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Saturday, February 16, 2019

week ending Feb 16

 Fed's Balance Sheet To Shrink By Whopping $43.5BN Today --  As we wrote on Wednesday, despite the Fed's verbal assurances that its balance sheet is no longer on auto pilot, QT continues unabated for now, and most importantly, and as per the Nomura (settlement) schedule below, more imminent unwind events are expected, with a major one as soon as today.  Furthermore, contrary to what Fed's Loretta Mester claimed earlier this week namely that the December turbulence was not the result of the Fed's balance sheet shrinkage, empirical data suggests otherwise as the next chart from Nomura shows: All this is relevant because while stocks today are soaring higher on deteriorating economic data and "trade talk" optimism, keep a close eye on market action in the last two hours of trading when today's liquidity event is set to come to a head. Indeed, as the Fed reminds us, today's "reverse POMO" is a whopper, with some $43.5BN in US Treasurys on the Fed's balance sheet set to mature, which means the Fed will allow $23.3BN of excess liquidity to shrink. Previewing today's major balance sheet runoff, Nordea writes that "whether we have looked at it daily or weekly, it looks as if SOMA days can be good news for the USD," adding that "the bigger the shrink, the larger the negative effect on equities and the greater positive effect on the USD."Furthermore, the bank points out that "of the seven weeks when the balance sheet has shrunk by more than 20BN, the dollar has weakened twice – but then by less than 0.1% on the week (Wednesday to Wednesday)," adding that "the weekly QT patterns thus suggest a move higher in the USD between Wednesday February 13 and Wednesday February 20, given the hefty SOMA day on February 15."As for whether today's whopper of "reverse POMO" will impact stocks, keep a close eye on the market action starting around 2pm, when the drain is set to be digested. If indeed the market is "liquidity constrained" as so many analysts said in December, forcing the Fed to abandon its "autopilot" balance sheet policy, it is then that the biggest risk for equities will emerge.

Should We Really Not Worry About The Fed’s Balance Sheet? - Bill Dudley, who is now a senior research scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Economic Policy Studies and previously served as president of the New York Fed and was vice-chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee, recently penned an interesting piece from Bloomberg stating:“Financial types have long had a preoccupation: What will the Federal Reserve do with all the fixed income securities it purchased to help the U.S. economy recover from the last recession? The Fed’s efforts to shrink its holdings have been blamed for various ills, including December’s stock-market swoon. And any new nuance of policy — such as last week’s statement on “balance sheet normalization” — is seen as a really big deal.I’m amazed and baffled by this. It gets much more attention than it deserves.”I find this interesting. A quick look a the chart below will explain why “financial types” have a preoccupation with the balance sheet. The preoccupation came to light in 2010 when Ben Bernanke added the “third mandate” to the Fed – the creation of the “wealth effect.” Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate this additional action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”In his opening paragraph, Bill attempts to dismiss the linkage between the balance sheet and the financial markets.  “Yes, it’s true that stock prices declined at a time when the Fed was allowing its holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities to run off at a rate of up to $50 billion a month. But the balance sheet contraction had been underway for more than a year, without any modifications or mid-course corrections. Thus, this should have been fully discounted.” While this is a true statement, what Bill forgot to mention was that Global Central banks had stepped in to flood the system with liquidity. As you can see in the chart below, while the Fed had stopped expanding their balance sheet, everyone else went into over-drive.

Fed's Brainard Backs Ending Balance-Sheet Unwind in 2019 -  Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said she favors ending the process of shrinking the U.S. central bank’s balance sheet in 2019. “In my view, that balance-sheet normalization process probably should come to an end later this year,” she said Thursday in an interview on CNBC.“We want to have an ample supply of reserves,” Brainard added. “We’ve taken some soundings from the market in terms of what that demand for reserves is, and I’d want to have a substantial buffer on top of that to avoid volatility.”Brainard’s comments offer the clearest indication yet of thinking inside the Fed over the timetable for ending a decade of its extraordinary use of the balance sheet. The balance sheet has declined to about $4 trillion from a peak of $4.5 trillion in 2015.The Fed governor declined to provide a precise level for where she believes the overall balance sheet should settle. The Fed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis expanded the balance sheet five-fold via purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities as it sought to lift growth by holding down long-term borrowing costs. The Fed began trimming the portfolio in October 2017. It’s currently reducing its bond holdings by a maximum of $50 billion per month by opting not to reinvest some of the proceeds of securities as they mature.Policy makers said in January they want to continue managing short-term interest rates through a system that requires abundant bank reserves. That will force them to halt the balance-sheet runoffs before reserves become scarce, though Fed officials haven’t indicated when or at what level that will stop. Commenting on the economy, Brainard said Thursday’s retail sales report for December “certainly caught my eye.’’ The value of overall sales fell 1.2 percent from the prior month after a downwardly revised 0.1 percent increase in November, according to Commerce Department figures. That fell short of all economist estimates in a Bloomberg survey that had called for a 0.1 percent gain.  “It’s a miss,’’ she said. “It’s one month of data, so I don’t want to take too much signal from it. It certainly adds to a story where we want to take on board that there are some downside risks.”Brainard said her baseline forecast still sees solid growth for the U.S. economy in 2019 with continued strength in the labor market. “But the risks to the downside have grown, so we’ll have to wait and see what the right move, if any, later in the year is,’’ she said. “Right now we’re in a very good place to watch and see that data as it comes in.’’

ZEN and the Art of the Federal Reserve System -  J.d. Alt - There are not just “U.S. dollars,” but three kinds of dollars—or, perhaps a better description: there are three “states of existence” a dollar jumps back and forth between. The most fundamental state of a U.S. dollar is as a “reserve” in the Federal Reserve banking system. “Reserves,” as they’re commonly referred to, are what you might think of as “real money”—the “actual thing” of which the other two states are what I’m perceiving to be “pre-reserve” and “post-reserve” variations. “Reserves” are no longer associated with gold—or any precious metal, or any other “thing”—but are simply “reserves” that are issued by the U.S. Federal Reserve as needed. (Since the Federal Reserve is uniquely authorized by the sovereign government to create “reserves,” they could rightly be called “fiat reserves” in that their authorization is created by a decree of the sovereign.)  Each bank in the Federal Reserve system maintains an account at the Federal Reserve which contains that bank’s “reserves.” Keep in mind that, in this form, these “reserves” are just numbers on a balance sheet.  The second “state” a U.S. dollar can jump to is a “bank-dollar” in a savings or checking account. It is crucial to see that a “bank-dollar” in a checking or savings account is not, itself, a “reserve” but, instead, is a claim on the “reserves” held by that bank. You can exercise that claim by withdrawing U.S. dollars from an ATM machine (printed U.S. dollars are “reserves” in a paper form). Most of the checking and savings account bank-dollars, however, are never converted to cash, but are, instead, exchanged back and forth within the Federal Reserve banking system in the form of check-writing and electronic payments and transfers. In other words, while they are a claim on the banking system’s “reserves,” the claim does not need to be exercised for the bank-dollar to be spent by the owner of the bank account. The third “state” a U.S. dollar can exist in is as a “future reserve” embodied in a U.S. treasury bond. Treasury bonds with short maturities are called treasury “notes” or “bills”—but they’re all the same thing: a container of “reserves” which can be opened at some specific date in the future. Treasury bonds are not issued by the Federal Reserve, but by the U.S. Treasury, which is uniquely authorized by the sovereign government to issue them. Why would the Treasury issue a treasury bond? Why are they necessary?

Fed Warns Dollar Might Not Retain Its Dominance Forever-  When the TBAC published the minutes to its quarterly refunding decision two weeks ago, the most interesting part of the discussion was the "unique challenges" faced by the Treasury over the medium term, especially the possibility of significant financing gap over next 10 years amounting to over $12 trillion and the potential need for more domestic investor participation if foreign reserve growth slows.Here, among other things (which potentially include the Green New Deal, with its $6+ trillion cost) the TBAC cautioned that the Treasury’s financing needs are expected to increase significantly even without factoring in recession possibilities over the next decade. The TBAC warned that deficits to the tune of $1-$1.5trn a year, and cumulatively over $12trn, over the next decade, are coming and will have to be funded in the bond market. Meanwhile, the CBO stubbornly refuses to forecast a recession during the next decade, instead projecting a steady 1.5-2% real GDP growth over the next 10y. While the TBAC did not take a position on this laughable assumption, it warned that deficits typically rise 2-5% of GDP in recessions, which would translate to additional deficits of $0.5-1trn at current GDP levels, and warns that "these borrowing needs have to financed in the context of already high global dollar debt exposure." But the bigger problem is that in the context of soaring deficit funding needs, the TBAC is also increasingly worried that "foreign investors already hold significant dollar debt" which is why the US will have to increasingly rely on domestic savings to fund its future budget deficits.And here the TBAC made a surprising, tongue-in-cheek observation, namely that reserve managers have been very gradually increasing allocation to other currencies, and that the USD share of FX reserves has steadily come down from 72% in 2000 to 62% now even though the "USD is still the dominant reserve currency." Still. As in for the foreseeable future, but not that much longer.

Oil Tumbles To $51 Handle as Dollar Spikes Into Green For 2019 - The dollar is up for the 8th straight day - even with China back from holiday - surging back into the green for 2019. This is the longest win streak for the dollar since January 2016 and Credit Suisse has five reasons to believe the dollar will continue to surge:

  • 1. Rate differentials are supportive of the dollar Real rate differentials have, historically, been a good guide to FX rates. The two-year real rate differential between the US and Germany has fallen to lows not seen since the financial crisis, as shown in the chart below, the euro has yet to catch down.
  • 2. The US current account deficit has not deteriorated, thanks to oil 12 months ago, the US overtook Saudi Arabia to become the largest oil producer globally. In turn, US net oil imports have declined to below 0.5% of GDP, close to their lowest level in 25 years. That has allowed the US current account deficit to stabilize despite the boost to consumption driven by tax reform in 2018.Moreover, as the chart below highlights, there have been periods when the USD has become significantly more overvalued despite a widening deficit, with the most notable being the mid-1980s.
  • 3. A China hard landing would lead to a much bigger slowdown in Europe and Japan than in the US As a share of GDP, Europe and Japan respectively have twice and four times the export exposure to China as the US. Were there to be a hard landing in China, which we discuss elsewhere, the second-round effects would likely include a stronger dollar as a result of a likely devaluation in the yen and euro. 
  • 4. Macro momentum improves more in the US than Eurozone The large decline in US ISM manufacturing new orders in January drew much attention. It should be borne in mind, however, that ISM non-manufacturing new orders actually rose over the same period, and services account for c.70% of US GDP, with manufacturing just 11%. Thus,our composite ISM (a combination of manufacturing and non-manufacturing ISMs) points to US GDP growth remaining robust at 3.3%.
  • We would also assume resilience in US macro momentum from here, thanks to ongoing strength in the service sector which is underpinned by a relatively tight labour market. In contrast, the euro area's more manufacturing-heavy economy would be affected by China or the trade war more broadly. As a result, the relative strength in US macro momentum could help underpin the USD, as the first chart below suggests.
  • 5. Speculative positions are only mildly bearish on the euro

Key Measures Show Inflation lower in January than in December on a YoY basis - The Cleveland Fed released the median CPI and the trimmed-mean CPI this morning:  According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the median Consumer Price Index rose 0.3% (3.2% annualized rate) in January. The 16% trimmed-mean Consumer Price Index rose 0.2% (2.3% annualized rate) during the month. The median CPI and 16% trimmed-mean CPI are measures of core inflation calculated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland based on data released in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) monthly CPI report.Earlier today, the BLS reported that the seasonally adjusted CPI for all urban consumers was unchanged (-0.2% annualized rate) in January. The CPI less food and energy rose 0.2% (2.9% annualized rate) on a seasonally adjusted basis.  Note: The Cleveland Fed released the median CPI details for January here. Motor fuel was down 49% annualized in January.

Why Does Inflation Remain So Low- Goldman Answers -   Jan Hatzius writes that "The Phillips curve has flattened over the decades to the point where an unemployment rate 1pp below the full employment rate tends to raise inflation by just 0.1-0.2pp. With the unemployment rate about ½pp below our estimate of full employment, the state of the labor market alone implies inflation should be at most a tenth above the 2% target, or two-tenths above the current 1.9% rate of core PCE inflation." As the bank then shows in the chart below, the health care services category — which accounts for roughly 19% of the core — is the main reason that inflation has run a bit softer than the pre-recession average. The left panel shows that health care services inflation was in line with broader core services inflation before the recession but is now much softer, at least according to the BLS' hedonically adjusted measurement and whether or not heathcare inflation is indeed that low in the "real world" is an entirely different matter, while other core services and core goods prices have grown at roughly normal rates. Assuming the BLS' measure is accurate, Goldman then notes that much of the prolonged softness in health care services inflation in recent years reflects the direct and indirect effects of legislation and sector-specific trends. And while at this point, the direct effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on public-payer healthcare costs are likely behind us - which allegedly depresses healthcare service costs, even if many Americans have a diametrically different take of what Obamacare has done to their healthcare spending - the after-effects have lingered in a couple of ways.And since the Fed only cares about what the the BEA reports in its core PCE, and any "real world" anecdotes are promptly dismissed, the fact that according to "empirical" analysis the culprit for sticky low inflation is Obamacare, it has significant bearing on both readings of inflation and the Fed's monetary policy, which is why Goldman's take actually matters.And speaking of Goldman's take, Hatzius writes that in the bank's estimates, ACA-mandated Medicare cuts continue to have sizeable disinflationary spillover effects on private-sector prices, as shown in the next chart below.

Goldman: When Will Inflation Rise Above 2%?  --A few excerpts from a research note by Goldman Sachs economists David Choi and David Mericle: US Daily: When Will Inflation Rise Above 2%? A View from Our Bottom-Up Model  In its January statement, the FOMC highlighted “muted inflation pressures” as a key reason to be patient in making future adjustments to interest rates. This new language further raises the burden on the inflation data to justify any potential rate hikes later this year. Our bottom-up core PCE inflation model now projects a rise to 2.1% by end-2019. ... But the bounce above 2% is unlikely to come until the August report, not available until the FOMC’s October meeting. This adds a bit to the case for Q4 as the most likely timing of the next hike.

Renowned Economist Paul Krugman Predicts Global Recession This 2019 - American economist Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in 2008 and one of the most influential economists in the United States, has gone out on a limb to predict a worldwide recession this year. Krugman said there’s a decent chance the world economy is headed for a recession this year and not for a soft landing as other economists expect. Krugman said there are good reasons to be skeptical about the soft landing scenario, he told his audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai. "I think that there is a quite good chance that we will have a recession late this year (or) next year," replied Krugman to when asked if investors should expect to see a recession in the coming months. He did, however, agree with the conventional wisdom that economic growth worldwide is slowing, and will keep on slowing in the coming years. But, as a caveat, he said everybody has a bad track record with growth forecasts Krugman said it's unlikely just "one big thing" will trigger an economic downturn. Instead, a range of economic headwinds will increase the likelihood of a slowdown. He underscored president Donald Trump's massive tax cut stimulus that went into effect in 2018 as one area of concern, saying the tax cuts that mainly benefited the rich and corporations was "not very effective." Krugman also warned it was "starting to look like the bubble (caused by the tax cuts) may be deflating" when it comes to tech growth. Tech stocks took a heavy hammering on Wall Street in the fourth quarter of 2018. That bleeding continues today.

Paul Krugman Warns US Wildly Unprepared For Imminent Recession - Nobel laureate Paul Krugman just joined the growing chorus of voices calling for a US recession in the next two years. The US economy is struggling for two reasons: The scope for a powerful monetary and fiscal response is limited, and the current "leadership" under President Trump lacks the competence to adequately respond to a crisis, during an interview with Bloomberg in Dubai.But moving past the US, Krugman echoed the IMF's finding that the world is "dangerously unprepared" for the coming global recession, citing the slowdown in China, and a Europe inching ever-closer to a eurozone-wide recession, as the two biggest risks the global economy. "I wouldn't be as definitive, but it seems pretty likely. There seems to be an accumulation of smaller problems and then the underlying backdrop is that we have no good policy response. The Fed can't cut rates very much, there is in fact fiscal space if we were prepared to use it but it's hard to see that this current leadership is going to respond in any kind of nimble way so yeah I think there's better than even odds that we do have a recession." And when the disaster finally arrives, not the US, nor China, nor Europe will be able to bring adequate policy responses to bear to combat the slowdown...because after a decade of rock-bottom interest rates (they're still negative in Europe) and QE central banks are tapped out...and while there is still some wiggle room for the type of Keynesian fiscal-policy response that Krugman is so fond of, he believes governments will lack the political will when the time comes. Krugman's comments notably follow the European Commissions' own downgrade for the eurozone, which it now believes will expand at a pace of just 1.3% during 2019. "I actually see two and one of them is China. I'm in the camp that has been predicting a Chinese crisis over basically inadequate consumption for a long time and it keeps not happening but it does seem to be getting closer to that point. The other is Europe: the euro area is clearly experiencing a slowdown, it is getting closer to recessionary levels already...and there's no recourse. Draghi has no room to cut rates - they're negative already. And there's plenty of room for fiscal expansion...but Germany won't do it. I think Europe is a danger spot that's potentially as big a deal as China."

These Are the Signs a U.S. Recession May Be Coming -- As headwinds spanning trade wars to slowing global growth buffet the U.S. economy, talk of a possible recession is picking up, leaving investors sifting through reams of data for clues. While almost all economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect growth to stay positive this year -- which would crown the current expansion the longest on record, at more than 10 years -- the risk of a recession is seen at a six-year high. In fact, more than three-quarters of corporate chief financial officers expect one by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, it’s getting harder to avoid prominent voices talking about the possibility of a contraction these days, such as Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Robert Shiller. There’s no single indicator that would predict or determine a recession -- though some may come close -- but here are a few major data points and what they’re showing now: Yield Curve may be the most closely-watched market signal of a downturn. The New York Fed has a recession-probability tracker based on the average monthly spread between yields on three-month and 10-year Treasuries. The latest reading showed the chance of a recession at 23.6 percent for the 12 months through next January, the highest since the reading for the year through July 2008. Readings below 50 percent aren’t necessarily safe, either: the index hasn’t topped that level since the early 1980s, even though there have since been three recessions.Billionaire investor Jeffrey Gundlach said last month that the widening gap between consumer sentiment on the current situation and expectations is the “most recessionary signal at present.” Meanwhile, a measure of small-business sentiment has lost the ground gained since President Donald Trump’s election. It’s clear that confidence measures sink during downturns, though the extent to which such surveys can actually predict a recession is debatable.  The same goes for monthly surveys of manufacturers and other companies conducted by the Institute for Supply Management and five Federal Reserve banks. These tend to be volatile from month to month, though all the Fed factory gauges fell together in December for the first time since May 2016 and the ISM’s national index hit a two-year low (it recovered some groundin January).

The Economic Impact Of Decreased Tax Refunds Is Likely to be Significant - It turns out that the recent brouhaha about how the tax law changes are affecting refunds may have a substantial effect on consumer spending. Here’s the math: according to CNN, the average refund is down -8%, or about $170 per tax filer. Further, according to the most recent IRS data, the total number of tax filing units in the US is 140 million. That means that the total decline in the amount of tax refunds is approximately $24 billion.So, how does that amount compare with the total amount of retail spending monthly and annually? Let’s go to the graphs. Here is total nominal retail spending, both seasonally adjusted and non-seasonally adjusted: Over the past 12 months, retail spending per month has averaged about $460 billion, for an annual total (through November) of $5.4 trillion. The reduced tax withholding has been in effect for one year now.  So, have the extra dollars in workers’ paychecks been saved or spent? Accounting to the personal savings rate, the answer is clear:

Q4 GDP Estimates Crashing Down After Disastrous Retail Sales - Following the biggest plunge in the retail sales control group - the one variable that feeds into the BEA's GDP estimates - since Sept 11... ... we said that "this will be a disaster for Q4 GDP forecasts which we now expect to print in the low 1% range."And sure enough, the downgrades started shortly thereafter, with virtually every bank slashing its estimates for Q4 GDP.JPMorgan was first, and now forecasts that Q4 GDP grew at just 2.0% annualized, down sharply from the bank's prior estimate of 2.6%.Barclays joined the bandwagon, cutting its previous 2.8% Q4 GDP forecast to 2.1%.Goldman wasn't far behind, and in a note released by its economics team, said that "the retail sales report indicated a considerably weaker pace of fourth quarter consumption growth than we had previously assumed. Reflecting this and lower-than-expected November business inventories, we lowered our Q4 GDP tracking estimate by five tenths to +2.0% (qoq ar)." Goldman also  lowered its subjective odds of a Q2 Fed hike to 15% (from 25% previously), which is of course, amusing considering that as recently as 2 months ago Goldman was expecting 4 rate hikes in 2019.But the most scathing revision came from the Atlanta Fed, whose GDPNow just suffered its biggest graviational "glitch" in history, crashing to just 1.5% following today's retail sales data, down nearly 50% from 2.7% as recently as February 6. This is how the economist 'experts' at the Fed justified their reasoning:  After this morning's retail sales and retail inventories releases from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nowcast of fourth-quarter real personal consumption expenditures growth fell from 3.7 percent to 2.6 percent, and the nowcast of the contribution of inventory investment to fourth-quarter real GDP growth fell from -0.27 percentage points to -0.55 percentage points. And visually: Why such a dramatic cut? Because apparently nobody could possibly expect retail sales to plunge so much. Nobody, of course, except the occasional "fringe" website, which warned to "Brace For A Plunge In Retail Sales."

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 Goldman Sachs:  The retail sales report indicated a considerably weaker pace of fourth quarter consumption growth than we had previously assumed. Reflecting this and lower-than-expected November business inventories, we lowered our Q4 GDP tracking estimate by five tenths to +2.0% (qoq ar). [Feb 14 estimate]From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report: The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 2.2% for 2018:Q4 and 1.1% for 2019:Q1. [Feb 15 estimate]  And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNowThe GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in thefourth quarter of 2018 is 1.5 percent on February 14, down from 2.7 percent on February 6. [Feb 14 estimate]CR Note: These estimates suggest GDP in the high 1s for Q4.   Using the middle of these four 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.

Recession Alert- Treasury Receipts Turn Negative For The First Time Since The Trump Election -  On the surface, today's monthly budget statement showed some good news: in December the US Treasury brought in total receipts of $313 billion (and $771 billion for the fiscal year to date), versus outlays of only $326 billion (and $1.09 trillion for fiscal 2019), resulting in a deficit of $14 billion, modestly worse than the $11 billion deficit expected (and better than 2017's December deficit of $23 billion). The not so good news is that for the fiscal year through Dec.31, the total US budget deficit was $319 billion, 40% greater than the $227 billion deficit for the prior year, and set to keep rising this year to $1.1 trillion.However, a more concerning data point emerges when looking at the annual change in the rolling 12 month total. It is here that we find that for the LTM period ended Dec 31, total government receipts were $3.33 trillion. This number was 0.4% lower than the $3.344 trillion reported one year ago. Why is this important? Because as the chart below shows, every time since at least 1970 when government receipts have turned negative on an annual basis, the US was on the cusp of, or already in, a recession. Indicatively, the last time government receipts turned negative was just after the Trump presidential victory, which however managed a dead cat bounce in the subsequent two years, before again turning negative at the end of 2018. The time prior to that that receipts turned negative: July of 2008. The "peak receipts" of the US government are visible in the next chart, which show that after several years of relatively flat government receipts, the new trendline is increasingly lower.  And while one could argue that the collapse in receipts is due to a 19% plunge in corporate income tax in the current fiscal year compared to last, which is indeed the case, it is just as concerning that Individual Income Taxes also posted a decline, dropping 3% to $372.8BN for the current fiscal year from $386.4BN in the prior period. The offset: an increase in Social Insurance and retirement receipts, higher excise taxes, and of course, a 90% surge in customs duties to $18 billion as a result of the ongoing trade war with China. It is also worth noting that while receipts are now declining, government outlays are rampaging higher, with the US government spending $1.09 trillion in the current fiscal year, almost $100 billion higher than the $994 billion spent in fiscal 2018. Finally, as we showed in the top chart, virtually every time when cumulative 12 month governmental receipts dipped into the red, the US economy suffered a recession, with just two exceptions in the past 50 years.

U.S. National Debt Soars to a Record $22 Trillion: Chart - The U.S.’s financial burden is growing despite a strong economy. Total public debt climbed to more than $22 trillion as of Feb. 11, according to a Treasury Department report Tuesday. The country’s obligations are mounting as President Donald Trump debates members of Congress over funds for a wall along the southern border and fiscal experts including former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan warn about the dangers of rising budget deficits.

Why U.S. Debt Must Continue to Rise - Michael Pettis - Many Americans are worried about the seemingly inexorable rise in U.S. debt, whether government debt, household debt, or business debt. They are right to be concerned. Rapidly rising debt is a problem not just in the United States but in many other countries too, including China, parts of Europe, and most of the developing world. In today’s environment, it seems, reasonable levels of economic growth cannot be achieved unless boosted by even faster growth in debt.  With so much debt in the world, and with debt levels rising so quickly, people tend to think that economists have studied this issue deeply and fully understand it. But there continues to be a great deal of confusion about debt and about whether and why excessive debt levels can harm growth prospects. To try to address these issues, this blog post is divided into two parts. The first part discusses debt and some of the conditions under which it affects the prospects for economic growth.  The second part argues that at least two of the reasons that debt has been rising inexorably in the United States for several years are the country’s rising income inequality and its persistent trade deficit. Surprising as it may seem at first glance, these two conditions operate the same way: they distort the level and structure of American savings. As long as income inequality remains high and the United States runs large deficits, the resulting savings distortions will continue to mean that U.S. debt levels have to rise to prevent the economy from slowing and unemployment from rising. Self-liquidating debt is used to fund investment projects that increase economic productivity enough (after including all associated positive and negative externalities) to service the debt fully. In such cases, an increase in debt is used to create an equal or greater increase in assets. While this usually leaves the overall economy better off, there could still be an argument about whether it is best to fund a particular project with debt (versus equity), about the best (or least risky) way of structuring the borrowing, and about how the debt and its subsequent repayment affects income distribution.

Shutdown talks take a turn for the worse - Negotiations to avert another government shutdown abruptly fell apart over the weekend, raising the risk of another shuttering of services, a stopgap funding bill or a declaration by President Donald Trump of a national emergency at the southern border. The collapse of the talks over hammering out a border security package and paying for a barrier leave lawmakers in the same place they’ve been for months. Among the issues Democratic negotiators are focused on is Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., not just crossing the border. They also insist they want a cap on detention beds to force ICE to prioritize which undocumented immigrants it targets within the U.S., and they say that without it, the agency will increase deportation raids in local communities without valid reason. The latest impasse suggests Democrats are not seeing much incentive to concede to the Trump administration’s requests for billions of dollars in border wall money, after winning the last round of shutdown negotiations. Trump agreed to reopen the government for three weeks to see whether Republicans and Democrats could strike a deal on border security. But the prospect of that is dimming. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) acknowledged on Sunday that negotiations had stalled, and he put the odds of getting a deal at 50-50. “We’ve got some problems with the Democrats dealing with ICE,” Shelby told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “I’m not confident we’re going to get there. I’m hoping we will get there.”

Trump Installs $50,000 Golf Simulator At White House During Shutdown -  At some point during the government shutdown, President Trump "installed a room-sized 'golf simulator' game at the White House, which allows him to play virtual rounds at courses all over the world by hitting a ball into a large video screen," The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The Post, citing an anonymous White House official, said the President had not used the golf simulator, which cost approximately $50,000 and was installed several weeks ago. According to the paper, three of Trump's golf courses already have the simulators made by the Danish company TrackMan Golf. The company did not respond to the newspaper's inquiry about how the system operates, but here is a short introductory video of how it might work: (video) Trump's golf simulator replaced an "older, less sophisticated golf simulator" that was installed in the White House during the Obama years.

Gearing Up for Possibility of Another Trump Shutdown, Airport Workers Ready Mass Protests in 80 Major Cities - With congressional negotiators still working on a deal to keep the federal government open after the current stopgap funding measure expires on Friday, Feb. 15, airport workers are already planning mass protests for next Saturday in case the government shuts down again. Air traffic controllers and other airport employees were widely credited for creating the pressure that ended the longest shutdown in American history last month, and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) president Sara Nelson told New York Magazine on Friday that workers are gearing up to mobilize if congressional negotiators fail to reach a deal—or if President Donald Trump unilaterally scuttles any agreement. As New York Magazine's Sarah Jones reported, "Nelson says that the union will be out leafleting in airports in 80 major cities next week ahead of Saturday's demonstrations." "We are also working very hard to get information out to all of our members about what's at stake," Nelson told New York Magazine. "We need people to fully understand what the issues are so that we can be prepared to respond potentially with withholding our service, if that's what it takes to stop a continuation of the shutdown." According to Jones, the AFA is not alone in preparing to mobilize if the government shuts down again, once more putting the pay of hundreds of thousands of federal workers at risk:Nelson cites the American Federation of Teachers as "a very strong ally" in addition to Unite Here, which represents many federal subcontractors who have still not received backpay for paychecks withheld during the shutdown. Reached by phone on Friday afternoon, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told New York that AFT is "very concerned" about the shutdown’s impact on both the aviation industry and its unions. "We are working together to do what is impossible to do alone,” she said. As Common Dreams reported, air traffic controller unions warned throughout the previous government shutdown that forcing airport employees to work without pay dramatically increases flight safety risks.

Trump: Democrats want criminals in the US - President Trump on Monday blasted Democrats who want to reduce the number of detention beds in border security talks, accusing them of wanting to allow immigrants who have committed crimes to roam freely in the U.S.“These are people who kidnap people,” Trump said while meeting with a group of sheriffs at the White House. “The Democrats want them to come into our society. I don’t think so.”The president spoke before leaving for a campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, where he plans to press his case for Congress to fund his long-desired wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.“We need a wall,” Trump said. “And all of the other things are nice to have, but without a wall it’s not going to work. We can have technology. We can have beautiful drones flying all over the place. But it doesn’t work without the wall.”Trump is reinserting himself into the debate at a pivotal time for bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill to avoid another government shutdown. Lawmakers have until Friday to complete an agreement to fund roughly a quarter of the federal government. Asked if there would be a second shutdown, Trump responded: “That’s up to the Democrats.”

Why Trump Won’t Back Down on Shutdown -Most — if not all — presidents ran for office because they thought they could run the country better than the other candidates. And running the country means being in charge of the US government. It implies some regard for the institution that would be paying their salary.But Donald Trump never really considered the presidency to be a job. It was just a vehicle to gain the most attention from adoring crowds, obtain the best perks, maximize his brand, and hold the greatest power. Running the country was a just an unpleasant side effect, requiring attention to briefing papers, attendance at boring meetings, and visiting cemeteries. All his life, Trump has turned his back on government, declining to serve it in the armed forces, to follow its laws when they lowered his profits, to pay taxes to fund it, and even to speak well of it. He lives in the kingdom of the gated community and the lush golf course, which could be anywhere or nowhere. He welcomed Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, and mobsters to Trump Tower. The lingua franca of this kingdom is wealth and all its trappings. Nothing else matters.All his talk of America First really is Trump First. He has no understanding of this country, its history, or its values.  So it’s not surprising that a shutdown doesn’t trouble him. He shut down on government and country a long time ago.

 McConnell: ‘Radical fringe’ added ‘poison pill’ to shutdown talks - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday ripped Democrats, saying they are letting a “radical fringe” sink government funding negotiations by proposing a cap on the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds. “This is a poison pill that no administration, not this one, not the previous one, should ever accept," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "Imagine the absurdity of this: House Democrats want to set a limit on how many criminal aliens our government can detain.” He added that negotiations seemed to be “on track” and in a “pretty good place” until this past weekend. “House Democrats decided to add a poison pill demand into the conversations at the eleventh hour," he said. "It’s a new demand. It’s extreme." Negotiations to prevent another partial government shutdown appeared to hit a snag over the weekend. Democrats acknowledged on Sunday that they had proposed a cap on the number of ICE detention beds, arguing it would force the Trump administration to focus on “serious criminals,” and that numbers were in line with those from the Obama administration. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said on Monday that the demand had become an “obstacle” to the talks, with a key group of negotiators meeting that day to try to resolve the stalemate. Without a deal by Frida, Congress would need to pass another continuing resolution to fund approximately a quarter of the government or risk another shutdown.

 Negotiators say they have a tentative deal to avoid a US government shutdown - Congressional negotiators said they reached a tentative deal Monday to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. As always, President Donald Trump will hold the fate of any potential border security agreement in his hands. The announcement came only minutes before the president took the rally stage in the Texas border city of El Paso to argue that "walls save lives" as he made the case for his proposed border barrier. The top four congressional appropriators emerged from a meeting on border security funding Monday night and announced an agreement in principle to fund the government past a midnight Friday deadline. The group, including Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., did not immediately give details of the deal or say when they would release bill text. A congressional source told CNBC it would put about $1.4 billion toward physical barriers, but not a wall. It would include about 55 new miles of bollard fencing. The agreement would also reduce the cap for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds by about 17 percent from the current 49,057 to 40,520, according to the source. A bill could get unveiled late Tuesday or early Wednesday. But that timing could change. If passed, the measure would avoid reopening fresh wounds from a 35-day partial closure in December and January. About 800,000 federal workers were furloughed or worked without pay, missing two paychecks during the funding lapse.They face the prospect of more financial hardship if nine federal departments, or about a quarter of the government, close again. The measure's passage depends on Trump's support. The president said during Monday's rally that he'd heard about a developing deal before he took the stage but did not hear the details. He contended that the agreement did not matter because "we're building the wall anyway."

Tentative Deal on Border Security Reached in Bid to Avoid Shutdown Congressional negotiators reached a tentative deal on border security that would give President Donald Trump far less money than he’d demanded for new barriers and would avert another government shutdown. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said lawmakers agreed on all seven spending bills needed to keep government agencies open, including the Department of Homeland Security that oversees border protection. The plan includes $1.375 billion for 55 new miles of border fencing in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley area, according to congressional aides who spoke on condition of anonymity. The amount is less than the $5.7 billion sought by Trump. In addition, two aides said Democrats dropped their demand for a cap on detention beds for immigrants detained within the U.S., but the overall cap on beds, including those detained at the border, would drop to 40,520 from 49,057. The agreement was announced about a half hour before Trump took the stage in the border city of El Paso, Texas, at a political rally where he said he heard there was a deal, but told his audience, “Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway.”

Trump isn't ready to admit neither Mexico nor Congress will pay for his wall -- It's not just Mexico that isn't paying for the wall -- Congress isn't either, apparently. But President Donald Trump isn't ready to break it to his supporters just yet. Rather than selling a potential breakthrough, reached on Capitol Hill to stave off a new partial government shutdown, Trump revived the molten rhetoric on immigration that helped make him President at a boisterous campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday night. The drama provided an eloquent snapshot of the political forces over immigration tearing at the cohesion of the Republican Party. Down by the border, Trump was in outsized form, firing off his dubious claims on immigration while torching Democrats with fierce new attacks on climate change and abortion. In Washington, under the Capitol dome, Republican lawmakers worked diligently with those same Democrats on the kind of institutional Washington compromise that anchors the conventional politics Trump disdains. It was not clear what will happen next. But with Trump reveling in the embrace of his adoring, partisan crowd, it's quite possible that he returned to the White House with his base-baiting instincts replenished. In his hour-and-15-minute address, Trump excoriated Democrats and repeated false claims that the nearby wall had meant huge cuts in the city's violent crime. But the President told the audience he had chosen not to learn the details of a bipartisan deal to avert a shutdown before he clambered onstage. If he actually did know full well what was going on, then he couldn't bring himself to describe what on paper appears to be a huge disappointment.

 Trump is running out of options for his border wall as Republican leaders break with the president - GOP leaders signaled clearly that they, like Congressional Democrats, will no longer play border-wall make-believe with President Trump. Trump sought the White House promising to build a "great wall" along the U.S. border with Mexico. Assailing previous presidents as ineffectual, he vowed to make Mexico pay for it. GOP leaders always understood that pledge as fanciful, even as they cautiously avoided saying so out loud. Last December, when Trump changed his mind and chose a government shutdown over a bipartisan spending compromise, they reluctantly went along. But 35 days of political pain, ending with Trump's initial surrender last month, changed their calculations. Conservative Republican negotiators – Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rep. Kay Granger of Texas – struck the deal with Democrats last night even as Trump roared about the wall in El Paso. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised swift action with a presidential endorsement. "You've got to govern," explained Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. He acknowledged it as an "incremental" deal that does not match Trump's grandiose 2016 pledge. When Trump launched his 2016 campaign, the U.S. government had constructed nearly 700 miles of barriers along the 2,000 mile border. That number remains unchanged today. The new compromise adds another 55 miles. Those new barriers — financed by American taxpayers — will be limited to the same kinds of fencing built under Trump's predecessors, not the new concrete wall or other "impenetrable" structure he had promised. American taxpayers will finance the $1.375-billion cost, well below the $5.7-billion the president had demanded. Stuck between hard-core supporters and the majority Americans opposed to the wall and another shutdown, Trump today pronounced himself "not happy" — but didn't threaten a veto. He lacks good choices.

Democrats capitulate to Trump, agree to wall funding -- Just 15 minutes before Donald Trump was scheduled to address a rally in the Texas border town of El Paso, Senate leaders announced that the Democrats and Republicans had reached a deal to avert another government shutdown, set to begin on at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The agreement is a complete capitulation by the Democratic Party to Trump’s fascistic agenda. According to initial news reports, it includes $1.4 billion in funding for a steel wall and no lowering of the cap on the total number of immigrants who can be detained on any given night.Senior congressional aides claim the deal would allow Trump to expand Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention by over 20 percent. The Hill noted that the agreement provides “enough flexibility to reach the president’s requested level of 52,000 beds.”According to CNN, the deal also includes an additional $1.7 billion in increased spending for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  Between chants of “USA! USA!” and “Build the wall!” at his El Paso rally, Trump denounced “socialism” and the “radical left” and claimed he was not yet aware of the details of the agreement. “We probably have some good news,” he said, referencing the fact that the Democrats were likely to cave on calls for a cap on immigrant detentions. “We’re setting the stage,” he added, indicating that he would be able to move billions of dollars to build his wall regardless of the total amount officially appropriated by Congress. “We’re building the wall, anyway. The wall is going to be built.” White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend that any deal would provide Trump with political cover and administrative flexibility to allocate billions of dollars as he sees fit: “We’ll take as much money as you can give us and then we will go off and find the money someplace else legally in order to secure that southern barrier. But this is going to get built with or without Congress,” he said.

Trump touts deal as providing $23B for border security - President Trump on Tuesday appeared to express openness to a border security deal reached by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, suggesting that its funds could be combined with others to build his desired wall along the southern border. "Looking over all aspects knowing that this will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources," Trump tweeted. "Will be getting almost $23 BILLION for Border Security. Regardless of Wall money, it is being built as we speak!" Trump's latest comments on the arrangement came after he and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, reviewed the particulars of the deal. The proposal would provide $1.375 billion in funding for roughly 55 miles of new barriers along the southern border, well short of the $5.7 billion Trump demanded late last year when he triggered a partial government shutdown that lasted 35 days. Shelby told reporters that he explained to the president that the agreement contained nearly $23 billion in total funding. The senator added that he did not ask Trump if he would sign the bill, calling the question "premature." "The president's tone and conversation was very good. Concerned that he didn't get everything he wanted, and I told him I shared that. We all do. But realizing after I talked with him … that he's getting a good downpayment," Shelby told reporters about Trump's reaction to the agreement.

Immigration spending pact has more than a border wall (AP) — A compromise on border and immigration enforcement cleared Congress on Thursday, giving President Donald Trump just a sliver of the money he wanted for his border wall. The White House said Trump would sign the bill and then declare a national emergency to try to shift money to wall-building from elsewhere in the federal budget. The bill, which averts another government shutdown, includes many other provisions. A look at some of the major elements: The agreement provides $1.375 billion for 55 miles (88 kilometers) of Trump’s wall, all of it in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings by far. The deal includes $1.03 billion for 44 miles (70 kilometers) on normal soil and 11 miles (18 kilometers) on levees. The bill does not specify how much of the construction will extend existing barriers and how much will replace those barriers. Trump inherited barriers covering 654 miles (1,046 kilometers), or about one-third of the border, much of it built from 2006 to 2009. So far, his administration has awarded contracts for 97 miles (155 kilometers), including 83 miles (133 kilometers) to replace existing barriers. Work begins this month on his first extension — 14 miles (22 kilometers) in the Rio Grande Valley. Wall building will be prohibited in some environmentally or historically significant areas, including the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Historical Park and the privately run National Butterfly Center. The administration is required to use “operationally effective designs,” like steel bollards, that predated the eight prototypes Trump ordered built in San Diego in 2017 amid great fanfare. The pact provides $30 million for a new Customs and Border Protection holding center in El Paso, Texas, and $33.5 million to upgrade the agency’s holding center in McAllen, Texas. It prohibits “chain-link fence-type enclosures” that have been used in McAllen. Critics call them “cages.” It also requires “appropriate temperature controls,” a response to widespread complaints that the facilities are almost unbearably cold. And it urges the use of better blankets.

Trump 'extremely unhappy' with shutdown deal, keeping options open to build wall - President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he is "extremely unhappy" with the bipartisan deal lawmakers reached to avert a government shutdown this week that provides money for a southern border fence, but he vowed to build a border wall anyway. "I am extremely unhappy with what the Democrats have given us," Trump told reporters at the White House. "It's sad. They're doing the country no favors. They're hurting our country very badly. But we certainly don't want to see a shutdown." Trump added that he is considering all options to fund his proposed border wall. A White House official told NBC News earlier Tuesday that even if Trump signs off on the agreement reached Monday night to keep the government open, other options were on the table to build a more substantial barrier. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, tweeted Tuesday that Trump "should take executive action" to secure the border.Trump also said Tuesday that he didn't think there would be another government shutdown this Friday, which would come on the heels of the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history. But "if you did have it, it's the Democrats' fault," he said. "And I accepted the first one, and I'm proud of what we've accomplished because people learned during that shutdown all about the problems coming in from the southern border," Trump added. "I accept it — I've always accepted it. But this one, I would never accept it if it happens, but I don't think it's going to happen. But this would be totally on the Democrats." The deal that Democrats in Congress agreed to, however, includes billions for Department of Homeland Security priorities like new technology and more customs officers as well as the border barrier. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he thinks the compromise is "a good step in the right direction" and that the measure would get support from Republican lawmakers.

Congress rushes to avoid shutdown as Trump says he'll look for 'landmines' in spending plan - Another week in Washington comes with another chaotic scramble to prevent a government shutdown. With a little more than two days to spare before funding lapses for the second time since December, confusion reigned Wednesday. Congress hurried to hash out text for spending legislation, as a few remaining snags held up the release of a final plan. News outlets say President Donald Trump is expected to sign what lawmakers pass — even as Trump and his administration stress that he wants to see legislation before backing it. On Wednesday, the president said "we'll be looking for landmines" in the form of unwanted proposals once the plan is finished. "I don't want to see a shutdown. A shutdown would be a terrible thing. ... We're going to look at the legislation when it comes, and I'll make a determination then," Trump told reporters during a meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque. A confusing rush to keep the government running looks likely in the coming days. About a quarter of the government shuts down if lawmakers fail to beat a midnight Friday deadline. At stake are the paychecks of about 800,000 government workers already battered from the last funding lapse, along with crucial government services such as food inspections and air traffic control. While Trump is likely to sign the spending measure, which puts about $1.4 billion toward physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico barrier, NBC News and other outlets reported, the president has changed his mind in the past. He did so before the start of a record 35-day shutdown during December and January. As part of this week's tentative deal, lawmakers allocated only a fraction of the $5.7 billion Trump demanded for his proposed border barriers.

How the U.S. Weaponized the Border Wall - Migrants die and disappear in staggeringly high numbers along the U.S.-Mexico border, as Washington over the years has shut down relatively safe, traditional urban entry points, forcing border crossers into hostile desert terrain. Migrants also sustain severe life-threatening or crippling injuries. They fall into mine shafts and break their backs. Dehydration damages their kidneys. Others are bitten by snakes or injured in chases. The tall metal fences that run as barriers along segments of the border also serve as weapons. Migrants sever limbs climbing the barriers and break bones falling off them. “Border-related trauma is so common,” anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte writes, “that it has become normalized.” First responders who work the borderlands around Nogales, Arizona, told Jusionyte that they believe the sheet-metal border fence that used to separate Nogales from its Mexican sister-city was intentionally designed to sever body parts. Border crossers, one Nogales firefighter said, regularly used to get their fingers cut off. That fence was replaced in 2011, but the new high bollard-style fence, 20 or 30 feet high in places, frequently causes broken bones when migrants fall from it.  In recent months, Border Patrol agents and federal troops have festooned long stretches of the border fence with razor wire, including in Nogales. “That wire is lethal, and I really don’t know what they’re thinking by putting it all the way down to the ground,” Nogales’s mayor complained. Now, six coils of concertina wire cover the fence like vines, facing a residential neighborhood, onto a street that serves as a route for school buses. Every weekday, the city’s children look out and can imagine that they are living inside a concentration camp. More than two years into the administration of Donald Trump, such gratuitous displays of cruelty are common, working to wear down on the nation’s moral sensibility.

GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration --The months-long battle over a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall is set to escalate dramatically when President Trump declares a national emergency. Talk of an emergency declaration immediately sparked division, and in some cases outright rebuke, from the GOP senators Trump will need on his side. Senators on both sides of the aisle are steeling themselves for an entrenched, messy fight, with the declaration likely serving as an opening salvo in a high-profile political and legal battle. Several Republicans panned talk of Trump moving forward with the plan, an option he has kept on the table as conservative allies fume that the deal to fund the government included only $1.375 billion for border barriers, instead of the $5.7 billion for a wall sought by the president. “I believe it’s a mistake on the president’s part. I don’t believe that the National Emergencies Act contemplated a president repurposing billions of dollars outside of the normal appropriations process,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), characterizing Trump's decision was "of dubious constitutionality." Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) added that she didn’t “think that this is a matter that should be declared a national emergency.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has worked to cultivate a friendship with Trump, also characterized himself of “not in favor of operating government through emergency,” and insinuated that the move could violate the Constitution.

Pelosi warns GOP: Next president could declare national emergency on guns -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday issued a warning to Republicans poised to support President Trump's decision to declare a national emergency at the southern border: the next Democratic president, she said, could do the same on guns."A Democratic president can declare emergencies, as well," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. "So the precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be met with great unease and dismay by the Republicans."Pelosi noted that Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and faculty dead. She argued that the real national emergency is not illegal border crossings, but gun violence in the U.S. "Let's talk about today: The one-year anniversary of another manifestation of the epidemic of gun violence in America," Pelosi said. "That's a national emergency. Why don't you declare that emergency, Mr. President? I wish you would. "But a Democratic president can do that."Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) also shared a tweet calling several issues championed by Democrats, such as climate change and income inequality, a "national emergency."  Moments before Pelosi spoke, the White House had announced that Trump would sign an enormous spending deal to prevent another partial government shutdown slated to begin on Saturday.  The measure includes billions of dollars in border security measures — including $1.375 billion to construct 55 miles of new barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border — but the White House said Trump will separately declare a national emergency at the border in order to liberate additional funds from other programs to build his promised wall.

Trump will sign spending bill, declare national emergency and 'other executive action' to build wall - — President Donald Trump will sign spending legislation to prevent a government shutdown while declaring a national emergency to try to build his proposed border wall, the White House confirmed Thursday. "President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action — including a national emergency — to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. It came before both chambers of Congress easily passed a measure to keep the government open past a midnight Friday deadline. "The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country," she added, as Trump prepared to approve legislation allocating about a quarter of the money he sought for barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. If Trump follows through, lawmakers and the White House would dodge their second partial shutdown since December, sparing about 800,000 federal workers from more financial pain. But the emergency declaration could quickly spark lawsuits challenging the president's authority, creating yet another fight over his key campaign promise. Trump will speak in the White House Rose Garden at 10 a.m. ET on Friday on what the White House called the "national security and humanitarian crisis on our southern border." The president will announce he seeks $8 billion for wall construction, an administration official told NBC News. Along with the funds allocated by Congress, he aims to use $600 million from the Treasury's drug forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense's drug interdiction program and $3.5 billion from the military construction budget, according to NBC and ABC News. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "may" file a legal challenge and will review her options, she told reporters Thursday.

Trump Declares National Emergency to Build Border Wall — President Trump declared a national emergency at the border on Friday to access billions of dollars to build a border wall that Congress refused to give him, transforming a highly charged policy dispute into a fundamental confrontation over separation of powers. In a televised announcement in the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said he would sign the declaration to protect the country from the flow of drugs, criminals and illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mexico, which he characterized as a profound threat to national security.“We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border and we’re going to do it one way or the other,” he said. “It’s an invasion,” he added. “We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.”The declaration will enable Mr. Trump to divert $3.6 billion budgeted for military construction projects to the border wall, White House officials said. Mr. Trump will also use more traditional presidential budgetary discretion to tap $2.5 billion from counternarcotics programs and $600 million from a Treasury Department asset forfeiture fund.Combined with the $1.375 billion authorized for fencing in a spending package passed by Congress on Thursday night, Mr. Trump would then have about $8 billion in all to advance construction of new barriers and repairs or replacement of existing barriers along the border this year, significantly more than the $5.7 billion that Congress refused to give him.  The president’s decision, previewed on Thursday, triggered instant condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, who called it an unconstitutional abuse of his authority. “This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed president, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, said in a joint statement. The two vowed to try to overturn the decision, appealing to Republicans to join them. “The president is not above the law,” they said. “The Congress cannot let the president shred the Constitution.”

Trump Declares National Emergency to Fund Border Wall  – Now that President Trump has officially declared his plans to declare a national emergency to authorize an additional $7 billion for his promised border wall, political observers will be waiting to see what Democrats and Republicans in Congress do next to try and block the funding. Democrats in both the House and the Senate unanimously oppose the national emergency measure, and what’s probably more surprising, a number of Senate Republicans have also expressed concerns with the plan.  So, what – if anything – can be done to stop this executive action by the president?The New York Times has offered a brief guide to what will likely happen next, considering that several House Democrats (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have already declared their plans to try and stop the president. The upshot is that Congressional Democrats have two avenues that they can pursue: One in Congress, and one in the courts. Congress does not have the power to stop the president from declaring a national emergency. But when lawmakers granted the president emergency powers in the first place, they built a check into the law. Under the National Emergencies Act, the House and the Senate can take up what is called a joint resolution of termination to end the emergency status if they believe the president is acting irresponsibly or the threat has dissipated. Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas and the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said late Thursday that he was ready to introduce such a resolution if Mr. Trump followed through. With a comfortable majority in the chamber, Democrats will most likely pass it or a similarly worded resolution. To keep a president’s party from bottling such a measure up, the law says that if one chamber passes such a resolution, the other one must bring it up for a vote within 18 days. Though Democrats are in the minority in the Senate, they would need only a handful of Republicans to join them to pass the resolution there and send it to Mr. Trump’s desk. It is easy to imagine a half-dozen or more Republican senators joining Democrats out of concern for the precedent that Mr. Trump’s declaration will set.

We'll End Up In The Supreme Court - Trump Emergency Declaration To Face Firestorm Of Litigation - After unveiling his intention to declare a national emergency that would allow him to redirect some $7 billion in additional funding for his border wall, President Trump said Friday that "we will be sued...and we will possibly get a bad ruling...and then we will get another bad ruling...and then we will end up in the Supreme Court" over the controversial plan, which even some Republican Senators (and former campaign-era rivals) have denounced as potentially unconstitutional. Of course, Trump is used to legal challenges to his policies. And he's also used to winning, as he ultimately prevailed during the battle over his travel ban (though the final measure approved by the Supreme Court was notably watered-down).After Trump launched into a lengthy digression about the lengthy legal process upon which he was about to embark, several commentators noted, the challenges will offer Trump the opportunity to utter one of his favorite phrases: "See you in court." That moment Trump went on about what might happen next:"We will have a national emergency. And we will then be sued... And we will possibly get a bad ruling. And then we will get another bad ruling. And then we will end up in the Supreme Court." pic.twitter.com/W26NdYqkR6— POLITICO (@politico) February 15, 2019But while the battle over Trump's travel ban only took a few months to resolve, Politico speculated on Friday that the battle over Trump's national emergency declaration could take months or e ven years, as the step of trying to block a presidential emergency declaration would represent something totally unprecedented in the history of American politics.

How President Trump came to declare a national emergency to fund his border wall - President Trump knew that lawmakers were unlikely to ever give him the billions of dollars he wanted to build a wall on the southern border, so in early 2018, he gave aides a directive: Find a way to do it without Congress. It was hardly an easy assignment. The White House had some flexibility to spend money the way it wanted, but could not move the necessary billions at will. Trump could declare a national emergency, but White House attorneys repeatedly warned him the risk of failure in court was high. On Friday, Trump did it anyway. Stepping to a microphone in the Rose Garden, the president told reporters he was invoking his powers to declare a national emergency, then acknowledged what his lawyers had been warning him: He will get sued and, at least initially, will probably lose. The remarkable moment, people familiar with the matter say, marked the culmination of months of heated internal deliberations between the White House Counsel’s Office, the Justice Department, the Office of Management and Budget, lawmakers and the president over how to fund the wall. Trump — who had vacillated on whether the dramatic step was the right one — told reporters that he was deeply frustrated his wall hadn’t been funded earlier in his administration and was setting that right. “But we’re stepping up now,” Trump said. “We’re getting it done.” The announcement was greeted immediately with promises of legal action from states, lawmakers and advocacy groups. Inside the Justice Department’s civil ­division, lawyers braced for what has become a grim reality in the Trump administration: They would be in court again soon, fighting an uphill battle. 

First lawsuit filed against Trump emergency declaration - Liberal advocacy group Public Citizen on Friday filed the first lawsuit seeking to block President Trump’s national emergency declaration to allocate government funds for his proposed border wall.The consumer rights think tank is suing on behalf of the Frontera Audubon Society and three landowners in South Texas who were told their land would be used to construct the barrier.The lawsuit is expected to be the first of many challenging the declaration, which appropriated $8.1 billion for the wall.“The complaint urges the court to find that Trump exceeded his constitutional authority and authority under the National Emergencies Act, and to hold that the declaration violates the doctrine of separation of powers that is so central to our Constitution," Public Citizen said in a press release."The court should bar Trump and the U.S. Department of Defense from using the declaration and funds appropriated for other purposes to build a border wall, the complaint requests,” it added.  Trump predicted when announcing the emergency declaration at the White House earlier Friday that it would likely face legal challenges. “We will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we'll get another bad ruling and then we'll end up in the Supreme Court,” Trump said, adding he believes his administration would prevail at the high court.“I didn't need to do this, but I'd rather do it much faster,” he added, referring to constructing barriers on the border.California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) also said Friday he intends to sue the White House over the declaration.“President Trump is manufacturing a crisis and declaring a made-up ‘national emergency’ in order to seize power and subvert the constitution,” Newsom said in a statement. “Our message back to the White House is simple and clear: California will see you in court.” Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee announced they will investigate the declaration and have demanded testimony from the White House counsel and Justice Department officials, saying the national emergency shows “disregard” for the separation of powers and Congress’ purview over the federal budget.

Dems ready aggressive response to President Trump's emergency order, as GOP splinters - House Democrats are vowing an aggressive response to President Trump's emergency declaration at the southern border, mulling ways to block his go-it-alone approach with legislation, legal action, or both. Yet party leaders are in no immediate rush to show their hand, instead hoping to keep the focus on growing GOP divisions while pressuring more Republicans to oppose the president's unilateral power play. Heading into the weeklong Presidents Day recess, the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is distributing a spreadsheet to members logging a host of wide-ranging local projects potentially threatened by Trump’s effort to shift funds from military construction coffers to the border wall. The list — nearly 400 projects long — features a number of ventures in GOP districts. It includes maintenance facilities for F-35 stealth fighters at Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks, Alaska; the operation of a middle school at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and funds to replace a training maze at Fort Bragg, N.C. “We have to smoke out as many Republicans as possible by making the case that projects in their backyard are in jeopardy and will likely be raided to help pay for Trump’s ineffective and politically motivated wall,” said a senior Democratic aide. Key congressional Republicans, meanwhile, don’t need any nudge from Democrats. They’re already tearing themselves apart over Trump’s declaration. “Congress has granted the executive branch certain spending authorities. I strongly object to any president acting outside of those explicit authorities to spend money that Congress has not appropriated for specific initiatives,” said Rep. Greg Walden, the House GOP’s former top campaigns chief and the only Republican in the Oregon delegation. Across the Capitol, GOP criticism of Trump’s executive move was even more scathing.

House Judiciary Committee Probes Trump National Emergency After Contradictory Statement -  In a six-page letter signed by Democrats who control the committee, the Judiciary Committee seeks several documents from the White House, including any opinions solicited from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and Department of Defense. The letter also asks the White House to justify its legal basis for the determination that "there is an "emergency" at the southern border," and why a border wall is "necessary to support" a "use of the armed forces" at the border. The Democrat-controlled Judiciary committee is commencing "an immediate investigation into this matter, which raises both serious constitutional and statutory issues," according to the letter. The letter also demands all communications between the White House and DOJ between November 1 and February 15 related to the national emergency and seizure of any private property.  Update: The House Judiciary Committee announced that it will investigate President Trump's national emergency declaration after Trump admitted during a Friday press conference that he "didn't need to do this."

Why Trump will win the wall fight - In the matter of the border wall, Congress could not have been more clear where it was heading. It has long put itself on the path to institutional irrelevancy, and it has finally arrived. While I do not agree that there is a national emergency on the southern border, I do believe President Trump will prevail. This crisis is not the making of Donald Trump. It is the making of Congress. For decades, Congress frittered away control over its inherent powers, including the power of the purse. I have testified repeatedly before Congress, warning about the expansion of executive power and the failure of Congress to guard its own authority. The two primary objections have been Congress giving presidents largely unchecked authority and undedicated money. The wall controversy today is a grotesque result of both failures. In 1976 Congress gave presidents sweeping authority to declare national emergencies under the National Emergencies Act. While this law allows for an override by Congress, the authority to declare a national emergency is virtually unfettered. It is one of many such laws where Congress created the thin veneer of a process for presidential power that, in reality, was a virtual blank slate. At the same time, Congress has continued to give the executive branch billions of dollars with few conditions or limitations. That is why President Obama was able not only to go to war in Libya without a declaration but to fund the entire war from billions of undedicated funds. At the time, neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor most of the current Democratic leadership made a peep of objection. Democrats have indicated they will rely on the ruling in House of Representatives versus Sylvia Burwell, in which a court not only ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to sue over executive overreach but that Obama violated the Constitution in ordering the payment of billions to insurance companies without authorization from Congress. I was the lead counsel for the House of Representatives in that case. Ironically, Pelosi vehemently opposed the litigation as a frivolous and unfounded challenge to presidential authority.

Trump Says "North Korea Will Become A Different Kind Of Rocket - An Economic One" If Talks Succeed - Ahead of a second US-NK summit in Hanoi later this month, President Trump has continued praise the brutal North Korean dictator whom he once derided as "rocket man" - despite persistent warnings from the intelligence community that Kim Jong Un has no intention of surrendering his country's nuclear arsenal, and that his conciliatory rhetoric is merely a ruse.In a series of tweets sent Friday night, Trump affirmed that the summit would take place on Feb. 27 and 28, something he had previously suggested during his State of the Union speech, and once again asserted that North Korea under KJU has the potential to become " a great Economic Powerhouse" which might "surprise some but won't surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is."Assuming that the North complies with US demands to abandon its nuclear arsenal, "North Korea will become a different kind of Rocket - an Economic one!"My representatives have just left North Korea after a very productive meeting and an agreed upon time and date for the second Summit with Kim Jong Un. It will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 & 28. I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace! North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, will become a great Economic Powerhouse. He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is. North Korea will become a different kind of Rocket - an Economic one!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2019 The implication here is clear: Trump has some serious leverage over Kim, as he holds the key to admitting North Korea into the global economy, which could lavish immense economic benefits on the extremely impoverished country. That should be a pretty powerful incentive: Currently, half of NK's 25 million people live in extreme poverty, and 70% of its people depend on government assistance for food.

Trump to hold second summit with North Korean leader --The dates and place for a second summit between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been set following the visit last week to Pyongyang by US special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. The summit is due to take place on February 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.For Trump, a great deal hinges on the meeting amid ongoing criticism in ruling circles in Washington over the lack of significant progress towards North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons and facilities, following the first summit in Singapore last June. The US president lauded the outcome of that meeting although the joint statement amounted to nothing more than a general agreement to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.Trump was effusive about the prospects, tweeting that he was looking forward “to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace!” In a subsequent tweet on Friday, he held out the prospect of transforming North Korea economically if a deal could be reached at the summit.“North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, will become a great economic powerhouse. He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is. North Korea will become a different kind of rocket—an economic one!” Trump declared. Trump is undoubtedly holding out the possibility of ending decades of diplomatic and economic isolation of North Korea to encourage Kim to make significant steps towards denuclearisation. However, the tweet also suggests that Trump is seeking to entice North Korea into closer diplomatic and economic ties with the US and distancing itself from its ally China.

 John Bolton Issues Not-So-Veiled Threat of War in Creepy Video Message to Iran  — As Iranians this week mark the 40th anniversary of their country’s 1979 revolution, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton declared in a message to Iranian leaders on Monday that he doesn’t think they will “have many more anniversaries to enjoy”—a comment that was immediately perceived as a direct threat of war. In video posted to the White House’s official Twitter page on Monday, Bolton echoed false assertions and repeatedly debunked claims by the Trump that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and described the Iranian government as the “central banker of international terrorism.”  Responding to Bolton’s video, Sen. Chris Murphy warned in a tweet on Tuesday that Trump’s hawkish national security adviser is knowingly lying to build momentum for a U.S. military attack on Iran.“Here Bolton says Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. This simply isn’t true. The intelligence says the opposite and he knows it,” Murphy wrote. “He is laying the groundwork for war and we all must be vigilant.”

Giuliani and Netanyahu Raise the Specter of “War With Iran” -- RUDY GIULIANI, the former mayor of New York City who now serves as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, called for the overthrow of Iran’s government on Wednesday during a rally in Poland staged by a cult-like group of Iranian exiles who pay him to represent them.   Giuliani said that his message for the 65 governments discussing ways to confront Iran was simple. “The theocratic dictatorship in Tehran,” Giuliani said, “must end and end quickly.”  Giuliani went on to suggest that peace in the region would only come when Iran was ruled instead by his clients, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group of former terrorists also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin. The group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, already refers to herself as “President-elect.”  Even before the conference began, the Israeli prime minister appeared to shrug off efforts by the State Department and the Polish government to portray the gathering as broadly focused on Middle East peace, describing it as primarily a meeting of Iran’s enemies. In video posted on the prime minister’s official Twitter feed, Netanyahu characterized a meeting with Oman’s foreign minister as “excellent,” and one focused on “additional steps we can take together with the countries of the region in order to advance common interests.”According to the English translation of Netanyahu’s remarks in Hebrew prepared by his office, the prime minister then added: “What is important about this meeting — and it is not in secret because there are many of those — is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”

Pence Berates EU At Warsaw Over SWIFT Alternative - Demands Allies Confront Iran - Speaking at the US-sponsored Warsaw summit on the Middle East, Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday railed against European efforts to circumvent American sanctions on Iran, and crucially as Bloomberg concludes, his speech confirms the "US and its oldest allies across the Atlantic are becoming estranged."  He slammed European efforts to "break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime" a theme also repeated by Pompeo and Israeli PM Netanyahu on the same day. Pence specifically reprimanded the UK, France, and Germany for launching a so-called "SWIFT alternative" or special purpose vehicle to allow non-dollar trade with Tehran and to facilitate humanitarian goods-related transactions, called INSTEX — or "Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges". Europe sees it as a crucial step in keeping the 2015 nuclear deal alive after Washington was able to pressure the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging service to cut off the access of Iranian banks last year.  “They call this scheme a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’,” Pence said, as cited by Bloomberg. “We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.’’ The Paris-based INSTEX initiative represents the most concrete action Europe has taken to directly thwart Washington sanctions.“We call it an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and America,’’ Pence said. Though many observers have predicted the issue would come to a head, this is the first time a top US leader has stood in Europe berating allies over offering Iran sanctions relief. Tehran for its part has said it's not enough, though a minimal beginning by the EU.  Pence further urged the Europeans to break completely with the Iran deal: “For the sake of peace, security, stability, and human rights in the Middle East, the time has come for our European partners to stand with us, stand with the Iranian people, stand with our allies and friends in the region and we reject the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. Pence also met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two agreed that Iran is "the leading state sponsor of terror in the world." During his speech at the Warsaw summit Pence cited the bombing of American embassies, the murder of "hundreds of American troops" and noted further that Iran still "holds US citizens hostage".

Iran tries to run out the clock as Trump bears down — The Trump administration is warning Iran’s Islamist rulers that, after 40 years, their time in power is almost up. But the Iranian government is betting Trump will be gone first.Even as top Trump officials traveling in Europe this week threatened to hit Iran with more economic sanctions and pressured allies to break with Tehran, there was little indication that the country’s theocratic regime fears it is in mortal peril.In fact, on the same day the Trump administration hosted a conference in Poland unofficially intended to rally global opposition against Tehran, Iran’s president was meeting his Russian and Turkish counterparts, in part to discuss new international financial mechanisms to evade U.S. sanctions.Meanwhile, in Poland, Trump’s closest aides and a top ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unfurled unexpected comments that likely left Iran with even more leverage and incentive to run out the clock on the Republican president.First, Netanyahu set off alarm bells with a tweet suggesting a coming “war” with Iran, undermining the administration’s effort to portray its Poland event as a peace conference. Then, Vice President Mike Pence went off script to demand that the Europeans quit the Iran nuclear deal, a call sure to be dismissed. It also did not go unnoticed that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, called for regime change in Iran at a separate gathering in Warsaw.The developments come as a flock of Democrats have launched White House bids, a probe into Trump's 2016 campaign continues to encircle the president and Republicans wonder if Trump will face a primary challenge or even not run again. “Both sides are waiting and hoping for regime change in one another’s countries, but the clock in Washington is running faster than the clock in Tehran,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Hating Neocons Is Becoming Mainstream Again, And It Is Excellent - Caitlin Johntone - American Conservative has published an article titled “Why Are These Professional War Peddlers Still Around?“, an excerpt from a book by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, which documents neoconservative thought leaders Max Boot and Bill Kristol’s consistent track record of supporting spectacularly awful US war policies. Carlson goes over the many, many acts of military interventionism which have been pushed for by these two legendary failmeisters, documents what they predicted would happen as the result of that interventionism (freedom, democracy and prosperity) and what actually ended up happening instead (needless death, terrorism and chaos), and marvels at how they both somehow remain in positions of high esteem with high-profile, high-paying jobs.The article was shared today on Twitter by Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, who commented that Carlson “offers a devastating critique [of] interventionism and shows how much of the foreign policy establishment has failed the American people. There is an emerging, left right coalition of common sense for a foreign policy of restraint.” Khanna has received a predictable amount of backlash from the left for this tweet, as does anyone who mentions the possibility of cross-ideological coalitions against US warmongering. The only cross-ideological convergence that many leftists find palatable in compensating for their relatively weak numbers is with the neoliberal, neoconservative corporate “center”, so-called only because the plutocratic class which benefits from the current Orwellian status quo has been able to buy up narrative control to force their agendas to become the mainstream consensus. The trouble with this, of course, is that that corporate CIA/CNN “center” never opposes US warmongering in any meaningful way. The left (the real left, not the “We call everyone we’re cluster bombing by their preferred gender pronouns” MSNBC faux-left) opposes US warmongering, and in some cases so too does the populist right which has uplifted Tucker Carlson to such prominence.

US Senators Aim to Block Saudi Arabia From Creating Nuclear Weapons  — A new bipartisan resolution making its way through the Senate is aimed at blocking Saudi Arabia from having any path toward the creation of nuclear weapons, placing severe restrictions on Saudi activities if they accept a US civilian nuclear cooperation deal. If the Saudis accept US nuclear cooperation, the resolution would forbid them from any uranium enrichment, and from any attempted reprocessing of plutonium produced in their reactors. These are the two primary ways nuclear arms could be produced.“The last thing America should do is inadvertently help develop nuclear weapons for a bad actor on the world stage,” U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley said in a release.The Trump Administration is reportedly in the process of making exactly such a cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia, with Energy Secretary Rick Perry in quiet talks on sharing US civilian nuclear technology with them. Congressional anger at the Saudis for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has fueled a lot of resolutions on US-Saudi relations, trying to place additional limits on Saudi access to US technology, to prevent abuses in the future.

In Defiance Of Trump, House Votes To End US Military Support For Saudi War In Yemen - For years, the United States has been providing logistics, intelligence sharing and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The U.S. military also provided aerial refueling to coalition jets, but the administration suspended that support in November.  As The Hill notes, the Trump administration declined to follow a congressionally mandated deadline Friday to report on whether Saudi leadership, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for Khashoggi’s slaying and should be sanctioned.  In a direct rebuke of Trump's foreign policy amid broader pushback over his defense of Saudi Arabia, the House on Wednesday passed a bill in a 248-177 vote that largely fell along party lines, which requires President Trump to withdraw U.S. military support from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. The House sent the war powers resolution to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass and confront Trump with the possibility of issuing the first veto of his presidency.“The only patriotic thing, if you care about our troops, if you care about American interests, if you care about the outrage that the Saudis are inflicting on Americans and on the world, then the only patriotic thing to do is to vote for this resolution,” California Democrat Ro Khanna, the resolution’s chief House sponsor, said ahead of the vote.The resolution would direct the president to withdraw U.S. military forces in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda or associated forces, according to The Hill . The vote comes at a time when Congress’ anger at Saudi Arabia over last year’s killing of U.S.-based journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi is being reignited. However, confirming what we said earlier, namely that the War Powers Act is a joke, Trump said in December he would veto the Senate resolution if it ever reached his desk, which now appears likely.

Trump Skips Deadline to Report to Congress on Khashoggi Murder  — Friday was the deadline under the Magnitsky Act for President Trump to submit a formal report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was murdered in October by the Saudi government, and senators submitted the Magnitsky request on October 10. The act gives the president 120 days to respond to Congress on the matter, requires determinations on involvement and sanctions on those responsible.President Trump has chosen to ignore the deadline, however, and never submitted a report at all. The administration confirmed the deadline existed and was deliberately ignored, saying Trump believes he has “discretion to decline to act.” The Senate saw this coming, which is why earlier in the week they already moved on to introduce legislation to hold Saudis accountable over the murder. US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince almost certainly ordered the murder. This is the consensus amongst pretty much everybody except President Trump, who has insisted that assigning such blame would risk US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Pentagon Seeks Massive Increase for 'Slush Fund' War Account - he U.S. Defense Department is planning to ask Congress for a massive increase to a controversial war account often criticized as a “slush fund” in order to circumvent mandatory spending limits, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions.The increase would amount to a reversal for President Donald Trump’s White House budget director, former Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who for years campaigned against what he saw as former President Barack Obama’s abuse of the account, calling it a “slush fund.” After he was tapped for the job, Mulvaney told Senate lawmakers that he would seek to eliminate the fund altogether.  Five sources—both U.S. government officials and outside sources close to the discussions—said the Pentagon in its fiscal year 2020 budget request is planning to ask lawmakers to more than double the size of the Overseas Contingency Operations account, as it is formally called, to a level not seen since the height of the Iraq surge in the late 2000s. The Defense Department’s base budget for fiscal year 2020 is capped by law at $576 billion. The Trump administration is seeking roughly an additional $150 billion (possibly as much as $174 billion, which would bring the overall budget for defense to $750 billion) for the war fund, more commonly known as OCO, the sources tell Foreign Policy. Entire programs, such as the U.S. Army’s accounts for ammunition and training, will be moved to this war account, according to multiple sources.

Admiral to Congress- Think about the 280-plus ships that didn’t have collisions — In a tense exchange before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the four-star admiral who led the U.S. Navy’s internal review into two deadly collisions in 2017 told members that while two ships had tragic accidents that year, the rest of the fleet was collision-free.  Adm. Phil Davidson, now head of U.S. Pacific Command, was responding to a question from Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, about warnings that readiness was slipping in the fleet, as detailed last week in an investigation by ProPublica. The report dug into the years preceding the collisions of the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain in Asia that claimed the lives of 17 sailors.King pressed Davidson about providing Congress with specific data regarding training and certifications of sailors prior to employment by the fleet, adding that the dual tragedies were preventable.Instead of responding to the question about providing specific data, Davidson bristled and appeared to respond to the criticisms implicit in the ProPublica article, which laid out years of reports and warnings from senior leaders about readiness. Davidson took issue with the idea that readiness issues in the fleet were kept secret, and he pointed to his testimony in 2016 that detailed funding shortfalls for readiness accounts. Then Davidson pivoted and attempted to point to places where the Navy has been successful. “These two collisions were a tragedy, there is no doubt about it,” Davidson said. “And all the senior leaders of the Navy feel a tremendous amount of accountability for it. But the fact of the matter is 280-odd other ships weren’t having collisions.”

The Dangers of U.S. Brinkmanship in Venezuela - Since 1995, the U.S. has been involved in 12 more regime change operations — Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Iran, Nicaragua. Venezuela makes it 13. Judging from the miserable U.S. record at coercing changes in other countries’ governments, U.S. interference in Venezuela threatens to turn a crisis into a catastrophe.  The U.S. government has been opposed to Venezuela’s socialist revolution since Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, and it supported a previous unsuccessful coup in 2002. Unbeknownst to most Americans, Chavez was well loved by poor and working class Venezuelans for his extraordinary array of social programs that lifted millions out of poverty. Between 1996 and 2010, Venezuela’s level of extreme poverty plummeted from 40 percent to 7 percent. The government also substantially improved healthcare and education, cutting infant mortality by half, reducing the malnutrition rate from 21 percent to 5 percent, and eliminating illiteracy. Since Chavez’ death in 2013, Venezuela has fallen into a deep economic morass stemming from a combination of government mismanagement, corruption, and the 2014 precipitous fall in the price of oil, which provides 95 percent of Venezuela’s exports. U.S. economic sanctions have only added to that toxic mix. The first sanctions in 2015 focused on individuals. But in 2017, they broadened to cut off access to international financial markets to prevent Venezuela from issuing new debt and restructuring its existing debt obligations. The sanctions significantly hamper the ability of Venezuelan companies to do business in the United States. The freezing of the funds of Venezuela’s oil company in the U.S., CITGO, deprives Venezuela of billions of dollars in revenue that it previously received from the export, refining, and retail sale of gasoline to American drivers. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton brazenly told Fox News: “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

Trump Administration in Direct Contact With Venezuelan Military, Urging Defections The US is holding direct communications with members of Venezuela’s military, urging them to abandon President Nicolas Maduro and is also preparing new sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on him, a senior White House official said. The Donald Trump administration expects further military defections from Maduro’s side, the official told Reuters in an interview, despite only a few senior officers having done so since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last month, earning the recognition of the US and dozens of other countries. “We believe these to be those first couple pebbles before we start really seeing bigger rocks rolling down the hill,” the official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re still having conversations with members of the former Maduro regime, with military members, although those conversations are very, very limited.” The official declined to provide details on the discussions or the level at which they are being held, and it was unclear whether such contacts could create cracks in the Venezuelan socialist leader’s support from the military, which is pivotal to his grip on power. With the Venezuelan military still apparently loyal to Maduro, a source in Washington close to the opposition expressed doubts whether the Trump administration has laid enough groundwork to spur a wider mutiny in the ranks where many officers are suspected of benefiting from corruption and drug trafficking. Members of the South American country’s security forces fear they or their families could be targeted by Maduro if they defect, so the US would need to offer them something that could outweigh those concerns,

The Neocon Playbook Is a Recipe for Disaster in Venezuela -- When Donald Trump promised that he would only hire the “best people,” maybe he should have been pressed on what, exactly, they would be good at. Because it’s clearly not running the US government. Over the past two years, it has become clear that liars, grifters, conmen, opportunists, and crooks seem to be drawn to the president like flies to … well, you know.  Now, however, a situation is arising for which one of Trump’s “best people” seems ideally suited for forcing regime change somewhere in the Americas. At a time when the president seems intent on getting the US out of Syria and Afghanistan, he appears to be equally determined to plunge headfirst into the chaos in Venezuela.  His point person for this adventure is Elliott Abrams, who has a long history of mucking around in the US’s backyard — often with dubious methods. In other words, he’ll fit right in.   To those unfamiliar with Abrams, here are the CliffsNotes: In the early 1980s, Abrams served as assistant secretary of state for human rights, which, in retrospect, seems like some kind of cruel joke. In that position, Abrams once stated that former Guatemalan leader General Efraín Ríos Montt “brought considerable progress” to human rights in his country. In case you are not familiar with Ríos Montt, he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013.

Escobar- Are The Neocons Ready For Their Tropical Vietnam? -Cold War 2.0 has hit South America with a bang – pitting the US and expected minions against the four key pillars of in-progress Eurasia integration: Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. It’s the oil, stupid. But there’s way more than meets the (oily) eye. Caracas has committed the ultimate cardinal sin in the eyes of Exceptionalistan; oil trading bypassing the US dollar or US-controlled exchanges. Remember Iraq. Remember Libya. Yet Iran is also doing it. Turkey is doing it. Russia is – partially – on the way. And China will eventually trade all its energy in petroyuan. With Venezuela adopting the petro crypto-currency and the sovereign bolivar, already last year the Trump administration had sanctioned Caracas off the international financial system. No wonder Caracas is supported by China, Russia and Iran. They are the real hardcore troika – not psycho-killer John Bolton’s cartoonish “troika of tyranny” – fighting against the Trump administration’s energy dominance strategy, which consists essentially in aiming at the total lock down of oil trading in petrodollars, forever. Venezuela is a key cog in the machine. Psycho killer Bolton admitted it on the record; “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” It’s not a matter of just letting ExxonMobil take over Venezuela’s massive oil reserves – the largest on the planet. The key is to monopolize their exploitation in US dollars, benefitting a few Big Oil billionaires. Once again, the curse of natural resources is in play. Venezuela must not be allowed to profit from its wealth on its own terms; thus, Exceptionalistan has ruled that the Venezuelan state must be shattered. In the end, this is all about economic war. Cue to the US Treasury Department imposing new sanctions on PDVSA that amount to a de facto oil embargo against Venezuela.

Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism  -- President Trump hadn’t had much success dividing Democrats until he found a word that would provoke very different responses from different members of the party during his State of the Union address: socialism. Trump’s warning of creeping socialism in the United States, deftly mentioned after a section of the speech on the unfolding political crisis in Venezuela, created an immediate public split among Democrats that was caught on live television.Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) were among the lawmakers who stood with Republicans to applaud Trump when he pledged that the United States would never slide into socialism. But other Democrats weren’t so happy about Trump’s choice of words — which was clearly meant to put them on the spot.Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who labels himself as a democratic socialist, stayed rooted in his seat, as did Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another leading democratic socialist, smiled in response to Trump's remark but stayed seated. She later argued that Trump's attack is a sign of her growing success. “I think it was great. I think he’s scared," she told HuffPost. "He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing to the public."  The different reactions reflect a battle within the Democratic Party that Trump and Republicans are eager to exploit.

Rubio Venezuela Aid PR Stunt - The Trump administration’s now completely overt effort to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had a very successful public relations effort this week, as major Western media outlets uniformly echoed its simplistic, pre-packaged claim that the Venezuelan government was heartlessly withholding foreign aid:

All of the above articles - and scores more like it - repeated the same script: Maduro was blocking aid from the US “out of refusal to relinquish power,” preferring to starve “his own people” rather than feed them. It’s a simple case of good and evil—of a tyrannical, paranoid dictator not letting in aid to feed a starving population.  Except three pieces of key context are missing. Context that, when presented to a neutral observer, would severely undermine the cartoonish narrative being advanced by US media.

  1. Both the Red Cross and UN warned the US not to engage in this aid PR stunt.
  2. The bridge in question is a visual metaphor contrived by the Trump administration of little practical relevance.
  3. The person in charge of US operations in Venezuela has a history of using aid as a cover to deliver weapons to right-wing mercenaries.

(1) Not only has the international aid community not asked for the “aid,” earlier this week, both the International Red Cross and United Nations warned the US to explicitly not engage in these types of PR stunts. As Washington Post contributor Vincent Bevins pointed out, the transparent cynicism of these efforts was preemptively warned about by the groups actually charged with keeping starving people fed:  Red Cross Warns US About Risks of Sending Aid to Venezuela (PBS NewsHour, 2/1/19):

How the Media Manufactures Consent for Regime Change in Venezuela — The latest extraordinary chapter in the bizarre world of Venezuelan politics is playing out before our eyes. After winning the 2018 presidential elections, Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated in January, only for the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó — a man whom, at the time, less than 20 percent of the country had even heard of — to declare himself President. Guaidó was immediately backed by the governments of the U.S. and U.K., with Vice President Mike Pence stating, “Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. He has never won the presidency in a free and fair election, and has maintained his grip of power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him.”I’ve previously cataloged how the media has been quick to echo the idea that Maduro is completely illegitimate and has been eager to position America’s stance towards Venezuelan politics as one of a neutral arbiter.Why do mainstream media outlets, who resist Trump at home, neatly align themselves with his administration’s Venezuela policy? And why has there so little criticism of what is essentially an ongoing U.S.-backed coup attempt? In a recent study, I analyzed how the media presented the 2018 elections in Colombia and Venezuela. Looking at how these two elections were covered can help us understand why there’s so little nuance in the media coverage of U.S.-Venezuela relations.

AP Interview- Maduro reveals secret meetings with US envoy (AP) — A month into Venezuela’s high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an Associated Press interview that his government has held secret talks with the Trump administration. He also predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation. While harshly criticizing President Donald Trump’s confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said Thursday that he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve a crisis triggered by America’s recognition of his opponent, Juan Guaido, as Venezuela’s rightful leader. Maduro said that during two meetings in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, to visit “privately, publicly or secretly.” “If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I’ll be there,” Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours. U.S. officials have not denied Maduro’s claim of talks. A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. officials were willing to meet with “former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans.” Speaking with reporters Friday in Reykjavik, Iceland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he sees obvious signs that Maduro is starting to understand Venezuelans reject him as their leader. He said that it “is not new” that Maduro holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president, but it reflects a realization that his crisis-riddled nation rejects his “model of governance.” Venezuela is plunging deeper into a political chaos triggered by the U.S. demand that Maduro step down a month into a second presidential term that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America consider illegitimate. His opponent, the 35-year-old Guaido, burst onto the political stage in January in the first viable challenge in years to Maduro’s hold on power.

Ilhan Omar Smacks Down Elliott Abrams In Front Of Everybody - Caitlin Johnstone - Days after being smashed with a vicious establishment smear campaign to paint her as an antisemite for accurately criticizing AIPAC, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is already back on the horse aggressively disrupting the establishment narrative matrix that our rulers have worked so hard to construct for us.Elliott Abrams is a monster. The atrocities that he has facilitated, covered up and whitewashed in Panama, El Salvador, Gaza, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Iraq are utterly unforgivable, and the fact that he has been appointed as special envoy to Venezuela by the Trump administration completely invalidates the US government’s Venezuela narrative all by itself. Even without the blatant lies, the known oil agendas, the CIA ops, the mounting evidence of US arms smuggling to right-wing militias, and America’s extensive history of utterly disastrous regime change interventionism, the fact that this administration would appoint such a ghoulish individual to spearhead its Venezuela interventionism alone is enough to show you that the US government has nothing but malevolent intentions for that nation. So it was nice to see someone in that government calling him what he is right to his face in front of everybody.

 Congress Will Not Support Military Intervention In Venezuela -- Despite the War Powers Act, when it comes to the US declaring covert, not so covert or any other type of war, or merely "humanitarian intervention" on a foreign adversary, the US Congress has historically been utterly toothless and generally irrelevant to any progression of hostilities (especially when the US Military-Industrial Complex stands to benefit, which it has generously in recent years, and for proof look no further than the exponential rise in the stock of Boeing). Furthermore, even when Congress proactively has engaged to limit US intervention abroad, as it did in the case of Libya in 2011, Syria during the entire 2012-2017 conflict, and most recently Saudi Arabia's war on Yemen, its resolutions have been summarily ignored.Which is why it was impossible not to smirk when moments ago House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said that "Congress would not support a US military intervention in Venezuela" during a hearing on the crisis in Venezuela on Wednesday.“US military intervention is not an option,” Engel said quoted by Reuters. "Congress decides when, where and how the US military is used around the world, and Congress would not support military intervention in Venezuela."Actually, Mr Engel, it is usually the CIA that decides "where and how" the US military is used, and it is US defense companies that help prepare the "analysis" (usually in the form of ROI) used by the CIA.That obvious fact, however, did not bother Engel who added that "I do worry about the president’s sabre rattling, his hints that U.S. military intervention remains an option. I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: U.S. military intervention is not an option."While we applaud Engel's strict, and highly theoretical read of US laws, we urge him to focus on all those time when the War Powers Act was thrown out by the administration du jour, and as for a potential Venezuela intervention, the decision will ultimately come not from Congress, or even Trump, but rather Russia and China, and whether they decide to keep supporting Maduro's regime (as in the case of Syria) or if they concede that it's time for regime change.

Beltway Warriors Target China as the Next Global Threat - Many of the major bureaucratic and political players in Washington, including Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who were promoting the global war on terror in the first decade of the 21st century are now contending that China is the leading global threat to U.S. interests, and are in the process of readying the nation for a new cold war, this time around with Beijing. Hence both economic nationalists and security hawks seem to be looking forward to the evolving cold war with China, which would probably translate into an expanding government role in the economy and to growing defense budgets. But most Americans would not benefit from rising tensions with China, which would only lead to more trade wars and could ignite military confrontations, opening the way for less economic and political freedom. Contrary those sounding the drumbeat of the new Cold War, China does not represent the kind of threat that the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, or Nazi Germany posed. China does not seek global domination and has no plans to establish a military presence in America’s sphere of influence in Central and Latin America. It seeks instead to protect its national security interests in its own sphere of influence in the Pacific where other powers—including India, Japan, and the U.S.—are seen to be challenging them. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese have not been promoting their political-economic model worldwide or trying to export it the way that the U.S. has with its liberal-democratic model.

China Is The "Greatest Long-Term Strategic Threat" To US, Top Pacific Commander Tells Congress  - After yet another US Navy sail-by operation in the South China Sea early this week, which sparked fury in Beijing, and following a series of provocative Taiwan Strait passes by US ships over the past months, the commander of US Indo-Pacific operations has again warned China to back off.   Adm. Philip Davidson told lawmakers on Tuesday that China represents the “greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to the United States.” He testified before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that US-China competition represents "two incompatible visions of the future." Warning that the geopolitical rivalry and situation is actually worse than most pundits believe, he said, “Those who believe this is reflective of an intensifying competition between an established power in the United States and a rising power in China are not seeing the whole picture,” during an opening statement.   “Rather, I believe we are facing something even more serious: a fundamental divergence in values that leads to two incompatible visions of the future," he said. Adm. Davidson described the communist leadership in Beijing as using “fear and coercion” in an attempt to “expand its form of ideology in order to bend, break and replace the existing rules-based international order.” “Beijing seeks to create a new order, one with Chinese characteristics led by China, an outcome that displaces the stability and peace of the Indo-Pacific that has endured for over 70 years,” Davidson added.  Adm. Davidson's testimony is sure to be received in Beijing as a fresh attack connected with Monday's "freedom of navigation operation" involving two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — the USS Spruance and the USS Preble — which sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese bases in the contested Spratly Islands.

 US-China trade war ‘could cost 1 million American jobs’ - Almost 1 million American jobs are at risk due to the effects of the current trade war with China and further disputes between the United States and other countries, according to a new study. Research from the Washington-based consultancy Trade Partnership Worldwide, paid for by the pro-free trade lobbying group Tariffs Hurt the Heartlands, ominously predicts that more than 2 million American jobs could be on the line should US President Donald Trump push ahead with his threat of a 25 per cent tariff on all Chinese exports. Currently, US$250 billion of Chinese exports to the United States are subject to tariffs of either 10 per cent or 25 per cent, but the number of goods on the higher tariff range will increase on March 2 if US and Chinese negotiators do not reach a deal. While the tariffs are partly aimed at reviving US manufacturing, the study finds that retaliatory tariffs levies on US exports by the likes of China, the European Union, Canada and Mexico are causing US exports to weaken. Trump’s tariffs also mean that US manufacturers have to pay more for the imported components they use in their own products, making them less competitive to export. Researchers looked at four scenarios based on actual or threatened tariffs, and examined the potential economic fallout over a one- to three-year period.

Pompeo hints at Huawei ultimatum to countries buying equipment -  Secretary of State Michael Pompeo came close to issuing an us-or-them ultimatum to nations buying from Huawei Technology Co, saying in Hungary that contracts with the Chinese networking giant could limit the availability of US equipment. “If that equipment is co-located where we have important American systems, it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” Pompeo told reporters in Budapest, when asked what message he would send about Huawei. “We want to make sure we identify the opportunities and the risks with using that equipment. And then they will get to make their decisions.” The Shenzhen, China-based telecoms company has made Hungary a key base in Europe, touting investments of US$1.2bil (RM4.89bil) in the country. Pompeo didn’t elaborate on what “important American systems” he was referring to. But the top US diplomat is making push-back against Huawei a key theme of his trip to Europe this week, with additional stops in Poland, Slovakia, Belgium and Iceland. The administration has argued for providers of next-generation mobile gear to rely on US companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. “They get to make their own decisions with respect to these things,” Pompeo said. “What is imperative is that we share with them the things we know about the risks that Huawei’s presence in their networks present.” Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto, in the joint briefing with Pompeo in Budapest, pushed back against criticism that Hungary wasn’t doing enough to counter China’s influence, in particular Huawei. He noted that Hungary’s trade with China represented 1.2% of the EU’s overall trade with that country and that any cooperation shouldn’t endanger the country’s partnership with the US. “If you look at the Chinese company which is very often in the news nowadays regarding telecommunications, are they present in Hungary? Yes,” Szijjarto said. “Who are their major contractors? A German and a British company. So when it comes to China, I think hypocrisy should finally be left behind.”

Western nations using Huawei gear will risk US consequences, envoy warns - Any Western country allowing equipment from Huawei Technologies or other Chinese makers to be used in critical infrastructure projects will face the risk of US countermeasures, the US envoy to the European Union said. The warning by ambassador Gordon Sondland came after a report in business daily Handelsblatt that the German government wants to avoid excluding products offered by Huawei from the next-generation 5G network in Germany. However, the Funke group of newspapers reported later on Friday that Germany’s federal cybersecurity agency is investigating whether Huawei Technologies could be a security threat after warnings from other countries. Funke cited Economy Minister Peter Altmaier as saying the German government did not have information on whether Huawei could be a security threat, adding the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) had been activated. Altmaier also said talks on security standards for the mobile network were ongoing, adding that Germany needed to protect itself “in all sensitive areas, from hospitals to telecommunication.” His comments appeared to push back against an earlier report by Handelsblatt that Berlin had reached a consensus not to exclude Huawei from building next-generation 5G networks, deciding instead to impose tougher compliance rules on foreign vendors. Nevertheless, Sondland’s comments add to signs that US President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing for a blanket ban on Chinese companies from new 5G wireless networks, autonomous vehicles and other lucrative contracts in the technology sector throughout Europe, North America and other American allies. Sondland’s comments come as the European Union weighs the introduction of a new sanctions regime against companies or countries involved in cyberespionage and intellectual property theft.

US trade tactics and Huawei case show ‘West wants repeat of opium wars’ -   The US-China trade war and “suppression” of telecoms giant Huawei showed that the West wanted to repeat the opium wars of the mid-19th century and other military campaigns against the country, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong said on Monday. Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, who chairs powerful rural body the Heung Yee Kuk, was speaking at the organisation’s annual spring reception. The city’s top officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and Wang Zhimin, head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, attended the event. China and the United States have been locked in a trade war since July and imposed hefty tariffs on each other’s imports. Further punitive action is on the cards if a deal is not reached before the end of a truce agreed by President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump in Buenos Aires in December in less than three weeks.  Since Canadian authorities arrested Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on December 1 at the US’ request, China has detained two Canadians on suspicion of endangering national security and sentenced a third one to death for drug smuggling, in moves Ottawa has described as deeply concerning. Lau said: “The trade disputes triggered by the US were like a tempest. Its suppression of Chinese corporation Huawei’s 5G and Meng’s case show that some people in the international community are trying to repeat the opium wars and the siege of the international legations.” China’s telecoms firms, especially Huawei, have come under intense pressure amid growing concerns in Western countries about security issues with the Chinese companies’ equipment.  The first opium war (1839-42) was fought over opium trade and diplomatic disputes, and ended with Hong Kong Island being ceded to the British, while the siege took place in present-day Beijing during the Boxer rebellion, a violent two-year uprising against foreigners in China that ended in 1901.

The real reason America is scared of Huawei: internet-connected everything - There was a time when the world’s two great superpowers were obsessed with nuclear weapons technology. Today the flashpoint is between the US and China, and it involves the wireless technology that promises to connect your toaster to the web.  The two countries are embroiled in a political war over the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The Americans have recently stepped up long-standing criticisms, claiming the tech giant has stolen trade secrets and committed fraud, and that it has ties to the Chinese government and its military. The company denies the charges and has sought to defend its record on privacy and security. Meanwhile, US allies including Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan have all either imposed restrictions on Huawei’s equipment or are considering doing so, citing national security concerns.  Behind the headlines, though, the spat is also about the coming wave of networking technology known as 5G, and who owns it. Here are five things you need to know about the technology and its role in the tensions.

Trump Wants to Meet With Xi ‘Very Soon’ Over Trade War, Adviser Says - The Trump administration said the U.S. president still wants to meet China’s Xi Jinping in an effort to end the trade war, a sign of optimism as negotiators from the world’s two-biggest economies start their latest round of talks this week. “He wants to meet with President Xi very soon,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Monday on Fox News. “This president wants a deal. He wants it to be fair to Americans and American workers and American interests.” Uncertainty whether the leaders will meet to finalize an agreement has stoked concerns that negotiations are faltering as the March 1 deadline approaches. If there’s no deal by then, President Donald Trump has threatened to more than double the rate of tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. Negotiators from the two countries are meeting this week in Beijing, with U.S. officials pressing China to commit to deeper reforms to a state-driven economic model that they say hurts American companies. Mid-level officials began discussions Monday in preparation for two days of talks starting Thursday involving U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. Lighthizer and Mnuchin were seen arriving at a Beijing hotel on Tuesday.

Trump Considers 60-Day Extension for China Tariff Deadline - President Donald Trump is considering pushing back the deadline for imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese imports by 60 days, as the world’s two biggest economies try to negotiate a solution to their trade dispute, according to people familiar with the matter. The president said Tuesday that he was open to letting the March 1 deadline for more than doubling tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods slide, if the two countries are close to a deal that addresses deep structural changes to China’s economic policies -- though he added he was not “inclined” to do so. The people said that Trump is weighing whether to add 60 days to the current deadline to give negotiations more time to continue.“I think it’s going along very well,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office this week. “They’re showing us tremendous respect.” A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer declined to comment. Chinese officials had initially proposed an extension of 90 days, but that was knocked back by the U.S. side, people familiar with that request said. Negotiations this week are focused on how to enforce the trade deal and putting on paper a framework agreement to present to the two presidents.

US-China trade talks: Steven Mnuchin positive after ‘productive meetings'  - US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sounded a positive note as he wrapped up two days of trade talks between China and the US on Friday before meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.   “Productive meetings with China’s Vice-Premier Liu He and @USTradeRep Amb. Lighthizer,” Mnuchin said in a tweet. The two sides are scrambling for an agreement despite remaining far apart on key structural issues, as US President Donald Trump considers pushing back the March 1 end of their 90-day tariffs truce.The WeChat public account Taoran Notes said in a report on Friday that although there was limited information coming out of the closed-door talks, negotiations had been extended until late at night. Taoran is the account of a senior member of editorial staff at the state-run Economic Daily, and the article was republished by state broadcaster CCTV and the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily.“There was laughter coming out of the venue,” the report said. “Not only is there a good atmosphere, but the working groups from both sides reportedly worked late, exchanging views all night. There must be things to discuss to keep discussions going so late.”After tough negotiations that began on Monday in the Chinese capital, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mnuchin will next meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday in a move White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow described as a “very good sign”. “They’re covering all the ground. They’re hard at it,” he told reporters on Thursday. “They’re just soldiering on. The vibe is good.”

Little Progress Made As US And China Wrap Up 6th Round Of Trade Talks - Following what was, by the FT's count, the sixth round of cabinet-level trade negotiations since the trade war erupted last year, it appeared that little progress had been made this week, as the US has reportedly been frustrated by China's unwillingness to offer concessions on the structural reforms that the US has demanded.According to the FT, Chinese officials this week promised to deliver a full accounting of government subsidies, in accordance with WTO rules, but US officials are skeptical of this commitment. Meanwhile, Robert Lighthizer and his team have reportedly pushed back against a possible deadline extension.Chinese officials have promised to provide a full list of all central and local government subsidies in accordance with World Trade Organization reporting requirements. They will also take steps to ensure that the subsidies do not violate WTO rules.  Mr Lighthizer’s team, however, is sceptical about such promises. "China’s system is so opaque that you would have to take their word that the WTO notification is complete," one of his team said. US officials are also frustrated that Mr Liu’s team has offered few market access concessions beyond what Mr Xi spelt out in a speech last April that focused on modest liberalisations in the financial and automotive sectors.Beijing reportedly believes a meeting between Trump and Xi - which Trump has said would be essential to forging a final agreement - would be the best shot at a compromise that would shrink the US-China trade deficit, but avoid structural reforms to the Chinese economy. Beijing has resisted US demands to improve market access for foreign firms and ditch subsidies because it views these demands as an unwarranted intrusion on Chinese sovereignty. However, Trump has said he would only accept a "real deal."

 After Meeting With US Delegation, Xi Hints That China Won't Budge On Economic Reforms -  In brief remarks to the press following his meeting Friday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Rep Robert Lighthizer, President Xi affirmed that trade talks between the US and Chinese delegations will continue in Washington next week, and that while he hopes the two sides can reach a "mutually beneficial win-win agreement" he insisted that it wouldn't come at the expense of "certain principles.""We are willing to adopt a cooperative approach to resolve and promote an agreement acceptable to both sides. However, cooperation requires certain principles." CNBC's Eunice Yoon recounted the details of the announcement in a series of tweets. She described Xi's remarks as a reminder that China has "its own bottom line" in talks with the US.

  • U.S. trade negotiators @stevenmnuchin1 and @USTradeRep Lighthizer shaking hands with Xi Dada while Vice Premier Liu He looks on. The two Americans depart Beijing tonight while we await any statement on progress. #China pic.twitter.com/T6m2NU4dnj — Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 15, 2019
  • U.S. negotiator says “very difficult issues” remain after U.S.-China trade talks @AFP — Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 15, 2019
  • President Xi says trade negotiations with U.S. will continue in Washington next week, according to #China state media.— Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 15, 2019
  • President Xi says hopes #China and U.S. can reach mutually beneficial win-win agreement, says official media. — Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 15, 2019
  • “We are willing to adopt a cooperative approach to resolve and promote an agreement acceptable to both sides. However, cooperation requires certain principles.” - President Xi’s reminder to the U.S. that #China has its own bottom line in trade talks, says state media @XHNews — Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 15, 2019

 Exclusive- U.S. considers withdrawal of zero tariffs for India – sources (Reuters) - India could lose a vital U.S. trade concession, under which it enjoys zero tariffs on $5.6 billion of exports to the United States, amid a widening dispute over its trade and investment policies, people with close knowledge of the matter said. o A move to withdraw the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from India, the world’s largest beneficiary of a scheme that has been in force since the 1970s, would be the strongest punitive action against India since President Donald Trump took office in 2017 vowing to reduce the U.S. deficit with large economies. Trump has repeatedly called out India for its high tariffs. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has courted foreign investment as part of his Make-in-India campaign to turn India into a manufacturing hub and deliver jobs to the millions of youth entering the workforce. Trump, for his part, has pushed for U.S. manufacturing to return home as part of his Make America Great Again campaign. The trigger for the latest downturn in trade ties was India’s new rules on e-commerce that restrict the way Amazon.com Inc and Walmart-backed Flipkart do business in a rapidly growing online market set to touch $200 billion by 2027. That, coming on top of a drive to force global card payments companies such as Mastercard and Visa to move their data to India and the imposition of higher tariffs on electronic products and smartphones, left a broader trade package the two sides were working on through last year in tatters. 

Immigrant Rights Groups Trash Border Deal- “Immigrant Families Will Pay the Price” - IMMIGRANT RIGHTS GROUPS are reacting angrily to the border deal to keep the government open, which President Donald Trump has said that he will sign into law, averting a shutdown. The bill, which has not yet officially been drafted, gives Trump more than $1 billion in funding for new barriers on the southern border, and funds a potential increase in immigrant detention capacity.The barriers that the bill would fund are a rhetorical downgrade from Trump’s signature policy of erecting a border wall, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has repeatedly rejected to fund. Funding for immigration detention, which has soared under the Trump administration, was a key issue in talks over keeping the government open. Democrats had pushed for cuts to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention budget, but ceded that demand in the interest of moving negotiations forward. The bill would fund the government through September 30.The central problem with the deal, leaders of the immigrant rights community say, is that Democrats, from a position of strength given their control of the House of Representatives, merely entrenched Trump’s immigration policy. The deal, they say, puts a bipartisan stamp of approval on the dark chapter of American history that Trump’s policies have brought upon us. Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said that Democrats appeared to be negotiating as if the November elections hadn’t happened. Trump made the midterms a referendum on his border wall, driving 24/7 news coverage of a migrant caravan walking through Central America. He declared the caravan a national crisis and sent the military to the border. Voters responded by giving Democrats the biggest midterm win since Watergate.

 'We Will Be That Lantern on the Shore': Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley Rally With TPS Holders Outside Trump White House - Immigrant rights advocates and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders from Nepal and Honduras—joined by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.)—rallied outside the White House on Tuesday morning to protest the Trump administration's moves to revoke protected status from people residing in the United States due to dangerous conditions in their home countries.Critics charge that the ongoing efforts to end TPS are motivated by President Donald Trump's racism against "non-white, non-European immigrants." The TPS holders, activists, and lawmakers who turned out for the March for TPS Justice despite the winter weather called on Congress to "take action to #SaveTPS and create permanent protections that give residency to immigrant youth and TPS holders." "We will be that lantern on the shore. We will be here in case of humanitarian disaster. We will be here in case of natural disaster, war, et cetera. We are a nation that turns peril into promise. We are a nation that builds from many, and we have to protect our basic character as a nation to be that," Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd. "We are here to make sure that all TPS recipients become permanent members of the United States of America." Pressley, for her part, said: "You are the true patriots, you are the true Americans, and we are not out here demanding charity—we are demanding what you have earned!"

‘My whole town practically lived there’: From Costa Rica to New Jersey, a pipeline of illegal workers for Trump goes back years WaPo - At his home on the misty slope of Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Dario Angulo keeps a set of photographs from the years he tended the rolling fairways and clipped greens of a faraway American golf resort. Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home. Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down. It’s a common story in this small town. Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery. “Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”

Why the Justice Department Can’t Be Trusted to Investigate Abysmal Conditions in Federal Prisons - The humanitarian crisis at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center will have come as a shock to many. It is horrifying. If there is one institution, however, which has no grounds for shock, nor the performance of it, it is the Justice Department.   As a late-January polar vortex hit New York with frigid temperatures, the Metropolitan Detention Center, a waterfront federal prison, experienced an electrical fire, leaving incarcerated people inside without heat, light, warm food, or access to legal counsel for days. Following a furious response from protesters and legal advocates, public officials and a federal judge toured the facility, witnessing inhumane conditions far beyond the temporary and harrowing loss of heat and power. On Wednesday, the Justice Department, which oversees all federal prisons and jails through the Bureau of Prisons, announced that it has asked an internal watchdog to investigate the Metropolitan Detention Center’s response to the electrical fire and heating failure, as well as broader infrastructural problems. That is to say: After the very public revelation of torturous neglect and brutality in New York City’s largest federal detention facility, the Justice Department is going to investigate itself. To have faith that such an investigation will lead to significant change, one would have to believe that recent events and conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center are anomalous in the facility and the broader prison system. They are not. Abuse, misconduct, and neglect have consistently been found to pervade federal prisons — and the entire carceral system —  with internal investigations by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General often leading to little more than recommendations, window dressing reform, and the flimsy appearance of accountability.

Fear of Filing? Some Taxpayers Finding Tax Bills, Not Refunds Adam Oleson has enjoyed a tax refund every year for the past couple of decades. But this year, no such luck. Not only won’t Oleson get a refund, he said he owes the Internal Revenue Service $1,500. He is one of an estimated 5 million taxpayers who used to rely on a refund every spring. But because of lower rates, the loss of some deductions and the addition of new tax breaks in the overhaul, those taxpayers are not seeing the refunds they’re used to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t benefit from the law. Some tax experts say the benefits are just coming in a different form, such as lower withholding, which translates into a bigger paycheck instead of one refund in the spring. “Most people don’t know how much they pay in taxes,”“But the refund is the wrong metric to measure it.” Right or wrong, the drop in expected refunds is creating fear and anger in accountants’ waiting rooms. “Every single person” who walks in is dreading how much they’re going to owe the IRS, said CPA Gail Rosen, who heads the Martinsville, New Jersey, office of WilkinGuttenplan. “They come in and they worry.” But telling people they paid fewer taxes throughout the year doesn’t help the sticker shock felt by filers who’ve become accustomed to getting a check, not writing one. Only about 5 percent of taxpayers -- about 7.8 million people -- are expected to pay more under the new law. But about 5 million, according to the Government Accountability Office, will find their typical tax refund replaced by a tax liability.

Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research - WaPo - The 400 richest Americans — the top 0.00025 percent of the population — have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth since the early 1980s, according to a new working paper on wealth inequality by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman.Those 400 Americans own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution, who saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall from 5.7 percent in 1987 to 2.1 percent in 2014, according to the World Inequality Database maintained by Zucman and others.Overall, Zucman finds that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.” That shift is eroding security from families in the lower and middle classes, who rely on their small stores of wealth to finance their retirement and to smooth over economic shocks like the loss of a job. And it’s consolidating power in the hands of the nation’s billionaires, who are increasingly using their riches to purchase political influence.Zucman, who advised Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on a recent proposal to tax high levels of wealth, warns that these numbers may understate the amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of the rich: It has become more difficult to account for the true wealth of the ultra-rich in recent decades, in part because many hide their assets in offshore tax shelters.Wealth, here, is roughly synonymous with net worth: the value of everything that a family owns, minus the value of any debt. Assets such as homes, land, rental properties, stock holdings, business equity and bank accounts are included. The definition excludes personal possessions like cars and furniture. They’re difficult to measure, don’t produce income and would amount to a tiny fraction of the nation’s net worth if they were included, according to Zucman.

Amazon Will Pay a Whopping $0 in Federal Taxes on $11.2 Billion Profits - Those wondering how many zeros Amazon, which is valued at a trillion dollars, has to pay in federal taxes might be surprised to learn that its check to the IRS will read exactly $0.00. According to a report published by the Institute on Taxation and Economic (ITEP) policy Wednesday, the e-tail/retail/tech/entertainment/everything giant won’t have to pay a cent in federal taxes for the second year in a row. This tax-free break comes even though Amazon almost doubled its profits from $5.6 billion to $11.2 billion between 2017 and 2018. To top it off, Amazon actually reported a $129 million 2018 federal income tax rebate—making its tax rate -1%. Amazon’s low (to non-existent) tax rate has been chided by politicians ranging from Senator Bernie Sanders to President Donald Trump. But even though Trump previously blasted Amazon for its limited state taxes—a single presidential tweet caused the company’s shares to fall by 9%—ITEP notes that its non-existent federal tax payment is a result of the Trump Administration’s corporation-friendly tax cuts. The think tank writes that the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act not only decreased corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%, but it also didn’t close “a slew of tax loopholes that allow profitable companies to routinely avoid paying federal and state income taxes on almost half of their profits.”

Pelosi Advisor Proposes Non-Binding Arbitration as Road to Lowering Drug Prices -  Yves here. Arbitration??? Are you kidding me? First, this is just an excuse for not regulating or negotiating. Every other advanced economy, and they all have fewer patients than the US, bargains with drug companies over prices. I know a bit about the Australian system, run by its Therapeutic Goods Administration. The TGA studies the research about drug efficacy carefully and doesn’t allow in every drug on the market. It also tends not to buy drugs where minor enhancements (a 24 hour timed release version, compared to a former version where you take it 3x a day) lead to big price increases (and an extension in patent life, as in these minor changes are still treated as “new drug applications” in FDA rules). I got around a bit during my two years in Australia, and I never heard or read complaints about patients not able to get drugs they thought they needed.  Second, as most readers likely know, arbitration systems are regularly abused or gamed via having arbitrators who are not neutral. Securities arbitration, credit card arbitration, and ISDS panels are among the many examples. On top of that, there is no or limited discovery in an arbitration process and no requirement to adhere to rules of evidence. See this short paper by Public Citizen on why mandatory arbitration clauses are unfair. Many of the issues it raises apply to arbitration broadly.

 If Medicare for All Is Politically Impossible, “All Payer” Could Fix the System - Affordable health care providing universal access has long been a holy grail of the Democratic Party. Like the grail itself, however, many have tried to obtain it, and all have failed in the efforts.Even after the implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, American health care is still neither particularly affordable (especially after repeated Republican efforts under the Trump administration to gut its main elements), nor is the access universal. Unlike in most other countries, U.S. health care is still largely predicated on employment, despite the insistence of many that it is a “universal right.”On the other hand, a wholesale restructuring of the existing employee-based patchwork system with a single-payer Medicare for All system seems to be equally challenging without a huge Democratic majority in Congress and a sane operator in the White House. Despite growing political support (helped by an apparent endorsemen tby former President Obama), it is still not a goal universally shared by Democrats in the present congressional term, if recent statements by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are anything to go by. A tough row to hoe.While we wait and perhaps agitate for a better health care system, it’s worth examining other potential remedies that can improve what we currently have coming from a different political logic that the current political alignment may find even slightly palatable. Consider, for example, that the Trump administration has some kinds of price regulations in mind with regard to pharmaceutical prices, regulating them against what they cost on average in other countries. “Lower costs” and “administrative simplicity” have currency in this political climate. If Medicare for All remains a bridge too far, what about the concept of the “all-payer system”? In general terms, as Sarah Kliff, a leading health care journalist, has highlighted, an all-payer system means that all payers pay the same price for the same procedure or drug everywhere, so issues such as the asymmetry of bargaining power (which exists in the current system, say, between a consumer and a health insurance conglomerate or HMO) cease to matter.

Trump Administration Unveils Order To Prioritize and Promote AI (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order asking federal government agencies to dedicate more resources and investment into research, promotion and training on artificial intelligence, known as AI. Under the American AI Initiative, the administration is directing agencies to prioritize AI investments in research and development, increase access to federal data and models for that research and prepare workers to adapt to the era of AI.  There was no specific funding announced for the initiative, but the White House wants better reporting and tracking of spending on AI-related research and development. The White House said investment in AI is “critical to creating the industries of the future, like autonomous cars, industrial robots, algorithms for disease diagnosis, and more.”  The initiative aims to make sure the United States maintains its advantage in AI development and related areas, such as advanced manufacturing and quantum computing. Trump, in his State of the Union speech last week, said he was willing to work with lawmakers to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future, calling it a “necessity.” 

Supreme Court’s ‘10th justice’ favors unusual tactic for Trump cases The Hill -  Over the past year, the federal government’s lead Supreme Court litigator has repeatedly attempted to expedite Trump administration cases by using an unorthodox maneuver, one that legal experts say is rarely successful.Solicitor General Noel Francisco has requested on eight separate occasions, twice in the same case, that justices bypass a regional federal appeals court and instead review a ruling by a lower district court.Those requests, known as petitions for a writ of certiorari before judgment, stemmed from challenges to President Trump’s restrictions on transgender people serving in the military, its decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and its move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.Court watchers say that in addition to being unusual, the strategy to leapfrog normal judicial order is aggressive and may undermine the solicitor general’s credibility with the justices. Legal scholars also fear that Francisco may be forcing the court to wade into political disputes before they are ready, a move that could make the public view the court as just another political institution “I can tell you, seeking cert. before judgment in the lower court is quite rare, and the court taking cert. before judgment in the court of appeals is even rarer,” said Brian Wolfman, a professor at Georgetown Law. The solicitor general is employed by the Justice Department and often referred to to as the "10th justice," because they have the dual responsibility of serving the executive branch as a key advocate and helping the court as a kind of counselor develop the law that reflects the country’s long-term interests.  The court often asks for the solicitor general's views in cases where the federal government is not a party, and often allows the solicitor general to participate in oral arguments as what’s known as a friend of the court. The justices grant and hear oral arguments in only 80 or so cases out of the 7,000 to 8,000 petitions they receive during each nine-month term. They prefer to see the rulings from appeals courts before taking up a case, and competing views by regional circuit courts is typically a prerequisite for review at the Supreme Court. Only four justices need to agree to take up a case for it to be heard by the Supreme Court, and Trump has shifted the balance of the court to the right with the successful nominations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Pelosi, Dem leaders urge Omar to apologize for 'anti-Semitic' tweet - House Democratic leaders, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), on Monday accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of using "anti-Semitic tropes" and called on her to apologize after she sent tweets suggesting that lawmakers defending Israel were motivated by money. “We are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress because we understand that our support is based on shared values and strategic interests," the top leaders of the House Democratic leadership said in a rare joint statement. "Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share." Along with Pelosi, the statement was co-signed by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark (Mass.) said in the statement. "But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments," they wrote. Pelosi added in a tweet that she spoke directly to Omar on Monday."In our conversation today, Congresswoman Omar and I agreed that we must use this moment to move forward as we reject anti-Semitism in all forms," Pelosi wrote.Omar on Sunday retweeted journalist Glenn Greenwald responding to a story about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) promising "action" regarding her and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over their views critical of Israel."It's all about the Benjamins baby," Omar wrote, referring to money. Omar then tweeted that AIPAC was paying American politicians to support Israel. She was referring to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, a powerful nonprofit advocacy organization that doesn't directly donate to political candidates. AIPAC does, however, sponsor regular congressional delegations to Israel.

Omar apologizes after Dem leaders blast tweets as 'anti-Semitic' - Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) apologized on Monday for tweets suggesting that American lawmakers were motivated by money to defend Israel.  Omar's apology came after she spoke with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who along with other House Democratic leaders called on her to apologize for the "use of anti-Semitic tropes" about Jewish people and money. "Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize," Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, said in a statement.

As Omar 'Unequivocally' Apologizes, Critics Rip Democratic Leaders for Trying to 'Silence Criticism' of AIPAC - Progressive critics on Monday condemned a statement by Democratic congressional leaders—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—who demanded an apology from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) regarding statements she made about the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).Among those critics was healthcare activist Ady Barkan, who said he was "deeply disappointed" in the Speaker's "failure" on the matter."When AIPAC and its army try to silence criticism of the immoral, illegal, inhumane occupation by screaming about anti-Semitism and claiming that nobody may ever talk about how the Israel lobby, uses money to build power," Barkan declared, "don't fall for their bullshit."And while Omar on Monday afternoon did "unequivocally" apologize for a pair of tweets Sunday night that some registered as containing "anti-Semitic tropes," she reaffirmed her belief that powerful lobbying interests—including AIPAC, the fossil fuel industry, and the NRA—remain "problematic" in U.S. politics.  "Listening and learning," Omar declared in a tweet, "but standing strong.  "Even while many Jewish Americans and other progressives defended Omar from an onslaught of attacks over her tweets—because, as one noted, "accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-Semitism"—the freshman congresswoman said in her Monday statement that "We always have to be willing to step back and think through criticism." She added, "Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole."

Ilhan Omar’s Tweet Storm: ‘Criticizing AIPAC Is Not Anti-Semitic’ - Following the election of Somali-American Ilhan Omar and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib into the US Congress in November, the arrival of these two Muslim women in Washington has seen them closely scrutinised by opponents and critics over their willingness to challenge the political consensus. When Omar wrote in a tweet on Sunday night that members of the US government were being influenced by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, to support the state of Israel, a volley of criticism and outrage followed, dominating social media platforms and US media on Monday. Pro-Israel advocates and politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties accused Omar of anti-Semitism, arguing that her comments alluded to an age-old caricature of “Jewish money” and “Jewish control” of governments that has been used as a means to persecute and demonise Jews. But others say the accusations are aimed at Omar’s pro-Palestinian political stance. “I think what has happened is emblematic of a number of things. One is just an explicit establishment response to a Muslim in Congress who is critical of Israel,” Noura Erakat, a human rights lawyer and academic based at Virginia’s George Mason University, says. “Ilhan Omar’s and Rashida Tlaib’s presence disrupts a status quo of bipartisan, uncritical support of Israel,” Erakat told MEE. Let’s start from the beginning. On Sunday, the Intercept’s journalist Glenn Greenwald criticised Kevin McCarthy, a Republican politician, for threatening to punish Tlaib and Omar for previous anti-Israel remarks. Omar retweeted Greenwald with the comment “it’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of Forward, replied to Omar, asking who she thought was “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel though I think I can guess [sic].” Omar replied: “AIPAC.”   Though AIPAC does not endorse or contribute directly to political candidates, it encourages its members to do so. In 2018, it spent $3.5m on lobbying alone.But AIPAC is in no way the only pro-Israel organisation lobbying government, nor is it the biggest contributor to the US political establishment. According to Quartz, the Adelson family, with Eastern European Jewish ancestry, dwarfs AIPAC’s numbers with a $118m contribution to the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms alone. The Adelsons are also said to have been influential in US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that was applauded by AIPAC.

Bogus charges of anti-Semitism fuel right-wing campaign against Ilhan Omar - Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar issued a public apology Monday afternoon, backing away from her criticism of the inordinate influence of the Israel lobby over the US Congress. This political retreat—under immense pressure from the Democratic Party leadership—does not erase the truth of what she said. On the contrary, it verifies it. The congresswoman from Minneapolis was elected last November as one of the first two Muslim-American women in the House of Representatives, along with Rashida Tlaib of Detroit. Representative Tlaib is also a target of a right-wing smear campaign claiming that the Palestinian-American is anti-Semitic because of her public criticism of Israeli crimes against the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. Omar, a Somali-American immigrant whose family fled war-torn Somalia when she was a child, has been the target of right-wing and Zionist groups because of her support for the Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates cutting off academic and business ties with the state of Israel to force a change in Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. In a Twitter exchange over the weekend with Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept, in which Greenwald voiced his support for Omar against criticism from the top Republican in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Omar tweeted that there were financial reasons for the support of Washington politicians for Israeli repression of the Palestinians. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, using a slang term for $100 bills, popularized in rap music. When a pro-Israel critic asked what she meant by this, Omar responded with a single word: “AIPAC.”

Ilhan Omar is Right: AIPAC Influences Congress With $4 Million Every Year  — What unites Republicans and Democrats, a former Jewish terrorist, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Nikki Haley, Chelsea Clinton and Liz Cheney? A Muslim lady with a mouth and some opinions, apparently. Muslim Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been the subject of bipartisan bullying that has reached a fever pitch since the lawmaker explicitly called out the number one Israeli lobby group in the U.S. — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Earlier this year, Omar made heads explode in the halls of power after she denounced the U.S.-backed coup attempt in Venezuela. Now, even the leader of her own party in her own chamber of Congress – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – is joining a chorus of detractors accusing Omar of anti-Semitism for correctly characterizing the business of lobbying. While this is not the first time that Omar has come under fire for criticizing Israel, the current saga began on Sunday when journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted an article by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz that trumpeted calls from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to “take action” against Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). McCarthy did not specify which statements he opposed, but called the situation “equal” or worse than that of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) who was removed from his committee assignments by his party after he questioned when “white supremacy” had become “offensive.” Tlaib and Omar are the first two Muslim women in Congress, while Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American. Both have supported the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a nonviolent campaign to economically pressure Israel into compliance with international and humanitarian law. Sorry, but you're not going to turn the two first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress into overnight Jew-haters because of their criticisms of Israel. What's actually anti-Semitic is conflating the Government of Israel with Jews, so those of you doing that should stop. — Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 11, 2019 MintPress News has previously covered dubious accusations of anti-Semitism against Tlaib after she took a stand against a free-speech-crushing bill favored by — you guessed it — the Israel lobby. Meanwhile, other lawmakers are attempting to block Tlaib’s planned delegation to the illegally occupied West Bank.

 Why The Entire Political-Media Class Just Tried To End Ilhan Omar’s Career - Caitlin Johnstone -- Well, now we all know what happens when a public official criticizes AIPAC. And of course, that was the whole idea. Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has published an apology for making self-evident observations about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an immensely influential lobbying firm which, like all lobbying firms, works to influence government policy toward a specific agenda, in this case the interests of the Israeli government. She issued the apology after hours upon hours of shrill, hysterical shrieking accusations of antisemitism from the entire establishment political-media class.   It all started when journalist Glenn Greenwald criticized GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for threatening Omar and fellow first-term Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib if they didn’t stop speaking out about the behaviors of the Israeli government, in which Greenwald said “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Omar retweeted Greenwald’s post with the comment “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” meaning $100 bills. Everyone lost their shit over a topic that is associated with Jewishness being mentioned in the same breath as a comment about money, despite the self-evident fact that using money to influence policy is precisely the thing that lobby groups do. Some blue-checkmarked whatever person named Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.” Omar tweeted back “AIPAC!” in response to the question, because duh, to which Ungar-Sarson responded, “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.” Chelsea Clinton joined in the antisemitism smears, everything blew up way worse, and Democratic Party leaders condemned Omar in unison. Omar’s name trended on Twitter for hours, and this baseless antisemitism smear is now the primary thing that she is known for by rank-and-file Americans.

This Is How AIPAC Really Works  - One thing that should be said about Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweet about the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (more commonly known as AIPAC, or the “Israel lobby”) is that the hysterical reaction to it proved her main point: The power of AIPAC over members of Congress is literally awesome, although not in a good way. Has anyone ever seen so many members of Congress, of both parties, running to the microphones and sending out press releases to denounce one first-termer for criticizing the power of… a lobby?  Somehow, I don’t think the reaction would have been the same if she had tweeted that Congress still supports the ethanol subsidy because the American Farm Bureau and other components of the corn/ethanol lobby spend millions to keep this agribusiness bonanza going (which they do). Or that if she had opposed the ethanol subsidy, she would have been accused of hating farmers.   That’s American politics; the only difference between all the domestic lobbies that essentially buy support for their agenda is that AIPAC is working for a foreign government, a distinction but not much of a difference when the goal is to maintain a status quo that is not necessarily in the national interest.   What did Omar tweet that was so terrible, anyway? Actually it was two tweets that produced the unsettling but oh-so-telling coming together of President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in common denunciation of the first-term member of Congress. Omar’s crime: daring to suggest that campaign contributions orchestrated by AIPAC play a large part in achieving bipartisan support for anything proposed by the Israeli government and/or its lobby, AIPAC.

US Congresswomen Openly Endorse BDS Movement — The first two Middle East Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have openly endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Michigan congresswoman Tlaib said on Saturday that she wanted to highlight “issues such as racism and Israel’s violations of the Palestinians’ human rights”. Meanwhile Omar, the congresswoman for Minnesota, said she is working to bring some balance to the US position, which currently gives priority to Israel. Omar told US media:  “When I see Israel institute laws that recognize it as a Jewish state and do not recognize the other religions living in the country, and we still hold it up as a democracy in the Middle East, I almost chuckle.”  She added: “I know that if we saw that in another society we would criticize it – we do that to Iran and any other place that upholds its religion.”In response, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin slammed Tlaib and Omar’s open support for the BDS movement, urging his colleagues to “to reject the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred that we are starting to see infiltrating American politics and even the halls of Congress”.

Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar Are in the Crosshairs of the Saudi-Israel Axis — Hardly anything has been more disruptive to geopolitics as usual in the Middle East than the newly flourishing relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the state of Israel.  While the newfound coziness between the two states is built largely on shared enmity towards Iran, the normalising of ties comes at the expense of the Palestinians, who have become, once again, all but ignored in the world of Arab politics.  Equally disruptive is the election of the first Muslim women to the US House of Representatives, with both Rashida Tlaib, the daughter to Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan Omar, the daughter to Somali refugees, being sworn into the US Congress with their respective hands atop Islam’s holiest book – the Quran. While there are a total of 535 members of the House and Senate, with a total of 98 freshmen taking their place in the country’s respective legislative chambers, no two rookies have caused as much of a backlash as the two Muslim congresswomen.  Both have been falsely smeared for “putting their allegiance to the Quran over the constitution”, placing the United States into “civilizational decline”, conducting “spiritual warfare”, and for percolating “Sharia supremacism”.  “What makes congresswomen like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar…so dangerous is that they are not simply talking to an outfit that I think is properly described as Hamas, doing business as [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], but that they fully share the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and ambitions to achieve the triumph of Sharia in our country too,”   Predictably, phony and scurrilous charges of anti-Semitism have been levelled at the two Muslim women representatives, despite the fact that neither has advocated for the oppression or discrimination against Jews anywhere in the world, including Israel.  While smear attacks from those aligned formally and informally with the Israel lobby, like Gaffney, are to be expected, it’s the way in which the Saudi propaganda machine has come after the pair of them so venomously that has turned heads.   “Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib…of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” observed Foreign Policy in an article titled Saudi Arabia Declares War on America’s Muslim Congresswomen.

Sheldon Adelson becomes the GOP's biggest benefactor - Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, and his wife, Miriam, have given $55 million in the last few months to groups dedicated to retaining Republican control of Congress, the N.Y. Times Jeremy Peters reports. "That makes them not only the largest donors to national Republican electoral efforts in this election cycle, but the biggest spenders on federal elections in all of American politics, according to publicly available campaign finance data." "Despite initially harboring qualms about President Trump’s leadership, the Adelsons have found much to like ... unflinchingly pro-Israel, unaccommodating to Middle Eastern adversaries and dedicated to deregulation and lower taxes." "In private in-person meetings and phone conversations, which occur between [Trump and Sheldon Adelson] about once a month, he has used his access to push the president to move the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and, more recently, cut aid to the Palestinians."  "Trump has done both, triggering a backlash from some American allies."

 Pro-Israel Lobby Caught on Tape Boasting That Its Money Influences Washington - A debate about the power in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby is underway, after Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., responded sharply to reports that Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was targeting both Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan. Omar quoted rap lyrics — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — to suggest McCarthy’s move was driven by the lobby’s prolific spending. Asked specifically who she was referring to, Omar responded, “AIPAC!” The debate over the influence of pro-Israel groups could be informed by an investigation by Al Jazeera, in which an undercover reporter infiltrated the Israel Project, a Washington-based group, and secretly recorded conversations about political strategy and influence over a six-month period in 2016. That investigation, however, was never aired by the network — suppressed by pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.   In November, Electronic Intifada obtained and published the four-part series, but it did so during the week of the midterm elections, and the documentary did not get a lot of attention then.  In it, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism. David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, described for the reporter how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization, so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC. He describes one group that organizes fundraisers in both Washington and New York. “This is the biggest ad hoc political group, definitely the wealthiest, in D.C.,” Ochs says, adding that it has no official name, but is clearly tied to AIPAC. “It’s the AIPAC group. It makes a difference; it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck, and the networking is phenomenal.”

Senate has found 'no direct evidence' Trump colluded with Russia: report - As it begins to wrap up its investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee has not found “any direct evidence” that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election, according to a report on Tuesday.  “After two years and interviewing more than 200 witnesses, the Senate intelligence Committee has not uncovered any direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia,” NBC correspondent Ken Dilanian told MSNBC anchor Hallie Jackson.  She appeared stunned by the revelation.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I want to make sure I’m understanding this,” Jackson said. “If and when the president, as he may inevitably do, point to this reporting, point to these conclusions and says, ‘Look, the Senate Intelligence Committee found I’m not guilty of conspiracy,’ he would be correct in saying that?”“He’ll be partially right,” Dilanian responded, adding that the committee doesn’t decide guilt.The NBC report noted that the GOP chairman of the committee made similar comments last week about collusion.“If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina in an interview with CBS.  NBC said the committee’s final report will question the campaign’s judgment after associates and some Trump family members had contact with a number of Russians.

Russiagate Is Finished -- For more than two years U.S. politicians, the media and some bloggers hyped a conspiracy theory. They claimed that Russia had somehow colluded with the Trump campaign to get him elected.An obviously fake 'Dirty Dossier' about Trump, commissioned by the Clinton campaign, was presented as evidence. Regular business contacts between Trump flunkies and people in Ukraine or Russia were claimed to be proof for nefarious deals. A Russian click-bait company was accused of manipulating the U.S. electorate by posting puppy pictures and crazy memes on social media. Huge investigations were launched. Every rumor or irrelevant detail coming from them was declared to be - finally - the evidence that would put Trump into the slammer. Every month the walls were closing in on Trump.At the same time the very real Trump actions that hurt Russia were ignored.Finally the conspiracy theory has run out of steam. Russiagate is finished:After two years and 200 interviews, the Senate Intelligence Committee is approaching the end of its investigation into the 2016 election, having uncovered no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to both Democrats and Republicans on the committee. ...Democrats and other Trump opponents have long believed that special counsel Robert Mueller and Congressional investigators would unearth new and more explosive evidence of Trump campaign coordination with Russians. Mueller may yet do so, although Justice Department and Congressional sources say they believe that he, too, is close to wrapping up his investigation. Nothing, zero, nada was found to support the conspiracy theory. The Trump campaign did not collude with Russia. A few flunkies were indicted for unrelated tax issues and for lying to the investigators about some minor details. But nothing at all supports the dramatic claims of collusion made since the beginning of the affair.

 Graham demands testimony from former FBI acting director McCabe - The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday demanded that former FBI acting director Andrew McCabe appear before the panel to answer questions about what he described as apparent “bias against President Trump." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), known to be an ally of the president, was reacting to an CBS interview in which McCabe reveals new details about his oversight of the bureau’s Russia investigation and confirms that he and other Justice Department officials discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to expel Trump from office following James Comey’s ouster. “After Mr. McCabe’s 60 Minutes interview, it is imperative that he, and others, come before the Senate Judiciary Committee to fully explain how and why a FISA warrant was issued against Carter Page and answer questions about what appears to be, now more than ever, bias against President Trump,” Graham said in a statement issued Thursday. Graham, who took the helm of the committee in January, was referencing a surveillance warrant used to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, which Republicans have alleged improperly relied on details from the controversial Trump-Russia dossier. McCabe, a fierce critic of Trump, told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in excerpts of an interview released Thursday morning that he was “very concerned” about the duration of the investigation into Russian interference and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow after Trump fired Comey. He also said he began the probe into whether Trump obstructed justice shortly after Comey’s firing. “I was very concerned that I was able to put the Russia case on absolutely solid ground, in an indelible fashion,” McCabe said. “That were I removed quickly, or reassigned or fired, that the case could not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace.”

The FBI’s Aborted Plan to Remove Trump From Office Was Delusional - Less than four months after becoming president, Donald Trump fired the director of the FBI for handling an investigation into his associates in a manner he did not like. By that point, the commander-in-chief had already attempted to get the head of federal law enforcement to pledge personal fealty to him, disparaged the CIA’s assessment that Russian intelligence had intervened in the 2016 election, and declared the federal judiciary to be a national security threat.All of which left the FBI feeling a little freaked out. In an (as yet unaired) interview with Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes, the bureau’s former deputy director Andrew McCabe reveals that top Justice Department officials seriously considered trying to remove Trump from office. Specifically, McCabe says that they discussed lobbying members of the Trump administration to invoke the 25th Amendment, a constitutional provision that allows cabinet officials to initiate a procedure for removing presidents for office on grounds of incapacity (as opposed to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard officially required for impeachment).“There were meetings at the Justice Department at which it was discussed whether the vice president and a majority of the cabinet could be brought together to remove the president of the United States under the 25th Amendment,” Pelley said on CBS This Morning Thursday, summarizing what McCabe had told him. “These were the eight days from Comey’s firing to the point that Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel. And the highest levels of American law enforcement were trying to figure out what do with the president.” In the course of said meetings, McCabe claims that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein earnestly floated the idea of wearing a wire during conversations with Trump, so as to buttress the case for the president’s unfitness for office. This is consistent with a New York Times report from September of last year, but contradicts Rosenstein’s claim that he was joking when he offered to secretly record his conversations with the president. McCabe’s story is buttressed by his own official memos from May 2017, as the Times reports: “we discussed the president’s capacity and the possibility he could be removed from office under the 25th Amendment” and the deputy attorney general indicated he looked into the issue and determined he would need a “majority or 8 of the 15 cabinet officials.” Mr. McCabe added that Mr. Rosenstein suggested that he might have supporters in the attorney general and secretary of Homeland Security.

Senate confirms Barr amid questions about Mueller report - William Barr takes over the Justice Department on Thursday at a pivotal moment for the nation’s legal landscape, with his tenure closely tied to how he will handle the special counsel’s Russia investigation and any political pressure from the White House. The Senate voted 54-45 to confirm Barr as the next attorney general, mostly along party lines. Senators have strong clues that he will continue the Trump administration’s conservative policies and legal arguments on immigration, civil rights enforcement and LGBT employment discrimination. But senators lack a clear picture of exactly how much information Barr will make public when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III submits a report on his probe into the 2016 presidential election — and that ultimately became a central focus of the confirmation debate. “As to how much he will release, we will know when he gets the report,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the floor. “But here is what I do believe: He is going to err on the side of transparency.” Barr, 68, pitched himself to senators as an end-of-career professional, ready to step into a job he previously held for two years during the George Bush administration, with the ability to bring a steady hand to the department he loves and do the right thing without caring about the political consequences. He said the divided country needs a credible resolution of the special counsel probe, free of “partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration.” He said he would resign before firing Mueller without good cause, and inform the public and Congress of as much as possible of what Mueller reports to him. Barr won the support of all Republicans but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who raised concerns about Barr’s views on domestic surveillance. He also got votes from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. But other Democrats, such as Judiciary Committee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., questioned whether Barr’s assertion of independence and transparency during the confirmation process will stand up to President Donald Trump.

Manafort Judge Finds His Lies Violated Mueller Plea Deal - Paul Manafort broke his plea deal by repeatedly lying to prosecutors after he agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a judge ruled Wednesday.  His misrepresentations touched on areas of central interest to Mueller’s prosecutors. Manafort lied about his contacts with a Russian translator, Konstantin Kilimnik, who Mueller says has ties to Russian intelligence services, the judge concluded. Some of the contacts with Kilimnik came while Manafort was running President Donald Trump’s campaign, and some occurred after Trump’s election, according to prosecutors.  Manafort also lied about the nature of a $125,000 payment to a law firm and about a matter under a separate Department of Justice investigation, according to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington. Jackson’s ruling came more than two months after prosecutors first said Manafort breached his plea deal by repeatedly lying on five subjects.  The ruling doesn’t bode well for Manafort, 69, when he stands before Jackson for sentencing on March 13 for pleading guilty to two conspiracy counts. Manafort faces as many as 10 years in prison, and Jackson may still conclude that he no longer deserves any leniency for attempting to cooperate in a dozen debriefings on a wide range of topics. But the ruling wasn’t all bad news for Manafort. Jackson ruled that Mueller’s prosecutors failed to prove that Manafort intentionally made false statements about Kilimnik’s role in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. Manafort pleaded guilty to that charge, and Kilimnik was indicted for it. The judge also said prosecutors failed to prove that Manafort lied about his contacts with the Trump administration.

Mueller Recommends 19 - 24 Years In Prison For Manafort - Special Counsel Robert Mueller recommended that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort serve between 19.5 and 24.5 years in prison for his conviction last August in a Virginia courtroom on eight financial crimes, including bank fraud and tax fraud related to money he earned working for Ukrainian politicians.  "In the end, Manafort acted for more than a decade as if he were above the law, and deprived the federal government and various financial institutions of millions of dollars," wrote prosecutors with the special counsel's office. "The sentence here should reflect the seriousness of these crimes, and serve to both deter Manafort and others from engaging in such conduct." Mueller's office said that the 69-year-old Manafort's age should not play a role in reducing the lobbyist's sentence, according to CNN. "Manafort's age does not eliminate the risk of recidivism he poses -- particularly given that his pattern of criminal activity has occurred over more than a decade and that the most recent crimes he pled guilty to occurred from February to April 2018, when he conspired to tamper with witnesses at a time when he was under indictment in two separate districts," wrote prosecutors. Judge T.S. Ellis, who has not set a sentencing date, will decide Manafort's fate. Separately, Manafort has pleaded guilty in a Washington D.C. federal court, where he is scheduled to be sentenced next month on similar charges.

FOIA Docs Reveal Obama FBI Covered Up "Chart" Of Potential Hillary Clinton Crimes -  The top brass of the Obama FBI went to great lengths to justify their decision not to recommend charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information, according to Judicial Watch, which obtained evidence that the agency created a 'chart' of Clinton's offenses.  The newly obtained emails came in response to a court ordered Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the DOJ had previously ignored.  Via Judicial Watch (emphasis ours):  Three days after then-FBI Director James Comey’s press conference announcing that he would not recommend a prosecution of Mrs. Clinton, a July 8, 2016 email chain shows that, the Special Counsel to the FBI’s executive assistant director in charge of the National Security Branch, whose name is redacted, wrote to Strzok and others that he was producing a “chart of the statutory violations considered during the investigation [of Clinton’s server], and the reasons for the recommendation not to prosecute…”

  • [Redacted] writes: I am still working on an additional page for these TPs that consist of a chart of the statutory violations considered during the investigation, and the reasons for the recommendation not to prosecute, hopefully in non-lawyer friendly terms …
  • Strzok forwards to Page, Jonathan Moffa and others: I have redlined some points. Broadly, I have some concerns about asking some our [sic] senior field folks to get into the business of briefing this case, particularly when we have the D’s [Comey’s] statement as a kind of stand alone document. In my opinion, there’s too much nuance, detail, and potential for missteps. But I get they may likely be asked for comment.
  • [Redacted] writes to Strzok, Page and others: The DD [Andrew McCabe] will need to approve these before they are pushed out to anyone. At the end of last week, he wasn’t inclined to send them to anyone. But, it’s great to have them on the shelf in case they’re needed.
  • [Redacted] writes to Strzok and Page: I’m really not sure why they continued working on these [talking points]. In the morning, I’ll make sure Andy [McCabe] tells Mike [Kortan] to keep these in his pocket. I guess Andy just didn’t ever have a moment to turn these off with Mike like he said he would.
  • Page replies: Yes, agree that this is not a good idea.

The Russian Spy Who Wasn’t  - Armed agents in bulletproof vests filled a narrow corridor outside apartment 208 at 3617 38th Street NW, a low, red-brick apartment building near American University.  Inside, Maria Butina was watching the Wimbledon men’s final on TV and preparing for a long drive in a U-Haul truck to South Dakota. Having just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in international affairs, she was about to start working as a consultant in the cryptocurrency industry. Her boyfriend of five years, a 57-year-old Republican activist named Paul Erickson, would be traveling with her to his home in Sioux Falls.   “Everything was boxed up,” Erickson told me. “The last thing to do was to pack the electronics, to unplug the TV and the internet. And then pound! Pound! Pound! I answered the door, and there was a team of six agents in the hallway.” Three of the agents surrounded Erickson while the other three went after Butina. “The team went in, dragged her out, spun her around, cuffed her in the hallway, and announced her arrest,” Erickson said.   According to federal prosecutors, Butina’s graduate studies, and her relationship with Erickson, were just a cover; in reality she was a clandestine Russian agent sent to the United States to use sex and seduction to infiltrate conservative political circles and influence the White House’s policies toward Russia. Denied bail out of fear she might run to the Russian Embassy, or jump into an embassy car, she was charged with violating Section 951 of the U.S. Code: acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, as well as with a conspiracy charge associated with it. She is the only Russian arrested to date in the government’s ongoing investigation into the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Was Bezos Blackmailed? - John Coffee - In the bizarre world that Washington politics has become, few stories are more fascinating than Jeff Bezos’ accusation that the National Enquirer and its parent, American Media Inc., committed blackmail and extortion by threatening to reveal nude pictures of him and his girlfriend unless he would “publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns.”[1] Let’s assume that everything Bezos said is true. Most of us sympathize with him (after all, being the world’s richest man is a tough role that does make one awfully vulnerable). All kinds of political motives for threatening him can be imagined (and neither The Enquirer nor the White House are clearly above such motivations). Morally, this alleged behavior is reprehensible.But is this blackmail or extortion? Only an “old school” law professor would focus on this narrow question.[2] But it is a worthwhile footnote to current events to point out that neither of the two relevant federal statutes apply to this case. First, blackmail is prohibited under federal law by 18 U.S.C. § 875(d), which provides: “(d) Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person, or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.” Under this statute, The Enquirer and its parent have two legally valid defenses: (1) it had no “intent to extort” (as discussed below) and (2) even more clearly, it was not seeking either “any money or other thing of value” (as the above statute requires). “Thing of value” requires that tangible property be sought. Intangibles, including vague affirmations, are not “things.” Case law has also made clear that one does not transgress this statue if one’s revelation of the facts causing reputational injury is motivated by the pursuit of a legitimate objective.[3]

After Jeff Bezos, more allegations of intimidation against National Enquirer owner - In the hours after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos publicly accused the National Enquirer's parent company of "extortion and blackmail," several prominent names in journalism and one Hollywood star alleged the tabloid giant had tried to intimidate or threaten them, too.The allegations could put even more scrutiny on the company, American Media, and its chief executive, David Pecker, a longtime ally of President Donald Trump. Pecker has been accused of buying controversial stories about Trump to keep them private — a media industry practice known as "catch and kill."Investigative journalist Ronan Farrow said in a tweet Thursday night that he and "at least one other prominent journalist" who had reported on the link between the National Enquirer and Trump received what he characterized as "stop digging or we'll ruin you" blackmail threats from AMI."I did not engage as I don't cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting," Farrow said in the tweet. In a direct response to Farrow's tweet, former Associated Press investigative editor Ted Bridis said: "We were warned explicitly by insiders that AMI had hired private investigators to dig into backgrounds of @AP journalists looking into the tabloid's efforts on behalf of Trump."

Ronan Farrow, like Jeff Bezos, says he also received 'blackmail' threat over reporting on National Enquirer and Trump - Ronan Farrow said Thursday that he and "at least one other prominent journalist" who had reported on the National Enquirer and President Donald Trump received blackmail threats from the tabloid's parent company, American Media Inc., over their work.Farrow's allegation came just hours after Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos published a remarkable public post accusing the National Enquirer of attempting to extort and blackmail him by threatening to publish intimate photos unless he stopped investigating the publication. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)In a tweet Thursday night, Farrow wrote that he and the unnamed journalist "fielded similar 'stop digging or we'll ruin you' blackmail efforts from AMI." Farrow, who last April published a story in the New Yorker about the Enquirer's "catch and kill" practice -- in which stories are buried by paying off sources -- that benefited Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.  Farrow, in his tweet, added that he "did not engage as I don't cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting." AMI did not immediately return a message from The Post about Farrow's claim. In response to Farrow, former Associated Press editor Ted Bridis tweeted, "We were warned explicitly by insiders that AMI had hired private investigators to dig into backgrounds of @AP journalists looking into the tabloid's efforts on behalf of Trump." Bridis spent 11 years as the editor of the AP's Washington investigative team.

 Jeff Bezos Chooses Soon-to-Be Bankrupt Mar-a-Lago as New Amazon Headquarters --  Borowitz —Stating that he expected the property to be “bankrupt and vacant within the next two years,” Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced on Thursday that the Mar-a-Lago club, in Palm Beach, Florida, would be the site of Amazon’s second headquarters. Bezos said that Mar-a-Lago was chosen from a list of soon-to-be-bankrupt properties, including the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, Trump Turnberry, and the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Amazon C.E.O. said that, after Amazon acquires Mar-a-Lago, the company will start working around the clock to remove the property’s hideous décor, which he fears could prove distracting to warehouse employees. At Mar-a-Lago, a longtime employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, welcomed the Amazon move, stating, “This is one of the only places in the world where workplace conditions would improve if Amazon came in.” Another Mar-a-Lago employee, raising a question shared by many others, asked, “Does this mean we’ll start getting paid?” If the Mar-a-Lago deal goes through, it would mark the first appearance of books in that location, Amazon confirmed.

FCC Chairman Warns of ‘Regulatory Intervention’ as He Criticizes Carriers’ Anti-Robocall Plans -- Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), warned phone service providers that if they don't crack down on fraudulent caller IDs from robocallers his agency will step in with regulation. Pai sent letters to major wireless carriers in November demanding that they adopt industry-wide frameworks to crack down on the practice of "spoofing," where robocallers mask a call's origin with a fraudulent number on their caller ID. On Wednesday, the FCC chair followed up with another demand that they implement caller authentication systems this year and a threat over the repercussions if they don't comply. "American consumers are sick and tired of unwanted robocalls, this consumer among them," Pai said in a statement on Wednesday. "If it appears major carriers won’t meet the deadline to get this done this year, the FCC will have to consider regulatory intervention." Some of the companies had responded to Pai's November letters saying that the work could continue past the end of the year. The protocols being urged on the phone industry would allow carriers to work in tandem to validate caller ID signatures before they reach the call recipient. "Caller ID authentication will be a significant step towards ending the scourge of spoofed robocalls," Pai said in his statement. "It’s time for carriers to implement robust caller ID authentication."

The U.S. government and Facebook are negotiating a record, multibillion-dollar fine for the company’s privacy lapses WaPo - The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook are negotiating over a multi-billion dollar fine that would settle the agency’s investigation into the social media giant’s privacy practices, according to two people familiar with the probe. The fine would be the largest the agency has ever imposed on a technology company, but the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. Facebook has expressed initial concern with the FTC’s demands, one of the people said. If talks break down, the FTC could take the matter to court in what would likely be a bruising legal fight. Facebook confirmed it is in discussions with the agency but declined to comment further. The FTC declined to comment. The two people familiar with the probe spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks. A multi-billion dollar fine would amount to a reckoning for Facebook in the United States after a series of privacy lapses that may have put the personal information of its users at risk. Lawmakers have faulted the company for mishandling that data while failing to crack down on other digital ills, including the rise of online hate speech and the spread of disinformation from Russian operatives and other foreign actors. “Facebook faces a moment of reckoning and the only way it will come is through an FTC order with severe penalties and other sanctions that stop this kind of privacy misconduct going forward,” said Democratic Sen Richard Blumenthal (Conn.). For the FTC, a significant punishment levied against Facebook could represent a new era of scrutiny for Silicon Valley companies after years of privacy missteps. To date, the largest fine the FTC has imposed on a tech giant for breaking an agreement with the government to safeguard consumers’ data was a $22.5 million penalty that Google paid to settle a probe over in 2012.

Facebook uses its apps to track users it thinks could threaten employees and offices - In early 2018, a Facebook user made a public threat on the social network against one of the company's offices in Europe. Facebook picked up the threat, pulled the user's data and determined he was in the same country as the office he was targeting. The company informed the authorities about the threat and directed its security officers to be on the lookout for the user. "He made a veiled threat that 'Tomorrow everyone is going to pay' or something to that effect," a former Facebook security employee told CNBC. The incident is representative of the steps Facebook takes to keep its offices, executives and employees protected, according to more than a dozen former Facebook employees who spoke with CNBC. The company mines its social network for threatening comments, and in some cases uses its products to track the location of people it believes present a credible threat. Several of the former employees questioned the ethics of Facebook's security strategies, with one of them calling the tactics "very Big Brother-esque." Other former employees argue these security measures are justified by Facebook's reach and the intense emotions it can inspire. The company has 2.7 billion users across its services. That means that if just 0.01 percent of users make a threat, Facebook is still dealing with 270,000 potential security risks.

“Reverse Location Search Warrant”: A New Personal Data Hoovering Exercise Brought to You by Google - Yves Smith - Despite the Snowden revelations of the extent of official data gathering and storage on individuals, the overwhelming majority of citizens have not only resigned themselves to electronic surveillance but are putting themselves in a position to have their habits examined microscopically by bringing eavesdropping digital assistants into their home and buying “smart” home appliances. Nevertheless, for those of you who care about your civil liberties, a new form of police digital information collection, known as a “reverse location search warrant” have been approved by courts in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia, even though the ACLU contends that these search warrants violate the Fourth Amendment by not being sufficiently specific. A “reverse location search warrant” is when the police seek information on all cell phones that have been near a crime scene. As we’ll discuss in more detail below concerns that these are data fishing expeditions appear valid when you look at how unnecessarily broad these search warrants have been, not only extending as much as a day before and after the incident, but also encompassing a large area. For instance, a story in MPR News (hat tip Chuck L) showed the extent of the search area relative to the crime location:  As the article pointed out:  The scope of the warrant was so expansive in time and geography that it had the potential to gather data on tens of thousands of Minnesotans.  And the police don’t have to go to different carriers and then have to integrate the information. This practice is made oh so much easier due to Google serving as one stop shopping. Again from the MPR News story:  Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems collect location information using built-in GPS chips, and by scanning for nearby Wi-Fi networks, cell towers, and Bluetooth signals to build a crowdsourced database of location information to help the devices quickly figure out where they are. But while Apple’s location data processing is anonymous, two hard-to-find settings— “Location History” and “Web and App Activity” — allow Google to keep track of everything their users search, and everywhere they go. It affects all Android users, and iPhone or iPad users with apps like Google Maps installed on their device.

‘Facilitating Saudi Patriarchy:’ Apple and Google Blasted for Carrying App Where Saudi Men Track Wives -- Apple and Google have come under fire for carrying a Saudi government app called Absher that allows men in the country to supervise their wives’ travel. Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR that he hadn’t heard about the app, “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case,” he said. Apple did not immediately return Fortune‘s request for comment; neither did Google, which also hosts the app in its Play store.  Absher featured in two Insider stories earlier this month that detailed how the app works and why it can cause harm to asylum-seeking Saudi women. Women in the kingdom are subject to laws that require male guardians to approve their movements.For example, one asylum-seeker in an Insider story named Shahad al-Mohaimeed took her family’s phones with her when she escaped on a family vacation in Turkey to prevent them from tracking her via the app. She later applied for asylum in Georgia. Other women use their guardian’s phones to approve their own travel and disable alerts.The app has caught the attention of Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), who wrote to Apple and Google, urging them to ban apps that permit—as he calls it—”abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”“American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden added.Human rights groups have also spoken out against the app. “Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment,” Rothna Begum, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told to Business Insider. “Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”

Development Debacle: Malpass for World Bank President -- The abrupt resignation of Jim Yong Kim as World Bank president has opened up a lot of old wounds, especially now in the Trump era. If you will recall, there was a big brouhaha over the United States still getting to nominate its president. In an arrangement that's a throwback to when Western countries dominated the global political economy, the US still gets the right to select the World Bank's leader, while the Europeans still do so for the IMF's leader. The Obama administration's choice of the departed Kim was meant to be a partial appeasement to developing countries wanting more say in a body whose activities do affect them. Sure, he was an American, but he was a Korean-American immigrant.  Let's just say that Trump is the least international and the most US-centric American leader in a long time. So, he's unsurprisingly scotched any attempts to appoint a non-white or non-American to lead the World Bank despite his suspicion of all multilateral institutions: Kim’s abrupt resignation leaves Donald Trump with the opportunity to appoint a successor. He could turn to Bulgarian national Kristalina Georgieva, the bank’s chief executive, who will take over as interim president when Kim leaves. The much-respected official was a European commissioner and EU finance chief before moving to Washington. However, Trump is expected to use his effective power of veto to make sure a close adviser or a sympathetic political figure takes over. So Trump is going ahead and contravening new World Bank presidential selection criteria by nominating someone, er, unfamiliar with running large international organizations and development work in David Malpass. This fellow is a proud America-firster like Trump: Donald Trump confirmed his choice on Wednesday that the World Bank should be led by the US treasury official David Malpass, a Trump loyalist and critic of such multilateral institutions who has vowed to pursue “pro-growth” reforms at the global lender.

Fed's Quarles lays out new vision for Financial Stability Board - Federal Reserve Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles said the Financial Stability Board should explain the rationale behind its financial benchmarks while also establishing new ones to combat emerging threats. In a speech delivered Sunday in Hong Kong, Quarles, who assumed the chairmanship of the FSB in November, said much has changed since his predecessor at the helm of the international body, Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney, first took the reins seven years ago. “The body of post-crisis regulation that has resulted, though it involved the energy and efforts of a kaleidoscopically varied host of standard setters, regulators, and central banks … was nonetheless accomplished under the aegis and at the instigation of the FSB,” Quarles said. “It was a tour de force of orchestration, and it has unquestionably made the financial system safer and more resilient.”  The job of crafting the fine contours of the post-crisis Basel III accords was a painstaking one, Quarles said, but that job is largely complete. Instead, he said, the task before the FSB is to ensure its continued relevance by being open, diligent and critical of its own work. One example of how the board can be more open and transparent, Quarles said, was by creating more meaningful ways for the board to gather insight from nonmember jurisdictions. The FSB has had something called regional consultative groups, or RCGs, in place since the board was retooled from its predecessor, the Financial Stability Forum, in 2011. Those groups are meant to include both G-20 member states and other countries in specific regions to identify risks and financial stability priorities. “These RCGs are great in concept, but they have struggled in practice,” Quarles said. “I am committed to improving our mechanisms for reaching out to countries outside the FSB for genuine learning about the effects of FSB actions.”

 Citigroup Pats Itself on the Back for Disclosing It Pays Women 29 Percent Less than Men - Pam Martens - In a blog post on January 19, Citigroup’s head of Human Resources, Sara Wechter, wrote that “Citi’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is longstanding.” She next bragged that “Last year, Citi was the first financial institution to publicly release the results of a pay equity review.” Three paragraphs later, we get the cold, hard facts: “median pay for women globally is 71% of the median for men” at Citigroup. Citigroup didn’t come up with the idea of releasing that data out of some newfound quest for transparency. The data came as a result of a pressure campaign by Arjuna Capital, an investment firm focused on sustainable investing. The campaign is introducing shareholder proposals at the big Wall Street banks, asking that the banks disclose, and then close, their gender pay gaps. After Citigroup released its data, Arjuna withdrew its shareholder proposal at Citigroup. At 1 p.m. today, Arjuna will host a live national news conference with Equal Rights Advocates and Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap Initiative to announce the leading US banks and tech companies targeted with the median pay gap shareholder proposal. A streaming audio recording of the news event will be available after 4 p.m. today at this link. Let us distill for you Citigroup’s claim of a “longstanding” commitment to diversity. Citigroup’s origins date back 207 years but when the bank imploded in 2008, it had only two women, or 13 percent, on its 15-member Board of Directors. Citigroup was also the parent of the retail brokerage firm Smith Barney in the late 1990s as women in branches from coast to coast came forward to reveal credible allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The charges became the basis for the largest class action lawsuit by women in Wall Street history. The corporation’s focus at the time was on manipulating the media while doing little to correct the egregious situation for women at the firm. A decade after the lawsuit, many of the worst abusing men were still employed at the firm. The New York Post reported that even the much vaunted, newly established sexual harassment hotline wasn’t working. A reporter failed repeatedly to get anyone to pick up the phone over a period of four days. (See Editor’s note below.)

The Stolen Equifax Data Has Never Been Found, Experts Suspect a Spy Scheme -- On Sept. 7, 2017, the world heard an alarming announcement from credit ratings giant Equifax: In a brazen cyberattack, somebody had stolen sensitive personal information from more than 140 million people, nearly half the population of the U.S.It was the consumer data security scandal of the decade. The information included Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, information from credit disputes and other personal details. CEO Richard Smith stepped down under fire. Lawmakers changed credit freeze laws and instilled new regulatory oversight of credit ratings agencies. Then, something unusual happened. The data disappeared. Completely. CNBC talked to eight experts, including data "hunters" who scour the dark web for stolen information, senior cybersecurity managers, top executives at financial institutions, senior intelligence officials who played a part in the investigation and consultants who helped support it. All of them agreed that a breach happened, and personal information from 143 million people was stolen. But none of them knows where the data is now. It's never appeared on any hundreds of underground websites selling stolen information. Security experts haven't seen the data used in any of the ways they'd expect in a theft like this — not for impersonating victims, not for accessing other websites, nothing.  But as the investigations continue, a consensus is starting to emerge to explain why the data has disappeared from sight. Most experts familiar with the case now believe that the thieves were working for a foreign government and are using the information not for financial gain, but to try to identify and recruit spies.

A Study in Professional Power: Why Do the Big 4 Accountants Survive? - Yves here. While many people go into “my eyes glaze over” mode when the topic of accountants comes up, you ignore them at your peril. In the US, boards and executives escape liability if they can say they were acting on the advice of professionals. Lawyers are the main liability shields for corporate bigwigs, but pliant accountants are also very helpful. And why don’t shareholders who’ve been hurt due to professionals signing off on crooked corporate conduct sue? They can’t. As we wrote in ECONNED: Legislators also need to restore secondary liability. Attentive readers may recall that a Supreme Court decision in 1994 disallowed suits against advisors like accountants and lawyers for aiding and abetting frauds. In other words, a plaintiff could only file a claim against the party that had fleeced him; he could not seek recourse against those who had made the fraud possible, say, accounting firms that prepared misleading financial statements. That 1994 decision flew in the face of sixty years of court decisions, practices in criminal law (the guy who drives the car for a bank robber is an accessory), and common sense. Reinstituting secondary liability would make it more difficult to engage in shoddy practices. In other words, the only party that can sue an accounting firm for engaging in fraudulent conduct is his immediate client….who almost certainly is in on the con. Lovely.

 Even Endowments Not Beating Vanguard….So What Good Are Those High Fee Private Equity and Hedge Funds? - Yves Smith  - A devastating article by Ben Carlson shows that endowments have underperformed similar-risk stock-bond portfolios using Vanguard funds.  This finding is damming because endowments, particularly college and university endowments, have long been held up as the ne plus ultra of professional investment. In particular, endowments, most famously Yale University, were held out as being particularly adept at investing in high risk, high fee alternative investments like private equity and hedge funds. Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner presented this slide at a 2015 workshop at CalPERS on private equity:As a result, part of Lerner’s talk was on how CalPERS could aspire to operate more like these endowments when it grew up. But now these supposed stars have feet of clay. They have been caught out with underwhelming results.Carlson highlights the latest issue of the NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments, which covers over 800 higher education endowments collectively managing over $600 billion. Carlson stresses that this survey serves as a benchmark well beyond the education endowment world because these institutions are seen as “best of breed”. Carlson show how their results stacked up against various stock/bond mixes from Vanguard: This comparison is more damning than you might appreciate at a first look because the endowments are taking far more risk than the prototypical 60/40 stock/bond mix suggested for retail investors: To help make a comparison, Carlson treated the endowments’ bond + cash allocation as tantamount to the bond portion in a simple stock/bond mix. No group approaches 60/40. The smallest cohort is 29% bonds + cash, and the over $1 billion funds have only 11% bonds + cash, making them most comparable to a Vanguard 90/10 mix. And please don’t try the argument that hedge funds are lower risk that stocks. For starters, the SEC filings of fund managers that are public and offer hedge funds like KKR and Blackstone say otherwise. Second, since 2007, experts have admitted that hedge funds do not offer “alpha,” meaning manager outperformance. No alpha means no justification for paying those fat fees. Nor have hedge funds done much to mitigate risk; since 2012, their performance has correlated with equities.

 State AGs assail CFPB plan to build fintech sandbox - Twenty-two Democratic state attorneys general said the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lacks sweeping authority to create a fintech sandbox that provides immunity from state law. The CFPB in December proposed two draft policies initiated by former Director Mick Mulvaney to further remove the threat of legal liability for fintech companies that test products benefiting consumers. But in a letter to the bureau commenting on the proposals, the state AGs said the consumer agency cannot give applicants such a blanket safe harbor protecting them from enforcement actions by state and federal authorities. The AGs also urged the bureau to rescind both proposals and reissue them as more formal rulemakings subject to a notice and comment period. The state AGs — led by New York's Letitia James and California's Xavier Becerra, above — said the CFPB has no basis to shield companies from enforcement actions brought by other jurisdictions. Bloomberg News “The CFPB has no authority to issue such sweeping immunity absent formal rulemaking,” they said in the letter. Under one draft policy, the CFPB would expand its "no-action letters" awarded to qualified fintech applicants. The letters convey that the agency will not begin a supervisory or enforcement proceeding against a firm, but the policy developed under the Obama administration has been criticized as overly restrictive. The second proposal would create a CFPB sandbox for participating firms to test products. The state AGs — led by New York's Letitia James and California's Xavier Becerra — said the CFPB has no basis to shield companies from enforcement actions brought by other jurisdictions. “Under the Proposed Sandbox Policy, approvals or exemptions granted by the CFPB would purportedly confer on the recipient immunity not only from a CFPB enforcement action, but also from 'enforcement actions by any Federal or State authorities, as well as from lawsuits brought by private parties,'” the letter stated.

Beware Proposed E-Commerce Rules --Powerful technology transnational corporations (TNCs) are trying to rewrite international rules to advance their business interests by: gaining access to new foreign markets, securing free access to others’ data, accelerating deregulation, casualizing labour markets, and minimizing tax liabilities. While digital technology and trade, including electronic or e-commerce, can accelerate development and create jobs, if appropriate policies and arrangements are in place, e-commerce rhetoric exaggerates opportunities for developing country, especially small and medium enterprises. Instead, the negotiations are intended to diminish the right of national authorities to require ‘local presence’, a prerequisite for the consumer and public to sue a supplier.The e-commerce proposals are expected to strengthen the dominant TNCs, enabling them to further dominate digital trade as the reform proposals are likely to strengthen their discretionary powers while limiting public oversight over corporate behaviour in the digital economy. If digital commerce grows without developing countries first increasing value captured from production — by improving productive capacities in developing countries, closing the digital divide by improving infrastructure and interconnectivity, and protecting privacy and data — they will have to open their economies even more to foreign imports.Further digital liberalization without needed investments to improve productive capacities, will destroy some jobs, casualize others, squeeze existing enterprises and limit future development. Such threats, due to accelerated digital liberalization, will increase if the fast-changing digital economic space is shaped by new regulations influenced by TNCs.

 JP Morgan rolls out first US bank-backed cryptocurrency to transform payments business - The first cryptocurrency created by a major U.S. bank is here — and it's from J.P. Morgan Chase. The lender moves more than $6 trillion around the world every day for corporations in its massive wholesale payments business. In trials set to start in a few months, a tiny fraction of that will happen over something called "JPM Coin," the digital token created by engineers at the New York-based bank to instantly settle payments between clients. J.P. Morgan is preparing for a future in which parts of the essential underpinning of global capitalism, from cross-border payments to corporate debt issuance, move to the blockchain. That's the database technology made famous by its first application, bitcoin. But in order for that future to happen, the bank needed a way to transfer money at the dizzying speed that those smart contracts closed, rather than relying on old technology like wire transfers. "So anything that currently exists in the world, as that moves onto the blockchain, this would be the payment leg for that transaction," said Umar Farooq, head of J.P. Morgan's blockchain projects. "The applications are frankly quite endless; anything where you have a distributed ledger which involves corporations or institutions can use this." For some, J.P. Morgan's new currency may come as an unexpected development for a technology that rose from the wreckage of the financial crisis and was supposed to disrupt the established banking world. When the international payments are tested, it will be one of the first real-world applications for a cryptocurrency in banking. The industry has mostly shunned the asset class as too risky. Last year, J.P. Morgan and two other lenders banned the purchase of bitcoins by credit card customers. And Goldman Sachs reportedly shelved plans to create a bitcoin trading desk after exploring the idea.

JPMorgan jumps on the stablecoin bland-wagon - More than five years after filing a patent for a "new paradigm for effectuating electronic payments", JPMorgan appears to have launched... a stablecoin. Imaginatively titled "JPM Coin", the digital currency will be tied to the dollar, and is designed for the bank's institutional customers, who apparently will be able to use it to make instant payments among themselves. Here's the bank:J.P. Morgan this month became the first US bank to create and successfully test a digital coin representing a fiat currency. The JPM Coin is based on blockchain-based technology enabling the instantaneous transfer of payments between institutional accounts. JPMorgan, whose CEO Jamie Dimon (in)famously caused a sell-off in crypto in late 2017, mid cryptomania, when he said bitcoin was "a fraud", also says: We have always believed in the potential of blockchain technology and we are supportive of cryptocurrencies as long as they are properly controlled and regulated. So why is the bank launching the coin? Exchanging value, such as money, between different parties over a blockchain requires a digital currency, so we created the JPM Coin. JPMorgan doesn't really explain why it would want to exchange value over a blockchain in the first place, however. Unlike a public blockchain, in which the security of the system is maintained by a decentralised network of computers, JPM Coin would run on a private blockchain, the bank's own "Quorum Blockchain". Private blockchains are just centralised data stores, whose security is maintained by their owners (in this case the bank). It's not at all clear why the bank thinks using one can speed up its payments. In fact, some might argue JPM Coin already exists and that it's just a JPM deposit by another name.

Don’t Call JP Morgan Chase’s New ‘JPM Coin’ a Cryptocurrency - JP Morgan Chase’s JPM Coin is a digital token that represents US dollars held in JP Morgan Chase accounts, according to the bank. The token is aimed at large, institutional clients that need to move large sums of money quickly. Using a digital token that is sent and logged near-instantly in a database would allow for clients to send payments without waiting for wire transfers which, as CNBC noted, might take more than a day to settle.  The news that the largest bank in the US is adopting some technical aspects of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum—a blockchain that came after Bitcoin and iterated on it—was not met with the jubilation one might expect of cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Instead, JPM Coin has been cast by some as a co-option or even an attackof sorts on cryptocurrencies. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, famously called Bitcoin a “fraud” in 2017, though the bank has long touted the supposed benefits of blockchain technology. Another contingent of cryptocurrency observers, though, is nonplussed about JPM Coin for another reason entirely—it’s not a cryptocurrency at all. If a naive person was scanning news headlines about JPM Coin, they might understandably come away with the impression that JP Morgan Chase was launching something comparable to Bitcoin. “If JPM Coin is a cryptocurrency, then Facebook credits and World of Warcraft money are cryptocurrencies,” Jerry Brito, executive director of DC-based policy research and advocacy group Coin Center, told me over the phone.

States agree to sweeping reg reforms for fintechs — A group of state regulators Thursday agreed to 14 recommendations, developed by the fintech industry, that are geared at streamlining state-by-state licensing and supervision processes. The effort through the Conference of State Bank Supervisors marks one of the most significant partnerships between state regulators and fintechs to date, and it includes big names like PayPal, Western Union and SoFi. Fintechs have long argued the state-by-state licensing process is burdensome. The agreed-upon recommendations with state regulators come at a time when federal agencies are beginning to offer national bank chartering options for fintechs, underscoring the need for states to remain competitive. “The 100 hours that industry has poured into this effort, I think, that speaks a lot to our optimism around this process and the harmonization effort,” said Andrea Donkor, vice president of regulatory relations, enterprise risk, compliance and security at PayPal. Donkor, who was among the fintech leaders speaking at CSBS headquarters in Washington on Thursday, was responding to a question about whether the firm would continue to be state-regulated after going through this effort. “We are currently a part of the multistate regulatory framework — I think our effort demonstrates that that’s where our focus is at this point in time,” Donkor responded. The CSBS has been working with 33 fintech companies on an advisory panel since 2017 to put out various recommendations for simplifying the regulatory process for mortgage lenders, digital consumer lenders and money-services businesses across different states. This is part of a larger effort the CSBS calls Vision 2020 to get state regulators to create more uniform licensing and supervision standards by next year.

Upset SBA borrowers take their beef to Capitol Hill - Members of the House Small Business Committee heard real stories from businesses hurt by the recent partial government shutdown. A pair of Small Business Administration borrowers and the leader of a small-business incubator testified at a hearing last week about the many ways they were pinched by the record-setting shutdown, which last 35 days. Heidi Gerding, CEO of HeiTech Services, a government contractor in Landover, Md., told the panel that she had to tap her company’s credit lines to pay staff. The founder of an Alexandria, Va., craft brewery testified that he and his lender were still waiting on the SBA to lock in an interest rate on $2 million in financing. Port City Brewing, founded eight years ago, was ready to close on an SBA 504 loan in December, Bill Butcher told the legislators. Now, Butcher is worried he might have to pay thousands of dollars in added interest if the rate ultimately set is higher than it would have been two months ago. Butcher’s bank lender, the $1.4 billion-asset John Marshall Bancorp in Reston, Va., did not respond to a request for comment. The shutdown rocked Port City on two fronts. Along with financing issues, delayed approvals by a separate agency tasked with reviewing and approving beer labels threatened to derail the introduction of a new beer the brewery planned to introduce this spring, Butcher said. “Until we get that label approved, we can’t sell that beer, which means we aren’t brewing that beer and the entire supply chain is on hold,” Butcher said. “If you’re going to empower agencies to give approvals for basic functions, you need to keep them at work.” Butcher’s comments provide a window into the struggle the SBA and its approved lenders face as they grapple with what experts have described as a mountainous backlog of applications and servicing requests that accumulated during the shutdown. It highlights the importance of discussions to prevent the next possible shutdown, which could start Friday. Meanwhile, some lenders have been encouraging lawmakers to find a way to keep the SBA open even if another shutdown closes other government agencies.

CMBS delinquencies continue descending at start of year: Fitch - Late payments on loans backing commercial mortgage bonds continued falling at the start of the year, due to strong new issuance volume and continued resolutions for precrisis loans by special servicers, according to Fitch Ratings. The delinquency rate for commercial mortgage-backed securities dropped 14 basis points to 2.05% from December to January, marking the third consecutive month of declines. December's new issuance volume of $6.4 billion, which was more than double the $3.1 billion in portfolio runoff, pushed up the overall index denominator, according to Fitch. New delinquencies totaled $152 million in January, which was strongly outpaced by a total resolution volume of $554 million. About 60% of last month's total resolution volume came from CMBS real estate owned dispositions. All commercial property types saw delinquencies decline in January. At 4.79%, the retail delinquency rate was the highest of all commercial property types, followed by the rate of late payments on office properties, which was 2.59%. The retail delinquency rate did fall 26 basis points as total resolutions of $261 million were more than three times as high as the new delinquency amount of $77 million, according to Fitch. Regional mall loans and assets in particular realized the largest resolution and new delinquency rate in January. The delinquency rate for mixed-use properties fell from 2.22% to 1.68%, while the rate for hotel properties ticked down from 1.59% to 1.58% month-over-month. The delinquency rate for industrial properties dropped from 1.24% to 0.98%, and multifamily property types saw their delinquency rates dip down 2 basis points to 0.5%.

Nearly $100 Billion Of CMBS Loans Come Due Through 2020 (tables, graphics) Considering the muted CMBS issuance activity during the recessionary years of 2009 and 2010, you could mistakenly expect a small volume of commercial mortgages to be maturing over the next two years. Total domestic, private-label CMBS issuance clocked in between $168 billion and $230 billion in annually between 2005 and 2007. That figure declined to $2.8 billion in 2009 and $11 billion in 2010. Because most CMBS loans have 10-year terms, the potential volume of refinancing opportunities among existing securitized loans would appear slim.  However, as TREPP notes in a recent research report, thanks to the rising popularity of single-asset transactions, a sizable chunk of shorter-term, floating-rate deals with built-in extension options were completed in recent years. That has added bulk to the maturing load.Based on a November snapshot, nearly $100 billion of CMBS debt will be up for refinancing between now and 2020, with $40.9 billion and $44.0 billion scheduled to pay off in 2019 and 2020, respectively. And here’s the main risk: Loans against hotels – the property type that is most sensitive to cyclical and demand variability – account for 31% of the maturing volume. Meanwhile, loans against retail properties make up 22% of the total while office loans account for another 19%. A total of 34% of the loans that are coming due are in conduit deals while 59% are from single-borrower transactions. Two years ago, the CMBS analysts at Trepp analyzed the refinancing potential of CMBS loans that were scheduled to come due during the 2015-2017 “Wall of Maturities” period. To assess how these loans would fare, Trepp examined whether they would pass certain refinancing thresholds based on prevailing capitalization rates, loan-to-value figures (LTV), debt service coverage ratios (DSCR), and debt yield requirements. Given the broad expectations that interest rates will gradually increase, the company updated its refinancing outlook for the next wave of CMBS maturities under various interest rate scenarios.

 ‘House lawmaker warns of CECL's impact on Fannie, Freddie — A senior Republican on the House Financial Services Committee is seeking details from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's chief regulator on the impact of the current expected credit loss accounting standard on the two mortgage giants. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., told acting Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Joseph Otting that he is concerned the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new model for estimating loan losses, which has long drawn industry criticism, could pose risk across the mortgage market. “By requiring the lifetime credit losses for existing loans to be observed up front, CECL will force financial institutions to increase their credit loss reserves which could lead to decreased lending or the rising cost of certain products,” Luetkemeyer, the ranking Republican on the consumer protection and financial institutions subcommittee, said in a letter dated Thursday. “This is particularly threatening to mortgage rates and availability. Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are currently subject to private sector GAAP accounting requirements, they will also be forced to comply with CECL.” Specifically, Luetkemeyer is asking Otting to explain how much in additional loss reserves the government-sponsored enterprises would be forced to set aside and where would they get the capital to back up those reserves. The CECL model, adopted by FASB in 2016, is a more conservative approach than the current loss accounting standard, requiring financial institutions to estimate losses over the entire life of a loan. Publicly traded banks must convert to the new model by Jan. 1, 2020, followed by privately held institutions and credit unions, which have until Jan. 1, 2022. In January, regional banks proposed to split the loan-loss estimates in two to soften the burden of CECL. But that idea was met with opposition from the biggest banks. Luetkemeyer is also asking if the cost of additional reserves under CECL will affect the ability of the GSEs to meet their affordable housing goals and what impact the additional reserves will have on mortgage costs, particularly for low-income borrowers. “With over $5 trillion in mortgage-backed securities and the federal government investing in or insuring over 90 percent of mortgages in the United States, understanding the effects of CECL will have on the GSEs is vital,” Luetkemeyer said. Subscrib

Reform of Fannie, Freddie should fall to Congress: FHFA nominee — The nominee to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency appeared to lean toward having Congress reform the government-sponsored enterprises, despite recent speculation that the Trump administration was readying a plan that could be carried out without legislation. Mark Calabria, now an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, told Senate Banking Committee members he would “carry out the clear intent of Congress” should lawmakers enact GSE reform, rather than impose his own vision. He also said he was unaware of a White House plan discussed by acting FHFA Director Joseph Otting. “The very broad changes that I think need to happen in mortgage finance system have to be done by Congress and I would pledge to work in consultation and in partnership with this committee moving forward,” he said at his nomination hearing Thursday. Calabria, who was nominated to succeed former Director Mel Watt, would take the helm of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac more than 10 years after the mortgage giants were put in conservatorship. The Senate committee also questioned former private attorney Bimal Patel, who was nominated for assistant Treasury secretary of financial institutions, and two nominees for the board of the National Credit Union Administration. The questioning of Calabria, who in the past has been a critic of the GSEs, included a discussion of remarks attributed to Otting signaling the administration may try to release the mortgage firms from conservatorship without legislation. Congress has been at an impasse over GSE reform for years. Otting, who is also the comptroller of the currency, reportedly told agency employees at an FHFA staff meeting last month that “Mark has signed off on” an administration proposal to overhaul the housing finance system. But under tough questioning from Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the ranking member of the committee, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Calabria insisted that he had not signed off on any proposal and that he was not even familiar with a proposal. “My read of what [Otting] said is to convey a sense of urgency to the FHFA staff,” said Calabria. “I believe what he’s referred to in terms of me signing off, I believe he was referring to my longstanding loud support for reform.”

MBA: "Mortgage Delinquencies Dropped to 18-Year Low in the Fourth Quarter of 2018" -- From the MBA: Mortgage Delinquencies Dropped to 18-Year Low in the Fourth Quarter of 2018 The delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit residential properties decreased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.06 percent of all loans outstanding at the end of the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) National Delinquency Survey. The delinquency rate was down 41 basis points from the third quarter of 2018 and 111 basis points from one year ago. The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started in the fourth quarter rose by two basis points to 0.25 percent.  “The overall national mortgage delinquency rate in the fourth quarter was at its lowest level since the first quarter of 2000,”  “What’s even more noteworthy, the delinquency rate dropped from the previous quarter and on a year-over-year basis across all loan types and stages of delinquency."  , “With the unemployment rate near a 50-year low, wage growth trending higher and household debt levels relative to disposable incomes at a 35-year low, homeowners are in great shape, and mortgage performance is quite strong.” ..In relation to the third quarter of 2018, mortgage delinquencies decreased across all stages of delinquency. The 30-day delinquency rate decreased 22 basis points to 2.29 percent, the 60-day delinquency rate decreased three basis points to 0.74 percent, and the 90-day delinquency bucket decreased 15 basis points to 1.03 percent. .. The delinquency rate includes loans that are at least one payment past due, but does not include loans in the process of foreclosure. The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the fourth quarter was 0.95 percent, down four basis points from the third quarter of 2018 and 24 basis points lower than one year ago. This was the lowest foreclosure inventory rate since the first quarter of 1996. ..The serious delinquency rate, the percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure, was 2.06 percent – a decrease of seven basis points from last quarter – and a decrease of 85 basis points from last year.

Mortgage delinquencies at 19-year low, aided by jobs, lower debt - The delinquency rate for single-family mortgage loans decreased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.06% of all loans outstanding, down 41 basis points from the third quarter and down 111 basis points from one year ago, the MBA's National Delinquency Survey reported. The rate includes loans that are at least one payment late, but not any loans already in the foreclosure process. Even more impressive was that the drop was across all loan types and all stages of delinquency, Marina Walsh, the MBA's vice president of industry analysis, said in a press release. The conventional loan delinquency rate was 3.19%, down 37 bps from the third quarter and 100 bps from one year prior. For Federal Housing Administration-insured loans, the rate was 8.65%, down 31 bps from the previous quarter and 173 bps from the previous year, and for Veterans Affairs loans, the rate of 3.71% was down 45 bps and 78 bps, respectively. "With the unemployment rate near a 50-year low, wage growth trending higher and household debt levels relative to disposable incomes at a 35-year low, homeowners are in great shape, and mortgage performance is quite strong," Walsh said. The delinquency rate improved in states that were affected by natural disasters in the fourth quarter of 2017. For Florida, the delinquency rate fell 458 basis points, while in Texas it was down 218 basis points. And when it came to more recent incidents, "Florida's Hurricane Michael in October, as well as the California fires in November, have had limited impact on the overall delinquency rates in those states," said Walsh. Even states that were affected by storms in the third quarter of 2018, like North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, all showed improvement in the most recent period. If there was any negatives, it was foreclosure starts increased by 2 basis points between the third and fourth quarters to 0.25%. This increase was driven by the lifting of moratoriums in states affected by natural disasters, along with severely delinquent loans that finally moved into the foreclosure process, especially in judicial states, Walsh said. The serious delinquency rate, loans that are 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure, was 2.06%, down 7 bps from the third quarter and 85 bps from the fourth quarter of 2017. Loans 30 days past due saw a seasonally adjusted decline to 2.29% in the third quarter and 2.6% for the fourth quarter of 2017.

 Banks claim victory in new private flood insurance rule - Depository mortgage lenders are optimistic the final version of a regulation designed to open up the flood insurance market will make it easier for them to comply with a rule requiring them to accept private carrier policies. Banking regulators released their final rule implementing the Biggert-Waters Act on Jan. 25, the day the partial government shutdown ended. The rule varies significantly from an earlier proposed version by simplifying a compliance aid that lenders and trade groups had said demanded too much of them. The final rule also gives lenders the flexibility to accept private coverage outside the rule's scope if they feel comfortable with the risk. "It looks like as of July 1, we're going to get what we wanted," . The FDIC-regulated institution lends to Amish borrowers and has long sought the flexibility to be able to accept mutual aid coverage used in the community for flood insurance. "I'm looking forward to the day that we can use that for flood," he said. "Otherwise they have to buy commercial flood insurance, which is more expensive." The rule takes effect on July 1 for lenders regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Farm Credit Administration and the National Credit Union Administration. Once the new rule is in effect, private flood insurance could be used more frequently to cover risks in Special Flood Hazard Areas, which otherwise must be covered through the National Flood Insurance Program. The NFIP has been subject to a shaky congressional process, and is up for renewal on May 31.

Why Is HUD Ghosting America’s Hurricane-Ravaged Communities? - The costliest hurricane season in our nation's history took place two years ago, when 17 named storms—including three that went by the names of Harvey, Irma and Maria—all came ashore within a six-month period, killing more than 3,300 Americans and causing more than $300 billion in damage. So when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last April that it would be distributing nearly $16 billion in mitigation funding to the areas hit hardest by storm activity since 2015, officials in places like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands must have breathed a little easier. Alongside the $12 billion HUD was already releasing for immediate disaster relief, the added funds would help states and communities protect their residents from future disasters by paying for desperately needed improvements to infrastructure, such as revamping stormwater drainage systems, raising homes and roads, and building levees and seawalls. Last year, the National Institute of Building Sciences released a reportshowing that for every $1 spent on disaster mitigation, the nation saves $6 in future disaster costs. So $16 billion could go a long way. As they envisioned the many ways in which they could put this funding to good use, state officials might be forgiven for having glossed over the final, innocuous-sounding sentence in HUD's statement, which stipulated that HUD would be "issu[ing] administrative guidelines shortly for the use of the funds to address grantees' long-term recovery needs." That word—shortly—is a tricky one.  Because nearly one year later, there's been no sign whatsoever of those promised administrative guidelines. What's more, HUD officials have been giving the brush-off to states and localities that have begun to inquire—with increasing frustration—as to when said guidelines might be issued.

MBA: Mortgage Applications Decrease in Latest Weekly Survey --From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Decrease in Latest MBA Weekly Survey Mortgage applications decreased 3.7 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending February 8, 2019. .. The Refinance Index decreased 0.1 percent from the previous week. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index decreased 6 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index decreased 6 percent compared with the previous week and was 5 percent lower than the same week one year ago. “Application activity fell last week – even with rates decreasing – as renewed uncertainty about the domestic and global economy likely held potential homebuyers off the market,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Associate Vice President of Industry Surveys and Forecasts. “Despite the recent decline in applications, we still expect that the continued strength of the job market and lower rates will support more purchase activity in the coming months.” Added Kan, “The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to its lowest level since last March, and was 52 basis points lower than its recent high last November. Government refinances provided a bright spark, picking up over 10 percent, as both FHA and VA refinancing activity saw increases over the week.” The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($484,350 or less) decreased to 4.65 percent from 4.69 percent, with points decreasing to 0.43 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The first graph shows the refinance index since 1990. Rates would have to fall further for a significant increase in refinance activity. The second graph shows the MBA mortgage purchase index. According to the MBA, purchase activity is down 5% year-over-year.

"As more older Americans 'age in place,' millennials struggle to find homes" --Diana Olick at CNBC has an interesting article: As more older Americans 'age in place,' millennials struggle to find homes:  With more seniors than ever aging in place and choosing not to sell the family home, an estimated 1.6 million fewer properties are now available in a market already experiencing a critical shortage, according to Freddie Mac. "We believe the additional demand for homeownership from seniors aging in place will increase the relative price of owning versus renting, making renting more attractive to younger generations," said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, who estimates that the current market needs about 2.5 million more homes to meet demand.   CR Note: If the Boomer's follow the behavior of the previous generations, many will stay in their homes ("age in place") until they are in their '80s (some until they pass away). Since the leading edge of the Boomer generation is only about 75 right now, it will still be a number of years before a large number of older people will move to retirement communities. And, even when people move to retirement communities, many will not sell their homes. They will rent them instead - especially in the higher priced areas with significant capital gains - since they have to pay capital gains if they sell (above $250K exclusion for single, $500K for married), but the property steps up in value when they pass away.  So they can leave the property to their kids with no taxes.This could be fixed with policy changes.  Either eliminate "step up" basis (take away the incentive to hold), or give older homeowners a one time unlimited exclusion (so they can sell while they are alive). Aging in place is great for the senior, but what frequently happens, is a four bedroom house is occupied by just one person (inefficient).    This is another area where zoning changes could help - let the senior sell her larger family home without tax consequences, and move to a smaller home in the same community (so they can keep their local ties).

A Green New Deal for Housing - When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran in her primary against incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley, she had the Green New Deal on her website. But her big talking points were housing costs, gentrification, and Crowley’s links to real estate. Now she’s linked the two in this week’s Green New Deal resolution. So far so good. But the resolution only makes a passing mention of a housing guarantee. Its main economic focus is jobs. The crushing cost of housing is just as central — if not more so — to class struggle and workers’ economic pain than stagnating wages. Median incomes have stagnated since 2000. But in that same period, a foreclosure boom has shredded millions of families’ savings, and average urban rental costs have increased by 50 percent.  A Green New Deal can’t deliver economic justice or solidify mass support without tackling housing head-on. The best way for a Green New Deal to expand, decarbonize, and guarantee housing is to guarantee housing, by building ten million new, public, no-carbon homes in ten years. And again. And again. And again.

January 2019 CPI Inflation -  Non-shelter inflation came in relatively close to the Fed target this month, preventing non-shelter Core CPI inflation from declining too far as the hot January 2018 figure dropped off the back end.  Core non-shelter inflation fell from 1.5% to 1.4%.  Shelter inflation is holding up at about 3.2%.  So, we continue along at low rates of non-shelter inflation that aren't disruptive, in and of themselves, but if they decline, will probably find accommodation to be tardy because of the supply-heightened shelter inflation.  The same story that has been the case for several years, really. The inverted Eurodollar futures yield curve between now and 2021 and the leveling off of mortgage lending and home sales suggest we are moving in that direction, but of course some indicators continue to be strong.

 NY Fed Q4 Report: "Total Household Debt Rises as 2018 Marks the Ninth Year of Annual Growth in New Auto Loans" -- From the NY Fed: Total Household Debt Rises as 2018 Marks the Ninth Year of Annual Growth in New Auto Loans  The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data today issued itsQuarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, which shows that total household debt increased by $32 billion (0.2%) to $13.54 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2018. It was the 18th consecutive quarter with an increase and the total is now $869 billion higher than the previous peak of $12.68 trillion in the third quarter of 2008. Furthermore, overall household debt is now 21.4% above the post-financial-crisis trough reached during the second quarter of 2013. The Report is based on data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel, a nationally representative sample of individual- and household-level debt and credit records drawn from anonymized Equifax credit data.  Mortgage originations declined to $401 billion from $445 billion, the lowest level seen in nearly four years. Mortgage delinquencies were roughly flat, with 1.1% of mortgage balances 90 or more days delinquent.

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Increased Slightly Year-over-year - From HotelNewsNow.com: STR: US hotel results for week ending 2 February  The U.S. hotel industry reported positive year-over-year results in the three key performance metrics during the week of 27 January through 2 February 2019, according to data from STR. In comparison with the week of 28 January through 3 February 2018, the industry recorded the following:
• Occupancy: +0.1% to 56.7%
• Average daily rate (ADR): +2.3% to US$124.95
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): +2.4% to US$70.83
STR analysts note that results were more stabilized than in recent weeks as the government shutdown ended. The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

More Americans Are At Least 3 Months Behind On Their Car Payment Than Ever Before - Remember back before the economic crash of 2008 just over a decade ago? One of the heralds of that massive worldwide economic crash was the fact that more than 5.5 million Americans couldn’t pay their car note, and were more than 90 days behind on the bill. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, we’re heading toward a critical mass with more than 7 million car loans more than 90 days past due. Economists are throwing up flags that this could be an indicator of larger future economic problems. Despite the economy currently categorized as strong and unemployment at quite low rates, many American borrowers are finding it harder to stay on top of their bills. Part of this strain, one can infer, is from an uptick in new auto loan originations in 2018. Auto loan debt in the U.S. market has been climbing steadily since 2011, and hit an incredible $584 billion at the close of 2018.   A larger percentage of new car loans have been granted to low-credit buyers, as though society learned nothing from the last time. Because loan institutions can charge exorbitant annual percentage rates to those with non-prime or subprime credit, loans to that segment have increased from 28% of loans in 2009 to more than 39% in 2015. With longer loan terms, these people who are on the margin of being able to pay for a car are on the hook for years longer than they were traditionally.

December Retail Sales: Down 1.2% MoM -- The Census Bureau's Advance Retail Sales Report for December was released this morning. Headline sales came in at -1.2% month-over-month to one decimal and was worse than the Investing.com forecast of 0.1%. Core sales (ex Autos) came in at -1.81% MoM (to two decimals). "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 rates were at or above normal levels for this release." Here is the introduction from today's report:Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for December 2018, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $505.8 billion, a decrease of 1.2 percent (±0.5 percent) from the previous month, but 2.3 percent (±0.5 percent) above December 2017. Total sales for the 12 months of 2018 were up 5.0 percent (±1.4 percent) from 2017. Total sales for the October 2018 through December 2018 period were up 3.7 percent (±0.5 percent) from the same period a year ago. The October 2018 to November 2018 percent change was revised from up 0.2 percent (±0.5 percent)* to up 0.1 percent (±0.4 percent)*.Retail trade sales were down 1.3 percent (±0.5 percent) from November 2018, but 2.1 percent (±0.5 percent) above last year. Clothing and clothing accessories stores were up 4.7 percent (±1.4 percent) from December 2017, while food services and drinking places were up 4.0 percent (±2.5 percent) from last year. [view full report]  The chart below is a log-scale snapshot of retail sales since the early 1990s. The two exponential regressions through the data help us to evaluate the long-term trend of this key economic indicator.

Retail sales sink 1.2% in December in the worst plunge in nine years -- Sales at retailers fizzled in December and posted the biggest decline in nine years in a worrisome sign for the U.S. economy, according to a long-delayed government report. Retail sales sank 1.2% in December, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday. It’s the largest drop since September 2009, a few months after the end of the Great Recession. Economists polled by MarketWatch expected sales to be flat. The disappointing drop in sales battered stocks in Thursday trades, but many economists were skeptical that sales were quite the disaster the report seemed to indicate. Retailers faced plenty of headwinds in December, including a stock-market meltdown, sudden talk of recession, the start of the partial government shutdown and a bout of unusually poor weather. Yet the large decline in sales appears to go beyond that and offers more proof the economy slowed toward the end of 2018. Sales fell in every retail category except auto dealers and home centers. Sales fell the steepest, 5.1%, at gas stations, but that was not unexpected. Gasoline prices have been falling since last fall. What’s was surprising was a 3.9% reported decline in sales at internet sellers. That would mark the sharpest drop since November 2008 — the middle of the last recession. Yet by all industry accounts, online merchants led by Amazon and eBay reaped big sales gains. Less surprisingly, sales tumbled 3.3% at department stores that have been losing ground for years to mainly internet-based competitors. Traditional brick-and-mortar chains such as Macy’s M, -0.40% Kohl’s and Nordstrom posted disappointing sales in December. Sales also fell at bars, restaurants, apparel stores, grocers, home furnishers, pharmacies and outlets that sell hobby items such as books and sporting goods. Sales rose 1% at auto dealers while home-center sales edged up 0.3%. The sales slump in December will weigh down the government’s official scorecard for the economy known as gross domestic product. Economists had estimated GDP would slow to 2.7% in the final three months of the year, but now that estimate is being taken down even further. What does it mean for the economy in 2019? Hard to say. The stock market tanked in December and talk of recession briefly became all the rage, and that may have hurt sales. Yet the stock market rebounded in January, consumer confidence remains high and companies continued to hire at a strong clip. The economy should avoid a recession as long as the labor market remains health, but growth in 2019 is unlikely to match the strong performance of 2018. 

US Retail Sales Collapse In December- Biggest Drop In A Decade  -While Bank of America had warned investors to brace for a dismal retail spending print in January, expectations remained positive (albeit just a 0.1% MoM move) for December's (delayed due to shutdown) official spending data today. As a reminder, on Tuesday we reported that retail sales ex-autos, as measured by the aggregated BAC credit and debit card data, tumbled 0.3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted in January - the biggest drop in three years. This followed a flat reading in retail sales ex-autos in December. Turning to the January BAC internal data, in January, spending for 4 out of 14 sectors increased in the month, showing broad-based weakening. As a reminder, Retail Sales for the Control Group soared in November (+0.9% MoM) so some slowdown was expected; but, the government's official retail spending data for December confirmed BofA's concerns and plunged...

  • Headline Retail Sales -1.2% MoM (+0.1% MoM exp)
  • Control Group Retail Sales -1.7% MoM (+0.4% MoM exp)

That is the biggest MoM drop in retail sales since 2009 for the headline and the biggest drop in the control group since the 9/11 attacks in 2001!.. Which sent the Year-over-year retail sales data reeling...“These numbers are horrible,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies LLC.“It appears to contrast quite sharply with reports of Christmastime sales that were generally seen as quite healthy,” and for the Fed, “rate normalization is on the back burner for a long time to come.” This is the worst December retail sales print since 2008 (and 2nd worst in history)...

Bankruptcy judge approves sale of Sears to former CEO Edward Lampert for $5.2 billion -- New York federal bankruptcy judge, Robert Drain, has agreed to sell Sears Holding Corporation’s remaining assets to current Sears Chairman and notorious asset stripper, Edward Lampert, for $5.2 billion.  The deal to sell Sears to Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL investments, was made on Thursday, January 7. The offer includes an $885 million cash payment. ESL will also assume $1.3 billion worth of liabilities, which include customers’ warranties and $621 million in “senior debt.” The billionaire grifter Lampert sold his plan to Judge Drain as an opportunity to “save jobs.”  Prior to approving the sale, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) had objected to Lampert’s offer. The PBGC is the US government agency that insures roughly 37 million workers’ pensions. In a statement filed in court before the sale, the PBGC stated that it could be liable for up to 90,000 Kmart and Sears employee pension plans, which have been underfunded by $1.4 billion. The PBGC was created to “protect” the pension benefits of Americans in private-sector plans. The agency is not taxpayer-funded; instead it derives funding from insurance premiums and, in Sears’ case, it negotiated deals in which the PBGC would receive royalty payments from sales generated from Kenmore appliance and DieHard battery brands. These two former Sears exclusive brands have already been split off by Lampert from Sears. Lampert, who roomed with current US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin while they were both at Yale, acquired Kmart through his hedge fund, ESL Investments, in 2003. Following the acquisition of Kmart, Lampert purchased Sears, and formed Sears Holding Corp. in 2005. By the time Sears filed for bankruptcy in October 2018, Lampert personally owned a 31 percent stake in Sears and his hedge fund owned another 18 percent stake. Under Lampert’s 13-year vampiric reign, Sears Holding Corp. has tumbled from $53 billion in operating revenue in 2006 to less than $17 billion in 2017. Over 4,000 stores have been closed, and approximately 200,000 have been left jobless as Lampert has sold off Kmart and Sears’ most valuable brands and real estate, siphoning stolen assets for his benefit.

No Light At The End Of The Tunnel As New Wave Of Retail Stores Close - Another economic red flag has appeared and its the closure of retail stores.  According to a new report detailing the precarious situation of the current economy, there is “no light at the end of the tunnel” as the closure of brick and mortar stores will continue.  Coresight Research released an outlook of 2019 store closures Wednesday, saying, there’s “no light at the end of the tunnel,” according to several reports, including one from Yahoo News.  According to the global market research firm’s report, a mere six weeks into 2019, United States retailers have announced 2,187 closings of physical stores.  That’s up 23 percent compared to last year. Those closings include 749 Gymboree stores, 251 Shopko store, and 94 Charlotte Russe locations.This may not seem like such a big deal especially if you don’t often shop, but it’s a red flag for the overall economy.  Either customers/consumers now have less money and aren’t willing to borrow (use credit cards) to spend at stores anymore, or they are already maxed out and cannot spend.  Another issue could be the overbearing regulations and burdensome theft (taxation) levied on business. It could be a combination of all of those as well, making the cost of keeping a brick and mortar store open no longer worth it.But reports and the media blame the growth of online sales, rising interest rates, and declining sales.  Bankruptcies also are continuing at a rapid pace “with the number of filings in the first six weeks of 2019 already at one-third of last year’s total,” the report states. That means companies have taken on more debt than they can handle, and much like individuals, when that happens, it is likely the beginning of some very rough times ahead.  And debt is a major concern right now for most economists.  Consumer debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and the national debt has all reached historic records – and that isn’t a positive sign for the economy. Payless ShoeSource is reported to be considering its second bankruptcy and if Charlotte Russe doesn’t find a buyer by February 17, the chain plans to completely liquidate, according to a court filing.

Target App Lured Customers With Lower Prices, Which Mysteriously Increased As Users Approached Store - Target updated its smartphone app last Wednesday after a two-month investigation by Minneapolis TV station KARE-TV discovered the retail giant was advertising certain items for one price outside of stores, only to hike the price when a person entered a Target - in one case, by as much as nearly $150.  The station dubbed it the "parking lot price switch."For instance, Target’s app price for a particular Samsung 55-inch Smart TV was $499.99, but when we pulled into the parking lot of the Minnetonka store that price suddenly increased to $599.99 on the app.To test this further, we selected 10 products on the Target app at random, ranging from toys to bottled water to vacuum cleaners. We found that when we entered the store, four of the 10 products jumped up in price on the app.An Apple Watch band went up $2, a Shark vacuum went up $40, a Graco child car seat jumped $72 and a Dyson vacuum shot up $148 on the app while inside the store. Our list of 10 items was a total of $262 cheaper in the back of the parking lot on the app with no indication that the prices had changed.  -KARE-TV The difference boiled down to Target offering a lower price online vs. in-store, however the online-only pricing wasn't made clear. As KARE-TV noted, "Even if you scan the bar codes of the products on the shelves, which Target suggests customers do to see Cartwheel coupon offers on the app, the app gives no indication that certain prices were far cheaper at Target.com."

 Dollar Stores Feed More Americans Than Whole Foods - Dollar stores such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which also owns Family Dollar) are becoming a primary source of food for many families. The chains feed more Americans than Whole Foods,1which isn't surprising when you consider there are 30,000 Dollar General and Dollar Tree stores across the U.S. — outnumbering Walmart's and McDonald's' combined — compared to 446 Whole Foods locations. The dollar store chains also claim to have their sights on yet another 20,000 locations. The problem with this trend is that dollar stores typically do not carry fresh food; it's primarily ultra-processed packaged foods and canned foods, which we know is a recipe for ill health in the long term. Sadly, dollar stores specifically target urban neighborhoods and small towns where economic struggles are commonplace,2 turning these areas into food deserts as they push out smaller, already struggling grocers. Driving this trend is the U.S. government's subsidy of processed food, both through the Farm Bill and through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This sets the stage for discount stores to monopolize the food market, which subsequently leads to poorer diets, higher disease rates and associated health care costs. In truth, food subsidies and health care really cannot be separated, as the nation's diet is a primary contributor to chronic disease and therefore drives our health care expenditures. The idea that big box stores and dollar stores are doing Americans a favor by making inexpensive food more available is a twisted one, as it's really just making people sicker.

Only 17% Of Consumers Believe Personalized Ads Are Ethical, Survey Says - A massive majority of consumers believe that using their data to personalize ads is unethical. And a further 59% believe that personalization to create tailored newsfeeds -- precisely what Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications do every day -- is unethical. At least, that's what they say on surveys. RSA surveyed over 6,000 adults in Europe and America to evaluate how our attitudes are changing towards data, privacy, and personalization. The results don't look good for surveillance capitalism, or for the free services we rely on every day for social networking, news, and information-finding. "Less than half (48 percent) of consumers believe there are ethical ways companies can use their data," RSA, a fraud prevention and security company, said when releasing the survey results. Oh, and when a company gets hacked? Consumers blame the company, not the hacker, the report says.

BLS: CPI unchanged in January, Core CPI increased 0.2% -- From the BLS: The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) was unchanged in Januaryon a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.6 percent before seasonal adjustment....The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.2 percent in January for the fourth consecutive month...The all items index increased 1.6 percent for the 12 months ending January, the smallest increase since the period ending June 2017. The index for all items less food and energy rose 2.2 percent over the last 12 months, the same increase as the 12 months ending November and December 2018. I'll post a graph later today after the Cleveland Fed releases the median and trimmed-mean CPI.

Consumer Price Index: January Headline at 1.55% - The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the January Consumer Price Index data this morning. The year-over-year non-seasonally adjusted Headline CPI came in at 1.55%, down from 1.91% the previous month. Year-over-year Core CPI (ex Food and Energy) came in at 2.15%, down from the previous month's 2.18% and above the Fed's 2% PCE target.Here is the introduction from the BLS summary, which leads with the seasonally adjusted monthly data:The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) was unchanged in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.6 percent before seasonal adjustment.The energy index declined for the third consecutive month, offsetting increases in the indexes for all items less food and energy and for food. All the major energy component indexes declined in January, with the gasoline index falling 5.5 percent. The food index increased 0.2 percent, with the index for food at home rising 0.1 percent and the food away from home index increasing 0.3 percent.The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.2 percent in January for the fourth consecutive month. The indexes for shelter, apparel, medical care, recreation, and household furnishings and operations were among the indexes that rose in January, while the indexes for airline fares and for motor vehicle insurance declined. The all items index increased 1.6 percent for the 12 months ending January, the smallest increase since the period ending June 2017. The index for all items less food and energy rose 2.2 percent over the last 12 months, the same increase as the 12 months ending November and December 2018. The food index rose 1.6 percent over the past year, while the energy index declined 4.8 percent. More…] Investing.com was looking for a 0.1% MoM change in seasonally adjusted Headline CPI and 0.2% in Core CPI. Year-over-year forecasts were 1.5% for Headline and 2.1% for Core.

US Consumer Price Growth Slowest Since Sept 2016 As Gas Prices Plummet - While headline and core CPI slowed in December, the print was still boosted by outsized gains in a few specific categories so it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see some payback in January (and expectations were for a slowdown). But - that did not work out - headline and core CPI YoY growth topped expectations (+1.6% vs +1.5% exp and +2.2% vs +2.1% exp respectively)... However, headline CPI YoY slowed to its weakest since September 2016.As Bloomberg reports, the CPI report had a few quirks, including a 1.1 percent rise in apparel prices that was the biggest in almost a year. Apparel prices reflected outsize gains in footwear, which had the biggest increase since 1988, and women's clothing.   The report showed new car prices rose 0.2 percent from the prior month for the first increase since July. Used car prices were up 0.1 percent after declining in December. Energy prices also had an outsize impact on the headline number with a 3.1 percent monthly drop that was the most in almost three years. Gasoline prices fell 5.5 percent from the prior month and were down 10.1 percent from a year earlier. Another silver lining in the inflation slowdown is the drop in the growth of rent costs to its slowest since Jan 2015... Notably, Deutsche Bank points out that January prints have tended to be higher than in other months, suggesting some residual seasonality. Over the past five years, January prints have averaged about 5bps higher than the prints in the other months of the year, though the recent methodological revisions are supposed to reduce this discrepancy by around half.Of course, this adds to the goldilocks narrative - as Powell signaled at his last press conference in late January that rates are unlikely to rise until inflation accelerates.“I would want to see a need for further rate increases, and for me, a big part of that would be inflation,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the only thing, but it would certainly be important.”  So, forget collapsing earnings expectations and slumping global growth - weak US inflation means The Fed has an excuse to stay on the sidelines so BTFD!

January Producer Price Index: Core Final Demand Down 0.1% MoM - Today's release of the January Producer Price Index (PPI) for Final Demand came in at -0.1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted, unchanged from last month. It is at 2.0% year-over-year, down from 2.5% last month, on a non-seasonally adjusted basis. Core Final Demand (less food and energy) came in at 0.3% MoM, up from 0.0% the previous month and is up 2.6% YoY NSA. Investing.com MoM consensus forecasts were for 0.1% headline and 0.2% core. Here is the summary of the news release on Final Demand: The Producer Price Index for final demand edged down 0.1 percent in January, seasonally adjusted, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Final demand prices also fell 0.1 percent in December and inched up 0.1 percent in November. (See table A.) On an unadjusted basis, the final demand index advanced 2.0 percent for the 12 months ended in January.In January, the decline in the final demand index can be traced to a 0.8-percent decrease in prices for final demand goods. In contrast, the index for final demand services increased 0.3 percent. More… The BLS shifted its focus to its new "Final Demand" series in 2014, a shift we support. However, the data for these series are only constructed back to November 2009 for Headline and April 2010 for Core. Since our focus is on longer-term trends, we continue to track the legacy Producer Price Index for Finished Goods, which the BLS also includes in their monthly updates.  As this (older) overlay illustrates, the Final Demand and Finished Goods indexes are highly correlated.

 PPI Growth Slowest Since July 2017 As Energy Prices Plunge -- Just in case the worst retail sales print since 2009 wasn't enough, moments ago the BLS also reported that producer prices in January printed at -0.1% M/M, unchanged from December, and missing expectations of a rebound to 0.1%. On an unadjusted annual basis, headline PPI final demand rose just 2.0%, the weakest print since mid-2017. The reason for the big miss, just like in yesterday's disappointing CPI print, was the sharp drop in energy prices: as a result, the index for final demand goods fell 0.8 percent in January, the biggest drop since it slid 1.2% in September 2015.As the BLS notes, over three-quarters of the January decline can be traced to prices for final demand energy, which tumbled 3.8%. The index for final demand foods fell 1.7 percent. Conversely, prices for final demand goods less foods and energy climbed 0.3 percent.Just as concerning is that the annual increase in Finished Goods prices is now rapidly approaching deflation territory. Some more details: 40% of the decrease in the index for final demand goods is attributable to a 7.3% decline in gasoline prices. It wasn't just energy: the indexes for fresh and dry vegetables, diesel fuel, fresh fruits and melons, basic organic chemicals, and jet fuel also moved lower. In contrast, prices for construction machinery and equipment rose 1.7 percent. The indexes for processed poultry and residential electric power also increased. The picture was somewhat better in the PPI ex food and energy category which actually improved from 0.0% in Dec to 0.3% M/M in January, beating expectations of a 0.2% print. Similarly, on an annual basis, final demand ex food, energy rose 2.6%, better than the 2.5% estimate. There was no such weakness in the index for final demand services which rose 0.3% in January following no change in December. Over 80% of the rise can be traced to margins for final demand trade services, which increased 0.8%. (Trade indexes measure changes in margins received by wholesalers and retailers.) Prices for final demand transportation and warehousing services climbed 0.5 percent. The index for final demand services less trade, transportation, and warehousing was unchanged. And some more details on the services print: Half of the advance in prices for final demand services is attributable to margins for apparel, jewelry, footwear, and accessories retailing, which rose 6.3 percent. The indexes for health, beauty, and optical goods retailing; machinery, equipment, parts, and supplies wholesaling; chemicals and allied products wholesaling; hospital inpatient care; and transportation of passengers (partial) also moved higher. Conversely, prices for portfolio management fell 5.2 percent. The indexes for automotive fuels and lubricants retailing and for physician care also decreased. And so, between the disastrous retail sales number, yesterday's disappointing CPI print and today's shaky wholesale producer report, it is safe to say the Fed is done hiking for a long, long time.

LA area Port Traffic in January; Imports Up YoY, Exports Down --Container traffic gives us an idea about the volume of goods being exported and imported - and usually some hints about the trade report since LA area ports handle about 40% of the nation's container port traffic.  The following graphs are for inbound and outbound traffic at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in TEUs (TEUs: 20-foot equivalent units or 20-foot-long cargo container).To remove the strong seasonal component for inbound traffic, the first graph shows the rolling 12 month average. On a rolling 12 month basis, inbound traffic was up 0.1% in January compared to the rolling 12 months ending in December.   Outbound traffic was down 0.2% compared to the rolling 12 months ending the previous month. The 2nd graph is the monthly data (with a strong seasonal pattern for imports). Usually imports peak in the July to October period as retailers import goods for the Christmas holiday, and then decline sharply and bottom in February or March depending on the timing of the Chinese New Year (February 5th this year). In general imports have been increasing, and exports have mostly moved sideways over the last 8 years.

Import and Export Price Indexes Point to Calm Inflation Pressures  -

  • Import prices fell 0.5% in January and are down 1.7% over the last 12 months. Excluding fuel, they are down 0.2% over the last 12 months. Export prices declined 0.6% in January and are down 0.2% over the last 12 months. Excluding agricultural products, export prices are also down 0.2% year-over-year.
    • Note: The BLS indicated the partial government shutdown impacted the collection of export price data, as prices for soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum, and barley had to be estimated.
  • The key takeaway is that the Import-Export Price Indexes for January tracked in a way that should keep the Federal Reserve tracking on its patient-minded path.
    • Import fuel prices decreased 3.2% driven primarily by a 44.2% drop in natural gas prices.
      • Import fuel prices are down 22.5% over the past three month, which is the largest three-month drop since February 2016.
    • Agricultural export prices declined 2.1%, paced by a 34.6% decline in vegetable prices.
  • The New York Fed's Empire State Manufacturing Survey checked in at 8.8 for February (Briefing.com consensus 7.0), up from 3.9 in January.
    • The key takeaway from the report is that firms were more optimistic about the six-month outlook, evidenced by a 15-point increase in the index for future business conditions to 32.3.

Industrial Production Decreased 0.6% in January - From the Fed: Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization - Industrial production decreased 0.6 percent in January after rising 0.1 percent in December. In January, manufacturing production fell 0.9 percent, primarily as a result of a large drop in motor vehicle assemblies; factory output excluding motor vehicles and parts decreased 0.2 percent. The indexes for mining and utilities moved up 0.1 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively. At 109.4 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production was 3.8 percent higher in January than it was a year earlier. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector decreased 0.6 percentage point in January to 78.2 percent, a rate that is 1.6 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2018) average. This graph shows Capacity Utilization. This series is up 11.5 percentage points from the record low set in June 2009 (the series starts in 1967). Capacity utilization at 78.2% is 1.6% below the average from 1972 to 2017 and below the pre-recession level of 80.8% in December 2007. The second graph shows industrial production since 1967. Industrial production decreased in January to 109.4. This is 25.6% above the recession low, and 3.8% above the pre-recession peak. The decrease in industrial production and capacity utilization were well below consensus.

Industrial production face-plants, but hold the DOOOM for now -- For the second day in a row, a major piece of economic data face-planted. Industrial production for the month of January declined -0.6%. Worse, almost all of the decline was in manufacturing. This kind of decline is most consistent with the onset of a recession, or at very least a significant slowdown, as shown in these two long-term graphs covering the last 50+ years, which have been normed so that only a monthly decline in excess of -0.5% shows as negative:  Zooming in on this expansion, the YoY% change in industrial production, at 3.8%, while certainly backing off from its “boom” readings of half a year ago, is still in the high range of average:  While the combination of yesterday’s retail sales number for December and today’s January industrial production number are pretty awful, I recommend treating each with caution, for two reasons. First, the government shutdown - which started in late December - may have had a bigger effect on production and consumption than earlier believed. If so, I would expect the situation to reverse in the next month or two. Second, at least in the case of January, the worst cold snap in the last 30 years hitting the industrial heartland almost certainly had some effect on production. The typical rejoinder to this is that winter comes every year. But winter weather is particularly variable from year to year, and waxes and wanes over its three month length at differing times from year to year as well.  So: definitely not good. Definitely consistent with a slowdown at least. But we need to see all of the data caught up through February before we can really judge if it is temporary or not.

NY Fed: Manufacturing "Business activity grew modestly in New York State" --From the NY Fed: Empire State Manufacturing Survey: Business activity grew modestly in New York State, according to firms responding to the February 2019 Empire State Manufacturing Survey. The headline general business conditions index moved up five points to 8.8. New orders and shipments also increased modestly. Delivery times were slightly longer, and inventories held steady. Labor market indicators pointed to a slight increase in employment and hours worked. The prices paid index moved lower for a third consecutive month, indicating an ongoing deceleration in input price increases, while the prices received index climbed ten points to reach its highest level in several months, indicating a pickup in selling price increases. After slumping last month, indexes assessing the six-month outlook improved noticeably, suggesting firms were fairly optimistic about future conditions. The index for number of employees fell for a second consecutive month, declining three points to a still-positive 4.1, pointing to a slight increase in employment levels, and the average workweek index moved down to 2.5.  This was close to the consensus forecast.

Small Business Optimism Index decreased in January - CR Note: Most of this survey is noise, but there is some information, especially on the labor market and the "Single Most Important Problem". From the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB): January 2019 Report: Small Business Optimism Index The NFIB Small Business Optimism Index slipped 3.2 points in January, as owners continued hiring and investing, but expressed rising concern about future economic growth. The 101.2 reading, the lowest since the weeks leading up to the 2016 elections, remains well above the historical average of 98, but indicates uncertainty among small business owners due to the 35-day government shutdown and financial market instability. The NFIB Uncertainty Index rose seven points to 86, the fifth highest reading in the survey’s 45-year history.  As reported in January’s NFIB Jobs Report, reports of higher worker compensation rose to the second highest level in the survey’s history to a net 36 percent of all firms. In 2018, nationwide wages increased 3.2 percent. Small business owners continue to hire at record levels, with 56 percent of owners reported hiring or trying to hire. However, 88 percent of those owners reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions. Twenty-three percent of small business owners reported the availability of qualified labor as their top business problem This graph shows the small business optimism index since 1986.The index decreased to 101.2 in January.Note: Usually small business owners complain about taxes and regulations (currently 2nd and 3rd on the "Single  Most Important Problem" list).  However, during the recession, "poor sales" was the top problem. Now the difficulty of finding qualified workers is the top problem.

Small Business Optimism Plunges To Lowest Level Of Trump Presidency -Now that the sugar high from the Trump tax cuts has worn off, American small business-owners are growing increasingly anxious about a looming economic slowdown. After a report published last week by Vistage Worldwide suggested that small-business confidence had collapsed with the number of small business owners worried that the economy could worsen in 2019 numbering more than twice those who expected it to improve, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index - a widely watched sentiment gauge - apparently confirmed that more business owners are growing fearful that economic conditions might begin to work against them in the coming months.  In January, the index slipped 3.2 points in January as more business owners expressed concerns about future economic growth, driving the gauge to a reading of 101.2 - the lowest since the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Though it remains well above the historical average of 98, and business owners have continued their plans for hiring and investing, a surge in the uncertainty sub-index (which climbed to 86, the fifth highest reading in the NFIB survey's history), suggested that business owners might soon shift their focus from expanding to preserving their businesses."Business operations are still very strong, but small business owners’ expectations about the future are shaky," said NFIB President and CEO Juanita D. Duggan. "One thing small businesses make clear to us is their dislike for uncertainty, and while they are continuing to create jobs and increase compensation at a frenetic pace, the political climate is affecting how they view the future."Still, the report wasn't without its silver linings: Small businesses added a net 0.33 workers per firm, the best reading since July 2018, as 15% of owners increased employment an average of 3.1 workers per firm. Some 60% of owners reported making capital outlays, down just one point from December. But owners were worried that sales might start to decline in the near future.According to Bloomberg, the weak reading suggests that the political stalemate in Washington over Trump’s demand for a US-Mexico border wall has harmed sentiment. Notably, the shutdown halted loan applications while the Small Business Administration was closed, while firms struggled to absorb the hit to consumption.

Best U.S. Job Numbers Ever? Not If You’re Out of Work for a Year - President Donald Trump said in his State of the Union speech last week that the labor market’s strength is evidence of an “unprecedented economic boom,” adding to his frequent boasts that include a tweet about the “best jobs numbers” in U.S. history. Yet by one key measure, far from a boom, the labor market hasn’t even returned to a normal state. Over the past 12 months, the share of unemployed people out of work for 52 weeks or longer has averaged 13.2 percent -- higher than at almost any point in data from 1976 to 2008. While the figure is down from a record 31.4 percent in 2011, it topped out at 12.8 percent in the 1990s and 2000s expansions during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In fact, during those years, it fell as low as 5.9 percent, meaning that within the pool of unemployed, people took less time to find a job. The data illustrate how the labor market still has room to recover from the global financial crisis and deepest recession since the Great Depression. Taken another way, the silver lining is that the U.S. may be able to keep creating jobs for some time without spurring the kind of wage pressures that would push the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again. Another way of looking at the data shows how Americans out of work for a year or longer are skewing higher the average duration of unemployment. That figure stood at 20.5 weeks in January, which while down from a record 40.7 weeks in 2011, is the same as the high point in the 2000s expansion. Americans' average length of joblessness still high compared with prior decades The blue line on the above chart represents the median duration of unemployment, with the latest tally of 8.9 weeks in line with levels during the 2000s expansion. That indicates that about half of unemployed Americans have spent more than two months looking for work. The data on the long-term unemployed support the view that the economy “is not yet close to the cycle peak and that the recession probability remains low,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, senior U.S. economist at Bloomberg Economics. “Payroll gains could remain apace with the recent trend without causing a flare up in wage inflation, although we do expect wages to continue to gradually improve.” She pointed out that the employment-population ratio, another broad gauge of the labor market, has only recovered about half of its decline from the previous cycle’s peak and “has proven to be superior to the official unemployment rate as a predictor of wage-growth trends in the current cycle.”

BLS: Job Openings Increased to Series High 7.3 Million in December - Notes: In December there were 7.335 million job openings, and, according to the December Employment report, there were 6.294 million unemployed. So, for the ninth consecutive month, there were more job openings than people unemployed. Also note that the number of job openings has exceeded the number of hires since January 2015 (almost 4 years).  From the BLS: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary The number of job openings reached a series high of 7.3 million on the last business day of December, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the month, hires and separations were little changed at 5.9 million and 5.5 million, respectively. Within separations, the quits rate was unchanged at 2.3 percent and the layoffs and discharges rate was little changed at 1.1 percent. ... The number of quits was little changed in December at 3.5 million. The quits rate was 2.3 percent. The quits level was little changed for total private but decreased for government (-18,000). The following graph shows job openings (yellow line), hires (dark blue), Layoff, Discharges and other (red column), and Quits (light blue column) from the JOLTS. The difference between JOLTS hires and separations is similar to the CES (payroll survey) net jobs headline numbers. Note that hires (dark blue) and total separations (red and light blue columns stacked) are pretty close each month. This is a measure of labor market turnover. When the blue line is above the two stacked columns, the economy is adding net jobs - when it is below the columns, the economy is losing jobs. Jobs openings increased in December to 7.335 million from 7.166 million in November. The number of job openings (yellow) are up 29% year-over-year. Quits are up 4% year-over-year. These are voluntary separations. (see light blue columns at bottom of graph for trend for "quits"). Job openings remain at a high level, and quits are still increasing year-over-year. This was a solid report..

US Job Opening Soar To All Time High- 800K More Than Unemployed Workers --After a modest slowdown in job openings which started in September and continued through November, today's November JOLTS report - Janet Yellen's favorite labor market indicator - for the month of December showed an unprecedented surge in job openings across most categories as the year wound down, with the total number soaring from an upward revised 7.166 million (from 6.888 million), to an all time high 7.335 million, smashing expectations of a 6.846 million print. And thanks to the surge in job openings, this will be the 10th consecutive month in which there were more job openings then unemployed workers: considering that according to the payrolls report there were 6,535MM unemployed workers, there is now exactly 800K more job openings than unemployed workers currently, (how accurate, or politically-biased the BLS data is, is another matter entirely). In other words, in an economy in which there was a perfect match between worker skills and employer needs, there would be zero unemployed people at this moment (of course, that is not the case.)Another issue: with the Fed positioned for an economic slowdown, the JOLTS data better turn negative fast or else Powell will soon be facing some very unpleasant questions why the Fed's rate hikes are on pause when the number of job openings in the economy is soaring to unprecedented levels. According to the BLS, job openings increased in a number of industries, with the largest increases in construction (+88,000), accommodation and food services (+84,000), and health care and social assistance (+79,000). The job openings level decreased in a number of industries, with the largest decreases in nondurable goods manufacturing (-37,000), federal government (-32,000), and real estate and rental and leasing (-31,000). Job openings were unchanged for government jobs.Adding to the unexpectedly strong labor picture to close the year, as job openings soared, the number of total hires also increased, rising by 95K in December to just shy of an all time high, and printing at 5.907 million. Hires increased in retail trade (+126,000), educational services (+19,000), and mining and logging (+9,000). Hires decreased in information (-22,000) and in federal  government (-10,000). According to the historical correlation between the number of hires and the 12 month cumulative job change (per the Establishment Survey), the pace of hiring right now is precisely where it should be relative to the cumulative change in hiring.

December JOLTS report: mixed but with strong positive revisions -- The JOLTS report on labor is noteworthy and helpful because it breaks down the jobs market into a more granular look at hiring, firing, and voluntary quits. Its drawback is that the data only goes back less than 20 years, so from the point of view of looking at the economic cycle, it has to be taken with a large dose of salt.  With that disclaimer out of the way, Tuesday’s JOLTS report for December was mixed, and for the second month in a row was soft relative to the strength of the overall jobs gain for that month. With the exception of one new high, the other series are off their best levels, and two continued to decline, with the good news being that there were generally positive revisions in the previous month’s data:        

  • Quits declined for the 4th month in a row, and are about 5% off peak.
  • Hires rose and are only 0.3% off their peak set two months ago.
  • Total separations declined and are off 4% from August.
  • Job openings made a new all time high.
  • Layoffs and Discharges declined (a good thing), but remain up about 10% from their recent low last March.

Let's update where the report might tell us we are in the cycle. First, below is a graph, averaged quarterly through the fourth quarter, of the *rates* of hiring, quits, layoffs, and openings as a percentage of the labor force since the inception of the series (layoffs and discharges are inverted at the 3% level, so that higher readings show fewer layoffs than normal, and lower readings show more):  Now here's what the four metrics look like on a monthly basis for the last five years:   As indicated above, job openings, quits, and hires all surged higher through August of this year. While openings have continued to rise, hires have gone sideways, and  quits have deteriorated. Next, here's an update to the simple metric of "hiring leads firing," (actually, "total separations"). Here's the long term relationship since 2000 through Q4 of 2018:

A decelerating Staffing Index suggests that weakening temporary jobs in the monthly employment report is not just noise --Every week I report the YoY 4 week rolling average of American Staffing Association’s Index. It’s been decelerating recently, and last week was up only +0.5% YoY. On a single week basis, though, it went negative. Because I have written several posts in the last couple of months emphasizing the leading aspect of temporary jobs in the monthly employment report, I thought I would compare the Staffing Index against it.Here’s what I found: since the Staffing Index isn’t seasonally adjusted, you really have to compare each on a YoY basis. And while the two don’t turn positive or negative at the same time or for the same duration, they do correlate well on YoY direction; i.e., acceleration or deceleration in the YoY comparison.The Staffing Index only began to be published in 2004. Since then, there have only been two periods when staffing turned negative YoY: the Great Recession and the 2015-16 energy patch downturn. As the first two graphs below show, at the time of the Staffing Index lagged the monthly jobs report by half a year in 2007, and led it by one month at the end of 2009:

Fox Merger Will Result in at Least 4000 Lost Jobs - Ever since the Disney/Fox merger was announced, we’ve known that hard-working employees of the studios were going to end up as collateral damage when the dust settled. While the deal hasn’t officially gone through yet, a new report says that after it does, at least 4,000 people are going to lose their jobs.  The Hollywood Reporter has an in-depth piece about Disney’s impending acquisition of most of Fox’s assets and how it will affect Fox employees. The short answer? One analyst says “there will be bloodshed” in the process, referring to the thousands of employees who will be laid off in the aftermath of the merger. This excerpt paints an especially grim picture: Disney has promised $2 billion in cost savings, so more than 4,000 layoffs are expected (though Disney-skeptic analyst Rich Greenfield puts the number at 5,000 to 10,000 over time). It’s harder to predict potential layoffs within the Fox film studio itself, which has about 3,200 employees, but cuts are expected to be especially deep, particularly in overlapping divisions such as marketing, distribution and home entertainment.  We knew something like this was going to happen, but seeing those numbers puts everything in stark perspective. It’s almost impossible to get excited about the X-Men and the Fantastic Four coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when you consider the human cost of what their arrival means.

California to scale back $77 billion high-speed rail project: governor (Reuters) - California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday the state will dramatically scale back a planned $77.3 billion high-speed rail project that has faced cost hikes, delays and management concerns, but will finish a smaller section of the line. “Let’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” Newsom said in his first State of the State Address to lawmakers on Tuesday. “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. (Los Angeles). I wish there were,” he said. Newsom said the state will complete a 119-mile (191 km) high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield in the state’s Central Valley. In March 2018, the state forecast the costs had jumped by $13 billion to $77 billion and warned that the costs could be as much as $98.1 billion. Newsom said he would not give up entirely on the effort and will continue to seek additional funding. California planned to build a 520-mile (826.8 km) system in the first phase that would allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour (354 kph) in the traffic-choked state from Los Angeles to San Francisco and begin full operations by 2033. “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions and billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises, partially filled commitments and lawsuits to show for it,” Newsom said. “And by the way, I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump.” U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Republicans cited a recent Democratic clean energy proposal in noting the project’s demise, tweeting that “the plug gets pulled on the frequently delayed, over-budget San Francisco-LA (high-speed rail) project. Reality: 1, #GreenNewDeal: 0.”

 Amazon cancels plans to open offices in New York - Amazon on Thursday announced that it has cancelled plans to open its second headquarters, dubbed "HQ2," in New York City following aggressive pushback from some local lawmakers and activists. "After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens," a company spokesperson said in a statement.The tech giant said that it will not search for another location for the headquarters. "While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City," the statement from Amazon said.

Amazon Scraps Plan to Build a Headquarters in New York City - Amazon.com Inc. said it’s axing plans to build a new corporate campus in New York City, bowing to fierce opposition from some residents and politicians and denying the city what the mayor and governor had called its biggest ever economic win. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lobbied hard to bring the deal to the city, with the governor even jokingly offering to change his name. They touted the promise of as many 40,000 jobs in the city over the next two decades with an average salary of $150,000. But local opposition was fervent from the beginning. Lawmakers resented being excluded from negotiations for the deal, and decried the $3 billion in government subsidies offered to a company run by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, while the city itself is facing budget cuts. Community groups feared rising rents in the neighborhood would push out long-time residents, and that the influx of workers would strain an already overburdened subway system. “Amazon’s decision to withdraw from New York is no doubt a blow to our local economy,” said Julie Samuels, executive director at Tech: NYC. “New York City is today one of the most dynamic tech hubs in the world, but there is no guarantee we will maintain this status in the future, which makes this news so disappointing.” In a series of City Council meetings in recent weeks, Amazon executives were grilled about their view on unions, specifics about jobs in the neighborhood and the fact that their chosen site is located in an opportunity zone, enabling it to qualify for federal and state tax breaks there. Amazon said it wouldn’t claim the break. One executive hinted at the exasperation within the company, saying Amazon wanted to be in a community that wanted it.Besides the public backlash in New York City, tension was building at Amazon headquarters in Seattle. High-level executives with several Amazon teams were notified within the past few weeks that they would have to relocate to New York, which caused unrest, according to two people familiar with the matter. Several executives who were told they’d have to leave began job hunting to avoid relocating their families, said the people, who requested anonymity since they were not authorized to share the details.

Amazon Drops New York City Headquarters Plan in a Snit – Yves Smith - When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michael Bloomberg agree on something, it’s worth taking seriously. Particularly if it involves New York City. Both New York City pols objected to the corporate welfare plan for Amazon, in the form of nearly $3 billion in subsidies, detailed in the Financial Times chart below, for installing one of two “second headquarters” in Long Island City, with the claim that it would “create” 25,000 jobs. Amazon had claimed that the reason it needed an additional “headquarters” was that it was unable to hire enough qualified people in Seattle. Huh? Are we really to believe that a company of the stature of Amazon is so provincial that is only hires locally for its head office?   In fact, the reason for Amazon’s showy search may not just have been to get subsidies for headcount additions, and data about the cities wooing for its affection. Amazon’s relationship with Seattle has become strained. Amazon had fiercely opposed a local tax on large companies to fund housing for the homeless and got it reversed a mere month after it had taken effect. By contrast, after the tax was scuppered, Microsoft pledged $500 million to fund affordable housing for the low and middle income in the Puget Sound area, and encouraged other companies to make similar efforts. In any event, Amazon abruptly announced its decision to withdraw from the deal after getting roughed up at two City Council meetings and enduring the indignity of having to contend with ankle-biters like protestors and union leaders. Even though some press outlets claim that Amazon believed the opposition to its development plan was increasing, Lambert, who follows various grass roots activist efforts intensively on Twitter, didn’t see any evidence of that, and from my further removed, I hadn’t detected any either. In fact, Amazon seemed to be winning over, or at least reducing the hostility, of some critics. From the New York Times: Some unions supported the deal, and even those opposed had appeared willing to work with Amazon if the company agreed to not work against the unionization of its employees in New York. An Amazon representative, during one council hearing, pointedly said the company would not agree to such terms.

NYC Councilman Says Union Dispute Killed Amazon Deal, Not Subsidies - When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's blamed opponents of the Amazon tax incentive package for the company's decision to scrap its plans to move to New York City, he might have been leaving out a crucial piece of the story - and minimizing his own culpability in the process. To wit, the Daily News reported on Thursday that Cuomo and a group of labor unions met with Amazon earlier this week to try and salvage the deal. But when the company refused to relent on its opposition to unions being formed among its employees, and the employees tasked with building the new facilities it planned to inhabit, it put Cuomo and other pro-union politicians in a "tricky spot."When one top Amazon official testified to the City Council a few weeks ago that the company wouldn't stay neutral on union bids by its New York staff, members of the council replied that this would be unacceptable. The two unions who had supported Amazon's bid - the Building and Construction Trades and the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ - also threatened to withdraw their support.As a result, Amazon balked. And according to once councilman, the union issue was the company's real breaking point, not the AOC-inspired opposition to the tax incentive plan."They buckled because we held firm on the values of New Yorkers - we told them that you cannot come to New York City and declare that you will crush the rights of workers to organize," said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the area where the headquarters would have been."Amazon insisted and refused to change their ways and we said no deal. And they would rather leave and go elsewhere than allow workers who make $18 an hour to organize a union," Van Bramer said.While there had been outrage surrounding the $3 billion in subsidies the company was getting, Van Bramer said he thought the union issue was what made the deal "untenable" in the end. The structuring of the Amazon deal was done in such a way that it bypassed the City Council, which was one factor that some said contributed to the tensions.

And Now This Message From Some Very Rich People: ‘Please Raise Our Taxes -- Imploring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow them to contribute to the state’s future in a way that benefits all New Yorkers, four dozen millionaires are demanding that lawmakers pass a “Multi-Millionaires Tax” to raise billions of dollars for education, infrastructure, and other programs for the greater good.  Forty-eight millionaires sent a letter to Cuomo and the New York State Assembly as lawmakers weigh proposals for closing the state’s $2.3 billion deficit—arguing that raising their taxes could provide the state with an additional $2 to 3 billion per year. “We millionaires and multi-millionaires of New York can easily invest more in the Empire State, and lawmakers like you have a moral and a fiduciary duty to make sure we do so,” wrote the Patriotic Millionaires, including former Blackrock executive Morris Pearl and filmmaker and entertainment heir Abigail Disney.   “Raising taxes on high-income New Yorkers like us in order to invest in our people and our communities is not just the right moral choice, it also happens to be in the long-term economic best interest of everyone, including millionaires like us,” they added.  As the letter was delivered to the State Capitol, Pearl testified at a state budget meeting on the Multi-Millionaires Tax proposal. The tax would be levied against households earning more than $5 million per year, Pearl said. The group is also proposing that lawmakers close the carried interest tax loophole, which allows many Wall Street managers to pay the lower capital gains tax rate instead of the income tax rate that middle class families have to pay. Cuomo has dismissed proposals to tax the rich at a higher rate, saying it will send the richest New Yorkers, who he says pay about half of the state’s income taxes, fleeing the state—a claim Pearl debunked in his testimony. “I will tell you as someone who knows a lot of rich people in New York, the rich people who make decisions on where to live based mainly on taxes do not live in New York, and they have not lived in New York in decades,” Pearl said. “It would be a colossal mistake for us to compromise the things that actually make rich people want to live in this state in order to appease these fictional New York millionaires who care enough about taxes to leave if we expand the millionaires tax.”

OSHA fines XPO $10,347 for the deaths of two workers - The results of an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into the deaths this past June of two XPO Logistics workers in Lockport, New York, near Buffalo, have led to token fines for the multi-billion-dollar corporation. Christopher Klosin, 38, and Roger Mangine, 62, were killed when several slabs of DuPont Corian fell on them. The company is under contract to transport and warehouse the countertop material for the chemical giant DuPont Corporation. The two workers had been attempting to unload 11 slabs of Dupont’s Corian brand countertop weighing over 800 pounds each when the slabs toppled over on top of them.The results of the OSHA investigation found, “The employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” It was a first time serious offense with an initial fine of only $12,934 that was further reduced to $10,347 as part of an informal settlement. XPO “respectfully” disagreed with the OSHA findings.OSHA also found that “The container was opened up two days before the incident and management was aware there was a problem with the load.” The OSHA fines were issued for the infraction of the 5-foot by 8-foot countertops not being secured, and that “the employer did not fully document the training that it provided to employees who were involved in unloading overseas shipping containers containing slabs of synthetic granite.”

Mayoral task force recommends paying struggling Chicagoans $1,000 a month ABC News  (WLS) --  Some Chicago families could start collecting a $1,000 check every month with no strings attached. That's the new proposal from a task force created by Mayor Emanuel. The idea is to break the cycle of poverty. The pilot program would give 1,000 struggling Chicagoans $1,000 a month.  On a day when Chicagoans want to escape the bitter cold, some cannot. Supporters say people could use the extra cash to cover unexpected emergencies, increase their savings and improve their health. The money would come from a mix of city funds and charity. For more information, visit www.economicsecurityil.org.

Six California officers fire shots at rapper who had been asleep in car, killing him - California police officers fatally shot a 20-year-old rapper who was sleeping in his car outside a Taco Bell, authorities said. Six Vallejo officers fired “multiple rounds” at the man, identified by family as Willie McCoy, police said. McCoy had a handgun on him when the officers fired out of “fear for their own safety” on Saturday night, according to the department. The family of McCoy, whose rapper name was Willie Bo, said Tuesday that police had racially profiled the young black man and that there was no justification for using deadly force against someone who was sleeping and not a threat. “There was no attempt to try to work out a peaceful solution,” Marc McCoy, Willie’s older brother, told the Guardian. “The police’s job is to arrest people who are breaking the law – not take the law into your own hands. You’re not judge, jury and executioner … We’re never going to get over this.” Police said officers were checking up on McCoy after a Taco Bell employee called 911 and said a man was “slumped over” behind the wheel of his car at the fast-food restaurant drive through on Saturday at around 10.30pm. McCoy was unresponsive and had a handgun on his lap, police said, adding that the doors were locked and the car was on. After they called for backup, McCoy “suddenly” moved, officials said in a statement. Police further alleged that officers told him to “keep his hands visible” but that he “quickly moved his hands downward for the firearm”. Police said six officers all fired shots within roughly four seconds, but they did not disclose the number of bullets that struck McCoy. The officers continued shouting commands before removing him from the vehicle and “rendering medical assistance”. He died on the scene. Police have not yet confirmed his identity and said an autopsy was pending. 

Virginia Governor Reeling From Blackface Scandal Refers To Slaves As Indentured Servants -  Fresh on the heels of a poll that found a majority of black Virginians think Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam should remain in office, the governor, who is still reeling from the fallout of a blackface scandal (albeit a scandal that has been somewhat overshadowed by several credible allegations of sexual assault against his lieutenant governor), is apparently determined to change their minds. During an interview Sunday with CBS This Morning's Gayle King, Northam committed a gaffe that, considering his current circumstances, is bound to leave his few remaining defenders slackjawed in disbelief. While explaining to King why he felt he should finish out the remaining three years of his term (while pursuing an agenda of racial equality), Northam casually referred to the slaves who once populated the former confederate state as "indentured servants."Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam: "We are now at the 400-year anniversary — just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while—"@GayleKing: "Also known as slavery" pic.twitter.com/AiX96MU1rJ— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) February 10, 2019 The remarks has already provoked reactions of shock and disbelief that Northam could say something so insensitive during a nationally broadcast TV interview at a time when seemingly every politician in his state has been accused of overt racism.

 Florida School Arms Up; Hires Two Former Combat Veterans To Prevent Mass Shootings - Just south of Tampa, Fla., students at the Manatee School for the Arts (MSA) roam the hallways past an armed combat veteran who is constantly looking out for threats. By the end of February, another one will be manning a guard shack at at the school's entrance.  39-year-old Harold Verdecia, a former infantryman in the US army who completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, patrols the hallways of Manatee strapped with a 9mm Glock 19X and a Kel-Tec "Bullpup" rifle, according to the Herald Tribune.  Verdecia isn’t there to get to know the kids, break up fights or do the typical community-policing that school resource officers typically do, said MSA Principal Bill Jones.Verdecia has one job: Stop an active shooter. -Herald Tribune"When seconds count, (Palmetto police) are only a few minutes away," says Principal Jones - who has gamed out the nightmare school shooter scenario in exacting detail. He's also justified Verdecia's use of a semi-automatic rifle instead of just a handgun. "We’re not looking for a fair fight," Jones said in an interview cited by the New York Times. "We’re looking at an overwhelming advantage." With a shooter just 100 feet away, there aren't many officers who could take the suspect down with a handgun, according to Jones. With a rifle, however, Verdecia could make that shot with hollow-point bullets designed to flower on impact and shred the shooter's internal organs instead of exiting his body and hitting someone else.  In order to become a guardian, Verdercia completed the 144-hour training course that the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office ran for the school district, plus additional training to be qualified to carry the rifle. District general counsel Mitch Teitelbaum said while school district guardians are trained using 9-millimeter Glocks, charter schools have the freedom to arm their guardians with other weapons.  Despite his status as perhaps the most lethal guardian in Manatee County, Verdecia is soft spoken and quietly dedicated to his task. He estimated he walks 9 miles a day, patrolling the vast campus.  Jones said Verdecia earns more than $50,000 a year, plus benefits, to protect the more than 2,000 students at MSA. He is hoping to hire another guardian soon, and Jones was reviewing applications in his office on Thursday. -Herald Tribune To protect himself from incoming fire, Verdecia wears body armor.

Oakland students walk out as school board prepares major cuts - Last Friday, at least 4,000 high school students across Oakland either stayed home or walked out of class in a “sickout” coordinated by the students themselves, as a demonstration of solidarity with their teachers and their determination to fight to improve public education. Roughly 200 students, along with some parents, rallied outside Oakland Technical High School and marched down Broadway to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) headquarters downtown. In Oakland, teachers are in their second year of working without a contract, as negotiations between the school district and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) have dragged on for over 20 months. Last week, teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, with 95 percent voting in favor and a high rate of participation at 84 percent of all teachers.The conditions in Oakland mirror those across the country that have led teachers to push back. Last year saw statewide strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, while last month more than 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles struck before the union declared it ended after six days on the basis of an agreement that failed to meet teachers’ demands. The looming strike in Oakland will likely take place after the teachers strike in Denver, which is set to begin today.Last week’s student-led “sickout” followed two teacher-led wildcat “sickout” strikes that took place in December and January, in which hundreds of teachers participated. Both actions have also been organized independently of the OEA, which has acquiesced to the district’s stalling tactics. The OEA deliberately isolated Oakland teachers from Los Angeles teachers during the strike last month, in the hopes of preventing a statewide teachers strike.

West Virginia teachers, school staff vote “overwhelmingly” to authorize work action - Teachers and other school workers in all 55 West Virginia counties voted last week to call a work action against a reactionary omnibus education bill moving through the legislature. Union leaders tallied the votes Saturday, February 9, announcing “overwhelming” approval for a strike or other unspecified protest. American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) President Fred Albert said that the “work action” could mean anything “from picketing at schools to work stoppages.” He also refused to give a deadline.The West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), AFT-WV and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association called the statewide vote in a desperate maneuver to get out in front of the anger of teachers and keep the union apparatus in control. This was made particularly clear when, in their remarks to news media Saturday, Albert, WVEA President Dale Lee, and service personnel head Joe White characterized the vote to authorize action not as a mandate to mobilize the broadest possible strike action, but as a “big vote of confidence” in the unions. Lee echoed the sentiment, declaring, “We have an overwhelming vote of confidence to the leadership to do what we have to do.” The threat of renewed strike action comes nearly a year after the nine-day strike which was sparked by the determined wildcat action of teachers and school workers in the southern coal counties. The wildcats, in defiance of the unions, spread the strike statewide and galvanized subsequent teacher walkouts across the US. It took nearly two weeks for the unions to regain control of the West Virginia strike, even with the intervention of the national AFT and National Education Association (NEA) leaderships. The unions eventually forced a return to work on terms which failed all of the teachers’ essential demands.

In their first strike in 25 years, Denver, Colorado teachers walk out -- Denver teachers are set to walk out today in their first strike since 1994. Negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and the Denver Public Schools (DPS) have dragged on for 15 months while the union has kept teachers on the job. Teachers voted by 93 percent to strike on January 22. The Denver strike highlights the growing determination of educators to beat back the concerted bipartisan assault on public education. As Denver teachers take to the picket lines, Oakland, California, teachers have voted by 95 percent to strike as early as next week; West Virginia teachers and school workers have voted “overwhelmingly” to strike or engage in any work action necessary to oppose a pro-privatization education bill; Wright State, Ohio, faculty and Chicago charter school teachers are on strike. The fight of 5,600 Denver teachers follows the six-day strike of 33,000 Los Angeles teachers and the march of 2,500 Virginia teachers in January, which in both cases, pitted teachers against Democratic-run state governments. This follows strikes by tens of thousands of educators last year in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Washington state, and in the cities of Jersey City, New Jersey, and Pueblo, Colorado. As is universally the case, the primary concern of Denver educators is low pay. The city is notoriously expensive, but the state—long a stronghold of Democratic Party politics—is presently 39th in per-pupil spending with teachers’ pay ranked 50th in the country compared to other college-educated workers, with median salary at $52,480. Adding insult to injury, teachers’ entirely inadequate wages are accompanied by ProComp, a form of merit pay and other “incentive” differentials, viewed by teachers as divisive, unfair and unreliable. Teachers are seeking to overturn ProComp, which in an additional indignity was co-designed by their own union itself. In the final hours of negotiation on Saturday, the district further angered teachers by doubling-down on such bonuses, many of which are tied to standardized test scores, and ignoring the issue of base pay.

'For Our Students and For Our Profession': Denver Educators Strike for First Time in 25 Years - Taking their place among a national awakening of public school educators demanding better treatment of their profession and better schools for their students, thousands of teachers went on strike Monday after 15 months of negotiations stalled. The walkout is the district's first in about 25 years, with teachers decrying their chronically low pay resulting from an incentive-driven compensation system, and the suffering it inflicts on Denver's 71,000 students. "In the richest country in the world, our teachers should be the best-paid, not among the worst-paid. I stand with Denver teachers. We must invest in public education because our students and teachers deserve better."    —Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)   "We will strike Monday for our students and for our profession, and perhaps then DPS will get the message and return to the bargaining table with a serious proposal aimed at solving the teacher turnover crisis in Denver," said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), in a statement Saturday, after the union rejected Denver Public Schools' latest offer to reform compensation. Outside the district's schools on Monday, many students braved the cold to join their teachers in demanding fair pay. Demonstrators carried signs reading "On strike for our students" and "I'd rather be teaching but I can't afford it." Many chanted, "What do we want, fair pay! When do we want it? Now!"

 Denver teachers strike backed by student walkouts - Teachers in the Denver, Colorado, public school system entered their second day of striking on Tuesday morning, after a day of picketing in frigid temperatures and a rally at the Colorado Capitol building on Monday afternoon that drew hundreds of teachers and supporters. Thousands of high school students also walked out of classes in solidarity with their teachers Monday.  Officials for the Denver Public Schools (DPS) reported that 2,631 of 4,725 teachers, or 56 percent, did not report to work at the district’s 207 schools, which provide education for some 92,000 students. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), which covers about 60 percent of DPS teachers, said that 3,700 teachers are striking. The district is attempting to carry on instruction with hundreds of unqualified administrative staff and a much smaller number of substitute teachers. Its pre-kindergarten program has been forced to close down, affecting 5,000 small children and their families. The DCTA only authorized the strike after 15 months of negotiations in which administrators stonewalled demands for modest pay and funding increases—and after a vote in which 93 percent of teachers balloted voted in favor of striking. Negotiations are set to resume Tuesday morning.Colorado ranks dead last, 50th out of the 50 states, in teacher pay, though the cost of living in Denver, a metropolitan area of nearly 3 million, is among the highest in the country. Teachers are also subject to a draconian incentive system—co-designed by their own union—that ties pay to student performance, under conditions in which per-pupil funding in the state is 39th in the US. Teachers have already won broad support from students, parents and workers in Denver.“When we found out teachers were going to strike Monday, we knew we wanted to show that we stand in solidarity,” Denjaune Ellerbee told USA Today. “Without our teachers, this world wouldn’t work.” Ellerbee and hundreds of students walked out of their classes at South High School and joined teachers on the picket lines Monday.

Denver teachers battle merit-pay system that is backed by unions, Democratic Party -- Teachers in Denver, Colorado are continuing their strike over low pay and underfunding of the school system. According to the union, 3,800 of the district’s 4,725 teachers are participating in the strike, which is the latest in a series of teacher walkouts extending across the United States since the spring of 2018. Denver Public Schools (DPS), which serves 92,000 students and operates 207 schools, is attempting to keep the district running by putting administrators and substitute teachers in the classrooms. There is widespread support among students and parents for the DPS employees, who work in a state that ranks among the last in the nation in terms of teacher pay and live in a city where the median home price of $421,000 is double the national average. Negotiations between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) resumed on Tuesday. DPS officials say their proposal to raise starting salaries to $45,500 from their current level of $43,255 is contingent on slashing other district jobs. School Superintendent Susana Cordova says 150 jobs would have to be eliminated from the district’s central office and has claimed that no support staff and janitors will be affected. Not only are such promises dubious, but the cutting of central office staff has often been the prelude to the restructuring of school districts and the expansion of charter schools and other school privatization schemes.The DCTA, which was forced to call the strike because of overwhelming anger among teachers, is reportedly requesting a miserly $300 in additional baseline compensation. The union, which kept teachers in the schools for 15 months after the expiration of their contract, is looking to end the walkout as quickly as possible.

Union rushing to end Denver teacher strike - Denver teachers were on the picket lines Wednesday for the third day, but the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and the school district are moving quickly to reach a deal to end the strike. A joint statement released Wednesday night by DCTA President Henry Roman and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said, “We exchanged proposals that are moving us closer and are hopeful that we will get to an agreement soon. However, we need a little more time to resolve the outstanding issues, and we will resume our negotiations tomorrow morning at 10 am at the Denver Public Central Library.” According to the Denver Post, an agreement over base pay has been concluded, with a miserly increase of $2,545 a year or just over $200 a month, before taxes. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute says that $92,426 per year is needed to support a family of four in Denver, one of America’s most expensive cities, whereas teachers’ starting pay will only be $45,800. Since 2005, DPS teachers have essentially been subjected to a two-tier salary and pension scheme. Teachers hired before 2005 have been paid according to the existing salary “step” and “lane” system based on academic degrees, years of service and teaching assignments. Teachers hired afterwards were put in a merit-pay system, called ProComp, which is based on arbitrary and discriminatory bonuses modelled after a piecework system at Safelite Autoglass.  The joint statement said the parties have “worked in good faith to find common ground on ProComp,” and reports indicate the traditional lane and step system may be partially or fully restored. However, teacher evaluations based on test scores will still be used to determine pay increases, continuing the system that punishes teachers for educational problems caused by poverty, overcrowded classrooms and years of budget cutting. Increases will still be tied to doing after school tasks to earn Professional Development Units (PDU). Under the new agreement, teachers will have to work an additional 45 hours to earn a single PDU. There is nothing in the proposals about class sizes, tenure rights, and the expansion of “innovative schools,” the euphemism for publicly funded but privately run charter schools.

 Chicago charter teachers strike enters second week - The strike by 175 teachers at four Civitas campuses, part of Chicago International Charter School (CICS), has entered its second week with teachers and staff seeking raises, smaller class sizes, a reduction in healthcare costs and more support staff.The strike began February 5 after talks broke down over teachers’ demand for an eight percent raise in the first year. CICS says it would accept the proposal only by eliminating crucial support staff, like social workers and counselors. According to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), negotiations continued throughout the week last week. The schools have been kept open by administrators with students doing online activities.In ongoing negotiations, the CTU is calling on CICS to use “some portion” of its $36 million set aside to support instruction to meet teacher demands, but no figure nor any number of counselors or support staff has been publicly advertised. A spokesperson for CICS told the Chicago Tribune last Friday that the length of the teachers’ workday and year, and whether the maximum class size of 28 or 29 students, are also at issue.Earlier this week, CTU reported a “subject matter” hearing on charter management where CTU officers and staff gathered to testify to city officials about allegations that CICS is siphoning off millions of dollars a year from school communities. The four schools—ChicagoQuest, Northtown, Wrightwood and Ralph Ellison schools—are managed by Civitas Education Partners and have an enrollment of about 2,200 students. This walkout is the third strike of charter teachers in the US; the first took place at Acero Charter Schools, also in Chicago, last December. The second was largely a stunt by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union as it was preparing to sell out last month’s strike by 33,000 public school teachers. Charter schools are publicly-funded by taxpayers but privately managed. Striking CICS teachers said police had been called to the picket at CICS Wrightwood twice Thursday and Friday by Civitas management, though there was no reason for any police presence. Teachers are also charging that they are being intimidated on the picket lines by Chicago police.

 New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators --The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed “deepfakes for text” – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse. OpenAI, an nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model, called GPT2 is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public in order to allow more time to discuss the ramifications of the technological breakthrough.  At its core, GPT2 is a text generator. The AI system is fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, and asked to write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should come next. The system is pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible, both in terms of the quality of the output, and the wide variety of potential uses.  When used to simply generate new text, GPT2 is capable of writing plausible passages that match what it is given in both style and subject. It rarely shows any of the quirks that mark out previous AI systems, such as forgetting what it is writing about midway through a paragraph, or mangling the syntax of long sentences. Feed it the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – and the system recognises the vaguely futuristic tone and the novelistic style, and continues with:“I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.”

What to do with homeless college students? Let them sleep in the parking lot, new bill says -- California’s housing crisis has left hundreds of thousands of community college students either homeless or facing the threat of being homeless.  A new California State Assembly bill offers a potential remedy — letting students sleep in their vehicles in campus parking lots and structures.  Assembly Bill 302, sponsored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, would require the California Community College system to make their college parking system accessible overnight to any enrolled student in good standing. State law already requires that community colleges provide homeless students with access to shower facilities on campus.  “Over the last two years, I’ve heard from too many students that they don’t have stable housing and often end up sleeping in their cars. Unfortunately, this is all too common throughout California, with one in four community college students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness,” Berman said in a statement Wednesday.  While programs such as the California College Promise help cover tuition, that’s not the biggest expense community college students face. Housing takes up 43 percent of a student’s budget, according to a report from the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Research and Floor Analysis released last summer.   The California Community College system is the largest, and most diffuse, of all the state higher education systems. It encompasses more than 2.1 million students across 114 campuses around the state.   Two districts — the Los Angeles Community College District and the Peralta Community College District in northern Alameda County — have conducted their own surveys. The Los Angeles Community College District had nearly a quarter of a million students enrolled in the 2016-17 academic year; nearly one in five students — around 50,000 people — was homeless and more than half were listed as “housing insecure,” defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as experiencing “high housing costs in proportion to income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding or homelessness.”In the Peralta Community College District, that percentage was even higher; 84 percent of enrolled community college students, nearly 42,000 students in total, were experiencing either homelessness or housing insecurity.

Wright State University reaches tentative agreement with faculty enshrining health and pay cuts - On Sunday, February 10, negotiators for the Wright State University (WSU) administration and faculty union announced they had reached a tentative agreement ending the 20-day strike of approximately 560 full-time faculty. Rather than a victory, the agreement codifies most of the demands made by the university’s administrators and board of trustees, and should be rejected by faculty with the contempt it deserves. Faculty at WSU, a public university in Dayton, Ohio with approximately 18,000 students, had been on strike for 20 days following the university administration’s imposition of a contract on January 4 which represented an all-out assault on working conditions, pay and other benefits. The strike, which was the second-longest public university strike in US history, received immense support from students and other educators, and substantially impacted university operations.Although the American Association of University Professors chapter at Wright State University (AAUP-WSU) initially rejected the university’s offer to begin negotiating a successor agreement to the imposed contract, on the grounds that they were striking in opposition to the imposed contract, in the end the union capitulated on this point and allowed it to be the starting point for the agreement that was eventually reached. Indeed, the agreement takes the form of two consecutive successor agreements. One would take effect February 10 and last through June 30, 2020, while the next one runs from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2023. Among the biggest concessions made by the union was in relation to health care, which played a big role in the wide support for the strike from faculty, and the 85 percent margin of the strike authorization vote. From the beginning, the university administration demanded the faculty be placed on the same health care plan that it had forced onto other university staff members. Additionally, they also demanded the right to be able to essentially change health care benefits whenever convenient. While the university agreed to keep faculty on the same healthcare plan through June of 2020, the agreement gives the university the ability to raise rates for premiums and out-of-pocket costs by up to 35 percent after that point, which would have a substantial personal financial impact on many faculty.

We are all peasants now: The student-loan crisis is destroying the middle class - American higher education is the emperor who wears no clothes. College leaders boast that our nation's universities are the envy of the world while they rake in so-called federal "student-aid" and parade about in medieval regalia peddling worthless degrees.And America's young people are the losers. They've been gulled into thinking they can gain a middle-class lifestyle by getting a college degree and maybe a graduate degree as well. But millions are finding that their college degrees gained them little more than massive debt. And those online MBAs and doctorates they purchased with borrowed money--just junk. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, outstanding student-loan debt reached $1.56 trillion last January. Around 45 million Americans have student-loan obligations and 7.4 million are enrolled in long-term repayment plans that stretch out for as long as a quarter of a century.  As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted with shocking candor last November, only one out of four student borrowers are paying off the principal and interest on their loans. It is now well documented that student-loan debt is contributing to the nation's declining birth rates--now near a record low. People can't afford children because they're paying off student loans.  Young people can't afford to buy homes, they can't save for retirement, they can't pay off their debts.  Their liberal arts degrees, their shoddy law degrees, their fluffy MBAs and doctoral degrees qualify them to become baristas and clerical workers. For too long, Americans have bought the line that our colleges and universities operate for the public good and that the people who run them are wise and kindly. We particularly revere the ivy league colleges where we get nearly all our prune-faced Supreme Court justices and most of our presidents. But if the folks who run Harvard are so goddamned wise, how could they have fallen for Elizabeth Warren's scam that she's a Cherokee? And if our elite college leaders are sensitive and kindly, how did little boys wind up getting raped in a Penn State shower room? And how could dozens of female athletes get groped by Larry Nasser while he was on Michigan State's payroll?

 The government could soon grab your student loan payments right out of your paycheck - Student loan borrowers would have their monthly bills automatically deducted from their paychecks if a Republican-backed proposal becomes law. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, laid out the details of the massive overhaul to the student loan system in a speech earlier this month. The changes could affect some 40 million people. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s. The country's outstanding student loan balance is projected to swell to $2 trillion by 2022. Currently, borrowers are matched with companies that administer the federal student loan programs, and they have some 14 different ways to repay their education debt. Under Alexander's proposal, there would be just two repayment routes: one in which borrowers' monthly bills are capped at 10 percent of their discretionary income and another that spreads their payments out over a decade. Employers would be responsible for taking the funds from their employees' paychecks and sending them to the government. (Of course, student loan borrowers currently can set up automatic payments with their lender. They also typically get a discount on their interest rate for doing so.) "I think this proposal is likely to become law, after some tweaks," said Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert.   The plan quickly drew criticism from consumer advocates, who called it "mandatory wage garnishment."

Drug companies are sitting on generics—43% of recently approved aren’t for sale - Of the more than 1,600 generic drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration since January of 2017, more than 700—or 43 percent—are not for sale in the US, according to a new analysis by Kaiser Health News. The finding means that many pricy, brand-name drugs are not facing the competition that could help drive down soaring prices. Among the drugs missing in action are generic versions of the expensive blood thinner Brilinta and the HIV medication Truvada. Moreover, of the approved drugs that would offer a brand-name drug its first competition, 36 percent are being held off the market, the analysis found. Experts told KHN that the reasons drug makers may withhold an approved generic from the market are varied. Industry consolidation has made buying, manufacturing, and distributing generics more difficult in recent years. Generic drug makers also, as always, face patent litigation from brand-name makers. Then there’s potentially anti-competitive deals, in which brand-name drug makers simply pay generic makers to keep their product off the market for a while—a so-called “pay for delay” tactic. Lastly, there are internal decisions within a generic company that can lead to shelving a drug. For instance, a drug maker may shift its business strategy while it’s waiting for the drug to get approved, or the maker may delay a drug’s entry to the market until a strategic time. Whatever the reason, keeping approved generics from the market is “a real problem because we’re not getting all the expected competition,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview with KHN.

Lower Prescription Drug Prices Lure Americans To Mexico To Buy Meds - This idea had been in the back of Michelle Fenner's mind for a while. Her son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes nine years ago, meaning he needs daily injections of insulin to stay alive. The list price of the modern generation of insulin has skyrocketed since then. On one trip to the pharmacy last year, Fenner was told that a three-month supply of insulin would cost her $3,700.  That same supply would cost only about $600 in Mexico. So when she booked her trip to Los Angeles, Fenner says, "I decided we need to update our passports and go and get more insulin." Fenner is not the only one thinking like this. The U.S. government estimates that close to 1 million people in California alone cross to Mexico annually for health care, including to buy prescription drugs. And between 150,000 and 320,000 Americans list health care as a reason for traveling abroad each year. Cost savings is the most commonly cited reason. In Utah last year, the Public Employee Health Plan took this idea to a new level with its voluntary Pharmacy Tourism Program. For certain PEHP members who use any of 13 costly prescription medications — including the popular arthritis drug Humira — the insurer will foot the bill to fly the patient and a companion to San Diego, then drive them to a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, to pick up a 90-day supply of medicine."The average cost of an eligible drug in the US is over $4,500 per month and is 40-60% less in Mexico," PEHP Clinical Services Director Travis Tolley said in an announcement of the program last October. The program was part of a Right to Shop bill championed by health care economist and Utah state representative Norm Thurston in 2018. Thurston says there is not yet enough data to know how much in savings the program provides; the first patients traveled to Tijuana in December.

Unvaccinated teens are fact-checking their parents — and trying to get shots on their own WaPo -  Ethan Lindenberger, frustrated by years of arguments about his mother’s anti-vaccination stance, staged a quiet defection on Reddit. The Norwalk, Ohio, teenager needed advice, he said, on how to inoculate himself against both infectious disease and his family’s dogma.  As anti-vaccination movements metastasize amid outbreaks of dangerous diseases, Internet-savvy teenagers are fact-checking their parents’ decisions in a digital health reawakening — and seeking their own treatments in bouts of family defiance.“This generation of unvaccinated children coming of age has looked at the science and want to protect themselves,” said Allison Winnike, president and chief executive of the Immunization Partnership, a Texas-based nonprofit vaccine advocacy group.Anti-vaccination efforts spread after the publication of a now-debunked 1998 study linking some immunizations to autism, Winnike said. “Now you’re seeing children coming of age, out from a cloud of misinformation,” Winnike told The Washington Post on Monday. That transformation, like the spread of vaccination fears themselves, has taken place online. At least three self-described teenagers from different states recently told Reddit they have a common problem: Their parents are staunchly opposed to vaccination, and they fear for their health if they do not take action.  Lindenberger’s post drew more than 1,200 comments, including one from someone who identified as a nurse and provided detailed information on navigating the health-care system.

  Lack of sleep can harm DNA, possibly increasing risk of cancer, study finds - Sleep deprivation can damage DNA and the body’s ability to repair this, possibly leading to higher chances of genetic diseases such as cancer, a study has found. The University of Hong Kong research, which looked into the effects of sleep deprivation on local doctors, found that those who needed to work overnight shifts had a higher level of damage in their DNA, as well as lower levels of gene activity associated with DNA repair. The study was among the first to examine such effects on humans, particularly on younger adults. “This is a very preliminary study, but [there is] an indication that sleep disruption is not good for you, and not good for your genes,” said Dr Gordon Wong Tin-chun, co-author of the study and an associate professor at HKU’s department of anaesthesiology. DNA damage means a change in the basic structure of genetic instructions for cell growth and functions in organisms, and this alteration is not repaired when the molecule is replicated. Wong said DNA damage and lower repair ability could bring bigger health implications. “[Such conditions] may increase chances of developing diseases from genetic mutations such as cancers,” he said. Wong said the findings of the study might also be applicable to people who had working patterns that were similar to the doctors who pulled irregular overnight shifts. The findings have recently been published in medical journal Anaesthesia.

Tobacco Use is Soaring Among US Kids, Driven By E-cigarettes -  For the fifth year in a row, e-cigs were the most popular product amongst high school students, but in 2018 it reached unprecedented epidemic levels, with the addition of another 1.5 million kids, said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Food and Drug Administration defines e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, while traditional cigarettes and cigars are combustible tobacco products. "Current users" are defined as people who've used a tobacco product in past 30 days, while "frequent users" are for those who've used the product for more than 20 out of the past 30 days. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. and nearly all tobacco use begins in adolescence, Schuchat said.   While e-cigs don't have the heavy carcinogenic toll that traditional cigarettes do, they do have high levels of addictive nicotine. One vaping pod can equal roughly one pack of cigarettes for nicotine. : Public health officials from CDC, the FDA, and Minnesota's health department discussed the findings, which were from the 2011–2018 National Youth Tobacco Surveys and published in Vital Signs.

  • 27.1% of high school students and 7.2% of middle school students used a tobacco product in 2018.
  • For high school students, e-cigs were the most commonly used tobacco product at 20.8%, followed by cigarettes at 8.1%, cigars at 7.6%, smokeless tobacco at 5.9%, hookah at 4.1%, and pipe tobacco at 1.1%.
  • Among middle schoolers, e-cigs were 4.9%, which is also the most commonly used tobacco product, followed by cigarettes at 1.8%, smokeless tobacco at 1.8%, cigars
    at 1.6%, hookah at 1.2%, and pipe tobacco at 0.3%.
  • Among youth using tobacco products, 2 in 5 high school students and 1 in 3 middle school students are using 2 or more tobacco products — primarily e-cigs and traditional cigarettes.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Axios the agency will "have to reconsider our enforcement policy" if these numbers aren't turned around. While Gottlieb said there are some indications that e-cigs may help people quit from combustible tobacco products that are carcinogenic, it "can't be on the back of the youth."  In this long Twitter thread from Sunday, Gottlieb said, "[W]e could be looking at more kids addicted to nicotine than we've seen in a long time." Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said e-cigs have created a new generation of tobacco users that's "erased all the progress we made over the years."

 Study links abuse-deterrent OxyContin with rise in hepatitis C infections --According to a new study published in Health Affairs last week, Purdue Pharma’s switch to a new abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin in 2010 led to a rise in hepatitis C infections as addicts switched to injecting heroin. While prior research has established the connection between the introduction of the abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin and a spike in heroin overdoses, the Health Affairs article, written by researchers from the Rand Corporation and the Wharton School, examined the relationship between the introduction of the reformulation and hepatitis C infection rates.The researchers noted that while opioid overdoses and addiction steadily rose in the 2000s, the rate of hepatitis C infections declined or remained stagnant—until 2010, the year that the abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin became available. Hepatitis C infections began to steadily increase shortly afterwards. The study drew on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to measure the nonmedical use of OxyContin in different US states, and then computed the rate of OxyContin misuse in each state before the reformulation. Their results found that while OxyContin misuse declined after 2010, both hepatitis C infections and heroin deaths increased. Moreover, the researchers found that states with above-median misuse rates saw an increase in hepatitis C infections three times greater than those states with below-median rates (a 222 percent increase compared to a 75 percent increase).

Is the Opioid Overdose Crisis a Story of Supply or Demand? Depends Where You Look - Over the past two decades deaths from opioids and other drugs have grown to be a major U.S. health problem, but fatal overdose rates are much higher in some places than in others. Explanations for this variation are debated. One ongoing debate is whether geographic differences in drug mortality rates are driven mostly by opioid supply factors (Currie et al. 2018; Ruhm 2018) or socioeconomic distress, that is demand factors. (Case and Deaton 2015, 2017; Hollingsworth et al. 2017; Monnat 2018). Existing research in this area does not allow for the possibility that demand factors may matter more in some parts of the U.S. while supply factors might matter more in others. In particular, the relative contributions of economic distress and opioid supply factors in explaining variation in drug mortality rates in rural versus urban areas and across different labor markets have been ignored. In my INET paper, I use National Vital Statistics System mortality data to examine relationships between county-level non-Hispanic white drug mortality rates for 2000-02 and 2014-16 and several socioeconomic and opioid supply measures across the urban-rural continuum and within different rural labor markets. My aim is to tease out the relative contributions of socioeconomic distress and opioid supply factors on geographic variation in drug mortality rates and identify characteristics of counties bearing the heaviest drug mortality burdens.

12,000 Chinese blood plasma treatments contaminated with HIV - China is facing its latest medical scandal after a large batch of human blood plasma treatment was found to be contaminated with HIV. The batch of intravenous immunoglobulin – an immune therapy treatment made with antibodies from blood plasma – was produced by China’s second-biggest medical blood products manufacturer, the state-owned Shanghai Xinxing Pharmaceutical Company. Dated Tuesday, a statement from the National Health Commission (NHC) warned hospitals to immediately suspend use of the batch after the provincial health commission and disease control centre of eastern China’s Jiangxi detected traces of HIV in it. A representative of Jiangxi Provincial Disease Control Centre told The Beijing News on Wednesday that the contaminated Shanghai Xinxing batch had been reported to the NHC and that it had not yet discovered any cases of patients having contracted HIV.The faulty batch comprised 12,229 50ml bottles of plasma due to expire in June 2021, a source from the state food and drug regulator told the China Business Journal. Immunoglobulins are antibodies produced by white blood cells that are used to treat immune deficiencies caused by illnesses such as leukaemia, hepatitis and rabies. The NHC statement advised hospitals to report any stocks of the treatment and closely monitor the condition of patients who had already been treated with the defective batch.

No Local Woe, India’s Poor Public Health Feeds Antibiotic Resistance Worldwide - Antibiotic resistance genes from around the world are accumulating in even the most remote locations, such as the Arctic soils, highlighting the pace with which these threats can globalise. Scientists from Newcastle University have found an antibiotic resistance gene, called the New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (blaNDM-1), in soil samples taken in 2013 in Kongsfjorden in the Svalbard archipelago. blaNDM-1 was originally detected in surface seeps in Indian cities in 2011, less than three years prior. The difference in the climates of these two locations can’t be understated: the remote island in the Arctic has no agriculture or industry, very few people and temperatures low enough to freeze and preserve genetic material. Metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM) is an enzyme that empowers bacteria to resist a broad range of antibiotics. David Graham, one of the Newcastle researchers and an ecosystems engineer, told The Wire that their study “shows how far reaching and how fast resistance can move around the world, which impacts everyone.” Thankfully, the levels of blaNDM-1 were localised in Kongsfjorden “and posed no health threat” there, according to their published paper. The authors say their findings highlight the value of characterising remote locations that could provide a baseline for estimating the spread of antibiotic resistance around the world. This is not the first time the resistance gene has been found in places away from India. In January 2017, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed the presence of NDM in the body of an American woman who was infected when she was being treated for a thigh-bone fracture in India in 2015. She would die later in 2017. The CDC report prompted the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) to issue a notification on January 16, 2017. In it, the DCGI ordered all companies involved in the supply chain to follow guidelines specified in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act on sale of medicines, and directed state drug regulators to act against people selling antibiotics without prescriptions. 

 Sex-For-Vaxx Scheme Uncovered As 2nd-Largest Ebola Outbreak Rages On -  Health workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are reportedly offering Ebola-related services, including Vaccinations, in exchange for sexual favors.  According to a recent NGO report presented at a national taskforce meeting in the DRC town of Beni, women - who are largely responsible for caring for the sick - have been blamed for failing to prevent the spread of the disease, reports The Guardian.  Exploited women have been offered healthcare jobs in exchange for doses of the "highly, highly efficacious" vaccine, according to the report.  "This region of DRC has a long history of sexual violence and exploitation of women and girls. Though shocking, this is an issue that could have been anticipated," saiod Trina Helderman, senior health and nutrition adviser. "Humanitarian actors should have been more prepared to put safety measures in place to prevent this from happening." On Thursday, the health ministry urged people to report anyone offering services such as vaccinations or other treatment in exchange for money. The ministry said it was aware of separate rumours, spread on social media, that women working on the Ebola response had been given jobs in exchange for sexual favours. In a statement, it said it took such claims seriously, and advised that women should only meet with recruiters wearing an official badge.The warnings come as international health experts urged the WHO to consider issuing a global alert in relation to the outbreak. Writing in the Lancet, they said the response had been complicated by a “storm of detrimental factors”, including political instability, conflict and large numbers of people on the move. -The GuardianThe DRC outbreak is the second largest in history, surpassing 811 people with reported symptoms. Of those, 750 have tested positive for Ebola according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which warned that there is a high risk of the outbreak spreading to neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.  There have been 510 deaths as a result of the virus so far.

Glyphosate Exposure Increases Cancer Risk Up to 41%, Study Finds -- A new meta-analysis of glyphosate suggests that people who are highly exposed to the popular herbicide have a 41 percent increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the world's most widely used weedkiller and has been surrounded by controversy ever since the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. The latest paper is a comprehensive review of epidemiologic studies published between 2001 and 2018, including last year's large Agricultural Health Study that tracked the health of tens of thousands of agricultural workers and determined no firm association between exposure to the pesticide and cancer, including NHL, asReuters reported then. Even with the Agricultural Health Study's assessment, the authors of the new paper still found "a compelling link" between glyphosate exposure and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and makes an even stronger case of the link compared to previous reports. For each study that was reviewed, the researchers focused on the groups that were the most highly exposed to the chemical. "This research provides the most up-to-date analysis of glyphosate and its link with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, incorporating a 2018 study of more than 54,000 people who work as licensed pesticide applicators," study co-author Rachel Shaffer, a University of Washington doctoral student in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, in a press release.She added their findings aligned with the classification from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The meta-analysis was published this week in the journal Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, whose editor-in-chief is U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) genetic toxicologist David DeMarini, GM Watch noted. "Overall, in accordance with evidence from experimental animal and mechanistic studies, our current meta-analysis of human epidemiological studies suggests a compelling link between exposures to GBHs [glyphosate-based herbicides] and increased risk for NHL," the study states. This conclusion contradicts the results of previous scientific assessments and international governmental bodies, including the EPA, which declared in 2017 that the controversial chemical is "not likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

Weedkiller 'raises risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma by 41%' - A broad new scientific analysis of the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate herbicides, the most widely used weedkilling products in the world, has found that people with high exposures to the popular pesticides have a 41% increased risk of developing a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence “supports a compelling link” between exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides and increased risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), the authors concluded, though they said the specific numerical risk estimates should be interpreted with caution.  The findings by five US scientists contradict the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assurances of safety over the weed killer and come as regulators in several countries consider limiting the use of glyphosate-based products in farming.Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG face more than 9,000 lawsuits in the US brought by people suffering from NHL who blame Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides for their diseases. The first plaintiff to go to trial won a unanimous jury verdict against Monsanto in August, a verdict the company is appealing. The next trial, involving a separate plaintiff, is set to begin on 25 February , and several more trials are set for this year and into 2020.Monsanto maintains there is no legitimate scientific research showing a definitive association between glyphosate and NHL or any type of cancer. Company officials say the EPA’s finding that glyphosate is “not likely” to cause cancer is backed by hundreds of studies finding no such connection.The company claims the scientists with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015 engaged in improper conduct and failed to give adequate weight to several important studies.

What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food -  When Andreina Febres, a mother of two living in Oakland, California, signed up for a study evaluating whether an organic diet could make a difference in the amount of pesticides found in her body, she didn’t know what researchers would find. But her family, and the three others across the country that participated, would discover that they all had detectable levels of the pesticides being tracked. They would also discover that after only six days on an organic diet, every single person would see significant drops in those pesticides, including several linked to increased risk of autism, cancer, Parkinson’s, infertility, and other significant impacts on health.   This just-published peer-reviewed study helps answer a question many of us ask when deciding whether to reach for the conventional or organic option at the store: does organic really make a difference? The results say yes, a big difference. Choosing organic can protect you from exposure to toxic pesticides.  This study, led by researchers at University of California, Berkeley and Friends of the Earth, and co-authored by one of us, tracked pesticide levels in four families from across the country for two weeks. The first week, the families ate their typical diets of non-organic food; the following week, they ate completely organic. Urine samples taken over the course of the study were tested for pesticides and the chemicals pesticides break down into, called metabolites.  The results? Of the 14 chemicals tested, every single member of every family had detectable levels. After switching to an organic diet, these levels dropped dramatically. Levels across all pesticides dropped by more than half on average. Detectable levels for the pesticide malathion, a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization, decreased a dramatic 95%.

Eating 'ultraprocessed' foods accelerates your risk of early death, study says — The quick and easy noshes you love are chipping away at your mortality one nibble at a time, according to new research from France: We face a 14 percent higher risk of early death with each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultraprocessed foods we eat. "Ultraprocessed foods are manufactured industrially from multiple ingredients that usually include additives used for technological and/or cosmetic purposes," wrote the authors of the study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. "Ultraprocessed foods are mostly consumed in the form of snacks, desserts, or ready-to-eat or -heat meals," and their consumption "has largely increased during the past several decades." This trend may drive an increase of early deaths due to chronic illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, they say. In the United States, 61 percent of an adult's total diet comes from ultraprocessed foods, in Canada, it is 62 percent, and in the UK, that proportion is 63 percent, a recent study found. Yet research also indicates that eating ultraprocessed foods can lead to obesity, high blood pressure and cancer, the study authors say. To understand the relationship between ultraprocessed foods and the risk of an earlier-than-expected death, the researchers enlisted the help of 44,551 French adults 45 and older for two years. Their average age was 57, and nearly 73 percent of the participants were women. All provided 24-hour dietary records every six months in addition to completing questionnaires about their health (including body-mass index and other measurements), physical activities and sociodemographics. The researchers calculated each participant's overall dietary intake and consumption of ultraprocessed foods. Ultraprocessed foods accounted for more than 14 percent of the weight of total food consumed and about 29 percent of total calories, they found. Ultraprocessed food consumption was associated with younger age, lower income, lower educational level, living alone, higher BMI and lower physical activity level. Over the study period, 602 participants died. After adjusting for factors such as smoking, the researchers calculated an associated 14 percent higher risk of early death for each 10 percent increase in the proportionof ultraprocessed foods consumed.

Can Lettuce Survive Climate Change? - A WEEK INTO the new year, federal investigators announced that the latest outbreak of foodborne illness, from romaine lettuce, seemed to be over: There hadn’t been any cases of illness caused by a dangerous variety of E. coli bacteria known as O157:H7 for more than a month. But the investigation hadn’t gone as they’d hoped. Despite several months of trying, investigators couldn’t confirm the source of the bacteria that made 62 Americans and 29 Canadians sick. Contaminated romaine had caused two earlier outbreaks in 2018, and both of those ended with a similar lack of answers. They had identified the link between sick people and a food, isolated the organism creating the illness, searched backward for how the organism had gotten into the food—and had come up short.  As the number of failed investigations mounts, the future of lettuce is starting to look a lot less palatable. If you can’t pinpoint the moment of contamination, you can’t fix the problem in a permanent way. Plus, these leafy greens can’t be sterilized without losing their character. (Boiled lettuce: not likely to be a thing.) But there may be a reason that contamination in lettuce is so hard to solve. In a few corners of the industry, a conviction is growing that extreme weather events are making crops vulnerable to contamination in a way they never have been before. It’s a threat that no one is sure how to mitigate, and it’s likely to only get worse.  The proximate cause of the 2018 outbreaks was E. coli found in water used on the farms. In California the bacteria turned up in an on-farm reservoir, and in Arizona in an irrigation canal that supplied several farms.   While the lettuce in the Yuma outbreak was still in the fields, there was a run of freak weather: an unusual frost followed by strong winds. The hypothesis of what happened next goes like this: The freeze blistered the leaves, breaking up their surface; then the winds blasted bacteria into the superficial wounds the freeze created, and the pathogens found their way into the vascular channels within the leaf, where they could not be washed away. But no one at the time thought to check for food-safety dangers; growers were focused on rescuing as much crop as possible.

New Investigation: Surge of Poultry Factory Farms in North Carolina Added Waste From 515.3M Chickens to That of 9.7M Hogs - North Carolina, a state known for the devastating environmental and public health impacts of industrial-scale hog production, now has more than twice as many poultry factory farms as swine operations, according to a new investigation from the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance. The groups' research found that in 2018, manure from 515.3 million chickens and turkeys joined the waste from 9.7 million hogs already fouling waters and threatening North Carolinians' health. By scouring satellite data, examining U.S. Department of Agriculture imagery and conducting site visits, EWG and Waterkeeper experts identified more than 4,700 poultry and about 2,100 swine concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS. The analysis comes as state regulators are debating the terms of the state permit regulating waste management from swine CAFOs."If you're setting standards for pig waste, you can't ignore the recent explosive growth of the poultry industry, which has largely flown under the radar," said Soren Rundquist, EWG director of spatial analysis.The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, is required to update its CAFO waste permits every five years and is currently gathering public and industry input on the swine permit. The agency must consider the cumulative impact of similar operations—hogs, poultry and cattle—on the environment.DEQ's top CAFO regulator recently admitted to lax enforcement in the agency's oversight of swine operations. And in 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened an investigation into whether the state's management of swine facilities and their waste discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, as described in this letter from EPA to the DEQ. A settlement was reached last May. Although the state implemented a moratorium on new swine operations in 1997, the poultry industry has tripled since then—from 147 million birds to 515.3 million today.

Industry Wanted This Ohio River Commission to Stop Setting Pollution Standards. It Almost Gave in. - An Ohio River commission that represents eight states lining the waterway and its tributaries voted Thursday to keep its authority to set regional water pollution standards, rather than ceding that power to each individual state. It was a victory for environmental advocates at a time when the federal government has been rolling back protections on pollution from industries along the industrial corridor.  Last summer, under pressure from industries and power utilities, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) had taken a preliminary vote to abandon its pollution control standards. It changed course on Thursday, endorsing instead a compromise proposal that would give states more flexibility to decide whether or not use the standards, said commission member Tom FitzGerald, a Louisville environmental attorney. Under the compromise, the commission's staff, which reviews all state water quality permits, would also make those reviews more rigorous, he said. "This is a workable approach" that reflects a reality that some Ohio River states are already ignoring ORSANCO's standards, while preserving the agency's ability to set "gold standard" guidance, FitzGerald said. The river, which runs for 981 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi River, is a drinking water source for about 5 million people and is increasingly a recreational resource. It's also still a heavily industrialized river, and industries including electric utilities had argued that ORSANCO standards were not needed because each state has its own standards and an obligation to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Some of the states had also wanted ORSANCO to back off and focus only on research and monitoring. Environmental advocates and drinking water utilities had urged the agency to not handcuff itself by getting out of the standard-setting business.

13 Michigan water systems fail excessive lead test: report - More than a dozen water systems in Michigan were found to have excessive lead compared to federal standards in the second half of 2018, according to a new report. The 13 systems that failed the federal test were throughout the state, MLive reported Friday, citing data it had obtained from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. One water system served fewer than 100 people, while another served a city of about 22,000. Seven systems were found to have lead levels twice as high as is legal in Michigan, according to the report. The maximum legal level of lead in the U.S. is 15 parts per billion (ppb). In Michigan, 27 systems were found to have lead levels of at least 13 ppb, MLive reported. Michigan last year began enforcing the strictest rules for lead in drinking water in the country following the water crisis in Flint. The state said it would limit lead to 12 ppb in 2025. Flint appeared to have safe lead levels in the latest test of its water. Ninety percent of water samples tested in the city in the latter half of 2018 had lead levels of 4 ppb or less.

 GOP lawmakers seek new limits on drinking water contaminants  (AP) — Three Republican state senators are demanding strict new limits on two industrial contaminants that have been found in water sources in three areas in New York state.  Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan and Republican senators Ken LaValle and Phil Boyle on Wednesday called on the state Department of Health to set drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, two chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems.PFOA has contaminated drinking water in Hoosick Falls, while PFOS has contaminated drinking water around an Air National Guard base in Newburgh and groundwater near another base on Long Island.Health officials have not yet publicly responded to the lawmakers’ request.Environmental groups and the state Drinking Water Quality Council have also called for new limits on the two chemicals.

EPA Delays Action on Toxic Nonstick Chemicals, Sets No Limit -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose a regulatory determination on highly toxic nonstick chemicals "by the end of this year," a timeline that's been criticized as too slow to take on the notorious drinking water contaminants. At a press conference on Thursday in Philadelphia, EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a "comprehensive cross-agency plan" to tackle perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, while keeping the federal health advisory level at 70 parts per trillion.  "We feel right now that 70 parts per trillion is a safe level for drinking water," Wheeler said, as quoted by the Foster's Daily Democrat, referring to PFOS and PFOA—two common PFAS compounds.But health and environmental groups, as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have advised far lower levels than what the EPA considers safe.  The CDC's said in its toxicology report published in June that the risk level for PFOA should be 11 parts per trillion and just over 7 parts per trillion for PFOS.The man-made chemicals are found in a wide range of products, from non-stick cookware to firefighting foam. The compounds have been found in military bases and in many species of wildlife around the world. AHarvard 2016 study found that 6 million Americans get drinking water from sources that exceed current EPA guidelines for the chemicals.Exposure has been linked to health issues such as cancer, liver disease, fertility problems, thyroid issues and asthma. Even extremely low, daily doses of the substances showed an adverse impact on lab animals.

Proposed Detention Center for Child Migrants Contaminated With Lead and Other Pollutants - A site that the Trump administration proposed as a migrant detention center for unaccompanied children is contaminated with several pollutants that could harm the children's health, a report released by EarthJustice on Tuesday found. In June 2018, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the government was preparing to house unaccompanied children at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, as Reuters reported. However, EarthJustice said that the base was near four Superfund sites."Public records show the migrant detention site proposed for Goodfellow will be built atop a former landfill, in an area riddled with lead, benzene and other chemicals particularly hazardous to children," EarthJustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a press release. The potentially hazardous sites include:

  1. A landfill that has leached lead, arsenic and other solid waste into the soil and groundwater
  2. An aqueous film forming foam release area contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS)
  3. A firing range where soil is contaminated with lead
  4. A carbon tetrachloride spill where there are volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)
  5. A fuel storage and spill area where there are arsenic and high levels of VOCs, including benzene, toluene, chlorobenzene, trichloroethene, 1,1-dichloroethene, methylene chloride, chloroform and carbon tetrachloride in the groundwater

The report found that lead levels in the soil have previously surpassed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safe levels for play areas by 27 times and that lead in the groundwater surpassed EPA safe levels by more than 20 percent.

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India - The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20 percent is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations. India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia. We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment. More than 95 percent of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016. We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Squatting outside shop units encountered hundreds of people, including children, busy dismantling televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries, and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.  “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.  Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium.  The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.  Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (AU $4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short? -- Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. So, it's not surprising that humans get their phosphorus from other living organisms, mostly plants, that have absorbed phosphorus from the soil. The introduction of phosphate fertilizers made it possible to ensure that enough phosphorus for healthy plant growth is available in practically any farmland soils. At first, farmers had access to phosphate fertilizers from bone ash and later from phosphate deposits accumulated from bird and bat guano on certain tropical islands (some of which deposits were 30 feet deep before they were mined and completely exhausted). More recently, phosphates have come from mining rocks rich in phosphorus. All seemed well for the long term as supplies of the rock phosphates were thought to be hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. But a group of researchers upended the consensus in 2009 forecasting that phosphate production could peak as early as 2030. A peak wouldn't be the end of phosphate production. But it would mark the beginning of an ongoing decline in phosphorus available from mines. This would come as a shock to a world food system accustomed to consistently rising phosphorus supplies needed to feed a growing population. There are ways to recycle the phosphorus we eat, primarily through the sewage sludge from municipal sewage systems. But one of the easiest and most beneficial ways is building soil using compost. Crop residue, animal manure and human food wastes are important sources for such compost. It's an old idea that is finding it's way back into our modern agriculture. In fact, one of the most important factors in the availability of phosphorus in any soil is the healthy presence of vast colonies of microorganisms that free phosphorus from its inorganic chemical prisons and make it available to organic life.

 Key West to ban sunscreen with coral-harming chemicals - The Florida legislation will go into effect in 2021 in an effort to protect the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem.  The planet's coral reefs are in trouble. Like many organisms and habitats, they are suffering from a number of assaults courtesy of modern humankind. One such adverse contribution is the preponderance of sunscreen chemicals that swimmers and beachgoers are unwittingly rinsing off into the sea. Scientists have long suspected that sunscreens contribute to coral bleaching events, even finding that minuscule amounts can have a big effect on developing corals.As we reported earlier, "Oxybenzone kills polyps by deforming their cells, damaging their DNA and triggering the release of hormones that cause the young corals to encase themselves in skeleton ... just one drop of oxybenzone in a volume of water equivalent to 6.5 Olympic swimming pools can be harmful to corals." Hawaii made big news last year when the state announced they would begin banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, common ingredients in over 3,500 sunscreens.  And now, Key West, Florida has voted to follow The Aloha State with a ban of their own. The measure was approved this week by the City Commission in a 6-to-1 vote, and will ban sales of sunscreens containing the same chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate. Like Hawaii's legislation, the Florida law will also go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, reports Karen Zraick in The New York Times.

Plummeting insect numbers 'threaten collapse of nature' - The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.Insect population collapses have recently been reported in Germany and Puerto Rico, but the review strongly indicates the crisis is global. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

Insects Could Go Extinct Within a Century, With 'Catastrophic' Consequences for Life on Earth - More than 40 percent of the world's insects could go extinct in the next few decades, according to a report that lead author Francisco Sánchez-Bayo told CNN was the first global review of the threats facing the class that makes up 70 percent of earth's animals.A third of insects are endangered species, and they are going extinct at a rate eight times that of birds, mammals and reptiles. That amounts to a loss of 2.5 percent of insect mass every year over the last three decades."It is very rapid," Sánchez Bayo told The Guardian. "In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none."   Sánchez-Bayo, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, worked with Kris Wyckhuys of the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and the University of Queensland on the report, published in Biological Conservation. Together they examined 73 reports looking at the global decline in insect biodiversity in order to assess its main causes. The chief drivers of the decline are, in order of magnitude:

  1. Habitat loss caused by intensive agriculture and urbanization
  2. Pollution caused mainly by pesticides and fertilizer
  3. Diseases and competition with newly introduced species
  4. Climate change, particularly in the tropics

Intensive agriculture has been particularly deadly for insects, Sánchez-Bayo told The Guardian, because it usually leads to the clearing of trees and shrubs surrounding fields. In addition, pesticides like neonicotinoids and fipronil developed in the last 20 years kill all of the grubs in the soil they are used on, effectively sterilizing it. A rapid decline in insect populations would be "catastrophic" for the rest of life on earth, the report authors wrote. Insects are essential as pollinators, food sources and nutrient recyclers in many ecosystems.

Global insect decline may see ‘plague of pests’ - A scientific review of insect numbers suggests that 40% of species are undergoing "dramatic rates of decline" around the world. The study says that bees, ants and beetles are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles.But researchers say that some species, such as houseflies and cockroaches, are likely to boom.The general insect decline is being caused by intensive agriculture, pesticides and climate change.  Insects make up the majority of creatures that live on land, and provide key benefits to many other species, including humans. They provide food for birds, bats and small mammals; they pollinate around 75% of the crops in the world; they replenish soils and keep pest numbers in check.Many other studies in recent years have shown that individual species of insects, such as bees, have suffered huge declines, particularly in developed economies. But this new paper takes a broader look. Published in the journal Biological Conservation, it reviews 73 existing studies from around the world published over the past13 years. The researchers found that declines in almost all regions may lead to the extinction of 40% of insects over the next few decades. One-third of insect species are classed as Endangered.

Venomous Yellow Scorpions Are Moving Into Brazil’s Big Cities—and the Infestation May Be Unstoppable - São Paulo is a dense city, with scarce green space and little to no animal life—no squirrels, no raccoons, not even a lot of birds. So I was astonished when, in January, I learned that scorpions had infested my neighborhood. It turns out, people across the city and São Paulo state were having the same problem with these dangerous, venomous bugs. Statewide, scorpion stings have increased threefold over the last two decades. Four kinds of scorpions live across Brazil, but historically only in rural areas. São Paulo residents are urbanites. We have conquered nature—or so we thought. Some 2.5 billion people worldwide, from Mexico to Russia, live with scorpions, which generally prefer hot and dry habitats.But Brazil's cities also provide an excellent habitat for scorpions, experts say. They offer shelter in sewage networks, plenty of water and food in the garbage that goes uncollected, and no natural predators.Scorpions, like the cockroaches they feast on, are an incredibly adaptable species. As the weather in Brazil gets hotter due to climate change, scorpions are spreading across the country—including into its colder southern states that rarely, if ever, had reports of scorpions prior to this millennium.The number of people stung by scorpions across Brazil has risen from 12,000 in 2000 to 140,000 last year, according to the health ministry. Most scorpion stings are extremely painful but not fatal. For children, however, they are dangerous and require urgent medical attention. Eighty-eight people died from their wounds in 2017, Brazil's O Globo newspaper reports, highlighting the lack of adequate medicare care available in small towns. Many of the dead are children.

‘Wiped out before our eyes’- Hawaii offers bold plan to stop shark killings - Sharks could soon become more numerous in Hawaii waters – and advocates say that’s a good thing. Lawmakers in Honolulu advanced a proposed ban on killing sharks in state waters on Wednesday, after receiving hundreds of calls and letters of support from around the country. The law, which would provide sweeping protection for any shark, rather than select species, could be the first of its kind in the United States. “These amazing animals are getting wiped out before our eyes, and people don’t even realize what they’re missing out on,” said Ocean Ramsey, a Hawaii-based shark conservationist, researcher and tour operator who has been instrumental in lobbying for the bill, in an interview with the Guardian. Last month, a photo of Ramsey swimming with a 6-metre (20ft) great white shark off the coast of Oahu went viral. Ocean Ramsey, a Hawaii-based shark conservationist, has pushed for a bill that would ban killing sharks.   Sharks, Ramsey said, are deeply misunderstood. Their presence in the ocean is unlike any other animal’s, she noted. “Everything else in the ocean swims away from you, but you can have these incredible interactions with sharks because they’re apex predators and they’re not afraid of you.” The threats to Hawaii’s sharks are numerous, proponents of the bill argue.  Ramsey said she has seen sharks left to die on shore, and has encountered images of local fishermen using sharks as bait to catch giant kingfish. In addition, shark fins can sometimes sell for as much as $500 a pound (£850 per kg). Shark fin soup, a delicacy once favored by Chinese emperors, has become widely popular as a status symbol in modern China. As a result, nearly 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and species are disappearing.

How to save a dragon in Indonesia -- Concerned about the impact of tourism on the environment, local governments in Bali and the neighboring East Nusa Tenggara island chain have separately imposed blanket bans on single-use plastics and initiated a year-long closure of Komodo Island, home of the world’s only flesh-eating dragons.Bali’s ban on plastics and styrofoam, which may well be extended to nearby islands, is already in force in most supermarkets and stores and will be fully enforced across the island by June, with officials saying they hope to reduce plastic bag usage by 70% within the next year.The Bali government is also planning a US$10 tax on foreign tourists to pay for the upkeep of traditional villages, but it seems bereft of ideas on how to upgrade the narrow, traffic-choked coastal road connecting the tourist belt to northern Bali’s Java ferry crossing.  Traffic congestion has become one of the worst threats to Bali’s tourist industry, which topped six million foreign visitors for the first time last year. So have road accidents with an average of 1,500 a year and 450 deaths, most of them motorcyclists.

Groups to sue US agency over loss of caribou herd (AP) — Environmental groups said Wednesday they plan to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to prevent the recent loss of the last herd of mountain caribou in the Lower 48 states. The handful of remaining animals were relocated into Canada last November, ending decades of efforts to save the southern Selkirk Mountains herd, which were located in a remote part of northern Idaho and Washington state. The lawsuit would seek to blame the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate protected habitat for the animals. “Fish and Wildlife Service officials sat on their hands for decades while the last wild caribou in the lower 48 states went extinct,” said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue along with Defenders of Wildlife and The Lands Council. The environmental groups want to establish protected caribou habitat as part of an effort to return the animals in the United States. “With the right protections in place we can bring them back,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. Mountain caribou, also known as reindeer, are sometimes called Grey Ghosts because of how rarely they are seen. They once roamed a broad area of the Lower 48, including the northern Rockies in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the upper Midwest and the northeast. Mountain caribou have hooves the size of dinner plates that act like snowshoes. The animals can survive all winter eating lichens found on the branches of old-growth trees. But their habitat was increasingly fragmented by roads and other development over the decades. Plus, the increased popularity of snowmobiles meant more people infringed on the caribou’s alpine habitat. By 1983, when they were first protected under the Endangered Species Act, caribou were limited to just the northern Rockies and declining fast. 

Rare Footage of Arizona Ocelot Shows What Could Be Lost by Border Wall - Feline conservation group Conservation CATalyst released what it says is the first-ever trail camera footage of an endangered ocelot in Arizona on Sunday, at what the group said on its Facebook page is a "critical point" in the species' conservation. That is partly because of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall, which would restrict the ability of Sonoran ocelots to cross between the U.S. and Mexico in search of food, mates and territory. "One of the greatest single threats to ocelot recovery in the United States is the proposed expansion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall," conservation CATalyst senior researcher Chris Bugbee said on the group's Facebook page. "If there was ever a solid physical barrier that spanned the entire border, as is planned by our current administration, it would be 'game over' for both jaguar and ocelot recovery in this country. Such a fate is unacceptable." A 2017 study by the Center for Biological Diversity looking at the potential impact of the wall on 93 threatened or endangered species found that it could drive jaguars and ocelots to extinction in the U.S. The video, featured below, was picked up by several Arizona news outlets including Tucson News Now and the Arizona Daily Star.

Court Allows Trump to Bulldoze Environmental Laws For Border Wall - A federal appeals court on Monday sided with the Trump administration's bypassing of numerous environmental laws to expedite border wall construction projects in southern California. In a 2-1 decision (pdf), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier district court ruling that determined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has broad authority under the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to waive statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and many more environmental rules to build border barriers."Because the projects are statutorily authorized and DHS has waived the environmental laws California and the environmental groups seek to enforce, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment to DHS," judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the majority opinion.  A Justice Department spokesperson told The Hill that the ruling was "a victory for the Trump administration, for the rule of law, and above all, for our border security." The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the litigants, was disappointed by Monday's court ruling, especially as the challengers tried to take the case to the Supreme Court but was rejected in December.  "Congress has ceded its authority to Trump, who has swept aside fundamental public safety and environmental laws to build walls that won't work," Brian Segee, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said in a statement to The Hill after the decision. "This lawlessness is destroying irreplaceable ecosystems and militarizing communities." The Center found in a 2017 study (pdf) that more than 90 endangered or threatened species would be threatened by proposed wall construction along the 2,000-mile border.

American trophy hunter paid $110K to kill rare mountain goat in Pakistan: reports -An American trophy hunter reportedly paid a record $110,000 to shoot and kill a rare mountain goat during a recent tourist expedition in Pakistan. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a photo of the hunter, identified as Bryan Kinsel Harlan, went viral depicting him kneeling and smiling behind the slaughtered goat, identified by Pakistani newspapers as a wild Astore markhor. “It was an easy and close shot. I am pleased to take this trophy,” the hunter reportedly said, according to Pakistani news outlets. The newspapers reported that Harlan's Pakistani guides said he is from Texas. The photo drew swift backlash from many on social media who questioned why the practice of hunting markhors was not banned. The markhor is the official national animal of Pakistan. According to the Post, regional authorities have reportedly said they allowed hunters like Harlan to pay large sums of money to hunt the animal in northern Pakistan this past month as part of a larger effort to help save the endangered species from possible extinction. The population of the rare goats has reportedly been dwindling in recent years due to local poaching, deforestation, uncontrolled trophy hunting, military activities and other factors. There were an estimated 2,500 markhors remaining in 2011.

Nature’s Revenge: Wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - (photos) On 26 April 1986, one hundred and ninety tonnes of highly radioactive material were expelled into the atmosphere at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, where the once-busy city of Pripyat has now been reduced to a ghost town, exposing people to radioactivity 90 times greater than that from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Chernobyl zone today is a unique area, most of which is covered by dense vegetation and is inhabited by hundreds of animal species, including those listed in the Red Book. According to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, led by environmental scientist Jim Smith at Britain's University of Portsmouth, the nature reserve zone extending north from the Chernobyl power plant into Belarus, found that elk, deer, wild boar and wolves are now abundant in the Polesie reserve that was established after the 1986 disaster.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos keep multiplying and Colombia doesn’t know how to stop it - Fishing villages dot the landscape along the shallow waterways of Colombia's Magdalena River. But an invasive species left behind by one of the country's most infamous figures is threatening the ecosystem and, possibly, a way of life. That species? Hippos. The giants, native only to Africa, are now running wild in Colombia, reports CBS News' Manuel Bojorquez. The story of Colombia's hippos starts in Villa Napoles, the former estate of Pablo Escobar, who in his heyday had four hippos smuggled there for his private zoo. Escobar's ranch housed hundreds of exotic animals including rhinos, elephants and giraffes. By the 1980s, his cocaine empire made him the wealthiest and most feared drug lord in the world. For Colombia, it was a reign of terror. He's said to be responsible for some 7,000 deaths. Around the time Escobar met his death in the early 90s, the government relocated most of the animals but not the hippos who were basically allowed to roam free. "People forgot the hippos," said biologist David Echeverri, who works with CORNARE, the environmental agency in charge of tracking and managing the hippos in the region. He estimates there are about 50 or more of them now. The area where they roam is a paradise for the animals who have no predators and ample food and water. But they're getting too close to people. It's not uncommon to spot a three-ton hippo walking around town. Locals call them the "village pets," but Echeverri said the "dangerous" and "territorial" species is anything but. In Africa, hippos cause more human deaths than any other large animal. So far, there are no known attacks in Colombia.

Town in northern Russia battling invasion of polar bears -- Russia is battling an unprecedented invasion of polar bears on a remote Arctic archipelago that is home to the country’s most northerly military base. Known locally as “Lords of the Arctic”, the wild animals have been terrorising the population on Novaya Zemlya, a group of mountainous islands off Russia’s northern coast once used as a testing ground for atomic bombs. “People are scared, afraid to leave their homes, daily routines are being broken, and parents are unwilling to let their children go to school and kindergartens,” according to Alexander Minaev, the deputy head of the local government in Novaya Zemlya. Global warming is melting Arctic ice, forcing polar bears to abandon their traditional habitat and move closer to human settlements in search of food. But hunting the unwelcome visitors is prohibited in Russia where polar bears are officially protected as an endangered species. The government in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region declared a state of emergency on Novaya Zemlya on Saturday citing an unprecedented build-up in the number of polar bears in the remote region since December last year. Some 52 bears have been sighted around Belushya Guba, the biggest settlement on the islands – or about one bear for every 10 members of the local population. Aggressive behaviour Most of the animals appear to have holed up in a disused military garrison, but some have ventured out to enter residential and public buildings and displayed “aggressive behaviour”. Army personnel have been trying to drive out the bears using non-lethal measures. But the polar bears are so “convinced of their own safety” they ignore barking dogs, bright lights and loud noises intended to scare them away, local officials said. 

State of Emergency Declared After 52 Hungry Polar Bears ‘Invade’ Russian Village  — The Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya has declared a state of emergency after a village was invaded by dozens of starving polar bears, who are attacking residents and rummaging in the streets for food.In recent years, polar bears in the northeastern region have been forced to flee inland as surrounding sea ice melts, causing starvation among the bears and driving them to seek out food sources far from their natural habitats.At least 52 polar bears have been sighted in the streets, homes and office buildings of the remote arctic village of Belushya Guba, resulting in attacks on residents and groups of school children. As a result, local authorities claim that residents are often scared to leave their homes.Deputy administrator of the region Alexander Minayev explained:“People are scared, afraid to leave their homes, their daily activities are disrupted, parents are afraid to let their children go to schools and kindergartens.” In some social media posts, however, residents adopt a playful attitude toward the predators, even going so far as to speak to them and beckon cubs toward them.“’Misha,’ come to me, do you understand?” one resident tells a hungry cub as a sloth of bears nearby digs through a heap of garbage. Since December, the military has attempted to ward off the threat of the polar bears using lights, alarms, patrol cars and dogs. Yet in recent weeks, such measures have failed to prevent the bears from approaching the village, which is home to about 560 people.

China is polluting California’s air - A lot of people like to imagine pollution respects national borders. The reality is, it couldn't care less. A new report found that pollution is traveling around the world and, in particular, moving from China to California."Pollution really doesn’t know boundaries," explained Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator and director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard. "Nothing goes away. It ends up somewhere." That's actually a big part of the reason California has so much smog. "Scientists found Asian air pollution contributed as much as 65 percent of an increase in Western ozone in recent years," NPR reported. "China and India, where many consumer products are manufactured, are the worst offenders." A number of studies have come to similar conclusions, with one study finding "29% of particulates in the San Francisco area came from coal power plants in China."Pollution doesn't stay in the air. It's in our bodies. Particles flow through air and water into our lungs and food."They end up in our bodies in detectable levels," McCarthy said.There, they cause a number of chronic diseases."Countries like China, India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Vietnam are accumulating intolerable levels of pollution. In some of these countries, pollution is responsible for one in four deaths, far more than infectious diseases like malaria," continued the report.And the problem is getting worse. "Air pollution is exacerbated in a changing climate," McCarthy told me.

California’s strict wildfire liability rule hangs over bankrupt PG&E - While bankruptcy will help Pacific Gas and Electric Co. address its immediate financial challenges, it may do little to alleviate longer-term headwinds posed by California’s relentlessly devastating wildfires and the strict liability the state imposes on utilities whose power lines cause them. Thanks to a once-obscure legal doctrine known as inverse condemnation, PG&E can be held liable for damage caused by its equipment, even if the company wasn’t negligent. Rooted in the U.S. and state constitutions and imposed on utilities by California courts with fairness in mind, inverse condemnation is seen by many as an increasingly insurmountable barrier to PG&E’s future — one that could remain after the utility and its parent company complete a bankruptcy reorganization. But any reform effort would encounter stiff opposition from politicians, wildfire victims and others who could see it as yet another attempt to help the embattled utility avoid responsibility for disasters its equipment caused. PG&E told investors when it announced its intent to seek protection from creditors last month that the strict liability doctrine was one of many factors its board weighed before deciding to proceed with a filing under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Specifically, directors considered “the unique nature of California’s doctrine of inverse condemnation and whether it is possible for PG&E to continue to own and operate all of its current assets as an investor-owned utility subject to that doctrine,” the company’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission said.

California's Two Remaining Utilities Are One Fire Away From Bankruptcy - Two weeks after California's largest utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection (marking its second bankruptcy in 20 years), Bloomberg is sounding the alarm that California's two other large electric utilities are just one wildfire away from bankruptcy filings of their own - a fact that was underscored last month when S&P slashed their credit ratings to near-junk status. And to the chagrin of California residents, Gov. Gavin Newsom has done nothing to ease these anxieties, leaving large swaths of the largest state in the union without solvent utility companies (a situation that would likely lead to massive rate hikes on California's already heavily taxed consumers). The two utilities in question are Edison International’s Southern California Edison Co. and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Both utilities have begged California lawmakers to reconsider the state's view on the legal concept of inverse condemnation. Put simply, this legal principle allows utilities to be held liable for any wildfires caused by their equipment - even if the utilities have followed every safety rule. But so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears (for the record, the changes being requested wouldn't affect the distribution of liability if the utilities are found to be negligent). "This is a really serious issue that could absolutely impair the health of utilities in this state," Pedro Pizarro, Edison’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. "I don’t want to speculate about bankruptcy, but this is serious. And the current approach is just not sustainable." But as Bloomberg points out, there are several easy solutions that wouldn't be difficult for the legislature and governor's mansion to pursue. The legislature has the power to change the standard. But so far, they have opted to do nothing. Here's a rundown of the options (text courtesy of Bloomberg):

Poor, elderly and too frail to escape: Paradise fire killed the most vulnerable residents - Dorothy Mack had crippling back pain and deteriorating eyesight. Helen Pace used a walker and could barely hear. Teresa Ammons suffered a stroke in 2017 and couldn’t drive. Although each woman had a different frailty, their final circumstances were strikingly similar: They were all seniors on fixed incomes, they all lived alone, and they all died when the Camp fire roared through their mobile home park. Experts say the incineration of Paradise, a sleepy town of 27,000 nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is a case study in what can go wrong when a landscape that’s prone to wildfire is disproportionately populated by those who are least likely to escape. Like the women who died in Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, most of the 86 people who died in the fire were seniors. Of the 69 bodies that have been positively identified, 53 were over the age of 65 — or 77%. This grim fact comes as no surprise to those who study the impacts of wildfire. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that older adults are more than twice as likely than the general population to die in fires. And a quarter of Paradise residents had a disability, which is more than double the statewide rate.

Trump: We cannot continue to spend 'billions' on 'preventable' forest fires -   President Trump appeared to ease off his threat to cut disaster funding for California forest fire victims, but emphasized there should be action to prevent future blazes.“I told my people, I said we cannot continue to spend billions of dollars, billions and billions of dollars,” Trump told regional reporters at the White House. “Forest fires are totally preventable. They shouldn’t happen.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Trump said he spoke with Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) a couple weeks after a Jan. 9 tweet in which the president threatened to direct FEMA to halt disaster funding for California "unless they get their act together."“He was very respectful as to my point of view,” Trump said. “I think he agrees with me. I respect the fact that he called. The forests are, because of whatever reason, ... extraordinarily flammable, to put it mildly.”Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trump has at least twice before threatened to withhold disaster funding from California for its wildfires and pressed the state to fix what he sees as major flaws with its forest management practices that cause or exacerbate fires.The president on Wednesday doubled down on those arguments, The Los Angeles Times reported, telling reporters that state environmental rules block the federal government from managing its lands in California. The news outlet noted that much of the state's forests are on federal property or private property.

Heavy snow storm exposes depth of social crisis in US Pacific Northwest - A major snow storm, named Winter Storm Nadia, hit the Pacific Northwest region of the United States this past weekend bringing record snowfall and low temperatures, placing heavy burdens on the most vulnerable residents and causing damage to infrastructure. Total snowfall varied across the region’s cities and rural areas. The city of Seattle, Washington, received more than 14 inches of snow, the highest recorded snowfall for the entire month of February since 1916. In Portland, Oregon, snowfall reached an average of four inches across the metro area. The snowstorm also hit parts of Northern California and even Hawaii, which was hit with 60 mph winds and gusts as high as three times that on its highest summit. In addition, residents faced record low temperatures and dangerous road conditions, leading to many health and safety concerns. Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency on Friday, which is still in place. Road closures and car accidents due to icy road conditions are common. These unsafe conditions are especially severe in southwest Washington and northern-central Oregon, where flooding began Tuesday from heavy rainfall and melting snow, causing mudslides and road blockages. Perhaps the most astounding social impact of the storm is on the area’s massive homeless population. Hundreds of homeless people, often living in tents and cars throughout Portland, Seattle and other cities across the region, packed into temporary shelters organized by thinly-stretched nonprofit organizations. From what has been reported so far, at least one homeless man, 59-year-old Derek Johnson, has died from exposure and hypothermia. His body was found early Monday morning at a light rail station in downtown Seattle. Seattle has an estimated homeless population of some 10,000 individuals today, up from 8,500 in 2017. At least four thousand homeless people reside in Portland, which has similar housing and wage trends as Seattle. Hundreds die each year from homelessness, and the hardships intensify in extreme weather conditions.  Carl Soderberg, 53, died from hypothermia in Maple Valley, Washington, and Stanley Little, 84, died from exposure in Fall City, Washington. More deaths and injuries are expected from lack of shelter, proper heating or access to food and medications.

Storm wreaks havoc in Northern California, while Southland preps for days of wet weather -A storm that forecasters say is the strongest this winter descended on Southern California on Wednesday after already packing a powerful punch up north. The moisture-rich storm known as an atmospheric river dampened much of Los Angeles County by 11 a.m. but had yet to unleash the chaos that hit Northern California overnight. Forecasters predict the Southland will see the brunt of the storm late Wednesday through Thursday afternoon. “It’s going to give us the biggest storm we’ve seen so far this season,” said Jimmy Taeger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.  Before moving south, the storm downed trees and triggered flooding so severe that it submerged cars and closed Great Highway along San Francisco’s western edge.  Heavy rain also prompted warnings in the Sierra Nevada of “roofalanches,” in which snow that has accumulated on homes suddenly slides down. With several feet of snow that has built up, the collapses can “seriously injure or even kill someone,” the weatherservice warned. Weather experts said the atmospheric river — swollen with subtropical moisture — will combine with a front that will help wring moisture out of the system, causing heavy rain across much of the Southland and unleashing gusty winds. Those are expected to tear through Los Angeles at 25mph to 40 mph, with gusts as high as 60 mph. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow bands of water vapor pushed by gusty winds over the Pacific Ocean that, when strong enough, can account for a disproportionate amount of the annual precipitation — between 30% and 40% — on the West Coast, experts say. In 2016, a series of intense atmospheric rivers helped ease California’s epic drought by producing record rain and snow in Northern California. The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, which recently introduced a new system for categorizing atmospheric river storms on a scale from from 1 to 5, ranked this one as a Category 4, or “extreme,” based on its duration and intensity. Category 4 storms are considered hazardous but can be beneficial to the state’s water supply, according to the center.

Australia: Northern Queensland flood causes widespread destruction - As rains subside, parts of northern Queensland remain flooded. The region, which has experienced severe droughts over the past decade and bushfires late last year, is now contending with the effects of widespread flooding this month. So far, the deluge has claimed at least two lives. There are grave fears for another man who went missing after his boat crashed in flood waters near Ayr last Friday. Last Tuesday, the bodies of Troy Mathieson and Hughie Morton were discovered in a stormwater drain near Aitkenvale Park in Townsville. The men, aged 23 and 21, were reported missing on Monday. Police claimed they were wanted in connection with a break-in at a Dan Murphy’s bottle shop. They were alleged to have run into flood waters after fleeing the scene. The tragic fatalities are being investigated by the Office of the State Coroner as deaths in custody. Queensland Police Ethical Standards Command has also launched an internal inquiry.  While the full extent of the damage to the city of Townsville and northern Queensland remains unknown, initial reports point to a major catastrophe. An estimated 82,000 homes in Townsville have been affected by the flood. Some 1,500 homes have been assessed, with 738 found to be severely damaged and 252 uninhabitable. According to the Insurance Council, 11,800 claims totalling $147 million in losses have already been lodged. Some 16,000 people have already applied for personal hardship payments. Relief payments from the federal government are capped at a minuscule $1,000 per person, well below what is needed to address the widespread damage caused by the flood.

About 500,000 Cattle Feared Dead After Historic Queensland Floods - An estimated 500,000 are feared dead after historic floods inundated Queensland, Australia, according toNews.com.au, citing the state's cattle industry.Financial losses are estimated at $300 million Australian dollars (about $212 million U.S.).Days of "unprecedented" rainfall earlier this month led to widespread flooding across the state, causing power outages, damaging roads and buildings and prompting evacuations, according to AccuWeather. Some areas, the Guardian noted, received three years' worth of rain in about a week.Tragically, farmers in northwest Queensland initially welcomed the rains, as the region had suffered years of back-to-back drought, according to Michael Guerin, the CEO of Queenlands agricultural body AgForce."The loss of hundreds of thousands of cattle after five, six, seven years of drought, is a debilitating blow not just to individual farmers, many of whom have lost literally everything, but to rural communities," he said in a press release.Guerin said the cattle industry could take decades to recover after the entire herds of cattle were wiped out from the extreme weather."There is no doubt that this is a disaster of unprecedented proportion," he said. He urged governments of all levels and other agencies to help the farmers with recovery efforts. Local farmers expressed heartbreak at the sheer scale of destruction caused by the floods, not just for cattle but to other native wildlife and to infrastructure. "As we begin to access our paddocks we are being confronted with death and devastation at every turn," Kate Hunter, who works at the Gipsy Plains Brahmans farm, wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. "There are kangaroos dead in trees and fences, birds drowned in drifts of silt and debris and our beloved bovine family lay perished in piles where they have been huddling for protection and warmth. This scene is mirrored across the entire region, it is absolutely soul destroying to think our animals suffered like this."

Ferocious Heat Engulfs Usually Temperate Tasmania - Australia has been going through one of its hottest and stormiest summers on record and usually temperateTasmania, its island state, has taken a battering.  A prolonged drought and record high temperatures have caused a series of devastating fires, destroying unique forests and vegetation and forcing people to leave their homes. Critics of the Australian government say it's clear climate change is wreaking havoc; meanwhile politicians continue to pander to the interests of the country's powerful mining and fossil fuel industries. Mike Willson is a Tasmania resident, a fire equipment specialist and a volunteer with the Tasmania Fire Service. Here he tells Climate News Network what life has been like on the island over recent weeks: "There is menace in the air. Days full of thick brown smoke. The clouds of smoke have even been swept across 2,500 kilometres of ocean to as far away as New Zealand—itself trying to cope with its own forest fires. A new phenomenon has arrived in Tasmania—lightning storms without rain. In one day in mid-January there were over 2,000 dry lightning strikes over the south-west and central highlands here, starting up to 70 bush fires. Even with water bombing by planes and helicopters, the fires—which have already burned out 3% of the area of the island—are virtually impossible to control. Dealing with these fires is like fighting a snarling dragon. Small flakes of grey ash fall everywhere. Embers can trigger spot fires several kilometres ahead of the main fire.  The fire can seem to disappear but still burns in logs and stumps. You have to always be on the lookout for tell-tale wisps of smoke. Walking across with a hose line to investigate, it's a moonscape, the soil collapsing under your feet. It's like trudging through powder snow, sinking up to mid-calf in places, with the earth under your feet turning to hot dust. Aiming at a puff of smoke, the ground erupts and hisses like a volcano when we spray water. If conditions are right, a controlled back burn can effectively starve the fire of fuel, but then the wind might whip up and the fire can jump—even across large rivers and bays—and rampage on. Among the areas threatened or partially destroyed by fire are the world's largest remaining forest of thousand-year-old King Billy pines.

Floods, fire and drought: Australia, a country in the grip of extreme weather bingo - The people of Townsville know about heavy rain, but this was new. Over the past fortnight, the northern Queensland city’s 180,000 residents have been hit by a monsoon strengthened by a low-pressure front that dragged moist air south from the equator to Australia’s top end. It dumped an unprecedented 1.4 metres of rain in less than two weeks – roughly double what falls on London in a year. The ensuing chaos has wrecked homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property. Two men have drowned and videos posted to social media have shown crocodiles climbing trees and taking to elevated highways in search of shelter. But amid the deluge, not everyone heeded the evacuation advice. Mark Parison was one of those who stayed. The tide where he lives in Hermit Park peaked at least two metres high on some homes and the road was decorated with debris – furniture, white goods and children’s toys – pulled from homes as the water receded. But Parison’s traditional Queenslander home, elevated on concrete pillars, remained largely intact. Asked if he was concerned that climate change was making floods more extreme, he was clear: “If anyone mentions that, I’ll punch ‘em.” “The weather events seem to be getting more extreme. Whether it’s manmade or natural or who knows. “These people crying about climate change, they’ve got to look at how they live themselves. They’re still driving around in cars, they’re still wearing nice clothes. They’re using mobile phones. So give that up, I’ll start listening to you.”

Last 5 Years:  World Hotter Than at Any Time in 120,000 Years  – The National Space and Aeronautics Agency (NASA) and its sister agency NOAA report that the past 5 years are the hottest on record. World-wide temperature records began being kept from about 1880.Global heating proceeds differently in each area of the globe. The real heat wave in comparative terms was in the arctic last year. The lower 48 in the US experienced their 14th hottest year on record.The world is on average one degree Fahrenheit (0.86 degrees C.) whotter than the 1951-1980 average. It is 2 degrees F. hotter than 1880. Obviously, the heating is accelerating at an alarming rate. If we were smart, we’d pull out all the stops to halt burning of fossil fuels so as to limit further warming. The carbon dioxide human beings have already put into the atmosphere will go on making the earth hotter for a while. But we have a choice of whether it gets a degree hotter, or two degrees hotter, or 14 degrees hotter. If the average global temperature goes up 14 degrees, then some places that are now hospitable to human habitation will just become uninhabitable.It is actually now warmer not just than 1880 but than any time in the last 120,000 years. Until 1750 or so the average parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly 260 to 270. And they had been stable for a very long time. (In the past 400,000 years, 270 ppm of CO2 was an upper limit, and sometimes the carbon dioxide fell to 180 ppm).

Indonesia dam burst raises alarm over unchecked forest clearing - In the Indonesian city of Makassar, where the rainy season often brings floods, Hasriani didn't worry when a day-long downpour last month saw water rise to her knees by the time she had picked up her children from school for afternoon prayers. But within an hour, the water level had climbed above her head, threatening to drown her family inside their home, already built a metre (3 ft) off the ground. "It wasn't caused by the rain - it was Bili-Bili!" said Hasriani, 30, referring to a dam completed in 1998 in order to prevent flooding, located 9 miles (14.5 km) away. In late January, the dam overflowed, unleashing run-off from the mountains that swamped thousands of homes close to the city. Disaster officials were shocked that one intense bout of rain could cause the dam to fail. But the provincial governor and environmental experts believe it could have been predicted. Earth shaken loose by years of forest-felling in the mountains above the city had been washed down into the dam's reservoir, they said, silting it up and displacing water. The dam burst swallowed up thousands of homes and hectares of rice fields across South Sulawesi province, killing about 80 people and affecting more than 13,000 - the worst disaster in at least 15 years. On mountain slopes, unanchored soil triggered landslides that ate up houses and damaged bridges. Of the thousands forced from their homes, many had yet to return, said Ikhsan Parawansa, head of the disaster agency in Gowa district, where 56 died. Residents were unprepared for the failure of the 20-year-old dam and the resulting scale of the flooding. Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation shortly afterwards, South Sulawesi Governor Nurdin Abdullah rejected the media's portrayal of the disaster as "natural". "That dam was intended to last 100 years," he said. A university lecturer in forestry, Abdullah - who took office in September - blamed human activities for exacerbating the effects of heavy rains. "There is a lot of mining and land conversion that increases silting and fills the rivers with dirt," he said. 

Brazil miner Vale knew deadly dam had heightened risk of collapse (Reuters) - Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore miner, knew last year that the dam in Brazil that collapsed in January and killed at least 165 people had a heightened risk of rupturing, according to an internal document seen by Reuters on Monday.  The report, dated Oct. 3, 2018, classified the dam at Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais as being two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines. The previously unreported document is the first evidence that Vale itself was concerned about the safety of the dam. It raises questions as to why an independent audit around the same time guaranteed the dam’s stability and why the miner did not take precautions, such as moving a company canteen that was just downhill from the structure. Vale said that the report, called “Geotechnical Risk Management Results,” comprised the views of specialist engineers, who are obliged to work within strict procedures when they identify any risks. “There is no known report, audit or study with any mention of an imminent risk of collapse at Dam 1 in the Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho,” Vale said in an emailed statement. “To the contrary, the dam had all its certificates of safety and stability attested to by local and foreign specialists.”    The disaster in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais was the second major collapse of a mining dam in the region in about three years, following a similar disaster in 2015 at a nearby mine co-owned by Vale. 

Greenland’s Melt Will Drive Up Sea Levels…But Also Give Us Sand - Greenland is rapidly melting. Blame it on climate change. This is no good news, but a new paper points out an unexpected benefit as a result of all this lost ice: sand. The world is in need of sand—in part, to prepare for rising sea levels and strengthen coasts—and Greenland could play a major role in supplying it. This paper, which isn’t a study but rather a perspective in the journal Nature Sustainability, is the result of a separate study the authors published in 2017 after they realized that parts of this semi-autonomous Danish territory’s coastline were growing. After popping information on ice sheet melt into models, the team realized the growth of sandy river deltas was directly related to the loss of ice.“We saw this and felt we need to share this knowledge with policymakers,” said lead author Mette Bendixen, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, to Earther. “It’s up to Greenland to figure out if this [sand resource] is something they want to pursue.” Greenland’s ice sheet has been losing an estimated 269 billion tons of ice each year since 2002. This has resulted in sand building up on the island’scoasts because as the ice melts, it flows through rivers and carries sediments toward the sea. The sand delivered to Greenland’s coasts each year has a market value equivalent to more than half of the government’s gross domestic product, which was about $2.22 billion in 2015, per this press release.

PIOMAS February 2019 - Arctic Sea Ice by Neven -  (maps, graphs & tables) It was a long wait, what with the US government shutdown and a new year requiring spreadsheet updates, but here is the first PIOMAS update of 2019.Another month has passed and so here is the updated Arctic sea ice volume graph as calculated by the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) at the Polar Science Center:   So far, the winter has been good for Arctic sea ice. The past three months have been relatively cool, especially when compared to the previous three winters, which broke all temperature records for the Arctic (see Zack Labe's excellent graph here). Of course, PIOMAS has responded in kind. With 3456 km3, January was well above the 3179 km3 average for the 2007-2018 period. And so, 2019 starts out as 7th lowest on record, a whopping 2500 km3 behind ranking leader 2017, almost doubling the gap since the end of November. Here's how the differences with previous years have evolved from last month:  Wipneus hasn't updated his version of the PIOMAS graph yet, so we move on to the anomaly graph. Here too, it's clear that things are going relatively well for the ice, with the trend line venturing into 2 standard deviation territory: This year's trend line on my average thickness graph (crudely calculated by dividing PIOMAS volume numbers with JAXA extent) may have gone up slightly faster than those of other years, but almost imperceptibly so:  More perceptibly on the Polar Science Centre version: There's not much else to say right now, except perhaps for this. PIOMAS and CryoSat-2 are in disagreement on the sea ice thickness north of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, also known as multiyear ice's last refuge. According to PIOMAS, the ice is supposedly thinner, compared to the 2011-2018 period, whereas CryoSat-2 maintains the opposite. It can be seen very clearly on this animation if you focus on that area north of Greenland and the CAA:

Environmental damage could lead to a new economic crisis, report claims - The world is entering an age of unprecedented environmental breakdown that could see an economic collapse like the 2008 financial crisis, a thinktank warned on Tuesday. According to a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), climate change is just one of many environmental threats which, when combined, threatens social stability. It said that natural systems were now being destabilized so quickly by human activity that dangerous tipping points would soon be reached. Rising global temperatures would have consequences which threatened major economic, social and political disruption, according to the report – including increasing weather extremes, large-scale migration, conflict, and famine. The IPPR said the world must act urgently to prevent some of the worst possibilities being realized. Among those possibilities was a potential fiscal catastrophe, with the report warning that human impact on the environment was now so great it risked generating significant economic instability. "In the extreme, environmental breakdown could trigger catastrophic breakdown of human systems, driving a rapid process of 'runaway collapse' in which economic, social and political shocks cascade through the globally linked system – in much the same way as occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007/08," the IPPR said. The report also warned that investors in fossil fuels may be exposed to a rapid decline in the value of carbon assets, which must occur if carbon budgets – annual limits on nations' carbon emissions – were to be met. It also highlighted that poorer countries were more vulnerable to the consequences of environmental breakdown but were less able to prepare for or respond to them.

Climate change seen as top threat, but U.S. power a growing worry: poll  (Reuters) - Climate change is the top security concern in a poll conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, followed by Islamist terrorism and cyber attacks while respondents in a growing number of countries worried about the power and influence of the United States. In 13 of 26 countries, people listed climate change as the top global threat, with the Islamic State militant group topping the list in eight and cyber attacks in four, the non-profit, non-partisan Pew Research Center said in its report. Worries about climate change have increased sharply since 2013, with double-digit percentage point increases seen in countries including the United States, Mexico, France, Britain, South Africa and Kenya, according to the poll of 27,612 people conducted between May and August, 2018. North Korea's nuclear programme and the global economy were also significant concerns, while respondents in Poland named Russian power and influence as the top threat. The largest shift in sentiment centred on the United States, it said, with a median of 45 percent of people naming U.S. power and influence as a threat in 2018, up from 25 percent in 2013, when Barack Obama was U.S. president. In 10 countries, including Germany, Japan and South Korea, roughly half of respondents or more saw U.S. power and influence as a major threat to their nation, up from eight in 2017 and three in 2013, the poll showed. In Mexico, where those concerns have spiked since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the percentage jumped to 64 percent, the poll showed. Trump has railed against illegal migration and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and is pressing to build a wall between the two countries. 

Americans were a lot less worried about climate change before Trump took office - As the science editor for The Atlantic, Ross Andersen struggled for years to find stories about climate change that readers would pay attention to. “Maximally apocalyptic headline and framing was the only way to get people in, and even those didn’t perform in huge ways,” he told me. But about eight months ago, that changed. The stories stayed basically the same. The readers, however, were suddenly paying a lot more attention. FiveThirtyEight has seen its own uptick in traffic on climate change stories in the last six months, and science editors at BuzzFeed and Slate told me they’d noticed a similar trend. They’d had an easier time getting reader attention on climate change coverage before than Andersen had, but, over the last two years, without much else changing, their readers became more engaged with this topic, too. (All three sites declined to share detailed traffic numbers.)And these examples from the media illustrate a bigger fact: Americans are just more interested in climate change, in general, than they used to be. Polls suggest that in the past two years, the American public started to believe more in climate change — and worry more about its impacts. So what gives? Big natural disasters probably have something to do with it, but both the journalists and the sociologists I spoke to think there’s another factor at play. As Slate’s science editor, Susan Matthews, put it: The urgency of climate change was one thing before President Trump’s election and something else entirely after.  Polls show more Americans are concerned about climate change than they used to be. That much is evident in surveys done by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University. For instance, in March of 2015, 63 percent of Americans believed climate change was happening and 52 percent reported being worried about it. By December of 2018, belief had jumped to 73 percent — and 69 percent were worried.

Pentagon Fears Climate Crisis, w/ Billions in Damage to US Bases & Societal Upheaval (AFP) – Climate change and a deteriorating environment are likely to fuel social disorder and could threaten some US military bases, a top admiral said Tuesday. Admiral Philip Davidson, who heads the US military’s vast Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers he concurred with a recent assessment from the US intelligence community that listed climate change as a global threat. “The immediate manifestation is the number of ecological disaster events that are happening,” Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The intelligence report states: “Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life.” When Senator Elizabeth Warren, a top Democrat who is running for president in 2020, asked if he agreed, Davidson said “yes ma’am,” and went on to describe a recent mission in Tinian and Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, where US troops helped clear up after Super Typhoon Yutu. The United States is one of a dwindling number of nations where climate change and its impacts are politicized, and the Republican Party is loath to take action to reduce carbon emissions. President Donald Trump, who has previously called climate change a Chinese hoax, has delighted in dismissing the phenomenon. During a record cold spell last month he joked on Twitter that the world needed more global warming. The Pentagon recently put out its own climate change report, which critics slammed as understating the scope of the problem. That report looked at 79 “priority” facilities around the US and found many vulnerable to flooding and wildfires, as well as the impacts of desertification, drought and melting permafrost. Hurricane Michael last year wrecked Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. It will cost more than $5 billion to rebuild.

 Climate Damages: Uncertain but Ominous, or $51 per Ton of Carbon? - Second in a series on climate change policy. See Part 1 here.  According to scientists, climate damages are deeply uncertain, but could be ominously large (see the previous post). Alternatively, according to the best-known economic calculation, lifetime damages caused by emissions in 2020 will be worth $51 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, in 2018 prices. These two views can’t both be right. This post explains where the $51 estimate comes from, why it’s not reliable, and the meaning for climate policy of the deep uncertainty about the value of damages. The “social cost of carbon” (SCC) is the value of present and future climate damages caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The Obama administration assembled an Interagency Working Group to estimate the SCC. In its final (August 2016) revision of the numbers, the most widely used variant of the SCC was $42 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2020, expressed in 2007 dollars – equivalent to $51 in 2018 dollars.  To create these numbers, the Working Group averaged the results from three well-known models. These do not provide more detailed or in-depth analysis than other models. On the contrary, two of them stand out for being simpler and easier to use than other models. They are, however, the most frequently cited models in climate economics. They are famous for being famous, the Kardashians of climate models.  DICE, developed by William Nordhaus at Yale University, offers a skeletal simplicity: it represents the dynamics of the world economy, the climate, and the interactions between the two with only 19 equations. This (plus Nordhaus’ free distribution of the software) has made it by far the most widely used model, valuable for classroom teaching, for initial high-level sketches of climate impacts, and for researchers (at times including myself) who lack the funding to acquire and use more complicated models. Yet no one thinks that DICE represents the frontier of knowledge about the world economy or the environment. DICE estimates aggregate global climate damages as a quadratic function of temperature increases, rising only gradually as the world warms.

A Huge Climate Change Movement Led By Teenage Girls Is Sweeping Europe. And It’s Coming To The US Next. — A huge student protest movement led almost exclusively by teenage girls and young women is sweeping Europe, and it's on the brink of breaking through in the US. So far this year, tens of thousands of high school–age students in Belgium, Germany, and Sweden have boycotted class and protested against climate change. The loose movement’s inspiration, a 16-year-old girl who began a solitary picket last year outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, has compared the protests to the March for Our Lives movement organized by the Parkland teens in the wake of a shooting at their school that left 17 dead. In the latest mass climate strikes, large crowds took to the streets in The Hague on Thursday, in the largest such protest in the Netherlands so far. The teens leading the climate strike across the border in Belgium were in Leuven, the country’s eighth-largest city, where they told BuzzFeed News they had 12,000 people on the streets in one of many actions across the country. A climate march last weekend in the Belgian capital, Brussels, drew more than 100,000 people, and one of the country’s environment ministers resigned this week after falsely claiming intelligence services had told her the protests were a plot against her. The protests are injecting a new urgency into the debate around climate change, and calling attention to a lack of action by governments. They are also a sign of the new political power of young women, especially in Europe. Climate strikes have also been organized by students in Australia, and US organizers are planning to participate in an international day of action on March 15.

School climate strike children’s brave stand has our support -- We, the undersigned academics, stand in solidarity with the children going on school climate strike on 15 February, and with all those taking a stand for the future of the planet.  As many of us and other fellow academics have indicated previously in this newspaper (Letters, 27 October 2018), the scientific evidence of climate change is clear. For example, the summer of 2018 has been confirmed by the Met Office as the hottest on record for England. The heatwave adversely affected crops across Europe, with wheat and potato harvests reduced by one quarter, which in turn impacted upon food prices. Australia is similarly experiencing “hottest on record” weather events. As citizens across the globe will know and testify, many comparably disturbing examples could be given. We cannot nurture our children without Nature. We are rapidly losing sea ice in the Arctic. The warming of the ocean, the melting of land ice and the ensuing rising sea levels will threaten coasts. In 2018, the European Drought Observatory noted a high deficit in soil moisture across Scotland, Ireland and much of northern Europe. This increases the risk of wildfires, such as those we saw across England in 2018. As well as posing a direct threat to life, fires produce toxic smoke, which is a significant health risk to young and old alike. Sir David Attenborough has warned: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” Many other organisations, like Extinction Rebellion, are now working to bring the truth about the ecological crisis to the public’s attention. It is with these tragic and desperate events in mind that we offer our full support to the students – some of whom may well aspire to be the academics of the future – who bravely plan to strike on 15 February to demand that the UK government takes climate action. They have every right to be angry about the future that we shall bequeath to them, if proportionate and urgent action is not taken. We are inspired that our children, spurred on by the noble actions of Greta Thunberg and many other striking students all around the world, are making their voices heard.

Green New Deal Targets Link Between Trade Policy and Climate Change - Congressional Democrats on Thursday unveiled landmark Green New Deal legislation outlining proposals to combat climate change — and the measure does not stop at the American border. The resolution calls for new trade laws to halt America’s continued export of carbon pollution to countries across the globe. The link between trade policy and climate change may seem far-fetched, but it is illustrated by the relationship between emissions in different countries. For example: In recent years the United States and Europe had been reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. That seeming progress has been offset in developing countries such as China, which has seen a significant spike in emissions to the point where it now produces more greenhouse gases than the United States and the European Union combined. On the surface, these trends might appear to show wealthy nations’ proactively decarbonizing their economies, and developing nations failing to do the same. However, China’s emissions are not happening in a vacuum: Over the last few decades, under major free trade agreements, corporations have been shifting manufacturing facilities from the United States to developing-world nations like China, where labor and environmental laws are weaker. That shift has not only eliminated millions of American manufacturing jobs, it has also moved carbon emissions to those countries. The result: The United States and EU had been domestically producing less greenhouse gas emissions, but the picture looks much more grim when considering “consumption-based” emissions — that is, emissions associated with the production of imported goods purchased by a nation’s consumers.

What’s actually in the ‘Green New Deal’ from Democrats? - The Green New Deal is a manifesto calling for sweeping changes to American society. Key goals include cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years and guaranteeing jobs for all. The plan has prominent Democratic backers, including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), all of whom are running for president. Many liberal and environmental groups are on board. Republicans say it’s a non-starter that reeks of socialism. Climate change is a critical issue, but some experts say the Green New Deal is overambitious and unworkable. “I’m afraid I just cannot see how we could possibly go to zero carbon in the 10-year time frame,” Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and secretary of energy under President Barack Obama, told NPR. “It’s just impractical. And if we start putting out impractical targets, we may lose a lot of key constituencies who we need to bring along to have a real low-carbon solution on the most rapid time frame that we can achieve,” such as labor unions, Moniz said.Sixty-nine percent of Americans are “somewhat worried” or “very worried” about climate change, according to a December survey by Yale University in Connecticut and George Mason University in Virginia. The percentage represents “the highest level since our surveys began in 2008, and an increase of seven percentage points since our previous survey in March 2018,” the pollsers said. The resolution in Congress from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) calls for a “10-year national mobilization” that would include:

  • “Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.” 
  • “Providing all people of the United States with — (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.” 
  • “Providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States.” 
  • “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” 
  • “Repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States, including . . . by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.” 
  • “Building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity.” 
  • “Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.” 
  • “Overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in — (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.” 
  • “Spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.” 
  • “Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible."

No 'unanimity' on Green New Deal, says key House Democrat -  A pair of prominent Democrats on Thursday released a sweeping and long-awaited measure outlining what they are calling a “Green New Deal.” Invoking President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s years-long effort to drag the country out of the Great Depression, they are calling for nothing short of a top-to-bottom renovation of the U.S. economy in order to halt man-made climate change. Their measure was greeted rapturously by climate activists eager to stop what they see as a looming threat. Immediately, it had the backing of four Democratic senators who have launched bids for the 2020 presidential nomination. It is still early days for the Green New Deal. But fault lines within the Democratic caucus were already visible before the end of the day, with some members urging caution about setting vague and, at times, impossible-to-achieve goals to only fall short. And perhaps most importantly, the plan has yet to get the formal backing of one crucial Democrat: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi told Politico on Wednesday. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?” “There’s not unanimity,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who backs the Green New Deal proposal and chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “I’m sure there’s colleagues that feel that should have been more prescriptive than it is. And I’m sure there’s colleagues that feel that we’re providing an issue to the other side.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose star only seems to be rising in the Democratic Party, and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who led the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming when he was in the House, introduced the measure, a nonbinding resolution, that they say opens the debate on how to craft tangible legislation on an idea that until now essentially served as a campaign slogan. Markey and Ocasio-Cortez are calling for the United States to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero within 10 years and eliminate climate-warming pollution from the transportation sector “as much as is technologically possible." And they want to do so while checking off a number of other progressive goals, like increasing access to housing, health care and education for what they call “frontline” communities, or Americans who are low-income, indigenous and people of color. 

As the Planet Warms, Who Should Get to Drive?  --On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey released a framework for the “Green New Deal.” The much-anticipated policy package aims to eliminate U.S. carbon emissions within 10 years and create millions of jobs in the process. One major goal outlined by the resolution: overhauling the country’s transportation systems, so that electric vehicles, public transit, and high-speed rail can replace every combustion-engine vehicle. In many ways, that’s a summation of every eco-conscious urbanist’s dreams. Transportation produces the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gases, so everything should be done to reduce the globe-cooking emissions that driving creates. But for Americans in poverty—those for whom a car-free lifestyle is a matter of economic necessity—the costs of adopting or abandoning different modes of transportation may be a more complicated judgment. A new study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research offers a glimpse into why. It shows that, over the past 50 years, owning a car has been among the most powerful economic advantages a U.S. family can have. “This is a crisis that’s been decades in the making,” said David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, and one of the paper’s authors. “There are a lot of people who keep struggling because they can’t afford to get around reliably.” To close the persistent and growing gaps between America’s haves and have-nots, King and his co-authors suggest, policymakers might simply help more needy people get behind the wheel, even as they promote less driving among affluent parts of society. “If we are going to get them out of poverty, then we have to do something,” King said.

‘It’s crazy. It’s loony’: Republicans giddy as Democrats champion Green New Deal - Prominent Democrats have rushed to embrace the Green New Deal — and Republicans couldn't be happier about it. As liberal groups pressure presidential candidates and lawmakers to back the ambitious climate proposal, Republicans hope their opponents may drift so far to the left that they will be more vulnerable in 2020. Since the election of President Donald Trump — who dismisses the link between carbon emissions and rising temperatures — Republicans have mostly steered clear of climate change, but in the Green New Deal they see a chance to pivot the argument back towards economics as growing majorities accept the underlying science. “I would like them to push it as far as they can. I’d like to see it on the floor. I’d like to see them actually have to vote on it,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a senior Appropriator, told POLITICO. “It’s crazy. It’s loony.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump's most vocal champions, echoed that sentiment. “Let’s vote on the Green New Deal!” Graham tweeted Friday. “Americans deserve to see what kind of solutions far-left Democrats are offering to deal with climate change." Trump on Saturday sarcastically called the proposal "Brilliant!" in a tweet. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) formally introduced their Green New Deal vision on Thursday, with a nonbinding resolution that is just 14 pages long (compared to the more than 1,400 pages in the cap-and-trade bill that passed in 2009). This leaves myriad details to be worked out before Democrats would have actual legislation ready to bring to the House floor.

Ocasio-Cortez retracts erroneous information about Green New Deal backed by 2020 Democratic candidate - Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is pushing for a debate on the substance of her Green New Deal resolution after her staff distributed an erroneous fact sheet regarding the proposal, leading to confusion over a plan supported by many of the Democratic Party’s leading candidates for president. Ocasio-Cortez’s staff posted online and sent to reporters a list of “frequently asked questions” about the Green New Deal. Those pages included language and policies not included in the resolution itself such as providing economic security to those “unwilling to work” and ruling out nuclear power as part of the solution to the climate crisis. More than 70 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats have backed Ocasio-Cortez in unveiling the Green New Deal resolution calling for a massive jobs program to stave off climate change, aiming for an enormous investment in “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” over the next 10 years. Declared presidential candidates Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have pledged their support for the resolution text of the Green New Deal, as has expected candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). None of the lawmakers or candidates signed off on the FAQ, which was prepared by Ocasio-Cortez’s staff to explain the separate Green New Deal resolution but was accidentally released prematurely with unfinished language. “An early draft of a FAQ that was clearly unfinished and that doesn’t represent the GND resolution got published to the website by mistake,” Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter on Saturday, two days after the document’s release. “Mistakes happen when doing time launches like this coordinating multiple groups and collaborators.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is the latest villain in Trump's 2020 stump speech - President Donald Trump took aim at the Green New Deal touted by freshman lawmaker Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his first true campaign speech of the 2020 election cycle, unveiling a line of attack that seems destined to be a staple of his campaign stump speech."I really don't like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane rights, of 'let's hop a train to California,' of you're not allowed to own cows anymore!" Trump said at a large rally Monday night in El Paso, Texas."It would shut down American energy, which I don't think the people in Texas are going to be happy with," Trump said elsewhere in the speech, eliciting cheers from the audience of more than 5,000. "It would shut down a little thing called air travel. How do you take a train to Europe?"Trump appears to have seized on a line from an informal page of FAQs about the Green New Deal, released last week by Ocasio-Cortez, one of the congressional resolution's co-sponsors, which specifically referred to cows and airplanes.The line said lawmakers had set a goal of "net-zero" emissions in a decade rather than zero emissions at all, "because we aren't sure that we'll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast."

Ocasio-Cortez Fires Back at Trump Over Green New Deal - Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's sweeping Green New Deal resolution was never going to be embraced by her Republican foes, but she's taking the criticism in stride—even if the missives come from the very top.At his El Paso, Texas rally on Monday, President Donald Trump referred to her signature issue as a "high school term paper.""Last week they introduced a massive government takeover that would destroy our incredible economic gains. They introduced the so-called Green New Deal," the president said in his speech. "It sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark."  President Trump blasts 'Green New Deal' www.youtube.comThe star Democrat from New York did not back down from the president's remarks."Ah yes, a man who can't even read briefings written in full sentences is providing literary criticism of a House Resolution," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter after retweeting Trump's quote from Breitbart News' Charlie Spiering. She then included a quote from a Washington Post report about how Trump skips written intelligence reports, which are usually dense and lengthy, and relies on oral briefings instead.

Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal Is A Dream Come True ...For Republicans -- It may not be the "green dream" - as Nancy Pelosi incorrectly described it - but for the GOP, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's "Green New Deal" plan is certainly a dream come true as the GOP prepares for a contentious election fight in 2020. After Mitch McConnell promised to bring the plan to a vote in the Senate, a tactic likely intended to force the five Democratic presidential contenders in the chamber to put their support (or opposition) to the measure on the record, Bloomberg reported on Friday that the GOP has launched a multi-pronged political offensive to tie Dems to the plan - which calls for the abolition of airplanes, beef and fossil fuels while offering welfare to anybody who is unable (or unwilling) to work. President Trump called the plan "brilliant", and "If nothing else, Democrats gave Republicans a great talking point on climate change," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid."Whereas before Republicans avoided the topic all together now every Republican will start the conversation be denouncing the green new deal."Admittedly, AOC has already handed the Republicans a few unforced errors, including publishing - then retracting - then lying about a fact sheet that promised "economic security for all who are unwilling and unable" to work. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel derided the plan as "a GOP dream" and said the plan "encapsulates everything Americans fear from government, all in one bonkers resolution."

 Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really want to get rid of farting cows? Not yet, at least. - The "Green New Deal," unveiled Thursday, sets sky-high goals to cut greenhouse gases to nearly zilch — but it's not committed to getting rid of "farting cows" just yet.That's according to an initial outline of the ambitious new resolution put forward by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., which aims to fundamentally reimagine the U.S. economy with the environment at top of mind.Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old democratic socialist, called for completely ditching fossil fuels, upgrading or replacing "every building" in the country and "totally overhaul transportation" to the point where "air travel stops becoming necessary."They also aimed to have the U.S. creating "net-zero" greenhouse gases in 10 years.Why "net zero"? The lawmakers explained: "We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren't sure that we'll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast." At the time this story was published, the FAQ page with the phrase "farting cows" appeared to have been removed from Ocasio-Cortez's website. Fox News' John Roberts reported that the language was tweaked to "emissions from cows" in an update,which also appears to have been deleted.

 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal should nationalize utilities - Last Thursday, a resolution for the Green New Deal—a climate change-focused public infrastructure bill spearheaded by Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—was released to the public.  The resolution is just that—a resolution, and not an actual bill. So it doesn’t get into nitty-gritty details as to exactly how it will achieve net zero emissions by 2050, a goalrecently stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be the only way to keep warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial, late-nineteenth century levels.  However, the resolution does establish a set of values, and names stakeholders that should be included in an eventual Green New Deal bill. The resolution specifically states that the Green New Deal bill will create “appropriate ownership stakes” for the public, support ‘community grants, public banks, and other public financing.” In short, the resolution places public ownership front and center.  This may sound abstract. However, there’s an excellent way to ensure that the public has ownership in Green New Deal assets, and has agency in a world with the Green New Deal: Nationalize public utilities.  The urgency for nationalizing public utilities could not be more poignant. Last week, private natural gas and electricity utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company, better known as PG&E, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is currently facing $30 billion in liability fees after a state investigation found that it caused at least a dozen wildfires back in October 2017. The wildfires, sparked by downed power lines, killed at least 46 people and burned over 200,000 acres of land. Because PG&E is a private utility company that’s filing for bankruptcy, the company’s tragic mistake is going to cost state residents for years. Per legislation passed at the state level this past September, ratepayers legally have to bear financial responsibility for damage caused by PG&E by paying higher rates for PG&E services.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. The alternative is a publicly owned utility. According to the CPUC, the ownership structure for a publicly owned utility involves a local government body, and maybe customers and people who live in the area. This group of people would be responsible for setting the rates, and operating and investing in new facilities. Publicly owned utilities can also be financed through tax-free bonds and co-ops for people who can afford to pay in.

McConnell to set up vote on Ocasio-Cortez's 'Green New Deal' -- The Senate will hold a vote on the Green New Deal, an environmental and energy plan touted by progressives, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday. McConnell told reporters after a meeting of the Senate Republican caucus that he has “great interest” in the plan, which would spell an end for coal, a key economic driver in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, while promising new jobs for out-of-work miners and other workers. “We’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal,” McConnell said. McConnell did not say when the vote would happen. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the vote has not been scheduled. Progressives, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), introduced the climate change resolution last week. It strives for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and creating millions of "good, high-wage jobs,” among other goals. But it does not prescribe specific steps to reach those goals, and is merely a “sense of the Senate” measure. The deal has no chance of passing the Senate, where it will need 51 votes and faces united opposition from Republicans, who hold 53 of the chamber’s 100 seats. But it will force Senate Democrats, including a slew of 2020 presidential candidates, to vote on the proposal — potentially providing votes for McConnell and the GOP to exploit politically.

Schumer slams 'stunt' Green New Deal vote as moderates fret - Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would not be intimidated by the “cynical stunt” of voting on the Green New Deal resolution, even as moderate members of his caucus distanced themselves from the sweeping climate change goals. Schumer said the "amazing irony" of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bringing up a resolution Republicans intend to vote against is a sign of why the American people hate Congress. He demanded the Kentucky Republican acknowledge the scientific consensus around climate change and commit the chamber to tackling the problem. "I challenge Leader McConnell to say that our climate change crisis is real, that it’s caused by humans, and that Congress needs to act," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "This is what two-thirds of the American people agree with." Schumer's clap back comes on the heels of McConnell saying his chamber would vote on the ambitious Green New Deal resolution floated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). That move is expected to show internal divisions within the Democratic caucus about how to tackle climate change with some lawmakers recoiling at the resolution's aim of decarbonizing the U.S. economy within a decade.

Climate Change Is Scary—Not the Green New Deal By Bill McKibben - Myron Ebell of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, the man who led the drive to pull America out of the Paris climate accords, said the other day that the Green New Deal was a "back-to-the-dark-ages manifesto." That's language worth thinking about, coming from perhaps the Right's most influential spokesman on climate change. Ebell's complaint (and that of the rest of the Right) is that the set of proposals to address climate change and economic inequality put forth last week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey would do too much, and cost too much. Indeed, he describes the Green New Deal this way: "It calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, 'upgrading all existing buildings', and replacing our vehicle fleet with electric cars and more mass transit. And turning our energy economy upside down must be accomplished while ending historic income inequities and oppression of disadvantaged groups." All of which sounds good not just to me, but to most people: Polling for the Green New Deal is through the roof, especially among young people so ably organized by the Sunrise Movement.But even if ending historic oppression doesn't catch your fancy, it's not a return to the Dark Ages.A return to the Dark Ages is what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit: Survivors dying in the convention center of a modern American city, locals organizing a makeshift "navy" to try to pluck people from rooftops after levees collapsed.A return to the Dark Ages is what happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, when most of the island was literally dark for months as workers struggled to rebuild power lines.A return to the Dark Ages is what happened in California last fall, when old people burned to death in their cars while stuck in traffic jams trying to flee deadly wildfires. And that's just the United States…

Bill Gates Warns of the Dangers of Trucks, Cement and Cow Farts - This year's letter from Bill and Melinda Gates focused on nine things that surprised them. For the Microsoft-cofounder, one thing he was surprised to learn was the massive amount of new buildings the planet should expect in the coming decades due to urban population growth."The number of buildings in the world is going to double by 2060. It's like we're going to build a new New York City every month for the next 40 years," he said.Construction materials such as steel, cement wood "requires lots of energy from fossil fuels," as Gates noted in the letter, "and the processes involved release carbon as a byproduct.""We need to find a way to make it all without worsening climate change," he wrote.The "larger point," the billionaire philanthropist said, is that battling climate change requires much more than just solar panels and wind turbines. It requires "breakthrough inventions" across every polluting sector—buildings, agriculture, electricity, manufacturing and transportation. Those five industries are the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, or as Gates calls them, the five "grand challenges in climate change."

Climate Policy: On Buying Insurance, and Ignoring Cost-Benefit Analysis - First in a series on climate change policy. The damages expected from climate change seem to get worse with each new study. Reports from the IPCC and the U.S. Global Change Research Project, and a multi-author review articlein Science, all published in late 2018, are among the recent bearers of bad news. Even more continues to arrive in a swarm of research articles, too numerous to list here. And most of these reports are talking about not-so-long-term damages. Dramatic climate disruption and massive economic losses are coming in just a few decades, not centuries, if we continue along our present path of inaction. It’s almost enough to make you support an emergency program to reduce emissions and switch to a path of rapid decarbonization. But wait: Would drastic emission reductions pass a cost-benefit test? How do we know that we wouldn’t be spending too much on climate policy? In fact, a crash program to decarbonize the economy is obviously the right answer. For uncertain, extreme risks, policy should be based on the credible worst-case outcome, not the expected or most likely value. This is the way people think about insurance against disasters. The odds that your house won’t burn down next year are better than 99 percent – but you probably have fire insurance anyway. Likewise, young parents have more than a 99 percent chance of surviving the coming year, but often buy life insurance to protect their children.  For climate risks, worst cases are much too dreadful to ignore. What we know is that climate change could be very bad for us; but no one knows exactly how bad it will be or exactly when it will arrive. How likely are we to reach tipping points into an irreversibly worse climate, and when will these tipping points occur? As the careful qualifications in the IPCC and other reports remind us, climate change could be very bad, surprisingly soon, but almost no one is willing to put a precise number or date on the expected losses. One group does rush in where scientists fear to tread, guessing about the precise magnitude and timing of future climate damages: economists engaged in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Rarely used before the 1990s, CBA has become the default, “common-sense” approach to policy evaluation, particularly in environmental policy. In CBA-world you begin by measuring and monetizing the benefits, and the costs, of a policy – and then “buy” the policy if, and only if, the monetary value of the benefits exceeds the costs.

Food & Water Watch: Carbon Tax Is a Sham - Lee Camp: I spoke to Scott Edwards, the legal chief at Food & Water Watch, in order to discuss the activism of an organization with a name that defines why they’re so important in the modern world. Edwards is a lawyer who has spent his career fighting against the corruption that has festered in our system, in which corporations work to deceive the public and decrease their costs by polluting our environment.  In this interview, he talks about why so many on the left have fallen for the “carbon tax” sham, and why so many of our laws end up written by corporate lawyers trying to enrich their companies. An excerpt from our interview follows below:

Senate Passes Massive Public Lands Conservation Bill - In a rare bipartisan push, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a major public lands package on Tuesday.The Natural Resources Management Act, approved 92-8, establishes 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, adds 694,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas, creates four new national monuments, among other important conservation measures, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who introduced the bill with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).Significantly, the Cantwell-Murkowski package also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is considered America's most important conservation and recreation program.The LWCF was established by Congress in 1964 and is funded by fees and royalties from federal offshore oil and gas leases. More than 42,000 state and local projects across the country are supported by the program but it expired last September because Congress failed to reauthorize and fund the program. "The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a pre-eminent program for access to public lands," Cantwell said in a press release. "It gives local communities the tools and resources to manage public lands, to give more access to the American people, to do the things that will help us grow jobs and preserve against a very challenging and threatening climate."

 US solar workforce shrinks for second straight year as Trump tariffs bite - The American solar power workforce shrank for a second consecutive year in 2018, as U.S. tariffs prompted developers to delay projects and policy shifts in top solar states slowed renewable energy growth.The U.S. solar industry shed nearly 8,000 jobs last year, according to an annual survey from the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for solar power. The 3.2-percent drop in employment puts the industry's total headcount at roughly 242,000.The decline marks a setback for an industry that nearly tripled its workforce in the seven years since the Solar Foundation issued it first National Solar Jobs Census in 2010. U.S. solar employment peaked at roughly 260,000 in 2016. "Despite two challenging years, the long-term outlook for this industry remains positive as even more Americans turn to low-cost solar energy and storage solutions to power their homes and businesses," Andrea Luecke, president and executive director at The Solar Foundation, said in a press release. The drag on 2018 hiring began the previous year, as the market braced for tariffs on imported solar panels and modules after the U.S. Commerce Department determined cheap imports had hurt U.S. manufacturers. President Donald Trump ultimately authorized a 30-percent import tax on imported solar equipment. Without clarity on pricing, many developers hit pause on projects, especially large solar farms, over the last two years. The solar tariffs, along with the Trump administration's import taxes on steel and aluminum, have made hardware more expensive. The duties on solar equipment last for four years and drop by 5 percent each year.Over the last two years, firms that install solar equipment saw the biggest declines, shedding about 10,000 jobs or 6 percent of the workforce. At the state level, solar power leader California and other parts of the country with mature markets experienced a pullback in employment. California alone lost 9,576 positions, seven times the decline in Massachusetts, the next biggest job cutter.

The Renewable Revolution Has A Lithium Problem -  Global climate change will be one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, challenges of this next century, and one of the few feasible solutions that is generally agreed upon by scientists and politicians alike is a wide-scale transition from the use of traditional fossil fuels to renewable energy resources. Around the world, there is a race among researchers to more efficiently and cost-effectively implement renewable energy as a long-term solution to global climate change, and there is even a concerted effort to switch Europe’s energy consumption to 100 percent renewable energy as soon as the year 2050. However, even if Europe achieves this target and takes the lead as the rest of the world follows down a path toward 100 percent renewable energy, we still would not be living in a completely sustainable, green energy utopia - there is a considerable downside to this seemingly perfect plan. Even renewable energy relies on certain decidedly non-renewable resources. Even the eco-friendliest solutions such as solar panels can’t be made without the use of finite rare earth elements. Batteries, too, are completely dependent on finite earth-sourced materials for their fabrication. What’s more, China currently has an overwhelming monopoly on a great number of these rare earth elements (although not all are as rare as this label implies).  Lithium is an essential component to many kinds of batteries, thanks to its lightweight and highly reactive properties. This makes lithium an essential element in the renewable energy sector because, in order for renewable energy to work on a grand scale, massive amounts of energy storage potential are paramount. Even when the sun isn’t shining on solar panels and the wind isn’t turning turbines, energy demand stays constant.  If all the conventionally-fueled cars in the world were replaced with electric cars overnight, the global supply of lithium would be completely depleted in just approximately fifty years.   What it does mean is that there is no time like the present to start planning for how we will recycle and replenish elements like lithium, or--even better--search for energy alternatives that don’t depend on finite natural resources--before we arrive to a stage where we are dependent on a resource that’s vanishing in front of our eyes--sound familiar?

Bold Plan? Replace the Border Wall with an Energy–Water Corridor -  Here’s an idea: Instead of an endless, inert wall along the U.S.–Mexico border, line the boundary with 2,000 miles of natural gas, solar and wind power plants. Use some of the energy to desalinate water from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and ship it through pipelines to thirsty towns, businesses and new farms along the entire border zone. Hire hundreds of thousands of people from both countries to build and run it all. Companies would make money and provide security to safeguard their assets. A contentious, costly no-man’s-land would be transformed into a corridor of opportunity.Crazy? Maybe—or maybe not. History is full of ideas that initially sounded wacky yet ended up changing society. The idea is more than a pipe dream. A consortium of 27 engineers and scientists from a dozen U.S. universities has developed a plan. Last week they delivered it to three U.S. representatives and one senator. “Let’s put the best scientists and engineers together to create a new way to deal with migration, trafficking—and access to water. These are regions of severe drought,” says Luciano Castillo, a professor of energy and power at Purdue University who leads the group. “Water supply is a huge future issue for all the states along the border in both countries.”  Consider the larger situation Castillo and his colleagues have outlined in a brief white paper sent to Scientific American. The border region receives boundless solar energy, and has significant natural gas and wind resources. It’s also suffering from extreme drought, and water shortages are predicted to get worse. Farming is exceedingly difficult. And jobs are often scarce—in part because of lack of water and power. If an energy and water corridor were built, the facility owners would protect their properties. Transmission, gas and water lines would be monitored by companies, states and federal agencies, as many elsewhere are now. And the plants could be integrated with security walls or fences.

Department requires wood pellet plant to reduce pollution  (AP) — The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is requiring a wood pellet manufacturing plant to install pollution control equipment.The Advocate reports the Environmental Integrity Project released a letter from the DEQ on Tuesday about the Morehouse Parish plant. That comes after several groups filed written comments in 2018 over the renewal of the Drax Group’s air pollution control permit, citing health concerns and other things.Environmental Integrity Project attorney Patrick Anderson says Drax can reduce the plant’s emissions to legal levels without cutting jobs. Drax officials say they don’t know what will be required to reduce pollution at the Morehouse plant. The wood pellets are manufactured at the Drax Group’s operations and later exported to Britain. In Britain, the wood pellets are smashed into sawdust and burned as fuel for power plants, instead of coal.

South Jersey sewage plant makes energy from wind, solar — and meatball grease -- From his perch 50 feet high on steel stairs, Dennis Palmer looked out over 1,800 acres of giant concrete tanks, solar-panel arrays, a forest, and a distant farm. What wasn’t visible, however, was an unusual source of power he uses at the sewage treatment plant he directs: meatball grease. Meatballs have become part of Palmer’s mission to wring every bit of power and money out of the process of treating human waste. Part of the operation uses grease from restaurants, convenience stores, fast-food joints and a nearby meatball-making facility to power a generator. Related stories “Grease is like rocket fuel,” Palmer said with a grin. The Landis Sewerage Authority, which services Vineland, Cumberland County, is unusual because it generates more power than it uses through a combination of technology Palmer has cobbled together since taking the helm in 1993. His sustainability recipe also includes pancake batter, soup mix, and even the leftovers at a fruit-juice plant.

Researchers Developed a Technique to Turn Nearly a Quarter of Our Plastic Waste into Fuel - The world is drowning in plastic. Each year, over 300 million tons of plastic finds its way to a landfill or into the environment where it will take hundreds of years to decompose and kill all manner of wildlife in the meantime. A team of chemists at Purdue may have found a partial solution to our plastic woes. As detailed in a paper published this week in Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, the chemists discovered a way to convert polypropylene—a type of plastic commonly used in toys, medical devices, and product packaging like potato chip bags—into gasoline and diesel-like fuel. The researchers said that this fuel is pure enough to be used as blendstock, a main component of fuel used in motorized vehicles. Polypropylene waste accounts for just under a quarter of the estimated 5 billion tons of plastic that have amassed in the world’s landfills in the last 50 years. To turn polypropylene into fuel, the researchers used supercritical water, a phase of water that demonstrates characteristics of both a liquid and a gas depending on the pressure and temperature conditions. Purdue chemist Linda Wang and her colleagues heated water to between 716 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit at pressures approximately 2300 times greater than the atmospheric pressure at sea level. When purified polypropylene waste was added to the supercritical water, it was converted into oil within in a few hours, depending on the temperature. At around 850 degrees Fahrenheit, the conversion time was lowered to under an hour.  The byproducts of this process include gasoline and diesel-like oils. According to the researchers, their conversion process could be used to convert roughly 90 percent of the world’s polypropylene waste each year into fuel.

Dozens of companies launch US$1 billion bid to end plastic pollution in Asia but environmentalists dismiss it as ‘greenwashing’ stunt - A new oil and chemical industry-led global alliance founded to tackle Asia’s crippling plastic waste crisis has been slammed by environmental groups as a “greenwashing” stunt. The “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” (AEPW) consortium of more than 30 companies launched last month, dedicating a combined total of US$1 billion over the next five years – aiming for US$1.5 billion if more conglomerates join – to develop better plastic recycling practices and infrastructure around the world. Its founding members include companies such as Chevron, Dow, Formosa Plastics, Mitsubishi Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Sumitomo Chemical, and Shell.The group said it would start in Southeast Asia – namely in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – the four countries that, along with China, are estimated by the Ocean Conservancy to generate more than 60 per cent of the plastic trash in oceans. The alliance announced that it was partnering with the United Nations, the National Geographic Society and Project STOP in Indonesia, among other organisations. These companies want to appear to be ... concerned about plastic pollution, while they continue to churn out plastics - Greenpeace Malaysia

Australian court rejects coal mine on climate grounds - An Australian court on Friday (Feb 8) delivered a landmark ruling by rejecting plans to build a coal mine on the grounds it would worsen climate change. Chief Justice Brian Preston said a planned open cut coal mine in a scenic part of New South Wales state would be in "the wrong place at the wrong time". The ruling by the New South Wales Land and Environment Court was notable for citing not only local impacts of building the proposed Gloucester Resources mine, but also secondary "climate change impacts" of the eventual use of the coal. "It matters not that this aggregate of the Project's GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions may represent a small fraction of the global total," the justice said. "Not every natural resource needs to be exploited." The case was unusual in referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and calling climate scientists to testify. Will Steffen, a noted climatologist, told the court that Australia's average surface temperature had increased one degree centigrade over the last century. Baker & McKenzie's global head of climate law, Martijn Wilder, said the decision reinforced the trend in legal judgements around the world that directly link fossil fuels and climate change. It also added to the growing perceived risk of coal investments, he told The Australian Financial Review. "In both Australia, and around the world, financiers have largely decided that, except in some exceptional circumstances, investments in coal are not viable and that such investments will now be stranded," he said.

 Judge: US must reconsider climate impacts of Montana mine (AP) — U.S. officials have again been faulted by a federal judge for failing to adequately consider the potential climate change effects of expanding a massive coal mine in the sagebrush-covered hills of southeastern Montana. U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan recommended in a Monday ruling that the Interior Department be given 240 days to re-analyze the expansion. But Cavan said mining shouldn’t be stopped in the interim, frustrating environmentalists who have campaigned for years to curtail coal production from the huge strip mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. A final decision is up to U.S. District Judge Susan Watters. If she adopts Cavan’s recommendation, it would mark a setback to the Interior Department’s attempts to downplay the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels extracted from public lands. In the Montana case, government officials asserted that burning the coal would have little effect on global emissions. That claim was first made by Interior officials under President Barack Obama and has been carried forward under President Donald Trump. Cloud Peak Energy’s Spring Creek Mine near Decker is largest coal mine in Montana and tenth largest in the U.S. based on 2017 production volumes, according to the Energy Information Administration. The public land in dispute was leased by the Wyoming-based company in 2007. It’s located in a sparsely populated area dominated by ranching and mining. Environmentalists sued after the expansion was approved, claiming climate change hadn’t been fully considered. That led to a 2016 order for officials to re-examine the environmental impacts, and then another lawsuit when that study was completed.

Trump urges U.S.-owned TVA to keep coal plant open (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Monday urged the Tennessee Valley Authority not to close a plant in the heart of coal country, as the U.S.-owned power generator converts its operations to natural gas, nuclear and renewables for economic reasons. “Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix,” Trump, who considers voters in coal-producing states a key part of his base, wrote on Twitter. TVA “should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!” Trump said. The 971-megawatt unit in Muhlenberg, Kentucky, is the last coal-fired part of the plant, which currently runs on natural gas and coal. TVA is expected to vote as soon as Thursday on its future. Fellow Republicans, including Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, want the plant to keep burning coal, saying it provides local jobs and reliable power. TVA’s chief executive, Bill Johnson, told Reuters in December it would keep cutting carbon emissions in future years after replacing much of its coal-fired fleet with plants run on natural gas, nuclear and renewables. Since he took over in 2013, TVA has spent $15 billion to modernize its fleet. Johnson said TVA shut the coal plants for economic reasons. More U.S. coal-fired power plants were shut in Trump’s first two years than were retired in the whole of former Democratic President Barack Obama’s first term, despite the Republican’s efforts to prop up the industry to keep a campaign promise to coal-mining states. Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, issued a directive to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017 to subsidize coal and nuclear plants that are ailing as they compete with cheap, plentiful gas. FERC rejected the directive last year, but the commission could consider another plan to help out coal plants in the future.

President Trump And Allies Push To Save A Very Specific Coal Plant - In his latest effort to boost the coal business — and in the process help a major supporter — President Trump has called on the Tennessee Valley Authority to, essentially, ignore the advice of its staff and keep a large coal-fired power plant operating.The move has drawn extra scrutiny because that plant buys coal from a company headed by a large campaign donor to Trump, Murray Energy Corporation Chairman, President and CEO Robert Murray. The facility at issue is the last remaining unit at TVA's Paradise Fossil Plant in Western Kentucky.In an environmental assessment signed Monday TVA staff proposed retiring the coal-fired plant. The report says, "As a large coal unit with medium operating costs and a high forced outage rate, as well as the need for significant repairs, PAF Unit 3 does not fit current and likely future portfolio needs."The staff also has proposed closing another coal power plant in Eastern Tennessee called the Bull Run Fossil Plant.  This continues a trend at the TVA of shuttering coal plants in favor of other sources for generating electricity, including natural gas and renewable energy. The move has helped attract companies like Google that build large data centers, and want to power them with cleaner sources of energy.

Trump Tweet Fails To Save Kentucky Coal-Fired Power Plant - Despite pressure from President Trump, the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors voted Thursday to close a large coal-fired power plant. Trump's involvement had drawn criticism because the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky buys coal from a company headed by a large donor to the president's campaign, Murray Energy Corp. Chairman, President and CEO Robert Murray. TVA board member and Trump appointee Kenny Allen was the only member to vote no on closing the Paradise plant. "I am still concerned about the overall economic impact of retiring Paradise Unit 3 on the community," said Allen. Communities near the plant had lobbied to keep it open. Murray Energy employee Danny Byars told member station WKYU that he worries about long-term job security. "We went from four crews to three crews [at the mine] already," Byars said. "If they shut down, then we have to find someone else to buy our coal." TVA board member and Obama appointee Virginia Lodge sided with the majority and said, "I don't want anybody to think we have not heard and understood the heartfelt pleas from these communities. If we could make our decisions based on our sympathetic feeling it would be easy. Unfortunately we've all taken an oath to do what we think is best for the entire Valley."

Trump administration approves 2 coal mining projects in Utah (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday announced the approval of two coal mining projects in southern Utah, including one nestled between two national parks in the state’s red rock region. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the mining projects in a news release Thursday, declaring “the war on coal is over,” touting new jobs the projects will create and saying they will further the administration’s goal of “energy dominance.” A $12 million project to expand a mine run by Alton Coal Development LLC will produce an estimated 2 million tons (1.8 billion kilograms) of coal each year on land about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Bryce Canyon National Park and about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Zion National Park. The mine is near the original boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but it is not in lands cut from the monument in 2017 by Trump. So far, no coal mining has been done on those lands, according to state officials. The other project was for lease modifications at a Sufco mine in Utah’s Sevier County in the central part of the state, which the agency says will extend the mine’s life by five years. The mine produces about 5 million tons (4.5 billion kilograms) of coal per year and has been in operation since 1941.

 A toxic crisis in America’s coal country - The taps in her house have been worn down, her washing machine frequently stops working, and her bathroom and kitchen have been stained a deep, bloody orange by the pollutants - iron, sulphur, even arsenic - that have seeped into her home's water supply. This is Appalachia - the heart of America's coal country. It is home to some of the poorest and most isolated communities in the US and the legacy of mining, be it the abandoned processing plants or the scarred landscape, can be seen dotted alongside its vast highways. She pours a glass of water from her kitchen tap and lets it rest on a table. It has a strange smell and a sticky texture and within minutes begins to turn dark orange. A layer of black sediment soon sinks to the bottom of the glass. "This is what we have to live with," Casey says. "We don't bathe in the water and we don't cook with it. It stains our fingernails, our knuckles, and our clothes. It's really, really difficult living like this." Casey and her husband Jack have two young children and drive for more than an hour to stock up on bottled water to drink and cook with. So who do they hold responsible? "I've been here all my life, but when the surface [coal] mine came in that's when the water started changing," says Jack, who, despite being a miner himself, believes the industry is accountable for his family's water problems.At the sprawling mine in the neighbouring valley, millions of pounds of explosives are being detonated on the mountaintops so that coal, buried deep below the surface, can be excavated. This process is a type of surface mining known as mountaintop removal, and has drawn the ire not only of nearby residents but environmental groups who say it devastates the landscape and pollutes the waterways. One study estimates that an area the size of the state of Delaware has been flattened by this type of coal mining, which was first practised in the 1970s.

Five killed, 22 feared trapped in South African mine explosion --Five people were killed last Wednesday, and 22 others are trapped and feared dead after an explosion in a coal mine that has been closed in the South African province of Mpumalanga.Since the explosion, mine rescue workers, who have not been paid since last October, have been unable to enter the mine because of high levels of methane and carbon monoxide gas.The ventilation system has not been working, and the company has not yet repaired it. Those trapped are believed to be so far in the mine, that rescue workers could not reach them wearing portable oxygen tanks. Management has alleged that the rescue workers are refusing to enter in protest over having gone for months without wages.Twenty people were able to escape the mine and reported that others were still trapped. One person who was injured was arrested for trespassing after he was released from the hospital. The Gloria Coal Mine is run by a company owned by the Gupta brothers, South African capitalists with close ties to the ruling African National Congress, who are facing extensive corruption charges. The company has been in bankruptcy since early last year and was placed into receivership. Since then the mine has fallen into disrepair and production was stopped.

Robot Scratches Tip of Fukushima's 600-Ton Melted Fuel Conundrum - Japan reached the latest hard-fought step in the 40-year, $194 billion cleanup of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown: A robot successfully touched some of the melted fuel sitting inside one of its three wrecked reactors.Japan has decided to remove and dispose of the melted nuclear fuel inside of the Fukushima plant, rather than entombing the site as was done at Chernobyl. That monumental task requires developing new robotic technologies to explore the reactors, remove fuel and even dismantle parts of the plant that are too radioactive for humans.The next move is removing a sample of the fuel for further testing, which could take until March 2020. There is about 600 tons of melted fuel, as well as other radioactive debris, scattered throughout the bottom of the reactors, which can’t be entered by humans.Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., which owns the plant, said after the robot survey Wednesday that pieces of fuel it encountered -- from 1 centimeter to 8 centimeters in length -- were solid enough to be lifted out of the reactor.“Some pieces were much harder than we expected and were lifted with relative ease,” spokesman Katsuyoshi Oyama told reporters in Tokyo. “We confirmed that it’s possible to extract some of this debris from the reactor.” Tepco, as the utility is known, aims to start removing the fuel by 2021. It has said it may start by vacuuming or scooping hardened debris and radioactive dust with a remote-controlled robot arm inserted through the side of the reactor.

Ohio clean energy groups will seek recusals from PUCO nominee - The lawyer appointed to chair Ohio’s Public Utilities Commission would face frequent requests to recuse himself from matters involving positions he took on behalf of his past clients, which include large industrial companies and anti-wind energy activists. Clean energy groups said they would seek to hold Sam Randazzo accountable for potential conflicts of interests if lawmakers confirm his appointment. As PUCO’s chair, Randazzo would also chair the Ohio Power Siting Board, which decides wind farm cases.“Randazzo has shown a clear bias against renewable energy sources that most Ohioans support, and energy efficiency programs that help consumers save money,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.Randazzo, who did not return a phone call or two follow-up emails seeking comment, is the longtime general counsel for Industrial Energy Users-Ohio. He has also represented Marathon Petroleum and wind farm opponents.“Mr. Randazzo carries with him extreme bias and a long history of working earnestly against cost-effective, clean and efficient energy resources on multiple fronts,” said Trish Demeter, vice president for energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council. “He has a long history of advocating against clean energy, working in alignment for many causes with electric utilities.”

Conservative Ohio voters want most of Ohio’s electricity to come from renewable sources-- Ohio’s political conservatives strongly favor renewable energy over coal and especially over nuclear power, a new poll commissioned by the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum has found. “Conservatives in Ohio are strong supporters of renewable energy, with a clear majority, 70 percent, wanting 50 percent or more of their energy to come from renewable sources,” concluded Jim Hobart, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a national polling firm which does research for Republican candidates. The poll was the third such survey Public Opinion Strategies had done for the the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum. It found growing support for clean energy. And a willingness to pay extra for it. Conservative Ohio voters “also view renewable energy as a job creator in the state, with low-income conservatives and conservative men being especially likely to say that the increased use of renewables would create jobs in Ohio,” Hobart’s summary of findings points out. The random telephone survey of 400 conservative Republican and independent voters in January, with a margin of error of 4.9 percent, also sought to determine how conservatives “feel” about various generating technologies and about energy efficiency.The findings indicate that conservatives are very positive about energy efficiency, natural gas and solar power but less positive about wind energy and coal and the least positive about nuclear energy. The poll also concluded that conservative Ohioans think property owners should have the right to generate electricity on their property and get paid for it, whether it be wind or solar. More to the point, it found that conservatives would support more reasonable wind turbine property setback rules than the rules adopted without debate by lawmakers in 2014.

Nuclear watchdogs warn against blurring energy, military uses at Ohio fuel plant -- A planned nuclear fuel plant in Ohio could help enable the nation’s next wave of carbon-free electricity, a fleet of small reactors providing continuous power to the grid.The U.S. Department of Energy fuel facility would be unique in part because it could also produce material for use in nuclear weapons. That crosses a potentially dangerous line, nuclear watchdog groups say — one that could undercut efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The Department of Energy announced plans last month to contract with Centrus Energy Corp.’s American Centrifuge Operating subsidiary to reopen a nuclear fuel plant in Piketon, Ohio, about 70 miles south of Columbus where Appalachia’s foothills start rising from sprawling farmland.The new project would likely resemble an earlier pilot program there that ended in 2015, but with various updates and technical fixes. It would also require U.S.-only sources, in lieu of some foreign components and technology. DOE is proposing the company as the sole source for the work, and the agency’s notice suggests the demonstration project’s fuel could be used for both civilian and military purposes. On the civilian side, the project’s fuel would be used for research and development of next-generation nuclear reactors. Designs for those smaller reactors call for fuel known as HALEU, which stands for high assay low-enriched uranium. HALEU can have between 5 and 20 percent of uranium’s U-235 isotope. That’s the form that undergoes fission readily. In contrast, most U.S. commercial reactors use fuel with 3 to 5 percent U-235. Natural uranium is about 99 percent U-238. On the defense side, HALEU could be used for small mobile reactors to power on-the-go military operations. Beyond that, DOE’s requirement for U.S.-only technology could also let the plant’s fuel be used to make tritium. That radioactive isotope of hydrogen is used in nuclear weapons. The possible crossover uses for the Piketon plant’s fuel could conflict with the country’s positions on nuclear nonproliferation.

The World’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Weapon Just Rolled Off the Assembly Line - Last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced that the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas. That warhead, the W76-2, is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile, a weapon with a range of more than 7,500 miles. By September, an undisclosed number of warheads will be delivered to the Navy for deployment. What makes this particular nuke new is the fact that it carries a far smaller destructive payload than the thermonuclear monsters the Trident has been hosting for decades - not the equivalent of about 100 kilotons of TNT as previously, but of five kilotons. According to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the W76-2 will yield “only” about one-third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Yet that very shrinkage of the power to devastate is precisely what makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured. Fulfilling the Trump administration’s quest for nuclear-war-fighting “flexibility,” it isn’t designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it’s designed to be used.  This is the weapon that could make the previously “unthinkablethinkable. Ranking some weapons as “low-yield” based on their destructive energy always depended on a distinction that reality made meaningless (once damage from radioactivity and atmospheric fallout was taken into account along with the unlikelihood that only one such weapon would be used). In fact, the elimination of tactical nukes represented a hard-boiled confrontation with the iron law of escalation, another commander’s insight — that any use of such a weapon against a similarly armed adversary would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point was barely imaginable. One side was never going to take a hit without responding in kind, launching a process that could rapidly spiral toward an apocalyptic exchange. “Limited nuclear war,” in other words, was a fool’s fantasy and gradually came to be universally acknowledged as such. No longer, unfortunately.

Radioactive road deicer rules under review by Ohio legislature; debate over public safety continues - cleveland.com – Ohio Department of Transportation snowplows had been spreading AquaSalina, a deicing solution, on the state’s roadways for years when an environmental group last year obtained an unreleased Ohio Department of Natural Resources report that found high levels of radioactivity in the product. After the 2017 report became public, state government and company officials attempted to debunk it, criticizing the testing protocol and findings as flawed and “worthless.” A team of scientists from ODNR’s division of Oil and Gas Resources Management/Radiation Safety Section, and the Environmental Safety Section compiled the seven-page report. The team tested 14 samples of AquaSalina from six locations in Cuyahoga, Summit, Tuscarawas and Guernsey counties. All of the samples were found to contain elevated levels of radioactivity in excess of state limits on the discharge of radioactive materials. The average radioactivity in AquaSalina also exceeded the drinking water limits for Radium 226 and Radium 228 by a factor of 300. Human consumption of any amount of AquaSalina is highly discouraged, the report said. “Heavy metals and radiologicals accumulate in the soil and become problematic for drinking water,” said Trish Demeter, the Ohio Environmental Council vice president of Policy, Energy. “They don’t just go away. The more you use deicers the more these toxins build up over a long period of time.” Members of the state legislature rejected the reports’ findings, introducing a law last year that would ease regulations on AquaSalina, treating it as a commodity rather than toxic waste derived from oil- and gas-drilling operations. The law would also prevent ODNR from imposing any additional requirements. Additionally, the bill would require testing of AquaSalina no more than four times per year and would not require ODNR to test the brine for radium or heavy metals.

Loud booms reported near Youngstown injection well site not earthquakes - — The state of Ohio has found no evidence of earthquake activity connected with loud booms residents reported hearing in the Youngstown area near deep-injection wells used for fracking wastewater.The (Warren) Tribune Chronicle reports Ohio's Department of Natural Resources began monitoring for seismic activity after Brookfield Township residents reported hearing loud, explosion-like noises coming from injection-well drilling sites off State Route 7 around New Year's Eve.Department spokesman Steve Irwin said a month of 24/7 monitoring didn't detect any seismic activity.Injection wells force wastewater from the gas and oil industry deep underground as a means of disposal.  Anti-fracking groups in the area have opposed such wells for years, noting their ties to earthquake activity and questioning the potential for other negative environmental impacts.

Cabot to drill two more exploratory wells in Ohio by Dec. 31 - Cabot Oil & Gas has drilled three exploratory wells in north-central Ohio and intends to add two additional wells before the end of the year, Kallanish Energy reports.The three wells drilled are all in Ashland County, between Cleveland and Columbus. That drilling began last June.The wells are in Green, Vermilion and Mohican townships north and northeast of Loudonville. One of the three wells has been hydraulically fractured.The Houston-based company, a major player in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, reported it is unclear where the fourth and fifth well will be drilled, it told the Columbus Dispatch newspaper last week.The company is interested in the Knox formation in Ashland, Richland, Holmes, Wayne and Knox counties at the western edge of Ohio’s Utica Shale. That formation is below the Utica, and is north and west of Ohio’s main Utica drilling area.Cabot Oil & Gas had announced plans to spend $75 million in the first half of 2018 to look closely at two exploratory areas. The company gave no clue as to where that exploratory wells might be drilled. If the tests reveal that additional drilling is warranted in the second half of 2018, Cabot is prepared to sell off assets to fund that work, the company said in releasing its 2018 operating plan.  It later announced it had scrapped one exploration area as a failure. Analysts said that was likely the High Alpine area of Texas.  Cabot has promised to comment on the second exploration area during the company’s Q3 2018 earnings call later this year. Analysts that is Ohio’s Ashland County area. Ashland County is where Oklahoma-based Devon Energy drilled for oil in the early days of Utica Shale drilling — with little or no success.

Natural Gas Under Pressure Can Go Out of Control Within the Earth - Some friends and I were at lunch when the subject of a fracking well near the Beaver Run Reservoir “connecting” to older shallower wells came up. This occurred in Westmoreland County, PA, a few miles southeast of Pittsburgh. What had happened, the well pressure in the new Utica well dropped suddenly and the pressure in four older surrounding “conventional” wells rose. (The older wells were vertical and did not reach the depth of the well being drilled.) The new well is located, rather carelessly, beside the reservoir, which provides water for something like 150,000 people. The worry was that fluids would come all the way to the surface and fracking chemicals would get in the reservoir. Also, explosions or fires could occur at the older wells. One of our group pointed out that the representations you see in publications show the shale layers like a wedding cake, uniform thickness, parallel and horizontal, which is not an accurate representation. Shale layers are certainly not uniform and not without defects, fractures or fissures. We agreed that ”communication” through the geologic layers is not new. That is, gas having enough pressure to penetrate horizontally (and perhaps vertically) outside the intended boundaries. I recalled discussion with friends in Doddridge County of how some conventional well owners were beneficiaries of fracking, it improved the production of their shallow wells! That was years ago and continues. Someone over there pointed out to me an abandoned old well that was frosted over from the fracked well gas that had leaked into it. We all knew that gas under pressure cooled when the pressure was relieved. In that case, enough to cause frost in summer, even. Others of our lunch group could tell related stories. Leaks from around casing not properly sealed is likely the cause of most leaks that destroy well and surface waters. Drillers are impatient to start after the cement is placed around the pipe designed to protect surface water, it costs them hundreds of dollars an hour to have an idle rig. So pressure comes on before the cement is fully set up. They have been known to supply clean water to people near their rig, acknowledging fault. It is usually stopped when the driller leaves the neighborhood, though.

CNX reports suspected cause of Utica Shale well problem near Beaver Run Reservoir -- CNX Resources Corp. said a problem with the casing in its compromised Utica Shale well in Westmoreland County was the likely root of high pressure gas that flooded nearby shallower wells two weeks ago.The Cecil-based company told investors that the problem at its Shaw 1G well in Westmoreland County occurred about a mile underground.  It’s still early in the investigation, the company cautioned in its annual report filed on Thursday, “but based on the information we have at this time, we believe the issue is isolated to this well and was caused by a casing integrity issue that occurred at a depth below approximately 5,200 feet, allowing gas traveling up the wellbore to escape at that point.” At that depth, according to the well record filed with the state, there were two pipes in the ground, one a 9.6-inch diameter steel casing and inside of it a 5.5-inch diameter production casing. The narrower pipe, which is the conduit for the gas to travel up the wellbore, was cemented to the wider one at that depth. But the cement stopped a few hundred feet above that. Operators are not required to cement the production pipe all the way to the surface. When the gas escaped from the wellbore at that depth, it made its way to nine vertical wells, drilled to a depth between 3,700 feet and 3,900 feet, according to the DEP. Those were the ones that the company was flaring to relieve the pressure as it worked to “kill” its problematic well. When that was accomplished late on Monday by pumping heavy mud into the wellbore below the 5,200 foot mark, the pressures at the impacted shallow wells began to drop. By Friday evening, only four of the nine were still flaring. The others had returned to an acceptable pressure, CNX said.

 Isolated 'casing issue' likely caused problems at gas well near Beaver Run Reservoir, company reports -- A pressure anomaly that recently forced the shutdown of a Utica shale gas well near Beaver Run Reservoir was likely caused by a “casing integrity issue” about a mile underground, CNX Resources told investors. The update was contained in a footnote in the company’s 2018 annual report , posted late last week to its website. “While the company is continuing to evaluate the cause of this incident, it appears that the pressure anomalies that the company observed were caused by a casing integrity issue that occurred at a depth below approximately 5,200 feet, allowing gas traveling up the wellbore to escape into shallower formations,” the note said. “CNX believes this issue is isolated to this well.” The significant loss of pressure during fracking operations at the Shaw 1G well on Jan. 25 was accompanied by pressure increases at several nearby shallow oil and gas wells not owned by CNX, the company said. All hydraulic fracturing operations on the four-well Shaw pad remain suspended while CNX continues to investigate the incident, the company said. Meanwhile, test results from Beaver Run Reservoir since the incident have come back normal so far, said Matthew Junker, spokesman for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County. The reservoir serves as the public water source for about 130,000 customers of the municipal authority living in northern Westmoreland County.

One of the oldest US refineries in trouble again in Philadelphia: court filings (Reuters) - Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc, owner of the largest and oldest refinery on the U.S. East Coast, is facing another financial crisis just months after emerging from a controversial bankruptcy, according to two sources and a Reuters review of court filings. PES, which exited bankruptcy in August, saw its cash balance fall to $87.7 million at the end of 2018, down from $148 million just three months earlier, a $61 million decline, according to a post-bankruptcy financial report filed late last month. The company entered bankruptcy roughly a year ago with $43 million cash on hand, court documents show. Refineries based on the East Coast suffer from difficult economics due to the cost of shipping crude oil from West Texas or Canada, but PES has had other problems at the plant in South Philadelphia including weak gasoline margins and high debt costs. The company filed for bankruptcy in January 2018, blaming its woes largely on the costs of complying with the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, a 2005 law that requires refiners to either blend biofuels like ethanol into fuel or purchase credits, called RINs, from competitors who do. PES does not have those blending capabilities, so it has to pay for credits. But a Reuters analysis showed other factors played a role in the bankruptcy, including the withdrawal of more than $590 million in dividend-style payments from the company by its investor owners. After filing for bankruptcy, the company was given a waiver for half of its $350 million in liabilities related to biofuels credits by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Poor gasoline margins have hurt the company’s bottom line as well. PES’s weak cash position forced the refiner to significantly scale back a planned $90 million maintenance project that began in January, according to two sources familiar with the plant’s operations. Refiners perform maintenance to keep units operating reliably and safely, protecting themselves from costly unplanned outages. 

Investigation: Clorox Selling Pool Salt Made From Fracking Wastewater -  You might be shocked to learn that a Clorox product used to treat swimming pools came from fracking wastewater. Public Herald has discovered that Eureka Resources, a company based in Pennsylvania, has been treating wastewater from shale gas development — a.k.a. “fracking” — and packaging the crystal byproduct as “Clorox Pool Salt” for distribution since 2017. The way it works is fracking wastewater gets trucked to Eureka Resources where it’s treated and turned into salt. From there, workers at the facility package the salt into Clorox bags and pallet them for shipment. While Eureka uses Clorox packaging, and trades in Clorox products, they never deal directly with Clorox. The bags are palleted for an unnamed third-party distributor to be sold to regional stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes. Eureka Resources stands by their product safety, citing its own four-step patented treatment system that involves pretreatment, distillation, crystallization and dewasting. The company has operated since 2008 in Pennsylvania, currently with two treatment facilities: one in Williamsport and the Standing Stone Facility in Wysox who produces the pool salt. Eureka states the Standing Stone facility is “capable of producing clean distilled water, concentrated brine, dry sodium chloride (NaCl) salt and approximately 30% calcium chloride (CaCl)” out of water that contained carcinogens, trade-secret chemicals, heavy metals, and high levels of radioactive material. The solids leftover after wastewater treatment, often referred to as sludge, are hauled to area landfills that can accept radioactive waste.

US' Laurel Pipeline expected to flow both east and west by mid-2019: Buckeye CEO — Buckeye Partners expects to be able to use the Laurel Pipeline bi-directionally for transporting refined products by the middle of this year, as it waits for federal regulators to rule on a tariff petition, said CEO Clark Smith Friday. Providing bi-directional service on the Laurel Pipeline will allow Midwest refiners to move more gasoline and diesel from Michigan and Ohio east into Pennsylvania. Presently, the line runs from Philadelphia refineries west to the Pittsburgh area. "We are currently projecting that we'll be able to commence pipeline movements on this project by mid-2019,"  No timeline was given for when FERC would hand down the ruling necessary for the pipeline to operate across state lines, but Clark said, once received, Buckeye would start hydro-testing the pipeline to check its integrity and expects to "commence pipeline movements within 60 to 90 days of receiving FERC approval," Smith said. The second phase of the Michigan-Ohio pipeline project will bring refined products from refineries in Detroit and Ohio southeast to the Altoona area of central Pennsylvania. No capacities were given for either project, but Buckeye said previously it expected initial west-to-east rates to be 40,000 b/d. However, seasonal factors could impact Buckeye's timeline for bi-directional movements on Laurel. Bob Malecky, Buckeye's head of domestic pipelines and terminals, said the company had a "somewhat short window" of about 90 days by which to receive the FERC ruling and conduct the hydrotest. After that, there will be a delay of four to five months to reverse the pipeline. He did not elaborate on specific reasons.

 Pennsylvania halts permits for natural gas pipelines (AP) — Pennsylvania is halting construction permits for natural gas pipelines operated by Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, as the governor on Friday said the company has failed to respect the state’s laws and communities. The state Department of Environmental Protection said Energy Transfer is not fixing problems related to an explosion last year, and piled yet another penalty onto a company project in the state. State agencies already have imposed millions of dollars in fines and several temporary shutdown orders on Energy Transfer projects, while a county prosecutor is demanding documents from the company. "There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities," Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement Friday. "This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated." The Department of Environmental Protection said Energy Transfer hasn't stabilized the soil and erosion around its Revolution pipeline in western Pennsylvania, as it was ordered to do in October. As a result, it is halting construction permits on the company's pipelines in the state, it said. "This hold will continue until the operator corrects their violations to our satisfaction," Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement.

Lancaster businesses waiting to be paid more than $1M for work on Atlantic Sunrise pipeline -- When the controversial Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline was gearing up to be built through Lancaster County in 2017, Rob Warihay was one of the cheerleaders touting the benefits to local businesses. Now, the co-owner of Warihay Enterprises is still waiting to be paid $1.8 million for work his Manheim-based commercial landscaping business completed for the pipeline last November. He’s had to max out the company’s line of credit to survive and is paying interest on the credit. “It wasn’t fun,” he said. Warihay’s firm is one of 77 businesses in Pennsylvania — from a Morgantown hardware store to a York ice maker to owners of portable toilets and pest-control services — that are still waiting to be paid $7.7 million for services they rendered on the Atlantic Sunrise and Mariner East gas pipelines. The companies were stuck with unpaid bills after Welded Construction — the large Ohio-based pipeline builder that was the main contractor on both pipeline projects — declared bankruptcy last October. The bankruptcy filing came after the owners of both pipelines refused to pay Welded.  Some 77 Pennsylvania businesses, both large and small, still have unpaid bills and have prepared claims to be filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the District of Delaware. The deadline for filing isn’t until Feb. 28, and about 10 new claims are rolling in each day.

Cabot's Sneaky Attack on Pennsylvania Cancer Survivor Reveals Dirty Agenda to Silence Environmentalists -  Cabot Oil & Gas, a company with $765 million in assets in 2017, doesn't like environmental nonprofits meddling in its dirty business in Pennsylvania. And the company is delivering this message by targeting Ray Kemble—a local 63-year old who just survived his fourth cancer surgery—with a $5 million lawsuit for speaking out about Cabot and fracking. If corporate injustices were measured on a scale of one to ten, Cabot's latest disgraceful maneuver would be a rock-solid eleven. Back in 2010, Cabot settled a number of lawsuits brought by Dimock homeowners who claimed that the company had poisoned their groundwater, decreased their property values and threatened their health and safety. Kemble was one of those plaintiffs who signed a settlement agreement that included some unknown nondisclosure terms. It's a secrecy provision that Cabot often uses to keep its dirty practices hidden and one that state and federal regulators have cited as a hinderance to a full investigation into the impact of fracking on groundwater and public health. While its exact terms remain concealed, Cabot's lawyers want us all to take their word for it that Kemble is in violation of the nondisclosure provision of the agreement because he has exercised his First Amendment right to warn others of the risks of fracking and encourage an end to this inherently harmful practice. Kemble's effective advocacy made him a target of Cabot's ire, and now they've taken aim and fired off a lawsuit that seeks to strip him of all he has left in the world, and then some.  Cabot's recent filing with the court asked the judge to place a cancer patient with no resources in jail until its lawyers have had a chance to interrogate him. The judge rejected its request and after the hearing, Cabot's spokesperson tried to deflect from the corporation's persecution of Kemble by claiming that it is really just using the courts to go after groups that have provided financial support to Kemble and others who have been victimized by Cabot's irresponsible fracking operations. Cabot can only continue to operate by violating the fundamental rights of others. It threatens the property rights of homeowners whose groundwater is poisoned and whose property values plummet. It even relies on judges to overturn juries who grant Cabot's victims monetary damages for the harm Cabot has caused, while paying off politicians. And now the corporation wants to put an end to people's rights to speak freely about fracking.

Leaders Debate Ethane Cracker Pros and Cons — The 42-mile drive from Washington to Potter Township represents the proverbial scenic route as it winds through rural and wooded areas north into Beaver County.  Eventually, the relative tranquility gives way to the panorama of a massive construction project: the Shell Chemical Appalachia Petrochemical Complex, taking shape on a 340-tract along the Ohio River and representing a $6 billion investment by one of the giants of the oil and gas industry, Royal Dutch Shell. The purpose of the plant is to break up molecules of ethane — a byproduct of the tri-state region’s natural gas stream being tapped by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — into smaller molecules as a step in the creation of plastics. By industry parlance, the process involves molecules being “cracked,” hence the common reference to cracker plants. As is the case with any endeavor of such a major scope, the Shell project has its supporters and detractors.  Those in favor cite job creation as a major plus: some 6,000 workers are needed during construction and 600 full-time employees when the plant goes into operation in the early 2020s. Further employment opportunities could arise with the development of a regional pipeline system connecting natural gas suppliers with the Shell complex and other similar plants, if built. Then there’s the flipside. As executive director of the Breathe Project, a clearinghouse for information on air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania, Matt Mehalik brought the perspective of impact to the atmosphere. “We still have a serious air-quality problem in southwestern Pennsylvania, and adding to our airshed burden will only make things worse,” he told the forum’s audience. “We consistently get failing grades from the American Lung Association: three F’s several years in a row, the only place outside of California with that distinction.” His reference was to the association’s State of the Air report, issued in April and citing Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and its dismal performance in three measures of air pollution: days with elevated ozone, and daily and annual values for fine-particle pollution. Ozone is generated by the reaction of volatile organic compounds – released by the burning of materials such as gasoline, wood, coal or natural gas – with nitrogen oxides. Such conditions make breathing difficult, especially for children, older adults and people with asthma, according to the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, which has a regional office in Pittsburgh. Mehalik also spoke about the market, or lack thereof, for what cracker plants produce. “All this is to make plastic. The world doesn’t need it for ginned-up demand in Asia, because that’s the only scenario where the industry might generate a profit. There’s no projected demand growth in most of North America.”

Wolf’s support for pipeline-safety bills boosts bipartisan advocates -- A raft of bills on pipeline safety may have a better chance of becoming law in Pennsylvania after Gov. Tom Wolf formally backed some of them in a statement that strongly criticized Sunoco’s construction of the Mariner East pipelines. Most of the bills failed to move through the Legislature during the previous session, but were reintroduced in early January amid rising public concern about the safety of lines carrying highly explosive materials such as natural gas liquids through densely populated areas. Although the bills’ future remains unclear, the prospects for at least some of them brightened on Feb. 8 when Gov. Wolf called on the Legislature to fill what he called “gaps” in the law that have restricted the ability of his administration to protect public safety and the environment during pipeline construction and operation. The Democratic governor urged the “speedy passage” of bills that would give the Public Utility Commission authority over where pipelines can be built; would require operators to disclose details of any pipelines that are within 1,000 feet of a school; would require carriers of natural gas or its liquids to coordinate with local emergency officials; and would require installation of shutoff valves in so-called high-consequence areas.

New York regulators move to address Con Edison's moratorium on new gas service  - Northeast utilities have been warning for some time that they need more gas capacity in the region, and Con Edison has been pursuing innovative "non-pipe" solutions as a way to address the shortage. But last month the utility announced it had no choice but to stop taking new applications in some areas, and the news appears to have gotten the attention of state regulators. New York regulators took multiple steps Thursday to address potential gas shortages that have led Consolidated Edison to declare a hold on some new service requests, including approving $223 million in measures like efficiency and electrification that are aimed at reducing system demand.  The Public Service Commission (PSC) also announced it will hold public hearings in Westchester County next week, to take comment on the utility's planned moratorium.  Con Edison last month announced that due to rising gas demand and a dearth of new supply, it would stop taking applications for new gas connections in most of Westchester County, beginning March 15. The utility said it could soon face more demand for gas "than the existing interstate system can bring into our area."

 New York State PSC approves Con Edison plan to reduce natural gas demand in supply-constrained areas - The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) recently authorized Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. (Con Edison) to immediately begin implementing a $223 million initiative to reduce natural gas demand in the utility’s supply-constrained areas of its gas distribution system. “The PSC is providing Con Edison with the ability to deploy non-traditional solutions to address the customer needs currently met with natural gas and expects Con Edison to use these tools to help its customers and protect [the] environment,” Commission Chair John B. Rhodes said. “Con Edison needs to move quickly and put forward innovative solutions designed to meet current and future energy demands throughout its [service] territory.” The recently approved solutions focus on energy efficiency measures and deploying heat pump technology to support electrification. The PSC denied Con Edison’s proposal to incentivize shareholders to add supply enhancements such as compressed or liquified natural gas supply sources but noted that the company is not prohibited from pursuing such projects without shareholder incentives. Supply limitations and increased demand led Con Edison to suspend new natural gas connection in the majority of its Westchester County, New York natural gas service territory starting on March 15 to maintain reliability for existing customers and critical facilities. Department of Public Service staff is currently conducting an analysis and review of the market conditions that led to the company’s decision and how utilities are meeting customer needs.

SHALE@10: In N.Y., farmers think about what might have been - E&E News  — When Kevin "Cub" Frisbie wants to see what shale can do for a place, all he has to do is get in his pickup and drive 15 miles south to Bradford County, Pa.There, the pavement on the road smooths out. There are new hotels and a new Dunkin' Donuts. In front of the family farms, Frisbie, a farmer himself, will notice the new silos and equipment. "All this, there's just nothing but commerce going on, commerce going on," he said.Crossing back into Tioga County, N.Y., Frisbie will pass the retired feed mill and the shuttered storefronts of Broad Street. He'll pass farms that he knows are right on the edge of survival, and he might pass the home of an old friend, a dairy farmer, who ignored a hernia for too long — and didn't have health insurance anyway — and died of surgery complications last year."Fifteen years ago, these two counties were very similar," said Frisbie, a grain and crop farmer who's president of the Tioga County Farm Bureau. What changed, to him, is obvious: Pennsylvania allows fracking, and New York, under Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, banned it. "It's a desolate area, we could use some jobs, we could use some income. And he turned his back on us."

Trump raises fracking, abortion in meeting with Cuomo - President Trump on Tuesday suggested that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) open the state up to fracking to improve its economy, and he also raised concerns about the state's recent legislation that expanded access to abortion. The two New Yorkers spoke at the White House after Cuomo requested a meeting to discuss a provision in the Republicans' 2017 tax-cut law that caps the state and local tax (SALT) deduction at $10,000. The meeting largely focused on economic issues, though Trump brought up abortion as well, the White House said. Deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement that Trump listened to Cuomo's concerns about SALT, and "reiterated the negative impact that high taxes in states like New York have on hardworking families and job creators." "The President discussed economic growth opportunities for the State of New York, including helping lower energy prices throughout the entire Northeast by allowing low-cost, American energy to thrive with fracking and pipeline systems," Deere said. "The two also discussed the need to update America’s outdated infrastructure system." Cuomo signed a ban on fracking in New York roughly four years ago, citing health risks. The practice involves injecting water and chemicals underground in order to fracture rocks and release natural gas. The governor has faced criticism for the stagnating economy in parts of upstate New York, where fracking could provide a boost. Trump earlier this month suggested that those in upstate New York struggling to find prosperity should "go to another state where they can get a great job." Tuesday's meeting came after Cuomo earlier this month said that personal income tax receipts declined in the state in December and January. He attributed that decline to the cap on the SALT deduction. Cuomo has argued that the rule disproportionately harms residents of New York and other high-tax states like California and New Jersey.

Oil spill causes fire in Allegany – About 150 gallons of oil spilled from an oil well in Allegany Tuesday morning, causing a fire near the intersection of Flatstone Road and Chipmonk Road. Members of the Allegany Fire Department dispatched around 5:35 a.m. Tuesday and remained at the scene until 10:30 a.m. Incident Response and Mitigation (IRM) Services were also at the scene and contained the oil spill quickly. IRM Services reported no threat to the Allegheny River or water supplies at this time. Officers from the Cattaraugus County Office of Emergency Services, Health Department and New York State Department of Environment Conservation remained on scene to investigate further. The oil well is reportedly owned by Vertical Energy Inc. in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, according to the Cattaraugus Couint Office of Emergency Services.

Proposed Meadowlands power plant would be NJ's biggest greenhouse gas polluter -- A controversial, natural gas-fired power plant proposed for the Meadowlands would emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than any existing power plant in New Jersey, according to a review of federal data. In fact, North Bergen Liberty Generating station's estimated 2.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions would tie it with the Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery in Linden as the top single greenhouse gas producer in the Garden State. Opponents of the plant are concerned that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection would not consider the impact of greenhouse gases as officials evaluate a slate of air permits that will determine if the power plant is built. But federal permitting rules have required the state to consider greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating most power plant proposals since 2010, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said on Thursday. "Yes, greenhouse gas emissions will be evaluated as part of the application," Hajna said. Opponents who gathered in Ridgefield Park on Friday to protest the power plant said they were told by top-level DEP staffers at a recent private meeting that the agency would not consider carbon dioxide emissions in reviewing the plant's permit applications. Proposed by the Mitsubishi subsidiary Diamond Generating Corp., the plant would be one of the largest electricity generators in the state, at 1,200 megawatts. But none of the electricity would go to New Jersey consumers. It would instead be transmitted by cable under the Hudson River to New York City. 

Enbridge Gave Massachusetts Studies by Climate Denier, ALEC Associate in Gas Project Assessment -  As part of an ongoing health evaluation of a proposed and contested Boston metro area gas compressor station, the energy distribution company Enbridge shared with the State of Massachusetts materials from dubious and controversial sources. As documents obtained by DeSmog reveal, these include studies by a climate change denier and an official associated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers-backed group working to undermine environmental regulations. For critics of the project, this newest revelation raises further questions about the appropriateness of constructing the 7,700-horsepower station, which would release noxious gases while propelling natural gas through pipelines, in a densely populated area between Weymouth and Quincy, south of Boston. “To be taking the work of climate deniers at this time is unconscionable,” said Alice Arena, who heads Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS), a citizen group that has been fighting the project for the past four years. As part of a state-directed health impact assessment (HIA) for the compressor station, Enbridge supplied the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) — the agency charged with conducting the assessment — with materials relating to compressor stations and air pollution. Governor Charlie Baker ordered the HIA before the state provides any new permits for the station, following pressure from activist groups.

Enbridge still sees New England potential in US natural gas expansion plans - — Canada's Enbridge will continue to push regulators in the US at the local, state and federal level to allow it to build new natural gas transmission infrastructure that can serve New England consumers with production from the nearby Appalachian Basin, CEO Al Monaco said Friday. The pipeline operator is seeing strong utilization on its Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission systems and it believes that being able to move more supply from closer basins in the US Northeast would be a significant growth opportunity. Environmental opposition in the region to fossil-fuel development has helped scuttle or delay some major gas projects in New England. Among them, the Access Northeast project that Enbridge is involved in is currently stalled. Officially, the company hasn't given up on that project or other opportunities. Monaco said the demand is there, largely because the pipeline-constrained region experiences high energy prices during peak periods such as the winter. "It's never been more clear that we need additional natural gas infrastructure and nowhere is that more evident than in the US Northeast," Monaco said during a conference call with analysts to discuss fourth-quarter financial results. He said New England consumers are saddled with "higher priced, lower reliability peaking supply from oil generation and foreign LNG imports, and this is actually an unbelievable irony when the Marcellus is sitting right next door to this market." "We'll continue to work with regulators and local politicians to bring forward solutions to this problem," Monaco said. Despite the proximity of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, New England imports significant volumes of gas from Canada via pipeline and other countries via LNG tanker to meet peak demand. Market experts blame insufficient west-to-east and south-to-north pipeline capacity to transport gas there from producers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Pipeline fight drags on, tempting intervention from Trump - Pipeline executives are urging President Donald Trump to assert federal authority over interstate pipelines and prevent states from blocking projects that run within their boundaries. The lobbying is another front in a legal and political fight that shows no signs of ending since New York state blocked a series of pipeline projects carrying natural gas to New England from the gas-rich Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania three years ago. That has left multi-billion dollar investment decisions facing more uncertainty as environmental activists target pipelines in their fight to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Congress has been reluctant to intervene in a debate encompassing two deeply partisan issues in climate change and federal authority over state regulators. At the same time courts have so far upheld states’ ability to use environmental law to block pipelines projects that have come under fire for their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Trump intervenes to overrule states, any relief would likely be a long time coming. A deluge of lawsuits from environmental groups would almost certainly follow, tying up the executive action in court for years, said Steve Weiler, a Washington energy attorney. “It probably wouldn’t be implemented in this president’s administration,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen quickly.” The uncertainty around permitting pipelines comes as U.S. natural gas production shows little sign of slowing down, as hydraulic fracturing continues to unlock shale gas deposits from Texas to Pennsylvania. In November, U.S. gas production exceeded 2.6 trillion cubic feet, enough to heat 45 million U.S. homes for a year and up 30 percent from five years ago. But the climate change movement is also gaining momentum after a series of dire forecasts, including one from the federal government last year that predicted that crop failures, wildfires and flooding would shrink the U.S. economy by 10 percent by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked.

Shale drilling tests to start in West Virginia this week - -- Testing is set to begin this week in West Virginia as part of an effort to advance hydraulic fracturing techniques that would allow the extraction of natural gas to be done more efficiently.The drilling tests are being carried out by the Marcellus Shale Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (MSEEL), a research partnership between West Virginia University, Northeast Natural Energy, and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).The tests will seek to improve gas recovery from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a method in which rock is fractured by pressurized liquid, releasing the natural gas. They will be carried out near Core, W.Va., which is located about 15 miles northwest of Morgantown.Previous research by WVU and Northeast Natural Energy led to the creation of stimulation zones that offered the best well sites around natural fractures in the shale. These sites were monitored using seismic and fiber optic distributed temperature and acoustic sensing, a method that is too costly to be used on all wells. "Therefore, aided by advanced numerical modeling developed by WVU, the project team will compare the use and results of new completion/stimulation techniques at the Core site to the large array of relatively cost-prohibitive techniques used in the Morgantown Industrial Park wells," said Robert Vagnetti of NETL.

Antero agrees to $3.15m fine in W.Va. pollution settlement (AP) - A Colorado-based natural gas producer has agreed to pay a $3.15 million civil penalty to resolve pollution violations at 32 drilling sites in West Virginia. The U.S. Department of Justice says in a news release the agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection reached a proposed settlement with Antero Resources Corp. over allegations of Clean Water Act violations at sites in Doddridge, Harrison and Tyler counties. In addition to the fine, the settlement filed in federal court for the state's northern district requires the company to conduct restoration, stabilization, and mitigation work at impacted sites as well as provide mitigation for aquatic resource impacts. The violations involved the unauthorized disposal of dredged and fill materials into waters near sites where Antero built well pads and other structures involved in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. 

Large Natural Gas Producer to Pay West Virginia Plaintiffs $53.5 Million to Settle Royalty Dispute -- As our investigation detailed, EQT Corp. had been accused of deducting a variety of unacceptable charges from natural gas royalty checks.  The second-largest natural gas producer in West Virginia will pay $53.5 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged the company was cheating thousands of state residents and businesses by shorting them on gas royalty payments, according to terms of the deal unsealed in court this week. Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. agreed to pay the money to end a federal class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of about 9,000 people, which alleged that EQT wrongly deducted a variety of unacceptable charges from peoples’ royalty checks. The deal is the latest in a series of settlements in cases that accused natural gas companies of engaging in such maneuvers to pocket a larger share of the profits from the boom in natural gas production in West Virginia. This lawsuit was among the royalty cases highlighted last year in a joint examination by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica that showed how West Virginia’s natural gas producers avoid paying royalties promised to thousands of residents and businesses. The plaintiffs said EQT was improperly deducting transporting and processing costs from their royalty payments. EQT said its royalty payment calculations were correct and fair. A trial was scheduled to begin in November but was canceled after the parties reached the tentative settlement. Details of the settlement were unsealed Wednesday.  Under the settlement agreement, EQT Production Co. will pay the $53.5 million into a settlement fund. The company will also stop deducting those post-production costs from royalty payments. The company says it wants to “turn over a new leaf” in its relationship with the state’s residents.

Can the pipeline be stopped? State board ponders its next move on MVP - Wading back into what could become a legal quagmire, the State Water Control Board may soon decide whether to revoke its earlier approval for a natural gas pipeline under construction in Southwest Virginia. The unusual proceeding was initiated in December, when the board voted 4-3 to reconsider a water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. When it first issued the certification in 2017, the board determined there was a reasonable assurance that work on the buried pipeline would not contaminate nearby streams and wetlands. Since then, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has found more than 300 violations of erosion and sediment control measures. What will happen next seems as clear as the muddy water that frequently flows from construction sites. If the board were to reverse its earlier position, “it doesn’t necessarily kill the project, although it’s possible that it could,” said Jill Fraley, an associate professor at the Washington and Lee School of Law who specializes in environmental law. Mountain Valley could address the board’s concerns and apply for a new certification. Or it could turn to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has ultimate authority over the 303-mile pipeline. Or it could sue the water board. Whatever the next step might be, loss of state certification could further delay a project that — despite earlier regulatory and legal setbacks — is more than halfway completed.

EQM expects to complete WV-VA Mountain Valley natgas pipe fourth-quarter 2019 (Reuters) - EQM Midstream Partners LP said on Thursday it expects to complete the $4.6 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia in the fourth quarter of 2019 despite remaining legal challenges against the project. The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release that Mountain Valley was about 70 percent complete. EQM said it is working through the project’s remaining legal challenges, including securing a Nationwide 12 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for stream and waterbody crossings. In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with arguments from environmental groups and vacated the project’s Nationwide 12 Permit because its proposed construction methods violated a special condition in West Virginia, requiring stream crossings to be completed within 72 hours. 

 TransCanada to finish West Virginia Mountaineer natgas pipe in Q1 - (Reuters) - TransCanada Corp placed about 45 percent of its Mountaineer XPress natural gas pipeline in West Virginia into service in January and expected to finish the rest of the project in February and March:  The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release on Thursday that it boosted the estimated cost for Mountaineer to $3.2 billion from a previous forecast of $3.0 billion.The company said it also planned to put its $600 million Gulf XPress gas pipeline into service along with Mountaineer. When TransCanada started work on Mountaineer early last year, it estimated it would complete the project by the end of 2018 at a cost of $2.6 billion. The company boosted that estimate to $3.0 billion in April 2018. The Mountaineer and Gulf projects are two of several pipes designed to connect growing output in the Marcellus and Utica shale basins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio with customers elsewhere in the United States and Canada.The 2.6-billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) Mountaineer project includes 170 miles (274 kilometers) of new pipeline in West Virginia, while the 0.88-bcfd Gulf project includes seven new compressor stations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. One billion cubic feet is enough gas to power about 5 million U.S. homes for a day . New pipelines built to remove gas from the Marcellus and Utica have enabled shale drillers to boost Appalachia output to a record high of 31.6 bcfd in February versus 26.9 bcfd in the same month a year ago.   That represents about 38 percent of the nation's total dry gas output of 83.3 bcfd in 2018. A decade ago, Appalachia was responsible for just 1.6 bcfd, or 3 percent, of the country's total production.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline delayed until 2021, cost up by $3B  (AP) — The completion of a natural gas pipeline running through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina has been delayed and its costs are increasing by up to $3 billion. The Fayetteville Observer reports Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC announced Friday that the 600-mile (965-kilometer) pipeline is not expected to be in full service until 2021. It was initially expected to be in service this year. The project was projected to cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion when first announced. Now the company projects a total cost of $7 billion to $7.5 billion. A spokesman for pipeline partner Dominion Energy, Karl Neddenien, blames delays for the cost increases. Some work was suspended last year over questions related to a national permit, while residents and environmental groups have sued to stop the project.

Need for Atlantic Coast Pipeline Falls — The demand the huge Atlantic Coast Pipeline was intended to meet is disappearing, according to documents from the corporations behind the project. Dominion and Duke Energy own almost all of the pipeline, as well as the electric utilities it would supply with natural gas. When applying for a federal permit, they argued it was needed to meet rising electricity demand in North Carolina and coastal Virginia. But Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said utility filings in those states now show the outlook has changed dramatically - in part because of competition from cheap, renewable energy. "Dominion is not projecting any increase in natural-gas demand until 2032,” Kunkel said. “Duke is still planning to build some natural-gas plants, but most of that has shifted to the late 2020s." The energy companies say they need more pipeline capacity to move fracked gas out of the Marcellus and Utica fields of northern West Virginia, where the price for it is artificially depressed by a transportation bottleneck. The 600-mile pipeline across the three states has faced a number of setbacks, including lawsuits by landowners and conservationists. It was recently announced that the total cost of the project would rise to $7.5 billion, and its opening would be delayed until 2021. If the builders can get state utility regulators' approval, they can shift the full expense of the line onto ratepayers, along with a guaranteed profit. But Kunkel said investors in the utilities may be starting to worry about the financial risks. "The project has been delayed by these court challenges, it's also over-budget,” she said. “And if the state regulators say, 'You clearly don't need all of the gas capacity that you signed up for here; we're not going to let you charge it to your ratepayers,' then that would be a very significant blow." 

Florida Court Orders Oil Drilling In Everglades To Move Ahead - A court decision in Florida earlier this week illustrates the difficulties involved in drilling for oil and natural gas in environmentally sensitive areas. The inevitable tensions between environmental conservation and the exercise of property rights can become especially challenging to resolve when they take place in a state where existing oilfield regulations are inadequate and outdated. That is what is happening in Florida this week, where a three-judge panel of the state's First District Court of Appeal ruled on Tuesday that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) acted improperly in denying a permit to drill the first exploratory oil well in the Everglades in half a century. The DEP had initially denied the permit when it was filed in 2016 by mineral owner Kanter Real Estate LLC, citing threats to surface and groundwater.After an administrative law judge, E. Gary Early, issued a finding that the five-acre parcel of land on which Kanter wants to drill the well is in fact isolated from groundwater and the local public water supply, and published a "recommended order" for the project to move forward, DEP officials once again denied the permit. The Court of Appeal ruled, in a 14-page decision, that "DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein improperly rejected 'factual findings' by" Judge Early and that "state law requires agencies to accept administrative law judges’ findings of fact unless they are not supported by 'competent, substantial evidence.'" The Court of Appeals decision now sends the matter back to DEP, which is now ordered to issue the permit.  Barring further appeals, court injunctions in lawsuits filed by activist groups or executive action by new Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - who campaigned against hydraulic fracturing (aka, "Fracking") during the election season last Fall - the permit will probably be issued in the coming weeks.

Fla. House, Senate differ on 'fracking' bans - As Gov. Ron DeSantis supports a "fracking" ban in Florida, competing measures to prevent the controversial oil-drilling technique were approved Wednesday by House and Senate panels with far different levels of support. The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously backed a fracking-ban bill (SB 314) that is sponsored by committee Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and favored by conservationists. Meanwhile, the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee, in a 9-6 vote, approved its version (PCB ANRS 19-01). The House proposal has drawn scorn from environmental groups for not going far enough, though it is also opposed by the Florida Petroleum Council, which supports fracking. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, allowing natural gas and oil to be released. While supporters say fracking increases production and holds down energy costs, opponents argue it threatens water supplies and can cause environmental damage. Environmentalists object to the House bill because of a definition of fracking as injecting a "high rate" of fluids into the ground. Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said the definition excludes a technique called "matrix acidizing," which utilizes many of the same chemicals used in the fracking process. "Definitions matter, they require clarity because they have to pass the test of time," Moncrief told the House panel. "You all know probably 1,000 times better than I do that a law banning fracking will be picked apart. Special interests who disagree with the intent of banning fracking, they're going to look for every loophole they can find so that the law doesn't apply to them."

Two fracking ban bills passed today, but critics say one isn’t green enough. - Both House and Senate committees voted positive on bills banning fracking Wednesday afternoon, but only one left those in the environmental community content.The House bill, put forward by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, passed without an amendment environmentalists say was necessary in order for them to support it.The amendment, filed by Rep. Evan Jenne, included language that defines matrix acidization as part of the definition of fracking.Matrix acidizing is performed by pumping acidic fluids into a well at a pressure low enough to often not be considered “fracking” by definition. Operators use acid to dissolve minerals and bypass formation damage around the well.Rep. Holly Raschein, who filed the bill, said it wasn’t her intent to “slip daylight past a rooster.”“This is not the only time this bill is going to be heard,” the Key Largo Republican said. “Today we didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction. This is a very important issue, a complex issue and one that I do not take lightly.”Gov. Ron DeSantis made fracking bans a priority this year after he unveiled sweeping measures to protect Florida's vulnerable aquifer and clean up the state's water supply.  Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, explained that because Florida is largely a porous plateau of limestone, matrix acidizing could be the most likely fracking technique to be used in Florida.

First unit at Sasol's Lake Charles chemical plant starts output - Sasol on Wednesday began production at the first of seven units at its giant Lake Charles chemical plant in the US, boosting shares in the South African petrochemical group. The plant in Louisiana, which will cut the company’s reliance on fuel, has an expected output of 1.5 million tonnes of ethylene, a chemical used in industries such as packaging, detergents and adhesives.  Sasol, whose main business transforming coal to liquid fuel helped apartheid era South Africa side-step a 1980s oil embargo, expects the project to add $1.3 billion to its annual core earnings, or Ebitda, in the 2022 fiscal year. The company reported core earnings of R46 billion ($3.32 billion) in the 2018 financial year. The capital expenditure on the project could top $11.8 billion, Sasol said in profit guidance last week. 

Don't expect many US LNG exporters to build without firm supply deals, established players say - — Cheniere Energy, the biggest US exporter of LNG produced from shale gas, will continue to only advance new liquefaction projects that are backed by long-term offtake contracts, an executive said Tuesday at an S&P Global Platts conference in Houston. The strategy comes as the trend of some deep-pocketed developers building terminals without such deals in place first picks up steam and as competition for securing buyers increases. The positive final investment decision last week by ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum to build their Golden Pass export terminal in Texas without the announcement of a long-term offtake contract followed Shell-backed LNG Canada's similar decision in October for its British Columbia facility. The moves signaled the willingness of major energy companies with existing LNG volumes in their portfolios to accept a level of risk that was unheard of in the North American market until recently. Analysts have wondered whether that would catch on with more developers. "At Cheniere, we would not be comfortable basically taking spread risk," said Oliver Tuckerman, the company's vice president of commercial structuring and corporate development. "If you own the resource and you are very comfortable with your cost structure, I get it ... and to a certain extent you have that with the Qataris and Exxons. We just don't see that as a good business and that is not something we are going to entertain."   Brad Phillips, director of strategy and research at Freeport LNG, which is expected to start its export terminal in Texas later this year, said at the conference that the Golden Pass decision was a chance for Qatar to invest in the US, and he viewed the LNG Canada decision as a unique opportunity for its global partners. "I don't see the US model shifting to that," Phillips said. The officials and an energy consultant said they don't anticipate the demise of the long-term contract in the US LNG export market anytime soon. "They don't have to all be 20 years, but there has to be some amount of the capital returned with some level of certainty,"

Workers prepping for pipeline bore across Mississippi  – Workers with Michels Corp. Construction are prepping the area between Elsah and Chautauqua for the Spire STL Pipeline. The work includes clearing a wide swath of woods to the top of the bluff for placement of the underground pipeline. The St. Louis-based utility company is constructing a 65-mile natural gas pipeline through Scott, Green and Jersey counties. The cost is estimated between $210 million and $225 million. Workers have clear-cut a gash into the bluffs about one-half mile northwest of Mississippi Street in Elsah. The pipeline will go under the river at that point. Specifically, the Mississippi River will be crossed using horizontal directional drill techniques to lessen the environmental impact. Nicknamed the Spire STL Pipeline, construction began this month and, if everything goes according to schedule, will be completed as soon as July. Motorists and pedestrians should avoid getting too close to the construction. In preparing for this project, Barth said Spire conducted extensive surveys and research to locate and protect all eagle nests, including consulting with multiple agencies including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois and Missouri Departments of Natural Resources and the Missouri Department of Conservation. During the surveys, they didn’t find any eagle nests within the vicinity of the project and don’t anticipate that construction will affect eagle watching, she said. Spire Inc. will own and operate the pipeline. Spire is a public utility holding company based in St. Louis. According to Spire’s website, the new pipeline will “provide significant benefits to more than 647,000 homes and businesses in the entire St. Louis region.”

Keystone pipeline in major oil leak - Part of the Keystone pipeline were shut due to a leak of oil in Missouri, with some 6,814 liters released into the environment. Enbridge Inc.'s Platte pipeline was also closed temporarily as a precaution. The Keystone pipeline takes 590,000 barrels of crude oil per day from northern Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries. On February 6, 2019, TransCanada shut down the pipeline on between Steele City, Neb., and Patoka, Ill., and dispatched crews to assess the situation. Although the leak has been detected and repaired, the pipeline currently remains shut. During this time, almost 7,000 liters of oil (equivalent to 43 barrels) had trickled out in the surrounds of St. Charles County. At the same time, Enbridge's Platte crude pipeline was also shut, due to uncertainty as to where the leak was coming from. However, according to Missouri Department of Natural Resources no leaks were detected and the fault rested with the TransCanada operation. Commenting on the incident, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha told CBC: "Following overnight activity and excavation, preliminary investigation has led TransCanada to believe that the oil discovered in St. Charles County likely originates from the Keystone Pipeline system and we will continue to conduct our activities accordingly." In terms of the environmental impact, Cunha adds: "Specialists continue to affirm there is no threat to public safety or the environment." Brian Quinn, a spokesman for Missouri’s Natural Resources Department, informed The Financial Post that Keystone will remain closed until repairs are made and a full safety assessment can be made.  Meanwhile, TransCanada continues to accumulate oil supply contracts as part of its plans to expand oil distribution to the U.S. via the construction of its controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the fourth phase of the overall Keystone project. The new pipeline will add an additional 1,179-miles (1,897 kilometers) of pipes, with the capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of oil each day.

Missouri agency says work ongoing to find cause of oil leak(AP) — The Missouri Department of Natural Resources says crews are still working to clean up and identify the cause of an oil pipeline leak in suburban St. Louis. Agency spokesman Brian Quinn said contractors for the pipeline company, TransCanada Corp., were assessing an excavated segment of the Keystone pipeline Wednesday to pinpoint the problem. The leak was discovered last week near St. Charles. The department estimates the leak at about 43 barrels, or 1,800 gallons (6,800 liters). It says oil didn’t reach any waterway. Quinn says about 31 barrels of oil have been collected, and crews have removed more than 1,000 cubic yards of soil. The department is working to identify nearby wells for groundwater testing. A TransCanada spokesman says the pipeline remains closed from Steele City, Nebraska, to Patoka, Illinois.

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline still partly shut after St. Charles County oil leak - TransCanada said on Monday a stretch of its Keystone crude pipeline from Nebraska to Illinois remained shut after a leak was discovered in St. Charles County last week.The oil leak — estimated to be at least 43 barrels or about 1,800 gallons — occurred north of St. Charles near Highway C, about 1,700 feet south of the Mississippi River.The cause and source of the spill have not been determined and there is no estimated timeline for a restart, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said in an email. The closure affects the line that runs from Steele City, Neb., to Patoka, Ill.The 590,000 barrels-per-day Keystone pipeline system is a critical artery taking Canadian crude from northern Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest.TransCanada told Keystone shippers last week it was declaring force majeure on shipments affected by the shutdown, according to a notice seen by Reuters. Force majeure is a declaration that unforeseeable circumstances prevented a party from fulfilling a contract.Canadian pipelines have been running at capacity as a production surge in Alberta overwhelmed existing pipeline infrastructure, forcing the Alberta provincial government to order production cuts starting last month.Western Canadian heavy crude has attracted greater demand in recent days following U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company.

ExxonMobil marks multibillion-dollar start up with celebration - The startup of an ethane cracker at the Baytown Olefins Plant along with two new polyethylene lines at the Mont Belvieu Plastics Plant, all part of ExxonMobil’s multibillion-dollar North American Growth Project, was cause for celebration as community dignitaries welcomed plant managers and leaders to town for some festivities. Jason Duncan, who took over as Baytown Olefins’ plant manager Oct. 1, leads at a time when the plant just started up a 1.5 million ton-per-year ethane cracker at the complex in July. The new cracker, part of ExxonMobil’s $20 billion Growing the Gulf initiative, provides ethylene feedstock to new performance polyethylene lines at the company’s Mont Belvieu plastics plant, which began production in fall 2017. The ethane cracker at the Baytown complex and the Mont Belvieu plant represent the largest ExxonMobil chemical investment to date.   The expansions also created more than 10,000 construction jobs along with 4,000 in nearby communities and 350 permanent jobs. Duncan said the North American Growth project also invests in the community and the future of both Baytown and Mont Belvieu.   Duncan also thanked Lee College for providing the workers through the Community College Petrochemical Initiative, which involves nine colleges with Lee College as the lead. The program trains welders, pipe fitters, instrument technicians, machinists and process technicians.

Open season expanded on Gray Oak Pipeline to add USGC Kinder Morgan delivery points — Open season is underway to add Kinder Morgan delivery points at or near the Houston Ship Channel to the 900,000 b/d Gray Oak pipeline currently under construction, Phillips 66 Partners said Monday, giving Permian crude shippers greater access to refineries and export facilities. Phillips 66 Partners and Kinder Morgan said in a joint statement that the connection between the Permian Basin and Kinder Morgan's crude and condensate delivery points near the Houston Ship Channel "would be achieved through a connection in South Texas." Additional delivery points will give Gray Oak crude options to avoid expected congestion at other USGC locations, such as Corpus Christi, which is expected to worsen as Permian-to-USGC pipelines come online. Construction is underway on the Gray Oak Pipeline, which will provide 900,000 b/d of crude oil transportation from the Permian to USGC locations, including Buckeye's Southern Gateway project in Corpus Christi. "We have received 360 miles of pipe and started construction on all of the 17 tanks," Phillips 66 Partners CFO Rosy Zuklic said Friday on the fourth-quarter results call. "We remain on track for pipeline completion for the fourth quarter this year." Kinder Morgan's Double Eagle and Crude and Condensate (KMCC) systems already feed into Phillips 66's 256,000 b/d Sweeny, Texas, refinery. The 100,000 b/d Double Eagle pipeline is a joint venture between Kinder Morgan and Magellan, and carries Eagle Ford shale to Corpus Christi. The 300,000 b/d KMCC pipeline delivers Eagle Ford crude and condensate to multiple locations along the USGC, including Phillips 66's Sweeny refinery. Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Jean Ann Salisbury estimates the 3 million b/d of new Permian-to-USGC pipeline capacity coming online in the next 18 months - including Gray Oak - will put a strain on USGC export facilities already stretched by today's 2 million b/d of crude exports.  Gray Oaks will also deliver crude into Buckeye's new crude export facility under construction in Corpus Christi -- the South Texas Gateway Terminal. Phillips 66 Partners has a 25% stake in the terminal, which will have two deepwater docks, planned storage capacity of 6.5 million to 7 million barrels, and is expected to start up in mid-2020.

Waha price collapse signals worsening gas supply glut in the Permian. - The U.S. natural gas market last week was again reminded of the hair-trigger conditions that Permian producers and marketers are operating under — with gas production pushing against available takeaway capacity, all it takes is an otherwise minor/routine maintenance event on even one West Texas takeaway pipeline to send regional gas prices spiraling into negative territory. Waha Hub gas prices last week collapsed to their lowest level ever, with intraday trades even going negative — meaning some had to pay the market to take their gas. This wasn’t the first time that’s happened in the Permian — a similar event occurred in late November 2018 — but it was the worst to date and signals a heightened supply glut in the region, at least until the first new takeaway pipeline comes online in the fourth quarter of this year. Today, we explain the recent price weakness in West Texas and implications for Permian basis in 2019. Gas market participants have long been bracing for mayhem in the West Texas physical market. We’ve written extensively in the RBN blogosphere over the past couple of years about the onslaught of gas supply from the basin, the rapidly worsening takeaway capacity constraints and the resulting deterioration of Permian gas prices. (These are trends we update on a weekly basis in our NATGAS Permian report, along with our outlook.) A little over a year ago, in Help On the Way, and again later last year in Blame It On Texas and Hell in Texas, we laid out the timing and extent of pipeline constraints that the region was facing, along with the slew of pipeline projects announced to provide a relief valve for gas leaving the region. And, finally, our Trouble Every Day series outlined potential ways that Permian producers could ride out the constraints until that capacity relief arrives.

Report- Texas crude oil production breaks 1970s record - Crude oil production in Texas has beaten a previous record set in the 1970s, a new report from the Texas Independent Producers Royalty Owners Association stated.Texas oil wells produced more than 1.54 billion barrels of crude in 2018, beating the previous record of 1.28 billion barrels set in 1973, TIPRO reported in its annual "State of Energy Report" early Monday morning.  Natural gas production also grew, reaching 8.8 trillion cubic feet in 2018, the report stated. Crude oil production reached 1.26 billion barrels in 2017 – just shy of breaking the 1973 record, Railroad Commission of Texas figures show. Oil companies reached their record production figures in 2018 despite a 40 percent commodity price drop during the fourth quarter. In addition to record production numbers, the oil and natural gas industry also grew in employment numbers. The industry finished 2018 employing 880,681 people, a 5 percent increase over 2017 employment figure, TIPRO reported. Texas accounted for more than 352,000 of those jobs, or about 40 percent, TIRPO reported.

Drilling Down- Chevron to ramp up Permian Basin drilling projects -  Oil giant Chevron is preparing for a large round of drilling in the Permian Basin of West Texas. The California oil company filed 12 drilling permit applications with the Railroad Commission for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing projects on its DR State Wise Unit lease in Culberson County. Located off FM 652 between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the town of Orla, all 12 drilling projects target the Ford West field of the Wolfcamp geological formation down to a depth of 9,000 feet. Chevron closed 2018 with a nearly $14.9 billion profit on $166.3 billion of revenue. The company attributes part of those profits to a production increase in the Permian Basin where it holds more than 2.2 million acres of leases.  Chevron filed for 124 drilling permits in Texas last year. The company’s nearly 2,300 Texas leases produced nearly 28.9 million barrels of crude oil, more than 116.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 5.4 million barrels of condensate during the first 11 months of 2018.

 US rig count falls 15 on week to 12-month low- S&P Global Platts Analytics - The US oil and natural gas rig count declined by 15 this week to 1,099, marking its lowest level since February 2018, data released Thursday by S&P Global Platts Analytics shows. Oil-directed rigs were down by 21 on the week to 854 as they continued to decline from a multiyear high at 933 in December. Gas-directed rigs edged up by six this week to 223, but remained sharply lower compared to a mid-November high at 281. The number of drilling rigs with no specified orientation was unchanged on the week at 17. The continued slowdown in US drilling activity comes as West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices continue to hover in the low-$50/b area. On Thursday, the prompt-month contract was assessed at $54.41/b, down from an October high at more than $76/b, S&P Global Platts data shows.  Despite recent increases in both spot and forward oil prices, many producers have announced plans during recent fourth-quarter 2018 earnings calls to reduce rig activity this year. The Permian Basin continued to lead the recent decline in drilling activity, with rig count in the play falling by 20 to 452 for the week ending February 13. After reaching a multiyear high at 499 rigs in mid-November, drilling activity in the basin has slowed sharply since early January. In Oklahoma's SCOOP/STACK basin, rig count retreated by three this week to 97 -- its lowest since late-2017. In North Dakota's Bakken Shale, the rig count was also lower this week, down by two to 57, marking an 11-month low. In the Denver-Julesburg, rigs were flat on the week at 30. In the Eagle Ford, rig count edged up by three this week to 94. In both the Colorado and South Texas plays, drilling activity has slowed from recent highs in early January and early December, respectively. In contrast to the crude-heavy basins, drilling in the largest US dry gas plays has continued to accelerate this year in a trend that appears to be moving independently from gas prices. After hitting a more-than-four-year high at $4.70/MMBtu in November, the prompt-month NYMEX Henry Hub contract has declined sharply in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the contract settled at $2.573, just above a 12-month low settlement price in early February. In the Marcellus Shale, rig count edged up by two this week to 65. In the nearby Utica, drilling rigs were down one on the week to 16. At 81 rigs, the combined count across the two Appalachian basins this week is now at its highest in recent history. In the Haynesville, rig count was flat on the week at 66 and remains down just two from a recent multiyear high at 68 rigs in late January.

Baker Hughes- US rig count gains 2 units to 1,051 - Oil & Gas Journal - The US drilling rig count is up 2 units to 1,051 rigs working for the week ended Feb. 15, according to Baker Hughes data. The count is also up 76 units from the 975 rigs working this time a year ago. With a 1-unit loss week-over-week, 1,028 rigs are drilling on land. The number of rigs drilling offshore gained 2 units to reach 21 rigs. Those units drilling in inland waters gained a single rig to reach 2 units for the week. US oil-directed rigs are up 3 from last week to 857 units working, and up 59 units from the 798 rigs drilling for oil this week a year ago. Gas-directed rigs are down 1 unit at 194 yet up 17 from the 177 units drilling for gas a year ago. Among the major oil and gas-producing states, only five saw a week-over-week increase. Louisiana, at 66 units working, was up 4 rigs for the week. Wyoming gained 3 rigs to reach 37. West Virginia, Alaska, and California with respective counts of 18, 12, and 11 were each up 1 unit this week. Colorado and three other states remained unchanged this week. These were Colorado, 35; Ohio, 18; Utah, 8; and Kansas, 0. Oklahoma, at 119, and North Dakota, at 57, were down 1 unit each this week. Texas and New Mexico, at respective counts of 509 and 109, were both down 2 units. Pennsylvania, down 3 units this week, reached 44 rigs working. Canada’s rig count is down 16 units for the week. At 224 rigs, the count is 94 fewer than the 318 units drilling this week a year ago. Ten of the dropped rigs are gas-directed, bringing the count to 72 for the week. Oil-directed rigs in Canada are down 6 rigs to 152. [Native Advertisement]

EIA adds new play production data to shale gas and tight oil reports -- In December 2018, U.S. shale and tight plays produced about 65 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of natural gas (70% of total U.S. dry gas production) and about 7 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil (60% of total U.S. oil production). A decade ago, in December 2008, shale gas and tight oil accounted for 16% of total U.S. gas production and about 12% of U.S. total crude oil production.   EIA recently updated its methodology and production volume estimates for U.S. shale gas and tight oil plays to include seven additional plays, increasing the share of shale gas by about 9% and tight oil by 8% compared with previously estimated shale production volumes. The update captures increasing production from new, emerging plays as well as from older plays that had been in decline but are rebounding because of advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The selected plays are identified by examining the reservoir names reported by operators to state agencies. EIA uses the third party data source, Drillinginfo, which collects and distributes well level data gathered by the states. The most productive of the newly added plays is the Mississippian formation, which is located mainly in Oklahoma within the Anadarko Basin. The mainly carbonate rock type lies above the Woodford play and has produced liquids and natural gas for some time, but newer completion techniques have driven recent production gains.  The remaining six plays are smaller and are included in the rest of U.S. tight oil and shale gas categories.

  • The Burket and Geneseo formations in the Appalachian Basin of Pennsylvania and West Virginia increased production in recent years. These dry shale gas formations lie above the Marcellus Shale but are thinner and do not cover as large an area as the Marcellus.
  • The Uteland Butte member of the Green River Formation in the Uinta Basin of Utah is composed primarily of limestone, dolostone, and organic rich mudstones and siltstones.
  • The Turner, Frontier, Sussex-Shannon, and Teapot-Parkman formations are located in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and lie below and above the Niobrara formation, the basin’s primary hydrocarbon-bearing formation. They are mainly fine-grained sandstone with interbedded silt and shale.

Walz says state will continue court appeal of Enbridge pipeline approved by PUC  - Gov. Tim Walz will continue pursuing a court appeal started by his predecessor that could block Enbridge from building a controversial $2.6 billion oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. Under former Gov. Mark Dayton, the Commerce Department appealed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC’s) decision to allow Enbridge to build the pipeline, a replacement for its aging and corroding Line 3. Last month, the Walz administration said it would review the appeal.“By continuing that process, our administration will raise the Department of Commerce’s concerns to the court in hopes of gaining further clarity for all involved,” Walz said in a statement. “As I often say, projects like these don’t only need a building permit to go forward, they also need a social permit. Our administration has met with groups on all sides of this issue, and Minnesotans deserve clarity.”The Commerce Department, an arm of the governor’s administration, represents the public interest before the PUC, which is an independent agency whose members are appointed by the governor to staggered six-year terms. In a statement, Enbridge called Walz’s decision “unfortunate,” saying the PUC’s approval came after a “thorough” review that took four years.

Minnesota governor sides with environmentalists on pipeline (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that his administration will keep pursuing an appeal of an independent regulatory commission’s approval of Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota, siding with environmental and tribal groups in his biggest decision since becoming governor last month. The state Public Utilities Commission approved the project last summer. Then-Gov. Mark Dayton’s Department of Commerce appealed that decision in December, as did several groups opposed to the project. The Minnesota Court of Appeals last week dismissed those appeals as premature and sent the dispute back to the commission for further proceedings. That move forced the Walz administration to take a stand by Tuesday after weeks of studying whether to continue to appeal or let the matter drop. The Commerce Department argued under Dayton that Enbridge failed to provide legally adequate long-range demand forecasts to establish the need for the project, but the commission concluded the Calgary, Alberta-based company met its requirements. Other groups fighting the project say it threatens oil spills in pristine waters in the Mississippi River headwaters region where Native Americans harvest wild rice and claim treaty rights, and that it would aggravate climate change. “When it comes to any project that impacts our environment and our economy, we must follow the process, the law, and the science,” Walz said in a statement. “The Dayton administration’s appeal of the PUC’s decision is now a part of this process. By continuing that process, our administration will raise the Department of Commerce’s concerns to the court in hopes of gaining further clarity for all involved.” While Line 3 opponents applauded Walz for heeding the department’s concerns, Republican legislative leaders said the Democratic governor made a big mistake. Enbridge said it expects to ultimately prevail. Enbridge wants to replace Line 3, which was built in the 1960s, because it’s increasingly subject to cracking and corrosion, so it can run at only about half its original capacity. It says the replacement will ensure reliable deliveries of Canadian crude to Midwest refineries. It’s already in the process of replacing the Canadian segments and is running the short segment in Wisconsin that ends at its terminal in Superior. 

Minnesota tribe asks: Can wild rice have its own legal rights? - Star Tribune -- Minnesota’s natural wild rice holds deep cultural, spiritual and economic importance for the state’s American Indian tribes.Now, in one part of the state at least, the native grass holds even more: its own legal rights.Girding for a fight against a proposed oil pipeline, the state’s largest Indian tribe, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has passed a tribal law granting wild rice its own enforceable legal rights, much like those enjoyed by American citizens. They include the rights to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” A similar law has been adopted by the 1855 Treaty Authority, a tribal group representing beneficiaries of an 1855 land pact the Chippewa tribes made with the U.S. government.The laws make it illegal for any business or other entity to violate the plant’s rights.It appears to be the first time in the United States that a plant species has been granted legal personhood, although last year the Ponca Tribe in Oklahoma passed what’s believed to be the first law to codify the rights of nature as a whole.It also puts White Earth on the leading edge of an environmental movement known as “rights of nature,” championed by a Pennsylvania nonprofit called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Attorneys with the tribe and the nonprofit say American law treats nature as property, and that environmental protection laws have failed as a result.Whether the novel legal concept holds up in court remains to be seen.

Probe of natural-gas spill continues - Williams is continuing its investigation into what caused a Jan. 18 rupture of a natural gas pipeline and resulting spill of liquid gas condensates into Parachute Creek, but says the incident didn't contaminate groundwater. Shawn Whitmore, operations manager for the oil and gas pipeline and processing company's Piceance Basin assets, told the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board late last week that the company is completing excavation of the rupture site about six miles north of Parachute and has had an investigative team on site to determine how the pipeline broke. He said Williams won't put the line back in service until it can be "absolutely confident" of the line's integrity. The 16-inch diameter line ruptured in the middle of the night and was reported by a Caerus Oil and Gas employee. Within a half hour, Williams had acted to shut down the line. By then the line had leaked an estimated 13 barrels (546 gallons) of hydrocarbons and another 13 barrels of water produced in gas development. Whitmore estimated that Williams has recovered about 12 barrels of the hydrocarbons and 12 barrels of produced water. He said snowmelt runoff as the temperatures rose that day carried condensates into the creek, and the first day testing showed benzene levels of 9.4, 9 and 8.5 parts per billion in the creek, with the levels being lower at each test site downstream. Subsequent testing for benzene and other condensate constituents have shown nothing above Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission limits, which include 5 ppb for benzene, he said. The gathering line transports gas from wells to Williams' gas processing plant in the Parachute Creek area. The line went into service in the 1990s, Whitmore said. Some wells were shut in due to the line being out of service.

Three brine spills in Bakken over weekend - Three brine spills were recorded over the weekend in the Bakken. The largest was 440 barrels of brine spilled about 10 miles southwest of New Town at a site owned by Marathon Oil Company. The spill happened Friday, February 8th and authorities say it was do to a valve connection leak. Another spilled 255 barrels of brine six miles northwest of Manning on Saturday February 9th at a site owned by Lime Rock Resources III-A, L.P. When the spill was reported, 135 barrels of brine were cleaned up and they are working on taking care of the remaining barrels. That was due to equipment failure and they are still working on cleaning it up. Six and a half miles from Williston 245 barrels of brine spilled at a site owned by Oasis Petroleum North America LLC. The spill happened Friday, February 8th and it was also due to valve connection leak. 243 barrels have been cleaned up.

Extreme cold leads to saltwater spills at North Dakota wells — Cold temperatures contributed to three recent saltwater spills at oil and gas wells in the North Dakota oil patch. The state Oil and Gas Division says the spills happened Friday near New Town and Williston and Saturday near Manning. They totaled 940 barrels, or nearly 39,500 gallons. All three leaks were contained on-site, and most of the spilled saltwater has already been recovered. Saltwater, or brine, is a byproduct of energy production. The spills were reported by Marathon Oil, Oasis Petroleum and Lime Rock Resources, who cited equipment malfunctions. Oil and Gas Division spokeswoman Katie Haarsager tells The Bismarck Tribune that initial reports indicate freezing temperatures were a factor in all three incidents. The National Weather Service says Williston hit a record 43 degrees below zero on Friday.

Tank overflow causes brine spill in Bottineau County - A tank overflowed and caused 1,100 barrels, or 46,200 gallons, of brine to spill at an oil site in Bottineau County, according to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division.The company 31 Operating reported the spill occurred Sunday at a central tank battery about 8 miles east of Mohall. The company reported the brine was contained within a dike and cleanup is underway.  Katie Haarsager, spokeswoman for the Oil and Gas Division, said the incident was caused by a tank that overflowed. Cold temperatures contributed to the incident and prevented an alarm from going off, Haarsager said. A state inspector has been to the site and will monitor additional cleanup, regulators said.

Spill contaminates Bowman County creek - A pipeline spill from an enhanced oil recovery system in Bowman County has contaminated Kid Creek, a North Dakota Department of Health official said Thursday. Denbury Onshore reported about 75 barrels, or 3,150 gallons, of source water spilled on Feb. 7 about 10 miles south of Marmarth. Source water is groundwater used for enhanced oil recovery that contains a higher level of dissolved solids and minerals than fresh water, but is lower in chlorides than produced water, the health department said. Kid Creek flows into the Little Missouri River. The spill occurred near a well site about a quarter mile from a stock dam and 1¼ miles away from the river, said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the health department. The spill was reported on Feb. 8 and a health department inspector was there the same day, Suess said. But because of freezing conditions, it took longer to confirm the contamination had reached the creek, he said. The department will continue to monitor the investigation and cleanup. The health department has investigated previous spills involving the same company, including a spill two years ago that involved 2,000 barrels, or 84,000 gallons, of source water that flowed into Skull Creek in Bowman County.

Protest highway shutdown lawsuit claims include extortion — Standing Rock Sioux tribal members and others who are suing over a five-month shutdown of a North Dakota highway during protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline have broadened their claims to include allegations of extortion and media manipulation by state and county officials.Plaintiffs allege the closure of a stretch of state Highway 1806 was aimed not only at protesters who had gathered in the thousands in camps near the two-lane road but also at influencing the tribe’s position on the camps and reporters’ coverage of the prolonged clash. It played out over six months in 2016 and 2017 and resulted in 761 arrests.The new filing by plaintiff’s attorney Noah Smith-Drelich references several alleged documents in support of the argument, including a government strategic plan he says detailed concessions authorities wanted from the tribe, such as a public decree to vacate the camps.“Defendants’ true purpose for discriminatorily closing the road in question ... (was) to extort political concessions from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe,” Smith-Drelich wrote in an amended complaint filed earlier this month. The lawsuit also alleges the highway closure made it “substantially more difficult for local press in particular to independently obtain firsthand evidence of what was happening in or around the camps,” making reporters more reliant on government accounts of protesters as being “violent and criminal, and of the (protest) movement as defined by mayhem.”

North Dakota prepares to file lawsuit for $38 million in pipeline protest costs — North Dakota is preparing to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking $38 million in costs associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The federal government did not respond within six months to a claim North Dakota filed in July seeking compensation for law enforcement and other costs to respond to several months of protests. North Dakota alleges that the state incurred $38 million in expenses resulting from the corps’ failure to enforce the law when the agency allowed people to camp without permits on federal land. The state filed the claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the corps did not respond by the deadline of Jan. 23, Stenehjem said. “The statute says if they don’t respond, that is the same as a denial,” Stenehjem said. The next step is for North Dakota to file a lawsuit in federal court to recover damages. “We have a six-month window in which we can file a lawsuit for that money, which is what we’re working on,” Stenehjem said. Public affairs officials with the corps did not return an email seeking comment on Monday, Feb. 11. In July, a corps spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on litigation. An estimated 1,400 law enforcement officers and 300 other personnel from 11 states and 23 state agencies responded to the protests, according to the state’s claim. The state alleges the protests that began in August 2016 and continued through February 2017 were aggravated by the “negligent and unlawful conduct by the corps.” In August 2017, the Department of Justice awarded $10 million to help reimburse North Dakota for protest costs. 

North Dakota to sue feds over pipeline protest police costs  (AP) — North Dakota will sue the federal government to try to recoup the $38 million it spent policing the prolonged protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline — a tactic one expert believes has little chance of success.The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t respond to an administrative claim filed last July, so a lawsuit is the next step, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Tuesday. He didn’t have an estimate on the cost, which will be funded either through his department’s existing budget or through a state fund set up for such litigation.Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined comment.Thousands of opponents of the $3.8 billion pipeline that’s been moving North Dakota oil to Illinois since June 2017 gathered in southern North Dakota in 2016 and early 2017, camping on federal land and often clashing with police, resulting in 761 arrests over six months.   North Dakota contends the Corps allowed protesters to illegally camp without a federal permit. The Corps has said protesters weren’t evicted due to free speech reasons.   University of St. Thomas law professor Gregory Sisk, an expert on civil litigation with the federal government, considers North Dakota’s case “a long shot.” He said lawsuits that essentially allege the government failed at its job typically don’t succeed, and he gives North Dakota “a 1 in 10 chance.” Stenehjem said he thinks the state has “a solid claim.” He said he heard similar skepticism when the state sued Minnesota several years ago over a law that impacted North Dakota electricity exports, and “we won.”

North Dakota Seeks to Restrict Access to Public Records After Standing Rock Reporting Exposed Law Enforcement Abuses - North Dakota lawmakers are considering a bill to restrict the release of records related to security operations involving “critical infrastructure” — a category that includes fossil fuel pipelines. The bill comes after The Intercept and other media outlets published stories documenting law enforcement surveillance and coordination with private security during the Dakota Access pipeline protests, many of which were based on records released under the North Dakota Open Records Act.The bill, known as Senate Bill 2209, would amend the North Dakota Century Code to bar the disclosure of public records involving “security planning, mitigation, or threats” pertaining to critical infrastructure facilities. It specifically forbids the release of any critical infrastructure “security systems plan,” which it defines as “records,” “information,” “photographs,” “videos,” and “communications” pertaining to the “security of any public facility” or any “privately owned or leased critical infrastructure.” Among several examples of critical infrastructure systems included in the bill are “utility services, fuel supply, energy, hazardous liquid, natural gas, or coal.” According to Jesse Franzblau, a transparency law expert and policy analyst at Open the Government, while some of the language in the bill is similar to exemptions in federal laws that restrict public access to critical infrastructure information, “several parts of the bill obviously seem very tailored toward pipeline-related construction and also, given the timing, toward keeping information on security operations against pipeline protesters a secret.”

How A General-Turned-Oil Lobbyist Helped Push Through The Dakota Access Pipeline - A retired high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a significant role lobbying his former agency to push through the permitting process for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, new documents show. The trove of emails, released last month as part of ongoing litigation by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Corps, sheds light on how retired Brig. Gen. Robert Crear worked to leverage his government connections on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners, a major partner in the pipeline.   Jan Hasselman, a lawyer with Earthjustice who has been representing the tribe, read the emails with dismay. “It is totally unacceptable that a former high-ranking government official should be allowed to lobby his former agency on behalf of private interests,” he told HuffPost. “And it is so common that no one even looks twice.” Crear had a decadelong career in the Corps, where he served as chief of staff and commanding general, as well as head of the massive Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil infrastructure project in the early 2000s. When he retired in 2008, he opened a private consultancy and joined AUX Initiatives, a lobbying firm that represents a host of oil companies.  The newly uncovered emails suggest that in late 2014, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners brought in Crear after it decided that the environmental review and permitting process was not moving fast enough through the Corps. Crear wasted no time. Emails and meeting notes document numerous written communications, phone calls and meetings he arranged between ETP representatives and Corps officials in three districts and the agency’s Washington headquarters. They suggest that the former brigadier general exploited his professional capital and acquaintance with Corps personnel to push the project through the regulatory process.

Admitted pipeline vandalizer fights racketeering lawsuit — A Phoenix woman who has publicly admitted to vandalism along the route of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in two states is asking a judge to dismiss her as a defendant in a $1 billion federal racketeering lawsuit filed by the pipeline developer. Ruby Montoya was one of millions of people around the world who shared a “common purpose” of stopping the $3.8 billion pipeline built to move North Dakota oil to Illinois, and Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners has failed to show any link between her and a criminal enterprise, said defense attorney Lauren Regan with the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “Advocating for the protection of the climate through a reduction in fossil fuel infrastructure is on its face constitutionally protected, and not a basis for a RICO claim,” Regan wrote in a recent court filing. ETP sued Earth First, BankTrack and Greenpeace in August 2017, alleging they worked to undermine the pipeline project and the company. A judge later dismissed both Earth First and BankTrack as defendants and criticized the lawsuit for being vague. The company added five individuals as defendants in August 2018 , including Montoya and Jessica Reznicek. The two women in July 2017 released a public statement admitted to damaging valves and setting fire to construction equipment along the pipeline route in Iowa and South Dakota.Regan notes that neither woman has been criminally charged. She also refutes ETP allegations that Montoya was a spokeswoman for the anti-pipeline group Mississippi Stand and was trained in “eco-terrorist techniques” through Earth First.U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson ruled last year that ETP had failed to make a case that Earth First is an entity that can be sued. The Center for Constitutional Rights had argued that Earth First is a philosophy or movement similar to Black Lives Matter, and thus can’t be sued.“Plaintiffs cannot seem to grasp the fact that (Earth First) is not an organization and does not have ‘members,’” Regan wrote, maintaining that Mississippi Stand is similarly an entity with no structure or leadership.

Racketeering lawsuit by Dakota Access developer dismissed (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a $1 billion racketeering lawsuit that the developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline filed against environmental groups and activists, saying he found no evidence of a coordinated criminal enterprise. Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners sued Greenpeace, BankTrack and Earth First in August 2017, alleging the groups worked to undermine the $3.8 billion pipeline that’s now shipping oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The company’s accusations included interfering with its business, facilitating crimes and acts of terrorism, inciting violence, targeting financial institutions that backed the project, and violating defamation and racketeering laws. The groups maintained the lawsuit was an attack on free speech. U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson last year dismissed Earth First and BankTrack as defendants, saying ETP had failed to make a case that Earth First is a structured entity that can be sued and that BankTrack’s actions in imploring banks not to fund the pipeline did not amount to radical ecoterrorism. Wilson on Thursday granted motions to dismiss from Greenpeace and individually-named defendants that the company added to the lawsuit last August. The judge said ETP’s claim failed to establish several necessary elements required by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, including that the defendants worked together on a criminal enterprise. “Donating to people whose cause you support does not create a RICO enterprise,” and “posting articles written by people with similar beliefs does not create a RICO enterprise,” Wilson wrote. Later in his ruling he added that “acting in a manner similar to others, without any sort of agreement or understanding, does not make you part of a RICO enterprise.”

As lawsuits over climate change heat up, oil industry steps up spurious attacks on its critics  - The oil industry has been depicting itself lately as the target of a conspiracy by scientists, local government officials and climate change activists to make it look bad.It would be odd to think that a conspiracy is necessary to punch holes in the fossil fuel companies’ public reputation, but here’s the argument presented by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), one of the industry’s leading lobby organizations.“In a highly-coordinated move,” the IPAA declares on its website, “nearly 30 scientists, government officials and third-party organizations recently joined the fledgling climate litigation campaign.” The IPAA labeled this a “free-for-all” and quoted an industry newsletter calling the campaign “a carefully orchestrated effort by local governments in California and elsewhere to use state law to collect damages from companies producing and marketing fossil fuels.”If you think this sounds like a Goliath pretending to be a David, you are right. The litigation campaign IPAA refers to is a cluster of lawsuits pioneered in 2017 by the California counties of San Mateo, Imperial Beach, Marin, and Santa Cruz, and the cities of Richmond, Oakland, and San Francisco, among other jurisdictions, against more than 20 oil and gas companies.The plaintiffs assert that the companies freely promoted the use of their products even though they were aware of the products’ effect on global warming — information the industry allegedly suppressed for years. The municipalities are asking that the companies be forced to help pay for the damage wreaked by climate change, including drought, wildfires, sea level rise, and extremes of heat and precipitation. Since the filing of the California cases, similar lawsuits have been filed by Rhode Island, Washington’s King County (that is, Seattle), Baltimore, and New York City. The oil companies succeeded in transferring the state lawsuits to federal court, where they expect to face less liability under the law. The plaintiffs’ argument that the cases belong back in state court is being heard by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

 Safety officials concerned by sharp increase in oil train traffic from Canada - Oil imports by rail from Canada have hit a historic high, meaning more oil trains are rolling across Minnesota and raising the alert level of local emergency managers. Rail shipments from Canada to the United States more than doubled during 2018 as Canadian oil production outstripped the capability of pipelines to ship the stuff, including the six Enbridge-owned lines crossing northern Minnesota.  “It is a case of supply overtaking pipeline capacity, so oil moves to the next available form of transportation — trains,” said Kevin Birn, an oil industry analyst with IHS Markit in Calgary.  Oil train traffic through Minnesota from North Dakota was also up noticeably in 2018, though nowhere near peak levels of 2014. The North Dakota rail uptick is largely rooted in oil price shifts. Minnesota isn’t much of a destination for oil by rail, but it’s a significant transshipment point. Canada’s two big railroads, the Canadian National (CN) and the Canadian Pacific (CP), have major routes in the state, the former running through the Twin Ports, the latter through the Twin Cities. The BNSF Railway also moves some Canadian crude in Minnesota. BNSF said it’s seen a “moderate” increase in Canadian oil shipments. Canadian Pacific declined to release any oil train details. Canadian National said its total oil shipments jumped 77 percent from 2018’s third quarter to the fourth quarter, though it didn’t disclose more specific data. Over the last four months of 2018, 299 oil trains on the Canadian National’s tracks crossed from Ontario at Ranier, Minn., up from 121 during the same time a year ago, said Willi Kostiuk, emergency management coordinator for Koochiching County.    Oil trains typically have 100 tank cars, each carrying around 30,000 gallons. High-profile accidents thrust oil trains into the spotlight a few years ago, the biggest being a fiery 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people. A year later, a BNSF oil train crashed and burned near Casselton, N.D., about 20 miles west of Fargo. Over 1,400 people were evacuated, but there were no injuries.

U.S. issues new rules requiring rail oil spill response plans (Reuters) - The U.S. Transportation Department on Thursday issued final rules requiring railroads to develop oil spill response plans and to disclose details of shipments to states and tribal governments after a series of high-profile incidents. The department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the rules, first proposed in July 2016, would “improve oil spill response readiness and mitigate effects of rail accidents and incidents involving petroleum oil and high-hazard flammable trains.” The new regulation “is necessary due to expansion in U.S. energy production having led to significant challenges for the country’s transportation system,” the agency added. The new rules apply to High Hazard Flammable Trains transporting petroleum oil in a block of 20 or more loaded tank cars and trains that have a total of 35 loaded petroleum oil tank cars. They require railroads to establish geographic response zones and ensure that personnel and equipment are staged and prepared to respond in the event of an accident. The new rules take affect in August and come after regulators reviewed more than a dozen oil car derailments from 2013 through 2016. The rules partially address recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after a 2013 crude-by-rail derailment killed 47 people in the town of Lac Megantic in Quebec and released 1.6 million gallons of crude oil. 

The World Oil Market and U.S. Policy: Background and Select Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, updated February 4, 2019

Lawmakers introduce bill to ban drilling in Alaska wildlife refuge - A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation Monday that would ban oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).The bill from Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) would repeal a section of the 2017 GOP tax-cut law that, for the first time, opened part of the refuge for drilling. “Not only is the refuge one of the last great expanses of untouched wilderness in America, it is home to tremendous ecological diversity. It’s one of the last bastions of true wildness left on the planet,” Huffman said at a Monday news conference, flanked by Lowenthal and representatives of environmental groups and the Gwich’in people, an Alaska Native group.  “This is a deeply unpopular thing in the United States. People don’t want it. They haven’t asked for it,” he said. “And they will not accept that the wildest place in our country is on track to be sacrificed at the altar of Big Oil.”“We can’t give the oil and gas industry the green light to permanently destroy one of our nation’s last truly wild places,” said Lowenthal. Huffman chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife. Lowenthal chairs the Energy and Mineral Resources subpanel.

Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Ban Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced a bill on Monday would block oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) aim to repeal a little-known Arctic drilling provision that was quietly snuck into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The new bill—called the "Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act"—states that "oil and gas activities are not compatible with the protection of this national treasure." Inclusion of the drilling measure in the 2017 tax bill helped Republicans secure the vote of Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has long sought to open part of ANWR for oil and gas development. Even though the majority of voters across the political spectrum oppose ANWR exploitation and the area was kept off-limits thanks to Obama-era policies, the tax law, which passed with only GOP support, allowed drilling for the first time the refuge's coastal plain. The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, also known as the 1002 Area, is believed to hold a vast and untapped trove of oil. Debate over opening the area for fossil fuel exploration has been at the center of political debate for decades. Environmentalists worry that drilling would harm native wildlife. An analysis from the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners describes the coastal plain as the "biological heart" of the Arctic refuge that hosts one-third of all polar bear denning habitat in the U.S. and one-third of the migratory birds that come to the Arctic Refuge.

US crude oil production expected to hit records this year and next - U.S. oil production is anticipated to break records in the next two years — and prices are primed to increase slightly, according to an energy study released Tuesday.The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said Tuesday that crude oil production is expected to rise to an average of 12.4 million barrels a day in 2019 and 13.2 million barrels per day in 2020. That’s up from January’s average of 12 million barrels a day, an increase of 90,000 barrels a day from December.The expected increases will come from the Permian region of Texas and New Mexico, according to EIA.The U.S. last September surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the top crude oil producer.The report additionally found that the oil prices are expected to increase from January’s average of $59 per barrel to an average of $61 a barrel in 2019 and $62 a barrel in 2020.This January’s oil prices had increased $2 a barrel from the previous month but were still $10 a barrel less than last January’s average.The Trump administration has hailed U.S. crude oil production as a necessary component of America’s fight for energy independence. In his State of The Union address last week, he said the U.S. had “unleashed a revolution in American energy,” that has led to historic energy export highs and economic growth. The focus has increasingly been on oil and natural gas production as coal and nuclear plants in the U.S. continue to shutter at a rapid pace.

Prices Slide As Temperatures Rise And The EIA Storage Withdrawal Falls Short Of Expectations -Highlights of the Natural Gas Summary and Outlook for the week ending February 8, 2019 follow. The full report is available at the link below.

  • Price Action: The March contract fell 15.1 cents (5.5%) to $2.583 on an 18.4 cent range ($2.733/$2.549).
  • Price Outlook: While the EIA withdrawal of (237) bcf was well below some estimates, the extreme cold was concentrated and conservation measures likely limited withdrawals in the upper Midwest. At the same time, LNG exports were low and quite simply the South did not witness extreme temperatures. Thus, on a temperature adjusted basis, the withdrawal was considered slightly bullish. The market has established a new weekly low for 3 consecutive weeks, but that is not yet extended. CFTC data indicated a (5,872) contract reduction in the managed money net long position as longs liquidated and shorts covered. Total open interest rose 77,783 to 3.544 million as of January 08. Aggregated CME futures open interest fell to 1.306 million as of February 08. The current weather forecast is now cooler than 8 of the last 10 years. Pipeline data indicates total flows to Cheniere’s Sabine Pass export facility were at 3.3 bcf. Cove Point is net exporting 0.8 bcf. Corpus Christi is exporting 0.274 bcf. Cameron is exporting 0.000 bcf.
  • Weekly Storage: US working gas storage for the week ending February 1 indicated a withdrawal of (237) bcf. Working gas inventories fell to 1,960 bcf. Current inventories fall (118)bcf (-5.7%) below last year and fall (425) bcf (-17.8%) below the 5-year average.
  • Supply Trends: Total supply rose 1.0 bcf/d to 84.7 bcf/d. US production rose. Canadian imports rose. LNG imports fell. LNG exports rose. Mexican exports rose. The US Baker Hughes rig count rose +4. Oil activity increased +7. Natural gas activity decreased (3). The total US rig count now stands at 1,049 .The Canadian rig count fell (3) to 240. Thus, the total North American rig count rose +1 to 1,289 and now trails last year by (11). The higher efficiency US horizontal rig count fell (2) to 923 and rises +91 above last year.
  • Demand Trends: Total demand rose +10.6 bcf/d to +120.5 bcf/d. Power demand rose. Industrial demand rose. Res/Comm demand rose. Electricity demand fell (283) gigawatt-hrs to 82,990 which exceeds last year by +5,101 (6.5%) and exceeds the 5-year average by 4,426 (5.6%%).
  • Nuclear Generation: Nuclear generation fell (1,327)MW in the reference week to 93,527 MW. This is (1,156) MW lower than last year and +922 MW higher than the 5-year average. Recent output was at 93,382 MW.

The heating season has begun. With a forecast through February 22 the 2018/19 total cooling index is at (2,219) compared to (2,033) for 2017/18, (1,794) for 2016/17, (1,859) for 2015/16, (2,209) for 2014/15, (2,456) for 2013/14, (2,151) for 2012/13 and (2,092) for 2011/12.

Natural Gas Gaps And Runs But Struggles To Maintain Gains - Natural gas bulls were greeted by a solid gap up last evening in the March contract, which continued running through the morning. However, afternoon model guidance trended a bit less impressive, and on the day the March contract settled just 2.3% higher.  The March contract was still the strongest on the day with weather being the clear catalyst for the move higher. In fact, later in the morning selling seemed to be led by later contracts along the strip.  The move was primarily driven by more bullish weather model guidance over the weekend, as in our Morning Update we noted a significant move higher in GWDDs relative to Friday's expectations.  This fit very well with our expectations at the end of last week, as in our Pre-Close Update on Friday we noted that the March contract could rally into the $2.7-$2.75 range and that we should trend colder over the weekend.  Despite these colder changes, we did see models trend slightly warmer in the Southeast this afternoon, cutting into gas gains. This was seen on recent Climate Prediction Center forecasts this afternoon.  Traders are also bracing for what should be a relatively small withdrawal compared to what we saw the last few weeks, with DTI/TCO reporting their smallest combined draw since the week containing New Year's.  Traders will have to weigh colder weather risks against this upcoming storage announcement, as well as the latest daily balance data from LNG exports to weather-adjusted power burns.

Colder End Of February Keeps Gas Bid - It was another day of strength at the front of the natural gas futures curve as the March contract logged a gain slightly less than 2% on the day. Gains were strongest at the front of the strip, though all of Cal19 seemed to trade about equally. The April/October J/V contract spread continues to bounce after setting a low last Friday. Yesterday, in our Afternoon Update, we outlined our Slightly Bullish sentiment heading into the overnight trading session even with some slightly warmer weather models. Prices bounced overnight on a colder 6z GEFS weather model, and we reiterated our "Slightly Bullish" sentiment this morning even after we revised down our GWDD forecast slightly as we saw balances supportive for prices today with more Week 3 and 12z model run cold risks. Then colder 12z GFS/GEFS weather model guidance helped rally the March gas contract up towards our $2.7 resistance level. Meanwhile, we continue to track long-range weather trends to update our March forecast accordingly. That was a key focus in our Seasonal Trader Report, which over the past few weeks accurately predicted the cold trend we are now seeing in February. Of note in today's Report was a recent trend stronger in upstream El Nino conditions into March on the American CFSv2 climate model guidance.

Models Flip Back Warmer And Gas Crashes Lower - After two days of gains on colder weather model guidance, key models flipped warmer last night and again this afternoon to hit the front of the natural gas strip hard. The March contract sold off the most accordingly, dipping over 4% on the day.   Later contracts found decently more support overall.   This sent the April/October contract spread to a new low settle.   The culprit was primarily overnight weather model guidance that trended far warmer. We outlined this in our Morning Update.   Afternoon weather model guidance trended warmer as well, leading the Climate Prediction Center to show significantly more Week 2 warm risks in the East.   Meanwhile, traders were positioning ahead of an EIA print tomorrow that should be quite unimpressive. We saw a far smaller weekly GWDD count than the previous week and it was far more in line with the second gas week of the year.

Weekly Gas Storage: Draw Slows - The EIA released its weekly Natural Gas Storage Report today, outlining how national natural gas stocks have changed in the last week. In total, the EIA reports natural gas stocks fell by 78 Bcf last week, decreasing to 1,882 Bcf from 1,960 Bcf. This is 1.6% below the 1,912 Bcf that was in storage at this point last year and is 15.0% below the five-year average of 2,215 Bcf. This week’s storage draw was in line with expectations, as analysts predicted a draw of 85 Bcf. Most regions saw a draw this week, with the largest in the Midwest and East regions where stocks fell by 30 Bcf and 24 Bcf. Stocks in nearly every region are below the five-year average. Gas in storage in the Pacific region is the farthest below the five-year average for the amount of gas in storage...

US storage of working natural gas continues downtrend last week - (Xinhua) -- Working natural gas storage in the contiguous United States was 1,882 billion cubic feet (about 53.3 billion cubic meters) as of last Friday, a net decrease of 78 billion cubic feet from the previous week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a report on Thursday. At the level of 1,882 billion cubic feet, the natural gas storage decreased by 1.6 percent from this time last year, the report said. EIA said on Wednesday that natural gas storage operators reported their largest withdrawals of the 2018-19 heating season, totaling 237 billion cubic feet for the week ending Feb. 1. This level was the 12th largest total net withdrawal of working natural gas in the Lower 48 states since 2010. However, as winter demand season is coming to an end and shale gas production continues to rise, U.S. inventories of working natural gas is expected to increase. The contiguous United States, or Lower 48 states, consists of the 48 adjoining states of the United States, plus the District of Columbia, which excludes the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii, and all off-shore insular areas. Working natural gas is defined as the amount of natural gas stored underground that can be withdrawn for use. Working natural gas storage capacity can be measured in two ways: design capacity and demonstrated maximum working gas capacity. According to EIA, the strong growth in U.S. natural gas production will put downward pressure on prices in 2019.

Natural Gas Finally Rebounds With Colder Risks And Tighter Balances - The March natural gas contract rebounded a couple percent today as weather models began adding back demand and weather-adjusted demand continued to impress. It was the March contract that was again strongest on the day, with firm cash prices helping it lead throughout. The result is two straight days with the March/April spread bouncing. In our Morning Update our sentiment turned back Slightly Bullish on overnight GWDD additions and tighter balances at these lower price levels. We specifically highlighted too that afternoon 12z model guidance should trend even colder to support prices and that Week 3 forecast risks were more supportive. LNG exports came back this week as well, helping to tighten up balances. We track these daily for clients in our Note of the Day. Heading into the weekend, we released our Pre-Close Update which outlines how we expect weather model guidance to adjust over the weekend and how natural gas prices are most likely to react next week. We've also been outlining the latest weather-adjusted balances in our Note of the Day, outlining how demand at these price levels has been acting. 

Can US Gas Production Keep Up With Demand? - In the previous article, I discussed the global nature of the oil markets. The natural gas markets, on the other hand, are far more localized due to the difficulty in transporting natural gas. That means that natural gas in the U.S. could be $3 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), but double or triple that level in Japan or Europe. Natural gas production in the U.S. has exploded since the beginning of the shale gas boom. From 2005 to 2015, U.S. dry natural gas production increased by 50 percent. Natural gas prices fell in response. From 2005 to 2008, annualized natural gas prices hovered in a range from just under $7/MMBtu to nearly $9/MMBtu. In 2009, the average annual price of natural gas fell below $5/MMBtu, and it has never been above that level on an annualized basis since then. On the other hand, the annualized price has been below $3/MMBtu in four of the past ten years. But natural gas demand has been strong. Natural gas exports to Mexico have now exceeded 5 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), equal to about 7 percent of U.S. daily production. Consumption by the electric power sector increased by nearly 50 percent from 2005 to 2016, reaching 27 Bcf/d. Industrial demand has also increased by 30 percent as some manufacturing relocated to the U.S. to take advantage of low gas prices. Demand has also increased from liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. The Energy Information Administration recently announced that LNG exports reached 3.9 Bcf/d in December. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what is forecast. This expected surge begs the question of whether U.S. natural gas supplies can continue to keep pace. I read an article earlier this week that correctly noted that to date, most of the U.S. natural gas production growth has been in the Appalachia Region. Appalachia production has exploded since 2009 from below 2 Bcf/d to more than 30 Bcf/d in 2018. The EIA forecasts that the Appalachia will continue to produce 52 percent of cumulative production of U.S. shale gas through 2050. The article I read questioned whether Appalachia growth could continue its blistering pace, but it overlooked an important new source of U.S. natural gas. 

BP's vision of the near future sees renewable power and natural gas dominating energy - In a not-too-distant future, renewable energy becomes the world's biggest source of power generation. A quarter of the distances that humans travel by vehicle will be in electric cars. U.S. dominance in the oil market begins to wane, and OPEC's influence is resurgent, as crude demand finally peaks. That is the vision laid out by British oil and gas giant BP on Thursday in its latest Annual Energy Outlook. The closely followed report lays out a vision through 2040 for Earth's energy future, provided government policy, technology and consumer preferences evolve in line with recent trends. BP forecasts that the world's energy demand will grow by a third through 2040, driven by rising consumption in China, India and other parts of Asia. About 75 percent of that increase will come from the need to power industry and buildings. At the same time, energy demand will continue to grow in the transportation sector, but that growth will slow sharply as vehicles become more efficient and more consumers opt for electric cars. But despite the increase in supply, BP thinks two-thirds of the world's population will still live in places with relatively low energy consumption per head. The takeaway: The world will need to generate more energy. Most of that new energy — as much as 85 percent — will come from burning natural gas and drawing on renewable power, according to BP's main scenario. By the end of the next two decades, BP thinks renewables will provide most of the world's electric power, as wind, solar and other renewable energy sources spread through the system at a faster pace than any fuel throughout the course of human history. Meanwhile, natural gas consumption will grows by 50 percent over the next 20 years, increasing in virtually every corner of the globe, the forecast said. The electric power sector and industry will drive the increase, though the fastest growth will be in the transportation sector, albeit from a low base. BP sees most of the new supplies coming from the U.S., Qatar and Iran, with China and Russia playing a smaller role. Also during the period, shipments of liquefied natural gas — a form of the fuel chilled to its liquid state and exported by ship — will continue to grow, ultimately accounting for 15 percent of gas trade by 2040.

Climate groups threaten lawsuit to force Shell to ditch oil - Climate activists are preparing legal action aimed at forcing Royal Dutch Shell to exit the oil business.A coalition of environmental groups in the Netherlands said Tuesday that they will hand over a court summons on April 5 if Shell does not change its business model to comply with the Paris climate accord.The groups have accused Shell of "deliberately obstructing" efforts to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the key goal of the Paris agreement. Pressure on companies has been building since the UN warned last year that the world has only 12 years to avert a climate disaster.The oil giant was first threatened with a lawsuit last year by the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace and ActionAid joined the initiative on Tuesday, along with four other groups.  Shell,  which is headquartered in the Netherlands, has said it "strongly supports" the Paris agreement. It has committed to halving the carbon footprint of the energy it sells by 2050. But the climate activists argue that its fossil fuel activities are inconsistent with the document signed by nearly all of the world's governments in Paris in 2015.  "The company has no concrete plans to align its business strategy with the commitments contained in the agreement," Joris Thijssen, the director of Greenpeace Netherlands, said in a statement. The legal action threatened by the groups would seek to establish that Shell is responsible under Dutch law for its contributions to climate change and for associated environmental damage.

This Is Just The Beginning Of Europe's Gas War  --In a move that should not surprise energy pundits nor even those that follow geopolitical news in Europe, on Thursday Russian gas giant Gazprom said it’s looking to gain an even larger gas market share in Europe following record-high 2018 exports, as it expects a decline in Europe’s gas output combined with rising demand. Last year Gazprom sold more than 200 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas to Europe, including Turkey, while its gas market share in the region rose to more than a third, Reuters said in a report on the matter.  Elena Burmistrova, in charge of the Gazprom’s exports, said the company would be able to offset a production decline in the EU, mainly at the Netherlands’ Groningen, once Europe’s largest natural gas field. “North Sea production is also gradually declining ... So, the space for Russian gas is being freed up,” she said on the sidelines of the European Gas conference in Vienna. Gazprom’s statement comes as EU gas production is projected to spiral downward over the next 12 years. Regardless of possible development of non-traditional gas resources, production will decline by 43% against the 2013 level, Russia’s National Energy Security Fund (NESF) said recently. Moreover, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that EU gas production will halve by 2040.  This dwindling production also comes as a number of EU states are poised to break away from over-reliance on both nuclear and coal needed for power generation, leaving opportunities for renewables, particularly solar and wind power, as well as liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports. However, all of these sources will take more time and funding to develop before they can add a more significant percentage of the bloc's energy mix going forward. Moreover, competing for more gas market share in Europe will see both geopolitical and energy stakes increase, pitting Russian piped gas exports, but also more LNG, as the country develops its LNG sector, against higher priced U.S. and Qatari LNG. Meanwhile, Qatar (the global LNG export leader and the U.S. which will soon be the third largest LNG exporter) could agree to tie-ups in LNG, both for economic and geopolitical motivations in the mid to long term. Qatar is already investing heavily in the U.S. LNG sector as a pure diversification play as U.S. production begins to take off, competing for both European and Asian market share. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for 72 percent of global LNG demand, with that amount projected to increase to 75 percent amid rampant Chinese LNG demand.

EU agrees deal to regulate Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas link  - — Russia's planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline direct to Germany is set to face EU market rules after negotiators agreed informally to change the EU's gas directive to apply to offshore gas links, the European Commission said late Tuesday. Russia's planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline direct to Germany is set to face EU market rules after negotiators agreed informally to change the EU's gas directive to apply to offshore gas links, the European Commission said late Tuesday. This means the 55 Bcm/year Nord Steam 2 could have to comply with EU rules on regulated tariffs for the section of pipeline in Germany's territorial waters. This could give Ukraine -- a rival transit route -- information that helps it price its own Russian gas transit services to the EU more competitively. Ukraine has already committed to applying EU market rules to its gas transit system to Europe. "Ensuring that all major gas pipelines to and from third countries are operated efficiently under a regime of transparent regulatory oversight will...guarantee non-discriminatory tariff setting," the EC said. The new rules are likely to enter into force in the next few months, according to an EU diplomatic source. That means Nord Stream 2 -- which is planned to be online at the end of this year -- would be treated as a new pipeline and thus not eligible for the same kind of waivers available to existing pipelines. The Nord Stream 2 project company, which is 100% owned by Russia's Gazprom, would have to ask Germany -- the country where it connects to the EU -- for an exemption to avoid having to apply the new rules. Germany would then have to consult with Russian authorities before deciding on an exemption based on EU rules.

Azerbaijan to become a more significant supplier of natural gas to Southern Europe - Azerbaijan is an important supplier of crude oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea region, particularly to European markets. Azerbaijan’s exports of natural gas are poised to become a more significant part of the country’s economy. Azerbaijan produced about 600 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of dry natural gas in 2017 and exported about 210 Bcf, according to EIA’s International Energy Statistics. Azerbaijan is planning to expand its natural gas exports to Europe. European Union (EU) leaders consider connecting Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz natural gas field to Southern Europe to be a step toward the strategic goal of diversifying Europe’s natural gas supply. Southern and Eastern Europe, in particular, have limited supply options for natural gas because of geographic constraints and infrastructure limitations. The Trans-Balkan pipeline, which supplies Russian natural gas to the Balkan countries and Turkey through Ukraine, is one of the region’s only existing supply routes. In 2017, the Trans-Balkan pipeline transported about 600 Bcf of natural gas to the EU border in Romania, according to the International Energy Agency. Although the proposed Azerbaijani volumes—about 565 Bcf—will bring a smaller amount of natural gas to Southern Europe, they could help mitigate potential natural gas supply disruptions by providing another option to satisfy regional natural gas demand. The Shah Deniz field, which is about 40 miles southeast of Baku in the Caspian Sea, contains most of Azerbaijan’s natural gas. In 2017, the field produced about 360 Bcf of natural gas and about 19 million barrels of condensate. The main markets for Shah Deniz gas have been Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.

 Is A Natural Gas Cartel Forming? -It has now been over two months since Qatar made the decision to leave OPEC, with many analysts providing informed views on Qatar’s future energy strategy. This article aims to provide an analysis of Qatar’s pivot toward natural gas, and the potential implications for global energy security.Qatar has long been a key player within the LNG export market, comprising 26.50 percent of global seaborne LNG trade in 2017 (Figure 1). It was likely with this in mind that Saad al-Kaabi, the country’s energy minister, stated that Qatar is leaving OPEC in order to focus on its LNG strategy. Conservative projections for the long-term viability of crude, Qatar’s marginal position within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and its relatively prominent position within LNG markets, culminated in a pragmatic decision to re-focus its policy towards the development of natural gas assets. This article compares the characteristics of both OPEC and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), assessing the efficacy of Qatar’s transition towards the development of gas assets.  In order to understand how the world's major economies will respond to the growing roll of natural gas as a primary energy source, it is important to first analyse the availability and location of the world's gas reserves. Figure 2 displays OPEC members, GECF members and GECF observers, whilst Table 1 displays production share, reserve share and R/P ratio of crude oil and gas across different regions.As is the case with the crude oil trade, the largest natural gas deposits do not correspond with the largest demand centres, prescribing significant international trade of both crude oil and natural gas. However, when comparing the two fuels, it quickly becomes apparent that the overall distribution of natural gas reserves are more concentrated than the distribution of crude oil reserves, in the sense that the three countries that hold the largest natural gas reserves, Russia, Qatar and Iran, have roughly 48.13 percent of the global total, whilst the three countries with the largest crude oil reserves, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada, hold 43.52 percent of world oil reserves. Conversely, when considering the regional distribution of the respective primary energy sources, natural gas is more diverse. The Middle East holds 47.61 percent of global crude oil reserves, as opposed to 40.09 percent of natural gas reserves, with CIS representing a significant region of natural gas reserves at 30.61 percent.

Mexico to give a $5.2 billion stimulus package to Pemex — The Mexican government will give a $5.2 billion stimulus package to state-owned oil company Pemex, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday. "Pemex has the whole backing from the Finance Secretariat and the Mexican government," Lopez Obrador said in a webcast press conference. In recent years, Pemex borrowed to finance operations until becoming the world's most indebted oil operator with $104 billion in net debt, half of which is due through Lopez Obrador's presidential term, which ends in 2024. Despite this debt leverage, Pemex's production fell to 1.71 million b/d in December from a peak production of 3.4 million b/d in 2004. The fiscal stimulus package announced Wednesday is a collection of previously announced plans in recent weeks by Lopez Obrador's administration. This includes a projected revenue increase of $1.6 billion as a result of stopping fuel theft, a $1.3 billion capital injection and $600 million/year tax deductions for E&P expenses. The new element announced on Friday is the advance payment of $1.8 billion from the federal government for pension and labor liabilities. Lopez Obrador has previously said that the $2.9 billion from the capital injection and savings from fighting fuel theft will be used to build the $8 billion, 340,000 b/d refinery in Dos Bocas. Carlos Urzua, Mexico's finance secretary, said that the federal government would do all additional capital infusions Pemex requires to strengthen its financial position. Starting this year, Pemex isn't going to finance new debt and focus on conventional oil projects, Pemex's general director, Octavio Romero Oropeza, said during the press conference. "Pemex for years spent large resources in Chiocontepec [tight oil play] and deepwater projects with nothing to show," he added. Now, the company will focus on shallow water and conventional onshore projects, where development can be accelerated with low production costs, Oropeza said. Pemex is implementing its plan to develop 16 offshore and four onshore discoveries, which have 1.9 billion boe of 2P reserves.

Venezuela sanctions leave oil market short of heavy crude  - (Reuters) - U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company are tightening the global oil market and sending refiners around the world scrambling to find replacements for the country's diesel-rich heavy and extra heavy crudes. Venezuela's heavy crudes, such as Merey, have few close substitutes, with the nearest being grades such as Brazil's Marlim, Mexico's Maya, Canada's Bow River and Cold Lake, or Iraq's Basra Heavy. Most of those crudes have an even higher sulphur content than Venezuela's, which will require extra processing to make fuels of acceptable quality, and in any event the quantities are limited in the short term. Venezuela sanctions have arrived in a market that was already likely to be short of medium and heavy crudes because of U.S. sanctions on Iran and OPEC's output cuts. The major oil exporters in the Middle East Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iran) market mostly medium and heavy crudes. U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, together with OPEC's output cuts, have therefore removed mostly medium and heavy oils from the market, leaving lighter grades relatively unaffected. The result is that prices of medium and heavy crudes have surged relative to their lighter counterparts since the middle of January. Mars, a medium crude grade from the U.S. Gulf, has moved to a rare premium over Louisiana Light Sweet. Oman, another medium crude, has moved to a premium over Brent, a light one.   Venezuela has the world's largest proven oil reserves, amounting to around 300 billion barrels, ahead of Saudi Arabia on 265 billion and Canada at 170 billion ("Statistical review of world energy", BP, 2018). But the country's oil industry has been in relative and absolute decline for the last 50 years as problems of producing and marketing its heavy crudes have been compounded by an unattractive investment regime and mismanagement.

Venezuela pressures foreign partners on oil venture commitments: sources (Reuters) - Foreign partners of Venezuela’s PDVSA are facing pressure from the state-run oil firm to publicly declare whether they will continue as minority stakeholders in Orinoco Belt projects following U.S. sanctions, three people familiar with the matter said. The sanctions on Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), imposed last month in an attempt to dislodge Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, barred access to U.S. financial networks and oil supplies for the PDVSA joint ventures, pressuring Venezuela’s already falling crude output and exports. PDVSA’s Orinoco Belt joint venture partners, mostly U.S. or European companies, are facing difficulties getting cashflow out of the country as a result of the sanctions, straining their ability to continue production and exports. PDVSA has been in talks with the companies to persuade them to commit publicly to the joint ventures, the sources said in recent days. France’s Total SA, Norway’s Equinor ASA, Russia’s Rosneft and U.S.-based Chevron hold minority stakes in joint ventures with PDVSA that produce crude and operate oil upgraders capable of converting Venezuela’s extra-heavy oil into exportable grades. PDVSA did not reply to a request for comment. On Monday, Venezuelan Oil Minister and PDVSA head Manuel Quevedo said on a visit to India that relations with international oil companies including Chevron were continuing. A manager at Rosneft said last week that the company did not expect oil output to decline at its projects in Venezuela this year, adding that the company saw the current situation in Venezuela as temporary. Rosneft did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The four crude upgraders are capable of converting up to 700,000 barrels per day. The oil is exported by the joint ventures and each partner receives its share of the exports. Total believes it can stay in Venezuela, its Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said on Monday, although last week the company said its bank accounts were blocked and it had evacuated its foreign employees. Rosneft has continued working normally at its Petromonagas joint venture with PDVSA, according to the sources. Equinor declined to comment on operational issues, referring questions to Petrocedeno, its joint venture with PDVSA. Chevron’s operations in Venezuela are continuing, a spokesman said on Monday, reiterating that the company was committed “to the country’s energy development in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.” 

U.S. Warns The World Against Buying Venezuelan Oil - In December, the Senate passed a parallel resolution 56-41, but a blocked vote by House Republicans prevented it from ever reaching the floor of the House. It was the first time the Senate had ever used congressional authority handed to them in the War Powers Act of 1973.U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has warned countries and companies against buying crude oil from Venezuela, after the Latin American country’s Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo said during a surprise visit to India that Venezuela wants to sell more oil to the fast-growing Indian market.In a tweet with a Bloomberg article on Venezuelan-Indian oil relations attached, Bolton wrote: “Nations and firms that support Maduro’s theft of Venezuelan resources will not be forgotten. The United States will continue to use all of its powers to preserve the Venezuelan people’s azsets and we encourage all nations to work together to do the same.”“We have a good relationship with India and we want to continue this relationship. The relationships with India will continue, the trade will continue and we will simply expand all the trade and relationship,” Indian outlet Business Today quoted the Venezuelan minister as saying on the sidelines of the Petrotech conference in India this week. At the start of the Venezuelan political crisis last month, Indian media reported that the Asian country continues to be one of the main buyers of Venezuelan crude oil. Indian refiners keep buying more than 400,000 bpd of oil from the troubled Latin American country, which is sitting on the world’s largest crude oil resources.In separate Venezuela-and-sanctions-related news, Bulgarian security officials said on Wednesday that they had blocked several bank accounts in a local bank that have received millions of euros from Venezuela’s state oil firm PDVSA, on which the U.S. slapped sweeping sanctions at the end of January. Bulgaria’s security services and prosecutor’s office were tipped off by the U.S. about those money transfers and have blocked transfers out of the bank accounts.

 Exclusive: Venezuela shifts oil ventures’ accounts to Russian bank – document, sources (Reuters) - Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA is telling customers of its joint ventures to deposit oil sales proceeds in an account recently opened at Russia’s Gazprombank AO, according to sources and an internal document seen by Reuters on Saturday. PDVSA’s move comes after the United States imposed tough, new financial sanctions on Jan. 28 aimed at blocking Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s access to the country’s oil revenue. Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido said recently that a fund would be established to accept proceeds from sales of Venezuelan oil. The United States and dozens of other countries have recognized Guaido as the nation’s legitimate head of state. Maduro has denounced Guaido as a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup. PDVSA also has begun pressing its foreign partners holding stakes in joint ventures in its key Orinoco Belt producing area to formally decide whether they will continue with the projects, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks. The joint venture partners include Norway’s Equinor ASA, U.S.-based Chevron Corp and France’s Total SA. Even after a first round of financial sanctions in 2017, PDVSA’s joint ventures managed to maintain bank accounts in the United States and Europe to receive proceeds from oil sales. They also used correspondent banks in the United States and Europe to shift money to PDVSA’s accounts in China. State-run PDVSA several weeks ago informed customers of the new banking instructions and has begun moving the accounts of its joint ventures, which can export crude separately. The decision was made amid tension with some of its partners, which have withdrawn staff from Caracas since U.S. sanctions were imposed in January. The sanctions gave U.S. oil companies working in Venezuela, including Chevron and oil service firms Halliburton Co, General Electric Co’s Baker Hughes and Schlumberger NV, a deadline to halt all operations in the South American country.

Erdogan Says Venezuelan Gold Will Be Processed in Turkey  — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday that Venezuelan gold would be processed in the Central Anatolian province of Çorum. Speaking at a rally ahead of local elections on March 31, the president said Çorum would reach a new level in terms of gold trade amid reports that Venezuela sells most of its gold to Turkish refineries.On Monday Reuters reported that Venezuela uses some of the proceeds to buy consumer goods such as pasta and powdered milk, citing people with direct knowledge of the trade.Trade between the two nations grew eightfold last year.Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s gold program has developed in tandem with his deepening relationship with Turkey’s Erdoğan. Both leaders have been criticized internationally for cracking down on political dissent and undermining democratic norms to concentrate power. A Nov. 1 executive order signed by US President Donald Trump bars US persons and entities from buying gold from Venezuela. It does not apply to foreigners. Ankara has assured the US Treasury that all of Turkey’s trade with Venezuela is in accordance with international law.

Venezuela opposition takes steps to seize oil revenue as Maduro issues threat (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress named new temporary boards of directors to state-oil firm PDVSA on Wednesday, in an effort to wrest the OPEC nation’s oil revenue from increasingly isolated socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro lashed out at the congress leader, Juan Guaido, saying in an interview that he would face the courts “sooner or later” for violating the constitution, after Guaido invoked constitutional provisions last month to assume an interim presidency. Although many Western countries have recognized Guaido as legitimate head of state, Maduro retains control of state institutions and Guaido needs funds if he is to assemble an interim government. Controlling PDVSA’s U.S. refiner Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most valuable foreign asset, would go some way to helping in that, though seizing the reins of PDVSA itself seems improbable while Maduro remains in power. “We have taken a step forward with the reconstruction of PDVSA,” Guaido said on Twitter, just after congress named the directors. “With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we also avoid continued destruction.” PDVSA’s crude output has slumped to 70-year lows, due to crushing debts, widespread corruption, and little maintenance of its infrastructure. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which backs Guaido, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector on Jan. 28, aimed at curbing exports to the United States and upping the pressure on Maduro. 

US shale oil growth could offset Venezuela shortfall: IEA— The continued strong growth of US shale oil will soften the blow from the recent US sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA, the International Energy Agency said Wednesday, as it once again raised its estimates for non-OPEC supply on the back of robust US shale flows. The Paris-based market watchdog also trimmed its forecast for the demand for OPEC's crude this year but kept its growth estimate for oil demand in 2019 unchanged at 1.4 million b/d. US liquids output, however, is forecast to rise by 1.52 million b/d in 2019, consolidating the US as the world's biggest oil producer with average production hitting almost 17 million b/d this year, the IEA said in its latest monthly oil market report. The latest US forecast is around 200,000 b/d higher than previously estimated after stronger than expected US shale and NGL output in the fourth quarter of last year was carried through to 2019, an IEA official said. US liquids output jumped by a massive 2.2 million b/d last year as shale rebounded on firmer prices. Although US oil supply growth is set to slow this year following a near 40% fall in crude prices in Q4, the IEA noted that US crude production alone this year is still expected to grow by more than Venezuela's current output of around 1.26 million b/d. "Sanctions are already making it difficult for PDVSA to export oil," the IEA said "Even so, headline benchmark crude oil prices have hardly changed on news of the sanctions. This is because, in terms of crude oil quantity, markets may be able to adjust after initial logistical dislocations." The IEA's comments echo similar observations by the US Energy Information Administration, which on Tuesday predicted that US crude oil production growth will offset decreases in OPEC production and the impact of sweeping sanctions on Venezuelan crude flows through 2020. But the IEA also cautioned that crude quality, rather than quantity, will be an important issue moving forward, highlighting that the loss of Venezuela's predominantly heavy, sour crudes will be felt most acutely by the market due to the US sanctions. While the supply of US oil output which is predominantly light and sweet continues to inch higher, the heavy sour barrels remains tightly supplied, the IEA said, squeezing US Gulf Coast refiners who are mostly geared towards processing heavier crudes.

Washington Eyes Crackdown On OPEC - Legislation targeting OPEC is suddenly gaining steam in the U.S. Congress, raising alarm bells for the cartel.On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would allow the U.S. Justice Department to sue members of OPEC for manipulating the oil market. The so-called “NOPEC” bill would remove sovereign immunity, exposing member countries to antitrust regulation.The bill has appeared in the past under prior administrations. But previous presidents from both political parties have opposed taking punitive action, fearing damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.Times have changed. President Trump has repeatedly posted angry tweets about OPEC, blaming it for high gasoline prices. That led to a revived push for the NOPEC legislation. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have also been a turning point, erasing a lot of goodwill for Saudi Arabia in Washington.In theory, OPEC members could face confiscation of their assets in the United States. Saudi Aramco, for instance, controls Motiva Enterprises, which owns the largest oil refinery in the country in Port Arthur, Texas.According to the Financial Times, the prospect of the NOPEC bill becoming law has raised alarm bells not just for OPEC, but also for international oil companies who fear reprisals abroad. Companies like ExxonMobil and BP have major stakes in projects in places like Nigeria and Iraq. These OPEC-member countries could retaliate if they face punitive action from the U.S. government. The FT reports that the oil majors, along with the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are lobbying against the NOPEC legislation. Analysts speculate that Qatar exited OPEC in 2018 not just because of its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but also because it has major interests in the U.S., and does not want to face antitrust action. Qatar Petroleum, along with ExxonMobil, just gave the final investment decision for the $10 billion Golden Pass LNG project in Texas.

BP CEO Bob Dudley warns oil market uncertainty could lead to a 'real crunch' --A flurry of intensifying risks could trigger an energy market "crunch" over the coming months, according to the chief executive of BP. His comments come at a time when energy market participants expect U.S. sanctions on crisis-stricken Venezuela, as well as OPEC-led production cuts, to offset a potential supply glut this year.When asked whether production cuts from the so-called OPEC+ coalition were likely to help stabilize oil prices, Dudley replied: "Well, there's a lot of variables here and there's a lot of things that could lead to a real crunch."Speaking to CNBC's Dan Murphy at an energy forum in Cairo, Egypt, Dudley cited "tragic circumstances" in Venezuela, uncertainty in Libya, rising production levels from the Permian Basin and the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran."So, the OPEC+ countries agreed to reduce production in the first quarter, we don't even really have data from it. We will have to see what the data looks like but the markets feel tight to me." "We plan BP on a sort of fairway, which I think is good for the world, between $50 a barrel and $65. That's good for producers and consumers," Dudley said.  Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil prices, was trading at $61.90 a barrel Tuesday morning, up 0.6 percent, while West Texas Intermediate (WTI) stood at $52.68, 0.5 percent higher. OPEC and its allied producers, including Russia, agreed to impose output cuts from the beginning of January in order to prevent a global supply overhang. The Middle East-dominated group began capping supply in partnership with Russia and several other nations in January 2017 to end a punishing downturn in oil prices. The oil industry is generally optimistic that the measures imposed by OPEC and non-OPEC members could help balance the energy market over the coming months. But, some are concerned supply-side risks were not receiving enough attention. When asked whether he would like to see OPEC and non-OPEC producers taking further action to support the energy market at their next meeting in April, Dudley replied: "I think as an international oil company subject to the markets, I shouldn't have a view about that actually." "I think what is important is when prices are too high or too low, it leads to all kinds of unintended consequences," he added.

South Africa Oil Discovery Could Be A Game-Changer One of the promising hotspots for oil and gas exploration drilling this year - South Africa’s offshore - has just yielded a massive natural gas and condensate find that could open a new exploration province for oil majors and change the energy fortunes of South Africa. France’s major Total said this week that it had made a significant discovery on the Brulpadda prospects off the southern coast of South Africa.“With this discovery, Total has opened a new world-class gas and oil play and is well positioned to test several follow-on prospects on the same block,” said Kevin McLachlan, Senior Vice President Exploration at Total. According to Total’s chief executive Patrick Pouyanne, the discovery could hold 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent of gas and condensate resources. The operator of the license, Total, and its partners Qatar Petroleum, CNR International, and South African consortium Main Street, now plan to acquire 3D seismic data this year, followed by up to four exploration wells on the license.“It is exciting for our country that this discovery has been made. It is potentially a major boost for the economy, and we welcome it as we continue to seek investment to grow our economy,” South Africa’s Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe said, commenting on the major gas discovery. The African Energy Chamber (AEC) also hailed the first major deepwater discovery off South Africa, saying, “This is a great first step for the country which still relies on imports of oil and gas despite the great reserves believed to be in its soil and waters.” According to AEC, the discovery could change the course of South Africa’s economy and help to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and natural gas imports. “The oil industry hopes this will be a catalyst and encouragement for all policy makers to work on an enabling business environment for exploration and drilling activities in South Africa,” NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman at the Chamber, said. South Africa is currently working on new legislation that would separate the conditions for exploring and exploiting oil and gas resources from those for traditional minerals. Commenting on Total’s discovery, Andrew Latham, vice president, global exploration at natural resources consultancy Wood Mackenzie, said: “Even though the well isn’t an oil discovery, if Brulpadda proves to be anywhere near as big as the estimates of up to 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent resources, it will still be a game-changer for South Africa.”

BP has invested more money in Egypt than anywhere else in the last two years, CEO says - BP has invested more money in Egypt in the last two years than anywhere else, the oil giant's Chief Executive Bob Dudley told CNBC. "Today (the scale of our operations) is very big," Dudley told CNBC Monday. "We produce oil in the Gulf of Suez but really our focus in the last five years has been this big push for natural gas. All across from the Nile Delta, to the east, to the west of the Nile Delta, it's helping power the country and other companies are here as well." "In the last two years we've invested more money in Egypt, in both of those years, than in any other country in the world for BP, so it's a really important place for us," he told CNBC's Dan Murphy.  Egypt might lack the oil producing clout of its OPEC neighbors to the west (Libya and Algeria) and east (Saudi Arabia) but it's pushing to become a Mediterranean energy hub, particularly in the natural gas sector. Cairo is expected to become a net gas exporter by the end of 2019 and the country has seen widespread interest in its natural gas potential — particularly after the success of Egypt's Zohr gas field, an offshore natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea operated by Italian energy firm Eni. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Egypt's oil and gas sector reached $10 billion in the full fiscal year of 2017/18, the country's Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla told an Egyptian newspaper last August, and expects at least the same in 2018/2019. In December, El Molla said Egypt had signed over 12 exploration and production agreements with international oil companies (IOCs) during 2018. The petroleum minister told CNBC in January that Egypt's gas reserves could even be a catalyst for peace in the region.  The Egyptian economy has been on an upward turn since the political tumult brought on by civil unrest during the Arab Spring of 2011 and the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak. In 2016, Egypt was forced to request a three-year, $12 billion loan from the international Monetary Fund (IMF). As ever, the IMF aid came with strings attached, requiring the government to embark on a reform program that included cutting fuel subsidies, introducing VAT and floating its currency, the Egyptian pound. Egypt has been praised by the IMF for adhering to the program and the Fund sees its budget deficit and unemployment rate declining further this year; the IMF predicts GDP growth of 5.5 percent in 2019.

Rosneft Boss Wants Russia Out Of OPEC Deal - Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin wants Russia to quit its production control deal with OPEC, Reuters reported last week, citing sources that have seen a letter Sechin wrote to President Putin. According to the sources, Sechin sees the OPEC deal as a threat to Russia that benefits the United States, but the likelihood of his opinion leading to a pullout from the deal is limited.  Sechin is one of the closest allies of Putin and one of the most powerful figures in Russian politics. As Forbes’ Kenneth Rapoza wrote last year, many politicians and big business executives seem willing to face Putin on a bad day. Less so are those willing to face Rosneft’s chief. What’s more, Sechin is not the only one unhappy with the OPEC deal. “The letter is a threat to the deal extension. But anyway, Putin is the ultimate decision maker,” one of the Reuters sources said. The perspectives of Russia’s President and the biggest players in its oil industry may differ here. For Putin, the OPEC deal is really a geopolitical tool rather than a tool for raising oil prices. Russia does not need prices higher. In fact, if they go too high, they will hurt the Russian economy. For the oil industry, however, it’s about the oil and the markets more than it is about geopolitics. Russia first joined forces with OPEC to exert more control over international oil prices in late 2016, when the first OPEC+ production cut agreement was sealed. It aimed to remove some 1.8 million bpd from the oversupplied global market that had pressured prices to below US$30 per barrel for Brent crude. The cuts worked so well that prices rebounded significantly, prompting last year a reversal, as large oil importers found it harder to keep buying at previous rates. Another rebound followed, reinforced by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which would substantially reduce the availability of Iranian crude on international markets. The effect of the sanctions, however, did not unfold quickly and the granting of sanction waivers to the largest Iranian oil importers led to another slump in oil prices. That’s when OPEC started talking about a new round of cuts. To be fair, Russia was reluctant about joining this round from the start. Moscow budgets lower than current prices, so higher prices were not a necessity for Russia. But the geopolitical agenda is still there, so it was hardly a surprise that despite the conspicuous reluctance, Russia eventually signed up for the new cuts, but at a lower rate than last time. Yet despite this, Russia has also made clear it would rather pass on the opportunity for a closer relationship with OPEC.

Russia's Sechin raises pressure on Putin to end OPEC deal (Reuters) - Igor Sechin, head of Russian oil giant Rosneft and one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, has written to the Russian president saying Moscow’s deal with OPEC to cut oil output is a strategic threat and plays into the hands of the United States. The letter did not say whether the agreement in place since 2017 between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other large oil producers led by Russia to cut output should be extended or not. But according to two well-placed industry sources, the letter was a clear signal to other senior Russian officials involved in energy policy that Sechin wants the deal to come to an end. There is no guarantee Putin will back Sechin’s view because the president sees the pact with OPEC as part of a much bigger puzzle involving dialogue with OPEC’s leader Saudi Arabia over Syria and other geopolitical issues. “The letter is a threat to the deal extension. But anyway, Putin is the ultimate decision maker,” one of the sources said. Reuters has seen a copy of the letter with no date or header. A government source said it was sent at the end of December. The so-called OPEC+ deal has helped oil prices double to more than $60 per barrel. It has been extended several times and, under the latest deal, participants are cutting output by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) until the end of June. OPEC and its allies will meet on April 17-18 in Vienna to review the pact. Should Russia abandon the deal, it would result in a steep oil price crash or force Saudi Arabia to carry most of the burden of cutting output to continue propping up global crude prices. Riyadh has said it will not do this alone. A price crash would deal a severe blow to U.S. oil firms as they operate fields where it is more expensive to extract oil, but would benefit the broader U.S. economy. The United States, which overtook Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer last year, is not participating in the output cuts. 

$60 to $70 is a fair price for a barrel of oil, Egypt's petroleum minister says - There is a fair price for a barrel of oil and OPEC and its non-OPEC partners are close to achieving it through their deal to cut production, according to Egypt's Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla."It is in the range between $60 and $70 a barrel … somewhere in this bracket of price," El Molla told CNBC on Sunday when asked if oil prices were at an acceptable level to keep producers and consumers happy."If prices of crude increase significantly we would start to see inflation and an exaggeration in the slowdown in consumption from the other side. If we see prices go down below a certain price then we will see a slowdown in investments," he said."So, actually, the fair equation is to have a balanced price between the producers and the consumers whereby each party is happy and to continue the growth of the global economy."  Egypt is a significant oil and natural gas producer in the Middle East although it's not a member of OPEC and its output is dwarfed by members of the oil producing group and other non-OPEC producers like Russia.  Egypt is aiming to boost production modestly in 2019, to 670,000 barrels a day, although its output still trails that of others in the region. The latest figures from OPEC's monthly report in January showed that Egypt's oil producing neighbors to the west, Libya and Algeria, produced 928,000 barrels a day and a million barrels a day respectively in December. OPEC lynchpin Saudi Arabia produced 10.5 million barrels a day.  OPEC and non-OPEC producers including Russia (collectively known as 'OPEC plus') have  last agreed in December to cut oil production by 1.2 million barrels a day in order to put a floor under prices, which have fallen due to rising oil supply and lackluster demand amid an uncertain global growth outlook.

Fund buying slows on crude but Venezuela supports diesel: Kemp (Reuters) - Hedge funds added more bullish positions in crude at the start of February but at a much slower pace than before, as optimism about OPEC output cuts was tempered by renewed anxiety about the U.S.-China trade talks. Hedge funds and other money managers increased their net long position in Brent crude futures and options for the eighth time in the last nine weeks but by just 1 million barrels. Fund managers added new short positions (+13 million barrels) for the week ended Feb. 5, almost as fast as new long positions (+15 million) suggesting much greater dispersion of views about where oil prices will go next. Funds added short positions at the fastest rate for nine weeks since the week ending Dec. 4 in a sign at least some managers think prices have peaked after the recent rally (https://tmsnrt.rs/2ULZTZE ). OPEC's aggressive output reductions and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela have removed significant volumes of crude from the market since the start of the year, boosting prices. But doubts about progress in the U.S.-China trade talks and the outlook for the global economy have returned, with equity prices stalling and bond yields dropping, spilling across into concerns about oil consumption. In contrast, portfolio managers added another 8 million barrels of long positions in European gasoil futures and options, taking the overall net long position to 30 million barrels. Funds remain more cautious on gasoil (with long positions outnumbering short ones by just 2.6:1) than on Brent (where the ratio was 4.8:1), reflecting concerns about the economy, but also suggesting more upside potential.  Perhaps more immediately and importantly, U.S. sanctions on Venezuela are hitting the availability of medium and heavy-density crudes, which are particularly suited for making gasoil. The same medium and heavy crude shortage that has pushed medium grades to a rare premium over their lighter counterparts may also be encouraging fund managers to turn a bit more bullish on diesel. 

Oil prices fall as U.S. rig count rise, trade concerns -- Oil prices fell on Monday as an uptick in U.S. drilling, a shutdown caused by a fire at a major U.S. refinery and concerns about U.S.-Chinese trade talks all overshadowed support from OPEC-led supply restraint. Benchmark Brent oil were down 59 cents, or 0.95 percent, to $61.51 a barrel. U.S. West Texas Intermediate(WTI) crude fell 89 cents or 1.78 percent to $51.78.  "Oil prices are still trying to figure out what lead to follow. On the one hand, there is the OPEC+ cut story, now coupled with increasing issues around Venezuelan supply", Vienna-based consultancy JBC Energy said. "At the same time, it has to be argued that a lot of the economic data that has been released over the last few days has really not been too encouraging, and U.S.-Chinese trade talks are also seemingly not progressing very fast."Energy firms in the United States last week increased the number of oil rigs operating for the second time in three weeks, pointing to a further rise in U.S. crude production, a weekly report by Baker Hughes said on Friday.WTI prices were also weighed down by the closure of the second largest crude distillation unit (CDU) at Phillips 66's Wood River, Illinois, refinery following a fire on Sunday. Trade talks between Washington and Beijing resume this week with a delegation of U.S. officials travelling to China for the next round of negotiations.  The United States has threatened to increase tariffs already imposed on goods from China on March 1 if the trade talks do not produce an agreement, a move which could help slow growth in fuel demand.

Oil prices fall; slow progress in trade talks counters OPEC cuts (Reuters) - Oil prices fell about 1 percent on Monday as worries surrounding the resumption of U.S.-China trade talks overshadowed support from OPEC-led supply restraint. Brent crude futures lost 49 cents, or 0.8 percent to $61.61 a barrel by 12:53 p.m. EST (1753 GMT). U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude fell 65 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $52.07 a barrel. Trade talks between the United States and China resumed with working level discussions before high-level discussions later in the week. While Beijing struck an upbeat note, it also expressed anger at a U.S. Navy mission through the disputed South China Sea. This cast a shadow as the two countries try to reach a deal before the March 1 deadline when U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 percent from 10 percent. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he did not plan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the March 1 deadline, dampening hopes of a quick trade pact. Escalating U.S.-China trade tensions have cost both countries billions of dollars and disrupted global trade and business flows, roiling financial markets. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going on with this trade war, whether they’re going to get anything done,” said Phil Flynn, oil analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. “You’ve got concerns about slowing growth.” Still, oil prices have been buoyed this year by output curbs from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, including Russia, a group known as OPEC+. The deal, effective from January, aims to cut 1.2 million barrels per day until the end of June to forestall a supply overhang. Suhail Al Mazrouei, the Energy Minister of the United Arab Emirates, said on Monday the oil market should achieve this balance in the first quarter of 2019. OPEC and its allies meet on April 17 and 18 in Vienna to review the agreement, but a draft cooperation charter seen by Reuters fell short of a new formal alliance among the producers. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, along with older sanctions on fellow OPEC member Iran, have also prevented crude prices from falling further.

 OPEC cut production by nearly 800,000 barrels a day in January, pumping just above its oil target - OPEC fell just short of its production goal in January, as a fresh round of output cuts from the 14-nation producer group got under way. The slight miss comes as the group once again cut its outlook for global oil demand in 2019. OPEC also slightly increased its forecast for supply from the United States and other non-OPEC nations. OPEC is partnering with 10 nonmember nations, including Russia, to keep 1.2 million bpd off the market. The so-called OPEC+ alliance aims to prevent another price-crushing oil glut like the one that gripped the market between 2014 and 2016. In January, OPEC managed to remove 797,000 barrels per day from the market by holding back supply. The group aimed to cut a combined 812,000 bpd in a bid to drain oversupply from the oil market. Total OPEC production stood at just over 30.8 million bpd in January, down from 31.6 million bpd in December, according to independent sources cited by the group in its monthly report. The biggest cuts by far came from top OPEC producer Saudi Arabia. The kingdom pumped about 10.2 million bpd in January, down 350,000 bpd from December and nearly 100,000 bpd below its official quota under the output cutting deal. The kingdom will continue to cut production, reducing output to about 9.8 million bpd in March, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih told the Financial Times in an article published on Tuesday. The next biggest cuts came from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, though UAE pumped slightly above its quota last month. Altogether, most of the participating OPEC countries exceeded their quota during the first month of the deal, though some just barely pumped above target.

OPEC produced 30.81 mil b/d in Jan, 220,000 b/d above 2019 demand for its crude oil  — OPEC has painted a bearish picture for 2019, with demand for its crude oil expected to fall due to weak demand growth and a sharp rise in output from producers outside the group. The group's 14 members pumped 30.81 million b/d in January, down from 31.60 million b/d in December, according to its Monthly Oil Market Report Tuesday. Oil prices have recovered since December, when they fell to a 15-month low, with ICE Brent trading above $62/b this week. At the last OPEC meeting in Vienna, the group's members agreed to slash output by 812,000 b/d, with Russia and nine other non-OPEC allies committing to a cut of 383,000 b/d for the first six months of 2019. OPEC's research division estimates demand for its crude will average 30.62 million b/d in the first half of 2019, around 190,000 b/d lower than last month. Demand for OPEC crude in 2018 averaged 31.60 million b/d. Demand growth in 2019 was revised down to 1.24 million b/d due to "lower economic expectations from OECD Americas, Europe, as well as Latin America and the Middle East," the report said. Global oil demand is estimated to average 100 million b/d this year, compared with 98.76 million b/d in 2018, OPEC said. The group pegged 2018 global oil demand growth at 1.47 million b/d. In another bearish sign, non-OPEC oil supply growth in 2019 was revised up to average 2.18 million b/d due to production increases expected in the US, Brazil, Russia, the UK, Australia, Kazakhstan and Ghana. The report however acknowledged that the growth in the US sector could be faced with further pipeline capacity constraints in North America, both in Texas and Alberta, as well as changes in the intensity of drilling and completion in the US shale industry. Saudi Arabia's crude output fell 350,000 b/d in January to average 10.21 million b/d, according to an average of the six secondary sources that OPEC uses to gage production. The kingdom, however, self-reported production of 10.24 million b/d, its lowest since May 2018 and a fall of 401,000 b/d month on month.

Don't expect US sanctions against Venezuela to fuel a rally in oil prices, IEA says --Energy market participants may be able to adjust to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela's crude industry, the IEA said in its closely-watched report on Tuesday. The report comes at a time when tensions in Venezuela are reaching boiling point, with the oil-rich, but cash-poor, country in the midst of the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.President Donald Trump's administration imposed targeted crude sanctions on Caracas late last month. The surprise move was designed to bar President Nicolas Maduro's access to oil revenue that has helped his embattled administration remain in power."The imposition of sanctions by the United States against Venezuela's state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is another reminder of the huge importance for oil of political events," the Paris-based IEA said Tuesday.  "Even so, headline benchmark crude oil prices have hardly changed on news of the sanctions. This is because, in terms of crude oil quantity, markets may be able to adjust after initial logistical dislocations," the group added.  International benchmark Brent crude traded at around $62.90 Tuesday morning, up 0.8 percent, while U.S.West Texas Intermediate (WTI) stood at $53.46, more than 0.6 percent higher.  Supply issues in OPEC-member Venezuela and OPEC-led production cuts from the start of the year have bolstered crude futures in recent weeks. The IEA said oil prices had not increased "alarmingly" since U.S. sanctions were imposed on Venezuela because the market is still working off the surpluses built up in the second half of 2018 — when global supply was estimated to have exceeded demand by 1.3 million barrels per day (b/d).

Oil Market Tightens On OPEC Cuts - Oil prices jumped during early trading on Tuesday on news that OPEC had sharply cut output in January.  . OPEC production declined by 797,000 bpd in January from a month earlier, averaging just 30.81 mb/d. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait chipped in most of the reductions. Still, Russia only lowered output by 90,000 bpd, far short of the 230,000 bpd promised as part of the December deal. Saudi Arabia said it would continue to cut output, with plans to lower production to as low as 9.8 mb/d in March, or roughly half a million barrels per day lower than it had promised. Oil prices jumped on the news.  India’s two leading refiners will continue to buy crude oil from Venezuela but will stop selling it refined products because of U.S. sanctions, according to Argus Media. Notably, PDVSA’s head Manuel Quevedo showed up at a conference in New Delhi. India could remain one of the few large buyers of oil from the increasingly isolated regime of Nicolas Maduro. Quevedo said PDVSA planned on doubling exports to India to 300,000 bpd. John Bolton issued a veiled threat to India to not work with Maduro’s regime, saying on twitter that “Nations and firms that support Maduro’s theft of Venezuelan resources will not be forgotten.” The U.S. government is trying to keep Citgo, the U.S.-based subsidiary of PDVSA, alive and intact so that it can be handed over to Juan Guaidó and a new Venezuelan government. However, creditors are swarming the company to lay claim to pieces of the company as the Maduro regime falls apart. “Citgo is the big prize,” Francisco Monaldi, a fellow in Latin American Energy Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told the Houston Chronicle. “I previously said there’s going to be a sharkfest of payments to creditors, but now there seems to be a bigger actor stopping the sharks, which is the U.S. government.”  PDVSA is pressing its joint venture partners to declare whether or not they will continue operations in the country following U.S. sanctions. Chevron pledged to remain in Venezuela. Chevron received a waiver from the U.S. government to continue working in the country until July 27. Chevron is trying to walk a fine line, pledging to remain in Venezuela while also hedging its bets, hinting about working with the U.S. government and a potential change in Venezuela’s government. “It’s a fluid environment,” Chevron’s CEO Mike Wirth said. “Our strong intent is to stay on the ground in Venezuela and be part of building a better future for the people of Venezuela,” Wirth told Bloomberg. “We’ve got a very close coordination under way with multiple agencies within the U.S. government.”

Oil up 1 pct on Saudi and OPEC cuts but outlook picture clouded (Reuters) - Oil prices gained about 1 percent on Tuesday, supported by OPEC-led production cuts and U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, though remain wary of surging U.S. output and the outcome of U.S.-China trade talks. Brent crude futures were up 61 cents at $62.12 a barrel and U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil futures rose 54 cents to $52.95 a barrel by 0950 GMT. The continuing closure of parts of the Keystone pipeline that brings Canadian oil into the United States also helped to prop up WTI, traders said, after a partial shutdown at a Phillips 66 crude distillation unit led to initial sell-offs on Monday. Analysts said markets are tightening because of voluntary production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies including Russia, as well as U.S. sanctions on OPEC members Venezuela and Iran. Saudi Arabia, the world's top exporter and de facto leader of OPEC, said on Tuesday that it would reduce oil production to nearly 9.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in March, about half a million bpd more than it originally pledged. Also at the radar are hopes expressed by U.S. and Chinese officials that a new round of talks, which began in Beijing on Monday, would bring them closer to easing their months-long trade war. Beijing and Washington are trying to hammer out a deal before a March 1 deadline, without which U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 percent from 10 percent. However, climbing U.S. oil production, fighting near Libya's main oilfield, sanctions on Venezuela and suspense over whether the U.S. will to grant more waivers to import Iranian oil leave markets unsure about the broader supply picture.

Oil up nearly 3 percent on Saudi and OPEC cuts - (Reuters) - Oil prices gained nearly 3percent on Tuesday, supported by OPEC-led production cuts, which Saudi Arabia said it would surpass by more than half a million barrels per day (bpd), and by U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. Brent crude futures LCOc1 were up $1.65, or 2.7 percent,at $63.16 a barrel by 1445 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate(WTI) crude oil futures CLc1 also gained 2.7 percent, rising by $1.40 to $53.81. Markets are tightening because of voluntary production cuts from Jan. 1, led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies including Russia, aimed at forestalling a global overhang. Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter and de fact leader of OPEC, said it would reduce crude production to about9.8 million bpd in March, over half a million bpd more than it had originally pledged. Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih announced the move in an interview with the Financial Times published on Tuesday as the kingdom seeks to drive up oil prices to help to fund an economic transformation plan. However, rising U.S. oil production, fighting near Libya's main oilfield, sanctions on Venezuela and suspense over whether Washington will grant more waivers to import Iranian oil haveleft markets unsure about broader supply. OPEC cut its forecast for 2019 world oil demand on Tuesday,citing slowing economies and expectations of faster supply growth from rivals, underlining the challenge it faces inpreventing a glut. Also on the radar are hopes expressed by U.S. and Chinese officials that a new round of talks, which began in Beijing onMonday, would bring them closer to easing their months-longtrade war. 

WTI Extends Gains After Surprise Crude Inventory Draw - Oil prices rebounded from a two-week low Tuesday as Saudi Arabia pledged to deepen production cuts and U.S. President Donald Trump said he could extend a deadline for new tariffs on China. However, after tagging $54, WTI slid back lower to hover around $53 ahead of tonight's API inventory data. An inventory build will lead market to believe "unwinding of inventories isn’t happening as quickly as they would like despite lower imports of Saudi crude into U.S. and recent sub-par growth of shale production," said Bart Melek, head of global commodity strategy at TD Securities in Toronto. API:

  • Crude -998k (+2.4mm exp)
  • Cushing -502k (+1.4mm exp)
  • Gasoline +746k (+1.2mm exp)
  • Distillates -2.48mm (-1.7mm exp)

Expectations were for further inventory builds in crude and Cushing but both saw surprise draws (crude -998k vs +2.4mm exp) and distillates also saw a notably bigger than expected draw. WTI rebounded from its late-day drift lower... “OPEC’s overall production being down has refocused the market’s expectations around tightened supply," said Gene McGillian, a senior analyst and broker at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut. “Whether or not we have enough strength to make a return to recent heights of $55 remains the question." WTI drifted lower to $53 ahead of API then kneejerked higher on the surprise draw...

Oil price risks shift to upside: Kemp (Reuters) - Oil traders no longer expect the market to be over-supplied this year, amid optimism a full-blown U.S.-China trade war will be averted, and oil production growth will slow thanks to OPEC cuts and sanctions on Venezuela. Front-month Brent futures prices have jumped to almost $65 per barrel, up from just $50 in late December, and the highest for nearly three months (https://tmsnrt.rs/2V4bGD1 ). Brent’s six-month calendar spread has swung into a backwardation of almost 70 cents per barrel, from a contango of more than $1.50 late last year, the strongest for almost four months. Crude prices and spreads are being propelled higher by an almost perfect storm of increasing economic optimism (or at least reducing pessimism), OPEC cuts and unplanned supply disruptions. In recent days, senior policymakers from both the United States and China have signalled trade negotiations are making good progress, as fear of recession makes both sides more eager for a deal. More importantly, the U.S. president has indicated the deadline for the next round of tariff increases could be extended based on recent progress even if not all issues have been resolved by March 1. Oil consumption growth is likely to slow this year from the very rapid rates reported between 2014 and 2017 but if tariff increases can be avoided oil use should continue increasing at a moderate pace. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its closest allies in OPEC have also acted early and aggressively to reduce production which should help eliminate the incipient surplus in the market. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister has said the kingdom’s production will fall to just 9.8 million barrels per day in March from 11.1 million in November (“Saudi Arabia goes on hunt for global oil and gas”, Financial Times, Feb. 12). Saudi Arabia’s willingness to act as swing producer has more than offset the limited cuts made by other members of the organisation and its allies led by Russia. The kingdom has demonstrated its commitment to eliminating the market surplus and pushing prices higher, even if it means tolerating poor compliance by other members of the OPEC+ group. At the same time, Iran’s exports remain crimped by U.S. sanctions imposed in November, with the expectation they will be lowered further from May, when sanctions waivers are likely to become less generous. And U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA have reduced the country’s crude exports and tightened the global oil market even further. 

Oil rises 1 percent on deepening OPEC supply cuts, sanctions on Venezuela - Oil prices rose on Wednesday, after top exporter Saudi Arabia said it would cut crude exports and deliver an even deeper cut to its production. Meanwhile U.S. futures gained on a reported decline in domestic oil inventories, though gains were capped by expectations that rising supply will swamp demand growth this year. Brent crude futures rose 84 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $63.26 a barrel around 9:20 a.m. ET (1420 GMT). U.S. crude oil futures gained 57 cents, or 1.1 percent, to trade at $53.67 a barrel. "It is a well-known fact that the world economy is losing momentum amid a plethora of downside risks including lingering US-China trade tensions and geopolitical uncertainty." OPEC said on Tuesday that it had cut its output by almost 800,000 bpd in January to 30.81 million bpd. Most of that reduction has been thanks to Saudi Arabia. Energy minister Khalid al-Falih on Tuesday told the Financial Times production would fall below 10 million bpd in March, more than half a million bpd below the target it agreed to as part of a global deal to limit supply. U.S. restrictions on Venezuela's energy sector have crippled exports and threaten to remove some 330,000 bpd in supply from the market this year, according to Goldman Sachs. The oil price has risen by 20 percent so far this year, yet most of that increase materialized in early January, before the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's energy sector. The global oil market remains well supplied and output would still likely outstrip demand this year, despite OPEC's efforts and U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, the International Energy Agency said in its monthly market report on Wednesday. "Oil prices have not increased alarmingly because the market is still working off the surpluses built up in the second half of 2018," the IEA said. "In quantity terms, in 2019, the U.S. alone will grow its crude oil production by more than Venezuela's current output. In quality terms, it is more complicated. Quality matters."

WTI Holds Gains Despite Bigger Than Expected Crude Build - WTI has extended gains, pushing back above $54, following last night's surprise crude draw reported by API and Saudi Arabia pledged to deepen production cuts.The world’s biggest crude exporter will continue to curb output more than required by a December deal among top producers, Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih told the Financial Times Wednesday. “Oil is rallying further as investors were given confirmation that the Saudis will curtail output, and they see a lower chance of the trade tensions escalating at the moment,” said Kim Kwangrae, a commodities analyst at Samsung Futures Inc. in Seoul.“Expectations of lower American crude stockpiles added to the optimism.”  DOE:

  • Crude +3.63mm (+2.4mm exp)
  • Cushing -1.02mm (+1.4mm exp)
  • Gasoline +408k (+1.2mm exp)
  • Distillates +1.19mm (-1.7mm exp)

DOE data refuted API's surprise crude draw with a bigger-than-expected build of 3.63mm barrels (2.4mm exp). Gasoline and Distillates also saw builds...  The large Cushing draw may be attributable to the shutting of the Keystone pipeline after a likely oil spill near St. Louis.  Production remains near record highs but the rollover in rig counts could signal a reduction in production looms...

WTI Oil Rises Despite Crude Inventories Surge - Crude oil prices gained on Wednesday, despite data showing that oil supplies in the U.S. registered a larger-than-expected inventory build. Crude oil for March delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose 2.17% to trade at $54.27 a barrel by 10:32 AM ET (15:32 GMT), compared with $54.23 ahead of the report. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report that inventories rose by 3.633 million barrels in the week ended Feb. 8. Analysts had expected a crude-stock build of 2.668 million barrels, according to Investing.com, though the American Petroleum Institute late Tuesday reported a draw of 0.998 million. The data follows a prediction that the global oil market will be able absorb crude supply from suppliers outside of OPEC, according to the International Energy Agency. The Paris-based agency left its demand growth forecast for 2019 unchanged from its last report in January at 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd), while raising its estimate of growth in crude supply from outside OPEC to 1.8 million bpd in 2019, from 1.6 million bpd previously. OPEC has pledged to cut production by 800,000 bpd this year as part of an agreement with Russia and other non-OPEC producers. Supplies at Cushing, Okla., the key delivery point for Nymex crude, decreased by 1.02 million barrels last week, the EIA said. Total U.S. crude oil inventories stood at 450.8 million barrels as of last week, according to press release, which the EIA considered to be “about 6% above the five-year average for this time of year.” But the report also showed that gasoline inventories increased by 408,000 barrels, compared to expectations for a rise of 826,000 million barrels, while distillate stockpiles rose by 1.19 million barrels, compared to forecasts for a decline of 1.14 million.

 Goldman sees oil rising toward $70, says demand forecasts are too gloomy - Oil prices have struggled to rally above $64 a barrel since last quarter's sharp pullback, but Goldman Sachs believes crude futures could break out in the coming months. The investment bank forecasts international benchmark Brent crude will peak at $67.50 a barrel in the second quarter. Goldman's outlook is based on its view that forecasts for demand growth have grown too gloomy and OPEC has adopted a "shock and awe" approach to pulling back supply. "Our constructive outlook for oil prices in 1H19 is predicated on both large supply cuts as well as resilient oil demand growth," Goldman analysts said in a research note released on Tuesday evening. Goldman believes the world's appetite for oil will grow by 1.4 million barrels per day in 2019. That's in line with the International Energy Agency's outlook, but above the consensus on Wall Street and OPEC's view that demand will grow by just 1.24 million bpd. The bank thinks forecasters are underestimating oil demand from emerging markets in particular. Last year, developing countries drew down stockpiles of oil to weather a period when oil prices, the U.S. dollar and interest rates were rising — a triple threat that sent the cost of crude soaring in nations from Argentina to India. Goldman sees that trend of destocking reversing. The bank also thinks a recent, rapid decline in emerging market demand for power fuel will ease. However, Goldman notes that recent economic data have fallen short of its expectations, so it could be another few months before the bank can determine whether its demand outlook hits the mark. On the supply side, Goldman believes OPEC and its oil market allies have addressed flaws baked into their last deal to cut output, which ran between 2017 and mid-2018. In Goldman's view, the new deal that kicked in last month delivers a big reduction at the outset — OPEC took nearly 800,000 bpd off the market in January — while making clear that the producers plan to ramp up output in the future, dissuading U.S. shale drillers from turning on the taps.

Oil Rises After Early Slide on Weak U.S. Data - - Oil bears may have to wait for more dire news on the U.S. economy or crude oversupply as a puzzling surge in market optimism is offsetting all the bad news. Futures of New York-traded West Texas Intermediate crude and London's Brent oil rose more than 1% for a third day in a row after briefly falling Thursday on weak U.S. retail sales data. Saudi jawboning about production cuts and optimism over U.S.-China trade talks helped gains in the two prior sessions. WTI settled the latest session up 51 cents, or 1%, at $54.33 per barrel. Brent, the global oil benchmark, rose $1.03, or 1.6%, to $64.64 per barrel by 2:44 PM ET (19:44 GMT). It also edged toward a test of the key $65 resistance, hitting an intraday high of $64.81. Both WTI and Brent are up more than 19% year to date. The London benchmark is also trading at its highest premium to its U.S. rival since 2017, at a gap of more than $10. "Overall, it appears to me that the 'lows have changed' " said Scott Shelton, energy futures broker at ICAP (LON:NXGN) in Durham, N.C., adding that while there was no real event driving the market "prices are just strong". "Asian crude is driving this market," said Shelton, who notes that backwardation in Brent -- where front-month prices were positively higher to the second month -- was steepening amid strengthening in global refining margins. "I would also think the downward momentum of prices ending is adding some additional support for (hedge fund) buying." U.S. retail sales tumbled 1.2% in December, the first time in 10 months, the Commerce Department reported. Economists had forecast a gain of 0.1% for the period. Producer price inflation also came out weaker than expected, while initial jobless claims were also higher than expected last week. Shares on Wall Street tumbled, offsetting some of Thursday's gains in oil, on anticipation that the slowdown could continue this year as American consumers worry over domestic tensions, the global economy and unresolved U.S.-China trade issues. Oil had rallied earlier on a Bloomberg report that President Donald Trump was considering a 60-day extension to the March 1 deadline requiring China to reach a trade deal with the U.S. or risk having tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods raised to 25% from 10%.

Oil prices rise on Beijing-Washington trade hopes, upbeat China data - Oil rose for a third day on Thursday, with Brent crude reaching its highest so far this year, as financial markets drew support from investor optimism that the United States and China could resolve their trade dispute. Crude futures briefly gave up their gains as the oil market followed U.S. stocks lower after data showed the biggest drop in retail sales in a decade. Brent crude futures were up 60 cents, or nearly 1 percent, at $64.21 a barrel around 11:25 a.m. ET (1625 GMT), down from a session high of $64.81, their highest intraday level in nearly three months. U.S. crude futures rose 12 cents to $54.02 a barrel, after earlier topping out at $54.68, about $1 shy of its 2019 high.The price of crude has risen 20 percent this year, driven primarily by the prospect of a decline in oil supply from OPEC and other top exporters such as Russia. "This rally that we're seeing over the last two to three days is completely justified when you put the predicted OPEC production cuts into your global oil supply and demand equation," Tamas Varga of PVM Oil Associates said. OPEC and allies such as Russia and Oman have agreed to cut crude output by a joint 1.2 million barrels per day, 800,000 bpd of which will come from OPEC. Thanks to healthy oil demand growth and lower OPEC+ production ... we see the market tightening further over the coming months," UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo said. "As such, we continue to expect Brent oil prices will move up to $70-80 a barrel over three to six months."

Oil prices hit 2019 highs amid OPEC-led supply cuts - Brent crude oil prices hit 2019 highs above $65 per barrel on Friday, spurred by U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and Iran as well as OPEC-led supply cuts. Brent rose as high as $65.10, pushing past the $65 mark for the first time this year, before edging back to $64.97 a barrel by 0450 GMT. That was still 0.6 percent above the last close. The international benchmark for oil prices is at a near 3-month high and set for a 4.6 percent gain for the week. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at $54.70 per barrel, up 29 cents, or 0.6 percent, from their last settlement. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and some non-affiliated suppliers including Russia are withholding supply in order to tighten the market and prop up prices. The producer group known as OPEC+ has agreed to cut crude output by a joint 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd). Top exporter Saudi Arabia said it would cut even more in March than the deal called for. Russia has cut its oil production by 80,000-90,000 barrels per day from its level in October, Moscow's reference level for its cuts, the country's energy minister said. "Brent should average $70 per barrel in 2019, helped by voluntary (Saudi, Kuwait, UAE) and involuntary (Venezuela, Iran) declines in OPEC supply," Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a note. It also expects "a 2.5 million barrels per day drop in OPEC supply from 4Q18 into 4Q19." Commodity investment firm Goehring & Rozencwajg (G&R) said that oil production from non-OPEC producers like Brazil, Mexico or the North Sea was also struggling, further tightening the market. "The North Sea, Mexico and Brazil all disappointed and we expect this to continue going forward," G&R said in a note published on Thursday. Trade data in Refinitiv showed that combined crude oil shipments out of the North Sea, Mexico and Brazil were at 4.2 million bpd in January, down from 4.4 million bpd in December.Standing against these declines is soaring U.S. crude production, which rose by more than 2 million bpd last year, to 11.9 million bpd, making America the world's biggest oil producer.

World’s Largest Offshore Oil Field Partially Shut Down - The Safaniyah oil field in Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest—is producing at a reduced capacity after a ship’s anchor cut a main power cable, Reuters reports citing a knowledgeable source. An earlier report from MarketWatch quoted information from Energy Intelligence suggesting production at the filed had completely stopped, sparking worry about global heavy oil supply.The worry was justified: with Venezuela sliding more deeply into chaos and with new U.S. sanctions reducing the flow of Venezuelan heavy crude to refineries, another heavy crude-producing field outage is exactly what the market does not need.Safaniyah has a production capacity of over 1 million barrels of heavy crude: reason enough for the market to get excited or worried, or both. However, now that there is more information about the possible cause of the outage and its extent, this excitement or worry might calm down. With or without a field outage, however, Saudi Arabia has once again played the star role in helping oil prices recoup some of the losses suffered late last year. The Kingdom has been reducing its production by more barrels than it was obliged to, leading an almost 800,000-bpd OPEC-wide production decline last month. Saudi Arabia plans to reduce its crude oil production further, to 9.8 million bpd in March, Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said in an interview for the Financial Times. This compares with more than 11 million bpd produced in November. Exports, Al-Falih said, will also fall substantially over this month and next, to an average of 6.9 million bpd from 8.2 million bpd in November.

A Big Week For Oil Bulls - Oil posted sizable gains this week, with ongoing outages in Venezuela tightening the market. Also, one of the largest bearish factors for oil – the U.S.-China trade war – showed some signs of easing.   OPEC cut production by 800,000 bpd in January, going a long way to erasing the supply surplus. However, the group also cut the demand estimate for its crude by 240,000 bpd from the last forecast due to a slowing economy. The group is still producing a bit more than what they think is needed. Saudi Arabia already indicated that it would shoulder an additional 0.5 mb/d reduction by March.   The IEA said in its latest Oil Market Report that the dwindling supplies of medium and heavy barrels, at a time when light sweet oil is surging from U.S. shale, has disrupted both the crude and product markets. Medium and heavy losses from Iran, Venezuela, Mexico and limited midstream capacity restraining growth in Canada has all combined to put a premium on those barrels. As a result, refiners could face some challenges this year as they search for the right type of crude for their facilities. The EIA revised up its forecast for U.S. oil production in its latest Short Term Energy Outlook. The agency expects the U.S. to average 12.4 mb/d this year, a huge 300,000-bpd jump from last month’s estimate. Even better, the U.S. could average 13.2 mb/d in 2020, revised up from 12.9 mb/d from the previous report.   Saudi Aramco partially shut its Safaniyah offshore oil field after a power cable was cut by a ship’s anchor, according to Reuters. The shutdown occurred about two weeks ago. The Safaniyah field is the largest offshore oil field in the world, with a capacity exceeding 1 mb/d. Energy Intelligence says about 300,000 bpd was impacted. A week of trade talks in Beijing between the U.S. and China ended with both sides indicating that significant progress was made. The talks will continue next week in Washington. It seems unlikely that a comprehensive agreement will be secured before the March 1 deadline, but the WSJ reports that they could agree to a memorandum of understanding outlining a framework trade deal, allowing talks to continue beyond the deadline. President Trump also indicated he would be willing to punt on tariffs if the two sides were making progress.

 US crude rises 2.2% to 3-month high, settling at $55.59, boosted by OPEC output cuts - Brent crude oil climbed above $66 a barrel to its highest this year as OPEC-led supply cuts and this week's announcement of a higher than expected cut by Saudi Arabia encouraged investors. The international oil benchmark ended Friday's session $1.68 higher at $66.25 a barrel, up 2.6 percent on the day. Brent set a fresh three-month closing high going back to Nov. 19 on Friday and rose 6.7 percent on the week. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose $1.18, or 2.2 percent, to $55.58 per barrel, also the best settlement since Nov. 19. WTI ended the week with a 5.4-percent gain. OPEC, along with allies led by Russia, made voluntary production cuts beginning last month aimed at tightening the market. Top exporter and de facto OPEC leader Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it would cut over half a million barrels per day (bpd) more in March than the deal called for, sending prices surging. The cuts come alongside involuntary production curbs as a result of U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan and Iranian crude, along with curtailed Libyan output because of civil unrest. Prices were also buoyed by the partial closure of Saudi Arabia's Safaniya, its largest offshore oilfield with a production capacity of more than 1 million bpd. The shutdown occurred about two weeks ago, a source said, and it was not immediately clear when the field would return to full capacity. "The market may be reconnecting with its fundamentals, specifically the several major supply chokeholds that have stacked up in recent months over and above the voluntary OPEC output restraints," Bank of American Merrill Lynch said in a note that it expects a drop of 2.5 million bpd in OPEC supply in the fourth quarter of 2019 from a year earlier. However, the global supply picture remains uncertain.

IMF: Saudi Arabia Needs $80-85 Oil Price To Balance 2019 Budget -- OPEC’s biggest producer Saudi Arabia would need oil prices at US$80-85 per barrel in order to balance its 2019 budget, Jihad Azour, Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has told Reuters.   Saudi Arabia’s officials, including Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, don’t discuss publicly ‘targeted oil prices’ or a desired level of oil prices that would be comfortable to the Kingdom’s finances, but analysts and the IMF have estimates what oil price level would be enough to cover Saudi Arabia’s budget spending.  For this year, “if you take the (2019) budget as presented with everything remaining equal, a breakeven point would be around $80-$85 dollars,” the IMF’s Azour told Reuters.The oil price slump in the fourth quarter of 2018 has certainly affected the public finances of the biggest oil exporting nations, including OPEC’s biggest, Saudi Arabia.  Although Azour doesn’t see the price slump affecting the Kingdom’s ability to finance itself, he expects that those lower prices would weigh on the fiscal position of Saudi Arabia.For this year, the Kingdom announced its highest-ever budget, of around US$295 billion (1.1 trillion Saudi riyals). This breaks the previous record set in 2018, with budget spending at US$261 billion and it might spark concerns about the economy’s sustainability as the increase for 2019 includes a hefty bill for cost-of-living allowances introduced last year. Last month, the IMF slashed its forecast for Saudi Arabia’s economic growth this year to 1.8 percent, down by 0.6 percentage point from the previous economic outlook in October, due to lower oil prices and lower oil production growth.The IMF sees growth in Saudi Arabia for 2019 at 1.8 percent, compared to 2.4 percent expected last October, while it lifted its 2020 economic growth forecast by 0.2 percentage point from October to 2.1 percent.

Saudi Aramco will expand into international oil and gas exploration: FT --Saudi state energy giant Aramco aims to expand into international oil and gas exploration in the coming years, a move that will see the company compete more directly with the likes of Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. Aramco has historically stuck to producing Saudi Arabia's vast, low-cost oil reserves, the world's second largest. But Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih now confirms in an interview with the Financial Times that the company will also look overseas for oil and natural gas prospects. "We are no longer going to be inward-looking and focused only on monetizing the kingdom's resources," Falih told the FT. "Going forward the world is going to be Saudi Aramco's playground." Aramco will prioritize building a global natural gas business as it pushes into overseas exploration and production, Falih said. Oil majors like Exxon and Shell are already shoring up their gas operations as the world's appetite for the fossil fuel grows, particularly in Asia. The company has considered making investments in liquefied natural gas projects in the Russian Arctic and the U.S., according to recent news reports. Falih says Aramco is also considering opportunities in Australia, which recently topped Qatar as the world's top exporter of LNG, a form of natural gas chilled to liquid form for transport by sea. Aramco has already invested in overseas refineries and petrochemicals plants. Its Motiva facility in Port Arthur, Texas, is the largest refinery in the United States. At home, Aramco is in the process of purchasing a 70 percent stake in Saudi petrochemicals company Sabic from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund. The deal, expected to raise $70 billion for the Public Investment Fund, will partially underwrite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to diversify the Saudi economy. Aramco also plans to list shares of the company on an international stock market in 2021 to shore up the fund, following a long delayed initial public offering.

The Saudis “Don’t Know” Where Jamal Khashoggi’s Body Is  — Saudi authorities do not know where murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s body is, despite having in custody the Saudi team that killed him, a high-ranking foreign affairs official in the kingdom said in an interview broadcast on Sunday. The dissident journalist was dismembered after his murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but his remains have yet to be found, AFP said.Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir said the murder was carried out by Saudi officials “acting outside their scope of authority” and that 11 people have been charged with the crime.Still, asked where Khashoggi’s body is, he told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “We don’t know.”#Saudi minister Abdel al Jubeir says he can’t comment on reports by anonymous sources, repeats that #MBS didn’t order #Khoshoggi killing https://t.co/fGFh0PyNhd— Barbara Plett Usher (@BBCBarbaraPlett) February 8, 2019Jubeir said the public prosecutor responsible for the case had sought evidence from Turkey but had received no response. Questioned why those in custody couldn’t tell them where the body was, Jubeir responded: “We are still investigating.”

Google, Apple Condemned For Continuing To Carry Saudi Wife-Tracking App - Apple and Google - which have had zero compunction about removing "inappropriate content" that promotes "hate speech, graphic violence, bullying and harassment" have come under heavy criticism by human rights activists and lawmakers for carrying an app that allows Saudi men to track the whereabouts of their wives and daughters.   Created by the National Information Center, the app - Absher, contains a database of women in Saudi Arabia and the means to prohibit them from travel - or catch them leaving without permission. Of note, more than 1,000 women flee Saudi Arabia each year according to Mansour al-Askar of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in a May 2017 statement to The Economist . According to Human RIghts Watch, Saudi women require permission from a male guardian - usually their father or husband, to leave the country.  "It's really designed with the men in mind," said senior Human Rights Watch researcher, Rothna Begum. "Of course, it's incredibly demeaning, insulting and humiliating for the women and downright abusive in many cases, because you're allowing men absolute control over women's movements." Begum told CNN that Google and Apple "should be considering the way that the app is being used and in practice," and has suggested that the Silicon Valley companies ask the Saudi government to remove the guardianship functionality from the app.  "Apple and Google could have more oversight over any government services apps anyway," said Begum. "They should be looking to see whether or not these government apps are facilitating human rights abuses or encouraging discrimination in the country as well."Amnesty International has also called on the Silicon Valley tech titans to "assess the risk of human rights abuses on women which is facilitated by the App and mitigate the harm that the App has on women." "The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms," said Amnesty International in a statement emailed to CNN.

EU adds Saudi Arabia to ‘dirty money’ blacklist - The European Commission has added seven countries including Saudi Arabia, Panama, and Nigeria to a blacklist of nations that pose a threat because of lax controls on terror financing and money laundering. The new countries targeted by the commission on Wednesday join another 16 already on this register, bringing the total up to 23. The commission said it added jurisdictions with "strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks". Will EU stop arms sales to Saudi in wake of Khashoggi killing?The move is part of a crackdown against money laundering after several scandals hit European Union banks in recent months. But it has triggered criticism from several EU states worried about their economic relations with the listed states, notably Saudi Arabia. "We have established the strongest anti-money laundering standards in the world, but we have to make sure that dirty money from other countries does not find its way to our financial system," Vera Jourova, European Commissioner for Justice said in a statement. "Dirty money is the lifeblood of organised crime and terrorism," she added, urging countries on the list to "swiftly remedy their deficiencies". The 28 EU states now have one month, which can be extended to two, to endorse the list. They could reject it by qualified majority. 

Iran is turning its 'people into paupers' instead of providing food, Saudi prince says -- Iran is funding militias throughout the Middle East while turning its own people into paupers, Saudi Arabian Prince Turki Al-Faisal told CNBC Tuesday. "I've described Iran in the past, and I think the description still fits, the leadership in Iran has developed into a paper tiger with steel claws," he told CNBC Tuesday. "The 'steel claws' are the militias that they have established throughout the Middle East, whether it's Hezbollah (in Lebanon) or the Houthis (in Yemen) or the al-Abbas (a Shia militant group in Syria) or the various militias operating in Iraq and Syria whose main purpose is to further Iran's influence and its domination of the areas in the Middle East," he said, speaking to CNBC's Hadley Gamble at the Milken Institute summit in Abu Dhabi. Iran and Saudi Arabia are rival religious and political powers in the Middle East. Relations between the Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran have hit rock-bottom in recent years with civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq seen as proxy battlegrounds between the two countries. Iranian support for the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and even, sporadically, to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the form of weaponry and military training, has also made Iran a pariah on the global stage. A sluggish economy, made worse by re-imposed U.S. sanctions, and rising food prices have also fueled civil unrest and demonstrations against the government. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last month that Iran was facing its toughest economic situation "in 40 years." The International Monetary Fund has predicted the country's growth contracted by 1.5 percent in 2018 and will slump by 3.6 percent in 2019. Al-Faisal likened Iran to a "paper tiger" because he said poverty and protest were rising in the country with a "dysfunctional" government. He said he didn't know whether there would be regime change in Iran but hoped U.S. sanctions would change the leadership's conduct.

Iran to the Iraqis: do not attack US forces unless they refuse to withdraw following a parliamentary decision US president Donald Trump’s statement of his intention to remain in Iraq in order to “be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem” has created a political storm in Mesopotamia among local politicians and groups now determined to put an end to the US presence in the country. Many are upset by Trump’s statement, saying that the “US forces are departing from their initial mission to fight terrorism, the reason for which they are allowed to stay in Iraq”. Iraqi President Barham Saleh commented that the US administration did not ask Iraq’s permission for US troops stationed in the country to “watch Iran”. US forces have been deployed in Iraq in large numbers since 2014 when ISIS occupied a third of the country. The US establishment under president Obama refrained from rushing to support the Iraqi government, leaving room for Iran to act rapidly and send weapons and military advisors to Baghdad and Erbil. The intentionally slow US reaction pushed the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani to call for the mobilisation of the population, a call that led to the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), called Hashd al-Shaabi, who managed to stop ISIS’s advance. Moreover, in response to Iraq’s request, a joint military operational room was formed in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” where Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian high-ranking officers are still present, coordinating military attacks and sharing electronic and other intelligence information about ISIS whereabouts and the movements of its militants, sleeping cells and leaders. The US also offered to conduct intelligence operations and air strikes against ISIS. Nevertheless, during the period that the ISIS threat diminished the number of the US forces has more than doubled, from 5,200to 11,000, according to sources within the Iraqi government; some Iraqi sources claim the real numbers are much larger, with as many as 34,000 US servicemen spread over 31 bases and locations, along with Iraqi forces. There are no military bases for US forces only.

Europe Is Determined to Save the Iran Deal -  It has been more than 300 years since Iran and France launched official diplomatic ties. The initial contact between the two nations dates back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the kingdom of Persia tried to secure support from European nations against a powerful neighbor: the Ottoman Empire. France was a popular destination for Iranian kings wishing to spend their time abroad, and Iran was a strategically important country at the crossroads of the Silk Road with unlimited access to the Persian Gulf. This made Iran-France relations particularly close. The two countries maintained cordial ties until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which changed the political landscape of the Middle East and caused a shift in Iranian foreign policy. Iran-France relations suffered enormously as a result of the anti-Western tone of the revolution, and ties were cut for 11 months following the Gordji Affair. This refers to the case of Wahid Gordji, a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, who was suspected by French intelligence of being behind the 1985-86 bomb attacks in the French capital. There were other reasons for the decline in Iran-France relations. The most controversial surrounded the Iranian nuclear program, which started in the early 2000s and lasted until the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in 2015. The JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal, was signed by the Iranians and leading world powers, including the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union. During the talks, France was accused by the Iranian government of taking a hardline approach. In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to François Nicoullaud, the former French ambassador to Iran, about the ups and downs of Iran-France relations and the new US sanctions. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

IS resists ‘final push’ by US-backed force in eastern Syria - US-backed fighters in Syria say they are meeting fierce resistance in the last enclave held by Islamic State (IS) militants near the Iraqi border. A battle has been going on for hours, with US-led coalition air strikes and artillery fire pounding IS positions. Up to 600 jihadists are thought to be defending their last stronghold, a small pocket in Syria's eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Two years ago IS controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq. On Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow some 20,000 civilians to leave the area, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the group was launching the "final battle to crush IS". Some civilians are believed to be still in the area. An SDF field commander told AFP news agency on Sunday morning: "There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing." Monitors the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF were advancing across farmland, and there were heavy clashes and landmines going off. Backed by air strikes, the SDF have driven out IS from towns and villages in north-eastern Syria in recent months.The battle for the tiny sliver of land still held by IS next to the Iraqi border has been raging for many hours. Air strikes and artillery fire have pummelled the IS position, which measures only about a mile across. The SDF believes it will shortly achieve a decisive victory. IS does still hold another scrap of territory in Syria - and it continues to carry out dozens of attacks - many targeting the SDF. Even as it seems likely to lose every last fragment of its once-vaunted and self-declared caliphate, IS can continue to operate and pose a potent threat in both Syria and Iraq from remote areas where its fighters find refuge, as well as through militants gone to ground in towns and cities.

Seven Children Among 16 Killed by US-Led Airstrikes in Syria  — According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, US airstrikes killed at least 16 civilians, including seven children, eight women, and an elderly man, in far eastern Syria. The civilians were fleeing an ISIS-held village that US-backed forces are attacking. This is the latest in a growing number of civilian deaths in US strikes, coming amid the latest in a series of ‘final offensives’ by the Kurdish forces against the “last” ISIS villages in Syria. These constant offensives have led to a stream of displaced civilians out of these areas. The civilians killed in these latest strikes were reportedly fleeing toward the Iraqi border. US officials did not address the report yet, and it is rare for civilian deaths to officially end up on the Pentagon’s tally. It is worth wondering, however, if the strike was deliberately intended to prevent civilians crossing into neighboring Iraq, or just attacking any groups of people scrambling out of the village.

US asks Europe, others, to repatriate ISIL fighters held in Syria - The United States has called on European nations and other countries to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they have arrested more than 3,200 ISIL fighters in territory they control in northeastern Syria, with more than 900 believed to be foreign fighters. In addition to the hundreds of men, the SDF also says it is holding more than 4,000 family members, including elderly people and young children. "The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin," State Department Spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement on Monday. The announcement comes just two days before foreign ministers of US allies are set to meet in Washington for talks on the anti-ISIL coalition, with questions on how to move forward without the military backing of the US. The question of what to do with the foreign fighters in custody has grown increasingly thorny since US President Donald Trump's surprise announcement in December that he intends to withdraw all American forces from Syria. Very few countries have expressed readiness to repatriate their citizens, posing a dilemma for the Kurdish-led forces, particularly lading up to the US withdrawal.

US Leaders Call on Allies to Send Troops to Syria as it Withdrawals  – Senior United States lawmakers and military officials have urged the country’s allies to send hundreds of troops into Syria, as the US plans its withdrawal from the war-torn country, a top US official said.Speaking on a panel at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, US Senator Lindsey Graham said the US would consider keeping some troops in Syria if Washington’s allies agreed to deploy their own forces to help create a buffer zone near the Turkish border with Syria.Graham said he discussed the plan ahead of the conference with US General Joseph Votel and President Donald Trump, who announced in December that the US planned to pull about 2,000 American troops out of Syria.Votel, who is the top general leading US efforts to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, has been vocal in his opposition to the withdrawal of US forces.“The post-caliphate strategy should be different than the fight to destroy the caliphate,” said Graham, before calling on international officials in the room to send their own troops. “I’m hoping that President Trump will be coming to some of you and asking for your help and you will say yes. And in return, the capability that we have that is unique to the United States will still be in the fight in Syria,” he said.Graham also said the US would try to gain support for this plan at the conference. Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan did not secure any solid pledges of support, however, as he met with 13 defence ministers from countries that make up the anti-IS coalition on the sidelines of the conference, AFP reported.

Russia, Turkey, Iran Hail US Pullout Of Syria At Sochi, But US War Drums Beat At Warsaw - President Vladimir Putin reasserted the Russian position that northern Syria must return to Damascus' control during the opening day of the Sochi summit between the three leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran. This just as the US-led Middle East summit is underway in Warsaw, Poland where the US and Israel have urged the world to "confront Iran" in places like Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The Sochi meeting is tackling the ramifications of US withdrawal, with tense relations between Russia and Turkey given Putin also urged steps to "completely destroy" jihadists in Idlib, and as the Russian Foreign Ministry ruled out any Turkish-led initiative without first getting a green light from the Assad government. But the Russia-Syria-Iran position is set to clash with Turkish President Erdogan's vision. The February 14th meeting in Sochi between the three Presidents (Russia, Turkey and Iran) is not expected to find solutions agreeable to all parties about the two main problem areas left in Syria: northeast Syria (Manbij to Qamishli/al-Hasaka), currently occupied by US forces, and Idlib city and its rural areas occupied by jihadist groups friendly to Turkey. There are fundamentally different points of view. At the top of the agenda, the gathering is expected to have further discussions on a possible US withdrawal in the coming weeks the month of April seems plausible as announced by officials in Washington.All parties are agreed, however, that US withdrawal is a priority and will be a relief to the Levant. Therefore, any step that help to reach this objective smoothly should be taken. Nevertheless, the main differences are triggered by the Russian desire and intention to conclude a “temporary deal” with Turkey over North-east Syria’s status after the US withdrawal. These differences are related to the price Syria should pay to see US forces out of the country. Sources among decision makers in Damascus said “Russia is trying to find an excuse for Turkey to move into north-east Syria, within a 'buffer zone' of 12,000 sq km out of the 42,000 sq km that represent the zone east of the Euphrates under US occupation, reviving the 1998 Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus”.  A Syrian source reports, “The Russian President is trying to open the road for Turkey to regain a direct relationship with Syria on a higher level. Russia believes the temporary presence of Turkey is acceptable as long as the unity of Syria is non-negotiable. But we in Damascus believe that if Turkey moves in, it will be difficult to dislodge its forces ever again”.

BBC Producer's Syria Bombshell- Douma Gas Attack Footage Was Staged - Now approaching nearly a year after the April 7, 2018 alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria which the White House used as a pretext to bomb Syrian government facilities and bases throughout Damascus a BBC reporter who investigated the incident on the ground has issued public statements saying the "Assad sarin attack" on Douma was indeed "staged".  Riam Dalati is a well-known BBC Syria producer who has long reported from the region. He shocked his nearly 20,000 twitter followers on Wednesday, which includes other mainstream journalists from major outlets, by stating that after a "six month investigation" he has concluded, "I can prove without a doubt that the Douma Hospital scene was staged."  The "hospital scene" is a reference to part of the horrid footage played over and over again on international networks showing children in a Douma hospital being hosed off and treated by doctors and White Helmets personnel as victims of the alleged chemical attack. The BBC's Dalati stated on Wednesday: "After almost 6 months of investigations, I can prove without a doubt that the Douma Hospital scene was staged. No fatalities occurred in the hospital." He noted he had interviewed a number of White Helmets and opposition activists while reaching that conclusion. He continued in a follow-up tweet: Russia and at least one NATO country knew about what happened in the hospital. Documents were sent. However, no one knew what really happened at the flats apart from activists manipulating the scene there. This is why Russia focused solely on discrediting the hospital scene.

Netanyahu’s War Talk -- While attending the Warsaw conference that is ostensibly committed to promoting “peace and stability” in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu let loose with this statement“What is important about this meeting – and this meeting is not in secret, because there are many of those – is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.” Netanyahu said. The prime minister’s official Twitter account used the exact same wording:What is important about this meeting. and it is not in secret, because there are many of those – is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) February 13, 2019 This isn’t a case of Netanyahu’s words being taken out of context or misinterpreted. The prime minister’s own official account used this wording because this is the message that Netanyahu wanted to convey. It should come as no surprise that someone who has railed against Iran throughout his career would use language like this. The prime minister has talked up the idea of bombing Iran for years, and his government has obviously been attacking Iranian targets inside Syria for quite a while. Netanyahu said this in the context of talking about attacking Iranian forces in Syria and forcing them out of the country:“What we are doing is pushing and driving Iran from Syria. We are committed to doing this,” he said. Netanyahu seems to be trying to create the illusion of broader regional support for possible escalation against Iran in Syria and Lebanon. He may be interested in war with Iran, but most Arab states don’t actually have any interest in war with Iran if they are the ones that have to fight it.

 Israel fights boycott movement as pro-Palestinian campaign gains global support— Gil Sima doesn’t support Israel's occupation of the West Bank.  But that hasn't stopped filmmakers from dropping out of his Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival to protest the country's policies toward Palestinians.  Like many other entertainment and cultural events here, the film festival has been targeted by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign.  Founded in 2005, BDS calls for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality." It also advocates for the return of millions of Palestinians to the homes their ancestors left or were forced from when Israel was established in 1948. Israeli officials allege the BDS movement is anti-Semitic and seeks to destroy the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has spent at least $15 million on combating BDS since 2015.  The campaign is reverberating in the United States, where the Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow states to punish businesses that take part in Israel boycotts.  But despite vigorous efforts to quash BDS, the pressure from those who support it is mounting.  Measures calling for boycotts of Israel, many of which are modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, including divesting from companies that sell to Israel’s army, are roiling college campuses.  During the summer, more than a dozen performers backed out of Israel's Meteor Festival after headliner Lana Del Rey canceled.  Scientists, academics and even fruit fans have backed BDS: Grape exports to Europe from the Jordan Valley in the West Bank have fallen by 80 percent since 2007 because of boycotts, according to the head of the regional council there.

US Airstrikes Hit Decade High In Afghanistan - While Trump professes antipathy for US conflicts abroad, the US military in Afghanistan last year was busy dropping the most bombs in at least a decade, reported Military.com. American fighter jets, strategic and stealth bombers, attack aircraft and helicopters, and drones dropped an unprecedented 7,362 bombs in 2018, according to the latest US Air Force Central Command airpower statistics report published last week. For more clarity on just how many bombs were dropped in 2018, the second-highest year on record was 2011, when the US dropped 5,411 bombs during the height of the Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (2001–14), according to available government figures dating back to 2009."Throughout the last year, the air component has supported multiple ongoing campaigns, deterred aggression, maintained security, and defended our networks," said Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Combined Forces Air Component Commander, in a news release."We've orchestrated coalition airpower to destroy the [Islamic State] caliphate, support Iraq, and enabled significant progress in Afghanistan," Guastella said. The "Combined Forces Air Component Command 2015-2018 Airpower Statistics" spreadsheet, found within the report, shows a tremendous increase in the "number of weapons released," starting in the September 2018 through the end of the year. The unclassified data also shows aircraft operating under the Combined Forces Air Component Command flew 8,196 sorties in 2018, more than double the amount of amount of sorties in 2017. During the record year of Afghanistan bombardments, President Trump in December instructed the Pentagon to remove troops from Syria and dramatically reduce their numbers in Afghanistan. The increased bombing runs could be explained by the Trump administration trying to finish the job, which one of his campaign promises was to end the wars in the Middle East.

China’s treatment of Uighurs an ’embarrassment for humanity’: Turkey -- Turkey on Saturday condemned China's treatment of its Muslim ethnic Uighur people as "a great embarrassment for humanity," adding to rights groups' recent criticism over mass detentions of the Turkic-speaking minority. "The systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities towards Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity," Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement. The northwest Xinjiang region of China, where most Uighurs live, has been under heavy police surveillance in recent years, after violent inter-ethnic tensions. Nearly one million Uighurs and other Turkic language-speaking minorities in China have reportedly been held in re-education camps, according to a UN panel of experts. Beijing says the "vocational education centres" help people steer clear of terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society. But critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang's minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that conflict with Communist ideology and the dominant Han culture. "It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks, -- who are exposed to arbitrary arrests -- are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in concentration centres and prisons," Aksoy said in the Turkish foreign ministry statement. "Uighurs who are not detained in the camps are also under great pressure," he added. Turkey called on the international community and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres "to take effective steps to end the human tragedy in Xinjiang region."

 Harsh Turkish Condemnation Of Xinjiang Cracks Muslim Wall Of Silence -- In perhaps the most significant condemnation to date of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang, Turkey’s foreign ministry demanded this weekend that Chinese authorities respect human rights of the Uighurs and close what it termed “concentration camps” in which up to one million people are believed to be imprisoned. Calling the crackdown an “embarrassment to humanity,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the death of detained Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit had prompted the ministry to issue its statement.  Turkish media asserted that Mr. Heyit, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence, had been tortured to death. Mr. Aksoy said Turkey was calling on other countries and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to take steps to end the “humanitarian tragedy” in Xinjiang.The Chinese embassy in Ankara rejected the statement as a “violation of the facts,” insisting that China was fighting seperatism, extremism and terrorism, not seeking to “eliminate” the Uighurs’ ethnic, religious or cultural identity.Mr. Aksoy’s statement contrastèd starkly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration six months earlier that China was Turkey’s economic partner of the future. At the time, Turkey had just secured a US$3.6 billion loan for its energy and telecommunications sector from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).The Turkish statement constitutes the first major crack in the Muslim wall of silence that has enabled the Chinese crackdown, the most frontal assault on Islam in recent memory. The statement’s significance goes beyond developments in Xinjiang.

 Is The Brother Of Trump's Education Secretary Helping Build Concentration Camps For Chinese Muslims? - As China's mass incarceration of members of its Uighur Muslim minority in its far-flung Xinjiang province has elicited condemnation from editorial boards of US newspapers to, more recently, the leader of one of the world's largest Muslim nations, one of America's most famous private security contractors - and, incidentally, brother to President Trump's secretary of education, has found himself caught up in the burgeoning controversy.Five years after gaining the favor of the chairman of one of China's largest conglomerates, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who became chairman of Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group (which, instead of offering private mercenary armies for hire, claims to provide training and support services) back in 2013, has been steadily stepping back from the firm he helped build as he cedes more and more control to forces in the mainland. And now, FSG has become caught up in a controversy surrounding China's detention of more than one million Uighur's in "re-education camps", thanks to reports of a contract awarded to FSG to build a "training facility" in Xinjiang that critics feared would be used as a detention center.But according to a Bloomberg report published on Sunday, Prince denied the company's involvement in the facility, and insisted that his decision to step down as chairman of FSG in December was a strategic move intended to help the company win contracts for mega-projects on the mainland. Now FSG has drawn international attention for a signing ceremony to build a training center in far western China, where the Chinese government has detained as many as a million Uighur Muslims in political camps. The statement, made in Chinese, was subsequently removed from the firm’s website. Prince distanced himself from the region in a statement to Bloomberg."Erik Prince has no plans, desire nor interest to engage in any activity whatsoever either personally, through FSG or any other vehicle in Xinjiang Province now or at any time in the future," an FSG spokesman added.Unlike Blackwater, which became infamous after killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square, FSG focuses on logistics and security, rather than paramilitary operations.Nonetheless, FSG’s controversial business with the Chinese government has thrust Prince back into the spotlight. Critics accuse FSG of potentially helping the Beijing government engage in mass repression of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in western Xinjiang and, in the process, advancing the geopolitical agenda of a strategic U.S. competitor.

  Two Large Chinese Borrowers Miss Bond Payments, Sources Say - Two large Chinese borrowers missed payment deadlines this month, underscoring the risks piling up in a credit market that’s witnessing the most company failures on record. China Minsheng Investment Group Corp., a private investment group with interests in renewable energy and real estate, hasn’t returned money to bondholders that it had pledged to repay on Feb. 1, according to people familiar with the matter. And Wintime Energy Co., which defaulted last year, didn’t honor part of a restructured debt repayment plan last week, separate people said. The developments are significant because both companies were big borrowers, and their problems accessing financing suggest that government efforts to smooth over cracks in the $11 trillion bond market aren’t benefiting all firms. If China Minsheng ends up defaulting, it may rank alongside Wintime Energy as one of China’s biggest failures, with 232 billion yuan ($34.3 billion) of debt as of June 30, according to a ratings agency report.

China’s Mountain Of Debt Is About To Crumble -- Hordes of China’s private firms are now going under after guaranteeing other’s loans. China’s debt crisis has been christened many unflattering names, including a ‘mountain,’ ‘bomb,’ ‘horror movie,’ and ‘treadmill to hell.’ Well, the reality is that it’s probably a combination of all the above. The unfolding collapse in the country’s complex web of debt guarantees clearly highlights the vulnerability of its financial system even as it opens up a hazardous front for an economy deep in the throes of the most dramatic slowdown in growth in three decades. China has been trying to slam the brakes on unsustainable levels of debt that have powered the economy for decades. But the extent of just how much the country had come to rely on borrowed money is now beginning to unravel. Financial deleveraging was a key goal of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 supply-side structural reform plan. The campaign was meant to curb growing risks in the country’s overheating financial markets mainly through tighter asset management and clamping down on shadow financing. A couple of years down the line, hordes of private Chinese firms have been folding up as they struggle to raise new funds to repay old debts let alone survive. Corporate debt defaults tripled in 2018 after reaching a record 115.45 billion yuan and experts have warned to expect even more. Yet, another unexpected problem has surfaced: many companies that guaranteed other ’s loans are unable to honor their obligations. This contagion risk in a web of cross-guarantee system is the last thing that the country needs even as the government calls on state banks to boost lending to the private sector. The warning bells have already sounded in the once-prosperous city of Dongying, a famous oil refinery and industrial hub According to Reuters, no less than 28 firms in the city are now seeking to avoid bankruptcy by restructuring their debts as the loans they guaranteed for other firms turn soar. Among the 28 include iconic names such as Shandong Jinmao Textile Chemical Group and Shandong Dahai Group, both of which featured in the list of China’s top 500 best-run private enterprises for 2018.

 Chinese Graduates Cannot Find Jobs In Slowing Economy -  Downward pressure on the economy will impact China’s job market, state officials warned last month as data has shown gross domestic product expanded at the slowest clip since 1990. And while rhe overall job market remains stable, it faces a troubling deterioration: college graduates are struggling to find jobs. Wang Xiangtong’s three-month internship with Hill & Knowlton Strategies in Beijing will be terminated at the start of March, he told the Financial Times.Wang graduated from Scotland’s Glasgow University in 2018 with a masters degree in management, still considers his educational achievement and a brief internship as rewarding. Many of the companies he applied to in mainland China did not respond. “All of the positions I applied for are relevant to what I studied and I fit their job descriptions so I thought I’d at least get a reply from them. But many of them didn’t even give me an interview opportunity,” he said. “There are more and more graduates with masters degrees and the market is only so big. We’ll have to put up a bloody fight [to get a job].” China's economic woes and trade tensions with the US have sent exports and imports tumbling in December, while declining factory orders warned of a further slowdown throughout the first half of 2019 and more job losses. The slowdown effect is now affecting graduates from top universities, said analysts. These young entrepreneurs are discovering that finance and tech companies across the country are not hiring, but rather cutting workers. Another graduate student at a prestigious Beijing University told the Financial Times: "I feel the job market is increasingly narrow for students like me, given that a historical number of us are graduating. I also think employers have decreased or stopped hiring." She said a state-owned company recruited ten students in her class last year but this year is only taking one.

Economic Watch: China January trade data beat expectations - (Xinhua) -- China's exports and imports both rose at a faster-than-expected rate in January, another sign that the Chinese economy remained resilient despite growing external uncertainties. Total goods trade rose 8.7 percent year on year in January to 2.73 trillion yuan (395.98 billion U.S. dollars), the General Administration of Customs said in an online statement Thursday. Exports rose 13.9 percent year on year to 1.5 trillion yuan last month, while imports grew 2.9 percent to 1.23 trillion yuan, customs data showed. The increase in exports was significantly higher than analyst forecasts, partly driven by front-loading by exporters before the Spring Festival, which fell at the beginning of February as compared with the end of February last year, China Merchants Securities said in a research note. "It could also be the case that the negative impacts brought by previous front-loading activities had peaked in December," it said. While imports climbed mildly, the data also beat expectations, it noted. Exports and imports of products under the general trade category rose 13 percent year on year to 1.66 trillion yuan, accounting for 60.9 percent of the total foreign trade, 2.3 percentage points higher than the same period last year, customs data showed. China's trade with the European Union, ASEAN countries and Japan increased 17.6 percent, 7.8 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, while trade with countries along the Belt and Road registered faster-than-average growth, with the combined trade volume standing at 770.8 billion yuan, up 11.5 percent year on year.

China Global Exports Surge In January But Trade With US Tumbles - Amid intensifying trade talks, Chinese exports rebounded dramatically in January as companies trying to ship goods ahead of the Lunar New Year shutdown likely exaggerated the gains.In USD terms, exports rose 9.1% in January from a year earlier (far above expectations of a 3.3% decline and December's 4.4% YoY drop). Imports also smashed expectations: falling just 1.5% against expectations for a 10.2% collapse. In Yuan terms, Exports rose and even more impressive 13.9% YoY and imports rose 2.9% YoY (both far better than expected).The overall trade surplus fell in both Yuan and USD terms from December.Impressive numbers, but as Bloomberg details, the Lunar New Year break coming about 10 days earlier than last year probably boosted January’s shipments, as companies rushed to ship more goods ahead of the holiday shutdown of many factories and companies. Trade with US tumbled with both exports and imports plunging further in January. China Jan. exports to U.S. was $36.54b and imports from U.S. was $9.24b, according to website of General Administration of Customs.Also of note, China’s crude oil imports -2.7%MoM to 10.07m b/d last month, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data from General Administration of Customs Thursday."We expect that growth of exports in 2019 will decelerate from 2018, even if there is a deal not to raise tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports, due to lackluster global economy,” UBS AG economist Ning Zhang said.“But if there’s a deal to scrap all the existing tariffs, that will be a different scenario, and the exports will not weaken significantly."The initial reaction was a kneejerk higher in yuan but that is fading...

China Programming AI Drones To Autonomously Murder Without Human Input - China is programming new autonomous AI-powered drones to conduct "targeted military strikes" without a human making the decision to fire, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security, a US national security think tank.  Authored by Gregory C. Allen, the report is a comprehensive look at Chinese AI (and American officials' underestimation of it). Allen notes that drones are becoming increasingly automated as designers integrate sophisticated AI systems into the decision-making processes for next-generation reconnaissance and weapons systems. Before writing his analysis, Allen participated in a series of meetings "with high-ranking Chinese officials in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leaders of China’s military AI research organizations, government think tank experts, and corporate executives at Chinese AI companies."  "Though many current generation drones are primarily remotely operated, Chinese officials generally expect drones and military robotics to feature ever more extensive AI and autonomous capabilities in the future," writes Allen. "Chinese weapons manufacturers already are selling armed drones with significant amounts of combat autonomy." "The specific scenario described to me [by one anonymous Chinese official] is unintentional escalation related to the use of a drone," said Allen in a Wednesday report by The Verge.

Chinese fleet ‘tries to halt Philippine work’ in South China Sea - China has been accused of sending a fleet of almost 100 ships to hamper Philippine construction work on a disputed island in the South China Sea. Beijing started sending vessels to Thitu, part of the Spratly chain, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) run by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The fleet of ships, dispatched from the nearby Subi Reef, includes vessels from the navy and coastguard along with dozens of fishing boats. The report said their presence was part of an effort to coerce the Philippines into stopping the work on the island, which China also claims as its own. Satellite images showed that a Chinese navy Jianghu V-class frigate and Zhaoduan-class coastguard cutter were off Thitu on December 20, when the number of Chinese vessels had peaked at 95. The report said the Chinese warship was just over seven nautical miles away from the Philippine navy’s frigate, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, at the time. The Philippine government announced in April 2017 that it would start building a beaching ramp on Thitu, which is known as Pagasa in the Philippines and Zhongye island in Chinese. Once completed, the beaching ramp will allow Philippine ships to bring construction materials to repair and lengthen the runway on the island to accommodate larger aircraft. The work should have been finished by the end of last year, but Philippine officials said it had been delayed by inclement weather and rough seas.

Why Is There A Chinese Military Space Station Hiding In Argentina? -- Senior Pentagon officials are becoming increasingly concerned that the Chinese military can monitor and target US satellites from a secret deep-space tracking facility in Las Lajas, Argentina.In testimony before the US Congress on Feburary 07, Admiral Craig Faller, the new commander of US Southern Command, warned about China’s rapid expansion into South America. Fallar told lawmakers that China actively supports autocratic governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and employs predatory lending practices across the continent. He said Beijing has been instrumental in developing infrastructure such as a secret antenna located in the deserts of Patagonia. US intelligence officials have been tracking the development of the facility since inception.In the last several years, a massive 16-story antenna has been erected on a 200-hectare compound located in the west of the country, at the northern end of Patagonia.An 8-foot high-security fence surrounds the space station, operates with limited oversight from Argentine officials, experts say. Brian Weeden, a space policy and security analyst with the Secure World Foundation, indicated that the US military deploys antennas similar to the one in Argentina.“Unless there is something specifically different about this, it’s a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black,” he said.“To me, there is no specific piece of evidence other than it happens to be Chinese that signals that it is nefarious.”  However, US military officials are concerned that the antenna could be used for collecting sensitive information on the position and activity of US spy satellites.

US navy challenges China in the South China Sea - In its second provocative Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea this year, the US Navy sent two guided missile destroyers yesterday—the USS Spruance and USS Preble—within the 12 nautical mile territorial limit claimed by China around Mischief Reef in the Spratly island group. The naval operation coincided with the beginning of trade talks between the US and China this week ahead of a March 1 deadline by US President Trump for a deal to avert even more aggressive US trade war measures against China. The intervention of the two destroyers is designed to send a menacing message to Beijing that the US intends to step up its confrontation on all fronts unless China bows to its demands.  Naval spokesman Commander Clay Doss told CNN that the navy carried out the operation “to challenge excessive [Chinese] maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.” China has never threatened access by international shipping to the South China Sea. Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told reporters earlier this month that China was placing military hardware on the islets under its control in the South China Sea. “There’s been sort of a steady increase,” he said. “The weapons systems have been getting increasingly sophisticated so it’s something we’re watching very closely.” In reality, China’s expansion of facilities in the South China Sea is in response to Washington’s increasingly aggressive challenges to China’s territorial claims and to the US military build-up in Asia, firstly under President Obama and now Trump. The South China Sea is adjacent to major Chinese military bases, including its nuclear submarine pens on Hainan Island.

India warns Pakistan of 'strong response' to Kashmir attack - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a "strong response" to a car bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed at least 42 paramilitary personnel, with New Delhi calling for "the complete isolation of Pakistan" for harbouring the armed group behind the devastating attack. "We will give a befitting reply," Modi said in a speech on Friday, soon after he called his security advisers to consider a response to the worst attack on Indian security forces in decades. "Those who committed this heinous act will pay a heavy price. Those who supported it will definitely be punished," he was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper."If our neighbour thinks it can destabilise India, then it is making a big mistake."   Thursday's attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) soon after a Kashmiri rebel rammed an explosive-laden car into a bus carrying personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The bombing has ratcheted up the tension between the two South Asian neighbours, which rule parts of Muslim-majority Kashmir while claiming the entire territory as their own. Pakistan has denied any involvement and warned India against linking it to the attack. However, Arun Jaitley, India's finance minister, said there was "incontrovertible evidence" that Islamabad had a "direct hand in this gruesome attack". He told reporters India would ensure "the complete isolation of Pakistan from the international community". The first step, he said, would include India removing most-favoured-nation (MFN) privileges given to Pakistan under the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

India Forces Amazon to Choose Between Operating e-Commerce Platform and Selling Goods on that Platform --Jerri-lynn Scofield - India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) implemented new foreign direct investment rules on 1 February, forcing Amazon.in and Flipkart – a Walmart subsidiary – to choose between operating an e-commerce platform and selling goods on that platform.These rules came into effect as planned and caused temporary chaos in the world’s fastest-growing digital marketplaces.Both Amazon and flipkart scrambled to comply and remove goods for sale on their platforms offered through vendors in which they had an equity stake, according to the BBC’s report, Amazon forced to pull products in India as new rules bite.The companies appear to have expected a grant of a four-month extension.  Instead, they discovered the Indian regulator intended to follow through and indeed shut down the companies’ inventory strategy under which they simultaneously controlled the digital marketplaces and supplied inventory for sale on those marketplaces.  Two days before the rules came into effect, the NY Times estimated in Amazon Users in India Will Get Less Choice and Pay More Under New Selling Rules that more than 400,000 items – approximately  a third of Amazon’s estimated $6 billion in annual sales in India would disappear from the site, at least temporarily. The Grey Lady engaged in some epic pearl clutching about the impact these rules would have on Indian consumers:Indian consumers may pay a price for such protectionism. A survey of common products currently available on Amazon’s Indian site suggests that after sales by its affiliated companies are banned, many products will disappear and others will become more expensive because they will only be sold by small merchants who lack the clout to negotiate low wholesale prices from manufacturers.While it’s true that India’s DTPP adopted this as a foreign direct investment (FDI) regulation, it’s somewhat misleading to style it as protectionism.Reason: Before these two US-owned companies India’s e-commerce market, no Indian company had  attempted a strategy of trying to both own a platform and control inventory on that platform. In other words, the DTPP used FDI rules to shut down a strategy, rather than to discriminate against foreign companies per se.

US Company That Smuggled Weapons Into Venezuela Linked to CIA “Black Site” Renditions  — The parallels between aspects of the Contra scandal and the current situation in Venezuela are striking, particularly given the recent “outrage” voiced by mainstream media and prominent U.S. politicians over Maduro’s refusal to allow U.S. “humanitarian aid” into the country.Two executives at the company that chartered the U.S. plane that was caught smuggling weapons into Venezuela last week have been tied to an air cargo company that aided the CIA in the rendition of alleged terrorists to “black site” centers for interrogation. The troubling revelation comes as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has rejected a U.S. “humanitarian aid” convoy over concerns that it could contain weapons meant to arm the country’s U.S.-backed opposition. Last Tuesday, Venezuelan authorities announced that 19 rifles, 118 ammo magazines, 90 radios and six iPhones had been smuggled into the country via a U.S. plane that had originated in Miami. The authorities blamed the United States government for the illicit cargo, accusing it of seeking to arm U.S.-funded opposition groups in the country in order to topple the current Maduro-led government. A subsequent investigation into the plane responsible for the weapons caché conducted by McClatchyDC received very little media attention despite the fact that it uncovered information clearly showing that the plane responsible for the shipment had been making an unusually high number of trips to Venezuela and neighboring Colombia over the past few weeks. Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based analyst, told McClatchy in a telephone interview that the plane, which is operated by U.S. air cargo company 21 Air, had been “flying between Philadelphia and Miami and all over the place, but all continental U.S.” during all of last year. However, Watkins noted that “all of a sudden in January, things changed” when the plane began making trips to Colombia and Venezuela on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. According to Watkins’ analysis, this single plane had conducted 40 round-trip flights from Miami International Airport to Caracas and Valencia — where the smuggled weapons had been discovered — in Venezuela, as well as to Bogota and Medellin in Colombia in just the past month.

Russia says ready to mediate Venezuelan crisis - (Xinhua) -- Russia is ready to join mediation efforts to help end the Venezuelan crisis, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday. "We have paid great attention to the mediation formula proposed by Mexico, Uruguay and Caribbean countries. It calls for a comprehensive all-inclusive dialogue without ultimatums and preconditions," Zakharova said at a news briefing. "We believe that this initiative, as it was announced, deserves broad international support," she said. Russia supports the broadest contacts on the Venezuelan issue and has consistently explained its position, Zakharova said. She said that any attempt by the United States to make Russia change its position is hardly feasible as it is "not built on some short-term opportunistic considerations." Russia respects international law and state sovereignty in line with the principles of the United Nations Charter and it therefore is ready for a dialogue with everyone, including the United States, on this basis, Zakharova said. "We're not tired of saying: the task of the international community is to contribute to finding an understanding between different political forces in Venezuela," Zakharova said. Venezuela has been experiencing political tensions since Jan. 23 when National Assembly President Juan Guaido declared himself interim president and was recognized by the United States and some other countries. 

No-deal Brexit could sink much of Asia - As the United Kingdom (UK) heads towards a possible “no deal” Brexit, the uncertainty surrounding the terms of the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union (EU) is making waves as far away as Southeast Asia. The German Development Institute, a think tank, recently estimated in a report that Cambodia could be one of the world’s biggest losers in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit. As many as 1.7 million people living in developing nations could descend into “extreme poverty” in the event, the think tank claimed. The UK is the second or third largest export market for many Southeast Asian nations and a key investor in their fast-growing, export-geared economies. Britain invests more than three times as much as Germany, Europe’s largest economy, in the region. If British Prime Minister Theresa May’s embattled “Withdrawal Agreement” is again rejected by parliament after its historic defeat in early January, the first time legislation produced by the government lost by such a large margin since the 1920s, much of the UK’s global trade could be thrown into chaos. It is expected to be voted on later this month and there are indications that it will be a more closely drawn battle. But if rejected again, Britain could leave the EU without a deal, meaning most of its trade deals with the EU will be torn up on the evening of March 29. In that scenario, the UK would trade with its European partners under less only World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

US, EU To Slap New Sanctions On Russia - It's been at least a few months since the US or western nations unveiled some new, broad sanctions targeting Russia, and with the Mueller "collusion" report due any minute, it's time for Trump to once again remind the audience of the biggest ever soap opera, that he is not a BFF with Vladimir Putin. As such, the FT reports that the US and EU are close to agreeing a raft of new sanctions against Russia, this time in a co-ordinated push aimed at punishing Moscow for its "aggression" towards Ukraine in the Kerch strait.More than two months after the incident, and despite repeated appeals from the US and EU states to release them, 24 Ukrainian sailors are still being detained by the Russian authorities, after Russian Navy ships rammed and fired on three Ukrainian vessels that Moscow said were "maneuvering dangerously" near the Kerch Strait. The Russian Coast Guard captured some two dozen sailors after commandeering the ships, which included to Ukrainian artillery ships and a tugboat. Russia has refused to release the ships and the sailors despite demands from European and US officials.The latest move to counter what has been described in western capitals as "a persistent campaign of malign behavior by Russia", would be jointly applied by the US and the EU. The new measures will be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers next Monday according to the FT, and could be levied in the next two months, according to diplomats briefed on the discussions.

Russia to disconnect from the internet as part of a planned test - Russian authorities and major internet providers are planning to disconnect the country from the internet as part of a planned experiment, Russian news agency RosBiznesKonsalting (RBK) reported last week. The reason for the experiment is to gather insight and provide feedback and modifications to a proposed law introduced in the Russian Parliament in December 2018. A first draft of the law mandated that Russian internet providers should ensure the independence of the Russian internet space (Runet) in the case of foreign aggression to disconnect the country from the rest of the internet. In addition, Russian telecom firms would also have to install "technical means" to re-route all Russian internet traffic to exchange points approved or managed by Roskomnazor, Russia's telecom watchdog. Roskomnazor will inspect the traffic to block prohibited content and make sure traffic between Russian users stays inside the country, and is not re-routed uselessly through servers abroad, where it could be intercepted. The test disconnect experiment has been agreed on in a session of the Information Security Working Group at the end of January. Natalya Kaspersky, Director of Russian cyber-security firm InfoWatch, and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, presides over the group, which also includes major Russian telcos such as MegaFon, Beeline, MTS, RosTelecom, and others. RBK reported that all internet providers agreed with the law's goals, but disagreed with its technical implementation, which they believe will cause major disruptions to Russian internet traffic. The test disconnection would provide ISPs with data about how their networks would react.

Global Trade Hits A Brick Wall -- With markets transfixed by the recent dovish reversal by the world's central bank, which started by the Fed and continued with ECB, RBA, RBI and BOE, while paying increasingly more attention to the upcoming Q1 earnings recession which - for first time since 2016, Q1 2019 is now expected to post a Y/Y contraction in EPS... ... and the recent wave of soft economic data — especially from Europe — amid renewed concerns over prospects for the U.S./China trade talks, the post-Christmas global rally finally took a break, with world stocks posting their first weekly drop after 6 consecutive weeks of increases. Indeed, after brushing up against the 200-day moving average earlier this week, the S&P 500 dipped through the back-half amid trade jitters. In tandem, longer-term Treasury yields revisited levels not seen since the opening days of the year (the 30-year fell below 3%). And while the rally in North American bonds has been impressive, it can’t hold a candle to the move in German bunds, where the 10-year yield has careened down to just 8 bps (yes, 0.08%) from a peak of 77 bps almost exactly a year ago. Completing the risk-off move this week, the U.S. dollar took a small step forward and oil prices sagged somewhat. And as BMO chief economist Douglas Porter writes, "the main driver for this week’s moderate market angst was not the State of the Union, it was the State of the Global Economy" adding that a suddenly much more subdued tone around the negotiations with China—which resume in Beijing on February 14, at a “high level”—rattled the cozy consensus that a half-loaf deal could be reached by the March 1 deadline, especially since as Trump confirmed, the two presidents are not going to meet before then, "suggesting that an extension of talks may be the best possible outcome at this point." Here the BMO economist repeats that no matter what the near-term posturing suggests, a successful long-term US-China trade deal is virtually impossible: Consider, for example, the painful NAFTA negotiations: In that case, we had a perfectly good agreement to begin with, a moderate bilateral imbalance (between the U.S. and Mexico), and generally positive relationships between the three, and it took more than a year of hard bargaining. In this case, we have no current deal, a massive bilateral imbalance, the U.S. aiming for structural  changes, and two adversaries at the table. Simply, "there is no way that a full-meal deal can be reached in a short period of time" according to Porter, and that whatever unfolds in the next three weeks, "one would suspect that this issue will hover over markets for many, many months to come."

Why S&P Bulls Should Worry As The Baltic Dry Collapse Nears Worst On Record -- As we noted recently, despite global stock markets soaring, global freight indices have been more-than-seasonally weak so far in 2019 with the Baltic Dry Index in particular crashing.The Baltic Dry Index represents the cost of renting an ocean-going container ship to move goods from, say, Chinese factories to the Port of Los Angeles. The more stuff being made and sold, the higher the demand for such ships, and thus the higher the price to rent one. And vice versa.This is definitely one of the vice versa times. After rising to robust levels in mid-2018 the Baltic Dry Index has since collapsed... This is just shy of the worst start to a year on record (since at least 1984)... As The Wall Street Journal recenjtly noted, Free-Falling Freight Rates Spell Trouble For ShippingDry bulk shipowners face a long period of uncertainty as spot prices collapse and China shipments shrink.A slowing global economy, coupled with weak demand from China over the Lunar New Year and from Brazil after Vale SA’s iron ore disaster, is dragging shipping rates to near record lows, and few in the industry expect things to improve any time soon.Brokers in Singapore and London said capesize vessels, the largest ships that move bulk commodities like iron ore, coal and aluminum, were chartered in the spot market for as low as $8,200 a day on Thursday, a $500 decline from Wednesday. Break-even costs for carriers can be as high as $15,000 a day, and daily rates in the capesize market hovered above $20,000 last year. “Everyone is looking for a catalyst to push the market up, but it’s not there,” said a Singapore broker.

EU brings industry together to tackle dollar dominance in energy trade (Reuters) - The European Union has convened a wide-ranging industrial group to work on promoting the euro and fighting the monopoly of the U.S. dollar in oil and commodities trading, reflecting broader tensions with Washington over trade and sanctions. The group, which involves executives from European oil firms such as OMV and Eni and gas and power firms such as Fluxys and Engie, will meet behind closed doors in Brussels under the auspices of the European Commission on Thursday. The workshop is part of an EU push to challenge the dominance of the dollar, with an EU official saying such a shift must be market-led. Participants are invited to dig into “constraints on (market-initiated) alternatives to the use of U.S. dollar through wider use of the euro, in spite of the benefits of such a change”, the Commission said in materials prepared for the meeting. The meeting, part of a consultation process until mid-2019, is expected to provide new input to EU plans for promoting the euro in energy trading. “The EU is the world’s largest energy importer with an annual energy import bill averaging 300 billion euros in the last five years. Roughly 85 percent of this amount is paid in U.S. dollars,” according to the materials for the meeting. Other major commodities producers and importers such as Russia and China have also long sought to increase the role of other currencies in commodities trading. “Washington doesn’t like cartels like OPEC,” said one participant involved in preparing for the meeting, referring to the Middle East-dominated Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “But then how can you have one market dominated by one currency - the dollar.” Some industry players are skeptical, however, and not participating in the meeting as they say making space for the euro in international payments is too long-term a process. “More than promotion, you need reforms, stability and convincing investors,” a senior central banker said, airing widespread doubts at the European Central Bank about the Commission plan. ECB officials have said the only way to boost the international role of the euro is to strenghten the European monetary union with banking and financial reforms that EU states have blocked for years.

Europe Looks Like the Real Weak Link in the Global Economy - For all the palpitations that the trade war between the U.S. and China will knock out their economies, it is Europe that increasingly looks like the biggest threat to global growth. Industrial production across the 19-nation euro area is falling at the fastest pace since the financial crisis, and deteriorating demand is evident as the region finds itself squeezed between international and domestic pressures. That leaves expansion at risk of barely topping 1 percent this year, a sharp slowdown from 2018, with even continental powerhouse Germany in trouble. Euro-area economic numbers have consistently missed forecasts. Investors are tuning in. The Bloomberg euro index is near its lowest since mid-2017 and European stocks have never been cheaper relative to bonds in terms of yield gap. “The concern I have right now is in Europe,” said Salman Ahmed, chief investment strategist at Lombard Odier. “It’s clear China is going through a slowdown, but there’s also a strong amount of stimulus in the pipeline. However, in Europe, things are deteriorating quite fast.” The extent and surprising suddenness of the weakness reflects that the slowdown is hitting the core of the region. While the likes of Greece were at the root of past sluggishness, this time Germany’s prospects are crumbling after a protracted slump in manufacturing. Household spending has also ground to a halt in France, which is beset by the Yellow Vest protests. Together those two countries account for about half the euro-area economy. “If France stops consuming and Germany stops producing you have a major problem in the euro zone,”

Things Are Deteriorating Quite Fast - Europe Emerges As World's Weakest Link - Last week, when looking at the latest regional Industrial Production figures out of European nations, we made a simple observation: while GDP has yet to confirm, Europe is now in a recession. And according to Bloomberg, just a few days later, Europe has indeed emerged as the world's weakest link, and perhaps more so than the outcome of the US-China trade war, "it is Europe that increasingly looks like the biggest threat to global growth." As evidence, Bloomberg cites the same data that we highlighted last week, namely that industrial production across the 19-nation euro area is "falling at the fastest pace since the financial crisis, and deteriorating demand is evident as the region finds itself squeezed between international and domestic drags." According to Wednesday data, industrial output for the Euro area slumped 0.9% in December from November, double the forecast, while the annual decline was the steepest since 2009.  That leaves Europe's GDP at risk of barely reaching 1% in 2019, a sharp slowdown from 2018, with even continental powerhouse Germany in trouble. That, of course, is a polite way of saying that Europe is on the verge of a recession, if not already in one - as we claimed previously - and as seen in the following chart showing the recent series of disappointments in European economic data relative to expectations.Making matters worse, Europe is sliding into contraction at the worst possible time: just as the ECB has ended its QE, although the silver lining is that any speculation for a rate hike by Mario Draghi have been permanently crushed, and like in the US, the only question now is when will QE return. As a result, the Bloomberg euro index is near its lowest since mid-2017 and European stocks have never been cheaper relative to bonds in terms of yield gap. And investors are not happy.

European Car Sales Fall For Fifth Month In A Row -  In keeping with the global stagnation that has enveloped the auto industry, the latest EU/EFTA vehicle registration data paints an ominous picture to start 2019 in Europe, where passenger car registrations dropped 4.6% year over year and sales declined in all of largest markets in Germany, France, the U.K., Italy and Spain.   Last year, emissions testing was the generic excuse used by most manufacturers to explain the sharp drop in EU auto sales. However, with poor data continuing into 2019, it's becoming clear that the problem is likely to instead be the result of a broader slowdown. Germany's most powerful labor union, IG Metall, predicts that employment in the auto sector will top out in 2019.  Here's how the data looked on a per manufacturer basis:

  • VW Group sales drop 6.4% y/y; ytd down 6.4%
  • PSA Group sales drop 2.3% y/y; ytd down 2.3%
  • Renault Group sales drop 0.9% y/y; ytd down 0.9%
  • Ford sales drop 6.6% y/y; ytd down 6.6%
  • FCA Group sales drop 14.9% y/y; ytd down 14.9%
  • BMW Group sales drop 3.1% y/y; ytd down 3.1%
  • Daimler sales drop 1.5% y/y; ytd down 1.5%
  • Toyota Group sales drop 6% y/y; ytd down 6%
  • Nissan sales drop 24.7% y/y; ytd down 24.7%

And here is a look at the trend of ugly YOY misses that began consistently in September of last year.

Germany Just Barely Avoids A Recession - Confirming previous leaks that despite a sharp economic slowdown across most of Europe, which has emerged as the "weakest link" for the global economy... ... Europe's manufacturing and exporting powerhouse, Germany, just barely avoiding a technical recession after its economy stagnated in the 4th quarter following a 0.2% Q/Q drop in Q3, although lack of a trade war resolution will likely mean that any pickup in Europe’s powerhouse economy could be muted. After posting its worst GDP print in years, Germany’s economy was bolstered by domestic demand in the fourth quarter, as investment into buildings and equipment rose markedly. Also, in delight to fiscal doves everywhere, government spending increased significantly from the previous quarter, while private consumption was up fractionally. However, with exports and imports rising at roughly the same pace, there was no contribution from net trade, which is a problem for an economy that relies greatly on trade to grow its economy. Despite the carefully seasonally adjusted Q4 GDP print, which strategically prevented "Germany Enters Recession" headlines on the front pages of tomorrow's newspaper, Germany's Q4 performance meant Europe's biggest economy trailed most of its euro area peers, where average growth was 0.2 percent. 2019 hasn’t brought much relief so far: disappointing numbers keep rolling in and a slew of institutions have downgraded their outlooks. Worse, as we noted yesterday, whereas the likes of Greece were at the root of past European sluggishness, this time Germany’s prospects are crumbling after a protracted slump in manufacturing and a big hit to German auto production. That said, analysts are hopefully that the Q3 drop was the trough, and economists forecast growth of 0.4% in Q1 as rebounding car orders and rising water levels signal some one-off growth inhibitors are dissipating.

Europe revamps copyright rules to help creative industries face tech giants — European institutions struck a deal Wednesday on new copyright rules for the first time in almost two decades, after years of intense lobbying by European publishers, cultural industries, major tech companies and digital rights activists. Under the final deal, U.S. tech giants such as Google will have to negotiate licensing agreements with rights holders — such as record companies, collecting societies and media companies — to publish their content on YouTube and Google News, and scan its video-sharing platform to remove copyright-protected content that falls under these deals.  "The agreement is not everything the Parliament wanted to achieve, nor is it everything the Council and the Commission wanted, but I think we met the thin lines everyone can agree on," the lead negotiator for the European Parliament, Axel Voss, said after the compromise was reached between the three institutions.  A final agreement was postponed earlier Wednesday, putting in peril hopes that a deal would be found this week, but negotiators came to a compromise in the early evening marking a turning point in a fierce lobbying thriller that kept Brussels lawmakers on edge for two-and-a-half years.

Turkish Government Wages War With "Price-Gouging Terrorist, Traitors" As Food Inflation Soars - Food prices in Turkey have been soaring since the lira's sharp, violent depreciation last summer. The rise in prices is not only a result of the currency's depreciation which made the Turkish lira one of the worst performing currencies in the world, but is also a result of price gouging that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, feeding on itself, over the last 6 months. According to Bloomberg, the price of eggplants, cucumbers and tomatoes in Turkey has jumped 81%, 53% and 39% monthly, respectively. Overall, food inflation in Turkey is at 31% annualized. These soaring prices haven't gone unnoticed by the Erdogan regime, and instead of focusing on the underlying economic deterioration, the Turkish government has instead started targeting vendors who raise prices, labeling price gougers "traitors" and "terrorists". But this rhetoric isn't working, so Erdogan is backing up threats with fines: and so, the Turkish government has started cracking down and issuing fines after raiding wholesale food markets in five provinces on February 6, uncovering exorbitant price increases of up to 800%. To avoid price manipulation, the administration is seeking to eliminate (not literally, yet) middlemen by purchasing vegetables directly from farmers and selling them at lower prices in major cities. Government run vendor tents are up and running at numerous locations as of Monday and sales will soon be expanded to include cleaning products. Meanwhile, in addition to the depreciation of the Lira, flash floods in Antalya have also contributed to food shortages, pushing prices even higher. Despite this, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak dismissed the idea that weather is in any way to blame. "The inflation reduction campaign is perceived to distort relative prices and to be unsustainable," a recent Bank of America report read. 

Opinion: Europe may be on the cusp of a nightmare, but it’s not too late to wake up - George Soros — — Europe is sleepwalking into oblivion, and the people of Europe need to wake up before it is too late. If they don’t, the European Union will go the way of the Soviet Union in 1991. Neither our leaders nor ordinary citizens seem to understand that we are experiencing a revolutionary moment, that the range of possibilities is very broad, and that the eventual outcome is thus highly uncertain. The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. The next inflection point will be the elections for the European Parliament in May 2019. Unfortunately, anti-European forces will enjoy a competitive advantage in the balloting. There are several reasons for this, including the outdated party system that prevails in most European countries, the practical impossibility of treaty change, and the lack of legal tools for disciplining member states that violate the principles on which the European Union was founded. The EU can impose the acquis communautaire (the body of European Union law) on applicant countries, but lacks sufficient capacity to enforce member states’ compliance. The antiquated party system hampers those who want to preserve the values on which the EU was founded, but helps those who want to replace those values with something radically different. This is true in individual countries and even more so in trans-European alliances. The party system of individual states reflects the divisions that mattered in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the conflict between capital and labor. But the cleavage that matters most today is between pro- and anti-European forces.

More violence in Paris as gilet jaunes protests enter 13th weekend  - Thousands of French gilets jaunes (yellow vests) demonstrators marched on Saturdayin what was their 13th weekend of action. There were scuffles in Paris and a demonstrator’s hand was mangled by a small explosive. There was also an overnight arson attack on the Brittany residence of the National Assembly head, Richard Ferrand, though no immediate link was made to the actions against President Emmanuel Macron. Just who are the gilets jaunes? Read more The demonstrations, named for high-visibility jackets worn by the protesters, began in mid-November over fuel taxes. They have since broadened into a more general revolt against a political class they view as out of touch with common people. In Paris, several thousand people marched on Saturday beside symbols of power such as the National Assembly and Senate. The demonstrations were mainly peaceful, but some protesters threw objects at security forces, a scooter and a police van were set on fire and some shop windows were smashed. One participant’s hand was severely injured when he tried to pick up a so-called “sting-ball grenade” used by police to disperse crowds with teargas, a police source told Reuters. Another man had blood streaming down his face in front of a line of riot police. The interior ministry put the total number of protesters around France at 12,000, including 4,000 in Paris. The police source, however, said numbers were higher, with 21,000 demonstrators taking part in rallies outside Paris. “We’re not children, we’re adults,” said Hugues Salone, a computer engineer from Paris, who among the chanting and placard-waving protesters. “We really want to assert our choices, and not the choices of the politicians who do not live up to them.” Leaders of the movement have denounced the police for injuring protesters, but have also struggled to contain violence from their own lines.

 February 2019 Gilets jaunes SITREP - After the Act XIII held on Saturday, February 9, we can witness that the movement is still holding and will not falter by spring. Too many people have now understood what is at stake.Between 50,000 demonstrators, according to government figures, and 250,000, according to the figures of a police union have rallied all around France and not just in Paris, as the corporate media, all centralized in Paris, want to believe.As for the rest of the population, the latest survey, according to the French version of the Huffington Post, shows that 64% of the French people support the movement and 77% find it useful.The attempted counter-demonstration in support of Macron, called the Foulards rouges [the Red Scarves], took place on January 27th and gathered only a few thousand people, all in Paris and nobody in the provinces.For now, the main concern of the demonstrators is police violence, as evidenced by the many amateur videos filmed by the demonstrators themselves and posted on social networks. Lost eyes, exploded hands, skull fractures, the CRS [the equivalent of t he SWAT] no longer hesitate to shoot the demonstrators at close range with their grenades and other so-called defensive weapons. Once again, act XIII ended with a ripped hand and many wounded. Here are some of those videos:

Rights of ‘gilets jaunes’ protesters in France, ‘disproportionately curtailed’, say UN independent experts -- French protesters’ rights have been “disproportionately curtailed” during the wave of recent “gilet jaunes”, or yellow jacket demonstrations across the country over Government economic policies, said a group of independent UN human rights experts on Thursday. The demonstrations were sparked nearly three months ago by President Emmanuel Macron’s introduction of fuel taxes, but quickly morphed into a more general revolt against austerity measures, and the political establishment in general, despite a Government climb-down over the tax.“Since the start of the yellow vest protest movement in November 2018, we have received serious allegations of excessive use of force. More than 1,700 people have been injured as a result of the protests across the country”, the experts said.It is very disturbing to note that despite weeks of demonstrations, the restrictions and tactics of managing rallies and the use of force have not improved - UN rights experts“The restrictions on rights have also resulted in a high number of arrests and detentions, searches and confiscations of demonstrators' possessions, and serious injuries have been caused by a disproportionate use of so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapons like grenades and defensive bullets or ‘flashballs’,” they added.The experts said that they were aware that some of the demonstrators themselves had resorted to violence, “but we fear that the disproportionate response to these excesses may deter the population from continuing to exercise its fundamental freedoms.” It is very disturbing to note that despite weeks of demonstrations, the restrictions and tactics of managing rallies and the use of force have not improved,” the experts said.

 ‘The Alps just got taller’: Italy’s populist leaders push Franco-Italian relations to the brink - When Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella returned from a trip to Angola late on Thursday, Rome’s Ciampino airport had just been cleared of three bombs buried there since World War II. It was not the only bombshell news, reminiscent of a bygone era, coming from the Italian capital that day. Hours earlier, France’s ambassador in Rome had been recalled amid an escalating row between the two allies and neighbours – a gesture not seen since Italy declared war on the French, already battered by Nazi Germany, back in 1940.“Our friendship with France must be defended and preserved,” Mattarella declared at once, expressing his “great preoccupation” and urging his government to “immediately re-establish a climate of trust” with the French. In private, he went on to deliver a stern rebuke of the government ministers whose vitriolic comments have shredded the last remnants of diplomatic etiquette in relations between the two founding members of the European Union. The ambassador’s repatriation capped an astonishing deterioration in relations between Rome and Paris, just 13 months after French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s previous government announced plans to sign a Franco-Italian friendship treaty. It followed a series of increasingly personal slurs levelled at Macron by Italy's two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who formed a populist coalition government last year.

A feud between France and Italy sums up the deep rift over Europe France and Italy are in a diplomatic crisis, provoked by a recent meeting between Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, and representatives of the French Gilets Jaunes protest movement. Di Maio has expressed his support for the Gilets Jaunes as they prepare to stand candidates in the European Parliament elections this year. This has caused so much trouble for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that the French government has pulled its ambassador out of Rome, accusing the Italian government of making verbal attacks “without precedent since World War II.”Di Maio’s gesture was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tensions between the two governments—over corporate takeovers, policy towards Libya, and an exhibition Leonardo Da Vinci’s works—have been mounting since a new populist “government of change” came to power in Italy last June. This latest conflict has soured relations to an unprecedented point. It’s difficult to see how they can improve in the near term. Two visions of Europe It is exceptional for two of the founding members of the European Union to have such an open conflict. But it is also exceptional for Italy to have a government that is so openly hostile to the EU. This reveals that behind this crisis lies a deeper rift over Europe. Macron’s La Republique En Marche movement is a newcomer on the French political scene, but it nevertheless represents the mainstream, pro-European liberal center. Macron poached people from across the moderate left and right to form his new government. In France, the forces of the populist left (the France Insoumise movement) and right (the far-right party Rassemblement National) are in opposition. But in Italy, the equivalent forces—the Five Star movement and the League—are in government. There, it is the mainstream pro-European center that is in opposition.

France's Airstrike In Chad Draws It Deeper Into African Mission Creep - France launched an airstrike on a convoy of fighters heading south towards the capital after its Chadian partners requested its assistance, which wasn’t anything unprecedented seeing as how Paris has a long history of militarily intervening in support of N’Djamena but nevertheless suggests that the Western European country is being dragged deeper into African conflicts as a result of “mission creep” stemming from its ongoing Operation Barkhane in the transregional West and Central African space. Chad is France’s top military ally in the continent, and its armed forces are comparatively much more impressive than most of its peers seeing as how they’re capable of fighting all across the Sahara in Mali, for example, but they were apparently unable to stem the latest rebel advance on their own.Anti-government fighters have long been known to nest in neighboring countries, and the southern portion of post-Jamahiriya Libya has been a perfect base of operations for them over the past eight years. Nowadays, however, they no longer have the safe haven that they once did after General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army recently extended its influence into the region, which might be why the rebels were pressed to act when they did. Not wanting to take the risk that armed clashes around the capital might destabilize this centrally positioned country and possibly provoke another migrant wave if the targeted government teeters on the edge of collapse or even falls, France thought it prudent to assist its ally in tackling this threat long before it had the chance of manifesting itself in that manner.

Orban Offers Lifetime Tax Amnesty To Hungarian Mothers Who Have 4 Or More Children - Hungarian President Viktor Orban delivered his state of the nation speech on Sunday, and for supporters of his nationalist, anti-immigration Fidesz Party, it did not disappoint.Because, in a policy revelation that is sure to agitate George Soros, the European Commission (and Parliament) and every other supporter of the pro-immigration globalist policies that Orban opposes, the Hungarian leader declared that, from now on, all Hungarian women who give birth to four or more children will be permanently exempt from income tax...for life.In his speech, Orban portrayed the policy as necessary for bolstering Hungary's faltering birth rate without adopting more lax immigration policies, which other Western democracies see as the answer to their own demographic issues."There are fewer and fewer children born in Europe," Mr Orban said during his annual State of the Nation address. "For the west, the answer is immigration. For every missing child there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine. But we do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children." The birth-rate tax plan was one of several initiatives unveiled by Orban, whose party won re-election last year by a wide margin. His policies enjoy broad support in Hungary, particularly in the countryside, though they have also encountered vociferious opposition from those whose political views are more closely aligned with Soros. Earlier this year, protesters nearly sacked the Hungarian Parliament after political opponents accused Fidesz of a blatant power grab by creating a new federal court that many feared would be used to crack down on political dissidents.

EU unveils emergency plan to keep Channel Tunnel open after a no-deal Brexit - The European Commission has unveiled an emergency plan to keep trains running through the Channel Tunnel in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The EU’s executive adopted the proposal at a meeting on Tuesday, and in statement said it would help “avoid major disruptions of cross-border rail operations and shuttle services after the UK's withdrawal”. Eurostar high-speed trains, freight, and car shuttles would continue to run even if no deal was reached, under the measures. The tunnel could provide a lifeline for the UK, which is expected to face chaos at its ports due to extra customs and regulatory check requirements a no-deal scenario would inevitably bring. However, the EU says the extension for the tunnel is “strictly time limited” for three months and that it is conditional on Britain continuing to use safety standards “identical” to those of Brussels.

Taoiseach and May discuss Brexit ‘overall state of play’ in Dublin Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May discussed Brexit and Northern Ireland at a private dinner in Farmleigh House in Dublin last night at an occasion described by aides as “warm”, in contrast to some of their previous meetings. Irish sources said that Mr Varadkar and Mrs May discussed the continuing absence of an administration in the North and also the “overall state of play” on Brexit, but were tight-lipped about any conclusions. Irish officials stressed that the dinner in no way involved “negotiations” on Brexit or the backstop, stressing that negotiations take place in Brussels between the EU’s negotiating team led by Michel Barnier and the UK government team. The dinner was also attended by senior officials from Downing St, including the prime minister’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell and chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins. The Taoiseach’s chief of staff Brian Murphy, top Brexit official John Callinan and the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser, also attended, Government Buildings said. British reports suggested that they discussed the backstop, but Irish government sources disputed this, saying that the talks focussed on the arrangements for the common travel area between the two jurisdictions.

Brexit: this insanely unnecessary shambles "Despite its reception elsewhere", Booker wrote for the Sunday Telegraph this week, "regular readers of this column will not be unfamiliar with the point so deliberately made by the European Council President Donald Tusk. This was when he said "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".That was Booker's opening paragraph, which was then followed by this:  In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented by my expert friend Richard North with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us completely leave the EU without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave's director Dominic Cummings rejected this paper on the grounds that proposing any specific plan would only provoke fractious argument.  However, without any further intervention from Booker, when the piece came to be published in the newspaper, this is all the reader was allowed to see:  In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us to leave the EU completely without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave, however, decided against proposing any specific exit plan as that would only provoke fractious argument. There is something particularly Soviet about this behaviour, redolent of May 1920 when Lenin gave a famous speech to a crowd of Soviet troops in Sverdlov Square, Moscow. In the foreground were Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev but, in later copies of this photograph, both these figures had completely disappeared.  So it is here. Booker's "expert friend" Richard North is not allowed to appear in the column (except when occasionally allowed as Booker's co-author) and, since the favoured child Dominic Cummings is portrayed in an unfavourable light, the reference to him is discreetly erased from the record.

Sack Grayling over the Brexit ferry fiasco, demand MPs  -- Theresa May faced cross-party calls to sack her transport secretary, Chris Grayling, last night, after the calamitous collapse of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract handed to a company with no ships.Senior Tories said the prime minister had turned “a blind eye” to Grayling’s decision to award the £13.8m contract to Seaborne Freight to run ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend, despite widespread derision and accusations that it had been awarded illegally.The collapse of the contract comes amid growing unease in the international business community about Britain’s preparedness for a no-deal outcome, with less than 50 days until Brexit is due to take place. Several MPs suggested Grayling should now consider his position after his department revealed the contract had been cancelled, and Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, said the saga would “just confirm the view of many that this country is in a mess”.  Anna Soubry, a former Tory business minister, said Grayling “should be quietly considering his position”. “Chris Grayling holds a critical position in government, trying to mitigate what would be a very serious crisis for the country if we leave the European Union without a deal,” she said. “He has no grip on the very serious nature of his job. The prime minister should also be considering whether there is not someone else who could do the job better.”

Theresa May to rule out staying in EU customs union after backlash by Eurosceptic MPs - Theresa May has said she will not allow Britain to be part of the Customs Union after Brexit following a backlash by Eurosceptic MPs and ministers.Downing Street attempted to defuse the row after the Prime Minister failed to rule out further talks on a customs union in a letter to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, described Labour's plan as a "dangerous delusion", while Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, accused Mr Corbyn of trying to trap Mrs May into a "toxic" Brexit.In a boost for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, said that Britain will be "at the races" if it can secure legally binding changes to the backstop.Mrs May is on Tuesday expected to rule out membership of a customs union in the Commons in a bid to reassure Tory Eurosceptics and buy herself more time to strike a deal with the European Union. She will also appeal to Remain Tory MPs to give her more time to strike a deal by telling them that the Government will allow amendments to be tabled at the end of the month.

‘No chance’ of Theresa May accepting Labour vision for Brexit, says Andrea Leadsom - A Cabinet minister has insisted there is “no chance” of Theresa May accepting Labour’s vision for Brexit despite speculation the Prime Minister could soften her stance on customs union membership. Andrea Leadsom’s comments came after Mrs May responded to a letter from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in which he set out his Party's terms for backing a Brexit deal, with an offer of further talks. Also on Monday, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay held “constructive” talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in which they agreed to further meetings in the coming days, while their teams will continue to work in the meantime to find a way forward. However, Mr Barnier insisted that the controversial backstop - the major sticking point in the current Brexit deal - would not be reopened for further negotiations. In Mrs May's response to Mr Corbyn, released on Sunday night, the Prime Minister welcomed his agreement that the UK should leave the EU with a deal and his support for finding “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop. Mrs May ruled out Mr Corbyn's key call for the UK to remain in a customs union with Brussels, the Prime Minister did offer concessions in other areas, and said she wanted talks between Labour and Tory teams "as soon as possible". While some believed Mrs May's letter to offer a more conciliatory tone to Mr Corbyn, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said she did not believe the Prime Minister was "softening her stance at all.