Russia's intervention in Ukraine has sparked another debate over the Obama administration's energy policy.
Russia is a major provider of natural gas to Western Europe. That's caused some U.S. policymakers — largely but not exclusively congressional Republicans — to call on the Obama administration to clear the way for increased exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe. That's a two-fer, they argue: it would diminish Russia while helping the domestic energy industry.
Hardly a day goes by, in fact, without Speaker John Boehner's office delivering some version of that message.
The criticism makes sense for Republicans politically. It fits the GOP's case against President Obama, dating back to early in his first term, that his policies have hurt the U.S. energy industry, the economy and job creation. The Keystone XL pipeline and renewable energy debates obviously make that list as well.
But while the position of those calling for more exports makes political sense, it doesn't necessarily make geopolitical sense. Like so many issues involving U.S. energy production, complexity comes with the territory.
Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, actually supports higher exports of U.S. natural gas and notes that policymakers on both sides of the aisle have called for more exports.
But he disagrees that more U.S. gas exports could be an effective lever against Russian president Vladimir Putin anytime soon.
Putin's near-term calculations are unlikely to be changed because it would take too long to ramp up U.S. exports, he said in an interview. Further, Russia's cheaply produced natural gas would make it relatively easy for Putin to cut prices to fend off U.S. efforts to wrest away some of Russia's market share.
Also, it's not like the U.S. has enough surplus gas to liquefy to significantly replace much of what Russia provides, or that the infrastructure for shipping and receiving it exists, Levi said.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department is approving export permits for those gas suppliers with proven customers, he said.
"Department of Energy approvals are not what is standing in the way of U.S. gas coming to the rescue in Europe. It's bad analysis but it's also a false promise on the geopolitical front in an area where we do actually need effective tools," Levi said.
Uber, Lyft, and similar companies that pair people who pay for a car ride with drivers who operate outside the traditional taxi system are facing new limits in Seattle, where the City Council's Taxi Committee recently voted to cap the number of "ride-share" drivers.
The full council had been scheduled to vote on a limit of 150 drivers per ride-share company today; the vote, which has sparked intense interest in the city, has been postponed until next Monday.
Taxi companies have been vocal opponents of the web-based services, which they say have an unfair advantage because they play by different rules. Observers say Seattle's plan to place limits on Uber and similar services could spark new caps and regulations in other U.S. cities.
Uber currently operates in 37 U.S. cities, according to its website; it's also active in more than 30 countries. The company's Seattle outpost has defended itself, especially its lower-cost UberX service, saying that it's providing jobs.
"Right now, we partner with 900 small businesses just on the UberX system," Uber Seattle GM Brooke Steger recently told local KIRO Radio. "These are live, active drivers, so that doesn't include people who are in the pipeline or that have stopped driving."
In deciding to limit the number of drivers, Seattle's council members also voted to add 200 more taxi licenses over the next two years, as the Puget Sound Business Journal reported last month.
Steger tells KIRO that those limits would change how the company and its drivers work, particularly at peak travel times. Right now, drivers are able to log into the system and work whenever they chose, allowing them to take breaks for meals, she says. That could change under a cap system.
"We see well over 150 drivers active on the system at any given time," she says, "especially on a Friday or Saturday night, when a lot of people are drinking and a lot of people want to get home safely."
In the past year, taxi drivers have organized protests against the ride-share services in several U.S. cities. To draw attention to their claims, they circled City Hall in Los Angeles last summer; in Denver, more than 100 drivers recently clogged the street around the Colorado Statehouse.
We are rarely lost anymore.
In a foreign city or just a drive out of town, our GPS-enabled smartphones pin our positions on digital maps to within a few meters. We are rarely without facts anymore. Any question that has an objective answer — from the last day of the Civil War to the maximum speed of a Boeing 777 — is as close as Google. For a broad class of experience in modern life we have become very used to "knowing." Events a world away may be subject to our opinions but rarely anymore are they cloaked in an enveloping darkness.
How then can Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappear in good weather over shallow, heavily trafficked seas?
The human tragedy of the flight will be written in the stories of loved ones left behind, their lives suddenly and forever shattered. But from half-a-planet away the mystery of an advanced jetliner vanishing in the midst of multiple, overlapping advanced technologies raises an additional and unsettling question for us moderns.
Do we understand uncertainty anymore?
There was a time — most of our time on this planet to be exact — when the sails of a ship sank with finality below the horizon as it headed off on its journey. Those left behind were left with uncertainty. They could pace the harbor walls or just get on with their lives but the ship was gone and there would be no news until ... there was. For almost ALL of the 2,000 generations stretching from back into the last ice age, human beings have lived through deep existential uncertainty about the world around them. Tomorrow's weather might be intuited from experience but not glimpsed via satellite images. Loved ones away on travels were for the most part entirely absent. Without text or Facebook updates, their current status remained the stuff of the imagination.
Is it the genetic memory of that unknowing that makes us so unsettled when search teams seem to chase ghosts? Debris spotted from the air turns out to be nothing more than some logs tied together. What was thought to be the downed plane's oil spill is determined to contain no jet fuel.
Twenty years ago information about flight MH370 would've been firmly the domain of experts. Today anyone can find the current status of the skies via services like Flightradar24.
Eventually we all expect that the mystery of MH370 will be a mystery no more. But whatever its resolution, what do these days of waiting reveal to us now about the world we are building?
We are, of course, still surrounded by uncertainty like the terrible wait for a prognosis or the horror of watching a nation spin into civil war. But in creating our network of protective technological miracles have we inadvertently inoculated ourselves from a reality that lies too close for us to want to face? Have we limited our capacity to deal with a darkness that, in truth, will always surround us?
There's always a risk in flying, but the phase in which a plane is cruising at high altitude is widely considered to be safe. And that's what makes the mystery of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 so confounding.
"Whatever happened happened quickly and resulted in a catastrophic departure from the air," Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who is now a consultant with CBS news, told NPR's Melissa Block.
There have been a number of cases in which planes have fallen from the sky — from factors that include catastrophic failure and sabotage. As Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who runs the popular Ask The Pilot website, writes:
"All we know for sure is that a plane went down with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash did not happen during takeoff or landing — the phases of flight when most accident occur — somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous possibilities remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to an inflight fire to a catastrophic structural failure of some kind — or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction."
Here are some of the problems that an aircraft can experience during flight.
An aircraft undergoes two kinds of routine stresses: a mechanical stress on the cabin caused by the pressurization and depressurization cycle that happens on each flight; and stress on the plane when it lands.
The structural fatigue and damage they cause "are typically taken care of by periodic maintenance," Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst who now runs the Airsafe.com Foundation, said in an email.
The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was last been inspected just 10 days ago and was said to be in proper condition. The 777 is a long-haul aircraft that is regarded as safe. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, it's had about 60 incidents since it entered service in 1995.
Takeoff and landing are typically the riskiest portions of the flight. A Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines was involved in the crash at San Francisco Airport last year that killed three people.
But the en-route portion of the flight, which the Malaysian Airlines flight was on, is seen as the safest. According to a Boeing analysis, only 9 percent of fatal accidents occur at cruising altitude.
"Cruise is generally a pretty good place," says David Ison, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who was a transport pilot with international and transoceanic experience. "There's stable conditions. The weather at higher altitudes is generally better. The only issue is turbulence and, sometimes, thunderstorm activity."
And while weather is a factor at higher altitudes, Flight MH370 was traveling in good weather conditions.
Referring to the Malaysian Airlines flight, Curtis said:
"Weather can be a factor, but it is unclear if it was a factor in this event. One factor that was happening during this event was that the aircraft is flying over the ocean at night. Under these visual conditions, the crew may not be able to look out the window and use the horizon as a sort of backup aircraft attitude indicator. This may make it harder for the pilots to recover the aircraft it gets into an unusual attitude."
Catastrophic failure can affect one or more critical aircraft structures or systems, making it difficult or impossible for the crew to safely land the aircraft.
There are exceptions to this, of course. The most famous being the "miracle on the Hudson" in 2009, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuarida Airport in New York, struck some birds on its way into the sky, lost both engines and was then successfully guided to a safe landing.
Curtis says, "because many aircraft systems have backup systems or backup procedures, it usually takes multiple failures to occur before those failures are considered catastrophic or potentially catastrophic."
Ison of Embry-Riddle notes that aircraft today are so reliable that technical failures are highly unlikely in regular operations. In 75 percent to 80 percent of such cases, he notes, the error is human — either by the pilot or air traffic controllers.
Sabotage is the single-biggest reason for en route accidents, writes Max Kingsley-Jones, a reporter for Flight Global, an aviation magazine.
Here's more from his story:
"Including the MAS 777, Ascend Online shows that a total of 46 western-built jet airliners have crashed with the loss of all on board while in the en-route phase. Of these, 13 were caused by sabotage, two more by hijacks and one was shot down. Three more were caused by undetermined causes where flightcrew suicide is suspected."
And, he notes, "In some cases, in-flight events happen so rapidly that the flightcrew are unable to issue any form of mayday, but it is extremely" unusual.
When faced with a crisis, the main job of the pilots is to maintain control of the aircraft. That may explain why there was no communication from the Malaysian Airlines plane.
"If the pilots are distracted doing something else, then talking to air traffic controllers is not a priority," said John Cox, a former commercial airline pilot who is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems.
Ison notes that in the event there's no communication, it could mean that something catastrophic has happened, or simply that the crew was unaware of what was happening. That was the case, he says, with Air France Flight 447. The pilots "didn't communicate [with air-traffic controllers], even though they had an opportunity to," he said.
The black box recordings in that case showed that the pilots seemed unaware the plane was going to crash until just seconds before they hit the water.
The black boxes on that Air France flight were found two years later, and it took investigators until 2012 to piece together what happened on Flight 447. That may also be what's in store for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
"Of course, once this plane is found, it'll be much more clear what may have happened to the aircraft," Curtis said. "In any case, it may be months or years before the true nature of this event is understood."
Ison, however, said there's no reason why it takes so long to locate an aircraft after it goes missing.
"In this day and age, having no ability to pinpoint these aircraft is really not acceptable," he said. "We have technology to make it happen. We really need to do something ... so we can prevent the loss of aircraft."
The holdup, Rosenker, the former NTSB chair, is cost. One recent study said a U.S. airline with a global network would have to spend at least $300 million per year to transmit its flight data.
For the first time since it legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado is releasing revenue figures: The state made $3.5 million in taxes and fees in January.
As KUSA-TV reports, $2.1 million of that came from the sale of recreational pot and $1.4 million came from medical marijuana.
"The figures from the state Department of Revenue also give a preliminary idea of the size of the marijuana trade in the state, showing $14 million worth of marijuana was sold in the first month of legal sales.
"The report provides the first concrete proof of what pro-marijuana advocates had promised, that growing and selling the drug locally would generate economic activity here rather than sending drug money out-of-state, and that the drug could provide a windfall to the state government.
" 'This is revenue directly out of the hands of cartels,' said Brian Vicente, who helped legalize pot in Colorado. 'These tax numbers will probably grow over time, but since it's a new market, we'll have to wait and see.'"
The Associated Press reports that the state has 160 state-licensed recreational marijuana stores. The state imposes two taxes on pot: a 12.9 percent sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax.
"The first $40 million of the excise tax must go to school construction; the rest will be spent by state lawmakers," the AP reports.