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Wednesday PM July 7th, 2010

Feds ask courts for reinstatement of deepwater drilling ban…NASA contractor to lay off about 15 percent of shuttle-related workforce…Sierra Club and Environment Texas give ExxonMobil notice of intent to sue over Baytown refinery pollution…


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Federal authorities have asked an appeals court to reinstate a moratorium on deepwater drilling declared after BP’s oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. In a filing in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the government challenged a federal judge’s finding the Interior Department did not offer clear reasons for the six-month moratorium. A lawsuit against the moratorium was filed by Hornbeck Offshore, an oil field service company that claims it would have severe economic consequences. Government lawyers said in their filing that the company, and others that later joined the suit, had not shown they would suffer permanent damage. They argued the moratorium should be reinstated while the government appeals the lower court’s ruling.

The Associated Press reports more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico. An AP investigation finds that no one is checking to see if they are leaking. The oldest of these wells were abandoned in the late 1940s. The review came as oil continues spewing following the April rig disaster in the Gulf. The AP investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of the neglected wells — those characterized in federal government records as “temporarily abandoned.” Regulations for temporarily abandoned wells require oil companies to present plans to reuse or permanently plug such wells within a year. Oil company representatives insist that the seal on a correctly plugged offshore well will last forever. Regulatory officials say Texas alone has plugged more than 21,000 abandoned wells to control pollution. Offshore, but in state waters, California has resealed scores of its abandoned wells since the 1980s.

Governor Rick Perry says a new group will work to come up with better and safer ways of drilling and producing oil and natural gas in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. Perry says the Gulf project will focus on developing and testing current equipment, as well as new technologies. The Gulf project will include researchers, policy experts and state officials — and Perry called on the oil and gas industry to join. Meanwhile, Perry cautioned against stopping offshore oil drilling because of the April 20th spill. The fiery rig accident killed 11 workers. The GOP governor criticized the Obama administration’s effort to implement a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. Federal lawmakers and officials from drilling companies who attended a round-table discussion at the University of Houston echoed Perry’s criticism. A federal judge in New Orleans last month struck down the moratorium. The government has appealed.

Deckhands and laborers who get paid in cash and don’t have any way to prove losses in the BP claims process could be the hidden victims of the spill. Attorneys and aid workers say there are a variety of reasons some people may not come forward to make a claim. Some lack tax returns and other documentation they need. Others are overwhelmed by the paperwork. Some don’t want to admit they can’t read. And some worry that their failure to pay taxes on past cash income might get them in legal trouble. Charitable groups are trying to find and help such people. One group, Horizon Relief, is contacting seafood-related businesses along the coast, seeking information on employees who might need help.

NASA’s top space contractor plans to lay off about 15 percent of its shuttle-related workforce, effective October 1st. United Space Alliance, based in Houston, is day-to-day manager of the U.S. space shuttle fleet and handles NASA’s international space station planning, training and operations. It’s a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The alliance says 800 to 1,000 shuttle-related workers in Florida, 300 to 400 in Texas and about ten in Alabama will be laid off. Just two missions remain in the shuttle program, scheduled for launch no sooner than November 1st and February 26th.

Environmental groups are accusing the nation’s largest oil refinery of violating thousands of federal air pollution laws over the past five years. The Sierra Club and Environment Texas have given ExxonMobil official notice of their intent to sue over their Baytown refinery. The groups’ attorneys say Exxon’s plant has emitted ten million pounds of illegal pollution in the last five years, including cancer-causing benzene and butadiene. The Clean Air Act has a provision allowing private citizens to bring an enforcement suit in federal court after providing 60 days notice. This tactic has worked before. The environmental groups recently reached a $5.8 million settlement with Shell. Last August, they sued ChevronPhillips. The Sierra Club’s Neil Carman says Exxon has had the benefit of running the country’s largest oil refinery under air pollution rules so weak they wouldn’t be allowed in any other state. The 2,400-acre Baytown complex near Houston has been operating under controversial “flexible permits” issued by Texas regulators, which have been criticized by the EPA for failing to set strict emission limits.

Imperial Sugar has reached a settlement with federal regulators seeking to fine the company for safety violations after a 2008 explosion at its Georgia refinery killed 14 workers near Savannah. It’s been nearly two years since OSHA proposed $8.7 million in fines against Sugar Land-based Imperial Sugar for more than 200 safety violations at its plants in Georgia and Gramercy, Louisiana. The company contested the fines and citations, leading to long settlement talks. The February 7th, 2008, explosion killed 14 workers and injured 36. Investigators determined that dangerous levels of sugar dust accumulated inside the plant and ignited like gunpowder.

Applications for home loans rose last week as consumers raced to refinance at the lowest rates in decades. The Mortgage Bankers Association says overall applications increased nearly seven percent from a week earlier. Applications to refinance home loans were up nine percent, but new mortgages taken out to purchase homes fell two percent. Those applications have fallen in eight out of the last nine weeks. They were 35 percent below last year’s levels. The average rate for a 30-year fixed loan sank to 4.58 percent last week, according to Freddie Mac. That was the lowest since the mortgage company began keeping records in 1971.

AT&T says a software defect in its network is limiting upload speeds on the latest iPhone model in some areas. It’s the latest glitch to hit the iPhone 4, which went on sale in the U.S. two weeks ago. Last week, Apple acknowledged that holding the phone in a certain way might reduce its wireless performance, and that all iPhones show the wrong signal strength in some situations. AT&T said that a software glitch in network equipment made by Alcatel-Lucent is to blame for limiting the upload speeds of the iPhone 4. AT&T says a fix is in the works.

If you have a billion dollars, we have something for you to consider. The Texas Rangers are expected to go on the auction block next week after an unexpected snag in the team’s bankruptcy plans. Major League Baseball has set strict guidelines for potential bidders, including a $1.5 million deposit and an opening bid of more than $500 million. A group led by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and a Pittsburgh attorney is seen as a likely buyer. Angry team creditors say their bid shouldn’t have been accepted in the first place. The bankruptcy judge still has to approve the July 16th auction.

An international watchdog says unemployment in rich countries may have peaked — but they must create 17 million jobs if they want to return to pre-crisis employment levels. The U.S. accounts for more than half of the jobs deficit — with ten million missing jobs. In Europe, Ireland needs to create one job for every five that exist today — 320,000 positions — to reach 2007 levels. Spain has lost 2.5 million jobs, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD said in a report that there are 47 million unemployed in its 31 member countries — the world’s most developed economies. The report says including those who have given up looking for work or who are underemployed, the figure could be as high as 80 million.

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