June 23, 2022
What the Heck is the “Metaverse” and Why Should my Business Care?
by Rick McKenna CRONIN As I write this article, I’m tapping away on my computer aboard my boat…Read More
Posted on June 14, 2022
Sales Tax Holiday Weekend Set for Aug. 13-14
State House News – The Legislature on Monday set the dates of this year’s sales tax holiday weekend, settling on Aug. 13 and 14, when Massachusetts shoppers will get a break from state sales tax on most retail items less than $2,500.
The annual sales-tax-free weekend was made permanent by a 2018 law, which calls on the Legislature to set the dates by June 15 each year, otherwise the Department of Revenue gets to pick.
As part of the “grand bargain” law, retailers in 2018 dropped their push for a ballot question lowering the 6.25 percent sales tax to 5 percent. That law also raised the minimum wage will rise from $11 to $15 an hour over a five-year period, phased out time-and-a-half pay for workers on Sundays and holidays over that same period, and solidified the launch of a paid family and medical leave program overseen by the state government and backed by a payroll tax.
Economic Development Committee co-chairs Sen. Eric Lesser and Rep. Jerry Parisella sponsored the date-setting measures in their respective branches Monday.
White House Outlines the Beginning of a Vaccination Campaign for the Youngest Children
Boston Globe – The White House on Thursday outlined the early stages of its plan for making coronavirus vaccines available this month to roughly 18 million children younger than 5, should the doses be cleared by federal regulators for the last group of Americans yet to be eligible.
The Biden administration has made 10 million doses available to states and health providers, with roughly 85 percent of children in the age group living within 5 miles of possible vaccination sites, according to a White House fact sheet.
Half of the 10 million doses were made available for order last week, the other half this week, with equal numbers of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the two that federal regulators are reviewing and could authorize as soon as next week.
“Let’s actually take a moment to understand what a historic moment this is,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator. “It would mean that for the first time, essentially every American from our oldest to our youngest would be eligible for the protection that vaccines provide.”
Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Appears Effective for Kids Under 5
Boston Globe – Federal health officials said Sunday that kid-sized doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines appear to be safe and effective for children under 5, a key step toward a long-awaited decision to begin vaccinating the youngest American children.
The Food and Drug Administration posted its analysis of the Pfizer shot ahead of a Wednesday meeting where outside experts will vote on whether the shots are ready for the nation’s 18 million babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Kids under 5 are the only group not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S.
Late last week the FDA posted a similar analysis of Moderna’s shots for children under 6.
If regulators clear the shots by one or both companies, vaccinations could begin as soon as next week with the drugmakers ready to rapidly ship doses ordered by the government. Parents have been pressing federal officials for months for the opportunity to protect their smallest children as more adults shed masks and abandon other public health precautions.
While only about 3% of U.S. COVID cases are in the age group 6 months to 4 years, hospitalization and death rates in that group are higher than those for older children, according to the FDA’s analysis — one reason experts have said protecting this group is important.
What is Evusheld?
Boston Globe – An injection that helps prevent COVID in people whose bodies have trouble making antibodies is now being given to Bay Staters in the convenience of their homes.
Treatments like Evusheld, which helps prevent COVID for those who are immunocompromised, can be administered at home in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Evusheld is a combination monoclonal antibody injection therapy that provides added protection against COVID prior to virus exposure for individuals who have moderate- to severe-immune compromise.
CDR Health, the state vendor that provides in-home COVID vaccinations, has expanded its services to include this therapy, DPH said.
“Evusheld is used before someone gets COVID-19 and is a preventive treatment,” DPH’s website reads. “Evusheld consists of 2 injections that are delivered at the same visit. Evusheld is not for the treatment of COVID-19 symptoms. It is not given to someone after they have been exposed to COVID-19.”
People might be able to get Evusheld if they have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or because they’re taking medications that affect their immune system.
Evusheld is not a substitute for vaccination. People should wait at least two weeks between getting vaccinated for COVID and receiving Evusheld.
Employers Piece Together a Hodgepodge of COVID-19 Safety Policies
Boston Globe – One company devised color-coded bracelets so employees could signal their comfort level with being around unmasked colleagues. Others have upgraded ventilation systems. Some employers continue to test workers for COVID-19. Vaccination requirements, meanwhile, vary widely.
Amid the ever-changing COVID landscape, businesses have adopted a panoply of approaches to help keep workers healthy and the doors open.
“It’s become this big ball, hodgepodge of protocols and policies across the United States,” said Yvette Lee, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association.
“Employers are trying to navigate this as best they can because they obviously want employees to feel comfortable coming into the office,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Labor have issued general guidance for employers. They include regular testing, masking, and physical distancing for workers who are not fully vaccinated, and a recommendation that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks in public indoor settings in regions where transmission is still high.
Alcohol License Question Survives High Court Challenge
State House News – An initiative petition seeking to change state liquor-licensing laws remains alive after the Supreme Judicial Court on Monday ruled that Attorney General Maura Healey correctly certified it to appear before voters on November’s ballot.
The high court rejected a challenge to Healey’s certification, which argued the question did not meet the Constitutional requirement that initiative petitions contain only matters that are related or mutually dependent.
In a decision penned by Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt, the court found that the question “presents an integrated scheme whose various provisions serve the common purpose of loosening some of the current restrictions on the number and allocation of licenses for the retail sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption, while taking steps to mitigate the potential negative effects of this expansion.”
Backed by the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, the proposal would gradually double the number of allowable licenses any one retailer can hold to 18 by 2031, but also reduce the cap on licenses specifically for the sale of all alcoholic beverages — beer, wine and liquor — from nine to seven. The total cap of 18 would cover both licenses for all alcoholic beverages and those for just beer and wine sales.
The proposal would also change the way fines for liquor-sale violations are calculated and put new rules in place prohibiting self-checkout of alcoholic beverages and allowing retailers to accept out-of-state IDs.
The package stores group has pitched its proposal as a compromise essential to preserving a share of the alcohol retail market in Massachusetts for small, independently-owned businesses as large out-of-state corporations muscle into the space. Opponents, including groups representing supermarkets and convenience stores, have knocked it as an attempt to stifle competition from retailers that sell a broader array of products.
Plaintiffs in the case Colpack v. Attorney general had argued that the proposal does not meet the relatedness requirement and would “require the electorate to cast a single vote on five competing and disparate subjects raising significant and distinct policy questions about the number of off-premises licenses a retailer may own (and where), about what regulatory burdens should be imposed on different types of retail channels (and license tiers), and about what practices should be allowed to provide greater choice and convenience for consumers.”
Wendlandt wrote that there “is no bright-line rule” to follow in deciding if the components of an initiative petition are related or dependent.
“We also have determined that initiative petitions containing multiple provisions involving a variety of different regulatory issues nonetheless may meet the related-subjects requirement…, so long as the provisions are part of an ‘integrated scheme’ of regulation,” Wendlandt wrote.
Remote Work Influencing Downtowns, Housing Sector
Agency Checklist – Many employees have returned to the in-person daily grind more than two years after the pandemic reshaped public life, but economic impacts will be “pretty significant” if even a fraction of the workforce continues to embrace hybrid or remote models, Gov. Charlie Baker said on Thursday.
Linking an evolution in work patterns to the future of downtown spaces and to the “existential threat” posed by a broken housing market, Baker, during remarks to business leaders, made his latest pitch for passage of a series of spending packages he said would help Massachusetts navigate a changing employment landscape.
Baker opened his remarks at a New England Council event with optimism, saying the state has done a good job “bouncing back” from the worst stretches of unemployment during the public health crisis.
But soaring inflation and “churn” in the labor market will continue to pose challenges for employers as well as policymakers, Baker said. He pointed in particular to working from home, arguing that even a small subset of employees opting against commutes would represent a critical mass.
“They don’t have to be half of what everybody does,” Baker said. “They don’t even have to be a third, but if it’s 25 percent of what everybody does, the consequences of that are pretty significant in a lot of ways.”
Employees who have access to remote options may see significant upsides in that model, such as more flexibility for family care or reduced travel expenses.
US Inflation Hits Highest Rate in Four Decades
Boston Globe – Inflation hit a fresh 40-year high in May in a broad advance, raising prospects that Federal Reserve will keep hiking interest rates aggressively for longer.
The consumer price index increased 8.6% from a year earlier, Labor Department data showed Friday. The widely followed inflation gauge rose 1% from a month earlier, topping all estimates. Shelter, food and gas were the largest contributors.
The so-called core CPI, which strips out the more volatile food and energy components, rose 0.6% from the prior month and 6% from a year ago, also above forecasts.
The figures reinforce that inflation is still heated by many measures, and that the Fed — which has committed to half-point hikes at each of its next two meetings, starting next week — will have to maintain that aggressive stance through its September gathering. Record gasoline prices and geopolitical factors threaten to keep inflation high in the coming months, suggesting the Fed will have to pump the brakes on the economy for longer.
Boston Chamber Head: Lack of Confidence in the T is Major Challenge for Business
Boston Herald – As workers continue to return to the office, chamber boss James Rooney worries a lack of confidence in the public transportation system could hurt a rebound.
“When you look at the dynamics right now, as business is navigating this return to the workplace moment, one of the No. 1 employee concerns is the commute,” Rooney told the Herald. “It’s not safety of the workplace. It’s not being around other people.
“What employees are saying is they don’t have confidence in the T and many of them are driving and the data supports that,” the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce president and CEO added.
Rooney said traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels and downtown parking garages are full. Employees are telling their employers that they don’t want to take the MBTA, he said.
“We need to understand, for the dynamics and the vibrancy of the downtown district, it’s all about people,” he said. “It’s all about people wanting to come down to the downtown district and the T plays a key role in that.”
Rooney said the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce decided to weigh in on the matter, first by using his own Twitter account on Wednesday, to reflect what’s on the minds of its members.
Today, a well-functioning transportation system is top of mind as they try to figure out how to navigate the hybrid work environment, he said.
He said the purpose of using social media this week was to keep the safety issues at the MBTA in the public consciousness. He said the chamber wants to ensure the T is at the top of the agenda for the next governor.
Rooney said the chamber also wants to shift the dialogue from effort to results. He said that while he is not criticizing the amount of money that has been invested into the T or the effort of its general manager, “at the same time, we can’t confuse effort with results.”
Speaker Mariano says Health-Care Regulation Needs Updates
Commonwealth Magazine – It’s been a decade since the Legislature revamped the way the state regulates health care, passing legislation establishing the Health Policy Commission and instituting a cost-control benchmark.
House Speaker Ron Mariano, one of the architects of the 2012 law, said that much has changed over the last 10 years and the law needs some updating.
“In the 10 years, we’re looking at a vastly different landscape with different cost factors, different drivers that we didn’t anticipate in 2012,” Mariano said.
The Health Policy Commission, for example, was given authority to review hospital mergers and acquisitions, but it had no direct oversight of Mass General Brigham’s recent proposal to expand by adding three ambulatory care centers in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn.
The review of that expansion fell to the Department of Public Health through its determination of need process, which relies heavily on an analysis of the expansion’s impact by a firm hired by the applicant.
The Department of Public Health ultimately blocked Mass General Brigham’s ambulatory care expansions, but Mariano says that was a combination of luck and public outcry. In the future, Mariano said, the Health Policy Commission should have the authority to review any expansion that could affect the industry’s cost structure.
“We can’t rely on the result of an analysis hired by the proponent of the project,” he said.
Mariano said the Health Policy Commission’s cost benchmark worked well initially, but lawmakers failed to anticipate several new developments, including the rise of very expensive medications and the advent of pharmacy benefit managers.
“All of these things came into the marketplace after we had been up and running for years and we never ever changed the law to account for that,” he said.
“At the end of 10 years, it is probably time to reassess what we’re asking the HPC to do and how we’re asking them to do it,” Mariano said. “And I do think it is time to maybe take a look at the commission also.”
Echoing comments made by his former legislative colleague Steve Walsh, who is now the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, Mariano said it may be time for the commission’s board to change — from a group of volunteers to full-time paid directors.
“They may not have the time necessary that we need to commit to resolve some of the issues we’re going to be faced with,” Mariano said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It may be time to step in and reassess.”
Mariano also said:
House Ready To Wade Back Into Mental Health Debate
House lawmakers plan to take up a mental health bill on Thursday, Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday in an announcement signaling a brighter likelihood that the branches in the coming weeks will together tackle a pressing topic.
“I think it’s going to be released Wednesday, and you’ll have all the details,” Mariano said after meeting privately with Senate President Karen Spilka, Gov. Charlie Baker and other top Beacon Hill officials.
In March, Mariano had said the House planned to pursue a bill that would “complement and combine with” the mental health legislation the Senate unanimously passed in November. He used that same language on Monday, though did not offer up specifics of what policies the House is looking to tackle.
“I said from the very beginning that it was meant to complement the Senate’s plan,” the Quincy Democrat said. “And I think you’re going to see the focus on a little bit of a different area than what the Senate went into, but we aim to be creating a complete mental health program for our citizens in the Commonwealth. That’s the goal.”
The Senate bill (S 2584) mandates insurance coverage for an annual mental health exam, similar to an annual physical, would eliminate insurers’ prior authorization for patients who need acute mental health treatment, and set a rate floor to reimburse mental health clinicians at the same level as primary care providers for evaluation and management services.
It also includes policies aimed at ending a longstanding problem: long stays in emergency rooms for patients waiting for a psychiatric bed. The bill Mariano teased could surface in Wednesday’s informal House session before the House fully delves into it on Thursday. House Democrats also plan to meet in a private caucus on Wednesday afternoon, where they’ll likely discuss the bill.
Awaiting Roe Ruling, Mariano Eyes “One Big Package”
It’s been more than a month since the publication of a leaked, draft U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would strike down Roe v. Wade, and while the state Senate has acted in response, House Speaker Ronald Mariano indicated Monday he would prefer to wait until a final decision to chart a state legislative response aimed at protecting abortion access.
“Right now, there’s a lot of people running around trying to prevent a lot of things from happening, and I would rather, if we’re going to attack a problem, see what the court is going to decide and where the limits are and then make decisions based around that with one big package that addresses a lot of the issues,” Mariano said.
The nation’s highest court still has not issued an opinion reversing the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationally, but reproductive rights advocates across the country and many Democrats in Massachusetts responded to the draft ruling by sounding the alarm and calling for action.
The Senate in May stitched language into their fiscal 2023 state budget bill that would protect reproductive and gender-affirming health care providers in Massachusetts from legal action originating in other states, where lawmakers have approved restrictions and in some cases “bounty” provisions aimed at stretching across state lines.
That measure will not reach Republican Gov. Charlie Baker unless the House agrees to include it in the final budget bill, and the speaker’s comments on Monday about “one big package” raise questions about whether lawmakers plan to tackle the topic through the budget, in standalone legislation, or as part of some other bill.
Mariano did not explicitly say Monday if he supports or opposes the Senate’s proposal, though his interest in an omnibus approach could put him at odds with his colleagues across the hall.
“The Senate talked about some issues in their budget and I understand that,” Mariano said. “This problem could be fairly broad-based and need an awful lot of work, so instead of doing it piecemeal and patchwork, it’d be much easier to go in once you see (what the court does).”
Lawmakers are set to wrap up formal business for the two-year session on July 31, and the exact timing of a final court ruling is not known. Asked if it was possible to craft and complete abortion legislation in July alone, Mariano replied, “Probably. A lot of it could be done. We have bills on a lot of different things still left in studies that we can pull out.”
Dentists’ Group Declares Support for Ballot Question
The Massachusetts Dental Society stepped into the ballot question arena on Monday, endorsing a proposal to apply a spending limit on dental insurance companies that could go before voters in November.
Requiring carriers of dental insurance to spend at least 83 percent of their dollars on dental expenses rather than administrative expenses would “make dental providers more transparent and accountable to the patients they serve,” the society said in an announcement of its position on the initiative petition.
“As an advocate for both regular and affordable dental care for all Massachusetts residents, the MDS endorses the Massachusetts Medical Loss Ratios for Dental Insurance Plans Initiative and encourages Massachusetts residents to pass it in November,” said MDS President Dr. Meredith Bailey.
“Patient dollars should be required to be spent in support of their oral health, and patients deserve visibility into how much of their dental insurance premiums are paying for care as opposed to administrative costs.”
If the question’s sponsors clear the final signature-gathering hurdle and win a majority of votes in November, dental insurance carriers would face medical loss ratios like those in place under state and federal law for medical insurance plans. Carriers would also need to refund excess premiums to members and comply with new data reporting requirements.
MDS, which represents more than 5,000 Bay State dentists, said both its statewide group and the broader American Dental Association would support the ballot question campaign.
Orthodontist Mouhab Rizkallah chairs the ballot question committee and so far has fully funded the campaign using $501,000 of his own money, according to state campaign finance records. Jason Aluia of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans in March told lawmakers his group, which represents more than a dozen health plans, opposes the question and warned it would lead to “increased premiums for consumers and increased costs for businesses offering dental coverage to employees receiving those benefits.”
In February, opponents of the ballot question filed paperwork with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, but so far, the committee has not reported any fundraising or spending.
Blue is the New Green: How Business can Protect the Ocean
Boston Globe (Opinion) – Our lives, and global commerce, are inextricably linked to the ocean that surrounds us. More than one-third of the earth’s population — nearly 2.4 billion people — lives within 60 miles of an oceanic coast. Hundreds of millions of jobs are supported by maritime economic activity, and waterways carry some 90 percent of international trade. According to the World Economic Forum, the gross marine product of the ocean is $2.5 trillion per year, making it the world’s eighth-largest economy.
The ocean not only sustains our livelihoods, it also sustains life. It helps to slow climate change by absorbing 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, both crucial as our planet gets increasingly hotter.
The well-being of our planet and of our economy is predicated on the health of the ocean. Companies must protect it from overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. In recent years, organizations including the World Bank, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Nations, and the US Economic Development Administration have explored the development of sustainable business opportunities that support the “blue economy” in such industries as shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, and energy production. Crucially, these initiatives focus on the renewable use of ocean resources and preserving the health of marine and coastal ecosystems.
Some European Factories, Long Dependent on Cheap Russian Energy, Are Shutting Down
Wall Street Journal —For decades, European industry relied on Russia to supply low-cost oil and natural gas that kept the continent’s factories humming.
Now Europe’s industrial energy costs are soaring in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, hobbling manufacturers’ ability to compete in the global marketplace. Factories are scrambling to find alternatives to Russian energy under threat that Moscow could abruptly turn off the gas spigot, bringing production to a halt.
Europe’s producers of chemicals, fertilizer, steel and other energy-intensive goods have come under pressure over the last eight months as tensions with Russia climbed ahead of the February invasion. Some producers are shutting down in the face of competition from factories in the U.S., the Middle East and other regions where energy costs are much lower than in Europe. Natural-gas prices are now nearly three times higher in Europe than in the U.S.
“Overall, the big concern for Europe is increasing imports and falling exports,” said Marco Mensink, director general of Cefic, Europe’s chemical-industry trade group.
The conflict with Russia has Europe preparing to ration gas if Russian President Vladimir Putin shuts off supplies to the entire region. Russian state-owned natural-gas company Gazprom PJSC has already cut off Bulgaria, Finland and Poland after the countries refused to accede to a Kremlin decree demanding payment for gas in rubles.
As of last year, Russia supplied about 40% of the European Union’s natural gas.
Europe’s high energy costs are forecast to drag on the region’s industrial production and overall economic growth this year. Economists at the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, expect the German economy to shrink in the second quarter under pressure from high energy prices. Germany, the region’s largest economy, is also the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas. Europe’s consumers are unlikely to pick up the slack, as high energy costs are filtering through into prices across the economy, sapping their purchasing power.
The phaseout of Russian supplies risks putting European industry at a long-term competitive disadvantage unless manufacturers can deploy technologies that will sharply reduce their fossil-fuel consumption. But many of these technologies, such as using wind and solar energy to power chemical factory furnaces or hydrogen to make steel, are years from becoming commercially viable and will require massive investments, executives say.
Manufacturers depend on natural gas both as a source of energy and a raw material in production. In Europe, natural gas usually sets the price of electricity, hitting factories with a double-whammy if gas prices increase. Ammonia is the most sensitive product, accounting for around 70% of the gas Europe uses as a raw material. Most of that ammonia is used to make fertilizer.
Whether companies can adapt to Europe’s surging energy prices depends on whether they can draw from production sites across the globe. OCI NV, a fertilizer producer based in Amsterdam, has lowered ammonia production at its factory in the Netherlands and is instead importing the chemical from its plants in Texas, Egypt and Algeria, said Chief Executive Ahmed El-Hoshy. The company is still completing the final steps of fertilizer production in the Netherlands.
Moves by energy-hungry industries to throttle production have relieved short-term pressure on Europe’s natural-gas supplies, freeing up more gas for Europe to generate electricity and heat homes through the next winter, when officials expect gas supplies will be tight.
OCI usually only imports significant quantities of ammonia to Europe in winter when gas prices are highest.
“Now every month is a winter month,” Mr. El-Hoshy said.
Other fertilizer manufacturers have decided to shut down factories that can’t import ammonia from overseas. CF Industries Holdings Inc., the U.K.’s largest fertilizer producer, said last week that it would permanently shut a plant that hadn’t been producing ammonia since last year.
“As a high-cost producer in an intensely competitive global industry, we see considerable challenges to long-term sustainability from our current operational approach,” said Brett Nightingale, managing director of the company’s British subsidiary.
As Europe races to wean itself off Russian energy, American natural-gas producers are struggling to meet the demand and prices are rising. Factors including extreme weather and equipment needs have created a bottleneck amid the war in Ukraine. Illustration: Laura Kammermann and Sharon Shi
European steelmakers have been curtailing production since October to save money on gas and electricity. In March, soaring electricity prices in Spain led steelmakers there to lower output or shut down completely.
“This is absolutely crazy,” said Miguel Ferrandis Torres, chief financial officer of Madrid-based Acerinox SA, which shut one of its production lines for three days in March.
Industries have been lobbying European authorities and governments to assure they will keep getting gas from somewhere if Russia stops shipping the fuel.
“With Mr. Putin, nobody knows what is going to happen,” said Jacob Hansen, director general of Fertilizers Europe, the industry’s main lobby group. “We cannot produce any fertilizer without gas. We have to insist that we come right at the top.”
If Russia halts the gas flow to Germany, the country would give priority to private households as well as critical services such as hospitals, police stations and military barracks, but large industrial players could face rationing and disruptions, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
The decision of who gets gas in Europe’s largest economy would fall to the Bonn-based Federal Network Agency, the country’s energy regulator.
The agency, which has established a war room equipped with a diesel stockpile, showers, camp beds and food supplies, where a 65-strong crisis team is expected to work around the clock in such an emergency, would decide based on gas-usage data it is currently collecting from companies.
“We’ll take a look at how specific companies can deal with it, which companies can live with gas interruptions and reductions, and which companies definitely cannot,” said Klaus Müller, the president of the agency.
Mr. Müller and his team will also look at factors such as geographical distribution of the industrial players and how to transport the gas to them. “We try to anticipate all of these factors, but that’s not a good situation to be facing,” Mr. Müller said.
Europe’s chemical makers rely on natural gas to operate crackers, the large furnaces that separate oil and natural gas into constituent chemicals under immense heat and pressure. Cefic’s Mr. Mensink said the industry is researching ways to power the process with electricity but said the technology wouldn’t be ready for commercial use before 2030.
Factories want to replace gas-powered electricity with electricity from renewables, but the supply of wind and solar power isn’t enough to meet demand, Mr. Mensink said.
“We are trying to get as much as we can for our production, but the reality is that Europe will have to invest and build much more,” he said.
European steelmakers are pledging to overhaul their factories to run on hydrogen rather than natural gas as raw material.
“Gas supplies other than from Russia will remain crucial as long as no hydrogen infrastructure at affordable costs is available,” said Axel Eggert, director general of European steel lobby group Eurofer.
Liquefied Natural Gas Prices Will Steam Up Again
Wall Street Journal – An uneasy truce between Europe and Russia over the supply of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, has cooled the market. But it would be unwise to treat modestly lower prices as anything other than a temporary respite. LNG exporters like Cheniere and Tellurian will continue to benefit, while industrial and residential customers shouldn’t expect much relief.
An explosion at one of the largest U.S. LNG export terminals last week sent European gas prices soaring again—demonstrating the fragility of the market and the extent to which it remains exposed to any supply hiccup. Europe’s gas supplies have been under threat since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. While there still appears to be no immediate prospect of a complete halt to Russian supply, overall Russian flows to the region have fallen. In total, eight Gazprom contracts in seven European Union countries have been terminated, according to data from IHS Markit. Those terminations have vaporized 70 million cubic meters per day of gas supply.
Moreover with Shanghai groping toward reopening and Asian countries stocking up for the winter, Asia is seeing a rebound in demand. That is especially true since rising oil prices and cheaper LNG have made the supercooled fuel more attractive again. On a dollar per British thermal unit basis, Asian LNG prices and Brent oil have reconverged in recent months.
Many Asia-bound LNG cargoes were rerouted to Europe earlier this year when the EU was willing to pay a premium. But the spread between European and Asian prices in June has narrowed to about $1 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) from $5 in May, according to data provided by Wood Mackenzie. Benchmark futures in Amsterdam have fallen to an average of about $24.59 per MMBtu in June from $40.78 per MMBtu in March.
Apart from a slightly more sanguine view on geopolitical risks compared with the start of the war, softer prices in Europe are probably also a result of warmer weather amid ample supply, some demand destruction among industrial gas users and an expected increase in coal burn. Europe is on course to fill north of 85% of its gas storage before winter sets in, according to Wood Mackenzie. Last year, only around 75% of storage was full in the lead up to winter, according to data from Gas Infrastructure Europe.
It is also important to note that while Russia is unlikely to completely cut off supplies to Europe and lose millions of dollars in revenue, the risk hasn’t disappeared. According to Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president for gas and LNG research at Wood Mackenzie, the apparent calm in the market is extremely fragile: Any news that might suggest an upside in prices will get amplified in the coming months.
Europe has successfully stocked up. But Asia is waiting in the wings, to say nothing of rising oil prices and the unpredictable Russian President Vladimir Putin. Energy consumers should enjoy this respite while it lasts.
Measure Providing Driver’s Licenses for Immigrants Lacking Legal Status Becomes Law
MassLive – Immigrants in Massachusetts without legal status here will soon have the opportunity to seek driver’s licenses, following the Legislature’s successful override of Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent veto on a bill that proponents say is crucial for bolstering equity and respect among marginalized communities throughout the commonwealth.
The Massachusetts Senate voted 32-8 in favor of overriding Baker’s veto of the Work and Family Mobility Act on Thursday. Five Democrats joined the three Senate Republicans who voted no.
That followed a 119-36 override vote Wednesday in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, with eight Democrats joining all 28 Republicans in voting no.
The bill takes effect in July 2023.
Activists and Democratic lawmakers for years have jockeyed for expanded immigrants’ rights tied to driver’s licenses. Under the new law, they say, immigrants will no longer need to drive in fear without a license — or struggle to complete day-to-day tasks, such as driving their children to school or a doctor’s appointment.
“I can’t wait to see the impact this bill will have with such a worthy group of individuals,” state Sen. Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat, said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. No longer will undocumented immigrants need to fear interactions with law enforcement, Gomez said, if they are pulled over or are entangled in a minor fender bender.
Legislators Have Obligation to Finish Budget on Time
MassLive (Editorial) – The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has many nationally known traditions: the Red Sox, baked beans and so on. It’s time to remove the annual habit of late budgets from that list.
Only 10 states have full-time legislatures, and among them, only three have smaller populations than Massachusetts. The excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic is past.
The Massachusetts Legislature is also tipped in one party’s favor. Of 160 House members, 129 are Democrats, and only three of 40 senators are Republicans.
That is not necessarily healthy for bipartisanship, but suggests a clearer path to consensus.
Yet Massachusetts has been late on its July 1 fiscal year deadline for seven years in a row, worst in America. And it’s not a pandemic issue, which can justify why the fiscal 2021 budget wasn’t signed until December of 2020.
In 2018, only the Bay State reached the deadline without a budget, which was signed July 26. State government doesn’t stop without a budget on July 1, and some leaders have questioned the importance of the deadline.
Better to get it right, they say, than to get it by a calendar date. That’s hogwash. Tell that to the Internal Revenue Service, or for that matter, the state Department of Revenue, after April 15.
Baker Begins Final Push for Compromise on Legislative Priorities
Axios – In his last legislative push as governor, Charlie Baker wants to find middle ground with Democrats on clean energy, mental health care and tax cuts, he tells Axios Boston in an interview.
Baker’s final opportunity to get laws passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature ends July 31. Lawmakers like to go down to the wire, so the next few weeks will determine whether the Legislature recesses for the year with a compromise on the governor’s top priorities.
Throughout Baker’s eight years in office, the House and Senate have ended their sessions well after the deadline they’d need to override any of his vetoes, meaning the Republican governor, not the Democratic supermajority, has the final say over changes to the law.
Democrats have shown little-to-no desire to pass one of Baker’s top priorities: an expansion of “dangerousness” hearings for people charged with crimes that leave defendants behind bars before trial for domestic abuse or other violent criminal charges.
“We’re letting a lot of women and a lot of kids down in a way we shouldn’t if we continue to perpetuate the status quo here,” Baker says.
On tax breaks, Baker says he’s pushing for two themes he thinks lawmakers may deliver on: Helping the poorest residents in tough times and making Massachusetts more competitive.
Permanent Mail-In Voting Moves Forward; Busy Weeks ahead for Lawmakers
Boston Herald – Action in the House could come this week after the Senate on Thursday approved an election reform bill that would make permanent mail-in voting and early voting provisions, both of which proved popular during the pandemic.
Both legislative chambers are at work to wrap up business before the end of their two-year session.
The voting bill, officially called a “Bill fostering voter opportunities, trust, equity and security,” cleared the state Senate by a vote of 37-3, with all of the upper chamber’s Republicans voting in opposition, after reporting out of joint legislative conference on Wednesday.
This bill was reported out of a conference committee without a third pandemic-era provision, same-day registration. That provision has been heralded as helpful to marginalized communities, though opponents express concern over potential fraud.