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G7 countries pledge to stop Russia oil imports

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G7 leaders, pictured on screen during a video-conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, committed to phasing out dependency on Russian oil in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine
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The G7 club of wealthy nations committed Sunday to phasing out its dependency on Russian oil and issued a scathing statement accusing President Vladimir Putin of bringing “shame” on Russia with his invasion of Ukraine.

The statement from the Group of Seven — France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States — did not specify exactly what commitments each country will make to move away from Russian energy.

But it was an important development in the ongoing campaign to pressure Putin by crippling Russia’s economy, and underscores the unity of the international community against Moscow’s actions.

“We commit to phase out our dependency on Russian energy, including by phasing out or banning the import of Russian oil. We will ensure that we do so in a timely and orderly fashion, and in ways that provide time for the world to secure alternative supplies,” the joint statement said.

“This will hit hard at the main artery of Putin’s economy and deny him the revenue he needs to fund his war,” the White House said. 

The announcement came as the G7 held its third meeting of the year on Sunday via video conference, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky participating. 

The West has so far displayed close coordination in its announcements of sanctions against Russia, but has not moved at the same pace when it comes to Russian oil and gas.

The United States, which was not a major consumer of Russian hydrocarbons, has already banned their import.

But Europe is far more reliant on Russian oil. The European Union has already said it is aiming to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds this year, though Germany has opposed calls for a full boycott, with member states continuing intense negotiations Sunday. 

The G7 also slammed Putin personally for his actions in Ukraine.

The Russian president’s “unprovoked war of aggression” against its Eastern European neighbor has brought “shame on Russia and the historic sacrifices of its people,” the group said in its statement.

“Russia has violated the international rules-based order, particularly the UN Charter, conceived after the Second World War to spare successive generations from the scourge of war,” the statement continued.

– Fresh US sanctions –

The date of Sunday’s G7 meeting is highly symbolic: Europeans commemorate the end of World War II in Europe on May 8. 

Sunday’s meeting also comes on the eve of the May 9 military parade in Russia, which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. 

Washington also announced a new round of sanctions against Russia in a White House statement on Sunday, focusing on two major areas: the media, and access by Russian companies and wealthy individuals to world-leading US accounting and consulting services.

The US will sanction Joint Stock Company Channel One Russia, Television Station Russia-1, and Joint Stock Company NTV Broadcasting Company. Any US company will be prohibited from financing them through advertising or selling them equipment.

“US companies should not be in the business of funding Russian propaganda,” said a senior White House official who requested anonymity, stressing that these media were directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin.

Another line of attack by Washington: banning the provision of “accounting, trust and corporate formation, and management consulting services to any person in the Russian Federation,” according to the White House.

Those services are used to run multinational companies, but also potentially to circumvent sanctions or hide ill-gotten wealth, the White House official said. 

The official stressed that while the Europeans had the closest industrial links with Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom dominated the world of accounting and consulting, notably through the “Big Four” — the four global audit and consulting giants Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC.

Washington has also announced new bans on the export of American products to Russia, covering a range of capital goods from bulldozers to ventilation systems and boilers. 

The United States announced on Sunday that it would impose visa restrictions on 2,600 Russian and Belarusian officials, as well as sanctions against officials of Sberbank and Gazprombank.

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Uber and Waymo team up to get driverless trucks rolling

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A vision for the future of logistics includes self-driving trucks like this one pictured by Alphabet-owned Waymo handling the long-hauls then ceding cargo to humans for the local legs to destinations.
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Uber and Google’s autonomous vehicle unit Waymo on Tuesday said they are joining forces to get driverless trucks hauling cargo on roads across the United States.

Due to the vast distances between American cities and with truck transport key to the economy, companies see self-driving as a way to cut costs and reduce risk.

Waymo will allow its technology to mesh with an Uber Freight platform that connects truckers with loads in a spin on how Uber lets people summon rides using smartphone apps.

“Uber Freight’s network of shippers, carriers, and marketplace technology is a great match for the Waymo Driver,” Waymo head of commercialization for trucking Charlie Jatt said in a statement.

Carriers that buy trucks equipped with Waymo systems will be able to opt in to having the vehicles deployed as “autonomous assets” on the Uber Freight network, the companies said.

The firms will also explore together the potential for creating hubs where cargo is easily handed off from self-driving trucks to human truckers.

“Both companies envision a future where autonomous trucks tackle the long-haul portion of driving, easing some of the burden of the increasing demand for freight while also enabling drivers to shift into short-haul jobs,” they said in the release.

Before driverless trucks are allowed onto roads and highways, however, multiple tests must still be conducted to ensure they are safe.

Waymo has been testing self-driving trucks in a handful of US states.

“Uber Freight’s extensive, efficient, and reliable digital network is essential to making autonomous trucks a reality,” said unit head Lior Ron.

The Freight unit has been steadily growing, according to quarterly earnings releases.

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Yellen says new Biden investments can counter inflation

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U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen testifies during a hearing before Senate Finance Committee
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US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged lawmakers to approve additional investments in renewable energy and higher taxes on the wealthy on Tuesday, as she defended the administration’s efforts to blunt the impact of inflation.

“I believe there’s lot that Congress can do to ease the cost burdens that households are experiencing,” Yellen told the Senate Finance Committee in the first of two days of testimony on President Joe Biden’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

Besides renewable energy investments — which Yellen said could help address high gasoline prices — the Treasury secretary backed more spending on affordable housing and efforts to rein in pharmaceutical prices.

She also highlighted the Biden administration’s historically large release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease prices that drivers are facing at the pump, which have skyrocketed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hitting new records daily, with the national average at $4.92 a gallon Tuesday.

“Gas prices, while very high … would be higher without that,” Yellen said.

Yellen said the full-year 2022 inflation forecast is “likely to be higher” than the four percent initially projected. The forecast will be updated in the coming weeks, she said.

“Inflation is really an economic problem at this point, and it’s critical that we address it,” Yellen said, adding, “I do expect inflation to remain high, although I very much hope that it will be coming down now.”

The hearings come as Biden contends with a low favorability rating ahead of key midterm elections, with the pain from higher gasoline and food prices outweighing a strong job market and 3.6 percent unemployment.

Yellen was warmly received by Senate Democrats, but Republicans pointed to the administration’s energy and climate policies as a reason for the energy crunch and characterized Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan as a main reason for inflation.

“What I heard you say is that it is OK to raise taxes right now and that it is proper to have more stimulus spending to deal with this crisis,” said Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican representing Idaho.

“I just have to say I disagree with you on that.”

Yellen defended the American Rescue Plan, saying the administration took action in response to forecasts that unemployment could top nine percent given the headwinds amid the Covid-19 upheaval.

At the time, she said, “The overwhelming risk was that Americans would be scarred by a deep and long recession.”

Republicans also took Yellen to task for comments early 2021 characterizing inflationary pressures as “transitory,” the same word used early on by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. 

Yellen said her remarks at the time did not foresee the supply chain problems that surfaced later in 2021, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

But Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said given Yellen’s past assurances, “it makes me wonder why Americans should put any confidence in your pronouncements and decisions and recommendations today.”

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French astronaut Pesquet calls for European space independence

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Thomas Pesquet, 44, recently completed his second deployment to the International Space Station on the NASA-SpaceX Crew-2 mission, and has arguably the highest profile among the European Astronaut Corps
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French astronaut Thomas Pesquet on Tuesday urged Europe to seize the momentum created by its newfound diplomatic unity and “start moving now” to develop its own human spaceflight capacity.

The charismatic engineer and pilot, 44, recently completed his second deployment to the International Space Station on the NASA-SpaceX Crew-2 mission, and has arguably the highest profile among the European Astronaut Corps, in addition to being a celebrity in his native France.

Though he has long extolled international cooperation in space and remains in the mix to possibly go to the Moon as part of the NASA-led Artemis missions, Pesquet said it was vital for Europe’s leaders to give the European Space Agency (ESA) the funding and mandate it needs to launch its own people, too.

“That topic is gaining momentum now,” he told AFP at NASA headquarters in Washington.

“In the late eighties and early nineties, we had this goal of becoming more independent as far as space access for humans, and then it didn’t pan out. Several things happened, Germany had to reunite, they had to redirect budgets etc.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now unified Europe’s once fractious member states, and Pesquest said he hoped ESA member countries will capitalize on the continent’s new clout.

“These topics like European diplomacy, European defense are coming back on the table, and part of that process is also that independent human access to space,” he argued.

Currently, only the United States, Russia and China have independent launch capacity, while India is looking to acquire the same.

One potential option for ESA is launching crew on a spaceship fixed to the Ariane 6 rocket, which is currently under development and is expected to make its debut launch from French Guiana by the end of this year.

“We have to start moving now, because the development cycles are long. You don’t want this to happen in 15 to 20 years,” he said.

– Commercial space benefits and challenges –

Pesquet was also keen to push back against the idea that the rise of the commercial space sector was making national space agencies obsolete.

“There’s a general perception among the public that the private sector, or Elon Musk, or SpaceX, are calling the shots, which is not true at all.”

In fact, said Pesquet, private industry had always been involved — from building the Space Shuttle to Ariane rockets. “What we’ve done now is give them more autonomy and say, ‘Hey, we need the service. You provide the service at an efficient cost,’ which they’ve been delivering.”

Musk might grab headlines for his bombastic announcements about colonizing Mars, but “the small print says, when all the agencies put together the budget to go to Mars, then the private sector is going to deliver the hardware,” said Pesquet.

While the private sector was bringing a new level of speed and innovation to the table, Pesquet said there were some challenges — for example in working with the private, ticket-paying citizens now visiting the ISS with increasing frequency.

“If you mix up professional astronauts… and the spaceflight participants, obviously, it kind of impacts the work that we’re doing, because we have to take care of them, because they’re less trained, they have less experience on the board,” he said, something agencies will need to consider moving forward.

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