SOFIA (AFP) – Russia signed a key agreement Saturday with Bulgaria to speed up work on its South Stream gas pipeline project as Sofia vied to secure lower prices for its gas deliveries, state BTA news agency reported.
Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister Traicho Traikov and Russian Energy Minister Sergey Shmatko signed a "road map" for accelerating South Stream in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort of Varna in a ceremony also attended by Bulgarian Premier Boyko Borisov, BTA said, but did not immediately provide any further details.
The document was expected to map out a timetable for preparing the preliminary feasibility study for the project to channel an annual 63 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea.
It also put February 2011 as the target deadline for receiving the results of the study and setting up the joint company for building the Bulgarian stretch of the 900-kilometre (560-mile) pipeline, Traikov told journalists late Friday on the sidelines of the two-day talks in Varna.
Sofia has always said it was committed to both South Stream and its rival EU-backed Nabucco pipeline but progress on Russia's Gazprom and Italy ENI's project has been stalled over haggling as to how Sofia and Moscow would split ownership of the new pipelines going through Bulgaria.
But Sofia agreed on Saturday to give South Stream a push in a bid to secure cheaper prices for its own gas deliveries from Russia, the contracts for which expire in 2011 and 2012.
Bulgaria is almost 100-percent dependent on Russian gas supplies via Ukraine for its annual consumption of about 3.0 billion cubic metres and also channels 17 billion cubic metres of gas to neighbouring Turkey and Greece.
The small Balkan state, often regarded by analysts as one of Russia's staunchest satellites from the Soviet era, was among the worst hit by Russia's gas spat with Ukraine last January when it practically saw no gas coming down the pipes for days on end.
CUPERTINO, Calif. – A perfect iPhone? There's no app for that. Apple Inc. will give free protective cases to buyers of its latest iPhone to prevent reception problems that occur when people cover a certain spot on the phone with a bare hand.
CEO Steve Jobs apologized Friday to people who are less than satisfied with the iPhone 4, even as he denied it has an antenna problem that needs fixing.
"We're not perfect," Jobs said at a news conference. "Phones aren't perfect."
The more than 3 million people who have already bought an iPhone 4 can go to Apple's website starting late next week and sign up for a free case, he said. Apple can't make enough of its $29 "Bumper" cases for everyone, so the company will let people chose from several case styles.
New buyers through Sept. 30 will also be eligible. Apple will send refunds to people who already bought a Bumper.
Jobs, expressing irritation with the critical coverage of the phone's reception problems, echoed an earlier statement from Apple that no cell phone gets perfect reception. He played a video showing competing phones, including a BlackBerry from Research in Motion Ltd., losing signal strength when held in certain ways. He talked for 45 minutes and took 45 minutes of questions with Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, and Bob Mansfield, a senior Apple executive in charge of hardware engineering.
Phones usually have an antenna inside the body. In designing the iPhone 4, Apple took a gamble on a new design, using parts of the phone's outer casing as the antenna. That saved space inside the tightly packed body of the phone, but meant that covering a spot on the lower left edge blocked the wireless signal.
Consumer Reports magazine said covering the spot with a case or even a piece of duct tape alleviates the problem. It refused to give the iPhone 4 its "recommended" stamp of approval for that reason, and on Monday it urged Apple to compensate buyers and fix the problem. The company had been criticized about spotty iPhone service in the U.S. on AT&T Inc.'s network even before the newest model came out.
On Friday, in the company's first remarks following the magazine's report, Jobs said Apple was "stunned and upset and embarrassed."
Jobs said the iPhone 4's antenna issue isn't widespread, with just over five out of every 1,000 complaining to Apple's warranty service and less than 2 percent returning the device. Jobs also said that while the iPhone 4 is dropping calls slightly more frequently than its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, it's "less than one additional dropped call per 100."
"We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix," Jobs said. "This has been blown so out of proportion that it's incredible."
Analysts have criticized Apple's responses to reports of reception problems as dismissive, and cautioned that the company shouldn't come across as arrogant. A curt note attributed to Jobs told one early iPhone buyer to either hold the phone a different way or buy a case.
Apple has also said the main problem is actually with software, not antenna design. Apple said it recently discovered that iPhones display more cell phone signal "bars" than they should, leaving people who believed they had a strong signal frustrated by dropped calls. Apple issued a software update Thursday that it said would make the number of bars shown on the phone's face more accurate.
But Consumer Reports painted the problem as much broader. On Friday, the magazine said the free cases were "a good first step toward Apple identifying and finding a solution for the signal-loss problem of the iPhone 4."
No phone owner wants a gadget that doesn't work. But many people who have bought an iPhone 4 or are considering one seem willing to forgive the antenna problem because they like its other features so much.
"It's not really my concern because I hardly make calls," said Ross Beck, a 22-year-old student in Seattle. "Honestly, it doesn't faze me. I know Apple and I know they fix their mistakes."
Helen Ferszt walked out of Apple's flagship store in New York City on Thursday after ordering the iPhone 4, her third model, despite having heard of the reception problems.
"I love the iPhone," said the 78-year-old psychotherapist from New York. But she added that Apple needs to do better than giving away a free case.
"No, I want it to be fixed," she said. "They can't just hang us out to dry."
Jobs apologized Friday to buyers who had less-than-perfect experiences with the new device.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to make them happy and if we can't make them happy we're going to give them a full refund and say we're really sorry we inconvenienced you, and we're going to do better next time," he said.
The refund applies even for those who have long-term contracts with AT&T Inc., the iPhone's exclusive U.S. wireless carrier.
Apple shares slipped $1.55, less than 1 percent, to close Friday at $249.90.
Mintz reported from Seattle. AP Technology Writers Barbara Ortutay and Peter Svensson in New York contributed to this report.
NEW ORLEANS – In a nail-biting day across the Gulf Coast, engineers struggled to make sense of puzzling pressure readings from the bottom of the sea Friday to determine whether BP's capped oil well was holding tight. Halfway through a critical 48-hour window, the signs were promising but far from conclusive.
Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice president, said on an evening conference call that engineers had found no indication that the well has started leaking underground.
"No news is good news, I guess that's how I'd say it," Wells said.
Engineers are keeping watch over the well for a two-day period in a scientific, round-the-clock vigil to see if the well's temporary cap is strong enough to hold back the oil, or if there are leaks either in the well itself or the sea floor. One mysterious development was that the pressure readings were not rising as high as expected, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.
Allen said two possible reasons were being debated by scientists: The reservoir that is the source of the oil could be running lower three months into the spill. Or there could be an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well. Allen ordered further study but remained confident.
"This is generally good news," he said. But he cautioned, "We need to be careful not to do any harm or create a situation that cannot be reversed."
He said the testing would go on into the night, at which point BP may decide whether to reopen the cap and allow some oil to spill into the sea again.
Throughout the day, no one was declaring victory — or failure. President Barack Obama cautioned the public "not to get too far ahead of ourselves," warning of the danger of new leaks "that could be even more catastrophic."
Even if the cap passes the test, more uncertainties lie ahead: Where will the oil already spilled go? How long will it take to clean up the coast? What will happen to the region's fishermen? And will life on the Gulf Coast ever be the same again?
"I'm happy the well is shut off, that there's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Tony Kennon, mayor of hard-hit Orange Beach, Ala. But "I'm watching people moving away, people losing their jobs, everything they've got. How can I be that happy when that's happening to my neighbor?"
On Thursday, BP closed the vents on the new, tight-fitting cap and finally stopped crude from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the April 20 oil-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the spill 5,000 feet down.
With the cap working like a giant cork to keep the oil inside the well, scientists kept watch on screens at sea and at BP's Houston headquarters, in case the buildup of pressure underground caused new leaks in the well pipe and in the surrounding bedrock that could make the disaster even worse.
Pressure readings after 24 hours were about 6,700 pounds per square inch and rising slowly, Allen said, below the 7,500 psi that would clearly show the well was not leaking. He said pressure continued to rise between 2 and 10 psi per hour. A low pressure reading, or a falling one, could mean the oil is escaping.
But Allen he said a seismic probe of the surrounding sea floor found no sign of a leak in the ground.
Benton F. Baugh, president of Radoil Inc. in Houston and a National Academy of Engineering member who specializes in underwater oil operations, warned that the pressure readings could mean that an underground blowout could occur. He said the oil coming up the well may be leaking out underground and entering a geological pocket that might not be able to hold it.
But Roger N. Anderson, a professor of marine geology and geophysics at Columbia University, said the oil pressure might be rising slowly not because of a leak, but because of some kind of blockage in the well.
"If it's rising slowly, that means the pipe's integrity's still there. It's just getting around obstacles," he said. He added that "any increase in pressure is good, not bad."
The cap is designed to prevent oil from spilling into the Gulf, either by keeping it bottled up in the well, or by capturing it and piping it to ships on the surface. It is not yet clear which way the cap will be used if it passes the pressure test.
Either way, the cap is a temporary measure until a relief well can be completed and mud and cement can be pumped into the broken well deep underground to seal it more securely than the cap. The first of the two relief wells being drilled could be done by late July or August.
In a positive sign, work on the relief wells resumed Friday. The project had been suspended earlier this week for fear that the capping of the well could interfere with it.
There was no end in sight to the cleanup in the water and on shore. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.
In Orange Beach, Ala., long strands of white absorbent boom strung along the shore were stained chocolate brown after a fresh wave of BB-size tar balls washed up. Charter boat captains who can't fish because of the spill patrolled the shore, looking for oil slicks. Fishing guides spent their time ferrying Coast Guard personnel. A flotilla of fishing boats operating as skimmers plied the waters across the Gulf.
Large sections of the Gulf Coast have been closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting. Many fishermen have been hired out by BP to do cleanup work.
Cade Thomas, a 38-year-old fishing guide from Pine, La., said the whole mentality of the place is different.
"It's all changed dramatically. The fishing stories aren't there," he said. "There's no stories to tell except where we went to today and how much oil we saw."
In Grand Isle, La., most of the summer rental cottages are vacant, tables at the single high-end seafood restaurant are empty, and souvenir shops are barely doing enough business to pay the bills. A hand-painted sign along the main road rechristens the tourist town "Grand Oil."
Folks are grateful the gusher has been stopped, but many say it is too late to save this summer. Thousands of tourists have gone elsewhere.
Scientists cannot say for certain what the long-term environmental effect will be. But long after the well is finally plugged, oil could still be washing up in marshes and on beaches as tar balls or patties.
There is also fear that months from now, those tar balls could move west to Corpus Christi, Texas, or travel up and around Florida to Miami or North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Tim Kerner, mayor of Lafitte, La., said the crisis isn't over by a long shot.
"There's millions and millions of gallons of oil out there, and they need to keep the fishermen working," he said. "We need to constantly have that boom up absorbing oil along the banks and hard boom in the bayous to protect the marshland. It's no time to pull back. It's time to continue to fight until we know it's over."
Kerner added: "I don't want everybody to think we won this battle. This battle's going to be ongoing for a while."
Weber reported from Houston, Mohr from Venice, La. and Smith from Grand Isle, La. Associated Press Writers Colleen Long, Shelia Byrd, Jay Reeves, Matt Sendesky, Kevin McGill, and Ramit Plushnick-Masti contributed to this report.