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Friday PM June 4th, 2010

Cap siphoning some oil and gas to tanker; Oil now washing shore on Gulf Islands National Seashore…Retail gasoline prices dropping across Texas for sixth consecutive week…Texas Emerging Technology Fund invests in four Houston-area companies…



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Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen says a cap started siphoning oil and gas to a tanker on the surface overnight. A very rough estimate of how much is being collected is about 42,000 gallons a day. A main pipe on the blown-out well was sliced a day earlier to allow the pipe to be placed over the gusher.

Scientists with the University of South Florida say laboratory tests for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have confirmed that oil has accumulated in at least two extensive plumes deep underwater. The researchers said in Baton Rouge that tests confirmed their initial findings that were based on field instruments. The researchers say the extensive layers of oil are sitting far beneath the surface miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Gooey blobs of oil tar are washing ashore in growing numbers on the white-sand beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore as a slick from the BP spill approaches the Florida panhandle. County emergency officials reported that spotters who had been seeing a few tar balls in recent days found a substantially larger number early this morning along the national park shore and nearby beaches. The park is a long string of connected barrier islands near Pensacola. Keith Wilkins from Escambia County Emergency Management said tar patties were are pretty thick on parts of the beach, as much as one every foot. Officials have said oil will eventually wash up on panhandle beaches after a slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill was spotted several miles offshore this week.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas says this demonstrates that when federal inspections are waived, the opportunity for the government to be able to react is diminished.

“And so now we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on the very people who’ve created this problem. Obviously, the most important thing is to stop the spill. Second most important thing is to make sure it never, ever, ever, happens again, if humanly possible. But I hope the lesson that people learn is not that we shouldn’t continue to explore for and develop American power sources, because if that’s the lesson we learn, I think we will have caused ourselves even more harm, in terms of our dependence on imported oil from abroad from dangerous parts of the world and in terms of the jobs that it will destroy here in Houston, all along the Gulf Coast. That would be, add insult to injury.”

A federal panel of about 50 experts is recommending the continued use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil, despite its harm to plankton, larvae and fish. Panel member Ron Tjeerdema says they decided the animals harmed by the chemicals underwater had a better chance of rebounding quickly than birds and mammals on the shoreline. Tjeerdema chairs the Department of Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Davis. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked for the panel to be assembled to provide the federal government and BP with guidance on whether they should continue to use the controversial dispersants. Officials have released nearly 1.8 million gallons of chemicals on and in the water since the April 20th blowout.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is rejecting a more forceful role for the military in plugging the oil leak. Gates says the deep-water disaster is beyond the military’s expertise. Oil company BP is using its own equipment to try to stop the leak–equipment the U.S. military does not have. Speaking in Singapore, where he is meeting with Asian defense officials, Gates said that the U.S. military is ready to do whatever it can to respond. But he also said there isn’t much the military can do beyond providing some manpower.

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward says that cleanup and containment costs for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will be “severe” but has declined to put a figure on the total bill. In a briefing to investors, Hayward said he expects costs to continue at current rates until well after the company stops the flow of oil. Company executives are striking a penitent note in the Webcast update to shareholders, stressing their commitment to restoring BP’s tarnished reputation, improving safety measures and restoring the damaged Gulf Coast. Hayward says that the spill could impact production by 50,000 barrels per day in 2011.

BP is establishing a $360 million escrow account to fund a project to build six sand berms that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal hopes will protect the state’s wetlands from the growing slick. The company says it approved the accounts. The announcement came hours after Jindal urged the British oil giant to start doling out the payments immediately.

Retail gasoline prices have dropped across Texas for a sixth consecutive week. The weekly AAA Texas price survey shows the average price of a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline fell a nickel to $2.62. Nationally, the average price fell four cents to $2.71 per gallon. The cheapest gasoline in Texas is in the Fort Worth-Arlington area, where the average price fell 7 cents to $2.56 per gallon. The most expensive gasoline in the state, as usual, is in El Paso with a price average of $2.71 per gallon, down four cents. The auto club statement notes that crude oil prices have hovered around $74 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down $13 from six weeks ago.

The May jobs report is out, and while it looks good on the surface, economists say there are problems underneath. The Labor Department reports a wave of census hiring helped add 431,000 jobs to the economy last month. But, almost all of those–some 411,000–are the temporary government jobs. Job creation by private companies grew at the slowest pace since the start of the year. Private employers added just 41,000 positions. The overall unemployment rate dipped to 9.7 percent, but that was largely the result of more than 300,000 people giving up their search for work. Analysts say the numbers indicate that many private employers remain wary of adding to their work forces, and the economic recovery may not bring relief quickly for the 15 million people who remain unemployed. Economist Paul Ashworth says, while the economic outlook is improving, “the recovery is still pretty tepid.”

President Barack Obama says the addition of 431,000 new jobs in May shows “the economy is getting stronger by the day.” Speaking at a trucking company outside Washington, Obama embraced the Labor Department’s new employment snapshot. Obama notes that the economy has seen job gains for five straight months after devastating losses from the recession. He says the recovery is still in its early stages, and that it will be uneven in the months ahead. The president says that even though the census jobs are only temporary, private sector hiring is growing, too.

Chrysler is recalling nearly 35,000 Dodge Calibers in the United States and around the globe to fix a potential problem with sticky gas pedals, the same issue that has affected millions of Toyotas. Chrysler says it will recall about 25,000 calibers in the U.S. from the 2007 model year and a limited number of 2007 Jeep Compass SUVs to inspect vehicles built between March and May of 2006. The remaining vehicles are in Mexico, Canada and elsewhere. Chrysler says the pedals were made by the same Indiana company that made pedals involved in a recall of more than two million Toyotas earlier this year. Chrysler says the SUVs have “smart brake” technology allowing the brake to override the gas pedal.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund is investing in four Houston-area companies to develop and commercialize their technologies. Ensysce Biosciences will develop its carbon nanotube technology as a delivery agent for cancer therapies. Leonardo BioSystems is also working on cancer treatments. Nano3D Biosciences is receiving funding for the commercialization of its in vitro cell culturing technology. And Veros Systems is receiving help for its Smart Electrical Interface technology for monitoring industrial machinery, helping identify problems before a component breaks.

Tomato prices skyrocketed just three months ago, but they’re falling now with an unexpected glut in Florida. The sunshine state is the only place in the U.S. where tomatoes are grown on a large scale during winter. But even there, cold weather in January and February killed plants and caused a shortage that had some grocers charging nearly $4 a pound. Now that the weather has warmed, Florida farmers are seeing their surviving plants mature and tomatoes ripen all at once. That’s caused a glut, and farmers who were getting $30 for 25 pounds in March are now averaging only about $4.75. Supermarket prices are falling too. Some farmers say they’ll leave their tomatoes in the field, rather than sell them at a loss.

The University of Texas at San Antonio is about to get $50 million for sustainable energy research. Power provider CPS Energy has committed to give the school the money over a TEN-year period to support a new energy research institute. The $50 million is the largest commitment of outside money the university has ever received. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro says the deal will give ratepayers a more efficient utility while boosting the university’s research profile and helping with economic development. UTSA President Ricardo Romo says the research agreement may be “the biggest, most exciting thing” that’s happened in the school’s history.

Does your health improve or decline during bad economic times? Some economists argue that lost jobs can mean lost health insurance. People without money to spare sometimes skimp on buying medication they need or can’t afford gym memberships. But another school of economists believe health improves during hard times. Idled factories spew less pollution and fewer people commuting to jobs means fewer traffic deaths. Laid-off workers also have more time to exercise and cook for themselves and less money to eat out. An Associated Press analysis of economic data and death rate estimates from the past two years suggests that in the latest downturn, at least, economic stress appears to be linked to worse health.