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California Refinery Damaged By Fire Could Cause Local Gas Prices to Rise

An explosion and fire at an oil refinery in Torrance, California, on Saturday forced the partial shutdown of the plant, leading oil traders to expect a spike this week in West Coast gasoline prices.

Police and the plant owner said no one was hurt in the fire, which was extinguished by local firefighters.

Two years ago, a fire at the same plant led to its closure for several months and a sustained increase in West Coast gasoline prices for more than a year. After the fire on Saturday, a group of local residents worried about pollution and accidents protested at the refinery. The event had been planned to mark the anniversary of the Feb. 18, 2015 incident.

Catherine Leys, one of the protesters, lives 1.4 miles from the plant and said industrial ash drifted down on the playground near her home after the 2015 blast.

The plant supplies 10 percent of California’s gasoline.

Traders said they expected local gasoline prices to jump this week.

“I expect prices will be firming on Tuesday, maybe 5 cents or 15 cents a gallon,” a West Coast refined products trader said. He was talking about wholesale gasoline prices in the Los Angeles market. In California, pump prices normally follow wholesale price movements within hours.

PBF Energy owns and operates the refinery in the city of Torrance, just outside Los Angeles. PBF purchased it from Exxon Mobil Corp in 2016.

PBF shuttered the plant’s crude distillation unit after the pre-dawn blaze, energy industry intelligence service Genscape reported.

The unit refines 155,000 barrels of oil per day, turning it into gasoline and diesel among other products.

PBF told state regulators it was forced to use its safety flare system on an emergency basis after the incident. The crude distillation unit, which produces motor fuel, is the workhorse of the refinery. Within 24 hours of the Feb. 18, 2015 explosion, wholesale gasoline prices initially jumped 10 cents a gallon.

A RAND study found drivers ultimately paid an extra $2.4 billion for gasoline because of the 2015 Torrance refinery outage.

The Torrance refinery had at least two outages in 2016 after a power outage at a local utility knocked the facility offline.

In October, PBF received a violation notice from the California’s air regulator for excessive flaring following one of the outages.

California gasoline prices are frequently among the highest in the United States. Only Hawaii residents pay more.

California requires cleaner-burning fuel than most other U.S. states do. The state is geographically isolated with no pipeline connections to major refining centers on the Gulf Coast and Midwest, leaving the market tightly balanced between what West Coast refineries can produce and what can be shipped in.

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Trump Celebrates New Boeing Plane; Pledges Focus on Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

President Donald Trump says the U.S. military might buy Boeing fighter planes rather than those of rival Lockheed, which he has called overpriced. As VOA’s Jim Randle reports, the president spoke Friday at a Boeing factory in South Carolina as the company showed off the newest version of its 787 commercial jetliner.

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Chinese Industry’s Rapid Robotization

Most experts agree that we are past the dawn of robotic age, and one of the countries strongly pushing to the forefront is China. As the cost of human labor in China is rising, factories are increasingly replacing production line workers with robots. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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US Allies Optimistic About Political Solution to Syrian Conflict

U.S. allies said after a meeting Friday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson they were encouraged the United States would support a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

“All the participants want a political solution because a military solution alone won’t lead to peace in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters in Bonn, where the G-20 summit is under way.

Tillerson met for the first time on the sidelines at the gathering with about a dozen Western and Arab countries as well as Turkey.

US Syria policy

Before the meeting, diplomats were seeking clarity on whether the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump had changed its policy on Syria, particularly regarding the future of President Bashar al-Assad.

Under the previous administration of President Barack Obama, the U.S. insisted Assad had to go, putting the U.S. at odds with Russia – which supports the Syrian leader.

Trump has emphasized closer cooperation with Russia in combating Islamic State in Syria.

Russia, whose influence in the conflict has grown, hosted separate peace talks in Kazakhstan with Turkey, brokering a fragile six-week truce between Syria’s warring factions.

German Foreign Minister Gabriel said “like minded” nations agreed to increase pressure on Russia to support a political solution and reaffirmed there could be no alternative to United Nations-led talks. A new round of the talks involving the Syrian regime and rebel representatives has been scheduled for February 23 in Geneva.

Secretary of State Tillerson also met Friday with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi for the first time and urged China to help assert more control over North Korea after a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

North Korea nuclear threat

Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday in Bonn that Tillerson “highlighted the increasing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged China to use all available tools to moderate North Korea’s destabilizing behavior.”

Wang told Tillerson that the U.S. and China have joint responsibilities to maintain global stability, according to a statement form China’s Foreign Ministry. Wang also said common interests between the two countries far outweigh their differences.

Ukraine

After meeting Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson said the U.S. could collaborate with Russia if it honored its commitment to help end the crisis in Ukraine.

Tillerson is attending his first G-20 meeting, hosted by Foreign Minister Gabriel, who has been a vocal critic of some of Trump’s policies.

The G-20 countries account for about 85 percent of the world economy and two-thirds of the global population.

The Bonn meeting is a precursor to a G-20 summit scheduled for July in Hamburg in what may be the first time Trump meets Putin in person.

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Iran Needs Billions to Upgrade Gas Fields, But Will Investors Invest?

Iran sits on what are thought to be the world’s largest gas reserves, yet can barely supply its own domestic demand.

Since the United Nations-backed deal over Tehran’s nuclear program spurred the lifting of international sanctions, the country has strived to attract foreign investment in developing oil fields and upgrading its aging infrastructure. 

The Ministry of Petroleum helped to convene the CWC Iran Gas Conference this week in Frankfurt, Germany, to bring together government figures and private investors.

Watch: Energy Giants Say Iran Needs $100 Billion for Gas Upgrade

Industry experts: $100 billion needed

Industry estimates suggest Iran needs to invest $100 billion in order to fully exploit the reserves. The nuclear agreement removed some sanctions on Iran, but mainly in Europe. It remains extremely difficult for American companies to do business, according to Reiner Jahn, vice president of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce and expert on financing deals with Iran.

“Unless it’s licensed by OFAC, the U.S. sanctions authority, there is no way for an American to negotiate any transaction with an Iranian,” he said.

So Iran is looking elsewhere. 

Indian demand for gas is forecast to grow rapidly, and Tehran sees it as a key market. The private consortium South Asia Gas Enterprise, or SAGE, has advanced plans for the world’s deepest underwater pipeline connecting the two countries.

“Our reconnaissance survey was performed between Oman and India. Unfortunately at that time the leg that went to Iran couldn’t be surveyed because of sanctions. SAGE is expecting to perform the remaining leg of the survey to Iran this year,” project director Ian Nash told delegates at the conference.

The 1,300-kilometer, $5 billion pipeline would lie on the seabed, more than 2,500 meters below the ocean’s surface. The viability of such investments depends on the price of gas, currently difficult to predict, says Vincent Groote of Dutch engineering firm Twister Supersonic Gas Solutions.

An OPEC for natural gas

“You get [the price] floating up and down, which is not what investors would like. So I can imagine that as a natural development, similarly as OPEC for oil, in the long future we could think about a ‘GPEC’ — let’s say a Gas-Producing-Exporting Country’ type of infrastructure.”

Iran likely would wield considerable power in such a cartel, though there are clouds on the horizon.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the nuclear deal, and he has imposed new sanctions on Iran following a recent missile test. History shows that the United States could still intervene to disrupt foreign investment, says Jahn.

“The U.S. invented secondary sanctions, where they sanction European companies that acted in complete accordance with EU law, but not in accordance with U.S. law. Therefore. I think they have an impact in our market,” he said.

The French bank BNP Paribas was fined $8.9 billion by U.S. authorities in 2014 for breaking such sanctions.

The nuclear deal may have lifted some restrictions, but analysts say Trump has introduced new uncertainty just as foreign investment in Iran starts to build.

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Energy Giants Say Iran Needs $100 Billion for Gas Upgrade

Iran sits on what are thought to be the world’s largest gas reserves, yet can barely supply its own domestic demand. Since the nuclear deal lifted sanctions, the country has sought foreign investment in exploration and infrastructure. But will the hawkish stance of U.S. President Donald Trump put them off? Henry Ridgwell reports from the CWC Iran Gas Conference in Frankfurt, Germany.

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Imagine a Day Without Immigrants in a Country Full of Immigrants

Immigrants in the United States have had a bad rap through a divisive presidential election. Now, with a new administration in the White House, there seems to be real consequences, ranging from travel bans to deportations. But immigrants are fighting back, and on Thursday in Washington, some businesses gladly suffered the loss of a day without their workforce. Arash Arabasadi explains.

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Small US Company Bucks a Trend, Adds Manufacturing Jobs

A rising tide of automation, trade problems and lagging growth in productivity have slashed millions of jobs from the U.S. manufacturing sector. At the same time, a small factory in Massachusetts has been hiring, expanding and exporting. Riverdale Mills hopes to grow further by making unusual products and building a strong workforce. VOA’s Jim Randle reports.

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Brazil Hopes to Lure Back Billions in Foreign Assets With Amnesty

Brazil’s Lower House of Congress on Wednesday approved a bill that reopens a program providing an amnesty against criminal prosecution to Brazilians holding undeclared assets abroad if they pay tax and a fine.

In a 303 to 124 vote, lawmakers approved legislation that is expected to yield 13.2 billion reais ($4.32 billion) in extra revenues this year. The bill, which was changed by the lower house, will return to the Senate for final approval.

The extra cash would help ease the financial strains of many states struggling to pay wages and public services while also improving the fiscal position of the federal government, which has posted three straight years of hefty budget deficits.

A group of governors met in Brasilia earlier Wednesday to call for their allies in Congress to support the legislation, whose proceeds would be shared between the federal government and states and municipalities. 

To avoid any legal challenges over the constitutionality of the tax rate, lawmakers raised the fine to 20.25 percent from 17.50 percent, of the undeclared assets, while lowering the tax percentage to 15 percent from 17.5 percent.

“Most states and municipalities are under heavy financial stress and need this money now,” said Alexandre Baldy, the congressman in charge of reviewing the legislation. 

Lawmakers continued to debate a controversial provision in the bill that allows relatives of elected politicians to participate in the amnesty program. 

In the initial program, the government collected a total of 46.8 billion reais, which helped authorities meet their primary budget deficit goal for 2016.

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Immigrants to Show Their Presence in US by Being Absent 

Organizers in cities across the U.S. are telling immigrants to miss class, miss work and not shop Thursday as a way to show the country how important they are to America’s economy and way of life.

“A Day Without Immigrants” actions are planned in cities including Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and Austin, Texas.

The protest comes in response to President Donald Trump and his 1-month-old administration. The Republican president has pledged to increase deportation of immigrants living in the country illegally, build a wall along the Mexican border, and ban people from certain majority-Muslim countries from coming into the U.S. He also has blamed high unemployment on immigration.

Employers in solidarity

Employers and institutions in some cities were expressing solidarity Wednesday with immigrant workers. Washington restaurateur John Andrade said he would close his businesses Thursday, and David Suro, owner of Tequilas Restaurant in Philadelphia and himself a Mexican immigrant, said he also planned to participate.

The Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts said it would remove or shroud all artwork created or given by immigrants to the museum through February 21.

In New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Hispanic residents in the nation, school officials worried that hundreds of students may stay home Thursday.

“We respectfully ask all parents to acknowledge that students need to be in class every day to benefit from the education they are guaranteed and to avoid falling behind in school and life,” principals with the Albuquerque Public Schools wrote in a letter to parents.

Students who take part in the protest will receive an unexcused absence, Albuquerque school officials said.

Organizers in Philadelphia said they expect hundreds of workers and families to participate.

What would US look like?

“Our goal is to highlight the need for Philadelphia to expand policies that stop criminalizing communities of color,’’ said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a nonprofit group that works with the Latino immigrant community. “What would happen if massive raids did happen? What would the city look like?”

Almiron said that while community groups have not seen an uptick in immigration raids in the city, residents are concerned about the possibility.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is among leaders in several cities nationwide who have vowed to maintain their “sanctuary city’’ status and decline to help federal law enforcement with deportation efforts.

Many people who make the choice to skip work Thursday will not be paid in their absence, but social media posts encouraging participation stressed that the cause is worth the sacrifice.