Thursday AM September 20th, 2007

Weather evacuations underway from oil facilities in eastern Gulf of Mexico...House approves plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure...NASA accepting applications for 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class at Johnson Space Center...

Shell Oil has begun evacuating non-essential personnel in the Gulf of Mexico, based on the potential development of Tropical Disturbance #50. Evacuations from drilling rigs and producing platforms began Tuesday with the first 300 workers, and 400 more were evacuated on Wednesday. Production has not been impacted.


Jurors in Oscar Wyatt's Oil-for-Food fraud and conspiracy trial in New York will see portions of his personal address book, but prosecutors must obscure certain portions. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin is admitting the book as evidence, despite questions about how the federal government obtained it when Wyatt passed through a Houston airport. Officials of the old U.S. Customs Service copied it before returning it to Wyatt, noting possible sanction violations. The book includes entries for oil officials and hotels in Iraq, Iran and Libya—all off-limits to U.S. companies in 2002. Judge Chin ruled that the defense should have raised objections before the trial.


The House has approved a plan aimed at helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. The bill would expand federal backing of mortgages, through the Federal Housing Administration, which insures mortgages for low and middle-income borrowers. Under the plan, the agency could back refinanced loans for tens of thousands of borrowers who are delinquent on payments because their mortgages are resetting to sharply higher rates after a low initial ''teaser'' level. The measure goes farther than the Bush administration wants. It's the first stand-alone bill from Congress in response to the mortgage-market turmoil from the summer, and the rising tide of defaults and foreclosures. The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee says he wants to send the measure quickly to the Senate, along with a bill to tighten government oversight of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.


Fresh numbers on new home construction aren't very pretty. The Commerce Department says housing starts dropped 2.6 percent in August to the lowest level in 12 years. Construction of new homes fell to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.3 million units. The housing industry is caught in the worst downturn in over a decade. Analysts say weak prices and further declines in sales are likely at least in the near-term. Rising mortgage defaults are putting more homes onto an already saturated market. Building permits, an indicator of future activity, fell 5.9 percent.


For the first time in ten months, there's a drop in consumer prices. They fell in August, thanks to another big drop in energy costs. That made up for the higher food prices. The Labor Department says the Consumer Price Index dipped by a tenth of a point last month. That's slightly better than the flat reading that had been expected. It's the first time since October of last year that consumer prices declined. The news comes a day after the fed cut a key interest rate by a half point, an aggressive move aimed at making sure the turbulence in the financial markets doesn't push the country into a recession. In a statement, policy-makers warned that "some inflation risks remain.''


Congress is investigating a recent spate of recalls, most of them involving Chinese-made products that contained excessive amounts of lead. Companies behind recent recalls of children's toys and jewelry have told Congress that their Chinese suppliers assured them the products were virtually lead-free. But in one case, a simple store-bought test revealed dangerous levels of the toxic metal. A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans two days of hearings on this year's recalls of millions of toys and other children's products. The subcommittee is expected to examine in part the business models that allowed the companies to import the lead-laden products.


The government reports surprisingly large declines in oil inventories and an unexpected increase in gasoline supplies. The news comes as crude futures have been trading at new highs in New York. The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration says that crude inventories fell by 3.8 million barrels last week, more than double the decline expected. At the same time, the EIA says crude inventories remain at the upper end of their average range for this time of year. Gasoline supplies rose by 400,000 barrels, defying analyst predictions of a decline. Supplies of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, rose by 1.5 million barrels. That is a larger-than-expected build.


Non-profit chief executive officers are receiving higher-percentage pay raises than for-profit CEOs, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Compensation for non-profit CEOs rose at more than twice the rate of inflation last year—median pay increases were around 4.6 percent in 2006, when the inflation rate was two percent. The median base salary of CEOs at large companies grew by just 0.1 percent.


NASA is accepting applications for the 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class at the Johnson Space Center. Those selected could fly to space for long-duration stays on the International Space Station and mission to the moon. To be considered, a bachelor's degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience are required. Successful applicants typically have extensive experience flying high-performance jet aircraft. Teaching experience is considered qualifying. After six months of evaluation and interviews, NASA will announce final selections in early 2009, and candidates will report to Johnson in the summer of 2009 to begin basic training.


Houston-based project management and services company AMEC Paragon has been selected by the Turkish national oil company to provide front-end engineering design for a natural gas drilling and wellhead platform in the western Black Sea near Akcakoca, Turkey.


Houston-based petrochemical firm Sterling Chemicals has joined with Canadian-based Nova Chemicals in a $60 million styrene supply agreement, according to the Houston Business Journal. Nova will have exclusive rights to the entire production capacity of Sterling's Texas City styrene plant.


A subsidiary of Plains All American has agreed to acquire the Tirzah liquified natural petroleum gas storage facility in South Carolina from Suburban Propane and Suburban Pipeline in a $55 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. That increases Plains' storage capacity by 25 percent.


Prosecutors in Miami say a former attorney for a hospital operator allowed the company to illegally bill Medicare in the late 1990s. A complaint field this week say Christi Sulzbach's actions involving south Florida hospitals violated the False Claims Act. Sulzbach is the former general counsel for the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare. Investigators allege she submitted false certifications, so then Tenet billed Medicare for claims it should not have received. Tenet spokesman Steven Campanini says Sulzbach has since resigned. Campanini says Tenet has reinvented itself focusing on quality and transparency, with a new senior management team and board. A judge last month dismissed a case that alleged Tenet took part in a scheme to collect unlawful reimbursements from Medicare. Boca Raton Community Hospital had sued in 2005.


University of Wisconsin students in Madison plan to protest a recruiting visit by Halliburton. Protesters say they plan to disrupt the company's visit to an engineering career fair by discouraging students from talking to its representatives. They say they are inspired by a similar protest against recruiters for Dow Chemical Company in 1967. That company made napalm used by U.S. troops in Vietnam. The protest turned violent when police beat students. Protesters say Houston-based Halliburton has profited from the war in Iraq with lucrative military contracts. A Halliburton spokeswoman says its former subsidiary KBR is the military contractor and the two became separate companies earlier this year. She says the criticism of the company's practices is uninformed.


Say goodbye to the Southwest Airlines "cattle call.'' The Dallas-based airline says it is making changes to its longtime open seating policy to assign a specific pecking order to travelers waiting to board their Boeing 737 jets. Sarting in early November, Southwest customers will be assigned a letter-number combination on their boarding passes, which will reserve their spot in their boarding group. According to a Southwest statement, when a Southwest gate agent calls a boarding group, passengers will take their place in their numerical order. Southwest has tested the new boarding system since last month at San Antonio International Airport after it quit a flirtation last summer with assigned seating in San Diego.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...