Trump Carbon Plan Attacked by Coastal States, Lauded by Coal Interests

President Donald Trump’s proposal to replace an Obama-era policy to fight climate change with a weaker plan allowing states to write their own rules on emissions from coal-fired power plants was criticized by coastal states, but applauded by coal interests on Wednesday.

Under the proposed Affordable Clean Energy plan that acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler issued in August, the federal government would set carbon emission guidelines, but states would have the leeway to set less stringent standards on coal plants, taking into account the age and upgrade costs of facilities.

The heads of environmental and energy agencies from 14 mostly coastal states, including California, New York and North Carolina, told the EPA in joint comments on the Trump plan that it would result in minimal reductions of greenhouse gases, and possibly result in increased emissions, relative to having no federal program on the pollution.

“We urge EPA to abandon this proposal and instead to maintain or update the (Obama era) Clean Power Plan,” which the states said would fulfill EPA’s obligations under federal clean air law and support the efforts of states to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some states including New York and Virginia have threatened to sue the EPA if the plan becomes law.

The comment period on the plan ends on Wednesday night and a final rule from the EPA is expected later this year.

Coal and some utility interests lauded the Trump plan.

“The proposed ACE rule is a welcome return to federal restraint after years of punitive overreach,” said Hal Quinn, the president and CEO of the National Mining Association, an industry group.

The coal industry had said President Barack Obama’s climate regulations represented a “war on coal,” but Trump’s promises to reduce regulations have not led to a revival, as the industry struggles with competition from an abundance of cheap natural gas. 

Ongoing closings of coal-fired plants have pushed U.S. coal consumption by utilities this year to the lowest since 1983, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In August, the EPA projected the plan would result in $400 million a year in economic benefits and reduce retail power prices by up to 0.5 percent by 2025. The EPA also forecast that under the rule, coal production would rise by up to 5.8 percent by 2025.

The Obama-era plan, which had been put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, set overall carbon-reduction goals for each state.

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Cuba Says Investor Interest Up Despite US Hostility

Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister said on Wednesday the country had signed nearly 200 investment projects worth $5.5 billion since it slashed taxes and made other adjustments to its investment law in 2014.

Cuba began a major effort to attract foreign investment as socialist ally Venezuela’s economy went into crisis and has ratcheted it up as export revenues decline and the Trump administration backtracks on a detente begun under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Foreign investment in Cuba is growing despite the recent strengthening of the U.S. economic, trade and financial blockade, though it is below what we want,” the minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, said at an investment forum in Havana.

Even as the forum unfolded, debate on an annual resolution condemning U.S. sanctions got under way at the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the Trump administration said that on Thursday it would announce new sanctions aimed at Cuba’s military and security services.

Malmierca said 40 new projects were signed over the last year valued at $1.5 billion.

Many agreements are in the tourism sector and are often simple management and marketing accords. Others are in manufacturing, oil exploration and, to a lesser extent, areas such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture and logistics.

Cuba says it wants a minimum $2.5 billion per year in direct foreign investment to dig its way out of years of crisis and stagnation.

While $5.5 billion in deals may have been signed since 2014, the government has said only around $500 million has actually been invested annually, including foreign government credits and donations.

Diplomats and business officials report that many projects are hard pressed to obtain financing and the Communist-run country’s bureaucracy also slows deals from getting off the ground.

For example, since 2014 five golf resorts valued at close to $2.5 billion were signed with British, Chinese and Spanish investors, but ground has yet to be broken on any of them, according to foreign business officials and diplomats with knowledge of the projects.

Malmierca said the country was working to overcome numerous obstacles for investors, such as lengthy delays for project approval, lack of experience among Cuban negotiators and Cuba’s dual monetary system with fixed exchange rates.

Under then-leader Fidel Castro, foreign investment was first nationalized, then, after the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union it was viewed as an unfortunate necessity. Today it is lauded as an integral part of the country’s development strategy.

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US Supreme Court Divided Over How Google Settled Privacy Case

U.S. Supreme Court justices, in an internet privacy case involving Google, disagreed on Wednesday over whether to rein in a form of settlement in class action lawsuits that awards money to charities and other third parties instead of to people affected by the alleged wrongdoing.

The $8.5 million Google settlement was challenged by an official at a Washington-based conservative think tank, and some of the court’s conservative justices during an hour of arguments in the case shared his concerns about potential abuses in these awards, including excessive fees going to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Some of the liberal justices emphasized that such settlements can funnel money to good use in instances in which dividing the money among large numbers of plaintiffs would result in negligible per-person payments. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the high court.

The case began when a California resident named Paloma Gaos filed a proposed class action lawsuit in 2010 in San Jose federal court claiming Google’s search protocols violated federal privacy law by disclosing users’ search terms to other websites. Google is part of Alphabet Inc.

A lower court upheld the settlement the company agreed to pay in 2013 to resolve the claims.

Critics have said the settlements, known as “cy pres” [pronounced “see pray”] awards, are unfair and encourage frivolous lawsuits, conflicts of interest and collusion between both sides to minimize damages for defendants while maximizing fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Supporters have said these settlements can benefit causes important to victims and support underfunded entities, such as legal aid.

During the arguments, several justices, both liberal and conservative, wondered whether the plaintiffs had suffered harm through the disclosure of their internet searches, sufficient to justify suing in federal court, signaling they may dismiss the case rather than deciding the fate of cy pres settlements.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed doubtful that simple searches, of one’s own name for instance, would be enough to sustain a privacy lawsuit.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared to disagree.

“I don’t think anyone would want … everything they searched for disclosed to other people,” Kavanaugh said. “That seems a harm.”

Google agreed in the settlement to disclose on its website how users’ search terms are shared but was not required to change its behavior. The three main plaintiffs received $5,000 each for representing the class. Their attorneys received about $2.1 million.

Under the settlement, the rest of the money would go to organizations or projects that promote internet privacy, including at Stanford University and AARP, a lobbying group for older Americans, but nothing to the millions of Google users who the plaintiffs were to have represented in the class action.

Cy pres awards, which remain rare, give money that cannot feasibly be distributed to participants in a class action suit to unrelated entities as long as it would be in the plaintiffs’ interests.

‘A sensible system’

While wrestling over the privacy aspects of Google searches, the justices also disagreed about the settlement both sides reached. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito raised concerns that the money would go to groups that some plaintiffs might not like but have no say in opposing.

“How can such a system be regarded as a sensible system?” Alito asked.

Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, noted that AARP engages in political activity, an issue that the Google deal’s opponents, led by Ted Frank, director of litigation for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, had raised.

Google has called Frank a “professional objector.”

Roberts also said it was “fishy” that settlement money could be directed to institutions to which Google already was a donor. Some beneficiary institutions also were the alma mater of lawyers involved in the case, Kavanaugh noted.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Frank, who argued the case on Wednesday, that at least the plaintiffs get an “indirect benefit” from the settlement.

“It seems like the system is working,” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal.

In endorsing the Google settlement last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said each of the 129 million U.S. Google users who theoretically could have claimed part of it would have received “a paltry 4 cents in recovery.”

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Fitch Shifts Mexico Debt Outlook From Stable to Negative

Fitch Ratings changed its outlook on Mexico’s long-term foreign-currency debt issues Wednesday from “stable” to “negative,” citing the potential policies of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has tried to smooth anxieties in the business community, but upset many on Monday by cancelling a partly built, $13 billion new airport on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The private sector had strongly backed the airport project, but Lopez Obrador called it wasteful. Instead he plans to upgrade existing commercial and military airports. He made the decision based on a public referendum that was poorly organized and drew only about 1 percent of the country’s voters.

 

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director at Moody’s Analytics, said the decision to cancel the airport project “added not only volatility but also uncertainty to the economy’s future, because it signals that policymaking in the new administration can be based more on such kind of subjective consultation and less on technical or fundamentals consistent with the country’s needs.”

“The cancellation has certainly introduced an element of uncertainty in markets and investors,” Coutino wrote, “which could start affecting confidence and credibility.”

Fitch confirmed its BBB+ investment-grade rating for Mexican government debt, but said Wednesday “there are risks that the follow-through on previously approved reforms, for example in the energy sector, could stall.”

Lopez Obrador has said he will review private concessionary oil exploration contracts granted under current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s energy reform, but won’t cancel them if they were fairly granted. The fear is that future exploration contracts may be delayed or cancelled.

Lopez Obrador won’t take office until December1, but has already announced major policy decisions.

 

Some of his policy announcements – like fiscal restraint, respect for the independence of the central banks and a pledge to avoid new debt – earned praise from investors.

But Fitch noted the decision to cancel the airport “sends a negative signal to investors.”

Lopez Obrador has also pledged to have the state-owned oil company, Pemex, build more refineries to lower imports of gasoline.

Fitch wrote that this type of proposal will “would entail higher borrowing and larger contingent liabilities to the government.”

 

 

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Thai Junta’s Rap Headache Beats On

The director of a viral rap video that has racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube with lyrics flaying Thailand’s military junta says the artists behind it have no intention of hiding from police. 

Since the junta, led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power in a coup four years ago and banned political gatherings, it has harshly punished any form of dissent, jailing scores of critics and opponents. 

That’s why it was something of a surprise when director Teerawat Rujintham and the collective Rap Against Dictatorship launched a broadside against the military by releasing a profanity laced video called My Country Has It on Oct. 22. 

Teerawat told VOA the public response to the video, which has been viewed more than 23 million times on YouTube, had vastly surpassed the group’s expectations. 

Waiting for reaction

“The project served its purpose, and for now each of the members of the group and I are just waiting for the reaction from those in power and the government to contact us,” he said in an interview conducted partially through a translator. 

He said he and the group were “not going to hide from the police. We’re going to confront them, because I don’t feel that [we] did anything wrong.” 

Teerawat said the video had tapped into brooding resentment that many Thais felt toward the junta “under the surface” but could not express. 

“The country that points a gun at your throat.  Claims to have freedom but no right to choose.  You can’t say [stuff] even though your mouth is full of it. Whatever you do the leader will see you,” one artist raps in the video. 

Police initially threatened to arrest group members after the song’s release, but as online views of the video quickly shot up, they backed down. 

Local media reported Deputy National Police Chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul had filed a defamation suit against the group and stressed that its members remained under investigation.  Police have not answered VOA requests for comment. 

Prayut reportedly weighed in Tuesday, warning anyone who “shows appreciation for the song must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in future,” according to the Bangkok Post. 

“I do not care if they attack me. But if they do so against the country, I do not think it is appropriate,” he reportedly said. 

Undeterred, anti-junta punk rockers plan to hold a concert Saturday in Bangkok at the site of a notorious 1976 massacre of student protesters opposing military rule. 

The massacre is regarded as a highly sensitive topic for the junta and is graphically depicted in Teerawat’s video when the camera pans to an effigy of a corpse hanging from a tree, representing the lynchings that took place. Teerawat said he chose to use the cover-up of the massacre as a metaphor for the present. 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University, said the artists are helping vent pent-up public frustration as long-delayed elections, expected now by mid-2019, draw closer. 

More expected

“It strikes a chord because they feel that they themselves are fed up and frustrated with no way out, no voices to be heard. So these guys are speaking up for them, and I think we will see more of it going forward,” he said. 

Political figures ranging from former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the young billionaire leader of the progressive new Future Forward party, have come out in support of the rappers’ right to speak out. 

Their support and the huge popularity of the artists means silencing them outright has become a precarious proposition, Thitinan said. 

“The military government will be in a dilemma now because on the one hand they want to suppress it, there’s no doubt. But if they do suppress it they have less chance of winning the election, because these groups are popular,” he said. 

“On the other hand, if they allow it to go on, to take place, then they would invite other groups, other movements to come to the fore against the military government,” he said. 

Meanwhile, street graffiti artist Headache Stencil has gained notice for skewering senior regime leaders, including Prayut, in his satirical works.

Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai politics and lecturer at Naresuan University, said Rap Against Dictatorship’s video has gained strong popularity among urban voters, many of whom had originally supported the military coup. 

“Thus the writing is on the wall: More and more former junta supporters want the military to return to the barracks,” he wrote in an email.  “The surprise is that more and more urban Thais, who tended to remain supportive or apathetic to the junta, have now jumped on the bandwagon of demanding a return to democracy now.”  

Prayut repeatedly has delayed promised elections since staging the 2014 coup, Thailand’s 12th since 1932. He also passed a new constitution that grants him extraordinary power and the military virtually total control of parliament. 

Some steps have been taken to loosen the bans on political activities he implemented after seizing power, though many remain. 

Rangsiya Ratanachai contributed to this report. 

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Corporate Pledge to Deal With Plastic Draws Mixed Reaction

More than 250 corporate signatories joined together to try and deal with plastic pollution in an announcement timed to coincide with the 5th Annual “Our Ocean Conference” in Bali, Indonesia.

 

Under terms of the agreement, the companies agreed to, among other things, make all of the plastics they produce recyclable by 2025. The signatories, including Coca-Cola, Danone, and Kellogg, also agreed to a 2025 deadline to increase the amount of recycled plastic they use in the production of their various products.

 

Reoccurring problem

 

Environmental groups like Greenpeace cautiously welcomed the announcement as “moving in the right direction,” but say the agreement is way too open-ended to have much of an impact.

 

The facts are that around the world, according to a recent study, a whopping 91 percent of all plastic is never recycled. And all that plastic ends up in landfills, in the ocean, in the food chain and ultimately in us.

Greenpeace also noted that this agreement doesn’t change much because “corporations are not required to set actual targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics they are churning out. They can simply continue with business as usual after signing the commitment.”  

Business as usual is also how the group Oceana views the agreement. It put out a stronger statement, denouncing the agreement. “None of these companies have committed to stop using plastic, to stop putting plastic into consumer products, or to even offer consumers alternatives.”

 

Less plastic, more recycling

 

Most environmental groups are urging signatory companies like Coca-Cola and UniLever to stop the flow of plastics at the source.

“Every company that signed the declaration should commit to a meaningful, time-bound and specific percent-reduction of the amount of plastic it is putting into the market,” Oceana said in a statement. “…and to find alternative ways to package and deliver its products.”

 

In fact, Greenpeace officials point out that “11 of the largest consumer goods companies’ current plans allow them to increase their use of single-use plastics and none have set clear elimination or reduction targets.”

 

Despite the best intentions of the agreement, most environmental groups say this won’t do much to slow the amount of plastic building up around the world.

 

The companies that signed on, however, say this agreement will allow them to “eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.”

 

Since its beginning, the annual Our Ocean Conference has worked with private companies and governments around the world to protect 12.4 million square kilometers of ocean with monetary commitments worth more than $18 billion.

 

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