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Thursday PM February 25th, 2010

TCEQ renews air pollution permit for LyondellBasell refinery…Snowy weather in northeast to affect flights nationwide…Retail gasoline prices jump for first time in six weeks…


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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has renewed the ten-year air pollution permit for the largest refinery in the Houston area. Houston leaders sought a public hearing before the permit was renewed Wednesday for chemical company LyondellBasell Industries. TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw and Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein said they voted to grant the permit, without a hearing, because the company is not seeking an increase in emissions. Mayor Annise Parker says the city is considering its options, including asking the TCEQ to reconsider the plea for a hearing. LyondellBasell says its renewal application complied with the existing permit, plus the draft permit calls for a 31 percent reduction in benzene emissions over the previous annual cap.

Airline officials say hundreds of flights have been canceled as a snowstorm bears down on the northeast. A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says there’s no accumulation at the New York City area’s airports. But Steve Coleman says “hundreds of flights” have been canceled in anticipation of bad weather later on. Some flights in and out of Philadelphia have already been grounded as the snow falls. Southwest Airlines says it expects delays, diversions and cancellations in airports from Baltimore to Buffalo, New York, and has grounded most of its flights into and out of Philadelphia.

Continental Airlines says winter conditions forecast this week may make air travel difficult, especially some flights at Newark Liberty International Airport. Customers can reschedule their itinerary with a one-time date or time change and the change fee will be waived for those traveling to, from or through that New York area hub.

The number of new claims for unemployment benefits jumped unexpectedly last week as heavy snows caused layoffs to rise. A Labor Department analyst says Mid-Atlantic and New England states are still processing a spike in claims stemming from the bad weather two weeks ago. The department says first-time claims for unemployment insurance rose by 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 496,000. Wall Street analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected a drop to 455,000. The four-week average, which smoothes volatility, rose by 6,000 to 473,750. Continuing claims were essentially unchanged at 4.6 million. Initial claims are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies’ willingness to hire new workers.

Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods shot up in January by the largest amount in six months, but the strength came from a surge in demand for commercial aircraft. Demand for autos, machinery and a host of other products fell last month, indicating manufacturing is still facing hurdles that could slow the economic recovery. The Commerce Department reports that orders for durable manufactured goods jumped three percent in January, the biggest increase since a 5.8 percent increase last July. However, excluding transportation, durable goods orders fell by 0.6 percent, a weaker showing than economists had expected.

A government index shows home prices fell slightly in the fourth quarter of last year from the previous quarter, but remained stable. The Federal Housing Finance Agency said that prices, adjusted for seasonal factors, inched downward 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter. The index was 1.2 percent below last year’s levels. The government index is based on loans owned or guaranteed by mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It declined less than other housing market measurements during the housing bust because it excludes the most expensive homes and some of the riskier mortgages that fell into foreclosure.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda apologized personally and repeatedly to the U.S. and to millions of American Toyota owners for safety lapses that have led to deaths and widespread recalls. Lawmakers blistered the world’s largest automaker with accusations of greed and insensitivity. Speaking to a House panel, the grandson of the founder of the auto giant suggested his company’s ‘priorities became confused” in a quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns. Toyoda told the panel he was ‘absolutely confident” there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat. Some outside experts have suggested electronics may be at the root of the problems. Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.

Retail gasoline prices jumped across Texas and the nation this week for the first time in six weeks. The weekly AAA Texas survey shows regular unleaded jumped by seven cents this week to a statewide average of $2.53 per gallon. Nationally, the average price also jumped seven cents to $2.68 per gallon. A statement from the auto club cites as factors a jump in crude oil prices topping $80 per barrel, despite sluggish demand. The cheapest gas in Texas is here in Houston, where it rose seven cents to $2.49. The most expensive gas is in El Paso, where the average price rose four cents to $2.68 per gallon.

KBR has lost about $25 million in award fees from the government because of “failed” worked done in Iraq during the time a Green Beret was electrocuted in a barracks shower it was responsible for maintaining. The U.S. Army Sustainment Command says in a statement released to the Associated Press that the Houston-based company failed to meet a level deserving of an award fee payment for work it did during the first four months of 2008. It did not specifically mention the January 2008 death in its statement but says a task force that reviewed the death was consulted in making the decision as was the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, which investigated the case but did not press charges.

Becoming a Texas trooper can happen in just two months for experienced law officers. The Department of Public Safety announced an advanced eight-week trooper school for current Texas and eligible out-of-state law officers. A DPS statement said the two-month course for experienced officers is a first in the agency’s 75-year-history. DPS seeks to fill several hundred vacancies. The application deadline is March 31st. The first advanced recruit school will begin May 16th. DPS says qualified applicants will have an opportunity to select their duty station before starting the advanced course. DPS earlier this month announced it was cutting the regular trooper training period from 27 to 18 weeks, in an effort to attract more recruits and save money.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says the central bank is looking into Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms’ use of a sophisticated investment instrument to make bets that Greece will default on its debt. Bernanke says the Fed is looking into companies’ use of credit default swaps, a form of insurance against bond defaults. Bernanke made the comments at the start of a Senate Banking Committee hearing. The panel’s chairman, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, says he is troubled that this practice could worsen Greece’s debt crisis.

Rates for 30-year home loans rose above the five percent threshold for the first time in three weeks, but remained near historically low levels. The mortgage finance company Freddie Mac said that the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was 5.05 percent this week, up from 4.93 percent a week earlier. Rates had dropped to a record low of 4.71 percent in December, pushed down by an aggressive government campaign to reduce consumers’ borrowing costs. Freddie Mac collects mortgage rates on Monday through Wednesday of each week from lenders around the country.

Texas will invest $1.4 million as the social networking service Facebook plans to set up a sales and operations office in Austin. Governor Rick Perry announced the financing through the Texas Enterprise Fund, which is used to attract businesses to the state. The investment is expected to help create about 200 jobs. The TEF funding is conditioned upon the finalizing of an incentive deal with the City of Austin. Perry’s office says the Austin location will be the first major U.S. expansion of Facebook, which is based in Palo Alto, California.

Communities in West Texas will see expanded broadband Internet access thanks to an investment of more than $11 million by the federal government. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke says the Recovery Act funding will help bridge the technological divide, boost economic growth and improve education and health care in the region. State and federal officials say the funding will bring high-speed Internet access to more than 200 community institutions throughout the region, including schools, public safety organizations, health care facilities and government offices. The effort also will lay the groundwork for bringing affordable broadband service to homes and businesses. The funds will allow ENMR Telephone Cooperative to install miles of new fiber-optic lines.

The Houston Fire Department Sirens is presenting Camp Houston fire to encourage young women to consider the fire service as a career option. The camp, founded by female firefighters, is set for this weekend at the HFD Training Academy.

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