Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

Toyota, Mazda Choose Alabama for New $1.6 Billion Car Plant

January 10, 2018

Auto makers plan to formally announce location on Wednesday

Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. will build a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama, according to people familiar with the companies’ decision, a move that boosts their production capacity in the U.S. and adds to large and growing foreign auto maker presence in the southern state.

Toyota and Mazda first announced plans in August for the new plant, which will create 4,000 jobs and make up to 300,000 vehicles a year by 2021. Toyota has said it would build 150,000 Corolla models and Mazda will use the rest of the capacity for an unspecified model.

Alabama is home to three other vehicle assembly plants operated by foreign auto makers: Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unit, Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. In September, Daimler said it would invest $1 billion at its Alabama facilities on top of the $5.8 billion it has spent in the state since it began vehicle production there in 1997.

The selection of Huntsville comes a year after Toyota was criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump for plans to build a new plant in Mexico. The Japanese company announced plans within days of that to spend $10 billion in the U.S. over the next five years.

The two companies plan to formally announce the location, which had not previously been disclosed, at a press conference Wednesday in Montgomery, the state capital, the people familiar with their decision said.

Reuters earlier reported news of the location of the factory.

Toyota, the world’s largest auto maker, already has a major manufacturing presence in the Midwest and South with factories in Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas. The Alabama plant would be its fifth assembly plant in the U.S. For Mazda, the plant’s opening would mark the first time it is building cars in the U.S. since it stopped manufacturing vehicles with Ford Motor Co. in 2012 in Michigan.

The Japanese auto maker has invested heavily in manufacturing operations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a multidecade effort to produce more cars closer to where it sells them.

The site of the new plant is close to an existing Toyota engine plant in Huntsville, which currently produces four-cylinder, V-6 and V-8 engines. That factory, Toyota’s largest engine plant in the world, produced more than 702,000 engines in 2016, according to the state of Alabama’s commerce department.

Toyota and Mazda’s plan to build the new plant set off a race among at least 11 states to woo the companies. The shortlist included Alabama and several other states with existing Toyota facilities such as Indiana, Kentucky and Mississippi.

The new plant is being planned as U.S. auto sales plateau and demand for sedans, such as the Corolla, are slipping amid low gasoline prices. Auto makers have been trying to balance production capacity through a combination of production slowdowns and higher incentives.

The Corolla production in Alabama was originally earmarked for a new plant in Mexico, which drew President Trump’s ire early last year in the form of a tweet saying “No way!”

Toyota now says that factory to be built in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato will make Tacoma pickups instead, adding to output of that mid-sized truck from existing plants in Tijuana and San Antonio. It also has scaled back the scope of the new plant in Mexico, halving an annual production target to 100,000 vehicles and cutting planned spending by 30% to $700 million.

Mazda has been producing hatchbacks and sedans at its own factory in Guanajuato since early 2014, about half of which are exported to the U.S. and Canada.

—Adrienne Roberts and Dudley Althaus contributed to this article

 https://www.wsj.com/articles/toyota-mazda-choose-alabama-for-new-1-6-billion-car-plant-1515547727
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The Rise of Untraceable ‘Ghost Guns’

January 4, 2018

An emerging black-market gun-making industry lets buyers bypass background checks and gun regulations, authorities say

 

Axel Galvez had a deal: $7,500 for five untraceable semiautomatic rifles. And he had a buyer: a felon who planned to ship them overseas. Now, he just needed weapons that would be invisible to regulators.

To avoid background checks, Mr. Galvez bought rifle parts, then assembled the five guns at the Los Angeles machine shop where he worked. He offered to build his buyer 100 more for $130,000.

An underground gun-making industry that enables criminals to elude background checks and bypass gun regulations is creating a growing trade of “ghost guns,” weapons that can’t be traced by police, authorities say.

Mr. Galvez’s buyer turned out to be a government informant; the 36-year-old machinist pleaded guilty in November to unlawful firearms manufacturing and dealing, according to court documents.

Ghost guns have been in the spotlight since a Northern California man, who was prohibited from possessing firearms because of a restraining order, killed five people in a November rampage using semiautomatic rifles that he made himself, police say. Other gunmen have employed the weapons as well. In 2016, a Baltimore man fired at police with a homemade AR-15, and Santa Monica shooter John Zawahri  used a ghost gun in his shooting spree that killed five in 2013.

The number of these weapons in the U.S. is unknown. Because the guns bear no serial numbers, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is unable to track them. Serial numbers and gun registration play a key role in police and government investigations, allowing officers to trace a weapon’s history and owners.

Ghost guns appear to be most prevalent in California, where there are restrictions on assault weapons that make it difficult to buy guns that are available in other states. But the firearms have been seized in criminal investigations in other states, including Arizona, Maryland, New York and Texas.

Graham Barlowe,  resident agent in charge at the Sacramento, Calif., ATF field office, said the weapons are “a huge problem in my area.”

About 250 ghost guns were seized or purchased in undercover buys by his Sacramento agents in 2017, he said. While statistics from the previous year weren’t available, Mr. Barlowe noted that his office has seen a rise in the number of busts. The ATF doesn’t keep track of ghost gun seizures nationwide.

“It went from being a niche group of people that were into the gun culture that were the ones making them for themselves,” said Mr. Barlowe. “Now, they’ve become so commonplace we’re buying them from 17-year-old gang-members on the street.”

The starting point for building a ghost gun is an “unfinished receiver,” a metal or polymer piece that houses the firing mechanism. It can be purchased online without a background check, because the ATF doesn’t classify the part as a firearm.

Buyers can finish the receiver with a drill press or a computerized metal-cutting machine and then add the remaining pieces, all of which are readily available online. Some gun parts can also be made using 3-D printers.

A finished receiver is considered a firearm by the ATF.

“There is a loophole under federal law that allows an individual to make a firearm,” said  Justin Lee, a federal prosecutor in Sacramento who has handled several ghost gun cases. “That loophole only extends to that person. The person breaks the law as soon as they are transferring that firearm.”

Mr. Galvez, the Los Angeles machinist, now faces up to 10 years in federal prison. His attorney,  Lawrence Strauss, said his client wasn’t any sort of illicit gun trafficker and “was just looking for a way to make extra money.”

The prevalence of online retailers and YouTube instructional videos has given ghost guns a boost, according to Mr. Barlowe. He said illicit gun dealers can buy parts for an AR-15 style rifle for about $700, put in a few hours of sweat equity, and sell it on the street for $1,000 to $2,000.

Related Reading

  • House Votes to Ease Laws on Carrying Guns (Dec. 6)
  • Bipartisan Effort Would Tighten Gun-Purchase Background Checks (Nov. 16)
  • Texas Gunman Had a Violent Past, but It Didn’t Prevent Him From Buying Guns (Nov. 6)

One Elk Grove, Calif., man caught by Mr. Barlowe’s team pleaded guilty early last year to selling 92 AR-15 style rifles, five handguns and 88 silencers, all without serial numbers, for $264,500 over a six-month period in 2015

Companies that sell the unfinished receivers and gun-rights advocates including the Firearms Policy Coalition say law-enforcement concerns are overblown. People who make these guns are generally hobbyists who “want to build things with their own hands,” said  Tilden Smith, president of 80% Arms, which manufactures unfinished receivers and sells them online.

“There are much easier ways [to get guns] that’ll appeal to criminals,” said Mr. Smith.

Gun-owners distrustful of registering their firearms with the government also are customers. “Unserialized, Unregistered” is the slogan for GhostGuns.com, which sells handgun kits, unfinished receivers, and other items. Kyle Martin, president of Ghost America LLC, which runs the site, said customers “want to enjoy their complete freedom as American citizens.”

The emerging market has begun to attract scrutiny from gun-control groups and state lawmakers. Mr. Martin’s company was recently targeted by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The nonprofit, which promotes gun control and fights gun violence, sent a letter to his web host asking it to shut down GhostGuns.com for allegedly violating the terms of service, an allegation Mr. Martin denied.

The California State Legislature passed a bill in 2016 that would have defined unfinished receivers as firearms requiring background checks. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the legislation, saying the wording of the bill was vague and could have unintended consequences, but he signed a separate law that will make California the first state to require anyone who owns a firearm without a serial number to apply for one by 2019. The National Rifle Association opposed the legislation.

Write to Zusha Elinson at zusha.elinson@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-rise-of-untraceable-ghost-guns-1515061800

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Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in October. She survived an assassination attempt in 2011. 

CreditJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Buying a fully assembled gun is a process subject to a host of regulations and restrictions, especially in states like California that tend to be more stringent.

But anyone can make a gun at home.

The do-it-yourself route is often favored by gun enthusiasts, including hobbyists and competitive shooters. It can also be a path to gun ownership for felons and people with mental illnesses or those who have been convicted of domestic violence.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, part of the gun safety group founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former representative from Arizona who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, is calling on two internet service providers to disable websites that sell materials and tools to create homemade weapons. Such weapons, often referred to as ghost guns, were used in a mass shooting in Northern California this month.

The websites, ghostgunner.net and ghostguns.com, allow customers to bypass background checks and build unregistered firearms without serial numbers.

The guns are legal as long as they are intended for personal use, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Individuals cannot sell or distribute firearms unless they are licensed by the bureau.

Because homemade guns cannot be tracked, it’s hard to know just how prevalent they are.

Even so, in the United States, there has been “a growing number of cases involving homemade guns, some of which were high-profile active shootings by precisely the sort of people who are prohibited from buying the weapons,” Mark A. Tallman, who teaches at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Center for the Study of Homeland Security, said in an email.

It’s a concern in other countries, too.

“In foreign jurisdictions with stricter controls, homemade guns are quickly becoming a more pressing problem,” said Dr. Tallman, who has spent the last several years studying tracing data and D.I.Y. weapons. “In Australia for example, homemade guns are now conservatively estimated at 10-20 percent of illegal weapons seized by police.”

Kyle Martin, the president of Ghost Guns, said in an email on Sunday that his company follows all state and federal laws.

“We deal with a lot of customers that are hobbyists,” Mr. Martin wrote. “The customers we have come into contact with usually already own firearms, have the mechanical skills to complete the manufacturing process and come from all walks of life, including many military and law enforcement.”

A spokesman for DreamHost, which hosts ghostguns.com, said in an email on Saturday that the legality of the website’s content was being reviewed.

Shopify, the web host for ghostgunner.net, would not comment on individual merchants, a spokeswoman said in an email, but will “investigate material reported to us and take action” if a merchant violated its policies.

Ghost Gunner, which sells various gun components and machines used for gunsmithing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Cody Wilson, who runs the website, told The Associated Press that the company’s products comply with federal regulations.

Read the rest:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/27/us/ghost-guns-gabby-giffords.html

Houston Police Arrest Armed Man In High-Rise Hotel New Year’s Eve Venue In What Could Have Been Las Vegas-Style Shooting

December 31, 2017
© AFP | Houston police were called to deal with a “drunk, belligerent suspect” 

WASHINGTON (AFP) – 

Police in Houston, Texas said Sunday they had arrested a belligerent man in possession of a number of guns at a high-rise hotel where a major New Year’s celebration is planned.

The arrest, coming as cities across the country and around the world were preparing New Year’s Eve celebrations, sparked fears of a repeat of the Oct. 31 mass shooting from a hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada, that left 58 killed and hundreds wounded.

Houston police said they had yet to determine whether the man had any ill intent. They have yet to release his identity.

Police Lieutenant Gordon Macintosh said police were called to the Hyatt Regency Hotel shortly after midnight to deal with a “drunk, belligerent suspect.”

The first officers to respond had to call for backup when the man refused to comply with their orders, Macintosh said in a video interview carried on the Houston Chronicle website.

When police escorted the man back to his room, they found “several guns,” Macintosh said. Other news media described these as including an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a handgun, as well as a large quantity of ammunition.

The suspect was arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon as well as for trespassing, Macintosh said. But he said the man was so intoxicated that police were not immediately able to interview him.

The Hyatt says its New Year’s Eve party spans four floors, featuring live performances and the dropping of 50,000 balloons at midnight. A hotel employee said the party was still on despite the “disturbance.”

The Oct. 31 shooting from a high-rise hotel in Las Vegas by a heavily armed 64-year-old man, who killed himself as police closed in, was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Police in other cities have said they are taking extraordinary security measures around the year-end celebrations, most prominently at Times Square in New York, where police said they would deploy rooftop observers and counter-snipers in more buildings than usual, as well as patrolling hotels.

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Intoxicated man found with small arsenal on top floor of Hyatt Regency downtown, police say

By Megan Kennedy – Content Editor

HOUSTON – A man has been arrested on multiple charges after police located a small arsenal of guns on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency on Louisiana Street downtown, Houston police said.

Police at the hotel called for backup around 1:30 a.m. Sunday after they attempted to arrest the man for being intoxicated and trespassing. When help arrived, police noticed ammunition laying around the man’s hotel room, Lt. Gordon Macintosh with Houston police said.

 

The man was arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon and trespassing. When investigators looked into his room further, they located an AR-15, a shotgun, a handgun and lots of ammunition, Macintosh said.

The Hyatt is preparing its own New Years Eve celebration at the hotel with a 50,000 balloon drop at the stroke of midnight, its website said.

The man’s white Chevrolet Silverado was located and towed to be searched and examined, Macintosh said.

Police are waiting to interview the man until he has sobered up, Macintosh said.

Situation from this morning at downtown hotel is contained. No specific threats to @HoustonTX@houstonpolice will be heavily deployed throughout the city to include SWAT react teams. Proud of officers & Hyatt. As always be vigilant & report suspicious a activity to authorities.

Investigators are working to learn more about this incident.

The Hyatt Regency Houston has released the following statement:

The safety and security of our guests and colleagues is our top priority, and consistent with the hotel’s prepared security plans, heightened measures are in place on New Year’s Eve. We are fully cooperating with authorities on an investigation, and further questions should be directed to the Houston Police Department.

https://www.click2houston.com/news/intoxicated-man-found-with-small-arsenal-on-top-floor-of-hyatt-regency-downtown-police-say

Fracking Our Way to Mideast Peace

December 12, 2017

Low oil prices have so eroded Arab states’ power, they now see Israel as a protector.

Fracking Our Way to Mideast Peace
PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Whatever you think of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it points to the most important strategic reality in the Middle East: Arab power has collapsed in the face of low oil prices and competition from American frackers.

The devastating oil-price shocks of the 1970s, orchestrated by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, nearly wrecked the world economy. Ever since, the U.S. has looked for ways to break OPEC’s parasitic and rent-seeking grip on the oil market—and thereby to reduce America’s geopolitical vulnerability to events in the Middle East.

Victory did not come easily. Intense conservation efforts made the U.S. much more energy-efficient. New oil discoveries in Africa and elsewhere significantly broadened the available supply. Renewable energy sources added to the diversification. But the most decisive development was that decades of public and private research and investment unleashed an American oil-and-gas boom, leading to a revolution in energy markets that has sent geopolitical shocks through world affairs.

The consequences reverberate in the Middle East and beyond. Future oil revenues to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Russia and Iraq will fall trillions of dollars short of what once might have been expected. The shift in energy markets will benefit consumer economies like Japan, China, India and the nations of the European Union. The U.S. and similarly situated nations, like Australia and Canada, can look forward to faster growth and greater foreign investment, since they will capture much of the oil revenue that Russia and OPEC lose.

Low energy prices already have given the EU’s struggling southern countries a chance to return to growth. They have limited Russia’s prospects and forced Vladimir Putin onto a tight budget. They have largely offset the gains Iran had hoped to make from signing the nuclear deal and escaping Western sanctions.

But the greatest consequences are being felt in the Arab world, where the long-term decline in oil revenues threatens the stability of many states. It is not only the oil producers that will suffer; the prosperous Gulf economies have been a major source of opportunity for Egyptians, Pakistanis, Palestinians and many other Middle Easterners.

The shining cities that rise where the desert meets the Gulf may be in for harder times. The sheikhdoms’ glassy skyscrapers, gleaming malls and opulent apartment complexes were conceived for a world in which runaway energy demand and limited sources (remember “peak oil”?) led to inexorably rising prices. These fragile and artificial economies require hothouse conditions that a weakened OPEC can no longer provide. Now the great Gulf Bubble seems set to slowly deflate.

There’s more. The staggering affluence of the Gulf countries during the OPEC era concealed the Arab world’s failure to develop states and economies capable of competing effectively in the 21st century. As their dream of revival through oil riches fades, they are waking to a new era of weakness and dependency.

The Gulf states increasingly see Israel not as an insect to be crushed by resurgent Arab power, but as a lion that can defend them from Iran. Syria, once a citadel of Arab nationalism, now haplessly hosts Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish forces that the Assad dynasty can neither control nor evict.

Arab diplomats, lobbyists and financiers must brace for more bad news: As the declining long-term prospects of the OPEC states become apparent, their diplomatic and economic influence across the West can be expected to wane even further.

Many analysts look at the frustrations of America’s policy in the Middle East and conclude that the U.S. is in retreat and hegemonic decline. That misses the deeper truth. American diplomacy has had its share of failures, but the region is now being fundamentally reshaped by drillers in Texas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere.

Even with OPEC’s hold broken, the Middle East will remain a problem for American policy. Moreover, not all the consequences of OPEC’s decline are good. In the short term, Russia and Iran are likely to double down on adventurous foreign policies as a way of distracting their populations from the tough challenges ahead. Instability in America’s key Gulf allies and in Egypt could create major headaches for the U.S.

Nevertheless, reducing OPEC’s ability to capture rents, while forcing more corrupt petrostate oligarchies to contemplate reform, is likely over time to reduce both the costs and the risks of American foreign policy. This is what winning looks like.

Mr. Mead is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fracking-our-way-to-mideast-peace-1513035925

Electricity Prices Plummet as Gas, Wind Gain Traction and Demand Stalls — ‘It’s too late’ for coal

November 30, 2017

Texas is a microcosm of pressures facing power generators; ‘It’s too late’ for coal

The rapid rise of wind and natural gas as sources of electricity is roiling U.S. power markets, forcing more companies to close older generating plants.

Wholesale electricity prices are falling near historic lows in parts of the country with competitive power markets, as demand for electricity remains stagnant while newer, less-expensive generating facilities continue to come online.

he changing American electricity landscape is pressuring power companies to shed unprofitable plants and reshape their portfolios to favor the new winners. Texas provides a clear example.

Citing low gas prices and the proliferation of renewables such as wind and solar, Vistra Energy Corp. , a vestige of the former Energy Future Holdings Corp., said it would retire three coal-fired facilities in Texas by early next year and that it plans to merge with independent power producer Dynegy Inc.

Exelon Corp. , the country’s largest owner of nuclear power plants, placed its Texas subsidiary under bankruptcy protection earlier this month, saying that “historically low power prices within Texas have created challenging market conditions for all power generators.”

The average wholesale power price was less than $25 per megawatt hour last year on the grid that coordinates electricity distribution across most of Texas, according to the operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. A decade ago, it was $55.

Prices have fallen a similar amount on the PJM Interconnection LLC, the power grid that serves some or all of 13 states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. A megawatt hour there traded for $29.23 last year, the lowest level since 1999, as far back as the grid’s independent market monitor tracks prices.

The price drop at PJM reflects the construction of dozens of new gas-burning power plants, spurred by the abundance of the fuel due to the shale drilling boom. In 2006, 8% of the electricity in PJM was generated by natural gas. In 2016, it was 27%.

Weak demand for electricity also has played a role, as Americans purchase more energy-efficient appliances and companies shave power consumption to cut costs. Last year, power demand in PJM grew 0.3% after falling the two previous years.

In competitive regions in places like California, wholesale electricity is sold through daily auctions that favor the least-expensive sources of power. Photo: Getty Images

The resulting competition—by more power plants to buyers of roughly the same number of megawatts—has most-acutely impacted older coal and nuclear plants, which are struggling to provide competitively priced power. It has even begun to affect older natural-gas-fired facilities that have higher costs.

“Generators are just fighting for existing market share,” said Ari Peskoe, a senior fellow in electricity law at Harvard Law School. “The aging fleet of coal and nuke generators, combined with low prices, makes this intense.”

FirstEnergy Corp. , an Akron, Ohio-based utility, announced late last year it was exiting competitive power markets. It is selling four natural-gas plants and hopes to sell coal and nuclear plants that provide power in the PJM wholesale marketplace.

This summer, power company NRG Energy Inc. announced a transformation plan that included selling up to $4 billion in power generation.

West of the Mississippi River, power markets also have been upended by the rapid growth of wind, as the cost of generating power from wind turbines is falling.

In 2016, all of the new generation built in the Southwest Power Pool, a grid that covers an area from Louisiana to Montana, was wind, gas and solar. The vast majority of the retirements were coal and nuclear plants.

Wind is the fastest-growing source of power on Texas’ grid. Last year, wind generated 15% of the electricity in ERCOT, more than nuclear power, which accounted for 12%. By 2019, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute expect wind to surpass coal as ERCOT’s second-largest source of electricity.

“Solar and wind are now competitive with natural gas-fired generation,” said Curt Morgan, Vistra’s chief executive. Mr. Morgan said that while he thinks natural gas will be the “workhorse” of U.S. electricity markets for at least the next decade, in Texas “I think it’s going to be a while before you see another gas plant built in ERCOT.”

Last week, Siemens AG said it was cutting 6,900 jobs, in large part because it has overestimated demand for its giant power turbines.

The changes have primarily been felt in competitive power markets, which exist in many parts of the U.S., including California in addition to Texas and the Midwest. In those areas, wholesale electricity is sold through daily auctions that favor the least-expensive sources of power, and it is subsequently purchased by utilities and others.

By contrast, some regions of the U.S. don’t have competitive power markets, and instead have power generated entirely by utilities, which is sold to customers at rates regulated by state officials. Even in regulated markets, changes are afoot. Earlier this week, WEC Energy Group Inc. said it was closing its Pleasant Prairie coal plant in Wisconsin, citing a desire to add more gas and solar generation.

As companies face price pressures, some have sought aid from the government. Exelon has been pushing states to create new subsidies for them.

“Unless we value the zero emission attributes of nuclear, that is going to force the premature retirement of nuclear plants,” said Joe Dominguez, an executive vice president at Exelon.

The Trump administration is aiming to provide a lifeline to the ailing coal and nuclear industries through several proposals, including a plan floated by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to assist power plants that provide constant, baseload power to ensure ample energy security.

But that proposal, which has to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has been assailed by critics as both anticompetitive and unlikely to reverse market trends.

An analysis by investment bank Lazard shows that on an unsubsidized basis and over the lifetime of a facility in North America, it costs about $60 to generate a megawatt hour of electricity using a combined-cycle natural-gas plant, compared with $102 burning coal and nearly $150 using nuclear. By that criteria, Lazard estimates electricity from utility-scale solar and wind facilities is now even cheaper than gas.

“It’s too late,” David Schlissel, a director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said of the Trump administration’s proposals. “The lesson is if you don’t put your thumb on the scale then gas and renewables will out-compete coal.”

Chris Moser, senior vice president of operations at NRG, said the challenge in many parts of the U.S. now is to ensure a diverse mix of power resources so that if one encounters issues, others can fill in.

In PJM, Mr. Moser said cost pressures prompted NRG to retrofit some units to run on gas instead of coal. Meanwhile, it retired a 44-year-old natural-gas plant in Houston known as Greens Bayou Unit 5 earlier this year, as the low cost of gas continues to put pressure on older facilities, even those burning gas. The company also has units slated to retire in California.

“If the market isn’t paying us to keep the generation around we want to take it out,” he said, adding, “Yes, you could go all wind, but then you have no answers when it’s 109 in Dallas and there’s no wind.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/electricity-prices-plummet-as-gas-wind-gain-traction-and-demand-stalls-1512043200

How Texas killed welfare: ‘We spend our dollars on anything but poor families’

November 30, 2017

Texas is home to almost 10% of poor Americans, but over the past two decades, it has vastly curtailed the money it provides in cash assistance

By 

Alexa Ura is a reporter with the Texas tribune

‘Texas has a long history of regarding welfare as a last resort for needy Texans’.

‘Texas has a long history of regarding welfare as a last resort for needy Texans’. Photograph: Nicolas Raymond/Creative Commons

Vakesa Townson didn’t plan to fall into poverty.

Married and the mother of two kids, she had lived a comfortable life in north Texas. But after her 17-year marriage ended and she became her family’s main provider, she struggled to make ends meet.

“I needed support,” Townson said. “I felt like I was starting over with nothing.”

A support group and the folks at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth encouraged her to apply for government assistance, including food stamps for groceries and Medicaid for her kids. But she didn’t check the box in her application that would have allowed her to apply for cash assistance. Working a part-time job that brought home $200 to $230 a month, she might not have qualified anyway.

Townson’s predicament is not unusual for Texans in need. Poor Texans will often find jobs and work to advance out of poverty, but then be disqualified from receiving public benefits well before leaving poverty behind, said Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.

“I don’t think that’s what anybody intends to do,” said Reynolds, whose clients are mostly classified as working poor. “It’s just the reality of what we face sometimes.”

Though Texas’s poverty rates have remained mostly consistent, it has significantly curtailed the amount of traditional welfare it provides to poor Texans through cash assistance over the last two decades, instead putting more of its federal anti-poverty dollars toward funding core state services, plugging budget holes or funding other programs that provide services to residents with higher incomes than those who qualify for cash welfare.

Federal law allows such disbursements, and state officials say those spending choices are spurred in part by a drop in the number of Texans qualifying for cash assistance. But social workers and service providers who help poor Texas families say those decisions result in a porous safety net that complicates the struggles of residents like Townson, who are too poor to make ends meet but make too much to qualify for temporary cash aid from the government.

“There’s this myth that welfare exists,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning thinktank. “In Texas, it doesn’t.”

To qualify for $290 a month, you can’t make more than $188

.
Texas’s reduction in traditional welfare rolls dates to 1996, when Congress reformed welfare and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tanf) program, which gives Texas hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat poverty.

At the program’s inception, hundreds of thousands of poor single-parent families and children – a monthly average of 479,000 in 1998 – received cash aid through federal Tanf dollars. But the number of poor residents who receive help has plummeted. As of July 2017, the latest available count, fewer than 60,000 Texans – most of them children – remained on the welfare rolls, usually receiving at most a few hundred dollars a month.

Welfare reform was designed to reduce the number of people on welfare by emphasizing temporary assistance and getting people into work. But the drop in the state’s welfare rolls isn’t necessarily the result of a concerted effort to pull Texans out of poverty. The state’s poverty rate has hovered between 16% and 18% for the last decade. It wasn’t until recent years that Texas saw a larger drop in its poverty rate – currently at 15.6% – mostly due to rising incomes and not because of more welfare recipients moving out of poverty.

Instead, the number of low-income Texans who can get help has been reduced by caps on how long a family can obtain benefits, which are based on a person’s education or recent work experience, and strict income eligibility rules that make qualifying for cash aid a tall order for even the poorest families, advocates say.

To qualify for a maximum of $290 in monthly cash aid today, a family of three – with one parent and two children – cannot make more than $188 a month, barring a few exceptions. That income eligibility – several hundred dollars less than what a family of three can make and still be considered to be living in poverty – has hardly been adjusted since welfare reform.

“It’s been frozen, and 20 years of inflation has meant fewer and fewer people can qualify because it’s so low you really have to be destitute,” Cooper said.

By 2015, only four out of every 100 poor families with children in Texas received cash assistance – down from 47 in 1996, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research institute.

Texas has a long history of regarding welfare as a last resort for needy Texans. Even before federal welfare reform, state lawmakers were working to tighten limits for assistance in Texas. And modest increases to benefits enacted soon after welfare reform were passed because they were approved with little fanfare, appropriations officials said at the time.

Texas’s approach to welfare benefits has pushed it toward the bottom of state rankings for the percentage of households receiving public cash assistance, according to US Census Bureau data dating back a decade. In 2016, Texas ranked last.

That’s despite Texas being home to almost one out of every 10 poor Americans.

A food bank coordinator, Eddie Sanchez, meets with a client in Austin, Texas.

A food bank coordinator, Eddie Sanchez, meets with a client in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Marjorie Kamys Cotera


While the drop in cash assistance has left Texans in need with a less secure safety net, it has freed up hundreds of millions of federal dollars for legislative budget writers.

Welfare reform set Texas up to receive federal anti-poverty funds in the form of block grants meant to give state governments more flexibility in how they spent those dollars. That spending had to fit within four broad categories: to assist needy families so children can be cared for in their homes or homes of relatives; to reduce dependency on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; to prevent or reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and to encourage two-parent families.

With declining welfare rolls, lawmakers have used federal Tanf dollars to cover a range of expenses, including core state functions like Child Protective Services (CPS).

Of the more than $520m in federal Tanf funds that state legislators appropriated for each of the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, more than $358m was earmarked for the department of family and protective services, which includes CPS. Tanf dollars will make up approximately 17.5% of the agency’s entire budget for the 2018-19 budget years.

The current state budget also uses Tanf funding to prop up the budgets for early childhood intervention services and mental health state hospitals. Another $3m a year will go toward the Alternatives to Abortion program. The Texas Education Agency will also receive almost $4m a year in Tanf dollars for “school improvement and support programs”.

“We spend our Tanf dollars on anything but poor families,” said Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Those spending decisions will probably perpetuate a negative trend in the share of total Tanf dollars Texas spends on basic assistance to poor families, which dropped from 59% in 1997 to about 7% in 2014, according to spending data collected by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

State budget writers push back against the notion that the legislature chose to spend less on cash assistance for poor Texans.

Texas’s spending on cash aid depends completely on the number of people who qualify and sign up for benefits, they argued. And that drop has freed up more money to spend on other state needs, said the state senator Jane Nelson, a Republican of the town of Flower Mound and the senate’s chief budget writer.

“The good thing about block grants is that we are able to provide benefits to everyone who qualifies and allocate the remaining funds to address important needs such as Child Protective Services,” Nelson said in a statement. “These are appropriate uses of Tanf funds, and they are an essential part of our effort to better protect endangered children.”

Advocates for low-income Texans don’t argue that these aren’t worthy causes. But they say they’re just not the best use for dollars meant to combat poverty in the state.

“It’s this $500m-a-year piggy bank,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a not-for-profit organization that oversees a statewide network of food banks. “It’s totally taken away from meaningful services … It leaves very little to cash assistance or employment and training that could help people get out of poverty.”

Where should the money go?
Once Tanf dollars are used to fund critical services like CPS, it’s tough to advocate for a change that will create a hole in the budget and put the delivery of other human services in a bind, Cole added.

In 2016, Tanf ranked as the state’s ninth-biggest federal funding source.

Others have gone farther in their characterizations of the state’s Tanf spending priorities. During a 2013 US House ways and means subcommittee hearing, representative Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, referred to Tanf as a “slush fund” that states use to fund services they were or should have been funding themselves and questioned whether states had been given “too much flexibility” under welfare reform.

Not all those who are helping low-income Texans make ends meet oppose the state’s Tanf spending priorities. Some not-for-profit providers underlined the importance of flexibility and allowing states to be nimble with federal resources in ways that can best serve local communities. Others pointed out that some of the services funded through Tanf dollars back up a “holistic approach” to addressing the needs of poor Texans.

“I do think that there are some great strategies that are funded with Tanf dollars that impact vulnerable populations,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, which helps low-income Texans sign up for public benefits.

But Cooper added he sees the “temptation” the state’s spending flexibility presents at a time when poor Texans “could use more dollars to gap-fill” their needs. He echoed other providers who expressed reservations about the state’s wide discretion with disbursements.

“What we need to make sure is that that money actually gets to nonprofit and government providers who will actually use it to improve outcomes for those living in poverty,” said Reynolds of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. “And I do think there has been the temptation to use it to help with other budget crunches and we need to make sure to stay away from that.”

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and Feeding Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here
This piece was co-produced with the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs and engages Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

This story was produced with the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/30/texas-welfare-spending-poor-families

Sen. Richard Blumenthal says “enough is enough” after Texas church shooting — At least 26 people killed in shooting at Texas church

November 6, 2017

Last Updated Nov 5, 2017 11:28 PM EST

CBS News

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said he is “heartbroken” for all of those who were affected by the deadly shooting at a baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Sunday — and he called on Congress to act.

“Horror, heartbreak, shame. Prayers are important but insufficient. After another unspeakable tragedy, Congress must act — or be complicit,” Blumenthal wrote in the wake of the shooting.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Now is the time for commonsense gun violence prevention steps. Congressional complicity must end.”

Heartbroken for victims, loved ones, and all affected by the horrific tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Horror, heartbreak, shame. Prayers are important but insufficient. After another unspeakable tragedy, Congress must act – or be complicit.

Enough is enough. Now is the time for commonsense gun violence prevention steps. Congressional complicity must end.

Blumenthal represents the state that suffered its own tragic shooting in 2012, when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 students and six teachers.

He has since become a vocal critic of members of Congress calling for “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of similar violent shootings — most recently joining the chorus of fellow senators calling for a revision in the nation’s gun laws in the days that followed last month’s Las Vegas massacre.

Fellow Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents the district of Newtown and is another vocal critic of gun violence, tweeted his reaction to the shooting, writing, “Oh my god.”

At least 26 people were killed in the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference Sunday night.

The shooting suspect has been identified as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, CBS News has learned from federal law enforcement sources.

Kelley is a former U.S. Air Force member who served from 2010 to 2014. He was dishonorably discharged and court martialed in May 2014, CBS News has learned.

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At least 26 people killed in shooting at Texas church

Story highlights

  • The shooter has been identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, according to law enforcement sources
  • Kelley was a member of the US Air Force and served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico

(CNN)At least 26 people were killed in Sunday’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a press conference.

About 20 others were wounded, said Freeman Martin, a regional director with the Texas Department of Public Safety, with victims ranging in age from 5 to 72 years old.
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Among the dead is the 14-year-old daughter of the First Baptist Church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, according to his wife, Sherri Pomeroy, the girl’s mother. The couple were traveling out of state when the shooting occurred.
Authorities have not said what may have motivated the suspected shooter, who was later found dead in his vehicle.
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The shooting has devastated the small Texas town east of San Antonio, described as a place where “everybody knows everybody.”

Here are the latest developments:

  • The suspected shooter has been identified as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, according to two law enforcement sources who have been briefed on the investigation.
  • In April 2016, Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle he used in the shooting from an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio, Texas, a law enforcement official said. He indicated he didn’t have a disqualifying criminal history when he filled out the background check paperwork at the store, the official said. Kelley listed a Colorado Springs, Colorado, address when he bought the gun.
  • Kelley was a member of the US Air Force and served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
  • Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for assault on his spouse and assault on their child, according to Stefanek. Kelley served a year in prison and received a bad conduct discharge in 2014, the spokeswoman said. His rank was also reduced, she said.
  • Speaking from Japan, President Donald Trump condemned the shooting as an “act of evil” and called it “horrific.”
  • “We don’t know names of any of the victims at this time,” said Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt in a press conference Sunday evening. As victims are identified, next of kin will be notified, he said.

The attack

Without naming Kelley, Martin described the shooter in Sunday’s press conference as a young white male who was dressed in all-black “tactical-type gear” and wearing a ballistic vest.
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Martin said the suspect was seen in a Valero gas station across the street from the church in Sutherland Springs at about 11:20 a.m. local time on Sunday morning.
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The suspect left the gas station, crossed the street, exited his vehicle and began firing before he entered the church, Martin said.
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As the suspected shooter left the church, a local resident used their own rifle to engage him, Martin said. The shooter then fled the church, while the citizen pursued him.
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Much more at CNN:
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US oil exports boom, putting infrastructure to the test

October 30, 2017

(Shutterstock)

NEW YORK/HOUSTON: Tankers carrying record levels of crude are leaving in droves from Texas and Louisiana ports, and more growth in the fledgling US oil export market may before long test the limits of infrastructure like pipelines, dock space and ship traffic.

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US crude exports have boomed since the decades-old ban was lifted less than two years ago, with shipments recently hitting a record of 2 million barrels a day. But shippers and traders fear the rising trend is not sustainable, and if limits are hit, it could pressure the price of US oil.
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How much crude the United States can export is a mystery. Most terminal operators and companies will not disclose capacity, and federal agencies like the US Energy Department do not track it. Still, oil export infrastructure will probably need further investment in coming years. Bottlenecks would hit not only storage and loading capacity, but also factors such as pipeline connectivity and shipping traffic.
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Analysts believe operators will start to run into bottlenecks if exports rise to 3.5 million to 4 million barrels a day. RBC Capital analysts put the figure lower, around 3.2 million bpd.
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The United States has not come close to that yet. A total of the highest loading days across Houston, Port Arthur, Corpus Christi and St. James/New Orleans — the primary places where crude can be exported — comes to about 3.2 million bpd, according to Kpler, a cargo tracking service.
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But with total US crude production currently at 9.5 million barrels a day and expected to add 800,000 to 1 million bpd annually, export capacity could be tested before long. Over the past four weeks, exports averaged 1.7 million bpd, more than triple a year earlier.
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“Right now, there seems to be a little more wiggle room for export levels,” said Michael Cohen, head of energy markets research at Barclays.
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“Two to three years down the road, if US production continues to grow like current levels, the market will eventually signal that more infrastructure is needed. But I don’t think a lot of those plans are in place right now.”
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If exports do hit a bottleneck, it would put a ceiling on how much oil shippers get out of the country. Growing domestic oil production and limited export avenues could sink US crude prices.
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Shippers have booked vessels to go overseas in recent weeks because the premium for global benchmark Brent crude widened to as much as $7 a barrel over US crude , making exports more profitable for domestic producers.
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Export Plans
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Exports could hit 4 million bpd by 2022, an Enterprise Products Partners LP executive told an industry event in Singapore recently.
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Though some operators are already eyeing expansion plans, there are limitations, said Carlin Conner, chief executive at SemGroup Corp, which owns the Houston Fuel Oil Terminal. SemGroup has three docks for exporting crude and is building additional ones.
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“There aren’t very many terminals with the needed pipeline capabilities, tank farm capacity and proper docks to load the ships … Adding this is expensive and not done easily. So there are limitations to unfettered export access,” he said.
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For instance, exports are expected to start from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) in early 2018 at around one supertanker a month, according to two sources. The LOOP is potentially a key locale for exports. Its location 18 miles (29 km) offshore means it can handle larger vessels than other, shallower ship channels.
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While LOOP can load around 40,000 barrels per hour, operating at that capacity is not likely because that same pipe is used to offload imports, the sources added. LOOP did not respond to a request for comment.
In Houston, when looking at the top 30 loading days, crude exports averaged 700,000 bpd, Kpler added. That includes Enterprise’s Houston terminal, among the largest of the export facilities, that had 615,000 bpd.
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Other terminal operators are also developing additional facilities. NuStar Energy LP currently can load between 500,000 to 600,000 bpd at its two docks in Corpus Christi, which has about 1 million in capacity, according to a port spokesman. NuStar is developing a third dock, which should come online either late first quarter or early second quarter.
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In Houston, Magellan Midstream Partners LP is planning a new 45-foot draft Aframax dock for mid-2018. Aframax vessels can carry about 500,000 to 700,000 barrels of crude.

US hiring falls 33,000 after hurricanes slam Texas, Florida

October 6, 2017

By Christopher Rugaber
The Associated Press

Phil Wiggett

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. lost 33,000 jobs in September after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Texas, Florida and other Southeastern states. It was the first decline in six years.

The Labor Department says the unemployment rate fell to 4.2 percent from 4.4 percent, the lowest level since February 2001.

Looking past the hurricanes’ impact, the job market and economy generally look healthy. Some economists expect job growth to rebound in the coming months as businesses in the area reopen and construction companies ramp up repair and renovation work.

Last month’s drop was driven by huge losses in a restaurants and bars, which shed 105,000 jobs, a sign of the damage to Florida’s tourism industry.

Trump heads to Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage

October 3, 2017

By Jill Colvin

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is heading to San Juan on Tuesday to meet with some of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, as criticism that the federal government’s response has been sluggish continues.

The president is expected to spend more than five hours on the island, meeting with first responders, local officials and some of the residents struggling to recover from a hurricane that, in Trump’s words, left the island U.S. territory “flattened.”

“There’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out,” Trump said last week. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it.”

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The trip will be Trump’s fourth to a region battered by storms during an unusually violent hurricane season that has also seen parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands inundated by floodwaters and whipped by winds.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to attend briefings, visit a church, and meet with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, as well as the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. They’ll also meet with Navy and Marine Corps personnel on the flight Deck of the USS Kearsarge.

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USS Kearsarge

Even before the storm hit on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was in dire condition thanks to a decade-long economic recession that had left its infrastructure, including the island’s power lines, in a sorry state. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century and unleashed floods and mudslides that knocked out the island’s entire electrical grid and telecommunications, along with many roads.

Nearly two weeks later, 95 percent of electricity customers remain without power, including some hospitals. And much of the countryside is still struggling to access basic necessities, including food, fresh water and cash.

Trump and other administration officials have worked in recent days to reassure Americans that recovery efforts are going well and combat the perception that the president failed to fully grasp the magnitude of the storm’s destruction in its immediate aftermath.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday the trip would focus on local recovery efforts, “which we’re fully committed to.”

“The top priority for the federal government is certainly to protect the lives and the safety of those in affected areas and provide life-sustaining services as we work together to rebuild their lives,” she said.

While early response efforts were hampered by logistical challenges, officials say that conditions, especially in the capital, have improved.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and forty-five percent of customers now have access to drinking water. Businesses are also beginning to re-open, with 60 percent of retail gas stations now up and running.

For many, however, that isn’t enough. On Monday, the nonprofit Oxfam announced that it would be taking the rare step of intervening in an American disaster, citing its outrage over what it called a “slow and inadequate response.”

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Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj

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