Refugees Turn Skills From Home into New Business

Once they acclimate to their new environment, overcoming language, social and cultural barriers, refugees in the U.S. often thrive. Some translate their experiences into assets that are valuable to their new community, as did Parvin and Yadollah Jamalreza. VOA’s June Soh visited their popular tailoring shop in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Growth Slows in April in China’s Manufacturing Sector

Growth in China’s manufacturing sector slowed in April, official data showed Sunday, pointing to an unsteady recovery in the world’s second-largest economy. 

 

The monthly purchasing managers’ index by the Chinese Federation of Logistics and Purchasing fell to 51.2 in April, lower than the 51.8 recorded in March. 

 

The index is based on a 100-point scale on which numbers above 50 indicate expansion.

 

National Bureau of Statistics statistician Zhao Qinghe said in the release that April’s figure was affected by sluggish growth in market demand and supply, and slower expansion in imports and exports.

 

April’s index still represented a ninth consecutive month of expansion. 

 

China saw its slowest growth in nearly three decades in 2016. China’s huge manufacturing sector is seen as an important indicator for the wider Chinese economy. It has cooled gradually over the past six years as Beijing tries to pivot it away from heavy reliance on export-based manufacturing and investment toward consumer spending.

 

The official full-year economic growth target for 2017 is 6.5 percent. 


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EV Manufacturers Expect Surge in Demand

Despite lingering anxiety over their range, interest in electric cars is rising, especially in industrialized countries. Manufacturers say they are improving the mileage by building more charging stations, but the industry is still waiting for a major breakthrough in battery technology. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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IT Workers, Companies Cautious on H1B Visa Program Review

His birthplace in a small village outside Mumbai, India, in a home with no running water or electricity, is a far cry from the technology-filled cubicles Pete Tapaskar has come to know well as an information technology (IT) worker.

Tapaskar’s journey from India to the United States through Canada came courtesy of an H1B immigrant visa.

“H1B has been a great contributor for the innovation of America,” Tapaskar told VOA.

Now an American citizen who lives in suburban Chicago, Tapaskar has spent the past 15 years working for the IT company ProSoft as a manager in their immigration program.

Lengthy process

Most of the people Tapaskar has hired have come from India, but he said hiring those workers has not always been ideal.

“It would be cheaper for us to hire Americans where they are available,” he said, “because bringing them from outside, we have to go through the lengthy H1B process and then wait for (a) longer time, and by that time, demand would have changed.”

But Tapaskar says there aren’t enough Americans with experience to fill the jobs.

“We are not able to employ Americans fast enough into the job market to meet the challenges,” he said.

1.4 million jobs unfilled

Richard Burke is CEO of Chicago-based Envoy Global, which sells services to U.S. companies looking to hire foreign workers.

“The U.S. Department of Labor has said 1.4 million unfilled software development — software development alone — 1.4 million unfilled jobs by 2020. So the skills gap is real,” Burke said.

“Envoy helps companies with their visa and immigration needs,” he told VOA from his desk situated in the same workspace as many of his employees. “What we do is help companies bring talented foreign nationals into the country, we help companies deploy their own employees overseas to pursue opportunity, and we provide software that makes reporting and compliance much easier.”

Burke said the skills gap that drives the demand for foreign workers exists because not enough Americans are receiving education or training in high demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also called STEM fields, and many foreign students educated in the U.S. aren’t staying to work.

“Every year American universities graduate over 300,000 foreign nationals with STEM degrees. We don’t give them any opportunities to stay,” he said. “So what is the wisdom of a policy when we know we have a skills gap, when we know we are graduating the best and brightest — 300,000 — and sending them home to compete with us.”

Review process

During a recent visit to Wisconsin, President Donald Trump announced he was signing an Executive Order reviewing the H1B visa process. About 85,000 workers come to the United States annually through the program, far fewer than the number of jobs U.S.-based companies say they need experienced technology workers to fill.

Burke hopes the review will lead to an increase in the number of visas issued, to fill the skills gap before the jobs flee the U.S.

“Work is mobile,” Burke said. “Companies are telling us and they are saying to one another, ‘If I can’t get the work done here, I’ll just move it overseas.’”

Which is what happened to Tapaskar, the IT worker.

His employer, ProSoft, was sold to another company, which outsourced his specific job to India, Tapaskar said.

After 15 years, he’s starting over with a new company and works to help other IT workers as the president of the American Small and Medium IT Employers Association (ASMITEA).

Hope for review

Tapaskar said he supports Trump’s Executive Order, hoping it helps curb any misuse of the program. But he doesn’t want to see those visas only going to companies offering the highest salaries.

“It should be made available for all the sectors,” he told VOA. “(It) should be linked with training programs. America really lacks the training infrastructure at the moment.”

This year, U.S. Immigration officials report almost 200,000 petitions were filed for the 85,000 available H1B visas during the lottery period that ended in April.


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IT Workers, Companies Cautious on H1B Visa Program Review

During a recent visit to Wisconsin, President Donald Trump announced he was signing an Executive Order reviewing the visa program that brings many technical workers to the United States, known as the H1B visa. About 85,000 workers come to the United States annually using an H1B visa. More from VOA’s Kane Farabaugh


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Strato-glider to Explore Little-known Mountain Waves

Later this year, two pilots in a sailplane will try to break the world altitude record for a glider, soaring more than 27 kilometers above sea level. But their primary mission will be to explore the little-known phenomenon called “mountain waves” and to carry a number of experiments designed by school students. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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On 100th Day in Office, Trump to Focus on Trade

President Donald Trump will spend his 100th day in office talking tough on trade in one of the states that delivered his unlikely win.

 

The president is expected to sign an executive order Saturday that will direct his Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative to perform a comprehensive study of the nation’s trade agreements to determine whether America is being treated fairly by its trading partners and the 164-nation World Trade Organization.

It’s one of two executive orders the president will sign at a shovel factory in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County, the kind of place that propelled his surprise victory.

Rally in Pennsylvania 

The last week has been a frenzy of activity at the White House as Trump and his team have tried to rack up accomplishments and make good on campaign promises before reaching the symbolic 100-day mark. In addition to the visit to the Ames tool factory, which has been manufacturing shovels since 1774, the president will hold one of his signature campaign rallies in Harrisburg to cap the occasion.

 

It’s a return to fundamentals for a president who has, in recent days, sounded wistful reflecting on his term so far.

 

Earlier this week, Trump announced his intention to work to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also said he would begin renegotiating a free trade deal with South Korea, with which the U.S. has a significant trade deficit.

Trade discussed every day

 

“There isn’t a day that goes by that the president doesn’t discuss some aspect of trade,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at the White House Friday.

 

The executive orders signed Saturday will mark Trump’s 31st and 32nd since taking office, the most of any president in his first 100 days since World War II. It’s a jarring disconnect from Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, when he railed against his predecessor’s use of the tool, which has the benefit of not needing congressional sign-off.

The more significant of the two orders will give the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative 180 days to identify violations and abuses under the country’s trade agreements and recommend solutions.

World Trade Organization outdated 

Ross said the WTO, the Geneva-based arbiter of world trade rules, is bureaucratic and outdated and needs an overhaul. Ross downplayed the possibility that the United States would consider leaving the organization but didn’t rule it out. 

“As any multilateral organization, there’s always the potential for modifying the rules,” he said.

 

The administration argues that unfair competition with China and other trade partners has wiped out millions of U.S. factory jobs. Ross said dissatisfaction with trade policy is one reason voters turned to Trump.

 

“They’re fed up with having their jobs go offshore. They’re fed up with some of the destructive practices,” he said. “So in effect, the country said in this last election: It’s about time to fix these things. And the president heard that message.”

 

Trump, who campaigned on a vow to crack down on China and other trading partners, has announced several other moves on trade in recent weeks. He ordered the Commerce Department to study the causes of the United States’ massive trade deficit in goods, $734 billion last year, $347 billion with China alone. The administration is also imposing duties on Canadian softwood timber and is investigating whether steel and aluminum imports pose a threat to national security.

 

Ross said Friday that the WTO is too narrowly focused on limiting traditional tariffs — taxes on imports — and does little to counter less conventional barriers to trade or to police violations of intellectual property rights.

 

Trump has pushed a model of “reciprocal trade” agreements in which the U.S. would raise or lower tariffs on a country’s imports depending on how that country treats the U.S.


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Trump Signs Order Opening Arctic for Oil Drilling

President Donald Trump is re-opening for oil exploration areas that President Barack Obama had closed, a move that environmental groups have promised to fight.

In an executive order Friday, the president reversed the Obama administration’s decision to prohibit oil and gas drilling in the Arctic waters off Alaska.

The order also instructs the Interior Department to review current restrictions on energy development in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. In addition, it bars the creation or expansion of marine sanctuaries and orders a review of all areas protected within the last 10 years.

Trump cites advantages

The White House says 90 billion barrels of oil and 327 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are buried off the U.S. coastline, but 94 percent of the area is off limits.

“Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” Trump said at a signing ceremony at the White House.

The action is the latest from the Trump administration aimed at boosting domestic energy production and loosening environmental regulations.

In his first 100 days, Trump has relaxed coal mine pollution rules and ordered a review of vehicle efficiency standards and power plant greenhouse gas rules. His administration has stopped defending Obama-era pollution regulations challenged in court.

The energy industry has cheered the moves. Environmental groups have promised strong opposition.

Fragile ecosystems

Conservationists have long opposed oil drilling in the Arctic. A spill would devastate the region’s fragile ecosystems, they say, while extreme conditions raise the risks of a spill and make cleanup harder.

Fishing and tourism on the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico would suffer from an accident, too, environmentalists note.

“By his actions today, President Trump has sent a clear message that he prioritizes the oil and gas industry over the needs of working Americans in our coastal communities who depend on healthy fishing and tourism economies for their livelihoods,” Environmental Defense Fund Vice President Elizabeth Thompson said in a statement.

Reviewing and rewriting the current offshore drilling plans are expected to take several years. Environmental groups plan legal challenges to the changes.

 


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Beyond ‘Fake News:’ Facebook Fights ‘Information Operations’

Facebook is acknowledging that governments or other malicious non-state actors are using its social network to sway political sentiment, including elections.

That’s a long way from CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion in November that the idea that bogus information on Facebook influenced the U.S. presidential election was “pretty crazy.” It also illustrates how the world’s biggest social network has been forced to grapple with its outsized role in how the world communicates, for better or for worse.

In an online posting Thursday, the company said that it would monitor efforts to disrupt “civic discourse” on Facebook. It is also looking to identify fake accounts, and says that it will warn people if their accounts have been targeted by cyber-attackers.


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US Economy Grows at Disappointing 0.7% in First Quarter

The latest economic data indicate the U.S. economy is growing at the slowest rate in three years. The GDP or gross domestic product, the broadest measure of all goods and services produced in the country, increased at a disappointing 0.7 percent annual rate, according to new government estimates released Friday.  That’s the weakest performance since 2014, as consumer spending stayed flat and business inventories remained small.  

Analysts say that’s bound to be a disappointment to U.S. President Donald Trump who predicted strong economic growth on day one, once he took over the White House. 

“Remember candidate Trump talked about GDP of about 5 percent and paraphrasing, perhaps something much, much stronger,” said Bankrate.com senior analyst Mark Hamrick. 

“Most economists believe the track for the U.S. economy for the intermediate future is going to be very familiar to what has been seen over the last number of years, and that’s somewhere between one and probably 2.5 percent on an annual basis.”

The U.S. economy grew at a 2.1 percent pace in the fourth quarter of 2016.  But economists say first quarter estimates tend to be notoriously low for a number of reasons.  

“In some years it’s been because of bad weather that kept people in their homes, keeping them from purchasing things but it’s also believed to be somewhat flawed statistically — meaning that what’s actually happening in the economy isn’t being perfectly captured by government statistics,” Hamrick tells VOA.  “It ends up being an estimate and most of them are not perfect”.

Most economists say the first quarter estimate should not be seen as a true measure of U.S. economic health. 

Other indicators suggest a more positive outlook. The U.S. unemployment rate is near a 10-year low at 4.5 percent, consumer and business sentiment are rising and major U.S. stock indexes are near record highs.


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Apple Cuts Off Payments, Qualcomm Slashes Expectations

Qualcomm slashed its profit expectations Friday by as much as a third after saying that Apple is refusing to pay royalties on technology used in the iPhone.

Its shares hit a low for 2017.

Apple Inc. sued Qualcomm earlier this year, saying that the San Diego chipmaker has abused its control over essential technology and charged excessive licensing fees. Qualcomm said Friday that Apple now says it won’t pay any fees until the dispute is resolved. Apple confirmed Friday that it has suspended payments until the court can determine what is owed.

“We’ve been trying to reach a licensing agreement with Qualcomm for more than five years but they have refused to negotiate fair terms,” Apple said. “As we’ve said before, Qualcomm’s demands are unreasonable and they have been charging higher rates based on our innovation, not their own.”

Qualcomm said it will continue to vigorously defend itself in order to “receive fair value for our technological contributions to the industry.”

But the effect on Qualcomm, whose shares have already slid 15 percent since the lawsuit was filed by Apple in January, was immediate.

Qualcomm now expects earnings per share between 75 and 85 cents for the April to June quarter. Its previous forecast was for earnings per share between 90 cents and $1.15.

Revenue is now expected to be between $4.8 billion and $5.6 billion, down from its previous forecast between $5.3 billion and $6.1 billion.

Shares of Qualcomm Inc. tumbled almost 4 percent at the opening bell to $51.22.


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Driverless Apple Car Spotted in Silicon Valley

Just weeks after receiving official approval, an Apple self-driving car has been seen making its way through the streets of Silicon Valley.

The Lexus fitted with various sensors is the latest entrant in the quest to make driverless cars commercially viable. Apple, a late comer, likely will face fierce competition from Google’s Waymo, which has carried out millions of miles of road testing, and Uber, which has been testing autonomous cars for months.

Apple’s initiative, officially called Project Titan, is driven by hardware developed by Velodyne Lidar, while Apple is expected to develop the software.

Based on documents obtained by Business Insider, Apple’s cars sound very much like other self-driving cars. The cars are “capable of sending electronic commands for steering, accelerating, and decelerating and may carry out portions of the dynamic driving task,” according to the documents.

As with other driverless cars, humans are still present and can override the self-driving mode at any time.

Despite being somewhat late to the game, Apple may find an opening in the way of a potentially lengthy legal battle between Waymo and Uber, with Waymo alleging that Uber stole its trade secrets.

On Thursday, Uber executive Anthony Levandowski recused himself from work on driverless cars in the wake of the lawsuit, which alleges he stole intellectual property while employed at Google.


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Robot Takes Recovering Child to Her Seat in Class

“I would like for you to have a pencil out on your desk,” fifth-grade teacher Mary Fucella said to her reading class at Point Pleasant Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Maryland. A kilometer and a half away, in a pink bedroom, Cloe Gray pulled a pencil out, too, and listened.

Cloe, 11, is at home, recuperating from leg surgery. For the first month after the operation, a home tutor visited her. But the precocious child grew withdrawn and didn’t want to leave her bed. She missed routine. She missed her friends. She missed real school.

“You could tell she wasn’t happy,” said Rob Gray, Cloe’s dad.     

The Anne Arundel County school system in Maryland had a cure. Cloe now attends class virtually through a $3,000 robot. Hers, which she named Clo-Bot, was donated by the local Rotary Club. Since she began using it, the learning hasn’t stopped.

Clo-Bot is basically an iPad attached to a pole on wheels. Cloe uses the keyboard on her home computer to remotely control the device, rolling it into and out of the classroom. She speaks through a headset and is heard through the iPad. When the class breaks up into small groups, one classmate holds materials up to the iPad, and Cloe contributes to the project.

Fucella said Cloe was a little shy at first about “raising” Clo-Bot’s hand, “but now I feel like it’s just like having the normal Cloe in the classroom.”

To answer a question, Cloe clicks on a slider, and the iPad raises to the teacher’s eye level. Cloe said the robot had given her confidence to participate. “I’ll try it and I’ll get it right,” she said. “Woo-hoo! Personal victory!”

The Anne Arundel schools have six of the robots. Patrick Malone of the district’s Office of Instructional Technology said he and his colleagues had been stunned at their effectiveness.

“Every kid that uses this technology starts to smile again,” Malone said. “They start to feel like a regular kid again, and I cannot put a price on that.”

Devices like Clo-Bot are the brainchild of Double Robotics, a privately held technology company in Burlingame, California.

The telepresence robot can be used for business or education, anywhere people need a physical presence. Double Robotics co-founder and CEO David Cann said he understood the importance of school attendance, educationally and socially, and that it was humbling “to be able to provide a way for all students to attend school, no matter their situation.”

Double Robotics has 300 of its robots in the United States, with 25 others placed in education facilities in China, Japan, Australia and Canada.

When it’s lunchtime at Point Pleasant, Cloe’s best friend, Kyla Jones, walks with Clo-Bot to the lunchroom. The sight of a fifth-grader walking with an iPad rolling beside her seems like a scene from a science fiction movie.

“At first it was kind of weird because it was Cloe, but not really Cloe,” Kyla said. But now, it’s natural for the two to discuss, well, whatever fifth-graders discuss. On a recent day, the topic was flip-flops.

Cloe uses the device’s 150-degree wide-angle lens to look down as she maneuvers the robot beside the cafeteria table. Cloe’s dad delivers her lunch to her desk at home, and classmates start joining Clo-Bot at the lunch table.

Cloe said it’s sometimes nerve-racking to enter the lunchroom. “Everyone’s like, ‘Hi, Cloe!’ ‘Bye, Cloe!’ ” she said.

Clo-Bot waits until school is over to get its energy. Cloe maneuvers it to a charging station, where it sits until the bell rings the next morning. Then Cloe will happily drive her virtual self back to Ms. Fucella’s class.


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Robot Takes Sick Child to Class

Think back to grade school. If you were sick, you stayed home. If you had a serious illness, you’d miss weeks, or even months of classes. Technology could change all this, with a robot attending school in place of the sick child. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti introduces us to a Baltimore girl who is homebound no more.


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Federal Court: Women Can Be Paid Less Based on Past Salary

Employers can legally pay women less than men for the same work based on differences in the workers’ previous salaries, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling that said pay differences based exclusively on prior salaries were discriminatory under the federal Equal Pay Act.

That’s because women’s earlier salaries are likely to be lower than men’s because of gender bias, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Seng said in a 2015 decision.

1982 law cited

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit cited a 1982 ruling by the court that said employers could use previous salary information as long as they applied it reasonably and had a business policy that justified it.

“This decision is a step in the wrong direction if we’re trying to really ensure that women have work opportunities of equal pay,” said Deborah Rhode, who teaches gender equity law at Stanford Law School. “You can’t allow prior discriminatory salary setting to justify future ones or you perpetuate the discrimination.”

Activists held rallies around the country earlier this month on Equal Pay Day to highlight the wage gap between men and women. Women made about 80 cents for every dollar men earned in 2015, according to U.S. government data.

The 9th Circuit ruling came in a lawsuit by a California school employee, Aileen Rizo, who learned in 2012 while having lunch with her colleagues that her male counterparts were making more than she was.

Attorney: Logic hard to accept

Her lawyer, Dan Siegel, said he had not yet decided the next step, but he could see the case going to the U.S. Supreme Court because other appeals courts have decided differently.

“The logic of the decision is hard to accept,” he said. “You’re OK’ing a system that perpetuates the inequity in compensation for women.”

Fresno County public schools hired Rizo as a math consultant in 2009 for $63,000 a year. The county had a standard policy that added 5 percent to her previous pay as a middle school math teacher in Arizona. But that was not enough to meet the minimum salary for her position, so the county bumped her up.

Equal Pay Act of 1963

The Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, forbids employers from paying women less than men based on sex for equal work performed under similar working conditions. But it creates exemptions when pay is based on seniority, merit, quantity or quality of work or “any other factor other than sex.”

The county argued that basing starting salaries primarily on previous pay prevents subjective determinations of a new employee’s value. The 5 percent bump encourages candidates to leave their positions to work for the county, it said.

The 9th Circuit sent the case back to Seng to consider that and other justifications the county provided for using previous salaries.


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Trump to Sign Order Aimed at Expanding Offshore Drilling

Working to dismantle his predecessor’s environmental legacy, President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order Friday that could lead to the expansion of drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

With one day before he reaches his 100th day in office, Trump will order his interior secretary to review an Obama-era plan that dictates which locations are open to offshore drilling, with the goal of the new administration to expand operations.

It’s part of Trump’s promise to unleash the nation’s energy reserves in an effort to reduce reliance on foreign oil and to spur jobs, regardless of fierce opposition from environmental activists, who say offshore drilling harms whales, walruses and other wildlife and exacerbates global warming.

Zinke: Safeguards remain

“This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of American people, without removing any of the stringent environmental safeguards that are currently in place,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters at a White House briefing Thursday evening.

Zinke said the order, combined with other steps Trump has taken during his first months in office, “puts us on track for American energy independence.”

The executive order will reverse part of a December effort by President Barack Obama to deem the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic as indefinitely off limits to oil and gas leasing.

It will also direct Zinke to conduct a review of the locations available for offshore drilling under a five-year plan signed by Obama in November. The plan blocked new oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. It also blocked the planned sale of new oil and gas drilling rights in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska, but allowed drilling to go forward in Alaska’s Cook Inlet southwest of Anchorage.

The order could open to oil and gas exploration areas off Virginia and North and South Carolina, where drilling has been blocked for decades.

Zinke said that leases scheduled under the existing plan will remain in effect during the review, which he estimated will take several years.

Monuments, sanctuaries under review

The order will also direct Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to conduct a review of marine monuments and sanctuaries designated over the last 10 years.

Citing his department’s data, Zinke said the Interior Department oversees some 1.7 billion acres on the outer continental shelf, which contains an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 327 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas. Under current restrictions, about 94 percent of that outer continental shelf is off-limits to drilling.

Zinke, who will also be tasked with reviewing other drilling restrictions, acknowledged environmental concerns as valid, but he argued that the benefits of drilling outweigh concerns.

Environmentalists protest

Environmental activists, meanwhile, railed against the expected signing, which comes seven years after the devastating 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Diana Best of Greenpeace said that opening new areas to offshore oil and gas drilling would lock the U.S. “into decades of harmful pollution, devastating spills like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and a fossil fuel economy with no future.

“Scientific consensus is that the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves — including the oil and gas off U.S. coasts — must remain undeveloped if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” she said.

Jacqueline Savitz of the ocean advocacy group Oceana warned the order would lead to “corner-cutting and set us up for another havoc-wreaking environmental disaster” in places like the Outer Banks or in remote Barrow, Alaska, “where there’s no proven way to remove oil from sea ice.”

“We need smart, tough standards to ensure that energy companies are not operating out of control,” she said, adding: “In their absence, America’s future promises more oil spills and industrialized coastlines.”


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