Nation roundup for December 4
President issues warning to Syria
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama warned Syria on Monday that the use of chemical weapons would be “totally unacceptable” and that the country’s leaders would be held accountable.
Obama said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical weapons, there would be consequences. Obama stopped short of detailing those consequences. Obama’s comments came as U.S. officials said intelligence had detected Syrian movement of chemical weapons components in recent days.
The White House said earlier Monday that it was increasingly concerned that the beleaguered regime in Syria might be considering use of chemical weapons against its own people and warned that doing so would “cross a red line.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said U.S. officials were closely monitoring Syria’s proliferation of sensitive materials and facilities, as opposition to the Syrian government grows.
Rover tests Mars soil for life signs
LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA’s Curiosity rover has indeed found something in the Martian dirt. But so far, there’s no definitive sign of the chemical ingredients necessary to support life.
A scoop of sandy soil analyzed by Curiosity’s sophisticated chemistry laboratory contained water and a mix of chemicals, but not complex carbon-based molecules considered essential for life.
That the soil was not more hospitable did not surprise mission scientist Paul Mahaffy since radiation from space can destroy any carbon evidence.
“It’s not unexpected necessarily,” said Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is in charge of the chemistry experiments. “It’s been exposed to the harsh Martian environment.”
The latest findings were presented Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The mission managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is trying to determine whether conditions on Mars could have been favorable for microbes when the red planet was warmer and wetter.
Storm delays lift U.S. auto sales
DETROIT (AP) — Superstorm Sandy gave an extra boost to already strong U.S. auto sales last month, although carmakers warned that uncertainty over the “fiscal cliff” could undo some of those gains.
Most major companies, from Toyota to Chrysler, posted impressive increases from a year earlier. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain its 3-percent sales gain and large inventory of unsold trucks.
Americans were already willing to buy a new car or truck last month because they’re more confident in the economy. Home values are rising, hiring is up and auto financing is readily available. Also, the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching a record 11 years, so many people are looking to replace older cars.
Sandy just boosted that demand. The storm added 20,000 to 30,000 sales industry wide in November, mostly from people who planned to buy cars during the October storm but had to delay their purchases, Ford estimated.
People who need to replace storm-damaged vehicles are expected to drive sales for several more months. GM estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles will eventually need to be replaced.
November sales, when calculated on an annual basis, are likely to be 15 million or more, the highest rate since March of 2008, according to LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area consulting firm. That’s higher than the 14.3 million annual rate so far this year, even though November is normally a lackluster month due to cold weather and holiday anticipation. Both GM and Chrysler predicted November sales would run at an annual rate of 15.3 million.
If sales end up at 15 million for the year, it would be a vast improvement over the 10.4 million during the recession in 2009. Sales would still fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005.
But the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations between Congress and the White House could still derail the industry’s recovery. The term refers to sharp government spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to start Jan. 1 unless an agreement is reached to cut the budget deficit. Economists say that those measures, if implemented, could push the U.S. economy back into a recession.
“Exactly how much growth we can expect next year will depend in part on how Congress and the president resolve the fiscal cliff issue,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. sales chief. “Markets and consumers hate uncertainty.”
McNeil and other GM executives tried to explain the automaker’s disappointing performance. GM’s biggest brand, Chevrolet, reported flat sales over last year despite new products like the Spark minicar. Silverado pickup sales fell 10 percent.
GM’s sales have been trailing the industry all year. They were up 4 percent through October, compared to the industry-wide increase of 14 percent.
GM said its competitors resorted to higher than usual incentives last month to get rid of 2012 model-year trucks. GM, which had more 2013 trucks on its lots, was only offering an average of $500 per truck, or a third of what others were offering. GM has been trying to hold the line on costly incentives, which can hurt resale value and brand image.
“We want to be known for great products, not great incentives,” McNeil said.
But some analysts think GM will be forced to offer more deals in December to clear out higher-than-forecast inventory.
Asian brands also got a boost from some unusually big discounts, said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for automotive pricing site TrueCar.com. TrueCar estimated that Hyundai and Kia, which were admonished by the U.S. government in late October for overstating gas mileage, increased incentive spending by nearly 30 percent. Nissan spending was up 45 percent to $4,273 per vehicle, by far the highest incentives in the industry.
Toyota said its 17-percent sales increase was partly due to post-Sandy demand. Honda was up 39 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Accord sedan and clearance deals on the outgoing Civic, which was replaced by a new 2013 Civic at the end of the month.
Luxury cars saw their usual yearend surge as holiday commercials started crowding the airwaves. Porsche’s sales rose 71 percent to 3,865, a record month for the automaker. Infiniti, Acura, BMW and Lexus all reported big gains.
Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell said luxury brands have historically targeted their customers at this time of year because of holiday bonuses. That’s no longer a driving factor, she said, but it’s still a good time of year for people to buy 2012 model-year luxury vehicles because dealers are trying to clear them out.
More heavy rain expected to hit drenched Calif.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Northern California residents recovering Monday from a series of wet, windy storms likely won’t get much of a break as another system is expected to drench the area.
Up to five more inches of rain could fall in the region beginning Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
The rain could be especially heavy at times in areas north of Redding and across the Sierra Nevada, meteorologist Dan Keeton said.
Still, it should be nothing like the downpours that left between 15 to 20 inches of rain in some areas over the five-day period that ended Sunday. Forecasters said the latest storm left the area faster than expected.
“It’s going to be significant, but less impactful,” Keeton said of the coming rain. “There will be some isolated impact in certain areas, but nothing as widespread compared to what we saw late last week.”
Pacific Gas & Electric crews continued to work on restoring power to about 12,000 users, a figure that was down from 57,000 on Sunday in areas stretching from Santa Cruz to Eureka.
Three powerful storms drenched the region within a week. Sunday’s storm dropped as much as an inch of rain an hour in some areas while toppling trees and knocking out electrical service to tens of thousands of people, officials said.
“I think everybody got nervous last week,” Keeton said. “These storms came with plenty of warnings, but it rained so hard at times that many were still left surprised by what Mother Nature can do.”
Rivers across Northern California swelled from the deluge but did not flood as much as expected. Flood warnings had been issued for the Napa and Russian rivers north of San Francisco, and for the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe.
In Napa, officials had handed out more than 8,000 sandbags and about 150 tons of sand, but the city appeared to avoid any major damage.
In Truckee, 30 miles west of Reno, city officials focused on snow removal instead of flood control after the town received 4 to 5 inches of snow early Sunday, said Assistant City Manager Alex Terrazas.
“We continue to keep an eye on the river, but things are certainly better than they could have been,” he said. “We’ll transition back to flood management if we need to.”
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