's mum— Dylan McKay (@dylanmckaynz) March 21, 2018   McKay's grandmother emailed him a photo of SMS text messages logged by Facebook. My grandmother emailed me this from her data dump has a number of SMS records, spanning 2015-2017 claims to not use facebook or messenger apps, I have not verified this though  I also have these from my grandmother, covering May-October 2017  — Dylan McKay (@dylanmckaynz) March 25, 2018 Others have reported similar data logged from their devices:

      Fleeing Facebook app users realise what they agreed to in apps years ago – total slurpage - It was the weekend that had it all: promiscuous permissions dragged Google into the Facebook privacy row, Facebook apologised again while at the same time denying anything's wrong with its Android apps, and Tim Cook was totally not smug when he chimed into the privacy debate.It's long been understood by people in tech (less so, El Reg suspects, in the broader public) that Facebook analysed users' interactions in its Social Graph. Doing so is the core of the company's advertising strategy and the purpose of the algorithms that choose what's at the top of users' feeds.However, when people started deleting their accounts on the weekend, the more sharp-eyed realised Facebook was slurping more than they expected.New Zealand LLVM developer Dylan McKay got the ball rolling with the following Tweet: Dylan McKay@dylanmckaynz Downloaded my facebook data as a ZIP file. Somehow it has my entire call history with my partner's mum  What McKay and others realised to their horror was that Facebook Messenger on Android uploaded far more than expected. Specifically: metadata for phone calls and text messages, even though they were sent with Android's default phone and SMS apps, not Facebook's Messenger apps. The same kinds of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink permissions apply to the Facebook and Instagram apps.The data slurp included Facebook app users' interactions with others who are not on Facebook – meaning people who never gave the Social Network™ permission for anything are probably profiled in its data troves anyway.  As futurist and El Reg columnist Mark Pesce put it: Mark Pesce@mpesce Facebook has metadata (and possibly message content, idk) for every text message sent to me by every Android user of its app until October 2017. And every one I sent them. I didn't ask to have my private conversations recorded. So your choices have consequences - for me.

      This Is So Much Bigger Than Facebook - In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies, calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction. They’re fascinating to watch and fun to study—who wouldn’t be intrigued by the team of Russians in St. Petersburg who pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists and anti-Clinton fanatics in order to add chaos to the presidential election in the United States? Charismatic megafauna may be the things that attract all the attention—when really there are smaller organisms, some invisible to the naked eye, that can dramatically shift the health of an entire ecosystem. Known bugs are the set of problems with social media that aren’t the result of Russian agents, enterprising Macedonians, or even Steve Bannon, but seem to simply come with the territory of building a social network. People are mean online, and bullying, harassment, and mob behavior make online spaces unusable for many people. People tend to get stuck in cocoons of unchallenging, ideologically compatible information online, whether these are “filter bubbles" created by algorithms, or simply echo chambers built through homophily and people’s friendships with “birds of a feather.” Conspiracy theories thrive online, and searching for information can quickly lead to extreme and disturbing content. The Cambridge Analytica breach is a known bug in two senses. Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University researcher who built a quiz to collect data on tens of millions of people, didn’t break into Facebook’s servers and steal data. He used the Facebook Graph API, which until April 2015 allowed people to build apps that harvested data both from people who chose to use the app, and from their Facebook friends. As the media scholar Jonathan Albright put it, “The ability to obtain unusually rich info about users’ friends—is due to the design and functionality of Facebook’s Graph API. Importantly, the vast majority of problems that have arisen as a result of this integration were meant to be ‘features, not bugs.’”

      Facebook Plunges After FTC Probe, German Sanctions Headlines -- The Federal Trade Commission has confirmed that it has opened a nonpublic probe into Facebook's privacy practices, saying it's committed to protecting consumers' privacy and data and will hold accountable companies that abuse the FTC guidelines. In a statement, the FTC said it takes "very seriously" recent press reports raising concerns about the data security at the social media giant, according to Bloomberg. And with that, the public is getting an important early clue into the shape of the federal response to revelations about Facebook's handling (abuse?) of user data for commercial purposes.The FTC investigation, which was reported by Bloomberg last week, is focused on whether Facebook violated terms of a 2011 consent decree over its handling of personal user data.Additionally, German Justice Minister Barley said Monday in Berlin that Facebook's data practices couldn't be tolerated and that sanctions against the company should be levied at the EU level. He added that the company needs to be more transparent about its algorithms. Facebook shares, which plunged into correction territory last week, collapsed further on the news.

      ICE Uses Facebook Data to Find and Track Suspects, Internal Emails Show -- Cambridge Analytica may have had access to the personal information of tens of millions of unwitting Americans, but a genuine debate has emerged about whether the company had the sophistication to put that data effectively to use on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.But one other organization that has ready access to Facebook’s trove of personal data has a much better track record of using such information effectively: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.ICE, the federal agency tasked with Trump’s program of mass deportation, uses backend Facebook data to locate and track suspects, according to a string of emails and documents obtained by The Intercept through a public records request. The hunt for one particular suspect provides a rare window into how ICE agents use social media and powerful data analytics tools to find targets. ICE agents were able to obtain backend Facebook data revealing a log of when the account was accessed and the IP addresses corresponding to each login.

      Why the Facebook data leak is like passive smoking: the bad habits of others can hurt you -- For a long time now, I’ve been bemused by Facebook friends who post results of quizzes or lifestyle questionnaires telling them what colour, fruit, historical figure, or fictional character they resemble. Why would they allow a random company to access photographs and other personal material they have placed on the site? Although not hugely tech savvy, I’ve taken basic steps to protect my privacy online. Following Mark Zuckerberg’s example, I put tape over my laptop camera and only remove it for Skype conversations. I use a VPN and incognito mode frequently while surfing the web, although the VPN slows download speeds considerably. I allow smartphone apps only the basic permissions required to retain functionality. I have resisted the Aadhaar linkages the government’s trying to ram down our throats.   Yet, revelations about the misuse of private data last week left me shaken, and feeling personally vulnerable. The political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, on the basis of a survey taken by just 270,000 Facebook members, harvested detailed personal information about of a mind-boggling 50 million Facebook members. The data breach showed that being careful about one’s own privacy, a difficult enough job, is far from enough. Just as passive smoking can make one ill, and breakouts of infectious diseases can happen thanks to a few misguided parents refusing to vaccinate their children, one’s personal information can be leaked thanks to the bad habits of friends on a social network.

      'Facebook Condom'? - Mozilla Launches Firefox Extension To Avoid Zuck's Spying Eyes - In response to the Facebook data harvesting scandal, Mozilla has launched an extension for its Firefox Browser which helps you segregate your web activity from Facebook's prying eyes by isolating your identity into a separate "container." This makes it far more difficult for Facebook to track your activity on other websites using third-party cookies.  You can get the extension here. Upon installation, the extension deletes your Facebook cookies and logs you out of Facebook. The next time you visit the social media giant, it will open in a special blue browser "container" tab - which you can use to safely log in to Facebook and use it like you normally would. If you then click on a link that takes you outside of Facebook, it will load outside of the container.   Should you click on any Facebook Share buttons on other browser tabs it will load them within the Facebook container. You should know that when you’re using these buttons information will be sent to Facebook about the website that you shared from. If you use your Facebook credentials to create an account or log in using your Facebook credentials, it may not work properly and you may not be able to login. Also, because you’re logged into Facebook in the container tab, embedded Facebook comments and Like buttons in tabs outside the Facebook container tab will not work. This prevents Facebook from associating information about your activity on websites outside of Facebook to your Facebook identity. So it may look different than what you are used to seeing. Think of it as a condom for Facebook.

      37 State Attorneys General Demand Answers From Zuckerberg In Data Harvesting Scandal -- Thirty-seven "profoundly concerned" U.S. state and territory attorneys general fired off a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, demanding answers over reports that personal user information from Facebook profiles was provided to third parties without the users' knowledge or consent. "Most recently, we have learned from news reports that the business practices within the social media world have evolved to give multiple software developers access to personal information of Facebook users. These reports raise serious questions regarding consumer privacy" The letter notes the 50 million Facebook profiles which may have been "misused and misappropriated by third-party software developers," noting that Facebook "took as much as 30%" of payments made through applications used by Facebook users. "According to these reports, Facebook’s previous policies allowed developers to access the personal data of “friends” of people who used applications on the platform, without the knowledge or express consent of those “friends.” It has also been reported that while providing other developers access to personal Facebook user data, Facebook took as much as thirty (30) percent of payments made through the developers’ applications by Facebook users." In other words - while a Facebook user may have agreed in the fine print to allowing the social media giant to hoover up their information - their "friends" did not. 

      Did Zuckerberg Lie? Accused App Developer Told Facebook Of Plans To Sell User Data, Report -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg might want to rethink his decision to snub the UK Parliament by declining to appear in person to offer testimony on the widening scandal surrounding its utilization abuse of sensitive user data for commercial purposes Because, in a bombshell report published minutes before US markets close for a long holiday weekend, the Financial Times is alleging that the researcher whom Facebook has blamed for lying about his decision to collect and sell data gleaned from hundreds of thousands of Facebook users (and approximately 50 million of their friends) actually had every right to sell the data.And the researcher, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, even disclosed his plans to market the data in a contract issued along with an update to Kogan's app. The problem is, Facebook approved the terms submitted by Kogan using an automated process for examining app upgrades - and none of the company's human employees bothered to manually override or reject this. Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie told the FT in an interview that Facebook "didn't really do anything to safeguard the data" - citing its decision to greenlight an app that explicitly violated Facebook's own guidelines regarding the use of its data by third parties. The big problem for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is that in an interview with CNN last week he sought to convince the public that its lax data protections were a thing of the past - and that it had adopted new guidelines sometime around 2014 that would've banned behavior like the widespread collection and dissemination of Facebook user data carried out by Kogan's app. However, these rules were apparently routinely flouted thanks to the company's apparent lack of resources dedicated to enforcement.

      Tim Cook says Facebook should have regulated itself, but it’s too late for that now -- Apple CEO Tim Cook has doubled down on his call for regulation that would limit Facebook and others companies’ ability to use customer data.  Speaking to Recode’s Kara Swisher and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Cook said he’d prefer that Facebook and others would have curbed their use of personal data to build “these detailed profiles of people ... patched together from several sources.”“I think the best regulation is no regulation, is self-regulation,” he said. “However, I think we’re beyond that here.”Cook has made a point of criticizing Facebook for both the Cambridge Analytica affair and its overall approach to consumer privacy in recent days. But it’s not a new stance for him or the company: He made similar comments about Facebook and Google in 2015, and his predecessor Steve Jobs went out of his way to contrast Apple’s privacy stance with rivals like Google in 2010. Facebook and Google, of course, use consumer data as a core part of their lucrative advertising business. But while Apple has nibbled at the ad business a few times, it makes almost all of its money selling hardware to consumers.

       Is Dodd-Frank’s other asset threshold destined for the scrap heap — The biggest legacy of the current regulatory relief effort may be the increasing focus on whether organizing banks in supervisory buckets by asset size makes sense. Yet the bill to reform the Dodd-Frank Act deals with just one of the two big asset thresholds in the law: the $50 billion cutoff for banks facing enhanced Federal Reserve supervision. The other key trigger — the $10 billion level under which community banks enjoy regulatory exemptions — has largely gone unaddressed. Some observers say future regulatory discussions could focus on whether the $10 billion threshold should be raised to extend to more banks the benefits now available to smaller institutions, such as avoiding Consumer Financial Protection Bureau oversight. But many say going down that road would be even harder than getting the current regulatory relief bill enacted. “These thresholds need to be reviewed from time to time. Most of them were created out of thin air,” Under Dodd-Frank, community banks with assets of less than $10 billion feel less regulatory bite in certain key areas. They are exempted from CFPB supervision, with the prudential regulators continuing to examine them for consumer compliance. They are also exempt from a price cap on debit interchange fees that was imposed on larger institutions through the so-called Durbin amendment. Industry representatives have argued for a higher threshold, but the pending Senate regulatory relief bill negotiated by Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and moderate Democrats instead focused on raising the cutoff for “systemically important financial institutions” from $50 billion to $250 billion.

      A parting warning from FDIC's Hoenig on big-bank rules — The No. 2 leader of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. board warned policymakers Wednesday not to ease capital standards on large banks as they move to enact regulatory relief measures.In his last policy speech as the FDIC's vice chairman, Thomas Hoenig said it would be “a serious policy mistake” to ease capital standards such as the "supplementary leverage ratio" for megabanks.Lawmakers and financial regulators in the Trump administration have voiced support for revamping certain post-crisis capital requirements over concerns that they overly burden banks and restrict lending. For example, the Senate-passed regulatory relief bill would allow custodial banks to exclude deposits at central banks in the calculation of the SLR. Others have supported removing initial margin and Treasury securities from the calculation as well. “I caution strongly against eroding the post-crisis capital standards that have contributed to the strength of U.S. banks and the long-awaited recovery of the U.S. economy,” said Hoenig during a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “For example, reducing the capital requirements of the most systemically important banks by excluding central bank reserves from the supplemental leverage ratio ... is a serious policy mistake.” Banks have long argued that the leverage ratio, which requires banks to hold a certain amount of capital against all assets — without applying risk weights — has unintended consequences and penalizes them for complying with other requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act.The Treasury Department and the new Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell have suggested some form of relief to the leverage ratio.

      Podcast ‘There really is a consequence of bad behavior’: N.Y. Fed’s Dudley --William Dudley, who will retire soon as New York Fed president, talks about banks' corporate culture, risks to the economy and what advice he would give his successor.

      N.Y. Fed doesn’t need a regulator who whiffed on Wells - The Wells Fargo scandal was not only a failure of the bank’s management and board, but also a failure of regulators to uncover it and mitigate damages. That’s why I was disappointed to read that John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, is being considered for the second most important economic policy position in the country, as head of the New York Fed. Surely, the New York Fed’s board could find someone more suited for this critical position than the top San Francisco Fed regulator directly overseeing Wells Fargo’s holding company during the bank’s cross-selling and phony-account problems, which later came to light in 2016. Williams has served in his current position since 2011, which was when Wells Fargo was reportedly engaging in its unbelievable banking shenanigans. If he could not properly oversee a huge institution in his backyard, how could he possibly oversee the banking and finance giants on Wall Street? And, what did the Fed do about Wells Fargo? They did nothing when it was happening and, in fact, the San Francisco Fed appointed the now-disgraced former chief executive of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, to the Federal Reserve’s esteemed federal advisory council in 2015 — and then reappointed him in 2016, months before the bank’s misdeeds came to light. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who previously ran the San Francisco Fed herself, imposed some growth sanctions on the bank on the last day of her job earlier this year. But this does not get the Fed off the hook for its failure to properly oversee and regulate Wells Fargo.  Putting aside the San Francisco Fed’s failure with Wells Fargo under his watch, Williams also lacks the requisite credentials to perform the job.

      Regionals may lose ‘systemic’ label, but they’re not out of the woods  — Congress is widely expected to pass legislation this year that will increase the line at which a big bank is considered systemically risky, but banks below that threshold won’t get a free pass. Rather, banks will have to decide whether they want to restructure their business in exchange for less regulation.  “It will be a sober and complete analysis which will take some time [reviewing] what the new regulatory regime means to an individual bank,” . “I don’t think that is a decision that is made quickly. I think it will take some time to come up with a decision.”

       Reg relief = cost savings, right? Not so fast | American Banker- With Congress moving closer to passing a bill to reform provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, banks are hoping for a reduction in compliance costs after years of increased regulatory spending brought on by the financial crisis.   Skyrocketing compliance costs for community banks were a key reason senators of both parties helped pass the legislation championed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. The bill seeks to ease requirements on mortgage underwriting, disclosures, capital and other areas. (House members are still considering the regulatory reforms.)But some bankers still question whether those changes will translate into actual cost savings for their bottom line. "This bill is a lot bigger in picture than in having real teeth to it," said Chad McClung, the president and CEO of the $110.4 million-asset Colfax Banking Co. in Louisiana. "I'm not sure I can say that we will cut compliance costs, but we will not experience the increase in compliance costs that we otherwise would have."  Some experts think compliance costs actually will rise in the short term, assuming the bill ultimately becomes law, as banks implement the changes.  "There will be a temporary increase in compliance," said Pam Perdue, chief regulatory officer at Continuity, a compliance management firm, and a former senior examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. "It's the change itself, not whether it's getting more lenient or stricter, because financial firms still have to retool their processes, and update their policies and procedures."Compliance costs for community banks hit $5.4 billion in 2016, up from $5 billion in 2015, and $4.5 billion in 2014, according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

       Fed launches study of causes and effects of payments fraud — The Federal Reserve Board on Thursday said it has commissioned a third-party study into the costs and causes of payments fraud, following a recommendation of its own years-long examination of how to modernize the U.S. payments system. The Fed said it has commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to “measure fraud and associated costs in the U.S. payments system and identify the causes and contributing factors to fraud.” The report is expected to be completed within the next four to six months, the announcement said. Ken Montgomery, chief operating officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and payments security strategy leader for the Federal Reserve System, said the report will contribute to the central bank’s understanding of the complex and interwoven payments system and help policymakers decide how to make a modernized payments system more efficient. 

      Wall Street rethinks blockchain projects as euphoria meets reality -  Reuters has found several blockchain projects launched by major financial institutions that have been shelved, as development of the technology enters a hype-meets-reality phase. The casualties include projects by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, BNP Paribas SA (BNPP.PA) and SIX Group, Reuters has found.These were among the wave of blockchain tests touted by the financial industry over the past few years, as firms bet the new technology would displace much of the sector’s infrastructure, cutting out middlemen, speeding transactions and reducing costs for things like securities and payments processing…DTCC, known as Wall Street’s bookkeeper, recently put the brakes on a blockchain system for the clearing and settlement of repurchase, or repo, agreement transactions, said Murray Pozmanter, head of clearing agency services at the DTCC.The project, which had successfully tested with startup Digital Asset Holdings (DA), was shelved because banks and other potential users believed the same results could be achieved more cheaply using current technology, he said. “Basically, it became a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

       “Masking”: A Mass Conspiracy Inside Merrill Lynch - Pam Martens - At last we know why the New York State Attorney General’s office has decided to sideline the Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Department of Justice and become the self-appointed watchdog over Wall Street’s Dark Pools: it’s helping its hometown industry by doling out tiny fines and never digging too deep. This past Friday’s fine against Merrill Lynch’s Dark Pool marks the fourth time since 2014 that the office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has leveled a meaningless fine of less than $50 million against the Dark Pools of Wall Street’s mega banks that are making billions of dollars in profits each year through what Senator Bernie Sanders calls a “business model of fraud.” (Schneiderman’s office brought earlier charges against Barclays, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank.)On Friday, Schneiderman’s office issued a press release on its $42 million fine against Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch subsidiary for an insidious fraud that Merrill had internally called “masking.” The press release itself, however, masked the brazenness and seriousness of what Merrill Lynch had done. By reading the actual settlement agreement instead of the detail-lacking press release, we added up the following crimes that Merrill Lynch had committed versus the puny fine of $42 million: The company had falsified internal documents it provided to customers for at least five years in commission of a crime; it falsified reporting data on where stock trades were actually executed for its customers; it engaged in secretly routing orders to Bernie Madoff’s market-making business, which was itself being financed byMadoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, raising the possibility that it helped to make it appear legitimate; it falsified invoices to customers, lying about where their trades had been executed; and it altered its internal technology to facilitate placing false information on customer invoices. The settlement document explains:

      Regulators decline to challenge CLO retention exemption --  Issuance of Collateralized Loan Obligation (CLO) funds could surge after the Federal Reserve (Fed) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) decided not to appeal a February court ruling that exempted the deals from Dodd-Frank ‘skin in the game’ rules. Regulators’ decision not to seek a review of the retention rules, which require managers to hold 5% of their funds’ risk, could boost CLO issuance by managers that lacked the capital to comply. It could also cut borrowing costs for companies that depend on the US$511bn US CLO market for financing.   The ruling could be transformational for the CLO market and will “only further increase the number of transactions that we will see this year and beyond,” said Deborah Festa, a partner at law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.  CLOs are the biggest buyers of leveraged loans and the passing of Monday’s midnight deadline in the Appeals Court is a key part of the industry’s push to roll back the regulation. The Loan Syndications and Trading Association (LSTA), the trade group for the US$980bn US loan market, sued the Fed and SEC in 2014, saying the rules were “arbitrary, capricious” and “an abuse of discretion.” “We believe that the DC Circuit Court’s decision was correct so we are pleased that the government chose not to appeal,” Elliot Ganz, general counsel at the LSTA, said in an e-mail. A Fed spokesperson and an SEC spokesperson both declined to comment. By April 2 the Appeals Court will give a mandate for the risk-retention rule for CLOs to be vacated, allowing managers of those funds to legally issue deals without holding retention. The CLO market still has one hurdle to pass, however, as the US government has until May 10 to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, Ganz said. If regulators do not appeal to the Supreme Court by then, the ruling will be final. Managers can continue to issue CLOs without retention in that time.

      If regulators can’t fix bank culture, who can? — As bank regulators embark on a broad recalibration of the post-crisis regulatory framework, policy levers meant to bolster bank culture — to defend against potentially damaging behavior — appear to remain a low priority. But how to strengthen ethical values within a bank's corporate structure remains top of mind for some policymakers and executives, suggesting that supervisors would like to craft policy actions around culture but find it hard to employ the right tools. Regulators' clearest opportunity to address bank culture in the Dodd-Frank Act was a provision requiring regulators to ban incentive-based compensation plans that could trigger risky behavior, yet financial regulatory agencies have failed to agree on a rule implementing the measure. Financial reform advocates say that the relegation of that rule — covered under Section 956 of Dodd-Frank — to an inactive state is a major oversight, and said the failure of bank regulators to take it up amounts to an acceptance of the status quo. “It’s just an example of how reforms that the regulators themselves, the supervisors themselves admit are needed, just were strangled and delayed in back rooms and torpedoed by big bank interests,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform. Yet some regulators insist that issues pertaining to bank culture are on their radar. In a speech Monday, outgoing Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley said that a culture of rule-bending in the financial services industry is a major concern, one that has cost the banking industry hundreds of billions in fines and penalties since the financial crisis.  He also said in an interview with American Banker that events like the Wells Fargo cross-selling scandal, and the manipulation of interbank interest rates and foreign exchange rates, have created a perception among prospective future bankers and financial services workers that the industry is corrupt.

      What’s driving the push for more public banks? - Whenever they are frustrated with the services provided by traditional banks — or lack thereof — public officials will float the idea of creating a government-owned bank that, similar to Bank of North Dakota, would accept deposits from local governments and school districts and then lend the money back into the communities it serves. So far, the efforts have yielded little more than feasibility studies; the 99-year-old Bank of North Dakota, which makes student, small-business, agriculture and economic development loans in its home state, is the only public bank operating in the United States. Yet the public bank concept does seem to be gathering some momentum. New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, a Democrat, campaigned last year on the promise of creating a public bank while officials in California and Massachusetts have floated the idea of creating public bank as a means to serve cash-reliant legal pot industries in their states. Bankers counter that private-sector banks are more than capable of handling public deposits, particularly in states like New Jersey that already have scores of banks and credit unions. In other cases — where legal marijuana is concerned, for example — bankers contend that public banks would run into many of the same issues that prevent the private sector from serving that industry. These are legitimate counterarguments, but public-banking proponents remain undeterred. Here’s a look at some of the reasons supporters are pushing public banks — and where those arguments are catching on. 

      A MeToo backlash is brewing in banking - The worst sexual harassment “Sarah” experienced in her investment banking career goes back to the very beginning, when she was a college intern in the late ‘80s. Though she took the “crazy” behavior in stride — from the comments to the grabbing — she would like it if younger women did not have to. She is hopeful the current national spotlight on sexual harassment, partly driven by those using the hashtag #MeToo to share their stories on social media, will encourage more people to speak up and ultimately result in a lasting cultural change for the better.  A recent SourceMedia survey showed that a majority of men and women in the banking, payments and mortgage sectors are like Sarah in expecting the #MeToo movement to impact their industry to some degree. But not all of them expect that impact to be positive. There were two summers when Sarah worked as an intern at an exchange in Chicago. Any women going into the trader pit had to brace for sexually suggestive comments and some grabbing. This type of behavior was a common occurrence that went beyond accepted — it was expected. So Sarah brushed it all off, without ever complaining to anyone.  But the behavior did bother other women, driving some female interns to quit within the first week, she said. And Sarah herself decided against pursuing a career as a trader because “the crazy frat-house atmosphere convinced me I didn’t want to work in a place like that,” she said.

      Rising compliance costs are hurting customers, banks say -- Compliance costs rose last year at nearly three quarters of midsize and large banks, and bankers complain that the burden is forcing them to raise prices and curtail innovation, according to a new survey released by the Risk Management Association. In the association’s second annual bank survey, 50% of respondents said they spent between 6% and 10% of their revenue on compliance costs, while another 20% spent less than 5% on compliance. For banks, that has meant less flexibility in designing products (25%) and higher costs for some products (22%). “If you have a lot of compliance-related burden associated with a particular product or service, a banker may decide not to offer that product or service, or may offer it at a higher cost to the consumer to offset the related cost,” said Bernard Mason, the association’s regulatory liaison. “The bottom line is, because of the additional regulatory compliance burdens, it may be no longer offered or offered at a higher cost.”  Meanwhile, bankers also named their top three risk management challenges: operational risk, including cybersecurity and third-party exposures (50% of respondents); regulatory compliance risk (30%); and credit risk (20%).

      CFPB seeks comment on guidance process as part of Mulvaney review— The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Wednesday it was seeking comment on the bureau’s guidance and implementation support activities as part of acting Director Mick Mulvaney’s review of the agency's entire operations.“The bureau is seeking comments and information from interested parties to assist in assessing the overall effectiveness and accessibility of its guidance materials and activities, including implementation support,” the CFPB said in a press release. “The Bureau is also considering whether it would be appropriate to make changes to the formats, processes, and delivery methods for providing this guidance.” The new request for information is the 10th in the series that is part of Mulvaney’s “call for evidence” to assess the CFPB’s overall effectiveness. The RFI will be open for comment for 90 days. The agency said it was interested particularly in comments on the “positive and negative aspects of the bureau’s guidance materials and activities.” The CFPB said it is also looking for suggestions on updating the bureau’s approach to providing regulatory guidance, as well as particular areas of that approach “that should not be modified.” The press release said agency “is considering whether it would be appropriate to make changes to the disclaimers used on certain forms of guidance.”

      Graham unveils Senate measure to repeal CFPB payday rule -— Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has introduced legislation to overturn the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s payday lending rule.  Congress has until early May to overturn the CFPB’s rule to ban high-cost, short-term, small-dollar loans. The rule was finalized in October under former CFPB Director Richard Cordray and went into effect in January, but companies don’t have to comply with most of the provisions until August. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can consider blocking regulations within a given time frame. Graham's resolution, which was introduced Thursday, comes as acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney has already said the agency will internally reconsider the rule as well.  Mulvaney, who has consistently attacked CFPB policies implemented under Cordray, told reporters in December that it would be more “more appropriate” for Congress to pass a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the rule than for the agency to unwind it. Congress has 60 session days to overturn a rule, which only requires a simple majority to pass, after it is remitted to Congress.Progressive groups have quickly blasted Graham's resolution. Allied Progress issued a press release Friday citing data from the Center for Responsive Politics showing that Graham has received $35,800 from payday lenders, and noted that that includes over $12,000 from World Acceptance Corp., which had been under investigation by the CFPB until the probe was dropped under Mulvaney.  The payday lending "rule takes a common-sense approach to end the debt trap and protect consumers," Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, said in the press release. "It took years to get here, and with victory now in sight, payday lending industry-backed politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham — who has been showered with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the industry — are attempting to reverse course and pay back their predatory benefactors.”  Similarly, Americans for Financial Reform said Graham's resolution "betrays consumers."

      States that are passing laws to govern “smart contracts” have no idea what they’re doing - Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with the term “smart contract.”  The technology, which can be used to automate transactions on a blockchain, is still so new that no one really agrees on its definition. Nevertheless, several states in the US are moving quickly to codify it into their laws—which, given where things stand, might not be so smart. Earlier this month, Tennessee became the second state to go out of its way to legally recognize smart contracts (PDF); Arizona passed similar legislation last year. In both cases, lawmakers amended existing statutes governing the use of electronic forms and signatures to explicitly include the terms “blockchain” (in Arizona’s case), “distributed ledger” (Tennessee’s choice), and “smart contract.” Several other states have considered similar changes. The bills seem to be little more than pro-crypto posturing meant to attract investment and entrepreneurs. Tennessee’s new law, for example, states that a legal contract can’t be invalidated just because it is “executed through a smart contract.” But such clarification is not needed, according to Perianne Boring and Amy Kim. Existing federal and state laws already provide an “unquestionable legal basis” for this, they argue.  But those laws also provide uniformity, whereas Tennessee’s smart-contract law is not even identical to Arizona’s. If enough states create differing versions, “it’s just going to be chaos,”    “Laws should not attempt to define technologies that do not have a widely held definition in their relevant technical communities,” says Hinkes.  A smart contract is simply an “if-then” statement that runs on a blockchain. While it’s possible to automate some actions that parties must take under an actual legal contract, like payment obligations that kick in on a certain date, a real contract is “a much more multi-faceted instrument,”

      FHFA still eyeing 2019 for implementation of new credit score model - — Anyone hoping that the Federal Housing Finance Agency will suddenly accelerate the introduction of a new credit score model was likely disappointed by the release of a report Thursday.The annual progress report on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conservatorships reiterated the FHFA's projection that the agency will not set an implementation date for a new credit score model until after the launch of a new Single Security Initiative. The single security is slated for June 3, 2019. Fannie and Freddie currently use a credit scoring model introduced by Fair Isaac in 2003 known as FICO 5, but THE FHFA has been moving toward updating the government-sponsored enterprises' credit scoring models for the last several years. The FHFA is considering whether to endorse the new FICO 9 or VantageScore 3.0 models, or a combination of the two of them.

      Looser capital rules could stabilize mortgage servicing, banks say - Banks would welcome a proposal to loosen Basel III capital restrictions because it would make holding mortgage servicing rights easier and stem the recent exodus of depositories from the servicing business, executives said. Federal banking regulators are evaluating a plan that would increase the percentage of Tier 1 capital that can be made up of MSRs to 25% from 10%, and reduce the pressure on banks to sell MSRs, said Lee Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Flagstar Bank.With a 10% limit, Flagstar is constantly selling because of the more punitive capital treatment its retained MSRs could otherwise face under existing Basel II capital rules, said Smith. But if the limit is changed to 25%, "We can be a lot more patient," Smith said at the IMN Residential Mortgage Servicing Rights conference, taking place this week in New York.

       Low Income Housing Tax Credit gets boost from spending bill - — Congress approved a significant increase in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program in passing a trillion-dollar budget bill last week. This is the first increase in the tax credit in "over a decade," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a longtime champion of the program, said in a press release. The program currently provides states and local LIHTC-allocating agencies with nearly $8 billion in annual budget authority to issue tax credits for the acquisition, rehabilitation or new construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households.

      Barclays to pay $2 billion to settle mortgage securities suit - Barclays PLC agreed to pay $2 billion in civil penalties to settle a U.S. investigation into its marketing of residential mortgage-backed securities between 2005 and 2007.The investigation targeted 36 RMBS deals involving $31 billion worth of loans, more than half of which defaulted, the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday. In addition, two former executives at the bank, Paul Menefee and John Carroll, agreed to pay $2 million to resolve claims against them without admitting wrongdoing.“In general, the borrowers whose loans backed these deals were significantly less credit-worthy than Barclays represented,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.The London-based bank was said in 2016 to press to keep any settlement to $2 billion. The Justice Department balked and sued that December. It was a rare move as big banks typically negotiate a settlement before it reaches that point rather than risk a public trial.Barclays CEO Jes Staley welcomed the deal in a statement and called it “a fair and proportionate settlement.” The bank will recognize the fine in its first-quarter earnings.  Menefee, who was the head banker on Barclays’ subprime RMBS securitizations, “has always maintained that the government’s FIRREA lawsuit against him was baseless,” his lawyers said in a statement, referring to the statute under which the case was brought. “Solely to put this matter behind him, Mr. Menefee has agreed to a settlement in which he has not admitted any wrongdoing.”

      McKinley Mortgage to pay $3M in fines after 'bilking' investors - Heads of a large real estate investment company with offices in Alaska and California have agreed to pay $3 million in fines for what a federal agency says was a scheme to "bilk" hundreds of investors out of millions of dollars.The missteps largely involve McKinley Mortgage in Redding, Calif., and an investment fund it manages, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.But the problems extend to McKinley Mortgage in Anchorage and the man who founded the company in Alaska in 1989, Tobias Preston, 55, a former fisherman from Homer who is president of both companies.A lawyer for McKinley Mortgage said Tobias agreed to quickly settle the case to save money that can be used to pay investors, rather than fighting a costly court battle.McKinley's website says it's the largest private lender in Alaska and a nationwide buyer of mortgage notes, which have value in part because they carry a promise of repayment from homeowners. The SEC, a white-collar crimes unit designed to protect investors, brings civil lawsuits, not criminal. The agency on Thursday announced a settlement tied to a complaint the agency had brought against the companies, Preston and others in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Anti-fraud provisions and registration requirements of federal securities laws were violated, the SEC said.

      GSE foreclosure prevention actions increase driven by hurricanes -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had a 9% increase in total foreclosure prevention actions taken during 2017 as a result of three September hurricanes, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.This was accomplished through a 2,000% increase in the number of forbearance plans offered in the fourth quarter, as the government-sponsored enterprises offered 24,935 forbearance plans to homeowners late on their mortgage, compared with 1,212 in the third quarter. Most of those borrowers were affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma or Maria.For the year, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offered 29,987 forbearance plans versus 7,228 for all of 2016. Loan modifications were the most used tool to keep borrowers in their homes, with 128,625 taking place in 2017, up from 123,495 in 2016. Principal forbearance, along with a reduced interest rate and an extended term, was used in 42% of the modifications, while 42% had an extended term only. Almost all of the remaining modifications had a reduced rate and extended term.Meanwhile, the number of short sales and deed-in-lieu resolutions fell to 16,470 from 25,784 in 2016.GSE loans that were between 30 and 59 days late on their payments fell to 438,299 at the end of the fourth quarter from 440,534 at the end of the third. But the number of loans 60 days or more late increased to 458,824 on Dec. 31, 2017, from 368,182 on Sept. 30, 2017. This total included 328,845 loans that were 90 days or more delinquent or in the foreclosure process at the end of 2017, up from 246,642 three months earlier.

      Black Knight: National Mortgage Delinquency Rate Decreased Slightly in February --  From Black Knight: Black Knight’s First Look at February 2018 Mortgage Data

      • The national delinquency rate edged slightly downward in February, with hurricane-related delinquencies declining by a modest 5.0 percent for the month
      • Serious delinquencies (90 or more days past due) attributed to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma fell just 3.0 percent
      • 128,000 hurricane-driven seriously delinquent mortgages remain in Texas, Florida, and Georgia
      • After hitting a 12-month high in January, foreclosure starts fell 25 percent month-over-month
      • Active foreclosure inventory rebounded from January’s increase, reaching a new post-recession low
      • Rising interest rates pushed prepayment activity to the lowest level since 2014​
      According to Black Knight's First Look report for February, the percent of loans delinquent decreased 0.2% in February compared to January, and increased 2.1% year-over-year. The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased 1.8% in February and were down 30% over the last year. Black Knight reported the U.S. mortgage delinquency rate (loans 30 or more days past due, but not in foreclosure) was 4.30% in February, down from 4.31% in January. The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased slightly in February to 0.65%. The number of delinquent properties, but not in foreclosure, is up 63,000 properties year-over-year, and the number of properties in the foreclosure process is down 139,000 properties year-over-year..

      Freddie Mac: Mortgage Serious Delinquency Rate Decreased Slightly in February -- Freddie Mac reported that the Single-Family serious delinquency rate in February was 1.06%, down from 1.07% in January. Freddie's rate is up from 0.98% in February 2017. Freddie's serious delinquency rate peaked in February 2010 at 4.20%. These are mortgage loans that are "three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure".  The recent increase in the delinquency rate was due to the hurricanes - no worries about the overall market (These are serious delinquencies, so it took three months late to be counted). After the hurricane bump, maybe the rate will decline to a cycle bottom in the 0.5% to 0.8% range.

      Fannie Mae: Mortgage Serious Delinquency rate decreased slightly in February - Fannie Mae reported that the Single-Family Serious Delinquency rate decreased to 1.22% in February, down from 1.23% in January. The serious delinquency rate is up from 1.19% in February 2017.These are mortgage loans that are "three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure". The Fannie Mae serious delinquency rate peaked in February 2010 at 5.59%. By vintage, for loans made in 2004 or earlier (3% of portfolio), 3.35% are seriously delinquent. For loans made in 2005 through 2008 (6% of portfolio), 6.49% are seriously delinquent, For recent loans, originated in 2009 through 2017 (91% of portfolio), only 0.53% are seriously delinquent. So Fannie is still working through poor performing loans from the bubble years. The recent increase in the delinquency rate was due to the hurricanes - no worries about the overall market (These are serious delinquencies, so it took three months late to be counted). After the hurricane bump, maybe the rate will decline to 0.5 to 0.7 percent or so to a cycle bottom.

      A mortgage in 30 minutes? Fintech says it’s coming - Quicken Loans' Rocket Mortgage has made waves because it promises to process a mortgage application in minutes and close the loan in under a month, but a new upstart is aiming to knock the firm, now the largest retail home lender in the country, off its perch.  Lenda claims to make the fastest mortgages out there — currently two weeks start to finish, with an eventual goal of 30 minutes in a nearly all-digital process.  Launched in 2014, Lenda has made $200 million worth of mortgages, is licensed in 12 states and plans to expand to 12 more later this year. Jason van den Brand, its co-founder and CEO, said that despite other big players, the mortgage arena is ripe for further disruption.  "Mortgages are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to technology," he said. "The big banks are working on technology that was built in the '70s. We cater to the customer who lives on their phone, laptop and tablet and shops online and compares online."  “Appraisals are just data,” said Jason van den Brand, CEO of Lenda, who predicted they could soon be automated like most other parts of the mortgage process.  Lenda is following other fintechs that also aim to improve the customer experience in the mortgage process, including Social Finance (or SoFi) and Roostify. But it aims to be the quickest on the block.

      MBA: Purchase Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest Weekly Survey --From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest MBA Weekly SurveyMortgage applications increased 4.8 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending March 23, 2018.... The Refinance Index increased 7 percent from the previous week. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 3 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 4 percent compared with the previous week and was 8 percent higher than the same week one year ago. ... The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($453,100 or less) increased to 4.69 percent from 4.68 percent, with points decreasing to 0.43 from 0.46 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.

      Home Price Surge Continues in January -- With today's release of the January S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, we learned that seasonally adjusted home prices for the benchmark 20-city index were up 0.75% month over month. The seasonally adjusted national index year-over-year change has hovered between 4.2% and 6.3% for the last two-plus years. Today's S&P/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index (nominal) reached another new high. The adjacent column chart illustrates the month-over-month change in the seasonally adjusted 20-city index, which tends to be the most closely watched of the Case-Shiller series. It was up 0.75% from the previous month. The nonseasonally adjusted index was up 6.4% had forecast a 0.7% MoM seasonally adjusted increase and 6.2% YoY nonseasonally adjusted for the 20-city series.Here is an excerpt from the analysis in today's Standard & Poor's press release.  The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 6.2% annual gain in January, down from 6.3% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 6.0%, no change from the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 6.4% year-over-year gain, up from 6.3% in the previous month. “The home price surge continues,” says David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Since the market bottom in December 2012, the S&P Corelogic Case-Shiller National Home Price index has climbed at a 4.7% real – inflation adjusted – annual rate. That is twice the rate of economic growth as measured by the GDP. While price gains vary from city to city, there are few, if any, really weak spots. Seattle, up 12.9% in the last year, continues to see the largest gains, followed by Las Vegas up 11.1% over the same period. Even Chicago and Washington, the cities with the smallest price gains, saw a 2.4% annual increase in home prices. [Link to source] The chart below is an overlay of the Case-Shiller 10- and 20-City Composite Indexes along with the national index since 1987, the first year that the 10-City Composite was tracked. Note that the 20-City, which is probably the most closely watched of the three, dates from 2000. We've used the seasonally adjusted data for this illustration.

      Case-Shiller: National House Price Index increased 6.2% year-over-year in January - S&P/Case-Shiller released the monthly Home Price Indices for January ("January" is a 3 month average of November, December and January prices).   This release includes prices for 20 individual cities, two composite indices (for 10 cities and 20 cities) and the monthly National index.  From S&P: S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Prices: All 20 Cities Up Year-over-year The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 6.2% annual gain in January, down from 6.3% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 6.0%, no change from the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 6.4% year-over-year gain, up from 6.3% in the previous month.  Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities. In January, Seattle led the way with a 12.9% year-over-year price increase, followed by Las Vegas with an 11.1% increase and San Francisco with a 10.2% increase. Twelve of the 20 cities reported greater price increases in the year ending January 2018 versus the year ending December 2017.   Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a month-over-month gain of 0.05% in January. The 10-City and 20-City Composites both reported increases of 0.3%. After seasonal adjustment, the National Index recorded a 0.5% month-over-month increase in January. The 10-City and 20-City Composites posted 0.7% and 0.8% month-over-month increases, respectively. Sixteen of the 20 cities reported increases in January before seasonal adjustment, while all 20 cities reported increases after seasonal adjustment.  The first graph shows the nominal seasonally adjusted Composite 10, Composite 20 and National indices (the Composite 20 was started in January 2000). The Composite 10 index is off 2.4% from the peak, and up 0.7% in January (SA). The Composite 20 index is up slightly from the bubble peak, and up 0.8% (SA) in January. The National index is 7.6% above the bubble peak (SA), and up 0.5% (SA) in January. The National index is up 45.6% from the post-bubble low set in December 2011 (SA). The second graph shows the Year over year change in all three indices. The Composite 10 SA is up 5.9% compared to January 2017. The Composite 20 SA is up 6.3% year-over-year. The National index SA is up 6.1% year-over-year. Note: According to the data, prices increased in all 20 of 20 cities month-over-month seasonally adjusted.

      "The Home Price Surge Continues" - Case-Shiller Jumps Most In 4 Years, All Cities Up - US housing data has been disappointing so far in 2018 as affordability plummets on the heels of rising rates, but that didn't stop Case-Shiller Home Prices from surging at a faster-than-expected 6.4% YoY in January.Home sales, permits, and starts have been underwhelming so far this year... But according to Case-Shiller, home prices are accelerating at their fastest rate since July 2014 (up 6.4% YoY vs 6.15% YoY exp)... All 20 cities in the index showed year-over-year gains, led by a 12.9 percent increase in Seattle and an 11.1 percent gain in Las Vegas.After seasonal adjustment, Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta had the biggest month-over-month gains.Washington has the smallest month-over-month advance at 0.2 percent. “The home price surge continues,” David Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee, said in a statement.“Two factors supporting price increases are the low inventory of homes for sale and the low vacancy rate among owner-occupied housing.”  The 20-City Home price index is less than 1% away from the record highs of 2006... But the National home price index is over 6% above 2006 highs...

      Zillow Case-Shiller Forecast: More Solid House Price Gains in February -- The Case-Shiller house price indexes for January were released yesterday. Zillow forecasts Case-Shiller a month early, and I like to check the Zillow forecasts since they have been pretty close. From Aaron Terrazas at Zillow: January Case-Shiller Results and February Forecast: Prelude to Home Buying Season Already HotThe continuing inventory pinch helped boost the U.S. national Case Shiller index 6.2 percent in January from a year earlier, down from a 6.3 percent gain in December. Case-Shiller’s 10-City Composite rose 6 percent, while the 20-City Composite climbed 6.4 percent year-over-year...Spring home shopping season will be in full swing soon, and with it we can expect the usual seasonal bump of would-be home buyers competing over a shrinking pool of homes. But in a twist, this year’s buyers may be competing against some buyers who have been unsuccessful in recent months. Increasingly, the traditional seasonal boundaries around home shopping season – which generally heats up in early spring and cools off by late summer, in time for back-to-school season – are becoming less pronounced.Limited supply, fierce competition and rising prices are forcing many buyers to stay on the market longer in hopes of finding the right home at the right price. More inventory is really the only cure for those pressures right now, especially for people at the entry-level end of the market, but it has proven frustratingly slow in coming. Right now, the market can barely absorb what current demand there is. It remains to be seen how it adapts to even more buyers, and presumably less inventory, in the months to come.Zillow predicts the February S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. national index, released April 24, will climb 6 percent year-over year. The Zillow forecast is for the year-over-year change for the Case-Shiller National index to be slightly less in February than in January.

      In Nearly 70% Of US Counties, The Average Worker Can't Afford To Buy A Home - Housing, as we've pointed out in the past, is perhaps the most reliable bellwether of widening economic inequality in the US. And in its latest quarterly report on housing affordability in the US, ATTOM discovered that median-priced homes aren't affordable to average wage earners in an astounding 68% of US housing markets.In its report, the company calculated affordability by incorporating the amount of income needed to make monthly home payments - including mortgage payments, property tax payments and insurance - on a median-priced home, assuming a 3% down payment and a 28% maximum "front-end" debt-to-income ratio.That required income was then compared with the median home price.The 304 counties where a median-priced home in the first quarter was not affordable for average wage earners included Los Angeles County, California; Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona; San Diego County, California; Orange County, California; and Miami-Dade County, Florida. Meanwhile, the 142 counties (32 percent of the 446 counties analyzed in the report) where a median-priced home in the first quarter was still affordable for average wage earners included Cook County (Chicago), Illinois; Harris County (Houston), Texas; Dallas County, Texas; Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan; and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. Already, the "hottest" housing markets are seeing an exodus of working- and middle-class individuals who can no longer afford to pay the high rents - let along afford to set aside enough money for a down payment. Eight of the top 10 counties with the highest median home prices in Q1 2018 posted negative net migration in 2017: Kings County (Brooklyn), New York (25,484 net migration decrease); Santa Clara County (San Jose), California (5,559 net migration decrease); New York County (Manhattan), New York (3,762 net migration decrease); Orange County, California (3,750 net migration decrease); and San Mateo, Marin, Napa and Santa Cruz counties in Northern California. Furthermore, ATTOM's data found that this problem is getting worse, not better, with 41% of housing markets less affordable than their historical average during the first quarter. That's up from 35% the quarter before.

      Housing bubble or not, the real estate market is in trouble - First, some good news. Despite the meteoric rise in home prices, the real estate market hasn't ventured into housing bubble territory.The bad news? Home prices are still going to decline, and mortgage defaults are likely to rise. It's simply the nature of a cyclical market."It's interesting to watch the dynamics of the market. What we see is prices rise, sales activity slows down, prices weaken and then sales pick back up," said Carrington Mortgage Holdings Executive Vice President Rick Sharga. "It's the way a housing market is supposed to behave in a normal environment. But it's been so long since we've seen a normal environment that we forget how it's supposed to work."While it's true that certain housing markets are overheated, "it doesn't mean necessarily that tomorrow or next week or next month or even next year prices are going to crash. But it's prudent being a little more cautious about investments in those metro areas," said CoreLogic Chief Economist Frank Nothaft.  Here's a look at the 10 housing markets with the biggest gap between growth in home prices and wages that could indicate a housing bubble is forming."Even though CoreLogic's national home price index, as of October 2017, got to the same level it was at the prior peak in April of 2006, once you account for inflation over the ensuing 11.5 years, values are still about 18% below where they were," Nothaft said.CoreLogic found in comparing 380 metro areas that in January 2000, 6% were overvalued while 87% were at value. But by November 2006, 67% were overvalued and 32% were at value.At the bottom of the market in March 2011, 7% were overvalued, 42% were at value and 52% were undervalued. As of December 2017, there was a more even distribution among the three groups: 33% overvalued, 35% at value and 32% undervalued. Speculative overbuilding, along with property flippers obtaining mortgages under false pretenses (like applying as an owner-occupant, rather than an investor) helped inflate the mid-2000s housing bubble, said Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan.  Still, if there is a recession, expect mortgage loan defaults to rise. "Delinquency is highly correlated with unemployment. So anytime you have a recession, on a lag basis you will have a rise in delinquency and foreclosure," Duncan said. "That's a normal cyclical pattern. That's not evidence of a bubble."

      NAR: Pending Home Sales Index Increased 3.1% in February, Down 4.1% Year-over-year - From the NAR: Pending Home Sales Reverse Course in February, Rise 3.1 Percent Pending home sales snapped back in much of the country in February, but weakening affordability and not enough inventory on the market restricted overall activity compared to a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors®. The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, grew 3.1 percent to 107.5 in February from a downwardly revised 104.3 in January. Even with last month’s increase in activity, the index is 4.1 percent below a year ago. The PHSI in the Northeast surged 10.3 percent to 96.0 in February, but is still 5.1 percent below a year ago. In the Midwest the index inched forward 0.7 percent to 98.9 in February, but is 9.5 percent lower than February 2017. Pending home sales in the South rose 3.0 percent to an index of 125.7 in February, but are 1.5 percent lower than last February. The index in the West climbed 0.4 percent in February to 96.9, but is 2.2 percent below a year ago. This was above expectations of a 2.7% increase for this index. Note: Contract signings usually lead sales by about 45 to 60 days, so this would usually be for closed sales in March and April.

      Reis: Apartment Vacancy Rate increased in Q1 to 4.7% - Reis reported that the apartment vacancy rate was at 4.7% in Q1 2018, up from 4.6% in Q4, and up from 4.3% in Q1 2017.  This is the highest vacancy rate since Q3 2012. The vacancy rate peaked at 8.0% at the end of 2009, and bottomed at 4.1% in 2016. From Reis: Continuing on its upward path, the apartment vacancy rate increased to 4.7% from 4.6% at year-end 2017 and 4.3% in the first quarter of 2017. The vacancy rate has increased 60 basis points from a low of 4.1% in Q3 2016. The national average asking rent increased 0.9% in the first quarter while effective rents, which net out landlord concessions, increased 0.8%. At $1,382 (market) and $1,318 (effective) per unit, the average rents have increased 4.4% and 3.9%, respectively, from the first quarter of 2017.Net absorption was 27,875 units, well below the average quarterly absorption of 2017 of 44,707 units. Construction was also low at 39,917 units, trailing the 2017 quarterly average of 58,824 units. We caution that the first quarter tends to see the lowest activity, but this was particularly low given the construction pipeline. Although many metros are expected to see considerably higher levels of completions in 2018 – including Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Atlanta – the expected increase in vacancy is not expected to exceed 2.5% in any market as job growth is expected to remain healthy in most metros fueling the demand for apartments. This graph shows the apartment vacancy rate starting in 1980. (Annual rate before 1999, quarterly starting in 1999). Note: Reis is just for large cities. The vacancy rate had been mostly moving sideways for the last few years.  However, the vacancy rate has bottomed and is starting to increase.  With more supply coming on line - and less favorable demographics - the vacancy rate will probably continue to increase in 2018.

      Millennials Spend About $93,000 on Rent by The Time They Hit 30 - As post-graduate millennials struggle to earn enough money to pay off their student loans, start families and perhaps even start saving for retirement, the "generation of renters" (not including parental basement-dwellers) spends nearly $100,000 on rent by the age of 30 according to a study by Rent Café - around 45% of their income.  Key findings:

      • Millennials pay a whopping $92,600 in total rent by the time they turn 30. Although they earn more compared to previous generations, they also have to spend more on rent.  
      • By the time Millennials might be thinking about buying a home or starting a family, they are struggling with rent and student loan debt instead. Compared to Baby Boomers (36%) and Generation X (41%), Millennials have to cope with a 45% rent burden in their 20s.
      • Because of the ever-increasing rents, discrepancies appeared within the same generation as well. With a rent burden of 47%, younger Millennials (20 - 29) surpass older Millennials who spent about 44% of their income on rent between the ages of 22 and 30.
      • If this trend continues, Gen Z-ers are expected to pay something in the vicinity of $102,000 while in their 20's just to put a rented roof over their head.

      Millennials - whose baby boomer parents seem clueless as to why it's so difficult for their children and grandchildren to get ahead, pay a whopping $92,600 in total rent by the time they turn 30, more than what their Baby Boomer parents paid by the time they hit the same age. It seems that Millennials do put a massive amount of money into renting, but the numbers also show that their total median income is the highest among generations, earning about $206,600 in 8 years.The difference, however, is that Boomers were able to get away with spending far less of their income on rent vs. the generations which came after - as inflation has significantly eroded purchasing power while wages have struggled to keep up. To that end, Rent Cafe notes that millennials spend 45% of this income on rent between the ages of 22 and 30, which is more than the recommended 30%. In fact, none of the two previous generations managed to keep the rent burden under 30% with Gen Xers witnessing a rent burden of 41% and Baby Boomers of 36%.

      Reis: Office Vacancy Rate increased in Q1 to 16.5% --  Reis released their Q1 2018 Office Vacancy survey this morning. Reis reported that the office vacancy rate increased to 16.5% in Q1, from 16.4% in Q4 2017. This is up from 16.3% in Q1 2017, and down from the cycle peak of 17.6%.From Reis Economist Barbara Denham: Defying a healthy job market, the office vacancy rate increased in the first quarter to 16.5%, up from 16.4% at year-end 2017 and 16.3% in the first quarter of 2017. The vacancy rate has increased 30 basis points from a low of 16.2% in Q4 2016.The national average asking rent increased 0.8% in the first quarter while effective rents, which net out landlord concessions, increased 0.9%. At $32.87 and $26.67 per square foot, respectively, the average market and effective rents have both increased 2.2% from the first quarter of 2017.
      Net absorption was 6.2 million square feet, which was above the average quarterly absorption level of 2017: 5.9 million square feet. Construction was also higher than average: 10.9 million square feet, above 10.6 million square feet per quarter in 2017. Moreover, the first quarter tends to see the lowest activity; thus, this was a relatively strong quarter given the Nor’easters that plagued the Northeast. Moreover, the market seemed to have stagnated in 2017 as companies had put off making office leasing decisions until a fiscal stimulus was passed. The passing of the Tax Reform and Jobs Act should deliver higher profits and stronger business confidence which should spur stronger office leasing this year.
      This graph shows the office vacancy rate starting in 1980 (prior to 1999 the data is annual). Reis reported the vacancy rate was at 16.5% in Q1.  The office vacancy rate has been mostly moving sideways at an elevated level, but has increased a little recently. Office vacancy data courtesy of Reis.

      Reis: Mall Vacancy Rate increased slightly in Q1 2018 --Reis reported that the vacancy rate for regional malls was 8.4% in Q1 2018, up from 8.3% in Q4 2017, and up from 7.9% in Q1 2017. This is down from a cycle peak of 9.4% in Q3 2011.For Neighborhood and Community malls (strip malls), the vacancy rate was 10.0% in Q1, unchanged from 10.0% in Q4, and up from 9.9% in Q1 2017. For strip malls, the vacancy rate peaked at 11.1% in Q3 2011.Comments from Reis:Despite continued announcements of store closures, the Neighborhood and Community Shopping Center vacancy rate remained at 10% for the fourth consecutive quarter, up from 9.9% in the first quarter of 2017. The vacancy rate has increased 20 basis points from a low of 9.8% in Q2 2016.On the national level, both asking and effective rents increased 0.4% in the first quarter. At $20.96 and $18.34 per square foot, the average market and effective rents have increase 1.9% and 2.1% year-over-year, respectively.Net absorption was 453,000 square feet, the lowest quarterly total in more than five years. Construction was also much lower than average: 712,000 square feet, well below the 3.1 million square feet quarterly average in 2017. The first quarter tends to see the lowest activity; however, this was an unusually slow quarter for retail leasing and construction.The mall vacancy rate increased to 8.4% in the quarter, up 50 basis points from 7.9% in the first quarter of 2017. The quarterly rent increase of 0.5% shrouds the gap between the higher-end malls, which are thriving, and the increasingly vacant lower-end malls. Although the retail real estate market survived the tsunami of closures in 2017, the closures expected in the second quarter from Toys “R” Us, BI-LO and others will be a true test of the retail sector’s ability to weather the ongoing storm.

      Hotels: Occupancy Rate Up Year-over-Year -- From STR: US hotel results for week ending 24 March --The U.S. hotel industry reported positive year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 18-24 March 2018, according to data from STR.
      In comparison with the week of 19-25 March 2017, the industry recorded the following:
      • Occupancy: +1.0 at 69.4%
      • Average daily rate (ADR): +4.4% to US$133.42
      • Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +5.4% to US$92.53
      STR analysts note that performance in many major markets was boosted by strong group business, which moved out of the week of 25-31 March due to an earlier Easter. The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

      Personal Income and Outlays March 29 2018 - Inflation data are inching higher while softness in spending is offset by strength in wages. The core PCE price index managed only an as-expected 0.2 percent gain in February though the year-on-year rate moved a notch higher to 1.6 percent, which is still subdued but just better than Econoday's consensus. Overall prices also rose 0.2 percent with this yearly rate also up 1 tenth, at 1.8 percent. Movement is slow but is consistent with the Fed's expectations for a gradual rise this year to their 2 percent inflation target. The strongest news in the report comes from the wages & salaries component of personal income which posted a fourth straight sharp gain, at 0.5 percent. This helped total income which rose 0.4 percent for a third straight month and also helped the savings rate which rose 2 tenths to a still modest 3.4 percent. Also helping savings, unfortunately for retailers at least, was softness in spending which gained only 0.2 percent for the second straight month. Spending on services, at 0.3 percent, continues to hold up this component. Consumer spending doesn't look like it will be the backbone of the first-quarter GDP report like it was in the fourth quarter, barring that is a standout month for March. Otherwise, wages and inflation are moving in the right direction, that is consistent with moderate economic growth and gradual removal of stimulus by the Fed.

      Personal Income increased 0.4% in February, Spending increased 0.2% -- The BEA released the Personal Income and Outlays report for February: Personal income increased $67.3 billion (0.4 percent) in February according to estimates released today by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Disposable personal income (DPI) increased $53.9 billion (0.4 percent) and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $27.7 billion (0.2 percent). Real DPI increased 0.2 percent in February and Real PCE increased less than 0.1 percent. The PCE price index increased 0.2 percent. Excluding food and energy, the PCE price index increased 0.2 percent.  The February PCE price index increased 1.8 percent year-over-year (up from 1.7 percent YoY in January) and the February PCE price index, excluding food and energy, increased 1.6 percent year-over-year (up from 1.5 percent YoY in January). The following graph shows real Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) through February 2018 (2009 dollars). The dashed red lines are the quarterly levels for real PCE. The increase in personal income was slightly below expectations,  and the increase in PCE was slightly above expectations. Using the two-month method to estimate Q4 PCE growth, PCE was increasing at a 1.4% annual rate in Q1 2018. (using the mid-month method, PCE was increasing 0.4%). This suggests weak PCE growth in Q1.

      Real Disposable Income Per Capita in February - With the release of this morning's report on February Personal Incomes and Outlays, we can now take a closer look at "Real" Disposable Personal Income Per Capita. At two decimal places, the nominal 0.32% month-over-month change in disposable income was trimmed to 0.13% when we adjust for inflation. The year-over-year metrics are 3.20% nominal and 1.43% real. Post-recession, the trend was one of steady growth, but generally flattened out in late 2015. The first chart shows both the nominal per capita disposable income and the real (inflation-adjusted) equivalent since 2000. This indicator was significantly disrupted by the bizarre but predictable oscillation caused by 2012 year-end tax strategies in expectation of tax hikes in 2013. It will be interesting to see how the recent tax legislation affects the trend. The BEA uses the average dollar value in 2009 for inflation adjustment. But the 2009 peg is arbitrary and unintuitive. For a more natural comparison, let's compare the nominal and real growth in per-capita disposable income since 2000. Do Nominal disposable income is up 76.7% since then. But the real purchasing power of those dollars is up only 27.1%. Let's take one more look at real DPI per capita, this time focusing on the year-over-year percent change since the beginning of this monthly series in 1959. The chart below highlights the value for the months when recessions start to help us evaluate the recession risk for the current level.

       Saxo Chief Economist Warns Consumers "Maxed Out", Fears 30% Plunge In Stock Market"I think overall we have been pricing in for Goldilocks and we are closer to Frankenstein to be honest," warned Steen Jakobsen, Saxo Bank's outspoken chief economist, during an interview with CNBC, and that divergence from reality could mean markets face a 25-30% correction from a potential sudden recession scenario.Jakobsen cited several factors including growing credit-card loans (and soaring delinquencies), a widening fiscal deficit in the U.S., doubts over infrastructure spending plans, and a potential trade war."All the data we've seen over the last few weeks has basically been that the consumer is maxed out, we've seen that in credit card loans as well, so I think the consumer is done spending the money."The Saxo Bank economist appears to have noticed what we highlighted earlier in the month, that while the larger U.S. banks that dominate credit card issuance have focused on prime and super prime consumers post the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), and have enjoyed a prolonged period of low charge off rates concurrent with the Fed’s almost decade long ZIRP. As TCW's Chet Melhotra notes, it is America's smaller banks - those not in the Top 100 by asset size - that have experienced in just the recent months a surge in charge off deterioration, which at 7.9% is on par with the last financial crisis!  In other words, to find where the next consumer credit crisis hides - and will erupt next - ignore the big banks and focus on the smaller ones. And as we also noted here, judging by the collapse in household "buying plans," the consumer is indeed "maxed out" as Steen notes.  As CNBC details, Jakobsen highlighted a "Goldilocks" scenario that he feels traders are mistakenly pricing in to markets, where fresh economic data are either not too hot or not too cold. Overall, the global economy is currently experiencing lower levels of unemployment and higher growth. Looking at 2018 in particular, many analysts hoped for strong global growth on the back of higher inflation and higher investment, but according to Jakobsen, these drivers "aren't actually materializing."  Instead, Jakobsen made a reference to the novel "Frankenstein," arguing that the economy had been skewed by central bankers, who have injected trillions of dollars into the global economy to boost growth and investment. Estimates for the first quarter of 2018 "started at more than 5 percent expected GDP (gross domestic product); we are now significantly less than 2 percent for the (first quarter) expected, so I don't really see things happening in the growth area," Jacobsen added.

      Consumer Confidence Declines in March  --The latest Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index was released this morning based on data collected through March 15. The headline number of 127.7 was a decrease from the final reading of 130.0 for February, a downward revision from 130.8. Today's number was below the consensus of 131.0.Here is an excerpt from the Conference Board press release.“Consumer confidence declined moderately in March after reaching an 18-year high in February,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions declined slightly, with business conditions the primary reason for the moderation. Consumers’ short-term expectations also declined, including their outlook for the stock market, but overall expectations remain quite favorable. Despite the modest retreat in confidence, index levels remain historically high and suggest further strong growth in the months ahead.”  The chart below is another attempt to evaluate the historical  context for this index as a coincident indicator of the economy. Toward this end, we have highlighted recessions and included GDP. The regression through the index data shows the long-term trend and highlights the extreme volatility of this indicator. Statisticians may assign little significance to a regression through this sort of data. But the slope resembles the regression trend for real GDP shown below, and it is a more revealing gauge of relative confidence than the 1985 level of 100 that the Conference Board cites as a point of reference.

      Michigan Consumer Sentiment: March Final Highest Since 2004 -- The University of Michigan Final Consumer Sentiment for March came in at 101.7, up 1.7 from the February Final reading of 99.7. had forecast 101.9.Surveys of Consumers chief economist, Richard Curtin, makes the following comments: Consumer sentiment at month's end was marginally below the mid-month reading due to uncertainty about the impact of the proposed trade tariffs. The Sentiment Index, however, still reached the highest level since 2004, and the Current Conditions Index set a new all-time peak. Importantly, all of the March gain in the Sentiment Index was among households with incomes in the bottom third (+14.1); those in the middle third were unchanged, while the Index fell among households in the top third (-5.6). Households with incomes in the top third cited significantly greater concerns with government economic policies than last month, especially trade policies, with net references falling from +31 to just +1, offsetting their positive reactions to tax policies. The consensus expectation among consumers is that interest rates will increase in the foreseeable future. While consumers view the current level of interest rates as still relatively low, they understand that interest rate hikes are intended to dampen the future pace of economic growth. Their reaction will both emphasize borrowing-in-advance of those expected increases as well as heighten their precautionary savings motives. The trade-off between spending and saving will crucially depend on the pace of future interest rate hikes compared with the pace of income growth. It is likely that income growth will initially dominate, tilting consumers' motives more toward spending than saving. Overall, the data are consistent with a growth rate of 2.6% in consumption from mid-2018 to mid-2019. [More...] See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched indicator. Recessions and real GDP are included to help us evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.

       U.S. trade deficit in goods widens slightly in February -- An early look at trade patterns in February showed a 0.1% widening in the U.S. goods deficit – to $75.4 billion from $75.3 billion, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.,Also, the government’s advanced report on wholesale inventories found a 1.1% increase in February. And advanced retail inventories rose 0.4%. Both imports and exports increased in February, with imports rising at a slightly faster pace. The widening of the deficit in goods points to a larger U.S. trade deficit in February. Inventories, for their part, increased in a sign that companies are replenishing stocks after strong sales in the fourth quarter. Retail sales jumped after the hurricanes last year, and as a result, the trade deficit soared to its highest level since 2008 in January. Looking ahead, the Republican tax cuts should support imports while strong global demand and a weaker dollar support exports. The sector could face a tougher environment if key trading partners impose protectionist measures, economists said.  The inventory side of the report suggests higher inventory accumulation, which should add a bigger boost to first-quarter growth than had been expected. “This is disappointing because the sharp slowdown in retail sales in recent months signal a reversal in the recent increase in core imports...[which] sooner or later will have to drop sharply [as] they remain far above their prior trend,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “For now, though, we have to assume that foreign trade will be a drag on first quarter GDP growth, of about 0.3 percentage points,” he added.

      For 6th straight month, US trade deficit in goods widened in Feb - The Census Bureau reported that the US economy’s goods trade deficit widened in February to -$75.4 billion from a revised -$75.3 billion in the previous month. This marks the 6th consecutive month of widening trade deficits in the goods side of the economy, and the widest goods trade deficit in the post-recession era.  The results from January and February suggest that trade continues to be a drag on overall economic activity in the US and will likely subtract from growth again when 1st quarter GDP results are released next month. However, from a freight and transportation perspective, the news is far more encouraging. Unlike the previous month which saw total trade volume decline significantly, both goods exports and imports saw healthy gains in February, with year-over-year import growth reaching a fresh post-recession high of 10.8%.  As a result, this morning’s report bodes well for freight markets despite the negative headline number. International air and ocean freight companies like FedEx and Maersk obviously benefit from the increased volume of trade. Movements both in and out of the country are also helpful for domestic US freight companies, as much of the movement of goods throughout the economy consists of transportation to and from ports for the purposes of international trade.This is particularly true for long-distance trucking and rail freight, which benefit from long hauls to and from ports on the coast. The American Association of Railroads estimated last year that approximately 42% of all rail carloads and intermodal units, and 35% of annual rail revenue are directly tied to international trade. This link between international trade and freight has made recent moves on trade policy into a central focus for many transportation companies. Global transportation and logistics companies often throw their weight behind policies that promote free trade, and discussions of tariffs has raised some concerns on the volume of trade going forward as US policy takes on a protectionist theme. Recent announcements of tariffs on Chinese imports have further complicated things, as an escalating trade war with China would potentially carry significant consequences for trade. This is particularly true for movements to and from the West Coast ports such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and Long Beach.

      Baker Hughes rig count and Texas flatbed rates go to the moon -  The Baker Hughes rig count, a metric tracking oil production in North America since 1944, is sky-high this week at 993 rigs as of Thursday, an increase of 169 rigs year-over-year. As oil and gas production builds, particularly in trucking-intensive shale plays, flatbed spot rates for lanes associated with the petroleum industry continue to gain momentum.   FreightWaves Director of Data Science Sam Tibbs has estimated that every additional rig is associated with an increase of 1.1M truckload miles. We used DAT’s Rateview tool to look at flatbed lanes connecting three kinds of locations: flatbed trucking hubs in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee; refinery centers in Houston and New Orleans; and shale plays like the Permian Basin in West Texas (Lubbock) and the SCOOP/STACK shale fields in central Oklahoma (Oklahoma City). The most dramatic spike in flatbed spot rates we found was on the Houston to Oklahoma City lane, which is averaging $3.08 over the past seven days, up from an average of $2.58 in February. The lane from Birmingham, Alabama, where P&S Transportation, one of the largest flatbed carriers in the country is based, to Oklahoma City has also been running hot at $2.97 over the past seven days, up from $2.21 in January and $2.72 in February.  Flatbed traffic to and from cities like Houston, New Orleans, and Dallas, which supply the oil and gas industry with financing, personnel, and equipment, has also been trending up. Flatbed rates from New Orleans to Houston averaged $2.87 over the past seven days, rising steadily from $2.64 in November. The lane from Montgomery to Houston posted an average of $2.74 over the past seven days, up from $2.41 in February. Montgomery to Dallas was running steadily at $2.57 over the past seven days, up slightly from $2.48 in February. Flatbed truck rates from Nashville, where Daseke-owned TSH & Co. is based, to Houston jumped up to $2.67 over the past seven days, from $2.28 in February.

      Dallas Fed: "Texas Manufacturing Expansion Continues but at a Slower Pace" -- From the Dallas Fed: Texas Manufacturing Expansion Continues but at a Slower Pace  Texas factory activity continued to expand in March, albeit at a markedly slower pace than last month, according to business executives responding to the Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey. The production index, a key measure of state manufacturing conditions, fell 15 points to 12.7, signaling a deceleration in output growth. Other indexes of manufacturing activity also remained positive but posted double-digit declines in March. The new orders and growth rate of orders indexes fell to 8.3 and 3.8, respectively. The capacity utilization index dropped to 9.6, and the shipments index plunged 23 points to 9.3. Although these indexes are down notably from their February readings, they remain well above their postrecession averages.Perceptions of broader business conditions remained positive on net, but the share of firms reporting an improvement declined from last month. The general business activity index fell 16 points to 21.4, and the company outlook index declined 12 points to 19.6. While both of these March readings represent the lowest this year, they are on par with last year’s average indexes and far above their postrecession average levels.Labor market measures suggested growth was weaker for employment and workweek length. The employment index came in at 10.8, down eight points from February. Twenty percent of firms noted net hiring, compared with 9 percent noting net layoffs. The hours worked index moved down to 9.4.  This is still a solid report.  So far all of the regional surveys have been solid in March.

      Richmond Fed: "Fifth District Manufacturing Firms Reported Sluggish Growth in March" -- From the Richmond Fed: Fifth District Manufacturing Firms Reported Sluggish Growth in March: Fifth District manufacturing expanded at a slower pace in March, according to the most recent survey results from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The composite index dropped from a particularly strong reading of 28 in February to 15 in March as each of the three components (shipments, new orders, and employment) fell. However, for each of these variables, a larger share of firms predicted growth in six months than had in February. Firms reported weaker growth in capital expenditures in March but saw an uptick in growth of business services expenditures.The survey's employment measures suggested slower growth in March. While the availability of skills index increased in March, it remained in negative territory indicating that skills shortages persisted. Firms anticipate stronger growth in all employment measures in the coming months. District manufacturers saw higher growth in prices paid in March, but growth in prices received slowed slightly. However, firms expected to see accelerating price increases for both prices paid and received in the next six months.

      Chicago PMI Falls in March - The Chicago Business Barometer, also known as the Chicago Purchasing Manager's Index, is similar to the national ISM Manufacturing indicator but at a regional level and is seen by many as an indicator of the larger US economy. It is a composite diffusion indicator, made up of production, new orders, order backlogs, employment, and supplier deliveries compiled through surveys. Values above 50.0 indicate expanding manufacturing activity.The latest Chicago Purchasing Manager's Index, or the Chicago Business Barometer, fell in March to a value of 61.9 from 65.7 in February. forecast 64.2. Here is an excerpt from the press release:“The Chicago Business Barometer calendar quarter average had increased for six straight quarters until Q1 2018, with the halt largely due to the recent downward trajectory of orders and output,” said Jamie Satchi, Economist at MNI Indicators.“Troubles higher up in firms’ supply chains are restraining their productive capacity and higher prices are being passed on to consumers. On a more positive note, firms remain keen to expand their workforce,” he added. [Source] Let's take a look at the Chicago PMI since its inception.

      Vehicle Sales Forecast: Sales Under 17 Million SAAR in March --  The automakers will report March vehicle sales on Tuesday, April 3rd.Note: There were 28 selling days in March 2018, up from 27 in March 2017. From WardsAuto: U.S. Light-Vehicle Forecast: Sales Down Slightly; Inventory Declines to Match Demand A Wards Intelligence forecast calls for U.S. automakers to deliver 1.60 million light vehicles in March. ... The report puts the seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales for the month at 16.9 million units, higher than last year’s 16.7 million but slightly under last month’s 17.0 million. Sales in March will probably be at the slowest sales rate since last August.   After August, sales were boosted by the hurricanes.

       Uber’s use of fewer safety sensors prompts questions after Arizona crash - When Uber decided in 2016 to retire its fleet of self-driving Ford Fusion cars in favor of Volvo sport utility vehicles, it also chose to scale back on one notable piece of technology: the safety sensors used to detect objects in the road. That decision resulted in a self-driving vehicle with more blind spots than its own earlier generation of autonomous cars, as well as those of its rivals, according to interviews with five former employees and four industry experts who spoke for the first time about Uber’s technology switch. Driverless cars are supposed to avoid accidents with lidar – which uses laser light pulses to detect hazards on the road - and other sensors such as radar and cameras. The new Uber driverless vehicle is armed with only one roof-mounted lidar sensor compared with seven lidar units on the older Ford Fusion models Uber employed, according to diagrams prepared by Uber. In scaling back to a single lidar on the Volvo, Uber introduced a blind zone around the perimeter of the SUV that cannot fully detect pedestrians, according to interviews with former employees. The lidar system made by Velodyne - one of the top suppliers of sensors for self-driving vehicles - sees objects in a 360-degree circle around the car, but has a narrow vertical range that prevents it from detecting obstacles low to the ground, according to information on Velodyne’s website as well as former employees who operated the Uber SUVs. Autonomous vehicles operated by rivals Waymo, Alphabet Inc’s self-driving vehicle unit, have six lidar sensors, while General Motors Co’s vehicle contains five, according to information from the companies. 

      Boeing production plant hit with WannaCry ransomware attack - A Boeing production plant in Charleston, South Carolina was hit by the WannaCry ransomwear cyberattack on Wednesday, according to a report from the Seattle Times. Mike VanderWel, the chief engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplane production engineering, sent out a company-wide memo calling for “all hands on deck.” “It is metastasizing rapidly out of North Charleston and I just heard 777 (automated spar assembly tools) may have gone down,” reads VanderWel’s memo, according to the Seattle Times. The company worries the virus may hit equipment used in functional airplane tests, which could lead to it spreading to airplane software.WannaCry, which the Trump administration blames on the cyberterrorism unit of North Korea as of December 2017, attacked mainly via a critical Windows vulnerability, and its spread starting last May caused widespread alarm, with hospitals in the UK crippled in the initial wave of the attack. Variants of the virus then began popping up in more than 150 countries mere weeks later.  The virus operated by locking down machines, prompting system owners to pay a ransom typically in cryptocurrency to resolve the issue. Microsoft has issued patches to limit the virus’ spread, but that apparently has not completely eliminated it.

      Cerberus Takes A Bath As America's Oldest Gunmaker Files For Bankruptcy - Cerberus Capital Management has officially eaten its initial investment in Remington as the country's oldest firearms manufacturer officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy late Sunday after unveiling a plan last month to surrender most of the company's assets to its creditors. CNNMoney reported that the company agreed to reduce its debt by $700 million through the Chapter 11 process and contribute $145 million to its subsidiaries as part of the deal. Cerberus will shed its ownership once the bankruptcy is complete.  Falling gun sales in recent years combined with high debt levels and a bleak sales outlook (now that President Trump is in office and Republicans are seen as more likely to protect gun rights) are making life difficult for firearms manufacturers. Remington, which is buried under nearly $1 billion in debt, announced a debt restructuring plan on Feb. 12, two days before the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Since then, some retailers have reacted by dropping sales of firearms - most notably Dick's Sporting Goods, which announced a ban on the sale of assault rifles and Walmart, which raised the minimum age to buy guns to 21. Remington makes the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead in 2012. The company was cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting, but investors swiftly shunned Cerberus Capital Management, the company's owner, according to the Associated Press. Gun makers have reported precipitous declines in profits over the past year thanks to the drop in sales.

      Winners and Losers as PE Firm Cerberus’s Remington “Rollup” Collapses into Bankruptcy --Bankruptcy becomes an increasingly common “exit.” And the pension obligations? On Sunday, storied gun maker Remington Outdoor Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, buckling under its debts. Its intention to file for bankruptcy has been known at least since February, but sources told The Wall Street Journal that the filing was delayed after the school shooting in Parkland Florida on February 14 that re-awakened the national debate on gun regulations.As part of the deal negotiated beforehand, shareholders will hand over the company to secured creditors, which include Franklin Resources and JPMorgan Chase’s asset-management division. In turn, these creditors will forgive part of the company’s debt. When it’s possible to do so, the new owners will unload the reorganized company.Among the largest unsecured creditors listed in the petition are the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which is the US government’s insurer for failed private-sector pension plans, and the Marlin Firearms Company Employees Pension Plan. Remington had acquired Marlin Firearms in 2008. So the idea is that the restructured company will walk away from its pension obligations. Fund investors of PE firm Cerberus Capital Management. Cerberus acquired Bushmaster Firearms International in a leveraged buyout in 2006. In 2007, it acquired Remington, and later put them under a holding company, Freedom Group Inc., that also acquired other firearms makers, such as Marlin in 2008. Cerberus was doing a classic “rollup” in the firearms industry.Those were the heady days of the fabulous leveraged buyout boom with its “Merger Mondays,” as CNBC used to call it – as many of the mergers were announced early Monday, similarly to bankruptcy filings. In a leveraged buyout, the acquired company is made to borrow the money for its own acquisition and pay those funds to the acquirer, which uses those funds to pay off the bridge loan originally taken out to fund the initial deal. In other words, the acquirer has little or no equity in the deal, and the acquired company has been loaded up with debt.

      Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims decrease to 215,000 -- The DOL reported:In the week ending March 24, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 215,000, a decrease of 12,000 from the previous week's revised level. This is the lowest level for initial claims since January 27, 1973 when it was 214,000. The previous week's level was revised down by 2,000 from 229,000 to 227,000. The 4-week moving average was 224,500, a decrease of 500 from the previous week's revised average. The previous week's average was revised up by 1,250 from 223,750 to 225,000. Claims taking procedures in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands have still not returned to normal.  The previous week was revised down. The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.

      Merrill and Nomura Forecasts for March Employment Report -- Here are some excepts from two research reports ... first from Merrill Lynch:We expect nonfarm payrolls to increase by 195k and private payrolls to increase by 200k in March ...We expect to see employment activity return back closer to trend after last month’s unexpected gain of 313k which was likely boosted by warmer weather conditions. As such, we could see some softening in goods-producing jobs, such as construction, which were particularly strong in February. Elsewhere, we expect negative payback in government payrolls in March after an outsized gain in February due to strong hiring activity in local government education payrolls. Therefore, we expect the gains in private payrolls to outpace the gains in nonfarm payrolls.We look for the unemployment rate ... to remain unchanged at 4.1%, which would mark the sixth consecutive month at that level. ... note that while the inclement weather likely reduced hours worked in March, it’s unlikely to impact payrolls growth noticeably as the BLS counts the number workers on payroll during the pay period capturing the 12th of the month. The decline in hours worked should result in an upward bias to wage growth, leading us to forecast average hourly earnings to increase by 0.3% mom, pushing up the yoy comparison to 2.8% from 2.6%.From Nomura: We expect nonfarm payroll employment in March to increase by 115k, a below-trend reading primarily due to negative payback from February’s weather-related boost. ... According to the San Francisco Fed’s weather payroll model, warmer weather biased up February payroll employment by roughly 90k, largely accounting for the above-consensus print of 313k in February. ... We forecast a 0.2% m-o-m increase in average hourly earnings (AHE), corresponding to 2.7% on a 12-month basis. ... Finally, we expect the unemployment rate to decline 0.1pp to 4.0% ... However, there is some risk that the unemployment rate declines below 4.0% given an unusual increase in labor force inflows in February

      Job Guarantee Winning More Fans on the Left and Right --Economists warn we are on the brink of another economic bust. Considering the Great Recession doubled the American unemployment rate from 5 percent to 10 percent in two years, now is the time to prepare for this looming employment crisis with meaningful policy. Some on the left fiddle with the idea of a universal basic income, or free college tuition that could prepare more Americans for high-skill labor jobs, while the right desperately calls for restoring the good old days of U.S. manufacturing and coal jobs. But there’s a simpler solution that could cast a security blanket over the most vulnerable Americans whose employment prospects will be even bleaker in a time of economic crisis. Eric Levitz, writing for New York Magazine, surfaced an old idea with the potential to bring together progressives, centrist Dems and even some conservatives: a federal jobs guarantee bill that would give government-funded work to the unemployed. As Levitz explains, the federal jobs guarantee has a history of support from liberals throughout the past century, from Huey Long to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Kirsten Gillibrand. There are various ideas of what this legislation could offer; the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities has proposed a version that would guarantee its participants a minimum annual wage of $24,600 plus benefits, and an average expected wage of $32,500—a figure at least three times the highest proposed universal basic income. The authors of the paper told the Nation their plan, “would especially benefit marginalized and stigmatized workers that face structural barriers in the private sector.” Several other countries have already implemented jobs guarantee policies. Argentina reduced its unemployment rate by two-thirds after implementing its version in 2002. India’s vast National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is the largest job safety blanket in the world, giving at least 100 days of work to every household, and has received praise since its initiation in 2005. And in 2017, South Korea’s president promised to add 810,000 federal jobs through a similar program.

      Stagflation Alert As Wages And Salaries Roll Over - What a difference two months makes. Back in January, with jobs aplenty and Americans spending like drunken sailors (sending their savings rate to the lowest on record), average hourly earnings suddenly spiked, unleashing the February VIXplosion over concerns that the Fed is behind the curve and will be forced to hike much more aggressively. Well, fast forward to today, when all those "green shoots" are either dead or on the verge, and after today's Personal Income and Spending report, it appears that it is stagflation that is once looming.First, core PCE, the Fed’s favorite inflation gauge, rose 1.6%YoY in February 2017; the biggest gain since April 2017. Meanwhile, the PCE deflator rose by 1.8%, coming hotter than expected, just as the cellular service price collapse falls out of the Y/Y data, sending annual inflation higher by 0.3%, and is set spook the next set of CPI data. In other words, inflation is here.Then there is the US consumer's reaction, and while until just a few months back the US savings rate was at all time lows, it has since jumped to 3.4%, the highest since August 2017, as households are no longer spending more than they can afford, a theme we observed at the end of 2017.  This also means that spending is lagging income for 3 consecutive months, as something appears to have spooked American consumers. That something may be wages and salaries themselves, because while the BLS' statistical approximation of average hourly wages is just that, the BEA's personal income actually carries wages and salaries data for both private and government workers. What it found is that after peaking in December, wage growth for these two worker groups has declined for 2 consecutive months, confirming what many have warned, namely that the recent period of benign wage increase is over, and now the slowdown begins.

      Trump Administration Fights Effort to Unionize Uber Drivers -- In 2015, Seattle became the first and only city to allow its ride-share drivers to unionize. But now the union may be broken up before it holds a single bargaining session, thanks to a legal alliance between Uber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — joined recently by the Trump administration. The 9th Circuit of Appeals is currently deliberating Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle, a suit brought on Uber’s behalf by the pro-business organization. Uber and the chamber hope to label the Seattle ordinance, passed unanimously by the city council in 2015, an antitrust violation. The argument, in essence, is that the city’s coalition of largely working-class and immigrant drivers would violate antitrust rules if they were allowed to negotiate together with the ride-sharing companies that sign their paychecks. Since the drivers are classified as independent business operators, the logic goes, they would be illegally conspiring to set prices. Recently, Uber’s side got a boost from lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, led by an outspoken Donald Trump supporter and former aide, and from the Federal Trade Commission. The agencies filed an amicus brief late last year, and an FTC lawyer presented oral arguments last month in front of a three-judge panel. The City of Seattle, for its part, maintains it should able to set its own labor rules, and that it wants to be a “laboratory’ for testing innovative policy responses to the problems created by new technologies and the changing economy.” The appeals case, the culmination of a more than two years of legal battle, stands as an example of how Uber has cultivated support well over the heads of local officials, who are directly exposed to its operations and often most inclined to regulate it. Beyond the courts and sympathetic members of the executive branch, Uber also benefits from a sprawling army of lobbyists. Recruited from both parties, these lobbyists help enact industry-friendly transportation laws at the state level, which can make Seattle-style unionization efforts nearly impossible. Against this political backdrop, Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle takes on an added urgency: It underlines just how difficult it is for workers in the precarious gig economy, who generally cannot unionize, to gain any leverage over the well-capitalized platforms for which they work

       ‘The Gig Economy’ Is the New Term for Serfdom - A 65-year-old New York City cab driver from Queens, Nicanor Ochisor, hanged himself in his garage March 16, saying in a note he left behind that the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft had made it impossible for him to make a living. It was the fourth suicide by a cab driver in New York in the last four months, including one Feb. 5 in which livery driver Douglas Schifter, 61, killed himself with a shotgun outside City Hall.“Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families,” wrote Schifter, “they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business.” Schifter and Ochisor were two of the millions of victims of the new economy. Corporate capitalism is establishing a neofeudal serfdom in numerous occupations, a condition in which there are no labor laws, no minimum wage, no benefits, no job security and no regulations. Desperate and impoverished workers, forced to endure 16-hour days, are viciously pitted against each other. Uber drivers make about $13.25 an hour. In cities like Detroit this falls to $8.77. Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber and one of the founders, has a net worth of $4.8 billion. Logan Green, the CEO of Lyft, has a net worth of $300 million. The corporate elites, which have seized control of ruling institutions including the government and destroyed labor unions, are re-establishing the inhumane labor conditions that characterized the 19th and early 20th centuries. When workers at General Motors carried out a 44-day sit-down strike in 1936, many were living in shacks that lacked heating and indoor plumbing; they could be laid off for weeks without compensation, had no medical or retirement benefits and often were fired without explanation. When they turned 40 their employment could be terminated. The average wage was about $900 a year at a time when the government determined that a family of four needed a minimum of $1,600 to live above the poverty line.

      Race, Gender & Income: Who Works in the Jobs with the Most Contamination Exposure? - Which occupations expose workers to the most contaminants? How often are American workers exposed to these contaminants, who are these workers, and how much are they paid? We decided to attempt to answer these questions by exploring the data. We analyzed this data along with Priceonomics customer, Ode, a company that creates environmentally-conscious cleaning products. Using resources from the Occupational Information Network and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we were able to investigate the relationship between different job categories, demographics, and levels of contamination. We found that automotive service technicians have the most contaminant-heavy job in America: they are exposed to pollutants, dust, gases or odors on a daily basis. HVAC and refrigeration technicians, truck drivers and tractor operators experience similar levels of contamination. Workers who are exposed to contaminants more than once a week make nearly one-third less than those who are exposed less than once a month.Of the occupations with the highest level of contaminant exposure—more than once a week—farmworkers make the least, and dental hygienists make the most. Men are disproportionately exposed to high levels of contamination, as are people identifying as Hispanic. Salaries for jobs with very frequent contaminant exposure run the gamut, with the most highly paid workers making more than three times as much as the lowest-paid. The data provided by the Occupational Information Network (O*Net) uses a scale from 0 to 100: employees in occupations with level 0 are never exposed to contaminants, while those in occupations with level 100 are exposed every day. The following chart shows the twenty occupations that expose employees to the highest levels of contamination:

      Employers to Women: Could You Be Any Dumber (Please)? --Yves here. So maybe not getting a JD/MBA wasn’t such a bad idea after all…In all seriousness, this study provides yet more evidence that meritocracy is a myth and that bias is deep seated. See this article for a further discussion.  In yet more evidence that oppression is the business model and the entire economy is based on fuckery, a new study finds that being an academic superstar might actually hurt women’s job prospects. (Breaking news: Men, not so much.) The study also found that while men’s employability is determined by their level of capability and dedication, women were judged on their “likeability.”The conclusions of the study from Ohio State University suggest that companies are responsive to women who do well, as long as they don’t do too well. Ohio State sociologist Natasha Quadlin created resumes for 2,106 recent college graduates. Using an online employment database, Quadlin sent “two applications—one from a man and one from a woman”—to entry-level job listings. An Ohio State article about the study notes that “both applications included similar cover letters, academic history and participation in gender-neutral extracurricular activities.”Quadlin found that fictional male applicants received responses expressing interest at the same rate across GPA levels. But as the pretend women’s GPAs increased, there was a correlating drop-off in the number of callbacks they received. In fact, high-grade-scoring men were 50 percent more likely to get a response from a potential employer than high-scoring women.

       Eroding Protection Under the Law. -- When Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967, the law was treated as something of an addendum to the Civil Rights Act, which had been passed three years earlier and banned bias on the basis of race, gender, religion and, later on, sexual orientation, among other categories. The 1967 law effectively added age to the list. Courts and lawyers assumed that key provisions of each act applied to the other. In years to come, lawmakers would strengthen some elements of the measure, for example largely banning mandatory retirement and requiring employers to provide more disclosures about the size of their layoffs and ages of those being let go.The original act did provide for some exceptions. Employers could favor younger workers if they could show that “reasonable factors other than age” were involved in their choice for a position. Congress allowed that, if a job required certain abilities such as quick reflexes as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” older workers could legally be passed over for jobs such as jet pilots or police officers. Even with such exceptions, however, the authors of the ADEA and the first generation of judges and policymakers to administer the act warned against letting the measure’s purpose be undercut. Chief among their concerns were that employers might use the exceptions as loopholes to justify firing older workers because, for example, they have higher salaries than younger ones. To this day, federal regulations governing employers’ use of the exceptions say it is unlawful to treat older workers less favorably “based on the average cost of employing older employees.”

      Texas woman gets five years prison for illegal voting - A judge sentenced a Rendon woman to five years in prison Wednesday for voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election while she was on supervised release from a 2011 fraud conviction.Crystal Mason, 43, waived her right to a jury trial and chose to have state District Judge Ruben Gonzalez assess her sentence.  J. Warren St. John, her defense attorney, said after the verdict that an appeal had already been filed and that he is hopeful his client will soon be released on bond.  "I find it amazing that the government feels she made this up," St. John told the court. "She was never told that she couldn't vote, and she voted in good faith. Why would she risk going back to prison for something that is not going to change her life?"  During her testimony, Mason — who served just shy of three years in federal prison — told the court that she was assigned a provisional ballot after she arrived at her usual polling place and discovered that her name was not on the voter roll.Gonzalez, who questioned Mason during her testimony, asked why she did not thoroughly read the documents she was given at the time.The form you are required to sign to get the provisional ballot is called an affidavit, Gonzales told Mason.  Mason responded that she was never told by the federal court, her supervision officer, the election workers or U.S. District Judge John McBryde, the sentencing judge in her fraud case, that she would not be able to vote in elections until she finished serving her sentence, supervised release included. She also said she did not carefully read the form because an election official was helping her.

      Florida Cops Laundered Millions For Drug Cartels, Failed To Make A Single Arrest - Posing as money launderers, police in Bal Harbour and Glades County, Fla. laundered a staggering $71.5 million for drug cartels in an undercover sting operation, according to an in-depth investigation by The Miami Herald. With fake identities, undercover officers made deals to pick up cash from criminal organizations in cities across the country. Agents then delivered the money to Miami-Dade storefronts and even wired cash to banks overseas in China and Panama. After laundering the cash, police would skim a three percent commission fee, ultimately generating $2.4 million for themselves. “If you think of all the money that’s made from drugs, at some point it has to be cleaned up and become legit,” remarked Finn Selander, a former DEA agent and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. But unless proper precautions are taken, sting operations can “backfire” and “come back and bite you in the proverbial ass.” Together, the Bal Harbour Police Department and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office formed the Tri-County Task Force, which, despite the name, consisted of only two agencies. From 2010 to 2012, the task force passed on information and tips to federal agencies that led to the government seizing almost $30 million. Yet the undercover unit laundered over $70 million for drug cartels—more than twice as much as what was actually taken off the streets.

      Legal Pot Business Owners Ponder The Possibility Of Death Row After Trump Administration Policy Shift -- In a move apparently designed to appease President Trump’s recent promise to execute narcotics traffickers, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week released a memo urging federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for "dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs."Smarting from Sessions’ opposition to state-legal marijuana in places like California, Colorado and Washington state, the new guidelines sent chills through some in the cannabis community.“To not acknowledge the difference between a regulated cannabis business and a heroin kingpin is unfathomable,” said Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, a cannabis business trade group. “We will stand up against these outdated, draconian policies.” Tom Angell, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Marijuana Majority, said that legal retailers, producers and growers who traffic in state-approved recreational pot could fall under Sessions' federal guidelines for capital punishment, which include 60,000 kilograms of marijuana product or $20 million in gross receipts in a year.Some players in the pot world said the attorney general was just grandstanding for his boss, but others noted that Sessions is the most powerful law enforcement official in the land.“At any point Sessions could make trouble,” said Aaron Herzberg, a founding partner at the Puzzle Group, a law firm that serves cannabis businesses. “I’m not denying he could come knocking on our doors tomorrow.”

      The Supreme Court is hearing a gerrymandering case that could change the political landscape for years to come— The US Supreme Court on Wednesday considers for the second time in recent months whether to rein in politicians who draw state electoral maps with the aim of entrenching their party in power. Both cases center on a practice known as partisan gerrymandering that involves manipulating boundaries of legislative districts to benefit one party and diminish another. The Supreme Court for decades has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps because of racial discrimination but never those created just for partisan advantage. The rulings in the Maryland and Wisconsin cases, due by the end of June, could alter the US political landscape, either by imposing limits on partisan gerrymandering or by allowing it even in its most extreme forms. The Republican voters sued Maryland after the Democratic-led legislature in 2011 redrew the boundaries of the state's Sixth District in a way that removed Republican-leaning areas and added Democratic-leaning areas. Maryland's map led to Democrat John Delaney beating the incumbent Republican Roscoe Bartlett to take the district in 2012.  . Republicans hold just one of Maryland's eight congressional seats because of the way the electoral boundaries are drawn. The question before the Supreme Court is whether Maryland's electoral map violated the US Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.  The Wisconsin challengers presented a different argument, that the Republican-drawn map violated the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and association and the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law because of the extent to which it marginalized Democratic voters.

      African immigrants report grave abuses at West Texas detention center --Approximately 80 immigrant men from Kenya, Somalia and Sudan held at the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, Texas have been subjected to horrific physical abuses, alleged hate crimes, and sexual abuse, according to a report recently cited by the  Intercept.Within one week of their arrival in late February at the immigration jail near the US-Mexico border in Sierra Blanca, Texas, many of the men were beaten, pepper-sprayed, taunted with racial slurs and sexually abused.The chilling report released last week by Texas A&M University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, and RAICES, a Texas-based advocacy group, outlines multiple violations of federal law, human rights abuses, and alleged hate crimes.The report was based on interviews with 30 Somali men, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, who were held at the West Texas facility from February 23 to March 2 this year. Some were recent arrivals, while others were married to US citizens or have children who are citizens.LaSalle Corrections privately operates the West Texas Detention Facility along with another 17 other prisons in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, with a total inmate population of 13,000.

      Parents burned and beat their teen daughter after she said no to ‘arranged’ marriage, police say - Sometime in mid-2017, Maarib Al Hishmawi’s parents told her they had found a man for her to marry.  Soon, he would pay the family $20,000, they said, according to investigators in Texas. After that, 15-year-old Maarib would move to another city and be his bride.When Maarib balked, her parents insisted — violently. They beat her with broomsticks, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said. They choked her “almost to the point of unconsciousness.” They threw hot oil on her. The only way to make the violence stop was to relent — or to at least make her parents think she had.Maarib said she would go through with the marriage. But as her wedding date neared, she was working on a plan. On Jan. 30, Maarib walked out of Taft High School in San Antonio and disappeared.Authorities began to search for the 5-foot-5, 150-pound girl and speculated that she may have been returned to the Middle East, according to San Antonio ABC affiliate KSAT. They asked the FBI to assist, in part to help navigate language and cultural barriers that were impeding the investigation. The increased scrutiny turned up the girl and what Salazar called the “heartbreaking” reason for her disappearance.  “This young lady … was subjected to some pretty bad abuse because she didn’t want to be married to this person,” Salazar said.On Friday, authorities announced that her parents — Abdulah Fahmi Al Hishmawi, 34, and Hamdiyah Sabah Al Hishmawi, 33 — were arrested and charged with continuous abuse of a family member. Maarib, now 16, has been placed in the custody of child protective services along with her five siblings, ages 5 to 15. Police have not said whether they suspect those children were also abused, Salazar said, and they won’t say where Maarib fled for help.

      One No-Brainer Way to Bring Gun Deaths Down - It’s now been over a month since 17 teenagers were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, culminating in a march that brought nearly a million people to the capital. Yet Congress is still dragging its feet on guns. While Republicans and Democrats gridlocked over the best way to prevent shootings, the Oregon state legislature took action to prevent a particularly deadly form of gun violence — and it didn’t involve arming teachers or outlawing AR-15s.Just one day after the devastating Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill to close what’s called the “boyfriend loophole” in its gun laws. The new law will prevent anyone from buying or owning a firearm who’s been convicted of stalking or domestic violence, as well as people with active protective orders against them. While federal law is already supposed to prevent gun ownership by domestic abusers, the law’s outdated definition left out those who didn’t live with or have children with their victims — hence, the boyfriend loophole. While this news received relatively little coverage, it’s a huge step forward and will unquestionably save lives. Over 1,000 women are murdered each year by current or past husbands or partners — that’s three women a day, or one woman dead each time you sit down for a meal.

      Where Do All The Assault Rifles Come From? - Following the February 14th mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida, a newly impassioned debate has erupted, as follows every mass shooting in the US, about how to prevent such events from reoccurring.  One side focuses on easy civilian access to military-style guns, such as the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.  The other focuses on the individuals who perpetrate these acts, in particular their mental health. We wanted to contribute to the conversation by analyzing the gun manufacturers, to understand: how many such guns are being produced, how much revenue and profit is generated from their sale.  We found there are currently at least 23 different models of AR-15 available for civilian purchase in the US, from 18 different manufacturers.  Of these, 15 are private companies, while 3 are publicly-traded. We found no clear correlation between mass shootings and changes in the gun manufacturers’ share price.  Two of the three companies have diversified into outdoor products, and changed their corporate names to deemphasize their firearm brands. In the most deadly 12 mass shootings in the US in the past decade, a total of 270 people were killed.  In 8 of these shootings, an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle was used. The most commonly used AR-15 was the Smith & Wesson M&P15, manufactured by American Outdoor Brands Corporation, used in 3 of the shootings.  The next most commonly used AR-15 was the Bushmaster XM-15, manufactured by Remington Outdoor Company used in 2 of the shootings.  We examined financial filings of the public gun manufacturers to understand how many such rifles are produced and how much money is generated from their sale. The table shows that all 3 of the public gun manufacturers have a stock market value less than $1 Billion, and all three have experienced declining stock market value, sales and profits during the past year. Since the launch of the March for our Lives movement, it will be interesting to see if demand for firearms increases, stoked by fears among gun enthusiasts that stricter regulation may be ahead.

      UC-Berkeley Magazine Blames Gun Violence On "White Men" - An official University of California, Berkeley publication is offering “insights” to help readers “make sense of gun violence,” primarily by blaming it on conservative “white men.”“For many white men, guns are a source of meaning and purpose,” Jeremy Adam Smith asserts, noting that “the American citizen most likely to own a gun is a white male—but not just any white guy.” Smith is the editor of Greater Good Magazine, a publication produced by UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center to explore “the science of a meaningful life” and “turn scientific research into stories, tips, and tools for a happier life and a more compassionate society." Smith asserts that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile,” referencing a study by two Baylor University sociologists that claims white men are “emotionally and morally attached to their guns.”“We found that white men who have experienced economic setbacks or worry about their economic futures are the group of owners most attached to their guns,” the article quotes one the study’s authors.“Those with high attachment felt that having a gun made them a better and more respected member of their communities.”According to Smith, the researchers determined that the same observation “wasn’t true for most women and people of color,” who “didn’t turn to guns to make themselves feel better” when they encountered setbacks. Religious faith, meanwhile, appeared to lessen white men’s attachment to guns. Smith says the researchers speculated that “economically insecure, less-religious white men” see gun ownership as “a way to regain their masculinity.”

       Unarmed man with pants down fatally shot by deputy in Houston, Texas - Danny Ray Thomas, a 34-year-old man, was shot and killed by a Harris County deputy in Houston, Texas. According to the Houston Chronicle, witnesses said Thomas was “walking in the middle of the intersection of Imperial Valley and Greens Road with his pants around his ankles, talking to himself and hitting vehicles as they passed by.” One of the drivers of the vehicles then exited their vehicle and confronted Thomas, starting a verbal and physical altercation. A Harris County deputy witnessed the incident and stopped his car to get out and intervene. Thomas reportedly did not respond to the officer’s commands and approached the officer, who then shot him once. Thomas died later that day at the hospital. The Harris County deputy who shot Thomas said he did so “fearing for his safety” despite the fact that Thomas had his pants around his ankles. The deputy also claimed Thomas had “some object” in his hands, despite no weapon or objects having been found on the scene. Thomas’s family members confirmed that he was the father of two children who had died in 2016 when their mother allegedly drowned them in a bathtub. Marketa Thomas, Danny Ray Thomas’s sister, said that she had relied on her brother for support as they both suffered from depression. So far this year, there have been two people killed by police in Harris County.

      Protests continue in Sacramento as autopsy shows police shot Stephon Clark multiple times in the back -- On Friday, the results of an independent autopsy requested by Stephon Clark’s family were released to the public, confirming that police shot the unarmed 22-year-old African-American man seven times in the back and side amid a volley of gunfire in his grandparents’ backyard.The incident began when two police officers responding to a report of someone breaking car windows confronted Clark on March 18. Body camera footage shows that, without identifying themselves, police demanded Clark put his hands up and chased him into his grandparents’ backyard. At that point, one of the officers yelled “Gun!” and the two fired 20 shots at Clark, who was holding his cell phone in one hand. The officers, identified as Terrence Mercadel and Jared Robinet, stood pointing their guns at Clark’s corpse for several minutes until backup arrived, then handcuffed his body and made a perfunctory attempt to resuscitate Clark before pronouncing him dead. The officers then turned off their microphones for several minutes, presumably to get their stories straight off the record.Autopsy results released by a private medical examiner hired by the family’s attorney show that Mercadel and Robinet shot Clark a total of eight times. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s analysis found that Clark was shot four times in the lower back, twice in the neck, once under an armpit, and once in the front of his thigh.“You could reasonably conclude that he received seven gunshot wounds from his back,” Dr. Omalu told a press conference Friday adding that any one of those would have been fatal on its own. The doctor described extensive damage to Clark’s body from the torrent of bullets, which resulted in a collapsed lung and a shattered vertebra. Dr. Omalu also told reporters that Clark did not die immediately from his injuries but lived another three to 10 minutes after he was shot. He noted that, while it is impossible to say whether Clark would have survived had he received medical attention sooner, “every minute you wait decreases probability of survival.” According to video released by the Sacramento Police Department, six minutes elapsed between the firing of the final bullet and the time CPR was administered to Clark’s dead body.

      Police will not face charges for the 2016 murder of Alton Sterling --Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced yesterday that there will be no murder charges against the two policemen who shot 37-year-old Alton Sterling to death as a third officer held him down. The decision comes on the heels of protest over the police slaying of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California in his own yard.Sterling was murdered on July 5, 2016, when Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II responded to calls alleging that a man with a gun had been seen outside a Baton Rouge convenience store.When Salamoni and Lake approached him, Sterling was selling CDs in front of the store. The officers demanded that he place his hands on the hood of a car before wrestling him to the ground. Lake and Salamoni held Sterling down as he struggled against the attack. Salamoni fired three shots into Sterling’s chest before rolling off of him. As Sterling struggled to sit upright, Salamoni shot him three more times in the back.In his report on his investigation and decision not to charge Salamoni and Lake, Landry wrote, “We have concluded that the officers in question acted as reasonable officers under existing law and were justified in their use of force.” Cellphone videos of the murder were circulated widely on social media and engendered widespread outrage. Popular protests surged throughout Baton Rouge almost immediately following Sterling’s murder.

      Utah passes first-ever Free Range Kids bill - The state of Utah has just passed a bill legalizing free range parenting. The purpose of the bill is to foster self-sufficiency in children and to recognize that it is not neglectful to allow children to engage in certain activities independently, such as walking to school alone, playing in a park or playground, and staying home or in the car while a parent goes into a store.  It is the first such law in the United States. Even though Utah has no history of parents being investigated by child protective services under the circumstances described above, according to Rep. Brad Daw, House sponsor of the bill, it has happened in many other states. The new legislation, Daw says, "seeks to ensure it never will [happen in Utah]."  The bill offers a beacon of hope in a society that is currently far too quick to punish parents for allowing their children any freedom at all. Stories such as the Maryland couple whose 10- and 6-year-old kids were held by police after their parents let them walk home alone from a park have frightened other parents into feeling as though they can never leave their children unattended. This, however, has a damaging effect on kids, who never learn how to handle themselves, and it is exhausting for parents.  The bill specifically redefines the term "neglect," stating that neglect does not include:"permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities, including:
      (A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
      (B) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities;
      (C) engaging in outdoor play;
      (D) remaining in a vehicle unattended
      (E) remaining at home unattended; or
      (F) engaging in a similar independent activity."

      On one hand, it's rather sad that common sense needs to be prescribed in this way; it's indicative of a loss of judgement and perspective, and a disintegration of community connection when neighbors and passersby are so quick to report unattended children, rather than speaking to their parents directly. On the other hand, if this is what it takes to break out of that harmful mentality, then it's a wonderful thing, and hopefully other states will follow in a similar direction.  The law takes effect on May 8, 2018.

      Mom Praised For Making ‘Entitled’ Son Shop At Goodwill As Punishment - A Georgia mother who was tired of her son’s “entitled” attitude has become a Facebook sensation after posting her unique punishment online.In a picture uploaded on March 25, Cierra Brittany Forney of Hog Mountain documented her son’s shopping trip to a local Goodwill store. The mother says she took the 13-year-old to the shop and made him spend $20 of his own money on clothes to wear to school for a week.“My 13 year old son had been acting a little… entitled. Acting like he’s too good to shop at Wal-Mart or making snarky comments about kids at school who shop at the goodwill,” Forney said in the post. “I don’t tolerate that.”The Georgia mom said that the shopping trip was meant to make her son “a better man.” She added that he shed a few tears during the trip but believes he’ll be able to look back on the experience years from now and laugh.“I want to teach my kids that money isn’t everything and if you have to degrade other people because of where they shop, then you too will shop there,” Forney posted. The mother’s post has been showered with praise from all over social media.

      Florida shooting survivors speak at Harvard ahead of March For Our Lives - Students who survived the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke at Harvard University on Tuesday about gun reform.

      ‘Never again!’ Students demand action against gun violence in nation’s capital - WaPo - March for Our Lives brought hundreds of thousands of people from across the nation to Washington on March 24. Here's some of what you missed  Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the nation’s capital and cities across the country Saturday to demand action against gun violence, vividly displaying the strength of the political movement led by survivors of a school massacre in Parkland, Fla.Organized by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman killed 17 last month, the March for Our Lives showcased impassioned teens calling on Congress to enact stricter gun-control laws to end the nation’s two-decade stretch of campus shootings.Hundreds of “sibling protests” took place across the world, from New York City — where demonstrators spread across 20 blocks — to Jonesboro, Ark., a small city marking the 20th anniversary of a middle-school shooting that left four students and a teacher dead. Gun-rights advocates mounted counterprotests in Salt Lake City, Boise and Valparaiso, Ind., where one sign read “All Amendments Matter.” Although the D.C. march was funded by Oprah Winfrey, George and Amal Clooney, and other celebrities, Stoneman Douglas High students have been its faces. Their unequivocal message to legislators: Ignoring the toll of school shootings and everyday gun violence will no longer be tolerated.“To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution,” Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student, said to a crowd that packed at least 10 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. “Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”

      Hundreds of thousands of students march against mass violence in America -- Hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated on Saturday in more than 800 March for Our Lives events throughout the United States and internationally. Demonstrations took place in every US state and on every continent except Antarctica. An estimated 800,000 people marched in the main protest in Washington, DC, with crowds of people filling out the entire parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue. The second largest demonstration took place in New York City, where an estimated 150,000 people participated. Police estimated crowds of 40,000 and growing in Los Angeles early in the day. A crowd of 30,000 took part in the Chicago march, with thousands more in every other major US city. Demonstrations also took place in major international cities, such as London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and Tokyo. Student-led demonstrations of this size have not been seen in the United States since the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War nearly fifty years ago. The scale of the demonstrations show that the profound crisis of American and world capitalism is working its way into the consciousness of young people and propelling a new generation into political struggle.

        "We're Going To Start A Revolution": 500,000 People Storm Washington To Protest Guns - Survivors of the deadly Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (along with numerous celebrities such as Oprah, George and Amal Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Chrissy Teigen and a handful of other celebrities) are leading some 500,000 high school students Saturday during the "March for our Lives" anti-gun protest in Washington, DC. The march was organized to build on the momentum of last week's National School Walkout and put further pressure on lawmakers to ban assault weapons after shooter Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and faculty with an AR-15.Participants gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol on Saturday morning ahead of the march, which was slated to begin at noon. Watch live: Hundreds of sister marches also are planned across the country and around the world, according to CNN. Parkland survivor David Hogg has given dozens of interviews, often controversial, as part of his "gun-control advocacy" effort that started roughly one month ago after the shooting at his high school. In one particularly foul-mouthed interview, Hogg compared marching for gun control to teaching his luddite parents how to use iMessage. Speaking to The Outline, Hogg, 17, tried to explain why he feels its important for young people to take things into their own hands. ''When your old-ass parent is like "I don’t know how to send an iMessage" and you’re just like, "Give me the f---ing phone and let me handle it," Sadly, that’s what we have to do with our government.  "Our parents don’t know how to use a f---ing democracy, so we have to."In a separate interview with Good Morning America, Hogg declared that "today we are going to start a revolution.""We are sick and tired of the inaction here in Washington and around the country" by politicians who are "owned by the NRA. Today we are going to start a revolution," Hogg said.Hogg added that gun violence has multiple causes, including mental illness, per ABC. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Common, Andra Day, Vic Mensa and Ben Platt will all perform in DC and there will be speeches from 20 young people, both from Stoneman Douglas and other schools around the country that have been affected by gun violence. The Clooneys and Oprah each donated half a million dollars to the event, as did Spielberg and several other celebrities. Joshua Kushner, Ivanka Trump's brother-in-law, has also promised to attend the march, the Daily Mail reported. Others, including President Trump's friend, Patriots owner Bob Kraft, lent their support in other ways. Kraft gave the teenagers from Parkland his football team's private plane to shuttle them to DC on Friday. Delta also donated two of its aircraft to fly protesters to the city from Florida. The event will wreak havoc on local transportation and officials are on high alert for any security threats.Hours before the march had even started, the crowds of students that had gathered on the mall were chanting "This is what democracy looks like."

        More than a million people participated in March for Our Lives protests | TheHill: At least a million Americans poured into the streets on Saturday to participate in the hundreds of March for Our Lives events across the nation. A review by The Hill of official crowd estimates, offered by city administrations and police departments across the country, found nearly a million total protestors across 62 of the nation’s 100 largest cities. More than three dozen cities where marches were held on Saturday did not offer official crowd sizes, though local media outlets reported thousands or tens of thousands of marchers in those cities.Police and city officials counted more than 200,000 marchers at the largest demonstration, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Another 175,000 people took to the streets in Manhattan, according to New York City police. Officials in Chicago counted 85,000 demonstrators, and the march in Los Angeles brought out another 55,000 people. In Boston, 50,000 people took to the streets, and 30,000 people joined in both Atlanta and Pittsburgh. In Parkland, Fla., the site of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school shooting, 20,000 people demonstrated — although many of the students from the school itself were participating in the march in Washington. A hockey team from the high school was participating in a tournament in the Twin Cities, where police estimated 18,000 demonstrators marched.More than 10,000 people showed up at March for Our Lives events in Houston; Phoenix; Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, Cleveland, Tampa, Fla.; St. Louis, St. Paul, Minn.; and Cincinnati.  But the actual number of demonstrators who showed up to rally against gun violence in the wake of the massacre in Parkland is likely much higher than a million. Officials in cities like Seattle, Denver, Dallas and San Francisco — where local media reported tens of thousands of marchers — did not offer estimates of crowd sizes.

        How the Parkland students pulled off a massive national protest in only 5 weeks - Just five weeks ago, a gunman killed 17 of their friends and teachers at school and changed the course of their lives. This weekend, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led a historic march for gun control, what they called a March for Our Lives. Here's how the Parkland, Florida, students went from experiencing a mass tragedy to launching a mass movement. They took immediate action Within days of the February 14 shooting, the students made clear that thoughts and prayers were not enough for them -- they wanted concrete legislative solutions to the epidemic of mass shootings and an end to the influence of the National Rifle Association. At a rally in Fort Lauderdale, senior Emma González called BS on politicians who said no law could have prevented the massacre.  Her classmates insisted that the time for action was now, and that could help them heal. They adopted the rallying cry #NeverAgain, and a nascent movement formed. They engaged with the media National news outlets descended on Parkland to cover the shooting.  David Hogg, an aspiring broadcast journalist, and González, president of her school's Gay-Straight Alliance, remained poised and eloquent as they fielded reporters' questions.  They announced plans to march By February 18, the students put everyone on notice: They planned to march for their lives in Washington on March 24. From the start, they pledged to center students' voices as gun violence survivors and future voters and invited teens across the country to join them.  A GoFundMe campaign to support the rally raised more than $1.7 million in three days on top of $2 million in private donations from Hollywood personalities including George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. As of Sunday, more than 42,000 people had donated nearly $3.5 million to the online fundraiser.  While some shooting victims were still hospitalized and funerals were beginning, students boarded a bus to the state capitol for a lobbying day. They didn't get the assault weapons ban they wanted. But they took heart in Gov. Rick Scott's passage of measures opposed by the NRA, such as raising the minimum age for gun purchases. Momentum grew for their cause as companies cut ties with the NRA. At a CNN town hall, they went head to head with Sen. Marco Rubio and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on gun laws.As #NeverAgain supporters set their sights on the Washington rally, partner organizations stepped up. Giffords, the gun safety advocacy group named for congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a mass shooting survivor, provided transportation to Washington for some Stoneman Douglas families with the help of New England Patriots CEO Robert Kraft, who provided the team's jet to help families get to Washington.

        Rick Santorum to Parkland students: Learn CPR instead of protesting for ‘phony gun laws’ --Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum on Sunday dismissed efforts by young survivors of last month's Florida school shooting to change gun laws, saying they should instead learn CPR and work on halting bullying.  Santorum was a guest on CNN's State of the Union one day after March for Our Lives rallies across the nation and around the world drew hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding safer schools and tighter gun laws. "How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations that when there is a violent shooter that you can actually respond to that," Santorum said. A startled Van Jones, a liberal CNN commentator, said he had a son who was about to start high school. "If his main way to survive high school is learning CPR so when his friends get shot ... that to me, we've gone too far," Jones said. "I'm proud of these kids. I know you're proud of these kids too." Santorum quickly agreed that he was proud of the young leaders, but just as quickly went back on the attack. "I think everyone should be responsible and deal with the problems that we have to confront in our lives," Santorum said. "And ignoring those problems and saying 'They're not going to come to me,' and saying some phony gun law is gonna solve it. Phony gun laws don't solve these problems."

        6 Minutes and 20 Seconds . . . Needed to murder 17 high school students. A Congress to afraid to pass laws and oppose the NRA and its members, a minority of the population holding the majority hostage to it’s tyranny.  And then there is this dirt bag, Republican Senator Rick Sanitorium suggesting students should learn CPR rather than becoming engaged in the political process of this nation.  Emma Gonzalez versus a Senatorial piece of garbage. (two videos)

        Obama ponders creating ‘a million young Barack Obamas' -  Former President Obama said on Sunday that he would like to create "a million young Barack Obamas" to run the next stage in the "relay race that is human progress," the Washington Examiner reported. Obama reportedly made the comment at a conference in Japan while discussing the Obama Foundation’s work to help young people around the world get connected using the internet. “If I could do that effectively, then — you know — I would create a hundred or a thousand or a million young Barack Obamas or Michelle Obamas,” Obama said. “Or, the next group of people who could take that baton in that relay race that is human progress.” The former president touted the potential that young people have to create change, citing the survivors of the Florida high school shooting who organized Saturday's “March for Our Lives” rally for gun reform, according to the news outlet. He also said that a lot of today's problems are “caused by old men.” Obama said that his foundation is working to find ways social media can be used to bring people with different perspectives together to discuss issues civilly, the Examiner reported. He added that it is currently too easy for people to find news with which they agree. 

        High school students are marching 50 miles to Paul Ryan’s home town to call him out on guns -- On March 25, 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of protesters into Montgomery, Ala., concluding a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma that would become a defining moment in the civil rights movement.On Sunday, inspired by the Selma marchers and the high school students from Parkland, Fla., a group of young people in Wisconsin began a march of their own, albeit not quite on a Selma scale. More than 40 students from across Wisconsin embarked on a four-day, 50-mile march from Madison to Janesville, the home town of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), where they are expected to hold a rally Wednesday. Their goal? To call out Ryan for his “lead role in blocking and burying any chance of gun reform again and again,” according to the group’s website.Beyond that, the students hope to show Ryan — and politicians nationwide — that although Saturday’s March for Our Lives events are over, this generation of empowered young people is not going anywhere. “We’re picking up where so many marches left off,” Katie Eder, an 18-year-old organizer of the Wisconsin march, called 50 Miles More, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

        Kentucky teen used money mom gave him for tattoo to buy AR-15 to shoot up school, police say | Fox News: A Kentucky teenager used money his mother gave him for a tattoo to buy an AR-15 rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition meant to shoot up his high school, police said. Timothy Felker, 18, a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, was charged with “second-degree terroristic threatening,” WKYT reported. He appeared in court Monday for a preliminary hearing. He pleaded not guilty.The Lexington Police Department said during the preliminary hearing that Felker bought the gun with money his mother gave him for a tattoo."Around Christmas or December 2017 is when he purchased the AR-15 with money that his mom gave him for a tattoo, and that he also purchased 500 rounds of ammunition," Sean Stafford, a detective with the Lexington Police Department said. A tip was made online to STOP, Safety Tipline Online Prevention, on Feb. 16 which stated Felker “owns a gun and constantly talks about killing himself/shooting up the school. He tells specific people he would shoot them first and shoot up the classroom,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Felker reportedly said he wanted to shoot up the school because he was bullied.  Felker’s mother said she was not aware of her son’s threats to the school. She agreed to hand over her son’s rifle and ammunition to police, court documents stated. "Ms. Felker stated that Timothy does have some anger problems but she could not see him being violent and didn't feel like he would harm anyone else," Stafford said. WKYT reported Felker was “not prohibited from owning firearms” and posted photos of the rifle to social media. One of the pictures showed Felker with the gun in his mouth. The threat came about a month following a school shooting at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., which left two students dead. The suspected gunman, Gabe Parker, 15, was charged with murder, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

        Kansas considers making schools liable for not arming staff  — Kansas schools that refuse to allow teachers to carry guns could be held legally responsible in the event of a tragedy under a proposal drafted after last month’s mass shooting at a Florida high school. Opponents of the measure, which got its first hearing Tuesday in front of the House Insurance Committee, expressed concern it could effectively mandate arming teachers rather than allowing it, as several states have done. “It would certainly open the door for that conversation,” said Democratic Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park school teacher. “The further we go down this rabbit hole, the more chance there is for even more obnoxious legislation moving forward.” Even if that provision is stripped, as some advocates suggested during the hearing, the bill would prohibit insurers from denying coverage to a school because it lets its teachers or staff members carry weapons. At least nine other states have provisions in place giving teachers the option of carrying guns in schools, but the Kansas plan seems to go further than most other laws in place or under consideration. The proposal is separate from one embraced by Republican leaders in the House that focuses on improving school infrastructure instead of arming staff. That measure, which appears to have broader support, won first-round approval on Tuesday. 

        Mailings to Teachers Highlight a Political Fight Over Climate Change in the Classroom - Last spring, science teachers across the nation began receiving unsolicited packages containing classroom materials from a libertarian group that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. This spring, some of the same teachers are opening packages containing very different materials: A book written by a Cornell University affiliate called “The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change,” which embraces the prevailing science, explains the phenomenon in detail and includes recommendations for how to teach the subject to children. This rare back-and-forth of direct mailings to teachers demonstrates how classrooms have emerged as a battleground in the American political war over climate change. While those who reject mainstream climate science have long advocated their view in Washington and statehouses across the country, their efforts to influence educators – and the counter-efforts from the science community – shows the extent to which the minds of children are also being targeted. Last year’s mailings were sent out by the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based think tank that holds an annual conference that has become a pilgrimage for those who reject the overwhelming findings of the scientific community that humans are causing the earth’s climate to change. The packages contained pamphlets, a DVD and a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming.” A spokesman for the group said it sent more than 350,000 packages to K-12 and college-level science teachers last year. Those direct mailings, first reported on by FRONTLINE in collaboration with The GroundTruth Project, led three ranking House members to condemn the campaign as propaganda and Democratic senators to question Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the effort.

        Chicago Public Schools’ huge pension debt just got $1 billion deeper, new estimates show - Chicago Tribune: Less aggressive investment return estimates have carved an additional $1 billion hole in the severely underfunded pension system for Chicago teachers, reviving questions about how a retirement plan for tens of thousands of public workers can survive without additional money from taxpayers. Consultants for the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund now conclude the system is about $11 billion in the red and faces an even steeper climb to comply with a state law that requires it to be 90 percent funded by 2059, financial documents show. Schools and households won’t feel the worst pain of the impending pension payment spike for several years. Experts say that’s because the state-mandated payment plan pushes an enormous and growing burden onto future taxpayers. Other distressed Chicago and Illinois public pension funds face similar pressures, with still no hint of where the money will come from to bring them into shape, raising the prospect of future tax hikes and budget cuts.“We are aware of our obligations, and we will continue to meet our obligations for all of the pensions. But I think the biggest plan is to continue to lobby for additional funding to support our schools,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said recently when asked about the escalating pension costs. For many years, CPS deferred much of its required annual pension payments through a deal with the state. That depleted a once-healthy fund, and since the so-called pension holiday ended, the district has had to pay mounting annual sums in an effort to catch up. Last year, the district took on costly short-term loans to help cover a $700 million-plus contribution to the fund.

        Teacher unions seek rotten deal as momentum grows for April 2 statewide walkout in Oklahoma - As teachers throughout Oklahoma prepare to strike Monday April 2, teacher unions held a press conference Friday—not to mobilize support, but to plead with legislators to adopt a new union-backed revenue plan. The deal would provide, at best, a band aid to education, while barely touching the profits of the state’s dominant industry, oil and gas, which heavily funds the PACs of legislators. At the media event, Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) President Alicia Priest and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Oklahoma City President Ed Allen advocated their “revenue roadmap” as a means of averting a strike. Priest pleaded, “Oklahoma can avoid a teacher walkout.” She warned that 147 school boards have passed resolutions supporting educators who strike, emphasizing that only “the legislature can prevent a walkout”. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association has also announced its intention to strike April 2 without a “significant” pay raise. The determination of the unions to impose a sellout deal was demonstrated by the raising of a series of inadequate demands. The plan, which spreads increases over three years, calls for $10,000 in teacher raises; $5,000 for support professionals, and $200 million for schools for operational costs such as textbooks, transportation and additional teachers. The dire situation facing districts has prompted over 100 to enact a four-day class schedule Meanwhile, there is a scandalous shortage of textbooks in many schools and nearly 2,000 teacher positions are filled by non-certified staff.  Oklahoma teachers rank 50th in the US in average salary and most educators have not seen an increase in a decade. State employees, similarly, have gone 8-10 years without a raise, with average salaries considered 24 percent below the competitive market rate.

        Oklahoma Teachers Win Pay Raise, But Say Strike Will Proceed to Challenge ‘Decade of Neglect’ - Teachers in Oklahoma applauded the state Senate's passage of a $447 million bill to fund educators' first raise in a decade by raising taxes on oil and gas production as well as cigarettes and fuel—but warned that the plan is not enough to keep them from striking. The proposal was approved in a 36-10 vote on Wednesday night after weeks of speculation that teachers would stage a walkout beginning April 2 to demand salary increases as well as more funding for their overcrowded schools—where teachers are frequently forced to pay for supplies out of their own pockets."While this is major progress, this investment alone will not undo a decade of neglect," said Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) President Alicia Priest in a press release. "Lawmakers have left funding on the table that could be used immediately to help Oklahoma students." The mobilization by teachers in Oklahoma follows a multi-day strike in West Virginia earlier this month during which educators and school employees also occupied the state capitol to demand raises and a permanent funding solution for their health insurance program. The West Virginia strike kept the state's schools closed for nine consecutive school days and continued after lawmakers passed a one-time five percent raise, with teachers insisting that all their demands be met."Lawmakers have left funding on the table that could be used immediately to help Oklahoma students." —Alicia Priest, OEALike West Virginia's educators, Oklahoma's largest teacher's union said Thursday that the legislature's offer of a $6,000 raise was not enough to keep them from striking. "This package doesn't overcome shortfall caused by four-day weeks, overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need. It's not enough," Priest said. "We must continue to push for more annual funding for our schools to reduce class size and restore more of the 28 percent of funds they cut from education over the last decade."

        Oklahoma teachers reject funding bill, prepare to strike --  Oklahoma teachers have reacted with disgust and anger over the pay offer and the school-funding bill signed into law by Republican Governor Mary Fallin Thursday afternoon. Teachers are preparing for a statewide strike by over 40,000 educators on Monday, April 2. While the governor praised the bipartisan deal for giving teachers the “largest raise in Oklahoma history,” the one-time increase of between $5,000 to $7,000, depending on years of service, will do little for teachers who are ranked 49th in the nation in pay. Teachers have not had a raise in a decade even as they have borne higher out-of-pocket costs for health care and pensions. The $474 million funding package adopts proposals by the teachers union and state Democrats to pay for the raise through a series of regressive taxes, including a one-dollar increase on cigarettes, increases in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, plus a small tax increase on new oil and gas wells. This amount, however, will not even a put a dent in the billions of dollars both parties have cut from public education over the last decade.Between 2008 and 2018, under both Fallin and her Democratic predecessor, Brad Henry, Oklahoma’s per pupil funding fell by 28 percent, more than any other state in the US. Oklahoma now spends $1,000 less per child than it did 10 years ago, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities. Due to these cuts, 20 percent of the Oklahoma’s schools have been forced to adopt a four-day schedule. While claiming there were no resources for public education, let alone pay raises, the Democrats and Republicans over the last decade have handed billions of dollars in tax breaks to the state’s energy corporations.

        Arizona teachers prepare for mass statewide demonstrations -- Thousands of Arizona teachers demanding improved wages and conditions are expected to converge on the state Capitol in Phoenix tomorrow. Despite the efforts of the teacher unions to block the spread of strikes and protests after their betrayal of the nine-day strike in West Virginia, educators throughout the US and internationally are pressing ahead with their opposition to austerity and attacks on public education.Teachers in the Phoenix area will be holding what they call a “teach-in” in front of the Capitol building as teachers continue protests in other parts of the state. Arizona Educators United, the Facebook group teachers are using to organize, told local news station KTAR News, “We’re going to do what we do best, we’re going to teach.”Teachers are scheduled to march on the Capitol at 4 p.m. to bring attention to unsustainable salaries. According to the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the median pay for elementary teachers was $42,724 in 2016, ranking last in the country. The protest follows almost a month of activity by Arizona teachers, bolstered by the West Virginia strike, which temporarily broke free from the control of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), as well as rank-and-file agitation, primarily through social media, for an April 2 statewide strike in Oklahoma.

        Arizona teachers protest as Oklahoma educators battle union sabotage - Thousands of Arizona teachers and their supporters marched on the state capitol in Phoenix yesterday. Others held protests in Tucson, Yuma and other cities to demand higher wages and increased school funding in the western US state. The protests took place on the eve of a planned April 2 statewide teachers’ strike in Oklahoma and is part of wave of struggles by educators spreading across the US and internationally since the nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia. The Day of Action in Phoenix was called by teachers organized on the Facebook pages Arizona Educators United—which has nearly 40,000 members—and Save Our Schools Arizona, a group opposing a law to expand school vouchers. The Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Federation of Teachers (AFT) have professed support for the protesting teachers in order to contain opposition and smother it. However, rank-and-file teachers have engaged in protests at the capitol and sickouts in west Phoenix and parts of Glendale. There is a growing demand for a statewide strike.Median pay for Arizona teachers is last in nation, at $42,730 a year. Democrats and Republicans have also slashed school spending since the 2008 financial crash, and the state is currently ranked 49th in the nation for per pupil spending, just behind Oklahoma. While refusing to reverse decades of corporate tax cuts implemented by both parties, Republican Governor Doug Ducey authorized a 1 percent raise for teachers in the current budget year and plans another 1 percent next year.

        Wildcat sickouts hit Kentucky as teachers struggle spreads - Thousands of teachers in Kentucky staged wildcat sickouts Friday, closing schools in 29 counties. The protests were in opposition to a bill passed by state legislators Thursday night that includes a sweeping assault on teachers’ pensions. The eruption in Kentucky is part of an expanding wave of strikes and protests by educators across the United States and internationally. Oklahoma teachers will hold a statewide strike this Monday to demand wage and school funding increases, while teachers in Arizona are calling for walkouts in the wake of the nine-day February-March strike by 30,000 West Virginia teachers and school employees. The struggles by teachers are developing in opposition to the trade unions, which have suppressed the class struggle and enforced funding cuts by both parties for three decades. The unions are now doing everything they can to smother opposition, isolate teachers and prevent them from linking up across states.The pension “reforms,” passed in a nearly party-line vote with Republican support, were inserted into a bill on sewerage system funding and rammed through the day before spring break to limit the impact of popular opposition.The full consequences are still emerging. For teachers hired after January 1, 2019, the bill removes the “inviolable contract” clause, which guarantees that a teacher’s pension cannot be changed from the amount set at the time they were hired. The change paves the way for deep cuts for current teachers. Governor Matt Bevin, who will now sign the bill into law, gloated in a tweet Thursday night that the population “owes a deep debt of gratitude” to the legislators who had “voted not to keep kicking the pension problem down the road.” In addition, rather than being able to retire after 27 years of service, as at present, future teachers will have to work until they are 65 or until the total of their age plus years of service equals 87. Teachers will reportedly also have to contribute an extra three percent of their salaries to the fund and will no longer be allowed to use accrued sick days for their retirement.

        Teachers’ rebellion spreads on four continents -- Teachers across the world are leading a global wave of worker militancy as strikes and protests spread across North and South America, Europe, and Africa. In the United States, protests sparked by the rebellion of West Virginia teachers continued this week as Arizona teachers demanding higher wages protest at the state capitol in Phoenix today and 41,000 Oklahoma teachers prepare for a statewide strike on April 2.Teachers’ anger boiled over Monday and Tuesday after Democratic and Republican state legislators in Oklahoma voted to pass a deal that increases school funding largely by hiking sales taxes on workers and poor people. Oklahoma Teachers United (OTU), a Facebook page created by rank-and-file teachers with over 10,000 followers, posted, “Senate to vote this week on bill passed by house but teachers already saying no. TEACHERS HAVE HAD IT!!!!!! Legislators are so confused right now. I got 100 calls from the Dems and Reps asking, ‘What in the world is wrong with you?’” The bipartisan deal promised to increase teachers’ wages by $6,000—far below the $10,000 they have demanded. Oklahoma teachers have little faith in the official trade union, which was roundly denounced by teachers for trying to postpone a strike until the end of April. An online poll published by Oklahoma Teachers United found that roughly half of teachers “believe the union will cave into pressures from the legislature and superintendents before teachers get fair wages.” In Kentucky, a state with 42,000 teachers, “pension awareness walk-ins” took place this week while teachers plan to rally today at the state capitol in Frankfort. Republican governor Matt Bevin has denounced teachers as “selfish” and “angry people who want to destroy what’s good for this state.” He pledged to gut pensions “whether they like it or not” as the state Senate approved a two-year budget plan to slash $1.1 billion from the Teachers’ Retirement System.

        Teachers can’t afford Miami rents. The county has a plan: Let them live at school. -- Amid a wide gap between modest teacher salaries and Miami’s high housing prices, the county has a new plan: build apartments on school property and let faculty live there.A preliminary proposal includes constructing a new mid-rise middle school in the luxe Brickell area for Southside Elementary, with a floor devoted to residential units, and several more reserved for parking and the classrooms on top. If that goes well, Miami-Dade wants a full-fledged housing complex next to Phillis Wheatley Elementary, with as many as 300 apartments going up on the campus just north of downtown.“It’s an exciting idea,” said Michael Liu, Miami-Dade’s housing director. “Land is at a premium in Miami-Dade County. It’s difficult to come by, especially in the urban core.”Though preliminary, the joint effort by Miami-Dade’s school system and housing department has momentum. Miami-Dade is already in talks with Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees some of the county’s affordable-housing projects. JPMorgan Chase gave a $215,000 grant to the nonprofit Miami Homes For All to help develop the Wheatley plan, according to a March 22 company release.

        Harvard Admits 4.6% of Applicants; Other Ivy League Schools Get Tougher, Too - Harvard hit a new low this year—in terms of its acceptance rate.The university admitted 4.6% of applicants, or 1,962 students for the class set to begin this fall. Last year, it admitted 5.2% of applicants.The eight campuses making up the Ivy League notified applicants on Wednesday evening about who will make up their first-year undergraduate class come fall. Seven of the eight posted record-high application numbers, while Dartmouth had its highest number in five years; seven recorded their lowest-ever acceptance rates, as Yale tied with its prior record. Many of the applicants looked perfect on paper. At Princeton, more than 14,200 of the 35,370 applicants had a 4.0 grade point average. Brown boasted that 96% of its admitted students are in the top 10% of their high school classes, while at Dartmouth that rate hit 97%. Yale admissions officers were “impressed and humbled” by the volume of qualified candidates, said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. That school tied its record-low 6.3% admission rate this year.  The elite schools are also eager to note that they are becoming less elitist, with generous financial-aid packages to lure diverse candidates: Cornell accepted more than 700 first-generation college students, and more than 20% of Harvard’s admitted students and 23% of Princeton’s are eligible for federal Pell grants, which are aimed at low-income students.

        Poor grades tied to class times that don't match our biological clocks -- It may be time to tailor students' class schedules to their natural biological rhythms, according to a new study from UC Berkeley and Northeastern Illinois University.Researchers tracked the personal daily online activity profiles of nearly 15,000 college students as they logged into campus servers. After sorting the students into "night owls," "daytime finches" and "morning larks" -- based on their activities on days they were not in class -- researchers compared their class times to their academic outcomes.Their findings, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, show that students whose circadian rhythms were out of sync with their class schedules - say, night owls taking early morning courses - received lower grades due to "social jet lag," a condition in which peak alertness times are at odds with work, school or other demands."We found that the majority of students were being jet-lagged by their class times, which correlated very strongly with decreased academic performance," said study co-lead author Benjamin Smarr, a postdoctoral fellow who studies circadian rhythm disruptions in the lab of UC Berkeley psychology professor Lance Kriegsfeld. In addition to learning deficits, social jet lag has been tied to obesity and excessive alcohol and tobacco use.

        Mount Holyoke Women’s College Orders Professors Not To Call Students “Women” - We have previously discussed the national trend in colleges and universities to require faculty to use an increasing number of different pronouns for students. Faculty questioning such alternative pronouns have been subject to discipline or condemnation. There is even a move in states like California to criminalize the failure to use alternative pronouns.  Now, the women’s college Mount Holyoke has ordered faculty to avoid calling its students “women” since some students may identify as non-genders or different genders. Mount Holyoke College was created by Mary Lyon as an all-women educational institution.  However, the college now maintains that the use of the word “women” will result in “misgendering” students and even warns against such language as  “‘We’re all women here…’” These new designations have led to an equally elastic list of pronouns.  So at the University of Vermont, students can choose “he,” “she,” “they,” and “ze,” as well as “name only.”  Other options are captures on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee card given to faculty and students:   What is interesting about Mount Holyoke is how it can maintain its gender-exclusive identity if it rejects gender identification.  If a student born a woman identifies as a male, why shouldn’t a male be allowed to enroll? The school still declares itself to be a “Women’s College” and states “We have remained a women’s college by choice — and, reflecting the College’s commitment to human rights and social justice, we welcome transgender students.”  If gender is now completely a matter of self-identification, why the exclusion of people born as opposed to identified as male?

        Over One Fifth of Student Borrowers Used Loans to Gamble on Cryptocurrencies -- Yves Smith - File this under res ipsa loquitur…although as one wag said, this news tidbit does seem to disprove the claim that young people aren’t risk takers. But it may establish that they are innumerate or more specifically, bad at statistics. This sort of thing does not help the image of student borrowers, although it does strengthen the case for regulating cryptocurrencies far more strictly. Given the decline in the status of cab drivers, who historically have been indicators of market peaks (when cab drivers talk about their stocks, it’s usually sign of a bubble), this finding may also be a proof of Peak Cryptocurrency. From InvestopediaAccording to a study by The Student Loan Report, over one-fifth of current university students with student loan debt indicated that they used their student loan money to invest in digital currency such as bitcoin.  The student loan news and information website found that 21.2% of the 1,000 students they surveyed indicated that they used their borrowed cash to gamble on the highly volatile digital currency market. While school administrators may look down upon the practice of using borrowed funds for non-school expenses, Student Loan Report indicates that there are currently no rules against it. College students are able to use loans for “living expenses,” a flexible category that covers a wide range of potential necessities. Given that 70% of retail investors in futures lose money, there’s not a strong reason for thinking that latecomers to the cryptocurrency party would be stellar traders. I wonder how many students who lose so much money on bad cryptocurrency wagers that it undermines their ability to finish their course of study (presumably they really did need at least some of that “living expense” money for bona fide living expenses) will be willing to ‘fess up to that fact.

        After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople -  Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem, and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.  This has had the unintended consequence of helping flatten out or steadily erode the share of students taking vocational courses. In California’s community colleges, for instance, it’s dropped to 28 percent from 31 percent since 2000, contributing to a shortage of trained workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. “All throughout high school, they made it sound like going to college was our only option.”  Research by the state’s 114-campus community college system showed that families and employers alike didn’t know of the existence or value of vocational programs and the certifications they confer, many of which can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a graduate’s income.  High schools and colleges have struggled for decades to attract students to job-oriented classes ranging from welding to nursing. They’ve tried cosmetic changes, such as rebranding “vocational” courses as “career and technical education,” but students and their families have yet to buy in, said Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Federal figures show that only 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be vocationally oriented. The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown center. People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

        Student Debt Is a Harsh Math Lesson for U.S. Graduates - If scraping up enough beer money was a challenge for America’s college students, new graduates are in for a rude awakening when they realize how much of their paychecks will go toward their school loans.Since 2003, borrowing for education advanced faster, in percentage terms, than all other types of consumer debt that includes mortgages, auto loans and credit cards, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show. As of the fourth quarter, student loans represented 10.5 percent of a record $13.1 trillion in household debt, up from 3.3 percent at the start of 2003.The upshot for the economy is that a larger debt burden among younger Americans, many with entry-level wages and salaries, represents a h urdle for large purchases such as those for cars and homes. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell echoed that sentiment in recent testimony before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, saying elevated levels of student debt “absolutely could hold back growth.”Given the modest wage gains that have persisted during this economic expansion, it may take borrowers many years or decades to pay off educational loans. In the decade through 2017, the value of student loans outstanding soared 153 percent, based on the Fed’s most recent quarterly financial accounts data. That compares with a 31 percent advance in worker pay, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data. During most of the current expansion, businesses have resisted giving out more generous paychecks even as the labor market tightened.  For many recent college graduates, loan payments are their second-largest expense behind rents and mortgage payments. Borrowers who graduated from 2012 to 2017 earn a monthly average after-tax income of $2,655, and about 15 percent of that goes toward student loan payments, according to a survey by LendEDU.  After factoring in rent or mortgage payments, retirement contributions and car loans, these borrowers are left with about $777 to spend each month on food, clothes and other living expenses.

        Education Dept. awards debt-collection contract to company with ties to DeVos -- A company that once had financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of two firms selected Thursday by the Education Department to help the agency collect overdue student loans. The deal could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The decision to award contracts to Windham Professionals and Performant Financial Corp. — a company DeVos invested in before becoming secretary — arrives a month after a federal judge ordered the department to complete its selection of a loan collector to put an end to a messy court battle. Windham and Performant beat out nearly 40 other bidders for contracts valued at up to $400 million, but their win may be short-lived if the losing companies fight the decision. [ Trump administration welcomes back student debt collectors fired by Obama ] “The selection of only two [companies] opens the door to protests from the unsuccessful bidders,” Michael Tarkan, senior research analyst at Compass Point, wrote in a research note on Performant. “Based on prior contract awards, we would not be surprised to see protests, lawsuits and appeals which could all delay the start date for the new contract.” Historically, the department has used as many as 17 companies to recoup past-due student loans. Earlier attempts to whittle down the number of firms have been met with resistance. Companies that lost out on a 2016 debt-collection contract have been embroiled in a lawsuit that has prevented the federal government from assigning new accounts. The department selected seven companies to manage the portfolio two years ago, sparking protests at the Government Accountability Office, which faulted the agency with mismanaging some of the bids. A few firms filed complaints with the federal claims court, leading authorities to put a hold on all new assignments. The Education Department had estimated that the order cost taxpayers $640,000 in collections in one month. The newly awarded contracts are supposed to resolve the litigation, but the selection of Performant could raise eyebrows. Performant is linked to LMF WF Portfolio, a limited liability company that once counted DeVos as an investor. LMF was one of several firms involved in providing Performant with a $147 million loan in 2012, according to regulatory filings. DeVos was required to divest from LMF within 90 days of her confirmation as secretary, but at the time of her appointment, Democrats said they were uneasy about the influence she could still wield over companies with which she has had a relationship.

        The underutilized student loan bankruptcy discharge - A common misconception is that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is a bankruptcy discharge exception for some qualified student loans and educational benefit repayment obligations. The discharge exception does not, however, apply to all loans made to students. Jason Iuliano argues in a new paper that bankruptcy courts have interpreted the discharge exception too broadly, applying it to loans for unaccredited schools, loans for tutoring services, and loans beyond the cost of attendance for college. His paper presents a compelling argument based on the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and policy in support of a narrow reading of 11 USC §523(a)(8).The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas recently adopted the narrow reading of §523(a)(8)(A)(ii) in Crocker v. Navient Solutions, LLC , Adv. 16-3175 (Bankr. S.D. Tx Mar. 26, 2018). The court denied Navient's motion for summary judgment, finding that the bar exam study loan from SLMA at issue was not within the discharge exception for qualified student loans or educational benefit repayments. In another class action complaint filed last year against Sallie Mae and Navient, plaintiffs claim that servicers are systematically defrauding student loan debtors about their bankruptcy discharge rights. According to the complaint in Homaidan v. Sallie Mae, Inc. (17-ap-01085 Bankr. EDNY), servicers illegally continued collecting private student loans that were fully discharged in debtor bankruptcies because they were not qualified educational loans. The servicers exploited the common misconception that "student loans" writ large are excluded from bankruptcy discharge. The defendants' motion to dismiss or compel arbitration is pending. Professor Iuliano has also demonstrated in a prior paper that the even student loans covered by the bankruptcy discharge exception can still be discharged based on showing "undue hardship," and that courts are far more likely to approve undue hardship discharges than many debtors (and lawyers) may realize.

        Student Loans Are Too Expensive To Forgive - Late last year, graduate students watched as legislators in the House debated giving them a hefty new tax bill: A version of the GOP tax plan proposed to treat tuition waivers as taxable income. Although that plan was later dropped, Congress is once again considering legislation that could affect graduate students’ bottom lines. And the federal government is considering ending some of its student loan forgiveness programs, which could raise the economic barrier to entering certain public service professions and leave social workers, teachers and other people in public-service fields that require graduate degrees paying thousands of dollars more for their education. President Trump’s Education Department and its inspector general, as well as lawmakers and think tanks of all ideological stripes, have raised concerns about the growing cost of the federal government’s student loan programs — specifically its loan forgiveness options for graduate students. Members of both chambers of Congress have said they are committed to passing new higher education legislation this year that will include changes to these programs.1 The costs of the suite of plans currently offered by the government to lessen the burden of grad school debt has ballooned faster than anticipated, and the federal government stands to lose bundles of money. A new audit from the Department of Education’s inspector general found that between fiscal years 2011 and 2015, the cost of programs that allow student borrowers to repay their federal loans at a rate proportional to their income shot up from $1.4 billion to $11.5 billion. Back in 2007, when many such programs launched, the Congressional Budget Office projected they would cost just $4 billion over the 10 years ending in 2017. The cost of the loan forgiveness programs exploded, in part, because policymakers did not correctly estimate the number of students who would take advantage of such programs, according to higher education scholar Jason Delisle. Now there’s an emerging consensus that some programs should be reined in, but ideas on how much and in what ways vary by party affiliation. Senate Democrats just introduced a college affordability bill that focuses on creating “debt-free” college plans by giving federal matching funds to states that, in turn, would figure out ways to help students pay for school. In the past, President Barack Obama acknowledged the need to require borrowers to repay more of their debts and made some proposals for modifying the programs’ rules. The GOP goes much further in its suggestions: A new proposal from House Republicans would eliminate some loan-forgiveness programs entirely.

        Walmart Pulls Cosmopolitan Magazine From Checkouts -- The world’s largest retailer will now sell the Hearst Corp. publication just in its magazine aisle, spokesman Randy Hargrove said on Tuesday. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation -- a group with roots in fighting pornography -- said it had been working “behind the scenes” with the retailer for months on the decision, which makes Walmart’s checkout aisles “family friendly.” “While this was primarily a business decision, the concerns raised were heard,” Hargrove said in an email. Walmart’s move comes amid rising sensitivity to sexism and gender discrimination. Internally, the firm has made gender diversity a bigger priority over the past decade, yet is still facing lawsuits from women who say they were denied opportunities for promotion. “Cosmo sends the same messages about female sexuality as Playboy,” said Dawn Hawkins, the Washington-based group’s executive director. She portrayed the campaign as a part of the #MeToo movement, which has focused on sexual harassment and discrimination, especially in the workplace. Cosmopolitan’s removal from the checkouts represents “an incremental but significant step toward creating a culture where women and girls are valued as whole persons, rather than as sexual objects,” Hawkins said. 

        Current Kentucky Retirement Systems Trustees Considering Throwing Predecessors Under the Bus to Get Blackstone and KKR -- Yves Smith -  At the beginning of this year, we discussed Mayberry v. KKR, a lawsuit on behalf of the beneficiaries of the all but bankrupt Kentucky Retirement Systems at length. This case appeared to be a long-overdue corrective for the way pension fund trustees and boards, either due to laziness, gullibillity, desperation, and/or outright corruption, have put too much money and faith in high-risk, high fee investment strategies like hedge funds and private equity funds that don’t deliver the returns needed to compensate for their extra risks.Our judgment was confirmed at the just-concluded spring Council of Institutional Investors conference in Washington, DC, as well as by some new developments in the case. First, to the Council of Institutional Investors conference. It included a full-day session on fiduciary duty. That briefing started with and discussed at some length the very same Kentucky Retirement Systems case. As we explained in our January post, this suit not only targeted some very deep pockets, namely Blackstone, KKR Prisma, and PAAMCO for successfully targeting Kentucky Retirement Systems along with other particularly clueless public pension funds for untested hedge fund strategies that proceeded to enrich the fund managers while delivering poor returns to KRS, but it also hit all sorts of arguable culpable parties with solid-looking legal theories. No one before had bothered going after fund trustees, the execs, or key advisers because there wasn’t enough money among them to make it worth the fuss. But include them as part of a bigger story involving the people who walked off with the real money, their inclusion fills out the story for the purpose of a jury trial. It also has the very salutary effect of being a wake-up call to cronyistic public pension fund boards and executives that their belief that no one would bother to sue them over anything that might stick is a self-serving delusion.

        American adults just keep getting fatter - U.S. adults continue to put on the pounds. New data show that nearly 40 percent of them were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier, federal health officials reported Friday. The prevalence of severe obesity in U.S. adults is also rising, heightening their risks of developing heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. According to the latest data, published Friday in JAMA, 7.7 percent of U.S. adults were severely obese in the same period. The data – gathered in a large-scale federal survey that is considered the gold standard for health data – measured trends in obesity from 2015 and 2016 back to 2007 and 2008, when 5.7 percent of U.S. adults were severely obese and 33.7 percent were obese. The survey counted people with a body mass index of 30 or more as obese, and those with a BMI of 40 or more as severely obese.Public health experts said that they were alarmed by the continuing rise in obesity among adults and by the fact that efforts to educate people about the health risks of a poor diet do not seem to be working. “Most people know that being overweight or obese is unhealthy, and if you eat too much that contributes to being overweight,” said Dr. James Krieger, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington and executive director of Healthy Food America, an advocacy group. “But just telling people there’s a problem doesn’t solve it.” The latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey come at a time when the food industry is pushing back against stronger public health measures aimed at combating obesity. 

        American Adults Have Never Been Fatter - 40% of American adults are obese, a sharp increase from a decade earlier and a record high. according to federal health officials. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) sampling of 27,449 adults with a BMI between 30 and 40 found that among those aged 20 years and older, obesity went from 33.7% in 2007-2008 to 39.6% in 2015-2016. Severe obesity - those with a BMI above 40, jumped from 5.7% to 7.7% over the same period. The increase in obesity among the 16,875 youth sampled was much lower, going from 16.8% a decade ago to 18.5% in 2015-2016. Still pretty bad. The CDC has prepared handy list of statistics as well as maps of average obesity by state, as well as by race. In a nutshell, the south is a hotbed of obesity.  Of note:

        • Obesity decreased by level of education. Adults without a high school degree or equivalent  had the highest self-reported obesity
        • Young adults were half as likely to have obesity as middle-aged adults.
        • All states had more than 20% of adults with obesity.
        • 35% or more adults had obesity in 5 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia).
        • The South had the highest prevalence of obesity (32.0%), followed by the Midwest (31.4%), the Northeast (26.9%), and the West (26.0%).

        Overall: (demographic maps)

         Walmart Is in Early-Stage Acquisition Talks With Humana -- Walmart in preliminary talks to buy insurer Humana Inc., according to people familiar with the matter, a deal that would mark a dramatic shift for the retail behemoth and the latest in a recent flurry of big deals in health-care services.It isn’t clear what terms the companies may be discussing, and there is no guarantee they will strike a deal. If they do, the deal would be big: Humana currently has a market value of about $37 billion.It also would be Walmart’s largest deal by far, eclipsing its 1999 acquisition of the U.K.’s Asda Group PLC for $10.8 billion. Walmart, which in addition to being the world’s biggest retailer is also a major drugstore operator, has a market value of about $260 billion.The two companies are discussing a range of options, including an acquisition, one of the people familiar said. Should there be a deal—and should regulators and shareholders bless it—it would transform Walmart overnight into one of the nation’s largest health insurers. It would immerse the company in a complicated industry, one that continues to evolve eight years after the Affordable Care Act was enacted and as Washington remains deeply divided over health-care policy. The talks come as health-service providers are rapidly pairing off and retailers—particularly pharmacy chains—are looking to diversify and bulk up in the face of the competitive threat from e-commerce giant Inc.

         How FDA-Approved Prescribing Information Lags Behind Real-World Clinical Practice - Once a drug has been approved for some use it can be legally prescribed for any use. New uses for old drugs are often discovered. When physicians learn of these new uses, prescribing practices move beyond the uses that the FDA has evaluated and permitted. In Outdated Prescription Drug Labeling, Shea et al. compare off-label uses for cancer drugs that are graded as “well-accepted” by the National Comprehensive Cancer Drugs & Biologics Compendium (NCCN) with the labelled, “FDA-approved” uses. What they find is that most drugs have multiple off-label uses that are significantly different from FDA approved uses.Our analysis of the NCCN Compendium and FDA drug labels for 43 cancer drugs approved between 1999 and 2011 identified hundreds of off-label uses, most of which were strongly supported by NCCN expert panels.…Additionally, of the 253 off-label uses, 165 (65.2%) were categorized as “new indications,” meaning they were in disease settings not represented on labelsIn my work on off-label prescribing (and with Klein) I have emphasized that the off-label world offers a window on what the larger world would look like with much less FDA control over new drug approvals. Notice that even today it’s physicians and the private approval process, as represented by the compendia, that determine actual prescribing and payment. We found that 4 of the 5 largest private payers, as well as Medicare, cover over 90% of uses listed on the NCCN Compendium (uses graded 1 and 2A), suggesting widespread acceptance of these uses by diverse stakeholders. While standards for FDA approval differ from standards for coverage determinations, these findings indicate that the gulf between labeled uses and covered uses may be needlessly wide. To bring FDA labeling up to real-world practice the authors recommend “a collaboration between the FDA and the developers of clinical guidelines and drug compendia to evaluate existing evidence about approved drugs and suggest updates to labeling.” In other words, the decentralized, private approval system should be used to determine which new uses of old drugs are safe and effective and those determinations should then be adopted by the FDA.

        Rural hospital shutdowns force communities to take care of their own - CNBC - Crystal Harris was at her Virginia home one winter afternoon when she received a 911 call.As an unpaid volunteer of the Smith River Rescue Squad in Woolwine, a small town located in northern Patrick County, Harris needed to drop what she was doing and head to the nearest ambulance station, a trip that normally takes about 10 minutes."Then you would respond to the house, which could take anywhere around 15 minutes," Harris, the captain for advanced life support on the squad, told CNBC. If necessary, the rescue team would then take the patient to the nearest hospital, about 45 minutes to one hour east in Martinsville.Harris could have taken the patient to the much closer 25-bed Pioneer Community Hospital of Patrick in Stuart, where she had been an employee before she retired. But the hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed last year, leaving more than 100 people without a job and the roughly 19,000 residents in the surrounding community without a nearby emergency health facility.Harris, 72, now spends most of her days responding to 911 calls. She said there are five other rescue squads in the Patrick County area addressing the unmet need in their community of emergency medical services, a broader trend in the U.S. The rates of rural hospital closures are the highest seen in the last few decades, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, a group which tracks rural hospital closures throughout the United States. There has been a total of 83 hospital closures from January 2010 to January 2018 in rural areas across the United States, the NC RHRP's data showed.

        Computers are amazing, but Electronic Health Records are not | TheHill: We trust computer technology to solve problems, save time and money, and improve our lives. It has. Why didn’t it work with electronic health records? EHRs are costly, clunky, error prone failures we seem unable to fix. It’s as if we took off in a hastily designed rocket, realize we need to come back, but are stuck in orbit without a reentry plan.The Obama administration set aside tens of billions in 2009 to forcibly drag doctors and hospitals out of the Stone Age of paper into the brave new world of bites and bits. It promised a Nirvana of heath care quality, efficiency and cost savings. Hundreds of billions more were spent by hospital systems, too, under government mandates. In retrospect much of that money was wasted. We got lots of bits and bites, but no Nirvana. Instead, we got higher costs, more errors and no improvement in care, perhaps worse care. We forced doctors to spend three-quarters of their time staring at screens instead of looking at patients face to face. We got complex decisions trees that turned high-value professionals into clerks. What went wrong? We asked the wrong question. It was therefore impossible to get the right answer. If we could get patients to check into the medical office, hospital or emergency room, go to a touch screen, populate the computer screens with their correct diagnosis, order their tests and imaging and prescribe their own treatments that would be peachy, but patients can’t do that on their best days. There is almost nothing in medicine that can be done, ordered or documented by the patient/customer. Doctors and nurses do all that. Before the EHR, I dictated hospital admission histories on a phone and a typist getting $30 an hour typed them. I do that on an EHR now and it’s slower. It takes me triple the time it used to. There is a complex template used, not much like the way I think about care. 

        What Happens When An Algorithm Cuts Your Health Care -- Tammy Dobbs’ needs were extensive. Her illness left her in a wheelchair and her hands stiffened. The most basic tasks of life — getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, bathing — required assistance, not to mention the trips to yard sales she treasured. The nurse assessing her situation allotted Dobbs 56 hours of home care visits per week, the maximum allowed under the program.  For years, she managed well. An aide arrived daily at 8AM, helped Dobbs out of bed, into the bathroom, and then made breakfast. She would return at lunch, then again in the evening for dinner and any household tasks that needed to be done, before helping Dobbs into bed. The final moments were especially important: wherever Dobbs was placed to sleep, she’d stay until the aide returned 11 hours later.   When an assessor arrived in 2016 and went over her situation, it was a familiar process: how much help did she need to use the bathroom? What about eating? How was her emotional state? The woman typed notes into a computer and, when it was over, gave Dobbs a shocking verdict: her hours would be cut, to just 32 per week.  Dobbs says she went “ballistic” on the woman. She pleaded, explaining how that simply wasn’t enough, but neither of them, Dobbs says, seemed to quite understand what was happening. Dobbs’ situation hadn’t improved, but an invisible change had occurred. When the assessor entered Dobbs’ information into the computer, it ran through an algorithm that the state had recently approved, determining how many hours of help she would receive.  Other people around the state were also struggling to understand the often drastic changes. As people in the program talked to each other, hundreds of them complained that their most important lifeline had been cut, and they were unable to understand why.  Algorithmic tools like the one Arkansas instituted in 2016 are everywhere from health care to law enforcement, altering lives in ways the people affected can usually only glimpse, if they know they’re being used at all. Even if the details of the algorithms are accessible, which isn’t always the case, they’re often beyond the understanding even of the people using them,

         Mexican Drug Kingpin Smuggled Enough Fentanyl To "Kill Millions" In NYC - An alleged Mexican drug kingpin and five of his accomplices have just been indicted for smuggling enough fentanyl from Mexico into New York City “to kill millions,” officials announced Tuesday. An undercover investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, NYC Special Narcotics Prosecutor Unit, and local law enforcement agencies discovered that San José del Cabo resident Francisco Quiroz-Zamora, 41, known as “Gordo,” or “Fatso,” was the primary source of large fentanyl shipments to the New York City region. In the first half of 2017, an undercover narcotics officer posed as a drug trafficker and successfully negotiated two large shipments of Mexican fentanyl from Quiroz-Zamora. Quiroz-Zamora was arrested on November 27 when he arrived via Amtrak to the city’s Pennsylvania Station “to personally collect payment for drug deals he unwittingly negotiated with an undercover officer,” said NBC News. “This investigation provides the American public with an inside view of a day in the life of a Sinaloa Cartel drug trafficker; including international travel, money pick-ups, and clandestine meetings,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge James Hunt said in a statement. “Quiroz-Zamora oversaw the delivery of multi-kilogram loads of fentanyl to New York, powerful enough to kill millions. The Strike Force and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor acted quickly and efficiently to seize the toxic kilograms before hitting the streets and arresting all conspirators, including the Kingpin,” Hunt added. Quiroz-Zamora’s drug trafficking operations stemmed from San José del Cabo, a resort town plagued with cartel violence on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

        World famous psychiatrist warns that increased use of psychiatric drugs will translate to more mass shootings -- The psychiatric/pharmaceutical drug industry is worth a staggering $80 billion a year in sales alone, and Washington is literally crawling with lobbyists who have seemingly bottomless pots of cash to smooth the regulatory path for drug manufacturers. This has led to a situation in which the politicians tasked with protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the nation – those with mental health issues – have adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil approach.” They happily look the other way as doctors and psychiatrists continue to prescribe antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs despite their dangerous side effects, which include mania, violence, psychosis and homicidal ideation (the desire to commit murder). While many politicians focus on the gun debate when discussing the issue of mass shootings, what virtually none of them ever mention is the clearly established link between such mass homicides and psychiatric drugs. The mental health watchdog organization, CCHR International, recently reported that at least 36 school shootings or other school-related acts of violence were committed by people who were either on psychiatric drugs or withdrawing from them – which can be just as dangerous. These acts of violence resulted in the deaths of 80 people and the wounding of a further 172. In addition, there have been many similar incidents where information regarding the mental health and psychiatric drug use of the killer/s was not made public, so the problem is likely far worse.  Peter Breggin, a world-famous psychiatrist who has been called “the conscience of his profession,” recently warned that the side effects of psychiatric drugs are an “obvious prescription for violence.”Last month, Waking Times published an excerpt from a column Dr. Breggin wrote for Mad in America, entitled, “Psychiatrist Says: More Psychiatry Means More Shootings:”Not only do psychiatric drugs add to the risk of violence, but psychiatric treatment lulls the various authorities and the family into believing that the patient is now ‘under control’ and ‘less of a risk.’ Even the patient may think the drugs are helping, and continue to take them right up to the moment of violence. Even when some of their patients signal with all their might that they are dangerous and need to be stopped, mental health providers are likely to give drugs, adding fuel to the heat of violent impulses, while assuming that their violence-inducing drugs will reduce the risk of serious aggression.

        CDC warns of a second wave of flu virus, happening now - Flu season is winding down, but the Centers for Disease Control is warning of a second wave, Flu Virus B, which is happening right now.The CDC says that B-viruses are being reported more frequently than the A-strain, which had been more dominant recently. A CDC spokesperson says B-strain viruses tend to be more severe for younger children.Experts say it’s possible for those who have already been sick with the flu to fall ill again with a different strain later in the season.In New York, flu cases have declined for the fourth straight week, according to the New York Department of Health. There have been more than 3,000 new cases of the flu reported this week. That’s down 19 percent from last week. Hospitalizations are down 29 percent over the same period.  The flu has been categorized as widespread in New York for the past 13 weeks.

        CDC: Second Wave Of "B-Strain" Influenza Has Begun, "More Severe For Younger Children" -Despite the flu season finally winding down and overall cases declining, the CDC reports that infections of the less common "Influenza B" strain are on the rise, surpassing "Influenza A" in their most recent weekly Influenza Surveillance Report. This season's strains are a mixture of the H3N2 and H1N1 "A" strains and the now-resurgent "B" strain, which can be particularly severe on young children. The March 23 release shows that cases of the B-strain comprised nearly 60% of new cases across the country - as reported during the week of March 17. "We know that illness associated with influenza B can be just as severe as illness associated with influenza A," said CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund via CNN. "We also know that influenza B tends to be more severe for younger children."This year there have been 26,694 hospitalizations for flu-related symptoms, nearly 80% of which have been Influenza A - however the late-season resurgence of Influenza B should be of particular concern to parents of younger children as well as caretakers. "We often see a wave of influenza B during seasons when influenza A H3N2 was the predominant virus earlier in the season. Unfortunately, we don't know what the influenza B wave will look like," said Norland, who adds that it's possible to get sick with multiple strains of the flu within the same season. 133 children have died so far from flu-related illnesses during the 2017-2018 season. Among adults, 7.8% of deaths reported for the week were flu related - noting a two week delay in the data. The CDC had estimated a threshold of 7.4%.

        Global antibiotic consumption soars feeding spread of UK ‘super-bugs’ - Drug-resistant superbugs are rising in the UK because of lack of regulation of antibiotics in developing countries, experts have warned.One of the biggest studies of antibiotic use around the world has established that while antibiotic use in Britain has slowed, global consumption jumped by 65 percent, to 34.8 billion daily doses between 2000 and 2015. The analysis, led by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) in Washington DC, found the rise is being driven by skyrocketing use in low to middle income countries such as India, China and Turkey where consumption was up by 114%. Resistant infections already kill an estimated 5,000 people in Britain each year. And global deaths are projected to grow to 10m a year by 2030 - one every three seconds - unless urgent action is taken, say experts. The report’s authors say that economic growth is driving the trend in the developing world but conclude that the “decline of antibiotic effectiveness represents a major threat to human health.” The news comes as a Telegraph investigation into the sale of antibiotics in India has found:

        • Multinational pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), have fuelled the crisis by marketing antibiotics in India that were unapproved elsewhere in the world
        • Many multinational companies are continuing to pay their sales teams bonuses for volume sales, despite international calls for them to desist from doing so
        • Failures in Indian regulation, with antibiotics given macho marketing names, including Fighttox and Megamycin, and made widely available without adequate controls or prescriptions
        • Resistant superbugs bugs being brought back to UK through travel and tourism, leading to hundreds of new cases in UK hospitals 
        • British patients suffering from resistant infections, including an 18 year-old college student who died after contracting a chest infection.

        The disclosures are likely to fuel fears about how common infections could become untreatable. The latest study was published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors of the report called for urgent action to better control antibiotic use around the world.

        Toxic Chemicals May Increase Chances of Regaining Weight After Dieting - Exposure to fluorinated industrial chemicals, known as PFAS or PFC chemicals, may increase the amount of weight that people, especially women, regain after dieting, according to a new study by Harvard University researchers, published in PLOS Medicine. It found that women with higher levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood at the start of the study regained an average of 3.7 to 4.8 pounds more than women with lower levels of the chemicals in their blood. People can be exposed to PFAS chemicals from many sources, including water, food and consumer products. In the home, PFAS chemicals can be found in stain-proofing treatments for carpets , in food packaging materials and even in cosmetics and personal care products . The Harvard study joins a significant body of research linking PFAS chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems. One of the study co-authors, Philippe Grandjean, a professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has published studies showing that very low levels of PFAS chemicals can reduce the effectiveness of childhood vaccines.

        Judge Rules California Starbucks Must Have Cancer Warnings On Their Coffee - In what is only the latest outrageous ruling by a California judge so far this year, Starbucks and a handful of other coffee chains lost a yearslong legal battle against a consumer advocacy group trying to force coffee companies to attach cancer warnings to their packaging, according to Reuters. The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) sued 90 coffee retailers on the grounds they were in violation of a state law requiring companies to warn consumers about potentially cancerous chemicals in their products. Several defendants settled before the final decision and agreed to post the signage and pay millions in fines. A chemical called acrylamide, which is one of the byproducts of roasting coffee beans, is present in brewed coffee and is listed as a potential carcinogen. CERT's lawsuit was filed back in 2010.Per Reuters, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled in a decision dated Wednesday that the defendants in the lawsuit had failed to prove that coffee isn't a carcinogen. Research shows that coffee can lower the incidence of diabetes and liver disease - and even prolong life. The World Health Organization removed coffee from its "possible carcinogen" list in 2016. Coffee companies have said removing acrylamide from brewed coffee would make it implausibly expensive and difficult to prepare in stores.mBut what's worse for companies like Starbucks is that if the industry loses the inevitable appeal (companies have already said they're "considering it"), the judge could impose a stiff civil penalty. By law, it could be as high as $2,500 per person exposed and per incident over the span of eight years. That could be an astronomical figure in California, the most populous state in the US, with 40 million residents.

        California will now require coffee to be sold with a cancer warning — here’s what the science says -- Coffee shops in California, including Starbucks and coffee-selling gas stations, will need to post labels about potential cancer-causing chemicals in coffee, a California judge evaluating a lawsuit has ruled, according to the Associated Press.  The Council for Education and Research on Toxics — the group behind the lawsuit— wanted to penalize companies for not warning customers that coffee contains acrylamide, a chemical that California lists as one "known to cause cancer." Companies may even have to pay fines if they don't warn customers about the risks of chemicals in coffee.  Acrylamide naturally forms when plants and grains are cooked at high temperatures. It's created in the process known as the maillard reaction, in which high heat transforms sugars and amino acids in ways that change flavor and tend to brown food. When potatoes, bread, biscuits, or coffee are heated, acrylamide forms.  Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said in a proposed decision that coffee retailers failed to demonstrate that the threat from acrylamide was insignificant, according to the AP.But most of the scientific evidence we have indicates there's no conclusive reason to believe that coffee or other foods expose humans to dangerous levels of acrylamide. And there's no known way to make coffee without acrylamide.  Data suggests that in large quantities, acrylamide is carcinogenic to some animals.  Animal studies have shown that putting acrylamide in drinking water can give rats and mice cancer. But the doses they consumed in those studies are 1,000-100,000 times the amount people get through their diet.

        Would You Like Some Phthalates With Your Sandwich? - Don't feel like cooking tonight? A new study may change your mind.In a study of more than 10,000 people in the U.S., researchers found that people who frequently eat out at restaurants, cafeterias and fast food joints have phthalate levels about 35 percent higher than people who mostly eat food bought at a grocery store and prepared at home."What you eat is important, but this shows where it's purchased is also important," said senior author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.The study didn't determine why there was increased chemical exposure for people who ate out. However, the chemicals can leach from certain food packages, as well as industrial food processing equipment and gloves used in preparing food, Zota said.Phthalates—used widely in vinyl flooring, cosmetics, detergents, lubricants and food packages—are endocrine disrupting chemicals , meaning they alter the proper functioning of people's hormones. The chemicals have been linked to multiple health problems, including birth and reproduction problems, diseases, impaired brain development, diabetes and cancer .  Despite these health concerns, the chemicals are ubiquitous: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyestimates more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced each year, and most people have some levels of the compounds in their bodies.

        The dirty secret: rubber ducks are so filthy they can kill - Peril lurks in the still waters of your tub, a group of microbiologists has declared. The rubber duck is dangerous, and should either be cleaned out regularly or thrown away amid the risk of eye, ear and stomach infections. Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, assisted by scientists from the department of civil engineering at the University of Illinois, studied 19 bath toys that had been used “under real conditions” — namely, at bath-time — and carried out controlled experiments on six identical bath toys in the laboratory. Then they cut open the ducks and peered into their slimy interiors. “Fungi were identified in 58 per cent of all real bath toys and in all dirty water control toys,” they write in a paper published in the journal Biofilms and Microbiomes. “All bath toys analysed in this study had dense and slimy biofilms on the inner surface.” None received a clean bill of health.  A large number and variety of bacteria and fungi had colonised the ducks’ interiors: 75 million cells per square centimetre. Potentially disease-causing bacteria were identified in 80 per cent of the bath toys, including legionella and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Legionnaires’ disease, a rare lung infection, is caught by inhaling droplets of water, typically from air conditioning or hot tubs. Untreated, it can be fatal. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a bacterium that can affect those with a weak immune system.

        We now have the first clear evidence cell phone radiation can cause cancer in rats - This week, following three days of live-broadcast peer review sessions, experts concluded that a pair of federal studies show “clear evidence” that cell phone radiation caused heart cancer in male rats.  This substantially changes the debate on whether cell phone use is a cancer risk. Up until this point, the federal government and cell phone manufacturers operated on the assumption that cell phones cannot by their very nature cause cancer, because they emit non-ionizing radiation. Whereas ionizing radiation—the kind associated with x-rays, CT scans, and nuclear power plants, among others—definitely causes cancer at high enough doses, non-ionizing radiation was believed to not emit enough energy to break chemical bonds. That meant it couldn’t damage DNA, and therefore couldn’t lead to mutations that cause cancer. But the pair of studies by the US National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” that exposure to radiation caused heart tumors in male rats, and found “some evidence” that it caused tumors in the brains of male rats.  Tumors were found in the hearts of female rats, too, but they didn’t rise to the level of statistical significance and the results were labeled “equivocal;” in other words, the researchers couldn’t be sure the radiation is what caused the tumors. The next scientific step will be to determine what this means for humans.

        Pollution From Air Force Keeps Causing Cancer in Tucson, Residents Say - Twenty-seven years ago, 1,600 residents of Tucson, Arizona's south side settled an $84.5 million dollar lawsuit with Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon Missile Systems Co.), claiming the Air Force contractor had been dumping the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) into the water table for 29 years since 1952, causing cancers and other ailments. Now, more South Tucson residents are coming forward to claim that justice still hasn't been served. Within the last year, more than 1,350 South Tucsonans have filed claims with the Air Force saying they continue to suffer from illnesses caused by the drinking-water pollution its contractors used to dump into the ground surrounding the Tucson International Airport, the Associated Press reported Sunday.   The Arizona Daily Star , which reported on the story last week, did not yet know the details of the majority of cases, but spoke to residents who blame the pollution for cancers, heart disease and autoimmune disorders such as lupus, which has been linked to TCE.  Air Force spokesperson Mark Kinkade told the Star that the Air Force had not yet made a decision about any of the claims and had not yet set a timeline for doing so. South Tucson resident and activist Linda Robles, who is organizing the filing of the claims, said that the current claims were from people who either hadn't known about the first round of lawsuits or hadn't been sick at the time, the Star reported.   Robles has personally lost one daughter to lupus, and two of her other children also have the disease. Her ex-husband had a kidney tumor removed in 2016, and her granddaughter was diagnosed with kidney nephritis in 2013. The illness of her year-old granddaughter was what motivated her to say "no more" and start researching water pollution issues, she told the Star in an April 2017 article about the new round of claims.

        Toxic Impact of Hurricane Harvey Deeper than Public Told - A toxic onslaught from the nation’s petrochemical hub was largely overshadowed by the record-shattering deluge of Hurricane Harvey as residents and first responders struggled to save lives and property.More than a half-year after floodwaters swamped America’s fourth-largest city, the extent of this environmental assault is beginning to surface, while questions about the long-term consequences for human health remain unanswered.County, state and federal records pieced together by The Associated Press and The Houston Chronicle reveal a far more widespread toxic impact than authorities publicly reported after the storm slammed into the Texas coast in late August and then stalled over the Houston area.Some 500 chemical plants, 10 refineries and more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas and chemical pipelines line the nation’s largest energy corridor.Nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water surged out of just one chemical plant in Baytown, east of Houston on the upper shores of Galveston Bay.   Benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens were among the dozens of tons of industrial toxins released into surrounding neighborhoods and waterways following Harvey’s torrential rains.In all, reporters catalogued more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and in the air. Most were never publicized, and in the case of two of the biggest ones, the extent or potential toxicity of the releases was initially understated. Only a handful of the industrial spills have been investigated by federal regulators, reporters found. Texas regulators say they have investigated 89 incidents, but have yet to announce any enforcement actions.

        New York City’s Sewage Shipment Runs Afoul in Rural South - New York City is famous for a lot of things.  But 1,000 miles away in rural northern Alabama, it has become infamous for about 200 shipping containers full of sewage sludge that came by rail from the Big Apple. They have been rotting on train cars for six weeks, stalled on the way to a nearby landfill.  New Yorkers flush the toilet millions of times a day, creating 1,200 tons of biosolids, or treated sewage sludge. Privately owned Big Sky Landfill in Adamsville, Ala., has permits to take nearly all of that from New York’s five boroughs.  The shipments have been coming to Alabama for a year and a half, drawing plenty of complaints from locals upset by the odor. The cars recently got stranded in Parrish, Ala., as a result of a legal dispute. They are now caught in a fight about the legality of loading them on trucks and hauling them the last 25 miles to the Adamsville landfill. “It smells like dead animals, you smell it and you’re looking for a dead dog or dead deer,” Parrish Mayor Heather Hall said. The rail spur where the containers sit is next to the town ballfields, she said, prompting one man to wear a mask to a recent football game. This is a little-seen part of daily life in America. Big cities produce more waste than they can dispose of. So all across the country, pipes, trucks and trains carry waste elsewhere to be incinerated, dumped or used as fertilizer. As urban populations grow, cities are weighing how much they are willing to spend to dispose of or recycle the one thing they are certain the city will continue creating.   Over the past decade, private landfills in the rural South have agreed to take sludge from out of state. But communities near landfills like Big Sky are increasingly pushing back, saying the tax revenue and jobs don’t outweigh the negative effects.  At a recent public hearing on a permit renewal for Big Sky, one woman brought a bag of flies she said had been swarming around her home. West Jefferson Mayor Charles Nix said that once the sludge containers were transferred to trucks, they commonly leached sticky liquid on the roads of his town. “I never dreamed someone could flush a commode in New York, and it would run out in my backyard,” Mr. Nix told regulators.

        Scott Pruitt teams up with Israeli company on water supply - The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy are picking clean energy companies to receive federal help and money under special cooperative agreements that allow private companies to benefit from federal expertise. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced Tuesday that his agency signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Israeli company Water-Gen to develop advanced mobile water generators that can take water vapor directly out of the air to provide drinking water. Outspoken lawyer Alan Dershowitz is a member of the company's board. Pruitt said the goal of the project is to dramatically improve "access to potable water during shortages or contamination events," such as those that occurred during last year's hurricanes that cut off water supplies in Puerto Rico and Texas. Pruitt said he struck 54 similar agreements in fiscal 2017 under the Federal Technology Transfer Act, which allows the government to enter into agreements with the private sector to advance a technology to commercial scale. The idea of tech transfer appears to be spreading across the Trump Cabinet. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, for example, is working with his agency's fleet of national laboratories to facilitate breakthroughs in new energy technologies.

        Trump’s latest EPA nominee let cancer-causing chemical pollute groundwater - The former Ford Motor Company executive nominated Friday to a top Environmental Protection Agency position is accused of overseeing an industrial spill that contaminated the groundwater of a Michigan suburb with a cancer-causing chemical. William Charles “Chad” McIntosh, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, ran Ford’s environmental compliance and policy divisions from 1998 until he retired last year.During that time, degreasing chemicals that had long spilled from a Ford manufacturing plant in Livonia, Michigan, were breaking down into vinyl chloride and tainting the local groundwater. Exposure to vinyl chloride is linked to a rare form of liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute. Ford said it didn’t discover the contamination until 2014, when the company began renovating the plant. Last August, more than 100 homeowners in Alden Village, the town east of the Livonia plant, sued the company over the spill. Shawn Collins, the attorney representing the homeowners, faults McIntosh for the company’s failure to discover the contamination sooner and said he plans to “demand” McIntosh’s deposition in the case.  “You can’t ignore these kinds of toxic chemicals in such an enormous quantity on your property, so whoever was in charge of the environmental state of affairs at this plant did not do his job,” Collins told HuffPost on Monday. “That’s McIntosh.”  The EPA declined to comment.

         Flint mayor diverted water-crisis money to political PAC, suit says -- The mayor of Flint, Michigan, reacted to a federal lawsuit which claims donors were directed away from a charity for victims of the city's water crisis and toward a fund sharing a name with her campaign fund Wednesday, calling the allegations "outrageously false."In the suit filed Monday, fired administrator Natasha Henderson claims that in February 2016, Flint's current mayor, Karen Weaver, directed a former city employee and a city volunteer to stop directing potential donors to a charity called Safe Water/Safe Homes. That charity was run by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and had been approved by the city for water-crisis donations.Instead, the lawsuit claims city employee Maxine Murray was directed by Weaver to begin directing donations to "Karenabout Flint." According to the lawsuit, Murray came to Henderson "in tears" and in fear of "going to jail."Weaver deferred response to the allegations to her legal counsel, but not without making a comment."It saddens me that someone would attempt to taint me as Mayor of a city that is dealing with a major public health crisis, which has affected every man, woman and child in Flint," she said. "I will continue to work hard to serve the people of Flint, seek support for our residents, and secure the necessary resources from generous donors from around our great nation to help the city and citizens I have been elected to serve." CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of "Karenabout Flint," and it does not appear in any state tax registries. "Karen About Flint" was Weaver's campaign slogan when she ran for mayor in 2015, and her Twitter handle is @karenaboutflint. Murray could not be reached for comment.

        Cape Town water crisis pushes city towards credit rating downgrade - The ongoing water crisis has created a hole in the City of Cape Town’s purse and has resulted in an increase in borrowing.  Now the city is facing a more than realistic prospect of a credit rating downgrade. According to rating agency, Moody’s report in February, Cape Town was put down as having a stable credit profile which was however under strain due to the water crisis.“The City’s credit profile is constrained by Cape Town’s severe water shortages, the result of several years of drought, which will have a direct impact on the City’s water revenue, as well as having indirect economic and societal effects. The City has increased its capital spending plans, largely because of spending on water-related infrastructure, which will substantially increase its debt,” the report says. The city’s current rating is Baa3 and, according to the ratings agency, it’s unlikely to improve.“An upgrade of Cape Town’s global scale rating would likely require an upgrade of the sovereign rating A downgrade of the sovereign rating would likely lead to a downgrade of Cape Town’s ratings,” the report continues.“Furthermore, Cape Town’s ratings would come under pressure in the event of deterioration in fiscal discipline.“Challenges associated with the water crisis have prompted the City to increase borrowing for the first time in four years. In July last year, the City launched its first green bond in a R1bn issuance to finance water, sanitation and transport projects. The City plans to spend about R21.8bn on capital infrastructure from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2020.”Day Zero in Cape Town has been pushed back to 2019, following water saving efforts from residents and businesses. However, water usage has reportedly gone up again in recent weeks and dam levels are expected to reach 10% in the middle of June.

        The 100 million city: is 21st century urbanisation out of control? - The 1960 street map of Lagos, Nigeria, shows a small western-style coastal city surrounded by a few semi-rural African villages. Paved roads quickly turn to dirt, and fields to forest. There are few buildings over six floors high and not many cars.  No one foresaw what happened next. In just two generations Lagos grew 100-fold, from under 200,000 people to nearly 20 million. Today one of the world’s 10 largest cities, it sprawls across nearly 1,000 sq km. Vastly wealthy in parts, it is largely chaotic and impoverished. Most residents live in informal settlements, or slums. The great majority are not connected to piped water or a sanitation system. The city’s streets are choked with traffic, its air is full of fumes, and its main dump covers 40 hectares and receives 10,000 metric tons of waste a day. But new research suggests that the changes Lagos has seen in the last 60 years may be nothing to what might take place in the next 60. If Nigeria’s population continues to grow and people move to cities at the same rate as now, Lagos could become the world’s largest metropolis, home to 85 or 100 million people. By 2100, it is projected to be home to more people than California or Britain today, and to stretch hundreds of miles – with enormous environmental effects.  Hundreds of far smaller cities across Asia and Africa could also grow exponentially, say the Canadian demographers Daniel Hoornweg and Kevin Pope at the Ontario Institute of Technology. They suggest that Niamey, the barely known capital of Niger – a west African country with the highest birth rate in the world – could explode from a city of fewer than one million people today to be the world’s eighth-largest city, with 46 million people, in 2100. Sleepy Blantyre in southern Malawi could mushroom to the size of New York City today.

        China needs more water. So it's building a rain-making network three times the size of Spain - South China Morning Post: China is testing cutting-edge defence technology to develop a powerful yet relatively low-cost weather modification system to bring substantially more rain to the Tibetan plateau, Asia’s biggest freshwater reserve. The system, which involves an enormous network of fuel-burning chambers installed high up on the Tibetan mountains, could increase rainfall in the region by up to 10 billion cubic metres a year – about 7 per cent of China’s total water consumption – according to researchers involved in the project. Tens of thousands of chambers will be built at selected locations across the Tibetan plateau to produce rainfall over a total area of about 1.6 million square kilometres (620,000 square miles), or three times the size of Spain. It will be the world’s biggest such project. The chambers burn solid fuel to produce silver iodide, a cloud-seeding agent with a crystalline structure much like ice. The chambers stand on steep mountain ridges facing the moist monsoon from south Asia. As wind hits the mountain, it produces an upward draft and sweeps the particles into the clouds to induce rain and snow. “[So far,] more than 500 burners have been deployed on alpine slopes in Tibet, Xinjiang and other areas for experimental use. The data we have collected show very promising results,” a researcher working on the system told the South China Morning Post. The system is being developed by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation – a major space and defence contractor that is also leading other ambitious national projects, including lunar exploration and the construction of China’s space station. While the idea is not new – other countries like the United States have conducted similar tests on small sites – China is the first to attempt such a large-scale application of the technology. 

        US Demands China Keep Importing American Garbage -- As it tries to strike an agreement with the US to avert a trade war that economists fear could destabilize global markets, China has an ace up its sleeve that it's just about ready to play: The Communist Party last year implemented a ban on imports of recyclable material that is provoking a mild panic in the US.The reason? The US relies on China to "import" much of its bulk recyclable waste. But last July, in an effort to battle the "illegal foreign garbage" influx into China, the country's Ministry of Environmental Protection notified the World Trade Organization that it plans to ban imports of 24 types of solid waste materials, including soda bottles, mixed paper, recycled steel and newsprint. Despite the threat to implement the ban by the end of the year, the document stated that the "proposed date of adoption" is "to be determined."  But by moving ahead with the decision, China risks creating serious problems for the global recycling industry, something that would probably have the greatest impact on the US by essentially forcing it to make difficult choices about how it process its solid waste, including - most notably - how and where it is stored. According to Reuters, which was the first western media outlet to report on the decision, the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries said at the time that the ban would devastate an industry that supported 155,000 jobs and had exported scrap worth $5.6 billion to China in 2016."China’s import restrictions on recycled commodities have caused a fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials, directing them away from productive reuse and toward disposal," a US representative told the meeting, according to a trade official in Geneva.The United States recognized China’s environmental concerns but Beijing’s approach seemed to be having the opposite effect to what was intended, and its rules had changed far too quickly for industry to adjust, the U.S. representative told the meeting. The US also accused China of violating its obligations under the WTO framework.China seemed to be breaching its WTO obligations by treating domestic and foreign waste differently and employing an overly trade-restrictive policy, the U.S. official said. "We request that China immediately halt implementation and revise these measures in a manner consistent with existing international standards for trade in scrap materials, which provide a global framework for transparent and environmentally sound trade in recycled commodities."

        More Than 75 Percent of Earth’s Land Areas Are ‘Broken,’ Major Report Finds - Once-productive lands have become deserts, are polluted, or deforested, putting 3.2 billion people at risk. More than 75 percent of the Earth’s land areas have lost some or most of their functions, undermining the well-being of the 3.2 billion people that rely on them to produce food crops, provide clean water, control flooding and more.These once-productive lands have either become deserts, are polluted, or have been deforested and converted for unsustainable agricultural production. This is a major contributor to increased conflict and mass human migration, and left unchecked, could force as many as 700 million to migrate by 2050, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation, released today in Medellín, Colombia.  Land degradation—including deforestation, soil erosion, and salinity and pollution of fresh water systems—is also driving species to extinction and aggravating the effects of climate change, the report concludes. It was written by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). IPBES is the ‘IPCC for biodiversity,’ a scientific assessment of the status of non-human life that makes up the Earth’s life support system. A major companion report was released Friday documenting therapid and dangerous decline in biodiversity. It called for fundamental changes in how we live, run our societies, and the economy. “This is an extremely urgent issue that we need to address yesterday,” said Robert Scholes, a South African ecologist and co-chair of the assessment. “Land degradation is having the single biggest impact on the well-being of humanity,” Scholes said in an interview in Medellín.

        World's Largest Desert Growing Even Larger, Partly Due to Climate Change - The Sahara Desert—which takes up about 3.6 million square miles of northern Africa—is growing ever larger, signaling daunting news for people living in the Sahel border region who stand to lose valuable arable land to the expanding desert. The boundaries of the world's largest hot desert, already around the size of China or the continental U.S, have grown roughly 10 percent since 1920 due to natural climate cycles as well as man-made climate change , according to a new study by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientists at the University of Maryland. "The trends in Africa of hot summers getting hotter and rainy seasons drying out are linked with factors that include increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere," said Ming Cai, a program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. As a summary of the new study pointed out, as the Sahara expands, the Sahel retreats—putting the region's fragile savanna ecosystems and human societies under threat. "These trends have a devastating effect on the lives of African people, who depend on agriculture -based economies," Cai noted.   For the study, published this week in the Journal of Climate, researchers analyzed annual rainfall data recorded throughout Africa from 1920 to 2013. Deserts are defined as places that receive less than four inches of rain per year. After analyzing the rainfall data, the researchers determined that many areas in the Sahara now fall under this threshold.

        Food Crises Intensifying Because of Climate Change and Conflict - Global food crises are poised to worsen in some areas as conflict and climate change curb farm production and access to staples, the United Nations and European Union warned. Food crises are increasingly determined by complex causes such as conflict, extreme climatic shocks and high prices of staple foods, often happening at the same time, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme and EU said in a report Thursday. Conflict will remain a major driver of food insecurity in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, while drought is likely to worsen crop and livestock output, increasing food insecurity in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, they said."Food crises are likely to become more acute, persistent and complex given current trends and their root causes with devastating effects on the lives of millions of people," Neven Mimica, EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, said in a statement. Almost 124 million people in 51 countries and territories faced acute food insecurity or worse last year, and required urgent humanitarian action, the report said. The numbers affected by acute food insecurity rose by 11 million last year, it said. Extreme climate events –- mainly drought -- were the main triggers of food crises in 23 countries, while conflict continued to be the main driver of acute food insecurity in 18 nations. The report defines acute food insecurity as hunger so severe that it poses an immediate threat to lives or livelihoods.

        Monsanto is on the verge of producing the first fruit made with a blockbuster gene-editing tool that could revolutionize agriculture --In a move aimed at securing a place in the rapidly evolving food technology scene, the agricultural giant Monsanto has invested $125 million in a gene-editing startup called Pairwise.The alliance could tee up Monsanto, long known for its controversial dealings with farmers and its role in popularizing genetically modified organisms, to introduce some of the first produce made using the blockbuster gene-editing tool Crispr. Sweeter strawberries with a longer shelf life could be among the earliest offerings.The tool allows scientists to accurately target specific problem areas within the genome of a living thing, opening up the potential to tweak the DNA of everything from row crops like corn and soy to produce like apples and asparagus to make the produce taste sweeter, last longer on the shelf, and even tolerate drought or flooding. Monsanto and Pairwise aim to get some of the first fruits and vegetables made with Crispr on grocery-store shelves within five to 10 years, Tom Adams, who previously served as Monsanto's vice president of global biotechnology but will leave the company to become the CEO of Pairwise, told Business Insider on Monday.

        Canadian Government Profiting from Genetically Modified Salmon Sales - The Canadian government is receiving 10% royalties from sales of the world’s first genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered) animal, a GM Atlantic salmon. “We’re concerned that the government is responsible for regulating this GM fish and also has a stake in its success,” said Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). The royalties are part of a 2009 $2.8 million-dollar grant agreement between the company AquaBounty and the federal government Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. The royalties will be paid to the Government of Canada until the grant amount is paid back. If the GM salmon is not a commercial success, there is no requirement for the company to repay the government funds. “The GM fish was developed with public funds but without public consultation, and it’s being sold without labels,” said Sharratt. “If Canadians unknowingly buy GM salmon, the government gets 10% of the profit.” In 2016, Health Canada approved the GM fish for human consumption. In 2013 the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change approved GM salmon production at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island (PEI) where GM salmon eggs are currently manufactured and then shipped to Panama for growing at a small pilot site.

        The Pentagon’s Scary Plan to Militarize Ocean Life - The U.S. military has plans to create genetically modified marine organisms that can be used as underwater spies for the military. Fantastic as this idea may seem, the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has actually launched a new program that aims to tap into the "natural sensing capabilities" of marine organisms, who are highly attuned to their surroundings, to track enemy traffic undersea.  The project out of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office , called the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program hopes to use everything from bacteria to large fish to find underwater vehicles by recording the creatures' natural reactions to these vehicles and sending the data to an outside base.  A recent press release about the program said it would "study natural and modified organisms (emphasis added) to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles."  "Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone," the release said, explaining the program's reasoning. "Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark."  The program is currently seeking proposals that would help capture the responses of marine organisms—both natural and transgenic—to the presence of underwater vehicles, interpret those responses and relay them to a network of hardware devices.  It is unclear right now as to how this will happen. DARPA has stated that "intelligent mammals" and endangered species will not be used in the experiments or in the program itself, but it has been vague as to how it defines "intelligent mammals." Questions as to the involvement of dolphins and other marine mammals arise, particularly since the U.S. Navy, is notorious for holding nearly 100 dolphins captive in San Diego, conducting experiments on them and using them for military purposes.

        Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows - Jerri-lynn Scofield - The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)– “a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii”– is growing at a greater rate than previously predicted, according to Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a scientific a paper published last week by Scientific Reports. The study estimates the size of the GPGP at 79,000 tonnes, a figure that is four to sixteen times higher than previous estimates. First discovered in 1997, this floating collection of plastic and other debris is more than three times the size of France and covers 617,800 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers). Before the three-year mapping operation discussed in this report was conducted, little detail was known about the size and contents of the GPGP. According to National Geographic: The study also found that fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets. Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the debris is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. By contrast, microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass of the GPGP,  but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area, according to the report: Global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tonnes with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before. A significant amount of the produced material serves an ephemeral purpose and is rapidly converted into waste. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated while the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans. While the introduction of synthetic fibres in fishing and aquaculture gear represented an important technological advance specifically for its persistence in the marine environment, accidental and deliberate gear losses became a major source of ocean plastic pollution3. Lost or discarded fishing nets known as ghostnets are of particular concern as they yield direct negative impacts on the economy4and marine habitats worldwide (citations omitted).  The report also emphasizes that the amount of plastic  waste in the GPGP is growing, rather than diminishing:

        We’re Drowning in Seas of Plastic - The fossil fuel era must end, or it will spell humanity's end. The threat isn't just from pollution and acceleratingclimate change . Rapid, wasteful exploitation of these valuable resources has also led to a world choked in plastic. Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels , often by the same companies that produce oil and gas.Our profligate use of plastics has created swirling masses in ocean gyres. It's worse than once thought. New research concludes that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 16 times larger than previously estimated, with 79,000 tonnes of plastic churning through 1.6 million square kilometers of the North Pacific. That's larger than the area of Quebec—and it continues to grow! Researchers say if we don't clean up our act, the oceans will have more plastics by weight than fish by 2050 .The Ocean Cleanup Foundation commissioned the study, published in Nature, based on a 2015 expedition using 30 vessels and a C-130 Hercules airplane to look at the eastern part of the patch.According to a CBC article , researchers estimate that the patch holds 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, much of it broken down into microplastics less than half a centimeter in diameter. They also found "plastic bottles, containers, packaging straps, lids, ropes and fishing nets," some dating from the late 1970s and into the '80s and '90s, and large amount of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, Japan.When plastics break down into smaller pieces, they're more difficult to clean up, and marine animals often ingest the pieces, which is killing them in ever-increasing numbers. Larger pieces can entangle marine animals, and bigger animals often ingest those, too. The North Pacific patch isn't unique . Debris accumulates wherever wind and ocean conditions and Earth's rotation create ocean gyres, including the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. There's also one in the Arctic Ocean, although it isn't a gyre, but an "accumulation zone," where water from warmer areas sinks as it cools.

        'Truly alarming': No babies for endangered right whales - The winter calving season for critically endangered right whales has nearly ended with zero newborns spotted in the past four months—a reproductive drought that scientists who study the fragile species haven't seen in three decades. Survey flights to look for mother-and-calf pairs off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida are scheduled to wrap up when the month ends Saturday. Right whales typically give birth off the southeastern U.S. seacoast between December and late March. Researchers have recorded between one and 39 births each year since the flights began in 1989.Now experts are looking at the possibility of a calving season without any confirmed births."It's a pivotal moment for right whales," said Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the U.S. Southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "If we don't get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end."Zoodsma said she doesn't expect any last-minute calf sightings this week.The timing could hardly be worse. Scientists estimate only about 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, and the species suffered terribly in 2017. A total of 17 right whales washed up dead in the U.S. and Canada last year, far outpacing five births.With no rebound in births this past winter, the overall population could shrink further in 2018. One right whale was found dead off the coast of Virginia in January."It is truly alarming," said Philip Hamilton, a scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston who has studied right whales for three decades. "Following a year of such high mortality, it's clear the population can't sustain that trajectory." Right whales have averaged about 17 births per year during the past three decades. Since 2012, all but two seasons have yielded below-average calf counts.

        Despite Government Pledges, Ravaging of Indonesia’s Forests Continues - Global demand for forest commodities has devastated major portions of the world’s third-largest tropical forest, with Indonesia losing more than 100,000 square miles of woodlands and peatlands — an area larger than the United Kingdom — from 1990 to 2015, dealing a huge blow to one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The island of Sumatra alone lost 29,000 square miles — about one-third of its forests — from 1990 to 2010. Seven years ago, this relentless toll led Indonesia to declare a moratorium on logging new concessions in undisturbed tropical forests and peatlands — a move seen as critical in stemming forest loss and the accompanying fires, haze, and greenhouse gas emissions. That it came shortly after a $1 billion dollar pledge from the government of Norway as part of the then-nascent Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, led many to hope that this was an important step toward reversing decades of deforestation in Indonesia. Adding to the momentum were zero-deforestation pledges from companies likeAsia Pulp & Paper and the Consumer Goods Forum, which includes major palm oil buyers such as Mars, PepsiCo, and Proctor & Gamble.  Nearly seven years after the declaration of the moratorium, however, the initiative has failed to stem the loss of forests and peatlands across the Indonesian archipelago. Satellite monitoring shows that palm oil and paper plantations continue to expand, with at least 10,000 square miles of primary forest and peatland — the equivalent of five islands the size of Bali — disappearing since the moratorium went into effect, according to one analysis. In 2015, a massive El Niño-fueled fire event — linked to burning for land-clearing — was believed to be the worst in Indonesian history, emitting an estimated 1,750 million metric tons of CO2into the atmosphere — nearly twice what Germany does in a year, according to The Global Fire Emissions Database. Following the moratorium, says Asep Komarudin, Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, “there were no significant improvements in Indonesia’s natural resource governance, particularly in the forestry sector.”

        Conservationists slam India's plan for commercial plantations in forests - Campaigners in India have criticized a proposed new policy for managing the country’s forests, saying it could undermine the rights of indigenous people to use them. The draft proposal, unveiled earlier this month, suggests allowing plantations of “commercially important species” such as teak, eucalyptus and bamboo in forest lands. That could open the door for private firms to grow and harvest commercial plantations, which would hurt the ecology and deprive tribal communities of their livelihoods, analysts said. “This draft policy presents a very regressive and narrow vision of forest governance and management,” said Tushar Dash of the advocacy group Community Forest Rights. “It raises serious concerns about the impact of monoculture plantations on bio-diversity and the local ecology, as well as displacements and violations of the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. India has pledged to keep a third of its total land area under forest and tree cover, but a growing population and increasing demand for industrial projects are placing greater stress on these lands. Under the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), at least 150 million people could have their rights recognized to about 40 million hectares (154,400 sq miles) of forest land. But progress has been slow, and campaigners say many states have rejected recognition of community rights. The draft Forest Policy seeks to amend a three-decade-old law “by incorporating elements of ecosystem security, climate change mitigation, participatory forest management (and) robust monitoring,” the environment ministry said. Public-private partnerships will undertake planting commercially important tree species in forest lands and in degraded forest areas, it said, referring to lands with less than 40 percent tree cover. The draft undermines a 1996 law that gives indigenous people the right to govern their lands, as well as the FRA, which gives tribal people the right to inhabit and live off forests where their forefathers settled, Dash said. 

        World’s great forests could lose half of all wildlife as planet warms – report -- The world’s greatest forests could lose more than half of their plant species by the end of the century unless nations ramp up efforts to tackle climate change, according to a new report on the impacts of global warming on biodiversity hotspots. Mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds are also likely to disappear on a catastrophic scale in the Amazon and other naturally rich ecosysterms in Africa, Asia, North America and Australia if temperatures rise by more than 1.5C, concludes the study by WWF, the University of East Anglia and the James Cook University.The research in the journal Climate Change examined the impact of three different levels of warming – 2C (the upper target in the 2015 Paris agreement), 3.2C (the likely rise given existing national commitments) and 4.5C (the forecast outcome if emissions trends remain unchanged) on nearly 80,000 plant and animal species in 35 of the world’s most biodiverse regions.If governments fail to set more ambitious commitments than those currently on the table, the report projects devastating losses of more than 60% of plant species and almost 50% of animal species in the Amazon at a temperature rise of 3.2C. If countries lift their efforts sufficiently to reach the 2C goal, the outlook is improved – but still grim – with more than 35% of species at risk of local extinction in the region. If no actions are taken, the picture is apocalyptic, with a likely loss of more than 70% of plant and reptile species and a more than 60% decline of mammal, reptile and bird species in the Amazon. The picture was similarly alarming in the two other worst affected areas – south-west Australia and the Miombo woodlands in Africa. But nowhere among the selected 35 hotspots escaped massive losses of wildlife, which would have a dire knock-on effect on human society and wellbeing.

        Alarmed conservationists call for urgent action to fix ‘America’s wildlife crisis’: One-third of species are vulnerable to extinction, a crisis ravaging swaths of creatures, conservationists say in call to fund recovery plans - An extinction crisis is rippling though America’s wildlife, with scores of species at risk of being wiped out unless recovery plans start to receive sufficient funding, conservationists have warned. One-third of species in the US are vulnerable to extinction, a crisis that has ravaged swaths of creatures such as butterflies, amphibians, fish and bats, according to a report compiled by a coalition of conservation groups. A further one in five species face an even greater threat, with a severe risk of being eliminated amid a “serious decline” in US biodiversity, the report warns. “America’s wildlife are in crisis,” said Collin O’Mara, chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation. “Fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates are all losing ground. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to prevent these species from vanishing from the earth.”  More than 1,270 species found in the US are listed as at risk under the federal Endangered Species Act, an imperiled menagerie that includes the grizzly bear, California condor, leatherback sea turtle and rusty patched bumble bee. However, the actual number of threatened species is “far higher than what is formally listed”, states the report by the National Wildlife Federation, American Fisheries Society and the Wildlife Society.  Using data from NatureServe that assesses the health of entire groups of species on a sliding scale, rather than the case-by-case work done by the federal government, the analysis shows more than 150 US species have already become extinct while a further 500 species have not been seen in recent decades and have possibly also been snuffed out.  The true scale of the crisis is probably larger when species with sparse data, or those as yet unknown to science, are considered.

        Biodiversity Plummets, Posing Grave Global Threat -  Jerri-lynn Scofield - Biodiversity is plummeting worldwide, according to summaries of four landmark reports the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES) released on March 23 (and summarized in this IPBES media release). These comprise the most comprehensive study on biodiversity issued in the last decade and cover four regions: the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe-Central Asia. In its reporting on the IPBES announcement, Destruction of nature as dangerous as climate change, scientists warn, the Guardian provides context: The IPBES report will be used to inform decision-makers at a major UN conference later this year. Signatories to the Convention for Biodiversity will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh in November to discuss ways to raise targets and strengthen compliance. But there have been more than 140 scientific reports since 1977, almost all of which have warned of deterioration of the climate or natural world. Without more pressure from civil society, media and voters, governments have been reluctant to sacrifice short-term economic goals to meet the longer-term environmental challenge to human wellbeing. Absent radical shifts in policy and practices, biodiversity is expected to continue to collapse in the Americas, according to IPBES:  the populations of species in an area are about 31% smaller than was the case at the time of European settlement, this loss is projected to reach 40% by 2050…indigenous people and local communities have created a diversity of polyculture and agroforestry systems, which have increased biodiversity and shaped landscapes. However, the decoupling of lifestyles from the local environment has eroded, for many, their sense of place, language and indigenous local knowledge. More than 60% of the languages in the Americas, and the cultures associated with them, are troubled or dying out. By 2100, at least half of Africa’s bird and mammal species will be extinct, as a result of climate change. Furthermore: approximately 500,000 square kilometres of African land is already estimated to have been degraded by overexploitation of natural resources, erosion, salinization and pollution, resulting in significant loss of nature’s contributions to people. Even greater pressure will be placed on the continent’s biodiversity as the current African population of 1.25 billion people is set to double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

        Biggest Biodiversity Study in a Decade Finds Current Biodiversity Loss Dangerous for Human Well-Being -- The authors of the most in-depth biodiversity study in a decade warned that the loss of species and habitats is as great a risk to global flourishing as climate change , The Guardian reported Friday. The report, a compilation of four regional assessments on the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe and Central Asia, was compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent research organization comprised of 129 member governments that has been described as "the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of biodiversity," according to an IPBES release . The assessments, which were approved at the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia, were the work of three years and more than 550 experts. They concluded that biodiversity was declining to such an extent in all the regions studied as to put nature's ability to support human well-being at risk. "The best available evidence, gathered by the world's leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature—or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead," IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson said in the release. For example, the Asia-Pacific assessment found that, if fishing continues in the region at current rates, there will be nothing left to fish by 2048. In addition, more than half of all African mammal and bird species could be extinct due to climate change by 2100. The current loss of biodiversity in all four regions also threatens their ability to meet the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not to mention other UN benchmarks such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the goals set by the Paris agreement on climate change.

         Destruction of nature as dangerous as climate change, scientists warn - Human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding the world’s capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people, according to the most comprehensive biodiversity study in more than a decade.Such is the rate of decline that the risks posed by biodiversity loss should be considered on the same scale as those of climate change, noted the authors of the UN-backed report, which was released in Medellin, Colombia on Friday.Among the standout findings are that exploitable fisheries in the world’s most populous region – the Asia-Pacific – are on course to decline to zero by 2048; that freshwater availability in the Americas has halved since the 1950s and that 42% of land species in Europe have declined in the past decade. Underscoring the grim trends, this report was released in the week that the decimation of French bird populations was revealed, as well as the death of the last male northern white rhinoceros, leaving the species only two females from extinction. “The time for action was yesterday or the day before,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which compiled the research. “Governments recognise we have a problem. Now we need action, but unfortunately the action we have now is not at the level we need.”“We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead,” he added. Divided into four regional reports, the study of studies has been written by more than 550 experts from over 100 countries and taken three years to complete. Approved by the governments of 129 members nations, the IPBES reports aim to provide a knowledge base for global action on biodiversity in much the same way that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is used by policymakers to set carbon emission targets.

        Zinke's New Outdoor Recreation Panel Dominated by Industry Execs - The 15-member "Made in America" Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee will advise Sec. Zinke on issues surrounding public lands . They include officials from that represent fishing, shooting sports, motorized vehicles and hospitality as well as national park concessionaires. "The Made in America Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee is made up of the private sector's best and brightest to tackle some of our biggest public lands infrastructure and access challenges," Zinke announced Monday. "The committee's collective experience as entrepreneurs and business leaders provide (sic) unique insight that is often lost in the federal government." The Washington Post reported that Zinke did not appoint committee nominees offered by the Outdoor Industry Association , which advocates for activities such as mountain climbing, hiking and kayaking. The association has criticized President Trump 's decision last year to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

        In 20 Years, Wildfires Will Be Six Times Larger - From Montana to California, wildfires in 2017 shattered record after record and cost the Forest Service an unprecedented $2 billion. The blazes ravaged rural landscapes and business centers and claimed dozens of lives, including those of at least two firefighters. This season’s bone-dry winter conditions in the southern Rockies could set the stage for another taxing fire season in the West. If it’s starting to feel like the weather pendulum is favoring one side of the extreme, that’s because it is.Over the next two decades, as many as 11 states are predicted to see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent, according to a recent study. That would mean a small fire, say 100 acres, becomes, on average, a 600-acre fire, with Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada expected to increase 700 percent in burn size. It’s a grim picture for future fire seasons—one that might be inevitable, because researchers have been able to check their work from current trends.Scientists from the University of Arizona, the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina, and the University of California, Merced, analyzed more than three decades of fire occurrence, seasonal temperatures, and snowpack trends throughout western North America to calculate how climate regulates wildfire. By 2039, the researchers estimate there will be 50 fewer days of snowpack in much of the West and a four-degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. Both trends will create longer fire seasons that burn much more land.“This model is essentially saying that fire is going to increase a lot in the interior continental U.S. But that’s only true to a certain point. It’s going to stop being true when those forests can no longer support that kind of fire,” says LeRoy Westerling, a professor of complex systems management at the University of California, Merced, and a co-author of the study. When that happens, the landscape is going to look really different. In less than a generation, drought and fires in western North America could reshape some forests into dry scrublands, where only smaller, water-hardy, and fire-resistant trees thrive.

        Extreme Rainfall Events in India Related to Human-made Emissions -- Here is more evidence why we need to worry about climate change. A new study says extreme rainfall events are on the rise in India and attributes the trend to human-made emissions, what scientists call anthropogenic warming. Not just this, the trend is likely to become more prominent by mid-century, particularly in southern and central India. While previous studies have shown a rising trend of extreme rainfall events, this study has sought to link it with anthropogenic emissions. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IITGn), used historical datasets about daily rainfall and temperature from about 7000 meteorological stations of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), converted it into grids of one-degree spatial resolution. An analysis of observed changes in yearly maximum rainfall for the period of 1979-2015, showed that rainfall has increased over the majority of India except in the Gangetic plain, northeastern India, and Jammu and Kashmir. The decline in the Gangetic plain region can be attributed to a significant reduction in the monsoon season rainfall driven by increased atmospheric aerosols and warming of the Indian Ocean. The increase in precipitation is more prominent in southern India than in north India from 1979 to 2015. Along with extreme precipitation, the study has found that dew point temperature – temperature at which air gets saturated with moisture – has also increased during the period 1979-2015. With warming, water holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by 6% per degree rise in temperature, according to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the study says. The scaling relationship between extreme precipitation and dew point temperature shows over 7% increase per unit rise in dew point temperature for the majority of south India. 

        Pollution Sources in China Increased More Than 50 Percent in Eight Years - The number of pollution sources in China has gone up by more than 50 percent since 2010, Reuters reported Thursday, indicating that the country still has a lot of work to do in its efforts to clean up its environment. The announcement was made Thursday in the first regular press briefing given by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), the newly-enhanced environment ministry which was renamed and given added jurisdiction over marine ecology, agricultural pollution and climate change this month as part of what Chemical & Engineering News reported was the biggest shake-up in the Chinese government in 20 years. The announcement concerns preliminary data in an "environmental census" begun last year to pinpoint pollution sources in the country that is the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to the most recent International Energy Agency data provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists . According to early estimates, China now has 9 million pollution sources—7.4 million from industrial sources, 1 million in rural areas and half a million in cities. The survey will be complete by 2019 and marks the second such survey undertaken by the Chinese government. The first, conducted from 2007 to 2009, uncovered 5.9 million pollution sources.

        Russia and eastern Europe were blanketed with orange snow in a freak weather event - Parts of Russia and eastern Europe were blanketed with orange-tinted snow over the weekend after sand from the Sahara desert blew across Europe.Storms in northern Africa picked up sand, dust, and pollen particles from the Sahara and blew them across the Mediterranean and Europe, The Independent reported. It then mixed with snow and rain in eastern Europe and Russia, turning the snow orange.Skiers and snowboarders in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Romania posted photos of the surreal scenes on social media on Friday and Saturday. People in the region complained of sand in their mouths, the BBC reported. The weather phenomenon happens every five years or so, and has previously occurred in other parts in the world, meteorologists said.

        This Entire Island May Have to Be Raised to Counter Rising Sea - Balboa Island, an exclusive enclave with water views from multimillion-dollar homes, is built on dredged sand and silt and sits below high tide. Projections for sea-level rise estimate the water here will climb 6 inches by 2035 and 1.4 feet by 2050, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine.  By 2050, floodwater could rise above residents’ ankles, or even their knees, on a regular basis, he said. The city, located about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, closes floodgates on the island before high tide to keep bay water from backing up through storm drains and inundating the streets. That has consequences. When it rains, “water has nowhere to go, and it stays in the street,” said Newport Beach Assistant City Engineer Bob Stein. The city can’t reopen the valves until water levels fall. To alleviate those impacts, the city plans to spend $2 million in the short term, and potentially much more in coming years, to protect the island and other parts of Newport Beach. Workers have started adding a 9-inch topper on the sea wall that buffers island homes from rising seas. Planners had wanted an 18-inch supplement, but residents argued that much would ruin waterfront views. It might resist the waves for 10 to 15 years, given projections about sea-level rise, Stein said. There’s a bigger plan afoot. That one, currently under development, is to lift the island. Homes, streets and sea walls would be raised. Changes are already underway. When residents redevelop using revised codes, they must put the first floor of the residence roughly 9.2 feet or more above mean sea level. That is about 3 to 3 ½ feet above the current street level.   Balboa Island streets would be raised within 30 to 40 years. The drainage system that runs under the streets must be refurbished at the same time. “The whole island is going to jack up by 2050,” Stein said. “I expect the roadways will be 2 feet higher. Then depending on sea-level rise, by 2100 they will be another 2 feet higher or more.”

        Arctic Sea Ice Hits Second-Lowest Winter Peak on Record - Arctic sea ice has experienced its maximum extent for the year, reaching 14.48 million square kilometers (approximately 5.59 million square miles) on March 17—the second smallest in the 39-year satellite record.   The provisional data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center ( NSIDC ) shows the 2018 winter peak only narrowly avoided taking 2017's record. The run of low extents in recent winters suggests that "profound ice loss is no longer limited to summer but now extends across all seasons," an NSDIC scientist told Carbon Brief . Meanwhile, in Antarctica , sea ice has already reached its minimum extent following the summer melt season. This also clocked in as the second lowest on record.   As the northern hemisphere emerges from winter, the annual expansion of sea ice in the Arctic slows to a stop. This peak signals the start of the melt season in spring and summer.  Early indications suggest that Arctic sea ice reached an annual maximum of 14.48 million square kilometers (sq km) on March 17. This is the second lowest winter peak in the 39-year satellite record—just 60,000 sq km larger than the 2017 record—and 1.16m sq km smaller than the 1981-2010 average. The chart above shows how closely the 2017 (green) and 2018 (blue) extents tracked through their respective winters.  The image below gives a snapshot of the sea ice cover for March 17. The orange line shows the average extent of sea ice for that day over 1981-2010.

        Arctic sea ice missed a record low this winter—barely -Arctic sea ice behaves a bit like a human waistline, packing on weight in the winter and slimming down in the heat of summer. But while many of us struggle to lose weight, the Arctic has been struggling to gain it.The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice cover this winter was the second-lowest since satellite record-keeping began, researchers said Friday.The loss of sea ice is a bellwether of global warming, suggesting that climate change is not just something to worry about far off in the future: It is here.“We’ve probably known for 100 years that as the climate warms up in response to loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, we would see the changes first in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which issued the new data. “This is what we expected and this is exactly what has happened. It’s a case where we hate to say we told you so, but we told you so.”With each passing decade, the ice grows a bit less in winter, and melts a bit more in summer. The record for theleast amount of sea ice gained in the winter was set last year, when the ice covered 5.57 million square miles (14.42 million square kilometers) at its peak. This winter’s maximum extent was slightly greater, at 5.59 million square miles (14.48 million square kilometers), according to the data center.Despite the small increase this year, the downward trend in winter ice coverage is unmistakable,  and the past four years have been the four lowest on record.

        Arctic Ocean ice near record low for winter, boost for shipping  (Reuters) - Winter sea ice on the Arctic Ocean covered the second smallest area on record this year, part of a thaw that is opening the region to shipping and oil exploration and may be disrupting weather far to the south, scientists said on Friday. The extent of floating ice likely reached an annual maximum of 14.5 million square kilometers (5.6 million square miles) on March 17, fractionally bigger than a record set in 2017, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said.  Sea ice around the North Pole freezes to its biggest at the end of the winter in March, and thaws to an annual minimum in September. The ice has shrunk in recent decades in a trend scientists link to man-made climate change.   The 2018 winter ice is about a million square kilometers - roughly the size of Egypt or Colombia and bigger than the state of Texas - below the long-term average maximum, NSIDC data show. The center, affiliated with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, studies satellite data of the ice going back 39 years.   The diminishing ice seems at odds with remarks by President Donald Trump in a television interview in January that “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now. But now they’re setting records.”   Until now, most scientific focus has been on a trend of shrinking Arctic sea ice in summer, which is opening shipping routes from the Pacific to the Atlantic and allowing oil and gas exploration even as it harms indigenous peoples and wildlife such as polar bears.   The vast Shtokman natural gas field, north of Russia, is in an area that is now ice-free even in the depths of winter – helping Gazprom if it ever develops the find. The region was ice-bound in winter until the early 1980s, Eldevik said.  Shipping company Teekay said a tanker loaded a first cargo of liquefied natural gas at a terminal in Arctic Russia and traveled to France in January 2018 - the first ship to make such a winter voyage without an icebreaker.

        Bering goes extreme - Neven - The melting season hasn't started in earnest yet, but it seems the Bering Sea hasn't received the memo. For almost the entire winter, sea ice has been reluctant to form there, and now that the Sun has returned, the ice edge has started to retreat to record high latitudes, past the Bering Strait all the way up into the Chukchi Sea. Here's how that looks on Wipneus' regional graph: To emphasize how truly exceptional this is, here's a comparison with the situation in all other years from the 2006-2018 period (images retrieved from the University Bremen sea ice concentration maps page on the ASIG, click for a larger version):  Now, if this was it, other years would maybe catch up in the next few weeks, but this isn't it. The coupled HYCOM-CICE model from the Naval Research Laboratory forecasts the sea ice to continue to drift northwards, until the end of the month at least: This ice drift is caused by winds, of course. These winds have already brought some anomalous heat with them, right past Bering Strait, as can be seen on this DMI temperature map: According to the GFS weather model, these winds will continue to bring in mild air well into April(images provided by Climate Reanalyzer):

        How Did Climate and Clean Energy Programs Fare in the 2018 Federal Budget? - Last week the Senate passed the fy18 omnibus spending package to keep the federal government running through September. The bill is a complete repudiation of President Trump's budget priorities, especially on climate change and clean energy . In fact, I'd argue that the "art of the deal" approach the administration took in negotiating with Congress over the budget numbers (pushing overly draconian cuts in the hope that Congress would move slightly closer in their direction) proved to have the opposite effect. It galvanized Congress in opposition to the president's budget priorities and solidified bipartisan coalitions in support of specific programs and agencies, proving once again that bullying Congress on funding is not an effective strategy for the executive branch to take. The administration's interests would have been better served working in partnership with Congress—a lesson this president clearly has not learned given his fy19 budget request .  Here's how some important climate and clean energy programs fared in the fy18 omnibus: [TABLE]  What does this tell us?

        • Clean energy R&D (and energy efficiency) still matter to both Republicans and Democrats. It's not so much a climate thing as it is a local thing, an energy security thing and a "pro-growth" strategy.
        • Climate change (climate science) has become so politicized on the hill that Congress doesn't want to touch it and instead defaults to continued funding without increases or cuts. While some may see level funding as a victory (especially in this political environment), we know climate change is a growing and serious threat to our economy and national security, and therefore climate science should truly necessitate increased priority and federal support.
        • People are feeling the impacts of a changing climate (especially extreme weather). Both Democrats and Republicans see the logic in investing up-front to be more prepared and save cost and heartache on the back end.

        Climate, Science, and Budget-Politics - Today’s debunkers of climate change and evolution seem cut of the same cloth, and part of a long tradition traceable at least back to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Whether it be the structure of the universe, human evolution, or the more recent reality of a climate changed by human combustion of fossil fuels and depletion of forests, there have always been some within the human population who react with fear and loathing to the discoveries made by science.Often as not, it’s the political powers-that-be who recoil in horror at what science and scientists say. In Copernicus’ day, it was religious leaders, but secular political leaders can be just as oppressive. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the “godless” communist party leaders suppressed the work of a geneticist whose research ran counter to the party line. The same thing can happen anywhere, and America’s current crop of science-loathing politicians can find plenty of methods for suppressing scientists and their work, including manipulation of the budget. The most straightforward way to directly squelch science via the budget is by cutting the amount of money for scientific work. But that’s not the only tool in a science-fearing politician’s bag of tricks, and it may not be the most important one. Another time-tested way to use the budget as a weapon against science is to spend a lot of money, but sink it all into a few, big, flashy projects. The resulting concentration of the science budget often delivers high-profile spectacle, but at the expense of all other science.

        Ex-EPA heads: Pruitt is crippling agency with 'secret science' rule | TheHill: Two former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued a scathing critique of its current administrator, Scott Pruitt, warning that his crackdown on certain scientific studies could have long-term damaging effects on the agency. In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, former EPA administrators Gina McCarthy and Janet McCabe warned the public should "not to be fooled" by a recent announcement from Pruitt that he would rid the agency of "secret science," a term used by some critics of the agency to describe studies that include nonpublic scientific data. "Don’t be fooled by this talk of transparency. He and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the EPA from using the best available science," the two wrote. "It is his latest effort to cripple the agency," they added. The article follows Pruitt's announcement in a Daily Caller interview last week that the EPA was changing its policy on the data it used to determine regulations, deciding that going forward it would only utilize data made available for public scrutiny — reversing a long-standing policy at the EPA and the science community at large to use peer-reviewed data. Pruitt has long argued that such practices, which he says lack transparency, are used routinely to justify unnecessary regulations. 

        Leaked Memo: EPA Shows Workers How To Downplay Climate Change -- The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday evening sent employees a list of eight approved talking points on climate change from its Office of Public Affairs ― guidelines that promote a message of uncertainty about climate science and gloss over proposed cuts to key adaptation programs. An internal email obtained by HuffPost ― forwarded to employees by Joel Scheraga, a career staffer who served under President Barack Obama ― directs communications directors and regional office public affairs directors to note that the EPA “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies” and “works with state, local, and tribal government to improve infrastructure to protect against the consequences of climate change and natural disasters.” But beyond those benign statements acknowledging the threats climate change poses are talking points boiled down from the sort of climate misinformation EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has long trumpeted. “Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner,” one point reads. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.” The other states: “While there has been extensive research and a host of published reports on climate change, clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.” The email was sent under the subject line: “Consistent Messages on Climate Adaptation.”

         Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over Rule Change That Could Quadruple Toxic Emissions - Seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club , Ohio Citizen Action , the Environmental Defense Fund , and the Natural Resources Defense Council , sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) on Monday, The Hill reported .The lawsuit seeks to reverse the agency's January decision to repeal the " once-in always-in " policy, which said that all "major" sources of air pollution , like power plants or factories, would always be regulated according to stricter standards, even if they took steps to reduce pollution.At the time of the repeal, the EPA argued that the policy, which had been in effect since 1995, was "a longstanding disincentive for major sources of pollution to implement voluntary pollution abatement and prevention efforts, or to pursue technological innovations that would reduce emissions," EcoWatch reported.But the environmental groups bringing the suit countered that the repeal would risk doing serious harm to the air and to human health by enabling major polluters to wiggle out of meeting Clean Air Act requirements.The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), one of the parties to the suit, also released a study Monday examining the potential impacts of the repeal, which would allow industrial polluters to disable or lower their emissions controls if they promise to release less than 10 tons of single pollutants or less than 25 tons of toxic air pollutants overall.The study examined 12 "major" industrial polluters in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota and concluded that the EPA rule change would allow them to release four times the amount of toxic air pollutants, according to an EIP press release .Pollutants that would contribute to this increase include carcinogens like benzene and dioxin, acid gases like hydrogen chloride, and neurotoxins like lead , according to the study. The study further found that 60,000 people lived within a mile of the plants and that more than half of the potentially-impacted communities were disproportionately African American or Latino and had poverty rates more than double the U.S. average.

        Court Dismisses Exxon’s Effort to Block Climate Investigation - A federal judge has dismissed a case brought by Exxon Mobil against the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts that might have blocked investigations into Exxon’s research and public statements about climate change.The state attorneys general were investigating whether the company had fraudulently misled investors and the public about climate change and about what effects climate change might have on its business.   Judge Valerie E. Caproni of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote that by suing the state officials, the oil company was “running roughshod over the adage that the best defense is a good offense.” Exxon’s effort to blunt “duly authorized investigations” through the courts was “extraordinary,” she wrote, and was based on “extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences.” The investigation, initiated by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, first came to light in November 2015. Over time, Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts and others announced their own involvement.  Exxon sued to block the investigation in a federal court in Dallas in June 2016, claiming that the cases were politically motivated and violated the company’s constitutional rights.  The initial judge in the case, Ed Kinkeade, of United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, seemed sympathetic to Exxon and went so far as to order in-person depositions of Mr. Schneiderman and Ms. Healey in Dallas. But in 2017, he ruled that he had no jurisdiction over the case, a point that Mr. Schneiderman and Ms. Healey had strenuously argued, and transferred the case to New York.   In its suit, Exxon focused on meetings that the states had with activists on climate issues, including representatives of the Rockefeller Family Fund, and on a news conference in New York that was attended by former Vice President Al Gore, which Exxon argued showed that the case was being pursued in bad faith by the state officials. Judge Caproni rejected those arguments roundly. “Exxon’s allegations that the AGs are pursing bad faith investigations in order to violate Exxon’s constitutional rights are implausible and therefore must be dismissed for failure to state a claim.”

        UN Security Council makes 'historic' warning on climate threat to Somalia: The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has formally recognised climate change as a destabilising factor in Somalia. In a resolution adopted on Tuesday as part of a renewed mandate for assistance and peacekeeping in the country, the council noted “the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters among other factors on the stability of Somalia, including through drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity”. The council emphasised the need for peacekeepers and governments working in Somalia to be better prepared to cope with complications arising from climate impacts. The links between climate change and insecurity have been emerging on the ground and in the halls of diplomacy. The elevation of climate change as a risk factor in Somalia adds to recent council statement on the significant shrinking of Lake Chad, and the consequent destabilisation of West Africa and the Sahel. It raises concerning parallels between the Horn of Africa and West Africa.

        Congress Says Biomass Is Carbon-Neutral, but Scientists Disagree - Lawmakers are once again pushing U.S. EPA and other federal agencies to recognize the burning of biomass as a carbon-neutral energy source. But scientists say that could be a bad move for the climate.A massive fiscal 2018 federal spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders Wednesday night includes a provision urging the heads of EPA, the Energy Department and the Agriculture Department to adopt policies that “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”The language has appeared in similar forms in previous spending bills the last few years, due to pressure from lawmakers in forest-heavy states. This latest version follows recent comments by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declaring biomass a carbon-neutral energy source. He has billed the change as part of the administration’s broader efforts at “energy dominance.”In a letter to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) last month, Pruitt stated the agency’s decision was partly in response to concerns articulated by the forest and forest products industry (Climatewire, Feb. 14). But scientists have been expressing concern for years about the emissions produced by burning biomass. Many experts suggest that declaring wood burning a carbon-neutral form of energy is not only inaccurate, but a potential step backward for global climate change mitigation efforts. William Schlesinger, a biogeochemist and former president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, was among the latest to weigh in with commentary published in Science yesterday. He said that “recent evidence shows that the use of wood as fuel is likely to result in net CO2 emissions.”

        Europe-Asia trade war looms over palm oil -- Mah Siew Keong, Malaysia’s minister for plantation industries and commodities, is on the front line of a looming trade war against what he sees as unfair European Union (EU) trade practices. Last April, the European Parliament voted in favor of a draft law that aims to ban on palm oil biofuel imports to the EU beginning in 2021 due to environmental concerns the crop is contributing to deforestation.The European Commission, the EU’s principal executive body, has yet to formulate a final draft law. Each of the EU’s 27 national governments will have to ratify the ban before it is uniformly enforced. Still, the proposed move has spurred a diplomatic row with Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil exporters, and now threatens to spiral into tit-for-tat punitive trade measures. Mah, known as Malaysia’s global palm oil ambassador, has likened the EU proposal to “crop apartheid.” The draft law, he notes, does not prohibit other similar oils such as rapeseed, olive and soybean that are mostly grown in EU member states. Malaysian Plantations Minister Mah Siew Keong has threatened retaliatory trade measures against any EU ban on palm oil imports. Indonesia and Malaysia employ around 3.5 million people in the palm oil industry, generating a combined export value of over US$40 billion annually. Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), a state body founded to organize smallholder cash crop plantations, is presently the world’s largest crude palm oil producer. 

        Spill reported at N.D. ethanol plant - The ethanol plant owned by Red Trail Energy reported an ethanol spill Thursday, March 29, at their plant near Richardton in southwest North Dakota.The leak was not noticed by workers and resulted in 202 barrels, or 8,484 gallons, of ethanol spilled.  “It was a transfer valve similar to your garden hose -- little more complex than that -- but they just didn't get it closed all the way,” said Bill Suess of the North Dakota Department of Health.Suess said that the spill will have no direct effect on the ethanol plant.There was also no direct effect to the environment. It was outside of the plant’s secondary containment, but it was still within the area where there is no vegetation or water that can be impacted. The spill was caught Thursday and it most likely started Wednesday, Suess said.

        EPA expected to declare Obama car efficiency rules too strict | TheHill: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to declare that the Obama administration's fuel efficiency rules for cars are too strict, two people familiar with the matter said. The determination, due to be proposed this week, would side with the argument automakers have been making for years. They say that the EPA’s vehicle greenhouse gas standards and the related Department of Transportation efficiency standards for model years 2022 through 2025 need to be revised. It would also open the door for the EPA to weaken the standards and set up a likely confrontation with California, whose regulators have decided to retain the strict standards that they negotiated with the Obama administration. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has yet to determine what the 2022 through 2025 standards should be, which is a separate process. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told Bloomberg News, which first reported the expected determination, that the agency recently sent the proposed finding to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for final review, but did not divulge the content of the finding. The OMB said Monday that it received the proposal. Stanley Young, a spokesman for California’s Air Resources Board, said the news is troubling. “California paved the way for a single national program and is fully committed to maintaining it,” he said in a statement. “This rumored finding — if official — places that program in jeopardy. We feel strongly that weakening the program will waste fuel, increase emissions, and cost consumers more money.”

        E.P.A. Prepares to Roll Back Rules Requiring Cars to Be Cleaner and More Efficient - The Trump administration is expected to launch an effort in coming days to weaken greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles, handing a victory to car manufacturers and giving them ammunition to potentially roll back industry standards worldwide. The move — which undercuts one of President Barack Obama’s signature efforts to fight climate change — would also propel the Trump administration toward a courtroom clash with California, which has vowed to stick with the stricter rules even if Washington rolls back federal standards. That fight could end up creating one set of rules for cars sold in California and the 12 states that follow its lead, and weaker rules for the rest of the states, in effect splitting the nation into two markets. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to frame the initiative as eliminating a regulatory burden on automakers that will result in more affordable trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles for buyers, according to people familiar with the plan.An E.P.A. spokeswoman confirmed that Mr. Pruitt had sent a draft of the 16-page plan to the White House for approval.  The particulars of the plan are still being worked out. Those specifics, which are expected this year, could substantially roll back the Obama-era standards, according to two people familiar with the deliberations.

        California’s Ready to Retaliate If Trump Cuts Auto Rules, Sources Say -- As the Trump administration begins to dismantle Barack Obama’s ambitious auto efficiency regulations, California is said to be poised to retaliate by doing something that automakers have feared: de-coupling the state’s rules with those set in Washington. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded Obama rules to limit vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions are too aggressive and should be revised, according to people familiar with the determination. The agency is scheduled to make the decision public by Sunday. California intends to counter punch by revoking its so-called deemed to comply provision, two people familiar with the matter said. The obscure-but-important state rule declares that carmakers that satisfy the EPA’s tailpipe greenhouse gas standards automatically fulfill California’s rules too.  California officials started notifying the states that follow California’s air quality regulations of this prospect last week, the people said. Twelve states follow all or part of California’s standards for passenger cars and light trucks. "What this shows is that California and the states are saying ‘We’re serious. We decided based on the midterm review that these standards are achievable and are what the states need to meet our goals, so you’re going to have to comply with them,’" said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Eliminating the rule would expose automakers to a patchwork of efficiency regulations if Trump regulators, as expected, impose weaker standards than California’s in upcoming model years. The state has already locked in its rules through 2025 and is developing tougher standards through 2030. California and the several states that follow its tailpipe regulations together account for about a third of the U.S. auto market.

        Not So Happy Motoring - Kunstler - It hasn’t been a great month for America’s electric car fantasy. Elon Musk’s Tesla company — the symbolic beating heart of the fantasy — is whirling around the drain with its share price plummeting 22 percent, its bonds downgraded by Moody’s to junk status, a failure to produce its “affordable” ($36,000 — Ha!) Model 3 at commercial scale, a massive recall of earlier S Model sedans for a steering defect, and the spectacular fiery crash in Silicon Valley last week of an X model that may have been operating in automatic mode (the authorities can’t determine that based on what’s left), and which killed the driver. Oh, and an experimental self-driving Uber car (Volvo brand) ran over and killed a lady crossing the street with her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona, two weeks ago. Don’t blame Elon for that. There’s a lot to like about electric cars, of course, if, say, you’re a Google executive floating through life in a techno-narcissism bubble, or a Hollywood actor with wooly grandiose notions of saving the planet while simultaneously signaling your wealth and your “green” virtue cred. Teslas supposedly handle beautifully, ride very quietly, have great low-end power, and decent range of over 200 miles. The engine has something like twenty moving parts, is very long-lasting, and is easy to repair or change out if necessary. Are they actually “green and clean?” Bwaahaaaaa….! Are you kidding? First, there’s the energy embedded in producing the car: mining and smelting the ores, manufacturing the plastics, running the assembly line, etc. That embedded energy amounts to about 22 percent of the energy consumed by the car over a ten-year lifetime. Then there’s the cost of actually powering the car day-by-day. The electricity around the USA is produced mostly by burning coal, natural gas, or by nuclear fission, all of which produce harmful emissions or byproducts. But the illusion that the power just comes out of a plug in the wall (for just pennies a day!) is a powerful one for the credulous public. The cherry-on-top is the fantasy that before much longer all that electric power will come from “renewables,” solar and wind, and we can leave the whole fossil fuel mess behind us. We say that to ourselves as a sort of prayer, and it has exactly that value.

        US utilities look to electric cars as their savior amid decline in demand - U.S. electricity sector is eyeing the developing electric car market as a remedy for an unprecedented decline in demand for electricity.  After decades of rising electricity demand, experts say the utility industry grossly underestimated the impact of cheap renewable energy and the surge of natural gas production. For the first time ever, the Tennessee Valley Authority is projecting a 13 percent drop in demand across the region it serves in seven states, which is the first persistent decline in the federally owned agency's 85-year history.  Electric vehicles (EVs) only make up 1 percent of the U.S. car market, but utility companies are taking advantage of their growing popularity by investing in charging infrastructure and partnering with carmakers to offer rebates, says Quartz reporter Michael J. Coren. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit clean energy research group, projects there could be almost 2.9 million electric cars on the road in the next five years.  "I think everyone's been actually quite surprised at how fast EVs are selling," he tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "Electric carmakers are realizing that electric cars ... will essentially be cars in the next 10 to 20 years."   Bloomberg estimates that if all existing U.S. cars and non-commercial trucks were converted to electric, it would add about 774 terawatt hours of electricity demand, which is almost equal to the amount generated by entire U.S. industrial sector. EVs are also projected to make up about 5 percent of global electricity consumption by 2040.  Utility companies are seeking to get ahead of this expected growth. A group of 36 companies wrote a letter to Congress earlier this month lobbying for the removal of the cap on EV tax credits. Currently, Americans who purchase an electric car receive a federal tax credit of $7,500. But the government plans to phase out those credits after each auto company sells 200,000 vehicles.  Tesla will likely see their tax credits disappear this year, with GM and Nissan right behind. This means that people will be less likely to buy electric cars right when power companies need them.

        Automakers, northeast states urge Americans to buy electric vehicles (Reuters) - Seven U.S. states and 16 major automakers are launching a joint $1.5 million advertising campaign to prod Americans to buy electric vehicles.  Automakers are investing billions of dollars to develop dozens of new EVs in the face of regulatory requirements, but face slow U.S. sales.  General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and many other companies, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. The campaign, dubbed “Drive Change. Drive Electric,” will focus on the benefits of electric cars. “Far too many drivers remain unfamiliar with the benefits of driving electric. Increasing sales of electric cars will deliver critical environmental and economic benefits across the region,” said Arthur Marin, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management. Electric vehicle sales rose 25 percent in 2017 to a new record but still account for only 1.2 percent of U.S. vehicle sales.  The campaign will initially focus in the northeast region and includes a website, advertising, social media, strategic partnerships and events and other content efforts.

        Aluminum wrestles with steel over electric vehicle market (Reuters) - When electric carmaker Tesla Inc. launched its first mass market model last summer, it sent a shockwave through the aluminum industry by largely shifting to steel and away from the lighter weight metal it had used in its first two luxury models. The switch by Elon Musk’s Tesla to the heavier-but-cheaper metal highlights how steel is fighting back against aluminum, which had widely been expected to be the bigger beneficiary of the electric vehicle revolution. Aluminum had been seen as the key to offsetting the weight of batteries in order to extend the range of electric vehicles, crucial to increased consumer acceptance. But as makers of battery-powered cars look to tap into bigger markets with cheaper vehicles - and embrace technological developments in batteries and components - many are increasingly looking to steel to cut costs. The price of Tesla’s mass-market orientated Model 3 is around half of the £70,000 luxury Model S. “Before the aim was ‘Let’s get the [electric vehicles] developed’, now it’s ‘Let’s get them developed at the right price point,’” . It is the latest tussle in a decades-long battle between steel and aluminum for market share among automakers, seeking to cut the weight of vehicles to help slash emissions and meet tough government pollution standards. Steel is also winning back some market share among gasoline vehicles, such as the Audi A8. The latest model abandoned its heavy use of aluminum and shifted to a mix of steel, aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber. The competition between the metals has intensified amid rapidly growing demand for battery-powered cars. Sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are due to surge to 30 percent of the global auto market by 2030, according to metal consultants CRU, up from 4 percent of the 86 million vehicles sold last year. In China, the world’s largest auto market, sales of new energy vehicles are due to grow by 40 percent this year to top 1 million vehicles, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. 

        Europe Cracks Down On Diesel Vehicles - Diesel-powered passenger vehicle sales are declining in Europe as governments put more pressure on automakers to cut production and sales in the post-Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal landscape.Diesel passenger vehicles are continuing to see sales decline in Europe. In February, diesel car share dropped to 39 percent of the share from 46 percent a year ago. New vehicle registrations increased 4.2 percent to 1.16 million during the month, led by car buyer interest in gasoline-powered SUVs.This sales trend has been in the works for a while. During 2017, sales of diesel-powered passenger vehicles dropped nearly 8 percent, reaching its lowest level in eight years. Consumer confidence in diesel is being undermined by government threats of penalty taxes, upcoming city driving bans, and falling used vehicle values. In February, Germany’s top administrative court ruled that its cities can ban diesel vehicles to improve air quality. It could impact up to 12 million vehicles, and end diesel passenger vehicle sales in Europe’s largest auto market. Stuttgart and Dusseldorf are expected to be the first cities to enact the ban. Thirteen other cities — in Europe, China, Latin America, and the U.S. — are planning on banning sales of diesel vehicles. Paris and London received a lot of global attention after enacting future diesel vehicle bans last year.

        UK weighs tidal power contract matching Hinkley nuclear deal -  U.K. officials are in intensive talks with their Welsh counterparts to kick-start a tidal power plan by copying the controversial contract awarded to Electricite de France SA for its Hinkley Point nuclear power project.Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd.’s Swansea Bay project would tap the ebb and flow of the tides to generate electricity. It’s been in limbo for 15 months since a government-commissioned review recommended giving it the go-ahead. The delay reflects a reluctance by ministers to accept costs for consumers that were once estimated at double the power price EDF will get.Amid pressure from more than 100 backbench lawmakers who want the tidal plant to move ahead, ministers are grappling with how to make it palatable. The developer had proposed an initial power price a third higher than Hinkley’s. But an offer of assistance from the Welsh government has changed the game. Officials are now debating a deal on the same terms as Hinkley, according to Richard Graham, a lawmaker with the ruling Conservatives who chairs Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Marine Energy.“The government basically said we cannot possibly justify something that’s more expensive than Hinkley,” said Graham, in whose Gloucester constituency TLP is based. “So TLP have effectively worked out a structure that means they won’t be more expensive than Hinkley. It’s a clone of that contract.” Ministers “have a responsibility to minimize the impact on consumers’ bills,” Business Secretary Greg Clark told lawmakers earlier this month when asked about the Swansea project. Even so, “I do not want to close the door on something if it is possible to find a way to justify it.”

        U.S. net energy imports in 2017 fall to their lowest levels since 1982 - Total net energy imports to the United States fell to 7.3 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) in 2017, a 35% decrease from 2016 and the lowest level since 1982, when both gross imports and gross exports were much lower. Gross energy imports have been generally decreasing from a high of 34.7 quads in 2007; however, the larger factor leading to the reduction in the net energy trade balance has been increasing energy exports. Gross energy exports rose to 18.0 quadrillion Btu in 2017, a 27% increase from 2016 and the highest annual U.S. energy exports on record. Increasing U.S. energy exports have been driven largely by increases in exports of petroleum products and natural gas. In recent years, exports of crude oil have also contributed to the overall rise in energy exports after crude oil export restrictions were lifted at the end of 2015. In energy content terms, the United States now exports nearly as much energy in the form of crude oil (2.3 quads) as coal (2.5 quads). In 2017, the United States saw substantial increases in exports of all fossil fuels, with exports of crude oil (89% higher than in 2016), petroleum products (11% higher), natural gas (36% higher), and coal (61% higher) all increasing over the prior year. Exports of crude oil and petroleum products both reached record levels. Petroleum products such as gasoline, distillate fuel, propane, and other fuels currently make up the largest share (54%) of U.S. energy exports.   The United States became a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011 and natural gas in 2017. In 2017, the United States was a net exporter of coal, coal coke, petroleum products, natural gas, and biomass, but a net importer of crude oil. Net electricity trade with Mexico and Canada was relatively minimal.  An increase in total U.S. energy production contributed to the decline in net imports in 2017, led by production increases in renewable energy (8%), especially hydropower and wind, as well as production increases in coal (6%), natural gas plant liquids (6%), crude oil (5%), and natural gas (1%). Total U.S. energy consumption was virtually unchanged from the previous year’s level.

        Bank Funding of Fossil Fuels Soars - Private banks around the world are back to funneling more money into the global fossil fuel sectors in 2017, according to a report released today by Rainforest Action Network , BankTrack , Indigenous Environmental Network , Oil Change International , Sierra Club and Honor The Earth .Banking on Climate Change 2018 is the ninth annual report that ranks bank policies and practices in funding fossil fuel production and extraction, including drilling for oil in tar sands , the Arctic and in deep water. The report examines 36 private banks from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan and China, and breaks down how much funding is going to different fossil fuel subsectors and companies.This year's numbers saw an 11 percent jump in funding, from $104 billion in 2016 to $115 billion in 2017, with the tar sands sector holding the biggest responsibility for the increase, along with continued financing in coal. In tar sands alone, bank lending and underwriting to tar sands oil extraction and pipeline projects grew by 111 percent from 2016 to 2017, reaching $98 billion. The three banks that contributed are the Royal Bank of Canada, TD Bank and JPMorgan Chase.The report points out how very few banks are aligning their business plans with the 2016 Paris climate agreement, whose temperature goals require banks to cease financing expansion of the fossil fuel sector. "Banks voice their support for climate action and the Paris Climate agreement, but funnel money into the fossil fuel industry at the same time," said Ben Cushing, the campaign representative of Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuel campaign. According to the report's key data, large Chinese banks and some European banks have reduced their financing in tar sands, but the reduction fell short compared to the massive increases from Canadian and U.S. banks. Aside from the tar sands sector, bank support for Arctic and deep water oil has continued its decline from the years before, dropping 17 percent in 2017. Among European banks that are redesigning their financing policies, French bank BNP Paribas has shown the most effort, with restrictions for coal financing and some parts of oil and gas as well.

        'Extreme' fossil fuel investments have surged under Donald Trump, report reveals - Bank holdings in “extreme” fossil fuels skyrocketed globally to $115bn during Donald Trump’s first year as US president, with holdings in tar sands oil more than doubling, a new report has found.A sharp flight from fossil fuels investments after the Paris agreement was reversed last year with a return to energy sources dubbed “extreme” because of their contribution to global emissions. This included an 11% hike in funding for carbon-heavy tar sands, as well as Arctic and ultra-deepwater oil and coal.US and Canadian banks led a race back into the unconventional energy sector following Trump’s promise to withdraw from Paris, with JPMorgan Chase increasing its coal funding by a factor of 21, and quadrupling its tar sands assets.Chase’s $5.6bn surge in tar sands holdings added to nearly $47bn of gains for the industry last year, according to the report by NGOs including BankTrack, the Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network (RAN).RAN spokeswoman, Alison Kirsch, accused banks such as JPMorgan Chase of “moving backwards in lockstep with their wrongheaded political leaders”.“If we are to have any chance of halting catastrophic climate change, there must be an end of expansion and complete phase-out of these dangerous energy sources,” she said. “Banks need to be accountable and implement policies guarding against extreme fossil fuel funding.”JPMorgan Chase has asked the US securities and exchanges commission for support in its bid to block a shareholder resolution calling for a bank report on financial and climate risks associated with tar sands projects. Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto Dominion remain the biggest tar sands backers, with $38bn of holdings between them.

        Shell oil just unveiled a plan to move the world away from fossil fuels - Royal Dutch Shell just laid out a proposal to move us away from its own product. The company’s Sky Scenario is a plan to help the world meet the goals set forth in the Paris climate agreement. The plan would shift people away from oil and towards hydrogen and electric transportation in order to keep global warming under the 2 degree limit that most scientists think is the tipping point for climate change.As weird as it is for an oil company to suggest moving away from fossil fuels, Shell is putting its money where its mouth is. Last October, the company purchased an electric car charging company, a major natural gas company, and it’s working on carbon capture and storage technology through its Quest and Gorgon projects. Related: BP and Shell prepare for catastrophic climate change Shell’s Sky scenario details a way in which the world can shift from oil to other technologies by 2070. The proposal suggests addressing growing global energy needs by moving to clean electricity like solar and wind, replacing gas guzzlers with electric vehicles – particularly semi-trucks – and focusing on fuels like biofuel and hydrogen. “The relevant transformations in the energy and natural systems require concurrent climate policy action and the deployment of disruptive new technologies at mass scale within government policy environments that strongly incentivize investment and innovation,” the company said.

        SoftBank Vision Fund, Saudi Arabia to create world's biggest solar power firm (Reuters) - SoftBank Group Corp’s Vision Fund will invest in creating the world’s biggest solar power project in Saudi Arabia, it said on Tuesday, stepping up its involvement in the kingdom and expanding beyond technology. The project is expected to have the capacity to produce up to 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son told reporters in New York. That would add to around 400 GW of globally installed solar power capacity and is comparable to the world’s total nuclear power capacity of around 390 GW as of the end of 2016. By investing in solar power, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, can reduce the amount of crude it currently uses to generate power and increase its overseas shipments. The move illustrates the commitment by the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to transform the country’s economic status quo. The final investment total for the 200 GW of generation, including the solar panels, battery storage and a manufacturing facility for panels in Saudi Arabia, will eventually total around $200 billion, Son said. The initial phase of the project, for 7.2 GW of solar capacity, will cost $5 billion, with $1 billion coming from SoftBank’s Vision Fund and the rest from project financing, he said. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to reduce the country’s economic dependence on oil, was a good match for the fund’s long-term vision for innovation, said Son.  Despite being one of the world’s sunniest countries, Saudi Arabia generates most of its electricity from oil-fired power plants.  Saudi’s entire installed power capacity is currently around 60 GW. Adding 200 GW would create enormous excess capacity that could be exported to neighbors or used by industry, although the kingdom will still require other forms of power generation for night-time back-up.

        Attorneys general from 4 states back coal ash cleanup ruling (AP) — Four state attorneys general are supporting a judge's order for a federal utility to clean up coal ash at a Tennessee plant. In the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brief Thursday, Democratic attorneys general for Maryland, California, Washington and Massachusetts said overturning the order would threaten the Clean Water Act and give polluters incentive to skirt regulation by rerouting discharges to groundwater. In August, a judge ordered Tennessee Valley Authority's Gallatin Fossil Plant ash excavated and removed. He cited pollutants leaking into the Cumberland River, but said there's scant evidence of harm. Eighteen other largely Republican states want the ruling overturned. Tennessee officials are separately suing over TVA Gallatin's pollution. They wrote that they support the cleanup order.

        Coal production up thanks to exports — Coal production increased by 45 million short tons in 2017 in response to high demand for U.S. coal exports, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA sees met-coal exports staying strong through this year and next, but with market conditions returning to normal, thermal-coal exports will find it harder to compete with Australia and Indonesia, which are much closer to the Asian markets. So the EIA's forecast shows coal production overall to decline by 14 million short tons in 2018 and by 18 million short tons in 2019, as export demand is expected to slow and natural gas prices are expected to stay below $3/MMBtu (per 1 million British thermal units) during much of the forecast period, which contributes to less coal use for electricity generation, according to the EIA report.EIA expects the share of U.S. total utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas to rise from 32 percent in 2017 to 33 percent in 2018 and to 34 percent in 2019 as a result of low natural gas prices.Meanwhile, the report added that coal's forecast generation share falls from 30 percent in 2017 to slightly lower than 30 percent in 2018 and 28 percent in 2019.The nuclear share of generation was 20 percent in 2017 and is forecast to average 20 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2019, the report said. Non-hydropower renewables provided almost 10 percent of electricity generation in 2017, and its 2018 share is expected to be similar before increasing to almost 11 percent in 2019. The generation share of hydropower was more than 7 percent in 2017 and is forecast to be slightly lower than 7 percent in both 2018 and 2019.As aging coal-fired power plants are shut - roughly 20 of 380 have closed or are in the process of shutting since Donald Trump became president - coal's share of the nation's power mix has plummeted from nearly half in 2008 to roughly a third today. Last year, coal consumption in the United States fell by 2.4 percent, falling to its lowest level in nearly four decades.

        U.S. coal retirements can cause power shortages in extreme storms - The U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) said the continued retirement of coal power plants could cause power shortages leading to possible blackouts during severe weather events:   A winter storm, known as a "bomb cyclone," struck much of the eastern United States between Dec. 27-Jan. 8, plunging the region into a deep freeze and sparking a significant rise in the demand for power for heat  NETL said in a study that during the coldest days of the storm "the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackout" without the resilience of coal plants The study found that coal provided a majority of the daily power generation required to meet the emergency Coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and that removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid's dependability during future severe weather events," Peter Balash of NETL's Energy Systems Analysis team said in a release. The NETL report warned against overestimating the nation's ability to respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant retirements continues

        Trump’s crude bailout of dirty power plants failed, but a subtler bailout is underway (Vox) Last year, the Trump administration attempted a ham-handed bailout of the US coal industry. In a nutshell, Rick Perry’s Department of Energy told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee the profits of coal plants. FERC, to its eternal credit, responded: No. No, thank you. That is a very dumb idea, and we shan’t be doing that.It was a rare bright spot in this bleak last year, a blow struck for reasoned, empirically informed policy. But there are no periods in politics, only commas, and there are still powerful forces pushing to keep dirty old fossil fuel power plants open as long as possible. If they succeed, if FERC accepts their arguments, it could mean higher costs to consumers, more pollution, and uneconomic power plants delaying the market entry of cleaner alternatives. The commission has already sent some unsettling signals, and several fateful rulings will be made over the next year.  In short, it still very much matters what FERC is up to. The problem is that Perry’s absurd attempts to manipulate FERC were easy to explain. The decisions FERC is now facing are ... not. I will be frank with you, dear reader: They are hell on wheels to explain. There Will Be Acronyms (TWBA).  Wholesale power markets are overseen by Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) and Independent System Operators (ISOs). They monitor and enforce the rules. While states have jurisdiction over all retail, distribution-level electricity and power plants themselves, the electricity involved in wholesale markets travels on high-capacity transmission lines across state borders, so it comes under federal, i.e., FERC, jurisdiction.  FERC’s job is to ensure that ISO/RTOs are operating power markets in such a way as to produce reliable power at “just and reasonable” rates. Gencos, utilities, advocacy groups, and other interested parties can petition FERC to make a new rule or change an existing one. To do so, they have to show that existing rates are not “just and reasonable” and that new rules would be.  Some power markets, like the one overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), are pure energy markets, which is to say, there’s only one market, and the only product traded on that market is electricity.  Capacity markets are problematic, for a whole variety of reasons that will have to wait for their own post. What’s important to know now is that lots of dirty, old fossil fuel plants are operating in deregulated markets, and they are struggling. Many are staying alive only via capacity markets. And they would very much like to continue staying alive, which requires that prices on capacity markets remain high.

        UAE celebrates completion of first nuclear power plant in Arab world - The United Arab Emirates (UAE) celebrated on Monday completion of the first-ever nuclear powr plant not only in the country but the whole Arab Gulf region.The $20 billion Barakah plant west of Abu Dhabi has been constructed by a consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corp in nine years.It’s one of the four nuclear reactors being constructed with South Korea’s cooperation. When fully operational, these will produce 5,600 megawatts of electricity.  Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were welcomed at Monday’s reception ceremony, who accompanied by a number of dignitaries and officials, The Gulf News reported.

        Seventh Japanese reactor restarted - Kyushu Electric Power Company today began the process of restarting operation of unit 3 at its Genkai nuclear power plant in Japan’s Saga prefecture. The reactor is scheduled to resume commercial operation next month. Kyushu submitted applications to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in July 2013 to restart Genkai 3 and 4, which have been offline since December 2010 and December 2011, respectively. In January 2017, the NRA confirmed the two 1180 MWe PWRs meet new regulatory standards. Genkai 3 is the seventh of Japan’s 42 operable reactors which have so far cleared inspections confirming they meet the new regulatory safety standards and resumed operation. The others are: Kyushu’s Sendai units 1 and 2; Shikoku’s Ikata unit 3; and Kansai’s Takahama units 3 and 4 and Ohi unit 3. Another 17 reactors have applied to restart.

        Fukushima rice to be exported to France -  The governor of nuclear disaster-hit Fukushima Prefecture appears likely to soon reach an agreement with a French trading house to export rice to France.Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori is starting his 4-day visit to France and Britain on Thursday to promote local produce, including rice, beef, and processed fruit.He seeks to dispel concern about the safety of food products from Fukushima following the nuclear accident in 2011 and expand its sales channels.Prefectural sources say Uchibori is likely to reach an agreement to ship to France a locally produced rice variety called Tennotsubu . Rice from Fukushima will be exported to France for the first time. Sources say the governor is also likely to cement a plan to increase Fukushima's shipments of rice to Britain. The prefecture exported 19 tons of rice to the country in the fiscal year ending in March 2017.

        None of This Month’s Craziest Nuclear Stories Involved North Korea - The past week featured two crazy nuclear stories. And neither of them involved North Korea. The first involved Saudi Arabia. Although this highly significant story passed almost uncovered by the media, White House officials confirmed that talks between President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “included critical discussions” about Saudi Arabia’s “nuclear aspirations.”  The crazy part isn’t that Saudi Arabia aspires to a nuclear program.  The crazy part is that while Trump was continuing “to engage with our Saudi partners on their plans for a civil nuclear program and possible US supply of nuclear equipment and material,” the Crown Prince was simultaneously openly declaring Saudi Arabia’s willingness to use that aid to build a nuclear bomb. Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, told a CBC interview that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible.” The second crazy nuclear story was Israel’s announcement that it was Israel that bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor in September of 2007. There are two parts that are crazy about the Israeli announcement. The first is that everyone always knew it was Israel who bombed the nuclear reactor. The second is that it almost certainly wasn’t a nuclear reactor. If Syria was building a nuclear reactor, Michael Hayden’s CIA knew nothing about it. And he told that to President Bush. That the CIA missed a secret nuclear program is not impossible to believe or even entirely unprecedented. What is more unbelievable is that they missed it when it was right out in the open, that their highly sophisticated satellites missed what a commercial satellite easily picked up.

        Davis-Besse nuclear plant back online — but for how long? - Toledo Blade  — FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant returned to service Tuesday from what will likely be its final refueling outage.The corporation has said repeatedly over the past year that — barring an unlikely buyer emerging in today’s highly competitive electricity market — the plant’s days are numbered. A decision on its future is expected by June. Davis-Besse has been Ottawa County’s largest employer since the 1970s, with more than 700 engineers and other highly skilled workers.Like many other nuclear plants — especially those in Ohio, Michigan, and other states with deregulated electricity markets — it has been unable to compete economically with natural gas since a global fracking boom grew out of a revolutionary horizontal drilling technique developed by the oil and gas industry.The result has been record-low natural gas prices. That, along with growing investments in wind and solar power that dropped prices for the renewable energy sector, made nuclear and coal noncompetitive. Costs for operating most nuclear and coal-fired power plants now exceed those for many plants fueled by natural gas, as well as wind power, solar power, and other types of renewable energy.   In a January interview in which he outlined Davis-Besse’s bleak financial outlook, James Pearson, FirstEnergy’s chief financial officer, told The Blade it was “entirely accurate” for employees to believe this outage would likely be the plant’s final one.  The 908-megawatt plant was operating at 20 percent power late Tuesday afternoon, enough to synchronize it to the 13-state regional electric grid managed by PJM Interconnection LLC of Audubon, Pa. The plant is expected to take several days ascending back to full power.

        Davis-Besse nuclear power plant to shut down permanently in 2020 - Toledo Blade  — For the first time, the operating end points for FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ottawa County; its Perry nuclear power plant east of Cleveland in Perry, Ohio, and its twin-reactor Beaver Valley nuclear power complex west of Pittsburgh in Shippingport, Pa., have been put in writing by a corporation subsidiary.  FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary the corporation founded to manage anticipated bankruptcy filings for its economically failing nuclear and coal divisions, has confirmed in a news release distributed Wednesday that Davis-Besse will be shut down permanently in 2020 and that FirstEnergy’s other nuclear stations will be shut down permanently in 2021 if there are no buyers or remedies found by their respective dates.The timetable for each permanent closure is determined by refueling schedules.  Each facility employs hundreds of workers, many of them engineers and skilled tradesmen. In all, the premature closures will mean about 2,300 layoffs and 4,048 megawatts taken out of production from the region’s 13-state electric grid operated by PJM Interconnection LLC of Audubon, Pa.    FirstEnergy nuclear-plant closures will mean a loss of electricity roughly equivalent of what’s needed to power 4 million homes.  In addition to publishing anticipated closure timelines, FirstEnergy Solutions has made an appeal to the Trump Administration for a last-minute bailout. In a 44-page request to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the corporation’s subsidiary said PJM “has done little to prevent this emergency despite the numerous signs for many years that the emergency was coming.” “PJM has demonstrated little urgency to remedy this problem anytime soon — so immediate action by the Secretary is needed to alleviate the present emergency,” the filing with Mr. Perry states. PJM has a policy of not talking to the media.

        FirstEnergy solutions bankruptcy restructuring likely, power plants would be closed or sold (Cleveland Plain Dealer) -- Brutal competitive financial forces are poised to remake FirstEnergy into a utility without power plants and focused solely on delivering electricity. The Akron-based power company that a decade ago hired former George W. Bush administration Solicitor General Ted Olson to bully state lawmakers who were considering a return to state-regulated power prices now appears ready to sell or close its remaining coal and nuclear power plants because the state won't subsidize them and neither will federal authorities.  Those include Perry nuclear plant in Lake County east of Cleveland and Davis-Besse in Ottawa County near Toledo.  The draconian move may come in a corporate "restructuring" plan that could get under way next week in a federal bankruptcy court, either here or any other federal jurisdiction where the company has offices.  FirstEnergy Solutions, the debt-ridden subsidiary that owns the corporation's power plants, would be seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., a separate FirstEnergy subsidiary that holds the federal nuclear operating licenses, could also be involved. Bankruptcy cases can take several years and spawn parallel litigation by unhappy creditors, said Marvin Sicherman, a Case Western Reserve University adjunct law professor and bankruptcy attorney for nearly 58 years handling cases in 42 of the 50 states. "You are looking at a classic nightmare case," said Sicherman. "If they file this case, I hope I live long enough to see it all the way through."  If the nuclear power plants were sold in bankruptcy, the potential buyer would have to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If there were no buyers, closing the plants would throw as many as 1,500 employees out of a job and send a shock through northern Ohio's economy.  The NRC allows up to 60 years to decommission and demolish the plants and then clean up the sites -- decades during which the land could not be redeveloped. Worse, say environmental groups poised to intervene if the plants are closed, neither the NRC nor state authorities, nor the public, would have much input about the clean-up.

        FirstEnergy seeks emergency lifeline for U.S. nuclear plants (Reuters) - U.S. power company FirstEnergy Corp (FE.N) urged the federal government on Thursday to evoke little-used emergency powers to help it keep several struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants open, a move critics blasted as an attempt at a corporate bailout. On Wednesday, Ohio-based FirstEnergy said it would shut several nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the next three years without some kind of state or federal relief. FirstEnergy’s FirstEnergy Solutions unit called on U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to use the emergency powers to order PJM Interconnection, the regional power grid operator, to negotiate a contract that would compensate owners of coal and nuclear plants for the benefits such as reliability and jobs those units provide. PJM, in response, rejected the need for an emergency order. “Nothing we have seen suggests there is any kind of emergency from these units retiring,” said Vincent Duane, senior vice president at PJM, calling the problem “fundamentally a corporate issue.” A spokesman for FirstEnergy Solutions declined to comment on Thursday about speculation the unit was headed for bankruptcy, but he directed attention to a filing the company made with the Energy Department earlier in the day. The filing included a comment made by FirstEnergy Corp’s chief executive, Charles Jones, in February that he would be “shocked” if FirstEnergy Solutions did not file for some type of bankruptcy protection by the end of March.   Last year, Perry proposed a plan that would subsidize coal and nuclear for providing what is known as base-load generation, which refers to units that run around the clock. U.S. regulators rejected that proposal in January and said they would conduct a study on grid resilience.  Murray Energy Corp, which supplies coal to FirstEnergy and has been lobbying elected officials to keep coal and nuclear plants operating, said it fully supports the request for emergency relief.

        FirstEnergy Solutions asks DOE to help save its old power plants |  -- FirstEnergy's power plant subsidiary wants the U.S. Department of Energy to help the company get above-market prices for electricity it generates with its nuclear and coal power plants.The appeal to the DOE this morning comes about 18 hours after the company told PJM and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it would close its three nuclear power plants over the next three years.And it comes during a time when many analysts, and FirstEnergy Corp.'s top executives, expect the power plant subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, to seek bankruptcy protection from creditors to whom it owes nearly $3 billion. The company's appeal is based on a rarely-used provision of the Federal Power Act granting the DOE extraordinary powers during national crises, such as war.FirstEnergy is arguing in its DOE application that the closing of old nuclear and coal plants constitutes a kind of developing emergency because it could lead to power shortages at some point.The company is asking the DOE to order PJM Interconnection -- manager of the high-voltage grid and wholesale electric markets in Ohio and 12 other states --  to compensate utilities that own old power plants "for the full benefits they provide to energy markets and the public at large, including fuel security and diversity." In other words, FirstEnergy Solutions wants a direct subsidy to enable it's plants -- and other old coal and nuclear plants -- to compete in PJM markets against more efficient gas turbine plants and less costly wind farms.

        Energy groups, greens slam utility’s plea for emergency rescue --  Groups representing certain energy sources are joining with environmentalists and others to criticize FirstEnergy Corp.’s request that the Trump administration rescue its coal and nuclear power plants. Competing power sources accused FirstEnergy of misleading the Energy Department and the public into thinking the electric grid is at a far higher risk of failure without coal and nuclear plants than it is. “FirstEnergy needs to stop misleading the public and government officials about the status of its power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Todd Snitchler, director of market development at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “FirstEnergy’s latest attempt to spread a false narrative surrounding the reliability of the electric grid is nothing more than a ruse that will force Main Street consumers to pay higher prices.” Advanced Energy Economy, which represents companies that buy clean energy, joined in. “This outrageous attempt to evade established market procedures is unprecedented,” said Malcolm Woolf, senior vice president for policy at the organization. “FirstEnergy is asking the Secretary of Energy to exercise authority that is reserved for an emergency threatening national security just to salvage power plants that are losing money for their owners and costing money for consumers.” The Sierra Club promised a lawsuit if Energy Secretary Rick Perry granted the utility’s wish. “After making foolish investments in expensive and dangerous coal and nuclear plants, FirstEnergy Solutions is again demanding that electricity customers bail them out through this outrageously illegal proposal,” said Mary Ann Hitt, director of the group’s Beyond Coal program. 

        Effort to ban fracking in Y’town returns to Ohio Supreme Court | For the third time, the Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether an initiative to ban fracking in Youngstown will be in front of city voters. Attorneys representing four city residents, who back the charter amendment, filed a writ of mandamus with the state’s high court against the Mahoning County Board of Elections and its four members. The legal filing seeks to overturn the board’s March 13 decision to keep the proposal off the city’s May 8 primary election ballot. Back in September 2015, the court ruled against the board in a 7-0 decision. They wrote the board of elections did “not have the authority to sit as arbiters of the legality or constitutionality of a ballot measure’s substantive terms. An unconstitutional amendment may be a proper item for referendum or initiative. Such an amendment becomes void and unenforceable only when declared unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction.” The decision came after the city of Youngstown filed an objection to the board of elections not putting the issue on the ballot even though members of the administration didn’t support the proposal. They just wanted voters to have a choice.The charter amendment was rejected by voters in the November 2015 election – just as they did twice in both 2013 and 2014. It was also turned down by city voters in the November 2016 election. That’s six times for those keeping score at home. Then those backing the amendment submitted petitions to the board of elections in September 2017 seeking to put it on the ballot for a seventh time.

        Residents near Wooster awoken by terrifying noise coming from nearby gas compressor station - Residents in two Northeast Ohio counties were startled out of sleep early Sunday morning by a scary, loud noise that lasted about an hour. "It was a huge, tremendous sound, as in a jet plane in my front yard or 100 Huey helicopters," said Debbie Bliss who lives on Bell Road in rural Ashland County. "I didn't know if I should pack and leave or stay and see what happened, but you obviously can't pack up farm animals and be gone in ten minutes." The sound started after 4 a.m. and continued until after 5 a.m. It could be heard by people a few miles away from the Wayne/Ashland County line and many of then dialed 911. "It's humongous," said one caller. "You can hear it all the way, it's coming down somewhere by Old (route) 30, which is a couple of miles from me." The noise came from a compressor station run by Texas company Energy Transfer. The company is leading the Rover Pipeline, a $4.2 billion project that will transport natural gas through dual 42" pipelines in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It includes 88 miles of pipe in Wayne and Ashland Counties. In a statement to News 5, Energy Transfer confirmed a change in pressure was detected at its compressor station, which resulted in the opening of a relief valve. 

        FERC Scolds Rover Over Missed Deadlines for Restoration Work - Rover Pipeline LLC has not completed restoration work it agreed to when it received authorization to start up two compressor stations, an issue that could bear on pending  in-service authorizations, FERC told the developer this week.In a letter Monday, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff listed a series of restoration activities that it said Rover has failed to complete within the timeframes agreed to when the Commission cleared the pipeline’s Compress Station 1 (CS1) and Compressor Station 2 (CS2) to enter service in December and February, respectively.“Because restoration of these sites was not complete at the time of in-service authorization, Rover committed to completing the remaining restoration within specified dates...In turn, the Commission’s authorizations for commencement of service of CS1 and CS2 were based upon those commitments,” FERC wrote.“...However, as of March 20, our monitors’ reports indicate several instances where the agreed-upon restoration has not been completed (or, in some instances, started but incomplete).”FERC asked Rover to respond this week with an explanation for why the work was not completed on time and with “photographic evidence that these issues are being properly addressed.“Staff’s review of future in-service requests will depend, in part, on a demonstration of Rover’s commitment to satisfactory restoration of construction areas and workspaces, including our confidence that any locations where restoration is identified as a future action will receive the proper and agreed-upon attention,” the Commission wrote. In a filing Thursday, Rover answered the Commission’s letter with specifics related to the CS1 and CS2 restoration work, including estimated completion dates. The company attributed some of the delays to inclement weather and additional construction activities at the sites.

        Counties with fracking have increased rates of sexually transmitted infections  - Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health have discovered that the rates of two major sexually transmitted infections (STIs), gonorrhea and chlamydia, are 21% and 19% higher, respectively, in Ohio counties with high shale gas activity ("fracking"), compared to counties without any fracking. Rates of a third STI, syphilis, were not elevated.  The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.Shale gas extraction is associated with large influxes of specialized, trained workers into rural areas to meet the labor demands of the drilling rigs, and commonly involves the formation of "work camps" composed of relatively young men. The influx of workers in these situations is thought to increase STI risk because male workers typically live and socialize in communities with masculinized social norms, do not bring families and thus have opportunities to seek other sex partners, and may have few emotional ties to the local community.  "Beyond some of the more familiar concerns about water quality and earthquakes, this report of increased rates of two major sexually transmitted infections suggests another potential health impact in communities hosting the emerging shale gas industry," said lead author Nicole Deziel, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health.  The study examined new well permits and reported STI cases, obtained from publicly available datasets, in all 88 Ohio counties from 2000 to 2016; this long follow-up period covered both pre- and post-fracking periods to account for any pre-existing trends in STI rates. The researchers accounted for several other factors, such as population density and age, using variables obtained from the US Census. "Similar patterns have been observed for other migratory labor movements, but the idea that this could be occurring for the current situation of increased hydraulic fracturing in the United States is only beginning to emerge," said senior author Linda Niccolai, Ph.D., Professor at the Yale School of Public Health. "These findings point to the potential importance of new shale gas extraction activities as a social determinant of health, one that changes the collective fabric of communities in a way that increases risk for STI transmission."

        Study links shale gas boom and sexually transmitted infections - Ohio’s shale gas country has had higher rates for two sexually transmitted diseases in the wake of the industry’s rapid expansion, new research reports. The study from a team at the Yale School of Public Health adds to a growing body of knowledge exploring public health and social impacts of the fracking boom. PLOS One published the report on March 23.  “The bottom line of our study was that we found that counties with high levels of fracking activity had 20 percent higher rates of two major sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, chlamydia and gonorrhea,” said lead study author Nicole Deziel, an epidemiologist at Yale. “And we did not observe a correlation for a third STI, syphilis.”  STIs are an important public health problem, with about 20 million new cases in the United States each year and billions in health care costs. In Ohio and elsewhere, drilling and fracking for shale gas typically brings in large numbers of specialized, trained workers. The labor force in those “work camps” is mostly young male workers. Typically those workers have few or no family nearby and no emotional ties to the communities where they work. Ready disposable income, a “hyper-masculinized” culture in the camps, and other factors could lead them to seek “multiple new or casual sex partnerships, which are all known risk factors for STI transmission,” Deziel explains.The phenomenon of labor migration potentially leading to increases in STIs has indeed been observed in other situations. But what sets shale gas operations apart “is really the sheer scale of the industry,” Deziel said.   Ohio has issued thousands of well permits, and more than 2,000 wells have been drilled in its Utica shale play. The state also has horizontal drilling in the shallower Marcellus shale play.  The drop in the number of well permits around 2015 correlated with falling market prices for natural gas, Deziel noted. Once STIs have been transmitted to members of the community, however, they can continue to infect people who live there long after temporary workers have left.

        S Korean firm joins Ohio effort to build petrochemical plant — Gov. John Kasich said Monday that a major South Korean industrial plant builder has joined an effort to build a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in eastern Ohio to take advantage of the region's oil-and-gas boom. Kasich, a Republican, called the partnership between Seoul-based Daelim Industrial and Thailand's PTT Global Chemical a "game-changer" for the proposed plant, which has idled in the planning stages for years. Daelim, according to its website, is South Korea's oldest construction company and an expert in petrochemical technology. "If this can happen, and I'm more optimistic ultimately that this will happen, we're not just interested in this," he said during a news conference. "We're interested in building an entire community of technology." The U.S. subsidiary of PTT has been working for several years with officials from JobsOhio, Ohio's privatized economic development office, on a proposal to build the plant on the site of a former FirstEnergy coal-fired power plant along the Ohio River in Belmont County. The facility, commonly referred to as an ethane cracker, would convert ethane, a byproduct of natural gas drilling, into a hydrocarbon called ethylene that's further processed and used for plastics production and has other industrial uses. Monday's announcement again stopped short of a full commitment by either firm to build the plant, which Kongkrapan Intarajang, PTT's chief operating officer, said will approach $7.5 billion. JobsOhio officials said that decision could come by the end of 2018. "What they would build here would be probably the leading technological effort at cracking gas in the world," Kasich said, noting that he has told the two companies' leaders "guys, you can't wait."

        Ethane Cracker Chemical Complexes are Very Expensive - Tom Gellrich, founder of Top Line Analytics–a consultancy focusing on downstream shale gas development like ethane crackers–spoke Wednesday at Kallanish Energy’s “Crackers, Storage & Pipelines 2018” event at Southpointe. He had some interesting things to say. Among them: The Marcellus/Utica region has enough ethane to easily support up to eight ethane cracker plants–plants the size of the massive Shell cracker being built now in Monaca (Beaver County), PA.So far only Shell has pulled the trigger and begun to build such a plant. PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, is actively considering (and likely) to build a second regional cracker plant in Belmont County (Ohio). So the multi-billion question is this: Why aren’t more companies building crackers in our region, given the abundance of cheap ethane? Gellrich had some thoughts on that…The reasons why there haven’t been any more ethane crackers announced for Appalachia — and the critical importance of large-scale storage to support the region’s burgeoning petrochemical industry — were big topics of discussion at an industry gathering Wednesday.The bottom line: The $3 billion to $6 billion that it costs to build an ethane cracker has to be approved by someone, and it’s a big commitment that would be extremely costly and potentially fatal to a company if it didn’t work out.“It is a bet-the-company and certainly bet-your-career,” said Tom Gellrich, founder of Top Line Analytics, a consultancy that focuses on downstream shale gas development like ethane crackers. Gellrich spoke at a pipeline and midstream conference held Wednesday at Southpointe by Kallanish Energy, a daily global energy news and analysis website.So far only Shell Chemicals, the division of Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell has made that billions-dollar commitment with the cracker it’s building in Beaver County. PTT Global Chemicals is moving to a final investment decision on a second potential cracker in Belmont County, Ohio.

         Michigan approves 22 new anchors for Line 5 pipeline beneath Straits -- The twin oil pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac are expected to get additional structural support this summer, though environmental groups say it's a step in the wrong direction.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has issued a permit for Enbridge to install 22 new anchor supports along the Line 5 pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac, the department announced in a press release Friday, March 23. The structures clamp the 65-year-old pipelines to the lake bed while powerful currents between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron change the underwater landscape, washing away large areas of soil underneath the pipes.  Enbridge calls the new anchors a preventative measure for the aging pipeline, while critics say the span should be decommissioned before it ruptures and spews oil into the water of the Great Lakes.  "Installing these anchor supports does not make Line 5 itself safe, they do not protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic spill," Kate Madigan, an energy policy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council, said in a statement.  The intent is to minimize the potential for any unsupported spans of pipeline greater than 75 feet, according to the information submitted by Enbridge. Enbridge 22 anchors.jpg Liz Kirkwood, executive director for Traverse City nonprofit For Love of Water (FLOW), argues that Enbridge's proposal amounts to a completely new design not included in the terms of the 1953 state easement under which the pipeline operates."A suspended pipeline in the currents of the Straits has not been approved and would never be approved today," Kirkwood said in a statement. "This is yet another example of the state allowing Enbridge to get around the laws designed to protect our Great Lakes." Line 5 is bent and deformed where Enbridge wants to anchor it.

        More liquid spills by ETP Mariner in Pennsylvania - Energy Transfer Partners LP's Sunoco Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline gets a notice from Pennsylvania environmental regulators on Monday in regards to the violation for releasing fluids during drilling process into a wetland. The company argued and said that the release of fluids is less than one gallon. The release happened in the Shirley Township in Huntingdon County. The county is located at the distance of 129 kilometers from the state capital. The drilling during an oil and gas drilling activities spills the liquid. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has said ETP to stop the drilling and resume the same only after the approval is issued. This is not the first time that the spill has happened for this USD 2.5 bln project. There has been a long series of the spill during the project. The DEP identified 46 cases of violation of 108 inadvertent releases or spills from the project, since May 2017. The higher number of releases has prompted the environmental regulator to issue the notices. The last spill from the company ETP was during October, which was 5,000 to 10,000 gallons. The DTP has issued notice for the same too. The Pennsylvania utility regulators earlier in March have suspended ETP’s Sunoco Mariner East 1 operations owing to the discovery of the sinkholes near the project area. ETP has said it expects to complete Mariner 2 by the end of the second quarter. Once complete, Mariner 2 will expand the total capacity of the Mariner East project to 345,000 bpd and open the pipe to suppliers in Ohio and West Virginia.  

        Nuns raise large cross next to Atlantic Sunrise pipeline - A group of Catholic nuns in Lancaster County held a Palm Sunday service in protest against the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline and erected a large cross on the construction site.About 60 people attended the service and prayed with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Last year the nuns filed a lawsuit against the pipeline company, Williams, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alleging the project violated their religious freedom, which is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.Williams had unsuccessfully tried to negotiated rights to the nuns’ land, and was then authorized to use eminent domain, giving it permanent rights to a 50-foot-wide area on approximately one acre. In October, 23 people were arrested on the nuns’ property after they attempted to block construction equipment.After a district court refused to hear the nuns’ case last fall, they filed an appeal, which is pending with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.  A Williams spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday. Previously, the company has said it respects the rights of people to peacefully protest.

        LISTEN: Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck of Lancaster Against Pipelines - Last week’s Earth Watch guest on the Sojourner Truth Radio Show was Malinda Harnish Clatterbuck of Lancaster Against Pipelines, who discussed the dangers of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in Western Pennsylvania.Here is some background on the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline from Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is a project by Williams Partners, a multi-billion dollar natural gas transportation and processing corporation based in Tulsa Oklahoma. The proposed fracked-gas pipeline would be an unprecedented 42” in diameter and 1200 – 1500 PSI. On February 21, 2014, an article in Lancaster Newspapers carried news of the pipeline proposal to thousands of people across Lancaster County.  The originally proposed route had the pipeline running directly through several popular Lancaster County conservancy properties, including Tucquan Glen Nature Preserve. The news ignited a groundswell of opposition, out of which Lancaster Against Pipelines was formed.  Since that original notification, the proposed route has been altered dozens of times. The pipeline has received approval from FERC and all the necessary permits to begin construction. The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, if constructed, would disrupt preserved farms, precious woodlands, and families’ homes – with no benefit for Lancaster County.  The majority of the fracked gas that it would carry is intended for export at the Cove Point Liquid Natural Gas terminal.  The 42″, 1200-1500 PSI pipeline would be unprecedented in its size and pressure.  Pipeline explosions are relatively uncommon, but when they occur they are devastating.

        Monroe judge reverses decision; lifts tree-sitter injunction in MVP pipeline case - Attorneys for MVP also provided the court with a map that Robinson’s team had put together after their survey along with previous survey data from Holland Engineering, a company contracted by MVP. That map would come back to haunt the MVP attorneys. On cross-examination, DePaulo asked Robinson to break down the map, detail by detail, questioning him on each one. Centering in on individual figures, DePaulo questioned the surveyor on why points of the map labeled in hundredths of a mile, or 52.8 feet, were indicated on the map as different lengths with a difference of up to 100 percent. Answering DePaulo, Robinson told the attorney that to be better shown on the map numbers had been rounded, but that in his professional opinion the protestors are located inside of MVP’s allowable zone. Measuring the distance between two sets of points that were labeled as equal in measure, DePaulo told the judge, before walking to the bench to show him, that by a simple eye test, those measures, which were supposed to equal, were noticeably unequal. DePaulo also called into question of why the Appalachian Trail, the central location in the no-cut zone, had not be used as the starting measuring point by the surveyors. Adding that the burden of proof was on the pipeline’s attorneys, DePaulo said that the attorneys had failed to show reliable information to argue the case. “The devil is like so much of things in life, the devil is in the details,” Judge Irons said before going over the inconsistencies that DePaulo highlighted. The judge also questioned the compelling urgency to reach a decision over two trees along a pipeline route that is hundreds of miles long, adding that based on the testimony heard, the facts did not add up. “I guess the thing that I’m troubled by, you know from the testimony to tie into really accurate, reliable control points,” Irons said. Telling the attorneys from MVP that he is not as convinced of the mapping data as they are, Irons denied their injunction against the tree-sitters.

        W.Va. judge denies injunction to remove pipeline protesters from trees  - An attempt to flush pipeline protesters from their stands in trees atop Peters Mountain fell short Tuesday. Monroe County Circuit Judge Robert Irons denied a preliminary injunction requested by Mountain Valley Pipeline, which sought the court's intervention to remove what has become a troublesome obstacle to its plans to build a natural gas pipeline through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Although Irons said last week that he was inclined to grant the injunction, his view changed during a hearing Tuesday when William DePaulo, an attorney for the tree-sitters, argued that Mountain Valley has failed to prove they are actually in the route of the proposed pipeline. DePaulo repeatedly raised questions about the surveying, calculations and map drawing that Mountain Valley relied upon in asserting that the tree-sitters were blocking the pipeline's path."Like so many things in life, the devil is in the details," Irons said in announcing his decision. The surprise ruling came on the 23rd day of the tree-sit protest, which shows no sign of ending. It was not clear after the hearing what step Mountain Valley would take next. The company has said the protesters - on two small wooden platforms suspended by ropes about 25 feet above the ground - are sitting in trees that need to be cut down before a March 31 deadline imposed by federal wildlife protections. "While we are disappointed with the Court's decision, the MVP project team will continue to move forward with construction activities along other portions of the 303-mile route," Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said in a statement. "As always, we respect the opinions of those who are opposed to the MVP project and we want to ensure everyone's safety throughout the various phases of the construction process." But in court Tuesday, an attorney for the company made it clear that it needs the protesters gone from two oak trees in the Jefferson National Forest, near the Virginia state line. The Monroe County trees are very close to where the company plans to bore a tunnel for the 42-inch diameter steel pipe to pass under the Appalachian Trail before emerging on the Giles County side of the mountain. "They're in the area that we need to fell trees, and they're interfering with that,"

        As a tree-sit protest of the Mountain Valley Pipeline continues, a crowd is gathering - A tree-top protest of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is drawing so much public attention that the U.S. Forest Service has designated a spot for supporters to gather.The Caldwell Fields Campground in the Jefferson National Forest has been established as a “safe location ... for people to exercise their First Amendment rights” about protesters who are sitting in two trees along the pipeline’s route in an attempt to block its construction, the Forest Service said Friday.The campground is in Montgomery County, miles from the spot where the tree-sit protest will soon enter a second month on national forest land atop Peters Mountain in West Virginia. “The Forest Service recognizes that First Amendment rights are an important privilege of every U.S. citizen,” Jessica Rubado, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email. “However, public health and safety also must be considered.” On Thursday, when word spread that the Forest Service might be starting an attempt to remove the tree-sitters, a crowd of about 20 supporters gathered on Pocahontas Road in Giles County, where a gate closing the road prevented them from getting any closer to the tree-sit site. The Forest Service road is closed, along with a 400-foot-wide corridor that follows the pipeline’s 3.5-mile path through the national forest, as officials monitor a situation in which protesters are perched on wooden platforms in two trees in Monroe County, West Virginia — next to where the pipeline would cross the Appalachian Trail and just across the state line from Giles County. Becky Crabtree, a Monroe County resident who is fighting plans for a natural gas pipeline that would pass through her family farm, was one of the people who gathered on Pocahontas Road with signs showing their support for the tree-sitters. The tree-sit protest began Feb. 26, with members of a loosely organized group who have mostly remained anonymous saying they were taking a stand against the environmental damage that would be caused by building a 303-mile pipeline through the two Virginias. What started as a low-key operation, with the remote location making communication difficult, is now capturing more attention as word spreads on social media and through rural communities where many landowners oppose the pipeline. “People want to help, and their numbers are growing,” Crabtree said. “Anytime an article runs, my phone blows up.”

        MVP Pipeline Protesters Use New Tactics of Blocking Road and Pole Sitting - Authorities broke up a group of protesters who were blocking an access road that was being used for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. A protest that had been going on for about a month in the Jefferson National Forest on the border of West Virginia and Virginia escalated this morning when pipeline opponents blocked the access road.The protesters put up a large pole overnight across the access road to the project in the Jefferson National Forest on the West Virginia/Virginia border. In addition to that, about 30 protesters gathered at the access road gate along Pocahontas Road on Peters Mountain.The U.S. Forest service called the actions illegal and dangerous.About 4:30 p.m., the group Appalachians Against Pipelines wrote on social media that authorities had broken up the protest and arrested some of the organizers. The authorities were trying to get one of the protesters off the pole, the group wrote. The protester on the pole produced live video of the scene below. A little after 6 p.m. the protesters said the police had gone away, leaving the protester on the pole. The U.S. Forest Service, which has authority there, released a statement saying the location of the protest isn’t safe in the first place. “For the protesters in the areas under the closure order, the protest site is located within an area under emergency closure for the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project and is not a safe or legal location for a protest to occur,” stated Jessica Rubado, spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

        Tree-sit protest that spilled over into Virginia broken up by authorities -A second protest site that had sprung up on the Virginia side of Peters Mountain was broken up Wednesday afternoon, leaving only a single protestor high up a wooden pole in the middle of a Jefferson National Forest access road.  According to the Appalachian Against Pipelines Facebook page, a large contingent of law enforcement, including Virginia State Police, U.S Forest Service officials and U.S Marshals, arrived at the protest location at approximately 3:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon and arrested protest ground support members, as well as making the general protest supporters gathered at the location disperse. Earlier in the day, protestors had installed a blockade across the access road. The news release said that the blockade would prevent state and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) workers from accessing the location of protesting tree-sitters in West Virginia and prevent the construction of a seven-mile-long road to the site of a proposed borehole near the summit of the mountain.The blockade included a 50-foot-tall log installed in the middle of the access road with a single protester near its top. "As I remember the local support the tree sits have received, and all the people already standing up against the destruction of their land and water along the MVP and ACP routes, I know we can be a strong force for a world without these pipelines,” the log-top protestor stated in a news release. "The flames of resistance are catching and they will spread." Along with the log-sitter, a group of supporters also gathered at the protest site. The new protest follows a denial of an injunction against the tree-sitters last week by Monroe and Summers County Circuit Court Judge Robert Irons. With a March 31 deadline for MVP to cut trees inside the forest looming, protest supporters fear that a last-minute attempt to remove the tree-sitters is possible.

        Woman perches atop pole as protesters fight planned pipeline -- Opponents of a planned natural gas pipeline across parts of West Virginia and Virginia have launched a pole-sitting protest, the latest in demonstrations that prompted one arrest. The Roanoke Times reports protesters in West Virginia have entered their 30th day of sitting in two trees along the Mountain Valley Pipeline's proposed route.The newspaper also says a woman in Virginia perched Wednesday atop a 50-foot (15-meter) pole nearby in Virginia across the state line. It says a group of 20 others stood guard around the pole along a gravel road used by Mountain Valley crews. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Roanoke, Brian McGinn, confirmed one protester was arrested after officers ordered the crowd to disperse.

        DEQ approves Mountain Valley Pipeline's plan to control erosion and sediment -  A plan to stem the dirty water that will flow from building a natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia was approved Monday by state environmental regulators, marking a key step forward for the controversial project.Erosion, sediment and storm water control plans for the Mountain Valley Pipeline “will protect water quality in all areas of Virginia,” the state’s Department of Environmental Quality announced in a 7:02 p.m. news release. Until now, work on the 303-mile buried pipeline has been limited to cutting trees along its path and leaving them where they fell. With DEQ’s approval of “land disturbing activities” — one of the last remaining regulatory reviews — Mountain Valley is now authorized to begin full-scale construction. Pipeline opponents have said for years that digging trenches for the pipeline along steep mountain slopes will produce sediment-laden runoff, contaminating pristine streams and infiltrating private wells and public water supplies.  “Today, the Virginia DEQ betrayed the public and doomed our streams, wetlands, and groundwater to dire threats and certain damages that should never be accepted,” David Sligh wrote in an email. A former DEQ employee, Sligh wrote that “the scientific evidence strongly shows that the kinds of pollution control plans MVP proposes cannot adequately protect our waters, yet it’s clear that DEQ’s technical experts never had permission to reject them.”

        MVP contractor tied to pipeline cited for environmental violations - A construction company working on a natural gas pipeline that recently was accused of violating environmental standards also will work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Precision Pipeline, a Wisconsin-based construction company, will work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is still in its nascent stages. It has been working on the Rover Pipeline, which is nearing completion. Rover Pipeline LLC was issued a cease-and-desist order from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for 14 water-quality violations in Doddridge, Tyler and Wetzel counties, ranging from leaving trash and construction debris partially buried on the construction site, to improperly installing a perimeter control. The cease-and-desist is addressed to Rover Pipeline LLC and doesn’t address Precision’s involvement in construction, but critics of the pipeline said Precision’s reputation is tainted by its involvement in projects that break the rules. Precision Pipeline, based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was identified as one of the three contractors assigned to the Mountain Valley Pipeline during a preliminary injunction hearing in the Southern District of West Virginia, in which Mountain Valley Pipeline developers sued landowners over easement through eminent domain rights.

        Atlantic Coast Pipeline plans moving along, environmental concerns remain - The Atlantic coast pipeline project is set to be in full effect at the end of March, but some people are hoping that it won’t come at all. "I still hold out hope that we could turn ourselves around," says President of the Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance April Pierson-Keating. Pierson-Keating says that the location of the pipeline is a concern. "12,000 ft from our state police barracks and less than half a mile from our high school. So if it blew right there, it would take out the water tower, there’s a house right there, the state police barracks, those would be incinerated totally" says Pierson-Keating. But Dominion Energy's spokesperson says that West Virginia has abundant resources and the pipeline construction is allowing us to use them. "To get a very abundant natural resource that’s found right here in West Virginia to markets on the east coast, some of the fastest growing markets on the east coast will be recipients of this great resource that we proudly have here in our state," says Norris. But Pierson-Keating argues, "This pipeline is going to increase fracking across the state and the region, and we know that fracking toxifies millions of gallons of water on a daily basis and takes it out the water system so we can’t use it." Part of the update to the project is an upcoming job fair to employ local workers, and Norris says that more than 3,000 new jobs are being brought into West Virginia from the Atlantic coast pipeline project, but those aren't the only financial benefits. "When the pipeliners are here and they want to go out to eat one evening, they’re going to be eating in our local restaurants, they’re going to be staying in our local hotels, they’re going to be shopping in our local convenient stores, so this will have a trickling effect on our local economy" explains Norris.

        Agency denies pipeline's request for more time to cut trees - A federal commission denied a request Wednesday from developers of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline to continue cutting down trees along the project's route beyond an initial deadline designed to protect birds and bats.  Dominion Energy, leading percentage owner of the natural gas pipeline, told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this month that it appeared workers couldn't complete tree felling in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina on time and asked for an extension.  Despite the denial Wednesday, a spokesman for the project said it will remain on track for completion by the end of 2019.  Dominion agreed to the tree-felling restrictions as part of the project's environmental review process. The windows vary from state to state but generally prohibit tree cutting from mid-March or early April through mid-September or mid-November. Virginia's restriction began March 15. Dominion, in a letter seeking an extension, wrote that the proposed modification would be at least as environmentally protective as the initially agreed-to limits.  FERC disagreed. A division director wrote in the denial letter Wednesday that the request "would not offer an equal or greater level of protection."  Environmental groups praised the decision.  FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said the pipeline has 30 days to appeal the decision.  Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby said that, as of Wednesday, tree felling has been completed on more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) of the 600-mile (965-kilometer) route, less than initially planned for this year.

        To protect birds and endangered bats, feds reject pipeline bid to continue cutting trees — The Atlantic Coast Pipeline got a rare rejection Wednesday from federal officials who nixed a request from the divisive Dominion Energy-led project to push past seasonal tree-cutting restrictions that are intended to protect endangered bats and migratory birds. In an order, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Dominion’s request to extend the tree-cutting window two months to May 15 “would not offer an equal or greater level of protection.” The cutting restriction to protect species like owls, warblers and the Indiana Bat was “one of many” mitigation measures FERC considered in granting a certificate for the project, says the letter from Rich McGuire, FERC’s director of the gas division. Dominion stopped cutting trees March 14 and can resume again in the fall. Environmental groups have battled to slow and stall the 42-inch diameter pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, which will carve a 125-foot-wide temporary construction right of way across some of Virginia’s most mountainous terrain and, they fear, endanger pristine mountain streams and other waterways with the sediment generated. Many landowners are also opposed, with Dominion and its partners, armed with eminent domain power, taking dozens of uncooperative property owners to court for access to their land. Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said workers have completed tree-felling on more than 200 miles of the project, though that’s less than the company planned for this year. He wouldn’t say if the company would appeal the FERC order. “For any large infrastructure project, we have to plan for contingencies,” Ruby said. “By rearranging some of our construction plans and shifting some work to 2019, we’ll keep the project on track for completion by the end of next year.” 

        Citizens group alleges unauthorized pipeline work - A citizens group has filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission saying unauthorized work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has begun in Augusta County, and should be investigated. The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance submitted its complaint to FERC on Thursday, saying aerial surveillance conducted by the group found a new section of access road, existing road improvements, construction of timber matting and timber bridges over water bodies or drainage ways. The area is located in Augusta County near where the pipeline would bore through the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, a spokesman for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline said the citizens group is in error, insisting that the work only involves a geotechnical survey that the property owner has already approved. The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance submitted aerial photos it took earlier this month as part of its complaint with FERC, which has ultimate authority over the pipeline approval process. Rick Webb, a scientist with the alliance, said the activities "do not appear to have been authorized under any of the limited notices to proceed [that] FERC has issued." The complaint asks that an investigation to "discover the nature and extent of possible violations of requirements by ACP in the areas addressed here." But Aaron Ruby, a Dominion Energy and Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokesman, said no construction activity is being performed. "We're doing a geotechnical survey," Ruby said in a statement. "We're doing it with the permission of the landowner.." 

        The Koch Brothers Vs. God -- Rev. Paul Wilson is whipping up a crowd of demonstrators in downtown Richmond, Virginia, where they’re waiting to make a short march from Richmond’s Capitol Square Bell Tower to the nearby National Theatre. They’ve gathered for the Water Is Life Rally & Concert, an event to protest the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The development, a joint venture between several energy companies (including Richmond-based Dominion Energy), would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. The pipeline’s proposed route runs directly between Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches, the two parishes where Wilson serves as pastor in rural Buckingham County, 70 miles south of Richmond. The proposed site for the pipeline’s 54,000-horsepower, gas-fired compressor station is also set to be built right between them. Wilson fears the station could put his congregation and the surrounding community at risk of a range of ailments, especially asthma, because those living near natural gas facilities often suffer from chronic respiratory problems. “God gave man dominion over the earth, but not permission to destroy it,”    Drums and tambourines reverberated in unison to chants of “No justice, no peace! No pipelines on our streets!”, and the event’s other speakers railed against the greed of Big Oil companies and U.S. imperialism. At another rally focused on fossil fuels a year earlier in Richmond, religion was front and center. As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling U.S. Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomerate founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

        Gas pipeline forges ahead as environmentalists call on Northam to slow process — Environmental groups had planned an event here Tuesday to call on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to slow the permitting process for two major natural gas pipelines, only to learn that one of the projects got its permits the night before.The state Department of Environmental Quality announced that it had issued approvals for the Mountain Valley Pipeline after 7 p.m. Monday. Workers on the project have begun clearing trees along its path, but this sign-off from the state will let full construction get underway.  Opponents of the 303-mile pipeline, which runs the length of West Virginia and through the heart of Virginia’s mountainous southwest, said the process was flawed.  Residents along the Mountain Valley route have “been asking Gov. Northam and his administration for one more chance to review these critical water pollution control plans before the DEQ finalized them and allowed construction to proceed. In an affront to all Virginians, this decision shut them out,” Peter Anderson of the group Appalachian Voices said via email. But the environmental department said the project has been subjected to “enhanced review” and that every step has been open to public scrutiny.  Ann Regn, spokeswoman for the state environmental agency, said the announcement had been delayed for several weeks as the review was completed. “It is not at all connected to when [the environmental groups] were coming to town. We were trying to get it out as soon as they had the plans up,” Regn said.The Mountain Valley Pipeline is being built by a coalition of companies, led by EQT Midstream Partners, to carry fracked natural gas. A bigger project led by Dominion Energy, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is being planned simultaneously for the western and southern parts of the state, and is several weeks behind Mountain Valley in the permitting process.

         A battle is brewing as pipeline companies prepare to break ground in Virginia -- A long-simmering war between homeowners and environmentalists on one side and companies planning controversial pipelines on the other is escalating as the two projects are nearing construction. Virginia State Police and other law enforcement agencies have undergone special training to deal with protests against the $6.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that starts in West Virginia, stretches through Virginia and ends in North Carolina. A smaller project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, is planned through much of Southwest Virginia. Protesters have been active for about four years. But now the pipeline companies have most of their permits and have begun some limited tree-cutting to clear rights of way. Protesters are adamant about stopping the projects, which they believe are fire and explosion hazards, harm fauna and flora, threaten water and air supplies and ruin visually appealing landscapes. One question is whether protests could become violent, as some have against the Keystone XL pipeline and other projects in the Dakotas, among other areas. Those protests are so strong and vivid that they have attracted international attention. A real possibility is that what has happened on the prairie could be replicated in the Piedmont. In West Virginia, protesters attempting to stop tree cutting for the Mountain Valley Pipeline erected temporary housing in trees in the path of the cutting. A judge ruled against a temporary injunction sought by the pipeline firm to force the squatters from their tree stands near Union, W.Va. In Virginia, protesters complain that private security companies hired by pipeline firms have harassed and intimated them by photographing them and their car license plates when they attend state regulatory hearings concerning pipeline permits. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has sent letters to the governors of Virginia and North Carolina asking them to intervene. 

        No matter what else happens in the energy industry, there's a reason why local natural gas producers already see a big year in 2018 - This year will mark a turning point in the local natural gas industry: The time when there is enough pipeline capacity to move Marcellus and Utica shale gas to markets where producers get closer to prevailing price. That insight about takeaway capacity is a key takeaway from a new study from, which predicted the constraint — known in the industry as bottlenecking — would be lifted beginning in the third quarter of 2018.  The de-bottlenecking will have a real impact on the price of natural gas coming out of the Marcellus and Utica shales, which has been held down traditionally because of an ever-increasing supply but without enough places for it to sell. Maria Sanchez, manager of energy analysis at, said Northeast natural gas sold an average of $1 below the per-thousand-BTU standard price, known as the Henry Hub, between 2013 and 2016. That could be closed up to between 20 cents and 40 cents below Henry Hub pricing by the end of 2018, Sanchez forecast.And that's based on the takeaway capacity being added by new pipelines by Energy Transfer Partners, Nexus, Transco and Columbia. Other projects, such as EQT and EQT Midstream Partners' massive Mountain Valley Pipeline to Virginia, will go online later in 2018 and into 2019."It will have a huge impact on the prices here," The anticipated growth in natural gas liquids in Appalachia will help boost the construction of pipelines in the tri-state region, Rick DeCesar, vice president of pipeline and midstream services at Aecom, told a conference held Wednesday by Kallanish at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe moderated by Stone Pier Capital Advisors Managing Director Charlie Schliebs. DeCesar said he didn't think that the pipeline construction in the future would be long distance, as it has been, but instead gathering and trunk lines for natural gas production and connections for the petrochemical industry.But,'s Sanchez said, the de-bottlenecking — and the boost to prices — won't benefit one particular gas region in the Marcellus. That's because pipeline projects like the Constitution to serve New York and New England are stalled in the permit stage. "It doesn't apply to northeast Pennsylvania," Sanchez said.

        State lawmaker secretly sends constituent’s emails to gas pipeline lobbyist - A Massachusetts state legislator emailing with a citizen concerned about new gas pipelines surreptitiously shared those emails with a lobbyist who runs a fossil-fuel front group advocating for more pipelines, according to the messages that HuffPost obtained. The constituent wrote to state Rep. Steve Howitt (R) to express concern that a pending climate change bill could actually pave the way for a tax to fund new pipelines in Massachusetts and allow the state to treat natural gas as clean energy. Howitt thanked the constituent, and the two exchanged follow-up emails about specific language in the bill. But the emails indicate that Howitt also blind-carbon-copied another person ― William Ryan, a veteran lobbyist who owns the Boston-based firm Pilgrim Strategies and was recently hired to run the newly formed Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy. As HuffPost revealed last month, the “coalition” is in truth an astroturf group with funding from Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge and gas-based utilities Eversource and National Grid ― all of which are currently trying to expand the regional Algonquin Pipeline. Ryan also consults for Enbridge on its Atlantic Bridge Project, another pipeline upgrade in the area. Ryan appears to have accidentally outed himself on the thread by replying all, using the same email address he has previously used to register as a lobbyist with the state. “Perfect response to her, Steve,” he wrote, adding a link to a study that he said “really does a good job if [sic] explaining the power problem we have and how problematic the inadequate supply of natural gas is to our region.” When the constituent inquired about the additional person copied on the email, Howitt tried to cover by suggesting that the other individual was a government official.   When the correspondent pressed further about who had been added to the conversation, Howitt replied, “My liasons [sic] within the government agencies are for reps and senators only to address constituent concerns and assist or provide information.” The legislator did not respond to further inquiries from the constituent. 

        Boston Judge Acquits 13 Pipeline Protesters in Groundbreaking Decision - A Boston judge on Tuesday sided with 13 climate activists who were arrested for protesting the West Roxbury Mass Lateral Pipeline .Judge Mary Ann Driscoll of West Roxbury District Court decided it was necessary for the protestors to engage in civil disobedience to block the construction of Spectra Energy's high-pressure fracked gas pipeline and acquitted the activists of civil infractions, according to media reports.  The judge made the decision after hearing each defendant's testimony. They argued the threat of climate change necessitated their civil disobedience. Shadowproof reported:"Part of why Judge Mary Ann Driscoll found no liability was because they engaged in a sustained effort to end the project and attempted legal remedies by the city council, mayor, and other agencies to stop the pipeline.Even though the pipeline was still constructed and operational by January 2017, that was irrelevant. The judge found the activists were not liable. "Karenna Gore, the director of Center for Earth Ethics and daughter of former Vice President Al Gore , was one of the 23 people arrested during a 2016 protest of the pipeline."What happened today was really important," she said. "Essentially, the people that put themselves in the way of building this fossil fuel pipeline were found 'not responsible' by reason of necessity." "The irony of that is that we are making ourselves responsible. We are part of the the movement that is standing up and saying we won't let this go by on our watch. We won't act like nothing's wrong."

        Judge rules civil disobedience a ‘necessity’ to prevent climate change  --A Massachusetts judge found that 13 pipeline protesters "not responsible by reason of necessity" because the action was taken to avoid serious climate damage.  For almost a year, hundreds of protesters in Massachusetts took action to stop construction of a high-pressure fracked gas pipeline, which would have run for five miles through the Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury. The demonstrations, which featured protesters sitting in holes dug for the pipeline, lead to the arrests of nearly 200 people, many of whom faced criminal charges for trespassing and disturbing the peace.  On Tuesday, the final 13 protesters facing charges over the demonstrations were found not responsible by a Massachusetts judge, who ruled that the potential environmental and public health impacts of the pipeline — including the risk of climate change — had made civil disobedience legally necessary.  According to the Climate Disobedience Center, which supported the protesters in their demonstration, this is the first example of a judge finding defendants not responsible on the basis of a necessity defense — something that has been used by the climate movement increasingly in recent years as a basis for direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure. “We believe this is a first,” Marla Marcum, director of the Climate Disobedience Center, told ThinkProgress. “It’s pretty powerful, to us, that a judge listened very carefully and determined, essentially, that it was necessary for these people to take this action in an attempt to prevent a greater harm.”

        Bill to ban oil, gas drilling in state waters passes Senate -  Bipartisan legislation to ban offshore drilling in state waters and to prohibit infrastructure there from supporting drilling in federal waters off New Jersey, was approved 37-0 on Monday by the state Senate. “This is a back-door way of blocking the offshore drilling that would be allowed by the federal action,” said co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. “We control the first 3 miles at the state level, so we will use that authority to try to hinder or block drilling along the Jersey coast, which is vital for the fishing industry.” President Donald Trump has proposed opening up drilling in federal waters along the Atlantic Coast. State waters run to three miles out, and federal waters from three to 200 miles out. The Shore Tourism and Ocean Protection (STOP) from Offshore Oil and Gas Act (S-258/A-839) had already passed the Assembly and now goes to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. Murphy, an opponent of offshore drilling in the Atlantic, is expected to sign it. Co-sponsor Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said protecting the environment is not a Republican or Democrat issue. “All of our Atlantic County families, retirees and our local economy depend on us protecting our beaches and waterways,” Brown said. “It simply makes sense to preserve our $44 billion tourism economy and our commercial and recreational fisheries for our children and grandchildren.” It would prohibit offshore drilling in state waters and ban the leasing of tidal or submerged lands in state waters for oil or natural gas production, exploration or development. It would also prohibit the Department of Environmental Protection from issuing any permits and approvals for the development of offshore drilling facilities, said Brown, who has launched an online petition to oppose the federal plan to drill off the Atlantic Coast.

        House Dems demand hearing over Zinke offshore drilling plan | TheHill: Three top House Democrats are demanding a hearing with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to discuss his proposal to expand offshore drilling.House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, and A. Donald McEachin(D-Va.), chair of the oversight subcommittee, are demanding a full committee hearing on the development of Interior's offshore leasing plan.In a letter sent Thursday to committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) requesting the hearing, the members cite a recent Politico report that Zinke had been in close contact with Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) office for months before announcing that his state was exempt from the drilling plan."The available information strongly suggests that the meeting and decision to remove Florida from the offshore leasing program was driven by political considerations related to the Governor’s potential race for the U.S. Senate seat," the Democrats said in a statement. At the time, it appeared that Zinke's decision to remove Florida from the drilling list was an impromptu one. But Politico concluded, after reviewing thousands of documents after an open records request, that the decision was "choreographed" to politically benefit the governor. Thursday's letter to Bishop is the Dem lawmakers' second request for a hearing with Zinke on offshore drilling. They first sent a request to his office on January 24 following conflicting statements over whether Florida would be exempted from the new drilling policy. Thursday's letter says that since then, "the situation has gotten less clear." "It is clear that we do not know the entire story about how first draft of the 5 year program was put together, nor what led to the meeting between the Governor and the Secretary at the Talahassee airport," the letter read. "The Chairman is reviewing the letter and we are working to determine the next best steps forward," said Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for the committee.

        Cove Point LNG terminal feedgas volumes rise as it prepares to receive tanker - Implied feedgas volumes at Dominion Energy's Cove Point LNG export terminal in Maryland rose Monday to the highest level in more than three weeks as the facility prepared to receive a tanker that could usher in the start of commercial service under long-term contracts, S&P Global Platts Analytics data show.The increase in implied feedgas is similar to the timing of a previous surge in mid-February, before the shipment of the plant's first -- and, so far, only -- commissioning cargo on March 2, which was delivered to the UK. Dominion and Cheniere Energy are currently the only US exporters of LNG produced from shale gas that have facilities in operation. A handful of terminals are under construction, while another dozen or so have been proposed.  company had previously said that commercial service at Cove Point, under contracts with Gail India and a joint venture involving Japan's Sumitomo and Tokyo Gas, would begin in early March. But feedgas activity at the facility declined following the commissioning cargo's departure. Implied feedgas peaked at 920 MMcf on the day of the cargo's departure and then dropped to 242 MMcf the following day. By March 3, implied feedgas estimates had dropped to 18 MMcf/d, a level that had held mostly steady since then. That changed over the weekend when implied feedgas volumes for Cove Point surged, reaching 640 MMcf Monday. The commissioning meters associated with the export facility simultaneously increased from previous levels of around 140 MMcf/d to over 350 MMcf/d for Monday's gas day, the Platts Analytics data show. New pipeline capacity contracts executed between Cove Point Pipeline and Pacific Summit Energy -- the marketing subsidiary of LNG offtaker Sumitomo -- and Gail Global (USA) LNG become effective March 31, records show. Both shippers executed transport contracts for 430 MMcf/d over a roughly 20-year term, with primary receipts sourced from Columbia Gas Transmission and Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line interconnects and primary delivery to the liquefaction facilities.

        U.S. liquefied natural gas exports quadrupled in 2017 - U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) reached 1.94 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2017, up from 0.5 Bcf/d in 2016. As LNG exports increased, shipments went to more destinations. U.S. LNG exports in 2017, all of which originated from Louisiana’s Sabine Pass liquefaction terminal, reached 25 countries.  More than half (53%) of U.S. LNG exports in 2017 were shipped to three countries: Mexico, South Korea, and China. Mexico received the largest amount of U.S. LNG exports, at 20% of the 2017 total. Growing natural gas demand in Mexico, particularly from the power generation sector, and delays in the construction of domestic pipelines connecting to U.S. export pipelines led Mexico to rely on LNG imports to supplement imports of natural gas by pipeline.  In Asia, the widening difference between the Henry Hub natural gas price—to which U.S. LNG contract prices are indexed—and crude oil—to which LNG prices are benchmarked in Asia—helped to drive increases in LNG imports from the United States. Exports to South Korea accounted for 18% of total U.S. LNG exports in 2017 and were part of long-term contracts between sellers Cheniere Energy and Shell and the Korean natural gas buyers. Exports to China made up 15% of total U.S. LNG exports. These exports were sold mostly on a spot basis, with volumes in October, November, and December increasing as record-high LNG demand prompted China to seek additional LNG on the global spot market to supplement contracted volumes.  Almost 60% of U.S. LNG in 2017 was sold on a spot basis to more than 20 countries in Asia, North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Caribbean. Although liquefaction capacity at Sabine Pass is fully contracted under long-term contracts to various buyers, flexibility in those contracts’ destination clauses allows U.S. LNG to be shipped to any market in the world.   Four more projects are scheduled to come online in the next two years: Elba Island LNG in Georgia and Cameron LNG in Louisiana in 2018, then Freeport LNG and Corpus Christi LNG in Texas in 2019. Once completed, U.S. LNG export capacity is expected to reach 9.6 Bcf/d by the end of 2019. As export capacity continues to increase, the United States is projected to become the third-largest LNG exporter in the world by 2020, surpassing Malaysia and remaining behind only Australia and Qatar.

        Lake Charles area petrochemical firms to pay $11 million for hazardous waste violations -- Three major Lake Charles-area petrochemical companies have agreed to pay $11 million to federal and Louisiana government agencies to settle charges that they illegally disposed of hazardous waste that damaged natural resources in part of the Calcasieu River estuary for decades, according to a notice in the Thursday (March 29) edition of the Federal Register.Federal and state officials have been attempting to deal with hazardous wastes found in different water bodies connected to the Calcasieu River that were believed to come from the chemical plants for decades, according to a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Lake Charles on March 22. According to the settlement agreement filed in federal court in Lake Charles on March 22, Citgo Petroleum Corp., Occidential Chemical Corp., Oxy USA Inc., and PPG Industries Inc. will pay $7.96 million of the settlement money into a special Bayou d'Inde Area of Concern Site Restoration Account. The money will be used on projects "that restore, rehabilitate, replace and/or acquire the equivalent of the natural resources alleged to be injured" as a result of the wastes released or that could still be released by the companies.The companies also will provide $1.3 million to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and $1.7 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to reimburse the agencies for past assessment costs. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality will be paid $62,914, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries will be paid $290 for their past assessment costs.

        Bayou Bridge Pipeline equipment reported vandalized; company offers reward for tips -  Bayou Bridge construction equipment has been vandalized in Assumption Parish according to the sheriff's office, and on Thursday the pipeline company offered a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest.Vandals cut hydraulic hoses and electrical lines, broke windows and spray painted messages on backhoes and bulldozers, though the pipeline itself did not appear to be damaged, said sheriff's spokesman Lonny Cavalier.The contractor has estimate damage of at least $50,000 but possibly much more, Cavalier said.Bayou Bridge is designed to carry crude oil between Lake Charles and St. James. Supporters say it will be a safe, necessary and lucrative way to bolster Louisiana's energy economy, while opponents have argued that it has already destroyed wetlands and threatens to leak oil and endanger drinking water once complete. A federal judge previously halted work in the Atchafalaya Basin, though an appeals panel overturned the decision.The recent incident happened sometime over the weekend off La. 998 near Belle Rose, Cavalier said. He said deputies are still investigating, though the company has blamed environmental extremists based on some of the spray painting. Company officials declined to say what was spray painted on the construction equipment.

        LNG and pipeline reversals turn Louisiana gas market upside down, part 3 - With LNG export demand rising along the Gulf Coast, there are big changes coming to the Louisiana natural gas supply-demand balance, with significant implications for the national benchmark pricing location Henry Hub. The state’s growing demand center is attracting midstream investment and supply from two of the fastest growing producing regions — Appalachia’s Marcellus/Utica and West Texas’s Permian. An analysis of pipeline flow data is already providing clues as to how markets will evolve in the Bayou State. Today, we continue our flow analysis of the Louisiana pipeline corridors, this time with a focus on interstate flows across the state’s western border.  In Part 1, we laid out the big-picture trends that are transforming the Louisiana market  — and with them, the natural gas supply-demand fundamentals influencing key Louisiana pricing hubs, including Perryville Hub and none other than the U.S. gas market benchmark price — Henry Hub (see Roll With Me Henry). On the demand side, Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass LNG facility in Cameron Parish, LA, over the past two years has brought online more than 3.0 Bcf/d of new demand from four liquefaction trains, which are all running near full capacity most of the time. And, there is more liquefaction capacity on the way along the Louisiana coastline. At the same time, Louisiana’s export demand is competing with rising demand at the Texas-Mexico border as Mexico’s power sector ramps up, and soon also from Texas’s LNG export facilities.

        April NYMEX gas extends gains to $2.650/MMBtu, buoyed by cold, ahead of contract expiry - NYMEX April natural gas futures remained buoyed by recent and projected cold in US overnight trade ahead of Tuesday's open and the contract's roll off the board at the close of business. At 6:55 am ET (1055 GMT) the contract was 3.2 cents higher at $2.650/MMBtu. Lingering cold of late is expected to have driven a better-than-average rate of weekly storage withdrawals in the forthcoming inventory data due out from the US Energy Information Administration on March 29, despite higher low temperatures associated with the arrival of spring. Market participants looking to the upcoming storage report that will cover the week ended March 23 call for draws from stocks in the upper 60s Bcf to the low 70s Bcf, which would exceed the 46 Bcf five-year-average withdrawal and a 58 Bcf year-ago pull. Approaching the traditional end of the withdrawal season on March 31, the EIA sees working gas stocks ending the season 19% lower than the five-year average at 1,373 Bcf, assuming storage draws match the five-year average for the remainder of the season. Additional cold over major heat-consuming regions in midrange projections looks to drive heating demand, likely to extend storage erosion into early April. 

        NYMEX May natural gas futures fall 0.3 cent overnight to $2.711/MMBtu - NYMEX May natural gas futures seesawed in search of direction ahead of Wednesday's open, supported higher by end-of-season storage expectations and midrange weather outlooks but pressured by impending warming. May futures traded in a range of $2.695-$2.731/MMBtu overnight and at 7:15 a.m. ET (1115 GMT) was 0.3 cent lower at $2.711/MMBtu. For storage data due out Thursday for the week ended March 23, market participants are predicting a 68-71 Bcf withdrawal, which would exceed both the 46 Bcf five-year average and a 58 Bcf year-ago pull. Total working gas stocks are currently 1,446 Bcf, or 667 Bcf below the year-ago level. Weather in store points to ongoing storage erosion into early April, as lingering cold in forecasts looks to drive up heating demand. But a warming trend that should erode demand as spring unfolds alongside expectations of production growth contain bullish sentiments.

        Why Natural Gas Prices Will Rise This Summer  - Record production of natural gas is snuffing out any price rally that might have occurred from the bout of cold weather this winter. The gas market saw a jolt at the end of December and in early January due to extremely cold temperatures across much of the U.S. This winter was about 13 percent colder than last year, which pushed up residential and commercial gas demand by 3.5 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to Barclays. At the same time, demand continues to grind higher on a structural basis, with more LNG exports leaving U.S. shores and more utilities burning gas for electricity. That led to a sharp drawdown in gas inventories, pushing them 16 percent below the five-year average in the first quarter. Nevertheless, the price impact was muted. In the past, severe cold snaps have led to sharp price spikes. While that happened in regional spot markets, the price increases were very short-term and nothing like the price increases during the 2014 Polar Vortex. After the cold subsided, Henry Hub spot prices fell back below $3/MMBtu. Gas traders are so sanguine because the U.S. is producing more natural gas than ever. And 2018 is shaping up to be a record year for new gas output. A mild streak during February eased some pressure on inventories as well. As a result, the U.S. will likely see “heavy” gas injections during the second quarter, according to Barclays.  Inventories will rebuild quickly this spring, but the U.S. will still enter summer months with inventories 17 percent below the five-year average.  But, ultimately, prices will have to go up ahead of next winter in order to adequately replenish gas inventories. If prices were to remain where they currently are, there would be a much larger coal-to-gas switch happening for electricity generation. Leaning harder on gas-fired power plants, made possible by low prices, would result in a smaller gas injection into storage. In other words, if natural gas prices do not rise, the U.S. would enter the winter season with too little gas on hand.

         U.S. Oil & Gas Exports Hit All-Time High - U.S. energy exports rose to record levels last year, with both petroleum and natural gas posting record-highs as the shale boom and the second full year of no restrictions on crude oil exports boosted overseas shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil.According to the latest Monthly Energy Review by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), total petroleum exports—crude oil and petroleum products—jumped to average 6.343 million bpd in 2017 from 5.261 million bpd in 2016. Of these, crude oil exports surged to average 1.1 million bpd last year, from 591,000 bpd in 2016.Booming U.S. production, expanding pipeline and export capacity, and the more than $3-a-barrel discount of WTI spot prices to Brent supported the surge in U.S. oil exports last year, which was the second full year since the restrictions on U.S. crude oil exports were removed in late 2015.In natural gas trade, total U.S. natural gas exports also increased to the highest on record, and exports in terms of billions of cubic feet exceeded total natural gas imports for the first time.The U.S. energy trade deficit last year narrowed to the lowest since 1998, EIA data showed.U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) quadrupled last year compared to 2016, and the U.S. is expected to become the world’s third-biggest LNG exporter by 2020, the EIA said on Tuesday. More than half of all U.S. LNG exports in 2017 went to three destinations—Mexico, South Korea, and China.  Mexico’s demand for natural gas is growing, while it has delayed some pipeline construction, while LNG exports to Asia were driven by widening difference between the Henry Hub natural gas price—to which U.S. LNG contract prices are indexed—and crude oil—to which LNG prices are benchmarked in Asia.U.S.  Since 2016, two LNG projects--Sabine Pass in Louisiana and Cove Point in Maryland—have come online and four other projects are expected to come online in the next two years.

        Inside the Tax Bill's $25 Billion Oil Company Bonanza -- Republicans primary objective is to hold onto their majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the key mechanism for doing so is to ride the coattails of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. More than 50 percent of the tax bill's benefits will go to the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, and more than 25 percent to the wealthiest 1 percent, according to theInstitute on Taxation and Economic Policy. As Businessweek put it, "President Donald Trump and Republicans sold their $1.5 trillion tax cut as a boon for workers, but it's becoming clear just two months after the bill passed that the truly big winners will be corporations and their shareholders." Pacific Standard's original analysis finds that it is the oil and gas industry, including companies that backed the presidency of Trump and whose former executives and current boosters now populate it, that are among the tax bill's largest and most long-lasting financial beneficiaries.Just 17 American oil and gas companies reported a combined total of $25 billion in direct one-time benefits from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Many of the companies will also receive millions of dollars in income tax refunds this year. Looking forward, the Tax Act then reduces all corporate annual tax bills by a minimum of 40 percent every year in perpetuity, while adding new benefits that function as government subsidies for the oil and gas industry. The companies' activities in the United States are made less expensive, thereby encouraging a further expansion of oil and gas operations. Pacific Standard reviewed the Annual 10K and Fourth Quarter Reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for 2017 by 17 U.S. oil companies, looking at the largest companies in production, refining, and pipelines that also clearly specified the impacts of the Tax Act in their results. Private companies, such as Koch Industries, which undoubtedly benefit from the legislation, could not be included because they are not required to make these financial reports publicly available.

        The US is on the threshold of the biggest oil and gas boom ever -- The U.S. is set to enjoy the biggest increase in oil and gas production the world has ever seen over the next few years, according to a new report out Tuesday. The report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based think tank, is a thumping endorsement for the shale sector’s resilience in the face of a two-year attempt by Saudi Arabia and others to squeeze it. That’s already visible in U.S. government forecasts, which say U.S. crude oil production will rise from an average of 9.2 million barrels a day this year to 9.9 million barrels a day in 2018, a new all-time high beating a record set in 1970. The IEA said the U.S. will account for 80% of the increase in global oil supply between now and 2025, as shale producers find ever more ways to pump oil profitably even at lower prices. By the late 2020s, the U.S. will become a net exporter of oil for the first time since the 1950s. In natural gas the trend is the same, only faster. By the mid 2020s, the IEA expects the U.S. to become the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, demand for which is set to rise strongly as China, India, and Southeast Asia all turn away from coal to cleaner energy sources.  .“The U.S. will become the undisputed global oil and gas leader for decades to come,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said at a press conference in London. He said that the increase in absolute terms will dwarf even the ramp-ups delivered by Saudi Arabia and Russia in the post-war period. Between 2005 and 2030, total U.S. oil output will double from less than 15 million barrels of oil equivalent a day to over 31 million.

        Goldman Sachs: Oil's Seven Sisters Enter a 'Golden Age' -- The world’s largest oil companies have survived a life-changing crisis, and are now poised to reap the rewards, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said. Big Oil is in a sweet spot with rising oil prices and low operating costs, leaving them with the biggest cash-flow growth in two decades and boosting earnings, Goldman said in a report Monday. That will increase their attraction for investors after years of elevated spending followed by crude’s slump sent their weighting in global equity indexes to a 50-year low, according to the bank. “We see this as the start of a new golden age for Big Oil’s reborn Seven Sisters,” said analysts led by Michele Della Vigna, referring to the seven largest non-state oil companies. It is “also a favorable environment for returns in the commodity.” Crude’s slump since the middle of 2014 wiped out some smaller companies and changed the way the biggest operate as they continue to drive down costs in an attempt to survive. A downturn is typically followed by a period of relative plenty as the cost of getting new barrels out of the ground takes time to catch up with the crude price, widening profit margins. The majors are leading the pack. While crude’s collapse pushed the weight of oil companies in equity indexes to about 5 percent, less than half their normal level, Big Oil is now in a position to regain its standing. The slump culled smaller drillers and has left the larger ones with the opportunity to take more market share. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Total SA and BP Plc are among the majors that reported the highest earnings in years last quarter. Some even started share buybacks and others are promising higher dividends. They are also benefiting from the start up of projects sanctioned years ago but were delayed by the downturn, Goldman said.

        Analysis: Diesel drives gains in US cracking yields - Refining margins were higher across the board in the US last week, as refined products price gains outpaced a climb in crude supply costs, an analysis of S&P Global Platts data showed Monday. US Gulf Coast Light Louisiana Sweet cracking margins climbed 98 cents to average $9.77/b last week, while Maya coking margins climbed $1.32 to average $11.85/b. Platts margin data reflects the difference between a crude's netback and its spot price. Netbacks are based on crude yields, which are calculated by applying Platts product price assessments to yield formulas designed by Turner, Mason & Co. LLS cracking yields climbed $3.67 to average $77.20/b last week, surpassing the $2.69 climb in LLS spot prices. ULSD led the way higher in the USGC, ending the week up $4.73 at $83.77/b, Platts data showed. ULSD prices have been driven higher by strong demand associated with wintry Northeast weather, farming demand in the Midwest, and continued export demand on the USGC. With the exception of the USAC, diesel stocks are tight throughout the US. For instance, combined low and ultra low diesel stocks on the USGC at 33 million barrels the week ending March 16 were 15% below the five-year average, according to the US Energy Information Administration. 

        Exclusive: Firms complain of contaminated crude from U.S. reserve (Reuters) - Three firms that bought crude oil last year from U.S. emergency stockpiles raised concerns about dangerous levels of a poisonous chemical in the cargoes, according to internal Energy Department emails and shipping documents reviewed by Reuters. Problems with crude quality would make the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) less useful in an emergency because refiners would need to spend time and money removing contamination before producing fuel. The reserve is the world’s largest government stockpile, currently holding 665 million barrels. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) occurs naturally in crude and natural gas, but oil producers typically decontaminate such products before delivery to buyers. High levels of H2S can corrode refinery parts and pipelines - and can be lethal to humans in gas form. The U.S. government established its reserve in 1975 following the Arab oil embargo. The U.S. Department of Energy oversees the reserve and periodically sells some of its oil at times when there are no emergencies, as it did with the sales that sparked contamination concerns. Department Spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes declined to comment about the contamination complaints uncovered by Reuters. The three firms that raised concerns about high H2S levels were Royal Dutch Shell Co, Australian bank Macquarie Group and PetroChina International America, the U.S. trading arm of state-owned energy firm PetroChina Co Ltd, according to the shipping documents, emails provided by the Energy Department in response to a public records request, and a department official who declined to be identified. 

        Oil Production Improves 32.5% In The Permian - We pulled the data of 847 2016 horizontals and 903 in 2017 and this shows a significant improvement in the Midland Basin. Midland and Howard counties improved the most, from 120 KBO to 185 KBO over the first 12 months of well life.Oil production per foot is the focus of operators, and there is a good possibility this will continue in 2018.Increasing demand should offset increased US production during driving season and we think the USO could rise to $14.87 in the next couple of months. Operators continue to improve well design, and this could place a ceiling on oil prices. Rising US production has been offset by very good demand. We think WTI will peak between $70/bbl and $75/bbl this driving season. If this occurs, the US Oil ETF (USO) could increase 12% in just a couple of months. Operators in the Midland Basin are well motivated to increase production, and the best operators better placed this driving season. There are arguments on both sides of the well design argument. We continue to see operators improving oil production per location. This has been accomplished targeting lesser geology.

        Permian crude oil takeaway capacity maxing out? - Crude oil production in the Permian Basin is coming on strong — faster than midstreamers can build pipeline takeaway capacity out of the basin. You can see the consequences in price differentials.  On Friday, the spread between Midland, TX and the Magellan East Houston terminal (MEH) on the Gulf Coast hit almost $5.00/bbl, a clear sign of takeaway capacity constraints out of the Permian. We’ve seen different variations of this scenario play out in recent years, most recently last fall, just before the first oil started flowing through the new Midland-to-Sealy and Permian Express III pipelines, and it’s not good news for Permian producers. Now Permian output is again bouncing up against the capacity of takeaway pipelines and in-region refineries to deal with it. As we’ve seen in the past, that’s a warning sign for possible price-differential blowouts. Today, we discuss the fast-changing market dynamics that put Permian producers at risk for another round of depressed Midland prices.

        Texas-Sized Gas Conundrum Plagues America's Busiest Oil Play -- America’s most prolific oil field is now its worst market for natural gas. A pipeline shortage that’s leaving gas trapped in West Texas’ Permian Basin means prices for the fuel there are the lowest of any major U.S. hub, wresting that distinction from Appalachia’s Marcellus Shale. Prices for Permian gas, produced alongside oil in the play, have tumbled 32 percent from a year ago, while output rose to a record. And the pipeline crunch is also pummeling the region’s oil market. All that gas production is creating a dilemma for drillers, who may be forced to curtail oil output if they can’t get their gas to market. Producers can burn off some of the gas -- a process known as flaring -- but state regulators typically won’t allow that to happen indefinitely. And as mild spring weather limits demand for the heating fuel, explorers may be giving their gas away, according to broker Ion Energy Group LLC. In the next three to four weeks, “natural gas prices in the Permian can go to zero because it’s literally a byproduct,” Kyle Cooper, consultant for Ion Energy in Houston, said by telephone. “There’s so much gas coming the system really pushes and fights to get it out.” The low-cost crude oil reserves buried in the Permian’s layers of shale have drawn explorers in droves, but roughly a third of the output from those wells is gas, according to RS Energy Group. As gas production from the play surges, however, pipeline capacity has failed to keep pace. One emerging outlet for the glut: Mexico. Demand for the fuel has jumped in the nation’s newly deregulated electricity market as a raft of new gas-fired power plants are built. And while companies from Sempra Energy to TransCanada Corp. are developing conduits to shuttle gas from Texas to Mexico, several of those projects are facing delays south of the border, often due to opposition from indigenous groups. Volume on pipes to Mexico “looks to be very light,” Colton Bean, director of midstream research at Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., said by telephone. “The issue is you haven’t necessarily built out the in-country connectivity on the other side of the border.” 

        The U.S. Faces A Pipeline Crisis - The U.S. threatens to swamp the world with oil in the next few years, although that will only be possible if there is a commensurate construction boom for pipelines to move all of that oil to market.The Permian basin will account for the bulk of the production growth going forward. The International Energy Agency predicts that the U.S. will add about 3.7 million barrels per day (mb/d) between now and 2023, and 2.7 mb/d – or more than 70 percent – of that new supply will come from the Permian and the Eagle Ford.But those two shale plays are a long way from the Gulf Coast, where the oil can either be refined into fuels or exported abroad. Thus, the oil industry needs a lot of pipeline capacity.Already, there has been an enormous buildout of pipelines in the last few years. Between 2012 and 2014, the surge in output from the Permian was impressive, but it was also constrained by the lack of pipeline capacity, which forced producers to sell their product at a discount, which reached as high as $20 per barrel relative to WTI. However, new pipelines smoothed out those price differentials, easing the bottleneck that had cropped up when oil production skyrocketed. The problem is that oil production is set to double in West and South Texas over the next five years, which means that another pipeline wave will be required if the U.S. is to actually expand oil production by as much as everyone thinks it will.

        EIA’s estimates for Texas crude oil production account for incomplete state data - Crude oil and lease condensate production data for Texas, published by EIA in its Petroleum Supply Monthly (PSM) and by the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC), reflect differences in the treatment of incomplete and lagged data. Data published by state agencies are often incomplete when first published because of a combination of late reporting and processing delays. TRRC’s most recent report (published March 2018, with estimates through December 2017) is consistent through January 2017 with production estimates in the PSM, but, after January, the two sources diverge. This divergence increases for more recent months: EIA’s most recent production estimates for Texas, published in the PSM on February 28, 2018, show Texas’s crude oil production reaching 3.93 million barrels per day (b/d) in December 2017. TRRC’s values show production at 2.99 million b/d in that same month. EIA develops state-level production estimates for Texas based on its EIA-914 survey. The EIA-914 survey for oil production was established in 2015, in part to make up for the deficiencies of estimating based on initial state agency reports. EIA monthly oil production volumes are different from the Texas Railroad Commission volumes initially, but as time passes, these differences diminish as TRRC updates and revises its data. EIA's methodology anticipates and accounts for these expected revisions.   Because EIA’s methodology anticipates revisions, PSM estimates are generally consistent across vintages of data releases, meaning they do not show large revisions as later reports are issued. By contrast, TRRC estimates are consistently revised upward as later reports are issued. The TRRC data are revised upwards over a period of one to two years.

        Shale Operators Running Out Core Drilling Locations? Not Yet -- Filloon -- Earlier this post: Update on the Permian -- Mike Filloon.  Link here. Part 2 here.

        • Occidental, Chevron, EOG, and RSP Permian  have the top oil curves of operators with multiple completions
        • Delaware well design improvements have increased oil production per location by 18% yoy. We believe there is greater upside in the Delaware in 2017 than in Midland. It is possible the Delaware has more upside than any other US play
        • Lea County is starting to separate itself as the best county, although northern Loving has had a few mammoth results
        • the drop in world oil inventories is enough to start pushing short pops in prices. We think WTI will push above $70/bbl by June, but pushing above $75 will be difficult

        There was something else Mike mentioned in that article -- in fact, he led with it:  In our previous article, we provided oil production data from the Midland Basin. From 2016 to 2017, this improved 32.5%.  Oil bears have stated that they believe operators will run out of core geology, and this will seal the fate of unconventional US oil producers. It is inevitable that shale will eventually dry up, but it doesn't seem to be occurring in the near future. In a recent article, we provided an oil price estimate for the 2018 driving season. US operators continue to increase oil production, but it probably will not meet increased demand. We expect relatively large oil draws, and WTI to eclipse $70/bbl and peak at $75. This should push the US Oil ETF higher by 12% in just a few months. Oil prices should drop after and trade in the $60 to $70 range throughout 2018. It will be difficult to push oil prices above $75, as the resultant oil production could outpace demand.  

        Payback Time: Oilfield Services Raise Prices -- Oilfield service providers are upping their prices, the latest Dallas Fed Energy Survey has found, confirming what producers began to complain about last year when oil prices started recovering.The survey found the index of input costs for oilfield services jumped from 46.8 from 30.9 this quarter from last. The index for oilfield service prices was also higher in Q1 2018, at 27.9 from 22.6.Further strengthening the view of an industry in recovery, the survey also found that the index for utilization of oilfield service equipment was higher this quarter, at 40.4. That’s up 11 points from the reading for the last quarter of 2018, the Dallas Fed noted.Higher oilfield services prices began pressuring producers’ margins soon after the industry officially swung into recovery and growth mode. It was only to be expected because the services sector suffered a harder blow from the oil price collapse, with providers forced to offer huge discounts to drillers in order to stay in business.Once prices began rising again, producers were eager to start pumping more again and not long after there was a shortage of frack crews and equipment on the horizon. This shortage led to a price spike for oilfield services and longer waiting periods. It also led to new optimism about the services industry.

        US oil producer costs climb with more drilling: Fed Survey (Reuters) - Oil and gas business activity continued to climb last quarter, driven by an improved oilfield services sector, but costs for goods and labor also rose, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said on Wednesday in its quarterly energy survey. About 65 percent of the 140 energy firms surveyed in Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Louisiana reported increased activity from a year ago. During that time, U.S. oil prices have climbed more than 30 percent to near $65 a barrel CLc1. About 77 percent of the respondents reported an improved company outlook, with over 80 percent of oilfield services firms offering a better view for the future. The uptick in activity is driving up costs, companies said, with the Fed’s index for wages and benefits climbing to 46.5 from 40.6 last year. Its index for service firms’ input costs rose by 14 percent from a year ago and over 50 percent from last quarter. Despite higher costs, the index for prices received for oilfield services fell to 35.7 from 44 a year ago. Less than half of firms reported receiving higher prices and 10.7 percent reported a decrease. “E&P companies are still holding service prices down at every turn. On the flip side, our costs of goods, fuel and wages are climbing every day. It is time for rate increases to ensure a profit and sustainability,” said one respondent. On average, companies said they needed $52 per barrel oil prices to profitably drill new wells, $2 over the prior year’s breakeven. In the Permian Basin, companies said they needed $50 a barrel oil for new wells, also up $2 from last year.  Around 20 percent of the firms reported increased uncertainty from last quarter, driven partly by the Trump Administration’s decision to tax steel imports.

        Texas sinkholes: oil and gas drilling increases threat, scientists warn -- According to geophysicists from Southern Methodist University, the ground is rising and falling in a region that has been “punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s”.There were nearly 297,000 oil wells in Texas as of last month, according to the state regulator. Many are in the Permian Basin, described in a Bloomberg article last September as the “world’s hottest oil patch”.But the Southern Methodist report warns of unstable land and the threat of sinkholes. “These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water,” Zhong Lu, a professor, said in a statement. Wink – a tiny town 400 miles west of Dallas – attracted national headlines in 2016 when the same scientists warned that the land between two expanding sinkholes a mile apart was deteriorating, risking the formation of more sinkholes or even the creation of a colossal single hole.  Injection of wastewater and carbon dioxide increases pore pressure in rocks, a likely cause of uplift. Lu told the Guardian that cracks and corrosion from ageing wells may help explain the sinking. A “subsidence bowl” near one of the Wink sinkholes has sunk at a rate of more than 15.5in a year, probably as a result of water leaks through abandoned wells causing salt layers to dissolve, the report found. Elsewhere, a lake formed after 2003 as a result of sinking ground and rising water. Another Southern Methodist University study last year indicated that wastewater injection, often a byproduct of fracking, is a likely cause of recent earthquakes in Texas – with the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one of the most populous in the country, a hotspot. Seismic activity in previously quiet and sparsely-populated parts of west Texas has soared in the past couple of years as the energy industry has expanded its attention beyond the Midland-Odessa area towards a mountainous and tourist-centric region near the border with Mexico.

        America’s Oil Boom Can Not Happen Without Groundwater  - CARLSBAD, NM — Deep beneath the desert that surrounds this oil boomtown is a fossil fuel bounty of staggering riches reachable only by penetrating vulnerable beds of porous limestone and soluble salt at considerable environmental and public risk. Carlsbad is the industrial hub of southeast New Mexico’s mammoth Permian Basin oil field that yields more than 540,000 barrels a day — 30 percent more than a year ago and a record in a region that has been exploring for oil and gas since the late 1920s. The field’s surging production has pushed New Mexico to the #3 spot, behind only Texas and North Dakota, as one of the nation’s most prolific oil producers. The city looks the part. At night the steel superstructures of 85 drilling rigs, lit like carnival rides, fill the horizon. The long white flames of flared gas are a constellation of ground-level stars adorning the dark. Just how hot the oil play has become was illustrated last September when developers paid $130.9 million for the right to tap the layers of carbon-rich shale below 15,491 acres of federal land near Carlsbad — the highest price ever for an oil and gas lease sale in New Mexico. Months earlier Exxon Mobil paid $5.6 billion for 250,000 acres of New Mexico desert already leased for energy exploration. But unleashing billions of barrels of oil locked in beds of shale 10,000 feet deep is only possible if the oil industry — and state and federal regulators — safely manage production challenges involving the region’s other primary resource: water. Drilling, fracking, and extracting crude oil and natural gas from shale requires prodigious volumes of water in the world-class energy fields in New Mexico, Texas, and five other Great Plains states that now supply almost 70 percent of the country’s 10.1 million-barrel-a-day production, the most ever. But because of distinctive geology and unusual hydrological conditions, nowhere are the ties between oil and water more demanding than in New Mexico’s Permian Basin. 

        Central to Enbridge's new Minnesota pipeline request is how much oil is needed - At Flint Hills Resources’ sprawling refinery in Rosemount, Enbridge’s proposed new oil pipeline is seen as vital. Flint Hills wants to increase production there, but says it needs more oil to do so and Enbridge is its main supplier. Enbridge says its six pipelines across northern Minnesota are so full that oil is being rationed, hurting refineries across the Midwest including Flint Hills. Enbridge wants to spend $2.6 billion to replace its aging and corroding Line 3. It says without the increased capacity from that project, the rationing — or apportionment as it’s known in the oil business — will just get worse. “The current Enbridge Mainline fails to meet refinery demand for crude oil, despite a series of expansions over the last 15 years,” Neil Earnest, a consultant for Enbridge, said in testimony filed with state regulators. And the company forecasts continuing growth in Canadian oil production well into the 2030s, even as changes in the global auto market portend weaker gasoline demand and national experts have predicted market changes because of that. The need for that oil will play a key role when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission decides on Enbridge’s request to build its new Line 3, a decision expected in June. The Minnesota Department of Commerce — tasked with looking out for the public interest in pipeline matters — said the need for Enbridge’s oil isn’t enough to trump the potential risks to society, especially oil spills in pristine waters and wildlife areas. 

         What Happened To Crude Oil Flows And Prices At The Guernsey Hub? -- With crude prices in the $60s, oil-producing basins other than the Permian are finally seeing signs of life, and that includes the Rockies. But volumes flowing through the most important Rockies crude oil hub — at Guernsey, WY — are down. Moreover, the price of oil at Guernsey is up, trading at least flat and sometimes at a premium to the downstream market at Cushing, OK, suggesting that committed shippers are having to bid up the price at Guernsey to secure barrels for their downstream pipeline commitments. What about production from the nearby Powder River Basin? Well, Powder River oil production is up, and the rig count there is double what it was this time last year, so you might think there would be more than enough barrels at Guernsey. But not so. Who’s to blame? We need to look no further than the Bakken and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to discover our culprits. Today, we check in on the market at Guernsey and consider the impact of DAPL, the implications for Rockies crude oil outflows, and what it all means for Guernsey price differentials.

        In fracking approach, Lafayette finds itself in the crosshairs of dueling interests - Boulder Daily Camera -  A call to restore legislation that would shield anti-fracking protesters from prosecution back into Lafayette's Climate Bill of Rights — the heady, activist-driven law that has come to embody the Front Range's subversive post-Firestone regulation efforts — will likely remain unheard.Lafayette's City Council on Tuesday rejected a proposal to reintroduce the bill with its original language — and with it the controversial enforcement clauses that were abandoned prior to approval last year.  “I don't think it's enforceable," Mayor Christine Berg said Tuesday. "The language is loose, it's hard to interpret. I don't think it needs to be in our code." Barring a sudden shift in political philosophies, the decision likely portends an approach by the current leadership that favors a regulatory preemption of oil and development.   It may spur a lawsuit from one of the county's most prominent anti-fracking groups, East Boulder County United, which argued that any efforts by the city to regulate oil and gas would conflict with the Climate Bill's effective ban on any new drilling.  "Everything the City Council has done so far shows they're willing to use the police force against its own citizens," Cliff Willmeng, of EBCU, said Wednesday. "At this stage, we have no indication that the six out of seven councilors are interested in anything other than the drilling of this town."

        Federal lease sale fails to impress, but nets $10 million for Wyoming despite concerns over sage grouse, historic sites - The first Wyoming oil and gas lease sales of the year closed Thursday, raking in $20 million from operators looking to drill on federal land and stoking pushback from environmental groups that say the areas overlap with sage grouse habitat and a cultural center.Thursday’s results fall short of surprising highs set last spring, when the price of crude began to marginally improve and confidence in deregulation from the newly minted president was strong. About half of the income from Bureau of Land Management lease sales goes to Wyoming.The two-day federal bidding war follows a one-week lease sale on state lands. Officials said they would not release the final results of the state sale as they had in the past. Those numbers will come out after members of the State Lands and Investment Board meet in mid-April.However, the public auction is hosted online and the unapproved results show a number of pricey bids in the Powder River Basin.The most expensive state parcel came in at more than $4,000 an acre for 36 acres north of Glenrock, an area proposed for a massive oil and gas project in the coming years. The second highest offer was in Laramie County, for more than $1,000 per acre on a parcel north of Cheyenne.The federal auction also led to a number of high bids in the Powder River Basin, a hotspot for current oil and gas interest.Titan Exploration paid the highest price tag at more than $12,000 per acre. The company has also paid premiums at earlier lease sales, raising eyebrows last year and stoking confidence in the Powder River Basin. A number of protests were lodged with federal officials over this quarter’s sale, with some raising concerns about sage grouse habitat and others noting the proximity of potential drilling to locations like Fort Laramie. 

        Aliso Canyon Disaster Highlights Risks, Inadequate Safety Rules Governing Natural Gas Storage - A recent report spearheaded by researchers at the University of Southern California blames the largest greenhouse gas leak in U.S. history on dysfunctional management and poor regulatory oversight. Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) is the company that operates the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch, which suffered a catastrophic methane leak that lasted from October 2015 to February 2016.“SoCalGas had lenient requirements for infrastructure record keeping, no comprehensive risk management plan, and no testing programs or plans in place to remediate substandard wells,” concluded Najmedin Meshkati, University of Southern California professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior author on the report. The study was published in the Journal of Sustainable Energy Engineering.In addition to its notable contribution to global warming, the massive methane leak also required the evacuation of two schools and at least 8,000 residents for months while SoCalGas tried to stop the leak.The California Public Utilities Commission also issued a report evaluating the failed storage well at Aliso Canyon, and noted that “severe external corrosion was observed in the failure areas.” Based on these reports, it appears that SoCalGas had a policy of allowing its gas storage wells to operate until they failed, such as at Aliso Canyon. DeSmog reached out to SoCalGas for comment on the University of Southern California study but did not hear back.

        North Dakota to ask feds for money for pipeline protest cost -  The state of North Dakota still plans to go after the federal government to recoup costs associated with policing the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests in a project by a Dallas-based company. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem tells The Bismarck Tribune he plans to file a claim with the Army Corps of Engineers and possibly other federal agencies. If it’s rejected, the state might sue. Protests in 2016 and 2017 brought thousands of pipeline opponents to the state who at times clashed with police, resulting in 761 arrests over a six-month span. The state’s protest-related costs total nearly $38 million. Dallas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners has given North Dakota $15 million to help with the bills. The state also has received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department for the same purpose.

        Richmond County to revisit fracking issue | The Chronicle Herald - After getting a lot of phone calls, Richmond County Warden Brian Marchand thinks his council should revisit their position on hydraulic fracturing. “The public out there feels there’s not a safe way of doing this, or that they’re not willing to risk a chance, even if it’s one in a thousand, of contaminating drinking water,” said Marchand on Wednesday. “I will have to speak to council.” At its last regular meeting Richmond County council moved to send a letter to the premier’s office advocating that a hydraulic fracturing pilot project be allowed in the province. The municipality had received a letter from neighbouring Municipality of the District of Guysborough asking them to support lifting the current fracking ban. In January Guysborough launched a campaign to get the ban lifted after the release of the Nova Scotia Onshore Petroleum Atlas. The atlas estimates there to be about 6.5 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the Cumberland and Windsor Basins. The two geological formations make up about 30 per cent of onshore Nova Scotia — the other 70 per cent of the province is not analyzed in the atlas. Of that gas, 4.3 trillion cubic feet is considered shale gas and would require hydraulic fracturing. The estimated market value of the reserves, according to the atlas, is $20 billion to $60 billion. The vast majority is located in Cumberland County, one of the poorest counties in Nova Scotia.

        This Canadian pipeline battle is starting to feel a lot like Standing Rock  - In the city of Burnaby, British Columbia, indigenous-led pipeline opponents are revving up their efforts to stop a 715-mile pipeline expansion that’ll essentially create an entirely new oil pipeline across Western Canada. They’ve been out in the streets since March 10, and law enforcement has arrested 172 people since then. It’s getting real. The relentless attempts to keep construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion at bay—including people locking themselves to excavators,chaining themselves to vehicles, and even climbing trees at a Trans Mountain site—feel eerily reminiscent of what the world saw at Standing Rock two years ago. So does the Burnaby Royal Canadian Police’s response of handcuffing and arresting these environmental defenders. The existing pipeline, owned by North American energy company Kinder Morgan, already runs 715 miles. This expansion would add a similar crude oil line to run the same course between the Alberta oil sands and a British Columbia oil terminal, nearly tripling the system’s capacity from 300,000 barrels to 890,000 a day.  Well, that’s if it can overcome the opposition. First Nations—including the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam—are determined even if the fight isn’t leaning in their favor. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supportsthe project even though he’s supposed to be all about helping Canada’s indigenous tribes. The B.C. government, which opposes the pipeline, attempted to overturn a decision from the National Energy Board that allowed Kinder Morgan to ignore city bylaws, but a federal appeals courtrefused to hear the case Monday. The company also met its March 26 deadline to have trees cleared before migratory birds come to nest. A court-ordered injunction prohibiting protesters from obstructing construction is behind most of the mass arrests, but this kind of policing comes with a price—one that Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan is not happy about because his city wasn’t the one that approved the expansion. Ottawa did.

        Canada's Cenovus cuts oil sands production on lack of market access -- Canada's Cenovus Energy is curtailing oil sands production to cut losses spurred by the continued lack of market access and deep crude price discounts, the company said Thursday. "When Canadian heavy oil is selling at a wide discount to the WTI due to transportation bottlenecks, we have significant capacity to store barrels in our oil sands reservoirs to be produced and sold at a later date," Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix said in a statement. As a "prudent response," the company has been operating its Christina Lake and Foster Creek facilities at reduced production rates since February, Pourbaix said, adding that despite the reduced output Cenovus expects to exit 2018 within its guidance range of 364,000 b/d to 382,000 b/d. Cenovus is continuing talks with railroads to resolve the issue of locomotive hauling capacity that is preventing the company from fully utilizing its own crude loading terminal at Bruderheim, Alberta. The nameplate capacity of that terminal in 75,000 b/d, but in the fourth quarter of 2017 the average throughput was just 12,000 b/d, . Cenovus did not say when it would resume full oil sands production.  The wide price spreads between the Western Canadian Select and WTI has become a root cause of worry for Alberta's oil sands producers, as revenues are being lost and there being no clear line of sight on when new takeaway capacity will be added from Western Canada,. "Cenovus may be an exception and the verdict is still out if others will also start reducing output,"

        Unauthorized Fracking Dam Problem Growing -- The number of unlicensed and potentially dangerous dams built in recent years in northeast British Columbia is nearly double what has been reported, according to one of the province's top water officials.  At least 92 unauthorized dams have been built in the region where natural gas industry fracking operations consume more water than just about anywhere on Earth.  That's far more than the 51 dams previously identified in documents obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). With the number of unlicensed dams built to impound freshwater used in fracking operations approaching 100, more questions are being raised about how so many structures were built without provincial agencies halting their construction. Ted White, director and comptroller of water rights in BC's Water Management Branch, confirmed the higher number, which includes an additional 41 dams to those originally documented by the CCPA, all built on private lands, most if not all, on rural farm lots in the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve . The report, posted without an accompanying press release, called some of the unauthorized dams potential "time bombs" and said a top priority must be "to find the high consequence dams and make sure they are properly constructed and operated and maintained in an appropriate manner before any of them fail." Jim Mattison, who wrote the report, was also once B.C.'s water comptroller. Mattison based his conclusions on satellite imagery analyzed by ministry staff who looked at the vast network of artificial water bodies in the northeast where B.C.'s largest natural gas reserves are found. The analysis revealed that nearly 8,000 water bodies have been constructed in the region, more than half of which are relatively small holes or "dugouts" in the ground that capture and store water used by farmers or natural gas companies. Additionally, the report identified 268 "large" or "very large" artificial water bodies that could be dam reservoirs.

         New Canadian Bill Would Help Cities Sue Oil Industry for Climate Damages - A Canadian legislator introduced a bill on Monday to protect Ontario residents from the costs of climate change-related damages and to make it easier to force fossil fuel companies to pay for infrastructure improvements needed to protect communities from climate impacts. “This act will give Ontarians the legal means to seek compensation from the world’s major polluters for their fair share of those costs,” said Peter Tabuns, a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) who introduced the bill. “There is an assumption in this bill that climate change is caused by man-made action—the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere—and it sets a threshold for determining whether a particular event has caused damage,” said Tabuns. “This Bill appears to be the first in the world to directly impose strict liability—liability without proof of fault—on fossil fuel companies for climate impacts,” said Andrew Gage, staff lawyer for the West Coast Environmental Law Association (WCEL), which endorsed the bill.

        Repsol, Premier Oil win Burgos Basin blocks in Mexico's Round 3.1 auction - Mexico's hydrocarbon auction round 3.1 for shallow waters saw mixed results Tuesday, as oil companies competed for all the blocks offered in the Cuencas del Sureste basin, but mostly overlooked the gas rich blocks at the Burgos and Tampico-Misantla-Veracruz (TMV) basins. Mexico's National Hydrocarbon Commission (CNH) awarded a total of 16 blocks out of 35 blocks available. No bids were submitted Tuesday for the 17 blocks holding gas resources in the Burgos and TMV basins as companies focused on areas suspected to hold oil. Mexico was auctioning a total of 8.2 billion boe of prospective resources. It awarded 2.23 billion boe of prospective resources with 780 million boe coming from Cuencas del Sureste and over 760 million boe in TMV's Marine Golden Lane. CNH expects production from the awarded blocks to start in 2022, with oil production peaking at 235,000 b/d by 2025 , and natural gas output peaking at 220 MMcf/d. Analysts had expected companies to submit bids in the prolific Cuencas del Sureste basin. The region holds over three quarters of Mexico's current oil production, which was 1.95 million b/d in 2017. Seven highly contested oil-rich blocks were awarded in the Cuencas del Sureste basin which received a combined 27 offers. As a result of the auction, seven wells will be drilled in this region. The Mexican government received $124 million in cash payments for the three most highly contested blocks -- 28, 29 and 30. Bidders and government officials at the auction said activity was so high because the blocks lie north of the prolific Zama and Amoca discoveries, which are estimated to hold up to 1.8 billion boe of oil in place.

        More Than 2,400 Animals Killed by Oil Spill in Colombia - An oil spill of approximately 550 barrels (23,100 gallons) has killed more than 2,400 fish, birds and reptiles near the city of Barrancabermeja, Colombia, RCN Radio reported.Oil started spilling from the Lizama 158 oil field in early March and spread down 15 miles of the Lizama river and 12.4 miles of the Sogamoso river.According to local media, it took Colombia's state oil company Ecopetrol three weeks to respond to the environmental disaster.Colombia Reports noted that the crude started escaping the oil field on March 3 but it was only this past Saturday that Ecopetrol vowed to send heavy equipment that could stop the spill.The company said Tuesday that the spill is fully controlled and workers are carrying out environmental monitoring of the rivers. The cause of the spill is currently unclear but an investigation is underway.In addition to the 2,400 animals who died, Claudia Gonzalez, director of the National Agency of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) told RCN Radio that 1,300 animals were rescued alive.About 1,080 trees of different species were also affected by the spill and about 70 people had to be relocated from the area, with some people reporting health problems.  "I have practically nothing to eat, we have lived through the river all our lives and the contamination has already reached the Magdalena,"

        Keep off our land, indigenous women tell Ecuador's president  -- Amazon indigenous women leaders have told Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno to limit oil drilling and mining in their territories and combat the sexual violence and death threats they claim accompany the industries. The delegation of women dressed in traditional tunics and with intricately painted faces were granted a meeting with Moreno after nearly 100 of them camped in Quito’s central plaza in front of the Carondelet government palace for five days, earlier this month. “We gave him our demands, which was what we intended to do. We will return to our communities and wait for a response from the government. If we do not receive a response in two weeks, we will be back,” said Zoila Castillo, vice president of Ecuador’s principal Amazon indigenous federation CONFENIAE. In the first presidential meeting granted to the women’s movement, Moreno assured them he would heed their demands and try to find consensus but added “it’s almost impossible for a world to exist without oil and mining.” In December, Moreno agreed to a moratorium on new auctions of oil and mining concessions without the prior and informed consent of local communities, following a two-week march by hundreds of indigenous people from the Amazon to Quito. But in February his government announced a new oil auction and handed out several new mining concessions. Moreno was praised by environmentalists last year after promising the United Nations he would do more to protect the Amazon.  Your government cannot permit that our rights continue to be violated,” Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous Kichwa from Sarayaku, told the president during the meeting. “Ecuador has to change its energy policy. It could be an example for the world,” she said.Gualinga, who received death threats in January, said environmental defenders, particularly women, were increasingly at risk in Ecuador. “The threats against women are a consequence of extractivism,” Nina Gualinga, a 24-year-old activist from the same community, told the Guardian. “Women don’t want more oil and mining exploitation. It is women who care for the children, who care for the land so it should be women making these decisions.”

        From Ecuador's Amazon to president's palace, indigenous women demand end to drilling - Indigenous women from Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest have called on the country’s president to end oil and mining projects on their ancestral lands, as the nation pushes to open up more of its rainforest to drillers. Their meeting with Lenin Moreno at the presidential palace in the capital Quito late Thursday comes after the Andean nation launched a new bidding round this month for foreign companies to develop oil and gas reserves. Ecuador, one of the smallest producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), hopes to attract some $800 million in investment to boost production that the government says is vital to improve its sluggish economy. But women from Amazon indigenous groups say oil exploration damages their livelihoods, the environment and water sources on ancestral lands, and comes amid growing deforestation in unspoiled areas of the biodiverse region. “We don’t want more oil and mining companies,” Alicia Cahuiya of the Waorani group told the president at the meeting. “Oil has not brought development for the Waorani - it has only left us with oil spills and sickness.” The women also told the president, who was flanked by several ministers, that the government was failing to consult properly with indigenous communities about planned oil and mining projects on their lands, a right they are entitled to under law. “The oil and mining issue does not stop worrying me, because there is a future to take care of,” Moreno said at the meeting, which was streamed live on Facebook. “What you are completely right about is the importance of dialogue consensus, dialogue decisions ... about any decisions of my government with respect to oil and mining concessions.” The women presented the president with a list of demands they call the “Mandate of Amazonian Women”, which includes stopping oil, mining and logging projects, and conducting official investigations into attacks against indigenous leaders.

        Venezuela Tries To Pay Russian Debt With Cryptocurrency -- If crisis-hit Venezuela was hoping to pay off its US$3.15-billion debt to Russia with its new cryptocurrency, those hopes have been shattered as the Russian Finance Ministry announces that it won’t be accepting digital coin. Venezuela will not be paying any part of its debt to Russia with its cryptocurrency, the head of the Russian Finance Ministry’s state debt department, Konstantin Vyshkovsky, has said.In November last year, Russia threw a life-line to Venezuela after the two countries signed a deal to restructure US$3.15 billion worth of Venezuelan debt owed to Moscow. Under the terms of the deal, Venezuela will be repaying the debt over the next ten years, of which the first six years include “minimal payments”.The following month, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that his country would be issuing an oil-backed cryptocurrency, which it did, in February this year.Maduro’s propaganda machine is touting the digital coin as a ‘ground-breaking’ first-ever national crypto currency, the El Petro--backed by 5 billion barrels of oil reserves in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. But most observers see this crypto issuance as a desperate attempt to skirt U.S. financial sanctions.Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump banned U.S. purchases, transactions, and dealings of any digital coin or token issued for or by the  government of Venezuela.

        Scientist claims enormous holes are formed by Russia’s attempts to exploit vast gas reserves - Vladimir Putin’s quest for lucrative Arctic natural gas is behind bizarre exploding craters in the tundra, according to a top scientist. The mysterious holes first appeared in 2014 and led to wild speculation that they were caused by Kremlin missile tests, aliens, or that they were manmade – as a prank. Later scientists agreed they were formed by underground methane eruptions in thawing permafrost. Now experts have found from satellite image analysis that the craters – which fill with water – are prone to explode more than once.  And Russia's leading authority on the bizarre phenomenon claims that many  explosions may have been triggered by the massive exploitation of natural gas for exports to Europe - including Britain - and China. Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky said he suspected ‘human activities’ – namely interfering with nature by drilling for vast Yamal gas reserves, vital for the Russian economy – were to blame.Leaks from gas wells lead to unstable pockets of methane accumulating under frozen soil, he said.Initially these cause swelling pingos - or mounds - in the tundra which explode when the gas builds up under a thick cap of ice.

        Germany Approves Russia-Led Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline - Germany approved on Tuesday the construction and operation of the Russia-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in its territorial waters, thus issuing all necessary permits for the German section of the project that has torn Europe and EU member states over the implications of Russia’s gas giant Gazprom gaining even more foothold on the European gas market.Hailing the project as necessary to cover Europe’s future supply gap and contributing to the “security of supply and competition in the EU gas market,” the pipeline company Nord Stream 2 AG said on Tuesday that the permitting procedures in the other four countries along the route – Russia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – were proceeding as planned.“Further permits are expected to be issued in the coming months. Accordingly, scheduled construction works are to be implemented in 2018 as planned,” the company said.Germany is the key beneficiary of Nord Stream 2 and supports the project on the grounds that it is an economic issue.Other EU states, however--including Poland and the Baltic states, as well as the European Union institutions--argue that the project further solidifies Russia’s grip on Europe’s gas market and undermines efforts to diversify supplies.For Russia, Nord Stream 2 – a project to twin the existing Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea -- not only boosts its gas supplies to the EU, but also bypasses the Ukrainian transit route. With the spy poisoning scandal in the UK and the West-Russia tension high, Nord Stream 2 has taken center stage in energy policies again in recent weeks. Earlier this month, U.S. Senators urged the U.S. Administration “to utilize all of the tools at its disposal to prevent its construction.”

        Nord Stream 2 natural gas link completes permitting for construction in German waters - The Nord Stream 2 operating company said late Tuesday it has received the permit from the German authorities to build the part of the planned 55 Bcm a year gas pipeline from Russia that will pass through Germany's offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, completing the German offshore permitting process. Nord Stream 2 had already received the permit from the German authorities to build the pipeline in its territorial waters in February. Nord Stream 2 now requires permits from Russia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark to be able to begin construction of the controversial pipeline, with a planned start date of summer 2018. Factbox: Russia's role in supplying the UK natural gas market "We are pleased that all necessary permits are now in place for the German section of the route, which has an overall length of 85 km [53 miles]," said Jens Lange, permitting manager, Germany, at Nord Stream 2. The operating company said the national permitting procedures in the other four countries along the route -- Russia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark -- were also proceeding "as planned." Nord Stream 2 CFO Paul Corcoran told S&P Global Platts in an interview in January that the only possible delay in the permit process was if Denmark chose to enforce a new law allowing it to take foreign policy goals into account when allowing infrastructure to be built in Danish territorial waters. As things stand, Nord Stream 2 is planning for the permit to be awarded for the original proposed route through Danish territorial waters, though it has a contingency plan to re-route if required.

        Denmark faces dilemma over Russian gas pipeline (Reuters) - Denmark is under pressure to rule on whether a new Russian pipeline supplying gas to Germany can be built near its Baltic coast, a decision that puts it in the line of fire from friend and foe alike. Pipes are stacked for storage near the northern port of Mukran, on the island of Ruegen, Germany, February 28, 2018. Axel Schmidt/Nord Stream 2 Handout via Reuters Denmark does not want to act alone in resolving one of the biggest foreign policy quandaries that the small European Union nation has faced since the Cold War. But its search for a united EU stance on the proposed pipeline is deadlocked by divisions among member states over whether to do more business with Moscow despite its military incursions in Ukraine and Syria and accusations it used a nerve agent in an attempted assassination on British soil. The Danish government is facing fierce lobbying by Russia, EU allies and the United States over the 9.5 billion euro ($11.7 billion) Nord Stream 2 project championed by President Vladimir Putin and financed by five Western firms. “They are under huge pressure from all sides,” one senior EU official said. There is no definite timing for a decision, which had been expected this spring but has been delayed while Denmark considers the security implications. But officials say it cannot be postponed indefinitely. A Danish veto, under new legislation allowing it to do so on security grounds, would force Russia, which supplies about one third of Europe’s gas needs, to find a new route for the pipeline. “This is not about gas, it is one of the most important foreign policy decisions in Denmark since the Cold War,”. A delay would weaken Russian gas giant Gazprom’s hand in talks with Ukraine for a new gas transit deal after 2019 and create uncertainty for the firm’s partners: Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall, Anglo-Dutch Shell, Austria’s OMV and France’s Engie. 

        China data: Feb LPG imports plunge 38% on month, 16% on year to 1.22 mil mt - China imported around 1.22 million mt of LPG in February, down 37.8% from January and 16.1% year on year, data released by the General Administration of Customs on late Tuesday showed. It exported 91,215 mt of LPG in February, down 7% month on month and 11.4% year on year, the data showed. As a result, China's net LPG imports in February were down 39.5% month on month and 16.4% year on year at around 1.13 million mt, according to S&P Global Platts calculations based on the customs data. Fewer LPG cargoes arrived last month amid lower market activity because of public holidays for Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, market sources said. Besides, major LPG buyer and propane dehydrogenation plant operator Oriental Energy resold two VLGC cargoes for delivery in February in the international market due to maintenance at its Zhangjiagang PDH plant, leading lower LPG imports last month, sources noted. The Zhangjiagang PDH plant was interrupted intermittently in February because of technical problems in late January. It was finally shut for maintenance on February 7, Platts reported earlier based on data from domestic information provider JLC. Platts calculates China's LPG imports by adding the propane and butane figures to those for "other LPG" under HS code 7111990, aiming to reflect China's imports of liquefied gases more accurately.

        China's crude oil futures contract should confound the skeptics: Kemp (Reuters) - China’s new crude oil futures contract, which began trading this week, has a good chance of confounding the doubters and becoming a regional benchmark where other contracts have failed. The history of futures and options trading is littered with new contracts launched amid great fanfare but which subsequently failed to develop sufficient liquidity and have been discontinued or faded into irrelevance.But the new crude futures contract launched on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange comes after years of meticulous preparation and has many of the ingredients needed to be successful. Three elements determine the success or failure of a new futures contract, according to an extensive literature review prepared for the Shanghai Futures Exchange three years ago. The contract must fulfill a commercial need for hedging. It must succeed in attracting a pool of speculators. And public policy must not be too adverse. China’s new oil futures contract clearly meets the first two criteria and has a fair chance of succeeding on the third as well.  China has already overtaken the United States to become the world's largest crude importer, so there is a clear need to hedge the resulting price risks.The need for a new contract and its basic features were showcased two years ago in a presentation by China’s leading crude importer.China’s refiners import mostly medium and heavy sour crudes, which trade at a substantial discount to lighter and sweeter oils.The two main existing benchmarks, Brent and U.S. light sweet crude, also known as WTI, are based on light low-sulphur crude oils.In contrast, the new Shanghai futures contract is based on a basket of medium and heavy crudes from the Middle East and China itself with a significantly higher sulphur content. Foreign crudes deliverable against the contract include oils from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Iraq, which all trade freely.But they also closely resemble other grades China imports in significant volumes, including crude from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. The new contract is denominated in yuan rather than U.S. dollars, allowing refiners to manage their price risks more effectively.

        Analysis: Iraq could overtake Saudi Arabia as top crude supplier to India - Iraq could overtake Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier to India in the current fiscal year ending March 31 as an attractive Basrah crude price and Riyadh's strong commitment to the OPEC production cut agreement pave the way for Baghdad to boost its market share in South Asia. India, the world's third-largest crude importer, bought 38.9 million mt from Iraq during the first 10 months of fiscal 2017-2018, provisional data from the oil ministry showed. Saudi Arabia was the second-biggest crude supplier with 30.9 million mt over the April 2017-January 2018 period, the oil ministry data showed. In the previous fiscal year, Saudi Arabia was the top crude supplier with 39.5 million mt, followed by Iraq with 37.5 million mt and Iran with 27.2 million mt. Saudi Arabia's faltering market share in India is in line with crude import trends seen in Northeast Asia over the past few quarters. The biggest OPEC producer's strong commitment to limit production may have helped some of its rival producers gain market share across Asia, market participants said. Since early in the third quarter last year, Saudi Aramco has been regularly slashing its monthly crude term allocations to various customers in Asia, prompting them to shift to Iraq as the country's production has been relatively unfazed by OPEC output cuts.In addition, the attractive price tag on Iraq's flagship Basrah crude could draw even more Asian consumers going forward, regional sour crude traders said. The official selling price differential of Basrah Light recently fell below rival Saudi Arab Medium for the first time in more than a year. 

        OPEC, Russia consider 10- to 20-year oil alliance - Saudi Crown Prince (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and Russia are working on a historic long-term pact that could extend controls over world crude supplies by major exporters for many years. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Reuters that Riyadh and Moscow were considering a deal to greatly extend a short-term alliance on oil curbs that began in January 2017 after a crash in crude prices. “We are working to shift from a year-to-year agreement to a 10 to 20 year agreement,” the crown prince told Reuters in an interview in New York late on Monday. “We have agreement on the big picture, but not yet on the detail.” Russia, not a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has worked alongside the 14-member group during previous oil gluts, but a 10 to 20 year deal between the two would be unprecedented. Top OPEC producer Saudi Arabia recruited Russia and other non-OPEC countries to help drain oversupply when oil prices collapsed to below $30 a barrel in 2016 from over $100 in 2014. Crude has since recovered to $70 but fast-rising output from U.S. shale producers has capped prices. “This is all about whether the arrangement is a short-term expedient to deal with this particular crisis in the oil market, or whether it reflects a realignment in world oil,” said oil historian Daniel Yergin, vice chairman at consultancy IHS Markit. “OPEC countries want to find a way to institutionalize this relationship rather than to have it be a one-shot deal.” Robert McNally at consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said Riyadh wanted help in breaking the boom-bust cycles that characterize oil markets by capping crude on the upside as well as by helping lift low oil prices. “History shows that without a long-term, powerful, competent coherent, disciplined swing producer in the oil markets ... you get space-mountain oil prices. Wild volatility of the sort we have seen in the past 10 to 15 years and that Saudi Arabia and Russia do not want to see again,” McNally said. He said that would require Russia to join Saudi in building spare production capacity to use when prices rise too much. 

        The US can breathe easy on Russia-OPEC deal | TheHill: Saudi Arabia and Russia are considering a long-term agreement to extend cooperation with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The potential deal, announced during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s weeks-long tour of the U.S., would see the two states enter into a 10- or even 20-year agreement to manage oil markets. While the pact signals closer Russian-Saudi cooperation on energy, it does not necessarily signal a Saudi pivot towards Russia or an abandonment of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Surprisingly, the deal could actually benefit U.S. oil producers.King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow in October 2017. He oversaw the signing of several bilateral energy pacts during his visit, including an agreement to create a $1 billion joint energy fund, joint investment deals worth over $3 billion, and a $1.1 billion agreement for Russian petrochemical company Sibur to build a plant in Saudi Arabia. The two states, whose combined oil production totals one-fifth of global supplies, also led the way to a deal to cut OPEC and non-OPEC oil production by 1.8 million barrels per day in early 2017. Saudi Arabia recruited Russia, which is not an official OPEC member, along with other non-OPEC oil exporters, to remove oversupply from the market after oil prices collapsed to $26 per barrel in 2016. Intended to boost prices by cutting production levels and drawing down global stockpiles, Riyadh and Moscow extended the deal in November 2017 to cover all of 2018, and it will be reviewed again in June and December. Whether or not the arrangement holds will rest largely on Moscow’s willingness to give up its ability to manipulate oil policy in exchange for the stability of a long-term deal. Russia’s appetite for taking OPEC’s official policy stances, particularly when OPEC’s goals and Russia’s aims do not align, is evidently low. Russia has already expressed dissatisfaction at the length of the extension and would prefer to exit sooner. The utility of a rise in oil prices is limited for Moscow, which continues to suffer from a dampened environment for domestic investment, unless production volumes can be increased as well to boost revenues. 

        Oil market 'locked', almost all funds expect further price rises: Kemp (Reuters) - Hedge funds had turned more bullish on the outlook for petroleum prices, even before the decision to replace the U.S. president’s national security adviser with an anti-Iran hawk was announced on Thursday.Hedge funds and other money managers increased their net long position in the six most important futures and options contracts linked to petroleum prices by 95 million barrels in the week to March 20.The combined increase was the largest since the end of October and reversed a draw of 73 million barrels over the two previous weeks, according to records published by regulators and exchanges.Fund managers now hold a net long position of 1.311 billion barrels across Brent, NYMEX and ICE WTI, U.S. gasoline, U.S. heating oil and European gasoil ( combined net long position is 170 million barrels below the record 1.484 billion barrels set on Jan. 23 but more than four times higher than the recent low of 310 million set at the end of June 2017.Hedge fund positioning remains extremely lopsided, with almost all funds expecting prices to rise further rather than fall. Portfolio managers hold 11.7 long positions for every short one, the second-highest ratio on record after 11.9 on Jan. 30. Almost no one seems willing to bet against the trend. Short positions across the complex have declined to just 122 million barrels, the lowest level since May 2014. In some parts of the complex, positioning has become even more extreme. In U.S. gasoline, for example, long positions (94 million barrels) outnumber short ones (4 million) by a ratio of almost 22:1. The current positioning across the complex is a classic example of a market that has become “locked” with all traders trying to position themselves the same way. Locking often precedes a sharp reduction in liquidity, an increase in volatility and an eventual reversal in the price trend.  Extreme one-way positioning could herald a shift in oil prices into a new, higher trading range, such as happened in the fourth quarter of 2017. But with so few speculative short positions remaining to be covered, there may be few buyers around if and when the holders of long positions decide to realise some of their profits and try to sell them.

        Oil retreats from multiweek high as U.S., China trade concerns weigh - Oil prices settled lower Monday, pulling back from the multiweek highs scored last week, with traders weighing trade tensions between the U.S. and China, as China marked the start of trading for its own crude futures contract. Oil’s decline Monday was “simply profit taking after the large upward move last week, as well as the fact that around $70 Brent and $66 WTI have been the ceiling for several months now,” Michael Corley, president of Mercatus Energy Advisors, told MarketWatch.   May West Texas Intermediate crude lost 33 cents, or 0.5%, to settle at $65.55 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract settled at $65.88 Friday, which was the highest finish for a front-month contract since Jan. 26, according to FactSet data. It rose roughly 5.6% for last week. May Brent crude slipped by 33 cents, or 0.5%, to $70.12 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe. The front-month Brent contract had settled Friday above $70 a barrel for the first time since late January. The contract scored a weekly jump of 6.4%. China played a significant role in the oil markets Monday, “as the looming prospect of [a] trade war with the U.S. weighed on oil prices,” said Mihir Kapadia, chief executive officer and founder of Sun Global Investments.Trade tensions appeared to ease a bit on Monday, however, as The Wall Street Journal reported that China and the U.S. have quietly started negotiating to improve U.S. access to Chinese markets. But that “comes as Shanghai crude oil futures made a strong debut and was well received by investors,” Kapadia said in emailed commentary. “The emergence of a new financial oil price benchmark in Asia has been long-awaited and may prove to have a significant influence over the oil markets in the years to come.”

        Oil Prices Slip On Profit Taking -- Oil prices dipped on Monday as traders booked profits following last week’s enormous jump, and while they fell slightly on Tuesday morning as well, both WTI and Brent are still sitting comfortably above last week’s range. . About a third of the top 25 shale producers have either paid or have promised to pay a dividend this year, according to Reuters. That is the largest number in over a decade since the shale revolution began. The shale industry has largely been unprofitable, even when oil prices were high prior to the collapse in 2014. Low prices forced an efficiency drive, and with WTI now above $60 per barrel, a lot of shale companies are beginning to post profits for the first time. Shareholders are finally starting to see some return. Diamondback Energy became the first shale company in years to initiate a dividend last month when it announced a 12.5-cent quarterly dividend. “You’re going to see more shale producers focus on dividends,” Leigh Goehring of energy investment research firm G&R Associates told Reuters. “Shareholders are demanding it and a trend is forming.” PDVSA might be forced to shut down three of its four domestic refineries because of a shortage of feedstock and refinery workers. Argus reports that the refineries facing potential closure include the 305,000 bpd Cardon refinery, the 140,000 bpd El Palito refinery, and the 190,000 bpd Puerto La Cruz refinery. Taken together, they account for about half of PDVSA’s 1.3 mb/d refining capacity. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that PDVSA might shut the Petromonagas oil upgrader in April for maintenance, a joint venture with Russia’s Rosneft. Venezuela’s refineries are in a decrepit state, forcing PDVSA to rely more on imports. But without cash, the imports are becoming harder to finance. 

        Oil Prices Rise Amid Middle East Tension, Strong Shanghai Crude Oil Futures - Oil prices rose on Tuesday morning in Asia, lifted by concerns that tensions in the Middle East could disrupt oil supplies. Meanwhile, China’s new crude futures kicked off to a roaring start. Crude Oil WTI Futures for May delivery were trading at $65.78 a barrel in Asia at 11:20PM ET (03:20 GMT), up 0.35%. Brent Oil Futures for June delivery, traded in London, up 0.29% at $69.72 per barrel. Escalating concerns that the U.S will reimpose sanctions on Iran, which would severely limit Tehran’s ability to export crude oil, have pushed up oil prices. Further supporting oil markets is Saudi Arabia’s push for production curbs led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia to be extended into 2019, in an effort to prop up oil prices. Iraq, the second biggest producer within OPEC, said on Monday that it also supports the agreement to cut oil output. However, such a move could face opposition given the relentless increase in U.S. crude production. U.S. production has already jumped by almost a quarter since mid-2016, to 10.4 million barrels per day (bpd), surpassing top exporter Saudi Arabia and within reach of top producer Russia, which pumps around 11 million bpd. Production curbs from OPEC inadvertently enable the U.S. to take more market share. Also supporting oil markets are hopes that behind-the-scenes talks between the U.S. and China will prevent a looming trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. Meanwhile in Asia, Shanghai crude oil futures saw their second day of trading repeating Monday’s high volumes. Over the first 24 hours of its trading, Shanghai’s spot crude volumes made up 5 percent of the global market, versus 23 percent for Brent and 72 percent for West Texas Intermediate (WTI). The launch of China’s yuan-denominated oil futures is expected to give the world’s largest energy consumer more power in pricing crude sold to Asia, as well as provide a third global price benchmark alongside Brent and WTI. 

        Oil briefly hits $71, with U.S. supply, Middle East in focus (Reuters) - Oil hit $71 a barrel before retreating on Tuesday, supported by concern about possible disruption to Middle East supply but capped by fast rising global output and a dollar recovery. Brent crude futures LCOc1 were up 18 cents at $70.30 by1404 GMT, down from its brief high. West Texas Intermediate(WTI) futures CLc1 slipped 6 cents to $65.49, after touching$66.41. The dollar recovered from earlier lows, erasing some gains in oil, which had neared its highest since late January. The oil price has risen more than 7 percent so far thismonth and by 5.3 percent in the first three months of 2018,putting it on track for a third consecutive quarterly gain, amove seen in late 2010. Supply curbs by OPEC, Russia and their allies have helped push Brent above $70 this year for the second time since late2014, but analysts said this strength may not persist long. "For oil, we expect the supply deficit of the past couple of quarters to give way to a surplus, driven largely by strong growth in U.S. tight oil supply," Barclays Research analysts said in a note, a reference to U.S. shale production. "Supply risks in Venezuela and Iran may perk up the patient,but we do not expect them to change the market balance significantly," they wrote. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries,Russia and others began their supply curbs in January 2017. The deal is due to expire at the end of 2018. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Reuters thatOPEC and Russia were working on a long-term deal to cooperate onoil supply curbs that could extend controls over supplies by major exporters for years to come.  Geopolitical factors have also offered support. The United States has threatened to withdraw from a nuclear deal that Iran signed with Washington and other world powers in 2015, setting deadline of May and raising the possibility of sanctions on Tehran that could hinder oil exports. 

        WTI/RBOB Extend Losses After Surprisingly Large Crude Build - The whole energy complex tumbled today (as the usd strengthened) amid the riskoff rout, and extended losses after API reported an unexpectedly large crude build.“Oil prices gained and now they’re testing this key resistance level” of the January high, said Hans Van Cleef, senior energy economist at ABN Amro. “We’re waiting for the inventory data to see if it can push prices higher. Markets expect them to remain little changed, so any surprise drop could do the trick.” API:

        • Crude +5.321mm (+850k exp)
        • Cushing +1.655mm
        • Gasoline -5.799mm
        • Distillates -2.23mm

        The 4th weekly crude build in the last 5 - and much bigger than expected - but gasoline and distillates saw notable draws... “It’s slowing the momentum just enough to stop us from making new highs right now,” said Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at Price Futures Group. Inventory data this week is “going to be critical for the mood of the market.” Prices were heading south into the API print and kneejerked lower after  -though RBOB's draw is stabiliziung price action...

        Oil drops on equity weakness, surprise API build (Reuters) - Oil prices settled slightly lower on Tuesday, only to fall in post-settlement electronic trading as stocks slumped and industry group data showed a surprising increase in crude inventories. Brent crude futures touched $71 a barrel before retreating, and settled down 1 cent at $70.11 a barrel in what traders characterized as profit-taking following several days of gains. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures fell 30 cents to settle at $65.25 a barrel. In post-settlement trading, when volumes are thinner, prices for both benchmarks slipped in tandem with equities markets, and then dropped again after industry group American Petroleum Institute (API) reported a larger-than-expected rise in U.S. oil inventories. At one point, WTI fell more than $1. It traded at $64.69 a barrel, down 86 cents, as of 4:42 p.m. EDT (2042 GMT). Crude inventories rose by 5.3 million barrels in the week ended March 23 to 430.6 million, API said. U.S. inventories were expected to fall by 287,000 barrels; the U.S. Energy Department releases its figures Wednesday morning. The dollar rebounded from a five-week low hit earlier in the session as trade tensions eased. A stronger greenback makes dollar-denominated commodities more expensive for holders of other currencies.   Brent has risen by more than 5 percent this month while WTI is up over 4 percent. They are on track for a third consecutive quarterly gain, which last happened in 2010.   The spread between the two May contracts has widened, he noted, which implies OPEC’s success in trimming supplies.

        WTI/RBOB Pump'n'Dump After Huge Cushing Build, Record Crude Production - WTI/RBOB extended losses following API's surprisingly large crude build (not helped by risk-off and dollar's spike), but jumped initially after DOE reported a smaller-than-API crude build of 1.64mm. WTI prices shrugged off the fact that US Crude production hit a new record high.  DOE:

        • Crude +1.64mm (+850k exp)
        • Cushing +1.804mm  (+1mm exp) - biggest since March 2017
        • Gasoline -3.47mm
        • Distillates -2.09mm

        This is the 4th weekly crude build in the last 5 weeks (but less than API), However, Cushing saw its biggest restocking since March 2017... Fears are building again of a renewed glut in crude as oil prices head for their longest losing streak in a month...  Of course, US crude production remains a key swing factor, and rose once again last week to a new record high...

        Oil falls about 1 percent after surprise US crude build (Reuters) - Oil prices fell about 1 percent on Wednesday after data showed U.S. crude inventories unexpectedly rose 1.6 million barrels last week, weighing on market sentiment. Brent June crude futures settled 70 cents lower at $68.76 per barrel, while the front month May contract LCOc1, which expires on Thursday, fell 58 cents, or 0.8 percent, to settle at $69.53 a barrel. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude CLc1 futures for May delivery fell 87 cents to $64.38 a barrel, a 1.3-percent loss. U.S. crude stockpiles rose as net imports soared by 1.1 million barrels per day, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery hub for U.S crude futures also rose 1.8 million barrels, EIA said. “Oil supplies at Cushing, Oklahoma are starting to replenish, which is bearish for prices, but they have a long way to go to near normal levels of supply,”  U.S. crude production also inched up last week to fresh record high at 10.433 million bpd. Output has risen by nearly 25 percent in the last two years to over 10 million bpd, taking it past top exporter Saudi Arabia and within reach of the biggest producer, Russia, which pumps around 11 million bpd. U.S. crude’s discount to Brent widened to as much as $5.22, the biggest since Jan. 24.  Brent prices have risen in seven out of the last nine months and have increased by more than 4 percent so far this year. Prices have also had three consecutive quarters of gains, the longest stretch since late 2010 and early 2011, after production curbs led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries since last year. 

        OPEC to stick to supply curbs despite oil rally to $71: sources (Reuters) - OPEC and its allies look set to keep their deal on cutting oil supplies for the rest of 2018, five sources familiar with the issue said, although some producers are starting to worry that high prices may be giving too much stimulus to rival output. FILE PHOTO: A man fixes a sign with OPEC's logo next to its headquarter's entrance before a meeting of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File PhotoOPEC, Russia and several other non-OPEC producers have curbed output since January 2017 to erase a global glut of crude that had built up since 2014. They have extended the pact until the end of 2018, and meet on June 22 to review policy. The deal has boosted oil prices LCOc1, which topped $71 a barrel this year for the first time since 2014. They were close to $70 on Wednesday. But it has also encouraged a flood of U.S. shale oil, fuelling a debate about how effective the curbs are. “June will be a rollover until the meeting later in the year to make a decision for next year, depending on market conditions,” an OPEC source from a major Middle East producer said, referring to the supply-cuting deal. The source said achieving a balance between supply and demand in the second half of 2018 was “the most likely scenario, if production, demand and compliance levels stay as now.” The chance of a significant tweak to the deal being agreed in June is low, most OPEC delegates say. But some officials are privately talking about the issue, a sign that prices have risen more strongly than expected. “The level of oil prices from now until the June meeting is going to affect the decision at that time,” said a non-Gulf OPEC source, who asked not to be identified by name. “Prices between $60 and $65 can support the continuation of the agreement for the rest of 2018,” he said, referring to benchmark Brent crude. “A very high price could convince the parties to the agreement to reconsider it.” The deal has delivered an even bigger cut than called for, mainly because of a drop in Venezuelan production, where output is collasping due to an economic crisis. Compliance with the deal reached an unprecedented 138 percent in February. 

         Oil prices rise with Wall Street; US crude discount widens(Reuters) - Oil prices rose on Thursday as the equities markets rallied and as market participants weighed a rise in U.S. crude inventories and production against continued OPEC supply curbs. Prices for the more actively traded June Brent crude futures were up 58 cents to settle at $69.34, while the May contract LCOc1 expiring on Thursday was up 74 cents at $70.27. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures gained 56 cents to settle at $64.94. WTI’s discount to Brent WTCLc1-LCOc1 has grown to more than $5 a barrel, the biggest since January, making Brent-linked crudes less attractive to refiners. Oil has risen about 4 percent since January, on track for the longest stretch of quarterly gains since late 2010. “The equities market is rallying and that’s lending support to oil,” The dollar against a basket of currencies .DXY was flat on Thursday, which was supportive for crude prices, Strong compliance on supply cuts from members of The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies like Russia have pushed up prices. OPEC sources said the group and its allies are likely to keep their deal on cutting output for the rest of 2018. But growing supply in the United States is pressuring prices. Commercial U.S. stocks rose 1.6 million barrels in the past week, while output hit a record 10.43 million barrels per day (bpd). Geopolitical concerns, especially tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, continued to prop up the market, said Gene McGillian manager of market research at Tradition Energy in Stamford. Meanwhile, “worries about demand being affected by a possible trade war kind of receded,” he said. 

        Oil Prices Bounce Back On Geopolitical Concerns - Oil prices closed out the first quarter on a high note, with Brent hovering around $70 and WTI at $65. Rising geopolitical concerns – declines in Venezuela and fears that the U.S. will step up confrontation with Iran – are elevating crude prices.   There have been rumors for some time that OPEC and Russia are looking at ways of institutionalizing their cooperation beyond the current production cut agreement, which may or may not expire at the end of this year. Reuters reported this week that they are working on something much more ambitious than previously thought: OPEC and Russia are looking at solidifying their cooperation for the long-term. “We are working to shift from a year-to-year agreement to a 10 to 20 year agreement,” Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman told Reuters in an interview on Monday. “We have agreement on the big picture, but not yet on the detail.”  OPEC and its non-OPEC partners are reportedly considering an extension of the current production cut agreement for six months, through mid-2019, according to Iraqi oil minister Jabbar al-Luaibi. “By the end of this year, we will assess and decide how to go ahead,” he said at the Iraq Energy Forum. “Some are suggesting a three-month extension, some suggest a six-month extension.”   Saudi Arabia and Japan’s SoftBank announced plans to build a 200 GW solar project in Saudi Arabia, which would be about 100 times larger than the largest project currently installed. The project would be built in phases through 2030, and would amount to a major investment in Saudi Arabia’s post-oil economy. Still, there are questions about the viability of the project, given the multiple solar targets announced in the past that have gone nowhere.

        Crude oil prices flat as most markets closed for Good Friday -- Crude oil prices are mostly flat today - WTI is registering small gains while Brent is flat. As most markets are closed for Good Friday today, news relating to the commodity is fairly limited. The latest crude benchmark from Shanghai is now trading at par with WTI. Most traders have been shorting the benchmark price in Shanghai, as doubts grow regarding Chinese refiner demand. In its first week of trading, Shanghai crude prices have fallen by around 10%. Last year, China became the world's largest crude oil importer. Beyond concerns regarding liquidity and the mechanics of the new contract, the Chinese crude benchmark is a lower quality relative to WTI and Brent. The Shanghai benchmark primarily trades medium-sulfur crude from the Middle East, while WTI and Brent are based on light crude. Our short-term outlook and medium-term outlook on crude oil is bullish. WTI is currently trading above $64.80. Brent crude is currently above $69.30. Looking at US crude oil stocks, the most recent EIA figures (March 28) showed rising crude oil stocks and falling refined product inventories. Crude oil inventories were higher than estimates (+1.6m vs. +0.9m expected). Gasoline stocks were down (-3.5m vs. -2.3m expected) while distillate stocks (-2m vs. -1.5m expected) were also down. Looking at reactions in markets, crude oil prices strengthened following the EIA report.

        US rig count decreases this week - (Xinhua) -- The U.S. rig count dipped slightly this week as a large decline in oil rigs was mostly offset by an increase in rigs seeking natural gas, according to weekly data collected by Baker Hughes released on Friday.Houston-based oilfield services company Baker Hughes reported that the number of oil-seeking rigs fell by seven, but natural gas drillers added five rigs, bringing the net decline to two.The Texas Permian alone now accounts for 443 oil rigs - 56 percent of the oil rig count nationwide. Likewise, Texas is home to 496 total rigs - half of the nation's total of 993 rigs. The overall rig count, including oil and gas rigs, has sat below 1,000 since April 2015 when oil prices collapsed.

        US Oil Rig Count Dips As Prices Rise - Baker Hughes reported a 2-rig decrease to the number of oil and gas rigs this week. The total number of oil and gas rigs now stands at 993, which is an addition of 169 rigs year over year. The number of oil rigs in the United States decreased by 7 this week, for a total of 797 active oil wells in the US—a figure that is 135 more rigs than this time last year. The number of gas rigs rose by 4 this week, and now stands at 194; 34 rigs above this week last year. The oil and gas rig count in the United States has increased by 69 in 2018. While US drillers seem determined to add rigs, Canada continued this week its (seasonal) losing streak, with a decrease of 27 oil and gas rigs, after losing 58 rigs last week, 54 rigs the week before, and 29 rigs the week before that. At just 134 total rigs, Canada now has 21 fewer rigs than it did a year ago.   Oil prices are down this week versus last Friday, with both benchmarks losing about $1 per barrel as API and EIA crude oil inventory data showed a build Also weighing on prices this week is US crude oil production, which continued its uptick in the week ending March 23, reaching 10.433 million bpd—the fifth build in as many weeks. While prices are down week over week, on the day, both benchmarks were up ahead of the data. At 12:44 pm EST, the price of a WTI barrel was trading up $0.29 (+0.45%) to $64.67. The Brent barrel was trading up by $0.26 (0.38%) at $69.02. At 1:08pm EST, WTI was trading at $64.83 (+$0.45) and Brent was trading at $69.18 (+$0.42).

        Crude Declines for the Week Despite Falling Rig Count -  Crude oil prices were lower for the week moving down 1.43%. The rise in crude oil inventories, and uptick in imports, took some of the luster off prices. Total inventories did move lower as refiners ramped up production increasing input as product inventories declined. Look for imports to drop back this week, but domestic U.S. production should continue to climb. A decline in the Baker Hughes active oil rig count should help buoy prices.  Refinery operations are on the rise which generated a 18K increase in barrel per day usage up to 16.8 million barrels per day during the week ending March 23, 2018. The Energy Information Administration reported that refineries operated at 92.3% of their operable capacity last week. Gasoline production increased last week, averaging over 10.3 million barrels per day. Distillate fuel production increased last week, averaging over 4.8 million barrels per day. Despite an uptick in crude oil imports, the monthly average remains lower than the same period last year. The EIA revealed that U.S. crude oil imports averaged about over 8.1 million barrels per day last week, up by 1.1 million barrels per day from the previous week. Over the last month, crude oil imports averaged 7.7 million barrels per day, 4.0% less than the same four-week period last year. Distillate fuel imports averaged 150,000 barrels per day last week. The rise in crude oil imports led to an increase in U.S. inventories. The EIA said that U.S. commercial crude oil inventories increased by 1.6 million barrels from the previous week, more than the unchanged figure expected. U.S. crude oil inventories are in the lower half of the average range for this time of year. Gasoline inventories decreased by 3.5 million barrels last week, more than the 1.9 million barrel draw expected. Distillate fuel inventories decreased by 2.1 million barrels last week which was more than the 1.5-million barrel draw expected. Total commercial petroleum inventories decreased by 1.6 million barrels last week.

        New Satellite Imagery Shows Shocking Yemen Devastation As Saudi Crown Prince Tours US - Saudi Arabia and other oil rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allied states like the UAE have long managed to escape the scrutiny of media and international human rights bodies thanks to their deep pockets and security relationship with the West. . This is currently being demonstrated more than ever during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) extensive and ongoing tour of the United States after a visit to the UK earlier this month. The kingdom’s heir apparent landed in Washington nearly two weeks ago and met with Trump and other high US officials before embarking on a multi-city tour across the United States. Last Tuesday MBS met with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Kissinger, Senator Chuck Schumer, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a stop in New York City.  On Friday, he also met with the CEOs of Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan, James Gorman and Jamie Dimon. Not unexpectedly, mainstream media and politicians have fawned over the 32-year old prince's visit. Americans can even find a slick, nearly 100-page, ad-free magazine at their local supermarket newsstand which is entirely devoted to praising MBS and his "New Kingdom" (in the words of the magazine's title), produced by the owner of the National Enquirer - American Media Inc.The magazine of course has conveniently left out news of Saudi Arabia's vicious 3-year long scorched earth bombing campaign over Yemen, which has left millions of Yemeni civilians displaced since 2015, and according to conservative UN estimates from early this year, has killed over 5,000 civilian noncombatants. However, yet more hard empirical proof has emerged demonstrating that MBS and his allies in the West are decimating entire cities and civilian infrastructure in already deeply impoverished Yemen in their fight against Houthi rebels.

        Barclays: Iran Could Find Other Buyers For Its Oil If Sanctions Tighten - Iran could do a lot of different things to kind of skirt possible tighter sanctions on its oil sector, such as sending oil to different places, Michael Cohen, head of energy commodities research at Barclays, told Bloomberg on Monday.“There’s a lot of different things that Iran can do to kind of skirt sanctions. In the past, they’ve used more oil in their power sector, they’ve actually sent oil to different places that can take it,” Cohen told ‘Bloomberg Daybreak: Americas’.Commenting on last week’s oil price rally that diverged from a general slump in equities, Cohen said that at the end of last week that oil prices were supported by EIA’s Wednesday inventory report that reported a decline in crude oil inventories of 2.6 million barrels for the week to March 16, and the appointment of John Bolton, an Iran hawk and a proponent of war, as National Security Advisor.   With Bolton’s appointment, market participants are looking at pretty much an end to the Iranian nuclear deal as of May 12, Barclays’ Cohen said today.“I think that the market pretty much assumes that there’s going to be some kind of reduction in Iranian supply,” he said, but added: “I’m not so sure that that’s the case.”There is some wiggle room and Iran could send oil to other places, according to Cohen.Asked about if Saudi Arabia could increase its oil production in the event of reduced Iranian supply, Cohen said that “there is some wiggle room at least in terms of other OPEC suppliers, but they are all committed to this OPEC deal and I don’t expect them to diverge from that either.”While OPEC is expected to continue to stick to its production cut agreement with Russia, at least for now, analysts believe that the geopolitical risk premium in oil prices has definitely returned, and the month of May could be important for oil prices, because of the deadline for the Iranian deal on May 12 and elections on May 20 in Venezuela, whose oil production is in freefall.

        US carries out first drone strike in southern Libya --Over the weekend, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted its first ever drone strike against Al-Qaeda militants in the southern Libya, killing two militants in the southern village of Ubari. The attack marks a new stage in the expansion of the American military offensive in Libya and northern Africa since the Trump administration took office. Notably, the strike was not accompanied by a public acknowledgement from AFRICOM.While officials did not disclose the origins of the drone’s base of operations, AFRICOM has been preparing for a massive escalation of armed drone flights conducted across the African continent from its recently constructed base in neighboring Niger, at Agadez.The strike occurred in an extremely remote region of Libya, located some 435 miles south of Tripoli and about 250 miles from the border with Algeria. The region is known as a haven for Islamist militants who have spilled into Libya and south into the Sahel since the 2011 US-NATO bombardment of the country.Geographically, the area around Ubari is roughly equidistant to the borders of the neighboring countries of Algeria, Chad, and Niger, and has long functioned as a thoroughfare for the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and immigrants traversing the lawless, vast expanse of desert of the Sahara comprising the countries of Libya, Niger, Chad, Algeria, and flowing through to Mali. Following the international outcry provoked by the killing of four Green Berets in an ambush last October in Niger, which exposed the advanced nature of American military operations in West Africa, AFRICOM has sought to keep secret subsequent operations, and did not provide a press release for the strike.

         Syria – The East-Ghouta-Afrin Exchange Is Complete – Where Will The SAA Go Next? - After the Syrian army had taken all rural parts of east-Ghouta three pockets of densely upbuild areas were left in terrorist hands. Negotiations had started about transfer of the armed men to Idleb governorate in the north. Some 100,000 people moved from the besieged areas to the Syrian government side. Surrounded by widely superior forces, devoid of human shields and without any chance of relief the terrorist groups are now giving up one by one.First to surrender were Ahrar al-Sham fighters who held the Harasta suburb. 1,500 of them and their families, in total 4,500 people were transferred to Idleb by government buses. They had to give up all heavy weapons and were only allowed to carry one hand-weapons and no ammunition.Next to give up were Faylaq al-Rahman who held the southern pocket. While the leadership of the group was negotiating with the government side some of the group fired barrages of missiles into Damascus city and killed dozens of people. Shortly thereafter two dozen of foreigners who had been fighting with Faylaq al-Rahman turned up dead. Having eliminated those irreconcilable elements Faylaq al-Rahman burned its headquarter and agreed to be transferred. The men and their families are now being evacuated to Afrin, a formerly Kurdish area in the north-west which Turkish supported gangs recently captured. The total of this transfer were some 7,000 people. The last area in to be taken in east-Ghouta is Douma. It is held by Jaish al-Islam, a group of Wahhabi Islamists with intense support from Saudi Arabia. But Jaish al Islam will not want to go to Idleb. They have long fought with other Islamists and especially with HTS, aka Jabhat al-Nusra, which now rules in most of Idleb. Jaish al-Islam still tries to negotiate some autonomy for Douma but the Syrian government will not have any of that. It can not and will not allow a pocket of 'autonomous' Saudi financed Jihadis a few miles from the capital. The group will have to give up completely or agree to be transferred elsewhere.

        Turkey's Erdogan Announces Iraq Military Incursion, Threatens Americans Over Manbij - On Sunday President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the beginning of Turkish military operations in Iraq's Sinjar region a week after Turkey and allied Syrian FSA groups captured Afrin from Kurdish fighters. During that prior victory speech immediately on the heels of the Syrian Kurdish retreat from Afrin, Erdogan had promised further "extensions" of his forces in the region, including into Eastern Syria and Iraq, while making repeat historical references to the Ottoman empire.Erdogan warned at the time that Turkish troops would keep pushing east further into Syrian Kurdish YPG territory (Kurdish "People's Protection Units" which Turkey considers an extension of the terrorist PKK), which would eventually pit his forces against the US armed and trained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  During Sunday's speech he pledged to take Tal Rifaat (northwest of Aleppo) and Manbij: "the U.S. needs to transfer the control of Manbij to its real owners from the terrorist organization as soon as possible," according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet. US-backed forces are present in both places.  Erdogan also in typically brazen fashion put Iraq's government on notice, saying "We have told the central [Iraqi] government that the PKK is establishing a new headquarters in Sinjar. If you can deal with it, you handle it. But if you cannot we will suddenly enter Sinjar one night and clear this region of terrorists." It appears he is ready to make good on that promise, as the AP reports:

        War Preparations: Leaked Images Allegedly Show US Military Tanks Arriving In Jordan - Syrian government forces have now secured most of the eastern Ghouta enclave, the last remaining rebel-held area near Damascus, the capital and the largest city of the Syrian Arab Republic.With Syrian forces nearing full control of the war-torn region, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently warned, Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” if the United Nations Security Council fails to act on Syria for its assault on eastern Ghouta. Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented on the critical situation in eastern Ghouta and called on Washington to completely abandon its plans for a military strike against Syrian government forces.“We’ve warned and warned the US that these plans must be unconditionally refused. Any such unlawful use of force, similar to what happened almost a year ago at the Shairat air base, would be an act of aggression against a sovereign state, as defined by the relevant article of the UN Charter,” he said. Washington had the previous experience of launching a military intervention without the consent of the United Nations Security Council, when President Donald Trump lobbed 59 Tomahawk missiles onto Syria’s Shairat airbase in April 2017.According to Muraselon news agency, Syrian forces have acquired most of the eastern Ghouta region through “achieving sweeping military victories or concluding evacuation deals.” The independent media outlet says Syrian forces “will most probably be heading to the country’s south in order to secure the borders with Jordan.”Could Syria’s southern border with Jordan be the next confrontation zone in the country’s multiple regional wars? Sputnik news agency recently uncovered leaked images of U.S. military equipment arriving in Jordan’s Aqaba Industrial Port via the vehicle carrier ship “Liberty pride” for the upcoming participation in the annual w ar drill “Eager Lion.” During the unloading process, the images reveal the “M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, the M113’s variation for medical evacuation and the M2A3 Bradley armored personnel carriers” were offloaded from the 199-meter (652 feet) military transport vessel, said Sputnik.

        Caught On Camera: Israel Targets Civilians With A Chemical Weapon Drone -- For the first time, Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV released new dramatic footage showing Israeli forces using a weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) against a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip, according to the Times of Israel.  The short video clip published by Al-Mayadeen shows a weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) targeting demonstrations in the southern Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.The UAV is seen flying through the skies above hundreds of protestors, while operators of the aircraft drop chemical weapons into the crowd. The Times of Israel states that the UAV released tear gas, formally known as a lachrymator agent, which causes severe eye and respiratory pain, skin inflammation, bleeding, and even blindness.The intense footage could provide us with the early knowledge that governments are willing to use high-tech military technology against civilians in a non-combat environment…Israeli Border Police Deputy Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, the government official behind the deployment of the weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), told Hadashot TV news that the tear gas drone provides security forces with an extended range to hurl chemical weapons at protestors.“Beyond the fact that this equipment neutralizes any danger to the troops, it enables reaching places that until now we could not get to,” Shabtai told Hadashot TV news. The weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “can carry up to six canisters at a time, and drop them individually, as clusters, or all at the same time,” said the Times of Israel.   The Israeli-based online newspaper did not provide the manufacture’s name of the UAV, but it is rumored that ISPRA Ltd in Herzelya, Israel, is the developer of the drone, dubbed Cyclone Riot Control Drone System. Developers of ISPRA present a short informational video of how the chemical weapon drone works.

        Israeli Troops Kill Seven Palestinians, Wound 500 Amid Massive Border Protests - Deadly clashes broke out on Friday afternoon along the Israeli-Gaza border after Israeli security forces killed at least seven Palestinians and injured up to 500, where as previewed yesterday, a series of massive protests took place along the security fence surrounding the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Thousands had gathered along the border for a six week-long "Great Return" protest when the violence broke out. IDF troops fired live rounds, rubber-coated steel pellets and tear gas at the protesters during the ongoing violence. The first protest kicked off on Friday, when Palestinians worldwide mark Land Day, which commemorates the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. Palestinians protest along the Israel border with Gaza on Friday The Israel Defense Forces estimated that 17,000 Palestinians were taking part in the demonstrations, and focused at five main protest sites where rioters reportedly threw petrol bombs and stones at troops, and burned tires. The Israeli military said that its troops had used “riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators” and that some of the demonstrators were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones” and Molotov cocktails and rocks at IDF troops on the other side of the border. The military maintained that it would not allow Palestinian protesters to “violate Israel’s sovereignty” by crossing the security fence. One of the dead was aged 16 and most of the casualties were struck by gunfire, according to Palestinian medics who estimated the number of wounded at around 500 by mid-afternoon.

        Israel kills 17 border demonstrators in Gaza -- Israeli troops, using live fire, killed at least 17 Palestinians and injured more than 1,400 during demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel and in cities throughout the Palestinian enclave. The demonstrators were armed solely with stones and homemade firebombs.  The Israeli army, using riot control measures, injured a further 27 Palestinians in clashes in the city of Nablus as nearly 900 Palestinians demonstrated in cities throughout the West Bank.  The organisers of the protests have called for six weeks of demonstrations, called the “Great Return March,” along the border of Gaza that has been subject to an 11 year-long illegal and inhumane blockade by Israel and Egypt. The demonstrations, starting on Friday, are set to continue for six weeks until May 15, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent war between Israel and her Arab neighbours, which the Palestinians commemorate as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day. Following the 1948-49 war, only about 200,000 of the 1.2 million Palestinians remained in the parts of Palestine that had become Israel. While many fled to avoid the war, most left out of fear of what might happen to them at the hands of Zionist terrorists.  One of the most notorious incidents was the Deir Yassin massacre where 250 men, women and children were murdered in cold blood by Menachem Begin’s Irgun group, as it went from house to house to drive out the Palestinians. Israel adamantly refuses to acknowledge the principle of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants because this would be tantamount to accepting responsibility for what happened to them.  A key demand of the Great Return March is the full implementation of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which stipulates that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

        Israel assassinates Palestinians -- The Palestinian Authority has declared Saturday a day of national mourning after 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces as thousands marched near Gaza’s border with Israel in a major demonstration marking the 42nd anniversary of Land Day.  More than 1,400 others wounded by Israeli forces during march calling for return of Palestinian refugees to their lands  “Schools, universities as well as all government institutions across the country will be off on Saturday, as per President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to declare a day of national mourning for the souls of the martyrs,” a statement issued on Friday said. More than 1,400 others were wounded after Israeli forces fired live ammunition at protesters and used tear gas to push them back from a heavily fortified fence, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

        China Deploys "SkyNet" Facial Recognition, Can Compare 3 Billion Faces Per Second - China has rolled out an advanced facial recognition system over 16 provinces, cities and autonomous regions ominously called "SkyNet" for the "security and protection" of the country, reports Workers' Daily.  "The system is able to identify 40 facial features, regardless of angles and lighting, at an accuracy rate of 99.8 percent," reports People's Daily. "It can also scan faces and compare them with its database of criminal suspects at large at a speed of 3 billion times a second, indicating that all Chinese people can be compared in the system within only one second."In the past two years, over 2,000 criminals at large were reportedly apprehended by public security cameras using the system - while officials tout a June 2017 rescue of a 6-year-old girl reported missing in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region based on a photo taken several years ago. The police officers still found the girl quickly thanks to the system, which established information related to the girl based on her facial features and locked in on her trace via a surveillance camera in a market. -People's Daily In January, Bloomberg reported that Beijing was using facial recognition to surveil Muslim-dominated villages on China's western frontier, which alerts authorities when targeted individuals are more than 1,000 feet beyond designated "safe" areas. The areas comprise individuals’ homes and workplaces, said the person, who requested anonymity to speak to the media without authorization.“A system like this is obviously well-suited to controlling people,” said Jim Harper, executive vice president of the libertarian-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute and a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee. “‘Papers, please’ was the symbol of living under tyranny in the past. Now, government officials don’t need to ask.” –Bloomberg We're sure the new facial recognition "SkyNet" will go hand in hand with China's new "Social Credit Score" system set to launch in 2020.

          China Cracks Down On Jaywalkers With AI, Facial Recognition, & Automated Fines - As we pointed out earlier this week, China's lack of data protection laws and its determination to overtake the US as the world-leader in AI technology poses a serious threat to US technological hegemony. As Russian President Vladimir Putin once said, whoever dominates the AI race could one day rule the world. Well, another advantage that China has in its AI push is its reputation for strict surveillance and law enforcement - which provides for plenty of use-cases where China can test its nascent technology. Case in point: Police in Shenzen are using AI and facial recognition software to install "smart" traffic cameras that can identify and fine Chinese citizens who jaywalk - a crime that is the subject of strict enforcement in China, per the South China Morning Post.Intellifusion, a Shenzhen-based AI firm that provides the technology is now in talks with local mobile phone carriers and social media platforms such as WeChat and Sina Weibo to develop a system where offenders will receive personal text messages shortly after a violation has occurred, according to Wang Jun, the company’s director of marketing solutions. "Jaywalking has always been an issue in China and can hardly be resolved just by imposing fines or taking photos of the offenders. But a combination of technology and psychology … can greatly reduce instances of jaywalking and will prevent repeat offences," Wang said. Shenzhen traffic police began displaying photos of jaywalkers on large LED screens at major intersections starting in April 2017. Meanwhile, police stationed at the Zhengzhou East high-speed rail station in Henan province have been equipped with smart glasses with facial recognition software that can identify wanted criminals. Facial recognition technology identifies the individual from a database and displays a photo of the jaywalking offence, the family name of the offender and part of their government identification number on large LED screens above the pavement. Nearly 14,000 jaywalkers have been cited since Of course, Shenzen isn't even the most advanced Chinese city in terms of its use of AI for law-enforcement purposes. In Beijing, police are using the world's first surround-body camera with built in facial recognition technology to hold scofflaws accountable. In what appears to be an effort to shame lawbreakers, police launched a webpage in March displaying photos, names and partial ID numbers of jaywalkers.

          Orwellian Debt Collection in China  - Trying to get a handle on the potential for a workable personal bankruptcy procedure in China, I've repeatedly encountered evidence that the most important element might be lacking: attitude. Successful personal insolvency systems around the world differ in design and operation, but the system architects and operators generally share a sense that default is an inevitable aspect of consumer/entrepreneurial risk, and mitigating the long-term effects of such defaults is good for debtors, creditors, and society. I don't get the sense, based on my admittedly superficial outsider perspective, that this foundation is ready in China. Indeed, quite the opposite.  For example, for the past few years, the Supreme People's Court has run a "judgment defaulter's list" of individuals who have failed (been unable?) to satisfy judgments against them. More than 3 million names were on this list already by the end of 2015, and getting on this list means more than just public shaming; it's also a "no-fly" list, preventing defaulters from buying airplane tickets, in addition to a "no-high-speed-train" and "no-hotel-stay" list, and also a "no-sending-your-kids-to-paid-schools" list. By mid-2016, about 5 million people had been preventing from buying these services in China as a result of being on the list. This initiative is just the start of a planned "Social Credit System," which will aggregate electronic data (including not only payment history, but also buying habits, treatment of one's parents, and who one's associates are) to produce a "social credit score" for all individuals. This score will affect all manner of life events, such as access not only to loans, but also to housing access, work promotions, honors, and other social benefits.

          China’s new central bank chief shrugs off financial risks from trade war | South China Morning Post: China’s financial system will be able to withstand any external shocks stemming from a China-US trade war, the country’s new central bank chief said on Sunday. Yi Gang, who was appointed governor of the People’s Bank of China last week, said the banking, securities and insurance sectors were “fully capable of preventing and tackling” external risks, news website reported. He was speaking after US President Donald Trump on Thursday decided to impose tariffs on US$60 billion of Chinese imports. China retaliated with its own tariffs on US products, sending stock markets plunging on Friday in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 3.39 per cent while the CSI 300 – which tracks large caps listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen – shed 2.87 per cent. Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index dropped 3.7 per cent. But Yi downplayed the market reaction on Sunday, telling the China Development Forum in Beijing that the country knew how to handle risk. “As long as we can get our own house in order, there will be a fairly good foundation for us to manage risks from external shocks, as well as the global impact,” Yi was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, Yi told the forum that it was too early for Beijing to declare victory in its domestic war on financial risks because overall debt levels were still high and some of the country’s tycoons were still a problem. “A few institutions are still engaging in financial businesses illegally, without proper licensing, and certain irregular financial activities are emerging in the guise of innovation or the internet,” according to the transcript of Yi’s speech carried by “A few financial holding groups that have expanded aggressively ... are having serious problems with [company registration] fraud as well as improper related transactions that carry contagious risks across institutions, markets and business segments,” Yi said in the speech, his first since he took over from veteran central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan. 

          China Launches Massive Military Drills "In Preparation For War" - Just hours after the latest close military encounter between the US and China, when the US navy sailed a destroyer to within 12 nautical miles of the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a "freedom of navigation" operation - a move that China condemned as a "severe provocation" just as the two countries launched an all-out trade war - the Chinese military launched its spring combat readiness drills with an air force exercise in the West Pacific and a joint combat patrol mission in the South China Sea. The air force drills include H-6K bombers and Su-30 and Su-35 fighters, according to the PLA , and have a simple, if clear, purpose: "Air Force exercises are rehearsals for future wars and are the most direct preparation for war," the Chinese Air Force said on its Weibo account on Sunday, according to Reuters."The more exercises China practices far from its shores the better it will be positioned as an important force for managing and controlling crises, containing war and winning battles", it added. Additionally, the PLA Navy is holding drills in the South China Sea to test the navy's combat readiness, China Central Television reported on Friday. It quoted the PLA Navy as saying the drills are routine and do not target any country, although the message had one clear recipient: USA."The South China Sea and East China Sea will be primary battlegrounds. The PLA is committed to be battle-ready through simulated combat training," Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Sunday.

          Satellite Images Reveal "Massive Show Of Force" By 40 Chinese Warships, Aircraft Carrier - In what Reuters has dubbed a massive "show of force", dozens of Chinese warships have been observed on satellite imagery, exercising with an aircraft carrier and warplanes above the heavily-disputed South China Sea, as part of the previously noted  massive military drills, which the PLA ominously said were "in preparation for war."The four images, provided by Planet Labs for Reuters confirms the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning joined the annual naval war drill earlier this week.Our Doves caught stunning naval exercises in the open ocean. Read more @reuters and zoom for an enhanced view.— Planet (@planetlabs) March 27, 2018According to the Taiwan Defense & National Security ministry, late last week Taiwan sent two ships and military aircraft to shadow the Chinese aircraft carrier group through the narrow Taiwan Strait.The images, taken on Monday by Planet Labs flock of miniature satellites, show at least forty naval vessels, submarines, and aircraft in what some military strategist “described as an unusually large display of the Chinese military’s growing naval might,” said Reuters.Up to forty naval vessels can be seen in a line formation, while submarines flank the aircraft carrier called Liaoning labeled below.  Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), told Reuters: “It is an incredible picture. That is the big news to me. Confirmation that, yes, the carrier participated in the exercise.” Liaoning, a Type 001 aircraft carrier, is the first aircraft carrier commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy Surface Force, a branch of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

           Kim Jong Un Is Making a Surprise China Visit, Sources Say - Kim Jong Un made a surprise visit to Beijing on his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011, three people with knowledge of the visit said. Further details of his trip, including how long Kim would stay and who he would meet, were not immediately available. The people asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information. Speculation about a possible visit by a high-ranking North Korean official circulated around the Chinese capital Monday, after Japan’s Kyodo News reported that a special train may have carried Kim through the northeastern border city of Dandong. Nippon TV showed footage of a train arriving Monday in Beijing that looked similar to one used by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, to visit the country shortly before his death in 2011. The unannounced visit is the latest in series of diplomatic power plays in Asia as U.S. President Donald Trump’s battle to lower the U.S. trade deficit becomes entangled with his effort to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. Chinese President Xi Jinping has found himself preparing for a trade war with Trump even after supporting progressive rounds of United Nations sanctions against the Kim regime. The U.S. appears to have had no advance knowledge of Kim’s visit. White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah told reporters on Monday that he couldn’t confirm reports of the trip and “we don’t know if they’re necessarily true.” A State Department spokesman, Julia Mason, responded to questions about the report with a single sentence: “We’d refer you to the Chinese.” 

          Xi reasserts role in Korean game with summons to Kim | Asia Times: Chinese President Xi Jinping has placed himself back at the center of the game, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing adds yet another piece to the fast-shifting diplomatic chess board that is the Korean peninsula. At a time when the youthful and diplomatically inexperienced Kim is preparing for separate summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump, the meeting appears to herald a warming in recently frosty relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. During the meeting, which eventuated after an invitation from Xi, Kim referred to multilateral diplomatic maneuvers. “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, as reported by Reuters. While the timing of the visit by the reclusive North Korean leader – who is not known to have traveled outside his country since assuming power after his father’s death in 2011 – took the world by surprise, it had been anticipated by North Korea watchers, who cited previous precedents. 

          China says North Korea’s Kim pledges denuclearisation during friendly visit   (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearisation and to meet U.S. officials, China said on Wednesday after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold friendship with its isolated neighbour. After two days of speculation, China and North Korea both confirmed that Kim had travelled to Beijing and met Xi during what China called an unofficial visit from Sunday to Wednesday. The visit was Kim’s first known trip outside North Korea since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States. North Korea’s KCNA news agency made no mention of Kim’s pledge to denuclearise, or his anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that is planned for some time in May. China has traditionally been secretive North Korea’s closest ally but ties have been frayed by its pursuit of nuclear weapons and China’s backing of tough U.N. sanctions in response. China’s Foreign Ministry cited Kim in a lengthy statement as telling Xi the situation on the Korean peninsula was starting to improve because North Korea had taken the initiative to ease tension and put forward proposals for talks. “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearisation on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim Jong Un said, according to the ministry. North Korea was willing to talk with the United States and hold a summit between the two countries, he said. “The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” Kim said. 

          China claims Kim Jong Un has agreed to denuclearize Korean Peninsula - China said on Wednesday it won a pledge from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to denuclearize the Korean peninsula during a meeting with President Xi Jinping, who pledged in return that China would uphold its friendship with its isolated neighbor.After two days of speculation, China announced on Wednesday that Kim had visited Beijing and met Xi during what the official Xinhua news agency called an unofficial visit from Sunday to Wednesday.The trip was Kim's first known journey abroad since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States.Beijing has traditionally been the closest ally of secretive North Korea, but ties have been frayed by North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and China's backing of tough U.N. sanctions in response.  Xinhua cited Kim as telling Xi that the situation on the Korean peninsula is starting to improve because North Korea has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.   "It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearisation on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il," Kim Jong Un said, according to Xinhua. North Korea is willing to talk with the United States and hold a summit between the two countries, he said."The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace," Kim said.  Chinese state news outlets had photos of Xi and Kim together:

          Xi Jinping And Kim Jong-Un: Make Korea United Again! - The recent meeting in Beijing between the two supreme leaders of DPRK and China has captured global attention. The summit remained secret throughout its duration, revealed by the Chinese leader only when the visit had ended and the Korean leader was on his way back home. Rumours of the encounter continued to be denied by the Chinese foreign minister right up to Tuesday. The denials had a lot to do with the fact that a positive outcome for the meeting, this being the first one, could not be guaranteed. The final statements, the relaxed atmosphere, the many images displaying mutual smiles and acknowledgement reveal that the two leaders of the Chinese and Korean Communist parties are on the same page. Despite wishful thinking from the US, which interpreted the lack of meetings in previous years as a change in Chinese attitudes towards North Korea, the meeting highlighted positive impressions by Xi Jinping about the developments on the peninsula as well as confirmed the strategic thinking of Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-Un's strategy deserves particular attention. The ability to deter aggression from the United States and South Korea existed well before Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear deterrent, thanks to the enormous number of artillery guns it has directed towards Seoul. A possible conflict would have caused millions of deaths, destroyed the American forces on the peninsula (the American bases would have been the first to be eliminated, really only being there to serve as a tripwire), and upset the alliance with Seoul, which would have borne an unacceptable toll. Kim Jong-un's willingness to meet Donald Trump in bilateral talks, and the possibility that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear arsenal, stand out. The meeting with Xi Jinping in all likelihood focused on the demands to be made to Trump: the removal of the North American presence in the south of the country is something on which China and DPRK are in strong agreement. The desired outcome for Beijing and Pyongyang (but also for Moscow) would see Washington remove its forces from South Korea in exchange for opening up North Korea’s sites to international inspections. China and Russia would be happy to see the US threat to their nuclear deterrence removed (even if, with the latest hypersonic weapons revealed by Putin, the problem does not seem to arise). This would also bring great advantages to Seoul, which could embark on a rapprochement with the North, starting with a possible reunification of the peninsula; and under the economic and energetic aegis of Russia and China, the peninsula could be included in the One Belt One Road (OBOR), as well as as benefitting from Moscow’s gas.

          North and South Korea set date for talks at border  — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea will meet for the first time on April 27, officials said on Thursday, setting a date for talks meant to extend the recent détente on the Korean Peninsula and pave the way for discussions between Mr. Kim and President Trump. Early this month Mr. Kim agreed to a meeting with Mr. Moon, part of a flurry of diplomacy around North Korea’s nuclear program that began with the North’s participation last month in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Senior negotiators from both Koreas met Thursday at Panmunjom, the so-called truce village on the countries’ border, to agree on a date and discuss other aspects of the summit meeting. The two Korean leaders will meet at Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom, according to a joint statement the negotiators issued at the end of their talks on Thursday. Peace House lies south of the demarcation line that bisects Panmunjom, which means that Mr. Kim would become the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the Korean War. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, the South’s chief delegate to the Panmunjom talks, hinted at progress toward including denuclearization in the agenda for the Kim-Moon meeting. But he said the two Koreas might need another round of high-level talks in coming weeks to settle the matter. “The South and North agreed on efforts to make the summit successful, sharing its historic significance in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, settling peace there and improving inter-Korean relations,” Mr. Cho told reporters. The meeting will be the third ever held between leaders of the two Koreas. Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, met with two South Korean presidents — Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 — in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. 

          Two Koreas Set April 27 for Kim Jong Un’s Historic Walk South - Kim Jong Un could become the first North Korean leader in history to enter South Korea in just over four weeks, when he steps across the heavily fortified border for a summit with President Moon Jae-in.The April 27 meeting on the southern side of the demilitarized zone will be the first between leaders of the two nations in 11 years. Leaders of the two nations -- which are still technically at war -- have only met twice since the peninsula was divided in 1948.Next month’s summit -- a precursor to a potential meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump -- is the culmination of diplomatic efforts after North Korea fired a flurry of missiles last year. Kim got the ball rolling with a call for talks in a News Year’s Day speech, which led to his nation’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics and a series of meeting between the two Koreas. “As the date for the inter-Korean summit is finalized now, we will do our best to be fully prepared for it during the given time,” Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, said in a text message. “We hope all South Koreans will be united in making a groundbreaking turning point for peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula at the summit.” The question now is whether the summit can lay the groundwork for a successful Trump-Kim meeting and a return to multi-nation talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean leader paid a surprise visit to Beijing this week to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, with China saying Kim expressed an openness to discussions over his nation’s nuclear program.

          Japan February industrial output points to further economic expansion (Reuters) - Japan’s industrial production rebounded in February from a large decline in the previous month and companies forecast further gains in coming months in a sign that factory output is back on the path toward expansion. Factory output rose 4.1 percent in February from the previous month, less than economists’ median estimate of a 5.0 percent increase but recovering from a revised 6.8 percent decline in January, trade ministry data showed on Friday. The increase was led by higher output of cars, construction equipment, and semiconductors. Gains in industrial output suggest that January’s weakness was temporary and the economy remains poised to extend its record growth streak due to solid exports and improving domestic demand. One risk to the outlook is that Japan’s exports of steel and aluminum could weaken if it fails to win an exemption from U.S. tariffs imposed last week. “In the first quarter industrial output is likely to be flat or decline slightly,” “However, we still expect exports to expand moderately, so weakness in the first quarter is likely to be temporary.” Output of cars, engines, and car parts rose 10.3 percent in February, the fastest increase since April last year. Production of construction equipment and factory machinery rose 3.6 percent in February, while production of semiconductors and electronic parts rose 4.8 percent. Manufacturers surveyed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) expected output to rise 0.9 percent in March and increase 5.2 percent in April. Japan’s government is lobbying the United States for exemptions from steel and aluminum tariffs that U.S. President Donald Trump imposed last week. Trump has temporarily excluded six countries and the European Union from the tariffs, but it is uncertain whether Japan will receive the same treatment.

          Central Bank Money Rules the World – Nomi Prins  -- Central bank credit that supports markets - is not just creation of the Fed, but by central banks and institutions around the world colluding together. Global markets are too deeply connected these days to consider the Fed in isolation. Since last month’s correction, the world has been watching the Fed because its policies have global implications. And worldwide sell-offs sent a clear sign to Fed Chair Powell to relax with the rate hikes. When fears arise that central bank QE will recede on one side of the world, we see more volatility and rumors of hawkishness. To counter those fears, there will be a move toward dovish policy on the other side of the world. Central banks operate in collusion. When the Fed signals it is raising rates, or markets over-react negatively to the threat, another central bank steps in. By colluding, other central banks offer even more dark money-QE to keep the party going. The net result is a propensity toward the status quo in global monetary policy: a bullish, asset bubble-inflating bias in the stock markets and caution in the bond markets. Here’s what’s going on with some of the most powerful central bankers right now, starting with Japan… While U.S. markets were correcting earlier this month, Japan’s financial benchmark, the Nikkei 225 index fell more than 1,200 points. At the same time, the rumors of Japan’s central bank curbing its dark money-QE programs are just that. While investors have speculated that the BoJ could be moving towards an exit from dark money policy (despite the BOJ denying this), we know that central banks are too scared of the outcomes. In an economic pinch, the Bank of Japan (BoJ), will keep dark money flowing.. Confirming my premise, when Japanese Government Bond prices were dipping too fast, the BoJ announced “unlimited” buying of long-term Japanese government bonds. This is simply the continuation of the policy the BoJ already has in place. It was also, as CNBC reported, “the first time in more than six months that the BOJ has conducted special operations to buy bonds to achieve the yields it wants to see…” That’s a clear sign of more manipulation of the bond market. And now we have confirmation that Japan likely has more dark money coming…

          Artificial intelligence could take over jobs, but India needs to embrace technology: Raghuram Rajan - Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan on Friday said there was a possibility that artificial intelligence could take over jobs that need both skilled and unskilled workers. From unskilled sweatshops to high-skilled professions such as medicine, jobs could could see a vast change with advances in machine learning, the economist said at the #FUTURE Global Digital Summit, organised by the Kerala government, PTI reported. He, however, said India has to embrace technology and become a leader in the digital transformation taking place around the globe without being bogged down by unfounded fears of job losses, incomes or machines replacing humans.   “Two hundred years since the industrial revolution, jobs are still around,” he said. “People and society adapt to do the things that machines cannot do. With technology, there is going to be restructuring across every job, taking away the routine aspects and leaving the creative and customised aspects of that job.”  Rajan also spoke about Universal Basic Income, which he said could allay fears about earning of income in the future. He also emphasised the need to improve the education system and skill development in India. “We are not as global as we should be even now,” Rajan said. “Too many of our people are too poorly educated or skilled to compete in a globalised tech-enabled economy.”   The economist also said that the government needs to introduce more initiatives in terms of funding and incorporation for startups to grow in India. “We have to make sure that the companies of our future are incorporated in India, get Indian financing and expand significantly,” he asserted. “We cannot miss out on the Artificial Intelligence and robotics revolution.

          Ecuador cuts off Julian Assange’s access to the outside world - Ecuador’s government has cut off all WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange’s communications and contact from inside its London embassy, on the grounds that he posted a tweet condemning the arrest of former Catalonian regional president Carles Puigdemont. WikiLeaks yesterday confirmed: “WikiLeaks editor @julianassange has been gagged and isolated by order of Ecuador’s new president @Lenin Moreno. He cannot tweet, speak to the press, receive visitors or make telephone calls.”The Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site denounces the new restrictions on Julian Assange’s ability to communicate with his innumerable supporters throughout the world.Ecuador’s move, announced on Tuesday, came after Assange tweeted on Monday challenging Britain’s accusation that Russia was responsible for the alleged nerve agent poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month.The Ecuadorian decision is a dire threat to Assange. He faces total isolation as a virtual prisoner in the tiny embassy and the increased danger of being extradited to be put on trial in the United States for espionage and treason, crimes carrying potential death penalties.  Ecuador’s move is also a further direct attack on global free speech, in line with the growing censorship of the Internet, to silence political dissent and opposition to imperialism and war.

          DHL report shows strengthening of global trade during second quarter - A quarterly report on global trade patterns published today by transport and logistics giant DHL indicated a strengthening of activity in March over the last reading in January, DHL said.The "DHL Global Trade Barometer" increased to 66 points in March from 64 points in January, when the index was published for the first time. With an index value well above the break-even mark of 50, the report is sending bullish signals about the current and future outlook for trade, DHL said.All seven countries that comprise the trade activity showed increases over January, according to the report. The improvements over January are largely due to a more positive outlook for South Korean and U.S. trade. The two countries announced yesterday they had reached a bilateral trade accord to revise the agreement that was signed in 2012.By contrast, the outlook for German trade eased after a strong peak in 2017, according to the report. India continued to show the highest index value of all seven countries for overall trade outlook. The U.K., after a modest decline since January, scored the same level as China at the lower end of the country rankings. Japan is the seventh nation included in the report's findings.Developments in air and ocean trade diverged slightly since January, the report found. The global air trade outlook dropped compared to January, but remained at 70, a very positive reading. The near-term outlook for global air trade will be adversely affected by a slowing in German and South Korean activity. Meanwhile, air growth in China and the U.S. is expected to accelerate, the report said.Meanwhile, the outlook for global ocean trade improved to 63 points in March from 60 points in January. The growth was driven by gains in the U.S., China, and South Korea, which together offset slightly reduced growth for U.K. and German ocean trade.

          Mapping Where Global Tariffs Are Highest And Lowest - Last week, China announced that it would retaliate against U.S. tariffs by imposing its own duties on a range of American products including apples, port and steel pipes. Last Thursday, President Trump signed an executive memorandum that could lead to tariffs being imposed on up to $60 billion of Chinese products, a move which is designed to penalize China for alleged intellectual property theft. Beijing responded that it while it does not want a trade war, it is "absolutely not afraid of one". Late last week, stock markets dropped sharply.  The Trump Administration's move to impose tariffs on Chinese imports as well as steel and aluminum imports in general, is a break with long-standing U.S. trade policy. As Statista's Niall McCarthy notes, hHistorically, previous presidents have been in favor of lower tariffs and the removal of barriers to facilitate trade.Today, the U.S. applies a weighted average tariff of 1.6 percent on its imports according to the World Bank and this is one of the lowest rates worldwide, equivalent to the EU and similar to Japan. Although most developed countries have been pushing for lower trade tariffs, they are still very high in some parts of the world.For example, India imposes weighted average tariffs of 6.3 percent while in China, the rate is 3.5 percent. African countries have some of the highest rates with Gabon standing out at 16.93 percent.  The Bahamas is the country with the highest weighted-average tariff worldwide at 18.6 percent.

          Russia: Protests against officials erupt in wake of Kemerovo fire - The horrific fire at the Kemerovo “Winter Cherry” shopping mall and entertainment center on Sunday, March 25, has brought social and political tensions in Russia to a boiling point.On Tuesday, March 27, several thousand people in Kemerovo protested in the city center, calling for the resignation of local authorities. Throughout the country, people are outraged over the obvious criminality that lay behind the total disregard of fire regulations at the mall, and the attempts by officials to cover-up the magnitude of the disaster.The mall, which is co-owned by the billionaire Denis Shtengelov, had no functioning fire alarm and sprinkling system. Exits were blocked as fire and toxic smoke were filling the building. People had to evacuate on their own, with some jumping out of the windows to escape (see also: “At least 64 dead, including many children, in horrific shopping mall fire”).The fire spread to over 1,000 square meters and was not extinguished for well over 12 hours. Not a single major local official appeared at the scene of the tragedy as it was evolving. Parents had to wait for over six hours before receiving any information from the police. Residents have also reported that the police seized phones from eyewitnesses trying to record footage and take pictures of the fire.There has been an enormous outpouring of solidarity from local residents, with hundreds volunteering to donate blood, groceries or otherwise help the families of the victims. The causes of the fire remain unclear. The TV channel Rossiya 24 reported the most likely cause was an electrical fault, as is the case in the majority of deadly fires in Russia. Five officials have been arrested, including the director of the mall, and might be charged with involuntary homicide by the Investigation Committee.

          Nato expels seven staff from Russian mission over Skripal poisoning -Nato has announced it is cutting the size of its Russian mission by a third, removing accreditation from seven Russian staff and rejecting three other pending applications. The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the permanent size of the Russian mission would be cut from 30 to 20 people, adding the announcement was “a clear and very strong message that there was a cost to Russia’s reckless actions” in poisoning the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury earlier this month. He claimed Russia had underestimated Nato’s resolve and said the announcements would reduce Russia’s capability to do intelligence work across Nato. The move came after more than 20 western allies ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack in the UK in a show of solidarity that represents the biggest concerted blow to Russian intelligence networks in the west since the cold war. Speaking in Brussels at the end of consultations with Nato allies on Tuesday, Stoltenberg added that he did not think Russia had expected the west to show such resolve, pointing to the increased Nato military presence on the Russia border, higher defence spending and continued sanctions for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. He said the Nato response was aimed not just at the poisoning in Salisbury, the first use of a nerve agent on Nato territory, but a response to a broader pattern of unacceptable and illegal behaviour.

          Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe - BBC News: The United States and its European allies are expelling dozens of Russian diplomats in a co-ordinated response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK. It is said to be the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history. More than 20 countries have aligned with the UK, expelling more than 100 diplomats. Russia vowed to retaliate to the "provocative gesture". Russia denies any role in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, southern England. The pair remain in a critical but stable condition in hospital.EU leaders agreed last week it was highly likely Russia was behind the nerve-agent poisoning. Mrs May said: "President Putin's regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond. "And as a sovereign European democracy, the United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and with Nato to face down these threats together." Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also praised the "extraordinary international response" by the UK's allies. The Russian foreign ministry said the moves demonstrated a continuation of a "confrontational path". "It goes without saying that this unfriendly act by this group of countries will not go without notice and we will react to it," its statement said. 

          Russia expels more British diplomats over spy poisoning row - Russia has announced a further round of expulsions of British diplomats, escalating the fallout over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.  Britain has pointed the finger firmly at the Kremlin for the Salisbury attack and expelled 23 Russian diplomats, a move swiftly followed in kind by Russia, which also closed down the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government.  The Russians have now ordered Britain to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to the same level as Russian diplomatic missions in the UK. It comes after irritation in Moscow that Britain has persuaded so many other countries to expel Russians. Russian officials have been taken aback by the level of coordination in the expulsions, and the number of countries willing to go along with Britain. The US expelled 60 Russian diplomats and Ukraine 13, while many other countries expelled smaller numbers. In total, more than 150 Russian diplomats, many of whom are believed to be intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover, have been expelled from two dozen countries.On Thursday, Russia made symmetrical responses to all the countries that expelled its diplomats, and now Britain has been given 30 days to reduce the number of stationed in Russia. Russia’s foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, on Friday morning in light of the “provocative and unsubstantiated actions by Britain, which instigated the expulsion of Russian diplomats from various nations for no reason”. “It’s regrettable but in light of Russia’s previous behaviour, we anticipated a response,” said a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office (FCO). “However, this doesn’t change the facts of the matter. The attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable.”  

          Yulia Skripal “improving rapidly”: The unravelling of the Russian Novichok narrative - When placed in the context of the global anti-Russia propaganda campaign spearheaded by Britain’s Conservative government, Thursday saw the greatest Easter miracle since Christ rose from the dead.For weeks, the world’s media has cited uncritically government claims that double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned March 4 with a “weapons grade” nerve agent, known as a Novichok.The agent was described as so deadly that the comatose Skripals were unlikely to ever recover, and that if they did they would be brain damaged and physically compromised. On Wednesday there were even media headlines that their life support might have to be turned off.Yet Thursday saw reports from Salisbury NHS foundation trust that 33-year-old Yulia is no longer in a critical condition and was “conscious and talking.”Yulia’s apparent recovery blows a hole in an official narrative that, by rights, should sink it forever. Instead, as has happened on repeated occasions, the story will no doubt be modified as required. Nothing must be allowed to prevent the UK, in alliance with the United States, from continuing its push for further economic sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats to justify pre-existing plans for military aggression on Russia’s borders and in the Middle East. There are innumerable inconsistencies, contradictions and flat out lies in the case made against Russia. Above all there has been no convincing political explanation advanced as to why Russia would target the Skripals.

            Poland signs $4.75 billion deal for U.S. Patriot missile system facing Russia (Reuters) - Poland signed the largest arms procurement deal in its history on Wednesday, agreeing with the United States to buy Raytheon Co’s Patriot missile defense system for $4.75 billion in a major step to modernize its forces against a bolder Russia. It is an extraordinary, historic moment; it is Poland’s introduction into a whole new world of state-of-the-art technology, modern weaponry, and defensive means,” President Andrzej Duda said during the signing ceremony. NATO member Poland has accelerated efforts to overhaul its ageing weaponry following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Two-thirds of Poland’s weaponry dates from the Cold War era when it was in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov told state-run Sputnik news website in November that Patriot deployments were part of a U.S. plot to surround Russia with missile defense systems “under the pretext of mythical threats to security”. The Patriot deal follows Monday’s expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats by the United States and a score of other Western countries including Poland in response to a the poisoning of a Russian former spy in Britain. This month, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled an array of new nuclear weapons, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and evade a U.S.-built missile shield. The Patriot deal came as a relief for Poland amid tension with Washington over a law Warsaw introduced in January imposing jail terms for suggesting Poland was complicit in the Holocaust.

          ECB Finds €10 Billion In European Bank Loan "Miscalculations” -  By now it is, or should be, well-understood that the biggest deflationary virus at the heart of the European financial system is the ~€1 trillion mountain of bad loans  (of which which over €230 billion is found in Germany and France) and which casts a giant shadow both over Europe and the ECB whose president is well aware that without the central bank's bid, the liquidity and confidence vortex that is this massive monetary black hole, will promptly drag Europe's economy back into depression.Well, as of today one can make it $1 trillion and €10 billion, because in a report published by the European Central Bank today, it announced its inspectors had found "shortcomings and miscalculations" worth more than €10 billion when going through euro zone banks’ loan books last year.Not surprisingly - after all the stinking pile of bad debt is arguably the biggest threat facing the European financial system once QE and NIRP is over - the ECB’s annual report showed some banks were found to be deficient in the way they identify problem customers and loans, set aside provisions and choose when to grant credit according to Reuters.In other words "some banks" lied about pretty much everything.Tasked with avoiding a new financial crisis, the ECB has been putting pressure on banks to clean up their balance sheets from unpaid loans inherited from the last recession, a problem for most countries in the south of Europe, as well as Slovenia and Ireland. Ironically, the ECB's own monetary policy has removed all urgency to actually clean up balance sheets at a time when European junk bonds yield less than US government paper. The bad loans, along with risky derivative instruments, will remain the focus of ECB supervisors this year, President Mario Draghi said in the report.

          German Police Arrest Former Catalan Leader Puigdemont - German police on Sunday arrested Catalonia's former president Carles Puigdemont, as he crossed over by car from Denmark, in the latest blow to the Spanish region’s independence movement. Puigdemont's lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, said on Twitter that Puigdemont was picked up by German police as he was travelling back to Belgium where he has been living in self-imposed exile. The news was confirmed, when a German police spokesman told AFP that Puigdemont "was arrested today at 11:19 am by Schleswig-Holstein's highway patrol force," adding that the detention was based on a European warrant. "He is now in police custody."Puigdemont's party spokeswoman Anna Grabalosa also confirmed that he was detained on arrival in Germany from Denmark according to The Local. "It happened as he crossed the Danish-German border. He was treated well and all his lawyers are there. That is all I can say," she said. Puigdemont was driving in Germany on Sunday morning, en route from Denmark, when police detained him on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge. Puigdemont has been charged by Spain with "rebellion" and "sedition" over his failed independence bid for Catalonia. He had been visiting Finland since Thursday, but slipped out of the Nordic country before Finnish police could detain him.

          Spain jails Catalan secessionist leaders, issues international arrest warrants -- Friday saw the Supreme Court jail another five separatist leaders and order international arrest warrants for six exiled secessionists, including ousted regional premier, Carles Puigdemont.Puigdemont was arrested yesterday in Germany while attempting to cross the border from Denmark.The jailed leaders include Jordi Turull (former Catalan government spokesperson), Carme Forcadell (former Catalan parliament speaker), Raül Romeva (former regional external affairs minister), Josep Rull (former Catalan development minister) and Dolors Bassa (former Catalan labour minister).They join Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and former regional vice-premier, and the leaders of the secessionist lobby groups Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural, and Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, in jail since October.The Spanish ruling class is intent on “beheading” the secessionist movement, as the Madrid-based media now routinely refers to the repression on the Catalan nationalist movement. “The Supreme Court decapitates the [independence] ‘process’,” wrote El País. “The Supreme Court decapitates the ‘process’: Without leaders, without investiture and without a road map,” declared El Español . In addition to Puigdemont, Judge Pablo Llarena reactivated international arrest warrants against five more Catalan leaders living in self-imposed exile, and four former regional ministers, Toni Comín, Meritxell Serret and Lluís Puig, all of whom are in Belgium, as well as Clara Ponsatí, who is in Scotland. Police have said arrangements were being made for Ponsatí to hand herself in. The judge issued a warrant for Marta Rovira—the interim leader of the ERC, after Junqueras was sent to prison—who fled abroad with her daughter Thursday night.  In total, 25 Catalan leaders are to be tried for rebellion, misuse of public funds or disobeying the state. Convictions could result in up to 30 years in prison.

          Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont remanded in custody in Germany -- The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has been remanded in custody in northern Germany pending a decision on extradition proceedings brought by Spain.  The German authorities have 60 days in which to reach a decision on the extradition request, which Puigdemont opposed during Monday’s hearing. The district judge took the unusual step of criticising the content of the Spanish arrest warrant, suggesting that the extradition is not a foregone conclusion. While the warrant submitted by the Spanish government had met requirements for the former Catalan leader’s further detention, the Kiel district judge said, it was “without question that the content of the European arrest warrant offers some clues that the extradition [...] could be deemed impermissible”.  Puigdemont was detained under the European arrest warrant in the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein on Sunday morning as he journeyed by car from Helsinki to Brussels, where he has been living in self-imposed exile since Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence last October. Spain wants to extradite him on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds in relation to that declaration. The Spanish secret services have revealed that after they learned that Puigdemont planned to make the trip from Helsinki to Brussels by car, they fitted a geolocation device to the vehicle, and the 12 agents monitoring him were thus able to tip off the authorities when he crossed into Germany.  The immediate benefit for the Spanish government of Puigdemont being remanded in custody is that, for now at least, he will be silenced. While other Catalan leaders have been either jailed or hushed by the threat of prison, as long as Puigdemont was at large he could continue to use his skills as a journalist and propagandist to keep the issue of Catalan independence in the headlines. Meanwhile, Catalonia remains without a government and there is little prospect of one being formed. In an effort to appease Puigdemont’s supporters – tens of thousands of whom took to the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities on Sunday night – the three main secessionist groups have called for a plenary session of parliament on Wednesday to “guarantee the right of Puigdemont to be president”.

          Spanish judiciary accuses former Catalan President Puigdemont of “mobilising the masses” --The German government must “immediately” declare that it has no intention of extraditing Carles Puigdemont to Spain. This is the demand being made by Wolfgang Schomburg, the German lawyer for the former Catalan president, according to the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.Puigdemont is currently being detained in a prison in the German town of Neumünster after police arrested him last Sunday on a tip from Spanish intelligence. A district judge ruled on Monday that Puigdemont would remain in detention pending extradition until the Schleswig District Court of Appeals decides whether to permit his transfer to Spain. This could take up to 60 days.If the court gives the judicial go-ahead for the transfer, the political decision on Puigdemont’s extradition will be in the hands of the German government. Puigdemont can be handed over to the Spanish judiciary only if Justice Minister Katarina Barley, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), grants her approval. If she declared her opposition now, there would be no basis for Puigdemont’s continued detention.On the other hand, if the court rules the extradition to be unlawful, the government cannot overrule the decision. Schomburg justified his demand by saying that the European arrest warrant issued by Spain has no legal standing. It was imprecise, unsustainable and adventurous, he argued.  If the German government extradites Puigdemont to Spain on the basis of the 69-page indictment against him, it will set a precedent for the suppression of all forms of protest and opposition to the powers-that-be. Europe would effectively become a police state.

          Spanish police attack protests demanding release of Catalonian leaders - Protests have broken out throughout Catalonia following last week’s Supreme Court ruling ordering 25 separatist leaders, including former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, to be put on trial on charges of rebellion, contempt and embezzlement. The protests have been met with bloody police reprisals. On Sunday, demonstrations organised by the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), controlled by the pseudo-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), led to clashes that left nearly 100 people injured. Catalan regional police shoved and hit demonstrators with batons to keep them from advancing on the office of the Madrid government’s representative in Barcelona.Throughout the week, the regional police repeatedly intervened to remove protesters blocking main motorways with burning barricades.In Barcelona, demonstrators have attempted to close the Diagonal Avenue, one of the main city routes, with banners reading “Freedom for political prisoners” and “General strike!” Puigdemont, who fled Spain last October following the declaration of independence, was arrested under a European Arrest Warrant in Germany on Sunday. He faces extradition to Spain and 30 years in prison. Spanish National Police have since arrested two Catalan policemen (Mossos) and a historian who accompanied Puigdemont and charged them with concealment, which carries a three-year jail sentence.

          Italy: Five Star Movement makes a deal with the far-right League - Three weeks after the Italian parliamentary election, the protest movement Five Star (M5S) and the far-right League (Northern League) have moved closer together, and they might now form a coalition government.The leaders of the two parties, 45-year-old Matteo Salvini (League) and 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio (M5S), are in constant contact. Salvini noted a few days ago that he speaks to Di Maio on the phone more often than to his own mother. Due to this close cooperation, the leaders of the two chambers of parliament were smoothly elected over the weekend. According to press reports, Di Maio and Salvini are working on a joint government programme.The M5S and the alliance of far-right parties—the League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the fascistic Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)—elected Roberto Fico (M5S) as president of the Chamber of Deputies and Elisabetta Alberti Casellati (Forza Italia) as speaker of the Senate.The election is remarkable because, shortly before the parliamentary elections, Di Maio had promised that M5S would “never” engage in intrigues and deals behind closed doors. Roberto Fico, the new president of the Chamber of Deputies, declared: “I guarantee we will never ally ourselves with the League: it is genetically different.” But that is exactly what has happened. The election of the two Chamber presidents was the result of secret intrigues and deals between M5S and the League. M5S, which owed its election success to its proclaimed opposition to corruption, previously presented Berlusconi and his Forza Italia as its arch-enemies. Now, M5S has elevated Casellati, a “super-Berlusconian,” into the country’s second highest state office. The speaker of the Senate automatically assumes the duties of president if 76-year-old Sergio Mattarella is unable to carry out his duties.

          France paralysed as unions revive the spirit of 1968 - The Times - Fear of nationwide protests before the anniversary of the May 1968 uprising is gripping the Élysée Palace with strikes spreading across the public and private sectors as President Macron seeks to reform the French economy.Workers at Air France, the national carrier, downed tools yesterday, and unions called a strike today at Carrefour, the country’s biggest private employer and largest supermarket chain. French rail workers will walk out on Monday in the first of several strikes planned over the next three months, while workers at the national television broadcaster will go on strike next week, as will public utilities staff.The discontent has left Mr Macron facing what many believe will be a decisive period in his drive to modernise France. After reforming French labour law and making it easier for employers to fire staff, he wants to overhaul the country’s vast public sector and cut back on its generous pension schemes. The public sector in France employs 19.9 per cent of the workforce and eats up 56.6 per cent of national wealth.  The unrest is spreading in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the protests in May 1968 in which France’s conservative, post-war society was shattered by student action and nationwide strikes which left liberal thinking as the dominant force in education and morality. The first battle is being fought at Air France, where unions are demanding a 6 per cent pay rise for all staff. The airline had to cancel 24 per cent of its scheduled flights yesterday, disrupting Easter weekend plans for thousands of passengers. It was the third one-day stoppage this spring, and two more are planned for next week. Guillaume Pépy, chairman of SNCF, the state rail operator, said that “very few trains” would run after 7pm on Easter Monday. “It’s going to disturb the life of the French people a lot,” he said. “There are people planning to come home on Monday evening who will not be able to come home.” Rail strikers plan to stop work for two days out of five until the end of June, in the hope that they can disrupt trains without losing all their pay. They are protesting against Mr Macron’s plan to deprive new SNCF employees of highly advantageous conditions, including a guarantee of a job for life, that have long been given to French railway staff. Another perk being threatened is a train driver’s right to retire with a full pension from the age of 50.

          “Globalization Has Contributed to Tearing Societies Apart” - As populist parties and politicians in Europe keep racking up electoral victories, and the (somewhat overblown) fears of impending trade war whip US media into a frenzy, it is clear that the populist backlash that has roiled Western democracies in the past two years is far from over, as devastated communities and workers that have seen the benefits of globalization pass them by continue their insurrection against business and political elites.While this populist backlash has shocked many over the past two years, it didn’t shock Dani Rodrik. The widening chasm between the winners and losers of globalization, the damage that globalization wrought upon low-skilled workers in Europe and the United States, the dangers that this social disintegration would inevitably result in a huge political backlash—all were subjects that the Harvard economist explored and predicted in his seminal 1997 book “Has Globalization Gone Too Far?”   To understand where globalization has gone wrong, and how best to counter the rise of populist nativism, we recently interviewed Rodrik, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In his interview with ProMarket, Rodrik explained why trade agreements often serve rent-seeking by politically well-connected firms, how the “fetishization” of globalization’s benefits helped deepen inequality, and why he believes the only solution to the dangerous rise of today’s political populism is an economic populism that reimagines the institutions of capitalism.   The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity:

          German Joblessness Hits Record Low as Firms Face Bottlenecks - German unemployment extended its decline in March as companies in Europe’s largest economy boosted their labor force to keep up with bulging order books. The jobless rate dropped to a record low of 5.3 percent in March, the Federal Labor Agency in Nuremberg said on Thursday. The number of people out of work plunged a seasonally adjusted 19,000 to 2.373 million. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast a drop of 15,000. Germany has been a key beneficiary of buoyant global trade and domestic spending, and the Bundesbank says the economy’s strong upturn probably continued in the first quarter of this year. While sentiment indicators have recently taken a hit amid mounting fears over U.S. protectionism, the high volume of orders accumulated in the second half of last year is likely to support manufacturing activity for now, according to the central bank.Fading optimism may have some effects “here and there, but we don’t see it as a trend reversal,” Detlef Scheele, head of the federal labor agency, said at a press conference in Nuremberg.One risk facing some sectors is that the country’s increasingly tight labor market will limit companies’ ability to hire staff to sustain growth. Construction is seeing “considerable capacity bottlenecks,” according to the Bundesbank, and one in four businesses cite labor shortages as a reason for holding back production, EU data show. Joblessness fell by about 17,000 in west Germany and by 2,000 in the eastern part of the country. Data on euro-area unemployment will be published next week and are forecast to show a drop to 8.5 percent, the lowest in more than nine years.

          Trump and Brexit: Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Gives Bombshell Testimony to British Lawmakers – Pam Martens - Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who has thus far exposed how Steve Bannon and his money-backer, billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, created Cambridge Analytica, which harvested private data from 50 million Facebook users to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, testified for almost four hours this morning before British lawmakers in the Commons Culture Committee. His testimony was explosive at times.  Wylie is testifying before the British lawmakers because the same people and companies involved in the social media data mining and micro-targeting for Trump’s presidential campaign were also involved in the June 23, 2016 Brexit vote in the U.K. where citizens voted in a referendum to take the U.K. out of the European Union.Wylie testified that a Canadian company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), developed the software for Cambridge Analytica, describing it as a “proxy” firm and “money laundering operation.” He stunned some lawmakers with this testimony: “AggregateIQ, in part because it was set up and works within the auspices of Cambridge Analytica, inherited a lot of the company’s culture of total disregard for the law… “This is a company that has worked with hacked material; this is a company that will send out videos of people being murdered to intimidate voters; this is a company that goes out and tries to illicitly acquire live internet browsing data of everyone in an entire country. I think a lot of questions should be asked about the role of AIQ in this election and whether they were, indeed, compliant with the law here.”

          Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower: My Predecessor Was Poisoned -- Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie's testimony before the culture select committee of MPs has been nothing short of shocking. But perhaps the most disturbing claim made by the former Cambridge Analytica data scientist was that his predecessor was murdered in Kenya after a mysterious "influence brokering" deal went sour.Wylie told the committee that he wasn't aware of his predecessor or his fate when he arrived at Cambridge in 2012. But shortly after, he was looking for a file that would've been maintained by his predecessor. During the course of looking for the file, another employee told him about the rumors. Wylie's predecessor, Dan Muresan, the son of a former Romanian minister of agriculture who is now imprisoned, was found dead in 2012, according to the Daily Mail.Wylie said his predecessor had been working for President Uhuru Kenyatta's re-election campaign when he was found dead.'Dan was my predecessor....what I heard was that he was working on some kind of deal of some sort - I'm not sure what.'The deal went sour.'People suspected he was poisoned in his hotel room. I also heard that the police had got bribed not to enter the hotel room for 24 hours.'He added: 'That is what I was told - I was not there so I speak to the veracity of it. Muresan was the son of former Romanian Agriculture Minister Ioan Avram Muresan, who is now in prison for corruption charges.

          UK political shock as Zuckerberg spurns parliament -- Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday turned down a request by British parliament members to appear before them to respond to concerns about data privacy as the European Union set a deadline for the US social media giant to respond to its own questions. Zuckerberg instead offered to send one of his deputies as the US company comes under new pressure from the EU to disclose more details about how up to 50 million users' data are alleged to have been taken from Facebook and used in political campaigns. Zuckerberg's decision is "astonishing", said Damian Collins, head of the parliamentary committee that requested testimony from the American billionaire. Collins said Zuckerberg should "think again". "Given the extraordinary evidence that we've heard so far today... it is absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself to questioning," he said. Collins was speaking during a hearing with a whistleblower from political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, the firm which got hold of data of millions of Facebook users. Prime Minister Theresa May said she hoped Zuckerberg understood why people were concerned about alleged leaks of personal data, but it was up to him to decide whether to face a committee in Britain's parliament. "Mr Zuckerberg will decide for himself whether he wants to come before the committee, but what I hope, is that Facebook will recognise why this is so significant for people and why it is that people are so concerned about it, and ensure that the committee is able to get the answers that they want" May told lawmakers. 

          Brexit: the worst of all possible worlds - It seems as if Russia has served its unintended purpose of distracting from the European Council and the guidelines on the future relationship with the UK. Mrs May has walked away with expressions of solidarity from the EU and Member States, claiming the deal brokered with the EU has laid the ground for a "new dynamic" in the talks. With that, a complacent media is variously reporting that Mrs May has achieved "success in negotiating a standstill transition deal", while the Mail has the prime minister hailing the "spirit of opportunity". The Wall Street Journal even went so far as to declare: "Prime Minister Theresa May concluded on Friday what probably counts as her most successful EU summit".  This is an utterly bizarre "take" on what feels like the most ignominious surrender since Lord Cornwallis ceded Yorktown, Virginia to Washington.  In accepting the terms set out in the guidelines adopted by the European Council yesterday, Mrs May has effective opened the way to a further 21 months of subordination to the EU, without being able to take part in any of the decision-making processes that attend membership of the EU.   Not only that, the guidelines pave the way to a future partnership that "will inevitably lead to frictions in trade" and "unfortunately" will "have negative economic consequences, in particular in the United Kingdom".  In entirely uncompromising terms, the European Council has reiterated that "any agreement with the United Kingdom will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations, and ensure a level playing field", noting that, "a non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member".

          Brexit: UK Capitulates - Yves Smith - It is a mystery as to why the hard core Brexit faction and the true power brokers, the press barons, have gone quiet after having made such a spectacle of their incompetence and refusal to compromise. Do they not understand what is happening? Has someone done a whip count and realized they didn’t have the votes if they tried forcing a crisis, and that the result would probably be a Labour government, a fate they feared far more than a disorderly Brexit? As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, the EU has the vastly stronger negotiating position. The UK could stomp and huff and keep demanding its super special cherry picked special cake all it wanted to. That was a fast track to a crash-out Brexit. But it seems out of character for the Glorious Brexit true believers to sober up suddenly.   The transition deal is the much-decried “vassal state“. As we and others pointed out, the only transition arrangement feasible was a standstill with respect to the UK’s legal arrangements with the EU, save at most some comparatively minor concessions on pet issues. The UK will remain subject to the authority of the ECJ. The UK will continue to pay into the EU budget. As we’d predicted, the transition period will go only until the end of 2020.  The UK couldn’t even get a break on the Common Fisheries Policy. From the Guardiana lopsided system of quotas has granted up to 84% of the rights to fish some local species, such as English Channel cod, to the French, and left as little as 9% to British boats. Add on a new system that bans fishermen from throwing away unwanted catch and it becomes almost impossible to haul in a net of mixed fish without quickly exhausting more limited quotas of “choke” species such as cod…. Leaving the EU was meant to change all that….Instead, growing numbers of British fishermen feel they have been part of a bait-and-switch exercise – a shiny lure used to help reel in a gullible public.  The one place where the UK did get a win of sorts was on citizen’s rights, where the transition deal did not make commitments, much to the consternation of both EU27 and UK nationals. Curiously, the draft approved by the EU27 last week dropped the section that had discussed citizens’ rights. From the Express:

          The Brexit Transition Deal - Michel Barnier, the European Union’s Brexit negotiator, and David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, announced a transition deal on March 19. We review recently published opinions about the deal and its implications. If you are unfamiliar with the discussion over the Brexit transition deal, Alex Barker andMartin Arnold have a short but detailed list of FAQs out on the Financial times. David Henig and Julian Jessop also each have a thread out on Twitter that you may be interested in checking out. James Blitz writes in his Brexit Briefing that the transition is agreed, but at a price. There are three reasons for caution. First, the transitional deal is not fully guaranteed, as it still depends on the successful conclusion of an Article 50 deal in the next 12 months, and there are three tracks to the Article 50 negotiation that stand in the way of an Article 50 deal: the Ireland question, the settlement of a future framework for trade, and the dispute resolution mechanism that will be needed for future trade relations. Second, the 21-month transition is too short for the UK civil service and much of British business. Third, and related, the transition agreement contains no sunset clause for a possible extension of the transition. Blitz thus thinks that the agreement is a sobering moment for British business, which has to stop believing in miracles and recognise the inevitability of change. Chris Grey thinks that the deal can be seen as no more than an extension of the period of uncertainty: it is not, at this point, a transition to anything nor is it an implementation of anything. Future trade terms will not be agreed until after the end of the Article 50 period, and it seems unlikely that the detailed legal terms will be fully agreed in time for the end of the transition period – so a cliff edge is still a possibility. Ian Dunt thinks the transition agreement merely delays the inevitable and raises the stakes. Everything hinges on the Irish border question, which the EU could have forced on Britain now, but it did not. The UK government is not going to agree to carve out Northern Ireland as a separate economic territory, and it is unlikely to keep the rest of the UK in the single market and customs union either. So the border cannot be around the UK, or in the Irish Sea, which means it has to be across Ireland – an option that the UK has, however, ruled out. In short, what the UK wants remains impossible, with the risk of facing the whole deal collapsing.

          Britain could have to wait for years to implement new trade deals with other countries  - BRITAIN could have to wait for years to implement new trade deals with other countries after Theresa May hinted the timetable for setting up new border terms with Brussels could slip. Probed over warnings from HMRC that a new customs arrangements with the EU could take five years to set up, the PM told MPs that “timetables that have originally been set” may not be the same once “you actually start to look at the detail”. Theresa May said: 'We are working to ensure that by the end of implementation customs arrangements will be in place.' The Government have vowed that a new customs partnership with the EU will be in place by 2021. And Britain would not be able to enforce new trade deals away from Brussels until the terms of border tariffs with the EU are known and are operational.Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee, the PM said: “We are looking at different potential customs arrangements for the future in order to deliver on the commitments that we have made.”She added that Britain and Brussels were now “at the point at being able to look in more detail with the European commission at some of those proposals.”

          Theresa May hints at extension to EU customs transition deal - Britain may not be ready to enter into a new customs arrangement with the European Union by the time its transition agreement runs out, Theresa May suggested yesterday.In an admission that is likely to alarm Tory Brexiteers, the prime minister said that when the detail of the administrative changes that might be needed was examined, the timetables that had been agreed so far might need to be revised.  Mrs May was responding to comments made by HM Revenue & Customs officials who told the Treasury committee that a new customs partnership with the EU could take five years to set up.Her comments will increase speculation that a transition deal might have to be extended or that Britain might remain in an effective customs union with the bloc even after December 2020.Brexiteers are already concerned that some in the government are pushing Mrs May to reverse her plan to pull out of the EU customs union.Labour has declared that it supports continued membership while pro-European Tory MPs are attempting to force a vote on the issue in Parliament later this year. Giving evidence to the Commons liaison committee yesterday, Mrs May said: “We are looking at different potential customs arrangements for the future in order to deliver on the commitments that we have made. “I think it is fair to say that, as we get into the detail and look at these arrangements, what becomes clear is that sometimes the timetables that have originally been set are not the timetables that are necessary when you actually start to look at the detail and when you delve into what it really is that you want to be able to achieve.” HMRC is developing a new, upgraded electronic customs system that is due to be introduced two months before Brexit. That system will need to process 255 million customs declarations a year, up from the 55 million that is processed now. There are also concerns that ports such as Dover, which have limited space, will be unable to cope with even minimal customs checks. The French have warned of 30-mile tailbacks to ports on both sides of the Channel if the final Brexit deal involves mandatory customs and sanitary checks at the French ferry terminal.

          Theresa May risks being replaced and splitting Tory party if she ignores Eurosceptics’ demands, says Jacob-Rees Mogg - Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned Theresa May she risks splitting the Conservative Party in two and could be ousted as prime minister if she breaks Tory backbench Eurosceptics’ red lines on Brexit. The arch Brexiteer compared Ms May’s predicament to that of 19th Century prime minister Sir Robert Peel, who forced through the controversial repeal of the Corn Laws against the wishes of many of his MPs.The move resulted in Peel being forced to quit as prime minister and the Conservative Party splitting, with the “Peelites” eventually joining forces with the Whigs and others to form the Liberal Party.Asked about Brexiteers' demands after delivering a speech to mark one year until Brexit, Mr Rees-Mogg said Ms May would be risking similar consequences if she relies on Labour votes to get a final Brexit agreement through parliament without the support of her Eurosceptic backbenchers.He said: “Let’s be frank: all the red lines have gone in the transition deal – there isn’t a red line left in that.“The concern is whether the red lines will be in the final withdrawal agreement."In a thinly-veiled threat, he added: “I’m sure the prime minister knows her history. I’m sure that she knows how Robert Peel got the repeal of the Corn Laws through. No Conservative leader would ever wish to get through so major a piece of legislation again on the back of opposition votes. “I think the Government will stick to its red lines, because that is the political reality.” The Government has backed down on a number of issues in order to secure a transition agreement with Brussels, including agreeing that the UK will fall under the jurisdiction the European Court of Justice for a further two years, and giving EU countries access to British fishing waters until 2021. The transition deal also states that the UK will continue to follow EU regulations unless a separate agreement is reached in relation to the Northern Ireland border.

          The future is bright, promises Theresa May as she embarks on a UK-wide Brexit tour today (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May promised Britain bright prospects outside the European Union on Thursday as she toured a country still profoundly divided about its future as the countdown to Brexit enters its final 12 months. Britain is on course to leave the European Union at 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019, severing ties that helped define its national identity, its laws, and its international stature over 46 years of integration with European neighbours. In the 21 months since the referendum, May, who became prime minister in the resulting political chaos, has struggled to unite the country behind a single vision of Brexit. Voters’ disparate views on leaving are entrenched, and few have any certainty about Britain’s long-term future. May will meet voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a whirlwind tour designed as a rallying cry for the union between the four nations of the United Kingdom, and to paint a positive post-Brexit vision. “I am determined that our future will be a bright one,” she said ahead of the roughly 800-mile (1,280 km) trip ending in London. Starting her tour in Scotland, May met workers in a textile factory, focussing on the future benefits she said Brexit could bring for trade. “I believe that we can negotiate a good agreement which is tariff-free and as frictionless trade as possible, so we maintain those markets in the EU, but also that we open up market around the rest of the world. Brexit provides us with opportunities,” she told broadcasters. The EU maintains that by leaving its single market and customs union, Britain will be making trade more difficult. EU Council President Donald Tusk has remarked that any trade deal with Britain would be the first in history to loosen economic links rather than strengthen them. 

          Theresa May in Wales on '12 months to Brexit' tour - BBC News: The prime minister has said she wants to "strengthen the bonds that unite" Wales and the UK, as she prepares to mark one year to go until Brexit. Theresa May visits Vale of Glamorgan firms on Thursday on a UK-wide tour. With the UK government negotiating with Welsh ministers over assembly powers after Brexit, she will say she is "committed" to devolution. But Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones warned her Brexit plan would "do serious damage to our economy".  The Welsh Government backs the UK remaining in the EU single market and its customs union, which means member countries club together to apply the same import taxes on goods coming from outside the union.In a speech in March, Mrs May reiterated her plan to leave both the single market and the customs union as she called for a free trade agreement covering most sectors of the economy.She warned that "no-one will get everything they want" out of the Brexit negotiations leading Mr Jones to criticise the speech for having "too many vague aspirations and scant detail". At the time, the first minister said the prime minister failed to "spell out" how she intends to achieve "frictionless" trade with the EU "outside a customs union".In his latest statement, Mr Jones said that with the UK set to leave the EU at 23:00 BST on 29 March 2019 "the people of Wales still have no idea about the post-Brexit deal the prime minister wants with Brussels".He added: "The clock is ticking. Businesses and the public sector need to be able to plan for this huge change but the lack of clarity from the UK government is making this all but impossible.

           May heads for autumn showdown as countdown to Brexit begins -  Theresa May’s 12-month journey to Brexit is strewn with political danger, but the rebels who could alter the course of events have one main opportunity: a parliamentary showdown in the autumn over what the UK prime minister’s team calls simply “the Deal”. The rebels within the governing Conservatives — whose votes the minority government badly needs — are quietly scaling back plans for guerrilla attacks on Mrs May’s position in the coming months. Instead, they are saving their political capital for one final push in the autumn, when she is due to present the details of Britain’s EU withdrawal deal and outline the plans for future ties with the bloc. “That’s the moment of truth,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Brexiter Tory MP. The biggest battle is likely to be over whether Britain stays in a customs union with the EU, rather than any attempt to overturn the country’s scheduled exit on March 29 2019. Mrs May’s government claims it has momentum in the talks with the bloc, having reached provisional agreement with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, on divorce and a transition deal lasting until the end of 2020. One leading pro-European MP now expects rebels to “flake away” from efforts to defy the government on trade legislation next month. The rebels contend that, at present, their pressure is working better behind the scenes. Chancellor Philip Hammond, an advocate of a soft Brexit, is among those who privately hope that pressure from the Conservative backbenches will force the government to negotiate a deal that keeps Britain close to a customs union. “There are those in government who say that the pressure from outside helps them to keep the heat on,” said one of the so-called Tory rebels.

          Disaster road: The Brexit Irish border plan and why it won’t work - The current set up for the Irish border problem works like this: Either David Davis solves it via trade talks, or he provides a technological solution, or he has to accept the EU's 'backstop' solution - which is essentially membership of the customs union and single market. This is a description of the first two options. And an explanation of why Davis won't be able to provide them. The key test is that the border must be completely frictionless. It is not enough for it to be quite open. It must be completely invisible. No posts, no infrastructure, no guards, no CCTV cameras. The Brexit solution to this is threefold: time, space and tech.   On time, you take the activities which take place at a border and do them before and afterwards. On space, you carry out border functions away from the border, within a designated geographical zone and at the point of production. On tech, you compliment this with various IT solutions, from a centralised application process to digital tracking to smartphone apps. Probably the most advanced work on the issue comes, ironically enough, from within the EU. The Policy Department for Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs - they're really good at snappy names in Brussels - recently produced a report called Border 2.0. It's like a long list of every possible logistical and technical solution you could throw at the problem. This has been seized on with glee by many Brexiters, who claim it is proof it can be solved.The core part of any plan is to set up a 'trusted trader' programme. Companies would send in a digital export/import form ahead crossing the border and be given a unique number. Ideally this would all be through one digital gateway, so they didn't have to send various pieces of information to different government agencies.They'd then cross the border without checks. Maybe the driver would receive a permit via a smartphone app. The payment system would then be back-loaded so it takes place after the border has been crossed. Firms would pay customs on a periodic basis - say once a month - rather than for each crossing. This would be the system for the large companies, but actually they're a minority. Most crossings are by small firms. One estimate found that only 53 businesses in Northern Ireland employing more than 250 people are exporting goods to the Republic. Ninety-two per cent of cross border businesses employ less than 50 people.

          Europe dumps 300,000 UK-owned .EU domains into the Brexit bin In an official statement Thursday, the European Commission announced it will cancel all 300,000 domains under the .eu top-level domain that have a UK registrant, following Britain's eventual departure from the European Union. "As of the withdrawal date, undertakings and organizations that are established in the United Kingdom but not in the EU and natural persons who reside in the United Kingdom will no longer be eligible to register .eu domain names," the document states, adding, "or if they are .eu registrants, to renew .eu domain names registered before the withdrawal date." Going even further, the EC suggested that existing .eu domains might be cancelled the moment Brexit happens – expected to be 366 days from now – with no right of appeal. "As a result of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, a holder of a domain name does no longer fulfil the general eligibility criteria... the Registry for .eu will be entitled to revoke such domain name on its own initiative and without submitting the dispute to any extrajudicial settlement of conflicts." According to the most recent statistics available, there are just over 317,000 .eu domains registered in the UK – roughly a tenth of the registry's total. Cancelling them would have a huge impact on the company that runs .eu, EURid, and on the EU itself which receives millions of euros annually in surplus funds. Even more remarkably, EURid made it plain that it was not consulted over the plans or even informed what they were before the news was made public. A statement on the registry's site begins: "Yesterday afternoon, EURid, the registry manager of the .eu TLD, received the link to the European Commission’s communication concerning Brexit and the .eu TLD."

          UK Schools On Lockdown Following "Terrorist Threats" - British schools across the UK are on lock-down after threats of terrorist attacks against children were received. Around 12 institutions in London, Devon, Cornwall and Durham have received the threat.In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said "the Met has received a number of reports relating to malicious communications sent to schools across London on Wednesday, 28 March. These are currently being treated as hoaxes. There is no evidence to suggest that this is terror-related."Early reports of parents rushing to schools to collect their children have emerged, while some schools are said to have implemented extra security measures, some blocking gates and pulling down shutters, according to RT.One parent said to the Plymouth Herald a caretaker from Marlborough primary school came out and told parents there was a terrorist threat, saying children would be "hit with a car."Some schools are asking parents to pick up their children from 2:30pm in case the threat is credible. Others have said they do not believe there is any reason to close early, doubting the veracity of the threat. A spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "We are aware of a series of malicious communications to schools in Devon and Cornwall as well as across the country." Cambridgeshire Police also issued a statement, saying: "Enquiries are being carried out to establish the facts and forces are working together, along with the National Crime Agency, to investigate who is responsible." The police said the emails contained a warning that at 3:15 pm a car would drive into as many students as possible. The driver would also be armed, according to the threatening email, and would shoot any student trying to get away.

          Safe spaces used to inhibit free speech on campuses, inquiry finds - A parliamentary committee has expressed serious concerns about barriers to free speech in universities, warning that safe-space policies on campuses are “problematic” and often lead to the marginalization of minority groups’ views.The joint committee on human rights (JCHR), chaired by Harriet Harman, said its inquiry had not uncovered wholesale censorship of debate on university campuses as some media reporting had suggested, but warned there were nevertheless factors at work that actively limited free speech in universities.While some of these involved attempts by students to prevent debate of contested issues, the report also blamed university bureaucracy imposed on those organising events and restrictive guidance to student unions regarding freedom of speech on campuses.The committee’s report, published on Tuesday, said that although the problem was not pervasive, intolerant attitudes – often incorrectly using the banner of no-platforming and safe space policies – were nevertheless interfering with free speech on campus.  It said safe-space policies, originally intended to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups felt secure, were being used by some people to seek to prevent the free speech of others whose views they disagreed with.

          Number Of Children Forced Into Slavery Hits All-Time High - While the resurgence of human trafficking in war-torn Libya in recent years has occupied the headlines, trafficking in the UK has also climbed to an all-time high, according to the National Crime Agency. Statistics released by the NCA show the number of potential victims of slavery has increased by 35% to 5,145 since 2016 - the highest since records began in 2009. And it's likely that number will only continue to climb, per RT. The NCA said most victims are being used for sex or as drug mules by "county lines" groups, which use vulnerable children as couriers to transfer drugs from the city to rural areas. British nationals comprised the largest group, followed by people from Albania and Vietnam. UK children accounted for 819 referrals, while 777 were Albanians, and 739 were Vietnamese. Liam Vernon, a senior manager in the NCA’s modern slavery and human trafficking unit, said the figure is "shocking." "The reality is that there isn’t a region in the UK that isn’t affected." "The number is shocking and our assessment is that this is an underreported crime." Nearly half of the referrals were linked to labor exploitation, while other cases were connected to sexual exploitation (1,744) and domestic servitude (488). The NCA said the increase in referrals was due to a "greater awareness" of the problem, but warned that figures "almost certainly represent an underestimate of the true scale" of the problem in the UK. Will Kerr, director of the NCA, said the rising phenomenon was a "particular concern." "We are now dealing with an evolving threat," he said. "The criminals involved in these types of exploitation are going into online spaces, particularly adult services website, to enable their criminality."Other common countries of origin include China, Nigeria, Romania, Sudan, Eritrea, India, Poland and Pakistan; but 116 different nationalities are known to have been affected.

          Yulia Skripal no longer in critical condition, say Salisbury doctors - The condition of Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury along with her father, is improving rapidly, doctors have said.  Salisbury NHS foundation trust said on Thursday the 33-year-old was no longer in a critical condition, describing her medical state as stable. Christine Blanshard, medical director for Salisbury district hospital, said: “I’m pleased to be able to report an improvement in the condition of Yulia Skripal. She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day."   Her father’s condition is still described by the hospital as critical but stable.

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