Monthly Archives: July 2021

How Does it Feel? Watching People Die from the Cold Comfort of a Computer Chair

A former intelligence analyst was sentenced on July 27, 2021 to nearly four years in prison after pleading guilty to giving classified information about the U.S. drone program to a reporter. Daniel Hale, a former airman in the U.S. Air Force assigned to intelligence operations and a onetime employee of the defense contractor Leidos, was given a 45-month sentence as well as three years supervised release by a Virginia federal judge. Mr. Hale was accused of giving numerous documents marked “Secret” and “Top Secret” to a journalist in 2014…

Mr. Hale has said he leaked the material because the public needed to know the full details about the U.S. drone program, which he believed led to unjustified civilian casualties and wasn’t being described forthrightly by political leaders…In a letter filed with the court  in advance of his sentencing, Mr. Hale recalled the first drone strike he witnessed against a handful of men drinking tea in Paktika province, Afghanistan—a group that included one suspected combatant and his companions.

“I could only look on as I sat by and watched through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of Hellfire missiles came crashing down,” Mr. Hale wrote. “Since that time and to this day, I continue to recall several such scenes of graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification of my actions.”

Excerpts from Ex-Military Analyst Gets 45-Month Sentence for Leaking Classified Drone Information, WSJ, July 28, 2021

The Trillion Dollar Mess: Taking Down the Oil Infrastructure

Some of the world’s largest oil companies have been ordered to pay part of a $7.2 billion tab to retire hundreds of aging wells in the Gulf of Mexico that they used to own, capping a case that legal experts say is a harbinger of future battles over cleanup costs.

A federal judge ruled last month that Fieldwood Energy a privately held company that currently controls the old wells and had sought bankruptcy protection, could pass on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental liabilities to prior owners and insurers of the wells as part of its reorganization plan. Exxon Mobil,  BP, Hess , Royal Dutch Shell and insurance companies had objected to the plan. The dispute, litigated for months in federal bankruptcy court in Houston, centered over who should bear the enormous costs of capping and abandoning wells, primarily in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where an oil spill could wreak havoc. The companies could still appeal the ruling…

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy said that the expenses to decommission oil-and-gas infrastructure world-wide will in the trillions of dollars. “Who bears the costs?” he said. “There will be people who want to pass the buck.”

BP and Shell have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. To accomplish that, those companies will have to sell off some oil-and-gas wells to get their related emissions off their books, say energy analysts. But such asset sales present huge risks for big oil companies because many of the buyers are smaller, privately held firms, like Fieldwood, which may not have the financial wherewithal to bear cleanup costs, Ms. Usoro said. This was Fieldwood’s second bankruptcy in two years.

These smaller companies buy the wells for pennies on the dollar and assume the cleanup expenses in the hope that they can reduce the assets’ cost structure and squeeze out the remaining barrels of oil profitably. “I’ve always questioned this business model,” said Ms. Usoro. “Are these guys able to take care of the end of life?”

Excerpts Christopher M. Matthews, Oil Companies Are Ordered to Help Cover $7.2 Billion Cleanup Bill in Gulf of Mexico, WSJ, July 6, 2021

From Natural Landmark to an Oil Spill Wasteland

Mohammad Abubakar, Minister of Environment  disclosed in July 2021 that Nigeria recorded 4,919 oil spills between 2015 to March 2021 and lost 4.5 trillion barrels of oil to theft in four years.

Mr Abubakar disclosed this at a Town Hall meeting in Abuja, organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture, on protecting oil and gas infrastructure. “The operational maintenance is 106, while sabotage is 3,628 and yet to be determined 70, giving the total number of oil spills on the environment to 235,206 barrels of oil. This is very colossal to the environment.

“Several statistics have emphasised Nigeria as the most notorious country in the world for oil spills, loosing roughly 400,000 barrels per day. “The second country is followed by Mexico that has reported only 5,000 to 10,000 barrel only per day, thus a difference of about 3, 900 per cent.

“Attack on oil facilities has become the innovation that replaced agitations in the Niger Delta region against perceived poor governance and neglect of the area.

Excerpts from Nigeria Records 4,919 Oil Spills in 6 Years, 4.5trn Barrels Stolen in 4 Years, AllAfrica.com, July 6, 2021

Yummy Plastics

“From Waste to Food: A Generator of Future Food” by Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann, won the Merck 1 million prize.  It concerns an efficient, economical and versatile technology that converts wastes such as end-of-life plastics into edible foods. These foods contain all the required nutrition, are non-toxic, provide health benefits, and additionally allow for personalization needs. This technology promises to transform waste streams into nutritious food supplements, thus solving the two problems of increasing food scarcity and plastic waste simultaneously.

The core of the proposed technology is to harness synthetic microbial consortia – a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms – in order to efficiently convert waste into food. The project will comprise four research goals: conversion from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to protein powder (goal 1), augmentation of biosafety for food and for the environment (goal 2), introduction of nutritional and health-promoting contents (goal 3), and expansion of the technology to include additional plastics or other types of waste (goal 4). The proposed work will establish a transformative basis for food generation.

  • Excerpts from Future Insight Prize, Merck Press Release, July 13, 2021

Who’s Not Giving a Damn about Nuclear Fallout

On May 1st 1962, French officials in Algeria told Algerians to leave their homes in the southern city of Tamanrasset. It was just a precaution. France was about to detonate an atom bomb, known as Beryl, in the desert some 150km away. The blast would be contained underground. Two French ministers were there to witness the test. But things did not go as planned. The underground shaft at the blast site was not properly sealed. The mountain (Taourirt Tan Afella) above the site cracked and black smoke spread everywhere. The ministers (and everyone else nearby) ran as radioactive particles leaked into the air. Nevertheless, in the months and years after, locals would go to the area to recover scrap metal from the blast for use in their homes.

France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria between 1960 and 1966. Many took place after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, under an agreement between the two countries. There are no good data on the effects of the explosions on public health and the environment, but locals note that some people living near the test sites have suffered cancers and birth defects typically caused by radiation. The sites, say activists, are still contaminated.

Taourirt is a group dedicated to identifying the location of nuclear waste left by France. All that exists in the public domain is an inventory of the contaminated materials buried somewhere in the desert. (The known test sites are poorly secured by the Algerian government.) Others are pressing France to clean up the sites and compensate victims. There has been some progress in this direction, but not enough, say activists.

In 2010 the French parliament passed the Morin law, which is meant to compensate those with health problems resulting from exposure to the nuclear tests. (France carried out nearly 200 tests in French Polynesia, too.) But the law only pertains to certain illnesses and requires claimants to show they were living near the tests when they took place. This is difficult enough for Algerians who worked for the French armed forces: few had formal contracts. It is almost impossible for anyone else. Only a small fraction of the claims filed have come from Algeria.

Excerpts from Algeria and France: Lingering Fallout, Economist, June 26, 2021

How to Detect Humans Under-the-Ground: Surveillance Best

Tunnel-digging in times of conflict has a long history. These days, secret tunnels are used to move weapons and people between Gaza and Egypt, and by Kurdish militia operating on the frontier between Syria and Turkey. But the same principle applies. What happens underground is hard for the enemy to observe. Digging for victory is therefore often a good idea…

That, though, may be about to change. Real-time Subsurface Event Assessment and Detection (RESEAD), a project being undertaken at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, uses novel sensors to make accurate maps of what is happening underground. This will, no doubt, have many civilian applications. But Sandia is principally a weapons lab…The sensors themselves are a mixture of accelerometers, which pick up vibrations, current detectors, which measure the electrical-resistance of rocks and soil, and subsurface radar…

Exactly how RESEAD sensors would be put in place in a zone of active conflict remains to be seen. But the system could certainly be useful for other sorts of security. In particular, America has a problem with tunnels under its border with Mexico being used to smuggle drugs and migrants into the country. RESEAD would be able to detect existing tunnels and nip new ones in the bud. 

Excerpts from Tunnel Vision: How to detect the enemy when they are underground, Economist, June 24, 2021

How to Spy on Your Own Country for $1.25 per day

San Francisco-based Premise Data Corp. pays users, many of them in the developing world, to complete basic tasks for small payments. Typical assignments involve snapping photos, filling out surveys or doing other basic data collection or observational reporting such as counting ATMs or reporting on the price of consumer goods like food.

About half of the company’s clients are private businesses seeking commercial information, Premise says. That can involve assignments like gathering market information on the footprint of competitors, scouting locations and other basic, public observational tasks. Premise in recent years has also started working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, marketing the capability of its flexible, global, gig-based workforce to do basic reconnaissance and gauge public opinion.

Premise is one of a growing number of companies that straddle the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services around the world.

Premise launched in 2013,, As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. According to federal spending records, Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. In one pitch on its technology, prepared in 2019 for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is “responsive to commander’s information requirements”: gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations; scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area. The presentation said tasks needed to be designed to “safeguard true intent”—meaning contributors wouldn’t necessarily be aware they were participating in a government operation…

 Another Premise document says the company can design “proxy activities” such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs to provide incentives for contributors to move around as background data is gathered. Data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices can be valuable to the military for situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes. There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations. Nearby wireless-network names can also help identify where a device is, even if the GPS is off, communications experts say.

Mr. Blackman said gathering open-source data of that nature doesn’t constitute intelligence work. “Such data is available to anyone who has a cellphone,” he said. “It is not unique or secret.” Premise submitted a document last July to the British government describing its capabilities, saying it can capture more than 100 types of metadata from its contributors’ phones and provide them to paying customers—including the phone’s location, type, battery level and installed apps. 

Users of the Premise app aren’t told which entity has contracted with the company for the information they are tasked with gathering. The company’s privacy policy discloses that some clients may be governments and that it may collect certain types of data from the phone, according to a spokesman…Currently the app assigns about five tasks a day to its users in Afghanistan, according to interviews with users there, including taking photos of ATMs, money-exchange shops, supermarkets and hospitals. One user in Afghanistan said he and others there are typically paid 20 Afghani per task, or about 25 cents—income for phone and internet services. A few months ago, some of the tasks on the site struck him as potentially concerning. He said the app posted several tasks of identifying and photographing Shiite mosques in a part of western Kabul populated largely by members of the ethnic Hazara Shiite minority. The neighborhood was attacked several times by Islamic State over the past five years…. Because of the nature and location of the tasks in a hot spot for terrorism, the user said he thought those tasks could involve spying and didn’t take them on.

Excerpt from Byron Tau, App Users Unwittingly Collect Intelligence, WSJ,  June 25, 2010

Green Con Artists and their Moneyed Followers

Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. Now billions of dollars earmarked for sustainable investment are going to companies with questionable environmental credentials and, in some cases, huge business risks. They include a Chinese incinerator company, an animal-waste processor that recently settled a state lawsuit over its emissions and a self-driving-truck technology company.

One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so. In 2020 an investment company professing a “strong commitment to sustainability” merged with the operator of an open-pit rare-earth mine in California at a $1.5 billion valuation. Although the mine has a history of environmental problems and has to bury low-level radioactive uranium waste, the company says it qualifies as green because rare earths are important for electric cars and because it doesn’t do as much harm as overseas rivals operating under looser regulations…

When it comes to green companies, “there just isn’t enough” to absorb investor demand…In response, MSCI has looked at other ways to rank companies for environmentally minded investors, for example ranking “the greenest within a dirty industry”….

Of all the industries seeking green money, deep-sea mining may be facing the harshest environmental headwinds. Biologists, oceanographers and the famous environmentalist David Attenborough have been calling for a yearslong halt of all deep-sea mining projects. A World Bank report warned of the risk of “irreversible damage to the environment and harm to the public” from seabed mining and urged caution. More than 300 deep-sea scientists released a statement today calling for a ban on all seabed mining until at least 2030. In late March 2021, Google, battery maker Samsung SDI Co., BMW AG and heavy truck maker Volvo Group announced that they wouldn’t buy metals from deep-sea mining.

[However the The Metals Company (TMC) claims that deep seabed mining is green].

Excerpts from Justin Scheck et al, Environmental Investing Frenzy Stretches Meaning of ‘Green’, WSJ, June 24, 2021

Junk: the Engine of Green Growth

“Plastic waste is not just a global crisis that threatens economic recovery, climate, and nature. It is also an investment opportunity that can flip it from a scourge into an engine for economic development,” said Rob Kaplan, who founded Circulate Capital in 2017. Initially the firm sought to back companies in India and Southeast Asia, such as recycling or waste-sorting companies, that help reduce the amount of plastic waste that winds up in the ocean.

In 2019 it raised a $106 million debt and project finance fund, Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, backed by a handful of large multinational corporations that include Coca-Cola, Danone,  Procter & Gamble,  and Unilever…Circulate is one of a small but growing number of firms investing in companies that contribute to what they call the circular economy, a business model that seeks to eliminate waste that organizations produce, continuously reuse products and materials and regenerate natural systems.

An estimated 30 private-market funds, including private-equity, venture and debt strategies focused on the circular economy in the first half of 2020, up from just three in 2016….A number of large multinational corporations are funding these firms’ efforts as part of a broader push to reduce both the overall waste their own companies produce and the amount of virgin materials they use.

Unilever, which has backed funds managed by Circulate and New York-based Closed Loop Partners, aims to cut in half the amount of virgin plastic it uses by 2025 and plans to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. Coca-Cola, also a backer of Circulate’s Ocean fund, aims to make all of its global packaging recyclable by 2025 and to use at least 50% of recycled packaging material by 2030, among other goals.

Excerpt from Laura Kreutzer, Growth Firms See Plastic Waste as an Investment Opportunity, WSJ, June 23, 2021
 

Who Benefits from Climate Change? Nuclear Ice-Breakers

Melting ice in the Arctic Ocean is bringing a centuries-old dream closer to reality for Russia: a shipping passage through its northern waters that could put it at the center of a new global trade shipping route…A host of issues remain, such as icebreaker escort tariffs, transit costs and navigational unpredictability in the Arctic Circle. But an opening of the passage (the Northern Sea Route-NSR) would put Russia at the center of a new global shipping route for energy supplies and cargo. Moscow says it has the right to restrict passage and set prices for transit, and the route would also give it an important bargaining chip in its ties with China—one of the biggest beneficiaries of the 3,500-mile long passage…

So far this year, traffic regulated by the Russian government is up 11% from the record 1,014 trips made in 2020….The traffic in 2020 was up more than 25% from 2019 with 33 million tons of cargo, oil and liquefied natural gas, and Moscow expects that number to grow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants cargo to double to 80 million tons by 2024.The State Atomic Energy Corporation, or Rosatom, which manages a fleet of nuclear icebreakers that can cut through ice up to 10-feet thick, is drafting plans to station personnel along the route, boost port infrastructure along the shipping lane to allow for loading, and provide navigational and medical aid for ships. Rosatom has already stationed one floating nuclear-power plant on the route, to help with onshore construction…

 “There is a certain interest in the NSR from the Chinese Navy for strategic mobility to move troops between Pacific to Atlantic theaters,” said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “And they do have this interest in establishing their presence on the Atlantic.”

Russia has already boosted its military presence in the Arctic and along the Northern Sea Route, but the U.S. says Moscow’s legal jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the waters where the Kremlin is working to develop the passage….Russian authorities are still determining the transparent tariff duties, both for transit and for icebreaker escorts along the passage, that are key to attracting both investment and cargo.  Traffic on the route, however, is already guaranteed by Russia’s increasing production of Arctic oil and gas. The majority of vessels carry LNG from the port of Sabetta, where gas from Russian energy giant Novatek’s Yamal project is loaded for consumers in Europe or Asia. Crude from Rosneft’s planned Vostok oil field project will also be sent along the route when it comes onstream….

Excerpts from Thomas Grove, Melt Boosts Russia Shipping Arctic,  WSJ, June 24, 2021

Save Time and Money but Destroy Soil and Oceans

The images of swaths of garbage floating on the oceans’ surface have become a rallying call to address plastic pollution, but there is more to this challenge than meets the eye. While plastics and microplastics – items smaller than 5 mm – accumulate and impact marine environments, much of the problem is rooted in land contamination. Land-based plastic pollution, which often feeds into the oceans, is estimated to be at least four times higher than what is in the oceans, according to a study published in Global Change Biology. 

“Soil is the main source of microplastics reaching oceans through soil erosion and surface runoff,”  Plastics settle in soil through disposal in landfills, as well as through the use of plastic-sheets in agriculture or application of microplastic contaminated compost. “Direct disposal of plastics to ocean is relatively less pronounced compared to the transfer of microplastics from land. Microplastics, lighter than soil particles, such as sand, silt and clay, are easily lost to waterways,”…

“We contribute to plastic pollution through indiscriminate disposal of plastics in landfills and use of microbeads in cosmetics and microfibers in textiles. There are efforts to produce biodegradable plastics, which may provide some solution to plastic pollution, but bioplastic may not be the silver bullet to manage plastic pollution.” Commonly used biodegradable bioplastics “retain their mechanical integrity under natural conditions, potentially causing physical harm if they are ingested by marine or terrestrial animals.” “The fate of biodegradable bioplastics in natural and engineered environments could be potentially problematic. Methane is a product of biodegradation in anaerobic environments in landfills.” These bioplastics, furthermore, require high temperatures, controlled aeration and humidity to degrade completely.

Due to their small size, microplastics, especially nanoplastics resulting from the degradation of microplastic, can enter organisms’ internal organs, where they could potentially transfer contaminants attached to them. These can include persistent organic pollutants, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as trace metals like mercury and lead. The plastics and pollutants that accumulate on or in them enter the food chain and can eventually be transferred to humans, causing growing food safety concerns.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre’s laboratories are equipped to research the presence of microplastics in food. “Techniques such as energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and infrared and Raman spectroscopy can be applied to screen for plastics in foods, enabling risk assessment and management,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Joint Centre’s Food and Environmental Protection Section. 

Excerpt from Joanne Liou Out of Sight but not out of Mind: IAEA and FAO Launch R&D to Identify Sources, Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Soil, IAEA Press Release, July 2, 2021

The Starving Manatees of Florida

Florida manatees are dying at a record pace, prompting a federal investigation and calls to relist the aquatic mammals as endangered. So far this year, 800 manatees have died in Florida, more than double the average for the same period over the past five years, according to state data. Their estimated population numbered 5,733 in 2019, the most recent year in which wildlife officials conducted a count….

At the heart of the problem is deteriorating water quality that has depleted the seagrasses that manatees eat, researchers say. It highlights a broader threat to other marine species, they say, and to Florida’s economy, which relies heavily on visitors drawn to the state’s coastline. Manatees, which typically measure about 10 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, have faced numerous perils in recent years, including collisions with watercraft and exposure to red tide, a harmful algal bloom. Now, researchers say, they are experiencing starvation.

Excerpt from Arian Campo-Flores, Manatees Are Dying in Florida, and the U.S. Wants to Know Why, WSJ, June 23, 2021