Off the Wires

2014 VICE News Awards: Climate Change Denier of the Year — James Inhofe

December 30th, 2014  |  Source: Vice News

In January, Republicans will take control of the Senate and Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe will likely get the nod from his party leadership to chair the Environment and Public Works Committee.

That's right: the man who called climate change the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public will preside over any legislation dealing with air, water, and soil pollution, while also overseeing the US Environmental Protection Agency — the government regulator tasked with implementing nearly all of President Obama's climate change policies.

It's a scenario that has left environmentalists with mouths agape.

In describing a passage from his book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, Inhofe said: "[T]he Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that 'as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.'"

It's a common refrain among deniers and Inhofe explains his interpretation, saying: "My point is, God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."

Inhofe could tone down the climate denial, say some observers, knowing that many of his fellow Republicans have moderated their own positions on climate change, now preferring to say "I'm not a scientist," when queried about their views, rather than outright denying the scientific consensus. Why bring attention to themselves with flat-Earth theories, so the theory goes, when the GOP will control both houses of Congress, providing them with ample opportunities to attack the administration's climate policies. Think of it as a "death by a thousand [budget] cuts" strategy instead of one aimed at spinning conspiratorial tales of plots between the United Nations, climate scientists, and Hollywood liberals to tank the economy and torture Americans through excessive regulation.

But Inhofe might go full-on denier, using his bully pulpit to attack the veracity of climate science, like he's done in the past. After all, he has chaired the committee before and used it as a launching pad for some of the most egregious distortions of climate science and attacks on researchers and environmentalists who have called for action on climate change.

"Much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science," he said in 2003, reflecting on his role as committee chairman. "Global warming alarmists see a future plagued by catastrophic flooding, war, terrorism, economic dislocations, droughts, crop failures, mosquito-borne diseases, and harsh weather — all caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions."

Looking back through 2014, it's an easy task to find each of those events and scientists who say climate change was a likely factor in their becoming more frequent and more extreme.

The most epic battles around US climate change policy will undoubtedly unfold in his committee in the coming years. Whether he moderates his denialism and chooses a more tactful path toward gutting greenhouse gas regulations, or unleashes his tried-and-true method of distorting science and attacking environmentalists, Inhofe will be front and center in 2015, influencing how the public perceives climate change and very likely blocking at every possible moment US action on climate change.


Taliban declare 'defeat' of U.S., allies in Afghanistan

December 29th, 2014  |  Source: Reuters

Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan on Monday declared the "defeat" of the U.S. and its allies in the 13-year-old war, a day after the coalition officially marked the end of its combat mission.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is shifting to a support mission for Afghan army and police more than a decade after an international alliance ousted the Taliban government for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American cities.

"ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an statement emailed on Monday.

About 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, will remain in the country under a new, two-year mission named "Resolute Support" that will continue the coalition's training of Afghan security forces to fight the insurgents, who have killed record numbers of Afghans this year.

While the U.S. and its allies say the Afghan army and police have been able to prevent the Taliban from taking significant territory, violence has shot up as the insurgents seek to gain ground.

For Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, keeping government control of territory and preventing security from further deteriorating is a top priority.

Vowing to restore their former hard-line Islamist regime, Taliban spokesman Mujahid vowed that "the demoralized American-built forces will constantly be dealt defeats just like their masters".

The Taliban have launched increasingly deadly attacks this year. Nearly 3,200 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between the militant group and the army in 2014, and more than 4,600 Afghan army and police died in Taliban attacks.

Since 2001, nearly 3,500 foreign soldiers have been killed in the war, including around 2,200 Americans.


Britain posts 41 million wills, including Princess Diana's

December 27th, 2014  |  Source: France24

Some 41 million British wills dating back to 1858, including those of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, were made available in an online database Saturday.

The government's full archive of wills from England and Wales, stretching back more than 150 years, has been put on the probatesearch.service.gov.uk website.

It includes the wills of World War II prime minister Churchill; novelist Charles Dickens; Diana, princess of Wales; children's writer A. A. Milne; code-breaker Alan Turing; writer George Orwell and author Beatrix Potter.

The digital copies of the wills cost £10 ($15.50, 12.75 euros) but basic details for some of them are available online.

"This fascinating project provides us with insights into the ordinary and extraordinary people who helped shape this country, and the rest of the world," said Courts Minister Shailesh Vara.

"It is a fantastic resource not only for family historians but also for anyone with an interest in social history or famous figures."

Previously the archives had only been publicly available to search in person.

In Churchill's will he gave £304,044 -- worth more than £5.1 million nowadays -- to his family.

When Dickens died in 1870 he left a will written in cursive script that laid out highly specific directions for his funeral.

"I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner," he wrote, adding that mourners must not wear scarves, cloaks, long hatbands, "or other such revolting absurdity".

Orwell, who died in 1950, insisted that his archive of papers be preserved, while economist John Maynard Keynes, who died four years earlier, wanted most of his papers destroyed.

Milne, who wrote "Winnie The Pooh", gave shares of his future royalties and copyright to his favourite London club and Westminster School when he died in 1956.

"Peter Rabbit" creator Potter left a lengthy and generous will reflecting her love for conservation and nature.

Though the archive has been converted into digital format, the original paper records will still be kept in a temperature-controlled environment.


Ruble Swap Shows China Challenging IMF as Emergency Lender

December 22nd, 2014  |  Source: Bloomberg

China is stepping up its role as the lender of last resort to some of the world’s most financially strapped countries.

Chinese officials signaled Saturday that they are willing to expand a $24 billion currency swap program to help Russia weather the worst economic crisis since the 1998 default. China has provided $2.3 billion in funds to Argentina since October as part of a currency swap, and last month it lent $4 billion to Venezuela, whose reserves cover just two years of debt payments.

By lending to nations shut out of overseas capital markets, Chinese President Xi Jinping is bolstering the country’s influence in the global economy and cutting into the International Monetary Fund’s status as the go-to financier for governments in financial distress. While the IMF tends to demand reforms aimed at stabilizing a country’s economy in exchange for loans, analysts speculate that China’s terms are more focused on securing its interests in the resource-rich countries.

“It’s always good to have IOUs in the back of your pocket,” Morten Bugge, the chief investment officer at Kolding, Denmark-based Global Evolution A/S who helps manage about $2 billion of emerging-market debt, said by phone. “These are China’s fellow friends and comrades, and to secure long-term energy could be one of the motivations.”

The ruble jumped 4.8 percent to 55.8470 per dollar as of 3:07 p.m. in New York after Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV cited China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng as saying that expanding the currency swap between the two nations would help Russia.

Ukraine’s Allies

The ruble has gained 10 percent over the past two days, paring a selloff that’s made it the world’s worst performing currency over the past six months.

Unlike Ukraine, where the pro-west government received a $17 billion IMF-led bailout this year, Russia, Argentina and Venezuela are often at odds with the U.S. and its allies, essentially keeping them out of the reach of the Washington-based institution. At $3.89 trillion, China holds the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves, allowing it to fill the void.

China and Russia signed a three-year currency-swap line of 150 billion yuan ($24 billion) in October, a contract that allows Russia to borrow the yuan and lend the ruble. While the offer won’t relieve the main sources of pressure on the ruble -- which has lost 41 percent this year amid plunging oil prices and sanctions linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea -- it could bolster investors’ confidence in the country and help stem capital outflows.


In North Dakota, countdown looms for $5.3 billion oil tax break

December 19th, 2014  |  Source: Reuters

Tumbling U.S. oil markets hit an important if obscure milestone on Thursday, closing for the first time at a price that could trigger a $5.3 billion, two-year tax break for North Dakota oil drillers as soon as next summer.                       

Under a decades-old law, the state at the heart of the U.S. shale oil boom would waive its 6.5 percent oil extraction tax once the average monthly price of benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude at Cushing, Oklahoma, falls below a certain threshold for five consecutive months.

For next year, that price is $55.08 per barrel. On Thursday, U.S. crude oil futures settled at $54.11 per barrel, the lowest close since May 2009 and the latest leg of a rout that has halved the price of crude since June.

It is unlikely that the clock would start ticking in December, since the average price is still above $61 a barrel. But if prices remain this low into next year, it could be a reality as soon as next June.

"We're really at the point where we could start calculating this," Ryan Rauschenberger, North Dakota's tax commissioner, said in an interview.

The hope of a future tax break will be cold comfort for North Dakota's beleaguered oil producers, including Continental Resources Inc and Oasis Petroleum Inc, which plan to spend less money in 2015.

The tax break "would be an important incentive for the industry to continue investing," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry trade group.

The potential tax relief could make it difficult to know how much crashing oil prices are hurting the nation's oil producers. It also would muddy the waters to determine how quickly a slowdown in U.S. production affects a growing global supply glut.

While only about 3 percent of oil taxes go to fund the state's day-to-day operations, a reduction would wreak havoc with parts of the state's budget and crimp funding for new schools, water pipelines and other major projects in western oil-producing counties that have made North Dakota the second-largest U.S. oil producer.

Rauschenberger estimates that North Dakota would only take in $2.9 billion in oil taxes in the next two years without the oil extraction tax. With the tax, the projection is $8.2 billion.

SEEN IT BEFORE

The tax break was instituted in 1987, several years after North Dakota's second oil boom went bust. Oil prices had collapsed after Saudi Arabia flooded the market in a price war with other producers - a scenario some see repeating now.

The break was designed "to try and keep oil production occurring in the state in a low-price environment," said Rauschenberger, who was appointed tax commissioner last year and elected to a four-year term last month.

From 1987 until 2004, the trigger was in effect, meaning oil extraction tax collections were a pittance compared with, say, this past July, when $325 million in oil taxes rolled into state coffers, the highest monthly amount in history.

Here is how it works.

If the average price of crude is below an inflation-adjusted limit - set at $55.08 per barrel for 2015 - for five consecutive months, then the 6.5 percent oil extraction tax is waived for the first 24 months of a well's life.

After that 24 months is up, and if the average price of oil is still below $55.08 per barrel, the tax rate rises to 4 percent, not the original 6.5 percent.

The full 6.5 percent oil extraction tax only returns if the average price of oil rises above that $55.08 per barrel threshold each month for a five-month period. The break does not apply to wells already in production, however.

The state still imposes a separate 5 percent gross production tax as a type of property tax on each barrel, no matter what.

But a complete repeal of the 6.5 percent extraction tax would mean North Dakota's "overall oil tax rate would be effectively cut in half," Rauschenberger said.


Lawrence Summers' $28 Million Payday, Courtesy of Elizabeth Warren

December 18th, 2014  |  Source: Bloomberg

Senator Elizabeth Warren blocked his nomination and now he's smiling all the way to the bank.

Senator Elizabeth Warren famously declared "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.''

That truism presumably includes President Barack Obama's former economic chief Lawrence Summers, a man who just came into millions of dollars in the Lending Club initial public offering. For that good fortune, he can thank his political nemesis, Warren.

The Massachusetts Democrat helped lead a Senate uprising late last year that ended Summers's longtime hope of becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve. Janet Yellen, Warren's favored candidate, got the post.

Summers went back to teaching at Harvard University, a job that, unlike the Fed, allows him to serve on Lending Club's board. As a director, Summers has accumulated a little more than 1 million shares of the company's stock and options, priced at 70 cents a share, according to SEC filings. Since it began trading last week, the peer-to-peer lender's stock has risen to $27.90 a share—giving Summers a likely paper profit of roughly $28 million.

That's real money, even to Summers, an ex-Treasury Secretary, who padded his bank account by collecting large speaking fees from Wall Street banks and consulting for hedge fund D.E. Shaw before joining the Obama administration in 2009. At the time, he reported his net worth to be between $7 million and $31 million in the broad range denoted on federal financial disclosure forms.

Warren's office didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Summers declined to comment.

Nevertheless, if Summers is looking for a way to show some gratitude to his former Harvard colleague and home state senator, he could always cut her a check. A recent campaign mailing offers an end-of-the-year deal: a special edition T-shirt for a $25 contribution. It reads on the back, "The Best Senator Money Can't Buy.''


Cuba’s Half Century of Isolation to End

December 17th, 2014  |  Source: Bloomberg

Cuba and the U.S. will begin to normalize relations in a surprising move by the Obama administration that will loosen a trade and travel embargo that is among the last remnants of Cold War policy.

The action means not simply the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havanabut the lifting of restrictions that have limited commerce and kept aficionados from legally bringing Cuban cigars to U.S. soil.

The thaw, wrapped into the release of American aid worker Alan Gross and the exchange of a U.S. spy for three Cuban intelligence agents, was announced by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro speaking at about the same time.

“Today, the United States of Americais changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” Obama said at the White House. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

The change, while drawing criticism from some Cuban-American lawmakers, comes amid a shift in which the influence of aging anti-Castro hardliners -- many of them refugees who fled the island by boat in previous decades -- has given way to a younger, more pragmatic generation favoring liberalization.

The Cuban leader said “the progress achieved in the exchanges we’ve had shows that it’s possible to find solutions to many problems.”

“We have to learn the art of living together with our differences in a civilized way,” Castro said in Havana.


Cost of Afghanistan War nears $1Trillion

December 15th, 2014  |  Source: The Hill.com

The war in Afghanistan has cost the United States nearly $1 trillion, according to a report published Monday. 

The calculation was by the Financial Times and independent researchers. They found that the war has cost nearly $1 trillion, and that most of that was spent under President Obama, who escalated the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan upon taking office. 

The war began following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

To put the total in perspective, Congress just passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill funding most of the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year.

The war in Iraq, by contrast, cost the U.S. $1.7 trillion, according to a Costs of War Project conducted by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.


Ruble Tumbles Past 60 Per Dollar as Traders Press Central Bank

December 15th, 2014  |  Source: Bloomberg

The ruble tumbled past 60 for the first time as traders tested the Russian central bank’s willingness to defend the currency amid an oil slump that is pushing the economy closer to recession.

The ruble weakened as much as 5 percent to 61.25 per dollar, leading the Bank of Russia to sell $350 million to stem the slide, according to BCS Financial Group. Three-month implied volatility for the currency, which traded 4 percent weaker at 60.5840 by 4:24 p.m., climbed to a six-year high, while the yield on 10-year government bonds rose 11 basis points to a five-year high of 13.11 percent.

Traders are pressing the Bank of Russia to buy more rubles to put a floor on a selloff that wiped out 18 percent of the currency’s value this month. Policy makers failed to stop the retreat with more than $6 billion of interventions and a 100 basis-point interest-rate increase this month. Oil’s slide toward $60 a barrel in London and sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine are undermining confidence in the Russian assets.

“To a large extent it’s a foreign outflow, triggered by a reconsideration of Russia’s long-term prospects,” Dmitry Dudkin, the head of fixed income research at Uralsib Financial Corp. in Moscow, said by e-mail. “People start pricing a long period of low oil prices. And in these circumstances Russia doesn’t look like a place where one should invest money, even without sanctions.”


Greek markets plunge after government brings forward presidential vote

December 9th, 2014  |  Source: Reuters

Greek share and sovereign bond markets plunged on Tuesday after the government brought forward a presidential vote, in a political gamble that heightened uncertainty over the country's transition out of its IMF/EU bailout.

The surprise decision also drove yields on other lower-rated euro zone debt higher.

The vote in parliament next week could trigger early elections if Prime Minister Antonis Samaras fails to get his candidate chosen. That could open the door for the far-left Syriza party to come to power, an outcome feared by bondholders who prefer pro-business governments that stick to the rigours of the IMF/EU programme.

Athens stock exchange's main index was down 8.9 percent, setting it on course for its sharpest one-day drop since 2009. An index of Greece's listed banks fell 12 percent, with Attica Bank down 25 percent.

Euro zone finance ministers earlier said they were willing to grant Greece's request for only a two-month extension to its bailout, giving the country just enough time to wrap up a delayed EU/IMF review before it exits the programme for good.

Greece was the epicentre of the bloc's sovereign debt crisis which started in 2010 and culminated in 2012, when markets feared Athens was on the brink of leaving the currency union. In the past four years, Athens has been bailed out by its European Union partners and the International Monetary Fund to the tune of 240 billion euros.

Opinion polls show Syriza, which has vowed to end cooperation with the lenders and reverse the austerity cuts praised by bondholders, would win if early elections were held right now.

"Snap elections, if they come, does not look good for the government," said Jan von Gerich, chief fixed income analyst at Nordea in Helsinki.

"It could easily mean that their recovery could stop short once again. And looking at Syriza's plans, it is not out of the question at all that people would start doubting again that Greecehas a future in the euro area."

Greek 10-year bond yields, which rise when bond prices fall, were up 49 basis points to 7.83 percent, having hit their lowest since Oct. 22 at 7.27 percent on Monday.

REALPOLITIK

Expectations of ECB government bond purchases early next year to boost the bloc's ultra-low inflation could not prevent a rise in other low-rated euro zone bond yields. Italian and Portuguese yields were 3-6 basis points higher.

German 10-year Bund yields, which fall in times of uncertainty as investors seek refuge in top-rated assets, were down 2 bps at 0.70 percent, near record lows. European shares hit two-week lows.

Samaras needs the support of 180 lawmakers in the 300-seat chamber to win the vote, which will be held over three rounds with the first scheduled for next week and the last expected in late December.

He currently does not have that support, but some analysts say his move may indicate he is confident he can win over independent members of parliament to push his candidate, former EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, through.

Torgeir Hoien, portfolio manager at Skagen Tellus, said he sold all his Greek bonds "about a week ago" when it became obvious that the troika of international lenders cannot complete their final bailout review as planned in early December.

But he keeps tracking that market as a rise in yields over the next weeks or months on the back of political uncertainty could open up an opportunity to invest in Greece again.

"The troika will not push Greece out of the euro zone because of the risk of contagion," Hoien said, adding that "Syriza has mellowed in terms of realpolitik."

But Syriza spooks many others in the financial world.

"We believe the non-orthodox rhetoric coming from Syriza echoes that from the Kirchners of Argentina in the early 2000s, or from Chavez of Venezuela. We think it is real," said Charlie Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital. 




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