U.S. states declare emergencies to help farmers hit by propane shortage

(Reuters) – At least eight U.S. Midwest states declared emergencies in recent weeks over regional shortages of propane needed by grain farmers to dry their crops amid a late harvest and wet weather.

Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin eased restrictions on the transport of propane to help alleviate the local shortages. There is no nationwide shortage and residential propane prices recently were about 22% below that of a year ago.

Spring flooding in U.S. Midwest farming states led to late harvests that have triggered a surge in demand for the fuel used to reduce moisture in corn crops to ready for sale or to safely store the grain.

“The late harvest and high demand for petroleum products throughout the Midwest have resulted in low supplies of propane as well as difficulty transporting,” according to a notice on Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ website.

The state’s declaration relaxes size and weight limits on vehicle transport. An earlier proclamation eased operating-hour rules on propane carriers. The latest rule, like most of the other states’ orders, is effective for a month.

Propane carriers faced four- to six-hour waits last week at the Conway, Kansas, propane terminal that is the nation’s second-largest, and drivers were facing restrictions due to the wait, one official said.

“There is plenty of propane on hand in the country,” said Greg Noll, executive vice president of Propane Marketers Association of Kansas. “We just need to get it from the points that have it on hand to the points where it is needed.”

Texas, which is home to the nation’s largest storage in Mont Belvieu, reported no emergency or shortage.

Consumers have not faced shortages because most homeowners would have had their tanks filled by now, said Noll.

Residential propane prices at the start of the U.S. heating season were under $2 a gallon, or about 22% lower than at the start of winter last year, according to government data issued on Monday.

Propane and propylene stocks were 97.6 million barrels the week ended Nov. 8, up nearly 14 million barrels from a year-ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last week. It said average wholesale propane prices in the Midwest were 78 cents a gallon excluding taxes, flat from a year earlier.

(Reporting by Arpan Varghese and Nakul Iyer in Bengaluru, Gary McWilliams in Houston; editing by Bill Berkrot)

Manure, trash and wastewater: U.S. utilities get dirty in climate fight

Manure, trash and wastewater: U.S. utilities get dirty in climate fight
By Nichola Groom

PIXLEY, Calif. (Reuters) – Joey Airoso has always been proud of his cows, whose milk goes into the butter sold by national dairy company Land O’Lakes. Now he has something new to brag about: the vast amounts of gas produced by his 2,900-head herd is powering truck fleets, homes and factories across the state of California.

“It’s pretty incredible if you think about it,” Airoso said during a recent tour of his 1,500-acre farm, as a stream of watered-down manure flowed from cow sheds into a nearby pit. There the slurry releases methane that is captured and eventually piped into fueling stations and buildings.

Airoso is tapping into a growing market among U.S. utilities for so-called renewable natural gas, or biomethane, that is being driven by the fight against climate change.

For farmers, it is a way to get ahead of a wave of greenhouse gas regulation and make a bit of cash at the same time. And for utilities that buy or transport the gas, it is a way to respond to the increasing demands of customers and lawmakers to cut their reliance on fossil fuels.

“It is not something very many people are aware of yet, but it makes sense once it’s explained,” said Emily O’Connell, director of energy markets policy at the American Gas Association, the trade group for gas utilities.

Renewable natural gas can come from manure, landfills or wastewater and is interchangeable with gas drilled out of the ground. It cuts greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring significant volumes of methane that would have been produced anyway never reach the atmosphere. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when it escapes into the air unburned.

Nationwide, more than a dozen utilities have started developing renewable natural gas production through partnerships with farmers, wastewater treatment plants and landfill operators, while nine have proposed price premiums for customers who choose it as a fuel, according to the American Gas Association industry group. Renewable natural gas is currently between four and seven times more expensive to produce than fossil gas, a gap that its proponents hope will narrow as the fuel becomes more widely used.

BUSES, STOVES

California’s SoCalGas, the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility, is one of the industry’s top proponents of the alternative fuel. It has committed to making renewable natural gas 20 percent of its supply by 2030, said Sharon Tomkins, vice president of strategy and engagement.

She said California has enough biomethane potential “to make a significant dent in reducing the overall emissions from both the agricultural sector as well as reducing the carbon intensity of our gas stream.”

Across the country, Vermont Gas hopes to one day supply only renewable natural gas, leveraging the state’s preponderance of dairy farms. The utility’s renewable natural gas supply currently stands at less than 1 percent of overall volumes, according to spokeswoman Beth Parent. But the company is helping large energy buyers in the state, like cleaning products maker Seventh Generation, Middlebury College and Vermont Coffee Company transition to using biomethane.

CenterPoint Energy, Southwest Gas, DTE Energy and NW Natural are among the other gas utilities seeking to integrate more renewable natural gas into their systems. Last year Dominion Energy partnered with meat producer Smithfield Foods on a $250 million venture to capture methane emissions from hog farms.

“It’s good for their business,” said Marcus Gillette, spokesman for the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, an industry lobbying group. “Many are on missions to decrease emissions from their side of the energy sector as much as possible.”

Until now, nearly all the market for biomethane has come from bus fleets and other vehicles that are able to use state and federal subsidies to make the fuel competitive with fossil gas. Production of the fuel doubled between 2015 and 2018 to 304 million ethanol gallons equivalent thanks to the incentives, according to a report from consulting firm Bates White.

Today about three quarters of renewable natural gas production is still used for transportation, though Gillette said that is shifting as more utilities seek to provide it for heating, cooking and industrial uses.

Some states are more aggressive in bolstering the renewable natural gas industry than others.

Oregon, for example, passed a bill in August that sets a goal of making renewable natural gas account for 30% of what is carried in the state’s gas pipeline network by 2050.

California, meanwhile, has mandated a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030, something that will spell specific regulatory curbs on agriculture in the coming years. Methane accounts for about 9 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, half of which comes from livestock.

For Airoso, that made tapping into the growing biomethane market an easy decision. “We’ve got a $10 mln investment here, so I had to figure out how I protect my investment,” he said.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Let it burn: U.S. fights wildfires with fire, controlled burns

Ground fuels burn during a controlled burn administered by the U.S. Forest Service north of Gallina, New Mexico, U.S. August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

By Andrew Hay

COYOTE, N.M. (Reuters) – It was the kind of fire that has terrified communities across the drought-ridden U.S. West in the past few years: a ponderosa pine forest ablaze in the mountains of New Mexico filling the air with thick, aromatic smoke.

Except this fire was deliberately set by state penitentiary prisoners, dressed in red flame-resistant clothing and dripping a mix of gasoline and diesel around trees and scrub.

The managed burn — a low-intensity controlled fire – was meant to clear undergrowth and protect the Santa Fe National Forest, and surrounding villages, from future wildfires that are growing more frequent and severe across the West with climate change.

After a century of trying to extinguish blazes within hours, U.S. forest managers are increasingly starting them or letting natural fires burn to clean out fuel that can turn a wildfire into a catastrophe that destroys watersheds and homes.

Above-average moisture levels this summer have reduced the number of large wildfires across the country and allowed more controlled fires that mimic lightning strikes.

“We learned from our mistakes of putting fires out, building up a continuous fuel base,” said James Casaus, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) official running the managed fire near mountains where his grandfather used to burn forest clearings to improve sheep pasture.

The federal shift took on new urgency after wildfires burned over 10 million acres in both 2015 and 2017, the highest rates since 1952, according to National Interagency Fire Center data. At the same time, federal and state firefighting costs more than tripled to more than $4.5 billion in the decade to 2018.

The tipping point came last year when flames engulfed Paradise, California, killing 86 people in the state’s deadliest wildfire on record as the number of homes and structures destroyed nationwide more than doubled from 2017.

Walking around the ruins of Paradise, President Donald Trump blamed the tragedy on California’s poor forest management, even though the blaze began in an area of federal forest.

In December, he signed an executive order to speed projects to reduce “hazardous fuels” through forest thinning, burning and a nearly 20% increase in USFS timber sales.

Environmentalists generally welcomed the shift towards “forest restoration”, but were alarmed by Trump’s tactics, especially increased logging.

LOG JAM OR EXCUSE TO LOG?

The USFS, distrusted by some environmentalists for its role as a giant timber agency during much of its history, in June proposed a change to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to exclude certain projects from environmental assessments (EAs) and public comment to speed hazardous fuel and restoration work.

Controversially, these categorical exclusions included projects to log up to 6.6 square miles (17.09 square km) of forest and were not limited to areas near communities but applied to all national forests.

“What this rule does is it is an excuse to ramp up damaging logging and road-building on national forests,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, who expected the move to be challenged in court.

In an emailed statement, USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen said logging played a role in fuel reduction work, but most of it was achieved by other means.

“While timber production does contribute to hazardous fuels accomplishments, the majority of our annual fuel reduction comes from activities such as non-commercial mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, federally funded state assistance programs, and naturally occurring wildfires,” said Christiansen, a former wildland firefighter.

She said studies of hundreds of past USFS projects showed activities earmarked for exclusion from EAs and public comment posed no significant impact to forest health.

“We found we do more analysis than we need, take more time than we need and slow down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” she said.

GETTING IT DONE

Christiansen expects the 2020 budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 to drive hazard fuel reduction long held back by the cost of fighting fires.

USFS fire suppression costs have skyrocketed since the 1980s as the agency found itself defending the mushrooming number of U.S. homes in areas at risk to wildfires.

Firefighting consumed 57% of the USFS budget in 2018, up from 16% in 1995, forcing the agency to raid other internal programs to pay for rising suppression costs.

Christiansen expects USFS hazardous fuel and restoration work to remain at around 3.4 million acres in 2019 but sees projects increasing in 2020 when “fire borrowing” ends following creation of a disaster fund to pull from should suppression costs go over budget.

“This will make our agency budget more stable and will free up funds to accomplish critical on-the-ground work that creates healthy, resilient forests,” Christiansen said.

U.S. states, which share the burden of frontline and prescribed burns, want some of those liberated funds, given forecasts that wildfire acreage and severity will continue to climb, said Jay Farrell, executive director of the National Association of State Foresters.

Back in New Mexico, Daniel Lara sloshes burning fuel onto scrub oak as fellow New Mexico State Penitentiary inmates torch trees and scrub that, if left to grow, can send fires into the forest canopy, creating a blaze that is difficult to contain.

“It needs to be thinned out, all of it,” says Lara, who received a week’s classroom training, as he started his 12-hour shift in the forest. “Hopefully we’ll get it done.”

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Coyote, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Paul Simao)

UK faces food, fuel and drug shortages, says contested leaked document

FILE PHOTO: A line of trucks is seen during a trial between disused Manston Airport and the Port of Dover of how road will cope in case of a "no-deal" Brexit, Kent Britain January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

By Kate Holton and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will face shortages of fuel, food and medicine if it leaves the European Union without a transition deal, according to leaked official documents reported by the Sunday Times whose interpretation was immediately contested by ministers.

Setting out a vision of jammed ports, public protests and widespread disruption, the paper said the forecasts compiled by the Cabinet Office set out the most likely aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit rather than the worst-case scenarios.

But Michael Gove, the minister in charge of coordinating “no-deal” preparations, challenged that interpretation, saying the documents did set out a worst-case scenario and that planning had been accelerated in the last three weeks.

The Times said up to 85% of lorries using the main Channel crossings may not be ready for French customs, meaning disruption at ports would potentially last up to three months before the flow of traffic improved.

The government also believes a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, will be likely as plans to avoid widespread checks will prove unsustainable, the Times said.

“Compiled this month by the Cabinet Office under the codename Operation Yellowhammer, the dossier offers a rare glimpse into the covert planning being carried out by the government to avert a catastrophic collapse in the nation’s infrastructure,” the Times reported.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it did not comment on leaked documents. But Gove said it was an old document that did not reflect current preparedness.

“It is the case, as everyone knows, that if we do have a no-deal exit there will inevitably be some disruption, some bumps in the road. That’s why we want a deal,” Gove told reporters.

“But it is also the case that the UK government is far more prepared now than it was in the past, and it’s also important for people to recognize that what’s being described in these documents… is emphatically a worst-case scenario,” Gove added.

A government source blamed the leak on an unnamed former minister who wanted to influence negotiations with the EU.

“This document is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available,” said the source, who declined to be named. “It has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders.”

NO TURNING BACK

The United Kingdom is heading toward a constitutional crisis and a showdown with the EU as Johnson has repeatedly vowed to leave the bloc on Oct. 31 without a deal unless it agrees to renegotiate the Brexit divorce.

Yet after more than three years of Brexit dominating EU affairs, the bloc has repeatedly refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said on Twitter he had signed a piece of legislation which set in stone the repeal of the 1972 European Communities act – the laws which made Britain a member of the organization now known as the EU.

Though his move was largely procedural, in line with previously approved laws, Barclay said in a statement: “This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back (from Brexit).”

A group of more than 100 lawmakers wrote to Johnson calling for an emergency recall of parliament to discuss the situation.

“We face a national emergency, and parliament must now be recalled in August and sit permanently until October 31 so that the voices of the people can be heard, and that there can be proper scrutiny of your government,” the letter said.

Johnson will this week tell French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Westminster parliament cannot stop Brexit and a new deal must be agreed if Britain is to avoid leaving the EU without one.

Merkel said during a panel discussion at the Chancellery: “We are prepared for any outcome, we can say that, even if we do not get an agreement. But at all events, I will make an effort to find solutions – up until the last day of negotiations.”

Johnson is coming under pressure from politicians across the political spectrum to prevent a disorderly departure, with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn vowing to bring down Johnson’s government to delay Brexit.

It is, however, unclear if lawmakers have the unity or power to use the British parliament to prevent a no-deal departure, likely to be the UK’s most significant foreign policy move since World War Two.

(Editing by Gareth Jones and David Holmes)

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards impound foreign ship in the Gulf: state TV

FILE PHOTO: Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has seized a foreign ship smuggling fuel in the Gulf, state television quoted Iran’s elite force as saying in a statement on Thursday.

“A foreign vessel smuggling one million litres of fuel in the Larak Island of the Persian Gulf has been seized,” the station said, adding that the ship was seized on Sunday.

Iranian state TV earlier said the seized vessel was the same one Iran towed after it sent a distress call on Sunday, but there was no confirmation of this in the statement issued by the Revolutionary Guards about the impounded vessel.

The Guards, who have yet to name the vessel concerned, said they had seized no other ship in the Gulf.

Iranian navy vessels came to the assistance of a disabled foreign oil tanker in the Gulf that needed repairs, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying on Tuesday by the semi-official news agency ISNA.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jon Boyle)

Indonesian quake survivors scavenging in ‘zombie town’; president ramps up aid

Policemen walk at the ruins of a church after an earthquake hit Jono Oge village in Sigi, Indonesia's Sulawesi island, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said on Wednesday they were scavenging for food in farms as President Joko Widodo made a second visit to the area to ramp up aid efforts five days after disaster struck.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi island last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has yet to be restored.

But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.

Johnny Lim, a restaurant owner reached by telephone in Donggala town, said he was surviving on coconuts.

“It’s a zombie town. Everything’s destroyed. Nothing’s left,” Lim said over a crackling line.

“We’re on our last legs. There’s no food, no water.”

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

In another part of Donggala district, which has a population of 300,000 people, Ahmad Derajat, said survivors were scavenging for food in fields and orchards.

“What we’re relying on right now is food from farms and sharing whatever we find like sweet potatoes or bananas,” said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

“Why aren’t they dropping aid by helicopter?” he asked.

Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, which includes a string of cut-off, small towns along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake’s epicenter.

“Everyone is desperate for food and water. There’s no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing,” Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.

Underlining a growing sense of urgency, President Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.

“What I’ve observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it’s not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

‘PRESIDENT NOT HEARING’

Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an “evacuation” effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.

Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.

“The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu,” he said.

“There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village … There is no aid whatsoever which is why we’re leaving.”

At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colors and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: “Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia”.

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet) scoured its beachfront shortly afterward.

About 1,700 houses in one neighborhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Indonesian Red Cross disaster responders said the village of Petobo, just south of Palu, which was home to almost 500 people, had been “wiped off the map”.

“They are finding devastation and tragedy everywhere,” Iris van Deinse, of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

Nearby, rescue workers, some using an excavator, were searching for 52 children missing since liquefaction destroyed their bible study camp. Bodies of 35 of the children have been found.

Aircraft, tents, water treatment facilities and generators were the main needs for survivors including more than 70,000 displaced people, according to the national disaster mitigation agency spokesman.

Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to quakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Adding to Sulawesi’s woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island, 600 km (375 miles) northeast of Palu, erupted on Wednesday but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Trump administration weighs high-ethanol fuel waiver to placate farmers

A gas pump selling E15, a gasoline with 15 percent of ethanol, is seen in Mason City, Iowa, United States, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Prentice

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering allowing the sale of a higher ethanol fuel blend in the summer, a source familiar with the issue said, a move that would placate corn growers worried about the future of U.S. biofuels policy.

President Donald Trump recently met with the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss ways to make the Renewable Fuel Standard less expensive to the oil industry without undercutting demand for ethanol.

The RFS requires refiners to add increasing volumes of biofuels like corn-based ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply each year. That is a boon to farmers but a headache for refining companies, which must either blend the fuels themselves or purchase credits from those who do.

Over the past several months, Trump has unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal between “Big Oil” and “Big Corn” over the issue, and has faced mounting pressure from lawmakers in the Midwest, who are concerned that he will weaken domestic demand for ethanol at a time farmers are potentially facing a trade war with China that could hurt export demand for corn and soybeans.

Sources had told Reuters this week that Trump was temporarily suspending his consideration of a refining industry-backed proposal to cap prices for blending credits, an idea that the biofuels industry has opposed as damaging to farmers.

But in the meantime, the administration is considering moving forward with plans to allow for the ethanol industry’s long sought waiver to sell gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol in the summer, instead of the usual 10 percent blend, the source familiar with the issue told Reuters on Wednesday.

The higher ethanol blend, called E15, is currently banned by the Environmental Protection Agency because of concerns it contributes to smog on hot days, a worry that biofuels advocates say is baseless.

“EPA has been assessing the legal validity of granting an E15 waiver since last summer,” said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman in an emailed statement, noting the agency is awaiting an outcome from discussions with the White House, the USDA and Congress before making any final decisions or preparing regulatory actions.

White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not comment on the E15 waiver but said that during Trump’s meeting Monday he “instructed his cabinet to continue to explore options that protect American farmers and America’s refinery workers.”

Biofuels proponents have heaped pressure on the White House after reports that the EPA was granting dozens of small refineries exemptions from the RFS to help them avoid the costs of compliance, something the ethanol industry says will weaken demand for their product.

On Monday, Trump acknowledged farmers may bear the brunt of the economic harm if China retaliates against Washington’s threat of tariffs, adding that “we’ll make it up to them.” Many U.S. farmers are battling debt after years of excess global supplies and depressed prices.

“We need some good news out here,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

“The best news (Trump) could give us right now is year-round sales of E15,” he said.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Russian tankers fueled North Korea via transfers at sea

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Guy Faulconbridge, Jonathan Saul and Polina Nikolskaya

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months by transferring cargoes at sea, according to two senior Western European security sources, providing an economic lifeline to the secretive Communist state.

The sales of oil or oil products from Russia, the world’s second biggest oil exporter and a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, breach U.N. sanctions, the security sources said.

The transfers in October and November indicate that smuggling from Russia to North Korea has evolved to loading cargoes at sea since Reuters reported in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.

“The Russian vessels made transfers at sea to the North Koreans,” the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. The source said the transfers of oil or oil products took place on several occasions and were a breach of sanctions.

A second source, who independently confirmed the existence of the Russian ship-to-ship fuel trade with North Korea, said there was no evidence of Russian state involvement in the latest transfers.

“There is no evidence that this is backed by the Russian state but these Russian vessels are giving a lifeline to the North Koreans,” the second European security source said.

In comments carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency on Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country was observing sanctions against North Korea.

The two security sources cited naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating out of Russian Far Eastern ports on the Pacific but declined to disclose further details to Reuters, saying it was classified.

The Russian Customs Service declined to comment when asked on Wednesday if Russian ships had supplied fuel to North Korean vessels. The owner of one ship accused of smuggling oil to North Korea denied any such activity.

SATELLITE DATA

The U.S. State Department, in a statement, called on Russia and other U.N. members to “strictly implement” sanctions on North Korea and to work “more closely together to shut down U.N.-prohibited activities, including ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum and the transport of coal from North Korea”.

The latest report came as China, responding on Friday to criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, denied it had illicitly shipped oil products to North Korea.

North Korea relies on imported fuel to keep its struggling economy functioning. It also requires oil for its intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear program that the United States says threatens the peace in Asia.

“The vessels are smuggling Russian fuel from Russian Far Eastern ports to North Korea,” said the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the vessels had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels, whether the Russian state knew about the sales or how many Russian vessels were involved in the transfers. It was also unclear how much fuel may have been smuggled.

Ship satellite positioning data consulted by Reuters and available on Reuters Eikon shows unusual movements by some of the Russian vessels named by the security sources including switching off the transponders which give a precise location.

The security sources said the Russian-flagged tanker Vityaz was one vessel that had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels.

The Vityaz left the port of Slavyanka near Vladivostok in Russia on Oct. 15 with 1,600 tonnes of oil, according to Russian port control documents.

Documents submitted by the vessel’s agent to the Russian State Port Control authority showed its destination as a fishing fleet in the Japan Sea. Shipping data showed the vessel switched off its transponder for a few days as it sailed into open waters.

According to the European security sources, the Vityaz conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with the North Korean Flagged Sam Ma 2 tanker in open seas during October.

Reuters could not independently verify the transfer as ship tracking data showed that the Sam Ma 2 had turned off its transponder from the start of August.

The owner of the Russian vessel denied any contact with North Korean vessels but also said it was unaware that the vessel was fuelling fishing boats.

OIL PRODUCTS

Yaroslav Guk, deputy director of the tanker’s owner, Vladivostok-based Alisa Ltd, said the vessel had no contacts with North Korean vessels.

“Absolutely no, this is very dangerous,” Guk told Reuters by telephone. “It would be complete madness.”

When contacted a second time, Guk said the vessel did not have any contacts with North Korean ships and that he would not answer further questions.

An official at East Coast Ltd, the vessel’s transport agent, declined to comment.

Two other Russian flagged tankers made similar journeys between the middle of October and November, leaving from the ports of Slavyanka and Nakhodka into open seas where they switched off their transponders, shipping data showed.

In September, Reuters reported that at least eight North Korean ships that left Russia loaded with fuel this year headed for their homeland despite declaring other destinations, a ploy that U.S. officials say is often used to undermine sanctions.

A Russian shipping source with knowledge of Far Eastern marine practices said North Korean vessels had stopped loading fuel in Russia’s Far Eastern ports but that fuel is delivered at sea by tankers using ship-to-ship transfers, or even by fishing vessels.

China on Friday denied reports it had been illicitly selling oil products to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was unhappy that China had allowed oil to reach the isolated nation.

China’s denial came a day after it blocked a U.S. effort at the United Nations to blacklist six ships Washington believes had engaged in illicit trade with North Korea, a U.N. Security Council diplomat said.

According to documents seen by Reuters this month, the United States had proposed that the U.N. Security Council blacklist 10 ships for illicit trade with North Korea.

It accused the vessels of “conducting illegal ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products to North Korean vessels or illegally transporting North Korean coal to other countries for exports.”

Three North Korean ships among the 10 were blacklisted, along with a Panama-registered vessel.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Giles Elgood, Leslie Adler and Alison Williams)

Yemen set to run out of fuel and vaccine in a month: UNICEF

A boy is being treated at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen November 4, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen’s stocks of fuel and vaccines will run out in a month unless a Saudi-led military coalition allows aid into the blockaded port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport, UNICEF’s representative in the country said on Friday.

Meritxell Relano, speaking by phone to reporters in Geneva, said fuel prices had risen 60 percent and there were urgent concerns about a diphtheria outbreak, as well as food shortages because of the port closure.

“The situation that was already catastrophic is just getting worse,” she said. “The impact of this is unimaginable in terms of health and diseases.”

After two years of civil war, Yemen has 7 million people on the brink of famine and has had 900,000 suspected cholera cases in the past six months.

The number of new cases has fallen consistently for the past eight weeks, according to data from the World Health Organization.

But progress against cholera, which has killed 2,196 people, could be reversed by the blockade, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“If the closure is not stopped in the coming days, we may see that the progress is stopped,” Chaib said. “We can see even more cases and more deaths as a result of not being able to get access to people.”

The closure of Hodeidah port prevented a ship setting sail from Djibouti with 250 tonnes of WHO medical supplies on Wednesday. Trauma kits in particular are running short.

“If the hostilities continue and the ports remain closed, we will not be able to perform life-saving surgeries or provide basic healthcare,” Chaib said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche)

 

Convoy rolls into Damascus suburbs with aid for 40,000

Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A convoy from the United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered towns in the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Monday, bringing aid to 40,000 people for the first time since June 2016, the United Nations said.

A tightening siege by government forces has pushed people to the verge of famine in the eastern suburbs, residents and aid workers said last week, bringing desperation to the only major rebel enclave near the Syrian capital.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Twitter they had entered the towns of Kafra Batna and Saqba.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said in a separate tweet that the inter-agency convoy had 49 trucks.

They carried food, nutrition and health items for 40,000 people in need, OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said. “The last time we reached these two locations were in June 2016,” he said.

A health worker in Saqba who was present when the convoy started to offload said that nine trucks of foodstuffs, including milk and peanut butter, and four trucks of medicines had arrived so far.

Technical specialists were on board to assess needs in the towns in order to plan a further humanitarian response, he said.

“More aid to complement today’s delivery is planned in the coming days,” Laerke added.

At least 1,200 children in eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, with 1,500 others at risk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said last week.

Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said the convoy carried nutrition supplies for 16,000 children.

Food, fuel and medicine once travelled across frontlines into the suburbs through a network of underground tunnels. But early this year, an army offensive nearby cut smuggling routes that provided a lifeline for around 300,000 people in the enclave east of the capital.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)