Congress moves closer to opening up more of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling…Number of Americans filing for jobless benefits tumbles; online recruitment picks up…Port of Houston Authority receives first cargo vessel at new Bayport Container Terminal…
An agreement on a tax package today moved Congress closer to opening a vast area of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling. That area of the Gulf is 125 miles south of the Florida panhandle. Both the House and Senate attached the drilling legislation to a package of popular tax measures expected to win approval by week’s end. That’s as Republicans wrap up the 109th Congress and turn control over to Democrats next year. The drilling legislation also revamps revenue sharing from Gulf oil and gas production, sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The money’s for restoring coastal wetlands and repairing hurricane damage. Environmentalists opposed the measure, calling it a gift to large oil companies. But drilling supporters argue it would provide access to badly needed energy resources, especially natural gas, and perhaps drive down prices.
The government reports the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits has taken the biggest tumble in six months. The total number of fresh claims dropped last week by 34,000 to 324,000. That’s the biggest drop since early June. The less volatile four-week moving average for jobless claims edged up slightly to nearly 329,000, the most since May. Friday morning, the government releases the monthly employment situation. Analysts are looking for a slight rise in the unemployment rate to 4.5 percent.
Online recruitment activity picked up last month as employers stepped up their year-end and Christmas season hiring efforts. The Monster Employment Index rose three points–to 175—the highest reading since its inception in October of 2003. That’s a year-over-year increase of 26 points. Company officials say it’s the largest gain for the index in three months, and reflects a seasonal pattern of increased online recruitment efforts. Demand increased for workers in industries such as transportation and warehousing.
Gunmen attacked an oil export terminal early today in Bras, Nigeria, taking three Italians and a Lebanese hostage and killing a possible bystander. Another Lebanese worker was wounded in the firefight, according to Italy’s Foreign Ministry. The terminal belongs to the Agip subsidiary of Italy’s Eni. Militant groups have attacked pipelines this year and taken workers hostage in violence that has cut crude output by about 25 percent from Africa’s largest producer. Such attacks usually aim to take foreign hostages who can be traded for ransom or political influence. Most oil workers kidnapped over the past year have been safely released. Militants have said their attacks and kidnappings are a protest on behalf of a region that has seen little improvement from the oil revenue it produces.
South Korean prosecutors said today they’ve preliminarily concluded Lone Star Funds colluded with government and bank officials to manipulate the Korea Exchange Bank’s financial picture. The prosecutors say the effort was to make it appear the bank was insolvent so the Dallas-based private equity firm could buy it for less than its fair value. Lone Star bought a controlling stake in the bank for $1.5 billion in 2003. It stood to make a hefty profit when it signed a deal in may to sell its entire 71 percent stake in the bank to top South Korean lender Kookmin Bank for more than $7 billion. But a high-profile probe by prosecutors into the deals prompted Lone Star last month to terminate the contract to sell KEB. Under South Korean regulations, an investment fund cannot take over a bank unless the bank is determined insolvent. Lone Star has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
A request from federal prosecutors to streamline their pending fraud case against three former British bankers has been approved by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein, with the support of defense attorneys. The three are accused of colluding with former Enron finance chief Andy Fastow. Prosecutors had asked to strip the 2002 indictment of allegations that the three failed to provide honest services and seek to prove that they simply stole $7.3 million that should have gone to their employer. The honest services issue led to an appeals panel overturning fraud and conspiracy convictions in a 2004 Enron case.
A regional waste authority in Connecticut has agreed to a tentative $21 million settlement with former bond lawyers involved in a failed $220 million deal with Enron, according to published reports. The Hartford Currant reports that the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority could return part of the settlement to 70 member towns claiming they’re paying higher fees because of the unsecured loan made to Enron in 2001. Attorneys representing the 70 towns that ship their garbage to the state trash agency say they want millions more in similar payments from other lawyers and banks involved in the transaction. The authority has managed to recoup $111 million from distribution of Enron’s assets.
The Port of Houston Authority today received its first cargo vessel at the new $1.2 billion Bayport Container Terminal. The “Orca” was guided into port and into its berth by tugboats as the first test of the new terminal’s docking operations. The new terminal is slated to begin offloading cargo beginning next month. The Bayport project, which also includes a new cruise terminal, began in June 2004. It will eventually have the capacity to handle seven container vessels and will have a 378-acre storage yard. San Antonio-based Zachry Construction is the primary contractor for the first phase of the project.
The Environmental Integrity Project says a survey shows the majority of Texans are against Governor Rick Perry’s plan to fast track at least 12 new coal-fired power plants. The group says their Opinion Research survey shows only 14 percent favor the approval process. The governor’s office says the survey questions were written in such a way as to guarantee the outcome that the poll’s backers were seeking. The EIP is a non-profit organization established by a former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Regulator Enforcement.