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

Saturday, February 27, 2021

week ending Feb 27

Within a Matter of Months, the Fed’s Balance Sheet Will Hit $8 Trillion; These Charts Tell the Rest of the Story -- Pam Martens - Every Thursday, at approximately 4:30 p.m., the Federal Reserve provides a report on its balance sheet as of the prior day. It’s known as the H.4.1 report or the Wednesday Level report.On Thursday, September 4, 2008, the Fed’s H.4.1 report showed a $935 billion balance sheet as of Wednesday, September 3, 2008. That was 12 days before iconic financial institutions on Wall Street began to blow up in what became the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As of last Wednesday, February 17, 2021, the Fed’s balance sheet stood at $7.6 trillion – an increase of 712.83 percent in less than 13 years. The Federal Reserve was created in 1913 and such a staggering growth in its balance sheet has not occurred at any other period in U.S. history — not during the Great Depression, not even during or after World War II.What has changed the course of economic history in the United States and put the country on a debt-fueled disaster course is the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the bailouts, both monetary and fiscal, that have followed ever since, together with the unwillingness of Congress to confront this reality.The charts above showing the unprecedented growth in the federal debt and federal debt versus GDP since the Wall Street crash of 2008 confirm this thesis.Among the many factors that have kept the U.S. locked on this destructive debt path are the following:The failure by Congress to separate the giant federally-insured banks from the Wall Street casino, that is, to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, thus making perpetual Wall Street bailouts unnecessary;The failure by Congress to strip federally-insured banks of the ability to hold tens of trillions of dollars notionally in dangerous derivatives, thus making perpetual bailouts unnecessary;The fear by the Fed of allowing another stock market crash because consumers might retrench from spending if their 401(k)s implode;The failure by Congress to restore corporate pension plans to workers, thus allowing loyal, productive U.S. workers to live in dignity in their retirement years and de-linking the wealth effect from the stock market and 401(k) plans;The failure by Congress to conduct meaningful forensic investigations into how Wall Street’s Dark Pools, High Frequency Traders, and mega banks have joined forces to become a fraud monetization system and institutionalized wealth transfer mechanism, creating the worst wealth and income inequality in U.S. history.Time is running out for Congress to act.

Jerome Powell Sees Easy-Money Policies Staying in Place – WSJ —Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reaffirmed the central bank’s commitment to maintaining easy-money policies until the economy has recovered further from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “The economy is a long way from our employment and inflation goals,” Mr. Powell said in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, a statement he has repeated in recent weeks.  The Fed will therefore continue to support the economy with near-zero interest rates and large-scale asset purchases until “substantial further progress has been made,” a standard that Mr. Powell said “is likely to take some time” to achieve.  Mr. Powell delivered the Fed’s semiannual monetary-policy report to members of the committee Tuesday and is set to do the same Wednesday at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee. The hearings come as steady progress on vaccinations and multiple rounds of fiscal stimulus have brightened the economic outlook, the Fed chief noted. His remarks suggested, however, that improvement won’t prod the Fed to tighten monetary policy anytime soon. “While the news has been positive on that front when you look at the drop in virus cases and you look at some of the recent economic data, the Fed is certainly not ready to pivot on its policy stance.”   Daily coronavirus cases have fallen from their early January peak, and recent economic data including retail sales, industrial production, hiring and service-sector activity have indicated economic growth picked up in the new year after slowing in late 2020.Consumer confidence in the U.S. rose in February for the second consecutive month as Americans grew more upbeat about current business and labor market conditions, the Conference Board reported Tuesday. Still, nearly a year after the crisis erupted in the U.S., the nation has about 10 million fewer payroll jobs than in February 2020.Inflation also remains below the Fed’s 2% goal, a long-running worry among policy makers.Rising U.S. Treasury yields in recent weeks suggest some market participants may have the opposite concern: that prices could start to rise faster than the Fed expects.Mr. Powell said Tuesday that inflation could be somewhat volatile over the next year and might rise due to a potential burst of spending as the economy strengthens. But that, he said, would be a “good problem to have” in a world where economic and demographic forces have been pulling inflation down for a quarter of a century.He said he wouldn’t expect inflation to reach “troubling levels,” and wouldn’t expect any increase in inflation to be large or persistent.“Inflation dynamics do change over time but they don’t change on a dime, and so we don’t really see how a burst of fiscal support or spending that doesn’t last for many years would actually change those inflation dynamics,” he said.

Fed Chair Powell: Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress - From Fed Chair Jerome Powell: Monetary Policy Report – February 2021. A few excerpts:The initial wave of COVID-19 infections led to a historic contraction in economic activity as a result of both mandatory restrictions and voluntary changes in behavior by households and businesses. The level of gross domestic product (GDP) fell a cumulative 10 percent over the first half of 2020, and the measured unemployment rate spiked to a post–World War II high of 14.8 percent in April. As mandatory restrictions were subsequently relaxed and households and firms adapted to pandemic conditions, many sectors of the economy recovered rapidly and unemployment fell back. Momentum slowed substantially in the late fall and early winter, however, as spending on many services contracted again amid a worsening of the pandemic. All told, GDP is currently estimated to have declined 2.5 percent over the four quarters of last year and payroll employment in January was almost 10 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels, while the unemployment rate remained elevated at 6.3 percent and the labor force participation rate was severely depressed. Job losses have been most severe and unemployment remains particularly elevated among Hispanics, African Americans, and other minority groups as well as those who hold lower-wage jobs.And on high frequency indicators: Outside of the labor market, several new high-frequency indicators have been useful in monitoring the massive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer spending. Weekly data from NPD (a market analytics firm) on nonfood retail sales captured in real time the dramatic and sudden drop in consumption in mid-March; the monthly Census Bureau data recorded that decline only with a lag (figure B, left panel).3 The NPD data also reflected how the income support payments to families, provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, rapidly affected consumer spending in mid-April. More recently, the NPD data showed some decline in consumption late last year, followed by a pickup in January after the passage of the most recent fiscal stimulus package. Several nontraditional data sources illustrate that services spending remains depressed as social distancing continues to restrain in-person activity

Powell delivers reassurances to Wall Street - Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell has reassured Wall Street that the central bank will continue pouring money into the financial system and keep interest rates at ultra-low levels well into the future, amid growing concerns the financial bubble that has seen the stock market reach record highs could come to a sudden end. Powell’s soothing words for the financial markets were the central thrust of his semi-annual report to Congress that he outlined to the Senate banking committee yesterday. He began by noting that the rebound in economic activity taking place in the summer had now “slowed substantially,” and that the economic recovery “remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain.” He said that, as with overall economic activity, “the pace of improvement in the labour market has slowed” and in the three months ending in January employment had risen at an average monthly rate of only 29,000. Turning to monetary policy—the central concern of Wall Street—Powell was at pains to emphasise that the present regime would continue even if inflation began to rise and there was a tightening in the labour market. He noted that the Fed had made “some key changes” in its policy. With regard to employment, one of those changes was that “we will not tighten monetary policy solely in response to a strong labour market.” On inflation, he said the aim of the Fed was to achieve averages moderately above 2 percent over time. “This means that, following periods when inflation has been running below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.” In effect, the present policy will continue for years. This message was aimed at assuring the markets that if there were to be a spike in inflation, about which there have been warnings because of the Biden administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package, the Fed would not respond with an immediate tightening of monetary policy. In addition, the Fed would continue to increase its holdings of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities “at least at their current pace until further substantial progress has been made toward our goals,” noting that these measures have “materially eased financial conditions.” The Fed is currently purchasing these financial assets at the rate of $120 billion per month—that is more than $1.4 trillion a year. This amount is equivalent to around 7 percent of gross domestic product, a level of support never before seen.

Wall Street Sends a Message to the Fed: We Have Run Out of Places to Stuff Your Treasuries - Pam Martens - The action in the U.S. Treasury market yesterday reminded us of the classic “I Love Lucy” episode at the chocolate factory. As the conveyor belt churns out chocolate balls faster than Lucy and Ethel can handle them, they resort to stuffing them in their mouths, their hats, and their shirts. (See video clip below.) That was the scene in the Treasury market yesterday – too much supply and no where to stuff it, causing a sharp spike in yields which set off a stock market selloff that left the Dow down 559.8 points or 1.75 percent on the day, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq fared far worse, losing 478.5 points or 3.52 percent. That the Treasury market is now projectile vomiting T-notes should come as a surprise to no one. As the chart above indicates, yields on the 10-year note have been rising sharply since early August, with the yield more than tripling from 0.50 percent to an intraday spike yesterday of 1.61 percent. The 10-year note opened this morning at 1.52 percent. The sharp and persistent rise in yields have left those who bought the T-notes at dramatically lower yields licking their wounds from heavy losses. (Prices of notes and bonds move inversely to their yields.) That has also dramatically lessened the appetite to buy more Treasuries at the current yields when the supply is expected to continue to increase as a result of rising government deficits and stimulus spending.Another catalyst for yesterday’s selloff in Treasuries was a very sloppy Treasury auction where the government attempted to stuff $62 billion of a 7-year Treasury note into an already over-supplied market.The spike in yields comes despite the fact that the Federal Reserve itself has beenbuying $80 billion each month in various maturities of Treasury notes and bonds. That started in June of last year. As of this past Wednesday, the Fed owned $4.8 trillion of Treasury securities, part of that resulting from its purchases of Treasuries (QE programs) after the 2008 Wall Street crash.In an additional effort to hold overall interest rates down, the Fed is also buying $40 billion each month in agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS). It owns $2.18 trillionof those, much of that also resulting from the aftermath of the 2008 crash.The Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has also directed the New York Fed’s trading desk “to increase holdings of Treasury securities and agency MBS by additional amounts and purchase agency commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) as needed to sustain smooth functioning of markets for these securities.” Aside from the Fed, the other big domestic buyers of Treasury securities are the mega Wall Street banks. These banks are known as “Primary Dealers” and are contractually bound to have to buy at Treasury auctions. On top of the problem of a supply glut is the fact that these mega banks/Primary Dealers have been allowed to gobble up other banks over the years, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of Primary Dealers available to bid at Treasury auctions. In 1988 there were 46 primary dealers. By 1999, there were only 30. Today, there are just 24. (Click on the plus sign under “List of Primary Dealers” here to see the names.)

Chicago Fed: "Index suggests economic growth increased in January" --"Index suggests economic growth increased in January." This is the headline for this morning's release of the Chicago Fed's National Activity Index, and here is the opening paragraph from the report: Led by improvements in personal consumption-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) increased to +0.66 in January from +0.41 in December. All four broad categories of indicators used to construct the index made positive contributions in January, but three categories decreased from December. The index’s three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, decreased to +0.47 in January from +0.60 in December. [Download report] The Chicago Fed's National Activity Index (CFNAI) is a monthly indicator designed to gauge overall economic activity and related inflationary pressure. It is a composite of 85 monthly indicators as explained in this background PDF file on the Chicago Fed's website. The index is constructed so a zero value for the index indicates that the national economy is expanding at its historical trend rate of growth. Negative values indicate below-average growth, and positive values indicate above-average growth. The first chart below shows the recent behavior of the index since 2007. The red dots show the indicator itself, which is quite noisy, together with the 3-month moving average (CFNAI-MA3), which is more useful as an indicator of the actual trend for coincident economic activity.

 Q4 GDP Growth Revised up slightly to 4.1% Annual Rate -- From the BEA: Gross Domestic Product, Fourth Quarter and Year 2020 (Second Estimate) Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the third quarter, real GDP increased 33.4 percent. The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. In the advance estimate, the increase in real GDP was 4.0 percent. With the second estimate, upward revisions to residential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending were partly offset by a downward revision to personal consumption expenditures (PCE) Here is a Comparison of Second and Advance Estimates. PCE growth was revised down to 2.4% from 2.5%. Residential investment was revised up from 33.5% to 35.8%. This was at the consensus forecast.

Q4 GDP Second Estimate: Real GDP at 4.1% The Second Estimate for Q4 GDP, to one decimal, came in at 4.1% (4.09% to two decimal places), a decrease from 33.4% (33.444% to two decimal places) for the Q3 Third Estimate and a slight increase from the Q4 Advance Estimate of 4.0%. had a consensus of 4.2%.Here is the slightly abbreviated opening text from the Bureau of Economic Analysis news release:Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 (table 1), according to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the third quarter, real GDP increased 33.4 percent.The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. In the advance estimate, the increase in real GDP was 4.0 percent. With the second estimate, upward revisions to residential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending were partly offset by a downward revision to personal consumption expenditures (PCE) (see Technical Note).The increase in real GDP reflected increases in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, PCE, residential fixed investment, and private inventory investment that were partly offset by decreases in state and local government spending and federal government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased (table 2). [Full Release] Here is a look at Quarterly GDP since Q2 1947. Prior to 1947, GDP was an annual calculation. To be more precise, the chart shows is the annualized percentage change from the preceding quarter in Real (inflation-adjusted) Gross Domestic Product. We've also included recessions, which are determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Also illustrated are the 3.17% average (arithmetic mean) and the 10-year moving average, currently at 2.07%.

Q1 GDP Forecasts --From Merrrill Lynch: Our 1Q GDP tracking estimate held at 5.5% [Feb 26 estimate]   From Goldman Sachs:  We left our Q1 GDP tracking estimate unchanged at +6.0% (qoq ar). [Feb 25 estimate] From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report: The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 8.7% for 2021:Q1. [Feb 26 estimate]   And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNow:  The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2021 is 8.8 percent on February 26, down from 9.6 percent on February 25. [Feb 26 estimate]

Seven High Frequency Indicators for the Economy --These indicators are mostly for travel and entertainment.    The TSA is providing daily travel numbers. This data shows the seven day average of daily total traveler throughput from the TSA for 2019-2020 (Blue) and 2020-2021 (Red). The dashed line is the percent of last year for the seven day average. This data is as of February 21st. The seven day average is down 58.8% from last year (41.2% of last year). (Dashed line) The second graph shows the 7 day average of the year-over-year change in diners as tabulated by OpenTable for the US and several selected cities. This data is updated through February 20 2021. Dining picked up during the holidays. Note that dining is generally lower in the northern states - Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York. Dining in Texas declined sharply due to the weather. This data shows domestic box office for each week (red) and the maximum and minimum for the years 2016 through 2019. Blue is 2020 and Red is 2021. The data is from BoxOfficeMojo through February 18th. Movie ticket sales were at $8 million last week (compared to usually around $200 million per week at this time of year). This graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average. This data is through February 13th. Hotel occupancy is currently down 29.0% year-over-year. Seasonally we'd expect that business travel would start to pick up in the new year, but there will probably not be much pickup early in 2021. This graph, based on weekly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), shows gasoline supplied compared to the same week of 2019. Blue is for 2020. At one point, gasoline supplied was off almost 50% YoY. Red is for 2021. As of February 12th, gasoline supplied was off about 4.5% (about 95.5% of the same week in 2019).   This graph is from Apple mobility. From Apple: "This data is generated by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions in select countries/regions, sub-regions, and cities." There is also some great data on mobility from the Dallas Fed Mobility and Engagement IndexThis data is through February 20th for the United States and several selected cities. The graph is the running 7 day average to remove the impact of weekends.  According to the Apple data directions requests, public transit in the 7 day average for the US is at 50% of the January 2020 level. It is at 44% in Chicago, and 32% in Houston (weather related decline) - and mostly moving sideways, and moving up a little recently.  Here is some interesting data on New York subway usage.  This graph is from Todd W Schneider. This is daily data since early 2020. This data is through Friday, February 19th. Schneider has graphs for each borough, and links to all the data sources.

Yellen: $1,400 stimulus payments would help people in 'pockets of misery' -Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday defended President Biden's proposal to send $1,400 direct payments to the vast majority of Americans, saying they will help people who are struggling but aren't receiving more targeted forms of assistance. "That really helps to make sure that pockets of misery that we know exist out there that aren't touched by more targeted things, that help is provided there as well," Yellen said at a virtual event hosted by The New York Times. "I believe we're going to be better off for it, and that it's the right thing to do," she added. The House is expected to vote this week on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that is based on a proposal Biden unveiled last month. The legislation would provide payments of $1,400 per person for individuals with income of up to $75,000 and married couples with income of up to $150,000. The payment amounts would then phase out above those thresholds, and individuals with income above $100,000 and married couples with income above $200,000 would not be eligible for any payment. The income eligibility requirements are similar to those for previous rounds of direct payments. Republicans and some centrist Democrats had pushed for narrower eligibility requirements in order to focus the payments on the lowest-income households. But progressives argued against making the payments more targeted, saying broad eligibility requirements will allow people who lost income last year due to the pandemic to get their payments quickly. Yellen said the notion of targeting money to those who need it most is an "important and valid principle," and she noted that Biden's plan provides targeted assistance in the form of expanded unemployment benefits, food aid and rental assistance. But she also said there are people who are struggling who aren't being reached by the targeted forms of assistance already out there. She gave as an example people who needed to leave the labor force to take care of their children. Many of those people have lost income but are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Yellen was also asked about what tax increases Biden might pursue later in his presidency. She reiterated that Biden is interested in raising the corporate tax rate and closing corporate tax "loopholes" and that he has pledged to not raise taxes on people making under $400,000 a year.

House panel advances Biden's $1.9T COVID-19 aid bill --The House Budget Committee on Monday advanced President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on a 19-16 party-line vote. The bill must be marked up by the House Rules Committee before consideration on the House floor, likely on Friday or Saturday. The legislation will then have to be taken up in the Senate, where it is expected to face considerable procedural and political challenges. "We are in a race against time. Aggressive, bold action is needed before our nation is more deeply and permanently scarred by the human and economic costs of inaction," Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said at the hearing. The bill includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extensions to emergency unemployment benefits, funding for vaccinations and testing, $129 billion for schools, increases to child tax credits and earned income tax credits, and a plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) noted that the legislation is widely popular, with some 70 percent public support, including half of Republicans. Republicans on the panel, however, slammed Democrats for advancing the bill through budget reconciliation, a process that will allow them to pass it without GOP support in the Senate, saying the legislation amounted to a "liberal wish list" and arguing that many of its provisions have nothing to do with the pandemic. "This is the wrong plan at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons," said ranking member Jason Smith (R-Mo.), pointing to $350 billion in state and local aid that he said would encourage lockdowns. Republicans also noted that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that some $700 billion would not be spent until 2022 or later. Committee staff said the estimates were based on typical spending patterns and that nothing in the bill prevented key funds from being spent sooner. Though the committee approved the measure relatively quickly, it remained in session to debate nonbinding motions that could be raised later. Budget law prohibits the panel from substantially altering the reconciliation bill, which faced scrutiny in nine authorizing committee markups last week. Amendments will be possible in the Rules Committee as well. Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths |... On The Money: Neera Tanden's nomination in peril after three GOP noes... Democrats may struggle to pass certain portions of the bill in the Senate, where they hold a 50-50 majority with Vice President Harris's tiebreaking vote. Policies such as the $15 minimum wage may not pass muster under strict budget rules and have detractors among the Democratic caucus. Both Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose the minimum wage measure's inclusion in the COVID-19 relief bill. Biden has vowed to get the bill signed into law before a slew of emergency unemployment benefits expire on March 14.

Minimum-Wage Proposal in Covid-19 Aid Plan Divides Senate Democrats – WSJ —Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia may be the most vocal Democrat sharing his concerns about the minimum-wage increase included in his party’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill—but he isn’t the only one with misgivings.  As the House prepares to pass the relief bill later this week and send it to the Senate, Democratic leaders will have to contend with the quieter but broader pack of Senate Democrats who have problems with the legislation. And in order for Democrats to pass the bill without GOP support, they can’t afford to lose a single vote within their own ranks.  Mr. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are the only two Democrats to say outright they oppose increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, up from $7.25 currently. But 10 other Senate Democrats haven’t signed onto stand-alone legislation increasing the minimum wage to that level, and some have voiced objections to the current structure of the pay boost, setting the stage for possible revisions.“Everyone is going to have things that they want to see in the bill, and we’ll work hard to see if we can get those things in the bill, but job number one is to pass the bill,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday. The legislation, which is backed by President Biden and expected to pass the House later this week, would provide $400-a-week unemployment benefits through Aug. 29, send $1,400 per-person payments to most households, provide billions in funding for schools and vaccine distribution, expand the child tax credit, broaden child-care assistance and bolster tax credits for health insurance. Democrats broadly support the bill as they wrangle over portions of the legislation, including the duration of unemployment benefits and how to target the direct payments. But the minimum wage has emerged as the most contentious. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D., Colo.) said he is concerned about the impact of a $15 wage on small businesses and was reviewing possible ways to shield smaller firms from the new labor costs. Some Democrats are exploring offering tax relief to small businesses under the wage increase. “I think small business has got to be kept in mind, and I think there are a number of different variations that are being proposed that help insulate the impact in terms of small business,” Mr. Hickenlooper said.

House to vote on $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill this week as Senate considers minimum wage hike - The House is expected to approve President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirusrelief proposal later this week in a party-line vote, after the House Budget Committee advanced the bill on Monday.  Although the narrow Democratic majority in the House will likely pass the bill as is, it's unclear whether a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 will be included in the final Senate version of the legislation. The bill, which includes $1,400 in direct payments to Americans making under $75,000, extra money for vaccine distribution and funding to state and local governments, was approved by the Budget Committee on Monday by a vote of 19 to 16. Congressman Lloyd Doggett was the sole Democrat to join Republicans in voting against the bill, although a spokesperson for Doggett later said in a statement that his "no" vote was a mistake and he "supports the COVID-19 relief legislation." Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that he believed the final bill would be passed by March 14, which is the day that enhanced unemployment benefits established by relief legislation passed at the end of last year are set to expire. "We're going to meet that deadline," Schumer said, adding that the final bill will be "not exactly the same, but very close to the bill that President Biden proposed." Republicans have balked at the price tag on the bill, and expressed consternation that Democrats are using a process known as budget reconciliation to pass the bill, which will allow it to pass in the Senate without any Republican votes. Most legislation needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats hold a narrow 50-seat majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote. Budget reconciliation would allow for Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority. However, there are strict rules for utilizing the budget reconciliation process, such as the "Byrd rule," which requires that all provisions in the bill be budget-related, and must not increase the federal deficit after a 10-year budget window. Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who advises the Senate on procedural matters, will have to rule on whether the $15 minimum wage can be included under the Byrd rule.

Opinion: Stiglitz: Failing to pass Biden's relief package would be irresponsible and reckless - As President Biden pushes ahead on his $1.9 trillion recovery package, some of the usual voices on the Right are worrying aloud that the federal government may be doing too much, especially to help the unemployed, states and middle-class workers. They, and even a few Democrats, are concerned that we will have a V-shaped recovery and that "excessive spending" may unleash inflation.For example, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote in The Washington Post that stimulus "will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability."I disagree. Congress must pass this legislation or risk an anemic and devastatingly incomplete recovery.All policy entails balancing risks and figuring out what to do if the worst-case scenario turns into reality. Of course, there is a possibility — not likely, but one we would certainly welcome — that the pandemic will just disappear, the economy will experience a V-shaped recovery, and all of this spending will lead to an overheated economy.But even if that does happen, the Fed, which is now able to closely monitor the economy through real-time data, would almost surely raise interest rates. That, too, would be a good thing because the negative real interest rates we have experienced in recent years have distorted capital markets and led to a "search for yield" that encourages excessive risk-taking. And should the pandemic disappear and the economy rebound quickly, it would provide a good opportunity for the federal government to restructure the tax system — something it's loathe to do in the midst of the pandemic recession. The average tax rate is too low to sustain the investments in infrastructure, technology and education that a prosperous 21st century-economy needs. We could even impose taxes that would increase the efficiency of our economy, discouraging pollution and excessive financial transactions that contribute to instability. And given the huge inequalities in our society, we could increase the progressivity of the tax system, by, for instance, closing loopholes and ensuring the income from capital, including capital gains, is taxed at least as much as labor. There's another reason we should welcome a "heated" economy: In the past, it's been the only time when we've been able to bring marginalized groups into the economy and reduce some of the excessive wage gaps. So let's pray that we have that strong, V-shaped recovery that some people worry about. And if we're that lucky, we won't use all of the $1.9 trillion that Biden has asked for anyway. The money we spend on unemployment insurance will automatically be reduced.

Moderate Senate Democrats target state aid fund in Biden covid relief bill - Even as the House prepares to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill this week, divisions are growing among Senate Democrats over state aid and a $15 minimum wage — raising the prospect the bill might have to change significantly to pass the Senate.Biden himself has forcefully defended his legislation in recent days, asking critics, “What would they have me cut?” Democratic senators, it turns out, have plenty of ideas.Democrats’ proposal would devote hundreds of billions of dollars to extending unemployment benefits through August and approving another round of stimulus payments at $1,400 per person, as well as devoting billions to vaccine distribution, housing and nutritional assistance, in addition to raising the minimum wage and helping states and local governments.Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has been a vocal skeptic of raising the current $7.25 federal hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour, as proposed by Biden, told reporters this week he hopes to amend the legislation to boost the minimum wage to $11 an hour instead.Several Democratic senators are working on changes to the portion of the bill on state and local aid, including redirecting some of the money to invest in infrastructure to expand the broadband network.Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who has also opposed the $15 minimum wage increase — has been working to include more funding for small restaurants in the legislation, as well as lobbying for other provisions to help her state.“Any money we spend needs to be focused where it would do the most good,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said at a hearing Tuesday, telling reporters later: “I think it’s part of our job to put our fingerprints on this package so it does the most good.” Tester said that he’s been in touch with some other senators and that he wants to be prepared for a possible amendment process. White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged Tuesday the legislation may change and declined to rule out Biden signing a final bill that included an $11 minimum wage instead of the $15 he initially proposed. Any changes sought by moderates could run into resistance from liberal lawmakers and party leaders who have insisted on keeping the $15 an hour minimum wage plan in the bill.

Pimco says a $1.9 trillion stimulus could push US growth to 7.5% this year - a rate not seen since the 1950s  -The US economy could grow by 7.5% in 2021 - a rate not seen since the 1950s - as a result of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus package, analysts at investment giant Pimco said in a note on Wednesday.Pimco predicted that although this rapid growth would push up inflation to above 2% over the "next several years", it is unlikely to cause price rises to spiral due, in part, to the reduced bargaining power of workers.Pimco head of policy Libby Cantrill and economist Tiffany Wilding said they expected the eventual stimulus package to be close to the $1.9 trillion size that President Biden is seeking.They said the legislation's focus on enhancing social safety net provisions such as unemployment benefits, coupled with direct support to households and businesses, "boosts the near-term growth outlook."Cantrill and Wilding added that the size of the package may also help to cushion the blow to the economy should any problems crop up, such as a slower-than-expected vaccination program.They upped their growth prediction for the US economy in 2021 to between 7% and 7.5%, more than making up for the 3.5% contraction in 2020.A 7.5% expansion would be the strongest since the early 1950s, although the US sawgrowth of more than 7% in 1984.Rising growth expectations have troubled financial markets lately, however, as they have led to higher bond yields. This has made stocks look less attractive and pulled down the tech-heavy Nasdaq index this week.The Pimco note said the rapid economic growth and rise in employment "doesn't have huge implications for our inflation outlook." Cantrill and Wilding said this was in part because a decline in labor unions means workers are now less able to achieve wage rises.Nonetheless, Pimco expects US inflation to rise to 2% in 2021 before dropping to around 1.5% by the end of the year. It then expects inflation to gradually accelerate to a range of 2.2% to 2.5% over the course of the next several years."It's not surprising that more investors are worried about another inflationary accident," Cantrill and Wilding said.Yet they added: "While a period of above-target inflation has become more likely, in our view, the likelihood of a self-reinforcing inflationary process similar to what happened in the 1970s is still relatively low."

GOP rallies against Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package - Republicans are closing ranks against Democrats’ proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, even as the White House seemed to rule out a procedural Senate power play to protect one provision most treasured by progressives: a minimum wage hike. Despite paper-thin congressional majorities, Democratic leaders were poised to push the sweeping package through the House on Friday. They were hoping the Senate, where changes seem likely, would follow quickly enough to have legislation on President Joe Biden’s desk by mid-March. By early Thursday, not one Republican in either chamber had publicly said he or she would back the legislation. GOP leaders were honing attacks on the package as a job killer that does too little to reopen schools or businesses shuttered for the coronavirus pandemic and that was not only wasteful but also even unscrupulous. “I haven’t seen a Republican yet that’s found something in there that they agree with,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “I think all Republicans believe in three simple things: They want a bill that puts us back to work, back to school and back to health. This bill is too costly, too corrupt and too liberal.” The hardening opposition suggested that Biden’s first major legislative initiative could encounter unanimous GOP opposition. That was a counterpoint to his refrain during his campaign about bringing the country together and a replay of the Republican wall that new President Barack Obama encountered in 2009 and most of his administration. Democrats showed no signs of backing down against Republican claims that the bill was wasteful, too expensive and not focused enough on key needs like reopening schools. “This kind of reflexive partisan opposition is not going to wash with the American people. It wouldn’t wash at any time, but it especially doesn’t wash during this time of crisis,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday.

Senate parliamentarian rules against including minimum wage in Covid relief bill - The Senate parliamentarian has ruled against including the increase in the minimum wage in the Covid relief bill.While Democrats had pushed for the increase to be included -- and leadership expressed its disappointment in the ruling Thursday evening -- its removal may actually make it easier to pass the bill, senior Democratic sources believe, because it'll avoid a messy fight over whether to strip it out of the bill and whether to compromise."President Biden is disappointed in this outcome, as he proposed having the $15 minimum wage as part of the American Rescue Plan," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. "He respects the parliamentarian's decision and the Senate's process." For now, far from being a defeat, the ruling is viewed as clearing the way for the bill's passage in the Senate, a Biden administration official told CNN.House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday evening the provision will remain in the House bill on which the chamber is voting Friday. However, the parliamentarian ruled that the increase to $15 per hour did not meet a strict set of guidelines needed to move forward in the Senate's reconciliation process. That means that the House will pass its bill, the Senate will have to strip the minimum wage provision out, and then eventually the House will have to pass that bill again at the end of the process. But the ruling likely makes it easier for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to get his members in line behind the bill since the rise in the minimum wage had been a key sticking point for moderates like Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

A $15 Minimum Wage Can’t Be Included In Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Stimulus Plan, Senate Official Rules -A key advisor to the U.S. Senate on the chamber’s rules and procedures said Thursday that a $15 national minimum wage—a major priority for President Biden and progressive Democrats—cannot be included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Democrats are pushing through Congress under budget reconciliation rules.  The special budget process will allow Democrats, who now control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, to pass Biden’s aggressive stimulus proposal without any Republican votes, but reconciliation rules also require that every provision in the legislation have a direct impact on the federal budget.   Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s parliamentarian, said Thursday that the wage hike does not meet the criteria to be included in the bill under the special reconciliation process, according to multiple news reports.The push for a $15 minimum wage emerged as a divisive issue this month as lawmakers began crafting the sweeping rescue package.Republicans objected to the provision on the basis that it would be too expensive for businesses and could actually cost jobs.  Conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said he objects to the wage hike (he has suggested that an $11 per hour national minimum wage would make more sense for his state), as has Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.). “We must pass a minimum wage bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) said during a press briefing Thursday morning. She added that Congress last passed a wage hike 14 years ago, when Democrats raised the federal minimum to $7.25 per hour. Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes another round of $1,400 stimulus checks for individuals—another sticking point for some lawmakers. The proposal also includes expanded federal unemployment insurance of $400 per week through the end of August, a major expansion of the child tax credit, $130 billion for schools, $160 billion for coronavirus testing, tracing, and vaccines, roughly $7 billion for small businesses and $350 billion for state and local governments. On Tuesday, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Utahintroduced a counterproposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 by 2025 and then index the wage to inflation every two years. That plan would grant businesses with fewer than 20 employees an extra two years to comply with the federal minimum, and it would require that employers verify the legal state of their workers. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) signed onto that plan on Thursday, one day after Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced another alternative. Hawley’s plan would send quarterly refundable tax credits to workers earning less than $16.50 per hour. The tax credits would only go to those workers with valid Social Security numbers.  The Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon that House Democrats still planned to include the $15 minimum wage provision in the bill if the parliamentarian voted against them, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CNN Thursday evening that Democrats hadn’t yet made that decision. It’s not yet clear whether Democrats will pursue a narrower compromise that might attract enough bipartisan support to pass as a standalone bill outside of the reconciliation process.

“I’m Sorry,” Says Ro Khanna, “An Unelected Parliamentarian Does Not Get to Deprive 32 Million Americans the Wage Raise They Deserve.” - Leading progressives—including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal—reacted with opposition and disbelief Thursday evening after Elizabeth MacDonough, the chief Senate parliamentarian, issued her belief and guidance that inclusion of a federal minimum wage increase in the pending Covid-19 relief package does not qualify for the budget reconciliation process that would allow the bill to be passed by the chamber with a simple majority.  “I strongly disagree with tonight’s decision by the Senate Parliamentarian,” said Sanders in a statement. Citing recent reviews by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which showed the outsized impact that raising the wage would have on the federal budget, the Vermont lawmaker and current Senate Budget Committee chairman—who has made raising the federal minimum a cornerstone of his presidential campaigns in both 2016 and 2020—said the assessment wildly missed the mark. “The CBO made it absolutely clear that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour had a substantial budgetary impact and should be allowed under reconciliation,” Sanders said.  “It is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent with the Byrd Rule, while increasing the minimum wage is not.” Sanders was far from alone in condemning the absurdity of the decision as well as the procedural system that empowers the parliamentarian with such authority. As Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) put it: “Amazing that American democracy has landed in a place where some unheard of parliamentarian ends up deciding whether or not a law gets passed to give millions a raise. Simple question: are you on the side of structural reform in standing up to this system or for the status quo?” According to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, “The ruling only makes it more clear that the Senate must reform its archaic rules, including reforming the filibuster to allow populist and necessary policies like the $15 minimum wage to pass with a majority of the Senate.” “We must deliver,” she added, “on the promise we made to voters all across this country: that we would give 27 million workers a long-overdue raise and lift one million people out of poverty during this devastating economic crisis.”.

Chump change: The Romney–Cotton minimum wage proposal leaves 27 million workers without a pay increase -EPI Blog --Those who had high hopes for a serious minimum wage proposal from the Republican Party will be disappointed: The recent proposal released by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) would not even increase the minimum wage to 1960s levels, after adjusting for inflation. It is a meager increase that fails to address the problem of low pay in the U.S. economy.The Romney–Cotton proposal would slowly raise the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $10 per hour in 2025. In contrast, the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025.

  • The Romney–Cotton proposal would leave 27.3 million workers without a pay increase, compared to the Raise the Wage Act.
  • Only 4.9 million workers, or 3.2% of the workforce, would receive a pay increase in 2025 under the Romney–Cotton plan, for a total of $3.3 billion dollars in wage increases.
  • In contrast, under the Raise the Wage Act, pay would rise for 32.2 million workers, or 21.2% of the workforce, with $108.4 billion in total wage increases.
  • 11.2 million fewer Black and Hispanic workers would receive a raise under the Romney–Cotton plan, compared with the Raise the Wage Act.
  • 16 million fewer women would see wage increases. Less than one in 20 women (4.1%) would have higher pay under the Romney–Cotton proposal, whereas the Raise the Wage Act would raise earnings for one in every four women (25.8%).
  • The average affected worker who works year-round would see their annual pay rise by $700 under the Romney–Cotton plan; under the Raise the Wage Act, the average annual pay increase would be nearly five times that amount ($3,400).

Romney–Cotton’s $10 target by 2025 is the equivalent of $9.19 per hour in today’s dollars, about 13% less than what the minimum wage was at its high-water mark in 1968.It is unconscionable that we should pay the lowest-wage workers today less than what they earned five decades ago, while the economy’s productivity has more than doubled over the last 50 years. The Romney–Cotton proposal would continue that harmful trend; would maintain a separate lower wage for young workers and those with disabilities; and would—incredibly—fail to increase the separate minimum wage for tipped workers that has been stuck at $2.13 per hour for 30 years.

Senate Democrats move immediately to "Plan B" on minimum wage - Senate Democrats are racing to finalize a new tax provision that would penalize large companies that pay low wages. The move comes after Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled Thursday night that a $15 minimum wage hike cannot be included in the Senate COVID relief package, which is currently being pushed through the chamber through a process known as budget reconciliation. The plan being drafted by aides to Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden of Oregon — in close consultation with Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders of Vermont — would impose a 5% payroll tax penalty on "very large" companies that do not pay workers a certain amount. That amount is still unclear: Wyden favors $15 an hour, but is currently seeking feedback from fellow Democrats on that figure and on exactly which companies would face the penalties. "Everyone in the caucus is envisioning 'very large' companies – think Walmart, Amazon," a Senate Democratic aide told CBS News.Under the proposal, which Senate Democrats hope to finish crafting by early next week, smaller businesses that raise their workers' wages would be eligible for income tax credits equal to 25% of wages — up to $10,00 per employer to year — tax incentives to increase wages. "Basically we're having the stick approach for the very big companies at the top, and the carrot approach for the smallest of small businesses to try to encourage them to raise wages on their own," the aide said.Democratic aides, anticipating an adverse ruling from the Senate parliamentarian, began quietly working on the "Plan B" proposal several weeks ago. The tax penalties would apply not only to large companies that pay their own employees low wages, but also to those that hire contractors – such as security guards – who earn low wages for work they do on premises. 

'Paid To Stay Home'?! COVID Bill Pays Federal Employees With Kids Out Of School Up To $21K  -The U.S. House version of the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” – a $1.9 trillion emergency aid package to help America recover from the coronavirus pandemic has an extra perk for federal workers: Enhanced paid time off if your child is enrolled in a school that isn’t back to full-time, in-classroom instruction.B Critics call it a personal bailout for bureaucrats. It is funded through a new $570 million family leave account exclusively for federal workers.While millions of parents struggle to work from home with kids who are enrolled in shuttered or partially shuttered schools, and millions more left the workforce or lost jobs to care for their at-home children, evidently parents in the federal bureaucracy need their own, personal Covid-19 bailout.Buried on page 305 of the House bill released late last Friday night (included after the bailout details for states and localities), is a new Treasury Department fund called the “Emergency Federal Employee Leave Fund.”$570 million in the new fund is available through September 30. Federal employees caring for others due to Covid-19 are eligible for paid leave.Among those eligible are those who are “unable to work” because they are caring for school-aged children not physically in school full time “due to Covid-19 precautions[.]”The new Fund allows a federal employee “caring for a son or daughter” to qualify for the paid leave, specifically:  “if the school or place of care of the son or daughter has been closed, if the school of such son or daughter requires or makes optional a virtual learning instruction model or requires or makes optional a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning instruction models, or the child care provider of such son or daughter is unavailable, due to Covid-19 precautions;”Under the bill as currently drafted, full-time federal employees can take up to 600 hours in paid leave until September 30, up to $35 an hour and $1,400 a week. That’s 15 weeks for a 40-hour employee. Part-time and “seasonal” employees are eligible, too, with equivalent hours established by their agency.Federal employees currently have up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. (A law passed in 2019, allows most federal employees – what the sponsors report is 2.1 million federal workers – up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, foster placement or adoption of a new child.)

Nearly a year into the pandemic and unemployment claims remain 17 million above their pre-pandemic levels: Congress must pass $1.9 trillion relief bill  -EPI  -- Another 1.2 million people applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits last week, including 730,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 451,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)—the federal program for workers who are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance, like gig workers.The 1.2 million who applied for UI last week was a decrease of 172,000 from the prior week, reversing last week’s increase of 164,000. The four-week moving average of total initial claims was roughly unchanged (a slight decline of 8,500).Last week was the 49th straight week total initial claims were greater than the worst week of the Great Recession. (If that comparison is restricted to regular state claims—because we didn’t have PUA in the Great Recession—initial claims last week were roughly the same as the 9th-worst week of the Great Recession. Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs over time (the latest data for this are for February 6). Continuing claims are currently nearly 17 million above where they were a year ago.The December 11-week extensions of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and PUA just kick the can down the road—they are not long enough. Congress must pass further extensions well before mid-March, or millions will exhaust benefits at that time, when the virus is still rampant and the labor market is still weak. It is already probably unlikely that gaps in payments can be avoided in many places even if Congress wraps up the next round of COVID-19 relief as soon as possible, due to processing times. In the debates around the COVID relief package, some have expressed concern that the proposed $1.9 trillion relief and recovery plan is too big. These concerns are misplaced. The full $1.9 trillion in relief and recovery is crucial.

House passes $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill - The House passed its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill early Saturday, sending the massive proposal to the Senate as Democrats rush to approve more aid before unemployment programs expire.It is the first major legislative initiative for President Joe Biden. The House approved it in a 219-212 mostly party line vote, as two Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing it.Senators will start considering the pandemic assistance plan next week. Lawmakers will offer amendments, and the chamber will likely pass a different version of the bill, meaning the House would have to pass the Senate's plan or the chambers would have to craft a final proposal in a conference committee.Democrats, who hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate, opted to approve the legislation alone through budget reconciliation rather than hammer out a smaller aid package with Republicans. The process enables a bill to pass with a simple majority in the Senate.The House plan includes:

  • Payments of $1,400 to most individuals, along with the same amount for each dependent. Checks start to phase out at $75,000 in income and go to zero for individuals making $100,000
  • A $400 per week unemployment supplement through Aug. 29, along with an extension of programs making millions more people eligible for jobless benefits
  • An expansion of the child tax credit to give families up to $3,600 per child over a year
  • $20 billion for Covid-19 vaccine distribution and $50 billion for testing and tracing efforts
  • $350 billion in state, local and tribal government relief
  • $25 billion for assistance in covering rent payments
  • $170 billion for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to cover reopening costs and aid to students
  • A $15 per hour federal minimum wage, which the Senate parliamentarian will not allow in the reconciliation bill on the other side of the Capitol

Democrats have called the bill necessary to speed up vaccinations — a critical step to resuming some level of pre-pandemic life — and sustain households at a time when roughly 19 million people are receiving jobless benefits."The time for decisive action is long overdue," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday night before the vote. "President Biden's American Rescue Plan is that decisive action."Republicans questioned the need for a proposal so large, criticizing in particular the scope of the direct payments, state and local government support and school funding. Earlier Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., contended the legislation "isn't a relief bill" and "fails to deliver for American families."The Biden administration and Democratic leaders in Congress said the country faces a bigger risk of doing too little than injecting too much money into the response. Some economists have also questioned the scale of the bill. Senate Democrats face more challenges in passing the legislation than the House did. While the party can approve the bill on its own, it will need every Democrat to support it in the Senate, which is split 50-50.Democrats also have to decide how to proceed on minimum-wage policy without losing any support. After the Senate parliamentarian ruled the bill could not include a $15 pay floor under reconciliation rules, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have looked for a workaround to impose a tax penalty on large corporations that do not pay workers at least $15 an hour.It is unclear if the proposal would comply with the Senate's budget restrictions.Vice President Kamala Harris also appears set against trying to overrule parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, which some progressives have suggested she should do.

$1.9 trillion stimulus: What you can expect - The $1.9 trillion coronavirus package passed by the House of Representatives contains a wide range of proposals to help Americans still struggling with the economic fallout of the pandemic.The legislation, which largely mirrors the relief proposal outlined in January by President Joe Biden, providesanother round of direct payments, as well as additional assistance for the unemployed, hungry, uninsured and at risk of losing their homes. It also would provide a bigger tax break for parents.Biden and congressional Democrats argue that another massive bill is necessary to assist both people in need and the nation at large.Now the bill moves to the Senate, which may add, change or eliminate some provisions -- including the proposed $15 minimum wage, which the Senate parliamentarian has determined can't be included under the rules Democrats plan to use for the bill.The House bill would provide direct payments worth up to $1,400 per person to families earning less than $200,000 a year and individuals earning less than $100,000 a year. Because the payments phase out faster than previous rounds, not everyone who was eligible for a check earlier will receive one now -- but for those who are eligible, the new payments will top up the $600 checks approved in December, bringing recipients to a total of $2,000 apiece.Individuals earning less than $75,000 would receive the full $1,400 and the amount would phase out for those earning more, up to $100,000.Couples earning less than $150,000 a year would receive $2,800 -- and families with children would be eligible for an additional $1,400 per dependent.The payments will be calculated based on either 2019 or 2020 income. Unlike the previous two rounds, adult dependents -- including college students -- would be eligible for the payments.Out-of-work Americans would get a federal weekly boost of $400 through August 29. Those enrolled in two key pandemic unemployment programs could also continue receiving benefits until that date.Freelancers, gig workers, independent contractors and certain people affected by the coronavirus could remain in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for up to 74 weeks and those whose traditional state benefits run out could receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation for 48 weeks.The jobless in these pandemic programs will start running out of benefits in mid-March, when provisions in December's $900 billion relief package begin to phase out along with the current $300 federal weekly enhancement.Food stamp recipients would see a 15% increase in benefits continue through September, instead of having it expire at the end of June.And families whose children's schools are closed may be able to receive Pandemic-EBT benefits through the summer, if their state opts to continue it. The program provides funds to replace free- and reduced-price meals that kids would have been given in school.The legislation would send roughly $19.1 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance and utility bills.About $10 billion would be authorized to help struggling homeowners pay their mortgages, utilities and property taxes.It would provide another $5 billion to help states and localities assist those at risk of experiencing homelessness.

Biden, Trudeau aim to move past Keystone pipeline disagreement in first bilateral meeting -(Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will try on Tuesday to move past an early disagreement after Biden blocked the Canadian-backed Keystone XL pipeline and look to reset relations after the rocky years of Donald Trump.In his first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader since taking office last month, Biden is expected to discuss with Trudeau a host of issues including climate change and China, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters. Canada has often been a U.S. president’s first foreign stop, but the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the sit-down between the two leaders and some of their top deputies into a virtual affair. The event is likely to result in a shared document outlining cross-government collaboration on a wide range of issues, the senior U.S. administration official said. It was not clear the meeting would result in any new deal on those or other concerns, including Canada’s access to vaccines produced in the United States or a shared standoff with China over the detention of a Huawei executive. “The most important thing here is a reinvigorated road map for cooperation between the United States and Canada, meaning that we’re going to talk regularly to one of our closest allies to make sure that there’s no kind of misunderstandings,” the U.S. official said.Biden is eager to address security threats from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic as well as China, Iran, Russia and North Korea. He irritated Ottawa early on by blocking the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline project to pump oil sands crude from Alberta to Nebraska, and proposing a “Buy American” program aimed at directing more U.S. spending toward domestic manufacturers. Trudeau is aiming to show he is now aligned with Washington on issues including COVID-19, climate change and foreign policy, a Canadian government source said.

Dozens Of House Democrats Ask Biden To Relinquish Sole Authority To Launch Nukes --Remember in January when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) asked the Pentagon to limit still-President Trump's ability to use nuclear weapons during his last week in office?Now, a cadre of House Democrats spearheaded by former CIA Director Leon Panetta's son, Jimmy (D-CA) - who was part of the above effort, have asked President Biden to relinquish sole authority to use nuclear weapons, since "The military is obligated to carry out the order if they assess it is legal under the laws of war," should Biden - or a future president - choose to launch nukes without consulting advisers.  Democrats are recommending that Biden modify existing procedures too require "additional officials in the line of presidential succession, starting with the vice president and the speaker of the US House of Representatives - neither of whom can be removed by the president if they disagree - to concur with a launch order..."

 Congress should think big about the Postal Service’s future: Policymakers should focus on rebuilding the Postal Service after the Trump years - EPI Blog - This morning, the House Oversight Committee will hold its first hearing on the U.S. Postal Service since Democrats gained control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. Committee members will have the opportunity to question Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who in his short tenure has severely damaged the Postal Service’s reputation for timely service. DeJoy, a former logistics executive who last year tussled with a federal judge about mail delays, may need to be reminded that he serves the public. USPS board vacancies give President Biden the opportunity to install a Democratic majority on the board this year and potentially oust DeJoy—though this would take some wrangling. The prospect of a newly configured board may make DeJoy more cooperative than he was in the lead-up to the election, when former President Trump planted fears, which mail slowdowns under DeJoy seemed to confirm, that voting by mail was iffy.In the end, concerns that ballots wouldn’t be delivered in time didn’t materialize. But millions unnecessarily put their health at risk to vote in person during a deadly pandemic. And Trump’s attacks on mail voting emboldened Republicans in their efforts to limit absentee voting to red state seniors and other groups who tend to vote Republican.Looking beyond the Postal Service’s dismal service record since DeJoy took over last May, the hearing will be an opportunity to address longer-term problems. Given the Postal Service’s popularity with voters across the country, especially rural America, there may be bipartisan support for undoing the damage Congress inflicted on the agency with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). The 2006 legislation imposed rigid price controls and required the Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years of retiree health benefits in 10 years, a mandate designed to obscure federal budget deficits that had nothing to do with the Postal Service. Legislation to address the retiree health care issue, which already passed the House, may finally have a chance in the Senate. Just as damaging as the financial straitjacket PAEA imposed on USPS were limits on the scope of Postal Service activities. Among other things, these precluded a revival of postal banking, which President Biden andseveral members of the House Oversight Committee support. Postal banking existed in the United States until 1967 and remains a popular service in many countries. It would be a lifeline to mostly low-income and rural Americans who lack convenient access to banking services and use payday lenders and other high-cost alternatives at an average cost of $2,400 per year. Postal banking isn’t the only public service the Postal Service could provide if it weren’t for PAEA restrictions. As former USPS Inspector General and board Vice Chair David C. Williams, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) and others have emphasized, the Postal Service doesn’t come close to maximizing the useful public services it could offer while taking advantage of underused capacity in post offices and daily delivery.

Thousands Of Unaccompanied Minors Face 'Cages' As HHS Shelters Hit 93% Capacity --Thousands of migrant children face 'the cages' built by the Obama-Biden administration, after the child-shelter network run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reduced its capacity by 40%, leaving them 93% full. Once the HHS shelters reach capacity, migrants will be housed in facilities run by the Border Patrol - a.k.a. 'the cages,' described by the Wall Street Journal as "stark cells - with just a bench and a toilet - that are designed to hold single adults for a few hours rather than children for days."Over 700 children were in Border Patrol custody as of Friday, up from 150 on Tuesday, according to the report, which cites "a person familiar with the numbers.""A jail cell is no place for a child, even for the shortest possible duration," said former US Customs and Border Protection spokesman, Andrew Meehan, who served during 2019. "They’ve seen very large growth in a very short period of time," said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, who was in charge of the HHS shelter network during the Obama administration. "The closer you get to 100% capacity, the harder the system is to manage."On Monday, the government plans to reopen an emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas—a converted encampment that once hosted oil-field workers—to house 700 additional children. That facility, which opened in 2019 to manage the surge of children, and other emergency shelters had come under criticism from Democrats, in part because they didn’t follow standards governing care at permanent government shelters.Unaccompanied children enjoy unique protections under immigration law that forbid the government from quickly deporting them. They are required to be sent to HHS shelters, where the government cares for them until they can find a suitable sponsor, typically a family member or family friend living in the U.S. -Wall Street Journal According to the report, the flood of migrants is likely because of "sagging economies and gang violence in Central America, exacerbated by the pandemic and a pair of hurricanes last year which hit the region." "It’s certainly not ideal," said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, an immigrant advocacy organization. "But for now, it’s better than having kids remain in [border patrol] custody."

 "Makes Absolutely No Sense" - Biden Cancels Trump's 'Operation Talon' Program Targeting Immigrant Sex Offenders --Biden has made it clear that his number one mission as president is to undo everything the Trump administration accomplished over the last four years. His newest cancellation simply does not make sense.  Biden’s administration recently cancelled Operation Talon, a Trump administration program aimed at removing convicted sex offenders living in the United States illegally.Though the program seems to be something everyone should support, it clearly isn’t. Why would anyone want sex offenders to remain in the country? South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson joined a coalition of 18 state attorneys general to urge Biden to reverse the cancellation, according to ABC 4 News.“We’re working hard to fight human trafficking and sex crimes in South Carolina and allowing convicted sex offenders who are here illegally to remain in our country makes absolutely no sense,” Wilson said.“These trafficking and sex crimes are repugnant to human decency generally and to children specifically,” he added. The letter, directed to Joe Biden, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Acting Director of ICE Tae Johnson, pointed out the problems with this cancellation. The attorneys general argued that canceling Operation Talon could encourage sexual predators to attack.

Biden administration asks U.S. Supreme Court to dump Medicaid work case (Reuters) - President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to cancel an upcoming oral argument on a policy introduced under his predecessor Donald Trump backing work requirements for people who receive healthcare under the Medicaid program for the poor. Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said the Biden administration has started the process of reversing the previous policy and asked the justices to dump the scheduled March 29 arguments concerning pilot programs adopted by the states of Arkansas and New Hampshire. Under Trump, the Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 approved the pilot projects in those two states as part of a push to put a conservative stamp on Medicaid, a program that was expanded under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to provide coverage to millions more Americans. Prelogar asked the justices to consider throwing out the pending cases altogether. Biden, a Democrat, succeeded Trump, a Republican, on Jan. 20. Under Biden, the same department made a preliminary finding that work requirements would be inconsistent with the objectives of Medicaid, which provides medical insurance for the poor, Prelogar told the court. The justices in December agreed to hear Trump administration appeals of rulings by a lower court that deemed the work requirement programs unlawful. The lower court noted that about a quarter of the people subject to the requirement lost their Medicaid coverage in the first five months after the Arkansas work requirement was implemented. The Supreme Court on Feb. 3 canceled oral arguments in two other cases after the Biden administration changed course from Trump policies. Both were appeals by Trump’s administration - one defending his funding of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the other defending his so-called “remain in Mexico” asylum policy.

Supreme Court to hear challenge on family planning program  --Supreme Court to hear challenge on family planning program © Greg Nash The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the Trump administration’s changes to a federally funded family planning program that pushed hundreds of providers to leave. The court announced Monday it will hear a case brought by the American Medical Association (AMA), Planned Parenthood and others arguing that the Trump administration’s changes to the Title X family planning program that bans providers from referring patients for abortions violates federal law and harms patient care. Title X funds thousands of providers across the country offering contraception, cancer screenings and other services to millions of low-income women and men. The Trump administration issued rules in 2019 banning any providers that receive Title X funds from referring people for abortions while mandating referrals to prenatal services for all pregnant patients. It also required complete financial and physical separation from abortion services, posing challenges to providers that may offer abortions at the same sites they see other patients. While federal funds are prohibited from paying for abortions, except in limited circumstances, the Trump administration argued any money going to providers that perform abortions indirectly supports the procedure. After the rules took effect, about one-quarter of nearly 4,000 providers left the program, arguing they could not in good conscience agree not to provide patients with information about abortion. As a result, several states were left with no Title X providers. The rules were met with several lawsuits, with some courts siding with the challengers and others siding with the Trump administration. That’s likely part of why the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. “In Maryland, the rule has been suspended. Everywhere else, it continues to undermine this vital federal public health program,” AMA and other plaintiffs wrote to the court. “This conflict — between two en banc circuits on important questions of federal law affecting an essential federal health care program — warrants this court’s review,” they wrote. The 9th Circuit determined that the rule is “not arbitrary and capricious” because the administration “properly examined the relevant considerations and gave reasonable explanations,” while the 4th Circuit ruled the opposite. "We welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the Ninth Circuit’s erroneous opinion upholding a Trump administration rule that imposed drastic changes on the Title X federal family planning program," AMA, Planned Parenthood and other groups said in a joint statement Monday. "This rule continues to bring immense harm to people across the country who depend on affordable reproductive health care like birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and STI testing and treatment, among other essential health services that Title X provides," they said.

Fauci: U.S. political divide over masks led to half a million COVID-19 deaths -Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said on Monday that political divisiveness over the use of masks contributed to the U.S. coronavirus death count. Fauci made the comments on the same day the country's death toll reached half a million people one year after the start of the pandemic. Calling the grim milestone "stunning" in an interview with Reuters, Fauci said the divide over mask wearing, which split Americans politically during a presidential election year, turned the public health measure into a political statement. “Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem,” Fauci said. “However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world,” Fauci said. Fauci also called the disregard by some governors and mayors of recommendations for how to reopen the country safely after near-nationwide lockdowns last spring "incomprehensible." “When the American spirit is so divided, that really, really made me sad,” he said. While Fauci would not lay all the blame on the former Trump administration, he noted "the lack of involvement at the very top of the leadership in trying to do everything that was science-based was clearly detrimental to the effort." While the U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population, it has almost 20 percent of all coronavirus deaths, according to Reuters. . “This is the worst thing that’s happened to this country with regard to the health of the nation in over 100 years,” Fauci said. Fauci told Reuters that it was difficult to predict when the pandemic would be over due to the emergence of new coronavirus variants from South Africa and Brazil. Some studies have indicated that these strains are more resistant to the existing coronavirus vaccines. Fauci has suggested that Americans could get pre-pandemic life back by Christmas but has warned restrictions could last until next year.

Feds OK’d Export of Millions of N95 Masks as U.S. Workers Cried for More - In the midst of a national shortage of N95 masks, the U.S. government quietly granted an exception to its export ban on protective gear, allowing as many as 5 million of the masks per month to be shipped overseas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the waiver in the final moments of Donald Trump’s presidency last month, allowing a Texas company to export its products after it failed to secure U.S. customers, according to the FEMA letter obtained by KHN.National Nurses United president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez called the export waiver “unconscionable” and said N95s remain under lock and key in many hospitals. She said she still has to “beg” for a new N95 if hers gets soiled during a shift caring for covid-19 patients.Health care employers “and a federal agency that is supposed to be protecting the people of America are not doing their jobs,” she said. “They have no regard for our safety.”The disconnect between front-line workers going without better protection and federal officials suddenly exporting masks boils down to one thing, workplace-safety experts say: The government has not pivoted quickly enough to lift supply chain crisis-mode guidelines and force employers to take costly and sometimes cumbersome steps to better protect workers with top-quality gear.The FEMA letter references the challenge that Fort Worth-based Prestige Ameritech faced in finding customers for its government-approved, high-end respirators: Hospitals did not want to “fit test” employees to its N95s, a 15-minute process per employee to ensure that a new N95 model seals to the face, according to company president Mike Bowen.Bowen said he ramped up N95 production during the pandemic from 75,000 to 9.6 million per month. Lately, he said, he can’t sell them to major buyers, does not have the infrastructure to sell them to small buyers and has so many in storage that he may need to lay off workers and wind down production.The FEMA letter references those challenges and says the waiver was granted in the “national defense interest” to ensure he keeps production running at pace. The letter was transmitted to Border Patrol officials who oversee exports 103 minutes before Joe Biden was sworn into office.

House Democrats demand answers on TV 'misinformation rumor mills' -House Democrats are pressing cable and streaming services over their decisions to host channels that the lawmakers accuse of spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories that lead to “real world harm.” Reps. Anna Eshoo (Calif.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.), senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, sent letters to the companies on Monday questioning their “ethical principles” involved in deciding which channels to carry and when to take action against a channel. “Some purported news outlets have long been misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm,” they wrote. “Misinformation on TV has led to our current polluted information environment that radicalizes individuals to commit seditious acts and rejects public health best practices, among other issues in our public discourse.” The letter specifically calls out Newsmax, One America Network (OANN) and Fox News. A Fox News media spokesperson said the letter "sets a terrible precedent." “As the most watched cable news channel throughout 2020, FOX News Media provided millions of Americans with in-depth reporting, breaking news coverage and clear opinion. For individual members of Congress to highlight political speech they do not like and demand cable distributors engage in viewpoint discrimination sets a terrible precedent," the spokesperson said in a statement. The lawmakers also asked for information about the number of users who tuned into the stations in the weeks leading up to the election and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Eshoo and McNerney sent letters to traditional cable providers, including Verizon and Comcast, as well as tech companies that provide channels as part of streaming services including Amazon, Google, Apple, Roku and Hulu. 

Taibbi: Why Dems Pushing To Censor Fox News Is "An Insanely Stupid Idea" --Two and a half years ago, when Alex Jones of Infowars was kicked off a series of tech platforms in a clearly coordinated decision, I knew this was not going to be an isolated thing.  Given that people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy were saying the ouster of Jones was just a “good first step,” it seemed obvious the tactic was not going to be confined to a few actors. But corporate media critics insisted the precedent would not be applied more broadly. Just a few years later, calls to ban Fox are not only common, they’re intensifying, with media voices from Brian Stelter on CNN to MSNBC analyst Anand Giridharadas to former Media Matters critic Eric Boehlert to Washington Post columnists Max Boot and Margaret Sullivan all on board. The movement crested this week with a letter from California House Democrats Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, written to the CEOs of cable providers like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, and Dish. They demanded to know if those providers are “planning to continue carrying Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN… beyond any contract renewal date” and “if so, why?”The news comes in advance of Wednesday’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “traditional media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism.”This sequence of events is ominous because a similar matched set of hearings and interrogations back in 2017 — when Senators like Mazie Hirono at a Judiciary Committee hearing demanded that platforms like Google and Facebook come up with a “mission statement” to prevent the “foment of discord” — accelerated the “content moderation” movement that now sees those same platforms regularly act as de facto political censors.Sequences like this - government “requests” of speech reduction, made to companies subject to federal regulation - make the content moderation decisions of private firms a serious First Amendment issue. Censorship advocates may think this is purely a private affair, in which the only speech rights that matter are those of companies like Twitter and Google, but any honest person should be able to see this for what it is. Press freedoms have been in steep decline for a while. Barack Obama’s record targeting of whistleblower sources (and in some cases, journalists themselves) using the Espionage Act was a first serious sign, followed by Donald Trump’s prosecution of Julian Assange. We progressed to a particularly dangerous new stage in recent years, with oligopolistic tech companies, urged on by politicians, engaging in anticompetitive agreements to suppress political voices on both the left and the right....Those gunning for the removal of Fox, Newsmax, and other outlets are clearly not interested in getting there by way of the law. They want to take advantage of the hyper-concentration of power among media distributors — the tech giants like Apple and Amazon that can zap a massively successful app like Parler overnight, and the confederation of cable carriers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon that hold dominion over broadcast networks.

 Republicans use hearing on domestic terrorism to defend Trump and promote far-right forces -On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing titled “The Rise of Domestic Terrorism in America.” The stated purpose of the hearing was to shed light on the “warning signs and signals prior to the [January 6] attack on the Capitol.” The Republicans at the hearing used the event to demonstrate their continued support for Donald Trump and argue that last month’s fascistic attack on the US Capitol was the inevitable and understandable response to last year’s mass protests against police violence, which they absurdly characterized as riots by left-wing terrorists led by Antifa. The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, set the tone in his opening remarks by showing a video of Donald Trump’s infamous statement after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he praised the neo-Nazis who dominated the event as “fine people.” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, put forward most explicitly the basic line of the Republicans, declaring at one point, “What was going on every day for 120 days in Portland was the same as January 6.” This was essentially an apologia for the attempt by fascistic forces whipped up by Trump to seize and likely execute members of Congress in order to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and establish a presidential dictatorship under Trump. In response, the Democrats for the most part chastised their “Republican colleagues” and pleaded with them to act more responsibly. They refused to point to the direct political complicity of Biggs, Jordan and most other Republicans in Congress in the promotion of Trump’s lies about a stolen election and their open or tacit support for the far-right militia forces mobilized in his effort to overturn the election results. Biggs not only voted against the certification of the Electoral College vote in the wake of the mob attack on the US Capitol, he was a prominent promoter of the “Stop the Steal” campaign that led up to the January 6 insurrection. Jordan was also one of the 139 Republican House members who voted against certification. Chairing the hearing was Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. She set the tone for most of the Democrats on the subcommittee, defining the attempted coup and the growth of fascistic and white supremacist forces entirely in racial terms. Throughout the proceedings, Jackson Lee repeatedly thanked her “Republican colleagues” for their “contributions.”

  Senate hearing on January 6 coup: D.C. police were warned of armed attack on Congress - On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee held a joint hearing on the security failures that allowed the US Capitol building to be overrun by a pro-Trump mob headed by far-right militia groups and white supremacists on January 6. The testimony of former and current police officials at Tuesday’s event, the first public congressional hearing into the attempted coup, highlighted their complete failure to respond to clear warnings contained in their own intelligence assessments and those of the FBI of a violent and a coordinated attack on the Capitol.In the course of the hearing, the heads of Metro D.C. Police and the US Capitol Police at the time of the insurrection admitted that their departments possessed intelligence reports warning of a violent attack on Congress in advance of the storming of the Capitol. But in the place of any serious explanation for the stand-down of security forces in the face of numerous threats to Congress from fascistic forces mobilized by former President Donald Trump, the Democratic chairs of the two committees suggested a narrative of “intelligence” or “communications” failures, which began to fall apart even as the hearing progressed. The witnesses were the former chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, the acting chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, Robert Contee, the former Senate sergeant-at-arms, Michael Stenger, and the former House sergeant-at-arms, Paul Irving. For the first time, Sund acknowledged in his testimony that the Capitol Police were sent a copy of an explicit warning issued by the FBI office in nearby Norfolk, Virginia the day before the attempted coup, stating that violent Trump supporters were coming to D.C. and talking about waging “war.” The FBI memo cited direct threats from pro-Trump elements on an unnamed online message board. The posters made clear they were coming to D.C. to take Congress hostage in order to overturn the results of the election. Images retrieved from the message board and included in the FBI memo included maps of the tunnels under the Capitol complex along with rally points in states such as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Carolina for the insurrectionists to meet up prior to heading to Washington. In January, the Washington Post obtained a copy of the memo, which read, in part: “An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.’”

Oath Keeper charged in Capitol riot claims she met with Secret Service -A leader of the far-right Oath Keepers group who was charged in connection with the US Capitol riotclaims she was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 to “provide security” at the pro-Trump rally and met with Secret Service agents, according to court filings.Jessica Watkins, 38, was allegedly given a “VIP pass” to the rally where then-President Donald Trump spoke before the siege, her attorneys wrote in a defense petition filed Saturday.“Ms. Watkins was present not as an insurrectionist, but to provide security to the speakers at the rally, to provide escort for the legislators and others to march to the Capitol as directed by the then president, and to safely escort protesters away from the Capitol to their vehicles and cars at the conclusion of the protest,” the filing states.“She was given a VIP pass to the rally. She met with Secret Service agents.” The Ohio native is one of nine people linked to the Oath Keepers charged with conspiring to storm the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying President Biden’s election victory. Prosecutors allege members of the anti-government group coordinated as early as November to attack the Capitol.The Afghanistan war veteran is also accused of forcibly entering the Capitol building during the siege, “with a line of individuals wearing Oath Keeper clothing, patches, and insignia.”But in Saturday’s filing, her attorneys claimed that she “did not engage in any violence or force at the Capitol grounds or in the Capitol.” Watkins, who has been detained since mid-January, pleaded not guilty to the conspiracy charges.

"I Have All The Evidence On Them": MyPillow CEO Lindell Welcomes $1.3 Billion Dominion Lawsuit -- Dominion Voting Systems is suing Trump supporter Mike Lindell and his company, MyPillow, for $1.3 billion, after the Minnesota-based CEO accused the company of rigging the election for President Biden. The suit was filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, in which Dominion claims that Lindell's statements, social media posts, and a two-hour film he helped produce are false, according to the Wall Street Journal.  "Despite repeated warnings and efforts to share the facts with him, Mr. Lindell has continued to maliciously spread false claims about Dominion, each time giving empty assurances that he would come forward with overwhelming proof," said Dominion CEO John Poulos in a Monday statement to reporters.  Dominion alleges that Lindell knew that 'no credible evidence' supported his claims about election integrity, writing in the complaint: "He is well aware of the independent audits and paper ballot recounts conclusively disproving the Big Lie," adding "But Lindell…sells the lie to this day because the lie sells pillows."  Actually, Lindell's activism has resulted in more than a handful of major retailers dropping his products altogether.Lindell welcomes the lawsuit, saying in a Monday interview: "I have all the evidence on them," adding "Now this will get disclosed faster, all the machine fraud and the attack on our country."Dominion’s lawsuit accuses Mr. Lindell of repeatedly and falsely alleging that algorithms in Dominion’s voting machines had stolen votes from Mr. Trump. It said he had undertaken a marketing campaign for the pillow company based on his support for Mr. Trump and the former president’s claims that the election had been stolen from him. Dominion says the allegations by Mr. Lindell and others have irreparably damaged its reputation, jeopardized its contracts with state and local governments, and prompted death threats and harassment against employees. The company says it supplies election equipment used by more than 40% of U.S. voters. -Wall Street Journal

Bill Gates Bashes Twitter Over Trump Lifetime Ban --Even Bill Gates, a longtime proponent of big tech taking steps to unilaterally eliminate "disinformation" on its platforms, believes Twitter's lifetime ban for former President Donald Trump isn't appropriate, and might actually be making things worse. [...] But toward the end of the interview, Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Gates about Trump and 'Big Tech'. Gates replied that while Trump said many things "about the illegitimacy of the 2020 election that were corrosive," the US doesn't want to divide social networks along political lines. "We don't want to partition and have one social network for one party, then another social network..." Gates said. "There's got to be some way between the government and the well-meaning actors where we draw a line, and we keep the debate...without the corrosive parts." “But the idea that you end up with a lifetime ban - that, it seems like we should discuss." This follows remarks from Gates late last week where he said in an interview that it would be "a shame" if Facebook followed through with plans to ban President Trump. Facebook is still waiting for its advisory committee to decide Trump's future on the platform. Twitter permanently suspended the @realDonaldTrump account last month, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence,” after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a bid to disrupt the Senate’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

Supreme Court declines to shield Trump's tax returns from Manhattan DA - The Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a bid by former President Trump to shield his tax returns and other financial records from a New York grand jury subpoena. The justices issued the order in the long-running dispute between Trump and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. (D) without comment or noted dissents. “The work continues,” Vance tweeted in response. The court’s order comes in response to an emergency request Trump filed in October to the Supreme Court after losing several rounds in the lower courts. Vance's office has sought Trump's records since 2019, when a New York grand jury issued a subpoena to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, for eight years of the former president's personal and business tax returns and other financial records. Vance's office is looking into payments made to silence two women who allege they had affairs with Trump, including adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance law violations, has said the payments were made in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Additionally, Vance’s office has said its subpoena is part of an investigation into possible financial crimes by the Trump Organization. Trump has tried unsuccessfully since 2019 to fend off the request. His filing in October marked the second time that Trump asked the justices to shield his records. In July, the justices voted 7-2 to reject Trump’s argument that presidents have sweeping immunity from criminal proceedings but said Trump could pose other legal objections in the lower courts. Trump then mounted unsuccessful litigation in New York-based federal district and appellate courts, claiming that the subpoena should be blocked because it is overly broad and was issued in bad faith and designed to harass the president. The justice’s Monday order effectively declined to halt the lower court rulings against Trump. Trump’s attorney William Consovoy did not immediately respond when asked if the former president would submit additional filings to the Supreme Court related to the New York grand jury subpoena. A separate lawsuit is before a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., in a case about House Democrats' request for Trump's tax returns from the Treasury Department. The Trump administration had refused to comply with the request, which was made under a section of the federal tax code that says the Treasury secretary "shall furnish" returns requested by the chairs of Congress's tax committees. The Biden administration has not yet said how it will respond to House Democrats' request. 

 Trump lashes out after Supreme Court decision on his financial records | TheHill -- Former President Trump on Monday lashed out after the Supreme Court declined to block the Manhattan district attorney from obtaining his financial records, blasting the probe as politically motivated and pledging to "fight on." "The Supreme Court never should have let this 'fishing expedition' happen, but they did," Trump said in a statement. "This is something which has never happened to a President before, it is all Democrat-inspired in a totally Democrat location, New York City and State, completely controlled and dominated by a heavily reported enemy of mine, Governor Andrew Cuomo." Trump described the Manhattan investigation into his financial dealings as a continuation of "the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of our Country," referring broadly to repeated investigations into his alleged wrongdoing. "I will fight on, just as I have, for the last five years (even before I was successfully elected), despite all of the election crimes that were committed against me," Trump added. "We will win!" The Supreme Court earlier Monday declined to block Trump's financial records after the former president filed a request in October after losing several rounds in the lower courts in his fight against Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. The justices issued the order issued without comment or noted dissents. Vance's office has sought Trump's records since 2019, when a New York grand jury issued a subpoena to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, for eight years of the former president's personal and business tax returns and other financial records. Vance's office is looking into payments made to silence two women who allege they had affairs with Trump, including adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance law violations, has said the payments were made in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Additionally, Vance’s office has said its subpoena is part of an investigation into possible financial crimes by the Trump Organization.

Ghislaine Maxwell admitted Jeffrey Epstein had secret tapes of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, reporter claims --Ghislaine Maxwell admitted that Jeffrey Epstein had secret recordings of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, a CBS News producer has claimed in a new book. The British socialite, who is awaiting trial on charges of procuring girls for Epstein to abuse in the mid-1990s, was reportedly duped by journalist Ira Rosen into confirming that the sex offender had taped his famous friends. Reports that Epstein had planted secret recording devices in his homes and - it was rumoured - had potentially incriminating tapes of his many powerful associates have circulated for years but have never been verified. Mr Rosen, an award-winning producer, said he spoke with Ms Maxwell ahead of the 2016 presidential election and, acting on a "hunch" that recordings existed, duped the socialite into apparently confirming his theory. In his memoir, Mr Rosen writes that he told Ms Maxwell: "I want the tapes. I know he [Epstein] was videotaping everyone." Mr Rosen claims that Ms Maxwell "gave me a stern look and pointed a finger in my face. She said: 'I am the daughter of a press baron. I know the way you people think. If you do one side, you must do the other. If you get the tapes on Trump you have to do Clinton'." Mr Rosen replied: "I will. I will go wherever the story goes." Last year Mr Trump said he had met Ms Maxwell "numerous times" but was "not a fan" of Epstein, whom he had a falling out with about 15 years ago. A spokesperson for Mr Clinton has previously said his friendship with Epstein came to an end before the financier's was convicted of soliciting a minor for sex in 2008.

 Deathbed Confession: FBI and NYPD Responsible for Malcolm X Assassination --A half-century after the death of Civil Right activist Malcolm X, lawyers revealed new evidence of NYPD and FBI involvement in his assassination. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which had earlier re-opened the investigation in response to a Netflix documentary, said that “the review of this matter is active and ongoing.” The new evidence comes by way of a deathbed confession by a former NYPD policeman who gave a letter to his family saying that he, the FBI and the NYPD were responsible for the assassination. His role, he claimed, was to make sure that Malcolm X’s security detail was previously arrested so that there would be no door security at the ballroom where the civil rights activist was speaking the night he was murdered.From Reuters:Members of Malcolm X’s family have made public what they described as a letter written by a deceased police officer stating that the New York Police Department and FBI were behind the 1965 killing of the famed Black activist and civil rights advocate. Raymond Wood’s letter stated that he had been pressured by his NYPD supervisors to lure two members of Malcolm X’s security detail into committing crimes that resulted in their arrest just days before the fatal shooting. Those arrests kept the two men from managing door security at the ballroom and was part of conspiracy between the NYPD and FBI to have Malcolm killed, according to the letter.“Under the direction of my handlers, I was told to encourage leaders and members of the civil rights groups to commit felonious acts,” Wood’s letter stated. What emerges from this revelation and those in the Netflix documentary is the clear possibility that the FBI and NYPD masterminded the assassination ultimately carried out by Malcolm X’s enemies in the Nation of Islam, from which he had recently broken.  In other words, “what everyone knows to be true” — that Malcolm X was killed as a result of a feud with the Nation of Islam — is a lie.

Google’s Dominance of Online Ads is a Big Deal. Here’s How to Fix It.  --interview by Lynn Parramore - Most people know that Google dominates the online search market, but did you know that the company has become the biggest player in the digital ad market? That’s a problem not only for consumers, but potentially for society as a whole, argues former digital advertising executive Dina Srinivasan. Last year, Srinivasan gained attention for her paper “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which explained how the tech giant’s market dominance can harm the public, even though the product is ostensibly free. Now she focuses on Google and the enormous advertising empire that has grown into the company’s biggest money-maker. In her new paper, “Why Google Dominates Advertising Markets,” Srinivasan analyses the digital ad market and argues that Google’s monopolization and the giant regulatory gaps on matters like transparency and conflicts of interest have created an anti-competitive environment that can be harmful to newspapers, consumers, and, ultimately, democracy itself. She proposes that fairness can be restored by using principles applied to financial market regulation.

Facebook shuts down group with 90,000 cruise ship crew members - On Friday, an online Facebook Group with approximately 90,000 cruise ship employee members entitled “The Crew Bar” was shut down by the social media company. Moderators received no prior warning or explanation and were only sent a message which read, “Your group has been disabled. This is because it goes against our Community Standards on dangerous individuals and organizations. We have these standards to prevent and disrupt offline harm.” “The Crew Bar” group name is taken from officially-designated, employee-only recreational facilities in crew living quarters aboard typical cruise ships. The page intended to be an online simulation of this unique social environment. Its purpose was to enable members of the hundreds of thousands-strong, international cruising workforce to stay in touch with one another, share important workplace information and news, and primarily, to socialize. While there are several similar such groups and pages on Facebook that have been created by and for seafarers, “The Crew Bar” was the largest and most broad-based. Whereas the other groups tend to be oriented to specific crew nationality or employer, the former was used as an all-inclusive platform for ship workers across all companies and nationalities to share their experiences working at sea. The Crew Bar Facebook Page Banner. Source: The Crew Bar During the initial phases of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent global shutdown of cruising—which left hundreds of thousands of crew members marooned for months—the page functioned as an emotional support group for those who were stranded and concerned about the future of their livelihood in the wake of the collapse of the industry. It also supported those who were nostalgic for better days working at sea. The disabling of “The Crew Bar” comes amidst Facebook’s recently announced program of depoliticizing its platform for its nearly three billion users, as well as the banning of all news sources in Australia. These moves come as a part of a broader effort by the social media giant to monitor, track and shut down “inauthentic behavior” on its platform. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential elections, major tech monopolies including Facebook, Google and Twitter—falling in line with the narrative of “Russian meddling” promoted by the American Democratic Party establishment—announced the strengthening of censorship and content-restricting initiatives.

How Corrupt Is Wall Street? Two Watchdogs Weigh In --Pam Martens -- Better Markets and Public Citizen, two of the most informed Wall Street watchdogs, provided written testimony for last Thursday’s hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on the structure of Wall Street. And, to put it mildly, their assessment of the state of affairs on Wall Street does not align with what hedge fund titan Ken Griffin of Citadel told lawmakers at the same hearing. Griffin testified, under oath mind you, that: “The U.S. capital markets are the envy of the world. Our nation’s ability to allocate capital to its best and highest use cr­­­­­eates jobs, drives innovation and fuels our economy.” In reality, foreign regulators have repeatedly filed enforcement actions against the largest banks on Wall Street for engaging in fraud and rigging markets. As for allocating capital “to its best and highest use,” Better Markets describes the prospects for GameStop, one of the hot meme stocks today, as follows:  “A rudimentary review of GameStop’s financial and business prospects (before the meteoric rise of the stock price) would have yielded the following unmistakable conclusions: GameStop was bleeding revenue in 2019 and 2020; it was closing stores with little to no prospects of re-opening them, and its most basic business—that of selling and renting hard-disk video games—was under threat from the new generation video game consoles. Yet, none of this prevented millions of investors who were hyped, misled, or manipulated into pouring their hard-earned money into GameStop and similar stocks. And none of this seems to have mattered to Robinhood (and others) who peddled, facilitated, and enabled leveraged and margin investing that some now believe has become so widespread as to have systemic risk implications.” Better Markets goes on to explain that only the particular context for last Thursday’s hearing is new, but the “trading practices, and obvious vulnerabilities of the U.S. financial system are not.” Better Markets points out the following areas where ongoing abuses are occurring:  “Market participants at the center of these events have for years taken advantage of market fragmentation, order routing schemes, questionable execution practices, and leveraged trading strategies. And even in the current saga, there are reports that some sophisticated participants made hundreds of millions of dollars momentum trading (exacerbating volatility both as the price went up and as it crashed).  “Furthermore, for years, a handful of Wall Street’s biggest banks have ‘danced while the music was playing.’ They have facilitated many of the trading practices at the center of the events and bent the rules of the markets to their advantage using their roles in the governance, operation, and resiliency of clearinghouses, exchanges and trading venues, data repositories, and more. Those banks also remain (a) the prime brokers for most sizable hedge funds, including those involved in the GameStop events; (b) the dominant derivatives dealers with 87.3% of U.S. derivatives exposures; and (c) significant lenders in various capacities, including as securities lenders.”  Public Citizen’s written testimony also challenged the idea that the structure of today’s markets are conducive to prudent capital allocation on Wall Street. Public Citizen made the following points on the issue of high-frequency trading: “Most trading today is executed not by individuals making deliberate decisions about the value of a stock based on fundamental analysis of a firm’s prospects, but by computers programed with algorithms that detect patterns… “Globally, high-frequency trading has been shown to increase costs for investors by $5 billion annually…

Is Citadel’s Hedge Fund a Harmless $35 Billion Minnow or a $235 Billion Killer Shark? - Pam Martens - At the end of last Thursday’s 4-hour long hearing on the forces behind the wild trading in shares of New York Stock Exchange-listed GameStop, Congressman Jesus (Chuy) Garcia of Illinois asked Citadel hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin how much money was managed by his hedge fund. Griffin replied: “We manage approximately $35 billion dollars of assets.” Garcia than suggested that Citadel was systemically important. Since this might be construed to mean that Citadel should be under heightened regulatory oversight, Griffin quickly responded with this: “I believe that our hedge fund would not be in the category as systemically important. With $30-some billion of equity it is simply not at the scale or magnitude of a JPMorgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo.” To make a proper assessment as to whether Citadel is a little minnow swimming peacefully with the Dolphins or a predatory killer shark regularly looking for a fresh kill, it’s important to pay attention to what happened between Griffin’s first response and his second response. In the first response, Griffin said Citadel managed “$35 billion dollars of assets.” In the second response, he changed that to “$30-some billion of equity.” According to the Form ADV that Griffin’s hedge fund, Citadel Advisors LLC, filed on January 15, 2021 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, his hedge fund is managing not $35 billion but $235 billionto be very specific, $234,679,962,503.   In a 2011 SEC final rule announcement, hedge funds were required to report “regulatory assets under management,” which includes not just the “equity” investors held in the hedge fund but the additional assets the hedge fund had purchased with borrowed funds – known as buying on margin. Hedge funds were also required to report assets held on behalf of foreign investors. Since hedge funds manage all of the assets they hold, and Congressman Garcia was clearly attempting to assess the size of Citadel’s systemic footprint in U.S. financial markets, it would have behooved Griffin to explain that the gross amount of assets his hedge fund was managing was actually 6.7 times the figure he had provided, that is, $235 billion not $35 billion. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but Griffin was put under oath, along with all other witnesses, at the opening of this hearing.)

Deja Vu All Over Again: Gamestop Soars Over 300% As 'Gamma Squeeze' Returns - The squeeze is back. About a month after everyone was transfixed by the Gamestop-led short squeeze insanity, which however fizzled in early February when the stock plunged more than 80% from as high as $500 to $40, moments ago GME exploded higher, surging more than 70% in the last half hour of trading on no news, and what appears to be yet another attempt to spark a short squeeze... ... which however will be difficult with just 32.8% of the float now short, a drop of roughly 100% from a month ago. Squeeze or not, after GME was reopened for trading following a brief halt, the stock exploded even higher, and was halted for a second time when it was up 100%, trading just above $91. Without a clear buying catalyst, many speculated that the source of the move is likely to be found on the Wall Street Bets message board, and sure enough, after a week when Palantir was all the "incels" could talk about, according to Swaggy Stocks, AMC and GME were once again the two stocks with the top comment volume and positive sentiment on WSB. Bloomberg chimed in, noting that retail traders took to Reddit "to discuss the stock following news of the upcoming departure of Chief Financial Officer Jim Bell" resulting in GME's biggest intraday jump in nearly three weeks Reddit-fueled traders cheered each other on to buy more shares into the market close after news of Bell’s planned departure The stock had been focus of a House hearing on retail trading Elsewhere, Jefferies analyst Stephanie Wissink wrote that the move follows the natural progression of RC Ventures’ activist agenda. That agenda pushes for a faster timeline, with many strategies to boost the company already underway. Update (1620ET): After staging a massive rip in the last few minutes of trading... GME is now up over 300% on the day... As it appears a 'gamma squeeze' was manufactured once again as deep OTM Calls (expiring Friday) were heavily bid today... The huge volume options trades hit around Which corresponded perfectly with the start of the explosion higher in the stock... It wasn't just GME either, AMC is up 40%... Lifting the entire basket of WSB faves... How long before Robinhood is taken offline? And then there was this... right before the "melt-up" from GME's newest board member (Chewy founder Ryan Cohen)... * * *

Round 2 Of Face-Ripping Short Squeeze Arrives Just As Hedge Funds Pile Into Shorts | ZeroHedge - One of the key catalysts behind the original round of meme stocks such as GME and AMC surging in late January in "rip your face off" rallies, was targeting companies that were heavily short, in some cases - such as Gamestop - with a synthetic short position that was 140% of the float. Since then, the short interest in all of these original meme companies has collapsed dramatically as hedge funds that were short suffered tremendous, and in some cases, irreparable losses forcing them to cover at any cost (and price).What is remarkable is that the targeted WallStreetBets raids of heavily shorted stocks took place in an environment wheremarketwide shorts were actually at the lowest level on record as a result of the endless levitation in the S&P500 thanks to the trillions of Fed monetary generosity, with most industries ranking in the 0 percentile vs history in terms of short interest as a % of market cap (with the exception of energy, where the short squeeze has yet to come at the industry level). But is that really true? Well, it may have been until about two weeks ago when things changed drastically.As JPMorgan wrote on Tuesday, while hedge funds were quite positive on markets especially in the US, over the past 6+ months (JPM had seen net buying most days since late July 2020), "following the recent weakness and rotation, we’ve seen HFs react by adding more shorts, which are picking up after the large covering in late Jan", and remarkably Monday was the largest day of short additions in North America since late June 2020!Meanwhile, as JPM notes today in its summary of the furious rip higher in Gamestop and AMC, "we may be seeing the beginning of the Retail impulse returning." Translation: the WallStreetBets "incels" are back for round two and are trying to make lightning strike twice, by focusing on the two more popular shorts of the latest round of short squeezes. That said, we expect all the same mega-squeeze companies that ripped higher a month ago are all set to explode in the coming days. This means that just as hedge funds reloaded on their shorts expecting a rapid acceleration in the recent market correction... the reddit rippers are back and set to squeeze all those millions in newly layered shorts which are not being picked up in the latest data  which is as of two weeks ago, or just as the short flush peaked and a new layer of shorting was starting.

Lawless Coup on Wall Street Continues: GameStop Doubles in Price in One Day -- Pam Martens -- There’s an ongoing lawless coup taking place on Wall Street among stock manipulators who seem to be sending the message to the Biden administration, “we dare you to catch us.” We continue to write about GameStop because it stands at the intersection of everything that is corrupt and broken in U.S. markets: from payment-for-order flow, to high frequency trading, to front-running, to Dark Pools, to hedge funds masquerading as market makers and lack of an audit trail at the Securities and Exchange Commission to shed daylight on the whole corrupt mess.Just six days after some of the major players in the wild trading action of GameStop were hauled before the House Financial Services Committee and put under oath, the stock more than doubled in price yesterday. GameStop opened at $44.70 and closed at $91.71, a one-day gain of 103.94 percent.As the chart above shows, the big action came shortly after 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, like someone had rung a bell to start the bull raid. Adding to the suggestion that high frequency traders felt they had nothing to fear from the SEC or Congress, Dow Jones’ MarketWatch reports that a total of 83,111,740 shares of GameStop traded yesterday, which is 1.8 times the 45 million share float of the stock. (Float is the number of outstanding shares issued by the corporation that are available to trade. It excludes such outstanding shares as those owned by corporate insiders that are restricted from trading.)That type of volume, which occurred primarily in a 90-minute span in the afternoon, suggests the hand of high frequency traders and a coordinated manipulation in the stock.Adding to the speciousness of the spike in the stock price, there was no positive news to justify the action yesterday. In fact, on Tuesday the company announced that its CFO, Jim Bell, was resigning. When a company’s CFO abruptly announces his departure a few business days after a Congressional Committee examines trading in the stock, it’s typically not a good sign.Making the GameStop situation particularly notable is that this is a brick and mortar retail chain that is attempting to sell video games during a pandemic when most people prefer to shop online or simply download their games. That money is flowing into this stock strongly suggests that the capital allocation process of Wall Street is seriously misfiring.Aswath Damodaran, a Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at NYU, has written extensively about the prospects for GameStop. He describes the situation as follows  “Leading into 2020, the company was already facing headwinds, with declining store count and revenues, and lower operating margins; the company reported net losses in 2018 and 2019.“In 2020, the company, like most other brick and mortar companies, faced an existential crisis. As the shutdown put their stores out of business, the debt and lease payments that are par for the course for any brick-and-mortar retailer threatened to push them into financial distress…“Even if GameStop is able to more than double its revenues over the next decade, which would require growth in revenues of 15% a year for the next five y ears, and improve its margins to 12.5%, a supreme reach for a company that has never earned double digit margins over its lifetime, the value per share is about half the current stock price.” At the time that Professor Damodaran wrote the above, January 29, 2021, he put a fair value of $47.14 on the stock. That was one day after GameStop had hit an intraday peak of $483, bringing its run from a share price of $18.84 on December 31, 2020 to an unprecedented gain of 2,465 percent for a struggling brick and mortar retail outlet. GameStop then plunged back to earth in the days that followed.

A wonderful year for the elite: Top 25 hedge fund managers earned record $32 billion in 2020 as millions plunged into miseryOn February 22, the Institutional Investor (II) published its annual “Rich List” of the top twenty-five hedge managers and their earnings in 2020. During a year in which tens of millions of people lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands died from the coronavirus pandemic in the US, these super-wealthy individuals collectively increased their earnings 50 percent over 2019 to $32 billion. In “The 20th Annual Rich List, the Definitive Ranking of What Hedge Fund Managers Earned in 2020,” Stephen Taub wrote, “A bad year for humanity was a wonderful year for the hedge fund elite.” To this the editors of the publication added, “when volatility increases and stock markets soar—regardless of their connection to the real economy—a select group of men (and yes, it is all men on II’s 2020 Rich List) stand to make bank. It may not be seemly, but it remains fact. And Steve Taub, alone among his peers, consistently gets it right.” Topping the list was Israel (Izzy) Englander, the founder and CEO of Millennium Management , who earned $3.8 billion in 2020. Englander, 72, more than doubled his 2019 earnings of $1.5 billion and has a net worth of $7.2 billion and is 74th richest American according to the Forbes 400 2020 list. Englander’s Millennium Management is characterized in investment circles as “the world’s largest alternative asset management firm with $39 billion assets under management” and it operates in America, Europe and Africa. The Millennium Management fund increased its value by 26 percent and earned “$10.2 billion in 2020, bringing the firm’s lifetime return for investors to $36 billion,” according to the II profile of Englander which noted, “Englander has been on the Rich List in 19 of 20 years, including last year’s tie for third place.” To get a sense of the amount of money earned by Englander in 2020, his payout of $3.8 billion would cover the living expenses of 5,000 families of four for 10 years. The other 24 individuals on the “Rich List” earned between $1 billion and $2.6 billion and top 10 earned a collective $20 billion. A hedge fund is a pooled investment fund that engages in complex trading schemes on Wall Street. Short selling (betting that the value of a stock is going to fall), leverage (borrowing funds to purchase a financial asset) and derivatives (complex bundles of assets such as forwards, futures, options and swaps) are among the techniques used by hedge funds and these activities are available only to “institutional investors” and “high net worth individuals” who are part of the exclusive super-wealthy financial oligarchy. One searches high and low online to find a single word of criticism or objection to the grotesque accumulation of wealth by the hedge fund managers hailed by the publishers and editors of II. It does not register in the capitalist press that there is any problem at all with a handful of billionaires raking in more billions while millions are without jobs, food, shelter and health care while the government and corporate America are demanding workers stay on the job and children go back to school to face the deadly pandemic.

 "It Must End Badly" - Munger Says Market Resembles Dot Com Bubble, Calls SPACs "Shit" - Warren Buffett's "No. 2" spoke during the annual meeting of the Daily Journal Corporation, the Los Angeles newspaper-publishing company chaired by Munger. The 97-year-old Charlie Munger is best known for his work as Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, where he has served as Buffett's right hand man for decades. And like Buffett, Munger has a soft spot for newspapers and legacy media companies, and thus took time out of his (busy?) week to answer questions from Daily Journal shareholders in a meeting broadcast live online (watch recording below). Those who tuned in on Wednesday hoped to hear Munger answer questions on one critical topic: the state of contemporary markets, and whether or not all the craziness in equities, crypto, commodities etc constitutes an asset bubble. Among the myriad topics covered in Mungers marathon, 2-hour presentation, the 97-year-old reflected on the crazy price moves in companies like GameStop, and said the prevailing attitude in the US equity market as a "horse-racing mentality toward stocks."“It’s really stupid to have a culture” encouraging such gambling in stocks, Munger said, calling the frenzied buying of stocks “a very dangerous way to invest."Unleashing his notorious tidal wave of criticism, Munger also gave Robinhood and new brokers a solid beating. He chided them for the way they make money, calling it “dirty,” and said it’s just luring in novice investors who want to gamble. Civilization would be better off without them, he added. And he left with a stark warning: Commission-free trading isn’t free (something which we had been saying since 2018). Naturally, Munger also railed against Bitcoin (and gold), saying Berkshire wouldn’t follow Tesla into the cryptocurrency, and that it’s too volatile to be a true medium of exchange for the world. Munger paraphrased Oscar Wilde’s quotation about fox hunting to describe bitcoin, calling it “the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.”He also touched on another contemporary market fad: the advent of SPACs, which have exploded in recent months in the clearest reflection yet of the market's bubble euphoria. So far in 2021, 144 SPACs have gone public — averaging roughly five per trading day — raising a total of $44 billion. Just seven weeks into the year, this represents more than half the totals in 2020, which itself witnessed a 5x increase in SPAC activity relative to 2019 Taking a shot at the SPAC scramble that is being stoked by both frenzied buyers and rabid bankers, Munger lamented that "the investment banking profession will sell shit as long as shit can be sold."As to how all this stock speculation might end, Munger declared that it would end badly, although it’s still unclear when. He said it’s best to stay out of the fray, which is what he’s doing: “Yes, I think it must end badly, but I don’t know when."

NY attorney lasers Bitcoin’s key funding mechanism -- FT Alphaville - It’s been a volatile and stressful week in cryptoland. First Elon Musk, the electric boss of eccentric car company Tesla (or was it the other way round) and one of bitcoin’s most high-profile supporters, tweeted on Saturday that the cryptocurrency’s price “seems high”.Then, after bitcoin hit a record high of $58,354 on Sunday, US Treasury secretary and former Fed chair Janet Yellen dismissed bitcoin as an “extremely inefficient way of conducting transactions”, as she lamented its staggering energy consumption, a comment that helped bitcoin fall more than 22 per cent from its peak. At pixel time, Bitcoin was trading around $47,500.And then on Tuesday, the New York District Attorney’s office moved to suspend Bitfinex and Tether’s “illegal activity” in the state.The connected entities will now be prohibited from servicing New Yorkers, on the basis that they deceived the market by overstating reserves and by covering up approximately $850m in losses around the globe.The move could be a major blow for the value of bitcoin, due to the role that Tether, a dollar-tracking crypto stablecoin, plays in supporting dollar-denominated inflows into the bitcoin ecosystem. Tether’s transparency page puts its current dollar assets at $34bn. But regulators and critics have always worried about the shape and liquidity of the underlying assets used to peg Tether’s tokens to the dollar. Many believe a huge chunk of bitcoin’s value may as a result have been synthesised by overly depending on this only partially funded asset pool. In her findings, NY Attorney Letitia James dubbed Tether a “stablecoin without stability” with tokens that were “never fully backed at all times”. In some cases, she noted, Tether’s declarations of holdings came only as a result of temporary cosmetic cash injections (usually described as window dressing in the finance sector).  From the AG’s statement: The OAG’s investigation found that, starting no later than mid-2017, Tether had no access to banking, anywhere in the world, and so for periods of time held no reserves to back tethers in circulation at the rate of one dollar for every tether, contrary to its representations. In the face of persistent questions about whether the company actually held sufficient funds, Tether published a self-proclaimed ‘verification’ of its cash reserves,   In reality, however, the cash ostensibly backing tethers had only been placed in Tether’s account as of the very morning of the company’s ‘verification.’   Bitfinex and Tether are now being required by the New York Attorney to pay $18.5m in penalties.

Fed nears decision on continued easing of bank capital rule— The Federal Reserve is nearing a decision on whether to extend temporary capital relief given to banks last year to help them manage the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers Tuesday. The Fed and other agencies last spring allowed banks subject to the supplementary leverage ratio to exclude U.S. Treasury securities and deposits at Federal Reserve banks from the measure of capital relative to assets. The exemptions, set to expire March 31, were meant to free up resources to make loans and other purposes. While the central bank is still weighing its options, Powell indicated to members of the Senate Banking Committee that an extension is on the table. The deadline is also approaching on the relief provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. “We have not decided what to do there yet, and we’re actually looking into that right now,” Powell said, adding that the Fed will announce a decision “pretty soon.” The SLR requires banks with more than $250 billion of assets to maintain an extra cushion of high-quality capital against their total assets. Banks must maintain a minimum 3% ratio against their total leverage exposure. The ratio is 5% for the largest bank holding companies. The temporary relief was intended to allow banks to expand their balance sheet and relieve some stress on the functioning of the Treasury market, but the Fed had also estimated that the change would reduce the required amount of capital at bank holding companies by $76 billion. That elicited backlash from Democratic lawmakers and others who expressed concern about banks shedding capital in the midst of a crisis, and Tuesday's hearing revealed that the issue still divides lawmakers. Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, urged Powell not to extend the relief for any banks that have continued to pay dividends to shareholders “rather than invest in the real economy.” “The Fed reduced capital standards so banks would lend more, not so they would pay dividends, but it’s not what’s happening,” said Brown. “The biggest banks have gotten larger, they’ve gotten more profitable, but they haven’t increased lending. Dividends, however, remain steady.” But Powell told Brown that he didn’t think it would be appropriate to tie continued SLR relief to dividend payments. “I’m not going to commit to connecting that decision to the payment of dividends as a separate matter,” Powell said. “What you see now is a banking system that has higher capital than it did going into the pandemic, and particularly for the largest banks.” Powell said that the nation’s largest banks “proved resilient” throughout the past year amid the economic turmoil, and that he doesn't expect that to change. “They’ve been able to keep lending, their capital levels have actually gone up during this period … so I think that the work that we did over the course of the last decade and then some has held up pretty well so far, and I expect it to continue,” he said.

Industry was strong enough without dividend, buyback curbs- Quarles — In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Federal Reserve took novel steps to measure and strengthen bank capital. But now, the central bank's top supervisory officials says some extradordinary measures were unnecessary, and the Fed could have just stuck with its normal stress test regime. Due to the pandemic, the Fed complemented its June 2020 stress tests with "sensitivity analyses" assessing how the largest banks' balance sheets would respond to various economic recovery scenarios. Based on those analyses, the results of which were published June 25, the Fed blocked share repurchases and capped the dividend payments banks could make to shareholders. But Fed Vice Chair of Supervision Randal Quarles said, based on how banks have navigated the crisis, it is evident now that their capital levels would have remained adequate without those shareholder restrictions. That calls into question the need for irregular stress test exercises, he said. “With the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s now clear that we could have not imposed those distribution limitations [and] the banking system would have been fine,” Quarles said Thursday at a virtual event hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The comments echo earlier remarks he made in June touting the potential of the Fed's standard stress test regime to measure bank capital strength during both normal conditions and crises. Quarles said without knowing how the economic crisis of the past year was going to play out, the Fed was right to take the extra steps it did. But he suggested that current analyses of the economic environment show that those steps were not required. “Given the uncertainty that existed at the time, I don’t think it would have been prudent for us" not to impose restrictions, "but it underscores that doing something like this should be extraordinarily rare.” It is unclear if other Fed board members such as Chair Jerome Powell or Gov. Lael Brainard share Quarles' view. A Trump appointee, Quarles is slated to hold his vice chair title until his term ends in October. (He can remain a Fed governor until 2032.) Some have speculated that Brainard, appointed to the Fed board in the Obama administration, could succeed Quarles as the central bank's top supervisory official. The two Fed governors have clashed on numerous issues related to supervising large banks, with Brainard dissenting from several recent board decisions. The core of the Fed's stress test regime is a measure known as the stress capital buffer, which was established in March 2020 in an effort to streamline the regime and consolidate several requirements. Under the new system, each bank subject to the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review has to meet a unique benchmark based on its performance of how much capital to hold in the following year to combat stress. But the Fed created the accompanying “sensitivity analyses” out of concern that the economic scenarios developed before COVID-19 started spreading were outdated once the pandemic was in full force. Quarles suggested it is now evident that the regular stress tests would have been sufficient to ensure banks had enough capital. He said deviating from the normal regime should be reserved for more dire circumstances.

Banks' economic outlook improving, but lending remains sluggish — The latest earnings snapshot for the banking industry suggests that while institutions are upbeat about the economy, they remain cautious about lending. A significant reduction in loan-loss expenses boosted net income last quarter as dire economic predictions about the pandemic did not come to pass, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said in the Quarterly Banking Profile. Loan-loss provisions in the fourth quarter dropped sharply by over 76% from a year earlier to $3.5 billion, which was the lowest total since the second quarter of 1995, the FDIC report said Tuesday. The decline signaled a reversal in banks' economic outlook from earlier in the year, when many feared a direct hit to credit quality resulting from COVID-19. Loan-loss provisions had exceeded $60 billion in the second quarter. Yet while many banks have a better outlook about 2021, the agency said the vast majority of banks nonetheless reported higher provisions. "The decline in provisions for credit losses was not broad-based, as less than one-third ... of all banks reported year-over-year declines," the agency said in the QBP. Meanwhile, lending continued to cool down in the final months of 2020. Though the 0.4% decline in total loans last quarter was driven in part by a 17% drop in Paycheck Protection Program loans, the annual loan growth rate of 3.3% was the lowest since the fourth quarter of 2013. Still, quarterly net income grew 9% from a year earlier to $59.9 billion, helped by a 6.5% increase in noninterest income from a year earlier. "Fourth-quarter net income rose, primarily due to lower provision expenses for credit losses and higher noninterest income," FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams said in remarks accompanying the report, though she added that "banks reported modest declines in asset quality and loan volume." The agency said banks using the current expected credit losses accounting standard, or CECL, reported an 88.9% drop in loan-loss provisions in the fourth quarter, or a decline of $11.2 billion. Those institutions account for most of the industry’s assets. "They hold the vast amount of assets in the industry — like 82% of the assets, so they're driving the results," said Diane Ellis, director of insurance and research at the FDIC. "They're looking out over a longer time horizon, and changes in macroeconomic outlook definitely contribute to that activity." In spite of the industry's profit gains, the FDIC reported the second consecutive quarterly decline in loan balances, which totaled over $10.8 trillion. The drop was driven by a decline in commercial and industrial lending, which fell by 4.1%, or $103.8 billion, compared with the previous quarter. In contrast, total loans had risen sharply in the first quarter, growing by over 4%. Annual loan growth was driven by a roughly 11% increase in commercial and industrial lending, though the agency stressed that that growth was concentrated "primarily in the first half of 2020." The industry’s full-year net income totaled $147.9 billion dollars in 2020, a drop of more than 36% from the previous year. According to the FDIC, that decline was “primarily attributable to higher provision expenses in the first half of 2020 tied to pandemic-related deterioration in economic activity.”

FDIC: Problem Banks Unchanged, Residential REO Declined in Q4 - The FDIC released the Quarterly Banking Profile for Q4 2020 today: For the commercial banks and savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), aggregate net income totaled $59.9 billion in fourth quarter 2020, an increase of $5 billion (9.1 percent) from a year ago. The improvement in quarterly net income was led by a reduction in provision expenses. Financial results for fourth quarter 2020 are included in the FDIC’s latest Quarterly Banking Profile released today. … The Deposit Insurance Fund’s Reserve Ratio Declined from the Previous Quarter to 1.29 Percent: The Deposit Insurance Fund totaled $117.9 billion in the fourth quarter, up $1.5 billion from the third quarter. The quarterly increase was led by assessment revenue and interest earned on investment securities held by the fund. The reserve ratio declined by 1 basis point from the previous quarter to 1.29 percent solely as a result of strong estimated insured deposit growth.Mergers and New Bank Openings Continued in the Fourth Quarter: During the fourth quarter, three new banks opened, 31 institutions were absorbed through mergers, and two banks failed. 5,001 commercial banks and savings institutions filed fourth quarter Call Reports and are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as of December 31, 2020. ... The number of institutions on the FDIC’s “Problem Bank List” remained unchanged from the previous quarter at 56. Total assets of problem banks increased from $53.9 billion in third quarter 2020 to $55.8 billion in fourth quarter 2020.The FDIC reported the number of problem banks was unchanged.This graph from the FDIC shows the number of problem banks was unchanged at 56 institutions. Note: The number of assets for problem banks increased significantly back in 2018 when Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas was added to the list (it must still be on the list given the assets of problem banks).  The dollar value of 1-4 family residential Real Estate Owned (REOs, foreclosure houses) declined from $2.27 billion in Q4 2019 to $1.11 billion in Q4 2020. This is the lowest level of REOs in many years.  (probably declined sharply due to foreclosure moratoriums and forbearance programs). This graph shows the nominal dollar value of Residential REO for FDIC insured institutions. Note: The FDIC reports the dollar value and not the total number of REOs.

Fed Investigating Massive Outage Of Its Interbank Payment System   -- The Federal Reserve’s critical system for interbank payments which serves as the backbone of virtually all money transfers in the US, went down Wednesday afternoon as trillions in payments suddenly ground to a halt. The outage, similar to two significant disruptions suffered by the Fed in 2019, was widespread across all payment systems maintained by the central bank, including the vital automated clearinghouse system known as FedACH, and the Fedwire Funds interbank transfer service. ACH is a national system that processes batches of electronic funds transfers such as payroll, social security benefits, tax refunds, corporate payments to vendors and utility payments, according to the Fed’s website. The commercial service handled 62.1 million transactions a day on average in 2019 with an average value of $1,802, the latest year for which data are available. “A Federal Reserve operational error resulted in disruption of service in several business lines,” Jim Strader, a spokesman for the Richmond Fed, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are restoring services and are communicating with all Federal Reserve Financial Services customers about the status of operations.” Around 230 pm, reported that after a roughly hour-long outage, the Fed's central bank services and FedCash were back to normal operations. While the little used FedMail did not suffer a disruption, all other services are still listed as “service disruption.”“We are in process of restarting the Fedwire Services and National Settlement Service and expect to resume normal processing this afternoon,” the website says

Fed restores some services after outage on ‘operational error’ -- For about four hours Wednesday, Federal Reserve systems that execute millions of financial transactions a day — everything from payroll to tax refunds to interbank transfers — were disrupted by what appeared to be some sort of internal glitch. Systems were mostly restored by the end of the day, but the outages once again raise questions about the resilience of critical infrastructure that Americans rely on to process payments. The episode follows two significant disruptions to the Fed’s payment services that occurred in 2019. “A Federal Reserve operational error resulted in disruption of service in several business lines,” Jim Strader, a spokesman for the Richmond Fed, said in an emailed statement. “We are restoring services and are communicating with all Federal Reserve Financial Services customers about the status of operations.” BloombergThe Fed restored the automated clearinghouse system known as FedACH as well as its Fedwire Funds, Fedwire Securities, Central Bank, National Settlement, FedCash, Check 21 and Check Adjustments services, according to a website operated by the central bank. Account Services was still suffering outages as of 4:25 p.m. New York time. The Fed website noted the disruptions were discovered around 11:15 a.m. and Strader declined to comment on whether they were a result of system updates or human error. Inside financial firms, traders were generally calm, still handling transactions. A mood of initial confusion subsided as many realized they weren’t affected, one said. ACH is a national system that processes batches of electronic funds transfers such as payroll, social security benefits, tax refunds, corporate payments to vendors and utility payments, according to the Fed’s website. The commercial service handled 62.1 million transactions a day on average in 2019 with an average value of $1,802, the latest year for which data are available. In a posting on its website at 2:46 p.m. the Fed said it was taking steps to ensure the resilience of its services but urged customers to double check that any messages they had sent or received had been reconciled.

 Bankers plead for answers from SBA on forgiving big PPP loans - Large Paycheck Protection Program loans remain in limbo as the Small Business Administration takes its time reviewing borrowers’ applications. Though the SBA has forgiven more than 30% of the 5.1 million PPP loans it approved last year, many lenders who originated loans of $2 million or more are still waiting to hear back from the agency months after their borrowers submitted paperwork. For bankers, the wait is delaying the payout of origination fees for the loans. And it could cause big headaches for borrowers as they look to finalize their latest financial statements, bankers said. The “SBA asked for an awful lot of information” from businesses that borrowed large amounts, said Ted Sheppe, executive vice president of commercial banking at the $675 million-asset Axiom Bank in Maitland, Fla. “The information is supplied, then it just kind of goes dark for three or four months,” Sheppe added. “That has some customers a little spooked. … We just don't have an answer for them. That’s frustrating.” Lenders have originated more than 29,000 loans of $2 million or more under the PPP, accounting for just 0.4% of total loans. But they make up 16% of the $651 billion in funds approved by the SBA. Bankers aren’t surprised the SBA is giving large loans extra scrutiny given the controversy during the PPP's earliest days when large businesses and publicly traded companies were approved for funds. The SBA and Treasury Department, which are administering the program, issued a statement on April 28 pledging to review all loans that exceeded $2 million. The SBA in November unveiled a nine-page questionnaire for PPP borrowers who took out loans that big. But lenders are frustrated by the radio silence from the SBA and Treasury on the status of the loans or what could be holding forgiveness up.

White House will give small firms two-week exclusive PPP access - The Biden administration will give exclusive access to the Paycheck Protection Program to the nation’s smallest businesses for two weeks as part of a broader effort to steer federal aid to the most vulnerable parts of the economy. From Feb. 24 through March 9, only businesses with fewer than 20 employees will be able to apply for relief through the program, a senior administration official said. The window is aimed at helping smaller companies, which often struggle more than larger businesses to secure funding from lenders, the official said. The program is set to expire on March 31. President Joe Biden is expected announce a series of moves Monday aimed at improving access to the Paycheck Protection Program.BloombergThe measure is part of a series of moves the administration is announcing Monday aimed at improving access to the federal program for hard-hit businesses and other groups. The White House said it will also recalculate a funding formula to make more money available to sole proprietors, independent contractors and the self-employed, who’d struggled to access the program, as well as remove restrictions that had prevented non-U.S. citizens and convicted felons from accessing the aid. The PPP, created as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package enacted in March, has faced criticism — especially for excluding minority-owned and the smallest firms. The Small Business Administration had approved 5.2 million loans worth $525 billion when the program closed in August. In December, Congress approved another $284 billion for the program when it reopened Jan. 11 and made changes aimed at making it more accessible to minorities. First-time applicants to the program can get their loans forgiven if they have fewer than 500 employees and use the money for approved costs, like payroll and rent. Companies can apply for a second forgivable loan if they have 300 or fewer employees and can show a 25% drop in revenue. The SBA approved almost 1.7 million loans worth $125.8 billion through Feb. 15, according to an agency report. The pace picked up after a slow start following the program’s reopening. The average loan size was $75,133, with first-draw loans being much smaller on average, the data showed. First-time business applicants received an average loan of $21,675, while second-time recipients got an average of $97,974. This round of PPP lending got off to a slow start as lenders and applicants had just days to update their systems and paperwork between when the SBA released the updated forms and began accepting applications. Businesses applying through community lenders, such as a community development financial institution, had exclusive access to apply for PPP money for one week when the system opened in January. However, the gesture was largely seen as ineffective because few lenders and businesses were prepared to submit applications that quickly.

 Biden plan to help smallest PPP applicants has downsides, banks warn - The Biden administration’s push to channel more Paycheck Protection Program funding to small businesses with 20 employees or fewer is winning qualified support from lenders. The moves are well intended and will have some positive effects, but they'll also come with downsides, bankers and industry representatives warned. One of the key steps announced Monday, an exclusive 14-day application window for 20-employee-or-fewer firms, will delay loans, including many already in the works, to larger borrowers, some PPP lenders said. Another major element of the proposal — a softening of the formula used to calculate the amount of credit that may be extended to sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed borrowers — will take time to implement. It also raises questions about whether borrowers in these categories who have already received PPP loans can seek to have their payouts recalculated under the new, more favorable formula. “Are they eligible then for increases after the fact?” asked Alison Holt-Fuller, head of product and enterprise first-line risk management at the $20 billion-asset Atlantic Union Bankshares in Richmond, Va. “With the current program expiration date of March 31st, there isn’t a lot of time to adjust processes that many, us included, tried to automate as much as possible,” Holt-Fuller said. The changes, which take effect Wednesday, "are going to slow us down some," said Sam Sidhu, vice chairman and chief operating officer at the $18.4 billion-asset Customers Bancorp in West Reading, Pa. "Two days is not enough time to get geared up. ... We'll be up all night the next two days getting ready." While the changes should make obtaining PPP loans “somewhat easier” for smaller firms, moving them to the front of the line without addressing persistent technical problems involving the Small Business Administration's processing of applications may not help as much as business owners hope, Consumer Bankers Association President and CEO Richard Hunt said in a press release. “It is like giving everyone a train ticket on an unfinished railroad,” Hunt said. After the SBA announced a more stringent review process to combat fraud and loans to ineligible businesses earlier this year, bankers began to complain that the PPP loans they uploaded to the agency were hit with error codes that were resolved only after a great deal of time and effort. “We remain hopeful that as this program enters its final weeks, SBA will work with lenders in addressing the many administrative issues that are still hindering some small businesses from fully utilizing the program,” American Bankers Association President and CEO Rob Nichols said in a press release. Small-business advocates were more enthusiastic about the administration's new course. Any modifications designed to ease their access to PPP is virtually certain to delight smaller borrowers, including minority-run businesses, many of whom complained about being left on the sidelines during the program’s first phase last year. “There were a lot of businesses whose bankers were calling them to get them to apply for PPP,” Phil Andrews, president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce, said last week in an interview. “On our end, we had people calling us saying they don’t have a bank to go to, they don’t have a banking relationship.”

 FAIR Act: Will Congress Finally Complete the Project the CFPB Fumbled and Ban Mandatory Arbitration Clauses? -- Jerri-Lynn Scofield -- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) did not cover itself in glory even before the hostile Trump became President and started actively opposing its efforts. In fact, under its first director, Richard Cordray, the bureau fumbled its biggest opportunity, its attempt to ban pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreements. After withering and dithering, in 2017 the CFPB adopted the Arbitration Agreements Rule “[banning] companies from using mandatory arbitration clauses to deny groups of people their day in court.” Alas, the agency’s delay in promulgating the rule until well into the Trump administration  meant it was soon overturned under the provisions of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), as I wrote in RIP, Mandatry Arbitration BanOn Wednesday, Trump signed into law H.J.Res. 111, thereby nullifying the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) Arbitration Agreements Rule, prohibiting the use of a pre-dispute arbitration agreement to prevent a consumer from filing or participating in certain class action suits.The CFPB’s mandatory arbitration ban was perhaps the most consumer-friendly action that agency had taken to date, and its overturn represents a major setback for the agency. Many financial services companies require their customers to consent to use mandatory arbitration procedures to settle subsequent disputes, thereby  “voluntarily” giving up any right to file or participate in class actions. Courts right up to and including the Supreme Court have generally upheld such agreements.Mandatory arbitration is one so-called ‘tort reform’, heavily promoted by U.S. corporate interests, and just one of many reasons why ‘little people’ plaintiffs fail to prevails often as they might otherwise do  in court. First off, they lack the resources of corporations – such the ability to finance lawsuits, and longstanding access to top legal talent.But legislative and jurisprudential trends have been far from kind to them over the last decades. The United States Supreme Court has largely signed off on the mandatory arbitration trend, where such clauses have sprung up like mushrooms in many types of contracts. covering consumer products and services, and employment. I should mention  it was the pre-Trump version of the Supremes, which handed down these decisions, largely declining to overturn .increasingly onerous mandatory arbitration clause as well as class action waivers.

Senate panel to question CFPB, SEC nominees next month — President Biden’s nominees to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission will appear before the Senate Banking Committee on March 2. The confirmation hearing for Rohit Chopra and Gary Gensler, the administration's picks to lead the CFPB and SEC, respectively, is scheduled for 10 a.m. It will be the first nomination hearing under Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Chopra is currently serving as a Democratic member of the Federal Trade Commission. He was previously an assistant director and student loan ombudsman at the CFPB under former Director Richard Cordray. If confirmed, Chopra will take over for Dave Ueijo, who was named acting director of the CFPB after the Trump-appointed Director Kathy Kraninger resigned in January. Gensler has been leading the Biden transition team’s banking and securities regulator review team. He was chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 2009 until 2014.

Virginia company tricked immigrants into paying illegal fees, CFPB says - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau joined three states Monday in a lawsuit alleging a Virginia company deceived immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The enforcement action, the CFPB's first under acting Director Dave Ueijo, says Libre by Nexus claims to be a middleman for bail agents to help detainees post bond. But after detainees were released, according to the lawsuit, the company tricked them into paying a fee of $420 a month. Libre claimed that the fee was required until the immigrant's ICE proceeding was resolved, and that the detainee was required to wear a GPS-enabled ankle device until then, the suit said. But the fee and the device were just a scam to collect money, the authorities said. The company "strong-arms detainees with false debt collection threats," the CFPB said in a press release. "Libre falsely threatens immigrants that if they do not pay-up, they will face dire consequences, sometimes including threats that they will be re-detained or deported," the agency said in the release. "Libre systematically makes false threats to sue the detainees or their families, send the accounts to collection, and report failures to pay to credit bureaus. Libre also has falsely threatened to place GPS devices on co-signers to coerce payment." The CFPB joined attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia in suing Libre and its parent Nexus Services for allegedly making false and misleading statements to mostly Spanish-speaking consumers and deceiving consumers about its relationship with immigration authorities. The action covers a span of time before Uejio took the helm of the consumer bureau, with the worst abuses alleged to have occurred between 2014 and 2017. But the lawsuit could signal a broad scope for the types of penalties sought by the agency under new Democratic leadership. The interim director has previously signaled interest in cracking down on companies that harm minorities. “Libre is not a bail bonding company but built a business model to separate consumers from their cash,” Uejio said on a conference call Monday with reporters. The CFPB alleges that immigrants and their co-signers were misled about what they were paying for in signing financial contracts without understanding the terms. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act prohibits deceptive and abusive acts and practices. "Libre creates the reasonable impression in consumers’ minds at the time they sign up for its service that Libre has paid cash for their bond, creating a debt that must be repaid to Libre through an upfront fee and subsequent monthly payments," the lawsuit stated.

States failed to fulfill consumer protection promise in Trump era - In late 2017, after Mick Mulvaney was tapped to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Democratic attorneys general in 17 states expressed outrage. Mulvaney had previously called the CFPB “an awful example of a bureaucracy that has gone wrong” and “a joke … in a sick, sad kind of way.” The state AGs vowed that if the federal consumer agency stopped its aggressive pursuit of misconduct, they would redouble their own efforts. But more than three years later, those promises have not borne fruit, with state enforcement actions against consumer finance companies in fact declining sharply starting in 2018. After U.S. states brought an average of 60 such enforcement actions in 2016 and 2017, the annual average fell to just 31 over the next three years, according to a new report by the law firm Goodwin Procter. The number of federal enforcement actions also fell precipitously during 2018 and 2019, though they did rise again last year. “When the feds go up, the states go up. And when the feds go down, the states go down,” said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who has observed a similar correlation between state and federal enforcement trends in multiple industries. He noted that when federal and state officials have closer ties, and they share more information, the result can be more enforcement cases. Federal-state collaborations were a focus of the CFPB during the Obama administration. But during the Trump years, state officials, particularly those from Democratic-leaning states, may have been less likely to see federal officials as their allies. “All government investigations are personality-driven,” said Tony Alexis, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a former head of the CFPB’s enforcement office. Collaboration between federal and state officials seems likely to increase again now that the CFPB has new leadership, according to lawyers who represent financial institutions in enforcement cases. President Biden appointed Dave Uejio as acting director last month. Rohit Chopra, the president’s nominee to become the agency’s permanent director, is widely expected to renew the agency’s focus on enforcement cases.

 CFPB goes on hiring spree as it looks to ramp up enforcement - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is assembling a new enforcement team and hiring more personnel as it prepares to toughen oversight of banks, mortgage servicers and other financial firms. President Biden’s pick to lead the agency, Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra, has not yet had a nomination hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. But the agency under acting Director Dave Uejio has already named a new head of enforcement and launched an effort to recruit attorneys. The size of the agency's workforce tapered off during the Trump administration as enforcement activity slowed. But observers see the latest personnel moves as a sign that the bureau aims to bulk up under new leadership, even before Chopra is confirmed. “They are ramping up for an increase in the number of enforcement investigations and activity,” said Tony Alexis, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a former CFPB assistant director and head of enforcement. “Head count is an incredible part of the resources that need boosting.” Uejio has already installed Cara Petersen as acting head of enforcement, succeeding former Director Kathy Kraninger's enforcement chief, and appointed new senior officials to oversee Trump appointees. He also announced plans on LinkedIn and an agency blog to recruit additional attorneys for multiple areas. "We must hold accountable companies that break the law and harm American consumers and small businesses during this time of incredible financial stress," he said in the Feb. 9 blog. "To do this, we need the fullest talents and passion of the American public. The Bureau has one of the most remarkable workforces I have ever seen, and I invite you to seize the moment and join us."

Fed's Powell sees opportunity for joint CRA overhaul - — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said bank regulators are still aiming to write a joint rule reforming the Community Reinvestment Act, despite years of disagreements between the agencies on how to proceed. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency finalized a rule on its own in May that includes a new CRA scoring method and other reforms, but the Fed and other agencies declined to support the plan. However, a leadership change has buoyed hopes of an interagency framework. “I think there is an opportunity for a harmonized rule among the agencies,” Powell said in a hearing Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee. “We are engaged, have been engaged and continue to be engaged with the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] and the OCC and we’re working on that very thing.” The OCC under former Comptroller Joseph Otting aggressively sought to modernize the decades-old anti-redlining law but encountered sharp resistance. Some critics said a new scoring system could incentivize banks to focus on large CRA projects to earn credit, disadvantaging some communities. Though the rule became effective last year, banks will not have to comply until 2023. The Fed released its own CRA reform outline in September. It asked for feedback on an alternative framework that would rely on existing data collection and reporting requirements, include separate retail and community development tests and retain an emphasis on physical branch locations in determining a bank's CRA assessment area. Many stakeholders have held out hope that the three agencies ultimately will formulate a joint plan. The Biden administration will be able to install its own comptroller, who many suspect could delay the effective date of the OCC’s rule indefinitely and work with the other regulators on a new proposal. Powell emphasized that the regulators “are just getting started” on discussing a plan for reform, and declined to commit to a timeline. “There will be a new comptroller, but nonetheless, we’re working on it,” he said. “And by the way, it will be one that has broad support among the community of intended beneficiaries, which was always the Fed’s test and my test for what it would take for the Fed to support reform of CRA.”

CFPB will delay QM rule's compliance date -- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau plans to delay the compliance date of the Qualified Mortgage rule and may revoke or amend a separate rule that created a new category of “seasoned” QM loans. Acting CFPB Director Dave Uejio said on Tuesday that the CFPB will issue a proposed rule soon to delay the July 1 mandatory compliance date for the general QM rule. The bureau said it also will weigh at a later date whether to initiate another rulemaking “to reconsider other aspects of the QM rule.” BloombergThe changes are not a surprise since Uejio said earlier this month that the CFPB would reconsider any rules implemented under the Trump administration that had not yet gone into effect. The underwriting rule was created after the 2008 financial crisis to set parameters, such as a 43% debt-to-income ratio, that defined loans as safe, and protected lenders using such criteria from legal liability. “An extension of the compliance deadline would allow lenders more time in which they could make QM loans based on a debt-to-income ratio or whether the loans are eligible for sale to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and not just a pricing cut off,” Uejio said in a blog post. Still, mortgage lenders may be feeling some whiplash given that former CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger, a Trump appointee, just proposed an overhaul in June to replace the 43% DTI ratio with a pricing threshold for loans to be considered safe, qualified mortgages. In August, Kraninger also proposed a rule that would allow QM loans held on a lender’s balance sheet for 36 months — or "seasoned loans — to become eligible for so-called QM status, based on a borrower’s past three years of payment history. The QM rule has been the subject of intense debate since 2014 when loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were given an exemption from the QM rule’s 43% DTI requirement. The exemption for the government-sponsored enterprises — known as the GSE "patch" — was supposed to expire in January. The bureau had previously set a March 1 effective date for both the QM rule and seasoned QM rule with a mandatory compliance date of July 1.

 N.Y. appeals court sides with lenders in foreclosure case --The New York Court of Appeals issued a groundbreaking decision last week that established clear rules around the statute of limitations in foreclosure actions. In four cases, the court sided with banks and mortgage lenders against claims by defaulted borrowers. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore on Feb. 18 reversed four appellate division rulings related to when the clock starts ticking on the six-year statute of limitations in New York. The 34-page decision will allow mortgage noteholders to foreclose more quickly on defaulted borrowers and may help reduce a backlog of litigation still pending from the 2008 financial crisis. Bank lawyers involved in foreclosure actions said the decision provides clarity and consistency on how the statute of limitations will be calculated going forward. “There are many cases that are still on the court’s docket from the financial crisis,” said Schuyler Kraus, co-partner in charge of the New York office at Hinshaw & Culbertson. “The decision will factor into the willingness [of both parties] to work out a resolution and could allow noteholders to move more quickly on foreclosures where settlement is not feasible.” Banks and other noteholders should review their inventory of loans to see if enforcement of a mortgage that was thought to be time-barred under a prior analysis can now be the subject of a timely foreclosure action, Kraus said. The four cases were consolidated because they raised common questions about how and when to calculate the beginning date for the six-year statute of limitations in New York, which typically starts when a noteholder files a foreclosure action. A mortgage noteholder is the entity of standing to foreclose when a borrower stops paying their mortgage. Noteholders are typically banks, lenders and investors that may hold loans on balance sheet or in a securitized pool of loans. The decision also resolved a longstanding case in which a defaulted borrower claimed a small defect in a foreclosure filing should allow them to keep their home outright due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. In a case involving a foreclosure on a $900,000 condo in Manhattan, the court found that Wells Fargo's failure to attach a modified loan agreement to the first of five foreclosure filings — dating to 2009 — did not preclude the bank from foreclosing. The court reversed an appellate decision in Wells Fargo Bank v. Donna Ferrato, in which the borrower had argued that the six-year statute of limitations had expired.

FHFA announces further extension of COVID-related mortgage relief -- The Federal Housing Finance Agency is providing an additional three months of forbearance to borrowers with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, totaling 18 months of relief due to the coronavirus pandemic. The FHFA said Thursday that it was aligning its policies with the Biden administration to address economic burdens for homeowners due to COVID-19. The change comes nearly three weeks after the agency extended the total forbearance period to 15 months. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year, it allowed borrowers with federally backed mortgages to request up to 12 months of forbearance — divided into two 180-day increments — if they experienced financial hardship. In forbearance, a borrower is allowed to suspend payments by extending the loan's terms. There is no set cutoff date for the 18-month forbearance period because borrowers have entered and exited forbearance at different times. The FHFA also said Thursday that it was extending a moratorium on foreclosures and real estate-owned evictions until June 30 for loans backed by Fannie and Freddie. Because housing prices have jumped dramatically, borrowers are more likely to be able to sell their homes than go into foreclosure than in financial crisis in 2008, when many were underwater on their mortgages. The foreclosure moratorium had been set to expire on March 31, but the FHFA is offering another three-month extension only for single-family mortgages backed by the government-sponsored enterprises. The REO eviction moratorium applies to properties acquired by the GSEs through foreclosures or deed-in-lieu transactions. Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced similar extensions of relief for loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Agriculture. “Today’s extensions of the COVID-19 forbearance period to 18 months and foreclosure and eviction moratoriums through the end of June will help align mortgage policies across the federal government,” FHFA Director Mark Calabria said in a press release. “Borrowers and the housing finance market alike can benefit during the pandemic from the consistent treatment of mortgages regardless of who owns or backs them.” Roughly 2.6 million homeowners were in forbearance plans as of Feb. 14, representing 5.29% of loans serviced, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Monday.

Fannie Mae: Mortgage Serious Delinquency Rate Decreased in January -Fannie Mae reported that the Single-Family Serious Delinquency decreased to 2.80% in January, from 2.87% in December. The serious delinquency rate is up from 0.66% in January 2020.These are mortgage loans that are "three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure". The Fannie Mae serious delinquency rate peaked in February 2010 at 5.59% following the housing bubble, and peaked at 3.32% in August 2020 during the pandemic.  By vintage, for loans made in 2004 or earlier (2% of portfolio), 5.87% are seriously delinquent (down from 5.88% in December). For loans made in 2005 through 2008 (2% of portfolio), 9.98% are seriously delinquent (unchanged from 9.98%), For recent loans, originated in 2009 through 2018 (96% of portfolio), 2.32% are seriously delinquent (down from 2.39%). So Fannie isstill working through a few poor performing loans from the bubble years.Mortgages in forbearance are counted as delinquent in this monthly report, but they will not be reported to the credit bureaus.This is very different from the increase in delinquencies following the housing bubble.   Lending standards have been fairly solid over the last decade, and most of these homeowners have equity in their homes - and they will be able to restructure their loans once they are employed.

Freddie Mac: Mortgage Serious Delinquency Rate decreased in January –-- Freddie Mac reported that the Single-Family serious delinquency rate in January was 2.56%, down from 2.64% in December. Freddie's rate is up from 0.60% in January 2020. Freddie's serious delinquency rate peaked in February 2010 at 4.20% following the housing bubble, and peaked at 3.17% in August 2020 during the pandemic.  These are mortgage loans that are "three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure".Mortgages in forbearance are being counted as delinquent in this monthly report, but they will not be reported to the credit bureaus. This is very different from the increase in delinquencies following the housing bubble.   Lending standards have been fairly solid over the last decade, and most of these homeowners have equity in their homes - and they will be able to restructure their loans once (if) they are employed. Also - for multifamily - delinquencies were at 0.16%, unchanged from 0.16% in December, and up double from 0.08% in January 2020.

Black Knight: National Mortgage Delinquency Rate Decreased in January --Note: Loans in forbearance are counted as delinquent in this survey, but those loans are not reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus. From Black Knight: Black Knight’s First Look: Mortgage Delinquency Rate Falls Below 6% for First Time in Nearly a Year, Yet 2.1M Homeowners Remain Seriously Delinquent

• The national mortgage delinquency rate fell to 5.9% in January, dropping below 6% for the first time since March 2020
• January’s improvement among overall delinquencies as well as seriously past due mortgages was nearly identical to the average monthly improvement seen during the recovery to date
• While delinquencies continue to improve slowly and steadily, some 2.1 million homeowners remain 90 or more days past due but not yet in foreclosure – still five times pre-pandemic levels
• Recent forbearance and foreclosure moratorium extensions have reduced near-term risk, but at the same time may have the effect of extending the length of the recovery period
• At the current rate of improvement, 1.8 million mortgages will still be seriously delinquent at the end of June when foreclosure moratoriums on government-backed loans are currently slated to lift
• With widespread moratoriums still in place, both foreclosure starts and sales (completions) remained near record lows in January
• Prepayment activity fell by 17% month-over-month in January but remains 86% above last year’s levels
emphasis added
According to Black Knight's First Look report, the percent of loans delinquent decreased 3.8% in January compared to December, and increased 82% year-over-year. The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased 3.9% in December and were down 31% over the last year. Black Knight reported the U.S. mortgage delinquency rate (loans 30 or more days past due, but not in foreclosure) was 5.85% in January, down from 6.08% in December. The percent of loans in the foreclosure process decreased in January to 0.32%, from 0.33% in December.The number of delinquent properties, but not in foreclosure, is up 1,425,000 properties year-over-year, and the number of properties in the foreclosure process is down 75,000 properties year-over-year.

MBA Survey: "Share of Mortgage Loans in Forbearance Declines to 5.22%" Note: This is as of February 14th. From the MBA: Share of Mortgage Loans in Forbearance Declines to 5.22%:The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) latest Forbearance and Call Volume Survey revealed that the total number of loans now in forbearance decreased by 7 basis po ints from 5.29% of servicers’ portfolio volume in the prior week to 5.22% as of February 14, 2021. According to MBA’s estimate, 2.6 million homeowners are in forbearance plans....“The share of loans in forbearance has declined for three weeks in a row, with portfolio and PLS loans decreasing the most this week. This decline was due to a sharp increase in borrower exits, particularly for IMB servicers,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Senior Vice President and Chief Economist. “Requests for new forbearances dropped to 6 basis points, matching a survey low.” Fratantoni added, “The housing market is quite strong, with home sales, home construction, and home price data all testifying to this strength. Policymakers and the mortgage industry have helped enable this during the pandemic by providing millions of homeowners support in the form of forbearance. The decision to extend the allowable duration of forbearance plans should provide for a smoother transition this year as the job market continues to recover.” This graph shows the percent of portfolio in forbearance by investor type over time.  Most of the increase was in late March and early April, then trended down - and has mostly moved slowly down recently.The MBA notes: "Total weekly forbearance requests as a percent of servicing portfolio volume (#) decreased relative to the prior week: from 0.07% to 0.06%."

Black Knight: Number of Homeowners in COVID-19-Related Forbearance Plans Increased Slightly Note: Both Black Knight and the MBA (Mortgage Bankers Association) are putting out weekly estimates of mortgages in forbearance. This data is as of February 23rd.From Black Knight"The number of mortgages in active forbearance rose for the second week in a row, climbing by by 21K (+0.08) since last Tuesday, pushing the total back up above 2.7M after falling below that threshold for the first time since last April earlier this month. This week’s rise continues the trend of mid-month increases we’ve grown accustomed to seeing since the recovery began.Despite the weekly increase, the monthly rate of decline held steady at -2%, continuing the trend of very slow but steady improvement in the number of outstanding forbearance cases. Remember: monthly declines have been averaging less than 2% since early December.According our McDash Flash daily mortgage performance data set, as of February 23, 2.7M homeowners – 5.1% of all mortgage-holders – remain in active forbearance. This includes 9.3% of FHA/VA, 3.2% of GSE and 5.2% of portfolio/private mortgages" "Once again, portfolio held and privately securitized loans saw the largest increase in plans (+16K / +2.4%), followed FHA/VA loans, which saw active forbearance plans rise by 7K (+0.6%). As was the case last week, GSE loans were the only cohort to see any sort of decline (-2K; -0.2%). Some 160K forbearance plans are set to hit scheduled expiration points at the end of February."The number of loans in forbearance has declined slightly over the last few months.

Eviction Moratorium Deemed Unconstitutional by Federal Judge in Texas - Yves Smith - Judge J. Campbell Barker of the Eastern District of Texas, sided with plaintiffs who challenged the CDC’s eviction moratorium on Constitutional grounds. We’ve embedded the opinion for Terkel v. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of this post. Even though some will be inclined to dismiss the ruling as politically-motivated (Barker was a Trump nominee), recall that it was the Trump Administration that first launched the eviction freeze. It initially ran through December 31, and covered tenants who gave their landlord a declaration attesting that the made less than $100,000 a year, had suffered a large hit to their income, were seeking assistance and would pay as much rent as they could. The Biden Administration planned to extend the moratorium to the end of March. Bear in mind that the eviction halt dumped the cost of keeping coronavirus-whacked workers housed on landlords, rather than having the government provide income or rental subsidies. Before we turn to the reasoning of the ruling, keep in mind that Judge Barker did not issue an injunction against the CDC’s moratorium, since the CDC apparently made noises at trial that they’d withdraw the moratorium if they lost. However, Barker told the plaintiffs they could come back and seek an injunction if the CDC didn’t play nice. There is no indication yet as to whether the Administration will appeal. Constitutional law is often a slippery area of jurisprudence, but this short ruling is well argued. The Administration declared that its authority to impose the moratorium resided in theCommerce Clause: “To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes” and the Necessary and Proper Clause. The obstacle for the defendants is that the Commerce Clause has been found to cover interstate commerce, and instrastate commerce to the extent that it also impacts interstate commerce. For instance, in 2005, in Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court upheld Federal regulation of within-state marijuana production, since having some states permit marijuana farming and sales would clearly lead to sales in neighboring states. The government was only able to make general claims, of the sort that “reducing homelessness will keep people out of shelters, which can spread Covid” and “15% of the people who change residence go across state lines.” Judge Barker retorted that public health falls under state and local policing powers, so the arguments about shelters or other health hazards didn’t establish Federal authority. On top of that, the CDC order was not devised to limit disease spread to other states:

MBA: Mortgage Applications Decrease in Latest Weekly Survey -  From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Decrease in Latest MBA Weekly Survey: Mortgage applications decreased 11.4 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending February 19, 2021.... The Refinance Index decreased 11 percent from the previous week and was 50 percent higher than the same week one year ago. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index decreased 12 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index decreased 8 percent compared with the previous week and was 7 percent higher than the same week one year ago.“Mortgage rates have increased in six of the last eight weeks, with the benchmark 30-year fixed rate last week climbing above 3 percent to its highest level since September 2020. As a result of these higher rates, overall refinance activity fell 11 percent to its lowest level since December 2020, but remained 50 percent higher than a year ago,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Additionally, the severe winter weather in Texas affected many households and lenders, causing more than a 40 percent drop in both purchase and refinance applications in the state last week.”Added Kan, “The housing market in most of the country remains strong, with activity last week 7 percent higher than a year ago. The average loan size of purchase applications increased to a record $418,000, in line with the accelerating home-price growth caused by very low inventory levels.”...The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($548,250 or less) increased to 3.08 percent from 2.98 percent, with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The first graph shows the refinance index since 1990.

Graham: "Time to Wake Up To The New Mortgage Rate Reality" - A few excerpts from an article by Matthew Graham at MortgageNewsDaily: Time to Wake Up To The New Mortgage Rate Reality: There's no precedent for the winning streak enjoyed by mortgage rates in the 2nd half of 2020. We've never seen so many new record lows in the same year, and we never spent as much time at those lows (not even close). All of the above makes it easy to get lulled into a false sense of low-rate security, but it's time to wake up....Following the Georgia senate election, we've been tracking a surge in bond market volatility based on the expectation that it would increasingly spill over to the mortgage rate world.As of this week, that spillover arrived in grand fashion with many lenders quoting rates that are as much as three eighths of a point higher than they were last week. That means if you were looking at something in the 2.75% neighborhood on Friday, it could be 3.125% today...."But wait... I heard that mortgage rates are still really low and that they only went up a tiny amount this week!" Well, that depends on your perspective. Is 3.125% still really low for the average 30yr fixed mortgage rate? Yes! That was the all-time low before covid. But is it much higher relative to the past few weeks and months? Here too, it depends on your perspective, so let's leave it at this: rates rose more this week than on any other week in the past 11 months. If you've heard that rates only rose slightly, it may have to do with headlines quoting Freddie Mac's weekly survey. While that survey is accurate over time, it doesn't capture short-term volatility. It also tends to stop measuring most of any given week's volatility on Monday, and Monday was a holiday! As such, it's lagging the reality on the street. CR Note: Rates are still historically very low, however we will likely see a slowdown in refinance activity. Purchase activity will likely remain strong (rising rates sometimes pushes people to buy since they don't want to miss out). The best case scenario for the economy (pandemic ending, etc), could lead to a slowdown for housing for two reasons: higher mortgage rates, and more inventory (from record lows).

As Wall Street Migrates to Florida, Hedge-Funders Move to Offload Manhattan Homes – WSJ -- Three Manhattan listings—a downtown penthouse asking $39.5 million, a sprawling co-op seeking $40 million and a pair of Upper West Side condos on the market for $25 million—share one thing in common. Their sellers are among the top brass at Elliott Management, a hedge fund that announced last year it is moving its headquarters from New York City to Florida. Real-estate veterans and hedge-fund executives believe a seismic shift is under way, one that is moving vast amounts of Wall Street wealth from New York to South Florida. For the past several years, Wall Street has been colonizing the Sunshine State, attracted to more favorable tax policies and sunnier climes. And the momentum is only accelerating amid the pandemic. David S. Goodboy, founder of the Palm Beach Hedge Fund Association, a networking organization for finance professionals in South Florida, said he saw his base of paying members almost triple in the past year. When he scheduled an in-person networking event in January at the West Palm Beach home of one of the organization’s wealthy members in January, he said he was shocked to get 300 RSVPs.“It’s gone into overdrive,” he said. “There was always a migration, but Covid gave people a reason just beyond just taxes. It pushed them over the edge.” At the same time, some wealthy financiers are trying to unload their homes back in New York. Moves by high-net worth financiers are closely watched, particularly in light of predictions of a looming budget crisis in New York. The fate of the new listings may also be a bellwether for the Manhattan luxury market, which got hammered by Covid-19 in 2020 but has begun to show some signs of life in the past several months. “If you think of New York City as a ballet, right now the city is at intermission,” said real-estate agent Jason Haber at Warburg Realty. “During intermission, some people get restless and don’t come back for the next act. That’s what’s happening now.” One of those listings is at the Four Seasons Residences at 30 Park Place, a slim tower in the Financial District that was designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Asking $39.5 million, it is owned by Jesse Cohn, a partner at Elliott who as head of its U.S. activism practice has led campaigns at Twitter and AT&T.Over 6,000 square feet with five bedrooms, the property has panoramic views of the downtown skyline, according to the listing posted by Leonard Steinberg of real-estate brokerage Compass. The interiors include terrazzo and hardwood flooring, custom limestone plaster walls, a fireplace clad in rounded marble slabs that extend to the ceiling and an office fit for a master of the universe, with a crescent-shaped desk framed by a large window. Mr. Cohn, who is in his early 40s, bought the apartment in 2017 for $30 million, records show, and the listing shows it has since been renovated. Mr. Cohn plans to live near Elliott’s new West Palm Beach headquarters, people familiar with the matter said.

 FHFA House Price Index: Up 1.1% in December --The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has released its U.S. House Price Index (HPI) for December. Here is the opening of the press release: U.S. house prices rose 10.8 percent from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2020 according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency House Price Index (FHFA HPI®). House prices were up 3.8 percent compared to the third quarter of 2020. FHFA’s seasonally adjusted monthly index for December was up 1.1 percent from November.“House prices nationwide recorded the largest annual and quarterly increase in the history of the FHFA HPI,” said Dr. Lynn Fisher, Deputy Director of FHFA’s Division of Research and Statistics.“Low mortgage rates, pent up demand from homebuyers, and a limited housing supply propelled every region of the country to experience faster growth in 2020 compared to a year ago despite the pandemic. In particular, house prices in western states and cities saw the highest rates of growth, where annual gains often rose above 10 percent.” The chart below illustrates the monthly HPI series, which is not adjusted for inflation, along with a real (inflation-adjusted) series using the Consumer Price Index: All Items Less Shelter. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has released its U.S. House Price Index (HPI) for December. U.S. house prices were up 1.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted nominal basis from the previous month. Year-over-year the index is up 11.4% on a non-seasonally adjusted nominal basis. After adjusting for inflation and seasonality, the index is up 0.82% in December and up 10.22% year-over-year (seasonally adjusted).

U.S. Home-Price Growth Accelerated in December – WSJ --Home-price growth accelerated in December, as the number of homes on the market continued to decline. The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, which measures average home prices in major metropolitan areas across the nation, rose 10.4% in the year that ended in December, up from a 9.5% annual rate the prior month. December marked the highest annual rate of price growth since January 2014. House-buying demand has surged in recent months, driven by record-low interest rates. Sales of previously owned homes, which make up the bulk of the housing market, rose in 2020 to their highest annual level since 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors. The supply of homes for sale has dropped, prompting buyers to compete for houses and buoying prices. There were 1.07 million homes for sale at the end of December, down 23% from December 2019, according to NAR. The Case-Shiller 10-city index gained 9.8% over the year ended in December, compared with an 8.9% increase in November. The 20-city index rose 10.1%, after an annual gain of 9.2% in November. “With buyer interest leading to an unseasonably competitive landscape…home prices remain on a steep upward trend,” said George Ratiu, senior economist at News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal, operates The U.S. mortgage market involves some key players that play important roles in the process. Here’s what investors should understand and what risks they take when investing in the industry. WSJ’s Telis Demos explains. Photo: Getty Images/Martin Barraud Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expected the 20-city index to gain 9.9%. The 20-city index measured 19 cities in December due to transaction reporting delays in Wayne County, Mich., according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. Price growth accelerated in 18 of the 19 cities. Phoenix had the fastest home-price growth in the country for the 19th straight month, at 14.4%, followed by Seattle at 13.6%. A separate measure of home-price growth by the Federal Housing Finance Agency also released Tuesday found an 11.4% increase in home prices in December from a year earlier.

Case-Shiller: National House Price Index increased 10.4% year-over-year in December S&P/Case-Shiller released the monthly Home Price Indices for December ("December" is a 3 month average of October, November and December prices). This release includes prices for 20 individual cities, two composite indices (for 10 cities and 20 cities) and the monthly National index.From S&P: S&P Corelogic Case-Shiller Index Reports 10.4% Annual Home Price Gain to End 2020 The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 10.4% annual gain in December, up from 9.5% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 9.8%, up from 8.9% in the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 10.1% year-over-year gain, up from 9.2% in the previous month.Phoenix, Seattle, and San Diego continued to report the highest year-over-year gains among the 19 cities (excluding Detroit) in December. Phoenix led the way with a 14.4% year-over-year price increase, followed by Seattle with a 13.6% increase and San Diego with a 13.0% increase. Eighteen of the 19 cities reported higher price increases in the year ending December 2020 versus the year ending November 2020....Before seasonal adjustment, the U.S. National Index posted a 0.9% month-over-month increase, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites both posted increases of 0.9% and 0.8% respectively in December. After seasonal adjustment, the U.S. National Index posted a month-over-month increase of 1.3%, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites both posted increases of 1.2% and 1.3% respectively. In December, 18 cities (excluding Detroit) reported increases before seasonal adjustment, while all 19 cities reported increases after seasonal adjustment.“Home prices finished 2020 with double-digit gains, as the National Composite Index rose by 10.4% compared to year-ago levels,”  “The trend of accelerating prices that began in June 2020 has now reached its seventh month and is also reflected in the 10- and 20-City Composites (up 9.8% and 10.1%, respectively). The market’s strength continues to be broadly-based: 18 of the 19 cities for which we have December data rose, and 18 cities gained more in the 12 months ended in December than they had gained in the 12 months ended in November.

Zillow Case-Shiller House Price Forecast: "More strong growth in the months ahead", 10.9% YoY in January -- The Case-Shiller house price indexes for December were released today. Zillow forecasts Case-Shiller a month early, and I like to check the Zillow forecasts since they have been pretty close.  From Matthew Speakman at Zillow: December 2020 Case-Shiller Results & January Forecast: An Exclamation Point on 2020: Adding an exclamation point to a year unlike any other, home prices continued their powerful surge higher in December, setting the stage for more strong growth in the months ahead....The factors that have, for months, stoked competition for homes remained firmly in place in December. A wave of eager buyers – many of whom are looking to enter the market for the first time – sought to capitalize on record-low mortgage rates and snap up the relatively few homes available for sale, leading homes to fly off the shelves and prices to continue to grow. In some major markets, homes are going under contract more than a month faster than they were this time last year. This forces would-be buyers to move very quickly to put an offer in on a home they desire, increases the likelihood that multiple offers will be fielded by the seller and ultimately places more upward pressure on prices. Looking ahead, with mortgage rates remaining relatively low and the wave of eager buyers continuing to swell, it’s unlikely that this competition for housing, and subsequent strong price appreciation, will meaningfully abate in the near future.Monthly growth in January as reported by Case-Shiller is expected to slow slightly from December in all three main indices, while annual growth is expected to accelerate across the board. S&P Dow Jones Indices is expected to release data for the January S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices on Tuesday, March 30.  The Zillow forecast is for the year-over-year change for the Case-Shiller National index to be at 10.9% in January, up from 10.4% in December.The Zillow forecast is for the 20-City index to be up 10.7% YoY in January from 10.1% in December, and for the 10-City index to increase to be up 10.4% YoY compared to 9.8% YoY in December.

Conversation With BLS About Price Mismeasurement For Housing --In 1999, BLS adopted an alternative measure for owner-occupied housing. Due to an inadequate sample of homes for rent, BLS decided to use rent data to gauge the owner-occupied housing implicit rents. Before the change, the rate of inflation for owner-occupied rent ran consistently above rent inflation. But after the change, that pattern flipped. Since 1999, the inflation rate for rent for primary residences has always run above what BLS estimated for owner-occupied housing. That pattern of rents runs counter to market fundamentals. During periods of economic expansion, the vacancy rate for owner-occupied housing is falling, while the rental market's vacancy rate often moves in the opposite direction. Shrinking supply with rising prices for homes should yield a rent-inflation rate for owner-occupied housing that is much faster than the rent for a primary residence. BLS data shows that the cumulative increase in rents for a primary residence is 20% greater than that of owners-occupied over the past two decades. It would seem improbable that based on market fundamentals alone, the owner's rent rate would run below that of primary rents. The weight of owner-occupied housing accounts is substantial, accounting for approximately 30% of the core CPI. And given its vast scale, the continuous understatement of rent-inflation for owner-occupied housing has created the false impression that cyclical inflation is "flat". But in reality, it's not. Third, the senior official stated that it is not "impossible" to measure owner-occupied implicit rents from rental markets. I said it is. The two markets are separate. Research has shown that location is an essential factor for housing price, and it makes sense it would also influence rents. Owner housing is of a much higher quality than renter housing. Over 80% of owner homes are detached single-family versus less than 30% for rentals, and owner-occupied homes are much larger in scale. Five states, including two of the largest rental markets (New York and California), have rent control or rent stabilization policies. Trying to match the inflation rate from a partial-regulated rent market with one that is not regulated creates the potential for large-scale price mismeasurement. Janet Norwood, the legendary BLS Commissioner, stated, "The goal of a government statistical agency must be to produce data that are objective, relevant, accurate, and timely." BLS measure of owners' housing costs fails all four.

New Home Sales increase to 923,000 Annual Rate in January -- The Census Bureau reports New Home Sales in January were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 923 thousand. The previous three months were revised up. Sales of new single-family houses in January 2021 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 923,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 4.3 percent above the revised December rate of 885,000 and is 19.3 percent above the January 2020 estimate of 774,000.The first graph shows New Home Sales vs. recessions since 1963. The dashed line is the current sales rate.The last eight months saw the highest sales rates since 2006.   This was strong year-over-year growth.The second graph shows New Home Months of Supply.The months of supply decreased in January to 4.0 months from 4.1 months in December.The all time record high was 12.1 months of supply in January 2009. The all time record low is 3.5 months, most recently in October 2020.This is at the low end of the normal range (about 4 to 6 months supply is normal)."The seasonally-adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of January was 307,000. This represents a supply of 4.0 months at the current sales rate. "Starting in 1973 the Census Bureau broke inventory down into three categories: Not Started, Under Construction, and Completed.The third graph shows the three categories of inventory starting in 1973.The inventory of completed homes for sale is low, and the combined total of completed and under construction is a little lower than normal.The last graph shows sales NSA (monthly sales, not seasonally adjusted annual rate).In January 2021 (red column), 70 thousand new homes were sold (NSA). Last year, 59 thousand homes were sold in JanuaryThe all time high for January was 92 thousand in 2005, and the all time low for January was 21 thousand in 2011.This was well above expectations, and sales in the three previous months were revised up.

A few Comments on January New Home Sales – McBride -- New home sales for January were reported at 923,000 on a seasonally adjusted annual rate basis (SAAR). Sales for the previous three months were revised up. This was well above consensus expectations for January. Clearly low mortgages rates, low existing home supply, and favorable demographics (something I wrote about many times over the last decade) have boosted sales.  A surging stock market has probably helped new home sales too. Another factor in the strong headline sales rate, over the second half of 2020, was the delay in the selling season.   Usually the strongest sales are in the March to June time frame, but last year the strongest sales months were later in the year - so the usual seasonal factors boosted sales in late Summer, Fall in 2020. Earlier: New Home Sales increase to 923,000 Annual Rate in January. This graph shows new home sales for 2020 and 2021 by month (Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate). The year-over-year comparisons are easy in early 2021 - especially in March and April. However, sales will likely be down year-over-year in August through October - since the selling season was delayed in 2020. And on inventory: note that completed inventory is near record lows, but inventory under construction has closer to normal. On inventory, according to the Census Bureau:"A house is considered for sale when a permit to build has been issued in permit-issuing places or work has begun on the footings or foundation in nonpermit areas and a sales contract has not been signed nor a deposit accepted."Starting in 1973 the Census Bureau broke this down into three categories: Not Started, Under Construction, and Completed.This graph shows the months of supply by stage of construction..The inventory of completed homes for sale was at 42 thousand in January, just above the record low of 37 thousand in 2013.  That is about 0.5 months of completed supply.  The inventory of new homes under construction, and not started, is about 3.5 months - just a little below normal.

New home sales rise m/m, but signal caution for housing market going forward -New home sales increased to a three month annualized high of 923,000 in January. This is of a piece with the positive news last week on housing permits. At the same time, the pace remains below the recent high of 979,000 annualized set six months ago in July. The below graph compares housing starts (blue) with the much less volatile single family permits (red) and the even more volatile, and heavily revised, new home sales (gold), normalized to 100 as of January 2020:  The reason to pay attention to new home sales is that, despite their volatility, they tend to peak and bottom before any other housing metric including permits and starts. So the fact that they have not made a new high in 6 months adds a note of caution to the otherwise sizzling housing market.New home sales also tend to be more responsive to changes in mortgage rates.  Recently these have begun to increase, following longer term US treasury rates (shown inverted YoY% change) higher:Note that in 2014, when mortgage rates rose by about 1%, permits never declined significantly YoY. But new home sales did. If interest rates plateau, or continue to rise, this is the first yellow flag that permits and starts may stall as well - and, based on historical trends, will do so while home prices are still rising.

NAR: Pending Home Sales Decrease 2.8% in January - From the NAR: Pending Home Sales Retreat 2.8% in January, but Climb From Last Year: Pending home sales took a step backward in January as inventory constraints continue to hold back prospective buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors®. The South was the lone region with a modest gain from the month prior, while the other three major U.S. regions experienced month-over-month decreases in January. However, all four areas saw contract transactions increase from a year-over-year standpoint, including two regions reaching double-digit gains, spurring an all-time high for pending home sales in the month of January. The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator of home sales based on contract signings, dropped 2.8% to 122.8 in January. Year-over-year, contract signings rose 13.0%. An index of 100 is equal to the level of contract activity in 2001. ... The Northeast PHSI fell 7.4% to 101.6 in January, a 9.6% rise from a year ago. In the Midwest, the index declined 0.9% to 113.2 last month, up 8.6% from January 2020.  Pending home sales transactions in the South inched up 0.1% to an index of 151.3 in January, up 17.1% from January 2020. The index in the West dropped 7.8% in January, to 104.6, up 11.5% from a year prior. This was well below expectations for this index. Note: Contract signings usually lead sales by about 45 to 60 days, so this would usually be for closed sales in February and March.

Housing Inventory Feb 22nd Update: At Record Lows --One of the key questions for 2021 is: Will inventory increase as the pandemic subsides, or will inventory decrease further in 2021?. Tracking inventory will be very important this year. This inventory graph is courtesy of Altos Research.  As of February 19th, inventory was at 337 thousand (7 day average), compared to 723 thousand the same week a year ago.  That is a decline of over 53%. A week ago, inventory was at 344 thousand, and was down 53% YoY.  Seasonally inventory should bottom by early March. Mike Simonsen discusses this data regularly on Youtube.

AIA: "Architecture Billings continue to contract" in January --Note: This index is a leading indicator primarily for new Commercial Real Estate (CRE) investment.From the AIA: Architectural billings continue to contract in 2021: A slight improvement in business conditions has led to fewer architecture firms reporting declining billings, according to a new report today from The American Institute of Architects (AIA).AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI) score for January was 44.9 compared to 42.3 in December (any score below 50 indicates a decline in firm billings). Last month’s score indicates overall revenue at U.S architecture firms continued to decline from December to January, however, the pace of decline slowed. Inquiries into new projects during January grew for the second month in a row, with a score of 56.8 compared to 51.7 in December. The value of new design contracts also reflected an easing in the pace of decline, rising to a score of 48.8 in January from 47.0 the previous month.“The broader economy entered a soft spot during the fourth quarter of last year, and business conditions at design firms have reflected this general slowdown,” said AIA Chief Economist, Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, PhD. “While federal stimulus and the increasing pace of vaccinations may begin to accelerate progress in the coming months, the year has gotten off to a slow start, with architecture firms in all regions of the country and in all specializations reporting continued declines in project billings.”...
• Regional averages: South (47.4); West (42.8); Midwest (42.2); Northeast (41.9)
• Sector index breakdown: mixed practice (47.9); multi-family residential (44.4); commercial/industrial (44.3); institutional (39.9)
This graph shows the Architecture Billings Index since 1996. The index was at 44.9 in January, up from 42.3 in December. Anything below 50 indicates contraction in demand for architects' services.Note: This includes commercial and industrial facilities like hotels and office buildings, multi-family residential, as well as schools, hospitals and other institutions.This index has been below 50 for eleven consecutive months.  This represents a significant decrease in design services, and suggests a decline in CRE investment through most of 2021 (This usually leads CRE investment by 9 to 12 months).

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Declined 23.8% Year-over-year -- From CoStar: STR: US Hotels Nearly Half Full During Week Ending Feb. 20: U.S. weekly hotel occupancy reached its highest level since late October, according to STR‘s latest data through Feb. 20.
Feb. 14-20, 2021 (percentage change from comparable week in 2020):
• Occupancy: 48.1% (-23.8%)
• Average daily rate (ADR): US$101.57 (-22.1%)
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): US$48.82 (-40.6%)
Popular leisure markets in Florida, with leftover demand from the long holiday weekend, posted the week’s highest levels. ... Additionally, displaced Texans pushed week-over-week occupancy gains across STR-defined markets in the state. Texas’ occupancy added almost a point to overall U.S. occupancy for the week. The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

Personal Income increased 10.0% in January, Spending increased 2.4% The BEA released the Personal Income and Outlays report for January: Personal income increased $1,954.7 billion (10.0 percent) in January according to estimates released today by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Disposable personal income (DPI) increased $1,963.2 billion (11.4 percent) and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $340.9 billion (2.4 percent).Real DPI increased 11.0 percent in January and Real PCE increased 2.0 percent; goods increased 5.1 percent and services increased 0.5 percent. The PCE price index increased 0.3 percent. Excluding food and energy, the PCE price index also increased 0.3 percentThe January PCE price index increased 1.5 percent year-over-year and the January PCE price index, excluding food and energy, increased 1.5 percent year-over-year.The following graph shows real Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) through January 2021 (2012 dollars). Note that the y-axis doesn't start at zero to better show the change.The dashed red lines are the quarterly levels for real PCE.Personal income was at expectations,  and the increase in PCE was slightly below expectations.

January personal income and spending show how important government stimulus has been to keeping the economy afloat -This morning’s report on January personal income and spending shows just how important the stimulus packages enacted by the federal government both last spring and last month have been to sustaining the economy.After adjusting for inflation both personal income and spending rose in January, by +9.7% and +2.0%, respectively:The huge increase in income is not a mistake. It follows from the renewed Congressional stimulus package providing $600 checks to most households. And it’s pretty obvious that had an impact on spending, which rose to levels equivalent to 2019 and only about 2% off peak.The importance of the stimulus is shown dramatically when we subtract government transfer receipts from the equation, shown in red in the graph below: Real personal income excluding government transfer receipts fell for the third month in a row, down -0.5% in January.Since this last metric is the last of the four coincident metrics to be reported for January, we can now plot the general outline of the economy through last month, including production (blue), jobs (red), real retail sales (green), and real income (purple):Industrial production has powered through the last 9 months and is now only -1.8% below its level last February. Real sales are actually higher by 6.4%. Job growth has generally stalled in the last 3 months, but only declined outright in the month of December. But without transfer receipts from government, income is down -2.8% since last February.*IF* we continue to make good progress with vaccinations, and they prove effective against the new variants of covid-19 as well as the original virus, then by mid-year we could see production higher than before the recession, most likely leading the NBER to deflate that the recession was a brief but very deep two month affair (last March and April) with a one year+ recovery which is turning into a full-fledged expansion.

 Consumer Confidence Up in February - The headline number of 91.3 was an increase from the final reading of 88.9 for January. This was above the Investing.comconsensus of 90.0.“After three months of consecutive declines in the Present Situation Index, consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved in February,” said Lynn Franco, Senior Direc tor of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “This course reversal suggests economic growth has not slowed further. While the Expectations Index fell marginally in February, consumers remain cautiously optimistic, on the whole, about the outlook for the coming months. Notably, vacation intentions—particularly, plans to travel outside the U.S. and via air—saw an uptick this month, and are poised to improve further as vaccination efforts expand. Read more The chart below is another attempt to evaluate the historical context for this index as a coincident indicator of the economy. Toward this end, we have highlighted recessions and included GDP. The regression through the index data shows the long-term trend and highlights the extreme volatility of this indicator. Statisticians may assign little significance to a regression through this sort of data. But the slope resembles the regression trend for real GDP shown below, and it is a more revealing gauge of relative confidence than the 1985 level of 100 that the Conference Board cites as a point of reference.

Michigan Consumer Sentiment: February Final Slightly Lower - The February Final came in at 76.8, down 2.2 from the January Final. had forecast 76.5. Since its beginning in 1978, consumer sentiment is 10.9 percent below the average reading (arithmetic mean) and 9.9 percent below the geometric mean.Surveys of Consumers chief economist, Richard Curtin, makes the following comments:Despite a small gain in late February, consumer sentiment was slightly lower for the entire month than in January. All of February's loss was due to households with incomes below $75,000, with the declines mainly concentrated in future economic prospects. The worst of the pandemic may be nearing its end, but few consumers anticipate the type of persistent and robust economic growth that restores employment conditions to the very positive pre-pandemic levels. The recent revival in spending has been driven by drawdowns in precautionary savings. Interestingly, those with a college degree were more cautious about prospects for the national economy until just a few months ago (see the chart). In contrast, those with less than a college degree recorded the least favorable economic prospects in this month's survey, indicating the high cumulative toll of the pandemic. It is a common occurrence that groups that had suffered the least in a recession are the first to propel the economy forward, although it is true that those whose jobs were in the hardest hit sectors will be the slowest to fully recover.Perhaps the most attention has been garnered by rising inflationary expectations. The year ahead inflation rate was expected to be 3.3% in February, up from 3.0% last month and 2.5% in December. While consumers clearly anticipate a spurt in inflation in the year ahead, the overall evidence does not indicate the emergence of an inflationary psychology that makes the expectation of inflation a self-fulfilling prophecy. The key lesson learned from the last inflationary era is that it is easy to underestimate the strength of inflationary psychology, and correspondingly, it is easy to overestimate the ability of economic policies to bring an end to inflationary psychology. [More...] See the chart below for a long-term perspective on this widely watched indicator. Recessions and real GDP are included to help us evaluate the correlation between the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index and the broader economy.

Consumer Demand Snaps Back. Factories Can’t Keep Up. – WSJ --U.S. manufacturers aced the shutdown of their factories and warehouses last spring in response to Covid-19. They’re botching the recovery. After carrying out an orderly retreat from assembly lines as the pandemic arrived in the U.S., many manufacturers pulled out the playbook they followed in past recessions, cutting costs and preserving cash. That left them unprepared for the sharp rebound in consumer demand that began just weeks later and never let up.Without restaurants to visit and trips to take, Americans bought out stocks of cars, appliances, furniture and power tools. Manufacturers have been trying to catch up ever since. Nearly a year since initial coronavirus lockdowns in the U.S., barbells, kitchen mixers, mattresses and webcams are still hard to find. A global shortage of semiconductors has forced many car makers to cut production in recent weeks. “Everyone was caught flat-footed,” said Jack Springer, chief executive officer of Malibu Boats Inc. The boating industry was preparing for a downturn but instead sales jumped, he said. Malibu’s orders were up by more than half last June from a year earlier and sales of recreational boats in the U.S. in 2020 were the highest in 13 years, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a trade group. Consumer spending on long-lasting goods in the U.S. rose 6.4% last year but domestic production of those goods fell 8.4%, according to federal data, leading to shortages and higher prices. Supply chains typically get beaten up during recessions. As sales decline, companies draw down inventories to conserve cash instead of purchasing more parts and materials. Entire pipelines of supplies get cleaned out. When demand improves, even modestly, suppliers respond with an outsize increase in production to restock empty warehouses and assembly plants. The so-called bullwhip effect ripples all along supply chains, generating unusually large orders for suppliers that are far from end customers. This time, the bullwhip effect is even more pronounced because demand for consumer products has been extraordinarily high. At the same time, companies are placing supersize orders to compensate for the extra time it takes to procure supplies from factories and freight operators constrained by global efforts to contain the coronavirus. That’s exacerbating the strain on supply chains. .

Headline Durable Goods Orders Up 3.4% in January --The latest new orders number at 3.4% month-over-month (MoM) was better than the 1.1% estimate. The series is up 6.3% year-over-year (YoY). If we exclude transportation, "core" durable goods was up 1.4% MoM, which was better than the consensus of 0.7%. The core measure is up 8.5% YoY. The Advance Report on Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories, and Orders released today gives us a first look at the latest durable goods numbers. Here is the Bureau's summary on new orders:New orders for manufactured durable goods in January increased $8.5 billion or 3.4 percent to $256.6 billion, the U.S. Census Bureau announced today. This increase, up nine consecutive months, followed a 1.2 percent December increase. Excluding transportation, new orders increased 1.4 percent. Excluding defense, new orders increased 2.3 percent. Transportation, up eight of the last nine months, led the increase, $6.1 billion or 7.8 percent to $85.1 billion.Download full PDFThe latest new orders number at 3.4% month-over-month (MoM) was better than the 1.1% estimate. The series is up 6.3% year-over-year (YoY). If we exclude transportation, "core" durable goods was up 1.4% MoM, which was better than the consensus of 0.7%. The core measure is up 8.5% YoY.Core Capital Goods New Orders (nondefense capital goods used in the production of goods or services, excluding aircraft) is an important gauge of business spending, often referred to as Core Capex. It is up 0.5% MoM and up 9.1% YoY. For a look at the big picture and an understanding of the relative size of the major components, here is an area chart of Durable Goods New Orders minus Transportation and Defense with those two components stacked on top. We've also included a dotted line to show the relative size of Core Capex.

February Dallas Fed Manufacturing --This morning the Dallas Fed released its Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey for February. The latest general business activity index came in at 17.2, up 10.2 from 7 in January. All figures are seasonally adjusted.Here is an excerpt from the latest report:Texas factory activity expanded at a markedly faster pace in February, according to business executives responding to the Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey. The production index, a key measure of state manufacturing conditions, surged 15 points to 19.9, indicating a sharp acceleration in output growth.Other measures of manufacturing activity also point to more rapid growth this month. The new orders index rose seven points to 13.0, and the growth rate of orders index rose six points to 11.6. The capacity utilization index pushed up from 9.2 to 16.5, and the shipments index edged up three points to 16.1.Perceptions of broader business conditions continued to improve in February. The general business activity index shot up 10 points to 17.2. The company outlook index held steady at 10.7, an above-average reading. Uncertainty regarding companies’ outlooks continued to rise, though the index retreated notably, from 19.3 to 8.5.Expectations regarding future manufacturing activity remained positive in February, though some key indexes weakened slightly from their January readings. The future production index ticked down from 43.7 to 40.2, but the future general business activity index moved up four points to 33.9. Most other measures of future manufacturing activity edged down but remained solidly in positive territory. Monthly data for this indicator only dates back to 2004, so it is difficult to see the full potential of this indicator without several business cycles of data. Nevertheless, it is an interesting and important regional manufacturing indicator

Richmond Fed Manufacturing: Continued Improvement in February --Fifth District manufacturing activity showed continued growth in February, according to the most recent survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The composite index remained at 14 in February and indicates expansion. The complete data series behind today's Richmond Fed manufacturing report, which dates from November 1993, is available here. Here is a snapshot of the complete Richmond Fed Manufacturing Composite series.Here is an excerpt from the latest Richmond Fed manufacturing overview:Fifth District manufacturing activity continued to improve in February, according to the most recent survey from the Richmond Fed. The composite index held steady from January to February, at 14, as all three component indexes—shipments, new orders, and employment—remained firmly positive. The index for vendor lead time, which hit a 25- year-high of 39 in January, rose further to 46 in February. Firms also reported decreased inventory levels, as the index for raw materials inventories hit a series low of −8. Manufacturers were optimistic that conditions would improve in the coming months.Link to Report . Here is a somewhat closer look at the index since the turn of the century.

Kansas City Fed: Tenth District Manufacturing Activity Increased in February --From the Kansas City Fed: Tenth District Manufacturing Activity Climbed Higher The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City released the February Manufacturing Survey today. According to Chad Wilkerson, vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the survey revealed that Tenth District manufacturing activity climbed higher in February compared to a month ago and a year ago, and expectations for future activity increased. “Regional factories reported higher activity in February,” said Wilkerson. “Most businesses reported more production and shipments, despite some difficulties due to the extreme weather events recently. However, rising materials prices and shipping delays have negatively affected 85% of firms.”The month-over-month composite index was 24 in February, up from 17 in January and 14 in December. The composite index is an average of the production, new orders, employment, supplier delivery time, and raw materials inventory indexes. Manufacturing activity growth was driven by durable goods plants, specifically by primary and fabricated metals, machinery, and transportation equipment. Month-overmonth indexes for production and employment increased at a faster pace in February and supplier delivery time rose significantly. Shipments and new orders growth was positive in February, but slower than in recent months.This was the last of the regional Fed surveys for February.Here is a graph comparing the regional Fed surveys and the ISM manufacturing index:

February Regional Fed Manufacturing Overview - Five out of the twelve Federal Reserve Regional Districts currently publish monthly data on regional manufacturing: Dallas, Kansas City, New York, Richmond, and Philadelphia.Regional manufacturing surveys are a measure of local economic health and are used as a representative for the larger national manufacturing health. They have been used as a signal for business uncertainty and economic activity as a whole. Manufacturing makes up 12% of the country's GDP.The Chicago Fed published their Midwest Manufacturing Index from July 1996 through December of 2013.The other 6 Federal Reserve Districts do not publish manufacturing data. For these, the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book offers a short summary of each districts’ manufacturing health. Five out of the twelve Federal Reserve Regional Districts currently publish monthly data on regional manufacturing: Dallas, Kansas City, New York, Richmond, and Philadelphia. The latest average of the five for February is 18.1, up from the previous month's 13.6. It is well below its all-time high of 25.1, set in May 2004.

With a 12-hour, 7-day schedule at Sterling Heights Assembly, UAW repudiates long battle for 8-hour day - The drive by Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler) to impose a 12-hour, 7-day schedule for skilled trades at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) near Detroit, with the support of the United Auto Workers (UAW), has evoked broad anger. Workers rightly see the new schedule, set to begin on April 5, as a move to eliminate basic rights, such as the 8-hour day, won by workers in over a century of struggle. The so-called Alternative Work Schedule (AWS) was first introduced in auto plants as part of the 2009 concessions imposed by the Obama administration in collaboration with the UAW during the forced bankruptcy and restructuring of the US auto industry. The new rules allowed shifts of longer than eight hours with no payment of overtime and the elimination of the traditional time-and-a-half rate for Saturday work. As a result of this betrayal, Ford and Fiat Chrysler soon imposed 10-hour, 4-day schedules at a number of plants. The new work schedule allowed the companies to squeeze out an additional 49 days of production annually, compared to the traditional plant schedules based on eight hours, without payment of overtime. The new 12-hour day being imposed at SHAP takes the attack on the 8-hour day to a new level. Workers will be forced to work four unpaid overtime hours per shift and, on top of that, give up time-and-a-half for Saturday work, saving Stellantis millions of dollars in overtime payments. The UAW imposed the 12-hour option in the 2019 contract settlement, hiding the terms deep in the contract document. “Our leaders from decades ago fought and died for an 8-hour day, 40-hour workweek. All the companies are looking at it [because] it’s cheaper to pay overtime than to hire more people and give them benefits.” As the auto industry in the US has long served as a benchmark for wages and working conditions in other industries, the attack on the 8-hour day at SHAP has dire implications for all workers.

Blue-Collar Jobs Boom as Covid-19 Boosts Housing, E-Commerce Demand – WSJ --The U.S.’s blue-collar workforce has begun to benefit from a strengthening job market. An Orlando, Fla.-area home builder is seeking to add four construction workers to a six-person team in the midst of soaring housing demand during the pandemic. In Atlanta, a forklift driver rakes in overtime pay because the warehouse that employs him is so busy distributing packages. A Chicago-based truck-trailer manufacturer is increasingly hosting drive-through job fairs and raising wages by up to 7% as hiring picks up across its nine production plants. Nationally, employment in residential construction, package delivery and warehousing now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. Manufacturers have steadily added back jobs after slashing payrolls last spring, though employment remains down about 5% from February 2020, according to Labor Department data. Job openings in many blue-collar occupations broke above pre-virus levels last summer and remain significantly elevated, figures from the online job site Indeed show. Strength in housing and e-commerce during the pandemic has helped propel hiring in blue-collar occupations, which were hard hit by previous recessions. Many economists and companies expect blue-collar jobs to continue growing, though at a slower pace, after the coronavirus is contained. They predict the key factors driving employer demand for blue-collar workers—a swift pickup in online orders and a buoyant housing market—will largely stay even after vaccines are widely distributed and consumers shift some of their spending from goods to services. “The demand for the workers is not going to go down,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. “We’re still going to need good warehousing. undefinedWe will continue to see great strength in the demand in the construction area, particularly housing.”

Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims decreased to 730,000 --The DOL reported: In the week ending February 20, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 730,000, a decrease of 111,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised down by 20,000 from 861,000 to 841,000. The 4-week moving average was 807,750, a decrease of 20,500 from the previous week's revised average. The previous week's average was revised down by 5,000 from 833,250 to 828,250.This does not include the 451,402 initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that was down from 512,862 the previous week.The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.The dashed line on the graph is the current 4-week average. The four-week average of weekly unemployment claims decreased to 807,750.The previous week was revised down.The second graph shows seasonally adjust continued claims since 1967 (lags initial by one week). At the worst of the Great Recession, continued claims peaked at 6.635 million, but then steadily declined.Regular state continued claims decreased to 4,419,000 (SA) from 4,520,000 (SA) the previous week and will likely stay at a high level until the crisis abates.Note: There are an additional 7,518,951 receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that decreased from 7,685,857 the previous week (there are questions about these numbers). This is a special program for business owners, self-employed, independent contractors or gig workers not receiving other unemployment insurance.  And an additional 5,065,890 receiving Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) up from 4,062,189.Weekly claims were much lower than the consensus forecast, and the previous week was revised down

Initial jobless claims: it appears that the worst of the winter 2020-21 increase is behind us -- Let me start off this week’s review of initial jobless claims by pre-debunking something I am sure is going to be said elsewhere: a lack of reporting in Texas did *not* appreciably skew this week’s numbers. Applying the same workaround I did for Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey, I.e., subtracting the affected State’s data from the unadjusted number, to see how much it is at variance with all the other States, shows that Texas’s underreporting due to its electricity crisis was less than 20,000 at worst in a week with little seasonal adjustment. In other words, being very generous, the “real” seasonally adjusted number of initial claims at worst probably would have been only about 30,000 higher - I.e., 760,000 - but for Texas issues. Additionally, last week’s nationwide numbers were actually revised *down* by 20,000, unlike the two prior weeks which saw very large upward revisions. With those two introductory remarks out of the way, let’s look at the data. This week, on a unadjusted basis, new jobless claims declined by 131,734 to 710,313. Seasonally adjusted claims decreased by 111,000 to 730,000. The 4 week moving average declined by 20,500 to 807,250. Here is the close up since the end of July (these numbers were in the range of 5 to 7 million at their worst in early April): The good news is that recent increases seem to have plateaued. Nevertheless both adjusted and unadjusted claims remain above their worst levels at the depths of the Great Recession. Because of the huge swings caused by the scale of the pandemic - typically claims only vary by 20,000 or less from week to week, but since the start of the pandemic, swings of 50,000 or 100,000 per week have happened as often as not, recently I began posting the YoY% change in the numbers as well, since they will be much less affected by scale. As a result, there is less noise in the numbers, and the trend can be seen more clearly: The recent elevation in new claims compared with their November lows is clear. As of this week, it also appears clear, especially in the 4 week average, that claims have plateaued. As spring begins in the warmer parts of the country, we can expect increased outdoor activity and a relative recovery in employment servicing those activities. Meanwhile continuing claims, which historically lag initial claims typically by a few weeks to several months, made new pandemic lows yet again this week. Seasonally adjusted continuing claims declined by 101,000 to 4,419,000, while the unadjusted number declined by 143,320 to 4,828,027: I had suspected that we would see an upward reversal, but obviously that did not happen. Continued claims remain at levels last seen in autumn 2009, only a few months after the Great Recession. I continue to expect that the onset of better weather in spring (fewer indoor activities) and more vaccinations will mean that we have finally put the worst of the job losses behind us. 

FAA Orders Inspections Of Boeing 777 Engines As Metal Fatigue Concerns Mount --Metal fatigue in the jet engine fan blades played an essential role in the Boeing 777-200's engine explosion over Denver Saturday, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt. Now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is ordering immediate inspections of Boeing 777 planes with Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines before further flights, according to Reuters. In a virtual news conference on Monday night, Sumwalt told reporters that United Flight 328 experienced engine issues that resulted in pieces of the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engine raining down on Denver suburbs.  Sumwalt said passengers heard a loud bang, and the 777 started vibrating after takeoff from Denver International Airport. The incident occurred minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 12,000 feet.A preliminary examination of the engine blade fragments suggests a crack expanded over time prompted the failure, he said. FAA records show the Boeing 777-200 was more than two decades old. Sumwalt said investigators would try to determine how long the blades had suffered fatigue.

 Cost-saving designs for California high-speed rail backfire - Los Angeles Times — A 65-mile section of California’s bullet train through the San Joaquin Valley that a contractor assured could be constructed much more cheaply — with radical design changes — has become another troubling and costly chapter in the high-speed rail project, a Times investigation found. The segment runs across rivers, migratory paths for endangered species and an ancient lake bed through the length of Kings County, a fertile agricultural belt south of Fresno. Before awarding a contract for the section, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its consultants knew about these sensitive issues and prepared lengthy environmental reports aimed at accelerating construction by avoiding legal obstacles. But in 2014, when the rail authority awarded the contract, it went with the lowest bidder — a Spanish company named Dragados — which promised $300 million in cost savings by altering the design that the authority had proposed to regulators. Seven years later, these changes have been largely abandoned and have contributed to more than $800 million in cost overruns on the Kings County segment. That figure is 62% above the contract price tag, which the rail authority has agreed to pay, according to interviews and technical and contractual documents reviewed by The Times. In addition, the rail authority awarded the contract without first completing a scientific assessment of how sinking land in the area — a result of decades of excess groundwater pumping — could affect the rail route. California is now paying tens of millions of dollars to raise track embankments over 21 miles. In a written statement, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said it is working with regulatory agencies to resolve design issues. The agency declined to make top officials available to answer questions but asserts it is making good progress on completing an initial 171-mile line through the San Joaquin Valley, which includes the Kings County section. It also said that it was not required to finalize the study on land subsidence before construction began in 2015.  “We continue to apply lessons learned to our current and future work to ensure issues of the past do not repeat themselves,” the authority said, adding that in the last two years, the state agency has established 35 active construction sites across 119 miles of the Central Valley.  Officials for Dragados — which has extensive bullet train experience across Europe but less of a track record in California — did not respond to telephone and emailed requests for comment, saying they are “required to coordinate responses to media questions” with the state.Some experts say this marks yet another black eye for the project that has been beset by cost overruns and delays that now threaten it. The price tag of the massive project to build a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail system has shot up from an original estimate in 2008 of $33 billion with service starting in 2020 to at least $100 billion with an uncertain start date.

Economic pain from pandemic upends the lives of restaurant owners, entertainers  (Reuters) - The reality has not yet sunk in for Pepe Diaz that the beloved deli he ran with his brother for more than 30 years is permanently shut. “The camaraderie with all the students and the regular customers, I miss all that,” he said, outside Howard Deli in Washington. Before the pandemic, the shop had been a lively neighborhood hangout. But sales plummeted without the foot traffic of students from Howard University and the local high school. Making matters worse, Diaz’s brother Kenny Gilmore suffered several strokes. With bills piling up, the brothers closed the deli in January. “This had to be the worst. Everything else we weathered through,” Diaz said of the pandemic. Howard Deli is not alone. By the end of 2020, about 17% of all U.S. restaurants – about 110,000 - had closed long term or shuttered for good, according to the National Restaurant Association. Matt Strickland is determined that his business will not be next. The owner of Gourmeltz in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is continuing to operate his restaurant even though he said his license had been revoked by health officials for failing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. “The people who are putting these mandates and regulations on us, they haven’t missed one paycheck. They haven’t suffered through this like we have,” said Strickland. Strickland said he has many supporters in the community. But health officials say they have received more than 50 complaints about Gourmeltz over its flouting of safety measures such as wearing masks, according to local media. The Spotsylvania County health department did not respond to a request for comment. The economic pain goes well beyond the restaurant industry. The U.S. economy lost 22 million jobs at the height of the pandemic and is still 10 million jobs short of where it was a year ago. Before the pandemic, Sharon Clark spent 11 years as a full-time jazz singer, traveling to Russia, France and South Africa. So when a year’s worth of concerts were canceled in early 2020, she panicked. “For the first time in my whole 11 years, I was asking myself and asking God, ‘What am I going to do?’” said Clark, a single mother of a teenage daughter. “Who’s going to keep the cell phones on... who’s going to pay the cable bill?” Clark said she feels optimistic that her singing work will pick up by summer. “I’m going to sing until I can’t anymore. But I’m going to learn to do something else - just in case,” she said.

Why Is Kroger Closing Stores Instead of Paying Hazard Wages for Its Employees? --Grocery store employees have been some of the most at-risk essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, so some local governments have decided they deserve a temporary raise. The only problem is that grocery stores are fighting those pay increases tooth and nail, suing cities to stop those laws from being enforced, or in the case of the country’s largest grocery chain, shutting down stores entirely. Kroger announced the closure of two Quality Food Centers (QFC) stores in Seattle this week, effective April 24. Though the company said in a statement to VICE News that the stores were “long struggling” and “underperforming,” it took the opportunity to blame city legislation passed last month mandating an extra $4 per hour in hazard pay for grocery workers through the end of the pandemic. “Unfortunately, Seattle City Council didn’t consider that grocery stores, even in a pandemic, operate on razor-thin profit margins in a very competitive landscape,” QFC wrote. “When you factor in the increased costs of operating during COVID-19, coupled with consistent financial losses at these two locations and this new extra pay mandate, it becomes impossible to operate a financially sustainable business.”This is the second time Kroger has closed stores and cited hazard pay, or “hero pay” ordinances mandating wage increases for workers. In January, it announced the closure of two Food 4 Less and Ralph’s locations in Long Beach, California. In that case, Kroger said the stores were “long-struggling” but blamed the city council’s “misguided action” to institute hazard pay for workers. "After all the hard work I've done to feed the needy families and everything and risk my life and my family's lives at home and they don't want to pay $4 extra an hour for four little months," Robert Gonzalez, a worker at the Food 4 Less, told ABC7 earlier this month. “And then it’s over.”

States paying billions in fraudulent unemployment claims --The Kansas Department of Labor sent letters late last year to Laura Kelly about the unemployment benefits she had claimed. The only problems were that Kelly had not filed a claim, and that she is employed — as the state’s governor. A tsunami of fraudulent unemployment claims sweeping the nation has cost states and the federal government tens of billions of dollars in payments, many to overseas crime syndicates and nefarious hackers who have gained access to Americans’ Social Security numbers and other identifying information. The scope of the crisis is not yet known, though the early estimates are eye-popping: California officials have identified at least $11.4 billion in fraudulent claims, and they suspect another $20 billion may be fraudulent. New York officials have referred more than 400,000 fraudulent claims to federal investigators, totaling $5.5 billion in claims, most of which were caught before they were paid. In Ohio, more than 100,000 people have reported potential fraudulent activity in their names to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Ohio and Michigan officials each estimated the potential fraud cost their states hundreds of millions of dollars. Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment has flagged more than a million applications for benefits as potential fraud. Maryland has identified a quarter million phony claims. Massachusetts reported last year it had paid out $242 million in improper claims. The fraud is so widespread that Kelly is not even the only governor to be a victim: Someone filed a fraudulent claim on behalf of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), too. In a report updated earlier this month, the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that fraud has cost unemployment insurance programs across the country at least $63 billion this year.  Fraud is a routine part of unemployment insurance claims, experts said, in part because of the way the system is designed. Someone who becomes unemployed does not have time to wait through a lengthy review process, so states build in a bias toward action. A 1971 Supreme Court decision requires states to pay out benefits when a claim is made, rather than after an appeal. “There’s a natural tension in the unemployment insurance system between adequately assessing eligibility and getting payments out in a timely fashion,” said Christopher O’Leary, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research who studies unemployment insurance programs. “There is pressure for the states to not be slow. There is also pressure in a pandemic to get money to people in need.”

Connecticut utilities seek to end pandemic-related shut-off ban - Gov. Ned Lamont is asking Connecticut utility regulators to continue a moratorium that prevents electricity customers from having their service shut off during the pandemic. Companies including Eversource Energy and United Illuminating have submitted motions to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority asking to resume shutting off power for the first time since the moratorium was put into effect last March. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on Wednesday filed an objection to the motions filed by UI and Eversource, arguing that PURA should keep the moratorium in place until planned federal programs designed to help struggling utility customers come online. “PURA’s shut-off moratorium and other state actions have provided crucial mitigation to the pandemic burden for all of our residents, but especially those disproportionately impacted minority communities who have the highest energy burdens on their household budgets,” Lamont said in a statement. “We are simply too early in our comeback to begin lifting these lifesaving protections now, and we believe that there is potential for more help to be on the way.” More than $200 million has been designated by the federal government to assist Connecticut residents with rent and utility payments, the administration said. Eversource spokeswoman Tricia Taskey Modifica said the company has programs in place to help customers manage their bills to prevent any power disconnections.

 Heating bill price shock could be felt in Minnesota as well - Minnesotans could face price shocks on their heating bills, the result of a nationwide gas-costs surge spurred by the great Southern freeze. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will scrutinize spiking gas prices at a quickly arranged meeting scheduled for Tuesday. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith on Saturday asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to investigate the gas cost run-up, including possible price-gouging. "What we are looking at here is the potential for utility bills to spike up hundreds of dollars," the Minnesota Democrat said in an interview on Monday. "On top of COVID, this could be more disastrous." The pandemic-induced recession has already battered consumers, she said, pointing to rising gas and electric bill delinquencies. Indeed, the average past-due monthly bill at CenterPoint Energy hit $227 in January, up from $196 in December and the highest since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., according to a PUC filing last week.

Mother whose 11-year-old son died in Texas freeze sues for $100 million (Reuters) - The mother of an 11-year-old boy who died after they lost electricity and heat in their Texas mobile home during last week’s freeze has filed a $100 million lawsuit against two power companies for gross negligence. Maria Pineda said the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and Entergy Corp are responsible for the death of her son Cristian, who was found unresponsive on the morning of Feb. 16 at home, where he shared a bed with his 3-year-old brother. More than 4 million people in Texas lost power and at least two dozen people died after a snowstorm blanketed the state last week and sent temperatures plunging well below freezing. The complaint filed on Saturday accused the defendants of ignoring a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommendation following a 2011 freeze to “winterize” the power grid, and were caught “wholly unprepared” when the grid failed last week. Cristian froze to death “because grid wasn’t a priority, and the energy provider made decisions based on profits,” said the complaint filed in the Jefferson County District Court.ERCOT, a cooperative responsible for about 90% of Texas’ electricity, said it will respond “accordingly” after reviewing the lawsuit. Entergy declined to discuss the lawsuit, but a spokesman said it was “deeply saddened by the loss of life.”

North Dakota House OKs in-state Legacy Fund investment bill (AP) — The North Dakota House on Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed bipartisan legislation aimed at creating a broader investment policy for the state’s voter-approved oil tax savings account. Representatives voted 85-8 to approve the bill that would tap 20% of future oil tax collections coming into the Legacy Fund to help establish loans for expensive infrastructure projects and provide capital for in-state companies. No one in the Republican-led House spoke in opposition to the bill. It now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where it also has strong support, including from Sen. Rich Wardner, the chamber’s majority leader and a bill co-sponsor. The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Nathe of Bismarck, said only about 1% of the Legacy Fund’s principal is invested in North Dakota at present. He said the bill will “provide great opportunities, growth and help diversify” the state’s economy. Voters in 2010 endorsed a constitutional amendment that requires setting aside 30% of state tax revenues on oil and natural gas production in the Legacy Fund, which is valued at about $8 billion. It’s expected to earn about $500 million over the next two-year budget cycle. Under the proposed legislation, earnings from investments would be used to establish a revolving loan fund. Loans from the fund would have an interest rate of less than 2%. They would be administered by the state-owned Bank of North Dakota for projects such as flood protection and water systems. Cities, counties and other political subdivisions would be eligible for loans.

IRS extends tax-filing deadline for Texas over winter storms - The IRS announced Monday that it is extending the tax-filing deadline to June 15 for victims of the winter storms in Texas. The extension applies to individuals and businesses in the entire state of Texas. Taxpayers in other areas impacted by the storms that received disaster declarations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will also be eligible, the IRS said. TikTok users spread conspiracy that Texas snow was manufactured by... Texas attorney general and wife went to Utah amid winter storm crisis The IRS announcement postpones for eligible taxpayers the April 15 deadline for filing 2020 individual and business tax returns as well as the April 15 deadline for quarterly estimated income tax payments. The IRS said that taxpayers in the areas impacted by the storms do not need to contact the agency to get the extension. Any taxpayers who receive late filing or late payment penalty notices for due dates that occur during the postponement period can call the agency to get the penalties abated. Last year, the IRS extended the tax-filing deadline for all taxpayers from April 15 to July 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some Democratic lawmakers have urged the IRS to take similar action this year, but the agency has not yet announced any plans to do so.

Material hardship taking a mental and physical toll on young adults during pandemic -- As the United States approaches the one-year anniversary of the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, a new study by researchers from Syracuse University and the University of Texas at San Antonio shows that material hardship - difficulty paying for food, bills and healthcare - is taking a toll on the mental and physical health of young adults. In the study, "Material hardship, perceived stress, and health in early adulthood," the researchers found that young adults ages 24-32 who are struggling to meet their basic needs are more likely to report poor health, depression, sleep problems and suicidal thoughts. According to the Urban Institute's Health Reform Monitoring Survey, one in three adults have reported experiencing material hardship during the pandemic. For this recent study, material hardship was measured by asking more than 13,300 young adults if they had difficulty paying for food, bills and health care, and to report their stress levels. "Specifically, they were asked if they worried about running out of food before they had money to get more; had trouble paying utility, phone and rent/mortgage bills; and lacked health insurance or thought they should get medical care but did not," said Syracuse University professor and research team member Colleen Heflin. "Using this information, we analyzed how hardship and stress levels impact health outcomes, including self-rated health, depression, sleep problems and suicidal thoughts."

NYC shutting Central Park ice rinks to kids to freeze out Trump Organization -Skaters arriving at Central Park’s two ice rinks are in for a cold awakening next week — the rinks, which are both managed by the Trump Organization, are being shuttered by City Hall to punish the former president for the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, The Post has learned.The Trump Organization says its last day ofoperating the iconic Wollman Rink and the smaller Lasker Rink at the park’s northern end will be Sunday.The rink contracts had been set to expire in April, but Mayor de Blasio has moved to ice Trump out a month early, effective Feb. 26.The Trump Organization is closing its doors after close of business on Sunday, so it will have time to pack up its belongings — including some 1,700 pairs of ice skates — and move out.The city is terminating all four of its Trump Organization concession contracts.“Trump has been impeached from operating the ice rink,” a de Blasio spokesman had said Jan. 31 in announcing the concession terminations for Wollman Rink, along with Lasker Rink, the Central Park Carousel and Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx.  On a typical season, the two Central Park rinks operate through March and into early April. The carousel never opened for the season and remains closed due to the pandemic; the golf course closed for the season in December.

Coca Cola Confirms Training Employees To "Try To Be Less White" | ZeroHedge -Is Coca Cola sponsoring racism? That's the claim. You be the judge. When I first saw this story I was highly skeptical. However, the training course is available online and Coca Cola is doing its best to try to back down from the course.Here's the course Confronting Racism, with Robin DiAngelo   In this course, Robin DiAngelo, the best-selling author of White Fragility, gives you the vocabulary and practices you need to start confronting racism and unconscious bias at the individual level and throughout your organization. There’s no magic recipe for building an inclusive workplace. It’s a process that needs to involve people of color, and that needs to go on for as long as your company’s in business.

'The Muppet Show' is now deemed 'offensive content' by Disney -  Officials at Disney finally released five seasons of the iconic and classed "The Muppet Show" on their streaming service on Friday. However, the episodes come with disclaimers and the show is only available to adults. "This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now," reads the message embedded before users get to watch the shows."Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe,"According to the New York Post, nobody is exactly sure as of the time of this writing what exactly triggered Disney's brass to include these messages, as the show is widely considered to be very inoffensive. Many other classic Disney shows are being slapped with similar warnings, including such perennial classics as "Peter Pan" and "Dumbo". Ironically, Disney's live action film "Mulan" comes with no disclaimer whatsoever, despite what critics call obvious propaganda and the working together with genocidal and slavery-positive regimes in order to make the film. There was widespread criticism of the measure on social media:

Pigs In Space, Swedish Chefs, And Green Frogs; USAF Helicopters; And More -- February 22, 2021  by Bruce Oksol - Tone deaf? I always thought The Muppets were tone deaf when it came to depicting Swedish chefs, swine, and Ranidae. It turns out I was not the only one. Disney has finally gotten the memo. In response, before airing certain episode of The Muppets, Disney+ will flash a warning to the audience that "some of the scenes are inappropriate but because the company makes so much money on the episodes and it cost them a lot of money to acquire the franchise, the episodes will be shown, anyway."TCM does the same. If not, TCM would probably have to drop 90% of its programming. It is amazing that, for example, organized crime has been so maligned, particularly by Robert Stack. It goes without saying the French cops were maligned in Casablanca. For Disney, the depiction of the common green frog and swine was bad enough but apparently what took the cake was the depiction of the Swedish chef, who in fact, was Norwegian. The Swedes have apparently only recently gotten in on the joke. IKEA is rumored to add lutefisk to its menu to offset criticism that its meatballs are getting more credit than they deserve. I would assume it's only a matter of time before similar warnings will have to be placed before airing of Shrek(depiction of ogres is just the tip of the iceberg), Star Wars (depiction of extra-terrestrials as scary), ET(depiction of extra-terrestrials as infantile), and CHiPs (depicting cops as friendly). Shrek 2 was particularly harmful, with the pigs in a blanket reference being singled out as notably offensive.

West Virginia GOP introduces bill seeking to prohibit 'divisive acts' in schools, workforce - Republican state legislators in West Virginia have filed legislation seeking to prohibit schools, state agencies and any groups that receive state funding from promoting what they call “divisive concepts.”The bill claims that it aims to prohibit the promotion of what it refers to as “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the workforce and by the state’s education board.But to achieve such, the bill states that it would seek to ban schools from using a curriculum that promotes “divisive acts,” prohibit “discriminatory ‘divisive acts’ in the workplace,” and block “state funding to agencies who promote ‘divisive acts.’ ”The bill then goes on to provide a list of concepts it labeled “divisive,” including that the notion that the United States “is fundamentally racist or sexist,” that an “individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”The bill includes nine “concepts” in total, each of which is a copy and paste of the “divisive concepts” that the Trump administration prohibited in its controversial executive order that took aim at certain diversity training for government workers.That order, which prompted legal challenges from civil rights groups immediately after it was signed in September, was met with a wave of backlash from federal workers and others who said it amounted to executive overreach. The order — which also professed to take aim at “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the federal workforce and sought to bar grant funding “to be used for these purposes” — was swiftly rescinded by President Biden within hours of his inauguration last month.

New CDC school opening guidelines fail to ‘follow the science’ Stat  - President Biden vowed to “follow the science” in an effort to get kids back to school. But that’s not what the latest school opening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do.  The two core pillars of the guidelines — that schools should decide whether to open based on community transmission and that students should strive to be spaced 6 feet apart — aren’t supported by science. While there are many prudent recommendations in the document, these two demands will keep schools closed much longer than necessary, harming kids. The new school opening guidelines advise schools to open or close (or operate in “hybrid” mode) based on a four-tier color-coded system. Each color is tied to the number of new Covid-19 cases during the previous week. The red, or most restrictive category, is more than 100 cases a week per 100,000 people. By this metric, more than 90% of the country is currently in the most restrictive tier, ruling out full-time, in-person learning for elementary-aged students and any sort of in-person school for older children without screening tests.Yet many schools in such communities already have in-person school — and have done so for months — without issue. To justify this tiered approach, the CDC guidelines cite a “likely association” between community transmission levels and the risk of exposure in the schools. But the evidence for this is flimsy. The CDC relies almost exclusively on a U.K. study that examined Covid-19 cases and outbreaks — defined as two or more linked cases — in educational settings in England during June and July. The CDC summarizes the study by noting: “For every 5 additional cases per 100,000 population in regional incidence, the risk of a school outbreak increased by 72%.” While technically true, that increases is the relative risk, which obscures the study’s key finding about absolute risk: School outbreaks were vanishingly rare in this study —just 0.02% among schools that were open daily during this period — even in areas with high rates of community transmission. And if the CDC had looked at the next figure in the article, focusing on individual infections rather than outbreaks, no association was seen between the number of single infections in school and broader rates of community spread. The CDC’s school opening guidelines also ignore the experience of at least two U.S. states. Schools in North Carolina and Wisconsin were open during periods of high community transmission (red zone), and both saw far fewer cases in schools than outside of them. The Wisconsin study was published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC’s own journal. If the state had taken the CDC’s advice, it never would have done the study in the first place. Moreover, if there is less viral spread in schools than in the community, we want them open precisely during periods of high community spread, when the comparative risks outside of school are highest.

Los Angeles Unified School District moves to reopen schools for in-person instruction - Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent Austin Beutner announced on Monday that some in-person teaching will resume next week, with a broader reopening planned for April 9. The school district is the second largest in the nation, with 665,000 students and roughly 60,000 staff, including 26,500 teachers. Among the in-person services which will resume next week are child care, special education, and some athletic and tutoring activities, based on the terms of an agreement reached last October between the school district and the teachers union, the United Teachers Los Angeles. Most California districts, including Los Angeles, remain in the “purple tier,” with more than seven cases per 100,000 residents and a nearly five percent positive test rate statewide. The total number of deaths due to COVID-19 is approaching 50,000, after months in which ICUs across the state were filled to capacity.  Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement on Sunday that US schools must “actually try to get as much in-person as possible right now.” In California, the Los Angeles Times is leading the way in cheerleading these efforts, publishing an article on Monday titled, “L.A. parents demand schools reopen, saying science and improved conditions are on their side.” In fact, both parents and teachers are overwhelmingly opposed to reopening schools at the height of the pandemic. “The notion that students rarely become sick is a bald-faced lie. There can be no doubt that it’s safer to vaccinate both teachers and students before opening schools. This is of no concern to millionaire Weingarten, who has a cushy job outside of harm’s way. If she had to go back into a classroom, I’m sure she’d be singing a different tune.” As for the claim that “science is on the side” of reopening schools, scientific studies have confirmed that districts in which schools are open for in-person instruction have far higher levels of community transmission, and that young children are capable of spreading the disease. In reality, school reopenings are motivated not by concern for children’s welfare but by brutal economic considerations, forcing parents back to work to rack up profits for the financial elite. The push to reopen LAUSD is part of a nationwide campaign, spearheaded by the Biden administration, to force school districts to open against the opposition of teachers and parents.

San Diego school districts move to resume in-person classes - The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), the second largest district in California, announced on Tuesday it was targeting April 5 as the deadline to begin reopening campuses after almost a year of online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera told the media that teachers were scheduled to return to buildings the week of April 5, with all K-12 students returning the following week on April 12, provided that the county has returned to the “red tier” established by state health codes and vaccines are made “available” to all staff. San Diego County will begin making COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone starting March 1. This follows Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week that the state will reserve 10 percent of vaccines for school staff, educators and child care workers. Statewide, an estimated 75,000 first doses of the vaccine will be given every week to teachers. The news was greeted with enthusiasm by the political and media establishment, who want a return to on-site learning to better facilitate reopening the economy and compel parents with children to go back to work. Much has been made about the vaccine distribution, but SDUSD is not actually requiring all staff to get vaccinated, merely to have vaccines “available.” This loophole would allow schools to reopen without having everyone inoculated against the virus. The announcement comes on the heels of new scientific research which has revealed that the California variant of the disease has acquired new and dangerous mutations. This underscores the absolute necessity of closing schools and all non-essential businesses until it is safe to reopen. “The [California] findings warrant taking a much closer look at this variant. … They underscore the importance of pulling out all the stops in terms of both exposure reduction and increased vaccine distribution and access,” one infectious disease expert told the Los Angeles Times. The trade unions, led by the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), have been instrumental in preparing the groundwork for a return to schools, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that this will lead to a resurgence of COVID cases in the community and throughout the region. In a statement, Kisha Borden, president of the SDEA, said, “We are hopeful that a combination of vaccination for school employees, on-site mitigation (such as ventilation, testing, social distancing and masks), and community case rates that allow San Diego County to return to the red tier for the first time since the fall will allow us to offer in-person opportunities to all students by April 12 while still allowing online opportunities for students whose families do not feel comfortable returning in person.”

 Teachers in US resist demand to accept “reasonable risk” of dying -- As the death toll from COVID-19 reaches a horrific half a million in the United States, the Biden administration and the corporate media are ratcheting up their campaign demanding that educators and students resume in-person schooling despite scientific warnings of a major new surge of the pandemic as the winter turns to spring. The same educators who were hailed as “heroes” in the early months of the pandemic last year are now being denounced as selfish and irrational because they refuse to imperil themselves, their students and the communities they serve. Although a recent poll by the National Parents Union showed that 42 percent of parents want their children to attend classes remotely for the rest of the school year—and only 27 percent want fully in-person instruction—the media has falsely claimed there is a groundswell of popular support to fully reopen the schools. The Biden administration is spearheading this campaign, with the Democratic president reiterating his demand that schools be opened “five days a week” by April 1 during a CNN town hall meeting last week. When asked by a second grade student if she could catch COVID-19 and possibly infect her parents, Biden flatly lied, stating, “You’re not likely to be able to be exposed to something and spread it to mommy or daddy.” Democratic governors and local officials have carried out this campaign at the state and city levels. Schools are being opened this week in Detroit, even though Michigan has the third highest known cases of the more infectious B.1.1.7 UK variant among all US states. In Chicago, the next stage in the phased reopening of the nation’s third largest district starts Monday, with the return of tens of thousands of K-5 educators following the return of Pre-K and special education teachers last week. Some 62,000 middle school students in New York City will return February 25, following the return of Pre-K through fifth grade students in December. In Philadelphia, the opposition of teachers has forced the city government to delay openings for a third time, now until March 1. Teachers in Fairfax, Virginia and Montclair, New Jersey are also resisting back-to-school efforts.

West Virginia Senate outlaws public employee strikes as state demands schools reopen - On Monday, West Virginia’s upper legislative chamber passed a bill which changes state law, outlawing work stoppages and other collective action by public employees. The measure threatens that “participation in a concerted work stoppage” can be used to terminate workers. The bill is not just retribution for the massive statewide strikes of 2018–19, but is aimed at intimidating workers, and particularly educators, who are becoming increasingly radicalized and opposed to the deadly reopening of schools and nonessential workplaces. The passage of the bill directly followed the announcement by Republican Governor Jim Justice that schools will fully reopen for in-person instruction starting next month. While public work stoppages in West Virginia have been forbidden based upon interpretations of previous court rulings, Senate Bill 11, passed by a margin of 21–12, would make such actions illegal by definition. The bill, which has yet to go to the state House of Delegates for ratification, declares: “Public employees in West Virginia have no right, statutory or otherwise, to engage in collective bargaining, mediation or arbitration, and any work stoppage or strike by public employees is hereby declared unlawful.” The bill targets teachers specifically, cynically claiming that a work stoppage in education “poses a serious disruption to the thorough and efficient system of free schools, guaranteed to the children of West Virginia by section one, article XII of the Constitution of West Virginia.” The bill was introduced on the three-year anniversary of the massive West Virginia teacher strike that erupted in 2018 . The bill attacks a local superintendent’s right to close schools in anticipation of a work stoppage. This is a response to events in the 2018 teachers’ strike, when superintendents closed classes as teachers walked out, in many cases supporting their demands. It also bans extracurricular activities during a strike, in an attempt to pit students and parents against educators. Most significantly, the bill forbids alternate instruction methods, such as allowing teachers to work remotely, a clear response to educators’ widespread refusal to report for class in-person as the pandemic has raged on. A related bill, House Bill 2536, would require “county board[s] to withhold pay of assigned employees when school [is] closed temporarily due to concerted work stoppage or strike.” The raft of anti-teacher legislation is part of a one-two punch in the ruling class’ drive toward a full economic reopening in the state of West Virginia. It follows Governor Justice’s demand last week that all pre-K-through 8th grade classes reopen for daily in-person instruction by March. Last Friday, Justice declared that the governor’s mansion would loosen pandemic-related restrictions related to indoor dining, public gatherings and other protocols immediately.

Donald Trump Jr. uses a wall of guns as backdrop to launch video attack against teaching unions - Donald Trump Jr. posted a video on social media channels over the weekend in which he attacked teachers' unions while using a backdrop of what appeared to be a large collection of guns on a wall. The video, titled "These Teachers [sic] Unions are OUT OF CONTROL," was originally posted to Rumble, a Canadian video site favored by Trump supporters, and later shared by Trump Jr. on his Twitter page. In the footage, Trump Jr. — a prominent gun rights advocate — attacks President Joe Biden as well as teachers' unions for what he said was their failure to advocate for a timely reopening of schools, many of which remain shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump echoed his father's repeated calls during his presidency for schools to be reopened, claiming that teachers and their unions were doing "whatever they can to avoid going back." "You've seen the way in the last couple of months the way they've basically held up progress [and] prevented schools from opening," Trump said in the video. "The teachers' union and those representing them have definitely failed our children in terms of education and everything else." The largest US teaching unions have largely advocated remote learning during the pandemic on safety grounds, and last week endorsed a roadmap by the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention for the gradual reopening of schools, NBC reported. The video appears to be filmed in front of multiple hunting rifles which are hanging on a wall. The reason for Trump's decision to film the video in front of that backdrop was unclear.

Michigan teachers, students face double threat from school reopenings: contaminated water and COVID -With school openings scheduled for March 1 in Detroit, Dearborn, and other districts in Michigan, the date recommend by the administration of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, teachers and students in the state will be confronted with another serious health threat in addition to COVID infection, unsafe water. A recent article posted on the website detailed the hazards posed by water that has sat stagnant in schools’ pipes, in some cases since last March. The report points to the alarming dangers of unsafe drinking water in Michigan public schools and provides yet another example of the dangerous consequences of the drive to reopen schools. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of contaminated water provides one more reason why schools should remain virtual through the end of the school year. Michigan’s state government recommends, but does not require, that school water pipes be thoroughly flushed with fresh water at the end of summer vacation, a period of about ten weeks. Many of the schools that are proposed to reopen have sat unused for eleven months. The dangers that can be remediated by the methodical flushing of pipes include removal of bacteria, such as legionella, and lead, which can be leached from the pipes. Elin Betanzo, an environmental engineer who heads the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering and who played a critical role in exposing the lead-in-water poisoning in Flint, spoke about the dangers of reopening school buildings where the water pipes have been stagnant since last March. “In Michigan, and in the entire country for that matter, there is no requirement for safe drinking water in public schools,” she said. “There’s no definition of what is compliant, nor are there procedures to mandate regular testing or measures to carry out methodical flushing.” Reopening the schools after they have been closed for many months, with only minimal maintenance, will have serious and possibly deadly consequences. When new water isn’t pumped into school pipes for weeks at a time, necessary anti-corrosive treatments dissipate, allowing bacteria to form and lead to get into the water. Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that can attack any system in the body when ingested, even in low doses, stunting developmental growth and impacting behavior. An estimated 9,000 Flint children were poisoned by lead. “Most school plumbing systems in Michigan contain some lead,” Betanzo said. “No amount of lead is safe; period.” In addition to lead poisoning, Betanzo warned, “Micro-organisms grow in stagnant water, such as legionella. The symptoms of Legionnaires disease are very similar to COVID-19 because it is contracted through inhalation and affects the lungs. Who wants this to happen to a child? It is not only the children who are impacted, but those who are 50 years old and up who are at risk, which means the teachers and school staff. In the Chalkbeat article, Betanzo is quoted as saying that “they should have been flushing 12 weeks prior.”

San Francisco school board pauses plan to rename high schools --The recently elected president of the San Francisco Board of Education has postponed the process of renaming schools, writing in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle that she is first concentrating on reopening schools. "There have been many distracting public debates as we’ve been working to reopen our schools. School renaming has been one of them,” Gabriela López, the school board's president, wrote. “It was a process begun in 2018 with a timeline that didn’t anticipate a pandemic. I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process.” The School Names Panel recommended renaming 42 schools in the San Francisco area in November of last year, garnering bipartisan criticism. Among other suggestions, the panel recommended renaming schools named after Abraham Lincoln, citing his treatment of Indigenous people as a reason to remove his name.“We are deeply grateful for the work of the renaming committee and many schools are as well. They are excited about the opportunity to uplift communities that have previously been underrepresented. Our students need to attend schools where they feel valued and seen. This work is anti-racist and we’re proud of that,” López continued. “But reopening will be our only focus until our children and young people are back in schools,” López added. “We’re canceling renaming committee meetings for the time being. We will be revising our plans to run a more deliberative process moving forward, which includes engaging historians at nearby universities to help.” López added that she would not comment any further on renaming schools until they were reopened. San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) spoke out against renaming last year, calling it "offensive" and saying the move should not be prioritized as governments attempt to reopen schools. Many schools across the country have begun considering new names as a way to move away from historical figures who are seen as problematic by modern-day standards. Students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., submitted more than 50 names to replace their current school name. T.C. Williams was superintendent of the Alexandria public school system for several decades and was a known segregationist. Among the names recommended were George Floyd, Ruther Bader Ginsburg and Meghan Markle.

 Ohio Public School Orders Teachers And Students To Lobby For LGBT Legislation --An assistant principal at a Hilliard, Ohio high school sent an email to faculty telling teachers to endorse a controversial piece of legislation and encouraged students to do the same. The Hilliard City Council is currently considering legislation that would include sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes in the city.  Similar legislation has been debated around the country for more than a decade, and the flagship piece of SOGI legislation -- the Equality Act -- was reintroduced in Congress this week.While the ideas represented in the Hillard City Council legislation are not new, they are highly controversial. Aaron Baer, President of Citizens for Christian Values in Ohio, was on Washington Watch this week to explain the problem. "Not only are they turning students into lobbyists, using taxpayer dollars to force teachers to do something that violates their conscience and students to do the same, but they're not even telling students what they're really advocating for."Mr. Baer pointed out that the call for activism did not even include a discussion of why the bill was controversial."The implications of this bill for women's privacy and the safety of children are massive. And the teachers and the script that they were given, literally a literal script that they were given to read to students, says nothing about the implications of this bill."To their credit, Hillard City Schools has already released a statement recognizing that the actions of the principal were "not appropriate." The incident raises questions about where else schools are being turned into progressive political action centers without the awareness of parents. Since the story broke, Mr. Baer acknowledged hearing from other teachers in Ohio Schools who had seen similar communications from their school but were reluctant to object out of concern for their careers.

Montgomery, Alabama schools moves forward with plans to convert public schools into privately-operated charter schools ---In the midst of the pandemic and educator deaths, the Montgomery, Alabama Public Schools is pushing forward a plan for the privatization of schools. On February 1, Superintendent Ann Roy Moore announced that Phalen Leadership Academies (PLA), based in Indianapolis, Indiana, would take over Davis Elementary for the fall 2021 school year, converting it into a charter school. Charter schools are funded by public tax dollars, but privately run. Nixon Elementary and Bellingrath Middle will follow suit in 2022. Plans are afoot for further “startup” charters as well. The announcement comes as at least eight local teachers, and thirty statewide, have died from COVID-19. District teachers are engaged in a fight against school reopenings and dilapidated school buildings, which commonly have rodent, insect and bat infestations. Teachers throughout MPS give accounts of classrooms filled with mold. They are forced to use inadequate technology and substandard personal protective equipment. Funds granted to charter schools could have instead been channeled towards upgrading dilapidated facilities and providing more services. The "partnership" that State Superintendent Eric Mackey and others propose is the partnership between business and school board to gut state education funding further. The state's ruling elite is using the crisis in Montgomery as a wedge to open up the entire state to charters. At present, there are only two other charters in Alabama, one in Mobile and one in Livingston. “We are fighting a war on four fronts,” as one educator put it to the World Socialist Web Site. In justifying the decision, the school district pointed to poor test scores at the three schools. Davis, Nixon and Bellingrath were placed under state supervision in 2017 on the grounds of “deficiencies in finances, operations, transportation, and student performance,” according to the ALSDE. This is the common tactic used to justify converting public schools into privately-run charters. Since Obama's Race to the Top program, low test scores on mind-numbing standardized tests have been the cover for turning underfunded public schools into a profit opportunity.

US universities have cut 650,000 jobs, a 13 percent workforce reduction, since the onset of the pandemicThe Department of Labor published a striking report this month on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education. The report concluded that colleges and universities have cut a total of 650,000 jobs since February 2020, 13 percent of all higher education workers. While the Department of Labor has not specified the types of jobs which have been cut, reports from university systems across the country demonstrate the damage done to university workers. Thousands of positions for food service and custodial workers have been cut as on-campus services were slashed and dorms closed. Workers engaged in student services have also been vulnerable as services were moved online and condensed. Some of the most notable targets of university layoffs and cuts have been adjunct faculty and non-tenured professors, who have been the subject of significant rounds of mass firings as schools move to cut costs and consolidate courses. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York announced in May that it would not be renewing the contracts of 200 employees, including 60 full-time non-tenured faculty and an undisclosed number of adjuncts. RPI also furloughed nearly 300 employees, mostly non-instructional staff, despite university president Shirley Ann Jackson making $5 million a year. Over the summer, Northern Arizona University eliminated 114 non-tenured faculty. They were provided with no severance and were told they would lose their health coverage within a week. The University of Akron eliminated 178 positions, including 23 percent of its unionized full-time faculty between the start of the pandemic and the summer of 2020. The University of Michigan laid off 173 workers, furloughed over 3,500 and enforced more than 2,300 wage reductions. One of the largest attacks on university staff came from the City University of New York (CUNY) system, which laid off 2,800 adjunct faculty last summer, a quarter of CUNY’s adjunct staff. CUNY is now embroiled in a controversy for withholding contractually-obligated pay raises for the university’s lowest paid workers. The immediate cause of these mass job cuts is the collapse in university budgets during the pandemic. However, there is no doubt that the crisis is being utilized to push through a restructuring of higher education that will result in lower wages for professors and other school staff.

CUNY breaks faculty and staff contract, withholding promised pay raises - Last week, the City University of New York (CUNY) announced that it is indefinitely delaying “equity raises” to over 2,500 low-paid assistant staff and lecturers, amid the deepening pandemic-fueled financial crisis faced by the largest urban university system in the US. The decision, made by CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez, violates the latest worker contract agreements. It follows CUNY’s withholding of a promised 2 percent pay raise for faculty and staff in November, which also broke the contract, and the laying off of 2,800 adjunct faculty last summer. These depression-like cuts and austerity measures are not restricted to CUNY alone, but extend to many higher education institutions throughout the country, and in New York City—under Democratic Party control—to critical social services and infrastructure. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is threatening to significantly reduce service this year and lay off thousands of transit workers . The latest breach of CUNY’s contract with its employees involves withholding a salary increase of $1,000 starting on February 1 to 1,295 assistants to “Higher Education Officers” (academic administrators), whose base salaries are $40,869, and withholding an increase of $1,500 starting on April 1 to 1,262 full-time lecturers, whose base salaries are $47,598. These meager pay raises total just $19 and $28, respectively, per week for workers living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The fact that CUNY is choosing to withhold what are deemed “equity raises,” because they are going to the lowest-paid office and full-time faculty positions, is especially shameful. CUNY officials have claimed the raises will be paid eventually, but have provided no date. This past November, CUNY announced it was withholding a contractual 2 percent raise for all unionized faculty and staff because the budget—which was slashed by over $55 million by city and state budget cuts combined, and saw a $52 million decline due to a 5 percent decrease in enrollment—could not afford it. The deferring of an annual 2 percent raise has also been applied to around 80,000 unionized New York state employees on Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s order. The governor’s recently proposed budget provides that repayment would not take effect until 2023 . Due to this measure, adjunct professors, who already earn low wages, have been forced to take an effective pay cut for the current spring semester because the university front-loaded a portion of the pay rise last fall. On top of this, adjuncts have pointed to CUNY’s raising of the minimum enrollment for classes by 33 percent, which has resulted in class cancellations due to under-enrollment.

COVID-19 cases in New York colleges rise as state changes guidelines to keep schools open - COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the State University of New York (SUNY) system after the state erroneously altered its guidelines for handling coronavirus outbreaks. Since schools opened last fall, state guidelines for universities in New York have required that if a school recorded 100 individual cases or five percent of the student body became infected in a two week period then the school would be required to switch to two weeks of remote instruction. However, facing a slew of outbreaks across the state, the state government decided to alter the guidelines to keep schools open rather than follow its guidelines. As of February 19, schools will be allowed to remain open with up to 5 percent of the student body infected in a 14-day period as long as schools meet testing requirements. The decision has no scientific grounding and is clearly politically motivated. With the Biden administration and the Democratic Party putting their full weight behind the campaign to reopen schools, the SUNY system is finding that mandated school closures pose a threat to this policy. If public schools were to open while universities around the state of New York were closing just weeks into the new semester, how could anyone expect classrooms to be considered safe for returning students at any level? In the view of the Democratic Party and ruling elite more generally, the political stakes are far too high. The SUNY Board of Trustees, which is full of millionaires and Democratic Party officials, has decided that it must bend its own rules to their maximum in order to protect the policy of “herd immunity” pioneered by the fascistic Trump administration in Washington. This approach follows a previously trodden path. In the fall, SUNY announced unscientifically that case numbers contributing to the 100 case threshold would reset to zero every two weeks rather than operating on a rolling 14-day period. This came at the same time that SUNY Oswego had 147 active cases and was shortly forced to switch to remote instruction as case numbers neared 200 within a matter of days. It is three weeks since in-person instruction began at SUNY campuses and 2,400 cases have already been recorded. Over 1,000 of these have occurred just since February 13. More than 1.5 percent of the entire on-campus SUNY population has been infected since January 30, and one-in-seven students at SUNY Cortland have been infected since the fall of 2020. Both SUNY Cortland and SUNY Geneseo are closing in on four percent of the on-campus study body being infected in the just the first month of classes.

Students Demand Removal Of George Washington Statue... At University Of Washington --The University of Washington's Black Student Union has garnered nearly 8,000 signatures on a petition that demands the school remove a statue of George Washington, the school's - and the state's - namesake.  The petition claims the statue "perpetuates white supremacy and preserves its historical imposition," because George Washington owned slaves. The offending statue is part of the university's history: It is the product of a years-long campaign by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which raised $6,000 by "encourag[ing] schoolchildren from all over the state to contribute their pennies, no more than five cents apiece." The statue has stood on campus since 1909.The petition also proposes cutting ties with the Seattle Police Department, disarming the university police, increasing funding for the American Ethnic Studies Department, and hiring more Black faculty members, among other policies.University leadership responded with incremental measures at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, including cutting the campus police force by 20 percent and reiterating existing hiring initiatives aimed at bringing diverse talent to campus. But it did not pledge to remove the statue - and the BSU isn't backing down.The university "commissioned a group of faculty experts to recommend wording for a plaque or other such display that would provide a broader context on the life and impact of George Washington," which "would include an explicit acknowledgment of his role as a slaveholder."The BSU says a plaque isn't enough.The University did not comment further on if, and how, it will respond to increasing calls to remove the statue.

New York Times racialist vandals descend on Rome and Greece -  Earlier this month, as part of its ongoing effort to racialize every aspect of human existence, the New York Times Magazine published an article byHarpers editor Rachel Poser about the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a race-obsessed professor of Classics at Princeton University (“He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?”). Padilla upholds the view that his discipline—the study of ancient Greek and Roman history and culture—is a mainstay of the conception of “whiteness” and should be done away with. The field of classics is primarily concerned with the “Greco-Roman world,” a series of societies that spanned the millennium lasting roughly from the formation of the Greek city-states around 600 BC to the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. The culture was instrumental in the development of modern society. For centuries it has been invoked by the ruling classes in Europe and America—as well as by those who would challenge the existing rulers. Padilla, of Dominican parentage, grew up impoverished, as Poser relates in a snap biography, at one time living in a homeless shelter in New York City. He entered an elite high school on scholarship and then attended Princeton where he was one of the few blacks to study classics. As he developed an academic career, Padilla initially studied Roman slavery, but soon began to have doubts about its legitimacy.  Padilla’s subsequent career has aimed to reverse the alleged “whiteness” of classics by imposing critical race theory upon it—and on academia as a whole. At Princeton, Padilla last year led a crusade that demanded racial quotas for all levels of staffing and the formation of an administrative review board that would ferret out “microaggressions” and “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication.” Padilla is indifferent to the implications of such an Inquisition for academic freedom, labor rights, and even freedom of speech. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he tells Poser.Padilla deploys similarly aggressive measures against his subject. “Dismantling structures of power,” he writes, “will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.” If the classics disagrees with him—both as a field of study and as a realm of history—it should be destroyed. Poser writes approvingly that “if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up.” The Times author herself thinks it is time to “get rid of the classics”—a formulation that appears three times in her article. Deploying the typical method of the Times, Poser’s article is based on a crude, almost comical, amalgam. She observes that the field’s attempt to shed its “self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men,” has gained a new “urgency” because it has supposedly been embraced by the far right.  Then, leaping from the far-right’s preposterous invocation of Greco-Roman heritage, Poser concludes, without any irony, the correctness of Padilla’s view “… that Classics has been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination.” The fascists would not disagree!

'Historically' Low Flu Activity Reported This Year -- While the flu season is far from over and flu cases have been reported year-round in the United States in the past, during a typical year, influenza cases would likely ramp up during the fall and winter, peaking in February. Not this year."We haven’t picked up any outbreaks of influenza or anything really, it’s just historically low,” Lynette Brammer, who leads the domestic influenza team for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told AccuWeather. Brammer's team tracks flu cases each year in its weekly report, Flu View.In the below graphic, the CDC compares flu cases over the past several years, and influenza in the 2020-21 season, represented on the red line with black triangles, is almost non-existent.“We’re looking very hard for flu," Brammer told AccuWeather. "We’re just not finding it."In fact, many people have reported not feeling any flu or cold symptoms.Brammer said the lack of flu is not only good news for individual health, but considering the number of people hospitalized for influenza each year, it's a huge break for hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients."Given the current situation, that’s a very good thing. You know the hospitals have been overwhelmed in a lot of cases, and you really don’t want to add flu on top of that,” Brammer said.According to the CDC, some 173 people were hospitalized for the flu between Oct. 1 and Feb. 13. That's lower than rates for any season since routine data collection began in the 1990s.In comparison, 400,000 people were hospitalized for the flu and 22,000 died, including 434 children, during the entire 2019-20 season. There has only been one pediatric flu death reported this season.

More Evidence That Private Equity Kills: Estimated >20,000 Increase in Nursing Home Deaths, 160,000 Life Years Lost Due to Cuts in Care - Yves Smith -Private equity has succeeded in exploiting economic choke points in much narrower sectors of the economy than experts in monopolies typically study. Health care is an idea area in which to exploit the leverage of providers compared to patients. You can’t haggle over which ambulance comes to fetch you. Similarly, most who get an operation or need ongoing treatments, like dialysis or chemotherapy, will use a facility nearby, which means private equity can create local oligopolies. Not only do private equity owners jack up prices (see Eileen Appelbaum on how private equity negotiates higher fees for outsourced physician practices) but they also lower service levels, as an important new study confirms.An important study by Atul Gupta, Sabrina T. Howell, Constantine Yannelis, and Abhinav Gupta, published by the Becker Friedman Institute of the University of Chicago, covering approximately 7.4 unique Medicare patients in nursing homes to understand the impact of private equity buys of 1,674 nursing homes from 2000 to 2017. We’ve embedded it below and encourage you to read it and circulate it widely.The study is very carefully done. It looks at changes in care and health/mortality in nursing homes after private equity acquisitions. That makes it apples to apples, since the acquired homes were already for profit institutions. The authors also adjusted for consolidations within nursing home chains (they compared consolidation within PE deals with consolidation of non-PE owned for profit homes) and changes in patient composition post purchase. The findings are damning:A key measure of patient welfare is short-term survival. We find that going to a PE-owned nursing home increases the probability of death during the stay and the following 90 days by 1.7 percentage points, about 10% of the mean. This estimate implies about 20,150 Medicare lives lost due to PE ownership of nursing homes during our sample period. We use the observed age and gender distribution of Medicare decedents to estimate the corresponding implied loss in life-years – 160,000. Using a conventional value of a lifeyear from the literature, this estimate implies a mortality cost of about $21 billion in 2016 dollars. To put this in perspective, this is about twice the total payments made by Medicare to PE facilities during our sample period, about $9 billion. Later in the paper, the authors underscore the significance of the 1.7% increased odds of dying in the first 90 days: “In the context of the health economics literature, this is a very large e ffect.”Why did this happen? The private equity firms cut on patient care, in particular nurse staffing levels. Keep in mind that nursing homes in the US treat both short-term patients as well as long-term residents.Nurses are the biggest operating cost, typically representing 50% of total non-overhead expenses. The cut in service ironically hurts older but relatively healthy residents the most, those with “low disease burdens.” The authors argue that sicker residents required levels of care that could not readily be reduced. So the ones that took the hit were the seemingly sounder patients, who wouldn’t have a new ailment or injury attended to as quickly as in a non-PE owned nursing home.

Fauci: 'Possible' Americans will need to wear masks into 2022 -Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, on Sunday said that it was “possible” Americans could still be wearing masks to defend against the coronavirus in 2022, but predicted “a significant degree of normality.” “You know, I think it is possible that [continuing to wear masks is] the case. And, again, it really depends on what you mean by normality,” Fauci told host Dana Bash in an appearance on CNN's “State of the Union.” “I mean, obviously, I think we're going to have a significant degree of normality beyond what the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year, that, as we get into the fall and the winter, by the end of the year, I agree with the president completely that we will be approaching a degree of normality. It may or may not be precisely the way it was in November of 2019, but it'll be much, much better than what we're doing right now,” he added. On whether mask usage will continue in the year ahead, Fauci added, “it depends on the level of dynamics of virus that's in the community. And that's really important, because that gets back to something, again, that you said. If you see the level coming down really, really very low.” The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director added that the risk of transmission will “never be zero,” but could reach a “minimal threat that you will be exposed to someone who is infected.” A reduction to the baseline of months ago, he added, would be a “heck of a lot better than what it’s been” but it would be far better to “see it go way down.” “When it goes way down, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable in saying, we need to pull back on the masks, we don't need to have masks,” he added

A Quite Possibly Wonderful Summer --Families will gather. Restaurants will reopen. People will travel. The pandemic may feel like it’s behind us—even if it’s not. After months of soaring deaths and infections, COVID-19 cases across the United States are declining even more sharply than experts anticipated. This is expected to continue, and rates of serious illness and death will plummet even faster than cases, as high-risk populations are vaccinated. Even academics who have spent the pandemic delivering ominous warnings have shifted their tone to cautiously optimistic now that vaccination rates are exploding.  Until very recently, Anthony Fauci had been citing August as the month by which the U.S. could vaccinate 70 to 80 percent of the population and reach herd immunity. Last week, he suddenly threw out May or early June as a window for when most Americans could have access to vaccines. Despite some concerns about new coronavirus variants, Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me that he doesn’t see viral mutation as a reason to expect that most people couldn’t be well protected within that time frame. If all of this holds true, it would mean that many aspects of pre-pandemic life will return even before summer is upon us. Because case numbers guide local policies, much of the country could soon have reason to lift many or even most restrictions on distancing, gathering, and masking. Pre-pandemic norms could return to schools, churches, and restaurants. Sports, theater, and cultural events could resume. People could travel and dance indoors and hug grandparents, their own or others’. In most of the U.S., the summer could feel … “normal.”  Pre-pandemic complaints about a crowded subway car or a mediocre sandwich could be replaced by the awe of simply riding a bus or sitting in a diner. People might go out of their way to talk with strangers, merely to gaze upon the long-forbidden, exposed mouth of a speaking human. In short, the summer could feel revelatory. The dramatic change in the trajectory and tenor of the news could give a sense that the pandemic is over. The energy of the moment could be an opportunity—or Americans could be dancing in the eye of a hurricane.

Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March --Johnson & Johnson said Monday that it plans to have enough doses of its vaccine for more than 20 million Americans by the end of March if its vaccine is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine is being eagerly awaited as the next in line to join the COVID-19 vaccines already in use from Pfizer and Moderna. An FDA advisory committee is meeting Friday to consider the application, and emergency authorization could come soon after. The company for the first time on Monday gave some specificity regarding the number of doses it will have immediately available. The vaccine, unlike those from Pfizer and Moderna, requires only one dose, so 20 million doses would completely vaccinate 20 million people. "Assuming necessary regulatory approvals relating to our manufacturing processes, our plan is to begin shipping immediately upon emergency use authorization, and deliver enough single-doses by the end of March to enable the vaccination of more than 20 million Americans," Richard Nettles, vice president of U.S. medical affairs for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a part of Johnson & Johnson, said in prepared remarks for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The remarks were posted online by the committee ahead of Tuesday's hearing with several vaccine manufacturers. The company also said it remains on pace to have 100 million doses by the end of the first half of the year. The doses from Johnson & Johnson, assuming FDA authorization, can help speed the vaccination program by adding to doses already available from Pfizer and Moderna, and needing just one dose can simplify the process. White House officials had previously said they were not expecting many Johnson & Johnson doses immediately. Separately, Pfizer is also ramping up its supply. John Young, the company's chief business officer, said in testimony posted by the committee that the company will be able to increase production to 13 million doses per week by the middle of March, up from 4 to 5 million per week at the beginning of February. The company says it remains on track for 120 million doses by the end of March and 200 million doses by the end of May.

JNJ COVID Jab Is 72% Effective, On Track For Emergency Approval Saturday -- Following a wave of trial results alternatively teasing, and questioning, the efficacy of the company's vaccine - including the possibility that it might not be effective as a single-shot jab - new data from Johnson & Johnson purports to show the shot is surprisingly effective at preventing severe illness and reducing transmission in its current (single-dose) form.An analysis of the company's trial data by the FDA was released on Wednesday, two days before an FDA committee is expected to meet to discuss the safety and efficacy of the JNJ vaccine. According to the NYT, the jab could be approved for emergency use as early as Saturday morning (following the committee's meeting and a possible vote on Friday).The vaccine had a 72% overall efficacy rate in the US and 64% in South Africa, where a highly contagious variant emerged in the fall and is now driving most cases. Notably, the analysis showed the JNJ vaccine was seven percentage points more effective against the SA mutation than a prior dataset had suggested. The vaccine was also 86% effective against severe forms of COVID-19 in the US, and 82% against severe disease in South Africa. According to JNJ and the FDA, this means that a vaccinated person has a far lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from the virus.The news essentially confirms that Americans will be the first to benefit from a third COVID vaccine as the pace of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continues to decline.

NYC plans for at-home shots of Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine - Johnson & Johnson said Tuesday it will have 20 million of the country’s first COVID-19 single-dose vaccines available by the end of March — leading New York City to vow door-to-door service soon for shut-ins. “The big piece we want to get to is the literally in-home vaccination of folks who cannot leave their home — that really requires the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters. City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said J&J’s testimony to a US House subcommittee on vaccine development earlier in the day suggests the Big Apple could start at-home vaccinations as early as next month. “We will be ready very rapidly to do door-to-door in-home vaccinations for in-bound seniors over the month,” he said at the mayoral briefing. “We hope in March if everything goes according to plan with the FDA and to do that based on the supply allocated by the federal government,” Chokshi said, referring to the federal approval that the J&J vaccine still needs. City officials have called the J&J shot — which applied for approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 4 — a game-changer because it only requires a single dose and is much easier to store than its competitors’ vaccines.

Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline start new COVID-19 vaccine study after failed trial -- Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have launched a new study of their coronavirus vaccine after a previous trial produced disappointing results.The drugmakers pushed back the rollout of their experimental COVID-19 shot in December because a study found it generated an “insufficient” immune response to the virus in people older than 50 years.The companies have now tweaked the vaccine’s formulation and plan to test three different dosages in the new Phase 2 study of 720 adults in the US, Honduras and Panama, according to a Monday news release.“We are confident that our vaccine candidate has strong potential and we are very encouraged by the latest preclinical data,” Thomas Triomphe, the head of Sanofi’s vaccine business, said in a statement. “This new Phase 2 study will enable us to identify the final vaccine formulation for adults of all ages.”If the study goes well, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline plan to launch a large-scale Phase 3 trial in the spring and seek regulatory approval in the second half of this year. The vaccine — which will be administered in two shots given three weeks apart in the Phase 2 study — would be made available in the final three months of 2021 if it’s approved, the European companies said.

Tracking COVID Vaccine Deaths and Adverse Events in the United States -- In a posting from mid-January 2021, I started tracking the deaths and adverse effects linked to the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.  On more-or-less a weekly basis, the National Vaccine Information Center releases the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System or VAERS data.  In this posting, I will maintain a continuous update from each of the VAERS data releases so that you can see how the COVID-19 vaccines are impacting the health of those that have received either the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccines.   Here is the link to the latest data release should you wish to review it for yourself.  Let's summarize the data over time showing the following adverse events; hospitalizations (green), deaths (red), life threatening events (blue), permanent disabilities (grey) and birth defects (yellow):  It is important to keep in mind that all adverse events are not reported to the VAERS system and that previousresearch from 2010 shows that shows the following:  "Adverse events from drugs and vaccines are common, but underreported. Although 25% of ambulatory patients experience an adverse drug event, less than 0.3% of all adverse drug events and 1-13% of serious events are reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Likewise, fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported. Low reporting rates preclude or slow the identification of “problem” drugs and vaccines that endanger public health."

Debate heats up over vaccinating more people with just one dose --Debate is intensifying over the idea of accelerating the U.S. vaccination campaign by giving people just one dose instead of two for the time being. The approach, which has the backing of some prominent experts, could essentially double the country’s vaccine supply in the short term. It has also gained ground in recent days after new research on the effectiveness of receiving only one dose, with a second dose planned for a few months down the line when supply shortages ease. As a more infectious variant gains ground, and roughly 2,000 people die from the coronavirus each day, the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But the White House, as well as a different group of experts, is pushing back on the one-dose strategy, saying it’s unproven and risks eroding public acceptance of the vaccines. Further, opponents argue, it could create a breeding ground for new variants or lower the effectiveness of vaccines against different strains. Still, supporters feel their hand is strengthened by the publication of an Israeli study last week in The Lancet medical journal that found the Pfizer vaccine was 85 percent effective 15-28 days after the first dose. Two Canadian researchers wrote in a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine the same week that their analysis of Pfizer data submitted to the Food and Drug Administration finds the vaccine is 92.6 percent effective two weeks after one dose. “I think it’s gained ground,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and a leading proponent of the strategy of delaying the second dose. “One of the issues was: How well does the first dose by itself work?” he said. “That question is being answered and the answer is: It works quite well.” There are leading experts on both sides of the debate. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, pushed back on the idea of delayed doses at a White House press briefing Friday, noting it is unclear how long protection from just one dose would last. He also warned that some variants of the virus, most notably one first found in South Africa, could diminish the effectiveness of vaccines, and that having a stronger immune response from two doses provides more of a cushion against any reduction.

People who wear glasses are less likely to catch COVID-19: study --People who wear glasses are two-to-three times less likely to get infected with COVID-19, a new study has found.Indian researchers studied 304 patients whose glasses-wearing habits were examined through a questionnaire and compared with existing studies of the general population, according to researchpublished in medRxiv, which is not peer-reviewed.“This present study showed that the risk of COVID was two to three times less in spectacles-wearing population than the population not using spectacles,” Amit Kumar Saxena said in the findings,the UK’s Mirror reported.“Protective role of the spectacles was found statistically significant, if those were used for (a) long period of the day,” he added. “Touching and rubbing of the eyes with contaminated hands may be a significant route of infection.”The researchers said people touch their face on average 23 times an hour and the eyes on average three times per hour.“Touching one’s nose and mouth is significantly reduced when wearing a face mask properly. But wearing a face mask does not protect the eyes,” the study said.“The nasolacrimal duct may be a route of virus transmission from conjunctival sac to the nasopharynx,” according to the study.

COVID/Vitamin D: Much More Than You Wanted To Know  - Lots of people think Vitamin D treats coronavirus, and some of them have good evidence. For example, infection rate from coronavirus seems latitude dependent; in general, the further north an area, the worse it's been hit. Northern areas get less sunlight, and sunlight helps produce Vitamin D, so whenever you see a disease that's worse at high latitudes, Vitamin D should be on your short list of potential causes.Also - in the US, COVID seemed to remit with the summer and worsen over the winter. It's hard to distinguish this from general exponential growth and from the effect of playing ping-pong with gradually loosening/ tightening lockdowns, but the US spike this winter was pretty dramatic. Most Northern Hemisphere countries show such a pattern, most equatorial countries don't, and some Southern Hemisphere countries arguably show the opposite. Whenever you see a disease that's better in summer and worse in winter, Vitamin D is one of the possible culprits.And also, black people get COVID 1.4x more than white people, and die of it 3x more often. There are lots of potential social causes for health disparities between black and white people. But among potential biological causes, one of the most important is that black people have much less Vitamin D at temperate latitudes - their dark skin blocks the sunlight that would usually help them produce it. This is another pattern that sometimes means Vitamin D could be involved (ask me about schizophrenia rates sometime!), although there are obviously lots of other things that could be going on here.Also also, we know a lot of immune cells have Vitamin D receptors, and Vitamin D seems to modulate the immune system in some important way. A giant meta-analysis in 2017 found that Vitamin D modestly decreased rates of flus and colds, some of the coronavirus' closest relatives.So lots of people did studies, and some of them were pretty suggestive. For example, a couple of papers like Radujkovic et al found that coronavirus patients with low Vitamin D levels had worse outcomes (eg were more likely to need ICU care or to die) than patients with higher levels. A couple more papers like Annweiler et alfound that patients who regularly took Vitamin D supplements for the year before they got coronavirus did better. A team from Quest Diagnostics, led by Harvey Kaufman, looked through 190,000 patients who they had tested for both coronavirus and vitamin D levels, and found that the coronavirus patients had notably lower Vitamin D levels than controls. Another team under Eugene Merzon in Israel looked through their databases and found the same in a 7807 patient sample.Surely that's enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion, right? I'm not completely convinced…

Loss of sense of smell and taste may last up to 5 months after COVID-19 - People with COVID-19 may lose their sense of smell and taste for up to five months after infection, according to a preliminary study released today, February 22, 2021, that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 73rd Annual Meeting being held virtually April 17 to 22, 2021. "While COVID-19 is a new disease, previous research shows that most people lose their sense of smell and taste in early stages of the illness," said study author Johannes Frasnelli, M.D., of the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres in Canada. "We wanted to go further and look at how long that loss of smell and taste lingers, and how severe it is in people with COVID-19." The study involved 813 health care workers who tested positive for COVID-19. Each person completed an online questionnaire and home test to evaluate their sense of taste and smell on average five months after diagnosis. They rated their senses of taste and smell on a scale from 0 to 10. Zero meant no sense at all, and 10 meant a strong sense of taste or smell. Researchers found the average person did not regain their sense of smell entirely. A total of 580 people lost their sense of smell during the initial illness. Of this group, 297 participants, or 51%, said they still had not regained their sense of smell five months later, while 134 participants, or 17%, had persistent loss of smell when evaluated with the home test. On average, people ranked their sense of smell at a seven out of 10 after the illness, compared with a nine out of 10 before they had gotten sick. A total of 527 participants lost their sense of taste during the initial illness.¬ Of this group 200 people, or 38%, said they still had not regained their sense of taste five months later, while 73 people, or 9%, had persistent loss of taste when evaluated with the home test. On average, people ranked their sense of taste at an eight out of 10 after the illness, compared with a nine out of 10 before they had gotten sick.

Post-COVID lungs worse than the worst smokers' lungs, surgeon says -A Texas trauma surgeon says it's rare that X-rays from any of her COVID-19 patients come back without dense scarring. Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall tweeted, "Post-COVID lungs look worse than any type of terrible smoker's lung we've ever seen. And they collapse. And they clot off. And the shortness of breath lingers on... & on... & on.""Everyone's just so worried about the mortality thing and that's terrible and it's awful," shetold CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. "But man, for all the survivors and the people who have tested positive this is — it's going to be a problem." Bankhead-Kendall, an assistant professor of surgery with Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, has treated thousands of patients since the pandemic began in March.  She says patients who've had COVID-19 symptoms show a severe chest X-ray every time, and those who were asymptomatic show a severe chest X-ray 70% to 80% of the time."There are still people who say 'I'm fine. I don't have any issues,' and you pull up their chest X-ray and they absolutely have a bad chest X-ray," she said.In X-ray photos of a normal lung, a smoker's lung and a COVID-19 lung that Bankhead-Kendall shared with CBS Dallas, the healthy lungs are clean with a lot of black, which is mainly air. In the smoker's lung, white lines are indicative of scarring and congestion, while the COVID lung is filled with white. "You'll either see a lot of that white, dense scarring or you'll see it throughout the entire lung. Even if you're not feeling problems now, the fact that that's on your chest X-ray — it sure is indicative of you possibly having problems later on," she said.  Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBSN that some patients with severe COVID-19 could feel the impact for years to come.

Michigan boy, 10, loses both hands, both legs to COVID-related MIS-C syndrome  - Dae’Shun Jamison, age 10, of Shelby, Michigan, contracted COVID-19 in early December. Like most kids his age who catch the disease, he was initially asymptomatic. But after two weeks he developed headaches and a fever. His mother took him to the hospital on December 21. He has yet to return home. For more than two months, Dae’Shun has undergone an unimaginable battery of surgeries and other procedures, including, tragically the amputation of both hands and both legs. The diagnosis is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, a life-threatening condition observed only in children with COVID-19. As their heart, kidneys and other organs become inflamed and dysfunctional, children with MIS-C suffer symptoms like gut pain, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, bloodshot eyes and fatigue. As of February 8, 2,060 children in the US have been diagnosed with MIS-C, and 30 of them have died as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC). In a harrowing series of updates on the family’s GoFundMe page, Brittney Autman tells the story of her son’s experience with MIS-C. Dae’Shun was initially put on a ventilator and dialysis machine, she writes, with “two tubes in each side of his lungs to release fluid from his body.” Another “tube inserted into his pelvis led to his heart, filtering his blood.” On December 30, she writes that her son “will have to get his fingertips and toes amputated.” Dr. Rosemary Olivero, a pediatrician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids where Dae’Shun is being treated, explained to Newsweek that severe heart dysfunction occurs in some children with MIS-C, obstructing the flow of blood through the limbs and necessitating amputation. On January 2, Autman notes that Dae’Shun “has had 6 units [pints] of blood after his procedures yesterday.” She describes how “they cut his hands and legs to release pressure from the fluid in his body” and to “get some circulation going in his legs and hands.” Soon, Dae’Shun’s condition improved to the point where he was able to be taken off his ventilator and could answer yes/no questions by shaking his head. But the improvements were not long lasting. By January 12, Autman had been informed that her son would need to have both legs amputated.  By the time his second leg amputation was scheduled, he had also developed clots obstructing the flow of blood to both of his hands. His left leg and both hands were amputated on February 22. “Dae’Shun is very emotional about his amputations, and it breaks my heart.” Dae’Shun Jamison is one of the more than three million children in the United States who have contracted COVID-19. He and over 2,000 others have suffered MIS-C as a result, including 79 children in Michigan, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty-four Michigan children under the age of five have developed MIS-C, in addition to 31 children between five and 10 years old, like Dae’Shun, and 24 children age 11 or older, like Honestie Hodges, 14, of Grand Rapids, who died of MIS-C on November 22. The actual prevalence of COVID among children—who, according to the CDC, account for some 13 percent of infections in the US—as well as the emergence of new and horrific conditions in children like MIS-C expose the two big lies that are being used by the Biden administration to force schools back open for in-person learning across the country: (1) children do not contract and spread COVID in large numbers, and (2) if they do, they will not suffer horribly.

This 105-Year-Old Beat Covid. She Credits Gin-Soaked Raisins. - Ask Lucia DeClerck how she has lived to be 105, and she is quick with an answer. “Prayer. Prayer. Prayer,” she offers. “One step at a time. No junk food.” But surviving the coronavirus, she said, also may have had something to do with another staple: the nine gin-soaked golden raisins she has eaten each morning for most of her life. “Fill a jar,” she explained. “Nine raisins a day after it sits for nine days.” Her children and grandchildren recall the ritual as just one of Ms. DeClerck’s endearing lifelong habits, like drinking aloe juice straight from the container and brushing her teeth with baking soda. (That worked, too: She did not have a cavity until she was 99, relatives said.) “We would just think, ‘Grandma, what are you doing? You’re crazy,’” said her 53-year-old granddaughter, Shawn Laws O’Neil, of Los Angeles. “Now the laugh is on us. She has beaten everything that’s come her way.”

COVID Variants May Arise in People with Compromised Immune Systems - Scientific American --Last summer, as the second wave of COVID-19 cases was sweeping the United Kingdom, a man in his 70s was admitted to his local hospital where he tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. He was sent home, but a month later he checked into the hospital at Cambridge University, unable to shake the virus. Like many people who develop severe COVID-19, the man was immunocompromised. He had lymphoma and had previously received chemotherapy treatment. Doctors gave him remdesivir, an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19, but he showed little improvement. Two months after his illness began, as the patient continued to worsen, his medical team opted to treat him with convalescent plasma, a therapy derived from the blood of patients who have recovered from COVID-19, which contains antibodies to fight off the virus. Sadly, he succumbed to the virus 102 days after testing positive, but what doctors learned from him and similar patients “has been transformative of our understanding of what’s going on in this disease,” says Ravindra Gupta, a member of the Cambridge University medical team and senior author of a report of the man’s case published February 5 in Nature. Analysis of samples from the patient showed that the virus evolved rapidly after the plasma therapy, developing mutations that changed how it could infect cells and resist antibodies. The conditions turned out to be ripe for viral evolution. “This is a blueprint for how variants emerge,” Gupta says.The plasma treatments did not rid the man of the virus, and in fact had little impact on the amount of virus detected. But the plasma had a remarkable effect on the genetic makeup of the viral population that the patient harbored. Seemingly in response to the antibodies contained within the plasma, the virus produced “escape mutations,” changes in the genetic code that helped it to evade detection by the sticky antibodies. Such mutations can make the virus more contagious or vaccines less effective. They are popping up in variants of SARS-CoV-2 around the world, fueling the pandemic even as vaccine shots are going into people’s arms. Over the several months of the patient’s treatment, doctors collected samples of the virus and determined their genetic sequences. The infection started out as a genetically singular population, but it underwent subtle changes after treatment with the antiviral drug remdesivir. “And then things really changed when we tried convalescent plasma,” Gupta says. Random changes in any viral genetic sequence are normal over the course of an infection, but a striking pattern emerged in Gupta’s patient. After the plasma infusions, viruses containing multiple new mutations appeared and quickly dominated, but not for long. Two weeks later, when antibody levels were expected to have diminished, the mutant virus population vanished. But then the patient received a final plasma treatment. Remarkably, the mutant strain came roaring back. Gupta’s team conjectured that the genetic changes appear to have occurred in response to the plasma treatment. This phenomenon, called selective pressure, may have occurred when viruses with mutations resistant to the antibodies survived. 

Covid-19: Study IDs 7 U.S. Variants; U.K. Strain More Lethal; ’Breakthrough’ Cases Appearing Post-Vax | Physician's Weekly --Results from a preprint study identified seven Covid-19 variants that seem to have originated in the United States—and it’s possible these mutant strains are even more contagious, the study authors warned.In their study, which was published in MedRxiv and is not yet peer-reviewed, Jeremy P. Kamil, PhD, and colleagues discovered that all seven variants carry the same mutation to amino acid position 677—a convergent adaptation that may signal an evolutionary advantage for these strains. And, while it is not clear yet whether this particular mutation makes these strains more contagious, the study authors have their suspicions.“This stretch of spike is important because of its proximity to a region key for virulence,” study coauthor Vaughn Cooper, PhD, director of the Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh, told CNN. “…We actually think these mutations are relatively rare (compared to other types of mutation), but they are disproportionately selected when they occur.”“There’s clearly something going on with this mutation,” Kamil said, according to the New York Times. “…I think there’s a clear signature of an evolutionary benefit.”The study authors named the seven variants after birds to help make them easier to identify.The largest of the 677 variant sub-lineages — accounting for 754 sequences — was dubbed “Robin 1” and was first identified on Aug. 17 of last year, they explained. Thus far, Robin 1 has cropped up in over 30 states, but it is most prevalent in the Midwest. A second variant, which first appeared on Oct. 6, originated in Alabama and was labeled “Robin 2” due to its similarity to Robin 1. A third variant, called “Pelican,” first appeared in Oregon and has since been identified in 12 other states, as well as Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, and India.“The remaining Q677H sub-lineages each contain around 100 or fewer sequences, and are named: Yellowhammer, detected mostly in the southeast U.S.; Bluebird, mostly in the northeast United States; Quail, mainly in the Southwest and Northeast; and Mockingbird, mainly in the South-central and East coast states,” Kamil and colleagues wrote.“Although it is too early to predict whether any particular S:677 polymorphic lineages will persist… the recurrent parallelism affecting S:677 suggests that this position will continue to surface in variants that show signs of increased transmissibility or fitness,” they added. “It will thus be critical to not only to continue genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 to monitor the prevalence of such variants over time, but also to formally define any biological characteristics of these polymorphisms in cell culture and small animal model systems.”

A second COVID mutation is now in FL, on top of the United Kingdom strain spreading through the U.S. --A second COVID mutation emerging from Brazil is now in Florida, adding to cases of the United Kingdom strain that has been spreading across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday evening. The Brazil mutation, called P.1, is in four states right now: Starting in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and now Maryland and Florida. The Brazil strain is on top of the United Kingdom variant, called B.1.1.7, and Florida has the largest number of cases in the nation — 433 — for the United Kingdom strain, according to CDC data from Thursday evening. Overall, the CDC reported 1,523 cases of the United Kingdom variant in 42 states — 41 states and Washington, D.C. — and it is considered more contagious and potentially more deadly than the original virus. The Brazil variant, now with one case in Florida, is described this way by the CDC: “In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged that was first identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. This variant was first detected in the US at the end of January 2021.” The Brazil strain was one of three variants that the CDC has been tracking as COVID-19 began spreading. The other strain is the South Africa variant, called, B.1.351, that is in 10 states. All three of the mutant strains raise several concerns, including whether the current vaccines will protect people from the COVID mutations.

South African COVID-19 variant found on Long Island - A Long Island resident has the first known case of the South African coronavirus variant in New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday. The mutated version of COVID-19 was detected in a Nassau County resident, the governor said in a news release. The announcement came a week after a Connecticut resident hospitalized in New York City was found to have the variant. The strain, originally identified in South Africa, was first discovered in the US last month — and scientists believe it can spread more easily than other virus variants. It’s arrival in the Empire State means “it’s more important than ever for New Yorkers to stay vigilant, wear masks, wash hands and stay socially distanced,” Cuomo said. “We are in a race right now — between our ability to vaccinate and these variants which are actively trying to proliferate — and we will only win that race if we stay smart and disciplined,” he said. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran also urged residents to continue to take precautions. “We don’t believe the South African variant is more deadly, but it may be more contagious,” Curran said in a statement. “The best response is to continue the tried and true precautions: wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings, distancing, staying home and getting tested when sick.” Meanwhile, the state’s latest COVID-19 numbers continued to show a downward trend in hospitalizations and deaths after a spike around the holiday season. Fewer than 5,800 patients were hospitalized with the virus on Saturday, down more than 800 from a week earlier. Officials recorded 75 COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, the first time since Dec. 16 that the daily death toll was under 100. Cuomo also announced that the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate was at 2.99 percent, dropping below 3 percent for the first time since Nov. 23.

No early end to COVID-19: A new strain in any nation threatens us all - With new COVID-19 cases in steady decline across the United States, and the pace of vaccination accelerating, Americans may feel optimistic about what feels like a turning point. Despite this encouraging news and crucial progress, the uncontrolled, global spread of COVID-19 has produced a new problem: mutant viruses or variants, several of which are proving difficult to control. How did that happen? The answer is viral evolution — in this case, the selection of mutant viruses that transmit from one person to another more effectively and/or are more capable of defeating the human immune system. With each virus producing more than 10,000 new viruses, simultaneously occurring across millions of infected individuals, there is a near certainty that new versions of the virus will emerge. Natural selection occurs when these new viruses are tested against millions of human immune systems from across the globe. Virtually all viruses fail that test. However, the rare survivor virus successfully replicates itself, leading to ever more infectious viruses that transmit more efficiently. These new variant viruses make it harder to end the pandemic. In fact, more infectious variants mean we will need to vaccinate a greater proportion of the population than would have been required to control the original COVID-19 virus. These more infectious COVID-19 variants spread both more efficiently and at accelerated rates. A more transmissible virus is like a car that accelerates to a faster speed; to stop it, we must brake sooner, and brake harder. The preventive steps, or braking, that eventually achieved control during the spring wave in the United States may not be sufficient to control the next variant. New variants, such as B.1.1.7 identified in November in the United Kingdom, defeated some of the most aggressive community lockdowns, school closures and stay-at-home orders. Elsewhere, we are now aware that new COVID-19 variants are appearing wherever we are doing high quality sequencing of the virus’s genetic code. We are blinded to the magnitude of the threat of variants, as the majority emerge outside of our current ability to sequence the virus. This blind spot has immediate ramifications for each nation. For example, our partner hospitals in Brazil reported that patients infected with COVID-19 last spring have recently been re-infected by new variants. These variants appear to escape immune protection acquired from the first infection. This is not good. In Manaus, Brazil, after an uncontrolled first wave of COVID-19 between April and November, over 70 percent of the population developed antibodies to the virus — a level of protection we would have predicted would protect the population against re-infection. However, the emergence of another new variant, P.1., breached these immune defenses, resulting in Manaus suffering a catastrophic second wave of infection. Although scientists are still studying this event, initial evidence indicates certain mutations in the virus’s genetic code, along with waning immunity over time, result in people being susceptible to reinfection with the new variant. This is a very serious warning to the rest of the world: Immunity is not absolute — and may have an expiration date. The bottom line: we are far from being out of the woods, even while there is reason for hope.

Texas’ COVID-19 vaccination and testing efforts disrupted by devastating winter storm - On February 18, Julieta de Lima, long-time leading member of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and head of the party’s peace negotiating team, delivered a speech to a summit of major church leaders in which she articulated the CPP’s open embrace of the Catholic Church and its legacy of medieval barbarism in the country. She addressed a gathering of archbishops, bishops, religious superiors and prominent ministers assembled for the 9th Ecumenical Church Leaders’ Summit on Peace to commemorate “500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines.” The event was sponsored by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP) which is comprised of the powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the National Council of Churches and the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. De Lima unreservedly adopted the language and dogma of Christianity. She approvingly quoted Pope Francis, telling the assembled bishops, “The Lord has redeemed us all, all of us, with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics.” She depicted the CPP as struggling for a “just and enduring peace,” and then dressed this up in the religious fatalism of medieval canon, Thomas a Kempis, declaring “To me this means Man proposes and God disposes with the masses not only voicing the will of God but realizing it on earth.” The Catholic Church, with its dogma of redemptive suffering and its apparatus of obscurantism, is one of the most exploitative institutions on the planet. The wealth of the church and the power of the pope are the product of nearly two millennia of theft, murder, conquest and counter-revolution. Few countries have suffered as greatly as a result of this history as the Philippines. The Communist Party of the Philippines, however, joined the assembled religious superiors in a celebration of this legacy. De Lima declared, “As we celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the country, let us strive ever harder to uphold human dignity.” She claimed that the “Filipino people have adopted it [Christianity] as a redemptive and liberating moral force in the same manner as one type of society after another has adopted science and technology as a progressive factor in advancing civilization.”

February 22 COVID-19 Test Results and Vaccinations -- NOTE: The Covid Tracking Project will end daily updates on March 7th. From Bloomberg on vaccinations as of Feb 22nd.  "In the U.S., more Americans have now received at least one dose than have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. So far, 64.2 million doses have been given. In the last week, an average of 1.37 million doses per day were administered.Here is the CDC COVID Data Tracker. This site has data on vaccinations, cases and more. The US is averaged 1.3 million tests per day over the last week.  The percent positive over the last 7 days was 4.8%. Based on the experience of other countries, for adequate test-and-trace (and isolation) to reduce infections, the percent positive needs to below 1%, so the US has far too many daily cases - and percent positive - to do effective test-and-trace. There were 1,238,604 test results reported over the last 24 hours. There were 52,530 positive tests.  Over 58,000 US deaths have been reported in February. See the graph on US Daily Deaths here. This data is from the COVID Tracking Project. And check out COVID Act Now to see how each state is doing. (updated link to new site) This graph shows the 7 day average of positive tests reported and daily hospitalizations.  The dashed line is the post-summer surge low for hospitalizations.

Death on an unprecedented scale: One year since the first death from COVID-19 in the US -- This week, many of the national COVID-19 trackers will mark the death of 500,000 Americans in the United States from the coronavirus. It was just one year ago, on February 29, that the first official US fatality from COVID-19 was reported, a man in his 50s residing in Washington state. Postmortem testing in Santa Clara County, California, indicates that there may have been two earlier deaths, one on February 6 and another on February 17. Still, a closer examination of these horrific numbers, including excess deaths, a term that refers to the number of deaths from all causes during a crisis, above and beyond what would typically be seen, demonstrates that the present catastrophe is far more massive than official figures and, most likely, on par with the 1918 influenza pandemic and even the US Civil War. More on this later. In time, historians will write on the actual deaths that befell the nation during this pandemic, considering those, directly and indirectly, related to the contagion in their accounting. Most importantly, they will need to explain why it happened. However, it is instructive to take a measure of the scale of this devastation wrought primarily by the ruling class. Much can still be done to avert further calamity. It is not too late for the working class to take the initiative to turn the tide of this pandemic. According to the Worldometer COVID tracker, on February 20, 2021, the United States reported 28,706,473 cases of COVID-19 with 509,875 deaths. There are almost ten million active cases. Using back-of-the-envelope math, taking account of new cases and deaths since January 1, 2021, and utilizing a lag in deaths of two to four weeks, the crude case fatality rate for the winter surge was estimated at around 1.5 percent of all confirmed cases of COVID. This implies that based on present active case estimates, an additional 150,000 deaths may be forthcoming. When health care systems can function at standard capacities, there is an improvement in outcomes, which would help reduce this estimate. Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 have been on the decline since their January peaks. Yet, as the new B.1.1.7 strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is rapidly dominating previous versions, the present retreat in infections will slow in the next few weeks only to be followed by a massive wave unrivaled by previous surges. Some are describing the rapid transmission with this new strain as a second pandemic.

More than half a million dead of COVID-19 -- The U.S. has surpassed 500,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, even as case numbers trend downward and vaccination efforts proceed. The U.S. reached the half-million death milestone on Monday, the highest of any country, a little more than a year after the first American is believed to have died from the virus in Santa Clara County, Calif. The true toll of the coronavirus pandemic, however, is likely far higher, as federal figures maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show excess mortality well above what might be otherwise assumed for a typical year. “It's something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it's true," Fauci said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" the day before the U.S. officially crossed the 500,000 threshold. "This is a devastating pandemic, and it's historic. People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now.” The burden caused by the coronavirus has proven deadlier than what even some of the most pessimistic estimates suggested. COVID-19 has killed nearly 50 percent more people in the United States than the number of people who died from influenza over the entirety of the past decade — a number roughly equal to the population of Atlanta or Kansas City, Mo. The news comes as other trends in the U.S. are more hopeful, including cases dropping over 40 percent in the past two weeks and more than 70 percent since January, according to The New York Times. Daily positive tests are at their lowest rate since late October. Death rates are also beginning to slow. The nation has made tremendous progress in recent weeks in curbing a winter tsunami of new cases, though an average of 71,000 Americans still tested positive for the virus every day last week, a rate still well above the summer and spring peaks. In the last week, an average of 1,850 people died of the virus every day. Hospitalizations have fallen over 50 percent since January, with a total of 62,000 reported around the country as of Thursday, according to the Times. A stunning breakthrough in developing two vaccines that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and several more that will soon seek authorization for emergency use, has contributed in part to the decline in cases, though health experts cautioned that the country — and the world — still has a long way to go before the virus will come under control.

Coronavirus dashboard for February 23: vaccinations start to have a dramatic effect

  • Total US coronavirus deaths: 500,310
  • Total US confirmed infections: 28,190,159
  • Total US vaccinated (at least 1 dose): 44,138,118
  • Total US vaccinated (both doses): 19,438,495

The good news is, roughly 9.5% of the US population age 18 or over has received both doses of a vaccine. Over 20% has received at least one dose.The bad news is that we have reached the milestone of half a million dead. Further, probably at least 40,000,000 people have been infected, since many who have no or mild symptoms don’t ever get tested.Here’s the graph of the 7 day average of new infections and deaths for the US over the last 12 weeks:While there has been a decline of over 2/3’s in infections, and 40% in deaths, this only puts us even with the very worst levels of the summer outbreak.But there is increasingly dramatic evidence that the vaccines are having a real impact. Since the elderly in long term care facilities were the first to be vaccinated, that is where we would first expect to see an impact. And here it is, graphically:New infections have declined by nearly 90% in these facilities since vaccinations began, and are lower than they have been since at least 8 months ago.Here is a similar graph from one week ago, showing the percent of all coronavirus cases that arose from long term care facilities:The share of total cases declined by 50%. But since, over the same time span, *total* cases themselves declined 50%, that means that the total number of cases in long term care facilities declined by roughly 75%!The situation is similar in bellwether Israel, which has delivered doses equivalent to about 80% of its total population since December. Deaths are down over 60%:And when those who have been vaccinated are compared with those in similar situations who have not been vaccinated, the outcome is even more dramatic:The 7 day average of those who were vaccinated declined by about 2/3’s, while the decline among those not vaccinated was only 10%.There is simply no reasonable doubt that, as matters now stand, the vaccines are going to be very effective, probably by the Fourth of July, in nearly halting deaths due to the virus in the US - and that includes the new variant strains.

 COVID-19 vaccine shipments to states increasing by another million doses - The Biden administration said Tuesday that it’s upping the total number of COVID-19 vaccine doses sent to states each week — from 13.5 million doses to 14.5 million.  The White House’s COVID-19 task force made the announcement on Twitter.  The increased vaccine supply comes a week afterthe White House announced it was boosting the number of weekly doses being shipped out from 11 million to 13.5 million. So far, the US has distributed more than 82 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.  But the vaccine rollout was plagued by shipping problems last week as winter storms across the US created delays.  Officials have said that vaccine shipments should be back on track by the middle of the week.  “It’s unfortunate that it was a setback, but it’s a temporary setback, and when you just, you know, put your foot to the accelerator and really push, we’ll get it up to where we need to be by the middle of the week,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

February 25 COVID-19 Test Results and Vaccinations -  NOTE: The Covid Tracking Project will end daily updates on March 7th.  From Bloomberg on vaccinations as of Feb 25th.   "In the U.S., more Americans have now received at least one dose than have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. So far, 68.3 million doses have been given. In the last week, an average of 1.31 million doses per day were administered." Here is the CDC COVID Data Tracker. This site has data on vaccinations, cases and more. The US is averaged 1.45 million tests per day over the last week.  The percent positive over the last 7 days was 4.7%.  Based on the experience of other countries, for adequate test-and-trace (and isolation) to reduce infections, the percent positive needs to below 1%, so the US has far too many daily cases - and percent positive - to do effective test-and-trace. There were 1,837,743 test results reported over the last 24 hours. There were 75,565 positive tests. Over 66,000 US deaths have been reported in February. See the graph on US Daily Deaths here. This data is from the COVID Tracking Project. And check out COVID Act Now to see how each state is doing. (updated link to new site)  This graph shows the 7 day average of positive tests reported and daily hospitalizations.  The dashed line is the post-summer surge low for hospitalizations.

California's coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous - A coronavirus variant that emerged in mid-2020 and surged to become the dominant strain in California not only spreads more readily than its predecessors, but also evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection and is associated with severe illness and death, researchers said. In a study that helps explain the state’s dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths — and portends further trouble ahead — scientists at UC San Francisco said the cluster of mutations that characterizes the homegrown strain should mark it as a “variant of concern” on par with those from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. “The devil is already here,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, who led the UCSF team of geneticists, epidemiologists, statisticians and other scientists in a wide-ranging analysis of the new variant, which they call B.1.427/B.1.429. “I wish it were different. But the science is the science.” Californians, along with the rest of the country, have been bracing for the rise of a more transmissible coronavirus variant from the U.K. known as B.1.1.7. But they should know that a rival strain that is probably just as worrisome has already settled in, and will probably account for 90% of the state’s infections by the end of next month, said Chiu, an infectious diseases researcher and physician. The U.K. and California variants are each armed with enhanced capabilities, and the likelihood that they could circulate in the same population raises the specter of a return to spiking infections and deaths, Chiu said. It also opens the door to a “nightmare scenario”: That the two viruses will meet in a single person, swap their mutations, and create an even more dangerous strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The new evidence that the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective, should spur more intensive efforts to drive down infections, Chiu said. Those should include both public health measures, such as masking and limits on public activities, and a campaign of rapid vaccinations, he added. The new analysis is currently under review by the public health departments of San Francisco County and the state, which collaborated in the new research. It is expected to post late this week to MedRxiv, a website that allows new research to be shared before its formal publication. Over five months starting on Sept. 1, the California strain, which is sometimes referred to as 20C/L452R, rose from complete obscurity to account for more than 50% of all coronavirus samples that were subjected to genetic analysis in the state. Compared with strains that were most prominent here in early fall, the new strain seems to have an enhanced ability to spread, Chiu said. Exactly how much more transmissible the California strain is remains an open question, he added. But the evidence that it’s more contagious comes from several sources. Samples collected from a range of counties, and using a variety of collection methods, suggest the variant is 19% to 24% more transmissible. But in some circumstances, its advantage was much greater: In one nursing home outbreak, B.1.427/B.1.429 spread at a rate that was six times higher than its predecessors.

The dominant variant of the coronavirus in California has acquired dangerous mutations - Scientists have recently reported that a new variant from California has become the dominant lineage in that state. In a review of their database, they had first identified it in the early part of last summer, laying dormant until the winter surge propelled it rapidly throughout the state. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), this particular variant grew from 0 percent in September to 50 percent in late January. This new variant has also been detected in many other US states and has reached places as far as the UK, Singapore, and Australia. It possesses mutations in its spike protein that appear to make it not only more transmissible but also helps it to evade antibodies generated by the COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists have designated the new mutation as the CAL.20C variant spanning the B.1.427 and B.1.429 lineages. It is associated with a mutation in its receptor-binding domain called L452R. Dr. Charles Chiu is the senior author of a study documenting the rise of the CAL.20C variant among 8,000 residents of the Mission District in San Francisco, and first detected the variant on December 31. He told the press, “This variant is concerning because our data shows that it is more contagious, more likely to be associated with severe illness, and at least partially resistant to neutralizing antibodies. … The devil is already here. I wish it were different. But the science is the science.” Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Chiu indicated that it would be imperative to drive down infections as much as possible while rapidly moving to vaccinate the population. This assessment was echoed by Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a Georgetown University virologist, who stated, “The [UCSF] findings warrant taking a much closer look at this variant. … They underscore the importance of pulling out all the stops in terms of both exposure reduction and increased vaccine distribution and access.” In a review of 324 people with COVID-19 treated at UCSF clinics or its medical centers, after adjusting for various confounding variables, such as age, gender, and race, those infected with the CAL.20C variant were almost five times more likely to need ICU admission and 11 times more likely to die. Analysis from nasal swabs also demonstrated that patients with CAL.20C carry twice the viral load. Additionally, during in vivo studies, the variant was four times less susceptible to antibodies from previously infected individuals and two times less susceptible to antibodies obtained from people vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

California’s super-Covid variant is up to 11 TIMES more deadly, scientists warn -- A COVID-19 variant discovered in California is up to 11 times more deadly than other strains already in circulation, experts have warned. The variant could weaken vaccine efficacy and scientists labelled the strain as “the devil” after their alarming discoveries. The variant is called B.1.427/B.1.429 and was first spotted in California this winter. It hasn’t been detected in the UK, but has been found in Australia, Denmark, Mexico and Taiwan. As with any new variant, it contains new mutations which scientists were aware could give it an edge over the “original” strain of the virus.They have been studying it closely with the first findings - which are not published in a peer-reviewed journal - causing concern.Researchers analysed 2,172 virus samples collected in California between September 2020 and January 2021.During this time, the variant had surged to become the more dominant strain, with cases caused by it doubling every 18 days, the New York Times reported.The paper said lab studies found that the variant was “at least 40 per cent more effective at infecting human cells” compared with earlier strains.This is likely based on lab experiments which looks at how the coronavirus latches on to human cells. As well as this, the swabs of people who tested positive for the strain had twice the level of viral particles - otherwise known as viral load - in their throat or nose.Together, these findings suggest that the Californian strain has the ability to spread between people easier. Study lead author Dr Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the LA Times: “The devil is already here.

Coronavirus US: are current vaccines effective against the Californian strain? - Covid-19 variants coming from the UK, Brazil and South Africa have been getting all the attention while there has been a concerning strain quietly developing and spreading on home soil, in California. The new variant, which scientists refer to as B.1.427/B.1.429, which came on the radar in September 2020 is thought to spread more quickly than others. According to a limited but worrying new study there are now concerns that it could be better at dodging antibodies created by previous infection or a vaccine, and may cause more serious illness. Experts believe the California variant likely emerged in the state in May. By the end of next month, the homegrown strain will probably account for 90% of the state’s coronavirus infections, said Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease researcher.   It's still too early to say for sure whether the Golden State strain will evade vaccines, scientists are still monitoring the situation closely. But back in January, Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at University of California, San Francisco said that there’s concern about the covid-19 vaccine’s efficacy against the variant. “The data is preliminary, but it basically does raise the concern that there may be some impact on the vaccine.” As we reported previously, with regards to the covid variant discovered in the UK research didn't show cause for concern that the vaccines could be evaded by the new mutation. In addition, both Pfizer and Moderna have carried out early lab tests on the efficacy of their existing vaccines on the new UK and South African variants. Both companies found that their current vaccines are almost equally as effective on the new UK strain as they are against earlier variants upon which they were developed. However, both vaccines were found to offer slightly less protection against the South African variant. On Friday, a Johnson & Johnson single shot vaccine was recommended by the FDA advisory panel, paving the way for the latest vaccine success story to be granted emergency use authorisation next week, little is known about how this vaccine would fare against the variant discovered in the Golden State but it's another shot at success.   Virus mutations in general are nothing unusual or particularly concerning. Most viruses mutate quickly, accumulating changes in their biology as they replicate. Copying genetic code perfectly is hard and when you multiply as many times as a virus does, you pick up a lot of errors also known as mutations. Those mutations allow viruses to adapt quickly to changes in their host environment. Most mutations actually scupper a virus’ effectiveness in making us sick, some are neutral and others will even help it spread. By July 2020 over 12,000 mutant versions of covid-19 had been identified, according to the New Scientist, though there will be tens of thousands more versions that differ by just a single mutation. Overall any two covid-19 coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-2) will only differ by fewer than 30 mutations and are considered as belonging to the same strain.

A New Coronavirus Variant Is Spreading in New York, Researchers Report – NY Times - A new form of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in New York City, and it carries a worrisome mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines, two teams of researchers have found.The new variant, called B.1.526, first appeared in samples collected in the city in November. By the middle of this month, it accounted for about one in four viral sequences appearing in a database shared by scientists.One study of the new variant, led by a group at Caltech, was posted online on Tuesday. The other, by researchers at Columbia University, was published on Thursday morning.Neither study has been vetted by peer review nor published in a scientific journal. But the consistent results suggest that the variant’s spread is real, experts said.“It’s not particularly happy news,” “But just knowing about it is good because then we can perhaps do something about it.”Dr. Nussenzweig said he was more worried about the variant in New York than the one quickly spreading in California. Yet another contagious new variant, discovered in Britain, now accounts for about 2,000 cases in 45 states. It is expected to become the most prevalent form of the coronavirus in the United States by the end of March.Researchers have been scrutinizing the genetic material of the virus to see how it might be changing. They examine genetic sequences of virus taken from a small proportion of infected people to chart the emergence of new versions. The Caltech researchers discovered the rise in B.1.526 by scanning for mutations in hundreds of thousands of viral genetic sequences in a database called GISAID. “There was a pattern that was recurring, and a group of isolates concentrated in the New York region that I hadn’t seen,” said Anthony West, a computational biologist at Caltech.He and his colleagues found two versions of the coronavirus increasing in frequency: one with the E484K mutation seen in South Africa and Brazil, which is thought to help the virus partially dodge the vaccines; and another with a mutation called S477N, which may affect how tightly the virus binds to human cells. By mid-February, the two together accounted for about 27 percent of New York City viral sequences deposited into the database, Dr. West said. (For the moment, both are grouped together as B.1.526.)

New coronavirus variant in NYC has vaccine-evading mutation  --A new coronavirus variant with concerning mutations is on the rise in New York City, according to news reports.This latest coronavirus variant, dubbed B.1.526, first emerged in New York in November 2020, and it now accounts for about 25% of coronavirus genomes that were sequenced from New York in February and posted to a global database called GISAID, according to The New York Times.Researchers at the California Institute of Technology identified B.1.526 after looking through that database for mutations in the virus's spike protein, or the structure that allows the virus to bind to and enter human cells. The researchers have posted their findings, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, to the preprint database bioRxiv.Two "branches" or versions of the B.1.526 lineage exist, both with worrisome mutations. One branch has a mutation called E484K, which has also been seen in other coronavirus variants, including those identified in South Africa and Brazil. This mutation may reduce the ability of certain antibodies to neutralize, or inactivate, the virus, and may help the coronavirus partially evade COVID-19 vaccines, Live Science previously reported. The other branch has a mutation called S477N, which may help the virus bind more tightly to cells, the Times reported. Separately, researchers from Columbia University also identified the B.1.526 variant when they sequenced more than 1,100 virus samples from patients with COVID-19 at their hospital. They found that the percentage of patients infected with the version of B.1.526 with the E484K mutation had increased quite rapidly in recent weeks, and it now infects 12% of their patients."We find the rate of detection of this new variant is going up over the past few weeks. A concern is that it might be beginning to overtake other strains, just like the U.K. and South African variants" did in those countries, Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University who led the Colubmia study, told CNN. However, Ho added that more research is needed to determine if B.1.526 is winning out over other variants. "Given the involvement of E484K or S477N [mutations], combined with the fact that the New York region has a lot of standing immunity [to earlier coronavirus strains] from the spring wave, this is definitely one to watch," Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, told the Times.

Mutant coronavirus variants are a growing threat - While emerging coronavirus variants remain a threat, health experts said they are hopeful that rising vaccination rates and continued wearing of masks can blunt the potential for a new wave. There are indeed concerns about whether the immunity offered by vaccines will be less effective against some coronavirus variants, including the strain first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, and the homegrown California strain, B.1.427/B.1.429. Researchers at UC San Francisco said that in lab tests, the California strain was more resistant to the effects of neutralizing antibodies that are generated by the immune system in response to COVID-19 vaccines or by a previous coronavirus infection. Compared with other variants, the protection provided by the antibodies was reduced by a “moderate ... but significant” amount, the UCSF researchers said. When the neutralizing antibodies went up against the homegrown strain, their effectiveness was cut in half. By comparison, when these antibodies encountered the coronavirus strain that’s now dominant in South Africa, their effectiveness was reduced to one-sixth of their usual levels. Vaccine makers have begun working on booster shots that would be a better match for the new variants. But researchers say that the vaccines are still quite good and remain our best bet for being protected against the virus. Doctors urge people to get the shots as soon as they’re eligible. The vaccination campaigns are an important contributor to the continuing decline in daily coronavirus cases, and that trend is gratifying, Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of the San Diego County epidemiology department, said this week. McDonald said that even if the California strain “is a little more contagious than the other ones that are circulating in the community, the take-home message is the same: that you need to do all the things that we’ve recommended to prevent transmission — so, wearing masks, social distancing, staying at home.” “We couldn’t say it in stronger terms: We think it is a mistake to take our foot off the gas too early, especially when we are accelerating our vaccination efforts right now,” said Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team.

CDC director: Covid variants could 'undermine all of our efforts' - New, highly transmissible Covid-19 variants "stand to reverse" the nation's control of the pandemic and could "undermine all of our efforts" against the disease if the virus is left to proliferate in different parts of the globe, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. Top U.S. health officials have warned in recent weeks that the emergence of highly contagious variants, particularly the B.1.1.7 strain that emerged in the U.K., could reverse the current downward trajectory in infections in the U.S. and delay the nation's recovery from the pandemic. The problem isn't isolated to the United States. As the coronavirus spreads, it makes huge numbers of copies of itself, and each version is a little different from the one before it, experts say. As more people become infected, the more likely it is that problematic mutations will arise. "Even if you were not necessarily leaning towards wanting to be part of the global health effort, we need to because all of the efforts that we're doing, that we are moving forward here in this nation, could be potentially undermined in a heartbeat from these variants emerging," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told the National Academy of Medicine and the American Public Health Association on Wednesday. Scientists aren't surprised by the emergence of the variants and have reiterated that the currently available vaccines should still work against them, though they might not be as effective as they are against the original "wild" strain. Moderna said on Wednesday that it shipped doses of a booster shot that specifically targets the variant spreading in South Africa, known as the B.1.351 strain, to the National Institutes of Health. "We know this virus knows no geographic borders and addressing this reality is more pressing than ever before, given the rapid proliferation of Covid-19 variants that stand to reverse the progress that has been made to control this pandemic," Walensky said. The U.S. is reporting a weekly average of roughly 71,562 new Covid-19 cases per day, a 12% decline compared with a week ago and a significant drop from when average new cases in the U.S. peaked at close to 250,000 cases per day in early January, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. While not every country is reporting similar declines, global Covid-19 cases in the U.S. have dropped for six consecutive weeks as of Sunday, according to the World Health Organization's latest situation report published on Tuesday. The decline is welcome news as countries race to administer their initial doses of Covid-19 vaccines. While some nations have been administering vaccines since December, however, some are just beginning to receive their initial shots. The first shipment of vaccines delivered through the World Health Organization's COVAX program arrived in Ghana on Wednesday. Some experts have previously said equitable vaccine distribution may be too late since wealthier nations have made their own deals with vaccine manufacturers, claiming their initial supply of doses. "The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of how interconnected we are as a global community," Walensky said.

 Scientists say clinical trials for ‘variant-proof’ vaccines could start very soon -Scientists are developing a range of second-generation Covid vaccines aimed at expanding protection against the disease.Candidates include one version that could provide immune defence against many different virus variants, while other researchers are investigating vaccines that would generate responses aimed specifically at blocking transmission of the disease.Other projects include research into the creation of multiple vaccines that could each tackle different virus strains but would be administered as a single jab in a manner similar to annual flu jabs, which currently combine four vaccines against different strains of the influenza virus. At present, Covid vaccines are designed to stop infected people becoming seriously ill, to prevent hospitalisations and deaths. It is not known yet how effective they are at blocking viruses passing from person to another.“There is no indication that any of the new virus variants that have appeared recently are causing more severe disease than the original virus,” said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at Nottingham University. “However, there is evidence that some of these new variants may be better at infecting and therefore spreading in populations that have existing partial immunity following natural infection or vaccination.”One possible solution is a vaccine – now under development by a team of scientists including Ball – that targets not just the spike protein on the surface of the Covid virus but also another part of the virus, called the N protein.“Hopefully this should result in much wider response from immune systems and so provide a much broader immunity to the virus,” Ball told the Observer. “And given what we know now about the emergence of Covid virus variants, that could help us strengthen protection against the disease,” he added.

Unprotected African health workers die as rich countries buy up COVID-19 vaccines - On 6 January, gastroenterologist Leolin Katsidzira received a troubling message from his colleague James Gita Hakim, a heart specialist and noted HIV/AIDS researcher. Hakim, chair of the department of medicine at the University of Zimbabwe, had fallen sick and had tested positive for COVID-19. He was admitted to a hospital in Harare 10 days later and moved to an intensive care unit (ICU) after his condition deteriorated. He died on 26 January. It is a crushing loss to Zimbabwean medicine, Katsidzira says. “Don’t forget: We have had a huge brain drain. So people like James are people who keep the system going,” he adds. Scientists around the world mourned Hakim as well. He was “a unique research leader, a brilliant clinical scientist and mentor, humble, welcoming and empowering,” wrote Melanie Abas, a collaborator at King’s College London. But Hakim’s death also highlights a stark reality in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. Countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas have administered more than 175 million shots to protect people against COVID-19 since December 2020, with most countries giving priority to medical workers. But not a single country in sub-Saharan Africa has started immunizations—South Africa will be the first, this week—leaving health care workers dying in places where they are scarce to begin with. The exact toll of COVID-19 among health workers is hard to gauge, but Hakim was one of several prominent doctors to succumb in recent weeks in Africa, which has suffered a second pandemic wave. Just 1 day before him, U.S. physician David Katzenstein, who had moved to Harare after his retirement and directed the Biomedical Research and Training Institute there, died from COVID-19 at the same hospital. “We don’t hear about a lot of the others who are laboring in the health care workforce behind them.” Neighboring Mozambique lost an anesthesiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a urologist in recent weeks, says parasitologist Emilia Noormahomed of Eduardo Mondlane University, as well as two young general care physicians. Several more are seriously ill. Such losses hit hard in Mozambique, which only has about eight doctors per 100,000 people, compared with almost 300 in the United States. “It will literally take an entire generation to rebuild” from such losses, says Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Japan Finds New COVID-19 Strain, While Immigration Centre Reports Infections -- JAPAN confirmed a new variant of COVID-19, and an infection cluster emerged at a Tokyo immigration facility, presenting new challenges as the country tries to overcome a third wave of the pandemic. The new variant has been found in 91 cases in the Kanto area of eastern Japan and in 2 cases at airports, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Friday. The government is raising surveillance against mutant varieties as they may be more resistant to vaccines, which Japan started to distribute this week. "It may be more contagious than conventional strains, and if it continues to spread domestically, it could lead to a rapid rise in cases," Kato said. The new strain appears to have originated overseas but is different from other types that have been found sporadically in Japan, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It has the E484K mutation on the spike protein of the virus that has been found in other variants, which may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines. Japan has reported 151 cases of variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil, according to the health ministry. The nation has had more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 with 7,194 fatalities. Meanwhile, 5 staff and 39 foreign detainees at a Tokyo immigration facility have tested positive for COVID-19. All 130 detainees at the facility have been tested for the virus, according to a spokesperson for the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. None of the cases is serious, and all infected detainees remain quarantined from others. The representative declined to comment on the nationality of the infected detainees, citing privacy concerns.

 New Mutant COVID Strain Discovered In Finland Which May Evade Tests -- Hospital officials in Finland are grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the spread of new and more contagious strains spread throughout the country - including one new variant which may not show up on tests, according to theHelsinki Times.According to Veli-Matti Ulander, the chief administrator for the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS), the number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled in one week - forcing the transfer of patients to other parts oft he country, as an "attempt to try to spread out the burden placed by the coronavirus on HUS," Ulander told Finnish media. Chief HUS physician Asko Järvinen added that pressure to transfer patients comes primarily from staffing shortages.The new strain, discovered by the Helsinki-based Vita Laboratories, is unlikely to have emerged in Finland given the country's low rate of infection, according to the Evening Standard, however it is unclear whether it's any more infectious - or deadly - than other strains currently in circulation."Vita Laboratoriot Oy and the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki have detected a previously unknown variant of the coronavirus in a sample from southern Finland," said the lab, which named the new strain Fin-769H. "Mutations in this variant make it difficult to detect in at least one of the WHO-recommended PCR tests. This discovery could have a significant impact on determining the spread of the disease."Since the mutant strain was only discovered last week, it's unclear what impact it's having on the country's outbreak, though the timing is certainly curious."The variant was discovered in a patient last week, so details about the infectivity and potential resistance of this strain to vaccines are not yet known," said Taru Meri, a researcher at Vita Laboratories. Finland has bucked the trend of falling COVID cases globally. Instead, the country has seen daily numbers remain steady since the start of the new year.

800,000 COVID-19 deaths in Europe: capitalism, social murder and the case for socialism - Yesterday, the official death toll from the coronavirus pandemic across Europe surpassed 800,000. Death on this scale is so massive a blow to society that it is difficult to comprehend. It is as if the cities of Frankfurt (753,056) or Amsterdam (821,752) had been wiped off the map. The loss of life has surpassed the total casualties at the battle of Verdun in World War I, and the number of soldiers killed in the gigantic 1941 battle of Moscow during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. One in 529 people has died of COVID-19 in Belgium, one in 545 in the Czech Republic, one in 558 in Britain, one in 625 in Italy, one in 630 in Portugal, and one in 646 in Bosnia. As deaths surge and births collapse, life expectancy has fallen in Western Europe for the first time since World War II: 1.5 years in Italy, one year in Spain and Britain, and half a year in Sweden and France. Tens of millions in Europe have lost loved ones. By last month, 63 percent of Spaniards, 59 percent of Poles, 58 percent of Italians, 57 percent of Britons and Swedes, 51 percent of Frenchmen and 34 percent of Germans had at least one relative or close friend test positive. Fully 19 percent in Spain and Poland, 21 percent in Italy, 13 percent in Britain, 11 percent in France, 10 percent in Sweden and 8 percent in Germany, saw a relative or close friend die. Tens of millions of workers lost their jobs as the economy fell by 11 percent in Spain, 10 percent in Britain, 9 percent in Italy, 8 percent in France, 5 percent in Germany, and 3 percent in Poland and Russia. Restaurants, theaters, gyms and other small businesses are unsure when or even if they will ever be able to reopen normally. Students who have lost part-time jobs are lining up to receive food and basic supplies from charities or other associations. The pandemic is not only a tragedy, but a comprehensive failure of the social order. A ruling class utterly indifferent to human life is carrying out policies that amount, as the prestigious BMJ (British Medical Journal) recently wrote, to “social murder.” Today, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 stands at 33.5 million, or about 5 percent of Europe’s population. Every day, 100,000 people or more test positive, and deadlier variants of the virus spread further. The Czech Republic recently appealed for international aid, with its hospitals overwhelmed, and expected to be swamped in two to three weeks. It received only one reply, from Berlin, offering to take just nine patients. Yet amid warnings from scientists that a new upsurge of cases due to the variants is inevitable unless drastic action is taken, capitalist governments across Europe are rejecting shelter-at-home orders and moving to eliminate remaining social distancing measures. … Mass spread of the virus is not inevitable. By following medical professionals’ calls for strict contact tracing and shelter-at-home orders, a few countries like China, Taiwan and Vietnam dramatically limited the contagion. In Europe, however, political representatives of the financial aristocracy needlessly condemned hundreds of thousands to death.

 Brazil reaches a quarter of a million COVID-19 deaths - With 1,390 new deaths recorded on Wednesday, Brazil surpassed the milestone of 250,000 deaths from COVID-19, one day after reaching 10 million infections. This abominable number represents 10 percent of all coronavirus deaths on the planet, in a country that does not even constitute 3 percent of the world’s population. This week also marks one year since the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Brazil, on February 26, 2020. After this long period of suffering and hardship imposed upon the Brazilian working masses, the pandemic remains totally out of control, with thousands of lives being lost every day and various parts of the country being pushed to the limit. The northern region of Brazil as a whole has suffered a severe impact in recent months. Amazonas, whose capital Manaus had a health care collapse in January, has already recorded more COVID-19 deaths in the first 54 days of this year than during all of 2020. The number of hospital admissions in the state remains high, and hundreds of patients in serious condition await an ICU bed. This week, shocking images were released of a hospital in the city of Parintins where intubated patients are being strapped to their stretchers for lack of sufficient sedatives. The neighboring state of Acre declared a state of public calamity on Monday. The state is facing the catastrophic combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of dengue fever, and floods that have already affected 130,000 people in 10 of the state’s municipalities, including the capital. Hospitals are on the verge of collapse, and a record 621 new cases were recorded on Tuesday. The right-wing governor Gladson Cameli, of the Progressive Party (PP), said he only has resources for the next three months and compared the situation to a “third world war.” It is highly likely that the more contagious P.1 variant of COVID-19, originally discovered in Manaus, is circulating in Acre, which received patients after the hospitals collapsed in the neighboring state. The Brazilian Ministry of Health said on Tuesday that cases of this new variant have already been reported in 17 states in all five regions of the country. In the southeast region, the São Paulo government of Governor João Doria, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), has decreed a so-called “restrictive curfew” to allegedly limit the circulation of people between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., which will go into effect next Friday. The state, which has seen more than 58,000 deaths and nearly 2 million confirmed cases, registered its highest number of ICU patients this week. The situation is especially devastating in municipalities in the countryside of São Paulo. Last Sunday, Araraquara declared a lockdown, which was followed by smaller municipalities in the region. With cases of community transmission of the P.1 variant of COVID-19, the city reached maximum capacity in its hospitals last Tuesday. Other cities like Campinas, with more than a million inhabitants, have also reached maximum capacity of its ICU beds, and the cities of the industrial ABC region are approaching the same level. The brutal conditions faced in the Amazonian hospitals are being reenacted in São Paulo. This was underscored this week by the resignation of 15 of the 24 resident doctors at the Pimentas Bonsucesso Municipal Hospital, in Guarulhos, in the Greater São Paulo region, in protest over the lack of medications and the precarious conditions of the medical unit. According to one of the residents, interviewed by the newspaper Agora, “The situation really got worse at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, because there was no way to replace the medications, which were in short supply.” The same doctor reports that, as in the hospital at Parintins, there is a lack of sedatives for intubated patients: “This doesn’t allow them to relax, preventing the equipment [ventilators] from working effectively. I witnessed a [COVID-19] patient die by biting the hose [that takes oxygen to the lung], because the intubation was not working, due to the fact that he was conscious.”

‘Aggressive measures needed’: India discovers 240 new, possibly more infectious Covid-19 strains RT -A whopping 240 mutated coronavirus strains have been discovered across India, health officials have said, warning that some of them may potentially be more infectious, and may even be capable of evading immune response altogether. The new Covid-19 strains are likely behind the sudden spike of new cases in several Indian states, including Maharashtra – the second most populous state housing the city of Mumbai – a member of the regional Covid-19 task force, Shahshank Joshi, told NDTV. He added that a total of around 240 new virus variants have been discovered across the country. Some of the new variants could be highly transmissible or potentially more dangerous, Randeep Guleria, the head of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and also a member of the Maharashtra task force, has warned. Some virus strains have an immunity “escape mechanism” that could cause re-infection in people who already developed anti-bodies to Covid-19 through battling the disease or getting a vaccine, he told the Indian broadcaster. The pulmonologist said that vaccination is still a “must” since, even if the jab would not prevent re-infection, it could still make the symptoms much milder. But vaccination alone is not enough, Guleria said, adding that “aggressive measures of testing, contact tracing and isolating infections” are needed as well. Joshi, meanwhile, suggested promoting “double masking” – wearing two face masks at once – and creating certain micro-containment zones to stem the spread of the infection. Their words come as several districts in Maharashtra are about to enter a strict week-long lockdown starting Monday, following a spike in new cases. The state reported 6,971 fresh cases and 35 Covid-related deaths on Sunday. Earlier on Sunday, the state’s social welfare minister, Vijay Wadettiwar, said he was considering a night curfew in all areas declared virus hotspots.

How Safe Is Your Baby Food? Here’s What You Need to Know About Arsenic, Lead and Other Heavy Metals -- Heavy metals including lead, arsenic and mercury can be found in commercial baby foods at levels well above what the federal government considers safe for children, a new congressional report warns. Members of Congress asked seven major baby food makers to hand over test results and other internal documents after a 2019 report found that, out of 168 baby food products, 95% contained at least one heavy metal. Foods with rice or root vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, had some of the highest levels, but they weren't the only ones.   I have investigated health safety concerns for several years in drugs and dietary supplements, including contamination with heavy metals and the chemical NDMA, a likely carcinogen.   Heavy metals come from the natural erosion of the earth's crust, but humans have dramatically accelerated environmental exposure to heavy metals, as well.  As coal is burned, it releases heavy metals into the air. Lead was commonly found in gasoline, paint, pipes and pottery glazes for decades. A pesticide with both lead and arsenic was widely used on crops and in orchards until it was banned in 1988, and phosphate-containing fertilizers, including organic varieties, still contain small amounts of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. These heavy metals still contaminate soil, and irrigation can expose more soil to heavy metals in water.  When food is grown in contaminated soil and irrigated with water containing heavy metals, the food becomes contaminated. Additional heavy metals can be introduced during manufacturing processes. The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have defined tolerable daily intakes of heavy metals. However, it's important to recognize that for many heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, there is no daily intake that is completely devoid of long-term health risk.

Falling sperm counts 'threaten human survival', expert warns  --Falling sperm counts and changes to sexual development are “threatening human survival” and leading to a fertility crisis, a leading epidemiologist has warned. Writing in a new book, Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, warns that the impending fertility crisis poses a global threat comparable to that of the climate crisis. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival,” she writes in Count Down. It comes after a study she co-authored in 2017 found that sperm counts in the west had plummeted by 59% between 1973 and 2011, making headlines globally. Now, Swan says, following current projections, the median sperm count is set to reach zero in 2045. “That’s a little concerning, to say the least,” she toldAxios. In the book, Swan and co-author Stacey Colino explore how modern life is threatening sperm counts, changing male and female reproductive development and endangering human life. It points to lifestyle and chemical exposures that are changing and threatening human sexual development and fertility. Such is the gravity of the threats they pose, she argues, that humans could become an endangered species.“Of five possible criteria for what makes a species endangered,” Swan writes, “only one needs to be met; the current state of affairs for humans meets at least three.”Between 1964 and 2018 the global fertility rate fell from 5.06 births per woman to 2.4. Now approximately half the world’s countries have fertility rates below 2.1, the population replacement level.While contraception, cultural shifts and the cost of having children are likely to be contributing factors, Swan warns of indicators that suggest there are also biological reasons – including increasing miscarriage rates, more genital abnormalities among boys and earlier puberty for girls.Swan blames “everywhere chemicals”, found in plastics, cosmetics and pesticides, that affect endocrines such as phthalates and bisphenol-A. “Chemicals in our environment and unhealthy lifestyle practices in our modern world are disrupting our hormonal balance, causing various degrees of reproductive havoc,” she writes.

Use of Disinfectants Has Soared, Sparking New Examination of Ingredients - Disinfectant use has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic as people try to keep their hands and surfaces clean. But one family of cleaning chemicals is receiving scrutiny for potential health concerns.Quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, are charged molecules that can kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Quats are effective disinfectants, but some researchers are raising alarm given recent research on the compounds' possible human health and environmental effects, including fertility issues, endocrine disruption, occupational asthma, marine toxicity, and potential to spur antibiotic-resistant bacteria.And, while industry defends quats as safe, some states are taking notice and looking into regulations.The pandemic has increased demand for products like Lysol wipes that use quats as active ingredients: sales of Lysol wipes were up nearly 50 percent in spring of 2020 compared to 2019. Other cleaning products are also in high demand — aerosol disinfectant sales as a whole have doubled in 2020 in the U.S., a large fraction of which also contain quats.All those additional sales mean quats are becoming more present in the environment. "We're in an era now where the concentration [of quats] is certainly higher than ever before," William Arnold, an environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota, told EHN. He published a paper in June that revealed an increased load of quats may be ending up in wastewater plants, with some worrisome implications. Quats can end up in wastewater plants after they're flushed down the drain — at the levels of use during the pandemic, some plants can't keep up, so quats have the potential to pollute waterways. There, they might disrupt marine food chains, as quats have been found to be toxic to small invertebrates like plankton in lakes. The ingredients also may be spurring antibiotic-resistant germs, Arnold said.

New Data Show Higher Rates of Contamination in Pork Plants Under New Slaughter System -- New data released Friday revealed pigs slaughtered at plants piloting a controversial new system—which speeds production while replacing many government inspectors with slaughterhouse employees—had much higher rates of fecal and digestive matter contamination than animals processed in other plants, information that the Trump administration hid from the public while expanding the system. The consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch said in a statement that from 2014 to 2017, pork processing plants implementing the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) on a trial basis had, on average, "nearly double the violations than comparably sized plants outside the program" and "were almost twice as likely to be cited for contamination." According to Food & Water Watch, the plant's higher rates of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) violations were for the agency's FS-2 food safety standard for fecal matter, digestive contents, and milk.  "These substances can contain human pathogens, like potentially deadly Salmonella, which the agency has estimated is responsible for 69,000 people getting sick from eating pork each year," Food & Water Watch said. "Because of its seriousness, the agency has zero tolerance for FS-2 violations, meaning that no carcass contamination is acceptable." "This new data should end this argument once and for all: Meat companies should not be left to police themselves to protect consumers from dirty and dangerous pork products," said Zach Corrigan, a senior attorney for Food & Water Watch, in a statement Friday. The new revelations follow 2018 reporting—based on documents obtained by Food & Water Watch—that plants piloting the NSIS were "rife with food safety violations," including "fecal contamination, sanitation issues, and failure to remove diseased carcasses from the food chain."

Climate change threatens Pa.’s farmers. How growers treat their soil could help them adapt — and benefit the rest of us, too -Rain can be friend or foe to a farmer. It all depends on how much is falling. Record rainfall in 2018 caused problems for growers across Pennsylvania, and some were hit harder than others. At Allegro Winery in southern York County, grapes burst on the vines, leaving them vulnerable to disease. Owner Carl Helrich said a subsequent cold snap wiped out 3,000 vines. Helrich has been running the vineyard and winery for 20 years and said every year has different challenges. But now he’s noticing more freak weather. “Our little place here on the East Coast, we’re just seeing extreme events,” he said. “We’re seeing extreme cold which we never had before, extreme wet that we never had before.” Climate scientists say you can’t attribute any one weather event to climate change, but global warming is making extreme weather events more likely. Pennsylvania, itself a large emitter of greenhouse gases, is starting to see it in the form of heavier rain. The more sensitive parts of Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry are already under threat from climate change and growers are looking for ways to adapt. Some adaptation techniques focused on soil health also draw greenhouse gases from the air and trap them underground. That has some advocates — including the Biden Administration — looking to so-called “regenerative agriculture” as a big part of the climate solution. To farmers, the focus is less on trying to solve the climate crisis and more on keeping their businesses going.

Pesticide imidacloprid threatens future for key pollinator - An insecticide used to control pest infestations on squash and pumpkins significantly hinders the reproduction of ground-nesting bees -- valuable pollinators for many food crops, a new University of Guelph study has revealed. This first-ever study of pesticide impacts on a ground-nesting bee in a real-world context found female hoary squash bees exposed to imidacloprid dug 85 per cent fewer nests, collected less pollen from crop flowers and produced 89 per cent fewer offspring than unexposed bees. "Because they're not making nests and not collecting pollen, they cannot raise offspring," said Dr. Susan Willis Chan, a post-doc in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES), who conducted the study with Dr. Nigel Raine, holder of the Rebanks Family Chair in Pollinator Conservation in SES. "That means imidacloprid-exposed populations are going to decline." Neonicotinoids (or neonics) are neurotoxic insecticides that kill insects by attacking their nervous systems, affecting learning, foraging and navigation in many kinds of bees. Farmers use the neonic imidacloprid to control cucumber beetles, the most damaging crop pest for squash and pumpkins. Many species of ground-nesting bees, including the hoary squash bee, are responsible for pollination of numerous fruits, vegetables and oilseed crops in North America, said Chan. "Solitary ground-nesting bees make up about 70 per cent of bee species. It's a really important ecological group and is also really important in crop pollination," she said. However, these ground-dwellers are often overlooked when it comes to evaluating the impacts of pesticides on pollinators, she added.

U.S. Senate confirms Vilsack for a second stint as Agriculture Secretary; FL's U.S. senators opposed —The Senate on Tuesday in a 92-7 vote confirmed former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a second time. Vilsack, 70, also headed the $151 billion agency under the Obama administration, for eight years. But he has garnered criticism from Black and minority farmers for his treatment of them during his tenure. Civil rights leaders also criticized his mishandling of former USDA adviser Shirley Sherrod of Georgia, whom he wrongfully forced to resign. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, spoke in favor of Vilsack on the floor prior to the vote. “I know he’s very focused on tackling the climate crisis and has done a lot of work since leaving as secretary of Agriculture a few years ago to focus on voluntary, producer-led, farmer friendly efforts that can make a real difference and allow agriculture to lead in addressing the climate crisis,” the Michigan Democrat said. Senators who opposed Vilsack included Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, as well as Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent. 

Bernie Sanders Votes Against Biden's Choice for USDA Chief --Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.The Senate voted 92-7 to confirm Vilsack, with Sanders (I-Vt.) and six Republicans opposing his appointment. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the only member who did not vote.In a statement on his decision, Sanders first said that "I have known Tom Vilsack for many years and look forward to working with him as our new secretary of agriculture.""I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry," Sanders explained. "I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job."The Hill reports Sanders made similar remarks about Vilsack to journalists after the vote, saying that "I think he'll be fine, but not as strong as I would like."The progressive group RootsAction praised Sanders on Twitter for taking a stand against Biden's pick to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout also welcomed Sanders' move."This is the correct vote. Vilsack failed farmers, farmworkers, the land, and the public, and Shirley Sherrod," Teachout tweeted, referencing the former Georgia state director of rural development at USDA who was ousted under Vilsack. Sherrod, who is Black, recently told The 19th that "I have no ill will towards him, none at all," but added that if Vilsack returned as USDA chief, "he should be ready to get on the ground to make real change this time around. And we need to hold him to it. Black people need to see some real change." As Common Dreams previously reported, Vilsack has faced criticism for the USDA's treatment of Black farmers when he headed the department during the Obama administration—among other critiques. Early Tuesday, in anticipation of Vilsack's bipartisan confirmation, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter—whose group has been raising alarm about him for months now—issued a warning about what to expect going forward."We can confidently predict what Tom Vilsack's leadership of the Agriculture Department will look like, because he's led it before. And the prediction is grim," she said. "In his previous stint at USDA, Vilsack backed mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers. Similarly, he readily advanced industry-driven initiatives allowing companies to inspect their own poultry processing plants, dismantling federal oversight of food and worker safety."

 Air pollution puts children at higher risk of disease in adulthood -- Children exposed to air pollution, such as wildfire smoke and car exhaust, for as little as one day may be doomed to higher rates of heart disease and other ailments in adulthood, according to a new Stanford-led study. The analysis, published in Nature Scientific Reports, is the first of its kind to investigate air pollution's effects at the single cell level and to simultaneously focus on both the cardiovascular and immune systems in children. It confirms previous research that bad air can alter gene regulation in a way that may impact long-term health - a finding that could change the way medical experts and parents think about the air children breathe, and inform clinical interventions for those exposed to chronic elevated air pollution. "I think this is compelling enough for a pediatrician to say that we have evidence air pollution causes changes in the immune and cardiovascular system associated not only with asthma and respiratory diseases, as has been shown before," . "It looks like even brief air pollution exposure can actually change the regulation and expression of children's genes and perhaps alter blood pressure, potentially laying the foundation for increased risk of disease later in life." The researchers studied a predominantly Hispanic group of children ages 6-8 in Fresno, California, a city beset with some of the country's highest air pollution levels due to industrial agriculture and wildfires, among other sources. Using a combination of continuous daily pollutant concentrations measured at central air monitoring stations in Fresno, daily concentrations from periodic spatial sampling and meteorological and geophysical data, the study team estimated average air pollution exposures for 1 day, 1 week and 1, 3, 6 and 12 months prior to each participant visit. The researchers used a form of mass spectrometry to analyze immune system cells for the first time in a pollution study. The approach allowed for more sensitive measurements of up to 40 cell markers simultaneously, providing a more in-depth analysis of pollution exposure impacts than previously possible. Among their findings: Exposure to fine particulate known as PM2.5, carbon monoxide and ozone over time is linked to increased methylation, an alteration of DNA molecules that can change their activity without changing their sequence. This change in gene expression may be passed down to future generations. The researchers also found that air pollution exposure correlates with an increase in monocytes, white blood cells that play a key role in the buildup of plaques in arteries, and could possibly predispose children to heart disease in adulthood. Future studies are needed to verify the long-term implications.

Long-term exposure to low levels of air pollution increases risk of heart and lung disease --- Exposure to what is considered low levels of air pollution over a long period of time can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation and pneumonia among people ages 65 and older, according to new research published today in the American Heart Association's flagship journal Circulation. Air pollution can cause harm to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems due to its effect on inflammation in the heart and throughout the body. Newer studies on the impact of air pollution on health are focused on understanding the potential harm caused by long-term exposure and are researching the effects of multiple air pollutants simultaneously. "People should be conscious of the air quality in the region where they live to avoid harmful exposure over long periods of time, if possible," "Since our study found harmful effects at levels below current U.S. standards, air pollution should be considered as a risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease by clinicians, and policy makers should reconsider current standards for air pollutants." Researchers examined hospitalization records for more than 63 million Medicare enrollees in the contiguous Unites States from 2000 to 2016 to assess how long-term exposure to air pollution impacts hospital admissions for specific cardiovascular and respiratory issues. The study measured three components of air pollution: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3). Using hundreds of predictors, including meteorological values, satellite measurements and land use to estimate daily levels of pollutants, researchers calculated the study participants' exposure to the pollutants based upon their residential zip code. Additional analysis included the impact of the average yearly amounts of each of the pollutants on hospitalization rates for non-fatal heart attacks, ischemic strokes, atrial fibrillation and flutter, and pneumonia. Statistical analyses found thousands of hospital admissions were attributable to air pollution per year. Specifically: The risks for heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation and flutter, and pneumonia were associated with long-term exposure to particulate matter. Data also showed there were surges in hospital admissions for all of the health outcomes studied with each additional unit of increase in particulate matter. Specifically, stroke rates increased by 2,536 for each additional ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) increase in fine particulate matter each year. There was an increased risk of stroke and atrial fibrillation associated with long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Pneumonia was the only health outcome in the study that seemed impacted by long-term exposure to ozone; however, researchers note there are currently no national guidelines denoting safe or unsafe long-term ozone levels.

Plastic Burning Makes It Harder for New Delhi Residents to See, Study Suggests -India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing? To answer this question, scientists looked at the chemical composition of the region's smog and found that its density is likely linked to the burning of plastics. The specific chemicals released by this burning and other industrial processes are responsible for around 50 percent of the low visibility, the study authors wrote. The study, published in Nature Geoscience in late January, measured the chemical composition of the particulate matter in the cities of Delhi and Chennai. These are both cities in the Indo Gangetic Plain, a region blanketed in dense smog, particularly in December and January, a PTI story published by The Indian Express explained.  The researchers found that the smog in both cities, though particularly in Chennai, had high amounts of chloride. The researchers then looked at which chemicals also spiked along with the chloride, and found it matched what would be released by the burning of plastic, The Guardian explained. "We realised that despite absolute PM2.5 mass burden over Delhi being much less than other polluted megacities around the world, including Beijing, the pollution and atmospheric chemistry of Delhi is much more complex to understand,"  "This work put forward importance of measurements and modelling approaches to scientifically conclude that half of the water uptake and visibility reduction by aerosol particles around Delhi is caused by the hydrochloric acid (HCl) emissions, which is locally emitted in Delhi potentially due to plastic contained waste burning and other industrial processes."The low visibility is a deadly and costly problem for New Delhi, the study authors wrote. It increases car accidents and flight delays. Particulate matter in general caused 12,000 excess deaths in New Delhi in 2017, according to one estimate. But the burning of plastics poses other, unique risks, The Guardian explained. It can release highly toxic dioxins that contaminate the food chain and react with smog to increase levels of ground-level ozone, which have been linked to crop yield reductions of 20 to 30 percent.

Ohio Republicans’ bill would force state agencies to reduce their rule books Senate Bill 9 says agencies must cut their use of phrases including “must,” “shall,” “require” and “prohibit.”    Ohio Republicans are again pushing for arbitrary cuts in “regulatory restrictions” with a bill that, if enacted, could significantly weaken consumer, environmental, and public health protections.A similar bill died in December when the last legislative session ended without final votes after conference committee work. Sens. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, and Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, have resurrected the proposal this session asSenate Bill 9.The two lawmakers are chair and vice chair of the Ohio Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee, which has held three hearings on the bill so far. A fourth hearing is on the agenda for today’s committee meeting at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time.“SB 9 is an across-the-board 30% reduction of ‘regulatory restrictions’ without any concern over their impact on clean energy or our environment,” said Trent Dougherty, general counsel for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund. “Unless there are amendments to this bill, Ohioans could see a 30% increase in pollution, 30% reduction in quality of life for Ohio communities and 30% more roadblocks to our clean energy economy.”“I find this legislation deeply troubling,” said Sen. Hearcel Craig, a Democrat from Columbus and ranking minority member for the Ohio Senate committee. “This number was selected without any factual evidence that it would benefit Ohioans.” In Craig’s view, “Ohioans should be concerned with the increase in air pollution and the potential impacts this bill would have on our climate if this bill were to pass.” He likewise worries about the bill’s implications for social justice. Like earlier versions, SB 9 defines regulatory restrictions based on the use of words such as “shall,” “must,” “require” and “prohibit.” In addition to the bill’s percentage target, it would mandate that any new regulatory requirements could only be adopted if two other rules are cut. An agency likewise could not adopt any new rule if it would “cause the number of regulatory restrictions to exceed the state limit.” “This study did not look at the purpose of these regulations, including whether they set standards for food or building safety,” Craig said. Instead, the report counted how many times various words were used, including “shall,” “must” and so on. “Cutting regulations just because certain politicians think our laws include the word ‘must’ too many times is not good public policy,” he said.

ERCOT asked feds to pause federal environmental limits during winter storm - As last week’s historic winter storm was rolling across Texas, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, was asking the federal government to temporarily suspend environmental limits for several power producers. The request, signed by ERCOT CEO Bill Magness, asked for the U.S. Department of Energy to issue an emergency order and declare an “electric reliability emergency exists within the state of Texas that requires intervention by the Secretary.”The request was sent on Feb. 14 and asks the Acting Secretary of Energy, David Huizenga, to allow certain power plants to operate at maximum levels and be allowed to exceed federal limits on emissions and wastewater release until Feb. 19.“This duration will ensure additional supply is available during a period in which ERCOT may continue to experience unprecedented cold weather that has forced generation out of service,” the emergency request read. “In ERCOT’s judgment, the loss of power to homes and local businesses in the areas affected by curtailments presents a far greater risk to public health and safety than the temporary exceedances of those permit limits.”

Texas freeze led to release of tons of air pollutants as refineries shut (Reuters) - The largest U.S. oil refiners released tons of air pollutants into the skies over Texas this past week, according to figures provided to the state, as refineries and petrochemical plants in the region scrambled to shut production during frigid weather. An arctic air mass that spread into an area unused to such low temperatures killed at least two dozen people in Texas and knocked out power to more than 4 million at its peak. It also hit natural gas and electric generation, cutting supplies needed to run the plants along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Shutdowns led to the refineries flaring, or burning and releasing gases, to prevent damage to their processing units. That flaring darkened the skies in eastern Texas with smoke visible for miles. “These emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team. She said U.S. regulators must change policies that allow “these massive emissions to occur with impunity.” The five largest refiners emitted nearly 337,000 pounds of pollutants, including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to preliminary data supplied to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ). Valero Energy Corp said in a filing with the TCEQ that it released 78,000 pounds over 24 hours beginning last Monday from its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery, citing the frigid cold and interruptions in utility services. The 118,100 pounds of emissions from Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery from Monday to Thursday were more than three times the excess emissions that it declared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the whole of 2019. Marathon Petroleum Corp's MPC.N Galveston Bay Refinery released 14,255 pounds over less than five hours on Monday, equivalent to about 10% of its total releases above permitted levels in 2019. Exxon Mobil Corp said its Baytown Olefins Plant emitted nearly a ton of benzene and 68,000 tons of carbon monoxide, citing in its disclosure the halting of “multiple process units and safe utilization of the flare system.”  Valero did not have an immediate comment. Motiva did not respond to a request for comment. “We don’t typically provide comment on our operations beyond our filings,” said Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry. The flaring continued through the week as refiners kept plants out of service.

Opposition to relocation of toxic metal recycling plant to Chicago’s working-class Southside raises political questions - Chicago activists are engaged in a hunger strike to stop the relocation of a metal recycler from a wealthy North Side neighborhood to a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods bear the burden of being home to most of the city’s industrial and manufacturing plants and, with it, their deleterious health consequences. The conditions of Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods are the end results of decades of pro-capitalist policies implemented by the Democratic Party. Reserve Management Group (RMG) shuttered their one-hundred-year-old metal recycling plant, named General Iron, at the end of the last year. Situated on the Chicago River, the former plant is located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, an upper-middle-class-to-extremely wealthy neighborhood with an average household income, according to, of $138,558 per year. RMG is building its new plant, called Southside Recycling, along the Calumet River in Chicago’s southeast Hegewisch neighborhood, where the median household income, according to, is $61,168 per year. The General Iron plant has a history of violations. Between December 2019 and March 2020, it was cited 11 times for violations of pollution and nuisance laws. In May 2020, it agreed to pay $18,000 to settle with the city, a slap on the wrist overseen by Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The driving impetus of RMG’s move is the development of the Lincoln Yards project, which neighbors the now defunct plant. The $6 billion megadevelopment, hatched by former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is receiving some $1.6 billion in city subsidies. The city no doubt worked with RMG to give them a deal to relocate. The opportunity may also give the company an opportunity to modernize their plant, reduce costs and increase profits, a win-win for the city and company. The development as a boon for its developers and the already wealthy neighborhood of Lincoln Park and its adjacent neighborhoods. And in turn, Chicago’s Southeast Side will receive a toxic metal recycling plant.

Deforestation and Mining Increased in Tropically Forested Countries During COVID   --A new report reveals that tropically forested countries are facing higher-than-ever rates of destruction, due to COVID-19.1 This has had – and will continue to have – a devastating impact on the environment, the global climate, and the many Indigenous peoples who rely on these ancient and biodiverse forests for their homes and sustenance, unless the governments of these countries are called to task and held accountable.  Researchers analyzed how forestry protection measures have changed in COVID times in the five most tropically-forested countries in the world – Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The result is a lengthy report, titled "Rolling back social and environmental safeguards in the time of COVID-19," that details how all of these countries have indeed bulldozed their own environmental protections, citing a need to stimulate an economic recovery.1There has long been a positive link between Indigenous stewardship of land and higher rates of natural preservation. When Indigenous peoples are allowed to control their own lands, territories, and resources, less is extracted and more is protected. This makes them "indispensable for the sustainable management of our planet’s limited resources," as explained in the report's foreword. "The respect and protection of these rights is therefore not only essential for their survival, but for the survival of us all in overcoming this crisis." With COVID-19's arrival, however, any agreements between Indigenous peoples and the governments of the countries they live in have largely been ignored. One of the report's main findings was that governments have responded quickly to requests from mining, energy, and industrial agriculture sectors to expand, but have not followed through with the Indigenous peoples whose free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) they would normally be required to obtain. In some cases they have insisted on virtual consultations, even though these are "inconsistent with Indigenous peoples’ cultural and self-governance rights."Governments have justified this negligence by saying it's difficult to meet in person and to use the usual channels of communication, but the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says none of this business activity should be allowed to resume without renewed consent. The Special Rapporteur goes even further, saying that states should "consider a moratorium on all logging and extractive industries operating in proximity to Indigenous communities" during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is effectively impossible to obtain consent.

As Extreme Weather Events Increase, What Are the Risks to Wildlife? - A hailstorm in South Texas. Tornadoes in Tennessee. Wildfires across the West. A barrage of Gulf Coast hurricanes. Those are among the record 22 weather and climate disasters that each topped $1 billion in damages last year in the United States.In all, the price tag for 2020 hit a whopping $95 billion — and that's just in the United States. Reinsurance firm Swiss Re put global economic losses at $175 billion last year, including $32 billion for floods in China and $13 billion in damages from Cyclone Amphan across India and Bangladesh. While experts tabulate the economic losses — homes destroyed, crops ruined, businesses shuttered — ecosystems and wildlife can also sustain damage that's harder to quantify.Many plants and wildlife evolved with and have adapted to dealing with large-scale disturbances, but we're beginning to see "megadisturbances" at levels beyond what we saw in the past, says Stein.And that can take a toll. Extreme weather can kill animals directly — or indirectly, like by destroying food sources, contaminating water or altering habitat, forcing a species to move into areas where there may be more competition, fewer resources or a greater risk of predation. "What we begin to find when you get some of these mega disturbances is that it's beyond the ability of a species — or their adaptive capacity — to bounce back," says Stein.Species that are already threatened or endangered are of course especially at risk.Take the Attwater prairie chicken. A million of these birds once ranged across the prairies of Texas and Louisiana.Today fewer than 100 remain in the wild and scientists have sought to bolster their populations with captive breeding programs. But when Hurricane Harvey walloped Texas with 130-mile-per-hour winds and record rainfall in 2017, the birds were right in harm's way. "The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge tracked 29 individual birds, mostly hens. Post-hurricane, staff confirmed only five of them still alive," Texas Climate News reported. "The hurricane also killed roughly 80% of a prairie chicken population on private property in Goliad County."Other species with limited ranges, like those on islands, also face big threats. "If a species is well distributed, then if one part of its range gets hit, there's the ability for it to recover," says Stein. "But if essentially all its eggs are in one basket, and that particular place gets hit by one of these big disturbances, that's when you have a real concern."

Wisconsin Wolf Hunt Ends Early as Hunters Exceed Quota -- Wisconsin will end its controversial wolf hunt early after hunters and trappers killed almost 70 percent of the state's quota in the hunt's first 48 hours.By the end of Tuesday, the second day of the hunt, 82 wolves had been killed, The Associated Press reported. As of Wednesday morning, 135 had been killed, exceeding the quota, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)."Wisconsin's actions offer a tragic glimpse of a future without federal wolf protections," the Wolf Conservation Center tweeted in response.President Donald Trump's delisting of gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act triggered the hunt. The DNR originally set a quota of 200 wolves to be killed between Feb. 22 and Feb. 28. Of the 200, 81 were allocated to the Ojibwe Tribes in accordance with treaty rights, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Hunters killed about half of the remaining 119 by Tuesday morning and 69 percent by Tuesday afternoon, The Associated Press reported. By Wednesday morning, hunters exceeded the quota by 16 wolves.Hunters also exceeded the quota set for three of the state's hunting zones, according to DNR. They killed 33 of an 18-wolf quota in zone 2, located in the northeast; 24 of a 20-wolf quota in zone 3 located in the center; and 30 of a 17-wolf quota in southern zone 6. The hunt ended Wednesday at 10 a.m. CT in the most depleted zones and will end at 3 p.m. CT for the remaining half. After wolves were returned to state management under Trump in January 2021, Wisconsin intended to plan a hunt for November 2021, arguing that it needed the time to study the population and consult with Native American tribes and the general public. However, pro-hunting group Hunter Nation sued the state to start the hunt earlier in the year, with a judge ruling in their favor. This past Friday, an appeals court dismissed the Wisconsin DNR's appeal,Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Rescued Orangutans Are Returned to Indonesia Wild Amid COVID-19 Risk --With lockdowns in place and budgets slashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many environmental protections vanished this past year, leaving some of the world's most vulnerable species and habitats at risk. But conservationists at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation were faced with an entirely different threat.Their beloved orangutans share a strikingly similar DNA to humans, making them susceptible to respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, Reuters reported. So when it came time to reintroduce a group of rescued orangutans back into the wild, conservationists had to rethink their usual transportation methods to prevent potentially spreading the virus.The solution? Reintroduce the critically endangered species via helicopter. Last week, ten orangutans returned to the wild by taking a flight to the Indonesian portion of Borneo Island, Reuters reported."For an entire year, we have not been able to release orangutans due to the global pandemic, but we are still strongly committed to the orangutan conservation effort," Jamartin Sihite, CEO of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said in a statement. Prior to their release, the orangutans were held in rehabilitation centers, according to Reuters. They included five males, a mother and two babies and two other females."Using a helicopter is the best way to transport orangutans during the pandemic," Denny Kurniawan, BOSF program manager, told Reuters. Normally it would take three days to drive the orangutans to their drop-off area, adding to the risk of further exposure between humans and orangutans, Reuters noted. However, air travel reduced travel time and kept veterinarians and orangutans at a safer distance.

One Third of Freshwater Fish Face Extinction, New Report Warns - The latest warning of the Earth's mounting extinction crisis is coming from its lakes and rivers.A new report from a coalition of 16 conservation groups warns that almost a third of freshwater fish species face extinction because of human activity."Nowhere is the world's nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine, and we must heed the warning," Stuart Orr, WWF global freshwater lead, said in a statement Tuesday announcing the report.WWF is one of the many organizations behind the report, along with the Alliance for Freshwater Life, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few. Together, the groups emphasized the incredible diversity of the world's freshwater fish and their importance for human wellbeing.There are a total of 18,075 freshwater fish species in the world, accounting for 51 percent of all fish species and 25 percent of all vertebrates. They are an important food source for 200 million people and provide work for 60 million. But their numbers are in decline. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has declared 80 to be extinct, 16 of those in 2020 alone. The numbers of migratory freshwater fish such as salmon have declined 76 percent since 1970, while mega-fish such as beluga sturgeon have fallen by 94 percent in the same time period. In fact, freshwater biodiversity is plummeting at twice the rate of biodiversity in the oceans and forests. Despite this, freshwater fish get much less attention than their saltwater counterparts, the report authors say. Titled "The World's Forgotten Fishes," it argues that policy makers rarely consider river wildlife when making decisions. The main threats to freshwater fish include building dams, syphoning river water for irrigation, releasing wastewater and draining wetlands. Other factors include overfishing, introducing invasive species and theclimate crisis. "As we look to adapt to climate change and we start to think about all the discussions that governments are going to have on biodiversity, it's really a time for us to shine a light back on freshwater," Orr told NBC News.

What You Need to Know About Coastal Darkening -Coastal waters around the world are growing darker from pollution and runoff. This has the potential to create huge problems for the ocean and its marine life. Coastal darkening is a change in the color and clarity of water. According to Hakai Magazine, the underlying causes include fertilizer pollution creating algal blooms, along with boats stirring up silt. Both of these issues block light. Even heavy rains can contribute when they loosen organic matter from decaying plants and soil, carrying them to the ocean as a brown, light-blocking slurry, Hakai Magazine noted. According to Science Norway, sunlight hitting these particles gets absorbed or blocked, instead of penetrating further down the water column. The result is that the underwater world is darker. Science Norway also reported that the amount of loose organic material that ends up in the sea has increased during the last 30 years.  According to the Coastal Ocean Darkening project's website, "Light availability in the coastal ocean is closely coupled to its physical, biological and chemical processes and is experiencing changes on all spatial and temporal scales." This will have profound ecological implications that are just beginning to be understood. First, physical impediments create biological changes in water. A study from the Coastal Ocean Darkening project published in Frontiers in Marine Science showed that as more organic matter blocked sunlight from penetrating the water, phytoplankton concentrations dropped. Because phytoplankton are the base of the oceanic food chain, decreasing numbers and shifting concentrations of specific types could have catastrophic, cascading consequences for the entire ecosystem, Hakai Magazine reported.Over time, other biological changes in marine life might be observed, the study found. Decreased light availability benefits creatures such as jellyfish that don't rely on sight to hunt, while hindering those that are visual hunters, such as fish, Hakai Magazine reported. A 2009 study found that coastal water darkening was implicated in regime shifts of predominant animals in Norwegian fjords. For example, jellyfish enjoyed a "mass occurrence" after more than 70 years of coastal darkening in the fjords. A 2021 report of Norwegian fjords found that darkening makes life difficult for plankton, kelp, seagrass and fish because all depend on light to make their food, reported Science Norway. Reductions in vast ecosystems, such as kelp forests and seagrass beds because of light scarcity, have negative consequences for fish species that use these areas as nurseries, the report added.

Flood damage on the rise for NJ homes --More than 94,000 New Jersey houses are subject to substantial flooding this year at an average cost of some $4,400 per property, and the financial damage will get worse as climate changes over the next 30 years, according to a report published Monday.“The Cost of Climate” by the nonprofit First Street Foundation calculated that another 10,800 properties across the state will suffer flood damage by 2051 because of the bigger storms and higher seas that come with climate change, and that the average annual loss will rise 53% to $6,755.The report also found that residential properties carrying federal flood insurance — as those inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s special flood-hazard areas are required to do — can expect flood-related losses averaging $5,676, or almost three times the average premium for those properties.Outside the FEMA-designated areas, the gap between annual losses and flood insurance premiums paid is even greater, the report said. It estimated that those premiums would have to rise 3.7 times to cover the anticipated cost of the damage. And in a reminder of the challenges facing the already-indebted National Flood Insurance Program, the report estimated that if all of New Jersey’s flood-prone properties were federally insured, the payout risk would exceed premiums by some $11 billion over the next 30 years.

Extreme monsoon rains submerge parts of capital Jakarta under 2.7 m (8.8 feet) of water, Indonesia - Extreme monsoon rains brought massive flooding to the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Saturday, February 20, 2021, with parts of the city (population 30 million) under 1.2 to 2.7 m (3.9 - 8.8 feet) of water. The floods forced the evacuation of some 1 380 residents to temporary shelters. The waters are now receding, but more heavy rain is expected in the week ahead, and Jakarta remains on alert for the next 4 days.National rescue agency spokesman Yusuf Latif said the floods were triggered by extreme downpours -- with some areas recording 226 mm (8.9 inches) from Friday to Saturday.The worst affected were the southern and eastern areas of the city, forcing 1 380 people to evacuate. Fortunately, no casualties have been reported.  According to the latest data, 200 neighborhoods have been affected, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said. “The rain has stopped, but water from other areas is still affecting the city. Hopefully, it won't hit the city center and when the water recedes people can resume their activities," Baswedan said. The Meteorology Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has warned the heaviest rain of the season may fall in and around the densely populated capital in the coming days, with extreme weather, including heavy rain, thunder and strong winds, expected throughout the next week.

State of emergency declared in Madre de Dios as severe flooding leaves 15 000 people affected, Peru -- (videos) Heavy rainfall since mid-February has triggered widespread, severe flooding in Madre de Dios, Peru, leaving at least 15 000 people affected and thousands of property damage. This has prompted the government to declare a state of emergency for the region for 60 days.According to environment minister Gabriel Quijandria, floodwaters damaged about 4 000 homes, several schools and health facilities, and around 3 000 ha (7 400 acres) of crops.The affected areas include Pueblo Viejo, Las Piedras, Laberinto, and Boca Colorado."We have flown over the areas near and far from Puerto Maldonado and the truth is that the situation is worrying," said the minister. "There is significant damage in several towns, such as Laberinto." Peru’s National Civil Defense Institute (INDECI), along with the armed forces, are working together to distribute relief supplies, including personal hygiene, cleaning products, mattresses, sheets, kitchen utensils, and mosquito nets. Puerto Maldonado registered 150.8 mm (5.9 inches) of rain in a 24-hour period to February 19. The Madre de Dios River was also at a red alert level, according to the National Meteorology and Hydrology Service SENAMHI. In the Las Piedras district, Tambopata Province, the overflowing of the Madre de Dios river damaged 50 homes and prompted 37 families to evacuate.

 Record flooding affects more than 100 000 people in Acre, northwestern Brazil - (video) More than 100 000 people have been affected by severe flooding in Acre, northwestern Brazil, after multiple rivers overflowed and reached record levels around Friday, February 19, 2021. Authorities have declared the situation an emergency, saying the state is facing one of its most challenging times in history.In Cruzeiro do Sul,  the Jurua River reached record levels of 14.31 m (46.94 feet) on Friday, smashing the previous high of 14.24 m (46.71 feet) set in February 2017. Around 33 000 people have fled their homes in the municipality.In Sena Madureira, the Laco River hit 18.04 m (59.18 feet), well above the flood stage level of 15.2 m (49.8 feet).  About 18 000 people have been affected by inundations across the municipality.  On Saturday, February 20, around 28 000 people have been affected after the Tarauaca River reached 11.05 m (26.25 feet), which was above the flood stage of 9.5 m (31.2 feet).In Fejio, more than 3 200 people were impacted after the Envira River jumped to 14.25 m (46.75 feet), surpassing the 14 m (46 feet) flood stage.In Santa Rosa do Purus, the Purus River hit 9.46 m (31.03 feet) exceeding the flood stage of 9 m (29.5 feet). More than 1 500 people have been affected, although levels have dipped under 7 m (22.96 feet). Meanwhile, the Acre River in Rio Branco stood at 15.64 m (51.31 feet), surpassing the flood stage of 14 m (45.9 feet), which affected 2 700 families.

 More than 59 000 people flee as Dujuan brings widespread flooding and disruption to Philippines --More than 59 000 people have evacuated their homes as Tropical Storm "Dujuan" -- locally known as Auring, brought widespread flooding and disruption to the Philippines on Monday, February 22, 2021. As of 03:00 UTC (11:00 LT), the storm has weakened into a Low-Pressure Area (LPA) prior to crossing the Rapu-Rapu Islands in Albay and is forecast to traverse the central region in the next 24 hours. Dujuan made landfall in Batag Island in Laoang, Northern Samar, at 01:00 UTC (09:00 LT) on Monday. The worst-affected provinces in the south have been Caraga and Surigao del Sur. As a safety precaution, the power was cut off in several towns of Surigao del Sur, said provincial governor Ayec Pimentel. More than 18 000 people were preemptively evacuated in the province, while more than 8 000 individuals have fled their homes. The storm also caused disruptions as around 36 domestic flights have been canceled. More than 2 000 passengers were stranded in various ports in the eastern region as rough seas prompted coast guard officials to suspend ferry trips.

10 people rescued from ice floes that drifted away on Lake Erie --They went with the floe. Ten people had to be rescued in Ohio — after getting stranded on ice floes that broke away from the shore of Lake Erie.The Great Lakes division of the Coast Guard announced Sunday afternoon that it was rescuing seven adults and three children who ignored safety advice to stay off the ice on the frozen lake.The 10 stranded people appeared to be in two separate groups who had wandered onto the ice, then became stranded when it cracked free on a sunny day and drifted out into the lake, WOIO said.Six were rescued by a Coast Guard ice skiff, while the other four were taken to shore by a Cleveland Fire Department rescue team, officials said.All 10 were offered medical observation at the scene, but it appears none were treated or taken to the hospital, reported WOIO, which noted one even had ice skates.

 Jackson, Mississippi’s public water system collapses after winter storm’s deep freeze --City officials in Jackson, Mississippi reported late last week that water service had been knocked out indefinitely for most of the city after a devastating winter storm shut down power and froze water lines, resulting in a drop in water pressure last week. Of the many cities across the Southern US devastated by freezing temperatures last week, Jackson, Mississippi’s capital and largest city with 160,000 residents, is among the worst hit. Water main breaks constitute a major cause for concern, with Jackson experiencing 13 breaks in less than a week. Pressure drops and outages and boil water advisories were rampant across the state as the region’s old and poorly maintained infrastructure struggled to function under adverse weather conditions. Many of the city’s water mains and pipes have not been replaced in decades, with some piping being over 100 years old. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told reporters on Thursday, “We do not have a definitive timeline as to when the water will be restored within the tanks. “This becomes increasingly challenging due to the pandemic,” Lumumba said. He attempted to blame the outage on COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of schools, claiming, “so many residents are at home instead of school, which means people are trying to use water at a higher rate than usual.” However, severe winter weather has caused a strain on Jackson’s infrastructure in the recent past, and it is well known that a significant investment in the city’s water system is overdue. During a period of freezing cold temperatures in 2014-15, then Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber issued a state of emergency in an attempt to secure federal funding to update city water mains and roads. Back in 2015 it was estimated by city officials that somewhere between $750 million to $1 billion would be needed to fully replace or repair the city’s water mains and roads. “Our infrastructure is not prepared to handle this,” Lumumba admitted on Thursday. Many people have been without water since Monday. Residents have resorted to gathering snow to melt to create enough water to flush their toilets. The city set up stations at fire houses, some schools, a mall and other sporadic locations to hand out bottles and jugs of water to people able to go out in the cold and wait, a difficult task for the region’s elderly and infirm residents. Icy roads have prevented water treatment crews from receiving delivery of much needed chemicals to ensure the water being pumped into the city tanks is safe for use. As it stands, there remains a citywide boil water advisory, with residents who have water flowing from their taps instructed to boil their water before use to ensure potability.

Winter Freeze Damage Expected to Hit $18 Billion From Burst Pipes, Collapsed Roofs – WSJ == Property insurers face an estimated $18 billion bill for damage to homes and businesses from the long stretch of frigid weather in Texas and numerous other states, the equivalent of a major hurricane, according to a leading risk-modeling firm. Over half of the payments will be headed to Texas, and businesses—rather than homeowners—will receive the majority of the payouts, according to Boston-based Karen Clark & Co., which runs catastrophe-modeling software widely used in the U.S. insurance industry. Much of the damage stems from widespread freezing of pipes, which have burst inside schools, museums, churches, commercial spaces as well as homes, leading to extensive water damage, Ms. Clark said in an interview Friday. Residents of Texas continued to see power and water disruptions after a series of winter storms, leaving millions to search for heat, food and clean water.  The damage is spread over about 20 states. Besides Texas, hard-hit states include Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, Ms. Clark said. “This event has snow and ice, but it is predominantly a freezing event and most of the claims are going to be related to water damage,” she said. Her firm’s estimate incorporates collapses of commercial roofs, “and a sprinkling of lots of different types of claims, but they will be dominated by water claims.” She called it “a perfect storm” in the way it paired extremely low temperatures with snow and ice that contributed to power outages, and the extreme temperature anomalies lasted longer than this type of weather usually does in southern states. If the industry’s tab does turn out to be $18 billion, the winter storm will end up on the top-10 list of costliest natural catastrophes in the U.S., as measured by losses to property insurers. It would fall just below Hurricane Ike in 2008, which cost the industry $21.51 billion, according to trade group Insurance Information Institute. Ike is in eighth place on the trade group’s list. In ninth place currently is a 2012 drought that caused $16.42 billion in insured damage, and Hurricane Wilma in 2005 is in 10th place, at $13.84 billion in insured damage. “Texas was ground zero of the temperature anomalies,” Ms. Clark said. “And it wasn’t just part of Texas but the complete state.You have a lot of population being impacted.”

Winter storm leaves behind billions of dollars’ worth of damage across Texas - Last week’s winter storm, which subjected a sizable portion of the US to subfreezing temperatures that reached well into the South, is set to inflict record-breaking economic losses, potentially surpassing the cost of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Due to its deficient infrastructure, Texas shouldered the majority of the damage. Insurance Council of Texas representative Camille Garcia told the Dallas Morning News that she expects hundreds of thousands of insurance claims, with the storm threatening to become the state’s costliest catastrophe on record. Claims are expected from commercial and residential properties that experienced losses from flooding and other damage caused by frozen and broken pipes. The total value of losses is still being tallied, but the severity and geographic scope of the storm has meant that the total cost could exceed the $19 billion in damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Experts estimate a full recovery could take months. Still, these figures cannot fully measure the toll the crisis has taken on the population. Tens of millions of workers, already crushed under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, now face added economic stress. Residents face tens of thousands of dollars of repair costs and, in some cases, exorbitant electricity bills from power companies profiting from a surge in market prices for electricity. Many working class families that were forced to double up with relatives or stay in hotels last week still cannot safely return to homes with collapsed ceilings and extensive flooding. On top of trying to figure out where to go next, workers have to figure out how to pay for damages that may not be covered by their insurance policies, if they had insurance. Workers had already suffered job losses or significant reductions in income due to the pandemic. December’s unemployment rate in Texas stood at 7.2 percent, more than double the rate of 3.5 percent a year earlier. Meanwhile, the state’s outdated and understaffed unemployment insurance office has left countless Texans struggling to receive necessary unemployment payments. Further compounding the crisis, some 8.6 million people, nearly a third of Texas’ population, still remain without access to safe water. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, more than 1,200 public water systems were disrupted by the cold weather. More than 12,000 households remained without power Tuesday evening, according to, even though Governor Greg Abbott projected power would have already been fully restored by Monday. Across Texas, the official tally of deaths related to the winter storm continues to rise. Reports indicate there have been dozens of deaths linked to the storm, but experts say the death toll is likely much higher. Additionally, it could take weeks or months before the true magnitude is known. 

TikTok users spread conspiracy that Texas snow was manufactured by the government  -Viral videos by TikTok users purportedly in Texas have falsely claimed that the snow from the deadly winter storm that hit the state this month is fake and was created by the U.S. government. The clips on the popular video platform show users holding up a lighter, match or hairdryer to snow, which in some videos appears to burn or get smaller without dripping any water, Business Insider reported. Some TikTok users have used the phrase “government snow” to describe the phenomenon. The hashtag #governmentsnow had more than a million views on TikTok as of Monday.Multiple reports noted that there is an explanation for the phenomenon. Through a process known as sublimation, the solid snow turns directly into a gas from the heat instead of a liquid dripping off of the snowball. This is not the first time a false claim about snowstorms or snow accumulation in the U.S. has spread on social media. The conspiracy theory also went viral in 2014, according to multiple reports.

POLITICS: Fringe weatherman advised Abbott before deadly Texas storm -- Thursday, February 25, 2021 -- Days before a historic snowstorm crippled his home state, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sought advice from an unusual source: Joe Bastardi, the go-to weather forecaster of Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Dallas sees 80-plus degree temp swing in just 1 week - A substantial warmup unfolded throughout the middle of the United States this week, including across areas that were hit hard by disastrous winter weather last week, with places like Dallas, Oklahoma City and Topeka, Kansas, experiencing remarkable temperature turnarounds over where temps bottomed out last week in the throes of the historic cold snap.Rounds of snow and ice compounded a power crisis across parts of the South Central states that left millions of Americans without heat amid the coldest air in decades. And the bitterly cold air left behind a mess too. Many Texans face lengthy cleanup from burst pipes along with ongoing water shortages in the aftermath of the winter storms.Brutal cold spread across the Plains, reaching as far south as Texas and Louisiana. Low-temperature records fell as the mercury plummeted to below zero in southern cities like Oklahoma City and Dallas.Fast forward to one week later and a big warmup was enveloping the Central states Tuesday thanks to the retreat of Arctic air back into Canada.Temperatures began climbing in earnest over the weekend, with some areas finally creeping above freezing and into the 40s and 50s. The warming trend continued to ramp up early in the week. On Monday, Feb. 22, the temperatures in Rapid City, South Dakota, soared to 57 degrees in the afternoon after bottoming out at 24 degrees below zero last week, making for an 82-degree temperature swing. "It's not just the fact that we have a huge warmup from last week to this week, it's the fact that temperatures are also above normal as well," Temperatures in the low to upper 70s in cities like Oklahoma City are about 15 degrees above normal for late February and are more typical of mid-April.The temperature in Dallas bottomed out at 2 below zero on Feb. 16 and reached a high of just 18 that day. With the high temperature soaring to 81 on Feb. 23, people in Big D felt a big temperature swing of 84 degrees exactly a week later.Oklahoma City also came in with an 87-degree temperature swing by Tuesday afternoon as the temperature soared to 72 degrees there. In Oklahoma City, the mercury plunged to 14 degrees below zero last Tuesday.

Beijing records warmest February day since 1951, China -- China's capital Beijing has recorded its hottest February temperature since 1951 as the city registered a high of 25.6 °C (78 °F) on Sunday, February 21, 2021. Records from the meteorological observatory in Daxing district showed that temperatures hit 25.6 °C (78 °F) at around 08:00 UTC (16:00 LT) on Monday. It was the city's hottest February temperature in 70 years. Many residents took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, according to local reports, enjoying outdoor activities such as rock climbing and relaxing at rooftop bars. However, the warm weather will be short-lived as temperatures are likely to return to normal and it may take a while before the city experiences such warm temperatures again. Reports said highs of up to 14 °C (57.2 °F) are expected until Tuesday, February 23.

 Flank eruption at Klyuchevskoy volcano, lahar forms along the Krutenkaya River, Russia -- A flank eruption began to form on the northwestern slope of the Klyuchevskoy volcano, Kamchatka, Russia late February 17, 2021, presenting a real danger of mudflows for the Kyuchi village. Bright incandescence was observed at video-data by IVS FEB RAS from 15:23 UTC on February 20, when a lava flow began to move from a lateral break at an altitude of about 2.5 - 2.7 km a.s.l. (1.5 - 1.6 miles) near the Erman glacier. The Aviation Color Code was raised to Orange at 02:06 UTC on February 24. Bright incandescence over two craters of the flank eruption continues on satellite and video images, KVERT said, adding that lava flows are still moving from the craters. The intensive melting of the glacier led to the formation of a lahar along the Krutenkaya River, about 7 km (4.3 miles) east of the Klyuchi village on February 23. Moderate gas-steam activity of the volcano continues on February 24. The danger of ash explosions up to 5 - 6 km (16 400 - 19 700 feet) a.s.l. from flank craters remains. Ongoing activity could affect low-flying aircraft, KVERT warns. Klyuchevskoy (also spelled Kliuchevskoi) is Kamchatka's highest and most active volcano. Since its origin about 6 000 years ago, the beautifully symmetrical, 4 835 m (15 862 feet) high basaltic stratovolcano has produced frequent moderate-volume explosive and effusive eruptions without major periods of inactivity. It rises above a saddle NE of sharp-peaked Kamen volcano and lies SE of the broad Ushkovsky massif.

'Incredibly powerful' paroxysm at Etna, lava fountains exceeding 1 000 m (3 300 feet) in height - The fourth paroxysmal eruptive episode in just 4 days started at Etna's Southeast Crater on the evening of February 20, 2021, and continued into February 21. This was the strongest of the four episodes since February 16. The average magnitude of the volcanic tremor started increasing around 17:26 UTC on February 21, together with increasing infrasonic signals mainly located at the Southeast Crater. Strombolian activity was progressively increasing to about 19:30 UTC when volcanic tremors showed a sudden increase to top levels. Lava overflow began shortly after 21:30 UTC toward the Valle del Bove, eventually reaching a length of about 1 km (0.62 miles), with a front at about 2 800 m (1.7 miles). The activity at the eastern mouth of SE Crater gradually switched to pulsating lava fountains by 22:00 UTC and further intensified by 23:24 UTC. Another surge in intensity was detected at 00:28 UTC on February 21, with lava fountains exceeding 1 000 m (3 300 feet) above the crater.

Powerful eruption at Etna volcano, Italy - Volcanic activity at Mount Etna, Italy intensified again at 21:10 UTC on February 22, 2021, and evolved into the 5th paroxysm since February 16 -- truly spectacular and most powerful in recent years. The activity started gradually increasing at around 20:47 UTC, reaching high levels by 22:05 UTC, with lava jets up to 300 m (985 feet) above the Southeast Crater. The Aviation Color Code was raised to Red at 22:05 UTC and is still at this level as of 08:00 UTC on February 23. A second mouth activated at the crater at 22:27 UTC, producing lava fountains. At 22:28 UTC, lava overflow took place toward the Valle del Bove. By 23:36 UTC, lava fountains were reaching 1 000 m (3 280 feet) above the crater, as seen in the image below. Lava fountains up to 1 500 m (4 900 feet) were seen before the event was over.This activity produced an eruptive column that rose several kilometers from the top of the volcano. Volcanic tremor reached maximum values at 23:50 UTC, followed by a sudden decrease, but still at high values. A sudden decrease in the height of lava fountains started at around 00:15 UTC on February 23 but explosive activity continued. Another intensification started at 03:50 UTC, accompanied by ash emissions from the Southeast Crater and two small lava flows. Image credit: INGV

6th impressive paroxysm at Etna volcano, Italy --This is the 6th paroxysmal eruptive episode at Etna volcano, Italy since February 16, 2021.After 5 impressive paroxysms, the activity at the volcano intensified again at 19:00 UTC on February 24 and evolved into another spectacular event. Video courtesy Gio Giusa.

'Global Dimming’ Was Caused by Human Pollution, Study Confirms In the late 1980s, scientists noticed something odd. Less of the sun's brightness was reaching Earth's surface, leaving us with a darker planet. This phenomenon, known as "global dimming," is now in reverse, according to Science Alert. But a mystery remained. What was driving the shifts in brightness? Was it human-caused air pollution or natural variations in cloud cover? A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters this month comes down firmly on the side of air pollution. "Although we'd already assumed as much, we'd been unable to prove it directly until now," study lead author and ETH Zurich professor Martin Wild said in a press release. In order to prove it, Wild and his team looked at "one of the longest and best‐maintained records of sunlight measured at Potsdam, Germany," they wrote in the study. The record covered the period from 1947 to 2017, according to the press release. The researchers were able to filter out the impacts of clouds and study brightness on both cloudy and sunny days. This enabled them to determine that overall patterns in both dimming and brightening remained consistent without cloud cover. "This implies that aerosol pollutants play a crucial role in these variations and points to a discernible human influence on the vital level of sunlight required for sustainable living conditions," the paper authors wrote.

Gulf Stream is weakest it's been in more than 1,000 years  A group of scientists from Europe presented new research this week claiming that the Gulf Stream is weaker now than it's been at any point over the last 1,000 years. The Gulf Stream is an Atlantic Ocean current that plays a largely hidden role in shaping weather patterns in the United States. Much has been researched and learned about the influential current over the past 500 years, particularly due to the expertise of one of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.But in recent decades, a shift in the Gulf Stream's circulation has become weaker than any other time over the last millennium, according to a recently published study by scientists from Ireland, Britain and Germany. The weakening of the Gulf Stream, formally known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), can be mostly pinned to one catalyst, the researchers said: human-caused climate change.The Gulf Stream current moves a massive amount of water across the Atlantic Ocean. According to Stefan Rahmstorf, one of the study's authors, it moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, acting like a giant conveyor belt.How strong of a current is that? "Almost a hundred times the Amazon flow,” he told the Potsdam Institute.  The main function of the Gulf Stream is to redistribute heat on Earth by way of the ocean current. The ocean circulatory system plays a crucial role in many weather patterns around the world, particularly along the U.S. East Coast. Rahmstorf said that his team’s research was groundbreaking for being able to combine previous bits of research to piece together a 1,600-year-old picture of the AMOC evolution.“The study results suggest that it has been relatively stable until the late 19th century,” he said. “With the end of the little ice age in about 1850, the ocean currents began to decline, with a second, more drastic decline following since the mid-20th century.” So what are the implications of this decline in the ocean currents? AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Smerbeck said it could plausibly lead to rising sea levels if water levels are warmed this year. However, Smerbeck added that it is tricky to know just how warm the waters could get. Previously, studies have shown that rising water temperatures and higher sea levels can lead to more extreme weather events such as stronger tropical storms, a higher likelihood for extreme heat waves or a decrease in summer rainfall. However, other researchers have also come out with contrasting data, suggesting that the Gulf Stream hasn't actually declined over the past 30 years. Using a different data modeling system, researchers from the United Kingdom and Ireland pieced together data from climate models that they said in a study published earlier this month showed "no overall AMOC decline."

Melting Ice Sheets Could Hasten Ocean Current’s Collapse -- The climate crisis could push an important ocean current past a critical tipping point sooner than expected, new research suggests. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) helps move heat from the tropics to the Northern Hemisphere, and is one of the reasons why Europe has relatively mild winters, Science Alert explained. However, the current has begun slowing down in recent years, and scientists want to know what it would take for the current to stop. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday calculates that this moment could come sooner than expected.. Essentially, the new findings come down to timing. The AMOC is threatened by increasing freshwater into the North Atlantic as the Greenland ice sheet melts. A certain amount of freshwater will cause the current to stop. But Lohmann wanted to test what would happen if that water were added quickly instead of gradually. "These tipping points have been shown previously in climate models, where meltwater is very slowly introduced into the ocean," Lohmann told Gizmodo. "In reality, increases in meltwater from Greenland are accelerating and cannot be considered slow." So researchers used an ocean model called Veros to calculate when the current would stop if freshwater were gradually added, the press release explained. Researchers then added freshwater at increased rates and found that quickly added freshwater would stop currents before reaching the initial freshwater threshold. This has serious implications for the AMOC current itself. If it were to completely halt, tropical monsoon patterns would shift, rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere would decrease and the North Atlantic would get stormier. It also raises concerns about other climate tipping points, such as polar ice sheets collapsing or the Amazon rainforest drying out. If the AMOC can stop before the previously calculated tipping point is reached, is the same true for other systems? "The results show that the safe operating space of elements of the Earth system with respect to future emissions might be smaller than previously thought," the study authors wrote.

 Russia's far east aims for unexpected climate target: net zero by 2025 - Fossil fuel-rich Russia may not be known as a leader on climate action - but in the country's remote far east, authorities have launched an unexpected experiment: an effort to try out carbon trading and reach net-zero planet-heating emissions by 2025. The government of the Russian island region of Sakhalin, in the Pacific Ocean north of Japan, is planning tax breaks, charging stations and dedicated parking lots for electric vehicles, alongside a ban on all petrol and diesel cars by 2035. Coal-fired power plants will be replaced with somewhat cleaner natural gas and hydrogen-fuelled passenger train lines developed in the region the size of Ireland, Sakhalin officials said, after their net-zero roadmap was approved by Moscow. The Russian government - which has been criticised by green groups and analysts for setting unambitious climate action goals - in January gave a green light to Sakhalin's proposal for a pilot carbon emissions trading scheme, a first for the country. The economy of the Sakhalin region, home to about half a million people, is largely based on fossil-fuel extraction, including coal. According to its net-zero plan, an inventory of Sakhalin's greenhouse gas emissions and natural carbon sequestration potential will be carried out by August, before setting up an emissions trading system to start operating in mid-2022. "This experiment will allow us to try various measures to regulate carbon and evaluate their effectiveness, for later scaling up at the national level," Russia's Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov said in an official statement.

Republican senators take aim at Paris agreement with new legislation -- Volume 90% Republicans are taking aim at the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin of the Paris climate agreement, introducing long-shot legislation on Monday aiming to undercut it. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is introducing a resolution expressing the sentiment that the agreement qualifies as a treaty and should be sent to the Senate for approval. Meanwhile, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is unveiling a bill aimed at cutting off funding for the administration's move to rejoin the multinational deal. A spokesperson for Blackburn told The Hill in an email that the senator’s bill was particularly aimed at preventing the administration from sending money to other countries to make up for the U.S.'s withdrawal under the Trump administration. “President Biden violated the Constitution when he chose to rejoin the poorly negotiated and deeply flawed Paris Climate Agreement—a deal that’s horrible for America and good for China,” Daines said in a statement. “This deal will do nothing except cause more hard-working Americans to lose their jobs and burden American families with higher energy prices,” he added. Former President Obama angered lawmakers in 2016 when he joined the deal without securing Senate approval. Some Republicans say the move violated Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which calls for a two-thirds vote from the Senate to enter into treaties. But the Paris accord let countries set their own commitments to the deal, rather than enter into a more formal agreement, which the Obama administration viewed as allowing the U.S. to join the deal without Senate approval. It has been estimated that about 90 percent of the international agreements the U.S. has entered into since the 1930s have been executive agreements, which don’t get ratified by the Senate. The Republicans' legislation is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate, as Democrats hold control of the chamber.

 Annapolis Sues 26 Oil and Gas Companies Over Climate Change - Annapolis, Maryland, is suing 26 oil and gas companies for deceiving the public about their products' role in causing climate change. The city is among two dozen state and local governments to file such a lawsuit."The companies worked to deceive people of the danger, hiding their knowledge and engaging in an intentional campaign to mislead the public about the science proving the growing danger posed by fossil fuels," Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley told reporters.The city seeks to force the companies to help cover the mounting costs of climate change, including severeflooding that disproportionately harms communities of color. "We're looking at a price tag of almost $100 million," Jacqueline Guild, deputy city manager for resilience and sustainability, told reporters. "And that's just the tip of the melting iceberg, if you will."The Annapolis lawsuit comes as state and local plaintiffs and fossil fuel industry defendants await a Supreme Court decision on BP PLC v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, which could have major implications for states' and municipalities' lawsuits.For a deeper dive: Annapolis: Capital Gazette, AP, E&E; SCOTUS: E&E

Climate change should play big role in pandemic, recession recovery plans - Global carbon dioxide emissions declined globally in 2020 by about 7 percent, the largest decline ever in global emissions (by comparison, the Great Recession of 2009 saw a drop of 1.3 percent). This is mainly because of lockdowns in response to the pandemic, and consequent reduction in transportation and other economic activity. Coincidentally, that’s just about the same as the necessary annual emissions reductions (7.6 percent) that need to happen over the next decade if the world is to keep global temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and give the world a fighting chance to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The experience of the pandemic is thus a rough indicator of the scale of change needed to reduce our carbon emissions. While transition away from fossil fuels will require major changes, it need not bring austerity and pain, and, in fact, holds many opportunities. Phasing out fossil fuels will bring an end to jobs in those industries but create many more jobs in renewable energy. We can alter many of our wasteful practices without losing quality of life. Affluent people can live better while consuming less energy and material, and make room for the poor to rise to a level of consumption sufficient for a good life. Alleviation of poverty, when combined with family planning and education for women, can also slow population growth, another factor in global emissions. A world with less poverty and conflict will be a better world for all. A second lesson of the pandemic is that ignoring the problem because of the economic cost is even more costly in the long run. The U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, has had 20 percent of COVID deaths, disproportionately among Black, Indigenous and people of color. This public health failure is complex, but it included insufficient investment in pandemic preparedness, including testing capacity and PPE, premature reopening without adequate contact tracing, and denial and inaction from an administration afraid of the economic consequences of social distancing. This fear was misplaced. According to one analysis, “countries that have contained the virus also tend to have had less severe economic impacts than those that haven’t,” whether measured by GDP growth, trade or consumer spending. The only way for the economy fully to recover, we have learned, is by ending the pandemic. Similarly, insufficient action on climate change now, because of the cost of carbon fees, efficiency standards and public investments in alternatives, will only result in huge costs associated with climate change down the road. The record-breaking U.S. wildfires and Atlantic storms in 2020 had a combined cost of $71 billion. The recent storm in Texas, the kind of event likely to occur more frequently with climate change, may be “the costliest winter weather event” in the state’s history. One recent report concludes that the total cost of global warming in a business-as-usual scenario could be as high as 3.6 percent of GDP, and “four global warming impacts alone — hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs — will come with a price tag of 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars) by 2100.” These estimates ignore losses not easily measurable in dollars but no less important, like species extinction and the tragedy of wars sparked by climate migrations or conflict over scarce water. The true choice is thus not between the economy and the environment, it is between reducing our carbon emissions “by design,” or by “disaster” as Peter Victor put it. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, disaster will force us later and more painfully.

Sunrise Movement Rallies at Texas State Capitol Demanding Green New Deal -- While millions of Texans on Monday continued living without safe drinking water and many faced storm damage and massive electricity bills, youth leaders with the Sunrise Movement rallied at the state capitol in Austin, using the current conditions across the Lone Star State to bolster their demand for a Green New Deal."Texas is the perfect example of what happens when our politicians cater to fossil fuel executives instead of the young people who have been shouting from the rooftops for years, warning of an impending climate emergency like this," said Sunrise leader Chante Davis in a statement ahead of the rally.The Houston teenager's family moved to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."I've survived three once-in-a lifetime storms in my 17 years of life," Davis said. "We need change, and the Green New Deal is the obvious, urgent solution. As our communities come together to fill the void of our government, our leaders must invest in us to provide jobs that directly address the crises we face."The group has been a key proponent of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Why Texas Republicans Fear the Green New Deal - - Naomi Klein -A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distribution of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisingly, these companies prioritized short-term profit over costly investments to maintain the grid and build in redundancies for extreme weather. Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politicians who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastructure (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: “We have a deregulated power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.” This energy-market free-for-all means that as the snow finally melts, many Texans are discovering that they owe their private electricity providers thousands of dollars — a consequence of leaving pricing to the whims of the market. The $200,000 energy bills some people received, the photos of which went viral online, were, it seems, a mistake. But some bills approaching $10,000 are the result of simple supply and demand in a radically underregulated market. “The last thing an awful lot of people need right now is a higher electric bill,” said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst with LendingTree. “And that’s unfortunately something a lot of people will get stuck with.” This is bad news for those customers, but great news for shale gas companies like Comstock Resources Inc. On an earnings call last Wednesday, its chief financial officer said, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” Put bluntly, Texas is about as far from having a Green New Deal as any place on earth. So why have Republicans seized it as their scapegoat of choice? Blame right-wing panic. For decades, the Republicans have met every disaster with a credo I have described as “the shock doctrine.” When disaster strikes, people are frightened and dislocated. They focus on handling the emergencies of daily life, like boiling snow for drinking water. They have less time to engage in politics and a reduced capacity to protect their rights. They often regress, deferring to strong and decisive leaders — think of New York’s ill-fated love affairs with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Large-scale shocks — natural disasters, economic collapse, terrorist attacks — become ideal moments to smuggle inunpopular free-market policies that tend to enrich elites at everyone else’s expense. Crucially, the shock doctrine is not about solving underlying drivers of crises: It’s about exploiting those crises to ram through your wish list even if it exacerbates the crisis. To explain this phenomenon, I often quote a guru of the free market revolution, the late economist Milton Friedman. In 1982, hewrote about what he saw as the mission of right-wing economists like him: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Republicans Offer Preview of Brutal Climate Policies in Texas - As Texas battled a severe snowstorm and mass power outages this winter, Tim Boyd, the now-former Republican mayor of Colorado City, revealed his party’s plan for the deadly extreme temperatures linked to climate change. In a lengthy Facebook post that was deleted soon after it went viral, then-Mayor Boyd told his residents that they were entirely on their own as the brutal winter weather caused mayhem and deaths across the Lone Star state.His honesty was like catching a glimpse of a rare animal in the wild. “Sink or swim[,] it’s your choice!” he wrote, without bothering to couch his words in euphemisms. Boyd added, “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” For such an exhortation to come from the elected leader of a city—a man literally chosen by his people to ensure that local government works for them—was shocking.Just as they pay their mayor, Colorado City’s residents also pay authorities to provide them with basic necessities like electricity and water. But apparently, Boyd thought an expectation of services was out of line. He conjectured, “If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe.” Many Texans have tried to do just that, running their car engine in their garage to warm their homes. So far in Harris County, there have been at least 50 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning and several people have died.“If you have no water you deal without and think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family,” posited Boyd, expecting Texans who were searching for ways to provide their own electricity to also deal with a lack of water as pipes froze in the plummeting temperatures.Boyd’s diatribe veered into familiar Republican territory as he blamed residents for their own plight by saying, “If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your (sic) lazy [it] is [a] direct result of your raising.” It is a long-simmering idea among conservatives that Americans who depend on their government are simply lazy.Generally, white conservatives have reserved the word “lazy” for people of color who are victims of systemic racial discrimination. Indeed, the weather-related blackouts in Texas impacted the residents of minority neighborhoods disproportionately. Boyd and those who share his views would likely assume this must have been a direct result of their laziness.

Power failure: How a winter storm pushed Texas into crisis— Two days before the storm began, Houston’s chief elected official warned her constituents to prepare as they would for a major hurricane. Many took heed: Texans who could stocked up on food and water, while nonprofits and government agencies set out to help those who couldn’t. But few foresaw the fiasco that was to come. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. And a prideful state, long suspicious of regulation and outside help, was left to seek aid from other states and humanitarian groups as many of its 29 million people grasped for survival. At one hospital, workers stood outside to collect rainwater. Others stood in line at a running tap in a park. A mother of three took her children to shelter in a furniture store after she could see her breath forming in the family’s trailer. University professors fundraised so their students could afford meals. Images of desperate Texans circulated worldwide. To some, they evoked comparisons to a less wealthy or self-regarding place. To others, they laid bare problems that have long festered. The state’s Republican leadership was blamed for ignoring warnings that winter could wreak the havoc that it did, and for not providing local officials with enough information to protect residents now. A lack of regulations to protect critical infrastructure and failure by officials to take recommended steps to winterize equipment left the nation’s largest energy-producing state unprepared for last week’s weather emergency. A week after she warned her county’s nearly 5 million residents about the impending storm, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was sleeping on an air mattress at the county’s emergency operations center. Her home was without power for three nights. “It’s worth asking the question: Who set up this system and who perpetuated it knowing that the right regulation was not in place?” Hidalgo said. “Those questions are going to have to be asked and I hope that changes will come. The community deserves answers.”

U.S. energy regulator to examine climate change's threat to power reliability (Reuters) - U.S. federal energy regulators said on Monday they will examine threats that climate change and extreme weather events pose to the country’s electric reliability in the wake of last week’s deadly Texas freeze that left millions of people without power. “The effects of climate change are already apparent,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Glick said in a statement. “We must do everything we can within our statutory authority to ensure that the electric grid is capable of keeping the lights (on) in the face of extreme weather.” FERC, which regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and natural gas and approves fossil fuel projects such as pipelines, could play a big role in President Joe Biden’s promise to make the power grid emissions-free by 2035. It was not immediately clear how FERC, a panel of five commissioners which has a 3-2 Republican majority until about June, can keep help power delivery reliable in an age of extreme weather events. In California last August a crushing heat wave led to rolling blackouts for two days. A decade ago, after a milder Texas cold snap led to power outages, FERC probed ways to protect the grid and wrote recommendations for winterization of natural gas and other installations. "We followed up on those for a couple of years, but actual implementation was in the hands primarily of the Texas authorities who run the grid, and as memories faded most of those steps were not taken," former FERC chair Cheryl LaFleur told Reuters in a video interview here. She said the severity of last week’s freeze, which killed at least two dozen people, should prompt a stronger response. Earlier this month, Glick, a Democrat, said FERC will create the panel’s first position to oversee environmental justice. The person will ensure that FERC decisions do not unfairly hurt historically marginalized communities with pollution, he said.

Rolling blackouts in Kansas helped regional power grid avoid 'cascading failures' — A small crowd gathered last Wednesday in Emporia on the hillside next to the Prairie Street bridge, seeking respite from rolling blackouts and extreme cold.  Much of Emporia, and Kansas, had shut down for three days, leaving residents struggling to understand the rolling blackouts and skyrocketing natural gas prices. Federal regulators were preparing to launch an investigation into how the Midwest power grid had come so dangerously close to a more catastrophic failure.Managers of the Southwest Power Pool delivered a series of emergency warnings from their office in Little Rock, commanding utilities across a 14-state region to begin shutting off power for rotating blocks of customers. For Evergy, serving eastern Kansas and western Missouri, that had meant imposing a temporary blackout for 170,000 customers in the Kansas City region, and 60,000 customers elsewhere.“What happens is that if they don’t take any corrective action, then an unplanned event happens, and it could lead to cascading failures — and that would be a disaster because it takes days to recover from,” said Anil Pahwa, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, where he has taught and conducted research since 1983.“It’s not just a small part of the city, like Topeka or Kanas City, being in the dark for a short period,” Pahwa said. “We could be talking about all of Kansas being out for days or weeks.”Critics of renewable energy seized an opportunity to complain that wind was unreliable. The greater risk turned out to be a failure to winterize elements of the power grid in preparation for increasingly likely extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Coal-powered plants and wind turbines suffered from extreme cold — temperatures in parts of Kansas dropped into the -20s — and utilities were unable to rely on natural gas to make up the difference, like they normally would, because of scarce supply. Frozen pipelines and well pumps made it difficult to access natural gas at a time when there was more demand than ever to heat homes. The price of natural gas spiked from $3 to sometimes more than $500 per mmbtu.

ENERGY TRANSITIONS: As Texas went dark, power flowed in America's coldest place -- Wednesday, February 24, 2021 -- — Greg Schulzetenberg arrived for work last week during the coldest air temperature ever felt in Minnesota's Iron Range. It was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills pushing minus 60. News from the Texas winter storm and grid collapse was top of mind at Lake Country Power in Cohasset, Minn., where Schulzetenberg is marketing manager for the electric cooperative in one of the coldest places in the United States. The freezing temperatures were driving the co-op's electricity demand to near-record levels. But there was no sign of panic. The utility's 8,300 miles of transmission and distribution lines were delivering power just like the day before. And the day before that. "I think we were operating under a conservation alert, but we were not in a crisis, per se," Schulzetenberg said in a telephone interview this week. "We're not strangers to extreme weather up here. We're built to handle extreme cold." Utilities across the northern United States have long fortified themselves against the cold, preventing the sort of widespread outages seen in Texas last week. Gas lines are buried deeper underground to prevent freezing. Power plants are enclosed and insulated to guard against the cold. And some gas plants are equipped with oil backup in case pipelines freeze or heating demand surges, as happened in Texas. Yet these power systems remain highly reliant on fossil fuels to keep the lights on and the heat humming during cold snaps. Coal generated 43% of electricity on Feb. 15 in the 15-state power grid including much of Minnesota, while gas contributed an additional 29%, according to federal figures.

How Texas’ Drive for Energy Independence Set It Up for Disaster - NY Times --Texas has refused to join interstate electrical grids and railed against energy regulation. Now it’s having to answer to millions of residents who were left without power in last week’s snowstorm. — Across the plains of West Texas, the pump jacks that resemble giant bobbing hammers define not just the landscape but the state itself: Texas has been built on the oil-and-gas business for the last 120 years, ever since the discovery of oil on Spindletop Hill near Beaumont in 1901. Texas, the nation’s leading energy-producing state, seemed like the last place on Earth that could run out of energy. Then last week, it did. The crisis could be traced to that other defining Texas trait: independence, both from big government and from the rest of the country. The dominance of the energy industry and the “Republic of Texas” ethos became a devastating liability when energy stopped flowing to millions of Texans who shivered and struggled through a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the state. Part of the responsibility for the near-collapse of the state’s electrical grid can be traced to the decision in 1999 to embark on the nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation, handing control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system to a market-based patchwork of private generators, transmission companies and energy retailers. The energy industry wanted it. The people wanted it. Both parties supported it. “Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates and offering consumers more choices about the power they use,” George W. Bush, then the governor, said as he signed the top-to-bottom deregulation legislation. Mr. Bush’s prediction of lower-cost power generally came true, and the dream of a free-market electrical grid worked reasonably well most of the time, in large part because Texas had so much cheap natural gas as well as abundant wind to power renewable energy. But the newly deregulated system came with few safeguards and even fewer enforced rules. With so many cost-conscious utilities competing for budget-shopping consumers, there was little financial incentive to invest in weather protection and maintenance. Wind turbines are not equipped with the de-icing equipment routinely installed in the colder climes of the Dakotas and power lines have little insulation. The possibility of more frequent cold-weather events was never built into infrastructure plans in a state where climate change remains an exotic, disputed concept. “Deregulation was something akin to abolishing the speed limit on an interstate highway,” said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston. “That opens up shortcuts that cause disasters.” The state’s entire energy infrastructure was walloped with glacial temperatures that even under the strongest of regulations might have frozen gas wells and downed power lines. But what went wrong was far broader: Deregulation meant that critical rules of the road for power were set not by law, but rather by a dizzying array of energy competitors..

Texas and California built different power grids, but neither stood up to climate change - Texas and California may be worlds apart in their politics and climate policies, but they have something in common: Extreme weather crashed their power grids and left people stranded in the dark. The two sprawling, politically potent states have devoted massive sums to their power networks over the past two decades — California to produce huge amounts of wind and solar energy, Texas to create an efficient, go-it-alone electricity market built on gas, coal, nuclear and wind. But neither could keep the lights on in the face of the type of brutal weather that scientists call a taste of a changing climate. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge for President Joe Biden, potentially aiding his efforts to draw support from lawmakers and states for his multitrillion-dollar proposals to harden the nation's energy infrastructure to withstand climate change. But he’s already facing entrenched resistance to his pledges to shift the nation to renewable energy by 2035 — including from fossil fuel advocates who have sought to scapegoat wind and solar for the energy woes in both states. The catastrophe this week in Texas left more than 4 million people in the dark and the cold, and even more without clean water, when a rare blast of Arctic air drove temperatures down, freezing both natural gas plants and wind turbines. Texas “planned more for heatwaves than for ice storms,” said Dan Reicher, who worked in the Clinton administration's Energy Department on renewable energy and is now at Stanford University. And the onus now is on figuring out how to prevent a repeat — a tricky situation given the independence of Texas’ grid and sharp opposition from Republicans there to linking up to other states and giving federal regulators oversight of its power system. So far, the Biden administration has shown little sign of pushing its agenda on Texas, which already leads the nation in wind power. But Congress is eyeing hearings to look at this week's power failures, which are likely to put a spotlight on the state's grid. “How much and how far does the Biden administration want to dig into this from the broader federal perspective? And that remains to be seen,” 

Rep. McCaul defends Texas power grid: 'We're not used to this type of weather' - Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) defended his state's independent power grid Sunday, telling CNN's Dana Bash that "we're not used to this type of weather" and pointing to a decade-old report on winterization as the way forward. The Texas power grid "was set up that way to be independent of federal oversight and regulations," McCaul said on "State of the Union." "That's very good with things like cybersecurity; not so good when it comes to an Arctic blast like this one." Texas, the only state in the continental U.S. that operates an independent electric grid, has come under fire this week following a crippling winter storm that left millions without power and dozens dead when temperatures dropped well below freezing for days on end. The extreme weather has also led to pipes bursting, leaving many around the state without clean water. Power-sharing, McCaul acknowledged, "would [also] have been helpful. We could have shared with other power grids." He described a 2011 report from the state's Legislature that contained recommendations "as to how to winterize our operations," which was never properly implemented. "That's what we're going to be taking a look at moving forward," he said, "so this never happens again." "The difference between Texas and, say, the Northeast, is we're not prepared for this," McCaul went on. "We're not used to this type of weather." The grid "was not winterized for subzero-degree temperatures." "All of what happened this past week was foreseeable and preventable," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who served in the state Legislature in 2011 and introduced a bill that would have winterized the grid, said on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. Adding insult to injury, many residents also received historically high energy bills as a result of the extreme weather — which McCaul said federal funds will help reimburse customers for.

How Texas failed to protect its power grid against extreme weather - Texas regulators and lawmakers knew about the grid’s vulnerabilities for years, but time and again they furthered the interests of large electricity providers. In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse. The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid. In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong. Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”Luminant argued against the proposal. In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.” “Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.” By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known. The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Fact-checking the Texas energy-failure blame game – CNN --This week, all eyes have been on Texas. An unprecedented winter storm left 4 million people without power across the state, and put nearly half of all Texans under a boil-water advisory.Initial reports from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state's power grid, suggested frozen wind turbines were partially to blame. Though ERCOT's report on Sunday said that limited natural gas supplies had also crippled the power grid, many Republican officials seized on frozen wind turbines and solar panels as primary culprits behind the outages. On Tuesday evening, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that due to the weather "our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis." Texas GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw listed "frozen wind turbines" as a major reason for the statewide outages. "This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source. When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn't there when you need it," Crenshaw said in a Twitter thread Tuesday. Facts First: It's incorrect to claim that issues with wind and solar were directly or even primarily responsible for the state's power outages. Additionally, suggesting that Texas has "force[d] the grid to rely in part on wind" energy is misleading.Though frozen wind turbines were a contributing factor, wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the outages, Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT, toldBloomberg.Most of the power outages were due to losses in coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, according to ERCOT.On Wednesday, ERCOT reported 46,000 megawatts of generation were offline. Of that, ERCOT officials said 28,000 megawatts came from thermal sources such as coal, gas and nuclear plants, and 18,000 megawatts were from renewable energy, namely solar and wind."It's really a bigger failure of the natural gas system," Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN. "That's the part that really struggled to keep up."

'Heads will roll': Grid crisis sparks political firestorm --Lights are back on for most Texans, but the policy fights over astronomical power bills, unprepared generating plants and an isolated grid are just beginning.That was evident over the weekend as Texas' electricity crisis grabbed attention on Sunday news shows and the White House said President Biden could soon visit the state.Authorities are still sorting out the toll from last week's winter storm that left millions of Texas residents clustered in homes without heat, power or potable water for hours or days. Others kept power but may face bills in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on their plans. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) held a meeting Saturday with Texas lawmakers to discuss potential solutions for spiking energy costs to consumers.Fallout from the historic power failure will take center stage this week and beyond in Austin, Texas, as calls for reform echo across the country."Politically, a lot of heads will roll," said Alison Silverstein, a Texas-based energy consultant. "There will be a lot of finger-pointing. I don't know how much of this is going to be heat as opposed to light as opposed to smoke in terms of meaningful, substantive changes."Texas' competitive power market includes retail choice in some areas, such as Dallas and Houston. While many customers are on fixed-price plans that offer more protection from market swings, others signed up for rates tied to changes in the wholesale price of electricity. When numerous generators tripped offline early last week, prices surged, leaving some customers exposed to bills in excess of $5,000 or even $10,000.Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who caused a firestorm last week by traveling to Mexico with his family during the Texas crisis, said on Twitter yesterday that "Texans shouldn't get hammered by ridiculous rate increases" for the energy debacle. He pointed to a news story about Griddy, whose customers see their rates fluctuate with wholesale prices.Abbott said lawmakers, who are in session until May 31, intend to address both the surprise utility bills and the broader problem of weatherizing the state power system, although he said a decision hasn't been made on how to fund it.

Lawsuits already being filed against ERCOT over power outages in Texas --- The snow hadn’t even completely melted before lawsuits began cropping up against the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Inc. over its response to the winter storm that socked the state last week.Nationally prominent litigator Mikal Watts of San Antonio is part of legal teams that have already filed two such lawsuits, including one involving a Houston man believed to have died of hypothermia Tuesday as a result of a power outage that left him without heat in his home.ERCOT, the nonprofit that manages the grid that provides power to some 26 million Texans, instituted rolling blackouts to avoid a catastrophic grid failure. Power plants around the state were unable to withstand the frigid temperatures, and millions of Texans were plunged into the dark without heat.“ERCOT has singularly failed to meet its mission,” Watts said. “It not only failed to provide reliable electricity to people of the state of Texas, it put their safety in grave danger, leading to the unnecessary deaths of countless Texans.”At least 35 deaths reportedly occurred in Texas as result of the storm. The action in Harris County was filed Monday in the death of Doyle A. Austin, whose house lost power late in the evening of Feb. 14. He was still without power the following evening when a relative found him unresponsive. Paramedics were unable to revive him. The lawsuit over Austin’s death was brought by his daughter Linda Brown. She’s suing ERCOT and local power company CenterPoint Energy Inc. for negligence in failing to prepare for the state’s power needs. She also has a gross negligence claim to also recover punitive damages. ERCOT spokesperson Leslie Sopko declined to comment on the lawsuits it faces. On Friday, Watts and other lawyers filed a suit against ERCOT on behalf of Corpus Christi resident Donald McCarley. The suit also names the local electrical provider, AEP Texas Inc., and its parent company, American Electric Power Co. Inc.  McCarley’s claims include gross negligence, but he’s also alleging the rolling blackouts amounted to a “taking of property” without adequate compensation — a violation of the Texas constitution. He also says the loss of power “interfered with (his) use and enjoyment of his home.”

Top board leaders resign after deadly Texas power outage — Top board leaders of Texas’ embattled power grid operator said Tuesday they will resign following outrage over more than 4 million customers losing electricity last week during a deadly winter storm, including many whose frigid homes lacked heat for days in subfreezing temperatures. The resignations are the first since the crisis began in Texas, and calls for wider firings remain in the aftermath of one of the worst power outages in U.S. history. All of the four board directors who are stepping down, including Chairwoman Sally Talberg, live outside of Texas, which only intensified criticism of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The resignations are effective Wednesday — a day before Texas lawmakers are expected to sharply question grid managers and energy officials about the failures during hearings at the state Capitol. A fifth board member also resigned, and a candidate for a director position who also does not live in Texas withdrew his name. The board members acknowledged “concerns about out-of-state board leadership" in a letter to grid members and the state's Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT. During the crisis, ERCOT officials removed contact information for board members off its website, saying they had become the target of threats. “Our hearts go out to all Texans who have had to go without electricity, heat, and water during frigid temperatures and continue to face the tragic consequences of this emergency," the letter read. The other board members are vice chairman Peter Cramton, Terry Bulger and Raymond Hepper. Talberg lives in Michigan and Bulger lives in Wheaton, Illinois, according to their biographies on ERCOT's website. Cramton and Hepper spent their careers working outside Texas. The fifth board member leaving is Vanessa Anesetti-Parra. There are a total of 16 members on ERCOT's board, which appoints officers who manage the grid manager’s day-to-day operations.

Investigation called for after Austin power outage by Travis County --Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza said Tuesday that he is opening a criminal investigation to determine whether any entity or individuals should face charges stemming from last week's power outages that left millions of Texans in the dark.Garza told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV that "our office will be be conducting an investigation into the events that led to last week's crisis, and we will do everything we can to hold powerful actors accountable whose actions or inactions may have led to the suffering.""Lives were lost, homes were lost and it will take weeks, months and — in some cases — years for some people to be made whole again," Garza said. "We will not forget the horror our community experienced." Garza declined to cite the target of his investigation and whether it was aimed specifically at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state's power grid. He added that he was heartened to see how the Austin community and others came together, and he specifically named EMS and hospital workers, firefighters and law enforcement. Garza, who had been evaluating whether to open the investigation in recent days, made the announcement hours after state Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher, D-San Antonio, sent a letter to Garza urging him to investigate the "failure of the state of Texas and the Texas energy industry to prepare for last week's catastrophic winter storms."   Fisher then issued a statement: "Put plainly, what happened last week in our state was a crime. No amount of promises from industry players to do better next time will fix this, and even the most forward-thinking policy is insufficient to offer justice to Texans impacted by the storm." "The state of Texas cannot investigate itself," Fisher said. "We need a thorough outside investigation to determine whether acts and omissions of state officials violated the law."

Texas lawmakers promise tough questions during hearings on outages  --When Texas lawmakers convene Thursday for a series of hearings aimed at examining power outages that left millions of people in the cold and dark amid a winter storm, it won’t be the first time they've talked about the issue. The question is: Will they do anything about it this time? Past legislative efforts to make changes to the state’s electric grid and at the Public Utility Commission stalled, including after winter storms in 2011 that prompted rolling blackouts. But lawmakers say the catastrophic impact of this year’s storm, the spotlight on past inaction and early pledges from state leadership to make changes mean the Legislature has no choice but to act. “We can’t fail again,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. Howard serves on the House State Affairs Committee, one of three legislative panels convening Thursday to examine the outages. The House Energy Resources Committee will hold a joint meeting with the State Affairs Committee, while the Senate Business and Commerce Committee will hold its own hearing. Both hearings will feature invited testimony from leaders at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (which oversees the electricity grid that serves most of the state and is commonly known as ERCOT), the Public Utility Commission and the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry. The meetings will be closed to public comment, but individuals wishing to register their opinions can submit comments in writing to both the House and Senate committees. Some changes are already in motion at these regulatory agencies — including the resignations of six board members at ERCOT — but energy experts say the Legislature is ultimately responsible for ensuring that reforms are adopted. “The buck stops with the state Legislature,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, during a Wednesday webinar about the power outages. “We’re a state with a weak governor system, we’ve kept federal regulators out of our business, and each agency only addresses one piece of the problem — ERCOT with the power grid, the Railroad Commission with the oil and gas pipelines. This is going to need a fix from the state Legislature.” Lawmakers held similar legislative hearings in 2011, after a winter storm led to rolling blackouts that affected more than 3 million customers. Lawmakers at the time vented at representatives of ERCOT and various power companies about the outages, but the upshot of the hearings consisted mainly of assurances that the state’s grid wouldn’t be caught flat-footed again — legislators did not approve new enforcement tools.

After Texans died during winter storm, Harris and Travis counties launch investigations into power outages -- Officials in Travis and Harris counties are launching separate investigations into the events that led up to last week's massive power outages. Harris County will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”Separately, Travis County District Attorney José Garza told KVUE and the Austin American-Statesman that his office had launched a criminal investigation to determine whether charges should be filed against any person or entity. The move came after state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, earlier on Tuesday called on Garza's office to launch "a thorough outside investigation to determine whether acts and omissions of state officials violated the law.”The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one."The state cannot investigate itself," Martinez Fischer said in a statement and urged his House colleagues to call for similar investigations in their districts.Spokespeople for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Public Utility Commission could not immediately be reached for comment.Dozens of Texans died because of last week's winter storm, which caused damages throughout the state that experts say could cost billions. Gov. Greg Abbott blasted ERCOT for its handling of the emergency. He declared reform of the organization anemergency item for the 2021 legislative session.Garza did not indicate whether ERCOT would be a target of the investigation, KVUE and the Statesman reported.

Lessons from the Texas mess - By now, the story of what happened in Texas last week is familiar: an extraordinary cold snap simultaneously a) raised demand on the grid to well higher than the grid operator’s worst-case winter projections, and b) knocked out more than 30 gigawatts worth of energy generators. Supply and demand must be kept in perfect balance on a self-contained grid like Texas’, so when demand spiked and supply plunged, something had to give — thus the not-so-rolling blackouts. Most of that lost generation was natural gas and coal. Freezing afflicted not only the water used in power plants but the mining, distribution, and storage of fossil fuels. And, yes, some wind turbines froze, though wind actually performed better than the modest expectations set by ERCOT, Texas’ grid operator. I’m not going to go through the story in detail. I just want to talk a bit about what it means and what we can learn from it. To learn more about what happened, those affected, and the role Texas’s grid and regulations played in events, I recommend reading the following:

Any handful of those stories (save the last) will fill you in on what happened and why. Now let’s talk about what we can learn from it.

Elderly bear the brunt of Texas power outage catastrophe - The decision by ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) to initiate indefinite rolling blackouts across the state of Texas has taken its biggest toll on the elderly. Seniors—particularly those dependent on Social Security benefits for housing, medicine, and essentials—were in many cases trapped inside their homes, unable to leave and impossible to reach for days on end. As of Wednesday, more than 1.3 million residents across 200 Texas counties remained without clean water in their homes, forcing them to boil water, wait in line for bottled water or purchase it at the store. At the peak last week, nearly 15 million Texans were under a boil-water advisory after widespread power outages knocked out water treatment and distribution across the state. Freezing temperatures that set in two weeks ago overwhelmed the state’s electrical system, freezing natural gas lines and shutting down power plants, leaving more than 4 million people without power, many for days on end. The implementation of weatherization measures that would have prevented the disaster was avoided because they would have cut into profit margins. ERCOT’s CEO, Bill Magness, presented a chart to a meeting of the company’s board Wednesday that showed that the electric system was four minutes and 37 seconds away from a complete collapse that would have lasted weeks or ever months. “I mean, we saw something here that, you know, outstrips any extreme scenario,” Magness reported. Almost half of the state’s power generating units shut down at the peak of the crisis. Millions of Texans were left out of the state’s Emergency Warning System, and a disproportionate amount of preventable human suffering fell on the oldest, most isolated, and most dependent members of society. So far, at least 58 deaths in Texas and across the US have been attributed to the extreme weather, including an 11-year-old who died in his bed of suspected hypothermia after his family’s trailer home lost power.

His Lights Stayed on During Texas’ Storm. Now He Owes $16,752. - The New York Times — As millions of Texans shivered in dark, cold homes over the past week while a winter storm devastated the state’s power grid and froze natural gas production, those who could still summon lights with the flick of a switch felt lucky. Now, many of them are paying a severe price for it. “My savings is gone,” said Scott Willoughby, a 63-year-old Army veteran who lives on Social Security payments in a Dallas suburb. He said he had nearly emptied his savings account so that he would be able to pay the $16,752 electric bill charged to his credit card — 70 times what he usually pays for all of his utilities combined. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.” Mr. Willoughby is among scores of Texans who have reported skyrocketing electric bills as the price of keeping lights on and refrigerators humming shot upward. For customers whose electricity prices are not fixed and are instead tied to the fluctuating wholesale price, the spikes have been astronomical. The outcry elicited angry calls for action from lawmakers from both parties and prompted Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to hold an emergency meeting with legislators on Saturday to discuss the enormous bills. “We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” Mr. Abbott, who has been reeling after the state’s infrastructure failure, said in a statement after the meeting. The electric bills are coming due at the end of a week in which Texans have faced a combination of crises caused by the frigid weather, beginning on Monday, when power grid failures and surging demand led to millions being left without electricity.

State of Texas should pay for enormous energy bills after power outages, Houston mayor says - Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday called on the state of Texas to pay for the enormous electric bills that scores of Texans reported after severe winter weather knocked out power and rose energy prices. Frigid conditions last week caused major grid failures and skyrocketing demand that left millions of people without heat and electricity. Now, as power resumes for most of Texas, some households face utility bills as high as $10,000."For people getting these exorbitant electricity bills and having to pay to repair their homes, they should not have to bear the responsibility," Turner said during an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Those exorbitant costs should be borne by the state of Texas and not the individual customers who did not cause this catastrophe this week."The high utility bills in Texas are due to the state's unregulated power grid that's nearly cut off from the rest of the country. In the market-driven system, customers pick their own power suppliers. In many cases, when demand increases, prices also rise.The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages power for roughly 90% of the state, was unprepared for the cold conditions and the surge in demand for power as people tried to heat their homes."All of what happened this past week was foreseeable and preventable. Our system in Texas is designed for summer heat and not necessarily a winter event," Turner said."Climate change is real and these major storms can happen at any time," he added. "These systems need to be weatherized … we need to open up the Texas grid." The exorbitant bills prompted Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to hold an emergency meeting with lawmakers on Saturday to address how the state can reduce the burden on consumers.

Texas utilities can't stick customers with huge bills after storm: Abbott (Reuters) - Texas utility regulators will temporarily ban power companies from billing customers or disconnecting them for non-payment, after the deadly winter storm that caused widespread blackouts, Governor Greg Abbott said on Sunday. Abbott called an emergency meeting with state lawmakers on Saturday after reports of many customers receiving bills for thousands of dollars for just a few days’ electricity service while Texas was gripped by frigid temperatures. “Texans who have suffered through days of freezing cold without power should not be subjected to skyrocketing energy bills,” Abbott told reporters on Sunday in San Antonio. He said the Public Utility Commission of Texas will order electricity companies to pause sending bills to customers, and will issue a temporary moratorium on disconnection for non-payment. The state will use the time to find a way to protect utility customers, Abbott said. “The issue about utility bills and the skyrocketing prices that so many homeowners and renters are facing is the top priority for the Texas legislature right now,” he said. Texas has a highly unusual deregulated energy market that lets consumers choose between scores of competing electricity providers. Some providers sell electricity at wholesale prices that rise in sync with demand, which skyrocketed as the record-breaking freeze gripped a state unaccustomed to extreme cold, killing at least two dozen people and knocking out power to more than 4 million people at its peak; some 30,000 people were still without power on Sunday, Abbott said. As a result, some Texans who were still able to turn on lights or keep their fridge running found themselves with bills of $5,000 for just a five-day period, according to photos of invoices posted on social media by angry consumers.

Dan Patrick Says Texas May Ban Utility Plans That Produced $17k Power Bills: 'Read the Fine Print' - Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Wednesday that variable utility plans which delivered extraordinary power bills to Texans may be banned because customers were not reading the fine print.Patrick told Fox News' Harris Faulkner that residents should "not panic" after being broadsided by the unexpected debts, vowing that the state would help "figure that out." Although millions were left without electricity amid Texas' unprecedented cold snap earlier this month, many of those who did not have power cut saw their bills skyrocket, with some invoices soaring as high as $17,000 due to variable pricing plans. "I saw the story about the high bills, let me explain that," Patrick said. "We have in Texas, you can choose your energy plan and most people have a fixed rate. If they had a fixed rate per kilowatt hour, their rates aren't going up. Now, their bill might be up because they used more energy because they had the heat up when they got the power back. But the people who are getting those big bills are people who gambled on a very, very low rate. And it would go up with the power." "I've told those folks do not panic, we are going to figure that out" added Patrick. "But going forward, people need to read fine print in those kinds of bills. And we may even end that type of variable plan because people were surprised."

Texas Electric Bills Were $28 Billion Higher Under Deregulation – WSJ -Texas’s deregulated electricity market, which was supposed to provide reliable power at a lower price, left millions in the dark last week. For two decades, its customers have paid more for electricity than state residents who are served by traditional utilities, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found.Nearly 20 years ago, Texas shifted from using full-service regulated utilities to generate power and deliver it to consumers. The state deregulated power generation, creating the system that failed last week. And it required nearly 60% of consumers to buy their electricity from one of many retail power companies, rather than a local utility. The roughly 60% of Texans who must choose a retail electricity provider consistently pay more than customers in the state who buy their power from traditional utilities.Source: Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration data.  Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28 billion more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities, according to the Journal’s analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Administration.The crisis last week was driven by the power producers. Now that power has largely been restored, attention has turned to retail electric companies, a few of which are hitting consumers with steep bills. Power prices surged to the market price cap of $9,000 a megawatt hour for several days during the crisis, a feature of the state’s system designed to incentivize power plants to supply more juice. Some consumers who chose variable rate power plans from retail power companies are seeing the big bills.Since 2004, Texans who had to choose their electricity provider from competing retailers paid $28 billionmore than they would have paid at the rates charged by the state’s traditional utilities.Source: Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration dataNote: Total extra cost paid each year by retail electricity consumers in Texas. None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said.The EIA data shows how much electricity each utility or retail provider sold to residents in a given year and how much customers paid for it. The Journal calculated separate annual statewide rates for utilities and retailers by adding up all of the revenue each type of provider received and dividing it by the kilowatt-hours of electricity it sold.From 2004 through 2019, the annual rate for electricity from Texas’s traditional utilities was 8% lower, on average, than the nationwide average rate, while the rates of retail providers averaged 13% higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Journal’s analysis.

Texas lawmakers seek to assign blame for deadly power blackout (Reuters) - Texas state lawmakers dug into the causes and cast blame on Thursday for deadly power blackouts that left millions shivering in the dark as frigid temperatures caught its grid operator and utilities ill-prepared for skyrocketing power demand. Dual hearings in the state House and Senate are highlighting shortcomings by grid planners, electric utilities, natural gas suppliers, renewable energy and transmission operators that led to billions of dollars in damages and dozens of deaths. One fact everyone agreed on: No one warned Texans that blackouts would last days, not hours. “Who’s at fault?” State Representative Todd Hunter demanded of utility executives. “I want to hear who’s at fault. I want the public to know who screwed up.” Mauricio Gutierrez, the chief executive of NRG Energy Inc, said, “The entire energy sector failed Texas.” A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told Reuters that 711,938 Texans were still grappling with water supply problems by Thursday, though the number had fallen sharply. The figure compared with Wednesday’s 1.3 million, itself down from Sunday’s 9 million, or about a third of the state’s population. While executives pointed to broad failures, the biggest was the state’s natural gas system, responsible for the largest share of Texas power generation, said Curtis Morgan, chief executive of Vistra Corp. Texas is the country’s biggest producer of natural gas, but without better ties between gas producers, pipelines and power plants, the state will face future cold weather outages. “We just couldn’t get the gas at the pressures we needed,” said Morgan, who told employees to buy gas at any price but could not get enough to run plants. The Comanche Peak nuclear power plant southwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area was minutes from going offline, Morgan said.At one point, 40% of its gas suppliers had cut it off despite firm purchase agreements, said Calpine Chief Executive Thad Hill, which has a dozen natural gas plants in Texas. Up to 48% of the state’s power generation was offline at times last week and at least 32 people died, including an 11-year-old boy, who succumbed to hypothermia in an unheated mobile home.

Factbox: Winners and losers in energy sector from Texas cold snap (Reuters) - A winter storm that hit parts of the southern United States over the past week led several energy companies to report stronger-than-expected results after they were called on to provide more power at higher prices, while others faced millions of dollars in losses. Here is a look at the winners and losers in the energy sector from the storm:

  • WINNERS:Comstock Resources said the last week was “like hitting the jackpot,” adding it was able to sell at “super-premium prices” a material amount of production at anywhere from $15 per million cubic feet of gas (mcf) to as much as around $179 per mcf.EQT Corp said last week that it also benefited from high prices in regions affected by the cold snap. The company mainly produces gas out of the Marcellus and Utica shale regions in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Australia’s Macquarie Group, the second biggest gas marketer in North America after oil major BP, lifted its profit guidance on Monday due to the effects of the extreme winter weather. It expects 2021 profit to rise by 10%, after earlier anticipating earnings to drop.Other natural gas weighted production companies, including Cabot Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy Co, Range Resources Corp and Antero Resources, may benefit from the freeze, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note.Shares of refiners such as HollyFrontier Corp and Valero Energy Corp rose after the freezing temperatures knocked a large swath of U.S. Gulf Coast refining offline, . Eurozone refiners, including Shell and Total, are positioned to benefit as they ramp up their shipments of gasoline into New York Harbor, he said.
  • LOSERS: Just Energy raised doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern, after it forecast a $250 million loss from the Texas winter storms. Innergex Renewable Energy Inc forecast a financial impact of up to C$60 million on its Texas wind farms. Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp said on Friday it expects the potential hit to adjusted core earnings for this year to be between $45 million and $55 million after bad weather restricted production at its Renewable Energy Group’s Texas-based wind facilities. Atmos Energy said on Friday it purchased natural gas for an extra $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion due to higher cost of the fuel, adding it was evaluating financing options to pay for the additional purchase cost. Solaris said on Monday last week’s weather would have an impact on first quarter financials, but did not quantify the hit. Shale oil producers in the southern United States could take at least two weeks to restart the more than 2 million barrels per day of crude output that shut down. Some production may never return, analysts said. Diamondback Energy said it expects the weather to wipe off up to five days of production in the current quarter. Cimarex Energy Inc said it expects an up to 7% hit to production volume in the quarter. Occidental Petroleum forecast first-quarter Permian production of 450,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day to 460,000 boepd, including a 25,000 boepd hit from downtime related to the winter storm. Laredo Petroleum said its Permian Basin operations were affected for the last 12 days and estimated the combined impact of shut-in production and completions delays to reduce first-quarter total output by about 8,000 boepd and oil production by about 3,000 bpd. Refiners with oil processing facilities along the Gulf Coast, the main U.S. refining hub, such as Phillips 66 and Exxon Mobil, were forced to halt operations. By Thursday last week, the historic sub-zero temperatures in Texas and Louisiana shut at least 3.5 million barrels per day, or about 19%, of U.S. refining capacity.

ChartWatch: Companies tally millions in gains, losses from grid-crippling freeze | S&P Global Market Intelligence - Several electricity and natural gas providers have warned of significant financial impacts from the deep freeze that swept across the Western U.S., while other energy companies expect to benefit from the supply constraints and related price hikes. Just Energy Group Inc. on Feb. 22 said it could record a total of US$250 million, or C$315 million, in losses from the brutal cold stretch of weather that prompted widespread blackouts in Texas. The retail energy provider also warned that the financial impact could be "materially adverse to the company's liquidity and its ability to continue as a going concern." The uncertainty from the extreme weather event in Texas prompted Just Energy to withdraw its fiscal 2021 guidance and delay the filing of its financial statements for the three and nine months ended Dec. 31, 2020. Increased demand and rolling outages in Texas caused Just Energy to balance power supply at very high clearing prices through the Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc., "artificially set at USD $9,000/MWh for much of the week." The Public Utility Commission of Texas on Feb. 15 directed ERCOT to adjust wholesale energy prices to ensure they accurately reflect current conditions amid the state's energy emergency. Power providers Vistra Corp. and NRG Energy Inc. were initially believed to have the most exposure to generation outages in ERCOT given their large generation fleets in the state. Irving, Texas-headquartered Vistra on Feb. 17 disclosed only about 1,000 MW of its more than 19,000 MW of generation was offline during the widespread generation outages. As fully integrated power providers, NRG and Vistra also own large retail electricity companies in Texas. Vistra has a "long" position, with more generation in Texas than retail load, while NRG has more retail load than generation. On Feb. 22, NRG pushed its planned release of earnings results to March 1, because President and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez is scheduled to appear before the Texas Legislature on Feb. 25. Natural gas distribution company Atmos Energy Corp. reported accruing about $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion in natural gas purchases due to "unforeseeable and unprecedented market pricing" during the winter storm. Atmos said it was considering several options to cover the costs, including tapping short-term or long-term debt and issuing equity. Meanwhile, natural gas producers Comstock Resources Inc., Antero Resources Corp. and EQT Corp. are among those expected to cash in on the surge in fuel prices. "We feel very fortunate to be able to have gas in storage at a time when it's needed in a big way," Energy Transfer LP co-CEO and Chief Commercial Officer Marshall McCrea said on a Feb. 17 earnings call. "We hate what's going on in the country, in this state, but we're doing everything we possibly can to pull gas out of storage and deliver it to the power plants and to the LDCs." The economic impacts of the energy crisis also were felt outside of the U.S. Canadian solar and wind developer Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. expects a financial hit of between C$45 million to C$60 million as a result of realized losses on power hedges. Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., a Canadian company that owns U.S. utilities, said Feb. 19 it expects a negative financial impact of $45 million to $55 million on 2021 adjusted EBITDA from the winter storm. The company said it has asserted force majeure and is assessing other potential mitigating options. German power producer RWE AG, which owns more than 3 GW of mostly wind capacity in Texas, said the outages and unfavorable pricing conditions will trigger a "significant negative earnings impact" for its onshore wind and solar segment in the U.S.

How Investors Can Play The One Clear Winner From Texas’ Electric Grid Collapse: Battery Storage --The Electric Reliability Council of Texas did not live up to its name last week. And although daytime high temperatures in Houston have already returned to their regularly scheduled 70 degrees, the impact of the deep freeze lingers on in busted water pipes, empty store shelves and long lines at gas stations. Along with the plumbers working through their massive backlogs, there will be another big winner that emerges from the ice storm: batteries. As politicians wangle over how to reform ERCOT and the Texas power grid to withstand a future freeze, expect Texans to take matters into their own hands. There will plenty of new sales of more traditional natural gas-powered backup generators; leading manufacturer Generac reported a surge of new interest from homeowners last week. But expect bigger interest in systems that can work all year around, combining solar panels and battery storage. Houston-based Sunnova is offering home solar systems with battery storage at 0% finance rates and no downpayment. Competitor Sunpower offers home systems that include integration with an A.I.-informed smartphone app that enables a homeowner to sell excess solar power from their batteries back into the grid. “Storage is coming down in cost as fast as solar did,” saysSunpower CEO Tom Warner. “You can have a power plant at home where you have total control.”   Every new rooftop solar system will take pressure off what is clearly a stressed out grid. “The current grid is incapable of handling an increasing number of climate-driven extreme weather events,” says Carl Fleming, partner in the energy finance practice of McDermott Will & Emery. Solar and wind “would be more effective at energizing the grid during such times with the addition of strategic battery storage to allow for immediate response time, or for ample energy storage of multiple durations.”

Texas freeze casts renewable energy as next battle line in US culture wars -  The frigid winter storm and power failure that left millions of people in Texasshivering in darkness has been used to stoke what is becoming a growing front in America’s culture wars – renewable energy.The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which oversees the Texas grid,has been clear that outages of solar and wind energy were only a minor factor in blackouts which, at their peak, left 4 million Texans without electricity, with many resorting to burning furniture or using outdoor barbecues to desperately warm themselves amid the shocking blast of Arctic-like conditions. Crucially, the supply of natural gas, which supplies about half of Texas’s electricity, seized up due to frozen pipes and a lack of standby reserves. The grid failed after about a third of Ercot’s total capacity – supplied by coal, nuclear and gas – went offline as demand for heating dramatically surged. Regardless, the Republican leadership in Texas, abetted by rightwing media outlets and a proliferation of false claims on social media, has sought to pin the crisis on wind turbines and solar panels freezing when the Lone Star state needed them most.“The Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Greg Abbott, Texas’s governor, told Fox News last week, in reference to a plan to rapidly transition the US to renewable energy that currently only exists on paper. “Our wind and our solar got shut down … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”Abbott subsequently walked backed these comments but others have been less hesitant to use the crisis to attack renewables. Sid Miller, Texas’s agriculture commissioner, stated that “we should never build another wind turbine in Texas” on Facebook, while Tucker Carlson, the prominent rightwing Fox News host, said “windmills” were “silly fashion accessories” prone to failure.Fox News blamed renewables for the blackouts 128 times in just a 48-hour period last week, according to Media Matters. The distortions were amplified by social media, with a picture of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine widely shared on Twitter and Facebook, even though the photo was taken in Sweden in 2014.A YouTube live stream by the conservative commentator Steven Crowder blaming the blackouts on “the failures of green energy” has been viewed about a million times, while the Texas Public Policy Foundation used paid Facebook adverts to urge people to “thank” fossil fuels for keeping them warm while assailing “failed” wind energy.The scorn heaped on renewables has echoes of the blackouts suffered by California during devastating wildfires last year, which caused several prominent Texas Republicans such as Dan Crenshaw, a member of Congress, and Senator Ted Cruz, who last week fled his stricken home state for sunny Cancún, to mock California’s shift to cleaner energy. The expansion of wind and solar, a key policy goal of Joe Biden, is now developing into yet another cultural battle line, despite strong public support for renewables. Jesse Keenan, an expert in climate adaptation at Tulane University, said the use of “targeted disinformation” and conspiracy theories is obscuring the more pressing issue of how states like Texas cope with the challenges of extreme weather linked to the climate crisis.

Bill would give local control over wind, solar farm approval - Farm and Dairy - A new Ohio Senate bill would put control of approving new large wind and solar developments in the hands of townships. Senate Bill 52 would set up a referendum process on certain wind farm and solar facility certificates before the projects go before the Ohio Power Siting Board. The legislation was introduced by Republican Sens. Bill Reineke, of Tiffin, and Rob McColley, of Napoleon. There’s a lack of public awareness about these types of projects, Reineke said, during the first hearing for the bill, Feb. 17, in the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee. Large utility-scale wind and solar projects are certified through the Ohio Power Siting Board and, currently, do not need local approval to be built. There is a public comment process through the power siting board, but Reineke said it’s not meaningful or effective for residents. “The intent of the legislation is not to thwart wind development or the development of renewable energy in Ohio at all,” Reineke said during the hearing. “Senate Bill 52 aims to allow local citizens to decide what is best for their community instead of leaving that decision to people in Columbus, unelected bureaucrats, or us, who think we know what’s best for other peoples’ communities.”  Senate Bill 52 would require developers to give notice to and share project details with township trustees 30 days before applying for a certificate from the Ohio Power Siting Board. Trustees would then have 30 days to decide whether to pass a resolution allowing or requiring public input, or to do nothing, which would imply support for the project. A resolution allowing public input would let residents petition for a referendum. The referendum, if allowed, would then be held during the next primary or general election. The bill would also require a copy of the wind turbine manufacturer’s safety specifications, including the manufacturer’s recommended safety distances for the wind turbines, to be included in the certification application. The minimum setback will be whichever is greater, the current Ohio standards, or the distance in the safety manufacturer’s manual.

Former Michigan Gov. Granholm confirmed as energy secretary (AP) — Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation Thursday to be energy secretary, joining President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as a leader of Biden’s effort to build a green economy as the United States moves to slow climate change. The vote was 64-35, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voting yes. Granholm, 62, served two terms as governor in a state dominated by the auto industry and devastated by the 2008 recession. She has promoted emerging clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles and battery manufacturing, as an answer for jobs that will be lost as the U.S. transitions away from oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Granholm, who was sworn in late Thursday, is just the second woman to serve as energy secretary. She tweeted her thanks to senators and said, “I’m obsessed with creating good-paying clean energy jobs in all corners of America in service of addressing our climate crisis. I’m impatient for results. Now let’s get to work!″ Sen. Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Granholm has the leadership skills, vision and compassion needed at the Energy Department to “develop innovative solutions for the climate challenge″ while preserving jobs. During her confirmation hearing last month, Granholm pushed her plans to embrace new wind and solar technologies. But her position caused tension with some Republicans who fear for the future of fossil fuels. “We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.″ Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, said Biden “seems to want to pull the plug on American energy dominance. So I cannot in good conscience vote to approve his nominee for secretary of energy.″

ELECTRIC VEHICLES: Postal Service sidetracks Biden EV plan -- Wednesday, February 24, 2021 --The U.S. Postal Service yesterday made a $482 million decision to replace its aging truck fleet with a mix of fossil-fuel and electric vehicles, falling short of President Biden's goal of electrifying the federal vehicle fleet.

Ilargi: But….Then There’s the [Lithium] Math --Yves here.  One topic that is weirdly mentioned more than occasionally yet then treated as if it simply doesn’t exist is the high environmental cost of supposedly green clean technologies. This post highlights a specific issue: there simply isn’t enough lithium to supply Tesla’s planned electric vehicles, let alone those of other car makers.EV defenders will argue other battery technologies are just around the corner, like sodium ion, which promises to be more efficient as well as environmentally less taxing. See here for a recap of the status and advantages of other battery technologies under development.The wee problem is that the time it takes to perfect and test a new technology to the degree that it’s ready for industrial implementation is often longer than its boosters would like to believe. So reader input on what next gen battery technologies might be ready for prime time when would be very much appreciated. By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor of Automatic Earth: Dr. D posted this as a short comment, not an article, and he’s welcome, encouraged even, to expand on it at a later date. But I think it’s important enough, and detailed enough, to in fact make it an article. We can take if from here. The blind drive towards EV’s is going to hurt, and we should prepare for that.The idea, and the concept, that we can simply switch from one energy source to another and keep motoring and do all the other things we do, is nothing but a cheap and meaningless sales pitch. To produce 20 million Tesla’s would require 165% of the entire 2019 global lithium production, says this chart from’s just Tesla, that doesn’t yet include the entire rest of the world’s car manufacturers who also claim they’ll go “green”. But then we’ll just raise the production of lithium! Well, there may be a problem with that…

Will California’s desert be transformed into Lithium Valley? -California’s desert is littered with remnants of broken dreams — hidden ghost towns, abandoned mines and rusty remains of someone’s Big Idea. But nothing looms larger on an abandoned landscape than the Salton Sea, which languishes in an overlooked corner of the state.The water shimmers and broils in the desert like a rebuke: born of human error, made worse by 100 years of neglect and pollution. California’s largest lake is also one of its worst environmental blights, presenting a problem so inverted that its toxic legacy intensifies as its foul water disappears. For generations, Imperial Valley residents have been breathing in a Periodic Table of minerals and metals, as well as agricultural chemicals. But for all the misery that these receding waters have unleashed — asthma and other respiratory ailments triggered by dust clouds — the Salton Sea now offers a potential way out: A bounty of lithium, called “white gold,” one of the planet’s most prized elements, used to manufacture batteries that power electric cars and drive a fossil-fuel-free future.And the state of California wants to be in on it.The California Energy Commission has stepped in as an angel investor, doling out $16 million in grants to a handful of companies to determine if it’s technically and commercially feasible to extract lithium from the brine that geothermal plants are already pulling from the Salton Sea.One of the recipients, CalEnergy Resources, a subsidiary of the giant Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables, is using $6 million in state grants to piggy-back a lithium-extraction pilot project onto its existing geothermal plants near Calipatria, at the southeast end of the dying sea. The company, which expects to break ground soon, will build a small-scale demonstration plant to begin operating next year. Should all go well, it envisions that it could eventually produce nearly a third of the world’s lithium. From the standpoint of California public policy, the project offers a unique intersection of two state priorities: increasing sources of renewable energy and encouraging new battery technology for electric cars and energy storage. The state’s target for electric cars, for example, could use a boost. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year directed the state to ban all new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.  Such an expansive project would transform the entire Imperial Valley, home to 174,000 people, 85% Latino, who face chronically high unemployment and few job opportunities outside farm fields. But environmental justice advocates worry about the potential impacts of additional waste and air pollution from extracting and processing lithium at the Salton Sea. Since it’s an experimental technology, the environmental effects have not been analyzed yet.The Imperial Valley already is perennially ranked at the top of California’s most polluted places — with all the serious health problems that go along with it. “Disadvantaged communities are always going to be on the losing end,”

WV Coal Association jumps into AEP rate case to defend Mitchell coal plant against possibility of closing -- The West Virginia Coal Association is pushing back against American Electric Power after the company’s subsidiaries warned in a recent rate case that they may close a coal-fired plant. Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power said in a Dec. 23 filing with the Public Service Commission of West Virginia that the Mitchell coal-fired generating facility in Marshall County would cease operation in 2028 if the companies choose to retire the plant rather than make an additional investment to ensure that the plant complies with federal guidelines limiting wastewater to continue operating beyond that year. “It’s easy to say, ‘Washington’s making us do this,’” West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton said. “We’re not convinced of that.” The Coal Association weighed in with a petition to intervene in the case Friday in which it said that the demand for coal mined by its members could be “radically altered by the outcome of this proceeding.” “We want to protect all the good that that plant represents … the industrial job base that it sustains and all the working families that are planning their career path around that plant being in place until 2040,” Hamilton said. The companies say they could make modifications to comply with the wastewater rule and a federal rule regulating coal combustion residuals at the Mitchell plant, the John Amos plant in Putnam County and the Mountaineer plant in Mason County that would allow each of those plants to operate until 2040. The filing argues that it would benefit customers to ensure compliance at the John Amos and Mountaineer plants and keep them operating until the end of their projected useful lives in 2040. But the companies report that performing only the coal combustion residual compliance work at Mitchell and retiring the plant in 2028 has “comparable costs and benefits” to making the additional wastewater compliance investment to allow the plant to operate beyond 2028. Replacing a portion of the retired Mitchell capacity with a portion of Appalachian Power’s excess capacity in 2028 would result in savings to West Virginia customers of approximately $27 million annually from 2029 to 2040, the companies said in the Dec. 23 filing.

Groups threaten Ameren suit over coal ash - — Three environmental groups on Wednesday announced they have filed a notice of intent to sue Ameren regarding alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Representatives of the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper and the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center alleged Ameren is continuing unpermitted discharges of toxic coal ash pollutants from the company’s Sioux Energy Center four miles from Portage Des Sioux, across the Mississippi River from Godfrey. The groups state that coal ash, a by-product of burning coal, contains multiple contaminants known to be associated with long-term human health and ecological risks, including mercury, boron, sulfate, cadmium, molybdenum, lead and arsenic. The groups said Ameren is storing more than 3 million tons of coal ash in a massive unlined disposal pit on the banks of the Mississippi River, one of its backwater chutes and Poeling Lake. “There could not be a worse place to leave this waste forever and allow the pollution to be released into the Mississippi River for decades to come,” said Bob Menees of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. “Ameren cannot continue to discharge toxic coal ash pollution to these rivers in violation of the Clean Water Act and must take action to remove the waste and clean up the pollution at the site.” Brad Brown of Ameren Missouri Communications said there currently is not a filed lawsuit to respond to at this point, only a notification. He noted Ameren has an extensive discussion of coal combustion residual related plans online at Menees said, according to Ameren’s own records for the Sioux Energy facility, the disposal pit is discharging toxic coal ash pollutants into the shallow groundwater beneath the site and, ultimately, into the adjacent surface waters, including the Mississippi River.

Legislation aims to strengthen coal industry - From tax holidays to more research money, legislation aimed at preserving North Dakota’s coal industry is finding some traction in the 2021 Legislature. This session has seen more than the usual number of energy-related bills, with coal particularly at the forefront. The announced closure by Great River Energy of its Coal Creek Generating Station near Washburn in the second half of 2022 has raised an alarm for the coal industry, which is looking to the Legislature for ways to strengthen coal’s place in the state’s energy mix. “The state’s primary role in helping protect our baseload generation industry is a combination of regulatory burden and tax policies,” said Sen. Jessica Bell, R-Beulah, who has introduced several energy-related bills. “Regulatory relief or advantage for baseload, coupled with a tax break, is a good place for the state to start in providing assistance. Small changes like these can help reassure we have reliable, affordable electricity into the future. The Clean and Sustainable Energy Future Act is a great start in prioritizing carbon capture utilization and storage technology, lifting it from the testing to commercial phase.” Bell refers to House Bill 1452, which creates a new chapter in state law relating to a clean sustainable energy authority and a clean sustainable energy fund. The bill was amended in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee and now is before the House Appropriations Committee because of the proposed $40 million appropriation for the creation of the energy fund.

Coal ash in Georgia: Here's the update from the General Assembly ---- Georgia coal ash is back on the docket in the Georgia General Assembly. The House's Natural Resources and Environment Committee was given an update on coal ash pond closures by the Environmental Protection Division and Georgia Power. There's also been a new bill proposed that would require coal ash ponds to be closed by removing the ash and putting it in a lined landfill. Right now, there are two types of closure plans that operators can pick from -- closure by removal, which House Bill 176 asks be a requirement, and closure in place. The closure in place method would leave ash at the site after the pond has been dewatered and stabilized. A cap would then be placed on top of the pond. Georgia Power has requested a coal ash closure in place permit for Plant Scherer in Monroe County, a pond that has been surrounded by reports of groundwater contamination in areas around the Plant. Thirty years of post-closure care and groundwater monitoring would have to be done with this type of closure. Nineteen of the 29 ponds in Georgia have permits requested to remove the ash completely, through closure by removal. According to Aaron Mitchell with Georgia Power, those 19 ponds are the ponds closest to outside water sources, like rivers, lakes, and creeks. State Representative Joe Campbell asked how close a pond has to be to another water source to require closure by removal. Mitchell responded that there is no specific requirement. It is up to engineers and geologists on the site to make the determination based on the specifics of the site. The other 10 ponds in the state have permits requested for closure in place. Only one of the 10 ponds closed in place would have a liner at the bottom of the pond.

 Blackjewel Ordered to Clean up Kentucky Mine Site (AP) — Bankrupt coal company Blackjewel has been ordered by a federal judge to clean up a Kentucky mine site. In a bankruptcy court ruling issued Wednesday, Judge Benjamin Kahn said the Bell County site presented a potential threat and ordered Blackjewel to excavate and treat coal mining ponds until the company is allowed to abandon them, the Courier Journal reported. The state had argued the mine presented an imminent danger, which the judge rejected. Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet inspectors found coal mining ponds this year that were overfull, contained high levels of iron and manganese and could breach at any time. Officials argued that threatened drinking water, a state highway, a railroad and the environment. Scott Kane, a lawyer for Blackjewel, said the company was working to mitigate the problem.

 This Obscure Energy Treaty Is the Greatest Threat to the Planet You’ve Never Heard Of -- On 4 February the German energy giant RWE announced it was suing the government of the Netherlands. The crime? Proposing to phase out coal from the country’s electricity mix. The company, which is Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon, is demanding €1.4bn in ‘compensation’ from the country for loss of potential earnings, because the Dutch government has banned the burning of coal for electricity from 2030. If this sounds unreasonable, then you might be surprised to learn that this kind of legal action is perfectly normal – and likely to become far more commonplace in the coming years. RWE is suing under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), a little-known international agreement signed without much public debate in 1994. The treaty binds more than 50 countries, and allows foreign investors in the energy sector to sue governments for decisions that might negatively impact their profits – including climate policies. Governments can be forced to pay huge sums in compensation if they lose an ECT case. On Tuesday, Investigate Europe revealed that the EU, the UK and Switzerland could be forced to pay more than €345bn in ECT lawsuits over climate action in the coming years. This amount, which is more than twice the EU’s annual budget, represents the total value of the fossil fuel infrastructure that is protected by the ECT, and was calculated using data gathered by Global Energy Monitor and Change of Oil International. With ECT-covered assets worth €141bn (or more than €2,000 per citizen), the UK – which in 2019 became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law – is the country most vulnerable to future claims. In 2019 the European Commission called the ECT “outdated” and “no longer sustainable”, and more than 450 climate leaders and scientists and 300 lawmakers from across Europe have called on governments to withdraw from the treaty. But in response, powerful interests have mobilised to not just defend the treaty, but to expand it to new signatory states. These interests include the fossil fuels lobby keen to keep its outsized legal privileges; lawyers who make millions arguing ECT cases; and the Brussels-based ECT Secretariat, which has close ties to both industries and whose survival depends on the treaty’s continuation. 

Six nuclear power plants in Illinois operated nearly at full power during cold snap - — While temperatures plunged across the U.S. last week, Exelon Generation’s six Illinois nuclear plants operated around the clock, producing enough power to keep 11 million homes and businesses warm. All six nuclear facilities ran at nearly 100 percent output levels last week, providing schools, hospitals, businesses and residences the electricity needed to keep heaters running during the cold snap, according to a press release from Exelon. “We are dedicated to delivering carbon-free, reliable energy for our customers when they need it most,” said Dave Rhoades, Exelon Generation Chief Nuclear Officer. Nuclear produces clean energy around the clock and is the most reliable form of power generation, especially during extremely cold stretches when demand for electricity is high in Illinois, the press release said. Despite the weather, the state’s nuclear plants have continuously sent baseload electricity to the grid. The six Illinois nuclear plants recorded a near-perfect reliability rate last winter, running nearly 99 percent of their planned operating time. Together, the plants generate more than half of Illinois’ electricity and nearly 90 percent of its carbon-free energy. Winter resiliency and reliability requires year-long planning and maintenance. Exelon Generation workers spend months ensuring that backup generators and supplemental equipment are ready for inclement weather. Last fall, operators and maintenance personnel inspected freeze protection systems, tested electrical equipment, and aligned plant systems to prepare all Exelon Generation facilities for sub-zero temperatures, icy conditions, and heavy snowfall. These efforts are in addition to the many equipment upgrades and winter readiness maintenance activities performed during refueling outages. Illinois’ nuclear plants recorded a near-perfect reliability rate last summer as well. During June, July and August 2020, which was Illinois’ hottest summer on record, the plants operated 98.9 percent of the time, according to company officials.

A $75 million fund for domestically mined uranium came after years of lobbying and campaign contributions from the industry, including Energy Fuels, which owns and runs the White Mesa mill in southeastern Utah. -- When the latest COVID-19 relief bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, uranium companies with mines in the United States cheered. And that included a big one with operations in Utah.  The legislation provides $75 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium that will reduce the need to import ore from abroad. Although details of how exactly the stockpile will be managed have yet to be determined, the funding will prop up a sector of the mining industry that has been flagging for decades. It also comes on the tail end of an extensive lobbying effort by uranium companies.  The funding was tucked into the massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill under a section titled “National Nuclear Security Administration” and subtitled “weapons activities.” But earlier discussions of the uranium reserve program in Congress and from the industry indicated the stockpiled material would be used in power plants, not nuclear weapons. Curtis Moore, vice president of the uranium company Energy Fuels, which has a mill and mines in Utah, said he believes that’s still the case. “Our understanding is that it is to be basically a backup source of fuel for our nuclear power plants,” Moore said. “I have not heard anything about this material being available or being needed for weapons.”  Environmental groups opposing the stockpile said they were waiting for more details, stating that Moore’s interpretation could be correct despite the sparse details included in the legislation itself. The reserve’s future will be negotiated by the Biden administration. “We hope that the strategic uranium reserve will get a second look because we’re not sure it’s anything more than a handout to the uranium industry and specifically to Energy Fuels,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, adding that tribal governments whose citizens might be impacted by new uranium mining should be included in those discussions.

Toxic legacy of uranium mines on Navajo Nation confronts Interior nominee Deb Haaland - (video)

Ohio bribery probe: Federal judge accepts guilty plea from dark money group - A federal judge in Cincinnati accepted a guilty plea Friday from a dark-money political action committee connected to what prosecutors have called the largest political corruption case in state history. Generation Now admitted to a single felony racketeering count, the third of six defendants admitting involvement in the scheme to enact a $1 billion nuclear plant bailout. Jeffrey Longstreth, a longtime aide of former Republican House Speaker Larry Householder, signed the plea agreement late last month as the representative of Generation Now. U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black formally accepted the plea early Friday afternoon in a hearing held via video conferencing because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As part of the plea, Generation Now will forfeit $1.5 million from two bank accounts and faces up to five years of probation. Black will announce a final sentence at a later date. Generation Now, Householder, Longstreth, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges and lobbyists Neil Clark and Juan Cespedes were arrested in July after investigators alleged they used dark money from FirstEnergy and related entities to bankroll the campaigns of supporters, enact House Bill 6 and block referendum efforts to overturn the nuclear bailout legislation. Investigators say Generation Now, formed by Householder and Longstreth, received tens of millions of dollars to ensure passage of HB 6. As a social welfare nonprofit, the group was not required to disclose its donors. In addition to Friday’s plea, Longstreth and Cespedes admitted to racketeering counts in the case in late October. Householder was forced from his position as House Speaker but retained his legislative seat. He was reelected to a new term in November and remains a member of the Ohio House.

Critics fear investors’ push for profits could thwart other FirstEnergy priorities -A notorious investor’s plan to acquire a significant stake in FirstEnergy voting shares has critics worried that pressure to turn quick profits could undercut the company’s duties to ratepayers and need to invest in a cleaner and more resilient grid.In its Feb. 18 earnings call, FirstEnergy revealed it had received notice of Icahn Capital’s intent to acquire between $184 million and $920 million in voting securities. The fund would have a minority voting interest, but it might be enoughto sway changes in its board of directors, company management and more. The news comes three years after affiliates of four other equity investment firms put$2.5 billion into FirstEnergy.“When you have a utility company that is increasingly being owned by private equity investors who are looking to maximize their profits and return, that’s just counter to utility finance models and long-term reliability and performance,” said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.Utility stocks have traditionally been viewed as steady, low-risk performers, less prone to the ups and downs of cyclical market volatility. What’s happening with FirstEnergy is unusual and concerning, Leaner said, because of some of the firms’ reputation for demanding big changes for short-term financial gain.Carl Icahn has been described as a “corporate raider” or “vulture,” the most high-profile in a class of equity fund leaders that target distressed companies. Starting in the late 1980s, Icahn used his stake in TWA to recoup most of his investment through a stock buyback, which was followed by selling off of the airline’s most profitable routes and eventually bankruptcy. In the 1990s, Icahn engineered a split of USX shares to separate the profitable Marathon oil operations; he first tried to divest the original U.S. Steel Corporation’s steel operations altogether. Icahn’s threats to break up Time Warner in the 2000s led to another huge stock buyback. Scandal has surrounded FirstEnergy over questions about what role it may have played as “Company A” in an alleged $60-million conspiracy to pass and uphold Ohio’s coal and nuclear bailout bill. Its share price just before the Icahn Capital news was still down roughly 25% compared to the days preceding the July 21 release of the federal government’s criminal complaint against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder in July.“The last guy in the world you want running a utility is a corporate raider,” said Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group and former member of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Public utilities are entitled to a fair profit, but they owe a fiduciary opportunity to the people who gave them a monopoly franchise, he noted. “The obligation is to provide the service, not to satisfy some greedy folks on Wall Street.”

 Ohio GOP lawmaker seeks to extend state’s renewable-energy mandates, restore solar standards gutted by House Bill 6 - —New GOP-sponsored Ohio Senate legislation would indefinitely continue the state’s solar and other renewable-energy standards for utilities, which are set to end in a few years due to the scandal-ridden House Bill 6. Senate Bill 89, sponsored by state Rep. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican, marks the latest attempt by state lawmakers to tear away at parts of HB6, the 2019 energy law that authorities say that ex-House Speaker Larry Householder passed with $60 million in FirstEnergy Corp. bribe money. HB6 rolled back a 2008 law stating that, by 2026 onward, all electric utilities in Ohio must obtain 12.5% of their power from renewable sources such as wind and solar -- including 0.5% specifically from solar power plants. The standards were designed to provide an economic incentive to build wind and solar plants. HB6 lowered Ohio’s overall renewable-energy standard to 8.5% by 2026, after which it ends permanently. It also immediately killed the state’s solar-energy standard altogether. Dolan’s bill would keep the maximum renewable-energy standard at 8.5% from 2026 on, rather than restore it to the 12.5% under the 2008 law. But rather than ending the standards after 2026, SB89 would continue that 8.5% standard into 2027 and beyond. It would also restore the solar standard to 0.5% by 2026, after which it, too, would continue indefinitely. A third thing SB89 would do is extend a pilot project that effectively allows local governments greater freedom in how they can spend the money that wind and solar farm developers would pay in property taxes. The pilot project is currently set to end in 2023 – SB89 would let it continue until 2030. Dolan, who voted for HB6, now favors repealing the law entirely. However, the legislature now seems to favor attacking HB6 in an “a la carte” way, introducing several bills that target particular parts of the law. “I was concerned that this part of the ‘carte’ would be forgotten,” Dolan said of the renewable and solar standards. “I’m not going to let anybody forget it.” Partially restoring such standards, he said, would make Ohio a more attractive place for wind and solar developers to invest in.

Rail Is Ready for PetChem Hub No. 2 -- With an increasing number of petrochemical and oil & gas experts and industry observers acknowledging the U.S. Gulf Coast cannot be the sole repository for the U.S.’s two expanding industries, the Appalachian Basin is looking like PetChem Hub No. 2. Not only does the Basin contain the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays and thus abundant natural gas and natural gas liquids, but it also contains one of the building blocks for any region hoping to grow its economy: Transportation infrastructure, including rivers, roadways, airports and railways. What the Tri-State region, which includes Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, offers certainly from a railroad perspective is 150 years of “Iron Horse” history. Unlike many pockets of the U.S. which lack this storied rail network, the Tri-State is blanketed with rail and rail yards, according to Casey Cathcart. “We have a unique situation in these states in that the land traditionally is covered with rail – and has been for well over 125 years,” said Cathcart, Executive Chairman and co-founder with his father, Thomas, of Cathcart Rail, an Ohio-based freight rail services/transportation company established in 2016. Casey will be part of the Infrastructure Panel presenting at the 2nd annual Appalachian Basin Real Estate Conference, an all-day program slated for March 25, at the Oglebay Resort, in Wheeling, West Virginia. The conference is being presented by Shale Directories. “Casey’s participation will provide important freight rail information for our registrants,” commented Joe Barone, President & Founder, Shale Directories. Cathcart has grown from a single railcar contract shop with 18 employees, to a multi-disciplined, rail platform that employs 800 people across 64 locations in 22 states. Cathcart Rail’s subsidiary companies include Appalachian Railcar Services, operator of the largest independent contract shop network in the U.S.; Bucyrus Railcar Repair, operator of the largest repair agent network; and, the Belpre Industrial Parkersburg Railroad, a short line railroad serving international plastics, petrochemicals and metals customers along the Ohio River Corridor, among others.

A trip down the Ohio River reveals the oil and gas industry’s next big move - Facing falling demand for fossil fuels, companies like Shell are betting big on another polluting commodity: plastic. Hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Royal Dutch Shell saw its profits drop 71 percentbetween 2019 and 2020. Its recovery will likely be stymied by the rise of electric cars and renewable energy, which will lead to falling demand for oil and, in the US, natural gas. There is one bright spot for the industry, however. Ethane, a natural gas byproduct used to make plastic, is projected to be a growth market.Plastic will figure prominently in the future of the oil and gas sector. A short trip down the Ohio River in Pennsylvania shows what this will look like, and what it will mean for the environment. In Beaver County, near the Ohio border, a sprawling complex of steel and concrete is rising up on the southern bank of the river. In the next couple of years, Shell will use this $6 billion facility to turn fracked ethane gas produced in the region into polyethylene, a type of plastic. A 98-mile pipeline system will deliver up to 100,000 barrels of ethane per day to the “cracker” plant, which will “crack” ethane molecules apart to produce plastic. The plant will be a lifeline to financially struggling drilling companies in Appalachia. Plants like this may be the last best hope for the oil and gas industry. Beyond buoying drillers in the region, however, the plant may do little to boost the local economy. The construction effort has employed some 7,500 people, though many came from Texas or Canada, and jobs are temporary. The factory will employ only around 600 people full-time.The plant also promises to generate a lot of pollution.An WTAE investigation found the cracker plant will be allowed to churn out more pollution than some of the biggest emitters in the state. Its permit allows the plant to produce more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as more than 500 tons of volatile organic compounds, which cause headaches, nausea and damage to the nervous system. Locals fear the cracker plant will leave a trail of contamination just like the steel mills that came before.“The pollution we have here was caused by previous plants, and now Shell is coming to add more on top of that,” says Bob Schmetzer, the chairman of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, a local group opposing fracking. “They will make their money, and then they will pack their bags when the money stops coming in, leaving behind the pollution.” In addition to air pollution, the plant will generate a steady stream of hard-to-recycle plastic, most of which will end up as waste.At the Greenstar Recycling plant, just 20 miles south of Shell’s cracker plant, plastic refuse piles up, but this is the tip of the iceberg. In the US, less than 10 percent of plastic is actually recycled. Another 15 percent or so is burned to generate energy. The rest ends up in landfills. Because plastic is so polluting and so unpopular, oil and gas companies are also looking for ways to manage plastic waste. Shell joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a group made up mostly of petrochemical companies, which plans to invest $1.5 billion in minimizing plastic waste and promoting recycling. But critics say such efforts are far too meager.“It’s a trivial amount compared to the costs that are borne by the communities where fracking occurs, waste disposal takes place, and plastics end up in the environment,” says Patricia DeMarco, a Pittsburgh-based environmental consultant. “It makes no sense to produce a plastic bag that is useful for 12 minutes and then remains in the environment for another 450 years.”

Educators, financial officials dispute data in oil and gas industry report — New information on a report released by the Ohio River Valley Institute on the oil and gas industry. The report claims the oil and gas industry has had very little impact on the Ohio Valley's economic prosperity. However, city and school leaders disagree saying the revenue has enabled them to build new facilities. The Ohio River Valley Institute recently released a report with data up to 2019 from the U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis that shows the oil and gas industry contributed to the country's gross domestic product, but the region is getting less in return. "The output grew at three times the rate of the nation's economy, immense growth, but when we looked at the benefits that would normally accrue from that kind of increase, they weren't there,” said Sean O’Leary, senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute. “While output grew by 60 percent, jobs only grew by 1.6 percent and in the 7 eastern counties in Ohio, they actually declined." O'Leary said the region's population declined as well. Mike Chadsey with the Ohio Oil and Gas Association disagrees saying it invested $86 billion into the region pre-pandemic. "We don't think it paints the complete picture of what has happened here in the Ohio Valley,” Chadsey said. “Some are really cherry-picked, data in there. Certain counties were left out, certain job numbers were left out, certain unemployment numbers were left out.” Monroe County has seen a big impact from the industry regarding tax revenue, according to Treasurer Taylor Abbott. "Five or six years ago now, we were collecting not even half of what we are now,” he said. “Now, we are at $180 million in collections. That's a huge change for this county.” And a large portion of that money is going to the Switzerland of Ohio School District. "The district didn’t have a lot of money to spend on extra things for a long time and it was until this new tax revenue mainly from oil and gas,” Monroe Central High School Principal Joe Semple said. "The Utica Shale play, when it came into our area, we're kind of in the middle of it now,” District Career Coordinator Mark Romick said. “It's brought a lot of tax revenue in, we've been able to do a number of different things." Educators say the tax revenue has allowed the district to build a new athletic complex with additional lab classrooms at the Monroe Central campus. Also, new field houses at Beallsville and River high schools and manufacturing equipment upgrades at Swiss Hills Career Center. "This facility, we’ve got about $1.5 million in,” Director Matthew Unger said. “We had upgrades to our welding facility was about a quarter of a million dollars." Despite the improvements, the Ohio River Valley Institute believes the region has received less than what was promised.

 Antero Partnering with Quantum to Fund Some Marcellus Development Through 2024 - Appalachian pure-play Antero Resources Corp. has entered a drilling partnership worth up to $550 million with an affiliate of Quantum Energy Partners to fund a portion of its Marcellus and Utica shale development through 2024. Under the deal, QL Capital Partners would fund 20% of Antero’s development capital spending in 2021 and 15-20% from 2022 to 2024 in exchange for a working interest in each well spud. QL has also agreed to pay a drilling carry each year if certain performance thresholds are met. The drilling partnership would help fund drilling 60 wells over the four-year period. Preliminary plans focus primarily on liquids-rich development in the Marcellus Shale of West Virginia. The partnership is expected to increase Antero’s free cash flow by $400 million through 2025 by cutting expenses related to unutilized firm transportation, capturing midstream fee rebates and lowering interest costs because of lower total debt. Antero, the nation’s third largest gas producer and second largest liquids producer, now expects to achieve an absolute debt target of below $2 billion in 2023 at current strip pricing. Antero also announced last week that it would spend $590 million this year on drilling and completion, a 20% decrease from last year’s levels. “Our 2021 capital budget reflects our shift to a maintenance level capital plan and the benefit from our well cost savings initiatives that we launched in 2019,” said CEO Paul Rady. “ We are targeting total well costs of $635 per lateral foot for the second half of 2021, a 35% reduction from $970 in the initial 2019 budget. “

COVID update: Wolf pushes natural gas tax to boost Pa. economy - As a part of his $37.8 billion proposed budget, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is pushing a plan to prop up the pandemic economy by taxing natural gas drilling. Those funds would fuel Back to Work PA, a $3 billion initiative to support workers and small businesses struggling due to restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Such a plan faces an uphill battle, like failed attempts to tax fracking in years past. Budget brawls are common between the Democratic governor’s administration and the GOP-led state House and Senate, which has shown no appetite for taxing natural gas extraction. Within Wolf’s party, progressives have balked at tying the commonwealth’s long-term financial planning to the fracking industry. Caucus members from the southwestern part of the state, where natural gas prices have a direct impact on the local economy, have also signaled their disapproval. In response to this pattern, Wolf argued that Pennsylvania would merely be joining other states which already tax natural gas production, and pointed out that some companies that would be paying the tax are not based in the commonwealth. “We’re a big producer, and we’re the only major producer without a severance task,” said Wolf. “I’m not sure why it’s been such a heavy lift, but it seems to me to be one of the easiest taxes to impose.” He struck a dire note about the prospects for financial improvement if this possible revenue stream were not tapped, saying, “If we don’t take advantage of it, I’m not sure there is an alternative way to make quality of life better.”

 Basin commission to take action on fracking ban near Delaware River --A regulatory agency that’s responsible for the water supply for more than 13 million people is poised to take final action this week on a permanent ban on gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Delaware River watershed.  The Delaware River Basin Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal at a public meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25.  The commission, which regulates water quality and quantity in the Delaware and its tributaries, first imposed a moratorium on drilling and fracking — the technique that unleashed a U.S. production boom in shale gas and oil — more than a decade ago. It began the process of enacting a permanent ban in 2017. The ban would apply to Wayne and Pike counties in Pennsylvania’s northeastern tip that are part of the nation’s largest gas field, the Marcellus Shale.The agency has representatives including the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government.Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania as well as a landowners group are challenging the commission’s right to regulate gas development in court. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group representing natural gas businesses working in Pennsylvania’s production region, says the DRBC’s proposal“defies common sense, sound science, responsible policymaking” and the authority of the commission. In a 2018 letter to the basin commission, the coalition cites a study by Yale University researchers showing any increase in methane in well water supplies near fracking operations was related to “natural variability, not to shale-related activities.”  The New Jersey Sierra Club, in calling for the DRBC to enact the permanent ban, argues the fracking process is too dangerous a threat. Fracking involves injecting huge amounts of water and chemicals in rock formations that can pollute surrounding aquifers and waterways, the Sierra Club chapter says. “This requires mixing millions of gallons of water with toxic chemicals including volatile organic chemicals like benzene, methyl benzene, formaldehyde and others that are linked to cancer,” according to the chapter. “The process also releases toxic chemicals like arsenic and mercury that are naturally trapped in the shale. The average well uses 2.5 to 4.5 million gallons of water for fracking, (and) many wells are fracked two to three times.” Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware governors Tom Wolf, Phil Murphy and John Carney, respectively, signed a letter in 2018 calling for a full fracking ban in the watershed, the chapter says.

Delaware River Basin Commission votes to make fracking ban permanent | S&P Global Platts — In a move long sought by environmental groups and fought by natural gas producers, the Delaware River Basin Commission on Feb. 25 voted to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing within the basin's boundaries. The action, which makes permanent a moratorium on fracking in place since 2010, is not expected to impact ongoing production in Pennsylvania, but could preclude development of certain areas in the eastern part of the state, such as Wayne and Pike counties, that fall within basin lines. The ban on high-volume fracking within DRBC boundaries prevailed with four governors on the commission, including Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, voting in favor, and the fifth, federal member, abstaining during a virtual commission meeting. The federal commissioner, Brigadier General Thomas Tickner of the US Army Corps of Engineers, cited the lack of time to coordinate with the new presidential administration. "We respect the outcome of this vote as determined by each respective state commissioner," he said during the meeting. The drilling moratorium narrowly avoids currently productive counties in Northeast Pennsylvania, including Susquehanna and Bradford counties. Dry gas production in Northeast Pennsylvania accounts for roughly one-third of total production in the Appalachian region, with output averaging 11.3 Bcf/d in January, or 33% of the region's total 34.3 Bcf/d of production in January, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. Separately, the commission acted unanimously to consider later imposing limits on imports of wastewater and exports of basin waters; it approved a resolution that called on the executive director no later than Sept. 30 to formally develop and propose amendments. The DRBC, which oversees management of the Delaware River system, is made up of governors of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York as well as the division engineer of the North Atlantic division of the Army Corps. It said it imposed the ban by adopting amendments to its comprehensive plan and water code in order to control future pollution, protect public health and preserve waters. Delaware Governor John Carney said the action would "provide the fullest protection to the more than 13 million people who rely upon the Delaware River Basin's waters for their drinking water." Wolf said the action followed careful analysis of unique geographic, geologic and hydrologic characteristics of the basin and came under authority to protect water resources for the basin. The action has been strongly opposed by the Marcellus Shale Coalition. "It may be a good day for those who seek higher energy prices for American consumers and a deeper dependence on foreign nations to fuel our economy, but this vote defies common sense, sound science, and is a grave blow to constitutionally protected private property rights," said MSC President David Callahan. He expressed disappointment with Wolf for aligning with "out-of-state interests," and also faulted President Joe Biden for failing to oppose the ban.

Delaware River Basin Commission Votes to Ban Fracking in Historic Victory - In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.The vote affirms a 2010 moratorium by the DRBC, an agency that manages the water. Pressured by environmental groups, commissioners used their authority to safeguard public and environmental health and limit future pollution, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer."Today's decision is a historic watershed moment and one that will significantly contribute to a clean energy future," Patrick Grenter, associate director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. "Fracking threatens the health of our people, water, climate, and communities and we're relieved to see it outlawed in the Delaware River Basin."Fracking for natural gas involves blasting high volumes of pressurized water and chemicals into rock formations. This has led to contaminated water wells, while wastewater spills have transmitted radioactive materials into surface and groundwater, StateImpact Pennsylvania reported. These pollutants and chemicals are linked to cancers and other health issues in humans and wildlife, NRDC reported.If fracking were to be allowed in the Delaware River Basin, these same impacts could affect the 17 million people that rely on the basin for drinking water, putting 45,000 people who live within a mile of the planned fracking well locations at high risk for those health problems, the NRDC added. The basin is also a critical habitat for one of the most important fisheries in the country, home to diverse species such as native trout, American eels and bald eagles.The debate on fracking in the region began over a decade ago. During Pennsylvania's natural gas boom, commissioners expressed concern over the high quantity of basin water required to support it, StateImpact Pennsylvania found.In response, the DRBC imposed a fracking moratorium in 2010, but never finalized drilling regulations, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Despite yesterday's vote, the ban still faces opposition. Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Gene Barr said that the votes by New York, New Jersey and Delaware did not have Pennsylvania's "best interests in mind," StateImpact Pennsylvania reported."There is no support to any claim that drilling results in widespread impacts to drinking water, rivers or groundwater," Barr told AP. "This was a political decision uninformed by science."

Lawmakers push regulators to reexamine compressor approval – Members of Weymouth's congressional delegation want federal regulators to reconsider their decision to allow the compressor station on the banks of the Fore River to go into service. U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch and U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren recently sent a letter to Richard Glick, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, asking that the commission rescind the in-service authorization issued for the compressor station in September. “The site is located within a half mile of Quincy Point and Germantown – “environmental justice communities” that suffer persistent environmental health disparities due to socioeconomic and other factors – as well as nearly 1,000 homes, a water treatment plant and a public park,” the legislators wrote in the letter. “An estimated 3,100 children live or go to school within a mile of the site, and more than 13,000 children attend school within three miles of the compressor station.” Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, the City of Quincy and other petitioners have also asked the commission to revoke the authorization and reconsider its approval of the project. "We urge you to review their concerns fully and fairly, and to swiftly move to rehear the approval of the in-service certificate," the lawmakers wrote in their letter. The commission last week voted to take a look at several issues associated with the compressor station, including whether the station’s expected air emissions and public safety impacts should prompt commissioners to reexamine the project. The compressor station is part of Enbridge’s Atlantic Bridge project, which expands the company’s natural gas pipelines from New Jersey into Canada. Since the station was proposed in 2015, residents have argued it presents serious health and safety problems. Last fall, local, state and federal officials called for a halt of compressor operations when two emergency shutdowns caused hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of natural gas to be released into the air. Max Bergeron, a spokesman for Enbridge, said last week that the in-service authorization remains in place and the company is committed to operating the station “safely and responsibly.” Algonquin Gas Transmission, a subsidiary of Spectra Energy, received initial approval for the compressor station in January 2017 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Enbridge later acquired Spectra. State regulators also issued several permits for the project despite vehement and organized opposition from local officials and residents. The Town of Weymouth alone filed two dozen lawsuits and spent more than $1.6 million in legal fees attempting to stop the project.

Advocates hold hearing featuring fervent opposition to proposed rollback of oil and gas tank regulation - A virtual public hearing was held Friday on a bill that would exempt about 900 oil and gas waste tanks close to water intake points from regulation. It featured vehement opposition to the measure and frustration that two committees in the House of Delegates have denied official public hearings on the proposal.The “People’s Public Hearing,” conducted via Zoom teleconference, drew about 75 attendees and 25 speakers, all of whom voiced opposition to House Bill 2598, which would rollback the Aboveground Storage Tank Act the Legislature passed in response to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill.The House Energy and Manufacturing Committee voted Tuesday to advance the bill to the full House before Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, referred the legislation to the Health and Human Resources Committee on Wednesday.HB 2598 would remove tanks containing 210 barrels or less of “brine water or other fluids produced in connection with hydrocarbon production activities” in zones of critical concern from regulation under the Aboveground Storage Tank Act.The act requires registration and certified inspection of such tanks, as well as the submission of spill-prevention response plans. It also defines zones of critical concern as corridors along streams within a watershed that need close scrutiny because of a nearby surface water intake point and its susceptibility to potential contaminants. The length of zones of critical concern is based on a five-hour water-travel time in streams to the water intake, plus an additional quarter-mile below the intake. A zone’s width is 1,000 feet from each bank of the principal stream and 500 feet from each tributary bank draining into the principal stream.State lawmakers joined conservationists and concerned West Virginians to criticize the bill during the hearing, which advocates said would be recorded and sent to the House.“It’s ridiculous to roll this part of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act back,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, the top-ranking Democrat on the Health and Human Resources Committee. Pushkin said he expects the committee to consider the bill Tuesday or Thursday.“Safe drinking water is not a Democratic issue or Republican issue,” he said. “It’s a human issue.”Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, who led an unsuccessful fight against the bill in the House Energy and Manufacturing Committee, and Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, also weighed in against the measure during Friday’s hearing. “I just can’t explain why the Legislature would want to create danger zones right at intake areas in our streams,” Rowe said. “It amazes me.”

Court rejects latest effort to stop Mountain Valley Pipeline – An appellate court has declined to stop work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, dealing the latest blow to arguments that there is no public need for the natural gas that is to be transported by the line. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a request Friday by a coalition of environmental organizations. The groups had sought an emergency stay of a decision last year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that allowed work on the project, which has been slowed by a slew of lawsuits, to resume. No reasons for the denial were given in a three-paragraph order from the court, which is expected to rule later this year on the underlying legal challenge. But in a brief filed Jan. 29, the Sierra Club and seven other petitioners based their arguments in large part on the assertion that the public’s need for more gas to heat homes, serve businesses and fuel power plants — cited by FERC when it first approved the project in 2017 — no longer exists. Those findings “have not merely grown stale, but fully decayed,” the groups’ law firm, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, stated in the brief. A declining demand and surplus supply in recent years has led EQT Energy, a shipper that holds contracts for about 65% of the pipeline’s capacity, to conclude that it no longer needs the gas, the groups argue. The brief cites a July 2020 conference call with investors in which EQT officials explained their plans to sell their capacity contracts to other energy companies in order to save money and increase returns for shareholders. In a response filed Feb. 8, attorneys for Mountain Valley accused the petitioners of relying on “cherry-picked snippets from an earnings call.” EQT has actually said that long-term capacity from the pipeline has become more valuable in the past year, as utilities scramble to meet customer needs following the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar project which would have run through Central Virginia, Mountain Valley’s brief stated.

Appeals Court Rebuffs Enviro Groups, Keeps MVP Authorizations in Place -The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Friday rebuffed a challenge mounted by environmental groups seeking to stop Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC from restarting construction in areas reauthorized by FERC. A coalition including the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network late last month filed an emergency motion asking the court to stay recent orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission clearing MVP to resume construction along much of the route outside of a portion near the Jefferson National Forest.The groups also asked the D.C. Circuit to stay FERC’s decision to grant a two-year extension of the original deadline for the project to complete construction.However, the court denied the motion, issuing a one-page order Friday finding that the environmental groups “have not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.”Analysts at ClearView Energy Partners LLC said in a note to clients shortly following Friday’s decision that the “status quo” remains the same for MVP, with the pipeline still cleared to resume work as planned in areas previously authorized by FERC.However, MVP will need further regulatory action before it can resume construction on waterbody crossings — held up over problems with the previously issued Nationwide Permit 12 approvals — and on the portion of the route near the proposed national forest crossing, the ClearView analysts noted. MVP recently laid out a new strategy to obtain the remaining permits and complete construction on the 303-mile, 2 million Dth/d natural gas conduit. Instead of relying on the stayed Nationwide Permit 12 waterbody crossing permits, the developer plans to seek new permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. To that end, MVP in a letter filed with FERC Friday said it was submitting its application for the Section 404 approval. The operator asked that its existing Nationwide Permit 12 authorizations be administratively revoked “to avoid unnecessary expenditure of public resources in existing litigation.”

ATC Rejects Mountain Valley Pipeline Opponents' Request to See $19.5 Million Agreement - The Trek -The Appalachian Trail Conservancy this week denied a request to release the full text of its August 2020 “voluntary stewardship agreement” with Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, the company overseeing construction of a 303-mile natural-gas pipeline that will cross the Appalachian Trail near Pearisburg, Va.Opponents of the pipeline delivered a petition signed by more than 400 “ATC members, volunteers and/or Trail supporters” to ATC President and CEO Sandra Marra and the board of directors Feb. 16.On Monday, the ATC informed the petitioners that it would not make the agreement public.“As a matter of ATC’s policies, standard philanthropic practice, and for reasons that have been previously discussed, the voluntary stewardship agreement with the Mountain Valley Pipeline and The Conservation Fund is private,” the ATC said in a statement, which included a link to the August announcement of the agreement.Under the agreement, MVP committed up to $19.5 million “for use by the Conservancy to conserve land along the Trail corridor and support outdoor recreation-based economies in Virginia and West Virginia,” according to the ATC.Opponents criticized the ATC’s continued unwillingness to make the agreement public. “The ATC’s actions are a truly grotesque departure from their public ‘Identity Statement,’ which claims the ‘Conservancy’s staff and board embodies honesty, mutual respect, openness, continuous learning and improvement, and excellence,'” ATC member Russell Chisholm said in a statement released Feb. 24. “Instead, the decision to enter into a Voluntary Stewardship Agreement and refuse to provide transparency about the decision inappropriately prioritizes the power of the Board over the wishes of ATC members and the public.”

Mountain Valley Pipeline still on target for completion this year, developers say - Developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline say it remains on schedule for completion by year’s end, despite a restart in seeking government approval to cross nearly 500 streams and wetlands. All required permits should be in hand by summer, “allowing us to ramp up to full construction,” Diana Charletta, president and chief operations officer of Equitrans Midstream, the lead partner in the joint venture, said during an earnings call Tuesday. Already behind schedule and over-budget, work on the natural gas pipeline hit a major road bump last October, when a federal appeals court issued a stay to a water body crossing permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rather than engage in a lengthy court battle over a blanket approval known as a Nationwide Permit 12, Mountain Valley decided to change its method for crossing the streams that remain along the pipeline’s 303-mile path. The company will now seek individual permits, which will require a more detailed analysis of how it plans to dig trenches through temporarily dammed streams to bury the 42-inch diameter pipe. Mountain Valley recently submitted an application to the Army Corps that runs about 6,600 pages long, Charletta said. For water bodies that cannot be forded by the so-called open-cut method, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be asked to approve an alternative method of boring under the streams. Last year, FERC approved such an operation for the Roanoke River, which the pipeline will cross near Elliston on its path through the New River and Roanoke valleys. In addition to getting authorizations from two federal agencies, Mountain Valley must also obtain new water quality certifications from Virginia and West Virginia. Height Capital Markets, an investment banking firm that has been closely following the project, has said it expects the complicated permitting process to push completion of the pipeline well into next year. Meanwhile, opponents continued their sustained assault this week, launching a campaign that attempts to undercut Mountain Valley’s financial backing from banks and investors. In announcing the DivestMVP coalition, organizers said the uncertainty of a project now estimated to cost up to $6 billion has led many industry watchers to openly wonder if it will ever be completed.

Judge rejects Biden request for delay in Trump environmental rollback case --A federal court has rejected the Biden administration's request for a pause before a case on a Trump administration rollback of a key environmental law wraps up. The Biden administration wanted to review the rollback before a ruling, but Judge James Jones, of the Western District of Virginia, on Friday sided with environmentalists who argued that they are currently facing harm because of the Trump administration’s policy and didn’t want to delay a decision that could benefit them. “Adding lengthy additional delay to my decision would not be appropriate, in my judgment,” wrote the judge, who was appointed by former President Clinton. The Biden administration had asked for a 60-day stay on the case, over a rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to “allow the new administration time to review the challenged agency action.” The Biden administration has also requested pauses on litigation over a number of other Trump-era rules, as it may seek to change its position on them. NEPA requires the government to consider environmental and community concerns before approving pipelines, highways, drilling permits, new factories or any major action on federal lands. The Trump administration sought to reduce the amount of time that environmental reviews under the law take, from about 4 1/2 years to two years. It also removed requirements to consider climate change impacts, complicated the procedure for community input and allowed more industry involvement in environmental reviews. It billed its changes as a move to expedite infrastructure permitting, while environmental groups argued that it’s a move to help industry at communities’ expense.

Piedmont Natural Gas deal not transformative, just profitable, for Duke Energy --Piedmont Natural Gas has proven a valuable acquisition for Duke Energy Corp., even though plans to make it the base to significantly expand commercial and utility natural gas operations fell by the way.   The division is a top performer for Duke. In 2020, it had the highest return on equity of the parent company’s nine gas and electric utility units. Adjusted for book value, Piedmont’s revenue contribution to Duke was $1.3 billion, nearly equaling the revenue of $1.4 billion for its Duke Energy Ohio utility. Its 3% growth in residential customers was the highest for all Duke utilities, well above the 1.2% residential growth at the company’s Midwest gas utilities in Ohio and Kentucky. But Duke’s plans to use Piedmont as a platform to make the company a larger player in natural gas, which Good repeatedly referred to at the time as the “backbone” of the U.S. energy industry, have largely been abandoned.  At the time the deal closed, Duke and Piedmont had three pipeline deals underway. Both were already partners in what eventually became the $8 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline partnership with Dominion Energy Inc. That project imploded last summer as repeated court and regulatory challenges ground it to a halt. Piedmont had brought to Duke a 24% share of the planned, 124-mile Constitution Pipeline in New York. That $1 billion project with The Williams Cos. was abandoned a year ago, just after it had won victories in some lengthy court challenges. The only interstate pipeline involving Duke that has been completed is the $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline. That was a project that Duke had been involved with before it bought Piedmont, and it holds just a 7.5% stake in the pipeline.

INVESTIGATION: Giant N.C. spill shows gaps in pipeline safety -- Thursday, February 25, 2021 -- Pipeline companies can find leaks. But they often don't, even as small spills grow bigger over days. (A North Carolina pipeline leaked more than a million gallons of gasoline last summer before anyone noticed it, raising larger questions about pipeline detection technologies that can fail to notice even large-scale spills. E&E News, subscription)

Blackstone-Backed Gas Company Vine Energy Files for IPO -Vine Energy Inc., which focuses on natural gas in the Haynesville and Mid-Bossier shale plays in Louisiana, has filed for an initial public offering. The company, which is backed by Blackstone Group, filed for an IPO in 2017 and withdrew the filing in 2019. Vine Energy said the Vine Oil & Gas business posted 2020 revenue of $378.7 million, compared with $586.5 million in 2019. After a corporate reorganization, Vine Energy Inc. will also include Brix Oil & Gas Holdings LP and Harvest Royalties Holding LP. The company said in the filing that it expects "the Haynesville will be particularly critical to meeting future natural gas demand." It said other sources of natural gas supply "are facing headwinds in the form of reduced activity and infrastructure constraints." While the Marcellus and Utica shales currently account for about 30% of North American natural gas supply, "there is limited pipeline capacity available to transport natural gas out of the area," the company said. "Additionally, the demanding regulatory environment in the Northeast has limited new gas pipeline infrastructure." Vine plans to seek a New York Stock Exchange listing under symbol "VEI."

FERC Reconsidering Approach to Certify Natural Gas Projects = FERC said it would reevaluate the federal government’s approach to certifying natural gas pipelines. Current policy dates to the late 1990s, and key regulators say that, as climate change concerns mount, a re-examination of how infrastructure proposals are approved is overdue.At its monthly meeting Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced it would examine the 1999 policy statement that guides regulators’ evaluations of proposed natural gas facilities. Critics have long complained that FERC green lights projects without carefully assessing greenhouse gas emissions or other potential environmental concerns of nearby communities and residents.  Former FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, a Republican, launched a similar process three years ago, beginning with a request for public input that yielded more than 3,000 comments. McIntyre died in 2019, however, and the review he led stalled.  Richard Glick, the senior Democrat chosen by President Biden in January to lead FERC, said Thursday the Commission is looking to build upon the record already established in response to McIntyre’s 2018 inquiry. FERC called for comments that speak to potential health or environmental effects of FERC’s pipeline certification programs and policies as well as the Commission’s decisions on communities vulnerable to environmental injustice.  FERC said it will also seek comments on how the Commission determines the need for a project, its exercise of eminent domain and assessments of landowner interests, and potential improvements to the efficiency of the Commission’s review process. In its request for comments, FERC noted it would also pay particular attention to input about how projects affect communities of color, Indigenous tribes and low-income rural areas that “are exposed to a disproportionate burden of the negative human health and environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental hazards.”  Both Glick and fellow Commissioner Allison Clements had foreshadowed the review in previous comments, signaling a heightened emphasis on environmental concerns linked to burning natural gas. Though FERC operates independently of the Biden administration, the heads of regulatory arms such as the Commission are named by the president and agendas tend to reflect the administration’s priorities.

 NatGas Traders Begged For Cash As Arctic Blast Paralyzed Texas Energy Market - Stories are emerging from veteran gas traders about the events leading up and during one of the worst energy crises in years. As the polar vortex began to dump frigid air into the central U.S. and Texas, "urgent phone calls came over the holiday weekend: traders of natural gas needed more money, and fast," said Bloomberg.As temperatures dove earlier this month and spot prices for natgas skyrocketed 300-fold in a matter of days, traders in the physical gas market realized they had a considerable problem developing: exchanges demanded collateral due to the unprecedented volatility. Readers may recall, on Feb.12, natgas prices across the Great Plains erupted as supply froze in pipes due to Arctic conditions produced by the polar vortex split. By Feb. 13, traders had to come up with collateral by Tuesday (Monday was a market holiday (Presidents' Day/Washington's Birthday)), or they would be forced out of their positions for massive losses. Desperate for cash to meet margin requirements, some traders turned to "European parent companies that could deliver so-called margin payments on their behalf to the exchanges sooner. The cash showed up in different currencies, but it did the trick," said Bloomberg. "I've been through a lot: The '98 and '99 power spikes in the Midwest, the California crisis" of 2000-2001, said Cody Moore, head of gas and power trading at Mercuria Energy America."Nothing was as broadly shocking as this week."With supply frozen in pipes and much of Texas' power generation produced by natgas, the power and gas markets hit record high spot prices last week. While natgas prices in some locations hit $1,250 per million British thermal units, wholesale power for delivery hit its $9,000-per-megawatt-hour price cap as demand exceeded supply leading to one of the worst controlled blackouts in the nation's history.   At one point, Bloomberg calculated that up to 15 million Texans plunged into darkness during the winter blast. ... and of course, there were winners and losers in the energy space during this entire fiasco. Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, was able to sell natgas for extraordinary high premiums. One of the losers, Atmos Energy Corp., a top supplier of gas in the U.S., is in the process of raising cash after it committed to securing $3.5 billion worth of natgas during the chaos.

Natural Gas Prices Continue to Slide on Post-Storm Recovery - Natural gas futures crashed on Monday as production appeared to be making a quick recovery from the unrivaled Arctic blast that rocked the energy industry last week. Warming weather models also provided a headwind to prices, with the March Nymex gas futures contract tumbling 11.6 cents to settle at $2.953. April slid only 5.5 cents to $2.936. Spot gas prices continued to fall too on the much milder weather that settled in over much of the Lower 48. NGI’s Spot Gas National Avg. dropped $1.605 to $2.870. Though likely not at the same level as last week, futures volatility is expected to remain robust in the coming days, with the March contract set to roll off the board Wednesday. Prompt-month prices were down sharply at the open and remained firmly in the red throughout the session. The April-June contracts, meanwhile, moved back to around where they were trading at the beginning of the month. NatGasWeather said the more moderate conditions are expected to shift colder late this week, but the latest weather data paints a less colder picture than in earlier outlooks. The data is colder with a second system forecast to follow March 2-4. Overall, though, the set-up for the 12- to 15-day forecast period is bearish, according to the forecaster. Despite the warmer weather on tap for this week, NatGasWeather said “the damage from the recent Arctic blast has been done.”

US natural gas futures fall on warmer weather -  US natural gas futures slid over 2% to a fresh one-week low on Tuesday as warmer weather allows producers to return to service more wells and pipelines that were frozen during last week’s extreme cold. That small decline comes despite forecasts for higher demand next week as liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports rise. On their second to last day as the front-month, gas futures for March delivery fell 7.4 cents, or 2.5%, to settle at $2.879 per million British thermal units, their lowest close since Feb. 11 for a second day in a row. April futures, which will soon be the front-month, lost 8 cents to $2.86 per mmBtu. Data provider Refinitiv said output in the Lower 48 US states has averaged 85.2 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) so far in February. Traders noted that was down from 91.1 bcfd in January, due to massive freezing of wells and pipelines last week. Output hit an all-time monthly high of 95.4 bcfd in November 2019. On a daily basis, production was on track to jump to 87.5 bcfd on Tuesday as the weather warms, its highest since Feb. 11 before last week. During last week’s freeze, daily output dropped as low as 72.9 bcfd on Feb. 17, the lowest since August 2017, according to Refinitiv data. Refinitiv projected average gas demand, including exports, would fall from 117.0 bcfd this week to 109.1 bcfd next week as the weather turns milder. That forecast for next week was higher than Refinitiv projected on Monday due mostly to rising LNG exports. The amount of feedgas flowing to US LNG export plants averaged 8.4 bcfd so far in February, down from 10.4 bcfd in January and a monthly record high of 10.7 bcfd in December. Exports dropped this month after several Gulf Coast plants shut or reduced output after the extreme cold cut available power and gas supplies.

US natural gas futures slip to 2-week low -  US natural gas futures slipped to a two-week low on Wednesday as the weather turns milder, heating demand declines and output rises after last week’s freeze. On its last day as the front-month, gas futures for March delivery fell 2.5 cents, or 0.9%, to settle at $2.854 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), their lowest close since Feb. 9. That put the front-month down for a fifth day in a row for the first time since November. April futures, which will soon be the front-month, fell 5 cents to $2.80 per mmBtu. Data provider Refinitiv said output in the Lower 48 US states has averaged 85.5 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) so far in February. Traders noted that was down from 91.1 bcfd in January, due to massive freezing of wells and pipelines last week. Output hit an all-time monthly high of 95.4 bcfd in November 2019. On a daily basis, production was on track to jump to 89.8 bcfd on Tuesday as the weather warms, its highest since Feb. 8. During last week’s freeze, daily output dropped as low as 72.9 bcfd on Feb. 17, the lowest since August 2017, according to Refinitiv data. Analysts projected last week’s heavy heating demand will erase the long-standing surplus of gas in storage. Stockpiles have remained above the five-year (2016-2020) average since the start of 2020 and were still 2.6% above that average during the week ended Feb. 12. '

Like 'Nothing Happened,' Natural Gas Forward Prices Crumble Below $3.00 --Massive declines spread across natural gas forward markets for the trading period ending Wednesday, fueled primarily by a return to the warm weather pattern that has characterized most of the winter season. A quick ramp in production following last week’s historic winter storm also served as a headwind for prices, with March averaging 34.0 cents lower during the Feb. 18-24 period, according to NGI’s Forward Look. April contracts also took a big hit, falling 19.0 cents on average for the period, while the summer strip (April-October) dropped 13.0 cents on average, Forward Look data showed. Prices for next winter (November-March) posted double-digit losses as well, averaging 10.0 cents lower on the week. The price decreases across U.S. forward curves were expected following the monstrous rally that took place last week amid the prolonged Arctic blast. The unrivaled cold resulted in widespread power outages and surprising moves by the Texas governor to help restore power to the electric grid. The price slide was led by Nymex futures, which fell for five straight days beginning last Thursday (Feb. 18) and ended with the March contract expiring Wednesday at $2.854/MMBtu. April closed the session at $2.795. “It is difficult to argue that nothing happened during the month of February, yet that is what the Nymex curve indicates,” said Mobius Risk Group. Instead, the gas market has been beset by several bearish catalysts over the past week, according to EBW Analytics Group. These include a couple of lower-than-expected storage withdrawals, a much warmer turn in the weather data that has sliced 38 Bcf of demand and a faster-than-expected recovery from record production freeze-offs. “The market remains severely undersupplied, and Nymex futures are significantly undervalued on a fundamental basis,” EBW said. “Last week’s perfect storm and widespread shortages provided the catalyst for the market to move higher, and the lack of upside price action suggests…a likely period of consolidation before a sustained move higher later in late April or May.”

US gas in storage posts second-largest weekly withdrawal on record at 338 Bcf | S&P Global Platts -- The US natural gas storage industry posted its second-largest draw on record last week, but the Henry Hub prompt-month contract continued to slip as the severe, country-wide cold retreated. Storage inventories decreased by 338 Bcf to 1.943 Tcf for the week ended Feb. 19, the US Energy Information Administration reported the morning of Feb. 25. The withdrawal was stronger than the 333 Bcf draw expected by an S&P Global Platts survey of analysts. The pull proved more than 200 Bcf stronger than the the five-year average. It was only the second weekly storage withdrawal to measure more than 300 Bcf. The largest weekly storage decline on record stands at 359 Bcf, which was set for the week ended Jan. 5, 2018. Unprecedented cold in parts of the country led to huge swings in daily supply and demand fundamentals, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. US production fell about 9 Bcf/d versus the prior week, compared to a 3 Bcf/d decline during the polar vortex of January 2018. Most of the losses were observed within Texas, Oklahoma and the Southeast. Such large losses in US production led to an aggregate increase of 2.6 Bcf/d in net Canadian imports and LNG sendouts week on week. Lower production, massive gains in spot gas prices, loss of power and port closures led to LNG feedgas and exports to Mexico falling by 5.1 Bcf/d and 1.3 Bcf/d, respectively, week on week. Gas prices lost some ground this week, with the now prompt April NYMEX contract falling to near $2.80/MMBtu entering the EIA report -- well off the intraday high of $3.06/MMBtu established last week. A mild outlook over the next two weeks, coupled with a fast return of US production, likely caused some profit-taking. Nevertheless, with the market likely to enter the summer near 1.5 Tcf -- the current summer NYMEX Henry Hub strip appears undervalued, according to Platts Analytics. Indeed, too much demand will be stimulated, and not enough gas will be available to replenish storage to adequate levels. After the EIA report, gas prices were relatively unchanged, with the April contract near $2.79/MMBtu. Storage volumes now stand 298 Bcf, or 13.3%, less than the year-ago level of 2.281 Tcf, and 161 Bcf, or 7.7%, more than the five-year average of 2.104 Tcf. Platts Analytics' supply and demand model currently forecasts a 137 Bcf withdrawal for the week ending Feb. 26, which is about 50 Bcf stronger than the five-year average draw. Rising temperatures aided a quick recovery in US production, increasing 5.6 Bcf/d week over week. Higher production pushed back on other sources of supply, with LNG sendouts and net Canadian imports falling by 1.2 Bcf/d and 1.5 Bcf/d, respectively. More supply availability, the resumption of power and the return to more normalized port operations allowed LNG feedgas volumes to climb 2.4 Bcf/d week on week. In addition, exports to Mexico ticked up 600 MMcf/d week on week.

EIA’s Massive Storage Draw Too Little Too Late; April Natural Gas Prices Fall Again -  The April natural gas futures contract failed to make a big impression on its first day at the front of the Nymex curve. The new prompt month struggled to get off the ground early in Thursday’s session and only reached a $2.855/MMBtu intraday high before settling at $2.777, off 1.8 cents from Wednesday’s close.Spot gas, which traded Thursday for delivery through Sunday, continued to retreat as well, with losses accelerating on the East Coast. NGI’s Spot GasNational Avg. dropped 19.5 cents to $2.555.After five straight days in the red, it would not have been surprising to see the newly prompt April contract make a big splash. Instead, prices languished early in the session, teetering on either side of flat ahead of Thursday’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) report. Analysts had been banking on a steep drawdown, with estimates more or less clustered around a draw near 335 Bcf.However, there was a host of factors that easily could have resulted in much less gas being pulled out of storage during the unparalleled freeze that draped the Midcontinent and Texas last week.The EIA’s monster 338 Bcf withdrawal was near consensus but failed to surpass the record 359 Bcf draw reported by EIA in January 2018. Still, participants on Enelyst were surprised to see the lack of response from futures..Enelyst managing director Het Shah said with the Nymex front month flipping to April, there was not the same level of excitement than if the EIA’s draw would have been posted a week ago.Nevertheless, the draw brought total inventories down to 1,943 Bcf, 298 Bcf lower than year-ago levels and 161 Bcf below the five-year average of 2,104 Bcf, according to EIA.Broken down by region, the South Central region recorded a massive 156 Bcf withdrawal, including an 83 Bcf pull from salt facilities and a 73 Bcf draw from nonsalts, EIA said. The Midwest took out 81 Bcf from storage, and the East withdrew 61 Bcf. Pacific inventories declined by 26 Bcf, while Mountain inventories fell by 14 Bcf.Lefkof questioned the level of demand that would have resulted had it not been for the widespread power outages that affected natural gas production, pipelines, plants, storage facilities and other infrastructure. During the unrivaled Arctic storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also ordered gas producers to not sell gas across state lines in an attempt to help restore power to the grid. Criterion Research LLC analyst James Bevan noted that given the shuffling of supply, South Central supply was actually higher last week. “When you add up the weekly pipeline exports, decreased liquefied natural gas export deliveries, Mexican exports and production freeze-offs, supply actually gained 1.5 Bcf/d,”

LNG tankers pile up in US Gulf as loadings slowly restart - More than 10 tankers were waiting to load in the US Gulf Coast as LNG plants there slowly resumed exports after complications from winter storms prevented tankers from loading and sailing since Feb. 14. Twelve LNG tankers were either waiting to load or in transit to one of the four USGC-based LNG export facilities late Feb. 17, according to S&P Global Platts ship tracking software, cFlow. Exports from the US halted suddenly as the polar vortex affecting much of North America caused operational complications at liquefaction plants and at ship channels. The first US-sourced tankers to set sail since the extreme cold weather set in departed from Freeport LNG late Feb. 17. Since then, another two vessel have left ports in the US Gul Coast: another from Freeport on Feb. 18 and one from Sabine Pass on the same date. Two for the three tankers had been berthed at their respective export facility for a number of days. Ship channels across the gulf had experienced closures or operational complications at the start of the polar vortex, due to essential personnel being unable to access the ports. Tanker loadings and departures have, however, only resumed at two of the four USGC-located facilities. Consequently, the rate of loading from the gulf, and the US as a whole, is significantly lower than just a week ago. The seven-day moving average loading rate for the US as whole fell to 5 Bcf/d on Feb. 19, down by more than half from earlier in the month, data from S&P Platts Analytics showed. As the situation stands, the average export rate for February stands at about 7.4 Bcf/d, below the roughly 9.3 Bcf/d average seen in December and January.

 Natural Gas Production in Texas Dropped 45% Amid Historic Freeze --U.S. dry natural gas production plummeted during the Arctic freeze that descended upon Texas last week, hitting a low of 69.7 billion Bcf/d, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a research note Thursday. The low point, reached on Feb. 17, marked a decline of 21% from the average of the prior week, the agency said. Natural gas production in Texas dropped nearly 45%, falling from 21.3 Bcf/d during the week ended Feb. 13 to a low of 11.8 Bcf/d on Feb. 17, EIA estimated using data from IHS Markit. Temperatures in Texas during the extraordinary cold snap averaged nearly 30 degrees lower than normal for the time of the year. “The decline in natural gas production was mostly a result of freeze-offs, which occur when water and other liquids in the raw natural gas stream freeze at the wellhead or in natural gas gathering lines near production activities,” EIA noted. Unlike natural gas production infrastructure in northern states that is built to withstand frigid conditions, wellheads, gathering lines and processing facilities in Texas are not “weatherized” for prolonged bouts of freezing temperatures. That makes them “susceptible to the effects of extremely cold weather,” researchers said. In a separate report Thursday, EIA said that, with the frosty temperatures and light production, the industry withdrew 338 Bcf from natural gas storage in the week ended Feb. 19, the second-steepest pull on record.

Texas Refineries Released Tons of Pollutants During Storm -  Texas oil refineries released hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide into the air as they scrambled to shut down during last week's deadly winter storm, Reuters reported Sunday.  Winter storm Uri, which killed dozens of people and cut off power to over four million Texans at its peak, also disrupted supplies needed to keep the state's refineries and petrochemical plants operating. As they shut down, refineries flared — or burned off — gases in order to prevent damage to their processing units.  According to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, the five largest refiners emitted nearly 337,000 pounds of pollutants in this manner. ExxonMobil's Baytown Olefins plant in Baytown released 68,000 tons of carbon monoxide and nearly a ton of benzene in what it called a "safe utilization of the flare system."  Critics noted, however, that benzene is harmful to bone marrow, red blood cells, and the immune system. "There is no safe amount of benzene for human exposure," Sharon Wilson, a researcher at the advocacy group Earthworks, told Reuters. The five largest U.S. oil refiners emitted tons of pollutants into the skies over Texas this week, including benzen…   Motiva's Port Arthur refinery released 118,100 pounds of pollutants into the air between Feb. 15 and Feb. 18. This was triple the amount of excess emissions the plant reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the entire year of 2019.  Valero's refinery in Port Arthur flared 78,000 pounds of pollutants over 24 hours beginning Feb. 15, while Marathon Petroleum's Galveston Bay refinery released 14,255 pounds in less than five hours that same day. Hilton Kelly, who lives in Port Arthur, told Reuters that there were "six or seven flares going at one time." Wilson said that the flaring "could have been prevented" by winterizing the refineries. "We need someone in the Texas legislature to file a bill requiring the oil and gas industry to thoroughly winterize all their equipment," Wilson told Earther. "The bill probably won't pass in Texas, but that will create some more scrutiny about it."  Earther reports that between Feb. 11 and Feb. 18, there were 174 so-called "emissions events" from fossil fuel facilities in Texas, compared to between 37 and 46 such events in weeks before the storm. In addition to the previously mentioned pollutants, chemicals released from Texas facilities include over 6,500 pounds of the carcinogen isoprene from a Shell plant in Deer Park near Houston, as well as an indeterminate amount of methane, which is 84 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over the short term. Wilson told Earther that "in Texas we don't count methane" in pollution reports.

Weeks to Restart Damaged Texas Refineries -- Four of the largest refineries in Texas are discovering widespread damage from the deep freeze that crippled the state and expect to be down for weeks of repairs, raising the potential for prolonged fuel shortages that could spread across the country. Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baytown and Beaumont plants, Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Galveston Bay refinery and Total SE’s Port Arthur facility all face at least several weeks to resume normal operations, people familiar with the situation said. Gasoline prices at the pump could reach $3 a gallon in May as long outages crimp supply ahead of the driving season, said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for retailer tracker GasBuddy. The cold snap and power outages roiling energy markets affected more than 20 oil refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Crude-processing capacity fell by about 5.5 million barrels a day, according to Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst for consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. When blackouts that left millions of homes in the dark end and frozen roadways thaw, drivers can take to the road again. But refineries are left with burst pipes, leaks, damaged equipment and, in some cases, petroleum fluids that hardened into a sort of wax because the flow stopped. “It’s going to be a difficult restart for refiners,” said Andy Lipow, president of energy researcher Lipow Oil Associates in Houston. “They are not going to restart until power is restored and they get the go-ahead from the utilities. My guess is the earliest restarts would even begin is this coming weekend.” Restarting a refinery isn’t like flipping a light switch when the power comes back on. In addition to fixing any damage, getting back online involves slowly heating up units, testing all the way, then slowly ramping up so they are running fluid again. And testing and retesting the output until it meets specifications. If a refinery didn’t shut major process equipment like gasoline-making units known as catalytic crackers before a power loss, there will be so-called dead legs, pockets of hydrocarbon and steam that freeze and can burst pipes and cause leaks. An abrupt shutdown could cause any fluids in piping to harden and take days or weeks to remove. Even in the case of a controlled shutdowns ahead of a power loss, plunging temperatures can damage equipment. Below are some details about the four Texas refineries that expect to be down for weeks:

U.S. shale producers reveal extent of hit from Texas freeze (Reuters) - Occidental Petroleum Corp, Diamondback Energy Inc and a host of smaller Permian-focused U.S. shale producers on Monday forecast lower oil output in the first quarter, giving the first indications of the hit to the industry caused by last week’s winter storm. Areas of Texas not used to the cold were hit by sub-zero temperatures and record snow falls last week. While natural gas producers benefited from cold weather forcing closure of wells, shale oil drillers stood on the losing side of the trade as frozen pipes and power supply interruptions were expected to slow an output recovery, operators said. Shale oil producers could take at least two weeks to restart the more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude output lost during the cold snap and some production may never return because of the cost of restarting marginal wells, analysts said.Diamondback estimated it lost four to five days worth of total production from its current-quarter earnings, sending its shares down nearly 4% to $65.95 in late trading. Oil shares had rallied during the day on higher oil prices. Occidental forecast the storm would cut about 25,000 barrels of oil and gas from its first-quarter production. Its shares also reversed course after the bell and were down about 2%.

 Texas freeze helps rival oil exporters like Saudi Arabia ‘tremendously’, may influence OPEC moves  The shock winter storm in Texas that left millions without power and took dozens of lives also froze a major local commodity: the Lone Star State's oil production, slashing some 4 million barrels per day from U.S. output. The consequence will be a boost in revenue and potentially increased exports among rival oil-producing nations, commodities experts say. Analysts estimate the total volume of oil lost to Texas' production freeze at anywhere between 18 million and 40 million barrels and roughly one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity was shut in. And while temperatures are moving upward again and production is expected to mostly recover by the end of this week, the impact of the deficit on oil markets is already visible in the recent jump in crude prices. International benchmark Brent crude is up more than $6 per barrel since the storm began hitting Texan production facilities in mid-February. U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate has risen about $3 per barrel. The development, while adding yet another blow to Texas on top of the devastating damage and human suffering wreaked by the once-in-a-decade storm, translates on the global market into a likely boon for other oil producers, like those in the Middle East. "The Texas storm helps Saudi and its partners tremendously because it accelerates the path to inventory normalization," Peter Sutherland, president of Houston-based energy investment firm Henrietta Resources. "Concurrent drawdowns of both crude and refined products are a big tailwind heading into spring," he told CNBC. "It's not just positive sentiment; the roughly 40 million barrels lost due to the storm help tighten the market." The inventory drawdown continues a trend that's seeing oil prices steadily rise from their historic pandemic-induced lows nearly a year ago. Brent crude is up 30% year to date, with Goldman Sachs predicting it could hit $75 by the end of this year, a level not seen since fall of 2018. This could influence decision making among OPEC members in their upcoming meeting on March 4. While the organization had prioritized production cuts during much of the pandemic to keep a floor under oil prices, the more promising outlook for demand — and gradually normalizing global supply — provides incentive for these producers to speed up the rate at which they'll increase their production.

Looks Like We Made It - Propane and the 2021 Deep Freeze; Where Are We Now? --Here in Texas, the snow is melting, the power is back on, and some of us even have drinkable water.  We’ll be dealing with the aftermath of the 2021 Deep Freeze for months, and talking about the insane natural gas and power prices for as long as gas and power markets exist. One thing you have not heard much about during these crazy few days is propane. And given what we’ve been through, no news is good news. Sure, it was impossible to exchange a tank at the local Quickie Mart, and there were sporadic reports of delayed propane deliveries and local shortfalls. But even up in the coldest Midwest states, there were no market meltdowns, no skyrocketing prices. Instead, propane has been the go-to fuel to keep folks warm, to get energy production moving again by defrosting wellheads and pipeline valves, and even to get restaurants back on their feet. It’s always dangerous to declare a winter victory with a few weeks left to go in the season, but today we’ll take that risk.  We started laying the groundwork for our analysis of this season’s propane market late last year in Now You See It, where we warned of the possibility of a coming propane price squeeze. At that point, the big issue was exports, which were running at all-time highs and had the potential to deplete inventories at record rates. We worried that average days-supply, when calculated using both domestic demand and exports, had dropped to a five-year low, and that the market could get very tight. We kept the focus on propane supply and exports in Big Panama With A Purple Hat Band and It's All Over Now, where we looked at how frigid weather in Asia had pulled even more U.S. propane into export markets. By early February the handwriting was on the wall, and we laid out the prospects for a looming deep freeze in Cold As Ice, suggesting that even with super-cold weather just ahead and low inventories in the Midwest (PADD 2), the propane market seemed to be reasonably well prepared for what was to come. So far, that’s how conditions in the propane market seem to be playing out. Prices did increase, but no huge spikes. As shown in the left graph in Figure 1, at the peak (nadir?) of the Deep Freeze on February 18, the Mont Belvieu spot propane price (blue line) was up only 17% over the January average, while the Conway price (green line) was up about 50%. Given that cold temperature records were being set across much of the country, those increases are relatively modest, especially when compared to the chaos in natural gas (right graph in Figure 1). Spot natural gas prices in the same general geographies were up as much as 150 times the average price in January. Most likely the average price for February will be 10 to 20 times the January average. Nothing like that has ever happened before (see Terminal Frost and  Perfect Storm for our analysis of these market conditions).

OKLAHOMA: Injections wells closed or reduced after earthquake -- Monday, February 22, 2021 -- The injection of wastewater into underground wells by oil and natural gas producers has been stopped or reduced in the area where a magnitude 4.2 earthquake struck in northern Oklahoma.

COVID Obscures New Mexico Legislature — But Oil and Gas Still Get In - When state Sen. George Muñoz, the new head of the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee, wants to hold a meeting, he gets to pick who’s invited. That’s how state senate meeting rules are structured. So if he chooses to invite oil and gas industry representatives to dominate a discussion of the financial ramifications of President Joe Biden’s moratorium on federal oil and gas leases, that’s Muñoz’s prerogative. And that’s exactly what he did on Feb. 2. “We want information that’s good and we can rely on,” he said at the start of the virtual meeting.  The unofficial keynoter was Ryan Flynn, president and CEO of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), the state’s best-known oil and gas industry advocacy group. Notably absent were any voices from outside government or industry: no one from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s green energy development task force; no one to comment on industry’s contribution to the climate crisis; and none of the many New Mexican economists who study the oil and gas industry and its fraught future. Consequently, Flynn — whose group’s stated goal is promoting oil and gas development in New Mexico — and a representative from a Texas trade group were given the chance to tell their story of impending economic catastrophe to a gallery of government representatives on a Zoom call.  And while this might have looked like lobbying, don’t call Flynn a lobbyist because — to the surprise of many — he’s not. Not registered, anyway. He hasn’t been since 2019.  Muñoz began the session by introducing Flynn — with a slip of the tongue. “I keep wanting to say ‘Secretary Flynn,’” he chuckled, recalling Flynn’s previous position as New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) secretary under former Gov. Susana Martinez, whose administration vigorously promoted oil and gas development. “Ryan, you wanna go ahead and start out?” The verbal slip, easy familiarity and starring role illustrate how one of the state’s most powerful lobbies is treated within state government. And it’s an example of the soft power that the oil and gas industry holds in New Mexico and of a revolving door between industry and government.

Natural Gas Battles Local Climate Efforts - Facing the rising threat of wildfire and extreme drought, Flagstaff, Ariz., unveiled an ambitious effort two years ago to cut the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.A critical part of Flagstaff's climate plan proposed that all new construction get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 and that the city promote "aggressive building electrification" to decrease reliance on fossil fuels. As in many places, buildings are a big source of Flagstaff's greenhouse gases, mainly because many are heated by burning natural gas.But in February 2020, the Arizona Legislature blocked much of Flagstaff's plan for its buildings. With the backing of the state's main gas utility, the Legislature passed a bill that prevents municipalities and counties from banning new gas infrastructure and hookups."It definitely put a huge hurdle in our plans for promoting electrification and fuel switching," says Nicole Antonopoulos, Flagstaff's sustainability director.The Arizona law was a test case for a strategy the natural gas sector is now deploying nationwide. Gas utilities, with help from industry trade groups, have successfully lobbied lawmakers over the past year to introduce similar "preemption" legislation in 12 mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).The speed and scale of the strategy show just how high the stakes are for the gas industry. According to internal reports and hundreds of recent emails obtained through public records requests and shared with NPR, the gas industry sees an existential threat in the efforts of cities, states, businesses — and now the Biden administration — to sharply reduce fossil fuel use."As you're really looking at what's going to come out of the Biden administration, they're really talking about remaking the entire economy through a green lens, and that means eliminating natural gas," Sue Forrester, vice president of advocacy and outreach at the American Gas Association (AGA), said during an industry conference last November. Gas utilities and their powerful lobby, the AGA, are racing on multiple fronts to convince lawmakers and the public that swapping out natural gas with electric would harm consumers and lead to higher bills. They argue that using natural gas is compatible with addressing climate change, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Pro-gas groups have emerged around the country with names such as "The Empowerment Alliance" and "Partnership for Energy Progress" to sway local and state debates about electrification. The gas industry has launched ad campaigns on Facebook and Instagram touting gas as far better for cooking.

 Fond du Lac Band tells outside protesters to respect its sovereignty after bomb scare - – The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is telling pipeline protesters who are not band members to respect its sovereignty after a "potential explosive device" prompted an evacuation near an Enbridge pipeline work site on the band's reservation Friday. The band's governing body said in a statement that it recognizes that some people oppose its decision to allow the project within its borders but asked protesters to honor its sovereign authority. A half-mile area around a rural stretch of Ditchbank Road near Cloquet was evacuated for several hours following reports of a package being thrown onto a work site as protesters were dispersing Friday afternoon, according to the Carlton County Sheriff's Office. A bomb squad was called to the site, and state and federal authorities are investigating. "After careful examination, it was determined that the device was not an explosive agent," the Sheriff's Office said in a news release. "Investigators are following up on a number of leads." Forty area residents were evacuated in addition to pipeline workers in an incident the Fond du Lac Band said "created widespread public safety concerns." Emergency alerts were initially send to a large number of northeastern Minnesota residents before another alert clarified the evacuation order affected only residents in the area. Enbridge also briefly shut down its pipelines in the area. The company said two "nonexplosive items" were removed from inside an open pipe. "This incident disrupted not just a pipeline and the delivery of energy, but the lives of real people," Enbridge said in a statement. "This is unacceptable and we will seek to prosecute those involved to the full extent of the law."

PIPELINES: DOJ to court: Biden axing KXL permit rendered suit moot -- Thursday, February 25, 2021 -- A month after President Biden killed the border-crossing permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, his administration asked a federal appeals court yesterday to dismiss litigation over the approval.

 Republicans criticizing Haaland's nomination have ties to fossil fuels - Republicans appear eager to derail the cabinet nomination of Deb Haaland, a Native American congresswoman who wants to conserve federal lands and slow climate change as secretary of the interior to Joe Biden. In two days of confirmation hearings before the Senate energy and natural resources committee, Haaland faced hostile questions from a group of GOP senators who attempted to cast her as an extremist and a danger to American jobs.  Haaland, a 35th-generation New Mexican who would be the first Native American cabinet secretary, supports the Green New Deal and opposes fracking on federal land. As secretary of the interior, she would implement Biden’s climate agenda, which, though relatively ambitious, may not go as far as she would prefer. Hostile questioning at her confirmation hearings was led by senators who have taken huge amounts of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry. Some are personally invested in fossil fuels. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he was “troubled by many of Representative Haaland’s views”, which he characterized as “radical”. “We shouldn’t undermine our energy production and we shouldn’t hurt our own economy,” he said in an opening statement. “Representative Haaland’s positions are squarely at odds with the mission of the Department of [the] Interior.” Barrasso, who has questioned whether humans contribute to the climate crisis, also complained about a tweet in which Haaland said Republicans don’t believe in science. What he didn’t say was that the oil and gas industry has bankrolled his political career and he is personally invested in a company that transports a sizable portion of US natural gas. From 2015 to 2020, Barrasso’s campaign and leadership political action committee, or Pac, took in more than $480,000 from the pacs of oil and gas companies, more than from any other industry, according to data analyzed by  In 2018, his most recent election year, his campaign got the maximum amount of $10,000 from the pacs of companies such as natural gas driller Chesapeake Energy, which extracts oil from wells in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming; oil giant Chevron, which owns oil and gas properties in Haaland’s state, New Mexico; and fossil fuel conglomerate Koch Industries. In his full federal career, Barrasso has received nearly $1.2m from oil and gas firms and their employees, making him one of the Senate’s top recipients of such money.

Who will clean up the 'billion-dollar mess' of abandoned US oilwells? - Jill Morrison has seen how the bust of oil and gas production can permanently scar a landscape. Near her land in north-east Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where drilling started in 1889, more than 2,000 abandoned wells are seeping brine into the groundwater and leaking potent greenhouse gasses.  The problem is getting worse. As the oil and gas industry contracts owing to the pandemic, low prices and the rise of renewables, more than 50 major companies have gone bankrupt in the last year. Joe Biden’s recent order to pause drilling on federal land could drive that number higher. Morrison, a rancher and the head of the Powder River Basin resource council, said the crash was exacerbating the abandonment issue. “They drill baby drilled themselves right out of business,” Morrison said. “We’re seeing something we’ve never seen before in the oil and gas industry, in terms of the downturn, and there’s going to be a billion-dollar mess to clean up.” Unplugged wells, either orphaned well, which have no liable party, usually due to bankruptcy, or idle, abandoned ones, where the company has walked away, but could still be liable, cause rampant methane emissions – up to 8% of US total according to a 2014 analysis. They also leak brine, oil and fracking fluid into the groundwater, and carcinogenic gases, like benzine, into the air, and as their numbers increase the impacts grow.“Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, it’s a precursor for ozone, and harmful for human health,” said Mary Kang, a McGill civil engineering professor who conducted the study. “Even just a few wells can be responsible for big emissions, and there are all the other associated risks, and impacts to wildlife and ecosystems.” The impacts aren’t just here in the rangy fields of Wyoming. There are unremediated wells in Los Angeles neighborhoods and Pennsylvania farms. There could be as many as 3.2m abandoned wells in the US, according to a 2018EPA report, but this is probably an undercount because both federal and state programs for regulating and monitoring non-producing wells are incomplete. There are an estimated 2,500 of them in the Powder River Basin alone. So many have been left uncapped because the regulations and bonding requirements, the money that companies pay ahead of time as insurance, for those wells are so minimal that it’s nearly impossible to hold drillers responsible or to pay for cleanup. Some companies simply walk away from wells, meaning they are still liable; when firms go out of business, they are not. The penalties for not cleaning up a well are minimal when there’s nothing but a small bond holding a company responsible. “How do you convince operators to comply when there’s no carrot and no stick?” That means the profits for drilling go to individual companies while the damages, both environmental and financial, are largely borne by the local community and by state and federal taxpayers. “Unplugged wells devalue property, they’re a mess to work around, it can lead to groundwater pollution, and no one is really tracking it,” Morrison said. ... “The heart of the problem is that we have inadequate bonding requirements in places that allow oil and gas companies to walk away and leave taxpayers holding the bag.”

 HazMat firefighters respond to 50-foot oil spill in Val Verde - A HazMat response was called Wednesday morning to a 50-foot oil spill following a leak in Val Verde. Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel responded to the scene near Del Valle Road and Hasley Canyon Road at around 9:56 a.m., according to Fire Department Public Information Officer Jonathan Matheny. A 50-foot circle of oil can be seen at the base of a leaking well on Del Valle Road near Hasley Canyon Road in Castaic on Wednesday, 021721. Dan Watson/The Signal “There’s an oil well there and there’s some oil leaking from the wellhead that is coming downhill,” he said. The spill was reportedly 50 feet in diameter on the ground “but the situation is static, meaning it’s not getting any bigger,” Matheny added. The response team, as well as the oil company, were en route as of 10:15 a.m. to investigate, according to Matheny. No injuries or additional incidents related to the spill were reported.

Gavin Newsom Sued for 'Completely Unacceptable' Approval of Oil and Gas Projects in California --Accusing California regulators of "reckless disregard" for public "health and safety," the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday sued the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom for approving thousands of oil and gas drilling and fracking projects without the required environmental review.The lawsuit claims that the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) failed to adequately analyze environmental and health risks before issuing fossil fuel extraction permits, as required by law. According to the suit, California regulators approved nearly 2,000 new oil and gas permits without proper environmental review.  "CalGEM routinely violates its duty to conduct an initial study and further environmental review for any new oil and gas well drilling, well stimulation, or injection permits and approvals," the suit alleges. "Instead, CalGEM repeatedly and consistently issues permits and approvals for oil and gas drilling, well stimulation, and injection projects without properly disclosing, analyzing, or mitigating the significant environmental impacts of these projects." The center noted that "despite Gov. Newsom's progressive rhetoric on climate change, he has failed to curb California's dirty and carbon-intensive oil and gas production.""His regulators continue to issue thousands of permits without review, and the governor has refused to act on his stated desire to ban fracking," the group said in a statement. "Newsom's regulators also failed to meet the governor's deadline to publish a draft health-and-safety rule after vowing to do so before the end of 2020." Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, said Wednesday that "it is completely unacceptable for Gov. Newsom to continue to ignore our flagship environmental law that's meant to protect people from oil industry pollution.""Newsom can't protect our health and climate while giving thousands of illegal permits each year to this dirty and dangerous industry," Kretzmann added. "We need the courts to step in and stop this."

Arctic drilling plan in Alaska hits roadblock (Reuters) - Plans for seismic surveys to help find oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have fizzled due to a lack of protection for polar bears, according to a brief statement Saturday from the Department of the Interior. The Kaktovik Inupiat Corp (KIC), the Native-owned company that applied for permission to conduct the survey, failed to do the required work to identify polar bear dens in the region that would be surveyed, Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in an emailed statement. The likely demise of the seismic plan is the latest in a series of setbacks that have deflated the decades-long ambition to convert the refuge into an oil-producing frontier. Alaska’s oil production has been waning since the late 1980s, when the state produced more than 2 million barrels of crude per day. Now its output is roughly 500,000 bpd. Ex-President Donald Trump passed tax legislation in 2017 that would have allowed for drilling in the ANWR, and the federal government held a lease sale in the last days of his presidency. Identification of den sites was needed for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to grant KIC an incidental harassment authorization, a permit that would allow seismic operations near polar bears, Schwartz said. “The company was advised today that their request is no longer actionable,” she said in her statement. KIC had planned, through contractor SAExploration, to conduct seismic surveys on 352,416 acres within the refuge’s coastal plain. The company missed a Feb. 13 deadline to perform its aerial den-detection work, Schwartz said. The Jan. 6 ANWR lease sale drew qualifying bids for only 11 tracts, most from an Alaska state agency that was participating as a backstop in case oil companies did not submit bids. President Joseph Biden and Interior Secretary-designee Deb Haaland oppose oil development in the refuge.

Big Oil Posts Record Loss in 2020  --Rystad Energy has highlighted that the five integrated supermajors – ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and Total – posted a combined record loss of $76 billion in 2020. Rystad noted that the major chunk of this loss, $69 billion, can be attributed to asset impairments and write-offs as the supermajors re-evaluated their strategy to focus on the energy transition and become less dependent on petroleum. All five majors reported net losses last year, with ExxonMobil reporting the largest at $22.4 billion, followed by Shell and BP which also incurred losses of more than $20 billion, Rystad outlined. The company said Total and Chevron fared better than their peers, relatively speaking, reporting net losses of $5 billion to $6 billion. Rystad highlighted that all the majors had their gearing ratio raised in 2020, with BP and Shell both ending the year with a gearing above the 30 percent mark. ExxonMobil and Chevron raised a record amount of debt during the year, adding $19 billion and $18 billion respectively to their net debt, Rystad outlined, adding that both majors increased their gearing ratio by ten percent in 2020. The combined oil and gas output of the five majors dropped by nearly five percent, or 0.9 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, in 2020, compared from the year before, Rystad revealed. Lower emission targets and demand for cleaner energy have significantly impacted the long-term production outlook for the majors, according to Rystad, which forecasts that the majors’ net production will be around 17.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd) in 2025 and peak at around 18 million boepd in 2028. The company’s internal forecast in February 2020 stood at 19 million boepd for 2025 and 20 million boepd in 2028. “Last year has certainly tested oil and gas majors like never before,” Rahul Choudhary, an upstream analyst at Rystad Energy, said in a company statement. “Some recovery can be expected in the near future as demand rebounds and oil prices cross the $60 mark. However, the key to success for the five majors over the next decade will be to strengthen their business in more resilient regions, restructure and resize to match the market needs, and pay back their high debt levels,” he added.

February's Cold Blast Sets New Records for the Canadian Natural Gas Market | RBN Energy -The February 2021 polar vortex will be one for the natural gas record books in the U.S. and Canada — and the month isn’t even over yet! Though no stranger to frigid weather, Canada’s natural gas market has felt the impacts of this month’s extreme cold on both sides of the border. Its own prices, demand, and storage withdrawals have reached multi-year or all-time records as gas buyers have jockeyed for molecules from anywhere they can get them. Gas exports to the U.S. have reached highs not seen for more than a decade, adding emphasis to what has been an emerging turnaround story for Canadian gas into the U.S. market. To top things off, the latest gas market records might be a preview of what is to come in the next few years as Canada’s structural demand for natural gas continues to increase, regardless of how cold it is. Today, we describe all the latest Canadian gas market action and what might be in store for next winter. In the past week, we have been discussing the impacts that the extreme cold snap of February 2021 have had on energy markets. In our coverage last week, the impacts that the deep freeze has wrought on the U.S. natural gas and power markets have been plain to see, with skyrocketing gas prices (East Is East, West Is West) due to wellhead freeze offs (Terminal Frost), surging demand, and storage withdrawals that have struggled to balance both sides of the supply-demand equation (Perfect Storm). Cash prices at ONEOK Gas Transmission (OGT) hub in Oklahoma surged to an unheard of $1,250/MMBtu and some regions literally ran out of gas. However, the U.S. has not been alone in feeling the freakishly cold weather’s effects on demand, supplies, storage, and prices. Canadian natural gas markets have also experienced turmoil due to the February extremes. Prices have swelled, new demand records have been set, supplies have fallen, and storage withdrawals have cranked up to never-seen-before levels to keep supply and demand in balance. With gas needed everywhere all at once it seems, even long-suffering Canadian gas exports to the U.S. have recently surged to levels not seen for more than a decade. Like many a polar vortex, this one was initially felt in Western Canada and steadily expanded south and east from there. The impacts are typically seen first in the Alberta natural gas market, a province and market that is all too familiar with bone-chilling temperatures. Drawing on data from RBN’s Canadian NATGAS Billboard, the demand effects of the cold can be readily seen in the early days of this month (green oval in left graph in Figure 1). Though demand was already seasonally elevated, Alberta’s latest spike in gas demand began on February 5, reaching a new record peak of 7.7 Bcf just four days later on February 9 (green dot in middle graph). So intense was the cold in some parts of Alberta that a string of lofty demand highs were established, with six of the top 10 strongest demand days all occurring on either side of the February 9 record high. Pretty impressive for a gas market that, as we said, is used to extremely cold weather.

 Crews respond to diesel spill in B.C. Central Coast - -- Crews continue to try to minimize environmental damage caused by a Feb. 15 diesel fuel spill in the Wannock (Owikeno) River and the Rivers Inlet marine environment in B.C.'s Central Coast. According to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, a report was received that a tanker truck carrying between 7,000 to 8,000 litres of diesel was leaking fluid into the river, due to a crack in a line from one of the trailer units. The ministry says provincial and federal resources were deployed to the community and containment booms and sorbents were placed around the spill. •Traditional knowledge at centre of efforts to protect land from shipwreck's fuel •Oil continues to spill from sunken freighter off Vancouver Island; wildlife affected •New marine oil spill response base to begin construction on Vancouver Island The fuel is used for diesel power generators used by a nearby community and is situated where an old cannery is located, according to the ministry. A release issued by the Wuikinuxv Nation says their administration office was informed of a suspected leak and believes that more than 6,000 litres made it onto the ground and approximately 650 to 700 litres actually reached the inlet. “The spill is close to three culturally and ecologically rich wetland and estuary sites” the release indicates. “The Emergency Operations Centre, Operations and Maintenance and Stewardship Office are working with federal and provincial partners to assess, contain and clean up the spill.” A Transport Canada National Aerial Surveillance Program flight was conducted to map the spill and help identify priorities and sensitive areas around the spill site.

Natural Gas production falls below 3 bcf/d - Natural Gas production averaged less that three billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d) for the first time since the 1990s according to well placed sources at the Ministry of Finance. The Sunday Business Guardian has learnt that for January 2021 natural gas production averaged 2,990 million standard cubic feet per day (mmscf/d) or less than 3bcf/d. This is 1.2 bcf/d less than the installed capacity in T&T and is part of the reason the Minister of Finance Colm Imbert has raised alarm at the low natural gas production. On January 10, Imbert told a news conference that due to depressed oil and gas prices and lower than expected production, revenue from royalties on oil and gas was down by almost half – $806 million or 49.2 per cent. Meanwhile extra ordinary receipts from oil and gas companies also fell by 98.2 per cent or $100 million. The Central Bank in its Economic Bulletin for January reported that natural gas production declined by 23.6 per cent (year-on-year) over the second half of 2020. The bank said Atlantic LNG’s Train 3 was taken down for planned maintenance during the period, which coincided with similar activity at BPTT, the country’s largest natural gas producer. The fourth quarter of 2020 also saw a drop in LNG production at Train 1 amid discussions amongst its shareholders surrounding the future operation of the facility. Natural gas production dropped 29.8 per cent (year-on-year) during October to November 2020 alongside a 46.9 per cent fall in LNG production. The bank noted that the downstream industry also saw declines in output, with methanol production declining 29.4 per cent during the period, while production of ammonia was down by 1.1 per cent.

Israel's beaches blackened by tar after offshore oil spill (Reuters) - Israel is trying to find the ship responsible for an oil spill that drenched much of its Mediterranean shoreline with tar, an environmental blow that will take months or years to clean up, officials said. Thousands of volunteers gathered on Sunday to remove the clumps of sticky black refuse from the pale beaches. Israel’s military said it was deploying thousands of soldiers to help with the effort. Authorities warned everyone else to keep their distance until further notice. Environmental groups called it an disaster. Attesting to the cost to wildlife, they posted pictures of tar-covered turtles. The event began last week during a winter storm, which made it harder to see the tar approaching and deal with it at sea, Israeli officials said. Together with European agencies, Israel was looking as a possible source at a Feb. 11 oil spill from a ship passing about 50 km (21 miles) from shore. Satellite images and modelling of wave movements were helping to narrow the search. Nine ships that were in the area at the time are being looked at, said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel. “There is a more than reasonable chance that we will be able to locate the specific ship,” she told Ynet TV. If found, Israel could take legal action. One course would be to sue insurance companies for compensation to help deal with the ecological fallout, she said, which could cost tens of millions of shekels. Late last week a 17-metre-long (55ft) fin whale was found washed up on a beach in southern Israel. The Nature and Parks Authority said on Sunday that an autopsy had found oil-based material in the whale’s body, with further tests pending.

Israeli Oil Spill Is a 'Severe Ecological Disaster’ -  A mysterious oil spill began to wash up on Israel's coast last week, closing beaches and harming wildlife. The Israeli government urged people not to visit a wide stretch of beach on Sunday, Haaretz reported. Of Israel's 119 miles of beach, 105 were impacted by the disaster, according to CNN. That's 40 percent of Israel's coastline, Haaretz noted.  "The enormous amounts of tar emitted in recent days to the shores of Israel from south to north caused one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel," the country's Nature and Parks Authority said Sunday, CNN reported.People first noticed the oil last Wednesday, according to Haaretz. It washed up as sticky, dark pieces of tar,NPR reported. As of Monday, it had spread to the beaches of southern Lebanon, Reuters reportedAnimals have also been found covered in tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles, Haaretz added. Sadly, four of the turtles died. The rest have been taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center to recover. Additionally, a fin whale washed up dead on the Israeli coast on Thursday. Preliminary tests revealed that it did contain oil in its body, Reuters reported. Not least, ecologists are worried about Dendropoma petraeum, a reef-building snail whose population is already declining because of the climate crisis, NPR reported. Volunteers have rallied to help with cleanup efforts, with more than 4,000 people from the non-profit EcoOcean working to remove the tar. However, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said it would take years to remove all of it, Haaretz reported. Most of the work will have to be done by hand. The government is currently investigating the cause of the spill with the help of European authorities, according to NPR. Israel thinks it likely spilled from a ship about a week ago during stormy weather in the Mediterranean. One candidate is a Feb. 11 oil spill from a ship passing about 21 miles from shore, Reuters reported.Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said the investigation had pinpointed nine ships as potential culprits.

Israel hit by worst environmental disaster in decades - Although the exact cause of the disaster is still under investigation, the head of the Israel Nature and Parks association said the incident is the country's worst environmental disaster in decades. The cleanup of over 170 km (106 miles) of affected coastline will take a long time and consequences will be felt for years. Dozens of tons of fresh tar lumps began landing on Israeli beaches in Habonim, Maagan Michael, and Neve Yam on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. On Sunday, February 21, Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MoEP) warned people to refrain from going to beaches from Rosh Hanikra, in the north, down to Zikim Beach in the Hof Ashkelon Coastal Council, until further notice. "Do not go to Mediterranean Sea beaches for swimming, sports, or recreational activities until further notice," the ministry said Sunday. "Exposure to tar can be harmful to public health! The Ministries are continuing to monitor the situation and will update the public regarding this matter." It's still unclear what the source of the tar is, landing on the beaches since Wednesday morning, authorities said. Tar is a product of the decomposition and crystallization of oils and oil products. This is usually the result of the illegal dumping of oil into the sea from a passing ship. "The source is not known, but it should be noted that if it's from the dumping of oil from a ship, it may have traveled a great distance," MoEP said. Because the tar that has been landing on the coasts is either semi-solid or completely solid, it must be removed manually, with the oily and sand debris being separated from regular debris as much as possible, the ministry said. "The disaster we are witnessing in recent days on the beaches of Israel is the most serious ecological disaster in recent years, and we'll see its consequences in years ahead," the country's Nature and Parks association said.

Oil spill off Israels coast is its worst maritime pollution in decades --Tar that has washed up along Israel’s coast in recent days represents the country’s worse maritime pollution in decades, with officials blaming dozens of tons of oil spilled at an unknown location at sea. The accident has marred beaches over 170 kilometers (106 miles), 40 percent of Israel’s coast, affecting 16 communities. Air patrols dispatched on Saturday were able to pinpoint oil slicks between 200 to 500 meters from the coast, moving towards the mainland in the north of the country, around the port city of Haifa.  Thousands of volunteers joined major cleaning efforts organized by NGOs and local authorities over the weekend. Officials say much work remains to remove all the tar, and most of it will have to be done by hand. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority believes the cleanup will take years.  "This event will not end in the next few days, we are preparing for long, hard work," said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, as she announced that the government had allocated emergency funding to local authorities to deal with damage locally.  The pollution was first noticed Wednesday; the Environmental Protection Ministry says the most likely scenario is an unreported spill from a tanker. On Saturday, Minister Gamliel said information received from the European Maritime Safety Agency points to an area about 50 kilometers off the Israeli coast as the source of the pollution, which occurred about a week ago. "We've identified 10 vessels that passed through that area, and one or more of them could be responsible for this severe incident," she said. Identifiying the source might prove difficult, as officials say the tanker in question likely operated illegally and therefore not monitored. Using the European agency's staellite tracking systems, the search for the source of the spill has been narrowed down. However, officials still await more specific information. Even then, it remains unclear what punitive measures could potentially be taken against the tanker's operators. Wildlife in danger After two days of masses of tar washing up on the shores, particularly in the Haifa area at the Galim, Dor, Habonim and Gedur beaches, cleanup teams reported a decrease on Friday. Since Wednesday, animals have been found covered with tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles. Four of the turtles died, while the others were taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Mikhmoret between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

 Solomon Islands hit by another big oil spill - Two years since authorities were confronted with a major bunker spill, the government of the Solomon Islands is facing another big clean-up, accusing the crew of a 30-year-old bulk carrier of dumping around 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into local waters.The 1991-built, Panama-flagged Quebec stands accused of deliberately dumping fuel into the sea. The 28,451 dwt handysize ship, which European database Equasis says is managed by Singapore’s Feng Sea Shipping, was carrying out a logging shipment for a Chinese company when it dumped heavy fuel oil into Graciosa Bay in Temotu province in late January, the Solomons government claims.The director of the Solomon Island Maritime Authority, Thierry Nervale, told state media an initial assessment of the Quebec spill indicated about 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil had been discharged, and that the government would pursue legal action against the vessel’s owners.“For us, it is clear that this is deliberate pollution of our seas. It’s not accidental,” Nervale said. The Hong Kong-flagged Solomon Trader ran aground on February 4 in 2019 in Kangava Bay off Rennell Island near the world’s largest raised coral atoll, a UNESCO world heritage site, becoming that year’s most high profile dry bulk casualty. It was loading bauxite in inclement conditions when the accident happened, which led to hundreds of tonnes of bunker fuel spilling and the ship being declared a total constructive loss.

Bolsonaro appoints Army reserve general to head Petrobras  --Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, appointed an Army reserve general to lead state-owned energy giant Petrobras, after criticising several successive increases in the price of fuel. "The government decided to appoint Joaquim Silva e Luna to fulfill a new mission, as... president of Petrobras, after closing the cycle, exceeding two years, of the current president Roberto Castello Branco," said a brief note from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, published by the president on his Facebook account. Silva e Luna, formerly the defence minister under president Michel Temer, had been serving as general director of the Itaipu Binacional dam. His nomination will have to be confirmed by the Petrobras board of directors. Earlier Friday Bolsonaro had announced that there would be "changes" at Petrobras. "We will never interfere in this great company, nor in its pricing policy, but people cannot be surprised with certain increases," Bolsonaro said during a morning event in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. He did not give further details. His statements were followed by a sharp drop in the oil company's share prices. They closed down 7.92 percent Friday, with preferred shares down 6.63 percent.

Iraq decides to freeze oil prepayments deal on rising oil prices(Reuters) - Iraq has decided to freeze its first crude oil prepayment deal, which had aimed to boost its finances, because oil prices are rising, the country’s oil minister told BBC Arabic on Sunday. “We had concerns that oil prices would not rise above $40 when we announced this deal for the first time in the history of Iraq,” Iraq’s Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar told the channel. Brent crude has been trading above $60 a barrel recently. Asked about the status of the prepayment crude oil deal, Abdul Jabbar said: “With the start of this year and the economic stability resulted from boosted oil prices, we decided to freeze this option.” Chinese state oil trader Zhenhua Oil Corp had emerged as the frontrunner in a tender to buy Iraqi crude for five years after it submitted the “most competitive bid” in the tender held by Iraq’s state oil marketer SOMO that attracted participation from international oil companies, trading houses and Chinese and Indian refiners. OPEC member Iraq was seeking a five-year prepayment starting January 2021 until December 2025 to be repaid with cargoes of its Basra crude, according to a letter sent by state oil marketer SOMO to its customers and seen by Reuters. Under the prepayment deal, the winner of the tender was to pay SOMO about $2.5 billion in return for 48 million barrels of crude between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022.

Oil prices rise with storm-hit U.S. output set for slow return - Oil prices rose on Monday as the slow return of U.S. crude output cut by frigid conditions served as a reminder of the tight supply situation, just as demand recovers from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brent crude was up $1.78, or 2.85%, at $64.70 per barrel. West Texas Intermediate gained $1.89, or 3.2%, to trade at $61.13 per barrel. Abnormally cold weather in Texas and the Plains states forced the shutdown of up to 4 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude production along with 21 billion cubic feet of natural gas output, analysts estimated. Shale oil producers in the region could take at least two weeks to restart the more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude output affected, sources said, as frozen pipes and power supply interruptions slow their recovery. "With three-quarters of fracking crews standing down, the likelihood of a fast resumption is low," ANZ Research said in a note. For the first time since November, U.S. drilling companies cut the number of oil rigs operating due to the cold and snow enveloping Texas, New Mexico and other energy-producing centres. OPEC+ oil producers are set to meet on March 4, with sources saying the group is likely to ease curbs on supply after April given a recovery in prices, although any increase in output will likely be modest given lingering uncertainty over the pandemic. "Saudi Arabia is eager to pursue yet higher prices in order to cover its social break-even expenses at around $80 a barrel while Russia is strongly focused on unwinding current cuts and getting back to normal production," said SEB chief commodity analyst Bjarne Schieldrop. 

Oil jumps almost 4% as output slow to recover from Texas storms (Reuters) - Oil prices rose nearly 4% on Monday, boosted by the expected slow return of U.S. crude output after last week’s deep freeze in Texas shut in production. U.S. producers shut anywhere from 2 million to 4 million barrels per day of oil output due to cold weather in Texas and other oil producing states, and the unusually cold conditions may have damaged installations that could keep output offline longer than expected. Brent crude settled at $65.24 a barrel, rising $2.33, or 3.7%, while U.S. oil settled at $61.49 a barrel, jumping $2.25, or 3.8%. The U.S. benchmark crude contract for March delivery expires on Monday, and the more widely-traded April contract was up $2.44, or 4.1%, at 61.70 a barrel.Shale oil producers in the region could take at least two weeks to fully restart normal output, sources said, as damage assessments and power disruptions slow their recovery. “The significant loss of both crude and gasoline production suggests more upside and likelihood of new highs possibly within a one-week time frame,” But he cautioned that with limited refining capacity, price could under pressure if refiners take weeks to return to normal. “The market is behaving as if the refiners are going to come online quicker than the headlines would lead you to believe,” said Yawger. Gasoline crackspreads, an indicator of refiners’ margins have dropped by 5%.For the first time since November, U.S. drilling companies cut the number of oil rigs operating due to the cold and snow enveloping Texas, New Mexico and other energy-producing centres, signalling even tighter supplies ahead. [RIG/U] OPEC+ oil producers are set to meet on March 4, with sources saying the group is likely to ease curbs on supply after April given a recovery in prices, although any increase in output will likely be modest given lingering uncertainty over the pandemic.

Oil prices jump more than $1 on slow U.S. output restart -- Oil prices jumped by more than $1 on Tuesday, as U.S. output was slow to return after a deep freeze in Texas shut in crude production last week. Shale oil producers in the southern United States could take at least two weeks to restart the more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude output that shut down because of cold weather, as frozen pipes and power supply interruptions slow their recovery, sources said. Brent crude was up $1.06, or 1.6%, at $65.30 a barrel by 0204 GMT, after earlier hitting a high of $66.38. U.S. crude rose 81 cents, or 1.4%, to $62.51 a barrel, after hitting a session high of $62.73. Both benchmarks have risen more than 1% after climbing nearly 4% in the previous session. "The positive momentum continues in the oil complex, with investors unabashedly predisposed to a bullish view," said Stephen Innes, chief global markets strategist at Axi in a note. Goldman Sachs Commodities Research raised its Brent crude oil price forecasts by $10 for the second and third quarters of 2021, citing lower expected inventories, higher marginal costs to restart upstream activity and speculative inflows. The Wall Street bank expects Brent prices to reach $70 per barrel in the second quarter from the $60 it predicted previously and $75 in the third quarter from $65 earlier. Morgan Stanley expects Brent crude prices to climb to $70 per barrel in the third quarter on "signs of a much improved market" including prospects of a pick-up in demand. "It is hard not to be bullish with oil prices now that the deep freeze disruption practically guarantees the summer pickup in crude demand will erase whatever supply glut is left," said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA in New York. "The global oil demand is looking a lot better now that the Pfizer vaccine shows positive results after one dose, the U.K. sees the end of the pandemic 'in sight', and as hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline after peaking in early January." Stockpiles of U.S. crude oil and refined products likely declined last week, a preliminary Reuters poll showed on Monday, due to the disruption in Texas.

$100 Oil Bets Surge After Texas Turmoil - Amid all the issues ignited in the Texas turmoil, and as oil prices roar to post-COVID highs, analysts across the energy space appear to be outdoing each other with their bullish forecasts. Brent Crude prices could hit $70 a barrel in the second quarter of 2021, while they are set to average $60 this year, Bank of America said this week, raising its average price outlook by $10 a barrel from its previous projection. Echoing Bank of America, Morgan Stanley also sees Brent touching the $70 mark this year, but a bit later - in the third quarter, expecting “a much-improved market,” including on the demand side. On Sunday, Goldman Sachs started the investment banks’ upgrades of oil price forecasts, expecting Brent Crude prices to hit $75 a barrel in the third quarter this year, on the back of faster market rebalancing, lower expected inventories, and traders hedging against inflation. But those forecasts all pale in comparison to Azerbaijan’s Socar Trading SA predicts global benchmark Brent could hit triple digits in the next 18 to 24 months, and Bank of America sees potential spikes above $100 over the next few years on improving fundamentals and global stimulus. And, even with the WTI curve deep in backwardation...Bloomberg reports, speculators are also getting in on the action, increasing bets in the options market that oil will reach the vaunted level by December 2022. As the chart below shows, the open interest in these $100 strike Dec 2022 calls has exploded higher since the turmoil in the Texas energy markets.

WTI Tumbles After Surprise Crude, Gasoline Builds  -- Oil prices held on to gains today, amid equity market chaos, with WTI just losing $62 after hours.“After a $2 rally yesterday,” it was hard to sustain further gains, said Peter McNally, global head for industrials, materials and energy at Third Bridge.Still, “if the combination of seasonal demand, vaccine rollouts and ongoing supply constraints all conspire, it looks like inventories will continue to decline.”We suspect tonight's data will be a mess given the impacts of the Texas storms on demand, refinery capacity, and production. API

  • Crude +1.026mm (-5.372mm exp)
  • Cushing +2.738mm (-3.034mm exp)
  • Gasoline +66k (-3.472mm exp)
  • Distillates -4.489mm (-3.905mm exp)

Analysts' expectations were for a 5th weekly draw in a row (10th draw in last 11) but API reports a surprise crude build of just over 1mm barrels and a surprise build in gasoline stocks too...

WTI Surges Above $63 Despite Surprise Crude Build, Plunge In Gasoline Demand --Oil prices have rebounded higher overnight after dropping on a surprise crude build reported by API, as stockpiles at a key European storage hub are at their lowest level since September, according to Genscape. Additionally, the structure of the futures curve continues to indicate tighter supply.“Yesterday’s choppy performance in the oil and equity markets has fueled speculation over how much further the rally in risk assets has to go,” said Stephen Brennock, analyst at PVM Oil Associates.“Oil prices are treading water ahead of what is sure to be a weather-affected EIA update concerning U.S. oil stockpiles.”Pent up demand as the global economy recovers has even got some traders talking about the prospect of returning to $100 crude over the next year or two. DOE

  • Crude +1.29mm (-5.372mm exp)
  • Cushing +2.807mm (-3.034mm exp)
  • Gasoline +12k (-3.472mm exp)
  • Distillates -4.969mm (-3.905mm exp)

DOE confirmed API's reports of a modest crude and gasoline build (and large distillates draw)... Overall crude stocks remain near 13 month lows...

Oil rises after data shows slump in U.S. output amid Texas freeze (Reuters) - Oil prices climbed on Wednesday to fresh 13-month highs after U.S. government data showed a drop in crude output after a deep freeze disrupted production last week. U.S. crude oil production dropped last week by more than 10%, or 1 million barrels per day, during the rare winter storm in Texas, equaling the largest weekly fall ever, the Energy Information Administration said. Refinery crude inputs dropped to the lowest since September 2008 as the freeze knocked out power to millions. [EIA/S] “If you’re getting that kind of drop in one week of EIA production, you’re likely to get more after that,” said Phil Flynn, senior analyst at Price Futures in Chicago. “There is some concern that this will be a long-term permanent production drop.” Traffic at the Houston ship channel was slowly coming back to normal but terminals were still facing several issues. After nearly a quarter of national refining capacity was idled by the freeze, refineries have also started to come back online this week. Brent crude futures rose $1.67, or 2.6%, to settle at $67.04 a barrel. The global benchmark hit a session high of $67.30 a barrel, its loftiest since Jan. 8, 2020. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures ended $1.55, or 2.5%, higher at $63.22 a barrel, after touching $63.37, also their highest since Jan. 8, 2020. The rally continued oil’s steady march to levels not seen since prior to the coronavirus pandemic as vaccine distribution increases and on forecasts for renewed demand. Oil prices have rallied about 30% since the start of the year, boosted as well by ongoing supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies. 

Oil mixed, U.S. crude hits highest since 2019 as refineries restart - (Reuters) - Oil prices were mixed on Thursday with U.S. crude edging up to its highest close since 2019 as Texas refineries restarted production after last week’s freeze, while Brent eased on worries that four months of gains will prompt producers to boost output. Earlier in the day, an assurance that U.S. interest rates will stay low and a sharp drop in U.S. crude output last week due to the winter storm in Texas, helped boost both U.S. crude and Brent to their highest intraday prices since January 2020. Brent futures for April delivery fell 16 cents, or 0.2%, to settle at $66.88 a barrel. The April Brent contract expires on Friday. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, meanwhile, ended 31 cents, or 0.5%, higher at $63.53, its highest close since May 2019. Analysts said WTI increased late in the day as more Texas refineries started to return to service, including Valero Energy Corp’s Port Arthur plant and Citgo Petroleum Corp’s Corpus Christi plant. The freeze caused U.S. crude production to drop by more than 10%, or a record 1 million barrels per day (bpd) last week, while refining runs tumbled to levels not seen since 2008, the Energy Information Administration said. [EIA/S] “The more refineries return to service, the more crude oil they will burn through, and the less crude oil will go to storage,” said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho in New York. Overall, however, analysts noted price gains slowed on Thursday. “With momentum appearing to slow a week before the next OPEC+ meeting, crude may be positioning for a small correction,” said Craig Erlam, senior analyst at OANDA, noting “There’s still plenty of downside risks in the market and one of them is OPEC+ unity coming under strain in the coming months.” The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+, are due to meet on March 4. Analysts noted recent higher oil prices - both Brent and WTI have gained more than 75% over the past four months - could encourage U.S. producers to return to the wellpad and OPEC+ to loosen its production reductions. The group will discuss a modest easing of oil supply curbs from April given a recovery in prices, OPEC+ sources said, although some suggest holding steady for now given the risk of new setbacks in the battle against the pandemic.

Oil prices hit 13-month highs on tighter supplies, Fed assurance on low rates -- Oil prices remained close to 13-month highs on Thursday, with profit-taking limited by an assurance that U.S. interest rates will stay low and a sharp drop in U.S. crude output last week due to the storm in Texas. Brent crude for April slid 0.24% to settle at $66.88 per barrel. Earlier in the session the contract traded as high as $67.70, the highest level since Jan. 2020. U.S. West Texas Intermediate gained 0.49% to settle at $63.53 per barrel, after hitting a high of $63.81 per barrel earlier in the session, the highest level since Jan. 2020. Tamas Varga, analyst at PVM Oil Associates, said the dip was partly due to profit taking after a three-day rally. An assurance from the U.S. Federal Reserve that interest rates would stay low for a while weakened the U.S. dollar, while boosting investors' risk appetite and global equity markets. The winter storm in Texas caused U.S. crude production to drop by more than 10% or 1 million barrels per day (bpd) last week, the Energy Information Administration said. Fuel supplies in the world's largest oil consumer could also tightened as its refinery crude inputs had dropped to the lowest since September 2008, EIA's data showed. ING analysts said U.S. crude stocks could rise in weeks ahead as production has recovered fairly quickly while refinery capacity is expected to take longer to return to normal. Barclays, which raised its oil price forecasts on Thursday, said it oil could rally again on the weaker-than-expected supply response by U.S. oil operators to higher prices. "However, we remain cautious over the near term on easing OPEC+ support, risks from more transmissible COVID-19 variants and elevated positioning," Barclays said. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+, are due to meet on March 4. The group will discuss a modest easing of oil supply curbs from April given a recovery in prices, OPEC+ sources said, although some suggest holding steady for now given the risk of new setbacks in the battle against the pandemic. Extra voluntary cuts by Saudi Arabia in February and March have tightened global supplies and supported prices.

Oil prices fall on rising U.S. dollar, expectations for supply gains Oil dips, but posts gains for the week and month - Oil prices fell on Friday as a collapse in bond prices led to gains in the U.S. dollar and expectations grew that with oil prices back above pre-pandemic levels, more supply is likely to come back to the market. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures dipped 3.2% to settle at $61.50 per barrel. For the week the contract gained 3.81%. For February WTI advanced 17.82%. Brent crude futures for April delivery slid 1.12% to $66.13 per barrel. "Bonds are selling off reasonably aggressively and the U.S. dollar has firmed this morning. That's providing a bit of a headwind for crude oil this morning," said Lachlan Shaw, National Australia Bank's head of commodity research. A stronger greenback makes U.S.-dollar priced oil more expensive for those buying crude in other currencies. Despite the drop in prices on Friday, both Brent and WTI are on track for gains of about 20% this month, as markets have grappled with supply disruptions in the United States, while optimism has built for demand to improve with vaccine rollouts. Investors are betting that next week's meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies, together called OPEC+, will result in more supply coming back to the market, given the recent jump in prices and expectations that demand will improve as pandemic lockdowns ease heading into the northern hemisphere summer. "The stakes at play this time around are particularly large (for OPEC+) insofar as oil prices have more than recovered to pre-pandemic levels, global inventories are continuing to trend down, and vaccine rollouts are accelerating," Shaw said. "The market's probably right to think at this price level and given what the fundamentals are doing, there'll be more supply coming into the market over time." U.S. crude prices also face headwinds from the loss of refinery demand after several Gulf Coast facilities were shuttered during the winter storm last week. There is about 4 million barrels per day of capacity still shut and it may take until March 5 for all of the shut capacity to resume though there is risk of delays, analysts at J.P. Morgan said in a note this week. "The greater concern to U.S. crude oil market participants should be the recovery of refinery demand," the analysts said. "As refiners assessed the damage to their facilities, it became clear that the road to recovery would be weeks rather than days."

Oil Futures Slide As Dollar Gets Stronger  | Rigzone-- Oil fell the most since November with a stronger dollar and concerns surrounding inflation weighing on crude’s best start to the year on record. Futures in New York declined 3.2% on Friday, with a rising dollar reducing the appeal of commodities priced in the currency. Yet, the U.S. crude benchmark still managed to post a nearly 18% gain this month as inventories worldwide tighten and pockets of demand return. Domestic crude production dropped in 2020 for the first time in four years, according to the U.S. government. “Prices have a little bit more risk to the downside from the recent run that we’ve seen,” said Tariq Zahir, managing member of the global macro program at Tyche Capital Advisors LLC. “To continue going higher from here, demand has to come back pretty substantially.” Crude prices have notched the largest year-to-date gain than in any year prior for the same time period, in part due to OPEC+ production curbs helping to deplete global stockpiles. Plus, the unprecedented cold blast that recently halted millions of barrels of U.S. output means oil markets are about 100,000 barrels a day tighter than previously thought, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Supply scarcity may worsen in the coming months as North Sea fields undergo major maintenance. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies will meet next week to decide on output levels. While Russia has signaled it favors a further easing of production cuts, the country’s oil output dipped below its OPEC+ target this month, meaning it failed to take full advantage of the more generous quota it was afforded after January’s OPEC+ meeting. “We all know the OPEC return to production is looming over the market pretty strongly,” said Gary Cunningham, director at Stamford, Connecticut-based Tradition Energy. Continued declines in global supplies will “depend on how much production OPEC brings back and whether or not the sanctions on Iran are lifted.” West Texas Intermediate for April delivery fell $2.03 to settle at $61.50 a barrel. The U.S. crude benchmark rose 3.8% this week. Brent for April settlement, which expires on Friday, declined 75 cents to end the session at $66.13 a barrel. The contract gained 5.1% this week. The more actively traded May contract declined $1.69 to settle at $64.42 a barrel. Soaring bond yields on Thursday were the latest sign that accelerating inflation could trigger a pullback in monetary policy support that has helped fuel gains in risky assets during the pandemic. While global bonds have since stabilized, a less accommodative approach to monetary policy could have ripple effects across commodity markets.

Iran to launch direct shipping line to S. Africa, Latin America --Iran is going to launch a direct shipping line to South Africa and Latin American countries in near future, an official with the Iranian Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) informed. According to Babak Afghahi, ICC’s head of the non-oil trade and export development committee, the mentioned shipping line will connect southern Iranian ports to the ports of South Africa and then to Latin American countries, specifically Brazil. The said shipping line is going to be launched with the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and is aimed to develop Iran’s non-oil trade with the countries in the mentioned regions. “With the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, considering the capacity of Iran’s cargo export to the mentioned destinations, the chambers of commerce across the country, the Trade Promotion Organization (TPO) of Iran and other export bodies have been informed about the new development,” Afghahi said. As reported by IRNA, the Islamic Republic’s trade with South Africa reached $43 million in the first six months of the previous Iranian calendar year (March 21-September 22, 2019), while the figure stood at $27 million in the same period of its preceding year. Following a new strategy for boosting non-oil trade and distancing the country’s economy from oil, Iran has been launching several direct shipping lines to its major trade destinations over the past few years Earlier this month, the Head of Iran-Syria Joint Chamber of Commerce Keyvan Kashefi announced the establishment of a direct shipping line between Iran’s southern port of Bandar Abbas and Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia. The country has also launched five direct shipping lines to Oman and is planning to establish direct routes to Qatar, India, Turkmenistan, and Russia as well.

Iran wants US to remove sanctions before nuclear talks to clear more crude - — A top Iranian foreign ministry official on Feb. 21 said the US needs to remove its sanctions before talks can begin to revive the nuclear deal with world powers at a time when the Islamic Republic is expected to bring as much as 1 million b/d of crude back to the market by the end of this year. "For us, the criteria is removing the sanctions," Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for political affairs, said in a television interview published Feb. 21 by state news agency IRNA. He noted Iran has set a self-imposed Feb. 23 deadline for sanctions to be removed or Tehran will quit additional commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Araghchi also said Iran is studying a proposal by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to hold an "informal meeting with the US as a guest." China and Russia are aware, he added. "Principally, we think returning the US to the JCPOA doesn't need negotiations. If they want to return to the JCPOA, it's obvious that they should remove the sanctions," he said. The Biden administration on Feb. 18 formally offered to restart negotiations with Tehran, inching the two sides closer to a deal that could see the restoration of Iran's approximately 2.6 million b/d export capacity. President Joe Biden has said the US will rejoin the nuclear deal but only after Tehran resumes full compliance with its terms. In 2018, the US under former president Donald Trump dropped out of the JCPOA signed between Iran and global powers, and imposed tighter sanctions on the country. "I think there is going to be back and forth between the sides in coming weeks/months, but we still think 1 million b/d of additional Iranian oil by year end is more reasonable to assume," Shin Kim, head of supply and production at S&P Global Platts Analytics, said Feb. 21 when asked about Iran's response. Iranian crude production has climbed steadily since the US election in November. In January, Iran pumped 2.14 million b/d of crude, its highest since November 2019, according to the latest Platts survey of OPEC output. More is likely to come, sources have told Platts, particularly in the run-up to the Iranian new year Nowruz celebrations in late March. Platts Analytics said the US and Iran could reach a framework agreement to restore the JCPOA as early as in the next one to three months, with Iranian crude supply to grow by 1 million b/d between February and December. Full sanctions relief may not happen until the fourth quarter, however, assuming Iran would need four months to return its uranium enrichment levels to JCPOA compliance, Platts Analytics said. "Output then grows by 500,000 b/d by June 2022 and 150,000 b/d by end-2022," it said in a recent note.

U.S. launches air strikes on facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militia - The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops. The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq. “I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel. Austin said he recommended the action to Biden. “We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.” Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

Iran Says S.Korea To Release $1BN Of Its Frozen Funds After Tanker Seizure - Iran and South Korea have been engaged for the past two months in intense crisis meetings triggered by the Jan.4 Iranian seizure of the South Korean-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi off the Islamic Republic's southern waters. From the start of the IRGC's capturing the vessel and detaining its crew, Tehran pointed to $7 billion to $10 billion in Iranian assets in Korean banks previously frozen by Seoul in compliance with US-led sanctions. The clear message has been that the tanker can be released when the funds are released, despite the official Iranian claim that the Hankuk Chemi violated 'environmental protocols'. And now Iran’s Central Bank says Seoul has agreed to release some of these funds. It's expected that $1 billion cash will be unfrozen in the first phase. "In the meeting with the South Korean envoy, we stressed how Iran could use its resources," Governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) Abdolnaser Hemmati told state media on Wednesday. "Great damage has been incurred on the Islamic Republic. It was Koreans themselves who asked and [came] to say that they are seeking to pay Iran’s assets and we showed them how to do so," the Iranian bank official added. Ironically it had been Tehran officials that charged Seoul with "hostage taking" - in the form of badly needed funds at a moment the Iranian economy is being strangled by Washington sanctions. While the release of the 19-person crew was already accomplished in early February, it appears Iran is still holding the oil tanker itself. South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said of the crew's release at the time:  "The two sides... shared the view that the release of the sailors was an important first step to restore trust between the two countries and they will work to resolve the issue of frozen Iranian assets in South Korean banks," according to The Hill.At this point there hasn't been clear confirmation from the South Korean side that it's unfreezing $1 billion as touted in Iranian sources. However, it's clear that intensive talks have been ongoing, with South Korea previously scrambling to send diplomatic teams to Tehran over the tanker issue.

Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension - -- An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port. The incident recalled the summer of 2019, when the same site saw a series of suspected attacks that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran, which Tehran denied. Meanwhile, as President Joe Biden tries to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered overnight airstrikes on facilities in Syria belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group. Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship. Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray. Satellite-tracking data from website showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker. Israel’s Channel 13, in an unsourced report, said the assessment in Israel is that Iran was behind the blast. Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Iranian government did not comment on the blast Friday. The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago. Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

Turkey's Eternal Crusade On PKK Continues -Turkey is unrelenting in its crusade against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and the People’s Protection Units, as two parts of a whole. Ankara’s forces carry out frequent operations within and without the country, targeting both the Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG)’s interests and members. The Turkish government dubs both groups as terrorists, and does not shy away from invading the sovereign territory of other countries to pursue and “eliminate” their members and positions. As a result, Turkey frequently encroaches on Syrian and Iraqi territory, and even has observation posts set up to target its Kurdish enemy. It strongly opposes the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group whose core is comprised of the YPG, and receives heavy US support. Most recently, between February 10th and the 14th, Turkey began its most recent operation in northern Iraq. In particular, it took place on the Gara Mountain in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region. The result was such that both the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces claimed victory, following the operation. The accounts of what transpired vary. Turkey said it killed 53 PKK members, and captured 2. It admitted to losing 3 soldiers, while 4 of its troops were wounded in battle. According to the PKK, Turkey lost at least 30 soldiers, and dozens more were injured. A sort of collateral damage involved 13 Turkish hostages whose corpses were discovered in a cave network in the mountain area. Turkey and the US claimed that these were largely civilians, and some intelligence officers. The PKK claimed these were 13 Turkish military hostages. Turkey’s Defense Minister claimed many weapons and ammunition, as well as other equipment were seized. In the aftermath, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to expand military operations which showed progress to other regions where threats are still significant.

CNOOC Makes Large Oil and Gas Find --CNOOC Limited announced Monday that the company has made a “large sized” oil and gas discovery at the Bozhong 13-2 asset in Bohai Bay. Discovery well BZ13-2-2 was drilled and completed at a depth of 17,135 feet and encountered oil pay zones with a total thickness of approximately 1,135 feet, CNOOC noted. The well was tested to produce an average of approximately 1,980 barrels of crude oil and 5.25 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, the company highlighted. “The successful exploration of Bozhong 13-2 structure is another remarkable exploration achievement for the company to continuously enhancing [sic] its efforts in oil and gas exploration and production in offshore China,” Zhou Xinhuai, the general manager of CNOOC’s exploration department, said in a company statement. “After obtaining Bozhong 19-6 large sized condensate gas field, the company has made significant breakthrough in the exploration of another type of buried hill in Bohai, which not only has important promotion value, but also demonstrates promising exploration prospect in Bohai,” Xinhuai added. The Bozhong find is the first discovery CNOOC has announced in 2021. The company’s last discovery announcement came in March 2020, when it revealed that it had made a “large sized” find at Kenli 6-1 in Bohai Bay. Discovery well KL6-1-3 was drilled and completed at a depth of 5,236 feet and encountered oil pay zones with a total thickness of approximately 65 feet, CNOOC revealed in a company statement at the time, adding that the well was tested to produce around 1,178 barrels of oil per day. The CNOOC Group is the largest producer of offshore crude oil and natural gas in China and one of the largest independent oil and gas exploration and production companies in the world, according to its website..

"Door Is Always Open": China Invites UN Rights Chief To Investigate Uighur Genocide Charge  While vehemently rejecting widespread reports from the US and Western allies as well as various Europe-based human rights groups of a systematic campaign to ethnically cleanse Uighur Muslims, China is now "welcoming" a United Nations team to come and investigate the allegations. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at the start of this week via video call. Calling the allegations "slanderous attacks" he later at a news conference touted that "China has sent invitations to the high commissioner of the UN for human rights about a trip to China and Xinjiang." ​​​​​​Via AFP “The two sides have maintained close communication on this matter,” Wang added. He had told the UN human rights session on Monday that "basic facts show that there has never been so-called genocide, forced labor or religious oppression in Xinjiang." It follows the US formally designating it as such during the tail end of the Trump administration, something which Biden has signaled is up for review. There's long been widespread allegations of on million Uighurs forcibly detained in either labor or 'reeducation' camps under Communist authorities. Wang said he's issued a personal invitation to UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, after the UN team has long sought access to Xinjiang, where most of the detention camps are said to be. But much like the recent WHO trip to investigate the origins of coronavirus, such an endeavor is likely only to end in further accusations of a highly 'stage managed' and choreographed max obfuscation PR exercise.

Communist Party of the Philippines embraces Catholicism - On February 18, Julieta de Lima, long-time leading member of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and head of the party’s peace negotiating team, delivered a speech to a summit of major church leaders in which she articulated the CPP’s open embrace of the Catholic Church and its legacy of medieval barbarism in the country. She addressed a gathering of archbishops, bishops, religious superiors and prominent ministers assembled for the 9th Ecumenical Church Leaders’ Summit on Peace to commemorate “500 Years of Christianity in the Philippines.” The event was sponsored by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP) which is comprised of the powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the National Council of Churches and the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. De Lima unreservedly adopted the language and dogma of Christianity. She approvingly quoted Pope Francis, telling the assembled bishops, “The Lord has redeemed us all, all of us, with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics.” She depicted the CPP as struggling for a “just and enduring peace,” and then dressed this up in the religious fatalism of medieval canon, Thomas a Kempis, declaring “To me this means Man proposes and God disposes with the masses not only voicing the will of God but realizing it on earth.” The Catholic Church, with its dogma of redemptive suffering and its apparatus of obscurantism, is one of the most exploitative institutions on the planet. The wealth of the church and the power of the pope are the product of nearly two millennia of theft, murder, conquest and counter-revolution. Few countries have suffered as greatly as a result of this history as the Philippines. The Communist Party of the Philippines, however, joined the assembled religious superiors in a celebration of this legacy. De Lima declared, “As we celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the country, let us strive ever harder to uphold human dignity.” She claimed that the “Filipino people have adopted it [Christianity] as a redemptive and liberating moral force in the same manner as one type of society after another has adopted science and technology as a progressive factor in advancing civilization.”

Australian universities rush to enroll students and disregard COVID dangers -- As the teaching year begins, Australian university administrations are competing to secure the largest share of enrolments, while returning to face-to-face teaching and expanding class sizes with little to no regard for the health risks to staff or students posed by the continuing global COVID-19 pandemic. At present, the coronavirus, if it is currently present in the community, is circulating at extremely low levels. However recent outbreaks, including of highly-contagious overseas variants of the virus that have spread from hotel quarantines, have demonstrated that the situation can change very rapidly. The return to physical classrooms is part of the rising “economic reopening” and anti-lockdown push of governments and the corporate media. Universities are also desperately seeking to boost their revenues after decades of government funding cuts and pro-market restructuring of tertiary education, intensified by the loss of international student fees due to the pandemic. University of New South Wales deputy vice chancellor (academic), Merlin Crossly, told the Guardian last month that “2021 will be a bit of a celebration” because of the roll out of vaccines. In Australia, vaccines only began to be administered to front-line health workers this week. Most university students fall under the fourth category of the government’s five-part rollout plan, so they will receive the vaccine in the second half of the year at the earliest. Moreover, the vast majority of the country’s population will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, which may not adequately protect against the more virulent strains, such as that detected in South Africa. Even if all goes to plan, this still leaves plenty of time and possibility for outbreaks to start on campuses, endangering the lives of students and staff alike. Judging by media reports, university managements plan to have tens of thousands of students back inside classrooms this semester.

Alternating lockdown strategy can help defeat COVID-19 and sustain socio-economic activity - Social distancing - from mobility restrictions to complete lockdowns -- can take many weeks, possibly even months, a potentially devastating outcome for social and economic stability. One of the challenges is that the sick cannot be selectively isolated, since many of the spreaders remain pre-symptomatic for a period ranging from several days to as much as two weeks - invisible spreaders who continue to be socially active. Hence, it seems that without a population-wide lockdown isolating the carriers cannot be achieved effectively.To bypass this challenge, researchers from Israel's Bar-Ilan University, led by Prof. Baruch Barzel, devised a strategy based on alternating lockdowns: first splitting the population into two groups, then alternating these groups between lockdown and routine activity in weekly succession. Together with isolation of the symptomatic spreaders and the adoption of everyday prophylactic behaviors, this strategy can help defeat the virus, while sustaining socio-economic activity at a 50% level. This strategy was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.In the alternating lockdown routine, society is partitioned into two groups, with little interaction between them -- one half active this week, and the other active only the next. This will already slow the spread, but its main advantage is that it helps isolate the invisible spreaders, such as those who are pre-symptomatic carriers still in the incubation period. "Consider an individual who became infected during their active week. They are now in their pre-symptomatic period - the most dangerous stage, in which they are invisible spreaders. The crucial point is that, according to the alternating lock-down routine they are now scheduled to enter their lockdown phase," explains Prof. Barzel, of Bar-Ilan's Department of Mathematics. "Staying at home for another week, they will most likely begin to exhibit symptoms, and therefore remain in isolation until full recovery. Indeed, if following a week of lockdown they show no symptoms, they are most likely uninfected and can partake in social and professional activities during their active week. Therefore, alternating lockdown with full isolation of symptomatic spreaders ensures that at all times, the majority of invisible spreaders are inactive, as their incubation period is naturally directed towards their lockdown phase."  The proposed weekly succession is aimed to sustain a functional economy in these challenging times. The researchers believe that, providing an outlet for people to continue their social and professional activity, at least at 50% capacity, will, in and of itself encourage cooperation, as it relaxes some of the individual stress endured under lockdown.

Canada’s governments lift COVID-19 restrictions despite warnings of deadly third wave -- Highlighting “the emergence and spread” of more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus, Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told a press conference last Friday, “Unless we maintain and abide by stringent public health measures, we may not be able to avert a re-acceleration of the epidemic in Canada. These variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up.” Tam backed up her warnings with Health Canada projections that showed new infections could rise to 10,000 per day by late March if current public health restrictions are maintained, and mushroom to 20,000 if these restrictions are relaxed. “Further lifting of the public health measures would cause the epidemic to re-surge rapidly and strongly,” she declared. Tam’s warnings of a “third wave” of mass infections and death echo those of epidemiologists and other health experts across the country. But their scientific advice is being disregarded by every provincial government across the country, and with the full blessing of the federal Liberal government, Tam’s boss. Canada’s governments are engineering the very “lifting of the public health measures” that she warned against last Friday. In so doing, they are paving the way for an upsurge in infections that will add thousands more fatalities to an already horrific death toll that has risen by more than 40 percent in just the last two months and now stands at more than 21,600. In Alberta, the United Conservative Party government is implementing a 4-step plan to fully reopen the economy. Except for sports games and entertainment venues, virtually the entire economy is reopened, even as large workplace outbreaks continue, as at the Olymel meatpacking plant in Red Deer. In Ontario, the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative government lifted a state of emergency on February 8 and announced the return to a regional, colour-coded reopening plan. Businesses in the majority of Ontario’s districts were allowed to reopen as of February 16, with York, one of the province’s hotspots, following suit yesterday. Ford grudgingly agreed that lockdown measures will remain in place in Metro Toronto and the neighbouring Peel region until March 8, but only because local health and other officials repeatedly went public with their concerns about the premature lifting of restrictions. The Ford government has also completed its reckless reopening of the province’s public and publicly funded Roman Catholic schools, with schools in Toronto, Peel, and York ordered to reopen for in-class instruction starting Tuesday, February 16.

Low-income families have high awareness of healthy eating but struggle to access good food - Low-income families have a high awareness of healthy diets but can't afford good quality and nutritious food, new research shows. The University of York study, in partnership with N8Agrifood, showed that participants tried to eat as much fruit and vegetables as they could within financial constraints, avoiding processed food wherever possible. But there was widespread acknowledgement that processed food was often more accessible than healthy options because of its lower cost. Dr Maddy Power, from the Department of Health Sciences said: "This research explores lived experiences of food insecurity, the notion of individual 'choice' and the underlying drivers of diet quality among low income families. "The findings suggest that educational interventions are likely to be less effective in tackling food insecurity and poor nutrition among people living on a low income, as the people who took part in our study had good knowledge about healthy diets, but quite simply couldn't afford to buy what was needed to maintain a recommended healthy diet." Participants reported that access to healthy and fresh food was further constrained by geographic access. The availability of fresh and healthy food in local shops was perceived to be poor, but the cost of travelling to large supermarkets, where the quality and diversity of food may be better, was considered prohibitively expensive. Awareness of being priced out of nutritious and fresh food because of low income reinforced the stigma of living with poverty and was a very visible and everyday example of socio-economic inequality particularly for parents and caregivers, who were keen to ensure their children had access to a healthy diet. One respondent said, "It's not nice to feel you can't buy food that is healthy or better because it's more expensive." Other participants acknowledged that processed food was often more accessible than 'healthy' options because of its lower cost with one person saying: "Healthy food is expensive and unhealthy food is cheap."

UK government’s policies lead to horrific COVID-19 death rates among disabled people -- The Conservative government’s criminal indifference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society has become ever more blatant as the pandemic crisis has unfolded. Earlier this month, the Mencap charity reported that people with learning disabilities were being told in January that they would not be resuscitated if they fell gravely ill with COVID-19. Edel Harris, Mencap’s chief executive, told the Guardian, “Throughout the pandemic many people with a learning disability have faced shocking discrimination and obstacles to accessing healthcare, with inappropriate Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR or DNAR) notices put on their files and cuts made to their social care support. “It’s unacceptable that within a group of people hit so hard by the pandemic, and who even before Covid died on average over 20 years younger than the general population, many are left feeling scared and wondering why they have been left out.” A support worker, who works with people with learning disabilities, told the World Socialist Web Site, “They should have a chance for life like anybody else. It is outrageous to have DNAR forms in these people’s files without taking into account their choices, wishes and beliefs. We managed to get some of these notices reversed last year.” Mencap’s warning came two days after the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that six in 10 of those killed by COVID-19 between January and November last year were disabled, despite making up just 17 percent of the study population. According to the ONS, the risk of death involving COVID-19 was 3.7 times higher for men and women with a medically diagnosed learning disability than for the general population. For the disabled in general, including physical disability, the rate was 3.5 times higher for more-disabled women—defined by someone having their daily activities “limited a lot” by their health—and 3.1 times for more-disabled men. The risk for less-disabled women was two times greater and 1.9 times greater for less-disabled men. Last November, Public Health England (PHE) reported that the COVID-19 death rate for disabled young people, aged 18-34, was 30 times higher than the rate for people in the same age group without disabilities. Reports of the widespread placing of DNACPR notices on disabled people caused an outcry last year. Amnesty International condemned the practice in a scathing report, “As if expendable: The UK government’s failure to protect older people in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic”. The government was forced to sanction a review of the issue through the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Media censors British Medical Journal description of pandemic deaths as “social murder” -On February 4, the BMJ (formerly, British Medical Journal) published an editorial accusing the world’s governments of “social murder” in their collective response to the pandemic. The response to this devastating statement by the media and politicians of all stripes in Britain was to ignore and conceal it.The editorial, “Covid-19: Social murder, they wrote—elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant”, was written by Kamran Abbasi, the executive editor of the journal.The BMJ editorial: "Covid-19: Social murder, they wrote—elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant" “Murder,” the editorial begins, “is an emotive word. In law, it requires premeditation. Death must be deemed to be unlawful. How could ‘murder’ apply to failures of a pandemic response?”But, it argued, “After two million deaths, we must have redress for mishandling the pandemic…“At the very least, covid-19 might be classified as ‘social murder,’ as recently explained by two professors of criminology. The philosopher Friedrich Engels coined the phrase when describing the political and social power held by the ruling elite over the working classes in 19th century England. His argument was that the conditions created by privileged classes inevitably led to premature and “unnatural” death among the poorest classes.”The editorial concluded, “The ‘social murder’ of populations is more than a relic of a bygone age. It is very real today, exposed and magnified by covid-19. It cannot be ignored or spun away. Politicians must be held to account by legal and electoral means, indeed by any national and international constitutional means necessary.” The BMJ is the world’s oldest and one of the most prestigious medical periodicals, with a publication history going back to 1840.

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