New Cold War over the Pacific

Australia said it would establish a development fund and offer Pacific island nations more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects while bolstering military cooperation, as U.S. allies take a more assertive stance against China in the region. Also Thursday, Australia said it would open new diplomatic posts across the Pacific, while New Zealand announced new funding to boost cultural engagement with small Pacific states.

The U.S. and its allies are increasingly coordinating to counter what officials in Washington and elsewhere see as Beijing’s attempts to gain influence over smaller nations through infrastructure loans under its Belt and Road initiative. Last month President Trump signed the Build Act, which expands American development financing for private companies to up to $60 billion….

Beijing, which says its goal is to help Pacific countries achieve peace, stability and prosperity, has urged other countries to “discard the Cold War mentality” and view its relations with Pacific states in an objective way.But old Western allies are concerned about its intentions toward impoverished island nations whose strategic value outstrips their size and wealth.  The U.K. recently announced three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific, while France gained a de facto seat in a key regional group—the Pacific Islands Forum—when its Pacific territories joined…

In September 2018, a senior U.S. official said the U.S., along with Japan and Australia, is vying to build an internet network in Papua New Guinea to block a Chinese telecom company.

Exceprts from U.S. Allies Vie With China to Make Pacific Island Friends, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018 Continue reading

The Water Barons of Australia

Australia has one of the world’s most sophisticated water-trading systems, and officials in other water-challenged places—notably California and China—are drawing on its experience to manage what the World Bank has called world’s “most precious resource.”  The system here, set up after a catastrophic drought in the 2000s saw the country’s most important river system almost run dry, aims to make sure each gallon of river water goes to higher-value activities.

But the return of severe drought to an area of eastern Australia more than twice the size of Texas is testing the system…Putting a price on water is politically unacceptable in many countries, where access to lakes and rivers is considered a basic right and water is often allocated under administrative rules instead of by markets.

Many water markets that do exist only allow landowners to buy and sell water rights. Australia since 2007 has allowed anyone to trade water parcels, putting supply under the influence of market forces in a system now valued at about $21 billion. Water may be freely bought and sold by irrigators, farmers, water brokers or investors through four exchanges—H2OX, Waterfind, Water Exchange and Ruralco—which allow real-time pricing…

As Australia rewrote the rules of its water market over the last decade to deal with its own drought crises, many farmers chose to sell their water licenses and rely on one-off purchases to keep farming.  The tactic worked until winter rains failed to arrive this year, turning fertile areas into dust bowls. Where a megaliter of water in June last year, before the drought took hold, cost around 3,000 Australian dollars (U.S. $2,166), the price is now closer to A$5,000, according to Aither Water, an advisory firm. The high cost has left smaller farmers praying for rain…

Australia’s drought is splitting agriculture-producing regions into those who have water and those who don’t.  Large investors—including Canadian and U.S. funds—bought high-price water licenses to set up agribusiness ventures in profitable almonds, cotton and citrus, with an eye to growing Asian markets. Others have set up dedicated water investment funds, with prices at the highest levels seen since the drought last decade.

In a country where boom-and-bust cycles, through drought and flood, have historically made water a political flashpoint, some rural Australian lawmakers and farmers want the government to divert water to help parched farms…In August 2018, Victoria state auctioned 20 gigaliters of water that had been earmarked for the environment, putting it on the market for dairy and fruit regions around Cohuna…Some water traders and environmentalists criticized the move as political interference—and said it risked undermining the water market by giving priority to farmers and disrupting forward trades and planning by other irrigators….Euan Friday, a water manager for farm and water investment company Kilter Rural, said the market is doing what it is supposed to do, and warned that the country’s fragile rivers—much smaller than the major rivers of North America—would be facing a dire situation without it. Supported by Australian pension funds, Kilter Rural has invested $130 million in buying water rights and redeveloping farmland.

Excerpt from Australia Model Water Market Struggles with Drought, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018

Ozone Layer Recovery Success

The study, “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018”, is the latest in a series of reports, released every four years, which monitor the recovery of ozone in the stratosphere, a layer that protects life on Earth from harmful layers of ultraviolet rays from the sun.  It shows that the concentration of ozone-depleting substances continues to decrease, leading to an improvement in the layer since the previous assessment carried out in 2014.

Ozone in parts of the stratosphere has recovered at a rate of 1-3 percent since 2000 and, at projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is scheduled to heal completely by the 2030s, followed by the Southern Hemisphere in the 2050s and polar regions by 2060.

This is due to internationally agreed actions carried out under the historic Montreal Protocol, which came into being over 30 years ago in response to the revelation that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances – used in aerosols, cooling and refrigeration systems, and many other items – were tearing a hole in the ozone layer and allowing dangerous ultraviolet radiation to flood through.

Next year, the Protocol is set to be strengthened with the ratification of the Kigali Amendment, which calls for the future use of powerful climate-warming gases in refrigerators, air conditioners and related products to be slashed…The writers of the report found that, if the Kigali Amendment is fully implemented, the world can avoid up to 0.4 percent of global warming this century, meaning that it will play a major role in keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C.

Excerpts from Healing of ozone layer gives hope for climate action: UN report, UN News, Nov. 5, 2018

Military Bunkers for the Rich

Deep in the Swiss Alps, next to an old airstrip suitable for landing Gulfstream and Falcon jets, is a vast bunker that holds what may be one of the world’s largest stashes of gold. The entrance, protected by a guard in a bulletproof vest, is a small metal door set into a granite mountain face at the end of a narrow country lane. Behind two farther doors sits a 3.5-ton metal portal that opens only after a code is entered and an iris scan and a facial-recognition screen are performed. A maze of tunnels once used by Swiss armed forces lies within.

The owner of this gold vault wants to remain anonymous for fear of compromising security, and he worries that even disclosing the name of his company might lead thieves his way…

Demand for gold storage has risen since the 2008 financial crisis. Many of the wealthy see owning gold as a hedge against the insecurity of banks and a reasonable investment at a time when markets are volatile and bank accounts and low-risk bonds pay almost no yield. It may also be a way to avoid the increasing scrutiny of tax authorities. In high-profile cases, U.S., French, and German prosecutors have gone after citizens of those countries with undeclared Swiss bank accounts.

Swiss storage operations such as these don’t have the same obligation that Swiss banks do to report suspicious transactions to federal regulators. Americans aren’t required under the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to declare gold stored outside financial institutions.
Of the roughly 1,000 former military bunkers still in existence across Switzerland, a few hundred have been sold in recent years, and about 10 are now storage sites holding gold as well as computer data, according to the Swiss defense department.

Few match the opulence of the airstrip setup, whose owner claims to run the largest store of gold for private clients—and the seventh-largest gold vault in the world. Near the runway sits the VIP lounge and a pair of luxurious apartments for clients. The walls of the apartments are lined with aged wood from Polish barns. South African quartzite was chosen for the floors to match the faded gray timber, and the amenities—bathroom mirror, TV screens—can retract into the ceiling, counter, or wall. The owner offers a place for clients to sleep and eat, because “many do not want to leave a paper trail of credit card receipts and passports” at hotels and restaurants…

Some miles away, Dolf Wipfli, the founder and chief executive officer of a different company, Swiss Data Safe, is one of the few operators willing to be interviewed about his business. The gold Swiss Data Safe stores for clients is kept in a mountainside bunker outside the hamlet of Amsteg.

Excerpts from Secret Alpine Gold Vaults Are the New Swiss Bank Accounts, Bloomberg, Sept. 30, 2016

Floating Nuclear Plants: Akademik Lomonosov

The physical launch of the reactor unit on the starboard side of the floating power plant Akademik Lomonosov happened on Friday. The reactor reached the minimum controlled power level at 17.58 Moscow time,” a spokesperson for Rosatom told Ria Novosti.

Comprehensive tests of the reactor will start within a few days, RBCreports. Testing will continue until first half of 2019, when the floating nuclear power plant will be towed from its current location at the Atomflot-base north of Murmansk where the plant is moored next to Russia’s fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers and service vessels.

“Akademik Lomonosov” has two reactors and also the other will be test-started in the nearest future….After reactor testing, the plan is to tow the plant across the Barents Sea and further east along the Northern Sea Route to the port of Pevek on the Chukotka Peninsula in the east Arctic next spring.  The two KLT-40S reactor units can generate up to 70 MW of electric energy additional to providing thermal heating to the town of Pevek.

Excerpts, Thomas Nilsen, First reactor started at floating nuclear plant, The Barents Observer, Nov. 2,  2018

Revival of Nuclear Industry – Japan

Japan prepares to  reopen Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata nuclear plant, nestled next to Japan’s inland sea at the base of the verdant Sadamisaki peninsula. Nearly eight years after an earthquake and tsunami triggered nuclear meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the battered industry is making a quiet and somewhat unexpected return in Japan.

Ikata is a poster child for that recovery. In September 2018, a court reversed a decision that had idled Shikoku Electric’s sole nuclear reactor for about a year, paving the way for the operator to re-open the facility last week.  Regional utilities like Shikoku Electric have aggressively fought a string of lawsuits since 2011, hiring veteran lawyers to beef up their legal teams. At the same time, they wooed towns where nuclear plants are based, visiting with residents door to door while the government kept up a stream of generous subsidies for local projects.

Thanks in large part to this strategy, Japan is on track to have nine reactors running in the near future…That is a far cry from the 54 running before 2011 – all of which were idled after the Fukushima disaster – but more than analysts and experts expected, considering it seemed at the time like the end of the road for the country’s nuclear industry…

The quiet revival of Japan’s nuclear industry is most tangible in rural areas like Ikata, which are home to the bulk of the country’s nuclear plants…The town, with 9,500 residents, relies on nuclear power for a third of its annual revenue. Since 1974, Ikata has received more than 101.7 billion yen ($908.4 million) in such payments.  These funds literally built the town; Ikata’s roads, schools, hospitals, fire stations and even five traditional “taiko” drums for festivals were all paid for with subsidies.  The town and utility’s mutual dependence stretch back decades.

Excerpts from  Mari Saito, Treading carefully, Japan’s nuclear industry makes a comeback, Reuters, Nov. 1, 2018

 

 

 

Peruvian Amazon: Oil Pollution & Human Rights

On September 15, 2018 indigenous federations from the Amazonian Loreto region of northern Peru scored a small victory in the fight for community rights. Representatives from four federations signed an agreement with the Peruvian government and the state-owned enterprise PetroPerú that acknowledges prior consultation as part of the new contracting process for petroleum Block 192. Under the new agreement, Block 192 will undergo a community consultation process before PetroPerú awards a new contract for operating the oil field…

Under the formal resolution with Prime Minister César Villanueva, the Ministry of Energy and Mining, and PetroPerú, the government will complete the community consultation for Block 192 between December 2018 and March 2019.

Extending across the Tigre, Corrientes, Pastaza and Marañón river basins in Peru’s remote Loreto province, Block 192 is the largest-yielding oil field in Peru, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s production. The government plans to continue production of oil at the block for another 30 years, adding to the almost 50 years of oil activity in the region. The oil field is currently operated by Canadian-based Frontera Energy, whose contract with PetroPerú is set to expire in September 2019.

American-based Occidental Petroleum discovered oil in the region in 1972 and a succession of companies, including the Dutch-Argentinian conglomerate Pluspetrol, left Block 192 (previously Block 1-AB) heavily polluted. While Peru’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement fined Pluspetrol for violations, the Peruvian government remains in a protracted legal fight with the oil giant. A majority of the fines are outstanding and Pluspetrol denies any wrongdoing, despite settling with a local community in 2015.

For over 40 years, the indigenous Kichwa, Quechua, Achuar, and Urarina peoples who live near the oil field have been exposed to salts, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. According to a 2018 toxicology study by Peru’s National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health, over half of the indigenous residents in the region’s four basins have blood lead levels that surpass international recommended limits. A third have levels of arsenic and mercury above the levels recommended by Peru’s Ministry of Health…

The actual cost of cleaning up Block 192, along with neighboring Block 8, would approach $1 billion. To make matters more challenging, the $15 million fund of Peruvian government is almost exhausted..”

Excepts from Andrew Bogrand, Righting the many wrongs at Peru’s polluted oil Block 192, Nov. 2, 2018

How to Survive a Nuclear Explosion

Nukemap is a tool that lets you detonate nuclear weapons over an interactive map of the world.  The app was created by a historian to help people better understand the effects of nuclear explosions.  A new version shows how various types of radioactive fallout shelters might protect you from exposure.  Nukemap’s goal is help users understand both the horror of nuclear attacks and their potential survivability.

As an example, suppose a 150-kiloton bomb detonates in New York City (near the ground).  This yield, in kilotons of TNT, would be about 10 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So Nukemap predicts that dangerous fallout from such a cataclysm could spread deep into Connecticut and douse Stamford….In this example blast, a person out in the open at Scalzi Park in Stamford, Connecticut, might get 116 rads of radiation exposure over five hours. Nukemap describes this as “sickness inducing,” since it’d be enough to weaken the body’s immune system (among other effects).  Meanwhile, if that Connecticut resident were to huddle in the basement of a nearby three-story brick building for 72 hours, they’d see only 8 rads — roughly equivalent to the dosage astronauts getafter living aboard the International Space Station for 6 months.

Exceprts from This simulator shows what a nuclear explosion would do to your town — and it just got a scary (yet helpful) new feature, Business Insider, Oct. 31, 2018

Cryopreservation of Endangered Species

In paper in 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detail for the first time the scale of threatened species that are unable to be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that when looking at threatened species, 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered species produce recalcitrant seeds . This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely ‘banked’.

In the paper, Kew scientist Dr. John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr. Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that other threatened categories and global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.

Among these species are important UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as worldwide food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much higher for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species can be unsuitable for banking…

Currently, seed banking is the most commonly practiced way of conserving plantsoutside of their natural habitats. Seed banking works as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of plants in the world—especially for those that are rare, endemic and economically important—so that they can be protected and utilised for the future.

[The scientists proposed]cryopreservation—a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. In seed banks, seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C…As well as allowing ‘unbankable’ species to be stored, cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C.

Excerpts from Seed banking not an option for over a third of threatened species
November 2, 2018, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew