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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

Filling up at the gas station has been a much more pleasant experience for Americans since last fall. Regular gas is now less than $2 a gallon in many states, down from around $3.30 just a year ago.

But how long will that last? It’s just one of many questions stemming from the extraordinary drop in crude oil prices — a development that has boosted consumer confidence, hurt once-booming energy states and presented new opportunities — and challenges — for the U.S. and global economy.

Q: Why did oil prices fall so much, so fast?

A: A confluence of factors has contributed to the more than 50 percent slide in oil prices since September. The biggest is the steady rise in world petroleum supplies, mainly because of the shale-oil revolution in the U.S. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other drilling techniques, the U.S. has accounted for more than 80 percent of global crude production growth in the last five years. More recently, an increase in oil output in Iraq and Libya has further boosted capacity.

At the same time, there are signs of softening demand. Economies in Europe and Japan have been stagnant, and the Chinese economy, the biggest driver of global oil demand, is slowing down. The strong dollar also has helped pushed down oil prices.

Q: How long will it last?

A: Low prices at the pump may be short-lived because the cost of crude is likely to start rebounding in the second half of this year. That’s based on predictions of future supply and demand, including that low prices will stimulate greater use and therefore lead to an increase in demand. Oil futures lately have been trading at about $45 per barrel, compared with an average $100 in the first half of last year. By this time next year, Moody’s Analytics estimates that oil will bounce back up to $80 a barrel.

But there are other factors that could come into play. The fall in crude prices has started to slow drilling and exploration projects, which no longer look as profitable amid the falling cost of oil. And while theoretically that should lower supply and nudge prices back up, it won’t happen right away. In some cases, oil producers may be reluctant to turn off the spigot, even if their profits are falling, because there are hefty costs to restarting operations. Some may tough it out, betting that prices will soon rise again to a level where they can at least break even.

All of which is to say that global supplies could keep growing and outpacing any pick-up in demand, prolonging an oil glut and keeping prices depressed.

Q: Who benefits the most from lower energy costs?

A: The U.S. will be one of the biggest winners. Car-related businesses, for example, will see more sales as people drive more, buy bigger vehicles and require more services. On average, an American household is projected to save $750 on gasoline costs this year compared with 2014, according to the Energy Department. States in the Southeast will benefit comparatively more as households in that region tend to spend a bigger share of their after-tax income on fuel.

Countries that import a lot of oil also stand to save hundreds of billions of dollars, including European nations, Japan, South Korea and China. But there are caveats. Heavy taxes in Europe and government subsidies in China will limit the benefits to consumers in those countries. Meanwhile, the savings to Japan will be partially offset by its weak currency. Like other commodities, oil is denominated in dollars, so Japan will have to pay that much more yen for every $1 of crude that it buys in international markets.

Q: Whom will it hurt the most?

A: Oil-producing countries such as Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria are already straining because they rely heavily on oil for government revenues. Other OPEC-member countries will feel a pinch too, but at $45 a barrel or even lower, Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ dominant and lowest-cost producer, can still make a solid profit.

While big oil companies will be cushioned somewhat by gains in their petroleum-refining business, smaller, less-efficient energy firms will face a revenue and credit squeeze that could drive some out of business. Significantly, a protracted oil price slump would take a toll on the U.S. shale industry, concentrated in Texas and North Dakota.

Q: How will it affect economic and job growth in the U.S?

A: On net, the U.S. economy could get as much as a big 0.5 percentage point lift from the steep oil price decline, primarily from billions of dollars freed up for spending by consumers. Many companies, too, will enjoy a bump in profits– more than 50 percent of in-house company economists said the drop in oil prices already had a positive effect on their firms, according to a January survey by the National Association for Business Economics.

Job growth also will get a boost, although it won’t be evenly distributed. If oil prices remain low for an extended period, it could even drag some energy-dependent states into recession. While an oil-related boom-turned-bust in North Dakota won’t mean much for the U.S. economy, a downturn in Texas is another matter. The Lone Star state has added some 1.3 million new jobs since the Great Recession, or about 14 percent of the total gains in the nation, and many undoubtedly were linked to the oil boom.

Q: Which country will call the shots in determining oil prices?

A: Much has been said about the diminished power of OPEC, the oil cartel dominated by Saudi Arabia, the longtime energy kingpin. Now there’s another big kid on the block: The U.S. has once again become a “swing producer,” as energy expert Daniel Yergin calls the impact from America’s tremendous output of shale oil.

Even so, the U.S. today can’t match the low-cost production of Saudi oil. And the kingdom’s decision to keep pumping out large supplies — ostensibly to protect market share and put pressure on neighbors as well as rivals in America — is certain to test the financial mettle of U.S. producers as well as their ability to harness their drilling technologies more efficiently and effectively.

AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Tina Peters

YouTube Screenshot

A right-wing conspiracy theorist who was indicted in March on criminal charges of tampering with voting machines to try to prove former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen 2020 presidential election on Tuesday lost the Republican primary to run for secretary of state of Colorado, the person who oversees its elections.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Colorado, was in third place, trailing the winner, fellow Republican Pam Anderson, 43.2 percent to 28.3 percent.

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