Tuesday PM February 5th, 2008

BP to boost E&P spending by as much as $3 billion in 2008; Judge delays making decision on proposed plea agreement...Fog-bound Houston Ship Channel reopened after being closed twice since Sunday...

BP said it will boost spending by as much as $3 billion this year to find more oil. The London-based firm said its Texas City refinery will increase production to almost full capacity by mid-2008. The refinery is still trying to return to normal operation after Hurricane Rita struck in September 2005, as well as damage from the March 2005 explosion.

BP reported a lower-than-expected 53 percent rise in fourth-quarter net profit. That's after a turbulent year in which the British oil giant lost its chief executive and wrestled with continuing operational issues. BP said net profit rose to $4.4 billion. Revenue for the fourth quarter, including asset disposals, rose 30 percent to 81.5 billion dollars. Over the full year, net profit fell 5.5 percent to 20.8 billion while revenue rose 6.2 percent to 291.4 billion. BP Chief Executive John Browne resigned last may after lying to a court in a bid to block stories about his private life. The company also has faced criticism over a March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others.

A federal judge in Houston has given victims of BP's 2005 plant explosion one more chance to argue why a guilty plea deal should be rejected. But U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal has delayed making a decision on whether to accept or reject the highly criticized plea agreement. A more than six-hour hearing was held Monday over terms of a plea deal related to the accident in Texas City. The fiery blast killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 people. The agreement proposes the London-based oil giant plead guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act and pay a $50 million fine for its criminal conduct in the blast. The company would also be on probation for three years.

The Houston Ship Channel reopened shortly after nine this morning after being closed to traffic because of fog a couple of times over the past two days. The 54-mile channel opened for just four hours on Monday after closing Sunday evening. It closed down again at about 4 p.m. until this morning's reopening, delaying 38 arriving and 31 departing vessels. The Coast Guard says the Ship Channel typically has 55 vessels moving through it each day.

An economic aid plan to send rebates of up to $1,200 to most taxpayers has passed a key test in the Senate. Senators voted 80-4 to advance the $161 billion economic stimulus package approved by the House last week. That sets the stage for a test-vote as early as Wednesday on a much larger proposal democrats are seeking. They want to add more than $40 billion in help for seniors, disabled veterans and the unemployed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week the Senate plan didn't have enough support to advance. But Monday he said a new proposal that includes $1 billion in heating aid for the poor and a housing rescue package included in the House bill could pass and be enacted quickly. President Bush's budget director says Bush believes the House bill is the right size but refuses to say whether the president will veto the larger one.

President Bush's record $3.1 trillion budget is getting a frosty reception from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The president says the plan is balanced and saves taxpayers money. It supports a surge in military spending while trying to save nearly $200 billion from health care programs. The top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, says Bush's 2009 budget has been "done with the understanding that nobody's going to be taking a long, hard look at it.'' He says the White House has played games to make the $3 trillion budget look better. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt says Bush's budget leads to more deficits, more debt, more tax cuts and more cutbacks in critical services. But Bush says the budget would eliminate or reduce 151 "wasteful or bloated'' programs, saving taxpayers $18 billion.

The School Land Board has rejected two private bids to buy about 9,200 acres of rugged west Texas state land. The move pushes to the forefront a proposal from the National Park Service to acquire the Christmas Mountains and add them to Big Bend National Park. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson had proposed the sale, but it was vigorously opposed by environmentalists. The board will now consider the National Park Service's plan.

Striking Hollywood writers remain on track for a possible deal with studios. That's according to two people familiar with the negotiations. And, one person says the agreement could be reached by the end of this week. But, a deal won't happen until specific language of a new contract is worked out. Informal talks with studio executives began January 23rd. The two sides made significant progress last week on the thorniest issue: pay for work distributed on the Internet.

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