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Celebs Play Defense As They Snatch Up New Internet Addresses

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Some interesting new websites will be unveiled in May: ParisHilton.porn, Beyonce.porn, GameOfThrones.porn, JustinBieber.porn.
Go there, though, and you’re likely to find little more than a blank screen. Fabulous people and well-known brands are buying up Internet addresses with controversial endings such as .porn, .adult and .sucks to make sure they don’t end up in the hands of someone who could besmirch their names and reputations.

The defensive moves come amid a major expansion of Internet addresses beyond the familiar .com, .org, .net and .edu endings. In hopes of spurring creativity among Web entrepreneurs, thousands of new “top-level” domain names — the part that comes after the period — are being made available including .pet, .joy, .lol, .hotel, and .bank. About 600 new suffixes have launched over the last couple of years, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

Now, it’s .porn’s turn. Paris Hilton doesn’t need further advertisement of the salacious images of her that exist on the Web. Her lawyer, Robert Tucker, described the purchase of ParisHilton.porn as a defensive measure that takes less time and costs less money than trying to wrest back control of an address from individuals often denounced as cybersquatters or extortionists — people who buy up domain names to sell later at a far higher price. Or, from those who might get their jollies posting content that might embarrass celebrity victims.

Dot-porn and dot-adult names are being advertised as $100-a-year purchases.

“It’s still true what Benjamin Franklin used to say,” Tucker said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The creation and sale of the new names is managed by the nonprofit Internet Consortium for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, based in Los Angeles.

To protect trademark holders, ICANN rules give them an early-access period that allows them to buy their domain names before it’s a free-for-all among the public. But some who do the early buying compare it to extortion.

“Essentially, you have to pay hundreds of dollars to make sure other people don’t infringe on your trademark,” said Howard Hogan, an intellectual property attorney at law firm Gibson Dunn. Intellectual property law already protects trademarks, but trying to evict a cybersquatter can become a costly pursuit.

ICANN’s distribution of top-level domain names is a complicated process. Businesses and other organizations paid a $185,000 application fee to propose new endings, which generate revenue for the applicants once sold.

A few of the new appendages, such as .bank and .hotel, come with a restriction that only a verified business in that industry can buy an address. Other applicants are reserving some endings for their own use. Google, for example, won the rights to .google, and has said it wouldn’t be for sale to the public. Amazon grabbed .book after a private auction among several entities vying to control it.

A Florida firm, ICM Registry, won the rights to .porn and .adult.

According to Stuart Lawley, ICM’s chief executive, the .porn address will make for a safer Internet — sort of like truth in labeling. “With the greatest respect, no one is going to go to a .sex or .porn site by accident,” Lawley said.

Purchasers of ICM domains must agree to let the company scan websites for viruses and child pornography. If child pornography is spotted, ICM will notify child protection hotlines and has the right to remove those sites.

“We want people to go there with a relaxed mode,” Lawley said. “And make it so people who want to see the images can find them easily and safely and those who don’t can stay away from it.”

Vox Populi Registry is behind the .sucks domain that’s setting trademark holders back about $2,500 a pop. After a trade group for trademark owners called the scheme “predatory,” ICANN last week asked the Federal Trade Commission to review whether the extraordinary price violates any laws. Though addresses such as Microsoft.sucks will inevitably pop up, Vox Populi is pointing to the potential of websites such as cancer.sucks or racism.sucks to become rallying sites on the Web for noble causes.

“The word sucks is now a protest word,” former presidential candidate Ralph Nader says in an ad for the domain that also features the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Attorneys said they’ve advised clients to purchase their trademarks on the new extensions that represent the biggest dangers.

“You want to be comprehensive, but at the same time not be frivolous on blowing your budget on things unlikely to cause harm,” Hogan said.

Between defensive registrations and interest from the adult entertainment industry, .porn and .adult should become mainstays. But Doug Isenberg, an attorney who specializes in domain name issues, expects plenty of recently approved suffixes to disappear. Just 16 out of the more than 300 new endings on sale to the public have reached 50,000 sign-ups, a milestone that typically triggers registries such as ICM and Vox Populi to pay fees to ICANN, according to tracking site nTLDstats.com.

Said Isenberg, “Everyone’s hoping they have the next .com but very few, if any, of them will be as successful as .com.”

Photo: Tristan via Flickr

Google Plans To Launch Small Wireless Network

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A Google executive said Monday that the company plans to launch a cellphone network to introduce technology that it wants to see big carriers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T adopt.

Google expects to formally announce the service in the coming months, Sundar Pichai, the company’s senior vice president of products, told an audience at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Spain.

The small project appears similar to what Google has done with cellphones and broadband Internet service. Google developed a line of Nexus cellphones and tablets to show off the capabilities of the Android operating system. In select cities, Google is also building a super-fast Internet service called Google Fiber. In each case, Google wanted to spur innovation among an industry’s heavyweights

Existing wireless service carriers are expected to be involved in Google’s cellphone service in some capacity.

Separately, Google is developing drones and balloons equipped with technology to beam Internet service to small areas.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco, during Google’s annual developer conference, in San Francisco, California, on June 28, 2012. Photo: Kimihiro Hoshino via AFP

YouTubers Make Jump To TV In Pursuit Of Advertising Dollars

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Stephanie Horbaczewski’s company, StyleHaul, manages 5,000 YouTube stars who dazzle 60 million viewers a month with watch-’em-and-learn videos such as “My Shower Routine!” and “2 Ways to Get Princess Jasmine’s Hair.”

The YouTube videos, sponsored by the likes of L’Oreal and Banana Republic, delve into fashion, beauty and the lives of women under 35. They generate income for both the stars and StyleHaul. The Los Angeles-based company doesn’t release financial information, but claims revenue has tripled in the last year.

Now StyleHaul’s top personalities are seeking more than just online stardom. StyleHaul and several companies like it are helping their video bloggers leap to leading roles on television and movies. The bigger screens come with prestige, millions of new viewers and larger paydays.

StyleHaul recently signed a deal with the Oxygen cable network, Trium Entertainment and Lentos Brand to create a reality series featuring StyleHaul stars, tentatively titled “Survival of the Clickiest.” Horbaczewski hopes the increased credibility, visibility and financial stability that television offers on-air personalities flows its way too.

“You come at it as: How do we create something to excite our existing audience while bringing over a new audience?” she said.

Though online advertising spending is growing, television remains supreme. Some entertainment industry analysts predict that television shows will become indistinguishable from the Web videos. That future isn’t imminent, but the Oxygen deal is among a growing list of experiments laying the foundation for widespread crossover between YouTube and traditional Hollywood.

Cameron Dallas, for example, known for his funny clips on the six-second-video-sharing app Vine, starred in the movie “Expelled” late last year. After a limited run in theaters, it sat on the iTunes top 10.

Online comedian Grace Helbig debuts a prime-time talk show on E! in April. BET has ordered a pilot based on a YouTube series about young black women called “Twenties.” YouTube prankster Jack Vale wrapped up a behind-the-scenes series on HLN on Tuesday.

The Web stars “view TV as the ultimate graduation,” Amy Powell, president of Paramount Television, said at a recent conference.

For StyleHaul and its ilk, TV advertising dollars are a major draw. Online video ads are expected to hit near $8 billion this year, according to Emarketer — but TV advertising will total $71 billion. And television’s continuing appeal to female viewers over 35 provides a potential new audience for StyleHaul.

“Where is the young adult audience going to next for content?” Horbaczewski said. “Figuring out what they want to watch is what we’re after…. How do we create something to excite our existing audience while bringing over a new audience?”

StyleHaul is scheduled to unveil additional shows at this spring’s NewFronts, a gathering of advertisers and digital media companies.

Despite her current enthusiasm for TV, Horbaczewski wasn’t thinking in that direction when the television production firm Trium Entertainment approached her last year about co-producing a show. Horbaczewski, a former marketing director at retailer Saks Fifth Avenue, yelped.

“Whoa, that’s scary. I’m not putting my creators in that situation,” she thought, because horror stories about the cutthroat television industry gave her the chills.

But she realized that the mothers who watch television must be curious about why their children spend hours watching YouTube. To give moms a taste, a show about online stars juggling the demands of everyday life seemed like an “amazing” idea, she said.

Oxygen’s decision whether to air the show will hinge on the reaction of network executives to the first episode. But the show’s expected celebration of millennial entrepreneurs fits with the channel’s recent push to cater to “young, multicultural women.”

StyleHaul’s TV aspirations already received a big boost — and Horbaczewski’s purse widened — when the company was bought in November by RTL Group, one of Europe’s largest TV and radio broadcast companies, in a deal that valued the 4-year-old start-up at close to $200 million. RTL’s empire includes FremantleMedia, the studio known for The X Factor.

FremantleMedia Executive Vice President Gayle Gilman says she was bowled over when she first met Horbaczewski.

“She was moving 100 mph, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a woman who is going to make things happen,'” Gilman said. “She’s a force of nature.”

Horbaczewski, 36, had the idea for StyleHaul after reading a Fast Company magazine article in 2010 that’s become a keepsake in her bedroom. In the story, actor and producer Ashton Kutcher talked about the nascent rise of “branded short-form content” — 25-minute-or-less videos that incorporate advertising, subtly or not. Her early thoughts are scribbled in the margins.

In conjuring StyleHaul, she spent two months identifying YouTubers whose videos about wardrobe and makeup tips raised the most views. She told them that as a team, their collective effort would generate stacks of data for increasing viewership — making adjustments on things as simple as video titles.

Another lure: StyleHaul would introduce branded content, so the YouTube stars would have another way to make money besides the TV-style advertisements that display before or during videos. Advertisers highly value sponsored videos because viewers treat it as a product recommendation from a friend, which tends to spur more sales than an impersonal product placement.

On a recent Friday, hair-products maker Schwarzkopf sponsored a 13-minute video on “Big Voluminous Long Lasting Curls” by StyleHaul videomaker Carli Bybel. It reached more than 76,000 views within hours of appearing on her YouTube channel “The Beauty Bybel.”

“So the No. 1 step, and the most important in my opinion, is to use a heat-protectant spray,” Bybel says in the video as she wields a Schwarzkopf shine spray.

YouTube celebrity Kayley Melissa does “hairtorials” sponsored by Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine. In one four-minute episode, she advises on “how to style your hair during humidity,” an endeavor that according to Melissa requires four different Garnier products. Such StyleHaul marketing campaigns spread across seven social networks, including Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram.

The transition from social-media apps to the rigors of television won’t be one that every YouTuber can pull off, industry experts say. But StyleHaul leaders are betting on their stars’ versatility and dreams to attract viewers anywhere.

“It’s a great time to be in the online world,” StyleHaul’s Chief Content Officer Mia Goldwyn said. “We’re in a unique position to optimize a YouTube strategy, a digital strategy and now a television strategy.”

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Andrew Perry via Flickr

Arizona Wildfire Burns Nearly 1,000 Acres, Threatens 100 Structures

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A fire ripping through a heavily forested canyon in northern Arizona had burned nearly 1,000 acres and left several cabins evacuated by midday Wednesday.

The Slide Fire was reported about 4 p.m. Tuesday and is being investigated as human-caused because lightning wasn’t an issue at the time, said Heather Noel, a spokeswoman for Coconino National Forest. Authorities did not have any immediate leads.

The fire began just north of Sedona’s Slide Rock State Park, a popular hiking and vacation destination, and has been traveling northward through a canyon. By early morning Wednesday, the blaze had scorched 450 acres, an estimate that was doubled hours later as low-humidity, high-wind conditions persisted. The fire was also pushing up the canyon’s steep hillsides.

In the early morning, U.S. Forest Service officials said 100 houses and vacation cabins were under threat to the north of the state park.

The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations of that stretch of structures, with people moved to Sinagua Middle School in nearby Flagstaff, where smoke from the fire area created hazy conditions. The Associated Press reported that about 15 campers stayed at the shelter Tuesday night. The American Red Cross in Phoenix provided meals and clothing to the campers, officials said.

Sophie Lwin, an operations director for a law firm in Peoria, Arizona, said her family had made plans six months ago to stay this weekend at cabins in the now-evacuated area.

“I have a feeling our trip will have to be canceled,” she said by phone Wednesday. “This is just devastating for people who know these cabins. There’s a lot of history there.”

Lwin, her husband, Curtis McGee, and four family members from Los Angeles planned to rent three cabins at the Butterfly Garden Inn and the Forest Houses Resort. She described them as “secret gems” and among the “least-touristy places” in Sedona.

“I’m just hoping nothing happens to those cabins,” Lwin said, noting her honeymoon was spent at the Butterfly Garden. “It’s an all-natural environment around there, and now it’s all gone because of a human.”

More than 200 people were helping to fight the blaze, including some firefighters who worked on wildfires that took out several thousand acres in San Diego a week ago.

Noel said authorities suspect the fire was sparked in Oak Creek Canyon, between Flood Rock and Halfway Picnic Area.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said it added four more aircraft to its fleet to contend with “what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the Southwest.”

The agency cited climate change, forest diseases and suburban sprawl combined had extended the annual fire season by more than two months during the last 30 years.

In the upper West, from Idaho to the Dakotas, the forest service on Monday indefinitely banned the use of exploding gun targets because such devices have started at least 16 wildfires in the West during the last two years. A similar ban took effect last year in the Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

AFP Photo/Jorge Cruz

Arkansas Judge Fixes ‘Clerical Error,’ Officially OK’ing Gay Marriage

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

Same-sex marriages were expected to resume Thursday in parts of Arkansas after a local judge clarified a ruling he made last week that had left county clerks confused as to whether the state’s ban on gay marriage had really been struck down.

Hundreds of couples in a few of Arkansas’ 75 counties wed or obtained marriage licenses after the ruling late Friday by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Christopher Piazza, who said state voters and lawmakers had unconstitutionally defined marriage as being only between a man and woman.

The Arkansas Supreme Court had refused to delay Piazza’s initial ruling because the high court said Wednesday that Piazza had yet to rule on a state law banning county clerks from selling marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

On Thursday, in three separate court filings, Piazza made clear that the intent of his original ruling was to stop all six counties named in the lawsuit from enforcing any state law that barred recognition of same-sex marriages licensed outside Arkansas, that prohibited same-sex couples from marrying in Arkansas or that denied same-sex married couples “the rights, recognition and benefits associated with marriage in the state of Arkansas.”

Because his initial ruling had failed to address the state law barring county clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the Association of Arkansas Counties had advised each clerk to consult his or her local legal counsel to decide whether to issue marriage licenses. All the clerks planned to stop issuing licenses to same-sex couples after the state Supreme Court weighed in.

On Thursday, Piazza wrote that the law pertaining the county clerks had been “inadvertently omitted as clerical error” in his first ruling. Therefore, he said, any gay marriages entered into during the last week should be considered valid.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel planned to ask the Arkansas Supreme Court to delay Piazza’s ruling from going into effect until the high court can rule on the state’s appeal.

“This order clarifies what we understood Judge Piazza had attempted to do last week, and it does not change our posture of seeking a stay from the Arkansas Supreme Court and pursuing an appeal,” a McDaniel spokesman, Aaron Sadler, said in a statement.

Piazza denied the state’s request for a stay, saying he “cannot in good conscience grant such request” because it would impose “irreparable harm” on the couples who filed the lawsuit challenging the ban.

“There is no evidence that defendants, the state or its citizens were harmed by the entry of the court’s original order,” Piazza wrote Thursday. “A stay would operate to further damage Arkansas families and deprive them of equal access to the rights associated with marriage status in this state.”

The new ruling leaves in question how the 69 counties not named in the lawsuit should proceed on gay marriages.

Piazza’s order from last week also didn’t clearly state by what authority he was holding unconstitutional the voter-approved and Legislature-passed definitions of marriage. His final order Thursday said that the laws “violate the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the United States and Arkansas Constitutions, and are hereby declared unconstitutional.”

With his order in effect, 18 states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

150 Held In 29-State Raid On Synthetic Drugs

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A week after more than 100 people in Texas fell ill from synthetic cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Administration has arrested at least 150 people in a 29-state sweep to combat the use of substances that mimic the highs of marijuana, methamphetamine or LSD.

Although not always marketed as drugs, products such as K2, Spice, Molly and Purple Wave have come under increasing scrutiny because of their popularity among teenagers and young adults. The DEA considers the synthetics illegal and dangerous, though the industry has tried to skirt the rules and challenge prosecutions by making minor ingredient changes and labeling the goods as “not for human use.”

Police and hospitals in Texas have said that a bad batch of K2 may have contributed to overdoses that required hospitals to treat more than 100 people in the first few days of May, mainly in Austin and Dallas. Sale of K2 is illegal under Texas state law.

“There’s a cluster of people with severe anxiety, some with seizures, that could be because of synthetic cannaboids,” said Dr. Miguel Fernandez, director of South Texas Poison Center. “I would caution people not to use them because they are not like typical marijuana.”

The DEA’s effort Wednesday, which stretched from California to Florida, involved the seizure of more than $20 million in cash and products. The DEA said hundreds of thousands of individual packets of ready-to-sell synthetic drugs were hauled off.

It was the second phase of an ongoing crackdown, the agency said. Last year, federal agents arrested at least 227 people and seized $60 million in cash and assets, including the equivalent of about 3 million single-use packets of K2.

Many of the ingredients are made at low cost in Chinese labs that take online orders. Some of Wednesday’s seizures took place at package screening locations at U.S. borders.

Agents also conducted raids in Orlando, Florida; Iowa City, Iowa; and Birmingham, Alabama.

Aurora, Colorado, Police Chief Dan Oates said his department joined the sweep after a 15-year-old boy died last summer of synthetic marijuana poisoning. He had vial of a product called Monkey Spice next to his bed, Oates said.

Authorities raided 10 locations in Aurora, including a jewelry shop and some corner markets. Although no Spice was found, several people were arrested.

The DEA has said some of the money from synthetic drug sales is being sent to the Middle East, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. And some of the products are marketed as jewelry cleaners or even “plant food,” the agency said in a statement.

The drugs usually produce the same effects as their better-known counterparts such as MDMA or cocaine. They can cause vomiting, hallucinations and high blood pressure.

Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported 29,000 emergency department visits nationwide in 2011 as a result of fake marijuana usage, up from 11,000 in 2010.

Photo: melloveschallah via Flickr.com

NTSB Begins Inquiry Of Fiery Crude Oil Train Derailment In Virginia

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A 105-car train stocked with Bakken shale crude oil was traveling slower than the 25-mph speed limit when 13 tankers near the front tumbled off a Virginia railroad track, causing a fire whose heat could be felt high atop neighboring skyscrapers, an official said Thursday afternoon.

Jim Southworth, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said investigators began surveying the wreckage overnight after the Wednesday afternoon derailment in downtown Lynchburg.

Environmental authorities were also at the scene, trying to assess how much crude oil had spilled into the James River, which runs alongside the tracks. Three cars slipped into the river as the rain-soaked earth beneath them collapsed.

Southworth said the role of rain in the derailment is something investigators would consider.

“We’ll open every door, and we’ll close every door,” he said at a televised news conference.

Rain may have also been a factor in a derailment Thursday of a freight train hauling coal through Maryland and in a landslide that covered a freight track elsewhere in the state. The Baltimore Sun reported that no one was injured in the derailment of three locomotives and 10 storage cars, though some coal did spill.

In Virginia, the CSX Transportation train was being pulled by two locomotives at the front end, Southworth said. Thirteen tankers between cars No. 35 and No. 50 derailed. Some of the tankers on the train were DOT-111s, he said. That class of rail car has come under scrutiny for being too brittle as transportation authorities try to stem a recent uptick in accidents involving crude-oil tanker trains. Each tanker can hold up to 30,000 gallons of oil.

The derailments and fires have coincided with a twenty-five-fold surge in oil shipments by rail in the last several years.

The string of accidents began with the horrific fire triggered by the derailment of a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Canada, last summer, in which 47 residents died and much of the downtown was destroyed. Other major accidents followed in Alabama, Alberta and North Dakota, along with minor ones in other states.

The safety concerns have triggered emergency rules by the Federal Railroad Administration, a move toward new safety standards for tank cars and a voluntary agreement with the railroad industry to reduce speeds and avoid sensitive urban corridors. The Virginia incident, which prompted a wide evacuation, might be the most serious one in an urban area.

Wednesday’s derailment involved a train that was taking oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., CSX said.

Unaffected rail cars were removed overnight, the rail company said. It was also coordinating with local and federal environmental authorities to see how much oil and other debris fell into the river. Pictures taken by environmentalists and state officials showed blobs of oil a few miles downstream, and water officials in another city had stopped taking in water from the James River as a precaution.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality told the Los Angeles Times that results were pending from water sample tests.

“We have not seen any environmental harm at this point, e.g., no fish kills or effects on other aquatic life,” agency spokesman Bill Hayden said in an email. “We are continuing to monitor the river for signs of any problems.”

The NTSB said the investigation into the cause of the incident could take weeks.

“These types of incidents happen very quickly, but they take quite a bit of time to go through,” Southworth said.

Michael Hicks via Flickr.com

Judge Suspends Arctic Drilling, Orders New Environmental Report

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

In the ongoing battle over offshore drilling, a federal judge in Alaska told regulators Thursday to redo an environmental impact study that underestimated the amount of recoverable oil and, potentially, the risks to delicate Arctic habitat.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline stopped short of scrapping the $2.6 billion in leases, however. His ruling followed an appeals court decision in January that federal officials had arbitrarily decided drilling companies could extract 1 billion barrels of oil from the shallow waters off the northwest coast of Alaska. That figure led to a misguided environmental study, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Now, the U.S. Department of the Interior must redo the supplemental analysis using what’s expected to be a much higher estimate for the amount of oil extractable. In the meantime, no drilling for oil or natural gas can take place.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) called the order “good news,” saying it “should lead to resumption of oil and gas development in our state’s promising offshore” by next summer.

Earth Justice attorney Erik Grafe, who opposes drilling and who helped bring the lawsuit, also hailed the decision. The opposing sides had worked for the past two months to negotiate a deal, which the judge adopted almost completely.

Grafe told the Los Angeles Times the redo was a “good outcome,” considering that the erroneous figure of 1 billion barrels “infected every part of the original analysis.”

He said the new report would likely show that oil companies would bring far more boats, planes, drill rigs and pipelines. As a result, he expects the analysis to show a much greater disturbance to the habitat of whales, walruses, polar bears and other animals.

In light of the new analysis, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will have to decide whether to move forward with or cancel the agreed-upon leases with Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and other companies.

“We’re hopeful the government will come to the conclusion that it’s wrong to sell the leases,” Grafe said. “I’m not sure how long it will take for the new study, but the government has a lot of work ahead of itself. It’s a big opportunity for the government to choose a better path in the Arctic.”

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management declined to comment. The agency has maintained that the 1-billion-barrel estimate made economic sense because the oil companies have said drilling in the area is a major technical challenge.

A week after the January ruling, Shell abandoned exploration efforts in the Arctic for the rest of this year.

Federal officials will be able to process and review Arctic drilling applications, but they won’t be able to approve them until the environmental study is complete. If drilling ultimately moves forward, continuing the paperwork process allows the companies to quickly get started in the Chukchi Sea.

“This lawsuit was just another delaying tactic by those who oppose responsible development in Alaska, so Alaskans should be relieved that we’re now getting on with the business we know how to do so well,” Begich said in a statement. The senator has asked federal officials to extend the 10-year deals because the lawsuits have cost a chunk of time since they were brought in 2008.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Fire Rages At Wyoming Natural Gas Plant; Town’s Evacuation Lifted

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

Soaring flames kept a major natural gas plant in southwestern Wyoming closed Thursday, affecting fuel supplies across the West.

The fire followed an explosion Wednesday afternoon at one of the five natural gas processing units at a Williams Cos. plant near the town of Opal. About 40 workers immediately left the plant, shutting off incoming and outgoing pipes on the way out. No one was injured.

The entire 88-acre town was evacuated Wednesday and some 60 residents who spent the night in hotels were allowed back into their homes at about noon Thursday, Opal Mayor Mary Hall told the Los Angeles Times.

Authorities used air monitoring equipment to see whether methane levels were low enough for the town to be safe, Williams spokesman George Angerbauer told the Times.

Firefighters haven’t been able to safely reach the scene, Angerbauer said.

“What you really got to do is let it burn,” he said of the fuel.

A camera mounted on a drone and a news helicopter have given authorities a better picture of the fire, and they were hoping to further cut off fuel to just the affected unit midday Thursday.

The entire facility has been recently processing nearly 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, close to its maximum capacity of 1.5 billion.

Stockpiles of natural gas in the West totaled 178 billion cubic feet at the end of last week, about half the supply available a year ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Thursday.

The natural gas supply decreased significantly in recent months as homes and businesses sought to warm up during the harsh winter. Natural Gas Intelligence reported Thursday that although prices for natural gas rose in the wake of the Opal fire, the effect could have been much worse had the explosion happened at the tail end of winter.

The processing units at Williams’ plant take in natural gas from fields in Wyoming and Utah, bring it to low temperatures and then churn out purified fuels, including liquefied natural gas, for shipping on pipelines that stretch to the West Coast, including Southern California.

The company said the cause of the explosion would not be known until officials can inspect the site.

Hall credited Williams for buying the city an emergency evacuation siren three years ago. The siren was activated after Wednesday’s explosion. Emergency alerts on social media and local radio and via direct calls to residents also were used to notify people, Hall said.

“Williams is great neighbor,” Hall said. “They go through training every single year for this kind of event and the town’s been very progressive about being prepared.”

A pressure vessel rupture and subsequent leak and fire at a Williams tank storing liquefied natural gas in Plymouth, Washington, on March 31 injured a handful of people and forced dozens of residents nearby to stay away for two days. In the wake of the incident, nearby residents called for an automatic evacuation warning system.

In West Virginia, a Williams pipe carrying unprocessed natural gas ruptured and flamed April 7. No one was injured.

Tim Evanson Flickr

 

UAW’s Volkswagen Case Heads To NLRB Hearing As Politicians Object

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A contentious effort to unionize a foreign brand’s automobile factory is scheduled to reach a courtroom Monday, and the case appears far from resolution.

A U.S. senator, the Tennessee governor and several state lawmakers are fighting subpoenas served by the United Automobile Workers union ordering them to appear in court with documents related to the failed vote at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The UAW alleges that the conservative politicians intimidated workers at the plant, leading a 53 percent majority to vote in February against becoming a union shop. The union lost even though Volkswagen remained neutral. The German automaker supports unions at all of its other major factories.

The union wants to stage a new vote. It views the situation as an important test case to figure out how to rebuild its slipping membership with workers from the historically anti-union South, where several carmakers have set up shop in the last decade or so.

The lawmakers have sought to ensure the state’s business-friendly image is preserved. They have rejected the claim that what they said this winter amounted to threats.

An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board was scheduled to begin hearing the UAW’s appeal Monday at the Hamilton County Courthouse. But whether the judge will enforce the subpoenas or even start the hearing as planned remains unclear.

The results of the battle could affect a decision expected soon on whether Volkswagen starts producing a second vehicle in Tennessee. The UAW alleges that state lawmakers threatened to pull subsidies for Volkswagen if the factory became unionized. Workers feared job cuts and rejected the opportunity to join the union, the UAW has argued.

“The taxpayers of Tennessee reached out to Volkswagen and welcomed them to our state and our community,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said in one of the controversial remarks. “We are glad they are here. But that is not a green light to help force a union into the workplace. That was not part of the deal.”

McCormick was one of at least 10 state officials, including Gov. Bill Haslam, to be issued subpoenas. Writing for the group, Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper Jr. called the summons overly broad, abusive and disruptive.

In a legal filing seeking to have the subpoenas dismissed, he wrote that they “are far beyond what is necessary or appropriate for the union to obtain evidence to support its objections.”

If not revoked by the NLRB, the orders will “chill legitimate public debate, effectively silence any opposing views, and distract the NLRB from the fact that the union lost an election it controlled in virtually every facet, except the result,” the attorney general wrote.

Haslam told reporters last week that he wouldn’t show up to court Monday. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), said he would be in Ukraine and Moldova, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Corker’s chief of staff, Todd Womack, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday: “Everyone understands that after a clear defeat, the UAW is trying to create a sideshow, so we have filed a motion to revoke these baseless subpoenas. Neither Sen. Corker nor his staff will attend the hearing on Monday.”

The UAW already lost an early round in the case, when an NLRB appeals panel said it would uphold an order allowing anti-union employees at the plant to be involved in the case alongside attorneys from a national right-to-work group.

The National Right to Work Foundation has said it was shameful that the UAW was trying to silence the voices of affected workers.

The anti-union workers said they wanted to intervene because they believed Volkswagen wouldn’t adequately represent their concerns in front of the NLRB.

The UAW countered that it was trying to keep out “groups with shadowy funding that are masquerading as legitimate worker representatives.”

AFP Photo/Patrik Stollarz

Teenager Linked To ‘Jihad Jane’ Gets Five Years In Prison

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A Maryland teenager who pleaded guilty to conspiring with Islamic terrorists through “Jihad Jane” was sentenced to five years in prison on Thursday.

Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a 20-year-old Pakistani citizen living legally in Ellicott City, was at 17 the youngest person to be accused in U.S. court of providing material support to terrorists, prosecutors said.

Khalid was considered to be a model student and was destined for Johns Hopkins University. But early in high school, he began interacting online with both Colleen LaRose, who went by the name Jihad Jane, and Jamie Paulin-Ramirez. Working mostly online, they sought to raise funds and recruit supporters for operations in Europe.

Khalid’s help involved translating propaganda, including an Osama bin Laden speech, and hiding a stolen passport. In a court filing, the government called him a “tireless soldier for violent jihad.”

Federal authorities said the group built a cell of “men and women from Europe and the United States divided into a planning team, a research team, an action team, a recruitment team and a finance team; some of whom would travel to South Asia for explosives training and return to Europe to wage violent jihad.”

Khalid had faced up to 15 years in prison, but prosecutors offered him a sentence of 10 years or shorter in exchange for his cooperation.

Khalid’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lindy, told the Los Angeles Times that although the sentence was reasonable, the case was hardly “the stuff of international terrorism.” He had sought an immediate release for Khalid, noting that he has already spent nearly three years in prison during the court proceedings.

U.S. District Court Judge Petrese B. Tucker also ordered Khalid to serve three years on probation when he is released in two years, having received credit for time served. During probation he will have limited access to computers.

But it’s likely that Khalid will be deported, his attorney said. His parents, brother and two sisters are now naturalized U.S. citizens, Lindy said.

“Not only has he forever forfeited the American dream — that of an immigrant being accepted to and receiving a degree from one of the premier universities in this nation — but, even more seriously, he now faces deportation to an unstable Islamic nation where he retains little in the way of family ties and where he may face lethal retribution for his cooperation in this case,” Lindy wrote in a court filing.

Lindy argued that Khalid was an immature teenager unknowingly struggling with Asperger’s syndrome at the time. Since then, the self-described “nerd” has understood the gravity of his offense and just wants to get his life back on track.

LaRose was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Paulin-Ramirez to eight years. An Algerian man alleged to be involved in the scheme, Ali Charaf Damache, is being held in Ireland, pending extradition to the U.S., prosecutors said.

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

Judge: North Dakota’s Ban On Abortions After Six Weeks Is Unconstitutional

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

North Dakota’s law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, striking down what critics had called the nation’s most extreme limit on the procedure.

The law, which was approved last year but never took effect, made it a crime for a woman to abort a fetus with a detectable heartbeat. Offending doctors faced up to five years in prison. An exception was allowed for medical emergencies.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland said the law was “in direct contradiction” to the Supreme Court’s 40-year-old decision in Roe v. Wade, which established “viability” as the critical point at which states could begin restricting abortions. North Dakota and several other states already ban abortions when a fetus is considered viable, typically at about four months.

“The United States Supreme Court has spoken and has unequivocally said no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability,” Hovland wrote.

He said that while the “emotionally fraught” controversy over a woman’s right to choose would continue, courts are obligated to uphold the existing precedent until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in again.

An Arizona measure that sought to ban abortions starting at 20 weeks and an Arkansas ban on abortions after about 12 weeks were also struck down recently by federal judges. The Arkansas and North Dakota measures were the strictest measures passed in 2013, the National Women’s Law Center said.

The challenge to the North Dakota law was brought by the state’s only abortion clinic, Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, with the help of the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City.

Nancy Northup, the center’s president and chief executive, celebrated the decision and admonished lawmakers.

“Women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights,” she said in a statement. “We hope today’s decision, along with the long line of decisions striking down these attempts to choke off access to safe and legal abortion services in the U.S., sends a strong message to politicians across the country that our rights cannot be legislated away.”

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was not immediately available for comment, his spokeswoman said.

In court filings, the state admitted that it was trying to ban all abortions. A physician speaking for the state argued that viability was reached at the point of conception.

Hovland acknowledged that viability was a flexible point to be determined by doctors. Although medical advances mean viability can be earlier than it used to be, he said that he was in no position to accept the state expert’s “giant leap.”

“To take the position that viability occurs at the moment of conception results in a complete ban of all abortions which is in clear defiance of United States Supreme Court precedent,” Hovland wrote.

The clinic argued that most women don’t realize they are pregnant for about a month, leaving them a week to seek an abortion. About 91 percent of the abortions it performs are at and after six weeks, the clinic told government regulators. And the clinic typically performs abortions only one day per week, making the time constraint an undue burden on women.

“The state can impose regulations aimed at ensuring a thoughtful and informed choice, but only if such regulations do not unduly burden the right to choose,” the judge wrote in agreement.

The North Dakota Supreme Court is still weighing a challenge from the same plaintiffs about legislation that bans medicated abortions.

Photo from Flickr Commons/World Can’t Wait

Death Toll Hits 37 In Washington Landslide; Seven Remain Missing

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A 37th body has been recovered from the debris of last month’s landslide in Washington, officials announced Tuesday.

The remains have not yet been identified, leaving the number of missing people at seven.

The powerful and quick-moving landslide on March 22 in Oso killed families at home and contractors who were working in the community. A 37-year-old man remained hospitalized late Monday in satisfactory condition, Harborview Medical Center said.

Officials said search crews were helped Monday by a rain-free day — but there was a 70 percent chance of rain Tuesday.

The landslide flowed across a river in a square-mile debris field. Workers at the site are moving around the debris and pumping out water to gain access to unsearched areas. They have “made good progress” on building a temporary berm to block additional water from penetrating some of the debris, the county said.

The landslide also blocked a two-lane highway that is main link between rural communities and the cities of Everett and Seattle. Snohomish County officials said the Red Cross is providing gas cards to help residents who have had to shift their routes. State transportation managers have also begun meeting with community members to see how and when to clear the highway and reopen it.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the area and meet with victims’ families on the one-month anniversary of the landslide next Tuesday. This week, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered flags to be kept at half-staff through the 22nd.

Lindsey Wasson/Seattle Times/MCT

Ohio Finds Probable Link Between Fracking, Quakes

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

Ohio geologists have found a probable connection between fracking and several mild earthquakes in a region that had never experienced a temblor until recently, according to a state report.

The report, which coincided with Ohio’s announcement of some of the nation’s strictest limits on fracking near faults, marked the strongest link to date between nerve-rattling quakes and hydraulic fracturing — the process of firing water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to extract oil and natural gas from ancient rock.

Last month, the state indefinitely shut down Hilcorp Energy Co.’s fracking operation near the Pennsylvania border after five earthquakes, including one magnitude 3 temblor that shook many Ohioans awake.

Federal scientists have previously linked earthquakes in part to the use of injection wells, where post-fracking wastewater is forced back deep into the earth for storage. None of the seven wells near the Ohio quakes were used for waste disposal, leaving Ohio scientists to go a step further to find a significant relationship between the initial blast of fluid and the earthquakes shortly thereafter.

They “believe the sand and water injected into the well during the hydraulic fracturing process may have increased pressure on an unknown microfault in the area,” the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said in a statement about the operation in Poland, Ohio.

The new rules require companies to install “sensitive seismic monitors” before beginning to drill sideways into underground rock “within 3 miles of a known fault or area of seismic activity greater than a 2.0 magnitude.”

Humans can generally feel earthquakes in excess of magnitude 3.

Drilling would be suspended pending investigation whenever the monitors detect anything above magnitude 1.

“While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety and the environment,” department Director James Zehringer said.

Data gathered by the monitors would be used to improve fault maps, he said.

Hilcorp Energy said that it was reviewing the new permitting rules and that it remained “fully committed to public safety and acting in a manner consistent with being a good corporate citizen.”

Officials from Ohio and several other states that have seen an increase in seismic activity met recently to discuss how to handle the expansion of fracking to new beds of rock, where faults might not be well mapped.

Gerry Baker, associate executive director of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, called Ohio’s new rules a “sensible response to a serious issue that regulators across the country are closely examining.”

Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas have been among those seeing the largest surges in seismic activity.

Critics of fracking have long warned of a possible connection between earthquakes and the expanded drilling for oil and gas in shale deposits. They have also raised concerns about possible groundwater contamination by fracking chemicals.

Ray Beiersdorfer, a Youngstown State University geology professor whose wife co-founded Frackfree America, said the new regulations mirrored what he had been seeking.

He has asked Ohio officials to make public the data they used to find the connection as well as set the new restrictions.

“The whole problem is no one knows about these faults until the earthquakes happen because the faults haven’t been researched,” he said.

Oil and gas companies have tended to avoid the well-known fault lines in Ohio, according to the industry publication Natural Gas Intelligence. But industry leaders maintained there is scant evidence that fracking causes earthquakes and labeled the temblors isolated incidents.

At Hilcorp’s site directly above last month’s earthquakes, the state has banned further fracking but has allowed wells already fracked to resume operating.

“This is also expected to have the beneficial effect of reducing underground pressure and decreasing the likelihood of another seismic event,” the state said.

AFP Photo/Frederick Florin

Judge To Grant Same-Sex Couples More Recognition In Ohio

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

Ohio’s refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples wed in other states is unconstitutional, a federal judge said Friday, though he won’t issue a ruling to that effect until April 14.

The decision comes in a case brought by four lesbian couples who sued the state after they were prevented from having both women’s names on the birth certificates of their children born in Ohio. The couples had legally married in other states.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Black told lawyers at a hearing that he would strike down the same-sex marriage-recognition ban in a ruling to be issued April 14. Alerting the states’ lawyers gives them time to prepare an appeal, which would probably prevent the ban from falling immediately.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs nevertheless celebrated the impending ruling, which is the latest in a string of federal rulings in favor of same-sex couples.

“For same-sex couples who have struggled to secure equal rights, this is a great day,” Al Gerhardstein told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

Attorneys for the state had argued that the will of a majority of Ohio voters, who defined marriage as between a man and a woman, shouldn’t be overturned and that the definition didn’t cause harm to gay couples.

In December, Black ruled in a separate case that Ohio must recognize married same-sex partners on each other’s death certificates. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.

AFP Photo/Joel Saget

Mississippi Governor Signs Religious Freedom Bill; Civil Rights Groups Dismayed

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times 

Mississippi’s governor signed into law Thursday a measure that allows individuals and organizations to sue the government over laws that they feel thwart their ability to practice religion.

“I am proud to sign the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which will protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement.

Civil rights groups and advocates of the gay community had opposed the measure and believe that when it takes effect in July it could lead to increased discrimination of gays and lesbians.

“While I commend his desire to take decisive action to protect the First Amendment rights of Mississippians, this bill — a gross distortion of the American promise of religious freedom — will do far more to hurt that cause in the long run,” the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance said in a statement. “Sadly, I fear that the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act is an attempt to codify discrimination.”

This year, several other states considered joining the 18 that already have religious freedom laws. Each has been criticized because it could pave the way for businesses to legally refuse to serve gays and lesbians. The law passed in Mississippi is similar to what Arizona has on its books — and had sought to expand as part of a controversial proposal that was recently vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

The thrust of Senate Bill 2681 says no law should impose a “substantial burden” on someone’s “exercise of religion” unless there is a “compelling interest” and a lack of less burdensome alternatives.

The bill was amended several times in recent weeks as gay rights supporters lobbied lawmakers and brought in stars, including former ‘N Sync singer Lance Bass, to boost their cause. The second half of the bill adds the phrase “In God we trust” to the state seal, which features an eagle with a shield.

The ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign were among groups expressing worry about what the future might hold in Mississippi.

For example: A health care worker could use the new law to help defend his or her decision in court to deny fertility treatments to a lesbian couple because it would be in conflict with the worker’s religious beliefs, Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU, told the Los Angeles Times this week.

The civil rights group had wanted language in the bill to explicitly say that the law could not be used to undermine anti-discrimination statutes. Lawmakers vowed that would not happen and refused to put the language in the bill, Rho said.

“We remain hopeful that courts throughout the state will reject any attempts to use religion to justify discrimination,” ACLU of Mississippi spokeswoman Morgan Miller said in a statement Thursday. “Nobody should be refused service because of who they are.”

Lawmakers who led the charge for the law said it would help cut red-tape for religious groups. They cited the example of a law requiring churches to get sign-off from 60 percent of surrounding properties prior to construction. Opulent Life Church challenged the Holly Springs city ordinance and settled the suit in federal court.

Photo: magnoliaboysstate via Flickr

A Changing Climate On Saving Wolves

By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

On an icy island wilderness near the tip of Minnesota, a female gray wolf’s demise has added to the debate about whether authorities should try to save the wolves of Isle Royale National Park.

Once, wolves could regularly move on and off the island along ice bridges to find fresh mates. Now, researchers say, climate change has made ice bridges rare on Lake Superior, and the increasingly isolated wolf population has grown weak through inbreeding. The death of the wolf nicknamed Isabelle, who had apparently crossed an ice bridge in search of a mate, reduced the known population to nine.

The researchers have called on the federal government to interfere with a wilderness area, a drastic break from tradition that they say is forced by climate change. They want the National Park Service to import fertile wolves from robust neighboring populations.

“To preserve a healthy ecosystem with climate change, we at times are going to have to intervene, and that’s a hard thing to wrap our heads around,” said Michael Nelson, an Oregon State University professor who specializes in environmental ethics and philosophy.

That proposal is controversial, and the National Park Service has not decided what to do.

The carcass of 5-year-old Isabelle, one of three potentially fertile Isle Royale wolves, was found Feb. 8 and announced late last month. An initial necropsy failed to determine a cause of death.

At least, researchers say, three of the island’s surviving wolves are less than a year old — a welcome development after a worrisome year without any pups.

Isle Royale is a rare place where predator and prey, wolves and moose, can fend for themselves without interfering predation by humans or bears. The matchup has been closely tracked since 1959. The park gets fewer visitors in a year than Yosemite National Park sees in two days, but thanks in part to scientists, Isle Royale has more repeat visitors than anywhere else.

Moose migrated to Isle Royale around World War I, and wolves after World War II. Two decades ago, the wolf population dipped from 50 to about a dozen. Researchers won approval to install tracking devices on some of the wolves and draw their blood.

Researchers discovered that the wolves had been ravaged by a disease brought to the island by visitors’ pet dogs. But the population rebounded, reaching 30 before falling again about five years ago.

Now, climate change is further stressing the wolves. Once, solid ice bridges to Minnesota happened seven out of 10 winters. Now, it’s more like once a decade, including in 2008 and two weeks this winter.

By 2040, ice bridges won’t exist, said John Vucetich, a Michigan Tech University population biologist who studies the wolves and moose of Isle Royale.

Inbreeding has led to genetic abnormalities, including deformed backs. Vucetich and his colleagues said that could be remedied by importing wolves from abundant packs in Minnesota or Ontario, Canada.

If the National Park Service decides to let nature take its course and the wolves die out, researchers warn, the moose population could boom and destroy the park’s ecosystem.

Vucetich said that he, Nelson, ecologist Rolf Peterson and others who say man should intervene have faced several critics.

One group insists on a hands-off policy toward wilderness areas, regardless of the consequences. They worry that intervening in Isle Royale would open the floodgates nationwide. And researchers such as the U.S. Geological Survey’s Dave Mech say they would lose the ability to study the island’s small gene pool if more wolves were introduced.

“We couldn’t continue to validly assess what goes on from here on out if we intervene,” Mech said. About 20 years ago, for example, researchers learned more about the wolves’ behavior when a wolf that immigrated to the island considerably changed the makeup of the population. “All the offspring for the next several years had his genes,” Mech said.

Vucetich says he prefers the activist approach because “there’s some things we can resist and hang on to and not let climate change take away.”

He says the cost of protection — moving some wolves to the island — is low and the benefit — preservation of the status quo despite climate change — is great. “Genetic rescues” have been successful, including with Florida’s panthers.

Phyllis Green, Isle Royale’s park superintendent, says officials are summarizing the more than 1,000 public and expert comments they’ve gathered in the last two years. She expects to release a report in late spring.

“We’re going to take our time and make the most right decision we can,” Green said. “Try as we might as humans to predict what’s going to happen, the more we know, sometimes the clearer the path — but sometimes it’s still a trade-off.”

Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT