While the U.S. Senate Clears the Way for Homeland Security Funding and as the World Continues to Struggle with ISIS, Ukraine and Russia Continue to Struggle with Another Ceasefire

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Reuters reported on Thursday that the Senate moved Wednesday to advert a shutdown of U.S. domestic security agency this weekend by voting to clear the way for funding a funding bill that does not include the immigration issue. The vote came shortly after an appeal from the current and two former Security secretaries appealed to Congress to avoid the shutdown and give full funding for the department of Homeland Security this year. The final hurdle for passage will fall to the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives who still oppose the bill and procedural negotiations that could delay the final vote beyond Friday’s funding deadline for the department. The agency set up after 9/11 coordinates domestic efforts to combat security threats like the recent Somali based Islamic militants against U.S. shopping malls and encompasses the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration as well as border, immigration and several other federal agencies. The original bill would of funded the agency with $39.7 billion until Republicans against Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive order lifted deportation threats of undocumented immigrants got in the way causing Republicans to approve the bill adding a provision to ban spending on the order. This in turn caused a deadlock that lasted weeks between Republicans and Democrats leading up to Wednesday’s vote. The 98-2 vote cleared the way to take out the House’s immigration provisions and leave the vote on immigration orders for a later date under the plan designed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to end the deadlock. The overwhelming bipartisan support for McConnell’s approach means there is strong support for drama free funding for Homeland Security. Democrats have called for a clean Homeland bill all along without any immigration restrictions as Obama had threatened to veto the House passed measure. House Speaker John Boehner declined to tell Reuters if he would put the bill to a House vote even thought the deadline ends at midnight Friday. If no deal is reached, then Homeland Security would be forced to furlough about 30,000 employees or 15 percent of its workforce. This translate to many of the essential personnel such as airport and border security agents would have to wait to be paid until new funding is approved. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and some of his predecessors pleaded at a news conference for Congress to swiftly pass the funding bill. A cut-off in funds also would suspend grants to states to support local counter-terrorism activities.

As security issues at home become increasingly worrisome, the White House has said President Barack Obama would be open to negotiating with Congress for new authorization for military force against Islamic State militants including a three year limit on U.S. military action and use of American troops, according to the AP’s Nedra Pickler, Obama open to changes to military authority against IS. After a weeklong holiday break, lawmakers returned to Washington Monday and have started to consider the proposal with some Republicans saying it is too restrictive for the mission to succeed and some Democrats wanting more limitations on Obama’s authority so the U.S. doesn’t sign on for another open ended war. Obama is open to discussing every aspect of his proposal but firmly opposed to any geographic restriction on where the U.S. military pursues ISIS with strongholds in Iraq and Syria but have been operating across international boundaries. White House press secretary Josh Earnest stated, “I’m not at all going to be surprised if there are members of Congress who take a look at this legislation and decide, ‘Well, I think there are some things that we should tweak here, and if we do, we might be able to build some more support for. So I think it is fair for you to assume that this reflects a starting point in conversations.” Obama argues he doesn’t need new authority to legally pursue the militant group as he has been launching strikes based on authorizations given to President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, critics say Obama’s use of this authority is a stretch and the White House has taken a new position making it clear it doesn’t see reliance on this authorization as ideal. Once new authority is signed into law, the White House says Obama will mot longer rely on the 2001 approved authority to purse the group and rely solely on the new powers. The White House added that Congress could make that clear in the new authorization. The change also prevents any future president from interpreting the law the way Obama has since last year. On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of three men accused of planning or supporting ISIS in Syria, AP’s Deepti Hajela reports, Feds: 3 accused in Islamic State plot vocal about beliefs. Two men are charged with plotting to help the Islamic State group as evident by both online and personal conversations about their commitment and desire to join the extremists, federal authorities reported. Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, was arrested at Kennedy Airport, where he was attempting to board a flight to Istanbul, with plans to head to Syria, authorities said. Another man, 24-year-old Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, had a ticket to travel to Istanbul next month and was arrested in Brooklyn, federal prosecutors said. The two were held without bail after a brief court appearance. A third defendant, Abror Habibov, 30, is accused of helping fund Saidakhmetov’s efforts. He was ordered held without bail in Florida. If convicted, each faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton said this was the first public case in New York involving possible fighters going to the Islamic State, but he hinted at other ongoing investigations. According to the federal complaint, Saidakhmetov said he intended to shoot police officers and FBI agents if his plan to join the IS group in Syria was thwarted. Loretta Lynch, who is Obama’s choice to be U.S. attorney general, said “The flow of foreign fighters to Syria represents an evolving threat to our country and to our allies.” The Islamic State group largely consists of Sunni militants from Iraq and Syria but has also drawn fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe.

While the U.S. fights to thwart and contain the Islamic State, the rest of the world has not been so lucky in keeping ISIS as bay. On Tuesday, AP’s Zeina Karam reported, Dozens of Christians abducted by Islamic militants in Syria, the Islamic State militants before dawn raided homes in a cluster of villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria abducting at least 70 Christians as thousands fled to safer areas. The captives’, mostly women and children, fate was unclear Tuesday as relatives said mobile phone service was cut off and land lines were not working and heavy fighting in the area was reported. The Islamic State group has a history of killing captives, including foreign journalists, Syrian soldiers and Kurdish militiamen. Most recently, militants in Libya affiliated with the extremist group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. While the U.S. and coalition of regional partners conduct airstrikes against the group, the group has repeatedly targeted religious minorities since taking a third of both Syria and Iraq. The British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights working with a network of activist in Syria have reported the number of Christians held by the group at 90. The extremists could use the Assyrian captives to try to arrange a prisoner swap with the Kurdish militias it is battling in northeastern Syria. Hassakeh province, where a majority of the captives come from, is strategically important due to sharing a border with Turkey and areas controlled by IS in Iraq. Kurdish militiamen from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, backed by the coalition airstrikes, have made advances in the province in a new offensive launched this week. Heavy fighting broke out in the province Monday as Kurdish fighters and IS militants battled for control of villages near the Iraqi and Turkish borders. The Kurds have been one of the most effective foes of IS, a reputation they burnished in recent months by repelling an assault by the extremists on the town of Kobani on the Turkish border. The coalition carried out hundreds of airstrikes that helped the Kurds break the siege in January.

As the world tries to get a grip on the seemingly phantom group called ISIS, the ongoing ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia seems once again to have fallen apart as fighting continues to rage and Russia refuses to loosen its grip on Ukraine. On Wednesday, AP reported Russian courts refused to release Ukrainian prisoners whose fate has attracted global attention as Moscow’s City Court turned down an appeal by Nadezhda Savchenko’s lawyers leaving her to remain behind bars pending an investigation, according to the article, Russian court refuses to release Ukrainian prisoner. Savchenko, a Ukrainian military officer captured by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in June and put in custody in Russia, is awaiting trial on charges of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. She denies the accusations. Russia claims Savchenko voluntarily crossed the border into Russia before she was detained, but she said she was dragged across the border into the Russian custody. Savchenko has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 13 demanding her release, and her lawyers on Wednesday voiced concern about her condition. More than 11,000 people including prominent cultural figures have petitioned Russian President Vladimir Putin urging Savchenko’s release. Even while in jail, Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and named a delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The European Union and the United States have urged her release. Pavel Polityuk and Anton Zverev reported, Kiev Says It Can’t Withdraw Weaponry As Attacks On Ukrainian Troops Persist, the Ukrainian military said Monday it could not leave the front line in the east as required by the ceasefire due to pro-Russian separatists who advanced last week were attacking its position making it difficult to withdraw heavy weaponry. A truce to end fighting that has killed more than 5,600 people appeared stillborn last week after rebels ignored it to capture the strategic town of Debaltseve in a punishing defeat for Kiev. Nevertheless, the peace deal’s European sponsors still hold out hope it can be salvaged, now that the Moscow-backed separatists have achieved that objective. Spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said in a televised briefing: “Given that the positions of Ukrainian servicemen continue to be shelled, there can not yet be any talk of pulling back weapons.” Anatoly Stelmakh, another military spokesman, said rebel forces had attacked the village of Shyrokyne overnight, along the coast on the road to Mariupol, a port of half a million that Kiev fears could be the next big rebel target. Rebel commander Eduard Basurin denied the fighters had launched any such attack, and said the situation was calm. Nearly a million people have been driven from their homes by the war between pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine and government forces. Last week’s ceasefire was reached after the rebels abandoned a previous truce to launch their advance, arguing that previous battle lines had left their civilians vulnerable to government shelling. Kiev says the rebels are reinforcing near Mariupol for a possible assault on the port, the biggest city in the two rebellious provinces still in government hands. Defense analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, who has close ties to the military, said rebels had brought 350 fighters and 20 armored vehicles including six tanks to the area.

Sacrificing the Future to Subsidize Fossil Fuels

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2013 map courtesy of the Ocean Conservancy website

According to lead researcher Steven Murawski, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in Tampa, the oil found in the bodies of sickened fish from the Gulf Coast region match the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Murawski and his team of Florida scientist studied the oil’s chemical composition in order to debunk the argument that fish abnormalities were to blame and not oil in coastal runoff and oil from naturally occurring seeps in the Gulf could be to blame,  reports Rueters’ Barbara Liston. In her article, BP Oil Spill Caused Sickness In Fish, Researchers Find, she reports that the findings by the researchers argues that the fish in the study had to have been exposed recently enough in order to identify the chemical signature of the oil in their bodies. However, BP, whose rig caused the spill rejects the findings stating in a email response that it is “not possible to accurately identify the source of oil based on chemical traces found in fish livers or tissue.” In addition, Liston reports that in a statement from BP: “vertebrates such as fish very quickly metabolize and eliminate oil compounds. Once metabolized, the sources of those compounds are no longer discernible after a period of a few days.” The research team included scientists from USF, the Florida Institute of Oceanography and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The work was published in the current edition of the online journal of Transactions of the American Fisheries Society.

Thousands of claims for damages against BP continue to be process since the April 2010 explosion of the oil and gas producer’s Gulf rig which killed 11 oil workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. In the winter of 2010-2011, fisherman in the area where the blow out well was located have noticed a spike in abnormal looking fish, many with unusual skin lesions. Murawski said his team compared the chemical signatures of oil found in fish livers and flesh to the signatures of the Deepwater well and other oil sources. As Liston reports, Murawski explained, “The closest match was directly to Deepwater Horizon and had a very poor match to these other sources. So what we’ve done is eliminated some of these other potential sources.” In addition, his team also ruled out pathogens and other oceanographic conditions. By 2012, the frequency of fish lesions declined 53 percent.

Even with BP’s blatant disregard for the environment and the years of fall out to come from such an egregious crime, the federal government still spends billions of dollars to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. U.S. today reported back in 2010 after the BP spill that the number of spills from offshore oil rigs and pipelines in the U.S. had quadrupled in the last 10 years and could of served as a warning for the massive leak that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, according to government data and safety experts. The spills and amount of oil leaked grew worse when production increased, reports USA Today, even after oil companies claimed it was never safer to drill. In Alan Levin’s USA Today article, Oil spills escalated in this decade, the average annual spill increased by more than 17 from 2000 to 2009 and from 2005 to 2009 spilled averaged 22 a year. The company with the most spills from 2000 to 2009 was BP who leased the well that blew out in April 2010, according to data. In addition, the oil giant and its affiliated companies reported 23 spills of 50 barrels or more not including the April 2010 event. Oil firm Shell was next with 21, according to MMS spill reports. Over the past five years, the Obama administration has called for cutting fossil fuels subsidies in the form of tax breaks and other incentives, however, the federal governments has increased the amount of money forfeited through subsidies over that period of time with $18.5 billion last year, according to the environmental group Oil Change International. According to Kate Sheppard, Federal Government Still Spending Billions To Subsidize Fossil Fuels, the total is up from $12.7 billion in 2009 as oil and gas production has increased in the United States. Next year, domestic production will reach the highest since 1972 partly due to the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy which includes increasing oil and gas production. The Oil Change report includes a variety of subsidies in its accounting i.e. tax breaks, incentives for production on federal lands like royalty fees and tax deductions for clean up costs like the BP Deepwater oil spill. In addition, when states subsidies for oil, gas and coal production are included, the total climbs to $21.6 billion for 2013. In September 2009, Obama and other G20 leaders pledged to phase out fossil fuel subsidies to curb global warming with Obama calling for elimination of subsidies in 2012 and 2013 with the administration’s 2015 budget proposal again calling for major cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. However, Congress has yet to cut these subsidies. The report argues that as long as these incentives stay in place, the federal government is “essentially rewarding companies for accelerating climate change.” Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, explains: “We’re spending more taxpayer dollars every year to fund fossil fuels that we can’t afford to burn, according to climate science. Subsidizing fossil fuels at this point is climate denial.”

While science on a global scale has examined the environmental cost of the global fossil fuel habit, the economic costs have yet to be fully realized. According to the article, Fossil Fuel Subsidies Cost ~$2 Trillion Annually, According To IMF on CleanTechnica’s website published May 1,2014, the IPCC recently reported that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributes around 78 percent of the total increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1970 and 2010. The combined value of global fossil fuel subsidies are difficult to calculate with recent estimates ranging from $500 billion to $1.9 trillion a year. However, according to the International Monetary Fund, factoring in implicit subsidies from the failure to charge for pollution, climate change and other externalities, the post tax cost is closer to $2 trillion equivalent to 2.9 percent of the global GDP or 8.5 percent of government revenues. In addition, the IMF believes simply removing fossil fuel subsidies could decrease fossil fuel emissions by 13 percent. Experts say by reducing or eliminating subsidies to fossil fuel and properly pricing energy to account for environmental impacts, governments can effectively foster a low carbon transition as global subsidies to renewable energy were $88 billion in 2011. According to the article: “UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) argues that subsidies to fossil fuel producers often support inefficient state-owned energy companies and stifle incentives for greater efficiencies and innovation, while subsidies to consumers often encourage excessive consumption, which has knock-on effects for pollution, human health and greenhouse gas emissions.” UN Under Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, had this to add: “Fiscal policies are of particular importance in a green economy transition. Confronted by a fiscally constrained world, government reforms might appear to be a daunting challenge. However, it is important to note that fossil fuel subsidies cost countries precious funds. For example, they divert government resources from pro-poor spending in Africa, where governments spend an estimated 3 per cent of GDP – equivalent to their total health care allocation – on fossil fuel subsidies.” UNEP has undertaken green economy fiscal policies studies in various developing countries including Ghana, Namibia, the Philippines and Turkey and have shown that reforming energy subsidies and prices is possible. In addition, the UNEP believes,”Tax incentives could make investments in clean technologies more attractive, while government funds could reduce the risk profile of capital intensive new technologies.” In Australia, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has financed $2.5 billion in renewable projects since starting in July 2013, but has not dissuaded the current Abbott government from trying to dismantle it.

According to Tom Revell’s article, a new study published in the journal Climate Change Economics, researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis tried to put a price tag on efforts to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. David McCollum, the study’s lead author, states, “Many countries say that they’re on board with the a target of 2C global mean temperature stabilization by 2100; some have even made commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But until now, it hasn’t been very clear how to get to that point, at least from an investment point of view. It’s high time we think about how much capital is needed for new power plants, biofuel refineries, efficient vehicles, and other technologies – and where those dollars need to flow – so that we get the emissions reductions we want. Revell’s article, Much-needed $800bn renewable energy investment can come from fossil fuel subsidies, sums up the study by saying that the hundred of billions of dollars needs to invest in renewable energy and prevent the worst effects of climate change could come from the enormous amount of subsidies given to fossil fuels, approximately $800 billion annually between now and 2050 on top of the $400 billion raised by existing policies increasing existing investments from $200-300 billion annually. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2012 direct fossil fuels subsidies totaled $544 billion which researchers point out could be shifted into supporting renewables and meet the investment gap. The study does not account for potential saving gained by switching from fossil fuels to cleaner energy. The study does warn that the transition needs to happen soon as energy infrastructures have  a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that investments in fossil fuels like oil and coal need to drop by $30 billion a year and renewable energy’s share of global production must increase from 17% in 2010 to 50% in 2050. Without aggressive action, scientist estimate global temperatures will rise by 3.7 to 4.8 degree Celsius by 2100 with devastating consequences around the world, Revell reports.