Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Strategic Value of Helium

Helium  is used in a range of applications from welding and fibre-optic technology to deep-sea diving. Super-cold liquid helium is essential to making and running the superconducting magnets for MRI scanners and to manufacturing electronic devices from TVs to phones… A third of the world’s helium [ 2.1 billion cubic feet a year  out of a global market of 6.3 billion] comes from an underground reservoir in Texas built up under government auspices and run by the Bureau of Land Management. Such was the supposed strategic value of helium, a by-product of natural gas, that a reserve was created in 1925 to supply the gas to inflate airships. So jealously did America guard its helium that other countries had to fill dirigibles with flammable hydrogen—the Hindenburg was one of dozens that went up in flames as a result.

Once airships had drifted out of fashion, helium remained crucial to the space race and nuclear-weapons development. Nonetheless overall demand tapered. By the mid-1990s the cost of running the Federal Helium Reserve, which bought all the helium that gas firms could produce, was too steep to justify a buffer that was not needed. Lawmakers decided to close it and sell most of the accumulated helium to pay off debts of $1.4 billion….

Helium demand has grown by around 5% a year since 2000 with the advent of new applications, such as MRI scanners. Prices have doubled over the past five years. America’s conventional gasfields, the source of most helium, are depleting and ways to plug the gap left by the rundown of the reserve have proved difficult to develop. New plants in America and Australia are producing the gas but mishaps and technical difficulties at other new refineries in Qatar and Algeria have crimped supplies. This has encouraged firms such as Siemens and GE to look for substitutes for helium. As a result demand may expand by only 2.5% a year for the next decade or two, according to John Raquet of Spiritus Group, a consultancy.

Relief for the helium market seems destined to come from Russia, long a minor producer. The country has the wherewithal to create a reserve of its own. Gazprom appears to be gearing up to become a big supplier by 2018, just as America’s reserve is set to run dry (if it secures the cash to continue past October). Not everyone will be pleased that an arm of the Russian state may in future hold sway over their medical treatment and their children’s parties.

Helium: Inflation Warning, Economist, Sept. 28, 2013, at 68

Mining Gold and Cyanide Pollution

The $4 billion that two Canadian companies, Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, have poured into developing Pueblo Viejo, a gold mine, since 2009 amounts to the largest single foreign investment in the history of the Dominican Republic. The companies say that the money has turned the polluted ruins of what was the state-owned Rosario mine, abandoned in 1999, into a “truly world-class” operation that should provide the country’s government with $10 billion over its 25-year life.

But the project has been controversial. Just weeks after the mining started in January 2013, President Danilo Medina, who was elected last year, declared: “For every $100 of gold exports, Barrick will receive $97 and the Dominican people $3. That is simply unacceptable.” (In fact, Pueblo Viejo Dominicana Corporation, or PVDC, the company operating the mine, is 60% owned by Barrick and 40% by Goldcorp.) Mr Medina demanded that the contract be renegotiated; otherwise, he said, he would raise taxes on the mine’s profits.

This month the two sides agreed to changes that have front-loaded tax payments and could see the government get an extra $1.3 billion in 2013-16 provided that the gold price rises and stays above $1,600 an ounce (it is now around $1,350). Gustavo Montalvo, Mr Medina’s chief of staff, tweeted: “Together we ensured that words like ‘national sovereignty’, ‘justice’ or ‘transparency’ were transformed into something more concrete.”

Yet that may not calm local unrest over the mine, sited about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Santo Domingo, the capital. The investment was presented by both the government and company as including a clean-up of Rosario’s toxic mess and the installation of systems to keep local watercourses clean. But residents are suing PVDC, claiming that the new mine is poisoning rivers, causing illnesses and the death of farm animals. They want the government to release the environmental-impact assessment for Pueblo Viejo, which it has so far refused to do.

One farmer, María de la Cruz Mariano, said that she began to suffer skin allergies and other ailments in 2010, after PVDC began work. Tests on her blood conducted by a private laboratory showed high levels of lead, sulphur, cyanide and zinc. Some of her cattle have died from bovine anaemia, which can be caused by ingesting cyanide. Other residents report that previously clean local rivers have become polluted since PVDC built a dam to collect water containing cyanide, which is used to leach gold from crushed rock.

PVDC has signed the international code of practice for the handling of cyanide. It says it is “in the process of capturing all the surface flows” from the old and the new mines, sending the water to storage ponds where it is treated. PVDC says that, together with local people, it conducts regular, public tests on water and air.

But community leaders say they have no knowledge of such tests. The company has not answered requests to provide the dates on which they were conducted. Tests by the environment ministry, released only after a freedom of information request, found the water in the Margajita river downstream from the mine to be highly acidic, as well as containing sulphides and copper above legal limits. The ministry has made little effort to act on these results.

The old Rosario mine left some streams red with acid. PVDC’s clean-up obligations extend only within the mine perimeter; the rest was for the government. The firm points out that it has paid $75m ($37.5m of it a loan) to finance the government’s share of the work. It has also removed around 130,000 cubic metres (4.6m cubic feet) of contaminated soil. But Demóstenes Martínez, a congressman from the ruling party, argues that PVDC is violating both the constitution and the mining law.

It is not clear whether the pollution is being caused by PVDC’s operations, or is a legacy of the past. The government claims to have lost records of past tests on the rivers. But on its own the new agreement may not be enough to ensure that the mine regains the consent of the community. That will require greater candour.

Mining in the Dominican Republic:  Sickness and wealth, Economist, Sept. 21, 2013

Rivers as Fiefs: Dams in China

Though the Chinese authorities have made much progress in evaluating the social and environmental impact of dams, the emphasis is still on building them, even when mitigating the damage would be hard. Critics have called it the “hydro-industrial complex”: China has armies of water engineers (including Hu Jintao, the former president) and at least 300 gigawatts of untapped hydroelectric potential. China’s total generating capacity in 2012 was 1,145GW, of which 758GW came from coal-burning plants.

An important motive for China to pursue hydropower is, ironically, the environment. China desperately needs to expand its energy supply while reducing its dependence on carbon-based fuels, especially coal. The government wants 15% of power consumption to come from clean or renewable sources by 2020, up from 9% now. Hydropower is essential for achieving that goal, as is nuclear power. “Hydro, including large hydro in China, is seen as green,” says Darrin Magee, an expert on Chinese dams at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state.

There is also a political reason why large hydro schemes continue to go ahead. Dambuilders and local governments have almost unlimited power to plan and approve projects, whereas environmental officials have almost no power to stop them.

The problems begin with the planning for China’s rivers, which are divided into fiefs by the state-owned power companies that build dams in much the same way as the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation divided up American rivers in the early 20th century. Though the staff of the water-resources ministry in Beijing know a lot about the environment, they have no say. “Big hydro projects are designed and approved by everybody but the ministry of water resources,” says Mr Magee.

Local governments, meanwhile, view dams as enticing economic development projects. The dambuilders, which have special privileges to borrow, put up the financing. The extra electricity supports industrial expansion and brings in revenues. Local officials are promoted for meeting economic performance targets and some collude for personal gain with the dambuilders. Because of the decentralised nature of the industry, local officials try to include dams in their plans. Once they have done so, they can expect the environmental impact assessments that follow to be a formality—if only because the consultants who undertake them are paid by the hydropower companies.

Environmental officials who have not been financially captured by the dambuilding economy find themselves as scarce as some of the fish they are charged to protect. Environmental activists, meanwhile, can request access to public records and demand public hearings, both required by law. But they say that these avenues are barred when they are most needed—on controversial projects that face vocal opposition. For example, the authorities have rejected requests for public records on Xiaonanhai and they have not granted a public hearing.

If environmental regulators and activists want any hope of halting a project, they must go outside normal bureaucratic channels to lobby powerful Politburo members or the national media. Although that may not always work, it did in 2004, when Wen Jiabao, then prime minister, halted construction of a cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River in south-west China in order to protect the environment. Even then some work on the projects still proceeded. Meanwhile, smaller schemes race ahead unchecked. Promoted by dambuilders and local governments, nearly 100 smaller hydroelectric projects in the Nu river region went forward without needing permission from higher up. Some began before they had even received the final approval.

China’s new leaders in recent months have signalled that they want yet more dams, approving several ambitious new projects, including what would be the highest dam in the world, on the Dadu river. After Mr Wen stepped down from his posts in the party and the government, the dams on the Nu river that he blocked received the go-ahead again.

Chinese leaders have for millennia sought to tame the country’s great rivers, which have sustained and destroyed countless lives with cycles of abundance, famine and floods. Indeed their legitimacy as rulers has long been linked to their ability to do so. The Communist Party has built thousands of large dams since 1949. China is also the world’s leading builder of big dams abroad; International Rivers, a pressure group, says that Chinese companies and financiers are involved in about 300 dam projects in 66 countries.

The politics of dam-building: Opening the floodgates, Economist, Sept. 21, 2013, at 47

Offshore Tax Evasion: US v. Switzerland

Fearful that other banks could suffer the same fate as Wegelin, a venerable private bank that was indicted in New York in 2012 and put out of business, the Swiss government has been seeking an agreement with America that would allow the industry to pay its way out of trouble in one go. Instead, it has had to make do with one covering banks that are not already under investigation, which excludes some of the country’s biggest institutions.

The deal is cleverly structured. Of Switzerland’s 300 banks, 285 will be able to avoid prosecution if they provide certain information about American clients and their advisers, and pay penalties of 20-50% of the clients’ undeclared account balances, depending on when the account was opened and other factors. Banks that persuade clients to make disclosures before the programme starts will get reduced fines. Banks will not have to take part but the legal risks are daunting for those that don’t, even if they hold little undeclared American money. Those with no foreign clients will have to produce independent reports proving they have nothing to hide if they want a clean bill of health.

One Swiss newspaper likened the deal to “swallowing toads”. Another called it “the start of an organised surrender”. The bankers’ association sees it as a necessary evil: the only way to end legal uncertainty, albeit at a cost that will strain some institutions. Small and medium-sized Swiss private banks are already struggling. In 2012 their average return on equity was 3%; the number of private banks fell by 13, to 148, mostly because of voluntary liquidations. KPMG, a consultancy, expects this to fall by a further 25-30% by 2016 as receding legal threats encourage the return of mergers.

Some of the prospective buyers in any future M&A wave still have to make their peace with the Americans. Excluded from the deal are 14 mostly large banks that have been under investigation for some time, including Credit Suisse and Julius Bär. They will have to settle individually, with fines expected to be steep, some perhaps comparable to the $780m paid by UBS in 2009. These banks are also under pressure from European countries that have suffered tax leakage, including Germany, whose parliament has rejected a deal that would have allowed the Swiss to make regular payments of tax withheld from clients while avoiding having to name names.

Swiss bankers gamely argue that bank secrecy remains intact, pointing out that privacy laws have not been dismantled. But banks are being bullied into providing enough information, short of actual client names, to allow the Americans to make robust “mutual legal assistance” requests that leave Swiss courts with no option but to order banks to provide clients’ personal details. The courts still have some flexibility because America has yet to ratify an amended tax treaty with Switzerland, thanks to blocking tactics by Rand Paul, a senator who argues it would violate Americans’ right to privacy. But this obstacle will eventually be cleared or circumvented.

All of which fuels speculation that Switzerland could lose its crown as the leading offshore financial centre, even though it is still well ahead of fast-growing rivals in Asia. It may find comfort in the fact that the Americans plan to use information harvested from the Swiss— including “leaver lists”, which contain data on account closures and transfers to banks abroad—to go after other jurisdictions. This is part of a “domino effect” strategy, says Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor, aimed at forcing tax evaders “so far off the beaten path that they can’t be sure if the pirate waiting to take their money will be there when they return.”

Offshore tax evasion: Swiss finished?, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 72

The Curse of Displacement

Dhinkia, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) (India)  is a hub of protest. The women, one from every village family, are staging… a sit-in. Sisir Mohapatra, a former sarpanch or village head, makes a rousing speech. He seems respected, though his police record would suggest he is a mafia don: he says he faces 35 criminal charges, and of his 60-strong extended family in Dhinkia, 40 are also wanted by the law. They claim that the charges are all trumped up. Their real crime is to oppose the biggest single foreign-investment project India has ever attracted.

Estimated to cost $12 billion, the project, promoted by POSCO, a South Korean firm, is eventually to produce 12m tonnes of steel a year for export. It will have its own power plant, port and, 200 kilometres (125 miles) inland, its own iron-ore mine. Since an agreement on the project was signed in 2005, it has been mired in controversy—a case study in why

Environmentalists worry about air pollution, coastal erosion, the endangered olive ridley turtle and much else. Many, including the Communist Party of India (CPI), which holds the local parliamentary seat, complain that the ore will be sold too cheaply, at a royalty to the government of just 27 rupees (currently about 40 cents) a tonne. Meanwhile, residents of Dhinkia and nearby villages fear for their livelihoods.

So the project has been delayed, probed by countless committees and subjected to repeated litigation. Just this week it faced hearings in Delhi at the National Green Tribunal, an environmental court. But as so often in India, one of the biggest delays has been acquiring the land. In theory, this should be easier for POSCO than for many other investors, since most of the 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) it needs are designated as forest (even the scrubby sand dunes) and thus government land.

The residents of Dhinkia, however, claim legal rights as people whose families have been making their living from the forest for at least 75 years (which the government disputes). Some, indeed, make a very good living. Devendra Swain, like many villages, maintains betel vines, from which he earns 50,000 rupees a month selling the leaves. Mr Swain also grows rice, mangoes, cashew nuts, bananas and papaya. He claims not to be against industrialisation—except in his fecund backyard.

The villagers’ resistance to the project has seen ugly violence. In 2010 police fired rubber bullets to clear one dharna. In February there was another clash as police entered a neighbouring village, Govindpur, and started dismantling betel vines. In March three people died in a bomb explosion—victims of pro-project goons, say the villagers. The police allege the victims were blown up while making bombs themselves. Involvement in this incident is one of 61 charges facing the CPI’s Abhay Sahoo, the protesters’ leader, who is now in jail for the third time and trying to secure his release on bail. Fearing arrest or an attack by thugs, the 1,400 others in Dhinkia facing criminal charges dare not leave the village.

Of India’s million mutinies, many involve the emotive issue of land. That is one impulse behind a new law covering land acquisition and the resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected. This week it passed through Parliament’s upper house. Few disagree that some new legislation is needed to replace a much-abused British-era law from 1894.

The new bill, however, has drawn fierce criticism. Business is predictably aghast at what it sees as a populist law timed ahead of looming elections.. Some businessmen think it is simply “unworkable”.

Even some who support the principles behind the bill think their implementation has been botched. N.C. Saxena, a former senior civil servant who sits on a National Advisory Council [claims]  that it does not even cover government land. In other words, it would have no relevance for projects such as POSCO’s. Even if it did, legislation would not solve the fundamental difficulty, a total distrust of government.

“After 66 years of independence,” says Mr Mohapatra, the former sarpanch, “no one has ever been compensated properly. Whoever gave his land and his home later became a beggar.” He points to what he says is the unhappy lot of those displaced by two other projects in Odisha. One is the Hirakud dam across the Mahanadi river. It is India’s longest dam, for which Jawaharlal Nehru poured the first concrete in 1948. As many as 180,000 people had to move. Another is just down the road from Dhinkia, where a big oil refinery has been under construction since 2000. An empty field outside Dhinkia has drains and electricity, put in when plots were offered as compensation to those forced to shift. People found it so unappealing that the field is still empty. Moreover, 52 families who supported the POSCO project, many forced out of Govindpur in 2008, are still in reportedly miserable conditions in a transit camp. Add in heavy-handed police, and those agitating against the project have plenty of ammunition. Even the best-drafted law would find the going tough

This Land is Whose Land? A new law may do little to break India’s land-acquisition logjam, Economist, Sept 7, 2013, at 44

Why the US Loves GM Food

Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska’s state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans “treated food as commodities”.  Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.

Lexington: Farming as rocket science, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 34

Biofuels from Agricultural Waste

Ethanol, for instance, is an alcoholic biofuel easily distilled from sugary or starchy plants. It has been used to power cars since Ford’s Model T and, blended into conventional petrol, constitutes about 10% of the fuel burned by America’s vehicles today. Biodiesel made from vegetable fats is similarly mixed (at a lower proportion of 5%) into conventional diesel in Europe. But these “first generation” biofuels have drawbacks. They are made from plants rich in sugar, starch or oil that might otherwise be eaten by people or livestock. Ethanol production already consumes 40% of America’s maize (corn) harvest and a single new ethanol plant in Hull is about to become Britain’s largest buyer of wheat, using 1.1m tonnes a year. Ethanol and biodiesel also have limitations as vehicle fuels, performing poorly in cold weather and capable of damaging unmodified engines.

In an effort to overcome these limitations, dozens of start-up companies emerged over the past decade with the aim of developing second-generation biofuels. They hoped to avoid the “food versus fuel” debate by making fuel from biomass feedstocks with no nutritional value, such as agricultural waste or fast-growing trees and grasses grown on otherwise unproductive land. Other firms planned to make “drop in” biofuels that could replace conventional fossil fuels directly, rather than having to be blended in…..

Even if second-generation processes can be economically scaled up, however, that might in turn highlight a further problem. To make a significant dent in the 2,500m litres of conventional oil that American refineries churn through each day, biofuel factories would have to be able to get hold of a staggering quantity of feedstock. Mr Ghisolfi of Beta Renewables points out that a factory with an annual output of 140m litres needs 350,000 tonnes of biomass a year to operate. “There are only certain areas, in Brazil and some parts of the US and Asia, where you can locate this much biomass within a close radius,” says Mr Ghisolfi. “I am sceptical of scaling to ten times that size, because getting 3.5m tonnes of biomass to a single collection point is going to be a very big undertaking.”

Billions of tonnes of agricultural waste are produced worldwide each year, but such material is thinly spread, making it expensive to collect and transport. Moreover, farms use such waste to condition the soil, feed animals or burn for power. Diverting existing sources of wood to make biofuels will annoy builders and paper-makers, and planting fuel crops on undeveloped land is hardly without controversy: one man’s wasteland is another’s pristine ecosystem. Dozens of environmental groups have protested against the EPA’s recent decision to permit plantations of fast-growing giant reed for biofuels, calling it a noxious and highly invasive weed. Just as the food-versus-fuel argument has proved controversial for today’s biofuels, flora-versus-fuel could be an equally tough struggle for tomorrow’s.

Biofuels: What happened to biofuels?, Economist Technology Quarterly, Sept. 7, 2013

Ports for Sale – China Buys

The old port of Colombo, Sri Lanka took centuries to reach its present capacity. China will have almost doubled it in under 30 months. Operated at full capacity, it would make Colombo one of the world’s 20 biggest container ports.  In the eyes of some Indians, Colombo is part of a “string of pearls”—an American-coined phrase that suggests the deliberate construction of a network of Chinese built, owned or influenced ports that could threaten India. These include a facility in Gwadar and a port in Karachi (both in Pakistan); a container facility in Chittagong (Bangladesh); and ports in Myanmar.

Is this string theory convincing? Even if the policy exists, it might not work. Were China able to somehow turn ports into naval bases, it might struggle to keep control of a series of Gibraltars so far from home. And host countries have mood swings. Since Myanmar opened up in 2012, China’s influence there has decreased. China love-bombed the Seychelles and Mauritius with presidential visits in 2007 and 2009 respectively. But since then India has successfully buttered up these island states and reasserted its role in the Maldives. Besides, China’s main motive may be commerce. C. Raja Mohan, the author of “Samudra Manthan”, a book on Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, argues that China’s port bases partly reflect a desire to get easier sea access for trade to and from west China.

State-owned firms are in charge of most of China’s maritime activity, and their motives are at least partly commercial…China’s maritime interests already reflect its status as the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer. Many of the world’s biggest container ports are in China. It controls a fifth of the world’s container fleet mainly through giant state-owned lines. By weight, 41% of ships built in 2012 were made in China.

The next step is to own and run ports. Hutchison Whampoa, a buccaneering, privately owned Hong Kong conglomerate, has long had a global network of ports. The pioneer among mainland firms was Cosco Pacific, an affiliate of state-owned Cosco, China’s biggest shipping line. In 2003-07 it took minority stakes in terminals in Antwerp, Suez and Singapore. In 2009 it took charge of half of Piraeus Port in Greece. It has invested about $1 billion abroad. China Merchants Holdings International, a newcomer, has spent double that. It invested in Nigeria, as well as Colombo, in 2010. Last year it took stakes in ports in Togo and Djibouti. In January it bought 49% of Terminal Link, a global portfolio of terminals run by CMA CGM, an indebted French container line.

The pace is quickening. In March another firm, China Shipping Terminal, bought a stake in a terminal in Zeebrugge in Belgium. On May 30th China Merchants struck a multi-billion deal to create a port in Tanzania. Even the more cautious Cosco Pacific is thinking about deals in South-East Asia and investing more in Greece.

China Shipping Terminal has small stakes in facilities in Seattle and Los Angeles, according to Drewry, a consultancy. But the experience of Dubai’s DP World suggests that America would not roll out a red carpet. In 2006 DP abandoned plans to buy American ports after a political backlash. Some Americans worry that China wants to take over the Panama canal.

Chinese firms may also subscribe to a supersized vision of the industry in which an elite group of ports caters to a new generation of mega-vessels. These will be more fuel-efficient and link Asia and Europe (they can just squeeze through the Suez Canal). After a decade of hype these behemoths are now afloat. In May CMA CGM received the Jules Verne, the world’s largest container ship. It can handle 16,000 containers and has a 16-metre (52-feet) draft. In July Maersk, a Danish line, will launch an 18,000-container monster. It has ordered 20 from Daewoo, in Korea. China Shipping Container Lines, the country’s second biggest firm, has just ordered five 18,400-container vessels from Hyundai.  Some ports may struggle to cater to these ships. Some of China’s new terminals may try to exploit that. Cosco Pacific is building a dock at Piraeus that can handle mega-ships. Colombo is deep enough for ships with an 18-metre draft. Its cranes can cope with ships 24 containers wide. Nothing in India compares with that…

After political tensions in the South China Sea, China Merchants has withdrawn from a port project in Vietnam. But Cosco’s Piraeus investment, once controversial, is a success, with profits rising and the firm winning plaudits for investing and creating jobs for Greeks.

China’s port strategy is mainly motivated by commercial impulses. It is natural that a country of its clout has a global shipping and ports industry. But it could become a flashpoint for diplomatic tensions. That is the pessimistic view. The optimistic one is that the more it invests, the more incentive China has to rub along better with its trading partners. This, not deliberate expansionism, is what the locals are betting on in Colombo.

China’s foreign ports: The new masters and commanders, Economist,  June 8, 2013

The Global Regulation of Mercury

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – a global, legally binding treaty which opened for signature today – was agreed to by governments in January (2013) and formally adopted as international law…Countries began the recognition for this new treaty at a special ceremonial opening of the Diplomatic Conference in Minamata, the city where many local people were poisoned in the mid-20th Century after eating mercury-contaminated seafood from Minamata Bay. As a consequence, the neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning has come to be known as Minamata Disease.

The Minamata Convention provides for controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. The treaty also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal, and safe storage of waste mercury.

“Mercury has some severe effects, both on human health and on the environment. UNEP has been proud to facilitate and support the treaty negotiation over the past four years because almost everyone in the world – be they small-scale gold miners, expectant mothers or waste-handlers in developing countries – will benefit from its provisions,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations….Other potential impacts include impaired thyroid and liver function, irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss and cardiovascular problems.

“With the signing of the Minamata Convention on Mercury we will be going a long way in protecting the world forever from the devastating health consequences from mercury,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “Mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern and is a substance which disperses into and remains in ecosystems for generations, causing severe ill health and intellectual impairment to exposed populations.”

Under the provisions of the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, import and export will be banned by 2020. These items have non-mercury alternatives that will be further phased in as these are phased out. They include:

•Batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices

•Switches and relays

•Some compact fluorescent lamps

•Mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps

•Soaps and cosmetics (mercury is used in skin-whitening products)

•Some mercury-containing medical items such as thermometers and blood pressure devices.

Mercury from small-scale gold-mining and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution worldwide. Miners inhale mercury during smelting, and mercury run-off into rivers and streams contaminates fish, the food chain and people downstream.  Under the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed that countries will draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners and that national plans will be drawn up within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce – and if possible eliminate – mercury.

The Convention will also control mercury emission and releases from large-scale industrial plants such as coal-fired power stations, industrial boilers, waste incinerators and cement clinkers facilities.

New global treaty cuts mercury emissions and releases, sets up controls on products, mines and industrial plant, UNEP Press Release, Oct 10, 2013

Yasuni National Park Oil Drilling: Ecuador, Amazon

Ecuador’s parliament on Thursday (Oct. 3, 2012) authorized drilling of the nation’s largest oil fields in part of the Amazon rainforest after the failure of President Rafael Correa’s plan to have rich nations pay to avoid its exploitation.  The socialist leader launched the initiative in 2007 to protect the Yasuni jungle area, which boasts some of the planet’s most diverse wildlife, but scrapped it after attracting only a small fraction of the $3.6 billion sought.

The government-dominated National Assembly authorized drilling in blocks 43 and 31, but attached conditions to minimize the impact on both the environment and local tribes. Though Correa says the estimated $22 billion earnings potential will be used to combat poverty in the South American nation, there have been protests from indigenous groups and green campaigners.  About 680,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum.  “We want them to respect our territory,” Alicia Cauilla, a representative of the Waorani people who live around the Yasuni area, said in an appeal to the assembly. “Let us live how we want.”  Correa has played down the potential impact of oil drilling in the area, saying it would affect only 0.01 percent of the entire Yasuni basin…

Oil output in OPEC’s smallest member has stagnated since 2010 when the government asked oil investors to sign less-profitable service contracts or leave the country. Since then, oil companies have not invested in exploration.  State oil company Petroamazonas will be in charge of extraction in blocks 43 and 31, which are estimated to hold 800 million barrels of crude and projected to yield 225,000 barrels per day eventually. Ecuador currently produces 540,000 bpd

Excerpt, By Alexandra Valencia, Ecuador congress approves Yasuni basin oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Oct. 4, 2013

 

Texas Accepts Vermont Nuclear Waste

The chairman of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission says the organization is going to honor a 20-year-old agreement that guarantees space for radioactive waste from Vermont in its Texas disposal facility, a deal that Gov. Peter Shumlin said is critical now that Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is shutting down.  During a Wednesday meeting (October 3, 2012) at the Vermont Statehouse, Commission Chairman Robert Wilson said the commission recognizes Vermont is a partner in the compact.  “This compact is going to be more important than ever,” Gov. Peter Shumlin told the commission. “My concern is we remember Vermont and Texas were there first.”

In 1993 Vermont and Texas formed the compact. Under the agreement, Texas would host a low-level radioactive waste facility and Vermont would have a place to send some of the waste from its nuclear power plant. Most of the materials after the plant is decommissioned would go to the Texas facility, except for the fuel rods and higher radioactive materials, said Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia.  Vermont officials are looking for assurance there will be space in Texas for the low-level radioactive waste from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which is due to be shut down next year.

Texas commission will honor radioactive waste deal with Vt. ahead of nuke plant shutdown, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Oct. 3, 2013

Getting Rid of Hacktivists: US Approach

Thirteen members of a hacking collective that calls itself Anonymous were indicted on Thursday (October 3, 2013) on charges that they conspired to coordinate attacks against prominent Web sites.The 13 are accused of bringing down at least six Web sites, including those belonging to the Recording Industry Association of America, Visa and MasterCard.  The attacks caused “significant damage to the victims,” the indictment said.

The attacks, carried out from September 2010 to January 2011, were part of campaign called Operation Payback, which started as an effort to support file-sharing sites but later rallied around WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.  Hackers took down the sites by inflicting a denial of service, or DDoS, attack, in which they fired Web traffic at a site until it collapsed under the load. Though the indictment mentions 13 hackers, thousands more participated in the attack by clicking on Web links that temporarily turned their computers into a digital fire hose aimed [at the websites of the companies].

According to the indictment, which was handed up at Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., the hackers’ tool of choice was a simple open-source application known as Low Orbit Ion Cannon, which requires very little technical know-how.  Hackers simply posted a Web link online that allowed volunteers to download an application that turned their computer into a “botnet,” or network of computers, that flooded targets like Visa.com and MasterCard.com with traffic until they crashed…

By BRIAN X. CHEN and NICOLE PERLROT, U.S. Accuses 13 Hackers in Web Attacks, New York Times, October 3, 2013

Excerpt from indictment

“In connection with planning various DDoS cyber-attacks, members of the conspiracy posted fliers captioned “OPERATION PAYBACK” and claimed that: “We sick and tired of these corporations seeking to control the internet in their pursuit of profit. Anonymous cannot sit by and do nothing while these organizations stifle the spread of ideas and attack those who wish to exercise their rights to share with others.”

PDF of Indictment on Scribd

Breaking Up Toxic Ships – Pakistan

WWF-Pakistan has warned Pakistan against the import of a European ship, which is suspected to have burnt containers and cargo that may contain a substantial amount of hazardous materials such as heavy metals or PCBs.  Moreover, the vessel is suspected to carry dangerous substances in fire fighting water as well as a significant amount of fuels and oil. This container ship caught fire in July (2013) and was later towed to Port-Louis in Mauritius. (MV “HANSA BRANDENBURG”,).MV Hansa Brandenburg is a 2002-built Liberian-flagged container ship operated by the German shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg.

WWF-Pakistan considers that this ship if imported to Pakistan may cause severe marine pollution in the Gadani area, which is already stressed because of a number of economic and industrial activities. Unplanned construction such as Fish harbour has already had serious environmental impact in the area, which is also designated as energy corridor and construction of power plants may have impact on the marine environment of the area unless proper mitigative measures are taken. According to WWF-Pakistan Technical Adviser (Marine Fisheries) Muhammad Moazzam Khan, the area of the Gadani is a part of Sonmiani, which is considered to have a rich marine biodiversity especially around Churna and Kaio islands. Dumping of toxic waste might seriously harm the fragile ecosystem of the area.

Agencies asked not to import vessel loaded with toxic chemicals, Daily Times (Pakistan) October 4, 2013

 

Open, Free, and American: the Internet

[T]he odds are almost zero that the NSA hasn’t tried to influence Intel’s chips.” In 2012 a paper from two British researchers described an apparent backdoor burned into a chip designed by an American firm called Actel and manufactured in China. The chip is widely used in military and industrial applications. Actel says the feature is innocent: a tool to help its engineers fix hardware bugs…

Now America’s tech giants stand accused not just of mishandling their customers’ data, but, in effect, of knowingly selling them flawed software. Microsoft has always denied installing backdoors. It says it has “significant concerns” about the latest leaks and will be “pressing the government for an explanation”. The damage goes well beyond individual companies’ brands. American technology executives often use their economic clout to shape global standards in ways that suit their companies. Now that will be harder. American input to international cryptographic standards, for example, will have to overcome sceptical scrutiny: are these suggestions honest, or do they have a hidden agenda? More broadly still, America has spent years battling countries such as Russia, China and Iran which want to wrest control of the internet from the mainly American engineers and companies who run it now, and give a greater role to governments. America has fought them off, claiming that its influence keeps the internet open and free. Now a balkanisation of the web seems more likely. Jason Healey of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank, says that the denizens of Washington, DC, have lost sight of the fact that the true source of American cyber-power is neither the NSA and its code-breaking prowess nor the offensive capabilities that produced the Stuxnet virus, which hit centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear plant; it is the hugely successful firms which dominate cyberspace and help disseminate American culture and values worldwide. By tarnishing the reputations of these firms, America’s national-security apparatus has scored an own goal.

NSA and Cryptography: Cracked Credibility, Economist, Sept. 14, 2013, at 65

Playing with Fire and Getting Burnt: West in Syria

A a collection of some of Syria’s  most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda.  As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad….The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when 11 rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.”

Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council….The rebel groups that assailed the political opposition are themselves diverse and include a number that are linked to the coalition’s Supreme Military Council. More troubling to the West, they also include the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda. At the same time they include groups that remain opposed to another group linked to Al Qaeda: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…

Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.  In recent months, it has supplanted the Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadists streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.  Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.

But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.

Excerpts, BEN HUBBARD and MICHAEL R. GORDON, Key Syrian Rebel Groups Abandon Exile Leaders, New York Times, Sept. 25, 2013