Hit by Sanctions, Asia’s Iran Crude Oil Imports Drop to 3-Year Low in 2018

Iranian crude oil imports by Asia’s top four buyers dropped to the lowest volume in three years in 2018 amid U.S. sanctions on Tehran, but China and India stepped up imports in December after getting waivers from Washington.

Asia’s top four buyers of Iranian crude — China, India, Japan and South Korea — imported a total 1.31 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018, down 21 percent from the previous year, data from the countries showed.

That was the lowest since about 1 million bpd in 2015, when a previous round of sanctions on Iran led to a sharp drop in Asian imports, Reuters data showed.

The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports last November as it wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with the country. U.S. officials have said they intend to reduce the Islamic Republic’s oil exports to zero.

On a monthly basis, Asia’s imports from Iran rebounded to a three-month high of 761,593 bpd in December as China and India stepped up purchases after Washington granted eight countries waivers from the Iranian sanctions for 180 days from the start of November.

“We expect Iranian exports to Asia to remain stable at around 800,000 barrels per day until May, when the waivers expire,” said Energy Aspects analyst Riccardo Fabiani.

In December, China’s imports climbed above 500,000 bpd for the first time in three months, while India’s imports rose above 302,000 bpd.

Japan and South Korea did not import any Iranian crude that month because they were still sorting out payment and shipping issues, but the countries have resumed oil lifting from Iran this month.

During the 180-day period, China can import up to 360,000 bpd of Iranian oil, while India’s imports are restricted to 300,000 bpd. South Korea can import up to 200,000 bpd of Iranian condensate.

“After May, it will all depend on the U.S. administration’s decisions, which at the moment remain completely obscure. On balance, they are likely to extend the current waivers, although rumors are that there could be a significant cut in waivered volumes,” Fabiani said.

As a precaution, Indian Oil Corp, the country’s top refiner, is looking for an annual deal to buy U.S. crude as it seeks to broaden its oil purchasing options, its chairman said Wednesday.

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Facebook Takes Down Vast Iran-Led Manipulation Campaign

Facebook said Thursday it took down hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries.

The world’s biggest social network said it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.”

The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake identities as residents of those nations, according to a statement by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

The announcement was the latest by Facebook as it seeks to stamp out efforts by state actors and others to manipulate the social network using fraudulent accounts.

“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.

“We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post. In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The operators “typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events,” including “commentary that repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” Gleicher said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review linked these accounts to Iran.”

The operation dating back to as early as 2010 had 262 pages, 356 accounts, and three groups on Facebook, as well as 162 accounts on Instagram and were followed by about two million users.

Facebook said the fake accounts were part of an influence campaign that operated in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, U.S., and Yemen.

Facebook began looking into these kinds of activities after revelations of Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 U.S. election, aimed at sowing discord.

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US Researchers Looking For Long Lasting Ebola Vaccine

The World Health Organization reports that more than 700 people have been sickened with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And now, neighboring countries of South Sudan and Rwanda are bracing for the virus to spread. But, half a world away, U.S. researchers are hoping to develop a new, long-lasting vaccine against Ebola. VOA’s Carol Pearson has more.

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Ghirardelli, Russel Stover Fined over Chocolate Packaging

Ghirardelli and Russell Stover have agreed to pay $750,000 in fines after prosecutors in California said they offered a little chocolate in a lot of wrapping.

Prosecutors in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Shasta, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Yolo counties sued the candy makers, alleging they misled consumers by selling chocolate products in containers that were oversized or “predominantly empty.”

Prosecutors also alleged that Ghirardelli offered one chocolate product containing less cocoa than advertised.

The firms didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to change their packaging under a settlement approved earlier this month. Some packages will shrink or will have a transparent window so consumers can look inside.

San Francisco-based Ghirardelli and Kansas City-based Russell Stover are owned by a Swiss company, Lindt & Sprungli.

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Apple Busts Facebook for Distributing Data-Sucking App

Apple says Facebook can no longer distribute an app that paid users, including teenagers, to extensively track their phone and web use.

In doing so, Apple closed off Facebook’s efforts to sidestep Apple’s app store and its tighter rules on privacy.

The tech blog TechCrunch reported late Tuesday that Facebook paid people about $20 a month to install and use the Facebook Research app. While Facebook says this was done with permission, the company has a history of defining “permission” loosely and obscuring what data it collects.

“I don’t think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission,” mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. “There is simply no way the users understood this.”

He said Facebook’s claim that users understood the scope of data collection was “muddying the waters.”

Facebook says fewer than 5 percent of the app’s users were teens and they had parental permission. Nonetheless, the revelation is yet another blemish on Facebook’s track record on privacy and could invite further regulatory scrutiny.

And it comes less than a week after court documents revealed that Facebook allowed children to rack up huge bills on digital games and that it had rejected recommendations for addressing it for fear of hurting revenue growth.

For now, the app appears to be available for Android phones, though not through Google’s main app store. Google had no comment Wednesday.

Apple said Facebook was distributing Facebook Research through an internal-distribution mechanism meant for company employees, not outsiders. Apple has revoked that capability.

TechCrunch reported separately Wednesday that Google was using the same privileged access to Apple’s mobile operating system for a market-research app, Screenwise Meter. Asked about it by The Associated Press, Google said it had disabled the app on Apple devices and apologized for its “mistake.”

The company said Google had always been “upfront with users” about how it used data collected by the app, which offered users points that could be accrued for gift cards. In contrast to the Facebook Research app, Google said its Screenwise Meter app never asked users to let the company circumvent network encryption, meaning it is far less intrusive.

Facebook is still permitted to distribute apps through Apple’s app store, though such apps are reviewed by Apple ahead of time. And Apple’s move Wednesday restricts Facebook’s ability to test those apps — including core apps such as Facebook and Instagram — before they are released through the app store.

Facebook previously pulled an app called Onavo Protect from Apple’s app store because of its stricter requirements. But Strafach, who dismantled the Facebook Research app on TechCrunch’s behalf, told the AP that it was mostly Onavo repackaged and rebranded, as the two apps shared about 98 percent of their code.

As of Wednesday, a disclosure form on Betabound, one of the services that distributed Facebook Research, informed prospective users that by installing Facebook Research, they are letting Facebook collect a range of data. This includes information on apps users have installed, when they use them and what they do on them. Information is also collected on how other people interact with users and their content within those apps, according to the disclosure.

Betabound warned that Facebook may collect information even when an app or web browser uses encryption.

Strafach said emails, social media activities, private messages and just about anything else could be intercepted. He said the only data absolutely safe from snooping are from services, such as Signal and Apple’s iMessages, that fully encrypt messages prior to transmission, a method known as end-to-end encryption.

Strafach, who is CEO of Guardian Mobile Firewall, said he was aghast to discover Facebook caught red-handed violating Apple’s trust.

He said such traffic-capturing tools are only supposed to be for trusted partners to use internally. Instead, he said Facebook was scooping up all incoming and outgoing data traffic from unwitting members of the public — in an app geared toward teenagers.

“This is very flagrantly not allowed,” Strafach said. “It’s mind-blowing how defiant Facebook was acting.”

 

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Trump Order Asks Federal Fund Recipients to Buy US Goods

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Thursday pushing those who receive federal funds to “buy American.” The aim is to boost U.S. manufacturing.

Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing the policies are helping workers who “are blue collar, Trump people.” Later he amended that, saying he “every American is a Trump person” because Trump’s economic policies affect everyone.

 

Navarro said the order would affect federal financial assistance, which includes everything from loans and grants to insurance and interest subsidies.

 

He says some 30 federal agencies award over $700 billion in such aid each year. Recipients working on projects like bridges and sewer systems will be encouraged to use American products.

 

 

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Protecting Pollinators is Crucial to Food Production

Scientists in Kenya are warning that poor agricultural practices and climate change are decimating bees and other vital pollinators. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says about $575 billion worth of annual global food production relies directly on pollinators. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

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Need for Speed: Carts on Rails Help Manila’s Commuters Dodge Gridlock

Thousands of commuters flock to Manila’s railway tracks every day, but rather than boarding the trains, they climb on to wooden carts pushed along the tracks, to avoid the Philippine capital’s infamous traffic gridlock.

The trolleys, as the carts are known, most of them fitted with colorful umbrellas for shade from the sun, can seat up to 10 people each, who pay as little as 20 U.S. cents per ride, cheaper than most train rides.

“I do this because it gives us money that’s easy to earn,” said Reynaldo Diaz, 40, who is one of more than 100 operators, also known as “trolley boys,” who push the carts along the 28-km (17-mile) track, most wearing flimsy flip-flops on their feet.

“It’s better than stealing from others,” said Diaz, adding that he earned around $10 a day, just enough for his family to get by. A trolley boy since he was 17, he lives in a makeshift shelter beside the track with his two sons.

Diaz said the trolley boys were just “borrowing” the track from the Philippine National Railways, but the state-owned train company has moved to halt the trolley service after the media drew attention to its dangers recently.

The risk arises because those pushing and riding the trolleys have to watch out for the trains to avoid collisions.

“Of course we get scared of the trains,” said Jun Albeza, 32, who has been a trolley boy for four years after he was laid off from plumbing and construction jobs.

“That’s why, whenever we’re pushing these trolleys, we always look back, so we can see if there’s a train coming. Those in front of us will give us a heads-up too.”

When a train approaches, the trolley boys quickly grab the lightweight carts off the track and jump out of the way along with their riders.

Still, there have been no fatal accidents since the makeshift service started decades ago, some of the trolley boys told Reuters.

A Manila police officer confirmed that records showed no casualties related to the trolley boys.

“It is really dangerous and should not be allowed, But we understand that it’s their livelihood,” said the officer, Bryan Silvan. “They’re like mushrooms that just popped up along the tracks and they even have their own association.”

When the Philippine National Railways began operation in the 1960s, its network of more than 100 stations extended to provinces outside Manila.

But neglect and natural disasters have since caused it to cut back operations by two-thirds, even as the capital’s population has ballooned to about 13 million.

For office workers and students, the minutes shaved off daily commutes justify the risks of trolley rides.

“The distance to our workplaces is actually shorter through this route,” said one office worker, Charlette Magtrayo.

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Lawmakers Attempt to Rein in President’s Tariff Power

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to limit the president’s power to levy import tariffs for national security reasons. The bills face an uncertain future but underscore bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill over the rising costs of the Trump administration’s trade policies.

The United States in 2018 slapped duties on aluminum and steel from other countries, drawing criticism from lawmakers who support free trade and complaints of rising supply chain costs across business sectors.

Two bipartisan groups of lawmakers Wednesday introduced legislation known as the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The bills would require Trump to have congressional approval before taking trade actions like tariffs and quotas under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The law currently allows the president to impose such tariffs without approval from Capitol Hill.

“The imposition of these taxes, under the false pretense of national security (Section 232), is weakening our economy, threatening American jobs, and eroding our credibility with other nations,” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

Toomey led a similar push last year that did not go to a vote.

It is unclear that Congress would consider taking up such legislation now. Still, the bills underscore mounting pressure from lawmakers to address concerns over tariffs, especially those on Canada and Mexico as lawmakers prepare to vote on a new North American trade deal agreed to late last year.

​Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, earlier pressed the Trump administration to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico before Congress begins considering legislation to implement the new pact.

Numerous business and agricultural groups have come out in support of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, but have said its benefits will be limited so long as the U.S. tariffs and retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico remain in place.

Companies are able to request exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs, but the process has been plagued by delays and uncertainty.

“Virginia consumers and industries like craft beer and agriculture are hurting because of the president’s steel and aluminum tariffs,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner, co-sponsor of the Senate legislation. “This bill would roll them back.”

Republicans Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Darin LaHood of Illinois and Democrats Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Jimmy Panetta of California introduced the House legislation.

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Extreme Cold Causes Misery Across US

Hundreds of millions of Americans spent Wednesday seeking relief from some of the coldest weather ever recorded in the continental United States. 

Officials said temperatures were below the freezing mark in 85 percent of the country, excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

Chicago recorded a low temperature of about minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 Celsius) — not a record, but close to it. Minneapolis recorded minus 27 F (minus 32 C). In Sioux Falls, S.D., the mercury dropped to minus 25 F (minus 31 C).

Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 F (minus 45 C) or worse in several parts of the Midwest.

Downtown Chicago streets were largely deserted after most offices told employees to stay home. Trains and buses operated with few passengers; engineers set fires along tracks to keep commuter trains moving. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh to protect against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.

The city used transit buses, with nurses on board, as emergency warming centers for the homeless.   

  

Doctors in Minneapolis said they were treating cases of what they called fourth-degree frostbite, in which limbs are frostbitten down to the bone.

Mail carriers, known for making deliveries through rain, sleet and snow, draw the line at life-threatening cold. The U.S. Postal Service canceled mail service in parts of 11 states Wednesday.

With nine weather-related deaths reported so far, the cold was spreading east into New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Commuters and schoolchildren could expect to wake up to temperatures in the single or low double digits Fahrenheit in Washington, Baltimore, New York and Boston.

Meteorologists blamed the weather on a breakup of the polar vortex — cold air above the North Pole that has been pushed south across North America because of a blast of desert heat from North Africa.

Experts said it was possible that climate change was playing a part in the extreme cold. But they said it was hard to pinpoint the cause of a single weather event such as this week’s cold blast.

“It is not out of bounds with the historical record,” University of Miami professor Ben Kirtman said. “You get storms that are bigger than other storms. There is a big part of this that is part of the natural variability of the climate.”

 

WATCH: Polar Vortex Sends Frigid Air Through North America

Government scientists said increased moisture in the atmosphere because of global warming might bring on a higher number of severe snowstorms in the winter and more powerful hurricanes in the summer.

This week’s cold weather will be just a memory within a few days. Forecasters predicted temperatures in the mid-40s F on Sunday and low 50s F on Monday in Chicago. In Washington, the temperatures are expected to be in the mid- to upper 50s for those two days.

Some information for this report from the Associated Press.

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