Energy Policy

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Disappearing Kurdish Oil

The other day, a Houston judge threw out an order that would have prevented the sale of a tanker of Kurdish oil the Kurds and the central government were squabbling about.

The Kurdistan Regional Government can bring $100 million of crude ashore inTexas after a U.S. judge threw out a court order that would have required federal agents to seize and hold the cargo for the Iraqi Oil Ministry until a court there decided which government owns it.

U.S. District Judge Gray Miller in Houston said he lacked authority under federal laws governing property stolen at sea to decide the dispute. Both Iraq’s central government and the regional government claim control of 1 million barrels of Kurdish crude waiting in a tanker moored in international waters off the Texas coast for almost a month.

Miller ruled yesterday that Iraq’s national oil ministry lost control of the crude when the Kurdish government pumped it without authorization from oilfields in the northern part of the country. Iraq failed to convince Miller that the oil was misappropriated when it was loaded into a tanker in the Mediterranean Sea after being pumped across Turkey in an Iraq-owned pipeline.

“Kurdistan’s unauthorized export of oil over land -– and later overseas –- may violate Iraqi law, but it does not violate U.S. maritime law,” Miller said.

After which you’d assume the tanker would come ashore and make the Kurds some money they can use to fight ISIS, right?

That didn’t happen. Instead, the tanker disappeared.

A tanker near Texas loaded with $100 million of disputed Iraqi Kurdish crude has disappeared from satellite tracking, the latest development in a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse between Baghdad and the Kurds.

The AIS ship tracking system used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Reuters on Thursday showed no known position for the United Kalavrvta, which was carrying 1 million barrels of crude and 95 percent full when it went dark.

Several other tankers carrying disputed crude from Iran or Iraqi Kurdistan have unloaded cargoes after switching off their transponders, which makes their movements hard to track.

Read the whole article — there’s apparently a lot of Kurdish oil disappearing, which makes sense given the legal fights over who owns it (not to mention US selectivity about when to enforce national rights, as we have in Libya of late, and when not to, as we’re apparently not in Iraq).

Still, the prospect of buying and selling Kurdish oil off the books sure would free up money for other purposes (especially given Hunt Oil’s involvement in Kurdish drilling, which happened with a great deal of winking and nodding).

Why Challenge the Washington Consensus Now?

A number of outlets are reporting on the BRICS move to establish a competitor to the World Bank.

The so-called BRICS countries agreed to form an international development bank with aspirations to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa said Tuesday that the New Development Bank will start with $50 billion in capital and $100 billion as a currency reserve fund for liquidity crises. Operating details still need to be resolved.

Still, the BRICS bank, which could add more member nations, represents a bid to expand the influence of the BRICS emerging markets and act as a counterbalance to institutions run by the U.S. and other developed nations, experts said.

“This is about the consolidation of BRICS 2.0,” said Marcos Troyjo, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and co-director of the BRICLab Center. “If BRICS 1.0 was about capturing investor attention to the scale of their economic relevance, BRICS 2.0 is about embarking on institution building.”

I absolutely understand the reason for the move. These large countries have been demanding more influence over the World Bank for years, to no avail. And US policies like Quantitative Easing have been really damaging to some of the countries, particularly Brazil. Though, this move may well come too late for Brazil and certainly for Dilma Roussef.

“I don’t think that if Brazil was now to be thinking about these plans from the drawing board, it would really be thinking about a Brics development bank,” says James Lockhart-Smith, a Latin America risk analyst at Maplecroft in New York. “It would be more focused on restarting growth in the country.”

But at a time of slow growth, Brazil probably needs these economies on side more than ever. Add to that, trade with economically troubled Argentina – traditionally one of its biggest trading partners – has become more difficult in recent years.

So while I understand the move, I wonder why now — aside from the fact that the World Cup provided a handy excuse for a meeting in Rio de Janeiro. It may be too late for Dilma, and India’s new neoliberal Prime Minister Narenda Modi seems like an odd fit for the group.

Meanwhile, consider this. While Russia won’t get any of the big perks in the new bank (it will be headquartered in Shanghai, India will pick the first President, Brazil will pick the first Chairman, and the bank will be denominated in — really! — dollars), Putin was also making other interesting moves in the hemisphere, at least according to RT (definitely click through for Putin’s expression, which surely is staged to be that stern).

Moscow and Havana have reportedly reached an agreement on reopening the SIGINT facility in Lourdes, Cuba – once Russia’s largest foreign base of this kind – which was shut down in 2001 due to financial problems and under US pressure.

[snip]

Russia considered reopening the Lourdes base since 2004 and has sealed a deal with Cuba last week during the visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin to the island nation, reports Kommersant business daily citing multiple sources.

Russia shut down the base to more easily reschedule debt held by the US. Along with reopening the base, Russia will forgive a bunch of outstanding Cuban debt to Russia.

The timing of this — a year after Snowden’s disclosures, but more importantly, as the US continues to try increasingly unilateral sanctions against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine — makes a ton of sense. The US refuses to believe it can’t impose its will in Ukraine, in spite of increasing reluctance from our European partners, especially Germany, to ratchet up the pressure. Reopening a front in America’s back yard as the US bunkers down on Ukraine makes perfect sense.

For some reason, the US appears to have believed it could simply impose its will indefinitely on the rest of the world. They appear not to have considered that, at some point, such behavior would provide the rest of the world cause to fight back.

Trent Franks and the EMP Threat to the Electrical Grid

At a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing for Department of Homeland Security today, Trent Franks implored DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to consider the threat of electromagnetic pulse or geomagnetic disturbance to the electrical grid because “we have additional information that seems to indicate the threat is more significant than we have been aware of.”

Franks also submitted an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization requiring the Director of National Intelligence to report on the threat EMPs pose to the US through 2025.

I have no idea whether this is credible or not. Franks is not one of the Members of Congress I consider to be the most reliable (and our resident desert rat has even less complimentary things to say).

But golly. Franks sure seems worried about the EMP threat of late.

 

Unread Reports as the Big Data Dump? Not Really.

The very same week the President released his breathless report on Big! Data!, the Washington Post has a story criticizing the sheer number and types of reports Congress requires from the Federal bureaucracy.

It started out with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.

Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.

[snip]

But as the numbers got bigger, Congress started to lose track. It overwhelmed itself. Today, Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in. And it does not try to save copies of all the ones that are.

So some agencies cheat and send in nothing. And others waste time and money sending in reports — such as the one on dog and cat fur — that simply disappear into the void.

To support its case, WaPo focuses on one report requiring Customs and Border Patrol to report on how much dog and cat fur products are being shipped into the US, which is probably a needless report (which is also probably why WaPo picked it out of the 4,291 it identified).

And WaPo — a member of the Fourth Estate that purportedly serves as a check on power — comes to this very dangerous conclusion.

The problem is that there is no system to sort the good ones from the useless ones. They all flow in together, which makes it hard for congressional staffers to spot any valuable information hidden in the flood.

First, the press is part of that system! Rather than throwing cat and dog fur, perhaps WaPo could have tried to distinguish those that were critical from those that are questionable and those that are clearly frivolous.

Moreover, it is the height of irresponsibility to absolve Congressional staffers — whose bosses are the only ones that can eliminate useless reports — of responsibility for reading the reports they get. Either the staffers must be held accountable for reading the reports, or for eliminating them. That’s how you fix the system. That’s why we’re paying them.

Ultimately, too, I’m not sure I buy the WaPo’s argument that these are useless reports. 4,291 seems like a not unreasonable amount of data for legislators to receive and read about the world’s biggest (perhaps now second biggest) economy, about DOD’s $526 billion budget, about the many federal benefit programs, about the expanding police state.

And if you look at the actual list (rather than WaPo’s admittedly snazzy but not very informative infographic on them), many — perhaps even most — of the reports make a lot of sense.

Consider the reports listed for General Services Administration, an entity with an annual budget of $26 billion, which has the ability to effect great change as the source of enormous spending, and one that has routinely experienced significant spending scandals.

  1. Activities and status of advisory committees in existence during the previous calendar year
  2. A report on the status of the high-performance green building initiatives under this subtitle
  3. Administration’s alternative fueled vehicle program
  4. A description of lost opportunities for waste-heat recovery from the project described in paragraph (A)
  5. A report on the use of photovoltaic energy in public buildings
  6. Violations by Federal agencies of Federal Records Act of 1950, as codified 1950
  7. Reports by Inspector General of particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies in the administration of programs and operations of the agency
  8. Activities of the Inspector General
  9. Accessibility to public buildings by the physically handicapped
  10. Prospectus proposing a building project or lease
  11. Location, space, cost, and status of each public building, the construction, alteration, or acquisition of which is to be under authority of the Act, and which was uncompleted as of the date requested
  12. Building project surveys as requested by either the Senate or House
  13. Use of underutilized public buildings and property for facilities to assist the homeless
  14. Summary of excess property disposal reports
  15. Evaluation of the operation of programs for donation of Federal surplus personal property; excess personal property transferred
  16. Excessive stocking of property, above reasonable inventory levels, by executive agencies
  17. Administration of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949
  18. Contracts to facilitate the national defense entered into, amended, or modified
  19. Acquisition cost of surplus real or related personal property conveyed for care or rehabilitation of criminal offenders during previous fiscal year
  20. Results of investigations of the cost of travel and the operation of privately owned vehicles to Federal employees while engaged in official business
  21. Annual determination of the average actual cost per mile for the use of a privately owned motorcycle, automobile, and airplane
  22. A plan to comply with Section 432 relating to energy and water conservation at General Services Administration facilities

Reports 1, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 17, and 18 are simply reports Congress needs to ask for to ensure there’s some visibility into the Agency, to ensure they’ll be informed if GSA finds something wrong itself. Reports 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 13, 14, 19, and 22 measure the efficacy of efforts to use GSA’s buying power to do some social good  (and report 9, on ADA accessibility, involves significant legal compliance).  Reports 15 and 16 address an area susceptible to graft.  Reports 20 and 21 are not only key to cost-benefit analysis of how Federal employees travel, but they apparently are tied to one of GSA’s most requested links. Some of these are also reports tied to an action, like buying a building. And all that amounts to less than 1 report for every $ billion American taxpayers give to GSA. If anything, there are a few more reports — that might identify obviously politicized or excessive spending, which is a persistent problem with GSA — that are missing.

Admittedly, that’s just one random agency. But aside from some entities the Federal government runs itself (like American Samoa and DC) as well as some Commissions over which there have been political fights in the past I’m not seeing a whole lot of waste here — though there may be some inefficiency in how the information is requested. I might grant that in the era of big data we need to automate this — in effect, give Congress a better way to Big! Data! the bureaucracies it oversees (though that would be awfully susceptible to abuse), but I don’t see a lot of information that shouldn’t be required from the bureaucracy.

I’m reminded how, 2 years ago, James Clapper claimed ODNI had to produce too many reports and should be permitted to eliminate 30 of them. He tried to get rid of the annual report on how many people have security clearance (one of the few ways we can measure the ballooning secret government). He tried to get rid of reports on Department of Homeland Security’s notoriously useless intelligence agency. He tried to eliminate reports on Chinese spying on the US and nuclear lab security, both persistent security issues. He tried to eliminate a report informing Congress what the privacy staffs of intelligence agencies are doing. In short, in the guise of onerous reporting, he tried to eliminate crucial oversight  (as well as a paper trail that could be FOIAed) on several areas of great public concern.

Or consider this: DOD cannot pass an audit. The biggest military in the world still is not required to account for the money it spends, both to itself and Congress.

And yet a newspaper is saying we require too much reporting from the great big bureaucracy?

I don’t buy it.

Taking Kaplan’s Defense of Empire on Its Face

Robert Kaplan wrote a predictably horrible defense of empire that a number of people are giving the appropriate disdainful treatment.

Against my better judgement, I’d like to take a different approach and treat it as a useful piece (though not one I agree with or find palatable at all).

I think its useful, in part, against the background of the NSA disclosures. Key players in NSA discussions — people who travel some of the same circles as Kaplan, even — premise their treatment of the disclosures from an exclusively national perspective, completely ignoring that the NSA (and its GCHQ poodle) is different precisely because it depends on and serves as a key instrument of authority in an empire (or global hegemon, if the term empire gives you the willies). Approaching and assessing NSA’s behavior solely from a national perspective not only represses the obvious reasons why NSA’s dragnet of other countries’ citizens matters, but it also fails to assess our actions in the proper light, even from the standpoint of efficacy. NSA’s tasking choices reflect not our national interest, but rather the needs of the empire, which is why a relatively minor country like Venezuela gets prioritized along with Russia and China. That’s why we made Huawei such a high priority target: because it presents a unique threat to the functioning of our empire.

I would like to get to the point where we can discuss the NSA disclosures not just in terms of what they mean for Americans’ civil liberties as well of those who may not enjoy Fourth Amendment protection but nevertheless are citizens in a US order, but also whether the prioritization of complete dragnet and offensive spying and hacking serves the interests to which they’ve been put, that of the American global hegemon.

And here’s where I think Kaplan, in spite of his racism and paternalism and selective history, serves a useful role at this point in time. He claims, cherry picking from history, that only empires can provide order.

Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires, Western or Eastern. Anarchy reigned in the interregnums.

And then he asks whether or not America can afford to sustain its own empire.

Nevertheless, the critique that imperialism constitutes bad American foreign policy has serious merit: the real problem with imperialism is not that it is evil, but rather that it is too expensive and therefore a problematic grand strategy for a country like the United States. Many an empire has collapsed because of the burden of conquest. It is one thing to acknowledge the positive attributes of Rome or Hapsburg Austria; it is quite another to justify every military intervention that is considered by elites in Washington.

Thus, the debate Americans should be having is the following: Is an imperial-like foreign policy sustainable?

[snip]

Once that caution is acknowledged, the debate gets really interesting. To repeat, the critique of imperialism as expensive and unsustainable is not easily dismissed.

Perhaps predictably Kaplan dodges his own question, never seriously answering it. Instead of answering the question that he admits might have answers he doesn’t much like, he instead spends a bunch of paragraphs, in all seriousness, arguing that Obama is pursuing a post-Imperial presidency.

Rather than Obama’s post-imperialism, in which the secretary of state appears like a lonely and wayward operator encumbered by an apathetic White House, I maintain that a tempered imperialism is now preferable.

No other power or constellation of powers is able to provide even a fraction of the global order provided by the United States.

And by dodging his own question by launching a partisan attack, Kaplan avoids a number of other questions. Not just whether the American empire is sustainable, but whether there’s something about the means of American empire that has proven ineffective (which is really a different way of asking the same question). Why did Iraq end up being such catastrophe? Why did we lose the Arab Spring, in all senses of the word? Why, even at a time when the US still acts as global hegemon, is instability rising?

There are some underlying reasons, like climate change, that the imperialists would like to distinguish from our oil-based power and the dollar exchange it rests on.

But even more, I think, the imperialists would like to ignore how neoliberalism has gutted the former source of our strength, our manufacturing, has led us to increased reliance on Intellectual Property, and has not offered the people in our realm of influence the stability Kaplan claims empire brings. People can’t eat, they can’t educate their children, they can’t retire because of the policies Kaplan and his buddies have pushed around the world. And the US solution to this is more trade pacts that just further instantiate IP as a core value, regardless of how little it serves those people who can’t eat.

The NSA is intimately a part of this, of course. The reason I find it so hysterical that NSA’s one defense against China is effectively the IP one — the NSA doesn’t steal IP and give it to “private” companies to use. But that’s just another way of saying that the empire we’ve rolled out has failed to protect even the increasingly ineffective core basis of our power, its IP.

I’ve said this before, but what is happening, increasingly, is that the US has to coerce power rather than win it through persuasion — persuasion that used to be (at least for our European allies) increased quality of life. It’s a lot more expensive to coerce power, both in terms of the military adventures or repression you must engage in, but also in terms of the dragnet you must throw across the world rather than the enhanced communication of an open Internet. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration, for all of Kaplan’s claimed post-Imperialism, seems to be doubling down on more coercive (or, in the case of trade agreements, counterproductive) means of retaining power.

And so Kaplan, who’s so sure that empire is a great thing, might be better considering not empire in the abstract (indeed, abstracted to the point of suppressing the many downsides of empire), but the empire we’ve got. He seems to implicitly admit he can’t rebut the claim that our empire is no longer sustainable, but since he can’t he changes the subject. Why is our empire unsustainable, Robert Kaplan? And for those who believe the US offers a good — or even a least-bad — order for the globe, what do you intend to do to return it to sustainability?

Dragnets and austerity aren’t going to do it, that’s for sure.

Update: Thanks to Wapiti for alerting me to my huge error of substituting Kagan (generic neocon name) for Kaplan’s actual last name. Sorry for the confusion.

The Navy SEALs Bring You Izahgneb! Saving Libya’s Crude for Marathon Oil!

I discovered NSC spokesperosn Caitlin Hayden has a (little used) twitter feed today when she tweeted this article.

The article not only explains why Navy SEALs were ordered to take over a ship absconding with Libyan oil.

Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. The economy entirely depends on it; turn off the taps and everything grinds to a halt. Libyans quite rightly regard the oil as their common property, a national resource to be shared for the good of all. The vast majority of Libyans hold jobs that are financed, directly or indirectly, by the sale of oil.

Given this history, it makes perfect sense that the control of oil should rest with the central government. Take that away, and the government doesn’t just lose control over its most important source of finance — the very notion of central authority will also be compromised, perhaps fatally. And in present-day Libya, the fate of democracy is closely linked with the viability of government itself.

This is why both Libya’s government and the international community have viewed the federalists’ threats to sell off the oil under their control as a dangerous challenge to the stability of the government in Tripoli. Last week, Jathran’s forces finally made good on that threat: they used one of the oil terminals under their control to fill up a North Korean-flagged tanker called the Morning Glory.

[snip]

Had the story ended there, the result would have been an unmitigated disaster for the government. Tripoli’s impotence and dysfunction would have graphically exposed for all the world to see. The floodgates for the wholesale looting of Libya’s oil resources would have opened. The forces of anarchy would have cheered. (It’s worth noting that a prime minister has already lost his job for even allowing the tanker to load in the first place.) But that’s when Washington stepped in.

Not long after the tanker arrived in international waters, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, the USS Roosevelt (pictured above), brought the SEALs into range. (By the way, Obama authorized the move at 10 PM on Sunday night Washington time, as the world was preparing for the Crimean referendum.) They boarded the tanker without a shot fired and took it over.

But it bitches that no one recognized the successful operation as a “master stroke.”

President Obama pulled off a master stroke this week. He deployed U.S. military force in support of an infant democracy that desperately needs our help. The result was a resounding success, a vivid illustration of how the United States can put its unchallenged power to positive ends.

[snip]

The reaction in Washington: a giant yawn. Deafening silence from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are always quick to demand U.S. military action in situations where it will usually make things worse. Fox News barely noticed. Nor was there a word of praise from the president’s liberal allies on Capitol Hill. Even the New York Times ran a perfunctory report.

Now, frankly, I did notice. I shared the puzzlement I saw a few others express as to the legal basis for our SEALs policing stolen property. I was also rather curious about the legal status of the operation, which presumably relied on secrecy and also clearly (given the detention in Cyprus of suspected intended buyers) involved close cooperation with the intelligence community. (The Washington Times called it a “covert operation,” though they may not have been using the term in its technical sense.) And then shortly after, our government started crowing about its involvement, including this DOD statement noting that “The boarding operation [was] approved by President Obama.” And now, with this rare tweet from Hayden, official approval of this article that is thick with propaganda.

Behold the anti-Benghazi, ladies and gentlemen, a successful operation in which our brave Navy SEALs return stolen property to poor Libya, saving the unity of the country and a fledgling democracy.

Mind you, as I was looking for that DOD statement, I noted a slight change in the description of the operation.

A March 11 statement from Libya’s National Oil Company stated, “the crude oil loaded upon the vessel “Morning Glory”, which is now at Essider Terminal in Libya, is the property of NOC and its Partners.” A March 9 State Department statement said, “The oil belongs to the Libyan National Oil Company and its joint venture partners. These partners include U.S. companies in the Waha consortium.”

That March 17 statement, however, described, “The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company.” And a March 19 one not only added, “U.S. forces took control of the tanker in international waters at the request of the governments of Libya and Cyprus,” but repeated that “The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company.” Those partners — which both NOC and State were happy to reference before the SEALs valiantly rescued the crude — seem to have disappeared from the Administration’s messaging.

ConocoPhillips owns a 16.3% stake in the Waha Concession, and an even bigger stake in some less productive ventures. Marathon Oil also owns a 16.3% stake (and Hess a 8.2% stake).

So while Caitlin Hayden would like you to believe this was a heroic op that saved the Libyan democracy from disintegration — I’m sure the SEALs acquitted themselves against 3 armed Libyans quite courageously and it may well help the Libyan state — it also happens to be an operation that served to rescue around $8 million of crude owned by American companies.

Two more details. As Guardian pointed out in its initial coverage of the rebels’ seizure of the oil, reliable sources of oil to Europe are increasingly important as the US tries to face down Vladimir Putin on Europe’s East.

Just as importantly, Marathon has been trying to find a way to get out of its stake in Libya.

Libya has blocked efforts by U.S. company Marathon Oil to sell its stake in one of the country’s top oil ventures by moving to preempt a deal, sources said, highlighting the struggle investors face in cutting exposure to Libya’s unrest.

Two years of turmoil since the Arab Spring and tough contract terms have prompted oil firms to reassess their role in Libya, and U.S. companies appear keenest to leave as they lack the proximity and infrastructure links that make North Africa attractive to their European peers.

Sources told Reuters in July that Marathon was considering the sale of its stake in Libya’s Waha Oil Company, which has a maximum output capacity of 350,000 barrels per day (bpd) and produces the OPEC member’s main light sweet crude grade.

In addition to the hit this would have on Marathon’s bottom line (the Libyans have first bid here and informed Marathon they’d pay less than market rates), it would open up yet another new front for China to invest in big reserves. The last thing the US wants in China extending its influence in Africa.

Again, I’m not questioning the courage or excellence of the SEALs, nor am I diminishing the importance of oil to propping up the Libyan state right now. But it seems the push to turn this into a heroic narrative also serves to obscure the degree to which this is also about using our military to ensure the viability of this exploration so as to ensure US oil companies continue to exert influence — and keep pumping oil — in Libya.

Yes, this was not the catastrophe that Benghazi was (which has been magnified in any case). But that doesn’t mitigate that the overthrow of Qaddafi risks spiraling even further out of control into yet another colossal catastrophe of American (and European) intervention.

Minority Report on Ukraine, or What’s Venezuela Got to Do with It?

I freely admit to being the oddest of the quadruplets in the Emptywheel sensory deprivation pool, producing the quirky minority report from time to time.

Which may explain the following graphic with regard to current geopolitical tensions.

[Source: Google Trends and Google Finance]

[Source: Google Trends and Google Finance]

 As you can see, not every trending burp in the news about either Venezuela or Ukraine produced a corresponding bump in the fossil fuel market. Some trend-inducing news may have nothing at all to do with energy. It’s quite possible I may not have captured other key businesses as some of them don’t trade publicly, or are don’t trade in a manner readily captured by Google Finance.

But there are a few interesting relationships between news and price spikes, enough to make one wonder what other values may spike with increased volatility in places like Venezuela (which has the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the western hemisphere), and Ukraine (which lies between the EU and the largest natural gas deposits in the world, and the world’s eighth largest oil reserves).

Of course there’s an additional link between these two disparate countries. Both of them have already seen similar upheavals in which the U.S. played a role — Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, and the 2002 attempted coup in Venezuela.

When someone made noise about an Afghan Muslim being a key locus of the latest unrest in Ukraine, I couldn’t help but think of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline for natural gas which has yet to be realized, primarily for a lack of adequate political will among nation-states with a vested interest in its success.

It also made me think of news reports from this past summer when Turkmenistan, sitting on the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world, expressed a readiness to export gas to Europe. This would cut into Russia’s sales, but not for a few years, requiring continuation of existing relationships for the next three to five years. Note the pipelines, existing and planned on the following U.S. State Department map (date unclear, believed to be post-2006).*

Continue reading

John Galt Contaminates West Virginia Water Supply Because Industries Demand Freedom

Structure of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol via Wikipedia.

Structure of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol via Wikipedia.

Some of the more than 300,000 residents of West Virginia who could not drink or bathe in their tap water derived from the Elk River have been told that it is now safe to do so. Considering how flawed the process was for coming up with the standard for a safe level of the contaminant, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), it should come as no surprise that residents are not buying the claim that the water is now safe:

Eric Foster got the call last night. West Virginia American Water said the water at his South Charleston home is safe.

But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to use it again.

“The water smells like licorice, and I don’t really think that’s safe,” Foster said. “I’ll never drink it again.”

Five days after a chemical spill into the Elk River left water unusable for 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers in nine counties, some residents are still wary of using the water even after officials say it’s safe again.

Water company and state officials say the water consistently tested below 1 part per million of the chemical, and have been lifting the water-use ban zone by zone. Six zones, mostly in Charleston and South Charleston, had been lifted as of Tuesday evening.

Here’s a summary of the flawed process for coming to that one part per million “safe” standard:

Unfortunately, the science behind this standard remains unclear.  Based on what we do know, there are good reasons to believe that officials are overlooking significant health risks.

We know, for example, that the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that officials say they are using as their primary source lacks any information about chronic health impacts. The major federal databases we consulted suggest such data simply do not exist for this chemical.

It also appears that officials made significant leaps in their calculation of a “safe” exposure level – including assumptions that deviate from generally accepted practices.  As a result, these estimates fail to adequately account for either acute or chronic health effects from ongoing exposure to water contaminated at the 1 ppm level.

At a bare minimum, the public deserves to know a lot more about the calculations behind officials’ insistence that a 1 ppm level in drinking water is safe.

But how did we get to this situation in the first place? The event that caused the ongoing contamination of the Elk River was a leak of thousands of gallons of MCHM from a facility owned by a company with the wonderfully Galtian name of Freedom Industries. Of course there is a bald eagle anchoring their website! Would you expect anything else?

How is the chemical used? It is used to perpetuate the myth of “clean coal”. Our government is even a leading crusader for this myth and boasts a nifty gif to show us how coal can be “cleaned”.

Scrub that coal!

Scrub that coal!

One of the main methods of producing “clean coal” is to remove particles of sulfur. From the DOE website with the nifty gif:

Take sulfur, for example. Sulfur is a yellowish substance that exists in tiny amounts in coal. In some coals found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other eastern states, sulfur makes up from 3 to 10 percent of the weight of coal.

/snip/

One way is to clean the coal before it arrives at the power plant. One of the ways this is done is by simply crushing the coal into small chunks and washing it. Some of the sulfur that exists in tiny specks in coal (called “pyritic sulfur ” because it is combined with iron to form iron pyrite, otherwise known as “fool’s gold) can be washed out of the coal in this manner. Typically, in one washing process, the coal chunks are fed into a large water-filled tank. The coal floats to the surface while the sulfur impurities sink. There are facilities around the country called “coal preparation plants” that clean coal this way.

It appears that the MCHM is used sometimes instead of water in this process. But even after this “washing”, the coal is far from clean: Continue reading

Tapping the Oil Industry

Remember when it was outrageous that the Iranians had (allegedly) hacked Aramco? In addition to wiping hard drives (though in ways that left the computers recoverable), they also took and threatened to release documents.

In news that I earlier predicted, NSA and GCHQ have hacked OPEC, including Saudi Arabia’s OPEC Minister (though NSA managed to detask him when he came to the US).

Spiegel doesn’t provide much detail of what they’ve gotten — just a tantalizing overview, particularly given the likelihood that the speculation claim pertains to the skyrocketing prices in 2008, which (among other things) the Saudis used to get us into a new security cooperation agreement.

None of this is surprising. But as we try to fearmonger new wars based on one party hacking another, it’s probably safe to assume we got there first.

It stated that OPEC officials were trying to cast the blame for high oil prices on speculators. A look at files in the OPEC legal department revealed how the organization was preparing itself for an antitrust suit in the United States. And a review of the section reserved for the OPEC secretary general documented that the Saudis were using underhanded tactics, even within the organization. According to the NSA analysts, Riyadh had tried to keep an increase in oil production a secret for as long as possible.

Our TCA with Saudi Arabia (and the fact that we (Booz, in fact!) are now providing it with cybersecurity) may well be one reason it is no longer a top NSA target.

OPEC appears in the “National Intelligence Priorities Framework,” which the White House issues to the US intelligence community. Although the organization is still listed as an intelligence target in the April 2013 list, it is no longer a high-priority target.

Who needs to hack when you’re in charge of cybersecurity?

And guess which company has a lot of that business? Edward Snowden’s former employer, Booz.

How Can NSA Protect Our Power Grid from Cyberattack When It Can’t Keep Its Own Power On?

In the United States, it is usually a safe bet to attribute massive government fuck-ups to the bloated contractors we’ve outsourced our projects to.

And the electrical problems plaguing NSA’s new UT data center — described as lightening in a box that has caused $100,000 of damage each of the 10 times it has happened — do seem to stem from poorly supervised contractors.

The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the data center’s construction. Chief of Construction Operations, Norbert Suter said, “the cause of the electrical issues was identified by the team, and is currently being corrected by the contractor.” He said the Corps would ensure the center is “completely reliable” before handing it over to the NSA.

But another government assessment concluded the contractor’s proposed solutions fall short and the causes of eight of the failures haven’t been conclusively determined. “We did not find any indication that the proposed equipment modification measures will be effective in preventing future incidents,” said a report last week by special investigators from the Army Corps of Engineers known as a Tiger Team.

[snip]

It took six months for investigators to determine the causes of two of the failures. In the months that followed, the contractors employed more than 30 independent experts that conducted 160 tests over 50,000 man-hours, according to project documents.

[snip]

Contractors have started installing devices that insulate the power system from a failure and would reduce damage to the electrical machinery. But the fix wouldn’t prevent the failures, according to project documents and current and former officials.

Now, don’t pee your pants laughing.

But I did have two thoughts as I read this.

First, this extended confusion sounds similar to that which Iranian nuclear scientists experienced as they tried to figure out why their centrifuges kept blowing up, thanks to StuxNet. While I think the chances some kind of hack caused this are small (but not zero), I do find it ironic that we cause ourselves the same kind of havoc we cause our worst enemies.

And consider the mission!

Back in February, Keith Alexander warned of the possibility of cyberattacks on our grid (which, anonymous sources made clear, could probably only be launched by China or Russia, but that didn’t stop Alexander from suggesting Anonymous might launch such attacks). The NSA needs more authority to protect against attacks that might bring down our power sources, the head of the NSA suggested.

But the entity that proposes to wield that authority, it seems, can’t even build a brand spanking new electrical system immune from some kind of failure.

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz .@MonaHol No, it is not a sex crime, and that is an asinine headline for @Forbes to run. http://t.co/ecj9xtScVy
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JimWhiteGNV @cocktailhag Heh. And now that #Rays won, I'm putting another clear coat on door number two.
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JimWhiteGNV RT @cocktailhag: @JimWhiteGNV Not as satisfying as refinishing, I expect.
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JimWhiteGNV Heading outside to shovel horse shit in 93F heat. Much more pleasant than watching Balfour pitch 10th for #Rays.
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JimWhiteGNV RT @AntonioFrench: Organizers say today's planned protest involving halting highway traffic has been postponed at the request of the Brown …
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bmaz @kellyoxford @LegallyErin It is a crime, yes, absolutely. Sex crime...uh, no, it is not.
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bmaz RT @DanCBarr: @bmaz They will probably rule quickly. Reinhardt wrote Perry and Smith-Kline. Berzon joined in Smith-Kline. Gould wrote Witt.…
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JimWhiteGNV “@TBTimes_Rays: Good play by #Rays Longoria on bad throw by Hanigan to catch Bogaerts stealing 3B” Cartwheel tag.
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bmaz @etb714 @wellsbennett Okay, that is an awesomely cute picture.
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JimWhiteGNV RT @JohnHorneUK: This award winning pic was taken in #Bahrain in Feb 2011. In July 2014 the photographer was arrestd & tortured for it http…
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bmaz @DanCBarr Agree. I'm just still disappointed in Reinhardt's Romer based watered down Perry decision. Hope they get this decision out quickly
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