Trump Carbon Plan Attacked by Coastal States, Lauded by Coal Interests

President Donald Trump’s proposal to replace an Obama-era policy to fight climate change with a weaker plan allowing states to write their own rules on emissions from coal-fired power plants was criticized by coastal states, but applauded by coal interests on Wednesday.

Under the proposed Affordable Clean Energy plan that acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler issued in August, the federal government would set carbon emission guidelines, but states would have the leeway to set less stringent standards on coal plants, taking into account the age and upgrade costs of facilities.

The heads of environmental and energy agencies from 14 mostly coastal states, including California, New York and North Carolina, told the EPA in joint comments on the Trump plan that it would result in minimal reductions of greenhouse gases, and possibly result in increased emissions, relative to having no federal program on the pollution.

“We urge EPA to abandon this proposal and instead to maintain or update the (Obama era) Clean Power Plan,” which the states said would fulfill EPA’s obligations under federal clean air law and support the efforts of states to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some states including New York and Virginia have threatened to sue the EPA if the plan becomes law.

The comment period on the plan ends on Wednesday night and a final rule from the EPA is expected later this year.

Coal and some utility interests lauded the Trump plan.

“The proposed ACE rule is a welcome return to federal restraint after years of punitive overreach,” said Hal Quinn, the president and CEO of the National Mining Association, an industry group.

The coal industry had said President Barack Obama’s climate regulations represented a “war on coal,” but Trump’s promises to reduce regulations have not led to a revival, as the industry struggles with competition from an abundance of cheap natural gas. 

Ongoing closings of coal-fired plants have pushed U.S. coal consumption by utilities this year to the lowest since 1983, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In August, the EPA projected the plan would result in $400 million a year in economic benefits and reduce retail power prices by up to 0.5 percent by 2025. The EPA also forecast that under the rule, coal production would rise by up to 5.8 percent by 2025.

The Obama-era plan, which had been put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, set overall carbon-reduction goals for each state.

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Cuba Says Investor Interest Up Despite US Hostility

Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister said on Wednesday the country had signed nearly 200 investment projects worth $5.5 billion since it slashed taxes and made other adjustments to its investment law in 2014.

Cuba began a major effort to attract foreign investment as socialist ally Venezuela’s economy went into crisis and has ratcheted it up as export revenues decline and the Trump administration backtracks on a detente begun under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Foreign investment in Cuba is growing despite the recent strengthening of the U.S. economic, trade and financial blockade, though it is below what we want,” the minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, said at an investment forum in Havana.

Even as the forum unfolded, debate on an annual resolution condemning U.S. sanctions got under way at the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the Trump administration said that on Thursday it would announce new sanctions aimed at Cuba’s military and security services.

Malmierca said 40 new projects were signed over the last year valued at $1.5 billion.

Many agreements are in the tourism sector and are often simple management and marketing accords. Others are in manufacturing, oil exploration and, to a lesser extent, areas such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture and logistics.

Cuba says it wants a minimum $2.5 billion per year in direct foreign investment to dig its way out of years of crisis and stagnation.

While $5.5 billion in deals may have been signed since 2014, the government has said only around $500 million has actually been invested annually, including foreign government credits and donations.

Diplomats and business officials report that many projects are hard pressed to obtain financing and the Communist-run country’s bureaucracy also slows deals from getting off the ground.

For example, since 2014 five golf resorts valued at close to $2.5 billion were signed with British, Chinese and Spanish investors, but ground has yet to be broken on any of them, according to foreign business officials and diplomats with knowledge of the projects.

Malmierca said the country was working to overcome numerous obstacles for investors, such as lengthy delays for project approval, lack of experience among Cuban negotiators and Cuba’s dual monetary system with fixed exchange rates.

Under then-leader Fidel Castro, foreign investment was first nationalized, then, after the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union it was viewed as an unfortunate necessity. Today it is lauded as an integral part of the country’s development strategy.

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US Supreme Court Divided Over How Google Settled Privacy Case

U.S. Supreme Court justices, in an internet privacy case involving Google, disagreed on Wednesday over whether to rein in a form of settlement in class action lawsuits that awards money to charities and other third parties instead of to people affected by the alleged wrongdoing.

The $8.5 million Google settlement was challenged by an official at a Washington-based conservative think tank, and some of the court’s conservative justices during an hour of arguments in the case shared his concerns about potential abuses in these awards, including excessive fees going to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Some of the liberal justices emphasized that such settlements can funnel money to good use in instances in which dividing the money among large numbers of plaintiffs would result in negligible per-person payments. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the high court.

The case began when a California resident named Paloma Gaos filed a proposed class action lawsuit in 2010 in San Jose federal court claiming Google’s search protocols violated federal privacy law by disclosing users’ search terms to other websites. Google is part of Alphabet Inc.

A lower court upheld the settlement the company agreed to pay in 2013 to resolve the claims.

Critics have said the settlements, known as “cy pres” [pronounced “see pray”] awards, are unfair and encourage frivolous lawsuits, conflicts of interest and collusion between both sides to minimize damages for defendants while maximizing fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Supporters have said these settlements can benefit causes important to victims and support underfunded entities, such as legal aid.

During the arguments, several justices, both liberal and conservative, wondered whether the plaintiffs had suffered harm through the disclosure of their internet searches, sufficient to justify suing in federal court, signaling they may dismiss the case rather than deciding the fate of cy pres settlements.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed doubtful that simple searches, of one’s own name for instance, would be enough to sustain a privacy lawsuit.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared to disagree.

“I don’t think anyone would want … everything they searched for disclosed to other people,” Kavanaugh said. “That seems a harm.”

Google agreed in the settlement to disclose on its website how users’ search terms are shared but was not required to change its behavior. The three main plaintiffs received $5,000 each for representing the class. Their attorneys received about $2.1 million.

Under the settlement, the rest of the money would go to organizations or projects that promote internet privacy, including at Stanford University and AARP, a lobbying group for older Americans, but nothing to the millions of Google users who the plaintiffs were to have represented in the class action.

Cy pres awards, which remain rare, give money that cannot feasibly be distributed to participants in a class action suit to unrelated entities as long as it would be in the plaintiffs’ interests.

‘A sensible system’

While wrestling over the privacy aspects of Google searches, the justices also disagreed about the settlement both sides reached. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito raised concerns that the money would go to groups that some plaintiffs might not like but have no say in opposing.

“How can such a system be regarded as a sensible system?” Alito asked.

Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, noted that AARP engages in political activity, an issue that the Google deal’s opponents, led by Ted Frank, director of litigation for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, had raised.

Google has called Frank a “professional objector.”

Roberts also said it was “fishy” that settlement money could be directed to institutions to which Google already was a donor. Some beneficiary institutions also were the alma mater of lawyers involved in the case, Kavanaugh noted.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Frank, who argued the case on Wednesday, that at least the plaintiffs get an “indirect benefit” from the settlement.

“It seems like the system is working,” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal.

In endorsing the Google settlement last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said each of the 129 million U.S. Google users who theoretically could have claimed part of it would have received “a paltry 4 cents in recovery.”

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Fitch Shifts Mexico Debt Outlook From Stable to Negative

Fitch Ratings changed its outlook on Mexico’s long-term foreign-currency debt issues Wednesday from “stable” to “negative,” citing the potential policies of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has tried to smooth anxieties in the business community, but upset many on Monday by cancelling a partly built, $13 billion new airport on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The private sector had strongly backed the airport project, but Lopez Obrador called it wasteful. Instead he plans to upgrade existing commercial and military airports. He made the decision based on a public referendum that was poorly organized and drew only about 1 percent of the country’s voters.

 

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director at Moody’s Analytics, said the decision to cancel the airport project “added not only volatility but also uncertainty to the economy’s future, because it signals that policymaking in the new administration can be based more on such kind of subjective consultation and less on technical or fundamentals consistent with the country’s needs.”

“The cancellation has certainly introduced an element of uncertainty in markets and investors,” Coutino wrote, “which could start affecting confidence and credibility.”

Fitch confirmed its BBB+ investment-grade rating for Mexican government debt, but said Wednesday “there are risks that the follow-through on previously approved reforms, for example in the energy sector, could stall.”

Lopez Obrador has said he will review private concessionary oil exploration contracts granted under current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s energy reform, but won’t cancel them if they were fairly granted. The fear is that future exploration contracts may be delayed or cancelled.

Lopez Obrador won’t take office until December1, but has already announced major policy decisions.

 

Some of his policy announcements – like fiscal restraint, respect for the independence of the central banks and a pledge to avoid new debt – earned praise from investors.

But Fitch noted the decision to cancel the airport “sends a negative signal to investors.”

Lopez Obrador has also pledged to have the state-owned oil company, Pemex, build more refineries to lower imports of gasoline.

Fitch wrote that this type of proposal will “would entail higher borrowing and larger contingent liabilities to the government.”

 

 

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Appendix Removal Linked to Lower Risk of Parkinson’s

Scientists have found a new clue that Parkinson’s disease may get its start not in the brain but in the gut – maybe in the appendix.

People who had their appendix removed early in life had a lower risk of getting the tremor-inducing brain disease decades later, researchers reported Wednesday.

Why? A peek at surgically removed appendix tissue shows this tiny organ, often considered useless, seems to be a storage depot for an abnormal protein – one that, if it somehow makes its way into the brain, becomes a hallmark of Parkinson’s.

The big surprise, according to studies published in the journal Science Translational Medicine: Lots of people may harbor clumps of that worrisome protein in their appendix – young and old, people with healthy brains and those with Parkinson’s.

But don’t look for a surgeon just yet.

“We’re not saying to go out and get an appendectomy,” stressed Viviane Labrie of Michigan’s Van Andel Research Institute, a neuroscientist and geneticist who led the research team.

After all, there are plenty of people who have no appendix yet still develop Parkinson’s. And plenty of others harbor the culprit protein but never get sick, according to her research.

The gut connection

Doctors and patients have long known there’s some connection between the gastrointestinal tract and Parkinson’s. Constipation and other GI troubles are very common years before patients experience tremors and movement difficulty that lead to a Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Wednesday’s research promises to re-energize work to find out why, and learn who’s really at risk.

“This is a great piece of the puzzle. It’s a fundamental clue,” said Dr. Allison Willis, a Parkinson’s specialist at the University of Pennsylvania who wasn’t involved in the new studies but says her patients regularly ask about the gut link.

 

Parkinson’s Foundation chief scientific officer James Beck, who also wasn’t involved, agreed that “there’s a lot of tantalizing potential connections.”

 

He noted that despite its reputation, the appendix appears to play a role in immunity that may influence gut inflammation. The type of bacteria that live in the gut also may affect Parkinson’s.

 

But if it really is common to harbor that Parkinson’s-linked protein, “what we don’t know is what starts it, what gets this whole ball rolling,” Beck said.

For years, scientists have hypothesized about what might cause the gut-Parkinson’s connection. One main theory: Maybe bad “alpha-synuclein” protein can travel from nerve fibers in the GI tract up the vagus nerve, which connects the body’s major organs to the brain. Abnormal alpha-synuclein is toxic to brain cells involved with movement.

There have been prior clues. People who decades ago had the vagus nerve cut as part of a now-abandoned therapy had a reduced risk of Parkinson’s. Some smaller studies have suggested appendectomies, too, might be protective – but the results were conflicting.

Labrie’s team set out to find stronger evidence.

First, the researchers analyzed Sweden’s huge national health database, examining medical records of nearly 1.7 million people tracked since 1964. The risk of developing Parkinson’s was 19 percent lower among those who had their appendix surgically removed decades earlier.

One puzzling caveat: People living in rural areas appeared to get the benefit. Labrie said it’s possible that the appendix plays a role in environmental risk factors for Parkinson’s, such as pesticide exposure.

Further analysis suggested people who developed Parkinson’s despite an early-in-life appendectomy tended to have symptoms appear a few years later than similarly aged patients.

A common protein

That kind of study doesn’t prove that removing the appendix is what reduces the risk, cautioned Dr. Andrew Feigin, executive director of the Parkinson’s institute at NYU Langone Health, who wasn’t involved in Wednesday’s research.

So next, Labrie’s team examined appendix tissue from 48 Parkinson’s-free people. In 46 of them, the appendix harbored the abnormal Parkinson’s-linked protein. So did some Parkinson’s patients. Whether the appendix was inflamed or not also didn’t matter.

That’s a crucial finding because it means merely harboring the protein in the gut isn’t enough to trigger Parkinson’s, Labrie said. There has to be another step that makes it dangerous only for certain people.

“The difference we think is how you manage this pathology,” she said – how the body handles the buildup.

 

Her team plans additional studies to try to tell.

 

The reservoir finding is compelling, Feigin said, but another key question is if the abnormal protein also collects in healthy people’s intestines.

And Penn’s Willis adds another caution: There are other unrelated risks for Parkinson’s disease, such as suffering a traumatic brain injury.

“This could be one of many avenues that lead to Parkinson’s disease, but it’s a very exciting one,” she said.

 

 

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Corporate Pledge to Deal With Plastic Draws Mixed Reaction

More than 250 corporate signatories joined together to try and deal with plastic pollution in an announcement timed to coincide with the 5th Annual “Our Ocean Conference” in Bali, Indonesia.

 

Under terms of the agreement, the companies agreed to, among other things, make all of the plastics they produce recyclable by 2025. The signatories, including Coca-Cola, Danone, and Kellogg, also agreed to a 2025 deadline to increase the amount of recycled plastic they use in the production of their various products.

 

Reoccurring problem

 

Environmental groups like Greenpeace cautiously welcomed the announcement as “moving in the right direction,” but say the agreement is way too open-ended to have much of an impact.

 

The facts are that around the world, according to a recent study, a whopping 91 percent of all plastic is never recycled. And all that plastic ends up in landfills, in the ocean, in the food chain and ultimately in us.

Greenpeace also noted that this agreement doesn’t change much because “corporations are not required to set actual targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics they are churning out. They can simply continue with business as usual after signing the commitment.”  

Business as usual is also how the group Oceana views the agreement. It put out a stronger statement, denouncing the agreement. “None of these companies have committed to stop using plastic, to stop putting plastic into consumer products, or to even offer consumers alternatives.”

 

Less plastic, more recycling

 

Most environmental groups are urging signatory companies like Coca-Cola and UniLever to stop the flow of plastics at the source.

“Every company that signed the declaration should commit to a meaningful, time-bound and specific percent-reduction of the amount of plastic it is putting into the market,” Oceana said in a statement. “…and to find alternative ways to package and deliver its products.”

 

In fact, Greenpeace officials point out that “11 of the largest consumer goods companies’ current plans allow them to increase their use of single-use plastics and none have set clear elimination or reduction targets.”

 

Despite the best intentions of the agreement, most environmental groups say this won’t do much to slow the amount of plastic building up around the world.

 

The companies that signed on, however, say this agreement will allow them to “eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.”

 

Since its beginning, the annual Our Ocean Conference has worked with private companies and governments around the world to protect 12.4 million square kilometers of ocean with monetary commitments worth more than $18 billion.

 

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Birthday Blues for Bitcoin as Investors Face Year-on-Year Loss

Bitcoin was heading towards a year-on-year loss on Wednesday, its 10th birthday, the first loss since last year’s bull market, when the original and biggest digital coin muscled its way to worldwide attention with months of frenzied buying.

By 1300 GMT, bitcoin was trading at $6,263 on the BitStamp exchange, leaving investors who had bought it on Halloween 2017 facing yearly losses of nearly 3 percent.

A year ago, bitcoin closed at $6,443.22 as it tore towards a record high of near $20,000, hit in December.

That run, fueled by frenzied buying by retail investors from South Korea to the United States, pushed bitcoin to calendar-year gains of over 1,300 percent.

Ten years ago, Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s still-unidentified founder, released a white paper detailing the need for an online currency that could be used for payments without the involvement of a third party, such as a bank.

Traders and market participants said the Halloween milestone was inevitable, given losses of around 70 percent from bitcoin’s peak and the continuing but incomplete shift towards investment by mainstream financial firms.

“The value mechanisms of crypto and bitcoin today are based more on underlying tech than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out),” said Josh Bramley, head trader at crypto wealth management firm Blockstars.

Growing use of blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins bitcoin – is now powering valuations of the digital currency, he said, cautioning that some expectations for widespread use have not yet materialized.

Others said improvements to infrastructure such as custody services may allow mainstream investors who are wary of buying bitcoin to take positions.

“We see behind closed doors financial and non-financial institutions beavering away to create the infrastructure,” said Ben Sebley, head of brokerage at NKB Group, a blockchain advisory and investment firm.

Bitcoin has endured year-on-year losses before, according to data from CryptoCompare, most recently in 2015.

Retail investors still account for a strong proportion of trading, market players said.

Investors who bet early on bitcoin and have stuck with it have faced a roller-coaster ride in its first decade. Many told Reuters they are optimistic that they are still onto a winner.

 

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UK-Canadian ‘Grand Committee’ Seeks to Question Zuckerberg

Parliamentary committees in Britain and Canada on Wednesday urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before a joint hearing of international lawmakers examining fake news and the internet.

Damian Collins, the head of the U.K. parliament’s media committee, is joining forces with his Canadian counterpart, Bob Zimmer, to pressure Zuckerberg to personally take part in hearings, as he did before the U.S Congress and the European Parliament. The so-called “international grand committee” session would be held Nov. 27 and could include lawmakers from other countries.

“We understand that it is not possible to make yourself available to all parliaments. However, we believe that your users in other countries need a line of accountability to your organization — directly, via yourself,” the pair said in a letter to Zuckerberg. “We would have thought that this responsibility is something that you would want to take up.”

Social media companies have been under scrutiny in Britain following allegations that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica used data from tens of millions of Facebook accounts to profile voters and help U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. The committee is also investigating the impact of fake news distributed via social media sites globally.

Collins has been irate with Facebook for sending Zuckerberg’s underlings to his committee’s hearings while the leader of the Silicon Valley company declined invitations to attend. Joining forces with Canada — and perhaps other countries — seems designed to prod Zuckerberg and persuade him to change his mind.

“No such joint hearing has ever been held,” the pair wrote. “Given your self-declared objective to ‘fix’ Facebook, and to prevent the platform’s malign use in world affairs and democratic process, we would like to give you the chance to appear at this hearing.”

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Russia Blames Rocket Failure on Technical Malfunction

Russia’s space agency says an investigation has found that a rocket carrying a crew to the International Space Station failed recently because of a technical malfunction of a sensor.

The Soyuz-FG rocket carrying a NASA astronaut and a Roscosmos cosmonaut failed two minutes into the October 11 flight, sending their emergency capsule into a sharp fall back to Earth. They landed safely on Kazakhstan’s steppe, but the aborted mission dealt another blow to the troubled Russian space program that serves as the only way to deliver astronauts to the orbiting outpost.

Roscosmos’ executive director Sergei Krikalyov said Wednesday the probe found that a malfunction of a sensor which signals the jettisoning one of the rocket’s four side boosters caused the booster to collide with the second stage of the rocket.

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Bolsonaro’s Economic Guru Urges Quick Brazil Pension Reform

The future economy minister tapped by Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro insisted on Tuesday that he wanted to fast-track an unpopular pension reform to help balance government finances despite mounting resistance to getting it done this year.

Paulo Guedes, whom Bolsonaro selected as a “super minister” with a portfolio combining the current ministries of finance, planning and development, has urged Congress to pass an initial version of pension reform before the Jan. 1 inauguration.

“Our pension funds are an airplane with five bombs on board that will explode at any moment,” Guedes said on Tuesday. “We’re already late on pension reform, so the sooner the better.”

He called the reform essential to controlling surging public debt in Latin America’s largest economy and making space for public investments to jump-start a sluggish economy. Markets surged in the weeks ahead of Bolsonaro’s Sunday victory on the expectation that he could pull off the tough fiscal agenda.

Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index rose 3.7 percent on Tuesday, boosted by strong corporate earnings and the resolve shown by Guedes on pension reform.

Yet the University of Chicago-trained economist, who is getting his first taste of public service, met with skepticism from more seasoned politicians.

Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, said on Tuesday that reform is urgent, but cautioned that the conditions to pass it were still far off.

Major Olimpio, a lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s own party who helped run his campaign, agreed the political climate was not ready for reform.

Even Bolsonaro’s future chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said in a Monday radio interview that he only expects to introduce a reform plan next year.

After a meeting with Lorenzoni, Guedes said the decision on timing was ultimately a political one that the chief of staff would weigh.

“We can’t go from a victory at the ballot box to chaos in Congress,” Guedes told journalists.

On other issues, Guedes made clear he was the final word on economic matters, laying out plans to give the central bank more institutional independence and clarifying comments made by Lorenzoni about exchange-rate policy.

“You are all scared because he is a politician talking about the economy. That’s like me talking about politics. It’s not going to work,” Guedes said.

Hot Button Issues

While advisers work out the details of his economic program, Bolsonaro revisited some of his most contentious campaign promises on Monday night: looser gun laws, a ban on government advertising for media that “lie,” and urging a high-profile

judge to join his government.

In interviews with TV stations and on social media, Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former Army captain who won 55 percent of Sunday’s vote after running on a law-and-order platform, made clear he would push through his conservative agenda.

Bolsonaro said he wants Sergio Moro, the judge who has overseen the sprawling “Car Wash” corruption trials and convicted former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of graft, to serve as his justice minister.

Barring that, he said he would nominate Moro to the Supreme Court. The next vacancy on the court is expected in 2020.

Bolsonaro had not formally invited Moro as of Tuesday afternoon, and the judge remained noncommittal on the proposal.

“In case I’m indeed offered a post, it will be subject to a balanced discussion and reflection,” Moro said in a statement.

Media Showdown

Late on Monday, Bolsonaro said in an interview with Globo TV that he would cut government advertising funds that flow to any “lying” media outlets.

During his campaign, the right-winger imitated U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of aggressively confronting the media, taking aim at Globo TV and Brazil’s biggest newspaper, the Folha de S.Paulo.

“I am totally in favor of freedom of the press,” Bolsonaro told Globo TV. “But if it’s up to me, press that shamelessly lies will not have any government support.”

Bolsonaro was referring to the hundreds of millions of reais the Brazilian government spends in advertising each year in local media outlets, mainly for promotions of state-run firms.

The UOL news portal, owned by the Grupo Folha, which also controls the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, used Brazil’s freedom of information act as the basis for a 2015 article that showed Globo received 565 million reais in federal government spending in 2014. Folha got 14.6 million reais that year.

Globo said on Tuesday that federal government advertising represented less than 4 percent of the revenue for its flagship channel, TV Globo, without providing more detailed figures.

Grupo Folha did not reply to requests for comment.

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