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Why public power utilities are pouring cash into the campaign to support Lower Snake River dams
Author: Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Northwest power utilities have poured more than $2 million into a public-relations campaign to convince the region’s residents that breaching four hydropower dams on the Lower Snake River is a bad idea.

Dam proponents are concerned they have not done enough to counteract other campaigns by environmentalists, tribes and salmon advocates making the case for dam removal to recover Snake River salmon runs listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The Trend is Not Our Friend,” declared a March 10 fundraising presentation that cited polling results indicting a six-year surge — from 12% to 29% by 2021 — in public support for breaching the dams in southeastern Washington.

The campaign objectives include creating “mass mobilization” for grassroots activities, rallying opposition to any legislation that seeks to breach the Lower Snake dams and changing the narrative about the dams among “progressive constituencies,” according to the presentation developed by the Northwest RiverPartners, an association of public and cooperative electric utilities that has organized the campaign.

The public-relations blitz unfolds in a year of escalating debate — and political tensions — over the fate of the dams that in an average year generate about 10% of the power from the federal Columbia Basin hydropower system.

A June 9 draft report released by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray found breaching offers the best chance to recover salmon in the Lower Snake, boost fishing opportunity and meet federal responsibilities to tribes. The study did not take a position on whether that should happen, and put the cost of replacing the dams at $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion.

The campaign’s backers fear a significant rise in power rates. They also fear an increasingly unreliable grid more prone to blackouts if solar, wind and battery storage replace the dams. Their campaign promotes retaining the dams to aid in the transition to a 21st century free of carbon emissions that drive climate change.

The Northwest RiverPartners’ presentation outlining the campaign listed contributions of nearly $2.16 million from 17 Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho nonprofit public and cooperative utilities. The Washington Grain Commission, whose members benefit from barge traffic made possible by the dams, contributed $25,000, and the Washington Potato Commission, some of whose members benefit from irrigation waters from Lower Snake dam pools, also contributed $25,000.

One slide in the presentation listed a fundraising goal of $4 to $6 million. Northwest RiverPartners did not respond to a request for an updated contribution tally.

“It should be no surprise that an advocacy group made up of community-owned utilities would be advocating for their ratepayers,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, in a written statement. “Our collective investment to inform the public of what is at stake with breaching the dams is less than pennies on the dollar compared to the cost to climate and ratepayers if we lose these dams.”

Utilities lead donations

As of March, south-central Washington’s Benton Public Utility District was the biggest campaign contributor, with a $600,000 donation.

Rick Dunn, general manger of the Benton PUD and Northwest RiverPartners boardmember, said the four Snake River dams supply about 10% of the utility’s annual energy consumption delivered to 56,289 metered connections.

The Benton County PUD has a 2022 operating revenue of $163.4 million, and Dunn said current threats to breaching the dams justified the donations, which were approved in a unanimous board vote in January. Benton County made an initial $300,000 donation, then matched other contributions for an additional $300,000.

“We don’t take it lightly to spend that kind of money, obviously, on something like this effort,” Dunn said. “It’s definitely something, historically, that we have never done … It was not a kind of slam-dunk, easy decision.”

As of March, Kalispell, Montana-based Flathead Electric Cooperative, along with Washington’s Franklin Public Utility District, were tied for the second largest contributions. Each kicked in $240,000.

In a statement, Mark Johnson, Flathead’s general manager, said protecting the dams was “absolutely essential to protecting the interests of our 56,000+ members in Northwest Montana.”

Later this summer, Murray and Inslee are expected to decide whether to support dam removal. One of the Northwest RiverPartners’ campaign goals is to “dissuade” them from taking that position.

Utility officials who contributed to the campaign are concerned an attempt to gain congressional authorization to remove the dams could come before the November elections, according to a memorandum prepared for Benton PUD before the vote authorizing its $600,000 in donations.

The success of such an effort would appear to be a long shot.

But, Dunn said, “We are really concerned that this is getting legs, and this [campaign] spending is with an eye to the long term. It may be something we have to do going forward.”

A long-running fight

The Northwest RiverPartners campaign has been pitched to utilities as an effort to counteract public relations in support of dam breaching by the Idaho Conservation League, Earthjustice and other environmental groups. The campaign “team” includes Rick Desimone, a former chief of staff for Murray, and Global Strategy Group, a public relations firm that has often consulted for Democratic candidates as well as Amazon and some tech companies.

The campaign kicked off in May and has included television spots, print advertisements and social media.

One television ad declares “Climate change is here,” and notes the Lower Snake dams’ role in keeping power on during the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave. It then says, “The only way to replace dams would be by burning fossil fuels, making the impacts of climate change even worse.”

Yet there are proposals to phase out the four Lower Snake dams by adding more solar and wind and offer sources of power that don’t rely on the combustion of coal, natural gas or oil. The cost of such an effort, and how long that would take amid a broader transition away from fossil-fuel power generation, has been a topic of considerable study and has spurred debate.

The ads have drawn rebuttals from dam-removal advocates.

“They are defending a status quo that has failed the fish, tribes and many communities,” said Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Idaho Conservation League and American Rivers. “The campaign is pushing fear, and we wish it would be different. We are interested in dialogue, but it has to be done in good faith.”

Billions have been spent on trying to restore threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin, and a massive effort made to supplement wild runs with hatchery fish.

Environmental groups, sport fishing industry representatives and tribes with treaty rights to salmon have been engaged in more than 20 years of federal court battles focused on the restoration effort and operations of the hydropower system. There is currently a pause in the litigation for out-of-court negotiations. And salmon advocates are hoping this increases the chance for congressional action this year, and have mustered their own public-relations campaigns.

A full-page ad published this month in The Seattle Times from the Salmon Orca Project, the Nez Perce tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Yakama Nation declared, “We can replace the services the dams provide and ensure no community gets left behind.”

On Saturday in Portland, a flotilla of kayaks, canoes, fishing boats and rafts participated in a “Rally for Salmon,” organized by conservationists, tribes and anglers, to demonstrate support for dam removal.

“If we do nothing while temperatures rise in our rivers, and the ocean becomes more hostile to our anadromous fish species, we will face extinctions for our fisheries, “said Jeremy Takala, Yakama Nation councilmember. He called this “cultural damage that we could never repair,” according to a statement from Columbia Riverkeeper, which helped organize the event.

At least 20 dead in South African club; cause not yet known
Author: Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG — South African police are investigating the deaths of at least 20 people at a nightclub in the coastal town of East London early Sunday.

It is unclear what led to the deaths of the young people, who were reportedly attending a party to celebrate the end of winter school exams.

Local newspaper Daily Dispatch reported that bodies were strewn across tables and chairs without any visible signs of injuries.

“At this point we cannot confirm the cause of death,” said health department spokesperson Siyanda Manana.

“We are going to conduct autopsies as soon as possible to establish the probable cause of death. The deceased have been taken to state mortuaries,” Manana added.

Police Minister Bheki Cele was on Sunday morning expected to visit the scene.

The owner of the club, Siyakhangela Ndevu, told local broadcaster eNCA that he had been called to the scene early Sunday morning.

“I am still uncertain about what really happened, but when I was called in the morning I was told the place was too full and that some people were trying to force their way into the tavern,” he said.

“However, we will hear what the police say about the cause of death,” Ndevu added.

Iran launches rocket into space as nuclear talks to resume
Author: NASSER KARIMI and ISABEL DEBRE, Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian state television said Sunday that Tehran had launched a solid-fueled rocket into space, drawing a rebuke from Washington ahead of the expected resumption of stalled talks over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

It’s unclear when or where the rocket was launched, but the announcement came after satellite photos showed preparations at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province, the site of Iran’s frequent failed attempts to put a satellite into orbit.

State-run media aired dramatic footage of the blastoff against the backdrop of heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program, which is racing ahead under decreasing international oversight.

Iran had previously acknowledged that it planned more tests for the satellite-carrying rocket, which it first launched in February of last year.

Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for Iran’s Defense Ministry, said Zuljanah, a 25.5 meter-long rocket, was capable of carrying a satellite of 485 pounds that would ultimately gather data in low-earth orbit and promote Iran’s space industry. Zuljanah is named for the horse of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The White House said it was aware of Iran’s announcement and criticized the move as “unhelpful and destabilizing.”

The launch comes just a day after the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that have stalemated for months. A few significant sticking points remain, including Tehran’s demand that Washington lift terrorism sanctions on its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Borrell said on Saturday that talks over the nuclear deal would resume in an unnamed Persian Gulf country in the coming days, with Iranian media reporting that Qatar would likely host the negotiations.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed crushing sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by greatly ramping up its nuclear work and now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

In a further escalation that limits the international community’s view into its nuclear program, Iran removed over two dozen International Atomic Energy Agency cameras from its nuclear sites this month. The agency’s director called the move a “fatal blow” to the tattered nuclear deal.

Tehran’s rocket launches have raised alarm in Washington amid the unraveling of the nuclear deal. The U.S. warns the launches defy a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to steer clear of any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The White House on Sunday said it was committed to using sanctions and other measures to prevent further advances in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment, published in March, claims such a satellite launch vehicle “shortens the timeline” to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran as it uses “similar technologies.”

Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component.

Even as Iran’s government has sharpened its focus on space, sending several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launching a monkey into space, the program has seen recent troubles. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, a type of satellite-carrying rocket. A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers.

The launch pad used in the preparations for the launch of the Zuljanah rocket remains scarred from an explosion in August 2019 that even drew the attention of then-President Trump. He later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. Satellite images from February suggested a failed Zuljanah launch earlier this year, though Iran did not acknowledge it.

Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The Guard operates its own military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces.

Two Seattle startups racing to transform next-gen space travel
Author: Maya Miller, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — The phrase “nuclear energy” conjures images of large steaming towers or Tony Stark’s arc reactor from the iconic “Iron Man” movies. But two Seattle-based startups are designing nuclear technologies small enough to pick up and carry that, thanks in part to buy-in from the Defense Department, they hope will fuel a new generation of spaceships.

Seattle’s Avalanche Energy and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation received undisclosed amounts of funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in May to further develop two different approaches to small-scale nuclear power.

Avalanche is pushing the boundaries of nuclear fusion while Ultra Safe aims to revolutionize nuclear radioisotope batteries, like those that power Mars rovers. Both companies are expected to deliver functional prototype spacecraft to the Pentagon by 2027.

“Nuclear is an interesting area because traditionally that’s been mainly in the realm of government,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Ryan Weed, the program manager for the Defense Innovation Unit’s nuclear propulsion and power program. The unit — the Pentagon’s outpost in Silicon Valley — works exclusively with private sector companies to adapt emerging technologies for military use.

After six decades of materials science research, nuclear fuels are relatively safe and are being embraced in the private sector. The climate crisis has also shifted public opinion toward accepting nuclear as a viable replacement for fossil fuels. Massive advances in computer modeling have made commercial development of nuclear power more feasible, said Chris Hansen, a fusion researcher who leads a lab at the University of Washington.

Washington state has a relationship with nuclear research dating back to the World War II-era Hanford site, which produced most of the plutonium for the U.S. Setting aside its morally complex history, Hanford undeniably fostered a “culture of nuclear expertise” in the state, said Scott Montgomery, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

Today, the state is a hub for commercial nuclear startups, particularly companies trying to crack small-scale nuclear fusion. Unlike fission, which generates energy by breaking down heavy radioactive metals like uranium, fusion occurs when two smaller atomic nuclei collide to form the bigger nucleus of a different element, releasing energy in the process.

Avalanche co-founder Brian Riordan likes to visualize fusion as trying to stick together two Velcro-covered magnet balls.

“The Velcro acts over a very short distance, but if you were able to get them close enough, and the Velcro was strong, they would stick,” Riordan said.

It’s hard to achieve fusion because, like the Velcro-covered magnets, the positively charged ions naturally repel each other. It’s even harder to package it in a small container. Case in point — more than 35 countries have spent years, and billions of dollars, constructing the Iter Tokamak reactor in southern France. The machine won’t turn on until 2025 and won’t be commercially viable until at least 2035.

In the meantime, Seattle startups are making headlines.

The biggest engineering roadblock to fusion is getting the machine to produce more energy than it consumes, but Seattle-based Zap Energy proclaimed last week that it expects to have a working prototype within the year. In 2021, Everett-based Helion Energy announced it would begin building the first commercial nuclear fusion reactor in Everett with a forecast completion date of 2028.

Avalanche, co-founded by ex-Blue Origin engineers Riordan and Robin Langtry, entered the race to fusion in 2018 and has patented a new lunchbox-sized fusion reactor dubbed “Orbitron.”

The device combines two existing instruments in a vacuum chamber — an “orbitrap,” which harnesses positively charged ions in a small orbit around a negatively charged cathode, and a “magnetron,” which generates a stream of electrons. Introducing electrons into the reactor neutralizes the positive charge and allows for a greater number of ions to enter the space, and packing more ions into that small space exponentially increases the chances for fusion.

The team is refining the first prototype and plans to scale up to a bigger device in August. The main engineering challenge will be miniaturizing the high-voltage conductor so it fits in the desired package but still supplies enough energy to the cathode so that the ions orbit fast enough to fuse together.

Eventually, the finished product should produce between 5 and 15 kilowatts, although users could group many units together to produce much greater amounts of power. The size makes Orbitron conducive to space travel, which sets Avalanche apart during the Pentagon contract selection process, said Weed, the Defense Innovation Unit project manager.

While Avalanche attempts to unlock small-scale fusion, Ultra Safe is developing a new and improved “nuclear battery” called EmberCore. These devices are essentially hot, radioactive rocks that steadily release energy as they decay.

“You can use the hot rock as a hot rock, or you can wrap power conversion technology around it to turn that heat into electricity,” said Adam Schilffarth, director of strategy for Ultra Safe’s advanced technologies division.

NASA has historically used plutonium for radioisotope batteries, like the ones that power the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 deep space probes. However, plutonium is an expensive, rare and dangerous substance. Ultra Safe has explored different isotopes, like cobalt-60 and thulium, which can be scaled to produce 10 times the energy of traditional plutonium systems while beingsafer and more cost-effective.

The first EmberCore product Ultra Safe brought to market is the size of an apple. It operates like a “hand warmer” for moon landers so they can survive a 14-day lunar night, said Chris Morrison, chief engineer for the EmberCore project. The final prototype for the Pentagon will be the size of a small filing cabinet.

Weed said EmberCore and Orbitron may allow spacecraft to travel farther and eliminate reliance on solar panels. With such large power capacities, these technologies could also spawn a new generation of spacecraft that can easily jump between Earth’s orbit levels. That could open the door to all kinds of commercial space travel, tourism and trade.

“These new propulsion systems will enable us to have known new missions, and so it’ll affect how we employ space power,” Weed said. “It’ll definitely be a game changer.”

Did corporate greed fuel inflation? It’s not biggest culprit
Author: PAUL WISEMAN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Furious about surging prices at the gasoline station and the supermarket, many consumers feel they know just where to cast blame: On greedy companies that relentlessly jack up prices and pocket the profits.

Responding to that sentiment, the Democratic-led House of Representatives last month passed on a party-line vote — most Democrats for, all Republicans against — a bill designed to crack down on alleged price gouging by energy producers.

Likewise, Britain last month announced plans to impose a temporary 25 percent windfall tax on oil and gas company profits and to funnel the proceeds to financially struggling households.

Yet for all the public’s resentment, most economists say corporate price gouging is, at most, one of many causes of runaway inflation — and not the primary one.

“There are much more plausible candidates for what’s going on,” said Jose Azar an economist at Spain’s University of Navarra.

They include: Supply disruptions at factories, ports and freight yards. Worker shortages. President Joe Biden’s enormous pandemic aid program. COVID 19-caused shutdowns in China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And, not least, a Federal Reserve that kept interest rates ultra-low longer than experts say it should have.

Most of all, though, economists say resurgent spending by consumers and governments drove inflation up.

The blame game is, if anything, intensifying after the U.S. government reported that inflation hit 8.6 percent in May from a year earlier, the biggest price spike since 1981.

To fight inflation, the Fed is now belatedly tightening credit aggressively. On June 15, it raised its benchmark short-term rate by three-quarters of a point — its largest hike since 1994 — and signaled that more large rate hikes are coming. The Fed hopes to achieve a notoriously difficult “soft landing” — slowing growth enough to curb inflation without causing the economy to slide into recession.

For years, inflation had remained at or below the Fed’s 2 percent annual target, even while unemployment sank to a half-century low. But when the economy rebounded from the pandemic recession with startling speed and strength, the U.S. consumer price index rose steadily — from a 2.6 percent year-over-year increase in March 2021 to last month’s four-decade high.

For a while at least — before profit margins at S&P 500 companies dipped early this year — the inflation surge coincided with swelling corporate earnings. It was easy for consumers to connect the dots: Companies, it seemed, were engaged in price-gouging. This wasn’t just inflation. It was greedflation.

Asked to name the culprits behind the spike in gasoline prices, 72 percent of the 1,055 Americans polled in late April and early May by the Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government blamed profit-seeking corporations, more than the share who pointed to Russia’s war against Ukraine (69 percent) or Biden (58 percent) or pandemic disruptions (58 percent). And the verdict was bipartisan: 86 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans blamed corporations for inflated gas prices.

“It’s very natural for consumers to see prices rising and get angry about it and then look for someone to blame,’’ said Christopher Conlon, an economist at New York University’s Stern School of Business who studies corporate competition. “You and I don’t get to set prices at the supermarket, the gas station or the car dealership. So people naturally blame corporations, since those are the ones they see raising prices.’’

Yet Conlon and many other economists are reluctant to indict — or to favor punishing — Corporate America. When the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business asked economists this month whether they’d support a law to bar big companies from selling their goods or services at an “unconscionably excessive price’’ during a market shock, 65 percent said no. Only 5 percent backed the idea.

Just what combination of factors is most responsible for causing prices to soar “is still an open question,’’ economist Azar acknowledges. COVID-19 and its aftermath have made it hard to assess the state of the economy. Today’s economists have no experience analyzing the financial aftermath of a pandemic.

Policymakers and analysts have been repeatedly blindsided by the path the economy has taken since COVID struck in March 2020: They didn’t expect the swift recovery from the downturn, fueled by vast government spending and record-low rates engineered by the Fed and other central banks. Then they were slow to recognize the gathering threat of high inflation pressures, dismissing them at first as merely a temporary consequence of supply disruptions.

One aspect of the economy, though, is undisputed: A wave of mergers in recent decades has killed or shrunk competition among airlines, banks, meatpacking companies and many other industries. That consolidation has given the surviving companies the leverage to demand price cuts from suppliers, to hold down workers’ pay and to pass on higher costs to customers who don’t have much choice but to pay up.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have found that less competition made it easier for companies to pass along higher costs to customers, calling it an “amplifying factor’’ in the resurgence of inflation.

Josh Bivens, research director at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, has estimated that nearly 54 percent of the price increases in nonfinancial businesses since mid-2020 can be attributed to “fatter profit margins,” versus just 11 percent from 1979 through 2019.

Bivens conceded that neither corporate greed nor market clout has likely grown significantly in the past two years. But he suggested that during the COVID inflationary spike, companies have redirected how they use their market power: Many have shifted away from pressuring suppliers to cut costs and limiting workers’ pay and have instead boosted prices for customers.

In a study of nearly 3,700 companies released last week, the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute concluded that markups and profit margins last year reached their highest level since the 1950s. It also found that companies that had aggressively raised prices before the pandemic were more likely to do so after it struck, “suggesting a role for market power as an explanatory driver of inflation.’’

Yet many economists aren’t convinced that corporate greed is the main culprit. Jason Furman, a top economic adviser in the Obama White House, said that some evidence even suggests that monopolies are slower than companies that face stiff competition to raise prices when their own costs rise, “in part because their prices were high to begin with.’’

Likewise, NYU’s Conlon cites examples where prices have soared in competitive markets. Used cars, for example, are sold in lots across the country and by numerous individuals. Yet average used-car prices have skyrocketed 16 percent over the past year. Similarly, the average price of major appliances, another market with plenty of competitors, jumped nearly 10 percent last month from a year earlier.

By contrast, the price of alcoholic beverages has risen just 4 percent from a year ago even though the beer market is dominated by AB-Inbev and spirits by Bacardi and Diageo.

“It is hard to imagine that AB-Inbev isn’t as greedy as Maytag,’’ Conlon said.

So what has most driven the inflationary spike?

“Demand,’’ said Furman, now at Harvard University. “Lots of government spending, lots of monetary support — all combined together to support extraordinarily high levels of demand. Supply couldn’t keep up, so prices rose.’’

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimate that government aid to the economy during the pandemic, which put money in consumers’ pockets to help them endure the crisis and set off a spending spree, has raised inflation by about 3 percentage points since the first half of 2021.

In report released in April, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis blamed global supply chain bottlenecks for playing a “significant role” in inflating factory costs. They found that it added a staggering 20 percentage points to wholesale inflation in manufacturing last November, raising it to 30 percent.

Still, even some economists who don’t blame greedflation for the price spike of the past year say they think governments should try to restrict the market power of monopolies, perhaps by blocking mergers that reduce competition. The idea is that more companies vying for the same customers would encourage innovation and makes the economy more productive.

Even so, tougher antitrust policies wouldn’t likely do much to slow inflation anytime soon.

“I find it helpful to think about competition like diet and exercise,” NYU’s Conlon said. “More competition is a good thing. But, like diet and exercise, the payoffs are long term.

“Right now, the patient is in the emergency room. Sure, diet and exercise are still a good thing. But we need to treat the acute problem of inflation.’’

Poll: Majority of Americans disapprove of Supreme Court’s Roe decision
Author: Ian Fisher and Victoria Cavaliere, Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — A CBS News poll found that a majority of Americans disapprove of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, which is inflaming a partisan divide on display in comments by senior lawmakers.

The poll, conducted Friday and Saturday, found 59% disapproved of the ruling, including 67% of women. While 78% of Republicans were in favor of the decision, 83% of Democrats disapproved. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas in the Roe v. Wade decision raised the prospect for many Americans that other rights, including the rights to same-sex marriage and contraception, are now at risk.

That prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham to voice support for the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.

Alito “set the right tone,” the South Carolina Republican said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He said nothing in this decision puts those cases at risk. He made a distinction between same-sex marriage and contraception, which I think will win the day over time.”

In response to the high court’s decision, President Joe Biden has directed the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that mifepristone, an abortion drug, can be prescribed by telehealth and through pharmacies, and to make sure insurers don’t stop covering contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives, an official familiar with the process said Friday.

The Department of Justice will support the right to travel, and look to intervene in cases on behalf of people facing legal action for traveling to receive an abortion.

Within hours of the decision, Biden said “Roe is on the ballot” for U.S. midterm elections in November.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said her state has passed a bill opposing abortions that aren’t supervised by a physician. While abortion in South Dakota is now illegal except to “save the life of a mother,” the state will make efforts to “get resources to individuals who have an unplanned pregnancy,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

If women receive the so-called abortion pill in the mail, “I don’t believe that mothers in this situation should ever be prosecuted,” Noem said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Now doctors who knowingly violate the law, they should be prosecuted, definitely.”

Democrats criticized the Supreme Court and its abortion decision, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren saying “this court has lost legitimacy.” She renewed a call by some Democrats to expand the court, seen as a way to reshape its ideological balance.

“I believe we need to get some confidence back in our court,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on ABC. “And that means we need more justices on the United States Supreme Court.”

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a standard-bearer of progressive Democrats, alleged that the three justices nominated by former President Donald Trump lied about their stances on abortion during confirmation hearings, calling it “an impeachable offense.”

“There has been a weak Democratic strategy in the past and we cannot continue to use those same playbooks,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Right now, as I say, is that this is overtime for our democracy and we must be aggressive.”

Graham on Fox News portrayed the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a five-decade process of Republicans working “in the fields” to build majorities at the state level that ultimately led to Friday’s Supreme Court decision.

He said his advice to Democrats now seeking to reverse the tide is, “Elect people who agree with you at the ballot box.”

Russia strikes Kyiv as Western leaders meet in Europe
Author: OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI, Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia shattered weeks of relative calm in the Ukrainian capital with long-range missiles fired toward Kyiv early Sunday, an apparent Kremlin show-of-force as Western leaders meet in Europe to strengthen their military and economic support of Ukraine.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the missiles hit at least two residential buildings, and killed one person and injured six others, including a 7-year-old girl and her mother. Associated Press journalists saw emergency workers battling flames and rescuing civilians from the buildings.

The strikes also damaged a nearby kindergarten, where a crater pocked the courtyard. U.S. President Joe Biden called the attacks “barbarism” after he arrived in Germany for a Group of Seven summit.

Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said the first air-launched weapons to successfully target the capital since June 5 were Kh-101 cruise missiles fired from warplanes over the Caspian Sea, more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away.

Kyiv’s mayor told journalists he thought the airstrikes were “maybe a symbolic attack” ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid that starts Tuesday. A former commander of U.S. forces in Europe said the strikes also were a signal to the leaders of G-7 nations meeting Sunday in Germany.

“Russia is saying, ‘We can do this all day long. You guys are powerless to stop us,’” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said. “The Russians are humiliating the leaders of the West.”

The G-7 leaders were set to announce the latest in a long series of international economic steps to pressure and isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine: new bans on imports of Russian gold. Standing with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the three-day meeting’s host, Biden said of the missile strikes on Kyiv: “It’s more of their barbarism.”

A Ukrainian parliament member, Oleksiy Goncharenko, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that preliminary information indicated that Russia launched 14 missiles toward the capital region and Kyiv itself, suggesting that some were intercepted.

In a phone interview, retired U.S. general Hodges told The Associated Press that Russia has a limited stock of precision missiles and “if they are using them, it’s going to be for a special purpose,”

Russia has denied targeting civilians during the 4-month-old war, and Hodges said it was hard to know if the missiles launched Sunday were intended to strike the apartments buildings.

Russian forces tried to seize control of Kyiv early in the war. After Ukrainian troops repelled them, the Kremlin largely shifted its focus to southern and eastern Ukraine.

Russian rocket strikes in the city of Cherkasy, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kyiv, killed one person and injured five, regional governor Ihor Taburets said Sunday.

In the east, Russian troops fought to consolidate their gains by battling to swallow up the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province. Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Sunday that Russia was conducting intense airstrikes on the city of Lysychansk, destroying its television tower and seriously damaging a road bridge.

“There’s very much destruction. Lysychansk is almost unrecognizable,” he wrote on Facebook.

For weeks, Lysychansk and the nearby city of Sievierodonetsk have been subject to a bloody and destructive offensive by Russian forces and their separatist allies aimed at capturing all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

They have made steady and slow progress, with Haidai confirming Saturday that Sievierodonetsk, including a chemical plant where hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians were holed up, had fallen.

Commenting on the battle for Sievierodonetsk, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said late Saturday that Russian and Moscow-backed separatist forces now control not only the city but the villages surrounding it. He said the Russian military had thwarted Ukrainian forces’ attempt to turn the Azot chemical plant into a “stubborn center of resistance.”

Capturing Lysychansk would give Russian and separatist forces control of every major settlement in Luhansk. At last report, they controlled about half of Donetsk, the second province in the Donbas.

On Saturday, Russia launched dozens of missiles on several areas across the country far from the heart of the eastern battles. Some of the missiles were fired from Russian long-range Tu-22 bombers deployed from Belarus for the first time, Ukraine’s air command said.

On the economic front, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said banning imports of Russian gold would represent a significant escalation of sanctions.

“That is the second-most lucrative export that Russia has after energy.” Blinken told American news channel CNN. “It’s about $19 billion a year. And most of that is within the G-7 countries. So cutting that off, denying access to about $19 billion of revenues a year, that’s significant.”

‘Elvis,’ ‘Top Gun’ tie for box-office crown with $30.5M each
Author: JAKE COYLE, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic “Elvis” shook up theaters with an estimated $30.5 million in weekend ticket sales, but — in a box-office rarity — “Elvis” tied “Top Gun: Maverick,” which also reported $30.5 million, for No. 1 in theaters.

Final figures Monday, once Sunday’s grosses are tabulated, will sort out which film ultimately won the weekend. With a high degree of accuracy, studios can forecast Sunday sales based on Friday and Saturday business, though numbers often shift by a few hundred thousand dollars.

But for now, the unlikely pair of “Elvis” and “Maverick” are locked in a dance off (if you favor “Elvis”) or a dead heat (if you prefer “Maverick”). That it was this close at all was due to both a better-than-expected opening for “Elvis” and remarkably strong continued sales for “Top Gun: Maverick.” The “Top Gun” sequel reached $1 billion in worldwide box office in its fifth week of release.

“Elvis,” starring newcomer Austin Butler as Presley, came into the weekend with expectations closer to $25 million. Among recent music biopics, a $30.5 million debut puts the King ahead of the pace of Elton John (“Rocketman” launched with $25.7 million in 2019) though not in the same class as Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody” opened with $51.1 million in 2018).

“I’m less concerned with who’s number one and who’s number two, and I’m more concerned that we hit this big number given that this audience has been the slowest to return to movie theaters,” said Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros.

About 60 percent of the audience for “Elvis” was over the age of 35. Older audiences have been among the most hesitant to return to theaters in the pandemic but that’s changing — in part, Goldstein noted, because of “Top Gun,” which brought back fans of the 1986 original.

“Elvis,” which cost about $85 million to make, was propelled by strong reviews (78 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), good word of mouth (an A- CinemaScore) and a glitzy Cannes Film Festival premiere. It added $20 million overseas over the weekend.

“Elvis” ranks as Luhrmann’s second best opening after 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” ($50.1 million). Luhrmann was on the cusp of beginning production in Australia when, in an indelible early moment in the pandemic, star Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19.

“‘Elvis’ was a risky proposition: the music is dated, the character is not directly familiar, and the lead actor is unproven on the big screen,” David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research wrote in a newsletter. “But critics and audiences are responding. This is the Baz Luhrmann show, a music, dance and sex appeal spectacular — it’s a hit.”

Meanwhile, “Top Gun: Maverick” continues to soar. The Paramount Pictures film became the first 2022 release to reach $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and the first starring Tom Cruise to do so.

In its fifth weekend of release, “Maverick” dipped just 32 percent domestically to bring its total so far to $521.7 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters. It continues to move up the record books, sitting 15th all-time domestically, not accounting for inflation. Internationally, the “Top Gun” sequel added another $44.5 million.

The “Elvis”/”Top Gun” showdown — along with the new Blumhouse horror release “The Black Phone” and big holdovers in “Jurassic World: Dominion” and Pixar’s “Lightyear” — made for one of the most competitive, and busy, weekends in movie theaters in the pandemic era.

Most studios came away celebrating, though Disney’s “Lightyear” dropped a steep 65 percent in its second weekend. After opening softly last week, the “Toy Story” spinoff grossed $17.7 million domestically, falling to fifth place. “Lightyear,” which has made $152 million worldwide to date, will soon face more competition for families with the Friday release of “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Counterprogramming came from Universal Pictures’ “The Black Phone,” the Scott Derrickson-directed supernatural thriller starring Ethan Hawke as an escaped killer. The Blumhouse production rode strong reviews (84 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) to a better-than-expected launch of $23.4 million.

After two weeks in first place, Universal’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” took in $26.4 million, sliding to third. It’s now passed $300 million domestically, and hauled in $746.7 million globally.

A much smaller-scaled film, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” debuted with good sales in limited release. The warmly received stop-motion animation film, in which Jenny Slate voices a one-inch-tall mollusk with a googly eye, opened with $169,606 on six screens, for a per-screen average of $28,267.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1. (Tie) “Elvis,” $30.5 million.

1. (Tie) “Top Gun: Maverick,” $30.5 million.

3. “Jurassic World: Dominion,” $26.4 million.

4. “Black Phone,” $23.4 million.

5. “Lightyear,” $17.7 million.

6. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” $1.7 million.

7. “Jugjugg Jeeyo,” $725,000.

8. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” $533,000.

9. “The Bob’s Burgers Movie,” $513,000.

10. “The Bad Guys,” $440,000.

Biden urges Western unity on Ukraine amid war fatigue at G-7 summit
Author: ZEKE MILLER, DARLENE SUPERVILLE and GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press

ELMAU, Germany — President Joe Biden and Western allies opened a three-day summit in the Bavarian Alps on Sunday intent on keeping economic fallout from the war in Ukraine from fracturing the global coalition working to punish Russia’s aggression. Britain’s Boris Johnson warned the leaders not to give in to “fatigue” even as Russia lobbed new missiles at Kyiv.

The Group of Seven leaders were set to announce new bans on imports of Russian gold, the latest in a series of sanctions the club of democracies hopes will further isolate Russia economically. They also were looking at possible price caps on energy meant to limit Russian oil and gas profits that Moscow can pump into its war effort.

And following up on a proposal from last year’s G-7 summit, Biden formally launched a global infrastructure partnership designed to counter China’s influence in the developing world. The initiative aims to leverage $600 billion with fellow G-7 countries by 2027 for global infrastructure projects. Some $200 billion would come from the United States, Biden said.

U.S. officials have long argued that China’s infrastructure initiative traps receiving countries in debt and that the investments benefit China more than their hosts.

In a pre-summit show of force, Russia launched its first missile strikes against the Ukrainian capital in three weeks, striking at least two residential buildings, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

Biden condemned Russia’s actions as “more of their barbarism,” and stressed that allies need to remain firm even as the economic reverberations from the war take a toll around the globe in inflation, food shortages and more.

“We have to stay together, because Putin has been counting on, from the beginning, that somehow NATO and the G-7 would splinter, but we haven’t and we’re not going to,” Biden said during a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who holds the G-7’s rotating presidency and is hosting the gathering.

As the G-7 leaders sat down for their opening session, they took a light-hearted jab at Putin. Johnson could be heard asking whether he should keep his jacket on, adding, “We all have to show that we’re tougher than Putin.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in: “A bare-chested horseback ride.”

Over the years, the Kremlin has released several photos of the Russian leader in which he appears shirtless.

Biden and his counterparts were using the gathering to discuss how to secure energy supplies and tackle inflation triggered by the war’s fallout.

The leaders also came together on the new global infrastructure partnership meant to provide an alternative to Russian and Chinese investment in the developing world. One by one, the leaders stepped up to the microphone to discuss the partnership and their roles in it — without mentioning China by name.

Ukraine cast a shadow over the gathering, but the leaders were determined to project resolve.

Scholz told Biden that the allies all managed “to stay united, which obviously Putin never expected.”

Biden said of Putin’s war: “We can’t let this aggression take the form it has and get away with it.”

Scholz, who has faced criticism at home and abroad for perceived reluctance to send Ukraine heavy weapons, said, “Germany and the U.S. will always act together when it comes to questions of Ukraine’s security.”

Johnson, for his part, urged fellow leaders not to give in to “fatigue.” He has expressed concern that divisions may emerge in the pro-Ukraine alliance as the four-month-old war grinds on.

Asked whether he thought France and Germany were doing enough, Johnson praised the “huge strides” made by Germany to arm Ukraine and cut imports of Russian gas. He did not mention France.

Biden and Scholz, in their pre-summit meeting, agreed on the need for a negotiated end to the Ukraine war, but did not get into specifics on how to achieve it, said a senior Biden administration official, who requested anonymity to reveal details of a private conversation.

However, they did not have an extensive discussion about oil price caps or inflation, the official said.

Other leaders echoed Biden’s praise of coalition unity.

The head of the European Union’s council of governments said the 27-member bloc maintains “unwavering unity” in backing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion with money and political support, but that “Ukraine needs more and we are committed to providing more.”

European Council President Charles Michel said EU governments were ready to supply “more military support, more financial means, and more political support” to enable Ukraine to defend itself and “curb Russia’s ability to wage war.”

The EU has imposed six rounds of sanctions against Russia, the latest one being a ban on 90% of Russian crude oil imports by the end of the year. The measure is aimed at a pillar of the Kremlin’s finances, its oil and gas revenues.

Biden and the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, plus the EU, spent Sunday in both formal and informal settings discussing the war’s effects on the global economy, including inflation.

Biden said G-7 nations, including the United States, will ban imports of gold from Russia. A formal announcement was expected Tuesday as the leaders wind up their annual summit.

Johnson said the ban will “directly hit Russian oligarchs and strike at the heart of Putin’s war machine.”

“Putin is squandering his dwindling resources on this pointless and barbaric war. He is bankrolling his ego at the expense of both the Ukrainian and Russian people,” Johnson said. “We need to starve the Putin regime of its funding.”

Gold, in recent years, has been the top Russian export after energy — reaching almost $19 billion or about 5% of global gold exports, in 2020, according to the White House.

Of Russian gold exports, 90% was consigned to G-7 countries. More than 90% of those exports, or nearly $17 billion, was exported to the U.K. The United States imported less than $200 million in gold from Russia in 2019, and under $1 million in 2020 and 2021.

As for the idea of price caps on energy, Michel said, “we want to go into the details, we want to fine-tune … to make sure we have a clear common understanding of what are the direct effects and what could be the collateral consequences” if such a step were to be taken by the group.

NYT Politics

How Democrats and Republicans explained the Roe fallout on Sunday talk shows.
Author: Azi Paybarah
Democrats used the ruling to criticize Republicans as threats to women and their health care providers, while G.O.P. leaders stressed that states will continue to determine policy on the issue.

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