Wednesday AM May 28th, 2008

ExxonMobil shareholders brace for fireworks…Congressional report: terrorists could exploit gaps in port security…METRO holding public hearing on light rail's Southeast Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement…

It’s likely to be a raucous shareholder meeting for ExxonMobil in Dallas today. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson will have a fight on his hands to keep the two top jobs at the world’s biggest publicly traded oil company. Members of the Rockefeller family and other shareholders are pushing to separate the roles. Rockefeller family members and others have said they’re concerned Irving-based ExxonMobil is too focused on short-term gains from soaring oil prices. They think the company should do more to invest in cleaner technology for the future. Separating the leadership roles, they argue, would better position the company for challenges to come. Tillerson has served in both roles since 2006. He received a compensation package last year valued at about $21.7 million. John D. Rockefeller is the founder of ExxonMobil predecessor Standard Oil.

One Senator calls it “shocking” that the Department of Homeland Security can’t “get its act together.” Democrat Charles Schumer of New York is reacting to a Congressional report that says terrorists could exploit gaps in the department’s program that’s supposed to strengthen port security. The report looks at a federal program established after 9-11 to deter a potential terrorist strike via cargo passing through the nation’s airports, seaports and designated land borders. The report points to gaps in the port program that could potentially let terrorists smuggle weapons of mass destruction in cargo containers. Schumer says DHS has “passed the buck on port security by allowing shipping companies to police themselves with almost no oversight.” The Government Accountability Office says the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Program relies too heavily on self-reported information from those involved. Some 8,000 importers, port authorities, and air, sea and land carriers are getting benefits such as reduced scrutiny of their cargo. The GAO also says that companies can be certified for reduced customs inspections before they’ve fully improved their security. The report notes that customs employees are not required to use third-parties or other security audits. Customs officials agree they need to do more follow-up on security improvements.

A New York state judge says Dell engaged in repeated false and deceptive advertising of its promotional credit financing and warranty terms to consumers. State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi says New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo showed “many customers” are entitled to
restitution, but the record was insufficient to determine how much. When Cuomo sued the computer maker last year, Dell spokesmen said the company’s conduct had been honorable, customers were its top priority, and it had six million transactions in New York between 2003 and 2006. Cuomo said in May 2007 his office had received 700 complaints against Dell and they were still coming in.

The Supreme Court says workers who face retaliation after complaining about race discrimination may sue their employers under a Civil War-era law. The court says in a 7-2 ruling that retaliation is another form of intentional, unlawful discrimination that is barred by the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It was enacted to benefit newly freed blacks. Business groups objected that the law does not expressly prohibit retaliation and said employees should have to file suit under another law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law has a shorter deadline for filing suit and caps the amount of money that a successful plaintiff may recover. The Bush administration was on the side of the workers.

Customers of Houston-based National Power are being transferred to other providers because the company cannot comply with its obligations. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says the Public Utility Commission would not let the company raise its rates. National Power told its 15,163 customers earlier this month it would not honor fixed-rate contracts.

METRO is holding a public hearing this afternoon on light rail’s Southeast Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement at Texas Southern University’s Science and Technology Building on Cleburne. The document is available online. METRO’s board of directors decided to build light rail transit (LRT) rather than the initially-approved bus rapid transit (BRT) in the corridor, based on further analysis of forecasted ridership and costs. METRO is collecting comments through June 11th.

The Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority is considering a three-year security contract at its Wednesday morning meeting. Commissioners are considering a staff recommendation to award a $14.3 million contract to Day & Zimmerman for unarmed, uniformed security guard services at PHA terminal gates.

A two-day conference to evaluate claims over Arctic natural resources, including oil and natural gas in the North Pole waters, gets underway this week in Ilussissat, Greenland. Denmark, Norway, Russia, Canada and the United States are taking part. The Arctic shelf could hold ten billion tons of oil equivalent, according to Russia, as well as gold, nickel and diamonds. The United Nations is accepting scientific data from the five countries until 2014 before deciding on ownership. Countries have rights to economic zones in the Arctic within 200 miles of their shores.

The nation’s largest airlines employed fewer pilots and maintenance workers last year. It’s a lightening of the labor load many expect to continue as carriers consider consolidation and the industry buckles under record-high fuel prices. The number of pilots dipped by about 1.8 percent to 63,648 last year from 2006. Airlines also employed about 70 fewer maintenance workers for a total of 43,490, according to data released by the Transportation Department. American Airlines cut back on both pilots and maintenance workers.

Harris County’s 2008 market values show an average 34 percent increase in commercial property appraisal values, according to Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. Bettencourt notes these are pre-protest appraisals. They represent an increase in the average appraised value per commercial property account from $980,986 to $1,316,452 in just one year. The 34 percent average countywide increase for commercial property values compares to a six percent average increase in residential home values.

Dynegy is selling its Rolling Hills power generation facility to an affiliate of Omaha-based Tenaska Capital management, according to the Houston Business Journal. The natural gas-fired plant in Ohio is a peaking facility with an 815-megawatt summer capacity.

Houston-based Spectra Energy has received a $3.4 million grant from the provincial government of British Columbia, according to the Houston Business Journal. Spectra will determine if deep underground saline reservoirs near its Fort Nelson natural gas plant are suitable for carbon capture and storage.

Food banks are being pressured as an increasing number of people turn to them for help in a sagging economy. The pressure comes as food prices increase and inflation-adjusted earnings drop. And while demand is up, food bank supplies and donations are down. America’s Second Harvest-the Nation’s Food Bank Network has spent a year asking lawmakers to increase the annual level of funding for the emergency food assistance program. A recent survey showed that 99 percent of their food banks have seen a surge in the number of clients. In response, Congress boosted funding from $140 million to $250 million, but that money won’t be available until October.

Wealthy Mexicans are seizing on a slowing U.S. economy to achieve their American dream. That’s even as their poor countrymen cross the border to take
advantage of higher wages and a social safety net in pursuing their own dreams. Anyone unfamiliar with the U.S.-Mexico border region might expect that private investment only flows from north to south. The Mexican side of the south Texas border is loaded with factories that U.S. companies have opened since NAFTA cleared the way for them to take advantage of inexpensive labor. But between the two countries, billions of dollars are moving in both directions each year. In south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Mexicans and their corporations are pouring their money into real estate, businesses and retail shopping on the U.S. side. Factors at work in the money streaming north include valuable real estate at reasonable prices, a desire to access U.S. consumers, and opportunities created by a cooling economy and weaker dollar. Other enticements are such amenities as shopping, South Padre Island and putting distance between their businesses and the kidnappings and drug cartel violence.

Some police departments are easing off the gas pedal in favor of the bike pedal. Officers from Iowa to Virginia are going on bike patrols to save gas. In Bedford, Virginia, Lieutenant Jim Bennett is in charge of the department’s bike unit. He says putting officers on two wheels not only saves money, it also increases police visibility. Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle sells more than 1,000 police bikes a year. They cost about $1,000 each. The bikes have one special feature that’s probably not on your bike–a silent gear hub that won’t give officers away.

Long Islanders are getting an unintended break at the gas pump. It seems some Getty stations in the New York suburbs can’t reset the dollar figure on the pumps from $3 to $4. The manager of a Northport station, Vic Beeman, says the pumps are about 60 years old. He adds no one knows how to work the sprockets and springs. People are lining up at the Getty stations to get the cut-rate gas. They’ll keep getting the bargain price until a maintenance company can help reset the pumps.

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