Friday PM January 25th, 2008

President Bush urges passage of unaltered economic stimulus package...Texas Supreme Court rules in favor of former BP Chairman Lord John Browne over testimony about Texas City refinery accident...Houston's exports increased 28 percent in 2006 figures...

President Bush is urging Congress to quickly pass the bipartisan economic stimulus package, saying only immediate action will jump-start the economy. He's telling Republican lawmakers that "it would be a mistake to delay or derail'' the plan by tacking on extra spending. Bush says he understands that both parties have a desire to add provisions to the package, but that doing so would be an error. Bush made the remarks to House Republicans gathered for a congressional retreat in West Virginia.

The Bush administration is warning the Senate not to tinker with the economic stimulus plan designed to pump about $150 billion into the economy this year. The White House is pressing for quick action and leaders in the House fear that if the Senate attempts to rework the legislation the deal could come apart. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino suggested that President Bush would be opposed to spending increases by the Senate. She says the current measure is one that will give the economy the boost that it needs, but only if it arrives on time. The measure--announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican Leader John Boehner and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson--would provide rebate checks to 117 million families and $50 billion in incentives for businesses.

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that former BP Chairman Lord John Browne cannot be questioned without limits about his knowledge of the oil giant's deadly March 2005 Texas City refinery accident. Attorneys representing injured workers and BP officials originally agreed that Browne would only have to answer questions about the accident that no other BP official could answer. The agreement also said Browne could only be questioned for one hour, by telephone. But State District Judge Susan Criss overruled that agreement, saying she wanted Browne deposed for as long as necessary, on any topic and in any location. The Supreme Court ruled Friday that Criss was wrong in ordering the unlimited deposition of Browne. Attorneys for injured workers contend Browne has unique knowledge about budget cuts, oversight of the refinery and other decisions that contributed to equipment failures at the plant southeast of Houston and caused the explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 170. BP has said Browne does not have unique knowledge about the accident and should not be deposed at all.

Lawyers say a fund set up to pay a lawsuit settlement over retirement funds lost when Enron collapsed--is more than $9 million short. Enron asked a federal judge in Houston to order the company behind the computer error to cover the deficit caused by the mistake. It's led to more than 20,000 former workers being overpaid or underpaid during initial distribution of the settlement. Enron lawyers point to a software glitch by Illinois-based Hewitt Associates. Hewitt says while Enron is the one obligated to fund any shortfalls, Hewitt has been working to reach an agreement that would allow for the immediate funding of the deficit. Hewitt is no longer the Enron fund administrator.

Department of Commerce data indicate Houston's exports increased 28 percent in 2006, according to the Houston Export Assistance Center. Exports that year jumped to $53.3 billion, making Houston second to New York City, which exported $66.2 billion in products. Chemicals accounted for $18.9 billion of the city's exported goods and were the top export that year. Petroleum and coal products reached $10.1 billion. The Greater Houston Partnership's vice president of international business credits free trade agreements with Mexico, Canada and Central America in helping boost Houston's exports.

Continental Airlines has doubled its fuel surcharge, raising round-trip fares by $20, to offset increased costs. The increase is the fourth tried by a major airline since the beginning of the year. Earlier attempts by American Airlines and United Airlines, the two biggest U.S. airlines, to raise fares by even larger amounts ahead of the past two weekends have failed. Airlines are under pressure from shareholders to increase fares to keep up with the rising price of fuel, one of the industry's biggest costs. A spokesman for Continental says the increase of $10 one-way and $20 round-trip affects all flights in the contiguous 48 states. He says it will be included in the total fare customers pay, not tacked on afterward. Increases by one carrier are typically matched by competitors within a matter of days. But as airlines jostle for customers in competitive markets, they often undercut rivals by rolling back higher prices almost as quickly as they are added.

Retail gasoline price levels continue to fall across Texas for a second week. The weekly AAA Texas gasoline price survey finds regular self-serve is averaging $2.90 in the 11 Texas cities surveyed. That's four cents less than last week but 85 cents higher than this time last year. Nationally, regular self-serve is averaging $3.01 per gallon, down about four cents from last week. Houstons average is down 3.5 cents to $2.88 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says news of high gasoline inventories and declining demand growth is softening prices. She also says the turmoil in the global financial markets may also be affecting crude oil and gasoline prices. El Paso has the cheapest gas in Texas with an average pump price of $2.83 per gallon--two cents less than last week. Austin-San Marcos has the most expensive gas at $2.94 per gallon--three cents less than last week.

Baker Hughes in Houston reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. jumped by 15 this week--to reach 1,747. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,699. Texas is down three. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944.

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