Monthly Archives: January 2009

Dutch Lawmaker, Charged With Insulting Islam, Fears Prison Sentence

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Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders. Reuters

Fox News | Jan 22, 2009

By Joel Mowbray

A member of parliament in the Netherlands who has been charged with “insulting” Muslims says he fears he will be found guilty and sent to prison in only a few months.

An appeals court on Wednesday overturned a previous decision by prosecutors not to charge Geert Wilders, and ordered that he stand trial.

“The decision of the court today was so strong that there is a real chance unfortunately that there will be a guilty verdict,” Wilders told FOXNews.com. “In fact, it was so bluntly motivated that it already looks like a verdict instead of just ordering the public prosecutor to start a trial.”

Wilders, who produced a controversial film that was highly critical of the Koran last year, says he faces a maximum of two years in prison if convicted. He said he had expected to be charged, and he has retained legal assistance from a U.S.-based nonprofit to help him defend himself.

Prosecutors initially declined last year to charge the right wing politician after he issued his short film, “Fitna,” which juxtaposes Koranic verses over footage of violence committed by Islamic terrorists.

But, the Netherlands allows private citizens to petition the courts to compel prosecution. In Wilders’ case, eight parties, including a politician from an opposing party, asked the courts to force prosecutors to bring criminal charges.

A three-judge appeals panel on Wednesday ruled that Wilders’ insults to Islam were so egregious that the principle of free speech was not sufficient defense.

“The court considers [Wilders’ film] so insulting for Muslims that it is in the public interest to prosecute Wilders,” a summary of the court’s decision said. The court explained that Wilders’ claims in “Fitna” and other media statements were “one-sided generalizations … which can amount to inciting hatred.”

Wilders on Wednesday defiantly stood by the public statements that could put him in prison.

“I lost my freedom already four and a half years ago in October 2004, when my 24-hour police protection started because of threats by Muslims in Holland and abroad to kill me,” he said.

“So of course I don’t want to go to jail as a criminal, but I don’t fear losing my freedom since I already lost my freedom in 2004.”

For several months, Wilders has been receiving pro bono assistance from a U.S.-based nonprofit called the Legal Project, whose aim is to protect free speech in what it says is a worldwide campaign to silence critics of “militant” Islam.

Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes founded the Legal Project following a slew of cases in which authors and activists were sued for alleged hate speech against Muslims and Islam, including several cases in the United States.

“The Legal Project helped me when I was in the United States, arranging meetings with important legal scholars and elected officials,” Wilders told FOXNews.com. “They also helped bring public attention to my case, which hopefully will help me raise money for my legal defense fund.”

Brooke Goldstein, a human rights attorney and director of the Legal Project, said Wilders’ case indicates that free speech is increasingly under assault. “Geert Wilders could be going to jail for making admittedly harsh criticisms of Islam that actually echo statements made by Muslims,” Goldstein said.

“Even if he prevails at trial, the damage to free speech will be done. Who wants to risk the time, cost and public harassment of a criminal trial?”

Goldstein said criminal prosecutions for hate speech or incitement are unlikely in the U.S. because of the First Amendment, but she said the mere threat of a lawsuit can stifle speech, especially when they concern corporations that must focus on turning a profit.

Even individuals participating in what they consider basic free-speech activities can find themselves in legal crosshairs, Goldstein said.

One Legal Project client is former CIA official and NYPD counterterrorism consultant Bruce Tefft, who was sued by a Muslim police officer for “workplace harassment” after he allegedly sent anti-Muslim e-mails to a voluntary recipient list of police officers.

Hospitals to stop serving meat in bid to cut carbon emissions

Guardian | Jan 26, 2009

Hospitals will take meat off menus in bid to cut carbon

By Juliette Jowit

Meat-free menus are to be promoted in hospitals as part of a strategy to cut global warming emissions across the National Health Service.

The plan to offer patients menus that would have no meat option is part of a strategy to be published tomorrow that will cover proposals ranging from more phone-in GP surgeries to closing outpatient departments and instead asking surgeons to visit people at their local doctor’s surgery.

Some suggestions are likely to be controversial with patients’ groups, especially attempts to curb meat eating and car use. Plans to reuse more equipment could raise concern about infection with superbugs such as MRSA.

Dr David Pencheon, director of the NHS sustainable development unit, said the amount of NHS emissions meant it had to act to make cuts, and the changes would save money, which could be spent on better services for patients.

“This is not just about doing things more efficiently, it’s about doing things differently, because efficiency is not going to get us to big cuts,” said Pencheon. “What will healthcare look like in 2030-2040 in a very low carbon society? It will not look anything like it looks now.”

Last year the NHS published what it believes is the biggest public sector analysis of carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas, which showed the organisation’s emissions in 2004 were 18.6m tonnes and rising. This accounts for more than 3% of all emissions in England, and if the NHS was a country it would have been ranked as the 81st biggest polluter in the world that year, between Estonia and Bahrain.

One-fifth of the emissions were from transport, one-fifth from buildings, and the remainder from procurement, including drugs, medical equipment and food.

On Tuesday, Pencheon and the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, will publish the strategy – Saving Carbon, Improving Health – which will set targets to cut the organisation’s carbon footprint, and proposals to meet them. It follows a government pledge last year to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

The plans cover all aspects of patients’ care, from building design to transport, waste, food, water and energy use.

Among the most talked-about is likely to be the suggestion that hospitals could cut carbon emissions from food and drink by offering fewer meat and dairy products. Last year, the United Nations climate chief, Rajendra Pachauri, provoked a global debate when he said having a meat-free day every week was the biggest single contribution people could make to curbing climate change in their personal lives, because of the chemicals sprayed on feed crops and the methane emitted by cattle and sheep. Last week, the German federal environment agency went further, advising people to eat meat only on special occasions. Pencheon said the move would cut the relatively high carbon emissions from rearing animals and poultry, and improve health. Last year the NHS served 129m main meals, costing £312m, according to Department of Health figures. “We should not expect to see meat on every menu,” said Pencheon. “We’d like higher levels of fresh food, and probably higher levels of fresh fruit and veg, and more investment in a local economy.”

Other proposals that will impact directly on patients include urging people to drink less bottled water, more phone-in surgeries by GPs, greater sterilisation and reuse of equipment, and encouraging patients, visitors and staff to leave their car at home.

Many ideas are already being pioneered by one or a few trusts but will be spread more widely, including automatic lights and taps, renewable energy such as biomass and wind turbines, and green travel plans – such as facilities for cycling or new bus routes and bus stations at hospitals. A blueprint for low-carbon buildings is also being considered, and longer term the NHS could develop its own energy grid supplied by renewables on its land.

Staff will also be encouraged to work from home more often, incentives could be introduced for workers to use smaller-engined cars for business mileage, departments could be given their own energy bills with the offer that employees can keep a share of cost savings they make, and hospital pharmacies could hold lower stocks and courier in specialist drugs on demand to cut waste.

The NHS will also use its massive purchasing power – £20bn a year – to persuade suppliers to cut emissions, and pharmaceutical companies will be asked to make drugs with a longer shelf-life to reduce the amount of out-of-date stocks.

Longer term, to make bigger cuts, the NHS will have to make more radical changes, in particular giving more healthcare in or closer to patients’ homes, said Pencheon. One idea being examined was for surgeons to travel to GP surgeries for follow-up consultations, to reduce the need for many patients to travel to outpatients departments, said Pencheon.

“If you’re going to get me radical I say the default place for health is in the home, and the person who delivers it is yourself: that’s the ultimate low-carbon health service,” he said.

The report will argue that reducing carbon emissions will cut bills for equipment, medicines, energy, water and waste services, and improve health – in the short-term for example by encouraging people to walk, in the long-term by helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“Unless we all take effective action now, millions of people around the world will suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the climate changes,” it says.

“As one of the world’s largest organisations, the NHS has a national and international imperative to act in order to make a real difference and to set an important example.”

Iceland to be fast-tracked into European Union to stop economic meltdown

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A woman holds a flag of Iceland as she gathers during a peaceful protest near Iceland’s Parliament house in Reykjavik January 24, 2009. A day after saying he would quit, Iceland’s Prime Minister Geir Haarde voiced “contempt” on Saturday for some of the actions by banks that triggered the country’s economic collapse. Iceland, one of the richest countries in the world in 2007, plunged into crisis in October when it fell victim to the global credit crunch. Its currency collapsed as its financial system imploded. To stay afloat, it negotiated a $10 billion aid package crafted by the International Monetary Fund and effectively froze trade in its currency. Reuters

Daily Mail | Jan 30, 2009

Iceland is to be fast-tracked into the European Union in an attempt to stop the country going into complete financial meltdown, it emerged last night.

The small Arctic nation is expected to apply for membership within months and become the 29th member state of the EU within just two years.

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, said: ‘The EU prefers two countries joining at the same time rather than individually. If Iceland applies shortly and the negotiations are rapid, Croatia and Iceland could join the EU in parallel.

‘On Iceland, I hope I will be busier. It is one of the oldest democracies in the world and its strategic and economic positions would be an asset to the EU,’ he told the Guardian.

The holders of the EU presidency, the Czechs, are strong supporters of EU enlargement and will favour Iceland joining the bloc. The next holder, Sweden, is also expected to be sympathetic.

Before Iceland is in a position to join the EU, it must first fully appoint a new government.

Icelandic politicians said yesterday they were close to agreeing a deal on cabinet posts and a government policy statement, and fresh economic data on Thursday underlined the urgency of tackling the nation’s crisis.

The president has asked the Social Democrats and the opposition Left-Green Party to form a new government to replace the administration of Geir Haarde, who resigned as prime minister on Monday under pressure from violent public protests. His centre-right Independence Party is not being included.

‘We might present a statement of government policies and the division of offices tomorrow if all goes well,’ Social Affairs Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, a social democrat, told Reuters during a break in the talks.

‘I assume there might be a formal changing of governments on Saturday,’ she said.

Social Democrat leader Ingibjorg Gisladottir has proposed Sigurdardottir become prime minister in a new cabinet while Gisladottir takes sick leave to recover from a benign brain tumour.

Earlier, the central bank said the jobless rate was likely to rise to 11 per cent in the first quarter of 2010 and stay high for a longer time than it previously thought. Output is seen falling more than 10 per cent this year, the bank said, as it chose to leave interest rates unchanged at a record 18 per cent.

The global financial crisis hit Iceland in October, ending a decade of rising prosperity in a matter of days by triggering a collapse in the currency and financial system. Prior to October, unemployment had been around one percent in the small North Atlantic nation of 320,000 people.

To stay afloat, Iceland secured £7.5billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and several European countries.

The crisis sparked protests as Icelanders blamed Haarde and other top officials for failing to stave off economic mayhem.

Police used pepper spray and arrested six protesters on Wednesday evening at a demonstration outside a NATO meeting in the capital Reykjavik.

The Social Democrats were the junior party in the outgoing coalition, while the opposition Left-Greens now lead opinion polls.

U.S. economy shrinks by nearly 4% as Exxon posts record-breaking $45.2 billion profit

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An Exxon garage in California: These garage-owners gave their own unique take on fuel prices

Daily Mail | Jan 30, 2009

The U.S. economy shrank at a 3.8 per cent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century, as the deepening recession forced consumers and businesses to throttle back spending.

But its not all bad news – Exxon Mobil reported a profit of $45.2billion (£31.7billion) for 2008, breaking its own record for a U.S. company, even as its fourth-quarter earnings fell 33 per cent from a year ago.

The previous record for annual profit for a U.S. company was $40.6billion (£28.4billion), which the world’s largest publicly traded oil company set in 2007.

The extraordinary full-year profit wasn’t a surprise given crude’s triple-digit price for much of 2008, peaking near an unheard of $150 a barrel in July.

Since then, however, prices have fallen roughly 70 percent amid a deepening global economic crisis.

In the fourth quarter alone crude tumbled 60 percent, prompting spending and job cuts in an industry that was reporting robust, often record, profits as recently as last summer.

Meanwhile the rate of America’s shrinking economy – while holding up better than economists expected – is likely to be revised even lower in the months ahead, with market-watchers believing the economy is contracting in the current quarter at a pace of around 5 percent.

The current January-March period, they said, will probably turn out to be the worse quarter for the recession.

‘The downturn is intensifying. The fourth quarter is worse than it looks,’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com.

The new figure, released Friday by the Commerce Department, showed America’s economy sinking at a much faster clip in the October-December period than the 0.5 per cent decline logged in the prior quarter.

The report provided clear evidence of the economy’s rapid deterioration as the housing, credit and financial crises – the worst since the 1930s – feed on each other.

It’s a vicious cycle that has proven difficult for Washington policymakers to break.

The 3.8 per cent annualised drop marked the weakest quarterly showing since a 6.4 per cent annualised plunge in the first quarter of 1982, when the country was suffering through a severe recession.

For all of 2008, the economy grew by just 1.3 per cent. That was down from a 2 per cent gain in 2007 and marked the slowest growth since the last recession in 2001.

The report tallies gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced within the United States. It is considered the broadest barometer of the country’s economic health.

To jolt life back into the economy, President Barack Obama and Congress are racing to enact a multibillion-dollar package of increased government spending that includes big public works projects and tax cuts.

The House passed a $819billion (about £574billion) package on Wednesday and the bill is working its way through the Senate. Economists say the money needs to be quickly pumped into the economy to help stop the free-fall.

The White House was bracing for bad news. On the eve of the report’s release, press secretary Robert Gibbs thought the fourth-quarter results would be ‘fairly staggering’.

A build-up in business inventories – which in calculating GDP adds to economic activity – masked the fourth-quarter’s true weakness. When inventories are stripped out, the economy would have contracted at a 5.1 per cent pace in the fourth quarter, closer to the 5.4 per cent drop that economists expected. Businesses couldn’t cut production fast enough in response to waning customer demand and got stuck with excess inventories, economists explained.

The fourth quarter was by far the weakest three-month period in 2008, and the 3.8 per cent figure is likely to be revised even lower as the government makes new estimates based on more complete data.

The economy will stay very weak for much of this year, analysts predict.

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Merkel calls for a “Global Economic Charter” and a UN Economic Council

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks during her special address to the World Economic Forum on January 30, 2009. The annual Davos political and business summit started Wednesday with new warnings over the gravity of the global recession and the impact of the damage already done. AFP/Getty Images

IHT | Jan 30, 2009

By Carter Dougherty

DAVOS, Switzerland: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called Friday for the creation of an international economic body, similar to the United Nations Security Council, to help avert the kind of wrenching financial crisis currently engulfing the world.

Economic principles need to be enshrined in “a new charter for a global economic order,” Merkel told the business and political leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

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A meeting of the Group of 20, an organization of industrialized nations and emerging markets, could begin laying the groundwork for change at a meeting in London in early April, Merkel said. From there, she said, the matter could go to the UN.

“This may even lead to a UN Economic Council, just as the Security Council was created after the Second World War,” Merkel said.

She acknowledged that the UN might be an unpopular choice because of its deliberate pace. “We all know it is a fairly slow, a fairly cumbersome body, ” she said. “But it is the only one of its kind.”

Striking a contrast to the gloomy atmosphere this year at a meeting that usually brims with optimism, Merkel argued that the economic crisis had laid bare serious weaknesses in financial regulation, but that the world had to look beyond the immediate.

“Incredible opportunities are opening up,” Merkel said. “We are now seeing only the crisis.”

Merkel urged world financial leaders to implement the points that the G-20 leaders had agreed on in November in Washington. A major theme of that meeting was the need for more information on the complex financial constructs that lie at the heart of the crisis.

In her speech Friday, Merkel took a dig at the United States and Britain, which blocked German calls for greater openness by hedge funds when it headed the Group of 8 industrialized nations in 2007.

“I don’t want to cast my gaze back,” Merkel said. “But I would like to remind people that in vain did Germany in the G-8 presidency try to inject transparency” into financial markets.

Merkel also explained the backdrop to Germany’s initial reluctance to embrace government spending to stimulate slowing and contracting economies.

Her government has approved two packages, the second worth €50 billion, or $64 billion, after a “lively debate” that reflected the painful steps the country took to curtail borrowing before the crisis began in 2007, she said.

Eventually, Germany will have to return to more austere ways, she added.

“We have won ourselves a little freedom of maneuver,” Merkel said. “But we are also saying we need limitations on public borrowing.” She called for an “automatic brake” on public indebtedness that could be incorporated into the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution.

She emphasized that “the forces of free market economy” had to underpin the rules that emerge from the crisis. She lauded the German system, which mixes capitalism with a strong social safety net and potent regulators, but said she had no interest in “socialist command economies” and alluded to her own past as a child of the communist system.

“I grew up in what was East Germany,” Merkel said. “Today I am chancellor of a united Germany. This shows me that nothing is impossible.”

CIA station chief investigated over drugging and raping two Muslim women in Algeria

Daily Mail | Jan 29, 2009

cialogoThe CIA’s station chief in Algeria is under investigation for allegedly raping two Muslim women who claim their drinks were laced with a knock-out drug.

Now U.S. officials are bracing themselves for fall-out in the Muslim world after the embarrassing incident.

Court papers filed in federal court in Washington by a State Department investigator show two women came forward separately to say they had been sexually assaulted by the man while at his home in Algiers.

The man was identified as Andrew Warren. He has not been charged with a crime.

Officials obtained a warrant to search the chief’s home in Algiers – turning up videos that they said appeared to be secretly recorded, showing him in engaging in sex acts.

At least one of the videos apparently showed one of the victims in a semi-conscious state, investigators said.

Just days ago, new U.S. President Barack Obama went on Arabic television to announce his priority was to prove to the Muslim world that ‘America is not your enemy’.

But reports of Warren’s treatment of the Muslim women could upset that effort.

‘It has the potential to be quite explosive if it’s not handled well by the United States government,’ Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specialises in women’s issues in the Middle East, told ABC News.

‘This isn’t the type of thing that’s going to be easily pushed under the carpet.’

The issue could become particularly sensitive in Algeria, which has been struggling to recover after decades of bloody conflict – and, since 2006, has home to militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.

An affidavit submitted by an investigator in November sought to search Warren’s computer for evidence of past sexual assaults.

Warren, apparently a convert to Islam, was ordered home by the U.S. Ambassador, David Pearce, in October after the women came forward with their rape allegations in September, according to ABC News.

The affidavit says the first victim claimed she was raped by Warren after being invited to a party at Warren’s residence by U.S. embassy employees, the American television network reported.

She told a State Department investigator that after Warren prepared a mixed drink of cola and whiskey, she felt a ‘violent onset of nausea’ and Warren said she should spend the night at his home.

When she woke up the next morning, according to the affidavit, ‘she was lying on a bed, completely nude, with no memory of how she had been undressed.’

She said she realized ‘she recently had engaged in sexual intercourse, though she had no memory of having intercourse.’

The affidavit says a second woman approached embassy staff in 2008 claiming that the man had sexually assaulted her at his home. Both women reported the incidents months after they occurred, independent of one another.

According to the affidavit, the second alleged victim said Warren met her at the U.S. embassy and invited her for a ‘tour of his home’ where he is said to have prepared an apple Martini for her ‘out of her sight’.

She then felt faint and said she went to the bathroom – where, although she could still see and hear, she appeared to have become overcome by a paralysis.

She told investigators Warren attempted to remove her pants and told her she would feel better after having a bath.

She said she remembered being in his bed and asking him to stop – but that he said something like ‘nobody stays in my expensive sheets with clothes on,’ according to the affidavit seen by ABC News.

The woman claimed she later sent Warren a text accusing him of abusing her – and he sent one back apologising.

Warren claimed to investigators that the sex had been consensual and admitted to having pictures of the two women on his computer.

According to the affidavit, a search of Warren’s residence in Algiers turned up Valium and Xanax – both drugs that have been used in date rape assaults – and a handbook on the investigation of sexual assaults.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the man in question has returned to the United States while the government investigates.

‘The United States takes very seriously any accusations of misconduct involving any U.S. personnel abroad,’ said Wood, referring further questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

Chevron set new profit record in 2008

Mercury News | Jan 30, 2009

By George Avalos

SAN RAMON — Chevron Corp. powered to a gusher of record profits in 2008 that totaled $23.9 billion, the company reported Friday, fueled in large measure by sky-high crude oil and gasoline prices for much of last year.

The full-year earnings for 2008 soared 28 percent above the 2007 profits of $18.69 billion — also a record at that time.

Chevron dropped 10 cents to $70.52. The stocks rose more than 2 percent Friday morning before falling along with other U.S. equities.

“We achieved much success in 2008,” said David O’Reilly, Chevron’s chairman and chief executive.

San Ramon-based Chevron, though, quickly drew criticism from a consumer group that believes Chevron is too profitable and is using its cash improperly.

“Chevron’s robust health is no help at all to the rest of the country,” said Judy Dugan, research director with Santa Monica-based Oil Watchdog. “They reached deep into our wallets for these profits. They are using the profits to buy back their stock. They are just sitting on the cash.”

Company officials, though, responded that the company will spend $22.8 billion on capital projects in 2009, roughly the levels of 2008.

“Our earnings reflect the scale of the industry, which is a large industry with large earnings, but also very large expenses,” said Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram. “We are investing a substantial amount of money in the search for new energy sources.”

2002 through 2008, Chevron earned a cumulative $96 billion, but also spent $96 billion in the search for more crude oil and natural gas, according to Avram.

“We are investing at our full capacity in the United States and internationally,” Avram said. “We are putting all our capital into projects we are involved in.”

The company’s return on revenues is 8.3 percent, Avram said. That compares with an average return on sales of 8.5 percent for the U.S. manufacturing industry.

“What is good for the oil companies is not always good for Americans,” Dugan said.

Chevron will curb efforts, for now, to buy back its own shares. The company had spent about $8 billion in buying its shares, O’Reilly said.

“That program has been suspended in the first quarter of 2009, owing to the need to preserve cash in very difficult economic times,” Avram said. He added, “Our company is very strong financially. We have a healthy underlying business.”

In the fourth quarter, Chevron earned $4.9 billion, or $2.44 a share, up 1 percent from a year-ago profit of $4.88 billion, or $2.32 a share.

Much of the profit was bolstered by a one-time gain of $600 million for a transaction. Still, even excluding the gain on an asset exchange, per-share profits were $2.14. That topped projections from analysts for a per-share profit of $1.82.

To be sure, Chevron has been forced to walk a tightrope that oscillates as crude oil and gasoline prices veer between highs and lows.

Yet the company seems to be balancing challenges in its upstream — exploration, development and production — operations and its downstream — refining and marketing — business, said Robert Sweet, a portfolio manager with Horizon Investment and editor of Dow Theory Forecasts.

“Chevron looks pretty well-positioned,” Sweet said. “They are poised to out-perform expectations.”

The profit picture for Chevron’s refinery and retail business brightened in the October-December period, primarily due to the largest plunge on record for crude oil prices. That helped to swell profit margins for the company’s refineries and sales of gasoline products.

But because oil prices declined and production levels drooped, Chevron’s fourth-quarter earnings dwindled for exploration, production and development.

And production will be a key to Chevron’s profit picture in 2009. Chevron has invested heavily in new oil and natural gas projects overseas and in the U.S. But Chevron hasn’t realized as much return on those investments compared with other oil companies, primarily because many Chevron projects are large and complex, Sweet said.

“Chevron has been promising production growth for years and they haven’t been delivering,” Sweet said.

However, in the final months of 2008, some big new fields came on line. Production from those projects could ramp up. More fields may blossom in 2009.

“I like the trends going forward,” Sweet said. “We are seeing they are delivering more than just promises. There are reasons to be optimistic about Chevron.”