Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Tree Worth more than Gold

Agarwood. image from wikipedia

To protect incense trees, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trading in agarwood. But Hong Kong does not single out those who destroy or damage the trees for harsh treatment. If an incense tree is on government-managed land, the maximum sentence for cutting it down is the same as it is for felling any other kind of tree on such property: a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,210) and a year in prison.  Such penalties do little to deter thieves from mainland China, who are encouraged by growing demand for exotic medicines among members of the mainland’s fast-growing middle class. Professor C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong reckons that in 2013 high-grade agarwood was worth $1,600 a gram on the black market. That is more than gold. According to Mr Jim, Hong Kong may be the “last refuge” of the tree, so it has become a “honeypot” for tree-snatchers.

Most of the thieves work for criminal gangs based across the border in mainland China. In recent years a relaxation of restrictions on travel from the mainland to Hong Kong has made their work easier. They often pretend to be hikers, sometimes camping out for weeks while gathering the timber. A local NGO has produced a map showing about 200 sites from which it says around 500 trees were stolen in the past year.

Very few incense trees form agarwood, so they are often destroyed indiscriminately. On Lamma, a plaque marks a spot where three young trees were uprooted. A short scramble up a steep slope reveals a gorier scene: splintered woodchips are all that remain of an aged tree. Mr Yeung, the beekeeper, says “hunters” felled and butchered it in situ. As supplies diminish, the gangs are becoming more desperate. Thieves are raiding private gardens; some residents have begun organising patrols to frighten the thieves away. Alarms and monitoring cameras are being installed.

Excerpts from Trees in Hong Kong: Fragrant Arbour, Economist, Feb. 22, 2016, at 37

The Heist: hacking central banks

federal reserve bank ny, Image from wikipedia

Hackers broke into the Bangladesh central bank’s computer systems in early February, 2016, according to the news service, which cited anonymous officials at the financial institution. The attackers stole the credentials needed to authorize payment transfers and then asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to make massive money transfers — nearly three dozen of them — from the Bangladeshi bank’s account with the Fed to accounts at other financial institutions overseas.  Four transfers to accounts in the Philippines, totaling about $80 million, worked. But then a fifth request, for $20 million to be sent to an apparently fictitious Sri Lankan nonprofit group, was flagged as suspicious by a routing bank because of the “fandation” error.

Bangladesh’s central bank was able to stop that transaction after the routing bank asked for confirmation. “The Sri Lankan bank did not disburse it immediately, and we could recover the full amount,” the central bank told the Financial Times.  The requests waiting to be processed — amounting to a total of between $850 million and $870 million, according to an unnamed official cited by Reuters — were also halted. So if it weren’t for that typo, the attackers might have escaped with a bigger payday. Bangladesh’s finance minister has blamed the incident on the Federal Reserve and said his government will “file a case in the international court against” the financial institution, according to the Dhaka Tribune. A New York Fed spokesman denied the accusation, telling The Washington Post in a statement that “there is no evidence of any attempt to penetrate Federal Reserve systems in connection with the payments in question” or that the institution’s systems were compromised. The spokesman said the payment instructions were “fully authenticated” using standard methods.

Excerpts from Andrea Peterson Typo thwarts hackers in $1 billion cyber heist on Bangladesh central bank, Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2016

Germans to Decontaminate Ukraine, Nuclear Waste

image from http://www.dmt-group.com/en/services/engineering/nuclear-waste-disposal.html

A consortium of four German companies has been awarded a contract to improve infrastructure for managing radioactive waste, the rehabilitation of contaminated areas and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Ukraine.  The consortium – comprising Brenk Systemplanung, DMT, Plejades and TÜV Nord EnSys – was awarded the contract for the project, which is within the framework of the European Union-funded Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC). The INSC is designed to support non-EU countries in improving nuclear safety. The contract will run for an initial two-year period and have a maximum budget of €1.5 million ($1.6 million).

According to the tender notice, the main objectives of the contract are to support the Ukrainian State Corporation ‘Radon’ in establishing an emergency response system for “radiation incidents involving unauthorized radioactive materials that are not related to nuclear power plant operation”. It also calls for the establishment of integrated, automated monitoring systems for radiation and environmental protection at Radon facilities, as well as the remediation of radioactive waste storage sites resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and situated outside the exclusion zone.

In a statement yesterday, DMT said it will jointly lead with TÜV Nord EnSys Hannover the assessment of some 50 radioactive waste storage sites.

Excerpts from German consortium awarded Ukrainian waste contract, World Nuclear News, Mar. 2, 2016

Fishermen + Farmers Against Shell

shell gas station. Image from wikipedia

Tens of thousands of Nigerian fishermen and farmers are suing multinational oil giant Shell in two new lawsuits filed on March 2, 2016 in a British High Court, alleging that decades of uncleaned oil spills have destroyed their lives.  London law firm Leigh Day & Co. is representing them after winning an unprecedented $83.5 million in damages from Shell in a landmark ruling by the same court last year. Shell originally offered villagers $50,000.

In a statement on March 2, 2016 before the trial opened, Shell blamed sabotage and oil theft for the ongoing pollution and noted it had halted oil production in 1993 in Ogoniland, the area where the two communities are located in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern Niger Delta.  Shell said it will challenge the jurisdiction of the British court.

The Ogoni are among the most traumatized of millions of Nigerians suffering oil pollution since the late 1950s….

Excerpts from  MICHELLE FAUL, Nigerians sue Shell in UK court for oil spills contamination, Associated Press, Mar. 2, 2016

How to Discover an Illegal Logger

Image from http://blog.globalforestwatch.org/2016/02/how-did-the-worlds-forests-change-last-week-new-alerts-show-us/?utm_campaign=glad%20alerts&utm_source=blog&utm_medium=caption&utm_content=gif

Tropical forests nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed by 2050 if current trends continue causing species loss, displacement and a major increase in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Prior to the launch of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts, researchers would have to manually track images of logging in specific areas.

The new process, developed by scientists at the University of Maryland and Google, uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity.”This is a game changer,” said Matt Finer from the Amazon Conservation Association, an environmental group.

His organization tracks illegal logging in Peru, sending images of deforestation to policymakers, environmentalists and government officials to try and protect the Amazon rainforest.  In the past, he would rely on tips from local people about encroachment by loggers, then look at older satellite images to try and corroborate the claims.

“With this new data we can focus on getting actionable information to policy makers,” Finer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  “We have seen how powerful these images can be,” he said, citing a case where his group brought pictures of illegal gold miners cutting down trees to the Peruvian government, who then removed the miners.

Excerpt from  CHRIS ARSENAULT, New satellite program aims to cut down illegal logging in real time, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016

Who is Relishing Nuclear Power

Daya Bay nuclear power plant in Longgang District, Shenzhen, China

On February 23, 2016, China General Nuclear Power Group, hosted dozens of business executives from Kenya, Russia, Indonesia and elsewhere, as well as diplomats and journalists, at its Daya Bay nuclear-power station to promote the Hualong One for export.  Asked how much of the global market share for new nuclear reactors CGN wants Hualong One to win, Zheng Dongshan, CGN’s deputy general manager in charge of international business, said: “The more the better.”

The move marks a turnaround for China and the nuclear-power industry. For three decades, China served as a big market for nuclear giants including U.S.-based, Japanese-owned Westinghouse Electric Co. and France’s Areva SA. More than 30 reactors have been built across China since the 1990s with reliance on foreign design and technology.

China’s push into nuclear power comes as many nations have been re-examining the risks of nuclear energy and its costs compared with natural gas and other fuels. Two dozen reactors are under construction across China today, representing more than one-third of all reactors being built globally, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The scale and pace of building has given CGN and other Chinese companies opportunities to bulk up on experience in the home market and gain skills in developing reactor parts, technologies and systems. That experience, combined with China’s lower costs of labor and capital, makes the new Chinese reactor potentially attractive to international customers, industry experts said…

[T]he first of Hualong One model reactor won’t enter service in China for several more years.  But the Hualong One reactor marks a big leap by China’s national nuclear champions to move up the export value chain. Jointly designed by CGN and China National Nuclear Corp., the reactor, also known as the HPR1000, has similar specifications to other so-called Generation 3 reactors such as Westinghouse’s AP1000, like advanced so-called passive safety systems.

China Inc’s Nuclear Power Push, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2016

On Gas and Freedom

Interior of tank of ship carrying LNG

[A] tanker chartered by Cheniere Energy, an American company, left a Louisiana port this week with the first major exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas, or LNG. This shipment isn’t going to Europe, but others are expected to arrive by spring.  “Like shale gas was a game changer in the U.S., American gas exports could be a game changer for Europe,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Union’s energy chief.

Many in Europe see U.S. entry into the market as part of a broader effort to challenge Russian domination of energy supplies and prices in this part of the world. Moscow has for years used its giant energy reserves as a strategic tool to influence former satellite countries, including Lithuania, one of the countries on the fringes of Russia that now see a chance to break away.

Some are building the capacity to handle seaborne LNG, including Poland, which opened its first import terminal in 2015. In Bulgaria, which buys about 90% of its gas from Russia, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said last month that supplies of U.S. gas could arrive via Greek LNG facilities, “God willing.”… Deutsche Bank estimates the U.S. could catch up with Russia as Europe’s biggest gas supplier within a decade, with each nation controlling around a fifth of the market. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas via pipeline….The U.S. will compete with Russia, Norway, U.K., Australia and others in Europe’s gas market. Germany, for example, gets half its gas and Italy a third from Russia.Low prices also mean natural gas could compete with coal and help Europe achieve its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions .In Lithuania, officials have accused Moscow of engaging in a campaign of espionage and cyberwarfare to keep its share of the lucrative energy market….

Bulgarian officials allege Russia bankrolled a wave of street protests in 2012 that forced the government to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration. In 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then-head of NATO, told reporters that Russia was covertly funding European environmental organizations to campaign against shale gas to help maintain dependence on Russian gas.

Until 2014, Gazprom owned 37% of Lithuania’s national gas company, Lietuvos Dujos, and dominated its boardroom, said current and former officials.“There was no negotiation about gas prices,” said Jaroslav Neverovic, Lithuania’s energy minister from 2012 to 2014. He said Gazprom would send Lietuvos Dujos a list of gas prices, which the board automatically approved..  In 2015,  [though] Lithuania began receiving Norwegian LNG, reducing Gazprom’s gas monopoly to a market share of less than 80%. In the months before the terminal opened, Gazprom lowered Lithuanian gas prices by 23% and it remained cheaper than Norwegian gas. Still, Lithuania plans to increase its purchase of Norwegian gas this year. The U.S. is next….

Klaipeda’s mayor, Mr. Grubliauskas, said during a recent interview at his office, decorated with photographs of U.S. naval drills in the port: “U.S. LNG is more than just about gas. It’s about freedom.”

Excerpts With U.S. Gas, Europe Seeks Escape From Russia’s Energy Grip], Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 2016