Archive for May, 2010

Company: Restart of Alaska pipeline likely Friday (AP)

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 | Finance News

JUNEAU, Alaska – The operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline system pushed back to Friday its goal for resuming the flow of oil through the 800-mile line shut down earlier in the week after a contained spill

Operator Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had hoped to restart the line by Thursday night. But spokeswoman Michelle Egan said the process of coming back online has taken longer than expected and that it a restart, as early as "first thing" Friday morning, appears more likely.

"No problems," she said. "We're in good shape."

The company has been working against a noon Friday target. Alyeska previously ordered production levels drastically cut to keep from filling storage facilities before the line could be brought back up safely. The restart process must be deliberate and highly coordinated to avoid new problems, Egan said, and the reductions — to 8 percent of normal output — bought the company until noon Friday to get back up.

If necessary, engineers could consider starting up parts of the top end of the line to release some of the volume in the tanks, she said. But, ultimately, once the tanks would hit full capacity, production levels would have to go to zero, she said. The company has been talking regularly with the oil companies, she said.

"We're still optimistic about meeting that noon window for tomorrow, and I mean that sincerely," she said Thursday night. "I think it's very doable."

The line has been shut down since Tuesday, when Alyeska said a power failure during a planned shutdown to test fire systems caused normally closed valves to open. That resulted in what the company said was up to several thousand barrels of oil spilling into a partially filled storage tank. The tank, in turn, overflowed into a containment yard lined with an impermeable barrier.

Egan said officials hoped to have a better estimate on the spill size soon. She said the lack of a more precise estimate can be blamed on an "intense focus" to restart the line.

The pipeline carries oil from Alaska's North Slope to Valdez, where tankers pick it up and deliver it to refineries. So far, Egan said there have been no changes to the tanker schedule or to loads that tankers are carrying.

Last month, the pipeline moved 645,113 barrels of oil per day, on average. Average crude oil production in the U.S. is about 5.5 million barrels a day.

The day began with Alyeska reporting "significant progress" since Wednesday, with power restored to a pump station, crews draining oil from a storage tank that overflowed, and cleanup and oil recovery under way.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation investigating the cause of the spill and whether there were plans and procedures in place — and followed — throughout the incident, Betty Schorr, manager of the agency's Industry Preparedness Program.

If there's a large spill and no obvious cause, other than an apparent power outage, then officials want to investigate, Schorr said. That process can take months, or longer.

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For vacationers, it’s another scaled-back summer (AP)

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 | Finance News

ATLANTA – Americans aren't in the mood to spend much on travel this summer.

More people are expected to hit the road than did last year, but their budgets will be tighter because of high unemployment, stock markets in retreat and a still-fragile economy.

AAA estimates families will spend an average of $809 on summer travel, compared with $876 in 2009, even though flying is more expensive than it was a year ago.

They're knocking down the cost, travel agents say, by staying closer to home, choosing less-expensive modes of transportation or by picking destinations based on the best fares and lodging they can find.

In summers past, Dennis Chang and his family visited Disney World or Jamaica. But this year, with his wife recently out of work, the 33-year-old clothing designer from Laurel, Md., says the family is scaling back.

The more likely destination for this summer is Virginia Beach, Va., a four-hour drive away, with sandwiches in the car and hunting for discounted tickets to theme parks along the route.

Debbie Dixson, an airline bag checker from St. Louis, can get cheap tickets to New York or Paris through her job. But the cost of food, lodging and entertainment in a big city would quickly wipe out whatever she saved. So she and her husband will instead drive to Douglas, Mich., to meet their six kids for a week's stay in a cabin along Lake Michigan.

While the economy is recovering, travel has bounced back slowly, says Steve Piraino, senior economist at IHS Global Insight. His firm attributes it to high unemployment, still hovering near 10 percent.

Hotels and resorts are trying to entice people into longer stays with lower rates or discounts to restaurants and spas. As a result, the average room rate is down slightly to about $95, according to travel research firm STR. It was $107 just two years ago.

In states from Texas to Florida that are threatened by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, resorts are offering free golf and complimentary room nights. Some have promised a full refund if the oil hits popular beaches.

Some theme parks are offering specials on traditionally slower days. At Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, guests who stay three nights or more at can buy a special $89.95 pass good for unlimited trips to the theme park, zoo, botanical garden and museum. A standard one-day pass is $52.95.

The vast majority of Americans drive to their summer vacation spots, and they should get a break at the pump in the weeks ahead. The nationwide average for gas is $2.76 a gallon, and analysts think it could fall as low as $2.65 by July 4.

Auto club AAA says about 28 million Americans will take road trips over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, 1.6 million more than last year. About 2.15 million will fly, up slightly from a year ago.

For fliers, finding a deal will be more difficult. During the recession, airlines cut back on the number of planes they fly, and fewer available seats means higher fares. From June through August, domestic airfares are 24 percent higher than last year, averaging $321 per round trip, according to fare-tracking website Bing Travel.

Not everyone is cutting back, of course, particularly young professionals, people with stable jobs and the affluent, according to recent travel surveys. "I usually take a weeklong vacation, but this time I'm gone for two weeks," lobbying firm employee Debra Saiki of Honolulu, while waiting recently at Boston's South Station to catch an Amtrak train to New York.

If the job market improves, more people will be able to travel, Piraino's firm says. And they'll spend more to do so. But until then, Chang and many others will reluctantly opt for the steering wheel instead of a fold-down tray table.

"We're usually a flying family," he said. "I don't like to drive more than an hour."

___

AP Business Writers Joshua Freed in Minneapolis, Christopher Leonard in St. Louis, Ashley M. Heher in Chicago, Chris Kahn in New York, Travis Reed in Miami and Mark Jewell in Boston contributed to this report.

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Senate OKs war funding; House to cut spending bill (AP)

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 | Finance News

WASHINGTON – The Senate easily passed an almost $60 billion war funding bill Thursday, but anxiety over out-of-control budget deficits led House leaders to drop tens of billions of dollars in spending from a separate catchall bill anchored by an extension of jobless benefits.

Confronted with a rebellion by Democratic moderates, House leaders planned to dump overboard $24 billion in aid to states and allow generous health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers to expire. The changes were an effort to round up votes to extend unemployment benefits and renew more than 50 popular tax breaks that expired last year.

Help for doctors facing a big cut in Medicare reimbursements would also be dropped from the measure, aides and lobbyists said, and is unlikely to be resurrected by a vote on Friday.

Democrats will miss their self-imposed deadline of passing the jobless benefits measure before Memorial Day, even if the House passes the bill Friday. The Senate announced Thursday that it will not hold any more votes until senators return from their holiday break June 7.

The steps by House leaders could reduce the deficit impact of the bill to as little as $30 billion or so in hopes of winning over moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats unhappy about adding to the deficit as the national debt is on the verge of topping $13 trillion. A version circulated last week would have added $134 billion to the deficit.

One Blue Dog, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he would probably vote for a slimmed down version of the bill.

"The bigness issue and the deficit issue has been addressed," Cuellar said.

Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats had far better success in advancing the war funding bill, which would pay for President Barack Obama's 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan.

A dozen Republicans, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined Democrats in a 67-28 vote to pass the bill. Two anti-war Democrats, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, opposed it.

The war funding bill also includes $5 billion to replenish disaster aid accounts, and there's money for Haitian earthquake relief and aid to U.S. allies in the fight against terror.

The war funding measure has been kept relatively clean of add-ons that could draw GOP opposition — to the frustration of liberal Democrats such as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the top Senate sponsor of a $23 billion plan to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs as local revenues remain weak. Facing sure defeat, Harkin declined to offer the plan to the war funding bill.

Thousands of people are set to begin losing jobless benefits when an extension of unemployment insurance expires next week. A 65 percent subsidy for health insurance benefits for the unemployed under the COBRA program also expires.

The benefits extensions are part of a sweeping package of unfinished business that lawmakers had hope to complete before their Memorial Day recess to avoid the embarrassment of letting them lapse before going on vacation. Efforts to pass short-term extensions to buy time were doomed to fail since they would require the agreement of all 100 senators.

Democratic leaders cut the package of spending and tax cuts Wednesday by about $50 billion — to $143 billion — in an attempt to pick up votes. Thursday's moves could whack more than $50 billion more from the measure.

It's a tough vote for lawmakers who want to help constituents hit hard by the recession but are wary of being labeled big spenders. The economy is starting to pick up, but unemployment is still high as the nation continues to struggle from the loss of more than 8 million jobs. At the same time, angst over deficit spending is growing as midterm congressional elections near in November.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the Senate would not vote on the House tax and spending measure and announced the Senate would shortly adjourn for the Memorial Day recess.

The expanded jobless benefits provide up to 99 weeks of payments in many states, at a cost of nearly $40 billion. The benefits are part of a bill that includes a one-year extension of about 50 popular tax breaks that expired at the end of last year and a delay in scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.

It was looking grim Thursday night for a proposal to delay the scheduled 21 percent cut in payments until 2012, which would cost nearly $22 billion. The plan was to be dropped from the bill, and a separate vote on putting it back was thought likely to fail.

The cost of the bill would be partially offset by tax increases on investment fund managers, oil companies and some international businesses. The tax increases total about $57 billion over the next decade. Changes giving underfunded pensions more time to improve their finances would raise $2 billion.

Also in the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., called off a vote on a far larger version of the war funding bill that added the $23 billion to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs, along with $6 billion to make up for a funding shortfall in grants for low-income college students. An Obey spokesman blamed the busy floor schedule and ongoing uncertainty over the jobless benefits bill. Appropriations panel Republicans had vowed to offer a raft of politically painful amendments.

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