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

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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


London's historic Admiralty Arch will become a hotel

Admiralty Arch in London
LONDON -- Admiralty Arch, a century-old stone archway and building that serves as the ceremonial gateway to Buckingham Palace, is to get a new lease on life as a luxury hotel, a government minister confirmed Thursday.

Built by King Edward VII to honor the long reign of his mother Queen Victoria, the arch has been leased to Spanish property entrepreneur Rafael Serrano, chief executive of the London-based investment company Prime Investors Capital. Serrano paid about $96 million for the 99-year lease.

From the top of the central archway on one side guests will enjoy a view toward Buckingham Palace down the Mall, the tree-lined avenue that is the traditional route of royal processions, including April’s royal wedding cortege of Prince William and his bride Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. The other side looks down on Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and a meeting point for public celebrations, rallies and protests.

It is the latest of the government property fire sales around Europe over the last two years that come amid austerity drives to tame massive deficits. In France and Italy, government-owned palaces and villas have gone to wealthy private investors. In Greece, state-owned buildings, marinas and ports reportedly are up for sale.

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Cuba lifts 'exit visa' requirement for its citizens


MEXICO CITY -- The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it plans to rescind the requirement that its citizens obtain exit visas in order to travel abroad, generating hope on the island that a longstanding bureaucratic hindrance to their freedom of movement will soon be removed.

The change in immigration policy was announced Tuesday in the official state newspaper Granma, with the details printed in the government's legal journal. Beginning Jan. 14, the news report said, Cubans wishing to leave the island temporarily will no longer need to obtain a government-issued “travel permit” -- a document that in the past has been withheld for political or arbitrary reasons.

How the new rules will actually change things for everyday Cubans remains to be seen. Much depends on the way the law is applied  and the fine print. Cubans will still need to obtain a passport to travel, and the new rules allow officials to deny anyone a passport for “reasons of public interest.”

The government also said it would maintain special travel restrictions for the professional classes because it fears that they could be lured away by high salaries abroad after benefiting from a low-cost socialized education -- an attempt, as the regime puts it, to preserve “the human capital created by the  revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.”

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Holiday horror stories abound as all of China goes on vacation

BEIJING -- There’s no Mandarin word for “staycation,” but after this week’s holiday horror stories -– daylong traffic jams, heaps of trash and restaurateurs gouging customers -- the concept may take off here soon.

China is halfway through Golden Week, the fall vacation period that starts with National Day on Oct. 1 and sees most businesses, schools and government offices shut down as people venture forth to enjoy some of the majesty of the Middle Kingdom. But when hundreds of millions of tourists head for the same scenic sites, the result can be anything but relaxing. 

The Forbidden City in Beijing attracted 182,000 visitors Tuesday, its highest attendance day ever. A day earlier, the Mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen in Nanjing saw 215,000 people pass through its gates -– 10 times the load of a typical busy day. The Terra Cotta Warrior museum in Xian reported 90,000 visitors over three days, up 25% from last year.  

"We saw absolutely nothing but people's heads," 42-year-old Guo Zhijun of Henan province told the China Daily after visiting the Forbidden City. "We wanted our 11-year-old son to learn something from the trip, but we only ended up exhausted."

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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)

Google Street View now available for Mexico archaeological sites

Google street view inah castillo pyramid

MEXICO CITY -- For travelers who've never been to the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza, a virtual window into the site's pyramids and plazas is available online, among 30 archaeological zones in Mexico now mapped by history's greatest peeping Tom: Google Street View.

From the comfort of a computer, any Internet user anywhere can now zoom in and examine the perfect form of Chichen Itza's Kukulkan pyramid, known also El Castillo, or the Castle.

On Google Street View, a viewer can almost feel like they might tumble into the Sacred Cenote, or natural sinkhole, where Maya priests practiced ritual sacrifice. Or imagine cavorting on the Plaza of the Thousand Columns. Or maybe do some souvenir browsing, up close and in intensely high resolution.

Google and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, announced the new maps last week. Using a 360-degree camera mounted on a bicycle, Google captured "street views" of other major archaeological sites in Mexico, such as Monte Alban in Oaxaca and Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.

Lesser-known Mesoamerican sites are also now mapped by Google Street View, including Tula in the state of Hidalgo and Xochicalco in Morelos.

The Internet search engine has focused its publicity campaign for the new maps on images captured at Chichen Itza, one of Mexico's most storied tourist destinations. But for travelers who have been there, could Google Street View now be better than the real thing?

Consider: A recent (physical) visit to Chichen Itza confirmed that tourists are no longer allowed to climb the Castillo pyramid, no more tackling its famous 91 steps that President Felipe Calderon recently climbed in a widely mocked tourism video.

Visitors can no longer actually, physically cavort among the plaza of the columns. In fact, most of the structures at Chichen Itza these days are off-limits to tourists, who must settle on snapping photos behind wire barriers. Worse, the archaeological zone is also overrun with vendors from the neighboring communities, making a non-virtual visit a somewhat disappointing experience overall.

Since Chichen Itza was declared a new Seven Wonders of the World site in 2007, access has been limited due to concerns over deterioration and also because the site's restoration process is ongoing, said an INAH spokesman.

The same is true at the Palenque zone in Chiapas, the spokesman said, where a visitor like you and me may no longer be able to climb that site's spectacular structures. But on Google, at least, there's a decent shot of a man in an orange polo with a sweat towel on his head.


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Photo: A view of the Kukulkan pyramid, or El Castillo, at the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Mexican state of Yucatan. Credit: Google, via INAH

U.S. looks to Belize for alleged ties to Sinaloa drug cartel

MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government’s effort to dismantle Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is a war with multiple fronts. The latest is the tiny tourist jewel of Belize.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced it was freezing the assets of three Belize residents alleged to be drug traffickers and “key associates” of the Mexican drug trafficking group. The Treasury Department has also prohibited U.S. citizens from doing business with the suspects or their companies.

The focus on Belize — a polyglot, 327,000-resident wedge of the Yucatan just south of Cancun — is the latest evidence of the overwhelming influence of the south-to-north movement of drugs through Central America.

The U.S. government has estimated that up to 90% of the 700 metric tons of cocaine headed from South America to the U.S. wends its way through Central America, and every nation in the region is on the U.S. list of “major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries.”

Belize, along with El Salvador, was added to that U.S. “blacklist” of 22 nations in September in a presidential memorandum that noted numerous recent drug and weapons seizures on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Belize border, as well as the presence of Mexican cartels including the Zeta gang, the ruthless rival to the Sinaloa cartel.

The three suspects targeted Tuesday are John Zabaneh, described by U.S. officials as a “critical figure” with ties to Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers; his nephew Dion Zabaneh, and a “close associate” named Daniel Moreno.

The Treasury Department also designated as off-limits a number of companies either owned or controlled by Moreno or John Zabaneh, including a building contractor, a resort and marina company, a pharmaceutical firm, a supermarket company, and a banana farm called Mayan King Ltd.

The bigger target, however, is the Sinaloa cartel, and its billionaire fugitive capo, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. Treasury officials say the Belizeans are associates of Guzman and other members of the cartel, the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico and perhaps the most powerful narcotics ring in the world.

“John Zabaneh’s drug trafficking activities and his organization’s ties to Colombian sources of supply and Mexican buyers make him a critical figure in the narcotics trade,” Adam J. Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. “By designating Zabaneh, OFAC is disrupting those activities and continuing its efforts, alongside those of our law enforcement partners, to expose operatives of Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, including their businesses.”

The Treasury Department has the ability to “designate” foreign businesspeople with suspected drug ties under the Kingpin Act, which was signed in to law by President Clinton in 1999. Since then, U.S. officials have designated more than 1,100 businesses and individuals linked to 97 drug kingpins, according to government figures.


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London Olympics threatened with strike by border officials

LONDON -- Already coping with a shortage of private security staff, the organizers of the 2012 Olympic Games in London are now facing the threat that thousands of government employees responsible for safeguarding the nation's borders will go on strike next Thursday, on the eve of opening day.

But Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Games, defiantly told the BBC on Friday that Britain would offer “a safe and secure” international event.

With athletes and spectators adding to the normal workload of already struggling border staff checking immigration lines, the union representing airport immigration staff and passport and criminal records employees announced a 24-hour strike for next week and a ban on overtime for the duration of the Games, which run through Aug. 12.

Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to British troops in Afghanistan on Thursday, condemned the strike. “I do not believe it is right, I do not believe it will be justified,” he said.

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Bulgaria suspects suicide bomber in bus attack that killed 5 Israelis

As Israeli victims of the Bulgarian bus bombing began arriving home, security officials said they now believe that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber with a fake American passport
JERUSALEM -- As Israeli victims of the Bulgarian bus bombing began arriving home Thursday, security officials said they now believe that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber with a fake American passport.

Israel began airlifting wounded tourists from the Black Sea city of Burgas to Tel Aviv following Wednesday's blast, which killed seven people and injured more than 30 others.

Officials believe that five of the dead are Israelis, one was the bus' Bulgarian driver and the seventh was the bomber.

Bulgarian officials released a video showing a Caucasian male with long hair, dressed in short pants, tennis shoes, a baseball cap and sunglasses. He is shown loitering around the airport with a large black backpack. His remains were found on the bus, officials said.

Officials say the man was carrying what appeared to be a U.S. passport and a Michigan driver's license, both of which are believed to be forged, according to Bulgaria's Sofia News Agency. Officials told reporters Thursday that the man had been in the country for more than four days.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday that Israel has information linking Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to the attack, but he did not elaborate or provide evidence of that assertion.

Iranian and Hezbollah officials have denied any role in the bombing.

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war for nearly two years. Israel blames Iran for orchestrating bomb attacks against Israeli missions in India, Georgia and Thailand. Iran says Israel is behind the assassination of several of its top scientists working on the country's nuclear program.

Israel has threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent the Tehran regime from developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes.


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Photo: Smoke can be seen over the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, where a tour bus carrying Israeli vacationers exploded, killing at least seven people. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Move over Dracula, tourists flock to see Bulgarian 'vampire'


The discovery last week of a 700-year-old skeleton with metal stakes where his heart had been has stirred a bout of vampire-mania in Europe and attracted flocks of tourists to the churchyard grave site in Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Sozopol.

So keen is the interest, the Bulgarian newspaper Standart reported Thursday, that Bulgarian authorities have moved the disinterred remains to a special display case at the Bulgarian Natural History Museum in Sofia.

At least 100 graves have been discovered during modern-day archaeological excavations in which the remains appeared to have been pinned down with iron rods or stakes, the newspaper said.

As recently as a century ago, Balkan peoples held to the belief that staking down the corpses of people who they regarded a evil would prevent them from rising from the dead and continuing to torment the living, archaeologist and museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov told journalists in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

"A group of brave men would reopen their graves and pierce the corpses with iron or wooden rods. Iron rod was used for the richer vampires," Dimitrov told journalists gathered around the skeleton, which he said was probably that of a notorious Black Sea pirate known as Krivich, or "Crooked."

Historically, vampire lore has spread from Transylvania in neighboring Romania, where a brutal 15th century ruler known as Vlad the Impaler dealt with his enemies by skewering them on stakes and posting them to suffer their gruesome deaths in public. Vlad the Impaler was believed to be the real-life inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, Dracula.

Bulgarian media have reported the discoveries of two other staked skeletons this month, both 700 to 800 years old -- more than a century before Vlad the Impaler's reign.

The global tourism news site eTN reported that travel agencies have been hit with a surge of interest in "vampire vacations." A photo accompanying the Standart story from the Bulfoto agency showed tourists in shorts and sun hats strolling through ruins of the nearby Black Sea town of Nessebar, noting that many have been asking to see the grave where the pirate's remains were found.

Agencies said interest from Britain and Germany was especially high, but they had also received enquiries from Russia and the United States, eTN reported.


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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Bulgarian National History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov, right, unveiled remains believed to be those of a 14th century pirate found in a churchyard gravesite with metal stakes through the chest. Balkan pagans believed that evil people turned into vampires after they died and staking them to their coffins kept them from rising up to torment the living, Dimitrov said. Credit: Valentina Petrova / Associated Press


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