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Tuesday PM April 13th, 2010

Oil prices called “overheated” by International Energy Agency…Mayor Parker receives award…University of Houston Energy program receives $2.5 million from DOE…



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The International Energy Agency says oil prices are “overheated” at around $85 per barrel. The Paris-based agency also reports that OPEC posted the first significant drop in output in March in more than a year–largely due to a near ten-percent drop in production in Iraq alone. In its monthly oil market report issued Tuesday, the IEA said that operational problems and weather-related export disruptions at its southern terminals drove down Iraqi output. The IEA estimates global demand in 2010 at 86.6 million barrels a day, about 30,000 barrels a day more than in last month’s report.

The Interior Department says it will study how other countries collect oil and natural gas royalties to determine whether the United States can increase money collected from energy leases. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he wants to ensure that U.S. taxpayers receive a fair return from energy resources developed on public lands and from offshore drilling. The study follows a 2008 Government Accountability Office report that showed the United States consistently near the bottom when compared with other countries in revenue received from oil and natural gas leases. President Barack Obama said late last month he will open a huge swath of east coast waters and other protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to drilling.

Interior Secretary Salazar says government scientists have until October 1st to determine what research gaps remain in determining the effects of offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean. Salazar said that the U.S. Geological Survey will examine research already done on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Then they’ll decide what still needs to be studied to better determine the environmental effects of drilling and challenges from the climate change that has stressed the ecology of Alaska’s coastal waters. At the same time, the Minerals Management Service plans to run its own environmental scoping and hold public meetings on potential lease sales for arctic offshore development under the five-year leasing plan that’s set to begin in 2012.

The U.S. trade deficit widened more than expected in February as exports rose to the highest level in 16 months but this gain was offset by a bigger jump in imports, reflecting increased demand for consumer goods from televisions to clothing. The wider deficit was a sign of a rebounding U.S. economy. Economists expect the trade deficit to rise this year but hope that expanding exports will continue to lift the fortunes of American manufacturing companies. The Commerce Department reported that the deficit for February increased 7.4 percent to $39.7 billion. That was larger than the $38.5 billion deficit economists had expected. Exports edged up 0.2 percent while imports jumped 1.7 percent.


Small businesses are still waiting for the economic rebound that’s enabled larger companies to obtain low-interest credit and to boost exports and production in recent months. Smaller companies aren’t much more optimistic than they were in the depths of the recession, according to a survey released by the National Federation of Independent Business. That pessimism is slowing job creation and likely weakening the recovery, economists say. The NFIB’s small business optimism index fell 1.2 points to 86.8 in March, its 18th straight month below 90. That’s a sharp contrast with other surveys showing larger companies rebounding. “The March reading is very low and headed in the wrong direction,” says William Dunkelberg, chief economist at the NFIB.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker is receiving the Small Business Advocate Award at the Partner America Business Conference this afternoon at the Omni Hotel on Riverway. The award, from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Partner America, recognizes Parker’s understanding of the role of small businesses. Partner America is a public-private partnership created by the Conference of Mayors and others to help small businesses utilize resources and programs offered by government agencies, as well as private management expertise.

Top banking industry executives say they are skeptical about helping troubled borrowers by forgiving a portion of their debt. The executives are telling lawmakers they are reducing the amount that troubled borrowers owe on their home loans only in limited cases. That’s because consumers who are paying their mortgages on time are likely to see such reductions as unfair. “We are concerned about large-scale, broad-based principal reduction programs,” says David Lowman, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase’s mortgage business. Those programs “could be harmful to consumers, investors and future mortgage market conditions,” he told the house Financial Services Committee. Such programs “could raise issues of fairness,” says Sanjiv Das, Citigroup’s top mortgage executive.

Online messaging service Twitter is introducing advertising, allowing companies to pay to have their messages show up first in searches. The feature is called Promoted Tweets. Twitter says Best Buy, Sony Pictures, Starbucks and Virgin America are some of the advertisers. San Francisco-based Twitter has grown quickly in popularity, but hasn’t had a real way to make money. The eventual introduction of advertising comes as no big surprise. Analysts have long speculated about when and how Twitter was going to start making money off its popular service.

Toyota says it’s concerned about the test findings that caused Consumer Reports to give a rare “don’t buy” rating to its Lexus GX 460. Consumer Reports says the large SUV has handling problems that could cause it to roll over during sharp turns. Toyota says it takes those test results “seriously”–and that its engineers will try to duplicate those tests to determine the next steps. The company adds that the GX 460 still “meets or exceeds” government testing requirements. The warning is the latest blow to Toyota’s tarnished safety reputation, after the recall of millions of cars and trucks over gas pedal problems. An analyst says the “don’t buy” label isn’t likely to hurt Toyota’s broader sales, since the GX 460 accounts for just a fraction of its total. But he says it’ll have a bigger impact in “negative PR.”

A top Ford executive says the automaker’s revenues rose in the first quarter. Americas President Mark Fields says Ford’s U.S. market share gains in the first three months of the year were the highest they have been since 1977. Ford saw gains across its lineup, but particularly in pickups and commercial trucks. Ford is benefiting from new products as well as Toyota’s misfortunes. Ford is among the brands that shoppers turned to after Toyota recalled millions of vehicles because of safety problems.

The University of Houston Energy program has received a $2.5 million stimulus award from the Department of Energy to develop a Smart Grid workforce training program. The program involves the Smart Grid Energy Training Coalition, which includes the university, as well as CenterPoint Energy, San Jacinto College, the Power Technology Institute, SkillsNET and the Texas Business and Education Coalition. The DOE award will fund training programs supporting electricians, line workers, technicians, system operators, power system engineers, cyber security specialists and transmission planners.

The U.S. Chemical and Safety Hazard Board has launched a national initiative to raise awareness about deadly explosions involving teens, hoping to discourage youth from choosing oil field sites as “hang outs.” During a news conference in Hattiesburg, CSB officials unveiled a video detailing the deaths of Devon Byrd and Wade White, two teens killed after an oil storage tank exploded in Carnes, Mississippi, in 2009. The initiative also includes a push for stronger laws and regulations to secure oil field sites, and a request for the industry to police itself when it comes to safety measures. CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz says the campaign comes after their research found at least 36 teenagers and six young adults had died in similar explosions over past 30 years.

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