The World Today for August 20, 2018

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The Politics of Pipelines

From the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz to Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands, control over access to and transport of oil and natural gas serves as a flashpoint for showing the true colors of political and economic relationships around the world.

“Pipelines are veins of geopolitical power,” publisher Stratfor wrote in a dossier on the complex politics surrounding oil and natural gas pipelines. “For nations that export oil products or natural gas, pipelines are essential to turning raw energy into profit.”

The current bickering over the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany is a prime example.

Since 2015, state-run Russian oil giant Gazprom and German businesses have spearheaded construction on a second natural gas pipeline connecting the countries through the Baltic Sea. Called Nord Stream 2, the pipeline would effectively double gas supplies to Germany from Russia.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government is helping to broker the deal, has dubbed it purely a business decision. As Germany shifts from conventional energy sources like coal and nuclear fuel to renewable sources, natural gas could serve as a bridging fuel to help support the transition. And cheap Russian gas could help as Dutch and Norwegian supplies are dwindling.

But the chancellor’s neighbors in Europe, as well as the United States, think that she’s failing to see the forest for the trees.

For one, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives to move against Ukraine vis-à-vis the pipeline seem clear, observers say. Currently about half of all Russian gas to Europe transits through Ukraine, proving a lucrative source of income in a war-torn nation.

Nord Stream 2’s sea route would bypass Ukraine, meaning those supplies could be diverted northward, leaving Ukraine in the cold. It wouldn’t be the first time that Gazprom has pulled such antics in former Soviet-bloc states, Reuters reported.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told President Donald Trump at the White House last month that “most” EU countries were against the deal,” CNBC reported.

And for its part, the White House has long been opposed – one only has to hear the words exchanged at last month’s NATO summit to get the drift.

But Germany and its Russian-speaking Chancellor Merkel might be in a better bargaining position than meets the eye, analysts told the Washington Times.

Unlike Europe’s smaller states, Germany, with the EU’s largest economy, can throw its weight around on the details of the pipeline. The contract is more important to Russia’s Gazprom than to Germany, which is already shopping the possibility of American gas terminals.

That means Merkel could leverage both her buyer’s market and personal relationship with Putin to draw out concessions on the deal, such as a transit guarantee for Ukraine. Totally unrelated topics like Russia’s involvement in Syria could also be tied into the deal.

The politics of pipelines is about so much more than oil and gas.



Squeaky Cleanup

Japan hit back at the United Nations for criticizing the Fukushima cleanup efforts, saying a UN report urging Tokyo to protect decontamination workers from exploitation was “extremely regrettable.”

Japan’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it had already informed the UN of steps Japan was taking to manage the levels of radiation to which Fukushima cleanup workers are exposed. Even so, the UN special rapporteurs went ahead with a warning last week that workers might be being coerced into accepting hazardous working conditions because of economic hardship and being given inadequate training and protection, Reuters reported.

On Thursday, the special rapporteurs issued a statement warning that tens of thousands, reportedly including migrants and homeless people, may be being deceived about the risks of exposure to radiation, the BBC reported. They also expressed concern over reports that large companies had subcontracted recruiting to brokers and smaller firms that are more difficult to monitor.

Workers are “often exposed to a myriad of human rights abuses, forced to make the abhorrent choice between their health and income,” the UN rights advocates said.


Radical Measures

Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro declared a 60-fold hike in the minimum wage and a 96 percent currency devaluation in an effort to avert an outright collapse of the economy.

Among the other radical steps Maduro unveiled on Friday, the president also pegged the bolivar to Venezuela’s recently launched cryptocurrency and hiked taxes, Reuters reported. Now, shopkeepers are weighing whether to remain closed or raise their prices to match the new policies – and risk alienating customers.

That’s not the only way the move could backfire. Economists said the hike in the monthly minimum wage from 3 million bolivars to 180 million bolivars, or roughly $0.5 to $30, would drive many companies out of business – worsening conditions by increasing unemployment.

That, in turn, could spur another wave of mass emigration, even as Brazil was forced to deploy troops to put down attacks on migrant camps in the border town of Pacaraima, while Ecuador tightened its immigration rules to try to stem the flow, according to the BBC.


The Rights of Spring

For good or ill, the Internet played a crucial role in the Arab Spring that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime in Egypt and shakeups across the region between 2010 and 2012.

Now, Egypt’s present government is moving to tighten controls, CNN reported.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a new law on Saturday that prohibits the “promotion of the ideas of terrorist organizations” and allows authorities to block websites that judges consider threats to national security. It also bans the dissemination of information on the movement of security forces and imposes strict punishments for hacking government information systems, CNN said.

The government has blocked some 500 websites since May 2017, according to the Cairo-based Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Human rights organizations say Cairo is using the specter of terrorism to quell dissent. Those found guilty under the new law can face fines of over $10,000 and up to two years in prison, CNN said.


The Usual Suspects

Astronomers are taking a cue these days from the playbook of police detectives: fingerprints.

Researchers at Cornell University recently prepared a reference catalog of “light-fingerprints” that astronomers who study exoplanets can use, Cornell University reported.

The guide, published online in the journal Astrobiology, includes calibrated spectra and geometric albedos – or the light reflected by the planet’s surface – of 19 celestial bodies in our own solar system. It also offers examples of how the colors of these planets, moons and other objects would change if they were orbiting stars other than our sun.

Astronomers can use these “fingerprints” to characterize planets outside the solar system.

“With this catalog of light-fingerprints, we will be able to compare new observations of exoplanets to objects in our own solar system – including the gaseous worlds of Jupiter and Saturn, the icy worlds of Europa, the volcanic world of Io, and our own life-filled planet,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, a co-author of the study and director of the Carl Sagan Institute.

Study lead author Jack Madden believes the catalog will prove extremely useful as the construction of more powerful telescopes facilitates the discovery of new worlds.

“We are entering a new age of observational ability, so we need a reference catalog of all the planets and moons we already know, to compare these new exoplanet spectra to,” he said.

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