Friday PM April 4th, 2008

Attorney for BP victims deposes former chairman Lord John Browne by telephone…Unemployment rates jumps to 5.1 percent…AAA says Houston's gasoline average up almost four cents in one week…

Attorneys for victims of BP’s 2005 Texas City plant explosion say they have questioned former company chairman Lord John Browne about his knowledge of the accident. Brent Coon, one of the attorneys for those killed and injured in the blast took Browne’s deposition by telephone. Coon was in Houston while Browne was in London. Victims’ attorneys have been trying to question Browne since 2006, claiming he has unique knowledge about budget cuts and other company decisions that contributed to equipment failures at the plant and created the conditions that caused the explosion. BP has maintained that Browne had no unique knowledge of the blast that couldn’t be obtained from lower-level executives. But Coon counters that Browne ordered budget cuts in the years before the blast that prevented proper maintenance and upgrades. The accident killed 15 workers and injured more than 170.

Employers slashed 80,000 payroll jobs in March, the most in five years and the third straight month of losses. The unemployment rate jumped to 5.1 percent. The new employment figures sounded the loudest warning yet that the country could well be in a recession. The Labor Department reported that the seasonally adjusted civilian unemployment rate jumped from 4.8 percent in February to 5.1 percent in March. Though the figure is relatively moderate by historical standards, it was nonetheless the highest since September 2005, a time of job losses related to the devastating blows of Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Home Depot may be cutting jobs, as it attempts to boost customer service. It has told about 2,200 employees that they could affected by a restructuring of human resources work, which will be completed this month. A spokeswoman says while there could be job cuts, the exact number is not known. Home Depot says it wants to have more employees on the floor to assist customers. Back in January, Home Depot said it was cutting 500 jobs at its headquarters. Before that, it cut nearly 1,000 jobs as it closed call centers used for home installation work.

The AAA Texas Gas Price Survey finds that regular self-serve averages $3.21 per gallon statewide this week. That’s a four-cent increase from last week. Nationally, the average price rose two cents to $3.29 per gallon. Houston’s average is up 3.8 cents to $3.22 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says crude oil prices remaining above $100 per barrel will keep gasoline prices at Texas pumps from falling before next month’s Memorial Day weekend. The cheapest gas in this week’s Texas survey is in Corpus Christi, where regular self-serve prices remain virtually unchanged at $3.14 per gallon. The most expensive gas is in Amarillo, where the price average rose a nickel from last week to $3.25 per gallon.

Whistleblowers who exposed maintenance and inspection problems at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines told Congress that their jobs were threatened. Those whistleblowers also said their reports of noncompliance were ignored for years by their superiors. Federal Aviation Administration inspector Douglas Peters choked up at the hearing in Washington. Peters then described how an ex-manager came into his office, commented on pictures of the Peters family being most important–then said his job could be jeopardized by his actions. Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar said the FAA managers displayed “malfeasance bordering on corruption.” The FAA last month took the rare step of ordering an audit of maintenance records at all domestic carriers following reports of missed safety inspections at Southwest. Southwest was hit with a record $10.2 million fine.

The three-day Rice Business Plan Competition is underway, offering $675,000 in prizes to teams of graduate-level students who are pitching business plans. Participants present ideas that can compete in the market, conduct market research and identify opportunities and demonstrate management capability, financial understanding and investment potential. Thirty-six teams from around the world are competing. The competition is hosted by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University’s McNair Hall. The Rice Alliance supports the creation of technology-based companies and the commercialization of new technologies.

The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States rose by 22 this week to 1,830. Houston-based Baker Bughes reports that of the rigs running nationwide, 1,458 were exploring for natural gas and 362 for oil, ten were listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count stood at 1,726. Texas gained 23 rigs. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, at the height of the oil boom. The industry posted several record lows in 1999, bottoming out at 488.

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