Trump Administration Rescinds Rules for Drilling on Public Land

President Donald Trump’s administration is rescinding proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing and other oil- and gas-drilling practices on government lands, government officials announced Thursday.

The rules developed under President Barack Obama would have applied mainly in the West, where most federal lands are located. Companies would have had to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, which pumps pressurized water underground to break open hydrocarbon deposits.

The rules to be rescinded Friday were supposed to take effect in 2015, but a federal judge in Wyoming blocked them at the last minute. In September, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined to rule in that case because the Trump administration intended to rescind the rules.

Industry praise

The long-awaited change drew praise from industry groups including the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Petroleum Association of America and Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which sued to block the rules.

They claimed the federal rules would have duplicated state rules, putting unnecessary and expensive burdens on petroleum developers.

“States have an exemplary safety record regulating fracking, and that environmental protection will continue as before,” Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said in a release.

Fracking and water

Fracking has been so successful in boosting production over the past decade it has become almost synonymous with oil and gas drilling. In many areas, it would be rare nowadays for a gas or oil well to not be fracked.

The process requires several million gallons of water each time. Environmentalists say the potential risks to groundwater require regulation.

“Fracking is a toxic business, and that’s why states and countries have banned it. Trump’s reckless decision to repeal these common-sense protections will have serious consequences,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email.

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Apple Apologizes After Outcry Over Slowed iPhones

Facing lawsuits and consumer outrage  after it said it slowed older iPhones with flagging batteries, Apple Inc is slashing prices for battery replacements and will change its software to show users whether their phone battery is good.

In a posting on its website Thursday, Apple apologized over its handling of the battery issue and said it would make a number of changes for customers “to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions.”

Apple made the move to address concerns about the quality and durability of its products at a time when it is charging $999 for its newest flagship model, the iPhone X.

Battery prices lowered

The company said it would cut the price of an out-of-warranty battery replacement from $79 to $29 for an iPhone 6 or later, starting next month.

The company also will update its iOS operating system to let users see whether their battery is in poor health and is affecting the phone’s performance.

“We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down,” Apple said in its posting. “We apologize.”

On Dec. 20, Apple acknowledged that iPhone software has the effect of slowing down some phones with battery problems. Apple said the problem was that aging lithium batteries delivered power unevenly, which could cause iPhones to shutdown unexpectedly to protect the delicate circuits inside.

Lawsuits filed

That disclosure played on a common belief among consumers that Apple purposely slows down older phones to encourage customers to buy newer iPhone models.

While no credible evidence has ever emerged that Apple engaged in such conduct, the battery disclosure struck a nerve on social media and elsewhere. Apple on Thursday denied that it has ever done anything to intentionally shorten the life of a product.

At least eight lawsuits have been filed in California, New York and Illinois alleging that the company defrauded users by slowing devices down without warning them. The company also faces a legal complaint in France, where so called “planned obsolesce” is against the law.

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DOJ Charges 2 Romanians With Hacking of DC Police Surveillance Cameras

The Justice Department on Thursday unsealed details of its case against two Romanians who allegedly hacked computers tied to Washington, D.C., police surveillance cameras.

Police in Bucharest arrested Mihai Alexandru Isvanca and Eveline Cismaru on December 15. U.S. attorneys have charged them with conspiracy to commit computer and wire fraud.

They allegedly hacked into more than 120 computers tied to Washington police surveillance cameras last January. It was part of an alleged scheme to infect personal computers with ransomware.

Ransomware restricts users from accessing their own computers and demands a payment to the ramsomware operator to unlock it.

The Justice Department said the investigation was of the highest priority because the alleged hacking of the surveillance camera computers came just weeks before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.

However, it says there is no evidence anyone’s personal security was threatened or harmed.

If tried in the U.S. and convicted, the Romanian defendants could face up to 20 years in prison.

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With Lineup Widening, Apple Depends Less on iPhone X

In years past, demand for Apple Inc.’s latest flagship phone was critical to the company’s results over the holiday shopping quarter. That dynamic might be changing, however, as Apple’s widening lineup of devices and services more than makes up for any tepidness in demand this quarter for its lead product, the $999 iPhone X.

On Tuesday, Apple’s stock fell 2.5 percent to $170.57 after Taiwan’s Economic Daily and several analysts suggested iPhone X sales in the fiscal first quarter would be 30 million units, 20 million fewer than initially planned by the company.

The cut in the forecast was not confirmed, and the stock regained ground Thursday, hitting $171.82 by midday. The mean revenue estimate for the holiday quarter among 30 analysts remains at $86.2 billion, near the high end of Apple’s forecast of $84 billion to $87 billion.

Apple declined to comment.

Part of the support for Apple may reflect a change in its business strategy.

Releasing two new models and keeping older ones have made

Apple less dependent on its flagship product. Apple shareholder Ross Gerber, chief executive of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and

Investment Management in Santa Monica, California, said the higher price and better margins on the iPhone X would reduce fears of a sales decline.

Eye on combined sales

“We know that Apple’s strategy was different this quarter by releasing two phones, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X, and I think combined sales will be in line with what people expect,” Gerber said.

Apple also has fattened its portfolio of accessories and other devices, from its AirPods wireless headphones to a new Apple Watch with cellular data features.

While none is a runaway hit, collectively they are an important contributor, with Apple’s “other products” segment growing 16 percent to $12.8 billion last year. Customers who buy those add-ons are also likely to buy services from the App Store and Apple Music, part of Apple’s services segment, which grew 23 percent to $29.9 billion last year.

“Ultimately, it will be this multidevice ownership” that will generate further revenue, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

IPhone X sales still matter. Each unit generates nearly twice the revenue of an iPhone 7 and contains technologies like facial recognition that burnish Apple’s brand.

Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research said “hit products” still represent “an enormous amount of the company’s overall value.”

“Will it take hold in the mainstream? That’s the question that still remains,” he said.

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Tillerson: Americans Should Be ‘Encouraged’ by US Diplomatic Efforts

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has touted the diplomatic accomplishments of President Donald Trump’s administration this year, saying “Americans should be encouraged” by its dealings with the U.S.’ “greatest security threat,” North Korea, along with China and Russia.

In an opinion piece published Thursday in The New York Times, Tillerson wrote that Trump “abandoned the failed policy of strategic patience” and adopted a “policy of pressure” toward North Korea “through diplomatic and economic sanctions.”

The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea last Friday, slashing fuel supplies, tightening shipping restrictions and appealing for the expulsion of North Koreans working abroad — a significant source of revenue for Pyongyang.

Tillerson also said pressure from the U.S. and its allies “has cut off roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s export revenue,” much of which he said Pyongyang used to fund the development of illegal weapons.

“We hope that this international isolation will pressure the regime into serious negotiations on the abandonment of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Tillerson wrote.

After overcoming technological obstacles this year to develop a modern nuclear weapons program, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un denounced the new sanctions on Christmas Day, saying that they represent “an act of war” and that relinquishing his country’s nuclear weapons was a “pipe dream.”

Tillerson said China has imposed some import bans and sanctions against North Korea, “but it could and should do more.” He said the U.S. would pursue talks with China on issues such as trade imbalances and China’s “troubling” military activities in the South China Sea. The U.S. will also “carefully consider” how to manage its long-term relationship with China, which Tillerson described as a rising “economic and military power.”

Tillerson praised the U.S. role in the recapture of Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria and the administration’s new Afghanistan-focused South Asia strategy. Tilllerson said Afghanistan “cannot become a safe haven for terrorists” and called on Pakistan to fight terrorists “on its own soil.”

“We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terrorists organizations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us,” he wrote.

The top American diplomat acknowledged the U.S. has a poor relationship with a “resurgent Russia” that has invaded neighboring countries Georgia and Ukraine and “undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others.”

Shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the probe into Russia, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel of an investigation into whether any members of Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian agents during the campaign.

Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community released a report concluding Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election, showing a preference for Trump over Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. There are also several congressional probes into the matter. Russia denies meddling in the election, and Trump has denied any collusion with the Russians.

“While we are on guard against Russian aggression, we recognize the need to work with Russia where mutual interests intersect,” Tillerson wrote, citing the Syrian civil war where the two countries have supported opposing sides but pushed for peace negotiations.

Tillerson’s remarks about Iran were less conciliatory. He said the U.S. has abandoned the “flawed Iran nuclear deal” as the focus of its policy toward the Persian Gulf country, adding, “We are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats.”

The assessment of the administration’s diplomatic successes this year belies the tension that has existed between Tillerson and Trump. Senior administration officials said last month the White House has developed a plan to push Tillerson out of office. The two men have disagreed on a number of significant issues, including the confrontation with North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.

Tilllerson reportedly called the president a “moron” and Trump publicly disparaged Tillerson for “wasting his time” by reaching out diplomatically to North Korea.

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US Economic Momentum Expected to Continue in 2018

Despite initial concerns about an untested new leader, the world’s largest economy will end the year on a high note. The US economy is expanding at the fastest pace in more than two years, buoyed in part by low unemployment, soaring stock prices and a broad economic recovery around the globe. The momentum is expected to carry into 2018, but, as Mil Arcega reports, economists say the new year is likely to bring new challenges.

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Democrat Jones Certified Winner of US Senate Election in Alabama

Democrat Doug Jones has been certified as the winner of the U.S. Senate race in Alabama that was challenged by Republican Roy Moore, after a judge rejected Moore’s appeal to stop the certification of the election results.

Jones was officially declared the winner Thursday afternoon by a three-person panel consisting of Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and state Attorney General Steve Marshall.

More than two weeks after losing a special election, Moore filed a last-minute court challenge to prevent Alabama election officials from certifying his Democratic opponent’s victory. 

Moore filed the complaint in a state courthouse late Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Jones was set to be officially declared the winner of the December 12 election, which Jones won by just over 20,000 votes. 

The complaint alleged Moore lost due to “systematic voter fraud,” citing higher than expected turnout in Jefferson County, the state’s most populous area, along with irregularities in 20 voting precincts in the county. 

Moore’s lawyers demanded an investigation into their claims, and for the state to hold a new election. Moore has rejected calls to concede the race to Jones.

Before he certified Jones the winner, Merrill said he had not uncovered any evidence of voter fraud.

“Will this [the complaint] affect anything?” Moore asked Thursday on CNN. “The short answer is no.”

Now that Jones has been certified the victor, Merrill said he will be sworn in next week to succeed Jeff Sessions, who became attorney general in President Donald Trump’s cabinet earlier this year.

Jones is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the heavily Republican state in 25 years.

Moore is a former Alabama state supreme court judge known for his staunch religious views. His campaign was derailed when The Washington Post published allegations made by several women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, and Moore was in his 30s.

Included in the complaint was an affidavit from Moore stating he passed a polygraph test that confirmed the charges of misconduct “are completely false.”

“It’s appalling that the Democrat Senate Majority PAC and the Republican Senate Leadership Fund both spent millions to run false and malicious ads against me in this campaign,” Moore said.

Jones’ election narrows the Republican lead in the Senate to a 51-49 margin.

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Defeated US Senate Candidate Launches Legal Challenge Against Election Result

More than two weeks after losing a special election to the U.S. Senate, Alabama Republican Roy Moore has filed a last-minute court challenge to prevent state election officials from certifying his Democratic opponent’s victory.

Moore filed a complaint in a state courthouse late Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Doug Jones is set to be officially declared the winner of the December 12 election, which Jones won by just over 20,000 votes.

The complaint alleges Moore lost due to “systematic voter fraud,” citing higher than expected turnout in Jefferson County, the state’s most populous area, along with irregularities in 20 voting precincts in the county.

Moore’s lawyers are demanding an investigation into their claims, and for the state to hold a new election. Moore has rejected calls to concede the race to Jones.

John Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state, says he has not uncovered any evidence of voter fraud. If Jones’s victory is certified Thursday, he will be sworn in sometime next week to succeed Jeff Sessions, who became attorney general in President Donald Trump’s cabinet earlier this year.

Jones is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the heavily Republican state in 25 years.

Moore is a former Alabama state supreme court judge known for his staunch religious views. His campaign was derailed when The Washington Post published allegations made by several women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, and Jones was a grown man in his 30s.

 

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Trump, GOP Leaders to Meet at Camp David, Plot Agenda

Eager for more legislative achievements before Washington’s focus shifts to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump plans to start the new year by meeting with Republican congressional leaders to plot the 2018 legislative agenda, the White House said.

After returning to Washington from Florida, where he is spending the holidays, Trump will host House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the rustic Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland during the weekend of Jan. 6-7.

Spokesmen for Ryan and McConnell have confirmed they will attend.

The powwow will follow the recent enactment of legislation to cut taxes, beginning next year, for corporations and individuals at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion added to the national debt over 10 years.

The bill marked the first big legislative achievement for Trump and congressional Republicans, who made cutting taxes a must-do this year after the Senate failed to close the deal on another top GOP promise: to repeal and replace the Obama health care law.

While the tax bill ends the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, it leaves intact other features of the health care law. No Democrats voted for the tax bill, which Trump signed during a hastily arranged White House ceremony, without any lawmakers present, before he flew to Florida last Friday.

Lengthy agenda

Trump predicted in a tweet earlier this week that Democrats and Republicans will “eventually come together” to develop a new health care plan. The president is also forecasting unity between the parties on spending to upgrade aging roads, bridges and other transportation. The White House has said Trump will unveil his long-awaited infrastructure plan in January.

Ryan, meanwhile, has talked about overhauling Medicaid and Medicare and other welfare programs, but McConnell has signaled an unwillingness to go that route unless there’s Democratic support for any changes. Trump has also said he wants to pursue “welfare reform” next year because “people are taking advantage of the system.”

Backlog from 2017

Congress, meanwhile, will open the year facing a backlog from 2017.

The list includes agreeing by Jan. 19 on a government funding bill to avert a partial government shutdown and to boost Pentagon spending. Lawmakers also must agree on billions in additional aid to help hurricane victims, lifting the debt ceiling so the United States can pay its bills, extending a children’s health insurance program and drafting protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Trump tweeted earlier in the year that he was ending the program for the immigrants. He gave lawmakers until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution, or the individuals will begin to face the risk of being deported.

Much of the work will need to be done before Republicans shift their focus to retaining their House and Senate majorities in midterm elections taking place in November 2018. The GOP’s slim Senate majority will get even slimmer come January, when Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is sworn in, leaving Republicans with a 51-49 edge in the chamber.

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