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 on: Today at 09:30 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

Ten years after ESA listing, killer whale numbers falling

Puget Sound’s already small killer-whale population has declined in the decade since it was protected under the Endangered Species Act. Some experts view the death this month of a pregnant female orca as an alarm bell for the region’s southern residents.

By Craig Welch
12/21/2014
Seattle Times environment reporter

The death of J32, the pregnant orca known as Rhapsody, is renewing concern among some scientists about the fate of the rest of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales.

He’s trailed them and photographed them, mapped their family trees and counted their offspring, coming to identify individuals by their markings, sometimes even ascribing personalities based on behavior.

For much of the past 40 years, the dean of San Juan Island orca research has vacillated between hope and frustration about the future of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales.

But the death this month of J32, an 18-year-old orca known as Rhapsody — who was pregnant with a nearly full-term female calf — is pushing Ken Balcomb closer to despair.

“The death of this particular whale for me shows that we’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: ‘Do we want whales or not?’ ” said Balcomb, with the Center for Whale Research.

With 2015 marking the 10th anniversary of the government’s decision to protect these orcas under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the numbers certainly don’t look good.

The population of J, K and L pods has dropped from a high of 99 in 1995 to 77 this month — the lowest since 1985. No whale has successfully given birth in more than two years — a first in the decades since whales have been monitored. And the small number of female whales able and likely to give birth reduces the potential for a speedy rebound.

In fact scientists had hoped young J32, who was just coming into adulthood, would help turn that pattern around for decades to come.

“We’ve not only lost her, but we’ve lost all of her future reproductive potential, which will potentially have an impact on the population,” said Brad Hanson, killer-whale expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “That’s disconcerting.”

Even the apparent cause of J32’s demise — an infection spread by the death of her unborn calf — leads Balcomb to suspect the worst. He thinks the whales’ chief source of food, chinook salmon, is in such short supply that J32 relied on its own blubber, releasing stored contaminants that harmed her immune and reproductive systems.

But officials overseeing whale recovery say it’s too soon to say the situation is, in fact, dire. The root cause of the infection’s spread is not yet clear and may prove complex. It’s not known if the lack of successful new births is a trend or anomaly. And whale numbers have been lower than this before and bounced back, suggesting to some that there is room for optimism.

After all, said Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Snake River sockeye runs were so depleted in 1992 that only one fish — known as Lonesome Larry — returned to spawn in Idaho’s Redfish Lake. This year, after decades of work by scientists, 1,600 fish returned, nearly 500 of which were naturally spawned.

“That’s not to say the issues around Snake River sockeye are the same — they’re not,” Stelle said. “But if you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see that in fact over the last decade we’ve made substantial progress in building the basic foundation for a long-term conservation strategy for southern residents. We’re by no means there. But a decade ago we were in the dark ages.

“This is not the time to light our hair on fire, or to run about saying ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” he said. “What is really important here is to take the long view.”

But even Stelle agreed a central question remains: How much time do orcas have?

Salmon declines

J32 was born into a family where adult females tended to die early. She was the first and, presumably, only calf of a 15-year-old whale that died two years later. The matriarch of the family died a year after that at 37 — early for a species with a life span similar to humans.

But it’s a sad irony that this salmon-eating machine wound up dead in front of a chinook-fishing charter business in British Columbia.

Long before her carcass was towed ashore on the east side of Vancouver Island near Comox, B.C., early this month, scientists had begun to wrestle with the role salmon declines may be playing in whale survival.

“The reality is, the basic problem is food,” Balcomb said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an orca population that a century earlier may have numbered anywhere from 140 to 200 was decimated by the aquarium trade. Entrepreneurs drove orcas into net pens in coves and sold them to marine parks around the globe until their numbers had plummeted to just 71 in 1974.

Only in the last 10 years have researchers truly documented their troubles.

“Since then we’ve improved our understanding of the individuals themselves, their population dynamics, their geographic distribution and diet and pollutant loading and contaminants and the effects of all that on productivity,” Stelle said.

But two of the whales’ three biggest problems — the buildup of pollutants such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls in their blubber, and disturbance by marine traffic — appear to be worsened by a third, a reduction in available prey.

These whales can eat sockeye and halibut, but overwhelmingly prefer fatty chinook from Puget Sound and Canada’s Fraser River, distinguishing them from other fish by using sonar to sense differences in the animals’ swim bladders. And Puget Sound chinook numbers have dropped to about 10 percent of their historic high. They, too, are listed for protection under the ESA.

When killer whales are hungry, research suggests they may metabolize poisons built up in their fat over years, and expend energy they can’t afford if they have to avoid disturbance from boats and other traffic.

Yet scientists continue to disagree on how much of a role that has ever played in any deaths. Few whales wash up dead for them to study. Among those that have, only one — Rhapsody’s uncle, J18 — offered clues that led some, but not all, to believe hunger was a factor in his death.

Government scientists certainly agree that a diminished food supply is a major issue. But they’re still running tests on J32’s organs, skin and fatty tissue to help narrow down her health issues more precisely.

“If southern residents are on a lower nutritional plane, then the effects of contaminants may be allowed to cause some sort of problem in a random way that disease events would be able to take over,” Hanson said. “But a lot of times what we’re seeing is these skinny animals and a lot of people say ‘these whales are starving to death.’ But it’s not that simple.”

For example, whales hunt in groups and sometimes share prey, and may give away food to others that they themselves could use.

Regardless of whether food availability helped trigger her death, government researchers share some of Balcomb’s concerns about the state of the population.

“It’s not so much that there are fewer reproductive-age females now than there used to be,” said NOAA whale scientist Mike Ford, “but rather that they may not be giving birth as often as expected.”

Deep concern

For Balcomb, the loss of J32 suggests it’s time to consider drastic measures, such as a ban or steep curtailment in chinook fishing, even though fishing is likely the least of the threats chinook face.

“It’s a wake-up call — we know what the problem is, whether it’s dams or fishing or habitat destruction,” he said. “It’s just what happens when millions of people move into the watershed. (But) stopping fishing, at least for a while, is something we can do immediately.”

Stelle, whose agency helps oversee chinook-harvest levels, said fishing has been curtailed already by about 30 percent in agreements with the Canadians, but he couldn’t conceive of a day when he’d seriously consider an outright ban, which would violate tribal-treaty rights. Still, he doesn’t rule out even more drastic cuts.

Stelle, like most experts, maintains that one of the hardest problems to address for orcas is controlling stormwater so even more contaminants aren’t flushed into the Sound, where they can work their way up the killer whale food chain. That is likely an expensive fix.

The other is reducing development in areas harmful to chinook survival — estuaries, floodplains, areas that alter drainage into river beds. But that problem is made ever more complex by the fact that dozens of government entities oversee all that decision-making.

“The particular challenges I think that are daunting can best be illustrated by driving south on I-5 and looking around,” he said. “That built-out landscape fundamentally poses the most significant challenge for us. It is: How do we reconcile the continued human-population growth projected for the basin with trying to rebuild the productivity of the most important habitats for orcas and their prey.”

Martha Kongsgaard, who leads the Puget Sound Partnership, a government agency charged with cleaning up the Sound, agreed J32’s death puts into relief just how much is at stake if the region doesn’t pick up the pace in tackling these problems.

“You don’t want to raise the alarm every time a whale dies, but I think we are really on the brink of possibly losing them,” she said. “And we ignore the orcas’ incredible totemic and symbolic power at our peril. They’re telling us it’s an emergency right now.”

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 on: Today at 09:02 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
USA

Payback Time: Obama Plans On Punishing All Of The Republicans Who Obstructed Him

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 20th, 2014, 12:42 pm   

It is being reported that President Obama is planning an active agenda for his final two years in office, and part of his plan is to punish all of the Republicans who have obstructed him during his time in office.

According to Politico,

    Obama’s turnaround in recent weeks – he’s seized the offensive with a series of controversial executive actions and challenges to leaders in his own party on the budget — can be attributed to a fundamental change in his political mindset, according to current and former aides. He’s gone from thinking of himself as a sitting (lame) duck, they tell me, to a president diving headlong into what amounts to a final campaign – this one to preserve his legacy, add policy points to the scoreboard, and – last but definitely not least – to inflict the same kind of punishment on his newly empowered Republican enemies, who delighted in tormenting him when he was on top. 

    “‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’ — Barack and Bobby McGee,” says former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry. “President Obama is free to take the risks and use executive authority that will either make him a much more popular president with rising approval rates or get him impeached by a Republican Congress that won’t be able to control itself. We can contemplate the possibility of each result while smoking a Cuban cigar.”

Republicans didn’t really think that President Obama was going to let slide their years of obstruction did they? The odds are that the president’s first act of punishment could be a veto of the bill to authorize the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. During his press conference on Friday, the president said, “On most issues, in order for their initiatives to become law, I’m going to have sign off. And that means they have to take into account the issues that I care about, just as I’m going to have to take into account the issues that they care about.” In other words if Republicans think that they can unilaterally jam their agenda down the president’s throat, they are going to be in for a big surprise.

Unless McConnell and Boehner can pass legislation that contains some of what the president wants, the American people can expect a lot of vetoes. House and Senate Democrats have already pledged to hold firm and give Obama the backing he needs to make sure that his vetoes are upheld, which means that the Republican controlled Congress won’t be getting much done without the help of Democrats.

The shoe will soon be on the other foot, and Republicans are about to pay a heavy price for their years long campaign of obstructing Obama at any cost.

***********

Obama Rips Congress For Violating The Constitution By Blocking Him From Closing GITMO

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 20th, 2014, 11:31 am   

President Obama attached a signing statement to the 2015 NDAA that shredded Congress and accused the legislative branch of violating the constitutional separation of powers by passing provisions that block him from closing GITMO.

Here is the full text of the president’s signing statement,

Today I have signed into law H.R. 3979, the “Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.” I have signed this annual defense authorization legislation because it will provide vital benefits for military personnel and their families, as well as critical contingency authorities needed to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and to respond to emerging needs in the face of evolving terrorist threats and emergent crises worldwide.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense transferred the last remaining third-country nationals held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan,
ending U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan. Yet halfway around the world, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open for the 13th consecutive year, costing the American people hundreds of millions of dollars each year and undermining America’s standing in the world. As I have said many times, the continued operation of this detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists. Closing the detention facility is a national imperative.

I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my Administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo once and for all. Individuals from across the political spectrum have recognized that the facility should be closed. But instead of removing unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that curtail the executive branch’s options for managing the detainee population, this bill continues them. Section 1032 renews the bar against using appropriated funds to construct or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any Guantanamo detainee in the custody or under the control of the Department of Defense unless authorized by the Congress. Section 1033 likewise renews the bar against using appropriated funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the United States for any purpose. The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, contains similar provisions as well as those relating to existing restrictions on the transfer of detainees abroad.

I have consistently opposed these restrictions and will continue to work with the Congress to remove them. More than 80 percent of detainees at one time held at the detention facility have now been transferred. The executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to those detainees who remain, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy. Under certain circumstances, the provisions concerning detainee transfers in both bills would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of detainees operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.

The restrictions on detainee transfers are another way for Congress to block the president from closing GITMO. The fight isn’t just about the executive power to move detainees. In the bigger picture, this is the latest move in the struggle to close the facility.

The major problem is that the majority of Senate Democrats continue to cave the 9/11 style politics of fear by voting to restrict the president from closing the facility. Only four members of the Democratic caucus voted against the 2015 NDAA. Democrats Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Independent Bernie Sanders voted against the bill. Progressive darling Elizabeth Warren voted for the bill, so did Al Franken.

President Obama has been trying to close GITMO since he first took office. In January of 2009, one of Obama’s first acts in office was to sign an executive order to close GITMO within one year. At the time the president said, “This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our founding fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”

As soon as Obama issued his executive order, Democrats and Republicans starting working together to make sure that the national stain known as GITMO stays open. Every time Obama made a move towards closing GITMO a coalition of Democrats, and Republicans blocked him.

Only six Senate Democrats voted to fund closing GITMO in 2011.

The president was correct. Members of Congress who voted for the restrictions on detainee transfer are violating the separation of powers. Some on the left continue to blame President Obama for not closing GITMO, but their blame is misplaced. (No, vetoing the bill is not an option. Congress would easily override an Obama veto of the NDAA.) Congress has refused to fund the closure, and blocked the transfer of detainees. Obama lived up to his end of the bargain. If progressives want to place blame somewhere, they should begin with some of the same people that they are trying to draft to run for president in 2016.

*************

President Obama Preserved Women’s Reproductive Rights In Passing the CRomnibus

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 20th, 2014, 4:01 pm      

When an American says that a situation “could have been a lot worse” in December, it is likely they are referring to some kind of Republican assault on the people in the appropriations process. The GOP is in the habit of waiting until the last minute to fund the government so they can use a budget crisis to either slash a social program out of existence, or insert a rider (esoteric provision) deleting an important program. The recent appropriations bill known as the CRomnibus could have been a lot worse for women’s reproductive rights and it is very fortunate for women that Democrats and President Obama succeeded in getting it passed.

Like many Americans who were concerned that a Republican Congress use funding the government to lay waste to myriad programs, women’s reproductive rights advocates breathed a tepid sigh of relief because Republicans failed to pass spending cuts to further erode women’s rights. It is going to be bad enough according to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who promised the first thing on the Republican Congress’s agenda is a religious attack on women, but they will still have the President’s veto to deal with.

The CRomnibus the President signed on Tuesday contains the typical provisions barring federal funding for most abortions, forbids federal and local funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, and denies abortion funds for federal prisoners, but there are no new restrictions. If the CRomnibus had not passed, Republicans were panting to use the funding mechanism to make the anti-women’s rights measures in Republican-controlled states like North Carolina and Texas the law of the land. Fortunately, Democrats were not going to let that happen.

According to Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero, Republicans hoped the CRomnibus would not pass so they could have abolished funding for family planning programs and ban hospitals from offering abortion services. He said, “the anti-woman’s majority wanted to push any number of dangerous provisions in 2015,” and was grateful that Democrats were successful in “stripping several anti-women’s rights measures” from the final budget by fighting to “secure current funding levels for important federal reproductive health programs.” Democrats also won abortion coverage for members of the Peace Corps who are raped and assaulted at an alarming level.

“The appropriations bill is an important step in the right direction when it comes to women’s health—holding the line on deeply unpopular abortion restrictions and expanding access for Peace Corps volunteers.” Democrats forced a spending measure in the bill that for the first time provides Peace Corps members access to (limited) abortion coverage in cases of rape or to save the life of the mother. Republicans were not happy, in spite of a University of Ottawa, Princeton, and Cambridge Reproductive Health Consultants study revealing that nearly 9% of Peace Corps volunteers reported being raped or sexually assaulted during their service.

Republicans tried to insert a number of anti-abortion riders in the budget such as the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act giving religious doctors, health insurance companies, and hospitals power to both decline women abortion services, and refuse to give women information about their reproductive choices. Another religious Republican proposal being pushed in GOP-controlled states banned private, self-paid, health insurance plans sold through the Affordable Care Act exchanges from covering abortion. They also attempted to eliminate tax benefits for small businesses involved in any health insurance plan that covers abortion. Both measures are a high priority for the Hobby Lobby, United States Council of Catholic Bishops” crowd and if not for a fierce  Democratic opposition; the theocrats would have unilaterally imposed universal compliance to Hobby Lobby’s owner’s beliefs on every small business in America.

Republicans also sought to force a severe reduction in funding for family planning programs, but Democrats stood strong for women’s rights. Besides cutting all funding to Planned Parenthood, Republicans tried slashing funding for the Title X Family Planning Program that helps low-income women avoid unwanted pregnancies. In fact, instead of defunding the program, Democrats secured close to the same funding as last year. Democrats also included $101 million in funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Republicans detest; their preference in teen pregnancy prevention consists of biblical abstinence.

According to the director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, Heather Boohstra, “On balance, in terms of the reproductive rights agenda, we could have been in a lot worse position than where we ended up;” a remark that epitomizes understatement.

One of the reasons, besides Democratic voter apathy, really extreme religious Republican candidates easily won re-election, or election, to the Senate and several governorships is because of a concerted effort by the anti-women’s reproductive rights movement to get out the vote. Whether it was the American Family Association, National Right to Life movement, Personhood movement, or Hobby Lobby supporters, their primary focus was electing anti-women candidates to push their extreme religious anti-contraception and reproductive rights agenda at the federal level.

That religious right electoral support is why Mitch McConnell said the first item on Senate Republicans’ agenda is enacting severe bans on women’s reproductive rights. It is worth reiterating again that religious Republicans in the House have, for three years running, passed “personhood” legislation that failed in the Democratic controlled Senate. Republicans in the Senate have proposed their own “personhood” legislation but their efforts were thwarted by the Democratic majority. Several of the newly-elected Senate Republicans have already promised to push the personhood agenda that effectively criminalizes abortion and contraception.

As Heather Boohstra said, the CRomnibus could have been worse, and although Republicans’ anti-women’s crusade failed to defund (eliminate) a wide variety of women’s reproductive rights, they will not be deterred from passing standalone legislation setting women’s rights back to the early 20th century; if not the Dark Ages.

************

113th Congress Produces 22% of “Do-Nothing” 1947-1948 Counterpart

By: Becky Sarwate
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 20th, 2014, 2:13 pm

Similar to overpaid NFL “star” Jay Cutler’s reign of terror as the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears, the best thing we can say about the 113th session of Congress is that it’s over. Setting a new standard for lethargic mediocrity, the body, which formally adjourned this week, passed just 200 bills over the last two years. By comparison, the 80th session of 1947-1948, affectionately referred to as the “Do-Nothing Congress,” shepherded a whopping 900 pieces of legislation. Harry Truman’s clever branding of Washington’s stuffed shirts was accurate at the time, but seems quaintly innocent from the vantage point of late 2014.

In an Associated Press piece entitled, 113th Congress Ends With More Fights Than Feats, writer Alan Fram observes (somewhat poetically), “The tempestuous 113th Congress has limped out of Washington for the last time, capping two years of modest and infrequent legislating that was overshadowed by partisan clashes, gridlock and investigations.” Limp is right. What little paperwork did make it to the President’s desk did nothing to address the nation’s broken immigration system, declining infrastructure, archaic and biased tax code, unlivable minimum wage and a host of other dire issues rendering America less functional.

Of course, despite maintaining a despotic stranglehold on the House of Representatives, none of this should be blamed on the GOP. Just ask them:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “How many times did we have the point of the week?… It was designed to make us walk the plank. It had nothing to do with getting a legislative outcome.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner: Republicans passed “jobs bill after jobs bill…But Washington Democrats — including President Obama and Senate Democratic leaders — have utterly failed to act.”

Moira Bagley Smith, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise: “Considering the Senate is sitting on over 350 pieces of House-passed legislation from this Congress, I believe Senator Reid’s chamber single-handedly has earned the title of ‘least productive…’The contrast in productivity between these two chambers couldn’t be more obvious.”

Examples of these “350 pieces of House-passed legislation” include more than 50 votes designed to kill or weaken the now clearly successful Affordable Care Act. And if you can’t recall the reported avalanche of awesome Republican jobs bills, you are not alone. Meanwhile in the Democratic-led Senate, legislation designed to raise the federal minimum wage, create equal pay for women, improve the student loan morass and extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, proved DOA in the House.

So goodbye and good riddance 113th Congress, with your 15 percent approval rating. Better luck next year. Oh wait.

Per writer Aileen Graef of UPI, “When the 114th Congress enters its first session in January, it will be controlled by the Republican party which has already vowed to fight the White House on contentious issues including healthcare and immigration. With President Obama waiting to meet the new Congress ready to veto, it spells a grim future for productivity and approval ratings.”

As I suggested shortly after the November midterm elections, frustrated voters who thought they were sending President Obama and the Democrats a message at the ballot box (“Do something!”) were speaking to the wrong party. There’s no reason to believe that the 114th session will be any more productive than the last. Stonewalling has proven a GOP ballot box-winning strategy. Nothing will change until we demand it, and stop rewarding sandbaggers with additional terms in office.

**********

E.P.A. Issues Rules on Disposal of Coal Ash to Protect Water Supply

By EMMARIE HUETTEMAN
DEC. 19, 2014
NYT

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first federal guidelines for disposing of coal ash, instructing power plants to implement safeguards against contaminating nearby water supplies.

But the agency did not require many of the restrictions that had been urged by environmentalists and other advocates, who point to studies showing coal ash — the material that remains when coal is burned to produce electricity — contains a significant amount of carcinogens.

“This rule is a pragmatic step forward that protects public health while allowing the industry the time it needs to meet these requirements,” said Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator.

The E.P.A. declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks. If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company’s responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust.

Power plants will also have to report the results of their inspections on a public website. The rule provides little oversight, leaving it to citizens and the states to sue if power plants are suspected of not adhering to the E.P.A.’s guidelines.

The rule is a victory for electric utility companies and the coal industry, which had decried the increased financial burden that would have been placed on companies to revamp their existing disposal facilities if the E.P.A. had decided to phase out ponds and impose other, stricter guidelines.

The decision also reinforced the growing, multibillion-dollar coal ash recycling business, in which coal ash is used to make wallboard, concrete and other products. The United States produced nearly 114.7 million tons of coal ash in 2013, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the American Coal Ash Association. Of that, less than 51.4 million tons were reused.

Officials celebrated the end of what they characterized as a costly period of uncertainty for an environmentally friendly industry.

“This stuff is just as safe as we thought it was before the rule-making started, and it’s time to keep that growth going,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association.

Advocates for stronger restrictions on coal ash expressed disappointment in the rule, especially that coal-fired power plants would be allowed to continue dumping the ash into existing ponds that they are left to largely police themselves.

“As we’ve seen over the past six years, irresponsible storage of coal ash by big utilities has caused unprecedented disasters and threatened the health and safety of Americans around the country,” Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the E.P.A.’s approach.”

“When the day’s done, the E.P.A. regulates toxic coal ash less stringently than household waste,” said Lisa Evans, a lawyer with Earthjustice who used to work for the E.P.A.

For environmentalists, the ruling helped address a problem that gained attention after an episode in 2008 in Tennessee when millions of gallons of sludge and contaminated water spilled into a river that ultimately feeds into the Tennessee River. The sludge that contaminated the water supply and swept away homes — a failure of the wall separating a Tennessee Valley Authority plant’s coal ash storage from the river — was the largest coal ash disaster in United States history.

Despite frustrations with the pace and outcome of the debate, some environmentalists expressed gratitude for the decision to impose at least some restrictions on coal ash, applauding the Obama administration for its incremental changes to environmental policy. Before the rule, storage and disposal were managed on a state-by-state basis, with little uniformity.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, acknowledged that the E.P.A. was not in an easy spot politically during a time when many lawmakers were hostile to increased regulations.

“I’m looking at what they tried to do here and respecting that in areas like public disclosure, they’re trying to push things forward,” he said.

Correction: December 19, 2014

An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of sludge and contaminated water from a coal ash spill that flowed into a river in Tennessee in 2008. It was millions of gallons, not millions of tons.

 3 
 on: Today at 08:59 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
E.P.A. Issues Rules on Disposal of Coal Ash to Protect Water Supply

By EMMARIE HUETTEMAN
DEC. 19, 2014
NYT

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first federal guidelines for disposing of coal ash, instructing power plants to implement safeguards against contaminating nearby water supplies.

But the agency did not require many of the restrictions that had been urged by environmentalists and other advocates, who point to studies showing coal ash — the material that remains when coal is burned to produce electricity — contains a significant amount of carcinogens.

“This rule is a pragmatic step forward that protects public health while allowing the industry the time it needs to meet these requirements,” said Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator.

The E.P.A. declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks. If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company’s responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust.

Power plants will also have to report the results of their inspections on a public website. The rule provides little oversight, leaving it to citizens and the states to sue if power plants are suspected of not adhering to the E.P.A.’s guidelines.

The rule is a victory for electric utility companies and the coal industry, which had decried the increased financial burden that would have been placed on companies to revamp their existing disposal facilities if the E.P.A. had decided to phase out ponds and impose other, stricter guidelines.

The decision also reinforced the growing, multibillion-dollar coal ash recycling business, in which coal ash is used to make wallboard, concrete and other products. The United States produced nearly 114.7 million tons of coal ash in 2013, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the American Coal Ash Association. Of that, less than 51.4 million tons were reused.

Officials celebrated the end of what they characterized as a costly period of uncertainty for an environmentally friendly industry.

“This stuff is just as safe as we thought it was before the rule-making started, and it’s time to keep that growth going,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association.

Advocates for stronger restrictions on coal ash expressed disappointment in the rule, especially that coal-fired power plants would be allowed to continue dumping the ash into existing ponds that they are left to largely police themselves.

“As we’ve seen over the past six years, irresponsible storage of coal ash by big utilities has caused unprecedented disasters and threatened the health and safety of Americans around the country,” Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the E.P.A.’s approach.”

“When the day’s done, the E.P.A. regulates toxic coal ash less stringently than household waste,” said Lisa Evans, a lawyer with Earthjustice who used to work for the E.P.A.

For environmentalists, the ruling helped address a problem that gained attention after an episode in 2008 in Tennessee when millions of gallons of sludge and contaminated water spilled into a river that ultimately feeds into the Tennessee River. The sludge that contaminated the water supply and swept away homes — a failure of the wall separating a Tennessee Valley Authority plant’s coal ash storage from the river — was the largest coal ash disaster in United States history.

Despite frustrations with the pace and outcome of the debate, some environmentalists expressed gratitude for the decision to impose at least some restrictions on coal ash, applauding the Obama administration for its incremental changes to environmental policy. Before the rule, storage and disposal were managed on a state-by-state basis, with little uniformity.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, acknowledged that the E.P.A. was not in an easy spot politically during a time when many lawmakers were hostile to increased regulations.

“I’m looking at what they tried to do here and respecting that in areas like public disclosure, they’re trying to push things forward,” he said.

Correction: December 19, 2014

An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of sludge and contaminated water from a coal ash spill that flowed into a river in Tennessee in 2008. It was millions of gallons, not millions of tons.

 4 
 on: Today at 08:56 AM 
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The Strange Tale of a New Species of Lizard

DEC. 18, 2014
Carl Zimmer
NYT

Each year, scientists publish roughly 17,000 detailed descriptions of newly discovered animals. Recently, in the journal Breviora, researchers described yet another, a new species of lizard called Aspidoscelis neavesi.

At first glance, this seems to be a run-of-the mill lizard: a small, slender creature with spots along its back and a bluish tail. In fact, Aspidoscelis neavesi is quite exceptional. The lizard was produced in the laboratory by mating two other species, and its creation defies conventional ideas about how new species evolve.

The evolution of a new animal species is usually a drawn-out affair. Typically, an existing animal population is somehow divided, and the newly isolated populations reproduce only among themselves. Over thousands of generations, the animals may become genetically distinct and can no longer interbreed.

Of course, scientists have long known that some related species sometimes interbreed. But the hybrid progeny generally were thought to be evolutionary dead-ends — sterile mules, for instance. In recent decades, however, researchers have learned that these hybrids may represent new species.

Some of the most striking examples occur among whiptail lizards, which live in the southwestern United States. In the 1960s, scientists noticed that some whiptail lizard species had a strange genetic makeup. They have two copies of each chromosome, just as we do, but each copy is very different from its counterpart. The genes look as if they come from different species.

Perhaps stranger, many species produce no males. The eggs of the females hatch healthy female clones, a process known as parthenogenesis.

Normally, unfertilized animal eggs have only one set of chromosomes. The second set is derived from a male’s sperm following fertilization. But parthenogenic female whiptail lizards can duplicate the chromosomes in their offspring without males.

These findings led scientists to a hypothesis for how these strange species came about: Sometimes individuals from two different species of whiptail lizards interbreed, and their hybrid offspring carry two different sets of chromosomes.

Somehow, this triggers a switch to parthenogenesis. The female hybrids start to produce clones distinct from either parental species. In other words, they instantly become a new species of their own.

But it gets even more bizarre. Some species of whiptail lizards carry three sets of genes, rather than two.

How can that be? Scientists hypothesized that male lizards from sexually reproducing species sometimes mated with parthenogenic females. Sometimes, their sperm succeeded in fertilizing a female’s eggs, which already contained two sets of chromosomes. The egg now had three sets, and voilà: yet another a new species.

The strangeness doesn’t end there. In 1967, a Harvard graduate student named William B. Neaves was searching for whiptails around Alamogordo, N.M., when he found one with four sets of chromosomes.

Dr. Neaves concluded that the lizard was a hybrid. Three sets of chromosomes appeared to have come from a species called Aspidoscelis exsanguis. The fourth set hailed from a species called Aspidoscelis inornata. Both species live around Alamogordo.

Dr. Neaves didn’t follow up on this finding, instead pursuing a career researching fertility and stem cells. But at a dinner in 2002, he mentioned the whiptail lizards to Peter Baumann, a molecular biologist at Stowers Institute for Medical Research, where Dr. Neaves served as president.

Dr. Baumann decided it was high time to use new scientific tools to study whiptail lizards, and he and Dr. Neaves started making road trips to New Mexico to catch them and take them back to Stowers. As they came to understand the biology of the lizards better, they and their colleagues began to bring different species together to see if they could hybridize. Most of the time, their experiments failed.

In 2008, the scientists tried to recreate the hybrid with four sets of chromosomes. They put female Aspidoscelis exsanguis (the parthenogenic species with three sets of chromosomes) and male Aspidoscelis inornata in the same containers. In short order, the lizards started mating, and the females laid eggs. When the eggs hatched, the scientists examined the genes of the baby lizards and found four sets of chromosomes.

Four of the new hybrids were females. To the delight of the scientists, the females could clone themselves — and the offspring could produce clones of their own. Today, the scientists have a colony of 200 of these lizards.

Eventually the scientists became convinced they had produced a new species. They ran the idea past Charles J. Cole, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who has studied whiptail lizards since the 1960s.

“As soon as they told me what they had done, I knew it was a species,” Dr. Cole said. The lizard’s body was clearly distinct from its parental species, and the fact that the species emerged in a lab seems irrelevant to Dr. Cole.

“It’s not a Frankenstein genome manipulation,” he said. “It’s lizards in cages doing their thing.”

Dr. Cole agreed to help Dr. Baumann and his colleagues formally describe the new species. Dr. Cole carefully cataloged the many features, both striking and subtle, that set the new lizard apart from other known whiptail species. They named it Aspidoscelis neavesi to honor Dr. Neaves.

“These lizards should have their own species,” said Laurence M. Hardy, a biologist at Louisiana State University Shreveport, who was not involved in the study. He said that they fulfilled the formal requirements.

But David Hillis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas, questioned whether any lineage of hybrid whiptail lizards should be considered true species. “It is widely practiced, but often questioned,” he said.

Traditionally, scientists have looked at how animals reproduce to decide if they truly represent a species or just a subspecies. Animals within a real species produce offspring mostly with one another. As a result, their genes mix together into a single gene pool.

Are these new lab lizards really a species? Aspidoscelis neavesi doesn’t need to mate at all. It doesn’t maintain a single gene pool. The mutations that one lizard acquires will be passed down only to her offspring, not to others.

Aspidoscelis neavesi also raises a special puzzle, Dr. Hillis noted, because it emerged over and over again. Dr. Baumann and his colleagues have now successfully produced fertile hybrids of Aspidoscelis inornata and Aspidoscelis exsanguis dozens of times from different parents. Since each lineage comes from different parents, they could arguably be considered separate species, not just a new one.

Dr. Hillis says he thinks biology needs a different way to describe these lizards. “I think they are better termed ‘hybrid clones,’ ” he said. “That would represent a more accurate reflection of their relationship to the tree of life.”

Dr. Baumann argues that giving the lizards a species name is important simply to help scientists communicate. “It allows them to know what they’re talking about,” he said.

He and his colleagues have a lot to talk about. They are investigating how Aspidoscelis neavesi copes with having four sets of chromosomes. In humans, extra chromosomes can cause dramatic changes. An extra copy of chromosome 21, for example, leads to Down syndrome.

Yet Aspidoscelis neavesi appears to be a perfectly healthy, normal group of lizards. “If anything, we see a slight advantage,” Dr. Baumann said.

The good health of Aspidoscelis neavesi raises yet another puzzling question: If the parental species of Aspidoscelis neavesi live near one another, shouldn’t Aspidoscelis neavesi exist in the wild, too?

It’s possible that healthy hybrids do emerge from time to time, but that they have been the victims of bad luck. “If you’re rare, you’re more likely to go extinct by chance,” said James Mallet, a Harvard biologist who was not involved in the study.

On the other hand, it may be that Aspidoscelis neavesi is thriving unseen around Alamogordo. Dr. Cole hopes that the new paper, with its detailed description of the new species’ appearance, will help people to identify them.

“They may be out there somewhere, and we just don’t know it yet,” said Dr. Cole.

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Raúl Castro Thanks U.S., but Reaffirms Communist Rule in Cuba

By DAMIEN CAVE
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

HAVANA — President Raúl Castro declared victory for the Cuban Revolution on Saturday in a wide-ranging speech, thanking President Obama for “a new chapter” while also reaffirming that restored relations with the United States did not mean the end of Communist rule in Cuba.

In a televised speech before Parliament and a group of favored guests — including Elián González, the center of a tug of war in 2000 between Cuban exiles and Havana, and the three men convicted of spying in the United States who were released as part of the historic agreement announced on Wednesday — Mr. Castro alternated between conciliatory and combative statements directed at the United States.

He stoked the flames of Cuban nationalism, declaring near the end of his statement, “We won the war.” But he also praised Mr. Obama for starting the biggest change in United States-Cuba policy in more than 50 years.

“The Cuban people are grateful,” he said, for Mr. Obama’s decision “to remove the obstacles to our relations.”

He added that all issues and disputes between Cuba and the United States would be on the table in coming discussions about re-establishing formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. But he offered no immediate concessions to demands for improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.

As he has done since he took over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, Mr. Castro prioritized economics. He acknowledged that Cuban state workers needed better salaries and said Cuba would accelerate economic changes in the coming year, including an end to its dual-currency system.

But he said the changes needed to be gradual to create a system of “prosperous and sustainable communism.”

Mr. Castro confirmed that he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas, which Mr. Obama is also set to attend. A White House official said Saturday that there were no current plans for the two presidents to meet there.

Mr. Castro, wearing a traditional white shirt called a guayabera and only occasionally gesturing for emphasis, referred repeatedly to Mr. Obama, praising him personally while also emphasizing that with the process of real diplomacy just beginning, “the only way to advance is with mutual respect.”

He insisted, as he and Fidel Castro have for years, that the United States not meddle in the sovereign affairs of the Cuban state.

Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a Cuban diplomat and educator, said Mr. Castro’s strong wording, in a speech that is an annual event and rallying point, seemed to be mostly directed at his Communist Party loyalists.

“It’s domestic politics,” Dr. Alzugaray said.

He noted that, just as Mr. Obama must contend with Cuban-American lawmakers who are angry about the deal, Mr. Castro faces opposition from more conservative party members who recall that Cuba’s previous stance, established in the 1960s, was to hold off resuming relations until the United States lifted its trade embargo completely.

“It’s Raúl reassuring certain people,” Dr. Alzugaray said, adding that in both Cuba and the United States, the embryonic era of friendliness would need to be protected from those resisting reconciliation of any kind. “Obama more than Raúl has initiated the first step, but other steps are needed.”

In Miami on Saturday, several hundred people gathered for a rally where President Obama was denounced as a traitor and a liar.

Surrounded by flapping Cuban flags in the hot afternoon sun in José Martí Park — named after a hero of Cuban independence, protesters excoriated the president in Spanish for his overture to the Cuban government, a move that they insist will only cement the Castros’ hold on power.

“The government in Cuba will still repress and throw into jail anyone who opposes the Castro regime,” said Blanca Gonzalez, 65, who moved to the United States 13 years ago. Her son Normando Hernandez spent seven years in a Cuban prison, she said, for “practicing independent journalism”; he was freed in 2011.

“All Obama is doing is throwing a lifeline to the Castros so that they can continue crushing the people of Cuba,” said Roberto Delgado Ramos,78, who said he was arrested twice, in 1960 and 1964, for “counterrevolutionary activities” and served a total of 12 years in prison. “The Castros are the ones who need to pay for the blood that they have spilled.”

****************

If Not David to the U.S. Goliath, Cuba Asks What Its Role Is Now

By DAMIEN CAVE and VICTORIA BURNETT
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

HAVANA — John F. Kennedy, who strengthened economic sanctions against Cuba in the early 1960s, has a whole room devoted to his sins. But the final exhibit, at the Italianate palace that houses the Museum of the Revolution on the edge of Old Havana, is “a gallery of cretins” — cartoon-style wooden cutouts of recent American presidents who are thanked for “helping us strengthen the Revolution.”

The line of rogues ends with George W. Bush, raising the question: What about President Obama? Will he eventually join the gallery, or has the parade of the hated finally ended?

As Cubans absorb the news that the United States will begin normalizing relations with their government after more than five decades of hostility, they are contending with a rush of both excitement and uncertainty about what could be the end of a long global drama in which Cuba has played a prominent role.

The country’s leaders in particular, after decades of battling and blaming the United States and powerful Cuban exiles — calling them worms, ingrates and far worse — now find themselves without the usual excuse for Cuba’s economic failures and human rights restrictions , at a time when the population’s expectations are soaring. The challenge of managing the opening up of Cuba will be colossal, forcing the government to grapple with its own faults and the possibility of becoming just another sun-drenched Caribbean island rather than an often-admired communist holdout against the power of the United States. And it must do this while engaging a giant power still influenced by a potent Cuban-American lobby and lawmakers unwilling to give up the fight.

“We’ve had 50 years of exchanging insults,” said Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s best-known novelist, as he puffed on a cigarette at his house in an eastern suburb of Havana. “Now we have to rebuild the bridges and try to overcome the years of hatred.”

“It’s like waking from an unending nightmare,” he added. “There were times when I thought I would die before this day came.”

Reuniting will not be easy.

The announcement of normalizing relations Wednesday was publicly welcomed by many Cubans — people in the streets of Havana, workers in hotels, government officials and ministers. But a difficult psychological and structural transition lies ahead. The island has long seen itself as exceptional, a defiant rebel under political and economic attack. Improved relations with the United States may bring some immediate economic relief, but also longer-term concerns about identity.

Since the early 1960s, Cuba’s sense of self has been tied up with socialism and playing David to the Goliath of the north. Now, Cubans are dealing with the awkward new realities spawned by changes aimed at introducing a dose of market capitalism into a system where, for decades, the state has provided everything from subsidized sugar to free health care to cars for favored workers.

At the same time, they are now being told — directly and indirectly — that Cuba can no longer blame its old enemy for all of its problems.

Many Cubans say they had known this for years. “We’re always told that everything bad is because of ‘the United States,’ ” said Chuchi Garrido, using air quotes to emphasize the absurdity of the idea while he sold black-market cellphones outside a government store in Havana. “It hasn’t been true for years. The government is just admitting it.”

He and dozens of other Cubans, from the capital to the countryside, said that it was time that the country’s leaders de-emphasized ideology in favor of more tangible goals.

Regina Coyula, a blogger who spent nearly two decades working for state security, said that Cubans should be glad to leave the era of exceptionalism behind.

“It’s high time for us to be normal, to be just another island. We live in a kind of bubble, and that is a drag on us,” she said. “We want to be part of the global community.”

President Obama also emphasized Cuba’s reintegration in his comments on Friday.

“Suddenly Cuba is open to the world in ways it hasn’t been before,” he said, adding that his plan to spur technology growth in Cuba, in particular, would help accelerate the process because the Internet “chips away at this hermetically sealed society.”

And yet, the tensions and resistance that come along with more rapid change are already apparent.

“Every country has the inalienable right to choose its own political systems,” Raúl Castro said in a speech Saturday at the legislature that emphasized Cuba’s long history of resistance to imperial meddling. He added: “No one can claim that improving relations with the United States means Cuba renouncing its ideas."For many Cubans, though, decades of ideology can now be boiled down to two services: free health care and a strong public education system. In conversations in Matanzas Province and Havana, these two services were often cited as the priorities they would never give up. An injection of capitalism, American culture and more inequity among social classes seemed to be of less concern than protecting these pillars of the socialized state.

Wherever Cuba decides to draw the line on domestic policy, the announcement of normalized relations and the release of three convicted spies — long a cause célèbre on the island — also means that Cuba suddenly has a bumper crop of anti-American propaganda and an outdated apparatus of antagonism that would need to be dismantled.

Along with the billboards that denounce the American embargo as “the worst genocide in human history,” there are the portraits of the Cuban Five — a spy ring that included the three spies released by the United States last week and who are all now home — which grace the walls of nearly every government building on the island, from the smallest clinics to the largest universities.

There are school textbooks that continue to portray the United States in villainous terms, and countless public and private places that will soon look far different in a world where Cuba and the United States are no longer in never-ending conflict.

Indeed, the official “welcome Americans” message laid out last week after decades of limited access means the roads of Havana will be more clogged with traffic, the demand for real estate will become more severe, and the turquoise seas surrounding the island, now largely empty except for small fishing boats, could soon be filled with 40-foot pleasure yachts from Fort Lauderdale.

More important for Cubans is the question of what will happen to the restrictions on civil rights that have long been seen as a necessity to protect a country at war.

With the end, or easing, of the conflict, will the Cuban government soften its grip?

Cuba: A New Start

On Dec. 18, the Obama administration announced that it would establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Take a look back at the Editorial Board’s series calling for improved United States-Cuba relations.

The demand for information technology — cellphones and the Internet — is already intense and growing. On any given day, the line outside stores selling cellphones in Havana could be nearly 100 people deep, requiring more than an hour of waiting for an overpriced phone without Internet access.

“They’re anxious,” said Mr. Garrido, the cellphone salesman, as he eyed the queue earlier this week. “They see all these new ways to communicate, and they want to be a part of it.”

Cuban opposition figures seem divided on the likely impacts. Some have welcomed the normalization, describing it as an opportunity to bring about change. But leaders of the more hard-line dissident groups, which still receive moral, financial and logistical support from the American government, were distraught.

While some Cubans rejoiced at the idea of the United States no longer being the enemy, some veteran dissidents lamented the loss of a loyal friend.

“Obama made a grave error,” said Ángel Moya, a political activist who was released from prison in 2012 after eight years. “He betrayed those of us who are struggling against the Cuban government.”

Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Cuba project at the Center for International Policy, which has advocated easing the embargo, said that Cuba and the United States would have to find a new way to relate to each other. Though no longer enemies, they are not yet friends.

“Raúl has been diluting the U.S. as enemy for quite some time, no longer blaming all ills on the embargo,” she said. “But the embargo and its effects are very much present in billboards, and since it’s not going to be lifted anytime soon, I doubt that will change. Will we be frenemies?”

 6 
 on: Today at 08:41 AM 
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Gulf States and Qatar Gloss Over Differences, but Split Still Hampers Them

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

CAIRO — Shaking hands and kissing foreheads, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf came together this month to declare that they had resolved an 18-month feud in order to unite against their twin enemies, Iran and the Islamic State.

But the split is still festering, most visibly here in the place where it broke out over the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president. “Nothing has changed — nothing, nothing,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomacy.

The tensions are raising questions about the ability of the gulf states to muster a coherent response to a storm of crises rocking the region.

Discord among the gulf states has undermined efforts to coordinate support for rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and contributed to the emergence of the Islamic State. It has muted the attempts of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance founded by the six gulf states, to counter what they see as expanding Iranian influence. And in Libya, rival gulf states have backed competing armed factions and hastened a slide toward full civil war.

“The region is verging on collapse,” said Michael Stephens, a Doha-based researcher for the Royal United Services Institute, a British research organization. “The last thing you need is a G.C.C. that is fractured and can’t speak with one voice.”

At the heart of the feud is a dispute over political Islam pitting Qatar against its neighbors, principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Having struck an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in a play for regional influence, Qatar financially supported the group’s former government in Egypt, opposed the military takeover as an illegal “coup” and provided a haven to Islamists in exile after the subsequent crackdown. Qatar’s Al Jazeera network has repeatedly excoriated the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., which consider the Brotherhood a threat to their own stability, both backed the Egyptian military takeover. And both have pressed Qatar to expel the exiled Islamists and curb Al Jazeera.

In the weeks leading up to this month’s regional summit, several gulf news outlets had reported that Qatar had effectively buckled, agreeing to both demands. A final communiqué from the meeting expressed “full support for Egypt” and Mr. Sisi’s “road map” for a political transition.

But government officials on both sides of the gulf split now acknowledge privately that Qatar scarcely budged. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates suspended their anti-Brotherhood campaign against Qatar because of the more urgent threats they saw gathering around them.

A senior Qatari official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the joint communiqué supporting Mr. Sisi’s road map was merely a “press release” that carried little significance.

“We will always support the population of Egypt,” the official said. Al Jazeera was “editorially independent,” he said, adding that the other states “should not create political issues just because a channel is broadcasting what is happening.”

Although Qatar asked some Brotherhood members to leave Doha because of their political activities, only 10 or fewer have done so, according to Brotherhood leaders and Qatari officials. “We have not asked them to leave in any way, and we have not bothered them in any way,” the official said.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian-born preacher close to the Brotherhood whose criticism of the other gulf autocracies has long drawn their ire, is a Qatari citizen and remains in Doha despite an Egyptian warrant for his arrest. The leadership of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that began as a Brotherhood franchise, is still based there as well.

Al Jazeera is still broadcasting an Egyptian affiliate from outside the country, even though the new government has banned it. And it recently featured an analyst who argued that Mr. Sisi and former President Hosni Mubarak should both be executed for directing the killing of protesters challenging their power. The court “should hang Abdel Fattah el-Sisi 10 times” because “in one hour, he killed 20 times more people” during his crackdown on the Brotherhood’s protests against the takeover, the analyst, Mohamed al-Kudoussi, declared.

Ahmed Mohamed, a guest on the channel whose brother was killed by police under Mr. Mubarak, said: “We apologize to all members of the Muslim Brotherhood that we took to the streets and called for a man like Sisi, who is another face of Mubarak.”

The tensions among the gulf allies first burst into the open around the time of the military takeover in Egypt last year.

Both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates began a campaign to purge the Brotherhood from Qatar and the region.

In December 2013, Egyptian police jailed three journalists for Al Jazeera’s English-language affiliate. Despite an absence of evidence, a court ultimately sentenced each to at least seven years in prison for conspiring with the Brotherhood.

Finally, in the spring, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt pulled their ambassadors from Doha.

Other dangers, however, have since taken center stage. Having conquered parts of Syria and Iraq — in part by exploiting divisions among gulf-backed rebel groups — the Islamic State has now begun threatening Saudi Arabia.

Iran, the regional rival whose revolution inspired the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council more than 30 years ago, is pursuing a deal with Washington to limit Tehran’s nuclear energy program in exchange for sanctions relief — presenting the gulf with the unhappy prospect of either a nuclear Iran on the one hand or an economically recovering Iran on the other.

Now Iran is deploying airstrikes over Iraq in de facto coordination with the Western-backed coalition against the Islamic State. And Iran is simultaneously backing the rebel group that has derailed a political transition in Yemen brokered by the gulf states.

“The common threat is the unifying issue here,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center who is close to the Saudi government. “The security environment in the region is what is pressing the countries to unify. There is no other option.”

The gulf states returned their ambassadors to Doha in time for the summit this month, and now there are signs that Saudi Arabia is urging Egypt to mend its rift with Qatar as well. In Cairo on Saturday, a special envoy from the king of Saudi Arabia convened the first meeting between Mr. Sisi and a Qatari envoy. The Saudi royal court said in a statement that King Abdullah wanted to open “a new page” in Egypt-Qatar relations and urged each side to restrain the tone of its news media toward the other.

A spokesman for Mr. Sisi said in a statement that he appreciated King Abdullah’s efforts and “looks forward to turning the page on past differences.”

But the statement also alluded to Egyptian allegations about Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood. It said Mr. Sisi “asserted that such efforts should be aligned to the will of the people and fully respect the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of states.”

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 on: Today at 08:39 AM 
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Algeria, Dependent on Oil, Feels Pinch as Prices Decline

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

ALGIERS — With oil prices at their lowest in five years and showing few signs of hitting bottom, Algeria is feeling the pinch.

Though its problems are dwarfed by the impact on Russia, for example, Algeria may have to rein back many of the policies it has held dear over many years. Generous subsidies, for one, may have to be scaled back despite the potential risk of social unrest.

Oil revenues make up 97 percent of the country’s hard currency earnings and 60 percent of the government’s budget. Like Russia, which has seen a full-scale run on its currency, Algeria has made little effort to diversify the economy away from oil and gas. The governor of the central bank, Mohammed Laksaci, has warned that the oil and gas dividend will not last forever, though nearly $200 billion of foreign reserves can help cushion the blow in the short term.

“This capacity to resist such shocks will disappear quickly if the price of oil stays at a low level for a long time,” Mr. Laksaci said recently, deploring the economy’s dependence on oil.

In many ways, the administration of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has echoes with that of his counterpart in Russia, Vladimir V. Putin. Both have seen their long tenures buttressed by oil-driven economic growth.

There has been little impetus for change at the highest levels, with much of the work of the government stalled because of Mr. Bouteflika’s fragile health. Since suffering a stroke in 2013, he has rarely appeared in public.

“This is the system that he built, as long as he is in power he’s going to keep it that way,” said Geoff Porter, a North Africa analyst. “The risks that come with market reform and privatization are too daunting for Algeria right now.”

According to the International Monetary Fund’s latest report on Algeria, growth for 2014 is estimated to be a decent 4 percent. However, it cautioned that with declining oil production and lower prices, Algeria’s imports will exceed its exports this year for the first time in 15 years.

Subsidies, which amount to 21 percent of the country’s annual economic output, cover electricity and many foodstuffs, and the country’s gasoline is the cheapest in North Africa. Some 60 percent of the jobs in the country are on the government payroll and nearly everything is imported.

The government also subsidizes education and provides housing. Social unrest was effectively bought off with higher wages and promises of housing — all funded by the bountiful oil receipts.

Now, however, falling prices have thrown this model into question.

“Algerians will not find anything to eat if the price of oil continues to fall,” warned Habib Zegad, an independent lawmaker, during the debate over the latest central bank figures.

Algeria is still flush and can continue spending at its current rate for the next few years. But Mohammed Sghir Babes, an economist, said the country needed to make changes now to rein in spending and cut subsidies.

But social peace depends on continued spending. On Tuesday, hundreds of young people demonstrated in the desert oil city of Hassi Messaoud, calling for jobs and housing, and in October there were demonstrations by the police for higher salaries.

 8 
 on: Today at 08:37 AM 
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Few Liberians Turn Out for Vote Delayed by Ebola

By CLAIR MacDOUGALL
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberians trickled to the polls on Saturday to vote in Senate elections that were delayed for more than two months because of the Ebola outbreak and legal challenges. Turnout is expected to be very low.

Here in the capital, special precautions were taken at polling places to minimize the risk of voters contracting Ebola, which is spread through physical contact with an infected person. The polling stations were equipped with extra cardboard voting booths and ballot boxes to ensure minimal contact between voters, who were separated by a space of three feet.

Elections workers took the temperature of voters with infrared thermometers and denied admission to those who registered over 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 Fahrenheit). Voters had their fingers dabbed with ink before they marked their ballots with pens or their fingerprints.

But some monitors said the safety measures were inadequate in the 14 counties outside of Monrovia. Polling places in those areas were not equipped with thermometers and sanitizers, said Oscar Bloh, the country director of Search for Common Ground, a group that is overseeing 2,000 monitors across the country. He also said that monitors were denied access to polling places while they were being opened in some areas, which he called “unacceptable.”

Liberia has been hit hard by the Ebola virus, though the rate of new cases and deaths appeared to have slowed in recent weeks. But the country had recorded 3,290 Ebola deaths as of last week, according to the World Health Organization.

At a polling center in a school in the Jacobs Town section of Monrovia, five elections monitors had little to do.

Robert Tamba, an elections monitor for the Liberty Party who has observed three elections, said the low voter turnout at the polling center was a result of fear and apathy, fed by a suspicion of all political candidates.

“There are less people because they are tired of their leaders,” Mr. Tamba said.

That sentiment was echoed by Alfred Tokpah, an observer for Robert Sirleaf, the son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is running against George Manneh Weah, a former soccer star, for the Montserrado seat, which represents the capital region.

“They think there is no need to come to vote, the leaders are not trusted,” Mr. Tokpah said.

Some Liberians expressed concern on talk radio programs that their registration cards from previous elections were not being accepted. A voter roll update was conducted in 2011 and all voters were expected to be able to produce their cards.

The voting for 15 of the 30 Senate seats is the third national election Liberia has held since its brutal civil war in 2003. The country has about 1.9 million registered voters among a population of four million, more than 600,000 of whom live in Montserrado Country, the capital region.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, visited the country on Friday and urged Liberians to “ensure these elections are peaceful and objective” and “to follow public health guidelines against Ebola.” Mr. Ban said the elections were “an opportunity to show the world” how far Liberia had come.

Clashes between supporters of Mr. Sirleaf and Mr. Weah have erupted throughout the capital in recent weeks and campaign billboards have been torn down, prompting concerns that the elections could lead to violent confrontations.

Riot police units were sent to some polling places after crowds gathered outside to monitor the procedures, with some people raising suspicions of vote-rigging measures that would favor the president’s son.

Mr. Sirleaf said he was optimistic that there would be no violence.

Provisional results are expected in a few days, according the elections commission.

 9 
 on: Today at 08:34 AM 
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China Invests in Region Rich in Oil, Coal and Also Strife

By EDWARD WONG
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

KARAMAY, China — In a desolate park on the city outskirts here, oil bubbling from the ground fills small pools next to a wooden walkway. By one pool is a statue of a bearded ethnic Uighur man sitting on a donkey, playing a lute.

The symbolism is telling. China is ramping up energy production here, turning the northwestern Xinjiang region into a national hub for oil, gas and coal, while the increasingly marginalized Uighur people are memorialized in what appears to be a bronze homage to a romantic past.

China is investing more than ever in the vast, resource-rich Xinjiang region with the aim of bolstering oil extraction and refining, coal production, power generation, and natural gas production and transport. That is happening despite soaring ethnic violence. In deserts once traversed by Silk Road camel caravans, sands are now crisscrossed with pipelines and high-voltage wires.

“Look at how much they’re drilling,” said Lu Weidong, the team leader of a half-dozen technicians in hard hats and oil-stained red coveralls working one recent morning on oil pumps in the desert here. “Hundreds of pumps are being built, and there are hundreds more behind those hills that you can’t see.”

The foundation of Xinjiang’s energy economy is oil. Xinjiang has an estimated 21 billion tons of oil reserves, a fifth of China’s total, and major new deposits are still being found. This month, a state-owned oil company announced its greatest discovery of the year here, a deposit estimated to have more than one billion tons of oil on the northwestern edge of the Dzungarian Basin, not far from Karamay’s fields. Xinjiang is expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil by 2020, a 23 percent increase over 2012, according to the Ministry of Land Resources.

Xinjiang also has the country’s largest coal reserves, an estimated 40 percent of the national total, and the largest natural gas reserves. Those three components form an energy hat trick that China is capitalizing on to power its cities and industries.
   
The region will be designated one of China’s five “energy bases” in the next five-year economic plan, and its economy will be further bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “New Silk Road,” an ambitious plan to rebuild the ancient trade route into a 21st-century network of transportation and trade across Xinjiang, Central Asia and Europe.

Government money is flooding in. In May, Beijing said that 53 state-owned enterprises — from energy to construction to technology companies — were investing $300 billion in 685 projects in Xinjiang. The State Council, China’s cabinet, announced in June that the Xinjiang government was investing $130 billion to build infrastructure such as roads, highways and railways.

The main state-owned electric utility, the State Grid Corporation of China, is investing $2.3 billion over the next year to build high-voltage lines, according to People’s Daily, the main party newspaper. Xinjiang will export electricity to more populated parts of China and perhaps to Central Asia.

“Xinjiang is where all the growth in oil, gas and coal is going to be coming from,” said Lin Boqiang, an energy scholar at Xiamen University and adviser at PetroChina, China’s biggest oil producer. “Second, all the imported resources from Central Asia, oil and gas, go through Xinjiang and then get distributed from there.”

Xinjiang produced 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2012, and it aims to increase that to 44 billion cubic meters next year.

Pipelines already transport natural gas from Central Asia and Xinjiang to central and eastern China. A new pipeline from Western Siberia is expected to transport 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year through the Altai Mountains to central Xinjiang, where it would connect with domestic east-west pipelines.

Regional officials are also pushing for the creation of a new source of gas: processing coal to create synthetic gas, which could then be transported east.

A State Council energy plan released in June says Xinjiang will be one of four sites for pilot projects to convert coal to gas and gasoline. An experimental coal-to-gas plant is already operating in western Xinjiang, to the concern of environmentalists, who say the process emits a huge amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide.

At least 52 others across China are under construction or in the proposal stage, with nearly half in Xinjiang, according to a count in October by Greenpeace East Asia.

The plants will help Beijing provide energy for populated parts of eastern China while moving the pollution-generating sources to the less populated west. More coal gasification would produce heavier smog in Xinjiang and also a surge in carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr. Lin, the energy scholar, said a worsening of the environment in Xinjiang “just can’t be avoided.” He said he was not a supporter of coal gasification or coal-to-petrol projects for a different reason — the amount of water the processes require. Like most of northern China, Xinjiang suffers from an acute water shortage.

Pollution is only one consequence of resource exploitation for the region’s residents, a plurality of whom are Uighurs, a largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking population. The region’s energy wealth flows mainly to the state-owned oil companies in Beijing and to the Communist Party, dominated by ethnic Han. Last year, Karamay — which means “black oil” in the Uighur language and where, in 1955, China’s first large oil field was discovered — had the highest per-capita gross domestic product of mainland Chinese cities.

PetroChina’s refinery here is the company’s most profitable one, said Zhen Xinping, a senior engineer. It processes six million tons of oil per year.

Despite the oil boom, this town of 400,000 is modest, and some Uighur neighborhoods are poorer than Han ones. Uighur farmers live in a slum where homes lack indoor toilets. The oil companies employ some Uighurs, but not many.

Many Uighurs say they resent Han rule and the reaping of their homeland’s resources. Ethnic and class tensions can flare here, as they do elsewhere in Xinjiang. A fragmented Uighur insurgency is gaining in intensity across the region, and hundreds of people have died this year in ethnic violence, domestic terrorism and police shootings.

Over the summer, local officials imposed a rule banning people with Islamic dress and long beards from boarding public buses and ordered taxi drivers not to pick them up.

Though the government said it issued the rules in the name of security, many Uighurs see nothing but discrimination.

“It doesn’t matter if they have beards or veils,” said one teenage girl in the Uighur farmers’ shantytown at the edge of Karamay. “They’re not bad people.”

The residents say the government will soon demolish the area. The girl said she would like to stay in the city, though. “Karamay has a lot of oil,” she said, “so I want to work here.”

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Chinese Annoyance With North Korea Bubbles to the Surface

By JANE PERLEZ
DEC. 20, 2014
IHT

BEIJING — When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

For decades China has stood by North Korea, and though at times the relationship has soured, it has rarely reached such a low point, Chinese analysts say. The fact that the commentary by Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of an important military region, was published in a state-run newspaper this month and then posted on an official People’s Liberation Army website attested to how much the relationship had deteriorated, the analysts say.

“China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.'s mess too many times,” General Wang wrote in The Global Times, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But it doesn’t have to do that in the future.”

Of the government in North Korea, he said: “If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time.” Moreover, North Korea had violated the spirit of the mutual defense treaty with China, he said, by failing to consult China on its nuclear weapons program, which has created instability in Northeast Asia.

The significance of General Wang’s article was given greater weight because he wrote it in reply to another Global Times article by a Chinese expert on North Korea, Prof. Li Dunqiu, who took a more traditional approach, arguing that North Korea was a strategic asset that China should not abandon. Mr. Li is a former director of the Office of Korean Affairs at China’s State Council.

In a debate that unfolded among other commentators in the pages of Global Times, a state-run newspaper, after the duel between General Wang and Mr. Li, the general’s point of view — that North Korea represented a strategic liability — got considerable support. General Wang is known as a princeling general: His father, Wang Jianqing, led Mao Zedong’s troops in the fight against the Japanese in Nanjing at the end of World War II.

Efforts to reach General Wang through an intermediary were unsuccessful. The general’s secretary told the intermediary that the views in his article were his own and did not reflect those of the military.

How widespread his views have become within the military establishment is difficult to gauge, but a Chinese official who is closely involved in China’s diplomacy with North Korea said that General Wang’s disparaging attitude was more prevalent in the Chinese military today than in any previous period.

“General Wang’s views really reflect the views of many Chinese — and within the military views are varied,” said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. Relations between the North Korean and Chinese militaries have never been close even though they fought together during the Korean War, the official said. The two militaries do not conduct joint exercises and remain wary of each other, experts say.

China has said little about the Obama administration’s charge that North Korea was responsible for the hacking of a film produced by Sony Pictures, “The Interview.” Nevertheless, United States officials said they had reached out to China to help block North Korea’s ability to initiate cyberattacks. China has not yet responded to the request, the officials said.

Despite the disdain for North Korea in official Chinese circles there was probably some secret admiration for what the North Koreans appeared to have done, Zhang Baohui, director of the center for Asian Pacific studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said.

Even in the current cold relationship between China and North Korea there were definite limits to how far China would side with the United States on North Korea, he said. The “mistrust and rivalry” between Washington and Beijing meant China, in the event of a collapse of North Korea, could not tolerate a unified Korean Peninsula allied with Washington.

An editorial Saturday in The Global Times criticized Hollywood for “cultural arrogance,” saying that despite what Americans thought of Kim Jong-un, he remained the country’s leader.

Still, the parlous state of the relationship between North Korea and China was on display again Wednesday when Pyongyang commemorated the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and failed to invite a senior Chinese official.

The last time a Chinese leader visited North Korea was in July 2013 when Vice President Li Yuanchao tried to patch up relations, and pressed North Korea, after its third nuclear test in February 2013, to slow down its nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Li failed in that quest. The North Korean nuclear program “is continuing full speed ahead,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a professor at Stanford University and former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory. North Korea had produced enough highly enriched uranium for six nuclear devices, and it may have enough for an additional four devices a year from now, an assessment the Chinese concurred with, Dr. Hecker said.

After the vice president’s visit, relations plummeted further, entering the icebox last December when China’s main conduit within the North Korean government, Jang Song-thaek, a senior official and the uncle of Kim Jong-un, was executed in a purge. In July, President Xi Jinping snubbed North Korea, visiting South Korea instead. Mr. Xi has yet to visit North Korea, and is said to have been infuriated by a third nuclear test by North Korea in February 2013, soon after Kim Jong-un came to power.

Though they have not met as presidents, Mr. Xi was vice president of China and met Mr. Kim when he accompanied his father to China, several Chinese analysts said.

What happened in that exchange is not known, but Mr. Xi, an experienced and prominent member of the Chinese political hierarchy, was unlikely to have been impressed with the young Mr. Kim, who at that stage was not long out of a Swiss boarding school, the analysts said.

“It’s very obvious that there is a very significant change in attitudes,” said Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of Study Times, the Central Party School journal, who was dismissed in early 2013 for writing a negative piece about North Korea.

In a sign of more public questioning about North Korea, Mr. Deng, who went to Britain after losing his job, is back in China and said he had no problem in organizing a debate two months ago about the problems with North Korea on Phoenix television, a satellite station based in Hong Kong that is shown on the mainland.

“North Korea will ultimately fail no matter how much you throw money at it, and it is in the process of collapse,” Mr. Deng said.

The heightened debate in China is spurred in part by fears that North Korea could collapse even though economic conditions in the agriculture sector seemed ready to improve, several Chinese analysts said. Indeed, one of the tricky balancing acts for China is how much to curtail fuel supplies and other financial support without provoking a collapse that could send refugees into China’s northeastern provinces, and result in a unified Korean Peninsula loyal to the United States.

“The general state of relations between North Korea and China is hard,” said Zheng Jiyong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, who just returned to China after four months in Pyongyang.

“If China presses D.P.R.K. too hard it could collapse,” he said. “But if it doesn’t press hard enough it will become uncontrolled and do more things like nuclear tests.”

For his part, General Wang, who is now a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, seems unfazed by a possible collapse.

“China isn’t a savior, so it cannot save the D.P.R.K. if it is really going to collapse,” he wrote in the article. “All that China can do is to make precautions accordingly. Even if the D.P.R.K.'s collapse affects northeast China to some extent, that will in no way disrupt China’s journey of modernization.”
Correction: December 21, 2014

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a North Korean senior official and uncle to Kim Jong-un who was executed by the state. He was Jang Song-thaek, not Jang Son Taek.

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Uzbekistan Votes in Parliamentary Polls

by Naharnet Newsdesk 21 December 2014, 07:22

Polls opened in Uzbekistan early Sunday for parliamentary elections in the ex-Soviet Central Asian state where all four competing parties support President Islam Karimov's policies.

More than 20 million voters have registered to elect the 150-seat lower house of parliament, the Oliy Majlis, after the authorities sent out text messages urging people to vote.

Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (0100 GMT) and were due to close at 8:00 pm.

Head of the central election commission Mirza-Ulugbek Abdusalamov said the conditions had been set for "free and fair elections... that meet the highest international democratic standards."

President Karimov has transferred some powers to parliament in recent years, including a mechanism for a vote of no confidence in the government and allowing the party with the majority of seats to nominate the prime minister.

Four parties -- the Liberal Democratic Party, People's Democratic Party, the Democratic Party Milly Tiklanish (National Revival) and the Social Democratic Party Adolat (Justice) -- are competing to fill 135 seats.

The remaining 15 seats will automatically go to the country's Ecological Movement, founded in 2008 and composed of activists from pro-government environmentalist groups and health sectors.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed a small monitoring mission, citing the "limited nature of the competition".

Sunday's vote will mark 90 days until presidential polls are held in March.

Karimov, who has ruled the country for the past two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a new seven-year term in December 2007.

Uzbekistan's parliament made constitutional changes shortening the presidential term from seven to five years in 2012.

Karimov, 76, has not publicly named a successor and indicated in May he wanted to stay on in his role.

Source: Agence France Presse

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