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US Diplomat: Russia Gas Pipeline to Boost Grip on Ukraine, Europe

Russia is seeking to boost its power in Europe and grip over Ukraine with the proposed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, the top U.S. energy diplomat said on Monday, in a step-up of Washington’s rhetoric against the pipeline.

“Through Nord Stream 2, Russia seeks to increase its leverage of the West while severing Ukraine from Europe,” Francis Fannon, the U.S. assistant secretary for energy resources at the State Department, told reporters in a teleconference.

The pipeline has been opposed both by President Donald Trump, a Republican, and his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama as a political tool for Russia to consolidate power over Europe.

Much of the gas that Europe currently gets from Russia via pipeline goes through Ukraine, which collects billions of dollars in transit charges making up to 3 percent of its gross domestic product.

If Nord Stream 2, which aims to bring Russian gas to Western Europe via the Baltic Sea, and TurkStream, a pipeline to bring gas from Russia to Turkey, are completed it would mean transit revenues would evaporate, “It’s kind of just what’s left over that would be transited, potentially transited, through Ukraine,” Fannon said. “Even then that’s only based on whether we can trust (Russia President Vladimir) Putin, I don’t think the record should indicate anyone should.”

Putin has said that Nord Stream 2, a consortium of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom and five European companies, is purely economic and not directed against other countries. Russian gas could continue to go through Ukraine if the pipeline is completed, Putin has said.

But Russia has stopped shipments of gas to Ukraine in winter in recent years over a series of pricing disputes. Critics of Nord Stream 2 say it could increase Russia’s ability to manipulate European energy markets. In an increase in tensions, Russia last month seized three Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea in the Sea of Azov after opening fire on them.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said this month that Berlin will not withdraw its political support for Nord Stream 2 and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had secured a pledge from Putin in August allowing gas shipments across Ukraine’s territory.

Fannon made his comments after traveling to Eastern Europe to discuss projects that could offer Europe a more diverse natural gas supply. Those included a floating liquefied natural gas terminal on the Adriatic island of Krk that could one day receive gas imports from the United States, which is increasing its exports of the fuel, or the eastern Mediterranean.

Fannon said he expected Russia’s aggression in the Sea of Azov to boost support for several bills in the U.S. Congress that include new sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, though he refrained from commenting on any particular legislation.

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Study: Illegal Gold Rush Destroying Amazon Rainforest

A rise in small-scale illegal gold mining is destroying swaths of the Amazon rainforest, according to research released on Monday that maps the scale of the damage for the first time.

Researchers used satellite imagery and government data to identify at least 2,312 illegal mining sites across six countries in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The maps show the spread and scale of illegal mining and were produced by the Amazon Socio-environmental, Geo-referenced Information Project (RAISG), which brings together a network of nonprofit environmental groups in the Amazon.

“The scope of illegal mining in the Amazon, especially in indigenous territories and protected natural areas, has grown exponentially in recent years, with the rise in the price of gold,” said Beto Ricardo, head of the RAISG.

Soaring prices in the decade to 2010 sparked a gold rush and hundreds of thousands of illegal miners poured into the Amazon rainforest hoping to strike it rich.

The mercury they use to separate gold from grit is poisoning the rivers, the report said. Mercury seeps into soil, rivers and the food chain and can cause serious health problems.

“Illegal mining can kill us,” Agustin Ojeda, an indigenous leader of Venezuela’s Shirian indigenous people, is quoted as saying in the report.

“The mining wells allow for the reproduction of mosquitoes that bring diseases, such as malaria. The effect of mercury on water isn’t taken seriously either. It not only contaminates water but also the fish we eat.”

Environmentalists fear Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro will open up more protected land for mining and other projects when he takes office on January 1, placing further pressure on the Amazon.

Right-wing Bolsonaro has said he plans to stop recognizing new native reservation lands, and he also favors a relaxation of environmental licensing processes for infrastructure projects and other businesses.

“The concern is enormous,” said Ricardo, who is also an anthropologist at Brazil’s Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), one of the six groups that produced the report.

“The public narrative is to clear the area (of forests), weaken those institutions that monitor and control in favor of agribusiness and mining for the production and export of commodities, which will hasten the deterioration of the forest,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brazil is home to the world’s largest rainforest in the Amazon, whose preservation is seen by climate experts as critical to avoiding higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have been blamed for global warming.

In one of the worst hit areas, stretching between Brazil and Venezuela and home to the Yanomami indigenous people, the study showed there were 55 illegal mining sites in protected areas.

“Illegal mining is a serious threat to the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous peoples who call it home,” said Moira Birss, spokeswoman for Amazon Watch, a U.S.-based non-profit group.

“This report provides important new data and clearly demonstrates the scope of the problem, and as such is a call to action to regional governments and the companies that purchase the illegally-mined minerals to take bold, concrete action to stop the destruction.”

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Study: Illegal Gold Rush Destroying Amazon Rainforest

A rise in small-scale illegal gold mining is destroying swaths of the Amazon rainforest, according to research released on Monday that maps the scale of the damage for the first time.

Researchers used satellite imagery and government data to identify at least 2,312 illegal mining sites across six countries in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The maps show the spread and scale of illegal mining and were produced by the Amazon Socio-environmental, Geo-referenced Information Project (RAISG), which brings together a network of nonprofit environmental groups in the Amazon.

“The scope of illegal mining in the Amazon, especially in indigenous territories and protected natural areas, has grown exponentially in recent years, with the rise in the price of gold,” said Beto Ricardo, head of the RAISG.

Soaring prices in the decade to 2010 sparked a gold rush and hundreds of thousands of illegal miners poured into the Amazon rainforest hoping to strike it rich.

The mercury they use to separate gold from grit is poisoning the rivers, the report said. Mercury seeps into soil, rivers and the food chain and can cause serious health problems.

“Illegal mining can kill us,” Agustin Ojeda, an indigenous leader of Venezuela’s Shirian indigenous people, is quoted as saying in the report.

“The mining wells allow for the reproduction of mosquitoes that bring diseases, such as malaria. The effect of mercury on water isn’t taken seriously either. It not only contaminates water but also the fish we eat.”

Environmentalists fear Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro will open up more protected land for mining and other projects when he takes office on January 1, placing further pressure on the Amazon.

Right-wing Bolsonaro has said he plans to stop recognizing new native reservation lands, and he also favors a relaxation of environmental licensing processes for infrastructure projects and other businesses.

“The concern is enormous,” said Ricardo, who is also an anthropologist at Brazil’s Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), one of the six groups that produced the report.

“The public narrative is to clear the area (of forests), weaken those institutions that monitor and control in favor of agribusiness and mining for the production and export of commodities, which will hasten the deterioration of the forest,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brazil is home to the world’s largest rainforest in the Amazon, whose preservation is seen by climate experts as critical to avoiding higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have been blamed for global warming.

In one of the worst hit areas, stretching between Brazil and Venezuela and home to the Yanomami indigenous people, the study showed there were 55 illegal mining sites in protected areas.

“Illegal mining is a serious threat to the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous peoples who call it home,” said Moira Birss, spokeswoman for Amazon Watch, a U.S.-based non-profit group.

“This report provides important new data and clearly demonstrates the scope of the problem, and as such is a call to action to regional governments and the companies that purchase the illegally-mined minerals to take bold, concrete action to stop the destruction.”

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Puerto Rico Overhauls Tax Laws to Help Workers, Businesses

Puerto Rico’s governor signed a bill Monday to overhaul the U.S. territory’s tax laws in a bid to attract foreign investment and help workers and some business owners amid a 12-year recession.

The bill creates an earned income tax credit, reduces a sales tax on prepared food and eliminates a business-to-business tax for small to medium companies, among other things.

Officials say the bill represents nearly $2 billion in tax relief at a time when the island is struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria and restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to completely transform the tax system … but we see it as a good first step,” said Cecilia Colon, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Public Accountants.

Governor Ricardo Rossello said the earned income tax credit will result in benefits ranging from $300 to $2,000 for each worker, representing a total of $200 million in annual savings. He also said an 11.5 percent sales tax on processed food will drop to 7 percent starting in October 2019.

The bill also eliminates a business-to-business tax for businesses that generate $200,000 or less a year, representing $79 million in savings in five years, Rossello said. Nearly 80 percent of businesses in Puerto Rico will benefit from that measure, added Treasury Secretary Teresa Fuentes.

In addition, the new law reduces the tax rate for corporations from 39 percent to 37.5 percent.

“Today marks an important day for maintaining Puerto Rico’s competitiveness,” she said.

The measure also legalizes tens of thousands of slot machines, but also limits the number of machines owned, with legislators estimating they will generate at least $160 million a year. Up to $40 million of that revenue will go to the government’s general fund, with the remaining funds directed to help municipalities and police officers.

However, Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances, has repeatedly said the island needs a much broader tax reform that improves revenue collection and promotes economic development. She said in a statement the board also is concerned that the government and legislature have not proved that the changes will not “cannibalize” revenues.

Antonio Fernos, a Puerto Rico economics and finance professor, questioned the effectiveness of the new law, which appears to generate less overall revenue.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Why are they doing this, especially on an island that is insolvent and needs more sources of revenue?”

Fernos also argued that the earned income tax credit is not enough to lure people out of the informal economy: “I don’t foresee anyone abandoning tax evasion schemes.”

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More Than Half the World’s Population is Using the Internet

The International Telecommunication Union reports that for the first time in history, half of the global population is using the internet. A new report finds by the end of the year, 3.9 billion people worldwide will be online.

The report finds access to and use of information and communication technologies around the world is trending upwards. It notes most internet users are in developed countries, with more than 80 percent of their populations online. But it says internet use is steadily growing in developing countries, increasing from 7.7 percent in 2005 to 45.3 percent this year.

The International Telecommunication Union says Africa is the region with the strongest growth, where the percentage of people using the internet has increased from just over two percent in 2005 to nearly 25 percent in 2018.

The lowest growth rates, it says, are in Europe and the Americas, with the lowest usage found in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition to data on internet usage, newly released statistics show mobile access to basic telecommunication services is becoming more predominant. ITU Senior Statistician, Esperanza Magpantay says access to higher speed mobile and fixed broadband also is growing.

“So, there is almost 96 percent of the population who are now covered by mobile population signal of which 90 percent are covered by 3G access. So, this is a high figure, and this helps explain why we have this 51 percent of the population now using the internet,” she said.

With the growth in mobile broadband, Magpantay says there has been an upsurge in the number of people using the internet through their mobile devices.

The ITU says countries that are hooked into the digital economy do better in their overall economic well-being and competitiveness. Unfortunately, it says the cost of accessing telecommunication networks remains too high and unaffordable for many.

It says prices must be brought down to make the digital economy a reality for the half the world’s people who do not, as yet, use the internet.

 

 

 

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More Than Half the World’s Population is Using the Internet

The International Telecommunication Union reports that for the first time in history, half of the global population is using the internet. A new report finds by the end of the year, 3.9 billion people worldwide will be online.

The report finds access to and use of information and communication technologies around the world is trending upwards. It notes most internet users are in developed countries, with more than 80 percent of their populations online. But it says internet use is steadily growing in developing countries, increasing from 7.7 percent in 2005 to 45.3 percent this year.

The International Telecommunication Union says Africa is the region with the strongest growth, where the percentage of people using the internet has increased from just over two percent in 2005 to nearly 25 percent in 2018.

The lowest growth rates, it says, are in Europe and the Americas, with the lowest usage found in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition to data on internet usage, newly released statistics show mobile access to basic telecommunication services is becoming more predominant. ITU Senior Statistician, Esperanza Magpantay says access to higher speed mobile and fixed broadband also is growing.

“So, there is almost 96 percent of the population who are now covered by mobile population signal of which 90 percent are covered by 3G access. So, this is a high figure, and this helps explain why we have this 51 percent of the population now using the internet,” she said.

With the growth in mobile broadband, Magpantay says there has been an upsurge in the number of people using the internet through their mobile devices.

The ITU says countries that are hooked into the digital economy do better in their overall economic well-being and competitiveness. Unfortunately, it says the cost of accessing telecommunication networks remains too high and unaffordable for many.

It says prices must be brought down to make the digital economy a reality for the half the world’s people who do not, as yet, use the internet.

 

 

 

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World Marks Anti-Corruption Day

Corruption costs the world economy $2.6 trillion each year, according to the United Nations, which is marking International Anti-Corruption Day on Sunday.

“Corruption is a serious crime that can undermine social and economic development in all societies. No country, region or community is immune,” the United Nations said.

The cost of $2.6 trillion represents more than 5 percent of global GDP.

The world body said that $1 trillion of the money stolen annually through corruption is in the form of bribes.

Patricia Moreira, the managing director of Transparency International, told VOA that about a quarter of the world’s population has paid a bribe when trying to access a public service over the past year, according to data from the Global Corruption Barometer.

Moreira said it is important to have such a day as International Anti-Corruption Day because it provides “a really tremendous opportunity to focus attention precisely on the challenge that is posed by corruption around the world.”

​Anti-corruption commitments

To mark the day, the United States called on all countries to implement their international anti-corruption commitments including through the U.N. Convention against Corruption.

In a statement Friday, the U.S. State Department said that corruption facilitates crime and terrorism, as well as undermines economic growth, the rule of law and democracy.

“Ultimately, it endangers our national security. That is why, as we look ahead to International Anticorruption Day on Dec. 9, we pledge to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide,” the statement said.

Moreira said that data about worldwide corruption can make the phenomena understandable but still not necessarily “close to our lives.” For that, we need to hear everyday stories about people impacted by corruption and understand that it “is about our daily lives,” she added.

She said those most impacted by corruption are “the most vulnerable people — so it’s usually women, it’s usually poor people, the most marginalized people in the world.”

The United Nations Development Program notes that in developing countries, funds lost to corruption are estimated at 10 times the amount of official development assistance.

What can be done to fight corruption?

The United Nations designated Dec. 9 as International Anti-Corruption Day in 2003, coinciding with the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption by the U.N. General Assembly.

The purpose of the day is to raise awareness about corruption and put pressure on governments to take action against it.

Tackling the issue

Moreira said to fight corruption effectively it must be tackled from different angles. For example, she said that while it is important to have the right legislation in place to curb corruption, governments must also have mechanisms to enforce that legislation. She said those who engage in corruption must be held accountable.

“Fighting corruption is about providing people with a more sustainable world, with a world where social justice is something more of our reality than what it has been until today,” she said.

Moreira said change must come from a joint effort from governments, public institutions, the private sector and civil society.

The U.S. Statement Department said in its Friday statement that it pledges “to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide.”

It noted that the United States, through the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, helps partner nations “build transparent, accountable institutions and strengthen criminal justice systems that hold the corrupt accountable.”

Moreira said that it is important for the world to see that there are results to the fight against corruption.

“Then we are showing the world with specific examples that we can fight against corruption, [that] yes there are results. And if we work together, then it is something not just that we would wish for, but actually something that can be translated into specific results and changes to the world,” she said.

VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.

 

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World Marks Anti-Corruption Day

Corruption costs the world economy $2.6 trillion each year, according to the United Nations, which is marking International Anti-Corruption Day on Sunday.

“Corruption is a serious crime that can undermine social and economic development in all societies. No country, region or community is immune,” the United Nations said.

The cost of $2.6 trillion represents more than 5 percent of global GDP.

The world body said that $1 trillion of the money stolen annually through corruption is in the form of bribes.

Patricia Moreira, the managing director of Transparency International, told VOA that about a quarter of the world’s population has paid a bribe when trying to access a public service over the past year, according to data from the Global Corruption Barometer.

Moreira said it is important to have such a day as International Anti-Corruption Day because it provides “a really tremendous opportunity to focus attention precisely on the challenge that is posed by corruption around the world.”

​Anti-corruption commitments

To mark the day, the United States called on all countries to implement their international anti-corruption commitments including through the U.N. Convention against Corruption.

In a statement Friday, the U.S. State Department said that corruption facilitates crime and terrorism, as well as undermines economic growth, the rule of law and democracy.

“Ultimately, it endangers our national security. That is why, as we look ahead to International Anticorruption Day on Dec. 9, we pledge to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide,” the statement said.

Moreira said that data about worldwide corruption can make the phenomena understandable but still not necessarily “close to our lives.” For that, we need to hear everyday stories about people impacted by corruption and understand that it “is about our daily lives,” she added.

She said those most impacted by corruption are “the most vulnerable people — so it’s usually women, it’s usually poor people, the most marginalized people in the world.”

The United Nations Development Program notes that in developing countries, funds lost to corruption are estimated at 10 times the amount of official development assistance.

What can be done to fight corruption?

The United Nations designated Dec. 9 as International Anti-Corruption Day in 2003, coinciding with the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption by the U.N. General Assembly.

The purpose of the day is to raise awareness about corruption and put pressure on governments to take action against it.

Tackling the issue

Moreira said to fight corruption effectively it must be tackled from different angles. For example, she said that while it is important to have the right legislation in place to curb corruption, governments must also have mechanisms to enforce that legislation. She said those who engage in corruption must be held accountable.

“Fighting corruption is about providing people with a more sustainable world, with a world where social justice is something more of our reality than what it has been until today,” she said.

Moreira said change must come from a joint effort from governments, public institutions, the private sector and civil society.

The U.S. Statement Department said in its Friday statement that it pledges “to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide.”

It noted that the United States, through the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, helps partner nations “build transparent, accountable institutions and strengthen criminal justice systems that hold the corrupt accountable.”

Moreira said that it is important for the world to see that there are results to the fight against corruption.

“Then we are showing the world with specific examples that we can fight against corruption, [that] yes there are results. And if we work together, then it is something not just that we would wish for, but actually something that can be translated into specific results and changes to the world,” she said.

VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.

 

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US, Western Diplomats See Political Motive Behind OPEC Oil Cut

Despite repeated calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for oil production to remain steady, the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, along with Russia and its allies, announced Friday they would cut their pumping of crude to reduce oil flows onto the global market by 1.2 million barrels of per day, a bigger-than-expected cut. 

 

OPEC officials say there was no political motive behind the decision, arguing an oil glut forced the move and that their decision was spurred by oversupply concerns and forecasts for lower demand next year — as well as a surge of shale oil production in the U.S. 

Price slide

 

Oil economists agree that a reduction is needed to stem a further slide in prices, which fell 30 percent in October, and OPEC’s decision was praised by many market analysts. 

 

Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg: “Given how much expectations were downplayed around the outcome of this meeting, this result comes as a welcome surprise. OPEC has given the oil market a rudder that appeared largely absent.” 

 

Oil prices surged following the announcement, with a barrel of Brent crude jumping nearly 6 percent, to $63.11.  

But with the U.S. Senate determined to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing in October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and prominent critic of the Gulf kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, some Western diplomats and analysts aren’t so sure that the Saudi-led cut was without a political motive.  

 

They argue Riyadh’s determination to force through a larger-than-expected cut was partly a warning shot in line with thinly veiled threats by Saudi officials to jolt the global economy, if the U.S. moves to impose sanctions on the kingdom for Khashoggi’s brazen killing.  

 

Pledge on sanctions

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has vowed to sanction Saudi Arabia after a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel convinced them the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing, which took place Oct. 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.  

 

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted to “sanction the hell out of” the Saudi government. 

 

“A cut in production is one thing, but this was much larger than was forecast; and the Saudis had to go out of their way to persuade Moscow to agree,” a senior British diplomat said. 

 

Initially, the Kremlin refused to scale back its own output at the meeting in Vienna, and Russian envoy Alexander Novak had to rush back to Moscow for talks. On Friday, the Saudi and Russian envoys haggled in Vienna for two hours, consulting their governments by phone during the bargaining, OPEC officials said. 

 

Some analysts see the Russian agreement for the production cut as further evidence of the warming ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince, who enthusiastically shared a high-five a hand slap at last week’s Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. 

 

In the run-up to the meeting featuring the OPEC countries and a so-called Russia-led super cartel of 10 oil-producing countries, including Kazakhstan, analysts had forecast that a muddled middle course would be plotted, with Saudi Arabia likely to be more cautious about defying Trump while moving to bump up prices.  

 

On Wednesday, the U.S. leader tweeted he hoped OPEC would “be keeping oil flows as is, not restricted.” He added: “The World does not want to see, or need, higher oil prices!” 

 

In October as sanctions talk flared in Washington, Saudi officials warned that the Gulf kingdom could exploit its oil status to disrupt the global economy, if it wanted. The Saudi government threatened to retaliate against any punishment such as economic sanctions, outside political pressure or even “repeated false accusations” about the Khashoggi killing, although it walked back the threat subsequently following signs that the Trump administration had no appetite for imposing sanctions on the long-term U.S. ally.  

Saudi Arabia doesn’t wield the same level of power on the oil market — thanks in part to U.S. shale oil production — as it did in 1973, when it triggered an oil embargo against Western countries for supporting Israel. However, it still wields enormous influence, analysts say. The U.S. is the third-biggest destination for Saudi crude. OPEC accounts for about one-third of global crude production. 

 

If the U.S. Congress decides to impose sanctions, the Saudis could react by reducing oil exports further and force prices to rise to $100 a barrel, some market experts said. 

 

Exemptions for importers

U.S. officials said they had expected that OPEC would decide to cut production. They said that is why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo granted exemptions last month for eight oil-importing countries to continue to buy oil from Tehran when announcing details of the reimposition of sanctions against Iran. 

 

This week, U.S. senators are due to take aim at the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and will hold an unprecedented vote on ending U.S. support for the war. 

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US, Western Diplomats See Political Motive Behind OPEC Oil Cut

Despite repeated calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for oil production to remain steady, the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, along with Russia and its allies, announced Friday they would cut their pumping of crude to reduce oil flows onto the global market by 1.2 million barrels of per day, a bigger-than-expected cut. 

 

OPEC officials say there was no political motive behind the decision, arguing an oil glut forced the move and that their decision was spurred by oversupply concerns and forecasts for lower demand next year — as well as a surge of shale oil production in the U.S. 

Price slide

 

Oil economists agree that a reduction is needed to stem a further slide in prices, which fell 30 percent in October, and OPEC’s decision was praised by many market analysts. 

 

Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg: “Given how much expectations were downplayed around the outcome of this meeting, this result comes as a welcome surprise. OPEC has given the oil market a rudder that appeared largely absent.” 

 

Oil prices surged following the announcement, with a barrel of Brent crude jumping nearly 6 percent, to $63.11.  

But with the U.S. Senate determined to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing in October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and prominent critic of the Gulf kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, some Western diplomats and analysts aren’t so sure that the Saudi-led cut was without a political motive.  

 

They argue Riyadh’s determination to force through a larger-than-expected cut was partly a warning shot in line with thinly veiled threats by Saudi officials to jolt the global economy, if the U.S. moves to impose sanctions on the kingdom for Khashoggi’s brazen killing.  

 

Pledge on sanctions

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has vowed to sanction Saudi Arabia after a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel convinced them the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing, which took place Oct. 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.  

 

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted to “sanction the hell out of” the Saudi government. 

 

“A cut in production is one thing, but this was much larger than was forecast; and the Saudis had to go out of their way to persuade Moscow to agree,” a senior British diplomat said. 

 

Initially, the Kremlin refused to scale back its own output at the meeting in Vienna, and Russian envoy Alexander Novak had to rush back to Moscow for talks. On Friday, the Saudi and Russian envoys haggled in Vienna for two hours, consulting their governments by phone during the bargaining, OPEC officials said. 

 

Some analysts see the Russian agreement for the production cut as further evidence of the warming ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince, who enthusiastically shared a high-five a hand slap at last week’s Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. 

 

In the run-up to the meeting featuring the OPEC countries and a so-called Russia-led super cartel of 10 oil-producing countries, including Kazakhstan, analysts had forecast that a muddled middle course would be plotted, with Saudi Arabia likely to be more cautious about defying Trump while moving to bump up prices.  

 

On Wednesday, the U.S. leader tweeted he hoped OPEC would “be keeping oil flows as is, not restricted.” He added: “The World does not want to see, or need, higher oil prices!” 

 

In October as sanctions talk flared in Washington, Saudi officials warned that the Gulf kingdom could exploit its oil status to disrupt the global economy, if it wanted. The Saudi government threatened to retaliate against any punishment such as economic sanctions, outside political pressure or even “repeated false accusations” about the Khashoggi killing, although it walked back the threat subsequently following signs that the Trump administration had no appetite for imposing sanctions on the long-term U.S. ally.  

Saudi Arabia doesn’t wield the same level of power on the oil market — thanks in part to U.S. shale oil production — as it did in 1973, when it triggered an oil embargo against Western countries for supporting Israel. However, it still wields enormous influence, analysts say. The U.S. is the third-biggest destination for Saudi crude. OPEC accounts for about one-third of global crude production. 

 

If the U.S. Congress decides to impose sanctions, the Saudis could react by reducing oil exports further and force prices to rise to $100 a barrel, some market experts said. 

 

Exemptions for importers

U.S. officials said they had expected that OPEC would decide to cut production. They said that is why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo granted exemptions last month for eight oil-importing countries to continue to buy oil from Tehran when announcing details of the reimposition of sanctions against Iran. 

 

This week, U.S. senators are due to take aim at the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and will hold an unprecedented vote on ending U.S. support for the war. 

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