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Monday PM August 16th, 2010

Gulf shrimping begins for first time since BP spill; Obama administration announces revamped environmental review policy for offshore drilling…Fewer customers defaulting or making late credit card payments…Average price of regular gasoline rises 3.86 cents over past three weeks…



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The first commercial shrimping season since the BP oil spill is under way in the waters off Louisiana. And even if the shrimp are free of oil, it may be a challenge to get consumers to believe it. One seafood dealer says despite state and federal assurances that the seafood reaching the market is safe, demand dropped and prices fell about a month ago. Perhaps the biggest fear among shrimpers is that some fisherman might try to sell oil-contaminated shrimp. One shrimper says they’ve got enough trouble now without someone putting tainted product on the market. But he believes most of his fellow shrimpers know better. Health officials will be putting seafood from the Gulf of Mexico under the microscope like never before. Fish, shrimp and other catches will be ground up and analyzed to hunt for minute traces of oil.

Health officials will be putting seafood from the Gulf of Mexico under the microscope like never before as Louisiana shrimpers begin a new season and other commercial operations restart. Fish, shrimp and other catches will be ground up and analyzed to hunt for minute traces of oil — far more reassuring than that sniff test that made all the headlines. And while the dispersant that was dumped into the massive oil spill has consumers nervous, health regulators contend there’s no evidence it builds up in seafood. They’re working to create a test for it, just in case. More Gulf waters are reopening to commercial hauls as tests show little hazard from spilled oil. Experts say it’s too soon to know what safety testing will satisfy a public so skeptical of government reassurances that even local fishermen voice concern.

The final plug on BP’s blown-out oil well in won’t be finished until officials are convinced it’s safe to go ahead. Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told reporters that once the order to start the permanent fix is given, it will take about a week before the well is killed for good. But Allen says he doesn’t know when that will be. Scientists are working on strategies to continue without risking further damage to the well. Allen says there are two likely options right now. One would replace the existing equipment choking off the flow of oil, and the other would build a pressure relief system into the existing equipment. A cap has kept oil from flowing into the sea for weeks, but the government says a permanent plug is still needed.

The Obama administration will no longer allow new deepwater drilling projects to go forward without environmental reviews, as happened with BP’s Deepwater Horizon. The administration announced the new policy after the White House Council on Environmental Quality reported that BP got environmental exemptions based on decades-old data. The Interior Department said the policy would be in place pending full review of how environmental exemptions are granted. That could make it much more time-consuming for oil companies to pursue deepwater projects. Shallow-water drilling will also be subjected to stricter environmental scrutiny under the new policy. The biggest impact will be after the current moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf is lifted.

The man drilling the relief well meant to plug BP’s broken oil well says the 41st project of his career is the biggest. John Wright told the Associated Press from onboard the Development Driller III vessel that he gets satisfaction from seeing long projects completed. Wright is drilling a well that will allow mud and cement to be pumped in from below, plugging BP’s well for good. The 56-year-old Houston native has drilled 40 other relief wells, from Venezuela to Norway. But none have been as high-profile as this one. When the work is done, Wright says he plans to celebrate with a cigar, dinner with his crew and then a trip somewhere quiet with his wife.

An exploratory oil and gas well continued to blow wild, keeping six families out of their homes and shutting down one business along a two-mile stretch of Louisiana Highway 70 in Assumption Parish. Parish officials say crews were bringing in wooden mats and dirt Sunday for heavy equipment needed to cap the well. They say authorities are also discussing strategies including a relief well and a controlled burn. Crews have tried at least twice to set fire to the 200-foot plume of oil, gas, brine and other material from the well, which blew Wednesday. Nobody was injured in the blowout. The well is operated by Mantle Oil and Gas of Friendswood.

Consumers continue to better manage their credit card payments, with fewer customers in July defaulting or making late payments compared with the previous month. On-time payments have been on an upward trend over the last several months for many major card issuers. Discover Financial Services, Capital One Financial, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America all reported declines in July charge-off rates — those unpaid balances they have given up on collecting. Capital One’s improvement led the group, with its net U.S. card charge-offs falling to 8.1 percent of total balances in July from 9.3 percent in June. Card companies typically write off loans after they’re 180 days past due, the point at which it’s assumed the balances won’t be collected.

Federal regulators are proposing changes that would help consumers better understand their rights when disputing a credit report. The Federal Trade Commission says it is taking public comment over the next month on language that informs people about their legal rights to challenge information in a credit report. The proposed revisions take into account new rules on consumers’ rights and duties recently issued by the agency under a 2003 law. Stephen Brobeck, executive director of Consumer Federation of America, said the proposed changes are “a helpful fine-tuning.” Information in a credit report often can be the difference between securing a loan or being denied.

Homebuilder confidence dropped for the third straight month in August as the struggling economy and a flood of cheap foreclosed properties kept people from buying new homes. The National Association of Home Builders says its monthly index of builders’ sentiment about the housing market fell to 13, the lowest reading since March 2009. Builders say consumers are worried about the weak recovery and job market. Among those who are buying, many are opting for deeply discounted foreclosed properties. The industry had received a boost from federal tax credits of up to $8,000. But those expired in April. Readings below 50 indicate negative sentiment about the market. The last time the index was above 50 was in April 2006.

A new survey finds the average price of regular gasoline in the United States has gone up 3.86 cents in the last three weeks. The Lundberg survey of fuel prices released Sunday says the price of a gallon of regular rose to $2.77. Analyst Trilby Lundberg says the average price for a gallon of mid-grade was $2.91, and premium was at $3.02. Jackson, Mississippi, had the lowest average price among cities surveyed at $2.54 a gallon for regular. San Francisco was highest among surveyed cities at $3.21. In California, the average price for a gallon of regular was $3.13. Bakersfield had the state’s least expensive gas at $3.06 a gallon.

The Federal Reserve says banks have eased their lending standards for small businesses for the first time in nearly four years. In its new survey of bank lending practices, the Fed found that the easing in loan standards was occurring primarily at the country’s largest domestic banks. The Fed says it’s the first time it had found easier lending standards being imposed on small businesses since late 2006. The Fed defines small firms as those with annual sales of less than $50 million.

Dell says it’s buying data storage company 3Par for about $1.13 billion cash. The company makes products designed to minimize capacity and energy costs. Dell is offering $18 per share for 3Par, an 87 percent premium over Friday’s closing price for the company, based in Fremont, California. Dell, based in Round Rock, says it expects the deal to add to its adjusted profit in fiscal 2012. It says it also plans to invest in added engineering and sales resources in 3Par. The deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close this year.

Intel says it’s buying a Texas instruments unit that makes cable modem chips, which it intends to combine with its own processors for smarter modems and cable set-top boxes. The companies did not reveal the terms of the deal in the Monday announcement. Dallas-based Texas Instruments has supplied Motorola, Arris and Cisco’s Scientific Atlanta unit with chips for cable modems, representing much of the U.S. market. Santa Clara-based Intel says all employees of the TI unit have been offered positions. It expects the deal to close in the fourth quarter.

The TV audience is getting older. And executives who for years essentially stopped caring about viewers over 50 are thinking differently. The median age for viewers at those networks and CBS is now 51. The audience for networks like ABC, Fox and NBC has aged at twice the rate of the general population, according to a new report written for Baseline, an information source for the film and TV industries. The Census Bureau says the median age for the American population as a whole increased from 33 in 1990 to 38 last year. Some experts say networks need to attract younger viewers. But Alan Wurtzel, research chief at NBC, says not only are more older viewers available — they’re an audience that should be coveted. He says people in their 50s and 60s “Buy iPads” and go online, and they’re the people who have the money.

Many fruit and vegetable farmers in New England and the Midwest say they expect an early harvest this year — if it hasn’t already started. Early varieties of apples are already ripe for picking in many places. Sweet corn was a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, as were tomatoes, blueberries and peaches. And, if the warm weather holds, families might have Halloween pumpkins well before October. Julie Schmidt of the National Agricultural Statistics Service says it’s because the mild winter and warm spring let farmers plant early, and warm weather since has helped the plants’ growth. But there’s a down side too. Dave Flannery owns Apple Holler in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, and he says few people want to go apple picking when it’s 80 or 90 degrees out.

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