Trump Rollback of Obamacare Meets State Resistance

Two new rules from the Labor Dept. are designed to provide cheaper, and leaner, health-care coverage options to small employers and the self-employed. However, both are running into state resistance as some officials worry the rules could destabilize their insurance markets or defraud consumers.

One rule encourages the expansion of association health plans to small businesses and the self-employed.  Firms will be allowed to band together if they are either in the same profession or industry or have a principal place of business within the same state or metro area. Starting in October, these AHPs will be able to sell health plans that are exempted from many Affordable Care Act coverage requirements and are therefore cheaper. They could, for example, exclude coverage for prescription drugs or mental health. However, they won’t be allowed to refuse coverage or vary premiums because someone has a pre-existing condition.

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McCain’s Legacy: Fierce Independence

The death of Arizona Sen. John McCain after a year-long battle with brain cancer leaves Congress, the Republican Party and U.S. foreign policy without a crucial leader.

There’s little that hasn’t been said about the “last lion” of the Senate, who spent 35 years in Congress and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency, winning the Republican nomination in 2008 before losing to then-fellow Sen. Barack Obama in the general election.

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Can Trump Make Coal Great Again?

After more than a year in the works, President Trump’s proposal for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants is out. His plan, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, would impose far less stringent standards on coal-fired power plants than President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which Trump put the brakes on. Last year, when announcing several executive orders aimed at easing government regulation of the coal industry, the president declared that “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal” – a reference to his predecessor’s regulatory approach.

First, a quick rundown on Trump’s power plant regs and how they differ from what Obama tried to do:

States would be responsible for regulating their power plants’ carbon emissions, whereas Obama’s CPP would have given each state a target for reducing emissions consistent with a nationwide goal.

Owners of coal-fired plants could improve plant efficiency to keep them running longer and get more electricity from each ton of coal burned. The CPP would have encouraged utilities to use less coal and more natural gas and renewable energy.

Carbon emissions wouldn’t decline by nearly as much as they would under Obama’s plan, but are projected to decrease modestly. Trump’s EPA projects CO2 emissions will decline by between 13 million and 30 million tons in 2025, or 1.5% of the current level, compared to no regulatory action being taken.

Coal industry supporters cheered Trump’s proposal while environmentalists jeered it. National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn stated that the plan “respects the infrastructure and economic realities that are unique to each state, allowing for state-driven solutions, as intended by the Clean Air Act, rather than top down mandates. It also embraces American innovation, by encouraging plant upgrades.” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, was rather more succinct, calling Trump’s proposal “a sham” that doesn’t address the risks posed by climate change.

I’ll leave those arguments to others. But what about the practical effects of Trump’s plan, assuming it survives the inevitable legal challenges?

There’s no question that the coal industry has been hurting for a long time. Back in 2005, according to Department of Energy data, coal-burning power plants supplied 50% of the nation’s electricity. Last year: Just 30%, mostly because of mounting competition from natural gas, which has become the top fuel for power generation. In 2005, the U.S. burned a massive 1.1 billion tons of coal. Last year: Just 717 million tons, the lowest figure since the early 1980s. According to the feds, in 2005 coal mining employed about 80,000 workers. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 52,000.

Coal’s struggles significantly reduced energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. Shifting from a coal-heavy fuel mix to one more reliant on natural gas, which emits less CO2 than coal to produce the same amount of power, has caused the utility sector’s emissions to fall by 28% since 2005, according to the EPA.

Will Trump’s regs revive the ailing coal industry? I put that question to Joe Aldina, Director of U.S. Coal Analytics at S&P Global Platts. “In the short term, this doesn’t move the needle at all” for boosting coal demand, he says, because of the competition posed by cheap natural gas. In other words, just because utilities can more easily burn coal now doesn’t mean they will if it isn’t the most economical choice.

But Trump’s rule change “will have a modest impact in the long term” because coal usage will decline by less than what would have happened under Obama’s CPP rules. Aldina thinks that coal’s 30% share of the electricity market will decline further, but only gradually over the next several years. He also notes that while the ACE regs make it easier to upgrade existing coal-fired plants to run more efficiently and generate more power, federal regulations still effectively bar building new coal plants. And there is little sign that utilities want additional coal plants, anyway.

That means that the nation’s fleet of coal power plants will likely keep shrinking. Many were retired because of Obama’s more-stringent CO2 and air quality rules, plus the competition from natural gas. The Department of Energy expects almost 10% of the nation’s remaining coal-fired generating capacity to shut down between now and 2020. Utilities can’t build new plants (even if they wanted to), so U.S. coal consumption will probably continue slipping.

Cyberthreats Becoming More Relentless and Destructive

Expect the onslaught of cyberattacks to worsen as launching them becomes cheaper and easier.

“Anybody can now do cybercrime,” says Raj Samani, chief scientist and fellow at computer security software maker McAfee. “The technical skills required to be a cybercriminal are the lowest it has ever been.” Hackers can easily find out how to launch an attack with a simple Google search. They can also pay for certain attacks by the hour.

At the same time, attacks are increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect. Hackers are turning to artificial intelligence software for more destructive digital weapons. And they are using encryption software to mask their traces.

Major cybersecurity companies report a surge in all sorts of raids. Email attacks are rampant against all types of workers. Social media scams, stemming from sites such as LinkedIn, are becoming more common. Insider threats are still hard to stop, such as when a disgruntled employee brings in a USB stick to install malicious software or steal data.

It’s no surprise that cybercrime is costing companies more. The average cost of a data breach for a U.S. company is $8 million dollars, according to a report by IBM Security and the Ponemon Institute. The report examined 500 companies of varying size and found that the average time to detect a breach is about 200 days, leaving a huge gap where criminals can steal info and inflict harm.

A relatively new type of intrusion has exploded in prevalence: Hackers stealing computing resources to mine bitcoin and other digital currencies. Cryptocurrencies require huge amounts of computing resources to mine—the process of compiling transactions in a web of complex math computations. It’s so resource-intensive and expensive that criminals are willing to steal, or cryptojack, someone else’s computer horsepower.

“Compared with well-established cybercrime activities such as data theft and ransomware, cryptojacking is simpler, more straightforward and less risky,” according to a McAfee Labs Threats Report from June 2018. Criminals don’t need to coax an executive into paying a ransom. The stolen computer horsepower can be a significant cost, says McAfee’s Samani.

Hackers are also hijacking connected devices to bombard a website or app with web traffic until it’s forced offline more frequently. The rise of these cyberraids, known as distributed denial-of-service attacks, or DDoS, stems from a surge in cheap internet bandwidth and an explosion in internet-connected devices. Hackers can take control of a swarm of unsecured connected devices to blitz an IP address with traffic.

Weaponizing bandwidth can wreak havoc on businesses during critical times. Consider an online seller darkened during prime holiday season, for instance. These intrusions can also serve as a devastating distraction. While the IT team scrambles to get the site back online, hackers sneak into another part of the network.

One growing fear is large scale DDoS attacks “taking large portions of the internet offline,” says James Willett, vice president of technology at Neustar, a technology company that offers defensive software. Firms can erect firewalls to detect and fend off fraudulent web traffic. Companies can also check with web providers or cloud servicers to see what defenses are built in.

The type of attack varies by industry, according to Verizon’s 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report. Companies should take that into account as they shore up digital defenses. Some trends are intuitive. For instance, hoteliers are frequent targets of point-of-sale raids, which attack store payment terminals, but the education and health care sectors are seldomly hit. Schools and doctors don’t use cash registers that often.

Other industry trends are less obvious. Denial of service attacks are common in education and financial services, but much less common in hospitality and health care. Privilege misuse, where an employee shares data or breaches company IT policy in some way, is a dramatic problem in public organizations. Consider a disgruntled government employee sharing sensitive info with people who aren’t approved to see it. And the manufacturing sector is a ripe target for state-affiliated hackers looking to swipe valuable intellectual property.

The threat of cyberattacks “doesn’t hit home for a lot of small- and medium-sized business owners until it’s too late and they’ve lost everything,” says Bonnie Moss, the executive director of SMB iSAO, a cyber info sharing and analysis organization whose membership includes auto body shops, retailers and nonprofits. The group offers a monthly newsletter, threat alerts, legal advice, updates from standards organization and more. It costs $20 per month. “It’s threat intelligence that people can trust,” says Moss. To find more organizations visit https://www.isao.org/information-sharing-groups/.

Tried-and-true cybersecurity advice still holds, security experts note. Besides keeping tabs on the latest cyberthreats, companies can beef up security by keeping all software up-to-date, backing up data regularly and creating strong login processes.

Cybercriminals Targeting Workplace E-mail More

Your inbox might be the easiest entry point for a cyberattack. Firms are being flooded with fraudulent e-mails from criminals trying to pry sensitive info from unsuspecting workers. The e-mail scams, known as phishing, are a cheap and easy way to infiltrate even the most digitally fortified workplace. E-mail is a goldmine because it contains so much personal and proprietary information, including login details for other online accounts. Continue reading “Cybercriminals Targeting Workplace E-mail More”

CAFE Rollback Uncorks Another Regulatory Fight

The Trump administration’s push to roll back vehicle fuel-economy standards sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle with Democrats, environmental groups and the state of California, who hail the Obama administration rules as a landmark achievement in the fight against climate change.

Once finalized, the joint proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department would suspend required increases in corporate average fuel-economy standards (CAFE) after 2020, capping them at a fleet average of 37 miles per gallon. President Obama’s plan, by contrast, called for raising the standard to 47 miles per gallon by 2025.

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Jordan Plays House GOP Kingmaker

Rep. Jim Jordan likely won’t be the next House Republican leader, though that isn’t stopping him from vying to replace Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan as the lower chamber’s top GOPer next year. But the Ohio firebrand is positioned to play kingmaker, shifting House Republicans’ balance of power closer to the conservative edges in the process.

Winning the leadership contest isn’t Jordan’s only motive for running, and possibly not his principal one. He wants to solidify the influence of the House Republican Conference’s conservative flank, particularly that of the Freedom Caucus, the politically far-right group he cofounded in 2015. Continue reading “Jordan Plays House GOP Kingmaker”