Clean crude? Oil firms use offsets to claim green barrels

By Timothy Gardner, Nerijus Adomaitis and Rod Nickel

(Reuters) -In January, Occidental Petroleum announced it had accomplished something no oil company had done before: It sold a shipload of crude that it said was 100% carbon-neutral.

While the two-million-barrel cargo to India was destined to produce more than a million tons of planet-warming carbon over its lifecycle, from well to tailpipe, the Texas-based driller said it had completely offset that impact by purchasing carbon credits.

Such credits are financial instruments generated by projects that reduce or avert greenhouse-gas emissions such as mass tree plantings or solar power farms. The projects’ owners can sell the credits to polluting companies, who then use them to make claims of offsetting their carbon emissions.

Details of the Occidental transaction have not been previously reported. Two sources involved in the deal told Reuters that the driller paid about $1.3 million for the credits – or about 65 cents per barrel. Oil currently sells for more than $60 a barrel.

Occidental says such credits make the two-million-barrel cargo carbon-neutral because they represent an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas removed from the atmosphere by the projects generating the credits.

The arrangement reflects a growing trend. Oil-and-gas companies worldwide are increasingly trying to market their products as cleaner using a range of controversial methods, including buying credits, powering drilling operations with renewable power and investing in expensive and commercially unproven technology to capture and store emissions.

The moves are designed to secure a future for the fossil fuel industry in a world where investors, activists and regulators demand action to stop climate change. In some cases they are also designed for profit: Companies have begun seeking a premium price for what they call cleaner petroleum products.

Although carbon credits do nothing to reduce the pollution from a given barrel of oil, proponents of offset programs argue that credit purchases help finance clean-energy efforts that otherwise would not be profitable.

Critics blast such programs as smoke-and-mirrors public relations efforts that allow polluters to scrub their image while they continue to profit from climate damage.

Oil company claims of clean fuels through offsetting are like “a tobacco company saying they sell nicotine-free cigarettes because they paid someone else to sell some chewing gum,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for Washington-based Oil Change International, an advocacy group opposing fossil fuels.

NO CLEAR STANDARDS

National and global carbon credit programs establish guidelines that projects must follow to in order to sell offsets. The programs rely on companies and nonprofit organizations such as Verra and SustainCERT to issue and verify credits under their standards. They certify that the projects generating credits are leading to the promised amount of reduced emissions and would not have been built without the credit income.

But there are no uniform standards for how to calculate the full climate impact of fossil fuels, or how to properly offset it with environmental projects, industry experts say. Companies buying credits are also not obliged to disclose their cost or origin – a problem because they can vary widely in price and quality.

In Occidental’s case, the credits were generated between 2016 and 2019 by solar, wind and other clean-energy projects in emerging economies such as India, Thailand and Turkey, and were verified by Verra.

“The credits they issued are valid and have environmental integrity,” said Verra spokeswoman Anne Thiel.

Verra and other verifiers, however, have since stopped approving renewable energy projects in those nations to generate offsets after concluding last year that they had become competitive enough to be built even without offset credit revenue.

Occidental defended the deal, saying it could kick off a new market for oil offset with credits that directs money to green-energy projects. “We can be a big part of the global solution,” said Richard Jackson, Occidental’s president of operations for onshore resources and carbon management.

TREES IN SPAIN

Occidental and the cargo’s buyer, India’s Reliance Industries, did not comment on whether Reliance paid a premium for the shipment.

But other oil-and-gas companies are eager to create a market where climate credentials allow them to command higher prices. That could allow them to recoup the full cost – or more – of credits or other measures that allow for the low-carbon labeling.

Lundin Energy, an independent driller with operations in Norway, is one of the companies that sees a market opportunity in crude with a low-carbon designation.

The company plans to spend $35 million to plant 8 million trees in northern Spain and Ghana – something it says will allow it to generate its own credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions from its fossil fuels.

Lundin was the first oil company in the world last year to receive independent certification it was producing low-carbon oil based on its reduction of emissions in producing oil from its Edvard Grieg field in Norway. It also aims to certify low-carbon oil from the Sverdrup field, also in Norway – Western Europe’s biggest – which Lundin co-owns with a consortium of partners.

Cleaner drilling operations, however, have a limited environmental benefit. At least 80% of greenhouse gases from oil are emitted after extraction from the ground, according to consultancy IHS Markit.

Alex Budden, Lundin’s Vice-President, said if buyers paid a 1% premium for lower-carbon barrels, it would boost the company’s annual oil revenue by $10 million to $20 million. That would allow it to recover the costs of its offset and efficiency efforts and eventually profit from them.

So far there have been no takers. “But it’s going to happen,” Budden said.

GREEN OIL SANDS?

Across the Atlantic, Canadian producers in the oil sands have a bigger challenge. Producers there emit three to five times more carbon than the worldwide average because more energy is needed to extract the oil, according to Rystad Energy, a global consultancy. Its producers are hoping to change that.

Suncor Energy, for example, has pledged to cut the amount of carbon it emits per barrel produced 30% from 2014 levels by 2030 to contribute to Canada’s climate goals and address shareholder pressure to reduce its emissions.

It will do so by improving energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy technologies, such as wind farms, said Chief Sustainability Officer Martha Hall Findlay. She said Suncor will consider certifying those lower-carbon barrels.

“There’s no question carbon is our Achilles heel in the oil sands,” she said.

Liquefied natural gas producers are also increasingly marketing carbon-neutral LNG. Unlike in the oil market, some LNG buyers are already paying a premium for such cargoes.

In March, for example, Shell announced it had taken delivery of Europe’s first ever carbon-neutral cargo of LNG from Russian supplier Gazprom. Gazprom provided the gas and both companies chipped in for the offsets, said Mehdi Chennoufi, Shell’s head of LNG Origination and Business Development.

Shell said the credits came from projects that protect biodiversity or restore land, but it would not disclose the cost.

Buyers in Spain, Japan, Taiwan and China have also bought LNG certified as carbon-neutral, a trend that has led the International Group of LNG Importers, an association of big global LNG companies, to start working on standardized methodology.

“Today there is a lot of talk about carbon-neutral LNG, but there is no universal definition,” said Vincent Demoury, the group’s Deputy General Delegate.

Climate activist Andy Gheorghiu said the notion of carbon-neutral liquefied natural gas is like “vegan pork sausage.”

“It’s just nonsense,” he said.

Other companies are turning to carbon-capture technology – despite its history of high costs and operational difficulties – to offset their products’ climate impact.

Qatar, the world’s biggest LNG producer, announced in February that it is building a carbon-capture project at its North Field expansion project in the Persian Gulf.

Occidental is also developing the largest-ever direct-air-capture facility, to pull 500,000 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide out of the open air near some of its Texas oil fields, using fans and chemical reactions. That’s equal to the annual emissions from nearly 110,000 U.S. cars.

Environmentalists criticize such projects because they could extend the life of the fossil fuel industry.

If Occidental’s project works, for example, the company plans to pump the carbon back into the Texas oil fields, raising reservoir pressure to extract more crude.

Occidental says it hopes to market crude oil produced in this way as the feedstock for refining jet and marine fuel – providing a way for those industries to claim they have offset their emissions.

Marion Verles, Chief Executive Officer at SustainCERT, the credit verifier, said such offset schemes can help reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions – but could also backfire.

Telling consumers they can consume carbon-neutral fossil fuels sends the message, she said, that “behavioral change is no longer needed.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Nina Chestney, and Susanna Twidale in London; Kate Abnett in Brussels; Isla Binnie in Madrid; and Nidhi Verma in New Delhi; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Brazil scrambles to secure sedatives as hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19

By Reuters Staff

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – An emergency shipment of sedatives needed to intubate severely ill COVID-19 patients arrived in Brazil late on Thursday from China, as the South American country scrambles for supplies due to severe shortages of the vital drugs.

In recent days, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have both sounded the alarm over shortages of sedatives, with Sao Paulo’s Health Secretary saying the city’s ability to care for seriously ill COVID-19 patients is on the verge of collapse.

Brazil has become the epicenter of the pandemic, with more Brazilians dying of the virus each day than anywhere else in the world.

President Jair Bolsonaro has opposed lockdowns and held large events in which he often does not wear a mask. He has only recently embraced vaccines as a possible solution.

The cargo of 2.3 million drugs, donated by major Brazilian companies including miner Vale and oil producer Petrobras, touched down in Sao Paulo just after 10 p.m. local time.

As the health crisis worsens, Brazil is also negotiating with other countries for emergency supplies, with donations from Spain expected to arrive next week.

Brazil has recorded a total of 365,444 coronavirus deaths – second only to the United States – and 13,746,681 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Castro confirms he is passing Cuban Communist Party leadership to new generation

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) -Raul Castro confirmed he was handing over the leadership of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party to a younger generation at its congress that kicked off on Friday, ending six decades of rule by himself and older brother Fidel.

In a speech opening the four-day event, Castro, 89, said the new leadership were party loyalists with decades of experience working their way up the ranks and were “full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit”.

Castro had said at the last party congress in 2016 it would be the last one led by the “historic generation” who fought in the Sierra Maestra to topple a U.S.-backed dictator in a 1959 leftist revolution. He already handed over the presidency to protégé Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, in 2018.

The congress is the party’s most important meeting, held every five years to review policy and fix leadership.

“I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots, and as long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrups to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism,” Castro told hundreds of party delegates gathered at a convention center in Havana.

The congress is a closed-door event but excerpts are being broadcast on state television.

Castro hailed Diaz-Canel as one of the new generation of leaders, praising the “good results” he had achieved in his three years in office.

Castro’s olive green military fatigues contrasted with the civil get-up of his protégé who is widely expected to succeed him as party first secretary, the most powerful position in Cuba’s one-party system.

Cuba’s new leaders face the worst economic crisis since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union, and there are signs of growing frustration, especially among younger Cubans.

A tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated a liquidity crisis in the ailing centrally planned economy, which was already struggling following a decline in Venezuelan aid.

That has led to shortages of even basic goods, with many Cubans spending hours lining up to buy groceries.

Castro denounced renewed U.S. hostility under former President Donald Trump, who unraveled a détente he had forged with former President Barack Obama.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has vowed to roll back some of Trump’s sanctions, although the White House said on Friday a shift in Cuba policy was not among his top foreign policy priorities.

Castro said Cuba was ready for a new relationship.

“I ratify from this party congress the will to develop a respectful dialogue and edify a new type of relationship with the United States without, in order to achieve it, Cuba having to renounce the principles of the revolution and socialism,” he said.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Rosalba O’Brien and Daniel Wallis)

Oath Keepers founding member is first to plead guilty in U.S. Capitol riot

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A founding member of the right-wing Oath Keepers on Friday became the first person to plead guilty to taking part in the U.S. Capitol riot, signaling a new stage in the investigation of the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the seat of American democracy.

Jon Schaffer, a native of Indiana and founder of the band Iced Earth, entered a guilty plea to two felony charges of obstructing the certification of the 2020 election and breaching a restricted building.

During a hearing in Washington D.C. federal court, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said Schaffer, 52, had no previous criminal record and voluntarily contacted authorities shortly after the Capitol riot. The judge indicated that Schaffer was involved in discussions about cooperating with government investigators and agreed to release him from custody on his own recognizance, with another hearing scheduled for mid-June.

Schaffer is among hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the November election results. Rioters battled with police, smashed windows and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety.

Five people, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, died in the violence.

Prosecutors said Schaffer wore a tactical vest and carried bear spray repellant when he joined the attack on the Capitol 100 days ago.

A lawyer for Schaffer agreed at Friday’s hearing that Schaffer entered the Capitol that day as Congress prepared to certify the Electoral College vote in favor of Joe Biden.

In a court filing, prosecutors said Schaffer, who was photographed during the Capitol riot wearing a cap with the insignia of the right-wing Oath Keepers, “was among the rioters who sprayed United States Capitol Police officers with ‘bear spray.'”

Prosecutors said Schaffer was “photographed and captured on surveillance video” carrying the bear spray and also was filmed “engaging in verbal altercations with Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol Building.”

More than 400 people have been arrested and charged with taking part in the violence. The most serious charges have been assault, conspiracy and obstruction of Congress or law enforcement.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

U.S. housing starts near 15-year high; consumer sentiment rises moderately

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. homebuilding surged to nearly a 15-year high in March, but soaring lumber prices amid supply constraints could limit builders’ capacity to boost production and ease a shortage of homes that is threatening to slow housing market momentum.

The sharp rebound reported by the Commerce Department on Friday added to robust retail sales in March in suggesting that the economy was roaring after a brief weather-related setback in February. Increasing COVID-19 vaccinations, warmer weather and massive fiscal stimulus are driving the economy, with growth this year expected to be the strongest in nearly four decades.

But caution is starting to creep in among consumers as the course of the pandemic remains uncertain and inflation is showing signs of heating up. Other data on Friday showed consumer sentiment rose moderately in early April.

“We’re in a unique situation with the economy beginning to rebound from the worst of the pandemic,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “Uncertainties remain, with many businesses yet to reopen, unemployment still high, and COVID-19 levels lower but persistent.”

Housing starts surged 19.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.739 million units last month, the highest level since June 2006. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast starts would rise to a rate of 1.613 million units in March.

Starts soared 37.0% on a year-on-year basis in March. Homebuilding slumped in February as large parts of the country reeled from unseasonably cold weather, including winter storms in Texas and other parts of the densely-populated South region.

Groundbreaking activity increased in the Northeast, Midwest and South, but fell in the West. Permits for future home building rose 2.7% to a rate of 1.766 million units last month, recouping only a fraction of February’s 8.8% plunge. They jumped 30.2% compared to March 2020.

“While housing demand is expected to remain strong, we expect it to diminish somewhat as the year progresses,” said Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae in Washington. “Homebuilders continue to face supply constraints, including increasing prices of lumber and other materials.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mostly higher, with the S&P 500 index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting fresh record highs. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

RECORD LUMBER PRICES

The housing market is being fueled by demand for bigger and more expensive accommodations, with millions of Americans continuing to work from home and remote schooling remaining in place as the pandemic enters its second year. Housing supply has been insufficient, with the inventory of previously-owned homes at record lows. This is underpinning homebuilding.

A survey from the National Association of Home Builders on Thursday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders increased in April amid strong buyer traffic. Builders appealed for solutions “to increase the supply of building materials as the economy runs hot in 2021.”

Inflation concerns were on consumers’ minds early this month. A separate report from the University of Michigan on Friday showed its preliminary consumer sentiment index rose to 86.5 from a final reading of 84.9 in March.

Economists had forecast the index would rise to 89.6.

The survey’s one-year inflation expectation jumped to 3.7%, the highest level in nearly a decade, from 3.1% in March. Its five-year inflation outlook was unchanged at 2.7%.

Reports this month showed big increases in both consumer and producer prices in March as strong domestic demand pushed against supply constraints. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient.

Supply disruptions because of coronavirus-related restrictions are driving up commodity prices. Softwood lumber, which is used for frames and trusses of houses, surged by a record 83.4% on a year-on-year basis in March, according to the latest producer price data published last week. Prices of other building materials such as plywood have also risen sharply.

Port congestion on the West Coast as well as winter weather in Canada that has shut mills and restricted truck shipping were also contributing to the shortages that were driving prices of building materials higher, according to an Institute for Supply Management survey published early this month.

Single-family homebuilding, the largest share of the housing market, surged 15.3% to a rate of 1.238 million units in March. Still, starts remained below last December’s peak, likely constrained by the more expensive building materials.

Single-family building permits rose 4.6% to a rate of 1.199 million units.

“The failure of single-family starts to fully recover to last winter’s peak level despite tight inventories in most metropolitan areas supports the idea builders are holding back,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Starts for the volatile multi-family segment soared 30.8% to a pace of 501,000 units. Building permits for multi-family housing projects fell 1.2% to a pace of 567,000 units.

Housing completions accelerated 16.6% to a rate of 1.580 million units last month, the highest since March 2007. Single-family home completions shot up 5.3% to a rate of 1.099 million, the highest since November 2007.

Realtors estimate that single-family housing starts and completion rates need to be in a range of 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month to close the inventory gap.

The stock of housing under construction rose 0.8% to a rate of 1.306 million units, the highest since September 2006.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Opponents of Myanmar coup form unity government, aim for ‘federal democracy’

(Reuters) -Opponents of Myanmar’s junta announced a National Unity Government on Friday including ousted members of parliament and leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minorities, saying their aim was to end military rule and restore democracy.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the Feb. 1 coup that ousted a civilian government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi which had held power for five years and was starting its second term after a landslide election victory in November.

People have taken to the streets day after day to demand the restoration of democracy, defying crackdowns by the security forces in which more than 700 people have been killed, according to a monitoring group.

At the same time, political leaders, including ousted members of parliament from Suu Kyi’s party, have been trying to organize to show the country and the outside world that they and not the generals are the legitimate political authority.

“Please welcome the people’s government,” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing said in a 10-minute video address announcing the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG).

While setting out few positions, Min Ko Naing said the will of the people was the unity government’s priority, while acknowledging the scale of the task at hand.

“We’re trying to get this out from the roots so we have to sacrifice a lot,” he said, referring to the junta.

A spokesman for the junta could not be reached for comment.

The generals justified their takeover with accusations of fraud in the November election won by Suu Kyi’s party, though the election commission dismissed the objections.

One of the unity government’s primary objectives will be to win international support and recognition.

“We are the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar,” said the unity government’s minister of international cooperation, Dr Sasa, who goes by one name.

“So if the free and democratic world rejects us that means they reject democracy.”

International pressure has been building on the Myanmar military, particularly from Western governments that have imposed limited sanctions, though the generals have a long record of dismissing what they see as outside interference.

The unity government released a list of office holders including members of ethnic minorities and protest leaders, underlining the unity of purpose between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking minority communities, some of whom have battled the central government for decades.

CLAPPING IN THE DARK

Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup, was listed as state counsellor, the post she held in government.

The only known communication she has had with the outside world since the coup has been monitored video calls with her lawyers.

A spokesman for the democratic politicians said while they could not inform her about their new government, he was sure she was aware of what was happening.

Sasa told Reuters the objective was to end violence, restore democracy and build a “federal democratic union”. The military, while playing lip service to the idea of federalism, has long seen itself as the core power holding the country together.

Unity government leaders said they intended to form a federal army and were in talks with ethnic minority forces.

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government.

After darkness fell over Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon, people clapped at their windows and chanted “our government,” video posted by activists on Twitter showed. Some community groups reported the sound of explosions and gunfire shortly afterwards.

While the politicians were announcing the unity government, other opponents of military rule observed a “silent strike” staying home to mourn those killed or wearing black in small marches in half a dozen cities and towns, media reported.

Yangon’s streets were largely deserted, residents said.

There were no immediate reports of violence at Friday’s rallies.

The military has also been rounding up critics and state media announced arrest warrants for 20 doctors on charges of encouraging dissent in the armed forces. The junta is seeking more than 200 people, including several internet celebrities, actors and singers, on the same change.

The turmoil has alarmed Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia who have been trying to encourage talks between the rival sides.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, will meet in Indonesia on April 24 to discuss the situation, Thai and Indonesian media reported.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was due to attend, a Thai broadcaster said, but the Jakarta Post said it had not been confirmed whether the summit would include representatives of the junta or the former government.

Sasa said ASEAN should not invite “murderer-in-chief” Min Aung Hlaing.

(Reporting by Reuters staff, writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Jane Wardell, Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)

Biden keeps U.S. refugee cap at Trump-era 15,000

By Steve Holland and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden signed an order on Friday limiting U.S. refugee admissions this year to the historically low 15,000 cap set under his predecessor Donald Trump, a senior administration official said, shelving a plan to raise it to 62,500 and drawing the ire of refugee advocates and some Democratic lawmakers.

The decision was a blow to advocacy groups that wanted the Democratic president to move swiftly to reverse the refugee policies of the Republican Trump, who had set the 15,000 figure as a way to limit immigration. The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, forecast “much increased admissions numbers in future years.”

Biden, who took office in January, had signaled two months ago plans to raise the cap to 62,500 during the 2021 fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, but held off on actually doing so.

The president’s decision appears to have been tied to concerns over the optics of admitting more refugees at a time of rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and to not wanting to look “too open” or “soft,” another U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Republicans have blamed Biden for the situation at the border, faulting his moves to reverse other Trump-era hardline immigration policies.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden pledged in February to increase the number of refugees admitted in the next fiscal year to 125,000.

Under the presidential determination signed by Biden, the United States will offer refugee status to a wider part of the world than had been allowed by Trump by changing the allocation of refugee slots, the senior administration official said.

Under Biden’s new plan, the 15,000 slots would be allocated this way: 7,000 for Africa, 1,000 for East Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, and 1,000 for an unallocated reserve.

The senior administration official said the United States would use all 15,000 slots and that officials were prepared to consult with Congress should there be a need to increase the number to address unforeseen emergencies.

‘UTTERLY UNACCEPTABLE’

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter that Biden’s move was “completely and utterly unacceptable.”

“Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Democratic U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal called Biden’s decision not to raise Trump’s “harmful, xenophobic and racist refugee cap” unconscionable.

Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner and White House adviser under Trump, said on Twitter that Biden’s decision reflects concern that border issues could lead to losses for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. Miller said he would favor “zero” refugee admissions.

Refugee advocates called the decision unjustified given that there are around 35,000 refugees who have already been vetted for security and cleared for entry to the United States, with a total of about 100,000 at various stages in the pipeline.

Refugee groups previously expressed frustration that Biden had delayed issuing the cap for months, which left refugees who were scheduled to travel stranded. Mark Hetfield, president of the HIAS resettlement agency, said around 700 flights were canceled due to the holdup.

“One can’t help but guess that they are conflating the refugee issue with what is happening at the border with the refugee program, which is a real disservice,” Hetfield told Reuters.

Refugees are processed differently in the U.S. immigration system than asylum seekers arriving at U.S. borders and ports of entry.

An increasing number of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America, many seeking asylum, have been among the those detained at the border in recent months. The refugee program offers a pathway for people to apply abroad to resettle in the United States. Advocates were dismayed by the small number of slots for Central Americans in the announced cap.

Refugee admissions reached historic lows under Trump, who portrayed refugees as a security threat and made limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the United States a hallmark of his presidency.

If resettlement continues at the current pace, Biden “is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees of any president in U.S. history,” according to the International Rescue Committee refugee advocacy group. The group called Biden’s action “a disturbing and unjustified retreat.”

Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project advocacy group, said the initial goal of 62,500 might have been ambitious, but “symbolism matters” even if the United States was unable to meet the target this year.

“President Biden came into office promising to be an ‘ally of the light, not the darkness,'” Varghese said in a statement. “But to many refugees today, that light became a flicker.”

(Additional reporting by Ted HessonEditing by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

COVID-19 cases in Canada’s most populous province could treble: CBC

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Modeling shows that cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, could treble by the end of May unless tough restrictions are imposed, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Friday.

Some hospitals say they are already close to breaking point as a rapidly worsening third wave rips through the province, and the head of its main nurses organization has called for a full lockdown including a curfew.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has so far resisted such wide-ranging steps but is under increasing criticism for how his government has handled the epidemic, is due to make an announcement at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time (1830 GMT).

Ontario, which accounts for 38% of Canada’s population, announced a record 4,736 daily cases on Thursday and the CBC cited sources as saying this could rocket to 18,000 by end-May if current trends continued.

Canada’s response to the pandemic has been complicated by the division of responsibilities between the 10 provinces and Ottawa, which helps fund healthcare but is not in charge of medical services. The federal government is buying vaccines but the provinces are responsible for inoculations.

Ottawa said Moderna – blaming supply problems – would only be delivering 650,000 doses by the end of April as opposed to 1.2 million. It also said one to two million doses of the 12.3 million doses scheduled for delivery in the second quarter may be delayed until the third quarter.

“We are disappointed, and while we understand the challenges facing suppliers … our government will continue to press Moderna to fulfill its commitments,” Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement.

Separately, a group representing doctors urged authorities to take “extraordinary measures.”

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) said the 10 provinces should band together to pool resources and allocate them where they were most needed.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and John Stonestreet)

Analysis: U.S. announcement of pullout from Afghanistan undermines chances of peace

By Hamid Shalizi, Charlotte Greenfield and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s announced pullout of troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has jeopardized Washington’s push for peace with Taliban Islamists and increased the chances of an upsurge in violence, sources say.

Biden announced the withdrawal, pushed back from a May 1 deadline agreed with the Taliban, without buy-in from the insurgents, sources involved in the discussions told Reuters.

The decision was signaled just hours after Turkey announced dates for a crucial peace summit on April 24, which the Taliban had also not yet agreed on.

The Taliban then announced they were shunning the summit while troops remained, throwing the process into disarray.

“Biden’s announcement decreases any leverage the international community has left over them, and helps the Taliban justify refusing to attend,” said Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

One official whose country is involved in the peace process said the Taliban’s negotiating position had become much stronger and chances of progress were slim.

“What do the Taliban get out of the Turkey summit? They need something tangible,” he said. “It’s difficult to bring them to a negotiation table where they know they will have to make painful compromises.”

Tribal elders and Taliban members in Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled areas described jubilation at the U.S. announcement.

“Of course we won and America lost the long…war,” said Quraishi, a Taliban commander in eastern Logar province. “There is no bigger happiness than hearing that the invaders are packing their bags.”

In recent weeks, Washington raced to get agreement on a ceasefire and an interim government, and to get the Taliban onboard with a deadline extension, officials said.

Biden’s decision on the extension and the Taliban’s reaction have sparked more frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The sources said Washington was urging Qatar and Pakistan, which have long-standing ties within the Taliban, to pressure the militants to come back to the table.

Taliban sources described intense pressure from Pakistan.

“When our leadership refused to go (to Turkey), then Pakistani authorities asked us to send Mullah Yaqoob. When he refused, they proposed Sirajuddin Haqqani but he too is unwilling,” one source said, referring to the Taliban’s military chief and their deputy leader.

Pakistan’s foreign office and Qatar’s government did not respond to requests for comment.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem denied there was any pressure.

In a statement on Thursday, Pakistan said it would “continue to work together with the international community in efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “We continue to put the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement…and encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries in the region to do the same.”

But a senior Afghan official told Reuters Washington had also lost leverage with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The withdrawal announcement will certainly embolden the Taliban to increase attacks but it will also embolden President Ghani’s position not to step down,” the official said of the proposal to replace Ghani’s administration with an interim government.

READY FOR WAR

Security and diplomatic officials warned that violence would escalate if talks fell apart. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces, but they still control wide areas.

A senior Western official in Kabul said military bases were being revamped and air strikes had been conducted by the Afghan Air Force in recent days to put pressure on the Taliban.

Four Taliban military and political leaders said they too had already prepared for war, realizing that foreign forces were unlikely to leave.

Though many experts and officials warned the U.S. stance undermined the chance of a peace settlement, some concede that Washington had done all it could.

“The Biden announcement didn’t help, but the Turkey effort already looked to be falling apart,” said ODI’s Jackson.

Two diplomatic sources said a stalemate had become apparent when the Taliban refused to join an interim administration headed by Ghani, who in turn refused to step down without holding elections, a suggestion the insurgents reject.

The U.S. State Department did not comment on the interim government but said any solution must be Afghan-led and owned.

Two sources said discussions have revolved around the set-up of an Islamic jurisprudence council whose decisions by religious scholars could bind the president.

Other concessions discussed, one source added, were whether the Taliban could nominate a president, whether to remove Taliban leaders from international sanctions lists, prisoner releases, and their fighters having status equal to Afghan security forces, without joining them.

Naeem did not confirm or deny discussions over an interim government. He said the release of prisoners and removal from sanctions lists was necessary under their 2020 deal.

Officials say the challenge to get both sides in an interim government was revealed at a conference in Moscow last month.

Deep hostilities became apparent when the delegations gathered. On one occasion, a Taliban leader hissed “traitor” at a politician and former warlord who had once held him captive, people in the room said.

Since the Moscow meeting and as Washington tried to negotiate a troop withdrawal extension, one source said, the Taliban had toughened their stance.

“Their proposals (now) are more like almost a takeover,” said the official whose country is involved in the peace process.

Though the Taliban learned of Biden’s withdrawal decision through media on Tuesday, a Taliban leader said, Washington had already discussed a six-month extension with them, which they had rejected.

“We told them you should call back all your troops and then start shifting logistics later and we guaranteed them of providing protection to their belongings,” another Taliban leader said. “They damaged our trust and now we wouldn’t believe them…until they fulfil their commitment.”

But Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani diplomat, said there was hope and the Taliban did not want to lose international recognition.

“Missing the Turkey conference would be a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s the last big effort for peace and stability in Afghanistan and it must not be allowed to fail.”

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain in Panjim, India, and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Biden administration to invest $1.7 billion to fight COVID-19 variants

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Friday said it will invest $1.7 billion to help states and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fight COVID-19 variants that are rapidly spreading across the United States.

The investment, which will be part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, will improve detection, monitoring, and mitigation of these variants by scaling up genomic sequencing efforts – a key step in containing the spread, the White House said.

“The original strain of COVID-19 comprises only about half of all cases in America today. New and potentially dangerous strains of the virus make up the other half,” the White House said in a statement.

In early February, U.S. laboratories were only sequencing about 8,000 COVID-19 strains per week. Since then the administration has invested nearly $200 million to increase genomic sequencing to 29,000 samples per week – an effort that will get a boost with the new funding.

The investment will be broken down into three areas: $1 billion to expand genomic sequencing, $400 million to help build six research centers for genomic epidemiology and $300 million to build a national bioinformatics infrastructure – which will help build a repository of data.

The first portion of the funding will be distributed in early May and the next round will be invested over the coming several years, the White House said.

The White House also offered a state-by-state breakdown of the funds with California receiving over $17 million, Texas over $15 million and Florida over $12 million.

A White House official said on Thursday the United States is preparing for the possibility that a booster shot will be needed between nine to 12 months after people are initially vaccinated against COVID-19.

Also, Pfizer Inc Chief Executive Albert Bourla said people will “likely” need a third booster dose of COVID-19 vaccines within 12 months and could need annual shots.

The United States had administered 198,317,040 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Thursday morning and distributed 255,400,665 doses, according to the CDC.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)