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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

week ending Apr 21

 Does Fed Balance Sheet "Normalization" Signal The Next Asset Collapse Has Begun? -  After nearly a half century of unlimited dollar creation, multiple bubbles and busts...the current asset reflation has been the most spectacular...but alas, perhaps too successful.  The Fed's answer to control or restrain this present reflation is raising interest rates to stem the flow of business activity, lending, and excessive leverage in financial markets.  But in the Fed's post QE world, a massive $2 trillion in private bank excess reserves still waits like a coil under tension, ready to release if it leaves the Federal Reserve.  Thus, the only means to control this centrally created asset bubble is to continuously pay banks higher interest rates (almost like paying the mafia for protection...from the mafia) not to return those dollars to their original owners or put them to work.  With each successive hike, banks are paid another quarter point to take no risk, make no loan, and just get paid billions for literally doing nothing. The chart below shows the nearly $4.4 trillion Federal Reserve balance sheet, (acquired via QE, red line), nearly $2 trillion in private bank excess reserves (blue line), and the interest rate paid on those excess reserves (black line). While the Fed's balance sheet has begun the process of "normalization", declining from peak by just over a hundred billion, bank excess reserves have fallen by over $700 billion since QE ended.  So what?  The difference between the Federal Reserve balance sheet and the excess reserves of private banks is simply pure monetization (the yellow line in the chart below). This is the quantity of dollars that were conjured from nothing to purchase Treasury's and mortgage backed securities from the banks.  But instead of heading to the Fed to be held as excess reserves, went in search of assets, likely leveraged 2x's to 5x's (resulting anywhere from $3 trillion to $7.5+ trillion in new buying power). The Fed actions have created progressively larger asset bubbles more divergent from disposable personal income at peak...but falling below DPI during market troughs.    As the chart below shows, the Wilshire 5000 (representing the market value of all publicly traded US equities, red line) has deviated from the basis of US spending, US total disposable income (the total amount of money left nationally after all taxes are paid, blue line).

 Now Even a Fed Dove Homes in on the “Everything Bubble” - Wolf Richter - “If we have learned anything from the past, it is that we must be especially vigilant about the health of our financial system in good times, when potential vulnerabilities may be building,” explained Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard in a speech in Washington, D.C., this morning. This was a reference to a time-honored banker adage, now mostly forgotten after nearly nine years of easy money: Bad deals are made in good times. Brainard fills one of the seven slots on the Board of Governors. Two slots are filled by Chairman Jerome Powell and by Randal Quarles. Four slots remain vacant, waiting for Trump appointees to wend their way. She is a strong “dove” in the world of central banks, and she just pointed at why the Fed is tightening – and will continue to tighten: the Everything Bubble. After rattling off a litany of indicators showing why and how the economy’s “cyclical conditions have been strengthening,” she added this gem, there being nothing like Fed-speak to make your day: “Currently, inflation appears to be well-anchored to the upside around our 2 percent target.” “Well-anchored to the upside” of the Fed’s target – and then she moved on to the “signs of financial imbalances.” “Financial imbalances,” in Fed speak, are asset bubbles, a phenomenon when prices are out of whack with economic reality. In a credit-based economy, assets are collateral for debt. And inflated asset prices put the financial system, meaning the lenders, at risk when those asset prices deflate. Since the Fed has to take care of the financial system, and since it blew up so wonderfully last time due to asset bubbles deflating, the Fed is right to be worried about it. At first the hawks, the rare ones; and now even the doves. And she goes on, sticking all the while to the central banker rule of never calling anything in front of them a “bubble.” They say, prices are “elevated”: 

The Federal Reserve is Not a Private Bank – A Response to Counterpunch - There's a Counterpunch article doing the rounds on social media claiming the Federal Reserve (the Fed) is a private bank or corporation. To support this claim, the author points to private banks holding stock in the Federal Reserve. While true, the author assumes that “Like other corporations, (the Fed) is guided by and committed to the interests of its shareholders.” He bases the entirety of his argument about the Fed being private on this assumption.  Fortunately, his assumption isn’t true and cannot possibly be. Private banks that take part in the Federal Reserve System have to, by law, invest in the System by purchasing a certain amount of stock. This isn’t any ordinary stock. It cannot be freely traded. It cannot be sold. What the banks get for buying into the System and agreeing to cooperate with it is a 6% dividend on their investment. No more, no less. They can’t bribe the Fed for more, and the Fed has no capability of getting them more. The terms of the deal were written into the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 by Congress and can only be amended by Congress (which tells you exactly who controls the Fed). In other words, the Fed has no commitment to the interests of its shareholders because the shareholders have no way to sell their stock, and their small return from holding that stock never changes regardless of what the Fed does. This is nothing like the relationship between a private bank and its shareholders. At this point you should be asking why the author omitted these facts. But, hold on because it gets worse.  Later in the article, the author claims the Fed earns interest from bonds it purchases from the government. Again, this is true and, without further information, you might think it scandalous. But, hold your horses for the worst omission of all. Where is the fact that those interest payments are deposited back into the US Treasury at the end of each year to the tune of almost 100 billion dollars? It’s not there. Ask why.

10-year Treasury yield hits its highest level since 2014 -- The yield on the 10-year Treasury note hit 2.96 percent Friday, hitting its highest level since Jan. 10, 2014.  The two-year yield hit 2.461 percent, meanwhile, its highest level since Sept. 8, 2008, when the two-year yielded as high as 2.542 percent. Friday's moves cap a week of rising rates accredited to geopolitical and trade tensions, rising commodity prices and an uptick in German bund yields. As of the latest reading, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note was higher at around 2.96 percent at 3:52 p.m. ET, up roughly 10 basis points for the week. The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond was up at 3.146 percent, approximately 8 basis points higher since Monday. Bond yields move inversely to prices.The 10-year Treasury note yield is especially important given its role in helping set rates for a whole range of business and consumer loans, including home mortgages."We've seen a bounce in the economic activity and a bounce in the inflation numbers. Now with the Fed looking to hike at least two more times throughout the end of the year, we're seeing softening at the long end of the curve," said Robert Tipp, chief investment strategist at PGIM Fixed Income."Here we are scratching new highs, but I would guess somewhere between here and 3.1 percent we'll see the sell-off run out of gas." Burgeoning inflation expectations led to a rise in interest rates earlier this year, sparking a widespread equity sell-off as stock traders grew nervous over whether the economy was ready for increased borrowing costs.

 Investors Are Getting Worried About an Inverted Yield Curve - To Citigroup Inc., the chances are slim that the U.S. enters a recession anytime soon. Officials at the Federal Reserve feel the same way.Yet both camps agree that an inverted Treasuries yield curve would be an ominous sign for growth. And with the latest bout of flattening, the reality of sub-zero spreads may soon collide with an otherwise sanguine outlook on the economy.The yield curve from 5 to 30 years flattened Wednesday to as little as 29 basis points, the narrowest spread since 2007. From 2 to 10 years, the gap touched 41 basis points, also the smallest in more than a decade. For extending to 10 years from 7, investors pick up a mere 4.3 basis points, less than a quarter of what they got a year ago. If the barrage of Fedspeak this week is any indication, the persistent flattening is creating a dilemma for officials, who appear intent on gradually tightening policy. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard was the latest to weigh in, saying that central bankers need to debate the yield curve right now, and that it could invert within six months.On the one hand, bond traders are finally starting to come around to officials’ path of hikes, with the unemployment rate the lowest since 2000 and inflation creeping higher. But stubbornly low long-term yields could eventually force the Fed to slow down, unless policy makers are willing to push the curve below zero. “The Fed is going to be very sensitive to the shape of the yield curve,” “If we get to the point where inversion might begin to happen, the Fed may put the brakes on further dialing back monetary stimulus.” Something will have to give -- at least, if the Fed wants to keep investors from speculating that a recession is approaching. It took about six months for the curve from 5 to 30 years to flatten from around 30 basis points to zero in 2005-06. The curve from 2 to 10 years narrowed from about 40 basis points to zero in a similar amount of time. That puts both on track to invert by year-end. “A potential curve inversion should be taken as seriously as always,” Citigroup analysts led by Jabaz Mathai wrote in an April 13 report. “The historical relationship between the curve and implied recession probabilities is highly non-linear: implied probabilities grow very fast when the curve moves into inverted territory.”

Junk Bond Market Still in Total Denial, Fighting the Fed - Wolf Richter - The Fed’s efforts to raise interest rates across the spectrum have borne fruit only in limited fashion. In the Treasury market, yields of longer-dated securities have not risen as sharply (prices fall when yields rise) as they have with Treasuries of shorter maturities.The two-year yield has surged to 2.41% on Tuesday, the highest since July 2008. But the 10-year yield, at 2.82%, while double from two years ago, is only back where it had been in 2014. So the difference (the “spread”) between the two has narrowed to just 0.41 percentage points, the narrowest since before the Financial Crisis: This disconnect is typical during the earlier stages of the rate-hike cycle because the Fed, through its market operations, targets the federal funds rate. Short-term Treasury yields follow with some will of their own. But the long end doesn’t rise at the same pace, or doesn’t rise at all because there is a lot of demand for these securities at those yields.Investors are “fighting the Fed”— doing the opposite of what the Fed wants them to do – and the difference between the shorter and longer maturities dwindles, and it dwindles, and it causes a lot of gray hairs, and it dwindles further, until it stops making sense to investors and they open their eyes and get out of the chase, and suddenly long-term yield surge higher, as bond prices drop sharply. That’s why short sellers have taken record positions against the 10-year Treasury recently: they’re waiting for yields to spike to the next level.But this disconnect – this symptom of investors fighting the Fed – in the Treasury market is mild compared to the disconnect in the junk bond market. There, investors have completely blown off the Fed. At least in the Treasury market, 10-year yields have risen since the Fed started getting serious about rate increases in December 2016. In the junk bond market, yields have since fallen. In other words, despite the Fed’s tightening, the junk bond bubble has gotten bigger. And investors are not yet showing any signs of second thoughts.

Four Q1 GDP Forecasts: Around 2% -- The advance Q1 GDP report will be released next Friday, April 27th.   The consensus is for real GDP growth of 2.1% on a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) basis.  Here are four Q1 GDP forecast.  From Merrill Lynch:  We expect real GDP growth to slow to 1.7% qoq saar in the advance 1Q report [April 20 estimate]. From Nomura:  We expect the first reading of Q1 real GDP growth to come in at 1.6% q-o-q saar [April 20 estimate].  And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNow  The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2018 is 2.0 percent on April 17, up from 1.9 percent on April 16. [April 17 estimate]From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 2.9% for 2018:Q1 and 3.0% for 2018:Q2. [April 20 estimate]. It looks like another quarter around 2% or so, although there might still be some residual seasonality in the first quarter.

US Business Cycle Risk Report | 20 April 2018 - The threat of a global trade war is a risk factor for the global economic outlook, warned the managing director of the International Monetary Fund on Thursday. But in the weeks since President Trump rolled out tariffs on Chinese imports – and China responded in kind – nothing much has changed in the hard data as it relates to the US macro trend. The probability that a new recession is near for the US remains virtually nil. That could change, of course, if trade restrictions expand beyond the relatively minimal tariffs announced so far. At the moment, however, a downturn triggered by a trade war appears to be a low-probability event, based on the numbers published to date.By contrast, headwinds tied to growth may be a bigger threat in the months ahead. With the US economic expansion in its ninth year, the Federal Reserve remains on track to push interest rates higher. It remains to be seen if tighter monetary policy will choke off growth, but the case is still solid for expecting output to rise in the foreseeable future.Next week’s preliminary estimate of first-quarter GDP growth, however, is set to decelerate to 2.1%, according to this month’s survey of economists via The Wall Street Journal. That’s well below the 2.9% gain in the previous quarter.Growth may be on track to downshift, but the projections published to date are still strong enough to keep the economy from falling off the business-cycle cliff. Meanwhile, the Capital Spectator’s estimate of recession risk for the US equates with a near-zero chance that a new downturn started last month, based on a diversified set of economic indicators. (For a more comprehensive review of the macro trend on a weekly basis, see The US Business Cycle Risk Report.) The upbeat profile implies that Monday’s release of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index for March  will confirm that recession risk remained low last month.

 US recession risks seen rising sharply in 2019 and 2020 - Energy market professionals estimate there is a 40 percent chance of the U.S. economy entering recession before the end of next year, rising to a little over 50 percent before the end of 2020. The results are based on a survey sent by Reuters to 7,000 energy market professionals between April 13 and April 17, with responses received from 700 (https://tmsnrt.rs/2Hdyw4e). There is a wide dispersion of views, and most see only a low risk of recession in 2018, but the assessed probability increases significantly in 2019 and especially 2020.The state of the global economy is one of the most important drivers for oil consumption and prices, so the economic outlook is crucial to the calculations of OPEC and other oil suppliers.The United States now accounts for less than one-fifth of global economic activity, but the rest of the world is unlikely to grow strongly if the United States is in recession, so it makes a useful proxy for global growth.Predicting turning points in the economic and trade cycles is notoriously difficult, but the current global expansion shows increasing signs of maturity and escalating trade tensions create clear downside risks. OPEC and its allies, as well as other oil producers, need to incorporate the increasing probability of a U.S. recession and global slowdown when projecting oil consumption and prices in 2019 and 2020. The current U.S. economic expansion started in July 2009 and is already 106 months old, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (https://tmsnrt.rs/2JapXYP). The current expansion will become the second-longest on record next month, surpassing the long boom of the 1960s.If the economy is still expanding in July 2019, it will become the longest on record, passing the long boom of the 1990s. The global economy continues to display broad-based momentum and is predicted to remain healthy in 2018 and 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Fed's Beige Book: "Modest to moderate" expansion, "concern about tariffs" -- Fed's Beige Book "This report was prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas based on information collected on or before April 9, 2018." Economic activity continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace across the 12 Federal Reserve Districts in March and early April. Outlooks remained positive, but contacts in various sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation expressed concern about the newly imposed and/or proposed tariffs. Consumer spending rose in most regions, with gains noted for nonauto retail sales and tourism, but mixed results for vehicle sales. Manufacturing activity grew moderately, and demand for nonfinancial services was mostly solid. Residential construction and real estate activity expanded further, although low home inventories continued to constrain sales in several Districts. Loan demand increased, and commercial real estate activity and construction improved since the last report. Transportation services activity expanded in over half of the reporting Districts, buoyed by increases in port traffic and/or air, rail and/or trucking shipments. Agricultural conditions were little changed or worsened on net, in part due to persistent drought conditions. Contacts in the energy sector cited a pickup in activity, except in the Richmond District, where coal production was flat and natural gas production dipped slightly... Widespread employment growth continued, with most Districts characterizing growth as modest to moderate. Labor markets across the country remained tight, restraining job gains in some regions. Upward wage pressures persisted but generally did not escalate; most Districts reported wage growth as only modest.

Fed’s Beige Book reflects concerns about possible trade tariffs - The Fed’s verdict: The Beige Book reported activity remained at “a modest to moderate pace” in March and early April, the same rate as earlier in the year. There were widespread concerns about trade policy. Overall wage growth was said to be modest, and price gains seen as moderate. Wage pressures “did not escalate,” the report said. Labor markets were seen as tight, with continued reports of labor shortages for high-skilled workers. Contacts in nine of the dozen Fed regional banks expressed concerns about trade tariffs — with 36 mentions of the word in the report. Business owners were upset with the price rises for metals in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to place penalties on steel and aluminum imports. And there were worries about the prospect of future tariffs on Chinese imports from various sectors such as toys, agriculture, and transportation. There were relatively few comments about the tax cuts signed into law by President Trump. With steady above-trend growth, tight labor markets and moderate inflation pressures expected, the Fed’s game plan is to gradually raise short-term interest rates and bring its balance sheet back down to size. Nothing in the report calls for a reassessment. Wage pressure didn’t accelerate and there were only “scattered” reports of companies successfully passing through price increases to customers. Economists see first-quarter gross domestic product running near a 1.6% annual rate, well below the 2.7% rate the central bank expects this year. There were few signs from the report that economic growth was set to break out on the upside. It seems like the uncertainty from trade might be a drag on future activity. “These [aluminum] tariffs are now killing high-paying American manufacturing jobs and businesses,” said one contact in the Boston Fed’s district, upset that the price of “thin gauge foil” had been raised three-fold.

Fed's Beige Book: Sheer Panic Over Tariffs As Wage Growth Fizzles - Last month, we summarized the March Beige Book by saying that "(Wage) inflation is here", at least on paper because according to the Fed, "most Districts saw employers raise wages and expand benefit packages in response to tight labor market conditions." Or maybe not, because in the latest just released April Beige book, fears about sharply higher wages, which launched the February volatility explosion, are dead and buried as "upward wage pressures persisted but generally did not escalate" and "most Districts reported wage growth as only modest."So what would be the quick and dirty summary for the April Beige Book, when economic activity continued to expand "at a modest to moderate pace across the 12 Federal Reserve Districts"? In a word, literally, "tariffs" and here's why: March Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 0.   April Beige Book instances of word "tariff": 36.   But before we get to that, here are some big picture observations by the Fed on overall economic activity in March and early April:

  • Outlooks remained positive, though contacts in various sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation expressed concern about the newly imposed or proposed tariffs
  • Residential construction and real estate activity expanded further, although low home inventories continued to constrain sales in several Districts
  • Contacts in the energy sector cited a pickup in activity, except in the Richmond District, where coal production was flat and natural gas production dipped slightly

Inflation was also muted, with prices increasing across all Districts, but at a moderate pace, although there were widespread reports that steel prices rose, sometimes dramatically, due to trade tensions. The Fed also notes that businesses generally anticipated further price increases in the months ahead, particularly for steel and building materials. On wages and labor, as noted above, "most Districts reported wage growth as only modest" while "reports of labor shortages over the reporting period were most often cited in high-skill positions, including engineering, information technology, and health care, as well as in construction and transportation." And while the Fed believes that "businesses were responding to labor shortages in a variety of ways, from raising pay to enhancing training to increasing their use of overtime or automation", we would note here that the right answer is d: automation, despite the following vivid anecdote from the Dallas Fed: "Contacts reported that some rural employers were busing in workers from nearby cities because their local labor pool was tapped out."

 Trump's CIA chief in secret meeting with North Korean leader: U.S. officials (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State nominee and CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over the Easter weekend and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss a planned summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. officials said on Tuesday. Pompeo’s trip made him the most senior U.S. official ever known to have met with Kim and provided the strongest sign yet to Trump’s willingness to become the first serving U.S. president ever to meet a North Korean leader. Pompeo’s conversations fueled Trump’s belief that productive negotiations were possible with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but far from guaranteed, according to a U.S. senior official briefed on the trip. The visit, a second U.S. official said, was arranged by South Korean intelligence chief Suh Hoon with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, and was intended to assess whether Kim was prepared to hold serious talks. Pompeo, one of Trump’s most trusted advisers, returned to report that it was worth continuing to pursue the possibility of a summit, but added that no site had been selected from lists of options, and consequently no logistical arrangements had been made so far, the second official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity. Trump said earlier on Tuesday the United States was engaged in direct talks at “extremely high levels” with North Korea to try to set up a summit between him and Kim. He sowed some confusion by suggesting he had been speaking to Kim directly, but later clarified by saying: “Let’s leave it a little bit short of the highest level.” Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders added: “The president said the administration has had talks at the highest levels and added that they were not with him directly.” Asked about Pompeo, she said: “The administration does not comment on the CIA director’s travel.” 

Trump confirms CIA head Pompeo went to North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un, says it went 'very smoothly' -- President Donald Trump has confirmed that Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who is awaiting confirmation as secretary of state, met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea earlier this month.Trump said the two men interacted "very smoothly" and formed a "good relationship."The talks are the highest-level meetings between US and North Korean officials since Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, met Kim Jong Il in 2000."Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week," Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. "Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!"The meeting was remarkable given that only one year ago North Korean propaganda accused the CIA of plotting to kill Kim.Pompeo's trip, which reports out Tuesday night said happened over the Easter weekend, an apparent conflict with Trump's announcement, had been kept quiet as the US and North Korea deliberate on how best to coordinate a planned summer meeting between Trump and Kim. The news of Pompeo's secret trip comes after South Korea confirmed that its officials were in talks to end the 68-year war on the Korean Peninsula with a peace deal, something to which Trump has given his blessing.

North Korea halts nuclear and missile tests ahead of planned Trump summit -- North Korea has said it will end its tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and shut down its nuclear test site, in a dramatic development ahead of a much-anticipated meeting between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump. The suspensions went into immediate effect on Saturday, according to state-run KCNA news agency. The US president greeted the news in a tweet: “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!”   Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)  North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit. April 20, 2018  The British Foreign Office described the announcement as a positive step. “We hope this indicates an effort to negotiate in good faith,” a spokesperson said. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said the move was part of a process that must lead to the country’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation”. The news comes less than a week before Kim meets the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, for a summit in the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula. South Korea’s presidential office welcomed the announcement as “meaningful progress” towards denuclearisation. “It will create a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming inter-Korean and North-US summits,” said. The move goes some way towards meeting US demands for denuclearisation, as Pyongyang and Washington work towards agreement on when and where Kim will meet Trump for historic talks that barely seemed possible just a few months ago. KCNA quoted Kim as saying that North Korea should focus on economic development now that it had achieved its aim of becoming a nuclear state. “The whole party and the whole nation should now focus on the development of the socialist economy,” he was quoted as saying. “This is the party’s new strategic policy line.” 

11 senators are about to make a big mistake – AEI - For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president’s nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo’s record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee. There are no instances of a secretary of state nominee ever receiving an unfavorable committee vote since such votes were first publicly recorded in 1925. (Before that, the committee voted in closed session.) Democrat John Kerry was approved in a unanimous voice vote, including from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes Pompeo. Democrat Hillary Clinton was approved 16 to 1, despite concerns about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation. Madeleine Albright was approved unanimously, with the strong support of my former boss, the committee’s conservative then-chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who called Albright “a tough and courageous lady” and voted for her despite saying that she was “sincerely wrong” in some of her foreign policy views. Other Democrats, including Warren Christopher and Cyrus Vance, were also approved unanimously in committee, as were Republicans Colin Powell, James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz. Indeed, no secretary of state going all the way back to Henry Kissinger had ever received more than two negative votes in the Foreign Relations Committee — until Donald Trump became president. Last year, all 10 Democrats on the committee voted “no” to Rex Tillerson’s nomination, making him the first secretary of state in history to be approved on a party-line vote. Now, thanks to the opposition from those 10 Democrats and Paul, it appears that Pompeo could soon become the first secretary of state nominee in history to receive a negative recommendation from the committee. Their opposition comes just as President Trump is preparing for a high-stakes nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pompeo recently returned from North Korea, where he met with Kim and laid the groundwork for this historic meeting. Democrats ought to ask themselves how their actions will be seen in Pyongyang. To deliver such an undeserved rebuke to Pompeo at such a critical diplomatic moment would be a shameful abdication of the committee’s responsibilities.

Trump Becomes America's Top Arms Dealer In Quest To Boost US Weapons Sales -- Reuters reports that in an attempt to further streamline and fast-track Trump's plan to "buy American" weapons, the US is rolling out yet another policy aimed at increasing arms sales to US allies, and Trump himself will take an active part in ongoing negotiations, to "close the deal" so to speak.As Reuters details, in a previously undisclosed phone call with the emir of Kuwait in January, President Trump pressed the Gulf monarch to move forward on a $10 billion fighter jet deal that had been stalled for more than a year. Trump was acting on behalf of Boeing Co, America’s second-largest defense contractor, which had become frustrated that a long-delayed sale critical to its military aircraft division was going nowhere, several people familiar with the matter said. In personally working on behalf of a private company, "Trump did something unusual for a U.S. president – he personally helped to close a major arms deal." In fact, in private phone calls and public appearances with world leaders, Trump has gone further than any of his predecessors to act as a salesman for the U.S. defense industry, analysts said.It appears Trump has finally found a niche for himself in the White House: calling US "allies" in the hope of selling weapons while promoting war, chaos and death.Trump's efforts will be bolstered by the full weight of the U.S. government when Trump’s administration rolls out a new “Buy American” initiative as soon as this week aimed at allowing more countries to buy more and even bigger weapons. It will loosen U.S. export rules on equipment ranging from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery, the officials said. Some more details on the new weapons sales policy: Reuters has learned that the initiative will provide guidelines that could allow more countries to be granted faster deal approvals, possibly trimming back to months what has often taken years to finalize. The strategy will call for members of Trump’s cabinet to sometimes act as “closers” to help seal major arms deals, according to people familiar with the matter. More top government officials will also be sent to promote U.S. weapons at international air shows and arms bazaars.

America First—R.I.P. - David Stockman - Conventional defense of the U.S. shoreline and airspace against rogues would not require a fraction of today's 1.3 million active uniformed force---to say nothing of the 800,000 additional reserves and national guard forces and  the 765,000 DOD civilians on top of that. Rather than funding 2.9 million personnel, the whole job of national security under a homeland-based America First concept could be done with less than 500,000 military and civilian payrollers. In fact, much of the 475,000 US army could be eliminated and most of the Navy's carrier strike groups and power projection capabilities could be mothballed. So, too, the air force's homeland defense missions could be accomplished for well less than $50 billion per annum compared to the current $145 billion. Overall, the constant dollar defense budget (2017$) was $610 billion in 1989 when the cold war ended and the Soviet Union disappeared from the face of the earth. Had Washington pivoted to an America First national security policy at the time, defense spending could have been downsized to perhaps $250 billion per year.Instead, the Imperial City went in an opposite direction and ended up embracing a de facto policy of Empire First. The latter will cost $700 billion during the current year and is heading for $900 billion annually a few years down the road. In a word, Empire First easily consumes one-half trillion dollars more in annual budgetary resources than would America First. And that giant barrel of weapons contracts, consulting and support jobs, lobbying booty and Congressional pork explains everything you need to know about why the Swamp is so deep and intractable. Obviously, it's also why Imperial Washington has appointed itself global policeman. Functioning as the gendarme of the planet is the only possible justification for the extra $500 billion per year cost of Empire First.

Senators Offer Up Unprecedented War Powers to President - A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Monday would give the president sweeping authority to wage endless war anywhere in the world with limited congressional intervention. Perversely billed as a plan to “reassert” Congressional power to “authorize where, when and with who we are at war,” the proposal for a new AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) falls way short of that promise. In fact, it achieves quite the opposite. The bill, if passed, would not only codify all of the authority the president has now to fight Al Qaeda and Taliban and “associated forces” as interpreted in the current 2001 AUMF, but allow the president to add as many targets as desired in the future. Congress can only reverse these add-ons with a veto-proof supermajority, and the White House is not mandated to fully disclose any new “associated forces” publicly or even to the full Congress. Nor is there a sunset provision requiring Congressional reauthorization, only a mere “review” every four years. War critics on both the Left and Right were up in arms Tuesday over the details of the bill, which was introduced by Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.). Unlike the 2001 AUMF, it names the Islamic State with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and five designated “associated forces” (Al Qaeda in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Shabaab, and the Haqqani Network), which would essentially allow the U.S. military to engage in hostilities in Yemen, several countries in East and North Africa, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else these and any new groups may pop up in the future.  In short, it’s a rubber stamp for the global war on terror. “Beyond being all but a full abdication of war powers vested to Congress in the Constitution, an AUMF that encourages perpetual, indefinite war is fundamentally at odds with fiscal conservatism and wise use of taxpayer dollars, as well as with wise use of our armed forces and its men and women who deserve robust debate over when and where they are asked to put their lives on the line for their country,”

Autonomous Drones Will Soon Decide Who To Kill - The United States Army wants to develop a system that can be quickly integrated and deployed into its weaponized drone fleet to automatically Detect, Recognize, Classify, Identify (DRCI) and target enemy combatants and vehicles using artificial intelligence (AI). This is an impressive leap forward, whereas humans still operate current military drones, this technology could foster a new era of autonomous drones conducting operations in hybrid wars — without human oversight. The project is called “Automatic Target Recognition of Personnel and Vehicles from an Unmanned Aerial System Using Learning Algorithms,” — a very original name, which the details were recently released on the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR)website. In other words, the Department of Defense (DoD) via the Army is requesting private and research institutions that have developed image targeting AI platforms to form partnerships with them for the eventual technology transfer.  Once the technology transfer is complete, these drones will use machine-learning algorithms, such as neural networks blended with artificial intelligence to create the ultimate militarization of AI. Currently, military drones have little onboard intelligence, besides sending a downlink of high definition video to a military analyst who manually decides whom to kill. Here is the program’s objective: “Develop a system that can be integrated and deployed in a class 1 or class 2 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to automatically Detect, Recognize, Classify, Identify (DRCI) and target personnel and ground platforms or other targets of interest. The system should implement learning algorithms that provide operational flexibility by allowing the target set and DRCI taxonomy to be quickly adjusted and to operate in different environments.”

Trump Hits Assad Regime Over Suspected Chemical Attack - After days threatening to take action, President Donald Trump announced Friday evening that he’d ordered “precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities,” of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.Trump said U.S. forces acted together with France and the U.K.,  retaliating for a suspected poison gas attack that killed dozens near Damascus last week. The Pentagon listed the targets as a scientific research facility in Damascus that officials said was involved in producing chemical and biological weapons, as well as a chemical weapons facility near Homs, and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a military command post near Homs involved in the most recent attack. Trump said the strike was also a message to the “two governments most responsible” for equipping the Assad regime – Russia and Iran. “No nation can succeed by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants,” and dictators, he said. “Russia must decide if it wil continue down this dark path” or join with “civilized nations.” Syrian opposition leaders via Amman from their sources in the ground say the attacks were very surgical and hit, by their accounts, facilities that had been mostly evacuated.  Syrian security forces have cordoned much of the targeted areas but there does not appear to be any reported leaks of chemical products. From the Syrian opposition’s standpoint, as conventional forces do not appear to have been targeted, they not see the attacks as a game changer on the ground. Nor do they see the attacks in any way as being in support of the opposition efforts against Assad overall. From one of their senior officers, Assad is winning on the ground and does not need the chemical weapons to continue reestablishing control over most of the country.   Unfortunately, the limited nature of the attack is seen as clearly highlighting that absent the use of internationally banned weapons, Assad can continue to purge his country of the opposition, fill his prisons with opponents, execute whoever he wants as long as it is done with anything but a chemical weapon. In short, no strategic damage done to Assad, no tactical advantage gained and many in the region see it as a face saving gesture with little impact. An opportunity lost to change the calculus in Syria for both Assad and the opposition.

Syria Claims It Intercepted 71 Out Of 103 Cruise Missiles; Pentagon Denies - As US politicians and foreign leaders from Israel to Canada applauded the US-led airstrikes in Syria, reports emerged Saturday that the attack was far less effective than the Pentagon has claimed. According to the Russian Defense Ministry,  most of the missiles launched by the US, UK and France had been intercepted by Syria's air defenses. Employing Soviet-made S-125 and S-200 air defense systems as well as Buk and Kvadrat units, Syria reportedly shot down 71 of the 103 cruise missiles. These included 12 cruise missiles which had been headed toward the Dumeir military airfield - which was completely spared, thanks to the Syrian counterstrike. The US target list included the following:

  •     4 missiles were launched targeting the area of the Damascus International Airport. All these missiles were intercepted.
  •     12 missiles were launched targeting the Al-Dumayr Military Airport. All these missiles were intercepted.
  •     18 missiles were launched  targeting the Bley Military Airport. All these missiles were intercepted.
  •     12 missiles were launched targeting the Shayarat Military Airport. All these missiles were intercepted.
  •     9 missiles were launched  targeting the Mezzeh Military Airport. Five of them were intercepted.
  •     16 missiles were launched targeting the Homs Military Airport. 13 of them were intercepted.
  •     30 missiles were launched targeting targets in the areas of Barzah and Jaramani. Seven missiles were intercepted.

A spokesperson for the Russian general staff confirmed that no Russian defense systems were used to repel the attack, adding that Russia had declined to supply Syria with more advanced weapons - a decision it said it would reconsider."The Syrian air defense system has been conducting an anti-air fight," a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense said. Furthermore, it confirmed that the Syrian military repelled the attack using weapons manufactured in the USSR more than 30 years ago.The MoD added that, while the facilities in the areas of Barzah and Jaramani were partly destroyed, these facilities had been for a long time abandoned and had not been involved in the production of chemical weapons in contrary to the claims of the US-led coalition.

At destroyed Syria lab, workers say they produce antidotes to snake venom not toxic weapons - Plastic gloves and face masks lay scattered in the rubble of a Syrian research lab destroyed by Western strikes on Saturday, where an official denied the centre was developing chemical weapons. US, British and French strikes slammed into a series of targets around Damascus that the Western countries said were linked to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons programme.One multi-storey complex, in the capital’s northern district of Barzeh, had been completely reduced to rubble, AFP’s correspondents saw during a government-sponsored tour on Saturday. Its roof had been punched down and several walls appeared on the verge of collapse.Even hours after the strikes wrapped up, plumes of smoke wafted lazily up from the building and a burning smell still hung in the air. “The building had three storeys: a basement, ground floor, and second floor,” said Said Said, an engineer who identified himself as head of the centre’s paint and plastics department.“It had labs and departments that were unfortunately completely destroyed, with all their equipment and furniture. Thank God, no one was here,” he told AFP.  The site, according to Western powers, was part of the Syrian government’s “chemical weapons infrastructure.”But Said told AFP only non-lethal research and development was under way at the centre.“As we work in civilian pharmaceutical and chemical research, we did not expect that we would be hit,” he said.Instead, the centre had been producing antidotes to scorpion and snake venom while running tests on chemical products used in making food, medicine and children’s toys, according to Said.  “If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health -- I’m not coughing,” he added.

Donald Trump Ordered Syria Strike Based on a Secret Legal Justification Even Congress Can’t See - On Friday night, President Trump ordered the U.S. military to conduct a bombing attack against the government of Syria without congressional authorization. How can this be constitutional, given the fact that Article I, Section 8 of America’s founding document declares that “The Congress shall have Power … To declare War”?The deeply bizarre and alarming answer is that Trump almost certainly does have some purported legal justification provided to him by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — but no one else, including Congress, can read it.The Office of Legal Counsel is often called the Supreme Court of the executive branch, providing opinions on how the president and government agencies should interpret the law.We know that Trump received a top secret OLC opinion justifying the previous U.S. strike on Syria on April 6, 2017. Friday’s bombing undoubtedly relied on the same memo or one with similar reasoning. So while over 80 members of Congress wrote to Trump on Friday night stating that “engaging our military in Syria … without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” their action has no impact. The military will rely on the OLC’s opinion that, constitutionally speaking, Trump’s orders were perfectly fine. And it will be quite difficult for members of Congress to argue otherwise, since they don’t even know what the Trump administration’s precise rationale is.

    The Curious Case of the F-35 -- The priapic reaction to Trump’s firing off a few JASSM and Tomahawk missiles — followed, naturally, by the inevitable tristesse — gives me the opportunity to focus on another technological wonder: The most expensive weapon ever built, if built is the word I want: the F-35. It seems that the Pentagon has refused to accept delivery of the latest batch of Lockheed product. Reuters: [D]eliveries were paused again over a dispute as to who will pay for what will likely be a complex logistical fix that could require technicians to travel widely to mend aircraft based around the world, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.When the Pentagon stops taking delivery of F-35s, foreign customers can also be affected. So far at least two foreign governments have stopped accepting F-35s as a result of this issue, two of the sources said.During routine maintenance at Hill Air Force Base in Utah last year, the Air Force detected “corrosion exceeding technical limits,” where the carbon fiber exterior panel is fastened to the aluminum airframe. At the heart of the dispute is the government’s inspection of the planes during Lockheed’s production, which failed to discover problems with the fastenings, the sources said. Because neither party caught the issue at the time each is pointing the finger at the other to pay for the fix.Evidently, there are quality control problems on Lockheed’s production line:A joint government and industry investigation found that Lockheed had failed to apply a primer to prevent corrosion in the fastener holes for an aluminium cover plate. This isn’t the same corrosion[1] that was found back in 2016. Military.comLt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon said the corrosion issue is not the same as the corrosion found in the lines back in Sept. 2016. The Air Force grounded 13 out of 104 F-35s in the fleet then, “due to the discovery of peeling and crumbling insulation in avionics cooling lines inside the fuel tanks,” the service said at the time. Although that corrosion, too, was a quality control problem on Lockheed’s production line: [I]nsulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant.

    Syria – Pentagon Hides Attack Failure – 70+ Cruise Missiles Shot Down - The U.S. military seems to hide that its attack on Syria last Saturday largely failed. We checked the numbers and sources and said so in our weekly review published yesterday. This post is extending yesterday's analysis.The U.S. attack on Saturday was launched as revenge for an alleged 'chemical attack' by the Syrian government forces against the then 'rebel' held Damascus suburb Douma. The alleged 'chemical attack' never happened but was theater staged by the 'rebels' and their supporters after some people suffocated in a collapsed building.There is a very large discrepancy between the Russian Ministry of Defense report of the strike as well as other sources and the description in the Pentagon briefing on the strike. According to the Pentagon only three places related to a nonexistent Syrian chemical weapon program were targeted:This combined military strike was directed against three distinct Syrian chemical weapons program targets....We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets.... In summary, in a powerful show of allied unity, we deployed 105 weapons against three targets. One hundred and five weapons against three targets would be a remarkable overkill. Just consider that the U.S. Tomahawk and JASSM cruise missiles and the British Skalp EG cruise missiles used in these attacks carry 450 kilogram (~1,000 pounds) of high explosives each. Did the U.S. military really plan to use 15 metric tons of high explosives against each target. That would be enough to blow up a whole town. The U.S. claims it sent 76 cruise missiles against the non-hardened, non-defended Barzeh research center. This was a small two story building complex and had just recently been declared free of chemical weapons and weapon research by the OPCW. Sure, the facility is destroyed. But by 34 tons of high explosives? Or by maybe 2 tons?

    Haley: US Not Withdrawing Troops From Syria "Until Goals Accomplished", Will Hit Russia With More Sanctions Monday -- Recall that just on March 29, Trump said that based on allied victories against Islamic State militants, "We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon, very soon, we’re coming out. We’re going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be." Well, maybe not, because one oddly well-timed "chemical attack" by the Assad regime just days after Trump's statement, the US not only launched its second massive airstrike against Syria, lobbing 105 Tomahawk cruise missiles at three empty military facilities, but no longer has any intentions of "coming out."Speaking on Fox News on Sunday morning, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the United States "would not pull its troops out of Syria until its goals were accomplished." The US currently has over 2,000 troops in Syria, as well as a number of contractors.It is our goal “to see American troops come home, but we are not going to leave until we know we have accomplished those things,” Haley said and listed three aims for the United States: ensuring that chemical weapons are not used in any way that pose a risk to U.S. interests, that Islamic State is defeated and that there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.“Be very clear, if we leave, when we leave, it will be because we know that everything is moving forward,” Haley added. Asked about US-Russia relations, she said they are “very strained,” but the US still hopes to mend ties.On Saturday, Haley said that the US’ guns are “locked and lo aded,” and that Washington will not hesitate to strike if a chemical attack in Syria takes place again.

    Trump Hits Russia With New Sanctions Over Syria Gas Attack - The Trump administration will impose new sanctions against Russia on Monday for "enabling the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons in civil war", Nikki Haley revealed earlier on Sunday, and the New York Times confirmed later in the day. The sanctions, coming shortly after American-led airstrikes against facilities linked to Syria’s chemical weapons, are meant to signal that the United States holds responsible not just the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad but also his patrons in Russia and Iran. President Trump has vowed that Syria’s allies will pay a “big price” for permitting his use of poison gas.The Sanctions, first announced by UN ambassador Nikki Haley, "will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use," said Haley on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday morning. “I think everyone is going to feel it at this point. I think everyone knows that we sent a strong message and our hope is that they listen to it,” said Haley.The Monday sanctions will be the third round enacted by the Trump administration against Russia in the past month. In March, the administration imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organizations and individuals over 2016 election meddling and other "malicious cyberattacks." In late March, the U.S. State Department warned European corporations that they will likely face penalties if they participate in the construction of Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, on the grounds that "the project undermines energy security in Europe", when in reality Russia has f or decades been a quasi-monopolist on European energy supplies and thus has unprecedented leverage over European politics, at least behind the scenes.

    Trump Scraps New Sanctions Against Russia, Overruling Advisers — President Trump rejected, for now at least, a fresh round of sanctions set to be imposed against Russia on Monday, a course change that underscored the schism between the president and his national security team. The president’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, had announced on Sunday that the administration would place sanctions on Russian companies found to be assisting Syria’s chemical weapons program. The sanctions were listed on a menu of further government options after an American-led airstrike on Syria, retaliating against a suspected gas attack that killed dozens a week earlier. But the White House contradicted her on Monday, saying that Mr. Trump had not approved additional measures. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.Speaking later with reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Trump headed to Florida, Ms. Sanders added that “the president has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia, but at the same time he’d still like to have a good relationship with them.” Another White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said Mr. Trump had decided not to go forward with the sanctions. Mr. Trump concluded that they were unnecessary because Moscow’s response to the airstrike was mainly bluster, the official said. Russia analysts said the whipsaw policy shift once again highlighted an administration struggling to find a coherent and consistent voice in dealing with Russia, which in the past four years has annexed Crimea, intervened in eastern Ukraine, sought to influence the American election in 2016, allegedly poisoned a former Russian spy living in Britain and propped up the murderous government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

    OPCW Investigators Arrive In Damascus As Moscow Insists "White Helmets" Staged Gas Attack - The US-led coalition's missiles have already blasted craters into the ground near Damascus and Homs (and while the attacks produced no fatalities, the US and Russia have presented dramatically different accounts of strike), but investigators from the United Nation's chemical weapons watchdog are only just arriving in Damascus to begin processing the scene of the brutal chemical weapons attack in Douma last week that left at least 70 people dead. Both Syria and Russia called for an OPCW inquiry into the attack, while Russia has claimed that it has evidence US-backed "white helmets" - a US-funded "humanitarian" NGO long applauded by the mainstream media for its efforts - had a hand in fabricating evidence. The US State Department, meanwhile, has asserted that it has "proof" the Syrian government was behind the attack (though it has neglected to release any details about this purported "proof" to the public). Furthermore, the US has blamed Russia for failing to ensure that chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria had been destroyed, per RT. The agency was set up to oversee and guarantee the destruction of chemical weapons and to investigate instances of their use. The agency will examine samples taken from attack victims to determine the chemical used as it tries to uncover the perpetrator. Syria, Russia, the UK, the US, France and Russia are all members of the organization.  Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense says it has proof that the gas attack in Douma was staged to give the West an excuse to justify a military intervention in Syria, according to Major-General Igor Konashenkov.

    Eyewitness Testimonies During Syria "Chemical Attack'" Explain How Video Was Staged - On April 13, the Ministry of Defense of Russia released a video showing testimonies of two doctors who were on duty at a Duma hospital when the alleged chemical attack took place in the Syrian town on April 7.In the video, one of the two doctors “Kahlil al-Jaysh” said that the hospital received several civilians who had been injured in an airstrike of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) on Duma in the morning of April 8. Dr. al-Jaysh said that the airstrike had hit the last floor of a building causing fire. This led to the suffocation of some civilians who were trapped in the lower floors of the building. While the doctors were treating the injured civilians, a man shouted in the hospital’s emergency room that the injures were caused by “a chemical attack,” which led to chaos, according to Dr. al-Jaysh. English subtitles. pic.twitter.com/lXafFybl1I “While treating the people who were suffocated by smoke and dust, one of the people who was present said that the strike was a chemical attack, which led the people in the area [hospital] to deal with the cases as injuries caused by chemical weapons.” Dr. al-Jaysh said in the video released by the Ministry of Defense of Russia. Moreover, the two doctors stressed in the video that there had been no symptoms proving a chemical weapons use. Both doctors were also able to prove their presence in the emergency room of Duma hospital during the incident via a video published a Syrian opposition news outlet. Several experts suggested before that a carbon monoxide poisoning might be behind the deaths of the Duma attack victims. The Syrian Observatory from Human Rights (SOHR) even reported from day one that carbon monoxide poisoning had been behind the deaths of the civilians who were trapped in a basement from a long time after the airstrike.

      "We Sent A Message": UK Pushes Back Against More Syrian Airstrikes - Just hours after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the US was "locked and loaded" for another attack on Syria if Bashar al-Assad is again accused of using chemical weapons on his own people, the UK is seeking to emphasize that there are no plans for another Syria strike, a sign that lawmakers might be rethinking their support for Prime Minister Theresa May's unilateral action, per Bloomberg. Johnson said "we in the UK do not seek an escalation. Absolutely not," adding that strong efforts had been made to communicate to Russia that the bombing in Syria was "limited to saying no to chemical weapons." Indeed, there is "no proposal on the table" for further strikes, Johnson said. While the US, France and the UK had insisted that Assad's actions represented a moral outrage that was simply too heinous to ignore, Johnson claimed that "the overwhelming purpose, the mission was to send a message," Johnson said."Finally the world has said enough is enough." He conceded that this meant "the rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will" and that Assad would be allowed to "butcher his way" to victory. Johnson's remarks come ahead of an appearance by May before Parliament on Monday. May will explain her decision to unilaterally authorize the bombing, though she still needs to avoid a vote on whether she was right. However, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow could still grant one, Bloomberg said.In the US, lawmakers and the media applauded the strikes, while whole segments of President Trump's noninterventionist base were outraged. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, maintaining his historical opposition to every US and UK intervention, said during an interview that the legal basis for May unilaterally authorizing the strikes was "debatable," once again putting him at odds with Labour Party members who supported the strikes. Fortunately for May, members of her own party and at least some Labour MPs are planning to vote against a measure that would require an official explanation about the reasoning behind her decision from May.

      China: "The Arrogant US Has A Record Of Launching Wars On Deceptive Grounds" - As we reported yesterday, China was the first superpower outside those directly involved to slam the US airstrikes: "Any unilateral military action violates the United Nations charter and its principles and international law and its principles. [The strikes] are also going to add more factors to complicate the resolution of the Syrian crisis," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.Beijing also called for an investigation into claims of a Syrian poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma that rescuers and monitors say killed more than 40 people, and prompted the Western action: "The Chinese side believes a comprehensive, impartial and objective investigation should be conducted into the suspected chemical attacks and it should come up with reliable conclusions ... Before this, no conclusion by any side should be made,” Hua said. Finally, overnight China also reminded its population that while the US is engaging in a contained "hot war" with Syria, Beijing is currently fighting a trade war with Washington D.C. when in a front-page OpEd on the state-owned nationalist tabloid Global Times, the politburo authorized a scathing article in which it once again slammed Trump's involvement in Syria, claiming that "the facts cannot be distorted. This military strike was not authorized by the UN, and the strikes targeted a legal government of a UN member state... it has not been confirmed if the chemical weapons attack happened or if it did, whether government forces or opposition forces launched it. International organizations have not carried out any authoritative investigation."And the most inflammatory accusation: the entire US attack was a false flag:The Syrian government has repeatedly stressed that there is no need for it to use chemical weapons to capture the opposition-controlled Duma city and the use of chemical weapons has provided an excuse for Western intervention. The Syrian government's argument or Trump's accusations against the "evil" Assad regime, which one is in line with basic logic? The answer is quite obvious. The US has a record of launching wars on deceptive grounds. The Bush government asserted the Saddam regime held chemical weapons before the US-British coalition troops invaded Iraq in 2003. However, the coalition forces didn't find what they called weapons of mass destruction after overthrowing the Saddam regime. Both Washington and London admitted later that their intelligence was false.

      Trump Bowed to Pentagon Restraint on Syria Strikes - —President Donald Trump deferred to his Pentagon chief’s caution and tempered his preference for a more robust attack on Syria over allegations it used deadly gas on civilians, the first hints at the direction of his revamped national-security team. The decision late last week, detailed by people familiar with the process, marked the first substantive test of the group now that John Bolton is serving as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.   After days of tense White House meetings, the president and his advisers agreed on one of the most restrained of the military-strike options crafted by the Pentagon: a powerful missile attack aimed at three targets meant to hobble the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons and deter President Bashar al-Assad from using them again.  The outcome was a sign of the sizable influence Defense Secretary Jim Mattis still wields in the reorganized national-security team. Faced with a push from the president for a muscular response to the alleged chemical-weapons attack that killed at least 43 people, Mr. Mattis presented the White House with three military options, according to the people familiar with the decision-making. The most conservative option would have hit a narrow set of targets related to Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities. The second option proposed strikes on a broader set of Syrian regime targets, including suspected chemical-weapons research facilities and military command centers. The most expansive proposal, which might have included strikes on Russian air defenses in Syria, was designed to cripple the regime’s military capabilities without touching Mr. Assad’s political machinery. The most ambitious of the proposals was three times the size of the one eventually carried out by U.S., British and French forces. Mr. Trump approved a hybrid plan that saw more than 100 advanced missiles fired at the three Syrian targets early Saturday. That action reflected a melding the first two options: modest missile strikes, but ones the Trump administration said delivered a decisive blow to Mr. Assad’s chemical-weapons capabilities. While Mr. Trump pressed his team to also consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria if necessary to get at the Assad regime’s military equipment, Mr. Mattis pushed back, those familiar with the decision-making said.

      Luongo: Trump Is Done, Mattis Won - Friday night’s attack on Damascus was chilling.  No question.  It dredged up the worst possible scenarios from our sub-conscious and for a few hours made them real.  Now that the dust has settled, and we see what’s occurred (and what hasn’t) it’s time to draw some conclusions.First thing’s first.  I reiterate what I said earlier in the week.  Trump is finished. Read my article carefully, then overlay two things I didn’t talk about.  One, Trump is impulsive and easily manipulated. Two, Trump is ultimately a coward and an appeaser, just like The Saker pegged him to be after bombing Al-Shairat last year.All bullies are cowards.  That’s why they bully. Because of these personal defects, he gave his resignation speech last night.  Be it later this year when he’s impeached/forced to resign for a war crime or in January 2021 after losing to a baked potato, the anti-interventionist crowd who elected him will remember this for a long time. I want to remind you of what happened last year with Al-Shairat.  Trump bombed it while having dinner with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.  A light show of sound and fury which ultimately did very little damage.   But, it did not signify nothing. It signified that Trump is out of his depth in foreign policy. Trump wanted to go to war fully and was talked out of it by his military advisers, namely Gen. James Mattis.Mattis gave Trump the option he took. No 4-d chess. No back door coordination with the Russians.  Just a man with a deep sense of morality that needed to feel powerful.Now fast forward to last night.  Same story.  Different circumstances since now Trump is even more isolated, more paranoid, more betrayed at every level by his political opposition. Do you think he hired John Bolton because he’s become more nuanced in his foreign policy approach? If you do, then you aren’t just an idiot.  You are an heir to the throne of the kingdom of idiots.

      Mattis Wanted Congressional Approval Before Syria Strike, Was Overruled By Trump - Confirming our report from Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis favored a more cautious approach to the Syria situation but was overruled by President Trump as well as other notable neocons interested in an immediate strike - including brand new National Security Advisor John Bolton, administration officials told the New York Times. Mr. Mattis pushed to get congressional authorization, according to people with knowledge of the internal debate. In several White House meetings last week, he underscored the importance of linking military operations to public support — a view Mr. Mattis has long held.Mr. Trump, the officials said, wanted to be seen as backing up a series of bellicose tweets with action, but was warned that an overly aggressive response risked sparking a wider war with Russia.Friday night’s limited strikes on three targets, which lasted under two minutes, were the compromise. –NYT   Bolton and Mattis were said to be duking it out over the Syria strikes on Friday - with Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford reportedly "concerned with managing escalation and preventing blowback on US troops," while John Bolton is known for getting very excited at the prospect of a good ole' fashioned regime change. In the end, Mattis prevailed in limiting the Friday night strikes to three targets which would avoid hitting Russian troops stationed at various military facilities throughout Syria. Democratically elected Syrian President Bashar al Assad moved fighter jets to said installations before the US-led strike, which also included the participation of the United Kingdom and France to give it an air of legitimacy. Administration officials say that Trump wanted to hit Syria hard enough to appear aggressive, but not so hard that it would prompt Russia to engage in combat.

      Syria Airstrikes Instantly Added Nearly $5 Billion to Missile-Makers’ Stock Value – Fortune - Raytheon stock surged Friday morning, after 59 of the company’s Tomahawk missileswere used to strike Syria in Donald Trump’s first major military operation as President.  Trump ordered the airstrike on the Syrian government Thursday night in retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week that killed as many as 100 people. The U.S. blamed the attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Tomahawk missile used in the strike is made by Raytheon, whose stock opened 2.5% higher Friday, adding more than $1 billion to the defense contractor’s market capitalization. The shares of other missile and weapons manufacturers, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, each rose as much as 1%, collectively gaining nearly $5 billion in market value as soon as they began trading, even as the broader market fell.

      Putin warns of 'chaos' in international order if Syria gets attacked again - Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Sunday that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, as Washington prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions. In a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, Putin and Rouhani agreed that the Western strikes had damaged the chances of achieving a political resolution in the seven-year Syria conflict, according to a Kremlin statement. "Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the U.N. Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations," the Kremlin statement said. Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told CBS' "Face the Nation" program that the United States would announce new economic sanctions on Monday aimed at companies "that were dealing with equipment" related to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged chemical weapons use. On Saturday, the United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Douma on April 7. The Western countries blame Assad for the Douma attack that killed dozens of people. The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement in any such attack. The bombings marked the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and ally Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that he had convinced Trump, who has previously said he wanted to take U.S. forces out of Syria, to stay for "the long term."

      How 105 Missiles Show Assad’s Future Is Safe - Hours after more than 100 cruise missiles slammed into Syria, a confident President Bashar al-Assad, dressed in a dark suit and tie, strode through the gates of his palace.“The aggression will only increase Syria’s determination,” Assad said in his first comments after the strike.While the attack by the U.S., Britain and France destroyed military positions and research facilities linked to chemical weapons, it did little to degrade Assad’s capacity to wage war, or target the fighters from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting him.The action has underlined that the NATO powers won’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons. But it also telegraphed to Assad that his position is safe and pretty much anything else goes. As U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said: The attack “was not about regime change.”  Without a serious step up in allied strikes in both frequency and size and right now there is no sign that will happen there's no stopping Assad. He has already all but won his war, and those in the triple alliance supporting him can get back to pursuing their policy objectives. It’s business as usual for the former ophthalmologist, whose family has ruled Syria for half a century. He’s presided over a war that’s killed about 500,000 people and forced millions from their homes. And he’s free to keep strolling through his presidential palace.

      Syria air strikes: Macron says he convinced Trump not to pull out troops  - French President Emmanuel Macron has said he convinced US President Donald Trump not to withdraw troops from Syria and instead commit "for the long term". Earlier this month, Mr Trump declared that the US would "be coming out of Syria very soon". On Saturday, joint US, UK and French strikes targeted Syrian government sites in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.  Mr Macron said he also persuaded Mr Trump to keep the strikes limited. The pair, who are reported to have a friendly relationship, spoke several times in the days before the military action was taken. Inspectors from the independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are in Syria to inspect the site of the alleged chemical attack, but British diplomats said Syria and Russia had not yet allowed the inspectors to visit the site.After Mr Macron's comments, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: "The US mission has not changed - the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible".  But she added that the US was "determined to completely crush" the Islamic State group and prevent its return.

      White House Denies France's Macron Persuaded Trump To Keep Boots On The Ground In Syria - In late March, President Trump appeared to be following through on his campaign promises, saying the US would be "coming out of Syria very soon" and letting "other people take care of it now." . When President Trump announced the strikes in an address to the nation on Friday evening in Washington, he insisted: "America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria - under no circumstances." And now, as RT reports, Haley says at the UN Security Council that America remains "locked and loaded" for more strikes should new "chemical attacks" come, and uses an if-clause when talking to Fox about the prospects of withdrawal from Syria. And while Trump's people say he wants a withdrawal "as quickly as possible," it's highly likely that it will not be very quick at all. So who changed Trump's mind?   French President Macron has confidently taken credit for persuading President Trump to leave Americans in harm's way in a nation that seems almost entirely irrelevant to America's 'safety'.  Macron, one of Trump's allies in the recent joint strikes on Syria, said he had convinced Trump to keep the troops in place for the unspecific "long term.""Ten days ago, President Trump was saying 'the United States should withdraw from Syria'. We convinced him it was necessary to stay," Macron said.This stunning claim was immediately denied by The White House, which proclaimed: "The US mission has not changed – the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement cited by Reuters.

      US Says Russia 'Hacked' Syrian Attack Evidence As Russia Finds Rebel Chemical Weapon Lab - And on the game goes... While Russia's foreign ministry warns that Western powers are interfering with OPCW's work in Syria (noting that the chemical weapons experts' access to Douma is being hampered by remaining militants, supported by Washington), as Caitlin Johnstone details, we are now being told by US officials (and I assure you I am not making this up) that if the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons doesn’t find evidence that the Syrian government conducted a chemical weapons attack in Douma last week, it’s because Russia hid the evidence.“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” reports U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward.“It is our concern that they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation.” Via Caitlin Johnstone, I guess the idea is that this international top-level investigative team on which tremendous credibility has been placed by the western world can be thwarted by Russians showing up with a Hoover and spraying some Febreze in the air like a teenage stoner when mom comes home? I’m not sure, but given the immense dearth of evidence we’ve been seeing in support of the establishment Douma narrative and the mounting pile of evidence contradicting it, it sure does sound fishy. Now that the jihadist-occupied suburb of Douma has been retaken by the Syrian government, western journalists have been allowed in to poke around and start asking questions, and so far it isn’t looking great for the propaganda machine.Update: Interfax reports that the Russian military has discovered a rebel-owned chemical weapons lab in Douma.The Russian Defense Ministry says that components for Mustard Gas production were discovered along with cylinders of chlorine at a alb belonging to militants in Douma.Additionally, Moscow has said it is stunned by a French statement that Russia is obstructing OPCW experts from entering Syria's Douma (echoing Ambassador Ward's). the Russian foreign  ministry confirms OPCW expoerts are already in Douma.

      Trump‘s Red Line - Seymour M. Hersh -On April 6, United States President Donald Trump authorized an early morning Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat Air Base in central Syria in retaliation for what he said was a deadly nerve agent attack carried out by the Syrian government two days earlier in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Trump issued the order despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon.The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site on April 4 using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives. Details of the attack,  including information on its so-called high-value targets, had been provided by the Russians days in advance to American and allied military officials in Doha, whose mission is to coordinate all U.S., allied, Syrian and Russian Air Force operations in the region. Some American military and intelligence officials were especially distressed by the president's determination to ignore the evidence. "None of this makes any sense," one officer told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb. "We KNOW that there was no chemical attack ... the Russians are furious.”   Within hours of the April 4 bombing, the world’s media was saturated with photographs and videos from Khan Sheikhoun.  The provenance of the photos was not clear and no international observers have yet inspected the site, but the immediate popular assumption worldwide was that this was a deliberate use of the nerve agent sarin, authorized by President Bashar Assad of Syria. Trump endorsed that assumption by issuing a statement within hours of the attack, describing Assad’s "heinous actions" as being a consequence of the Obama administration’s "weakness and irresolution" in addressing what he said was Syria’s past use of chemical weapons. To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next 48 hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.

      Rand Paul Tells Wolf Blitzer He Thinks Syria Gassing Was False Flag - This happened 3 hours ago. Wolf Blitzer can’t believe his ears … he does his best to argue the other side, saying well, France and UK joined the bombing, so it must true, … you aren’t suggesting everyone was wrong or something? – are you suggesting the president had bad intelligence? – but Paul isn’t buying. This is great TV: “I still look at the attack and say, you know, either Assad must be the dumbest dictator on the planet — or maybe he didn’t do it. I have yet to see evidence that he did do it,” “The only thing that would galvanize the world to attack Assad directly is a chemical attack. It killed relatively few people compared to what can be killed with traditional bombs… and so you wonder really what logic would there be for Assad to be using chemical weapons,” We have a feeling this bombing is going to turn into a major scandal as it becomes clear what is intuitively obvious – it was a false flag, and this time they’re going to get caught on it. Was the whole thing 3D chess on Trump’s part? Did he deliberately go along with the hoax knowing that he would make sure the hoaxers get caught?, and finally free himself from the neocon morons in Washington? 

      Claims about Syria Attack “Unraveling” - AFP reports: “At destroyed Syria lab, workers deny producing toxic weapons.” Similarly, CBS News reports: “One of the targets of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Syria was still smoldering late Saturday afternoon, reports CBS News’ Seth Doane, the only American network correspondent inside Syria. The U.S. military says the Barzeh complex in Damascus was a ‘center for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons.’ Scientist Sayed said his office was there. … “He said it’s ‘totally incorrect’ that chemical weapons were being developed there. ‘The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited here and didn’t report anything wrong with this place.’ … A package on the side of the road is anti-venom, which Sayed says is what they were producing.” Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, told the Institute for Public Accuracy: “OPCW will play it close to the political power realities. It always does. Expect studied ambiguity but aimed at Bashar al-Assad.” See recent piece by former weapons inspector Scott Ritter: “Trump’s Rush to Judgment on Syria Chemical Attack” in The American Conservative. Also see by the late editor of Consortium News, Robert Parry: “How U.S. Pressure Bends UN Agencies.” Parry notes that John Bolton — newly installed as National Security Advisor — had ousted the head of the OPCW in 2002, Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, in order facilitate the invasion of Iraq. Parry also critiques the current head of the agency, Turkish diplomat Ahmet Uzumcu. Reese Erlich, author of Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, said today: “The official version of the U.S. missile attack on Syria is already unraveling. The supposed chemical weapons factory bombed by the U.S. didn’t leak chemicals. There have been no independent confirmations that the bombed sites had any connection to chemical weapons. In 1998 President Bill Clinton directed a missile strike against a ‘chemical weapons’ factory in Sudan, which turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant.

      Out of 20 Major Editorials on Trump’s Syria Strikes, Zero Opposed - A survey by FAIR of the top 100 papers in the US by circulation found not a single editorial board opposed to Trump’s April 13 airstrikes on Syria. Twenty supported the strikes, while six were ambiguous as to whether or not the bombing was advisable. The remaining 74 issued no opinion about Trump’s latest escalation of the Syrian war.This is fairly consistent with editorial support for Trump’s April 2017 airstrikes against the Syrian government, which saw only one editorial out of 47 oppose the bombing (FAIR.org, 4/11/17). The single paper of dissent from last year, the Houston Chronicle, didn’t publish an editorial on last week’s bombing.Seven of the top 10 newspapers by circulation—USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday and Washington Post—supported the airstrikes. The New York Daily News and San Jose Mercury Newsoffered no opinion, while the New York Times (4/13/18) was ambiguous—mostly lamenting the lack of congressional approval, but not saying that this meant the strikes were illegal or unwise. “Legislation should…set limits on a president’s ability to wage war against states like Syria,” is the Times’ conclusion. A complete list of editorials on the airstrikes can be viewed here. Almost every editorial spoke in the same Official, Serious tone that demanded “action” be taken and “international norms” be “enforced.” Some, such as theWall Street Journal (4/16/18), went further, insisting on a wider war against the Syrian regime, Iran and/or Russia in vague but menacing terms.“Barack Obama dealt Mr. Trump a bad hand by letting Russia, Iran and China believe they could advance their goals of regional domination without US resistance,” the Journal insisted. “In Syria as elsewhere, Mr. Trump has to decide if he wants to ratify that American retreat or develop a strategy to stop it.” The mid-market Toledo Blade (4/15/18) punched above its weight class and delivered the most bellicose and jingoistic editorial of them all with “The West Stands Up”:

      US Army Colonel Admits: "Hard To Believe That Assad Would Use Chemical Weapons" - The ex chief of staff to Colin Powell has criticized the “former colonial powers; France, U.K., and the U.S.”, questioning their motives for attacking Syria. In an interview for Newsvoice Think, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson - who served in the U.S. army for 31 years - said that he found it “unbelievable” that Bashar al-Assad would use chemical weapons and thus jeopardize his victory by drawing the United States into the situation.Listen to the full interview in our weekly Newsvoice Think podcast.Wilkerson, currently a visiting professor at The College of William & Mary in Virginia, feels the Pentagon pushed Trump to re-establish high ground in a war that has raged since the Arab Spring of 2011.The commercial motivations for the U.S. going to war in Syria were also laid bare by Colonel Wilkerson. He described Lockheed Martin - the American defense technologies company - as “merchants of death” and described the monopolisation arms contractors have over the governments, and the massive profits they make from war. “The main reason for the president to go to war in Syria was to get Stormy Daniels, the Russia scandal, James Comey and a host of other things that have imperiled his presidency off the TV screens. Nothing does it like a strike. Our media is quite puerile like that. When they see missiles flying they get transfixed and they love to report on it.”

      Now Mattis admits there was no evidence Assad used poison gas on his people - Lost in the hyper-politicized hullabaloo surrounding the Nunes Memorandum and the Steele Dossier was the striking statement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the U.S. has “no evidence” that the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent Sarin against its own people.This assertion flies in the face of the White House (NSC) Memorandum which was rapidly produced and declassified to justify an American Tomahawk missile strike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria.Mattis offered no temporal qualifications, which means that both the 2017 event in Khan Sheikhoun and the 2013 tragedy in Ghouta are unsolved cases in the eyes of the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency. Mattis went on to acknowledge that “aid groups and others” had provided evidence and reports but stopped short of naming President Assad as the culprit.  But America has accused Assad of direct responsibility for Sarin attacks and even blamed Russia for culpability in the Khan Sheikhoun tragedy. Now its own military boss has said on the record that we have no evidence to support this conclusion. In so doing, Mattis tacitly impugned the interventionists who were responsible for pushing the “Assad is guilty” narrative twice without sufficient supporting evidence, at least in the eyes of the Pentagon.

      U.S. Nuclear Submarine That Attacked Syria 'Not Welcome Back' to Naples, Italy - The U.S. nuclear submarine that took part in a series of missile strikes conducted by U.S., French and U.K. warships and warplanes against suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites is not welcome near the waters of one of Italy's largest seaports, according to the city's mayor. Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris wrote last week to Rear Admiral Arturo Faraone, head of the city's port authority, complaining that the official had given permission to allow Virginia-class submarine USS John Warner to pass through the Gulf of Naples on March 20, following a two-week exercise by Western military alliance NATO. Magistris argued that he had designated the city a "denuclearized zone" in a 2015 act that sought to "prohibit docking and parking of any vessel that is nuclear-powered or contains nuclear weapons" and declared Naples a "city of peace," according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "Our administration is not against anyone but it is in favor of policies of peace, disarmament and international cooperation," de Magistris told Italian news service Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata on Monday. "It is in favor of diplomacy so that international institutions like the U.S. are the lead players in moments of crisis. "The fact that it is the same submarine (involved in the Syria attack) further reinforces the rightness of the order with which we said ships of nuclear propulsion or carrying nuclear weapons are not welcome in the port of Naples and, therefore, they are not allowed to travel through or stay," he added.

      What is the West’s end game in Syria? -  Al Jazeera - More than half a million Syrians have been killed over the course of Syria's ongoing war, according to the United Nations, but only a fraction of those deaths happened as a result of 34 confirmed chemical attacks allegedly launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war against armed opposition groups in the country. With the disparity in the number of deaths attributed to the use of conventional weapons and chemical ones, civilians, who have lived through assaults of both kinds, wonder why chemical attacks constitute a "red line" to the United States and its western allies, while "barrel bombs and live artillery" do not. Activist Hazem al-Shamy, who now resides in the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama province, said the strikes were met with a "negative reaction" from locals."These strikes were ineffective and did not destroy any of the army bases from where fighter jets took off to launch barrel bombs on civilians in Eastern Ghouta," he told Al Jazeera."There were several chemical attacks on various rebel-held towns since the war began, but we haven't once seen a reaction from the international community that really harmed the Assad regime," he said.The western response came days after a bloody two-month offensive ended in Eastern Ghouta, launched by Assad and his main military ally - Russia, resulting in the destruction of yet another city that was once controlled by opposition groups. With Russian military assistance, the relentless offensive killed at least 1,600 civilians and displaced more than 130,000 people from the Damascus suburb that had been under rebel control since mid-2013.

      What Are “Assad Apologists”? Are They Like Those “Saddam Apologists” Of 2002? - Caitlin Johnstone - Isn’t it fascinating how western journalists are suddenly rallying to attack the dangerous awful and horrifying epidemic of “Assad apologists” just as the western empire ramps up its longstanding regime change agenda against the Syrian government? Kinda sorta exactly the same way they began spontaneously warning the world about “Saddam apologists” around the time of the Iraq invasion? The increasingly pro-establishment Intercept has published an article titled “Dear Bashar al-Assad Apologists: Your Hero Is a War Criminal Even If He Didn’t Gas Syrians,” condemning unnamed opponents of western interventionism in Syria for not being sufficiently condemnatory of Bashar al-Assad in their antiwar discourse.Last week The Times published an article titled “Apologists for Assad working in British universities,” frantically informing the public that “top academics” are circulating information that runs counter to the official Syria narrative, followed this week by a Huffington Post article attacking those same academics in the same way. Yesterday, the BBC ran an article titled “Syria war: the online activists pushing conspiracy theories,” warning its readers about “pro-Syrian government” internet posts.   “Apologia” wasn’t a term I ever made use of or encountered much in day to day life until I started writing extensively about the dangerous warmongering behaviors I was seeing in my country’s allies last year, when all of a sudden it became a part of my daily life. For me, I was just trying to help prevent the western empire from decimating yet another Middle Eastern country in yet another war based on lies and avoid dangerous escalations that could lead to nuclear holocaust, but to countless strangers on the internet I am an “Assad apologist” and a “Putin apologist”. People have been calling me these things every single day for well over a year now. The internet is weird, man. And surprise surprise, now that the war drum is beating louder than ever for Syrian blood, the phrase “Assad apologists” is enjoying a massive uptick.

      As lies on Syrian gas attack unravel, US and UK shift to claims of Russian “cyber war” --On Monday, the US and British intelligence agencies released a joint report charging Moscow with unspecified “cyber warfare” against the West. The American media was filled with hysterical warnings that Russia may have hacked “millions” of personal devices as well as critical infrastructure.The tenor of the media coverage was epitomized by the New York Times, which labelled the intelligence agencies’ report a “computer-age version of a Cold War air raid drill, but asking citizens to upgrade their password rather than duck and cover.”The coordinated campaign comes amid the unravelling of the official pretext for Friday night’s illegal US-British-French bombing of Russia’s ally Syria—the claim that the Assad government carried out a chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta on April 7.On Sunday, the Independent published an on-the-spot report by well-known veteran journalist Robert Fisk, an expert on Middle East policy, who visited Douma, the town in Ghouta where a gas attack supposedly occurred.Fisk spoke with Dr. Assim Rahaibani, who works at the medical clinic where the widely publicized videos were filmed showing children being hosed down with water, ostensibly to relieve poison gas inhalation. He quotes Rahaibani as follows:“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night, but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of [government] shelling and aircraft were always over Douma at night—but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. “People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet,’ shouted ‘Gas!,’ and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia, not gas poisoning.”

      Russia dumps US debt, reducing holdings to lowest level in a year -The Central Bank of Russia has sold $3.1 billion in US Treasury bills as of February, reducing its investment in American debt to the lowest level since March last year.  Moscow still occupies the 16th position among the largest holders of US government bonds. Russia has cut its holdings for the third consecutive month.  Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in February that Russia is not sticking to American debt and can replace it if it finds an adequate substitution elsewhere. “We are ready to invest in the securities issued by other sovereign states, the main thing is that they should be low-risk and accordingly bring income,” Siluanov said at the time.China remains the largest buyer of US debt, increasing its holding by $8.5 billion to $1.18 trillion in February. Analysts say China can use its vast holdings of US treasuries as a bargaining chip in the trade dispute with President Donald Trump’s administration.However, analysts doubt Beijing would start dumping American treasuries. “It is more effective as a threat. If they sell, they have no threat. It would only escalate the situation and eliminate their leverage,” according to bond investor Jeff Gundlach.Global markets are still awaiting China’s reaction to the bilateral trade barriers imposed in March, since the data from the US Treasury comes with a two-month delay.

       Russian titanium producer warns ban on exports to US could backfire - Russia may lose its hard-won share on the global titanium market if the Kremlin stops exports to Boeing, a key Russian producer has warned. On Friday, Russian lawmakers drafted a bill under which the country may ban exports of titanium components to US aircraft manufacturer Boeing. VSMPO-Avisma is a monopolist in the Russian titanium industry, and produces a third of the world's titanium for the aircraft industry. It delivers 70 percent of its products to the global market. "Violation of cooperation ties, and failure to carry out business obligations can for a long time, if not for ever, take our company out of the dynamically developing titanium market. In addition, 20,000 jobs in the Urals region will be at risk. Therefore, we hope for wisdom and foresight from Russian lawmakers,” VSMPO-Avisma told TASS news agency. According to VSMPO-Avisma, a possible ban on exports could negatively affect the Russian titanium industry and the economy of the country as a whole. The company is a key supplier of titanium to Boeing, and the companies have a joint enterprise in Urals. The Russian corporation provides 40 percent of titanium components for Boeing and 60 percent for Airbus, and covers all titanium components for Brazil's Embraer. 

      Russia Threatens To Halt Critical Rocket Engine Exports To The U.S. - Despite earlier reported hopes that Putin seeks a deal with Trump, as opposed to escalating tensions, it appears Russia is planning to do just that. Last Friday (the 13th), just before the US, UK and France launched 105 Tomahawk missiles at Syria, we noted  that as part of Russian countermeasures against US sanctions, it could halt titanium exports to the US, critical for the production of Boeing airplanes, which promptly sent Boeing's stock lower.  As it turns out Russia has leverage not only over the biggest US exporter of airplanes and military equipment:  what piqued our interest, is the United States Department of Defense (DoD) dependency on Russian-manufactured rocket engines to launch military satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Pentagon officials have previously stated their space programs will not migrate to American-built rocket engines until at least 2024, with some analysts forecasting the reliance on Russian-made parts through 2028, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Despite bipartisan demands from Congress to quickly phase out the RD-180 engines on national-security grounds, it is proving harder than many lawmakers expected to secure an equally reliable domestic replacement. Government and industry officials said United Launch Alliance, the Pentagon’s primary rocket provider, likely will continue flying some 1990s-vintage Atlas V boosters with Russian-built engines through 2024 or 2025.”  So now that Congress neglected to phase out the RD-180, as demanded, it has a different name: Moscow leverage. American-made rocket engines from Lockheed Martin and Boeing are expected to enter the commercialization phase as far out as the mid-2020s, which could develop into a dangerous national security threat considering the recent developments in Syria. And on Tuesday, the Pentagon’s worst fears were highlighted when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced, “Russia will suspend supplies of rocket engines to the United States in case if a relevant decision is taken by the country’s leadership, but such decision has not been made yet.”

      US Told Russian Embassy No New Sanctions Are Coming - The blossoming feud between Trump top economic advisor Larry Kudlow and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley over whether Haley experienced a moment of "momentary confusion" when she revealed that the US was planning more Russia sanctions may finally be put to rest.That is, if a Bloomberg report about a notification delivered to Russia's US embassy is accurate. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Foreign Ministry official told BBG that a US official had notified the embassy that no sanctions would be forthcoming, contradicting Haley's comments from Sunday but affirming a Washington Post report the following day. On Tuesday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that "additional sanctions are under consideration" though he added that Haley had "got ahead of the curve" by discussing them publicly.Of course, the US imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian tycoons and companies earlier this month in what were the most punitive measures since the US first slapped economic penalties on Russia four years ago over the Ukrainian conflict.One of Russia’s most powerful businessmen, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, was hit hardest and shares of his aluminum giant Rusal have plunged about 70% in Hong Kong since the US effectively cut the company off from the dollar system. Back in the US, conflicting signals from Washington have sent markets gyrating in recent days. When official Russian news agencies reported the US notification early Wednesday, the ruble went from being the worst performing emerging-market currency to the best in the first hour of Moscow trading.

       Trump Halts Plan For More Russia Sanctions; Russian Stocks, Ruble Jump - What would've been the second round of economic sanctions levied at Moscow since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has been walked back by the White House, which apparently has put its latest round of sanction plans "in a holding pattern" following a coordinated missile strike in Syria late Friday. The sanctions were developed in recent weeks as part of a ready menu of potential retaliatory measures in the event of another chemical weapons attack in Syria or some other provocative behavior by the Russians. Trump had complained in March that he didn't have a set of options ready to retaliate after a small scale chemical weapons attack in Syria.  It was unclear to the Washington Post whether UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had misspoke or overstepped her authority when she teased that more sanctions would be forthcoming late Sunday - or whether "internal confusion" at the White House was to blame for the miscommunication. President Trump on Monday put the brakes on a preliminary plan to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia, walking back a Sunday announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that the Kremlin had swiftly denounced as “international economic raiding.”  . Haley said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that sanctions on Russian companies behind the equipment related to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack would be announced Monday by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But as officials in Moscow condemned the planned sanctions as overly punitive, Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.  Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them.  The Trump team decided to publicly characterize Haley’s announcement as a misstatement. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Monday: “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future.”

      Kudlow Denies WaPo: "Additional Russia Sanctions Being Considered"; Russian ETFs Slump - Russian ETFs are sliding after National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow denied WaPo's report  that President Trump was halting Russian sanctions, instead confirming that there is "no confusion" about Russian sanctions in The White House - more Russian sanctions are under consideration...The opening ramp in Russian stocks (from the WaPo story) have now been erased... As a reminder, administration officials said Monday that it was unlikely Trump would approve more punitive measures against Russia without another triggering event.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that "We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future."

        "I Don't Get Confused": Nikki Haley And Larry Kudlow Trade Barbs Over Russia Sanctions - U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley batted down a claim by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow that she was "confused" and got "ahead of the curve" when she announced that new sanctions would be handed down to Russia on Monday, during an appearance on Sunday's Face the Nation. On Tuesday, Kudlow said Haley "got ahead of the curve," adding "She's done a great job, she's a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that." Kudlow says that additional sanctions are "under consideration but not implemented." "With all due respect, I don't get confused," fired back Haley in a statement to Fox News' Dana Perino.  Axios reports that "A number of senior White House officials anonymously told reporters that Haley made a mistake by making the announcement ahead of President Trump and that it shouldn't have been made public on the Sunday morning show," adding "A senior official said Trump was angry about the situation." Haley's allies, meanwhile, say she cleared her remarks with the White House and that Trump changed his mind according to Axios' sources.Kudlow walked back his "confused" comment, telling the New York Times "I was wrong to say that - totally wrong," and that he had spoken with Haley via telephone to apologize for his remark. Kudlow said he had "misspoken based on incomplete information."

         Haley spat fuels political chatter around White House- Nikki Haley’s public spat with the White House has underscored Trump World’s obsession about the political ambitions of people in the president’s orbit. Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, raised eyebrows Tuesday when she hit back at the White House after top economic adviser Larry Kudlow accused her of being confused when she prematurely announced new sanctions against Moscow on Sunday. Her cutting rejoinder — “with all due respect, I don’t get confused” — earned cheers from people who called it an example of resolve from a strong female leader and boos from others who accused her of disloyalty for going after one of Trump’s newest handpicked aides. It is virtually unheard of for administration officials to openly discuss their political futures, and Haley, who is widely seen as a present and future GOP star, has not said anything significant about running for a higher political office. Nonetheless, the comments had Trump allies saying that Haley is thinking too much of her own political brand. “Clearly she has machinations for higher office and will do anything to continue rising, even if it eventually means throwing President Trump and his administration under the bus,” said one former White House official. Haley’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but the former South Carolina governor told reporters on Wednesday that her relationship with Trump is “perfect,” according to Reuters. 

        Russia says Trump invited Putin to US during phone call (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump invited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to the United States during a phone call, and said he would be glad to see Putin in the White House, RIA Novosti reported on Friday, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry.  The news agency quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying Trump returned to the subject of an invitation a couple of times during a call last month and that Russia was now expecting Trump to formalise the invitation. “We proceed from the fact that the U.S. president in a telephone conversation...made such an invitation, said he would be glad to see (Putin) in the White House, would then be glad to meet on a reciprocal visit,” said Lavrov, according to a transcript of an interview with RIA on the foreign ministry website. “He returned to this topic a couple of times, so we let our American colleagues know that we do not want to impose, but we also do not want to be impolite, and that considering that President Trump made this proposal, we proceed from the position that he will make it concrete.” Rolling out a welcome for Putin in the White House could anger Trump’s domestic critics, who accuse Russia of hostile acts against Western countries, including the United States.  “I would simply turn your attention to the fact that Donald Trump after this phone conversation has said several times in both Tweets and in words that it is necessary to resolve issues with Russia, we want to have good relations with Russia, this is better than not having good relations, and that only a fool thinks otherwise,” Lavrov said. “We also hear this.”

        EU Support Grows for New Iran Sanctions – WSJ —European Union diplomats said there is growing support for imposing new sanctions on Iran as they seek to persuade President Donald Trump to stick by the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers. No formal decision was taken during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, and some countries aren’t convinced that adding sanctions will convince Mr. Trump, diplomats said. Yet several people involved in Monday’s discussion said ministers were nearing political agreement that action should be taken. “I think there’s a very broad majority among the European countries that we should look into the possibilities of going further regarding sanctions,” said Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said a move could come by May 12, when Mr. Trump has threatened not to extend sanctions waivers that were a critical part of the nuclear deal. “It would be sensible to have that conversation in the context of trying to persuade Washington to stick with the nuclear deal,” he said. Among the targets under discussion for new sanctions are members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, diplomats said. The U.S. has urged European allies to increase pressure on the Guard and to act against Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Iranian proxy group. France, the U.K. and Germany—which joined the U.S., Russia and China in striking the 2015 deal—are currently engaged in talks with Washington on strengthening elements of the deal, which sought to place strict but temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program while lifting most international sanctions. The three European governments are simultaneously pushing their EU partners to agree to new sanctions on more than a dozen Iranian entities and individuals, a move that U.S. officials have welcomed. Any decision would need backing from all 28 EU countries, most of which strongly back the nuclear agreement.

        European MPs warn US over scrapping Iran nuclear deal - Around 500 lawmakers from Britain, France and Germany on Thursday urged the US Congress to save the Iran nuclear deal ahead of a possible US withdrawal next month."It is the US's and Europe's interest to prevent nuclear proliferation in a volatile region and to maintain the transatlantic partnership as a reliable and credible driving force of world politics," European lawmakers from across the political spectrum wrote in a letter to their US counterparts. The Trump administration has demanded that the 2015 nuclear accord be fixed by May 12; otherwise, the United States may reinstate sanctions on Tehran and effectively kill the accord despite Iran's compliance.  The lawmakers from the three European countries that were signatories to the deal warned that abandonment of the nuclear accord would end controls on Iran's nuclear program and create a source of conflict in the Middle East. Thirteen years of negotiations with Iran allowed the international community "to impose unprecedented scrutiny on the Iranian nuclear program, dismantle most of their nuclear enrichment facilities, and drastically diminish the danger of a nuclear arms race," they said in the letter published in major newspapers on Thursday and Friday."Not a drop of blood was spilt," they wrote. A US withdrawal would create "lasting damage to our credibility as international partners in negotiation, and more generally, to diplomacy as a tool to achieve peace and ensure security."

        Saudi king rejects US plan to transfer embassy to Jerusalem -- Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Sunday opened an Arab League summit by criticising US President Donald Trump's decision to transfer the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "We reiterate our rejection of the US decision on Jerusalem," the king said in a speech in Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia."East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Palestinian territories," he added.  In December last year, Trump moved to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, upended decades of American diplomacy, causing an overwhelming global diplomatic backlash and sparking Palestinian protests and clashes with Israeli security forces.

        U.S. Wants to Retaliate Against China’s Restrictions on American Tech Firms - The U.S. is examining ways to retaliate against Beijing’s restrictions on U.S. providers of cloud computing and other high-tech services, effectively opening a new front on its trade offensive against China. According to individuals familiar with the administration’s thinking, the U.S. trade representative’s office is putting together a fresh trade complaint, probably under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, arguing that Beijing unfairly restricts U.S. trade in these high-tech services. The trade representative has yet to decide whether to go ahead with the complaint, the individuals said, which would be in addition to recent moves to ratchet up pressure on China, including the imposition of tariffs on a total of $150 billion in Chinese imports. But USTR, which has taken the lead in the China trade fight, views China’s restrictions on cloud computing as providing a clear-cut example that might garner public support. Beijing requires U.S. cloud-computing firms, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to form joint operations with Chinese companies and license their technology to the Chinese partners. The USTR has said in reports on Chinese trade practices that Beijing withholds licenses that would allow U.S. firms to operate independently in China. Cloud-computing firms deliver computer services, including storage, software and analytics, over the internet, a service that is considered one of the most promising, high growth parts of the tech industry. Should USTR go ahead with the complaint, it would become the third major action the U.S. has taken to further open the Chinese market—and would increase the risk of retaliation from Beijing. The U.S. has levied tariffs on imports of Chinese steel and aluminum, which has resulted in China hitting about $3 billion in U.S. imports to China with tariffs. The administration is also now pursuing another proceeding under Section 301, focused on alleged Chinese infringement on U.S. intellectual property. In that action, the U.S. has threatened $50 billion of Chinese imports with 25% tariffs and plans to release soon a second list of another $100 billion of Chinese imports that could be hit with levies. In response, Beijing has said it would target $50 billion in U.S. imports to China for tariffs and take other unspecified actions.

        U.S., Britain Issue Warnings Over Chinese Telecom Equipment Maker ZTE - U.S. and British officials struck separate blows at telecommunications-equipment giant ZTE Corp. , ratcheting up national-security scrutiny of a big Chinese company amid broader economic tensions between Washington and Beijing. British cybersecurity officials warned U.K. phone carriers to stay clear of ZTE’s equipment and services, citing concern about the potential that Beijing could force the company to help it infiltrate or sabotage telecoms infrastructure. The U.S. Commerce Department, separately, banned American companies from selling products to ZTE, saying the company violated the terms of a deal last year settling allegations of sanctions busting involving North Korea and Iran. A ZTE spokeswoman said in a statement that the company is aware of the Commerce Department action. ZTE is “assessing the full range of potential implications that this event has on the company and is communicating with relevant parties proactively in order to respond accordingly,” she said. The company has in the past denied its telecom gear poses any national-security risk to countries where it is sold. In a statement that only addressed the U.S. actions, China’s Commerce Ministry said it is looking at the export controls on ZTE and urged the U.S. to provide “an impartial, fair and stable legal and policy environment.” Otherwise, it said, China is prepared to adopt unspecified measures to defend the interests of Chinese firms. The twin developments Monday escalate a broader battle about trade and economic policy playing out between the U.S. and China—one that has drawn in allies of both powers. The Trump administration has enacted sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum that target China metal output. Washington also has threatened sanctions on some $150 billion worth of other Chinese goods in response to what officials say is China’s unfair trade practices. Beijing denies it is acting unfairly, and has promised tit-for-tat response to any measures.  

        China Hits $957 Million U.S. Sorghum Trade With Fresh Duty -- China will impose temporary anti-dumping deposits on U.S. sorghum imports from Wednesday, adding to trade tensions between the world’s biggest economies. Soybean meal futures climbed on concerns the oilseed could be targeted next. Imports will incur a 178.6 percent duty, China’s Ministry of Commerce said in a preliminary ruling on Tuesday. That’s in compliance with domestic law and World Trade Organization rules, Wang Hejun, chief of the trade remedy and investigation bureau at the ministry, said in a statement. China began a probe into sorghum imports from the U.S. in early February, just weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump slapped tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines. Tensions between the countries have since escalated after Trump ordered levies on steel and aluminum, with plans for more on products from China. The Asian nation, the largest buyer of American sorghum, has responded with tariffs of its own and potentially more to come. “The rate is quite high and some buyers may have to cancel shipments,” China imported about 4.8 million metric tons of sorghum from the U.S. last year, worth about $957 million, according to customs data. Purchases in the first two months of 2018 were 11 percent lower than a year earlier. Soybean meal for September delivery on the Dalian Commodity Exchange climbed 2 percent to close at 3,265 yuan ($520) a ton. The most-active contract climbed more than 2.5 percent in the final 20 minutes of trading. The sudden spike reflects tensions in the market about the state of China-U.S. trade relations,. “Market participants might translate the temporary deposit of sorghum as the start of a new round of trade disputes between China and the U.S., triggering concerns over soybeans,”

        China Slaps 179% Tariff On US Sorghum Hours After US Bans Exports To China's ZTE - In response to reports that the US is ramping up the "third front" in its trade spat with China by authorizing another investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 - this time, aimed at obstacles that prevent US tech firms from competing in cloud computing and other high-tech industries - China has, as we anticipated, retaliated by slapping tariffs on US sorghum imports.Yesterday, the US also revealed that it would stop US tech firms from selling components to Chinese telecom giant ZTE after accusing the company of lying during settlement negotiations - eliciting an angry response from Chinese officials, who urged US lawmakers to create a "fair, just and stable legal and policy environment" for Chinese companies, according to Xinhua.Like Chinese tariffs on US pork products that were imposed earlier this month, the sorghum tariffs aren't merely a threat: Rather, China says they will take effect on Wednesday, per Bloomberg.US sorghum imports will incur a 178.6% tariff, China’s Ministry of Commerce said in a preliminary ruling on Tuesday. Wang Hejun, chief of the trade remedy and investigation bureau at the Ministry of Commerce, said the tariffs comply with domestic law and World Trade Organization standards. The ruling follows a probe into Sorghum imports that began in February after Trump slapped tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines - a decision that was viewed as an indirect slight at China.

        U.S. sorghum armada U-turns at sea after China tariffs (Reuters) - Several ships carrying cargoes of sorghum from the United States to China have changed course since Beijing slapped hefty anti-dumping deposits on U.S. imports of the grain, trade sources and a Reuters analysis of export and shipping data showed. Sorghum is a niche animal feed and a tiny slice of the billions of dollars in exports at stake in the trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies, which threatens to disrupt the flow of everything from steel to electronics. The supply-chain pain felt by sorghum suppliers on the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans underscores how quickly the mounting trade tensions between the U.S. and China can impact the global agricultural sector, which has been reeling from low commodity prices amid a global grains glut. Twenty ships carrying over 1.2 million tonnes of U.S. sorghum are on the water, according to export inspections data from the USDA's Federal Grain Inspection Service. Of the armada, valued at more than $216 million, at least five changed course within hours of China's announcing tariffs on U.S. sorghum imports on Tuesday, Reuters shipping data showed. (Graphic)  The five shipments, all headed for China when they were loaded at Texas Gulf Coast export terminals owned by grain merchants Cargill Inc or Archer Daniels Midland would be liable for a hefty deposit to be paid on their value, which could make the loads unprofitable to deliver. Beijing, which is probing U.S. imports for damage to its domestic industry, announced Tuesday that grains handlers would have to put up a deposit of 178.6 percent of the value of the shipments. Traders said Cargill and ADM likely sold most of the grain in the cargoes that are on the water, traders said. In a statement to Reuters on Thursday, Cargill confirmed it is the exporter. The company declined to confirm what is in the ships, the final destinations or the tonnage, nor name the customers. The company also declined to confirm why the ships stopped, or if they are being re-directed – but said that it does not have any responsibility for costs that may result.  ADM representatives declined to comment.

        Spotlight: Why U.S. excuses for punishing China with tariffs untenable - (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump has since his election campaign been criticizing China for what he said were Beijing's "unfair trade practices," and the recent build-up to what could become a China-U.S. trade war suggests the president is determined to act. However, a breakdown of facts will show that Washington's excuses for escalating its trade tensions with China do not hold water. Before explaining how the algorithms by which the United States has come to the conclusion that its trade deficit with China amounts to over 375 billion U.S. dollars are apparently questionable, let's see just how casual Trump's decision, as of now, to impose tariffs on a total of 150 billion dollars worth of Chinese goods is. "China has been asked to develop a plan for the year of a One Billion Dollar reduction in their massive Trade Deficit with the United States. Our relationship with China has been a very good one, and we look forward to seeing what ideas they come back with. We must act soon!" Trump wrote in a March 7 tweet. Reports suggesting the number was severely inflated by the Trump administration itself came shortly after the president fired off the tweet. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 8 that the administration requested that China shave 100 billion dollars off the deficit, citing sources familiar with the matter as saying the request was made by U.S. officials to their Chinese interlocutors a week before. The United States calculates trade deficits and surpluses based on where a product is finished instead of on value added, a method that renders its unilaterally-concluded China deficit number unconvincing.In an opinion piece published on April 2 on the Foreign Affairs magazine's website, Philip Levy wrote: "Since China is the latest stage in the (global value) chain, a finished product can appear to have come from China, even if Chinese value-added is relatively small." Levy, who tried in his article to justify U.S. acceptance of China's accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 as one and the only right decision, pinpointed the exact symptom of Washington's ill-devised calculations.

        China Will Abandon Barriers For Foreign Automakers - Barely a week after Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned easing barriers for foreign automotive firms during a widely publicized speech, China's National Development and Reform Commission said Tuesday that it would phase out requirements that foreign auto makers must share factory ownership and earnings with local Chinese firms by 2022 - a step toward market liberalization that President Donald Trump will likely tout as evidence his aggressive trade policies are working.The phase-out will unfurl in stages: Limits on foreign investment for companies building new energy vehicles, a term covering electric cars powered by batteries or fuel cells, will be removed this year. Limits on those building commercial vehicles and passenger cars will be lifted in 2020 and 2022, respectively. In five years, the commission says, no foreign car company will need to have a joint venture with a Chinese firm, which would sunset a restriction on the industry that has been in place since 1994. Presently, China forces foreign car makers to set up 50-50 joint ventures with Chinese partners if they want to produce cars locally. Meanwhile, imported cars get hit with a 25% tariff, per the Wall Street Journal. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He - considered the country's economy czar - mentioned that China was planning to lower barriers for foreign firms, including automakers. Of course, it will take years for the impact of this decision to be felt by US car manufacturers - and even then, benefits could be meager. However, the decision is widely seen as a boon for Tesla - with Quartz claiming that China "just rolled out the welcome mat" for Tesla.

        U.S. Commerce Department finds aluminum sheet imports from China subsidized (Reuters) - The U.S. Commerce Department said on Tuesday it has made a preliminary determination that common alloy aluminum sheet imports from China are being subsidized, and set countervailing duties of up to 113 percent. FILE PHOTO: A worker checks aluminium rolls at a warehouse inside an industrial park in Binzhou, Shandong province, China April 7, 2018. China Daily via REUTERS Imports of common alloy aluminum sheet from China were valued at an estimated $600 million in 2016, the department said in a statement. A final determination in the countervailing duty investigation is scheduled to be announced on Aug. 30, it said. The Aluminum Association, a U.S. trade group, welcomed the decision. “This is an important first step to begin restoring a level playing field for U.S. aluminum sheet production,” the group’s president, Heidi Brock, said in a statement. The department’s preliminary finding comes as President Donald Trump has threatened to slap tariffs on some $150 billion of Chinese goods to try to force changes in China’s industrial policies. The Commerce Department launched the investigation of imports of Chinese aluminum alloy sheet in November, the first U.S.-initiated anti-subsidy and anti-dumping probes in decades. Washington’s seldom-used tactic is aimed at accelerating the imposition of duties against what are determined to be unfairly subsidized and dumped products. U.S. companies and industries claiming injury from imports would normally first ask the Commerce Department to open such probes, but government-initiated cases skip that step. The department said it calculated a preliminary subsidy rate of 31.20 percent for Yong Jie New Material Co Ltd; a rate of 34.99 percent for Henan Mingtai Industrial Co Ltd and Zhengzhou Mingtai Industry Co; and a rate of 113.30 percent for Chalco Ruimin Co Ltd and Chalco-SWA Cold Rolling Co Ltd. The preliminary subsidy rate for all-other Chinese producers and exporters is 33.10 percent, the department said.

        US Launches Anti-Dumping Probe Into Steel Wheels From China - The tit-for-tat trade spat between the US and China continued late Tuesday when the US revealed that it is starting a new investigation into whether steel wheels produced in China are illegally dumped in the US - an investigation that's being carried out at the behest of Accuride and Maxion Wheels, two US vehicle components suppliers, Reuters reported. In addition to the investigation, the Department of Commerce also revealed on Tuesday that producers of common alloy aluminum sheet imported from China enjoy anticompetitive state subsidies as high as 113.3%, based on findings from an investigation launched in November. The news comes a day after China's Ministry of Commerce announced that it would impose a massive 178.6% anti-dumping tariff on imported sorghum, a grain used to feed Chinese pigs and other livestock, which in turn was in response to the US banning exports to Chinese telecom giant ZTE. The two companies initially petitioned the Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission earlier this month, according to Tire Business - a trade publication that covers the tire production and other segments of the auto parts industry. The petition to the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) covers certain road-going hub- and stud-piloted steel wheels with rim diameters of 22.5 and 24.5 inches designed principally for use on Class 6, 7 and 8 commercial vehicles.U.S. trade data show the value of "steel wheel products" imports last year as $420 million.The petition excludes wheels for tube-type tires and wheels intended primarily for off-road use.  For the Department of Commerce to take action, the ITC must determine that there is a reasonable indication that US industry is materially injured or threatened with material injury by the anti-competitive imports. It can also determine that the development of a US industry has been hampered by the alleged dumping, which floods the market with products sold for less than they cost to produce. The petitioners allege antidumping margins of 11.3% to 231.7% and countervailing duty margins of up to 77.3%.

          China Prepares "Emergency Response Plan" Amid Escalating US Trade War - While in recent days the growing trade war between China and the US has moved off the front page of market concerns despite now daily skirmishes such as today's anti-dumping probe launch by the US into US steel wheels which followed a Chinese 179% tariff on US sorghum imports which in turn was in response to the US banning exports to Chinese telecom giant ZTE, in recent days China has drawn up comprehensive list of urgent measures as the war of words over US-China trade relations has threatened to escalate into open economic conflict with each side threatening to levy heavy tariffs and taxes on each other's imports.Commenting on the recent trade hostilities, National Development and Reform Commission spokesman Zeng Peiyan said on Wednesday that Beijing has all the political instruments it needs to respond to this trade conflict with the United States and minimize its economic effect."We have an emergency response plan at various levels and political means to retaliate to the trade challenges, initiated by the United States," Zeng added.He stressed that the trade conflict would affect the country's economy only partially and that China “has the confidence, potential and ability to ensure the stable functioning of the country’s economy.”Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Beijing’s international trade representatives have held multiple meetings with their counterparts in leading European economies as China, too, seek support in its trade brawl with the US. Recall the US was supposed to do the same with Trump canvassing support for the growing world trade war in Latin America last week, however he was held back by the diversionary Syrian airstikes. China however, was not detained and Beijing officials met ambassadors from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy last Thursday and Friday to propose a firewall against Trump’s protectionism, Reuters reported.

          Mar-a-Lago Diplomacy: Round 2 for Trump and Abe - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to arrive at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida today for a two-day visit that the White House says is expected to focus primarily on trade relations and North Korea. Indicative of the trade emphasis, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will also be in attendance. The meeting, the two leaders’ third bilateral and second at Mar-a-Lago, comes as Japan is working to get an exemption from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, which went into effect last month. It also falls just days after the president last week directed Lighthizer and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow to examine whether rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership makes sense.  Asked about whether TPP would come up in the talks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered a non-answer, saying she was “not going to get ahead of anything that may or may not happen in the meeting.” “But as the president said, he wants to make sure we have good trade deals, and we'll see what that looks like,” she added.  Abe could seize the opportunity to engage Trump over his more favorable comments toward the Pacific Rim trade agreement, as Japanese officials have expressed support for the United States’ re-entry. Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said last week that he expects TPP to come up during the bilateral meeting and emphasized Japan’s role in pushing the agreement forward after Trump withdrew the U.S. in January 2017. The 11 remaining members signed a modified deal in Chile last month. “Our efforts have borne fruit if the United States judged it would be better to rejoin,” Aso said, according to a report in The Guardian.  It’s likely the two leaders will also discuss the prospect of launching bilateral trade negotiations, which administration officials have repeatedly listed as a goal. Lighthizer also told Congress last month that the U.S. has “told Japan of our desire to negotiate a free trade agreement with them at the appropriate time.” But Japan has so far shown little interest in pursuing such an agreement, particularly not as it has worked to update, sign and now implement the TPP without the U.S. And since Washington failed to grant Tokyo an exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs, “Japanese officials have been even more vocal in resisting the idea” of bilateral talks, analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a memo previewing the summit.

          Trump, Abe to continue talking trade - President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up their two-day summit in Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday evening with neither man having achieved the top trade goal he was aiming for: Trump received no commitment that Tokyo would be willing to launch negotiations for a bilateral free trade deal, while Abe failed to secure exemptions for Japanese exports from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. What the two leaders did agree on was a commitment to begin talks on a set of "free, fair and reciprocal trade deals" aimed at promoting economic development in the Indo-Pacific, Abe said. It was not immediately clear what type of deals that would mean, but Trump did say he was interested in reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Japan — which stood at $69 billion last year — and said that the steel and aluminum tariffs could be part of the talks."If we can come to an arrangement on a new deal between the United States and Japan, that would certainly be something we would discuss, aluminum tariffs and steel tariffs. I would look forward to being able at some point in the future take them off," Trump said.  Abe deliberately avoided saying Japan was willing to start talks on a full-fledged bilateral deal, emphasizing instead that Tokyo still believes the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the best way forward. But Trump again made clear that he has little interest in rejoining the agreement.  “I don't want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can't refuse on behalf of the United States, I would do it," Trump said. "But I like bilateral better. I think it's better for our country, I think it's better for our workers. And I much would prefer a bilateral deal, a deal directly with Japan." Doug Palmer has the story here.

          After Removing US From Negotiating Process, Now Trump Suddenly Wants US Back In TPP  - The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement is deeply unpopular with Americans for a variety of reasons (some of which we'll discuss below). Because of its unpopularity, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton denounced the agreement during their campaign for the Presidency.  Clinton's denunciation was highly suspect, as she had long been a supporter of the TPP, and many people expected that, if elected, she'd flip flop back to support the agreement. Of course, she didn't get elected... but now it's apparently, Trump who has flip flopped to now supporting TPP. President Trump, in a sharp reversal, told a gathering of farm-state lawmakers and governors on Thursday morning that the United States was looking into rejoining a multicountry trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal he pulled out of days after assuming the presidency. Mr. Trump’s reconsideration of an agreement he once denounced as a “rape of our country” caught even his closest advisers by surprise and came as his administration faces stiff pushback from Republican lawmakers, farmers and other businesses concerned that the president’s threat of tariffs and other trade barriers will hurt them economically. We spent years explaining the many, many problems associated with TPP. While we tend to be supporters of free trade, the problem with the TPP was that it wasn't actually a free trade agreement. Yes, a few parts of it included lowering tariffs and opening borders to trade (and those parts were, for the most part, pretty good), but the bigger part of the agreement was that it was an "investment" agreement, rather than a trade agreement. And thus it included two parts that were really problematic. First, was an intellectual property section which was the exact opposite of "free trade." Rather it required higher barriers to trade, creating mercantilist barriers to information and ideas, in locking up "intellectual property" under ever more draconian terms. The second part was what we've referred to as the "corporate sovereignty" section, which is officially referred to as "Investor State Dispute Settlement" provisions or (ISDS). This is a system by which companies can effectively take governments to a private tribunal, who will determine if their regulations cut into the expected profits of the company.

          On Reports That President Trump Is Open to Rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership - Lori Wallach, Public Citizen - As news reports have emerged that at a meeting this morning President Trump told a gathering of farm-state Senators he was directing his advisers to look into rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, commented: “Given the central role TPP opposition played in the election and Trump widely touting withdrawal from it, despite it already being dead in Congress, to declare he had delivered on a major trade promise, his reversing course could bring short term joy to Democratic campaign operatives but for the rest of the country it would signal that Trump does not give a crap about working people and cannot be trusted on anything.

          Trump TPP reversal adds to China trade war confusion - In a matter of days, President Donald Trump's position on a massive trade deal came full circle and added even more confusion to the already complex global trade environment under his watch.On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that the US would not reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive, 11-member trade pact that the president pulled the US out of in January 2017."While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don't like the deal for the United States," Trump said. "Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn't work. Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers. Look how bad WTO is to US."While South Korea is not part of the TPP, the tweet came after Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It capped off a wild five days in which Trump teased that the US could hop back in the pact.It all started Thursday, when Republican lawmakers said Trump instructed top economic adviser Larry Kudlow and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to look into reentering the deal.This statement was itself a stunning turnaround from Trump's campaign sentiments. Then-candidate Trump called the TPP a "rape of our country" and frequently railed against it on the campaign trail.But his administration almost immediately began walking back the potential shift."Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama," Trump tweeted hours after the meeting with lawmakers on Thursday.Prior to Trump's meeting with Abe on Tuesday, Kudlow was asked by reporters to clear up the confusion. He said reentry was more a "thought than a policy."

           Democratic, Republican governors deploy National Guard to US-Mexico border -- Over the past week, hundreds of National Guard soldiers have assembled along the US-Mexico border to assist the Trump administration in prosecuting its campaign to round up undocumented immigrants attempting to cross into the United States. At the same time, the Department of Justice has made substantial changes to the immigration court system in order to curtail immigrant rights and expedite the deportation process.Just a week after President Donald Trump announced the deployment of up to 4,000 members of the National Guard to the southern border, hundreds of soldiers have already been deployed in all four states situated along the US border with Mexico. By Tuesday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey had already amassed 338 Arizona National Guard soldiers along the Mexican border, while New Mexico has so far deployed 80 National Guardsmen and plans to send a total of 300. At the end of last week, Texas had deployed 250 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. Governor Greg Abbott announced Monday that he planned to deploy another 300 soldiers every week until there are at least 1,000 members of the National Guard patrolling the southern border in his state. For its part, California is also backing the National Guard deployment following an announcement by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday that the state would deploy 400 soldiers under the fraudulent pretext of “combatting transnational criminal organizations” while claiming that the forces would have no role in deportations. However, in reality the deployment is designed to free up Customs and Border Protection resources to better prosecute its campaign of terror against California’s immigrant communities.

           GOP lawmaker: 'A lot of the attractive children are not making it to the border' | TheHill: Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) said Thursday that many "attractive children" attempting to emigrate to the U.S. are not reaching the southern border, falling victim to human traffickers instead. The comments came during a hearing about U.S. immigration policy and border agencies, CNN reported Thursday. "Believe me, a lot of the attractive children are not making it to the border," Carter said as an aside before the discussion moved on to other topics. The comment came during an exchange with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who was asking questions regarding asylum laws and other measures that help to protect families who make it across the border to the U.S. and are waiting to see if they will be permitted to stay. Culberson said Central Americans put their lives at risk to get to the U.S. border, and the laws serve as a "magnet" for them. People trying to get to the U.S. border through Mexico often have to pay smugglers for assistance. Along the journey, migrants can face life-threatening conditions, in addition to assaults and exploitation. 

          Mexican government to deploy federal troops against immigrants on its southern border --The Mexican government announced on April 10 that it will send an undisclosed number of soldiers of the National Gendarmerie to their southern border with Guatemala to block the flow of immigrants.The announcement was made via video on the Facebook page of Manuel Velasco Coello, governor of the state of Chiapas and a member of the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM). It also features Alfonso Navarrete Prida, Secretary of the Interior and a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).Univision published an article on April 11 titled “Mexico will send more soldiers to the border with Guatemala to curb migration of Central Americans” which reports on Velasco’s announcement. The article reports that Velasco said these measures are meant to “bolster security on our southern border.”For all of the Mexican government’s posturing of being opposed to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, these lines prove that the Mexican government is itself undertaking anti-immigrant program against its poorer neighbors to the south. Velasco’s Facebook video claims the decision is based on “human rights” and “border security.” However, the efforts are aimed at blocking impoverished workers and peasants from escaping war-torn Central American countries from entering Mexico en route to the United States. The move comes after the Trump administration announced plans to send up to 4,000 National Guard soldiers to the US-Mexico border, including 400 troops in California whose deployment was approved by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. While Brown initially attempted to say that the soldiers will be there only to fight organized crime, the Trump administration has admitted that the deployment will free immigration agents and border guards to round-up immigrants for deportation.

          US Supreme Court strikes down part of deportation statute - On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted five to four against part of a statute that allowed the government to deport some immigrants convicted of “crimes of violence.” The decision angered the Trump administration which has fought to fast-track the deportation of all immigrants.  In a tweet Tuesday, President Trump stated, “Today’s Court decision means that Congress must close loopholes that block the removal of dangerous criminal aliens, including aggravated felons.” In its decision, the court affirmed a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked the deportation of James Dimaya, a 25-year legal US resident from the Philippines, who was convicted of two burglaries. Dimaya came to the US when he was 13.After he was convicted of two home burglaries in California, the government tried to deport Dimaya on the grounds that he had committed a “violent crime.” Although neither burglary involved violence or physical attacks against anyone, the statute defined a violent crime as any crime that involved a “substantial risk of force against the person or property of another.”The Supreme Court ruled that the language was unconstitutionally vague and could be interpreted in an arbitrary and discriminatory way. The text of the statute was passed in 1984 with Democrats providing 210 of the 316 “yes” votes in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 78 “yes” votes verses just six of the 11 “no” votes. Those voting “yes” on this now-unconstitutional language include then-Congresspersons Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, and Al Gore as well as Senators Joe Biden, Daniel Moynihan, Bill Bradley, and Sam Nunn.Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump to succeed the deceased far-right Antonin Scalia, cast the deciding vote against the law along with the four nominally liberal judges. In his opinion, Gorsuch wrote, “the Constitution looks unkindly on any law so vague that reasonable people cannot understand its terms and judges do not know where to begin in applying it.

          The U.S. Has Only Admitted 11 Syrian Refugees This Year - Before the United States took military action against regime-targets in the wake of Syria's suspected chemical attack in Douma, President Trump justified the strikes by saying "this is about humanity, and it cannot be allowed to happen". Despite those words, Statista's Niall McCarthy notes that questions are being raised about how committed the U.S. really is to Syria's civilians judging by its refugee intake so far this year. According to State Department figures, the U.S. has only admitted 11 Syrian refugees so far in 2018.  You will find more infographics at StatistaTowards the end of Obama's presidency in 2016, 15,479 Syrian refugees were resettled and that number fell sharply to 3,024 in 2017.Last September, Trump capped annual U.S. refugee admissions at just 45,000, the lowest number requested by any president in over thirty years.

          Recruits in ‘Bureaucratic Limbo’ with Citizenship Program Suspended - Army Spc. Charles Choi, 32, originally from South Korea, has a bachelor's degree and a master's in statistics from Cornell University. He has education and skills that make him a highly valued prospect for the military, but he hasn't made it to Basic Combat Training after signing up with the Army Reserve. He has been waiting for two years. Yes, I'm in limbo," Choi said in an interview with Military.com. "I'm still waiting for the security clearance to be completed."Choi is one of several non-citizen enlistees who joined the military through the Military Accessions Vital To National Interest (MAVNI) program, and spoke with Military.com about how they've been stuck waiting months or years for clearances and security screenings to process.The program, created to attract those with highly sought skills for military service, has been essentially suspended amid political battles over immigration policy. Of the estimated 10,400 troops who have signed up to serve through MAVNI since 2008, more than 1,000 now face uncertain futures. Some can't risk the wait.For Choi, that's especially true."Delays are so long and we have a finite length to our visas and that's where the real problem comes in," he said.His visa will expire in less than a year."So if they just keep us in limbo and if we run out of visa status, then we cannot work or drive," he said. "It's a very screwed-up situation."

          The Trump administration doubles down in the Wall Street Journal on why trickle-down really does work - Kevin Hassett, the chair of the Trump administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week mounting a defense of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA)—the tax cut passed by congressional Republicans and signed into law by the president at the end of last year. It starts out badly, railing against “leftists from Marx to Piketty (?!)” and doesn’t get much better from there. It is an objective fact that the cut’s direct benefits are extraordinarily regressive, with 83 percent of these benefits going to the top 1 percent of households when it’s fully phased-in. Most of this regressivity is due to the very large cut in corporate taxes enacted as part of the TCJA. Ownership of corporations, and capital assets generally, is extremely concentrated in richer households, so, the direct effect of cutting taxes on capital is to funnel money to the top. But Hasset insists indirect effects will trickle down to benefit the rest of us. His operating theory is almost quaint in how antiquated it is: “…workers do well when their employers do.” This leads him to claim that “when profits go up, capital investment goes up, and wages follow.” Set aside for second that in recent decades as profits and corporate managers’ salaries rose rapidly, the pay for typical workers didn’t. Even on its own terms, this claim that capital investment responds strongly to high profits is impossible to square with Hassett’s scorn for the performance of investment during the Obama administration. (“For perspective, real private nonresidential fixed investment was anemic at the end of the Obama administration.”) It’s hard to square because during these same years when capital investment really was weak, profitability of corporations was historically high. In short, it just cannot be the case that low after-tax profitability was a binding constraint on capital investment and economic growth in recent years because profitability was not low, it was high.

          The Big Tax Lie: Corporations Should Stop Complaining About Taxes They Rarely Paid - Since the $1.5 trillion tax cut pushed through by Congress and President Trump took effect in January, dozens of big corporations have engaged in a public relations blitz designed to convince middle-income families that they’ll benefit from the new law.   This slick corporate sales pitch is a sensible response to a new tax bill that is among the most unpopular tax plans in recent memory, largely because middle-income families understand they were at best an afterthought for the legislation’s authors. But these corporate claims are also profoundly misleading: Many of the biggest and most profitable American corporations, including some of the “bonus companies,” routinely paid little or nothing in corporate income taxes even before the new law took effect.   Even as these companies put out splashy press releases touting their largesse, the Securities and Exchange Commission required them to publish basic information regarding the federal income tax these companies have paid on their U.S. profits.  . These companies collectively got almost $1.4 billion in tax rebates in 2017, which works out to an average tax rate of minus 5.6 percent. A new report from my organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, digs into these disclosures and finds that 15 profitable Fortune 500 companies collectively earned $24 billion in U.S. profits during 2017—and each paid zero, or less, in federal income taxes last year. These companies collectively got almost $1.4 billion in tax rebates in 2017, which works out to an average tax rate of minus 5.6 percent. These corporations cover the full spectrum of the American economy, from tech firms (Amazon) to financial giants (MetLife and Prudential) to auto parts (Penske) and cable TV (Dish Networks). Last year was no anomaly: The same 15 corporations were almost as successful in their past tax-dodging efforts. In the last five years, these companies paid a collective federal income tax rate of just 1.8 percent on nearly $120 billion of U.S. profits. All of which is to say that the 35 percent tax cut that has been Congress’s bête noire for so long appears to have been little more than an abstraction for these companies.

          Trump Tax Plan: 80 Percent of Economic Gains Will End Up Going to Foreigners in 2028, Democratic Senator Says - President Donald Trump touted the economic growth triggered by his tax cuts in a speech Thursday afternoon, pointing out the projected growth of gross domestic product (GDP) over the next 10 years had increased because of the plan.But 80 percent of the economic growth generated by the Republican tax cuts will go abroad and benefit foreigners by 2028, after individual tax cuts expire, according an analysis by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.A Congressional Budget Office report found significant differences between projected GDP, which measures the level of production in the U.S., and gross national product, which measures the income earned by all Americans. If the economic impact from GDP is higher than GNP,  the difference between the two is income generated in the United States but going to foreigners. An average 34 percent of income from the economic activity driven by the tax cuts is flowing out of the country, and in 2028, that number will increase to 80 percent. Most individual tax cuts will be phased out after 2025. “We heard statement after statement about how this tax plan would be great for American workers but the analysis is clear,” Van Hollen told Newsweek. “When this thing kicks in, 80 cents of every dollar [gained from the tax plan] will go to foreigners and not American workers. That’s a stunning number.”

          Trump order targets wide swath of public assistance programs | TheHill: The Trump administration is seeking to completely revamp the country’s social safety net, targeting recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance. Trump is doing so through a sweeping executive order that was quietly issued earlier this week — and that largely flew under the radar.t calls on the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and other agencies across the federal government to craft new rules requiring that beneficiaries of a host of programs work or lose their benefits. Trump argued with the order, which has been in the works since last year, that the programs have grown too large while failing to move needy people out of government help. “Since its inception, the welfare system has grown into a large bureaucracy that might be susceptible to measuring success by how many people are enrolled in a program rather than by how many have moved from poverty into financial independence,” it states. The order is directed at “any program that provides means-tested assistance or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households or families that have low incomes.” Democrats have blasted the effort, arguing the order blends the issues of welfare and broader public assistance programs in a deliberate way they say is intended to lower support for popular initiatives. 

          Farm Bill Ties Food Stamps to Work, Adjusts Farm Aid - The House Agriculture Committee released its 2018 farm bill Thursday with proposals to reshape the nation’s largest domestic food aid program, consolidate conservation efforts and tweak farm aid. The bill arrives amid controversy over its focus on shifting funding within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, into work and training programs. Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway scheduled a markup for the bill April 18. It does not have the support of Democrats, who worry that some states could use the tougher work requirements in the bill to push thousands out of the program by making it difficult to meet the terms. The five-year farm bill reaches into virtually every aspect of the rural economy and into the broader U.S. economy by setting policy for programs and research addressing food safety, nutrition and the environment. The current farm bill expires at the end of September. Committee aides said the baseline or pool of authorized funding is less than the $954 billion available in the 2014 bill, the last time a farm bill was authorized. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to release its own cost analysis for the overall bill as well as scores for sections of the bill. The chairman can probably move the bill to the floor with just Republican votes, but it is unclear whether the SNAP provisions are enough to win support from the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus and pass the legislation out of the full House. Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday, “I think we can pass it.” 

           Through the Revolving Door, with a Few Stumbles – Health Care Corporate Executives and Consultants Continue to Become Leaders of Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services - We continue to see a remarkable stream of people transiting the revolving door, from high-level positions in health care corporations to high-level positions in health care policy or regulation for the Trump administration.  Lately, though, these transitions have not been without missteps.  The most recent cases we have found, in the order of their public appearance, appear below.

            In Raging Tweetstorm, Trump Slams "Slippery" James Comey "As Worst FBI Director In History" - A day after he deemed former FBI Director James Comey to be a "slime ball" and a liar, intent on exacting his revenge for his unceremonious and embarrassing firing at the hands of President Trump, the president is back with another Sunday morning tweetstorm, and this time Trump accused Comey of leaving some of the most important questions unanswered regarding his conduct during his final months in office and during the FBI's probe of Hillary Clinton.To start off his morning tirade, Trump lashed out at Comey for his stunning admission that the he might have behaved differently toward Clinton if her polling numbers weren't as strong, and that Comey may not have reopened the Hillary probe if he thought she could lose.According to excerpts of his memo leaked to the mainstream media, Comey admitted that he publicly revealed the reopening of the FBI's probe into Clinton's mishandling of classified information partly because he feared that, once she won, her critics would have grounds to question the legitimacy of her presidency, as we pointed out on Friday.Trump notes - correctly according to Comey's own statement - that the FBI director's admission shows that he was making decisions during the investigation based on whether he believed Clinton would win.Unbelievably, James Comey states that Polls, where Crooked Hillary was leading, were a factor in the handling (stupidly) of the Clinton Email probe. In other words, he was making decisions based on the fact that he thought she was going to win, and he wanted a job. Slimeball!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2018 Trump then points out that Comey offered no explanations for the bureau's most questionable behavior, including the DNC's refusal to let the FBI examine its email server after Wikileaks released a trove of hacked emails, as well as the $700,000 campaign contribution received by Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe's wife from an ally of the Clintons.

             Trump threatens Comey on eve of court hearing  -- The legal and political infighting within the US government is reaching a new point of explosion as President Trump threatens former FBI Director James Comey with imprisonment, while his own personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is set to appear in court Monday to face an array of criminal allegations from the FBI.In a series of tweets Sunday morning, Trump declared that Comey deserved jail time for allegedly leaking classified information and lying to Congress. This came less than 48 hours before Comey’s memoir of his years in the Justice Department and FBI, including the barely 100 days he served in the Trump administration, hits the shelves in bookstores throughout the United States.The combination of media promotion of Comey—a series of network and cable television interviews, including an hour-long session with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Sunday night—and the negative attention supplied by Trump, Fox News and the Republican Party, has pushed Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, to the top of the best-seller list even before its publication.Trump’s tweets also contained increasingly incendiary charges against his Democratic Party opponents. He asked, “Why can’t we all find out what happened on the tarmac in the back of the plane,” referring to the June 2016 meeting between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, one month before the Justice Department cleared Hillary Clinton of criminal charges in the investigation into her use of a private email server while secretary of state. “Was she promised a Supreme Court seat, or AG [another term as attorney general], in order to lay off Hillary.” The US president also returned to the raid conducted by the FBI against the residences and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, declaring, “Attorney Client privilege is now a thing of the past. I have many (too many!) lawyers and they are probably wondering when their offices, and even homes, are going to be raided with everything, including their phones and computers, taken. All lawyers are deflated and concerned!”

            Comey: Trump Is "Morally Unfit" To Be President But Shouldn't Be Impeached - Last night, George Stephanopoulos landed what will be remembered as one of the bigger interviews of the year when he sat down with James Comey, former director of the FBI, just days before his book "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership" - already a bestseller on preorders alone - was set to hit the shelves.Over the course of about 45 minutes, Comey described in detail his impression of trivial details like whether President Trump's hair is real (it is), to whether Trump had obstructed justice, to a bizarre request to investigate certain claims made in the Steele dossier so Trump could prove to Melania that they weren't real. But Comey's claims that President Trump is "untethered to the truth" and "morally unfit" for office drew perhaps the most attention. The former FBI director pushed back against the idea that Trump was somehow bumbling or an idiot and insisted that he's a person of "above average intelligence" who can follow the plot.However, Comey insisted that whatever had transpired between them, Trump shouldn't be impeached - because the American people should be responsible for voting him out of office. JAMES COMEY: I don't know is the honest answer. That-- that was th-- what we were trying to investigate at the time. Was anyone aiding the Russians, conspiring with the Russians? There's no doubt there was smoke around that. Whether there's fire, I-- I didn't stay long enough to know.

              Obama And Lynch "Jeopardized" Clinton Email Investigation: Comey - With the country's attention focused on James Comey's book publicity gala interview with ABC at 10pm ET, the former FBI Director has thrown former President Obama and his Attorney General Loretta Lynch under the bus, claiming they "jeopardized" the Hillary Clinton email investigation.Comey called out Obama and Lynch in his new book, A Higher Loyalty, set to come out on Tuesday. In it, he defends the FBI's top brass and counterintelligence investigators charged with probing Clinton's use of a private email server and mishandling of classified information, reports the Washington Examiner, which received an advanced copy.“I never heard anyone on our team — not one — take a position that seemed driven by their personal political motivations. And more than that: I never heard an argument or observation I thought came from a political bias. Never ... Instead we debated, argued, listened, reflected, agonized, played devil’s advocate, and even found opportunities to laugh as we hashed out major decisions. Comey says that multiple public statements made by Obama about the investigation "jeopardized" the credibility of the FBI investigation - seemingly absolving Clinton of any crime before FBI investigators were able to complete their work.“Contributing to this problem, regrettably, was President Obama. He had jeopardized the Department of Justice’s credibility in the investigation by saying in a 60 Minutes interview on Oct. 11, 2015, that Clinton’s email use was “a mistake” that had not endangered national security,” Comey writes. “Then on Fox News on April 10, 2016, he said that Clinton may have been careless but did not do anything to intentionally harm national security, suggesting that the case involved overclassification of material in the government.”“President Obama is a very smart man who understands the law very well. To this day, I don’t know why he spoke about the case publicly and seemed to absolve her before a final determination was made. If the president had already decided the matter, an outside observer could reasonably wonder, how on earth could his Department of Justice do anything other than follow his lead.” -Washington Examiner

              Criminal Referral Issued For Comey, Clinton, Lynch And McCabe; Rosenstein Recusal Demanded - Eleven GOP members of Congress led by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) have written a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Attorney John Huber, and FBI Director Christopher Wray - asking them to investigate former FBI Director James Comey, Hillary Clinton and others - including FBI lovebirds Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, for a laundry list of potential crimes surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Recall that Sessions paired special prosecutor John Huber with DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz - falling short of a second Special Counsel, but empowering Horowitz to fully investigate allegations of FBI FISA abuse with subpoena power and other methods he was formerly unable to utilize. The GOP letter's primary focus appears to be James Comey, while the charges for all include obstruction, perjury, corruption, unauthorized removal of classified documents, contributions and donations by foreign nationals and other allegations.The letter also demands that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "be recused from any examination of FISA abuse," and recommends that "neither U.S. Attorney John Huber nor a special counsel (if appointed) should report to Rosenstein."  The letter refers the following individuals for the following conduct:

               Comey and McCabe Leap From The Moral High Ground Into The Trump Abyss - Below is my column in USA Today on the rapid demise of James Comey and Andrew McCabe, who have fulfilled the very stereotypes drawn by President Donald Trump.  Comey continues to spin the controversy over his book as fulfilling what he saw as a need for ethical leadership (i.e., Comey himself).  Comey acknowledged that he never asked Mueller if he should wait on the book.  Why? If you are so committed to the FBI and this investigation, why would you not ask about the possibly deleterious effects of a tell-all book (which discussed both public and nonpublic evidence).  Clearly the book was not helpful to the investigation, but that did not matter to Comey who saw the greater need as advancing himself as the personification of virtue and ethics — while cashing in on the first tell-all book from a former FBI Director.

              Whirling Whirling -  Kunstler - It begins to look like The USA will litigate itself into Civil War Two with the first battle being half the lawyers in the Department of Justice prosecuting the other half until Anthropogenic Global Warming puts the DC Swamp completely underwater and all parties concerned scuttle off into the deep blue sea.  It was rather shock to see the photo lineup of all those familiar faces — Comey, Hillary, McCabe, Loretta Lynch e. al. — in the criminal referral “matters” sent over to the DOJ by congress on Wednesday, as if they were some mob of goombahs caught running a waste management kickback racket in the Hackensack mud-flats. But the evidence trail has been in plain sight for more than a year that Justice Department officials of various ranks and stripes colluded to bring off a legalistic coup d’etat against the loathed and despised winner of the 2016 election — with a little help from (of all things and personae) Russia, as in that political smallpox blanket known as the Steele Dossier.Mixed metaphors aside, it looks like all the clones of Ricky Ricardo and Lucy engineered in some CIA black lab will never satisfy the amount of ’splainin’ that needs to be done, and that the ensuing trials may last longer than the lifetimes of millennials still struggling on campus with their gender presentation. There may be even more line-ups to come. I’m thinking players like Susan Rice, the Podesta brothers, Huma Abedin, John Brennan, James Clapper, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and perhaps the gentleman who preceded the Golden Golem of Greatness in the oval office. This melodrama will make The Lord of the Rings look like a knock-knock joke. Meanwhile, the Republic actually whirls around the drain, both as a legitimate polity between Montauk Point and the Farallon Islands, and as an actor on the world stage. The Washington bureaucracy is not the only swamp that needs to be drained. There’s also the reeking Okeefenokee wasteland known as the US economy, led by its financial avatars on Wall Street who engineered the orgy of asset-stripping that chewed through the industrial heartland like some flesh-eating bacteria.

              Criminal referral filed against former FBI deputy director - The inspector general of the Justice Department has filed a criminal referral against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe with the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. The action could lead to the criminal prosecution of McCabe for misleading other officials and the IG office itself in its investigation into how the FBI handled the Clinton email controversy.Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe last month after the release of an IG report that made similar charges against the deputy director. In addition to losing his position only one day before his pension was to be fully vested, McCabe now faces the possibility of criminal charges.The US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, is a Trump appointee who was confirmed by the Senate last September. Liu’s boss, the president, has repeatedly tweeted that McCabe is a liar who should be prosecuted and jailed, meaning that the prosecutor will be under direct pressure from above to move ahead with criminal charges.The criminal referral is an indication of the extreme tensions building up within the American state. While the anti-Russia investigation against Trump, instigated by sections of the military-intelligence apparatus and backed by the Democrats, continues at full blast, the White House is striking back at its opponents, even threatening to send former top officials to jail.The criminal charges against McCabe are as flimsy and concocted as the claims of collusion with Russia directed against Trump. McCabe is charged in the inspector general’s report with concealing from his own boss—then-FBI Director James Comey—that he had authorized leaking information about the Clinton investigation to the Wall Street Journal in October 2016, apparently to rebut lower-level FBI agents who were telling the Journal that McCabe was stalling a probe of the Clinton Foundation. The leaking itself did not violate any law, as McCabe, as deputy director, had the authority to speak with the press and to disclose sensitive information if he felt it necessary. The issue is whether he concealed this action after the fact.

              DOJ Inspector General Refers McCabe For Criminal Charges - Following yesterday's criminal referral issued to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, his ex-boss James Comey and several other individuals, alleging malfeasance during the 2016 US election, the Washington Post reports that McCabe was referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office by the Department of Justice's internal watchdog. While CNN suggests that the criminal referral was recently issued, citing a "source familiar with the matter" - the Washington Post says it occurred "some time ago."The referral to the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office occurred some time ago, after the inspector general concluded McCabe had lied to investigators or his own boss, then-FBI Director James B. Comey, on four occasions, three of them under oath. -WaPoIt is unknown how the D.C. U.S. Attorney's office has responded to the referral - including whether prosecutors have launched a separate investigation, as a criminal referral does not obligate officials to take action. The DOJ, D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office and a spokeswoman for McCabe declined to comment Thursday. DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report last week, accusing former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe of repeatedly misleading investigators. McCabe was fired on March 16 after the OIG found that he "had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor - including under oath - on multiple occasions." Specifically, McCabe was fired when it was uncovered that he authorized an F.B.I. spokesman and attorney to tell Devlin Barrett of the Wall St. Journal, just days before the 2016 election, that the FBI had not put the brakes on a separate investigation into the Clinton Foundation - at a time in which McCabe was coming under fire for his wife taking a $467,500 campaign contribution from Clinton proxy pal, Terry McAuliffe.

              Senate Won’t Consider Measure to Protect Mueller, McConnell Says - The Senate won’t take up legislation designed to thwart any attempt by President Donald Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a week before the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to approve it. McConnell said in an interview Tuesday with Fox News that he thinks it’s unlikely that Trump would fire Mueller, so the legislation is unnecessary. “I am the one who decides what we take to the floor,” McConnell of Kentucky said. “That’s my responsibility as majority leader. And we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate.” The Judiciary Committee plans this week to debate bipartisan legislation that would let the special counsel seek an expedited judicial review of any dismissal, which must be for “good cause.” Judiciary panel Chairman Chuck Grassley plans a vote on it next week. Senators on the Judiciary Committee have continued to work on the bill despite McConnell’s public comments in recent weeks that he didn’t think it was necessary. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement, "It’s a mistake not to pass legislation to protect the investigation.” “We ought to head off a constitutional crisis at the pass, rather than waiting until it’s too late,” Schumer said. Trump last week erupted angrily after FBI agents, under the direction of federal prosecutors in New York, raided the offices of his personal lawyer. The president called Mueller’s investigation “disgraceful” and an “attack on our country.” He called it “corrupt” and said Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the probe, have conflicts of interest. The legislation is sponsored by Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Coons of Delaware and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. 

               Pittsburgh Police Ordered To Bring Riot Gear For "Large-Scale" Protests If Mueller Fired - The city of Pittsburgh has ordered its detectives to bring riot gear to work Thursday in case President Donald Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller, according to an internal email. Police Commander Victor Joseph reportedly told detectives in the Major Crimes unit to show up to work in full uniforms and riot gear "until further notice." Pittsburgh's local CBS station obtained the internal memo, in which Joseph writes "there is a belief" that Mueller may be fired, and that "large-scale" protests are expected to ensue in the central business district within 24 hours if that occurs. “We have received information of a potential large scale protest in the Central Business District. The protest would be semi-spontaneous and more than likely happen on short notice,” the email reads. “Beginning Thursday, all Major Crimes detectives are required to bring a full uniform and any issued protective equipment (riot gear) with them to work until further notice.”

              Trump Slams Comey's Leaked Memos Showing Putin Pimping Pros & Comey 'Comedy’ - Less than an hour after Comey's memos were released by DOJ to Congress, the 15 pages have miraculously "become available" to The Associated Press. Given that no source is provided, we assume they were leaked with the intent to embarrass President Trump.Comey's memos detail private dinner conversations with the President in January 2017, during which Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty.Another conversation about former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn is also detailed in the memos. In a memo dated Jan. 28, 2017, Comey recounted a dinner he had with Trump at the White House shortly after the president's inauguration. Trump asked Comey who he thought he should be in contact with in the administration, and Comey mentioned the national security adviser.The president said Flynn had “serious judgment issues," Comey wrote in his memo. Trump then explained to Comey that when the president had complimented British Prime Minister Theresa May on being the first to congratulate him on his election, Flynn interjected that another leader had called first. That was the first time Trump learned of the other leader’s call, Comey wrote.“I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn,” Comey wrote.As The Hill adds, a couple days after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, the president tweeted that he “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” The tweet was reportedly written by his personal lawyer at the time, John Dowd. Legal experts speculated that if Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI and then asked Comey to drop the investigation, it could constitute obstruction of justice.Then, there's the hookers. Per Comey memos, Trump says Putin told him how Russia had "some of the most beautiful hookers in the world" https://t.co/2udMOAVhzR pic.twitter.com/MGCzc7a4iN — Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) April 20, 2018

              Justice Department Watchdog Probes Comey Memos Over Classified Information — At least two of the memos that former FBI Director James Comey gave to a friend outside of the government contained information that officials now consider classified, according to people familiar with the matter, prompting a review by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog. Of those two memos, Mr. Comey himself redacted elements of one that he knew to be classified to protect secrets before he handed the documents over to his friend. He determined at the time that another memo contained no classified information, but after he left the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bureau officials upgraded it to “confidential,” the lowest level of classification. The Justice Department inspector general is now conducting an investigation into classification issues related to the Comey memos, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Comey has said he considered the memos personal rather than government documents. He has told Congress that he wrote them and authorized their release to the media “as a private citizen.” Mr. Comey gave four total memos to his friend Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Columbia Law School, people familiar with the matter said. Three were considered unclassified at the time and the one was that was classified contained the redactions made by Mr. Comey. As FBI director, Mr. Comey had the legal authority to determine what bureau information was classified and what wasn’t. Once he left government, however, the determination fell to other officials. The FBI deemed the memos classified sometime during 2017, one of the people familiar with the matter said. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused Mr. Comey of mishandling classified information in a bid to discredit the former FBI director, whom he fired last year. The public feud between the two men has intensified this week, as Mr. Comey has granted several interviews while promoting a memoir that is highly critical of Mr. Trump. 

              Comey Memos Probed By DOJ For Classified Info Leaks - The Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general is now conducting an investigation into classification issues concerning the "Comey memos" leaked to the New York Times by former FBI Director James Comey. Sources tell the Wall St. Journal that at least two of the memos which Comey leaked to his "good friend," Columbia Law Professor Daniel Richman, contained information that officials now consider classified - prompting the review by the Office of the Inspector General, headed by Michael Horowitz. Of those two memos, Mr. Comey himself redacted elements of one that he knew to be classified to protect secrets before he handed the documents over to his friend. He determined at the time that another memo contained no classified information, but after he left the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bureau officials upgraded it to “confidential,” the lowest level of classification. –WSJ  Comey told Congressional investigators that he considered the memos to be personal rather than government documents. The memos - leaked through Richman, were a major catalyst in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 US election. While Richman told CNN "No memo was given to me that was marked 'classified,' and James Comey told Congressional investigators he tried to "write it in such a way that I don't include anything that would trigger a classification," it appears the FBI's chief FOIA officer disagrees.  We previously reported that Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said four of the 7 Comey memos he reviewed were "marked classified" at the "Secret" or "Confidential" level - however in January the FBI's chief FOIA officer reportedly told Judicial Watch - in a signed declaration, that every single Comey memo was classified at the time.We have a sworn declaration from David Hardy who is the chief FOIA officer of the FBI that we obtained just in the last few days, and in that sworn declaration, Mr. Hardy says that all of Comey's memos - all of them, were classified at the time they were written, and they remain classified. -Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch.  Therefore, Farrell points out, Comey mishandled national defense information when he "knowingly and willfully" leaked them to his friend at Columbia University. 

              Democrats escalate anti-Russia witch hunt with lawsuit linking Trump and Assange as Russian agents -- In a major escalation of the anti-Russia campaign targeting both Moscow and the Trump administration, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Friday filed a lawsuit charging the Russian government, the Trump election campaign and top Trump aides, and WikiLeaks and Julian Assange of conspiring to undermine the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in order to secure the election of Donald Trump.The legal action essentially brands the US defendants as traitors.The civil suit, seeking millions of dollars in damages, was filed in the US District Court in Manhattan. The Democratic Party’s 66-page legal complaint contains no new information about alleged Russian hacking or Trump campaign collusion. It simply repackages the official narrative based on the report issued in early January, 2017 by the CIA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which provided no substantive evidence for its charges, with the addition of subsequent media revelations, such as reports on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian nationals. The lawsuit repeats the absurd narrative that Clinton lost the election because of Russian interference. In fact, she lost because she ran a right-wing campaign as the candidate of the political and military/intelligence establishment and masses of workers were disgusted with the Democrats after eight years of Obama.

              Democratic National Committee’s Lawsuit Against Russians, Wikileaks And Various Trump Associates Full Of Legally Nutty Arguments --This morning I saw a lot of excitement and happiness from folks who greatly dislike President Trump over the fact that the Democratic National Committee hadfiled a giant lawsuit against Russia, the GRU, Guccifier 2, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and a few other names you might recognize if you've followed the whole Trump / Russia soap opera over the past year and a half. My first reaction was that this was unlikely to be the kind of thing we'd cover on Techdirt, because it seemed like a typical political thing. But, then I looked at the actual complaint and it's basically a laundry list of the laws that we regularly talk about (especially about how they're abused in litigation). Seriously, look at the complaint. There's a CFAA claim, an SCA claim, a DMCA claim, a "Trade Secrets Act" claim... and everyone's favorite: a RICO claim. Most of the time when we see these laws used, they're indications of pretty weak lawsuits, and going through this one, that definitely seems to be the case here. Indeed, some of the claims made by the DNC here are so outrageous that they would effectively make some fairly basic reporting illegal. One would have hoped that the DNC wouldn't seek to set a precedent that reporting on leaked documents is against the law -- especially given how reliant the DNC now is on leaks being reported on in their effort to bring down the existing president. I'm not going to go through the whole lawsuit, but let's touch on a few of the more nutty claims here. The crux of the complaint is that these groups / individuals worked together in a conspiracy to leak DNC emails and documents. And, there's little doubt at this point that the Russians were behind the hack and leak of the documents, and that Wikileaks published them. Similarly there's little doubt that the Trump campaign was happy about these things, and that a few Trump-connected people had some contacts with some Russians. Does that add up to a conspiracy? My gut reaction is to always rely on Ken "Popehat" White's IT'S NOT RICO, DAMMIT line, but I'll leave that analysis to folks who are more familiar with RICO. But let's look at parts we are familiar with, starting with the DMCA claim, since that's the one that caught my eye first.

              The Real Investigation - The one in the Southern District of New York, involving Michael Cohen and apparent hush-money payoffs, is a serious peril for Trump. President Trump now has real legal peril. The potential jeopardy stems from the investigation that came to light this week when the FBI conducted raids on the office and residences of his lawyer and self-professed “fixer,” Michael Cohen. I’ve never thought “collusion with Russia” posed jeopardy. I’ve also never thought Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s other known angle, obstruction, posed a great risk. There is a line between foolishness and crime. For important policy reasons, a president should not weigh in with the FBI director on the merits of investigating a friend and political ally; and it would be better if he did not make personnel moves that could be perceived as efforts to influence witnesses or affect the course of an investigation. But as long as a president’s actions — e.g., firing the FBI director, discussing the possibility of pardons — are on their face legal and within his legitimate constitutional authority, I do not believe they can validly predicate an obstruction prosecution. The matter now under investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), however, is a very live criminal investigation. Anyone potentially connected to it should be worried. Much of the commentary about the SDNY investigation puts the cart before the horse. When Cohen’s law office, hotel residence, and home were searched pursuant to court-approved warrants this week, there were howls about a purportedly unconscionable violation of the attorney–client privilege. As I pointed out in the aftermath, however, whether this was an egregious constitutional affront or textbook investigative rigor depends on (a) exactly what was under investigation and (b) whether the materials sought from Cohen were, in fact, privileged attorney–client communications. We did not know that at the time, and we are still not fully informed. Still, as an alum who spent nearly 20 years as an SDNY prosecutor, I’m always inclined to assume my old office is up to serious business. I also know well the ostentatiously careful steps the SDNY typically takes to avoid unconstitutional interference in the right to counsel — meaning to distinguish real legal assistance from schemes masquerading as attorney–client relationships.

              Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier  The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Confirmation of the trip would lend credence to a retired British spy’s report that Cohen strategized there with a powerful Kremlin figure about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.It would also be one of the most significant developments thus far in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House. Undercutting Trump’s repeated pronouncements that “there is no evidence of collusion,” it also could ratchet up the stakes if the president tries, as he has intimated he might for months, to order Mueller’s firing. . The raid was unrelated to the Trump-Russia collusion probe, but instead focused on payments made to women who have said they had sexual relationships with Trump. Cohen has vehemently denied for months that he ever has been in Prague or colluded with Russia during the campaign. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment for this story. It’s unclear whether Mueller’s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian – purportedly Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the Czech capital. Kosachev, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of a body of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, also has denied visiting Prague during 2016. Earlier this month, Kosachev was among 24 high-profile Russians hit with stiff U.S. sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s meddling. But investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016 as the ex-spy reported, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential.

              Cohen Puffs As Judge Fumes - I have been a long critic of Michael Cohen, who has a reputation of a reckless and unprofessional lawyer.  Cohen could not have taken a more disastrous course for his client, Donald Trump, and he has maximized the potential costs for both himself and his client.  Now, as a judge was holding a hearing on his motion to protect his files, Cohen took upon himself to not only skip the hearing but sit outside in New York smoking a cigar. He even joked that he wanted the pictures snapped by the awaiting reporters.  The judge in the meantime was reportedly irritated by his absence at this critical hearing over his allegedly confidential files.It was a telling moment for a lawyer who has consistently adopted the worst possible approach to legal controversies.  It is absolutely baffling why Cohen would want to telegraph to the court that he did not have anything better to do and simply used the time to smoke a cigar with friends. So Cohen wants the judge to take extraordinary steps to protect his communications but it is not enough for him to actually take a 10 minute car ride to the courthouse to convey his respect for the court and the case.  As with many of his decisions, there is literally no positive element to this move.  He could have stayed inside his apartment or office during the hearing if he did not want to be in court.  Instead, he picked a public location with the knowledge that reporters were waiting outside.  He has achieved the impossible . . . he makes Stormy Daniels look  professional and deliberative by comparison.

              No, the FBI’s Michael Cohen Raid Did Not Violate Attorney-Client Privilege --Those decrying the FBI’s raid of Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office as yet another example of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s legal zealotry are magnifying fleas into elephants. The search warrant executed last Monday targeting the New York legal office of Cohen, who serves as Donald Trump’s personal attorney, reportedly yielded a computer and phone and personal financial records, including tax returns. Agents were also reportedly looking for information on the now-infamous Hollywood Access tape and records of the taxi fleet Cohen manages in New York.  This has been portrayed by Trump and others as a dagger in the heart of attorney-client privilege and yet another overreach by Mueller’s goon squad. The contrived hysteria may even be setting the stage for the president to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Mueller in the forthcoming days or weeks. To the contrary, the investigation is not pushing the edge of the law regarding the attorney-client privilege. The law only protects communications pertinent to the receipt of legal advice, not everything in an attorney’s office. The privilege is held by the client, not the attorney, and does not protect communications concerning future crimes.  So what of these charges against Cohen and could they really hurt the president? Federal election laws define a campaign contribution as “anything of value given to influence a Federal election.” It is common knowledge that Mr. Cohen acknowledged that he paid porn star “Stormy Daniels” $130,000 two weeks before the 2016 election in exchange for her staying silent about her 2006 affair with Trump. No one pays for silence unless there is something to hide. The payment was made 10 years after the alleged dalliance. The obvious purpose was to influence the outcome of the election by concealing damaging information about Mr. Trump’s character. That made Mr. Cohen’s payment an undisclosed campaign “contribution” to Mr. Trump vastly exceeding the individual statutory limit of $2,700.

               Michael Cohen and the End Stage of the Trump Presidency - Last week, federal investigators raided the offices of Michael Cohen, the man who has been closer than anybody to Trump’s most problematic business and personal relationships. This week, we learned that Cohen has been under criminal investigation for months—his e-mails have been read, presumably his phones have been tapped, and his meetings have been monitored. Trump has long declared a red line: Robert Mueller must not investigate his businesses, and must only look at any possible collusion with Russia. That red line is now crossed and, for Trump, in the most troubling of ways. Even if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then had Mueller and his investigation put on ice, and even if—as is disturbingly possible—Congress did nothing, the Cohen prosecution would continue. Even if Trump pardons Cohen, the information the Feds have on him can become the basis for charges against others in the Trump Organization. This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency.  Collusion is an imprecise word, but it does seem close to certain that his son Donald, Jr., and several people who worked for him colluded with people close to the Kremlin; it is up to prosecutors and then the courts to figure out if this was illegal or merely deceitful. We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.  However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality. In Azerbaijan, he did business with a likely money launderer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group that was being investigated for a possible role in the largest known bank-fraud and money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is “knee-deep in dirty politics”; there are criminal investigations of his deals in Brazil; the F.B.I. is reportedly looking into his daughter Ivanka’s role in the Trump hotel in Vancouver, for which she worked with a Malaysian family that has admitted to financial fraud. Back home, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka were investigated for financial crimes associated with the Trump hotel in SoHo—an investigation that was halted suspiciously. His Taj Mahal casino received what was then the largest fine in history for money-laundering violations.

               Trump might survive firing Rosenstein or even Mueller. The reason: Fox News - For Richard Nixon, the “Saturday Night Massacre” was the beginning of the end. The nation finally turned against the embattled president after he forced out — on Oct. 20, 1973 — the attorney general and his deputy who refused to get rid of the special prosecutor investigating him. A week later, for the first time, a plurality of Americans favored impeachment. And 10 months later, he resigned. But Nixon didn’t have Fox News in his corner. President Trump does — and that might make all the difference if he were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein or even special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The pro-Trump media, led by Fox, would give cover, and huge swaths of Americans would be encouraged to believe that the action was not only justified but absolutely necessary.  You can see it coming.Night after night — for many months — Trump’s sycophant-in-chief, Sean Hannity, has been softening the ground. And his message is sinking in. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, three of four Republicans said they believed the Justice Department and the FBI are actively working to undermine Trump.

               Fox News’s Sean Hannity Shares a Lawyer With the President He Defends on TV - Fox News’s biggest star Sean Hannity has long been one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders on cable TV, and now it turns out that they also share a lawyer.Lawyers for Michael Cohen revealed the association with Hannity in a New York City courtroom Monday, saying the host is one of Cohen’s three recent clients.Cohen, who is under criminal investigation by U.S. prosecutors for possible bank and wire fraud, is Trump’s longtime lawyer. Cohen said he paid $130,000 to adult-film star Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, for her silence on an alleged affair with Trump. Cohen’s other client is Elliott Broidy, a fundraiser who resigned from the Republican National Committee after it was disclosed that he and Cohen paid $1.6 million to a Playboy Playmate with whom he had an extramarital affair.The Hannity revelation illustrates how close the ties are between the White House and Fox News. Former star anchor Bill O’Reilly, for example, also shared a lawyer with Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz. The president is also an avid viewer of Fox News and his tweets often appear to be prompted in part by segments on shows like “Fox and Friends.” Hannity, who started broadcasting his radio show just after the news broke, said he had known Cohen for a long time. He said they had brief discussions about legal questions, that he never paid legal fees and that his work with Cohen never involved a third party. The host, who added that he may have paid Cohen $10, didn’t disclose what matters were discussed.

              Sean Hannity could've remained a mystery client of Michael Cohen's — until a lawyer representing The New York Times and CNN stepped in - The revelation that Fox News opinion host Sean Hannity is one of Michael Cohen's clients was arguably the biggest bombshell to emerge from Cohen's court hearing in New York on Monday.But Hannity's name could have been swept under the rug, had it not been for Robert Balin, an attorney for five news organizations, including the Associated Press. Balin, who is reportedly with law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, attended the hearing to represent the news media's interests.Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, is under criminal investigation regarding his business dealings. During the proceedings on Monday, Cohen's attorney's attempted to prevent the disclosure of Cohen's ties to a "publicly prominent individual" who had asked for privacy and asked not to be named.US District Court Judge Kimba Wood was reportedly prepared to allow Cohen's attorneys to reveal the name under seal, making it so that the court would learn the name of Cohen's mystery client, without revealing the name publicly.Balin objected and argued there was an "intense public interest in the issues that are before this court," according to Bloomberg News.Judge Wood agreed with Balin's assessment: "I understand he doesn't want his name out there, but that's not enough under the law," Wood said after listening to Balin.Once Hannity's name was revealed, gasps were heard throughout the room, according to Business Insider reporter Sonam Sheth.Hannity has since distanced himself from Cohen in a series of tweets. "Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter," Hannity wrote on Twitter. "I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective."

              White House staffers say Sean Hannity is Trump's 'shadow' chief of staff - Sean Hannity, the influential and controversial Fox News host, is known by some in the White House as President Donald Trump's unofficial chief of staff.Trump calls Hannity several times a week to discuss everything from policy, to personnel, to the specifics of presidential tweets, The Washington Post reported Wednesday."He basically has a desk in the place," a presidential adviser told The Post.Some aides think of Hannity as Trump's "shadow" chief of staff — perhaps more influential then White House chief of staff John Kelly, The Post reported.The revelation in federal court this week that Hannity is a client of Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime personal attorney who is under criminal investigation, further illustrates the Fox star's close ties to the president.While the two have been close since the height of the presidential election, their relationship has grown tighter over the last year."The bottom line is, during the heat of the campaign when relationships are forged, he was always there, offering good advice, in person and on television," Trump's former deputy campaign manager David Bossie told The Post of Hannity. "The president sees him as an incredibly smart and articulate spokesman for the agenda."Trump allies say Hannity is one of just a handful of people who can speak candidly with the president and debate him on issues as an equal. And the relationship is symbiotic. Hannity provides the president access to an audience of three million nightly viewers and keeps him tuned in to his base and, in turn, Trump directs his supporters to watch the program.

              Federal judge weighs special master to review seized Trump-Cohen records — A federal judge signaled Monday that she is unlikely to grant President Trump’s request to let him unilaterally determine what material seized last week from his personal lawyer is privileged, but she indicated that she may appoint an outside attorney to assess the records in an effort to carefully navigate the high-stakes case. The investigation of Cohen — which has pitted the president against his own Justice Department — took another unexpected turn Monday with the courtroom revelation that one of Cohen’s legal clients was Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. Hannity played down the relationship, saying he occasionally asked Cohen legal questions but never paid him. On his show Monday night, he described it as a “minor relationship” that had to do with real estate. The connection between the two men inserted another high-profile, polarizing Trump ally into the drama surrounding the criminal investigation of the president’s longtime lawyer.The legal showdown began last week when FBI agents searched Cohen’s office, home, hotel room and safe-deposit box, seizing records and documents as part of a probe by federal prosecutors in New York into possible bank fraud and wire fraud. Attorneys for Cohen and Trump have argued that the seizure could lead to violations of attorney-client privilege.  At a hearing Monday before U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood, federal prosecutors sparred with lawyers for Cohen and a lawyer for Trump, who on Sunday night asked the judge to let the president review the seized material before investigators go through it.Last week, Cohen’s attorneys asked to review the documents, or have a court-appointed special master do so, to determine what material is protected by attorney-client privilege.Wood did not dismiss Cohen’s motion, dealing the government team a setback by keeping open the possibility of having a third party evaluate the seized documents.The judge did not make a decision but said she was considering appointing a special master — not because of legal precedent but in the interest of avoiding the appearance of bias in the politically charged case. Wood said she wanted more information before ruling. “I have faith in the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office that their integrity is unimpeachable,” she said.

              These Are the Michael Cohen “Business Dealings” Prosecutors Are Investigating - Pam Martens -It’s clear from the prosecutors’ filings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that they believe President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, has lied to them and is concealing information from them. Last Friday evening, McClatchy newspapers dropped a bombshell that provided some insight into what some of those black redacted passages in the government’s court filings in the Cohen case might refer to. McClatchy reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon write that Special Counsel Robert Mueller “has evidence” that Cohen did, in fact, make a “late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” Cohen has publicly denied any such trip and produced his passport to back up his story. The McClatchy article says “Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016… He wouldn’t have needed a passport for such a trip, because both countries are in the so-called Schengen Area in which 26 nations operate with open borders.” The allegation that Cohen had traveled to Prague and met with a powerful Russian oligarch close to Putin first appeared in the dossier prepared by former MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, as part of his work for Trump’s political opponents, one of which was the Hillary Clinton campaign. Steele eventually turned the dossier over to the FBI. Buzzfeed published the dossier in January 2017. The government’s court filing in the Cohen case indicates that he “is being investigated for criminal conduct that largely centers on his personal business dealings.” Government prosecutors told the court that they have good reason to believe that Cohen is not engaged in “any significant practice of law.”As for Cohen’s “business dealings,” one such deal is described as follows in the government’s court papers:“…on or about March 1, 2017, Cohen—through his wholly-owned entity, Michael D. Cohen & Associates P.C.—entered into a ‘Strategic Alliance Agreement’ with the law firm [Squire Patton Boggs]. Among other things, the Agreement provided that Cohen would receive a $500,000 annual ‘strategic alliance Fee’ from the law firm.  Under certain circumstances, Cohen would also receive a percentage of the fees charged by the law firm for clients introduced to the law firm by Cohen.”Squire Patton Boggs now says that its relationship with Cohen has concluded. Let that sink in for a moment. You are the personal attorney for the President of the United States – a man who is filling cabinet posts with poorly vetted and/or grossly unqualified candidates. And you are receiving $500,000 from a law firm that is also a major corporate lobbyist. And you are now a target of a Federal criminal investigation for your “personal business dealings.”

              Rudy Giuliani Joins Trump Legal Team -- Just minutes before the closing bell, the Daily Beast reported that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been in talks to join President Trump's legal team, adding further speculation about a major shake up in Trump's legal team which has been in limbo ever since the DOJ's raid of Michael Cohen.Trump's legal team has also been suffering from a shortage of manpower since the resignation of lead attorney John Dowd. Trump had hoped to hire Joe diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing, but the two were forced to bow out because of a conflict. Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is of course embroiled in a legal fiasco of his own. Giuliani joining Trump's team would go a long way toward alleviating a staffing shortage, as well as providing Trump with a person he trusts. The former mayor has been involved in several high-profile cases since the end of his political career, including representing Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab. However, the former NYC mayor was reportedly disappointed that he was passed over for Secretary of State. There were also rumors that Giuliani would be tapped to replace James Comey after the former FBI director was fired by Trump. Giuliani has been a staunch ally of Trump's since almost the beginning of Trump's campaign. Back in November, 2016, he appeared on Fox News to harshly criticize Comey's handling of the Clinton probe. He also gave a widely lauded speech at the Republican Convention before Trump accepted the nomination.

              Rosenstein Tells Trump He’s Not a Target in Mueller, Cohen Probes - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told President Donald Trump last week that he isn’t a target of any part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or the probe into his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to several people familiar with the matter.Rosenstein, who brought up the investigations himself, offered the assurance during a meeting with Trump at the White House last Thursday, a development that helped tamp down the president’s desire to remove Rosenstein or Mueller, the people said. After the meeting, Trump told some of his closest advisers that it’s not the right time to remove either man since he’s not a target of the probes. One person said Trump doesn’t want to take any action that would drag out the investigation.The change in attitude by the president comes after weeks of attacks on the special counsel and the Justice Department, raising questions about whether he might take drastic steps to shut down the probes.The shift gives some breathing room for Mueller, as well as Rosenstein, who has been criticized strongly by House Republicans for being slow to comply with requests for classified documents. Last week’s meeting was set up in part to allow Rosenstein to assuage Trump’s frustration with his decisions.  Rosenstein’s message may have been based on a technicality. Trump may not officially be a target, but Mueller hasn’t ruled out making him one at some point in the future, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the unfolding investigation.

              Eric Holder, After Failing to Prosecute Wall Street, May Run for President - Make no mistake about it, the Big Law firms that played a major role in the Wall Street corruption that led to the financial crash of 2008 and have been burying corporate crimes through their crony ties to Washington for decades, are desperate to put their own man in the White House in 2020. On Tuesday, former Attorney General, Eric Holder, who headed the U.S. Department of Justice in the Obama administration, appeared on the MSNBC program, “All In with Chris Hayes.” Holder told Hayes that he was considering a run for the President of the United States in 2020 but had not made a final decision. (See video below.) Obviously, if Holder ran, it would be as a Democrat, something that is certain to enrage the progressive wing of the party.Holder effectively transplanted his pals from his law firm, Covington & Burling, into pivotal spots at the Justice Department during his reign there from 2009 to 2015. And exactly who is Covington & Burling? As we reported in 2012, this is the very law firm that was called out in the a Federal court decision for actively conspiring with Big Tobacco to hide the dangerous health effects of second hand smoke from the public for decades.So how did a law partner from a law firm with a history like that get picked by Obama to head the highest law enforcement agency in the land? In October and November of 2016 WikiLeaks released emails that had been provided to it by an unnamed source who had hacked into the email account of John Podesta. The emails pertained to Podesta’s work as Campaign Chairman for Hillary Clinton in 2016 as well as in 2008 when Podesta was Co-Chairman of President Obama’s Transition Team. The emails showed that President Obama, using the email address of bobama@ameritech.net, was communicating directly with Froman at Citigroup as the bank was collapsing and receiving unprecedented amounts of secret money from the Federal Reserve as well as publicly disclosed vast sums of bailout money from the government.

              Kushner Companies Has Been Subpoenaed as Part of a Probe Into False Housing Paperwork — The Kushner Cos. confirmed Thursday it was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors for information related to an Associated Press report that the company filed dozens of false documents about its buildings in New York City.The real estate company issued a statement saying it has “nothing to hide and is cooperating fully with all legitimate requests for information, including this subpoena.”The statement said the federal subpoena came last month, just a day after the AP reported the Kushner Cos. routinely filed false paperwork with the city stating it had zero rent-regulated tenants in buildings across the city when, in fact, it had hundreds. The AP report covered a three-year period when the real estate company was run by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who is now a senior adviser.Tenant advocates say such false filings allow landlords to avoid heightened city oversight designed to keep lower-paying, rent-regulated tenants from being harassed during construction and pressured to leave, freeing up apartments for higher-paying residents.Kushner Cos. told the AP at the time of its report that the company outsources preparation of construction permit applications and fixes any mistakes immediately. Records show the company did file some amended documents, often more than a year later.The AP report, based on work by nonprofit watchdog Housing Rights Initiative, has sparked an inquiry by the New York state attorney general’s office and a city council investigation. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Thursday that the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn had subpoenaed housing paperwork from the company. The Brooklyn attorney’s office also has reportedly subpoenaed the Kushner Cos. over a visa-for-investment program to raise money from Chinese investors for its real estate projects.

              Former FCC Broadband Panel Chair Arrested for Fraud  - The former chair of a panel built by FCC boss Ajit Pai to advise the agency on broadband matters has been arrested for fraud. Elizabeth Ann Pierce, former CEO of Quintillion Networks, was appointed by Pai last April to chair the committee, but her tenure only lasted until September. Pierce resigned from her role as Quintillion CEO last August after investigators found she was engaged in a scam that tricked investors into pouring money into a multi-million dollar investment fraud scheme.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Pierce convinced two investment firms that the company had secured contracts for a high-speed fiber-optic system that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in future revenue.   She pitched the system as a way to improve Alaska's connectivity to the rest of the country, but the plan was largely a fabrication, law enforcement officials say.  "As it turned out, those sales agreements were worthless because the customers had not signed them,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in prepared remarks. “Instead, as alleged, Pierce had forged counterparty signatures on contract after contract. As a result of Pierce’s deception, the investment companies were left with a system that is worth far less than Pierce had led them to believe."  Quintillion says it began cooperating with lawmakers as soon as allegations against Pierce surfaced last year. Pierce was charged with wire fraud last Thursday and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.  The "broadband deployment advisory council" (BDAC) Pierce was picked by Pai to run has itself been plagued by scandal and accusations of cronyism. At least two members have resigned in disgust, claiming the panel was stocked with industry indsiders tasked not only with propping up the status quo, but ignoring alternative broadband delivery options Pai disagrees with (community owned and operated networks).  "The Commission was fortunate to have an excellent and deep pool of applicants to serve on the BDAC,” Chairman Pai noted when he appointed Pierce last year.

              Regulators to phase in capital treatment of credit losses - Federal regulators on Friday issued a proposed that would give banks three years to retain capital against credit losses in accordance with a new accounting policy. The Fed said in a statement that the changes would give banks three years to assess their regulatory capital needs with respect to a new accounting policy issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board in 2016, known as the Current Expected Credit Losses, or CECL. “The proposal addresses the regulatory capital treatment of credit loss allowances under the CECL methodology and would allow banking organizations to phase in the day-one regulatory capital effects of CECL adoption over three years,” the Fed said. “The proposal would revise the board’s regulatory capital rules and other rules to take into consideration the new accounting standard.” 

              Fed weighs more transparency, less subjectivity for stress tests: Quarles — The Federal Reserve is considering allowing banks a chance to comment on stress tests before they take them and dropping any qualitative review for the largest banks’ performance, according to Randal Quarles, the central bank’s vice chairman for banking supervision.  Quarles is set to testify Tuesday in his first semiannual testimony before the House Financial Services Committee as vice chairman, a role that was created by the Dodd-Frank Act but which went unfilled during the Obama administration.  While the Fed issued a pair of proposals last week to revamp two pillars of the post-crisis regulatory structure, the enhanced Supplemental Leverage Ratio and the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review stress tests, Quarles’ testimony suggests the central bank is planning to go still further.   “The U.S. banking agencies' build-out of the regulatory and supervisory framework since the financial crisis has resulted in a substantially more resilient financial system,” Quarles said. “That said … it is inevitable that there will be ways to improve the framework, especially with the benefit of experience and hindsight, and … it is important that we pursue this task as assiduously as we can.”

              Behold the radical continuity of the Fed’s capital proposals — In just two days over the past week, federal regulators issued a pair of proposals that would bring about the most substantial changes to capital requirements for the largest banks in years.  Yet to some, the most startling thing about the proposed reforms was how unremarkable they turned out to be. The Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday unveiled a proposed rule to swap out a currently required capital buffer for a simpler measure more tailored to an individual institution's risk. The next day, the Fed along with Office of the Comptroller of the Currency proposed easing the "enhanced supplementary leverage ratio" for the biggest banks, despite the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s opposition. Both would be noteworthy changes and continue the deregulatory trend of the Trump era. But many observers were quick to point out that the proposed reforms were first envisioned by Obama appointees, with some analysts even expressing disappointment that the Fed did not go further. “I certainly would not view this as any kind of an overhaul or rollback or anything like that,”  . “What it does is tweaks certain aspects of the existing rules and attempts to alleviate inconsistencies and to make things somewhat more firm-specific.” The first proposal would replace the static "Capital Conservation Buffer" with a so-called Stress Conservation Buffer, which would be made up of the bank’s simulated capital losses in the prior year’s stress test plus four quarters of planned dividend payments. The special surcharge for global systemically important banks, or G-SIBs, would be applied in addition to the stress capital buffer.  The other proposal would replace the eSLR — which had been a simple 2% additional capital buffer for the largest globally active banks — with a ratio that represents 50% of the holding company’s G-SIB surcharge.  Wright said the stress capital buffer proposal hews very closely to the framework Tarullo laid out, and there may even be some in the banking industry disappointed that the Fed did not go further.

              Fed risks doubling down on flawed G-SIB surcharge - Fed issued two proposals last week that would make significant changes to its bank capital rules — one that would integrate the CCAR process into banks’ ongoing capital requirements by translating it into a stress capital buffer, or SCB, and another that would replace the current, one-size-fits-all enhanced supplementary leverage ratio, or eSLR, with one that varies by firm. While most attention has been focused on the mechanics of the SCB and the calibration of the eSLR, less noticed has been an implicit and worrisome trend that underlies both: If enacted, they would double down on a G-SIB surcharge framework that is clearly outdated and fundamentally flawed.  The G-SIB surcharge itself is not new. It was first formulated by the Basel Committee in 2013 and implemented by the U.S. in heavily “gold-plated”— that is, more stringent — fashion in 2016. Currently, the surcharge is an additional 1.5-3.5% of risk-weighted assets that G-SIBs must maintain on top of their general risk-based capital requirements and buffers.  The Fed’s recent proposals would expand both the scope and significance of that G-SIB surcharge in two key ways. First, by combining the current CCAR process with banks’ ongoing capital requirements, the Fed would, for the first time, create a capital requirement that included them both. That is, U.S. G-SIBs would be required to meet, on an ongoing basis, their ongoing minimum capital requirements plus their stressed capital requirement plus their U.S. G-SIB surcharge. Second, the Fed has proposed to replace the current, uniform eSLR requirement with one that varies by firm, which would be set for each at half of an institution’s U.S. G-SIB surcharge.

              Quarles suggests new Fed approach to ILCs -- The Federal Reserve Board's chief regulator suggested he was open to companies receiving industrial loan company charters, a sign that the central bank's view on ILCs may be evolving. "I don’t think of [ILCs] as a particularly special, excessively problematic case,” said Federal Reserve Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles at an International Monetary Fund forum Wednesday. Quarles' comments, which echoed remarks he made Tuesday at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, appeared to contrast with past statements by former Fed officials. The agency has long cast suspicion on ILC charters, viewing their exemption from Fed holding company requirements as a supervisory loophole. The Fed even at one point called on Congress to crack down on them.  Quarles, who comes from the state — Utah — where ILCs are most prevalent, on Wednesday said he did not have any particular concerns about ILC charters or companies that apply for one, saying that such applications should be considered and granted based on the strength of the application. “I think we should apply the same measures of assessment that we apply to the granting of a charter of any other financial institution — the safety and soundness of the business model, the confidence in the management, all the assessments that go into that,” Quarles said. Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee a day earlier, Quarles presented a similarly positive view toward the ILC sector. He was asked about how a current interpretation of the Volcker rule requires the ban on proprietary trading to be applied not only to a deposit-taking ILC but to its parent company as well.

              Fed's Quarles resists taking sides in gun control-bank conflict — Federal Reserve Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles on Thursday found himself in the middle of an issue that is not part of a bank regulator's typical purview: gun control.   Testifying before lawmakers increasingly critical of large banks cutting ties with firearms-related businesses, Quarles struck a neutral tone. He said the central bank does not view banks’ decisions over whether or not to provide loans or services to the firearms industry as a matter of prudential or systemic risk. “I do not believe that lending to the NRA or a law-abiding firm in the gun industry raises safety and soundness questions. I don’t believe that the decision not to lend raises safety and soundness questions,” Quarles said.

              Trump’s Bank Regulators -- ProPublica’s new web site “Trump Town” tracks political appointees across federal agencies. In light of the president’s promises to “drain the swamp”, it is interesting to peruse some of the Treasury Department appointees responsible for bank regulation. I previously wrote about Secretary Mnuchin and Comptroller Joseph Otting and their connections to subprime mortgage foreclosure profiteers. Lower-level political appointees at Treasury seem to come mostly from one of three backgrounds – lawyers and lobbyists for banks, real estate investors (and sometimes Trump campaign officials), or former staffers for Republican members of Congress. Here are three examples: Brian Callanan was appointed Deputy General Counsel. The White House granted him an ethics rules waiver so that he will be able to participate in housing finance reform, in other words the redesign of mortgage funders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This despite his prior employment with a law firm that is suing Fannie and Freddie on behalf of private investors who felt short-changed by the Fannie/Freddie bailout terms.  Bimal Patel was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for the Financial Stability Oversight Council. He came over from white-shoe law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where he was Head of Financial Advisory and Regulation Practice; O'Melveny had in turn hired him from bank regulator FDIC. Bradley Rolison Bailey was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs. He was previously a registered lobbyist, working for clients including First American Financial Corporation,  H & R Block, Inc., Lazard Freres & Co. LLC, Loan Syndication and Trading Association,  and The Travelers Companies Inc. A 2015 New York Times wedding announcement identified him as having previously been a staffer to John Boehner (R-OH) on tax and trade policy.

              78 Democrats Vote to Weaken a Key Wall Street Regulation -- Today, the House voted to approve the Volcker Rule Regulation Harmonization Act, an innocuous name for a not-so-innocuous bill. The bill would weaken the Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks from making speculative investments with regular people’s money (with exceptions), by exempting banks with less than $10 billion in assets. And, for reasons beyond imagination, 78 Democrats voted for it.In January, 11 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to cosponsor a bill to raise the threshold for extra regulatory scrutiny for banks from $50 billion to $250 billion, which would have left fewer than 10 banks in the US subject to such scrutiny. That bill included provisions similar to today’s bill, exempting banks with under $10 billion in assets from the Volcker Rule.The bill would also turn over sole regulatory authority on the Volcker Rule to the Federal Reserve instead of the FDIC, the agency that backs consumers’ deposits in banks (so you don’t lose money if your bank goes under), which would make it easier for the Trump administration to weaken the rule. Paul Volcker, the law’s namesake, criticized the provision in the Senate bill exempting smaller banks, saying “plausibly small loopholes can be ‘gamed’ and exploited with unfortunate consequences.” The chair of the FDIC also told the Wall Street Journal that exempting smaller banks would “open a door” to risky behavior. According to the paper, the chair “said supervisors typically catch risky trades after they go south, not before: ‘That is why you have the Volcker rule in the first place.’” Makes sense!Lobbying disclosures show that banks like Citigroup and Bank of America, along with their representatives at the American Bankers Association, have been lobbying the House and Senate on the Volcker Rule in the last year. Here’s the full list of Democrats who voted to weaken regulation on banks:

              Changes to Volcker coming with or without House bill - The House passed a bill last week seeking to modify the Volcker Rule, earning a hefty dose of support from Democrats. Yet while the legislation’s future remains in doubt, changes to the Dodd-Frank Act’s controversial ban on proprietary trading are all but a given at this point. The measure would exempt community banks under $10 billion of assets from the ban on proprietary trading — and, crucially, would cede primary authority for the joint rule to the Federal Reserve. While the carve-out for small financial institutions has already been blessed by moderate Senate Democrats as part of a larger package of regulatory reforms, the provision giving the Fed sole rulemaking authority for the regulation remains in doubt. Currently, the rule is jointly overseen by five agencies: the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. By putting the central bank in charge of the Volcker Rule, supporters of the bill hope to streamline how the rule is implemented, by having one agency they can tap to clear up questions about how to interpret it. (Supervision and enforcement under the bill would be carried out by an institution's primary regulator.) Yet the provision, if signed into law, would also open the door for regulators to approve more substantial changes to the rule much more quickly. “If the bill does not pass, the work will eventually get done, but it will inevitably be trapped in a quagmire of shared bureaucratic responsibility,” . The banking industry has long contended that there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the Volcker Rule — and even with Trump-appointed regulators now at the helm of nearly all of the financial agencies, working out a deal among the various camps is bound to take time. But the question is whether the House measure can pass, despite a strong vote out of the chamber — including support from 78 Democrats.

              The SEC’s “Regulation Best Interest” is in the best interest of Wall Street, not retirement savers and other investors -- On Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued over 1,000 pages of proposed regulations relating to the conduct of financial professionals. Among other things, the proposals specify that brokers must act in the best interest of clients, limit the use of terms like “financial adviser,” and require financial professionals to provide clients with short descriptions of their legal obligations to the client and of their compensation structure.  At first blush, these appear to be positive, albeit incremental, steps. In fact, their purpose is not to protect investors, but to present an alternative to the much stronger protections in a Department of Labor (DOL) rule that requires financial professional offering investment advice to retirement savers to adhere to a fiduciary standard. While the DOL rule remains in place for the time being, the Trump administration has delayed its full implementation and enforcement, and it has been challenged in court by financial industry players. EPI has estimated that these delays will cost investors $18.5 billion in higher fees and lower net returns over the next 30 years. The SEC’s proposed “best interest” standard, which to unsuspecting investors may sound similar to the DOL’s fiduciary standard, is in fact much weaker. Though it would prohibit brokers and other financial professionals from steering clients toward clearly unsuitable investments, financial professionals are already prohibited from doing so under current rules. While these rules prevent brokers from—say—recommending highly risky investments to risk-averse clients, they don’t prevent them from promoting higher-cost but “suitable” investments when similar lower-cost investments are available.

              Not Obama's OCC: Agency sets ambitious reg relief agenda - Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting took office only late last year, but he is wasting little time in tackling a series of hot-button topics, including easing anti-money-laundering regulations and lowering national bank fees. In so doing, he's also making it clear that the agency is going in a different direction than in the Obama era, when Thomas Curry was comptroller. Curry's agenda was focused on ensuring examiners are not too close to the institutions they oversee and offering fintechs a charter so they can comply with national standards. Otting has scrapped Curry's plan to move examiners out of the bank and seems lukewarm at best on the fintech charter. Following is a look at Otting's agenda. Among the most controversial issues is CRA reform. Lenders and consumer groups alike have long argued the regulations governing the law, which have not been updated in more than two decades, are stale. But finding a reform plan that can satisfy both sides is tricky. The OCC is expected to release an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking soon which will ask commenters to weigh in on a number of questions. Among them will be what metric can be used to determine if a bank has met its CRA obligations. "There’d be no magic,” Otting said last week. “And so every three years, when the CRA exam occurs, you’d know where you were so you wouldn’t have any questions.” Exactly what that metric will be is unclear. He also wants to speed up the process, which typically lags by more than a year, so that the OCC can release real-time data. The OCC “will have real-time data every quarter, where we can basically certify that you’re in compliance with CRA," Otting said. Otting has also suggested that regulators should move away from using geographic location as a core part of CRA, noting that many banks offer digital offerings that are not tied to branch locations. 

              Large U.S. banks scramble to meet EU data privacy rules… Mark Zuckerberg's announcement last week that Facebook plans to comply with Europe's tough data privacy rules for users nationwide is a large step forward for the new regulation, which gives consumers more control over how their data is gathered, used and shared. Many large internationally active U.S. banks are already grappling with the General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect May 25, including spending significant sums in updating their systems. Of the U.S. companies that completed their compliance work, 40% spent more than $10 million, according to a PwC survey conducted last year. One incentive to devote resources to compliance is the fine for violations, which is potentially 4% of global revenues. “Big banks, fund companies, large insurance companies are all working through large GDPR compliance efforts,” said Jeff Sanchez, managing director, information security and privacy at Protiviti. “For smaller community and regional banks, it’s more dependent on their analysis of what their customer base looks like and what their exposure to European data subjects is.” Following is a look at the European rules, including which institutions must comply and what is required. 

              Hedge Fund Titans Pull Money From Funds to Pay Massive Tax Bills - Hedge-fund billionaires were already struggling to keep investors from heading out the door. Then along came another problem: big tax bills. David Einhorn, John Paulson, Steve Cohen and other high-profile managers cumulatively owed billions of dollars to federal, state and local governments for taxes, thanks to a 2008 rule change tied to offshore holdings that gave them a decade to comply. To make the payments, they had to pull some of their own money from their funds. For some, the bill came at a time assets were already shrinking. Einhorn took out between $200 million and $300 million from his Greenlight Capital for taxes, according to Bloomberg estimates. Clients have withdrawn almost $3 billion from his funds in the last two years. Paulson, who has lost most of his clients at Paulson & Co. since the financial crisis, also had to dip into one of his biggest hedge funds to pay the roughly $1.5 billion he owed. Sacrificing assets is particularly painful now because replacing them is harder than ever. Clients aren’t exactly lining up -- a net $9.8 billion came into hedge funds in 2017, a sliver of the $3.2 trillion in total industry assets -- as many firms have faced multiple years of subpar performance.  “Most allocations to hedge funds are coming from redemptions from other hedge fund managers,” said Don Steinbrugge, head of hedge fund marketer Agecroft Partners. Under the 2008 rule change, lawmakers decided that money managers who earned fees offshore and parked them there had to declare the money and pay taxes on it. Congress gave them until their 2017 tax bill came due to do so. Some hedge fund titans complied over the last decade, but others waited as long as possible, benefiting from the magic of tax-deferred compounding –- and hoping that someone would figure out a clever way for them to lower their tax obligations in the meantime. That didn’t happen. The waiting trimmed some bills unintentionally. Both Paulson and Einhorn owed less than they might have because both of their firms have suffered losses that offset previous gains.

              Deutsche Bank's Bad News Just Gets Worse With $35 Billion Flub - The bad news at Deutsche Bank AG just got worse.  Amid a weeks-long leadership tussle that claimed the scalps of the chief executive and two top lieutenants and tainted the chairman, the bank inadvertently transferred 28 billion euros ($35 billion) to one if its outside accounts, Bloomberg News has revealed.While the blunder was quickly reversed and caused no financial harm, it’s a stark reminder of the vulnerability of even the most sophisticated financial firms. For Deutsche Bank, the mistake comes at a delicate time as the new CEO, Christian Sewing, seeks to convince investors the bank can now return to growth. His predecessor, John Cryan, had already tackled an improvement in controls that had failed the lender in the past.“Fat-finger incidents are common within banks but automated controls should prevent their execution,” said Michael Huenseler, a portfolio manager at Assenagon Asset Management, which owns Deutsche Bank stock. “The shocking amount in the case of Deutsche Bank points to deficiencies in the bank’s IT functionalities, which lends new weight to Kim Hammonds’s critical remarks and raises urgent questions about the potential costs of changing the systems.”In this instance, a routine payment went awry last month when Germany’s biggest lender unintentionally sent the sum to an exchange as part of its daily dealings in derivatives, a person familiar with the matter said. The mistake came to light after the bank pushed out three executives including Cryan and Chief Operating Officer Hammonds within two weeks. Both had focused on improving internal processes, though the incident didn’t contribute to the dismissal of either, two people with knowledge of the matter said. The errant transfer occurred about a week before Easter as Deutsche Bank was conducting a daily collateral adjustment, the person said. The sum, which far exceeded the amount it was due to post, landed in an account at Deutsche Boerse AG’s Eurex clearinghouse, temporarily boosting the collateral held by the world’s fourth-largest clearinghouse by more than half.

              A breach from within: Why JPMorgan fired lead security staffer - The revelation is five years after the fact, but it's an attention-getter nonetheless. JPMorgan Chase in 2013 fired an executive in charge of forensics investigations, Peter Cavicchia, for snooping on top executives at the company, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.The story, published Thursday, comes amid broader concerns in banking and elsewhere about data privacy and the responsibility companies have to safeguard personal data. Cavicchia, a former Secret Service agent, oversaw the use of data analytics to spot signs of misbehavior among JPMorgan employees. Cavicchia led a team of 120 engineers from Palantir, the data mining company founded by the entrepreneur Peter Thiel that got its start helping the federal government with counterintelligence. The two companies formed a partnership in 2009, marking Palantir’s foray into the financial services industry. Through an analytics program called Metropolis, Cavicchia's group collected a slew of employee data, including emails, GPS locations from company smartphones and printer activity. An algorithm helped the bank spot red flags in employee behavior or misuse of company property. In the process, Cavicchia gained “unprecedented access” to a range of corporate security databases, which had previously required separate authorizations, according to the story. JPMorgan executives grew suspicious of Cavicchia in 2013, during an internal probe into information leaked to The New York Times about a federal investigation into the company for manipulating U.S. electricity markets. According to the report, JPMorgan had evidence that the leaker may have been former Chief Operating Officer Frank Bisignano, who resigned the same year to become CEO of First Data.  Cavicchia used the Metropolis platform to access emails related to the internal probe — some of which were from top executives, according to the report. JPMorgan believed Cavicchia shared the contents of those emails with Bisignano after he left to join First Data. Cavicchia negotiated a severance package and was forced to resign. He is one of a handful of executives who followed Bisignano to First Data from JPMorgan.

               Wells Fargo's latest problems go beyond potential $1 billion -- Nineteen months into a wide-ranging sales scandal, Wells Fargo is still stuck in limbo. The company’s announcement Friday that its first-quarter financial results are only preliminary, and subject to revision based on the outcome of ongoing negotiations with its regulators, was the latest illustration of the uncertainty that is plaguing the San Francisco bank. To the frustration of shareholders, the company has already been barred from adding assets for at least the next six months, and now investors will likely have to wait until May, when final results are expected to be released, to fully evaluate the bank’s first-quarter performance. Also weighing on investors’ minds: Will the bank’s ongoing regulatory troubles hurt its ability to pass its stress test this year? In its earnings announcement, Wells disclosed that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency have offered to resolve certain investigations for $1 billion in penalties, and said that discussions are ongoing. The implication of the disclosure is that Wells believes that the proposed penalties are too steep, though bank officials declined to elaborate. 

              Wells' $1B penalty: OCC, CFPB make good on Trump tweet -- Wells Fargo agreed Friday to pay $1 billion to settle claims it overcharged customers for auto insurance and home loans. The penalty came after a December tweet by President Trump in which he said the bank would pay severe "fines and penalties ... for their bad acts against their customers." The fine comes on top of other recent regulatory actions, including $190 million in fines and restitution in September 2016 to settle claims it opened potentially millions of unauthorized accounts. The Federal Reserve in February also put a cap on Wells' growth in response to the phony-accounts scandal.  In a consent settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Wells agreed to pay $1 billion to the CFPB and $500 million to the OCC. However, under the terms of the deal, the $500 million payment to the Comptroller's Office is credited to the CFPB's assessment, meaning the bank will ultimately pay $1 billion. The fine is the first major action against a big bank by the Trump administration; the Fed's action in February was undertaken by then-Chair Janet Yellen, an Obama appointee. The investigations into Wells' practices date to at least 2012. It also marked acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney's first enforcement action since taking office in November, after doubts that he would penalize Wells at all. (President Trump's tweet came in response to news reports that Mulvaney wanted to drop action against Wells, a charge both the president and Mulvaney denied.)

              Former SunTrust employee said to have stolen customer data - More than 1 million customer accounts were illegally accessed at SunTrust Banks by a former employee, although it has not yet detected fraud on the accounts, the Atlanta company said Friday.The ex-worker downloaded and printed information on customer accounts and shared the data with a criminal third party, Chairman and CEO William Rogers said during a Friday conference call to discuss quarterly earnings. SunTrust detected the theft about eight weeks ago, although the company did not realize until late last week that the stolen information may have been shared with outside parties. As of Friday SunTrust had not seen fraud on the accounts, and no personally identifiable information such as addresses or Social Security numbers had been taken, Rogers said.  The former employee took information from some client lists, the company said in a press release about the incident. Certain information such as name, address, phone number and certain account balances may have been exposed, but not Social Security numbers, account numbers, PINs, user ID, password or driver's license information, the release said.

              Elizabeth Warren Gets Wall Street Runaround on #MeToo Probe -  Pam Martens - As women in careers as disparate as Hollywood movie stars, television news anchors and members of Congress have fueled the #MeToo movement and spoken out against America’s workplace culture that tolerates sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, the silence from women on Wall Street has been deafening.Some reporters who have written about the silence have speculated that Wall Street has cleaned up its act, owing to the big class action lawsuits that were brought in the 1990s against some of the largest and oldest Wall Street brokerage firms. (See my Editor’s Note below.) Wall Street women’s detailed court complaints in the 90s described lewd acts during the workday (such as the hiring of strippers) or at company-sanctioned holiday parties (like having a camera shoved under a skirt to take a picture). There was also the endless degradation of women on Wall Street through sexual objectification in front of peers. One female broker was described by her male colleagues as “slits and tits” while the legal defense strategy on Wall Street was internally known as the “nuts or sluts” defense, that is, portray the complaining woman as a nut or a slut.Tragically, the silence now coming from Wall Street women is not the result of Wall Street taking these lawsuits seriously. Instead, Wall Street has simply beefed up its legal enforcement of non-disparagement agreements and prohibits employees from speaking with the press. But more ominously, Wall Street makes mandatory arbitration agreements a condition of employment. Mandatory arbitration, run by the deeply conflicted self-regulator of Wall Street, FINRA, is more akin to a kangaroo court than the nation’s courts. Feminist Gloria Steinem called the system “McJustice.” Arbitrators are allowed to dispense with legal precedent, case law and place severe restrictions on discovery. The press and the public are not allowed to attend the arbitration hearings. Appeals to a court of law are next to impossible unless there is a mountain of evidence showing fraud in the proceeding.Today,  Bloomberg News is reporting that Senator Elizabeth Warren received a response to her inquiry to FINRA regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment on Wall Street today. The self-regulator reported that it had reviewed 1.1 million termination notices over an eight-year period between 2010 and 2018. It found just four brokerage terminations that reference sexual harassment or suggest it might have been the cause of termination.

              Elizabeth Warren Says U.S. and Wall Street Conspired Against Wealth Building by Blacks; Remarks Are Censored by Big Media - Pam Martens - If you get your business news from the Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg News or the New York Times or Reuters or the Financial Times or CNBC, chances are you did not hear about a critically important symposium that was held on Monday on the dangers that Wall Street’s biggest banks continue to pose to the U.S. economy and, in particular, to communities of color. Adding to the mystery of how every major business news outlet could simultaneously decide to skip the event is that it was headlined by two famous players in the banking debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Neel Kashkari, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The symposium on “Too Big to Fail” was hosted by Howard University’s Department of Economics and held at the campus which is located in Washington, DC – where there is certainly no shortage of reporters. When a critical message goes unreported by all major media, it tends to send the message to the speakers — “shut up and move on.” It is noteworthy that Howard University is a predominantly black university and the message delivered by Senator Warren was on how communities of color had been specifically targeted for wealth stripping by Wall Street through devious means in the leadup to the financial crash of 2008. This was preceded by a U.S. government conspiracy against them from 1934 to 1968, said Warren. Warren told the audience that within two years of the onset of the financial crash of 2008, 8.8 million American workers had lost their jobs and within three years more than 4 million homes had been lost to foreclosure. “The financial crisis wiped out as much as $14 trillion in household wealth,” Warren told the crowd. But, as has been well documented by academic studies, Warren noted that “the losses were not evenly distributed.” Warren said:

              US CEO pay, bank profits, corporate cash set new records -- Across the United States, workers are being told by Democrats and Republicans alike that there is “no money” for decent wages, pensions or health care. Teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and other states are rebelling against near-poverty wages and years of school cuts only to be told by the politicians and union leaders that their demands are “unrealistic” and cannot be met.But a series of reports on CEO pay, bank profits and corporate cash released over the past week reveal that corporate America and the financial oligarchy are wallowing in record levels of wealth. The Washington Post reported on Friday that, boosted by the tax cut for corporations and the rich passed in December, the biggest US firms “find themselves sitting on an Everest of cash,” with “profits pouring in faster than they can find productive ways to spend it.”“As of the end of 2017,” the Post noted, “companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index were sitting on the largest cash pile in history: nearly $1.8 trillion.”The windfall from the Trump tax cut, passed with no serious opposition from the Democrats, is not, contrary to the lies used to justify the law, going to create new, good-paying jobs and rebuild the country’s crumbing infrastructure. It is being used for stock buybacks, a parasitic squandering of the wealth produced by the labor of the working class to drive up stock prices and the portfolios of rich investors and corporate executives.In February alone, US corporations announced a single-month record $150.7 billion in buybacks. They are expected to hit a new yearly record in 2018, surpassing the previous record of $589 billion set in 2007, the year before the Wall Street crash. Over the past 10 years, the American capitalist class has spent $5.1 trillion in stock buybacks. To put this in perspective, the Oklahoma teachers, among the lowest-paid in the country, demanded $200 million in additional school funding to begin to address a decade of brutal cuts. The state government agreed to a mere $50 million, which the Oklahoma Education Association hailed as a “victory.”

              Why Aren’t Big Banks Paying Higher Interest Rates on Deposits though Rates Have Surged? - Wolf Richter - Interest rates from the very short-term through two-year maturities have surged since the Fed got serious about raising rates. In terms of the Treasury market, for example, the three-month yield is now at 1.76% and the two year yield at 2.37%: And the interest rates that banks offer on deposits should in theory be about in line with Treasury yields in a competitive market. For example, a three-month FDIC-insured CD, which is roughly equivalent to a three-month Treasury bill in terms of risk, should offer a rate similar to the 3-month treasury yield of 1.76%. A one-year CD should offer around 2.1%, a two year CD around 2.4%.Do they?Well, no. Case in point: The bank, one of the largest in the country, where I have my personal and corporate checking accounts and other accounts and services – though I use other banks as well – offers on its website a 9-month CD with a rate of 0.3%, a 19-month CD with a rate of 0.70%, and a 36-month rate of 0.80%. These are piss-poor rates, given where Treasury yields are today.. Clearly, the bank doesn’t want to pay its existing clients more for the money they already have in their accounts at the bank.But here’s the thing. The very same bank currently offers a 13-month CD at 2.2% and a two-year CD at 2.6%. But not on its website. And it didn’t tell me about it. I found it when I checked CDs at my main broker. Then I checked my other broker. Same CD offers from my bank, same rates: 2.2% for a 13-month CD and 2.6% for a two-year CD. Brokers sell so-called “brokered CDs” like they sell bonds. But it’s a lot easier to buy CDs than bonds. And my broker doesn’t even charge a fee for selling CDs, which is not the case with bonds. And you can sell these “brokered CDs” in the secondary market through your broker – as you would sell a bond – if you need to have the cash, though in an environment of rising interest rates, selling CDs and bonds usually involves capital losses.

              GOP maneuver could roll back decades of regulation - - Republicans are preparing to open a new front in their push to roll back regulations across the government, using a maneuver that could enable them to strike down decisions by federal agencies that reach back decades. As soon as Tuesday, GOP senators, backed by President Donald Trump, will use the Congressional Review Act to topple safeguards issued by the CFPB in 2013 that were intended to discourage discrimination in auto lending. ..While Republicans in the Trump era have already taken advantage of the 1996 law to remove more than a dozen recently issued rules, this would be the first time that Congress will have used it to kill a regulatory policy that is several years old. Now, actions going back to President Bill Clinton’s administration could be in play under the procedure GOP lawmakers are undertaking, forcing numerous agencies to reconsider how they roll out new regulations. “It’s a hugely important precedent,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the architect of the effort, said in an interview. “It’s potentially a big, big opening.” While conservatives are applauding the effort as a way to rein in rogue bureaucrats and boost the economy, consumer advocates are warning that the consequences could be dire. “This takes an already incredibly dangerous law and cranks it up to 11,” said James Goodwin, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. 

              Consumer groups oppose Senate repeal of CFPB auto lending rules - Consumer groups oppose Senate repeal of CFPB auto lending rules Sixty-four consumer groups are speaking out against a Senate measure, expected to be voted on this week, that would overturn the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2013 regulation on discriminatory pricing by auto lenders. The Senate is expected to vote as early as Tuesday on legislation sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the CFPB's controversial auto lending rules. The groups oppose a Senate vote on procedural grounds, claiming that Congress should have reviewed the guidance in 2013 when it was first issued by the CFPB. Using the Congressional Review Act to attack guidance that is five years old runs counter to the law and would set a "dangerous precedent," they said. The Senate is expected to vote as early as Tuesday on legislation sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the CFPB's controversial auto lending rules. Bloomberg News "We oppose such a vote, as it would contravene the clear intent of the CRA to allow Congress to review and challenge recently finalized agency actions," the letter stated. "This would set a dangerous precedent that would open the door for Congress to stretch the CRA to challenge a wide variety of settled agency actions that have been in effect for years or decades, particularly 'guidance documents' that are not only crucial to protecting workers, consumers, minorities, the environment, and the economy but also to providing regulatory certainty for businesses and the public."

              Scrapping CFPB auto lending rule would only lead to more discrimination - A group of senators is working to make it easier for automobile dealers to discriminate against consumers of color, setting them up to pay unfair additional fees on their loans. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and 20 of his Republican colleagues are seeking to override the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s longstanding indirect auto lending guidance using the Congressional Review Act. Evidence of widespread racial discrimination in auto lending dates back to at least the mid-1990s, when a series of lawsuits were filed against the largest auto finance companies based on data showing that borrowers of color were twice as likely to have their loans marked up and paid twice as much as similarly situated white borrowers with similar credit ratings. The CFPB's guidance seeks to reduce widespread discrimination in auto lending. Adobe Stock In 2013, under the previous CFPB leadership, the bureau and the Department of Justice concluded that auto financers' policy of giving dealers discretion to mark up the interest rate of auto financing resulted in discrimination against borrowers of color. That guidance, once announced, put auto lenders on clear notice that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act makes them liable for discriminatory pricing on auto loans they acquire from auto dealers. ECOA makes it illegal for a creditor to discriminate in any aspect of a credit transaction on the basis of race or other protected classes — including indirect auto lenders. Discrimination in auto lending has long been prevalent, and a significant culprit is the discretionary dealer markup. These markups have been found to add over $25 billion to the total loan cost of auto loans made over the course of one year. The CFPB’s own investigations found that borrowers who identified as African American, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander paid between 20 and 36 basis points more for their loans than white borrowers, adding between $150 and $300 in additional interest over the life of those consumers’ loans. These discrepancies were not, the investigations showed, attributable to variations in borrowers’ credit profiles; they were, rather, the result of discretionary dealer markups. 

              Repeal of CFPB rule could still leave car lenders on the hook -  The financial services industry was poised for another regulatory relief victory Tuesday as the Senate closed in on overturning the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2013 auto lending rules, but a central question is how lasting the measure will be in limiting the CFPB's authority. Senators appeared to have necessary votes to use the Congressional Review Act to repeal 2013 CFPB guidance meant to stop discriminatory markups on indirect loans made by car dealers. A motion passed 50-47, largely along party lines, to proceed to a formal debate. A final vote could come as early as Tuesday evening. The Congressional Review Act typically allows 60 legislative session days from when a rule is submitted for lawmakers to consider a repeal, yet senators employed a new tactic for reversing a five-year-old policy. Senators appeared to have necessary votes to use the Congressional Review Act to repeal 2013 CFPB guidance meant to stop discriminatory markups on indirect loans made by car dealers. Bloomberg News But some observers said overturning the rule, which the CFPB had intended to issue as guidance, does little to prevent a future CFPB director from still aggressively targeting individual lenders via the agency's massive enforcement authority. "This vote has a largely symbolic character to it," said J.W. Verret, an associate law professor at George Mason University. "Even if the CRA goes through and the guidance is repealed, what happens under the next director? Who knows what the dynamics in Congress would be at that point."

              Senate votes to block CFPB auto lending guidance - The Senate voted Wednesday 51-47 to block guidance issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013 that was meant to stop discriminatory markups on indirect loans made by car dealers. The Congressional Review Act resolution passed with the support of a single Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, while some key Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, missed the vote.  The Senate typically has only has 60 legislative days invoke the Congressional Review Act to block agency rules, but they were able to reverse the five-year-old policy after the Government Accountability Office determined that the guidance was considered a rule that is subject to congressional review. Because that review didn't take place in 2013, the GAO decision effectively restarted the clock.  The review act measure must now be considered by the House, which is expected to pass it quickly. President Trump is also expected to sign the measure once it is cleared by the House.  Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, praised the Senate’s vote. “I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for standing up for the rule of law, and I look forward to finally repealing this harmful and flawed bulletin very soon,” Hensarling said. The move was only the second rejection of a CFPB rule by Congress. Last year, Congress overturned the CFPB's rule banning mandatory arbitration clauses in financial contracts.

              Does Senate’s repeal of CFPB policy put all guidance in crosshairs? — Republican lawmakers had already proven the value of the Congressional Review Act in repealing Obama-era banking rules, but Wednesday’s Senate vote overturning restrictions on indirect auto loans opens the door to an even expanded use of the law, threatening earlier agency policies.The first recent industry victory via the 1996 law, which gives Congress 60 legislative session days from a rule’s issuance to consider its repeal, was an October vote to block the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mandatory arbitration rule.But under a relatively novel interpretation of the Congressional Review Act, which resets the review clock for less formal guidance that operated like rules, lawmakers could now try to target a whole host of past policies that regulators had never submitted to Congress.“This is the next leg in Trump’s deregulatory agenda,” said Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for Raymond James. Lawrence Kaplan, an attorney at Paul Hastings, said lawmakers could look at policies such as a 2007 interagency guidance on subprime lending, or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp’s “frequently asked questions” document on brokered deposits, to see if they should have been considered rules that were subject to congressional review. In the case of the FAQ document, Kaplan said, the FDIC “never came out with a regulatory issuance.”“It’s all interpretation,” he said. But he added that policymakers should be cautious about eliminating certain pieces of guidance, such as one on third-party risk management, that protect the system.

              Congressional Review Act Confusion: Indirect Auto Lending Guidance Edition (a/k/a The Fast & the Pointless) Adam Levitin, Credit Slips - The Congressional Review Act creates a mechanism whereby Congress can override an agency rulemaking on a simple majority vote in both houses, meaning that it is not subject to the filibuster in the Senate. Congress has only used this tool infrequently, most notably with the CRA resolution overriding the CFPB's arbitration rule.  Some members of Congress have now turned their CRA sights on various regulatory "guidance" that they find objectionable. This guidance is not formally binding and enforceable law, but other sorts of communications from agencies that help regulated entities understand agency expectations, interpretations, and policies. Among this guidance is the CFPB's Indirect Auto Lending Guidance. I suspect that most of the folks who rail against it have never actually bothered to read it. It's a short document. Most of it is spent explaining what indirect auto lending is. In brief, you can get a car loan from a direct lender who makes the loan directly to you or you can get the loan from the dealer. If you get the loan from the dealer, the dealer will typically turn around and sell the loan to the real lender.  (The exception are buy-here-pay-here used car dealers who keep the loans.)  These indirect lenders include captive finance companies of auto manufacturers, but also banks (e.g., Santander has a large business in this space). The indirect lenders compete for dealer business, not for consumer business, and therein lies the problem. The indirect lenders set a "buy rate"--the minimum interest rate and other terms on the loan at which they will purchase it, but then allow dealers to markup the loan above the buy rate (this is the "dealer reserve," which looks an awful lot like the now-prohibited yield spread premiums on mortgages paid to mortgage brokers).  This sets up a situation in which dealers might engage in discriminatory markups in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The question is whether the indirect lenders face any liability for such discriminatory markups.  

              A payday lender is accused of stealing millions from customers. Trump’s CFPB is now letting them off the hook - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is taking it easy on payday lenders accused of preying on low-income workers.In the agency’s first report to Congress since Mick Mulvaney took the helm in November, the CFPB said it is dropping sanctions against NDG Financial Corp, a group of 21 businesses that the agency, under President Obama, had accused of running “a cross-border online payday lending scheme” in Canada and the United States.“The scheme primarily involved making loans to U.S. consumers in violation of state usury laws and then using unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices to collect on the loans and profit from the revenues,” the CFPB lawyers argued in the complaint filed in the Southern District of New York in 2015.The CFPB’s lawsuit had been winding its way through the courts until Mulvaney took over the bureau. One of the lead attorneys defending the payday lenders was Steven Engel, who is now assistant attorney general at the US Justice Department, and who was listed as an active attorney in the case until November 14, the day after he was sworn into office.In February, the agency dismissed charges against six defendants in the case, according to federal court records. The reason for the dismissal was not explained in the court motion, and the CFPB declined to answer Vox’s questions about the case.Now the CFPB is “terminating sanctions” against the remaining defendants, according to the agency’s latest report to Congress. A federal judge had sanctioned the uncooperative defendants in March by entering a default judgment against them, which held them liable for the charges of unfair and deceptive business practices. The next step was to figure out how much they would pay in damages to consumers and attorney’s fees — a step that the CFPB suggests it won’t be taking anymore. The CFPB’s dismantling of the case against NDG is the latest example of the bureau backing off of payday loan companies accused of defrauding consumers — an industry that donated more than $60,000 to Mulvaney’s past congressional campaigns.

              Battle over poultry farms could spread beyond ag lending - Questions over the independence of poultry farmers could have wide-ranging implications for other small businesses.The Small Business Administration’s independent Office of the Inspector General issued a report in early March that questioned whether chicken farmers could be consider small businesses for the purpose of receiving SBA-backed loans. The report determined that most chicken growers are tied so closely to larger poultry firms that they operate more like subsidiaries than independent businesses.During a short, but sharp, hearing Wednesday by the House Small Business Committee, a disagreement surfaced between SBA representatives over how other businesses should be treated. Mike Ware, the SBA's acting inspector general, suggested in his testimony that the concerns about vertical integration and affiliation raised in the report could be applied to other industries such as hog farming and automobile dealerships.

              IRS Says Fewer Than 100 People Have Reported Bitcoin Holdings So Far -- One of the biggest questions this tax season has been the impact that last year's cryptocurrency boom would have on filers across the U.S. In 2017, cryptocurrencies became among the very trendiest investment (or speculation, depending upon your perspective) opportunities. Now, after months of debate and questions about exactly what the implications of digital currencies are for U.S. tax filers, tax day is approaching. The IRS suggested that fewer than 100 individuals have reported capital gains investments associated with cryptocurrency holdings as of April 13. According to the IRS, which has provided guidance on bitcoin (BTC) transactions for more than four years, cryptocurrency is considered to be property. As such, the purchase, sale, trade, and mining of digital currencies could be considered taxable events, according to Coin Telegraph. Credit Karma, the popular credit score site which maintains a tax platform as well, has documented information from the IRS which has detailed the individuals reporting capital gains from cryptocurrency investments. According to the report, just under 100 people have reported these taxable events to the IRS out of the 250,000 most recent tax filers, just days ahead of the deadline to file. ( The low figure, which amounts to about 0.04% of tax filers, is not far off from previous figures as well. For the 2015 tax year, the IRS indicated that only 802 people had included cryptocurrency gains or losses in their tax filings. While this is almost certainly smaller than the actual number of people experiencing these events, it may not be an accurate comparison for the 2017 tax year because of the vast differences in popularity of the cryptocurrency space between those periods.

              New York’s attorney general is investigating bitcoin exchanges - New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into bitcoin exchanges today, his office announced. He’s looking into thirteen major exchanges, including Coinbase, Gemini Trust, and Bitfinex, requesting information on their operations and what measures they have in place to protect consumers.“Too often, consumers don’t have the basic facts they need to assess the fairness, integrity, and security of these trading platforms,” Schneiderman said in a statement. His office sentdetailed questionnaires to the thirteen exchanges, asking them to disclose who owns and controls them, and how their basic operation and transaction fees work. The questionnaire also asks for specific details on how exchanges might suspend trading or delay orders, indicating Schneiderman is particularly concerned with exchanges manipulating the timing of public orders.The investigation will attempt to shed more transparency on how platforms combat market manipulation attempts and suspicious trading, as well as bots, theft, and fraud. Many of the exchanges Schneiderman is targeting, such as Beijing-based Huobi, have headquarters located outside the US, but the attorney general has jurisdiction over any foreign business operating in New York.Exchanges have been subject to plenty of glitches, robberies, and more. In February, some Coinbase users noted that they were getting double charged for legitimate transactions and their accounts were being emptied, which resulted in overdraft fees. Mt. Gox, an exchange in Japan, infamously had all of its bitcoin slowly drained out of its accounts by a hacker and had to file for bankruptcy in February 2014 as a result. Regulators are tightening up on cryptocurrency policies and updating old literature on the issue. Congress has held a hearing with Coinbase and think tank Coin Center to gain more of an understanding of the topic, and the SEC issued subpoenas to cryptocurrency companies and individuals in February. In upstate New York, one city banned cryptocurrency mining, while an upstate power authority raised electricity bills for miners.

              The mortgage industry has a data problem. Is blockchain the answer? - The mortgage industry has a data problem. Diverse systems and a deluge of new data sources make management and accuracy difficult throughout the mortgage space.And after a year rife with data breaches, cybersecurity is a top concern, even as lenders and servicers lean on new technologies to create a more seamless and savvy borrower experience.Blockchain technology offers a streamlined approach to data distribution and its enhanced security features could alleviate many of the issues that plague the industry throughout the mortgage life cycle. Often misunderstood because of its connection to bitcoin, blockchain technology facilitates cryptocurrency transactions, but stands separate from the digital currency itself.A blockchain is a decentralized record-keeping platform, or ledger, that is incorruptible, enforces transparency and promotes data integrity. The tool uses a growing list, called blocks, and links and secures them together through cryptography. Transactions on a blockchain ledger are also time-stamped and recorded. "It's important to understand that it's not just a technology — it is an enabler. It is an approach to a way to free ourselves and be able to do things that we can't do in a traditional sense when you're using it the right way,"The mortgage industry may be an ideal candidate for blockchain technology. It is a functionally driven space requiring information to flow down a river of parties. Having all loan documents on a blockchain will help deliver information more quickly and directly, simplifying the distribution of data and requiring less support from intermediaries. This also means leaving less room for error when data switches hands.

               Mortgage blockchains promise efficiency, but face steep hurdles - Blockchain technology promises to streamline how mortgages are managed at every point in their life cycle. But it will take an industrywide embrace for blockchains to reach their full potential. A blockchain for land records is already underway in Dubai, which should have all land records on a blockchain by 2020, said Debbie Hoffman, CEO and co-founder of Symmetry Blockchain Advisors. But Dubai doesn't have nearly as much developed land as the United States. "In our country, even if we were to start doing a blockchain at the land records, 10 years from now, we'll have a history, but you're still going to need to go back on paper and put all that in — but you can definitely use it at settlement in terms of land records," Hoffman said. Intercontinental Exchange, parent company of the New York Stock Exchange, acquired a majority stake in Merscorp Holdings in June 2016 with the intention of investing and updating the MERS System, a private loan registry of mortgage and deed of trust lien holders. While the company is investing time in researching and understanding blockchain technology, it is not currently pointing to blockchain as an answer to modernizing the MERS System or the MERS eRegistry, the system of record that tracks the owners of electronic promissory notes. "We're always talking with our customers about how new technologies could improve their processes and cost structure," said Brendon Weiss, chief operating officer of Merscorp. "While the potential use of blockchain in mortgage has entered the dialogue, the clearest path, right now, to solving real problems and earning ROI in this space is the long-overdue move from paper to digital. This game-changing innovation is a practical goal that can be adopted under the current legal and market infrastructure,"

               CRA needs to come off 'autopilot,' Fed's Quarles says — The rules to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act have become "formulaic and ossified," and must be changed to encourage the kinds of lending practices that the law was originally intended to foster, the Federal Reserve's top regulator said Tuesday. Speaking to the House Financial Services Committee, Fed Vice Chairman for Banking Supervision Randal Quarles praised a recently released Treasury Department report calling for CRA reform and said the central bank is focused on revitalizing the regulations. “That’s an important focus for the regulatory agencies,” Quarles said. “The Treasury Department recently put out a report on ways to improve and invigorate the application of CRA, and I think … it lays out a good framework for consideration.” Quarles’ comments came in response to a question from the committee’s top democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who pressed Quarles about how the Fed and other regulators intend to revisit the CRA in light of recent reports suggesting that redlining — the practice of denying loans to qualified people of color — remains a persistent problem. “When you say you would move them off autopilot, have you determined that they simply get these satisfactory ratings without these requirements that would make them better or more effective? Or are you saying they just ignore the requirements now?” Waters asked. “What are you saying?” "I'm saying," Quarles responded, "that the banks have developed ways with complying with the law out of a genuine desire to comply. The examiners have expectations about what they know will be viewed as ‘passing’ … and all of that could be broadened to have greater effect. It’s not that the law is being ignored, we’ve just gotten comfortable in how it can be applied.” Quarles emphasized that CRA must "move off of autopilot" for banks and regulators.

              The ‘C’ in CRA should still mean something - The Community Reinvestment Act, a law that was put in place in 1977 to address redlining, is finally receiving the modernization that community groups and the banking industry have long called for. But with Main Street taking a beating by the Trump administration’s gutting of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and stripping of key Dodd-Frank Act provisions meant to reign in Wall Street banks, you can’t blame us for being skeptical of Treasury’s “modernization” recommendations.After all, Wells Fargo dropped from an “Outstanding” to a “Needs to Improve” rating on its most recent CRA exam for illegal and discriminatory credit practices. Now Treasury is questioning if CRA exams should even downgrade banks for discrimination; the recommendations reference a recent OCC update in which discriminatory behavior or other illegal credit practices by a bank do not necessarily lead to downgrading. Treasury recommends a principle they refer to as the "logical nexus" to determine if such behavior is relevant to CRA before considering grade changes. We are left wondering if this is truly a “modernization” effort or an attempt by the banking industry to change the rules of the game.

              New tactic in lawsuit against PACE providers: Breach of Contract - Renovate America and Renew Financial, two of the largest providers of programs that finance energy-saving home upgrades, are facing more legal action from consumers. Unlike earlier lawsuits, this one does not allege that the providers of Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing violated consumer protection laws. A U.S. District Court dismissed those claims last year, ruling that PACE liens are not subject to the federal Truth in Lending Act or Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act because they are not consumer credit.  Instead, the new lawsuit alleges that Renovate America and Renew Financial breached a contract with Los Angeles County to implement basic consumer protections and ensure “best in class protections” for the benefit of homeowners who participated in the PACE program, including protection from “predatory lending, unscrupulous contractors and poor quality assessment servicing,” the complaint states. They also agreed and promised to provide protections for seniors, provide assistance to consumers in multiple languages, and create a “consumer protection measures plan.”

              N.Y. mortgage regulator warns rent-to-own could be predatory lending --  New York State Department of Financial Services is warning that alternative home purchase finance agreements might be a cover for predatory mortgage lending practices by unlicensed entities.Consumers who had problems obtaining mortgage financing have been turning to alternatives like rent-to-own, lease-to-own or land purchase contracts to eventually become a homeowner."Alternative home purchase agreements often are being marketed to financially distressed consumers, promising a path to homeownership, but putting consumers at risk without the protections of a mortgage," said NYDFS Superintendent Maria Vullo in a press release. "As the state regulator of financial institutions in New York, DFS takes very seriously its obligation to protect consumers from predatory lenders. This alert is being issued to create awareness among consumers and to let them know that lease-to-own, rent-to-own and land installment contracts must be carefully considered under New York laws and regulations."

              Foreclosure starts rise as moratoria in Texas and Florida end -- March's increase in foreclosure starts was a direct result of the end of the moratorium for borrowers affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Black Knight said.There were 52,100 foreclosure starts in March, up 11.56% over February's 46,700. Florida and Texas were responsible for two-thirds of that increase, Black Knight said in its monthly first look report.Compared to last March, foreclosure starts were down 13.6%. On the good news side, serious delinquencies attributable to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma declined by 19,500 loans. But the five states with the largest percentage of loans 90 days or more late were all on the Gulf Coast: Florida at 3.34%, followed by Mississippi at 3.03%, Louisiana at 2.23%, Texas at 1.99% and Alabama at 1.97%.There were 632,000 properties 90 days or more late but not yet in foreclosure for March, which was down by 65,000 from February but up by 43,000 from March 2017.The total loan delinquency rate, defined as mortgages 30 days or more past due on their payments but not yet in foreclosure was 3.73%, down 13.24% from February but up 3.09% from last March.The number of properties 30 days or more late on their mortgage but not yet in foreclosure was 1.9 million, down by 286,000 from the previous month and 81,000 from the prior year.There are an additional 321,000 properties in the foreclosure presale inventory, a drop of 10,000 from February and 127,000 from March 2017.The states with the largest percentage of delinquent and foreclosed loans were Mississippi at 9.45%, Louisiana at 7.76%, Florida at 7.15%, Alabama at 6.66% and West Virginia at 6.06%.

              Black Knight: National Mortgage Delinquency Rate Decreased in March -From Black Knight: Black Knight’s First Look: Hurricane Impact Lingers, Drives Up Foreclosure Starts as Moratoria Lift; National Delinquencies Fall to 12-Month Low

              • Seasonal effects and continued hurricane-related improvements contributed to a 13 percent decline in the national delinquency rate in March
              • Nationally, there was a decline of 65,000 in serious delinquencies (90 or more days past due but not yet in foreclosure)
              • Serious delinquencies attributable to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma saw a reduction of 19,500 loans
              • However, as the hurricane impact shifts away from delinquencies, foreclosure starts rose by 12 percent
              • More than two-thirds of that increase came from hurricane-affected areas of Texas and Florida
              • Overall, active foreclosure inventory continues to improve, falling another 10,000 loans in March to its lowest level since late 2006
              ​• Despite interest rates remaining above 4.4 percent, prepayment activity in March increased by 22 percent from February’s 4-year low
              According to Black Knight's First Look report for March, the percent of loans delinquent decreased 13.2% in March compared to February, but increased 3.1% year-over-year.
              The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased 3.2% in March and were down 29.3% 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 3.73% in March, down from 4.30% in February.The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased in March to 0.63%. The number of delinquent properties, but not in foreclosure, is up 81,000 properties year-over-year, and the number of properties in the foreclosure process is down 127,000 properties year-over-year.

              MBA: Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest Weekly Survey - From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest MBA Weekly Survey Mortgage applications increased 4.9 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending April 13, 2018. ... The Refinance Index increased 4 percent from the previous week. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 6 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 7 percent compared with the previous week and was 10 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) remained unchanged at 4.66 percent, with points unchanged at 0.46 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.  The first graph shows the refinance index since 1990. Refinance activity will not pick up significantly unless mortgage rates fall 50 bps or more from the recent level.

              Mortgage applications increase as better weather helps purchases - Better weather allowed consumers to go shopping for homes and drive the increase in mortgage application volume compared with one week earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.The MBA's Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending April 13 showed its market composite index, a measure of mortgage loan application volume, increased 4.9% on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous week.On an unadjusted basis, the index was 6% higher than one week ago. "Home purchase applications strengthened both on a week-to-week and year-over-year basis, following a two-week slowdown driven in part by late season winter weather and the Easter holiday," Mike Fratantoni, the MBA chief economist, said in a press release. "Conventional home purchase applications drove most of the increase in purchase activity relative to government purchase loans."

              Mortgage rates rise to their highest level of 2018 -- Mortgage rates jumped across the board to their highest point this year as 10-year Treasury yields rose in the past week over economic headlines, according to Freddie Mac. "Treasury yields rose ahead of the release of the Fed's Beige Book and speeches from New York Fed President William Dudley and Fed Gov. Randal Quarles," said Freddie Mac Deputy Chief Economist Len Kiefer in a press release. "According to the Beige Book, economic activity in March and early April continued to expand at a moderate pace, however there is concern from various industries surrounding tariffs." The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.47% for the week ending April 19, up from last week when it averaged 4.42%. It is the highest rate the 30-year FRM has reached since January 2014, Kiefer said. A year ago at this time, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.97%.

              10 year Treasury yield hits four-year high. Will mortgage rates spike next?  -- Yields on the 10-year Treasury hit their highest level since the start of 2014 and got very close to cracking the 3% mark.At 8:00 on the morning of April 20, the 10-year yield was at 2.91% and rose steadily (except for a brief period between 10:30 and noon) before reaching 2.959% at 4 p.m.The last time the yield was higher was on Jan. 8, 2014 when it was 3.01%.The 10-year Treasury yield serves as a benchmark for long-term fixed-rate loan products and when it rises, so do mortgage interest rates. Mortgage rates were already at their highest level for 2018, according to this week's Freddie Mac Primary Mortgage Market Survey.  If the 10-year holds at this level, mortgage rates are likely to rise over the next few days, said Len Kiefer, Freddie Mac's deputy chief economist.  The volatility in the bond market comes from increased expectations that short-term rates will rise, along with the improving U.S. economy which will drive higher wages and inflation. That is "putting a lot of pressure on long-term rates," Kiefer said. Freddie Mac remains cautiously optimistic about housing this year even with rising rates. Early data is consistent with modest growth in the housing market. "Consumers are feeling good about the economy and the housing market. But if rates spike, that might be enough to dampen activity, but with a 4.5%, 5% mortgage interest rate, we can have a pretty good year for housing," Kiefer said. The rising yields are not prompting Fannie Mae to further revise its 2018 mortgage forecast, Fannie Mae's Deputy Chief Economist Mark Palim said. It is still expecting a modest uptick in mortgage rates for 2018.

              New Residential Housing Starts Up in March - The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have now published their findings for March new residential housing starts. The latest reading of 1.319M was above the Investing.com forecast of 1.290M and an increase from the previous month's revised 1.295M. Seasonally adjusted figures were revised going back to January 2012. Here is the opening of this morning's monthly report: Privately-owned housing starts in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,319,000. This is 1.9 percent (±12.4 percent)* above the revised February estimate of 1,295,000 and is 10.9 percent (±10.0 percent) above the March 2017 rate of 1,189,000. Single-family housing starts in March were at a rate of 867,000; this is 3.7 percent (±11.8 percent)* below the revised February figure of 900,000. The March rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 439,000. [link to report] Here is the historical series for total privately-owned housing starts, which dates from 1959. Because of the extreme volatility of the monthly data points, a 6-month moving average has been included.

              Housing Starts increased to 1.319 Million Annual Rate in March - From the Census Bureau: Permits, Starts and Completions Privately-owned housing starts in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,319,000. This is 1.9 percent above the revised February estimate of 1,295,000 and is 10.9 percent above the March 2017 rate of 1,189,000. Single-family housing starts in March were at a rate of 867,000; this is 3.7 percent below the revised February figure of 900,000. The March rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 439,000. Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,354,000. This is 2.5 percent above the revised February rate of 1,321,000 and is 7.5 percent above the March 2017 rate of 1,260,000. Single-family authorizations in March were at a rate of 840,000; this is 5.5 percent below the revised February figure of 889,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 473,000 in March. The first graph shows single and multi-family housing starts for the last several years. Multi-family starts (red, 2+ units) increased in March compared to February. Multi-family starts were up 23.8% year-over-year in March. Multi-family is volatile month-to-month, and has been mostly moving sideways the last few years (although moving up over the last few months) Single-family starts (blue) decreased in March, and are up 5.2% year-over-year. Total Housing Starts and Single Family Housing StartsThe second graph shows total and single unit starts since 1968. The second graph shows the huge collapse following the housing bubble, and then - after moving sideways for a couple of years - housing is now recovering (but still historically fairly low). Total housing starts in March were above expectations, and starts for January and February were revised up.

              Comments on March Housing Starts – McBride - - The housing starts report released this morning showed starts were up 1.9% in March compared to February, and starts were up 10.9% year-over-year compared to March 2017. The increase in starts was mostly due to the volatile multi-family sector. This first graph shows the month to month comparison between 2018 (blue) and 2017 (red). Starts were up 10.9% in March compared to March 2017. Note that starts in March, April and May of 2017 were weaker than other months, so this was a fairly easy comparison. Through three months, starts are up 8.0% year-to-date compared to the same period in 2017. Single family starts were up 5.2% year-over-year, and down 3.7% compared to February. Multi-family starts were down 23.7% year-over-year, and up 16.1% compared to February (multi-family is volatile month-to-month). Below is an update to the graph comparing multi-family starts and completions. Since it usually takes over a year on average to complete a multi-family project, there is a lag between multi-family starts and completions. Completions are important because that is new supply added to the market, and starts are important because that is future new supply (units under construction is also important for employment). These graphs use a 12 month rolling total for NSA starts and completions. Multifamily Starts and completionsThe blue line is for multifamily starts and the red line is for multifamily completions. The rolling 12 month total for starts (blue line) increased steadily over the last few years - but has turned down recently. Completions (red line) have lagged behind - and completions have caught up to starts (more deliveries). Completions lag starts by about 12 months, so completions will probably turn down in a year or so. As I've been noting for a few years, the growth in multi-family starts is behind us - multi-family starts peaked in June 2015 (at 510 thousand SAAR). Single family Starts and completionsThe second graph shows single family starts and completions. It usually only takes about 6 months between starting a single family home and completion - so the lines are much closer. The blue line is for single family starts and the red line is for single family completions. Note the low level of single family starts and completions. The "wide bottom" was what I was forecasting following the recession, and now I expect a few more years of increasing single family starts and completions.

              New Residential Building Permits: 1.35M in March - The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have now published their findings for March new residential building permits. The latest reading of 1.354M was an increase from a revised 1.321M in February and above the Investing.com forecast of 1.330M. Figures were revised going back to January 2012. Here is the opening of this morning's monthly report: Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,354,000. This is 2.5 percent (±1.4 percent) above the revised February rate of 1,321,000 and is 7.5 percent (±1.4 percent) above the March 2017 rate of 1,260,000. Single-family authorizations in March were at a rate of 840,000; this is 5.5 percent (±1.5 percent) below the revised February figure of 889,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 473,000 in March. [link to report] Here is the complete historical series, which dates from 1960. Because of the extreme volatility of the monthly data points, a 6-month moving average has been included.

              NAHB: Builder Confidence Declines to 69 in April --The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported the housing market index (HMI) was at 69 in April, down from 70 in March. Any number above 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor. From NAHB: Builder Confidence Slips One Point, Remains in Solid Territory Builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes edged down one point to a level of 69 in April on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) but remains on firm ground. “Strong demand for housing is keeping builders optimistic about future market conditions,” said NAHB Chairman Randy Noel, a custom home builder from LaPlace, La. “However, builders are facing supply-side constraints, such as a lack of buildable lots and increasing construction material costs. Tariffs placed on Canadian lumber and other imported products are pushing up prices and hurting housing affordability.” The HMI index gauging buyer traffic held steady at 51, the chart measuring sales expectations in the next six months fell a single point to 77, and the component gauging current sales conditions dropped two points to 75. Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the South remained unchanged at 73, the Northeast fell one point to 55, the Midwest declined two points to 66, and the West dropped three points to 76.

              AIA: "Architecture billings remain positive in March" -- Note: This index is a leading indicator primarily for new Commercial Real Estate (CRE) investment.  From the AIA: Architecture billings remain positive in March - The American Institute of Architects (AIA) today reported that architecture firm billings rose for the sixth consecutive month in March, although the pace of growth slowed modestly from February.  Overall, the AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI) score for March was 51.0 (any score over 50 indicates billings growth), which still reflects a healthy business environment. While business conditions softened somewhat at firms located in the Northeast region, billings remained strong at firms located in the South and West regions. “New project activity coming into architecture firms continues to grow at a solid pace. As a result, project backlogs—in excess of six months at present— are at their highest post-recession level,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, PhD. “Business remains strong in the South and West, and firms with a residential specialization continue to set the pace.”
              • Regional averages: West (53.4), Midwest (50.7), South (53.2), Northeast (49.0)
              • Sector index breakdown: multi-family residential (53.4), institutional (49.7), commercial/industrial (53.1), mixed practice (51.1) 
              This graph shows the Architecture Billings Index since 1996. The index was at 51.0 in March, down from 52.0 in February. Anything above 50 indicates expansion in demand for architects' services.
              Note: This includes commercial and industrial facilities like hotels and office buildings, multi-family residential, as well as schools, hospitals and other institutions. According to the AIA, there is an "approximate nine to twelve month lag time between architecture billings and construction spending" on non-residential construction.  This index was positive in 11 of the last 12 months, suggesting a further increase in CRE investment in 2018.

              Hotels: Occupancy Rate Up Year-over-Year, Record Q1 --From HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotels set Q1 performance record: The U.S. hotel industry reported record-breaking performance during the first quarter of 2018, according to data from STR.
              Compared with Q1 2017:
              • Occupancy: +0.9% to 61.6%
              • Average daily rate (ADR): +2.5% to US$127.37
              • Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +3.5% to US$78.46
              “The absolute levels for each of the three key performance metrics were the highest STR has ever benchmarked for a Q1,” said Bobby Bowers, STR’s senior VP of operations. “Supply (more than 460 million room nights available) and demand (more than 285 million room nights sold) also reached record levels for a Q1, but demand grew at a much higher rate (+3.0% vs. +2.0%).” And from HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotel results for week ending 14 April: The U.S. hotel industry reported positive year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 8-14 April 2018, according to data from STR. In comparison with the week of 9-15 April 2017, the industry recorded the following:
              • Occupancy: +6.1% to 68.1%
              • Average daily rate (ADR): +5.8% to US$130.57
              • Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +12.2% to US$88.95
              STR analysts note performance growth was boosted by a favorable comparison with the week of Easter in 2017.
              The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

               The Death Of Retail Real Estate Continues: 77 MM Sq.Ft Of Shopping Space Closed In 2018 Already - Retail real estate carnage is going to continue this year with no signs of slowing up, as Bloomberg reported this morning that over 77 million square feet of retail real estate has closed this year and that 2018 will easily pass 2017's record of 105 million square feet closed. The latest example was the fall of the once massive Toys 'R' Us name:  The fall of the Toys “R” Us chain, with more than 700 U.S. stores, shows how much retail real estate has changed in just the last decade. When KKR & Co., Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust took over the company in 2005, the buyers justified the $7.5 billion price, in part, because of the supposedly valuable properties that came with the deal. If there was ever to be any silver lining to the complete carnage in the retail real estate space, it was the argument that has been perpetuated over the last decade or so: despite retail stores closing, the real estate would eventually be worth something. This argument was made by real estate investment trusts as well as activist investors and analysts who tried to put a positive spin on the death of brick and mortar retail. Now, with more space freeing up, the bid under former retail property is at ask of falling off as supply is starting to get far ahead of demand: Real estate can put a floor under the value of a retailer and make it easier for the company to borrow. Maybe a particular store concept doesn’t work out as consumers’ tastes change, but in that case, investors can always sell the land and buildings to someone with a better plan. Long-term leases can be similarly valuable. But what if the problem isn’t that a particular store is out of fashion, but that consumers are just shopping less at brick-and-mortar retailers in general? As more storefronts empty, the valuation floor will look wobblier. This pace of closings puts 2018 on pace to pass 2017's record of 105 million square feet of retail space closed: At last count, U.S. store closures announced this year reached a staggering 77 million square feet, according to data on national and regional chains compiled by CoStar Group Inc. That means retailers are well on their way to surpassing the record 105 million square feet announced for closure in all of 2017.

              Another Big Retailer Gets Liquidated - Bon-Ton Stores – it operates department stores in 23 states under the brands of Bon-Ton, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s, and Younkers – filed for bankruptcy in February in the hopes of being able to restructure its debt in court and go on as a going concern. But it has now thrown in the towel, so to speak. The bankruptcy judge today approved the sale of Bon-Ton Stores’ assets to a joint venture of two liquidators and creditors holding Bon-Ton’s second-lien secured notes: The liquidators: Great American Group and Tiger Capital Group. The creditors: PE firms, hedge funds, and investment banks that had scooped up the bonds for cents on the dollar: Brigade Capital Management, Wolverine Asset Management, B. Riley FBR, Riva Ridge Master Fund, Bennett Management, and Alden Global Capital. Their joint bid was about $777 million, “a person familiar with the matter” told the Wall Street Journal. The joint venture will close all remaining 250 department stores no later than August 31 – on top of the 40 stores Bon-Ton had already closed before filing for bankruptcy – sell the inventory and other assets, and layoff off the remaining 24,000 employees. Bon-Ton Stores had already warned on April 6 that it would close a 743,000-square-foot distribution center in Ohio that it had opened three years ago.

              March Retail Sales: Up 0.6% MoM, Better Than Forecast - The Census Bureau's Advance Retail Sales Report for March was released this morning. Headline sales came in at 0.6% month-over-month to one decimal and was above the Investing.com consensus of 0.4%. Core sales (ex Autos) came in at 0.2% MoM. January and February figures were revised. Here is the introduction from today's report:Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for March 2018, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $494.6 billion, an increase of 0.6 percent (±0.5 percent) from the previous month, and 4.5 percent (±0.5 percent) above March 2017. Total sales for the January 2018 through March 2018 period were up 4.1 percent (±0.5 percent) from the same period a year ago. The January 2018 to February 2018 percent change was unrevised from down 0.1 percent (±0.2 percent)*.Retail trade sales were up 0.6 percent (±0.5 percent) from February 2018, and 4.7 percent (±0.5 percent) above last year. Gasoline Stations were up 9.7 percent (±1.6 percent) from March 2017, while Nonstore Retailers were up 9.7 percent (±1.4 percent) from last year. [view full report] The chart below is a log-scale snapshot of retail sales since the early 1990s. The two exponential regressions through the data help us to evaluate the long-term trend of this key economic indicator.

              Retail Sales increased 0.6% in March --On a monthly basis, retail sales increased 0.6 percent from February to March (seasonally adjusted), and sales were up 4.5 percent from March 2017.  From the Census Bureau reportAdvance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for March 2018, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $494.6 billion, an increase of 0.6 percent from the previous month, and 4.5 percent above March 2017. ... The January 2018 to February 2018 percent change was unrevised from down 0.1 percent.This graph shows retail sales since 1992. This is monthly retail sales and food service, seasonally adjusted (total and ex-gasoline). Retail sales ex-gasoline were up 0.6% in March.The second graph shows the year-over-year change in retail sales and food service (ex-gasoline) since 1993. Retail and Food service sales, ex-gasoline, increased by 4.2% on a YoY basis. The increase in March was above expectations, however sales in January and February were revised down slightly.

              Real retail sales very positive. What to watch for next - This morning's retail sales report for March was certainly very positive. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the trend which is a little concerning. First, the obvious good news. Real retail sales were up +0.7%: This is in line with the general upward trend. Note that I am discounting somewhat the spike last autumn that was probably related to extraordinary hurricane and wildfire repairs. The YoY comparisons are healthy as well: So far, so good. But, in line with the overarching story that we are late in the expansion, is there anything to look out for? Yes. In general, large durable purchases wane first. So let's break out real retail sales into motor vehicles and parts (blue) vs. everything else (red), shown quarterly to reduce noise: Real spending on vehicles declines below zero YoY well before a recession, while real spending on other things (including necessities like food) may not necessarily turn negative at all, although growth certainly declines. Here is a close-up of the last two years: Even with today's good reading, retail sales of motor vehicles and parts was only +0.5% YoY during the first quarter. Since part of Q4 2017's spike was related to flooding in the Houston area, the trend in growth certainly looks to be declining. Although the remaining part of retail spending looks very healthy, should motor vehicle related spending turn negative YoY, that would at least be a cautionary "yellow" flag.

              Supreme Court Divided on Sales Taxes for Online Purchases - A closely divided Supreme Court struggled on Tuesday to decide whether internet retailers should have to collect sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence.Brick-and-mortar businesses have long complained that they are disadvantaged by having to charge sales taxes while many of their online competitors do not. States have said that they are missing out on tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped spur the rise of internet shopping.By the end of arguments on Tuesday, it was not clear whether there were five votes to overrule the 1992 decision, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, which said the Constitution bars states from collecting sales taxes from companies that do not have a substantial connection to the state.Several justices expressed concerns about imposing crushing burdens on small businesses that sell goods on the internet and about making them liable for back taxes. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the case before the court, South Dakota v. Wayfair, No. 17-494, raised “a host of questions” and “a whole new set of difficulties.”Sounding almost plaintive, she added that Congress, rather than the Supreme Court, was the right forum in which to settle the matter.“Is there  anything we can do to give Congress a signal that it should act more affirmatively in this area?” Justice Sotomayor asked.But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that “it would be very strange for us to tell Congress it ought to do something in any particular area.”Both he and Justice Elena Kagan said the fact that Congress has so far chosen not to act was itself a telling indication that it was satisfied with the current system.The chief justice added that the marketplace may already be addressing the problem.“The bigger e-commerce companies find themselves with a physical presence in all 50 states,” he said, “so they’re already covered.”The tenor of the argument was a surprise, as three members of the Supreme Court had indicated that they may be ready to reconsider the Quill decision. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch have written about their uneasiness with the ruling and the constitutional justifications for it.

              Personal Saving Rate and Real Personal Income less Transfer Payments -- By request, a couple more graphs based on the February Personal Income and Outlays report.The first graph is for the personal saving rate. The saving rate increased to 3.4% in February. Personal saving was $497.4 billion in February and the personal saving rate, personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income, was 3.4 percent.This graph shows the saving rate starting in 1959 (using a three month trailing average for smoothing) through the February Personal Income report.After increasing sharply during the recession, and remaining around 6% for several years, the personal saving rate has decreased over the last couple of years. The second graph shows real personal income less transfer payments in 2009 dollars. This was slow to recover following the recession, but is now increasing steadily. From the BEA: Personal current transfer receipts: Consists of income payments to persons for which no current services are performed and net insurance settlements. Examples of transfer payments are Social Security (retirement and disability), Medicare, unemployment insurance and other social programs.

              US Freight Expenditures Surge 15.6% from Year Ago - Shipment volumes in the US by truck, rail, air freight, and barge combined surged 11.9% year-over-year in March, according to the Cass Freight Index. This pushed the index, which is not seasonally adjusted, to its highest level for any month since 2007 and for any March since 2006: After the US transportation recession in 2015 and 2016, the industry was recovering at an every faster pace. In the chart above, note how the red line (2017) outpaced the black line (2016). And 2018 has turned into a transportation boom. March is normally still in the slow part of the year, but this March blew past even June 2014, the banner month since the Financial Crisis! “Volume has continued to grow at such a pace that capacity in most modes has become extraordinarily tight,” Cass explained. “In turn, pricing power has erupted in those modes.” The chart below shows the year-over-year percentage changes in the index for shipment volumes. Note the double-digits spikes over the past three months:  The index, which is based on $25 billion in annual freight transactions, according to Cass Information Systems, covers all modes of transportation — rail, truck, barge, and air — for consumer packaged goods, food, automotive, chemical, OEM, and heavy equipment but not bulk commodities, such as oil, coal, or grains. This kind of surge in volume has consequences in this cyclical business. During the “transportation recession,” orders for heavy Class 8 trucks collapsed, triggering lay-offs and throughout the truck and engine manufacturing industry. The opposite is now the case: Orders for heavy trucks are hitting records. Earlier in April, FTR Transportation Intelligence reported that in March, orders for North American Class 8 trucks had surged 103% year-over-year to 46,300, the third highest on record. And orders for the first quarter “were the largest totals of any quarter in history”:

               Industrial Production Increased 0.5% in March --From the Fed: Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization:  Industrial production rose 0.5 percent in March after increasing 1.0 percent in February; the index advanced 4.5 percent at an annual rate for the first quarter as a whole. After having climbed 1.5 percent in February, manufacturing production edged up 0.1 percent in March. Mining output rose 1.0 percent, mostly as a result of gains in oil and gas extraction and in support activities for mining. The index for utilities jumped 3.0 percent after being suppressed in February by warmer-than-normal temperatures. At 107.2 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production was 4.3 percent higher in March than it was a year earlier. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector moved up 0.3 percentage point in March to 78.0 percent, a rate that is 1.8 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2017) average.This graph shows Capacity Utilization. This series is up 11.3 percentage points from the record low set in June 2009 (the series starts in 1967).  Capacity utilization at 78.0% is 1.8% below the average from 1972 to 2017 and below the pre-recession level of 80.8% in December 2007. The second graph shows industrial production since 1967. Industrial production increased in March to 107.2. This is 23% above the recession low, and 2% above the pre-recession peak.

              The Big Four Economic Indicators: Industrial Production Up 0.5% in March -  This commentary has been updated to incorporate the March data for Industrial Production. Today's report on Industrial Production for March shows a 0.5% increase month-over-month, which was better than the Investing.com consensus of 0.3%. The year-over-year change is 4.33%, down slightly from last month's YoY increase. The indicator is currently at an all-time high. Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:Industrial production rose 0.5 percent in March after increasing 1.0 percent in February; the index advanced 4.5 percent at an annual rate for the first quarter as a whole. After having climbed 1.5 percent in February, manufacturing production edged up 0.1 percent in March. Mining output rose 1.0 percent, mostly as a result of gains in oil and gas extraction and in support activities for mining. The index for utilities jumped 3.0 percent after being suppressed in February by warmer-than-normal temperatures. At 107.2 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production was 4.3 percent higher in March than it was a year earlier. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector moved up 0.3 percentage point in March to 78.0 percent, a rate that is 1.8 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2017) average. [view full report] The chart below shows the year-over-year percent change in Industrial Production since the series inception in 1919, the current level is lower than at the onset of 8 of the 17 recessions over this time frame of nearly a century.

              Empire State Manufacturing Survey: Growth in April at Slower Pace -This morning we got the latest Empire State Manufacturing Survey. The diffusion index for General Business Conditions at 15.80 was a decrease of 6.7 from the previous month's 22.50.The Investing.com forecast was for a reading of 18.80.The Empire State Manufacturing Index rates the relative level of general business conditions in New York state. A level above 0.0 indicates improving conditions, below indicates worsening conditions. The reading is compiled from a survey of about 200 manufacturers in New York state.Here is the opening paragraph from the report.Business activity grew at a solid clip in New York State, according to firms responding to the April 2018 Empire State Manufacturing Survey. The headline general business conditions index, at 15.8, remained firmly in positive territory, although its seven-point decline from its March level pointed to a somewhat slower pace of growth. [source] Here is a chart of the current conditions and its 3-month moving average, which helps clarify the trend for this extremely volatile indicator:

              Optimism of Manufacturers “Plunged” the Most Ever: NY Fed - Wolf Richter - Something strange happened in the Empire State Manufacturing Survey released by the New York Fed this morning. The survey has two headline components: The index for current conditions and the index for future conditions six months down the road. The first index behaved reasonably well; the second index plunged the most ever. . In the survey, which goes back to 2001, expectations for future conditions are always higher than current conditions, and often by a big margin, even early on in the Financial Crisis before all heck was breaking loose. “Optimism tumbles,” the New York Fed’s report called it. And more emphatically: “Optimism about the six-month outlook plunged among manufacturing firms.” The headline index is based on a question about “general business conditions.” The sub-indices are based on questions about specific aspects of the manufacturing business, such as new orders, shipments, unfilled orders, employment, etc. In this “diffusion index,” respondents rate their business on each question, with conditions either rising or falling. The number of respondents who said the level was falling is subtracted from the number who said it was rising. Respondents who say there has been no change don’t count. If half say the level is falling and half say the level is rising, the index is at zero.The index for current “general business conditions” in April dropped slightly: 37.9% of the executives reported better general business conditions; 22.1% reported worse conditions. The difference between the two, 15.8 points — the index value for April — was down 6.7 points from March, and as the report said, “firmly in positive territory.”But the index for future conditions – which is usually highly optimistic – got crushed, with only 40.3% of the respondents saying “general business conditions” are getting better and 21.9% saying they’re getting worse. This pushed the index down to 18.3, the lowest level since February 2016. The 25.8-point plunge from March to April was the steepest monthly plunge in the history of the survey.

              Philly Fed Manufacturing Survey Showed "Continued Growth" in April -- From the Philly Fed: April 2018 Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey Results from the April Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey suggest continued growth for the region’s manufacturing sector. Although the survey’s indexes for general activity and employment improved slightly, the indexes for new orders and shipments moderated. The firms also reported higher prices for both inputs and their own manufactured goods this month. The survey’s future indexes, measuring expectations for the next six months, reflected continued optimism. The diffusion index for current general activity edged 1 point higher, from 22.3 in March to 23.2 this month ... The firms continued to report overall increases in employment. Over 31 percent of the responding firms reported increases in employment, while 4 percent reported decreases this month. The current employment index edged 2 points higher to 27.1, its highest reading in six months. The firms also reported a longer average workweek this month: The current average workweek index increased 9 points. Here is a graph comparing the regional Fed surveys and the ISM manufacturing index:

              Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims decrease to 232,000 -- The DOL reported:In the week ending April 14, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 232,000, a decrease of 1,000 from the previous week's unrevised level of 233,000. The 4-week moving average was 231,250, an increase of 1,250 from the previous week's unrevised average of 230,000. Claims taking procedures in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands have still not returned to normal. The previous week was unrevised. The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.

              February 2018 JOLTS report: positive trend revised away -  Last month I wrote that the January JOLTS report reflected very positive trends. Today they got revised away. As a refresher, unlike the jobs report, which tabulates the net gain or loss of hiring over firing, the JOLTS report breaks the labor market down into openings, hirings, firings, quits, and total separations. I pay little attention to “job openings,” which can simply reflect that companies trolling for resumes, or looking for the perfect, cheap candidate, and concentrate on the hard data of hiring, firing, quits and layoffs. The first important relationship in the data is that historically, hiring leads firing. While the one big shortcoming of this report is that it has only covered one full business cycle, during that time hires have peaked and troughed before separations. And here, there has been an important revision. Here is the historical relationship on a quarterly basis between hiring (red) and total separations (blue) as it existed through the end of the third quarter of 2017: The updated graph shows hiring exceeding its prior peak in the second halfof 2017 with its last monthly peak in October. Significantly, hiring for the previous month was revised downward below this peak. Meanwhile separations actually peaked before then, in July of last year, with a clear downtrend since, another significant revision since last month. *if* both have made their expansion highs, needless to say that would be important. Further, in the previous cycle, after hires stagnated, shortly thereafter involuntary separations began to rise, even as quits continued to rise for a short period of time as well: [Note: above graph show quarterly data to smooth out noise]Here are voluntary quits vs. layoffs and discharges on a monthly basis for the last 2 years: If we have established the expansion peaks in hiring and total separations, I would expect quits to continue to improve for a short while (as they have) before also beginning to decline. As in the last expansion, separations appear to have bottomed. This month’s report acts as a caution about revisions, most importantly by the downward revision in hiring and separations. Last month the trend appeared clearly positive for both, but as revised it is more questionable as to hires, and looks negative as to separations. That being said, I don’t even see a yellow flag until hires and separations go negative YoY, as they did before well before the last recession (quarterly through Q4 2017 in the graph below): They haven’t yet: If three months from now we haven’t established any new highs in hires and total separations, and they are hovering at or below zero YoY, then we can talk about a late-cycle trend.

              BLS: Unemployment Rates Lower in 4 states in March; Kentucky and Maine at New Series Lows - From the BLS: Regional and State Employment and Unemployment Summary: Unemployment rates were lower in March in 4 states, higher in 1 state, and stable in 45 states and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Seventeen states had jobless rate decreases from a year earlier and 33 states and the District had little or no change. The national unemployment rate was unchanged from February at 4.1 percent but was 0.4 percentage point lower than in March 2017. ... Hawaii had the lowest unemployment rate in March, 2.1 percent. The rates in Kentucky (4.0 percent) and Maine (2.7 percent) set new series lows. (All state series begin in 1976.) Alaska had the highest jobless rate, 7.3 percent. Thirteen states have reached new all time lows since the end of the 2007 recession.  These thirteen states are: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. This graph shows the number of states (and D.C.) with unemployment rates at or above certain levels since January 2006. At the worst of the employment recession, there were 11 states with an unemployment rate at or above 11% (red). Currently only one state, Alaska, has an unemployment rate at or above 7% (light blue); And only Alaska is above 6% (dark blue).

              The unintended consequences of Trump's call for USPS task force - In a report issued last April, Christian Wetherbee, an analyst for Citigroup Inc., concluded that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) would have to raise its artificially low parcel rates by as much as 50 percent in order to break even on its fast-growing parcel offerings. Last night's order, which requires Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who has been appointed to lead the task force, to report back to Trump with its recommendations within 120 days, could hasten what Wetherbee last year called a "day of reckoning" for USPS, when its parcel rates would be forced to reflect the actual cost of service, and shipping would have to pull more of the profit load to offset the secular decline in first-class mail, the traditional cash cow. Should USPS' parcel rates rise to the levels cited by the analyst, the impact on the shipping marketplace, and on an economy increasingly influenced by e-commerce activity, could be enormous. Millions of online retailers and merchants offer their end customers "free shipping" for purchases as a means of retaining and keeping their business. The shipping is not free, and USPS has been raising parcel rates by mid- to high single-digit amounts for several years. Still, the rates remain so competitive that big-ticket users have been willing to effectively eat the costs. That approach may no longer be viable should rates rise substantially from current levels.In his analysis, Wetherbee wrote that "many consumers have been conditioned to expect shipping solutions which are not supported by economic reality." A meaningful parcel rate hike from USPS, especially if it is pushed by Congress rather than just by the PRC, could shock the ecosystem into making profound changes in parcel delivery strategy, he said.  Large users could increase their in-house investments in parcel distribution, much the same way Amazon has been doing in building out its own network. However, Amazon's volume is extremely large, and it is growing at a 20-percent-a-quarter clip. Thus, there is no way it could accommodate all its shipping business in house. About three-quarters of Amazon's shipping costs would be impacted in some manner by a meaningful USPS rate hike, according to Wetherbee's projections.

              Is This Why Jeff Bezos Is The Richest Man In The World? - Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the world's richest man and is also only the second man ever to amass a 12-figure fortune (that's $100,000,000,000 for those keeping score at home). And today, an expose from the Sun provided the latest glimpse into Amazon's long history of allegations of employee abuse as the company seeks to wring out every second of efficiency from its warehouse employees (and employees at its corporate headquarters, too, if an expose by the New York Times published a few years back is to be believed).Coming nearly six years after the Seattle Times dropped its blockbuster report about the borderline inhumane treatment that workers at some of Amazon's fulfillment centers in the US received at the hands of the e-commerce giant, the Sun, a UK tabloid, is reporting that workers at the company's UK fulfillment centers are facing similarly adverse treatment. In fact, the staff at one fulfillment center in Manchester are reportedly so afraid of getting in trouble for spending too much time away from the job that some have resorted to peeing in bottles because toilets are several hundred yards away. The warehouse measures 700,000 sq ft and some of the 1,200 workers face a ten minute, quarter-of-a-mile walk to two toilets on the ground floor of the four-storey building. Mr Bloodworth, who worked ten-hour shifts as a picker selecting goods for dispatch, walked ten miles a day in the job to research for a book on low-wage Britain.He claimed workers were continually monitored for time wasting by supervisors.It meant workers operated a “toilet bottle” system.Mr Bloodworth said: "People just peed in bottles because they lived in fear of being ­disciplined over ‘idle time’ and ­losing their jobs just because they needed the loo.  The warehouse in Rugeley, Staffs, is like a prison with airport-style security ­scanners where workers are constantly monitored and patted down when they exit the facility to stop them from stealing.

              How the American economy conspires to keep wages down - When unemployment goes down, wages are supposed to go up. That’s just supply and demand. Quite puzzlingly, though, this mechanism seems not to be working today. Unemployment stands at a modest 4%, but paychecks aren’t growing. Although today’s is the best-educated workforce in history, employers just insist that workers need more training.In other words, they’re gaslighting us. Meanwhile, over decades, employers have built and maintained a massive collective political apparatus to hold down wages. To call it a c onspiracy would be only slight embellishment.The symptoms of the problem are not hard to miss. In February, for example, the American economy posted its biggest one-month jobs gain in a couple years, but wage growth stayed stalled out. For months, economists and financial journalists have been puzzling over the question, as Bloomberg put it, of “why the economy grows but your paycheck doesn’t”. Economists will tell you that wages generally increase with productivity – that you’re paid in line with the value of what you do. This was credible from the end of the second world war to the 1970s, when productivity and hourly wages rose almost perfectly in sync. But according to research by the Economic Policy Institute, from the early 1970s to 2016 productivity went up 73.7%, and wages only 12.3%. Similarly, there used to be a positive relationship between stock prices and wage increases. But some initial signs of wage growth in February sent the market spiraling over inflation fears – until it became clear that the reported wage gains were all concentrated among top earners. Then everyone calmed down and stopped selling. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve just announced that it’s taking the next step in its plan to raise interest rates. This will suppress wages to prevent inflation, although inflation is minuscule and wages aren’t showing signs of life. Another apparent culprit is what’s called “monopsony”. Monopoly occurs when sellers are so concentrated that they don’t really have to compete. Monopsony is when the buyers – in this case, employers – are concentrated.

              The Restaurant Industry Ran a Private Poll on the Minimum Wage. It Did Not Go Well for Them. - One of the nation’s most powerful anti-minimum wage lobbying groups tapped a longtime Republican pollster to survey the public about a range of issues impacting the industry.A significant chunk of the survey focused on attitudes toward the minimum wage — and many members of the powerful lobby group aren’t going to like the results.The poll — which was presented on a slide deck obtained by The Intercept and Documented — found that seven in 10 Americans want to see the minimum wage raised even if it means that they’d have to pay more for meals. It also found that the industry’s various talking points against raising the wage are mostly falling flat with the general public. Conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s firm LuntzGlobal on behalf of the other NRA — the National Restaurant Association — the poll found that 71 percent of people surveyed support raising the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.

              Banks impose massive attack on Puerto Rican workers amid island-wide blackout - In the midst of another island-wide electrical blackout across Puerto Rico, the island’s Financial Oversight Management Board (FOMB) met in the capital of San Juan Thursday afternoon to pass a fiscal plan that amounts to a full-scale assault on Puerto Rican workers, who are still reeling from a catastrophic hurricane in late September 2017.The plan will eliminate thousands of jobs, enforce the privatization of both the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the water utility, consolidate dozens of state agencies, cut pensions by 10 to 25 percent for retired public employees, drastically reduce government subsidies to all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, cut funding to the island’s only public university, cut sick leave and vacation pay by half, and eliminate mandatory Christmas bonuses, among other “cost-cutting” measures, all of which are to be placed squarely on the backs of the working class.The final addition to the fiscal plan was the brutal attack on pensions. The slashing of pensions for retirees, among the most vulnerable layer in society, is made all the more barbarous considering that in 2014 the Puerto Rican government changed the retirement system that guaranteed public sector workers a full pension after 30 years of employment to a system that forces workers to work up to 15 additional years for full benefits. In other words, over the course of the last four years, workers have been made to stay in the workforce an additional 15 years and will now receive up to 25 percent less in benefits upon retiring. The cutting of pensions will create a life and death scenario for many elderly workers. In Puerto Rico, members of the “Employees Retirement System” receive an average of $1,092 monthly from pension benefits. This is nearly half of what retirees in the public sector receive in the US, according to the latest census report. The poverty rate on the island is nearly three-and-a-half times the official US rate, standing at 43 percent, with a median household income of $19,606 per year. These starvation wages and the struggling economy, exacerbated by the horrific hurricane last year, have created a social crisis of immense proportions on the island.

              Nearly One-Third Of U.S. Lottery Winners Declare Bankruptcy - Luck is a tricky thing. And when it comes to those lucky Americans who have won windfalls in the lotteries, it seems to be short-lived. Winners become losers at breakneck speed. Studies show that lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American. In fact, nearly one-third of lottery winners declare bankruptcy, and it doesn’t end there. It’s usually followed by depression, drug and alcohol abuse and estrangement from family and friends.  Still, the average American will be riled by feelings of envious excitement at the stories of lottery winners in the early days when the elation is still real. The most recent story to gain widespread circulation was the March Mega Millions drawing that won an astounding $521 million for a single ticket sold in New Jersey, making it the fourth-largest payout of all time. The pressure of winning is often enough to send someone into depression, particularly when they are publicly outed and soon to become the best friend of anyone who is hoping for a handout.That fact alone has led to recent moves to keep their winning identities secret. The winner of the March Mega Millions drawing is a case in point, and it’s not easy. New Jersey—like many other states—makes it difficult to shield your identity because winners aren’t technically allowed to anonymously claim their prizes. Another massive lottery winning in January in New Hampshire netted a ‘lucky’ Powerball Jackpot ticket-holder $560 million. Citing concerns for safety, the winner requested anonymity and fought and won a legal battle in the process. But security is only the initial issue faced by lottery winners - many of whom are not equipped to handle a new breed of financing that runs into the hundreds of millions. For many, sudden wealth is sudden despair. Everything from squandering earnings, making bad investments and falling prey to con artists awaits the winner. In one publicized case, a West Virginia man won $315 million in a 2002 Powerball drawing and lost it all in about four years. His misfortune reportedly included thieves stealing $545,000 from his car and lawsuits over gambling debts. "I wish I'd torn that ticket up," he said afterwards. It’s a high-stakes game for people who have no experience handling massive amounts of cash.

              Immigrant Detainees Claim They Were Forced to Clean Bathrooms to Pay for Their Own Toilet Paper - The Stewart Detention Center in rural Georgia has been called “the black hole of America’s immigration system” for overusing solitary confinement, cutting corners on mental health care, and deporting asylum seekers at extraordinary rates. Now it can add one more alleged human rights violation to the list: According to a complaint filed in federal court Tuesday, the private-prison company that operates the facility forced detainees to virtually run their own jail for little pay—using threats and depriving them of basic toiletries to do so.The case is the latest in a series of class-action lawsuits that have targeted the labor practices of billion-dollar prison corporations—CoreCivic, in Stewart’s case—claiming that they rely on “voluntary work programs” that pay as little as $1 per day to maintain profit margins in immigration detention facilities across the country. Detainees were effectively forced to clean bathrooms, prepare meals, strip and wax floors, perform clerical work, and wash laundry for cents on the hour.Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) incarcerates nearly 2,000 detainees at Stewart each night, and many remain there for months while they fight immigration court cases. The lawsuit alleges that detainees were effectively forced to clean bathrooms, prepare meals, strip and wax floors, perform clerical work, and wash laundry—”work that directly contributes to institutional operations”—for cents on the hour. The lawsuit lays out CoreCivic’s payment scheme for so-called “voluntary” detainee workers: between $1 and $4 a day for most people, while those who worked more than eight hours a day or seven days a week could make up to $8 per day. Voluntary work programs are authorized by the federal government and are a common practice at immigration detention centers, but the new lawsuit contends that Stewart’s program is not truly voluntary. It alleges that CoreCivic officers threatened to reassign detainees to crowded, dirty housing areas if they refused to work, and even put one detainee in solitary confinement for “threatening a work stoppage after he had not been paid.” The suit also alleges that Stewart detainees sometimes aren’t provided items like toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and lotion and instead must buy them from CoreCivic’s commissary—often using payment earned in the work program.

              They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants --  Across the country, judges increasingly are sending defendants to rehab instead of prison or jail. These diversion courts have become the bedrock of criminal justice reform, aiming to transform lives and ease overcrowded prisons. But in the rush to spare people from prison, some judges are steering defendants into rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found. The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants. The beneficiaries of these programs span the country, from Fortune 500 companies to factories and local businesses. The defendants work at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma, a construction firm in Alabama, a nursing home in North Carolina. Perhaps no rehab better exemplifies this allegiance to big business than CAAIR. It was started in 2007 by chicken company executives struggling to find workers. By forming a Christian rehab, they could supply plants with a cheap and captive labor force while helping men overcome their addictions. At CAAIR, about 200 men live on a sprawling, grassy compound in northeastern Oklahoma, and most work full time at Simmons Foods Inc., a company with annual revenue of $1.4 billion. They slaughter and process chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand. Chicken processing plants are notoriously dangerous and understaffed. The hours are long, the pay is low and the conditions are brutal. Men in the CAAIR program said their hands became gnarled after days spent hanging thousands of chickens from metal shackles. One man said he was burned with acid while hosing down a trailer. Others were maimed by machines or contracted serious bacterial infections. Those who were hurt and could no longer work often were kicked out of CAAIR and sent to prison, court records show. Most men worked through the pain, fearing the same fate. “They work you to death. They work you every single day,” said Nate Turner, who graduated from CAAIR in 2015. “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”

              From “Probable Cause” to “Reasonable Suspicion”: The Subversion of the Fourth Amendment - On March 9, Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell was taking his daily stroll when Case Western Reserve University police officers stopped him on campus near his home. Minutes before, a Case Western student had called dispatch to complain about a Black man wearing a blue hat and tan coat who was mumbling through missing teeth. Conwell supposedly "fit the description." At a press conference soon after, Conwell, through a full set of teeth, said that the officers stopped him for "walking while Black." He added: "How many African American males have traveled through University Circle and were stopped while walking [while] Black and were given misdemeanors?" The question is less about raw numbers for this specific part of the US and more about the "totalitarian" police state that Justice William Douglas predicted in his great dissent in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. Terry effectively criminalized walking while Black and driving while Black -- and pretty much doing anything while Black in the US. The ruling removed the probable cause limitation of the police power. The court's paradigm shift made Conwell's detainment 50 years later so very, very predictable. The Fourth Amendment secures the citizen against any unreasonable search or seizure of their person or property. But what is "reasonable"? Before Terry, the reasonableness of a police officer's seizure or search was defined by the magistrate's authority to issue a warrant on a showing of probable cause.  Terry redefined "reasonableness" in more subjective terms. Before 1968, police officers operated, at least in theory, with reference to the magistrate's authority. Ever since Terry, police officers have had the despotic discretion to search or seize any US citizen based on a "reasonable suspicion" that they are a criminal or are about to commit a crime.

              Exclusive: Photos Show Aftermath of Lethal South Carolina Prison Brawl that Left Seven Dead - by Steve Horn  - WARNING: This article contains graphic images. Photos obtained by Prison Legal News appear to reveal the bloody aftermath of a riot that occurred at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina around 7:15 p.m. on April 15. The violence, which culminated in the deaths of seven prisoners, was the deadliest event of its sort in the past quarter-century in the United States.   A source who requested anonymity and said he is currently imprisoned at the Lee facility in Bishopville provided PLN with a series of photos that appear to have been taken with a cell phone. The images show dead or badly-wounded bodies covered with blood and a blood-soaked floor. PLN could not verify the photos at press time, and our investigation into the authenticity of the graphic pictures remains ongoing.   The images are posted below this article. Along with the seven prisoners who were killed, whose names and photos were published by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), another 17 prisoners were wounded and are reportedly being treated. According to the SCDC’s official account of the incident posted on Facebook and Twitter, the fighting between prisoners lasted almost eight hours. At a press conference, SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said the lethal riot centered around rival gangs and contraband cell phones.    “What we believe from initial investigation is that this was all about territory, about contraband, about cell phones,” Stirling said. “These folks are fighting about real money and real territory while they’re incarcerated.”

              A Chicago cop is accused of framing 51 people for murder. Now, the fight for justice -- Here’s the easy story of Guevara: It’s the tale of one allegedly rogue cop accused by at least 51 people of framing them for murders from the 1980s through the early 2000s in the rough-and-tumble Humboldt Park section of Chicago. His alleged misdeeds led 48 men and one woman to be sentenced to a total of more than 2,300 years in prison. Three were acquitted. Five received life sentences. Three were sentenced to death but spared when in 2003 Gov. George Ryan, disturbed by a rash of wrongful convictions, commuted all death sentences to life or less. Two men died behind bars, including Daniel Peña, an illiterate man who testified Guevara beat him into signing a confession he couldn’t read. These numbers could place Guevara's alleged misconduct among the most egregious policing betrayals in modern history, alongside the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles in the 1990s, when more than 100 convictions were tossed based on police corruption; the crack-era sentences of the 1970s and ‘80s in Brooklyn, when dozens of defendants accused Detective Louis Scarcella of manufacturing evidence against them; and, closer to home, in Chicago, where during the ‘70s and ‘80s former Commander Jon Burge led a team of detectives to beat — and even electrocute — more than 100 men, most of them black, on the city's South Side into confessions. But the scope of Guevara’s alleged misdeeds tells only part of the story. Chicago’s police brass, its prosecutors, its judges, police oversight commissions, and even federal authorities had ample warnings about Guevara, numerous chances to make amends for the injustices he stands accused of committing and to stop him from perpetrating more. They didn’t.

              Diante Yarber: Police kill black father with barrage of bullets in Walmart parking lot - California police fired what sounded like more than 30 bullets at a packed car in a shopping store parking lot, killing a black father of three and injuring a young woman in the latest US law enforcement shooting to spark backlash. Police in Barstow, two hours outside of Los Angeles, killed 26-year-old Diante Yarber, who was believed to be unarmed and was driving his cousin and friends to a local Walmart on the morning of 5 April. Police have alleged that Yarber was “wanted for questioning” in a stolen vehicle case and that he “accelerated” the car towards officers when they tried to stop him, but his family and their attorney argued that the young father posed no threat and should not have been treated as a suspect in the first place.  “The police took him away for no reason,” said Brittany Chandler, the mother of Yarber’s 19-month-old daughter, Leilani. “The police should be held accountable for this … They are sick people for them to be able to shoot someone down in broad daylight.”  The shooting happened weeks after police in northern California killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed father who was standing in his family’s back yard. Though Yarber’s killing has not prompted massive rallies, both shootings have shone a harsh light on the way police continue to aggressively use lethal force in black communities, even in a liberal state where the Black Lives Matter movement has long protested against police violence and racism.

              ‘We Need to Change the Rules for When Police Can Shoot’ - Amy Hughes was not suspected of a crime. She was standing still, outside of her home in Tucson, holding a kitchen knife by her side. Three police officers, responding to a “check welfare” call about a woman hacking at a tree, arrived and saw Hughes’ roommate, Sharon Chadwick, in the yard, and Hughes some six feet away from her. An officer yelled at Hughes to drop the knife. It’s not clear whether she heard.Neither two of the three officers called to the scene, nor Chadwick herself, felt that Hughes was threatening. The third cop, Andrew Kisela, felt differently, and without warning shot Hughes four times through a chain-link fence. She survived, and did not go quietly, suing for the violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court, however, has just ruled that Kisela can’t be sued, that he’s covered by something called “qualified immunity.”Among myriad disheartening aspects in this case should be included the idea that many had, that there was a greater chance of making charges of excessive force by law enforcement stick in Amy Hughes’ case, because she isn’t black (although she has a history of mental illness—and people with disabilities, along with LGBTQ people—are also disproportionately likely to be shot by law enforcement). What can we possibly see as the lesson of the court’s ruling in this case, and where do those who seek accountability—not to speak of justice—go from here?Peter Bibring is the director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California. He joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome toCounterSpin, Peter Bibring.

              He shot the driver in his son’s ‘stolen’ truck, Okla. cops say. It was his other son - The home on that plot of Rutherford family land in tiny Jay, Oklahoma, was supposed to be vacant.So when neighbors saw multiple vehicles driving up to it early Saturday morning, they called the homeowner’s parents, who lived nearby, according to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation news release.When Tony Rutherford, 47, arrived in the middle of the night, he saw his older son’s pickup truck cut across a field. It was supposed to be parked.According to the release, Rutherford “gave chase and fired his rifle at the driver several times.”  At least one of those rounds hit the driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene. That driver, found slumped over in the driver’s seat of the pickup, was later identified as Rutherford’s 13-year-old son. “What is unique about this case is that we have a father who thought he was protecting an older son’s property, and in fact, he shot and killed his younger son, not knowing it was his younger son,” Jennifer Brown, OSBI spokeswoman, told KOAM.  Delaware County District Attorney Kenny Wright said an investigation into the shooting was still ongoing.  A similar incident happened on Christmas Eve 2017, in Cullen, Ala., when 22-year-old Logan Trammell took off in one of his father’s trucks late at night without his father knowing that he was borrowing it. According to AL.com, Donald Wayne Trammell, 42, was indicted on manslaughter charges two months after shooting his son.

              Outside Disneyland, a Reminder for Governments to Be Careful What They Wish for - When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif., in 1955, throngs of people came to experience a theme park unlike anything they’d seen before.   For years, the Walt Disney Company seemed to have a happy partnership with the city of Anaheim, too.Anaheim has traditionally been open-handed with the international attraction that dominates its economy. Two decades ago, for instance, it agreed to issue a $510 million bond to upgrade the area around Disneyland, rebuild the convention center and provide Disneyland with a 10,000-space parking garage. The city also promised not to impose gate taxes on Disney tickets for at least 20 years. More recently, the city agreed to provide developers -- including the Walt Disney Company -- with more than $600 million in incentives to encourage the development of four new luxury hotels. It also extended the gate tax moratorium for another 45 years. In exchange, Disney promised to invest more than $1.5 billion in Anaheim by adding a major new attraction, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which is slated to open next year. But some have been critical of the city in its dealings with Disney. Those investments, they say, would have been made by the company anyway. For years, Anaheim’s politicians largely ignored these objections. Instead, they accepted Disney’s arguments that such deals were model public-private partnerships. But that attitude has begun to change. Disney “keeps talking about how it’s the economic engine of the city and how we need to keep investing because we get so much in return,” says Jose Moreno, a California State University, Long Beach professor who was elected to the Anaheim City Council in 2016. “But for every engine, there is exhaust, and there are parts of the city having to breathe that exhaust: the working poor.”

              One Student Injured In Florida High School Shooting; Suspect In Custody - One student shot another in the ankle Friday morning at a High School in Ocala, Florida. The shooter is in custody according to the Ocala Star-Banner. The injured student, a boy, suffered a non-life-threatening injury and has been taken to a local hospital. The shooting happened Friday morning at Forest High School which was on lockdown. According to an eyewitness quoted by the Ocala Star-Banner, the shooter was standing in a hallway and shot at a closed classroom door. The shooter then dropped his weapon, ran and tried to hide. Police say the suspected shooter is also a student at the school. No other details were immediately available. Some parents came to the school to await word on what happened. Among the law enforcement agencies on scene are the Ocala Police Department, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Highway Patrol and the FBI. School district spokesman Kevin Christian sent a recorded message to parents by phone Friday morning, urging them to not try to get to Forest. “You cannot get on the campus and Maricamp Road is virtually blocked in front of the school,” he said. On campus, Marion County Fire Rescue has set up a triage area for any student who needs assistance. 

              US students hold national walkout against school violence  -- Students at an estimated 2,500 high schools and middle schools across the United States participated in a nationally-coordinated walkout against violence in schools on Friday. The event was organized through social media by high school students from Connecticut to mark the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School. Newtown, Connecticut was the site of the December 2012 mass school shooting that left 20 children between the ages of six and seven dead. The walkout was the third major nationally coordinated student action since the Parkland massacre on February 14, when 19-year-old Nickolas Cruz shot and killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The protests of student youth are taking place at the same time as an expanding wave of walkouts by teachers. The demonstrations Friday reportedly received financial and organizational backing from Indivisible, which is oriented to the Democratic Party. While the Democrats are attempting to direct the anger and opposition of youth into the midterm elections and calls for gun control reform, the demonstrations this year have revealed broad hostility to the entire political and corporate establishment. A student holds a handmade sign at the rally: "Our lives are worth more than your guns" Members of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) spoke with students participating in several of the walkouts. Hundreds of students rallied in Washington Square in New York City. Briana, a senior at Brooklyn Tech in New York, told IYSSE members that while people are dying, “the politicians just stay silent rather than isolate themselves. They don’t listen to people our age… When the politicians do agree it is only to benefit themselves.” Asked if the school shootings were part of a broader problem, she responded, “I can’t say how violent the rest of the country is, but there is something in the culture here. People can feel alienated, and there is an ease with which people can get guns.”

              A Public Outcry Against a Wall Street Titan’s Name on a High School - NYT — Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Wall Street billionaire, was prepared to cut a $25 million check to the high school he attended here in the 1960s, to help it pay for a huge renovation project.He wanted only a few things in return. For starters, the public school should be renamed in his honor. A portrait of him should be displayed prominently in the building. Spaces at the school should be named for his twin brothers. He should have the right to review the project’s contractors and to sign off on a new school logo.The school district’s officials accepted the deal.So it was that this Philadelphia bedroom community of 55,000, not normally a hotbed of civic unrest, exploded into a populist fury. “Help me understand how you could make such a monumental decision without even asking?” demanded Gwen Vance, a lung-transplant nurse who graduated from Abington in 1980.  She was one of roughly 250 town residents who showed up at a standing-room-only school board meeting Tuesday night to vent about what felt a bit like a hostile Wall Street takeover of a local institution. The five-hour meeting, in an auditorium at the junior high school, ran well past midnight. There was shouting, name-calling and more than one demand for officials to resign. “I just think there’s too much influence about big money, Wall Street money, in our society,” complained Robert Durham, who works at the local Chevrolet dealership and sent two sons through Abington Senior High School. Stunned by the public outcry, which included an online petition that has now garnered nearly 1,500 signatures, the district amended its decision to rename the school the Abington Schwarzman High School. Instead, Mr. Schwarzman’s name would merely grace the new science and technology center. Under the amended agreement, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center for Science and Technology will feature plaques or photos of him. It is unclear if his portrait also will hang in the building.

              NEA Tries to Boot Refugee Student From National Poetry Competition - A high-school student in Maine is suing the National Endowment for the Arts after the agency disqualified him from a poetry contest because he isn’t an American citizen or green card holder. Allan Monga, a junior at Portland’s Deering High School, fled Zambia last year and applied for asylum in the United States. Eight months later, he earned a spot in the Poetry Out Loud national finals, beating out nearly 10,000 students across Maine who participated. At the state finals, Monga recited poems by W.E.B. Du Bois, Stephen Crane, and Lord Byron:  (see video) In federal court on Wednesday, lawyers for the NEA argued that Monga, who has a work authorization and Social Security number, can’t represent Maine in next week’s competition in Washington, D.C.“Why is it in the national interest to prevent someone like Mr. Monga from participating in this poetry contest?” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock asked federal attorneys. “It’s in the national interest to give the limited resources of the country to permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens,” Assistant Attorney General Rachael Westmoreland responded, according to the BangorDaily News. She said the competition’s eligibility requirements were based on those set by Congress for the National Medal of Arts, the highest award the government gives artists, which requires recipients to be citizens or permanent residents. (Spokespersons for both the NEA and the Department of Justice declined to comment on this story.)

              Oklahoma struggle continues as calls for teacher strikes spread across US --Large numbers of Oklahoma teachers are expected to show up at the state capitol today to continue their fight for improved wages and school funding despite the concerted effort by the unions, school district authorities and the media to pressure educators to end their two-week strike. After failing to prevent the strike, which was initiated on April 2 by rank-and-file teachers using social media, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and smaller Oklahoma City-American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have done nothing but try to sabotage it. Last Thursday, OEA President Alicia Priest abruptly announced that the union was calling off the strike. The OEA falsely claimed that teachers had won 95 percent of their demands and that educators could do nothing more than vote for Democrats in November. On Friday, thousands of teachers, defying the OEA, descended on the state capitol. Over the weekend, they networked with each other to organize sickouts and other forms of protest as schools reopen today. “OEA ran out in front of our train which was gaining momentum and started acting like they were leading the train and then said they were stopping the train,” Jane, a teacher from a rural Oklahoma District, said during an online meeting Sunday afternoon. “There are a bunch of us that aren’t stopping. “There are some schools that have said this is not over, the OEA doesn’t speak for us and we didn’t get anything,” Jane added. “The legislature didn’t do anything for us in the two weeks we marched and lobbied that they weren’t already going to do. We’re still dealing with horrid working conditions and overcrowded classrooms. They didn’t give us as much as we wanted for textbooks, and we haven’t had new ones in thirteen years.” Ron, a high school teacher from Oklahoma City, added, “It really seems like it’s a dog and pony show. The union wasn’t expecting any different outcome. We should rally everyone in front of the OEA office to cancel their memberships. I’m not a member of either union, and I dropped the AFT because they wouldn’t take any action like this.”

              Oklahoma’s Revolution Didn’t End with Teacher Strikes—It’s Going Much Further - Oklahoma is in the midst of a revolution, with rolling teacher strikes statewide. Teachers have taken over the state capitol building, pressuring legislators to give them—and their fellow school employees—a raise. At the time of this writing, more state agencies, from Corrections to Mental Health to Transportation, are joining the teachers in their fight, and are getting louder about their budget shortfalls, too. While the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA—the primary teacher’s membership organization) recently announced the strike is over, the teachers , and, according to a leader of the teacher’s strike, are seeking a new union that will actually represent their interests. Meanwhile, legislators are seeking ways to punish the striking teachers, and have accused the teachers of bussing in protesters, and local police call the teachers “terrorists.” In other words, the current state of unrest in Oklahoma is far from over, and state workers are far from being done protesting. Meanwhile, the mainstream media continues to miss the mark on what’s happening on the ground locally. The state’s demographics betray the media’s portrayal of Oklahoma as Republican red and lily white: Most registered voters in Oklahoma are registered Democrat or are unaffiliated. Bernie won the primary easily, andgot more votes in the primary than Trump did. A third of Oklahomans are African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and those of mixed race.And still, the demographics of Oklahoma are changing: In Guymon, a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle, just north of the Texas border and hours from the nearest shopping mall, 37 languages are spoken in the public school system of just 3,000 students. Here, a teacher assistant’s full-time salary starts at just over $12,000 a year. The news has been teeming with tales of teachers selling their plasma or working five jobs to make ends meet, yet the truth is it’s state workers who are impoverished, across the spectrum. While the poverty rate in the U.S. has fallen over the last 10 years, the poverty rate in Oklahoma has steadily risen.

              Unions shut down Oklahoma teachers strike -- Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers returned to their classrooms Monday morning after their two-week walkout was shut down by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and the Oklahoma City-American Federation of Teachers (AFT). While hundreds of teachers made individual decisions to use sick days and personal days to show up at the state capitol Monday, the mass of teachers have been demobilized by the OEA and AFT. The teachers, who waged a courageous fight for improved wages and increased school funding for their students were not defeated; they were betrayed. A poll on the Facebook page, “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout-The Time is Now!” showed that 88.3 percent of teachers wanted to continue the strike, but the majority said they could not afford to lose more pay. Teachers in the state capital of Oklahoma City voted 2-1 to continue the strike, according to a poll by the AFT.After years of collusion between the unions and successive Democratic and Republican state governments, which cut school spending by nearly 30 percent over the last decade, teachers, using social media, launched the walkout on April 2. The unions opposed the strike at first and then tried to regain control of the movement to smother it and shut it down. Announcing that the OEA was ending support for the strike last Thursday, OEA President Alicia Priest made the lying claim that teachers had won 95 percent of their demands. In fact, teachers, who are near the bottom in the US in wages, demanded a $10,000 pay increase but got an average of only $6,100. They demanded $200 million in additional school funding but the state government agreed to less than $50 million, largely paid for through regressive taxes on fuel, cigarettes and gaming. Teachers demanded $5,000 raises for school aides, school bus drivers and other support staff, many who live at or below poverty. Instead, they got $1,250. Finally, teachers demanded $7,500 in pay raises for other public employees, many of whom joined the strike, but they received only derisory raises of $750 to $2,000.

              Colorado teachers join national wave of protests and walkouts - Some 500 Colorado educators converged on the capitol building in Denver Monday demanding increased school funding and higher wages. The teachers chanted: “You left me no choice, I have to use my teacher voice!”All classes in the Denver-area Englewood school district were cancelled as more than 150 teachers from the district walked out of class to attend the annual Colorado Education Association’s lobby day.The wave of teacher walkouts has mostly occurred in states with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky. Colorado, however, has a Democratic governor and the Democrats control the lower legislative house, the Assembly. The conditions facing teachers and students, however, are no better than in Republican-controlled states, demonstrating that the assault on public education and the wages and conditions of educators is a bipartisan policy.Teachers massed outside the doors to the capitol building Monday afternoon. They attended a Finance Committee hearing on SB 200, a bill that would cut public employee retirement benefits to shore up PERA, the state retirement plan.Teachers are opposing the bill’s provision raising the retirement age to 65 and demanding that adequate cost-of-living adjustments be built into PERA. Colorado’s teachers do not collect Social Security after retirement and many do not earn enough to invest in other retirement plans, leaving the state’s retirement plan as their only option.A primary concern of teachers is wages. Colorado teachers earn about $7,000 less than the national average of $58,064 a year, according to a survey by the Colorado School Finance Project. An analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as a percentage of state median income, Colorado high school teachers are paid less than teachers in any other state. According to the National Education Association, teachers in Colorado took in the second-lowest salary of any state in 2015, receiving an average of $44,421. In 2016, they jumped a few positions to 46th overall, with an average salary of $46,155. However, taking inflation into account, their salaries have dropped 7.7 percent in the last decade. In rural areas, some teachers make as little as $24,700 a year.

              Kentucky teachers denounce governor for saying students were “sexually assaulted” due to walkout  -- As thousands of demonstrators chanted and waved signs demanding funding for education, the Republican-dominated Kentucky legislature concluded its 2018 session Friday by overriding Republican Governor Matt Bevin’s vetoes of the Republican budget and tax bills.  The Kentucky Education Association (KEA) hailed the action of the Republican legislature as a “victory,” even though it leaves in place a budget that attacks teachers and public education. Teachers were being offered a “choice” between this bill and the governor’s veto of it, which would remove some funding resulting from regressive taxes. On Saturday, after most of the demonstrators had left Frankfort, the legislature let stand SB 151 (the “sewer bill”), which shifts future teachers’ pensions to market-driven 401(k)-type plans and ends the longstanding inviolability of teachers’ and other public workers’ pensions. It will allow the state government to change or even rescind pensions in the future.  Governor Bevin vilified teachers following a protest Friday at the state capitol in Frankfort, sparking outrage among teachers and others. In his inflammatory statement to the press, Bevin said, “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.” Bevin also said children were probably doing drugs or ingesting poison, “because they were home alone, because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them… I am offended that people so flippantly disregarded what is truly best for children.” Bevin’s slanders were pulled straight from the talking points provided to Republican politicians facing teacher rebellions by a right-wing think tank exposed by the Guardian newspaper. The State Policy Network, an alliance of 66 right-wing “ideas factories,” has received funding from the Koch brothers and the De Vos family, among others. The top talking point of the list: “Teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families.” It then provides coaching on how best to spin the story to turn public opinion against teachers.

              Arizona teachers voting on state-wide walkout -- On April 10, Republican governor Doug Ducey of Arizona stood in front of TV cameras and announced a “20 percent pay increase by school year 2020” for the state’s teachers. The announcement, however, has been met with considerable, and justifiable, skepticism by tens of thousands of the state’s educators.Teachers in Tucson Tuesday afternoon lined 17 miles of busy roads, carrying signs and campaigning for public support to their struggle for a substantial pay increase and restoration of funding for public schools. Since early March, the campaign for a state-wide walkout for an immediate 20 percent raise, and millions of dollars for classrooms and student resources has been gaining strength among rank-and-file educators. Facebook comments and videos show some teachers describing having to work multiple jobs and driving long distances from one job to the next, and facing intolerable teaching conditions in their underfunded schools. Many express the determination of the teachers and support staff for a struggle. It is “way past time to do something. This movement needed to happen when Brewer was Governor. Ducey has made it far worse. Education funding has become so bad in this State that this movement is so long overdue!” commented Pam.  In a video posted Monday on the Facebook page of Arizona Educators United (AEU), the group leaders outline the plan for taking a vote for a walkout among the state’s 50,000 public school teachers. Noah Karvelis, the initiator of the Facebook group, says, “We don’t have a sustainable revenue source to fund these raises, so what that means is these are empty promises. This doesn’t do enough for our kids and colleagues.”The AEU began polling on Tuesday and holding a walkout “vote-in” on Wednesday, to be counted by Thursday at 4 p.m. On Saturday there will be a series of community meetings throughout the state to generate support from parents and others. Educators and supporters in hundreds of districts shared their photos of the Wednesday’s “vote-in.”

              Arizona teachers vote to strike -- Teachers in the southwestern US state of Arizona have overwhelmingly voted to strike to demand improved wages for educators and support staff, and restore more than $1 billion in school funding cuts over the last decade. At a press conference Thursday night, officials from the Arizona Education Association (AEA) announced that 78 percent of the 57,000 educators who cast ballots over the last three days voted for strike action.According to Noah Karvelis, an elementary school teacher and one of the leaders of the Arizona Educators United (AEU) Facebook group, teachers will continue to hold “walk-in” protests at their schools next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then walk out in a statewide strike next Thursday.The powerful strike vote takes place after statewide strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma, a one-day strike in Jersey City, New Jersey, and sickouts and protests in Kentucky, Florida and many other states. It is part of an international rebellion of teachers, which in the last week alone saw teachers and university workers striking in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Lebanon and Kenya. The strike could affect an estimated 1 million students in the state. Many high school students are walking out today to mark the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre, and as part of nationwide protests against mass shootings. Students and parents have expressed solidarity with the teachers.

              Arizona teachers to walk out in first-ever statewide strike | TheHill: Teachers in Arizona voted Thursday night to launch the state's first statewide teachers' strike next week, following successful similar efforts in other states such as West Virginia. Seventy-eight percent of school employees voted in favor of the walkout, which will begin next Thursday after three "walk-ins" before classes begin on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The strike will be the first of its kind in Arizona to affect every school district in the state, according to the Associated Press. Teachers in the state are among the lowestpaid in the nation, with the average salary for a state teacher sitting at $48,372. Union organizers want to see that number raised by at least $10,000. Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey (R) reacted to the news in two tweets, cautioning teachers not to disrupt students' learning over raises that he says he is fighting to pass. "No one wants to see teachers strike. If schools shut down, our kids are the ones who lose out. We have worked side by side with the education community to develop a sustainable plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020," Ducey tweeted. "We have worked side by side with the education community to develop a sustainable plan to give teachers a 20% raise by 2020. I am committed to getting teachers this raise and am working to get this passed at the Legislature," he added. "We need teachers teaching, and kids learning." 

              Teacher unions and students’ long-term economic prospects --A recent academic paper by economists Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willén argues that men who lived as school-age children in states where teachers were allowed to bargain collectively are less likely to work as adults and, when they do work, they earn significantly less than men who grew up in states where teachers were not allowed to bargain collectively.There are at least three reasons to be deeply skeptical of their findings. First, the chain of causal links is extremely circuitous. The reasoning runs from a student’s initial potential “exposure” to teachers’ right to collective bargaining all the way through to the conclusion that this “exposure” significantly worsened labor market outcomes decades later as an adult. In most of their analysis, the authors rely on data that let them know the state where a person was born and the employment situation of that same person in a single year between the ages of 35 and 49. The researchers use this information to construct a simulated educational history for each adult, where they assume that the person attended K-12 school in the state where they were born.  Second, the paper finds no effect of collective bargaining on direct measures of educational outcomes, such as the number of years of schooling.  The paper, instead, argues that the effect of exposure to collective bargaining operates through the impact on a combination of cognitive and “noncognitive” skills that reduce earnings without having any effect on the amount of schooling received. Third, other recent research suggests much more directly that collective bargaining by teachers is associated with positive educational and social outcomes. Economist Eunice Han, for example, has demonstrated that teacher unions are associated with better outcomes on a range of measures of teacher quality and with a lower high-school dropout rate.

              Los Angeles Schools Facing $15 Billion Debt for Retiree Health Care - A forthcoming report on the Los Angeles Unified School District's retirement costs will show that the district has nearly $15 billion in unfunded health care costs for current employees and retirees.The district's so-called OPEB liability—that's actuarial jargon for "other post-employment benefits," which includes the cost of medical, dental, and other health care benefits that fall outside the traditional pension system—has climbed from $13.5 billion in 2015 to $14.9 billion in 2017, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by Reason. It has not yet been released publicly by the district. A spokeswoman for Aon Hewitt, the accounting firm that completed the assessment on the school district's behalf, confirmed the report's legitimacy.The increase in the district's unfunded liability is driven by an adjustment in accounting standards that prohibits school districts and other public employers from using artificially high estimates for future investment returns, a strategy that in the past has allowed governments to hide some of their retirement liabilities. Under the new rules, future returns will be estimated at 3.6 percent, rather than the previous rate of 4.7 percent.This change in accounting standards is expected to affect pension systems from coast to coast, leaving a more realistic (but also more expensive) picture of what taxpayers and governments will owe to current public employees when they retire. The change will also require public entities to show their OPEB liabilities on official balance sheets, something that few governments previously did. In other words, the LAUSD is running out of ways to hide its public employee debt—and is running out of money to pay for it.

              Charter school backers spend millions to support Antonio Villaraigosa for California governor -  Wealthy charter school supporters are pouring millions of dollars into the battle to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, throwing their money into an independent committee to push former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ahead in a crowded field of candidates.Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Wednesday gave $7 million to the committee run by the California Charter Schools Association, an increasingly powerful player in state politics. On Thursday, Los Angeles philanthropist and developer Eli Broad contributed $1.5 million to the effort.While California law limits how much money a donor can give directly to a candidate's campaign, they can contribute unlimited sums to independent expenditure committees on behalf of one or more candidates. The committees are forbidden from coordinating their activities, such as ad campaigns, with the campaigns and candidates that benefit. The $8.5 million in outside money could boost Democrat Villaraigosa's profile ahead of the June 5 primary. The former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker has slipped in public opinion polls in recent months, and is now at risk of finishing in third place — behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and GOP businessman John Cox — and therefore missing the November runoff.  Villaraigosa spokesman Luis Vizcaino said Villaraigosa's "focus is how we can unite Californians to lift more families into the middle class and keep them there. This campaign isn't going to be distracted from that mission by outside efforts for us, or against us." Newsom said Thursday he was "shocked" by the $7 million contribution from Hastings. "We are going to see an enormous amount of money spent in independent expenditures…I was not expecting $7 million from one individual,"

              Andrew Cuomo rips teacher unions as selfish ‘industry’ more interested in members’ rights than student needs - A passionate Gov. Cuomo upped his war with the teacher unions on Thursday, charging that they represent themselves — not the students. During an appearance before the Daily News Editorial Board, Cuomo said the only way change will come to a broken education system is if the public is better informed. “If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick. “It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.” Cuomo referred to the teacher unions and the entrenched education establishment as an “industry” that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving. “Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this,” Cuomo said. “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers. “This was a program to educate kids.” He decried that 250,000 kids over the past decade were trapped in failing schools. “Where was the outrage?” he asked. “You want to talk to me about teachers’ rights? Why isn’t the question: ‘How did we let that happen to 250,000 kids — black and brown kids, by the way.” He said he openly disagreed with a teacher union member who said he represents the students. “No, you don’t,” Cuomo said he told the person. “You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.” Cuomo on Wednesday unveiled an ambitious education reform plan that would make it easier to fire bad or lecherous instructors, revamp the teacher tenure and evaluation systems, and increase the cap on charter schools by 100. He said he knows he is up against the powerful teacher unions that help control Albany and the lawmakers who often do their bidding. He said not one lawmaker or union member told him after the speech that they are with him. 

              100 Top Colleges Vow To Enroll More Low-Income Students - NPR  College access and affordability: It's a common topic in higher education — because college is the one place that can really be a catapult when it comes to moving up the economic ladder.And yet, research has shown that low-income students make up just 3 percent of the students that attend America's most selective colleges.And, it's not that these students just aren't there — every year tens of thousands of top students who don't come from wealthy families never even apply to elite colleges.Universities are taking note — and banding together under something called the American Talent Initiative — a network backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute and the research firm Ithaka S+R.To join the club, schools have to graduate 70 percent of their students in six years — a qualification that leaves just under 300 schools in the U.S. eligible. About a third of those schools — exactly 100 — have signed on.Their goal? Enroll 50,000 additional low- and moderate-income students by 2025. Each school has its own goals, too — many want to increase the number of Pell Grant students on campus, others aim to improve graduation rates — but they're all on board to share strategies, learn from each other's missteps and provide data to monitor their progress. I spoke with four university leaders about this initiative: Michael Drake, the president at The Ohio State University; Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College in Massachusetts; Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan; and Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

              Students oppose Portland State University tuition hikes -On Thursday morning, the Board of Trustees at Portland State University (PSU) voted at a public meeting to postpone a decision on tuition hikes by two weeks in the face of student backlash. The meeting was ostensibly called to “consider” the proposal to raise tuition by 14 percent over the next two years, but the real reason was to allow students to let off steam; the decision to raise tuition, the board made clear at the end of the meeting, had already been made.The state-appointed board includes former business owners, health insurance executives and other business and corporate elites. Collectively, their accumulated wealth is in the tens of millions. PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi alone makes a base salary of $600,000 plus additional living expenses. The meeting opened with a presentation composed of a series of graphs which purported to show that there was no money to cover basic costs of the university. In an attempt to pit students and teachers against each other many board members repeatedly noted that the highest cost was the salaries of the teachers. After the presentation the board heard testimony from just a handful of the students in attendance, many of whom spoke movingly about the economic hardship high tuition places on their lives. After each student speaker a member of the board delivered the canned response, “Thank you for sharing your story” and “We hear you.” The meeting concluded with the board postponing the vote, claiming that they needed to consider “the remarkable conversation we had today.”

              Is College Worth The Cost? - Ben Carlson at Wealth of Common Sense is irked by the question: Is College Worth the Cost? Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian gave some advice to young people in a recent interview with the New York Times: "Do you really need to go to college? There is a huge student loan debt problem in this country. I think there’s going to need to be a drastic change in how these universities work. And I also think we’ve lambasted the trades for way too long. You can make six figures as a welder."These kinds of statements irk me, especially when they come from rich entrepreneurs. This line of thinking reeks of survivorship bias.Successful entrepreneurs must understand they’re the minority. Most businesses fail and most 18 year-olds don’t have what it takes to start, let alone run their own business. I certainly would have been lost at that age trying to make a go at it on my own. . Most students aren’t given enough guidance in terms of how their preferred area of study will lead to actual employment or how much that employment will pay. Student loans can also be a huge burden after school for many. Are we really expecting 18 year-olds to perform a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not they should go to college or skip it altogether and go straight to the working world to save on the tuition costs? Better yet, how many adults perform a cost-benefit analysis when they purchase a new car or house? How many adults do you know who track their spending? Create a household budget? Pay down their debt every month? Save enough for retirement? Let's now consider One Year of ‘College’ With No Degree, But No Debt And a Job at the End. Mr. Cary, 19 years old, is enrolled in a one-year, data-science program. He studies between 40 and 50 hours a week, visits high-tech, Bay Area companies as part of his education, and will pay the San Francisco-based school a percentage of his income for three years after he graduates. MissionU, which enrolled its first class in September, is part of new breed of institutions that bill themselves as college alternatives for the digital age. The schools—whose admission rates hover in the single digits—comparable to the Ivy League, according to the schools—offer a debt-free way to attain skills in hot areas and guaranteed apprenticeships with high-tech companies. Together those create a pipeline to well-paying high-tech jobs.  There is no choice here, at least for Mr. Cary. One would have to be a fool to turn down the opportunity. There is no catch, but there is a problem. These schools get 10,000 applications for 50 spots. They will take the brightest of the brightest, knowing full well the kids can be placed in a high-paying job.

              Harvard Raises $9.1 Billion in Capital Campaign - Harvard Crimson --Harvard has raised $9.1 billion as part of its ongoing capital campaign as of March 31, according to a dean of the University and multiple alumni who attended a celebratory event in Sanders Theater Saturday afternoon.At least seven alumni exiting Memorial Hall Saturday said University Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan ’75 announced the University had raised more than $9 billion to a crowd comprising donors, professors, and high-level administrators. All of Harvard’s schools have now met their individual campaign goals, multiple people leaving the event said.The Faculty of Arts and Sciences specifically raised $3 billion dollars, a speaker at a luncheon in Annenberg Hall Saturday told attendees gathered to celebrate the FAS campaign.Donors Michael T. Kerr ’81 and Peter L. Malkin ’55 said the Faculty of Arts and Sciences $400 million fundraising goal for undergraduate house renewal remains unfulfilled, however. Lowell House is currently in the midst of renovations as part of Harvard’s ongoing $1 billion House renewal project, and Adams House is slated for renewal next year. Several other houses have yet to be renovated. Kerr said he expects many alumni will contribute to this particular initiative as their own House comes up for renovation, even if they have not yet donated to House renewal. Harvard launched its capital campaign in 2013 with a goal of $6.5 billion, which itpassed in April 2016, breaking a higher education record in the process. That record was previously held by Stanford University, which raised $6.2 billion in its last fundraising drive. As of June 2017, Harvard had raised $8 billion with a year left in the campaign.

              A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning - Today’s New York Times has a fine article by Manil Suri about math education and the development of reasoning skills.  Its concluding point is that, while the general contribution of the first to the second is weaker than you might think, math instruction can be improved by bringing the math-reasoning tests themselves into the classroom.  I’m pretty confident that Suri is right, since I’ve seen positive results from doing something similar in economics and related areas. When preparing to introduce a new topic in econ, for instance, I’ll often start by taking stock of what lots of people without an economics background think they know about it.  This might mean looking at surveys or some excerpts from news or other websites.  It often involves drawing out this information from the class itself.  For instance, I’ll divide students up into groups of five or so in which they can say to each other what they believe, or even suspect, about the topic, and then have the groups report in a general way what these views were.   Then we will go on to learn about the question, keeping in mind the misconceptions we’ve found and trying to locate the points at which “pop economics” veers off from the real stuff.* There are many reasons for doing this.  One is frankly political: a lot of the political babble in this country is framed by erroneous economic thinking, such as nearly all the fretting over “the national debt”.   Another is pedagogical: if you don’t put effort into deconstructing pre-existing beliefs as well as developing new knowledge, what you will see on papers and exams is a weird mishmash of the two.  It took me too many years to figure this out.  But a third is the insight Suri also came to, that using an external point of reference to step outside oneself and observe one’s own learning process provides a powerful boost to learning of all sorts.  The misunderstandings of pop econ provide a baseline from which students can measure their progress; they illuminate what they are learning and how.

              Law School Dean: Disrupting Free-Speech Event Was Free-Speech - The dean of the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law is defending protesters who disrupted a speaking event by aggressively heckling a conservative professor. As previously reported by Campus Reform, Josh Blackman, a law professor from the South Texas College of Law Houston, was invited to speak on “the importance of free speech” by the CUNY Federalist Society.When Blackman arrived, however, he was met with protesters who prevented him from speaking for the first eight minutes of his speech, shouting things like “legal objectivity is a myth” and “he’s a white supremacist.” While an administrator told the protesters at the time that the the university’s rules state that “you may not keep anyone from speaking,” CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek took a much laxer tone in an email to Inside Higher Ed, saying that the relatively short duration of the protest made it acceptable."For the first eight minutes of the 70-minute event, the protesting students voiced their disagreements," Bilek reported.“The speaker engaged with them. The protesting students then filed out of the room, and the event proceeded to its conclusion without incident.” Bilek then asserted that “this non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech,” adding that “it did not violate any university policy.” Blackman, however, strongly disagrees with the dean’s assessment, telling Campus Reform that the students interrupted his speech and did not want to engage in any discussion.“I was invited to speak at CUNY Law for an hour-long discussion on free speech. I had planned to speak for about 45 minutes, and leave the remainder for Q&A,” he explained.“The protesters interrupted me for roughly eight minutes, and only left when I tried to engage them on the issues.”

              Fourth Circuit appeals court strikes down Maryland's drug price gouging law- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said in a 2-to-1 ruling that the 2017 law is unconstitutional because it violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. “Although we sympathize with the consumers affected by the prescription drug manufacturers’ conduct and with Maryland’s efforts to curtail prescription drug price gouging, we are constrained to apply the dormant commerce clause to the Act,” Judge Stephanie D. Thacker wrote for the majority opinion. “We hold that the Act is unconstitutional under the dormant commerce clause because it directly regulates transactions that take place outside Maryland.” Last year, Maryland became the first state in the country to give its attorney general the power to take legal action against drug companies that dramatically increase the price of off-patent or generic drugs. The Association for Accessible Medicines, a trade group, sued Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and Dennis R. Schrader, who was the state’s acting health secretary, to block the measure. The drug trade group argued that the law was “overreaching” and vague and wrongly gave the state power to regulate interstate commerce and business in other states. The suit also claimed that the measure violated the companies’ right to due process. A district court upheld the law, but the plaintiffs appealed. 

              US Opioid Prescriptions Fall at Record Rate - The IQVIA Institute published its 2017 recap, Medicine Use and Spending in the U.S. A key finding was the sharp fall in opioid prescriptions: The report stated:

              • • Prescription opioid usage in the United States increased considerably from the mid 1990’s to its peak in 2011, at 240 billion morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs). It is now declining rapidly; the largest single year change in 2017 was a decline of 23.3 billion MMEs, or 12.0%. • Prescription opioid usage was about 22 pills or 134 MMEs per adult in 1992 and rose to a peak of 72 pills or 1,011 MMEs in 2011. Usage has since declined to 52 pills or 676 MMEs per adult.
              • • Decreases in prescription opioid volume have been driven by changes in clinical usage, which have been influenced by regulatory and reimbursement policies and legislation that have been increasingly restricting prescription opioid use since 2012.

              However, even with the marked decline from the 2011 peak, opioid prescriptions are only back to their level in, say, 2006 or 2007. The increase in dosage, from 134 MMEs in 1992 to 676 in 2017, is an over five-fold increase that cannot begin to be explained by aging Boomers with creaky joints and higher rates of overweight and obesity. It is important to understand the degree to which drugs, like stocks, are sold. Pharmaceutical sales are widely recognized as the most sophisticated. For instance, ex military personnel are highly sought after as detailmen (the in-person sales force) because they are both willing to comply with the requirement to stick strictly to the scripts for marketing various drugs yet also be aggressive and persistent. Detailmen are given highly structured pitches, with an elevator spiel rolling into a one-minute version that can then go to three minutes if the doctor will give that much time. A typical detailman will sell at most three drugs, so an MD will often have more than one rep from the same company calling on him. The detailmen will also have that doctor’s prescription levels relative to that of his supposed peers, and the detailmen will try to depict him as remiss if his Rx level is lower than theirs.

              Americans Are Increasingly Dying Earlier In These States - For some time, we have understood that prime-working-age Americans (20 to 55) are more frequently dying younger, although the scale and nature of the problem have remained somewhat of a mystery. There has been increased speculation from the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) confirming a downtrend in American life expectancy, which could be due to soaring wealth inequality and an out of control opioid epidemic. However, some experts believe there is much more to this troubling story, as structural decay is becoming more evident in America’s middle class. A new study published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association digs beneath the American heartland and identifies which states are encountering the highest premature deaths among younger generations, and why.  As per The Atlantic, the study reveals a “profound disparity among the states” when it comes to “life expectancy.”  The Atlantic points out the ten states with the highest probability of dying young: In 2016, the 10 states with the highest probability of premature death among 20- to 55-year-olds were West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina.” Meanwhile, here the states with the lowest probability of premature death: The 10 states with lowest probability of premature death among this age group were Minnesota, California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii.” Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington epidemiologist who co-wrote the study, said in a statement, “Overall the nation and some of our states are falling behind other, less developed countries.” “The strain on America’s health resources is getting worse, and the need for prevention services and greater access to and quality of medical care is increasing,” he added. While The Atlantic links the idea “Americans are self-medicating their misery with alcohol and drugs,” there is also reason to believe that poor diet is a significant factor in premature death. Alzheimer’s disease and opioids have become an increasing cause of death and disability, but poor diet still maintains the number one slot for the leading cause of death, followed by tobacco use and high blood pressure.

              Health risks found in over 80 percent of NYCHA apartments -- A recently released report documents a fact that more than 400,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing complexes already know only too well—conditions in the great majority of apartments endanger the health of their occupants. The New York State Department of Health (DOH) examined a sample of 255 apartments distributed across 23 developments. Of these, 212, over 83 percent, were found to have “at least one severe condition” that “could pose a health hazard.” Among the conditions observed were peeling paint, mold, damaged plaster, rodents, insects, inoperable appliances and malfunctioning smoke detectors. Sixteen units had “severe” electrical hazards, and 15 had no heat. In addition, three quarters of the 64 common areas that were inspected had at least one health hazard. For years, NYCHA tenants have complained that they often have to wait months or even years for repairs, which are sometimes of a purely cosmetic nature.This report follows two scandalous situations that made headlines in recent months. The first was the revelation that NYCHA officials had for years suspended legally mandated inspections for lead paint and then covered up this failure in official reports, prompting legal action by the federal government. Compounding the problem, the city recently announced that new testing of a sample of apartments has now revealed high lead levels in complexes that had previously been exempted from annual lead paint inspections based on a survey conducted in the 1990s, indicating that the potential for lead poisoning, especially of children, is even more widespread than previously thought. The second incident was the widespread loss of heat and hot water by more than 300,000 tenants during extremely cold weather this past winter due to obsolete and poorly maintained boilers, some dating back to the 1940s (see: “Tenants sue New York City Housing Authority over horrific conditions”). Funding cuts in recent years have reduced the boiler maintenance staff by more than a third, from 391 in 2013 to about 248 currently. This is for an agency that is responsible for 175,000 apartments in over 2,400 buildings distributed among 326 complexes spread throughout the city.

              'Scary' lung disease COPD now afflicts more women than men in U.S. - Joan Cousins was among a generation of young women who heard — and bought into the idea — that puffing on a cigarette was sophisticated, modern, even liberating. No one suspected it would make them more than equal to men in suffering a choking, life-shortening lung disease.“Everybody smoked. It was the cool thing to do,” said Cousins, who smoked her first cigarette 67 years ago at age 16.But one day, Cousins started coughing and could not stop — or take a deep breath. She drove to a hospital, where doctors told her she had a progressive lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “Not breathing was so scary … that I never had another cigarette,” Cousins said. COPD traditionally was considered a man’s disease, but it now kills more women in the United States than men. Women account for 58 percent of the 14.7 million people in the U.S. living with the disease and 53 percent of those who die from it, according to the American Lung Association. Nearly 8 percent of women in the U.S. have reported a COPD diagnosis, compared with just under 6 percent of men. “It’s a huge public health problem for women that doesn’t really get enough attention,” said Dr. Meilan Han, associate professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. “This is one of the top killers of women in the country.”Because COPD is often associated with men, women are frequently diagnosed after the disease is already advanced. Symptoms of COPD include a chronic cough, wheezing, tightening of the chest and shortness of breath. There is no cure for COPD, but its progression can be slowed. The most important thing a patient can do after a COPD diagnosis is to stop smoking.

              Young People in Polluted Cities at Greater Risk for Alzheimer's -- A study has found that living in cities with high air pollution puts children and young adults at risk for Alzheimer's and suicide, The University of Montana reported Friday.University of Montana researcher Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas was part of a team that looked at the autopsies of 203 residents of Mexico City, which has daily ozone and particulate matter levels above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) standards.The subjects they studied ranged in age from 11 months to 40 years, and the researchers found signs of Alzheimer's in 99.5 percent of them, including in less-than-a-year-old babies."Alzheimer's disease starting in the brainstem of young children and affecting 99.5% of young urbanites is a serious health crisis," the abstract of the study , published in Environmental Research on March 23, warned.The researchers, who also included participants from the Universidad del Valle de México, the Instituto Nacional de Pediatría, Boise State University, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Médica Sur and the Universidad Autónoma de Piedras Negras, looked for two abnormal proteins linked to the development of Alzheimer's: hyperphosphorylated tau and beta amyloid. They found increased levels of both in the study's subjects."Alzheimer's disease hallmarks start in childhood in polluted environments, and we must implement effective preventative measures early," Calderón-Garcidueñas said in the University of Montana press release. "It is useless to take reactive actions decades later."Researchers theorized that particulate matter increased Alzheimer's risk as it enters the brain through the gastrointestinal tract, nose and lungs. The circulatory system carries particulate matter throughout the body and damages barriers. The study is not the first to suggest that air pollution is a risk for the brain, especially in children. A study published in March found brain abnormalities in school-aged children in the Netherlands whose mothers were exposed to particulate matter when they were pregnant, U.S. News and World Report reported. The abnormalities were linked to behavioral problems and impulse control and, crucially, occurred even when the pollution the mothers were exposed to was beneath levels determined safe by EU law.

               President Trump directs EPA to ease air quality rules he says suffocates industry — President Trump's latest effort to boost the nation's manufacturing sector is an industry-friendly rewrite of air quality regulations he says pose "unnecessary and outdated barriers to growth."  But environmental advocates warn it would be another damaging step by an administration obsessed with deregulation at the expense of hard-fought public health protections.The proposed loosening of air quality standards came in the form of a directive Trump issued Thursday instructing the EPA to work with states that have metro areas which failed to attain clean air standards. The president's primary aim, the directive states, is "promoting domestic manufacturing and job creation."Dozens of communities across the country fail to meet Clean Air Act standards for at least one of six key pollutants — ground-level ozone (smog), particulate matter (soot or smoke), carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide — according to the EPA.Building or expanding major projects, such as highways and manufacturing plants, in these "non-attainment" areas requires extra time and cost to make sure the increased industrial activity won't worsen air quality. And states with non-attainment areas have to file plans with the EPA to show how they're confronting the problem, a review process that can take years. Trump's directive orders the EPA to work with states to expedite those approvals and instructs the agency to consider whether the current process "should be revised or rescinded ... to provide states with additional implementation flexibility." “These actions are intended to ensure that EPA carries out its core missions of protecting the environment and improving air quality in accord with statutory requirements, while reducing unnecessary impediments to new manufacturing and business expansion essential for a growing economy," the president said in a statement accompanying the order.

              95% of World's Population Breathes Unsafe Air -- A report released Tuesday found that 95 percent of the world's population is exposed to dangerous levels ofair pollution , CNN reported . The Health Effects Institute's (HEI) yearly State of Global Air report said that the outdoor air where 95 percent of humans live has particulate matter concentrations above the Word Health Organization's (WHO) air quality guidelines of 10 micrograms per square meter. Almost 60 percent live in areas where particulate matter exceeds even the WHO's less-strict transitional guidelines of 35 micrograms per square meter. The report also looked at household air pollution caused by burning fuels in the home for cooking and heating and found that more than a third of the world's population is exposed to this type of air pollution as well, which can exceed WHO guidelines by a factor of 20. The report found that the highest concentrations of air pollution, weighted for population, were in North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East. The next highest concentrations were in South Asia, especially Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan. The countries with the healthiest air were Australia, Brunei, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand, Sweden and countries in the Pacific islands.  Overall, global air pollution has gone up by 18 percent between 2010 and 2016, the least year for which data was available. In China, which has made a concerted effort to combat pollution, levels have actually slightly declined in the six year period, though they are still above the WHO interim target at 56 micrograms per square meter. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have seen the largest increase in air pollution during the same period..

               Fluorinated Chemical Pollution Crisis Spreads -- Two decades after pollution from highly toxic fluorinated chemicals was first reported in American communities and drinking water , the number of known contamination sites is growing rapidly, with no end in sight.The latest update of an interactive map by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University documents publicly known pollution from so-called PFAS chemicals at 94 industrial or military sites in 22 states. When the map was first published 10 months ago, there were 52 known contamination sites in 19 states. The map and accompanying report are the most comprehensive resources tracking PFAS pollution in the U.S. "With the alarming spread of known PFAS contamination sites, it's unconscionable that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken only the most feeble steps to respond to the crisis," said Bill Walker, an investigative editor at EWG, which has studied the family of fluorinated chemicals for 20 years. "States are stepping up to set cleanup standards, but a national crisis demands a national response. It's only a matter of time until another American community learns that its water is contaminated with these highly toxic chemicals."PFAS chemicals, used in hundreds of consumer products, have been linked to cancer , thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems. The two most notorious members of the family—PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont's Teflon, and PFOS, formerly in 3M's Scotchgard—are now banned in the U.S., but manufacturers have replaced them with chemically similar, largely untested compounds that may be no safer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS chemicals contaminate the blood of virtually all Americans.

              As state ends bottled water program in Flint, officials grant new permits to Nestlé Waters -- In a turn of events so ironic it could have been scripted by Franz Kafka, on April 2, the state of Michigan awarded Nestlé Waters, the world’s largest bottled water corporation, the right to draw 167 percent more water from the states’ aquifers than it did last year. Four days later, Governor Rick Snyder announced the state would no longer distribute free bottled water to the residents of Flint, Michigan, whose water was contaminated by lead due to actions of state and local officials. Nestlé’s new agreement with the state of Michigan will allow the multinational conglomerate to pump 570,000 gallons per day—two-and-a-half times what it would take to provide for every person in Flint.  Its 51 labels include Ice Mountain, Nestlé Pure Life, Arrowhead, Poland Spring, Deer Park, Ozarka, Zephyrhills, Acqua Panna, San Pellegrino, Perrier, Vittel, and Buxton. For 12 years, Nestlé—under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and Republican Governor Snyder—has been pumping spring water for its “Ice Mountain” label near Evart, Michigan, about 140 miles east of Flint. Evart is one of three Nestlé water-pumping locations in the state. Because Nestlé owns the wells it is pumping, the company only pays $200 in administrative fees to authorize its groundwater extraction, plus a one-time $5,000 fee for permit application review. While Nestlé pays $200 for 210 million gallons a year, an average Flint family pays between $120 and $200 each month for water, which is not safe to drink from the tap. Public comments on Nestlé’s request for a new permit were originally scheduled to last 45 days but had to be extended to seven months because opposition was so great. Of the more than 80,945 comments, only 75 were in favor of granting the permit.  There were also 340,000 signatures on petitions expressing concerns about water withdrawal and its impact.  In its press release announcing the approval of the Nestlé groundwater permit, MDEQ Director Heidi Grether said, “We cannot base our decisions on public opinion because our department is required to follow the rule of law when making determinations.” In other words, when it comes to corporate profit, the concerns and sentiments of the public mean nothing to Michigan officials.

              Will And Jaden Smith's Company To Donate Water To Flint Until Lead Levels Drop -- Actor Will Smith and his son and fellow actor Jaden Smith founded JUST water company in 2015. Will and Jaden Smith’s eco-friendly water company, JUST, is vowing to donate water each month to Flint, Michigan, schools until the city’s water is drinkable again.The company has already donated 9,200 bottles to Flint. After reading about how the city’s water crisis affected its public schools, JUST’s CEO, Ira Laufer, decided the donations were simply necessary.  “This just makes sense for us to do,” Laufer told MLive. “After reading more about [Flint’s] challenges and the mayor objecting to pulling bottled water from the schools, we thought, ‘Let’s help these kids.’” Will and Jaden Smith founded JUST in 2015 to provide a green alternative to plastic bottles and to invest in communities. JUST’s bottles are 82 percent plant-based, and the company has initiated long-term investments in Glens Falls, New York, the city where the water is sourced. 

              Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day - NYT - High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky. Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that’s why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet. Most of the globe-trotting viruses are swept into the air by sea spray, and lesser numbers arrive in dust storms. “Unimpeded by friction with the surface of the Earth, you can travel great distances, and so intercontinental travel is quite easy” for viruses, said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia. “It wouldn’t be unusual to find things swept up in Africa being deposited in North America.” The study by Dr. Suttle and his colleagues, published earlier this year in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal, was the first to count the number of viruses falling onto the planet. The research, though, is not designed to study influenza or other illnesses, but to get a better sense of the “virosphere,” the world of viruses on the planet. Generally it’s assumed these viruses originate on the planet and are swept upward, but some researchers theorize that viruses actually may originate in the atmosphere. While Dr. Suttle’s team found hundreds of millions of viruses in a square meter, they counted tens of millions of bacteria in the same space. Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation and the evolution of all species. Viruses contain a vast diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species. 

              Cancer not only mutates but evolves other mechanisms to beat drugs --Because of advances in drug design and precision medicine, researchers have been able to target certain molecules within a cell at the root of a particular disease and to develop specific therapies to undo their damages.   But there’s a dark side to cancer-killing drugs designed to match distinct cancer mutations like a key into a lock. Some cancers that initially respond to targeted chemotherapy become treatment-resistant – and the drug itself may not be the culprit.New research helps explain how therapy-resistant cancers arise, findings with important implications for the future of cancer therapy. It shows how hidden, subtle layers of regulation – epigenetics – control the activity of genes to produce drug-resistant surviving cells.It is well established that cancer is a disease of our genes. However, resistance to therapy might go beyond cancer mutations that usually alter the function of genes. It may not be new mutations that are causing resistance to drugs. The DNA can stay the same, but cancer cells adapt to therapy and outsmart the drugs by switching their gene activity.While such adaptations do not affect the DNA itself, a hidden layer of regulation controlling the activity of genes – epigenetic signals – is responsible for whether cancer cells survive or not, despite the drug a patient is taking.  Mutations in a protein called BRAF, a major signaling regulator, cause growth signals to be stuck in the “on” position and drive cancer development.Though scientists have managed to come up with drugs that target and turn off aberrant BRAF signaling, cancer cells are clever. They learn to adapt to these BRAF-inhibitors.   Though chemotherapy might kill most of the cancer, tiny populations of drug-resistant cancer cells manage to survive and propagate. Unlike the more familiar case of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, where genetic mutations give rise to resistance, many adaptations in treatment-resistant cancers aren’t the result of mutation.

              Health officials warn of diphtheria in Venezuela, Haiti - International health authorities are reporting outbreaks of diptheria in Venezuela and Haiti, and that cases of the potentially deadly illness have turned up in Colombia and Brazil as well. Diphtheria is a bacteria that causes throat swelling and difficulty breathing in its victims. It can be deadly if untreated, but preventable with vaccines. "In Venezuela, the diphtheria outbreak that began in July 2016 remains active," the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said in its April 16 report. Since the start of the outbreak 1,602 suspected cases have been reported, of which 976 were confirmed while 142 victims died before the disease could be confirmed. PAHO said that those most vulnerable to the disease are between the ages of five and 19. Several of the diphtheria cases reported in Brazil and Colombia -- both countries that border Venezuela -- are either suspected or confirmed to have originated in Venezuela. A three year-old Venezuelan was confirmed dead of diphtheria this year in Colombia's department of La Guajira, on its eastern border with Venezuela. Separately in Haiti, an outbreak first reported in 2014 continues, with 410 probable cases, including 75 fatalities. More than half of the probable cases are of children under the age of 10, the report said.

              ‘We’re Out of Options’: Doctors Battle Drug-Resistant Typhoid Outbreak -- The first known epidemic of extensively drug-resistant typhoid is spreading through Pakistan, infecting at least 850 people in 14 districts since 2016, according to the National Institute of Health Islamabad. The typhoid strain, resistant to five types of antibiotics, is expected to disseminate globally, replacing weaker strains where they are endemic. Experts have identified only one remaining oral antibiotic — azithromycin — to combat it; one more genetic mutation could make typhoid untreatable in some areas. Researchers consider the epidemic an international clarion call for comprehensive prevention efforts. If vaccination campaigns and modern sanitation systems don’t outpace the pathogen, they anticipate a return to the pre-antibiotic era when mortality rates soared. “This isn’t just about typhoid,” “Antibiotic resistance is a threat to all of modern medicine — and the scary part is, we’re out of options.” Typhoid fever, caused by the Salmonella Typhi bacteria, is a highly infectious disease transmitted by contaminated food or water. It causes high fevers, headaches and vomiting. About 21 million people suffer from typhoid each year, and about 161,000 die, according to the World Health Organization. Typhoid is endemic to Pakistan, where poor infrastructure, low vaccination rates and overpopulated city dwellings persist. Doctors in the Sindh province were not surprised by an outbreak in November 2016 — until cases proved unresponsive to ceftriaxone, used to treat multidrug-resistant, or MDR, strains of typhoid. The outbreak’s origins were clear: Early case mapping revealed large clusters of victims around sewage lines in the city of Hyderabad. Dr. Hasan’s colleagues visited the region and found water sources that could be contaminated by leaking sewage pipes. Four deaths have been reported so far, according to the National Institute of Health Islamabad. At least one travel-related case has been detected in the United Kingdom. 

              Scientists Have No Idea How to Fight Citrus Greening - Since 2012, when it was first found in California and Texas, scientists have been searching for a solution to a "citrus greening," a devastating disease affecting citrus trees.Citrus greening, known as huánglóngbìng in China (shortened to HLB in America), where it's been present for decades, is an intensely destructive disease, sneakily killing branches, causing bitter, unsellable fruit and stunting growth. Unfortunately, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says that a solution is not coming anytime soon. Florida, which is responsible for most of the juice oranges produced in the U.S., is being wrecked by citrus greening. It's estimated that the disease has caused $2.9 billion in damages between 2007 and 2014 (it was first discovered in Florida in 2005), and it's thought to be a key contributor to the decline of citrus acres in the state. As a result, the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), an industry group, has poured about $100 million into attempting to solve this problem. Citrus greening is caused by a bacteria that's spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny, brown, moth-like insect that's actually a pretty annoying pest in its own right. But it's most destructive as a vector for the bacteria that causes citrus greening.  The CRDF asked the Academies to take a look at their research and attempt to figure out any possible solution. In response, this week, the Academies released a study calling a silver bullet "unlikely." From the study's release : "Significant barriers to progress toward an HLB solution still exist, among them the inability to culture the bacteria in the laboratory, the lack of advanced diagnostics for early disease detection, and the absence of standardized research methodology that would improve the comparability of results across studies."

              High-Speed Pig Slaughter Will Be Disastrous for Everyone Involved -The Trump administration has proposed a radical change in food safety protection. They’re misleadingly calling it the “Modernization of swine slaughter inspection rule”, but what it really does is roll back progress on protecting the public from serious and sometimes fatal diseases such as salmonella.  The new proposal, which seeks to privatize the pork inspection system, would eliminate more than 140 food inspectors who now work in the nation’s hog slaughter plants. Most of the remaining government inspectors would be removed from the production lines. In their place, the proposal allows a smaller number of company employees – who are not required to receive relevant training – to conduct fewer inspections. In other words, it allows the industry to police itself, like the fox guarding the proverbial hen (or hog) house. Of critical concern, the proposal removes any maximum limits on line speeds in pig slaughter plants. Pigs are already slaughtered at an astonishing rate of approximately 1,100 per hour. With this new rule, those speeds could reach up to 1,300 or even 1,500 pigs per hour. This will directly harm the health and safety of the nation’s tens of thousands of meat-packing workers, make it harder for the limited number of meat inspectors to do their jobs, and jeopardize the welfare of more than 100 million pigs each year. The proposed increase in line speeds will result in higher injury rates for workers in our nation’s packing houses. Scores of studies show that pork workers already face serious injury rates three times higher than the national average, and illness rates that are 17 times higher. The pork processing industry is one of the most dangerous for workers. The already breakneck line speeds, coupled with the forceful and repetitive nature of the jobs in meat-packing plants, lead to high rates of devastating injuries and illnesses. Faster lines and fewer inspectors won’t only have disastrous impacts on workers but also the animals they are tasked with processing. The removal of line speed caps has been shown to increase the chances for rough animal handling as employees feel the pressure to move pigs quickly through the slaughter. This increased speed can result in improper stunning that leads to animals being slaughtered while conscious.

              CRISPR’d Food, Coming Soon to a Supermarket Near You - For years now, the US Department of Agriculture has been flirting with the latest and greatest DNA manipulation technologies. Since 2016, it has given free passes to at least a dozen gene-edited crops, ruling that they fall outside its regulatory purview. But on Wednesday, March 28, the agency made its relationship status official; effective immediately, certain gene-edited plants can be designed, cultivated, and sold free from regulation. “With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.  The agency’s logic goes like this: Gene editing is basically a (much, much, much) faster form of breeding. So long as a genetic alteration could have been bred in a plant—say a simple deletion, base pair swap, or insertion from a reproductively compatible relative—it won’t be regulated. Think, changes that create immunity to diseases, hardiness under tough weather conditions, or bigger, better, tastier fruits and seeds. If you want to stick in genes from distant species, you still have to jump through all the hoops. The move shouldn’t come as a shock, given the agency’s recent overtures. But it is a big deal, shaving years and tens of millions of dollars off the cost of developing a designer plant, and enabling smaller startups and public institutions to enter the market. Traditional genetic modification—and all its attendant red tape—has limited research to commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat. Now, specialty crops, even ones with teeny tiny markets, are suddenly worth developing. You no longer have to be a Monsanto or a Dow DuPont Pioneer to take your custom cultivar into the grocery aisles of America.

              CRISPR: Utopian Religious Fantasies, Shoddy Reality - BASF is announcing that it plans to use the CRISPR “gene editing” technology to engineer “crop protection”, i.e. the same old pesticidal GMOs. This is just the latest proof that all the high-falutin’ advertising come-ons about “second generation” GMOs boil down to the same old poison plants and pesticides. That’s all agricultural GMOs in themselves were ever about and all they’ll ever be about. This is just as true of hoaxes like “golden rice”. Even if golden rice ever were to be developed to the point that it could be commercially deployed, it would be deployed only in a Bt-expressing, herbicide-tolerant poison plant form. And while Syngenta has made propaganda hay out of its alleged “donation” of the beta carotene transgene (though the IRRI has reserved the prerogative of taking out its own patents on this technology), it certainly will not donate its pesticidal transgenes. Agricultural GMOs do have two more profound long-run purposes. For the pro-GM activists of the scientism cult, the idea of GMOs and genetic engineering as such is far more important than the real thing. This manifests in two ways.

              • 1. Agricultural GMOs are a stalking horse for animal and human eugenics on a GE basis. This is what the cult and the technocratic power structure really care about. Do you think the Western STEM fraternity really cares about a GM eggplant in Bangladesh for its own sake? They similarly don’t care how CRISPR actually is used in the short run, whether to engineer herbicide tolerance or glow-in-the-dark fish or bigger muscles for geeks or whatnot. These are all just practical and political experiments toward their goal of literally sculpting human bodies and minds according to corporate-technocratic specifications, for corporate-technocratic purposes.
              • 2. The political/propaganda experimentation is part of the idea of GMOs serving as an organizational principle. “GMO” is a clarion call, a dog whistle, a way for every cadre and fellow-traveler of the scientism/technocracy cult to recognize one another, come together on a militant basis, and get used to waging fanatical culture war. This in turn is preparation for literal civil wars and escalated imperial wars as the eugenic control project gets fully underway. “GMO” is a fascist slogan in the most precise sense.

              Woman Behind Effort to Stop Release of Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Found Dead in Swimming Pool - On Tuesday, April 10 Washington DC authorities recovered the body of Key West-based environmental activist Milagro de Mier from the pool of a hotel close to the DC Convention Center . de Mier was in the nation’s capital to raise awareness and petition the US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency on a British biotech company’s plan to release 50 million genetically-modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas on a weekly basis.The environmental activist and real estate agent was 45, and the mother of three. “These GMO mosquitoes could pose major risks to fragile ecosystems like the Florida Keys and Texas,” de Mier argued on the page of her Change.org petition, “and may pose risks to public health and safety.Fox News5 reports on April 10:Authorities said they were called to the Cambria Hotel & Suites Washington, D.C. Convention Center in the 890 block of O Street, NW at about 9:40 a.m. According to a police report, a witness found an unconscious woman floating inside the rooftop pool and called 911.

              GMO Mosquito Whistleblower Murdered In D.C. - The body of a whistleblower who exposed the U.S. government’s plan to release millions of GMO mosquitoes into the public was found floating in a D.C. hotel pool. The body of 45-year-old Milagro de Mier was found in the pool of a hotel close to the DC Convention Center on April 10. Milagro had blown the whistle on plans by the US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to release 50 million genetically-modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas. Memoryholeblog.org reports: “These GMO mosquitoes could pose major risks to fragile ecosystems like the Florida Keys and Texas and may pose risks to public health and safety,” de Mier argued on the page of her Change.org petition.  Fox News5 reports on April 10: the Cambria Hotel & Suites Washington, D.C. Convention Center in the 890 block of O Street, NW at about 9:40 a.m.According to a police report, a witness found an unconscious woman floating inside the rooftop pool and called 911.When emergency crews responded to the scene they found the woman facedown and attempted to revive her but she was pronounced dead at the scene.Authorities later identified the woman as 45-year-old Milagro Demier of Key West, Florida. Detectives said a death investigation was underway to determine the circumstances surrounding the drowning. No other details were immediately available.

               Miami among cities at risk from yellow fever spread: study   (Reuters) - Miami is at risk of a deadly yellow fever outbreak because the disease could thrive there but the city has no checks on travelers arriving from endemic zones, a study to be published by the World Health Organization showed. Yellow fever is spread by the same mosquito that causes Zika virus, which spread through the Americas after being detected in Brazil in 2015 and has been reported in southern Florida and southern Texas. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control advises that yellow fever is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America, and is a very rare cause of illness in U.S. travelers. But the study, “International travel and the urban spread of yellow fever”, showed that almost 2.8 million people flew to the United States from endemic yellow fever areas in 2016. Unlike some countries, the United States does not require travelers from such places to show proof of yellow fever vaccination. “At a time when global yellow fever vaccine supplies are diminished, an epidemic in a densely populated city could have substantial health and economic consequences,” the researchers based in Canada, the United States and Britain wrote in the study. Around 9.5 million people live in U.S. urban areas such as Miami that are ecologically suitable for an outbreak, they wrote in the study, issued online ahead of its publication in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. They said climate change, mobility, urbanization and a vaccine shortage had increased the risk of yellow fever globally and they called for a review of vaccination policies. 

              Parasite transmitted by ticks found in Canada lynx  (AP) — The Canada lynx, listed as a threatened species by the federal government, may have one more thing to worry about.University of New Hampshire scientists on Monday announced they have discovered a previously undiagnosed parasite transmitted by ticks as well as a virus in the medium-sized cat known for its long ears. The virus is similar to the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis in humans and is related to a virus that infects domestic cats. The New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory uncovered the findings during a recent research study. Two senior veterinary pathologists led the project and are expected to present their results on Tuesday at the 74th annual Northeast Fish and Wildlife Conference in Burlington, Vermont. The snow-loving feline, found from Alaska across Canada and into the northernmost part of the United States, has been listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000, largely due to habitat destruction. The Canada lynx is still under federal protection, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced in January they are considering taking the elusive cat off of the endangered species list. The announcement was met with resistance from wildlife conservation groups.

              Only three caribou left in South Selkirks herd - Wildsight is mourning the tragic loss of all but three of the South Selkirks caribou herd and is again calling for immediate and full protection for all critical mountain caribou habitat in B.C. “It’s devastating that we’ve nearly lost the South Selkirks caribou herd,” stated John Bergenske, Wildsight’s Conservation Director, “but what’s worse is that unless we take immediate action to protect all critical mountain caribou habitat, the South Purcells and other southern herds won’t be far behind.” Over the past year, the South Selkirks herd, the southernmost remaining herd in North America, has lost nine animals, leaving only three females in the mountains south of Nelson, according to the aerial census taken this spring. “We’ve know for decades that logging, road-building and uncontrolled recreation in mountain caribou habitat is slowly killing off our caribou herds,” said Eddie Petryshen, Wildsight’s Conservation Coordinator. “Protecting intact habitat in our mountain rainforest ecosystems is the only way to give our southern caribou herds a chance to survive, but our federal and provincial governments have been dragging their feet for years, ignoring the ongoing destruction of mountain caribou habitat.” Fewer than 250 mountain caribou remain in the Kootenay and Columbia area, mostly found in herds around Revelstoke, and only 12 caribou were found in the South Purcells herd census last year. Southern mountain caribou, a unique ecotype who live in the inland temperate rainforest of B.C.’s southern interior, feed exclusively on tree-growing lichen in the winter, and need old growth forests to survive. Caribou are not just extremely sensitive to disturbance from motorized recreation, but packed winter trails in their habitat make them more vulnerable to predators. Mountain caribou herds in B.C. have been declining for decades as the impacts of logging, industrial activity and recreation spread over the mountain backcountry, leaving isolated herds with nowhere left to run.

              'Sick Joke': House Agriculture Committee Advances Farm Bill Attacking Environment, Endangered Species -  --The House Agriculture Committee passed H.R. 2 , the 2018 Farm Bill, Wednesday on a party-line basis. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), includes dozens of poison-pill riders that would gut fundamental environmental safeguards. Most significantly it would completely exempt the use of pesticides from the Endangered Species Act, effectively dooming hundreds of endangered species to extinction and making it legal to kill any endangered species with a pesticide at almost any time."This Farm Bill is a sick joke. It gives polluters and special interests the keys to the castle, while environmental safeguards are thrown in the ditch," said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity . "Farmers don't want to poison our waters, kill our wildlife, and reduce our national forests to clearcuts. This is another low for this Congress, which is already the most anti-conservation in history."The bill's attacks on the environment include the following provisions:

              • Section 9111: Completely exempts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) from the requirements of the Endangered Species Act allowing the agency to ignore impacts of toxic pesticides on endangered wildlife .
              • Section 9118: Eliminates all protections under the Clean Water Act when toxic pesticides are sprayed directly into rivers and streams.
              • Section 8303: Guts the consultation process required by Endangered Species Act on national forests by allowing the U.S. Forest Service to rubber-stamp project approvals without consulting with expert wildlife scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about whether a project would put endangered species in jeopardy of extinction.
              • Section 8107: Doubles the allowed acreage for "categorical exclusions" under the National Environmental Policy Act from 3,000 to 6,000 acres per project, allowing the Forest Service to approve clearcuts under the guise of controlling insects and disease outbreaks in national forests.
              • Section 8311-8321: Eliminates public engagement, environmental review of most Forest Service logging projects by creating 10 new categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act for projects up to 6,000 acres in size.
              • Section 8503: Guts the "extraordinary circumstances" protections under the National Environmental Policy Act, allowing the Forest Service to approve destructive projects without further review even if sensitive species are present or the project is within a wilderness area.

              "This farm bill should be called the Poisoned Waters and DDT Restoration Act. If it becomes law, Americans can look forward to our water and wildlife being poisoned by pesticides for the rest of our lives," said Hartl.

              Otter Poop Helps Scientists Track Pollution at a Superfund Site - The Duwamish River, which winds through Seattle, contains a lot of unpleasant stuff. In one industrially contaminated stretch, which has been designated a Superfund site, levels of many pollutants exceed state health standards. The compounds, which include notorious chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), settle in river sediments and make fish and shellfish unsafe to eat. Swimming amidst this pollution is a population of river otters. Now researchers are proposing to use otter poop to help monitor a 17-year-long plan to clean the river, recently approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Biologist Michelle Wainstein, from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, says the charismatic mammals are top predators who mainly eat fish and crabs but also dine on frogs, birds and small mammals. All these river denizens take in pollutants and pass them along to otters. The otters, in turn, use communal latrines on shore to defecate, making it easy and noninvasive to sample their scat for pollutants. “They like to get together and have poop parties,” Wainstein says. This kind of sampling can give scientists a much better idea of what is getting into a body than simply analyzing water or river sediment. Picking up scat to determine pollutant levels also is preferable to trapping otters, because handling the creatures “can be extremely stressful for animals,”

              Tensions grow between conservation, commerce in Ohio's state forests - Without a sound, Bill Tipton unclasped his hands to reach down and trace the rings of a stump where a tree long loomed in Shawnee State Forest — at least 80 years, by his quick count. This winter, loggers stripped the trees from this forest patch for timber. In their place, piles of fallen trees and the occasional trash now litter a mostly bald hill streaked by paths for logging equipment and 18-wheel semitrailers.Tipton, a local forest advocate, gave one word for how he felt surveying the site.“Sick,” he said. “Will something grow back? Absolutely. But it will be different.”In Ohio and across the country, political clashes have renewed debate over whether industry and conservation can co-exist on public lands — from national treasures such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to swaths of Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest.  For years, Bill Tipton and other members of Save Our Shawnee Forest have been petitioning to protect areas of the forest from logging. Tipton said that he sees agencies -- at both state and national levels -- increasingly eye public spaces as potential economic drivers and not as preservation areas. Ohio ranks 14th among the 50 states for private forestland, according to state and federal data, with some 88 percent of its woodlands owned privately. Ohio lands in the bottom third nationally for both its total acreage of forestland and its share of public forests. State officials are mandated by law to manage the 200,000 acres spawned by Ohio state forests for a range of uses such as recreation, wildlife habitat, soil and water protection and sustainable timber production. “There’s so little public land in Ohio and so much demand for it. Everyone’s guarding their piece of it,” said Bill Stanley, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio and a member of ODNR’s Forest Advisory Council.Division of Forestry Deputy Chief Greg Guess said Ohio’s 21 state forests are managed to suit a range of uses. “They’re not just for recreation. They’re not just for timber management. They’re not for one use over the other,” Guess said.

              Africa’s vegetation has lost 2.6bn tonnes of CO2 in just seven years - The rainforests, savannahs and woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa have lost around 2.6bn tonnes of CO2 over the past seven years, a new study finds.The large-scale loss of stored carbon – which on an annual basis is almost four times the CO2 emissions of Nigeria – was driven by a series of severe droughts across the continent, as well as deforestation, the research suggests.The results were gathered using a novel satellite technique, which allowed researchers to measure “deeper below the vegetation canopy” than ever before, the lead author tells Carbon Brief. The world’s trees, plants and shrubs are capable of storing large amounts of carbon. This is because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and then use it to grow new leaves, shoots and roots.However, vegetation can also release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. This can be caused by deforestation as well as climate-related factors, such as drought and wildfires. Africa holds one third of the world’s tropical rainforests. On top of this, 50% of the continent’s surface is covered by savannah – grasslands with sparsely distributed trees – and woodlands, forested areas that fall outside of humid zones. Despite this, data on the total amount of carbon held by African vegetation is scant.The new study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, aims to provide an overview of how sub-Saharan Africa’s vegetation carbon stocks changed between 2010 and 2016.  It finds that Africa’s green regions experienced an overall loss of 2.6bn tonnes of CO2 in the past seven years, with yearly losses averaging at 367m tonnes of CO2. “We find that severe droughts have caused huge carbon losses which are not restricted to rainforests but also happened in savannahs. Over the full period, losses in savannahs and woodlands were almost as high as in rainforests.”

              Forests burn across India as temperatures rise - The beginning of summer in India has arrived with a spate of forest fires across the country. Fires are raging in the dry deciduous forests of southern and western India. Sporadic fires have begun in the sub-tropical forests of the Himalayas as well.Even as the weathermen predict a scorching summer, 22 patches of forests are burning in the hilly state of Uttarakhand in northern India. The state made headlines in 2016 when 3500 hectares of forests were charred in a major fire outbreak. In the western state of Maharashtra, 1,500 forest fires were recorded in the past six weeks. Nearly a score of people have been killed in a massive forest fire in Tamil Nadu recently.With the weather becoming increasingly hotter due to climate change, it is likely that the forests will become less resilient to fires in the times to come.Warmer than normal temperatures are likely in all meteorological sub-divisions of the country, according to the seasonal outlook for temperatures during the hot weather season, released by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Pune. Average temperatures between March and May in the north-western and central India are likely to be above normal by more than one degree Celsius. “North and north-west region will be relatively warmer than the south in India. Also, what we are observing is that heat waves (number of days) are increasing and cold waves are decreasing since 1971. The observed trends are in tune with similar trends observed over various other parts of the world,” D.S. Pai, the scientist heading climate prediction of climate research division of IMD, told indialcimatedialogue.net. “The temperatures are increasing for forests as well.”

              Wind-fanned wildfires threaten to spread in parched Oklahoma - (Reuters) - Wildfires which have killed two people in western Oklahoma could spread and more could ignite as wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour whip an area where scant rain has fallen in five months, fire and forestry officials said on Tuesday. Several wildfires have begun in the past week, and the largest, dubbed the Rhea Fire, began on Thursday. By Tuesday it covered nearly 250,000 acres, in western Oklahoma, and was only 3 percent contained, said Shawna Hartman, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services. That fire last week consumed the home, barn and half of the small herd of cattle of Larry Lynes, 66, and his wife, Arlinda, 64, who live near Taloga, Oklahoma. “We didn’t have any time at all,” Arlinda Lynes said on Tuesday. “So I went in there and got photo albums from when the children were little and some papers off the desk.” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has declared a state of emergency for 52 of the state’s 77 counties because of the wildfires and critical conditions for more fires to start. d Western Oklahoma has had no significant rainfall in more than 150 days, while the relative humidity is extremely low, said Hartman. “This presents unprecedented conditions for this part of Oklahoma for sure,” Hartman said in a phone call. There was a “100 percent chance” that a spark would ignite if it flew into the state’s dry grasslands, she said, and any fire would spread rapidly because of the high winds. Later on Tuesday, new flames sprung up south of the western Oklahoma town of Seiling, Hartman said. Ryan Barnes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, said relief was several days away, with the heaviest rains forecast from Friday night into Saturday morning. 

              Why Is Oklahoma Burning? --Oklahoma’s third megafire in three years—the Rhea Fire, which has torched some 242,000 acres in less than a week—may grow even worse on Tuesday, as horrific fire weather conditions sweep in from New Mexico and west Texas. Relative humidity may drop as low as 3% in northwest OK, with temperatures expected to be well above 90°F and winds predicted to gust above 40 mph. The NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center has placed a huge swath of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma under an “extremely critical” fire weather threat for Tuesday. It’s the most dire rating of fire threat used by SPC, and the second extremely-critical day in the past week, following Friday, April 13. “Given dry fuels and ongoing drought, the stage will be set for fast-moving fires exhibiting extreme behavior,” warned SPC in the outlook issued at 1 am CDT Tuesday.  The storm system driving this threat, now barreling toward the Plains, won’t produce anywhere as much heavy precipitation as the behemoth that caused flash flooding along the East Coast and some of the heaviest snows on record in the Upper Midwest. Tuesday’s storm could be every bit as dangerous a fire-stoker, though. Winds ahead of the surface cold front gusted to 55 mph in Salt Lake City, Utah, pushing visibility down to 6 miles in blowing dust. (Hours later, it was snowing.) It seems that every year in Oklahoma now brings a megafire—defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as a wildfire that consumes more than 100,000 acres. In March 2016, it was the Anderson Creek Fire, which raced across the Oklahoma/Kansas border and torched a total of nearly 400,000 acres. (Even though only part of the fire was in Kansas, it still qualified as that state’s largest on record.) March 2017 brought the even-more-massive Northwest Oklahoma fire complex, which devoured more than 830,000 acres.  The sun-baked, wind-whipped Oklahoma landscape can dry out quickly in late winter or early spring. All it takes at that point is a day or two of extreme fire weather, and the main components are simple: strong winds and very low relative humidity (RH). You’ll often see very high temperatures accompanying these two, because dry air that flows downslope from the Southern Rockies, or that descends on the south side of a major spring storm system, warms up as it heads toward Oklahoma. Each of the big three fires in 2016, 2017, and 2018 has featured some variant of this hot, dry, windy pattern. Record highs have been in the mix, but it’s the very low RH (typically below 10%) and strong winds (usually gusting above 40 mph) that have the biggest impact on fire risk, just as they do in places like California.

              'Day zero' water crises: Spain, Morocco, India and Iraq at risk as reservoirs shrink - Shrinking reservoirs in Morocco, India, Iraq and Spain could spark the next “day zero” water crisis, according to the developers of a satellite early warning system for the world’s 500,000 dams.Cape Town recently grabbed global headlines by launching a countdown to the day when taps would be cut off to millions of residents as a result of a three-year drought. Drastic conservation measures have forestalled that moment in South Africa, but dozens of other countries face similar risks from rising demand, mismanagement and climate change, say the World Resources Institute (WRI). The starkest decline is that of Morocco’s second-largest reservoir, Al Massira, which has shrunk by 60% in three years due to recurring drought, expanding irrigation and the increasing thirst of neighbouring cities such as Casablanca. The last time the dam was so depleted, grain production fell by half and more than 700,000 people were affected, it said. .In Iraq, the Mosul Dam has seen a more protracted decline but it is also now down 60% from its peak in the 1990s as a result of low rainfall and competing demand from Turkish hydropower projects upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates. As in Syria and increasingly also Iraq, water stress has added to conflict and been a driver for relocations of people from the countryside. Tensions have also been apparent in India over the water allocations for two reservoirs connected by the Narmada river. Poor rains last year left the upstream Indira Sagar dam a third below its seasonal average. When some of this shortfall was passed on to the downstream Sardar Sarovar reservoir, it caused an uproar because the latter is a drinking supply for 30 million people. Last month, the Gujarat state government halted irrigation and appealed to farmers not to sow crops. Spain has suffered a severe drought that has contributed to a 60% shrinking of the surface area of the Buendia dam over the last five years. This has hit hydropower generation and pushed up electricity prices, but the agricultural knock-on effects are limited by the relatively small – 3% – contribution of farming to the nation’s GDP.

              Say Goodbye to Spring. Arctic Weather Drives Cold Across the U.S. - Your Spring Break is over. The calendar says it’s mid-April, but snow and ice may be headed for northern New York and New England later this week, according to Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. Places that had a nice, sunny day this past weekend probably won’t see warm temperatures again for at least several days. Blame the Arctic. Weather patterns up there haven’t been changing much, and that’s driving colder temperatures across most of North America. The only part of the U.S. that’s bucked that trend this month has been in the Southwest, where parts of California, New Mexico, Arizona and southern Utah have had above-average temperatures, Oravec said. Colder-than-normal temperatures will continue to grip most of the U.S. through this weekend, and may last through the end of April in the East, according to Bradley Harvey, lead meteorologist at forecaster Radiant Solutions. In Boston -- where marathon runners Monday braved frigid weather, driving rain and howling winds -- Thursday may only be a little bit nicer. Temperatures are expected to reach 44 degrees Fahrenheit, (6.7 Celsius), 13 below average, according to AccuWeather. And for anyone in New York City and other regions where temperatures zoomed this past Saturday and sun-starved residents flocked to parks and other outdoor spaces, well, hope you enjoyed it. “No matter what weather pattern you’re in, you can have breaks, and we had a temporary break,” Oravec said. “Now, we’re right back into our general below-average-temperature pattern.” 

              It’s the coldest and snowiest April on record near the Great Lakes, and residents are ‘fuming’ -  The Upper Midwest and Great Lakes have never seen an April like this. Extreme winter conditions have refused to relent even into the month’s second half, testing the patience of local residents. Scores of records for both snow and cold have fallen. Minneapolis; Madison, Wis.; and Marquette, Mich., are among the many towns and cities experiencing their coldest-ever April. And Minneapolis; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Green Bay, Wis., were recently dealt record snowfalls for the month. And, with the wintry pattern lingering for a few more days, more records for extreme winter weather are likely to fall. Winter weather advisories and winter storm warnings stretch from southwest South Dakota to southeast Wisconsin Wednesday as the latest storm dumps several additional inches of the snow on the winter-fatigued region. The cold and snow have been so persistent and disruptive that they are challenging the tenacity of Midwesterners, no strangers to long winters. “Here in Ann Arbor, the attitude is a collective fuming,” tweeted Micheline Maynard.   A viral video from Grand Rapids, Mich., shows a meteorologist unleashing an epic rant after his frustrated colleagues keep complaining about the forecast: 

              April 2018 ENSO update: what lurks beneath - La Niña conditions prevailed through March, but it’s very likely the great La Niña of 2017–18 is a sinking ship. ENSO-neutral conditions are expected to arrive within the next couple of months, meaning sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific will return to near the long-term average. The Niño3.4 Index, our very favorite measurement of the central Pacific sea surface temperature, was about 0.5°C cooler than average over the past week, according to the weekly OISST data set. This anomaly (the departure from the long-term average) is just on the border of neutral conditions: when the Niño3.4 Index is in between -0.5°C and 0.5°C. Of course, when we’re talking ENSO (the La Niña/El Niño system) we’re talking about longer than a week. When the Niño3.4 index has a monthly average warmer than -0.5°C, we’ll be back in neutral conditions. Most of the computer models are forecasting that this will happen during April–May, indicating that La Niña is likely breathing her last. As well, there are some physical factors providing confidence in this forecast—I’ll chomp into that a bit later. During March, the atmosphere over the tropical Pacific still looked mostly (but not entirely) La Niña-ish. Specifically, less rain than average was present around and to the east of the International Date Line, which is consistent with La Niña’s strengthened Walker Circulation.  . ENSO forecasters carefully monitor the temperature of the deeper Pacific Ocean, especially the upper 300 meters (about 1000 feet), between the Date Line and 100°W longitude in the eastern Pacific. These waters have been cooler-than-average since late last summer, but have been warming since about November, edging slightly warmer-than-average by the end of February, and continuing to increase during March. In fact, March’s average heat content anomaly was the highest since February 2016, during the last El Niño.This warmer-than-average blob has been slowly moving to the east under the surface for a few months now, in the form of a downwelling Kelvin wave. As this wave surfaces over the next few months, it’ll swallow the remaining cooler surface waters.

              San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble - San Francisco lives with the certainty that the Big One will come. But the city is also putting up taller and taller buildings clustered closer and closer together because of the state’s severe housing shortage. Now those competing pressures have prompted an anxious rethinking of building regulations. Experts are sending this message: The building code does not protect cities from earthquakes nearly as much as you might think.It’s been over a century — Wednesday marks the 112th anniversary — since the last devastating earthquake and subsequent inferno razed San Francisco. Witnesses on the morning of April 18, 1906, described the city’s streets as rising and falling like a ribbon carried by the wind.The violent shaking ignited a fire that lasted three days, destroying 500 city blocks and 28,000 buildings. Half of the population of around 400,000 was made homeless. Many were forced to flee the city.An airship captured the devastation in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. With the city leveled, Los Angeles quickly grew to capture San Francisco’s place as the premier city of the West.After decades of public hostility toward skyscrapers, the city has been advocating a more dense and more vertical downtown. San Francisco now has 160 buildings taller than 240 feet and a dozen more are planned or under construction.California has strict building requirements to protect schools and hospitals from a major earthquake. But not skyscrapers. A five-story building has the same strength requirements as a 50-story building.Yet skyscrapers cast a much broader shadow of risk across a city and their collapse or impairment could cause a cascade of consequences. How safe are San Francisco’s skyscrapers? Even the engineers who design them can’t provide exact answers. Earthquakes are too unpredictable. And too few major cities have been tested by major temblors.

              Gigantic water tunnels won’t save Houston from the next Harvey - Houston is just seven months removed from the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history. With this year’s hurricane season just a few weeks away, it’s worth remembering that it’s only a matter of time before the next big flood. So Houston needs a plan for what to do about its ever-wetter reality as soon as possible. The question is, which plan? There are basically two paths to take: Embrace the floods, plan for the long term, and sketch out a different vision of life in a megacity built on a swamp. Or double down and start an arms race to battle the sky. So far, it looks like Houston is choosing option No. 2. The Harris County Flood Control District, the agency tasked with managing the area around Houston, is considering a gargantuan infrastructure plan to reduce the threat of future flooding. It would involve drilling massive stormwater tunnels 100 to 200 feet below the ground to funnel water directly to the Gulf of Mexico through a system of pumps. The idea isn’t winning over many urban planners, though. “This strategy is like dumping water from an overflowing bathtub right back into the bathtub,” says Monica Rokicki-Guajardo, an urban design consultant who until recently was based at the University of Houston. What’s needed is an expansion of official flood zones to reflect the best available current science, buying out private property in the expanding flood plains, and embracing a soggy future. That approach, too, is getting support from the county but not nearly enough. Most importantly, a good plan needs to make sure that limited funds are justly distributed to the communities of color and low-income families most burdened with a structural problem not of their own making. Last month, Harris county officials approved more than $100,000 to study the tunnels project, which would cost billions of dollars and take years to construct. The idea has the support of the city’s Republican member of Congress and his Democratic challenger. Elon Musk also quickly chimed in his enthusiasm on behalf of his tunnel-drilling company, because of course he did.

              Miami is racing against time to keep up with sea-level rise -  Manolo Pedraza lives in Shorecrest, a northern Miami neighborhood that faces flooding so regularly it happens even when it hasn’t rained. All it takes to fill the streets to knee-high depth on those days is a full moon. The flood comes up through storm drains, making it impossible to navigate without encountering the water, which is mixed with sewage and whatever else it picked up along the way.  The “sunny day flooding,” as it’s known, is consistent enough that you can look at a calendar and a tide chart to plan a trip around it. High tides, caused by interactions between the sun, moon, Earth, and oceans, are behind the flooding. I visited during what are often the highest tides of the year, known as king tides.  Miami “is kind of the poster child for a major city in big trouble,” said Jeff Goodell, author of " The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World."  Beyond the damage to homes, roads, or other infrastructure, the flooding also threatens drinking water and plant life. Ultimately, of course, it means large parts of the city could become permanently uninhabitable. That means the rest of the US should be paying close attention to how Miami handles its struggle against sea-level rise in the coming years. It could provide a window into the future for other large coastal urban areas. The Netherlands has been holding back the oceans for decades and is exporting its knowledge to cities such as New Orleans. But the Dutch have been building on land reclaimed from the sea. In Miami it’s a different situation. You can break the major water challenges that the region is facing into three parts, or “whammies,”  The first is sea-level rise. Because of ocean currents and Miami’s location, sea levels are rising in and around the city and Miami Beach faster than in most of the world.  The second problem facing South Florida is a vexing geological one.  The solid ground under South Florida — Miami, Miami Beach, the Keys, and much of the rest of the peninsula — is mostly limestone made of compressed ancient reefs that are full of tiny holes. That means salty water is rising up through the ground itself, not just in the waters surrounding Florida. Obeysekera said the third whammy, the effect of future storms, is still an unknown. The consequences of a warmer world on hurricane season are uncertain, but many scientists agree that we can expect storms to be more intense, which could mean higher storm surges and more rainfall.

              Atlantic ‘conveyor belt’ has slowed by 15% since mid-20th century - The Atlantic Ocean current that brings warm water up to Europe from the tropics has weakened by 15% since the middle of the last century, new research suggests. Two studies, published in the journal Nature, use different approaches to show that the “Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation” (AMOC) is in a weaker state now than it has been for decades – and possibly even centuries. The two studies differ on when and how they think the weakening was triggered. While one suggests it began in the mid-20th century as a response to human-caused climate change, the second proposes that it began a hundred years earlier following a natural shift in regional climate.Despite the debate on when the weakening started, the studies agree that there has been a “continued decline in AMOC over the 20th century that may be attributed to recent global warming and melting of the Greenland ice sheet”, one author tells Carbon Brief. The Atlantic Ocean plays host to a perpetual conveyor belt that transports heat from the equator up to the North Atlantic. The graphic below shows the two main features of the AMOC: the first is the flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the ocean northwards from the Gulf of Mexico (red line). This is also known as the “Gulf Stream”. The second is the cooling and freshening of water in the high latitudes of the Atlantic, which then sinks and returns southwards towards the equator at much deeper depths (blue line). The AMOC forms part of a wider network of global ocean circulations patterns that transports heat all around the world. The warm water that the AMOC carries northwards releases heat into the atmosphere, which means it plays a crucial role in keeping Western Europe warm. Without it, for example, winters in the UK would be around 5C colder. Any changes to the AMOC could have serious implications for Europe’s weather and a knock-on effect on global climate.

              Avoid Gulf stream disruption at all costs, scientists warn - Serious disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean currents that are crucial in controlling global climate must be avoided “at all costs”, senior scientists have warned. The alert follows the revelation this week that the system is at its weakest ever recorded.Past collapses of the giant network have seen some of the most extreme impacts in climate history, with western Europe particularly vulnerable to a descent into freezing winters. A significantly weakened system is also likely to cause more severe storms in Europe, faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa. The new research worries scientists because of the huge impact global warming has already had on the currents and the unpredictability of a future “tipping point”. The currents that bring warm Atlantic water northwards towards the pole, where they cool, sink and return southwards, is the most significant control on northern hemisphere climate outside the atmosphere. But the system, formally called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), has weakened by 15% since 1950, thanks to melting Greenland ice and ocean warming making sea water less dense and more buoyant.This represents a massive slowdown – equivalent to halting all the world’s rivers three times over, or stopping the greatest river, the Amazon, 15 times. Such weakening has not been seen in at least the last 1,600 years, which is as far back as researchers have analysed so far. Furthermore, the new analyses show the weakening is accelerating. “From the study of past climate, we know changes in the Amoc have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate,” said Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the world’s leading oceanographers, who led some of the new research. During the last Ice Age, winter temperatures changed by up to 10C within three years in some places. “We are dealing with a system that in some aspects is highly non-linear, so fiddling with it is very dangerous, because you may well trigger some surprises,” he said. “I wish I knew where this critical tipping point is, but that is unfortunately just what we don’t know. We should avoid disrupting the Amoc at all costs.”

              “It’s The Gulf Stream, Stupid!” Climate Scientists Warn Tipping Point Is Near. -- While the world is absorbed in high dramas about trade wars, Syrian chemical attacks, whether Germany can extend the lifetime of diesel-powered cars, or the latest tweet from the White House, we are missing the implications of what is happening in the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf Stream — known officially as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC for short — is slowing down. In fact, it is at its lowest level in the past 1,600 years according to the data those scientists have available to them. The Gulf Stream pumps billions of gallons of warm water northward from the equator along the east coast of the United States before turning east toward Europe. Take away that heat and Europe becomes up to 10ºC cooler in winter, parts of Africa become more arid, and sea level rise along the eastern seaboard of the United States increases. Flow in the Gulf Stream is down 15% since 1950. How much water is that? It is equivalent to 15 Amazon rivers and 3 times more than all the rivers on Earth combined. That, friends, is a tipping point — a clear demarcation between “then” and “now.” “From the study of past climate, we know changes in the AMOC have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate,” Professor Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, tells The Guardian. One of the world’s leading oceanographers, he notes that winter temperatures changed by as much as 10ºC during the last Ice Age — a time that coincides with reduced AMOC activity. The change is driven primarily by melting ice in the Greenland and the Arctic adding more cold water to the Gulf Stream.The results could be catastrophic for Europe. Not only will winters become significantly colder, but heat waves in the summer will also be more frequent. Hello? Is this not precisely what happened on the continent in the past 12 months?! Is anyone listening?! Does anyone care?! What’s that? What about Hillary’s emails? Never mind. Go back to sleep. Nothing to see here. Move along.

              Great Barrier Reef at ‘Unprecedented’ Risk of Collapse After Major Bleaching Event -  The record-breaking marine heatwave in 2016 across the Great Barrier Reef has left much of the coral ecosystem at an "unprecedented" risk of collapse, research shows.A new study published in Nature finds that the surge in sea temperatures during the 2016 bleaching event led to an immediate and long-lasting die-off of coral.This, in turn, led to vast swathes of the reef being transformed into "highly altered, degraded systems," which are now vulnerable to total "ecological collapse," the authors conclude.The large-scale loss of coral is a "harbinger of further radical shifts in the condition and dynamics of all ecosystems," they add, "if global action on climate change fails to limit warming to 1.5-2C above the pre-industrial baseline."  The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, stretching 2,300km from Papua New Guinea to the coast of Queensland, Australia. Over the past two decades, the Great Barrier Reef has seen four mass bleaching events, most recently in 2016 and 2017 . Coral bleaching is primarily caused by prolonged exposure to high sea temperatures. Under continued heat stress, the corals expel the tiny colorful algae living in their tissues—known as zooxanthellae —leaving behind a stark white skeleton .  The algae provide the corals with energy through photosynthesis. Without them, the corals can slowly starve . Healthy corals can live from two to several hundred years .The mass bleaching event of 2016, which took place in the summer months of February, March and April, was the most devastating on record, affecting 94 percent of reefs surveyed.The new study estimates how heat exposure during this event affected the survival of coral and the make-up of species across the reef in the months that followed.It finds that, after the event, many temperature-sensitive corals died suddenly as a result of heat stress, while others slowly starved over the course of several months. The paper concludes:"The die-off of corals drove a radical shift in the composition and functional traits of swaths of the Great Barrier Reef from mature and diverse assemblages to highly altered, degraded systems."

               Global warming has changed the Great Barrier Reef ‘forever,’ scientists say - Two years after a long-lasting undersea heat wave scalded large sections of the Great Barrier Reef, scientists have found that because so many corals died, much of the reef has probably been altered “forever.”“What we just experienced is one hell of a natural selection event,” said Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland. In a notably blunt study in the journal Nature — laden with words like “unprecedented,” “radical” and “catastrophic” — Hughes and 15 colleagues report that in 2016 alone, about 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were lost, with the most severe damage in the isolated northern sector. (In 2017, another ocean heat wave claimed another roughly 20 percent of corals, Hughes said.) Many corals died faster than expected and at a lower level of sustained heat than had been predicted to be deadly.The researchers add that since losses in certain species were much greater than in others, the entire ecological identity of much of the reef system has probably changed. In particular, elaborate branching corals that provide key fish habitat are being replaced by bulky, less intricate “dome-shaped” corals, Hughes said. Because it takes about 10 years for even the fastest growing corals to recover, the study warns that there is probably no reversing the sweeping change to the most damaged sectors of the world’s largest barrier reef. Not before yet another bleaching event occurs. That certainly doesn’t mean the end of the reef as a whole. The south, in particular, escaped much of the bleaching in 2016 and 2017. But it does mean that much of the reef will probably shift into a new ecological state with a less diverse, but more resilient, set of corals. “The 2016 marine heatwave has triggered the initial phase of that transition on the northern, most-pristine region of the Great Barrier Reef, changing it forever as the intensity of global warming continues to escalate,” reads the study, written by scientists from numerous Australian institutions as well as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hughes and his colleagues have been directly studying this extreme die-off at the reef since its beginning during the 2016 El Nino event, when they took observations through aircraft surveys and dives, revealing scenes like this:

              ‘Ghost net’ found off Cayman - Fishermen made the horrific find of hundreds of dead fish and sharks tangled in an abandoned net drifting off Grand Cayman on Monday. The “ghost net” may have been floating for several months, trapping and killing everything in its path, according to marine researchers. The Cayman Islands Department of Environment scrambled the mosquito plane for a reconnaissance mission and issued an alert to all boaters Tuesday in an effort to relocate and potentially recover the net. Dominick Martin-Mayes, one of the fishermen who made the initial discovery, said there were potentially 30 or more sharks trapped in the tangle of weighted netting that spanned 40 feet across and an estimated 40 feet deep. He said some of the animals caught in the net were so badly decomposed, it was impossible to tell what species they were. Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said the marine growth on the net and the amount of creatures caught up in it suggested it had been floating for some time. “If we can locate it, we can assess whether we can recover it or tow it somewhere to secure it till it can be dealt with safely,” he said. “We don’t want it to end up in the reef and we need to stop its deadly ghost fishing.” 

              India has banned all forms of disposable plastic in its capital - Thirty-two percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging we produce annually flows into our oceans. That's the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every minute. According to the India Times, India is responsible for an astonishing 60% of the plastic that is dumped in the world’s oceans every year. The country has become so concerned with its waste problem that the National Green Tribunal has introduced a ban on disposable plastic in the capital city. It is now no longer permitted to use plastic bags, chai cups and cutlery in Delhi. But that isn’t the only issue that led to the ban. It was introduced as a result of complaints about the illegal mass-burning of plastic and other waste at three local rubbish dumps, which has been blamed for causing air pollution. India is one of the danger spots for pollution, according to WHO figures.   Another study estimates that the fine particles generated from commercial and residential energy use, including waste burning, contribute the most to pollution-associated premature deaths globally, especially in India.  According to Greenpeace, India is leading the charge against plastic. While many places around the world already ban plastic bags, India’s bans are all-encompassing.  In Karnataka, a state in the south-west of the country, no wholesale dealer, retailer or trader can now use or sell plastic carrier bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic spoons or plastic wrap, says Greenpeace.

              Alarming photos of the uninhabited island that's home to 37 million pieces of trash - A small island smack in the middle of the South Pacific has never been inhabited by people — and yet, its white sand beaches are home to more than 37 million pieces of junk.Every day on Henderson Island — one of the most remote places on Earth — trash from every continent except Antarctica washes up its shores. Fishing nets and floats, water bottles, and plastics break into small particles against the rocks and sand.In 2015, Jennifer Lavers, a researcher at the University of Tasmania, traveled to Henderson in an effort to document the extent of plastics pollution. Her research paper has since gone viral. Lavers shared images from her trip with us. According to Lavers, major currents carry bits of plastic across oceans. When a shoreline interrupts a current's path, the junk settles there. These materials are made brittle by radiation from the sun and easily break when they crash against hard objects like sand and rocks. Lavers and her expedition team set out to count all the trash on the island.Three and a half months later, Lavers' team counted 53,000 pieces of human-made debris. By their calculations, Henderson's 14 square miles contains more than 37 million pieces of trash.

              Indonesia Calls in the Army to Fight Plastic Enemy - In March, a diver's video of masses of plastic floating off the Indonesian coast went viral . But that plastic often reaches the ocean through the country's rivers, clogging them to such an extent that Indonesia had to call in the army, the BBC reported Thursday. The BBC spent time on the ground in Bandung, Indonesia's third largest city, and observed a concentration of bottles, plastic bags and styrofoam packaging so large it looked like an iceberg. Reporters watched the army attempt to clear the river by riding a barge and removing debris with nets, but as they cleared, more trash would flow from upstream.The soldiers filmed by the BBC had intended to load the plastic they collected onto trucks, but the trucks never arrived, so the soldiers used a digger to push it further downstream, where it would swamp the cleanup efforts of others."My current enemy is not a combat enemy, what I am fighting very hard now is rubbish, it is our biggest enemy," army Sergeant Sugito told the BBC.  Indonesia is one of five Asian countries that accounts for 60 percent of the plastic entering the world's oceans,a 2015 study found . Another 2017 study found that 86 percent of the plastic currently flushed through the world's rivers came from Asian countries, including Indonesia. The huge quantities of plastic pollution are the result of economic growth and increased quality of life in these countries, which have meant that waste collection has not kept pace with changing consumption patterns.

              'A Scourge on Our Seas': UK Government Takes Aim at Single-Use Plastics - The UK government announced plans Wednesday to end to the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs in England."Single-use plastics are a scourge on our seas and lethal to our precious environment and wildlife so it is vital we act now," Environment Secretary Michael Gove said. "We have already banned harmful microbeads and cut plastic bag use, and now we want to take action on straws, stirrers and cotton buds to help protect our marine life.""We've already seen a number of retailers, bars and restaurants stepping up to the plate and cutting plastic use, however it's only through government, businesses and the public working together that we will protect our environment for the next generation—we all have a role to play in turning the tide on plastic," Gove added.The British government said it will work with manufacturers to develop alternatives to for the items and ensure there is sufficient time to adapt. It will also propose excluding plastic straws for medical reasons. The move follows the Scottish government, which announced plans in January to outlaw plastic cotton buds . The next month, Scotland announced intentions to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019.

              Theresa May's new plastic crusade to ban plastic drinking straws | Daily Mail Online: A total ban on plastic cotton buds, straws and drink stirrers will be announced by Theresa May today.Declaring war on our throwaway culture, the Prime Minister will unveil measures to protect the oceans.‘We are clogging up one of the earth’s greatest natural resources with harmful plastic and – for the sake of this and future generations – we must take action now,’ she writes in today’s Daily Mail.She also praises this newspaper’s Great Plastic Pick Up campaign, which has seen 4,000 readers sign up for 200 community litter clearing events next month. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been pushing for plastic straws to be outlawed. But today’s announcement goes much further by extending the ban to cotton buds and stirrers. Ministers believe this would be more effective than trying to change consumer behaviour through taxation. The Treasury will still press on with plans for levies on other single-use plastic items, such as cups, bottles and packaging. Sources said there was no reason why business could not switch to biodegradable alternatives, such as paper straws, wooden drink stirrers and paper-stemmed buds. The Government said it would consult with industry and give firms ‘sufficient time to adapt’ before imposing the ban, which is unlikely to come into force until next year.

              Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles - Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process. “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

               Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales - Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales . On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.The whaling company Hvalur hf, whose name means "Whale, Inc." in Icelandic, announced Tuesday it would resume its killing of endangered fin whales after a two-year hiatus. The Icelandic government will allow Hvalur to kill 161 fin whales, as well as allow it to use 20 percent of its self-allocated and unused quota from last year, which means up to 191 whales could be killed . And all of this killing will happen in defiance of the International Whaling Commission's global moratorium on commercial whaling.Iceland's decision will rightly cause outrage all over the world, and the country's government should really know better.Hvalur is a 70-year-old killing enterprise, owned by a wealthy citizen with outsized influence in the Land of Fire and Ice. And Hvalur is the principal reason why this otherwise ecologically responsible nation continues to support an ecologically irresponsible practice.The fin whale, our planet's second largest animal after the blue whale, is classified as a globally endangered species . During its last hunt, in 2015, Hvalur killed 155 of them. Then the company took two years off apparently because of a declining market for whale meat in Japan. The commercial whaling industry in Iceland also hunts minke whales in defiance of the moratorium.

              Antarctic Glaciers Lost Stunning Amount of Ground in Recent Years - An ambitious new mapping project has given scientists one of their most complete looks yet at the movement of glaciers all around Antarctica.The key finding: Far more glaciers are losing ground than gaining ice.The study fuels a growing concern among scientists about the factors affecting the Antarctic ice sheet—namely, that warm ocean waters are helping to melt glaciers and drive greater levels of ice loss, particularly in West Antarctica.“The strong impact of ocean onto Antarctic ice sheet dynamics, or the knowledge that we have about it, is reinforced by our study,” said lead study author Hannes Konrad of the University of Leeds in an interview with E&E News.The research, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, focuses on Antarctica’s marine-terminating glaciers, or glaciers that back directly up to the ocean. These glaciers are typically all structured in a similar way.The ice rests on top of the ground and remains connected to the bedrock up to a point known as the grounding line. At the grounding line, the ice detaches from the bedrock and juts out into the water as a kind of floating ledge, or ice shelf, which helps to stabilize the glacier and hold back the flow of ice behind it. Meanwhile, ocean water seeps beneath the ice shelf and washes up against the base of the glacier. The position of the grounding line can tell scientists a lot about the stability of any given glacier and its potential to contribute to sea-level rise. If the ice at the bottom of a glacier melts, the point where it connects to the bedrock moves backward, farther inland, losing ice to the ocean in the process. As this happens, the floating ice shelf in front of it also lengthens and thins, increasing its chances of breaking and allowing even more ice to flow out from behind it.

               Antarctica is turning into a snow globe because the Earth is warming --The world has been warming for at least two centuries, and it’s turning Antarctica into a veritable snow globe.Scientists this week (April 9) announced new evidence (pdf) showing the amount of snowfall on the Great White Continent has grown over time. The findings were presented (pdf) at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, where researchers revealed that annual snowfall has increased by about 10% since the early 1800s.That’s a lot of snow. About 272 metric gigatons more snow fell in Antarctica each year between 2001 and 2010 than in the years between 1801 and 1810, according to researchers. That’s enough to fill the Dead Sea two times.It may sound odd to hear news of more snow during a time when scientists keep uncovering more evidence that polar ice caps are melting, raising sea levels around the world. But it makes sense, and it’s not a good sign for the Earth. Warmer temperatures mean more moisture in the air, which creates better conditions for snow over Antarctica. So really, this is a sign of the same climate problems causing droughts, storms, and floods.The findings may help answer a question scientists have had about the impact of snowfall on rapid climate change. Plainly put, would more snowfall in Antarctica slow the rise of sea levels by trapping water in the form of snow? The answer: Probably not. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature suggested more snow correlated with an increase in the rate at which ice breaks and floats away.

              Activist lawyer burned himself to death to protest global warming --  A “green” activist who was a pioneering lawyer for gay and transgender rights — including in the notorious “Boys Don’t Cry” rape murder case — committed suicide by setting himself on fire Saturday morning in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in a grisly act of protest against the ecological destruction of the Earth.David Buckel, 60, left behind a charred corpse and a typed suicide note that said he was burning himself to death using “fossil fuel” to reflect how mankind was likewise killing itself, police sources said.He left the note in a manila envelope marked “To The Police,” recovered from inside a black metal pushcart he discarded at the scene. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” Buckel wrote in his note, which he also sent to the New York Times.“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”He added, “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.”  Passers-by were horrified to see Buckel’s burned remains.  “It’s a shock; it’s a shame,” said mom Dana Lall as she shepherded a crowd of Catholic-school kids past the horrific scene, en route to a baseball game.

              Britain to review its climate targets - government minister (Reuters) - Britain will review its climate targets to see whether they need to be strengthened to fit with the aims of an international climate accord, Britain’s energy minister said on Tuesday. “We will be seeking the advice of the UK’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, on the implications of the Paris Agreement for the UK’s long-term emissions reduction targets,” Claire Perry said Perry is Britain’s minister for energy and clean growth and made the comments during a speech as part of this week’s Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London Britain has a legally binding target to cut emissions by 80 percent on 1990 levels by 2050 Experts have warned this will not be enough to put the country on a path to help limit a rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, as agreed by more than 190 nations in Paris in 2015. Britain’s review of its targets will take place after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a report later this year on the potential impact of global warming above 1.5 degrees, Perry said.

                Kids are suing Gov. Rick Scott to force Florida to take action on climate change -Florida Gov. Rick Scott doesn't talk about climate change. He notoriously declared "I'm not a scientist" when asked his thoughts on humanity's well-documented impact on the warming planet, banned the phrase in his administration (a charge he denies) and backed up President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. On Monday, an unusual group sued Scott for ignoring the climate threat: Kids.Eight young Florida residents — the youngest is 10, the oldest is 20, and one is a University of Miami marine science student— are the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks to force a state extremely vulnerable to climate-driven sea rise to start work on a court-ordered, science-based "Climate Recovery Plan." The group is represented by Our Children's Trust, an Oregon-based organization sponsoring similar suits from children around the country at the state and federal level. The original case based on the same arguments, Juliana vs. United States, was filed in 2015 against the federal government. It might sound like a legal stunt, but a federal judge found the argument sound enough to send the case to trial in October. Delaney Reynolds, an 18-year-old who attends UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said she contacted the group when she heard about the case against the federal government and found the organization was already planning one against Florida. She agreed to join seven other plaintiffs, including one of the plaintiffs on the federal case, 10-year-old Levi Draheim.

              Gowdy mocks Pruitt's travel spending: Maybe he should become ‘a monk’ instead | TheHill: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) on Sunday mocked Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt's insistence on traveling first-class due to security concerns, saying he should consider becoming a monk if he doesn't want people to be mean to him. "If you sit first-class, you're guaranteed to come into contact with everybody else on the plane. If you really want to avoid everybody on the plane, sit in the last seat, not the first seat," Gowdy told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday.""I'd be shocked if that many people knew who Scott Pruitt was, so the notion that 'I’ve got to fly first class because I don’t want people to be mean to me' — you need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you. Like maybe a monk," he continued. Pruitt has been embroiled in a series of controversies involving excessive spending. The EPA confirmed last month that Pruitt's security detail has accompanied him in first-class on past flights. "These circumstances include, but are not limited to, situations when the '[use] of coach-class accommodations would endanger [one's] life or Government property' or an agent on protective detail is 'accompanying an individual authorized to use other than coach-class accommodations,' " EPA Associate Administrator Troy Lyons wrote in a letter to Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Protective Service Detail has identified specific, ongoing threats associated with the Administrator's air travel and, therefore, shifted his class based on certain security protocols that require him to be near the front of the plane," the letter said. "This location allows the Administrator's security agents to expeditiously exit with him upon the occurrence of a threat." 

              Pruitt upgraded to a larger, customized SUV with bullet-resistant seat covers -  Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt upgraded his official car last year to a costlier, larger vehicle with bullet-resistant covers over bucket seats, according to federal records and interviews with current and former agency officials. Recent EPA administrators had traveled in a Chevrolet Tahoe, and agency officials had arranged for Pruitt to use the same vehicle when he joined the administration in February last year. But he switched to a larger, newer and more high-end Chevy Suburban in June. One former EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said Pruitt remarked that he wanted the larger car because it was similar to ones in which some other Cabinet officials rode. The first year’s lease of the vehicle cost $10,200, according to federal contracting records. The records show the EPA administrator’s office signed a lease in June on the Suburban, paying more than $300 extra per month for upgrades such as a leather interior, bucket seats in the second row and WiFi and GPS navigation. A representative at the Maryland-based company who provided the lease said the LT model that the EPA requested represents an upgrade from the LS model that is typical on government leases. The monthly payment on the vehicle is $839, according to the contract. The head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, subsequently approved the addition of Kevlar-like seat coverings to the vehicle at a cost of hundreds of dollars, according to one official, on the grounds that it served as a security precaution. Two current EPA officials confirmed both the rental of the Suburban and the seat covers. 

              EPA Defends Scott Pruitt’s Multiple Email Addresses As ‘Standard Practice Since Clinton’  - HuffPost - The Environmental Protection Agency defended embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt against Republican criticism Tuesday over his use of multiple email addresses, insisting it was “standard practice since the Clinton administration.” In an email sent Thursday under that subject line, Jahan Wilcox, a top agency spokesman, said Pruitt only used one of his four email accounts for correspondence, while the others were used to receive emails from the general public and allow staff to manage his calendar. The fourth address, he said, was deleted. Pruitt’s email accounts, revealed five days ago by The Washington Post, raised concerns that the EPA failed to disclose emails linked to the secret accounts in public records requests. The controversy added to the rapidly cascading series of corruption scandals and ethical lapses that have caused dozens of Democrats and at least three Republican members of Congress to call for his resignation. Wilcox listed the four email addresses Gina McCarthy, Pruitt’s predecessor, used, and linked to a 2012 Politico story detailing a controversy over former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s secondary email address. In that article, officials from former President George W. Bush’s administration said the “arrangement is nothing new.” But that didn’t quell concerns from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a staunch supporter of the Trump administration’s environmental agenda, who asked the Pruitt to “affirm that the EPA does in fact search all your official email accounts when responding to FOIA requests” in a letter sent to the administrator Friday. “During your confirmation hearing, I specifically asked you to ‘refrain from taking any action — that makes it difficult or impossible for the public to access your official written communications under the Freedom of Information Act,’ ” Barrasso wrote to Pruitt, according to a transcript published by The Hill and The Washington Post. “You agreed to my request.” 

              Record Number of Lawmakers Sign Resolution Calling for Pruitt's Resignation - A group of 39 senators and 131 representatives signed a resolution calling for the "immediate resignation" ofScott Pruitt , the scandal-plagued U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) administrator.The document represents a record number of senators to formally demand a cabinet official to step down. The resolution comes in the wake of Pruitt's growing list of controversies: his request for a $43,000 sound-proof phone booth violated federal law; his $50-a-night stay at a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist; his questionable use of taxpayer money for first-class and charter flights , as well as a 'round-the-clock security detail ; and reports that he gave large pay raises to his closest aides.That's not to mention Pruitt's continued efforts to dismantle the legacy of the very agency he heads.Per the resolution, "T he Agency is hemorrhaging staff and experts needed to protect the health, safety, and livelihood of mil lions of people of the United States, with more than 700 employees of the Agency having left or been forced out of the Agency during his tenure as Administrator.""By delaying the effective date of regulations, easing enforcement of existing regulations, and delaying implementation of new regulations, Administrator Pruitt is helping polluters at the expense of the health, safety, and livelihood of millions of people of the United States," it adds. No Republicans added their name to the document, even though Republican Reps. Elise Stefanik (NY), Carlos Curbelo (FL) and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (FL.) have previously called for Pruitt's resignation or firing.

              Farm state senators demand answers from Scott Pruitt on ethanol waivers -  A bipartisan group of farm state senators on Tuesday accused Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt of breaking the law and violating President Trump's commitment to the nation's ethanol mandate.The EPA has been granting waivers to oil refiners recently to avoid meeting the nation's Renewable Fuel Standard.“We are writing to you regarding the actions the Environmental Protection Agency has taken to undermine commitments President Trump made on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to our constituents,” according to a letter led by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “Recent reports indicate dozens of small refiner waivers have been secretly granted to large, multibillion-dollar companies under the guise of the small refinery hardship exemption provision in section 211(o)(9) of the Clean Air Act. This is extremely concerning to us,” the letter stated.Grassley and Klobuchar were joined by Republican Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Deb Fischer, R-Neb., John Thune, R-S.D., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.The Democrats on the letter included Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.,and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. The ethanol industry and lawmakers began raising concerns about the EPA's moves last week after Reuters disclosed that refinery giant Andeavor, the fifth largest refiner in the nation, was given a hardship waiver by the EPA for three of its smallest refineries. Since then, the EPA's actions have snowballed, the senators say.

              State energy leader named deputy assistant secretary in US Department of Energy - A visible face in Ohio's energy industry has been named to a high-level position in the U.S. Department of Energy. Shawn Bennett has been named deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas in the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, the agency announced Monday. This is one of four deputy assistant secretary roles that reports to Steven Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy.  Bennett has been in pubic affairs and government relations for more than 10 years and was most recently executive vice president for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the state's trade organization for oil and gas producers, which has 2,000 members across the industry. Bennett had been right-hand man to longtime leader Tom Stewart and replaced him after he retired in 2014.Bennett, who has a degree from Ohio University, was director of strategic communications at FTI Consulting from 2011 to 2014, and before that was government affairs manager for the Ohio Coal Association.In this new role, Bennett will administer oil and gas programs including research and development, analysis and natural gas regulation. His position oversees the offices of research, regulation and international engagement, and technology transfer. He had previously said the administration of President Donald Trump could mean streamlined approval processes for energy projects in the state.

              Global shipping in 'historic' climate deal - BBC News: The global shipping industry has for the first time agreed to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases. The move comes after talks all week at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London. Shipping has previously been excluded from climate agreements, but under the deal, emissions will be reduced by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. One minister from a Pacific island state described the agreement as "history in the making". Shipping generates roughly the same quantity of greenhouse gas as Germany and, if it were accounted for as a nation, would rank as the world's sixth biggest emitter. Like aviation, it had been excluded from climate negotiations because it is an international activity while both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement involved national pledges to reduce greenhouse gases.The United States, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and a few other countries had not wanted to see a target for cutting shipping emissions at all. By contrast the European Union, including Britain, and small island states had pushed for a cut of 70-100%. So the deal for a 50% reduction is a compromise which some argue is unrealistic while others say does not far enough. Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization, who had chaired the controversial talks, said: "This initial strategy is not a final statement but a key starting point." The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands had opened the conference with a plea for action. Although it has the world's second largest register of shipping, it had warned that failure to achieve deep cuts would threaten the country's survival as global warming

              Warming climate to nearly double demand for cooling appliances -  The biggest energy demand for cooling comes from air conditioning to keep people comfortable, but it is also essential for stopping food from going to waste and protecting medicines.  A burgeoning middle class and a warming world will result in energy demand for cooling overtaking that for heating by the middle of the century, researchers have predicted.Energy use for air conditioning, refrigeration and other cooling appliances will jump 90% on 2017 levels, experts estimated, posing a challenge for energy grids and efforts to curb climate change.The University of Birmingham said the rise would come even with conservative estimates of how much demand for cooling was likely to increase in China, India and hotter countries. “Cooling just really isn’t part of the big debate. And yet we lose 200m tonnes of food each year because of a lack of cooling. That has massive repercussions,” said Toby Peters, a professor in power and cold economy, working at the university, who is also part of the Birmingham Energy Institute.The institute will host the first ever conference on “clean cold” on Wednesday, exploring how to tackle the problem and boost the 0.2% of energy R&D budgets spend on cooling.Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser and top climate adviser to the Foreign Office, said cooling was critically important. “In terms of energy usage, this is a major issue,” he told the Guardian.The biggest energy demand for cooling comes from air conditioning to keep people comfortable, but it is also essential for stopping food from going to waste and protecting medicines. While air conditioning in UK homes is a rarity today, Peters said it was a question of when, not if, the technology became normal for householders.

              Puerto Rico’s blackout is now the second largest on record worldwide - A new report from the Rhodium Group on Puerto Rico’s ongoing blackout has found that Hurricane Maria has spawned the second-largest power outage in the world on record. The only event to have a bigger impact on electricity service was Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest tropical storms ever to make landfall and the deadliest storm ever to hit the Philippines: And the blackout in Puerto Rico is still far from over. More than 200 days since the Hurricane Maria’s 150 mph winds and 36 inches of rainfall knocked over 80 percent of the island’s power lines, thousands of Puerto Ricans are still in the dark.The reconstruction of the power grid — bottlenecked by bureaucracy, outdated laws, and potentially corruption — has been unbearably slow. And just this week, we saw some of that progress frustratingly recede as a tree fell on a crucial power line, knocking out power to 840,000 people. But even before this latest setback, there were still more than 60,000 customers who didn’t have power as of last week (“customer” generally refers to households, which often have several residents). So that means more than 100,000 people haven’t had electricity since last September.

              Puerto Rico is Once Again Hit by an Islandwide Blackout - — After seven months and close to $2.5 billion, almost everybody in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico had their lights back on — until a freak accident on Wednesday plunged the entire island once again into darkness.The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had boasted Wednesday morning that less than 3 percent of its customers remained without power, substantially concluding what some estimates called the biggest power failure in United States history. The island of 3.4 million residents was open for business again, government officials said. It was only a few hours later that an excavator working near a fallen 140-foot transmission tower on the southern part of the island got too close to a high-voltage line. The resulting electrical fault knocked out power to nearly every home and business across the storm-battered American territory, authorities said, a catastrophic failure that could take up to 36 hours to restore. It was the first time since Hurricane Maria left the island’s power grid in ruins on Sept. 20 that nearly all of the electric company’s 1.5 million customers found themselves in the dark, although another failure less than a week ago had cut power to 870,000 users. Only small pockets generated by microgrids were spared by the latest power loss. “I’m angry. This is the second time in a row,” Justo González, the electric company’s chief operating officer, said in a telephone interview. “I give the people of Puerto Rico my word: we are going to restore power to every last house.” Puerto Rican residents, largely resigned to the continuing disruptions, did not seem convinced.  “You go three months without electricity and you think you’re getting back to normalcy, and this happens again.”   The utility company scrambled to restore service to the airport, major hospitals and a stadium hosting a Major League Baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins. But by the close of business on Wednesday, only 51,000 customers had power again — including the baseball stadium.

              The whole island of Puerto Rico went dark for the first time since Hurricane Maria - On Monday, the island’s power utility boasted that it had restored electricity to 97 percent of customers. Two days later, the precarious electric grid collapsed, plunging the entire island into a blackout for the first time in seven months.“Back to September 20th,” tweeted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.The outage, reportedly caused by a construction equipment accident, is the second to hit Puerto Rico recently. Last Thursday, a fallen tree took out power for 870,000 people. Such events have become a fact of life for Puerto Ricans, who are currently living through the second biggest electricity crisis in modern world history. Only the magnitude of electric grid damage by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, was worse.The recovery effort continues to drag on, hampered by poor planning, rampant corruption, and logistical nightmares. So far, the hurricane has triggered more than a thousand deaths, a mental health crisis, and a mass exodus from the island.Officials estimate that power will be restored in 24 to 36 hours. But it’s not coming back for everyone — tens of thousands of rural residents of eastern and central Puerto Rico have been waiting for their lights to turn back on since September. And guess what? The next hurricane season is just six weeks away.

               FEMA’s plan underestimated Puerto Rican hurricane - The federal government significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, according to a POLITICO review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plan for the disaster. The plan, which was developed by a FEMA contractor in 2014 in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a “high-end” Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode. More significantly, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at POLITICO’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that the island’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the face of such a storm. Instead, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. It didn’t mention the financial instability of the Puerto Rican government and Puerto Rican electrical utility, factors that significantly complicated the immediate response to Maria. “The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria,” said one person involved with FEMA’s response to Maria. “They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.” 

              The way Americans get electricity is one natural disaster away from decimation — but a resilient power grid is in our reach - After Hurricane Maria struck the US territory on September 20, a crippling blackout descended over its 3.4 million residents, cutting communication with loved ones, spoiling food and life-saving medications, and nixing access to banks and clean water. That was six months ago. Today, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without power or clean water — the result of an abused electric grid left to rot. The death toll, initially estimated at 64, is now thought to be at least 1,000, according to a recent New York Times analysis. It’s a tragic story. And it could happen anywhere in America. Just like Puerto Rico, the mainland US is dependent on a dilapidated and crumbling network of coal-fired power plants and natural-gas pipelines. It is one big natural disaster — superstorm, flood, wildfire, earthquake — away from being decimated. "Generally speaking, the US gets about a D+ for things like this," Vivek Shandas, an urban-planning professor at Portland State University, said after a triple threat of hurricanes lashed Puerto Rico and mainland US. "Much of our infrastructure was built in the late 1800s and it’s beginning to fall apart."    But America has been presented with one of the biggest opportunities in its history: a set of cutting-edge tools that would enable us to shift to a flexible, resilient power grid. This grid would not only protect us from natural disasters but also save us billions and clean up our air and water. The rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure will be a living laboratory for the shift, but we already know how it should look on the mainland, thanks to a one-of-a-kind venture between a Mexican wind farm and San Diego.

              The Supersized Future Of Energy Storage - In the battery industry, records seem set to be broken almost as soon as they are hit. This is what may be about to happen with the largest battery storage system to date, if a California company gets all the permits it needs to build a 350-MW installation in the desert near Palm Springs.When Tesla completed its 100 MW/129 MWh last year, it became a hallmark in the evolution of renewable power, signaling that the race for bigger and better storage systems was just beginning. Now, Recurrent Battery has staked its own claim in this race.The San Francisco-based company is the U.S. unit of Canadian Solar and it has plans to build a 350-MW solar farm in the California desert along with a battery storage system of the same size. The Crimson project will span 2,500 acres. However, it is far from certain it will be completed.The idea is certainly great. Tesla’s battery can power several tens of thousands of households. This one—if built—would power three times that, reducing this part of California’s dependence on natural gas power plants. These are now used after sunset for lack of enough solar energy storage installations. But the key is to find a buyer for the energy that will be produced by the solar farm—and this client needs to be large enough to justify the investment.In other words, for now, the battery that will have triple the size of Tesla’s jewel is still just a possibility. Another project, however, is not: A British billionaire is building a 120 MW/140 MWh installation not far from Tesla’s installation in Australia. Sanjeev Gupta, owner of Australian steelworks Whyalla, is building the battery to use both as storage for electricity produced by a solar farm, and in construction at the steelworks site. What we’re seeing there is likely just the beginning of ever-bigger battery storage systems that will accompany every large-scale solar or wind project.

                The seawater pumped hydro potential of the world - As discussed in numerous previous posts the world will need immense amounts of energy storage to transition to 100% renewables, or anywhere close to it, and the only technology that offers any chance of obtaining it is sea water pumped hydro (SWPH) storage. Here I consider the practical aspects of SWPH and conclude that there are only three places in the world where a combination of favorable shoreline topography and minimal impacts would allow any significant amount of SWPH to be developed - Chile (discussed here), California (discussed here) and, of all places, Croatia. For the rest of the world nuclear remains the only proven decarbonization technology.In the last few weeks I have wandered through Google Earth looking for prime SWPH potential and have found that most of the world has none (I have not looked closely at Africa). The coastal topography in most places is too low and flat, and where it isn’t the valleys lack good dam sites, and/or are full of people, and/or the sites are too far from the sea. The sites that do exist are also often in scenic areas where significant public opposition may be expected whether there are any people there or not. This point was forcibly brought home to me by Euan Mearn’s comments on Scottish Scientist’s Loch Ness Monster of Energy Storage guest post, which proposed a 6.8 TWh SWPH upper reservoir at Strath Dearn in the Scottish Highlands. Considered purely in terms of potential Strath Dearn is probably the best SWPH prospect in the UK, but if Euan’s reaction to the proposal is shared by others the chances it will ever get built are effectively zero: The second-best site in the UK is probably this one on Exmoor, the only place where deeply-incised higher ground reaches the coast. It’s much smaller that Strath Dearn (~200 GWh, dam 600m long by 185m high) yet it would still increase the UK ‘s installed pumped hydro capacity by a factor of about seven. But could it ever be built? The combes of Exmoor are noted beauty spots, and certainly the owners of the Hunters Inn would not be amused. Neither would the residents of the villages around the periphery of the reservoir, who would watch it fill and drain probably once a day in the winter:

                Gravity-based energy storage could prove cheaper than batteries - According to a report by analysts at Imperial College London, gravity-fed energy storage systems can provide frequency response at a cost cheaper than most other storage solutions. Gravity-fed systems use a heavy weight – up to 2,000 tonnes – suspended in a deep shaft by cables attached to winches. When there is excess electricity, for example on a windy day, the weight is winched to the top of the shaft ready to generate power. This weight can then be released when required – in less than a second – and the winches become generators, producing either a large burst of electricity quickly, or releasing it more slowly depending on what is needed. According to the paper, gravity-fed storage providing frequency response costs $141 per kW, compared to $154 for a lithium-ion battery, $187 for lead acid batteries and $312 for flywheel.

                Hardwood forests cut down to feed Drax Power plant - Huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia are being chainsawed to create 'biomass' energy in Britain as the government attempts to reach targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to tackle climate change, an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches has found. A key part of government efforts to hit its green energy targets is to switch from generating electricity from burning coal to burning wood - or so-called biomass. It’s a policy that is costing taxpayers more than £700 million per year through a levy on their electricity bills.The biomass industry and government argue that because wood is a renewable source of energy and trees can be replanted to reabsorb carbon dioxide this policy is good for the environment. Footage reveals huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia being chopped down and removed to a factory owned by US firm Enviva that grinds up logs into pellets. A large proportion of these pellets are then shipped across the Atlantic to be burnt at Drax in the UK – one of Enviva’s main customers. Dispatches conducted a simple experiment at a laboratory at the University of Nottingham to compare the carbon dioxide emitted when burning wood pellets, similar to those used by Drax, instead of coal. It found that to burn an amount of wood pellets that would generate the same amount of electricity as coal it would actually produce roughly eight percent more carbon. Biomass is viewed as ‘carbon neutral’ under European rules. This means Drax is not obliged to officially report the carbon emissions coming out of its chimney stack. Dispatches calculated that if Drax were to report on the full extent of its emissions it would show that last year they amounted to 11.7 million tonnes of CO2.

                This coal power plant is being reopened for blockchain mining --Could old power stations be the future of bitcoin mining? That's the idea behind the Blockchain Application Centre -- an Aussie tech initiative that will see one of the country's now-shuttered coal-fired power plants reopened to provide cheap power for blockchain applications. It's the work of Australian tech company IOT Group, which has partnered with local power company Hunter Energy on the project. According to The Age, Hunter Energy will recommission the Redbank power station in the Hunter Valley, two hours drive north of Sydney. Once the power plant is reopened (expected to be completed within 12 months), it will offer wholesale or "pre-grid" power prices to blockchain companies, allowing them to do things like mining cryptocurrencies, without having to pay retail power prices. There's no doubt blockchain is the next big thing in the tech world. It's essentially a technology that stores individual transactions in an ever-growing set of data blocks, allowing different parties to see the same information because it's distributed across computers, rather than being stored in one place.  But while blockchain guarantees trust in a digital world, mining blocks (the process of adding and securing data) is an incredibly compute-intensive task, and one which consumes a huge amount of power. World mining of bitcoin (probably the most well-known blockchain application) currently uses about as much power as the country of Singapore.

                Global demand rising for Russian-built nuclear power plants - Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom expects to sign foreign contracts worth $26 billion this year for the construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants, official data shows. According to its results for 2017, Rosatom’s portfolio of foreign orders for the next decade totals $133.6 billion. The company traditionally calculates its portfolio of orders for a period of 10 years. Head of Rosatom Alexei Likhachev told reporters that the firm hopes to exceed the $130-billion mark. The Russian company has recently inked agreements on nuclear cooperation with India, Iran, Egypt, China, and a number of other countries. It is bidding to construct 16 nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.

                 India slashes plans for new nuclear reactors by two-thirds - India has decided to cut its planned nuclear power plant construction by two-thirds. This will further expand the country’s use of coal for electrical power generation, writes Dan Yurman, nuclear energy specialist and author of the Neutron Bytes blog. The Financial Express, one of India’s major newspapers, reports that the Narendra Modi government, which had set an ambitious 63,000 MW nuclear power capacity addition target by the year 2031-32, has cut it to 22,480 MW, or by roughly two-thirds.  The decision has enormous implications for expanding use of coal for electrical power generation and for release of CO2, other greenhouse gases, and for adding to India’s dire air pollution problems in its major cities. The drastic reduction in planned construction of new reactors will diminish India’s plans to rely on nuclear energy from 25% of electrical generation to about 8-10% The drastic reduction in planned construction of new reactors will diminish India’s plans to rely on nuclear energy from 25% of electrical generation to about 8-10%. The balance of new power requirements will likely be met by use of India’s enormous coal deposits. It appears that India’s long list of nuclear reactors, which at one time it aspired to build, is now in the dustbin. Instead, a much shorter list of 19 units composed of indigenous 700 MW PHWRs and Russian VVERs will be completed for an additional 17 GWE.

                Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible: As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River. The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 workers.The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control. The mess has dealt the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons environmental management program yet another setback, following more than a decade of engineering miscalculations across the nation."They are not in control," John Martell, the Washington Department of Health official who oversees radioactive air emissions, said about the Energy Department and its contractors. "We want them to stop before they do become a public health threat." Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, asserts that the demolition project used too many unskilled workers, attempted to do the work too fast and failed to adopt known safety measures that would have helped contain the contamination. "They took shortcuts and stupid risks," Carpenter said. "They gambled and lost."

                America's nuclear headache: old plutonium with nowhere to go (Reuters) - In a sprawling plant near Amarillo, Texas, rows of workers perform by hand one of the most dangerous jobs in American industry. Contract workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pantex facility gingerly remove the plutonium cores from retired nuclear warheads. Although many safety rules are in place, a slip of the hand could mean disaster. In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day. The delicate, potentially deadly dismantling of nuclear warheads at Pantex, while little noticed, has grown increasingly urgent to keep the United States from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under a 2010 treaty with Russia. The United States wants to dismantle older warheads so that it can substitute some of them with newer, more lethal weapons. Russia, too, is building new, dangerous weapons. The United States has a vast amount of deadly plutonium, which terrorists would love to get their hands on. Under another agreement, Washington and Moscow each are required to render unusable for weapons 34 metric tons of plutonium.  An Energy Department website says the two countries combined have 68 metric tons designated for destruction - enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the United States has no permanent plan for what to do with its share. Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.  Much of America’s plutonium currently is stored in a building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina - like Pantex, an Energy Department site.  Local opponents of the storage, such as Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, contend the facility was never built for holding plutonium and say there is a risk of leakage and accidents in which large amounts of radioactivity are released. 

                FirstEnergy Asks Administration For Help To Get Customers To Pay More (NPR broadcast with transcript) A bankrupt energy company in Ohio wants the Trump administration to help its struggling coal and nuclear plants. FirstEnergy warns of power outages if the plants close.

                Report: Losing FirstEnergy’s Nuclear Fleet Would Wipe Out Two Decades of Solar and Wind Progress -  FirstEnergy’s plans to shut down nuclear power plants has focused the attention of clean energy boosters on environmental impacts. FirstEnergy's three nuclear plants under threat generate more zero-carbon power than all of the mid-Atlantic region’s wind and solar power put together.  On Monday, research firm Brattle Group released its own analysis in the wake of FirstEnergy’s planned nuclear closures, underscoring a worrisome combination of environmental and economic costs.Brattle Group’s study was conducted for industry advocacy group Nuclear Matters. It looks at the effects of closing FirstEnergy’s two Pennsylvania plants and one Ohio plant, in combination with Exelon’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. All four plants are losing money in the face of competition from cheap natural gas, flat demand for energy, and rising operations costs.  Other utilities are seeking lifelines for struggling nuclear reactors in the form of state zero-carbon energy credits and other mechanisms to reward their carbon-free generation capacity. There's no doubt that closing the four plants would leave a huge hole in the zero-carbon capacity serving mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM — 21 million metrics tons annually, according to Brattle Group’s analysis.  The four plants now provide more zero-carbon energy than all of PJM's wind and solar energy combined, making them an integral part of the region's clean energy mix. If the plants close, the increase in carbon emissions could raise social costs of about $921 million per year over a 10-year period, based on a federal measure of carbon pollution. Adding in other fossil fuel generation pollutants and their associated societal costs increases that amount by $170 million per year, bringing total societal costs to more than $1 billion. 

                Are we becoming too reliant on natural gas? - The past and present, at least in terms of how Ohio generates electricity, can be found within a few miles along the shores of Lake Erie. Pressed up to the edge of the water is the Bay Shore Plant, a coal-fired power plant owned by a subsidiary of Akron-based FirstEnergy that rarely runs and is scheduled to be closed by 2020. Sitting two miles inland is the Oregon Clean Energy Center, a natural-gas-fired power plant that opened last summer and is running most days. It’s owned by Clean Energy Future of Massachusetts, a company that focuses exclusively on building and operating these types of plants. “We are the next iteration of technology,” said Peter Rigney, the plant manager, referring to how the gas plant takes up less space, has fewer employees and generates less waste than coal or nuclear plants. Oregon Clean Energy is part of a building boom, one of 11 natural-gas plants built, under construction or in some phase of development in Ohio. Investors are spending billions of dollars on plants that will take advantage of the region’s inexpensive and plentiful natural gas. People who manage the electricity grid are trying to figure out the risks of increasing reliance on natural gas as old coal and nuclear units are closing or likely to close. At the same time, the people behind this slate of projects tend to downplay the risks and say natural gas will remain plentiful and inexpensive.

                Six Permits Issued in Ohio's Utica – Six permits for new horizontal wells were issued in eastern Ohio’s Utica shale last week, according to the latest update from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. ODNR awarded permits during the week ended April 14 to Ascent Resources Utica LLC for four wells in Jefferson County, while Gulfport Energy secured two permits to drill two wells in Belmont County. As of April 14, there are 2,804 permits issued in the Utica, 2,319 wells drilled, and 1,883 wells in production across Ohio’s oil and gas play. Twenty-three rigs were operating in Ohio’s Utica during the week, ODNR reported. There were no new permits issued in Mahoning, Trumbull or Columbiana counties for the week, ODNR said. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, no new permits for horizontal wells were issued in neighboring Lawrence or Mercer counties in western Pennsylvania. A single renewal permit for a vertical well was issued to SWEPI LP, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, for a site in Mercer County, according to DEP data.

                Fracking plans moving forward in Ashland County - Richland Source- Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation is proceeding with exploratory drilling plans to create wells for fracking in Ashland County. "We are moving forward with our first well in Ohio," John Smelko, manager of environmental and regulatory compliance for Cabot's North Region told Ashland County Commissioners Thursday. Smelko said the first well will be in Green Township, located about .8 miles from Ohio 511 on Township Road 2375. The company has already obtained permits from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to construct a pad and a well in that location. "Our goal is to begin construction of the pad on Tuesday," Smelko said. "We expect to take somewhere around three weeks or so to build that pad, and then we intend to start with the drilling portion of the project." Smelko said the Texas-based oil and gas company will begin by drilling a vertical well to the depth of about 5,400 feet. From that vertical well, the company plans to begin horizontal drilling. The drilling process is expected to take about 30 days, he said. "Because this is our first well in Ohio and in this county, this is an exploration well, so there is going to be some extra time and care in logging the data and evaluating the well and figuring out what we actually have," Smelko said. Smelko said the company plans to drill three to five wells in the area over the next several months. "Ideally, we would find oil and gas and we would proceed from there," he said. Smelko said the company has plans to locate its second well in Mohican Township and is working on securing locations for other wells. Commissioner Denny Bittle asked Smelko whether the company plans to drill horizontally multiple times from a single vertical well. Smelko said it did not. After hearing from Smelko and from County Engineer Ed Meixner, commissioners approved a Roadway Use, Repair and Maintenance (RUMA) agreement with Cabot and Green Township.

                Ohio research may cut risks of fracked well waste spills - Contaminated wastewater from oil and gas wells is the energy sector’s single largest industrial waste stream, with more than 14 billion barrels produced annually. Most of it gets transported by truck to wastewater disposal wells, for which Ohio is a regional hub because of its geology. It’s a potentially hazardous journey, and one whose costs also add up for the industry. That’s why a team at Ohio University is working on a new way to treat well wastewater where it’s produced. Chemical engineer Jason Trembly presented the research at the Ohio Shale Policy and Technology Symposium in Dublin, Ohio, on April 5.   Well developers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into deep rock formations to create and prop open cracks so oil and gas can flow out. After initial flowback, fluid continues to come up along with any oil or gas.  The fluid is very salty — up to 30 percent by weight, says Trembly. The material can also contain significant amounts of what he calls “bad actors” — heavy metals, dissolved radioactive materials, and other chemicals.  The salt can kill plants, fish and other organisms. And the heavy metals and radioactive components can be toxic to them as well. Human health might be at risk if contaminated fluids get into drinking water supplies. Most contaminated fluids from fracked wells in Ohio go into deep injection wells. Well developers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia also send substantial quantities of the waste into Ohio because those states’ geology is generally not good for deep well injection. Along the way, crashes and spills can occur. Last November, a tanker truck spilled roughly 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of wastewater into a culvert and ditch between Coolville and Belpre. And in 2016, a spill of fluids from a conventional well caused officials to temporarily halt withdrawals from a reservoir that serves citizens in Barnesville. The technology developed by Trembly and his colleagues would use portable equipment to remove some problem materials from the fracked well fluids before separating the water from the salts.

                Buckeye Partners' revised plan for the Laurel pipeline - For a couple of years now, Buckeye Partners has been working to advance a controversial plan to reverse the western half of its Laurel refined-products pipeline in Pennsylvania to allow motor gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to flow east from Midwest refineries into the central part of the Keystone State. Some East Coast refineries that have relied on Laurel for 60 years to pipe their refined products as far west as Pittsburgh have been fighting Buckeye’s plan tooth and nail, arguing that it would hurt their businesses and hurt competition in western Pennsylvania gas and diesel markets — and refined-product retailers in the Pittsburgh area agree. Now, after a state administrative law judge’s recommendation that Pennsylvania regulators reject Buckeye’s plan, Buckeye has proposed an alternative: making the western half of the Laurel Pipeline bi-directional, which would allow both eastbound and westbound flows. Today, we consider the latest plan for an important refined-products pipe and how it may affect Mid-Atlantic and Midwest refineries.

                Natural-gas proponents and renewable-energy advocates disagree on fracking's potential to grow jobs in Pittsburgh - Each year, more and more studies from environmental groups show how natural-gas drilling, also called fracking, is harming the environment. Whether it’s contaminating drinking water or spewing methane into the air, environmental activists say it’s becoming harder to defend fracking from an environmental point of view.   But despite environmental concerns, proponents of natural gas have always had a strong motivation to keep drilling: jobs. Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) is a champion of the natural-gas industry and he said in a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that the fracking industry is “creating work for steel manufacturers, engineering firms and refineries.”  Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has also been supportive of fracking and believes it can help create jobs. In 2014, when the county allowed fracking on public land near the airport, he told KDKA that money generated from natural-gas drilling can “create jobs in this part of the county.” The Pittsburgh region, particularly its rural areas, has struggled with high unemployment for decades. In December 2017, the Pittsburgh metro area unemployment rate was 4.5 percent; the national average was 3.9 percent. And in more rural areas like Fayette and Armstrong counties, December’s unemployment rates were significantly higher — 6.6 percent and 5.7 percent respectively.  According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2007 to 2012, Pennsylvania added more than 15,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry, with a large chunk of those concentrated in the Pittsburgh region. During this same time period, the Pittsburgh region’s overall employment also increased; 2012 was the first year in more than a decade that the region saw its population grow instead of shrink.  But tying employment growth to increased natural gas production in the Pittsburgh region could be seen as a bit of a leap. There are many factors that can lead to growth in some gas-related industries, including job losses in other areas. Natural gas is a direct competitor to other energy industries in the region, and its growth has already contributed to job losses at coal mines and power plants. And even though natural-gas production has drastically increased over the past few years, the gas-drilling job figures aren’t really following suit.

                Penn Township fracking showdown begins in court - The court showdown over hydraulic fracturing in Penn Township began this week, but it won't be concluded until June. Nonprofit group Protect PT has challenged the township's zoning ordinance, which allows hydraulic fracturing wells in both industrial and rural-zoned areas, which comprises most of the sprawling community. The anti-fracking group contends wells should be limited to industrial zones. “Industrial gas drilling is an industrial operation, no matter how much the industry says its not,” said Gillian Graber, executive director of Protect PT. The township, its zoning hearing board and the gas drilling companies who do business there say the township's ordinance includes protections for residents, and that legal precedent set in other Pennsylvania communities allows fracking in agricultural zones. “This was a very long and very well-deliberated process, where we ended up developing an ordinance that is one of the most comprehensive and strict in Westmoreland County,” said Michael Korns, the Greensburg lawyer representing the township. Huntley and Huntley Energy Exploration and Apex Energy joined the lawsuit in support of the ordinance. Both sides began arguing their case this week with two days of hearings before Westmoreland County Judge Harry Smail Jr. Due to a busy court schedule, the final two days of hearings are scheduled for June 4-5. This week's hearings were focused on expert testimony from both sides. Protect PT's experts focused on the argument that fracking is a heavy industrial process. Previous Pennsylvania court cases have ruled fracking need not be limited to industrial zones. “The people who fought the cases previously have not been able to show the court that fracking is an industrial use,” Graber said. Protect PT hopes to prove the opposite, by focusing on the heavy equipment and extensive drilling methods needed for fracking. 

                Energy company appeals Pennsylvania court decision on ’rule of capture’ - A Houston-based natural gas company plans to appeal a recent Pennsylvania Superior Court decision that said companies could be held liable for trespassing when unconventional wells release gas from unleased properties. Southwestern Energy wants all 20 judges of the court to hear the case that originated out of Susquehanna County. A decision by two judges this month sent shock waves through the oil and gas industry over worries that the “rule of capture” will no longer apply to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The legal principle comes from the fact that pools of oil and gas naturally migrate across property boundaries, making ownership difficult to determine. The Briggs family, which filed the suit in 2015, argued that the principle shouldn't apply to natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation because it doesn't migrate unless fracking is used to release it. The Superior Court agreed and sent the case back to the county court. In a 97-page motion filed Monday, Southwestern said the decision could have an adverse impact on oil and gas production nationwide, not just in Pennsylvania. “Because hydrofracturing is the most economic and commonly used method of producing oil and gas across the country, and because Pennsylvania is the second-largest natural gas producing state, this court's decision unsettles the legal landscape for the entire industry,” the motion said. The Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition was one of several trade organizations filing briefs in support of Southwestern. “The partial panel's decision upends settled rules, contradicts policy and injects considerable uncertainty in the industry,” the coalition said in its amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief. The coalition said the decision will hamper oil and gas production and upend property rights. “If the decision stands, unleased landowners can prevent natural gas development on all surrounding properties to the detriment of all others who exercised their rights to develop their oil and gas interests,” the brief said 

                These states want to make planning a pipeline protest a crime - As pipeline protests continue to delay and, sometimes, stop energy projects in their tracks, the fossil fuel industry and Republican lawmakers are looking for new ways to clamp down on environmental protest. In the last few years, state lawmakers across the country have proposed bills that would impose harsh penalties on environmental protest, particularly protests aimed at delaying pipeline construction or shutting down existing pipeline infrastructure. In energy-rich states like Oklahoma and North Dakota, lawmakers have successfully passed bills prohibiting certain kinds of protest, from protests that block highways or traffic to protests that trespass onto property containing energy infrastructure. But a new crop of bills proposed in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota — all states with controversial pipeline projects currently under consideration — take the criminalization of protest one step further.If passed, the bills would make it illegal to conspire to protest in certain instances, like when a protest would require trespass or some other kind of civil disobedience. This means the act of simply planning a protest that includes a civil disobedience component, like trespass — regardless of whether or not you actually protest — would become illegal.While anti-pipeline protest bills have been introduced across the country since 2017, the three most recent examples — introduced in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania within the last month — include uniquely broad definitions of conspiracy. And legal experts say it’s hardly a coincidence that these particularly strong bills are all proposed in states that have seen continuous opposition to proposed fossil fuel infrastructure.“I think these bills represent an escalation,” Alice Cherry, co-founder and staff attorney of the Climate Defense Project, told ThinkProgress. “The main motivation for these bills seems to be to deter would-be protesters and to make potential jail sentences and fines more draconian.”

                Appalachia Markets Itself as Global Energy Hub - -   A team of rivals from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia recently announced that it would be redoubling its efforts to draw new oil and gas investment to a region once defined and later left behind by coal and steel.The states' respective leaders, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Govs. John Kasich and Jim Justice, signed an agreement last month to renew the Tri-State Shale Coalition for another three years. The group, an ad hoc collective of government representatives and regional economic champions, is hoping to generate a level of investment that would transform the Appalachian Basin into a global energy hub on par with Texas and Louisiana.  The three states sit atop the Marcellus and Utica shales, formations of porous rock stretching from West Virginia to Canada that hold huge deposits of oil and natural gas, which in the past decade have been shaken loose through hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – and horizontal drilling. The three states in 2016 accounted for roughly 29 percent of U.S. natural gas output – up from just 2 percent in 2008, and right behind Texas and Louisiana, which together made up 31 percent of the country's natural gas production in 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration. Unlike the Gulf region, however, the vast majority of the gas that's extracted in Appalachia is exported: Only about a quarter of the gas produced in Pennsylvania, for example, was consumed within the state in 2016, according to EIA data. In Texas, by contrast, two-thirds of the gas extracted there remained in-state, and in Louisiana 92 percent stayed within state lines. The Tri-State Shale Coalition hopes to change that. Though the states continue to compete for investment, since 2015 the group has also helped arrange partnerships among the states' universities and energy companies, promoted technical training for jobs in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, lobbied for investments in roads, rail and other infrastructure, and hired an advertising firm to coordinate a joint marketing effort. The goal is to make the region as a whole more attractive for what's known as midstream and downstream investments.

                Commerce Secretary 'Hopeful' First China Energy Project is Near - West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said he is hopeful the first project associated with the China Energy deal will be announced soon. Speaking to a crowd at the Marcellus and Manufacturing Development Conference in Morgantown Tuesday, Thrasher said interest is running high. Chinese delegations ranging in size from nine to 29 people have visited the state 15 times, with another visit scheduled next week. "So, certainly when you look at the level of activity that they’re investing into this, I think it’s hugely substantial and I’m very hopeful it’s going to pay significant rewards," said Thrasher. "I’m very hopeful in the very near future we’re going to be announcing that first project."  The nearly-$84 billion deal between West Virginia and China’s largest energy company, China Energy, was announced last November. Since then, few details have emerged since Thrasher and China Energy President Ling Wen signed a memorandum of understanding in Beijing as part of the US-China trade mission during President Donald Trump’s November 2017 visit.China’s largest energy company committed to investing billions in the state’s natural gas industry over the next 20 years. One goal is to make the Ohio Valley region the next petrochemical manufacturing hub in the U.S. Proponents of the China Energy investment tout the economic benefits, but environmental groups have expressed concern the creation of a storage hub for natural gas liquids and petrochemical processing plants could contaminate air and water resources. On their website, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition states: "This project would lead to increased petrochemical industrialization of Ohio River Valley. The experience of people in Cancer Alley of the Gulf Coast region informs us that the grave health risks outweigh the economic benefits."

                Resistance Against Mountain Valley Pipeline Grows: Tree Sits Launched on Family Farm in Franklin County, Virginia - In the farmlands of Franklin County, a new stand against the Mountain Valley Pipeline has begun. Three tree sits loom directly in the path of the pipeline’s destruction, making it impossible to clear the way without severely injuring the inhabitants of those trees. The sits tower over 75 feet off the ground of a small family farm’s livestock pasture, overlooking Little and Teel creeks, home to the endangered Roanoke Log Perch. The tree sits build upon two other blockades to construction- a stand one hundred miles West, on Peters Mountain, and twenty miles West, in Bent Mountain, VA. One tree sitter stated, “The other tree sits show us that there are still effective ways to interrupt the violence of this proposed pipeline. We are celebrating their spirit of resistance in the mountains and bringing it down to the farmlands, where so much remains at stake. The fire truly is catching.” Local farmers Ian and Carolyn Reilly have been fighting the pipeline for their family’s future and to protect the soil and water. Using restorative practices, the Reilly’s are stewards of the earth. Ian Reilly said, “Launching Little Teel Crossing is an act of protection for our family’s home, land and water. This farm has been free from chemicals for decades. As farmers seeking to renew the land, we intend to keep it that way.” MVP’s 125-foot limits of destruction cuts through several family farms in Franklin County—places where local beef, honey, poultry, and produce are cultivated. According to the Roanoke Times, Precision Pipeline, the company contracted to construct the MVP, has a history of environmental violations and lawsuits for construction of several other pipelines. 

                Lawmakers call out treatment of pipeline protester in trees — A Virginia woman who has spent weeks camped in trees protesting a natural gas pipeline that would cross her property is being treated inhumanely by authorities, who have cut off her deliveries of food and water, Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday. Around a dozen Democratic members of the Virginia House and Senate held a news conference in Richmond to protest authorities’ response to the 61-year-old Mountain Valley Pipeline protester. They also raised a host of other concerns about that multistate project as well as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and called on Gov. Ralph Northam to impose further regulatory conditions on both. “The pipelines, quite frankly, have been called into question the last couple years: whether we need them, whether environmentally they make sense, whether or not the fossil fuels that they will transport are really necessary for today’s economy. ... People now are getting smart,” said Sen. Chap Petersen. Developers and other supporters of both projects say they can be built in a way that’s protective of the environment and pledge they will help lower energy costs and boost the economy. The approximately 300-mile (480-kilometer) Mountain Valley Pipeline would start in West Virginia and run through southwest Virginia before connecting with a compressor station for another interstate pipeline in Pittsylvania County. Pittsburgh-based EQT Midstream Partners, which owns a significant interest in the joint venture with other energy companies, recently announced plans to extend the line with a new branch stretching into North Carolina. The pipeline would cross the Roanoke County property of the protester, who has identified herself in interviews with local news outlets only as “Red.” Red climbed into a tree stand in protest April 1, said one of her neighbors, Genesis Chapman. Her daughter has also posted up in another tree, he said. The county said in a statement Friday that police had advised the “individuals sitting in two trees” that they were in the right of way granted to the pipeline company through a court order. “They will no longer be allowed to receive supplies from supporters. Anything the individuals need will be available to them when they come down from the trees,” it said. 

                U.S. to review gas pipeline policy for first time since 1999 - U.S. energy regulators embarked upon a wide-ranging review of how interstate natural-gas pipelines are approved, amid concerns that current guidelines have become outdated following the shale boom. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will examine the use of eminent domain, how the need for a pipeline is assessed and the extent to which greenhouse gas emissions should be taken into account in pipeline approvals. "Given the changes in landscape since it was first put into place, reviewing our certificate policy statement for any possible improvement is good regulatory practice," Republican Commissioner Neil Chatterjee said at a commission meeting Thursday. The commission was among more than a dozen federal agencies that signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this month aimed at slashing the time needed for environmental reviews and permitting on major infrastructure projects. The timing of the agency’s own review is “quite coincidental but perhaps fortuitous,” Kevin McIntyre, its chairman, said at a monthly meeting on Thursday. The review also comes as divisions have emerged among the five-member commission in recent months over pipeline projects. Democratic Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur in October expressed concerns about the process in a statement dissenting to the commission’s approvals of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline projects. She has criticized the agency for basing assessments of economic need solely on contracts between developers and customers signed before applications are submitted. LaFLeur said on Thursday she wants the agency to take a “hard look” at whether and how the agency could consider the social cost of carbon when it makes decisions.

                LNG And Pipeline Reversals Turn Louisiana Gas Market Upside Down, Part 5 - The Louisiana natural gas market has undergone major changes in recent years, from the decline of its offshore and onshore production volumes to the emergence of new export demand from LNG terminals. But there are many more changes on the way. The industry has plans to add another 5.0 Bcf/d of liquefaction and export capacity in the Bayou State between now and 2023. At the same time, there are a slew of pipeline projects designed to carry Marcellus/Utica gas supply to the Perryville Hub in northeastern Louisiana. And, Louisiana’s own gas supply is soaring from the Haynesville Shale. The timing of these emerging factors will drive supply-demand economics and volatility in the region — including at the national pricing benchmark Henry Hub — over the next five years. Today, we take a closer look at the timing and extent of the supply and demand factors affecting the Louisiana gas market. In Part 1 of this series, we laid out the premise that the Louisiana market is at the epicenter of a major transformation that will play an important role in balancing the overall U.S. gas market. New LNG export facilities along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast — along with growing export demand downstream of Louisiana in Texas and Mexico — are making it the destination market of choice for U.S. gas producers. The Upper East corridor — comprising seven pipelines — reflects gas moving east from the Perryville Hub (in northeastern Louisiana) to serve South- and Mid-Atlantic demand, and in Part 2, we saw that the aggregated pipeline capacity along this route has been filling fast and is nearly full. The Lower East corridor provides takeaway capacity for Gulf of Mexico offshore gas production as well as serving industrial and power demand along the coast and in Florida. In Part 3, we looked at the Upper and Lower West corridors, reflecting flows across the western Louisiana border. These gas flows historically have moved west-to-east from Texas and Oklahoma supply basins into Louisiana. But Marcellus/Utica pushback also has reversed the flow direction on a couple of the pipes, with Enbridge’s Texas Eastern Transmission (TETCO) and TGP now flowing more east-to-west into Texas. Finally, in Part 4, we analyzed flows across the North and Offshore Gulf boundaries, as well as flows cutting through Central Louisiana.

                Natural gas inventories end heating season at the lowest level since 2014 - Working natural gas in storage in the United States as of March 31, 2018, the end of the 2017–2018 heating season, totaled 1,351 billion cubic feet (Bcf), according to EIA’s estimate based on its Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report. This is the lowest level for U.S. working gas stocks at this time of year since March 31, 2014, when working gas stocks were much lower, at 837 Bcf following the 2013-2014 heating season. As of March 31, 2018, working gas stocks were 21% lower than the previous five-year (2013–2017) average for the end of the heating season.  The 2017–2018 heating season, which began on November 1, 2017, was characterized by periods of colder-than-normal temperatures that resulted in substantial withdrawals of natural gas from storage, including an all-time weekly record-breaking withdrawal of 359 Bcf in January. Natural gas is used during colder months not only for heating homes and businesses directly, but also for fueling natural gas power plants, which are increasingly used to meet winter electricity demand.  As a result of the colder-than-normal winter, net withdrawals from storage during the 2017–2018 heating season totaled 2,427 Bcf, the second-highest withdrawals on record behind only the 2,958 Bcf net withdrawals reported for the much colder-than-normal 2013–2014 winter.  This summer, EIA expects injections into storage to be higher than normal, exceeding the average of the previous five injection seasons (April through October). Because of the regulatory obligations of many of the larger storage operators to provide winter heating service, U.S. natural gas storage levels tend to end the injection season close to the previous five-year average of about 3,800 Bcf. Doing so would require injections to total nearly 2,500 Bcf, or about 30% more natural gas than the average of the previous five injection seasons.  EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts that working gas levels will total 3,767 Bcf at the end of October 2018, requiring net injections of about 2,416 Bcf over the injection season, the equivalent of 11.3 Bcf per day (Bcf/d).

                U.S. natural gas production and consumption increase in nearly all AEO2018 cases - EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 (AEO2018) projects that U.S. dry natural gas production will increase through 2050 across a wide variety of alternative assumptions about the future. In the Reference case, which is based on current laws and regulations, production grows 59% from 2017 to 2050, starting at 73.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2017 and reaching 118 Bcf/d in 2050. In sensitivity cases with different assumptions for natural gas resources and extraction technology, natural gas production also increases through the forecast period, although at different rates.  Beyond 2020, natural gas production grows faster than consumption in all cases except the Low Oil and Gas Resource and Technology case, where production and consumption remain relatively flat because of higher production costs. In the High Oil and Gas Resource and Technology case, with lower production costs, natural gas production grows to 151 Bcf/d in 2050, more than double the 2017 rate of natural gas production. Although most of the projected production growth in AEO2018 cases comes from the Marcellus and Utica plays in the Appalachian region, associated natural gas from the Permian region in Texas and New Mexico is also projected to be a significant contributor.  In all AEO2018 cases except the Low Oil and Gas Resource and Technology case, EIA projects Henry Hub spot natural gas prices to remain lower than $6.00/million British thermal units (in 2017 dollars) through 2050. Near-term production growth across all cases is supported by growing demand in an environment of low and stable natural gas prices in both domestic and international markets.

                Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report - Bullish Report And Price Band In Effect - The EIA reported a -36 Bcf change in storage for the week ended April 13. This brought storage to 1.299 Tcf. This compares to the +54 Bcf change last year and +38 Bcf change for the five-year average. Click to enlarge Source: EIA Going into this storage report, a Reuters survey of traders and analysts pegged the average at -23 Bcf with a range of -7 Bcf to -30 Bcf. We expected -25 Bcf and were 2 Bcf above the consensus. We were off by 11 Bcf on this storage report. EIA reported a very bullish storage report today. The -36 Bcf storage draw was much higher than the highest surveyed storage estimate, but despite the storage report coming in way higher than expected, the brief spike did not last as prices sold off immediately after. Throughout this week's NGF (exclusive), we noted that traders were going to sell the rallies regardless of what fundamentals turned out. The price range kicked into effect when June contracts traded up to $2.80/MMBtu making it biased to the downside. Following the sell-off of this bullish EIA report, however, we decided to go long UGAZ as prices have now reached the bottom range of our forecasted "price range." (No shares available to short for DGAZ.) Over the summer, natural gas will establish a price range depending on where fundamentals are, and weather will be the catalyst to push prices up or down from the extremes. The way to trade this then is to wait for the price to move to one extreme and flipping to the other side to play the other extreme. In this week's case, the market tested one extreme (the upper range) and is now testing the bottom range. Looking at the natural gas market balance, we find that the injection season so far has been heavily in the deficit. Here's our latest market balance update versus the last 2 years: 

                Today's Horrific Petchem Margins And The Implications For NGLs - Could it get any worse? Possibly, but the last time we saw petchem margins this bad was in the depths of the 2008-09 economic meltdown, and back then the atrocious margin levels resulted in drastic plant curtailments and in some cases permanent shutdowns. But this time around the petchem industry is in the process of bringing on even more capacity! Is the current situation a fluke, or a harbinger of things to come? In today’s blog we examine recent trends in steam cracker margins, by far the largest demand sector for natural gas liquids (NGLs) and consider what these developments may mean for NGL markets in general, and ethane in particular. Petrochemical markets are a frequent topic here in the RBN blogosphere, almost always in the context of steam cracker feedstocks, with NGLs making up about 95% of those feedstock barrels. Or, looked at from the other end of the pipe, these plants make up about 60% of total domestic NGL demand, and 100% of domestic liquid ethane demand. So it is always a good thing — for both the petchems and producers of NGLs — when petchem margins are high. When the petrochemical industry makes money, they buy a lot of feedstocks, supporting NGL prices (and, with that, NGL producers). We recently looked at ethane margins in Ethane Asylum Revisited, where we considered the expected price impact from several new ethane-only crackers coming online, and covered new NGL supplies from “wet” shale gas production in Bring It On. Basically, the story has been that demand is increasing, but so is supply. So you’d think that petchem margins might be under some pressure, but no catastrophic collapse would be in the offing.

                The Secret of the Great American Fracking Bubble -- In 2008, Aubrey McClendon was the highest paid Fortune 500 CEO in America, a title he earned taking home $112 million for running Chesapeake Energy.  What was McClendon’s secret? Instead of running a company that aimed to sell oil and gas, he was essentially flipping real estate: acquiring leases to drill on land and then reselling them for five to 10 times more, something McClendon explained was a lot more profitable than “trying to produce gas.” But his story may serve as a cautionary tale for an industry that keeps making big promises on borrowed dimes — while its investors begin losing patience, a trend DeSmog will be investigating in an in-depth series over the coming weeks.   From 2008 to 2009, Chesapeake Energy’s stock swung from $64 a share under McClendon to around $17. Today, it's worth just $3 a share — the same price it was in 2000. A visionary when it came to fracking, McClendon perfected the formula of borrowing money to drive the revolution that reshaped American energy markets.  Roughly a decade after McClendon's rise, the Wall Street Journal reported that “energy companies [since 2007] have spent $280 billion more than they generated from operations on shale investments, according to advisory firm Evercore ISI.”  As a whole, the American fracking experiment has been a financial disaster for many of its investors, who have been plagued by the industry's heavy borrowing, low returns, and bankruptcies, and the path to becoming profitable is lined with significant potential hurdles. Up to this point, the industry has been drilling the “sweet spots” in the country's major shale formations, reaching the easiest and most valuable oil first. But at the same time energy companies are borrowing more money to drill more wells, the sweet spots are drying up, creating a Catch-22 as more drilling drives more debt.

                VA: Anger over pipelines spills into General Assembly -- Intensifying public anger over the pending construction of two massive natural gas pipelines through Virginia boiled over into the General Assembly on Wednesday, when more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers asked Gov. Ralph Northam for more oversight of stream crossings and tree cutting and to protect the rights of landowners protesting the projects. Organized by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, a news conference conducted before the assembly reconvened in its annual veto session brought lawmakers into the fight from other parts of the state that aren't affected directly by construction of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, was among a group of Northern Virginia Democrats who joined the protest, dismissing what she called "NOVA versus ROVA (Rest of Virginia) BS." "It is our obligation to stand with them," Roem said. The legislators joined protesters in waving posters that said "I stand with Red" in solidarity with a 61-year-old woman in the Roanoke Valley known publicly as Red, who, with her daughter, has been camping in trees on her Bent Mountain property to prevent crews from cutting trees in the path of the pipeline. Longtime neighbor and family friend Genesis Chapman said he has spent last week "camping under Red's tree," with temperatures dipping into the mid-20s and "spitting snow." He accused Roanoke and state police of denying the women access to food and water, and "spotlighting (them) at night like animals. "My community is under siege," said Chapman, a lifelong resident of Bent Mountain. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, a longtime critic of Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, said he comes to the fight as a supporter of environmental protection and a lawyer for landowners to protect their private-property rights. 

                For 15 Years, Energy Transfer Partners Pipelines Leaked an Average of Once Every 11 Days: Report - 5,475 days, 527 pipeline spills: that's the math presented in a new report from environmental groups Greenpeace USA and the Waterkeeper Alliance examining pipelines involving Dakota Access builder Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). It's based on public data from 2002 to 2017.All told, those leaks released 3.6 million gallons of hazardous liquids, including 2.8 million gallons of crude oil, according to data collected from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).That doesn't include an additional 2.4 million gallons of “drilling fluids, sediment, and industrial waste” leaked during ETP's construction of two pipelines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Also left out: air pollution and leaks from natural gas pipelines, which were beyond the scope of the new report but which play a significant role in climate change and can cause explosions.Across the entire industry, hazardous liquid pipelines spilled a total of 34.7 million gallons during the past decade, directly causing 16 deaths and $2.7 billion worth of damage. More than one in ten of those gallons came from ETP.“ETP and Sunoco's track record of spills, including several striking examples of big spills, are indicators of a constant threat to communities and water. This could happen again to communities along the pipeline routes.”   ETP spilled crude oil over 400 times, “refined petroleum products” such as gasoline 92 times, and other flammable or toxic fluids 27 times, the researchers found. And many of the spills involved large amounts of oil — roughly one in four of ETP's pipeline oil spills involved 2,100 or more gallons of oil. In one 2005 incident, 436,000 gallons of crude oil spewed from a tank farm into a Delaware River tributary outside Philadelphia. That same year, a pipeline built in the 1950s dumped enough oil into the Kentucky and Ohio river to leave a 17-mile oil slick. And in 2009, a Texas pipeline caught fire and leaked over 140,000 gallons near Colorado City, Texas.

                Bayou Bridge Pipeline owners had 527 hazardous incidents over 16 years, environmental groups say - Pipelines owned and operated by the companies that are building the Bayou Bridge Pipeline through Louisiana's fragile Atchafalaya Basin had 527 hazardous incidents, including spills, between 2002 and 2017, according to a report released Tuesday by environmental groups citing data compiled by federal and state regulators.  The spills caused an estimated $115 million in property damage and resulted in 106 violation notices and the levying of $5.7 million in penalties from the federal agency that regulates pipeline operations, said the report by Greenpeace USA and the Waterkeeper Alliance.  Bayou Bridge is jointly owned by Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners merged with Sunoco Inc. in October 2012, and the report includes incidents involving that company as well.  On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners defended the firms' environmental record and pointed out that the spills represented only a tiny percentage of the oil and other products transported by pipeline. Spokeswoman Vicki Granado said that in 2016, the Energy Transfer family of companies had transported 1.4 billion barrels of crude oil, highly volatile liquids, and refined or other petroleum products through 79,700 miles of pipeline, "of which 99.99 percent was delivered safely to its intended destination." She said the company delivered 99.96 percent was delivered safely in 2015.  The two groups produced the report in support of efforts by a variety of Louisiana-based environmental groups that are opposed to construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline across the Atchafalaya Basin. Graphics Gallery: Hazardous incident record of pipelines operated by Bayou Bridge Pipeline owners.  spill map.jpgThis map shows where the pipelines and spills are located. An online version includes links to summaries of each incident.

                Under Louisiana Bill, Peaceful Protesters Could Face 20 Years in Prison -- On April 12, 2018, in the chambers of the Louisiana State House of Representatives, Rep. Major Thibaut Jr. stepped up to the microphone before the Speaker to introduce seemingly benign House Bill 727. According to his testimony, the bill was humble -- almost technical -- in scope and aimed primarily to add "pipelines" to the list of what the state considers "critical infrastructure." It had faced no opposition in committee, Thibaut added, and had "over sixty-something authors." The bill would impose severe penalties on peaceful protesters engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience actions at sites considered "critical infrastructure". Ninety-seven legislators voted yay, three voted nay, and just like that, all 4.6 million residents of Louisiana took a step toward losing their First Amendment rights. Should the bill become law, it would impose severe penalties on peaceful protesters engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience actions at sites considered "critical infrastructure" by Thibaut's bill. In fact, simply planning to take such an action, considered "conspiracy" by HB 727, could be punishable by fees of up to $10,000 and prison sentences as long as 20 years. With the crack of a gavel, Louisiana joined the growing number of states across the nation with similar "critical infrastructure" bills moving swiftly through the courts and onto governors' desks.

                The wrong kind of oil is flooding the US market — but that could be great news for a handful of producers - Super-light crude is flooding the US oil market, and there's little demand to meet it. All of the industry's growth in the US over the last year was thanks to crude with a gravity above 40 on the American Petroleum Institute's scale, which measures the weight of a petroleum liquid compared to water, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley. That's a problem for domestic shale explorers. Most refineries in the US are designed for heavier crude grades, around 32 API. And refiners are running out of room to process super-light shale without seeing losses. "Domestic refiners cannot take much more of this and are close to hitting the 'shale wall,'" the analysts said. Options to export what US refiners don't want are limited. Demand for superlight crude outside of the US is modest - Morgan Stanley estimates 15 million barrels per day. Even in Asia, where analysts say the outlook for oil demand is the strongest, lighter US shale has to fight for market share. Meanwhile, global prices of heavier oils are climbing. And the analysts predict that US oil explorers will soon need to lower prices of super-light crude in order to compete for market share. But there could be an upside for some. While processing super-light crude is currently inefficient for refineries, that could change with discounts. Specifically, lower prices could benefit a handful of US refineries "disproportionately," according to Morgan Stanley. "US refiners will essentially be 'paid-to-wait' for the price of light- and super-light crude to become discounted enough to the point where it becomes an economic option to run the crude even if it means suboptimal operations," they said. 

                Explosion, Fire At Valero Texas City Refinery - An explosion and fire were reported at Valero's Texas City refinery, which has a refining capacity of 225kb/d. The explosion occurred at unit 106, according to the Texas City Police Department; the unit is a light hydrocarbon unit, according to court clerk Tammy Odom.While the Fire continues to burn as of 7pm ET, no injuries or fatalities have been reported.There has been an explosion at the Valero plant. As per Valero there is no need for a shelter plant. At the current time we have fire crews from the area and industry responding to the fire. No known casualties or injuries. Please continue to monitor. — City of Texas City (@CityofTexasCity) April 19, 2018Video I just got from a viewer of the fire at Valero Refinery in Texas City. Shot 30 seconds after explosion. Says he was half a mile north of explosion when he heard it. Says he could feel the heat. #khou11 pic.twitter.com/cS7u8pncHL— Marcelino Benito (@MarcelinoKHOU) April 19, 2018Texas City reported that no shelter in place was in effect.The buses taking home the after schoolers from 21st Century are now rolling. There is no shelter in place in Texas City.— Texas City ISD (@TexasCityISD) April 19, 2018 Aerial videos from local television station KTRK showed flames erupting from the refinery and plumes of smoke.

                The impact of pipeline constraints and apportionment on Permian producers and differentials, part 3 - If you’ve been watching market prices over the last week, you’ll have noticed that Permian differentials have tightened a bit. With the capacity of the new Midland-to-Sealy pipeline ratcheting up and the 146-Mb/d Borger refinery near Amarillo coming back online, there has been a brief respite for crude oil prices in West Texas. But soon, continued growth in crude production will again max out pipeline capacity out of the Permian until one of the major new pipes starts operating in 2019. In the interim, producers and traders without firm pipeline space will be taking deep price discounts, all the while attempting to maintain their revenue streams by sticking to their development plans or, at the very least, avoiding the specter of well shut-ins. Today, we dive into the current state of affairs regarding Permian pipeline allocations, the impact on producer logistics, and what it all means for price differentials.   In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the fact that by the tail end of 2017 Permian crude oil production had surpassed the combined capacity of in-region refineries and takeaway pipelines out of the play to deal with all that oil. That caused a large differential blowout between the price of crude at Midland and the prices at major trading hubs at Cushing and the Gulf Coast. Figure 1 below, which should be familiar to readers of this blog series, shows the recent timeline of these shifting differentials, including the recent rebound a topic we’ll discuss more today. In Part 2, we examined factors causing Permian production to grow so precipitously a key factor being ramped-up efforts by smaller exploration and production companies (E&Ps) to prove the value of their holdings to prospective acquirers by drilling and completing wells in Tier 2 acreage of the Permian. Incremental production from Tier 2 wells made an already challenging crude-takeaway situation worse, and E&Ps without firm pipeline space were left with no choice but to (1) truck their crude from the lease to faraway pipeline-injection points or (2) sell their crude at a steep discount.

                A Crisis At The Heart Of U.S. Shale - The bottlenecks in the Permian are starting to capture the attention of the oil market, raising the prospect that U.S. shale production does not live up to the hype. The frenzy in West Texas has predictably led to bottlenecks up and down the supply chain. Oil drillers are facing rising prices for labor, rigs, services and land. The lack of pipeline capacity is starting to force discounts for oil as large as $9 per barrel. A new report from Rystad Energy points to the bottleneck specifically for pumping horsepower and frac sand. When wells are drilled, companies deploy trucks connected to pressure pumps that inject water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture a well. But the sky-rocketing level of drilling activity is actually straining the market for pressure pumping capacity. There just isn’t enough to go around.“Capacity is expected to be particularly tight in the Permian in the second quarter before the majority of new equipment comes online in the second half of the year,” Rystad Energy wrote in its report. “More than half of total U.S. pumping capacity will be in the Permian.”  .To be sure, Rystad Energy predicts that 2 million horsepower of new capacity will come online by the end of the year, a nearly 10-percent increase from 2017. That should help relieve some of the strain. The market for frac sand is also stretched to the limit. But that too should be temporary. Rystad Energy sees the supply of frac sand jumping by a massive 52 million tons in 2018, much of it located in the Permian in close proximity to drilling sites, which is different from the past when much of the sand had to be shipped to Texas from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Still, moving all that sand around requires a lot of trucks, and the market for trucks is also tight. To top it off, a zillion trucks moving around wears down roads, which ultimately could create bottlenecks for sand. “You’re going to see similar problems as to what happened in the Eagle Ford years back; roads get chewed up and no one wants to have them shut down for repairs,” an official from an E&P company told Rystad. However, the most critical bottleneck this year could be for pipeline capacity. Permian oil production is set to hit 3.18 million barrels per day in May, while pipeline capacity is expected to average 3.078 mb/d for the year, according to the Wall Street Journal and Goldman Sachs. The pipelines are essentially full, which is why Midland crude is suffering discounts. Additional supplies might need to be moved by truck, a costly form of transport.

                 US shale output to rise by 125000 bpd in May –EIA (Reuters) - U.S. shale oil production is expected to increase in May for the fourth consecutive month, U.S. Energy Information Administration data showed on Monday, boosted by record production in the prolific Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico. Total oil output is set to rise by 125,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 7 million bpd, the EIA said in its monthly drilling productivity report here#tabs-summary-2. Production in the Permian Basin is expected to jump by 73,000 bpd to 3.2 million bpd, the largest according to records dating back to 2007. The expanding production there has led to bottlenecks as pipelines transporting the crude have filled more quickly than expected.  Bakken output is expected to rise by 15,000 bpd to 1.2 million bpd, the highest since July 2015. In the Eagle Ford shale fields, production is set to rise by 24,000 bpd to 1.3 million bpd, the most since May 2016.

                Fracking Has Brought the World to the Brink of Disaster - Gaius Publius: It’s worth looking at two recent pieces from the climate front, not for what they say as their main points, but for two smaller points buried within them. The first piece is by Jeffrey Sachs, writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail. His main argument is that Canada should abandon its plans to build pipelines to carry doomed Alberta tar sands to market and build out a smart energy grid connected to the U.S. energy grid to leverage and store  both nation’s renewable power capabilities. About that, Sachs writes: Oil seems to make politicians lose their bearings. The get-rich-quick mentality or too-much-to-lose thinking is very hard to overcome. Thus, two of Canada’s most progressive leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, have both doubled down recently on Alberta oil sands and the pipelines to carry them to world markets. Whether Kinder Morgan’s controversial Trans Mountain expansion through British Columbia is built, or the company steps away from the project, remains uncertain. Either way, the truth is that Alberta oil sands have absolutely no place in a climate-safe world. Investing in them is almost surely to be investing in a future bankruptcy. […] Why is bankruptcy of these pipeline projects inevitable? In the long term, global warming will destroy all investment in fossil fuels (or it will destroy us, I hasten to add). But in the short term, it’s simple economics.  The marginal costs of the oil sands are typically estimated to be around US$60 per barrel, yet the world will find itself awash in US$30-per-barrel oil as world demand is cut back in the future.   Yet in that piece is this disturbing data point: Even with the amount of global warming to date (1.1 degrees C above the preindustrial average temperature), the world is experiencing record hot temperatures, devastating heat waves, droughts, extreme floods, and increasingly frequent high-intensity storms and hurricanes.  With two degrees or more of warming, the world could well experience a devastating rise in the ocean level, as well as devastating losses and dislocations from crop failures, temperature-linked diseases, invasive species, forest fires, and mega-storms.  Which leads to the second piece I want to look at, one by Sharon Kelly at DeSmogBlog. It argues, quite effectively, that the “fracked gas” boom — oil and gas extraction from shale formations — took us down a deeply destructive path, not just because it revitalized a dying industry, but because it simultaneously tragically hobbled development of desperately needed renewable energy sources.

                From the Editorial Advisory Board: Fracking study - The feud over gas and oil extraction in rapidly developing areas continues unabated. Last Tuesday's headline "Study: Cancer risk higher near oil, gas operations" dominates the front page of the Camera. Even though the article duly reported that our local emission levels are safe and that the increase in risk of cancer only adds one-tenth of one percent to our lifetime risk, just mentioning an increase in chances of getting cancer freaks people out. Looking at issues while being needlessly scared eliminates objectivity and leads to decisions based on emotional values. We have all engaged in this process in our personal lives and suffered the consequences. We are now witnessing our local governments doing the same. Despite this study's author stating that the study "confirms our 2017 findings of low risk" at least one of our county commissioners is, nevertheless, calling for "immediate action" to protect us from what should be good news that the setback requirements for oil and gas operations seem to be working. Boulder City Council also appears to have ditched its objectivity by considering an ordinance (the assault weapons ban) based on the emotional appeal of "we have to do something" to end mass shootings, when there is no objective data showing that such an ordinance would accomplish anything. But our local governments do not have the luxury to make fear-based policies. We must insist that emotions be set aside and decisions be made on data and common sense.

                Parents Didn’t Want Fracking Near Their School. So the Oil Company Chose a Poorer School, Instead. The first school was 77-percent white. The second is 87-percent students of color. In one of the most fracked counties in the country, a fight is underway between environmental justice advocates and the Colorado commission that oversees oil and gas development. Four environmental and civil rights groups are suing the commission for allowing a company to build 24 oil and gas wells by a public school in a low-income area—after the same company tossed its original plans to build near a charter school serving mostly white, middle-class families.Back in 2013, the company Mineral Resources was granted a permit to drill a few hundred feet from Frontier Academy, a majority white charter school in Greeley, Colorado. But after parents and neighborhood residents strongly resisted, the project was delayed. The following year, the Denver-based energy company Extraction Oil and Gas acquired Mineral Resources and abandoned the plans to frack near Frontier Academy. The site, Extraction explained in an internal analysis, was “not preferable” for oil and gas development because of its proximity to the school and its playground.  Instead, Extraction began scouting other locations in Greeley, a small city about 50 miles northeast of Denver. In May 2016, Extraction Oil and Gas filed a newapplication. This time, Extraction selected a site even closer to another school: Bella Romero Academy. The student population at Bella Romero is more than 87 percent Latino or Hispanic, African American, or other people of color. More than 90 percent of students at Bella Romero qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. (At Frontier, 77 percent of students are white, and about 20 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.) “When they were looking for another site away from Frontier, where does it wind up? In the Hispanic community, by the Hispanic school,” says Eric Huber, an attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. “We think that decision was made, unfortunately, because that particular community doesn’t have the resources to fight it.”

                Latest legal fight accusing oil companies of climate change launched in Colorado (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three Colorado communities filed a lawsuit against oil companies on Tuesday, launching the latest legal battle seeking damages for what they claim are the costs of adapting to climate change. The lawsuit, filed in Colorado by the city of Boulder and the counties of San Miguel and Boulder, accuses Suncor and Exxon Mobil Corp of creating a public nuisance by producing and selling fossil fuels that cause climate change. Scientific consensus holds that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal is the main cause of climate change. Suncor and Exxon “sold and promoted fossil fuels knowing that climate impacts were substantially certain to occur if unchecked fossil fuel use continued,” the communities said in the complaint. Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri called the lawsuit part of a misplaced effort to pin the global phenomenon of climate change on oil producers alone. Exxon is the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” he said in emailed comments. A spokeswoman for Suncor, one of Canada’s biggest oil producers, said the company could not comment because it had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit. Both Exxon and Suncor have operations in Colorado, the complaint said. The lawsuit is the latest in a growing body of legal action against oil companies over climate change. However, earlier cases have been filed by coastal communities including California and New York, and this is the first to be brought in the nation’s interior, officials behind the lawsuit said. Their region of Colorado is vulnerable to a wide range of climate threats, from droughts that imperil farming to warm winters that harm the ski industry, they said. “Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well,” said Elise Jones, a Boulder County commissioner, in a statement.  “This is now, I think, the tenth lawsuit of the sort that has been filed in the United States against fossil fuel companies seeking damages for costs associated with climate change impacts,” 

                How The Energy Industry's Wish List Became The Interior Department's To-Do List -- An Interior Department advisory group relied on a top energy industry lobbyist to help draft a list of potential regulatory rollbacks, documents obtained by HuffPost show.At least one suggestion ― reducing the role that local environmental concerns play in leasing federal lands for oil and gas development ― quickly became a reality.The Onshore Work Group, charged with recommending how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ought to regulate federal lands available for fossil fuel development, already has deep ties to the energy industry. Its chair is Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the oil and gas industry group Western Energy Alliance and a vocal proponent of tearing down many Obama-era environmental protections.But metadata from the working group’s first draft of recommendations further link the Interior Department with the industry it is tasked with regulating. According to the metadata, Tripp Parks, the Western Energy Alliance’s head of government affairs, was the initial author of the document.The working group belongs to a growing cadre of industry-friendly advisory bodies Zinke has set up to guide his agenda. In November, he assembled a wildlife conservation advisory group dominated by people with links to trophy hunting. Most members of a public lands advisory group have connections to the outdoor recreation industry.“It’s a huge concern,” said John DeCicco, a University of Michigan research professor who has worked for the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund. Under previous administrations, DeCicco said, committees like these were usually composed of scientific experts. “What it really represents is that certain powerful interests, moneyed interests, they have the ear of policymakers who are running roughshod over due process and running roughshod over important checks and balances that are supposed to be there.”

                Regulators to consider revising natural gas flaring policy - North Dakota’s oil industry is advocating for the state to keep its current gas capture targets but make some tweaks to the policy that regulates natural gas flaring.A North Dakota Petroleum Council task force studying ways to reduce flaring and spur infrastructure development recently completed its work and delivered recommendations to state regulators. The North Dakota Industrial Commission is set to discuss the recommendations on Tuesday and consider revising the gas capture policy.“I do anticipate that there's going to be changes to that policy,” Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms said Friday.North Dakota oil production held flat in February at 1.17 million barrels per day while natural gas production hit a new record at 2.1 billion cubic feet per day, according to preliminary figures the agency released Friday. Flaring decreased from 310 million cubic feet per day in January to 256 million cubic feet per day in February. Companies captured 89 percent of Bakken gas produced statewide in February, exceeding the state’s requirement of capturing 85 percent.The state requirement is set to increase to 88 percent in November, a level regulators and industry leaders had cautioned could be difficult to meet as natural gas production is expected to continue breaking records. But the industry group’s gas capture task force is now recommending that the gas capture targets and the timeline should stay the same with some other revisions to the policy. “I believe that with the recommendations they’ve made, and with the additional pipeline capacity and infrastructure, they’re feeling more confident that 88 percent is achievable,” said Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. Some of the group's recommendations include changing the way natural gas outside of the core Bakken area is treated in the policy and extending credits for companies that beat the gas capture targets. Companies that fall below gas capture targets can be forced to reduce their oil production, but regulators have rarely imposed production restrictions on companies as the policy is currently written.

                 Changes to flaring policy keep benchmarks but give oil industry flexibility - North Dakota regulators are keeping current benchmarks for reducing wasteful flaring of excess natural gas but are giving industry more flexibility to comply. The North Dakota Industrial Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt changes to the gas capture policy, many of which were recommended by an industry task force. “They’re saying they will get to 88 percent by Nov. 1,” said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources. The changes expand some of the caveats that allow industry to be in compliance with the gas capture policy even if a company’s flaring rate exceeds the benchmark. For example, industry can exclude flared volumes from the first 14 days of production. The revised policy increases that to the first 60 days. In addition, the commission will change how it treats flared gas outside of the Bakken core where infrastructure is underdeveloped and gas is considered “stranded.” Allowing some temporary exemptions for stranded gas aims to incentivize pipeline development in those areas, Helms said. The revised policy also focuses more scrutiny on operators who fail to meet the gas capture targets, requiring them to submit gas capture improvement plans and meet with regulators twice a year.

                Oil company allies say climate lawsuits were shopped around - The oil industry is hitting back after being sued for climate damages by California cities and counties.  The Manufacturers' Accountability Project (MAP), an oil industry supporter, demanded a swath of records from the municipalities that sued more than 20 oil companies. Citing a state public records law, MAP asked for paperwork, cellphone records, reports, memos, payments and other documents containing oil company names. They're also asking for city contracts with law firms working on contingency, a form of payment that awards a percent of what the firm is able to win. MAP, an arm of the National Association of Manufacturers, said it wants to expose details of the eight lawsuits against oil companies filed by California municipalities. "We really believe strongly in transparency. We think that taxpayers have a right to know what's behind these lawsuits,"   She added that "really what this whole effort is about is trial attorneys and politicians raising their public profile at the expense of manufacturers."Imperial Beach, San Mateo, Marin County, Richmond, Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County sued two dozen or more fossil fuel companies and trade associations in separate cases. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision is pending on whether to uphold U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge Vince Chhabria's order sending those suits back to state court from federal court.In other cases, San Francisco and Oakland have sued the five biggest oil companies: Chevron Corp., BP PLC, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Those are with Judge William Alsup in the District Court for the Northern District of California. MAP said it's getting involved because oil manufacturers are among those targeted by climate-related lawsuits. De la Torre would not say whether MAP gets funding from oil companies.

                Trump Admin Begins Process to Open Pristine Arctic Refuge for Drilling - The Interior Department has launched the process of holding lease sales for oil and gas drilling in the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( ANWR ). Despite decades of fierce resistance from Democrats and conservation groups, pro-drilling Republicans were able to realize their goal of opening the refuge after quietly including the measure in last year's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  A notice published Friday in the Federal Register starts the 60-day public scoping period to assist in the preparation of an environmental impact statement for the leasing program . The sale targets the 1002 area on the Prudhoe Bay in Northern Alaska, which has an estimated 12 billion barrels of recoverable crude. The area is described by the Sierra Club as "the biological heart" of the Arctic Refuge—home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other species—as well as vital lands and wildlife for the subsistence way of life of the Gwich'in Nation .  Environmental groups condemned the plan, calling it "shameful" that it would be published just before the eighth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. "The Trump administration's reckless dash to expedite drilling and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will only hasten a trip to the courthouse," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife , said in a statement. "We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this fragile landscape."

                Natural gas-weighted E&Ps continue to grow despite lackluster prices, part 4. -Four years ago this month, crude oil was selling for north of $100/bbl and natural gas prices were more than 50% higher than they are now. But while hydrocarbon prices sagged later in 2014 — and through 2015 and early 2016 — the declines didn’t deal a crippling blow to U.S. exploration and production companies. Instead, most of the upstream industry weathered the crisis remarkably well. Amidst that striking recovery, the 10 gas-focused E&Ps we’ve been tracking have engineered the strongest return to profitability. After $40 billion in pre-tax losses in 2015-16, they reported a collective $5.2 billion in pre-tax operating income in 2017, with all 10 producers in the black, as well as a 150% increase in cash flow over 2016, to $11.7 billion. However, gas prices have languished below $3.00/MMBtu since early February 2018 — their lowest level since mid-2016 — which means that the gas producers don’t have the tailwind that higher oil prices have been providing to their oil-focused and diversified competitors. Today, we conclude our blog series on E&Ps’ 2018 profitability outlook and cash flow allocation with a look at companies that focus on natural gas production.The decline in natural gas prices from $6/MMBtu in February 2014 — and about $4.60/MMBtu in April of that year — to well below $2/MMBtu in February 2016 led to plunging cash flows and massive reserve revisions that threatened the financial stability of gas producers. Pre-tax operating cash flow for the 10 E&P companies in our Gas-Weighted Peer Group fell from $17.5 billion in 2014 to $8.4 billion in 2015 and just $4.6 billion in 2016. Like their Oil-Weighted and Diversified peers, the gas-focused companies slashed capital spending — by 62%, from $17.2 billion in 2014 to $6.5 billion in 2016. They also implemented some of the same strategic transformations as the rest of the U.S. E&P industry, which featured impressive capital discipline and an intense focus on operational efficiencies. However, the Gas-Weighted group was able to achieve financial recovery more quickly than the Oil-Weighted and Diversified producers, which reported relatively small 2017 pre-tax operating losses of $1.8 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively. The 150% cash flow increase by the gas producers significantly exceeded the 58% gain by the oil producers and the 16% rise by the diversified companies. The key difference was that the Gas-Weighted producers, with the notable exception of Chesapeake Energy, already had relatively focused portfolios and did not have to undertake the substantial asset divestiture programs conducted by many companies in the other two peer groups.

                Keep it in the ground groups call for fracking bans even as natural gas reduces emissions – Opinion  - The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined 13 percent since 2005, while overall greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels since 1992. EPA data also show emissions of three air pollutants responsible for millions of deaths worldwide — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter — have also plummeted since 2005.Numerous reputable third party experts — including the International Energy Agency (IEA), U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — agree that increased use of clean burning natural gas deserves the bulk of the credit for America’s declining emissions. Still, “keep it in the ground” activists continue to not only call for fracking bans, but the elimination of fossil fuel use altogether. This extreme agenda is simply not supported by the science. Bolstered by fuel switching to natural gas in the power sector, the United States has led all major industrialized countries in carbon reductions this century. The EIA released a report late last year that shows natural gas has prevented over 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted since 2005, noting that natural gas’ share of power sector related carbon reductions is 72 percent greater than renewables and other non-carbon sources during that time-span. IEA stated plainly last year that, “The U.S. power sector has led the world in cutting CO2 emissions since 2008, thanks largely to natural gas…” Many extreme voices in the environmental movement argue that methane emissions from natural gas development effectively negate the obvious carbon reductions from natural gas. But the latest EPA data show that natural gas systems methane emissions have declined 3.5 percent since 2005, while overall methane emissions have declined as well. 

                The Panama Canal Needs To Be Expanded Again -  When the Panama Canal was expanded, it drew a lot of enthusiasm, with many seeing U.S. oil and gas exports surging thanks to the wider waterway that cuts the journey to several key markets by between 15 and 30 days, therefore cutting the costs of this journey as well. Besides the shorter journey times for tankers and LNG carriers, the wider Panama Canal could handle larger vessels such as the Neopanamax class, which is widely used for shipping LNG globally, and Aframax crude tankers. Yet not all is bliss.  Forbes’ oil correspondent Gaurav Sharma wrote in a recent story that although LNG carriers passing through the expanded Panama Canal have increased significantly in numbers, they are still below what the canal can handle on a daily basis: 12 Neopanamaxes. Right now, the average daily transit of this size of vessel is five.What’s more, not all five carry LNG. In fact, the Panama Canal Authority has reportedly only allocated one slot daily for LNG carriers, which will inevitably lead to congestion as U.S. production—and especially export-bound production—continues to boom. At the end of last year, tensions flared between the PCA and LNG producers about whose fault it is that not enough LNG tankers are using the freshly expanded channel that saves 11 days from the journey to Asia, which has become a key market for U.S. LNG. According to the producers, the canal has expanded the access of cargo vessels at the expense of LNG tankers. According to the authority, LNG producers can’t comply with timetables. Right now, despite the official only slot daily for LNG carriers, two are becoming more frequently allocated, allowing for the shipping of 38.3 billion cu m of gas. U.S. energy companies, however, are pumping ever more gas and building more and more liquefaction terminals. The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies believes the Panama Canal will become congested with LNG carriers as soon as next year or, under a better-case scenario, by 2021. This will happen even if the PCA boosts the allocations for LNG to four daily. For now, the Panama Canal is a great passage for LPG and condensate carriers. But it’s LNG that urgently needs to reach global markets. As production grows, the risk of bottlenecks in the canal will inevitably become a harsh reality. It may well be the case that the freshly expanded waterway could need another expansion. The alternative would be costlier for both buyers and sellers in the long term.

                 Protests Against Pipelines In Canada Hurting Oil & Gas Industry - When the pipeline company Kinder Morgan announced it was suspending work on a major Canadian project that has been delayed by protests and court challenges, it sparked talk of a crisis north of the border and fears that investors may flee the nation’s tar sands industry.It was the clearest sign yet of how difficult it’s become for energy companies to find new routes to export the country’s landlocked oil, among the most expensive and damaging to the climate to produce. Over the past several years, climate activists and indigenous groups—in particular many of Canada’s First Nations governments—have built a sustained campaign that has succeeded in delaying, and in some cases canceling, almost every attempt to send more Canadian oil to foreign markets.Canada’s tar sands hold one of the world’s largest deposits of oil, but as the industry has expanded production over the past decade, it’s been unable to complete new pipelines fast enough to ship it out. The past few years saw the failure of two major pipeline projects that would have carried tar sands oil to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada, as well as the delay, demise and then revival of Keystone XL. This week’s news on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, which is supposed to triple the capacity of an existing pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, was the latest setback.“With infrastructure projects like this, they don’t need to be turned down or stopped by people, they just need to be delayed to the degree that it makes sense to place capital elsewhere,” said Kevin Birn, an energy analyst with IHS Markit, a research firm. RBN Energy issued a report saying producers in the tar sands—also called oil sands—are being forced to export more of their oil by rail, driving up costs. It warned that no new pipeline capacity is slated to come online for at least a couple of years, and that each of the three projects that have been approved—including Trans Mountain—face substantial opposition and hurdles.

                Canada's Trudeau ready to offer aid to ensure pipeline is built (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday moved to end an escalating crisis over a Kinder Morgan Canada oil pipeline, saying Ottawa was prepared to offer financial aid to ensure the project went ahead. Trudeau cited investor confidence as one reason to help Kinder Morgan Canada, part of Kinder Morgan Inc, which plans to almost triple the capacity of its Trans Mountain line from Alberta to the Pacific province of British Columbia. The company, unhappy about moves by the British Columbia government to impede the C$7.4 billion ($5.9 billion) project on environmental grounds, is threatening to walk away unless it receives sufficient clarity about the path ahead by May 31. “I have instructed the minister of finance to initiate formal financial discussions with Kinder Morgan, the result of which will be to remove the uncertainty overhanging the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project,” Trudeau told reporters, calling the line “a vital strategic interest to Canada.” Trudeau, speaking after an emergency summit with the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia, said “we are actively pursuing legislative options that will assert and reinforce the government of Canada’s jurisdiction in this matter.” Both the federal and Alberta governments have already suggested they could take a stake in the project. Speaking before the meeting, a federal government source said past examples of help included a bailout of the auto industry in 2009, federal loan guarantees for a hydro-electric project and Ottawa’s investment in an offshore energy project. “Construction will go ahead,” said Trudeau, who is under increasing pressure from the business community and opposition politicians to take action amid fears the dispute could hit already flagging foreign investment. . 

                Trudeau Pledges Taxpayer Money, New Laws to Salvage Controversial Pipeline - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday he is ready to offer financial aid and new legislation to push forward the contentious Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that will triple production of tar sands going from Alberta to British Columbia.Houston-based developer Kinder Morgan has threatened to scrap the $7.4 billion (USD $5.9 billion) project unless political and legal opposition is resolved by May 31. The energy giant's move came after fierce opposition from environmental activists and Indigenous groups, as well as escalating tension between the Albertan and British Columbian governments.But after a meeting with the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia on Sunday, Trudeau insisted the project will go ahead."The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is of vital strategic interest to Canada," he said. "It will be built.""I have instructed the minister of finance to initiate formal financial discussions with Kinder Morgan, the result of which will be to remove the uncertainty overhanging the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project," Trudeau noted .Trudeau added that he is seeking federal jurisdiction over the pipeline "We are actively pursuing legislative options that will assert and reinforce the government of Canada's jurisdiction in this matter," he said.But British Columbia's Horgan said after the meeting he will continue to fight the pipeline expansion due to the threat of oil spills in the province."My obligation is to the people of B.C., and I will defend that until I am no longer premier," Horgan said Sunday.

                Alberta readies to cut B.C. fuel shipments in Canada pipeline row (Reuters) - Canada’s Alberta province on Monday edged closer to cutting off fuel shipments to neighboring British Columbia in an escalation of a row over the stalled C$7.4 billion ($5.9 billion) expansion of the Kinder Morgan Canada Trans Mountain pipeline. The project has pitted Ottawa and Alberta against British Columbia (B.C.), and could turn into a constitutional crisis, derail Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s energy strategy and dent business confidence. Kinder Morgan said earlier this month it was halting most work on the Trans Mountain expansion project, which was approved by Canada in 2016 but has been beset by legal tussles. The expansion of the pipeline, which extends from Alberta to the B.C. coast, is desperately needed by oil-rich Alberta, which wants to export more of the crude it produces. But it is vehemently opposed by B.C., which has pledged new environmental rules and a legal challenge, putting construction at risk. Seeking to put pressure on its neighbor, Alberta introduced legislation on Monday that gives it the power to control what products flow through export pipelines, allowing it to prioritize more valuable crude oil shipments over refined fuels, like gasoline. That could hurt B.C., which uses Alberta’s refined fuel. Trans Mountain is the only pipeline in North America that carries both crude and refined fuel products. “We did not start this fight, but let there be no doubt we will do whatever it takes to build this pipeline,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters. B.C. environment minister George Heyman said in response that his government was “prepared to defend British Columbians’ interests with every legal means available.”

                Update On The Brouhaha Between British Columbia And Alberta -- April 17, 2018 -- Apparently the word on the street is that Ms Notley will be defeated in the next election. The next election will take place on or before May 31, 2019.   She has said "the pipeline" will be built. She has threatened British Columbia with economic repercussions if the pipeline is further delayed or "killed."   Apparently there are already some pipelines that run from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia. These pipelines carry refined products (such as gasoline and diesel fuel) which customers in British Columbia purchase and consume. The pipelines also carry crude oil that is refined in a Burnaby, British Columbia, refinery. The pipelines also carry crude oil (and refined products?) for export, mostly to Asia. Apparently, right now, the pipeline moves product based on a free market, capitalistic system. According to Irina Slav at oilprice.com, a bill to change this "system" has been introduced into the Alberta legislature. If passed, the bill will give the Alberta provincial government the authority to license fuel traders. The Alberta government will be able to control what products and how much product will go through those pipelines. Facts:

                • Alberta supplies 50% of total fuel imported by British Columbia
                • the only refinery in British Columbia is the Burnaby (Vancouver) refinery
                • this refinery produces 25% of BC's fuels
                • without the "right" kind of fuel the refinery cannot operate properly
                • British Columbia has other options: fuel and crude oil from west coast of the United States; problem:
                  • more expensive
                  • would also likely raise cost/prices of oil and refined products for consumers on the US west coast

                B.C. to file legal challenge of contentious Canada oil pipe expansion  (Reuters) - The government of British Columbia said on Wednesday it would file a legal challenge of Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd’s contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by month-end, even as a poll showed mounting public support for the project. People protest Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline outside the British Columbia Supreme Court, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Ben NelmsThe West Coast province will file a reference case that asks the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether it has the jurisdiction to stop the C$7.4 billion ($5.9 billion) expansion, which was approved by the federal government in 2016. The legal process will tie the project up in court past the May 31 deadline set earlier this month by Kinder Morgan to scrap the expansion unless all legal and jurisdictional challenges are resolved. The Trans Mountain expansion, which would see a near tripling of capacity on an existing pipeline from Alberta to B.C.’s coast, has pitted Ottawa and the oil-rich province of Alberta against B.C. Some say it could turn into a constitutional crisis, derail Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s energy strategy and dent business confidence. “I think the challenge is that you’re not going to have a final answer to a question like this, no matter how quickly parties move, for many, many months,” said Michael Feder, a corporate litigator with McCarthy Tétrault. A decision by the B.C. court could be challenged in Canada’s Supreme Court, dragging any resolution into 2019, he said. 

                Corporate Canada demands Trudeau quell opposition to Trans Mountain pipeline -- From Canada’s corporate media, oil industry, and big business as a whole there is a deafening clamour for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal government to do whatever it takes to ensure the rapid completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which is to transport Alberta tar sands bitumen to the British Columbia shore. Numerous press commentators have declared that the fate of the Trudeau government now hangs in the balance. Failure to ensure that the “national interest” prevails will, they claim, undermine Canada’s competitive position, damage the Canadian federation, and cause domestic and international investors to withdraw their support for Trudeau’s Liberals. Some are urging Trudeau invoke the Emergencies Act, the successor to Canada’s notorious War Measures Act. Others that Ottawa deploy the army. Trudeau and his government have hastened to vow that the Can$7.6 billion project, which would triple the capacity of an existing pipeline, will be built, and built expeditiously. “Failure is not an option,” declared Finance Minister Bill Morneau last week. At the conclusion of an emergency meeting Sunday with the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia, Trudeau reiterated his previous assertions that the pipeline is in the “national interest.” “We are absolutely focused” on making progress “this construction season,” said Trudeau. “This is something Canadians expect us to do and quite frankly international investors who look at creating jobs in Canada want to see us able to do." The Trans Mountain project has long been a political flashpoint. Wide swathes of Canada’s population, especially in BC, oppose it because of its adverse impact on indigenous groups and the environment. In recent months, the pipeline project has been the subject of a bitter feud between the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) government and the BC NDP government, which is dependent on the support of three Green legislators for its parliamentary majority.

                Jerry Brown and Justin Trudeau: Climate Advocates, or Hypocrites? - Two leading political figures from the U.S. and Canada, who have boasted about the need to fight climate change , are now under fire for being climate change hypocrites: saying they care about the climate, but allowing drilling and fossil fuel infrastructure to be built anyway.  On Wednesday, more than 750 public interest groups from California and around the world, including Oil Change International , started a campaign urging the governor of California, Jerry Brown, to stop building fossil fuel infrastructure, including no new exploration permits offshore.  The letter told Brown to "take immediate action to protect those most vulnerable to climate change or lose their support for the global climate action summit that he will host five months from now in San Francisco."  The letter urged Brown, who has stated on numerous times that time is running out to solve climate change and who has stated that fighting the issue will be one of his signature acts , to "champion a vision for California that looks beyond the oil and gas industry to a future that is safe and healthy for everyone," the letter says.  But Brown is not the only politician who has promoted their green credentials who is now under fire for failing to adequately act on climate.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is due to fly back from an overseas trip over the weekend to convene a meeting concerning the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline that will triple production of dirty tar sands going from Alberta to British Columbia.  The pipeline has been subject to sustained protests and legal action by the local community and BC government, led by John Horgan. Earlier this week, Kinder Morgan announced that it was stopping work until the end of May until political and legal opposition is sorted. Many people now see the pipeline as being on " life support ."  Even the Economist argues that the pipeline is now likely to become "another flop," and noted that last week David McKay, head of RBC, Canada's largest bank, was concerned that investment was flowing out of the Canadian energy sector "in real time."  Trudeau continues to support the pipeline. Yesterday he tweeted that "I wouldn't approve major pipeline projects if I wasn't confident they could be done safely. And they can be done safely because we've made a massive investment in protecting our oceans and coastlines—in BC and across the country."

                 Pipeline Spills 76,000 Gallons of Crude Oil Emulsion in Northern Alberta - A pipeline owned by Paramount Resources Ltd. released an estimated 100,000 liters (approximately 26,000 gallons) of crude oil and 190,000 liters (approximately 50,000 gallons) of produced water near Zama City, in northwest Alberta, according to an April 11 incident report filed with the Alberta Energy Regulator.The release was discovered after company personnel looked into a low-pressure alarm from the company's leak detection system, the incident report states. The emergency status of the spill ended April 16. The report says that although "the release was initially believed to be minor," further investigation shows the spill to be around 290,000 liters and has impacted an area of 200 meters (approximately 656 feet) by 200 meters."The pipeline was isolated and depressurized, and clean-up is underway," the incident report states. "No reported impacts to wildlife."The cause of the spill is still under investigation, Paul Wykes, spokesperson with Paramount Resources, told DeSmog Canada.The spill is located approximately 10 kilometers (approximately 6.2 miles) northeast of Zama City, Wykes said.The remote pipeline is part of a network in the Zama area obtained by Paramount Resources when it acquired Apache Corp for $487 million in 2017.Between May 2013 and January 2014, Apache's pipeline infrastructure was plagued by a series of incidents that included one of the largest recent pipeline spills in North America.   In June 2013, a pipeline released 15.4 million liters of oil and toxic produced water into the muskeg, contaminating a 42-hectare (approximately 104-acre) span of boreal forest.   "Every plant and tree died" James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation, told the Globe and Mail at the time.

                Trump's Corporate-Friendly NAFTA 2.0 Would Be Total Climate Disaster, Report Warns -  A new report reveals how "NAFTA 2.0" could deal lock in fossil fuels and deliver a brutal blow to efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.  The publication from the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club U.S., and Greenpeace Mexico—NAFTA 2.0: For People Or Polluters? (pdf)—comes as the U.S. is reportedly hoping to reach a deal with Canada and Mexico in the next three weeks. But the groups' report warns that a "NAFTA renegotiation that fails to address climate change would be a costly exercise in climate denial."  "NAFTA was written to support corporate polluters, not climate-impacted communities. The deal must be fundamentally rewritten to benefit the working families hit hardest by the fossil fuel economy," said Ben Beachy, report author and director of Sierra Club's A Living Economy program. "Instead, Trump's climate-denying agenda for NAFTA 2.0 would give corporations a new, backdoor way to block climate protections while letting them offshore more jobs and pollution." Among the climate problems in the deal are the "proportionality rule" that forces Canada to make available for export to the U.S. the same percentage of oil and gas as it has in the past three years; the fact that it facilitates Mexico's dependence on fossil fuels; the inclusion of the regulation-thwarting, corporate-friendly "investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS); and that it allows corporations to just outsource emissions and pollution onto another country with less stringent regulations. Outlining how the proportionality rule is a barrier to climate progress, the report explains:  Canada must make available for export to the U.S. three quarters of its oil production and over half of its natural gas. Not only that. Ottawa also must not alter the proportion of tar sands oil in its export mix, nor the fraction of exports from hydraulically fractured (fracked) oil and natural gas. This means that although tar sands oil is one of the most carbon-intensive and locally damaging fuels on the planet and fracked gas can be a worse emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than coal, Canada is not allowed to phase them out faster than conventional oil and gas.

                Australia's Northern Territory Scraps Fracking Ban  - Australia’s Northern Territory has removed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing introduced two years ago while the state’s government assessed the potential impacts of fracking on the environment.Now, the assessment has been completed and the conclusion is that the Northern Territory can avoid the worst of the environmental effects of fracking by strictly regulating the activity.The Northern Territory, which spans more than half a million square miles from central Australia to the northern coast of the country, is the poorest and most scarcely populated state. It sits on a lot of oil and gas-bearing rocks, however, according to government information, and only a small part of these resources is being exploited.For now, gas production is better developed than oil production. There are a couple of LNG and onshore gas projects, including the offshore Ichthys LNG project due to start producing later this year, and the Darwin LNG project operated by ConocoPhillips that has been producing since 2006.Now the state is seeking to expand its hydrocarbons industry by tapping the potential reserves locked underground by fracking. “The risks from fracking can be reduced to acceptable levels,” the state’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner said, commenting on the conclusions of the study. “The moratorium on fracking in the Northern Territory will be lifted, with strict new laws to be in place before exploration or production can occur,” he added, noting that not all of the Northern Territory will be open to frackers: almost half of the land will remain outside their reach, including nature reserves and national parks.

                Vast reserves in Northern Territory up for grabs as Australia ends fracking ban - Australia’s Northern Territory on Tuesday lifted a nearly two-year moratorium on fracking to extract gas, unlocking vast onshore reserves in the resource-rich region and raising the possibility of other provinces following suit. The Northern Territory (NT), a 1.4 million sq km (540,000 sq miles) expanse of outback extending from the center of Australia to its northern coastline, had banned hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, in September, 2016 amid concerns the drilling method could harm the environment. It commissioned an inquiry into the environmental, social and economic risks of the extraction process and on Tuesday accepted the inquiry’s conclusion that the risks were manageable. “The moratorium on fracking in the Northern Territory will be lifted, with strict new laws to be in place before exploration or production can occur,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner told reporters in the Territory’s capital, Darwin. The announcement, which drew criticism from environmentalists, reopens shale gas reserves in the Beetaloo and McArthur basins for development. It immediately sent shares in commodity explorers in the region sharply higher, even though production is not expected to begin for about a decade. It also raised industry hopes for pushing Australia, with 88 trillion cubic feet of identified unconventional gas reserves, like the United States before it towards energy self-sufficiency if blocks on fracking were lifted elsewhere in the country. Origin Energy Ltd said it would resume plans “as soon as practical” to drill and frack the Beetaloo Basin shale gas field, which it says contains 6.6 trillion cubic feet in contingent reserves. Its shares rose 1.4 percent. Shares of McArthur basin explorer Empire Energy Group Ltd jumped by two thirds and shares in Armour Energy Ltd, which also holds exploration acreage in the region rose 6.7 percent. The broader market edged higher. 

                 Hundreds protest against NT decision to lift fracking moratorium - The Northern Territory Government has faced a backlash from protesters over its decision to lift a moratorium on fracking, while the Chief Minister travelled interstate for a conference. About 250 people gathered outside the Northern Territory Parliament to protest against the decision announced by Chief Minister Michael Gunner on Tuesday. The opponents yelled "shame, Gunner, shame", and called for the Chief Minister to come out and address the crowd. However, Mr Gunner was in Kununurra attending a forum on northern development. "I don't know how the politicians can look their children in the eye, [it's a] disgrace," one man said. The Government was accused of betraying the public after taking the moratorium on fracking to the last election. "It's a bit sad when a Government gets in saying they'll listen to scientific evidence and the community on this issue and yet same business as usual," one woman said. Many protesters were concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the Territory's water and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. "This is actually my first protest," local musician David said. "This is the first issue that's really engaged me to get off my behind and get involved. "I think it's just because water is just such a precious resource and we need it to live." An Indigenous man said he travelled all the way from Queensland to support traditional owners protesting against fracking.

                A first for the Panama Canal -- three LNG tankers crossed in one day -- Three liquefied natural gas tankers sailed through the Panama Canal on the same day this week, marking a first for the newly expanded waterway and highlighting the booming global gas trade. All three ships -- Gaslog Hong Kong, Gaslog Gibraltar and Clean Ocean -- entered the canal on a staggered basis from the Pacific side Tuesday and had completed their crossings by early Wednesday, according to vessel tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. A representative for the canal authority confirmed the tanker moves. The crossings underscore how the LNG trade has surged worldwide as new export facilities from the U.S. to Australia rumble to life and buyers in Asia boost their demand for the fuel. Since the canal completed a $5 billion expansion almost two years ago, traders and terminal developers have been closely watching the authority's ability to accommodate the jump in tanker traffic. "You're going to have a lot of these plants up an running and you need the logistics to get those cargoes" through the canal, Sam Margolin, lead analyst at Cowen and Company LLC in New York, said by telephone. The increased traffic "should make people feel a lot more confident about the U.S.'s ability to place LNG in China." Dominion Energy Inc.'s Cove Point LNG terminal -- the second to send U.S. shale gas overseas -- started commercial service this week, roughly two years after Cheniere Energy Inc. opened up its Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana. Thus far, Sabine Pass has shipped more than 300 cargoes to 26 countries. As of March, the Panama Canal has seen 134 LNG vessels pass through it this fiscal year, according to a statement. Though this marks the first time three ships made the transit in one day, two ships have made the journey in 24 hours more than a dozen times.

                Venezuela spends millions a day importing oil - Venezuela’s government is being forced to spend millions of dollars a day importing crude to prop up its ailing industry. Most of the enormous oil reserves Venezuela has access to is heavy crude, and needs to be diluted with lighter oil to become a commercially viable product. In 2016 Venezuela imported diluents for the first time in its history. In the two years since, those imports have grown to as many as 200,000 barrels a day, mostly from the US. Filling your tank is still cheaper than drinking water in Venezuela, but the industry can no longer meet domestic demands. “One of the craziest things is that a part of Venezuela’s imports is for the domestic market, but given its price, they practically give gasoline away for free. They are importing barrels that cost $80 to $90 and selling them at $0.”

                Greenpeace Finds Amazon Reef Formation Where Total Plans to Drill for Oil - A team of scientists on board the Greenpeace Esperanza ship have documented the existence of a rhodolith field where French company Total intends to drill for oil, 120km off the northern coast of Brazil.The finding proves the existence of a reef formation in the area and invalidates Total's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which states the closest reef formation is 8 kilometers (approximately 5 miles) away from one of the oil blocks. “Now that we know the Amazon Reef extension overlaps with the perimeter of Total's oil blocks, there is no other option for the Brazilian government but to deny the company's license to drill for oil in the region," said Thiago Almeida, Greenpeace Brazil campaigner."To learn the Amazon Reef extends beyond our expectations was one of the most exciting moments of my research about this ecosystem," said Fabiano Thompson, oceanographer and professor at Rio de Janeiro Federal University. "The more we research about the Amazon Reef, the more we find. We still know so little about this fascinating new ecosystem and the knowledge obtained so far indicates any oil drilling activity could seriously harm this unique system." Rhodoliths are calcareous algae that work as a habitat for fish and other reef creatures. Its presence confirms the Amazon Reef extends further than previously expected, as revealed in the scientific magazine Frontiers in Marine Science . The paper, based on footage of the reef captured in January 2017 during Greenpeace's first expedition to the region, estimates the Amazon reef to be 56,000 square kilometers (approximately 22,000 square miles)—almost six times larger than previous scientific estimates.

                Chevron expects LNG supply shortage by 2025 (Reuters) - Chevron Corp said on Tuesday it expected supply shortage in the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market by around 2025, echoing comments made last month by top LNG trader Royal Dutch Shell. Demand for natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal and oil, has surged as countries such as China look to curb environmental pollution. Chevron, owner of the giant Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG projects in Australia, said it expects global demand to be nearly 600 million metric tonne per annum (mmtpa) by 2035, while supply could be just about half of that. "China's demand is increasing significantly - they've had a very active programme to move off of coal in heating industrial applications, and that's pulled on LNG," Pierre Breber, EVP -downstream at Chevron, said during the company's analyst day, when asked about spot LNG prices. China imported record levels of LNG in January, as the world's second-largest economy shored up supplies ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations. Shell in February estimated that more than $200 billion of investments in LNG is needed to meet the boom in demand by 2030. The global LNG market is set to continue its rapid expansion into 2020 as facilities approved for construction in the first half of the decade come on line. However, a decline in spending in the sector since 2014 will create a supply gap from the mid-2020s unless new investments emerge, Shell said in its 2018 LNG Outlook.

                CNOOC sells LNG in first auction as China looks to avoid new gas crunch --China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) sold two liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargoes on a local exchange for the first time, just as China emerged from severe gas shortages this winter, during which industrial gas users had to divert supplies to residential customers.CNOOC sold a 60,000-ton LNG cargo for delivery in July and a 30,000-ton cargo for November delivery at an auction on the Shanghai Petroleum and Gas Exchange, Reuters reported, quoting an official at the exchange.“Interest in the auction was very strong,” the official told Reuters, adding that 18 bidders took part in the auction. The prices for the LNG volumes—all of which sold within 30 minutes—were “relatively low” compared to what the market had expected, said the official who declined to disclose the exact prices.CNOOC could hold another LNG auction next month, according to the official at the Shanghai exchange.The Chinese drive to burn more gas instead of coal left residents in the north freezing in a cold snap in early December, prompting China to backpedal on the coal ban in some areas to ease natural gas shortages. Ahead of the longest holiday period in China—the Lunar New Year in the middle of February, the country was gobbling up LNG cargoes from all over the world as it was trying to avoid severe natural gas shortages. This resulted in China becoming the world’s second-largest LNG importer in 2017, outpacing South Korea and second only behind Japan, the EIA said in February. Chinese LNG imports surged 46 percent last year. Today’s volumes sold are negligible compared to China’s enormous natural gas thirst. Yet, industrial buyers could use the LNG auctions to lock up supplies at favorable prices ahead of next winter’s heating season, according to Reuters.

                China is getting better at fracking - Chinese energy giants are making progress unlocking natural gas from shale rock formations, taking a step towards replicating the U.S. shale revolution, according to a new report. But China's national oil companies still have plenty of ground to cover before they even approximate the level of success America's shale pioneers have achieved, reports energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. Over the last decade, China's natural gas production has risen to 9 billion cubic meters. Wood Mackenzie forecasts that output will nearly double to 17 billion cubic meters by 2020 as Chinese energy giants fine tune advanced drilling methods tailored for their country. "In terms of technology, the Chinese NOCs actually have built up their learning curves in a relatively short period." -Dr. Tingyun Yang, Wood Mackenzie consultant While that's notable, it still makes China a minnow compared to the whale that is U.S. shale gas. Last year, American drillers produced 474.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas from shale rock. Wood Mackenzie's forecast puts output far short of targets set by Beijing. The country aimed to produce 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas from shale by the turn of the decade to cut its reliance on coal. "The simplest challenge for China to hit the 30 bcm target is the target's too high," Wood Mackenzie consultant Dr. Tingyun Yang told CNBC's "Squawk Box" in Asia. Chinese oil companies would have to roughly double their activity to hit that target, and that is "not physically feasible," says Yang.

                Chinese shale gas production will almost double in two years -- We've seen significant progress for shale gas in China over the last year.  As China races to meet government targets, its shale gas has grown to nearly 600 wells and 9 bcm of production. We project production to almost double to 17 bcm in 2020.  Sinopec's Fuling, PetroChina's Changning-Weiyuan and Zhaotong projects - which sit in the mountainous terrain of the Sichuan Basin – are responsible for a total capital investment of US$5.5 billion. Nearly 700 new wells will come onstream between 2018 and 2020 from the three projects combined. Despite commendable achievements in domestic shale, China will still miss the 2020 30-bcm production target announced in its 13th energy sector five-year plan by a considerable margin. While China is eager to materialise its shale gas potential to fuel its massive gasification initiative and support rising demand growth, there's much more work to be done.  Considering the impact of shale gas production on domestic demand, the 2020 13-bcm 'gap' will have to be filled by imports, in particular LNG. We have already witnessed how China was able to leverage on flexible LNG to cope with record-high demand this recent winter season. The good news is that well costs have gone down considerably – 40% for exploration wells compared to 2010 levels, and 25% for commercial wells compared to 2014.

                India jet fuel demand to soar as domestic air travel takes off (Reuters) - An Indian push to connect more cities via airports as an expanding middle class increasingly takes to the skies is set to help propel the country’s demand for jet fuel to record highs this year. FILE PHOTO: A Jet Airways plane is parked as another moves to runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport in Mumbai, India, February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File PhotoThat rapid growth in appetite for aviation fuel means the country’s refiners are far less likely to send cargoes abroad, tightening markets from Asia to Europe. Years of breakneck economic expansion have helped India become the world’s fastest growing major domestic aviation market, according to the International Air Transport Association. That has been underpinned by ambitious government plans to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure, including a push to build airports and offer airlines incentives to fly to smaller cities. “The country’s air transport sector has huge potential to grow in the long-term given its large geographical expanse and growing consumer affluence,” said Sri Paravaikkarasu, a Singapore-based analyst at energy consultancy FGE. Average monthly demand for jet fuel could break through 700,000 tonnes this year, up from 2017’s record 623,000 tonnes and from 566,000 tonnes in 2016, several industry analysts estimated. That would be an annual growth rate of around 12 percent, comparable to what China achieved during its main boom years in the early 2000s. For graphic on India jet fuel demand click reut.rs/2vj8QSl 

                Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix (Reuters) - Talks between Exxon Mobil and Iraq on a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure contract have reached an impasse, Iraqi officials and two industry sources said, in a potential setback to the oil major’s ambitions to expand in the country. More than two years of negotiations on awarding the U.S. firm a project to build a water treatment facility and related pipelines needed to boost Iraq’s oil production capacity have hit difficulties because the two sides differ on contract terms and costs, the officials and sources told Reuters. Unless the differences can be resolved, the project could be awarded to another company in a tender, the officials said, without elaborating on the points of dispute. Losing the contract could deal a blow to Exxon’s broader Iraqi plans, as it would be handed rights to develop at least two southern oilfields - Nahr Bin Umar and Artawi - as part of the deal. Exxon declined to comment. Further delays to the project could also hold back the oil industry in Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer; the country needs to inject water into its wells or risk losing pressure and face severe decline rates, especially at its mature oilfields. As freshwater is a scarce resource in Iraq, using treated seawater is one of the best alternatives. The Common Seawater Supply Project (CSSP), which would supply water to more than six southern oilfields, including Exxon’s existing West Qurna 1 field and BP’s (BP.L) Rumaila, was initially planned to be completed in 2013 but has now been delayed until 2022. “The CSSP would be expensive and challenging but there’s opportunity here (for Exxon) ... to get access to resources on a very large scale and to achieve something and really make a difference to its own business,” said Ian Thom, principal analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. 

                IEA: U.S.-China Trade Row Could Dampen Oil Demand Growth - OPEC is very close to achieving its mission to draw oil inventories down to their five-year average, but the ongoing U.S.-China trade spat is a risk to oil demand growth expectations this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Oil Market Report on Friday. The Paris-based agency kept its global oil demand growth estimate unchanged from last month’s report—at 1.5 million bpd for this year. “However, there is an element of risk to this outlook from the current tension on trade tariffs between China and the US,” the IEA noted. The trade dispute is “introducing a downward risk to the forecast,” said the agency which sees oil demand growth possibly dropping by around 690,000 bpd if global economic growth were reduced by 1 percent on the back of widespread increase in trade tariffs. “Oil demand would suffer the direct impact of lower bunker consumption and lower inland transportation of traded goods, reducing fuel oil and diesel use,” said the IEA. On the supply side, the agency continues to expect non-OPEC growth unchanged at 1.8 million bpd, with the U.S. production growth also unchanged from the previous report, at 1.3 million bpd year on year. Yet, there is concern about takeaway bottlenecks in Midland, Texas and in Canada, and those could widen the discounts of local grades to the international benchmarks, according to the IEA.  OECD commercial stocks—OPEC’s current measure of the success of its production cut deal—dropped by 26 million barrels in February and were just 30 million barrels above the five-year average at end-February. “The average could be reached by May, on the assumption of tight balances in 2Q18. Product stocks are already in deficit,” the IEA said. “With markets expected to tighten, it is possible that when we publish OECD stocks data in the next month or two they will have reached or even fallen below the five-year average target.

                Is OPEC's Mission "Accomplished"? - OPEC’s goal of draining the global inventory surplus has finally been achieved. The International Energy Agency said in its latest Oil Market Report that the supply overhang has pretty much vanished, thanks to OPEC’s efforts at limiting production. “It is not for us to declare on behalf of the Vienna agreement countries that it is ‘mission accomplished’, but if our outlook is accurate, it certainly looks very much like it,” the Paris-based energy agency wrote.Market fundamentals are on a similar track compared to last month’s report. The IEA kept its oil demand forecast at 1.5 million barrels per day (mb/d), although it noted that the back-and-forth on trade tariffs between the U.S. and China puts the demand outlook at risk. For example, a 1 percent decline in global GDP growth would result in a reduction in demand growth by 690,000 bpd. “Oil demand would suffer the direct impact of lower bunker consumption and lower inland transportation of traded goods, reducing fuel oil and diesel use,” the IEA said. Still, the negative effects of a trade war remain to be seen.The supply picture also looks about the same, with growth expected to hit a soaring 1.8 mb/d this year, underpinned by a staggering 1.3 mb/d growth rate from the U.S. However, the IEA said that its supply forecast is also vulnerable to some new potential risks. The pipeline bottleneck emerging in the Permian basin could slow the rate of growth of U.S. shale supply. “[T]here is concern about bottlenecks in takeaway capacity that have seen recent discounts for WTI Midland versus Houston widen to a record at nearly $9/bbl. This issue applies in Canada as well as in the US,” the IEA said. The flip side of that is the unexpected production declines from OPEC. The IEA said that taken together, some 800,000 bpd of supply has been sidelined, dramatically bolstering the impact of the OPEC/non-OPEC cuts. “To all intents and purposes, more than a second Saudi Arabia has been added to the output agreement,” the agency wrote. Sharp declines from Venezuela, in particular, are accentuating the agreement, helping to put OPEC’s compliance rate at 163 percent in March.

                Have you sent OPEC a thank you note yet? - Every oil executive owes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and OPEC, a thank you note, if not a steak dinner. The historic production agreement between OPEC, Russia and a handful of other national oil companies has sopped up the crude oil glut. The International Energy Agency reports that storage levels are returning to five-year averages.  Crude prices have risen to roughly the cost of producing the last barrel needed to meet global demand. That’s about $65 a barrel on the international market and $60 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. “Americans love to disparage OPEC and the Saudis for manipulating prices,” Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said. “But the truth is that Houston is much better off because of it.” Oil prices dropped below $30 a barrel in January 2016, and when Naimi tried to strike a deal with Russia, Iran and other countries to freeze production in April, the king’s 30-year old son, Mohammad bin Salman, called it off and named a new oil minister. After months of new negotiations, the prince signed off on a deal in November 2016 to work with Iran, Russia and other oil producers to cut crude supply. Their goal: return inventory levels to five-year norms and stabilize crude price in the $60 range. This is no small achievement. OPEC members have routinely cheated on quotas in the past, and this time they didn’t. The prince also convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to deny his nation’s oil companies significant revenues. After this success, the king named Mohammad bin Salman crown prince in June 2017, placing him in day-to-day control of the country.  His last stop was a low-key visit to Houston, where our oil executives should have welcomed him as a hero. Because without the crown prince’s deft diplomacy, a lot of their companies would be in bankruptcy.

                Oil Price Risk Cut After US Avoids Direct Confrontation With Russia - The US' declaration that the overnight missile strikes against Syria would be limited and a "one-time shot" may tamp down some of the risk to oil prices spiking when markets open Monday. At the moment, there appears to be no escalation of the conflict with Russian and Iranian forces, after the US and allies the UK and France launched attacks hitting suspected chemical weapons facilities associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  "We do know the operation is finished for now, and that it was indeed what most of us expected: a narrow action done for narrow purposes, punishing and deterring the use of chemical weapons," said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. US officials said they notified Russian counterparts through “normal deconfliction channels” that allied forces would be using Syrian airspace in the strikes, which did not hit any Russian assets.  The pre-attack communication with Russia, a key Assad ally, signals an attempt to avoid direct confrontation, said Olivier Jakob, an analyst with oil consultancy Petromatrix.  Oil prices had been pushed up to a three-and-a-half-year high of above $72/b on Friday, when US President Donald Trump signaled his intent to attack. With Syria having little oil production of its own, the main concern over supplies arising from a confrontation would be the threat to key supply routes out of the Middle East.  "Any escalation in Syria may also instigate unrest elsewhere in the region, either against the US or its allies, raising the threat to the delivery of energy supplies," analysts at Barclays Capital warned in a research note published before the missile attacks. "So with the driving season fast approaching and OPEC making its June meeting decision to extend all but a foregone conclusion, it is difficult to see much downside to oil prices in the next two months of Q2," the note added. Chris Midgley, head of S&P Global Platts Analytics, said the market has not had such a large risk premium since 2012, when low stocks and the conflict in Libya, along with geopolitics in Iraq and Iran, pushed oil prices to more than $100/b. While the situation today is similar, the growth in US shale supplies has mitigated the likelihood of a price spike, he said.

                Oil Prices Sink Amid Indications Syria Attack A One-Off - Crude prices started the week in negative territory on Monday, amid indications that weekend missile strikes against Syria by the United States, France and Britain may be a one-off event. New York-traded West Texas Intermediate crude futures lost $1.01, or 1.5%, to $66.38 a barrel by 3:50AM ET (0750GMT). The U.S. benchmark touched its highest level since Dec. 2014 in the last session at $67.76. Meanwhile, Brent crude futures, the benchmark for oil prices outside the U.S., sank $1.20, or roughly 1.7%, to $71.36 a barrel. Both benchmarks last week saw their strongest weekly percentage performance since late July of last year, with WTI gaining about 8.6%, while Brent saw a weekly increase of 8.2%. The United States, Britain, and France pounded Syria in a coordinated air strike on Friday night, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier this month believed to be carried out by forces aligned with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Douma, a town that was held by Syrian rebels. Suggesting that the military action would not be prolonged, President Donald Trump hailed the U.S.-led intervention in Syria as "perfectly executed" in a tweet on Saturday, adding that the military campaign to degrade the Assad regime's chemical weapons capability had accomplished its goals. While Syria is not a significant oil producer itself, the wider Middle East is the world's most important crude exporter and tension in the region tends to put oil markets on edge. Meanwhile, a rise in U.S. drilling for new production also dragged on prices. U.S. drillers added seven oil rigs in the week to April 13, bringing the total count to 815, Baker Hughes energy services firm said in its closely followed report on Friday. That was the highest number since March 2015, underscoring worries about rising U.S. output. Domestic oil production - driven by shale extraction - rose to an all-time high of 10.52 million bpd last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said, staying above Saudi Arabia's output levels and within reach of Russia, the world's biggest crude producer.

                Hedge funds build record bullish position in Brent: Kemp (Reuters) - Hedge funds are holding a near-record bullish position in crude oil and refined fuels but the buying seems to have run out of momentum and is increasingly concentrated only in Brent.Hedge funds and other money managers increased their net long position in the six most important futures and options contracts linked to petroleum by 12 million barrels in the week to April 10.The net long position has increased by 149 million barrels over the last four weeks to 1.365 billion barrels.Net length across the petroleum complex is only 118 million below the record of 1.484 billion set on Jan. 23.But the increasing bullishness is becoming more selective and is almost entirely concentrated in Brent, according to an analysis of position records published by regulators and exchanges.Portfolio managers increased their net long position in Brent by 17 million barrels in the week to April 10 and have raised net length by a total of 48 million barrels since Jan. 23.By contrast, the net long position in WTI was cut by 3 million barrels last week and is down by 108 million barrels since Jan. 23.Net positions in U.S. gasoline, U.S. heating oil and European gasoil were cut or essentially unchanged in the most recent week (https://tmsnrt.rs/2EQ0vFd).The result is an increasing divergence between Brent and WTI and to a lesser extent between Brent and refined fuels.Portfolio managers now hold a record net long position of 632 million barrels in Brent, up from 584 million on Jan. 23.Hedge fund long positions outnumber shorts in Brent by more than 20:1, up from a ratio of 11:1 back in January. The latest position data refers to positions at the end of trading on April 10, before the United States and its allies launched air strikes on Syria in the early hours of April 14.Rising political and military tensions across the Middle East, including in Syria and Yemen, have created a speculative bid for oil prices. Nonetheless, hedge fund positioning in Brent has become exceptionally stretched and is a significant source of downside risk if and when fund managers try to realize some of their profits.

                New Sanctions On Russia Could Lift Oil Prices Further - Crude oil prices started the week with a drop of about one percent as traders were still watching what happens in Syria next and despite the announcement that Washington will impose new sanctions on Russia for its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. At the time of writing, Brent crude traded at US$71.87, down by 0.98 percent from Friday’s close, and West Texas Intermediate was down 0.85 percent to US$66.82 a barrel, after on Sunday the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington would announce the third round of sanctions against Russia today. Speaking on “face the Nation” on CBS, Haley said “Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday if he hasn't already and they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use. And so I think everyone is going to feel it at this point. I think everyone knows that we sent a strong message and our hope is that they listen to it.” Perhaps market participants are waiting for the actual announcement before they decide whether it is time to panic or not, or perhaps the effect of any Syria-related news has lost its edge for oil prices after the strikes carried out by the U.S., the UK, and France over the weekend failed to spark what many worried would be World War Three.

                The Bullish And Bearish Case For Oil -  Oil prices could rise due to the perfect storm of stagnant supply, geopolitical risk, and a harsh winter,” according to an April 12 note from Barclays. Geopolitical events specifically could help keep Brent above $70 through April and May, which comes on the back of a substantial decline in oil inventories. The investment bank significantly tightened its forecast for Venezuelan production, lowering it to 1.1-1.2 million barrels per day (mb/d), down sharply from its previous forecast of 1.4 mb/d. That helped guide the bank’s upward revision for its price forecast for both WTI and Brent in 2018 and 2019, a boost of $3 per barrel.The flip side is that the explosive growth of U.S. shale keeps the market well supplied, and ultimately forces a downward price correction in the second half of the year, Barclays says. In fact, the investment bank said there are several factors that could conspire to kill off the recent rally. One of the looming supply risks is the potential confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. The re-implementation of sanctions threatens to cut off some 400,000 to 500,000 bpd of Iranian supply. But Barclays says these concerns are “misguided,” with the risk overblown. “Therefore, it is worth suggesting that in both of these countries, a dire scenario may already be priced in,” Barclays wrote.Ultimately, the current price levels could be “as good as it gets,” Barclays argues. The bank forecasts Brent will average $63 per barrel this year and only $60 per barrel in 2019.However, Goldman Sachs is way more bullish, noting that the sudden spike in geopolitical tension only “reinforces” its prediction of a 10 percent increase in commodity prices over the next 12 months. With the potential for inflation, the backwardation in the oil futures curve, and supply risks from geopolitical instability, “the strategic case for owning commodities has rarely been stronger,” Goldman analysts wrote last week. Goldman also cited the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, a development that would normally frighten oil traders but these days arguably doesn’t even rank in the top 5 in terms of supply risks. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have targeted Aramco facilities and an oil tanker, although none have succeeded in disrupting supply.

                Oil Markets: The Calm Before The Storm - U.S. oil production is expected to rise by another 125,000 bpd in May, compared to a month earlier.
                -    The gains will, unsurprisingly, come from the Permian basin, which is expected to add 73,000 bpd.
                -    Interestingly, the number of drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) continues to rise, an indication that supply chain bottlenecks are causing some delays.
                Oil prices rose sharply last week in anticipation of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Although Syria is only a marginal producer of oil, the fear was that the U.S. would get sucked into a broader conflict if it sparked retaliation from Russia or Iran. With only a narrow action taken by Washington, the threat of wider conflict abated. Oil fell on the news. In early trading on Tuesday oil held steady in anticipation of inventory drawdowns and comments from OPEC about a possible extension. Saudi Aramco earned $33.8 billion in the first six months of 2017, making it the most profitable company on the planet. The numbers are a closely held secret but Bloomberg News reported the details, offering the clearest picture yet on the inside workings of the famed oil company. Crucially, the first half of 2017 was a period of time in which oil prices were significantly lower than they are today. Also, Aramco appears to be virtually debt-free and has production costs at a small fraction of the broader industry.   Oil prices firmed up after Kuwait said that OPEC would consider extending the production cuts into 2019. “OPEC and its allies are expected to control their supplies at levels that meet demand even after crude inventories decline,” Jun Inoue, a senior economist at Mizuho Research Institute Ltd, told Bloomberg. The Canadian federal government said it would enter talks with Kinder Morgan Canada to offer the company some financial support in order to get its Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline off the ground. The company idled the project because of opposition from British Columbia and said it would be entirely scrapped by the end of May if there wasn’t a resolution.

                Oil prices little changed as profit locked in; supply worry supports - (Reuters) - Oil prices were little changed on Tuesday as investors took profit following last week's rally above three-year highs, with prices supported by growing concern over the potential for supply disruptions.Brent crude oil futures LCOc1 were down 9 cents at $71.33a barrel by 11:50 a.m. EDT (1550 GMT), having come off an earlier high of $71.89, while U.S. crude futures CLc1 slipped 8 cents to $66.14."We're starting to see a little of the premium come off from geopolitics, and the focus is shifting to inventories," said Bill Baruch, president of Blue Line Futures in Chicago. Brent has risen 1.4 percent so far this month. It hit a peak last week of $73.09, the highest since late 2014, amid mounting tensions in the Middle East, the possibility of renewed U.S.sanctions against Iran and falling output in Venezuela, where economic crisis has dragged down oil output to multi-year lows."The rally upwards was purely on geopolitical risk and if now we haven't had any further stimulus, we're seeing prices slip off a bit," Natixis commodities strategist Joel Hancock said. Analysts expected uncertainty over U.S. policy towards Iran to continue to support prices through May 12, the deadline that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to Congress and European allies to "fix" the Iran nuclear deal. If Washington does not renew sanctions relief for Tehran at this point, Iran may have difficulty exporting its crude.Healthy demand and coordinated crude supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and several partners including Russia have made oil one of thetop-performing commodities of 2018, with a gain of 7 percent,after wheat and corn, which have gained nearly 10 percent. Bullish enthusiasm over the outlook for oil prices, however,might be contained by an increase in supplies in Cushing,Oklahoma, the delivery point for U.S. crude futures.

                US Crude Oil Inventories Decline Slightly; Essentially Flat -- API -- April 17, 2018 -- Weekly crude oil inventories, API data:

                • forecast: an increase of 0.625 million bbls of oil
                • actual: a decrease of 1.047 million bbls of oil; oilprice.com said this was in-line with analysts expectation, although API forecast a slight build
                • the EIA data will be released Wednesday morning, 10:30 a.m. EDT
                • oilprice.com headline: "oil prices head higher after API reports crude inventory draw"
                • at close: WTI was up 30 cents for the day; trading at $66.52
                • 30 cents / $66.52 = 0.4%
                • technically, the headline was correct -- "oil prices were higher" -- 0.4%

                Oil Prices Head Higher After API Reports Crude Inventory Draw - The American Petroleum Institute (API) reported a draw of 1.047 million barrels of United States crude oil inventories for the week ending April 13, largely in line with analysts who had anticipated a draw in crude oil inventories of 1.429 million barrels. Last week, the American Petroleum Institute (API) reported surprise build of 1.758 million barrels of crude oil.The API reported a draw for gasoline inventories as well for week ending April 13, in the amount of of 2.473 million—a surprise given the small 227,000-barrel draw that analysts had expected.Neither benchmark saw much activity earlier on Tuesday, with a mixed bag of small ups and downs. The WTI benchmark was trading up by $0.05 (+0.08%) at $66.27—less than $0.50 over last week’s prices, while Brent traded down $0.07 (-0.10%) at $71.35—almost even with last week’s prices at 2:30 pm EST. Brent was trading up earlier in the day, as high as $71.64.Oil prices are in a tug of war with geopolitical risk premium courtesy of the Syrian conflict and Venezuelan production declines on one side, and US crude oil production and EIA forecasts of drilling productivity on the other.Yesterday, the Energy Information Administration said in its monthly Drilling Productivity Report that U.S. shale production is expected to increase by 125,000 bpd in May over April, with the Permian production surging by 73,000 bpd, Eagle Ford’s—by 24,000 bpd, and the Bakken’s by 15,000 bpd. And while forecasts of US production are grim, actual US crude oil production is even more grim, which for the week ending April 6 increased to 10.525 million bpd—a continuance of weeks and weeks of production gains.

                WTI/RBOB Surge After Across-The-Board Inventory Draws - WTI/RBOB has surged since last night's across-the-board bullish API report, and while DOE showed that US crude production rose to a new record high, it confirmed API's draws across all components. Bloomberg Intelligence Senior Energy Analyst Vince Piazza explains that, impelled by WTI discounts to Brent of greater than $5 a barrel, domestic refinery runs are expected to push higher.  Strength in crude exports, relative to last year, should persist even with recent sequential softness. While summer driving season presents a demand catalyst, U.S. crude production remains robust. DOE

                • Crude -1.071mm (+650k exp)
                • Cushing -1.115mm (-650k exp)
                • Gasoline -2.968mm
                • Distillates -3.107mm

                DOE data confirmed the API across-the-board inventory drawdown. Total petroleum stockpiles haven't been this low since March 2015...

                Oil tops $68 for the first time in more than three years as US crude stockpiles fall -  Oil prices rose to their highest level since late 2014 after government data showed U.S. crude stockpiles fell last week and as the market continued to worry about supply disruptions in key fossil fuel-producing nations.U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures ended Wednesday's session up $1.95, or 2.9 percent at $68.47, the best settle since Dec. 1, 2014. The contract hit an intraday high going back to Dec. 2, 2014.International benchmark Brent crude oil futures also hit hit a new intraday high going back to November 2014. The contract rose $1.90, or 2.7 percent, to end the session at $73.48 a barrel.Brent's settlement marked its best close since Nov. 26, 2014, the day before OPEC refused to take steps to stop a decline in oil prices, sparking a sharp sell-off that ultimately sent oil prices to 12-year lows. OPEC has since reversed course, reaching a deal with Russia and other oil producers to cut output by 1.8 million barrels a day starting in January 2017.The deal, which runs through the end of this year, has nearly shrunk global oil stockpiles to their five-year average. A committee that monitors adherence to the cuts meets in Saudi Arabia on Friday, and the wider group will gather in June to determine whether the agreement should be adjusted.Some senior Saudi officials are reportedly targeting $80 per barrel oil, and could argue for keeping the production caps in place to achieve that goal.U.S. commercial crude inventories dropped by 1.1 million barrels in the week through April 13, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported.Stockpiles of gasoline also dropped by 3 million barrels, while distillates fuels including diesel declined by 3.1 million barrels."It's a bullish report with the across-the-board drawdowns in everything," Oil tops $68 for the first time in more than three years as US crude stockpiles fall

                OPEC's new price hawk Saudi Arabia seeks oil as high as $100 - sources (Reuters) - Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia would be happy to see crude rise to $80 or even $100 a barrel, three industry sources said, a sign Riyadh will seek no changes to an OPEC supply-cutting deal even though the agreement’s original target is within sight. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and several other producers began to reduce supply in January 2017 in an attempt to erase a glut. They have extended the pact until December 2018 and meet in June to review policy. OPEC is closing in on the original target of the pact - reducing industrialized nations’ oil inventories to their five-year average. There is no indication yet, however, that Saudi Arabia or its allies want to wind down the supply cut. Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has emerged as OPEC’s leading supporter of measures to boost prices, a change from its more moderate stance in earlier years. Iran, once a keen OPEC price hawk, now wants lower prices than Saudi Arabia. Industry sources have linked this shift in Saudi Arabia’s stance to its desire to support the valuation of state oil company Aramco ahead of the kingdom’s planned sale of a minority stake in an initial public offering. The supply cut has helped boost oil prices this year to $73 a barrel, the highest since November 2014. Oil began a slide from above $100 - a price that Saudi Arabia endorsed in 2012 - in mid-2014, when growing supply from rival sources such as U.S. shale began to swamp the market. But the kingdom wants the rally to go further. Two industry sources said a desired crude price of $80 or even $100 was circulated by senior Saudi officials in closed-door briefings in recent weeks. “We have come full circle,” a separate high-level industry source said of the change in Saudi thinking. “I would not be surprised if Saudi Arabia wanted oil at $100 until this IPO is out of the way.” Once the Aramco share sale is done, Riyadh would still want higher prices to help fund initiatives such as Vision 2030, an economic reform plan championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

                Oil jumps 3 pct on Saudi price target, U.S stockpiles (Reuters) - Oil futures jumped nearly 3 percent on Wednesday on a decline in U.S. crude inventories and after sources signaled top exporter Saudi Arabia wants to see the crude price closer to $100 a barrel. OPEC’s new price hawk Saudi Arabia would be happy for crude to rise to $80 or even $100, three industry sources said, a sign Riyadh will seek no changes to a supply-cutting deal even though the agreement’s original target is within sight. Brent crude futures LCOc1 settled at $73.48 a barrel, up $1.90, or 2.7 percent. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures CLc1 gained $1.95, or 2.9 percent, to settle at $68.47 a barrel, their highest since late 2014. Prices were supported as U.S. oil stockpiles fell across the board last week with gasoline and distillates drawing down more than expected on stronger demand, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Crude inventories dropped by 1.1 million barrels as a result of a decline of 1.3 million barrels per day in net crude imports. “This may be one of the most bullish reports in some time, with the across-the-board declines in inventories,” said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital Management in New York. “Beyond the headlines, gasoline demand was very strong, virtually summer-like, and crude oil exports are climbed back toward 2 million bpd at 1.75 million.” Buying in anticipation of the report started late Tuesday, said Brian LaRose, a technical analyst with United-ICAP. The market also found support in expectation that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ production cuts will be sustained. OPEC and 10 rival producers have curbed output by a joint 1.8 million bpd since January 2017 and pledged to do so until the end of this year. OPEC’s ministerial committee tasked with monitoring the group’s supply-cutting deal with non-OPEC countries, led by Russia, meets in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday. “Despite an oil price of over $70 per barrel and the fact that the oversupply has been eliminated, a phase-out of the production cuts will not be on the agenda,” 

                Oil prices soar to highest level in years on Mideast tensions - Oil surged on Thursday (Apr 19) close to 3.5-year peaks on simmering Mideast tensions and keen US demand, while London stocks rose with drug manufacturer Shire boosted by a possible takeover battle. World oil prices extended Wednesday's gains on the back of data showing a drop in US stockpiles - indicating improved demand - and expectations that a Russia-OPEC output cap deal will be kept in place. The market was also propelled after OPEC kingpin reportedly stated it wanted crude prices to top US$80 per barrel as it prepares for a gigantic listing of part of its state oil company. Tensions in the oil-rich Middle East also kept prices elevated. "WTI and Brent Crude have hit fresh 41-month highs after Saudi Arabia stated they would be happy for oil to reach US$80 or US$100," said market analyst David Madden at CMC Markets UK. As OPEC members met on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, the cartel's largest producer was seen as favouring strengthening the partnership with Russia that has successfully limited production to mop up the glut that had sent oil prices plunging under US$30 per barrel in early 2016. "When it comes to the oil cartel, the Saudis usually get what they want," said Madden. Oil surged to summits last seen in November 2014, with London Brent striking US$74.74 per barrel and New York crude touching US$69.56. 

                Oil prices hit $75 as Saudi seeks hike - Oil prices rose on Thursday to their highest since late 2014 as the United States crude inventories declined after sources told the media that top exporter, Saudi Arabia is seeking to push oil prices higher. Brent crude oil futures rallied as high as 74.44 dollars a barrel, the strongest since Nov. 27, 2014, the day that OPEC decided to pump as much as it could to defend market share. Brent futures were at 74.35 dollars per barrel at 0823 GMT, up 87 cents from their last close. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures rose 71 cents to 69.18 dollars a barrel. WTI had earlier hit 69.27 dollars , its best level since Dec. 2, 2014. “Oil prices continued to climb on Thursday as a decline in U.S. crude inventories and commentary from Saudi Arabia that it will be happy to see crude rise to 80 dollars or even 100 dollars helped boost prices,” RBC said in a note. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers including Russia started to withhold output in 2017 to rein in oversupply that had depressed prices since 2014. OPEC and its partners will meet in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 20. OPEC will then meet on June 22 to review its oil production policy. Since the start of the supply cuts, crude inventories have gradually declined from record levels towards long-term average levels. Further supporting oil prices is an expectation that the U. S. will re-introduce sanctions against Iran, OPEC’s third-largest producer, which can result in further supply reductions from the Middle East.

                Why Oil Prices Can't Rise Very High, For Very Long - Gail Tverberg via Our Finite World - Oil prices are now as high as they have been for three years. At this writing, Brent is $74.14 per barrel and West Texas Intermediate is at $68.76. These prices aren’t really very high, if a person looks at the situation from a longer term point of view than the last three years.There is always a question of how high oil prices can go, and for how long.In fact, we have many resources, of many kinds, whose prices of extraction keep rising higher. For example, obtaining fresh water for the world’s population keeps getting more and more expensive. Some parts of the world need to resort to desalination.The world economy cannot withstand high prices for any of these resources for very long. Certainly, it cannot withstand high prices for a combination of necessary resources, because people need to cut back on other purchases, in order to afford the necessities whose prices are rising. This article is a guest post  by another actuary, who goes by the pseudonym Shunyata. He explains in a different way why high resource prices cannot last, whether they are for oil, or natural gas, water, or even fresh air.

                Oil pulls back from gains; OPEC says glut nearly gone (Reuters) - Oil prices on Thursday hit highs not seen since 2014, built on the ongoing drawdowns in global supply and as Saudi Arabia looks to push prices higher, though U.S. crude gave back gains in the afternoon to finish lower. o A global oil glut has been virtually eliminated, according to a joint OPEC and non-OPEC technical panel, two sources familiar with the matter said, thanks in part to an OPEC-led supply cut deal in place since January 2017. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures CLc1 settled 18 cents lower at $68.29 a barrel after earlier hitting $69.56, their highest since Nov. 28, 2014. WTI has gained nearly 8 percent in the last eight days of trading. Brent crude futures LCOc1 ended at $73.78 a barrel, up 30 cents. The global benchmark touched $74.75 a barrel, its highest since Nov. 27, 2014 - the day OPEC decided to pump as much as it could to defend market share. “Overall the supply-demand equation is fairly balanced,” said Anthony Scott, managing director at BTU Analytics in Denver. “It depends on expectations at this point - bullishness may be stalling out, and people are asking, ‘What’s the next leg; you need to see the next signal, whether it’s a bullish or bearish signal.’” Traders said speculators continue to bet on further upside, expecting potential supply disruptions and further drawdowns, driven by strong demand. More than 830,000 front-month contracts changed hands on CME Group’s New York Mercantile Exchange on Thursday, compared with a daily average of about 615,000. Investors are eyeing the $70 level on U.S. crude, but said that would likely face resistance, particularly as the speed and magnitude of the recent rally would augur for selling pressure before long. 

                 Bullish Sentiment Drives An Oil Price Rebound - Geopolitics and an ever-tightening oil market are pushing prices up to fresh multi-year highs. “Brent crude oil is ticking higher by the day as OPEC+ cuts are intact, global oil demand growth is firm…Venezuela oil production is in a death spiral, renewed Iran sanctions are imminent (12 May) and sanctions towards Russia on oil and not just aluminum is possible,” Bjarne Schieldrop, chief commodities analyst at SEB, wrote in a note. “Barring a global recession we think there is more room on the upside and as we stated in early march, if OPEC+ sticks to its cuts we are likely to see $85/bl later in the year as inventories draw lower.” While Friday morning saw a string of bearish news push oil down, this bullish sentiment drove a rebound in prices.  In an early morning tweet on Friday, President Trump took aim at OPEC. “Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!” His tweet helped reverse the gains for crude benchmarks, although the effect will likely be brief.   Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih said that OPEC will phase out its cuts so as not to shock the market, but that it would be premature to discuss such plans at the June meeting. He also said that the global economy could tolerate higher oil prices and that there wouldn’t be demand destruction. The comments suggest OPEC is set on keeping the limits in place for the rest of this year. Still, OPEC is meeting in Jeddah to take stock of the market, and the data suggests that they have just about eliminated the inventory surplus, which means that keeping the cuts in place could help drive up prices. “The petro-nations seem willing to over-tighten the market, with the current price levels fostering confidence in their supply deal,” Norbert Ruecker, head of macro and commodity research at Julius Baer, wrote in a note.

                Oil Prices Under Pressure As Rig Count Climbs Again -Coming off of what turned out to be a rather rocky morning for oil prices, U.S. drillers added 5-rigs to the number of oil and gas rigs this week, according to Baker Hughes. The total number of oil and gas rigs now stands at 1013, which is an addition of 156 rigs year over year.The number of oil rigs in the United States increased by 5 this week, for a total of 820 active oil wells in the U.S.—a figure that is 132 more rigs than this time last year. The number of gas rigs stayed the same this week, still at 192; 25 rigs above this week last year.While U.S. drillers seem determined to add rigs, Canada—which is suffering from a rather tumultuous war in its country over pipeline infrastructure and a rather significant discount in its Western Canadian Select (WCS) benchmark—continues to hemorrhage rigs, losing 9 more oil and gas rigs this week, after shedding hundreds of rigs in the in the last couple of months. At 93 total rigs, Canada now has 6 fewer rigs than it did a year ago.  Oil prices were trading down on Friday after President Donald Trump took a swing at OPEC’s price manipulation via Twitter. “Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!” The tweet read. WTI had just come off end-2014 highs on Thursday¬—a result of the of the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) of the OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers yesterday, which found that oil inventories in developed economies had dropped to just 12 million barrels over the official target of the cuts—the five-year average. West Texas Intermediate was trading down $0.06 (-0.09 percent) at $68.27 at 12:37pm EST. The Brent benchmark was trading down $0.10 (-0.14 percent) at $73.68. Both benchmarks are still up week on week. Aside from the Trump effect, oil price pressures remain from growing U.S. production, which rose again in the week ending April 13, reaching 10.540 million bpd—the eighth build in as many weeks—less than a half million bpd off the 11.0 million bpd forecast that many predict for 2018.

                Trump rails against high oil prices, OPEC pushes back (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump accused OPEC on Friday of “artificially” boosting oil prices, drawing rebukes from some of the world’s top energy exporters. “Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea. Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!” Trump wrote on Twitter. It was unclear what triggered the tweet, Trump’s first mention of OPEC on social media during his term. U.S. oil prices are near a three-year high, at close to $70 a barrel, and have been rising since OPEC and non-OPEC producers including Russia cut supply in January 2017 to end a global oil glut and price collapse. Trump’s tweet came shortly after officials from top oil exporter Saudi Arabia said they would like to see prices climb even higher and that they were still far from their goal of ending the supply glut. The cartel is expected to restrain supply through the end of this year, and possibly into 2019. Three Saudi officials told Reuters this week they would be happy to see oil hit $80 or $100 a barrel. Higher prices drive up gasoline prices for motorists worldwide and rising energy costs feed inflation. But higher oil prices have also benefited the U.S. energy industry, feeding rapid growth in output from shale fields. U.S. oil output is at record levels. Despite Trump’s comments, oil benchmarks ended the day modestly higher, rebounding from early losses. Several members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries responded to the tweet, saying prices were not artificially inflated. OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo said the output cut agreement halted the collapse in global oil prices, and is “on course to restore stability on a sustainable basis in the interest of producers, consumers and the global economy.” “We don’t have any price objective in OPEC, and not in this joint endeavor with non-OPEC,” Barkindo said on Friday, in response to Trump’s tweet. 

                Trump’s Oil Rant Misses New Reality: High Prices Can Help, Too - President Donald Trump may have a problem with oil prices being “very high,” but a decline would be a mixed bag for the U.S. economy, thanks to the boom in American energy production.When prices plunged starting in mid-2014 and stayed low for the next two years, U.S. producers felt the pain, much more and longer than was expected. A pullback in demand for oil-related equipment slowed mining and manufacturing output cooled investment and hurt jobs. For consumers, though, it expanded purchasing power, as less-expensive fill-ups at the gasoline pump left more money to spend elsewhere -- supporting the biggest part of the economy.The idea of cheap oil as a clear positive for the U.S. harks back to an earlier era when it would boost consumption, contain the trade deficit and hold down costs for businesses. Now oil prices play a more nuanced role: There’s been a boom in shale oil production, helping reduce petroleum imports and boost exports. And the global energy-price recovery since mid-2017 has helped usher a rebound in U.S. manufacturing and capital spending, underpinning growth.  If oil prices were to drop again, the effect won’t be “cut and dry the way it would’ve been even a few years ago,” said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities and a former Federal Reserve researcher. U.S. production has “ramped up dramatically,” so “from a growth perspective, there are both winners and losers,” he said. “It’s one of those things where 90 percent of the economy benefits small and 10 percent gets hurt big.”

                Oil ends modestly higher, posts a second straight weekly gain - Oil prices settled with a modest gain Friday, shaking off earlier weakness sparked by a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump, to finish higher for the week. Trump had taken to Twitter early Friday to blame the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for “artificially high” prices.  Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted! ‘”They are ‘artificially’ high. If they were not a quasi cartel, they would all be producing at capacity and prices would be lower,” said James Williams, energy economist at WTRG Economics. “However, it is unlikely that a tweet will change OPEC behavior. Virtually all of the OPEC countries need prices this high or higher to balance their budgets.” May West Texas Intermediate crude gave up earlier declines to edge up by 9 cents, or 0.1%, to settle at $68.38 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The U.S. benchmark hit a 3 ½-year high earlier this week, and the contract ended the week 1.5% higher. June WTI crude, which became the front-month contract the settlement, added 7 cents, or 0.1%, to $68.40.  June Brent crude rose 28 cents, or 0.4%, to $74.06 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, marking another finish at the highest since November 2014. It rose 2% for the week.The price action comes as members of the joint OPEC and non-OPEC ministerial monitoring committee held a meeting in Saudi Arabia Friday. OPEC ministers were quick to respond to Trump’s tweet, according to news reports, with Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih saying there is “not such a thing as artificial prices,” according to Bloomberg.

                Can Saudi Arabia Afford Its Megaprojects? - Most headlines with "Saudi Arabia" in them seem to feature a hefty sum of money. A US$500-billion smart city here, a US$200-billion solar project there--it's beginning to look like Saudi Arabia wouldn't even look at a project if it costs less than a billion dollars.One also gets the distinct feeling that Saudi Arabia is still an extremely rich nation that can afford all these projects, even without the listing of its state oil giant Aramco.The truth, however, may be that it can't afford them even with the Aramco listing. Here's a simple calculation. The Neom city project and the SoftBank deal alone come in at US$700 billion. Add to this a US$10-billion deal with Egypt for another smart city, the US$44-billion refinery deal with three Indian companies, and a couple of smaller projects: a US$7-billion refinery in Malaysia and a US$5-billion petrochemicals complex in Saudi Arabia. The bottom line of this selection: US$766 billion.Of course, the Kingdom won't finance all these projects on its own, but it will need to finance a certain portion of them—in some of the projects, even half of the total. Also, these are not all the large-scale projects that Saudi Arabia has signed up for. Let's make a crude assumption that Riyadh's participation in the megaprojects is half, at US$383 billion. Can it afford it? Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, the government's investment vehicle, has US$250 billion in assets under management. Plans are to expand this to US$400 billion by 2020 through local and international investments, but right now US$250 billion is what the Kingdom has in the fund, and oil is still below its target price of US$80 a barrel. Meanwhile, the 2018 Saudi budget features a deficit of US$52 billion and some observers believe the Kingdom is stretching itself too thin with all its ambitious reform plans.

                Israel Conferred With U.S. on Strike in Syria to Target Iranian War Gear- WSJ —With tacit American support, the Israeli military targeted an advanced Iranian air-defense system at a Syrian base last week, said intelligence officials and others briefed on the matter, the latest sign the Trump administration is working with Israel to blunt Tehran’s expanding influence in the Middle East. After conferring with President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a strike on the newly arrived antiaircraft battery to prevent Iranian forces from using it against Israeli warplanes carrying out increasing numbers of operations in Syria, some of these people said. Israeli officials told the Trump administration about the planned strike in advance so that the U.S. was aware of their plans to directly target an Iranian base, according to two people briefed on the plans. Israeli leaders have kept silent about the strike, but Russia, Iran and Syria all accused Israel of carrying it out. Information provided by intelligence officials and others briefed on the strike offered new details on the specific target, Israel’s goals, and the discussions with Washington. Last week’s attack marked a significant escalation in Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from cementing its military presence in Syria, where Tehran and its Hezbollah ally provide vital support for President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has threatened to hit back at Israel, which is bracing for a wider clash with Tehran. A protracted confrontation between the two Middle East rivals could create a dangerous new dynamic in Syria, where Mr. Trump is looking to extricate American forces from a convoluted conflict that shows no signs of coming to an end soon. Some U.S. officials worry that a broader Israel-Iran fight in Syria could trigger new spasms of conflict that envelop Lebanon and Israel. The region is roiled by a toxic stew of conflicting alliances surrounding the war in Syria. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are helping Mr. Assad push rebels to the brink of defeat. More than 2,000 U.S. troops whose mission is to defeat Islamic State militants work alongside Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria. And Turkey has seized another section of Syria as Ankara moves to contain Kurdish ambitions. U.S. support for the Israeli strike comes as Mr. Trump, wary of an open-ended fight in the Middle East, is leaning on allies—especially Israel and Saudi Arabia—to play a bigger role. 

                Russia And Iran Complete First Oil-For-Goods Transfer, Extend Agreement For A Year - Nearly four years after Iran and Russia first agreed to an oil-for-goods swap agreement worth billions of dollars, RT is reporting that the first delivery of Iranian crude oil to Russia under the program has been completed, and the two sides are angling to extend the deal, possible for another five years."The agreement is effective; it has been extended for the year, but in general, we think it should be extended for five years," said Russian Energy Ministry Aleksandr Novak.As we reported more than three years ago, the $20 billion agreement was initially signed in April 2014 when Iran was facing Western sanctions over its nuclear program (they have since been lifted thanks to the Iran deal, but will likely soon be reimposed). When the sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016, Novak said the deal was no longer necessary. However, Novak said in March 2017 that the plan was back on the table with Russia buying 100,000 barrels per day from Iran and selling the country $45 billion worth of goods. Another agreement was later signed in late May.Current Iranian oil supplies under the program amount to five million tons per year. The first delivery was made in November 2017 and totaled one million tons.Russia and Iran have also discussed cooperation in energy, electricity, nuclear energy, gas and oil, as well as cooperation in the field of railways, industry, and agriculture. Novak said in February that Russia’s state trading enterprise Promsirieimport has been authorized by the government to carry out the purchase of Iran’s oil through the oil-for-goods program under study by both countriesThe oil-for-goods swaps are expected to boost trade between the two countries (while conveniently circumventing the petrodollar system). The nations have also signed six provisional agreements to collaborate on "strategic" energy deals worth up to $30 billion.Presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said earlier this month that Russian investment in Iranian oil and gas fields could total more than $50 billion.

                Scorched Earth - The Middle East Oil Denial Policy --In a fascinating look back in time, recently released documents on the National Security Archives website show what plans the United States and its key ally in the Middle East at the time, the United Kingdom, had for Iran and other oil producing nations in the region.  The Top Secret National Security Council NSC 26 Report dated August 19, 1948, provides us with a plan of action should the Soviet Union make aggressive moves into the Middle East.  With the Middle East currently on "high alert", the information in this posting seemed, to me, to be particularly pertinent.NSC 26 also known as "Demolition and Abandonment of Oil Facilities and Fields in the Middle East" was collaborative effort by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State-Army-Navy-Airforce Coordinating Committee or SANACC and the State Department and became part of what was known as the "denial policy".   Here is the cover letter from the report: (image)The report examined the implications of a "determined attack" by the USSR on the Middle East region.  This attack would have resulted in a Soviet takeover of all of the Middle East's oil production facilities, a move which would have meant that the USSR would have been able to use the oil and associated refined products to fuel its military machine. In the Analysis section of the report, it is noted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that, at the time of the analysis, the United States and its allies would not be able to protect Middle Eastern oil against an attack by the USSR and that, to deny the Soviets of Middle East oil reserves, they would have to destroy surface installations including refineries, loading, storage and transportation facilities as well as plugging and abandoning all oil wells.  The analysis suggests the following:

                • 1.) surface oil facilities could be effectively destroyed within a few hours
                • 2.) plugging and abandoning wells would require from 30 to 60 days provided that the necessary personnel and equipment was available.  While this would render the wells unproducible in the future, the oil and natural gas reserves would remain intact and be available for later production.

                Syria: chemical weapons inspectors barred from Douma site - Russia and the Syrian regime have been accused by western diplomats of denying chemical weapons inspectors access to sites in the town of Douma, where an attack killed dozens and prompted US-led missile strikes over the weekend.Russia and Syria had cited “pending security issues” before inspectors could deploy to the town outside Damascus, said Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at a meeting of its executive council.Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped “all necessary arrangements will be made … to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible”.Meanwhile, the Trump administration delayed action on sanctions against Russians suspected of helping Syria’s chemical weapons programme, contradicting remarks on Sunday by the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley. Haley had said in a television interview that sanctions would be “coming down” on Monday. But the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said on Monday that “a decision will be made in the near future. We’ll keep you guys posted.”The Washington Post reported that Trump had intervened personally to delay the implementation of sanctions, citing unnamed sources as saying the president “was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them”.  And a senior administration source told Reuters that Trump was unlikely to approve more sanctions unless Moscow carries out a new cyber-attack or some other provocation.

                Russia Reveals Who "Staged" Syria Gas Attack, As US Claims Moscow "May Have Tampered" With Site - The Russian envoy to the chemical weapons watchdog group, OPCW, said that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by the UK and US carried out the April 7 chemical attack in the Damascus, Syria suburb of Douma. Russia's permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Alexander Shulgin, said Russia has irrefutable evidence that there was no chemical weapons incident in Douma. "Therefore, we have not just a "high degree of confidence," as our Western partners claim, but we have incontrovertible evidence that there was no incident on April 7 in Douma and that all this was a planned provocation by the British intelligence services, probably, with the participation of their senior allies from Washington with the aim of misleading the international community and justifying aggression against Syria," he stated. –Sputnik Shulgin added that the US, UK and France are not interested in conducting an objective investigation of the attack site. "They put the blame on the Syrian authorities in advance, without even waiting for the OPCW mission to begin to establish the possible facts of the use of chemical weapons in Syria," he said. The nine-member OPCW mission people has yet to deploy to the city of Douma according to the organization's Chief, citing pending security issues. The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM Team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place. In the meantime the Team was offered by the Syrian authorities that they could interview 22 witnesses who could be brought to Damascus,"  The Russian Envoy says that the controversial "White Helmets" were one of the anti-Assad "pseudo-humanitarian NGOs" which staged the event. As Disobedient Media and others have reported, the White Helmets are funded in large part by the United States.

                Syria chemical attack: Investigators allowed to visit site - BBC News: Chemical weapons inspectors in Syria will be permitted to visit the site of an alleged chemical attack on Wednesday, Russia has said. The international team has been in the country since Saturday, but has not been allowed to visit Douma. The attack on 7 April prompted military strikes on Syrian government targets by the US, UK, and France a week later. Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place - with Russia calling it a "staged thing". Early on Tuesday, Syrian state media said the country's air defences had responded to a missile attack over the western city of Homs. The missiles targeted Shayrat air base, it said - but did not say who fired the missiles. Another report, from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia, said that Syrian air defences had intercepted three missiles targeting Dumair military airport, north-east of the capital Damascus. A Pentagon spokesperson told Reuters: "There is no US military activity in that area at this time."Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are in the capital, Damascus - but have been waiting to begin their inspection. When they arrive at the site on Wednesday, it will be 11 days since the attack. They are expected to gather soil and other samples to help identify the substances - if any - used in an attack. 

                Syria air strikes: Russia denies tampering with suspected chemical attack site - BBC News: Russia has denied interfering with evidence at the site of the suspected Syrian chemical attack, which led to Western air strikes on Saturday. In an interview for BBC's Hardtalk, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site." The US raised concern at the international chemical weapons agency. International inspectors will be allowed to visit the site on Wednesday, the Russian military has announced. A nine-strong team from the agency, the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), has been waiting nearby in the Syrian capital Damascus for the green light. Douma was a rebel stronghold at the time of the attack on 7 April and is now under the control of the Syrian government and Russian military. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has defended Britain's involvement in the air strikes, saying it was to prevent "further human suffering", as opposition parties said MPs should have been consulted in advance.

                First Western Journalist In Syrian Hospital Which Treated “Chemical Weapons” Victims Explains What REALLY Happened - Forget what the Syrian government or the Ruskies say. The first Western journalist has interviewed doctors at the hospital in Douma, Syria which supposedly treated chemical weapons victims and is announcing what really happened.In the following 1-minute clip, award-winning journalist Robert Fisk – writer for Britain’s Independent for almost 30 years – explains that the video of victims struggling to breathe are real, but that they have nothing to do with a chemical weapons attack: Here’s a transcript:  I’ve just been in the town of Douma. I found the clinic where the film of the children frothing at the mouth and having water thrown at them was made. And I spoke to the hospital doctor, who actually spoke very good English. And he told me that the video is real. But they’re not suffering from gas poisoning.  They’re suffering from hypoxia (i.e. insufficient of oxygen) because of the amount of dust in the tunnels in which they live. All year people in the Douma area have been living beneath their own homes, in tunnels and basements. And that night there was a shelling by the Syrian army and the Russian air force. And it produced a huge amount of dust and debris in the streets. And many people found it difficult to breathe. And when they reached the clinic according to the doctor, someone shouted “gas” … and they panicked. Background. Update: Fisk filed the following report with the Independent today:The same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.As Dr Assim Rahaibani announces this extraordinary conclusion, it is worth observing that he is by his own admission not an eye witness himself and, as he speaks good English, he refers twice to the jihadi gunmen of Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] in Douma as “terrorists” – the regime’s word for their enemies, and a term used by many people across Syria.

                Famed War Reporter Robert Fisk Reaches Syrian 'Chemical Attack' Site, Concludes "They Were Not Gassed" -- Robert Fisk's bombshell first-hand account for the UK Independent runs contrary to nearly every claim circulating in major international press concerning what happened just over week ago on April 7th in an embattled suburb outside Damascus.   Importantly, the report, published late in the day Monday, is causing a stir among mainstream journalists whominutes after the Saudi-sponsored jihadist group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) accused the Syrian Army of gassing civiliansbegan uncritically promoting the "Assad gassed his own people" narrative as an already cemented and "proven" fact based on the mere word a notoriously brutal armed group who itself has admitted to using chemical weapons on the Syrian battlefield in prior years. Also notable is that no journalist or international observer was anywhere near Douma when the purported chemical attack took place.  Controversy ensued immediately after Fisk's report, especially as he is among the most recognizable names in the past four decades of Middle East war reporting, having twice won the British Press Awards' Journalist of the Year prize and as seven time winner of the British Press Awards' Foreign Correspondent of the Year (the NY Times has referred to him as "probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain" while The Guardian has called him "one of the most famous journalists in the world"). An Arabic speaker, Fisk says he was able to walk around and investigate newly liberated Douma without Syrian government or Russian minders (in part this is likely because he has reported from inside Syria going back decades, in war-torn 1982 Hama, for example), and he begins his account as follows:This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks–and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the “gas” videotape which horrified the world– despite all the doubters–is perfectly genuine. War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.

                Employee Of Bombed Syrian Research Site Says No Chemicals Released Is Proof None Existed - An employee of the chemical research center which was bombed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France says that no chemicals were released during the strike that leveled the building.  That’s incredibly important proof that no chemical weapons were actually there, he said.Said Said, an engineer at the Scientific Research Center facility, told RT Arabic that the very fact that no chemicals were released during the strike should serve as evidence that no chemical weapons program was run at the site.“You can see for yourself that nothing has happened. I’ve been here since 5:00 a.m. No signs of weapons-grade chemicals,“ he said.  The researcher said he had worked at the facility for decades, and it used to develop medicine and household chemicals.   Before...  After... (photos)   The West is alleging Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader used chemical weapons on civilians to justify military attacks on Damascus and Homs.  But interestingly enough, those strikes occurred the day before international investigators were scheduled to arrive to conduct a thorough inspection of the site. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had visited the site several times and never found any traces of banned chemicals. Since Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention under a deal brokered by Russia and the US in 2013, the UN chemical watchdog repeatedly confirmed its full compliance with its obligations to dismantle and remove its chemical stockpiles. In June 2014, the OPCW declared Syria free of chemical weapons.On April 12, even US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that the US government does not have any evidence that sarin or chlorine was used, that he was still looking for evidence. Yet the bombing happened anyway.

                Containers With Chlorine From Germany, Smoke Grenades From UK Found In Syria's Ghouta: Russia -- Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated during a Thursday press conference that containers filled with chlorine from Germany and smoke bombs manufactured in the United Kingdom city of Salisbury were found in the East Ghouta region of Damascus, the location of the alleged chemical attack by Assad which resulted in the launch of 105 Tomahawks on 3 Syrian targets by US, UK and French forces last Friday. “In the liberated areas of Eastern Ghouta, Syrian government troops have found containers with chlorine – the most horrible kind of chemical weapons – from Germany, and also smoke grenades produced – please pay attention [to this] – in the city of Salisbury, the UK,” Zakharova told a news conference in Moscow on Thursday.The findings undermine "the faith in humaneness” of some states’ leadership, who “give such orders and make such decisions," Zakharova added. No further details were released regarding this finding.

                Top UN Inspector: Assad Not Responsible For Chemical Weapons Attack - A former director of UN weapons inspectors has said that the Syrian government is not responsible for the recent chemical weapons attack, and claims the attack is an attempt to topple Bashar Al-Assad.Dozens of people were killed in the rebel-held town of Douma on Saturday, in an attack President Putin and others described as a ‘false flag’ perpetrated by the Al-Qaeda affiliated White Helmets group.On Sunday night, two Israeli F-15 fighters targeted a Syrian military airbase in the Homs province, firing eight guided missiles at the airport, killing 14 soldiers.  Infowars.com reports: However, according to chemical weapons expert Åke Sellström, who investigated the use of chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely that Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian Army were responsible for the attack in Eastern Ghouta. “With great criticism from the international community, Assad and Russians bombard Ghouta bit by bit, and that they would add the opportunity to be criticized for using chemicals – it feels strange. They do not need it, their tactics are already successful,” said Sellström, adding that there could be numerous “other explanations” for the attack. Sellström added that if the United Nations was to investigate the attack, recordings and testimony would not be enough to ascertain what happened. “We would have to meet people and doctors themselves and, in particular, need samples from the environment and poisoned persons,” said Sellström, adding that it would be difficult to measure chlorine exposure “because it evaporates quickly and does not leave any clear markers in the body”.

                Interview With Boy In Syria Video Raises More Doubts Over "Chemical Attack" - The boy portrayed as a ‘victim’ in a video of the alleged chemical attack in Douma has told a group of Russian correspondents led by Evgeny Poddubny that he was asked to go to hospital, where people “grabbed” him and started “pouring water” over his head. One of the main ‘characters’ in the footage is a soaked boy, who is seen being sprayed with water by people who claim to be ‘rescue workers.’ It’s not clear whether they are doctors from the hospital, human rights activists, or White Helmets members. The latter usually make such videos and send them to news agencies, including Reuters. Russian broadcaster VGTRK said it found the boy in the video, who appeared to be 11-year-old Hassan Diab. His story differed from the one presented by the activists and later propagated by the mainstream media. He told Poddubny: “Somebody was shouting that we had to go to the hospital, so we went there. When I came in, some people grabbed me and started pouring water over my head,” He was eventually found by his father, who said he didn’t hear about any chemical attack that day. “I went to the hospital, walked upstairs, and found my wife and children. I asked them what had happened, and they said people outside were shouting about some smell, and told them to go to the hospital. At the hospital, they gave dates and cookies to the kids,” he said. Full interview below:  According to Poddubny:

                • 11-year-old Hassan Diab is fine;
                • He suffered no injures from the “chemical attack” because there was no attack (at least then and there);
                • The boy participated in the video for food (rice, dates and cookies).

                Mapping Where The 13 Million Displaced Syrians Are - While the stock market seems to believe the worst is over, one-and-done-and-everyone-crawls-back-in-their-hole, we suspect the ordeal that the Syrian people are dealing with is far from over and could lead to an even greater spike in the number of displaced Syrians, 13 million of whom are now scattered all over the world.  That's according to a Pew Research Center analysis published in January. Statista's Niall McCarthy notes that Pew's analysis found that over 6 million Syrians are displaced within their own country and they account for 49 percent of all Syrians displaced worldwide. Turkey has the second highest population with 3.4 million displaced people currently living there.  Another million of them have made the long and dangerous journey to Europe. Germany hosts most of them with 530,000, followed by Sweden with 110,000. Another 54,000 Syrians live in Canada while 33,000 are in the United States. (infographic)

                U.S. Seeks Arab Force and Funding for Syria - Wall Street Journal—The Trump administration is seeking to assemble an Arab force to replace the U.S. military contingent in Syria and help stabilize the northeastern part of the country after the defeat of Islamic State, U.S. officials said. John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, recently called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort, officials said. The initiative comes as the administration has asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute billions of dollars to help restore northern Syria. It wants Arab nations to send troops as well, officials said.Details about the initiative, which haven’t been previously disclosed, have emerged in the days since the U.S.-led strikes on sites associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons capabilities.Mr. Trump, who has expressed growing impatience with the cost and duration of the effort to stabilize Syria, alluded to the push on Friday night, when he announced the missile strikes.  “We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing larger amounts of money," Mr. Trump said.In early April, Mr. Trump spoke about the need to speed the withdrawal of the 2,000 troops the U.S. has in Syria, a position at odds with many top advisers who worry that leaving the country too soon would cede ground to Iran, Russia, their proxies or other extremist groups. The new administration initiative is aimed at avoiding a security vacuum in Syria that would allow Islamic State to return or ceding hard-won gains to Iranian-backed forces in the country. A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment about Mr. Bolton’s call to Mr. Kamel, who is widely regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the Egyptian regime.

                Saudi Arabia Would Send Troops To Syria As Part Of "Islamic Coalition" -  The Trump administration is hoping to secure a commitment from a handful of Middle Eastern states to assemble what is effectively an Arab army for a permanent military "stabilizing force" in Syria that would replace the U.S. military deployment in Syria and overthrow Assad prevent ISIS from regaining lost territory in Syria's battle-ravaged east. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump's new neocon National Security Advisor John Bolton, only in his second week on the job, has discussed the possibility of contributing troops with Egypt's top intelligence official - allegedly one of the most influential figures in Egypt's military-led regime. And while full-scale commitments from Egypt and a handful of Gulf states remain elusive, should Trump succeed, he'd be able to tout a victory in an area where President Obama failed. Indeed, the Obama administration sought similar troop contributions from Syria's neighbors but came up empty handed.The Trump administration is seeking to assemble an Arab force to replace the U.S. military contingent in Syria and help stabilize the northeastern part of the country after the defeat of Islamic State, U.S. officials said.John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, recently called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort, officials said. The initiative comes as the administration has asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute billions of dollars to help restore northern Syria. It wants Arab nations to send troops as well, officials said.Update (10:30 pm ET): Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on local TV Tuesday that Saudi Arabia would consider sending troops to Syria if they were part of a coalition, per Sputnik. "We've proposed America to send forces of the Islamic Coalition to Syria in order to fight against terrorism," he said.

                Blackwater Founder May Train Arab Forces To Dominate Syria - Blackwater founder Erik Prince says he has been informally contacted by Arab officials looking to marshal a multi-national force in Syria which would be able to fill any "security vacuum" left by a United States withdrawal - similar to the one which allowed ISIS to flourish when President Obama pulled US troops out of Iraq.  The security force would have two goals: stop ISIS from reestablishing a presence in Syria, while also stopping Iran or Iranian-backed sources from doing the same (though Israel already has the latter pretty well under control). The mission of the regional force would be to work with the local Kurdish and Arab fighters the U.S. has been supporting to ensure Islamic State cannot make a comeback and preclude Iranian-backed forces from moving into former Islamic State territory, U.S. officials say. –WSJ As we reported yesterday, President Trump has already reached out to Egypt and the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, to contribute funds and manpower for the restoration of areas in Syria formerly held by the Islamic State. “We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing larger amounts of money,” he said. “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria,” Trump said last Friday. “It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better. But it’s a troubled place.” While Trump and his advisors say they want to withdraw the 2,000 or so US troops in Syria as soon as possible, according to the Wall Street Journal, Trump's new neocon National Security Advisor John Bolton has discussed the possibility of contributing troops with Egypt's top intelligence official - allegedly one of the most influential figures in Egypt's military-led regime. Pentagon officials say that while ISIS has lost around 90% of their foothold in Syria, it still remains strong in pockets along the border with Iraq and others - home to an estimated 5,000 - 12,000 ISIS fighters.  "In essence, the Trump administration wants to build a new anti-ISIS alliance in Syria that has not previously existed on the ground and which would bring with it all sorts of competing interests that don't necessarily align with America's."

                  Iraqi Planes Cross Into Syria, Bomb IS - Iraq on Thursday carried out air strikes on positions of the militant Islamic State group in Syria a week after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his country would defend itself from militant threats across the border. Iraqi F-16 warplanes crossed into Syria to carry out the strikes after coordination with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an Iraqi military spokesman said. “Carrying out air strikes on Daesh gangs in Syrian territories is because of the dangers posed by said gangs to Iraqi territories and is proof of the improved capabilities of our armed forces,” the Iraqi military said in a statement. Earlier this month, Abadi had said Iraq would “take all necessary measures if they threaten the security of Iraq”, referring to the jihadist militants who just three years ago overran a third of Iraq. The prime minister declared final victory over the ultra hardline group in December but it still poses a threat from pockets along the border with Syria and has continued to carry out ambushes, assassinations and bombings across Iraq. Iraq currently has good relations with Iran and Russia, Assad’s main backers in the seven-year Syrian civil war, while also enjoying strong support from the US-led coalition. 

                World War III Will Be An Economic War - There is a mass delusion in the mainstream created I think in large part by too much exposure to movie fantasy and TV fiction. It is an immediate assumption; one that I believe is far more dangerous than many people give it credit for. The assumption is that the next great war, should it occur, will inevitably be a nuclear one, and the doom surrounding it will end everything as we know it. Many people even get excited at the idea of World War III and the notion that it will “wipe the slate clean,” setting the stage for a positive human reformation from the ashes. I’m here to say that this is likely not how things will play out.  There are much more precise and effective weapons than nukes in the arsenal of the establishment globalists that manipulate political systems in various nations. For example, the use of weaponized economics and false paradigms. As I have warned for years now, a conflict between East and West has been engineered to take place, and this conflict will primarily be an economic one. I outlined this dynamic in October 2016 in my article East vs. West Division Is About The Dollar — Not Nuclear WarThe excitement and dread surrounding potential nuclear warfare distracts from the much more legitimate threat of a staged financial war between East and West (as well as regional wars by proxy in Syria and North Korea which could bog the US down in a mire). It is important to remember that all wars are invariably banker wars — that is to say, almost all wars benefit international financiers by creating an environment ripe for centralization of wealth and political power. This notion tends to confuse some analysts and activists in the liberty movement. There is a strange clinging obsession with these people to the idea that there is true international division and that this division includes Eastern governments on one side verses globalist controlled governments on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth.

                Russian Aluminum Giant Seeks Rescue From US Sanctions In China - One week ago, when we first discussed the upcoming surge in commodity prices - especially aluminum and nickel - following Trump's latest Russian sanctions, which in turn sent the stock and bond prices of Russian aluminum giant Rusal crashing amid fears the company would be unable to access capital markets now that it has become "radioactive" to western banks, we suggested that it do the next logical thing: "seek funding in China" or approach Beijing as a market that is exempt from US sanctions: after all, China itself has a ravenous demand for the product. As it turns out, that's precisely what the company - owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska -has done. According to Bloomberg, officials from Rusal, the world's second largest aluminum producer, met Chinese companies and traders this week to discuss the possibility of buying alumina and selling aluminum in China. Still, China's response was lukewarm: after all, Beijing itself is locked in an escalating trade war with the US and the last thing it wants is to infuriate the moustached neocons in the Trump administration by allowing Russian companies to skirt US sanctions.Rusal’s delegation in China, which includes senior marketing and sales representatives, is discussing potential options but hasn’t reached any sort of agreement and may not do so, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private. Chinese officials were cautious about any sort of deal because of the risk of contravening sanctions, the people said.Furthermore, in addition to finding capital and buyers for its product, Rusal is looking for alternative sources of alumina, the raw material for aluminum, as sanctions block its normal supplies.At the same time, the company’s asking traders whether it can boost sales of the refined metal in ingot form in China, as its usual customers are cut off. Rusal’s press office declined to comment. And while Beijing may be able to quietly provide Rusal with funding, China may not be the "all-in" savior Rusal is seeking. As a reminder, the world’s biggest aluminum producer has already been cutting excess capacity, and has been exporting, and in some cases dumping, huge volumes of aluminum products it doesn’t need domestically and exchange warehouses are brimming with record stockpiles. What’s more, its own aluminum industry is being targeted by U.S. trade tariffs.

                 US grain ships diverted at sea hours after China imposes grain tariff  -- Ships laden with more than 1.2m tonnes of US sorghum bound for China may have no where to go amid the ongoing trade tensions between Beijing and Washington. Twenty ships carrying more than $216m worth of sorghum were at sea on Friday, according to Reuters, but least five of them had changed course within hours of China’s announcement this week that it would place stiff tariffs on the grain. On Tuesday, Beijing said US importers had been dumping the grain, used for animal feed as well as China’s traditional baijiu liquor, on the Chinese market and harming Chinese farmers. China’s ministry of commerce said it would begin requiring deposits of 178.6% of the value of grain shipments. The five diverted sorghum ships, all loaded in Texas, would have had to pay that deposit, rendering their shipments unprofitable, Reuters reported.China said the new requirements on sorghum imports were the result of a previous inquiry. In February, after the US placed tariffs on Chinese solar panels and washing machines, China started its own investigation into the impact of US imports on Chinese businesses.The world’s two largest economies have been locked in a tit-for-tat tariff war over what the White House insists is unfair Chinese trade policy. Donald Trump has threatened tariffs on as much as $150bn in Chinese imports. Beijing has promised to levy major US exports to China, including grains, agriculture, food products, vehicles, and aircraft. US regulators this week took aim at Chinese technology companies, banning American companies from selling parts or software to telecom equipment maker ZTE. US telecom firms will also be barred from buying equipment from foreign companies deemed a security risk, a move likely to hurt Chinese telecom Huawei as well as ZTE.

                Chinese police use facial recognition tech to identify suspect from crowd of 50,000 - The 31-year-old suspect, who has only been identified by his surname, Ao, was attending a concert by Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung with his wife and friends last week. The South China Morning Post reports that Ao was shocked when police approached and led him away for “economic crimes.” Ao had driven 56 miles to attend the concert. He was quoted as saying he felt safe in such a huge crowd and would never have gone if he knew there was a risk of him being spotted. He was identified at the concert’s ticket entrance before being apprehended by police after sitting down alongside other attendees. “Ao was suspected to be involved in an economic crime and was listed on a national online system,” said police officer Li Jin of Honggutan police station in Nanchang city. "He didn't think the police would be able to catch him from a crowd of 60,000 so quickly," Last August, authorities used facial recognition technology to arrest 25 suspects at the Qingdao Beer Festival. And earlier this year, officers stationed at the Zhengzhou East high-speed rail station in Henan province made headlines after they were issued glasses embedded with facial scanning technology. With 170 million CCTV cameras already in use, China continues to work on "the world's biggest camera surveillance network." It’s expected that millions more will be added over the next few years, many of which will feature forms of AI that include facial recognition.

                China Warns Australia Against Being a Democracy - The natural tensions between the Australian democracy and Chinese autocracy are back today. Via The Australian:China’s ambassador to Australia has warned that the relationship between the two countries has been marred by “systematic, irresponsible and negative remarks” about China, and trading ties could be damaged if the situation is not repaired.In a frank interview with The Australian at the Chinese embassy in Canberra, Cheng Jingye said Australia needed to do more to “increase mutual trust” in its ties with China.“If there is a growing lack of mutual trust, in the long run it may have some undesirable impact (on trade relations with China),” Mr Cheng said.While the ambassador did not single out any area of trade that could be affected, he said there were already concerns that some Chinese students in Australia had been subjected to “irresponsible and malicious allegations” and “security and safety incidents”.Mr Cheng rejected suggestions that China was interfering in the political processes in Australia and said last year’s campaign against former Labor senator Sam Dastayari over his dealings with Chinese businesspeople in Australia had been “unfortunately manipulated as a pretext to smear China’s image”.Mr Cheng said Australians needed to decide whether they saw China as an opportunity or a threat. ‘Some Australians, a minority, always see China through coloured lenses — totally dark glasses,” he said. “If you have a deep-rooted prejudice against somebody or some thing, you may find everything in a twisted manner and you cannot come to a rational judgment.” What should we do, Mr Ambassador. Round up the dissidents for re-education?

                Chinese military conducts exercises in South China Sea and Taiwan Strait - Amid rising tensions in East Asia, the Chinese military recently conducted major naval exercises in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. While the Western media emphasised their size and supposedly menacing character, the drills are in response to Washington’s provocative and confrontational stance toward Beijing.Since the end of last month, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy has completed two major exercises off the coast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea, followed this Wednesday by a “live-fire” exercise in the Taiwan Strait.The naval drills were the largest ever, with an estimated 10,000 personnel, 76 aircraft and 48 warships involved, including China’s only aircraft carrier and one of its nuclear submarines. Further underscoring the importance of the exercises, Chinese President Xi Jinping was present, along with all members of China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission. Reviewing the assembled armada, Xi delivered a speech, urging the navy to urgently become a world class fleet because “a mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation … Today’s people’s navy is standing in the east of the world with a new attitude.”  Facing US challenges to Chinese interests in Asia and internationally, China has been transforming its navy from one devoted to coastal defence to a blue water fleet capable of operating around the world. Describing the exercise as a routine operation, the Defence Ministry stated: “Its aim is to test the training capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army … It is also aimed at improving combat abilities of the whole military.” While it claimed the exercises were not aimed “at any country in particular,” there are clearly fears in Beijing over the mounting US military threat.

                ‘Semi-Infinite’ Trove of Rare-Earth Metals Found in Japanese Seabed - Researchers have found hundreds of years’ worth of critical rare-earth metals beneath Japanese waters — enough to supply to the world on a “semi-infinite basis,” according to a study published on Tuesday. The materials sit in a roughly 965-square-mile Pacific Ocean seabed near Minamitorishima Island, which is located 1,150 miles southeast of Tokyo, according to the study published in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports. Rare-earth metals are crucial in the making of high-tech products such as electric vehicles, mobile phones and batteries, and the world has relied on China for almost all of its rare-earth material. The seabed contains more than 16 million tons of rare-earth oxides, according to the study. That’s equivalent to 780 years’ worth of yttrium supply, 620 years of europium, 420 years of terbium and 730 years of dysprosium, it added. The discovery “has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world,” the study said. 

                North and South Korea reportedly set to announce official end to war - North and South Korea are in talks to announce a permanent end to the officially declared military conflict between the two countries, daily newspaper Munhwa Ilbo reported Tuesday, citing an unnamed South Korean official.Ahead of a summit next week between North Korean premier Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, lawmakers from the neighboring states were thought to be negotiating the details of a joint statement that could outline an end to the confrontation.Kim and Moon could also discuss returning the heavily fortified demilitarized zone separating them to its original state, the newspaper said.Pyongyang and Seoul have technically been at war since the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended with a truce — and not a peace treaty. Geopolitical tensions have occasionally flared up since the armistice, although to date both countries have managed to avoid another devastating conflict.A successful summit between the Koreas later this month could help pave the way for a meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump. The U.S. president and North  Korean leader are poised to hold talks in late May or June, according to the Korean Central News Agency

                South Korea’s president: N. Korea seeking “complete denuclearization” (Reuters) - North Korea has expressed its desire for “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula and is not seeking conditions such as U.S. troops withdrawing from the South first, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday. Moon said big-picture agreements about normalization of relations between the two Koreas and the United States should not be difficult to reach through planned summits between North and South, and between the North and the United States, in a bid to rein in the North’s nuclear and missile programs. “North Korea is expressing a will for a complete denuclearization,” Moon told reporters. “They have not attached any conditions that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. All they are expressing is the end of hostile policies against North Korea, followed by a guarantee of security.” North Korea has defended its weapons programs, which it pursues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as a necessary deterrent against perceived U.S. hostility. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea has said over the years that it could consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan. South Korea announced on Wednesday that it is considering how to change a decades-old armistice with North Korea into a peace agreement as it prepares for the North-South summit this month. Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. 

                North Korea announces shutdown of nuclear test site, freeze on nuclear and missile tests - North Korea said Saturday it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests and plans to close its nuclear test site.The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the country is making the move to shift its national focus and improve its economy. The North also vowed to actively engage with regional neighbors and the international community to secure peace in the Korean Peninsula and create an “optimal international environment” to build its economy.The announcements came days before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a border truce village for a rare summit aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.A separate meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump is anticipated in May or June.The North’s decisions were made in a meeting of the ruling party’s full Central Committee which had convened to discuss a “new stage” of policies.The Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee declared it a “great victory” in the country’s official “byungjin” policy line of simultaneously pursuing economic and nuclear development. The committee unanimously adopted a resolution that called for concentrating national efforts to achieve a strong socialist economy and “groundbreaking improvements in people’s lives.” North Korea’s abrupt diplomatic outreach in recent months came after a flurry of weapons tests, including the underground detonation of a possible thermonuclear warhead and three launches of developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to strike the U.S. mainland.

                In China and India, men outnumber women on a massive scale. The consequences are far-reaching - Nothing like this has happened in human history. A combination of cultural preferences, government decree and modern medical technology in the world's two largest countries has created a gender imbalance on a continental scale. Men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India. The consequences of having too many men, now coming of age, are far-reaching: Beyond an epidemic of loneliness, the imbalance distorts labour markets, drives up savings rates in China and drives down consumption, artificially inflates certain property values, and parallels increases in violent crime, trafficking or prostitution in a growing number of locations. Those consequences are not confined to China and India, but reach deep into their Asian neighbours and distort the economies of Europe and the Americas, as well. Barely recognised, the ramifications of too many men are only starting to come into sight. "In the future, there will be millions of men who can't marry, and that could pose a very big risk to society," warns Li Shuzhuo, a leading demographer at Xi'an Jiaotong University. Out of China's population of 1.4 billion, there are nearly 34 million more males than females - the equivalent of almost the entire population of California, or Poland, who will never find wives and only rarely have sex. China's official one-child policy, in effect from 1979 to 2015, was a huge factor in creating this imbalance, as millions of couples were determined that their child should be a son. India, a country that has a deeply held preferences for sons and male heirs, has an excess of 37 million males, according to its most recent census. The number of newborn female babies compared with males has continued to plummet, even as the country grows more developed and prosperous. The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice. In the two countries, 50 million excess males are under age 20. 

                India and China: Lessons on How Not to Tackle Inequality - Wealth inequality continues to grow, according to the 2018 edition of the World Inequality Report. In the past three decades, 28% of the aggregate increase in real incomes in North America and Western Europe was captured by the top 1% of earners. The bottom half saw less than 10% of this increase. Inequality has also settled at alarmingly high levels in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This crisis was never inevitable. Middle-class wealth reached its peak in the mid-1980s. But it’s been ravaged by stagnant incomes, unstable property and investment markets. Growing consumer debt is also a problem. Failed policy and weak political will are two culprits: more creativity and effort seems to have gone into election year soundbites and platitudes than into substantive solutions. Many developing nations have targeted poverty alleviation and improved living standards as ultimate policy goals. While China has achieved poverty alleviation on an historic scale, policy obstacles remain. These include bureaucratic inefficiency and failed policy implementation. India has likewise made progress in alleviating poverty though it lags significantly behind China. Inequality hampers growth by leaving human potential unrealised. The middle class provides a crucial market for consumer goods and services, which in turn creates jobs. The cycle is interrupted when profits are excessively retained rather than reinvested into further capacity – such as strong health and education sectors. Market purists argue simplistically that there should be no constraint to profiteering within legal bounds. Government policy is needed to balance private and social interests.

                Cash crunch: ATMs are getting only 30% of cash they ask for -  ATM managers are struggling to fill up their machines in the past 10 days or so as currency supply from banks has
                fallen dramatically and led to a cash shortage in various parts of India, the Confederation of ATM  Industry (CATMI) said. “Until the end of March, banks used to give us 90% of the indent we raise. Since the start of this month, it has dropped to 30%. States like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Telangana  are facing an acute shortage. We are yet to ascertain the reasons for the crunch but it looks like banks are not getting enough cash from the RBI,” said V Balasubramanian, board member of CATMI and managing director of payments company FSS.   Navroze Dastur, MD at NCR, the largest ATM manager in the country, said that supply of currency has failed to match the demand and  expansion of the economy. “We have been seeing a gradual increase in ATM transactions and average ticket size which we believe is linked to higher demand and also some hoarding of cash. All this is now hitting when supply has not kept pace,” Dastur said. Average ATM withdrawals have risen to Rs 3,500-Rs 3,800 from Rs 2,500-Rs 2,800 in the last three months, Dastur said. Balasubramanian said cash levels at the ATMs had come back to the pre-demonetisation levels in March and  operations were normal despite it being the last month of the financial year.

                Current cash crunch shines a light on Modi government’s fundamental incompetence Now, as ATMs in many states have run as dry as shallow watering holes in peak summer, the shortage is making frontpage headlines.This cash drought is an uncomfortable echo of the chaotic weeks following Narendra Modi’s infamous proclamation in late 2016 of a ban on high-value currency notes. There’s more cash in circulation today than on the day the note ban was announced – Rs 18.17 lakh crore at the last count in early April as against Rs 17.9 lakh crore on November 8, 2016. How can it be that there’s more cash than ever sloshing around the system and yet citizens are having a tough time getting their hands on it through devices that promise Any Time Money? The answer is that the Modi government might be creating the monster it feared. The note ban demonised cash and targeted hoarders of banknotes, even as experts pointed out that only a small percentage of illegally obtained wealth was retained as paper currency. The weeks-long denial of access to their hard-earned savings appears to have eroded people’s trust in banks. A woman who would have reasoned, “Let me store my savings in a bank account, keeping only the bare minimum I need, because it’s much safer in the bank and earns a bit of interest”, is now likelier to think, “Let me keep more cash at home, since being robbed seems unlikelier than the government preventing me from withdrawing savings from institutions”. The reasons for the present cash shortage are complex, and probably involve evasion of the Goods and Services Tax, the arrival of a large supply of foodgrain in procurement markets, the upcoming festive season, elections scheduled in the next 12 months, and rumours surrounding the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill passed last year. At the root of the crisis, however, lies the broken trust between banks and their customers, underlined by the glacial pace of deposit growth in the past year.

                India calms cash crunch worries, will ensure adequate currency supply (Reuters) - India’s government and the central bank will ensure there is an adequate amount of currency notes, following reports that banks’ automated teller machines had run out of cash in different parts of the country, the government said on Tuesday. Cash withdrawals in India go up during crop harvest season which is usually during March to April, and then during festival season in October, but there has been an unusual rise in currency demand in the last three months. That is a source of worry for India’s policymakers as a sustained heavy currency withdrawal suggests a return of cash hoarding by individuals, diluting the purpose of a massive note ban exercise by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late 2016. “The total stock of currency has come down but still we have notes worth more than two trillion rupees ($30.46 billion) in stock which is more than sufficient,” said the government’s economic affairs secretary Subhash Chandra Garg. Currency withdrawal by individuals during January-March 2018 was at 1.4 trillion rupees, sharply higher than 1.1 trillion rupees in the same quarter of 2016, according to Reserve Bank of India data. The March 2017 quarter data is not comparable as the RBI was in the process of re-injecting currency notes after the so-called demonetisation in November 2016. While it is difficult to trace any specific reason for such massive cash withdrawals this year, analysts say that concerns over the health of India’s banking system has also triggered savers to withdraw cash. India’s banking system has been fraught with challenges including a surge in bad loans and a recent revelation of a $2-billion fraud at the country’s second-largest state lender Punjab National Bank. Investors have also been wary of issues surrounding the chief executives of two big private sector lenders - ICICI Bank and Axis Bank. Cash withdrawals have gone up sharply in the last three months especially in states of Andhra Pradesh, Telenghana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, the government said in a release adding that it would be “supplying adequate currency notes to meet even higher levels of demand if such demand were to continue in the coming days/months”.

                 ATM Crisis Proves Demonetisation Couldn’t Change India’s Preference for Cash - For the past few weeks, cash machines in several states in India have been running dry. For customers, it has been a grim reminder of the severe cash shortage following the government’s shock demonetisation experiment in November 2016, when it cancelled 86% of the currency in circulation to rout out black money and promote a digital economy less reliant on cash.It is now well known that demonetisation failed to curb black money while causing enormous economic hardship to the poor and robbing the country of its economic momentum. The latest crisis of dry cash machines proves that both India’s central bank and the government miscalculated the preference for cash by Indian consumers, their vision blurred by the rise in the volume of electronic payments since demonetisation. Instead of admitting their mistake, however, the government is in denial. It said the “temporary” inconvenience was a reflection of a sudden spurt in demand for cash, raising doubts about whether money was being hoarded by consumers wary of the health of India’s banks. Currency withdrawal by individuals during January-March 2018 was at Rs 1.4 trillion, up from Rs 1.1 trillion in the corresponding quarter of 2016. The March 2017 quarter data isn’t comparable because of the immediate impact of demonetisation in November 2016. The RBI pointed to logistical issues in replenishing the cash machines, adding that some automated teller machines were still being recalibrated to dispense new currency denominations to account for their different size. Nevertheless, it pledged to boost printing more notes and said it had sufficient cash in its vaults and currency chests to meet the increased demand for cash. ‘Cash in hand’ with banks, which comprises cash supplied by the RBI, from which banks stock up their ATMs with currency notes, fell to around Rs 604.8 billion as of March 30, from Rs 710 billion at the end of December 2017.

                BJP leaders’ cover-up of rape and murder of Kashmiri Muslim girl provokes outrage across India - The attempts of local authorities and leaders of the Hindu communalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to shield the perpetrators of the brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Kashmiri Muslim girl have provoked outrage across India. Asifa Bano was kidnapped, repeatedly raped, then killed last January in what the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state police charge was a conspiracy aimed at terrorizing and forcing the semi-nomadic Bakkarwal from J&K’s Kathua District.Six men, including the guardian of a Hindu village temple and two police officers, have been charged with mounting the brutal attack. Two other police officers, those initially tasked with investigating the case, stand accused of colluding with the perpetrators, including by destroying evidence.The case has been a political and communal flashpoint in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, for weeks. However, India’s national media only gave it coverage after BJP leaders in the state instigated protests, to try to physically prevent the eight being charged in court and to demand the case be turned over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is under the control of India’s BJP-led national government. BJP leaders have sought to whip up communal animosity in Kathua and other Hindu-majority parts of Jammu and Kashmir, claiming that, because some of the officers who investigated the atrocities inflicted on the eight-year old Asifa Bano are fellow Muslims, the police investigation was biased. This foul campaign has been spearheaded by a new organization, the Hindu Etka Manch or Hindu Unity Forum, whose president is none other than BJP J&K state secretary Vijay Sharma. Last weekend two of the BJP ministers in Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-led coalition government—Forest Minister Lal Singh and Industries Minister Chander Prakash Ganga—were prevailed upon to resign by the BJP national leadership, after their role in Hindu Etka Manch protests prompted an India-wide outcry.

                Pakistan Daal Consumption Declines Sharply As Meat Consumption Rises -- Pakistan's per capita daal (pulse) consumption has sharply declined to about 7 kg/person from about 15 Kg/person in 2000, according to data released by Food and Agriculture Organization and reported inPakistani media. Meat has replaced it as the main source of protein with per capita meat consumption reipling from 11.7 kg in 2000 to 32 kg in 2016. It is projected to rise to 47 kg by 2020, according to a paper published in the Korean Journal of Food Science of Animal Resources. :FAO report titled "State of Food and Agriculture in Asia and the Pacific Region" said rising incomes in developing nations are causing a shift from plant proteins — such as those found in pulses (daal) and beans — to more expensive animal proteins such as those found in meat and dairy.According to the Household Integrated Surveys of Pakistan, the average monthly household income in the country jumped from Rs. 30,999 in 2013-14 to Rs. 35,662 in 2015-16.  Per capita consumption of pulses in Pakistan has sharply declined from about 15 kg per person a year to about 7 kg per person a year, found a new report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.In neighboring India, too, the consumption of pulse declined from about 22kg per person per year to about 15kg per person per year. In Sri Lanka, however, pulse consumption seemed to have fluctuated between 5kg and 10kg per person per year since 1960, except for a sharp drop from 1970 to 1985, the report said. Economic Survey of Pakistan reported that Pakistanis consumed over 45 million tons of milk in fiscal year 2016-17, translating to about 220 Kg/person. FAO's  "State of Food and Agriculture in Asia and the Pacific Region"says that Mongolia and Pakistan are the only two among the 26 countries in Asia Pacific region where per capita milk consumption exceeded 370 grams/day. Pakistan's per capita meat consumption has nearly tripled from 11.7 kg in 2000 to 32 kg in 2016. It is projected to rise to 47 kg by 2020, according to a paper published by the United States National Library of Medicines at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Organization for Economic Development (OECD) explains that meat demand increases with higher incomes and a shift - often due to growing urbanization - to food preferences that favor increased proteins from animal sources in diets.

                Myanmar police 'set up' Reuters reporters in sting - police witness  (Reuters) - A Myanmar police chief ordered officers to “trap” a Reuters reporter arrested in December, telling them to meet the journalist at a restaurant and give him “secret documents”, prosecution witness Police Captain Moe Yan Naing told a court on Friday.  Moe Yan Naing gave details to the court of the hours leading up to the Dec. 12 arrest of Wa Lone, 32, and Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who had accompanied him to the meeting, and said the police had arranged a “set up”. The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether the pair will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. At the time of their arrest, they had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh. “This officer spoke based on his own feelings,” Police spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe told Reuters by phone after the hearing. He said Moe Yan Naing’s testimony “cannot be assumed as true - we still need to listen to the remaining witnesses so the situation will become clearer”. Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said in a text message response, in English, to Reuters questions: “It’s in the court process now, we already assured to get the cover of the independent judiciary.”  Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of the team representing the Reuters reporters, said in a statement the prosecution should now drop the case or the judge should dismiss it.

                Venezuelan farms have begun feeding their workers — so they don't faint from hunger -- When the workers on Juan Daniel Arzola's farm in the central Venezuelan region of Guárico started coming to work weak from hunger last year, he knew he had to make a change. The 75-year-old farmer chose to cut back on producing food to sell in Venezuelan markets in order to feed people closer to home: his workers and his family."I have to make the decision between buying gallons of gas for my tractors or having enough food for my guys,” said Arzola, wearing a large-brimmed straw hat in the midday heat."They started to come to work so hungry they were almost fainting," he said.In a country where hunger has become so commonplace that Venezuelans have lost an average of 11 kilos, or about 24 pounds, the idea of farmers reducing their production sounds counter-intuitive and even inhumane. But with Venezuela in a steep economic crisis — and no end in sight — farmers and farmworkers have found themselves making that difficult calculation as the cost of running a farm has jumped. Back in November, Arzola had to pay 80,000 bolivares — at that time, about 75 cents — for a liter of oil. Last month, the price shot to a staggering 1.6 million bolivares, or about $7. That means Arzola cannot afford to expand his business. If he does, he would not be able to feed his own workers.

                'We Are Watching You': Political Killings Shake Mexico Election - An explosion of political assassinations in Mexico has cast a pall over nationwide elections slated for July 1, when voters will choose their next president and fill a slew of down-ballot posts. At least 82 candidates and office holders have been killed since the electoral season kicked off in September, making this the bloodiest presidential race in recent history, according to a tally by Etellekt, a security consultancy based in Mexico City, and Reuters research. Four were slain in the past week alone. They include Juan Carlos Andrade Magana, who was running for re-election as mayor of the hamlet of Jilotlan de los Dolores, located in Mexico’s western Jalisco state. His bullet-ridden body was discovered Sunday morning inside his Toyota Prius on the edge of town; Andrade had just attended a funeral. State prosecutors are investigating, but have made no arrests. The victims hail from a variety of political parties, large and small, and most were running for local offices far removed from the national spotlight. The vast majority were shot. Most cases remain unsolved, the killers’ motives unclear. But security experts suspect drug gangs are driving much of the bloodshed. With a record of about 3,400 mostly local offices up for grabs in July, Mexico’s warring cartels appear to be jostling for influence in city halls nationwide, according to Vicente Sanchez, a professor of public administration at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. He said crime bosses are looking to install friendly lawmakers, eliminate those of rivals and scare off would-be reformers who might be bad for business. Local governments are a lucrative source of contracts and kickbacks, while their police forces can be pressed into service of the cartels. “Criminal gangs want to be sure that in the next government, they can maintain their power networks, which is why they are increasing attacks,” Sanchez said.  

                Global Economy: Good News for Now but Trade Tensions a Threat - IMF blog -The world economy continues to show broad-based momentum. Against that positive backdrop, the prospect of a similarly broad-based conflict over trade presents a jarring picture.Three months ago, we updated our global growth forecast for this year and next substantially, to 3.9 percent in both years. That forecast is being borne out by continuing strong performance in the euro area, Japan, China, and the United States, all of which grew above expectations last year. We also project near-term improvements for several other emerging market and developing economies, including some recovery in commodity exporters. Continuing to power the world economy’s upswing are accelerations in investment and, notably, in trade.Looking at the largest economies, our 2018 growth projections, compared with our earlier October 2017 projections, are 2.4 percent for the euro area (up by 0.5 percentage point), 1.2 percent for Japan (up by 0.5 percentage point), 6.6 percent for China (up by 0.1 percentage point), and 2.9 percent for the United States (up by 0.6 percentage point). U.S. growth will be boosted in part by a largely temporary fiscal stimulus, which explains over one third of our upgrade over last October for 2018 global growth. Despite the good near-term news, longer-term prospects are more sobering. Advanced economies—facing aging populations, falling rates of labor force participation, and low productivity growth—will likely not regain the per capita growth rates they enjoyed before the global financial crisis. Emerging and developing economies present a diverse picture, and among those that are not commodity exporters, some can expect longer-term growth rates comparable to pre-crisis rates. Many commodity exporters will not be so lucky, however, despite some improvement in the outlook for commodity prices. Those countries will need to diversify their economies

                World Debt Hits Record $164 Trillion - The world’s debt load has ballooned to a record $164 trillion, a trend that could make it harder for countries to respond to the next recession and pay off debts if financing conditions tighten, the International Monetary Fund said.Global public and private debt swelled to 225 percent of global gross domestic product in 2016, the last year for which the IMF provided figures, the fund said Wednesday in its semi-annual Fiscal Monitor report. The previous peak was in 2009, according to the Washington-based fund.“One hundred and sixty-four trillion is a huge number,” Vitor Gaspar, head of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, said in an interview. “When we talk about the risks looming on the horizon, one of the risks has to do with the high level of public and private debt.” The global debt burden clouded the IMF’s otherwise upbeat outlook of the world economy, which is in its strongest upswing since 2011. The fund on Tuesday forecast expansion of 3.9 percent in 2018 and 2019, while saying in subsequent years the global economy could be impacted by tighter monetary policy and the fading effects of U.S. fiscal stimulus.

                The Party Is Ending: IMF Warns The Coming Risks Are "Clearly To The Downside" - Things are good... for now. They won't last.That's the TL/DR summary of the latest IMF World Economic Outlook report released this morning. Like the last Financial Stability report, released in October, the sunny headline numbers - which show that global economic growth is expected to continue expanding over the next two years before the advent of the next slowdown some time after 2020 - conceal signs of growing concern buried deeper in the report.Widening income inequality, a phenomenon the IMF says has been exacerbated by technological advancements, could lead to myriad problems down the road, from political unrest to worsening trade wars, that governments will need to grapple with.Instead of slashing taxes, governments need to focus on raising workers sense of security in the face of radical technological changes, while more evenly distributing the benefits of strong economic growth and asset appreciation.   Economic activity in 2017 ended on a high note, with second-half growth surpassing 4%, the strongest since the second half of 2010, bolstered by a recovery in investment.In Japan, the US and China, growth exceeded the October 2017 World Economic Outlook forecasts while it also continued to improve gradually in commodity exporters.  With broad-based momentum and expectations of a sizable fiscal expansion in the United States over this year and the next, global growth is now projected at 3.9% for 2018–19, a 0.2 percentage point upgrade for both years compared with the October 2017 forecast.But while the IMF modestly raised its growth forecasts for developed economies over the next two years, US fiscal policy is expected to soon turn contractionary in advanced economies for 2020–22 and more clearly contractionary in 2023, "when the investment-expensing  provisions of US tax reform begin to expire."Worse, the momentum will eventually slow - and then reverse- leaving countries with a challenging outlook over the medium term. Financial conditions are expected to tighten naturally as output gaps close and monetary policy normalizes. But crucially for the US, "tax reform will subtract momentum starting in 2020, and then more strongly as full investment expensing is phased out starting in 2023; and China’s transition to lower growth is expected to resume as credit growth and fiscal stimulus diminish."

                World economy at risk from proliferating restrictions on trade and investment (Reuters) - Trade and investment restrictions are proliferating around the world, driven by a combination of security concerns and protectionist pressures. In each instance, policymakers can usually cite a justification of why trade and investment restrictions are necessary. But taken together, a thickening web of restrictions on cross-border transactions is imposing a growing burden on business as well as complicating supply chains. The United States and China have threatened to hit each other with tariffs covering up to $300 billion of bilateral trade in a dispute over intellectual property and technology transfers. The United States has already imposed anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of steel, aluminium and solar panels from China, citing concerns about unfair trade. China has responded with its own anti-dumping duties on imported sorghum from the United States and is investigating other products. U.S. officials have raised security concerns about telecommunications switch gear from Chinese firm Huawei and sought to exclude it from the United States market. The United States has also suspended export licences linked to Chinese telecoms company ZTE, while Britain has warned companies not to install any more ZTE equipment on the country’s network. ZTE is accused of violating secondary sanctions on the supply of equipment to Iran and North Korea, but there are also broader concerns about its equipment being used for spying and cyber-warfare. The U.S. government has pledged to restrict Chinese investment and acquisitions in sensitive high-technology sectors. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has already been applying heightened scrutiny to transactions involving Chinese firms. In turn, China’s antitrust authorities have started to slow down merger approvals involving western companies operating in the Chinese market. The United States has also hit Russian companies and individuals with multiple rounds of sanctions in a dispute over Ukraine. In many cases, the United States has imposed secondary sanctions, which apply extraterritorially and aim to catch businesses for transactions that occur wholly outside the country.

                Russia Is Ready For Possible SWIFT Cutoff, Debt-Sale Ban - - As we pointed out earlier, White House chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Tuesday afternoon that further sanctions against Russia were "under consideration" at the White House - denying reports that sanctions had been abandoned at President Trump's behest.Over the weekend, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said another round of sanctions would be announced as soon as Monday.And while Kudlow insists there's "no confusion" at the White House, Russian media are reporting that the Kremlin is prepared for even the most dramatic actions by the US Treasury, including bans on selling Russian debt and the prohibition of Russian banks from using the SWIFT network.While Sberbank CEO Herman Gref has side he doesn't expect the US and European Union to follow through with threats to boot Russia out of SWIFT, as TASS reported, the Kremlin has been working with the country's banking system to create its own domestic version of SWIFT.We have been tracking the 'relationship' between Russia and the international payments system SWIFT since 2013, when we first reported that the NSA had somehow implanted itself inside SWIFT, and had been tracking flows through the global USD-intermediated financial transaction system. It wasn't long after this revelation that Russia started planning its own (possibly BRICS-based) global financial system in furtherance of its goal of de-dollarization.A year later, the UK demanded that the EU consider kicking Russia out of SWIFT as part of the sanctions levied in response to Russia's purported activities in Ukraine. However, removing Russia from the system would carry certain risks, since it would create the opportunity for Russia to demonstrate that it can survive without SWIFT, possibly inspiring other countries to follow its lead.

                German minister wants EU united front for de-escalation with Russia  (Reuters) - German Europe Minister Michael Roth called for the European Union to adopt a united front against Russia with the aim of reducing tensions, warning that “anti-Russian reflexes” were as dangerous as naivete about Russia’s “nationalist” course. Roth’s intervention, in an article for Die Welt newspaper, came amid signs that under conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democrat (SPD) Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Germany’s position toward Russia is hardening, especially since a poison attack in Britain, widely blamed on Russia. Roth, in remarks that seemed designed to reflect the more pro-Russian views of the SPD’s members, said Europe’s sanctions against Russia should be maintained, but with the aim of bringing Russia to the negotiating table. “Sanctions aren’t a goal in themselves,” he wrote. “They should encourage people back to the negotiating table to work on reasonable solutions ... Anti-Russian reflexes are just as dangerous as naively relativising the nationalist-tinged policies of the Russian leadership.” 

                Russia: Trace of Western-made nerve agent seen in UK samples - Russia's foreign minister says Moscow has received a document from a Swiss lab that analyzed the samples in the nerve agent poisoning of an ex-Russian spy, which points at a Western-designed nerve agent as a likely cause.   Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow received the confidential information from the laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, that analyzed samples from the site of the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.He said the analysis was done at the request of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.The OPCW's report confirmed British findings that the Skripals were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, but didn't say who was responsible.Britain has accused Russia of poisoning them with a Soviet-designed agent, an accusation that Moscow denies. Lavrov said the document indicated that the samples from Salisbury contained BZ nerve agent and its precursor. He said BZ was part of chemical arsenals of the U.S., Britain and other NATO countries, while the Soviet Union and Russia never developed the agent.

                  Independent Swiss Lab Says 'BZ Toxin' Used In Skripal Poisoning; US/UK-Produced, Not Russian -  Somebody has some explaining to do... or did the Syrian airstrikes just 'distract' the citizenry from the reality surrounding the Skripal poisoning. Remember how we were told my the politicians (not the scientists) that a deadly Novichok nerve agent - produced by Russia - was used in the attempted assassination of the Skripals? Remember the 50 questions (here and here) we had surrounding the 'facts' as Theresa May had laid them out? Ever wonder why, given how utterly deadly we were told this chemical was, the Skripals wondered around for a few hours after being 'infected' and then days later, survived with no chronic damage? Well those doubts may well have just been answered as according to the independent Swiss state Spiez lab, the substance used on Sergei Skripal was an agent called BZ, which was never produced in Russia, but was in service in the US, UK, and other NATO states. RT reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, citing the results of the examination conducted by a Swiss chemical lab that worked with the samples that London handed over to the Organisation for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with an incapacitating toxin known as 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate or BZ. The Swiss center sent the results to the OPCW. However, the UN chemical watchdog limited itself only to confirming the formula of the substance used to poison the Skripals in its final report without mentioning anything about the other facts presented in the Swiss document, the Russian foreign minister added. On a side note, the Swiss lab is also an internationally recognized center of excellence in the field of the nuclear, biological, and chemical protection and is one of the five centers permanently authorized by the OPCW.

                   Raising Tariffs on China Without Grabbing Headlines --While the Trump administration’s proposed tariff increases on Chinese imports have grabbed the headlines, few realise that other trading partners have also raised tariffs on Chinese trade. Trade policy is grabbing the headlines to a degree not seen for years. US President Trump announced possible tariff increases on Chinese imports totalling $160 billion (Keynes and Bown 2018). However, few realise that other trading partners have raised tariffs on Chinese trade as well. Findings by the Global Trade Alert document a sharp increase in the share of Chinese exports facing tariff increases from 2014, predating the election of President Trump (Evenett and Fritz 2017: 64). Assessments of trade policy dynamics can be skewed by loud and transparent policy changes while hidden forms of policy intervention go unremarked. In this column, we document two observations that have been neglected in the current debate. First, the EU raised tariffs on products from China between 2013 and 2015 when it removed the country from the General System of Preferences (GSP). Second, the EU might face a conflict of interest with respect to lower tariffs since customs duties constitute a sizeable share of the overall EU budget. Following our estimates, the removal of China from the GSP resulted in about $4 billion of additional customs revenue. This is substantial if we compare it, for example, to the cost of Brexit which amounts to the UK’s net contribution of roughly $12 billion in 2016.

                  Google loses the 'right to be forgotten' case - - An unnamed businessman has won a battle in the U.K. courts against Google over the 'right to be forgotten' in relation to mentions on the world's biggest search engine. The man, who cannot be named and for whom no details have been revealed other than he is involved with an unspecified business and that he was seeking all search results about an unspecified past crime to removed from the search engine, has won his case against Google. The other details that emerged, as the BBC has reported, were that the man was convicted around ten years ago and that the conviction had something to do with conspiring to intercept communications. For this, the man spent six months in jail. The decision in favor of the man was taken by a judge - Mr Justice Mark Warby - in the U.K. However, the judge also ruled against a separate businessman who was allegedly involved in a more serious crime, meaning that for the second plaintive the 'right to be forgotten' (digitally, at least) was not approved. The man who was successful had been seeking for Google to remove all search results about his conviction, such as inks to news articles. His case for doing so was because the past crime was no longer of relevance. The man had made a request to Google, which the company had refused. Based on this, the man took caught action.  The right to be forgotten is a concept put into practice in both the European Union in 2006. The issue arises from desires of individuals to "determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past", as Computer Law and Security review summarizes. Under this law, company's Google will agree to requests provided they are not seen as being in the public interest. In the case of the businessmen, Google deemed their past cases to be of legitimate public interest. Hence the subsequent court cases.  Following the ruling, Google has said that it will abide by the ruling and that the man will be, at least via Google's search engine, 'forgotten'. In a statement, Google said, as quoted by The Guardian: "We work hard to comply with the right to be forgotten, but we take great care not to remove search results that are in the public interest and will defend the public’s right to access lawful information. We are pleased that the court recognized our efforts in this area, and we will respect the judgments they have made in this case."

                  Mark Zuckerberg Quietly Moves 1.5 Billion Users’ Rights Out of Europe’s Reach - In 2008, Facebook followed the lead of countless companies before it, establishing an international headquarters in Ireland in order to skirt relatively higher U.S. corporate tax rates. In doing so, the company also ensured that international Facebook users—those outside the U.S. and Canada—would be subject to European Union rules.  But now Reuters reports Facebook is planning to argue that G.D.P.R. rules should apply solely to its European users, meaning they would not effect its 1.5 billion members in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. Essentially relocating 1.5 billion users’ rights from Dublin to Delaware would drastically reduce Facebook’s risk of exposure under G.D.P.R., which will let European regulators fine companies that collect personal data without their users’ consent; ultimately, the change would affect the majority—more than 70 percent—of Facebook’s 2-billion-person user network. The 1.5 billion people impacted by the move would be governed by the U.S.’s more lenient privacy laws, and would no longer be able to file complaints with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. Facebook confirmed the move but downplayed its importance, saying in a statement, “We apply the same privacy protections everywhere, regardless of whether your agreement is with Facebook Inc. or Facebook Ireland.” Mark Zuckerberg himself, however, has cast some doubt on that claim. When Zuckerberg was asked by Congress whether Facebook would extend the same protections to Americans that Europeans will receive under G.D.P.R., he replied that yes, it would. But when pressed, his reply was less concrete: “The G.D.P.R. has a bunch of different important pieces,” he told Rep. Janice Schakowsky, who asked whether “exactly the protections that are guaranteed, not just the controls but all the rights required under the General Data Protection Regulations, will be applied to Americans as well?” He added, “One is offering controls . . . that we’re doing. The second is around pushing for affirmative consent and putting a control in front of people that walks people through their choices. We’re going to do that, too. . . . We’re going to put a tool at the top of people’s apps that walks them through their settings—” Schakowsky interrupted him, saying, “It sounds like it will not be exact,” but ran out of time to push the issue further. In an interview with Reuters earlier in April, Zuckerberg said E.U. privacy laws would be applied globally “in spirit.”

                  Scientists Say EU's "Robot Bill Of Rights" Would Violate The Rights Of Humans - The decision by an influential EU Parliamentary Committee to approve what’s been described by critics and proponents alike as a robot "bill of rights" back in January has ignited a fierce backlash and prompted a group of dozens of AI researchers to write a scathing letter criticizing the EU's approach to regulating robots.In the open letter, 156 robotics and AI experts from 14 countries blasted the EU for trying to enforce "nonsensical" and "non-pragmatic" regulations that ultimately could violate people's rights.Here's more from EuroNews:In an open letter, more than 150 experts in robotics, artificial intelligence, law, medical science and ethics, warned the Commission against approving a proposal that envisions a special legal status of “electronic persons” for the most sophisticated, autonomous robots.“Creating a legal status of electronic ‘person’ would be ideological and nonsensical and non-pragmatic,” the letter says.The group said the proposal, which was approved in a resolution by the European Parliament last year, is based on a perception of robots "distorted by science fiction and a few recent sensational press announcements."“From an ethical and legal perspective, creating a legal personality for a robot is inappropriate”, they argued, explaining that doing so could breach human rights law.Around the world, and in both the manufacturing and service economies, robotics is making swift gains as the number of industrial robots in circulation has climbed dramatically in recent years. According to projections published by Reuters IFR, their numbers will double again by 2020.

                  Turkish Fighter Jets "Harass" Helicopter Of Greek PM Tsipras -  Two Turkish fighter jets harassed the Chinook helicopter carrying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Greek Armed Forces Chief Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis as they were flying from the islet of Ro to Rhodes on Tuesday afternoon, Kathimerini reported. The Turkish fighter jets, flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet, asked the Greek helicopter pilot, which at that moment was at 1,500 feet, to provide flight details, according to defense sources.The pilot immediately informed the prime minister and the HNDGS Chief and alerted the Greek air force which dispatched two fighter jets, which approached the area at 20,000 feet.  Speaking earlier from the southeastern Aegean island of Kastellorizo earlier in the day, Tsipras said Greece will defend its principles “in any way it can… and will not cede an inch of territory,” in an apparent dig at recent provocations from Turkey.“Our neighbors do not always behave in a manner befitting good neighbors,” he said at the inauguration of two desalination units on the island, noting however that he was sending Ankara “a message of cooperation and peaceful coexistence but also of determination.” Following the confrontation, the Turkish aircraft retreated, which was a welcome development: many have sarcastically noted that with the world on edge geopolitically and in every other way, all it needs is the unexpected death of an Austrian archduke - or a Greek prime minister - to get the ball rolling.

                  Slovak Protesters Demand More Resignations Over Corruption Neglect -— Tens of thousands of Slovaks returned to the streets on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government for reform seven weeks after the murder of a journalist that sparked a political crisis and brought down a prime minister. The killing of Jan Kuciak, 27, who investigated corruption among politically-connected business people, and his fiancée at their home in February increased widespread anger about persistent corruption allegations, leading to the largest near-weekly protests since the end of communism in 1989. Amid growing pressure last month, long-serving prime minister Robert Fico stepped down to save his three-party government, and picked his deputy, Peter Pellegrini, to lead a reshuffled cabinet. News website Dennik N estimated that Sunday's protest drew around 30,000 in the capital Bratislava, about half the size of the biggest protests last month. Demonstrators want the police chief and the special prosecutor out and a crackdown on corruption. Protest organisers said those two offices "have long overlooked corruption scandals reported by Jan Kuciak and other investigative journalists". "Slovakia has to be a country where corruption, not courage, is punished," one of organisers Karolina Farska told the rally. In office since 2004, special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik is responsible for prosecuting abuse of power and corruption among public servants and politicians. According to data from his office last year, he has overseen 61 cases between 2009-2017 and has not pressed criminal charges in any of them. Police president Tibor Gaspar is also refusing to quit although the new interior minister is reviewing his work in his five years in the post.  No senior politician has gone to prison for corruption in that time, according to Transparency International. About 48 percent of bribe cases dealt with by courts involved amounts of less than 100 euros.   Interior Minister Tomas Drucker is yet to alter the leadership of the police but has agreed to change the law allowing him to name Gaspar's successor to ensure an impartial investigation of Kuciak's murder. Police believe Kuciak's murder was related to his work. He reported on suspected tax fraud by people some of whom have links to the ruling Smer party. Some of his reporting was on deals between the government and the country's biggest privately-owned security firm, whose owner is related to Gaspar. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

                  Government crisis in the Czech Republic --Over a dozen protests took place last Monday, April 9, in the Czech Republic against Prime Minister Andrej Babis, including in the capital city of Prague, where between 5,000 and 10,000 people demonstrated at Wenceslas Square, demanding the withdrawal of Babis and new elections.The protests are the latest climax of an ongoing crisis in the Czech government. Babis’s right-liberal ANO won a strong victory in October of last year, taking 78 of 200 seats in parliament. Since then, however, he has failed to form a stable government.After the elections, ANO tried to form a minority government, with ministers from its own party and independent experts. But this attempt failed in January, after a loss in a vote of confidence. Over a week ago coalition talks between Babis’s right-liberal party and the social democrats (CSSD) ended unsuccessfully. To this point, Babis has received the backing of the notoriously right-wing president Milos Zeman, but it remains to be seen how long this will last.The CSSD dissolved the talks under the pretense of judicial problems in regard to the prime minister. Babis lost his position as finance minister in May 2017 due to a suspected subsidy fraud. He is accused of having diverted €1.6 million in European Union subsidies to a wellness resort while he worked in the private sector. Babis denies any involvement and claims that the accusation is politically motivated. The millionaire businessman is renewing efforts to form an alliance with the radical right-wing party of the businessman Tomio Okamura, Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), and the Communist Party (KSCM). Babis stated at the beginning of last week, “The president requested that I continue negotiations with the KSCM and the SPD.” Previous attempts to build an alliance at the end of last year had proven unsuccessful.

                  French students protest war, support striking rail workers - On Friday, students protested in Paris as rail workers began two more days of strike action against rail privatization. On the fifth strike day, the explosiveness of the social and international situation was plainly apparent. President Emmanuel Macron had just appeared on TF1 television, promising to disregard public opinion and continue his social attacks, while also threatening Syrian and Russian forces with the air strikes in Syria that went ahead early Saturday morning, European time. Students also opposed Macron’s call, supported by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France (LFI) movement, to return to the draft under cover of a “universal national service,” as well as moves to systematically break student blockades of universities protesting Macron’s reforms. They stressed the link between militarism abroad and repression at home, as well as the rise of social inequality under capitalism. Maxime and his friend told WSWS reporters at the Tolbiac campus in Paris of their opposition to Macron’s reforms and the military escalation launched by Washington, London and Paris in Syria. He said, “We are still living with nuclear weapons everywhere, and we are trapped in an escalation spiral that threatens to go nuclear. That can lead nowhere, so it is totally stupid to let a global conflict heat up this way.” Maxime was doubtful of Macron’s allegations that the Syrian regime had waged a chemical attack in Douma. France, he said, would “not have the right to intervene this way without UN approval, even if it were the case that the chemical attacks were in fact launched by Bashar al-Assad’s government. … Anyway, we have seen that all the Middle East wars in the last 30 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, the Western interventions do not do much except send violence soaring in those countries. In the end, I think it is probably just to justify our military budget and boost our weapons sales.” He stressed his support for the rail workers faced with the danger of privatization: “What is being done is just to smash all the public services. If we don’t support the rail workers, the reform will necessarily pass. It is good also for them to be with us, a real coming together of the struggles is taking place now, a real counter-power to the government is emerging.”

                  Italy continues without a government -  Six weeks after the March 4 parliamentary election there is still no new Italian government in sight. On April 13, President Sergio Mattarella also broke off the second round of consultations without any result. A coalition between the strongest single party, the Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle, M5S), and the far-right Lega has so far failed because the leaders of these two parties, Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Luigi di Maio (M5S), both lay claim to the office of Prime Minister. M5S and Lega came closer together in March when they agreed to elect the chairmen of both chambers of parliament. The Five Star Movement is ready to form a coalition with the Lega only on condition that Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is not part of the government. “There are political synergies with the Lega,” explained Di Maio, “but Silvio Berlusconi must step aside.” A government in which Forza Italia was also involved “is absolutely out of the question.” The Five Star Movement had gained support mainly through the denunciation of the widespread corruption, which Berlusconi personifies. It fears that joining forces with the media billionaire could cost it masses of votes. M5S member Alessandro di Battista even referred to Berlusconi on Facebook as the “absolutely worst in our country.” Arithmetically, Lega and M5S do not need the support of Forza Italia to govern together. But for Salvini, breaking with Berlusconi is still an unacceptable condition. If the Lega were in government alone with the M5S, it would be the smaller coalition partner, and as a result, Salvini would have to leave the post of Prime Minister to Luigi di Maio. In the elections, the Lega received just over half (17 percent) as many votes as the M5S. However, together with its allies, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the fascist Fratelli d’Italia, it is the strongest group in parliament, at almost 40 percent.

                  German car producers could fall victim to US sanctions against Russian aluminum - Sanctions against top Russian aluminum producers are likely to hit European car production, according to Germany’s WVMetalle, a lobbying group for 655 metals companies.  The group says unless actions are taken, many car plants in Germany and Europe will be closed, and others will face supply disruption, Bloomberg reports. “Re-jigging all of those trade flows is really, really tough. You’ve cut off the US and Europe from its traditional supplier,” Michael Widmer, head of metals markets research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, told Bloomberg.The crucial plant for Europe is Russia’s RUSAL facility in the Aughinish aluminum refinery in Ireland. The aluminum from the plant is sold to smelters across Europe. “Aughinish is indispensable for the alumina supply of the European market,” WVMetalle said. Aluminum prices have surged almost 30 percent in the last two weeks to $2,537 – the highest level in seven years. Earlier in an interview with RT, Russia’s aluminum association predicted the same consequences as the German lobbying group did. “The high price of aluminum, which is the result of the largest player's withdrawal from the market, will slow economic growth and affect the competitiveness of export-oriented European industries like the automotive industry and other transport engineering. Germany could suffer the most,” the association said.

                  A year to give UK-EU logistics the certainty it needs -- With less than a year now until the UK’s departure from the European Union, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) is urging the UK government to “up the pace” on the negotiation of trading arrangements, or risk damaging integrated supply chains. The latest statements from the FTA on 29 March were timed to coincide with the start of the UK’s final year in the EU, with the country scheduled to exit on 29 March 2019. “Twelve months is a very short time in business terms, and with such a focused timescale, it is unrealistic to expect logistics companies and supply chain managers to wait until the eleventh hour to learn what their new operational arrangements will be and change everything at the last minute,” said Pauline Bastidon, head of European policy at the FTA. “There are too many open questions, when so much is at stake, and if industry is to keep Britain trading, clarity on key areas is needed in the next three months, not 12. “Arrangements for customs, transport or standards are still unclear, and no solutions to manage borders so that disruptions may be avoided have been agreed yet. Logistics companies and supply chain managers also need urgent clarity on what the UK’s future immigration policy will look like. She continued: “The political confirmation of a transition period is a welcome relief to companies, but this needs to be set in stone sooner rather than later. We also need to ensure that industry is provided with sufficient details early enough to be able to adapt to new arrangements in time. 

                  Government lawyers to challenge Sturgeon’s Brexit Bill - UK Government lawyers are expected to lodge an unprecedented legal challenge at the UK Supreme Court in the next 48 hours to stop the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ own Brexit bills from becoming law. The legislation seeks to protect the devolved settlement in the event there is no agreement between London, Edinburgh and Cardiff on the UK Government's flagship EU Withdrawal Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords. The First Minister and her Welsh counterpart, Carwyn Jones, believe this legislation is a "naked power-grab" by Whitehall.  Mrs May strongly denies this and insists more powers will be going to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019. However, she wants a temporary hold put on some 24 powers and responsibilities so that common frameworks can be agreed to ensure the important UK-wide internal market is protected. The Prime Minister's law officers have until Wednesday to launch a legal challenge or face the Continuity bills getting Royal Assent and becoming law. It is thought Jeremy Wright, the Attorney General, and Lord Keen of Elie, the Advocate General, Whitehall's senior Scottish lawyer, will make the court application as early as today. A ministerial statement is expected to follow at Westminster. Last week, David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, said that a court challenge was "almost inevitable" but suggested it was "not a big deal" as it was just a legal process.  Yet, the UK Government's own bill has still to complete its parliamentary passage and Mrs May and Mr Mundell have until May 8, the final day of Report Stage in the Lords, to get a deal with Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues as the Withdrawal Bill after this date goes to Edinburgh and Cardiff.

                  EU Withdrawal Bill: amendments and debates - The EU Withdrawal Bill has completed its passage in the House of Commons and has moved to the House of Lords. After 20 hours of debate during second reading, and 115 hours at committee stage, the bill now moves on to report stage in the House of Lords. Six days have been scheduled between 18 April and 8 May. Although the Lords avoided pressing any amendments to a vote during committee, the Government is likely to suffer some defeats if it does not address some of the key concerns by bringing amendments at report. Third reading in the Upper House is likely to take place in mid-May. After this, proposed amendments will be sent to the Commons. The Government will hope that the bill receives Royal Assent by the summer recess. However, this depends on both Houses reaching agreement on amendments, therefore it could still prove optimistic. What were the key areas in which the Government was under pressure during the Lords committee stage?

                  • The status of retained EU law and what priority it will have over domestic law after exit day.
                  • How the general principles of EU law can be used to challenge the validity of retained EU law after exit day.
                  • How UK judges should interpret European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgements after Brexit. 
                  • The scope of the delegated powers given to ministers which allow them to amend primary legislation using secondary legislation.
                  • Scrutiny of the use of delegated powers.
                  • How to improve the current ‘meaningful vote’ provisions in the bill, added during committee stage in the House of Commons.
                  • How to address the concern of the devolved administrations that the EU Withdrawal Bill represents a ‘power grab’ over devolved policy areas.
                  • The inclusion of the date and time of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in the bill.

                  Brexit legislation caught in parliamentary logjam - A parliamentary logjam will mean the government is likely to struggle to pass vital legislation paving the way for leaving the EU before the parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal. Almost half of all the legislation that is needed has yet to be even introduced by ministers. MPs returned to parliament on Monday after the Easter recess – the 123rd day that parliament has sat since the general election – but the government is still to pass a single piece of Brexit legislation. Parliament will only sit for another 80 days before MPs are expected to vote on the final Brexit deal struck between Theresa May and the European Union, scheduled for October. The shadow Brexit minister, Jenny Chapman, said there was now “a real danger” that MPs would be ask to vote on the final Brexit deal without having approved crucial legislation, such as the immigration bill, and would be voting blind. The prime minister has promised the UK parliament will be the first to ratify the deal, before it goes to the EU parliament and the other 27 states, though the timeline may slip. Last June, May said this parliament would be a “busy legislative session.” In total, the government has only passed four bills from last year’s Queen’s speech. By comparison, the 2010 coalition government had passed twice as many laws at this stage of the parliament. Brexit bills The general election delivered a hung parliament, leaving May able to pass bills only with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party and dependent on the discipline of Conservative MPs. In December, pro-EU Tory MPs defeated the government to guarantee parliament a meaningful vote on the final deal. The Lords is currently debating the bill and may yet inflict another defeat on the government by passing an amendment to keep the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU.

                  Irish Warn June Brexit Progress Needed to Seal October Accord - Ireland’s deputy prime minister said a lack of significant progress on the border question by the time European leaders gather in June will trigger “serious questions” about whether the EU and U.K. can reach a Brexit withdrawal agreement in October.“If there isn’t progress on the backstop, and the wording around the backstop, within the withdrawal treaty by June, then I think we have to ask come very serious questions as to whether it going to be possible to do it by October,” Simon Coveney said in a Newstalk radio interview Monday in Dublin. At present, the only plan on the table for keeping the Irish border invisible after Brexit is the EU’s “backstop” option, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs union and parts of the single market if needed. That amounts to erecting a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which the U.K. considers unacceptable. Coveney said the government wanted a backstop in the withdrawal agreement, before moving on to negotiate something “better” in future trade trade talks. Yet progress on that is said to have been slowed by the dispute over the Irish border, Bloomberg News reported Friday.

                  Each Brexit scenario will leave Britain worse off, study finds - Each of the government’s four Brexit scenarios, including a bespoke deal, would leave Britain poorer and cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds each week, analysis has shown. The study for the thinktank Global Future by Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College, London, found that a bespoke deal, the government’s preferred option, would have a net negative fiscal impact of about £40bn a year. Polling commissioned for study by Populus, which is run by David Cameron’s former strategy chief Andrew Cooper, found that voters, even those who backed Brexit, feared that leaving the European Union would come at “too high a price”. The analysis came as the government braced itself for defeats in parliament on Wednesday, including over its plans to take the UK out of the customs union, as the EU withdrawal bill returns to the House of Lords. Nine senior Conservatives, including two former cabinet ministers, are among those who have put their names to a series of cross-party amendments aimed at persuading Theresa May to rethink her position. The amendment giving parliament a vote on staying in a customs union, which is almost certain to pass, would mean MPs will get a say on the contentious issue despite the government’s efforts to kick it into the long grass. The only way the prime minister will be able to avoid defeat will be to offer significant concessions. The Global Future research is based on the government’s own impact studies on three different Brexit scenarios, but also examines a fourth option – a bespoke deal – using data from the official assessments along with details set out by the prime minister in her Mansion House speech. It suggested that option would increase the cost of non-tariff barriers by £23bn over the status quo. Other costs – including customs barriers, divorce payments and ongoing contributions – would add another £38bn while limits on free movement would dent the economy by £6bn. However, the analysis found that a bespoke deal could also bring in £27bn extra to the Treasury, including from customs revenue and EU budget savings. Overall, the net cost of the deal would be £40bn a year by 2033-34, or £615m a week in today’s prices.

                  Brexit Looks Wobbly as Polls Go Negative, House of Lords Throws Spanner in the Works – Yves Smith -  Since Parliamentary wrangling is over my pay grade, below is a recap of some of the new Brexit stories, along with a request to readers to unpack the latest arm-wrestle between the Government and its opponents in the House of Lords. One of the many mysteries of Brexit has been the utter inattentiveness to legal and procedural realities that can’t be finessed…like how exactly is the UK going to redo, what, 40 or so years of laws when no sensible legislature would give them blanket authority (aka Henry VIII powers)? But that is what is front and center today…the so-called Great Withdrawal Bill. How Parliament could have authorized the triggering of Article 50 without nailing down at least a big chunk of the Great Withdrawal Bill issues is beyond me. Normally, the House of Lords defers to the Commons, so the fact that the Tories have only 245 of 787 seats. However, the Lords are threatening to attach amendments to the Great Withdrawal Bill that are consistent with a soft Brexit, like having the UK stay in the customs union. In part because the amendments in Lords all have cross-party sponsorship, odds appear to be good that many of those amendments would be approved when the bill returns to the House of Commons late next month unless Theresa May finds a way to offer enough concessions to preserve the deal she has been trying to put together. If she were to fail and the amendments stick, the ultras would be faced with the choice of blowing up the Government to preserve their version of Brexit and risking getting a Labour government or capitulating, which wouldn’t be like them. In addition to “stay in the customs union,” Bloomberg summarizes the other amendments: Boost protections for the environment and workers’ rights Limit the scope of so-called Henry VIII powers that would allow ministers to bypass Parliament in changing laws and regulations Go beyond a successful rebel amendment in the Commons in December that secured a meaningful vote for lawmakers on May’s final Brexit deal by giving Parliament even more of a say over whether the premier should seek a new deal or leave the EU without one Protect the peace process in Northern Ireland Remove the government’s fixed Brexit day of March 19, 2019 to give added flexibility..

                  Brussels seeks emergency powers to prepare for hard Brexit --Brussels is issuing dozens of legal proposals on Brexit over the next 10 weeks, in a flurry of lawmaking to prepare the EU for an sharp break from the UK — partly by giving emergency powers to the bloc’s institutions.The European Commission has drafted 30-40 proposals to amend laws and give special powers to regulators so that the union can deal with a no-deal scenario, either on Brexit day in March 2019 or after a transition period…The push is intended to reduce uncertainty for business by granting more powers to Brussels and other EU authorities so they are better able to cope with sudden complications…EU officials say most of the amendments are legal housekeeping, which would address anomalies that arise from the exclusion of the UK. However, the proposals would also give the commission and other EU regulators specific “emergency powers”, for a limited period, to handle the fallout from an abrupt UK exit.

                  State warns explicitly of need for Brexit talks progress on Border - Irish Times -Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said that the Government is “putting down a marker” on the need for progress in Brexit talks about the Border. Speaking in Luxembourg, Mr Coveney, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that unless substantial progress was made by June with the British government in enshrining the Border “backstop” arrangement in law, then the efforts to agree a withdrawal treaty to govern the UK’s exit from the EU will be in jeopardy. Mr Coveney’s comments mark a noticeable hardening of the Irish position amid concern that British commitments about maintaining an open Border will be long-fingered until the autumn. “We are putting down a marker,” Mr Coveney said, “which says that if there isn’t significant progress towards trying to find a wording that puts in place an operational backstop in the withdrawal treaty, well then we’ll have to ask some very serious questions as to whether it’s possible to do it by October.” October is when the EU and the UK hope to finalise a treaty to govern the UK’s withdrawal from the union, and which will include a transition period to allow for the details of the future relationship to be worked out. The British government has promised that, in the absence of an agreement on the future of the Border, it will maintain the same rules North and South, allowing goods to move freely – the so-called backstop arrangement. The Government is insisting that the British commitment be specifically written into the withdrawal treaty in legally binding language, but little progress has been made. As he left Luxembourg for London, where he had a number of meetings with British ministers scheduled, Mr Coveney said that if there was not significant progress towards an agreement on the Border then “there will be difficulties in June”. Asked if no agreement by June would put the transition period at risk, Mr Coveney said: “It puts everything at risk.” 

                  May dealt embarrassing Brexit defeat in House of Lords - The House of Lords inflicted an embarrassing defeat on Theresa May’s government on Wednesday, challenging her refusal to remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit. May, who has struggled to unite her Conservative Party over Brexit, has said Britain will leave the European Union’s single market and customs union after it quits the bloc next March so that London can forge its own free trade deals. That stance has widened divisions not only within her own party but across both houses of parliament, emboldening the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not command a majority, to hand her the defeat. Britons at large have remained deeply split since the narrow June 2016 vote to leave the EU. By a vote of 348 to 225, the Lords supported an amendment to her Brexit blueprint, the EU withdrawal bill, requiring ministers to report what efforts they had made to secure a customs union by the end of October. It does not explicitly say Britain must reach a deal on such a union and a government source said it would not change policy. Lord (John) Kerr, a supporter of staying in the EU at the 2016 referendum, opened the debate by saying the government should be asked to explore the possibility of securing a customs union to limit “the damage to the country’s wellbeing”. His comments were met by criticism from pro-Brexit peers, who agreed with Viscount (Matthew) Ridley’s description of the amendment as “an attempt to wreck this bill and wreck Brexit”. A spokeswoman for the Brexit ministry expressed disappointment over the amendment, saying “the fundamental purpose of this bill is to prepare our statute book for exit day, it is not about the terms of our exit”. It is the first of several defeats the government is expected to suffer in the House of Lords over the remaining stages of the debate in coming weeks. After the Lords, the bill will return to the House of Commons, possibly as early as next month. Both houses have to agree on the final wording of the bill before it can become law. 

                  Brexit: a psychic epidemic - I wrote yesterday that the bulk of MPs we encounter seem to be the most ignorant people on the planet, unable even to master the basics and prey to just about every myth and falsehood on Brexit that it is possible to imagine. To these, we must now add the Lords, many of whom seem unable to understand what a customs union is, 348 of whom have voted to call on the Government to "explore" the possibility of remaining in (or joining) one – with 225 against. And the reason why many voted for the proposition was the mistaken belief that a customs union will remove customs checks - even to the extent that this will resolve the Irish border question.  Supposedly this is one of largest votes in history of the Lords and is being styled as a "crushing defeat" for the government. It is, of course, no such thing. The anodyne wording of the amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill simply calls upon the Government to consider the prospect of staying in a union. It does not actually require any executive action. The government, therefore, can (and will) go through the motions and then, having done precisely nothing, will move on. This makes the whole charade a crass distraction from the business of government – signalling an epidemic of cretinism in our legislature, the like of which we have rarely if ever seen. It's almost as if an evil alien power has descended on Westminster and sucked the IQs out of their Lordships, leaving them with the deductive powers of five-year-olds.  Leader in the nursery stakes in the Lord's debate was Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, imbued with the stupidity which has infected the place. Amazingly, after all this time, the man is clueless, arguing that it is not possible to "maintain an open border with no checks and no infrastructure if the UK leaves the Customs Union". And thus, he asserts, he workable solution to the Irish border conundrum is a customs union. The man thus blathers:  Even if cross-border trade is tariff free, as I hope and believe it will be, rules of origin, phytosanitary and other checks will require a hard border. They will make that inevitable unless we have a customs union. A customs union is not in itself a sufficient condition for an open or soft border - there will still have to be a degree of regulatory alignment, particularly in the agricultural sector - but it is a necessary condition for an open border.

                  Brexit divorce bill will surpass £39bn, warns Whitehall watchdog -The cost of the Brexit divorce bill for the UK could be billions higher than the £35bn-£39bn figure put forward by Theresa May, a report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog suggested. The National Audit Office (NAO) has warned that the UK could pay an extra £3bn more in budget contributions as well as an additional £2.9bn to the European Development Fund. Auditors have concluded that the Treasury’s estimate includes £7.2bn of receipts which will go directly to the private sector and not to the government’s accounts. The findings will anger Eurosceptic Tory MPs who have previously questioned whether the government should pay the lower estimate of £35bn. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, will be questioned about the NAO’s conclusions next Wednesday when he appears before the Treasury committee. Responding to the report, Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, said there could well be an increase in the overall costs. “Whereas the promises made by some Brexiters of the bounty that our public services would receive post-Brexit are likely to be downgraded, I fear the cost of the UK leaving the EU could increase further.” May told parliament in December that the bill would be between £35bn and £39bn, a fee jointly agreed in a meeting between the Treasury and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Auditors found that the total amount that the UK would contribute to the EU annual budgets in 2019 and 2020 would be calculated on the basis of the UK’s economic outlook, which would also partly determine Britain’s share of outstanding commitments and liabilities after 2020.

                  EU (Finally) Slaps Down UK on Fantasy Irish Border Solutions -  Yves Smith - The Telegraph and other Brexit loyalists are up in arms over what should have come as no surprise: the EU has finally cleared its throat and told the UK that its fuzzy-headed ideas for a frictionless border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were unworkable. As we’ve said repeatedly, the UK leaving the Single Market meant there would be a hard border somewhere.1 The least disruptive option is the one that the EU has cleverly called a backstop and has fleshed out, that of a sea border. As UK readers know well, that is anathema to the DUP and quite a few Tories, since it will mean for practical purposes that Northern Ireland is more a member of the EU than the UK. Oopsie!2 According to the Telegraph, the UK’s two clearly unworkable ideas, which it had tried to make seem viable, were slapped down hard by the EU. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take this, since the Government desperately needs to shift blame for having conned itself and the electorate into thinking there was an viable way to have a land border without causing any hassle to people on either side. However, a legitimate reason for the ire is that the EU quite deliberately strung the UK along. Recall that the Ireland border matter was earlier on a short list of three items that the EU had singled out as required to be resolved early, before other matters like the transition deal could be addressed. Then when Theresa May was looking particularly wobbly in December and the UK press was talking up the cretin Rees Mogg as a possible PM, Barnier allowed the Government to negotiate the flabby and often internally inconsistent “Joint Agreement” that was a short-term punt on Ireland and sketched out some options on the border matter. May was hailed in the UK press as having achieved some sort of great negotiating win when nothing of the sort had happened. Since then, the EU has been fleshing out a “backstop,” which is basically the sea border option, with the argument being that there had to be an approach in place in case the UK could not deliver. The Government’s allies kept making incensed noises about this EU move, as if it were underhanded. In fact, given the difficulty the UK has had from the get go in producing position papers or indeed any documents worked out in adequate detail, while the EU move may have seemed insulting, the UK’s shambolic behavior called for it. From the Telegraph’s exclusive story:

                  Brexit: No 10 still 'confident' of Irish border solution - BBC News: No 10 says it is confident a deal can be done to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit despite signs of an impasse over the issue. The BBC understands UK plans to resolve the matter faced sustained criticism from the EU at a meeting on Wednesday. The UK wants to use technology to help goods flow freely and avoid regulatory alignment between the North and South. Downing Street said it did not recognise reports it had been told none of its proposed ideas would work. The EU wants to present an agreed solution on the issue to a summit meeting of European leaders in June. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier told French TV on Friday that 25% of the final withdrawal deal had still to be settled and it could still be derailed by disagreements over the border and other issues. Britain is due to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. December's first-phase agreement - officially known as the Joint Report - contains the "backstop" option of continued regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in many areas.The UK is strongly resisting this, as it believes this will effectively see Northern Ireland remain in the EU's customs union, which Theresa May is committed to leaving. 

                  UK to present new Brexit ‘backstop’ plan on Ireland --- U.K. Brexit negotiators are developing a plan to solve the Irish border issue by keeping the whole of the U.K. aligned with a subset of the EU’s single market rules, according to British officials. The proposal — which also involves a wholly new U.K.-EU customs arrangement — aims to break the deadlock over the border question as both sides embark on a four-week push to rewrite the EU’s contentious “backstop” plan for avoiding a hard Irish border. A team of officials, including some from the U.K. customs authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is coming to Brussels on Monday for the discussions, under the overall leadership of the U.K.’s chief Brexit official Olly Robbins. Finding a solution that is acceptable to both sides — and to the Democratic Unionist Party, whose MPs Theresa May relies on in Westminster to keep her government in power — is key to forging a successful withdrawal agreement and avoiding a no-deal Brexit. Officials believe the plan being worked on in Whitehall could negate the need for border checks, without separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.’s internal market. Negotiators are striving for a deal on the terms of the Brexit divorce in time for the European Council summit in June before a final agreement in October that can then be ratified by the U.K. and European parliaments. According to the U.K. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the British proposal is for U.K.-wide “full alignment” single market rules and regulations for trade in goods — alongside a new customs arrangement between the U.K. and EU. While the Irish government itself is open to the proposal, according to U.K. and EU negotiators, there is concern that it will be blocked by the European Commission, which may view it as a form of “cherry-picking,” using Ireland as a lever to win concessions on trade for the whole of the U.K.

                  It’s time to stop believing in these ‘magic’ Brexit solutions - From the minute the UK government first proposed its idea last August of maintaining “invisible borders” after Brexit, the convoluted plan was