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

Saturday, February 23, 2019

week ending Feb 23

Fed Minutes Show Officials Unsure on Need for Rate Hikes in 2019 - Federal Reserve officials widely favored ending the runoff of the central bank’s balance sheet this year while expressing uncertainty over whether they would raise interest rates again in 2019, minutes of their January meeting showed. “Almost all participants thought that it would be desirable to announce before too long a plan to stop reducing the Federal Reserve’s asset holdings later this year,” according to the record of the Federal Open Market Committee’s Jan. 29-30 gathering released Wednesday. “Such an announcement would provide more certainty about the process for completing the normalization of the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet,” the minutes said, referring to the rolloff of assets from the balance sheet that began in late 2017. Launched as an emergency measure to protect the economy during the financial crisis, it has declined to about $4 trillion from a peak of $4.5 trillion in 2015. “They will have a permanently gigantic balance sheet,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies LLC. “They always said it would be larger than precrisis, but earlier commentary suggested it would something significantly smaller.” The minutes also elaborated on the dovish message delivered three weeks ago when the FOMC said it will be “patient,” signaling it had put rate hikes on hold and was prepared to be more flexible on shrinking the balance sheet. The shift occurred after the worst December for U.S. stocks since the Great Depression, trade tensions escalated between the U.S. and China, and President Donald Trump berated officials for tightening monetary policy too much. “Many participants observed that if uncertainty abated, the Committee would need to reassess the characterization of monetary policy as ‘patient’ and might then use different statement language,” the minutes noted.

 FOMC Minutes: "A variety of considerations that supported a patient approach to monetary policy" -- From the Fed: Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee, January 29-30, 2019. A few excerpts: Almost all participants thought that it would be desirable to announce before too long a plan to stop reducing the Federal Reserve's asset holdings later this year. Such an announcement would provide more certainty about the process for completing the normalization of the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. … Participants pointed to a variety of considerations that supported a patient approach to monetary policy at this juncture as an appropriate step in managing various risks and uncertainties in the outlook. With regard to the domestic economic picture, additional data would help policymakers gauge the trajectory of business and consumer sentiment, whether the recent softness in core and total inflation and inflation compensation would persist, and the effect of the tightening of financial conditions on aggregate demand. Information arriving in coming months could also shed light on the effects of the recent partial federal government shutdown on the U.S. economy and on the results of the budget negotiations occurring in the wake of the shutdown, including the possible implications for the path of fiscal policy. A patient approach would have the added benefit of giving policymakers an opportunity to judge the response of economic activity and inflation to the recent steps taken to normalize the stance of monetary policy. Furthermore, a patient posture would allow time for a clearer picture of the international trade policy situation and the state of the global economy to emerge and, in particular, could allow policymakers to reach a firmer judgment about the extent and persistence of the economic slowdown in Europe and China. Participants noted that maintaining the current target range for the federal funds rate for a time posed few risks at this point. The current level of the federal funds rate was at the lower end of the range of estimates of the neutral policy rate. Moreover, inflation pressures were muted, and asset valuations were less stretched than they had been a few months earlier.

Fed Minutes- Almost All Fed Officials Want Plan To Stop Reducing Balance Sheet By Year End - Key update: it appears that in its rush to blast the fastest headline on the Minutes, Bloomberg made a material error, reporting the following: ALMOST ALL FED OFFICIALS WANTED TO HALT RUNOFF LATER THIS YEAR  That however is incorrect, and Reuters captured what the Fed really said, which is significantly different from what the Fed actually said, And here what the Fed actually said: Almost all participants thought that it would be desirable to announce before too long a plan to stop reducing the Federal Reserve's asset holdings later this year. Needless to say, there is a huge difference between "ending runoff" and "announcing a plan to stop the runoff", as the former may last well into 2020 or even 2021. Aside from that the highlights were in keeping with what Powell said in January namely that:

  • The Fed will remain patient in light of ambivalent economic and market data.
  • The Fed's outlook for the economy and the policy rate have both become more uncertain
  • Keeping the current policy rate for now "posed few risks"
  • As various Fed speakers noted recently, higher than expected inflation may be a requirement for more rate hikes
  • The Fed was worried that the dot plot -which has become a Fed forecasting farce - is being "misinterpreted."

Goldman: In March The Fed Will Announce QT Will End In Q3 - Confirming what we said earlier, in its post-mortem, Goldman's chief economist Jan Hatzius notes that the minutes of the January FOMC meeting "continued to emphasize patience in the policy outlook due to uncertainty around financial conditions, slower foreign growth, and softer inflation."While the bulk of the minutes was trivial, as participants maintained a relatively steady view of the growth outlook, noted that inflation “remained near 2 percent” even as inflation pressures appear “muted,” and continued to note rising downside risks, the one surprise was that almost all participants thought that it would be desirable to announce soon a plan to stop reducing the Fed’s asset holdings later this year.But before we get into the weeds on Goldman's take what the Minutes meant for the future of QT, here is a quick recap of the bigger picture: Participants noted that market-based measures of inflation expectations were lower in recent months, but also noted that survey-based measures of inflation expectations were “little changed.” Participants supported the removal of the hiking bias and its replacement with a sentence emphasizing a “patient and flexible approach.” Participants pointed to tighter financial conditions, softer inflation, slower foreign growth, and trade policy uncertainty as justifying a patient approach to policy. However, a range of views were expressed on what adjustments to the funds rate may be appropriate later this year. “Several” participants argued rates increases were necessary “only if” inflation was higher than in their baseline, but “several” other participants indicated that hikes would be appropriate if the economy evolved as they expected. In addition, “many” participants noted that if “uncertainty abated,” the FOMC could alter the “patient” statement language. Finally the punchline: according to Goldman, the Fed will end its balance sheet unwind before the end of the year, long before primary dealers and the buyside had expected (which according to the majority, was some time in 2020).

 What Happens When More QE Fails To Reverse The Recession? -  The smart money is liquidating assets, paying off debt and moving capital into collateral that isn't impaired by debt or speculative valuations.The Federal Reserve's sudden return to "accommodative" dovishness in response to the stock market's swoon telegraphs its intent to fire up QE once the recession kicks into gear. QE (quantitative easing) are monetary policies designed to ease borrowing and the issuance of credit, and to prop up assets such as stocks and real estate.The basic idea is that the Fed creates currency out of thin air and uses the new money to buy Treasury bonds and other assets. This injects fresh money into the financial system and lowers the yield on Treasury bonds, as the Fed will buy bonds at near-zero yield or even less than zero in pursuit of its policy goals of goosing assets higher and increasing borrowing/spending.This is pretty much the Fed's only lever, and it pulls this lever at any sign of weakness in stocks or the economy. That sets up an obvious question that few seem to ask: what happens when QE fails? What happens when the Fed launches QE and stocks fall as punters realize the rally is over? What happens when lowering interest rates doesn't spark more borrowing?What happens is the smart money sells everything that isn't nailed down, a process that is arguably already well underway. Why sell assets when QE has guaranteed gains in the past? Answer: exhaustion. There are limits to everything financial, and once those limits are reached, no amount of goosing will push the limits higher. Rather, further goosing only increases the fragility and vulnerability of the system.

Q4 GDP Forecasts: High-1s, Low-2s, 2018 Annual GDP around 2.8% The BEA has announced that the Q4 advanced GDP report will be combined with the 2nd estimate of GDP, and will be released on Feb 28th. From Merrill Lynch: Weak retail sales data and inventory build caused a 0.8pp decline in our 4Q GDP tracking estimate to 1.5% from 2.3% [Feb 14 estimate] From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 2.3% for 2018:Q4 and 1.2% for 2019:Q1. [Feb 22 estimate]   And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNow  The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in thefourth quarter of 2018 is 1.4 percent on February 21, down from 1.5 percent on February 14. [Feb 21 estimate]   CR Note: These estimates suggest GDP in the high 1s for Q4.  Using the middle of these three forecasts (about 1.8% real GDP growth in Q4), that would put 2018 annual GDP growth at around 2.8%.  This would be the best year since 2015, but lower than many forecasts.

 Conference Board Leading Economic Index: "Economic Growth May be Plateauing" - The latest Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) for January decreased fractionally to 111.3 from 111.4 in December. The Coincident Economic Index (CEI) came in at 105.1, up from 104.9 the previous month. NOTE: Please note that due to the recent government shutdown, data for three US LEI components - manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials, manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft and building permits - were not available for several of the recent months. The Conference Board has used its standard procedure of statistical imputations to fill in the missing data in order to publish a preliminary Leading Economic Index. The Conference Board will be issuing an interim release on March 4th, once these data are published. The Conference Board LEI for the U.S. decreased slightly in January, according to preliminary estimates. Negative contributions from initial claims for unemployment insurance (inverted), consumer expectations for business conditions and average weekly manufacturing hours offset the positive contributions from the financial components and the ISM® New Orders Index. In the sixmonth period ending January 2019, the leading economic index increased 0.8 percent (about a 1.6 percent annual rate), slower than the growth of 2.7 percent (about a 5.5 percent annual rate) during the previous six months. In addition, the strengths among the leading indicators became somewhat less widespread. The Conference Board CEI for the U.S., a measure of current economic activity, edged up in January. The coincident economic index rose 1.2 percent (about a 2.3 percent annual rate) between July 2018 and January 2019, about the same rate of growth as over the previous six months. The strengths among the coincident indicators remain very widespread, with all components advancing over the past six months. The lagging economic index continued to increase, but at a higher rate than the CEI. As a result, the coincident-to-lagging ratio declined in January. Real GDP expanded at a 3.4 percent annual rate in the third quarter of 2018, after increasing 4.2 percent (annual rate) in the second quarter. [Full notes in PDF] Here is a log-scale chart of the LEI series with documented recessions as identified by the NBER. The use of a log scale gives us a better sense of the relative sizes of peaks and troughs than a more conventional linear scale.

 Slowing U.S. economy can ill afford any more shocks: Kemp (Reuters) - The U.S. economy lost a lot of momentum during the fourth quarter and suffered a serious wobble in December, which should give policymakers pause before doing anything that could unsettle fragile sentiment further. Freight movements by road, rail, air, barge and pipeline fell more than 3 percent in December compared with November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Freight shrank by the most in any one month since March 2009 and was just 1.4 percent higher than in the same month a year earlier, the weakest performance for more than two years. Road freight slumped more than 4 percent in the final month of 2018, according to data sourced from the American Trucking Associations (“December 2018 freight transportation services index”, BTS, Feb. 13). Truck freight has been losing momentum since the middle of last year but the drop in December was the worst for nearly seven years (https://tmsnrt.rs/2GVTxDc). Separately, loaded container movements through the major gateways of Los Angeles and Long Beach slowed sharply, according to container counts from the port operators. Faltering freight volumes are consistent with other data showing the manufacturing sector hit a soft patch towards the end of last year. Manufacturing output hit a cycle high in October but fell in each of the three following months and was down more than 3 percent by January (“Industrial production and capacity utilization”, Federal Reserve, Feb. 15). Purchasing managers also reported an abrupt deceleration in the rate of expansion, with the Institute for Supply Management’s composite business activity index registering its worst decline in December since the financial crisis. In recent months, some observers have commented on the apparent disconnect between plunging financial markets, wobbling business surveys, and solid economic data. In retrospect, however, the data is all coherent. The drop in U.S. equity valuations and flattening of the yield curve in the fourth quarter are consistent with hard economic data showing a rapid cooling in the economy late in 2018. 

“What You Need To Know About The $22 Trillion National Debt”: The Alternative Interview - Eric Tymoigne - Steven Rattner’s opinion piece in the New York Times and Furman’s interview on National Public Radio are perfect examples of the ideas that MMT want to debunk. Deficits are not normal; deficits crowd out private investment; the public debt is a burden on our grandchildren; our ability to respond to societal problems is limited by the fact that the US government does not have enough money to confront them.  Below is an alternative interview to the Furman’s interview that reviews these points. This blog will run like a traditional interview and all the evidence for the points made are in appendices at the end (Dear Ms. Cornish, I hope you will forgive me but I will plagiarize you entirely for the sake of this exercise).

 Bill Black: Modern Monetary Theory Is On the March (#MMT) --Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) continues to advance rapidly.  We are past the first phase of reaction (first they ignore you), deeply into the second phase (then they attack you), and expanding the ranks of the third phase (then you win).  We are very early in the third phase, winning with increasing numbers of people, but still a minority view.One of the proofs of MMT’s advances is a nearly respectable treatment by the Wall Street Journal as the feature of a news article.  The other major proof is the pathetic efforts of MMT critics quoted in the article to attack MMT.  The article, implicitly, admits that MMT scholars have repeatedly proved correct in their predictions that the existing and projected U.S. fiscal budget deficits would not trigger damaging shortages of real resources that will cause damaging levels of inflation.  The article, implicitly, admits that nations with fully sovereign currencies are vastly less vulnerable to economic injury from budget deficits. The article implicitly admits that MMT opponents’ predictions have failed and that reality has repeatedly falsified their archaic monetary theories that described nations living under the gold standard and therefore lacked a fully sovereign currency.   First, in the most important policy predictions in the lifetime of virtually all living economists, the archaic theory failed every predictive test and led to policy proposals that were spectacularly harmful. Second, and even more implicitly, MMT’s predictions proved correct and MMT scholars’ policy advice proved accurate and exceptionally helpful in reducing the severity and length of the Great Recession.  The article reports as if there were only one monetary theory – the archaic one. Third, the article does not explain that Reinhart and Rogoff’s ‘finding,’ as MMT scholars predicted and demonstrated was false.  The journalists should have given special kudos to graduate economic students at U. Mass for demonstrating the falsity of what Reinhart and Rogoff “found.”  Their data also showed, consistent with MMT and contrary to Reinhart and Rogoff, that nations with fully sovereign currencies showed far greater resilience.

Modern Monetary Theory Is Not a Recipe for Doom --- Stephanie Kelton - Paul Krugman first wrote about modern monetary theory on March 25, 2011. He last wrote about MMT in a two-part series on February 12-13, 2019. Although he’s had almost a decade to come to terms with the approach, he is still getting some of the basic ideas wrong.  This matters for two reasons: one, because people listen to Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel economics prize in 2008, and, two, because the approach he is discussing is at the heart of how to design economic policies that affect millions of Americans. I’d like to try to move the conversation forward by addressing his concerns.  He begins by saying, “MMT seems to be pretty much the same thing as Abba Lerner’s ‘functional finance’ doctrine from 1943.” Krugman then sets out to critique Lerner’s functional finance, which he says “applies to MMT as well.” It’s actually not correct to say that modern monetary theory is pretty much the same thing as Lerner’s functional finance. MMT draws insights and inspiration from Lerner’s work — including his “Money as a Creature of the State” — but the American academics who are most associated with MMT would argue that the contributions of Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley are at least as important to the project, and probably more so. So, a critique of functional finance is not a critique of MMT but a critique of one component part of the broader macro approach. But let’s go ahead and examine what Krugman thinks MMT — er, Abba Lerner — gets wrong…

What’s next: A bigger spending battle - Last week, some senior members of the White House staff had a conversation about leverage. Specifically, what leverage they might have for the congressional fights ahead. According to a senior official familiar with the conversation, Mulvaney told colleagues that part of the challenge the White House had in this most recent negotiation was they "didn't have much leverage." Mulvaney told colleagues that "now we do" have leverage; and he said he viewed the threat of sequestration as a bigger source of leverage for the White House than any conversation about the debt ceiling, the official said.   Sequestration is the massive automatic budget cuts that will happen if Republicans and Democrats can't agree by Oct. 1 on next year's spending levels.: If Congress doesn't cut a 2020 spending deal by Oct. 1 then more than $70 billion will be automatically cut from the Pentagon's budget and more than $50 billion will be cut from non-defense spending. For the military, and many members of Congress and the people dependent on the affected government programs, that would be a crisis. Trump wants $750 billion for the military in 2020 — a massive increase. To get that huge amount of money without breaking the mandatory spending limits, the White House supports the controversial idea of the Pentagon dramatically increasing a war fund called "Overseas Contingencies Operations (OCO), which critics describe as a "Pentagon slush fund.""The big battle is going to be spending," a senior White House official told me. "The president is able to fund his priorities with the OCO budget. The Democrats, less so. So as we get into the next round, they [Democrats] need a spending caps increase more than we do." Ironically, Mulvaney, who used to be a vocal opponent of the OCO slush fund, now supports the idea of using it to circumvent mandatory spending levels, according to a source who's discussed it with him. I asked a senior White House official how it wasn't hypocritical for Mulvaney to now support dramatically increasing the OCO slush fund when he'd previously railed against its misuse when he was a fiscally conservative member of Congress.  "Yes," the official replied. "You can say that Mulvaney fully recognizes the inconsistencies between this and his previous arguments. There's no question about that."

Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for Trump's border wall - The Pentagon signaled Thursday that it has asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a priorities list to justify using military funds to build President Trump's desired border wall.“We’ve asked DHS for input facts, data, priorities; we are waiting to receive those,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.“When we do, we will then ... match that with our mission analysis and begin the process I think I've described to many of you.”The Military Times first reported Thursday that the Pentagon asked DHS for such a list in a Feb. 18 memo. The document asks for locations where border wall construction would improve the “effectiveness" of military troops deployed there.Trump announced last week that he would declare a national emergency to construct a border wall after Congress included only $1.375 billion for physical barriers along the border in a massive government funding bill — well below the $5.7 billion the president requested. The president is seeking to redirect $3.6 billion from the military construction funds budget for construction of a border wall. That represents one third of the more than $11 billion Congress authorized and appropriated for the fund in the fiscal 2019 defense budget.

What Authorities Is President Trump Using to Build a Border Wall? - On Feb. 15, President Trump announced his intention to sign spending legislation that includes a $1.375 billion appropriation for construction of a wall on the southern border. He also stated that he would declare a national emergency that would serve, in part, as the basis for authorizing an additional $6.5 billion for wall construction. According to the proclamation, the administration will rely on 10 U.S.C. § 2808(a), which allows the executive to redirect Defense Department construction funds that have not yet been obligated in a situation of national emergency. In the absence of an appropriate statutory authority on which to rely to build the wall, an action to use funds appropriated for other purposes for this purpose would be unconstitutional: Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution assigns the role of making laws to Congress, and Article I, Section 9 specifies that “[n]o Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” In addition, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has interpreted 41 U.S.C. § 12 to require specific congressional authorization for military construction projects and to prohibit the use of other, more general appropriations for such projects. In light of these restrictions, a fact sheet issued by the White House identifies three distinct statutory bases for making available the additional $6.5 billion. The fact sheet specifies that “[t]hese funding sources will be used sequentially and as needed.” First, according to the fact sheet, $601 million would come from the Department of the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, an account that is fed by money seized by the U.S. government in connection with law enforcement actions or generated by the sale of seized assets. No national emergency declaration is needed to tap these funds. 31 U.S.C. § 9705(g)(4)(B) authorizes the Forfeiture Fund to use the funds for specific purposes outlined in that section:

How Congress and President Obama Made Trump’s Wall Possible - Throughout the 2016 election, Donald Trump campaigned for president on the promise that he would build a wall along the southern border. Six weeks after his election in November 2016, Congress overwhelmingly passed a statute—codified as 10 U.S.C § 284—that authorized the secretary of defense to support the “construction of roads and fences and installation of lighting to block drug smuggling corridors across international boundaries of the United States.” On Dec. 23, 2016, a month before leaving office, President Obama signed the 973-page bill into law without any objection to this provision.  On Feb. 15, the Trump administration invoked this express statutory delegation of authority to do what the statute says: “construct ... fences ... across international boundaries of the United States.” Specifically, the president identified up to $2.5 billion under the Department of Defense funds that were designated for counterdrug activities. This provision does not turn on the declaration of a national emergency pursuant to 10 U.S.C. § 2808, which the president also invoked in a proclamationissued the same day. Critically, the White House stated that “these funding sources will be used sequentially and as needed.” The “emergency” funds may not be tapped until the other, less controversial funds are depleted. Plaintiffs may not have standing to challenge the diversion of “emergency” funds until those funds are in fact allocated. Through § 284, both Houses of Congress willingly gave President Trump a path to build at least part of the wall.  This episode illustrates how Congress long ago relinquished its lawmaking powers. The legislature enacts omnibus bills that few members actually read. Often, these super-duper-statutes contain nearly-limitless delegations of authority to the executive branch, with only the flimsiest guidelines on how and when that authority should be executed. Other times, Congress gives the president the exact authority he needs, with few strings attached. Such is the case with § 284: Obama signed a bill into law that gave his successor the very precise power to “construct ... fences ... across international boundaries of the United States.” Moreover, a predecessor of this statute, known commonly as Section 1004, has been in effect since 1990. Critically, other long-standing provisions allow the president to shift appropriations around to fund that construction.

Trump’s Alarming Abuse of Executive Power - There may be worse executive power abuses than President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall on the Mexican border that Congress has steadfastly refused to fund. But if there are, they don’t readily come to mind. Trump’s national emergency declaration is worse than the 59 others declared by presidents since 1976 because it was employed to usurp the express power of the purse—the most important congressional check on executive abuses. Only two of the prior national emergency declarations involved the expenditure of funds not appropriated by Congress: one by George H.W. Bush in 1990 during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, and the other by George W. Bush in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. In both cases, the funds were transferred among military accounts in response to immediate (not protracted) developments for a military purpose. In neither case, had Congress repeatedly rejected the President’s proposed expenditure of funds, rather Congress acquiesced in the expenditures. In Trump’s case, he is expending funds for a purpose that Congress has consistently and steadfastly denied over long months. Trump is defying Congress, not working in collaboration with it, over a power Congress has a right to exercise. Under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, Congress may pass a joint resolution to terminate the president’s declaration. If Trump persists, the United States Supreme Court can hold the executive usurpation of the congressional power of the purse unconstitutional. Further, Trump’s direction that funds be expended that have not been appropriated by Congress for that purpose would be criminal under the Anti-Deficiency Act and an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor.The Anti-Deficiency Act criminalizes the knowing authorization of a federal expenditure exceeding the amount it was appropriated for. In my opinion, a presidential crime that usurps a core congressional power constitutes an impeachable offense.

Florida Military Bases Could Lose $177 Million To Trump's Wall - Last Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency in an attempt to secure funding for the southern border wall. Approximately $3.6 billion would be diverted from military construction projects across the country, and of that, about $177 million just from Florida military bases, according to a list of projects compiled by the House Appropriations Committee and distributed to the Tampa Bay Times.Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the influential Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies subcommittee, said Trump's declaration is a “lawless attempt to circumvent the authority of Congress and threatens the nation’s military readiness over a manufactured crisis.”“Through this declaration the President could steal urgently needed military construction funds that are critical to our nation’s military and the well-being of our troops," Rep. Wasserman Schultz said. The projects on the chopping block are $3.1 million to relocate KC-135 Stratotanker pilot flight simulators to MacDill Air Force Base, $83 million for Littoral Combat Ship support facility, $29 million for Littoral Combat Ship operational training facility at Mayport Naval Base in Jacksonville, $35 million for a F-35A training center, and $28 million for a F-35A student dormitory at Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County.

There is no national emergency at the border other than the ones Trump created. When President Donald J. Trump publishes his declaration of a national emergency requiring the construction of a wall on our southern border, that document will bear the formal signs of normal governance. The order will recite findings or at least assertions of fact. It will cite statutes—the act that authorizes its issuance and the statutes the president is triggering by signing his declaration. The same will be true of the complaints and legal briefs inevitably to be filed in its wake. There will be arguments familiar to administrative lawyers about standing, ripeness, reviewability, and statutory interpretation. But hovering over all the familiar legal forms and practices is the depressing reality that Trump, as always, is endeavoring to hollow out the constitutional system of checks and balances. There is no national emergency at the border other than the tragedies of his creation. Gangs, sex traffickers, and drug smugglers are not invading the United States. His “crisis” is that Congress has refused to fund a campaign fantasy he promised that Mexico would pay for, and the smell of political defeat is more than he can bear.  Trump’s fecklessness is most obvious when you realize that if his declaration could produce the lawful construction of his promised wall, the partial government shutdown—and the pain imposed both on the economy in general and on thousands of American families specifically—was utterly pointless. Even odder is the fact that one of the statutory authorities Trump is expected to set in motion is the Defense Department’s authority to provide assistance to counter drug trafficking and organized crime. That authority, however, is within the department’s regular quiver of statutory powers. If legally available to build the wall, it is no more or less available than it was before the government shutdown or before Trump’s declaration.

California Leads 16 States Suing to Block Trump Border Plan -California sued to block President Donald Trump from diverting funds from the federal budget to pay for his promised border wall, joined by more than a dozen states who say the move exceeds the power of his office.The states allege that it was unconstitutional for Trump to declare a national emergency to unlock more money to build a barricade along the southern U.S. border after Congress opted to fund construction of only about 55 miles (89 kilometers) of physical barriers. The declaration allows him to reallocate about $8 billion. The declaration violates the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine by ignoring Congress’s decision not to authorize more than $1.35 billion for border security, the states said in the suit. The Constitution gives Congress authority over government spending.“Contrary to the will of Congress, the president has used the pretext of a manufactured ‘crisis’ of unlawful immigration to declare a national emergency and redirect federal dollars appropriated for drug interdiction, military construction and law enforcement initiatives toward building a wall on the United States-Mexico border,” the states said in the complaint filed Monday in San Francisco federal court. Sixteen states signed on, led by California. In unscripted remarks on Feb. 15, Trump depicted his emergency declaration as an ordinary action invoked by every president in the past 40 years, but also said he expected it to be challenged in court. Trump’s decree breaks with those of his predecessors because it came after Congress rejected his wall proposal. Trump said during the speech that he expected to be sued and predicted that he may lose if the case winds up before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in San Francisco. He’s frequently criticized that court as biased against him, and tweeted on Tuesday --erroneously -- that the states’ suit was already before the appeals court and that the group was “led mostly by Open Border Democrats and the Radical Left.”

Dems think they’re beating Trump in emergency declaration battle  - Democrats are up in arms over President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, but they also see political gold in his highly controversial power play. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is raising money off Trump’s executive action, while early polls indicate Trump’s decision is broadly unpopular with voters nationwide. Republicans are battling among themselves over whether to allow the president’s declaration to stand. And Democrats hope the public perception that Trump overplayed his hand will carry into the high stakes 2020 elections. “Hard-working Americans are tired of failure and dysfunction from Washington Republicans — that’s why they overwhelmingly voted them out of office in 2018 and will reject them again in 2020,” Jared Smith, spokesman for the Democrats’ campaign arm, said Tuesday. The Democrats’ strategy of highlighting the emergency declaration carries its own risks. Republicans, polls show, are overwhelmingly supportive of Trump’s move to use the emergency declaration to free up funds for his long-sought border wall. It’s an issue he is sure to tap to compel those voters to the polls next year. Yet many Republicans on Capitol Hill had initially warned Trump against taking the drastic step of sidestepping Congress to secure funding, and the GOP is now divided over the appropriate response — a fight that’s sure to prove a painful headache for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had opposed the emergency declaration weeks ago. Those Republican divisions have been closely watched, even before Trump announced his go-it-alone approach from the Rose Garden on Friday, and Democrats think that discord only bolsters their case that Trump is abusing executive powers simply to make good on his central campaign promise.

 Resolution To Block Border Emergency Likely To Pass, Forcing First-Ever Trump Veto - Now that a handful of influential Senate Republicans started expressing their reservations about President Trump's decision to call a national emergency to secure another $7 billion in funding for his promised border wall (or "barrier"...or "fence"...), it's becoming increasingly clear that a Congressional challenge to order will likely clear both the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate, provoking the president to issue what would be the first veto of his presidency, Bloomberg reported on Sunday, citing remarks made on Sunday news shows. Both Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said on ABC’s "This Week" that they expect a resolution in Congress to terminate Trump’s order would have enough votes to pass both the House and the Senate by simple majorities, thanks to Republicans who fear Trump's order would deprive the military of essential funds.Trump will redirect $3.6 billion in military construction funding toward the border project, and will also take separate executive action repurposing about $2.5 billion from the Defense Department’s drug-interdiction program and $600 million from the Treasury Department’s asset-forfeiture fund. Officials said the goal is to ultimately build roughly 234 miles of barriers along the border, including bollard-style wall. The funding is on top of roughly $1.4 billion earmarked to build 55 miles of barrier as part of the border security compromise passed last week.

These 10 GOP Senators May Vote To Terminate Trump Border Emergency - As Congress prepares to pass a resolution to preemptively terminate President Trump's national emergency declaration before he can redirect some $7 billion in military and Treasury Department funding, lawmakers have said that the resolution will likely make it to Trump's desk, prompting what would be his first veto. Of course, passing the resolution in the Senate would be impossible without the support of at least a handful of Republicans. And already, several have spoken out to criticize the decision for circumventing Congress, robbing the coffers of the military and setting a dangerous precedent. While it's possible (likely, even) that the Ninth Circuit Court will do Congress's work for them by responding to a lawsuit filed by 16 states challenging the declaration and calling for an injunction to stop construction on over 200 miles of Trump's border barrier, Congress is moving ahead with its plans to vote on the resolution that Democrats are expected to bring to the floor on Friday. While no GOP senators have publicly said they would oppose the order, the Hill has compiled a list of 10 who are uncomfortable in the measure, and might move to oppose it.

Trump’s National Emergency Policy Is Unpopular, But Not Really Unpopular - President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in order to build more physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border was generally unpopular, but polls suggest the move has very high support among Republicans. That dynamic could be important as Trump seeks to overcome challenges to his new policy both on Capitol Hill and in the courts.Two polls conducted entirely after the emergency declaration show a majority of Americans don’t like it: An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll that came out Tuesday showed a 61-36 split against Trump’s policy, and aMorning Consult/Politico poll released on Wednesday found 39 percent in support, 51 percent opposed. A HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted the day before and the day of the emergency declaration found similar results — 37 percent of Americans said they approved of the move, compared with 55 percent who disapproved. These numbers don’t surprise me — they generally mirror Trump’s overall job approval ratings. For much of the past two years, around 40 percent of Americans have approved of the president’s performance, while a clear majority has disapproved. Similarly, overall support for the national emergency declaration is in the upper 30s in the polls we have so far. That’s because Republicans have lined up solidly behind it, according to both polls conducted after the declaration was made — the NPR poll found 85 percent support within the GOP, and the Morning Consult survey found 77 percent support. The HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 84 percent of Trump voters supported the declaration, although that poll was already underway when the declaration was made, so some respondents were asked about the move before it became official while others were asked after the announcement.

We Have No Rights - Texan Landowners Fear Trump Will Seize Their Land For Border Wall - The Rio Grande Valley, an area located in the southernmost tip of South Texas, is seeing increased signs that a border wall or fence is imminent: heavy machinery gathering near the Rio Grande, wooded areas being cleared, and residents receiving letters from the government asking to survey their property and possibly seize it through eminent domain. Gary Jacobs, a former chief executive officer of Laredo National Bank, had an in-depth conversation with Bloomberg about President Trump's border wall could trigger a massive backlash from Texan landowners. Texas, a state where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 9% in the 2016 presidential election, shows the political complexity at play.After Trump declared a national emergency last week to access billions of dollars in funding, some landowners in Texas fear that the Trump administration could seize their land.“The way the eminent domain laws are written, we have no rights,” warns Jacobs. “That’s the issue. It’s not what they’re going to build. It’s how they’re taking the land.”Not long after Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act, the Legal advocacy group Public Citizen filed suit on behalf of landowners in Texas.Public Citizen is claiming Trump exceeded his authority under the federal National Emergencies Act because there is no crisis at the border, and that a declaration of a national emergency to build the wall violates the separation of powers, more or less, it is unconstitutional for Trump to declare an emergency because Congress already declined to appropriate the money. Bloomberg said property seizure laws established in the 1800s leave Texan landowners with limited options.

How Mitch McConnell Enables Trump - New York Times --Among the casualties of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his border wall is the reputation of the majority leader Mitch McConnell as a Senate institutionalist. The evidence of the last few days has confirmed, if there were still any doubt, that he is no such thing. First, he helped prolong the longest government shutdown in American history by insisting that the Senate would act only with explicit approval from the president. Now Mr. McConnell has fully acquiesced in President Trump’s power grab by supporting an emergency declaration, which he opposed just weeks before, aimed at addressing a crisis that Senate Republicans know does not exist.  This display of obedience from the leader of a supposedly coequal branch of government is shocking only if you ever believed Mr. McConnell was an institutionalist. But his defining characteristic has always been his willingness to do anything and sacrifice any principle to amass power for himself. What separates him from the garden-variety politicians — what makes him a radical — are the lengths he is willing to go. Seeing this with clarity should help us grasp the danger to which he is subjecting the Senate — and, more important, our democracy.  The signs of Mr. McConnell’s malign influence were always there. Before he became a Senate leader, he dedicated himself to opening the floodgates for corporate money to flow into our political system.  Mr. McConnell is not playing three-dimensional chess. There is no grand strategy or long game — there is only what best serves his narrow interest. And since 2010, Mr. McConnell has been convinced that his interests are best served through strict obedience to the Republican base. That year, his handpicked candidate, Trey Grayson, lost a Senate Republican primary in Kentucky to an insurgent named Rand Paul. It was a humiliating defeat and called into question Mr. McConnell’s power in his own backyard. It also invited a Tea Party challenge against his re-election in 2014. Since that scare, Mr. McConnell has rigidly adhered to whatever the base wants, institutions be damned. When the base wanted Judge Merrick Garland blocked, he obeyed. When the base wanted Mr. Trump embraced, he obeyed. While Paul Ryan was playing Hamlet in the summer of 2016, Mr. McConnell quickly endorsed Mr. Trump, providing institutional cover and repeatedly assuring Republicans that Trump would “be fine.” Mr. McConnell didn’t think Trump was going to win — he has said so himself — but he probably figured that the damage could be contained.

 Donald Trump to Venezuela’s military: ‘accept amnesty or lose everything’ - US President Donald Trump called on the Venezuelan armed forces to back interim President Juan Guaido. Trump said he sought a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela, but that "all options" remained open.  US President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to Venezuela's interim President Juan Guaido and delivered a strong rebuke to socialism, in a speech he delivered on Monday in Miami."A new day is coming in Latin America," Trump said, addressing a lively crowd at Florida International University. The setting was symbolic, as Miami has become a home to a burgeoning community that boasts 100,000 Venezuelans and Venezuelan-Americans, the largest in the US. Trump's speech comes at a critical week in the ongoing power struggle between Juan Guaido and acting President Nicolas Maduro. The 35-year-old opposition leader has led a push to bring humanitarian aid into the country on February 23.The move will serve as a test for the country's military, which has been instructed by Maduro to repel the aid and fortify the border.

Venezuelan Military Reject Trump’s Incitement to Rebel: ‘Over Our Dead Bodies’ – Venezuela’s armed forces have responded angrily Tuesday to threats made against them by US President Donald Trump and calls to break the chain of command. Speaking at a press conference held in Caracas and flanked by commanders from all of the branches of the military, Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez told press that Washington “Will not be able to install a “puppet” and anti-patriotic government, they will have to step over our dead bodies first.” Trump had warned Venezuelan soldiers that they risked “losing everything” should they continue loyal to Maduro at a press conference in Miami Monday. He once more urged them to recognise National Assembly President Juan Guaido as “interim president” and yet again refused to rule out direct military action against Venezuela, stressing that “all options are on the table.” “If [the Venezuelan soldiers] choose this path [of loyalty to the government] they will find no refuge, they will lose everything,” Trump told reporters and Venezuelan immigrants in Florida. Padrino called attempts to give orders to the Venezuelan armed forces “disrespectful,” while also vowing that threats of sanctions and blackmail would not allow the US to “achieve its objective.” “When a president of another country comes and tries to give orders to [our] Armed Forces, he is underestimating them disrespectfully (…) It is incredulous,” Venezuela’s Padrino Lopez responded.

Trump Sends US Military Aircraft to Deliver ‘Aid’ to Venezuela’s Border  — The Trump Administration has announced Friday, along with a new round of sanctions against members of the Venezuelan government, that they are dispatching US military aircraft carrying aid to the Venezuelan border.  The aid can’t get into Venezuela directly, as it is being sent to opposition leader Juan Guaido and with an eye specifically toward endorsing him as the new ruler of Venezuela. Instead, the aid will be sent to Cucuta, on the Colombian side of the border.  It is unclear what the plans are for getting the aid across the border, and it is expected to arrive on Saturday. If anything, it is likely to raise tensions along the border, where the US has considered sending a large number of ground troops. The administration has repeatedly said that military intervention remains on the table in imposing regime change in Venezuela. There is no timeline for that,though it is clear that some Trump aides are pushing for action to ensure Guiado ultimately takes power.

Anyone Buying This Venezuela Bullshit Is A Complete Fucking Moron - Caitlin Johnstone - #VenezuelaAidLive is trending on Twitter in the USA as I write this, forced to the forefront of public consciousness and into everyone’s eyeballs by a concert staged by billionaire plutocrat Richard Branson. Branson’s Virgin Group controls hundreds of companies and brings in some $21 billion annually, with Branson himself valued at around five billion dollars. The concert is pure narrative control operation, designed to advance the proven lie that the Venezuelan government is shutting out all humanitarian aid from its people, and the proven lie that it has blockaded a bridge to prevent the aid from getting through, both of which are also currently being promoted by American mainstream media despite being thoroughly disproven. In reality, the Venezuelan government has been taking in humanitarian aid from all around the world to help its people, just not from America’s regime change operation that is so blatant even NPR recognizes it, and the bridge Branson has been posing in front of for his “billionaire philanthropist” photo ops has never been open for travel. They’re lying to us about Venezuela. Anyone with access to alternative media has access to the fact that they’re lying to us about Venezuela. We know this for a fact. We also know for a fact that Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves on planet Earth, and that in spite of all these appeals to the humanitarian impulses of the US empire the Trump administration is openly interested in controlling that oil. We also know for a fact that US interventionism in modern times is consistently disastrous, and consistently never truly about humanitarianism. We also know for a fact that PNAC neocon Elliott Abrams, who is spearheading this “humanitarian aid” initiative, has previously used humanitarian aid as a pretext for arming militia groups in Nicaragua. If all of these facts are easily available to you, and yet you still support the US government’s interventionism in Venezuela, you are a complete fucking moron.

New Cuban Missile Crisis? Bring it on says Russia's Putin -Russia's military is ready for its own "Cuban Missile Crisis" if the United States is foolish enough to want one and Moscow has the edge when it comes to a nuclear-first attack, President Vladimir Putin said.Putin's comments, made to Russian media late on Wednesday, follow his warning that Moscow would match any US move to deploy new missiles closer to Russia by targeting Western capitals with faster missiles of its own.The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962 when Moscow responded to a US missile deployment in Turkey by sending ballistic missiles to Cuba - 150km from the US - sparking a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.More than five decades on, tensions are rising again over Russian fears the US might deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe as a landmark Cold War-era arms control treaty unravels.Relations between Moscow and Washington were strained, Putin said, but tensions were not yet comparable to those of the Cuban Missile Crisis. "They [tensions] are not a reason to ratchet up confrontation to the levels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. In any case, that's not what we want," said Russia's president. "[But] if someone wants that, well OK they are welcome."

Russia Touts Unlimited Range Of New Nuclear Cruise Missile As INF Unravels - Following the dramatic US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) within the last month and amidst continuing tit-for-tat accusations between Moscow and Washington since then, which even appears to have imperiled the future of the New START treaty, Russia is aggressively touting its new nuclear cruise missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik (or “Storm Petrel”), which Russian media reports say has entered the final stage of testing and development.  The Kremlin is claiming the nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped cruise missile has "unlimited" range and advance superior maneuvering capabilities against anti-air defenses. Russian media previously last week reported based on official state sources that the missile’s nuclear power unit was successfully tested in January 2018. The announcement appears a follow-up to a series of promises that President Putin made back in March of last year at the annual Russian state of the union address, according to TASS, "in a message to the Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia developed a small-sized nuclear power mechanism that can be used in a cruise missile, which will allow it to receive a virtually unlimited range." At that time Putin also issued what sounded like an implicit threat to the West, explaining before Russian lawmakers that he's repeatedly warned Washington not to go ahead with anti-missile systems that Moscow fears could erode its nuclear deterrent. However "nobody listened to us. Listen now," he said, to a loud ovation from the crowd of legislators, officials, and dignitaries after describing a range of new "hypersonic weapons" the military was pursuing. 

Russia Will Target US With New Hypersonic Weapons If It Deploys Missiles To Europe --In his first major public address since the US formally pulled out of the INF arms-control treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Wednesday that Russia would point its new arsenal of hypersonic missiles - which can purportedly bypass NATO's ABM systems - directly at the US if it dares to reintroduce ground-based intermediate-range missiles to Europe.According to Fox, Putin threatened to deploy Russia’s new Zircon missiles, which Putin said can fly at nine times the speed of sound and carry a range of 620 miles and are part of the country's drive to upgrade its defensive capabilities against an increasingly aggressive US and NATO. Putin also took a few moments to praise Russia's weapons program, comparing the new Avangard hypersonic missile - which Russia infamously tested on the day after Christmas, sending a shiver of alarm through Western intelligence and defense analysts - to the 1957 launch of Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite, which was built by the Soviet Union. The weapon has demonstrated that Russia has the technological capabilities to surpass the US, according to RT. And in another warning that, if true, will likely aggravate the US defense community, Putin revealed that Russia has been carrying out successful tests of its  Burevestnik cruise missile and the Poseidon nuclear-powered underwater drone. "It seemed until recently that Russia can't make a breakthrough in defense technologies, but we made it," Putin said.

Russians Told To Prepare For Worst Outcome As US Prepares New Sanctions - A bipartisan team of US senators is preparing to hit Russia with additional sanctions over its 2016 US election interference and military operations in Syria and Ukraine. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are spearheading the measure, called the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, which includes a wide range of financial penalties targeting Russia's energy complex, financial industry and "political figures, oligarchs, and family members and other persons that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of Vladimir Putin," reported The Independent. Threats of the sanctions rocked Russian stock and government bond markets at the end of the week, and the country's debt insurance costs jumped alongside FX volatility.Moscow has responded to the prospect of new sanctions with anger.A former minister told Russians to prepare for the worst outcome; the Kremlin accused the US of “racketeering.”“We see clear symptoms of emotional Russophobia,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists. “But behind the emotions … is an entirely pragmatic, assertive trade calculation, and … nothing less than an attempt to engage in dishonest competition.” Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Defence and Security Committee of Russia’s upper house, described the new sanctions as a “dangerous habit” similar to “smoking a pipe before breakfast, poisoning all those around."

Trump says "no rush" on DPRK denuclearization - (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he expected to see the ultimate denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula while pointing out that he had no pressing schedule for that objective. Trump told the press Tuesday that he was looking forward to meeting Kim Jong Un, top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), next week in Hanoi, Vietnam. "I think a lot of things will come out of it," he said. Trump said he would like to see the ultimate denuclearization of the DPRK, but at the same time noted that he was "in no particular rush" given that the sanctions remain in effect and Pyongyang has refrained from nuclear and missile testing. "As long as there's no testing I'm in no rush, if there's testing that's another deal ... I hope that very positive things are going to happen," he said. Trump also said he discussed "probably every aspect" of the second U.S.-DPRK summit with his Republic of Korea (ROK) counterpart Moon Jae-in during a phone conversation the same day.According to the Office of President Moon, the two leaders intensively discussed ways to cooperate for the success of the upcoming second U.S.-DPRK summit over the phone for about 35 minutes. The ROK leader said his country was ready to assume any role, if Trump demands, to offer corresponding measures to facilitate denuclearization on the peninsula. 

Lindsey Graham Rips New Trump Policy- “The Dumbest F—ing Idea I’ve Ever Heard” -- Mention the word “Syria” in front of Lindsay Graham, and the South Carolina senator will instantly transform from a sycophantic defender of Donald Trump into a fire-breathing defender of American adventurism in the Middle East, unsparing in his contempt for the president’s isolationist impulses. He went full dragon energy in December after Trump abruptly announced that he was withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from the war-torn region (“If [Barack] Obama had done this, all of us would be going nuts because it’s such a bad idea,” he told Mike Pence), and promised to tweet at Trump every time the president mentioned Syria (“I’m not letting this go”). Unfortunately, recent events have forced Graham to take more dramatic action to get the president’s attention, such as describing in detail to The Washington Posthow he impressed upon Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan his fervent belief that withdrawing from Syria is “the dumbest f---ing idea” he’s ever heard.The dramatic scene reportedly unfolded last Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, where several members of the U.S. congressional delegation privately confronted Shanahan about the administration’s plans. A day earlier, Graham told Breitbart, he had personally pitched Trump on establishing a Syria “safe zone” along the border with Turkey, which would allow a percentage of U.S. troops to remain in the region as a deterrent against ISIS, joining forces with European and Kurdish allies to monitor the area. Apparently he figured he’d made inroads with the president. But when he heard about Shanahan suggesting to European allies that Trump is preparing to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, Graham exploded:“Are you telling our allies that we are going to go to zero by April 30?” he asked Shanahan, according to Graham.“Yes, that’s been our direction [from the president],” Shanahan replied. “That’s the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve ever heard,” Graham responded.

Congress May Make It Impossible to End a War - Earlier this month, in a move widely reported as a stinging rebuke of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Senate voted 70-26 to warn against a “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the author of the legislation, staunchly proclaimed that his chamber “will not shrink” from its important role in foreign policy.Except it already has. The law approving U.S. operations in Afghanistan is nearly two decades old, while the American presence in Syria has no legislative mandate at all. If Congress really wants to keep U.S. forces there, here’s another idea: Instead of a nonbinding resolution itemizing the perils of a drawdown, how about the legislative branch exercise its constitutional duty and affirmatively authorize the use of force?Curiously, McConnell’s amendment does the precise opposite. In order to garner bipartisan support, the Senate adopted language from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., specifying that the bill is neither a declaration of war nor an authorization for the use of military force. Which begs the question, what exactly is it? The meaning is muddy but the message is clear: Congress cares just enough about fighting the Islamic State to protest a withdrawal, but not enough to make a commitment. Under America’s constitutional structure, Congress is charged with initiating military campaigns, whereas the President is tasked with directing them. Ever since President Harry Truman bypassed Congress in 1950 to lead the United Nations intervention in Korea, this axiom has largely been honored in the breach. Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are just a few recent examples of extended military conflicts waged under unilateral executive authority. Indeed, since 1940 there has been no time at which a campaign medal was not authorized for deployed U.S. service members. Even by these exceedingly low standards of legislative diligence, Congress’ record on Syria has been particularly dismal. After President Barack Obama determined that Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime had crossed his “red line” by employing chemical weapons, he readied airstrikes in 2013 but ultimately backed down in the face of political opposition and threw the matter to Congress. Perhaps to save face, Obama maintained that he possessed the legal authority to act unilaterally but was seeking congressional support to demonstrate American resolve.

Microsoft staff: Do not use HoloLens for war - At least 50 Microsoft employees have demanded the company back out of a deal with the US military to provide augmented reality technology. In particular, the group has said the firm’s headset, HoloLens, must not be used to “help people kill”. In November, Microsoft agreed a $479m (£367m) deal to develop a platform that would involve soldiers using about 100,000 headsets. "We always appreciate feedback from employees and have many avenues for employee voices to be heard," a Microsoft spokesperson said. A letter sent around Microsoft on Friday and seen by the BBC has been backed by employees across multiple departments. “Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the US Army’s ability to cause harm and violence,” it reads. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.” HoloLens, first released to developers in March 2016, allows the wearer to see digital images laid over the real world. Microsoft's chief executive Satya Nadella is expected to announced HoloLens 2 at an event in Barcelona on Sunday, ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show. The letter demands Microsoft cancel the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract, stop developing “any and all” weapons technologies, and draft a public policy statement on the matter.

Congress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support - Supporters of a measure to cut off U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen are projecting victory in the coming weeks when the Senate takes up a House-passed resolution.The Trump administration is expected to ramp up its lobbying against the Yemen war powers resolution as the vote nears in hopes of flipping some of the Republicans who back the measure.But opponents have few tools at their disposal to stop the resolution, which only needs a simple majority for a procedural vote and subsequent final passage. Backers say they now have added momentum as the administration’s missteps in handling the Jamal Khashoggi killing have only increased ire at Saudi Arabia.“I think we’re going to win,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said.He declined to say whether he expects any Republicans who supported the measure in December to switch their vote.Sanders said he expects to force a vote on the resolution later this month or in early March, while co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he expects the vote shortly after lawmakers return from their weeklong Presidents Day recess.“There’s not a lot of reason to wait,” Murphy said.Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is the other major supporter of the measure.The resolution would require President Trump to withdraw U.S. forces in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda or associated forces.The Senate passed a similar resolution in December, in a 56-41 vote. That was when Republicans held a 51-49 majority. The Republican-controlled House at the time prevented the measure from coming to the floor for a vote. But Democrats are now in control of the lower chamber, which voted 248-177 last week to approve the resolution, sending the measure over to the Senate.

House Oversight Whistleblowers Claim Trump Trying To Transfer US Nuke Technology To Saudi Arabia - The House Oversight committee now chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings issued an interim staff report after several whistleblowers came forward "to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act," spearheaded by Jared Kushner, according to a press release by the House Oversight Committee. The press release is in conjunction with the announcement of an investigation into the allegations.  The plan, which reportedly involved former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Kushner and Trump fundraiser Thomas Barrack, would see the development of "dozens of nuclear power plants" in a "Middle East Marshall Plan" through IP3 - a private US company which has "assembled a consortium of US companies to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia."  The whistleblowers allege that the efforts were made without review by Congress "as required by law," and may be ongoing to this day.  “The whistleblowers who came forward have expressed significant concerns about the potential procedural and legal violations connected with rushing through a plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.  They have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes.  They have also warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting. And they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump Administration officials to halt their efforts.” -Interim Staff Report

Donald Trump rushing to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear technology   - The administration of President Donald Trump is bypassing the United States Congress to advance the sale of US nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns it would violate US law guarding against technology transfers, according to a new report by a congressional committee.Security analysts worry the technology would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons in the future, potentially contributing to an arms race in the Middle East.US legislators are concerned about the stability of Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.Multiple unnamed "whistleblowers" have come forward to warn about White House attempts to speed the transfer of highly sensitive US nuclear technology to build new nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, according to the staff report by the House Oversight and Reform Committee."The whistleblowers who came forward have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes," Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat chairman of the committee, said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday. The committee is investigating efforts by US nuclear power companies to win Trump administration approval to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.A key target of the Oversight Committee's inquiry is an effort by IP3 International, a consortium of nuclear power producers that began lobbying during the Trump transition in late 2016 and early 2017 to win presidential approval to develop nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.  Most recently, Trump met on February 12 with the IP3 International representatives and the chief executive officers of major US nuclear energy producers to discuss developing nuclear power plants in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a meeting that was initiated by IP3's founder, retired Army General Jack Keane, according to the committee report which cited Bloomberg News.

US will not open door to Saudi Arabia building nuclear weapons, top official says --A representative of the United States government said Saturday that it would not help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear technology without guarantees that it would only be used for civilian purposes.Saudi Arabia has put the U.S. on a shortlist with China, Russia and others to bid for nuclear power projects in the country. Washington sees Saudi Arabia as a big customer of American nuclear expertise and hardware, but lawmakers from both U.S. political parties are demanding a deal be based on tough controls.Section 123 of the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1954, titled "Cooperation With Other Nations," sets an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the U.S. and any other nation. Under a "123 measure," any U.S. nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia would prohibit routes toward the making of nuclear weapons by banning enrichment of uranium or the reprocessing of plutonium.Speaking to CNBC's Hadley Gamble at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, the U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, said such an agreement was imperative to any nuclear deal with Riyadh."We won't allow them to bypass 123 if they want to have civilian nuclear power that includes U.S. nuclear technologies."The senior energy official said as countries pursued more environmentally friendly and emissions-free technologies, nuclear had to be a part of the conversation. And while countries should pursue nuclear energy technologies they must do so under a U.S. regime that prevents the proliferation of nuclear weapons. "As you know this technology has a dual use and in the wrong hands it becomes a dangerous, dangerous world," said Brouillette.The Saudis have so far refused to rule out their right to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, pointing to neighboring Iran's ability to do so under the 2015 nuclear agreement that world powers struck with Tehran.

Donald Trump rushing to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear technology   - The administration of President Donald Trump is bypassing the United States Congress to advance the sale of US nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns it would violate US law guarding against technology transfers, according to a new report by a congressional committee.Security analysts worry the technology would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear weapons in the future, potentially contributing to an arms race in the Middle East.US legislators are concerned about the stability of Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.Multiple unnamed "whistleblowers" have come forward to warn about White House attempts to speed the transfer of highly sensitive US nuclear technology to build new nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, according to the staff report by the House Oversight and Reform Committee."The whistleblowers who came forward have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes," Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat chairman of the committee, said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday. The committee is investigating efforts by US nuclear power companies to win Trump administration approval to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.A key target of the Oversight Committee's inquiry is an effort by IP3 International, a consortium of nuclear power producers that began lobbying during the Trump transition in late 2016 and early 2017 to win presidential approval to develop nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.  Most recently, Trump met on February 12 with the IP3 International representatives and the chief executive officers of major US nuclear energy producers to discuss developing nuclear power plants in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a meeting that was initiated by IP3's founder, retired Army General Jack Keane, according to the committee report which cited Bloomberg News.

House Opens Inquiry into Proposed U.S. Nuclear Venture in Saudi Arabia — Top Trump administration officials have pushed to build nuclear power plants throughout Saudi Arabia over the vigorous objections of White House lawyers who question the legality of the plan and the ethics of a venture that could enrich Trump allies, according to a new report by House Democrats released on Tuesday.The report is the most detailed portrait to date of how senior White House figures — including Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s first national security adviser — worked with retired military officers to circumvent the normal policymaking process to promote an export plan that experts worried could spread nuclear weapons technology in the volatile Middle East. Administration lawyers warned that the nuclear exports plan — called the Middle East Marshall Plan — could violate laws meant to stop nuclear proliferation and raised concerns about Mr. Flynn’s conflicts of interest.Mr. Flynn had worked on the issue for the company promoting the nuclear export plan and kept pushing it once inside the White House. But even after Mr. Flynn was fired, the proposal appears to have lingered. The initial discussions took place during the chaotic early months of the Trump administration, according to the 24-page report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee, but House Democrats on Tuesday cited evidence that as recently as last week the White House was still considering some version of the proposal. Democrats said they had begun a full-scale inquiry.“Further investigation is needed to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump administration are in the national security interest of the United States or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy,” committee staff wrote in the report. The Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has already been examined by federal investigators, including the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. But House Democrats could expand the inquiry into whether the prospect of business deals might have had a direct effect on American foreign policy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

Today’s Rift with Europe Echoes the Iraq War Debate  - Pence repeated his tone-deaf demands to our allies to quit the nuclear deal at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. The response from the Europeans was even frostier than it had been in Warsaw: European officials brushed off U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s call this week for the bloc to ratchet up pressure on Iran, saying they will continue defending the 2015 nuclear deal and stay engaged with Iran’s government. World leaders gathered at the annual Munich Security Conference on Friday to debate a range of issues from the Middle East, to trade, Europe’s future and cyberwarfare. Speaking at the conference on Saturday, Mr. Pence, who is on a diplomatic trip to Europe, said the European Union should follow the U.S. in leaving the Iran nuclear deal. U.S.-European relations are lower than they have been at any time since the the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Just as the Bush administration berated and insulted longtime allies for refusing to fall in line behind their destructive and reckless war, the Trump administration is berating and insulting some of our closest allies over their refusal to capitulate to unreasonable American demands on Iran and the nuclear deal. Many of the elements of these two rifts are similar: an irrational American fixation on a wildly exaggerated or non-existent threat in the Middle East, an arrogant assumption that our allies are obliged to do whatever our government tells them to do, and open expressions of contempt for the allies that disagree with the course being set by the irresponsible U.S. administration. In both cases, some of our closest allies unsuccessfully try to stop the administration from making terrible, costly errors, and they are rewarded for their efforts with condemnation and threats.

Pence: ‘We will not stand idly by’ as Turkey purchases S-400 — Vice President Mike Pence repeated warnings to Turkey not to proceed with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, a day after Turkey dismissed the first of two deadlines to cease with the planned sale. Pence, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, told attendees “we will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries. We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East." The U.S. had set a Feb. 15 deadline for Turkey to respond and signal their intentions to cease with the sale, a U.S. official told Military Times. If Turkey refuses, a forthcoming sale of a Patriot missile defense system from the U.S. will be halted. “We have been clear with Turkey,” the U.S. official said. “The will not receive the Patriot if they purchase the S-400." The Patriot sale, estimated at $3.5 billion, would cover the procurement of 80 Patriot MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced and 60 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement missiles, as well as associated equipment.

Turkey To Receive Russian S-400 Delivery in July, Rejects US Patriot Systems Offer - Turkey is now venting its wrath as its F-35 standoff with Washington is thrust to the next level, and after Friday President Trump signed a spending bill that blocks further F-35 transfers until November 1st of 2019, which gives the White House a window of time to evaluate if Ankara will indeed move forward with transfer of Russia's S-400 air defense system to Turkey. Amidst the Pastor Andrew Brunson detention affair which drew widespread media attention last summer Congressional leaders demanded that the over 100 Lockheed Martin-made F-35 stealth jets purchased by Turkey be blocked from delivery. Following Brunson's release, the bigger security issue became Turkey's seeking the S-400. On Wednesday the chairman of Turkey's Defense Industry Directorate Ismail Demir addressed this more pressing and latest issue to hold up the F-35 sale the question of reception of the Russian S-400 while simultaneously rejecting the US offer to sell American-made  Patriot defense systems. “There is need to talk about conditions, there are a series of issues that must be clarified” he told pro-government news channel NTV. He further ruled out the American Patriot defense systems as it currently stands, according to Turkish media reports. He further stated that "delivery process of S-400 to Turkey will start by July 2019 and the system will be active by October of 2019" in a staunch assertion sure to be noticed by the Pentagon. The advanced S-400 air defense system purchased by Turkey has been seen as a threat by the United States, given the potential for compromising the F-35 advanced radar evading and electronics capabilities. The main argument for blocking the F-35 transfer is the fear that Russia would get access to the extremely advanced Joint Strike Fighter stealth aircraft, enabling Moscow to detect and exploit its vulnerabilities. Russia would ultimately learn how the S-400 could take out an F-35.

 Trump's UN Ambassador Pick Suddenly Withdraws - Three months after rumors (later confirmed) that State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert would be President Trump's pick to replace Nikki Haley as UN ambassador, the former Fox News anchor has suddenly withdrawn from consideration.As we initially noted in December, Nauert, who came to government from Fox News, served as State Department spokesman for both Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo but has enjoyed a closer relationship with Trump's second secretary of state than she did Tillerson, who was privately skeptical of her close ties with the West Wing.  Her elevation to a top diplomatic role underscored the importance Trump has placed on having his top aides also serve as television surrogates. Nauert has briefed regularly from the State Department podium and had a long career in television news before that. Still, as a diplomat she lacked experience. And now, as Reuters reports, citing State Department officials, Nauert has withdrawn from consideration for the top UN role due to family reasons.“The past two months have been gruelling for my family and therefore it is in the best interest of my family that I withdraw my name from consideration,” Nauert said in a State Department statement. The statement did not specify the hardship on her family but the Washington Post said Nauert’s husband and children had remained in New York while she was working in Washington.

 President Trump Nominates Kelly Craft As Next UN Ambassador -  Just a few short day after Trump's second pick - Heather Nauert - for UN Ambassador suddenly decided against it, the President tweeted that he intends to nominate Kelly Craft to be his ambassador to the United Nations: "Kelly has done an outstanding job representing our Nation and I have no doubt that, under her leadership, our Country will be represented at the highest level. Congratulations to Kelly and her entire family!" A longtime donor to Republicans, as Bloomberg reports, Craft, 56, was an active supporter of President George W. Bush, who in 2007 appointed her a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She and her husband, billionaire coal mining magnate Joe Craft, backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican primaries before ultimately supporting Trump and giving $750,000 to Future 45, a super-PAC led by Joe Ricketts and Sheldon Adelson. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had recommended Craft for the position, a spokesperson for the GOP leader told The Hill this week.“Kelly Craft is a strong advocate for American interests and will be a powerful representative of our great nation at the U.N.,” McConnell said in a statement. The Trump administration is hoping that 3rd choice Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, will stick (after Dina Powell offered a "not interested" response after reportedly being Trump's first pick), as unlike Nauert, she has already withstood the scrutiny of confirmation hearings for her current post.

 Facebook Censors News Outlets Critical of US Foreign Policy and Corporate Media  — Journalists and advocates of press freedoms are once more directing outrage and criticism at Facebook for selectively censoring pages on its platform and refusing to explain the reason behind a decision that appears to many as a clear double standard applied to outlets critical of U.S. foreign policy and corporate interests. Facebook is under fire for shuttering four pages managed by the Berlin-based news and media company Maffick, after CNN reporters asked the social media giant about Maffick not disclosing that it is partly funded by the Russian government.CNN held its report—titled “Russia is backing a viral video company aimed at American millennials“—until Friday, when Facebook blocked Soapbox, Waste-Ed, Backthen, and In The Now.  American-Lebanese journalist Rania Khalek, a contributor to Soapbox and In The Nowwho was interviewed by CNN, outlined the controversy in a lengthy, widely shared series of tweets. Monday morning, Khalek added an update to the Twitter thread: It has been 3 days since @facebook suspended @IntheNow_tweet's page at the behest of@CNN and US government funded think tanks. We had almost 4 million subscribers, did not violate any Facebook rules, were given no warning & Facebook isn’t responding to us. — Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) February 18, 2019   As CNN outlined in its report, which was updated and corrected on Monday: Company records [for Maffick] in Germany show that 51 percent of the company is owned by Ruptly [a subsidiary of RT, which is funded by the Russian government]. The remaining 49 percent is controlled by former RT presenter Anissa Naouai, who is Maffick’s CEO.

 Russia and China Are Containing the US to Reshape the World Order -- China and Russia are leading this historic transition while being careful to avoid direct war with the United States. To succeed in this endeavor, they use a hybrid strategy involving diplomacy, military support to allies, and economic guarantees to countries under Washington’s attack. The United States considers the whole planet its playground. Its military and political doctrine is based on the concept of liberal hegemony, as explained by political scientist John Mearsheimer. This imperialistic attitude has, over time, created a coordinated and semi-official front of countries resisting this liberal hegemony. The recent events in Venezuela indicate why cooperation between these counter-hegemonic countries is essential to accelerating the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar reality, where the damage US imperialism is able to bring about is diminished. Moscow and Beijing, following a complex relationship from the period of the Cold War, have managed to achieve a confluence of interests in their grand objectives over the coming years. The understanding they have come to mainly revolves around stemming the chaos Washington has unleashed on the world.The guiding principle of the US military-intelligence apparatus is that if a country cannot be controlled (such as Iraq following the 2003 invasion), then it has to be destroyed in order to save it from falling into Sino-Russian camp. This is what the United States has attempted to do with Syria, and what it intends to do with Venezuela. The Middle East is an area that has drawn global attention for some time, with Washington clearly interested in supporting its Israeli and Saudi allies in the region. Israel pursues a foreign policy aimed at dismantling the Iranian and Syrian states. Saudi Arabia also pursues a similar strategy against Iran and Syria, in addition to fueling a rift within the Arab world stemming from its differences with Qatar. The foreign-policy decisions of Israel and Saudi Arabia have been supported by Washington for decades, for two very specific reasons: the influence of the Israel lobby in the US, and the need to ensure that Saudi Arabia and the OPEC countries sell oil in US dollars, thereby preserving the role of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.

The United States' aluminum tariff wall is crumbling (Reuters) - It is almost a year since the United States imposed duties on imports of aluminium and steel on national security grounds. If the aim of the so-called “Section 232” tariffs was to lift domestic production, President Donald Trump’s administration can claim a degree of success. The Commerce Department’s January 2018 report recommending action on aluminium imports explicitly targeted lifting domestic production capacity utilisation from 39 percent in 2017 to 80 percent. By the end of last year U.S. primary aluminium output was running at an annualised rate of 1.15 million tonnes, equivalent to 63 percent of domestic capacity, according to figures from the Aluminum Association.  U.S. output of primary aluminium has started rising sharply thanks to restarts of idled capacity, although not all of them have been directly down to the 10-percent import tariff. If, however, the aim was also to tackle rising import penetration, particularly by Chinese aluminium producers, tariffs may already have passed peak effectiveness. Ever more gaps are appearing in the aluminium trade wall as the number of exclusions granted for specific products lengthens. China has been a major beneficiary of the exclusions process with approved import tonnages not far off actual volumes in 2017. It has fared considerably better than Canada, long-standing U.S. ally and a strategic supplier of aluminium to its neighbour. Hardly any Canadian metal has been excluded from the tariffs, which is why the country’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is lobbying hard for a full exemption. So runs the law of unintended consequences but it also highlights the limited effectiveness of tariffs if, like the United States, you are heavily import dependent.

Americans Arrested in Haiti Transporting Weapons Cache Amid Uprising — Even as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to inspire a military coup against the elected president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, evidence is mounting that the U.S. government is enabling American mercenaries to violently quell a popular uprising in Haiti.MintPress News previously examined the parallels between the uprising in Haiti and the Yellow Vest movement in France: both explicitly take aim at the economic oligarchy and government austerity policies; both have been the subject of violent crackdowns by the police; and the governments of both countries have gotten a free pass from Washington and its sympathetic media.Five Americans and three others were arrested in Haiti on Sunday after they were discovered transporting a cache of weapons. Haitians have been engaged in an all-out uprising against the government for the past 10 days.Earlier this month, MintPress News reported on an arms shipment from the United States uncovered by Venezuelan authorities. Later, it was revealed that the plane that transported the weapons was linked to the Central Intelligence Agency.Now, in Haiti, which has been in an all-out uprising for the past 10 days against corruption and fuel prices, another cache of arms has been discovered with its own links to the U.S. Haitian police reportedly arrested five Americans, one Serb, one Russian, and one H aitian who were heavily armed on Sunday, though conflicting reports indicate that six or seven Americans and one Serb were arrested, however.Pictures of what are believed to be some of their passports viewed online by MintPress News include multiple American ones and one from the Republic of Serbia. As journalists Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal recently uncovered, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela, was trained in Serbia.

“Down With Americans, Long Live Putin!” Haitian Protesters Seek Russian Help Against US "Puppet" Regime - A French language AFP report over the weekend featured surprising photographs of Haitians burning American flags as the unrest and chaos continues especially in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.Major cities throughout Haiti have for days essentially been on "lockdown" due to civil unrest and mass protests demanding that President Jovenal Moise step down over charges of corruption and rampant inflation under his watch yet unlike similar unrest happening hundreds of miles due south of the small Caribbean country in Venezuela, Washington has stood in support of the president, who since 2017 has found himself facing a flood of popular anger surrounding the PetroCaribe scandal. Though the mass protests have multiple layers in terms of motives, stemming mostly from skyrocketing inflation and the government's failure to hold to account leaders caught embezzling from a multi-billion dollar Venezuelan program that sent discounted oil to Haiti, or the PetroCaribe affair, a number of the protest gatherings are distinctly anti-American in their rhetoric and symbolism, while at the same time being pro-Russian. Reflecting the global geopolitical divide over the crisis in nearby Venezuela, the AFP report describes some of the anti-American elements to the protests as follows (based on a rough translation from the French): A group of protesters burned an American flag Friday afternoon in the heart of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, calling for help from Russia to solve the crisis that paralyzed the country for over a week. “Down with Americans, long live Putin!” the roughly 200 demonstrators in the capital Port-au-Prince chanted, some holding up printouts with the face of the Russian president.

All US Citizens Ordered Out Of Haiti Amidst Mass Unrest And Chaos - Haiti continues to be gripped by civil unrest and mass protests demanding that President Jovenal Moise step down over charges of corruption and and rampant inflation under his watch yet unlike similar unrest happening hundreds of miles due south of the small Caribbean country in Venezuela, Washington has stood in support of the president. Starting Thursday the US State Department urged all American citizens out of the country and issued a no-not-travel advisory due to "crime and civil unrest".  And national security adviser John Bolton followed with a statement on Saturday for all sides in Haiti to "respect and protect their democracy" a bit ironic considering he spent the rest of the day tweeting regime change related messages targeting Venezuela's Maduro. He revealed in the tweet that he met with Haitian Foreign Minister on Friday "to express the United States’ enduring support for and friendship with Haiti." He further urged "all of Haiti’s political actors to respect and protect their democracy, engage in dialogue, and put an end to the political violence." In its prior travel ban the State Dept. described a rapidly deteriorating situation of “Protests, tire burning, and road blockages are frequent and unpredictable. Violent crime, such as armed robbery, is common,” and said further that “Emergency response, including ambulance service, is limited or non-existent.” An update told all U.S. citizens who remained in Haiti “to strongly consider departing as soon as they safely can do so” and warned of encountering potential roadblocks or hazardous checkpoints.   “Travelers are sometimes targeted, followed and violently attacked and robbed shortly after leaving the Port-au-Prince international airport,” the State Department said.

U.S. President Trump receives update on China trade talks (Reuters) - President Donald Trump received an update on trade talks with China on Saturday at his Florida retreat after discussions in Beijing saw progress ahead of a March 1 deadline for reaching a deal. Trump, at his Mar-a-Lago club, was briefed in person by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and trade expert Peter Navarro, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and other aides joined by phone. The White House offered no additional detail. Both the United States and China reported progress in five days of negotiations in Beijing this week but the White House said much work remains to be done to force changes in Chinese trade behavior. Shortly after the meeting with his trade team, Trump said on Twitter the talks in Beijing were “very productive.” At a White House press conference on Friday, he said the talks with China were “very complicated” and that he might extend the March 1 deadline and keep tariffs on Chinese goods from rising. U.S. duties on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are set to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent if no deal is reached by March 1 to address U.S. demands that China curb forced technology transfers and better enforce intellectual property rights. China’s vice premier and chief trade negotiator, Liu He, and Lighthizer are to lead the next round of talks this coming week in Washington.

GE, Boeing, T-Mobile Among Latest Victims Of Chinese IP Theft -  As US and Chinese negotiators prepare to begin their seventh round of trade talks this week, more reports are being leaked to the media about China's efforts to steal trade secrets from US companies via "Operation Cloudhopper", the Ministry of State Security-backed infiltration campaign that used service providers in the US and Europe to infiltrate the systems of their clients.According to a report in the New York Times that detailed how China and Iran have ramped up their hacking efforts since 2015, when the now-abandoned Iran deal was initially struck, and China promised the Obama administration that it would pull back on its cyberespionage efforts. After an 18-month lull, China's 10-year-long commercially motivated campaign was revitalized in the midst of growing trade tensions between the US and China (tensions that predated Trump's trade war). Among the latest targets of China's hacks, according to the NYT's military and private sources, were GE Aviation, Boeing and T-Mobile. A summary of an intelligence briefing read to The New York Times said that Boeing, General Electric Aviation and T-Mobile were among the recent targets of Chinese industrial-espionage efforts. The companies all declined to discuss the threats, and it is not clear if any of the hacks were successful.

China rejects U.S. position on Huawei - Xinhua | English.news.cn: -- Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday rejected the position of the United States on Huawei, saying China hopes all countries will abide by the principle of fair competition and jointly safeguard a fair and non-discriminatory market environment.According to reports, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned its allies to take seriously "the threat" posed by Chinese enterprise Huawei as they look for partners to build 5G wireless infrastructure. He made the remarks Saturday during the Munich Security Conference.Reports also said that some U.S. officials recently argued that under China's National Intelligence Law companies such as Huawei or ZTE could be compelled to hand over data or access to Chinese intelligence."These are mistaken and one-sided interpretations of relevant Chinese laws," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a news briefing.China's National Intelligence Law not only stipulates the obligations of organizations and citizens to support the work of national intelligence within Chinese law, but also stipulates that state intelligence should abide by laws, respect and protect human rights, and safeguard the rights and interests of individuals and organizations, said Geng.He said other Chinese laws also have many provisions to protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens and organizations, including data security and privacy. These rules also apply to national intelligence work."The U.S. side should understand this comprehensively and objectively, and not make incorrect and one-sided interpretations," Geng said.

In Huawei battle, signs of US decline - Last year, US intelligence services convinced a group of allies in quick succession to ostracize Chinese telecommunications firms. Australia, New Zealand and Japan all effectively banned the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker, China’s Huawei. But the campaign has stalled in Europe. Not a single European country has unveiled measures that would ban gear from Huawei – or ZTE, China’s fellow telecoms national champion. Germany, a key NATO ally of the United States, went as far as to tell the press last week that they do not seek to ban Huawei, despite Washington’s insistence that Chinese companies pose a security risk. Even some in the UK, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with the US, are pushing back. Robert Hannigan, the former Director of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, called US assertions “nonsense.” On Friday, Alex Younger, the current head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service – also known as MI6 – suggested he doesn’t support a ban, telling reporters: “it’s more complicated than in or out.” In the end, some US policy experts lament, Washington’s fight against Huawei is really about the failure to form a coherent strategy to be competitive in high-tech industries.

US Demanding China Keep Value Of Yuan Stable, Halt Devaluations - In the latest sign that at least some progress might be made this week toward a US-China trade accord as the seventh round of talks gets underway in Washington, Bloomberg just reported that the US - in addition to its other demands - also been pressing China to "stabilize" the yuan, a move aimed to neutralize efforts by Beijing to devalue its currency to counter American tariffs. According to sources close to the talks, the two sides are discussing how to codify language prohibiting currency manipulation in a memorandum of understanding that would form the outline of a deal.Bloomberg also notes that while the wording remains unresolved, "a pledge of yuan stability has been discussed in multiple rounds of talks in recent months and both sides have tentatively agreed it will be part of the framework of any final deal."What if China refuses to comply? Well, it appears higher tariffs would follow as a key, perhaps the only enforcement tool would are tariffs. The Trump administration has been clear in its talks with Beijing that "any attempt to depreciate the yuan - a strategy aimed at offsetting existing U.S. duties on Chinese imports - would be met with more or higher American tariffs." Which, at least superficially, is confusing considering the Yuan is at least loosely pegged to the dollar, which begs the question: is the US also asking China to prevent the Fed from manipulating the US Dollar.What is also confusing is that Trump's request to keep the yuan from depreciating is also difficult to square with US calls for China to adopt more market-driven reforms and complaints that Beijing manipulates its currency to gain a trade advantage. China’s foreign-exchange intervention has long been a political target in the U.S. and Trump vowed to declare China a currency manipulator during his 2016 campaign. After two years in office, his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchinhasn’t found grounds to do so but has continued to monitor the yuan closely.

A potential new snag in the US-China trade talks - March 1 may no longer be a “magical date” for President Trump, but the deadline after which tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese imports are set to more than double is fast approaching. Now in their ninth round of negotiations, the US and China remain at odds on a number of issues, despite making some progress on Wednesday. With the latest request from the US, officials may have added another problem to a long list of sticking points.According to Bloomberg, the US has asked the Chinese to keep its currency, the renminbi, stable and to avoid any kind of competitive devaluation to offset the pain from higher tariffs on Chinese goods. As Marc Chandler of Bannockburn Global Forex notes, the reports say nothing about what “stable” actually means. Is the US looking for a Chinese currency that is stable in real or nominal terms? Or one that is stable against the US dollar or a basket of currencies? If “stable” means the renminbi continues to trade within a band set by officials at China's central bank on a daily basis, then according to Brad Setser at the Council on Foreign Relations, this isn't such a large ask from the US. In fact, China has committed to this kind of policy for many years now — most aggressively since September as Setser's chart shows: As a result, the renminbi has remained tightly bound between a small range, as illustrated by Setser here:But David Woo at Bank of America Merrill Lynch tells Alphaville that he thinks differently about the definition of “stable” in this context: Stable is another word for strong currency. In other words, it's the US telling China that it does not want to see the country go back to its beggar-thy-neighbour tactics and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage.

 U.S. may have overshot in China trade talks- Kemp (Reuters) - Brinkmanship has been one of the defining characteristics of the Trump administration, as the White House ramps up pressure to create a sense of crisis and force negotiating partners to make concessions. The administration has employed the same tactics in trade negotiations with Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the European Union, as well as with the U.S. Congress for border security funding, with varied results. In China's case, however, the administration may have missed its moment of maximum leverage back in September-October 2018, and as a result may have to settle for a less ambitious deal. Leverage is always relative and at the end of the third quarter China's economy was showing signs of strain while the U.S. economy and markets were at the top of a growth cycle. Since then, China's economy has remained under pressure, but the U.S. economy and financial markets have also started to show signs of slackening momentum. Global trade flows and manufacturing activity have shown even clearer indications that the rate of growth decelerated in the fourth quarter and early 2019. Back in September-October, the administration could have risked imposing punitive tariffs on China and hoped to weather the economic fallout while waiting for China to capitulate. But the economic and financial market situation is now much more fragile and punitive tariffs would threaten to tip the domestic and international economies into a recession.   Hardliners in the United States have been upping the pressure on the administration not to settle for anything less than a comprehensive deal that transforms China's economy and ensures fair trade. For maximalists, the risk of short-term cyclical damage in the form of a recession is worth taking to ensure longer-term structural gains and entrench U.S. technology and economic leadership.

Why the U.S. and China Can’t Make a Deal - Optimism that the U.S. and China can reach a trade deal is rising, with another round of intensive negotiations in Washington this week. What buoyant investors are ignoring, however, is that the talks have become a test of strength between the world’s two great powers -- or, more accurately, a test of how accurate each nation’s sense of its own strength is. The inconvenient fact is that neither country possesses the power to impose its will on the other. The U.S. is not on its own capable of compelling Chinese leaders to do its bidding, nor is China strong enough to shun the Western world. Until they face up to that reality, they’ll never be able to reach a lasting accommodation. From what we know of the ongoing talks, the two sides have made progress on narrowing the U.S. trade deficit through large Chinese purchases of American soybeans, microchips and other products. The two also appear to be making some headway on widening access to the China market for foreign companies. But, there’s still no sign of a breakthrough on “structural” issues -- U.S. demands for major reforms in Chinese policies that Washington says are biased against U.S. businesses, such as massive subsidies for favored Chinese companies and forced extraction of technology from foreign firms. This would be the real meat of any deal, the reforms that would fundamentally alter China’s economy and promote more market-based competition. It’s hardly surprising that China would be reluctant to give ground, and not only because meeting U.S. demands would require Beijing to overhaul the way the Chinese economy works. It’s also profoundly difficult to prod countries into doing what they don’t want to do through economic pressure. Recent statistics suggest that trying to bludgeon China into submission with tariffs is also a losing strategy. January trade data, for instance, showed that China’s overall exports rose by more than 9 percent even as exports to the U.S. dropped by 2.4 percent. In other words, as important as the U.S. market is to China, the rest of the world matters, too. Even technology giant Huawei, facing a concerted U.S. campaign to block use of its equipment in 5G networks, may still thrive by focusing on non-Western markets. Huawei’s global market share in smartphones almost matchedApple’s last year, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

US elites remain incapable of understanding China - A new report on US policy toward China launched by the Asia Society in New York is another example of how supposedly bipartisan US intellectual elites, instead of offering impartial advice, do little more than parrot Washington’s talking points, failing to admit they know nothing of substance about the existential “threats” posed by Russia and China.The report ‘Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy‘ was written in collaboration with the 21st Century Chinese Center at the University of California, San Diego. Orville Schell, one of the chairs of the Task Force Report, should be seen as one of the least biased among an uneven basket of self-declared US experts on China.Still, he frames the report as trying to find a way between “confronting China” and “accommodating China.” That does not include “respecting” China – considering all the nation’s achievements 40 years after the reforms launched by Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping.Then Schell admits his experts are left “wondering what’s going on in the upper reaches of the leadership in China.” That’s even more serious, implying no intel on the ground. So we’re left with China-bashing. We learn of devious attacks against the “rules-based global order” – which is always not so subtly equated with the “interests and values of the United States;” China’s “mercantilist zero-sum policies;”and the “lavishly funded state-led effort to build China into a high-tech superpower” – as if no country in the Global South should be allowed to go high-tech.

China Warns New US Tariffs Will Be Catastrophic For Global Stocks Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times warned - or perhaps threatened - late Tuesday that failed trade negotiations would have dire consequences for global stocks.   The threat of a market catastrophe has pigeonholed the US into striking a deal with Beijing, the report suggests although many are confident that the situation is flipped. "[Trump's] words further stoked the stock markets of the US, which reached the highest in two months and so increased pressure on the Trump administration to close the deal with China," said the Global Times in an Op-Ed, adding that if the Trump team "imposes more tariffs on Chinese products while China responds with fiercer countermeasures," it would "be a catastrophic strike to global stock markets.""In terms of avoiding such blows, the Trump administration is probably the most pressured," the Op-Ed continues. "Thus in general, by the end of the trade negotiations, China and the US have become more psychologically equal" (according to the state-run outlet). As a result, "both sides would eventually lose," the Times warned.  Why China's implicit threat? Perhaps because, as Shard's Bill Blain noted earlier today, at least in the context of its economy, China is already losing the trade war, and therefore has little to lose by escalating the war of words.

China to Propose $30 Billion More U.S. Agriculture Purchases - China is proposing that it could buy an additional $30 billion a year of U.S. agricultural products including soybeans, corn and wheat as part of a possible trade deal being negotiated by the two countries, according to people with knowledge of the plan.The offer to buy the extra farm produce would be part of the memoranda of understanding under discussion by U.S. and Chinese negotiators in Washington, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are confidential. The purchases would be on top of pre-trade war levels and continue for the period covered by the memoranda, they said. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said it was “premature” to comment on what or how much China might buy as part of a trade deal. “I don’t want to raise expectations,” he told reporters attending the department’s annual outlook conference in Washington on Thursday. “If we reach an agreement on structural reforms we can recover markets very, very quickly.”As part of the talks, officials are also planning to discuss removing anti-dumping and anti-subsidy tariffs on distillers dried grains, a by-product of corn ethanol production that’s used in animal feed, people said earlier. Soybeans, corn and wheat futures prices rose in Chicago in response to the news.“China will say what needs to be said to get a deal, but the key component will be i n the verification and enforcement,” Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist for INTL FCStone, said in a note. “I remain skeptical that such a deal will ‘fix’ the soybean balance sheet, without specific very large purchase quotas that I do not expect. However, it would not require very large purchase of corn, ethanol and DDGS to significantly improve the corn balance sheet.”

China Says It Won't Use Exchange Rates As A Tool In Trade Dispute - Responding to reports that the US had asked China to commit to not devaluing its currency (presumably to compensate for any new tariffs), China's Foreign Minister said Wednesday said that China "doesn't engage in competitive currency devaluation" and reportedly hopes that the US doesn't politicize exchange-rate issues. China added that it will not use the yuan as "a tool to handle trade disputes." #China is a responsible major power and we have repeatedly reiterated that [the country] will not engage in a competitive currency devaluation; we won't use the yuan's exchange rate as a tool to handle trade disputes: Foreign Ministry pic.twitter.com/mrFIJiyx4N — Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 20, 2019According to ForexLive, China is pushing back against the insinuation that it intentionally pushed the yuan lower during the trade dispute. So the Chinese side will likely push to exclude a currency clause from the memorandum of understanding that the two sides are reportedly close to reaching. Of course, the irony in the US's demand that China keep its currency "stable", while demanding that it also commit to liberal market reforms, was clear to many.

Not So Fast- China Will Not Allow Use Of Yuan As Bargaining Chip To Resolve Trade War - With market optimism brimming that it's just a matter of days, if not hours, before the US and China reach a truce in the ongoing trade war - even though there have been countless accurate analyses in recent weeks explaining why an actual trade deal is impossible since the object of contention is not trade at all but China's creeping technological dominance, something which Beijing will never voluntarily concede - Beijing has poured cold water over expectations of an imminent deal when China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday that China will not use the yuan’s exchange rate as a bargaining chip to resolve the trade war with the United States, Caixin reportedSpeaking at a press briefing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, said that China won’t resort to currency depreciation for competitive purposes in trade and hopes the U.S. can respect market rules and not politicize currency issues.Geng’s comments followed a Tuesday report from Bloomberg that the U.S. is pressing China to keep the yuan stable and not devalue the currency as part of an agreement intended to end the countries’ trade war (a paradoxical position as it presupposes China would manipulate to keep its currency strong, while at the same time the US is pushing Beijing to liberalize its currency, even if it means market forces set the yuan weaker).Bloomberg also reported that officials from the two countries have been discussing how to address currency policy in a memorandum of understanding that would form the basis of a U.S.-China trade deal. However, it now appears that any concessions by China over its currency are a non-starter, meaning the two negotiating positions will be even further alienated following Beijing's denial to comply. The Ministry's terse response also follows an earlier report from SCMP, according to which Beijing would likely accept conditions requiring a "stable" yuan to be included in the memorandum of understanding. "Analysts" quoted by the SCMP pointed out that by insisting that China change its currency-management strategy to prevent the yuan from depreciating past a certain level, Washington would be playing into Beijing's hands.

Trade Talks Update- China, US Working On 6 Memorandums As Deal Takes Shape - After a week of trade headlines that has been dominated by President Trump's insistence that talks are seeing "their most significant progress yet" and that the US has been pressing Beijing to commit to keeping the yuan "stable" to preclude any tariff-offsetting devaluations, the progress on a "memorandums of understanding" has emerged as a primary point of interest for Wall Street.But amid conflicting reports about Beijing's willingness to bend to US demands about its currency (on Thursday morning, the PBOC affirmed that they would keep the yuan "basically stable"), Bloomberg reported late Wednesday evening that the two sides are actually working on multiple MoUs that could cover agriculture, non-tariff barriers, services, technology transfer and IP. While the details are still unclear, it's believed that the agreements would include an "enforcement mechanism" that would lead to tariffs automatically being reimposed should China violate the agreement. It is worth reminding that a MoU tends to not be worth the paper it is printed on absent a separate broader deal, which is still sorely lacking. Reuters reported that the two sides were working on "six broad agreements that aim to resolve the most contentious issues in their seven-month trade war," as well as a "10-item list of shorter-term measures, largely purchases of commodities and other goods."Meanwhile, don't expect more than MoUs as BBG reiterated that no breakthrough is expected during this week's talks, which are focusing on major structural issues. But both sides are discussing an extension of the March 1 deadline. Whatever happens, Liu He, China's chief negotiator, is expected to meet again with President Trump on Friday.In response to the US's demands that the agreement focus on "fair and reciprocal" trade, China has repeatedly offered to increase purchases of agricultural and energy products to shrink the deficit, and has already resumed imports of some agricultural products.

From corn to Apple- What’s behind the US-China standoff (AP) — To hear the Americans tell it, the Chinese have gone on a commercial crime spree, pilfering trade secrets from seed corn to electronic brains behind wind turbines. China has stripped the arm off a T-Mobile robot, the U.S. says, and looted trade secrets about robotic cars from Apple. The alleged victims of that crime spree are individual American companies, whose cases lie behind the Trump administration’s core complaint in the high-level U.S.-China trade talks going on in Washington: That Beijing systematically steals American and other foreign intellectual property in a bid to become the world’s technology superstar. Yet the odds of a resolution to the trade dispute this week — or anytime soon — appear dim, in part because China’s drive for technology supremacy is increasingly part of its self-identity. The seven-month standoff has upset financial markets and likely weakened the global economy. The United States has imposed taxes on $250 billion in Chinese imports; Beijing has lashed back by taxing $110 billion in American products. Determined to attain dominance in cutting-edge fields from robotics to electric cars, U.S. officials charge, Beijing is not only stealing trade secrets but also pressuring American companies to hand over technology to gain access to the vast Chinese market. U.S. intelligence officials told Congress last month that China poses the biggest commercial and military threat to the United States. A separate report said Beijing will steal or copy technologies it can’t make itself. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, retorted that it’s “totally unreasonable to make random accusations.” Beijing counters that the United States is just trying to suppress a rising competitor. U.S. business groups broadly support the Trump administration’s decision to confront China over its strong-arm tech policies. But they mostly object to the administration’s weapon of choice: Steep tariffs, which are taxes on importers and are usually passed on to consumers to pay. Rooting out theft could prove impossible. Beijing typically doesn’t dispatch spies on missions of commercial espionage. Rather, it encourages Chinese who study and work abroad to copy or steal technology and rewards them when they do. So U.S. companies might have no reason to suspect anything — until a Chinese employee leaves and the employer discovers that trade secrets have been compromised. 

China must balance U.S. trade deal with fostering its own ag sector (Reuters) - China is facing a tall task in the agriculture sector, as an agreement with the United States could have the Asian country buying far more goods than ever before, but potentially at the expense of its own industry and other trade partners. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the United States and China have begun to outline the specific commitments that a full trade deal would cover, with one of those items being agricultural purchases by China. China drastically increasing U.S. imports could be great news for U.S. agriculture, which has been suffering since mid-2018 when the trade war escalated between the two sides. U.S. exports of soybeans, the primary offering to China, are down about 36 percent on the year as a result. It is not yet clear what a $30 billion trade deal would look like, but it would represent a large chunk of China's annual farm imports. And it might be difficult for China, which is in the midst of its own agricultural reform, to juggle both tasks of increasing imports while stimulating its rural economy. Chinese agriculture imports from all sources totaled a record $126 billion in 2017, with soybeans and other oilseeds taking up the largest share. The United States exported $24 billion worth of agricultural and related products to China in 2017, which would be about 19 percent of China's total haul. A value of $30 billion in goods amounts to roughly 24 percent of China's total 2017 agriculture imports, and this significant share is why some market participants are struggling with the proposal's feasibility. To put further context around the numbers, some $14.8 billion of U.S. ag exports to China in 2017 were bulk commodities, and soybeans took up $12.3 billion of that. The remaining $2.5 billion went to items such as cotton, wheat and corn. In the same year, the United States exported $2.4 billion in consumer-oriented goods to China. That includes things like pork, beef, dairy, nuts and fresh produce. If China in fact purchases $30 billion more in U.S. agricultural products, it could hurt both Chinese farmers and other trade partners. On Tuesday, China laid out its annual plans for rural policy, which will continue the focus on improving rural income levels and living standards while also promoting domestic production. The idea of China adding $30 billion to its annual U.S. agriculture imports raises questions as to how this would stimulate the rural Chinese economy, given the competition the additional goods would create. A $30 billion increase in ag imports is considerably larger than any natural year-on-year progression in Chinese demand, especially given China's recent value of total ag imports. Inevitably, demand from other sources would have to be displaced.

Exclusive: U.S., China sketch outlines of deal to end trade war - sources (Reuters) - The United States and China have started to outline commitments in principle on the stickiest issues in their trade dispute, marking the most significant progress yet toward ending a seven-month trade war, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. The world’s two largest economies have slapped tit-for-tat tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of goods, slowing global economic growth, skewing supply chains and disrupting manufacturing. As officials hold high-level talks on Thursday and Friday in Washington, they remain far apart on demands made by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for structural changes to China’s economy. But the broad outline of what could make up a deal is beginning to emerge from the talks, the sources said, as the two sides push for an agreement by March 1. That marks the end of a 90-day truce that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to when they met in Argentina late last year. Negotiators are drawing up six memorandums of understanding on structural issues: forced technology transfer and cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, currency, agriculture, and non-tariff barriers to trade, according to two sources familiar with the progress of the talks. At meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials last week in Beijing the two sides traded texts and worked on outlining obligations on paper, according to one of the sources. The process has become a real trade negotiation, the source said, so much so that at the end of the week the participants considered staying in Beijing to keep working. Instead they agreed to take a few days off and reconvene in Washington. The sources requested anonymity to speak candidly about the talks.

 Why a US-China Trade Deal Is Not Enough - As Chinese and American trade negotiators meet in Washington to try to forge an accord on trade, observers are largely focused on the countries’ economic disagreements, such as over China’s subsidies to its state-owned enterprises. But to think that an agreement on trade will protect the world from a Sino-American cold war would be as premature as it would be naïve.  Of course, a trade deal is highly desirable. The collapse of trade talks would trigger a new round of tariff hikes (from 10% to 25%, on $200 billion of Chinese goods exported to the United States), driving down global equity prices and spurring businesses to move more of their activities out of China. Amid tit-for-tat tariffs, bilateral trade would plummet, and the unraveling of the US-China economic relationship would accelerate, creating widespread uncertainty and higher costs. But even if a comprehensive agreement is reached – either before March 1 or a few months from now – that unraveling will continue, albeit in a more gradual and less costly way. The reason – which many investors and corporate executives have failed to recognize – is that the trade war is not fundamentally about trade at all; rather, it is a manifestation of the escalating strategic competition between the two powers.  True, the US has legitimate complaints about China’s trade practices, including its violations of intellectual-property rights, which, after more than a decade of failed diplomatic engagement, warrant a tougher stance. But if the US and China were not strategic adversaries, it is unlikely that the US would initiate a full-blown trade war that jeopardizes trade worth over a half-trillion dollars and billions in corporate profits. While China may lose more from such a conflict, American losses will hardly be trivial.

 Will the Trade War Lead to Real War with China - Cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike says China has largely abandoned a hacking truce negotiated by Barack Obama as President Trump embarked on a trade war with Beijing last year. "A slowdown in Chinese hacking following the cybersecurity agreement Obama's administration secured in 2015 appears to have been reversed, the firm said in a report released Tuesday that reviewed cyber activity by U.S. adversaries in 2018," reports Bloomberg. From the report:The report comes as the Trump administration seeks to reach a trade deal with China, including provisions on intellectual property theft, ahead of a March 1 deadline. Trump has said he may extend that deadline and hold off on increasing tariffs on Chinese imports if there's progress in the talks. China's hacking targets in 2018 included telecommunications systems in the U.S. and Asia, according to Crowdstrike. Groups linked to Iran and Russia also appeared to target telecommunications, a sector that yields "the most bang for your buck" for hackers due to the large number of users that can be accessed after breaching a single network, Meyers said.  The findings align with concern in the U.S. about telecommunications security as the country transitions to the next generation of mobile networks and the Trump administration seeks to secure so-called 5G technology from foreign intelligence gathering. The administration has expressed particular concern about the spread of products made by the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co.The report also mentions the increased cyber activity in other parts of the world. "Iran focused much of its cyber activity on Middle Eastern and North African countries while Russia engaged in intelligence collection and information operations worldwide," the report says. "North Korea deployed hackers for financial gain and intelligence collection, while China targeted sectors including technology, manufacturing and hospitality."

Trump’s Presidency Is Getting Weaker - This week offered two prime examples of why Donald Trump’s presidency has been weaker than most people realize. First: “Although President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered his administration to cut off disaster aid to wildfire victims in California, federal officials confirmed on Wednesday that they never received any such directive.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan gets it right: “Weakest president in contemporary times. ‘Ordered’ likely means he said something to a staff member who ignored him.” Second: “Bowing to bipartisan concerns in Congress, President Trump retreated Tuesday from his plan to create an independent ‘space force’ in the Pentagon, proposing instead to consolidate the military’s space operations and personnel in the Air Force.” Kevin Drum at Mother Jonesexplains: “So now it’s just a branch of the Air Force, which is more-or-less what it already is since the Air Force Space Command already exists. It’s just going to get a little bigger now.” I don’t know if Nyhan’s speculation about the disaster aid is correct, although it sounds right to me. Maybe there was an order but FEMA ignored it. Maybe Trump invented the episode. Maybe he was effectively talking back to his television set. The thing is, there’s no plausible interpretation that looks good for him. Either he’s not being honest, he doesn’t know how to achieve his goals in office, or he knows but he’s so ineffectual that agencies can disregard him with little consequence. Maybe it’s some combination.As for the Space Force, I’ve been skeptical from the start on this one. It was always highly unlikely that this president was going to win a war against the Pentagon bureaucracy on a reform of such magnitude and divisiveness. (After all, he still hasn’t even managed to get the military parade he wanted.)

A 'Disunited America' - Paul Craig Roberts - Prior to the Democrats becoming the anti-American political party of Identity Politics, whites, blacks, and Puerto Ricans could laugh at themselves and at one another. Dean Martin turned a roast, in which good humored fun is poked at a prominent person, into mass entertainment. That blacks were equal opportunity targets was testimony to the success of black entertainers and athletes. In the humorless world of today, these roasts would be considered “hurtful,” “offensive,” and “hate crimes.” Americans had to be trained to this new mentality. It was done in order to break us apart as a people, and it has succeeded. Recently, in response to overwrought reactions to youthful blackface experiences of current Virginia Democratic politicians, I posted a Dean Martin roast of Sammy Davis Jr. and asked if Davis was a self-hating black for permitting himself to be ridiculed on stage before a large audience.The younger generation has been programmed to see Sammy Davis’ roast as a ‘step-and-fetch-it” black being ridiculed for white entertainment. That many of those roasting Sammy Davis were themselves black and Sammy Davis was a very successful multi-millionaire entertainer does not affect the modern perception of the event. I wonder if they see Ronald Reagan as a self-hating white:Muhammad Ali, a justifiably proud American, was pleased to be an honored roastee and gave as good as he received. Everyone knew it was all in fun. No one in his right mind would really insult the heavyweight champion of the world while standing next to him. The race and gender hatreds instilled by identity Politics have not only produced a humorless country but also a disunited country. Unity has been destroyed by the Democratic Party’s Identity Politics, and the absence of unity precludes any restoration of American greatness by President Trump. Identity Politics gives us not only fake news but also fake history. Histories have been made up in order to instill a victim consciousness in women and blacks, the better to teach gender and racial hatreds. The hopes of the civil rights movement for an integrated and unified country are being defeated. Once unity is shattered, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put unity back together again. American society is headed for a split as serious as the Shiite and Sunni.

Easter Eggs and Trojan Horses in the Democrats’ Flagship Bill, H.R. 1 (“For the People Act of 2019”) -- Lambert Strether - HR1 (text here) was, symbolically, the first bill introduced in this session of the House, and it rapidly aqquired 227 co-sponsors — of whom not one was a Republican. The bill garnered a lot of positive coverage. From the Brennan Center for Justice: The Brennan Center has long advocated for, and in many cases helped innovate, many of the reforms outlined in H.R. 1.  “Perhaps more than ever, Americans understand the problems facing our democracy,” said Weiser. “They are hungry for bold and effective solutions to those problems — like those in H.R. 1 — and real action on those solutions.” Weiser submitted written testimony in support of the Act in advance of Thursday’s hearing.  In her comments on Thursday, she highlighted three of the reforms outlined in H.R. 1:

  • Restoring the Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law that was hobbled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision;  
  • Automatic voter registration (AVR), which would streamline how Americans register to vote — and could add up to 50 million new voters to the rolls; and
  • Small-donor public financing, which would amplify the voices of ordinary voters by providing public funds to match small donors. 

Thursday marked the latest in a series of hearings on H.R. 1, which have focused on elements of the bill ranging from presidential ethics to election security. The bill marks the first time in decades that either major political party has made comprehensive reform of the systems of democracy a central priority. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a scathing WaPo Op-Ed, dubbed it “the Democrat Politician Protection Act,” and given what we know about how the liberal Democrat establishment operates, it would be strange indeed if the bill did work in their favor, institutionally. Now, I have no doubt that there are good things in the bill; but it’s 600 pages long, and I don’t have time to go through it all to find them. I do think, however, that the bill presents four major problems: Two Easter Eggs, little hidden surprises, and two Trojan Horses, something seemingly benign that is in fact destructive (in this case, of democracy, ironically enough in a bill titled “For the People”). The two Easter Eggs are raised barriers to small parties and digital voting; the two Trojan Horses are a role for the intelligence community, and the nature of campaign contribututions. Bruce Dixon comments: HR 1 is surgically aimed to eliminate federal matching funds for Green Party candidates by raising the qualifying amount from its current level of $5,000 in each of 20 states to $25,000 in 20 states. HR 1 would cut funding for a Green presidential candidate in half, and by making ballot access for a Green presidential candidate impossible in several states it would also guarantee loss of the party’s ability to run for local offices.

Jayapal Says Medicare for All Bill Coming in Two Weeks as Expert Calls Plan ‘Astonishingly Strong’ - In just two weeks, what is being heralded as an "astonishingly strong" plan to create a Medicare for All system in the United States will be introduced in the U.S. House.With energized grassroots activists, more than 90 congressional co-sponsors, and public opinion all firmly on her side, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) announced on Wednesday that she plans to introduce her 150-page Medicare for All bill the week after next.One healthcare justice organizer who has read a detailed overview of the bill said it should now be considered the new "baseline" for national single-payer legislation.  "Medicare for All is the solution our country needs. Long-term care, mental health services, women's reproductive health. All without co-pays or deductibles," declared Jayapal, who sent a letter to her House colleagues this week urging them to sign on to the legislation. "Join me in two weeks and let's make history with the Medicare for All Act."Speaking to the Washington Post, Jayapal said she expects to introduce her bill with at least 100 original co-sponsors. "Count us in!" said National Nurses United (NNU), which has been holding "barnstorms" nationwide to build grassroots momentum for single-payer. "Thousands of nurses and healthcare activists who participated in the National Week of Action are fired up and ready to do what it takes to pass the Medicare for All Act of 2019."

We Don’t Need Private Health Insurance - Does achieving “Medicare for All” mean mostly eliminating private health insurance? Single-payer proponents say yes: After all, if a public plan provides comprehensive, no-deductible coverage for everyone, nobody would want—much less be willing pay for—duplicative private coverage. Yet candidates who previously embraced single-payer sometimes seem a bit unsure. For instance, Senator Cory Booker, who co-sponsored Senator Bernie Sanders’s single-payer plan back in 2017, was asked whether he would “do away with private health care” recently, and he responded, “Even countries that have vast access to publicly offered health care still have private health care, so no.” There are actually two distinct questions wrapped into one here. First is whether we want a universal public plan for everyone, or a hodgepodge of public and private plans that cover different parts of the population according to age, income, workplace, disability, and so forth, but that together cover everyone. Last year in Dissent, I made the case that a nation like ours—with enormous unmet medical needs, an inadequate safety net, and galling inequality—is a poor fit with a multi-payer system that divides the population into a hierarchy of public and private plans with inequitable levels of access, varied copays and deductibles, and unequal benefits and provider networks. This would never achieve the equity, universality, or efficiency of a public plan that provides complete coverage to everyone. But there’s another question. Let’s assume we agree on the need for a universal public-insurance plan that covers everyone, as in Canada, Great Britain, or France. Would there still be a role for private insurance? If so, what would it be?  In nations that have universal public-insurance programs, private health plans fall into three categories: “duplicative” plans, “supplementary” plans, and “complementary” plans. “The debate over eliminating [private] health insurance is actually offering a false choice,” says Sarah Kliff of Vox.

I Don’t Give A Sh*t How You Bend The Cost Curve – Atrios - "We" spend too much money on health care costs in this country, but I don't particularly care about that. I mean, I do, it's absurd, and we shouldn't, but it isn't actually my job do worry about how to fix that. It isn't your job. It isn't the job of voters to waste their beautiful minds worrying about what the best plan to cut health care costs is, and it's absurd that for some reason it's expected that voters all play Wonk for a Year and try to figure out who has the wonkiest wonko plan of all.People are paid a lot of money to figure that shit out. Go figure it out. What kind of health plan should pass that makes voters happy and doesn't make them upset because it doesn't raise their taxes or upset the status quo or isn't "moderate" or whatever the fuck? One which mails them a card on day one that they can use to go to the damn doctor without paying any money. Then the wonks and the politicians can get to work for the next 10 years fixing the engine under the hood.Make voters happy by making them happy. Tomorrow. Eat the up front costs because we are a rich country and we can afford to eat the costs, and then spend the next 10 years clawing money back from the other "stakeholders" who have been looting the bank accounts of dying people for decades. Just don't make us have to worry about how. Make getting sick slightly less of a hassle than Comcast Customer Support and voters will love you. It's that simple. The details matter, but the wonks should be working out that shit between themselves, not by writing memos on op-ed pages because none of us should have to care about them.

 Bill Gates- Best Option For Soaking The Rich Would Be Hiking Capital Gains Tax - As the growth of the national debt (which, as we've repeatedly pointed out, eclipsed $22 trillion last week) accelerates, and America's ascendant Democratic Socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez push for draconian taxation plans like a 70% marginal rate for the wealthiest Americans, the wealthiest titans of industry have remained largely absent from the taxation debate (though, to be fair, Jeff Bezos has been understandably preoccupied lately). But just in case Americans - at least those who didn't attend Davos 2019 - were wondering what their richest tech overlords were thinking about the best practices for stabilizing the budget deficit with new tax revenues, Microsoft founder Bill Gates appeared on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS last night to share his thoughts on the 70% marginal rate proposal and other 'wealth tax' proposals floated by the increasingly left-leaning Democratic field, which he has bashed as "extreme" in other interviews. "We only collect about 20 percent of GDP and we spend like 24 percent of GDP. So you can’t let that deficit grow faster than the economy," Gates said.But a 70% marginal rate on the richest Americans - just like we had in the 1970s before the Reagan tax cuts - isn't the best way to go about filling this gap, because of all the loop holes and deferments."Even when that rate was high, the actual collection because of ways people could defer wasn’t - never got above 40 percent, actually," the Microsoft Corp. co-founder said. If AOC and her merry band of "Democratic Socialist" followers truly want to go after the biggest fortunes, the best way to do that would be to hike taxes on capital gains - a proposal that was bandied about during the Trump tax reform debate, but didn't ultimately make it into the final package. Taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income would eliminate a lot of complexity, Gates said. "If you go about doing this additional collection, of course you want to be progressive, you want the portion that comes from the top 1 percent or top 20 percent to be much higher," he said. "The big fortunes, if your goal is to go after those, you have to take the capital gains tax, which is far lower at like 20 percent, and increase that." Gates added that he and his wife Melinda were among the biggest proponents of raising the "death tax", a proposal that Bernie Sanders is now reportedly kicking around.

 Grenell Launches Trump Admin Effort Towards Global Decriminalization Of Homosexuality - US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell is spearheading a global campaign by the Trump administration to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it is illegal to be gay, according to NBC News. News of the effort - which has reportedly been in the works for some time, comes after Iran made headlines for executing a gay man.Grenell - America's highest-profile openly gay official and favorite among Trump's base to replace Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador, is kicking off the effort Tuesday evening in Berlin - as the U.S. embassy is flying in European LGBT activists for a strategy dinner during which they will discuss efforts to decriminalize homosexuality. The campaign will be "mostly concentrated in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean," writes NBC, which notes that the effort began before the UN job opened up. "It is concerning that, in the 21st century, some 70 countries continue to have laws that criminalize LGBTI status or conduct," said a US official involved in organizing the event. Although the decriminalization strategy is still being hashed out, officials say it’s likely to include working with global organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as other countries whose laws already allow for gay rights. Other U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts throughout Europe, including the U.S. Mission to the E.U., are involved, as is the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.Narrowly focused on criminalization, rather than broader LGBT issues like same-sex marriage, the campaign was conceived partly in response to the recent reported execution by hanging of a young gay man in Iran, the Trump administration’s top geopolitical foe. -NBC News    Grenell has been an outspoken critic of Iran, which executed a 31-year-old man who Iranian state-sponsored news agencies say kidnapped two 15-year-olds. The Islamic Republic also executed a 16-year-old student in 2016 for what Amnesty International says was consensual gay sex. 

Trump steps up attack on Planned Parenthood - President Trump is intensifying his attack on federal funding for Planned Parenthood with the introduction of new rules on Friday that are widely seen as a way of gutting federal funding to the group. The women’s health organization could lose millions of dollars in funding if the sweeping changes to a federal family planning program are upheld in court. Under the changes, clinics aren’t eligible for Title X Family Planning funds unless they are physically and financially separate from abortion providers. That means clinics couldn’t share space or staff with abortion facilities. Clinics would also be banned from referring women for abortions or counseling them on abortion as an option to end pregnancy. This could disqualify many of Planned Parenthood’s 600 centers across the country, which receives about a quarter of Title X funds annually to provide reproductive health and preventive services to low-income women. “Planned Parenthood cannot participate in a program that would force our health care providers to compromise our ethics,” President Leana Wen said Friday, when asked by The Hill if Planned Parenthood would continue applying for the funding.

Death of a California Dream - Wall Street Journal Editorial Board - Like Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, California Gov. Gavin Newsom inherited a quagmire in the state’s bullet train with no good options. Rather than attempt a full-out retreat, the Governor announced Tuesday that he would cut taxpayer losses by completing a segment in the sparsely populated San Joaquin Valley. But please don’t call it a train to nowhere. A decade ago California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to build a 520-mile high-speed train that would supposedly take riders from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes. The choo-choo’s supporters vowed that the federal government and private investors would foot most of the estimated $33 billion bill, and the referendum explicitly stated there would be no subsidy. President Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall was more believable. The Obama Administration chipped in $3.5 billion on the condition the first 160-mile segment be built in the San Joaquin Valley district of Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, a longtime bullet-train supporter who provided a critical vote for ObamaCare. Former Gov. Jerry Brown made the train his special legacy project, his contribution at taxpayer expense to the illusion of stopping climate change. His people sent letter after letter claiming that our editorials were mistaken. Our criticisms have now been validated by none other than Mr. Newsom. Cost projections for the train have soared to around $80 billion amid litigation, engineering challenges and ordinary government morass. Private investors have run the other way. The state rail authority has spent more than $5 billion acquiring and destroying hundreds of properties but not yet laid tracks. Taxpayers have lost patience, and Mr. Newsom stated the obvious on Tuesday that “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA.” The new Governor is thus proposing to finish the initial planned route from Merced to Bakersfield, now with the stated goal of revitalizing rural areas that have been parched due to water rationing. Lo, high-speed rail is “about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley,” which is “hungry for investment” and “good jobs.” Mr. Newsom in his speech also pared back a project championed by Mr. Brown to deliver more water to farmers. Liberals envision that the bullet train will someday turn Fresno and Merced into Silicon Valley suburbs and ease the Bay Area’s housing shortage. But this too is a dream. As economic consultants William Grindley and Bill Warren document in a recent study, a worker who lives in Fresno would spend 10 hours and 20 minutes each day commuting to San Jose at a cost of $154 round trip—assuming no subsidies. California’s bullet train provides a miniature model of the Green New Deal. Alas, the main reason liberals like Mr. Newsom are likely turning against it is they are eager to redirect taxpayer money to entitlements and other green largesse.  

 Trump Demands $2.5Bn Back For California's High-Speed Rail Fail; Pulls $929Mn Grant - The US Department of Transportation (DOT) says it is exploring legal options to claw back $2.5 billion from California in federal funds which have already been spent on the ill-fated statewide high-speed rail system, according to the New York Times.  The Trump administration is also canceling a $929 million grant which was allocated to the California High-Speed Rail Authority detailed in a letter from DOT, just one week after California Governor Newsom announced that the project had been derailed by cost overruns and numerous delays. Instead of canceling the entire project, however, Newsom announced that the state will focus on finishing the line currently under construction, running 171 miles from Merced to Bakersfield - and could open as soon as 2027.  Just in: Trump administration tells CA it's backing out of $929 million grant to high-speed rail project and "is actively exploring every legal option" to get back the $2.5 billion already given to the effort. This comes one week after Newsom's #CASOTS statement on HSR troubles. pic.twitter.com/Ox6Lz0HwcZ   The decision to yank the grant money and claw back the billions in federal funds comes one day after California filed a lawsuit along with 15 other states challenging President Trump's emergency declaration on the border. The $77 billion Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train, which has been a goal of California transportation planners for decades, has long faced opposition from Mr. Trump and other Republicans. But on Tuesday morning, the president explicitly tied the rail line to efforts to stymie construction of the Mexican border wall. -New York TimesTrump slammed California's decision to sue, noting on Tuesday over Twitter that "The failed Fast Train project in California, where the cost overruns are  becoming world record setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!"

US Supreme Court Rules To Limit States' Ability To Seize Property, Impose Fines - The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the Excessive Fines Clause in the 8th Amendment applies to state and local governments.  Announced in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her second day back on the bench following a December cancer surgery, the ruling limits states' abilities to seize property and impose fines deemed excessive on citizens who break the law. "For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties," wrote Ginsburg, as the court sided with Tyson Timbs of Marion Indiana, whose $42,000 Land Rover SUV was seized by the state following a guilty plea for selling $385 worth of heroin to an undercover detective.   Following a plea bargain, Timbs was sentenced to a year of home detention followed by five years of probation, as well as $1,200 in fees.  "Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence."  Timbs drew wide support from civil liberties organizations, according to the Washington Post. Other USSC Justices were highly critical of property seizures and fines, with Justice Clarence Thomas suggesting that civil forfeitures had become "widespread and highly profitable." “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas wrote, referring to reporting by The Washington Post and the New Yorker.At oral argument, Timbs’s lawyer said the case was a simple matter of “constitutional housekeeping.” -Washington Post The Constitution's Bill of Rights limits the actions of the federal government - however it has been increasingly applied by the Supreme Court to local governments, particularly under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, notes the Post's Robert Barnes.

Culture war at SCOTUS: Justices consider whether giant World War I memorial cross can stay - The justices next week are set to hear arguments over whether a giant, four-story World War I memorial cross located in a busy Maryland intersection and maintained by the government can remain standing.The case, which touches at the core of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, is the most significant dispute over a public monument to reach the top court since Chief Justice John Roberts took the helm. Earlier this month, Chief Justice John Roberts declared himself "the most aggressive defender" of the First Amendment in public remarks, while Justice Clarence Thomas took aim at one of the court's most important press freedom rulings.The litigation concerns a 40-foot-tall, 16-ton cross-shaped memorial to veterans of the first World War. The cross sits at the entrance to the town of Bladensburg, where it has been since 1925. Its maintenance is funded by a government agency that has spent just over $100,000 on the monument since 1985.Opponents of the cross say it violates the Constitution's wall of separation between government and religion. They include humanists, whose philosophy rejects theism, and Jewish veterans.In 2014, the American Humanist Association and several local humanists challenged the monument, arguing that the cross demonstrated government favoritism of Christianity over other religions. They say that the monument must be transferred to private property or reshaped into an obelisk by lopping off its crossbar.  Lined up behind the defenders of the cross are a host of veterans groups and more than 80 members of Congress, including two dozen U.S. senators led by Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as more than two dozen U.S. states. In a brief, the lawmakers quote a 1952 Establishment Clause case to argue that they were elected to represent "religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."The lawmakers and others defending the cross said that an unfavorable ruling could jeopardize hundreds of monuments across the country, such as the Ground Zero Cross in Manhattan and prominent crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. Meanwhile, a Jewish veterans group has told the court that for Jewish veterans, the memorial serves as a "reminder of the promise of salvation that they do not accept and from which they are excluded."

Rosenstein Will Step Down Mid-March- DOJ Official - US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to step down in mid-March, according to Reuters, citing a Justice Department official. Rosenstein - who has refused to testify in front of Congress since reports emerged that he wanted to secretly record President Trump and invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, had been expected to leave his position shortly after newly minted Attorney General William Barr assumed his office. The DOJ official said Rosenstein's departure was not connected to the 25th Amendment or surveillance allegations. Of note, Rosenstein recommended the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, then launched the special counsel probe using Comey's hand-written 'evidence' that Trump obstructed justice by pressuring him to end the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.  According to a September New York Times report and renewed allegations by former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Rosenstein considered wearing a wire in meetings with Trump - an accusation that the Deputy AG has called "inaccurate and factually incorrect."

 Trump Poised to Name Jeffrey Rosen as Deputy Attorney General -President Donald Trump plans to nominate Jeffrey Rosen as the new deputy attorney general, the White House said on Tuesday night.Rosen, now deputy secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department, would replace Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.Last week, the Senate confirmed William Barr as the new U.S. attorney general. At his confirmation hearing, Barr declined to say whether he would recuse himself from overseeing Mueller in light of his past criticism of a facet of the inquiry.It was Barr who chose Rosen to be the new deputy attorney general, according to people familiar with the matter, who were granted anonymity to discuss the nomination process.Rosen, a Harvard Law School graduate, worked at the Transportation Department and the Office of M anagement and Budget under President George W. Bush. He also had a long career at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Barr, who also led the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, was of counsel at the firm.

 Top Ethics Watchdog Rejects Ross’s Financial Disclosure Form - The top federal ethics watchdog has rejected U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s 2017 financial disclosure form. The Office of Government Ethics declined to certify Ross’s latest financial disclosure because after reporting that he had sold off his shares in BankUnited Inc. that year, he actually sold the stock in October 2018. According to a later filing, he said he mistakenly believed that the shares had been sold earlier. In a lettersent to the Commerce Department’s top ethics officer, OGE Director Emory Rounds wrote that Ross’s 2017 report,“inaccurately reported that he sold all of his stock when in fact he had not done so.” Rounds also said that Ross was not in compliance with his ethics agreement when he filed the annual report in 2018. Ross said in a statement Tuesday that his BankUnited shares were worth about $3,700, which he said was below the threshold for a possible conflict of interest, which is $15,000 for publicly traded securities. He said the way he first reported the shares was “the only known error in my annual report.” “While I am disappointed that my report was not certified, I remain committed to complying with my ethics agreement,” Ross said. OGE, which received Ross’s annual disclosure in September, didn’t finish its review until Friday. It posted the document and Rounds’ letter on Tuesday.

The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC - Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins” — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense. Her real offense was publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact  that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.” But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why. If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

 US Court Reopens Lawsuit Against Billionaire Israel Donor Sheldon Adelson — A US appeals court has reopened a billion-dollar lawsuit against Jewish-American tycoon Sheldon Adelson, which seeks to hold him and more than 30 others liable for war crimes and support of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (DC) Circuit yesterday voted unanimously in favour of reopening the case, arguing that a federal district judge concluded wrongly in August 2017 that all of the plaintiffs’ claims raised political questions that could not be decided in US courts, Ynet has reported. At the time, the district judge claimed that the lawsuit raised political questions over which the court had no authority, including who has sovereignty over the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and the besieged Gaza Strip. Yesterday, however, US Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said that the sovereignty issue was separate from a broader question of whether war crimes were being committed in the oPt, reported Fortune Magazine. “A legal determination that [illegal] Israeli settlers commit genocide in the disputed territory [oPt] would not decide ownership of the disputed territory and thus would not directly contradict any [US] foreign policy choice,” explained Judge Henderson. The lawsuit, she added, could thus be treated as a “purely legal issue” and, since genocide violates international law, the court could hear the case under America’s Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign citizens to seek remedies in US courts for human rights violations committed outside the United States.

Alexander Acosta Broke Federal Law in Jeffrey Epstein Sex Abuse Case, Judge Rules — A U.S. District judge ruled Thursday that U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta committed a crime in 2007 when, as a U.S. prosecutor at the time, secretly gave a lenient plea deal to a politically-connected billionaire accused of sex trafficking underage girls. In a case brought by victims of billionaire and Trump associate Jeffrey Epstein, Judge Kenneth Marra found that Acosta and other federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by brokering a plea deal with Epstein, allowing him to serve only 13 months in a county jail for his crimes, and then sealing the agreement. The ruling came nearly three months after the Miami Herald‘s explosive report on the plea deal, which prompted the Justice Department to begin investigation into the prosecutors’ conduct.Marra’s decision led to renewed calls for Acosta—who was appointed by President Donald Trump and who as head of the Labor Department is responsible for combating sex trafficking—to resign.labor secretary alex acosta needs to resign. and never work again. back in 2008 he arranged a RIDICULOUS plea deal for pedophile jeffrey epstein and hid the agreement from victims. this is so sickening. https://t.co/1ZKjJuGBrT— Joe Randazzo (@Randazzoj) February 21, 2019    By sealing Epstein’s plea agreement, Acosta stole from more than 30 of Epstein’s victims—some of whom were as young as 13 when they were recruited by his paid employees and then coerced into sex acts by him—the chance to attend Epstein’s sentencing and demand a harsher punishment. “While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims,” Marra found. “The government aligned themselves with Epstein, working against his victims, for 11 years,” Brad Edwards, the attorney representing the women who survived Epstein’s abuse, told the Herald.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft facing charges of solicitation of prostitution - New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is facing charges of misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution after he was twice videotaped paying for a sex act at an illicit massage parlor, police in Florida said Friday. The 77-year-old Kraft was one of 25 people involved in the alleged solicitation at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter. Michael Edmondson, spokesman for the state attorney's office in Palm Beach County, told ESPN that the nature of any charges that the 25 people face will not be released until next week. Kraft has denied wrongdoing. The potential charges come amid a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking in Florida from Palm Beach to Orlando. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued in recent days as result of a six-month investigation, and more are expected. Ten spas have been closed, and several people charged with sex trafficking have been taken into custody. Police said they secretly planted undercover cameras in targeted massage parlors and recorded the interactions between men and the female employees.In a statement, a spokesperson for Kraft said they "categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further." The individuals named as having solicited prostitutes could be facing either a first- or second-degree misdemeanor for each count. A second-degree charge carries up to a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine; a first-degree charge carries up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most people charged for the first time with soliciting a prostitute in Florida are allowed to enter a diversion program, said attorney David Weinstein, a former prosecutor. Kraft would have to perform 100 hours of community service and pay to attend an educational program about the negative effects of prostitution and human trafficking.

Wall Street Legends Identified In Florida Prostitution Sting -  While the big news of the day was that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was been named as one of those involved in a prostitution sting in Florida, NBC News reported that he’s far from the only one named in the Orchids of Asia Spa bust, and may in fact "not be the most famous person involved."According to ESPN, while Kraft's naming in the prostitution bust prompted shocked gasps - with many asking why a billionaire would resort to a $75/hour day spa to satisfy his basic urges - he is reportedly not the most famous person, as "there’s someone else whose name hasn’t surfaced yet who’s better known than Kraft."“I’m also told that Robert Kraft is not the biggest name involved down there in South Florida,” Schefter said.According to Schefter, another 175 names to be revealed, in addition to the 25 people already named in the police report with up to 200 names in total involved in the investigation. "This is an investigation that has been going on for months," Schefter said. “What I have been told is that there are other people involved. There are other names that will come out in this particular investigation,” Schefter added. “We got 25 names today, there are 175 more names coming. Now some will just be regular people whose names we don’t know. But there could be other names that we do know, and that’s how it was explained to me,” Schefter said.As reported earlier, Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting a prostitute. He has categorically denied those charges and say they are untrue.”  Meanwhile, by its very location - Jupiter is one of the world's most exclusive zip codes with Tiger Woods living just a few miles away in a house which cost over $40 million back in 2006 - the list of clients virtually assures to be the "who's who" of high society.  Sure enough, shortly after the Kraft news broke, Bloomberg reported that Wall Street legend John Childs, whose name was not on the list released by Jupiter police, was also charged with solicitation of prostitution.

Dems prepare to force Trump to reveal private talks with Putin - House Democrats are taking their first real steps to force President Donald Trump to divulge information about his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, setting up an extraordinary clash with the White House over Congress’ oversight authority. Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman, and Rep. Eliot Engel, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told POLITICO they are actively consulting with House General Counsel Douglas Letter about the best way to legally compel the Trump administration to turn over documents or other information related to the president’s one-on-one discussions with the Russian leader. .“I had a meeting with the general counsel to discuss this and determine the best way to find out what took place in those private meetings — whether it’s by seeking the interpreter’s testimony, the interpreter’s notes, or other means,” Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a brief interview. It’s a development that indicates Schiff and Engel are close to taking action on the matter; key members of the majority party often consult with the chamber’s general counsel on issues that could end up playing out in court. Democrats want to ensure that they are on the strongest possible legal ground because they anticipate the Trump administration will mount spirited challenges. 

Scott Pelley Commits Career Suicide --Kunstler -   Finally, you’re left with image of Scott Pelley sucking on his eyeglass frames as if he was trying to impersonate a character who might be called The Ole Sage TV Journalist, after neatly disgracing both himself and TV journalism in his puffy chat-up with Andrew McCabe, the ex-Deputy FBI Director who stage-managed the cover-up of the RussiaGate fiasco in both of its phases — first to interfere with the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and then to oust the winner of the election, Mr. Trump. Perhaps Mr. Pelley was ruminating on all the topics he forgot to ask about, such as what Mr. McCabe meant by an “insurance policy” in his conversations with counter-intel agent Peter Stzrok and DOJ lawyer Lisa Page; or whether Mr. McCabe launched the Russia collusion investigation on the basis of the Steele dossier, which was already known at the time to be material furnished by the Hillary Clinton campaign; or whether the contents of said dossier had ever been verified via established FBI protocol (the “Woods” procedure), which they never were. The audience was informed at the very end that Mr. McCabe’s case had been “referred” to the federal courts by the DOJ Inspector General. That was a nice way of saying that Mr. McCabe has been singing to a grand jury. If so, then he’s an early bird, because many of his feathered friends will be following him into the grand jury chamber and then we’ll have the great Battle-of-the-Alibis. Mainly what the McCabe interview accomplished was CBS tripling-down on the empty Russia collusion “narrative” that has nourished the crusade to dump Mr. Trump by any means necessary for more than two years. Mr. McCabe describes the “chaos” in the C-suites of the FBI after the President fired Director James Comey in May 7 of 2017, “because we had lost our leader… it was an unbelievably stressful time,” he said. Yes, I’m sure. Because so many top officers in the Bureau were desperate to cover their asses since Mrs. Clinton’s unbelievable election loss meant that all the FBI emails and official memoranda documenting their behavior either had to be shoved down the memory hole illegally or left to be discovered by Mr. Trump. Indeed, some of it was illegally destroyed, for instance the government-issued cell phones of Ms. Page and Mr. Stzrok, smashed to bits on Robert Mueller’s instructions.

 Two Trump Cabinet Officials Were "Ready To Support" 25th Amendment 'Coup' As Rosenstein Tallied Votes - Two Trump Cabinet officials were "ready to support" a DOJ scheme to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump, according to Bloomberg and Fox News, citing closed-door testimony from the FBI's former top lawyer, James Baker - who said that the claim came from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The testimony was delivered last fall to the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees. Fox News has confirmed portions of the transcript. It provides additional insight into discussions that have returned to the spotlight in Washington as fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe revisits the matter during interviews promoting his forthcoming book. -Fox News  While Baker did not identify the two Cabinet officials, he says that McCabe and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page approached him to relay their conversations with Rosenstein, including their discussions of the 25th Amendment scheme.  "I was being told by some combination of Andy McCabe and Lisa Page, that, in a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General, he had stated that he -- this was what was related to me -- that he had at least two members of the president’s Cabinet who were ready to support, I guess you would call it, an action under the 25th Amendment," Baker told the Congressional committees. The 25th Amendment allows for the removal of a sitting president from office through various mechanisms - including the majority of a president's Cabinet agreeing that the commander-in-chief is incapable of performing his duties.  Rosenstein - who is slated to leave the Justice Department in the near future, has denied the claims.

Trump Slams McCabe & Rosenstein Over Treasonous , Very Illegal Plan To Secretly Record President - During an interview that aired in full on CBS last night, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe - who was famously fired just hours before qualifying for his pension due to what the DOJ inspector general described as "unauthorized leaks to the press" - McCabe insisted that Rod Rosenstein was "absolutely serious" when he asked senior Trump administration officials to clandestinely record their conversations with the president in preparation for removing him under the 25th amendment - a plan that has been derided as an attempted coup by family members and allies of the president. Clearly displeased with McCabe's revelations, Trump lashed out at again on Twitter, accusing him of telling a "deranged" story and plotting "a very illegal act".Wow, so many lies by now disgraced acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. He was fired for lying, and now his story gets even more deranged. He and Rod Rosenstein, who was hired by Jeff Sessions (another beauty), look like they were planning a very illegal act, and got caught.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2019Trump added that McCabe has "a lot of explaining to do to the millions of people who had just elected a president who they really like". He added that this was "the illegal and treasonous" insurance policy "in action..."....There is a lot of explaining to do to the millions of people who had just elected a president who they really like and who has done a great job for them with the Military, Vets, Economy and so much more. This was the illegal and treasonous “insurance policy” in full action!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2019 ...Before doubling down on accusations that McCabe and Rosenstein participated in an "illegal coup attempt."“This was an illegal coup attempt on the President of the United States.” Dan Bongino on @foxandfriends True!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2019   Readers can watch the full interview here.

Devin Nunes Was Trump’s Mole Inside the Gang of Eight - Natasha Bertrand is one of the people who personally interviewed former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. But the most consequential thing he told her didn’t make the cut of her report at the Atlantic. After tweetingwhat McCabe said about the meeting in which the Gang of Eight was informed about a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was under the influence of a foreign power, she tweeted this:In other words, McCabe believes that Rep. Devin Nunes—who participated as chair of the House Intelligence Committee—was acting as a mole for the president in the briefings. The steps McCabe took to open an investigation after Trump fired Comey were immediately relayed to the White House by Nunes.That is not something that comes as a surprise to any of us who have been watching all of this unfold. But it is important that McCabe shares those suspicions. If fits perfectly with Nunes’ history of disclosing classified information whenever it suits his purposes.For example, Rep. Nunes was the subject of an ethics investigation in 2017 when he held a press conference to announce that intelligence agencies incidentally collected information about some of President Trump’s associates. In January, he became the subject of another ethics complaint. The complaint, filed by the Campaign for Accountability, …calls on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Nunes or committee staff leaked closed-door testimony of the head of the company that produced the bombshell dossier of Russian information on Donald Trump.That is why, when reading reports from Trump’s media enablers that are based on transcripts of closed-door testimony that hasn’t been released to the public, my initial reaction is to always assume that the leak came from Rep. Nunes.

White House braces for Mueller report - The White House is bracing for Robert Mueller’s report, which the special counsel investigating President Trump’s campaign and Russia could submit to the Department of Justice as early as next week. The filing would potentially bring to a close one of the dominant threads of Trump’s time in office, which he refers to as a “witch hunt.” The president and his allies for months have called for an end to the special counsel’s investigation, and Trump, who often insists there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, could benefit politically if the report vindicates him. “Anything short of them saying the president colluded with Russia and is now being indicted is going to depress Democrats,” a source close to the White House told The Hill. But Mueller’s report won’t end Trump’s legal headaches, and it could raise new questions about the investigation itself. Lawmakers will pressure Trump to make the document public, and Democrats are likely to pursue any stray leads. As a result, the report is bound to lead to new headaches at the White House. “I think any report in the short term is going to be a political problem for Republicans, but in the long term I think it’s going to be a problem for Democrats,” said the source close to the White House, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the Mueller investigation. If Mueller does file his report, Trump will face a new decision on whether it should be made public. “That’ll be totally up to the new attorney general,” Trump said Wednesday when asked whether the Mueller report should be released while he’s traveling to Vietnam next week..

What if the Mueller report changes nothing? -- Thanks to CNN reporting, we now know that Attorney General Bill Barr is readying to receive special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election -- and the possibility of collusion with Donald Trump's campaign -- as soon as next week.   For the better part of the last 20 months, we've received drips and drabs of what Mueller knows but have never had a chance to see the whole picture (or anything close to it). There have been nearly 200 criminal counts against 39 people and entities, seven people have pleaded guilty and another four have been sentenced to jail. But what we don't know is whether Trump himself or his son, Donald Trump Jr., or his son-in-law Jared Kushner, might be implicated of wrongdoing by Mueller. That question has hung over Washington -- and Trump's presidency -- like a dark cloud since Mueller was named special counsel in May 2017.   The assumption has long been that Mueller's report, whenever it came out, would function as a sort of last word on all of this. It would either exonerate or implicate Trump and his closest confidantes. It would, no matter what it said, change the course of Trump's presidency.  And yet, now that we have at least the possibility of a light at the end of this tunnel, I am more and more convinced that the clarity that so many people want from the Mueller report may simply never come. That's not because Mueller's findings won't be clear. I mean, they might not be -- but my guess is that someone with Mueller's background, including a decade at the head of the FBI, is going to deliver a final product that deals with the questions raised by the 2016 campaign and Russia's role in it comprehensively.  Recent polling conducted by CNN suggests that Trump's negative campaign against Mueller has had some effect: 44% approved of how Mueller had handled the investigation while 41% disapproved in the February poll. That's down from a 50% approve/28% disapprove number for Mueller back in September 2018.

 Robert Mueller won't submit report to attorney general next week, DOJ official tells NBC News  - Special counsel Robert Mueller will not deliver a report to the attorney general next week, as was previously reported by multiple outlets, a senior Department of Justice official told NBC News on Friday.Attorney General William Barr was preparing to announce the completion of Mueller's investigation into any links between President Donald Trump and Russia as soon as next week, CNN reported Wednesday. The outlet reported that those plans were subject to change. In December, NBC News reported that a Mueller report could be delivered to the attorney general as soon as mid-February.Democratic lawmakers have demanded that Mueller's findings be made public. Top Democrats have said that any potential talk of impeachment is contingent on whether Mueller uncovers new evidence of wrongdoing.Earlier Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reiterated her demands that a report be provided to Congress and the public. She said that Mueller's potential report concerned matters that had "implications for the rule of law and stability of our democracy" and that they "cannot be hidden away.""A summary written by Attorney General Barr in place of the Mueller report will not be acceptable," Feinstein said.In a letter to Barr dated Friday, the chairs of six influential House committees suggested that withholding evidence uncovered by Mueller could be the means for a "cover-up.""After nearly two years of investigation — accompanied by two years of direct attacks on the integrity of the investigation by the President — the public is entitled to know what the Special Counsel has found," wrote the Democrats.

 How Do You Impeach a President? Like This - The possibility that President Trump will face impeachment no longer seems far-fetched. Congressional investigations — on the Trump organization, the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team and the Trump administration — are ramping up, while Special Counsel Robert Mueller seems ever closer to releasing his report on the depth of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Initial court filings and news reports suggest that the president may eventually be implicated in clear criminal activities, such as suborning perjury or obstructing justice. If so, the House will have to consider moving forward with impeachment proceedings against a president for the third time in our history. Impeaching a president is always a political act. When scandal strikes the presidency, the decision to investigate, indict and remove a chief executive involves a great deal of political calculation on all sides. Partisan loyalties loom large, of course. Members of the opposition party typically make the case for impeachment; those in the president’s party rally to his defense until they no longer can’t. Prosecutors can issue reports, journalists can uncover wrongdoings, and citizens can clamor for justice, but ultimately the responsibility for deciding about whether to take action lies with the House of Representatives. The standards for impeachment are surprisingly vague — the Constitution names “treason” and “bribery” as crimes for which federal officials can be removed from office, but it also features a catch-all category of “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Because the threshold for impeachment is ambiguous, different congressional majorities have offered wildly different rationales for when they would — or would not — impeach a president. What follows is a brief primer at the three cases of presidential impeachment that have rocked our democracy.

FBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it -  For most of the past three years, the FBI has tried to portray its top leadership as united behind ex-Director James Comey’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for transmitting classified information over her insecure, private email server. Although in the end that may have been the case, we now are learning that Comey’s top lawyer, then-FBI General Counsel James Baker, initially believed Clinton deserved to face criminal charges, but was talked out of it “pretty late in the process.” The revelation is contained in testimony Baker gave to House investigators last year. His testimony has not been publicly released, but I was permitted to review a transcript.During questioning by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Baker was unequivocal about his early view that Clinton should face criminal charges. “I have reason to believe that you originally believed it was appropriate to charge Hillary Clinton with regard to violations of law — various laws, with regard to mishandling of classified information. Is that accurate?” Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor, asked Baker. Baker paused to gain his lawyer’s permission to respond, and then answered, “Yes.”  Asked when he was persuaded to change his mind, Baker said: “Pretty late in the process, because we were arguing about it, I think, up until the end.” Baker made clear that he did not like the activity Clinton had engaged in: “My original belief after — well, after having conducted the investigation and towards the end of it, then sitting down and reading a binder of her materials — I thought that it was alarming, appalling, whatever words I said, and argued with others about why they thought she shouldn’t be charged.” His boss, Comey, announced on July 5, 2016, that he would not recommend criminal charges. He did so without consulting the Department of Justice, a decision the department’s inspector general (IG)later concluded was misguided and likely usurped the power of the attorney general to make prosecutorial decisions. Comey has said, in retrospect, he accepts that finding but took the actions he did because he thought “they were in the country's best interest.”

Michael Cohen Gets Two-Month Delay Before Starting Prison Sentence - Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen was granted a 60-day delay before he has to report to prison, ruled a federal judge in Manhattan on Wednesday.  The decision by US District Judge William Pauley III was granted after Cohen's attorneys cited the need to recover from recent shoulder surgery and prepare for congressional testimony before three committees - one of which is scheduled for February 28, while dates for the other two have not been publicly announced. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for a series of crimes, including tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations stemming from a scheme to pay off women who claimed to have had decade-old affairs with Donald Trump. Cohen has attracted massive attention since he pleaded guilty to the offenses last August in a deal with federal prosecutors in New York. He separately pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about discussions within the Trump Organization about building a property in Moscow, and agreed to cooperate in special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference.Cohen was a longtime ally of Trump but their relationship quickly turned sour last year, after Cohen implicated Trump in the hush-money scheme. Trump has denied wrongdoing and lambasted Cohen as a liar. -The HillThe former Trump attorney is scheduled to appear before the House Oversight and Intelligence Committees, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee, after the latter subpoenaed him to for closed-door testimony.

IRS Agent Charged In Leak Of Michael Cohen Transactions To Michael Avenatti -  An Internal Revenue Service agent was charged on Thursday with unlawfully leaking former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's overseas financial tractions to attorney Michael Avenatti. John C. Fry, an analyst in the San Francisco IRS office who had worked for the agency since 2008, was charged with disclosing Cohen's Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) - nine months after we reported that it wouldn't be difficult to track down the leaker due to a digital trail left behind from accessing the system.  Fry appeared in court Thursday where he did not enter a plea. He was released on $50,000 bond, and has a hearing scheduled for March 13. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted. According to CNN, "In recent weeks, Fry's hearing date was pushed back several times as federal prosecutors were engaged with Fry's attorney on plea negotiations, according to a person familiar with the talks. As of Thursday, Fry declined to plead to felony charges in exchange for probation." Banks are required to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) for dubious financial transactions. Fry told The New Yorker's Ronan Farrow in May of 2018 that some of Cohen's SARs were missing.   Bloomberg suggested in May of last year that the leaker was a low level IRS employee because they were apparently unaware of several legitimate reasons why these reports wouldn't appear in the database. For example, they could've been restricted because they had become part of an investigation.  "Under longstanding procedures, FinCEN will limit access to certain SARs when requested by law enforcement authorities in connection with an ongoing investigation," Hudak said. –Bloomberg This was in fact the case, according to the criminal complaint, which notes that two SARs "were not available for viewing by registered users in the FinCEN system" because "they were related to a sensitive open investigation."

"I’m Committing Professional Suicide": CBS Star Reporter Admits "Mostly Liberal" Journalists Are Now "Political Activists" - CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan has broken ranks and admitted that journalists have lost their objectivity and become "political activists."  During an appearance on the Mike Drop podcast with retired Navy SEAL Mike Ritland, Logan admitted that "the media everywhere is mostly liberal, not just the U.S.," adding that it was nearly impossible for viewers to decipher if they were being told the truth at any given time. "85% of journalists are registered Democrats," Logan said. "How do you know you’re being lied to? How do you know you’re being manipulated? How do you know there’s something not right with the coverage? When they simplify it all [and] there’s no grey. It’s all one way. Well, life isn’t like that. If it doesn’t match real life, it’s probably not. Something’s wrong. For example, all the coverage on Trump all the time is negative. … That’s a distortion of the way things go in real life." "There's no grey. It's all one way," said Logan.  Logan says that the heavy bias has warped people's ability to know what's really true. "When you turn on your computer, or you walk past the TV, or you see a newspaper headline in the grocery store If they’re all saying the same thing, the weight of that convinces you that it’s true," said Logan. "You don’t question it, because everyone is saying it." She also admitted that journalists today are more or less lobbyists for liberal interests, adding that the weight of the liberal media machine overwhelms "the other side" unless people actively seek outlets such as Breitbart. 

Payback for Bezos Has No Limit -- My usual role around here is to tell you about interesting financial things that have happened, or to argue that boring financial things that have happened are actually interesting, or at least to make fun of dumb financial things that have happened. Occasionally though, we indulge in a bit of speculative fiction and talk about how nice it would be if some really interesting financial thing had happened, even though it didn’t. Here is a Vanity Fair story about Jeff Bezos, an extramarital affair, nude selfies, politics, the National Enquirer, etc., but I just want to focus on this amazing passage about what might have been:  One option even included Bezos buying A.M.I.—not such an outlandish consideration given the seriousness of the breach and the fact that, for Bezos, the price of the tabloid company is essentially a rounding error—to find out the source of the leak. “We discussed the possibility to buy A.M.I.—not to kill the story, but to find out the source. They said that’s not a bad idea. We discussed numbers and the name of the LLC that we’d use. It would be called BOBO LCC”—short for Lauren’s helicopter filming company, Black Ops, and Bezos’s space company, Blue Origin—“that’s the level of detail we went into.”  Quick explainer: The National Enquirer, a tabloid owned by American Media Inc., acquired some embarrassing photos of Amazon.com Inc. founder and squazillionaire Jeff Bezos, and of Lauren Sanchez, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Sanchez’s brother Michael has been accused of leaking the photos to the Enquirer, though he denied that in the Vanity Fair article. (“I’m not saying I didn’t do something,” he says, though.) The quote in that paragraph is from Michael Sanchez, and he is describing a discussion that he had with Bezos and Lauren Sanchez last month after the National Enquirer started asking about their affair. One possibility they apparently considered was for Bezos to buy AMI, not kill the story (???), and I suppose, once in possession of AMI’s records, find out who leaked the information to the Enquirer.

 Amazon Paid Zero Corporate Tax For Second Year In A Row - President Trump has never hidden his disdain for cyber-retailing giant Amazon Inc., accusing the company of unfair tax practices and antitrust violation. The president probably won’t be too amused by a new report that the company avoided paying any federal income tax in 2018 for the second year in a row despite posting billions of dollars in profits. The purveyor of two-day delivery of just about everything posted a massive net income of $11.2 billion in fiscal 2018 after doubling it from the previous year’s tab of $5.6 billion. Yet, a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows that the company did not pay a single cent in income tax on both occasions—ironically in large part due to Trump’s tax bonanza of 2017. Incredibly, the company’s latest corporate filing reveals that far from paying the statutory 21 percent income tax demanded under the new tax laws, it’s the federal government that ended up paying Amazon thanks to a slew of tax loopholes.  In 2017, Amazon collected $140 million in rebates for an effective tax rate of -2.5 percent with the company pocketing another $129 million last year for a tax rate of -1%. The fine print in Amazon’s tax disclosure says the company achieved this partly due to a tax break for executive stock options as well as various unspecified ‘‘tax credits.’’ ITEP, an organization that has studied tax-paying habits by corporations for nearly 40 years, places the blame on Congress for this scenario. Proponents of the new laws claimed that a lower tax rate would incentivize better corporate citizenship. Yet, Congress failed to anticipate a potentially tricky situation after failing to broaden the tax base or close critical tax loopholes  that allow companies to avoid paying federal tax on nearly half their profits. The Tax Act saw the statutory corporate tax rate lowered from 35 percent to just 21 percent with the Trump administration and its congressional allies also throwing in lavish new giveaways for good measure, including the immediate expensing of capital investments.

 The era of the all-powerful tech CEO has only just begun, even though Facebook and Snap show why that’s a bad thing -

  • At a growing number of companies, particularly in the tech sector, CEOs and other insiders have outsized control over their corporate decisions.
  • The executives have that control through special shares that give them extra votes. Such arrangements used to be rare, but are becoming much more common.
  • Lyft and several other tech companies that are likely to hold their initial public offerings this year will likely debut with such dual-class stock structures.
  • Companies say such arrangements allow their executives to focus on their long-term success.
  • But because they insulate insiders from legitimate concerns, they can be detrimental to investors and society as a whole.

An AI that writes convincing prose risks mass-producing fake news --Here’s some breaking fake news … Russia has declared war on the United States after Donald Trump accidentally fired a missile in the air. Russia said it had “identified the missile’s trajectory and will take necessary measures to ensure the security of the Russian population and the country’s strategic nuclear forces.” The White House said it was “extremely concerned by the Russian violation” of a treaty banning intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The US and Russia have had an uneasy relationship since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. That story is, in fact, not only fake, but a troubling example of just how good AI is getting at fooling us. That’s because it wasn’t written by a person; it was auto-generated by an algorithm fed the words “Russia has declared war on the United States after Donald Trump accidentally …”The program made the rest of the story up on its own. And it can make up realistic-seeming news reports on any topic you give it. The program was developed by a team at OpenAI, a research institute based in San Francisco. The researchers set out to develop a general-purpose language algorithm, trained on a vast amount of text from the web, that would be capable of translating text, answering questions, and performing other useful tasks. But they soon grew concerned about the potential for abuse. “We started testing it, and quickly discovered it’s possible to generate malicious-esque content quite easily,” says Jack Clark, policy director at OpenAI.

 Bank earnings more than double thanks to tax cut — Bank profits remained near historic highs in the fourth quarter — at $59.1 billion, they more than doubled from a year earlier, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Thursday. That 133% increase, however, was mostly attributable to the 2017 tax law, both because banks had to take a one-time charge in the fourth quarter of that year as a result of a decrease in value for deferred tax assets, and because the lower effective tax rate helped boost profits throughout 2018. Without the tax law, profits would have been up 18.5% in the fourth quarter, reaching $50.3 billion, the FDIC said. “Once again, the banking industry reported a strong quarter. Net income improved on higher net operating revenue and a lower effective tax rate,” FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams said in prepared remarks. “The current economic expansion is the second-largest on record, and the nation’s banks are stronger as a result.” Bank earnings through fourth quarter of 2018. Data from FDIC For all of 2018, banks reported a 44% jump in net income to $236.7 billion, which included the benefits of a lower tax rate. Community banks reported a 29.4% increase in net income, to $26.1 billion, for 2018. Without the tax cut, community banks would have had an estimated 10.7% increase in earnings and banks overall would have had a 13.6% increase. Net interest margins also continued to expand with banks reporting an average fourth quarter margin of 3.48%, up from 3.31% a year earlier. However, FDIC staff continued to caution banks about “reaching for yield” as interest rates have remained fairly low and banks have locked in to more longer-term assets while the interest on deposits is starting to increase. “While results this quarter were positive, the extended period of low interest rates and an increasingly competitive lending environment continue to lead some institutions to ‘reach for yield,’ ” McWilliams said. “With the recent flattening of the yield curve, new challenges for institutions in lending and funding may emerge.” Overall, loan growth continues to be a positive story for banks. Banks reported a 4.4% rise in loan balances to $213 billion in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. Most of that increase was in commercial and industrial loans, consumer loans and credit cards, the FDIC said. Credit quality also continued to improve with the noncurrent loan balance rate, which are loans 90 days or more past due, falling to 0.99%. This was the first time the noncurrent loan rate fell below 1% since the second quarter of 2007, the FDIC noted.

Is weaker loan demand a bad omen? — Banks appear to be increasingly skittish about making loans as credit quality is weakening in some areas. But experts are divided about whether recent signs of a cooling lending environment are a footnote in an otherwise strong economy, or a harbinger of things to come. The economy continues to add jobs amid uncommonly high numbers of job openings. While stock market indexes suffered a two-month decline that ended in late December, they have largely rebounded in the first month and a half of the year. Yet recent Federal Reserve data points to banks being tentative about the lending environment in 2019 while taking note of emerging signs of trouble on their balance sheets. Last week, the Fed's quarterly survey of senior loan officers found a startlingly precipitous decline in bankers’ expectations for loan demand across a range of categories. It was followed by a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggesting that credit markets are overextended and that default rates on auto loans have spiked. But reactions to those recent indicators are mixed. William Lee, chief economist at the Milken Institute and former head of North America economics for Citigroup, said the pessimistic tone regarding loan demand from the Fed's loan officer survey could be because it was conducted in late December and early January — precisely when markets were hitting bottom and economic uncertainties were most acute. “In that environment, banks — as well as credit markets — were starting to be concerned,” Lee said. “Now, in the first quarter, I’m sure if we redo the senior loan officer survey today … the reaction would be slightly different, in the sense that the mood of pessimism seems to have washed itself away.” But Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist with Oxford Economics, said that it is just as likely that the survey uncovered not only banks’ true worries about underlying credit quality but also about near-term economic prospects.

4,823 U.S. Banks Have Disappeared Since 1999 - Pam Martens - At the end of 1999, the year that President Bill Clinton and his  Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin brokered the deal to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and allow the casino investment banks on Wall Street to gobble up deposit-taking banks, there were 10,220 federally insured banks and savings institutions in the United States. Today, that number stands at 5,397, a decline of 47 percent according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). What exactly happened to those disappeared banks?  We examined FDIC data to see if the sharp falloff in bank numbers was from failures or mergers. We found that the vast majority of the decline resulted from banks being absorbed in mergers. By the end of 2005, six years after the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the U.S. still had 8,832 federally insured banking institutions. But in just that year alone, 315 banks were lost to mergers. By 2010, the number of U.S. banking institutions had dropped to 7,657 with 197 institutions absorbed that year through mergers. In years 2015, 2016 and 2017, there were a total of 786 federally insured banking institutions absorbed through mergers.The loss of competition in banking services has unleashed an unprecedented concentration of the life savings of Americans being held as deposits at a handful of behemoth Wall Street banks which simultaneously engage in high risk securities and derivatives trading – the very combination that led to the epic Wall Street banking collapses in 2008 and the 1930s. According to the FDIC, as of September 30, 2018 (their latest data available) there was a total of $13.6 trillion in deposits at all 5,397 Federally insured banking and savings institutions. Of that total, just nine banks represented 40 percent of all domestic deposits. Those nine are the insured banking units of the holding company for JPMorgan Chase which held $1.3 trillion in domestic deposits; Bank of America at $1.36 trillion; Wells Fargo with $1.27 trillion; Citigroup at $504 billion; U.S. Bancorp $314 billion; Morgan Stanley $181 billion; BB&T $161 billion; Goldman Sachs $130 billion; and State Street $108 billion.

 Consumer lenders could feel most pain from CECL - A new accounting standard for loan losses could be particularly harsh for consumer lenders. The Current Expected Credit Loss standard, or CECL, will require banks to estimate the losses tied to a loan when it is originated. The change is widely expected to contribute to a spike in provision expenses in 2020; publicly traded banks are slated to convert to the standard in January. Banks with large concentrations of consumer loans could be hit the hardest, said Frederick Cannon, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and the author of a recent report estimating CECL's impact on banks his firm covers. Conversely, banks that focus on commercial lending could benefit from the new standard. “A lot depends on portfolio mix,” Cannon said in an interview. Loans with shorter durations and a low loss history "are going to do well.” Downward pressure could be pronounced at institutions with heavy exposure to consumer loans with historically elevated losses such as credit cards. At Discover Financial Services, KBW is forecasting a drop in tangible book value per share of 10% or more. The hit could be roughly 6% at Capital One. While it can be tricky to determine the life of credit card balances, "the duration can be pretty long" when a lot of borrowers make minimum payments, Cannon said. Representatives for Discover and Capital One declined to comment. During a conference call last month, R. Scott Blackley, Capital One's chief financial officer, said the company had sufficient capital to cover what he termed the "phased-in impacts" of the planned Jan. 1 conversion. Two banks — Comerica in Dallas and Zions Bancorp. in Salt Lake City — could have an increase in tangible book value after converting to the new standard, KBW found. The portfolios at the $71 billion-asset Comerica and the $69 billion-asset Zions skew heavily toward commercial lending. A Comerica spokesman declined to comment. During a January conference call to discuss quarterly earnings, Chief Credit Officer Peter Guilfoyle said he expected CECL to have a modest impact on Comerica's balance sheet, “given the fact that our portfolio has a much shorter duration than most of our peers.” At other major commercial lenders, CECL-linked declines in tangible book value should be less than 1%, Cannon said.

 Why Kraninger's CFPB is mandating fewer consumer refunds - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau appears to have shifted away from requiring financial institutions to refund customers in response to enforcement actions. Of the six settlements signed so far this year by Director Kathy Kraninger, only one — against a bank — resulted in restitution paid to consumers. Meanwhile, none of the five other settlements with nonbanks, including three online payday lenders, a retail jewelry chain and a broker, required any relief be paid to consumers. In a surprising twist, at least two of the companies that settled accusations of wrongdoing this year — the payday lender Cash Tyme and Enova International, a large online payday and installment lender — actually paid refunds to consumers, even though it was not mandated. Yet the CFPB did not mention the refunds in press releases, leaving the impression that consumers had not been made whole. “The CFPB may not be requiring remediation, but from a reputational standpoint, companies may already have refunded consumers because it was the right thing to do," . A little-understood aspect of the agency's enforcement actions is that in many cases companies self-identify problems and remediate when an issue is a supervisory matter. So refunds may have been handed out to consumers years before the CFPB files an enforcement action, lawyers said. Generally, a regulator will seek restitution for harmed consumers if it has pursued a company for violating the law. But the CFPB’s ability to obtain restitution may be impacted by a host of issues including statute of limitations, the complexity of calculating relief or the cost of administrating a program. "Each case has its own twists and turns, and if a company had to perform an audit, they have to pay and consumers might get redress; it's just not stated how,"

 $3 Trillion In New Liabilities Are About To Blindside Corporate Balance Sheets -  Now that we're 10 years into a debt fueled, low interest rate "recovery" and back to record levels of debt across the board, corporate balance sheets are about to be blindsided with even more new liabilities at arguably the worst time possible. A massive $3 trillion in corporate liabilities is about to show up on balance sheets for the first time ever as a result of a new corporate accounting rule that went into effect on January 1.  In 2019, companies are going to be required to record the cost of renting assets used in operations, like office space, equipment, planes and cars, on their balance sheet. Previously, these expenses had been buried in the footnotes of financial statements. Only leases that culminated in a purchase of the asset needed to be accounted for otherwise. "It's going to affect all companies' leverage. They will have more liabilities on their books than they had previously," Sheri Wyatt, a partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said. Morgan Stanley has estimated at the consumer discretionary sector will be impacted the most, and that the retail sector's leverage ratio will balloon from 1.2x to an astounding 3.4x.  In total, U.S. public companies are committed to $3 trillion in operating leases, according to data from the International Accounting Standards Board. As a result, retailers, restaurants, airlines and shipping companies that lease properties, airplanes, cars and ships will all be affected. 

 Google reaped millions in tax breaks as it secretly expanded its real estate footprint across the U.S. - WaPo -- Last May, officials in Midlothian, Tex., a city near Dallas, approved more than $10 million in tax breaks for a huge, mysterious new development across from a shuttered Toys R Us warehouse.  . The mystery company was Google — a fact the city revealed two months later, after the project was formally approved. Larry Barnett, president of Midlothian Economic Development, one of the agencies that negotiated the data center deal, said he knew at the time the tech giant was the one seeking a decade of tax giveaways for the project, but he was prohibited from disclosing it because the company had demanded secrecy. Google — which has risen to become one of the world’s most valuable companies by transforming the public’s ability to access information — has vastly expanded its geographic footprint over the past decade, building more than 15 data centers on three continents and 70 offices worldwide. But that development spree has often been shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible for some communities to know, let alone protest or debate, who is using their land, their resources and their tax dollars until after the fact, according to Washington Post interviews and newly released public records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. With their growing reach into the U.S. economy and in the face of greater political scrutiny, tech giants including Google and Amazon are on a tear to expand — but communities now see their arrival more skeptically for the disruption, environmental impact and higher cost of living they often bring, as well as the incentives they seek, despite their deep pockets. Local officials say they are pressed to maintain secrecy to lure powerful tech companies, who wish to avoid controversies and keep details about their operations under wraps. On Thursday, that ability to play hardball was on full display after Amazon pulled the plug on plans to build a sprawling campus in New York City rather than endure further public criticism of the project.

Fannie and Freddie: Combined REO inventory declined in Q4, Down 21% Year-over-year --Fannie and Freddie reported results for Q4 2018. Here is some information on Real Estate Owned (REOs). Freddie Mac reported the number of REO declined to 7,100 at the end of Q4 2018 compared to 8,299 at the end of Q4 2017.For Freddie, this is down 91% from the 74,897 peak number of REOs in Q3 2010.Fannie Mae reported the number of REO declined to 20,156 at the end of Q4 2018 compared to 26,311 at the end of Q4 2017. For Fannie, this is down 88% from the 166,787 peak number of REOs in Q3 2010. Here is a graph of Fannie and Freddie Real Estate Owned (REO). REO inventory decreased in 2018, and combined inventory is down 21% year-over-year. This is close to normal levels of REOs.

MBA: The Unemployment Rate and Mortgage Delinquency Rate - An interesting chart from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA):Last week, MBA Research released fourth quarter of 2018 results of its National Delinquency Survey (NDS). The delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one‐to‐four‐unit residential properties was 4.06 percent – down 41 basis points from the previous quarter, 111 basis points from the fourth quarter of 2017 and at its lowest level since the first quarter of 2000. In this week’s chart, we show the relationship between the unemployment rate, supplied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the mortgage delinquency rate for all loans over a 30‐year period.Nine years ago (the first quarter of 2010) during the aftermath of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate reached 9.83 percent, and the mortgage delinquency rate was at its peak of 10.06 percent. Fast forward to last year’s fourth quarter, the unemployment rate was 3.80 percent and nearing 50‐year lows, and the mortgage delinquency rate (4.06 percent) was at an 18‐year low. The close tracking between unemployment and mortgage delinquency rates from the period 1988‐2008 appears less pronounced than from 2008‐2018. For example, the unemployment rate reached 7.63 percent in the third quarter of 1992, while the mortgage delinquency rate was relatively low in comparison, at 4.58 percent. Possible factors influencing this change include differences in mortgage product mix and criteria, borrower behavior and recession severity. CR Note: The mortgage delinquency rate is currently near all time lows for this series.

 MBA: Mortgage Applications Increased in Latest Weekly Survey - From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Decrease in Latest MBA Weekly SurveyMortgage applications increased 3.6 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending February 15, 2019... The Refinance Index increased 6 percent from the previous week. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 2 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 7 percent compared with the previous week and was 3 percent higher than the same week one year ago....“Mortgage rates held steady on mixed economic news, as core inflation remained firm, while retail sales in December were much weaker than expected. However, overall application activity picked up over the week,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Associate Vice President of Industry Surveys and Forecasts. “After four consecutive declines, purchase applications increased almost 2 percent over the week and 2.5 percent compared to a year ago – showing some promise as we edge closer to the spring homebuying season.”Added Kan, “Most rates remained close to 10-month lows, which allowed some borrowers with an incentive to refinance to capitalize. The 30-year fixed rate was essentially unchanged at 4.66 percent.”.. The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($484,350 or less) increased to 4.66 percent from 4.65 percent, with points decreasing to 0.42 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.

NAR: Existing-Home Sales Decreased to 4.94 million in January - From the NAR: Existing-Home Sales Drop 1.2 Percent in January - Existing-home sales experienced a minor drop for the third consecutive month in January, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Of the four major U.S. regions, only the Northeast saw an uptick in sales activity last month. Total existing-home sales, completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, decreased 1.2 percent from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.94 million in January. Sales are now down 8.5 percent from a year ago (5.40 million in January 2018).... Total housing inventory at the end of January increased to 1.59 million, up from 1.53 million existing homes available for sale in December, and represents an increase from 1.52 million a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 3.9-month supply at the current sales pace, up from 3.7 months in December and from 3.4 months in January 2018.  This graph shows existing home sales, on a Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) basis since 1993.  Sales in January (4.94 million SAAR) were down 1.2% from last month, and were 8.5% below the January 2018 sales rate.  The second graph shows nationwide inventory for existing homes.  According to the NAR, inventory increased to 1.59 million in January from 1.53 million in December.   Headline inventory is not seasonally adjusted, and inventory usually decreases to the seasonal lows in December and January, and peaks in mid-to-late summer.  The last graph shows the year-over-year (YoY) change in reported existing home inventory and months-of-supply. Since inventory is not seasonally adjusted, it really helps to look at the YoY change. Note: Months-of-supply is based on the seasonally adjusted sales and not seasonally adjusted inventory.  Inventory was up 4.6% year-over-year in January compared to January 2018. Months of supply was at 3.9 months in January.  For existing home sales, a key number is inventory - and inventory is still low, but appears to have bottomed.

US Housing Market In Freefall As New Buyers Can't Afford A Home - After NAHB's optimism rebounded sharply earlier this week, all eyes are on this morning's existing home sales data for any signs of optimism. Alas, with consensus expecting a tiny rebounding in January following December's sharp drop, the deterioration in the US home market continued continued, and January existing home unexpectedly dropped 1.2% (exp. +0.2%), to 4.94 million, missing expectations of a rebound to 5.00 million. After December's revision higher to 5.00 million, the January SAAR of 4.94 million was the first sub-5MM print since 2015, while the parallel pending home sales series confirms even more weakness is in store. Needless to say, it is very troubling that Americans are unable to afford home purchases with the 30% mortgage at just 4.5%, and suggests that even if inflation picks up, the Fed may have no choice but to keep rates flat to avoid a housing market crash.As usual, NAR chief economist Larry Yun was optimistic, saying that he does not expect the numbers to decline further going forward. "Existing home sales in January were weak compared to historical norms; however, they are likely to have reached a cyclical low. Moderating home prices combined with gains in household income will boost housing affordability, bringing more buyers to the market in the coming months."One wonders what "gains in household income" he is talking about.Meanwhile, properties are failing to sell as the slowdown spreads: Properties remained on the market for an average of 49 days in January, up from 46 days in December and 42 days a year ago. Thirty-eight percent of homes sold in January were on the market for less than a month.Still, despite the ongoing slowdown, or perhaps adding to it, the median existing-home price rose once again, hitting $247,500, up 2.8% from January 2018 ($240,800). January’s price increase marks the 83rd straight month of year-over-year gains.

Comments on January Existing Home Sales --Earlier: NAR: Existing-Home Sales Decreased to 4.94 million in January. A few key points:
1) The key for housing - and the overall economy - is new home sales, single family housing starts and overall residential investment. Unfortunately this key data has been delayed due to the government shutdown.  However, overall, this is still a somewhat reasonable level for existing home sales, and the weakness at the end of 2018 and early 2019 was no surprise given the increase in mortgage rates.
2) Inventory is still low, but was up 4.6% year-over-year (YoY) in January. This was the sixth consecutive month with a year-over-year increase in inventory, although the YoY increase was slightly smaller in January than in December.
3) As usual, housing economist Tom Lawler's forecast was closer to the NAR report than the consensus. See:Lawler: Early Read on Existing Home Sales in January .   The consensus was for sales of 5.05 million SAAR, Lawler estimated the NAR would report 4.92 million SAAR in January, and the NAR actually reported 4.94 million SAAR. The current YoY increase in inventory is nothing like what happened in 2005 and 2006. In 2005 (see red arrow), inventory kept increasing all year, and that was a sign the bubble was ending.  This winter (light blue arrow), inventory is following the normal seasonal pattern. Although I expected inventory to increase YoY in 2019, I also expected inventory to once again follow the normal seasonal pattern. Also inventory levels remain somewhat low, and could increase more and still be at normal levels. No worries. The second graph shows existing home sales Not Seasonally Adjusted (NSA). Sales NSA in January (377,000, red column) were below sales in January 2018 (427,000, NSA), and sales were the lowest for January since 2015.

California Existing Homes in January: "Home sales fall to lowest level in more than 10 years" -- The CAR reported: California home sales fall to lowest level in more than 10 years, C.A.R. reports Housing demand in California remained subdued for the ninth consecutive month in January as economic and market uncertainties sent home sales to their lowest level since April 2008, the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.) said today.Closed escrow sales of existing, single-family detached homes in California totaled a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 357,730 units in January, according to information collected by C.A.R. from more than 90 local REALTOR® associations and MLSs statewide. The statewide annualized sales figure represents what would be the total number of homes sold during 2019 if sales maintained the January pace throughout the year. It is adjusted to account for seasonal factors that typically influence home sales.January’s sales figure was down 3.9 percent from the revised 372,260 level in December and down 12.6 percent from home sales in January 2018 of 409,520. January marked the ninth consecutive month of decline and the sixth month in a row that sales were below 400,000, dipping to the lowest level since April 2008. “California continued to move toward a more balanced market as we see buyers having greater negotiating power and sellers making concessions to get their homes sold as inventory grows,” said C.A.R. President Jared Martin. “While interest rates have dropped down to the lowest point in 10 months, potential buyers are putting their homeownership plans on hold as they wait out further price adjustments.” .. “While we expected the federal government shutdown during most of January to temporarily interrupt closings because of a delay in loan approvals and income verifications, the impact on January’s home sales was minimal,” . “The decline in sales was more indicative of demand side issues and was broad and across all price categories and regions of the state. Moreover, growing inventory over the past few months has not translated into more sales.”  Statewide active listings rose for the 10th consecutive month after nearly three straight years of declines, increasing 27 percent from the previous year.

Realtors as a Percentage of Pre-Recession Peak - Barry Ritholtz - Zillow:

– Half of All U.S. Homes Are More Valuable than Pre-Recession Peak;
– The median U.S. home value is $217,300, up 8.3 percent over the past year;
– Home values are 8.4 percent higher than they were at the height of the housing bubble;
– Median rent rose 1.3 percent over the past year to $1,440. Riverside, Calif. saw the greatest increase in rent;
– Inventory fell 4.8 percent over the past year, after falling 12.3 percent the year before;
-In 7 of the 35 largest U.S. housing markets, more than 95% of homes are worth more than their peak value during the housing boom.

Then there is this: (map showing the number of realtors as a percentage of the pre-recession peak by state)

 Housing construction activity slowdown continues- BuildFax - Continued declines in new- and existing-home construction activity during January showed the housing slowdown was not easing and indicated possible broader economic problems to come, a BuildFax report said. It was the third consecutive month of year-over-year declines, although there was a slight month-to-month rise in single-family housing authorizations. Single-family housing authorizations decreased by 3.48% year-over-year in January, although they rose by 1.23% compared with December. The trailing three-month outlook, starting in November 2018, had a 3.04% decrease from the previous year, which was notable because continued year-over-year declines in single-family housing authorizations historically correlate with economic recessions between 1961 and 2018, the BuildFax report said. "Declining construction activity during the last few months of 2018 has persisted into the new year," said BuildFax COO Jonathan Kanarek in a press release. "Given current economic conditions, including the recent government shutdown, sensitivity to interest rate increases and global market stressors, like ongoing trade negotiations, we were not surprised to see persistent declines in housing activity. It is yet to be seen if an easing of these external factors will alleviate the housing slowdown." Existing housing maintenance volume decreased by 6.47% compared with January 2018, while the dollars spent on maintenance fell 7.29%. The housing remodel volume, a subset of the maintenance category which included housing renovations, additions and alterations, decreased by 10.85% year-over-year. However, remodeling spending increased 1.26% compared to January 2018. "Demolition activity can be a leading indicator of economic reinvestment in a community, which often precedes larger real estate projects," said Kanarek. Over the past five years, demolitions increased 16.65% nationwide. "However, historical BuildFax research suggests intended projects are cut short when timing aligns with an economic slowdown," he continued. "During the last housing crisis, abandoned construction projects replaced anticipated new housing construction. This is not necessarily indicative of trends in a future economic slowdown, but definitely a cycle we're tracking closely." Subscribe N

NAHB: Builder Confidence Increases in February -- The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported the housing market index (HMI) was at 62 in February, up from 58 in January. Any number above 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor. From NAHB: Lower Interest Rates, Rising Consumer Confidence Boost Builder Sentiment  Builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes rose four points to 62 in February, according to the latest National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) released today.  “Ongoing reduction in mortgage rates in recent weeks coupled with continued strength in the job market are helping to fuel builder sentiment,”    February marked the second consecutive month in which all the HMI indices posted gains. The index measuring current sales conditions rose three points to 67, the component gauging expectations in the next six months increased five points to 68 and the metric charting buyer traffic moved up four points to 48. “Builder confidence levels moved up in tandem with growing consumer confidence and falling interest rates,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “The five-point jump on the six-month sales expectation for the HMI is due to mortgage interest rates dropping from about 5 percent in November to 4.4 percent this week. However, affordability remains a critical issue. Rising costs stemming from excessive regulations, a dearth of buildable lots, a persistent labor shortage and tariffs on lumber and other key building materials continue to make it increasingly difficult to produce housing at affordable price points.”  …Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the South posted a one-point gain to 63 while the Northeast dropped two points to 43. The Midwest and West each remained unchanged at 52 and 67, respectively.  This graph show the NAHB index since Jan 1985. This was above the consensus forecast.

Elon Musk Takes Out $50 Million in New Loans, Mortgaging Five Homes - We were one of the very first to speculate that Elon Musk had mortgaged 5 of his homes in late January, when we highlighted research by an internet sleuth on Musk's personal financial situation. According to public records cited by Tesla skeptic EVent Horizon and laid out in a timeline on Sutori in late January, Elon Musk looked as though he had leveraged some of his personal real estate.A follow up report from Bloomberg has confirmed that Musk recently took out $61 million in mortgages on five properties that he owns in California. Four of these properties are in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles and one is in the Bay Area. The loans were signed off on by Morgan Stanley, as was originally speculated, and represent $50 million in new borrowing for Musk. One loan was a refinancing on a 20,200 plus sq. foot property that Musk purchased in 2012 for $17 million. The initial $10 million loan he took on the property has now turned into a $19.5 million debt, with a monthly payment of about $180,000. Musk's loans will be for 30 years with a fixed 3.5% interest rate for the first few years that will adjust based on an index. 

AIA: "Strong start to 2019 for architecture billings" -- Note: This index is a leading indicator primarily for new Commercial Real Estate (CRE) investment. From the AIA: Strong start to 2019 for architecture billings Starting the year on a strong note, architecture firm billings growth strengthened in January to a level not seen in the previous twelve months according to a new report released today from The American Institute of Architects (AIA).AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI) score for January was 55.3 compared to 51.0 in December. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also strengthened in January.“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, PhD. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”..
• Regional averages: South (54.7), Midwest (54.4), Northeast (52.4), West (51.5)
• Sector index breakdown: mixed practice (53.8), institutional (52.9), commercial/industrial (52.6), multi-family residential (52.6)

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Increased Slightly Year-over-year - From HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotel results for week ending 9 February  The U.S. hotel industry reported positive year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 3-9 February 2019, according to data from STR. In comparison with the week of 4-10 February 2018, the industry recorded the following:
• Occupancy: +0.2% to 59.9%
• Average daily rate (ADR): +1.5% to US$126.68
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +1.7% to US$75.84

The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Increased Year-over-year -- From HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotel results for week ending 16 February - The U.S. hotel industry reported positive year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 10-16 February 2019, according to data from STR. In comparison with the week of 11-17 February 2018, the industry recorded the following:
• Occupancy: +0.7% to 63.5%
• Average daily rate (ADR): +2.7% to US$131.99
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +3.4% to US$83.88
The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

Redbook Index Confirms December Retail Collapse --Some economists were in disbelief regarding the huge collapse in retail sales in December. Other indicators now confirm. Here is a tweet on the subject.Last week everyone said retail sales numbers had to be wrong because Redbook survey hadn’t declined.  This chart answers that question. https://t.co/lYeLPITsjT — Jonathan Tepper (@jtepper2) February 18, 2019 That chart is weekly. Ideally, we need to see monthly and it wasn't posted.The Johnson Redbook Index is a proprietary indicator of growth in retail sales, and provides advanced estimates of trends in retail sales ahead of official releases and company reports in an easy-to-read four-page report. The weekly indicator is made public every Tuesday morning, with clients receiving notice via conference call, e-mail or fax prior to public release. The Johnson Redbook Retail Sales Monthly is a comprehensive report of same-store sales data reported monthly by general merchandise and apparel retailers. Analysis is given on current month sales, year-on-year, quarterly and annual sales, historical sales data and company rankings. Retailers are tracked across categories: Apparel Specialty, Books, Toy & Hobby, Department, Discount, Footwear, Furniture, Drug, Home Improvement, Home Furnishings, Electronic, Jewelry, Sporting Goods, and Miscellaneous. The Johnson Redbook Same-store Sales Index (SSI), an index of year-on-year same-store sales growth is reported in each edition. Redbook ties in with my report Shockingly Weak Retail Sales: Down 1.2% in December, Sharpest Decline Since

 Another Retailer Bites The Dust- Payless To Shutter US Operations As Bankruptcy Filing Looms - With its second bankruptcy filing in two years imminent, Bloomberg is reporting that discount shoe retailer Payless (Shoesource Inc.) will liquidate its US operations, and begin shutting down its online operations, as the US "retail apocalypse" claims its latest victim. While it's still unclear whether the retailer will ultimately file Chapter 11 or Chapter 7, as of now, its Latin American operations are expected to continue operating. Meanwhile, its corporate-owned stores in the US and Puerto Rico are expected to remain open through March. The Topeka, Kansas-based retailer has been looking for a "Debtor-in-Possession" loan to see it through the proceedings.  Last year saw bankruptcy filings from once-iconic retailers like Toys R' Us and Sears. And already this year, at least half a dozen names have gone bust, including Shopko, FullBeauty Brands, Charlotte Russe, Things Remembered and Gymboree, which like Payless, also filed for bankruptcy last month and is also liquidating most of its operations. In total, since 2016, some 35 retail chains have filed for chapter 11 reporting more than $100M in debt according to Reorg First Day. Since 2016, 35 retail chains have filed for chapter 11 relief reporting more than $100M in liabilities on their bankruptcy petitions: pic.twitter.com/XwjwTdvKsL— Reorg First Day (@ReorgFirstDay) November 20, 2018 Payless, which employs more than 18,000 globally and operates about 3,600 outlets worldwide, with more than 2,700 in North America, was founded in 1956 with the goal of selling affordable shoes in a self-service setting and is, or rather was, the largest specialty footwear chain in the Western Hemisphere. In what has become a common theme among troubled retailers, some of whom have continued to do a brisk (or brisk enough) business, the company was doing great until its 2012 LBO by Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital Partners, which saddled the company with untenable debt, and ended up filing for bankruptcy protection in April 2017. A few months later, it emerged with fewer stores, half the debt load, creditors owning the equity.

 Transportation Growth Comes To A Standstill As Signs Of A Slowdown Accumulate -- One of the signs of a slowdown I have occasionally been flagging in the past few months is rail traffic. This is posted every week by the AAR. While there is no comparable weekly report for trucking, there is the monthly Cass trucking report which just got posted for January. The bottom line is that we have enough evidence between the two over the last three and a half months to say that transportation growth has completely ground to a halt. Transportation, production, and sales all show the classic signs of the beginning of at very least a slowdown Let’s take a look at the two metrics. First, here are the weekly AAR reports for the past 3 years: We can see that the weekly rail reports showed no YoY growth in December, followed by a strong rebound in most of December and the first half of January. But for the past four weeks, rail has posted YoY negative numbers. Meanwhile, the Cass trucking report has been gradually decelerating, showing modest YoY growth in November, but turning slightly negative YoY in both December and January: Overall for the last 3.5 months, the two big measures of the transportation of goods show sharp deceleration, and taken together represent no better than slightly positive YoY growth over that period. That transportation growth has turned flat is important, because all goods must be transported to market, from commodities all the way through finished goods going to retailers. And that puts January’s -0.6% decline in industrial production in perspective. Here’s what the quarterly change in industrial production looks like in comparison with annualized real GDP growth q/q for the last 5 years:

Headline Durable Goods Orders Up 1.2% in December - The Advance Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories, and Orders released today gives us a first look at the latest durable goods numbers. Here is the Bureau's summary on new orders: Data collection and processing were delayed for this indicator release due to the lapse in federal funding from December 22, 2018 through January 25, 2019. Processing and data quality were monitored throughout, and response and coverage rates were at or above normal levels for this release.New orders for manufactured durable goods in December increased $3.0 billion or 1.2 percent to $254.4 billion, the U.S. Census Bureau announced today. This increase, up two consecutive months, followed a 1.0 percent November increase. Excluding transportation, new orders increased 0.1 percent. Excluding defense, new orders increased 1.8 percent. Transportation equipment, up four of the last five months, led the increase, $2.8 billion or 3.3 percent to $90.2 billion. Download full PDF The latest new orders number at 1.2% month-over-month (MoM) was better than the Investing.com consensus of 0.8%. The series is up 3.5% year-over-year (YoY).If we exclude transportation, "core" durable goods came in at 0.1% MoM, which was worse than the Investing.comconsensus of 0.2%. The core measure is up 3.5% YoY.If we exclude both transportation and defense for an even more fundamental "core", the latest number is up 1.0% MoM and up 1.9% YoY.Core Capital Goods New Orders (nondefense capital goods used in the production of goods or services, excluding aircraft) is an important gauge of business spending, often referred to as Core Capex. It is down 0.7% MoM and up 2.5% YoY. For a look at the big picture and an understanding of the relative size of the major components, here is an area chart of Durable Goods New Orders minus Transportation and Defense with those two components stacked on top. We've also included a dotted line to show the relative size of Core Capex.

Autos, planes boost durable-goods orders in December, but growth was invisible outside of transportation - Autos and airplanes boosted orders for U.S. durable goods in December, but demand was weak in other key manufacturing segments and business investment tailed off at the end of the year.Orders for long-lasting goods rose 1.2% in December, according to a government report delayed for more than a month because of the recently ended partial shutdownEconomists surveyed by MarketWatch had forecast a 1.4% increase in orders for durable goods, or products made to last at least three years.If cars and planes are stripped out of the equation, orders rose a scant 0.1%. Transportation often exaggerates the ups and downs in orders because of lumpy demand from one month to the next.The originally reported 0.7% increase in durable-goods orders in November was revised up to 1%.  What happened: Orders for commercial planes surged 28% in December and bookings for new cars and trucks climbed 2.1%.Beyond that the industrial sector was weak. Orders fell for machines, primary metals, networking and electrical equipment.A key measure of business investment, known as core orders, slipped 0.7% in December.Businesses cut back on investment toward the end of the year, worried about what seemed like a growing threat of recession, political turmoil in Washington and an ongoing trade dispute with China that’s disrupted supply chains.Investment for the full year rose a healthy 6.1%, however. The industrial side of the economy slowed toward the end of 2018, but the fears of recession have largely evaporated and the U.S. is still expanding at a healthy pace in early 2019. Strong consumer spending is keeping the factories humming. A lingering worry is the drop-off in capital spending. Higher investment is the key to a stronger economy and a better standard of living in the long run. The festering trade dispute and a weaker global economy have caused businesses to reevaluate their plans.

US Manufacturing PMI Tumbles To 17 Month Low- Weather, Trade Cited - Following a dismal Philly Fed print and disappointing Durable Goods, moments ago the Markit Manufacturing PMI made it a trifecta of trouble, when the closely watched index printed at 53.7, down from 54.9, and missing expectations of 54.3. This was the lowest Manufacturing index print in 17 months, since Sept 2017, and indicates that the recent rebound in the Manufacturing ISM, which rose to 56.6 last month, won't last.The output index fell to to 53.7 from 55.7 in Jan (also the lowest reading since Sept. 2017) while New Orders also fell.While the Service PMI posted a modest rebound from 54.2 to 56.2, the latest manufacturing survey signalled a loss of momentum across the manufacturing sector.  Anecdotal evidence from survey respondents cited a soft patch for client demand, partly linked to uncertainty across manufacturing supply chains and concerns about the global trade outlook. According to the report, there were also some reports that adverse weather conditions had disrupted production schedules in February.Curiously, just like with the strong employment components in the Philly Fed, despite a slowdown in production and new order growth, the latest Markit data signalled another solid upturn in manufacturing employment. Moreover, input buying continued to rise at a relatively strong pace in February, which added to signs that manufacturers remain in expansion mode despite concerns about gathering storm clouds. Meanwhile, and also like in the Philly Fed instance, input price inflation eased for the fourth month running and reached its lowest since August 2017. Survey respondents still noted that trade tariffs had pushed up the cost of imported materials, although there were some reports that prices charged by domestic steel producers had begun to moderate.

Philly Fed Mfg "Weakened" in February - From the Philly Fed: February 2019 Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey - Manufacturing conditions in the region weakened this month, according to firms responding to the February Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey. The indicators for general activity, new orders, and shipments fell into negative territory, but the indicator for employment remained positive. Input prices also moderated notably this month. The survey’s indexes for future conditions were mostly steady, with firms remaining generally optimistic about growth over the next six months. The index for current manufacturing activity in the region decreased from a reading of 17.0 in January to -4.1 this month. This is the index’s first negative reading since May 2016. Both the new orders and shipments indexes also fell this month. The current new orders index decreased nearly 24 points to -2.4, and the current shipments index decreased 17 points to -5.3. The firms continued to add to their payrolls this month. The current employment index improved from a reading of 9.6 in January to 14.5 this month.  Here is a graph comparing the regional Fed surveys and the ISM manufacturing index:

    Shocking Philly Fed Collapse: Biggest Drop Since 2011 US Rating Downgrade - Just in case US stocks needed some more shitty data to surge on, they got it this morning when first the Durable Goods report disappointed, printing below expectations while core CapEx declined for the 3rd consecutive month - its longest stretch below zero since late 2015 - and then the latest Philly Fed print was an absolute shocker, as the regional manufacturing Business Idnex collapsed from 17.0 to -4.1, the first negative and the lowest print since May 2016... ... and the biggest drop in point terms since the US downgrade in August 2011.Both the new orders and shipments indexes also fell this month. The current new orders index decreased nearly 24 points to -2.4, and the current shipments index decreased 17 points to -5.3. In fact, the monthly drop in the New Orders index was the biggest since the Lehman bankruptcy. In the latest sign that peak inflationary pressures have passed, price pressures originating from purchased inputs continued to abate the Philly Fed reported. The prices paid index tumbled 11 points to 21.8, and has been trending down since last July and is now at its lowest reading since July 2017. Over 28 percent of the firms reported higher input prices this month, down from 40 percent last month. With respect to prices received for firms’ own manufactured goods, almost 33 percent of the firms reported higher prices, and 5 percent reported lower prices. The prices received index increased 3 points to 27.7, which is good news for profit margins as the smaller the delta between prices paid and received, the more the company gets to pocket. In employment news, firms continued to add to their payrolls this month, with the current employment index improved from a reading of 9.6 in January to 14.5 this month. Nearly 24 percent of the responding firms reported increases in employment, while 9 percent of the firms reported decreases in employment. The current workweek index also remained positive but decreased 1 point to a reading of 4.7. This bizarre divergence between economic sentiment and a very strong labor market continues to surprise and puzzle economists.

     Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims decreased to 216,000 - The DOL reported:  In the week ending February 16, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 216,000, a decrease of 23,000 from the previous week's unrevised level of 239,000. The 4-week moving average was 235,750, an increase of 4,000 from the previous week's unrevised average of 231,750. This is the highest level for this average since January 20, 2018 when it was 237,500.  The previous week was unrevised. The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.

     Citi Ready To Replace Tens Of Thousands Of Call-Center Workers With Robots - Citigroup is apparently preparing to follow through on its promise it shed as many as 20,000 operations and technology positions, according to an interview with CEO Mike Corbat that was published Tuesday in the Financial Times. Corbat's comments, according to the FT, were the "most explicit" the company has ever been about how its spends the $8 billion it has allotted every year for technology.Citigroup chief executive Mike Corbat has suggested that "tens of thousands" of people working in the US bank’s call centres are likely to be replaced by machines that can "radically change or improve" customers’ experience while cutting costs. Mr Corbat, who runs America’s fourth-largest bank by assets, made the comments in an interview with the Financial Times in which he also ruled out Citi’s involvement in any wave of US banking consolidation triggered by the $66bn SunTrust-BB&T merger and justified its continued presence in China. Under pressure to bring its cost base in line with peers, Citi executives have been upfront about the impact of technology on their 209,000-strong global workforce, including last summer’s warning that as many as half of the 20,000 operations staff in its investment bank could be supplanted by machines.Though, fortunately for the few people who will still have job's in Citi's call centers once the bloodletting is over, Corbat said the bank doesn't intend to get rid of all of its human employees. Just most of them.

    Amazon’s political mugging in New York is a warning for American business --Amazon’s decision to abandon plans for a headquarters complex in New York reveals much about what has gone wrong with American capitalism and democracy.The most obvious, of course, is the cynicism and lack of trust that people have in government officials. Only days before the Amazon deal was announced last fall, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio coasted to reelection. Both are smart, seasoned and expertly advised politicians who have a proven track record of helping the poor and working class. Yet many of the elected and self-appointed champions of those constituents refused to trust their leaders to negotiate a favorable final deal on behalf of them and their city.There is little doubt that poor and working-class New Yorkers would have benefited from Amazon’s presence. Although very few would have gained jobs directly, the arrival of more than 25,000 highly paid executives and tech workers would have indirectly created thousands of additional service jobs, put upward pressure on wages and generated more than $1 billion in additional tax revenue each year. That money would have allowed New York to quickly recoup the $3 billion in tax breaks it gave to Amazon, with plenty left over to expand infrastructure, help the needy or build more affordable housing. But today’s polarized politics do not tolerate trade-offs or compromise. When no deal is always better than an imperfect one, democracy becomes dysfunctional. Democracy also becomes dysfunctional when symbols are allowed to become more important than substance. Just think about recent weeks, in which the big news items were the fight over funding a border wall that is likely to have little impact on illegal immigration or on the budget, and what a governor most Americans don’t care about may or may not have put in his school yearbook page 30 years ago, or whether a freshman member of Congress is a dangerous anti-Semite because she had the temerity to tweet the obvious truth that the Israel lobby uses campaign contributions to elect friendly politicians (“Senator, sorry to interrupt, but Sheldon Adelson is on line two.”).

     Furious New Yorkers Threaten To Boycott Amazon If It Leaves - Nothing can make New Yorkers happy: first, they demand that Amazon abandon its plans for a Long Island City HQ2, and now that Jeff Bezos has complied with their demands, they are threatening to boycott the online retailer. An angry Long Island City apartment building owner of the type profiled here yesterday, called for a nationwide boycott of Amazon and its products after the tech giant pulled out of its plan to build part of its second headquarters in Queens. Sam Musovic had invested over a $1 million in his property, anticipating overnight riches from the economic boost that HQ2 was expected to bring, according to a statement released Friday. Amazon said it would have created 25,000 jobs in the area, paying an average of $150,000 a year. However, as the tragicomic statement continues, Musovic made the investment "only for Amazon to stand him up on Valentine’s day — and leave him with nothing but the bill and a broken heart", according to Fox News. Having "lost" hundreds of thousands in unbooked real-estate "profits" that until Thursday were dancing merrily inside his head, Musovic, who in addition to being a landlord is also a restauranteur, started a petition to boycott Amazon that is being circulated among Queens residents and business owners. He also intends to take legal action against the tech giant, according to the statement. “Musovic and his fellow business and apartment building owners are weighing their legal options,” it said, although it was unclear why the object of his ire is Amazon and not, say, progressive New York politicians who made it clear to Bezos that his company would not be welcome in Long Island City.

    A Texas Mystery- Small Town Has 1,000 Registered Aircraft But No Airport -- WFAA, an ABC-affiliated television station, has revealed a secret in a small East Texas town called Onalaska, which has more than 1,000 registered aircraft - and no airport. The investigation found planes were registered to two standard post office boxes in Onalaska. According to the most recent government data, the town had a population of 2,755, indicating that there were enough registered aircraft for nearly 37% of its residents. Considering the median income for a household in the area was $28,750, it is kind of difficult to fathom that a considerable number of residents owned a plane. WFAA said Onalaska had more registered planes than New York, San Antonio, Seattle, and San Diego.The report said most of the aircraft owners were not based in Texas nor the US but were foreigners.WFAA learned Onalaska is the epicenter for a practice that allows foreigners to register their planes anonymously; a former FAA official warns this practice allows drug dealers, terrorists, and other criminals to register aircraft in the US quickly. "When you can conceal the true ownership of a plane, you're putting a lot of people in jeopardy," said Joe Gutheinz, a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) special agent. "If you're a terrorist and you have a way of concealing your secret ownership of a plane in the United States, you're going to do it." Industry leaders told WFAA that foreign multinational corporations often use trusts to register a plane because the FAA demands registrations have a US citizen on file.To register an aircraft, owners are required to be a US citizen. However, there is a loophole. The FAA allows foreigners to register their planes by transferring a title to a US Trustee.It only costs $5 for an owner to register a plane with the FAA. Once the clearing process is complete, the FAA will assign the aircraft a tail code that starts with an "N." If that insignia was not present, the plane would have difficulty transversing across the US border and could be intercepted by US Air Force fighter jets. WFAA said it examined “trust companies” that handled registrations for foreign owners, and some of the trusts told the television station there was a vigorous vetting process that each foreign owner went through. A 2013 audit by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Transportation said there were about 5,600 aircraft across the US that "lacked key information" about ownership.

    ICE raids terrorize immigrants across the US Southwest - The Trump administration’s fascistic crackdown on immigrants is expanding. On Friday, the government announced that a five-day sweep in Southern California targeting 122 businesses for employing undocumented workers had led to the arrest of 212 people. In one of the larger sweeps, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained 26 Asian and Hispanic workers in a February 13 raid on Zion Market, a popular Korean grocery store in a mostly Asian neighborhood in San Diego, California.  ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit presented a federal search warrant as it began the raid. David Shaw, the special agent in charge of HSI in San Diego, told reporters that “San Diego special agents are focused on bringing to justice those employers who knowingly break the law and hire an illegal workforce, causing unfair disadvantages to those companies that do comply.” ICE and its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) unit, which is known for brutally dragging workers off the shop floor and tearing mothers and fathers from their children, routinely attempts to focus attention on coyote smugglers and “traffickers,” never acknowledging their own role in deporting millions of desperate people who will attempt a dangerous journey to reunite with their families. The agency has been ramping up its audits of workplace authorization, or I-9 forms—documents that verify the eligibility of employment to work in the US. The number of businesses targeted for worksite investigations has increased by over 300 percent in the last year alone. In 2018, HSI opened 6,848 worksite investigations compared to 1,691 in 2017, according to an ICE news release.

    "They Are Getting Overwhelmed": Leaked Photos Reveal Border Facility Overloaded With Migrants - Photos leaked to Breitbart's Brandon Darby and Ildefonso Ortiz reveal a massive overload at U.S. border facilities packed with migrants from Central America and other parts of the world. Breitbart exclusively obtained the photos that are reminiscent of the Obama-era border surge. The images depict a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing, detention, and transport facility at a U.S. port-of-entry in El Paso, Texas. According to the source of the images, the photos were taken on February 17, 2019. –Breitbart The images came from an anonymous source "operating under the umbrella of CBP," who said "The medical staff at the facility can’t keep doing this. They are getting overwhelmed." Another CBP source told Breitbart "This is no different than what we were dealing with during the Obama Administration. This is happening in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, the Del Rio Sector, the El Paso Sector, the Tucson Sector, the Yuma Sector, and the San Diego Sector. It’s almost across the entire Southwest border that we are being overwhelmed by migrant families." "We are basically facilitating Mexican cartels’ migrant smuggling operations into the interior of America. We are babysitting and not securing our border. The flow shows no signs of abating and it keeps increasing."

     Rapper Willie Bo shot 25 times in his car by 6 police after falling asleep in Taco Bell drive-thru - In California, a young man was fatally shot by six police officers who found him unresponsive in his car with a gun in his lap. Willie McCoy was shot about 25 times.  Bullets struck the center of his face and throat, and blew off part of his ear, his family's attorney says.   Willie McCoy was a rapper known in the bay area as Willie Bo. He fell asleep in his Mercedes while going to Taco Bell for a bite to eat, because he was tired from working in his music studio, his family says. He wasn't threatening anyone or harming anyone. From NBC News: Oakland attorney Melissa Nold, who said she examined the body of Willie McCoy, 20, last week, told NBC News that he also sustained injuries to his shoulders, chest and arm, during the Feb. 9 encounter with six officers. "Overkill is an understatement," Nold said of his wounds and the number of times he was struck. McCoy — a Bay Area rapper known by his stage name Willie Bo — had been in the recording studio in recent days, his family said. They believe he had gone to the Taco Bell for a bite to eat and was so exhausted that he fell asleep while waiting in the drive-thru. Employees called police at about 10:30 p.m. when they saw him slumped behind the wheel of the car with the engine running, Vallejo police said in a statement last week. Nold also called into question the officers' version of events in which they said the doors to McCoy's Mercedes-Benz were locked when they first considered retrieving the gun from his lap before he woke up. Even if the doors were locked, the front passenger's side window was already broken and had a sheet of plastic covering it, which could have been removed, Nold said. Video of McCoy's car being towed in the aftermath from the scene shows plastic over the open window and several bullet holes in the windshield. Six officers "fearing for their safety" opened fire in about four seconds, police said.

    Oregon Seeks to Lower Voting Age to 16 (AP) — Sixteen-year-olds could vote in Oregon, under a plan unveiled in the Legislature. The Statesman Journal reports that several state lawmakers are introducing a bill that would ask voters to amend the Oregon Constitution to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 years old. If the bill passes, the question would go to voters in the 2020 general election. The proposal would make Oregon the first in the nation to lower the statewide voting age to 16 years old. The bill is backed by The Bus Project, a nonprofit organization that encourages volunteer civic activism in Oregon. Thirteen other states, including Washington, have introduced bills since 2003 to lower the voting age, some for just school board elections and some for all state elections. None have passed.

    U.S. presidential hopeful Warren urges universal childcare, 'ultra-millionaire' tax (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for president, on Tuesday proposed a universal childcare program, paid for by a tax on high-net-worth individuals, to help families unable to find affordable care. The program would be funded largely by the federal government and would use existing childcare facilities and in-home providers. The proposed tax would apply to individuals with a net worth of $50 million or higher, which the senator from Massachusetts has dubbed the “Ultra-Millionare Tax.” Her campaign estimates the tax would generate $2.75 trillion in government revenue in 10 years. Republicans are likely to criticize her proposal as being too expensive and dependent on a new tax that would harm the economy. Republicans have said childcare programs should be driven by the states, and not imposed by the federal government. U.S. states generally offer public education beginning around age 5. There are no other public programs open to all children, and the average family pays thousands of dollars for day care. Programs like the federal government’s Head Start make preschool available to children from poor families. Warren is not proposing the creation of a national school network, but using existing childcare options and then adding more. Under her proposal, the cost of childcare would depend on a family’s income. Families that make 200 percent of the federal poverty line - currently about $50,000 or less for a family of four - would get childcare for free. For those who make more, their payments would be capped at 7 percent of income. 

    Nestle, Disney Pull YouTube Ads, Joining Furor Over Child Videos - Walt Disney Co. is said to have pulled its advertising spending from YouTube, joining other companies including Nestle SA, after a blogger detailed how comments on Google’s video site were being used to facilitate a “soft-core pedophilia ring.” Some of the videos involved ran next to ads placed by Disney and Nestle.All Nestle companies in the U.S. have paused advertising on YouTube, a spokeswoman for the company said Wednesday in an email. Video game maker Epic Games Inc. and German packaged food giant Dr. August Oetker KG also said they had postponed YouTube spending after their ads were shown to play before the videos. Disney has also withheld its spending, according to people with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the decision hasn’t been made public.  On Sunday, Matt Watson, a video blogger, posted a 20-minute clip detailing how comments on YouTube were used to identify certain videos in which young girls were in activities that could be construed as sexually suggestive, such as posing in front of a mirror and doing gymnastics. Watson’s video demonstrated how, if users clicked on one of the videos, YouTube’s algorithms recommended similar ones. By Wednesday, Watson’s video had been viewed more than 1.7 million times. “Any content --including comments -- that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube. We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling violative comments,” a spokeswoman for YouTube said in an email.

    Eleven-year-old Florida student arrested after refusing to recite Pledge of Allegiance - On Monday, February 4, an 11-year-old boy was arrested at his school in Lakeland, Florida, due to a confrontation he had with a teacher and school officials over his refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States. He is now facing misdemeanor charges for disrupting a school function and resisting an officer without violence.The incident occurred at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, after the sixth grader told his substitute teacher, Ana Alvarez, that the American flag is “racist” and that the national anthem is offensive to black people.According to a handwritten statement Alvarez gave to the district, she provoked the student, asking him, “Why if it was so bad here he did not go to another place to live.” The 11-year-old reportedly replied that it was because “They brought me here.” Alvarez then told the boy, “Well you can always go back, because I came here from Cuba and the day I feel I’m not welcome here anymore I would find another place to live.”Alvarez wrote in her statement that she then had to call the office because she no longer wanted to continue “dealing with him.” Lakeland Police Department said in a press release that the school resource officer and a school administrator then tried to calm the student and asked him to leave the classroom more than 20 times. “Suspend me! I don’t care. This school is racist,” the young student, who is African American, allegedly shouted as he left the class. According to the arrest affidavit, the student was arrested by the officer because he refused to follow multiple commands, repeatedly called school leaders racist, and was disruptive. The police claim the young child threatened to have the school resource officer and the principal fired and also threatened to beat the teacher—something which the student and his mother have denied.  After his arrest, the 11-year-old was taken from the school to a juvenile assessment center where he was officially charged.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham Kisses Trump’s Ass, at the Expense of School Kids -- South Carolina’s senior Senator Lindsey Graham visited Face the Nation Sunday morning and told host Margaret Brennan that President Trump’s border wall is more important for kids than building schools. When Brennan told him funding could be pulled from constructing a new middle school in Kentucky and diverted to fund the wall, Graham responded, “I would say it’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border…right now we’ve got a national emergency on our hands.” Of course, Graham knows there is no real emergency, the President admitted as much when he said, “I didn’t need to do this,” at his national emergency declaration press conference on Friday. But none of that matters to Graham. We’ve known for some time now that Graham has gone full Trump. At this point it’s a safe bet that he cuddles up with a Trumpy Bear before falling asleep at night. It’s a stunning reversal from a man who considered as a close friend the now-deceased Senator John McCain, a staunch enemy of Trump, not to mention the many times Graham himself called then candidate Trump every name in the book. It’s clear Graham is, and likely has always been, all about his own political expediency, whether it was when he was trying to reach the highest office in the land, or now while attempting to make sure he holds his senate seat—even, seemingly, at the expense of middle school kids.

    High school under scrutiny after cheerleaders given 'Big Boobie' and 'Big Booty' awards - A cheerleading coach at a Wisconsin high school defended prizes given to her students that included the “Big Boobie Award” and the “Big Bootie Award”. The awards were given out at a banquet attended by more than 100 people, including parents at the school,according to the New York Times. At least four adults at the ceremony complained to Tremper High School about the awards, including parents and the school’s former track coach, Patti Hupp. “I feel that I need to tell you this for the protection of these girls,” Hupp wrote in an email to the school’s principal, adding it was easy to see “that this is extremely degrading to women.” When the Big Boobie award was handed out, the coach giving the prize said the girl in question risked concussion when she ran due to her “enormous boobs”. Although the students who won prizes did not complain about the awards, which were given out in March 2018, other students at the ceremony said they were unhappy. “When the girl went up to accept the Big Boobie award, what do you think everyone in the room was looking at? I would’ve died,” one of the cheerleaders told the Times. Some parents at the banquet also expressed their displeasure to the Times. “I looked around and thought, ‘Did that just happen?’ If my daughter would have won one of those awards, I would’ve absolutely been rushing the stage. It was just so wrong, in so many ways,” one mother said. The school’s cheerleading coach, Patti Uttech, was questioned about the ceremony and wrote in an email to the school principal that the girls’ parents “thought it was the funniest thing”. She added: “We understand that we are in a politically correct world these days, but we do like to have fun and keep thing on the lighter side.”

    County schools set to lose $1.5 million — Gallia County Local Schools District officials say that they are soon facing the potential loss of roughly $1.5 million in upcoming tax revenue this year to the district’s general and permanent improvement funds, among other organizations throughout the county. According to information obtained from district school officials, and reportedly coming from the Gallia Auditor’s Office, the education system is set to lose $1,544,099.04 because of a reevaluation in public utility tax in Gallia due in large part to the January 2017 sale of Gavin Plant from American Electric Power to Lightstone Generation LLC. AEP reportedly sold four plants to Lightstone Generation for around $2.1 billion with Gavin Plant being among them. Among other entities set to lose funding, Cheshire Township is reportedly looking to lose $39,673.75. The Gallia County government general fund is looking to lose $144,329.79. Bossard Library is looking to lose around $57,467.28. The Gallia Board of Developmental Disabilities is looking to lose around $321,467.28. The local Area Council on Aging is set to lose around $21,199.79 and the Gallia Veterans Services Commission is set to lose around $21,994.70. The Gallia Health Department is looking to potentially lose $21,114.47. Addison Township looks to lose around $5,125.55. The Gallia Park District looks to lose around $21,224.97. Reportedly, the loss comes from tax reevaluation at the state level, based on paperwork filed to the Gallia Auditor’s Office and then inspected by state tax officials. Real property conveyance fee statement of value and receipt paperwork from the auditor’s office places the Gallia Gavin Plant sale at roughly at $125,790,670.

    Chicago Teachers Union shuts down strike at CICS charter schools -Early Monday morning, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced that it reached a tentative agreement with Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) and was suspending the strike of 175 teachers after nine days, with workers scheduled to return to the classroom on Tuesday.Displaying the union’s contempt for teachers, the CTU informed them by an email sent out at 3 a.m. Monday that the strike had been “suspended” without teachers seeing any contract, let alone voting on one.Despite hailing the tentative agreement as a “victory,” even the terms that have been released show that conditions at the four charter schools, as well as the compensation of teachers and other educators, will remain well below the level at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). This will preserve the profitability of the charter schools.According to reports, teachers at the four CICS schools managed by Civitas Education Partners (CEP) will see an immediate 8 percent increase in salaries for the first year and pay raises over the course of the contract are said to average 31 percent by its end, though it is likely that the higher percentage raises will only be seen by the lowest paid workers, such as paraprofessionals. It is also unclear whether the agreement by CICS to cover a portion of teachers’ pension contributions factors into the reported pay raise.Although the union and CICS have asserted that teachers will be brought up to the pay level of teachers at CPS by the end of the contract, this is largely because the CTU has collaborated in the lowering of the real wages of CPS teachers. Starting pay at CICS is just $44,000 per year, $8,000 per year less than at CPS district schools. While the union also claims to have won “more affordable health care coverage for families,” there will no doubt be substandard benefits.

    Oakland, California teachers set to strike this week - Three thousand teachers in Oakland, California, are set to strike Thursday after voting overwhelmingly in favor of the action at the end of January. Educators in the Bay Area city have been working without a contract since July 2017 and have grown increasingly frustrated with the stalling tactics of the union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), and the Democratic Party controlled school board.Teachers are determined to fight against mass school closures, low wages, overcrowded classrooms, lack of support staff and the privatization of public education through charter schools. This has pit teachers against the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the city and the state, all long controlled by the Democratic Party, as well as against the union itself, which is aligned with the Democrats and has supported its austerity measures for decades.  OEA President Keith Brown announced the strike date during a Saturday press conference, following the release the previous day of a non-binding fact-finding report, the final phase in a drawn-out process of state mediation. Brown stated, “Bargaining with the district has not—in two years—produced an agreement that will pay teachers enough to allow them to stay in Oakland or make class sizes more conducive to teaching and learning or provide our students with the supports they need to thrive.” The OEA said it had to wait for the conclusion of the fact-finding process before a strike and used this to justify its refusal to call out Oakland teachers at the same time as 33,000 were striking last month in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district. In fact, the OEA and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), feared that the two strikes could spark a statewide walkout against the state Democratic Party, which has overseen the defunding of public education and a vast expansion of charter schools.

    BREAKING: West Virginia Teachers Strike Again - Almost exactly one year after their walkout sparked what has become a nationwide educator revolt, West Virginian teachers will be striking again, starting tomorrow. The leaders of West Virginia’s three educator unions have called the statewide strike as a response to the Republicans’ attempt to rush through a pro-privatization, anti-union omnibus bill in the state legislature. “They’re trying to break our unions and our public education system,” explains Brandon Wolford, president of the Mingo County Education Association. “This is our only option— we have to shut schools down to force them to back down.”Events have escalated rapidly over the past few weeks, as the Republican bill bounced back and forth between the state Senate and House. The final iteration of the Senate bill sent to the House on Monday for approval would legalize charter schools — privately-run, but publicly-funded institutions — and private vouchers, known as ESAs, which provide public funds for parents to pay for private schools. The omnibus bill would also add financial penalties for any teachers who go on strike in West Virginia.Hoping to wrap this poison pill in a sugar coating — and aiming to pit teachers against other public sector workers — the bill also includes the 5 percent pay raise for all public employees won in last year’s strike. For Charleston educator and rank-and-file leader Jay O’Neal, “by striking, we’re basically saying ‘We refuse to take your pay raise under these conditions because we realize how bad privatization will be for our students and our schools.’”The ability of West Virginia union militants to explain the dire consequences of charters to their co-workers was made much easier by the victorious Los Angeles strike in late January.  Despite growing pressure from the rank-and-file — including local one-day strike votes in southern counties — union officials until this evening had hesitated to take action. Labor leaders’ hopes that the bill would be watered down sufficiently to avoid a strike were dashed by the Senate’s decision on Monday to push through a particularly vicious version of the legislation. “This is not reform, this is retaliation,” argues Wolford. “Nothing in this proposal would make things better for students or staff. How does bringing in uncertified teachers [by legalizing charters] help our kids? How does taking public money and putting it into private hands help our schools? Unfortunately, the politicians are listening to the top 1 percent instead of listening to us.”

    West Virginia teachers walk out to oppose charter schools -- Thousands of teachers and support staff in West Virginia are walking out of schools today and descending on the state capitol in Charleston to oppose legislation that would introduce the state’s first charter schools and divert public resources and students from traditional public schools. Facing the possibility of imminent wildcat strikes, the teachers unions called the walkout for Tuesday but are scrambling to shut it down as soon as they can.The strike occurs a year after teachers launched wildcat strikes in defiance of the unions in the state’s southern coal mining counties, leading to a nine-day walkout by over 33,000 West Virginia teachers and school support personnel. Although unions were able to regain control of the strike and sign a sellout deal that ignored teachers’ demands, the powerful walkout sparked the largest series of strikes by teachers in the United States in decades.  Once again, the strike is being pushed by rank-and-file teachers from below. Over the last several weeks, teachers in Mingo and other counties have pressed for strike action against the reactionary omnibus education bill being debated in the state legislature. Senate Bill 451 would tie a five percent wage increase for teachers to the expansion of charter schools, a voucher program that would pay parents to home school or send their children to parochial and other private schools, and other reactionary measures. After the unions were forced to call for a statewide vote, teachers in all 55 counties voted last week for action, including a statewide strike, to oppose the bill. The national teachers unions and their state affiliates are supporting amendments by the House of Delegates, backed by state Democrats, that would reduce the number of charters from seven to two and remove vouchers and some other measures.

    West Virginia educators remain defiant in second day of statewide strike -- A bill in the West Virginia legislature that pairs meager salary increases with new attacks on public education has been indefinitely tabled in the face of massive rank-and-file opposition from teachers and school service employees who are continuing their statewide strike today. The walkout by 33,000 teachers and school service personnel, which began Tuesday morning, forced the shutdown of schools in all 55 counties. An attempt to open by one district, Putnam County, failed miserably after teachers picketed, and buses and students did not show. The strike occurs almost a year since the last West Virginia teacher strike initiated the largest wave of strikes by US educators in more than a generation. Efforts by the unions to declare “victory” after the tabling of the bill and to pressure strikers back to work failed to convince striking educators who remember all too well similar declarations after the unions shut down their powerful nine-day strike last year. In the year since, none of the promises made by union officials and Governor Jim Justice to address low pay, crushing health care costs and chronically underfunded schools have materialized. Having forced the unions to call a strike, teachers were determined to maintain their momentum to fight not only to defeat the reactionary state legislation, which would introduce charter schools for the first time in state history and other school privatization schemes, but to win their demands, which had been ignored in last year’s settlement. With West Virginia teachers once again in the lead, and with teachers in Oakland, California slated to go out on strike on Thursday—on the heels of major strikes in Los Angeles and Denver—the movement threatens to coalesce into a nationwide general strike in defense of public education.

    Oakland, California teachers walk out as unions sabotage West Virginia strike --Three thousand teachers in Oakland, California began a strike at the end of class yesterday to demand increased pay and a reduction in class sizes. They are also opposing plans by the Democratic Party controlled school board to slash funding and close as many as one third of the schools in the district. The strike is the latest in a wave of strikes by educators against the bipartisan assault on teachers and public education. The Oakland walkout began as unions sabotaged the two-day strike by 33,000 teachers and school employees in West Virginia. The West Virginia teachers walked out Tuesday to oppose legislation that would introduce the state’s first ever charter schools. None of the issues that provoked their nine-day strike last year have been resolved.During a press conference Wednesday night, the leaders of the West Virginia affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said they were sending teachers back to school Thursday because of a bipartisan effort to back Republican Governor Jim Justice’s “clean” bill that would not tie a five percent pay raise to charter schools, school privatization or the requirement that unions to get annual permission to deduct dues. WVEA President Dale Lee and AFT-WV President Fred Albert praised Justice, a billionaire coal baron who has championed tax cuts to the energy industry that have bled the public schools and other state service dry. Justice’s funding bill will do nothing to do address miserably low teacher pay, chronically underfunded schools and impossibly high out-of-pocket health care costs, which triggered last year’s walkout.

    Powerful support for Oakland teachers’ strike -- Nearly all 3,000 teachers in Oakland, California went on strike Thursday in their first walkout in over 20 years. Like the other teacher strikes that have swept across the country over the last 12 months, Oakland teachers, who are fighting for increases in pay and school funding, reduced class sizes and against threatened school closures, have won popular support from parents, students and other workers. Although Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) kept schools open with a skeleton staff of administrators and “emergency” substitutes, the vast majority of parents kept their children home or sent them to solidarity schools run by strikers and volunteers. Teachers reported that less than 70 students out of over 2,000 at Oakland Technical High School crossed the picket line while only eight out of 750 Fremont High School students showed up. Many classified and support staff who also have expired contracts also joined the picket lines alongside families. The strike is the latest in a wave of walkouts by teachers, which began exactly a year ago in West Virginia. In every case, teachers are fighting over the same issues and facing the same enemies: decades of defunding, falling living standards, punitive evaluation schemes to scapegoat teachers, and a bipartisan drive to close public schools and expand for-profit charter schools.

    Striking Teachers in Denver Shut Down Performance Bonuses – Here’s How That Will Impact Education --Denver teachers reached a tentative deal on Feb. 14 that ended a three-day strike. Besides raises of 7 to 11 percent, one of the concessions they won was the end of performance-based pay, which they said was unreliable and led to unacceptably low base pay.Nathan Favero, an education policy expert at American University, answers three questions about the effectiveness of performance-based pay and how its elimination will impact education in Denver. While teachers’ base salaries were mostly determined by their education levels and teaching experience, in Denver public schools, teachers also got substantial bonuses based on a number of other factors, including performance.The main performance-based bonus went to teachers in schools where students performed particularly well on standardized tests.   One analysis found that performance incentives caused a tiny increase in math scores, but even these small gains were offset by slight drops in reading and writing scores. Other analyses found no evidence of any effect on standardized test scores.Under the new labor deal, almost all pay-for-performance is eliminated. Instead of paying bonuses to teachers in schools with impressive standardized test scores, $750 bonuses will be paid to teachers in up to 10 schools selected by a committee for excellence in areas such as health education, counseling services and community engagement. The agreement specifically states that these awards cannot be based on teacher performance evaluation data or school report cards that contain standardized test scores. The deal also eliminates bonuses tied to individual performance evaluations for teachers in high-priority schools. Extra pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools will continue. However, all teachers working in these schools will receive the same bonus, regardless of their performance evaluation.

    Trump regime targets “loser teachers” in red-baiting tirade --Speaking at the February 11 fascistic rally in El Paso, staged to promote a border wall, Donald Trump, Jr. revved up a hand-picked right-wing crowd for his father by proclaiming that “loser teachers” were indoctrinating “babies from birth” with socialism.With background chants of “USA, USA,” the president’s oldest son stated, “I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You can think for yourselves. They can’t.” With teacher strikes continuing to escalate across the US, including West Virginia and California, Trump Jr.’s provocative remarks express the ruling class’s deep fear of the growing popularity of socialism and the rise of the class struggle. Adding teachers to his ever-growing “enemies list,” Trump’s crisis-ridden regime’s turn to McCarthyite red-baiting is inseparably linked with plans for repression, symbolized by the demand for a militarized wall with Mexico. The undercurrent of fascistic violence came to the surface when one of Trump’s supporters attacked a BBC cameraman at the rally. Hysterical attacks on socialism were a major component of Trump’s State of the Union speech, which was followed by a declaration of a global war on “communism and socialism” in a bellicose speech at Florida International University in Miami. Such fascistic appeals increasingly characterize the administration, with the president reiterating some 36 times in his short Miami speech the words “socialism” or “communism.” For good reason, the ruling elites face an increasingly angry and combative working class. In 2018, nearly half a million American workers went on strike—the highest figure since 1986, the greatest change in a generation.

    Students speak out against closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft - Early this month, the administrative and financial executives in the Board of Trustees voted to close the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), a small private non-profit school based in the outer-northwest quadrant of Portland. Its final class will graduate in May of this year. Founded in 1907 by Julia Hoffman of the Art and Craft Movement, OCAC is the last degree-granting art school in the US that focuses on craft, such as metals, woodworking, ceramics, functional objects, textiles and fibers. The school currently serves a total of 200 students, mostly undergraduates, and offers a unique, rigorous and supportive educational environment. Like many art colleges across the world, especially smaller studio-based ones, OCAC has faced a “budget crisis” with less financial support and higher operational costs. Though students and faculty rarely heard information about the school’s financial issues, they were frequently discussed by the administration and Board of Trustees, a body of 14 individuals appointed by the state to oversee the direction of the school. Eleven of the 14 trustees have long-term backgrounds in private investment, real estate, urban development, business and corporations like Oregon-based NIKE Inc. After two confusing and nontransparent initiatives to merge OCAC with the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) and Portland State University (PSU), the board concluded that there was no way to fund the school on its own.  Students and faculty received an unexpected email on February 6 inviting them to attend meetings February 7 to discuss the decision. They were not aware of the decision to close the school prior to this. The school’s administrators, joined by their business partners in the Board of Trustees, made the announcement to these anxious crowds of the closure with minimal explanation. The board members reportedly left the room before anyone could ask questions.

    Student Op-Ed- White Privilege Is Real … And You’d Better Agree!  The concept of “white privilege” essentially is taken as gospel on American college campuses. There are workshops about it, classes on it, and the concept has been woven into just about any discipline you can think of.Belief in white privilege actually “isn’t nearly as pernicious as conservatives tend to believe,” according to The Weekly Standard’s David Marcus. “There is real value in considering the fact that people might treat you with more respect and dignity based on your skin color,” he says.However, it is only with regards to race that people are required to acknowledge their “unearned advantages,” Marcus adds. Not to mention, the proposed and promulgated remedies for white privilege are found wanting.California State University, Chico’s Rachael Bayuk probably won’t be persuaded by Marcus’s points, even granting his concession that white privilege is a real thing. Writing in The Orion, she demands that you, as a white person, “stop bringing up how hard you had it as a kid, stop saying you were poor, [and] stop naming every bad thing that has ever happened to you in defense of yourself.”As penance for history, white people “damn well better let people who’s [sic] voices have been drowned out speak,” which means (in part) butting out of conversations they shouldn’t be part of. Example: Whites don’t get a say in what is offensive to non-whites.“Who the f*ck are we to tell them what isn’t offensive,” she asks, referencing the Washington Redskins team name. White women (or, should that be “female-identifying”?) also aren’t permitted to wear hair braids, according to Bayuk. “Think about how privileged this sounds,” she says. A white girl appropriating this look would get compliments, while a black girl so coiffed would be considered “ghetto.” Read the full piece.

    New York University students angry over police “cleanup” of homeless on campus - Earlier this month, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) 6th Precinct celebrated on Twitter its destruction of the temporary shelter and possessions of several homeless people on the steps and sidewalk in front of New York University’s (NYU) Silver Center for the Arts. The tweet read: “Clean up performed today on Washington Place. Great job by all those who participated!” and was accompanied by photographs of the building front while the homeless were there and after the cops removed them. The tweet was immediately condemned by Twitter users and NYU students, prompting a wave of disgust and outrage at the bragging over a show of force against the most helpless layer of the population. One person tweeted, “But what happened to those people? Were they directed to a shelter, programs, a place they can stay without being kicked out? Place they can shower? Given donations? Offered a cup of coffee or meal? I won’t hold my breath.” Another commented, “NYPD is bragging about displacing ppl and throwing away their property on NYU’s campus. This is absolutely disgusting and the @NYPD6Pct and @NYU must answer for this.” Both NYU student newspapers, the NYU Local and the Washington Square News, wrote on the incident. In one editorial piece in the WSN, NYU student Alejandro Villa Vásquez wrote, “If our city’s police force actually wanted to supposedly clean up the streets, if anyone actually wanted to, there would be greater pushback against overcriminalization and more legislation passed to secure adequate housing for the poor and those in need … Income inequality is growing nationwide as the middle class disappears. I don’t think any place represents this better than New York City.”

    YouTube To Blame For Rise in Flat Earth Believers, Says Study - Asheley Landrum is an assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University. Her focus: how cultural values affect our understanding of science. Most recently she's been looking at the rise of flat Earth theory.Incredibly, more people than ever believe in a flat Earth. Google searches for "flat earth" have grown massively over the past five years and flat Earth conventions have begun popping up all over the globe.That's where Landrum focused her research.Landrum interviewed 30 people who attended one flat Earth convention and found that all but one became flat Earthers after watching videos on YouTube. She presented her research at an event run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While Landrum didn't explicitly blame YouTube for the rise in flat Earth believers, she does believe that Google could be doing more to stop the spread of scientifically incorrect ideas."There's a lot of helpful information on YouTube but also a lot of misinformation," she said, as reported by The Guardian. "Their algorithms make it easy to end up going down the rabbit hole, by presenting information to people who are going to be more susceptible to it." Google has acknowledged there's more it could do to combat the spread of false information on YouTube and, as recently as January, outline new plans designed to push back.

    Mega-Universities Are On the Rise. They Could Reshape Higher Ed as We Know It. - Paul J. LeBlanc remembers the day, about a decade ago, when a public research university in New England announced that it was starting an online M.B.A. Southern New Hampshire University, where LeBlanc is president, had just rolled out its own ambitious online program and started its rise from undistinguished private institution with a few thousand students to today’s online-education juggernaut with more than 92,000 undergraduates enrolled. LeBlanc found the prospect of such an august competitor bracing — until he heard a radio ad touting the new program. The ad suggested that those interested in the program come to an open house. “You have an online program, but people have to go to your campus to get information and register?” he asks, still sounding incredulous. And, sure enough, “They’ve never been competition.” At a time when many colleges are struggling with shrinking enrollment and tighter budgets, Southern New Hampshire is thriving on a grand scale, and it’s not alone. Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Western Governors Universities, along with a few other nonprofit institutions, have built huge online enrollments and national brands in recent years by subverting many of traditional higher education’s hallmarks. Western Governors has 88,585 undergraduates, according to U.S. Education Department data, more than the top 14 universities in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings combined.

     Amazon caught selling counterfeits of publisher’s computer books—again - Bill Pollock, the founder of the tech how-to book publisher No Starch Press, called out Amazon on February 13 for selling what he says are counterfeit copies of his company's book, The Art of Assembly Language—copies that Amazon apparently printed.  After Pollock's post on Twitter on Wednesday, other people posted pictures of other No Starch books that had been counterfeited through Amazon, including books that had pages poorly cut. What's even crazier is that this isn't the first time this has happened.In 2017, Pollock got reports of Amazon selling counterfeit copies of Python for Kids, a popular children's introduction to programming, and four other No Starch titles. The books were easy to distinguish from No Starch's production runs because of the poorer quality of the paper and binding, changes likely resulting from Amazon's print-on-demand production.Amazon markets the service to publishers as a way to have "100 percent availability of books" internationally, and the company has enrolled a number of publishers. The  service is part of Amazon's CreateSpace offering, which allows content creators to self-publish both electronically (through Kindle) and in print. Authors and publishers are forced to police Amazon's marketplace themselves for counterfeit books—and the same is true of other products sold through Amazon. The problem is that Amazon apparently doesn't police whether book content uploaded to CreateSpace actually belongs to the person doing the uploading. As others who sell through Amazon have discovered, Amazon has had a problem with mixing legitimate and counterfeit products in fulfillment warehouses because of how it prepositions product for Prime Delivery. Two years ago, Amazon launched an effort to crack down on counterfeit goods sold through Amazon's Marketplace using a brand registry, but book pirating through CreateSpace has continued unabated. Such pirated titles are being sold directly by Amazon, not through third-party Marketplace sellers. Earlier this month, Amazon executives admitted in the company's earnings report that the company has a huge counterfeiting problem.

     $166 Billion In Student Debt Is Now Officially Delinquent -  (6 graphs) According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's latest quarterly household debt report, student loan delinquencies surged last year, up to $166.4 billion in the fourth quarter. The report includes the total owed and the percentage of delinquent accounts past 90 days or in default.  The percentage of delinquent accounts figure has stood at 11% since about mid-2012, but the total amount of debt outstanding has increased to a stunning $1.46 trillion at the end of December 2018 - and unpaid student debt rose to its highest levels ever. Delinquencies rose even as unemployment fell below 4%, telegraphing that the U.S. job market simply hasn't generated the level of wage growth necessary to deal with the country's growing debt load.  Bloomberg Intelligence interest-rate strategist Ira Jersey said: "Income levels for graduates are not necessarily high enough for debt payments overall. If you have a choice to pay your student loan or for food or housing, which do you choose?” According to Jersey, the loans "probably won't hurt the economy" because they are government-sponsored. Which is another way of saying taxpayers will once again come to the "rescue.""But incrementally, it does mean higher federal deficits if the loans are not repaid,” he conceded. Echoing what we first said back in 2012, Bloomberg notes that the total amount in arrears is twice the amount the U.S. Treasury paid to bail out the auto industry during the last recession. Meanwhile, with the cost of higher education doubling over the last 20 years, even the St. Louis Fed was unsure as to whether or not "college was still worth it", according to a blog posted on their website. Another stunning observation: the age group that is transitioning to delinquency the fastest is not workers fresh out of college, but the 40 to 49 year old cohort, partly as a result of parents shouldering the load and borrowing to pay for their children's expenses.  This has forced some schools to provide more support for those attending. For instance, Cornell increased tuition for 2019-2020 by "the lowest it has been in decades" and the school is "budgeting for a significant increase in financial aid". Purdue University will also not boost room and board rates for 2019-2020, the seventh year in a row it has avoided hiking these prices.

    The Government’s Trillion-Dollar Student Loan Office Is a Train Wreck — The raw numbers are staggering: 45 million Americans owe $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, more than all of the credit card or auto-loan debt combined. The bulk of that student debt, more than $1.1 trillion, is in the hands of Uncle Sam. Specifically, a little-known office within the Department of Education called Federal Student Aid (FSA) — motto: “Proud Sponsor of the American Mind.”But it isn’t the Education Department that collects your money each month or comes knocking when you miss a payment. Instead, the government hires loan servicers with names like Navient, Nelnet and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for the day-to-day work of interacting with student borrowers. Servicers are the middlemen of the student-loan industry, the ones to call to tweak a repayment plan or seek a deferment. FSA monitors the servicers to make sure they’re complying with their contracts with the federal government. Here’s the problem: According to a new report by the Education Department’s Inspector General, the government is failing at oversight. These aren’t small mistakes at the margins, critics say. This is widespread dysfunction and corporate capture of the very government office intended to help protect borrowers — problems that began during Barack Obama’s presidency and persisted after Donald Trump took office in early 2017. Seth Frotman, the former student-loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, called the audit “damning” and said it showed the Education Department “asleep at the switch while borrowers get hurt.” Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who has worked on student-loan servicing reform, says the audit is “one of the more scathing reports we’ve seen from the inspector general about oversight and accountability from the servicers.” But, she adds, “it’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of report. This is part of a pattern.”

    Who Else Might Like Medicare for All? Retired Coal Miners Who Just Had Their Health Benefits Ripped Away -- On Friday, a ruling by a federal bankruptcy judge in Texas showed why retired coal miners led to believe their health benefits would be with them for life were wrong and at least one advocate for Medicare for All noted that this is just one more reason why a healthcare system that includes everyone and excludes nobody would be a lifeline for workers which capitalism has pulled the rug out from under. As the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming reported over the weekend, retired union members who worked at the local Kemmerer coal mine in Lincoln Country, Wyoming "likely lost their company health benefits" after Judge David R. Jones of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston ruled that the Westmoreland Coal Co.—now up for auction under bankruptcy proceedings—could eliminate retirement health care and a union contract in order to sell the mine.According to the Star-Tribune:In order to sell the Kemmerer mine to new operators, Westmoreland has argued that it must eliminate union agreements that affect the nearly 300 employees of the western Wyoming mine as well as obligations to retired miners and dependents, many of whom still reside in the region. United Mine Workers of America had argued that responsibilities to employees and former miners of Kemmerer are protected in binding contracts between the miners and owners of the mine. That argument now becomes one for a Virginia billionaire to hear instead of the judge. That billionaire is Virginia businessman Tom Clarke, who said that while he recognizes the nullification of the coal miners' health package and union contract is "painful," it's necessary for the sale to be worthwhile to an investor like him.

    9/11 Victim Compensation Fund makes deep cuts to benefits --Last week, the second 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), commissioned in 2011 by Congress primarily to address the needs of workers sickened after clearing the debris from the ruins of the World Trade Center that was destroyed in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, has announced that it will cut payouts to current applicants in half and applicants after February 2 by 70 percent.The VCF posted a statement on its website that it has received a surge of applications in 2018, particularly in the last four months. It noted that this was likely because of a Notice of Inquiry it published in October that stated, “funding that has been appropriated to compensate claimants may be insufficient to compensate all claims” but also pointed to “the increased rates of serious illnesses suffered by members of the 9/11 community, the increasing number of deaths that can be attributed to 9/11 exposure.”The fund’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, told the media, “Unfortunately, the law really leaves us no choice. This is the fairest way we could come up with to do it.”The fund, which was started with a completely inadequate $7.5 billion, has now depleted more than $5 billion. By most estimates, 10,000 people in New York have been diagnosed with cancer as a result of the attack and its aftermath. Health conditions related to 9/11 have been certified for 43,000 people. Two-and-a-half-billion dollars in the fund remain for 19,000 people who have filed and for the thousands more who are expected to file before the fund closes next year. The US government has direct culpability in the deaths and illnesses of construction workers who assisted in the clean-up of the site, area residents and other victims of the contaminated environment in the aftermath of 9/11.

    CCHR Calls for Investigation Following a Surge in Elder Baker Acts - The Annual Baker Act Report released in 2018 revealed that over 7 percent of the total number of involuntary psychiatric exams involved persons 65 years of age or older and that this was a 75% increase from 2001 to 2016. This alarming surge in elder Baker Acts, the common term for an involuntary psychiatric examination, has prompted the Florida chapter of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) to call for an investigation. [1]The mental health law in Florida allows for the legalized involuntary examination of individuals of all ages including children and the elderly. More than 14,000 of Florida’s elderly, including those with dementia, were sent for involuntary psychiatric examinations in 2017, forcing the stress of physical transport to Baker Act facilities on these seniors despite it being documented that such an experience, and specifically when dealing with a senior suffering from dementia, puts them at risk for depression and anxiety. [2]“It is known that when long term care elderly patients are relocated that this results in an elevated mortality risk yet seniors are being taken into custody under the Baker Act in ever increasing numbers,” said Diane Stein, President of CCHR Florida.Even more disturbing is that some senior citizens who find themselves admitted for psychiatric evaluation are later informed that the criteria for Baker Acting was never met, that there was no evidence of mental illness, and instead it was found by clinical staff the victim simply needed rest, proper nutrition, or an adjustment to baseline medication. [3] [4]But unnecessary Baker Acting isn’t the only abuse raising concern. Polypharmacy, the concurrent use of multiple medications, has doubled in the past decade among retirement-age Americans despite warnings from geriatric medical organizations. Reports show that the number of office visits resulting in multiple pharmaceutical prescriptions has risen from 1.5 million in 2004 to 3.68 million in 2013 — more than a 50% increase — with rural areas showing the largest increase. Those diagnosed with dementia are even more susceptible to polypharmacy and specifically psychotropic drugging. According to the Office of the Inspector General, 304,983 elderly nursing home residents in the U.S. were given dangerous and often deadly antipsychotic drugs, 88% of which were prescribed off-label for dementia. [5] [6]

     Insys Used Rap Video To Push For Higher Opioid Doses -- A little over two weeks into the racketeering trial of Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor, federal prosecutors last week revealed a rap video produced by the company used to motivate sales representatives to boost sales of its highly addictive opioid spray, reported Bloomberg.The video, titled “Great by Choice,” was initially shown during a 2015 national sales conference encouraged reps to increase Subsys dosages to doctors through a process known as titration. In return, doctors across the country received millions of dollars in a kickback scheme.“I love titration. Yeah it’s a not a problem,” rapped the cast in the video called, “Great by Choice.” “I got new patients and I got a lot of ‘em.”NEW: Here's the internal Insys video to the tune of A$AP Rocky's "F--kin' Problems" in which employees dance around former sales VP Alec Burlakoff, who is dressed as a life-size bottle of fentanyl spray. It was shown to a jury in Boston federal court today. pic.twitter.com/0SPIEDRpnX— Aaron Leibowitz (@aaron_leib) February 13, 2019 “Build relationships that are healthy,” the song went on. “Got more docs than Janelle’s got selfies.”   NEW: Here's the internal Insys video to the tune of A$AP Rocky's "F--kin' Problems" in which employees dance around former sales VP Alec Burlakoff, who is dressed as a life-size bottle of fentanyl spray. It was shown to a jury in Boston federal court today. pic.twitter.com/0SPIEDRpnX — Aaron Leibowitz (@aaron_leib) February 13, 2019

    Beware of Using Young People's Blood to Halt Aging, FDA Says -- Taking a young person’s plasma and infusing it into an older person to ward off aging -- a therapy that’s fascinated some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley -- has no proven clinical benefit, the Food and Drug Administration said.The agency issued a safety alert on Tuesday about the infusion of plasma from young donors for the prevention of conditions such as aging or memory loss, or for the treatment of such conditions as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease or post‐traumatic stress disorder.“There is no proven clinical benefit of infusion of plasma from young donors to cure, mitigate, treat or prevent these conditions, and there are risks associated with the use of any plasma product,” the FDA said in a statement from Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Peter Marks, head of the agency’s biologics center. The idea of infusing young blood to fight aging has attracted technology entrepreneurs like billionaire Peter Thiel and was lampooned in a 2017 episode of the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” Thiel’s reported interest was sparked by a company called Ambrosia, which has locations in five states across the U.S. and sells one liter of blood plasma from donors between the ages of 16 and 25 for $8,000, according to its website.

    FDA Asks Old People To Stop Infusing Children's Blood To Prevent Aging - The FDA has warned old people to stop infusing plasma from young people in order to slow down the aging process, saying it has "no proven clinical benefit" according to Bloomberg.   In a Tuesday safety alert, the agency suggested that old people getting scammed with $8,000 per liter plasma to treat age-related issues including dementia, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease. "There is no proven clinical benefit of infusion of plasma from young donors to cure, mitigate, treat or prevent these conditions, and there are risks associated with the use of any plasma product," reads a statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Peter Marks, who leads the agency's biologics center. The idea of infusing young blood to fight aging has attracted technology entrepreneurs like billionaire Peter Thiel and was lampooned in a 2017 episode of the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” Thiel’s reported interest was sparked by a company called Ambrosia, which has locations in five states across the U.S. and sells one liter of blood plasma from donors between the ages of 16 and 25 for $8,000, according to its website.Gottlieb and Marks said none of the plasma treatments has gone through the rigorous testing required by the agency. Ambrosia says “experiments in mice called parabiosis provided the inspiration to deliver treatments with young plasma.” The FDA approval typically requires human trials before companies can make a specific health claim about a product. " Plasma infusions are an FDA approved treatment intrauma settings or for people whose blood doesn't coagulate, however the agency notes there are risks, including circulatory overload, allergic reactions, lung injury and the transmission of infectious diseases.  "We’re concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies," say Gottlieb and Marks. "Such treatments have no proven clinical benefits for the uses for which these clinics are advertising them, and are potentially harmful."

    FDA- Stealing Young People’s Blood Won’t Make You Immortal -  Rich people have a lot in common with vampires. Both in live in giant manses, host creepy masquerade orgies (we presume), and even wear the same dumb outfit every single day. Also, every once in a while, the insanely rich start thinking that they too can achieve immortality by draining the blood of the young and vigorous. But now, virgin thralls everywhere have a new champion: the FDA, which has put on its bandolier of stakes and declared "Get thee behind me, foul spawn of the night!" This week, the Food And Drug Administration (let that sink in for a moment) has issued a strong warning against people trying to cheat death by harvesting the blood of the young. According to the FDA, a "growing number of clinics" are offering trials wherein they pump you full of plasma from donors as young as 16, with the promise it will extend your life and even cure many age-related afflictions. And with treatments going for up to $8,000 a liter and being completely unregulated, it's exactly the kind of scheme popular with weird tech billionaires who think they're too smart and disruptive to just buy healing candles and ginseng extract. But despite the sound logic of treating blood like car oil that needs changing every 3,000 miles, the FDA is warning the new generation of Transfusylvanians that there's not only "no proven clinical benefit" to prepubescent plasma, but also that it should not be considered safe. And when the FDA tells you that, you better listen, because it takes a lot (and we mean a lot) before they try to put a stop to any kind of shady practice. So there's still a chance that the immortality industry can find a loophole that makes it so that eating the souls of your vanquished enemies falls within the acceptable parameters of the GRAS protocols.

    Gene-Edited CRISPR Twins May Have Supercharged Brains, And Silicon Valley Wants In On It – A pair of Chinese twins who were gene-edited for resistance to HIV may also have 'supercharged' brains, along with possible resistance to age-related cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's. In a controversial experiment led by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, the embroys of seven couples had their genes "edited" using a tool known as CRISPR. By removing a gene called CCR5, Jiankui sought to create a natural immunity to HIV - which requires CCR5 to enter blood cells. Based on new research, however, Jiankui may have also left the twins, Lulu and Nana, with improved memory and enhanced cognition, according to MIT Technology Review. They may also enjoy some degree of protection from Alzheimer's Disease and other maladies which are rapidly being linked to chronic inflammation, as some groups of mice without CCR5 - or who have been given CCR5 inhibitors, experience less severe dementia or Alzheimer's symptoms. "The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains," says UCLA neurobiologist Alcino J. Silva, whose lab discovered a link between CCR5 and the brain's ability to form new connections.  "The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins," says Silva, adding that the exact effect on the girls' cognition cannot be predicted, which is "why it should not be done."  In 2016, Silva and professor Miou Zhou of the Western University of Health Sciences in California showed that removing the CCR5 gene from mice significantly improved their memory. Moreover, " Silva and a large team from the US and Israel say they have new proof that CCR5 acts as a suppressor of memories and synaptic connections," according to the report.   Silva tells the MIT Technology Review that "because of his research, he sometimes interacts with figures in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who have, in his opinion, an unhealthy interest in designer babies with better brains." When word of Jiankui's experiment went public, Silva says he immediately questioned whether enhanced cognition was the real goal of the experiment.  "I suddenly realized—Oh, holy shit, they are really serious about this bullshit," said Silva. "My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness." He Jiankui acknowledged that he knew about the potential cognitive benefits of removing the CCR5 gene discovered by the UCLA team during a Q&A session, though he said "I am against using genome editing for enhancement."

     Long before City Hall rats, L.A. has struggled with the rise of typhus - Los Angeles officials this month called for an investigation into a vermin infestation at City Hall, after at least one city employee was diagnosed with typhus, a disease spread by rodents. The rat problem has focused attention on typhus over the last several weeks. But cases of the disease have actually been increasing in California for more than a decade.Thirteen people in the state were diagnosed with typhus in 2008, compared with 167 last year. More than 95% of the people falling sick in California are in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to state health data.Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson says he wants to examine the real cause of the typhus cases. On Friday, a giant inflatable rat loomed outside the building while officials inside discussed the vermin issue.Murine typhus, also known as endemic typhus, typically causes flu-like symptoms, but can in rare cases be fatal. It is not to be confused with typhoid fever, a food-borne illness that is rarely contracted within the United States.Officials don’t keep count of how many cases of murine typhus there are each year nationwide, but among states that do track the numbers — California, Texas and Hawaii — more people have been falling ill each year, experts say.Why? Theories abound. In October, L.A. County officials declared a typhus outbreak in downtown L.A. around skid row. The announcement prompted calls to clean up the streets and find housing for the city’s homeless population, which has burgeoned in recent years. Animals including rats and cats carry the disease in their bodies, though it doesn’t make them ill. Fleas transmit the disease to humans by biting the infected animals and then biting humans, something that could become more common as more people live on the streets. “In major cities in the U.S., we hear about increasing numbers of encampments and people living in squalor,”   “Those conditions are ideal for increase in vermin like rats.” Among the 19 people who have been infected as part of the typhus outbreak in downtown Los Angeles, eight were homeless, according to the county health department.

     Measles Are Back After 900 Dead In Madagascar; Time To Blame Russia -  Disinformation campaigns hatched by Russian social-media trolls may be responsible for a 2018 measles outbreak in Europe that killed 72 people and infected over 82,000, according to a new report from the US government-funded RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.   There were 229,000 reported measles cases worldwide in 2018 according to figures from the World Health Organization - double the number reported in 2017.  And some of that, according to researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, may be due to Russian trolls.  "Are Russian Trolls Saving Measles From Extinction?" reads the article's headline, which then describes how experts are analyzing whether medical disinformation originating from "Russian troll and bot campaigns" is putting lives in danger - noting a World Health Organization warning that "vaccination hesitancy" is now one of the top threats to global health, citing a 30% global rise in measles.  Experts in the United States and Europe are now working on ways to gauge the impact that Russian troll and bot campaigns have had on the spread of the disease by distributing medical misinformation and raising public doubts about vaccinations. -RFERL.org  Of course, halfway through the article we find that Ukraine - which was "worst hit by the 2018 measles epidemic," experienced "greatly reduced" access to vaccination services and supplies during the 2015 and 2016 clashes between government forces and pro-Russia separatists.  "We actually don't know enough about the influence of misinformation available online upon vaccination intentions and behaviors," said WHO vaccine specialist Katrine Habersaat. "What we do know is that there is an element of echo chambers in this." Perhaps Russian propaganda is also responsible for the latest measles outbreak in Madagascar, which has infected over 66,000 people in the African island nation, killing at least 922.  Meanwhile, according to a 2018 survey, just 71% of Americans polled says it is "very important" to have their children vaccinated - down from 82% in 2008. 

    E-cig users develop some of the same cancer-related molecular changes as cigarette smokers - Public Release: 14-Feb-2019 University of Southern California A small USC study shows that e-cig users develop some of the same cancer-related molecular changes in oral tissue as cigarette smokers, adding to the growing concern that e-cigs aren't a harmless alternative to smoking. The research, published this week in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, comes amid a mushrooming e-cig market and mounting public health worries. On a positive note, recent research found vaping is almost twice as effective as other nicotine replacement therapies in helping smokers quit. But among adolescents, vaping now surpasses smoking, and there's evidence that e-cig use leads to nicotine addiction and future smoking in teens.  Besaratinia emphasized that the molecular changes seen in the study aren't cancer, or even pre-cancer, but rather an early warning of a process that could potentially lead to cancer if unchecked.

    Healthcare Triage: Traffic is Terrible and Terrible for You - The Incidental Economist by Dr. Aaron Carroll - (video) Commuting is one of the least pleasant things we do. But it’s not just an annoying time waster — there’s a case that it’s a public health issue. This episode was adapted from a column Austin wrote for the Upshot. Links to sources can be found there.

    Researchers Create ‘Rat Cyborgs’ That People Control With Their Minds - I’ll just come right out and say it: Scientists have created human-controlled rat cyborgs. Lest you think this is some media sensationalism at work, here’s the actual title of the paper under discussion, which came out last week in Scientific Reports: “Human Mind Control of Rat Cyborg’s Continuous Locomotion with Wireless Brain-to-Brain Interface.” That pretty much says it all. Some of this tech — such as brain-brain interfaces (BBIs) and rat cyborgs — is nothing new in science, so in a way this just a small step in an already existing race. But, put another way: people are controlling rat cyborgs with their freaking brains now. Wirelessly.  Here’s the deal.  BBIs are themselves based on stringing together BMIs, or brain-machine interfaces. These already exist, and present a cool way for people to control prosthetics or other devices. Apparently they can also function the other way around — instead of a brain controlling a device, a machine can alter brain patterns or “import tactile information back to the brain,” as the study’s authors put it. So BMIs allow for mechanically “controlling” others’ brains. In effect, it works like this: A human has movement-related thoughts, which an EEG picks up and transfers to a computer. The computer translates that signal into “control instructions,” which get wirelessly beamed into the stimulator on the back of the rat and then into its brain via electrodes (which is, by the way, now a rat cyborg because of its cybernetic parts). The rat then responds to the instructions by actually doing them. All this tech exists, but for some reason “very few previous studies have explored BBIs across different brains,” the authors write — so they fixed that with a very real, actual experiment that involved humans wirelessly controlling rat cyborgs through mazes.  I can’t stress enough how real this is, or how often the authors used the phrase “rat cyborg” in their peer-reviewed scientific paper.

    Hackers Can Turn Sex Robots Into Killing Machines, Security Expert Warns — According to Nicholas Patterson, a cybersecurity lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, humanoid sex robots that have recently hit the market could potentially be hacked and turned into killing machines.  Patterson gave this warning in a string of interviews with various UK publications: “Hackers can hack into a robot or a robotic device and have full control of the connections, arms, legs, and other attached tools like in some cases knives or welding devices. Often these robots can be upwards of 200 pounds and very strong. Once a robot is hacked, the hacker has full control and can issue instructions to the robot.  Similar warnings surfaced last year in response to the growing popularity of Bluetooth-enabled sex toys. It was revealed that hackers could control the devices from remote locations, and even use them to spy on unsuspecting pleasure seekers.  Realistically, any device connected to the internet can be programmed to do harm, or at the very least spy on you. In fact, most smart devices are specifically designed to spy on users for data mining purposes. The primary reason sex robots evoke a special fear when it comes to hacking potential is because they are made in the likeness of humans. We have been trained to believe that the threat of artificial intelligence (AI) will come in the form of a Terminator-like robot that looks indistinguishable from an actual human, while invisible AI algorithms have been silently taking over our lives for the past decade, right under our noses. The real AI threat is disembodied, and comes in the form of algorithms that are sending the wrong people to jail, controlling the information you see online, and even writing the news. The idea of a rogue robot that can walk and talk is indeed scary, but having every service and product being controlled by invisible algorithms is far worse. While this technology could be used to make positive change in the world, it is unfortunately true, as many experts have pointed out, that the ethics of these devices are only as good as the humans who programming them.

    EPA too slow on limiting toxic chemicals, critics say -- Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler released an “action plan” for dealing with the long-lasting substances, which have been linked to health threats ranging from cancer to decreased fertility. The perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, have turned up increasingly in public water systems and private wells. Wheeler said the agency’s plan would help communities monitor, detect and address PFAS pollution. But environmentalists and some members of Congress said the strategy wasn’t aggressive enough on dealing with the chemicals, which are found in firefighting foam, nonstick pots and pans, water-repellent clothing and many other household and personal items. “This is a non-action plan, designed to delay effective regulation of these dangerous chemicals in our drinking water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt described PFAS contamination as a “national priority” and pledged swift action last May. Wheeler has served as the EPA’s acting head since Pruitt’s resignation in July amid ethics scandals, and the agency’s handling of PFAS contamination was raised as an issue in Wheeler’s confirmation hearings. Scientific studies have found “associations” between the chemicals and cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and other health issues. 

    EPA blasted for failing to set drinking water limits for ‘forever chemicals’ Science - After intense pressure from politicians and environmental and public health groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today published a plan to tackle industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are showing up in drinking water supplies across the nation. But critics say the plan is vague and lacks regulatory teeth, and it will do little to reduce health risks.PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. The compounds can persist in the environment for decades, leading some to dub them “forever chemicals.” And studies have linked them to cancer and developmental defects, raising health concerns.In May 2018, EPA said it would develop a plan to tackle the substances in drinking water. Many were hoping the agency would set national regulatory limits on PFAS concentrations in water supplies. But the plan released today puts little meat on the bones of last year’s promises.  EPA has “only laid out a small, tentative step toward considering how to manage this widespread threat. This proposal doesn’t mean the EPA will take serious action—it could just kick the can down the road for years, leaving vulnerable communities at risk,” said Genna Reed, the lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement.By the end of the year, EPA officials say they will begin the process of setting legal drinking water limits on two of the most well-known PFAS compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press conference that he “can’t say how long it would take” for the limits to come into force.

    Hold EPA to its promise to address dangerous threats to drinking water | Editorial - Philly.com - Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s promise last week to attack a dangerous threat to drinking water may have sounded soothing to thousands of residents of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, who have lived with contaminated groundwater for decades. But as U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) pointed out, Wheeler’s words cynically masked just another federal government dodge on cleaning up the toxic chemicals because he didn’t have a timeline and worse, the EPA did not even commit to actually setting safe standards for the toxic family of chemicals known as PFAS. Fortunately, by the end of the week, Carper secured a solid commitment from the EPA to set safe drinking water standards by December. The back and forth is emblematic of why EPA must be under constant scrutiny.  PFAS have been found in alarming amounts in suburban Philadelphia. They were left behind by firefighting foam at two former military bases. Known as per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAS, these chemicals are found in consumer products, such as flame-retardant fabrics and nonstick cookware, as well as firefighting foams used at about 400 military bases across the country, including the old Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, Bucks County, and the former Naval Air Station at Willow Grove, in Horsham, Montgomery County.PFAS have been linked to thyroid and liver disease, low birthrates, low fertility in women and preeclampsia in pregnant women, as well as asthma, high blood pressure, kidney and testicular cancer.Residents and politicians from both parties have been pressuring the EPA to set PFAS standards since at least 2014 and been met with empty promises.

    PFAS in Drinking Water: Hazardous at Ever-Lower Levels - Last week, as he unveiled the Environmental Protection Agency’s toothless “action plan” on fluorinated chemicals, acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler maintained that the current guideline of 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, for the compound PFOA is a safe level in drinking water.Says who?Independent scientists and other federal and state regulatory agencies have recommended or established safe levels for PFOA in drinking water that range to more than 200 times below the EPA’s guideline – a health advisory that is not legally enforceable.PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, is the most notorious member of the PFAS family of fluorinated chemicals. An estimated 110 million Americans’ water may be contaminated with PFAS compounds, which have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and weakened childhood immunity. The more than 4,700 different synthetic PFAS chemicals manufactured worldwide have become global pollutants that contaminate food, water and the bodies of people.In the almost two decades since the EPA was alerted to PFOA contamination of drinking water near a Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., a wide range of safe levels have been proposed or adopted. But there’s a clear trend: The levels deemed safe keep going down, and since 2007, all are well below the EPA’s guidelines.  Here’s a timeline, with further explanation below.

    EPA Adopts Fringe Science Claim That Small Doses of Pollution Are Healthy - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2018 proposed relaxing standards related to how it assesses the effects of exposure to low levels of toxic chemicals on public health. Now, correspondence obtained by the LA Times revealed just how deeply involved industry lobbyists and a controversial, industry-funded toxicologist were in drafting the federal agency's proposal to scrap its current, protective approach to regulating toxin exposure.   The proposed change came just two weeks after a top EPA official contacted toxicologist Ed Calabrese, whose claim that low doses of carcinogens and radiation are healthy stressors akin to physical exercise that activate the body's repair mechanisms has been panned by more mainstream researchers. "I wanted to check to see if you might have some time in the next couple of days for a quick call to discuss a couple of items … " EPA deputy assistant administrator Clint Woods wrote to Calabrese. The EPA's proposed regulation, signed by then-Administrator Scott Pruitt and published in the U.S. Government's Federal Register, copied Calabrese's recommendations to Woods almost verbatim. Calabrese, who was also quoted in the EPA's press release for the proposal, celebrated the announcement in an email to former coal and tobacco lobbyist Steve Milloy, who served on President Donald Trump's EPA transition team. The EPA's proposal is a departure from its long-time "linear no-threshold" approach to regulating the study of toxins: once a substance is found to be harmful at one level, the danger applies at all levels. In other words, there can be no safe level of radiation exposure. Calabrese argues this approach is overly cautious and a financial detriment to industry. The new rule would require that regulators look at "various threshold models across the exposure range" for pollutants.

    Factory Farms Pollute the Environment and Poison Drinking Water - Hog waste can contain potentially dangerous pathogens, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. According to North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, as of early October nearly 100 such lagoons were damaged, breached or were very close to being so, the effluent from which can seep into waterways and drinking water supplies.Rather than an isolated problem, however, the story of the state's failure to properly manage its hog waste opens a door to what critics say is a much wider national and global issue: the increasingly extensive and varied impacts on our water resources, air and soils from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations(CAFOs). "The big problem with this model is the waste management problem that it creates, generating so much waste in such high concentration," said Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of organizations monitoring U.S. waterways. "We haven't really improved the technologies for managing this waste beyond what we were using centuries ago." The amount of animal feces and urine produced in these facilities is staggering—more than 40 times the waste generated in wastewater treatment plants. Most CAFO waste is spread over farmland as fertilizer. But unlike strictly regulated human waste, the waste generated by CAFOs isn't held to the same standard and is largely untreated. "The basic legal theory, which is basic legal fiction, is that the waste will be kept on site and applied to adjacent cropland and [will] never enter our water-bodies," said Hendrick. What actually happens is that potentially toxic chemicals, drugs and bacteria in untreated animal wastes drain off or leach through the soils, making their way into the nation's rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water at alarming rates, directly impacting communities. Iowa's largest municipal water utility provider, for example, recently sued a number of upstream drainage districts for excessive drinking water nitrate levels caused by farmland runoff. The lawsuit, however, was subsequently dismissed, the judge ruling it a problem for the state legislatures to tackle.

    Remember 'Pink Slime'? It Can Now Be Marketed as 'Ground Beef' -- That video showed the extrusion of a bubblegum-pink substance oozing into a coiled pile, something between Play-Doh, sausage, and soft-serve strawberry ice cream. Branded "pink slime"—the name came from an email sent by a USDA microbiologist in 2002—this stuff was actually beef, destined for supermarkets and fast-food burgers.  The company that makes pink slime, Beef Products Incorporated, recently notified its customers that the product can now be called something different, and more appetizing: ground beef.Pink slime is not necessarily dangerous or mysterious or even particularly gross, in the abstract. During the butchering process, meat trimmings are captured. The trimmings are then sent through a centrifuge, which separates the fat from the meat; trimmings are very high in fat. The fat can be sold separately as tallow, but the now 95 percent lean (or so) is then treated to prevent contaminants and then processed into the ooze seen in the video.Previously, pink slime was sometimes folded into ground beef sold in supermarkets, or more commonly sold to fast-food purveyors for use in burgers. The anti-contaminant treatment used by BPI is ammonia, which is legal in the US but not in Canada or in the European Union, where pink slime is thus banned. BPI has tried since the release of the 2012 video to rehabilitate the image of this product, which is technically called "lean finely textured beef." They had an ad campaign ("Dude, it's beef!") which was promoted not only by the company but by politicians in states with large cattle industries, like Texas. And now, according to Beef Magazine (an industry publication), BPI asked the USDA to reclassify the product.

    Lab Grown Meat Could Be Worse for the Climate Than Farm-Raised Beef, Oxford Study - 2018 saw a number of studies pointing to the outsized climate impact of meat consumption. Beef has long been singled out as particularly unsustainable: Cows both release the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere because of their digestive processes and require a lot of land area to raise. But for those unwilling to give up the taste and texture of a steak or burger, could lab-grown meat be a climate-friendly alternative? In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the Oxford Martin School set out to answer that question.The results, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems Tuesday, concluded that lab-grown meat could actually make climate change worse. It all depends on whether the energy used to grow the cultured meat is still generated from fossil fuels."The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes," lead study author Dr. John Lynch said in a press release.

    World’s food supply under ‘severe threat’ from loss of biodiversity -- The world’s capacity to produce food is being undermined by humanity’s failure to protect biodiversity, according to the first UN study of the plants, animals and micro-organisms that help to put meals on our plates. The stark warning was issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation after scientists found evidence the natural support systems that underpin the human diet are deteriorating around the world as farms, cities and factories gobble up land and pump out chemicals. Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive, said the report, launched on Friday. It noted a “debilitating” loss of soil biodiversity, forests, grasslands, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and genetic diversity in crop and livestock species. In the oceans, a third of fishing areas are being overharvested. Many species that are indirectly involved in food production, such as birds that eat crop pests and mangrove trees that help to purify water, are less abundant than in the past, noted the study, which collated global data, academic papers and reports by the governments of 91 countries. It found 63% of plants, 11% of birds, and 5% of fish and fungi were in decline. Pollinators, which provide essential services to three-quarters of the world’s crops, are under threat. As well as the well-documented decline of bees and other insects, the report noted that 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats and birds, were threatened with extinction. Once lost, the species that are critical to our food systems cannot be recovered, it said. “This places the future of our food and the environment under severe threat.” “The foundations of our food systems are being undermined,”

    Trump EPA OKs 'Emergency' to Dump Bee-Killing Pesticide on 16 Million Acres -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported last week that in 2018 it issued so-called "emergency" approvals to spray sulfoxaflor—an insecticide the agency considers "very highly toxic" to bees—on more than 16 million acres of crops known to attract bees. Of the 18 states where the approvals were granted for sorghum and cotton crops, 12 have been given the approvals for at least four consecutive years for the same "emergency."  Last year the EPA's Office of the Inspector General released a report finding that the agency's practice of routinely granting "emergency" approval for pesticides across millions of acres does not effectively measure risks to human health or the environment.  "Spraying 16 million acres of bee-attractive crops with a bee-killing pesticide in a time of global insect decline is beyond the pale, even for the Trump administration," said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The EPA is routinely misusing the 'emergency' process to get sulfoxaflor approved because it's too toxic to make it through normal pesticide reviews."  Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the EPA has the authority to approve temporary emergency uses of pesticides, even those not officially approved, if the agency determines it is needed to prevent the spread of an unexpected outbreak of crop-damaging insects, for example. But the provision has been widely abused.

    "Which species are we sure we can survive without?" Revisited - Two years ago I asked the question in the title of this piece. Now comes a wide-ranging study that suggests we are about to test that question in a major way. The study predicts that at the current rate of loss of insect species, 40 percent could be gone "in the next few decades." What is particularly alarming is that this "could trigger wide-ranging cascading effects within several of the world's ecosystems." That means that many other life-forms including other animals and plants could find themselves without what they need to survive in this dangerous game of musical chairs orchestrated by humans. Might we be one of those species?  Insects do much of the crop pollination necessary for food production. A list of crops pollinated by bees is quite long. Humans could survive without these foods, but the nutrition and variety in our diets would be severely limited. And yet there is a greater problem. Outside of agriculture 80 to 95 percent of plant species require animal pollination. Since those plants are the base of every food chain, catastrophic declines in insect populations could lead to a collapse of existing ecosystems. The exact scope and effects of such a collapse cannot be fully anticipated. But it is doubtful humans would be unharmed. Human civilization uses an enormous amount of free ecoservices, that is, services provided by nature including the purification of water, the formation of soil, the regulation of climate, and energy resources such as hydropower and biomass. However one values these services, the value is enormous. If humans had to pay for these services, that is, if we had to set up mechanical and chemical substitutes, we would never able to afford it. But, we probably wouldn't be able to set up substitute systems that work as precisely and effectively as nature's.

    Politicians are complicit in the killing of our insects – we will be next - The new global scientific review into the perilous condition of our insects reports that more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction while the mass of insects is declining by 2.5% a year. This catastrophic decline is a direct cause of the existential threat to other animals, insects being at the bottom of the chain and the primary food source. Since 1970, 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out.  The review identifies a key driver towards this mass extinction: habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture with its associated use of pesticides. Given this is a manmade disaster, surely we are capable of tackling and reversing it?  As a member of the European parliament’s agriculture committee, I have lost count of the number of times I have begun meetings with what feels like a sermon on the Armageddon taking place in our countryside. I am always greeted with patient, patronising smiles from many of my fellow MEPs, before they go on to ignore the warnings and refuse to limit the use of pesticides in our fields.  Some of the members of this committee are themselves farmers who have grown increasingly dependent on powerful and toxic pesticides. But others have taken the agribusiness shilling and believe that their role in policymaking is simply to support the corporations that sell these poisons. And this is the nub of the issue. What might accurately be dubbed insectageddon is being driven by the agrichemicals industry. This situation is compounded by compliant politicians and policymakers who fall prey to lobbying pressure and then refuse to implement science-driven policy to protect wildlife. This has meant that over the past five decades conventional farmers have forgotten the natural systems they once relied on to control pests. Non-organic agricultural systems are highly dependent on chemicals, so feeding a vicious circle.

    The Ticks That Can Take Down an 800-Pound Moose - We found the moose calf half an hour in. He lay atop thin snow on a gentle slope sheltered by the boughs of a big, black spruce, curled up as a dog would on a couch. He had turned his long, gaunt head to rest against his side and closed his eyes. He might have been sleeping. The day before, April 17, 2018, when the GPS tracker on the moose’s collar stopped moving for six hours, this stillness had caused both an email and a text to alert Jake Debow, a Vermont state field biologist who stood next to me now with Josh Blouin, another state biologist, that moose No. 75 had either shucked his collar or died. “You want pictures before we start?” Debow asked me. He’s the senior of the two young biologists, both still in grad school, both in their late 20s, young and strong and funny, from families long in the north country, both drawn to the job by a love of hunting and being outside.  It was Debow’s second season on the moose project, and Blouin’s first. This was the sixth calf, of 30 collared, that they’d found sucked to death by ticks this season. They were here to necropsy the carcass, send the tissues to a veterinary pathology lab in New Hampshire, and try to figure out as much as possible about how and why these calves were dying. Debow, wielding his ruler, called out square-centimeter tick counts to Blouin: nine ticks in the first square centimeter, seven engorged; eight in the second, none engorged; 28, four engorged; eight, none. This count would later produce an estimated infestation total of just under 14,000 ticks. This was actually far fewer than they often found, but it was enough to render this calf chronically anemic from January through March and then acutely, fatally anemic in the last couple of weeks of his life. In April, when the gravid females start taking their blood meals, the blood loss over their last two to four weeks aboard the moose “can equate to a calf’s total blood volume,” according to one recent paper—some three and a half gallons. As Inga Sidor, the New Hampshire state veterinary pathologist who processed the tissue samples Debow and Blouin took that day, later told me, the ticks “literally bleed the moose to death.”

    Can Zombie Deer Disease Kill Humans- Research Suggests It Already Has - An infectious disease expert has warned that a deadly disease found in deer could infect humans in the near future. Often referred to as “zombie deer” disease because of the symptoms, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been reported in at least 24 states in the continental United States and in two provinces in Canada as of January 2019.But is this warning too late? Because there is an extremely similar disease that has already killed quite a few people. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recently told lawmakers that CWD should be treated as a public health issue. That unsettling news surfaced at a hearing Thursday at the Minnesota Capitol, where a number of experts from the University of Minnesota pressed upon lawmakers that the disease should be treated as a public health issue — a major expansion of its current scope as mostly a wildlife and hunting concern. The issue is especially pressing for Minnesota, where wildlife officials are tracking the state’s largest outbreak of CWD yet in deer in the southeast portion of the state. (source) Osterholm (who sat on a panel of experts tracking the emergence of mad cow disease, or BSE, decades ago) issued this warning during the hearing:“It is my best professional judgment based on my public health experience and the risk of BSE transmission to humans in the 1980s and 1990s and my extensive review and evaluation of laboratory research studies … that it is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead. It is possible that number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.” (source)  While he is aware that skeptics will accuse him of fear-mongering, Osterholm said, “If Stephen King could write an infectious disease novel, he would write about prions like this.”  He noted that for years, many public health and beef industry experts did not believe a similar disease – bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as “mad cow disease” – could infect people. In 1996, researchers found strong evidence that BSE can infect humans as a variant known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

    Raffle Prize Offers Killing Animals With Donald Trump Jr. - A hunting advocacy group is offering what it has called a “once-in-a-lifetime” raffle prize of killing elk with Donald Trump Jr., but it has faced some criticism online.Hunter Nation promoted the chance to win a five-day guided fall hunt in Utah with President Donald Trump’s son ― who it dubbed “the modern-day Teddy Roosevelt” — on Instagram Monday. Tickets cost $10 each.View this post on Instagram A post shared by Hunter Nation (@hunternation) on Feb 18, 2019 at 4:56pm PST “You will have to go a long way to find a bigger advocate for our hunting lifestyle and a more passionate hunter and conservationist than Don, Jr.,” the group said on its website.It called “the opportunity to share a hunting camp” with Trump Jr. as being “truly priceless.”However, the raffle has sparked anger online ― with some people also taking issue with the Trump Jr.-Roosevelt comparison. Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, was an avid hunter and champion of conservation causes. (twitter reactions)

    Botswana mulls lifting elephant hunting ban – BBC - A report by cabinet ministers in Botswana has recommended lifting a four-year hunting ban and the introduction of elephant culling.After months of public meetings and consultations, the report by ministers also recommends the "establishment of elephant meat canning" for pet food.The number of elephants in Botswana is estimated to be about 130,000, which some argue is too many for the ecosystem - there is increasing conflict between wildlife and people.But others say the country's tourism has grown dramatically since the ban came into place and that lifting it would affect the country's international reputation for conservation. Shortly after coming into office in April 2018, President Mokgweetsi Masisi asked ministers to review the hunting ban which was implemented by his predecessor Ian Khama in 2014. Public meetings were held and organisations, communities and individuals were asked to comment.  The report's findings recommend that:

    • the hunting ban should be lifted
    • the elephant population should be managed "within its historic range"
    • wildlife migratory routes "not beneficial to the country's conservation efforts" should be closed
    • game ranches be demarcated to "serve as buffers between communal and wildlife areas"
    • "regular but limited elephant culling" should be introduced

     As the Colorado River runs dry: A five-part climate change story -  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists -- This article is the first in a 5-part series on the Colorado River originally published by Yale Environment 360. The beginnings of the mighty Colorado River on the west slope of Rocky Mountain National Park are humble. A large marsh creates a small trickle of a stream at La Poudre Pass, and thus begins the long, labyrinthine 1,450-mile journey of one of America’s great waterways. Several miles later, in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Kawuneeche Valley, the Colorado River Trail allows hikers to walk along its course and, during low water, even jump across it. This valley is where the nascent river falls prey to its first diversion — 30 percent of its water is taken before it reaches the stream to irrigate distant fields. The Never Summer Mountains tower over the the valley to the west. Cut across the face of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the timber line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in elevation than La Poudre Pass, funnels it 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties it into the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River, which flows on to alfalfa and row crop farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and picks by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado. Many more trans-basin diversions of water from the west side of the divide to the east would follow. That’s because 80 percent of the water that falls as snow in the Rockies here drains to the west, while 80 percent of the population resides on the east side of the divide. The Colorado River gathers momentum in western Colorado, sea-green and picking up a good deal of steam in its confluence with the Fraser, Eagle, and Gunnison rivers. As it leaves Colorado and flows through Utah, it joins forces with the Green River, a major tributary, which has its origins in the dwindling glaciers atop Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the second largest glacier field in the lower 48 states. The now sediment-laden Colorado (“too thick to drink, too thin to plow” was the adage about such rivers) gets reddish here, and earns its name – Colorado means “reddish.” It heads in a southwestern direction through the slick rock of Utah and northern Arizona, including its spectacular run through the nearly 280-mile-long Grand Canyon, and then on to Las Vegas where it makes a sharp turn south, first forming the border of Nevada and Arizona and then the border of California and Arizona until it reaches the Mexican border. There the Morelos Dam — half of it in Mexico and half in the United States — captures the last drops of the Colorado’s flow, and sends it off to Mexican farmers to irrigate alfalfa, cotton, and asparagus, and to supply Mexicali, Tecate, and other cities and towns with water.

    Grand Canyon Visitors Were Exposed to Unsafe Radiation From Buckets of Uranium for Nearly Two Decades - Grand Canyon visitors and employees who passed through the national park's museum collection building were exposed to radiation for nearly two decades, AZCentral reported Monday.That's because, until last year, three five-gallon paint buckets filled with uranium ore were stored in the building, according to a Feb. 4 email sent out to all National Park Service employees by Grand Canyon safety, health and wellness manager Elston "Swede" Stephenson."If you were in the Museum Collections Building (2C) between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were 'exposed' to uranium by the [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] OSHA's definition," Stephenson wrote. "The radiation readings, at first blush, exceeds (sic) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safe limits." Stephenson said the buckets had been placed beside a taxidermy exhibit where children sometimes sat during tours for more than 30 minutes. There was enough radiation in the buckets to expose children to levels considered unsafe by federal standards within three seconds and adults within less than 30 seconds. Stephenson said adults may have been exposed to 400 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission health limit and children 4,000 times. Stephenson said that while federal officials had learned of and removed the containers last year, park visitors and staff had not been informed of the potential exposure.

    Interior officials accused of violating ethics pledge - A government ethics group is accusing six political officials at the Interior Department of violating the Trump administration’s ethics pledge. The Campaign Legal Center sent a formal complaint to Interior’s Office of Inspector General, asking it to investigate those officials’ compliance with provisions of the pledge all political appointees sign, including cooling-off periods for working on matters involving former employers, restrictions on meeting with former employers or clients, and restrictions on dealing with matters for which an employee used to lobby. “Several political appointees at Interior appear to have violated these provisions, which are specifically designed to prevent public officials from using their positions to favor former employers or lobbying clients,” the group wrote. “Taken together, the violations outlined below suggest a disturbing pattern of misconduct across the Department of the Interior that warrants your office’s immediate attention,” they wrote. The targets of the Wednesday letter are assistant secretary for insular and international affairs Doug Domenech, senior deputy director of intergovernmental and external affairs Benjamin Cassidy, former energy adviser Vincent DeVito, deputy director of intergovernmental and external affairs Timothy Williams, White House liaison Lori Mashburn and director of intergovernmental and external affairs Todd Wynn. The Campaign Legal Center’s letter lays out specific allegations regarding each official, based on public documents, news reports and other sources. Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Interior “takes ethics agreements very seriously” and that all political appointees have received ethics training.

     Ex-Lobbyists Run Amok at Interior Department, New Ethics Complaints Show - ONLY A FEW short weeks after President Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a former oil and agriculture industry lobbyist, to run the Interior Department, the agency is facing a slew of new allegations that top officials violated federal ethics rules by keeping cozy ties to their former employers.A lengthy ethics complaint filed Wednesday by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, outlines “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” at the scandal-plagued Interior Department, including meetings that violate the White House’s own ethical pledge and good governance standards. The Campaign Legal Center used public records, some of which were first obtained by The Intercept, to lodge the complaint against six top Interior Department officials, including Benjamin Cassidy, a top official at the department’s external affairs office and former National Rifle Association lobbyist; Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Douglas Domenech; White House liaison Lori Mashburn, a former Heritage Foundation staffer; and others. The officials are among a little-known but powerful group of Department of Interior political appointees — many of whom joined the agency after careers with fossil fuel groups or conservative lobbying organizations. Amid an environment of persistent ethics issues at the Interior Department, these officials are responsible for the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to roll back environmental protections and open public lands to extractive industry interests. Among other allegations, the Campaign Legal Center contends that some of these officials have apparently used their government positions to provide their former private employers with access and insight into the Interior Department’s activities. Under the White House’s own ethics pledge, executive branch officials are explicitly prohibited for a period of two years from the date of their appointment from meeting or communicating with previous employers to discuss specific policy matters.

    Top Leader at Interior Dept. Pushes a Policy Favoring His Former Client — As a lobbyist and lawyer, David Bernhardt fought for years on behalf of a group of California farmers to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for a finger-size fish, the delta smelt, to gain access to irrigation water.  As a top official since 2017 at the Interior Department, Mr. Bernhardt has been finishing the job: He is working to strip away the rules the farmers had hired him to oppose.   Last week President Trump said he would nominate Mr. Bernhardt to lead the Interior Department, making him the latest in a line of officials now regulating industries that once paid them to work as lobbyists. Others include Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency after the resignation of Scott Pruitt amid ethics scandals. William Wehrum, the nation’s top clean-air regulator, is a lawyer whose former clients included coal-burning power plants and oil giants. If confirmed as the next Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Bernhardt would succeed Ryan Zinke, who left in January under a cloud of ethics investigations. For the California farmers on whose behalf he once lobbied, Mr. Bernhardt’s actions to weaken environmental protections would free up river water, an asset of incalculable value as climate change propels California toward a hotter, drier future. Rerouting river water would also devastate the regional ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay Delta, scientists say, imperiling dozens of other fish up the food chain and affecting water birds, orcas and commercial fisheries and encouraging toxic algal blooms.

     Florida is drowning. Condos are still being built. Can't humans see the writing on the wall?- 2018 was the second deadliest year on record for manatees. Like many of our coastal species, they’re vulnerable to habitat loss and warming seas, which are more hospitable to algal blooms and red tide. Science has given us the foresight we need to make decisions that will reduce the future suffering of other species and ourselves, but we don’t heed it. Why?Studies show that humans don’t respond well to abstract projections. We overvalue short-term benefits, such as driving SUVs, burning coal and building waterfront real estate. We choose these extravagances even though they impede beneficial long-term outcomes, such as saving threatened species, or reducing the intensity of climate change. Humans tend to respond to immediate threats and financial consequences – and coastal real estate, especially in Florida, may be on the cusp of delivering that harsh wake-up call. The peninsula has outsized exposure: nearly 2 million people live in coastal cities. On the list of the 20 urban areas in America that will suffer the most from rising seas, Florida has five: St Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach and Panama City. In 2016, Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100, a loss of $413bn in property.  Aerial views of Miami and South Beach show high density construction on flat, sandy slivers of land. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts Miami streets will flood every year by 2070.   And though the House of Representatives passed a bill to require real estate agents to disclose flood risks, the Senate has not reviewed it, and a culture of “systemic, fraudulent nondisclosure” persists in high flood risk areas.

    India reiterates plan to stop sharing of water with Pakistan - An Indian government minister reiterated on Thursday the country's plan to restrict the flow of water to Pakistan from its share of rivers, the latest effort by New Delhi to pressure its neighbour after an attack in Kashmir. "Our government has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan," Nitin Gadkari, transport and water resources minister said in a tweet. He added that the country would divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to its people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab states. Gadkari did not elaborate but officials from his ministry said he was restating decisions already taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including a dam project cleared by his cabinet last December. Officials said no new decision had been taken on Thursday. Gadkari's comments underlined New Delhi's anger over an attack by a Pakistan-based group last week in the disputed region of Kashmir, which killed 42 paramilitary police. India has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to control such groups, while Pakistan has denied involvement. The sharing of water supplies from the Indus River and its tributaries between the two countries is regulated under the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. In recent years India has begun ambitious irrigation plans and construction of many upstream dams, saying its use of upstream water is strictly in line with the treaty. Following an attack on security forces in the Kashmir town of Uri in 2016, India began to fast track development of some of the dam projects, escalating tensions between the archrivals. Pakistan has opposed some of these projects saying they violate the World Bank-mediated treaty on the sharing of the Indus waters, upon which 80 percent of its irrigated agriculture depends. 

    Flooding of mines in Zimbabwe leaves 24 dead, dozens more missing -- On Sunday, the bodies of 24 miners were recovered from Silver Moon Mine and Cricket Mine in Kadoma, after heavy rains last week caused the collapse of a dam wall, resulting in the massive flooding of the two mines. At around midnight on Wednesday, February 13, the wall of water exploded from the dam and surged into the mines, completely flooding the tunnels where several dozen miners were reported to have descended. The two mines, adjacent to one another in an area known as Battlefields, share three linked shafts which run 30 meters (about 100 feet deep) with 20-meter-wide tunnels (65 feet). The massive flood completely filled the mine’s tunnels to the surface. The town of Kadoma, over 100 miles from the capital city, Harare, is the center of mining industry in the Mashonaland West province that holds significant deposits of gold, copper and nickel. An estimated 70 miners are believed to have been inside the mine when the flood occurred. Of this number, only eight have been rescued alive. With around 40 missing and still unaccounted for, rescue workers stated to the media Sunday that they have little hope of finding survivors. Describing the terror of the moment flood waters rushed into the mines, Charles Mwenye, a 41-year-old survivor, told the UK Guardian that four friends were with him in the shaft. “I could have been the one trapped underground too. When I was on my way out of the shaft, I saw a flood coming straight in … Thank God I am alive. The police came yesterday and today but nothing has been done. All my hope is lost now.” Many of the disaster’s victims were jobless youth under the age of 30. Depicting the gravity of the tragedy, Lovejoy Mbedzi spoke to the Guardian of her brother, Evan Chibuwe, 29, who is still missing since he went into the mine. “I am very sad. This mine shaft is full of boys between the ages of 18 and 30. They are so young and don’t deserve to die in this manner.”

    It’s official: El Niño is back. Now what? -- Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that El Niño — the periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, with weather consequences worldwide — has officially arrived.  El Niño typically peaks between October and March, so it’s pretty late in the season for a new one to form. This year’s El Niño is expected to remain relatively weak, but that doesn’t mean this one won’t be felt — in fact, its cascading consequences already in motion.   El Niños normally happen every two-to-seven years, but this is already the sixth El Niño of the 21st century. It’s also the first since the so-called “Godzilla” El Niño of 2015-2016, which boosted global temperatures to all-time records, snuffed out entire coral reef ecosystems, and created havoc for about 60 million people worldwide.  . The advent of this El Niño means that 2019 is “almost certain to be another top-5 year,” wrote Gavin Schmidt director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an email to Grist. He gave “roughly 1-in-3 odds” that 2019 will surpass 2016 as the warmest year on record, thanks in part to the boost from El Niño.  Most short-term climate models show Pacific Ocean temperatures remaining unusually warm for at least the rest of this year, and a few hint that a bigger El Niño could form within about six months — though forecasting that far ahead is notoriously tricky. This winter has been warmer and wetter than usual for most of the West Coast — a classic sign of El Niño weather.   In the short term, this El Niño is likely to keep pushing stormy weather ashore out West, especially in Southern California. Judging by past weak El Niños, the rest of winter elsewhere in the country could be cooler and wetter than normal, especially for the Northeast where snow has been notably absent so far. The biggest potential consequence of this El Niño is its effect on global temperatures. Carbon dioxide is driving the long-term acceleration of global warming, of course, but there’s evidence that El Niño droughts prevent carbon dioxide uptake and permanently worsen climate change. The five warmest years in history have occurred in the past five years, and odds are that 2019 temps will rank second in all-time weather records. Should El Niño intensify later this year, 2020 would be even warmer, and may even be the first year to breach the much-feared 1.5 degree Celsius mark.

     Los Angeles sees first snow in years -- It snowed in the city of Los Angeles on Thursday, a rare event creating excitement and confusion in the metro area, according to the Los Angeles Times."At Noon, scattered rain and snow showers becoming more numerous across #SoCal," tweeted the Los Angeles branch of the National Weather Service. "Isolated thunderstorms are possible along with small hail."The NWS also explained the difference between sleet and snow to Californians on Twitter."Lots of confusion today. If precip bounces it contains ice - call it sleet or small hail," the agency tweeted. "If precip in flakes it's snow." A NWS scientist told the L.A. Times that the snow could drop as far down as 1,000 feet above sea level. Forecasters told the paper that local highways could experience significant delays. If the snow fell in downtown L.A. it would be the first time since 1962, the paper found. The Los Angeles County Sheriff and others also tweeted pictures of the snow.  

    Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish -- Malaysia has become one of the world's biggest plastic importers, taking in rubbish the rest of the world doesn't want. But one small town is paying the price for this - and it is now smothered in 17,000 tonnes of waste. It began last summer. Every night, Daniel Tay's room would be filled with an acrid smell, like rubber being burned. Coughing, his lungs would tighten. It was only later that he found the source of the smell - illegal recycling factories that were secretly burning plastic.At that point he had no idea that in 2017 China had decided to ban the import of foreign plastic waste. In that year alone it had taken in seven million tonnes of plastic scrap and many environmental campaigners considered it a victory when China clamped down. But with nowhere to go, the bulk of the plastic waste - most of it from the UK, the US and Japan - just went somewhere else and that was to Malaysia.It could have been any town but Jenjarom's proximity to Port Klang - Malaysia's largest port and the entry point for most of the country's plastic imports - made it the ideal location. From January to July 2018 alone, some 754,000 tonnes of plastic waste was imported into Malaysia. According to the State Council, there were soon 33 illegal factories in Kuala Langat - the district Jenjarom is located in. Some sprang up near dense palm oil plantations, others were closer to town. But it would be months before residents learned of their existence - and then only after the symptoms started appearing. Those who lived nearest to the factories were affected the most. Plastic waste is typically recycled into pellets, which can then be used to manufacture other types of plastic. Not all plastic can be recycled, so legal recycling plants should send unrecyclable plastics to waste centres - something which costs money. But many illegal recyling plants instead choose to dispose of it in free but unsanitary ways, either burying it or more commonly - burning.

    ‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports - The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins. Fighting pollution: Toledo residents want personhood status for Lake Erie Read more But in the past three months, half of these recyclables have been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government. It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse. The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US. About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says. “People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts,” said Zulene Mayfield, who was born and raised in Chester and now spearheads a community group against the incinerator, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. “People in Chester feel hopeless – all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?” Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester. Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics. The dilemma with what to do with items earmarked for recycling is playing out across the US. The country generates more than 250m tons of waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with about a third of this recycled and composted. 

     ‘Plastic Is Lethal’: Groundbreaking Report Reveals Health Risks at Every Stage in Plastics Life Cycle - With eight million metric tons of plastic entering the world's oceans every year, there is growing concern about the proliferation of plastics in the environment. Despite this, surprisingly little is known about the full impact of plastic pollution on human health. But a first-of-its-kind study released Tuesday sets out to change that. The study, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, is especially groundbreaking because it looks at the health impacts of every stage in the life cycle of plastics, from the extraction of the fossil fuels that make them to their permanence in the environment. While previous studies have focused on particular products, manufacturing processes or moments in the creation and use of plastics, this study shows that plastics pose serious health risks at every stage in their production, use and disposal."The heavy toxic burdens associated with plastic—at every stage of its life cycle—offers another convincing argument why reducing and not increasing production of plastics is the only way forward," report co-author and Break Free From Plastic Movement (BFFP) Global Coordinator Von Hernandez said in a press release. "It is shocking how the existing regulatory regime continues to give the whole plastic industrial complex the license to play Russian roulette with our lives and our health. Plastic is lethal, and this report shows us why." The report was a joint effort by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, UPSTREAM and BFFP. It explains in depth how each stage in the plastics life cycle puts human health at risk.

    Plastics reach remote pristine environments, scientists say - Scientists have warned about the impact of plastic pollution in the most pristine corners of the world after discovering chemical additives in birds’ eggs in the High Arctic.Eggs laid by northern fulmars on Prince Leopold Island in the Canadian Arctic tested positive for hormone-disrupting phthalates, a family of chemicals that are added to plastics to keep them flexible. It is the first time the additives have been found in Arctic birds’ eggs.The contaminants are thought to have leached from plastic debris that the birds ingested while hunting for fish, squid and shrimp in the Lancaster Sound at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The birds spend most of their lives feeding at sea, returning to their nests only to breed. Northern fulmars have an oily fluid in their stomachs, which they projectile-vomit at invaders that threaten their nests. Scientists believe the phthalates found their way into the fluid, and from there passed into the bloodstream and the eggs that females were producing.Jennifer Provencher at the Canadian Wildlife Service said it was worrying to find the additives in the eggs of birds in such a pristine environment. The northern fulmars in the Arctic tend to come across far less plastic than other birds. Provencher’s tests revealed that mothers passed on a cocktail of contaminants to their unborn chicks. “It’s really tragic,” she said at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. “That bird, from the very beginning of its development, will have those contaminants inside it.”

    Plastic Contaminants Found in Eggs of Some of the World's Most Isolated Birds - Plastics have been recorded in every corner of the world, from the remote icy waters of Antarctica to thebellies of deep-sea fishes. Now, preliminary findings presented at this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC suggest that bird eggs from the highArctic—one of the most remote wildernesses on the planet—show evidence of contamination from chemicals used in plastics. Roughly 20 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean each year, reports Jennifer Provencher of the Canadian Wildlife Service in her findings. Of these, many contain a hormone-disrupting chemical called phthalates. When birds mistake plastic products like bottle caps or cigarette butts for food, the chemicals from these plastics may leach off a mother's blood system and, as it turns out, get passed down to the eggs encasing their unborn chicks."Plastic ingestion reported in seabirds since in the 1980s represents one of the most standardized and widely applied marine plastic data sets available," wrote Provencher in her presentation summary. Northern fulmars are large birds similar to albatrosses and spend the majority of their life flying low over the waves in search of food only to return to shore to breed. Researchers tested the eggs of northern fulmar populations in the Lancaster Sound, a remote channel that marks the eastern entrance to Canada's Northwest Passage and is located more than 100 miles from the nearest human establishment. Of five eggs tested, one tested positive for traces of phthalates. Given their home in one of the most isolated wildernesses on the planet, the northern fulmars tested likely ingest far less plastic than birds found in places where plastic consumption is much higher. The problem is believed to be much more widespread than initial findings suggest. "Tracking plastic pollution via seabirds has informed policy reduction targets in Europe, but as we learn more about the source and fate of plastic pollution standardized methods are allowing us to gain insight [into] how plastics may be vectors for chemical contaminants in biota, and how birds may be a vector themselves for plastics to move from the marine to the terrestrial environment, illustrating the widespread impact plastics may have on ecosystem health," reads the presentation summary.

    First Mammal Driven to Extinction by Human-Caused Climate Change Is Australian Rodent - A small Australian rat that lived on a 12 acre island in the Great Barrier Reef has become the first mammal to go extinct primarily because of human-caused climate change, the Australian Government confirmed Monday. The Bramble Cay melomys was first declared extinct after a 2014 search on Bramble Cay, its native island in the Torres Strait, between Queensland, Australia and Papua New Guinea, according to a 2016 report by the University of Queensland and the Queensland government. "The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals," the report authors concluded. "Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys." Charles Darwin University professor John Woinarski, who has worked on the species, told the program Hack on Australia's ABC News that a 2008 recovery plan drafted for the species was never implemented. "It suffered from living a long way away from anywhere else, and being a rat and being not particularly attractive. It didn't have much public advocacy for it."  Researchers believe there were several hundreds of the species on the island in the 1970s, but its numbers had fallen enough by the 1990s that it was listed as endangered, CNN reported. An attempt to save the species with a captive breeding program took place too late. When researchers went to search for the melomys in 2015, they could not find a single rat left, according to Hack.

    California has 149 million dead, dry trees ready to ignite like a matchbook - California has just emerged from two back-to-back years of record-setting wildfires, including the Camp Fire, the state’s single most deadly and destructive blaze on record, which killed at least 86 people in October 2018.On Monday, the state received a fresh warning sign of why the risks of massive, devastating blazes like it are growing.According to the US Forest Service’s latest aerial survey of federal, state, and private land in California, 18 million trees throughout the state died in 2018, bringing the state’s total number of dead trees to more than 147 million. The concern is these trees could be matchsticks for another conflagration, or that the decaying timber could maim a hiker, a ranger, or a firefighter.The 2018 results actually represent a decrease in tree deaths compared to 2017 and 2016. But they’re still far above what’s considered typical. “Normal background levels of tree mortality for California, what we would typically see through both insects and diseases, is well less than a million trees per year,” said Sheri Smith, a regional entomologist at the US Forest Service. So why are so many Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and quaking aspen in California’s forests dying? There’s no single reason — but the combination of years of drought, extreme heat, and bark beetle infestations are causing trees to splinter and wither. You can see how this wave of tree deaths has spread since 2014 through private, state, and national forests in California in this GIF:

     Massive restoration of world’s forests would cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions, analysis suggests --Replenishing the world’s forests on a grand scale would suck enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to cancel out a decade of human emissions, according to an ambitious new study.Scientists have established there is room for an additional 1.2 trillion trees to grow in parks, woods and abandoned land across the planet.If such a goal were accomplished, ecologist Dr Thomas Crowther said it would outstrip every other method for tackling climate change – from building wind turbines to vegetarian diets. Lack of accurate information meant for years experts severely underestimated the number of trees on Earth.Combining data from ground-based surveys and satellites, Dr Crowther and his colleagues arrived at a figure of three trillion – over seven times more than a previous Nasa estimate.The same approach, using machine learning and AI to analyse the enormous data set, allowed the researchers to predict the number of trees that could feasibly be planted in empty patches around the world.Dr Crowther said undervaluing trees means scientists have also been massively underestimating the potential for forests to combat climate change.

    The Issue With Tissue and Toilet Paper: How the U.S. Is Flushing Forests Away - For most people, toilet paper is cheap and it's convenient, something we don't need to think twice about. But toilet paper's ubiquity and low sticker price belie a much, much higher cost: it is taking a dramatic and irreversible toll on the Canadian boreal forest, and our global climate. As a new report from NRDC and Stand.earth outlines, when you flush that toilet paper, chances are you are flushing away part of a majestic, old-growth tree ripped from the ground, and destined for the drain. This is why NRDC is calling on Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Charmin, to end this wasteful and destructive practice by changing the way it makes its toilet paper through solutions that other companies have already embraced.  The Canadian boreal forest is the largest intact forest in the world, holding immense value for Indigenous Peoples, species and the climate. It is home to over 600 Indigenous communities whose cultures have remained inextricably linked to the forest for millennia, and is habitat for iconic species like the boreal caribou, Canada lynx and American marten. In addition, the forest is critical in the fight against climate change, storing the carbon equivalent of nearly twice the world's recoverable oil reserves in its soil.  Yet, this forest is under severe threat from industrial logging operations that push further into intact boreal forests each day. Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Ohio. Each year, boreal logging emits hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, dramatically accelerating the pace of climate change. Much of this logging goes to feed global demand for tissue pulp—especially in the U.S. The Canadian boreal is a major source of northern bleached softwood kraft (NBSK) pulp, the U.S.'s most favored grade of virgin softwood pulp for tissue products. The average four-person household in the U.S. uses over 100 pounds of toilet paper a year, far outpacing the rest of the world and driving a dangerous "tree-to-toilet pipeline" whereby trees are converted into pulp, turned into toilet paper, and flushed away.  Fortunately, alternatives to the "tree-to-toilet" pipeline already exist. Tissue products made from recycled materials are far more sustainable because they do not rely on clearcutting forests and they emit one-third the greenhouse gases as tissue products made from virgin fiber.

    Himalayan emergency- It’s not too late to prevent melting glaciers - THE newly released Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) Assessment was yet another scientific call for action on climate change – this time in the Himalayas, also known as the ‘Water Towers of Asia’ because it is from there that all ten major rivers of Asia originate. These rivers provide water, food, and energy for around a third of humanity – approximately two billion people in Asia – and as such, the state of these rivers, glaciers, groundwater, and rain that feed these rivers is of immense importance, not only for the region, but for the entire world. The part of the report that received the most media attention, and understandably so, was the scientific consensus on melting of glaciers: around a third of Himalayan glaciers are likely to melt by 2100, even if the increasingly unlikely climate target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is met. If not, and if business was to carry on as usual, almost 67 per cent of glaciers will melt by 2100 – bringing in a fundamental change in the Himalayan landscape, with profound and long-lasting impacts on humanity. Some of these impacts that the report highlighted were: increased frequency of extreme events like floods, changes in river regimes with higher uncertainty in lean season flows, and drying up of local water sources including the fragile mountain springs. These, in turn, would impact overall water, energy, and food security in the region – a region which is already a hotspot of global poverty and distress. What was less highlighted in media reports were the solutions and the way forward. 

    Tourists Are Trashing the World’s Tallest Mountain, So China Has Banned Them From Its Base Camp - China has closed its Everest base camp to tourists because of a buildup of trash on the world's tallest mountain. The move comes as the Tibet Autonomous Region Sports Bureau said it had collected 8.4 metric tons (approximately 9.3 U.S. tons) of waste, including garbage and human waste, from the core area of the mountain last climbing season, ABC reported. "[N]o unit or individuals are allowed entry into the core area of the Mount Qomolangma National Nature Reserve," notices posted by the local government in Dingri County, Tibet, read. Qomolangma is what Everest is called in Tibet. While ABC News reported that the notices first appeared in December of 2018, the story has only been widely reported internationally in recent days, according to The Huffington Post. Qomolangma National Nature Reserve Deputy Director Gesang Droma told ABC News that researchers and mountain climbers would still be able to access the mountain from the Chinese side with permits. The People's Daily said that only 300 permits would be granted this year. Tourists who want to view the north face of the mountain can still do so from the Rongbuk Monastery about a mile away from the base camp.

    Sharp rise in methane levels threatens world climate targets - Dramatic rises in atmospheric methane are threatening to derail plans to hold global temperature rises to 2C, scientists have warned. In a paper published this month by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say sharp rises in levels of methane – which is a powerful greenhouse gas – have strengthened over the past four years. Urgent action is now required to halt further increases in methane in the atmosphere, to avoid triggering enhanced global warming and temperature rises well beyond 2C. “What we are now witnessing is extremely worrying,” said one of the paper’s lead authors, Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London. “It is particularly alarming because we are still not sure why atmospheric methane levels are rising across the planet.” Methane is produced by cattle, and also comes from decaying vegetation, fires, coal mines and natural gas plants. It is many times more potent as a cause of atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it breaks down much more quickly than CO2 and is found at much lower levels in the atmosphere. During much of the 20th century, levels of methane, mostly from fossil fuel sources, increased in the atmosphere but, by the beginning of the 21st century, it had stabilised, said Nisbet. “Then, to our surprise, levels starting rising in 2007. That increase began to accelerate after 2014 and fast growth has continued.” Studies suggest these increases are more likely to be mainly biological in origin. However, the exact cause remains unclear. Some researchers believe the spread of intense farming in Africa may be involved, in particular in tropical regions where conditions are becoming warmer and wetter because of climate change. “We have only just started analysing our data but have already found evidence that a great plume of methane now rises above the wetland swamps of Lake Bangweul in Zambia,” added Nisbet. However, other scientists warn that there could be a more sinister factor at work. Natural chemicals in the atmosphere – which help to break down methane – may be changing because of temperature rises, causing it to lose its ability to deal with the gas. Our world could therefore be losing its power to cleanse pollutants because it is heating up, a climate feedback in which warming allows more greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere and so trigger even more warming. 

    Earlier Arctic Rain Is Leading to 'Methane Emissions Going Bonkers' -- Researchers who monitored one bog for three years in the Alaskan permafrost have identified yet another instance of what engineers call positive feedback. They found that global warming meant earlier springs and with that, earlier spring rains.  And as a consequence, the influx of warm water on what had previously been frozen ground triggered a biological frenzy that sent methane emissions soaring.  As a consequence, climate scientists may have to return yet again to the vexed question of the carbon budget, in their calculations of how fast the world will warm as humans burn more fossil fuels, to set up ever more rapid global warming and climate change, which will in turn accelerate the thawing of the permafrost.  The evidence so far comes from a detailed study of water, energy and carbon traffic from just one wetland. But other teams of scientists have repeatedly expressed concern about the integrity of the northern hemisphere permafrost and the vast stores of carbon preserved in the frozen soils, beneath the shallow layer that comes to life with each Arctic spring. "We saw the plants going crazy and methane emissions going bonkers," said Rebecca Neumann, an environmental engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, who led the study. "2016 had above average rainfall, but so did 2014. So what was different about this year?"What mattered was when the rain fell: it fell earlier, when the ground was still colder than the air. The warmer water saturated the frozen forest, flowed into the bog, and created a local permafrost thaw in anoxic conditions: the subterranean microbial communities responded by converting the once-frozen organic matter into a highly effective greenhouse gas.

    The permafrost bomb is ticking – Yale - About a fifth of the Northern Hemisphere landmass is permafrost, ground that has been mostly frozen for half a million years or more. Now there are signs of thaw appearing in many places across this vast landscape circling the Arctic, and at accelerated rates.  It is only a matter of time until the incremental thawing of the permafrost reaches a tipping point of no return, a state of accelerated and irreversible change, the side effects of which might well push other parts of the Arctic beyond their own tipping points. Quite possibly, we are poised to witness such a transformation within our lifetimes – ice sheet loss, increased frequencies of fires in the tundra and boreal forests, and complete habitat loss for marine mammals, to name just a few examples of the changes that could occur.  The major side effect of a thawing permafrost is that it will further enhance global warming with the release of large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The permafrost contains organic matter, and thawing will enable bacterial decomposition that will release methane as a byproduct of anaerobic respiration.  The permafrost is not the only climatic system that is susceptible to abrupt regime shifts – the Greenland Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice sheet, and numerous ice shelves in both hemispheres have the potential to undergo abrupt and irreversible change in their state. However, the permafrost is likely one of the fastest to respond, given its southward extent and the existence of positive feedback loops – vicious circles that can amplify the thawing initiated by human-caused warming. The question is, where is the tipping point? The past history of permafrost thawing might give a few clues.

    Methane hydrates: Why scientists worry less than you might think -  Yale - The blogosphere for years has been abuzz, and particularly in recent weeks, with information – and, equally importantly, misinformation – about the near-term risks posed by uncontrollable and potentially catastrophic releases of large Arctic deposits of methane hydrates, ice-like substances holding a powerful greenhouse gas. Highly vocal have been voices cautioning about existing or perhaps imminent methane releases to the atmosphere, resulting in global catastrophe or cataclysm and threatening human civilization.Such concerned voices in recent weeks are the focus of this post, as many appear to be in response to the January 29 post of videographer Peter Sinclair’s monthly video, at this site. That video included interviews with several highly regarded experts pushing back on the doom-and-gloom “methane time bomb” meme.It’s no surprise that some of those recent and ongoing online commentaries mischaracterize the expert perspectives reflected in that January 29 video. One comes to expect that of the online world of commentary and hyperbole. Carolyn Ruppel, PhD, who heads the gas hydrates research project for the United States Geological Survey, USGS, is among those featured in that video, along with other reputable scientists.But given constraints on how much information could be included in that single six-minute video, we provide here six brief educational videos – ranging from one minute to nearly five minutes – drawn from the Ruppel interview remarks not included in that initial video. These six segments provide authoritative background on the “methane time bomb” and why experts may not “lie awake at night” fretting about it.

    School pupils call for radical climate action in UK-wide strike - Thousands of schoolchildren and young people have walked out of classes to join a UK-wide climate strike amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis. Organisers said more than 10,000 young people in at least 60 towns and cities from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall joined the strike, defying threats of detention to voice their frustration at the older generation’s inaction on the environmental impact of climate change. Anna Taylor, 17, one of the most prominent voices to emerge from the new movement, said the turnout had been overwhelming. “It goes some way to proving that young people aren’t apathetic, we’re passionate, articulate and we’re ready to continue demonstrating the need for urgent and radical climate action.” Organisers estimated around 3,000 schoolchildren and young people gathered in London, with 2,000 in Oxford, 1,000 each in Exeter and Leeds and several hundred in Brighton, Bristol, Sheffield and Glasgow. In London, the protesters held banners and chanted as police and onlookers watched. They blocked the roads outside parliament chanting “Turn off your engines” at passing cars, and “We want the chance for change now” before mounted police moved them away. There were three arrests in London in connection with the protests. A 19-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl were arrested for obstructing the highway, and a 17-year-old boy for a public order offence. In Manchester, hundreds gathered outside the Central Library before marching to the Royal Northern College of Music with signs reading “Climate over capitalism” and chanting “Whose future? Our future.” Matt Sourby, 18, said his journey from Queen Elizabeth school in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, was worth it: “This is our future and this is making a difference. The government has to listen. I feel incredibly powerful just being here.” 

    My generation trashed the planet. So I salute the children striking back - George Monbiot -- The Youth Strike 4 Climate gives me more hope than I have felt in 30 years of campaigning. Before this week, I believed it was all over. I thought, given the indifference and hostility of those who govern us, and the passivity of most of my generation, that climate breakdown and ecological collapse were inevitable. Now, for the first time in years, I think we can turn them around.My generation and the generations that went before have failed you. We failed to grasp the basic premise of intergenerational justice: that you cannot apply discount rates to human life. In other words, the life of someone who has not been born will be of no less value than the life of someone who already exists. We have lived as if your lives had no importance, as if any resource we encountered was ours and ours alone to use as we wished, regardless of the impact on future generations. In doing so, we created a cannibal economy: we ate your future to satisfy our greed.It is true that the people of my generation are not equally to blame. Broadly speaking, ours is a society of altruists governed by psychopaths. We have allowed a tiny number of phenomenally rich people, and the destructive politicians they fund, to trash our life-support systems. While some carry more blame than others, our failure to challenge the oligarchs who are sacking the Earth and to overthrow their illegitimate power, is a collective failure. Together, we have bequeathed you a world that – without drastic and decisive action – may soon become uninhabitable. Every day at home, we tell you that if you make a mess you should clear it up. We tell you that you should take responsibility for your own lives. But we have failed to apply these principles to ourselves. We walk away from the mess we have made, in the hope that you might clear it up.

    Gaslighting the climate-striking students - “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” a quote commonly misattributed to Gandhi, nevertheless encapsulates his understanding and that of many other social justice leaders. Given the recent attacks against hundreds of thousands of climate-striking students, though, it is clear that it misses a stage: right after they ignore you, they gaslight you.  Gaslighting means to manipulate someone’s perception of reality so that they doubt their own sanity. Right now, we are seeing world leaders, government ministers, editors of major media, all lining up to try to gaslight us, their citizens, the public. They want us to disbelieve our own eyes and ears, our own minds, reasoning and emotions — because the alternative is simply impossible for them to bear. They cannot bear the fact, the reality, that a new generation is rising up and raising its voice, showing its power through striking and non-violent civil disobedience, demanding a habitable planet, and thus casting a bright spotlight on the older generation’s abject failure to curb the power of fossil-fueled industries and halt climate breakdown. Since Greta Thunberg started the student strike for climate movement, it was perhaps only to be expected that various rumor-mongers, unable to attack the crystal-clarity of the message, would attack the messenger instead. It was heartbreaking to read Greta’s response: a 16-year-old with the weight of the world on her shoulders, being distracted from her mission, having to spend any time at all responding to such baseless attacks.The goal of Greta’s attackers was clear: to discredit the climate-strike movement by manufacturing doubt in the integrity of its foremost leader. Unfortunately for them, Greta’s integrity is so large, it can be seen from space. It shine out in her TED talk. We can trust our eyes and ears and reason and emotions: based on her own intellect and reasoning, Greta is demanding of all of us that we stand up and act with all our might, in all ways possible, to stop climate breakdown.

    EU's Juncker proposes billions of spending on climate change after a 16-year-old's speech - The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said Thursday that a quarter of the European Union's (EU) budget would be spent on tackling climate change."In the next financial period, 2021 to 2027, every fourth euro spent within the EU budget will go towards climate mitigation actions," Juncker said."That is our goal, to ensure that a fourth of the budget goes towards climate change mitigation, and this is going to be a paradigm shift," he added.The EU budget is usually one percent of its economic output, or 1 trillion euros ($1.13 trillion) across seven years, according to Reuters.Juncker's comments came after Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, spoke at the same plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels. "We know that most politicians don't want to talk to us," she said. "Good. We don't want to talk to them either," she added. "We want them to talk to the scientists instead. Listen to them, because we are just repeating what they are saying, and have been saying, for decades."   Since starting a protest outside the Swedish parliament in 2018,Thunberg has risen to global prominence, becoming the figurehead for a series of school strikes by children around the world.

    Dianne Feinstein Snaps At Group Of Environmental Activist Children - A highly-edited video making the rounds shows Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) lecturing a group of climate activist children on Friday, after she was asked to support the Green New Deal championed by the DNC's "new hotness," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Armed with an impassioned letter and memorized talking points, the children belonging to three Bay Area environmentalist groups (Sunrise Bay Area, Youth Versus the Apocalypse, and Earth Guardians San Francisco) implored Feinstein to support the Green New Deal. The Senator responded: "Ok, I'll tell you what. We have our own Green New Deal." The video skips forward to the children warning Feinstein that "some scientists have said that we have 12 years to turn this around" - referring to a conclusion by a recent UN-backed report that man-made climate change will become irreversible if carbon emissions are not significantly reduced over the next 12 years (which Ocasio-Cortez turned into "the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don't address climate change"). "It's not gonna get turned around in 10 years," responded Feinstein - drawing a harsh rebuke from an angry chaperone. "Senator if this doesn't get turned around in 10 years you're looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with these consequences," said the adult - as one of the children chimed in "the government is supposed to be for the people and by the people and for all the people!" Feinstein was not amused. I've been doing this for 30 years. I know what I'm doing. You come in here and you say "it has to be my way or the highway." "I don't respond to that," shot back Feinstein. "I've gotten elected. I just ran. I was elected by almost a million vote plurality. And, I know what I'm doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.   One kid shot back "I hear what you're saying but we're the people who voted you. You're supposed to listen to us, that's your job." "How old are you?" challenged Feinstein. "I'm 16. I can't vote," said the girl. "Well you didn't vote for me," replied the Senator. 

    'Bring It On': Green New Deal Champions Welcome McConnell's Cynical Ploy for Up-or-Down Vote - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to believe that he can divide and embarrass the Democratic Party by rushing ahead with a vote on the newly introduced Green New Deal resolution.  But, confident that the calculated ploy will backfire on the GOP, climate groups and progressive lawmakers are telling the Republican leader: "Bring it on."  After McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he plans to hold a floor vote the Green New Deal plan unveiled last week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), environmentalists and progressive members of Congress argued that rather than revealing deep rifts in the Democratic Party, an up-or-down vote will spotlight the GOP's total opposition to a widely popular policy that represents the best hope of adequately confronting the climate crisis."Republicans don't want to debate climate change, they only want to deny it," Markey said in a statement after McConnell's announcement. "They have offered no plan to address this economic and national security threat and want to sabotage any effort that makes Big Oil and corporate polluters pay."Since the Green New Deal resolution was introduced last week, President Donald Trump, Republican lawmakers, and right-wing pundits have spread hysterical falsehoods about the measure and decried it as a "socialist fever dream" that would be political suicide for Democrats to support.But, noting that the Green New Deal is extremely popular among the U.S. public—with one survey showing that 57 percent of Republican voters and 81 percent of Americans overall support the ambitious idea—Markey concluded that "Republicans, climate deniers, and the fossil fuel industry are going to end up on the wrong side of history."

    America’s trains are a drag. The Green New Deal wants to fix that - Ever since the midterm elections, there’s been quite a bit of buzz about the possibility of aGreen New Deal, a comprehensive national plan to tackle climate change and inequality all in one. On February 7, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) finally unveiled a resolution on Capitol Hill. Rather than a set of distinct policies, it’s more of a set of goalposts with ambitions for fighting climate change and transitioning the economy in a just way.  Because it’s so vague in its particulars, the resolution has become something of a Rorschach test as observers try to figure out how a Green New Deal would materialize in the real world.   The resolution itself doesn’t mention air travel at all but does call for the goal of “investing in ... clean, affordable, and accessible transportation; and high-speed rail” as part of a 10-year national mobilization. For a big, ambitious plan to fight climate change, it would make perfect sense to target transit in general and air travel in particular. Transportation — planes, cars, shipping — is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Surging air travel demand helped fuel the rise in US emissions after years of decline. And aircraft are extremely difficult to decarbonize. While electrification is coming for cars, trucks, and buses, no battery or fuel cell is going to fly anyone across the Pacific anytime soon. So alternatives to flying tend stand to be better for the environment. The International Energy Association noted this month in its Future of Rail report that trains carry 8 percent of the world’s motorized passengers and 7 percent of freight, yet use just 2 percent of the energy consumed in the transportation sector. That means trains are a very energy-efficient way to get around.

    The War On Climate Change Won’t Be Won Quibbling Over The Green New Deal’s Costs -  The Green New Deal unveiled last week by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is a powerful and ambitious statement. It’s more than just a delineation of the enormous changes that will be required to stave off the most cataclysmic impacts of climate warming. It offers a portrait of the better world we can create by doing so.It also has no chance of becoming law, not while Republicans control the Senate and climate change denier Donald Trump resides in the White House.Markey and Ocasio-Cortez know this. That’s why the Green New Deal is framed as a joint resolution, not a formal law, meaning even if it passed, the measure wouldn’t bind the government to any new policies. This distinction is key to understanding what the Green New Deal is — and is not — and how to usefully talk about it now. It is a major statement of the Democratic Party’s political priorities. It is not a detailed blueprint of how to get there — or how to pay for it.The Green New Deal’s agenda, however, is clear: Dramatic action must be taken to avert a climate disaster that will otherwise render much of the world uninhabitable. This is an emergency that deserves immediate attention. Millions of lives are quite literally at stake.Instead of extreme weather disasters, famines and wars over natural resources, the Green New Deal envisions a future in which our nation overcomes its addiction to oil, gas and coal. The federal government would need so many workers to deploy renewable energy, retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient and construct more durable infrastructure that it could guarantee a job to every American who wants one. Those jobs would pay well and offer union protections. And because climate change touches on every facet of life, the transition away from fossil fuels would happen alongside a rapid expansion of safeguards for Americans already suffering the ill effects of dirty energy, from poisoned waterways to the coal industry’s monopolistic domination of entire regional economies.One priority the Green New Deal does not include? Balancing the federal budget. Neither the Green New Deal legislation nor an FAQ released by Ocasio-Cortez last week included a detailed set of plans about how to pay for it.

    Green New Deal is feasible and affordable - Jeffrey Sachs - There are three main ideas of the Green New Deal Resolution introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.  The first is to decarbonize the US energy system -- that is, to end the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning coal, oil and natural gas, in order to stop global warming. The second is to guarantee lower-cost, high-quality health coverage for all.The third is to ensure decent jobs and living standards for all Americans, in part by making colleges and vocational schools affordable for all.The right wing and corporate lobbies are already hyperventilating: It is unachievable; it will bankrupt us; it will make us into Venezuela.These claims are dead wrong. The Green New Deal agenda is both feasible and affordable. This will become clear as the agenda is turned into specific legislation for energy, health care, higher education, and more.The Green New Deal combines ideas across several parts of the economy because the ultimate goal is sustainable development. That means an economy that delivers a package deal: good incomes, social fairness, and environmental sustainability. Around the world, governments are aiming for the same end -- a "triple-bottom line" of economic, social, and environmental objectives. In the US, the economy is feeding the wealth of billionaires while leaving tens of millions of households with no financial cushion at all. Meanwhile, the fossil-fuel lobby continues to endanger the planet by promoting the use of fuels that contribute to climate change, raising the risk of mega-floods, droughts, hurricanes, and heat waves, claiming many lives and costing the US more than $450 billion during 2016-18, or more than $150 billion per year on average. The key ideas of the Green New Deal -- decarbonization, lower-cost health care, and decent living standards for the working class -- have been studied for years. The Green New Deal Resolution is the opportunity, finally, to put that vast knowledge into effect. What is absolutely clear is that the Green New Deal is affordable. The claims about the unaffordability of these goals are pure hype. The detailed plans that will emerge in the coming months will expose the bluster.

    The Green New Deal Isn’t Too Expensive. Doing Nothing Is. When the Japanese attacked American forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America responded with a historic mobilization of physical and economic resources to overcome the threat of global fascism. In addition to over 400,000 American dead, the United States spent over $4 trillion in today’s dollars and reoriented entire sectors of its economy to the war effort. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the United States once again spent enormous resources in reaction: the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already totaled over $6 trillion and counting, even as the United States government added a whole new cabinet department and put itself on a permanent war footing. Few questioned the necessity of dealing with Al Qaeda or the Axis Powers, and those who did were rarely taken seriously in the public discourse.  But even now in 2019, decades after most policymakers became aware of the dire threat to all of human civilization and most of the world’s species presented by climate change and thirteen years after the documentary An Inconvenient Truth exploded the issue into the national consciousness, the nation remains at a standstill, paralyzed in inaction. It’s not because the public isn’t aware of the crisis: over 80% of registered voters support dramatic action to deal with climate change. But climate change wasn’t even a major issue in the 2016 presidential election, barely registered as a question in any of the debates, and a bitterly fought election saw the installation by minority vote of a conspiracy-addled president who refuses to acknowledge the reality of the crisis and insists on attempting to exacerbate it by promoting fossil fuel interests.

    The Green New Deal’s Huge Flaw - There might be no better monument to the limits of American environmentalism in the climate change era than a parking garage in Berkeley, California. It’s got “rooftop solar, electric-vehicle charging stations, and dedicated spots for car-share vehicles, rainwater capture, and water treatment features” — not to mention 720 parking spots. It cost nearly $40 million to build. At night, it positively glows. And it’s a block from the downtown Berkeley BART station. That America’s most famous progressive city, one where nearly everything is within walking distance, spent $40 million to renovate a parking garage one block from a subway station suggests that progressive Democrats remain unwilling to seriously confront the crisis of climate change. America’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation. In California, the proportion of CO2 from transportation is even higher: above 40 percent. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín anticipates that the Center Street Parking Garage will out-green all others in the state with a LEED Silver rating, making it a perfect example of our approach to climate change: glibly “greening” the lives we live now, rather than contemplating the future generations who will have to live here too. On Thursday, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey unveiled just such a fix: the Green New Deal, a proposal that bills itself as a plan for the environment and the economy in equal measure. It is designed to steer America toward a low-carbon economy, fulfill the right to clean air and clean water, restore the American landscape, strengthen urban sustainability and resilience, and put a generation to work. But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography — where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places — is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

    Green New Deal: Some Democrats on the fence - A resolution outlining the goals of the Green New Deal capped off its first week of a somewhat messy rollout with mixed reviews, even from typically Democratic strongholds like labor unions. In the House, the top two Democrats who would oversee any legislation that comes out of the plan have remained reluctant to fully endorse it, stopping at lauding the goals and the enthusiasm behind them. And Republicans quickly branded the Green New Deal as an extreme, socialist plan with unrealistic proposals to eliminate air travel and cows. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-New York, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, said he embraces the “goals and principles” of the Green New Deal resolution, but did not endorse the broader plan to radically remake the U.S. economy to combat climate change and make the country more resilient. “I appreciate the consciousness that they've raised among Americans coast to coast, but I think my role as chairman and the role of the subcommittee ... is to design and develop the tools that get us to those goals and that will be done on science-based, evidence-based grounding,” he said.   One of the key selling points of the Green New Deal is that it would create “millions” of jobs, with Markey describing it as “the greatest blue collar job-creation program” in a generation. While it stipulates that those jobs would be family-sustaining union jobs, collective bargaining groups have not been quick to embrace the plan, and at least one major union has rejected the plan for fear of the disruption it would wreak on some industries. “We don’t think this is very well thought through. .... This looks like a fairy tale to us,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said.

    New Report Warns Geoengineering the Climate Is a 'Risky Distraction' - A new report makes the case that the fossil fuel industry prefers geoengineering as an approach for addressing climate change because it allows the industry to keep arguing for continued fossil fuel use. In Fuel to the Fire: How Geoengineering Threatens to Entrench Fossil Fuels and Accelerate the Climate Crisis, the Center for International Environmental Law (CEIL) warns that geoengineering, which includes technologies to remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide and to shoot particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight, potentially offers more of a problem for the climate than a solution.“Our research shows that nearly all proposed geoengineering strategies fail a fundamental test: do they reduce emissions and help end our reliance on fossil fuels?” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett, who co-authored the report with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  The report's title page features a quote from former ExxonMobil CEO (and former Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson that highlights the appeal of geoengineering to his industry:“It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions … The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this [burning fossil fuels], I do not accept.” Inventing new technological solutions to deal with climate change has an obvious allure, and the mainstream media offers a steady flow of stories supporting this concept, but only according to the headlines.  The technology touted currently has no way of being scaled up to a level where it could have an actual impact on the climate — and even if it were possible — would be decades away. Decades the world doesn't have to wait.

    Trump administration quits fuel efficiency talks with California -- The Trump administration has broken off talks with the California Air Resources Board over vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and is on track to roll back standards set by President Barack Obama, the White House said in a statement Thursday. The breakdown sets up a potential clash over the state’s long-standing ability to set its own more stringent standards for tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency, a power the courts have upheld for the past half-century. California and 19 other states have demanded the Trump administration abandon the rollback. The administration has vowed to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks at 2020 levels, undoing a regulation Obama established to reduce oil imports, slash carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change, improve public health and save consumers money without compromising safety. It argues that the Obama-era requirements would make vehicles more expensive and encourage people to stick with older, less-safe cars and trucks. “Despite the administration’s best efforts to reach a common-sense solution, it is time to acknowledge that CARB [the California Air Resources Board] has failed to put forward a productive alternative,” the White House said in a joint statement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department. However, some California officials said real talks never really began. They said sessions between the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and CARB were not substantive and never progressed into the nitty-gritty of policy negotiations. “The administration broke off communications before Christmas and never responded to our suggested areas of compromise — or offered any compromise proposal at all,” California’s power to set its own standards dates back to 1967 legislation and has been reaffirmed every time Congress amended the law. “It is tempting to see this feud as just another in a series of squabbles between the administration and California. However, the state’s independent regulatory authority to set more stringent fuel-efficiency standards was set by Congress over 50 years ago,” 

    The basic metals industry is one of the world’s largest industrial energy users - The industrial sector is the largest user of energy in the world, accounting for approximately 55% of world delivered energy in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency. Within the industrial sector, the basic metal industry is one of the largest energy users, accounting for 12% of global industrial sector energy use. The basic metals industry includes the manufacture of iron, steel, aluminum, and other intermediate metal goods. Some of the main products of the basic metals industry include steel girders, aluminum sheets, and copper wire. Large amounts of energy are needed to heat ovens for melting and manipulating raw ores and metal. In some parts of the basic metals industry, the selection of fuel is also driven by important chemical factors, such as the need for coking (or metallurgical) coal used in iron smelting. In addition, just as energy is an important input for the basic metals industry, metal goods are an important part of the energy system: equipment, pipelines, wires, and structural materials are used by the mining, refining, and electricity industries to produce and transport energy.  Because energy is a main input to the basic metals industry, the energy intensity of the industry, or energy consumed per unit of output, is relatively high compared with other industries. However, the energy intensity of the basic metals industries varies widely by region. According to EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2018, Russia was the most energy-intensive producer of all basic metal goods in 2015, with an average energy intensity of 68,000 British thermal units (Btu) per dollar, followed by Australia and New Zealand with an average intensity of 17,000 Btu/dollar.  Manufacturing iron, steel, and aluminum involves processing raw ores, which is the most energy intensive process in the basic metals industry. The reason these countries process such high levels of the ores necessary for iron, steel, and aluminum is partly because these natural resources are produced in their countries. In comparison, the energy intensity of the U.S. basic metal industry is much lower, at 8,000 Btu/dollar, because the industry is more diverse in the metals and stages along the processing path, such as recycling or producing intermediate parts.

     Acid Spill on Vehicles Near Glencore Mine Kills 18 People - At least 18 people died when a truck transporting sulphuric acid to a mine owned by Glencore Plc in the Democratic Republic of Congo crashed and spilled its contents onto two vehicles, a provincial health minister said.The tanker was heading to the Mutanda Mine, a copper and cobalt operation near Kolwezi in the southeast of the country, Lualaba province Health Minister Samy Kayombo Mukanza said. Nine people are also injured, he said.“The acid was sprayed over people and vehicles,” Jean-Marie Tshizainga, mines minister for the province, said. The accident occurred on Feb. 20 about 50 kilometers (35 miles) from the mine, whose officials assisted in the rescue operation, Glencore said in an emailed statement. The truck belonged to a logistics company contracted by the mine, it said.

    Georgetown wants to raze 210 acres of trees to meet green-energy goals. Environmentalists are crying foul. - Environmentalists are in a position they never imagined: Fighting a solar panel project that would help Georgetown University dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.They say the project, which involves razing about 210 acres of trees in rural Charles County, Md., could endanger the area’s birds and lead to runoff that would put tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay at risk.Leaders at the solar company hired by Georgetown counter that they are prioritizing the safety of the bay but that “trade-offs are necessary” in renewable energy projects. Reductions in greenhouse emissions from the solar panels, they say, would be equivalent to planting hundreds of thousands of trees.Fights like this one are increasingly common as public and private entities turn to solar and wind energy, leading to debates about where projects should be located.  “Green projects do not destroy green resources,” said Linda Redding, an accountant from La Plata who is part of a determined group of environmentalists from Charles and Prince George’s counties opposing the project. “If you destroy what is saving our climate in the name of fighting climate change, the effort is hollow.” The activists accuse Georgetown and Origis Energy of “green-washing” and are hoping to convince the Maryland Department of the Environment to deny a needed permit. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27. 

    New bill is “clear attempt by MidAmerican to monopolize the sun in Iowa”  - A new bill backed by MidAmerican Energy would devastate the ability of Iowans to install solar panels for their homes or businesses. House Study Bill 185 would undo a longstanding policy of net metering, which “allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.” Iowans served by monopoly providers MidAmerican or Alliant Energy have been able to use net metering since the 1980s, under rules adopted by the Iowa Utilities Board.In recent years, MidAmerican has periodically sought to subvert net metering in various ways. Environmental advocates have been concerned the policy would become the next target for Republican lawmakers who destroyed Iowa’s decades-old, successful energy-efficiency programs last year at the behest of utility companies. State Representative Gary Carlson introduced House Study Bill 185 this morning in his capacity as leader of the Iowa House Commerce Committee. MidAmerican’s lobbyist immediately registered in favor–often a sign that an interest group or company had a hand in writing legislation. The utility’s media relations staff did not respond to an inquiry about why the company is pushing this bill.  I also sought comment from the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director Kerri Johannsen, who told Bleeding Heartland,  HSB 185 is a clear attempt by MidAmerican to monopolize the sun in Iowa. This bill undermines net metering, a policy that allows homeowners and businesses to invest in and use their own solar energy at their own home or business. Iowa has over 800 jobs in the solar industry at small businesses across the state. A recent jobs analysis by the Solar Foundation showed that 86 percent of solar jobs nationally are in the residential and business market while only 14 percent are in utility-scale solar. This bill threatens the solar industry in Iowa as we know it.   I enclose below the full text of the bill and more background on solar power and net metering in Iowa.

    Attacks on wind and solar power by the coal and gas industries -  Wind and solar power projects are under attack by coal and gas companies that fear competition from the booming renewable energy industry.  Below are examples from the past year of the fossil fuel industry’s war on renewable energy projects.   In July of 2018, AEP announced the cancellation of the Wind Catcher project, a multi-state effort to build what would have been the nation’s largest wind farm. The move came after the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) denied approval of the project, which had been previously approved by regulators in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.   The Texas Industrial Energy Consumers (TIEC) was among the intervenors who opposed the Wind Catcher project before the PUCT. In its motion to intervene, TIEC said that its members involved in the case “include United States Steel.”  A list of United States Steel subsidiaries and joint ventures found in the company’s most recent annual report includes Chisolm Coal LLC, Kanawha Coal LLC, Ontario Coal Company, and Stelco Coal Company.   TIEC was represented in the Wind Catcher case by the law firm Thompson & Knight.  “We are counselors to Texas Industrial Energy Consumers (TIEC), a trade association representing approximately 50 of the largest energy consumers in the state,” according to the firm’s website. Other TIEC members identified in a filing in a separate case last year included the Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, ExxonMobil Power & Gas Services, Kinder Morgan, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy.  The PUCT’s order in the Wind Catcher case noted that while AEP projected nearly $1.5 billion in net benefits for consumers over the life of the project, opponents found the project would result in net costs.  TIEC “argued the net cost could exceed $1 billion,” according to the PUCT order.  One of TIEC’s arguments was that AEP overestimated the value of Wind Catcher’s carbon emissions benefits by $550 million, and that those benefits should be negated due to President Trump’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan and the unlikelihood of a carbon tax being imposed anytime soon. The PUC and administrative law judge both echoed TIEC’s arguments on this issue.

    World's Biggest Battery to Boost Solar in Texas -- The world’s largest battery could soon be storing solar energy deep in the heart of Texas oil country. The 495-megawatt storage system would be built in tandem with a solar farm of the same size in Borden County, Texas. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas Inc., which operates most of the state’s grid, posted the details in a chart that shows the state’s battery storage will surge more than sixfold to 584 megawatts when the projects are completed in 2021. Bigger batteries are being developed to help make the electricity produced through solar and wind power more efficient, even when the sun goes down and it gets less breezy. Recent battery-backed solar projects have, at most, 100 megawatts of panels and 30 megawatts of storage, said Yayoi Sekine, an analyst at BloombergNEF. "This would be about five times that,” Sekine said in an interview. The project underscores how Big Oil’s demand for power in the fossil fuels-rich Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico is, in a twist, boosting the case for renewable energy. Texas’s power grid operator has stressed the need for more electricity resources in the region to power oil and gas drilling operations. Borden County, with a population of less than 700, is located within the oil-rich Permian Basin, is about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Lubbock. Vistra Energy Corp. just completed what’s now the the largest battery storage facility in Texas with a 10-megawatt system connected to a solar farm. It’s also planning a project at the Moss Landing power plant in California, which will store 300 megawatts for as long as four hours when completed next year.

    100% Renewable Energy Needs Lots of Storage. This Polar Vortex Test Showed How Much. - In the depths of the deep freeze late last month, nearly every power plant in the Eastern and Central U.S. that could run was running. Energy analysts saw a useful experiment in that week of extreme cold: What would have happened, they asked, if the power grid had relied exclusively on renewable energy—just how much battery power would have been required to keep the lights on? Using energy production and power demand data, they showed how a 100 percent renewable energy grid, powered half by wind and half by solar, would have had significant stretches without enough wind or sun to fully power the system, meaning a large volume of energy storage would have been necessary to meet the high demand. "You would need a lot more batteries in a lot more places," said Wade Schauer, a research director for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, who co-wrote the report. Schauer's analysis shows storage would need to go from about 11 gigawatts today to 277.9 gigawatts in the grid regions that include New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That's roughly double Wood Mackenzie's current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040. Energy storage is a key piece of the power puzzle as cities, states and supporters of the Green New Deal talk about a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy sources within a few decades. The country would need to transform its grid in a way that could meet demand on the hottest and coldest days, a task that would involve a huge build-out of wind, solar and energy storage, plus interstate power lines. The actual evolution of the electricity system is expected to happen in fits and starts, with fossil fuels gradually being retired and the pace of wind, solar and storage development tied to changing economic and technological factors. The Wood Mackenzie co-authors view their findings, part of a larger analysis of utility performance during the polar vortex event, as a way to show, in broad strokes, the ramifications of different options.

    Regulators set schedule for comments on CMP deal - The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Thursday set a schedule for comments on a filing earlier in the day by parties supporting a proposed $1 billion hydropower transmission line through western Maine. Only the 30 parties involved in the commission’s case on whether Central Maine power will be granted a certificate of public convenience and necessity for its proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project will be able to comment, according to PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear. The NECEC would transmit hydropower from the Canadian border through Maine to Massachusetts. Public comments on the project submitted to the PUC are being considered by the commissioners as part of the overall case, Lanphear said. While today’s stipulation, which included benefits for Central Maine Power and Emera Maine customers, had the support of the governor’s office as well as nine other parties, NextEra Energy Resources and 11 other parties did not support it. The stipulation aims to garner support for CMP’s request for certificate of public convenience and necessity for the project. Such a certificate would be a big move forward for the controversial project, which still needs PUC approval and approvals from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, which oversees Maine’s unorganized territory.

    Natural gas-fired reciprocating engines are being deployed more to balance renewables - Reciprocating internal combustion engines, which are typically used for backup, standby, or emergency power, are now becoming increasingly popular for larger utility-scale power generation applications, especially in areas with high levels of electricity generation from intermittent sources such as wind and solar. The recent increase in natural gas or dual-fuel capable reciprocating internal combustion engine units has been driven in part by advancements in engine technology that increase operational flexibility and by changes in natural gas markets that have generally provided ample supply and relatively stable fuel prices. Reciprocating engines tend to be smaller than other types of natural gas-fired electricity generators and account for a relatively small share of power plants fueled by natural gas. As of November 2018, the capacity of the average reciprocating engine generator was 4 megawatts (MW), compared with 56 MW for natural gas combustion turbines and 166 MW for combined-cycle units. Based on data in EIA’s Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory, reciprocating engines accounted for 1% of the total natural gas-fired power fleet.Before 2010, reciprocating engines typically had no more than 9 MW in capacity, but in recent years, larger units that range from 16 MW to 19 MW have been installed throughout the United States. Several of these engines are typically installed at one generation facility. The largest of these facilities is the Denton Energy Center, which came online in July 2018 outside Dallas, Texas, and it has twelve 18.8 MW natural gas-fired engines for a total plant capacity of 225 MW.  Reciprocating engines can start up even when the grid has no power, which helps electric transmission grid operators match fluctuating power requirements and restore power after major storms. Engine manufacturers have also made advances in efficiency and emission reductions, particularly emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). In addition, power plants using internal combustion engines tend to require significantly less water than similarly sized combined-cycle or simple-cycle natural gas turbine plants.

    India proposes more than $12 billion of pollution-reducing incentives (Reuters) - India has proposed incentives worth 885 billion rupees ($12.4 billion) to encourage power plants to install equipment to curb emissions and to develop infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs), a government statement said on Friday. The bulk of the money, 835 billion rupees, would be aimed at curbing sulphur emissions from power plants, with the rest devoted to development of EV infrastructure in 70 cities over five years ending 2025, the statement said. The proposal by India’s power ministry to its finance commission is in addition to an existing proposal that envisages installation costs for emission-cutting equipment to be passed on to consumers. The ministry’s plans come against the backdrop of a utilities sector under financial stress, with loans from mostly state-run lenders turning sour or requiring restructuring, according to an Assocham-Grant Thorton report this month. The Association of power producers, an industry group that represents private companies such as Reliance Power and Adani Power as well as state-run NTPC, had been lobbying for incentives for the past two years. India has already extended a December 2017 deadline for utilities to meet emissions standards by up to six years as power producers struggle to comply with stringent rules set out by the environment ministry in 2015 to cut emissions that cause lung diseases, acid rain and smog. Thermal power companies account for 80 percent of all industrial emissions of particulate matter, sulfur and nitrous oxides in India. The EV incentives, meanwhile, are part of India’s efforts to encourage higher sales of electric vehicles, having said it hopes to electrify all new vehicles by 2030 

    Coal going from winner to loser in India's energy future: Russell (Reuters) - India’s demand for electricity is expected to double in the next two decades, and coal has been long forecast to be the fuel of choice for power generation. But this may no longer be the case. It’s not that India doesn’t have plentiful reserves of coal. It does, and it is the world’s second-largest producer and importer, following China. It’s not even that India’s reserves are expensive to mine. They aren’t. It’s not even that transporting coal from where it’s mined to where it’s needed is too difficult. Yes, it is an issue, but this challenge could be overcome with sufficient investment in rail and other infrastructure. No, the main reason coal may battle to fuel India’s future energy needs is that it’s simply becoming too expensive relative to renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar. In recent months, power supply auctions have shown that renewables can be offered at less than 3 rupees (4 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour, a tariff that coal-fired generators have difficulty matching. There is also zero chance that new coal generators can produce electricity at rates competitive to renewables, given higher capital and operating costs. Rajit Desai, the head of engineering, procurement and construction at major private generator Tata Power, told a forum at this week’s Coaltrans India conference that his company wasn’t looking at developing any new coal plants. Tata Power is instead focusing on buying coal-fired power plants that are effectively distressed assets. Many of these plants started construction in the past seven years, when power demand and price forecasts for electricity were bullish. Some of the plants under construction or newly completed, though, have been unable to secure power purchase agreements with high enough prices for them to operate profitably. This means a company such as Tata Power can buy these brownfield plants at a discount steep enough to make them viable at the electricity prices currently being offered. 

    Global coal use may have peaked in 2014, says latest IEA World Energy Outlook -- The world may never again use as much coal as during a peak in 2014, according to the latest World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA).The weighty annual outlook is one of the most widely respected and eagerly anticipated publications among energy analysts and policymakers. The 2018 edition runs to 662 pages and contains the IEA’s latest view of how the future of global energy might play out, depending on political and societal choices.Its prominence means the report is also a frequent target of criticism for having often failed to anticipate the rate or direction of change.In its main scenario – based on existing national policies, plus pledges and targets not yet codified in law – the 2018 outlook points to a 25% increase in energy demand by 2040. This growth, largely driven by Asia, would be twice as large in the absence of continued improvements in energy efficiency, it says.Rapidly growing renewables and nuclear are not expected to cover this new demand, the IEA says. This means that oil, gas and CO2 emissions will likely continue to increase. Even with coal use remaining flat, this leaves a “huge” gap to meeting the Paris Agreement’s climate goals, the IEA adds. In its 2018 edition, the IEA is keen to emphasise what the outlook is, as well as what it is not. The report is based around a series of scenarios designed to “explore possible futures and the actions that could bring them about”. The IEA explains: “There are no forecasts in the WEO…None of these potential pathways is preordained; all are possible. The actions taken by governments will be decisive in determining which path we follow.”

    Half of European companies have no carbon reduction plan, report finds -More than half of European companies have no carbon reduction targets in place despite 75 percent of those surveyed believing their business will be meaningfully affected by climate change, a report said Tuesday. In its annual report, non-profit firm CDP analyzed environmental disclosures from 859 companies. It found that 53 percent still had no targets for their total emissions, and only a third of those that did had strategies which extended beyond 2025. CDP also recognized 76 European companies as pioneers for global action, including L'Oreal, Unilever, Bayer, and ING. The CDP, previously known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, has energy information on more than 570 cities worldwide. Meanwhile, investment funds from BNP Paribas, Candriam and Banque Postale were praised for their climate performance, as the analysis found that 46 percent of the funds' top company holdings had been put on CDP's "A-List" of best performers. French businesses led European action on environmental sustainability according to the report, with 70 percent of the region's most climate-friendly investment funds and a third of its best-rated companies based in France. Financial incentives were among the strategies being used by firms to ensure their carbon policies were delivered. The report said that 47 percent of companies in Europe were offering senior management monetary rewards tied to climate targets. As well as business risks arising from climate change, 90 percent of companies included in the study said it presented opportunities. Almost half of businesses expected increased demand for low-carbon goods. European companies reported reductions in greenhouse gas emissions last year that equalled Austria's annual emissions, as the number of companies with science-backed targets to lower their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement increased by 65 percent.

    World's biggest thermal coal exporter is capping output over climate concerns - Commodities giant Glencore on Wednesday said it will cap the amount of coal it produces each year, part of a broader plan to align its business with the global effort to prevent climate change. Glencore is the world's largest exporter of thermal coal, the kind burned in power plants and a major contributor to planet-warming carbon emissions. The multinational miner on Wednesday said it will broadly limit its capacity to produce coal to current levels, or about 150 million tons per year. The company instead plans to put capital to work churning out more copper, cobalt, nickel, vanadium and zinc, commodities that are used in electric vehicle batteries and other technologies that underpin the shift to a cleaner energy and transportation future. "As one of the world's largest diversified resource companies, Glencore has a key role to play in enabling transition to a low carbon economy," the company said in a statement. "To deliver a strong investment case to our shareholders, we must invest in assets that will be resilient to regulatory, physical and operational risks related to climate change." To be sure, influential forecasters like BP and the U.S. Department of Energy see coal demand remaining essentially flat over the next two decades. That's because consumption is rising in parts of the developing world like India and Southeast Asia and dropping in developed nations. Glencore's decision to limit coal output gives the company a way to continue profiting from the fossil fuel's continued use in emerging markets while meeting growing demands to contribute to the battle against climate change.

    Trade War Goes Global- China Indefinitely Bans Australian Coal Imports- Just days after it warned its citizens against traveling to New Zealand, Beijing has reportedly cracked down on imports of coal from Australia, cutting off the country's miners from their biggest export market and threatening the island nation's economy at a time when it and its fellow "Five Eyes" members who have sided with the US by blocking or banning Huawei's 5G network technology. Customs agents at the port of Dalian have banned imports of Australian coal "indefinitely" while reportedly capping all coal imports from all sources at 12 million tonnes per day, Reuters reported overnight. Elsewhere in China, Australian coal - the combustible rock is the country's biggest export - has faced customs delays of up to 40 days, just as Rabobank analyst Michael Every anticipated when he pondered earlier this month whether Australian coal might face "bureaucratic delays" at Chinese ports following the country's "Huawei moment." This is what Every said two weeks ago: Billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo, Beijing's former top lobbyist/fixer in Australia has just had his long-standing application for Aussie citizenship rejected and his permanent residency cancelled while travelling overseas, leaving him stranded and locked out of his USD10m Sydney mansion. The citizenship application refusal apparently comes on both character grounds and concerns about the reliability of his answers in interviews and correspondence with authorities including ASIO, the Australian intelligence service. Note that Mr. Huang has donated AUD2.7m to both major political parties over the last five years and also funds former foreign minister Bob Carr’s Sydney think tank - Carr himself having made several recent public statements arguing for Australia to side with China due to their economic links.  Does this smell like a real US-China trade deal is on the cards? And is this Australia’s Huawei moment? Might Aussie exports to China suddenly run slap-bang into bureaucratic delays or boycotts? And should we add Australia to the list of nationalities that might want to rethink visits to China? But silly me: China is already holding one captive. Germany might be about to push the EU onto that China hit-list too, as it is apparently setting the following standard for Huawei to operate: “A guarantee its data will not be shared with Beijing”. So that’s nein then, nicht war

    Strange days for coal with Glencore's cap, China curbs: Russell (Reuters) - It’s been weird in the coal world in recent days, with the world’s largest shipper saying it’s capping output, biggest seaborne buyer China putting restrictions on some imports, and an Australian court saying mines must factor in climate change. Throw in an executive at a major Indian coal-fired power generator saying his company won’t build any new plants as coal can’t compete with renewables, and it’s little surprise that environmental activists may be tempted to pop champagne corks. The most significant development this week was Glencore’s announcement on Feb. 20 that it will cap its annual output around its current capacity of 145 million tonnes. Glencore is the world’s fourth-biggest coal mining company but also the largest supplier to the seaborne market, as miners that produce more - Coal India, China Shenhua Energy and Peabody Energy of the United States - are focused on their domestic markets. Glencore said it was taking the step to help mitigate climate change, prompting commentators and activists to claim another victory in the campaign to end burning of the polluting fuel. While Glencore may genuinely be trying to do its part to halt global warming, it’s also likely the mining giant has calculated that restricting coal output will be good for business. It is accepted that coal consumption is likely to drop in the coming decades, to virtually nothing in Europe and North America, and will even start to decline in Asia. But Glencore has probably calculated that this will be a slow, profitable death, and is positioning itself to take advantage.  The seaborne market is set to become tighter, especially in Asia, as more countries in the region build coal-fired generators that rely on imported fuel. Countries on this list include Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines and others in Southeast and South Asia. The world’s three biggest exporters of coal, however, all have various reasons as to why they may not be able to supply much more than they ship now. Indonesia, the world’s biggest shipper of thermal coal used in power plants, has a domestic reservation policy that forecasts declining exports as more fuel is diverted to feed local generators. Australia, the biggest exporter of coking coal used to make steel and number two in thermal coal, may find it hard to boost its shipments, given increasing domestic opposition to the industry and the difficulties in getting new mines approved, financed and insured. South Africa, the third-biggest exporter, has capacity constraints in its rail system and is also trying to balance the needs of its home market against the desirability of earning foreign exchange through exports. Glencore, which spent some $3.7 billion last year on coal mines in Australia, has also probably acquired all the assets it needs in the coal sector. 

    China says Australian coal imports remain normal, Canberra seeks to calm investors (Reuters) - China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that Australian coal imports to the country continue as normal, although it added customs authorities had stepped up environment and safety checks on foreign cargoes. The statement came after sources at Chinese ports told Reuters Australian coal imports are facing longer waiting times to clear customs than other supplies, and the northern port of Dalian was halting Australian coal shipments. “At present, customs throughout the country are accepting as normal customs declarations for imported coal, including from Australia,” said Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, during a press briefing. But Geng added the customs authorities in China have stepped up environment and safety checks on foreign cargoes, to “protect the rights of Chinese importing companies and the environment”. Overseas coal supplies into China, especially from Australia, have slowed for weeks, causing shipping backlogs outside key Chinese ports. The Australian currency fell more than 1 percent to a 10-day low of $0.7070 on Thursday after Reuters reported that customs at Dalian had banned imports of Australia’s biggest export earner since the start of February. Seeking to ease fears of a further rift in ties with China, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday there was nothing to suggest the move was out of the ordinary. The country has asked its ambassador to China to seek urgent clarification. “People should be careful about leaping to conclusions about this. This is not the first time that on occasion local ports make decisions about these matters,” Morrison told reporters in Auckland. China is the largest buyer of Australian coal, taking 89 million tonnes last year, worth A$15 billion ($10.7 billion), according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australia’s Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham, said delays to exports of coal to China were caused by import quotas. “We have no basis to believe that there is a ban on Australian coal exports into China, or into any part of China,” he told reporters. 

    Documents detail multimillion-dollar ties involving EPA official, secretive industry group - The nation’s biggest coal-burning power companies paid a top lobbying firm millions of dollars to fight a wide range of Obama-era environmental rules, documents obtained by POLITICO reveal — shortly before one of the firm’s partners became President Donald Trump’s top air pollution regulator. Now that ex-partner, Bill Wehrum, is aggressively working to undo many of those same regulations at the EPA, where he is an assistant administrator in charge of issues including climate change, smog and power plants’ mercury pollution. ..Wehrum’s past role as a utility lobbyist is well-known, but the documents reveal never-before-disclosed details of how extensively his old firm, formerly called Hunton & Williams, worked to coordinate the power industry’s strategy against the Obama administration’s regulations. Twenty-five power companies and six industry trade groups agreed to pay the firm a total of $8.2 million in 2017 alone, according to an internal summary prepared in June of that year — less than three months before Trump tapped Wehrum for his EPA post. POLITICO obtained 26 pages of briefing materials distributed to members of an umbrella group of utilities Wehrum represented while at the firm. Known as the Utility Air Regulatory Group, the secretive organization included some of the largest coal-burning utilities in the country. The materials were marked "CONFIDENTIAL ATTORNEY-CLIENT COMMUNICATION" and outlined goals for a meeting of the group's policy committee. Topping the list of funders were Duke Energy, Southern Co. and AEP, which together contributed nearly one-third of the money.

    West Virginia Coal Miners Rally For Black Lung Legislation - Miners and advocates rallied Wednesday at the West Virginia Capitol in support of a series of bills aimed at preventing and treating severe black lung disease. Five bills introduced by lawmakers would make it easier to make qualify for state benefits and provide benefits to miners who have early-stage black lung. The bills come at a time when the Ohio Valley is facing a surge in cases of severe black lung disease, also called Progressive Massive Fibrosis. “We’re here because so many of the people that’s worked years and years years, 30, 35 years in the mines, and been exposed to coal dust their whole life and they fall through the cracks,” said Terry Abbott, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 8843, which represents miners in West Virginia’s Fayette and Kanawha counties. “We’re here to support all the miners that should be receiving compensation for the the years they put in the mines.” Black lung is caused by exposure to coal dust and the debilitating and progressive disease has no cure. The state and federal government both have benefits systems that allow miners to make a claim against their employer for medical expenses and a small stipend. Advocates and miners argue access to health and financial benefits increases the likelihood sufferers can seek medical treatment. Getting those benefits through federal or state programs can be challenging, and recent changes on the state level has made it tougher for miners to qualify. 

    What comes after coal for the Tennessee Valley Authority? -  —  Opened in 1963 with two coal-burning generators and completed in 1970 with the start of a third, the 2,630-megawatt Paradise Fossil Plant was among the largest in the United States and embodied the height of America’s allegiance to coal-fired power. On Feb. 14, the TVA’s seven-member board ordered the Paradise plant’s third and last 1,150-megawatt turbine to shut next year. That same day, the board also ruled that a 52-year-old, 881-megawatt coal-fired station near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, needed to close in 2023. The next day, the agency’s staff issued a draft operating plan that reflects just how rapidly the electrical generating sector is evolving in the Southeast and across the United States.  TVA’s generating capacity — currently 33,500 megawatts — will be essentially unchanged over the next five years and may not need to increase, at least to 2038. Yet how that power is produced will change substantially. The authors of the plan call for shifting the agency, which spent more than 30 years in the 20th century building some of the largest centralized coal and nuclear plants in America, to rely much more intensively in the 21st century on natural gas and distributed solar generation. TVA’s plan proposes to close its four remaining coal-fired stations, the youngest of which is 46 years old, perhaps by 2028. Their combined 6,030-megawatt generating capacity would be replaced by 6,000 megawatts of new solar production. A sizable share will come from rooftop solar installations.New generating capacity from wind energy receives scant attention in the plan. TVA opened one small 27-megawatt wind farm in Tennessee in 2000, and purchases 1,517 megawatts of generating capacity from 8 more wind farms in Illinois, Kansas and Iowa.  Another of the draft plan’s intriguing proposals reflects TVA’s interest in modular 50-megawatt nuclear reactors, under development in a number of research centers in the United States and Canada. The agency, which operates three big nuclear stations, views producing as much as 600 megawatts from these much smaller machines as a more efficient and less expensive way to develop carbon-free baseload generating capacity.

    Santee Cooper accidentally pumped mud from coal ash pit into Waccamaw River - Santee Cooper officials found the line of sludge in the morning. It was at the site of the former coal-fired Grainger Generating Station in Conway, which still has tens of thousands of tons of toxic ash in ponds on site. Maintaining the ponds involves a pump system that empties water into the adjacent Waccamaw River, in part because drier ash is easier to excavate and haul away. But when employees checked one pump the morning of Jan. 30, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said, they found that it had sucked out all the water in a section of pond No. 2 and started dredging up the sediment underneath. That sediment, Gore said, was likely a mix of ash and soil, and about a dumpster’s worth ended up in the river. Typically, employees check the pumps in a rotation at night, but for some reason, that piece of machinery was missed, she said. In the morning, what the utility found was a line of sludge on the wall of the dike separating the pond from the Waccamaw. “Sometime overnight, it was during the night, the pump was not monitored and the area that it was pumping was being dewatered,” Gore said. The state-owned utility has since increased the frequency of its nighttime monitoring, and subsequent tests of the river did not show significant presences of toxic materials in coal ash, such as arsenic, lead and mercury. It also installed stone under the pump so it wouldn’t be able to reach the mud underneath if the water levels again get too low.

    Coal Ash Cleanup Legislation Heads to Governor - Two bills are headed to the governor’s desk requiring Dominion Energy to clean up millions of tons of coal ash at four Virginia power plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.SB 1355, introduced by Republican Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, was approved by the House 93-2 on Friday. The bill’s passage comes a day after the Senate approved an identical bill, HB 2786, 38-2.Both bills require the removal of the more than 28 million tons of coal ash currently stored at Chesterfield Power Station, Chesapeake Energy Center, Possum Point Power Station and Bremo Power Station.According to the legislation, coal ash waste at these sites must be recycled or moved to lined and permitted landfills, with at least one quarter of the coal ash being recycled. The measure also requires Dominion Energy, which owns all four sites, to offer municipal water hookups or water testing to residents within one-half mile of the coal ash basins.The cost of the closure and removal of coal ash sites will be at least partly recovered by rate adjustments authorized by the State Corporation Commision, meaning that Dominion Energy won’t have to foot the bill on its own. The vote is a major victory for environmental organizations that have for years pushed for the cleanup of coal ash.

    Fond du Lac Chairman Voices Concerns Following Derailment - Fond du Lac Band members are expressing their concerns after a BNSF train derailment spilled tons of coal on the reservation over the weekend. They say they weren't contacted by the railway after the incident in a timely matter. Meanwhile, railway officials say the opposite. Chairman Kevin DuPuis says there main concerns are around the fact that the railway is not communicating with them as the clean up process is now underway and potential impacts of the spill. "Everybody should be concerned about this," said DuPuis. DuPuis says they are upset with how BNSF handled the derailment starting with not being notified about it until hours after it happened. "We feel that as we have jurisdiction and would be the lead agency in this, that at least there would collaboration with one another for the clean-up and remediation and we were not part of that," said DuPuis. As of Tuesday, trains were running back on the tracks but the investigation and clean-up is still very active, raising concerns about potential environmental impacts. "The simple magnitude with the amount of cars and the coal should send a concern to anybody, whether they are from the reservation or not. This is sitting on the river, there is coal in the river, and with the coal dust nobody knows what this does," DuPuis added. He says they still don't know what caused the spill but they are hoping to get that and other answers from officials. "We hope that we can sit at the table, and that they can respect where they are at and respect that the Fond du Lac Band itself has a legitimate government," said DuPuis. 

    Marathon wants to keep storing pet coke uncovered along Detroit River -- Petroleum coke — the chunky, sooty refinery by-product often stored in piles along the Detroit River that led to black, swirling clouds of misery for nearby residents a few years ago — is once again causing a dustup. Marathon Petroleum, which makes and markets "pet coke" as a fuel for things such as cement kilns and utility boilers, is seeking a variance from several provisions of a 2017 Detroit ordinance on riverfront storage of such products — including a requirement that the pet coke be stored and processed in enclosed structures. The public has until March 18 to submit comments on Marathon's requested variance to the city's Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department. The ordinance was passed after years of controversy surrounding large pet coke piles along the Detroit River near the Ambassador Bridge. In 2013, despite Michigan Department of Environmental Quality evaluations showing no "fugitive dust" coming off of the piles, nearby residents complained of finding black soot in their homes — which later tested as coming from pet coke. A dramatic video shot in July 2013 from Windsor, showing a billowing black cloud of pet coke dust over the Detroit River, went viral and spurred government officials into action.

    Toxic black snow covers streets in Siberia – video - Guardian - Residents of a coalmining region in Siberia have been posting online videos showing entire streets and districts covered in toxic black snow that critics say highlight a man-made ecological catastrophe in which British industry is compliant.

    Second public meeting set on debate over mining in Perry State Forest--The Ohio Department of Natural Resources will hold a second public meeting next week on an application to allow strip mining in a portion of Perry State Forest. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the cafeteria of New Lexington High School, 2549 Panther Dr. Oxford Mining Company has submitted a 483-page permit application to mine an irregular-shaped, 545-acre parcel west of Route 345 and north of County Road 48. The permitted area would include about 12 percent of the 4,567 acres in Perry State Forest, which is used for various recreational activities, including trails for all-purpose vehicles, dirt motorcycles, horseback riding and hiking. The state forest is about an hour southeast of Columbus. Oxford was recently purchased by its former owner, Chuck Ungurean, who formed a new company in December, CCU Coal and Construction. No one at CCU returned messages from The Dispatch seeking comment. Lauren Ketcham, who has a 12-acre farm that borders Perry State Forest, is a member of Friends of Perry State Forest, which has opposed the coal mining from the beginning. “ODNR should issue a draft permit and make that available for public comment before they consider issuing a final permit,” Ketcham said. “That would allow the community to see what kind of requirements ODNR is going to impose and what issues Oxford has addressed before a final permit is issued.” An ODNR official said issuing a draft permit is not part of the application process. State officials have argued that the mining project actually will remove pits of low pH water, fix iron seeps and remove highwalls — manmade cliffs on the upward side of an excavation — that were left after the land was mined in the 1930s and 1940s but was never returned to a natural state because environmental regulations weren’t in place then. Under this new application, CCU would be required to reclaim the property after mining is completed.

     Georgia regulators delay update on status of troubled nuclear project -  Georgia regulators have delayed hearing whether Georgia Power’s troubled and overbudget Vogtle nuclear expansion is falling further behind schedule.  The bulk of the multibillion-dollar project’s ultimate costs would likely fall on customers.Elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday to postpone the start of a scheduled round of updates and hearings on the project until late August. They also increased funding for more independent monitoring of Vogtle’s progress.Georgia Power, which is regulated by the PSC, is required to give an update on the Vogtle work every six months and had been slated to do so later this month. But staff for the PSC, citing its own heavy caseload and the plans for increased Vogtle monitoring, proposed an agreement with Georgia Power to postpone the update. Georgia Power also would report some information from a review of the project by May 15.

    Expected legislation might save Three Mile Island - Two state lawmakers plan to introduce legislation within the next two weeks that might keep the Three Mile Island nuclear plant operational beyond its scheduled September closure, but opponents call it a "bailout." Exelon Generation — which owns the Dauphin County plant's Unit 1 reactor — must order fuel by June 1 or begin an irreversible decommissioning process. "There is no winding back the clock," said state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie III, R-Dauphin County. The company will not prepare for a refuel without new policy in place. Mehaffie and state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, are planning to sponsor bills in their respective chambers that would incorporate nuclear energy into the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act — a 2004 law that requires a percentage of electricity to come from alternative sources. "We cannot comment on whether the legislation will be sufficient to prevent the premature retirement of TMI until the bill is introduced," Exelon spokesman Dave Marcheskie wrote in an email. But since nuclear energy sources produce 93 percent of the state's zero-carbon electricity, it should be put on equal footing with the 16 other environmentally beneficial energy sources included in the law, he wrote.

    New Energy Company in the Utica Shale is Headquartering and Hiring in Northeast Ohio - WKSU News - Encino is a natural gas and oil acquistion and development company created by a group of successful former executives of other major gas & oil corporations. Late last year it made a multi-billion dollar deal to get the Ohio holdings of Chesapeake Energy, the original leader in the Utica Shale development. Encino's Director of External Affairs Jackie Stewart says the company is now committed to its new Utica headquarters in Louisville. “We’re trying to hire local.  I mean, over 70% of our entire employees are here in Ohio.”She says the size and richness of the Utica shale has a lot to do with that. “When you think about the future and oil and natural gas career pathways in Ohio, we have world class rock here.  So, we’re going to be here for a long time.” Stewart says Encino has already hired more than a 100 people in Louisville and is actively recruiting.

    Is Drilling and Fracking Waste on Your Sidewalk or in Your Pool? – They’ve spread it on roads. They’ve irrigated almond farms and fruit groves with it. The oil and gas industry’s liquid waste has been used for a variety of commercial and industrial purposes over the years. But never has the “beneficial use” of this waste stream been so grossly applied, or so close to home, as it is today.  Meet Eureka Resources and Nature’s Own Source. Both of these companies have attracted attention by processing liquid waste from oil and gas operations and creating commercial products for use in pools and on roads, sidewalks, patios, stairs or anywhere else a consumer may put it.  Eureka Resources treats toxic wastewater from drilling and fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania, and the agency that approves this is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). In June 2014, Eureka Engineer Jerel Bogdan wrote to PADEP to confirm what, exactly, the company had to do in order to sell the salt byproduct from the company’s waste treatment process to consumers.   But instead of listing what Eureka had to do, the letter confirmed what Eureka didn’t have to do — like test its salt for fracking chemicals, even though in 2017, Yale Public Health found that 55 unique chemical compounds used for fracking are “known, probable, or possible human carcinogens.”  Here are the four standards Eureka must adhere to, according to Bogden’s letter to PADEP (emphasis added):

    • A full chemical equivalency analysis of Eureka salt products vs. the salt material currently in use by a given industrial user is not required.
    • Eureka is required to maintain analytical data/records on file that confirm the salt product meets only those qualitative requirements listed on the MSDS [Material Data Safety Sheet] for the salt material that a potential buyer is currently procuring from other suppliers.
    • Eureka is not required to use an accredited third-party analytical laboratory for the qualitative comparison noted above; in-house analytical resources may be used for the comparison if Eureka can demonstrate that those resources are able to generate data sufficient for all parameters included in the comparison.
    • Eureka is not required to submit the qualitative comparison data to the PADEP for review but rather is required to maintain data/analytical results on file, to be provided upon request by the PADEP.

    So, who is buying Eureka’s frack salt? Cargill purchased 4,700 tons of salt from Eureka between May 2015 and December 2016. One of Cargill’s meat processing plants, Cargill Meat Solutions in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, is less than 10 miles away from Eureka’s wastewater treatment facility, and “processes about 1,500 head of cattle per day,” according to Cargill’s website. Cargill “advised the Department” that Eureka’s “[c]rystallized sodium chloride” is used by Cargill “to prepare and treat animal hides, resulting from Cargill’s meat packing operations. Cargill prepares the animal hides using one of Eureka’s salt products for commercial sale.” Eureka’s frack salt is also approved for sale as a pool salt. The investigative news team at Public Heraldexposed that Eureka’s byproduct is packaged and sold as Clorox Pool Salt. Workers at Eureka’s Standing Stone facility package the salt in Clorox bags and pallet them for shipment via an “unnamed third-party distributor to be sold at regional stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowes.”

    Drilling on shaky ground: Why Chesco’s DA is investigating the Mariner East pipeline project -- (podcast)  Over two years of construction, the Mariner East 2 pipeline — which carries natural gas liquids across Pennsylvania to an export terminal in Delaware County — has been plagued with delays and mishaps. The construction has destroyed some private water wells, opened sinkholes, and sparked a criminal investigation by the Chester County District Attorney. On this episode of The Why, StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Susan Phillips takes us along the pipeline’s winding path and explains why the DA is taking this unprecedented step.

    Delaware County seeks to join lawsuit against owners of Mariner East pipelines -- Delaware County on Thursday filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to join a lawsuit filed by area residents against the owners of the controversial Mariner East pipelines. If granted, the motion to intervene would allow lawyers for the county to present evidence, call or cross-examine witnesses, and file briefs in the case brought by seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties against Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners. The formal complaint by the residents alleges numerous safety risks associated with the Mariner East pipelines, which are part of a multibillion-dollar effort to bring natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas region in Western Pennsylvania to the Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook and elsewhere. In December, an administrative law judge denied an emergency request by the residents to halt operations of the pipelines because of safety concerns. That decision was unanimously upheld by the PUC last month. The residents’ original lawsuit is proceeding.

    Criminal investigation of Mountain Valley Pipeline underway, document shows - The Mountain Valley Pipeline is under criminal investigation into possible violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal laws, one of the companies building the project has confirmed. EQM Midstream Partners, the lead company in the joint venture, made the disclosure in an annual report filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Since construction of the buried natural gas pipeline through Southwest Virginia started last year, crews have repeatedly run afoul of regulations meant to keep muddy runoff from contaminating nearby streams and rivers. Although Mountain Valley has been named in enforcement actions brought by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Mark Herring, this week’s filing is the first confirmation of a criminal investigation. On Jan. 7, EQM received a letter from the U.S. attorney’s office in Roanoke stating that it and the Environmental Protection Agency were looking into criminal and civil violations related to pipeline construction, according to the SEC filing. About a month later, a grand jury subpoena was issued “requesting certain documents related to the MVP from August 1, 2018 to the present,” EQM reported in the filing. “The MVP Joint Venture is complying with the letter and subpoena but cannot predict whether any action will ultimately be brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or what the outcome of such an action would be,” it said. A spokesman at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said the agency does not comment on potential or ongoing investigations. Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, also declined to comment, citing a similar policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of an ongoing investigation.

    Some 21 Chemicals of Major Concern Identified In Unconventional Oil & Gas Extraction - In the last decade unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction has rapidly proliferated throughout the United States (US) and the world. This occurred largely because of the development of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing which allows access to fossil fuels from geologic formations that were previously not cost effective to pursue. This process is known to use greater than 1,000 chemicals such as solvents, surfactants, detergents, and biocides. In addition, a complex mixture of chemicals, including heavy metals, naturally-occurring radioactive chemicals, and organic compounds are released from the formations and can enter air and water. Compounds associated with UOG activity have been linked to adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes in humans and laboratory animal models, which is possibly due to the presence of endocrine active chemicals. Using systematic methods, electronic searches of PubMed and Web of Science were conducted to identify studies that measured chemicals in air near sites of UOG activity. Records were screened by title and abstract, relevant articles then underwent full text review, and data were extracted from the studies. A list of chemicals detected near UOG sites was generated. Then, the potential endocrine activity of the most frequently detected chemicals was explored via searches of literature from PubMed.  Evaluation of 48 studies that sampled air near sites of UOG activity identified 106 chemicals detected in two or more studies. Ethane, benzene and n-pentane were the top three most frequently detected. Twenty-one chemicals have been shown to have endocrine activity including estrogenic and androgenic activity and the ability to alter steroidogenesis. Literature also suggested that some of the air pollutants may affect reproduction, development, and neurophysiological function, all endpoints which can be modulated by hormones. These chemicals included aromatics (i.e., benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and mercury.  These results provide a basis for prioritizing future primary studies regarding the endocrine disrupting properties of UOG air pollutants, including exposure research in wildlife and humans. Further, we recommend systematic reviews of the health impacts of exposure to specific chemicals, and comprehensive environmental sampling of a broader array of chemicals.

    ATTENTION to Orphaned Oil & Gas Wells Needed in West Virginia -There are currently more than 4,500 orphaned oil and gas wells that have gone unplugged for so long that the driller/operator has gone out of business and there is no one to plug it. A company called Diversified is buying declining, conventional wells from EQT and other Marcellus Shale drillers. WV-SORO expects Diversified will plug only 310 of the 17,000 wells they have purchased in the next 15 years, and after 2019 to start leaving 10,000 more unplugged. These wells are located on surface and mineral owners across West Virginia. The Legislature needs to pass the “Orphaned Oil and Gas Well Prevention Act” (SB 576 & HB 3065) in order to stop more wells from being orphaned. Currently operators only have to post a “blanket” “performance” bond in the amount of $50,000 – as little as $20 a well for some – when plugging costs $25,000 to $65,000 or more for each well.It will be good if the Legislature passes other bills like HB 2779 and HB 2673, that will generate money to plug a few orphaned wells, perhaps 60 a year. (These bills have already passed the House of Delegates.) But we need the Orphaned Oil and Gas Well Prevention Act passed in order to prevent more wells from being orphaned by requiring what we are calling “plugging assurance” for three kinds of wells: 1) new wells, 2) existing wells that are producing but no longer producing in paying quantities, and 3) wells are transferred (often from a driller that can afford to plug its old wells to one that cannot).  “Plugging assurance” would be a single well bond in the actual cost to plug the well, or plugging assurance would be payment into an escrow account for each well in the treasurer’s office of the cost to plug the well when it is time.

    DC Circuit knocks down green groups' challenge to FERC order on MVP gas pipeline— The DC US Circuit Court of Appeals tossed aside a host of environmental groups' objections to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's natural gas pipeline reviews, in a case involving the 300-mile, 2 Bcf/d Mountain Valley Pipeline. The quick-turnaround ruling by a three-judge panel is mostly welcome news for the industry, as the court nixed several arguments recurring in multiple challenges to pipelines being built to move Appalachian gas to market. As an unpublished decision, the ruling has limited impact in other circuits, but sheds light on the thinking of the critical DC panel. The ruling backed FERC's reliance on precedent agreements with project affiliates to demonstrate the need for the project and upheld the use of eminent domain even before all permits are in place. FERC "reasonably explained" that an affiliated shipper's need for new capacity and its obligation to pay for service are not lessened just because the shipper is affiliated with the project sponsor, the court said (Appalachian Voices, et al., v FERC, 17-1271). On greenhouse gas considerations, a major matter now dividing FERC commissioners, the court also backed the agency's approach. The DC Circuit found FERC satisfied the court's recent mandate in a decision involving the Sabal Trail pipeline by providing an upper bound estimate of emissions resulting from end-use combustion and by giving several reasons why the petitioners' preferred metric, the Social Cost of Carbon tool, is not an appropriate tool to assess the significance of climate change impacts. "That is all that is required for National Environmental Policy Act," the ruling said. "Not only do petitioners offer no alternative to the Social Cost of Carbon tool for assessing the incremental climate change impacts of downstream [GHG] emissions, but their opening brief also fails to address several of the reasons FERC gave for rejecting the Social Cost of Carbon tool," it added. While that helps MVP, FERC midyear last year pulled back from including in its environmental reports such upper bound estimates for downstream emissions, except in cases where the end use of the gas was clear.

    ACP Compressor Station at Union Hill VA now Under Challenge by SELC - — Today the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of its client the Friends of Buckingham, challenged the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board’s decision to approve Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline Buckingham County compressor station. “The Air Board has refused to address the disproportionate harm that our community will have to bear as a result of the construction of this polluting compressor station,” said John W. Laury of Friends of Buckingham. “The members of our community should not have our health put at risk for a project that wasn’t properly vetted for environmental justice or air quality concerns.”The Air Board and the Department of Environmental Quality did not meet their obligations under state and federal laws to consider less polluting alternatives and the best available pollution controls for minimizing pollution from the proposed compressor station. “The backdrop to the board’s decision about the compressor station is the mounting evidence that customers in Virginia do not need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to meet their energy needs,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Greg Buppert. “When a project like this pipeline goes forward without a full and transparent evaluation of its public necessity, it unfairly puts communities like Union Hill in harm’s way.” Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline project is already stymied because a federal court has vacated or put on hold multiple required permits for failing to comply with applicable law and federal agencies have themselves revoked other permits.

    Governor's Racial Reckoning May Halt Gas Project -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s racial reckoning could spell more trouble for Dominion Energy Inc.’s $7 billion-plus Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, with one of its facilities sited in an historically African American community. While the 600-mile (966-kilometer) project is facing several setbacks, one element, a planned compressor station, is drawing particularly heated backlash for its proposed location in Union Hill, a community west of Richmond that was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. Environmental groups and social activists are hoping to capitalize on the attention generated by the state’s political turmoil to further their efforts to block the project. And now former U.S. Vice President and outspoken fossil fuel critic Al Gore is slated to attend an event on Tuesday meant to draw attention to environmental justice issues surrounding the project. Pipelines, particularly those slated for the Northeast, are facing an unprecedented pushback as environmental groups find increasing success in court. In addition to Atlantic Coast and the similarly contentious Mountain Valley project, work on several pipelines that are planned to run through states including New York and New Jersey has yet to actually begin as key permits remain ensnared in lawsuits. In media interviews, Northam has vowed to finish his term despite calls for his resignation after a page in his medical school yearbook surfaced showing a person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. He’ll now focus on pursuing an agenda of racial reconciliation, he said. Pipeline opponents will likely use Northam’s comments to compel him to intervene on issues surrounding the Atlantic Coast pipeline, Height Securities LLC analyst Katie Bays said in a note to clients last week. That could include Northam ordering the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to review its decision last month to issue an air permit for the compressor station, she said. If the permit is revoked, the company could opt to site the station somewhere else, though that would risk hiking costs for a project that’s already seen its price tag balloon.

    In bitter cold, gas barge off Massachusetts helped keep down New England energy prices - Gas and electricity consumers in New England got a break this winter as power generators tapped an offshore liquefied natural gas barge during bitterly cold weather in late January and early February, keeping prices down in contrast to last year’s costly winter.The reliance on the LNG barge 13 miles east of Boston Harbor followed changes to electricity markets put in place last year by ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator. This was the first winter for the new system that increases penalties on generators that fall short of ISO’s instructions to keep the power on. “At this stage, everybody feels pretty good about how the winter has come along," said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association. “Anecdotally, we feel good about the operations of the system.”Relying briefly on gas drawn from the barge, called a “floating regasification system,” is not specifically part of the new market mechanisms, he said.“It’s hard to pin it down as to what drove it,” Dolan said of the decision to use LNG from the offshore barge. “Some companies made the commercial decision that it was the best way to meet their obligations.”Revised market rules allow generators to change their offers to supply power on an hourly basis to account for changing fuel costs. Financial penalties also were added, slapping punitive fines that could reach “tens of millions of dollars" for failing to meet ISO instructions, he said. “The risk of not meeting obligations has gone up," Dolan said. “It creates more incentives to bring in LNG.”David Ismay, a clean energy and climate change staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston environmental organization, said New Englanders saved an average of about $40 million – and avoided 20,000 tons of carbon pollution – each day during the cold snap compared with the days after Christmas 2017.

    Holyoke utility, citing pipeline constraints, halts natural gas hookups -- SUPPORTERS OF BUILDING another natural gas pipeline into the region have been quiet for some time, but they resurfaced on Thursday after discovering a municipal utility in Holyoke had declared a moratorium on new natural gas hookups last month. Holyoke Gas & Electric announced on January 28 that pipeline capacity constraints were preventing access to new supplies of natural gas, requiring the imposition of a moratorium on news natural gas connections. “While inexpensive natural gas has never been more plentiful in the United States, there is insufficient pipeline capacity in our region to deliver additional load,” the company said in a notice to customers. “Recent proposals that would increase natural gas capacity in the region have been met with opposition, and the current pipeline constraints are causing significant adverse environmental and economic impacts on the region’s ratepayers.”   The Baker administration, which previously supported expansion of the region’s natural gas pipeline capacity, issued a statement on Thursday saying the Holyoke situation highlights the pressing need for energy diversification. The statement said nothing about pipeline expansion; instead, it praised recent procurements of offshore wind and hydro-electric power and the aggressive rollout of state energy efficiency programs as the way to “provide residents and businesses with reliable, cost-effective clean energy while reducing carbon emissions.” But pipeline supporters seized on the Holyoke news to make their case for more pipe in the ground. Stephen Dodge, executive director of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, said the Holyoke announcement means 10 communities with more than 150,000 residents can no longer expand their use of natural gas.

    Gas Shortages Give New York an Early Taste of the Green New Deal - The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—sometimes known as the “shale revolution”—has enabled Texas, Pennsylvania and other states to produce record quantities of natural gas, some of which is being frozen, loaded onto giant ships, and transported to customers in places like Chile, China and India. Thanks to the environmental policies of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York has missed out on this windfall. Now, in a preview of what life might be like under the Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal, some New Yorkers are about to face a natural-gas shortage. Consolidated Edison , an energy utility that provides gas and power to the New York City area, announced last month that beginning in mid-March it would “no longer be accepting applications for natural gas connections from new customers in most of our Westchester County service area.” The reason for the shortage is obvious: The Cuomo administration has repeatedly blocked or delayed new pipeline projects. As a Con Ed spokesman put it, there is a “lot of natural gas around the country, but getting it to New York has been the strain.” New York policy makers have also killed the state’s natural-gas-drilling business. In 2008 New York drillers produced about 150 million cubic feet of natural gas a day—not enough to meet all the state’s needs, but still a substantial amount. That same year legislators in Albany passed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, the process used to wring oil and gas out of underground rock formations. In 2015 the Cuomo administration made the moratorium permanent. By 2018 New York’s gas production had declined so much that the Energy Information Administration quit publishing numbers on it. New York now imports nearly all of its gas even though part of the Marcellus Shale, one of the biggest and most prolific sources of natural gas in the country, extends into the state’s Southern Tier region. To get an idea of how much gas the state might have been able to produce from the Marcellus, New Yorkers can look across the state line to Pennsylvania, which now supplies about two-thirds of the gas consumed in New York. At the end of 2018, Pennsylvania drillers were producing about 18 billion cubic feet of gas a day. That’s more gas than Canada now produces.

    You Say You Want A Constitution - Can Gas-Pipe Projects Through New York Be Revived? - The vast majority of the incremental natural gas pipeline capacity out of the Marcellus/Utica production area in recent years is designed to transport gas to either the Midwest, the Gulf Coast or the Southeast. Advancing these projects to construction and operation hasn’t always been easy, but generally speaking, most of the new pipelines and pipeline reversals have come online close to when their developers had planned. In contrast, efforts to build new gas pipelines into nearby New York State — a big market and the gateway to gas-starved New England — have hit one brick wall after another. At least until lately. In the past few weeks, one federal court ruling breathed new life into National Fuel Gas’s long-planned Northern Access Pipeline and another gave proponents of the proposed Constitution Pipeline hope that their project may finally be able to proceed. Today, we consider recent legal developments that may at long last enable new, New York-bound outlets for Marcellus/Utica gas to be built. More than four years ago, in our 50 Ways to Leave the Marcellus Drill Down Report, we discussed the race by midstream companies to add new gas pipeline takeaway capacity out of what was already the U.S.’s premier natural gas production area. By late 2014, production in the Marcellus/Utica was topping 18 Bcf/d and headed for 30 Bcf/d by 2019. Well, here we are in The Year of the Pig and, sure enough, production is at ~30 Bcf/d and most of the 40-plus takeaway projects we listed have been completed and are in operation. We looked at a number of the more recent takeaway additions in our “Waiting on the World to Change” blog series, including Williams/Transco’s 1.7-Bcf/d Atlantic Sunrise project, Enbridge/DTE Energy’s 1.5-Bcf/d NEXUS Gas Transmission, and TransCanada’sMountaineer Xpress and Gulf Xpress, which together will allow another 1 Bcf/d to flow south/southwest out of the Marcellus/Utica.

    New England Power Grid Operator Not Expecting New Gas Pipelines To Be Built -- The operator of the electric power grid in New England issued its annual assessment today. The grid is foundationally strong but remains vulnerable to fuel supply shortages, according to Gordon van Welie, the president and CEO of ISO New England, the Holyoke-based nonprofit that oversees the electric power generation and transmission system for the six New England states. "The region's resource mix is shifting towards less on-site fuel and more resources subject to natural gas availability and changes to wind and sun," said van Welie. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, van Welie pointed to the grid’s reliability in delivering uninterrupted power during last winter’s two-week cold snap and the heat waves of last summer. This winter has been relatively mild and has presented no serious challenges for the power grid, he said. As in previous annual reports, van Welie warned about vulnerabilities to electricity generation in the region as fuel sources shift from coal, nuclear, and oil to natural gas, solar and wind. "New England's grid is undergoing rapid change," he said. The risk of shortages is greatest in the winter when natural gas is needed for heating buildings and there is less solar generation. Asked if he thought there would be natural gas pipeline expansion in the region, van Welie said it is not likely. "I do not think we are going to see any significant pipeline expansion into the region and our view is we have to operate with what we have," said van Welie. Demand for electricity has been declining for several years because of energy conservation measures and more rooftop solar arrays on individual buildings -- there are now about 160,000 rooftop solar installations. Van Welie predicted that in the next decade, demand for electricity would increase as more electric vehicle charging stations come online.

     The Hidden Risk in the Fracking Boom - Rolling Stone -- At 10:40 a.m. on Monday, January 21st, a pipeline carrying natural gas ruptured in rural Noble County, in southeastern Ohio, producing a fireball that surged 120 feet into the air and engulfed the Noll family home, with 12-year-old son Nash inside. The boy’s grandfather rushed into the inferno and rescued him, says Noble County Emergency Management Agency Director Chasity Schmelzenbach, and together the two ran for their lives. Nash ended up with burns on the back of his legs and neck and on top of his head. “We are just happy our son is alive, honestly,” said mother Brittany Noll when reached by phone at a Comfort Inn, where the family was staying after the explosion. Their home had been largely destroyed. It was the second time in three years that an explosion carrying a furious wave of burning methane gas had erupted into the lives — and bedrooms and living rooms — of residents living along this 76-year-old pipeline system. The 9,029-mile Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline, which runs from the Gulf Coast to the Philadelphia and New York City metro areas and is operated by Canadian energy giant Enbridge, also exploded in April 2016 in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. That incident produced a crater 50 feet long by 12 feet deep and generated a fireball — videotaped by morning commuters — that obliterated a home, melted a road and sent a 26-year-old man to the hospital with third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body.And in Noble County, last month’s blast was the second major pipeline explosion in the space of a single year. “That is scary,” said resident Cheryl Rubel, as she recorded a video of a January 31st, 2018, explosion on a pipeline operated by the Kansas-based firm Tallgrass Energy. Her camera zoomed over a dark yard to reveal flames shooting above the nearest hilltop and noise like a roaring freight train. In September 2018, a natural-gas pipeline exploded in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio border. Three months prior, in June, a pipeline had exploded in nearby Marshall County, West Virginia. “There goes another one,” a resident told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    How the Consumers Energy polar vortex emergency unfolded – A disastrous confluence of natural and man-made events led to a dire emergency for Consumers Energy and its 1.8 million customers on Michigan on Jan. 30. In a minute-by-minute explanation of the circumstances leading up to an emergency alert text message sent to Michiganders at 10:30 p.m., urging them to turn down their thermostats on what was then the coldest night of the year, Consumers CEO Patti Poppe told members of the Michigan House Energy committee Wednesday that all the planning done by the utility over the years to ensure the heat stayed on was nearly for naught. “I stood in the control room with 20-30 veterans of the company and their faces were ashen,” Poppe said. “They have never seen anything like this before.” “This” was a series of events that started with a fire at the Ray Compressor station in Macomb County at 10:33 a.m. on Jan. 30. That alarm triggered a series of safety actions that took 50 percent of the utility’s natural gas supply out of commission on a day when temperatures were hovering below zero. Committee members commended the utility for its actions during the emergency, but wondered whether the company needed better contingency plans in place and whether the decision to phase out coal-fired plants from the utility's full complement of energy resources was a prudent one. "Are we putting all our eggs in one basket?" said state Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann. "It seems to me that natural gas is the base load now. Doesn't it make sense to keep some coal or nuclear available? Just to have a few more valves." Here’s how the emergency unfolded: (timeline)

    TransCanada Seeking to Avoid Political Firestorm Over Potomac Pipeline Appeal - Last month, the Maryland Board of Public Works voted unanimously to deny TransCanada an easement to put its fracked gas pipeline under the Potomac River just west of Hancock, Maryland. The decision dealt a major blow to not just TransCanada, but to the Mountaineer Gas pipeline in West Virginia, which TransCanada would have fed with fracked natural gas, and to the proposed Rockwool insulation factory in Jefferson County, which was banking on the gas to fuel its furnaces. It was a victory for anti-pipeline activists. And then the question became – what are TransCanada’s and Mountaineer’s next moves? Rumors had it that TransCanada was going to litigate the case in the courts. But still, no word from TransCanada. Why not? Turns out that TransCanada is waiting until the Maryland legislature adjourns on April 4.   Earlier this month, someone at the Economic Development Authority messaged TransCanada’s Brittany Carns asking her about the company’s plans. The message was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Tracy Cannon of Eastern Panhandle Protectors, Brent Walls of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and Regina Hendrix of the West Virginia Sierra Club. (selected transcript)

    US-China trade dispute puts a chill on American natural gas export boom - The natural gas market is emerging from winter relatively unscathed despite potentially disruptive Chinese tariffs on U.S. gas. But the ongoing trade dispute is still putting a chill on cooperation between the two energy powerhouses and threatens to sideline billions in investment. Chinese tariffs on U.S. natural gas have halted Beijing's purchases of U.S. LNG, a form of the fuel chilled to liquid form for transport by sea. The trade dispute has also delayed at least one LNG export terminal slated for construction in Louisiana and threatens to push back the start date for other facilities. In the long-run, analysts say it's inevitable for gas trade to resume between China and the U.S. China is the engine behind growing LNG demand, while the U.S. is the world's top natural gas producer. "On the one hand, China is the fastest growing LNG market and the U.S. is the fastest growing LNG supplier." But a breakthrough on gas trade depends on reaching a deal on separate issues that are difficult to resolve. Beijing and Washington are reportedly hammering out a blueprint to address those tough issues, from assuring American companies have access to Chinese markets to protecting U.S. intellectual property. However, it now appears that negotiators will move the goal line back from the original March 1 deadline to strike a deal — forestalling a potential increase in tariffs, but delaying the removal of China's current 10 percent tax on U.S. LNG. The dispute comes as developers are planning a second wave of U.S. LNG export terminals, mostly along the Gulf Coast. The trade feud is also continuing as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday broke an impasse that held up key approvals for new U.S. LNG export terminals.

     Federal regulators just removed a barrier to exporting more US natural gas - Federal regulators on Thursday broke an impasse over approving new projects to export natural gas from the United States, potentially easing the way for a flurry of applications to build the multi-billion dollar facilities. In doing so, the regulators approved a liquefied natural gas export terminal for the first time in two years, pushing through a disagreement over how they should assess the facilities' contribution to climate change. However, divisions remain within the commission on the issue, and one of the four sitting members dissented from the majority decision. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday decided to approve Venture Global's proposed Calcasieu Pass export terminal in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, as well as a pipeline to supply the facility. The project is one of about a dozen vying to tap surging U.S. natural gas production and export LNG, a form of the fuel chilled to liquid form and shipped overseas in massive tankers. However, applications have been held up while FERC's four commissioners hash out the greenhouse gas issue. The five-person commission has been down one member since former commissioner and Republican Kevin McIntyre passed away last month, leaving the body split between two Democrats and two Republicans. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said he's optimistic that in light of Thursday's deal, FERC now has a framework in place that will help the commission more expeditiously process applications. "No question about it, it's a top priority of mine and I think my colleagues' as well," he told CNBC on Friday.

    Coast Guard responds to oil spill in Tenn. River near Paducah - (KFVS) - The U.S. Coast Guard has responded to a diesel oil spill near Paducah, Ky. in the Tennessee River. At 8:27 a.m. the vessel Patricia I. Hart was being transported by a tug boat to a dry dock and hit a pier at James Marine Inc. at mile marker 4.5. Around 3,000 gallons of diesel spilled into the water. The source of the discharge has been secured. An oil spill response team recovered around 250 gallons and removed 2,700 gallons from the vessel’s tanks. The spill was contained with sorbent pads and containment boom. There are no reports of injuries or waterway impacts. The Marine Safety Unit Paducah arrived at 9:15 a.m. to investigate. Coast Guard members are set to return on Wednesday, Feb. 20 to continue the investigation and cause.

    TransCanada restarts shut portion of Keystone oil pipeline in St. Charles County -- TransCanada Corp. restarted a section of the Keystone oil pipeline on Tuesday, following a leak in St. Charles County earlier this month, company spokesman Terry Cunha said. TransCanada had shut an arm of Keystone from Steele City, Neb., to Patoka, Ill., on Feb. 6 after leaking 43 barrels of crude oil. The oil leak occurred north of St. Charles near Highway C, about 1,700 feet south of the Mississippi River. The shutdown restricted the flow on the 590,000 barrels-per-day Keystone pipeline system, a critical artery taking Canadian crude from northern Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest. The line restarted with a 20 percent reduction of pressure, a spokesman for U.S. regulator PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) said.

     US marks one year of VLCC oil exports from LOOP as new ports line up— The US has been directly loading and exporting VLCCs for one year as of this week from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only US port able to fully load the supertankers without lightering from smaller vessels. LOOP has picked up speed in its first year of exports, from one ship every month or two, to two VLCCs loading within a few days of each other in early December. The port has also picked up future competitors -- eight of them. Analysts expect at least two of the proposals to get built by 2022, likely one each offshore greater Houston and Corpus Christi. With most of the growth in Permian oil production in the coming years destined for export markets, midstream companies are racing to build additional deepwater terminals capable of loading 2 million barrels of crude onto a VLCC within a day. Gulf Coast dock capacity would rise to 7 million-8 million b/d if two VLCC terminals are added, said Sandy Fielden, director of oil and products research at Morningstar Commodities and Energy. "So far dock capacity has handled over 3 million b/d and probably can do 5 million b/d in a pinch today," he said. Fielden projects Permian crude production expanding by 2.3 million b/d by end-2021, from about 4 million b/d in Q1 2019. US oil production crossed 12 million b/d for the first time in January and is on track to exceed 13 million b/d by March 2020, with most of the growth coming from the Permian Basin, according to the Energy Information Administration. Click here for full-size graphic LOOP loaded 11 VLCCs in its first year of direct crude exports, all of which headed to Asia. About 12.5 million barrels of oil went to India, 5 million barrels to China, and 2 million barrels each to Japan and South Korea, according to data from Platts trade flow software cFlow. The Saudi-flagged VLCC Lulu had the quickest turnaround. It arrived at LOOP on December 4, loaded 2.1 million barrels of crude and sailed on December 7 toward the east coast of India, cFlow data showed. The Liberia-flagged Khurais VLCC called twice at LOOP, in late August and early December, loading 2 million barrels each time and sailing to Kochi, India. The wave of competitors looking to join LOOP in direct VLCC exports in the next few years have proposed far more capacity than the US is expected to produce. So even the developers admit that not every proposed port will get built.

    US sanctions on Venezuelan oil could cut the output of refineries at home - U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company, along with some government officials and executives, are intended to put pressure on the government headed by Nicolás Maduro. As the interim director of the Tulane Energy Institute, which tracks energy markets and provides forecasts, and someone with 35 years of oil industry experience, I’m certain that they will also reverberate in this country too – especially in Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry is among the state’s biggest employers. Despite having the world’s biggest petroleum reserves, Venezuela is now functionally bankrupt and wracked by hyperinflation. Even before the sanctions against Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned company known as PDVSA, its crude production was rapidly declining. Refineries located along the U.S. Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas were just about Venezuela’s last source of hard currency. That came to a halt when the Trump administration slapped sanctions on PDVSA in late January 2019. Venezuelan crude is heavy and sour, meaning it is extremely dense and contains a high percentage of sulfur. Globally, most refineries process light sweet crude into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other fuels and products. Only specialized “complex” refineries can handle the dense petroleum produced in Venezuela and remove its unwanted sulfur. More than half of U.S. refinery capacity is ‘complex,’ meaning it requires at least some heavy crude oil to operate properly. Nearly all Gulf Coast refineries are complex. Although U.S. oil production is rising, the domestic industry still needs to import heavy crude to keep the complex refineries operating efficiently. As of early 2019, 90 percent of U.S. imports were heavy crude. Countries that export this heavy petroleum include Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Iran. However, due to delays in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and other pipelines that may eventually run from the northern border to the Gulf Coast, there’s no easy way to replace the blocked shipments from Venezuela.

    US imports of ‘sanctioned’ Venezuelan oil surge fivefold -- Purchases of Venezuelan crude by US energy companies saw a five-fold weekly growth as of the middle of February, nearly reaching their pre-sanctions level, the latest data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows. According to the Paris-based agency, imports of crude from Venezuela to the US amounted to 558,000 barrels per day during the week through February 15, compared to 117,000 barrels per day in the previous week. As of January 25, just days before US sanctions came into effect, American firms reportedly imported 587,000 barrels per day. Washington imposed economic penalties against Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA, freezing $7 billion of the company’s assets. The sanctions also block payments to PDVSA accounts with buyers of Venezuela’s oil directed to deposit all transactions in a separate account, to which the company doesn’t have access. The US Treasury issued temporary permits for buying Venezuelan crude to foreign companies until the current deals are expired, and the firms find new suppliers with the deadline set by the White House to expire on April 28. The latest sanctions also prohibit US sales of naphtha to the Bolivarian Republic. Naphtha is a mixture, produced from natural gas condensates or petroleum distillates, which is used to dilute thick, heavy crude to make it flow. The US penalties forced Caracas to purchase naphtha, as well as petrol and diesel, from Russian state oil corporation Rosneft, Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries, as well as Dutch commodity traders Vitol and Trafigura, according to ship-tracking data seen by Reuters. Washington and Caracas have been involved in a longstanding diplomatic spat for years. In January, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a break of diplomatic relations with the US after President Trump recognized the leader of Venezuela's National Assembly Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president.

    Top Citgo executives removed amid battle to control firm - sources (Reuters) - Citgo Petroleum Corp has removed at least three top executives close to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, people familiar with the matter said on Monday, in a move to cement management control under a new board of directors. The U.S. refining arm of Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA has been thrust in recent weeks into the center of a political battle between an opposition leader and self-declared president backed by many Western nations, including the United States, and Maduro, a socialist whose re-election last year they consider illegitimate. Monday’s departures appeared to shift control of Citgo’s day-to-day operations to officials expected to recognize a new board of directors appointed last week by the opposition-controlled congress, led by self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido. Citgo Vice Presidents Frank Gygax, Nepmar Escalona and Simon Suarez, all of them Venezuelans promoted by Citgo Chief Executive Asdrubal Chavez from 2017 to 2018, were escorted out of Citgo’s Houston headquarters on Monday by human resources staff, the people said. It was not immediately clear if the executives were fired, forced to resign or if they retired. Chavez, a cousin of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, has been running Citgo from the Bahamas since last year as the U.S. government denied his visa petition to work from Houston. Other Venezuelan members of the oil refiner’s board are also working with him from the Caribbean office. Citgo is the eighth-largest U.S. refiner and runs plants in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana that provide about 4 percent of U.S. refining capacity. It also operates fuel pipelines and terminals, and supplies fuel to a retail network of 5,500 gas station across 29 U.S. states. The company has been hurt by U.S. sanctions imposed on Jan. 28 to curtail Maduro’s access to oil revenue. Citgo, the largest U.S. buyer of Venezuelan crude, can continue importing PDVSA’s oil only if the sale proceeds go to banks accounts controlled by Guaido. Citgo’s new board of directors is led by Venezuelan Luisa Palacios, four veteran oil executives and current Vice President of Strategy and Compliance Rick Esser. The new members have yet to take office in Houston. A fourth top Citgo official, General Auditor Eladio Perez, also was removed from his office on Monday, according to one of the people.

     Houston ranks second in Texas for most unauthorized pollution, environmental study finds - The Houston metro area has the second most unauthorized air pollution in the state, analysis of reports filed by companies to state regulators by the Texas Environment Research & Policy Center, an environmental policy nonprofit, found.Over 9 million pounds of unauthorized emissions were released in Houston in 2017, second to Midland, where Texas' booming oil field, the Permian Basin, is located. Unauthorized emissions are events in which an industrial facility releases large amounts of pollution into the air during a breakdown, process malfunction, operator error or maintenance work. Companies are required to report unauthorized emissions to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In 2017, 275 companies reported over 4,000 emissions events that resulted in the release of more than 63 million pounds of air pollution in the state, up 27 percent from 2016, the study found.  Midland had over 37 million total pounds of unauthorized emissions, the study found, nearly 60 percent of the state's total unauthorized pollution.   Air pollution from industrial sources can cause long-term health issues for the population exposed, such as higher rates of cancer and heart disease, and is a major contributor to climate change.

    How Google, Microsoft, and Big Tech Are Automating the Climate Crisis - In a deal that made few ripples outside the energy industry, two very large but relatively obscure companies, Rockwell Automation and Schlumberger Limited, announced a joint venture called Sensia. The new company will “sell equipment and services to advance digital technology and automation in the oilfield,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Yet the partnership has ramifications far beyond Houston’s energy corridor: It’s part of a growing trend that sees major tech companies teaming with oil giants to use automation, AI, and big data services to enhance oil exploration, extraction, and production. Rockwell is the world’s largest company that is dedicated to industrial automation, and Schlumberger, a competitor of Halliburton, is the world’s largest oilfield services firm. Sensia will be, according to the press release, “the first fully integrated digital oilfield automation solutions provider.” It will enable drilling rigs to run on automated schedules, enhance communication between oilfield equipment, and help machinery assess when it is in need of repair or modification—all in the name of making drilling for oil smarter, cheaper, and more efficient. As the Chronicle put it, Sensia will “help producers churn out more oil and gas with fewer workers.” Which, of course, is precisely the opposite of what needs to be happening in regards to the churning out of oil right now. And yet, the biggest and most influential tech companies are making deals and partnerships with oil companies that move the needle in the opposite direction. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all struck lucrative arrangements—collectively worth billions of dollars—to provide automation, cloud, and AI services to some of the world’s biggest oil companies, and they are actively pursuing more. These deals, many of which were made just last year, at what may be the height of public awareness of the threats posed by climate change, are explicitly aimed at streamlining, improving, and rendering oil and gas extraction operations more profitable. These deals weren’t secret and many have been openly reported in trade journals and business sections, but somehow big tech’s sweeping embrace of the oil industry has managed to escape wider notice and criticism.

     US crude oil exports hit a record last week at 3.6 million barrels a day --  The United States exported a record amount of crude oil last week, as output from the nation's shale fields continues to surge.The nation shipped out just over 3.6 million barrels a day in the week through Feb. 15, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That easily topped the previous all-time high of 3.2 million bpd set in November.Also last week, U.S. production hit a record 12 million bpd. The reading is subject to significant revision, but this is the first time EIA's weekly report has shown American output hitting the threshold. The weekly reading has been hovering at 11.9 million bpd for the last five weeks. Much of that growing output is coming from U.S. shale fields, where drillers use advanced methods to squeeze crude oil and natural gas from rock formations. On Tuesday, EIA forecast output from seven major U.S. shale fields will rise by 84,000 bpd next month to 8.4 million bpd.The U.S. notched the new export record despite China halting imports of American crude in recent months amid a trade dispute with Washington. China had emerged as the biggest buyer of U.S. oil prior to that.Shipping data indicates that China was scheduled to receive its first cargoes of crude oil from the U.S. in months around Feb. 17, but it was not immediately clear if those shipments were baked into last week's figures.To be sure, weekly U.S. exports rise and fall by wide margins from week to week. The U.S. will start consistently exporting more crude oil and petroleum products than it imports at the end of next year, EIA recently forecast.

    US crude stocks rise as record production offsets record exports— A slowdown in US refinery activity and record weekly oil production helped offset record crude exports last week, Energy Information Administration oil data showed Thursday. EIA pegged US crude output at 12 million b/d for the first time last week, up from 11.9 million b/d the week prior. As a result, US commercial crude stocks rose 3.67 million barrels, to 454.51 million barrels, for the reporting week ended February 15. The build was in line with market expectations. Analysts surveyed Tuesday by S&P Global Platts had been looking for a 3.5 million-barrel build. Crude stocks in the US Gulf Coast rose 1.67 million barrels to 232.64 million barrels last week, as regional crude runs slipped 99,000 b/d to 8.46 million b/d. USGC crude runs were last any lower in early-March. Further, the build comes despite US exports -- which come chiefly from the USGC -- rose 1.24 million b/d to 3.61 million b/d, the highest weekly total on record, according to EIA data. The jump in exports was likely triggered by a steadily wide Brent/WTI spread, which widened beyond $10/b over the past week. A wide Brent/WTI spread helps traders hedge export flows. A rebound in generally weak crude imports into the region also helped stocks build. USGC imports jumped 1.09 million b/d to a still-modest 2.52 million b/d. Crude stocks at Cushing, Oklahoma -- the delivery point for the NYMEX WTI futures contract -- jumped 3.41 million barrels to 45.02 million barrels. US gasoline stocks appear to be leveling off after surging for the better part of the past four months. Stocks fell in line with analysts' expectations, down 1.45 million barrels to 256.85 million barrels.. Stocks fell in line with analysts' expectations, down 1.45 million barrels to 256.85 million barrels. The draw most pronounced in the US Atlantic Coast, where stocks dropped 1.93 million barrels to 67.59 million barrels. This took stocks to 2.5% below the five-year average, a key indicator of the health of regional gasoline supply. This is the first time USAC gasoline stocks have been at a deficit to the five-year average since mid-May, and a far cry from the better-than-20% surplus seen in early October. Prompt NYMEX March RBOB remains in a seasonal contango of around 15 cents/gal, but that has eroded significantly from the near 20 cents/gal seen last week. US distillate stocks also fell in line with analysts' expectations, down 1.52 million barrels to 138.68 mil

    Permian Frac Scene Could Get Busier Soon - Hydraulic fracturing operations appear to be ramping up in the Permian Basin, suggesting that the region’s oilfield services sector is regaining strength after suffering a dip in activity in recent months. “Operators have gone from full-go planning mode in December to slowing things down since pricing took a dive over the holidays,” said Matt Johnson, Principal with Los Angeles-based Primary Vision, Inc. “A combination of improved crude pricing, global supply and demand and favorable pressure pumper contracts may be just the three-pointer that operators need to make spring/summer action-packed.” Through its “Primary Vision Frac Spread Count,” Johnson’s firm gauges the health of the upstream oil and gas industry through the lens of hydraulic fracturing activity. The indicator hinges on frac spreads, or frac fleets, which comprise the equipment that a pressure pumper – an oilfield service company – uses to perform a frac stimulation job. By Primary Vision’s reckoning, an increase in the number of frac spreads translates into an uptick in activity and growth in production – and vice versa. As Rigzone reported Thursday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects oil production from the Permian to cross the 4 million barrel per day mark next month – more than four times the volume of daily output in 2010. On Feb. 18, Primary Vision reported that the national frac spread count had risen by 11 week-on-week to 452 and that the Permian accounts for approximately one-third of that figure. The Permian gained four frac spreads during the period to hit 147, Johnson told Rigzone. “The rig count is diverging from the frac spread count as we predicted earlier this year,” Johnson told Rigzone. “The Permian Basin has seen a decline of almost three percent of rigs and an increase in frac spreads of eight percent since early January. The perception is that U.S. operators are satisfied pushing their completion programs forward with WTI/NYMEX pricing above $50.”

    Editorial: Update Colorado's forced-pooling laws - Boulder Daily Camera - A common reaction to forced pooling when people first learn about the practice is shock. And no wonder — state law allows oil and gas companies to make mineral rights owners, against their will, join extraction operations as part of a drilling pool.  Industry critics say this gives private interests the power of eminent domain. Mineral rights owners forced into pools might have little knowledge of their legal options and scant time to respond when pricey corporate lawyers come knocking with thick contracts full of legalese. Unwilling owners can end up paying penalties if they resist. Colorado pooling laws were crafted back in 1951, when they might have been appropriate for the circumstances of the day. But technology and other factors have changed since then, and laws must be updated accordingly.  Colorado's forced pooling provisions are comparatively favorable to industry. At least 34 states have forced pooling laws. In some of the those states, force-pooled owners are required to contribute to production costs only if the well successfully produces, and they bear none of the enterprise's risks. Other states use a so-called risk-penalty scheme, in which force-pooled owners must pay their share of operation costs plus a certain amount — the risk-penalty — to cover the risks that come with the energy development. Still other states offer payment options to force-pooled owners. Colorado is a risk-penalty state. And its risk-penalty standard is a punishing 200 percent. This means the force-pooled owner must pay their full share of costs for surface equipment plus double their share of costs associated with the actual production.  Forced pooling in many states may be imposed only if a certain percent of owners within a spacing unit voluntarily joined the pool. Virginia requires 25 percent of owners to willingly join a pool before others can be compelled to. Ohio requires 90 percent. In Colorado a sole owner who wants to drill in a given spacing unit can force a pool. Forced pooling was in part meant to prevent a holdout from blocking neighbors from realizing ownership benefits, but in Colorado it can allow a single owner to force many neighbors to have their property developed. In 2017 and 2018, the state's oil and gas regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, handled 658 forced pooling orders.

     Colorado Court: Oil, Gas Drilling Decisions Can't Hinge on Public Health - In a case that had threatened to sharply curtail oil and gas drilling in Colorado, the state Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 14 that state regulators cannot put health and environment above all other considerations when approving new fossil fuel development under the current state law.It's another setback for young activists and others in Colorado and across the country who have been pushing legal challenges and ballot measures to limit fossil fuel development in order to rapidly cut the nation's climate-warming emissions.But the plaintiffs in Colorado vowed to continue their fight, and they could see some help from the state legislature."There are two options now," said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust, an advocacy group that is representing the plaintiffs who challenged how regulators were interpreting the state's oil and gas law. They can pressure lawmakers to amend the law, she said, or they can challenge the law's constitutionality.Two weeks later, the attorneys also tried a third route, requesting that the court reconsider its decision after information came to light about a judge who had issued an earlier opinion in the case. The court rejected that request on Jan. 28.Olson's group and one of the young plaintiffs are also part of a lawsuit brought by a group of children and young adults against the federal government in which they argue that it has a duty to limit fossil fuel development and limit greenhouse gas emissions. That case is awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether it can proceed to trial.

    2018 oil, gas spills comparable to 2017 -- While 2019 is off to a bit of a rough start locally in terms of oil and gas industry spills, spill numbers last year both regionally and statewide were somewhat on par with the previous year. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data shows that statewide, there were 599 reported spills last year of substances such as oil, condensate and produced water associated with well drilling and production. That's down from 619 the prior year. Most of last year's leaks (364) occurred in Weld County, which leads the state in drilling activity and active wells. Garfield County, which ranks second statewide in drilling activity and well numbers, had 45 reportable spills last year, down from 55 in 2017.Mesa County showed an increase in reportable spills, with 27, up from 11 the prior year. It saw a spurt in drilling the last two years largely involving Laramie Energy, which also accounted for most of last year's reportable spills in the county.Rio Blanco County had 39 spills last year, compared to 40 in 2017.Companies must report spills of one barrel (42 gallons) or more that occur outside berms or secondary containment. All spills of five barrels or more must be reported, and companies also must report spills of any size that impact or threaten waters, homes, livestock or public byways. The COGCC spill count includes what it calls releases, which it defines as unauthorized discharges to the environment over time. According to its latest annual report issued to the state Water Quality Control Commission, if companies find impacts from historical operations during routine operations or closure of facilities, "those impacts are typically reported as releases and the operator proceeds with investigation and cleanup.

    North Dakota oil production sets record in December (AP) — North Dakota regulators say the state’s oil production set a record in December. The Department of Mineral Resources says the state produced an average of 1.4 million barrels of oil daily in December. That’s up from 1.37 million barrels in November. North Dakota also produced a record 2.65 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in December, up from 2.52 billion cubic feet in November. There were 15,351 producing wells in December, down one from a record set in October. The December tallies are the latest figures available. There were 65 drill rigs operating in North Dakota on Friday, up one from the December average. 

    North Dakota oil production hits new record  -- North Dakota oil operators took advantage of mild December weather and produced a record 1.4 million barrels per day that month, according to the Department of Mineral Resources. While oil production grew nearly 2 percent, natural gas production jumped 5 percent in December to a record 2.65 billion cubic feet per day, according to the preliminary figures. The previous high, 1.39 million barrels per day, was set in October. Natural gas flaring decreased slightly in December, but continues to miss the goals set by the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Companies captured an all-time high of 2.1 billion cubic feet per day in December. Operators burned off 513 million cubic feet per day, or 19 percent of gas produced statewide. The Industrial Commission targets limit flaring to 12 percent. Operators voluntarily restricted oil production by about 35,000 barrels per day in December to stay within flaring limits, Helms estimates. Most of the flaring came from wells that are connected to a pipeline, but there is inadequate infrastructure to handle all of the gas, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. Several gas processing plants are under construction and are expected to be complete by the end of 2019.  January oil production is expected to be flat or slightly down, but severe cold in February is expected to lead to a production drop, Helms said. Modern drilling rigs can handle the cold weather, but hydraulic fracturing is difficult in subzero temperatures, Helms said. Williston recently reported a record low temperature of 43 below zero.

    Senate approves fines for oil companies that fail to comply with audits - Oil companies that fail to cooperate with Department of Trust Lands audits could face fines of up to $1,000 per day under a bill unanimously approved Friday by the North Dakota Senate. The Department of Trust Lands has been struggling to complete audits of royalty payments because 20 percent of oil and gas operators have not provided documents requested by the state agency. In some cases, the department has been waiting years for the information, Land Commissioner Jodi Smith has said. Senate Bill 2212 would authorize the department to charge fines to energy companies that are not in compliance after 90 days. Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, D-Fargo, said the department’s only other recourse is to file a lawsuit or terminate a lease. The North Dakota Petroleum Council opposed the legislation. The bill as introduced would have levied fines of up to $5,000 per day after an operator was out of compliance for 30 days, but the department agreed to compromise on the fine and time frame. Also this week, the Senate unanimously approved Senate Concurrent Resolution 4010, which seeks a formal study of deductions taken from oil and gas royalty payments.

     ND Oil and Gas Division reports brine spill near Williston - The North Dakota Oil and Gas Division was notified of a release occurring Wednesday, February 20 at the Knoshaug 14-11 #2TFH well, about six miles northeast of Williston, North Dakota. The North Dakota Oil and Gas Division says 260 barrels of brine were spilled Wednesday at a well site about six miles northeast of Williston. It was reported Thursday by Equinor Energy LP, which said the spill was caused by a valve and pipeline connection leak. The Oil and Gas Division says the spill was contained on site and has been recovered. A state inspector has been to the location and will monitor any additional cleanup.

    A rough patch: Study shows how violent Bakken became as oil drilling surged -  — The notion that crime boomed in the Bakken as oil development took off is nothing new. But a study released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics offers a detailed look at the spike in Oil Patch violence. Counties in Montana and North Dakota that contain the Bakken shale formation saw their violent crime rate jump 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to the study. The violent crime rate dropped by 8 percent for the surrounding region during the same period. The bureau provided federal funds to RTI International, a nonprofit research organization that analyzed FBI data for the study, to see if there was a correlation between increased populations in the Bakken and crime, RTI research analyst Nick Richardson said. The time period was chosen because researchers wanted to look at years — 2006 to 2008 — before an oil boom brought rapid population increases to the Oil Patch from 2009 to 2012. The violent crime rate in the Bakken didn’t start to climb dramatically until 2009, according to the study. Researchers found that a crime rate of 105 per 10,000 people in 2006 rose to 130 per 10,000 in 2012, surpassing a rate of 124 in 2012 for non-Bakken counties in Montana and the Dakotas. “The increase in violent victimizations in the Bakken region counties was not part of a broader increase in violent victimizations reported by law enforcement across Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” researchers said in the study. The rate of violent crime against men in the Bakken region surpassed the non-Bakken region, with the former jumping 31 percent from 2006 to 2012, or a rate of 90 per 10,000 males to 118, the study said. The latter dropped 10 percent from a rate of 116 per 10,000 males to 104 in that time frame. The increase in the Bakken region for men was higher than that of female violent victimization, which only climbed 18 percent from 2006 to 2012. However, the rate at which women were victimized in both the non-Bakken and Bakken regions largely outpaced male victimization. The rate of female victims in the Bakken rose from 118 per 10,000 females in 2006 to 140 in 2012, closing the gap on the non-Bakken rate, the study said.

     Judge keeps most Keystone XL pipeline work on hold (AP) — A federal judge in Montana has largely kept in place an injunction that blocks a Canadian company from performing preliminary work on the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline.U.S. District Judge Brian Morris on Friday denied a request by Calgary-based TransCanada to begin constructing worker camps for the 1,184-mile pipeline that would ship crude from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.However, Morris said TransCanada could perform some limited activities outside the pipeline’s right-of-way. Those include the construction and use of pipe storage and container yards.TransCanada attorneys had argued the injunction issued by Morris in November could cause it to miss the 2019 construction season and further delay the project. An appeal of November’s ruling is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

    California's Dirty Oil Gets Pricey Amid Venezuela Sanctions - California doesn’t usually come to mind when talking about the U.S. oil boom, but the state’s dirty oil is commanding an increasingly large premium amid an international shortfall of dense, high-sulfur crude.Refiners in the Golden State have been forced to import most of their crude as the state’s production has dwindled. While production from the Permian Basin of West Texas is overflowing, a lack of transportation options is keeping it from reaching the Golden State cheaply.The average posted price for Midway-Sunset crude on Friday was $60.54 a barrel, nearly $5 above U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate futures, and near the all-time high of $5.06 premium set in November in data stretching back more than two years. More than 22 million barrels of the oil that’s heavier than such benchmarks as Mexican Maya or Western Canadian Select was pumped from the San Joaquin Valley in 2017. California's Midway-Sunset crude sells for over $6 premium to WTI. Such pricey crude is the result of a tightening market due to U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, mandatory production curtailments in Canada and cuts of heavy, sour grades by OPEC members such as Saudi Arabia, John Auers, executive vice president at energy consultant Turner Mason & Co. in Dallas, said by phone.Local factors also play a role, as California’s refiners lack many pipeline or crude-by-rail links to the rest of the country, Auers said. As such, accessing light, domestic grades produced in the Bakken or Permian Basin is harder for California plants than for those on the Gulf Coast.“They probably have less flexibility,” he said. “The guys in the Gulf, have always had more access to other grades.”Unlike the U.S. as a whole, California’s dependence on foreign oil imports has been growing steadily since the 1980s as the state’s own crude output and that of Alaska’s has diminished. Without surplus production, not much California crude makes its way to foreign markets. Districts associated with the state shipped out nearly 950,000 barrels in 2017 to the Bahamas, the most recent exports, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Bloomberg.

    Canadian heavy crude slips with pipeline rationing set to rise  - Heavy Canadian crude prices widened to the biggest discount against New York futures this year as pipeline-operator Enbridge Inc. reported that rationing on its heavy oil lines would increase next month.Western Canadian Select, an oil sands benchmark, traded at $15 a barrel below West Texas Intermediate futures Tuesday, $1.50 wider than on Friday and the biggest discount this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.The discount widened as Enbridge said that crude shipments through the heavy oil pipelines of its Mainline, which is the largest Canadian oil export pipeline system, would be apportioned 41 percent in March, up from 39 percent in February. The system carries oil from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, where it connects to other lines linked to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Pipeline rationing on the system has barely budged since the provincial government announced mandatory production curtailments totaling 325,000 barrels a day in January and February, which were later reduced. Canadian heavy oil prices surged after the cuts were announced, with WCS’s discount to futures shrinking to less than $7 a barrel last month. The price surge made shipping the crude by rail cars, a more expensive alternative to pipelines, uneconomical and shipments on trains declined. Shipping full train of crude can cost between $15 and $20 a barrel.

    Canadian National train derails in Manitoba, leaks oil (Reuters) - A Canadian National Railway Co train derailed early on Saturday in Western Canada, leaking an undetermined volume of crude oil, the company said. Thirty-seven tank cars derailed near St-Lazare, Manitoba. The leak has been contained and has not entered the nearby Assiniboine River, CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said in a statement. There were no injuries or fires, he said, adding that CN was preparing to clean up the spill and remediate the environment. The derailment comes as crude oil shipments by rail in Canada reached a record high late last year, after oil production expanded in the western province of Alberta and plugged up pipelines. Crude transport by rail is generally considered less safe than pipelines, although there was also a leak this month in TransCanada Corp’s Keystone pipeline in Missouri. Also this month, a parked Canadian Pacific Railway grain train rolled down a steep embankment in British Columbia, killing three crew members. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which regulates the rail industry, said it was deploying investigators to the site of the Manitoba train derailment. 

    'You Can Smell Crude in the Air': Oil Leaks From Train Derailment in Canada - Almost 40 train cars carrying crude oil derailed near a small town in the Canadian province of Manitoba Saturday, leaking oil into the surrounding area, CBC News reported.The derailment of around 37 cars and subsequent oil spill took place on the property of rancher Jayme Corr, who lives around 10 kilometers (approximately 6.2 miles) south of the town of St. Lazare, in the rural municipality of Ellice-Archie."You can smell crude in the air. That's really concerning," Corr said. "There's oil leaking, and where they're sitting is [near] a water lagoon," he said. Canadian National Railway (CN) began to clean the spill Saturday and said that it had been contained and that no oil had entered the nearby Assiniboine River, the Winnipeg Sun reported."Our environmental team is preparing clean up and remediation to protect the environment," CN media relations director Jonathan Abecassis wrote in an email to the Winnipeg Sun. "A perimeter has been set up around the area to facilitate site access. CN crews are conducting a full site assessment to determine how much product has spilled."Corr told CBC News he was worried that the oil might contaminate the water source he relies on in the summer. Corr and other locals were not surprised by the derailment."It seems to be the trains go faster, they're longer, heavier, and the maintenance is getting less and less," Corr said. Ellice-Archie Councillor Jean-Paul Chartier told CBC News he often observed trains traveling through St. Lazare and worried they would derail and cause a disaster like the one that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded. "It's discouraging. Like you look at it everyday and you say 'hopefully it's not today and hopefully it doesn't ever happen.' But you've always got it in the back of your mind," Chartier said.

    CN begins cleanup after derailment causes crude oil spill - CN’s environmental experts have begun the cleanup of Saturday morning’s derailment which caused a crude oil spill after almost 40 train cars derailed near the community of St. Lazare in western Manitoba. CN officials said several of the cars had been leaking but the product has been contained and has not entered the Assiniboine River. Train movements resumed at noon Sunday. The cause of the incident is under investigation. “CN apologizes for any inconvenience this incident has caused to the community and would like to thank the first responders who attended the derailment site,” said Jonathan Abecassis, media relations director for CN, in an email to the Winnipeg Sun. At around 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, 37 cars derailed and there was a partial leak of crude oil. First responders were on the scene Saturday morning. There were no reports of injuries or fires. On Saturday afternoon, CN reported that the leak had been contained and had not penetrated the Assiniboine River. “Our environmental team is preparing clean up and remediation to protect the environment,” said Abecassis in an email to the Winnipeg Sun. “A perimeter has been set up around the area to facilitate site access. CN crews are conducting a full site assessment to determine how much product has spilled.” The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is deploying a team of investigators to the site. According to a spokesperson from the TSB, the team was expected to be on scene late Saturday afternoon or evening and should be there for several days. Located approximately 330 kilometres west of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border, St. Lazare is about 50 kilometres from Moosomin, Sask., where conservative leaders have been speaking at a pro-pipeline rally on Saturday. Supporters of moving oil via pipelines argue it’s a safer alternative to shipping by rail.

    Environmental Defender Murdered in Mexico Days Before Vote on Pipeline Project - An indigenous environmental activist was killed in Morelos, Mexico Wednesday, three days before a referendum on the construction of a gas pipeline and two thermoelectric plants that he had organized to oppose, the Associated Press reported.Samir Flores Soberanes had challenged the words of government representatives at a forum about the so-called Morelos Comprehensive Project a day before his murder, The Peoples in Defense of Land and Water Front (FPDTA), the group Soberanes organized with, said in a statement."This is a political crime for the human rights defence that Samir and the FPDTA carried out against the [project] and for people's autonomy and self-determination," the group said in a statement reported by The Guardian.The Morelos state government, however, challenged whether Soberanes' murder was politically motivated. State prosecutor Uriel Carmona said that the murder was not related to the upcoming referendum and that investigators were considering the involvement of organized crime.Soberanes and the FPDTA opposed the energy project, which would have run a pipeline through Soberanes' home village of Amilcingo, because of concerns about how it would impact the health, safety and water of the largely indigenous communities in the surrounding area, the Associated Press reported. Newly elected Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador called the murder "vile" and "cowardly," but said the vote would take place when planned.

    Early E&P guidance shows falling CAPEX but solid production growth -- Once the “riverboat gamblers” of U.S. industry, executives at exploration and production companies got religion after the brutal oil price crash in late 2014 and adopted a far more conservative approach to investment based on their new 11th commandment: “Thou shalt live within cash flow.” So it’s no surprise that early 2019 guidance issued by more than half of the 45 major E&Ps we track shows them cutting back capital investment in response to last fall’s decline in oil prices from a more optimistic scenario a year ago. Nearly three-quarters of the 26 companies reporting their 2019 guidance are reducing exploration and development outlays, while only three of the remainder are budgeting increases greater than 10%. What is surprising is that these forecasts include solid production growth virtually across the board, especially for E&Ps that focus on crude oil. Today, we look at how a representative group of U.S. E&Ps are dealing with lower crude prices.

    Energy Companies at Increasing Risk of 'Over-Investing' -- Oil and gas companies continue to link executive pay to the discovery of energy resources the world can’t safely burn, potentially jeopardizing shareholder value, according to a new report. As many parts of the world shift toward a low-carbon economy, energy companies may be at increasing risk “of over-investing, and wasting capital on projects that turn out to deliver poor returns and destroy value,” the report by the Carbon Tracker, a U.K. nonprofit focused on climate risks to fossil-fuel companies, finds. Companies that encourage executives to discover and produce new fossil fuels tend to see poorer stock performance than those who base compensation on financial returns and cost metrics, the study says.  In 2017, about 90 percent of companies in the study offered executives growth incentives based on maximizing oil-and-gas reserve replacement, production or revenue. Ten of the 40 companies studied by Carbon Tracker began using some metrics based on returns in 2018, or used more of them than previously, according to the report. Diamondback Energy Inc., a Midland, Texas-based independent producer, is the only company that did not include any growth metrics in its pay structure for 2018. BP Plc eliminated a compensation metric for replacing reserves and implemented a new one based on the return of capital after a 2015 shareholder resolution. Pressed by shareholders, Chevron Corp. announced last week new manager and employee performance metrics to reduce upstream emissions intensity and methane flaring. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Oil Search Ltd. weigh production and reserves-growth more than other companies in the study.

    March To Enter Like A Lion, Bouncing March Gas - March gas settled up almost a percent and a half higher on the day today as Week 2 forecasts trended colder over the weekend and physical gas prices were firm today.  Yet despite strong cash prices it was actually the July natural gas contract that logged the largest gain today.   Futures first bounced on Henry Hub cash prices trading over $2.7 this morning.  This came following our Morning Update which highlighted "Slightly Bullish" risks for natural gas prices today due to colder long-range forecasts and impressive recent demand.  Long-range GEFS forecasts then maintained these significant cold risks, and though the 12z run lost a few HDDs it still proved to be supportive this afternoon following a solidly warmer operational GFS (images courtesy of Tropical Tidbits).   Traders are also positioning ahead of what should be a large storage withdraw announced on Thursday. Dominion Transmission announced their third largest draw of the season yesterday.

    March Gas Reverses Ahead Of Tomorrow's Storage Number - The March natural gas contract dipped about a percent on the day as the winter strip dragged down the front on concerns of oversupply following several loose EIA storage numbers.  Strong cash prices helped March settle as one of the strongest contracts on the day.  Prices were initially higher this morning on small overnight GWDD additions as well.  However, afternoon GEFS guidance was a bit less impressive with medium-range cold, and weak spreads pulled the March contract down as well. In the end the April/October J/V spread settled around flat, though for awhile it was again trading narrower on the day.  Most traders are focused on the EIA number coming out tomorrow morning, though, which should show a large draw following a solidly colder week last week.  The last several prints have all been quite loose, which could help explain weakness in natural gas prices the last few weeks. We would expect a significant reaction around this print, and in our Seasonal Trader Report for clients updated our forward storage expectations off of our 5-month GWDD forecast and latest reading of balance. Of note in tomorrow's EIA number will be a return of LNG exports, helping explain the far larger draw versus the previous week.  Yet even still the week was not all that cold, with GWDDs near seasonal averages. We would look for a large draw in the Midwest, which was coldest through early last Friday.  In our Note of the Day and Afternoon Update we ran through our latest expectations for the number, explaining both the expected storage change and price reaction. We also outlined the latest daily balance trends and what weather and spread action indicated for price risk into the weekend.

    EIA Reports 177 Bcf Storage Draw, March Natural Gas Tacks on More Gains  - The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a 177 Bcf withdrawal from natural gas storage inventories for the week ending Feb. 15, 5 Bcf more than the highest estimate ahead of the report and a whopping 35 Bcf more than the lowest projection. Natural gas prices, which were already a few cents higher before the report’s 10:30 a.m. ET release, tacked on another couple of cents after the print hit the screen. By 11 a.m., the Nymex March gas futures contract had trimmed some of those gains, trading at $2.677, up about 4 cents. The storage number came in well above both last year’s 134 Bcf withdrawal for the week and the five-year average pull of 148 Bcf. Bespoke Weather Services, which had projected a 172 Bcf draw, said it viewed the larger pull as potentially an implicit revision of a few prior EIA prints that were significantly looser.   The reported withdrawal confirms that storage levels will easily dip below 1.2 Tcf and potentially 1.1 Tcf, and that at these price levels, balances are rapidly tightening, according to Bespoke. “With weather likely to remain supportive, this number confirms that $2.75 is in play for the March contract into the end of the week and allows us to maintain our slightly bullish sentiment,” Meisel said. Broken down by region, the EIA reported a 49 Bcf withdrawal in the East, a 56 Bcf pull in the Midwest, a 47 Bcf draw in the South Central and a 17 Bcf pull in the Pacific. The draw in the Pacific was a bullish surprise to some market analysts on Enelyst, an energy chat room hosted by The Desk. The hefty drawdown was seen as likely leading to increased volatility in a market that has already seen significant swings in recent weeks due to strong demand. Working gas in storage as of Feb. 15 stood at 1,705 Bcf, 73 Bcf below last year and 362 Bcf below the five-year average. Despite the growing deficits, analysts remain confident in production’s ability to refill storage this summer. Already, production is about 9 Bcf/d higher year/year and is expected to grow even further, especially once the summer gets under way. Before then, supplies will ramp up once cold weather abates, particularly in the Rockies, where more than 0.5 Bcf/d of production remains offline due to freeze-offs. The latest weather outlooks show cold lingering into at least the first week of March. The overnight weather data trended slightly colder with the Global Forecast System data adding seven to eight heating degree days (HDD) and the European model adding five to six HDDs, according to NatGasWeather. A large portion of the colder trend was for Feb. 27-March 5, although what happens March 7-10 “is uncertain as some of the data favors cold holding over much of the country while a second camp favors cold easing and temperatures moderating towards normal.”

    Bullish EIA Number Pushes Gas Higher - The March natural gas contract rallied over 2% today as weather model guidance remained bullish and the EIA announced a slightly larger storage draw last week than expected.  As has been the theme all week the March natural gas contract was the strongest along the futures curve and led the way higher, buoyed by more cash strength.  Yesterday in our Afternoon Update we warned about bullish risks today as we expected both a bullish EIA number and more supportive weather model guidance. We reiterated this in our Morning Update today, where again we held Slightly Bullish sentiment.  This worked well as the EIA reported a draw of 177 bcf of gas from storage last week, which was only slightly larger than our estimate of 172 bcf but more significantly above the consensus around 165 bcf.  As we immediately warned subscribers following the number, we saw this as supportive for the natural gas market as it was solidly tighter than the last few weeks of EIA numbers. Cold Week 2 forecasts have continued to support prices as well.  This combination has helped lead a recovery in the April/October J/V spread.

    Ireland: Developers of Shannon gas processing terminal ordered not to begin construction - A High Court judge has ordered the developers of a €500 million liquefied natural gas processing terminal in the Shannon estuary not to begin construction, and referred a case brought by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) to the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).Mr Justice Garrett Simons has asked the EU court to rule on issues relating to the European Habitats Directive, notably to what extent it should have applied when An Bord Pleanála (ABP) in 2018 extended planning permission for the project by five years.In judicial review proceedings, FIE claimed the directive placed a particular onus on the proposed development that was not fully addressed when the extension was sought by Shannon LNG Ltd.The terminal, due to be located between Tarbert and Ballylongford in Co Kerry, includes construction of a large jetty out into the estuary to cater for large LNG tankers importing gas from locations throughout the world. The estuary is an EU-designated special area of conservation (SAC) and special protection area (SPA) for wild birds. It is also a “critical area” for bottlenose dolphins.

    Irish High Court delivers killer blow to US Fracked Gas Imports by 'New Fortress Energy' -   The challenge by Irish environmentalists has proven that the 'New Fortress Energy' Shannon LNG consent process will take years and may now never come to fruition.    'Safety Before LNG'  stated that today's decision was to be expected and does not come as any surprise and thanks the 'Friends of the Irish Environment' for fighting to prevent climate chaos from the environmental madness that is the US fracked gas industry.The 'Friends of the Irish Environment' environmental NGO has declared to the world that Ireland is not for sale to the US fracked gas industry.  It warned that the US fracked gas exporter 'New Fortress Energy'  will not be able to get full development consent for years because the Irish will simply not accept,  without a strong fight, the importation of fracked gas from America due to its devastating climate impacts, rendering it dirtier than coal. Fracked gas is illegal in Ireland and planning permission for the proposed 26km pipeline connecting the terminal has already expired. The licence to pollute  from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will prove an even more difficult barrier for 'New Fortress Energy' due to stricter rules in force since 2014 obliging the EPA to consider  effects on human health. Ireland will not accept light-touch regulation where fracked gas is concerned and the environmental standards in Ireland will be too high for the US fracked gas exporter 'New Fortress Energy' to jump over.  'Safety Before LNG' says it is is now clear that the 'New Fortress Energy' plan to import fracked gas from the USA is nothing more than an unachievable illusion created to increase the value of its shares following the recent IPO by the company to raise funds which saw its own CEO Wes Edens gambling to maintain investor confidence by buying $35 million worth of shares in the company in inside trading declared to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

    Fracking firm applies to add more chemicals to fracking fluid at Lancashire drill site - Shale gas operator Cuadrilla has submitted plans to change the type of fracking fluid it uses at its Preston New Road site. The firm, which has paused operations at the site since before Christmas, wants to use a whole new raft of additives to the fracking fluid which is injected under pressure deep underground to release the gas to be collected. Cuadrilla's fracking equipment at Preston New Road near Little Plumpton The Environment agency has opened a public consultation on the bid which runs until March 20. Nick Mace, environment manager at Cuadrilla said the firm had varied the permit before. He said: “The reason for the proposed variation is that we’d like to modify our fracturing fluid so that more sand can be carried into the shale rock with the water when we re-commence hydraulic fracturing operations at the Preston New Road site. “To do this we propose to add some chemicals which have already been approved for use elsewhere in the UK by the Environment Agency. “The fracturing fluid will remain non-hazardous to groundwater, as it must do under UK regulation, and additional additives we are proposing to use are commonly found in food, toiletries and other products used around the home.” But fracking opponents Frack Free Lancashire said: “We are concerned, but not entirely surprised, that after years of claiming that the only two chemicals to be used in UK fracking were polyacrylimide and hydrochloric acid, that they should now be seeking, after just one failed frack, to expand the list of chemicals. "Equally concerning is the list of 41 potential additives to their drilling fluids of which no less than 14 are described by Cuadrilla themselves as “potentially hazardous”.

    U.S. and Germany Defuse an Energy Dispute, Easing Tensions — Relations between the United States and Germany have mostly gone downhill since President Trump took office. But on Tuesday they took an unexpected turn for the better. Officials in Berlin agreed to help finance a port to import liquefied natural gas from America, a key United States demand. In return, the United States government is toning down its opposition to an underwater pipeline being built to Germany from Russia. The unofficial agreement, announced in Berlin by high-ranking American and German officials, was a rare case of rapprochement in a relationship that has been severely strained by American tariffs on European steel, continued threats to impose levies on German cars and personal enmity between Mr. Trump and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.Germany’s gas supply had become a major point of contention. Last year, officials in Brussels promised to buy more American natural gas as a way of answering complaints by the Trump administration that trans-Atlantic trade favors Europe. At the same time, though, Germany continued to support construction of a pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would deliver gas from Russia. The project annoyed the United States as well as European countries like Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states.Both the United States and Germany made concessions Tuesday, an unusual occurrence in the recent history of trans-Atlantic relations. Peter Altmaier, the German minister for the economy and energy, said the government would support construction of at least one terminal, probably in the vicinity of Hamburg, for offloading liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G., from special tankers. While the gas could come from anywhere, the project is seen as a way to open Germany to gas producers in Texas and other states.

    Merkel Defends Deal For Putin's Gas; Fumes Over Taunts By Trump Admin - Donald Trump is really starting to ruffle Angela Merkel's feathers, as the German chancellor continues to fend off attacks by the Trump administration over the $10.8 billion (9.5 billion-euro) 758-mile (1,220 km) 'Nord Stream 2' undersea gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, according to BloombergU.S. diplomats leaned on officials in Paris and Brussels to join their opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project over the past 10 days as Merkel thrashed out an agreement over the plan with France, the people said. -BloombergIn January, the US ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, sent letters to German companies working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline warning them of "significant risk of sanctions" if they don't abandon the project. The letter suggested that the pipeline would make Europe dependent on Moscow, increasing the threat of Russian interventions. The Nord Stream 2 project is headed up by former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is also a consultant to bank R othschild.  On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence urged EU nations to reject the undersea pipeline during a speech in front of Merkel and other world leaders at the Munich Security Conference. The German chancellor had harsh words for the Trump administration - delivering an impassioned speech to Security Conference attendees defending the multilateral order "challenged by Trump," according to Bloomberg, earning a standing ovation from the audienced filled with presidents, prime ministers and senior defense officials.  "Merkel was on fire," said former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt via Twitter.

    Natural Gas Guru Who Corrected the CIA Says Russia and U.S. Pick the Wrong Fight - The scientist who built the most prominent Cold War energy advisory said the U.S. and Russia should set aside their fight over natural gas markets and focus on slashing fossil fuel pollution more quickly. Nebojsa Nakicenovic helped set the stage for the global gas boom five decades ago as part of an elite scientific team that fixed Central Intelligence Agency estimates “that were all wrong.” He combined the CIA’s views with secret Soviet data to provide the first full picture of the Earth’s plentiful methane reserves. But the window to tap those deposits is already almost closed, he said. “It was 50 years of retrograde,” Nakicenovic said in an interview. “Rather than achieving the transformation, we were working on the counter transformation in many ways. Now we have no time to waste. We need to be at zero emissions by mid century.” The remarks are meant to refocus debate about how to shape Europe’s energy networks, an issue on the agenda when Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz meets President Donald Trump in Washington on Wednesday. The scientist, who was hired by a joint White House and Kremlin initiative to advise on the issue, brings a historical perspective to the discussion about whether Europe should draw its energy through pipelines from Russia or in tankers of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. Trump and Kurz will wade into the thorny debate over how the European Union gets its gas, and the issue is expected to come up during a bilateral meeting. Austria’s state-owned energy company has preferred financing pipelines that tie European industry together with Russian reserves. Trump wants allies to buy more U.S. liquefied natural gas and shun trade that could strengthen Russia’s military hand, especially the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. 

    Europe Scrambles For Sour Crude Oil Amid Tight Market  - OPEC’s production cuts and the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran have been limiting the availability of heavy and sour crude grades to Europe, where prices for heavier grades have recently shot up amid an increasingly tightening market, crude traders tell S&P Global Platts.The U.S. sanctions on Iran had already limited some of the heavy grade supply into Europe. Then with the new round of OPEC/non-OPEC cuts that began in January, Iraq’s Basra Light and Heavy—typically very popular among European refiners—have also been in short supply on the spot market in Europe as Iraq is diverting more barrels of Basra to the premium market for Middle Eastern producers: Asia.  “There are no destination-free Basrah cargoes at the moment coming to Europe for the end of February as they’re targeting Asia,” a crude trader told Platts.To top off the sanctions on Iran and the OPEC cuts, the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela at the end of January further tightened the heavy crude market in Europe, and traders expect the market to tighten even more in the coming months.The sanctions on Venezuela and on Iran, as well as OPEC’s cuts, have led to a huge imbalance between light sweet grades and heavy sour grades, especially in Europe, as Middle Eastern and other oil producers are targeting to keep their sales on the Asian market.Due to tighter supply of medium and heavy sour crude oil, Middle Eastern benchmarks for sour crude grades traded higher than Brent Crude prices at the beginning of February in a rarely seen development in global oil prices. In Europe, some sour crude grades, such as Russia’s Urals, have started to trade at premiums to sweeter crudes because of the limited sour and heavy crude availability, according to S&P Global Platts data.

    Venezuela gets fuel from Russia, Europe but the bill soars Reuters) - Venezuela is paying heavy premiums for fuel imports from Russia and Europe, with fewer than a dozen sellers seeing the risk as worth the reward after flows from the United States dried up because of sanctions, trading sources said and data showed. The South American nation exports crude but its refineries are in poor condition - hence the need to import gasoline and diesel for petrol stations and power plants, as well as naphtha to dilute its heavy oil. Since the United States imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela on Jan. 28, products supplies have mainly come from Russian state oil major Rosneft, Spain’s Repsol, India’s Reliance Industries and trading houses Vitol and Trafigura, according to sources and vessel-tracking data. Russia has been a traditional political backer of Caracas, while India and Spain also have long-standing trade ties. But supplies even from those allies are coming at a cost. “The prices they are charging us are horrifying,” said an executive at Venezuelan state-run oil firm PDVSA who is familiar with recent purchases. The executive said the heavy premiums were partially due to the fact that single cargoes passed through several hands before reaching Venezuelan ports and also involved complex and expensive ship-to-ship transfers. A trader involved in one fixture said shipowners were now charging a fee of up to 50 cents per barrel to Venezuela versus 15-20 cents before sanctions. Last year, Venezuela imported most products from the United States with the main providers being PDVSA’s own U.S. subsidiary Citgo Petroleum and a U.S. unit of India’s Reliance. Monthly supplies fluctuated but in December alone PDVSA imported almost 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) of fuel as its domestic refineries worked at just below a third of its 1.3-million-bpd capacity, according to PDVSA data. Imports have fallen to some 140,000 bpd of gasoline, diesel, naphtha and other fuels since the end of January, Refinitiv Eikon data shows. In addition, at least 13 cargoes carrying 5 million barrels of various fuels are heading to PDVSA’s terminals or waiting in Venezuelan waters to discharge, according to shipping sources and Eikon data.

    Fracking in Colombia given go-ahead despite risks and broken election promises -An expert commission has given the go-ahead for fracking pilot projects in Colombia, despite President Ivan Duque’s promise not to use the controversial method and questions about the legitimacy of the panel’s methods.Only three members of the 13-person commission were truly independent, with numerous fuel industry professionals, according to the Alliance for a Fracking-Free Colombia (AFFC).There was only one woman on the panel, which had only three months to write the report.  Public consultation was also serious lacking — the panel held just three meetings with regional communities.There is no social mandate to start fracking in Colombia.Fracking is an industrial process which breaks apart rock formations deep underground to extract fossil fuels. . The process has regularly contaminated water supplies, and has been linked to increased seismic activity.“There are ecological risks as well as public health risks,” Tatiana Roa of AFFC told Colombia Reports.  More than 90% of Colombians are against fracking in Colombia, according to a poll taken this Monday. The ecological stakes are high – Colombia has the second highest biodiversity of any nation on the planet, and has 10% of the Amazon rainforest within its borders. There is, however, big money to be made by fracking in Colombia: oil reserves currently reach 2 billion barrels, equivalent to about 5 years of supplies. According to President of EcoPetrol Felipe Bayon, fracking would increase reserves by between 2 billion and 7 billion barrels.

    Shell, PetroChina spat holds up biggest Australian coal seam gas project (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell and PetroChina are at loggerheads over gas sales pricing at their Arrow Energy joint venture, holding up development of Australia’s biggest coal seam gas resource, three industry sources said. PetroChina, the listed arm of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), is eager to start developing Arrow’s 5 trillion cubic feet (140 billion cubic meters) of gas in the Surat Basin in Queensland to turn around loss-making Arrow Energy, one of its key overseas assets. It is at the mercy of venture partner Shell, however, as the Anglo-Dutch oil company is also majority owner of Arrow’s biggest potential customer, Queensland Curtis LNG (QCLNG), a liquefied natural gas plant on an island off Queensland state. “PetroChina, as a 50-percent stakeholder in Arrow, expects to maximize interests from the JV versus QCLNG. But for Shell, it may be thinking of using its operator role at QCLNG to protect its interests,” said a Chinese oil industry executive, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issues. PetroChina’s investment is “already bleeding and the firm wants to cut losses, hoping not to make further bad investment decisions,” the executive said. Shell and PetroChina acquired the Surat gas resource in a A$3.5 billion ($2.5 billion) takeover of Arrow in 2010. They had expected to reach a final investment decision on the Surat project in 2018, with first production around 2020, after the Arrow venture signed a 27-year deal at end-2017 to supply gas from Surat to QCLNG.

    Equinors plan for oil drilling in Great Australian Bight could impact Tasmania - Planned oil drilling in waters off Tasmania is feared to create havoc for the state's $150 million scallop industry and could result in an oil slick that would "envelop" King Island. International energy company Equinor this week released its draft environment plan for an exploration drilling program in the Great Australian Bight which it said concluded drilling could be done safely. The company's Australian representative Jone Stangeland said it would accept public comments before it submitted a final plan to the environmental regulator. He said the paper identified all relevant risks even if they were considered unlikely. "By identifying every possible risk, we can better prepare for safe operations,” Mr Stangeland said. Australia Institute state director Leanne Minshull said modelling in the plan did not provide comfort to residents, fishermen and other industries on King Island. "It shows that a major spill could envelop King Island, devastating local jobs and the ecology of surrounding areas,” she said. “Despite the oil well and the supposed profits being in South Australia, the potential damage to Tasmania is significant.” The modelling said there was a 2-per-cent chance of a high-risk oil spill. The probability of shoreline contact was predicted to be 68 per cent and the minimum days over which that would occur was estimated to be 54 days over a maximum length of 617 kilometres, under that high-risk scenario. The modelling showed 18 per cent of Tasmanian coastal waters were predicted to experience sea surface oil exposure at the moderate threshold in the unmitigated case of an oil spill which was predicted to last 44 days. This modelling was derived from 100 oil spill simulations.

    Oil Spill From Shipwreck Threatens Solomon Islands' World Heritage Site -- A ship that ran aground in the Solomon islands Feb. 4 is now menacing a coral reef with an oil spill, The Guardian reported Tuesday. The 740 foot MV Solomon Trader was stranded on a reef near Rennell Island, home to the largest raised coral atoll in the world and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, AFP reported. The bulk carrier has not been salvaged in the two weeks since it was stranded because of Cyclone Oma, Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) director Loti Yates told Radio New Zealand early Monday morning."The boat is still on the reef and that water is coming into the engine room, which means that the hull of the ship has been breached," he said.Yates told Radio New Zealand there was "no sign of oil spillage," but The Guardian report, published in the evening New Zealand time, contradicted Yates' assurances:  “Situational reports seen by the Guardian say 'heavy fuel oil/black oil could be smelt from 800 metres' from the vessel. 'Discoloured brown water was observed in the lagoon approximately 600 metres south east.'The report said the vessel could not proceed anywhere under its own power and would have to be towed.  'Indications are that the oil leak gets worse at low tide. At low tide the oil is going directly onto the exposed reef.'"  The Guardian further reported that the prime minister of the Solomon Islands had already asked for help from Australia to clean the spill.

    Indian Oil signs first annual deal for U.S. oil (Reuters) - Indian Oil Corp, the country’s top refiner, has signed its first annual deal to buy U.S. oil, paying about $1.5 billion for 60,000 barrels a day in the year to March 2020 to diversify its crude sources, its chairman said on Monday. IOC is the first Indian state refiner to buy U.S. oil under an annual contract, in a deal that will also help boost trade between New Delhi and Washington. The company has previously purchased U.S. oil from spot markets and signed a mini-term deal in August to buy 6 million barrels of U.S. oil between November and January. IOC chairman Sanjiv Singh said the annual contract will begin from April. He declined to give the name of the seller or pricing details, citing confidentiality. A trade source, who is not authorized to speak to media, said IOC signed the deal with Norwegian oil company Equinor which will supply a variety of U.S. crude grades. Equinor, which has set up an office in New Delhi to support oil marketing and trading, declined to comment. Indian Oil buys about 75 percent of its oil needs through long-term deals, mostly with OPEC nations. The term deal will help cut IOC’s dependence on OPEC crude, said Sri Paravaikkarasu, head of east of Suez oil for consultants FGE in Singapore. “Lots of geopolitical issues are going around. We expect lots of volume going away from Venezuela, west Africa and Iran, so it makes sense to have guaranteed term supplies from the U.S., where crude production is increasing,” she said. “There is a push for diversification everywhere. South Korea is giving a freight rebate for non-Middle East crude imports,” she added. India and the United States, which have developed close political and security ties, are also looking to develop bilateral trade, which stood at $126 billion in 2017 but is widely seen to be performing well below its potential. The two countries have set up seven groups of chief executives with top U.S. and Indian firms to boost bilateral trade in areas including energy. 

    India advises refiner to avoid U.S. system for Venezuela oil buying - source (Reuters) - India has asked one buyer of Venezuelan oil to consider paying the South American nation’s national oil company PDVSA in a way that avoids the U.S. financial system, an Indian government source said, after Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela last month. The United States is seeking to cut off Venezuela’s oil revenue and pressure the nation’s President Nicolas Maduro to step down after it recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as head of state. The sanctions mean that if oil buyers pay PDVSA through the U.S. banking system, the funds could be seized by U.S. authorities. There may also be problems for transactions by banks that have a heavy U.S. presence even if they aren’t in U.S. dollars and don’t go through the United States. The Indian buyer “expressed concern that there could be a problem in payments to PDVSA, so we have advised them to move away from the U.S. banking and institutional mechanism”, said the source, who did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. He declined to name the buyer. Most Western countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of state institutions including the military. The sanctions limit U.S. refiners to paying for Venezuelan oil by using escrow accounts that cannot be accessed by Maduro’s government. India still recognizes Maduro as Venezuela’s leader, which means “it does not make sense to shift to the other (escrow) payment avenue”, the source said. India’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday said the country was monitoring the evolving situation in Venezuela. 

     $44B India Refinery Project At Risk - India’s poll politics and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to win a second straight term has claimed an unlikely victim. A proposed $44 billion oil refinery on the western coast to be built with investments from Saudi Arabia. On Monday, the provincial government in Maharashtra state decided to relocate the project, a day ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to India. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the government in the nation’s richest state, has been facing stiff opposition from ally Shiv Sena over the site of the refinery. “There is a lot of political risk associated,” The refinery’s completion “also depends on what is going to be the outcome of the next general election, who wins or if it is going to be a single party or a coalition government.” While the project is crucial for meeting India’s expanding appetite for fuels, shoring up popular support of the farmers who account for over 60 percent of the population is key for Modi’s re-election bid in polls due by May. Its ally Shiv Sena holds considerable influence in a state that elects the second-largest number of lawmakers and the ruling party hopes the deal will help contain discontentment over job creation and a slowdown in economic sentiment. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced relocating the project from the proposed location in Ratnagiri district just after sealing the alliance with the regional party that had joined the farmers in opposing the oil refinery in the area. The project will now be built at a different location, Fadnavis said, without specifying the new area. The mega plant, announced in 2016, hasn’t made much physical progress as locals refused to hand over land fearing damage to farming in the region famous for its Alphonso mangoes and cashew plantations. It is also classified as an ecologically-sensitive area.

    Russia’s Lukoil Halts Oil Swaps In Venezuela After U.S. Sanctions - Litasco, the international trading arm of Russia’s second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, stopped its oil swaps deals with Venezuela immediately after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and state oil firm PDVSA, Lukoil’s chief executive Vagit Alekperov said at an investment forum in Russia.Russia, which stands by Nicolas Maduro in the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis, has vowed to defend its interests in Venezuela—including oil interests—within the international law using “all mechanisms available to us.”Because of Moscow’s support for Maduro, the international community and market analysts are closely watching the relationship of Russian oil companies with Venezuela.  “Litasco does not work with Venezuela. Before the restrictions were imposed, Litasco had operations to deliver oil products and to sell oil. There were swap operations. Today there are none, since the sanctions were imposed,” Lukoil’s Alekperov said at the Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.Another Russian oil producer, Gazprom Neft, however, does not see major risks for its oil business in Venezuela, the company’s chief executive officer Alexander Dyukov said at the same event.Gazprom Neft has not supplied and does not supply oil products to Venezuela needed to dilute the thick heavy Venezuelan oil, Dyukov said, noting that the Latin American country hadn’t approached Gazprom Neft for possible supply of oil products for diluents.   Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades. Analysts expect that a shortage of diluents could accelerate beginning this month the already steadily declining Venezuelan oil production and exports.  Venezuela’s crude oil production plunged by another 59,000 bpd from December 2018 to stand at just 1.106 million bpd in January 2019, OPEC’s secondary sources figures showed in the cartel’s closely watched Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR) this week.

    Saudi Arabia's oil deal with Russia is now 'more fragile than ever,' analyst says - A rolling oil pact between Russia and Saudi Arabia which seeks to support prices by reducing output looks to be on shaky ground with only the Arab nation appearing to fulfil its promises.  Late last year, OPEC producing countries, and non-OPEC producers, led by Russia, agreed to cut supply by 1.2 million barrels per day(bpd), an arrangement known as OPEC+. Saudi Arabia agreed to account for the bulk of OPEC nation cuts and has confirmed it will drop its crude oil production by a further 400,000 barrels per day to 9.8 million b/d in March. If achieved it would mean that since the December, Saudi Arabia has become responsible for 70 percent of the total OPEC+ target.  In turn, Russia was set to account for the greater share of non-OPEC cuts, but from October to the beginning of February had only decreased output by 47,000 barrels per day. The slow pace to cuts from Russian oil producers drew criticism from Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, who told CNBC in January that Moscow had moved "slower than I'd like." That barb led to a response from Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak who said at the beginning of February that Russia was "completely fulfilling its obligations in line with earlier announced plans to gradually cut production by May this year." Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA politics analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note Tuesday that any end to Russian-Saudi coordination would likely add significant downward pressure on prices. "Although our base case is still that Riyadh and Moscow find a compromise to extend the agreement, the pact is now looking more fragile than ever," said Soltvedt.

     Russian, Saudi leaders say ready to continue hydrocarbons cooperation- Kremlin— Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz confirmed they are ready to continue cooperation on hydrocarbons during a phone call Tuesday, the Kremlin said in a statement. "When exchanging views on the situation on global hydrocarbons markets, Russia and Saudi Arabia confirmed they are ready to continue coordination," the Kremlin statement said. Russia and Saudi Arabia have ramped up energy cooperation in recent years, working together to establish the OPEC/non-OPEC production agreement as well as bilateral agreements on joint energy investment. Officials said previously that they are in talks over cooperation on LNG, crude, oil services and petrochemical projects. Putin is expected to visit Saudi Arabia in 2019.

    Saudi Arabia resumes familiar role as swing producer: Kemp (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has resumed its traditional role as the swing producer, sharply reducing its own output to tighten the oil market and push prices higher. The de facto OPEC leader has demonstrated, once again, that it can always tighten the physical market, boost prices and push the calendar spread into backwardation - if it is prepared to cut its own production enough. The familiar problem is that protecting prices comes at the expense of market share: the more the kingdom cuts its own production and tightens the market, the more it encourages increased output from other sources. In this case, rising prices threaten to extend the oil drilling and production boom in the United States, which would ultimately force Saudi Arabia to make even deeper cuts or abandon its price-defence strategy. Saudi Arabia has never been able to escape from this dilemma and the country’s oil policy has cycled between a priority on price defence and volume defence (tmsnrt.rs/2TYmwu1). The kingdom has always struggled to craft an exit strategy from periods of output restraint. Policymakers pursue production curbs for too long, tighten the market too much and drive prices to an unsustainable level. The result is usually a slowdown in consumption growth and an acceleration of non-Saudi sources of production that pushes the market back towards surplus and necessitates a new round of output cuts. The kingdom made the same mistake in 2008, 2014 and 2018, failing to raise production early enough, creating the conditions for unsustainable price inflation and sowing the seeds of the subsequent downturns. Like any oil exporter Saudi Arabia will always benefit from an increase in prices in the short term, but it can then prove difficult to put a lid on the market. Saudi Arabia’s informal price targets tend to ratchet up as realised prices rise, with its targets tending to be somewhat elastic. In the first nine months of 2018 Saudi Arabia allowed the market to tighten too much, pushing prices above $80. That proved unsustainable and triggered a slowdown in consumption growth and a surge in U.S. shale. The kingdom’s market management was not helped by a mercurial White House, which threatened to push Iran’s oil exports to zero and then granted generous sanctions waivers. The question is whether the Saudis will make the same mistake again in 2019. Experience suggests it will. 

    New Brazil Production Adds to OPEC Headache  | Rigzone -- When the giant P-67 floating oil production vessel lit its flare tower earlier this month, it marked the start of a Brazilian supply boom that’s poised to challenge OPEC’s efforts to balance the global market. The mammoth facility -- long and wide enough to fit an American football field -- is the first of four similar platforms to begin pumping crude this year, lifting Brazilian output by roughly 365,000 barrels a day, its largest annual increase in at least 20 years, International Energy Agency estimates show. A second platform, P-76, has also started production, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday. The Brazilian surge, combined with more oil from shale fields from Texas to North Dakota, is set to create a headache for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. In the worst-case scenario, it may force Saudi Arabia and Russia to roll their production cuts over into the second half of the year, testing the strength of the Riyadh-Moscow oil relationship. “Brazil is on the verge of major supply growth,” said Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research at Bank of America Corp. in New York. “U.S. shale is not the only driver of increased volumes.” Brazil has disappointed in the past, with output growth coming far below expectations because of maintenance issues, declines in mature fields, and delays installing new vessels for oil production and storage. The Tartaruga Verde field, which should have come online back in late 2017, didn’t start until June 2018. The P-67 itself was delayed several months. Still, oil traders and executives believe this year Brazil will make good on its promises. The P-67 vessel, about 260 kilometers (162 miles) from Rio de Janeiro, will pump about 150,000 barrels a day in the next few months, when it reaches its plateau. The second platform to start this year, P-76, can also process up to 150,000 barrels daily. The facilities are scheduled to be followed by P-68 and P-77 in 2019, and between 2020 and 2023, Petrobras aims to install another ten big vessels. 

    Despite sanctions, Iran’s oil exports rise in early 2019: sources (Reuters) - Iran’s exports of crude oil were higher than expected in January and are at least holding steady this month, according to tanker data and industry sources, as some customers have increased purchases due to waivers from U.S. sanctions. Shipments are averaging 1.25 million barrels per day (bpd) in February, Refinitiv Eikon data showed and a source at a company that tracks Iranian exports said. They were between 1.1 and 1.3 million bpd in January, higher than first thought. A high rate of Iranian shipments would weigh on oil prices and work against a global push to cut supply in 2019 led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC member Iran negotiated an exemption from the production-cutting pact. “We think people are taking more ahead of the deadline,” said the industry source who tracks Iranian exports, referring to the scheduled end of U.S. sanctions waivers in May. Increased exports from the Islamic Republic might prompt renewed U.S. efforts to clamp down on flows. However, this would run the risk of driving up oil prices as Washington is also seeking to curtail exports from another foe, Venezuela. Iran’s exports have become more opaque since U.S. sanctions on the country’s oil sector took effect in November. While most agree they have dropped steeply, views on flows can differ by as much as several hundred thousand barrels per day - enough to affect prices. The February shipments are up from January’s 1.1 million bpd, according to Refinitiv. The industry source estimated January exports at 1.3 million bpd, close to February’s level. In any case, the January figures are higher than initial estimates. Some had predicted Iranian crude exports would stay below 1 million bpd last month, a similar rate to that in December. A source at a second company that tracks Iranian exports said shipments in the first 10 days of February were above 1.1 million bpd and on a rising trend - higher than the source expected. Washington gave waivers to eight buyers - including China, India, Japan and South Korea, which were all purchasing Iranian crude in February, according to Refinitiv.

    US State Department discusses Iran crude oil, supply diversification with Seoul: source — A top US State Department official has discussed issues including Iranian crude oil imports with the South Korean government as well as urging it to diversify the country's crude supply further during a visit to Seoul earlier this week, a diplomatic source told S&P Global Platts Thursday. Francis Fannon, assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau for Energy Resources, is on a visit to South Korea and Japan at a time when the East Asian oil consumers are calling for their 180-day sanctions waiver on Iranian oil imports to be extended beyond May.In a meeting with South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Yun Kang-hyeon Wednesday, Fannon and his counterpart "talked about the Iranian crude issue and South Korea's efforts toward diversification of sources of crude imports," the diplomatic source in Seoul said. But the source declined to elaborate on what exactly had been discussed on Iranian crude. Fannon also has discussions on broad cooperation in the energy sector with the South Korean government, as well as with unidentified local energy companies on topics including on energy innovation, investment and renewable energy, the source said. SK Innovation, which has been South Korea's biggest buyer of Iranian crude, said Thursday it has been making efforts to diversify its crude sources. "We have increased crude purchases from the US and other countries as alternatives to Iranian grades because it is uncertain whether the 180-day waiver will be extended," an official at SK Innovation said. SK Innovation also received about 2 million barrels of Iran's South Pars condensate in January, which marked South Korea's first imports since September last year when the Northeast Asian nation fully suspended crude imports from Iran due to the re-imposition of US sanctions. Fannon is due to head for Tokyo Thursday, according to the diplomatic source. The State Department has said the assistant secretary's two-country tour will focus on energy security, regional cooperation on energy as well as highlighting the importance of energy diversification in the Indo-Pacific region. "This visit to the Indo-Pacific region seems to be aimed at enhancing the regional security by such measures as expanding crude imports from the US, as well as calling for accelerating supply diversification,"   "It may lead to Iranian crude imports in the region being reduced as a result,"

    Egypt Is Shaping Up To Become A Real Energy Hub - Egypt’s oil and gas future looks very bright. The large scale concessions awarded during the EGYPS2019 conference in Cairo, 11-13 February, shows the appetite of IOCs, such as Shell, BP and ENI in this emerging energy hotspot. After years of a major slump, partly due to continuing payment and security issues, the Pharaohs are again back in the top league. Continuing concerns about security in Egypt’s Western Desert or the Sinai no longer seem to be a breaking point for investors. At the second day of EGYPS2019 the announcement of five onshore and offshore licenses by EGPC, as presented by Egypt’s minister of energy Tarek El Molla, has created a very bright future for the North African oil and gas producer. The success story of the offshore deepwater gas field Zohr, operated by Italian oil major ENI, could be supported further by positive results from current exploration efforts in the offshore Noor field. If expectations are met, a new gas hub could be in the making, combining Cypriot and Israeli production with Egypt’s existing LNG infrastructure. The long awaited results of the Egyptian natural gas holding company EGAS were announced on the 12th of February. Dutch oil major Shell was awarded 3 concessions, all crude blocks in sector 7 West Fayoum, sector 9 South East of Horus, and sector 10 South AbuSnan. Italian oil major ENI, currently in the news with regards to its major offshore gas projects Zohr and Noor, was awarded sector 11 East of Siwa, while sector 2 went to the General Petroleum Company, sector 4 to Neptune Energy, and sector 5 North Beni Suef to Merlon International.With regards to the Egyptian gas prospects, American oil giant ExxonMobil, which hasn’t been very active in Egypt for years, reentered the North African country by winning the north of Amreya Marine Company concession area. The North Sidi Gaber, as well as North El Fanar areas, went to Shell and Petronas. The North West Sherbin concession has been awarded to British oil major BP and Eni.

    How China Came to Dominate South Sudan’s Oil - Few countries would look at South Sudan as an ideal location for a business venture, but China has built much of its reputation as a world power on an economic philosophy of risk-taking. South Sudan also offers a lucrative opportunity for entrepreneurs intrepid enough to take it: the East African country boasts 3.5 billion barrels’ worth of crude oil in proven reserves, and petroleum geologists will likely find more in the two-thirds of South Sudan that they have yet to explore. Despite the challenges of working in a war zone, China dominates what analysts have assessed as the third largest oil reserves in Africa.“Even before South Sudan became independent in 2011, China had a monopoly on the oil sector in Sudan,” Dr. David H. Shinn, a former American ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and an adjunct professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, told The Diplomat. “This monopoly continued in independent South Sudan. While oil companies from other countries considered entering South Sudan, a combination of corruption and civil conflict kept them out.”China first decided to enter the petroleum industry in Sudan in 1995, 16 years before South Sudan gained independence and right in the middle of the Second Sudanese Civil War. The United States’ economic sanctions on Sudan, which faced accusations of committing war crimes at home and supporting terrorism abroad, did little to deter Chinese companies eager to take advantage of Sudanese oil reserves. Much of China’s success in Africa comes from the world power’s tendency to avoid criticizing allies who ignore human rights and international law. This approach to foreign policy underpins the Belt and Road Initiative, a project designed to expand China’s sphere of influence in the Global South. The South Sudan–China Friendship Association, whose board includes former South Sudanese foreign and interior ministers, has promoted the ambitious Chinese endeavor on Twitter.

    Saudi Aramco agrees tie-up for $10 billion project in China - State-owned Saudi Aramco has signed an agreement to form a joint venture with Chinese conglomerate Norinco to develop a refining and petrochemical complex in Panjin city, saying the project is worth more than $10 billion. Aramco and Norinco, along with Panjin Sincen, will form a new company called Huajin Aramco Petrochemical Co as part of a project that will include a 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) refinery with a 1.5 million metric tonnes per annum (mmtpa) ethylene cracker, Aramco said on Friday. The deal was signed during a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Beijing as part of an Asia tour. Aramco will hold 35 percent of the new company, with Norinco and Panjin Sincen owning 36 percent and 29 percent respectively, the statement said. Aramco will supply up to 70 percent of the crude feedstock for the complex, which is expected to start operations in 2024. The value of the project means it is the largest Sino-Foreign joint-venture, Aramco said. The agreement "is a clear demonstration of Saudi Aramco's strategy to move from beyond a buyer-seller relationship, to one where we can make significant investments to contribute to China's economic growth and development," Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said in the statement. It said there were also plans to establish a fuels retail business.

    China Oil Find Could Trigger Shale Drilling Surge -- An oil discovery in a remote corner of northwestern China could trigger a surge in shale drilling, benefiting service companies and providing a needed output boost for the world’s biggest importer, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley. PetroChina Co. has achieved daily output of 100 tons of oil (733 barrels) at a test well in the Jimsar field in Xinjiang province, suggesting that shale oil has strong commercial potential in the nation for the first time, analysts including Andy Meng said in a Feb. 18 note. China has had some success in producing shale gas, but advancing on shale oil would be a particular help to the world’s largest crude importer, which has seen output decline since 2015 even as the country’s leadership extols the virtues of energy self-sufficiency. Still, it’s unlikely China will be able to scale the heights of U.S. shale, which accounts for about half of American production, Morgan Stanley said. The bank estimates shale oil output in China could reach about 100,000 to 200,000 barrels a day by 2025 -- still a sliver of total output. By comparison, the U.S. produced 8.3 million barrels a day in February, according to Rystad Energy. Nevertheless, excitement over shale could spur more spending and boost revenue for the oilfield service companies that will be called on to handle the higher workloads, Morgan Stanley said. Yantai Jereh Oilfield Services Group Co., which is up 31 percent this year, and SPT Energy Group Inc., which has risen 18 percent, are among the potential beneficiaries, it said. “We believe the Jimsar shale oil discovery is likely to trigger China’s shale oil revolution,” “We expect a further capex rise in 2019, which could make onshore oilfield services names the key beneficiaries.” While Jimsar is China’s first shale oil find, the country has been drilling shale gas for years. But difficult geology and restrictions that keep drilling in the hands of the state-owned giants have slowed development. While the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that China has nearly twice as much underground shale gas as the U.S., the U.S. produced about 639 billion cubic meters of the fuel in 2017, compared to about 9 billion in China.

     Hedge funds accelerate oil buying: Kemp - (Reuters) - Investors bought crude oil futures and options at the fastest rate for almost six months in the week to Feb. 12. Hedge fund managers are becoming steadily more bullish on the outlook for oil prices as Saudi Arabia makes deep cuts in production, sanctions hit Venezuela and Iran, and the U.S. and China inch towards a trade deal. Hedge funds and other money managers were net buyers of 32 million barrels of Brent crude futures and options in the week to Feb. 22, according to position records published by ICE Futures Europe. Portfolio managers have been net buyers of Brent in nine out of the last 10 weeks, boosting their net position by a total of 130 million barrels since Dec. 4. Last week saw the largest purchases so far. Earlier in the current cycle most position-building came from closing previous bearish short positions, but the balance shifted in the most recent week with most accumulation from initiating new bullish long positions. Fund managers opened 29 million barrels of new long positions while cutting short positions by 3 million barrels in the week to Feb. 12. Funds now hold a net long position of 266 million barrels in Brent, up from 136 million at the start of December, though still far below the almost 500-million-barrel position at the end of September. Similar position-building is evident in European gasoil, where funds were net buyers of 11 million barrels of futures and options in the week to Feb. 12. Portfolio managers have been net buyers of gasoil for six consecutive weeks, with total purchases amounting to 38 million barrels. Like Brent, last week’s purchases of gasoil contracts were the largest so far, and the balance has shifted from short covering to initiating new long positions.

    Oil Trades Near Highest Level Since November (Bloomberg) -- Oil traded near the highest level since November on optimism the U.S. and China can reach a trade deal and as an outage at the world’s largest offshore field in Saudi Arabia signaled tightening supply. Futures in New York rose as much as 1 percent after advancing 5.4 percent last week. President Donald Trump said talks with China were “very productive” as his team returned from Beijing and readied for another round of discussions in Washington this week, raising hopes that a trade war between the world’s largest economies will ease. The Saudis, meanwhile, were said to be repairing a damaged power cable that’s curbed output at the Safaniyah field. Crude’s surged about 24 percent this year as Saudi Arabia and Russia pledged to expand their output cuts, easing concerns that record U.S. production would result in a global glut. More supply is being threatened because of American sanctions against Venezuela and Iran. Reports that the U.S. and China had reached consensus in principle on the main topics in their negotiations further helped boost investors’ risk appetite. “Markets are astonished by the amount of production cuts and the further reductions Saudi plans to make,” said Howie Lee, a Singapore-based economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. “Even though there was no conclusive trade deal from Beijing, the already bullish oil market took no news as good news.” West Texas Intermediate for March delivery rose as much as 54 cents to $56.13 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange and traded 49 cents higher at $56.08 at 7:34 a.m. in London. Transactions will be booked Tuesday for settlement because of the U.S. President’s Day holiday. Prices last week posted their biggest gain in more than a month. Brent for April settlement was at $66.65 a barrel, up 40 cents, on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. It gained 6.7 percent last week. The global benchmark crude’s premium over WTI for the same month narrowed to $10.19, after widening to the biggest spread in more than three months on Friday.

    Brent steadies, set for biggest first-quarter rise since 2011 (Reuters) - Brent crude oil steadied on Monday, on track for its strongest first quarter in eight years, thanks to a growing belief among investors that OPEC's supply cuts will prevent a build-up in unused fuel, though concern over China's economy offset gains. Brent futures were last down 6 cents at $66.19 a barrel by 1239 GMT, having touched a 2019 high of $66.83, while U.S. futures were up 37 cents at $55.96 a barrel. Oil has risen nearly 25 percent so far this year and is on course for its strongest first-quarter performance since 2011, thanks largely to a commitment by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies to cut output. "Our numbers ... do tell us that we are looking at the tightest H1 crude balance in many years and, as such, a certain degree of price support does simply make sense for the time being," consultancy JBC Energy said in a note. Refiners around the world are also having to pay more to secure supplies of the medium, or heavy, sour crudes produced by Iran and Venezuela, both of which are under U.S. sanctions. The broader financial markets eased a little after data showing a drop in Chinese car sales in January raised concerns about the world's second-largest economy. Some of this weakness rubbed off on the oil market, but analysts said the overall trend in crude prices remained convincingly upwards for now.

    Brent eases from 2019 highs as markets await trade talks outcome - Oil stayed within sight of its 2019 high of almost $67 a barrel on Tuesday, supported by OPEC-led supply cuts although concern about slowing economic growth that would curb demand weighed. The supply curbs led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have helped crude prices to rise more than 20 percent this year. U.S. sanctions against OPEC members Iran and Venezuela have also tightened the market.Brent crude slipped 31 cents to $66.19 a barrel, not far from the 2019 high of $66.83 reached on Monday.U.S. crude was up 38 cents at $55.97."The market is slowly regaining its bullish footing, subject to the perception of economic risks tied to U.S.-China trade talks," said Harry Tchilinguirian, global head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas.Demand-side worries remain the main drag on prices. HSBC Holdings warned on Tuesday that an economic slowdown in China and Britain would throw up further hurdles this year.More talks between the United States and China to resolve their trade dispute will take place in Washington on Tuesday. Traders said they were cautious on taking large new positions before the outcome of the talks."If they falter, we run the risk of sell-offs like we had in December," Tchilinguirian said. OPEC last week lowered its forecast for growth in world oil demand in 2019 to 1.24 million barrels per day and some analysts believe it could be weaker still.

    Brent dips as demand worries weigh, U.S. oil prices hit 2019 high - (Reuters) - Oil prices were mixed on Tuesday as concerns about global crude oil demand and uncertainty over the latest round of U.S.-China trade talks countered investor optimism around tightening supplies. Brent crude slipped 5 cents to settle at $66.45 a barrel, hovering below its 2019 high of $66.83 reached on Monday. U.S. crude was up 50 cents to $56.09 a barrel, its highest since November 2018. Washington’s sanctions on oil out of Venezuela, a top supplier of sour crude to the United States, has helped support U.S. futures prices, In the bigger picture, “I think the market is looking for an excuse to follow through on the breakout, but there are still a lot of questions surrounding the U.S.-China trade deal” and the global economy, he said. A fresh round of talks aimed at resolving the trade dispute between the United States and China began on Tuesday in Washington, with higher-level discussions planned for later in the week. Traders said they were cautious about taking large new positions before the outcome of the talks. In a red flag about the economic outlook, Europe’s biggest bank HSBC warned it may delay some investments this year as it missed 2018 profit forecasts due to slowing growth in China and Britain. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) last week lowered its forecast for growth in world oil demand in 2019 to 1.24 million barrels per day. Some analysts believe it could be weaker. To stop a build-up of inventories that could weigh on prices, OPEC+, which includes members of the producer group and allies like Russia, began a new supply cut of 1.2 million bpd on Jan. 1. The cuts have helped crude rise more than 20 percent. Russian President Vladimir Putin and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s de facto leader, said they supported continued coordination on the global energy markets, the Kremlin said on Tuesday. Investors said the statement eased doubts that Russia would stick to the pact.

    WTI Settles Above $56 - The March WTI contract price gained 50 cents Tuesday, settling at $56.09 per barrel. The WTI traded within a range from $55.29 to $56.33. Brent crude oil for April delivery ended the day at $66.45 per barrel. Tuesday’s settlement reflects a 20-cent gain for the Brent. Another potential factor of note for the oil market could be an attempt by Saudi Arabia to open up another front in its quest to curb production, Krishnan said. “While the Saudis have achieved much by targeting their production cuts on the heavier oils they ship to the United States, reports suggest they are also planning to reduce light crude oil supplies to Asian customers for cargoes loading in March, in an attempt to prevent Asian stockpiles of such light crude from building,” Krishnan explained. “In the past, the Saudis did not limit providing their Asian customers supplies of Arab Extra Light crude above contractual volumes.” The new twist in the Saudi game plan could backfire, added Krishnan. “This Saudi move to try and cover all basis with their production cuts could eat into their prized market share in Asia if they’re not careful, especially with U.S. producers just waiting to encroach on that turf,” Krishnan said. Moreover, Krishnan observed that a recent milestone in India is helping to elevate the United States’ oil market profile. “Boosting the significance of U.S. crude production, Indian Oil Corp. announced this week that is has signed a $1.5 billion deal to buy oil from the United States in an effort to reduce dependence on traditional suppliers,” said Krishnan. “This was the first term contract finalized by an Indian oil company for import of U.S.-origin crude grades, and the announcement came interestingly a day before Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman landed in India for a state visit.”

    Oil near 2019 highs amid OPEC cuts, US sanctions - Oil traded roughly flat on Wednesday after the U.S. government said shale output would rise to a record next month, denting a rally that sent prices to their highest this year. Brent futures were at $66.34 a barrel, down 11 cents on the day around 10:10 a.m. ET (1510 GMT), still within sight of Monday's high for the year of $66.83. U.S. futures were at $56.08 a barrel, down 1 cent, having touched a 2019 peak of $56.39 earlier. "Brent is trading in a narrow corridor at around $66.5 per barrel, while WTI is at around $56," Commerzbank analysts said in a note. "This still leaves them within spitting distance of the three-month high they achieved at the start of the week ... It seems that the sharp rise in oil production in the U.S. is having a slowing effect after all." The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a monthly report on Tuesday shale production alone will hit a record 8.4 million barrels per day next month, suggesting little chance of a near-term slowdown in overall U.S. crude output. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Wednesday he hoped the oil market would be balanced by April and that there would be no gap in supplies due to U.S. sanctions on OPEC members Iran and Venezuela. The restrictions on the energy sectors of Iran and Venezuela by the United States have added to the drop in availability of the kind of crude oil that yields more valuable middle distillates, rather than cheaper fuels, such as gasoline. Despite the sanctions, Iran's crude exports were higher than expected in January, averaging around 1.25 million bpd, according to Refinitiv ship tracking data. Many analysts had expected Iran oil exports to drop below 1 million bpd after the imposition of U.S. sanctions last November, although it was much below the peak 2.5 million bpd reached mid-2018. Barclays said U.S. sanctions meant "although there is no lack of resources, there is an increasing lack of access to them".

     Oil Prices Pull Back Amid Surging US Supply  - Oil prices pulled back from recent highs on Wednesday as surging U.S. output and concerns over slowing global growth overshadowed investor optimism over OPEC-led supply cuts as well as the U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. Global benchmark Brent crude dropped nearly half a percent to $66.14 per barrel, not far off their 2019 high of 66.83 dollars per barrel reached on Monday.  U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil futures were down 0.3 percent at $56.30 per barrel after hitting 2019 highs of 56.39 earlier in the day.   U.S. crude production jumped by more than 2 million bpd in 2018 to a record 11.9 million bpd amid booming shale oil production, the Energy Information Administration said on Tuesday in a report.  Output is expected to keep rising while the global economy witnesses a synchronized slowdown in growth, according to BNP Paribas.

    Oil Markets Poised For A Breakout - OPEC+ cuts, supply disruptions and an easing of trade tensions between the U.S. and China has boosted crude oil to a three-month high.  Some analysts see higher prices ahead, as the OPEC+ cuts create a tighter backdrop. Any unexpected outage could send prices much higher, while a breakthrough in the trade war could remove one of the largest downside risks. “Brent and WTI are both now seriously testing a major resistance zone, around $65 and $55, respectively, the break of which could be the catalyst for another rally,” Craig Erlam, senior market analyst at brokerage OANDA, wrote in a morning market briefing.. Saudi Arabia is going above and beyond in its production cuts, but it’s unclear how long Riyadh will be willing to shoulder the burden alone. “Saudi Arabia’s production cuts by more than the required level also serve to offset the lack of compliance shown by countries like Iraq. It is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia will be willing to do so long-term, however. After all, the Saudis are losing market shares to US shale oil producers,” Commerzbank wrote in a note.  A 495-megawatt energy storage system combined with a solar farm is set to be installed in Texas. Ironically, the project is intended to support oil operations in the Permian, according to Bloomberg. The energy storage system will be the world’s largest.   According to BP’s latest energy outlook, renewable energy and natural gas will together claim 85 percent of the world’s energy supply growth through 2040. The new analysis “brings into sharp focus just how fast the world’s energy systems are changing, and how the dual challenge of more energy with fewer emissions is framing the future,” BP CEO Bob Dudley said.

    Oil near 2019 highs amid OPEC cuts, but economic slowdown applies brakes - Oil prices hovered around 2019 highs on Thursday, bolstered by OPEC-led supply cuts and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, but were capped by slowing growth in the global economy.U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures were at $56.77 a barrel around 10:55 a.m. ET (1555 GMT), 39 cents below their last settlement. WTI hit a fresh 2019 high of $57.61 earlier in the day.Brent crude futures eased by 26 cents to $66.82 after touching a 2019 peak on Wednesday at $67.38.Oil prices have been driven up this year by supply cuts led by OPEC.OPEC and its de facto leader Saudi Arabia agreed late last year, along with producer allies such as Russia, to cut output by 1.2 million barrels per day to prevent a supply overhang from growing.OPEC member Nigeria signaled on Wednesday that it would limit output after its production climbed in January."Willingness of the OPEC+ group to adhere with the output cut agreement will remain supportive of oil prices in the run-up to their scheduled April meeting," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy in London."Sharply declining oil output from Iran and Venezuela will further prompt bullish sentiment in the market."U.S. sanctions have hit Iranian and Venezuelan crude exports while unrest has curbed Libyan output. However, analysts said that a global economic slowdown — signs of which emerged late last year — was preventing prices from surging beyond highs reached this week.

    Oil traders bet on Saudi Arabia and White House lifting prices: Kemp (Reuters) - Oil traders are becoming very bullish on the outlook for prices, betting that Saudi Arabia will do whatever it takes to tighten the market even if consumption growth slows, helped by U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. Brent's calendar spread for the second half of 2019 has surged into a backwardation of 90 cents per barrel, the strongest for more than three months and a huge swing from a 70 cent contango near the end of last year. For many traders, spreads rather than spot prices are a better indicator of expected balance between production and consumption ("Price relations between July and September Wheat Futures at Chicago", Working, 1933). Backwardation implies many traders expect the market to be undersupplied in the second half of the year with a significant drawdown in global inventories of crude and fuels. The current swing to backwardation is similar to previous shifts in market structure when OPEC and its allies reduced production in 2017 and the United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. Both of those shifts were accelerated and amplified by significant position-building in crude oil by hedge fund managers, and something similar is likely in 2019. Hedge funds and other money managers have been net buyers of Brent crude futures and options in nine of the last 10 weeks with net purchases equivalent to 130 million barrels (https://tmsnrt.rs/2TZZN0D ). Fund managers have almost doubled their bullish position in Brent to 266 million barrels, up from just 136 million barrels in early December, according to position records published by ICE Futures Europe. Position-building has been very similar to previous episodes, but total positions are still well below previous peaks of 500-600 million barrels, suggesting it could still have some way to run. Like other financial traders, hedge funds and other money managers tend to concentrate their positions in nearby futures contracts where there is more liquidity. Hedge fund buying is therefore lifting the price of nearby contracts and accelerating the shift into backwardation (just as fund selling depressed nearby contracts and accelerated the shift to contango in the fourth quarter).

    Oil ends lower as U.S. crude supplies show 5th straight weekly rise --Crude-oil futures finished lower Thursday after a U.S. government report revealed that domestic supplies climbed for a fifth straight week as production jumped to a record level, but overall signs of declines in world-wide output capped price losses for the session.Oil prices for both benchmarks on Wednesday had marked their highest settlements since November on signs of tighter global crude inventories.April West Texas Intermediate crude on its first full day as a front-month contract, lost 20 cents, or 0.4%, to settle at $56.96 a barrel. March WTI had climbed for six consecutive sessions on the New York Mercantile Exchange to settle at a roughly three-month high of $56.92 on Wednesday, the day the contract expired. Global benchmark April Brent was little changed, inching lower by a penny to end at $67.07 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe. The Energy Information Administration on Thursday reported that domestic crude supplies rose a fifth straight week, up 3.7 million barrels for the week ended Feb. 15. That was a bit more than the 3.5 million-barrel rise expected by analysts polled by S&P Global Platts. Supply data were released a day later than usual because of Monday’s Presidents Day holiday. “Rebounding imports, both into the Midwest and the U.S. Gulf, have combined with ongoing subdued refinery runs to yield a fifth consecutive build to crude stocks,”   U.S. oil production also continues to hit record levels, with the EIA’s report showing total domestic output climbing by 100,000 barrels to a record of 12 million barrels a day last week. A separate monthly EIA report issued Tuesday showed expectations for an 84,000 barrel-a-day rise in March to 8.398 million barrels a day for oil production from seven major U.S. shale plays. “U.S. production finally hit the 12 [million barrel per day] mark and we expect that number to increase in the weeks and months to come as new pipelines in the Permian [Basin in the southwestern U.S.] are coming online,” Petroleum products, meanwhile, saw lower U.S. inventories. Gasoline and distillate stockpiles each edged down by 1.5 million barrels last week, according to the EIA. The S&P Global Platts survey had shown expectations for supply declines of 1.1 million barrels for gasoline and 1.4 million for distillates. On Nymex, March gasoline rose 1.6 cents, or 1%, to $1.614 a gallon, while March heating oil added 1.8 cents, or 0.9%, to $2.036 a gallon. The EIA also released data on natural gas Thursday, with supplies down 177 billion cubic feet for the week ended Feb. 15. That was larger the average forecast for a decline of 165 billion, according to a survey of analysts by S&P Global Platts. March natural gas settled at $2.697 per million British thermal units, up 6.1 cents, or 2.3%.

     Oil prices hit fresh 2019 highs on trade hopes - Oil prices rose to their highest levels this year on Friday, supported by OPEC's ongoing supply cuts and hopes that Washington and Beijing may soon end their trade dispute. International Brent crude futures were up 49 cents at $67.56 per barrel around 10:10 a.m. ET (1510 GMT), striking a fresh high of $67.73 going back to mid-November. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures rose 75 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $57.71 per barrel, also setting a fresh 2019 high at $57.81. Traders said prices were lifted from earlier drops by hopes that Washington and Beijing could resolve their trade disputes, which have dented global economic growth, before a March 1 deadline, during negotiations this week. Prices have also been supported by supply cuts led by OPEC. OPEC and some non-affiliated producers such as Russia agreed late last year to cut output by 1.2 million bpd to prevent a large supply overhang from growing. Goldman Sachs said in a note that it expects OPEC output to average 31.1 million bpd in 2019, down from 31.9 million bpd. At least in part offsetting that is surging U.S. crude oil production, which reached 12 million bpd for the first time last week, the Energy Information Administration said on Thursday. That means U.S. crude output has soared by almost 2.5 million bpd since the start of 2018, and by a whopping 5 million bpd since 2013. America is the only country to ever reach 12 million bpd of production.

    Oil Prices Up On Trade Optimism - Oil is set to close out another week of gains, this time juiced by optimism over the U.S.-China trade negotiations. But the gains are also coming because OPEC+ is taking supply off of the market. “Saudi Arabia is delivering on the cuts it pledged, and I have no doubt they’ll deliver on pledges to do more,” said Bjarne Schieldrop, Oslo-based chief commodities analyst at SEB AB. “It was a production boost from OPEC and an equity sell-off that pushed oil down during the fourth quarter, and now as both of those elements are in reverse prices are going up.”  U.S. shale production is expected to grow by 84,000 bpd in March, according to the EIA, marking another month of strong increases. The gains will be led by the Permian (+43,000 bpd), followed by smaller contributions from the Niobrara (+16,000 bpd), the Bakken (+13,000 bpd), the Eagle Ford (+9,000 bpd) and Appalachia (+3,000 bpd). The number of drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) rose to 8,798 in January, a 2.4 percent increase from December. Meanwhile, weekly EIA data suggest that total U.S. production surpassed 12 million barrels per day last week, another record high. . Press reports suggest that the U.S. and China are making progress on trade negotiations, and President Trump has indicated he would be willing to let the talks continue past the March 1 deadline if progress was significant. Trump is expected to meet with China’s vice premier and top trade negotiator on Friday. There are still thorny issues that will be difficult to solve, but markets are welcoming the potential breakthrough in trade talks.  U.S. upstream M&A activity is set to slow this year, after dipping in 2018 compared to the year before. Last year, the number of deals declined to 93, compared to 125 in 2017, according to PwC. Deals in the U.S. shale industry fell from 106 in 2017 to 85 in 2018, although the value of the deals ballooned from $67 billion to $90 billion. Despite the expected slowdown, consolidation will continue, with smaller players selling out to larger ones as the industry pushes for scale. “The rationale for consolidation has never been higher,” Wells Fargo Securities managing director David Humphreys told Argus Media. “Scale is the key.”

    Oil ends at a nearly 3 1/2-month high - U.S. crude-oil futures on Friday posted their highest close in more than three months, as U.S. equities and other assets found traction against the backdrop of upbeat U.S.-China trade talks.Oil finished lower Thursday after a U.S. government report revealed that domestic supplies climbed for a fifth straight week as production jumped to a record level, but ongoing evidence of declines in world-wide output capped price losses for the session.April West Texas Intermediate crude CLJ9, +0.19% rose 30 cents, or 0.5%, to end at $57.26 a barrel, which would represent the most-active contract’s loftiest close since Nov. 12, according to FactSet data. For the week, WTI rose roughly 3%.Global benchmark April Brent LCOJ9, -0.24% added 5 cents, or less than 0.1%, to settle at $67.12 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, also representing its highest finish since Nov. 12. The international benchmark gained 1.3% for the week, its second weekly gain in a row.U.S. and Chinese trade representatives reportedly met for more than nine hours Thursday. Trump met with China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He on Friday. Still, deep divisions remain over fundamental issues, with U.S. officials pressing China to halt what Washington calls illicit technology transfers and improper subsidies for state-owned firms, The Wall Street Journal reported.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration on Thursday reported that domestic crude supplies rose a fifth straight week, up 3.7 million barrels for the week ended Feb. 15. That was a bit more than the 3.5 million-barrel rise expected by analysts polled by S&P Global Platts.“While Saudi Arabia willingly cuts output and exports, the U.S. producers continue to flood the market with shale oil,”  “Drilling activity has stabilized, which brings much-needed cooling to the recent shale boom frenzy. Yet U.S. oil production remains on track to reach 13 million barrels per day by the end of the year.

    UAE Set to Buy $5.4bn of Arms Amid World Outrage Over Yemen War – The United Arab Emirates signed contracts to buy more than $5.4bn worth of arms and military equipment during an exhibition for weapons manufacturers in Abu Dhabi this week, despite ongoing calls to end the war in Yemen, where the UAE is playing a major role.The UAE’s official news agency WAM reported on Thursday that the deals were secured with companies from countries around the world, including the United States, China, Russia, France and the UK, at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX).The UAE also awarded contracts to domestic weapon manufacturers during the five-day event, which concludes on Friday, WAM said.Abu Dhabi struck deals worth $1.9bn with US firms Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to purchase air defence missiles, Reuters reported.Sales agreements between foreign countries and American weapon manufacturers must be approved by the US State Department before they can be finalised. Congress also has veto power to stop such deals.The UAE’s weapons contracts come at a time of growing international criticism of the ongoing conflict in Yemen.Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led a military campaign in Yemen against the country’s Houthi rebels to restore the government of exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.The conflict, described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations, has killed tens of thousands of people and brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine.US lawmakers have been pushing to end Washington’s assistance to the Saudi-led coalition.Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution to end the country’s involvement in the conflict. The bill is expected to soon be taken up by the Senate, which approved a similar measure late last year. While much of the criticism has focused on Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict, the UAE is also playing a major part in the conflict in Yemen.

    Iran Navy Begins Massive Drill Stretching Across World's Key Oil Chokepoints - Iran's navy has begun a three day war game exercise on Friday in the Persian Gulf, in an expansive area encompassing Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, to the Sea of Oman and even stretching to northern parts of the Indian Ocean, state media reports. Some reports indicate the games could go on for as much as a week, but all emphasized the "large-scale" nature of the drills in which Iran's navy will showcase the Fateh-class submarine a domestically built sub carrying cruise missiles and torpedoes, as well as its Sahand destroyer.The cruise missile-firing capable Fateh, or "Conqueror", was launched for the first time at the start of this week and has been touted as "state-of-the-art" and with the ability to stay underwater for five weeks at a time. Crucially, the large exercises come after last week's US-sponsored Warsaw conference in which both Israeli and US officials made threats of war with Tehran. Indeed during the conference Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu openly stated that he was attending the summit with an aim to "advance the common interest of war with Iran."The games also come at a time when even foreign policy establishment insiders, such as the Council on Foreign Relation's Steven Cook, increasingly acknowledge that the White House's "march to war against Iran" is now "echoing the drumbeats" of the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Writing in Foreign Policy, Cook warnsTaken together—the Warsaw conference, Pence’s bullying of the Europeans, Bolton’s threatening video, and the broader background noise in Washington—the events of the past week were familiar in a foreboding way. The chatter about Iran has not become the war fever that gripped Washington in 2002 over Iraq, but the echoes of that year are not hard to miss in the Trump administration’s effort to shape the domestic and international debate about Iran.

     The Cult-Like Group Fighting Iran - Der Spiegel.-  On a country road in northwestern Albania, a rather odd collection of men and women living together in a camp are busy preparing themselves to topple the Iranian regime. Three times per week, many of them apparently practice slitting throats, breaking hands, jabbing out eyeballs with fingers and performing the so-called Glasgow Smile, which involves cutting cheeks from the corner of the mouth up toward the ear. That, at least, is the story told by a former member of the group.The camp, roughly the size of 50 football fields and surrounded by high fences, is located just a 35-minute drive from the lively bars of downtown Tirana, but the people inside live in something of a time capsule. Just like everyone in the camp, Somayeh Mohammadi is a member of the People's Mujahedin, a once-militant Iranian opposition group that was listed by the United States. and Europe as a terrorist group until 2012. These days, however, several members of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump are supporting the group, commonly known by the abbreviation MEK. Both the administration and the MEK, after all, want to see the end of the current regime in Iran -- and now that the group has Washington's backing, the Mujahedin apparently hopes that its time has finally come.On the sidelines of the Middle East conference in Warsaw, which began on Wednesday, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of possible "war" with Iran. And at an MEK rally in Warsaw, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani called for regime change in Tehran. For almost 30 years, several thousand members of the People's Mujahedin lived in exile in Iraq, but in 2013, many of them moved to Albania. And since 2017, the majority of the group has lived in the isolated camp near Tirana.

    Why Iran Needs To Talk With The Taliban - The Trump administration is preparing a public argument for war on Iran. The Washington Times has some 'senior administration officials' claiming that Iran is allied with al-Qaeda and thus could and should be attacked: Iran-al Qaeda alliance may provide legal rationale for U.S. military strikes:  Iran is providing high-level al Qaeda operatives with a clandestine sanctuary to funnel fighters, money and weapons across the Middle East, according to Trump administration officials who warn that the long-elusive, complex relationship between two avowed enemies of America has evolved into an unacceptable global security threat. ..The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the days after the 9/11 attacks provided the legal framework for President George W. Bush to order U.S. military action against the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. The law has underpinned the U.S. counterterrorism campaign and has largely gone unchanged for the past 17 years through three presidential administrations.  Congressional and legal sources say the law may now provide a legal rationale for striking Iranian territory or proxies should President Trump decide that Tehran poses a looming threat to the U.S. or Israel and that economic sanctions are not strong enough to neutralize the threat.  That Iran is colluding with al-Qaeda, which it actively fights in Syria and Iraq, is obviously nonsense. When the U.S. attacked Afghanistan some families of al-Qaeda fighters fled to Iran where they were put under house arrest. They were and still are hostages Iran uses to prevent al-Qaeda attacks against its country. The Washington Times admits this:  One captured 2007 document, apparently written by an al Qaeda operative, concluded that, in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq, “Iranian authorities decided to keep our brothers as a bargaining chip.”

    Trump Tells Europe to “Take Back” 800 ISIS Fighters or He “Will Be Forced to Release Them” — Late Saturday evening President Trump lashed out at allies Britain, France, and Germany via twitter related to the United States’ Syria withdrawal. He urged European nations to take responsibility for their own captured foreign fighters in Syria by repatriating and prosecuting them; otherwise, Trump warned, the terrorists could “permeate Europe” upon their release.  “The Caliphate is ready to fall,” Trump tweeted. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them…” He said that the US “does not want to watch” Islamic State (or ISIS) “permeate Europe,” which he indicated would be the inevitable outcome.  The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them…….Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2019 As part of the strange threat and sure to be controversial statements, the president further reaffirmed total US victory over ISIS as he mentioned US forces would imminently begin “pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory.” Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal cited US defense officials to indicate that “the military plans to pull a significant portion of its forces out by mid-March, with a full withdrawal coming by the end of April.”  The fate of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly Syrian Kurds, has remained a huge unknown as Turkey has been amassing troops along its border to invade in the aftermath of a US draw down. Some Pentagon generals have also warned of the rapid comeback of ISIS in the wake of any “power vacuum”. Trump’s latest tweet warning that ISIS foreign fighters would “permeate Europe” is also likely a reference to the fact that the SDF still maintains many hundreds of captured ISIS terrorists in its jails. SDF leadership has echoed a similar warning of late, saying it’ll be forced to release the jihadists as a result of any rapid US exit. The UN has estimated that in total up to 42,000 foreign fighters traveled to Iraq and Syria to join IS — which appears a very conservative estimate — and which includes about 900 from Germany and 850 from Britain.

    But They Are Dangerous! European Leaders Shocked At Trump's ISIS Ultimatum - After President Trump's provocative tweets on Sunday wherein he urged European countries to "take back" and prosecute some 800 ISIS foreign fighters as US forces withdraw from Syria, or else "we will be forced to release them," the message has been met with shock, confusion and indifference in Europe. Trump had warned the terrorists could subsequently "permeate Europe". Possibly the most pathetic and somewhat ironic response came from Denmark, where a spokesperson for Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said Copenhagen won’t take back Danish Islamic State foreign fighters to stand trial in the country, according to the German Press Agency DPA. “We are talking about the most dangerous people in the world. We should not take them back,” the spokesperson stressed, and added that the war in Syria is ongoing, making the US president's statement premature.  Germany's response was also interesting, given a government official framed ISIS fighters' ability to return as a "right".  A spokeswoman for Germany’s interior ministry said, “In principle, all German citizens and those suspected of having fought for so-called Islamic State have the right to return.” She even added that German ISIS fighters have "consular access" as if the terrorists would walk right up to some embassy window in Turkey or Beirut!  Noting that the Iraqi government has also of late contacted Germany to transport foreign fighters to their home country for trial, she added, “But in Syria, the German government cannot guarantee legal and consular duties for jailed German citizens due to the armed conflict there.”

    Assad Warns Syria’s Kurds That US Will not Protect Them  — President Bashar al-Assad warned Syria’s Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Sunday that their ally the United States would not protect them against any Turkish offensive as Washington looks to withdraw its troops.The US is set to pull out its soldiers from Syria after allied Kurdish-led forces capture the Islamic State (IS) group’s last holdout in the war-torn country.Any withdrawal risks leaving the Kurds exposed to a long-threatened attack by neighboring Turkey, which views some Kurdish fighters as “terrorists”.“We tell those groups who are betting on the Americans that the Americans will not protect you,” Assad said in a televised speech, reported by the AFP news agency. “The Americans do not hold you in their heart… They will put you in their pocket so you can be a bargaining chip.”Apart from fighting IS, the Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s civil war, working towards semi-autonomy in the northeast of the country. The looming prospect of a US withdrawal, announced in December, has sent them scrambling to rebuild ties with the Damascus government, but talks so far have failed to reach a compromise. Reuters reported a senior US general said on Sunday that the US would have to sever its military assistance to the SDF if the fighters partner with Assad or Russia. The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is commander of the US-led coalition battling IS in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the US prepares to withdraw from Syria. LaCamera warned that US law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as with Assad’s military. Assad warned: “If you don’t prepare yourselves to defend your country and resist, you will be nothing but a slave to the Ottomans,” using a historic term for Turks. Almost eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Assad’s forces control almost two-thirds of the country.Just two areas remain beyond its control: the militant-held northwestern region of Idlib, and about a third of the country under control of Kurdish-led forces. “Every inch of Syria will be liberated,” Assad said in Sunday’s speech.

    Syrian Kurdish Commander Calls for US to Keep 1,500 Troops in Syria  — In comments to reporters on Monday, Kurdish commander Mazloum Kobani, the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), called on the United States to completely halt plans to withdraw from Syria, saying he needs an “enduring” presence from the US-led coalition.Kobani not only says he wants air support from the US, but a “force on the ground to coordinate with us.” That ground force, according to the commander, should include between 1,000 and 1,500 international forces.This would be expected to be overwhelmingly US troops, of course. There are an estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria, and a few hundred others from the coalition, mostly French and British. Kobani’s preference seems to be that they be Americans. Saying that Trump has promised to protect the Kurds, he says he expects the president to “live up to his word,” and as far as he is concerned, that means continuing the US military presence indefinitely.

    Egypt Government Executes 9 Muslim Brotherhood Members In Single Day -- "We were electrocuted with enough electricity to last Egypt for 20 years," one man yelled during his final words before an Egyptian court. Mahmoud al-Ahmadi was among 9 suspected Muslim Brotherhood members sentenced to death for involvement in the assassination of Egypt's top prosecutor Hisham Barakat on June 29, 2015. The men were executed by hanging in a Cairo prison on Wednesday, which drew condemnation from groups like Amnesty International, given widespread reports that their confessions were obtained through torture. Barakat had been targeted and killed by car bomb when his convoy drove through the Egyptian capital in 2015, two years after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in a military junta following the chaotic Arab Spring protests. Only two weeks into November, this brings the total number of executions in Egypt thus far this year to 15. Maya Foa, director of an international body of lawyers who spotlight human rights abuses called Reprieve, told Al Jazeera, "As these latest executions show, President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi's use of the death penalty is now a full-blown human rights crisis." The Sisi government has increasingly come under fire for its broad use of the death penalty following confessions obtained under duress, as well as mass trials. Reprieve says some nearly 1,500 individuals remain on death row, among them juveniles. 

    ‘There are no foreigners left’: Israeli settlers rampage in Hebron following expulsion of human rights observers Dozens of Israeli settlers launched an attack on Palestinians in the Old City of Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank on Tuesday night, yelling “death to Arabs!” in the street and hurling rocks at Palestinian homes. According to locals, more than 100 settlers accompanied by over 70 armed Israeli forces began marching down Shuhada street at 9pm in the Old City, heading towards the Palestinian neighborhood of Tel Rumeida. “They were chanting anti-Arab slogans, calling for the expulsion of all Palestinians from the area, saying this is the land of Israel, and saying we should all die,” Badee Dweik, 46, Co-Founder of the Human Rights Defenders group in Hebron told Mondoweiss. According to Dweik, who witnessed the events, settlers began harassing and throwing stones at any Palestinians who were walking outside. Shortly after, the settlers began hurling rocks at the windows of Palestinian homes. “Here in the Old City we are used to such attacks, so the Palestinians all have bars on their windows so that the settlers can’t break through,” Dweik said. He added that no one was badly injured, but several people sustained bruises on their faces and bodies from being physically assaulted by the settlers. Dweik said he believes that the attack was a direct result of the lack of presence of international volunteers and observers in the area. “The settlers, who are already extremely violent, are becoming more and more aggressive since the Israeli government decided to expel the TIPH mission in Hebron,” he said. “Getting rid of TIPH was a greenlight for settlers to be more violent, not just against Palestinians,but also against any internationals that they see here.”

    Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel (AP) — Young American rabbinical students are doing more than visiting holy sites, learning Hebrew and poring over religious texts during their year abroad in Israel. In a stark departure from past programs focused on strengthening ties with Israel and Judaism, the new crop of rabbinical students is reaching out to the Palestinians. The change reflects a divide between Israeli and American Jews that appears to be widening. On a recent winter morning, Tyler Dratch, a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, was among some two dozen Jewish students planting olive trees in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that locals typically see are either Israeli soldiers or ultranationalist settlers. “Before coming here and doing this, I couldn’t speak intelligently about Israel,” Dratch said. “We’re saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence in order to commit justice, to make peace.” Dratch, not wanting to be mistaken for a settler, covered his Jewish skullcap with a baseball cap. He followed the group down a rocky slope to see marks that villagers say settlers left last month: “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge” spray-painted in Hebrew on boulders and several uprooted olive trees, their stems severed from clumps of dirt. This year’s student program also includes a tour of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, a visit to an Israeli military court that prosecutes Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.

    Political Bombshell as Gantz, Lapid Join Forces to Replace Netanyahu --Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two biggest rivals on the center-left announced early Thursday morning that they have decided to join forces and merge their parties, causing a political shakeup ahead of elections. 

    • ■ Joint slate will be named 'Blue and White.' Gantz will be prime minister for two and a half years before handing over reins to Lapid, who would serve as FM
    • ■ Ex- IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi joins unified roster
    • ■ Likud blasts union: 'It's either their left-wing gov't or us'

    Chinese president meets Iran's parliament speaker - (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday met with visiting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China's resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged, Xi said during the meeting, hailing that China and Iran have a long history of friendship and share long-tested mutual trust and friendship.Under the new situation, China and Iran should further deepen strategic mutual trust and continue to extend mutual understanding and support on issues involving each other's core interests and major concerns, said Xi.The Chinese president called on both sides to step up communication and coordination, meet each other halfway to properly advance their pragmatic cooperation, and strengthen exchanges and cooperation in such areas as security, countering terrorism and culture.Xi called for closer collaboration and coordination within multilateral frameworks, so as to jointly promote the building of a new type of international relations and foster a community with a shared future for humanity.Exchanges between legislative bodies of the two countries are an important part of the comprehensive strategic partnership, Xi said, calling on the National People's Congress of China and Iranian Parliament to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, learn from each other's experience in state governance, cement communication and coordination in international and regional organizations, and play a bigger role in promoting bilateral relations.

    China Sticks Up For Iran As Geopolitical Pressure Mounts - Amid the geopolitical quagmire among Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over a number of issues ranging from Tehran's nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program and its regional hegemony overtures which have Riyadh scrambling for a response, China is joining the fray. Yesterday, Chinese PresidentAmid the geopolitical quagmire among Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over a number of issues ranging from Tehran's nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program and its regional hegemony overtures which have Riyadh scrambling for a response, China is joining the fray.Yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the speaker of Iran’s parliament that China’s desire to develop close ties with Iran will remain unchanged, regardless of the international situation. Xi’s remarks came just one day before the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to China to drum up support since several western powers have taken a harder line against the young prince over his alleged involvement in the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.Xi met Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday and added that the two countries had a long friendship and shared a long-tested mutual trust. “No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China’s resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged,” Xi was quoted a saying in comments published the next day by China’s Foreign Ministry. China and Iran should further deepen strategic mutual trust and continue to support each other on core interests and major concerns, Xi added. Beijing is able to court both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same, something the U.S. is unable to do. China, however, prides itself on not taking sides in domestic politics of other nations, even if those nations have a dismal human rights history.

    Relatives of China's oppressed Muslim minority are getting blocked online by their own family members, who are terrified to even tell them how bad their lives are - Abdul'ehed, a teacher and poet in Istanbul, Turkey, has been systematically cut off by all her family members on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese messaging app. There is only one reason for her entire family — who live in Xinjiang, western China — to cease all contact so abruptly: fear. Her family are Uighurs, a majority-Muslim ethnic minority group China has been relentlessly persecuting. Life in Xinjiang has effectively come to a standstill over the last two years. According to the US State Department, China has detained up to 2 million Uighur residents, for increasingly flimsy reasons, one of which is messaging people who live in other countries. China's unprecedented crackdown is why Abdul'ehed's relatives in China deleted her from their contacts, leaving her unable to talk to them or even see their latest pictures. INSIDER interviewed four members of the Uighur diaspora, who report a similar experience of being abruptly cut off by those they love most, for fear of retribution by the heavy-handed Xinjiang regional government. Most people in Xinjiang have either blocked their contacts abroad or are too scared to talk to them. Kevin Lee/Getty Reports from activists and media outlets claim that Uighurs who cross the authorities are physically tortured, forced to renounce their religion, and force-fed unknown medications that interfere with their memories. Abdul'ehed's said: "At first I was so hurt. I thought: 'They didn't have to do that.' After that, I understood that something serious was going on." "I'm glad they deleted me," she said. "Because I, somehow, may be a reason for authorities to arrest them." Local authorities in Xinjiang don't officially notify relatives abroad when they round people up. And because most people in Xinjiang have either blocked all their contacts abroad, or are scared to talk about what's going on, they are struggling to find out about their loves ones.

    China’s January passenger car sales in biggest drop in seven years as worries over economy, spending deepen - China’s car sales fell 17.7 per cent last month from a year earlier to 2.02 million units, marking the lowest January sales since 2012. Data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers showed that there was a 15.8 per cent decline in total vehicle sales in China in January to 2.37 million units. It is the seventh straight monthly decline in the world’s largest car market, and adds to wider concerns over domestic consumption and economic growth. Global carmakers such as Volkswagen and General Motors are increasingly relying on China as a source of profits as the markets in the United States and Europe near saturation. However, China’s car market posted its first contraction in more than two decades last year and the market is expected to further stagnate this year, amid a wider picture of declining consumer spending. Spending growth in China during the seven-day Lunar New Year Holiday slowed to the lowest rate in a decade this month, indicating a broad-based slowdown.

    China Bans Millions From Flights, Trains In Social-Credit Crackdown - China has banned millions of people from any number of activities for being labeled as 'untrustworthy' on the country's Orwellian social credit system.  Banned from things such as air and train travel, blacklisted individuals are being punished in a broad effort to boost "trustworthiness" among the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens tracked by the massive system - which assigns both positive and negative scores to various metrics, reports SCMP.   People with great social credit will get "green channel" benefits while those who violate laws will be punished with restrictions and penalties. Hangzhou, the capital city of China’s Zhejiang province, rolled out its social credit system earlier last year, rewarding "pro-social behaviors" such as blood donations, healthy lifestyles, and volunteer work while punishing those who violate traffic laws, smoke and drink, and speak poorly about government.  Human rights advocates have voiced concerns that the social credit system does not take into account individual circumstances, and has unfairly labeled people and companies as untrustworthy.  Over 3.59 million Chinese enterprises were added to the official creditworthiness blacklist last year, banning them from a series of activities, including bidding on projects, accessing security markets, taking part in land auctions and issuing corporate bonds, according to the 2018 annual report released by the National Public Credit Information Centre. –SCMP

    China Accounts For More Than 60% Of All New Credit Created Globally In The Past Ten Years --Over five years ago, in November 2013, when the world's attention was still largely focused on what the "Big 4" central banks would do with QE and/or interest rates, we wrote an article showing in one simple chart  "How In Five Short Years, China Humiliated The World's Central Banks", and noted that in just the brief period since the financial crisis "Chinese bank assets (and by implication liabilities) have grown by an astounding $15 trillion, bringing the total to over $24 trillion. In other words, China has expanded its financial balance sheet by 50% more than the assets of all global central banks combined." Fast forward to today, when not only is China's debt the biggest wildcard for the stability of the global financial system - something China is well aware of and is why in January, Beijing injected a gargantuan $685 billion in new credit into its financial system, greater than the GDP of the 21st largest country, Taiwan... ...  but even central banks openly admit that China's relentless debt-issuance spree is a major risk factor for global financial stability. One such bank is the NY Fed, which this week issued a report titled "Could Rising Household Debt Undercut China’s Economy?" which while containing nothing that regular readers don't already know, provides a handy snapshot of the full extent of China's debt problems (and is a useful sequel to the NY Fed's 2017 report "China’s Continuing Credit Boom".)So for those curious how and why China now accounts for more than 60% of all new credit created globally over the past ten years (an increase from 50% just two years ago), read on:

    New Zealand bans Huawei, China has message for New Zealand  - From offering mobile payment services such as WePay and Alipay to hiring front-desk staff proficient in Mandarin, the New Zealand Chinese Travel and Tourism Association was not short of advice for Kiwi tourism operators on how to benefit from an influx of mainland Chinese visitors to New Zealand this year. “Chinese tourists enjoy spontaneous travel so there are a lot of last minute bookings. For businesses who’d like to attract Chinese tourists, this is the major challenge for them,” association chairman Simon Cheung said in a promotional video. But preparations for the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism – a campaign by both governments to strengthen economic and bilateral ties – were cast in doubt when China postponed the launch event, which was expected to take place in Wellington next week. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday acknowledged that the country’s relationship was complex and not without challenges, but dismissed talk there was a rift. But she revealed that dates for her first official trip to China, planned for the end of last year, still had not been finalised. “I have been issued with an invitation to visit China, that has not changed. We continue to find dates that would work,” she said. Her admission fuelled concerns from opposition parties and the media that ties, already tense after Ardern’s government blocked Chinese telecom giant Huawei from the nationwide roll-out of a 5G data network over “significant national security concerns”, were deteriorating further.

    BOJ Unexpectedly Reaffirms Readiness To Ease Further, Buy More Stuff - Overnight BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda joined the rest of his central bank peers in making a hard-dove turn, saying on Tuesday the central bank was ready to ramp up stimulus if sharp yen rises hurt the economy and derail the path toward achieving its 2 percent inflation target.The yen promptly tumbled after Kuroda’s comments, which confirmed that the BOJ has now officially jointed the race to the currency bottom, launched by the Federal Reserve, which shocked everyone by turning full-blown dove last month, and dragging the rest of the world's central banks with it."If currency moves are having an impact on the economy and prices, and if we consider it necessary to achieve our price target, we’ll consider easing policy,” Kuroda said, repeating that possible easing tools the BOJ could deploy included cutting short- and long-term interest rates, expanding asset buying or accelerating the pace of money printing.That said, considering that the BOJ is rapidly running out of stuff to buy, as it already owns over 40% of the country's bonds and about 80% of its equity ETFs, the BOJ chief said the central bank would "carefully consider the benefits and costs of any further policy easing", suggesting that the hurdle for topping up stimulus would be high given how financial institutions’ profits have been hurt by years of near-zero interest rates.“Whatever we do, however, we need to carefully balance the benefits and the costs of the step such as the impact on financial intermediation and market functioning."

    China may only seek a limited naval role in the Indian Ocean -Among the many questions raised by the massive modernisation and expansion of China’s Navy in the last few years is its future role in the Indian Ocean. Will the Indian Ocean become a Chinese lake?China has gone from essentially zero presence in the Indian Ocean around a decade ago to a fairly sizeable fleet averaging perhaps four to five surface vessels (plus submarine deployments), although this number fluctuates during crossovers between transiting vessels. China now operates a naval base in Djibouti and no doubt has plans for additional bases in the region.The geographical fact of (a potentially hostile) India, sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean would make this an extraordinary challenge for China.This expansion, together with the growth of China’s economic and political influence in the region, has led many to assume that China intends to displace the US Navy as the predominant navy in the Indian Ocean.The worry is that the US Fifth Fleet will one day sail for home from the Persian Gulf, just as the Royal Navy did in the early 1970s, leaving China to step into US shoes. That scenario understandably makes a lot of people nervous, most of all New Delhi, which has its own aspirations in the Indian Ocean.But how realistic is this, and are there other more realistic scenarios? What would be required for China to achieve sea control across the Indian Ocean in order to protect China’s energy supplies carried from the Persian Gulf and West Africa to China?

    Pharma Company Pfizer to Partner With Government on Drug Resistance --The tie up between global pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Indian Council of Medical Research has raised questions on propriety. Pfizer has agreed to give Rs 7 crore from its corporate social responsibility fund to the ICMR for work on anti-microbial resistance (AMR). This includes awareness, training and surveillance programmes.According to a report in the Times of India, the tie up could indicate a conflict of interest. Pharmaceutical companies themselves aggressively market drugs and drug consumption that leads to anti-microbial resistance. On the other hand, tracking drug resistance and lowering its levels can keep patients functioning as customers, contributing to increased sales of these pharmaceuticals.One part of this tie up would involve training health personnel, especially in small hospitals and nursing homes. This could give Pfizer access to doctors who are prescribing drugs and to policy makers.“Pfizer has offered the funds with no strings attached. Where is the reason to refuse?” says Dr Kamini Walia, ICMR’s programme officer.She says that there was no selection process for Pfizer to be collaborating with ICMR: “Pfizer came forward on its own and offered its CSR funding with no strings attached. And so we agreed.”

    Pulwama Fallout- From Social Media to the Streets, Calls for Revenge Feed Political Agenda -- The national capital and several other parts of India on Saturday, February 16, witnessed a cycle of extraordinary events.  Since early in the morning, reports started pouring in of Kashmiri students being harassed and even physically targeted across many parts of India – including a frightening episode in Dehradun where a mob led by Bajrang Dal surrounded a women’s hostel that housed a few Kashmiri girls. Kashmiri leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti also alerted people from their respective Twitter handles to expect such vigilante behaviour. However, in their excitement to give a “fitting response” to Pakistan – which the Indian government holds responsible for the Pulwama incident – the authorities have seemed reluctant to take a step back and address the chaos that appears to be building up.       In light of one of the most deadly militant strikes on CRPF jawans in Pulwama on 14 February, the political class, across party lines, has pledged to support India’s fight against terrorism. This may require serious political, military, and diplomatic planning, but the emotional outpouring in the last couple of days by some TV anchors – who have uninterruptedly advocated “revenge” for the dead soldiers – has led to a social problem that needs immediate attention.

    US Backs India’s Right to Self-Defence, Drops Customary Call for Restraint - On the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a public function in Jhansi that the security forces have been given full permission to respond to the suicide attack in Kashmir at a time, place and manner of their choosing, US national security advisor John Bolton told his Indian counterpart that Washington supported India’s right to “self-defence” from “cross-border terrorism”.According to the Ministry of External Affairs, Bolton called Ajit Doval for the second consecutive day after the suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy which left over 40 dead. While no news was released about the Bolton-Doval call on Thursday, the Indian side on Saturday released a short statement providing some details about Friday’s conversation. No read-out has been issued by the US so far, but Bolton tweeted on Saturday evening India time.I expressed condolences to NSA Doval yesterday for the reprehensible terrorist attack on India. Pakistan must crack down on JeM and all terrorists operating from its territory. Countries should uphold UNSC responsibilities to deny safe haven and support for terrorists @nsaajit— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) February 16, 2019As per the MEA’s press release, the phone call was initiated by Bolton to express condolences over the Pulwama attack for which the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility.“Ambassador Bolton supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism,” said the release. Bolton also offered assistance, as per the Indian press release, to “bring the perpetrators and backers of the attack promptly to justice”.

     India Weighs Military Strikes In Kashmir After Deadliest Terror Attack In 30 Years - After a relative lull that was punctuated by a handful of small terror attacks and military exercises along the line of control in divided Kashmir in 2018, tensions between South Asia's two nuclear armed neighbors - India and Pakistan - are escalating once again in the wake of a suicide car bombing that killed 44 Indian paramilitary police officers in the restive border region, the deadliest attack in the three decades of insurgency in Kashmir.  According to the Financial Times, the relationship between the neighboring countries grew increasingly strained over the weekend as India contemplated a military response to the attack, carried out by Pakistani terrorist group Jaish e-Mohammad, a group that India believes has long had at least the tacit support of the Pakistani military. In a sign that the region could be headed for a reemergence of the tit-for-tat attacks that punctuated the early years of the administration of Indian Prime Minister Nahrendra Modi, India stripped Pakistan of its most favored nation status after the attack, leading to an immediate 200% tariff hike.  Already, Indian military sources told the FT that Modi - who is facing a close election in the coming months, and is likely seeking to burnish his hardline Hindu nationalist credentials - is considering whether to order "stand off" strikes that would involve deploying fighter jets to fire missiles into the Pakistani-controlled side of Kashmir, as Modi has vowed to "avenge every tear" shed after last week's attack. Analysts have said he will be feeling pressure to push for a military response. In a series of public speeches while inaugurating a new public works project before upcoming parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, continued to express fury at last week’s attack. He vowed to “avenge every tear” and said that India’s military had been given a free hand to decide on an appropriate response.  Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have been working with western powers to try and convince them to restrain India. But with the US's relationship with Pakistan also in a state of deterioration under the Trump administration, it's unclear exactly how effective those efforts will be. In a tweet sent over the weekend, NSA John Bolton warned that Pakistan "must crack down on JeM and all terrorists operating from its territory."

    Understanding the Origins of the Pulwama Attack Inside Pakistan - The recent killing of more than 40 Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir by a suicide bomber belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group in Kashmir’s Pulwama district has put Pakistan and India into another confrontation. In retaliation, India has not only withdrawn Most Favored Nation Status (MFN) from Pakistan, but has also announced that it will take important steps to completely isolate Pakistan internationally. Moreover, reportedly Indian “armed forces have been given a free hand to formulate appropriate retaliation strategies.” However, the subject of retaliation strategies is an approach that doesn’t necessarily call for an immediate military response and it can can take weeks and months to put in place a long-term plan to counter and deter such incidents. Arguably, the most important takeaway from India’s response to the incident is that New Delhi has decided to ramp up escalation with Pakistan on the political front rather than going for the military option, at this point. There are a number of reasons why India may have decided to take this policy course rather than immediately hitting back militarily. It is important to note that India is buzzing ahead of an election season. The government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is primarily focused on winning the next general election, which is scheduled to take place in the next few months. While military action against Pakistan at this point may win the BJP some electoral support domestically, it’s unclear what sort of military action can attain such a desired result and whether the government, which is uncertain about its own future in power, has the political will to follow-through.   However, that’s an area which is filled with a lot of risks, miscalculations and escalations triggers and clearly, the government in India which is about to go to the polls doesn’t want to enter into a phase that could have blowback impact on its electoral gains. For now, by putting the blame for the incident on Pakistan, the government in India has already achieved some electoral mileage.

    Indian Analyst Bharat Karnad to Modi: Use TTP Terrorists to Attack Pakistan -- With the home-grown resistance of a new generation of Kashmiris against India's brutal military occupation turning into a full-blown insurgency, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Hindu Nationalist government is trying desperately to divert attention from its human rights abuses by blaming Pakistan for Pulwama attack. Mr. Modi and his ministers are making war threats to "punish" Pakistan for Pulwama attack carried out by a local Kashmiri young man using explosives obtained locally. How will Mr. Modi "punish" Pakistan? Will India launch a full-frontal attack? Or opt for covert warfare using its terrorist proxies?  In a recently published Bloomberg Quint Op Ed on Pulwama attack in Indian Occupied Kashmir, a top Indian analyst Bharat Karnad has said that "it (TTP) is an asset for India to support and grow with moral and materiel support, and to develop". "Indeed, TTP’s fighting qualities are sufficiently developed and effective to simultaneously fight the Pakistan army in Pakistan and the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan", Karnad adds. During former US Defense Secretary James Mattis' visit to New Delhi in 2017, Bharat Karnad had also acknowledged TTP-RAW link in a Hindustan Times Op Ed in the following words: "Mattis’ request that India moderate its support for TTP will put Delhi in a fix because TTP is useful as an Indian counterpart of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad deployed by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Jammu and Kashmir. Severing relations with TTP will mean India surrendering an active card in Pakistan and a role in Afghanistan as TTP additionally provides access to certain Afghan Taliban factions. This, together with the Abdul Ghani regime’s desire for India’s presence and the tested friendship with Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Tajik-dominated ‘Northern Alliance’, ensures that no solution for peace in Afghanistan can be cobbled together without India’s help."

    'Don't mess with Pakistan,' India is told amid Kashmir tension (Reuters) - Pakistan will respond to any attack by India with “full force”, the army said on Friday amid heightened tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, as Islamabad said it took over the base of a militant group that claimed a deadly bombing in Kashmir. Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor was speaking a week after a Pakistani-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary policemen in the Himalayan region disputed between India and Pakistan. Pakistan late on Friday announced a takeover of Jaish’s headquarters in a southern Punjab province district bordering India. Jaish, an Islamist jihadi group that fights for the independence of the disputed Kashmir region from India, has offices and infrastructure in Pakistan where its chief Maulana Masood Azhar is based. Authorities took over Jaish’s headquarters in Bahawalpur and appointed an administrator to look after its affairs, a government statement said. It said the headquarters and an attached seminary has 600 students and 70 teachers. India’s top military commander in the region has alleged Pakistan’s main Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency was involved in the attack. “We have no intention to initiate war, but we will respond with full force to full spectrum threat that would surprise you,” Ghafoor told reporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. “Don’t mess with Pakistan.” The army’s response came two days after Prime Minister Imran Khan urged India to share any actionable evidence, offering full cooperation in investigating the blast. He also offered talks with India on all issues, including terrorism, which India has always sought as a pre-requisite to any dialogue between the two arch-rivals. India and Pakistan have fought two wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which both the countries claim entirely.

    Lockheed Martin Unveils Made In India F-21 Fighter Jet - Lockheed Martin offered India on Wednesday a new multi-role fighter jet, the F-21, in an attempt to secure a large defense order worth $15 billion, reported Reuters. The American defense company said the new plane will be specifically designed and manufactured for the Indian Air Force (IAF), and provide "Made In India" economic opportunities that strengthen India’s path to becoming a military powerhouse in the Indo-Pacific region. The F-21 addresses the IAF's unique requirements and integrates India's defense complex into the world’s largest fighter jet ecosystem with the world’s biggest defense company. If the partnership works out, Lockheed Martin and Tata will produce the F-21 in India. The defense firm said the F-21 would incorporate advanced technologies from its fifth generation planes, the F-22 and the F-35. Lockheed is not alone in competing for the $15 billion contract to build new fighter jets for India. Boeing, Saab, Dassault Aviation, Airbus, Eurofighter, and an unnamed Russia defense company have submitted bids. The deal to replace India's decades-old fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets is one of the largest contracts in the world right now. India is not expected to announce the winning bid until after a national election in May. Lockheed offered to move its F-16 production plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to India, if it wins the contract in a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Made In India" strategy to expand its Air Force and defense sector industry.

    Cow Vigilantes in India Killed at Least 44 People, Report Finds  - Radical cow protection groups in India have killed at least 44 people over the last three years and often received support from law enforcement and Hindu nationalist politicians, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.The 104-page report unveiled this week examines Hindu nationalist vigilante attacks and said 36 of the dead were members of India’s large Muslim minority. About 280 people have been injured in more than 100 attacks between May 2015 and December 2018, the report by the New York-based group said.Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which supports policies to protect cows revered by the country’s majority Hindus, have “increasingly used communal rhetoric that has spurred a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption and those deemed linked to it,” the group said.Modi has previously condemned vigilante violence and said killing people because of cow worship “is not acceptable.” In India’s federal structure, law and order is a state subject.“No less than the prime minister called such elements criminals and urged state governments to act against anyone perpetrating violence under the false pretext of cow vigilantism,” BJP lawmaker and spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said in a text message on Wednesday. He said cow-related violence has also happened under opposition Congress party governments. “BJP bashing is a favorite theme of organizations and international media.” The report, which also highlights the impact these so-called cow vigilantes have had on the rural economy, comes ahead of national elections in which some expect increased religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. A recent major attack against security forces in India’s Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir has also heightened tensions, with one BJP-appointed governor of an Indian state calling for citizens to boycott traveling to Kashmir and Kashmiri businesses outside of the state.

    Thousands of teachers attacked by riot police in Morocco - Thousands of teachers in Morocco were attacked by government security forces Wednesday as they demonstrated for higher pay and greater job security in the capital city of Rabat. Hundreds were injured after police opened fire with water cannon and waded into crowds swinging their batons. The demonstration was held as part of a general strike by Moroccan workers to commemorate protests that broke out in the country eight years ago, on February 20, 2011. The police opened fire with water cannon and charged the protesters when they approached the Royal Palace of King Mohammed VI. Dozens of teachers were taken by ambulances to local hospitals after they had been beaten to the ground in the police charges. The public-school teachers marched through the capital city to protest fixed-term contracts—a form of contract labor—first imposed by the government in 2016. Many wore white robes, the traditional garb of teachers, and carried hand-made signs with both workplace grievances and political slogans. The contract workers receive no health benefits or pensions, and they earn an average of $454 a month (about 400 euros). Teacher Naima Kalaii told Agence France Presse, “We are doing a peaceful march, but unfortunately, the police are cracking down on us. Teachers are falling to the ground. Teachers are being insulted. Our message is education. Stop the injustice.”

    How a bridge between Colombia and Venezuela became part of a propaganda fight - Over the past week or so, the image of a blockaded bridge between Colombia and Venezuela has been all over news sites around the world. It's been featured in stories describing how the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is keeping international food aid from his desperate citizens.Trouble is, the photo doesn't tell the full story.CBC News was among the many news organizations that used the photo in stories, stating that Maduro's forces had purposely blocked the Tienditas Bridge with shipping containers and a fuel tanker.Yes, Maduro ordered the containers be put there, and no, he does not want international aid coming in through that corridor. He maintains there is no food shortage in Venezuela, despite numerous reports to the contrary, including from Human Rights Watch. But the question is, would that bridge even be used to bring the aid into Venezuela from Colombia if it weren't blocked?   The bridge, which spans between Cucuta, Colombia, and the town of Pedro Maria Urena in Venezuela, hadn't been open for years. In fact, it's never been open.  So, what happened?  On Feb. 6,  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a tweet that drew a lot of attention.  The tweet helped back the U.S. position that Maduro is no longer the legitimate president and must go.  But what Pompeo didn't say in his tweet — and what many news organizations, including CBC News, didn't report — was that the bridge in the tweet has never been open to traffic.  You can see the Tienditas Bridge here on Google Maps: According to Google, the photo was captured in June 2017.   The fences were already there, as were the concrete blocks. All that Maduro's forces added last week were the shipping containers and tanker trailer. 

    Venezuela crisis- Maduro to close border with Brazil -- President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela would shut its border with Brazil on Thursday 'until further notice' amid a tense standoff with opposition leader Juan Guaido over allowing in humanitarian aid. Juan Guaido himself has vowed to head to the country's border today to personally bring in US-supplied food and medicine. The 35-year-old, recognised by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's acting president, planned to travel in a caravan of buses with other members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Guaido's actions, in defiance of the military-backed government, raise fears of possible weekend confrontations after he set a Saturday deadline for bringing in the aid. President Nicolas Maduro, meanwhile, has ordered his military to beef up border security and barricade a major border bridge to prevent the supplies from entering the country from Cucuta, Colombia, where tons of supplies are stockpiled. In addition, he said Maduro said the land border with Brazil would be "completely and absolutely" closed from 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) "until further notice," following a meeting with the military high command. 

    US Media Erase Years of Chavismo’s Gains - Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, which took off with the election of President Hugo Chávez in December 1998, frequently and even quite recently received praise for its social gains from the United Nations, international humanitarian organizations and economists. This aspect of the country’s story has been almost entirely written out of media coverage of the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government by the US, Canada and their right-wing partners in Venezuela and the region. Under Chávez, poverty in Venezuela was cut by more than a third, and extreme poverty by 57 percent (CEPR, 3/7/13). (These declines were even steeper if measured from the depths of the opposition-led oil strike, designed to force Chávez out by wrecking the economy.)In June 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) included Venezuela in a group of 18 nations that that had cut their number of hungry people by half in the preceding 20 years, 14 of which were governed by Chavismo: The FAO said that Venezuela reduced the number of people suffering from malnutrition from 13.5 percent of the population in 1990–92 to less than 5 percent of the population in 2010–12; the FAO credited government-run supermarket networks and nutrition programs created by Chávez. Three months later, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said that it “welcomes the social development measures, programs and plans that include indigenous peoples and people of African descent, which have helped to combat structural racial discrimination” in the country. The committee also noted that it welcomes the progress made by the [Venezuelan government] in the area of education and its efforts to reduce illiteracy, as a result of which it was declared an “illiteracy-free territory” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in October 2005. Similarly, the UN’s Economic and Social Council published a report in 2015, two years into the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, that said the council takes note with satisfaction of the progress made by [the Venezuelan government] in combating poverty and reducing inequality. The Committee also welcomes the huge progress made by the [Venezuelan government] in the fight against malnutrition through the expansion of the school meals program and the food allowance for low-income families.

    Labor Unrest Is Erupting on Honduran Plantations—And Rattling the Global Supply Chain - Long before Hondurans were demonized by Trump for “bringing chaos” to the southern border, U.S. consumers welcomed truckloads of Honduran-grown fruit, which have for years streamed through regional trade networks dominated by multinational agribusiness. At the same time, agribusiness has helped drive the poverty and social turmoil in farmworker communities, worsening the misery that so many are fleeing en masse.   But in the past few months, a surge of political action has erupted in Honduran plantations, as workers battle for union rights and rattle the global agricultural supply chain.  Melon farmworkers had been pushing for a union contract with the Irish agribusiness Fyffes for more than two years, after the establishment of STAS (El Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares), a branch of the labor federation FESTAGRO. In partnership with the global labor advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the union demanded full compliance with both domestic and international labor laws, accusing the company of systematic minimum-wage violations and denial of social insurance benefits. The campaign was met with fierce resistance from bosses, including blacklisting and retaliatory firing of union organizers. Then last month, Fyffes appeared to relent, agreeing, at least on paper, to begin collective-bargaining negotiations with STAS. Labor activists had hoped that the talks would pave the way for a broad collective bargaining agreement to cover several thousand farmworkers and other staff and contractors at all of Fyffes’s subsidiaries. However, as the February deadline for the start of talks approached, ILRF accused Fyffes of stalling and lagging on a promise to reinstate unfairly dismissed workers. On February 12, ILRF reported that the company had “completely reneged on the agreement” and failed to respond to the workers’ grievances.

    As The Real Estate Market Slows, Canadians Continue To Plunder Equity From Their Homes - Canadians are accelerating the rate at which they borrow cash against their homes, despite the fact that the real estate market is slumping in the country. This exposes the country's financial system to obvious vulnerabilities, according to rating company DBRS and Bloomberg.Home equity lines of credit in Canada reached a record $184.5 billion (USD) as of October 31, which equates to 11.3% of total household credit. This is the highest share since mid 2015, according to a report released last Thursday. Canadians are drawing on their home's equity to fund everything from home renovations to car purchases.And they’re doing it so quickly that borrowing has grown faster than mortgages since 2017. Analyst Robert Colangelo, who published the report on Thursday, commented: “The flexibility of Helocs could increase financial system vulnerabilities. In the event of a correction, borrowers could find themselves with a debt load that exceeds the value of their home, which is often referred to as negative equity.”Obviously, home equity lines of credit can decrease visibility for lenders to identify credit problems as consumers use the equity in their homes to consolidate high interest loans and unsecured debt into one lump sum at a lower rate. Out of all of the Canadian banks, Toronto Dominion bank has the largest exposure to Helocs at about 39%, followed by Royal Bank of Canada which has 18% exposure. Other large banks are averaging 11% exposure, according to the report. And the timing for Helocs to grow couldn't be worse. Toronto’s real estate market continues to feel pain. Sales of new homes in the city fell to the lowest in almost 2 decades in 2018 and a glut of unsold condominiums continue to pile up, according to a Building Industry and Land Development Association report released February 1. Vancouver, still feeling the deflationary effects of a foreign real estate bubble popping, saw home sales fall about 40% in January from the same month a year earlier.

    Callous government policies lead to freezing death of homeless man in Edmonton, Alberta  -- A passerby discovered the frozen body of a homeless man in a park next to an Edmonton subway station February 3. It was one of the coldest nights of the year, with temperatures falling to -37 C. Apart from the statement that the body was that of a man, and that the police believed that his death was “cold related,” there was nothing else said about this person. We do not know if he was young or old, whether or not he had a family, or anything else about his life. Underscoring the authorities’ indifference to the man’s fate, none of the officials interviewed following the death, including Edmonton’s mayor, described it as a tragedy or expressed any remorse. Yet the death was entirely avoidable. It was the result of a callous policy adopted by the city to shut subway stations at night to prevent homeless people from sheltering inside.  To justify this policy, officials complained that they had spent too much money cleaning up the garbage left behind by homeless people seeking shelter and were having to hire security guards to make sure that no violence broke out.  Officials also absurdly advised homeless people that if they could not make it to a shelter independently, they could call the police, who would transport them to one.

     Global Trade Pain Stings Export Economies From Japan to Germany - From Japan to Germany, from economic numbers to profit warnings, there’s no shortage of evidence that the world is feeling the pain of a slump in trade. In Asia, South Korea and Japan reported declines in exports, while European powerhouse Germany is seeing manufacturing shrink the most in six years. Shipping giant Maersk said Thursday that profit will fall short of expectations, and Chief Executive Soren Skou said the outlook for this year is bleaker. A UBS tracker puts global growth at the weakest in a decade, and the worries have overwhelmed central bankers. On Wednesday, minutes of the Federal Reserve’s last policy meeting highlighted slower growth in China and Europe, trade disputes and complications from Brexit. The European Central Bank will publish the account of its January meeting later on Thursday, and some officials have already laid the groundwork for a policy response in March. That could include new long-term loans for banks and a change to their language on the outlook for interest rates. “Uncertainty is the big buzzword for central banks,” Carsten Brzeski, ING Diba chief economist, said on Bloomberg Television. “Maybe if all these external risks turn out benign, then we might see another move by the Fed, another attempt by the ECB to normalize. But judging from today, the probability that all these risks will have a benign outlook is pretty low.” Bond markets around the world have responded to the weaker outlook. The average yield on securities in the Bloomberg Barclays Global-Aggregate Index fell this week to the lowest since April, and Japanese bond yields dropped to two-year lows Thursday.

      World's Largest Shipping Company Warns 2019 Global Economic Outlook Is Worse Than 2018 - Denmark's shipping Maersk is the world's largest shipping company, and it is thus safe to say that what it sees in terms of global trade is indicative of real trade conditions around the globe. Which is bad news, because in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday, shortly after reported dismal earnings, CEO Soren Skou said the global economic outlook for this year is looking bleaker than in 2018, which is affecting his business. Skou said other factors impacting Maersk include the rising oil price, which affects input costs, adding that he sees no good reason why the price of oil might drop. The reason behind Skou's pessimism is that trade tensions had led to a lot of front-loading of trade in 2018, and that effect is now disappearing, which means that the fallout of trade tensions will be far bigger this year, even as the balance between supply and demand in the industry is improving. Earlier in the day, Maersk reported full year earnings, with the company's forecast EBITDA for 2019 understandably, coming in weak, and in fact the guidance missed the lowest analyst estimate, and now sees 2019 EBITDA of only $4 billion, far below the consensus estimate of $4.77 billion (range $4.11 billion to $5.40 billion). The historical data was mixed, with full year 2018 EBITDA printing at $3.81 billion, below the $3.83 billion expected, while revenue of $39 billion was slightly above the estimated $38.82 billion; meanwhile the company's underlying profit was $220 million, also below the estimate of $291.1 million.

    S&P Warns Global Sovereign Debt Will Top $50 Trillion This Year - It has been one week since the US Treasury revealed that the national debt had topped $22 trillion (only 11 months after it had topped the $21 trillion threshold). And as the US budget deficit shows no signs of shrinking thanks to the Trump tax cuts and the death of the Obama-era budget sequester that has allowed for an expansion of federal spending (with more presumably on the way once the Trump infrastructure plan comes into focus), S&P warned on Thursday that worldwide sovereign debt could reach $50 trillion this year.  According to Reuters, S&P predicted that governments will borrow some $7.78 trillion this year, up 3.2% since 2018 (the US will constitute more than $1 trillion of that all by itself). That's a 6% increase in the total debt pile from the year before.Most of this borrowing will be rolling over long-term debt."Some 70 percent, or $5.5 trillion, of sovereigns’ gross borrowing will be to refinance maturing long-term debt, resulting in an estimated net borrowing requirement of about $2.3 trillion, or 2.6 percent of the GDP of rated sovereigns,” said S&P Global Ratings credit analyst Karen Vartapetov.Governments, like corporations and individuals, took advantage of low interest rates around the world to step up borrowing in the wake of the financial crisis. Now, with borrowing costs expected to rise, these long-term burdens will become more burdensome to service. And with central banks slowly beginning to allow their inflated balance sheets to run off...

    Researchers Found, Tracked, And Tricked NATO Troops for $60 - Enemies can use social media to not only inexpensively find and target NATO forces — but also manipulate them, new research has concluded. Researchers with NATO's Strategic Communications Center of Excellence used open source data, primarily social media, to successfully identify 150 soldiers, locate multiple battalions, track troop movements, and even convince service members to leave their posts and engage in other "undesirable behavior" during a military exercise, Wired reported Monday, citing a StratCom report. And they did it for only $60, demonstrating how easy it is for an aggressor to target NATO with data available online. The researchers used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other popular social media sites to find valuable information, particularly exploitable information, "like a serviceman having a wife and also being on dating apps," researcher Nora Biteniece explained. It is unclear which forces were targeted.  "Every person has a button. For somebody there's a financial issue, for somebody it's a very appealing date, for somebody it's a family thing," Janis Sarts, the director of NATO's StratCom, told Wired. "It's varied, but everybody has a button. The point is, what's openly available online is sufficient to know what that is."  The Russians, NATO's primary adversary, are particularly skilled at this type of information warfare, which has shown up in the Ukraine. "The Russians are adept at identifying Ukrainian positions by their electrometric signatures," U.S. Army Col. Liam Collins wrote in Army Magazine last summer. "In one tactic, soldiers receive texts telling them they are 'surrounded and abandoned.' Minutes later, their families receive a text stating, 'Your son is killed in action,' which often prompts a call or text to the soldiers," he wrote, according to Task & Purpose. "Minutes later, soldiers receive another message telling them to 'retreat and live,' followed by an artillery strike to the location where a large group of cellphones was detected."The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that the Russians were hacking the cellphones of NATO soldiers to "gain operational information, gauge troop strength and intimidate soldiers."

    ‘Irritated’ by Russia, US Admiral Sends Warship to Black Sea — In November, a maritime incident saw Ukrainian boats enter Russian territorial waters without permission, leading to their capture and detention of their crew. US Admiral James Foggo says he is ‘irritated’ by that To that end, the admiral has ordered the USS Donald Cook, a destroyer, to enter the Black Sea and conduct naval exercises with Ukraine to “demonstrate solidarity” with what remains of the nation’s very limited navy.   In practice, this is just the latest in a long series of US military escalations targeting Russia, and even if a single US destroyer is no practical naval threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it’s another US show of force. The Trump Administration already endorsed Ukraine over the November incident, though they also said they didn’t expect to launch a war against Russia over it. Why, months later, they’ve decided to send a warship is unclear, but it continues to trend of hostility in the vicinity of Russia.

    Danske Bank pulls out of Russia, Baltics after money-laundering backlash (Reuters) - Danske Bank will pull out of Russia and the neighboring Baltic states, the Danish lender said after Estonia ordered it to close the branch at the center of one of the largest-ever money laundering scandals. Danske is under investigation in Denmark, Estonia, Britain and the United States over some 200 billion euros ($226 billion) in payments from Russia, ex-Soviet states and elsewhere that were found to have flowed through its Estonian arm. On Tuesday, Estonia’s financial regulator took the unexpected step of demanding Danske close its local branch and repay customers’ deposits within eight months, overturning the lender’s plan to scale back but keep business in the country. Danske said last year it hoped to serve subsidiaries of Nordic customers in the Baltics. It made an about-turn minutes after the announcement from Estonia’s regulator, publishing a statement to say it would close down its business in Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Estonia. Danske’s operations in those four countries earned 657 million Danish Crowns ($100 million) of income, according to its 2018 annual report. In ordering Danske to leave Estonia, Kilvar Kessler, the head of Estonia’s regulator Finantsinspektsioon, was heavily critical of the bank and deflected blame onto Denmark for mishandling the case. Kessler said the bank’s alleged flouting of money-laundering rules had “dealt a serious blow” to the reputation of the Estonian financial market. The Estonian regulator was “the only institution in Estonia or Denmark to react to the activities of Danske Bank”, Kessler said, reflecting rising tensions with Denmark over who is responsible for the scandal.

    Erdogan Says EU not Taking Turkey Because it is a Muslim Country – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the European Union is not accepting Turkey into the bloc because Turkey is a Muslim country, Turkish media reported. “I am now revealing the reason why they [the EU] is not taking Turkey in. I am saying it openly, there is only one reason: We are Muslim, they won’t take us because we are Muslim,” Erdoğan said in an interview in a joint program on pro-government TV stations ATV and A Haber.Turkey began negotiations for full membership in the EU in 2005. Progress was slow, and out of the 35 chapters necessary to complete the accession process only 16 had been opened and one had been closed by May 2016.Since 2016 when Turkey experienced a failed coup attempt in July and the Turkish government launched a massive crackdown on mostly ordinary citizens under the pretext of an anti-coup fight, accession negotiations have stalled.  The EU has accused and criticized Turkey for human rights violations and deficits in the rule of law. During the interview, Erdoğan also talked about the long queues in front of municipal produce stands established by the Turkish government to sell produce at lower prices in the wake of skyrocketing food prices, and said they are a sign of wealth. Some Turks who spoke to various news outlets while waiting in line expressed satisfaction with the fact that they can get food at relatively cheap prices although they sometimes have to wait for hours, while others criticized the government for taking the country back decades when people had to stand in a queue for hours to get oil or gas.

    Shrinking euro zone factories drag bloc's economy to near-halt (Reuters) - Factories across the euro zone unexpectedly shunted into reverse this month as activity in manufacturing powerhouse Germany declined again amid trade tensions and struggles in the auto sector, surveys showed. While that downturn was offset by a much faster than expected acceleration in services activity - which meant overall private sector growth picked up modestly - it will likely worry policymakers as factories also drive the bloc’s dominant service industry. IHS Markit’s Flash Composite Purchasing Managers’ Index, which is seen as a good guide to economic health, rose to 51.4 this month from a final January reading of 51.0, above a Reuters poll median expectation for 51.1 but still below where it has been for much of the past four years. “This does not mean that growth worries are over as the manufacturing output index dropped to below 50, signalling contraction for euro zone industry for the first time in almost six years,” said Bert Colijn at ING. The flash manufacturing PMI tumbled to 49.2 this month, its lowest since mid-2013 and substantially below the 50-mark that separates growth from contraction. A Reuters poll had predicted a modest dip to 50.3 from January’s final reading of 50.5. The lowest forecast in the poll of 38 economists was 49.6. An index measuring output, which feeds into a composite PMI, dropped to 49.2 from 50.5, its lowest reading since May 2013. In a further sign of how manufacturers are struggling, the new orders index fell to a near six-year low of 46.2 from 47.8. Adding to that gloomy picture, factories ran down old orders faster while also building up a stock of completed products. In France, the bloc’s second biggest economy, business activity shrank marginally as manufacturing growth helped offset slack in services that has dogged firms in the wake of anti-government protests. But Germany’s vast manufacturing sector contracted for a second month. That comes only weeks before Britain, Europe’s second-largest economy, is due to leave the European Union, uncertainty around the U.S.-China trade war continues and new pollution standards are still affecting car makers.

    Italian Senate Blocks Kidnapping Investigation Into Salvini -- Five Star Movement lawmakers overcame their reservations about impeding investigations into politicians and on Tuesday voted to block an investigation into Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini - the leader of M5S's coalition partner - over allegations that he "kidnapped" 177 undocumented migrants last summer when he refused to let them disembark from a ship in a Sicilian port for five days. The Senate's Immunity Committee would have needed to lift Salvini's immunity for the investigation to proceed. Instead, it voted to back immunity for Salvini. The vote resolves what had become a serious source of tension between the two coalition partners, even prompting some of Salvini's allies to publicly push their leader to call for fresh elections to try and oust M5S and take advantage of the League's rising popularity.The investigation into Salvini was initiated in August by a Sicilian prosecutor. Salvini has publicly mocked the probe, saying it would be "an honor" to go to prison for defending Italy's borders."If he wants to interrogate me or even arrest me because I defend the borders and security of my country, I’m proud...Being investigated for defending the rights of Italians is a disgrace," Salvini said at the time. The Diciotti crisis, named in reference to the rescue vessel that carried the migrants, began on Aug.15 when 190 migrants fleeing Eritrea were rescued from an overcrowded boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Salvini refused to allow them to disembark at a Sicilian port. After allowing 43 unaccompanied minors and some in need of urgent medical care off the ship, Salvini and his ministry refused to allow the rest to disembark, purportedly violating EU rule stipulating that migrants detained for more than 48 hours should be released and allowed to apply for asylum.

    Anti-EU Salvini Set To Emerge As Biggest Winner In EU Parliament Elections - Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini's efforts to undermine the EU status quo by rallying a broad coalition of eurosceptic groups during spring elections for the European Parliament are set to pay off big time, according to the first forecast of the expected results released by the chamber on Tuesday. According to the polling, which was cited by the FT, Salvini's League Party is expected to make some of the most striking gains in the May vote, possibly becoming the second-largest party in the assembly after Germany's center right Christian Democratic Union.Mr Salvini’s League is on course to dominate in Italy by winning 32 per cent of the vote and 27 seats, according to the poll. If so, it would be the second-biggest party in the chamber after Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, which is forecast to hold 29 seats, down from 34 in the last election in 2014. The CDU is a mainstay of the European People’s party, the parliament’s main centre-right group. The EPP is predicted to slip from 217 seats to 183 seats, while the centre-left Social Democrat grouping is projected to lose almost one-third of its seats — from 186 to 135. In total, Eurosceptic parties are expected to win 153 seats in the chamber. Though they control the same number now, their share of the votes will climb as the total number of seats in the chamber falls to 705 from 751 to account for the UK's departure. In addition to Salvini’s League, the Eurosceptic faction in the EUP includes Poland’s Law and Justice party, Italy’s Five Star Movement and France’s Rassemblement National. Law and Justice and France's RN have pledged to join forces in the coming parliament. Other Eurosceptic parties including Spain’s far-right Vox and the Dutch Forum for Democracy are expected to win seats in the chamber for the first time.

    France’s class wars - Le Monde Diplomatique - The working class was supposed to have been edged out of active politics, but instead France’s elites have been frightened into making concessions by this winter’s uprising of the yellow vests. Its continuing popularity suggests that it is recasting French politics. rance’s elites have not felt such fear in half a century, and it’s not the usual fear of losing an election, failing to ‘reform’ or seeing their shares slide on the stock market, but fear of insurrection, revolt, and loss of power. The street protests on 1 December 2018 caused some to feel a sudden chill. As BFM TV’s star news anchor Ruth Elkrief shuddered: ‘The most urgent thing is for people to go home.’ The channel was showing footage of yellow vest protesters determined to claim a better life for themselves. A few days later, a journalist from the pro-business daily L’Opinion revealed on TV that ‘all the big industrial groups are going to give out bonuses, because they were really scared for a time that their heads would end up on stakes. So after that terrible Saturday when all the damage was done [1 December], the big firms called Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, the head of Medef [France’s largest employers’ federation], and told him to “drop everything! Drop it all, or else...” They felt physically threatened.’ On the same programme, the head of a polling organisation claimed top bosses were ‘actually very worried’ and said that the atmosphere reminded him of similar events in 1936 and 1968 that he had read about: ‘There comes a time when you say to yourself, “You have to be able to give away large sums to avoid losing what’s most important”’ (1). At the time of the Popular Front (1936-8), Benoît Frachon, head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), reported that during negotiations at Matignon, the French prime minister’s residence, bosses had ‘given in across the board’ after a bout of unofficial strikes and factory occupations.

    Act XIV: Will this be the last Saturday of ‘yellow vest’ protests in France? It’s almost three months since the “yellow vest” Saturday protest movement began and, although attendance numbers drop every weekend, there are still a number of protests planned across France for February 16. In Paris an event dubbed “Act 14- France at peace” will take place at 1pm on Saturday, although the meeting point has not yet been decided. "How many more dead, wounded and mutilated victims must there be on each side? Let’s stop the hostility," write the organizers, inviting the "yellow vests" to remain "united and peaceful" as well as "avoid violent groups". However two other rallies posted as events on Facebook are calling for an “insurrection” this Saturday, suggesting that not all voices in the yellow movement want the marches to be violence-free. “It’s time to make ourselves heard, FORGET PACIFISM!” reads the post for the late morning protest in Place de l’Etoile. The southern city of Bordeaux is also expecting another weekend of protest and violence now that anti-capitalism group “black block” is set to join a demo called for 1pm Saturday at the city’s Place de la Bourse. The anarchist group, responsible for some of the violent incidents that have plagued recent gilets jaunes protests in the capital of Gironde, posted their participation on a Facebook group called “black yellow”, in which they also called for the yellow vests and the black blocks to join forces. A “yellow night” march is also planned to start at Paris's Place de la République from 5pm onwards. .

    French Schools Replace Mother And Father With Parent 1 And Parent 2 -- In the latest example of political correctness run amok in Europe, the French National Assembly this week passed an education reform bill which included a controversial amendment to replace all instances of the words 'mother' and 'father' on official school-related paperwork with the 'gender neutral' phrases "Parent 1" and "Parent 2".The bill, which was championed by President Emmanuel Macron's party, will also make school attendance mandatory for all three-year-olds."This amendment aims to root in law children's family diversity in administrative forms submitted in school," said REM minister Valérie Petit."We have families who find themselves faced with tick boxes stuck in rather old-fashioned social and family models. For us, this article is a measurement of social equality."While the changes were made ostensibly to stop discrimination against same-sex parents, according to the Christian Post, the measure has been attacked by conservatives and liberals alike. Even the French education minister opposed the amendment. In a sign of just how fraught with controversy this provision has become, even the president of the French association for same-sex parents has criticized the decision, arguing that it could create a "parental hierarchy". However, it is not just conservatives who question the effectiveness of the new legislation. Alexandre Urwicz president of the AFDH, the French association for same sex parents, worries that the legislation could create a “parental hierarchy.""Who is ‘parent number 1’ and who is ‘parent number 2’?" he asks, adding that perhaps the less controversial "father, mother and legal representative," be used instead. Conservatives denounced the suggestion that the terms "mother" and "father" are old fashioned, and one lawmaker pointed out that in modern France, more than 95% of civil unions are between same-sex couples, RT reported. Other conservatives insisted that they would work to repeal the bill if and when their party returns to power.

    France’s President Macron ‘will give legally-binding assurance that Irish Brexit backstop is only temporary in bid to help Theresa May win Brexit battle’ Emmanuel Macron is set to give Theresa May a legally-binding assurance that the Irish Brexit backstop is only temporary. The French President has reportedly softened his line following an eleventh-hour bid by the EU to help get the withdrawal agreement finalised next month. Attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whose previous legal advice suggested the backstop could be used to keep Britain in the customs union could, crucially, be persuaded to change his view if enough legal assurances are given, senior EU diplomats believe. 'There will be sufficient changes to allow Mr Cox to give a pass to the agreement,' a veteran European ambassador told The Times. Mr Cox and Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay are expected in Brussels on Monday for talks with Michel Barnier, the EU's lead negotiator. While the prime minister will then engage is more talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president. However, a senior government source said an imminent breakthrough is unlikely, and indicated Theresa May would instead ask for more time when the Commons debates Brexit on March 1. Despite it's willingness to negotiate a new legally binding assurance, diplomats did urge that there are limitations on what could be offered because of the risk to the Irish prime minister's minority government.

    Nearly a third of French people think Britain has already left the EU, poll finds - Nearly a third of people in some European countries think Brexit has already happened and that Britain has left the EU, according to polling from across the continent. A survey by Populus found that 28 per cent of both French and Italian people believe the UK has already left the bloc. Meanwhile, 12 per cent of Germans also believe Britain departed some time ago, and two per cent of British people themselves make the same mistake. The study, commissioned by the broadcaster Euronews, underlines the lack of attention being paid across the continent to the Brexit process – despite UK pretensions to being the centre of attention. Theresa May has made a habit of arriving at meetings of EU leaders supposedly dedicated to other matters, and demanding to discuss Brexit with them.

    No-deal Brexit: Country by country guide to how the rights of Britons will be affected - With the UK parliament still gridlocked on how to find a compromise on Brexit, the likelihood of Britain exiting the European Union without a deal grows by the day. Here's what that would mean for Brits in each country. Compare your possible future rights with those of Britons elsewhere in the EU..  Should Theresa May's embattled government manage to squeeze the Withdrawal Agreement through the UK parliament, the approximately 1.3 million Britons living in Europe will have their right to reside in their host country, as well as rights to work and access to healthcare, protected by the deal. If, however, the UK stumbles out of the bloc without agreeing a framework for the future relationship, Britons living in EU27 member states will have to rely on the terms offered to remain by their host government. Most countries have already made clear they do plan to offer British citizens some kind of protection of their current rights. Here's a breakdown of the current situation – member state by member state.

    Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights? - Last week a team of volunteers in different parts of France worked late into the night trying to interpret the newly published French law that spells out what will happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit.  The law is hugely important for the lives and futures of 150,000 Brits in France. The volunteers, who form the "citizens rights" team at Remain in France Together (RIFT), put aside their normal lives and got on with the job of providing information to the thousands of anxious Brits who were waiting desperately for news of what their futures might hold if Britain crashes out of the EU in a few weeks' time.These are the same team of volunteers who have spent their own money travelling to Paris to lobby the French government to alert them to the issues Britons are facing across the country.Of course, it's not just in France where unpaid volunteers have taken it upon themselves to explain the impact of Brexit on health cover, driving licenses and residency rights and basically to stick up for the citizens' rights of anxious Britons, whose lives and health have been damaged by nearly three years of limbo.The coalition group British in Europe, with linked campaign groups across the EU, has led the way in campaigning and lobbying from Brussels to London and from Berlin to Strasbourg, meeting with UK and EU politicians to fight for the rights of Britons.In Italy unpaid campaigners from the group British in Italy have actively lobbied the Italian government, which eventually led to Rome becoming the first EU government to guarantee the rights of British citizens in the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Some campaigners say they risk losing their jobs, most say they have already lost their social lives. All have had to dig deep into their savings. But they know that thousands of worried British citizens now look to them for support, information and advice, more than they do their own government.

    EU citizens in the UK and a no-deal Brexit – what remains unclear - The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has been a difficult process to navigate from the start. With time running out to secure a Brexit deal, the British immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, caused confusion in early November, when she appeared not to know the UK government’s plans for EU citizens in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Nokes was asked by Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, how employers were to distinguish between EU citizens who had just arrived, and EU citizens who had been in the UK for years in the event of a no-deal. Nokes replied that there was an expectation on employers to carry out right-to-work checks rigorously. Yet, this would allow employers to determine who was an EU citizen, and also therefore discriminate against them more easily. Nokes’s answer directly contradicted statements issued by the Home Office to EU citizens’ rights campaign groups, which guaranteed that such checks would not be necessary. The confusion caused panic among EU citizens living in the UK. Sajid Javid, the home secretary, had to quickly issue a statement reassuring EU citizens that what Nokes said was, in fact, wrong. Instead, there would be a “transition period” before the right-to-work checks were required. Yet it’s not clear whether this is the same transition period, due to end in December 2020, that the EU and UK set out as part of the Brexit negotiations. So what do we really know about what a no-deal Brexit would mean for EU citizens?

    Too Little, Too Late? Contingency Planning for UK Nationals in Case of a No-Deal Brexit - Following the dramatic defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the UK Parliament this week, all bets are off when it comes to whether the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union on March 29 without a Brexit deal. A no-deal scenario would have seismic ramifications for the legal residence, work rights, benefits and pensions, and health care for nearly 1 million UK nationals living on the continent. But 30 months after the Brexit referendum, and with the hourglass running out on the United Kingdom’s fated departure, EU-27 Member States are finally starting to offer some reassurances on citizens’ rights. Contingency planning regarding citizens’ rights—the status of more than 3 million EU nationals in the United Kingdom, and UK nationals in the European Union—had been shelved, despite considerable consensus on this topic throughout the UK-EU negotiations. This was in part because citizens’ rights were seen as an important bargaining tool by both sides. And the European Commission, keen to avoid breaking the bloc, imposed a moratorium on bilateral discussions with the United Kingdom outside of official negotiations, a prohibition that filtered through to officials in Brussels literally taking pains to avoid each other on the street. Yet with the Brexit Day looming and No. 10 Downing Street and Westminster trapped in mazes of their own making, the European Commission recently has shifted to Plan B, urging Member States to take a "generous" approach to protecting UK nationals in the case of a no-deal Brexit. Until recently, Member States released few details on what their plans would include. France was first to the table with a draft legislative proposal in October that, among other things, would enable Brits working in the French government to avoid a general ban on employment of third-country nationals for certain civil service jobs. In December, Italy announced it would allow all current registered or permanent residents to stay. In early January, the Dutch government published its plans for a 15-month transition period in the case of no-deal, during which all municipally registered British citizens will be able to apply for a national residence permit on the same basis as other EU nationals. And the Spanish government has promised a contingency plan is forthcoming, and in the meantime agreed a partial deal with the UK government on voting rights. It is likely other Member States will follow suit over the coming months.

    Nervous times as crisis grows -Theresa May’s latest Brexit statement means nothing has changed except, of course, it takes us closer to the scheduled exit day with no sign whatsoever of when or how the Brexit chaos is going to be resolved. As a consequence we face a growingbusiness crisis as well as further diminution of Britain’s international reputation. It’s becoming so familiar now that it’s important to keep reminding ourselves how utterly extraordinary it is to have a government so reckless of its basic economic and foreign policy responsibilities to the point of seeming indifference. May repeated all the well-worn phrases she has been trotting out since December but with the addition of a new injunction to ‘hold our nerve’. This might be good advice for a nation facing some terrible external threat but it is an absurdity when applied to an entirely self-inflicted fiasco. The idea seems to be the standard line that EU negotiations ‘always go to the wire’ but this mistakes the Brexit negotiations for standard EU summit talks where there is last-minute horse-trading to get the multiple sides on board. Here, there are two sides and, for all that May speaks as if the negotiations are ongoing, so far as one side is concerned they are over. Moreover, the stakes are far greater for the UK than in any previous negotiations and the costs of brinksmanship to the UK are (already) racking up. Far from giving leverage, this just increases the self-harm of Brexit. That doesn’t mean that there won’t at some late point be a piece of paper produced about the backstop that says the same as has already been agreed but in different language. Very likely there will be, as the well-connected journalist Nick Gutteridge suggests, but it won’t change the fundamental situation.

    Spanish warship ordered ships to leave British waters near Gibraltar (Reuters) - Authorities in Madrid and Gibraltar gave differing versions on Monday of an incident in which a Spanish warship told commercial ships to leave anchorages near Gibraltar, the latest example of tension over the strategic port as Brexit approaches. In toughly worded statements, Gibraltar said a Spanish warship ordered commercial ships to leave anchorages in British waters near Gibraltar, adding it was challenged by the British navy and sailed away, while the commercial ships stayed put. The Spanish government said the commercial ships were in Spanish waters and they left the area after being contacted by the Spanish warship. Neither side mentioned the nationality of the commercial ships. “Anyone who believes in the rules-based international legal order will have been shocked by the cavalier and quixotic actions of the Spanish military vessel at the weekend,” Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, said in a statement. “This childish behavior is unsatisfactory whether it is errant or directed from above,” Picardo said. “The people of Gibraltar won’t be bullied now or after the 29th of March,” he added, referring to the date when Britain is set to leave the European Union.

    Theresa May’s Brexit unity plea shattered by leaked WhatsApp messages Theresa May made a desperate appeal for unity this weekend as a leader of the party’s hardline Eurosceptic wing warned that continuing with her Brexit deal risked splitting the Conservative Party. The prime minister wrote to all 317 Tory MPs yesterday urging them to back her deal by sacrificing “personal preferences” to unite in the “higher service of the national interest”. The letter was sent hours after The Sunday Times received leaked WhatsApp messages revealing that Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the 100-strong European Research Group (ERG), told colleagues that May’s Brexit negotiations with Brussels were a “complete waste of time”. In a message on Friday, Baker said Downing Street and Brussels were pretending to negotiate while “working together to run down the clock to force [May’s] deal through” with few changes. Baker said the ERG had to “insist” that the Irish backstop — an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland that could lock Britain into an indefinite customs union with the EU — be removed from May’s withdrawal agreement. The alternative, according to the leaked messages from Baker, is to “just grind towards a party split”.

    Seaborne ferry fiasco reflects wider problems in government outsourcing -As part of the Government’s attempts to mitigate the impact of a no deal Brexit, the Department for Transport (DfT) awarded a £13.8m ferry contract to a company with no ferries.Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was widely criticised, but this incident is more than a ‘Grayling failing’. It is part of a wider pattern of government failure on procurement and outsourcing, with markets becoming less competitive and the government failing to ensure it has the information it needs to assess companies bidding for contracts. The DfT initially ran the procurement over a weekend. After receiving no compliant bids, it quickly re-ran the process. This time it received three bids, two of which were not compliant. It still awarded contracts to all three bidders, despite Seaborne Freight failing to meet the economic and financial assessment.This rushed procurement was justified by using an ‘extraordinary urgent process’ to bypass normal procurement regulations and the contract was quickly awarded without proper competition. Chris Grayling said the urgency was due to a change in the department’s understanding of disruption at ports. But MPs questioned whether this would stand up in court given that the department has had since March 2017, when Article 50 was triggered, to prepare for ‘no deal’. Nor is Seaborne an isolated case for the DfT. Eurotunnel has submitted a legal challenge on three ferry contracts that the government has awarded, arguing that the procurement process was ‘secretive and flawed’ and that no public notice was issued.

    Flybmi’s Collapse Over Brexit Strands Passengers Across Europe  -- The collapse of British regional airline flybmi over higher fuel prices and Brexit uncertainty has forced stranded passengers across Europe to fend for themselves, without the prospect of help from the U.K. government. The airline filed for administration late Saturday, in effect grounding all 17 regional aircraft and shutting operations in 25 European cities. “It has become impossible for the airline’s shareholders to continue their extensive program of funding into the business, despite investment totaling over 40 million pounds ($52 million) in the last six years,” according to a statement by the carrier, formally known as British Midland Regional Ltd., published on its website. “The challenges, particularly those created by Brexit, have proven to be insurmountable.” The decision by the closely held company is likely to add to pressure on Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, already under fire for signing off on a no-deal Brexit ferry contract with a company that had no ships. Just two days ago, the minister agreed to continue to subsidize flybmi’s route between London and Londonderry in Northern Ireland through 2021.

    Airbus warns of ‘catastrophic’ no-deal Brexit - A top Airbus executive warned today that a no-deal Brexit would be "catastrophic" for the industry, adding that the company has already spent tens of millions of euros preparing for such a scenario.“There is no such thing as a managed ‘no deal,’ it’s absolutely catastrophic for us,” Airbus' Senior Vice President Katherine Bennett told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.“Some difficult decisions will have to be made if there’s no deal ... We will have to look at future investments," she added.Airbus employs 14,000 people across the U.K. Asked where Airbus would relocate production in such a situation, Bennett said that "there's many other countries that dearly love aerospace."She said the company has already spent "tens of millions of euros" preparing for Brexit, including a no-deal scenario, by stockpiling parts, securing IT systems and figuring out employees' future travel arrangements. The company has a backlog of orders for 9,000 aircraft, Bennett said, which means it would be "many, many years" before U.K. employees would be affected in case the company decides to relocate.

    Britain’s richest man quits the UK: Billionaire Brexiteer Sir James Ratcliffe ‘relocates to Monaco in a bid to save £4bn in tax’ - A prominent Brexiteer and Britain's richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is set to quit the United Kingdom in a bid to save billions in tax, it has been reported. The 66-year-old, who was knighted less than a year ago for his services to business and investment, is reportedly planning to save up to £4bn with a move to Monaco. The country - famous for its yacht-lined harbour, upscale casinos and the prestigious Grand Prix motor race - is a well-known tax haven. And Ratcliffe has been working with PwC on a tax avoidance plan, which could also benefit two senior executives at his chemicals company Ineos. That's according to The Sunday Times, which has claimed that Ratcliffe, Andy Currie and John Reece cold all legally share between £1bn and £10bn of tax-free cash. Should the plan go ahead, it could deprive the Treasury of between £400m and £4bn - a move which a source at the newspaper labelled 'egregious', should the upper end be chosen.

     Several Labour MPs about to resign, say party sources A small group of MPs look set to announce their resignations from Labour, senior party sources have said. At least four backbenchers who disagree with the Labour leadership over its handling of Brexit and anti-Semitism are thought likely to break away. They are announcing the formation of a new group in Parliament - the Independent Group. Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson urged those thinking of quitting to "stay and fight their corner". "That is what political parties are," he told BBC Hereford and Worcester. "They are democratic spaces for people to win arguments." He said he had been "hearing rumours of a splinter for about a year now". Anger over the leadership's refusal to get behind calls for another EU referendum, combined with dismay at its handling of anti-Semitism allegations, have led so-called "moderate" MPs already disillusioned with Mr Corbyn's leadership, to consider their future. An event mid-morning concerning the future of British politics can mean only one thing - that after months of mounting worry and concern, some of Labour's backbenchers have made the major decision to leave their party. This doesn't necessarily mean they are about to unveil a new party, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the group will be able to sway much power. This morning's event may see only four or five MPs announce their decision.

    The plan to avert banking chaos in a no-deal Brexit: -  U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is still trying to negotiate a Brexit deal with the European Union that can get through the British Parliament. But as March 29, or Brexit day, approaches, Britain’s financial industry and its regulators have also been preparing for a sudden exit from the EU without an accord or transition period — a so-called no-deal Brexit. Here’s the good news: The U.K. and EU have been rolling out contingency plans to smooth the business of banking and securities trading and avoid a financial catastrophe. Because longstanding working relationships between the City of London financial district and firms on the European continent were built on the rights and privileges inherent in both sides being part of the same jurisdiction. Initial hopes that British firms might maintain full access to the EU through so-called passporting rights, or through a sweeping agreement between regulators, came to nothing, leaving banks and other financial-services companies needing to take a range of smaller measures to be ready for the upcoming divorce. U.K. banks and insurers are getting EU licenses and shifting some operations to one of the bloc’s other 27 countries to ensure they can continue doing business the morning after the U.K. leaves. Five of the largest banks looking to serve continental European customers intend to move 750 billion euros ($846 billion) of balance-sheet assets to Frankfurt, according to people familiar with the matter. That ensures the new operations are sufficiently funded and in line with demands from supervisors such as the European Central Bank.  EU officials in Brussels arranged for the bloc’s firms to be able to continue using critical London-based market infrastructure even if there’s a no-deal Brexit. This includes access to the London Stock Exchange Group Plc’s clearing unit, the most important clearinghouse for the multitrillion-dollar interest-rate swaps market, as well as central securities depositories, which settle trades in equities.  U.K. officials have spent the last year laying out a system of temporary permissions for firms wishing to do business in Britain.  Industry groups are pressing Brussels to allow European firms to continue buying and selling stocks and derivatives on U.K. trading venues, as they do now, no matter what happens with Brexit. The industry wants the same type of broad arrangement for trading venues as clearinghouses have received, to avoid breaking up pools of liquidity.

    Remainer Cabinet ministers tell Theresa May to stop using the threat of No Deal as a negotiating tactic - Four cabinet ministers have demanded the prime minister stop using the threat of a no-deal Brexit as a negotiating tactic, telling Theresa May that businesses and manufacturers now needed to be given certainty. The demand was made in a meeting with the prime minister on Monday by the justice secretary, David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, the business secretary, Greg Clark, and the Scottish secretary, David Mundell. Cabinet sources suggested it would be a key intervention before May’s expected visit to Brussels on Wednesday and described all four as loyalists who were keen to deliver a Brexit deal. The ministers who requested the meeting with May believe that while no deal had once been a sensible negotiating tactic, a number of alarming announcements by businesses and manufacturers over recent weeks meant it was time for the option to be categorically ruled out. Downing Street described it as a “private meeting” and gave no further details, but the discussions are likely to inform the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday. The intervention is likely to set the ministers firmly at odds with rebel Eurosceptics, determined to keep no deal as a viable option. May was defeated in parliament last week at the hands of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who abstained on a government motion because it appeared to rule out a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister is expected to meet the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, on Wednesday, departing for Brussels after prime minister’s questions. Speaking earlier on Monday, May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, said a no-deal Brexit would cause “serious damage to our economy and, I think, put strain on the union of the United Kingdom”. The attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, is expected to set out in a speech this week what changes would be required to eliminate the legal risk of being indefinitely trapped in the Irish backstop, the key sticking point for many of the pro-Brexit rebels. Downing Street hopes that any changes that Brussels can offer will be enough to materially change Cox’s previous legal advice – which they believe would be enough to win over significant numbers of Tory MPs..

    Ireland rejects calls for ‘keyhole surgery’ on Brexit deal - Ireland's deputy prime minister has flatly ruled out any "keyhole surgery" on Theresa May's Brexit deal, as he warned that Brexiteers who support untested alternatives to the Irish backstop were indulging in "wishful thinking". Last week it was reported that EU officials had considered carrying out "keyhole surgery" on the Withdrawal Agreement, with small tweaks made to the text which would reassure British MPs that the backstop was only a temporary measure. But on Monday afternoon, Simon Coveney said Ireland could not allow any changes to be made to the Irish backstop as it was the only way to guarantee that there would not be a hard border in Ireland immediately after Brexit. Asked by reporters whether the "keyhole surgery" proposal would work, Mr Coveney replied: "I don't think there's any appetite across the EU to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and change the text. "Instead what the EU has said is we should look at the Future Relationship declaration for change, if change is wanted or needed there, and also for clarity and reassurance in relation to the temporary nature of the backstop and of course the appetite to avoid the use of the backstop in the first place. "So there are the areas for manoeuvre here, but not I think reopening and renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement."

    Jean-Claude Juncker: Brexit delay beyond EU election is possible - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he could not rule out an extension to Britain's EU membership beyond the European Parliament elections in May. "That to my mind would be an irony of history. Yet I cannot rule it out," Juncker told Stuttgarter Zeitung in an interview. "Any decision to ask for more time lies with the UK. If such a request were to be made, no one in Europe would oppose it," he said. With the Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels comprehensively rejected by MPs in the U.K. parliament last month and political deadlock in Westminster, speculation has increased that the U.K. government will be forced to seek an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period. Without it, there is widespread fear that the U.K. will be forced into a no-deal Brexit. A delay beyond the EU election would very likely mean the U.K. participating in the poll and electing MEPs. Juncker also said he had no fix deadline in mind for how long the exit date could be postponed: "If you are asking for how long the withdrawal can be postponed, I have no timeframe in mind. With Brexit so many timetables have already gone by the wayside." "It is like being before the courts or on the high seas; we are in God's hands. And we can never quite be sure when God will take the matter in hand," he added..

    UK farmers could be unable to export food to EU in event of no-deal Brexit, warns Michael Gove - British farmers might be unable to export any food to the European Union in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Michael Gove has warned. The Environment Secretary told the National Farmers’ Union conference that he remained “optimistic” MPs will back an improved version of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But he said the benefits for farming of leaving the EU would be “put at severe risk” if no agreement is struck with Brussels as he urged NFU members to put pressure on MPs to back the Prime Minister’s deal. Mr Gove, a Brexiteer who played a prominent role in the Leave campaign in the run up to the 2016 EU referendum, issued a stark warning of what a no-deal divorce could mean for farmers.

    Government will use tariffs to protect farming in no deal Brexit The government will apply tariffs to food imports to protect British farmers in a no-deal scenario, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has confirmed. And, contrary to claims by hard Brexiters, he warned that delays were likely in Calais because of mandatory EU checks on food imports on the French side of the channel. The tariff regime Britain would like to apply in the event of no deal will be revealed in the “next few days”. He told the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference in Birmingham that reports that Britain would operate a zero tariff regime in order to secure frictionless trade in a no-deal scenario were “not accurate”. “One thing I can reassure you it will not be the case that we will have zero rate tariffs on products, there will be protections for sensitive sections of agriculture and food production,” Gove said. He later hinted that the tariffs would apply to beef and “particularly” lamb, citing livestock farmers as the most vulnerable in a no-deal scenario. He refused to reassure farmers who pressed him about protection for cereal farmers, suggesting zero tariffs were a possibility in some areas. Urging farmers to petition their MPs to vote for Theresa May’s deal, he said the clear priority was to secure a deal. “The tariffs that will be announced in the event of no deal are not our preferred policy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be taken as the be all and end all of UK policy, absolutely not.” Gove promised British food standards will not be lowered “in pursuit of trade deals” and vowed to minimise the risk that food producers will be left at “competitive disadvantage” in the face of cheaper tariff-free imports that are below EU standards.

    New meaningful vote could be held next week in a bid to see off the threat of more ministerial resignations. Discussions about Brexit at regular European Council meetings have also tended to be relegated to the end of proceedings, with other EU countries’ leaders seeing the issue as a drag. - Theresa May is considering plans to bring forward a vote on her Brexit deal to next week in a bid to see off the threat of resignations by pro-European ministers.The Prime Minister will travel to Brussels on Wednesday to meet Jean Claude-Juncker, the President of the European Commission, where she hopes to secure a breakthrough on a new Brexit deal. Downing Street is now concentrating efforts on agreeing a new legal text stating that the backstop, which would tie Britain to a Customs Union with the EU, cannot be "indefinite".The legal "codicil", which is being drawn up by Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, would impose a time-limit on the customs backstop but stop short of demands by Tory...

    Brexit Accord Is Already Being Hammered Out, Spain Says - A Brexit agreement is already being hammered out in Brussels, according to Spain’s foreign minister, as the bloc seeks reassuring language that can convince British members of Parliament to back the deal. Prime Minister Theresa May is heading back to Brussels on Wednesday, seeking changes to the divorce agreement. Even as European Union leaders are sounding downbeat -- with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker saying Brexit is wasting his time -- Foreign Minister Josep Borrell sees progress being made. A summit in Egypt on Sunday is being touted as a possible opportunity for talks. “I think the accord is being hammered out now, without having to go to Sharm El-Sheikh to do it,” Borrell said in an interview at the ministry’s palace in Madrid. "There’s contact all the time." The pound rose on his comments, and traded at $1.3062 at 5:15 p.m. in London. The EU has repeatedly said it won’t reopen the withdrawal agreement to rewrite the most contentious part of the deal -- the so-called Irish backstop, which seeks to guarantee no new border in Ireland after the split. Instead, they are working on a legal text or legal interpretations that can reassure the U.K. about the risks the backstop poses to Britain’s ability to break free of EU rules long-term. "The EU’s position is that the treaty won’t be reopened, but can be interpreted, or complemented with explanations that may be satisfactory," said the minister, who met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Madrid on Tuesday. Borrell was cautious as to whether what’s on offer will be enough for U.K. politicians. May has sent her most senior legal adviser, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, to talk to officials in Brussels. She’s hoping that if he is satisfied with the changes, he will be able to convince Brexit supporters to back them too. Her aim is to bring a deal back to Parliament as soon as possible, and if she hasn’t done that by Feb. 27, she risks lawmakers wresting control of the whole process from her. May is hoping to be able to show Parliament she’s made significant progress on the backstop by then, a person familiar with her plans said on Wednesday.

    Revealed: How dark money is winning ‘the Brexit influencing game’ The three departing Conservatives MPs pulled no punches. In a joint resignation letter that rocked Westminster on Wednesday, the trio said that the Tories were “in the grip” of the pro-Brexit European Research Group who were “now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal".The ERG is a secretive organisation. No one knows for certain how many members it has. Many already call it a “party within a party”. But when it comes to ideas on Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group of Tory MPs has often looked outside its own ranks. And to one place in particular – the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank that does not declare its funders, and the IEA’s trade advisor, Shanker Singham. Last month, on the same morning that Theresa May’s aides were furiously trying to corral Conservative MPs to back her doomed withdrawal bill vote, active ERG supporter Dominic Raab was holding a press conference in a quiet corner of Westminster outlining an “alternative vision” for leaving the EU. Sitting alongside the former Brexit secretary at a short wooden table was Shanker Singham. Singham, until Brexit an unheralded trade lawyer who had spent most of his career in the US, was on stage again this month at another Westminster press conference. This time another one-time Brexit secretary, David Davis, was telling journalists that Britain could do a minimal deal with the EU then cut all tariffs to zero on goods, agricultural and food products. The proposals were Singham’s.

    May and Juncker dive into Brexit fine print - Brexit, and the leaders trying to make it happen in an orderly fashion, have now entered the realm of fine print and minutiae. But they still don’t have a deal. After a meeting Wednesday evening, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a joint statement pledging to continue exploring “alternative arrangements” to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop and “legal assurance” about its temporary nature. Notably, the statement focused on changes to the Political Declaration, the non-legally binding document that accompanies the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement. It is still unclear how far May and Juncker's negotiators will get. Officials said the process is inching forward — and in focusing on the Political Declaration it appears that May has taken a crucial step in acknowledging that the Withdrawal Agreement agreed in November would not be reopened. That is significant because May's Brexiteer backbenchers and the Democratic Unionist Party MPs who support her government have been adamant publicly that only changes to the legally binding document itself will suffice to bring them on board. The so-called Brady amendment, which was narrowly passed by the House of Commons and launched the prime minister's efforts to renegotiate the backstop, specified that it should be replaced by "alternative arrangements." In their statement, the two leaders said they explored “which guarantees could be given with regard to the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature and give the appropriate legal assurance to both sides” and they “reconfirmed their commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and to respect the integrity of the EU’s internal market and of the United Kingdom.”

    Jeremy Corbyn heads to Brussels to give EU his vision of a Brexit deal Jeremy Corbyn is in Brussels for talks with EU leaders, claiming he will work with other political parties to prevent a no-deal Brexit.The talks take place 24 hours after Theresa May's latest meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.During his visit the Labour leader, who has accused Mrs May of trying to blackmail MPs, met the Commission's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, secretary general Martin Selmayr and the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt. Mr Corbyn said in advance he planned to discuss options for breaking the Brexit deadlock and to make clear to the Brussels team that there is no majority in the Commons for a no-deal outcome. But to the dismay of pro-Remain MPs campaigning for a second referendum, including the eight Labour MPs who left the party this week, Mr Corbyn had no plans to discuss the prospect of a so-called People's Vote. Accompanied by the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti and the shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, he said they would discuss Labour's proposals for finding a way through the Brexit deadlock. "The Conservative government is running down the clock in an attempt to blackmail parliament into accepting Theresa May's bad deal over a chaotic no-deal," said Mr Corbyn ahead of the trip.

    A divided Labour could hand the Tories another 12 years of power In September 2016, the Labour party reached a turning point but then failed to turn. The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader with an increased majority, despite the opposition of two thirds of his own MPs, seemed to make a split inevitable. But it wasn’t until this week that Labour MPs found the nerve to leave the party and begin to form a new one: the Independent Group. Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey all quit citing various aspects of Corbyn’s leadership as their reason for going. Then on Tuesday night, Joan Ryan followed suit. On Wednesday morning, three Tory MPs — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen — joined them. The rebels want to realign British politics, challenge Brexit and stop Corbyn from becoming prime minister. Their success or failure will go a long way to determining the future of this country. The first thing to say about this split is that it is not a rupture. This is far from the unilateral declaration of independence by the Parliamentary Labour Party that was talked about in the early days of Corbyn’s leadership. Instead, it is a breakaway made up of less than 4 per cent of all Labour MPs and three Remainer Tories. But it is now much simpler to set up a new political party than it was in the 1980s. The success of Vote Leave shows how technology can help a political movement to get going. The biggest problem for this group, though, may well be that it defines the centre ground as being economically and socially liberal while the electorate’s view is very different. Voters are often more socially conservative and more heterodox in their views on the economy. The danger for the group is that it tries to party like it’s 1999, when voters have other ideas.

    Antisemitism: no justification for singling out Labour -Information on the precise number of reported allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party has just been made public.[1] This data has confirmed that previous media attacks on Labour have been grossly exaggerated.[2]Headlines that proclaimed a belief that there was ‘no safe place for Jews in Corbyn’s Labour’, or that Labour needed, in the words of Marie van de Zyl, when Vice President the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to “drain the cess-pit of antisemitism”, have been shown to be totally contradicted by the evidence.We discover that there have been reports of antisemitic abuse from a very small minority of Labour members, but no justification at all for the claims of it being rampant!I have challenged such statements before, these now often taken-as-truth assumptions in much of the mainstream media, that only Labour had a particular “problem with antisemitism”.But following the release of figures by Jennie Formby, General Secretary of the Labour Party, last week, we are now in a position to make a further analysis.

    With 37 days until Brexit, why are UK politicians defecting? -A flurry of defections by MPs from the United Kingdom's two main political parties has raised the prospect of a realignment in British politics as the clock ticks towards the deadline for the country to leave the European Union.The breakaway "Independent Group" created by 11 MPs from both the opposition Labour and ruling Conservative parties threatens to upend the normal rules of politics as divisions over Brexit deepen.  Nonetheless, the development does not change the parliamentary arithmetic - and Brexit remains on schedule to take place on March 29 unless MPs force Prime Minister Theresa May to delay.Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University London, told Al Jazeera: "These resignations are a crack in the dam and we might see a trickle, to begin with, but then again dams can burst quite quickly.""We know both parties are polarised, there is a gap among voters, neither party seems particularly competent and neither is seen as having the national interest at heart - so there is actually a lot of space for politicians who can convince people that they do."For the Labour MPs it was anti-semitism first, and then Brexit; for the Conservative MPs it is about Brexit, and about it undoing the modernisation of the Conservative Party. David Jeffery, lecturer in British politics at the University of LiverpoolThe resignations began on Monday when seven Labour MPs quit. Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey were on the right of the party and hostile to changes under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. They were followed on Wednesday by an eighth MP, Joan Ryan.Then MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston left the Conservatives on Wednesday saying the party had been hijacked by hardline advocates of Brexit who were "destroying" efforts to modernise it.For some time analysts have been predicting splits of this kind as divisions over Brexit create new tensions in British politics. The MPs' reasons for defecting will be a key factor that determines the fate of this new, independent grouping and whether it moves to form a new party.

    Britain’s impossible futures - Paul Mason  - The UK parliament is at an impasse, the latest vote producing a majority for a renegotiation of its departure from Europe that the EU cannot grant. Both main parties risk fracture. So does the UK. - A woman harasses Brazilian skateboarders on a London street, demanding they stop speaking ‘Brazilian’. The confrontation, emblematic in its stupidity, goes viral on Twitter on 29 January. The chief executives of major supermarkets, plus McDonalds and KFC, warn of significant supply disruptions if there is a No Deal Brexit. The government admits on 27 January that it has contingency plans to introduce martial law to avoid ‘death in the event of food and medical shortages’. On the night of 29 January, Britain’s parliament votes for something it cannot enact: Conservatives, Ulster Unionists and a few opposed to immigration from the right of the Labour party combine to demand that the EU make changes to a deal the British government had agreed last November. EU leaders immediately emphasise that no eleventh-hour renegotiation is possible.If a hostile power had scripted Brexit, this is how they would have written its final act. Unfortunately, the British people have scripted it for themselves (1). How did we get to this pinnacle of unreality? Because the UK’s political class has fragmented over issues that are too fundamental to be contained by the party system, and because much of the ideological glue that held British civil society together for two generations no longer sticks.

    EU Expects May to Request Three-Month Delay to Brexit - The European Union expects U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to be forced to request a three-month delay to Brexit, two EU officials said.Discussions between the two sides suggest May will ask for an extension to the two-year negotiating period if the British Parliament backs the Brexit deal but it isn’t signed off until an EU summit on March 21-22. That is emerging as the EU’s current plan.The EU sees this as a “technical extension” to give British Parliament time to pass necessary legislation related to its departure from the bloc. Anything longer than three months would put the U.K. under pressure to take part in European elections on May 23-26, something that both sides are keen to avoid. May is racing against the clock to change a controversial part of her deal, known as the "backstop," in a way that would be acceptable to both the U.K. Parliament and the EU. However, with just five weeks to go until the U.K.’s scheduled departure from the EU and talks at an impasse, ministers and lawmakers in her own party are threatening to vote against her next week to give Parliament control of the process. The prime minister has repeatedly spoken out against a delay, saying she wants to take the U.K. out of the EU as scheduled at the end of March. She’s never completely ruled it out, however. Any postponement would have to be requested by the U.K. and accepted by all the remaining 27 EU governments.EU officials say the three-month extension would happen under their most optimistic scenario. The risk remains that the U.K. could leave the bloc March 29 without a deal. Alternatively, May could be forced to contemplate a longer delay if she can’t get backing for the agreement, according to one official.

    Juncker- I’ve got Brexit fatigue - Even Jean-Claude Juncker's had enough of Brexit.The European Commission president said Thursday he is suffering from "Brexit fatigue."Juncker, who held talks with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday evening, told members of the European Economic and Social Committee he is "not very optimistic" that a no-deal Brexit could be avoided."If no deal were to happen, and I cannot exclude this, this would have terrible economic and social consequences in Britain and on the Continent, so my efforts are oriented in a way that the worst can be avoided. But I am not very optimistic when it comes to this issue,” he said."In the British parliament every time they are voting, there is a majority against something, there is no majority in favor of something,"   He added: "I have something like a Brexit fatigue ... This is a disaster."

    Theresa May must go in three months, cabinet ministers say Cabinet ministers will make it clear they believe Theresa May should step down after the local elections in May and allow a new leader to deliver the next phase of the Brexit negotiations, the Guardian understands. Senior figures in government have suggested they want the prime minister to leave shortly after the first phase of the Brexit negotiations finishes – or risk being defeated in a vote of no confidence at the end of the year. May wants to stay in place for long enough after Brexit to secure a political legacy beyond the fraught negotiations. But some ministers believe she should announce the timeline for her departure “on a high” after the local election results, paving the way for a Conservative leadership contest over the summer. Brexiters in the cabinet are keen to see a new leader take over for the next stage of the negotiations with the EU, which May has already pledged will involve more active involvement for politicians rather than advisers.

    Brexit: Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke issue delay warning Brexit should be delayed if Parliament does not approve a deal in the coming days, three cabinet ministers have warned publicly for the first time. Ahead of crucial votes in the Commons, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke told the Daily Mail they would be prepared to defy Theresa May and vote for a delay. Downing Street said the trio's views on no deal were "scarcely a secret". Conservative Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen called on them to resign. "They are rejecting government policy and they are threatening to vote against government policy next week," the MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "In that case, they should do the honourable thing and resign from the government immediately." Number 10 said in a statement: "The PM is working hard to ensure we get a deal with the EU that allows us to deliver on the result of the referendum. "That is where the cabinet's energy should be focused." Earlier, Mrs May's spokeswoman said the PM would have another "period of engagement" on Brexit at an EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt - including a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk.

    Government ‘May Have Relied On Google Maps’ To Draw Up No-Deal Brexit Port Plans Emergency plans to tackle no-deal Brexit chaos at UK ports are so “very basic” transport chiefs stand accused of using Google Maps to draw them up. Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, made the startling allegation to HuffPost UK as he slammed “simplistic” proposals the government has drawn up for maritime chiefs. Bosses at Dover and Portsmouth are braced for potential ferry gridlock amid fears crashing out of the EU on March 29 could lead to food and medicine shortages. He has written to transport secretary Chris Grayling citing particular concerns about Portsmouth, which could be used as an overflow port should Kent be overwhelmed. Calling on Grayling’s department to make “robust efforts” to use “on the ground” information, Ballantyne said some ports have been “alarmed” at planners’ assumptions and fear Whitehall experts simply relied on Google Maps.

    In Serious Blow To US, Britain Concludes Huawei Is Manageable Risk To 5G Rollout - Following intense pressure from the US on its European allies to boycott the use of Huawei products in the rollout of next-generation 5G products and shut out the Chinese telecom giant from local markets, Germany was the first nation to rebuke Washington, with Handeslblatt reporting last week that the German government wanted to avoid excluding products offered by Huawei. Now it's the UK's turn.In the latest "serious blow" to US efforts to persuade allies to ban the Chinese supplier from high-speed telecommunications systems, the FT reported that the British government has concluded that it can "mitigate the risk from using Huawei equipment in 5G networks."According to the report, the UK National Cyber Security Centre has determined that "there are ways to limit the risks from using Huawei in future 5G ultra-fast networks" and in doing so it is ignoring escalating US efforts to persuade countries to bar Huawei from their networks on the basis that it could help China conduct espionage or cyber sabotage.The NSA has been sharing more information with allies and partners to underscore the risks, but as reported previously, several European countries, including the UK and Germany, have not been convinced that a ban is warranted.The unprecedented rebuke of the US official stance would “carry great weight” with European leaders, not only because the UK has access to very sensitive US intelligence via its membership in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, but because it is a clear refusal to comply with implied but stern diplomatic demands by the US placed on European nations to further isolate China from its main export market. "Other nations can make the argument that if the British are confident of mitigation against national security threats then they can also reassure their publics and the US administration that they are acting in a prudent manner in continuing to allow their telecommunications service providers to use Chinese components as long as they take the kinds of precautions recommended by the British,” the person said.

    Facebook Has Behaved Like ‘Digital Gangsters,’ U.K. Parliament Report Says  - A new report from British lawmakers on how social media is used to spread disinformation finds that Facebook and other big tech companies are failing their users and dodging accountability."The guiding principle of the 'move fast and break things' culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission," said Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that drafted the report. "We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self regulation must come to an end."The 108-page report is often scathing on Facebook's practices and corporate conduct. The committee's inquiry into disinformation began in September 2017, as revelations emerged that Facebook had been used to spread disinformation during the U.S. presidential election and the U.K. Brexit referendum vote, both in 2016. In March 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and showed how users' data could be harvested and misappropriated. "Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law," the authors write.

    Facebook security app used to ‘spy’ on competitors A report by a Commons committee has detailed Facebook's use of an application to "spy" on users. The cross-party group said that Facebook used its Onavo virtual private network (VPN) app to gather information on competitors. The MPs claim Facebook "intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws". The report, which is more than 100 pages long, also details  the influence of fake news on the site in elections. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee wrote that through the use of Onavo, which was billed as a way to give users an extra layer of security, Facebook could "collect app usage data from its customers to assess not only how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them". The report added: "This knowledge helped them to decide which companies were performing well and therefore gave them invaluable data on possible competitors. They could then acquire those companies, or shut down those they judged to be a threat." A graph the committee includes in the report shows an analysis of data collected with Onavo, detailing how commonly apps were used by Facebook owned and rival services.

    Why a Focus on “Fake News” and Facebook Misses the Internet’s Real Problems – and Solutions -Yesterday morning, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published its long-awaited final report into disinformation and ‘fake news’. The report – which follows a long and at times dramatic investigation – is full of interesting and insightful details about political microtargeting (the targeting of political messaging to relatively small groups of people) and the spread of disinformation.But the report’s myopic focus on one company – Facebook – means that it misses the bigger picture – including the internet’s dominant variety of capitalism.It is of course welcome that attention is being paid to these problems, and there is much in the Committee’s report that’s good. The report is undoubtedly right to find that Britain’s electoral laws are woefully inadequate for the age of the algorithm and are badly in need of reform. Its recommendation that inferences drawn from analysis of other data about people should be more clearly considered to be personal data likewise seems eminently sensible.But there are also clear shortcomings. Focusing on disinformation itself as a target for regulation brings an obvious problem. By calling for interventions based on ‘harmful’ content, the report asks the Government to step into the dangerous territory of regulating lawful political conversations between people. Are private companies to be mandated to police these communications on the Government’s behalf? There are numerous good reasons why this is deeply undesirable (not to mention incompatible with human rights laws). The biggest oversight, however, is in diagnosing disinformation as essentially a problem with Facebook, rather than a systemic issue emerging in part from the pollution of online spaces by the business model that Facebook shares with others: the surveillance and modification of human behaviour for profit.

    Despite the slaughter in Yemen, Britain is still chasing arms sales -- Sunday’s opening ceremony for the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex 2019) in Abu Dhabi, the Middle East’s biggest arms fair, is a decadent and distasteful celebration of militarism and weaponry. Missiles, rifles, tanks, helicopters and warships are on display for anyone that can afford them. More than 100,000 people will attend this week, including representatives from all of the world’s biggest arms companies and military delegates from 57 nations. Among those looking to do business is the UK government, which has sent a team of civil servants to support UK arms company reps in doing as much business as possible. Particularly with the uncertainty of Brexit on the horizon, they will pull out all stops to cement sales.   There is no way of knowing what kind of deals will be discussed, or the kind of weaponry that might be sold as a result. We don’t know how these weapons will be used, or who they will be used against. But the results could be devastating. There is no shortage of UK arms in the Middle East. With rising military budgets, it is an important region for the arms trade. In 2017 it accounted for more than two-thirds of all UK arms sales. It’s been eight years since the Arab spring uprisings. UK-made weapons were implicated in the violence, particularly in Libya where UK contractors were upgrading Gaddafi’s tanks on the eve of the uprising, and Egypt where UK-made teargas was turned on protesters. No lessons were learned, and there has been a significant increase in arms sales to many of the regimes. Since the uprisings began, and, despite the atrocities that have taken place, the UK has licensed a further £200m worth of arms to Egypt, and £100m worth to Bahrain. The sales include rifles, ammunition, armoured vehicles and a host of other deadly weaponry. The impact of UK arms sales is most strongly felt in Yemen, where UK-made fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the ongoing war. For almost four years now the Saudi Arabian-led coalition has used them to inflict the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 60,000 people have been killed, and yet the arms sales continue unabated. Last week a House of Lords committee chaired by a former Conservative cabinet member told the government that these arms sales are illegal. Weapons sales can never be apolitical. They don’t just provide military support, they also send a clear endorsement and have gone hand in hand with a fawning and uncritical political support for the regimes. This was evident last March when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was welcomed to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. Prince Mohammed was hailed by Theresa May and her ministers as a force for liberalism, but not a word was said about the people being bombed in Yemen, or those tortured, abused and executed by his regime.

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