Tuesday PM February 12th, 2008

Venezuela threatens "economic war" over dispute with ExxonMobil...Total building new refining facility at Port Arthur refinery...Bush unveils plan to freeze foreclosures for 30 days...

Venezuela's oil minister says the country is ready to cut off oil to the United States if the nation is pressed into an "economic war.'' Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez made the statement in an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper, echoing a threat that President Hugo Chavez made on Sunday. The comments came in response to ExxonMobil's effort to seize billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets through international lawsuits. ExxonMobil's Mark Albers, at the Cambridge Energy Research Associates meeting in Houston, say he can't talk much more about his company's legal efforts.

Mark Albers"Well, again, as I mentioned in the conference, there are a number of developments and issues before the courts that really need to play out. And so I really won't comment on that any more, but I will re-state that we are and remain willing to engage in substantive discussions with the government of Venezuela, with PdVSA on the fair market value for the assets that have expropriated."

The Venezuelan oil minister accuses Irving-based ExxonMobil of having political motives and being "very closely linked'' to the U.S. State Department. He says there is an "intention to start an economic war'' with Venezuela, and adds, "if they want this conflict to escalate, it's going to escalate.'' The United States is the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. Some analysts say it would make little sense for Venezuela to follow through on its threat because it owns refineries in the United States. But Ramirez says Venezuela is ready to diversify its oil market. He suggests the United States would be hurt more by any cut in oil supplies. CERA is hosting its annual gathering of industry executives, academics and analysts in Houston this week.

Some oil executives say global energy companies and governments must come together to keep the planet fueled--while not ruining the environment. The remarks came today during the Houston energy conference. ConocoPhillips Chairman James Mulva says--despite rising international concerns over energy and climate--the world deals with such issues through "uncoordinated approaches.'' Mulva says the U.S. has missed opportunities to show leadership because it lacks a coherent approach to either problem. Earlier, Abdallah Jum'ah, president and chief executive of the state-controlled Saudi Arabian Oil, said global warming deserves the industry's "most serious attention.'' But he said exploring for and producing fossil fuels remain vital.

The French oil firm Total plans to build a new $2.2 billion refining facility at its Port Arthur refinery. The Paris-based company says up to 2,200 people will work on the project, scheduled for commissioning in 2010. The news units will increase the facility's deep-conversion capacity and expand its ability to process heavy and sour crude oil. They'll add three million tons per year of ultra low sulfur automotive diesel to the refinery's current production. The refinery was last expanded in 2004.

The Bush administration has unveiled a new initiative aimed at helping homeowners about to lose their homes. For qualified homeowners, it would put the foreclosure process on hold for 30 days. "Project Lifeline'' will be available to people who have taken out all types of mortgages, not just subprime loans that were the focus of previous relief efforts. The effort involves six of the nation's largest financial institutions, which service about half the nation's mortgages. The lenders say they will contact homeowners who are 90 or more days overdue on their monthly mortgage payments. They will be given the opportunity to put the foreclosure process on pause for 30 days while the lenders try to work out a way to make the mortgage more affordable to the homeowner.

It is another sign of the gravity of the housing market collapse. A growing share of home sales are from foreclosures, especially in the hardest-hit states. In some parts of California, nearly 50 percent of home sales involve foreclosed houses. The problem is putting additional downward pressure on home prices. Other states hit hard include Nevada, Colorado, Tennessee and Michigan, while the problem is evident in Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Arizona, according to an Associated Press analysis. In Nevada, for example, 17.5 percent of home sales were from foreclosures, more than quadruple the number in 2006. Thomas Blanchard, who sells bank-owned properties in Las Vegas, says he believes that 60 percent of properties on the market there are in foreclosure. He says the only people putting their homes on the market in Las Vegas are those who have to sell.

A private fire suppression team is being brought in to fight a fire smoldering in giant silos at Imperial Sugar's refinery near Savannah, Georgia. The move comes five days after an explosion ripped through a sugar refinery, killing six people and injuring dozens of others. Authorities say the search for two workers who remain missing at the plant will resume once the fire is out and debris from one section of the plant is removed. Imperial Sugar headquarters is in Sugar Land, Texas. A helicopter with a 250-gallon bucket made nearly 100 water drops over the gutted silos at the Port Wentworth, Georgia, plant on Monday. The fire was burning at 4,000 degrees and the water helped reduce the temperature of the molten sugar to about 2,800. Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long says Williams Fire Suppression has pumps that can handle large amounts of water. The company is experienced in putting out silo and refinery fires. Sugar dust igniting is thought to be the cause of the explosion last Thursday. The missing workers are thought to be in a section of the plant crews haven't been able to reach because of fire and debris.

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...