Monday PM July 2nd, 2007

Congress investigates BP natural gas facility in Alaska...Continental prepares for contract talks with pilots...Texas Workforce Commission replaces traditional paper unemployment checks with debit cards...

Congress is investigating allegations that a natural gas processing unit run by BP at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay field is holding nearly double its safe capacity. The facility was designed to contain no more than five billion cubic feet of compressed gas. But inventories have reached 9.2 billion cubic feet. Details are in a letter sent last week by California Congressman George Miller to BP and the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Miller is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which in March held a hearing on the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City plant. That fiery accident killed 15 people and injured 170. A spokesman said BP is investigating the worker safety concerns and will take action where appropriate. A representative from Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Clark Bishop's office didn't immediately comment.

Continental Airlines says it has entered an agreement outlining the schedule for contract talks with the union representing its pilots. The Houston-based airline said the protocol agreement set the stage for it to begin discussing non-economic contract issues with the Air Line Pilots Association. Continental said the union asked the company to begin discussions earlier than the April deadline in order to complete the process by the contract's December 31st, 2008, amenable date.

The Texas Workforce Commission has launched Unemployment Insurance debit cards to replace traditional paper unemployment checks, as the agency's Diane Rath explains.

"The Workforce Commission has printed our last check! We started our statewide rollout in early June, and it is completed and implemented statewide, s o everyone should be receiving their benefits on the debit card at this time. It's the first time the Texas Workforce Commission has used the debit card or any kind of electronic fund transfer for a payment of our benefits. It's been done in a couple of other states very successfully. We've used it in Texas for the past couple of years to deliver food stamp benefits and we did a pilot in April. That was very successful and had minimal issues for us to address in San Antonio region. We have been educating folks using the card for the past several months, and we realize that some of the tweaking needed to be done to make it a little easier for them to understand, to have a better understanding of when the debit card would arrive. But other than that, it's been very successful. In fact, we've had really good customer response to it."

Texas will save money by distributing unemployment insurance payments electronically rather than by mail. Rath says streamlining the unemployment insurance process can help make work search the main focus. She says Texas employers are continuing to add jobs at a record pace, helping claimants re-enter the work force quickly.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has earmarked $33.5 million in funding for the Houston Ship Channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District will receive $16.3 million for general construction and $17.2 million for operations and maintenance.

Dominion Resources says will sell its natural gas and oil exploration and production operations in the nation's midsection to Houston-based Linn Energy for more than $2 billion. The move is aimed at completing its transition into a company focused on energy infrastructure. Dominion says the sale of its mid-continent operations, primarily in Oklahoma, is expected to close by the end of the third quarter. Last November, Dominion said it would pursue the sale of most of its exploration and production assets. It wants to focus on power generation and electricity and natural gas distribution, transmission, storage and retail businesses. The company is retaining its Appalachian E&P operations and about a trillion cubic feet equivalent of reserves, primarily natural gas.

The manufacturing sector of the economy had its best monthly gain in June since the spring of last year. The Institute for Supply Management, a private research group, says its index of manufacturing activity moved to 56 last month from 55 in May and 54.7 in April. Readings above 50 point to expansion in activity. The overall index came in better than expected. In a Dow Jones Newswires survey, analysts were projecting a reading of 55. Inflationary pressures cooled a bit last month, with a prices index reading of 68 after 71 in May and 73 in April.

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