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Wednesday PM June 4th, 2008

South Dakota voters approve first U.S. refinery in more than 30 years…United Airlines laying off 1,100; grounding less fuel-efficient planes…Administaff survey notes planned business expansions despite current economy…


Voters in Union County, South Dakota, have approved a plan to build the country’s first new oil refinery in more than 30 years. With heavy support from more urban voters, the plan to rezone 3,300 acres of farm land north of the town of Elk Point was approved 58 percent to 42 percent. Dallas-based Hyperion Resources has pushed to rezone the area for the $10 billion refinery. The firm calls it a step toward national energy independence. It now faces a lengthy air quality permit review by South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Meantime, opponents like Citizens Against Oil Pollution are considering next moves to block the project. One anti-refinery official predicts: “it’s going to be a long road before anything’s done on it.”

United Airlines confirms a number of moves to deal with skyrocketing fuel prices. The cost-cutting measures include more than 1,000 layoffs by the end of the year, parking 100 fuel-guzzling airplanes and slashing domestic capacity by 17 percent. The layoffs are on top of 500 staff cuts announced earlier. The carrier says the moves are designed to the help it weather what it terms an “unprecedented fuel environment.”

United is reportedly planning to ground dozens of its least fuel-efficient aircraft to conserve cash and cope with spiraling fuel prices. The Chicago Tribune reports United escalated the plan last month as the Chicago-based airline backed off a potential combination with US Airways. The Wall Street Journal reports the plan will lead to a large but undetermined number of furloughs of union workers and a major reduction of routes. A United spokeswoman has declined comment. The reports say United intends to retire 94 Boeing 737s. The airline had already planned to ground 30 of the decades-old aircraft. United also plans to ground some Boeing 747s, which are its largest jets.

Some 2,641 Texas companies were in research and development in 2005, according to an Ernst & Young report. The report was issued by group seeking a reinstatement of the federal R&D tax credit, which expired six months ago. The R&D Credit Coalition is a group of more than 100 trade and professional organizations and businesses.

Administaff says nearly 78 percent of small business owners and managers say their companies will meet or exceed growth expectations this year. About 44 percent of companies surveyed are hiring full-time employees. More than half say they are using pay incentives or providing new challenges or responsibilities to keep valued employees.

ExecuNet’s Recruiter Confidence Index climbed to a ten-month high in May, indicating an improved outlook for the executive search industry, despite the economy. Some 66 percent are confident or very confident the executive employment market will improve during the next six months—up from 61 percent last month.

The hiring of full-time accounting and finance professionals in Houston will increase in the third quarter, according to Robert Half International. The Financial Hiring Index indicates 14 percent of CFOs surveyed plan to add staff, while four percent anticipate declines. That’s about ten percent higher than national expectations.

U.N. Chief Ban Ki-Moon says $15 billion to $20 billion is needed each year to boost food production to combat hunger. The United Nations Secretary-General says most of that money would have to come from concerned countries. Ban spoke at a summit on the food price crisis. Delegates at the summit in Rome have been divided over the role that biofuels play in driving up food prices to the point of provoking riots in some countries. Ban says policy guidelines on biofuel production should be put in place because of its impact on food production.

The high price of fuel has touched off additional protests in Europe. Hundreds of fishermen clashed with riot police outside European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Police charged into the crowd with batons and riot shields after the protesters threw flares, firecrackers and rocks at the officers. In France, truckers and taxi drivers have staged “snail” protests, driving slowly to block traffic along a number of major roads and highways. Protesters have also blocked deliveries to and from an oil depot in eastern France and a river port in the city of Lyon. The French government is talking with the transport unions in an effort to prevent a nationwide strike. The protesters are demanding relief from the ever-increasing cost of fuel, which they say it wrecking their chances to make a living.

An O-ring in a flex joint has been replaced in a pipe that connects the Independence Hub natural gas platform to a 134-mile Enterprise Products Partners seabed pipeline. Up to two percent of the nation’s natural gas supply comes from the affected platform. Enterprise shut down the pipeline April 9th when the leak was discovered. Independence Hub is owned by The Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum.

Gas production has stopped at an Apache pipeline in Australia after a rupture that resulted in a fire. No one was injured, but 153 people were evacuated Tuesday from the Varanus Island gas processing and transportation hub offshore western Australia.

Waste Management has been named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute, according to the Houston Business Journal. Waste Management CEO David Steiner delivered the keynote address at the joint Ethisphere and Forbes conference. Steiner was named as one of Ethisphere’s “100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics” in 2007.

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