Thursday PM April 3rd, 2008

ConocoPhillips says higher crude oil prices are squeezing refining margins…Moncrief Oil sues Gazprom over Siberian gas field…Senate leaders agree on legislation to aid troubled housing market…

Houston-based ConocoPhillips warned that higher crude oil prices significantly squeezed refining margins in the first quarter. The energy company says domestic refining and marketing margins for the quarter are expected to be significantly lower than at the end of last year. ConocoPhillips blames higher crude prices and lower margins for products like fuel oil, natural gas liquids and petroleum coke. Margins were also hurt by unplanned downtime at the company’s British refinery and its U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. ConocoPhillips is the nation’s third-largest U.S. oil producer. It reports full first-quarter earnings on April 24th.

The German subsidiary of Fort Worth-based Moncrief Oil is suing Russian energy giant Gazprom over ownership rights to a Siberian gas field bought in the late 1990s. Moncrief Oil International says it filed the lawsuit in a Tarrant County state district court in Fort Worth over Gazprom’s use of confidential information in a 2005 lawsuit. That previous suit was thrown out of court. Moncrief says it obtained 40 percent exclusive ownership of the Yuzhno Russkoye gas fields from Gazprom. In exchange, it provided the Russian energy conglomerate with know-how and business plans. The value of the stake is estimated at around $8.5 billion.

A court-appointed expert says Chevron should pay up to $16 billion for allegedly polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon. The San Ramon, California-based company is being sued by 30,000 jungle settlers and Indians in a class-action over all the toxic wastewater left in the jungle. The multi-billion dollar damage total was added up by geological engineer Richard Cabrera. The court confirmed to the Associated Press on Wednesday that he turned in his report, which has not yet been approved by a judge. Plaintiffs lawyer Pablo Fajardo says Cabrera recommends Chevron pay at least $8 billion in damages, and possibly another $8 billion representing company savings by operating recklessly.

Senate leaders have agreed on legislation hoping to aid the troubled housing market. The proposal released by Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell is aimed at boosting demand for housing and helping homeowners saddled with subprime mortgages avoid foreclosure. The plan contains $4 billion in grants to local governments to buy and refurbish foreclosed homes, new authority for states to issue bonds to be used to refinance subprime mortgages and a $7,000 tax credit for people buying new homes or properties in foreclosure. Reid says he hopes the measure will quickly pass, though it faces a flurry of amendments from senators in both parties.

Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell says the world’s number two computer maker is committed to reducing costs and improving the company’s competitiveness. He made the comment at the Round Rock-based computer maker’s first full analyst meeting since 2005. Dell addressed the ongoing turnaround of the computer giant, which was eclipsed as the world’s largest personal computer maker in 2006 by Hewlett-Packard. He says company leaders have “identified a very significant opportunity here and are aggressively going after it.” He says that leadership is “not satisfied with the current state of affairs, and we are on a mission to address this.” Dell aims to cut $3 billion in costs over the next several years to boost profits. The company this week announced plans to cut 900 jobs in the Austin area by closing a plant, and also reaffirmed the plan announced last year to slash nearly 9,000 jobs.

ATA Airlines scrambled to help stranded customers traveling after the company filed for bankruptcy and canceled all of its flights. Advisories are posted at ticket counters in the handful of cities the airline served. Once the tenth-largest airline in the nation, ATA is in bankruptcy for the second time in three years. It’s blaming the new setback on the loss of a military charter business. ATA flew about 50 flights a day, mostly between Hawaii and Oakland, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The airline’s 2,200 employees are being notified that their services are no longer needed. Like other airlines, ATA has struggled in a weak economy with soaring fuel prices.

Liverpool Football Club co-owner Tom Hicks saw his first game in three months and declared himself delighted with the team as it nudged closer to champions league glory. Although the quarterfinal with Arsenal is tied 1-1, the Reds took the advantage of an away goal into Tuesday’s second leg. The match had threatened to be overshadowed by a visit by warring American owners, but snow in Colorado prevented Liverpool co-owner George Gillett, Jr., from attending the game. Liverpool went behind to Emmanuel Adebayor’s powerful header in the 23rd minute, but hit back inside three minutes. Captain Steven Gerrard embarked on a mesmerizing run when ended with Dirk Kuyt equalizing. Hicks last saw the Reds in December, when they went down 1-0 to Manchester United. The Dallas businessman and owner of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars later told the Associated Press that the team lacked a winning mentality. The same criticism could have been leveled at Wednesday’s team. But despite having little attacking impetus in the second half, Liverpool held on thanks to scrambled goal-line clearances. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also cited favorable refereeing.

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