Archive for September, 2010

Canada forms panel to probe oil sands pollution

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 | Finance News

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) – Canada's environment minister has formed a scientific panel to examine whether Alberta's oil sands projects are polluting the Athabasca River as charged by an influential water ecologist.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said on Thursday the panel, led by a former United Nations Environment Program director, will advise him on the state of environmental research and monitoring being done in the oil sands region.

The move follows the Alberta government's announcement last week that it will form an independent panel of scientists to study the water quality of the Athabasca, which flows through the region that is the site of massive oil sands plants.

"The mandate of this advisory panel is to provide me with advice that responds to the criticism that we've been hearing about the quality of the water monitoring," Prentice told Reuters.

"Obviously you can't have good public policy if you don't have good data, and the criticisms I've been concerned about over the last several months call into question how we are doing the testing, in particular the water testing."

The initiatives follow a report co-authored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, which concluded that oil sands plants are sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed.

Schindler sharply criticized work by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, which has consistently said that pollution in the Athabasca River system occurs naturally.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner asked Schindler to choose some of the members of the provincial panel.

Prentice has said the industry must improve environmental performance while developing the oil sands, the largest crude source outside the Middle East. Its development has come under increasing attack from environmental groups.

"We need to be sure that the water-monitoring regime that we have is a critical one, that it's excellent from a scientific perspective and that it withstands scrutiny," he said.

On Wednesday, following a high-profile visit to the oil sands and Alberta aboriginal communities, James Cameron, the Canadian-born Hollywood film director, urged more independent study of the impact of development on water, wildlife and native people.

The federal government said its six-person panel will be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former U.N. Environment Program director and under-secretary general as well as assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada.

The scientists include Peter Dillon of Trent University, Subhasis Ghoshal of McGill University, Andrew Miall of the University of Toronto, Joseph Rasmussen of the University of Lethbridge and John Smol of Queen's University.

It will examine current scientific monitoring and research, and point out its strengths and weaknesses, reporting back to Prentice within 60 days.

Simon Dyer, oil sands director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, welcomed what he called a list of credible names, but said it move could have been made a decade ago.

"It shows that the burden of evidence has grown so overwhelming -- the indefensible position of the provincial government, RAMP and their monitoring and the federal government's absence of monitoring," Dyer said. "It's come to the point where the feds and the province felt that they had to do something."

(Editing by Frank McGurty)

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Post-crisis Paris car show goes electric, looks to Asia

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 | Finance News

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PARIS, France (AFP) – Glamorous women draped themselves over gleaming vehicles and technicians plugged in electric cars Thursday as the world's auto industry met in Paris to showcase dozens of new models and pray that crisis is behind it.

The worst global slump since the 1930s savaged the industry and it is now setting its sights on emerging markets like China and India to compensate for stagnating sales and fierce competition in Europe.

"In 2010 we are dealing with a two-speed world," said PSA Peugeot Citroen boss Philippe Varin as he presented the French firm's new models at the Paris Motor Show.

In Europe carmakers are expecting a drop of seven percent in sales this year but in China they continue to rise rapidly, making it the biggest and fastest growing market and an eldorado for the industry.

Carmakers are hoping places like China, India and Brazil will snap up the models displayed at the show that opens to the public Saturday after press previews and a visit Friday by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

More than a million visitors were expected to flock to the huge exhibition halls to ogle shiny vehicles -- and the pretty women employed to stand next to them -- and see for themselves the latest innovations in the art of driving.

A major feature of this year's exhibition is a range of electric cars -- with the French leading the pack -- ready to hit the road.

High glamour comes in the form of sports cars from Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini, while Renault and Citroen add a touch of fashion by showcasing cars they built in partnership with fashion brands Lacoste and Miss Sixty.

Kia's three-seater electric "Pop" concept car, featuring "butterfly-wing" doors that open both upwards and forwards, was creating a buzz at the show held every two years.

Mercedes unveiled its new CLS which mixes coupe styling with the four doors of a saloon. Ford showed to European buyers its new Focus range, while the future of family cars may be hinted at in Vauxhall's GTC Paris Concept.

Peugeot features its upgrade for the 407, the 508, and visitors will get a peek at the new Citroen C4.

Chevrolet premiered four new models as part of a bid by the iconic US carmaker to boost its tiny market share in Europe.

Ever tougher regulations on carbon dioxide emissions, environmental worries and uncertainty over oil prices are all major concerns for the auto groups.

Carmakers are continuing to invest heavily in new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and slash energy consumption.

This week they put on display some of their results at the Paris show, where an entire hall was dedicated to emerging energies and clean cars.

Renault presented the electric Fluence ZE (zero emission) saloon and its Kangoo Express ZE van, which are expected to go on sale next year, and also unveiled a near-final version of its flagship Zoe model.

PSA displayed the Peugeot Ion and Citroen C-Zero runabouts, derived from the Mitsubishi i-Miev, and Nissan showed off its Leaf saloon.

"We have now moved from electric concept cars to cars you can actually buy," said Carlos da Silva of IHS Global Insight. "Paris will be the first car show in the world where there really will be five or six cars you can choose from."

Citroen showcased an electric Berlingo van that left Shanghai after the World Expo there in May and was driven 14,000 kilometres (8,700 miles) across Asia to Paris.

Electric cars may be the future but many potential buyers are likely to wait to see if the necessary recharging infrastructure can be put in place before taking the leap.

Ford Europe boss Stephen Odell told AFP that his firm was was on track to deliver five electric cars in Europe over the next five years but warned that the technology needed to improve dramatically for the market to expand.

He believes that even 10 years from now, most cars will still be running on diesel or petrol engines.

"Frankly the technology needs to get better, with a longer range ... and the cost has got to come down. And there's the infrastructure -- where are you going to charge your car?" he asked.

Manufacturers are in parallel continuing to develop hybrids, with PSA due to bring out a diesel-electricity hybrid next year.

But improving traditional engines remains a major goal. Innovations which can reduce size without also reducing performance result in cars like the two-cylinder TwinAir Turbo that Fiat is showcasing.

"New technologies are the tip of the iceberg but in fact what continues to sell and what makes up the bulk of sales are traditional cars," said Carlos da Silva.

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SEC charges 2 ex-State Street workers over subprime

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 | Finance News

BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two former top State Street Corp. (STT.N) executives were hit with securities fraud charges on Thursday for misleading investors about a risky subprime mortgage-laden fund and tipping off favored clients.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said it charged John Flannery, a former member of State Street's executive management group, and James Hopkins, the former head of product engineering for North America.

The civil charges come nearly eight months after State Street, one of the world's biggest institutional investors with $1.9 trillion under management, agreed to pay more than $300 million to settle related charges by state and federal regulators.

According to the SEC's complaint the pair marketed State Street's Limited Duration fund, which once had $1.4 billion of assets, as a portfolio for investors who wanted better returns than in money funds but with little risk to principal.

But by 2007, the fund was almost entirely invested in subprime mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, the SEC said. In the first three weeks of August 2007, the fund lost 37 percent of its value soon after credit conditions generally began to tighten.

"Hopkins and Flannery played an instrumental role in drafting the misrepresentations in these investors communications." the SEC said in its complaint.

"At the same time, State Street provided certain investors with accurate and more complete information about the Fund's subprime concentration," the SEC added.

Later Flannery and the company's Investment Committee directed State Street to sell the fund's most liquid holdings to help the better informed investors, including the company's pension fund, get out, the SEC said. That left the fund with largely illiquid holdings, the SEC said.

Lawyers for both men said they were disappointed the SEC filed the civil administrative proceedings.

State Street's "experienced lawyers reviewed the content, provided edits and approved the final versions. It is unfair and unjust that the SEC has chosen to bring these civil charges when Mr. Flannery believed that the communications were accurate, and he followed the advise of SSGA's lawyers at all times," Flannery's lawyer Mark Pearlstein said.

For State Street, the matter hurt investor confidence, several analysts said, after the CEO addressed the losses only briefly on an earnings call two months later.

Since then a number of top executives, including Flannery and William Hunt, the former head of the company's State Street Global Advisors asset management unit, left the company.

Ronald Logue, State Street's longtime chief executive, retired on March 1 this year.

Hopkins had been promoted to head of product engineering for North America in 2008, but no longer works at the company, a State Street spokeswoman said on Thursday.

"State Street has resolved this matter both in terms of addressing client concerns as well as settling with the SEC and will not comment on the SEC's separate investigations into individuals who are no longer with the firm," the spokeswoman, Carolyn Cichon, said.

In addition to the $300 million, State Street agreed to pay roughly $350 million to settle private lawsuits over its investments.

Shares of State Street were up 1.6 percent at $37.95 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston and Jonathan Stempel in New York. Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Robert MacMillan)

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