News Article | May 13, 2017
The Trump administration is planning to nominate Sam Clovis — the Department of Agriculture’s senior White House adviser — as head of USDA’s Research, Education and Economics division, according to individuals briefed on the decision. The move would mark a break with recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike, which have previously reserved the high-level position for scientists with expertise in agricultural research. Clovis — a former economics professor and talk radio host in Iowa who served as one of the Trump campaign’s first policy advisers — has bachelor’s degrees in political science and government, a master’s in business administration and a doctoral degree in public administration, according to his LinkedIn page. In other public biographies he’s emphasized his 25-year stint in the Air Force and expertise in national security and foreign policy. As Agriculture’s White House senior adviser, Clovis has played a key role in the department since President Trump took office. He helped run USDA during the time before Secretary Sonny Perdue took office, and he signed off on directives such as one employees received just after Inauguration Day that instructed them to clear any public communications in advance with the secretary’s office. The job he’s now under consideration for, Agriculture’s undersecretary of research, education and economics, ranks as a top-level science position that oversees the department’s extensive scientific mission. The department’s chief scientist also oversees Agriculture’s economic bureaus, including the Natural Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service. Clovis’s expertise appears most closely related to these bureaus. [Senior White House advisers are Trump’s eyes and ears in federal agencies] The possible appointment of Clovis was first suggested Friday by Agri-Pulse. An Agriculture spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Reached by phone, Clovis said, “I can’t speak to the press.” Congress established the post in the 1994 Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act, and during the past two presidential administrations, it has been occupied by scientists and public health professionals. The position’s description was updated in the 2008 farm bill to clarify that the undersecretary will also hold the title of the department’s chief scientist, and that the position “shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” In 2001, then-President George W. Bush appointed to the post Joseph Jen, a comparative biochemistry PhD who had previously headed the University of Georgia’s Division of Food Science and Technology and served as the dean of the College of Agriculture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Bush later nominated Gale Buchanan, a plant physiologist, to the post in 2006. When Barack Obama took office he tapped Rajiv Shah, who holds both a medical degree and a master of science in health economics from the University of Pennsylvania, for the post. Catherine Woteki, who earned her doctorate from Virginia Tech and held senior positions at USDA, Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology, served as Agriculture’s chief scientist from Sept. 16, 2010 until Jan. 20, 2017. A food nutrition expert, Woteki served as Iowa State University’s dean of agriculture for five years between Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s time in office. The current acting undersecretary, Ann Bartuska, is described as an ecosystem ecologist who’s served on multiple scientific councils and panels, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized the prospect of Clovis’s selection. “If the president goes forward with this nomination, it’ll be yet another example of blatant dismissal of the value of scientific expertise among his administration appointees,” Salvador said in a statement. “Continuing to choose politics over science will give farmers and consumers little confidence that the administration has their interests at heart.” Woteki said in an interview with ProPublica on Friday that since the position serves as the agency’s chief scientist, the occupant “should be a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.” In the past, Clovis has challenged the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change over the last 50 years. In a 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio, Clovis suggested that “a lot of the science is junk science. It’s not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers. So I’m a skeptic.” In the same radio interview, Clovis said, “I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed,” though he did not detail any past research experience involving the hard sciences. As the undersecretary, issues related to climate change would fall under Clovis’s purview. A 2010 Agriculture Department report, “A Roadmap for USDA Science,” states that “agricultural and forestry ecosystems are climate dependent and could be affected in myriad ways by a changing climate” and suggests that the agency “anticipate and accommodate climate change effects such that agriculture, forestry, and U.S. producers realize net benefits.” While Clovis does not appear to have conducted extensive research in the hard sciences, he is a veteran Republican Party activist who joined Trump’s presidential campaign. In addition to working as a talk radio host, he served as a professor of economics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. During that Senate run, Clovis described his credentials for running in an Iowa Public Radio interview: “25 years in the military, and the various jobs and opportunities I had while serving the nation, my experience as a business man, and my academic preparation … my experience in a variety of other fields, including homeland security, foreign policy, national security policy, creating jobs and all those things.” In 2015, Clovis took a leave of absence from his position at Morningside College to join the Trump campaign as a chief policy adviser. In this position, he inspired controversy among the college’s administration with his role in developing a Trump campaign proposal that would ban Muslims from entering the United States, a university spokesman told the outlet Iowa Starting Line. “This is not the Sam Clovis that we knew when he was here. Sam was a staunch defender of the Constitution and a strong advocate for religious freedom,” said university spokesman Rick Wollman. “If he played a role in drafting or advising the Trump campaign on this issue, we will be outraged and extremely disappointed in Dr. Clovis.”
News Article | May 8, 2017
With tensions brewing between the United States and North Korea — highlighted by a flurry of failed nuclear missile tests and fighting words by both countries — the possibility of nuclear war seems closer than it has been in years, according to experts. Though most analysts agree that at this point, North Korea lacks the technical capability to deploy a nuclear missile that could reach American targets, the mere possibility has put people around the world on edge. And in the event that things escalate, is there any way to stop nuclear missiles once they've been fired? [7 Strange Cultural Facts About North Korea] One option that has been floated — and refloated — over the years, is to somehow create a shield or defense system to protect people from nuclear attacks. From the earliest uses in 1959 of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is designed to deliver nuclear weapons, the U.S. has been working on methods that would protect people from such an attack. Yet decades later, the country still has only a flawed system that most experts believe would not reliably protect Americans against a nuclear attack, said Philip E. Coyle III, a senior science advisor with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the former director of operational tests and evaluation with the Pentagon, who has extensively evaluated missile defense systems. But why has it taken so long to get a nuclear missile shield up and running? And is there any possibility that this technology might work in the future? "This is the hardest thing the Pentagon has ever tried to do, as our nearly 70 years of trying shows," Coyle told Live Science. The first attempts at building a nuclear missile defense program started up almost as soon as intercontinental missiles were invented in the 1950s, though most of those projects were put on hold in 1972, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the number of missiles each side could retain. A number of wacky ideas have been proposed over the years, including Operation Argus, which aimed to create a protective radiation belt above Earth by detonating a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere, and Project Seesaw, which explored using particle beams to zap nukes, according to "The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Agency That Changed the World," (Knopf, 2017) In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan said he was uncomfortable with "mutually assured destruction" (that is, the idea that both the United States and Russia had enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other in the event of a nuclear war) as the only protection against the U.S.S.R. He pushed for the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Star Wars program, in which nuclear-powered lasers placed in space would zap nuclear weapons. The program was an expensive flop, in part because the whole concept was too fantastical, said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist and expert on missile defense and space security at the Union of Concerned Scientists. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth] In some ways, the failure of these projects isn't surprising: Intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile is really hard, Grego said. An ICBM launches, spends 15 minutes traveling through the vacuum of space and then reenters the atmosphere before hitting its target. So an ICBM could be intercepted at just a few points on its journey: when it first launches, once it's out in space, and as it reenters the atmosphere and is zooming toward its target. Each of these approaches has its limitations. For instance, "the launch phase is a minute to a few minutes long," Grego told Live Science. That doesn't leave much time for a rocket to intercept and "kill" a nuclear missile, she added. What's more, historical United States rivals, such as Russia and China, have large land masses. They would likely keep their missiles far inland, meaning sea-based interceptors couldn't get to a missile during its launch phase. So killing a missile early in the course of its flight would require hovering over likely launch sites, Grego said. Early on, the military proposed placing giant Boeing 747s with bomb-killing lasers in the skies above Russia and China. "Pretty quickly, you can see the operational difficulty with that," Grego told Live Science. "Are you going to have several large 747s just hovering indefinitely for decades, just waiting for something to happen?" Beyond that, there are other problems with the "launch-phase" approach. If the interceptor doesn't hit exactly the right spot on the missile, the missile "may not quite make the target it was intended. It will fall somewhere else, like Canada, which Canada will not like," Grego said. "You really have to be explicit and target the payload at the tip of the missile." Using unmanned aerial vehicles has also been as an option, but they lack the firepower to destroy a missile, she added. The second option, and the most viable one, is to intercept the missile during its longest flight course — in space. An advantage of that approach is that, because most U.S. enemies are west of the Pacific, they would all likely program their missiles to take a path above the poles, meaning that just one ground-based interceptor could be placed in Alaska and likely protect the whole country. But intercepting a missile in space also has its problems. "The incoming missile is going 15,000, 17,000 miles an hour [24,000 to 27,000 km/h]," Coyle said. "And going that fast, if you miss by an inch, you can miss by a mile." There's another problem, too: There's no air resistance (or drag) in space. That means a decoy like a balloon that's shaped like a nuclear warhead could travel in the same way as the true warhead, making it difficult for a missile to distinguish the real missile from the decoy. And because balloons are so light, a sophisticated warhead could easily launch 20 or 30 decoy balloons to obscure the path of the warhead, Grego said. Finally, the last-ditch effort would be to intercept as the missile reenters the atmosphere, before it hits the target. An advantage of this approach would be that air resistance would prevent decoys from distracting a system. On the other hand, "you don't have very much time to defend, because it's rapidly coming toward you, so it's not a workable strategy," Grego said. And jamming the electronics in nuclear warheads with something like an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would likely not work; the weapons are designed to be robust enough to survive the effects of EMPs from other nuclear weapons nearby, Grego said. [Flying Saucers to Mind Control: 22 Declassified Military & CIA Secrets] As a result, the military has in recent decades focused on attacking an ICBM during its midcourse, known as ground-based midcourse missile defense. The military developed a prototype under the Clinton administration that saw early success. But under Bush, the military pushed the weapon from an early prototype and rushed it to operational status. Since then, it has missed the target in 9 out of 17 tests, according to the military. And since 2010, it has missed the target in 3 out of 4 tests. "The failure in flight-intercept tests is all the more surprising, because these tests are highly scripted to achieve success. If these tests were planned to fool U.S. defenses, as a real enemy would do, the failure rate would be even worse," Coyle said. What's more, "it counts one of those failures a success if the interceptor hit the target with a glancing [blow] but did not destroy it," Coyle said. "Close only counts in horseshoes and not in nuclear war." Part of the problem is that the systems were rushed through the engineering process and suffer from design flaws, both Coyle and Grego said. In addition, the military needs to develop additional technology infrastructure, such as radar in different wavelengths, or better satellites to detect missiles, that could do a better job of locating and visualizing the target. But even if the projects were redesigned from the ground up, with careful thought and the best use of existing and new technologies, some challenges with nuclear defense may be insurmountable, Grego said. For instance, so far, no one has come up with a way to solve the problem of nuclear warhead decoys in space, she said. And focusing on "strategic defense" that can protect American cities half the time may be much more expensive and ultimately more dangerous for the world, compared to using those resources for more effective war-deterrence strategies such as diplomacy, Grego said.
News Article | May 9, 2017
Donald Trump hires lawyers to help defend him over Russia allegations Donald Trump has yet to make a decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change as global talks continue in Bonn, Germany. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a news conference that the decision would not be announced until after the Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Italy later this month. Mr Trump had said many times that he wanted to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. Andrew Light, Senior Fellow at World Resources Institute and former US State Department climate official, said White House senior officials and Cabinet members were slated to meet on Tuesday regarding the decision but the meeting has been postponed. Mr Light said the official reason given was that there were scheduling conflicts with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and no rescheduled date has been made public. Nearly 200 countries signed onto the Paris Agreement in December 2015 and it became a cornerstone for President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. The agreement entered into force for the US on 4 November 2016 - just days before Mr Trump was elected. The process for the US to decide whether they can or should withdraw from the agreement is complex, though the Paris Agreement was not ratified through Congress. Mr Obama felt at the time that he would have faced too much opposition from climate deniers in Congress despite the country being one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Mr Trump has sent a smaller team than usual to the current round of negotiations taking place in Bonn, Germany this month. No country’s officials are saying they are changing their own policies based on Mr Trump’s indecisiveness but they are keeping an eye on him. Climate diplomats see that Mr Trump has proposed cutting the budget by nearly a third to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which also funds several state and local climate change programmes. He also appointed climate deniers like EPA head Scott Pruitt and advisor Steve Bannon to key roles. Mr Tillerson is a former Exxon executive and has yet to appoint deputies in the State Department on a range of issues including climate change, though has said he thinks climate change is real. The delayed announcement by the White House is a situation members of the G7 were hoping to avoid. During the last summit in April, which focused on energy, no joint statement was issued on climate change as had been done in the past. The G7 issued a joint statement from their 2015 meeting saying that climate change was a major global security threat, noting that its impact crosses borders, adds to violent conflicts, and has a negative impact on economies in the developing world. Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists told The Independent said the more interaction and exposure Mr Trump gets to the G7 leaders while they meet in Italy later in May, “the better.” Mr Trump does seem to prefer face-to-face interactions with world leaders to clarify his positions rather than other diplomatic avenues. He called climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by China but his tune has changed since his personal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has led his country to be a global leader on investing in renewable energy.
News Article | May 15, 2017
This is the first article of three-part series about biopower in the United States that originally appeared in the Energy Transition blog. As the world grapples with ways to prevent catastrophic global warming, all eyes are looking toward renewable energy as a solution. While wind and solar power are making rapid progress, and have enormous potential, there is ongoing debate about whether they are sufficient by themselves to displace fossil fuels in power production, transportation, heat, and all the other things we do with energy. While there is much discussion about nuclear power and energy storage, less is said about producing electricity from biomass. Bioenergy is still the largest source of renewable energy, leading hydro, wind and solar, but much of that is used for cooking, space heating, and industrial heat in the wood products industry. Electricity (biopower) and liquid fuels (biofuels) are smaller but growing. This three-part series explores the status of biopower, especially in the United States, and its potential as a global warming solution. In the first part, I address the many myths about biopower, and seek the facts. The most complicated and contentious issue will be the subject of the second installment: how to measure the global warming impacts of biopower. I conclude the series by exploring the future of biopower, and bioenergy more generally. My goal is not to argue for or against biopower, but to present an understanding of the constraints, the barriers, and the pitfalls of biopower – as well as the potential and the benefits. While bioenergy is arguably the most complicated and least popular form of renewable energy, it still has a role to play, and if done right can be an important contributor to a low-carbon energy economy. While wind and solar energy attract daily headlines due to their rapid growth, recent developments have brought increased attention to the slow-moving biomass power industry. Increased exports of wood pellets from the US to Europe for energy production have raised concerns by forest protection groups in the Southeast, while a proposal in the US Senate about carbon accounting for biopower has fired up national green groups. This opposition has promoted a number of myths about biopower: that it is big now and rapidly growing, that it is deforesting America, and that it has worse carbon emissions than coal power. The truth is simpler in some ways – and in the case of carbon emission accounting, much more complex. (We will discuss the complicated issues around carbon accounting in the next installment in this series.) To judge whether biopower is good or bad we must first understand how the industry operates, where the feedstocks come from, and the economic potential for growth in the future. Bioenergy consists of many different feedstocks, processing technologies, and end products, including heat, electricity, and motor fuels. According to REN 21, bioenergy makes up 14 percent of total global energy consumption, with 12.6 percent for heat and almost 9 percent from “traditional” sources, such as cooking and heating in the developing world. Biomass for electricity production (biopower) is small, only 2 percent of world production, and only 1.6 percent in the US. Biomass critics warn that the biopower industry is deforesting America, often showing photos of recent clear cuts. The truth is that biopower has been for decades the waste disposal arm of the wood products industry. Loggers sell their wood for lumber, furniture, and paper, much higher value products, with residues burned for energy. Only rarely and recently, with the advent of pellet production for export to Europe, have trees been cut specifically for electricity production. If wood byproducts are used for energy production, rather than wasted or burned in the field, they displace coal, gas, and oil, thus reducing carbon emissions. There is little disagreement about this point. In fact, two-thirds of electricity from biomass is made by wood mills for their own use, with most of the rest by independent power producers in forest and farming regions with ready access to waste streams. Biopower must use low-cost wastes, since even with free fuel it is expensive compared to natural gas, wind, and even solar power. Recently, falling demand for paper and a slowdown in new construction due to the housing market collapse have cut demand for wood, creating a build-up of forest inventory. In other words, trees are growing faster than they are being cut in most regions of the US. Recycling rates for corrugated cardboard, newspaper, and miscellaneous mixed paper such as office paper have doubled since 1990, now accounting for two-thirds of US paper production. At the same time, the growth of electronic communications has cut total demand for paper from over 100 million to less than 80 million tons. As a result, virgin paper production has been cut in half over the last 25 years. Ironically, as fewer trees are cut, there are fewer residues that can be used for energy, cutting off supplies for US biopower plants. The only part of the industry that is expanding is producing wood pellets for export to Europe, for use in heat and power systems. The lack of market for timber and paper, and the resulting wood glut, is leading some forest owners to cut trees specifically for the pellet market. According to a study by Forest2Market, an industry consultant, pellet exports from the Southeast in 2014 amounted to 3.6 million tons, produced by taking 6.1 million tons of wood out of Southern forests, about 3.8 percent of all wood cut in the region that year. Meanwhile, Southern forest inventory increased by 1.2 billion tons between 2000 and 2014. Fourteen pulp and paper mills closed, replaced by 19 new pellet export mills. The South accounted for 40 percent of Europe’s demand for imported pellets. The study estimates that if demand increased to meet EU renewable energy goals, pellet exports from the South could rise to over 10 million tons per year by 2025, thus requiring 25 million tons of harvest, or 10 percent of total logging in the region. That would be equal to harvesting around 90,000 hectares of pine plantations per year, or the net annual growth from 2.1 million hectares, according to a recent report commissioned by the EU. The Southeast has 89 million hectares of forested land, the same as it has had since the 1940s, according to the report. To make the case for the imminent threat of forest damage, some bioenergy critics say that biopower is a rapidly growing energy source in the US too, pointing to forecasts from the US Department of Energy. They argue that biomass tax credits should be repealed and biopower should be excluded from state renewable energy standards. The truth is that biopower production has been largely flat in the US for 30 years, even as wind and solar have boomed, and new forecasts predict more of the same. Data from EIA show that solar surpassed biomass power for the first time in May 2016, while wind passed it in 2008. Prices continue to drop for wind and solar, making it dubious that biopower will see significant growth in the future as they compete for market share and to meet state renewable power standards (RPS). While wind and solar growth has been driven by state and federal policies, biopower shows little positive interest from policymakers. The federal production tax credit for biopower is worth only half of what it is for wind. And when wind and solar credits were extended last year by Congress, biopower, geothermal, and other renewable sources were left out. While every state RPS allows some form of biopower, Massachusetts made typical biopower plants ineligible for their standard, forcing the shutdown of two plants in Maine. A significant problem is that the non-energy benefits of biopower are typically not given any value by public policies. While state and federal agencies spent $1.2 billion on fire suppression in California forests over the last three years, there are no systematic programs or incentives to enable power plants to play a role in that process. The California forest crisis did finally spur action this year. An estimated 102 million trees have died due to drought and beetle infestations in the state, creating a huge risk for catastrophic forest fires. New legislation approved in October will support 125 MW of existing power plants that were at risk of shutting down. Research by UC Berkeley shows that burning this wood in power plants would drastically reduce particulates, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants compared to open burning or even the portable incinerators currently used by the forest service. Indeed, the most common story in biopower is that plants built in the 1980s, under a federal law known as PURPA, are shutting down as their contracts expire and they are no longer competitive. This is exacerbated in some regions by the financial problems of the US wood products industry, driven by lower demand for lumber and paper. As wood mills shut down, their waste stream ends, cutting off fuel to power plants. California, the state with the most biopower production, hit a peak of 66 plants in the early 1990s, but has only about 30 operating now. Farmers are concerned that the loss of biopower plants, combined with strict limits on open burning, will leave them with no options for dealing with orchard trimmings and other ag waste in the polluted Central Valley. Almost no new plants are being built, according to the Biomass Power Association, and prospects are not good for reopening the ones that have closed. America’s largest independent biopower producer, Covanta, got out of biopower altogether earlier this year, shutting down the last of their eight plants. Myth: Biopower will grow rapidly in the future The grim reality in the industry today stands in stark contrast to the many years of optimistic projections by the US Energy Information Administration, the forecasting and data collection arm of DOE. In their Annual Energy Outlook, EIA consistently predicted steady growth in biopower, largely in response to state RPS laws. But the stellar results for biopower were largely due to assumptions EIA used in the model, according to Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “EIA’s model had a number of features that limited wind and solar growth,” he explains. “They assumed much higher costs for wind and solar than we’ve seen, and that wind costs would rise over time as the best locations are developed. In reality, wind and solar costs have seen huge price drops.” “So because the model had to choose renewables to meet state laws, and the costs of wind and solar were inflated, it picked a lot of biopower – much more than we think is realistic.” Indeed, EIA has been ratcheting down expectations for biopower in recent years (see graph), and improving their treatment of wind and solar. In the 2010 Outlook, EIA expected biopower to increase eight-fold, but lowered the forecast in each successive year. The most recent Outlook sees no growth through 2035, in line with actual production trends over the past decade (the red line in the graph). “The capital cost of new biopower plants is too high, about twice as much as utility scale wind and solar,” adds Clemmer. “Even existing biopower plants using low cost wood waste and other residues are having trouble competing due to low natural gas prices.” The industry used to dream of expanding beyond waste streams by using dedicated energy crops like switchgrass and fast growing trees, but high costs have put that out of reach. The picture in Europe is different, however, as biopower has doubled in the past ten years. European energy policies are more comprehensive, covering renewable heat as well as power. The large number of district heating systems, paired with high efficiency combined heat and power (CHP) plants, are good candidates to convert from coal and oil to biomass. Also, some countries have separate prices and incentives for biopower that make it more viable. Germany and the UK, for example, both pay more for biopower, varying by fuel and technology. RPS programs in America don’t differentiate between wind, biomass, and other bulk generators (though do sometimes offer higher credit prices for solar), so low cost wind has dominated compliance. Only a handful of US states have policies encouraging renewable or low carbon heat sources, a significant gap in US climate policy. District heating systems are also uncommon in the US, while CHP plants tend to run on low-priced natural gas, making conversion to biomass expensive. It is interesting to note that when Massachusetts cut back on their policy support for biomass electricity, they increased support for heat from biomass. Biomass opponents have been concerned that the Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s plan to regulate carbon emissions in the power sector, would drive a new wave of biopower development in the US. This is especially true if EPA counts biopower as “carbon neutral,” where the smokestack emissions are perfectly offset by regrowing trees. With the likely demise of the Clean Power Plan under the Trump Administration, biopower is unlikely to see any benefit or harm from carbon regulations, at least nationally. In short, contrary to myths about biopower, the industry is neither large nor growing in the United States, it seems to pose little threat to forest health, and does not benefit much from favorable energy policies. Its fate has been largely tied to the wood products industry, while energy policymakers show little interest in it. While European energy policy is driving more demand for US wood, it is small compared to the decline in demand for timber and pulp & paper, so net demand on forest wood continues to shrink. The complicated issue of carbon accounting will be covered in the next installment in this series, while the future of biopower will be covered in the third.
News Article | January 30, 2017
A trio of mysterious Russian government satellites startled space experts when, shortly after blasting into low orbit between 2013 and 2015, they began dramatically changing their orbits, demonstrating a rare degree of maneuverability for small spacecraft. Now after being idle for a year or more, two of the mystery-sats are on the move again. On April 20, 2017, one of them reportedly shaved hundreds of meters off its orbit in order to zoom within 1,200 meters of a big chunk of a defunct Chinese weather satellite that China smashed in a controversial 2007 test of an anti-satellite rocket. The Russian spacecrafts' impressive maneuvers have got observers scratching their heads. No one outside of the Russian government -- and probably the U.S. military -- seems to know for sure what the satellites are for. Experts say the Russian satellites could be technology-demonstrators. They might also be precursors to orbital weapons. Either way, the nimble spacecraft are "intriguing," Dr. Laura Grego, a space expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast. Those who know for sure ... aren't talking. The Russian space agency didn't respond to an email seeking comment -- and has barely mentioned the mystery craft at all since late 2014. The U.S. Air Force, which tracks all the world's satellites, issued the same boilerplate statement it released the first time the Russian satellites started moving around. "U.S. Strategic Command's ... space component tracks Kosmos-2504 and -2499 ... as well as more than 23,000 man-made, earth-orbiting objects every day," Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, an Air Force spokesman, told The Daily Beast. The original trio of satellites -- known by their Russian code names Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504 -- seemed to be maneuvering toward specific targets in space when they first began their orbital dances. Several times in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the roughly 200-pound satellites moved closer and closer to spent stages of the rockets that had delivered them into orbit, approaching to within a few dozen feet of the old booster shells. That implied that the Kosmos triplets could be inspection satellites capable of closely matching the orbit of another spacecraft and scanning it, or even physically interacting with it in order to repair, modify or dismantle it. The Pentagon calls these "rendezvous and proximity operations." Indeed, Anatoly Zak, an independent expert on Russian spacecraft, claimed that the mystery-sats might match the dimensions and performance of a known Russian inspection satellite called Yubileiny. The possible war-time applications of inspection satellites are obvious. “You can probably equip them with lasers, maybe put some explosives on them,” Zak said of the Kosmos triplets in 2015. “If [one] comes very close to some military satellite, it probably can do some harm.” To be clear, inspection satellites are not new. The U.S. government operates several of them. But secret inspection satellites are rare and potentially problematic, considering how easily they could be converted into weapons. Moscow took pains to obscure at least one of the Kosmos mystery-sats. The Russian space agency launched Kosmos-2491 aboard a single rocket that also carried three, non-maneuvering communications satellites. The Russians announced the comms-sats in advance. They didn't mention Kosmos-2491 ... until after foreign and independent spacewatchers saw Kosmos-2491, which they had initially mistaken for debris, move under its own power. In a brief statement in December 2014, Russian space agency chief Oleg Ostapenko insisted that the maneuverable spacecraft were peaceful in purpose and not, as some feared, “killer satellites.” Kosmos-2491 has apparently been inactive since late 2014. Kosmos-2499 executed dramatic maneuvers in the spring of 2016 then fell idle until March 2017. Kosmos-2504 orbited like dead weight for nearly two years since performing a close pass on a spent rocket stage in October 2015. Around the same time Kosmos-2499 came back to life, Kosmos-2504 began moving closer to that chunk of old Chinese weather satellite. The periods of idleness are not insignificant, Grego said, while stressing that she had not verified the details of the Russian satellites' recent movements. "I do find very interesting that the satellite would go dormant for two years and then come back to life to maneuver. That could help the satellite be stealthy." "One strategy to keep maneuvering satellites stealthy is to pretend they are debris -- i.e., not to have them maneuver at all at first, and then come to life later. To be confident this works, you might want to be able to test if your equipment works after being idle for months or years." Despite the weirdness of the Kosmos crafts' behavior, Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, cautioned against assuming the mystery-sats are, or will ever be, weapons. "In most cases, it's far easier to jam a satellite's communications or hit it with a missile than try and do some sort of destructive co-orbital rendezvous," Weeden told The Daily Beast. "The capability to do rendezvous and proximity operations ... has a whole bunch of applications -- civil, commercial and military." It's worth noting that one of America's own highly-maneuverable spacecraft, the X-37B robotic mini-shuttle, returned to Earth in early May 2017 after spending 718 days in low orbit -- a record for the type. The Air Force, which operates the two X-37Bs, has always insisted that the maneuverable mini-shuttles are strictly experimental -- but has otherwise declined to discuss the crafts' missions. Much like the Russians with their patient, maneuverable Kosmos sats.
News Article | May 16, 2017
No one’s going to mistake Ohio Sen. Rob Portman for a climate hawk. He’s the kind of Republican pol who tries to have it both ways — not outright rejecting the scientific evidence, but also not voting to do much about it. He’s also fine with spending boatloads of polluter money running for reelection. But when it comes to the health of the Great Lakes, which provide his state with significant economic benefits and hold 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, Portman doesn’t mess around. So this spring, when the Trump administration proposed slashing local cleanup efforts, Portman rushed from Capitol Hill to Cleveland to discuss saving nearly $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. “We have a fight on our hands,” Portman told local leaders, claiming he was blindsided by the proposed cuts. His vote to confirm controversial new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was made, in part, based on a pledge for continued initiative funding. Oops. The Great Lakes cuts were part of a dramatic proposed reduction to the EPA that was included in President Trump’s so-called “skinny budget” — which would eliminate nearly a third of the agency’s $8 billion in total spending. The Great Lakes were far from the only victim. Other regional cleanup programs, including ones for the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and Puget Sound, all face extinction, and the White House proposed gutting the Office of Environmental Justice, eliminating nearly 80 percent of its budget. Mustafa Ali, former head of that office and an EPA employee for nearly a quarter-century, resigned ahead of the skinny budget’s release, sensing that the administration had no interest in protecting or restoring the clean air, water, and soil of vulnerable communities. Indeed, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the administration’s budget would cut local and state clean air and water grants, hamstring the EPA’s enforcement office, stymie efforts to clean up Superfund sites, and pass the buck on efforts to reduce pesticide and lead exposure. A Sierra Club campaign director called it “just racist.” Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University known as the “father of environmental justice,” warns that the Trump budget would tear down the entire U.S. environmental protection apparatus. Low-income folks and communities of color would suffer the most, Bullard says — as always happens in these cases — but everyone would feel the negative impact. “The harsh nature in which this administration is approaching issues of environment, health, energy, and community well-being,” Bullard says, “will be devastating for the larger society.” But here’s the thing: By targeting specific regional efforts alongside more general environmental justice funding, the Trump administration might have inadvertently given opponents a means to fight back — and sparked unlikely alliances. It’s hard to imagine Portman making a stink over the elimination of Ali’s old office. But take Great Lakes money away, and he’s ready for a fight. So are other red state Republicans who recognize the value of local watersheds. For that reason and others, Trump’s skinny budget is unlikely to become law. Presidents submit proposals annually, and Congress never rubber stamps the executive branch’s first offer. Already, Congress has parried one of Trump’s attempts to hamstring the EPA, trimming only 1 percent of the agency’s funding during the late-April budget fight that kept the government running until the fall. But it’s going to take voices from both sides of the aisle to save portions of the $2.5 billion in EPA spending that are on the chopping block, especially the ones that aid the most vulnerable communities. And regional water-source cleanup programs, which offer huge economic benefits, provide a means to build those broad coalitions — and create a united opposition. If some or all of those funds can be clawed back, they could prevent many vulnerable communities from falling even deeper into distress. “We can’t afford anything that threatens efforts to keep these bodies of water clean,” says Donele Wilkins, president and CEO of the Detroit-based environmental justice organization Green Door Initiative. Many of the arguments for cutting environmental protection — particularly programs that promote justice — focus on letting the states take the lead. But Bullard notes that the federal government had to step in when states failed to protect frontline communities. State-level decision-making could also result in radically different treatment between traditionally blue states and red ones. “Just putting it to states is not going to guarantee it’s getting done,” says Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When it comes to environmental justice, one of the harsh realities that experience shows is those voices are not represented well enough in our national discourse and policy sphere.” In late April, three freshman Democratic House members announced that they had formed the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force. Nanette Diaz Barragán of California (a 2017 Grist 50 honoree), Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Donald McEachin of Virginia pledged to fight to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans to clean air and water. “We don’t need more Flint, Michigans,” McEachin says. “We don’t need the higher risks of chemical spills in low-income areas. I will continue to fight for adequate funding so that all communities have safe water, clean air, and are prepared to address the impending climate change issues.” An earnest Republican attempt to pass Trump’s skinny budget is expected to come on Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year. And bipartisan muscle will likely be needed to prevent it. To that end, McEachin — whose district reaches from the southwestern suburbs of Richmond to coastal towns, including Newport News — joined a congressional coalition dedicated to making sure that the $70 million in Chesapeake Bay funding on the chopping block is spared. He says the watershed is critical for Virginians of all races and income levels. He’s been joined by colleagues far to his right, including Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, who calls the Chesapeake “a treasure.” Portman, for his part, has joined an alliance to retain Great Lakes funding. It includes lawmakers from Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In early May, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, claimed victory for that bipartisan effort by holding onto Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding for the remaining five months of the 2017 fiscal year; $50 million had been targeted by the Trump administration to help build the much-ballyhooed border wall. But the White House still plans to zero out the nearly $300 million-per-year Great Lakes project in 2018. “Everything about the Great Lakes is really who we are,” Stabenow said in a video message to her constituents. “We’ve got to make sure that we do everything possible to protect full funding for our Great Lakes.” Rallying around these regional programs might be the best bet for environmental justice advocates to preserve support from the federal government for their communities. “The phrase ‘environmental justice’ seems to drive the entire Republican right crazy,” says Vernice Miller-Travis, a Baltimore-based environmental consultant and cofounder of WE ACT, an EJ organization in West Harlem. But local water issues can bridge that divide. Most of the bodies of water addressed in regional remediation efforts seed tributaries that carry drinking water to large inland populations, so their impact goes far beyond coastal communities. The Great Lakes, for instance, provide water not just for Chicago and Cleveland, which sit on Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, respectively, but also Detroit, via the Detroit River. Donele Wilkins of Detroit’s Green Door Initiative has spent a lot of time and effort fighting industrial facilities that dump in the Detroit River. That dumping results in constant beach closures; recently, her community was told not to drink tap water for several days because of contaminants that even boiling couldn’t remove. Wilkins says it’s clear to her that the concerns of environmental justice communities are going to fall on deaf ears with the current administration, as well as most Republican members of Congress. She gets that, for the moment, it just isn’t a priority of the federal government. But keeping the bottom from falling out is almost as important as making the improvements she and her neighbors desperately seek — and that means that anyone fighting to keep the Great Lakes pristine is (temporarily) with her. “I’ve been in this movement long enough that I know you have to let go of what people’s motives are,” Wilkins says. “You can’t legislate the heart of people.”
News Article | May 19, 2017
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis gestures during a press briefing on the campaign to defeat ISIS at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that any military solution to the North Korea crisis would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale" and Washington was working internationally to find a diplomatic solution. North Korea has defied all calls to rein in its nuclear and missile programs, even from China, its lone major ally, calling them legitimate self-defense. It has been working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland, and experts say its test on Sunday of a new missile was another important step toward that aim. "We are going to continue to work the issue," Mattis told a Pentagon news conference. "If this goes to a military solution, it's going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale. So our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation." The remarks were one of the clearest indicators yet that President Donald Trump's administration will seek to exhaust alternatives before turning to military action to force Pyongyang's hand. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard against the North Korean threat, has called on China to do more to rein in its neighbor. Mattis appeared to defend China's most recent efforts, even as he acknowledged Pyongyang's march forward. "They (North Korea) clearly aren't listening but there appears to be some impact by the Chinese working here. It's not obviously perfect when they launch a missile," Mattis said, when asked about Sunday's launch. South Korea has said the North's missile program was progressing faster than expected, with Sunday's test considered successful in flight. North Korea said the launch tested the capability to carry a "large-size heavy nuclear warhead," and its ambassador in Beijing has said that Pyongyang would continue such test launches "any time, any place." Mattis acknowledged that Pyongyang had likely learned a great deal from the latest test of what U.S. officials say was a KN-17 missile, which was believed to have survived re-entry to some degree. "They went to a very high apogee and when it came down obviously from that altitude they probably learned a lot from it. But I'm not willing to characterize it beyond that right now," Mattis said. David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the big question was whether North Korea could build a re-entry vehicle for a long-range missile that wouldn't burn up during re-entry and could keep a warhead from becoming too hot in the process. "This test in principle gave them a lot of information about this, assuming they had sensors that could send information back during reentry so they could monitor the heat, or they could recover the reentry vehicle and examine it," he said.
News Article | May 18, 2017
US stance holding up nations' pledges on climate change (AP) — Strong statements on the need to combat climate change have become staple fare at global summits — a problem, like terrorism, that all leaders traditionally agreed needs to be tackled even if they differed on the details. But the issue could become a stumbling block at a G-7 meeting of leading Western powers in Sicily this month, amid uncertainty over whether the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on fighting global warming. "We are working very hard, our Italian friends are working very hard on a strong outcome," Jochen Flasbarth, a senior official in Germany's environment ministry, said Thursday at the end of a two-week meeting on climate change in Bonn, Germany. U.S. President Donald Trump pledged during the election campaign to "cancel" the Paris climate accord, which was widely hailed as a key step toward cutting planet-warming carbon emissions when it was agreed upon in 2015. The White House recently said it will make a decision about the Paris agreement after the G-7 summit that takes place in Taormina, Sicily on May 26-27. Flasbarth said the Trump administration's position is also being felt in preparations for his country's hosting of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies in Hamburg on July 7-8. "There is some uncertainty, both for the communique under the G-20 presidency as well as the G-7 meeting, because the position of the U.S. with regard to climate change policy is still under review," Flasbarth said. Experts expressed concern at the prospect that differences over climate change would prevent the G-7 leaders from agreeing on a joint declaration next week. "It's not acceptable for the other six to have no mention of climate in the final G-7 communique," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran observer of international climate negotiations. He said if there's no agreement, the other six G-7 countries may issue their own statement on climate change. The State Department declined to comment on Flasbarth's comments or the complications posed for other G-7 countries by the U.S. position. A State Department official said in an emailed statement that the Trump administration was "reviewing the United States' international climate change policies" and had no decisions to announce. The statement echoed the words of American officials whenever they were pressed about the U.S. plans at the climate talks in Bonn this month. Other nations insisted they would move ahead with ambitious goals to curb global warming regardless of the U.S. stance. "At this point in time, of course, the United States has not made that decision (to withdraw from the Paris accord)," said Fiji climate envoy Nazhat Shameem Khan, but added: "We will not stop our work even if the result is a negative one." The Pacific island nation will chair an annual climate summit in Bonn on Nov. 6-17. Karl Ritter in Rome and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
News Article | May 18, 2017
FILE - In this April 3, 2014 file photo giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler in front of a smoking power plant near the city of Grevenbroich in western Germany. Fiji says uncertainty over whether the United States will pull out of the Paris Agreement won't stop the rest of the international community from trying to make progress at this year's international climate summit. The Pacific island nation will chair the talks in Bonn, Germany, from Nov. 6-17. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File) BERLIN (AP) — Strong statements on the need to combat climate change have become staple fare at global summits — a problem, like terrorism, that all leaders traditionally agreed needs to be tackled even if they differed on the details. But the issue could become a stumbling block at a G-7 meeting of leading Western powers in Sicily this month, amid uncertainty over whether the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on fighting global warming. "We are working very hard, our Italian friends are working very hard on a strong outcome," Jochen Flasbarth, a senior official in Germany's environment ministry, said Thursday at the end of a two-week meeting on climate change in Bonn, Germany. U.S. President Donald Trump pledged during the election campaign to "cancel" the Paris climate accord, which was widely hailed as a key step toward cutting planet-warming carbon emissions when it was agreed upon in 2015. The White House recently said it will make a decision about the Paris agreement after the G-7 summit that takes place in Taormina, Sicily on May 26-27. Flasbarth said the Trump administration's position is also being felt in preparations for his country's hosting of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies in Hamburg on July 7-8. "There is some uncertainty, both for the communique under the G-20 presidency as well as the G-7 meeting, because the position of the U.S. with regard to climate change policy is still under review," Flasbarth said. Experts expressed concern at the prospect that differences over climate change would prevent the G-7 leaders from agreeing on a joint declaration next week. "It's not acceptable for the other six to have no mention of climate in the final G-7 communique," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran observer of international climate negotiations. He said if there's no agreement, the other six G-7 countries may issue their own statement on climate change. The State Department declined to comment on Flasbarth's comments or the complications posed for other G-7 countries by the U.S. position. A State Department official said in an emailed statement that the Trump administration was "reviewing the United States' international climate change policies" and had no decisions to announce. The statement echoed the words of American officials whenever they were pressed about the U.S. plans at the climate talks in Bonn this month. Other nations insisted they would move ahead with ambitious goals to curb global warming regardless of the U.S. stance. "At this point in time, of course, the United States has not made that decision (to withdraw from the Paris accord)," said Fiji climate envoy Nazhat Shameem Khan, but added: "We will not stop our work even if the result is a negative one." The Pacific island nation will chair an annual climate summit in Bonn on Nov. 6-17. Karl Ritter in Rome and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
News Article | May 15, 2017
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Monday boasted it successfully launched a new type of "medium long-range" ballistic rocket that can carry a heavy nuclear warhead, an escalation of its nuclear program that the U.N. Security Council warned could bring new sanctions on Pyongyang. Outsiders saw a significant technological jump in the weekend test, with the rocket apparently flying higher and for a longer time than any other such previous missile. Amid condemnation in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and Moscow, a jubilant North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised more nuclear and missile tests and warned that his country's weapons could strike the U.S. mainland and Pacific holdings. North Korean propaganda must be considered with wariness — Pyongyang has threatened for decades to reduce Seoul to a "sea of fire," for instance — but Monday's claim, if confirmed, would mark another big advance toward the North's goal of fielding a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Some experts, including officials in Tokyo, estimated Sunday's launch successfully tested a new type of missile, potentially the longest-range in North Korea's arsenal. The test is also an immediate challenge to South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, a liberal elected last week who expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea. Pyongyang's aggressive push to boost its weapons program also makes it one of the Trump administration's most urgent foreign policy worries, though Washington has struggled to settle on a policy. The U.N. Security Council late Monday expressed "utmost concern" at what it called North Korea's "highly destabilizing behavior and provocative defiance" of council resolutions demanding a halt to all nuclear-related tests. It again demanded that Pyongyang conduct no further nuclear or ballistic missile tests. The press statement from the U.N.'s most powerful body said its 15 members agreed to "take further significant measures including sanctions, in line with the council's previously expressed determination." It also vowed to fully implement the six sanctions resolutions previously adopted and urged all U.N. member nations to implement the measures "in an expeditious and serious manner." Council diplomats said the language was significant because China, North Korea's strongest ally, signed on. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said on ABC television that the United States has been working well with China and raised the possibility that new sanctions against North Korea could include oil imports. New sanctions were expected to be discussed at a closed council meeting Tuesday, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks have been private. North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency called the missile a "new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket," and said the "Hwasong-12" was "capable of carrying a large, heavy nuclear warhead." Kim witnessed the test and "hugged officials in the field of rocket research, saying that they worked hard to achieve a great thing," according to KCNA. The rocket, "newly designed in a Korean-style," flew 787 kilometers (490 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of 2,111 kilometers (1,310 miles), the North said, and "verified the homing feature of the warhead under the worst re-entry situation and accurate performance of detonation system." South Korea's Defense Ministry said more analysis was needed to verify the North's claim on the rocket's technological features. Spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said it is still unlikely that North Korea has re-entry technology, which would return a warhead safely back into the atmosphere. Japanese officials said Sunday that the missile flew for a half hour and reached an unusually high altitude before landing in the Sea of Japan. Several South Korean analysts, including Lee Illwoo, a Seoul-based commentator on military issues, said the missile flew higher and for a longer period than any other the North has ever test-fired. North Korea has also launched satellites into orbit on long-range rockets that share some of the same technology as missiles. North Korea is not thought to be able yet to make a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, though some outside analysts think it can arm shorter-range missiles with warheads. Each new nuclear and longer-range missile test is part of the North's attempt to build a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim said North Korea would stage more nuclear and missile tests in order to perfect nuclear bombs needed to deal with U.S. "nuclear blackmail." State media paraphrased North Korea's leader as saying that "the most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S.," warning that "the U.S. should not ... disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in (North Korea's) sighting range for strike." The launch complicates the new South Korean president's plan to talk to the North, and came as U.S., Japanese and European navies gather for joint war games in the Pacific. "The president expressed deep regret over the fact that this reckless provocation ... occurred just days after a new government was launched in South Korea," senior presidential secretary Yoon Young-chan said. "The president said we are leaving open the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, but we should sternly deal with a provocation to prevent North Korea from miscalculating." Moon, South Korea's first liberal leader in nearly a decade, said as he took his oath of office last week that he'd be willing to visit North Korea if the circumstances were right. Kim Do-hoon, 31, said that South Korea, while keeping the "door open for conversation" with the North, should also "show a stern attitude at some level." "As South Korea's diplomatic situation matures, North Korea should also show a more mature attitude, not a childish one, and contribute to (establishing a better) diplomatic relationship," said Jin Hyo-seon, 33, a painter. President Donald Trump's administration has called North Korean ballistic and nuclear efforts unacceptable, but it has swung between threats of military action and offers to talk as it formulates a policy. While Trump has said he'd be "honored" to talk with leader Kim under favorable conditions, Haley seemed to rule out the possibility. "Having a missile test is not the way to sit down with the president, because he's absolutely not going to do it," she told ABC. The U.S. Pacific Command said Sunday's test flight "is not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile." David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the missile could have a range of 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles) if flown on a standard, instead of lofted, trajectory — considerably longer than North Korea's current missiles. He said Sunday's launch — the seventh such firing by North Korea this year — may have been of a new mobile, two-stage liquid-fueled missile North Korea displayed in a huge April 15 military parade. The White House, in a statement, said that North Korea has been "a flagrant menace for far too long." Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the missile launch, telling reporters during a visit to China that "there's nothing good about" it. The launch came as troops from the U.S., Japan and two European nations gather near Guam for drills that are partly a message to North Korea. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, is also engaging with South Korean navy ships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.