U.S. approves first major offshore wind farm off Massachusetts coast

(Reuters) -The Biden administration on Tuesday said it would approve the nation’s first major offshore wind farm, a critical milestone in its goal to launch a new domestic energy industry and eliminate emissions from the power sector.

The Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts will create enough electricity to power 400,000 homes in New England, the administration said in a statement.

It will also create 3,600 jobs, delivering on U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise that fighting climate change by expanding clean energy sources will boost employment, it said.

The approval is a major win for Vineyard Wind’s joint project owners Avangrid Inc and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. The project began its federal permitting process more than three years ago and endured a string of delays in part due to concerns that the wind turbines would interfere with commercial fishing.

“Today’s offshore wind project announcement demonstrates that we can fight the climate crisis, while creating high-paying jobs and strengthening our competitiveness at home and abroad,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

Last month, the Biden administration unveiled a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 by opening new areas to development, accelerating permits and boosting public financing for projects.

Vineyard Wind’s 800 megawatts would account for less than 3% of the administration’s 2030 target, though there are more than 20 GW of proposed projects in earlier stages of development.

The United States, with just two small offshore wind facilities, has lagged European nations in developing the renewable energy technology.

Vineyard Wind’s will be built 14 miles southeast of Martha’s Vineyard. It is expected to begin construction this year and be completed in 2024. The project will install up to 84 of General Electric’s Haliade-X turbines, the world’s most powerful.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom and Susan Heavey; editing by John Stonestreet and Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions for Chinese students

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will ease travel restrictions allowing Chinese students to come to the United States for classes this fall and from other countries where most non-U.S. citizens are barred because of the coronavirus pandemic, government officials told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department is set to announce later on Tuesday it is expanding its national interest exemptions to cover students and academics around the world starting on Aug. 1 after it made the change in March for European students, officials said.

The United States has barred most non-U.S. citizens from the United States who have been in China, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and most of Europe within the prior two weeks. Now students from all those countries will be eligible to enter the United States in a few months’ time.

The largest number of international students in the United States are from China. About 35% of international students in the United States in the 2019-20 school year were from China, according to the International Education Exchange (IEE), nearly twice as high as the second highest, India.

In the 2019-20 academic year 372,000 Chinese nationals attended universities and colleges in the United States, the IEE said in a November 2020 report.

In January 2020 then President Donald Trump first imposed the restrictions barring nearly all non-U.S. citizens who were in China from entering the United States.

U.S. colleges and universities have been urging the State Department to take the step before international students had to make enrollment decisions.

The American Council on Education had pressed the administration of President Joe Biden to act quickly, saying in a letter last month the administration could “deliver a welcoming message to current and prospective international students, which can help restore the U.S. as a destination of choice, as well as supporting an important economic activity as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another big issue has been the requirement that first-time student visa applicants have in-person interviews at U.S. embassies and consulates.

The group cited a study that the overall economic impact generated by international students had declined by $1.8 billion during the 2019-2020 academic year, from $40.5 billion in the prior year.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

U.S. to share up to 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses globally: White House

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will start to share up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca Plc’s coronavirus vaccine with other countries as soon as the next few weeks, the White House said on Monday.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States would release the doses to other countries as they become available.

She said there could be 10 million doses cleared for export “in coming weeks.” About 50 million more doses are currently being produced and could ship in May and June.

“Right now we have zero doses available of AstraZeneca,” Psaki said, noting that U.S. regulators still need to review the quality of those already produced.

Psaki said the Biden administration is still deciding what the process will be to determine where and how it will share the vaccine.

“We will consider a range of options from our partner countries and, of course, much of that will be through direct relationships,” she said.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not yet been authorized for U.S. use by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Biden administration in March said it would send roughly 4 million doses of the British drugmaker’s vaccine to Canada and Mexico, and is under growing pressure now to expand sharing of its stockpile with India and other countries.

India has become the latest epicenter of the pandemic, threatening to overwhelm its healthcare system.

An AstraZeneca spokeswoman could not comment on specifics of the arrangement, but said the doses were part of its supply commitments to the U.S. government. “Decisions to send U.S. supply to other countries are made by the U.S. government,” she said.

The Associated Press earlier on Monday reported the doses would be shared in coming months following their clearance by the FDA.

The AP reported that the doses were made at the Emergent BioSolutions facility in Baltimore, which came under harsh criticism for a long list of cleanliness and manufacturing problems found during an FDA inspection.

AstraZeneca is no longer making vaccine at that plant after a batch of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was ruined by contamination with ingredients from the AstraZeneca shot.

J&J is now overseeing production of its vaccine at the Emergent plant.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Caroline Humer and Michael Erman; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. to set aside 6,000 guest worker visas for Central Americans – sources

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to set aside 6,000 seasonal guest worker visas for people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to two sources familiar with the matter, a small step toward establishing more legal pathways to the United States from the region.

The 6,000-visa allotment would be part of an additional 22,000 H-2B visas made available to employers in the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, a U.S. official and a second person familiar with the matter said.

The increase has been sought by business groups but opposed by labor unions amid high unemployment related to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden has grappled in recent months with a rising number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, including families and unaccompanied children. In March, about 85,000 of the 172,000 migrants caught at the border came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Biden officials have urged migrants not to travel to the border while systems are established that allow them to seek asylum from their home countries or come to the United States through other legal pathways.

The extra H-2B visas would be in addition to the annual allotment of 66,000 visas for the fiscal year, a tally that was exhausted in February. The visas are used for landscaping, food processing and hotel work, among other seasonal jobs.

If the 6,000 visas are not used by companies seeking to hire people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they would go back to the general visa pool sometime before Sept. 30, the two people familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

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)

Biden administration drops plans for police oversight, citing George Floyd bill

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration is backing away from a campaign pledge to swiftly create a U.S. police oversight commission, a White House aide said, concluding that legislation would better address officers using excessive force.

Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, said in a statement that the administration believed a commission would not be the “most effective way to deliver on our top priority in this area” right now.

That priority is signing a bill that passed the House of Representatives in March, banning officers from using chokeholds and entering suspects’ homes without knocking, Rice said in response to questions about progress on police reforms.

That bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is unlikely to win the 60 Senate votes it needs. Republicans oppose provisions in the bill eroding “qualified immunity” protections afforded officers in legal cases.

Biden promised to launch a national police oversight commission by his 100th day in office, at the end of April, following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Doing so, Biden said, would help “to ensure that our police protect and serve all members of their communities.”

The backtracking leaves the police reform issue in legislative limbo, along with a host of liberal priorities struggling to move through Congress, where Biden’s fellow Democrats hold slim majorities.

The White House, which consulted civil rights activists and police unions on the decision, heard that a commission could stall momentum for legislation and duplicate work done in prior administrations, an aide said.

In Minneapolis, prosecutors will rest their case this week in the trial of white policeman Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering Floyd. The trial, which the White House is monitoring, included eyewitness descriptions of Floyd, who is Black, dying as Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly 10 minutes.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)

Florida sues Biden administration in bid to restart cruise industry

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The state of Florida sued President Joe Biden’s administration in federal court on Thursday seeking to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to prevent the U.S. cruise industry from immediately resuming operations paused for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed by Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in Tampa, asked the court to issue an injunction barring enforcement of the CDC’s order and to quickly lift a “nationwide lockdown” on the industry in place since March 2020. Early in the pandemic, there were dangerous outbreaks of COVID-19 on numerous cruise ships.

Florida, an important center for the U.S. cruise ship industry, said its ports have suffered a decline in operating revenue of almost $300 million since the pandemic started.

“We must allow our cruise liners and their employees to get back to work and safely set sail again,” Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.

On Friday, the CDC issued new guidance to the cruise industry, a necessary step before passenger voyages can resume, but did not set a date for resuming cruises. Florida said in its lawsuit that “it now appears the CDC will continue that lockdown until November 2021, even though vaccines are now available to all adults who want them.”

“The CDC guidance is based on data and health and medical guidelines,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters when asked about the litigation.

The CDC declined to comment on the suit.

Florida said in the lawsuit that if a judge does not block the CDC’s order the state “will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. And, more importantly, the approximately 159,000 hard-working Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry could lose everything.”

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents Carnival Corp, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises, said on Monday the CDC guidance means there is “no reasonable timeline” for resuming cruises.

“With no discernable path forward or timeframe for resumption in the U.S., more sailings originating in the Caribbean and elsewhere are likely to be announced, effectively shutting American ports, closing thousands of American small businesses, and pushing an entire industry offshore,” the industry group said.

Norwegian on Monday proposed resuming cruises by July for cruises in which passengers and crew members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators said in a joint statement on Saturday that after speaking with the CDC “we could see cruise ships in U.S. waters as early as mid-summer.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham)

Fate of Dakota Access pipeline at stake at Friday court hearing

By Laila Kearney and Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The fate of the Dakota Access pipeline could be decided at a U.S. court hearing Friday, where federal regulators could set in motion a months-long shutdown of the line while the Biden Administration completes an environmental review.

The market has been increasingly worried about a possible shutdown as the White House aims to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and address concerns of minority communities harmed by carbon emissions. Biden’s administration has restricted oil-and-gas leasing on federal lands and cancelled permits for the proposed Canada-to-U.S. Keystone XL line and a U.S. Virgin Islands refinery expansion.

Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) ships up to 570,000 barrels of North Dakota’s crude production to the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast. It has been in danger of shutting down since a D.C. court threw out a key permit last summer that allowed it to operate under a water source used by Native American tribes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of issuing permits for pipelines to travel under waterways, is expected to detail plans for DAPL at the hearing before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

That court canceled the line’s permit in July and ordered it to undergo a more thorough environmental review. The Corps has allowed DAPL to operate since as it assessed its options and brought the Biden administration up to speed.

“It is more likely than not that the pipeline gets shut down, at least temporarily,” said Glenn Schwartz, analyst at energy consultancy Rapidan Energy Group, which put the odds at a temporary shutdown at 70%.

The line has been in operation since 2017, when incoming President Donald Trump fast-tracked the permitting process and allowed the line to enter service despite opposition from environmental groups and Native American tribes.

Environmental groups and Native American tribes say the pipeline threatens a drinking water supply and should not continue to run, and they have ramped up pressure on the White House to shut the line.

Since its permit to cross under Lake Oahe was thrown out, DAPL has been legally trespassing on federal land, and the Army Corps must now decide if the line should continue running. A district court could order the line shut if the Army Corps chooses not to pursue a closure.

If the line were to be shut, oil shippers out of the Bakken region in North Dakota and eastern Montana would have to rely on existing smaller pipelines and shipping by rail.

“U.S. crude markets would be shaken up by the shutdown of the primary link from the Bakken to Midwest and Gulf Coast markets,” wrote analysts at BTU Analytics.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney and Devika Krishna Kumar; editing by David Evans)

Yellen says more work needed to shore up weaknesses revealed by pandemic

By Andrea Shalal and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said a rapid recovery in the United States would boost overall global growth, but more work was needed to shore up weaknesses the COVID-19 crisis exposed in the non-bank financial sector, global supply chains and the social safety net.

Yellen on Tuesday told leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that the Biden administration had decided to “go big” with its COVID-19 response to avert the negative “scarring” impact of long-lasting unemployment, adding that she hoped the U.S. economy would return to full employment next year.

Speaking during the IMF and World Bank spring meetings, Yellen said the crisis had dealt a huge blow worldwide, and it was the responsibility of advanced economies to ensure that years of progress in reducing poverty were not reversed by the crisis.

“We are going to be careful to learn the lessons of the (global) financial crisis, which is: ‘Don’t withdraw support too quickly,'” Yellen said, “And we would encourage all those developed countries that have the capacity… to continue to support a global recovery for the sake of the growth in the entire global economy.”

Yellen said she hoped global finance officials make progress on approving a new allocation of the IMF’s emergency reserve, or Special Drawing Rights, during the meeting, and said it was critical to tackle global debt issues exacerbated by the crisis.

She also underscored the Biden Administration’s commitment to tackling climate change at home and ensuring the needed “transfer of resources” to enable similar actions in developing countries.

“We need to make sure that we help developing countries meet their climate goals along with their development objectives. And the availability of green finance is critical to that,” she said, noting that addressing climate change would also bring opportunities for investment to the private sector.

Yellen said it was critical to ensure the world was better prepared for the next global health crisis, citing the need to improve the resilience of supply chains and social safety nets around the world.

She said the core banking sector had been strengthened after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but some areas in the non-bank financial sector “showed tremendous stress” during the pandemic and would require attention.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder; Editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler)

U.S. House to vote Wednesday on Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will take up the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Wednesday, officials said on Tuesday, with the chamber’s expected approval enabling the Democratic president to sign the legislation into law later this week.

Passage of the massive package, one of the biggest U.S. anti-poverty measures since the 1960s, would give Biden and the Democrats who control Congress a major legislative victory less than two months into his presidency.

The House will consider the legislation starting at 9:00 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters. The bill was just sent over to the House on Tuesday morning from the Senate.

The House Rules Committee announced it will meet at midday on Tuesday to prepare the bill for floor action. The committee sets the terms for debate and amendments on bills.

The Senate, where Democrats have effective control, passed its version of the bill on Saturday after a marathon overnight session. The upper chamber of Congress eliminated or pared back some provisions in an original House bill, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The changes the Senate made must be approved by the House before it can make its way to Biden’s desk.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the House Democratic leadership, called it a “transformational bill” and told reporters, “We’ll pass it, hopefully with some Republican votes.”

Democrats hold a very narrow majority in the House, meaning they can afford to lose only a handful of votes by their own members against the bill.

The first version of the bill passed the House without a single Republican vote. Two moderate Democrats joined Republicans in voting against that version. One of them, Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon, said on Monday he would now vote for the bill with the Senate changes.

“My concerns remain on the size and scope of this bill but believe the Senate changes provide meaningful relief for Oregonians in need,” Schrader wrote in a post on Facebook.

Republicans, who broadly supported economic relief early in the coronavirus pandemic, have criticized the price tag of the Biden relief package.

Some progressives in the House have criticized the Senate’s changes. But Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters she thought members of her group would back the legislation.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised the legislation at a news conference on Monday, saying that while there were some changes on the margins, it represented the “core” of what Biden originally proposed.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Scott Malone, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)