Florida Skips Offshore Oil Binge but Still Pays

June 12, 2010

By DAMIEN CAVE

KEY LARGO, Fla. — When rigs first started drilling for oil off Louisiana’s coast in the 1940s, Floridians scanned their shoreline, with its resorts and talcum-white beaches, and said, No thanks. Go ahead and drill, they told other Gulf Coast states; we’ll stick with tourism.

Now that invisible wall separating Florida from its neighbors has been breached. The spreading BP oil spill has already reached the Panhandle, and if it rides currents to the renowned reefs and fishing holes on both Florida coasts, the Sunshine State could become a vacation destination with the rules of a museum: Look, but don’t touch.

All because other states decided to rely on oil and gas, angry Floridians say; all because, in the water, there are no borders — only currents that can carry catastrophes hundreds of miles.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Mike McLaughlin, 42, while stretching tanned shark skin on a dock here in the Keys. “We’re just sitting here, waiting for it all to disappear.”

Many Floridians, of course, say they are heartbroken for Louisiana, and they still reserve their most caustic criticism for BP and government regulators.

But with oil continuing to gush from a well off Louisiana, Florida has grown angrier at its oil-friendly neighbors. Gov. Charlie Crist said in an interview last week that “there’s a certain level of frustration” with the fact that Florida gets little if any financial benefit from offshore drilling, even though it shares the environmental risks.

On docks and beaches, many Floridians are less measured, and compare Louisiana to a neighbor with a bonfire that has set their block ablaze.

To some extent, it is a conflict set up by history. Louisiana and Florida may share the Gulf of Mexico, but they are essentially oil opposites.

Ever since World War II, when tar balls washed ashore across the gulf after German U-boats sank Allied oil tankers, Florida officials have held drilling at bay with state laws and lobbying in Washington to protect their state’s bustling tourism industry.

Louisiana, meanwhile, is an oil state through and through that discovered its first commercial deposits in 1901 and started drilling offshore in 1947.

State officials have never looked back, and the resulting divide between the two states is now economic as well as cultural: oil and gas contribute about $65 billion a year to the Louisiana economy, according to the state’s oil and gas association, while in Florida, tourism accounts for about $60 billion.

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Autumn Deluge Destroys More Than $1 Billion Of Delta Crops

October 30, 2009

Weeks of almost-continuous, torrential rains have destroyed over a billion dollars worth of what was originally expected to be a bumper fall crop in the U.S. Delta.

ARKANSAS: “It’s a serious problem right now. At this stage, yield/quality losses for Arkansas ‘ major row crops could easily exceed $650 million,” said Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach Thursday.

The state has received measurable rainfall every day for the past seven consecutive weeks, preventing fields from drying out, and overripe crops from being harvested. Arkansas farmers still have 85% of their cotton, 61% of all soybeans, 10% of their corn and 5% of all grain sorghum remaining to harvest; at a time when picking is usually of most commodities is already complete.

“We’re going to try to do as much as we can as quickly as we can, but assessing the damage—and what the damage is— does require some time,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I wouldn’t be surprised if all 75 counties in this state are declared a disaster,” thus making producers eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency loans.

On average, all areas of Arkansas have received 17 inches more rain than normal during 2009. Even with two months left to go, 2009 is already the 11th-wettest year on record in Little Rock , which has been flooded with 62.57 inches of rain. That total will only increase, as the National Weather Service was predicting another 2 of rain for portions of Arkansas, by nightfall Friday.

MISSISSIPPI: Non-stop rains have also taken $371 million from the pockets of Mississippi producers this autumn, according to calculations made this week by the Mississippi State University .

“Total losses for row crops are expected to be around 23% of the potential value of the crop,” said MSU agricultural economist John Michael Riley. With nearly 40% of all fields still standing, soybeans have suffered the worst hit in cash-value hit, losing 30.2% of their expected value, or $212 million in all.

“Half of the crop left in the field is very poor, to possibly a complete loss,” said MSU extension soybean specialist Trey Koger. “Damage estimates for the portion of the soybean crop we last harvested nearly two weeks ago, averaged 8%-15%. Final damage to the state’s soybean crop may reach levels as high as 50%.”

Earlier this month the USDA forecast the Mississippi fall grain harvest at 92.3 million bushels of corn, nearly 83.5 million bushels of soybeans, 16.184 million hundredweight of rice, and 888,000 bushels of sorghum. Economic losses have been measured at $91 million for cotton/cottonseed, representing about 47% of that crop’s original prospective value.

“Environmental conditions in 2009 have proven to be the most difficult that many growers have ever experienced,” said Darrin Dodds, MSU cotton specialist.

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U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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Water worries threaten U.S. push for natural gas

October 1, 2009

Thu Oct 1, 2009 8:26am EDT

By Jon Hurdle

PAVILLION, Wyoming (Reuters) – Louis Meeks, a burly 59-year-old alfalfa farmer, fills a metal trough with water from his well and watches an oily sheen form on the surface which gives off a faint odor of paint.

He points to small bubbles that appear in the water, and a thin ring of foam around the edge.

Meeks is convinced that energy companies drilling for natural gas in this central Wyoming farming community have poisoned his water and ruined his health.

A recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests he just might have a case — and that the multi-billion dollar industry may have a problem on its hands. EPA tests found his well contained what it termed 14 “contaminants of concern.”

It tested 39 wells in the Pavillion area this year, and said in August that 11 were contaminated. The agency did not identify the cause but said gas drilling was a possibility.

What’s happened to the water supply in Pavillion could have repercussions for the nation’s energy policies. As a clean-burning fuel with giant reserves in the United States, natural gas is central to plans for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

But aggressive development is drawing new scrutiny from residents who live near gas fields, even in energy-intensive states such as Wyoming, where one in five jobs are linked to the oil and gas industry which contributed more than $15 billion the state economy in 2007.

People living near gas drilling facilities in states including Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming have complained that their water has turned cloudy, foul-smelling, or even black as a result of chemicals used in a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The industry contends drilling chemicals are heavily diluted and injected safely into gas reservoirs thousands of feet beneath aquifers, so they will never seep into drinking water supplies.

“There has never been a documented case of fracking that’s contaminated wells or groundwater,” said Randy Teeuwen, a spokesman for EnCana Corp (ECA), Canada’s second-largest energy company, which operates 248 wells in the Pavillion and nearby Muddy Ridge fields.

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Wall Street’s Math Wizards Forgot a Few Variables

September 14, 2009

by Steve Lohr
Monday, September 14, 2009
The New York Times

In the aftermath of the great meltdown of 2008, Wall Street’s quants have been cast as the financial engineers of profit-driven innovation run amok. They, after all, invented the exotic securities that proved so troublesome.

But the real failure, according to finance experts and economists, was in the quants’ mathematical models of risk that suggested the arcane stuff was safe.

The risk models proved myopic, they say, because they were too simple-minded. They focused mainly on figures like the expected returns and the default risk of financial instruments. What they didn’t sufficiently take into account was human behavior, specifically the potential for widespread panic. When lots of investors got too scared to buy or sell, markets seized up and the models failed.

That failure suggests new frontiers for financial engineering and risk management, including trying to model the mechanics of panic and the patterns of human behavior.

“What wasn’t recognized was the importance of a different species of risk — liquidity risk,” said Stephen Figlewski, a professor of finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. “When trust in counterparties is lost, and markets freeze up so there are no prices,” he said, it “really showed how different the real world was from our models.”

In the future, experts say, models need to be opened up to accommodate more variables and more dimensions of uncertainty.

The drive to measure, model and perhaps even predict waves of group behavior is an emerging field of research that can be applied in fields well beyond finance.

Much of the early work has been done tracking online behavior. The Web provides researchers with vast data sets for tracking the spread of all manner of things — news stories, ideas, videos, music, slang and popular fads — through social networks. That research has potential applications in politics, public health, online advertising and Internet commerce. And it is being done by academics and researchers at Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


Apple, Dell, HP laptop owners sue Nvidia over faulty graphics

July 27, 2009

Five plaintiffs join forces to demand class-action lawsuit
By Gregg Keizer
May 11, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld – Owners of Apple (AAPL), Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) laptops have combined their lawsuits against Nvidia (NVDA) in an attempt to force the graphics chip maker to replace allegedly flawed processors, according to court documents.

If granted class-action status, the case could involve millions of laptop computer owners, the plaintiffs said.

The five plaintiffs, including a Louisiana man who bought an Apple MacBook Pro a year ago, filed an amended complaint last week in a San Francisco federal court, accusing Nvidia of violating consumer-protection laws.

Nvidia admitted to the problem in July 2008, when it said some older chipsets that had shipped in “significant quantities” of notebooks were flawed. In a subsequent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company argued that its chip suppliers, the laptop makers and even consumers were to blame.

Nvidia later told the SEC that it would take a $196 million charge to pay for replacing the graphics processors.

Apple, Dell and HP have all told users that some of their laptops contain faulty Nvidia chipsets. Apple, in fact, essentially said that Nvidia had misled it. “Nvidia assured Apple that Mac computers with these graphics processors were not affected,” Apple said in a support document posted last October. “However, after an Apple-led investigation, Apple has determined that some MacBook Pro computers … may be affected.”

Although Apple promised it would repair any defective MacBook Pro for two years after its purchase date, whether it was in warranty or not, HP and Dell first issued BIOS updates designed by Nvidia that boosted fan speed. The increased fan speed was intended to ward off chip failure. Later, however, both companies also extended warranties for the affected laptops, and in some cases offered free repairs.

The plaintiffs in the combined lawsuit said that anything other than a replacement of the flawed chips was insufficient. “This is a grossly inadequate ‘remedy,’ as it results in additional manifest defects, including, without limitation, further degraded battery life, system performance and increased noise in the Class Computers,” the complaint read.

“Worse, this ‘remedy’ fails to solve the actual problem. Instead, this measure only ensures that the Class Computers will fail after the OEM’s express warranty period expires, potentially leaving consumers with a defective computer and no immediate recourse,” the lawsuit continued. “Finally, even after this purported ‘update,’ video and system performance is still degraded due to unacceptably high heat and part failures.”

Todd Feinstein of Louisiana was the one plaintiff who had purchased an Apple laptop. After buying a MacBook Pro in April 2008, the computer ran hot, periodically shut down without warning and displayed only gray or black at times, Feinstein said.

He sent a letter to Nvidia in September 2008 demanding that the company fix his MacBook. “Nvidia has failed to respond,” he said in the complaint.

Other plaintiffs who live in California, Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico bought Dell or HP notebooks.

The lawsuit requests the case be granted class-action status, and if it prevails, that Nvidia replace the faulty chips and pay unspecified damages.

Last September, a New York law firm sued Nvidia, accusing the company of breaking U.S. securities laws by concealing the existence of a serious defect in its graphics chip line for several months before admitting the problem. That case has been put on hold awaiting a decision by an appellate court.


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