Thursday PM August 24th, 2006

BP again reduces output from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay...CenterPoint Energy rate case settlement could result in slightly lower electricity costs...Galveston judge finds no evidence that Wal-Mart threatened workers over back pay lawsuit...

Production at the nation's largest oil field has been reduced again. According to a spokesman for BP, this time the problem is a compressor. Production at Prudhoe Bay was running at about half its normal rate, after pipeline corrosion led to a small oil spill this month. That prompted the shutdown of the eastern half of the oil field, where BP Alaska is now working to replace 16 miles of corroded pipe. BP was able to produce 200,000 barrels a day from the western half of the field, but has now dropped that by 90,000 barrels. It says the latest problem will take several days to repair.


A ship captain from Tennessee says he's sipping champagne and celebrating freedom. Royce Parfait and five other foreigners who were kidnapped in Nigeria's oil hub were set free Wednesday. A government spokesman says the six were released in the Port Harcourt area. Nigeria's oil hub has been rocked by 16 kidnappings in the past two weeks. Nigeria's president declared a crackdown last week.


Settlement of a rate case involving CenterPoint Energy will result in slightly lower electricity costs for customers in the Houston area. The Public Utility Commission has finalized a settlement that will reduce Houston-based CenterPoint's annual revenues by nearly $68 million. CenterPoint operates power lines, poles and electric meters in the Houston area and serves more than 1.7 million households. A company spokesman says whether a customer's bill is reduced will depend on if retail electricity providers pass on any of the savings resulting from the settlement. Reliant Energy has said it will give customers a credit of about $25 annually--for the next four years. About $10 million of the reduction will go to help low-income customers. Another $10 million is earmarked for energy-efficiency programs.


Two administrative law judges have recommended TXU be denied a permit for its proposed Oak Grove coal-fired power plant. The facility is planned in Robertson County, near Franklin. The recommendations now go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The judges in Austin say Dallas-based TXU failed to demonstrate that the plant would use the best available control technology for reducing pollution. TXU says it disagrees with the recommendation and will continue to make its case with regulators. The site for the proposed unit is about 55 miles southeast of Waco.


U.S. Magistrate Judge John Froeschner in Galveston said he finds no evidence that Wal-Mart threatened workers to keep them out of a lawsuit over back pay, according to Bloomberg. He rejected a request to an order barring store managers from contacting cashiers asked to join the suit. The workers said managers told employees to sign statements that they never did "off the clock" unpaid work, after attorneys sent notices about the suit to more than 100,000 employees in Texas. Lawyers for the Galveston workers said they were threatened with firing if they refused to sign. Two cashiers signed affidavits alleging intimidation or retaliation after receiving the notices, but their attorneys said they were afraid to appear at the hearing.


Continental Airlines says a jetliner returned to the gate at New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport today after pilots reported smoke inside the craft. No injuries were reported. Continental spokeswoman Sarah Anthony says Flight 411 to Houston had 107 passengers and crew aboard. The spokeswoman for the Houston-based airline says the jet left its gate just before noon and returned soon after. The cause of the smoke in the Boeing 737 is not known. The passengers were put on another airliner.


Lockheed Martin says it'll cut about 300 jobs in the next few months, now that much of the design work on a fighter jet is complete. A formal note to employees was issued yesterday at the Lockheed Martin aeronautics assembly plant in Fort Worth. A Lockheed spokesman says the company will offer career-transition assistance to employees affected by the reductions. The layoffs--including employees and contractors--will probably occur through the first quarter of next year. The F-35 lightning two fighter jet program was launched in 2001. That was after the Pentagon awarded a team of aerospace companies headed by Lockheed the prime contract for development of the next-generation fighter and attack jet. In the following months, Lockheed added many of the 4,000-plus people now working on the program. The first test airplane has been built. The first test flight, once scheduled for late summer, is now expected to take place by mid-November.


The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association wants to raise rates 20 percent for homeowners and 23 percent for commercial properties. The state's insurer of last resort for windstorm damage insures properties in 14 coastal counties, including a part of Harris County. The windstorm pool is asking the Texas Department of Insurance for the higher rates because its exposure to losses has grown to $38 billion--larger than it could handle if a hurricane strikes Galveston. Allstate and other smaller companies have dropped wind coverage for Texas coastal customers.


Houston will acquire a nearly 4,800-acre park from the state and partner with Montgomery County to operate it. A ceremony is scheduled tomorrow for the ownership transfer of Lake Houston State Park, located 30 miles north of Houston. Mayor Bill White says the transfer is a wonderful opportunity for Houston and surrounding counties to preserve green space and to increase tourism and economic development. The facility will be renamed Lake Houston Park. It offers camping, nature study, bird watching, hiking and biking. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has managed park land since 1981.

A state report released today says Texas should spend all of the estimated $105 million collected annually on sporting goods sales taxes to revitalize state parks. The report by the State Parks Advisory Committee says the state parks system is beset by crumbling facilities, staffing shortages and reduced hours of operations. The state parks advisory committee unveiled its recommendations as discussion of state parks funding heats up this summer as a campaign issue for November. Texas Parks and Wildlife officials have struggled to maintain the 600,000-acre parks system of canyons, rivers and trails. That's as lawmakers have consistently raided the sales tax fund to use the money for something else. The sporting goods sales tax for parks was created in 1993. But lawmakers have capped the amount used for state parks at $32 million and diverted the rest elsewhere. They spent even less this year--$20.6 million.


Thousands of ex-convicts crammed into a Dallas gymnasium Wednesday for a job fair meant to help them get on with their lives. They interviewed with stores, temporary agencies, restaurants and any other business willing to overlook a felony record. Twenty-four-year-old Ameka Woodard was one of an estimated 5,000 people who showed up to seek jobs. Woodward says she'd sweep, clean--anything. She says everybody has personal issues and problems. People crowded tables spread around the gym at the event co-sponsored by a radio station, Christian ministries and advocacy groups for former inmates.


The Houston chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators names its 2006 Executive Communicator of the Year tonight--not last night as earlier reported--in a ceremony at Champions Pavilion in Minute Maid Park.


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