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Friday PM February 9th, 2007

Stockholders seek freeze of BP chief’s retirement benefits…Three Houston refineries on list for cancer-causing emissions…Texas gasoline prices edge upward… Two large BP stockholders asked an Alaska court today to freeze millions in retirement benefits for outgoing chief executive John Browne, saying he does not deserve compensation in light of recent crises at the oil giant’s […]


Stockholders seek freeze of BP chief’s retirement benefits…Three Houston refineries on list for cancer-causing emissions…Texas gasoline prices edge upward…

Two large BP stockholders asked an Alaska court today to freeze millions in retirement benefits for outgoing chief executive John Browne, saying he does not deserve compensation in light of recent crises at the oil giant’s facilities in Texas and Alaska. At stake is at least $140 million in cash bonuses as well as stock, stock options, long-term performance pay and pension benefits. That’s according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. The motion, filed in Alaska’s Superior Court, asks that Browne’s retirement package be placed in a court-approved trust while shareholders litigate with BP over alleged violations of worker safety and environmental protection laws. The lawsuit was brought by the London Pensions Fund Authority and the U.S.-based Unite Here National Retirement Fund. The lawsuit bases its claims on the partial shutdown of the massive Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska last year–and a refinery explosion in Texas City that killed 15 people and injured more than 100 others in 2005. Browne is scheduled to leave the CEO position by the end of July.

Three refineries in Houston are among the top ten in the nation for cancer-causing emissions in 2004, according to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project. Using data supplied by the companies to the Environmental Protection Agency, the top polluter was BP’s Texas City refinery, followed by Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery. Lyondell’s Houston refinery placed at number four on the list from the Washington, D.C.-based group. Three other Texas refineries are in the top ten—two in Corpus Christi and one in Tyler.

Texas retail gasoline prices are on the rebound after a five-week fall. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey finds regular, self-serve gasoline retailing for an average of $2.07 per gallon statewide. That’s up four cents from last week. The national average is $2.20 per gallon–also four cents higher than last week. Houston’s average is at $2.04 a gallon, up almost three cents. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says pump prices rose in every Texas city surveyed this week. The most expensive gasoline in the survey was in Amarillo, where regular is averaging $2.16 per gallon. That’s up five cents from last week. The cheapest gas remains in Corpus Christi at an average price of $1.99 cents–despite a six-cent jump.

American consumers are feeling more confident. They’re feeling good about job prospects, investment opportunities and the overall economic climate. A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll puts the consumer confidence level at the highest it’s been in two and a-half years. The improved confidence comes as prices for energy and other goods settle down and as interest rates hold steady.

British bus and train operator FirstGroup has agreed to buy U.S.-based bus company Laidlaw International. The $2.7 billion deal would include Dallas-based Greyhound, which Laidlaw owns. FirstGroup will pay 11 percent above Thursday’s closing price for Naperville, Illinois-based Laidlaw. The company will finance the acquisition with a $3.75 billion bank loan and the sale of $393 million worth of shares. Laidlaw has a 27 percent share of the North American school bus market, while FirstGroup has 13 percent. Laidlaw generates 84 percent of its revenue in the United States and 16 percent in Canada, with school transportation services accounting for half of the total. Greyhound contributes 40 percent of the company’s total revenue, while public transit operations add ten percent. FirstGroup is the largest bus operator in Britain, operating a fifth of local bus services. The company expanded into the United States in 1999 by acquiring Ryder Public Transportation Services.

Testimony resumed in Reno, Nevada, in the civil discrimination trial against the Walgreens drug store chain. That’s after one of four black Houston men suing the chain apparently suffered an asthma attack during a break in the trial yesterday. Bruce Johnson was taken by ambulance from the courthouse after he’d just given tearful testimony. Later, the Washoe County District Court Judge presiding over the multi-million dollar case evacuated the courtroom because others also were feeling ill. The turn of events capped an extraordinary day in court in which Judge Janet Berry gave a “final warning” to the plaintiffs and their lawyers that she was close to granting Walgreens’ request for a mistrial. Johnson and the three other Texas men say they were called a racial slur and denied service at a Walgreens drug store in Reno in February 2003.

Southwest Airlines plans to resume flights to San Francisco International Airport early this fall. The airline didn’t announce details or set a date for resuming flights. It says it’s still talking with airport officials. The Dallas-based low-fare carrier had ended those flights in 2001 after 20 years of service. Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said San Francisco International “has improved operationally and is a more cost-efficient airport” than it was back then. He says that back then, limited facilities and runways meant Southwest couldn’t operate profitably in San Francisco and had no chance to expand beyond 14 daily flights. Southwest flies to San Jose and Oakland, two smaller airports with less congestion than San Francisco. Southwest says resumed service to San Francisco wouldn’t affect operations at the other two bay area airports.

Middle Eastern air carrier Emirates plans to being three weekly non-stop passenger service from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai International Airport in December. Flights will be 15 hours one direction and 17 hours the other direction. The carrier plans to offer daily flights from Houston by February 2008.

East Texas is famously dense with pine forests, pit barbecue joints–and, with any luck soon, a lot of old folks and their money. It’s a region flush with cheap homes and lush rural landscapes but short on economic growth. So east Texas leaders are hatching a plan: sway the nation’s aging baby boomers to spend their nest eggs there. Athens, Lufkin and Nacogdoches County are three of east Texas’ most populous areas. They’re also the state’s first Texas certified retirement communities. That seal of approval–along with a $5,000 check to the state’s agriculture department–provides marketing help and prominence on a Web site the agency hopes to launch later this year. The program is similar to other states’ efforts to lure retirees and their disposable income. If successful in east Texas, the reputation as a retirement haven could bring a welcome new image for a region still hogtied by stereotypes of racial intolerance and cultural inelegance. But there are other east Texas stereotypes that backers of the retiree push are eager to perpetuate–like good old-fashioned southern hospitality.

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