South African court sentences rhino horn smuggler to 40 years

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.

Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.

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Laos to begin building hotly debated Xayaburi dam this week


Laos plans to start building a dam on the Mekong River this week, a step that neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam fear could imperil fish and cripple rice fields.

The Xayaburi dam is expected to reap profits for Laos by generating hydropower to sell to Thailand. The $3-billion-plus project would be the first major dam on the lower part of the Mekong, a massive waterway that provides food and jobs to millions of people in Southeast Asia.

Building the dam marks the latest push toward development for Laos, a growing economy seeking to shed its “least developed country” label. The communist country has opened up its economy over the last few decades and was recently accepted into the World Trade Organization.

“Hydropower is a big natural advantage for Laos,” Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining Viraphonh Viravong told Bloomberg on Monday.

But Vietnam and Cambodia worry dams could endanger fish that families eat and hurt crops in the Mekong Delta, the “rice bowl” of the region. Environmental experts warn if fish dwindle and croplands are lost, damming the river could cost more than it brings in. A Portland State University study last year estimated losses could run as high as $274 billion if a passel of planned dams are built.

A regional report recommended waiting for more studies to assess the dangers, but Laos has pressed ahead.

“They are playing roulette with the Mekong River,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers. “There are serious risks for the river and the people who depend on it.”

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Chinese officials back down on chemical plant in face of protests

BEIJING — After a weekend of protests, Chinese authorities have capitulated to thousands of well-organized, middle-class demonstrators and canceled plans for the expansion of a petrochemical plant in a small coastal city near Shanghai.

Sinopec, the state oil monopoly, had been planning an $8-billion expansion of an industrial complex already suspected of raising cancer rates in Zhenhai.

"With living standards going up, people want not only fresh air and clean water, they want a stronger voice about what’s happening around them," said Timothy Tang, a 29-year-old working in finance who was involved in the protests in Ningbo, a larger city that administers Zhenhai.

Protest organizers said they had been encouraged by a similar uprising last year in Dalian, where middle-class protesters managed to stop a plant that was also supposed to produce paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and polyester.

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Australians torn over promises, risks of coal-seam 'fracking'

World Now 01
Lock the Gate appears to be a fitting name for Australia’s protest movement against hydraulic fracturing. It took activists years to identify threats to public health from "fracking," a classic case of getting mobilized only after the proverbial horse has escaped.

GlobalFocusAustralians in the rural reaches of Queensland greeted fracking with gusto when the northeastern state’s political leaders began about seven years ago to tout the profit potential of the unconventional extraction method that blasts sand, water and chemicals into coal and shale seams. Ambitious projects were drafted. More than 4,500 wells were drilled in barely two years, and work has begun on a 250-mile pipeline from the gas fields to Gladstone Harbor and a massive liquefaction facility there. Once construction of the port complex on Curtis Island is completed in 2014, gas will be converted to liquefied natural gas and shipped north to energy-hungry Asian neighbors.

It wasn’t until the buildup got into full swing about three years ago that locals began complaining of distressing side effects of fracking. Activists claim drinking-water aquifers have been contaminated, groundwater depleted and greenhouse gases released along a three-mile stretch of the Condamine River, which at times appears to be boiling.

Dredging in Gladstone Harbor has been blamed for disease outbreaks among fish and mud crabs. Marine scientists attribute the sickness to toxic metals being stirred up from the seabed. Port developers say the defects and deaths were caused by an excess of fresh water from seasonal flooding.

“What was a wonderful fish nursery has turned into an industrial harbor, with ships that will be driving straight through the Great Barrier Reef,” said Matt Landos, a University of Sydney researcher and private consultant in aquatic animal health.

A greater irritant for Australians, Landos said, is the lack of information being provided on the environmental and health costs entailed in the race to make Australia the No. 1 LNG exporter in the world by 2020.

Gas output in historically coal-dependent Australia took off in the last decade, beginning with undersea extraction off the northwestern coast. It quickly swept to the more populous east coast with the discovery of major coal-seam deposits in the Bowen and Surat basins that extend from Queensland into New South Wales.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration in its 2011 world energy outlook reports that Australia, already the fourth-biggest exporter of LNG, has the largest proven natural gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific region, with 110 trillion cubic feet. It has nearly four times that volume in technically recoverable shale gas, the agency estimates, leaving it well positioned to fill the booming energy needs of the region.

Queensland’s new premier, Campbell Newman, campaigned on a platform of support for the LNG buildup but insisted before his election in March that it wouldn’t be “at any cost,” that the agricultural state's farmland had to be protected.

But activists charge that pursuit of the gas bonanza has been unbridled. And the acrimony has only intensified since the appointment of rancher John Cotter as “gas sheriff,” charged with resolving disputes between landowners and gas industry interests. Cotter’s son, John Jr., is founder of a private company that does consulting and project management in mining operations, including contracts with the multibillion-dollar Queensland Curtis Project expanding coal seam fracking and helping build an underground pipeline.

Lock the Gate Chairman Drew Hutton accuses the Cotters of having an “intolerable” conflict of interest and calls the appointment “a most appalling, short-sighted decision,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported last month.

Landos accuses the Queensland government of being blinded to the environmental threats of expanded fracking by “starry-eyed economic forecasts” of Australia emerging as the new LNG global powerhouse.

“It’s a false accounting that doesn’t take into consideration the costs of environmental cleanup,” the veterinary scientist complained in a telephone interview from Sydney. Expectations of jobs and export income, he added, “are leading to tremendous enthusiasm among our politicians to push the industry forward with minimal impediment.”

He worries that the all-out drive for LNG dominance will destroy coastal fisheries and damage sites of natural beauty in exchange for an economy dependent on gas that could be exhausted in 25 years.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned the Australian government in June that its rapid LNG development plan was posing “a significant risk” to the Great Barrier Reef, which has been under World Heritage protection since 1981. It extends from Gladstone Harbor northward along the Queensland coast and would be traversed by gas exporting ships headed for China, Japan and Taiwan.

UNESCO asked the Queensland government to provide assurances by February 2013 that port development will be brought under control and the reef protected, warning that otherwise the site may be designated as "in danger," a shaming censure for any First World national steward.

Campbell, the state premier, responded to the world body report with assurances that the environment would be protected, "but we are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down."

Lock the Gate and other anti-fracking groups have exploded over the last year as farmers have seen their water tables drop and their land littered with mine tailings, said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a lawyer and senior advisor to the International POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Elimination Network. The groups seek clarity on what is being injected into the coal seams. Companies often refuse to disclose such information, saying the formulas are industrial secrets.

Groups such as Australia’s National Toxins Network have been collecting data on pollution and waste to use in legal challenges that have become so prevalent that some fracking companies are giving up and handing in their exploration permits, Lloyd-Smith said.

Unlike in the United States, where property owners hold the rights to resources beneath their land, the Australian government owns everything below the topsoil. The Gasfields Commission has the authority to compel landowners to accommodate energy exploration, typically resulting in compensation of about $1,500 per well, Lloyd-Smith said. That's turning out to be too little to clean up the mess once drilling is over, driving up opposition across Australia.

Temporary bans on fracking in the two states south of Queensland -– New South Wales and Victoria –- have been enacted in response to public demands for investigation of environmental damage claims.

“When one farmer locks his gate, the companies have the right to take the case to arbitration or to the courts, and they often do. But when 100 farmers lock their gates, it’s a case of diminishing returns for the companies,” Lloyd-Smith said. “It’s that sort of consolidation of the community opposition that to a degree is winning the battle.”

"To a degree" may be the operative assessment, as energy industry leaders are fighting back. In a speech in Melbourne this month, ExxonMobil Australia President John Dashwood blamed the fracking bans on “those who run agendas on emotional messages.” He pointed to reduced greenhouse gas emissions as a tangible benefit from replacing coal-generated power with natural gas from shale and coal seams.

With more than $500 billion in LNG-purchase commitments from Asian neighbors already on the books, even the more vociferous cries of fracking opponents are being drowned out by the drilling and blasting from new wells cropping up by the dozens each week.

As Hutton of Lock the Gate recently warned, "The Queensland environment is going to die a death of 1,000 cuts with this industry that it cannot control.”


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Photo: Protests against the proliferation of coal-seam gas fracking have swelled in size and number in recent months as farmers, ranchers and rural residents confront industry and government leaders over the alleged polluting side effects of the unconventional gas extraction process. This protest last spring targeted plans to frack in New South Wales. Credit: Courtesy of Andrya Hart


U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally


In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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Mexico declares Yucatan island zone a protected natural reserve

Cozumel image SEMARNAT

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's government has declared a 93,477-acre territory on Cozumel island off the Yucatan Peninsula a protected natural reserve, in a bid to limit development within the zone and protect wildlife.

The new federally protected zone covers the northern and eastern end of the teardrop-shaped island as well as an offshore zone of about 1,161 acres, Mexico's environmental and Natural Resources Ministry said in a statement (links in Spanish).

The designation is meant to help protect the 533 species identified in the region, including algaes, sea sponges, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, said the agency, known in Spanish as Semarnat.

Rising tourism and development in Cozumel have threatened the wildlife, environmentalists say. Coral reefs and mangrove trees have suffered because of increasing human activity along the so-called Mayan Riviera, environmental studies show.

In August, Semarnat denied a petition by a private energy developer to build a wind-energy park on the island, citing lack of specifics on its potential environmental impact.

The Semarnat announcement is the 18th such designation made during the term of President Felipe Calderon. This year, Calderon's government canceled a proposed mega-resort project on the Baja California peninsula that environmentalists say would have harmed the biodiversity of the nearby Cabo Pulmo National Park.

The declaration on the Cozumel protected natural reserve prohibits any "change of use" of the land -- including construction -- that would affect the "original ecosystems." However, the decree permits sustainable tourism within the zone.


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Photo: A view of the northern shore of Cozumel island off the Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Semarnat)

In Dutch court, Shell pushes Greenpeace to stay back or pay up


Shell has taken Greenpeace International to a Dutch court in an attempt to keep protesters at least 500 meters (1,640 feet) away from its properties — or face fines of $1.3 million or more.

The court case was triggered by the latest round of Greenpeace protests against Arctic drilling being done in the Netherlands. Pumps at scores of Shell gas stations around the country have been blocked. In some cases, bicycle locks have been used to clamp fueling nozzles together.

Though the case is being argued in Amsterdam, Greenpeace International attorney Jasper Teulings contends the company is ultimately trying to curtail protests all over the globe. The environmental group is known for staging dramatic stunts such as scaling a Russian oil drilling platform to draw attention to their cause.

“The real issue at stake here is that these small pinpricks, these rather playful acts of civil disobedience, are very effective in drawing attention to something going on very far away in the Arctic,” Teulings said. “Scrutiny of Shell’s operations in the Arctic is increasing. And that is what Shell aims to stop.”

Royal Dutch Shell PLC said in a statement that its legal actions so far were limited to its retail sites and other premises in the Netherlands. It added that it respected the right to peacefully protest against Shell activities but recent Greenpeace actions “have gone well beyond the limits of acceptable protest.”

In its legal complaint, Shell requested “that Greenpeace inform its satellite organizations that it no longer supports protests that are solely directed at causing Shell economic damage or that bring human lives and the environment in danger,” the Associated Press reported. Shell declined to comment on the details of the filing.

On top of seeking the fine for staging a protest too close to Shell properties, activists could face an added fine of roughly $130,000 for every added day that “any activities, at least illegal activities,” continue, according to a summary of Shell demands provided by Greenpeace. Shell declined to comment.

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Discuss solutions to poverty, global warming [Google+ Hangout]

Join Ken Weiss in an online discussion -- via Google+ Hangout -- about population growth, climate change and other intractable problems at 3:30 p.m. today from UC Berkeley.

The newspaper explored such issues around the world in its recent five-part series on population growth in the developing world. Among other topics, the "Beyond 7 Billion" series examined chronic hunger and mass migration in East Africa -- trends that one of the guests in today's conversation, Dr. Malcolm Potts, believes will soon extend across the Sahel, an arid region of Africa just below the Sahara desert.

LIVE VIDEO DISCUSSION: Join us at 3:30 p.m. today

"What you've been seeing from Somalia is going to happen in all those countries, all the way across from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean," said Potts, a UC Berkeley professor of public health. "You've just seen a fraction of what's going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years."

Potts, who co-organized a conference focused on the Sahel region, will discuss solutions to the problems facing this part of Africa and other impoverished nations with soaring populations. He will be joined by Dr. Ndola Prata of UC Berkeley, William Ryerson of the Population Media Center,  and Fatima Adamu from Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria.

We invite you to join the conversation by posting comments or questions below, on The Times’ Facebook and Google Plus pages, or on Twitter using the #asklatimes hashtag.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Solutions to poverty, population growth, global warming [Google+ Hangout]

As experts from three continents convene this week at UC Berkeley to discuss rapid population growth, climate change and other intractable problems, The Times will hold a live online video discussion -- via Google+ Hangout -- Thursday on potential solutions.

The newspaper explored such issues around the world in its recent five-part series on population growth in the developing world. Among other topics, the "Beyond 7 Billion" series examined chronic hunger and mass migration in East Africa -- trends that Dr. Malcolm Potts believes will soon extend across the Sahel, an arid region of Africa just below the Sahara desert.

LIVE VIDEO DISCUSSION: Join us at 3:30 p.m. Thursday

"What you've been seeing from Somalia is going to happen in all those countries, all the way across from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean," said Potts, a UC Berkeley professor of public health. "You've just seen a fraction of what's going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years."

Potts, who co-organized the conference focused on the Sahel region, will join The Times at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time Thursday to discuss solutions to the problems facing this part of Africa and other impoverished nations with soaring populations. He will be joined by Dr. Ndola Prata of UC Berkeley, William Ryerson of the Population Media Center and Fatima Adamu from Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria.

We invite you to join the conversation by posting comments or questions below, on The Times’ Facebook and Google Plus pages, or on Twitter using the #asklatimes hashtag.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Somalia refugees, driven from their land by sectarian violence and drought, gather outside the United Nations' camps in eastern Kenya. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Australia and EU announce world's biggest carbon trading system


Australia and the European Union plan to link their "cap-and-trade" systems to create the biggest emissions trading market on the globe, energy and climate change officials announced Tuesday.

Under a cap-and-trade system, countries cap the amount of pollution they are willing to allow, then issue permits for how much each business or entity can pollute. Businesses or entities that pollute more than their share can buy credits from others that pollute less than allowed.

Although the idea has struggled to gain traction nationally in the United States, it has taken off elsewhere in the world, most recently in South Korea, and was adopted last year in California.

Joining the European and Australian systems is meant to help lower carbon emissions at a lower cost. Australian polluters can start buying credits from Europe in mid-2015, when its carbon trading system starts. Europeans, in turn, will be able to start using Australian units no more than three years later. The two systems will be completely linked by July 2018.

Linking the two systems "provides businesses with more opportunities to trade, as businesses with excess units will have access to more buyers and businesses that need more units can purchase them from a wider range of sellers," the Australian government said on its website.

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