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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Must Reads: Battered revolution and a suspected CIA 'black site'

Protesters in Egypt

From a Mexican whodunit to an alleged CIA "black site" in Poland, here are five stories you shouldn't miss from last week in global news:

Egypt revolution suffers crushing blow

U.S. weighs plan to send military aircraft to aid Yemen

Poland shaken by case alleging an illicit CIA prison there

Pakistani high court ousts Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani

Mexico film on Luis Donaldo Colosio slaying puts PRI in bad light

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Egyptian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for president, Mohamed Morsi, gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday. Credit: Bernat Armangue / Associated Press

Brawls break out before Poland-Russia Euro 2012 soccer match


Clashes broke out Tuesday as Russian fans marched to a stadium in Warsaw before a soccer game against Poland, a matchup steeped in the long history of enmity and suspicion.

Riot police tried to separate Russian marchers and Polish fans as dozens of men scrapped. Russian fans blamed the violence on Poles. Reuters reported that Polish fans chanted slogans such as, "Hit the red trash with a hammer, with a sickle" as Russians marched.

Russian fans reportedly also clashed with police. As the brawls continued, police turned to water cannons and tear gas to try to quell the violence, according to Agence-France Presse. Russian media reported  Tuesday that 56 people had been arrested, including both Russian and Polish fans.

The Tuesday match, part of the Euro 2012 soccer championships, had been long feared to be a flash point between the two countries, especially with thousands of Russians marching through Warsaw to mark their national holiday of Russia Day.

Poland and Russia have a long history marred by war and occupation. More recently, Poland has bristled at how Russia handled a plane crash that killed the Polish president two years ago, which Russian officials blamed on the Polish air force commander and crew.

Polish Interior Minister Jacek Cichocki told reporters that preparing for the match was “the biggest challenge for law and order forces in the capital,” the Warsaw Voice reported. Some Poles and outsiders argued that the march shouldn't have been held at all, calling it a provocation.


U.S. nuns meet with Vatican over its critique of their work

Myanmar forces struggle to contain ethnic and religious conflict

Syrian children tortured, used as human shields, U.N. report finds

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Polish and Russian fans clash on the streets of Warsaw before their two teams met in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Credit: Rafal Guz / European Pressphoto Agency

Australia to mostly end Afghan mission next year


As the U.S. and its allies refine plans to reduce their troop levels in Afghanistan and turn combat operations over to Afghans, Australia has announced that it will pull most of its forces out next year.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the move Tuesday, under which most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are likely to be back home by the end of 2013.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to finish the transfer to Afghan control by the end of 2014. U.S. officials announced in February that Afghans would take over the lead combat role next year, and that American troops would shift their focus to training and advising the Afghans.

That February announcement came just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would remove all of his country’s combat troops next year, a year earlier than planned. Sarkozy’s leading challenger in his reelection bid, Francois Hollande, has pledged to pull troops out even faster.

U.S. officials downplayed the significance of Australia’s actions. But public support for the war is falling in many countries, and in recent months U.S. officials have sought ways of heading off a push by allies to go home.    

Australia has far fewer troops on the ground than other powers  -- the U.S. has about 90,000 and Britain about 9,500. But experts say its action could threaten the political cover that has allowed countries to commit troops to an increasingly unpopular mission.

“Every little crack in this dike creates a danger of the whole thing bursting,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If individual nations start defecting, the public in all these countries are going to say, ‘If these guys can do it, we can too.’”

Fifty countries are involved in the coalition in Afghanistan, though some have only a handful of soldiers and others have pulled out combat forces completely. Canada bowed out last summer. Dutch troops left in 2010. Britain is under domestic pressure to reduce its troop presence. Even Ireland, with only seven soldiers there, has faced calls to get out.

Germany, which has the third-largest force among the allies, has suggested it may take more time, not less, to finish the job. During a trip to Afghanistan last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wasn’t sure whether Germany would be able to pull out by 2014, implying that it might take longer.

Several other countries still have sizable forces on the ground: Nearly 4,000 Italian troops and roughly 2,500 Polish forces were committed to the Afghan mission as of January, according to the International Security Assistance Force. Close behind are Romania and Turkey, each with more than 1,800.

Poland, whose president has complained about the costs of the Afghan mission in the past, has pledged to keep forces there through 2014, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported last month. Romanian media recently reported forces would stay through the first half of 2013 before handing off responsibility to Afghans.

The number of U.S. troops, which peaked at about 100,000, will drop to 68,000 this year. Though President Obama has insisted that a “robust” U.S. force will remain through the end of the year, what happens in 2013 and beyond is unclear. U.S. officials say some American troops are likely to remain beyond 2014, targeting Al Qaeda and its allies.

Next month, NATO will meet in Chicago to discuss how to proceed in Afghanistan. 


Syrian cease-fire on verge of shattering

Palestinian letter to Israel lays out conditions for peace talks

Africa calls for World Bank reform after Nigerian denied top post

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets members of the 1st Mentoring Task Force during her October 2010 visit to the multinational base at Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan. Credit: Raymond Vance / AFP/Getty Images


Russia shows 'callous disregard' in Katyn massacre case, court says

Russia's refusal to cooperate with the European Court of Human Rights in exposing a 1940 war crime that killed 22,000 Poles in the Katyn forest shows "callous disregard" for the victims and their relatives, the court said in a ruling
Russia's refusal to cooperate with the European Court of Human Rights in exposing a 1940 war crime that killed 22,000 Poles in the Katyn forest shows "callous disregard" for the victims and their relatives, the court said in a ruling Monday.

The court, based in Strasbourg, France, said it couldn't address the demands for full disclosure on the massacre because Moscow has refused to hand over the results of a 14-year investigation into the killings, which were ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin after the Red Army invaded Poland in September 1939.

"The court was struck by the apparent reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognize the reality of the Katyn massacre," the judges said in their ruling, which was posted on the court's website.

The Russian government launched an investigation in 1990 into the massacre of Polish military officers and intellectuals taken prisoner during the invasion and spirited to prisons and camps in western Russia. The probe was halted in 2004 and its findings were classified.

Responding to the demands of victims' relatives for reports on the investigation and the rationale behind shutting it down, the court ordered Moscow to turn over the still-secret 2004 report concluding the review, an order the Russian government refused on grounds of national security.

The court "could not see any legitimate security considerations which could have justified the keeping of that decision secret," the ruling said, noting that the Russian parliament had acknowledged in 2010 that Stalin ordered the summary executions carried out by agents of the dreaded NKVD secret police.

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency focused on an accompanying jurisdictional ruling by the court: Because the killings took place before Russia joined the convention on human rights that brought about the Strasbourg court, the jurists had no authority to order further investigation.

Polish Justice Minister Jaroslaw Gowin said the ruling underscored Moscow's disregard for international law and disinterest in fully exposing and putting to rest a painful World War II atrocity.

"It is not for the first time that Russia has a problem with following the standards of a European state of law," Gowin told Poland's TVN24.


6 U.N. observers arrive in Syria

North Korea to face new sanctions, U.N. Security Council says

Anders Behring Breivik, confessed Norwegian killer, goes on trial

-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: In an Oct. 31, 1989, remembrance, a woman mourns victims of the 1940 massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Credit: Wojtek Druszcz / AFP/Getty Images

Suspicions linger two years after death of Polish president

Protesters in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw say the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski in Russia was an assassination.

Two years after a plane crash in Russia killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of government officials and military leaders, some Poles refuse to accept Polish and Russian investigators' conclusions that the crash was caused by weather and pilot error.

Opposition figures and conspiracy theorists protested outside the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on Monday, the eve of the anniversary of the crash that killed Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others en route to a memorial for victims of a Stalin-era massacre in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother and leader of the conservative Law and Justice Party, has speculated since shortly after the April 10, 2010, crash that the plane may have been targeted by Russia in retaliation for Poland's opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy.

The surviving Kaczynski twin, a former prime minister, last week alluded to reports that there had been explosions on the Russian-built Tupolev-154 before it crashed and that "this catastrophe looks increasingly like an assassination." He accused fellow Poles of submitting to "a forced amnesia" about the crash and called for an independent probe by the European Union.

Supporters of Kaczynski's opposition party burned an effigy of Putin outside of the embassy Monday and staged demonstrations in front of the offices of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski, the Associated Press reported.

Many Poles remain deeply suspicious of their giant neighbor, resentful that the Soviet Union partitioned Poland with Nazi Germany at the start of World War II and then enforced communist rule for more than four decades.   

Russia's government hasn't officially responded to Kaczynski's persistent insinuations of foul play. The Voice of Russia radio network said "the anguish of the Polish people resonates with us," but urged that the tragedy "should not drive a wedge between us."

A memorial was planned at the crash site Tuesday, commemorating the victims of the aviation disaster and those of the Stalinist massacre at Katyn 72 years ago.


Gunfire across Syrian border kills two in Turkish refugee camp

North Korea gearing up for nuclear test, South Korean report says

Iran talks compromise ahead of nuclear talks but rejects 'preconditions'

-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Protesters in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on April 9, 2012, rally to say that they believe that the 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in Russia was an assassination. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press


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