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Oil refinery workers caught in Germany’s energy dilemma

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The PCK oil refinery outside of Berlin exclusively processes oil from Russia and faces an existential threat from EU plans for an embargo on Russian crude
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Germany is seeking to ban Russian oil by the end of this year over the war in Ukraine, but workers at the PCK oil refinery outside Berlin are less than happy about the plans.

“We need Russian oil. We have our houses, our families. If (the government) wants to stop it, then the area here will be dead,” Thorsten Scheer, 60, told AFP at the refinery in the town of Schwedt, on the border with Poland.

The plant, which employs 1,200 people, exclusively processes Russian crude oil from a branch of the Druzhba pipeline, the world’s longest oil pipeline.

It supplies around 90 percent of the oil consumed in Berlin and the surrounding region, including Berlin-Brandenburg airport, and many local businesses depend on the cash it brings to the area.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck travelled to Schwedt on Monday to hold a question-and-answer session with the refinery’s employees, where he met a mixed reception.

Standing on a table outside the staff canteen, Habeck sought to reassure the crowd of workers in green and orange overalls that the government would seek alternative ways to keep the plant running.

– ‘Not Germany’s concern’ –

But employees accused him of serving US interests in seeking to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia.

“Yes, war is rubbish. That is perfectly clear to us,” one worker told the crowd.

“But on the other hand, why should we suddenly ban a business partner who has delivered reliably for decades? We get a raw material and we process it. If this raw material is interrupted out of political correctness, that is not right in my eyes.”

Another worker, 48, who did not want to give his name, told AFP the situation was “stressful for everyone” as their jobs were “hanging in the balance”.

“In my opinion, the war is not Germany’s concern,” he said. “If (the oil embargo) would end the war, fine. But it won’t. Putin will peddle his oil somewhere else.”

Habeck, a member of the Green party, was also met with protests from environmental campaigners, who said they had managed to turn off the oil supply to the PCK plant in advance of his visit.

Germany has ruled out an immediate embargo on all Russian energy in response to the war in Ukraine, especially gas. 

However, Europe’s biggest economy has already slashed its oil imports from Russia to 12 percent of the total from 35 percent before Russia’s invasion.

– Sticky problem –

But the PCK refinery presents it with a sticky problem — especially since the site is majority owned by Russian oil giant Rosneft, controlled by the Kremlin.

In late 2021, Rosneft announced plans to increase its stake in the refinery from 54 to 92 percent by buying shares from Shell.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office approved the transaction a few days before the outbreak of the war but the Economy Ministry is examining whether it can still be stopped. 

Habeck laid out three elements that would have to come together to keep the plant alive: new oil deliveries from other countries via ships arriving in the port of Rostock; financial aid from the government; and a new ownership structure to wrest control from Rosneft.

The minister said he was “well aware” that there was “a lot of uncertainty” for the workers. 

“I would be happy if you would see me not just as your enemy, but as someone who is really trying to save this site and keep it alive and lead it into the future,” he said.

But after the meeting, as the workers stood in line to help themselves to barbecued burgers and sausages, many remained unconvinced by his plans.

“It’s an experiment. We all just have to hope it works out,” said Steffen Thierbach, 64.

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France probes alleged nuclear power cover-up: source

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France gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power
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French prosecutors are investigating claims that officials at a nuclear power station covered up incidents of malfunction at an ageing plant, a source close to the probe told AFP on Thursday.

The move follows a legal complaint filed by a whistleblower, a former engineer at the Tricastin power station in the southeast of the country.

In his complaint to police in October 2021 targeting nuclear plant operator EDF, the engineer, whose identity was not given, said he had repeatedly alerted the company to the incidents and also written to the environment minister.

Events that the nuclear operator failed to declare to the national safety agency ASN, or played down, include an unexplained power surge at one of the reactors in 2017 and flooding inside the station the following year, according to the engineer.

An investigating magistrate in the southern port city of Marseille is now probing the power station for fraud and “endangering the lives of others”, the legal source said.

Other suspected violations include damage to the environment by leakage of toxic substances, obstructing checks by nuclear inspectors and workplace harassment of the engineer, who says he was sidelined after sounding the alarm.

France, which derives around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has been exploring a possible extension of the lifetime of its ageing stations, several of which have come up against their 40-year limit.

That includes Tricastin, built in 1980-81 — making it one of France’s oldest nuclear stations.

It is on a list of installations that the ASN agency said last year could be renovated to extend their lifespan.

Currently operations at 12 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are shut down because of corrosion issues, EDF said last month.

In February, President Emmanuel Macron called for a “rebirth” of France’s nuclear industry, with 14 new plants, as part of efforts to move away from fossil fuels.

The launch of the Tricastin probe was evidence of the accusations’ “extreme gravity”, the whistleblower’s high-profile lawyers Vincent Brengarth and William Bourdon said in a statement to AFP.

Contacted by AFP, both EDF and ASN declined to comment.

Last November, however, ASN chief inspector Christophe Quintin told AFP that routine checks at Tricastin had not revealed any incidents that might have gone unreported.

Independent radioactivity research association CRIIRAD welcomed the investigation, saying it raised important issues such as nuclear safety and transparency on nuclear issues.

“The judiciary is sending a strong signal, but will it be able to get to the bottom of this?” asked the association’s spokesman, Roland Desbordes.

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Biden eyes climate progress as Brazil leader joins Americas summit

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US President Joe Biden speaks during opening ceremony of the the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles
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Joe Biden sought Thursday to step up action on climate at an Americas summit with hopes for at least small progress with Brazil, whose far-right leader will hold a potentially tense meeting with the US president.

Some two dozen leaders have descended on Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, where Biden late Wednesday implored them to show that democracy can produce results.

“There is no reason why the Western Hemisphere shouldn’t be secure, prosperous and democratic, from Canada’s northernmost reaches to the southern tips of Chile,” he told a welcoming reception with pop performers at a downtown Los Angeles theater.

But as China makes rapid inroads in Latin America, long viewed by Washington as its turf, Biden has steered clear of big-dollar pledges and has instead sought cooperation in targeted areas.

The summit on Thursday will focus on climate, with Vice President Kamala Harris tasked with meeting leaders of Caribbean nations that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

One outlier from the international chorus to battle climate change has been Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a champion of agribusiness who has horrified environmentalists who warn that further erosion of the Amazon rainforest will disrupt a vital natural sink for the planet’s carbon emissions.

Ahead of Biden’s first meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday, the White House said Brazil, Colombia and Peru would join a US-backed initiative to explore ways to reduce Amazon deforestation motivated by commodities industries.

The White House also said that Brazil and four other nations were joining a renewable energy initiative launched at last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

In the pact, countries promise to work toward a goal of 70 percent renewables in their energy mix by 2030. 

Despite coming under criticism over the Amazon, Brazil — the sixth most populous nation — has one of least carbon-intensive economies for a major economy and already meets the goal on renewables, mostly through hydropower.

– The ‘Tropical Trump’ –

The meeting with Bolsonaro could be awkward due to more than climate. Bolsonaro was an ally of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump and has appeared to follow the former president’s playbook by alleging that Brazil’s October elections are threatened by fraud.

On the eve of his trip, Bolsonaro went further by backing Trump’s claims of irregularities in the 2020 US election won by Biden. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said the president would not shy away from discussing the Brazilian election.

“I do anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair, transparent democratic elections,” Sullivan told reporters.

Bolsonaro has trailed in early polls against his likely challenger, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon who was jailed on controversial corruption charges.

A victory by Lula would mark a further swing to the left in Latin America. Colombia, one of the closest US allies, could see a historic shift on June 19 if there is a victory by leftist Gustavo Petro, who topped the first round of voting.

While promising to work with leaders across ideology, Biden has held firm against inviting the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the grounds that they are autocrats.

His stance led to a boycott of the summit by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a crucial partner on addressing rising migration into the United States.

Harris started the week-long summit by announcing commitments of $1.9 billion by businesses in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in hopes of creating jobs and discouraging migration — an issue seized upon by Trump’s Republican Party.

Also at the summit, the Biden administration announced a plan to help train 500,000 health workers in Latin America and a $300 million project to improve food security, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting grain exports.

Biden also announced what he called a new economic partnership for the Americas, although there were few concrete details and no promises of funding or greater market access.

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Sandberg exit unlikely to improve Facebook: whistleblower

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Frances Haugen's leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people
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The departure of controversial Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is unlikely to improve the troubled social media giant, whistleblower Frances Haugen told AFP.

Haugen, a former Facebook engineer who leaked internal documents last year suggesting the firm put profits before safety, pointed out that Sandberg’s replacement came from a team whose remit was to help the firm to expand.

The “growth team” was part of the problem and the decision showed the company was “not listening to the heart of the critiques”, she said.

Sandberg, the number two at Facebook parent Meta, shocked Silicon Valley last week by announcing she was stepping down after 14 years at the firm, steering its rise from niche social network to ad-tech juggernaut.

But she had increasingly become the public face of a firm beset by scandals over misinformation, data protection and even accusations of fuelling ethnic violence.

Haugen’s leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people.

The revelations led to huge criticism of Sandberg and her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, whose business — renamed Meta in 2021 — also includes Instagram and WhatsApp.

– ‘Did she do enough?’ –

Haugen, speaking to AFP this week ahead of addressing a cybersecurity forum in Lille in northern France, said there was a “fundamental tension” about Sandberg’s role.

“Did she do enough to stand up to Mark, or to demand Mark be a better leader? I don’t think so.”

She praised Sandberg, though, for establishing a strategic response team in 2018 to combat efforts to misuse the network.

“Sheryl did set up the parts of the company that were actively concerned with the safety of people who live in fragile places like Ethiopia,” she said.

But she said it “doesn’t seem particularly promising” that Sandberg will be replaced by Javier Olivan, the head of Meta’s “growth team”.

In announcing Olivan’s promotion, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook that he had a “strong track record of making our execution more efficient and rigorous”.

Haugen wished him luck in his new role but said the growth team embodied “many of the things that I consider problematic about Facebook”.

Much of Haugen’s criticism stemmed from a central accusation that Facebook had pursued growth and profit with no concern for the safety or wellbeing of its users.

The growth team was central to that effort.

“The fact that the person who got to replace Sheryl comes from that part of the organisation feels that they are not really listening to the heart of the critiques,” said Haugen.

Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

– Optimism on Musk –

Haugen has never fitted the stereotypical whistleblower image of a scrappy outsider — she has wealthy backers and a slick campaign that has seen her addressing parliaments around the world.

She told AFP in an interview last year she planned to start a youth movement to help empower young people to take charge of their online lives.

Aside from Facebook, she is sanguine about other recent developments in tech.

The saga of Elon Musk’s on-off takeover of Twitter, for example, has left many commentators questioning whether the billionaire magnate might do more harm than good to the social media firm.

But Haugen reckons he might just be on to something, saying she was “cautiously optimistic”.

“Part of why Facebook makes bad decisions is because it’s a publicly traded company,” she said.

“Elon Musk taking Twitter private provides an opportunity to go and do the house cleaning that Twitter needs.”

And she is heartened by a new European Union law — known as the Digital Services Act — that forces social media to regulate content.

She said it should break open the tech giants to independent scrutiny, which was a “really, really good deal”.

Overall, she said her revelations had made a positive impact — Facebook has doubled its spending on safety and staff working on safety issues say they have more space to operate.

“I’m incredibly heartened by how seriously leaders around the world have taken us,” she said.

“We have different conversations now about what social media should be.”

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