Did Neanderthals take to the seas first?

PATRAS, Greece, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Neanderthals may have taken to the seas to become ancient mariners centuries before modern humans managed the same trick, researchers in Greece say.

Archaeological evidence suggests our extinct cousins may have made voyages in the Mediterranean in boats at least 100,000 years ago.

Neanderthals lived around the Mediterranean beginning 300,000 years ago, and now their distinctive “Mousterian” stone tools have been found on both the Greek mainland and, intriguingly, on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos, NewScientist.com reported Wednesday.

That could be explained if the islands weren’t islands at the time, but researcher George Ferentinos of the University of Patras in Greece says the islands have been cut off from the mainland for as long as the tools have been on them.

Ferentinos said he believes Neanderthals had a seafaring culture for tens of thousands of years, while modern humans are thought to have taken to the seas just 50,000 years ago.

Even if he is right, other researchers said, Neanderthals were probably not the first hominin seafarers.

One million-year-old stone tools have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, suggesting something, perhaps primitive Homo erectus, crossed the sea to Flores before Neanderthals even evolved.

TV airwaves may go to wireless carriers

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) — A new U.S. law could result in fewer TV stations on the air in exchange for faster wireless data services for smartphones and tablet computers, officials say.

The law, attached to a payroll tax package signed by President Barack Obama last week, gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to explore such an exchange, CBS News reported Wednesday.

Under rules the FCC will formulate in coming months, broadcast television, which has few viewers, would be squeezed into a smaller slice of the airwaves and the bandwidth freed up would be available for bidding by companies.

Television broadcasters would be given an opportunity to decide whether they want to give up their frequencies, and those that do so could continue to operate as cable-only channels.

Bidding for the freed airwaves would likely not begin until late 2013 or early 2014, officials said, partly to give bidders time to raise funds to pay for any spectrum they might win in the expected bandwidth auction.

Search for E.T. to go live on the Web

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 29 (UPI) — The search for extraterrestrial life is about to go worldwide with a Web site intended to get the public involved in the hunt, officials said.

Announced at a technology conference in Los Angeles, the site Setilive.org will stream radio frequencies that are transmitted from the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Allen Telescope Array in Northern California.

Participants in the project, being run by Jillian Tarter of the Seti Institute’s Center for Seti Research, will be asked to search for signs of unusual activity in the hope the human brain can find things automated systems might miss.

“There are frequencies that our automated signal detection systems now ignore, because there are too many signals there,” Tartar told BBC News.

“Most are created by Earth’s communication and entertainment technologies, but buried within this noise there may be a signal from a distant technology.”

“I’m hoping that an army of volunteers can help us deal with these crowded frequency bands that confuse our machines,” she said. “By doing this in real time, we will have an opportunity to follow up immediately on what our volunteers discover.”

Zooniverse, home to many successful Internet citizen science projects, is taking part in the project.

“Over the last few years, we have learned about the incredible desire of hundreds of thousands of people to take part in scientific research as they’ve used Zooniverse to classify galaxies, explore the Moon and even to discover planets,” said Chris Lintott, Zooniverse’s principal investigator.

“With Setilive.org, we’re very excited to be inviting them on this grandest of adventures.”

Young stars show ‘growing pains’

GREENBELT, Md., Feb. 29 (UPI) — Astronomers using a European space telescope say they’ve seen changes in young stars in the Orion nebula suggesting a turbulent journey to stellar adulthood.

Data from the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, combined with observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, indicate stars strung across the telescope images are rapidly heating up and cooling down, a NASA release said Wednesday.

In an image of a portion of the Orion nebula, the telescopes’ infrared vision reveals a number of embryonic stars, hidden in gas and dust clouds, at the very earliest stages of their evolution.

As clumps of this gas and dust come together, they form a warm glob of material that in several hundred thousand years will gather enough material to trigger nuclear fusion at their cores and blaze into stardom, astronomers said.

Astronomers noticed several of the young stars varied in their brightness by more than 20 percent over just a few weeks.

This puzzled the astronomers, who said cool material emitting the infrared light must be far from the hot center of the young star, likely in the outer disk or surrounding gas envelope, and should take years or centuries to spiral closer in to the growing starlet, rather than mere weeks.

“Herschel’s exquisite sensitivity opens up new possibilities for astronomers to study star formation, and we are very excited to have witnessed short-term variability in Orion protostars,” said Nicolas Billot, an astronomer at the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique in Grenada, Spain.

“Follow-up observations with Herschel will help us identify the physical processes responsible for the variability.”

Biofuel goals could change U.S. farming

FORT COLLINS, Colo., Feb. 29 (UPI) — Meeting U.S. federal biofuel production targets could dramatically change a majority of the country’s agricultural landscape, researchers say.

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found almost 80 percent of current farmland in the United States would have to be devoted to raising corn for ethanol production in order to meet current biofuel production targets with existing technology.

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act set a goal of increasing U.S. biofuel production from 40 billion to 136 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022.

However, researchers at Colorado State University said the law makes assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland.

Lead researcher W. Kolby Smith and colleagues used satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land to determine how much biofuel the United States could produce.

To meet the biofuel goals with current technology, farmers would either need to plant biofuel crops on 80 percent of their farmed land or plant biofuel crops on 60 percent of the land currently used to raise livestock, the study found.

Both options would significantly reduce the amount of food U.S. farmers produce, it found.

Sumatran tigers need low-level vegetation

BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 29 (UPI) — Sumatran tigers are threatened by human disturbances of natural habitats that turn forests into agricultural plantations, U.S. researchers say.

Researchers at Virginia Tech and the World Wildlife Fund say their study is the first to systematically investigate the use of different land cover types — not just natural forests but also plantation areas — for tiger habitat.

Three of the world’s subspecies of tigers are now extinct, the researchers said, and the Sumatran tiger is now seriously threatened in Indonesia.

Sumatran tigers strongly prefer forests over plantations of acacia and oil palm trees and tend to avoid plantation areas unless they contain thick ground-level vegetation and have extremely low levels of human activities, they said.

Tigers also strongly prefer sites closer to forest centers and farther from human activity centers such as bodies of water and forest edges, they found.

Most importantly, the study found, tigers have a strong predilection for sites with large amounts of vegetation cover at the ground level, known as understory over.

“As ambush hunters, tigers would find it hard to capture their prey without adequate understory cover,” Sunarto, who earned a wildlife sciences doctorate at Virginia Tech in 2011, said.

“The lack of cover also leaves tigers vulnerable to persecution by humans, who generally perceive them as dangerous,” Sunarto, now a tiger expert for WWF-Indonesia, said.

“As long as forest conversion continues, tigers will require active protection or they will quickly disappear from our planet.”

Extinct camel fossils unearthed in Panama

GAINESVILLE, Fla., Feb. 29 (UPI) — Paleontologists have named two extinct camel species from a fossil dig in Panama they say shed new light on the history of the tropics.

Researchers from the University of Florida said the two species of ancient camels, dubbed Aguascalietia panamaensis and Aguascalientia minuta, are the oldest mammals found in Panama.

Their discovery extends the distribution of mammals to their southernmost point in the ancient tropics of Central America, a university release reported Wednesday.

“We’re discovering this fabulous new diversity of animals that lived in Central America that we didn’t even know about before,” study co-author Bruce MacFadden, vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida Museum on the UF campus, said.

“The family originated about 30 million years ago and they’re found widespread throughout North America, but prior to this discovery, they were unknown south of Mexico.”

Despite Central America’s close proximity to South America, there was no connection between continents until the Isthmus of Panama formed, researchers said.

“People think of camels as being in the Old World, but their distribution in the past is different than what we know today,” MacFadden said. “The ancestors of llamas originated in North America and then when the land bridge formed about 4 to 5 million years ago, they dispersed into South America and evolved into the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna.”

Paleontologists and geologists are working with the Panama Canal Authority and scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to conduct excavations during a five-year window of opportunity created by the Panama Canal expansions that began in 2009.

T. rex said to have strongest bite ever

LIVERPOOL, England, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Tyrannosaurus rex had the most powerful bite of any creature that ever walked the Earth, say British scientists who studied the dinosaur’s skull structure.

While some scientists had believed the bite of the prehistoric predator was much more modest, close to modern predators such as alligators, the new research revealed its biting pressure was around three tons.

“That’s equivalent to a medium-sized elephant sitting on you,” researcher Karl Bates from the University of Liverpool told the BBC.

The researchers made a digital scan of a life-sized copy of a T. rex skeleton exhibited at Manchester Museum to create a 3D computer model of the skull.

“Then we could map the muscles onto that skull,” Bates said.

The researchers reproduced the full force of a bite by activating the muscles to contract fully and snap the digital jaws shut.

The biting power of an adult T. rex suggests it could have punctured the tough hide of another dinosaur, they said.

The findings have been published in the journal Biology Letters.

Radon in U.S. classrooms a concern

NEW YORK, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Radioactive radon gas, a known carcinogenic, is in thousands of U.S. classrooms but many districts are doing nothing about it, NBC’s “Today” show reported.

Radon, released in the breakdown of soil and rock, can seep into buildings and the air we breathe and with chronic exposure can be deadly, experts said.

At one school in Pennsylvania, tests showed nearly double the EPA’s accepted limit for radon gas, “Today” reported Wednesday.

Radon exposure has been linked to more than 20,000 deaths every year, the second leading cause of cancer after smoking, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

“Of all the environmental exposures you get, this is the one that causes the most deaths,” said R. William Field of the University of Iowa, a leading expert on radon.

“If a student’s exposed, even at the EPA’s action level, 4 picocuries per liter, that’s equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day,” he said.

Most U.S. schools don’t test because districts can’t afford it, experts say, even though the EPA estimates that more than 70,000 classrooms nationwide are at risk.

Only five states require radon testing and there’s no federal law mandating it, “Today” reported.

East Africa hits it big in oil, gas boom

MAPUTO, Mozambique, Feb. 29 (UPI) — East Africa is emerging as the new hot zone for oil and natural gas exploration, with major discoveries by Anadarko of the United States and Italy’s Eni in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique and by Norway’s Statoil off neighboring Tanzania.

Even war-wracked Somalia, further north in the Horn of Africa, is part of the drive for energy resources in the region, with a Canadian company, Africa Oil, expecting to start producing within the next couple of months in the northern autonomous enclave of Puntland.

But the big prize there is the offshore oil and gas fields that Somali officials say contain more than 100 billion barrels of oil, more than Kuwait. If that’s the case, Somalia, torn by war since 1991, would become the seventh largest oil nation.

Deposits of similar magnitude are believed to lie under the Indian Ocean along the coast of East Africa, enough to transform the ramshackle economies of countries like Mozambique, an impoverished former Portuguese colony.

In Uganda, the big Lake Albert oil field, discovered in 2006 by London’s Tullow Oil, is expected to start production soon, eventually reaching 150,000-350,000 barrels per day.

Lake Albert, which lies in the center of Africa between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is estimated to contain up to 6 billion barrels of oil.

Most of the gas discoveries are off Mozambique and Tanzania but exploration is also under way in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar is believed to hold “enormous reserves” of gas, industry sources say.

These resources are a natural magnet for Asian giants like China and India, which are gobbling up Africa’s natural resources as fast as they can to fuel their ever-growing economies.

East African oil and gas could be shipped directly across the Indian Ocean to Asia, bypassing the volatile Middle East that currently supplies the burgeoning Asian energy market.

That would avoid such chokepoints as the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf and a major oil artery to the Far East, which Iran is threatening to close in its simmering confrontation with the West.

But oil and gas exports could be imperiled by the increasingly bold pirate Somali gangs preying on shipping plying the Indian Ocean.

Still, major oil companies are falling over themselves to grab a stake in East Africa, largely by buying out smaller wildcat outfits which made major strikes.

One of these is Cove Energy, a London-listed company. It put itself up for sale in January after reporting one of the world’s largest natural gas strikes in a decade, a field off Mozambique containing an estimated 15 trillion-30 trillion cubic feet of gas, more than Norway’s entire reserves.

On Feb. 22, Royal Dutch Shell offered $1.6 billion for Cove’s 8.5 percent stake in the highly promising Block 4. Four days later Thailand’s state-owned energy company PTT Exploration and Production stepped in with a $1.7 billion bid. On Sunday, India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. offered $2 billion.

Cove’s discovery in Mozambique’s Rovuma Offshore Area 1 abuts the major find made in January by Anadarko in partnership with Eni, a field off Cabo Delgado province containing up to 30 tcf.

However, the true extent of the Rovuma Basin isn’t likely to be known for two years when various studies are completed.

Industry experts say Tanzania has reserves of at least 60 tcf.

British Petroleum says that excluding Nigeria’s gas reserves of 187 tcf, proven reserves in sub-Saharan Africa totaled 41 tcf at the end of 2010.

Mozambique, the fastest growing energy player in East Africa, estimated this month that international energy companies are expected to invest $50 billion over the next 5 years to develop a liquefied natural gas industry in the region.

Texas company Anadarko, which heads a consortium of Japanese, Indian and British investors, said it plans to set up a natural gas liquefaction plant and an LNG export terminal, together worth $1.8 billion, in Mozambique by 2018.

Eni announced in November it had found a “gigantic field” with estimated reserves of 22 tcf.

On Friday, Statoil and its partner, Exxon Mobil of the United States, disclosed the biggest discovery yet in Tanzanian waters, a field holding an estimated 5 tcf in the Mafia Deep Basin 50 miles offshore.

Lugar: Keystone a national security issue

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Backing the entire Keystone XL pipeline from Canada would shield U.S. energy markets from a potential Iranian oil crisis, a U.S. lawmaker said.

Oil prices are near 9-month highs in part because of concerns over Iran. Tehran cut oil deliveries to British and French markets and has threatened to choke off key oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.

U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Keystone XL was a matter of national security.

“Given the intensity of multiple crises in the Middle East and the certainty that threats to oil supplies are not limited to the current crisis with Iran, it is incomprehensible that the president has rejected approval of the Keystone XL pipeline,” Lugar said in a statement.

“Few national security decisions of the past several decades are more clearly at odds with core U.S. interests than the president’s pipeline delay.”

U.S. President Barack Obama rejected a permit from pipeline company TransCanada to build the entire pipeline from tar sands deposits Canada to refineries along the southern U.S. coast. The White House this week said it welcomed a decision by TransCanada, however, to build a portion of the pipeline in the United States.

Critics of the project say oil from tar sands is more toxic to the environment than conventional crude oil. Nebraskans persuades TransCanada to consider an alternative route out of concern for a regional aquifer.

The company said it would reapply for a permit once it settles on an alternative route.

TAP unfazed by South Stream

BRUSSELS, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Russian plans to build its South Stream natural gas pipeline by December are “irrelevant” when considering rival projects, a TAP official said.

Russia said it wants to start building its South Stream natural gas pipeline by December. Russia sends about 80 percent of its natural gas for European consumers through Ukraine’s gas transit system and bilateral disputes have exposed vulnerabilities in the regional energy sector.

Russia has pressed for South Stream and its Nord Stream counterpart while European leaders lobby for a series of pipelines outlined in the so-called Southern Corridor.

Last week the consortium controlling Shah Deniz II natural gas field off the coast of Azerbaijan chose the Trans-Adriatic natural gas pipeline as a possible route to European natural gas consumers.

TAP Managing Director Kjetil Tungland told EurActiv that South Stream, which would run through southern Europe, isn’t a concern.

“As long as Shah Deniz is ready and willing to guarantee supplies of gas to Italy via the TAP pipeline, the South Stream project is irrelevant as far as TAP and Shah Deniz are concerned,” hold told European news agency EurActiv.

TAP would transport natural gas to European markets through Greece and Albania and then through the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

EIA expects long-term growth in renewables

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Use of renewable energy in the United States depends on local efforts though the U.S. government said it expected growth as the technology becomes competitive.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said, not counting hydropower, as much as 9 percent of the electricity generated in the country would come from renewable sources by 2035, a 5 percentage point increase from 2010 levels.

Electricity generated from wind is expected to double by 2035, though the EIA said growth would start to slow once some tax credits expire by the end of the year.

Biomass is expected to increase by a factor of four because of federal requirements and co-firing of biomass with coal.

In terms of geothermal energy, the EIA said it expected “robust” growth but added that would only make up a “small portion” of electricity generation.

Solar power was expected to increase nearly seven-fold by 2035, though some tax credits expire by then.

“Near-term growth in many renewable technology types is largely used to satisfy state-level renewable portfolio standards requirements,” the EIA said. “However, over the long term, renewable technologies may continue to be built as they become increasingly competitive with other electricity generation options.”

U.S. consulting with IEA on Iran

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) — The U.S. Energy Department is consulting with the International Energy Agency about the potential for an oil crisis with Iran, a spokeswoman said.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives last week called on the White House to tap into strategic oil reserves to lower gasoline prices. Retail gasoline prices in the United States are around $3.64 a gallon, an increase of more than 10 cents from last week, gasbuddy.com reports.

Iran in February announced a decision to halt crude oil deliveries to British and French markets, leading to higher oil prices as investors expressed worry about long-term trends. Oil prices account for about 70 percent of the prices at the pump.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying the White House was “concerned” about Iranian developments and “working” with the International Energy Agency.

The IEA last year called on member states to release strategic reserves to offset market disruptions brought on by the war in oil-rich Libya.

Energy Department spokeswoman Jen Stutsman told Bloomberg that Chu wasn’t specifically discussing “a potential release” of strategic reserves with the IEA.

“As we do in our normal course of business, we continue to work with the IEA to monitor global oil supplies and demand,” she said.

Canada gives preliminary OK for new pipeline

CALGARY, Alberta, Feb. 29 (UPI) — The Canadian government said it conditionally approved plans by a division of TransCanada to expand natural gas pipeline capacity in the country’s west.

The National Energy Board announced it approved of three natural gas loops in northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta. The 69-mile loops make up the so-called Northwest Mainline Expansion Project submitted by NOVA Gas Transmission Ltd., TransCanada’s Alberta division.

The $325 million project will link natural gas supplies in the region to markets in Canada and the United States, the NEB said.

“The NEB’s approval of this project is contingent on conditions that (NOVA) must meet,” the agency said in a statement. “The conditions relate to pipeline integrity, the protection of the environment, protection and monitoring of caribou habitat, and matters of public and Aboriginal consultation.”

The company estimates production from shale and conventional natural gas plays in the region could reach around 3.5 million cubic feet per day by 2025.

Mongolia to tap wind power

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Construction on Mongolia’s first wind farm is to start next month.

The $100 million Salkhit — “windy mountain” — project, 40 miles southeast of Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital city, is expected to generate nearly 5 percent of Mongolia’s current electricity demands.

Scheduled to be fully commissioned by the end of the year, Salkhit will be the third-largest power plant in the country and produce about 168.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity, while avoiding 185,500 tons of carbon emissions, said developer Mongolian investment firm Newcom Group.

Under an agreement signed last November with Newcom, GE will supply 1.6 megawatt wind turbines for the project.

About the size of Alaska, Mongolia has a vast untapped potential for wind energy, via its sparsely populated plains and wind corridor along the Gobi desert. It now has about 800 megawatts of installed wind power capacity.

Data from the National Renewable Energy Center of Mongolia indicate the country has enough good-to-excellent wind resources to produce more than 2,550 terawatt hours per year. That estimate increases to more than 8,123 terawatt hours annually when moderate-level wind resources and rural power capabilities are included.

The South Gobi region is estimated to have more than 300,000 megawatts of wind power potential.

One of the fastest-growing economies in the world, fueled by exploration of its rich natural resources such as coal and copper, Mongolia’s electricity demand is expected to double in 15 years.

“People always explain to me that 80 percent of our territory is covered with coal. Well, yes, but 100 percent is covered with wind,” Newcom Chief Executive Officer Bayanjargal Byambasaikhan told The New York Times.

Because it is Mongolia’s first major wind power project, he said Salkhit experienced some delays while new legal and regulatory frameworks were developed and it has cost nearly 40 percent more than a comparable project in the United States.

“The rest of the energy sector is all state-owned. We are essentially breaking a monopoly,” Byambasaikhan said, adding that he is confident the facility will run smoothly and he aims to boost wind capacity in the country 20 times by 2025.

GE has said that its participation in Salkhit underscores the company’s “commitment to grow in one of the most challenging yet fastest-growing emerging regions.” Last May, GE opened a representative office in Ulan Bator.

In 2010 GE and Newcom signed an agreement to explore alliances in key areas such as energy, water, mining, aviation, railway, lighting and healthcare.

Scotland funds small green technology

EDINBURGH, Scotland, Feb. 29 (UPI) — The more than $5 million available in research funding would help Scottish businesses develop low-carbon technology, the Scottish government said.

Scottish officials announced that they awarded $5.4 million in development funds to six university programs aimed at developing low-carbon technologies, products and services for up to 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses in the country.

“Collectively they form a comprehensive, coherent and integrated work program that will increase the extent of quality of knowledge exchange with industry,” Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney said in a statement.

Scotland has some of the most ambitious renewable energy targets in Europe. The government aims to meet 100 percent of the electricity demand through renewable energy resources by 2020.

The Scottish government of First Minister Alex Salmond announced plans for a referendum for independence by 2014. He added that an independent Scotland would be able to export as much as half of the electricity it generates by 2020.

Britain, Bangladesh team for renewables

LONDON, Feb. 29 (UPI) — British officials announced they signed a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh to encourage the development of renewable energy projects.

The British Department of Energy and Climate Change announced the MOU with the Bangladeshi government. It aims to team British universities and institutes with Bangladeshi counterparts to develop research projects on renewable energy.

“International collaboration on research is vital to make renewable energy viable for developing countries and help tackle climate change,” British Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said in a statement.

Experts working for the United Nations called on Bangladesh to ensure adequate safeguards are in place should a permit for an open-pit coal mine be approved. The envoys expressed concern that plans for the mine in northwestern Bangladesh could displace more than 200,000 people.

U.N. experts said the mine would destroy as much as 12,000 hectares of agricultural land. The mine would extract more than 570 million tons of coal over 36 years.

London said Bangladesh has experienced sustained economic growth for more than 10 years and now has important decisions to make regarding its energy sector.

Kiev wants big players in shale reserves

KIEV, Ukraine, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Ukraine aims to attract “big international companies” to its lucrative natural gas fields during an auction, a natural resources official said.

Ukraine officials said they would auction the rights to around 70 percent of the production from two natural gas deposits in the country.

“The tender will take place by April 23,” State Geology and Resources Service spokeswoman Maryna Pekarchuk told Bloomberg News. “We expect big international companies to participate.”

U.S. supermajor Exxon Mobil signed a deal with state-run energy company Naftogaz last year. Other major energy companies expressing interest include Italy’s Eni and Royal Dutch Shell.

Anglo-Russian energy company TNK-BP, a joint venture between BP and Russian billionaires, also has plans to bid for shale gas licenses in Ukraine.

Ukraine consumed more than 1.8 trillion cubic feet of Russian gas in 2010 and energy ties between the countries looms large in regional energy security matters. As much as 80 percent of Russia’s gas heads through Ukraine’s pipeline system en route to Europe.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Ukraine has as much as 42 trillion cubic feet of shale natural gas.

Gazprom discusses South Stream contracts

MOSCOW, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Russian officials met with directors to discuss the environmental impact and engineering design contracts for the South Stream pipeline, said Gazprom.

Russian natural gas company Gazprom officials met with top executives from the South Stream project, including the project’s director, Marcel Kramer, in Moscow.

“Special attention was paid to selection of contractors for the environmental impact assessment and front-end engineering design,” Gazprom said in a statement.

South Stream is a planned natural gas pipeline meant to diversity to Russian gas export options. Around 80 percent of Russian gas heads through the gas transit system in Ukraine and South Stream would avoid that territory by passing through the Black Sea to southern European markets.

The pipeline is designed to carry as much as 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to Europe each year. A final investment decision is expected by November and construction should begin in December, Gazprom said.

Natural gas supplies should start moving through South Stream by late 2015.

Rena officers plead guilty

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Feb. 29 (UPI) — The New Zealand government said the master and second officer of the stricken cargo vessel Rena pleaded guilty to 10 of the 11 charges they faced.

Maritime New Zealand announced both officers pleaded guilty to all but one of the charges. The second officer, whose name was withheld, pleaded innocent to a charge relating to the “discharge of harmful substances from ships or offshore installations.”

Rena struck a reef off the coast of New Zealand in October. It broke apart earlier this year and salvage teams are working to get the remaining containers off the vessel.

The ship spilled around 2,000 barrels of oil into the sea when it hit the reef. MNZ, the agency responding to the disaster, had removed most of the oil from the Rena by December.

The most serious charge, attempting to obstruct justice by altering ship’s documents before the grounding, carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. The Rena’s master faces four of those charges while the second officer faces three.

Both men face sentencing May 25.

Mercosur keen to profit from Arab markets

BRASILIA, Brazil, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Latin America’s Mercosur trade bloc is keen to profit from Arab cash investments and expanding consumer markets while talks with the European Union on a free trade agreement remain stalled, officials said.

Brazilian government ministers have been wooing Arab investors after a visit to the United Arab Emirates and plans for similar initiatives in other oil-rich Arab states in the Persian Gulf region.

A Mercosur-Arab trade deal is far from sealed but Brazil made a promising start, winning pledges of Arab direct investments in the country and greater access to the gulf’s consumer markets.

Brazil has been cultivating the Arab region for decades and ran a lucrative arms trade with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s 1980s conflict with Iran.

Despite winning new concessions, however, Brazil ruled out an early deal on Arab petrochemical exports to Latin America, a key topic for Persian Gulf states seeking markets for their refineries.

A Mercosur deal with the GCC region, if finalized, would require parliamentary approval from each of the member states in the trade pact, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as full members and Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as associates.

Venezuela, a full member, is awaiting Paraguayan ratification of its membership but is seen in both the Persian Gulf and Europe as a lucrative consumer market for both Arab and European exporters.

Brazilian Trade and Industry Minister Fernando Pimentel said after talks in Dubai both sides stand to benefit from a deal but free trade agreements between Arab states and Mercosur member states may take time.

“Brazil’s intention is to sign (a trade agreement) as quickly as possible but it cannot speak on behalf of the whole Mercosur,” he said. “The matter must pass the parliaments of those four countries before it can be signed,” Pimentel said, referring to founding members Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.

He couldn’t say how soon Mercosur and the GCC would sign a trade agreement.

More than 10 percent of $60 billion in international investment channeled into Brazil last year is believed to be from Arab countries, officials said.

The Brazilian government says it will spend $403.5 billion on infrastructure projects through 2014, when it is the host country for the FIFA World Cup. Pimentel said the investment was needed to keep pace between Brazil’s export income and inward investment ratio and the facilities on ground to handle those large sums of cash.

At present, the Brazilian economic and financial infrastructure is struggling to cope with the virtual flood of cash.

Brazilian business and industrial sectors complain of red tape and inefficient customs clearance procedures.

Senior Brazilian officials said developing closer financial and trade links with the cash-rich Arab region was part of a national strategy to shield the economy from any potential fallout of the eurozone crisis.

More Brazilian companies are set to open offices in Dubai, officials said.

In the meantime, free trade talks with Europe remain stalled, partly a response to the eurozone crisis.

A European Commission report on trade talks with Mercosur accused the Latin American trade pact members of protectionist policies and singled out Argentina and Brazil for criticism.

“With protectionism as an ever present threat, we need to ensure that trade continues to be open to promote growth and jobs,” EC Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said.

The report said there were “no improvements” in the protectionism outlook in Mercosur countries. However, it said, talks could resolve existing issues and even lead to a much-awaited free trade treaty between the two blocs.

EU urges quicker energy market reforms

BRUSSELS, Feb. 29 (UPI) — Bulgaria, Cyprus, Spain, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia and Estonia are moving too slowly in implementing energy market reforms, the EU says.

The European Commission warned the countries Monday they could be subject to fines imposed by the European Court of Justice if they don’t move more quickly to implement the electricity and natural gas market liberalization measures included in the EU’s Third Energy Package.

The deadline for each of the 27 EU member states to “transpose” the binding directives into national law was March 2011 — one month after the EU heads of state agreed on the need to complete the reforms by 2014.

The energy package seeks to “unbundle” vertically integrated energy companies that control both supplies and transmission networks, thus allowing rival suppliers unfettered access to a single European energy market and providing choices for customers.

The aim is to free European consumers from monopolies such as Russia’s Gazprom, which can virtually name their prices for energy by controlling the distribution infrastructures in local markets.

Brussels says privatizing distribution networks will strengthen the independence and powers of national regulators as well as improve “the functioning of retail markets to the benefit of consumers.”

But the rollout of the Third Energy Package has been slow as some EU members balk at breaking up their energy monopolies, thus exposing their own markets to greater competition.

“As to date Bulgaria, Cyprus, Spain, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Romania and Slovakia have not informed the commission of any transposition measures for the (gas and electricity) directives and Estonia has not done so as regards the gas directive,” an EU statement said.

Consequently, the commission said it sent 15 “reasoned opinions” to the eight member states urging them to “comply with their legal obligation” and giving them two months to respond before referring the cases to the European Court of Justice for possible fines.

“Further steps” may be coming for countries that have only “partially transposed” the energy directives, it added.

The warning came only a week after the leaders of four of the cited nations — Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Estonia — themselves called for the opening of European energy markets as a way to spur recovery from the debt crisis, the Financial Times noted.

Bulgaria’s energy ministry responded Monday by declaring the country is indeed in the process of transposing the EU directives into national legislation, the Sofia News Agency reported.

In a statement the government pointed out that amendments incorporating the directives into the Bulgarian Energy Act were adopted by the Cabinet and passed on to Parliament Jan. 23.

“It is expected that these amendments will be adopted within a month,” the ministry said, adding that the restructuring of the Bulgarian national electricity company NEK is also well along, with an operator for a spun-off grid system to be chosen soon.

The Bulgarian news agency reported the warnings from Brussels aren’t anything new: Many countries were late in adopting the EU’s second energy package as well, with the European Commission resorting to formal infringement procedures against nearly all of them.