Monday PM April 6th, 2009

ExxonMobil plans no staff or investment cuts…Halliburton moving out of downtown Houston…Negotiations continue between AT&T and CWA…

The head of ExxonMobil says the company is not planning to shrink its staff or cut back on investments because of the global economic downturn. Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson says the world’s largest publicly traded oil company expects to spend $129 billion on new projects over the next five years. That figure “spans across the entire scope” of the Irving-based company’s business, including oil and gas exploration as well as refining. Last month, Tillerson said ExxonMobil’s capital spending would hit $29 billion this year, up from the $26.1 billion it spent in 2008. He said spending levels would likely stay in the $25 billion to $30 billion range through 2013.

Halliburton, which recently opened a second corporate headquarters in Dubai, says it’s moving its corporate headquarters out of downtown Houston—a move that will affect some 5,200 employees. The company is consolidating its five campuses to two sites by 2013, including a 94-acre North Belt campus near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Halliburton is redeveloping its 41 acre Oak Park campus at Beltway 8 and Bellaire in Westchase. Halliburton also has a manufacturing facility in The Woodlands.

Union employees have continued showing up for work at AT&T beyond the weekend deadline for agreement on a new contract. But the Communications Workers of America says on its Web site, “that can change at any time.” The union says employment security and health care are still holding up the talks on new contracts to replace those that expired at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. It also reports several of its districts have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing AT&T of refusing to provide information necessary to resolve outstanding issues. AT&T says such charges are “very common” during negotiations. AT&T’s Larry Solomon says phone service will not be interrupted if there’s a strike.

image of speaker, click to listen“In the event that CWA leaders call for a strike, the company does have in place plans that allow us to continue to serve customers.”

The union is resisting AT&T’s push to have workers and retirees pay more for their health care, which the company says costs $5.5 billion per year. The company says other remaining stumbling blocks include wages, pensions, and work rules.

A tally by the Houston Business Journal shows more layoffs. Sun Microsystems is laying off 27 Houston-area employees in Greenway Plaza between May 30th and June 13th. UnitedHealth Group is eliminating 74 positions from its office on Bissonnet. Equistar Chemicals is laying off four workers from its Beaumont/PD glycol plant on May 25th. And Schlumberger is laying off 55 employees at its plant in Midland.

Ritz Camera is closing four of its Houston stores as part of a nationwide move to shutter 300 stores in its Chapter 11 reorganization. The outlets closing are in Katy and Missouri City, as well as outlets on Westheimer and San Felipe.

More residents of Hurricane Ike-swamped Galveston have opted to return home as rebuilding continues. CenterPoint Energy reports the number of electric customers has reached 85 per cent of pre-storm levels. Texas gas service reports 78 per cent of pre-Ike customers have reconnected. The Galveston County Daily News reported that city officials feared only about two-thirds of the residents would return after Ike hit on September 13th. Galveston had about 57,000 residents prior to Ike. City Manager Steve LeBlanc puts the current population at about 40,000. LeBlanc last week told the Galveston City Council that the figures are a good indication of the number of people who plan to return.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Pentagon will end the F-22 fighter jet and presidential helicopter programs run by Lockheed Martin. Military analysts widely expected the radar-evading supersonic jet — considered an outdated weapon system designed for the Cold War — would not go beyond the 187 already planned. The planes cost $140 million each. But Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, the nation’s largest defense contractor, has said almost 95,000 jobs could be at stake if the Pentagon didn’t buy more of the planes. The new fleet of presidential helicopters — with a price tag of $11.2 billion that was nearly double the original budget — also were considered at risk to be cut in the 2010 budget.

Federal and state officials say they are cracking down on mortgage modification scams that target the Obama administration’s efforts to make home loans more affordable. The Treasury Department says “criminal actors” are seeking to take advantage of the administration’s efforts to help modify or refinance seven to nine million mortgages and prevent home foreclosures. The department says it is alerting banks to potential frauds, while the Justice Department has convicted several scam artists in recent months. The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, has filed five new civil cases to halt illegal loan modifications.

Carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants dropped 3.1 per cent last year, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. But six states had increases of one million tons or more, including Texas, with 1.7 million more tons in 2008. The report says the drop in the overall average is due to a drop in electrical generation—electric output was down about 3.3 per cent, according to EPA data. Texas tops the list of CO² emissions, and the state with the largest increases over the past decade, with 26.9 million tons.

A joint report from the University of Texas and an environmental group urges state planners to conserve both water and energy. The report claims that improving water conservation will cut power demand and that upgrades in energy efficiency will decrease water needs, allowing Texas to utilize “finite supplies of both” and cut consumers’ costs. One recommendation in the report, which the Environmental Defense Fund helped prepare, requires studies to determine how much water is available for use at new fossil-fueled or concentrated solar power plants. A bill before legislators pertaining to the recommendation is scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday in Austin.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says windmills off the East Coast could generate the same amount of electricity as 3,000 coal-fired power plants. He also says domestic oil and natural gas drilling will continue to be part of the nation’s energy equation. The secretary spoke at a public hearing in Atlantic City. The hearing is the first of four to be held around the country to discuss how energy resources such as oil, gas, wind and waves should figure into the Obama administration’s energy policy. Salazar also is exploring what to do now that a moratorium on offshore oil drilling has expired. Environmentalists want to bar oil and gas drilling off the East Coast. The industry says oil and gas drilling can be safe.

The U.S. recession apparently has taken some of the hassle out of flying. Details come from private researchers in their annual study of airline quality. Overall the airline industry had its best performance in 2008 in four years. Consumer complaints for the 17 airlines included in the study dipped from 1.42 per 100,000 passengers in 2007 to 1.15 in 2008. Dallas-base Southwest Airlines had the best rate, only 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passengers; US Airways had the worst rate, 2.25. Half of all complaints involved baggage or flight problems such as cancellations, delays or other schedule deviations. Fort worth-based American Airlines, the nation’s largest air carrier as measured by passengers flown the most miles, had the worst on-time record, arriving on time only 69.8 per cent of the time. All the airlines did a better job handling baggage. AirTran Airways did the best job, with 2.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers; American Eagle Airlines did the worst, at 9.89. The study, compiled annually since 1991, is based on Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least one per cent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by St. Louis University in Missouri and Wichita State University in Kansas.

Sallie Mae says it will be bringing 2,000 jobs to the U.S. within the next 18 months as it shifts call center and other operations from overseas. The nation’s largest private student lender, also known as SLM, has more than 8,000 employees nationwide. The Reston, Virginia-based company runs facilities in 20 U.S. locations including Lynn Haven, Florida; Fishers, Indiana, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Newark, Delaware; and Killeen, Texas.

Property values are soaring in the West Texas community of Sterling City—and the reason is obvious. Looming on the horizon are hundreds of newly-built wind turbines. Ordinarily, much of the tax dollars generated by the turbines would go to the state’s “Robin Hood” school finance plan. The measure requires property-rich districts to share their wealth with those less fortunate. But the Associated Press reports that won’t happen in Sterling City — at least not if school officials have their way. The district is among the dozens that have cut agreements for wind farms. The deals give the energy companies operating the turbines massive tax breaks. In return, the school districts get part of the savings — all of it beyond “Robin Hood’s” reach. AP, using data from the state Comptroller’s Office, found that the agreements will allow 44 school districts to receive nearly $248 million over ten0 years. Another 21 school districts have made similar deals. School officials believe their districts — many of them small, rural and historically lacking in resources — deserve a payday of their own. But some watchdog groups and lawmakers contend that the windfall should be included in the state program to equalize funding for all students. Dick Lavine with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities says the districts are giving away the state’s money — and the state has nothing to say about it. The money is being channeled back to the school districts, known as payments in lieu of taxes, or pilot agreements.

Pasadena-area residents now have a Park & Ride option along State Highway 225 between Pasadena and downtown Houston. Harris County Transit and Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County say the 244 Monroe/Pasadena Park & Ride will operate four morning trips and five afternoon trips each weekday. It targets commuters in Deer Park, Galena Park, La Porte and surrounding areas along State Highway 225.

A free forum on patenting inventions is being held Tuesday at the Rockwell Pavilion in the MD Anderson Library for University of Houston faculty, staff and students. It’s a brown bag lunch, with patent attorney Dr. Benjamin Adler discussing the process from application to patent issuance. Dr. Emmanuelle Schuler from the UH Center for Industrial Partnerships will discuss UH policies and procedures on intellectual property.

There’s not much on tap this week in terms of economic reports. Thursday, the Labor Department reports on new claims for unemployment benefits, while the Commerce Department releases figures on the trade gap.

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