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Supreme Court Rules Shell/Texaco Joint Refining Deal Legal February 28, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Economic News, Judiciary, Main.
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WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday unanimously backed the ability of two large oil companies to set uniform prices in a joint refining agreement without violating federal antitrust laws.

The decision, which came on a 1998 joint gasoline refining venture between Shell Oil Co. and Texaco Inc., is a blow to a class of gasoline station owners that had sued the two companies, alleging the venture illegally fixed prices on wholesale gasoline. The decision overturned a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, leaving intact the prior legal status quo allowing single pricing policies in a corporate joint venture.

“The pricing policy challenged here amounts to little more than a price setting by a single entity,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the opinion. He added that, although the “pricing policy may be price fixing in a literal sense, it is not price fixing in the antitrust sense.”

The 8-0 opinion didn’t include Justice Samuel Alito, who joined the Supreme Court last week and who didn’t hear the case.

An opposite ruling by the Supreme Court would have had major antitrust-law implications.

The 1998 deal between Texaco and Shell combined their refining and marketing operations into a unit called Equilon after clearing the plans with the Federal Trade Commission and other U.S. regulators. The companies believed the move could save as much as $800 million annually. Later, a group of gas station operators sued the companies for price fixing. A federal trial judge initially threw out the lawsuit, but it was revived by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Shell purchased Texaco’s stake in the joint venture in 2002. Texaco is a unit of ChevronTexaco Corp. (CVX), San Ramon, Calif. Shell is a unit of Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Petroleum (RD).

By Mark H. Anderson, Dow Jones Newswires

US Shifts More Diplomats To Asia From Europe February 28, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Main, World News.
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WASHINGTON (AP)–The U.S. is shifting more diplomats to India and China while reducing the numbers in Europe, boosting attention to the rising Asian powerhouses partially at the expense of the continent that has long been the focus point of American diplomacy.

President George W. Bush is highlighting the importance of the U.S. relationship with India in a visit there this week. In April, Chinese President Hu Jintao will call on Bush at the White House.

In making the case for reallocating diplomats, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently that countries like China and India “are increasingly shaping the course of history.”

“We have nearly the same number of State Department personnel in Germany, a country of 82 million people, that we have in India, a country of 1 billion people,” Rice said. China and India both have nuclear weapons, vibrant economies and an increasing appetite for energy imports. Combined, they have more than a third of the world’s 6.5 billion people.

Fifteen positions are being added for U.S. diplomats in China and 12 in India. All told, the two countries account for well over a third of the estimated 74 new U.S. diplomatic positions now on the drawing board around the world.

In Europe, 10 posts are being eliminated from Russia and seven from Germany. Smaller cuts are planned in about a dozen other countries on the continent. Worldwide, about 60 diplomatic positions will disappear.

On average, there will be a 20% increase for the countries scheduled for additions and a 5% reduction in countries where cuts are planned.

Russia, though a key player in all major diplomatic issues, has lost clout since the Soviet heyday. It lags well behind the industrialized West economically and suffers from a rapidly shrinking population due to high death rates.

Rice has said the diplomatic repositioning is part of the administration’s “transformational diplomacy,” one that seeks to promote democracy throughout the world and end tyranny.

Demographics are a major element in most of the personnel reallocations, says Robert Pearson, who retired Monday as director general of the Foreign Service after a 30-year diplomatic career.

He pointed out in an interview that the combined populations of North America and Europe will constitute no more than 10% of world population by the middle of the century.

“We can see that the scale of change and the pace of change is now in another group of 15 to 25 countries, which are in the process of trying to reach the level of the modern industrial democracies,” Pearson said. It is in these countries where the U.S. generally is increasing its diplomatic assets, he said.

Several drafts of reallocation lists have been circulating in the State Department. In some cases, the numbers are in flux. Rice cited Brazil in congressional testimony as a country on the move and requiring more in-country diplomatic attention, but lists show Brazil losing three positions.

The explanation is that embassy staffing in Brazil is adequate for the time being, even with the impending departure of some envoys who have been there on temporary assignments. Pearson said Brazil in all likelihood will be scheduled for an increase during a later stage.

Pearson mentioned several other countries that aren’t scheduled for increased diplomatic representation now but probably will be over time: Mexico, the Philippines, Egypt and Pakistan.

After China and India, the country with the largest increase under current planning is Indonesia, with the addition of five positions. Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim country with more than 240 million people. Strategically located, it has been the target in recent years of attacks by Islamic extremists.

Also due for increases are Bolivia and Venezuela, with four apiece. Because they have the most anti-American governments in South America, the State Department has a keen interest in following developments in both. Nicaragua, which has a pro-U.S. government but a strong leftist opposition, also is to get four more U.S. diplomats.

Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union of career diplomats, said his colleagues are taking in stride the repositioning away from Europe.

“There is no gnashing of teeth or consternation,” he says.

One exception, Holmes says, was a diplomat who was overjoyed last year when he was told to prepare to assignment in Poland, a lifelong dream.

As he and his wife were undergoing language training, the State Department decided he should go to El Salvador instead, Holmes recalls.

Descriptions of European posts as “cushy” are off base, he says, insisting that many U.S. diplomats on the continent spend much of their time mastering minutia, such as examining the environmental impact of snowmobiles in Sweden.

Long lunches at fancy restaurants are not part of the daily routine, he said: “Our people in Europe put in long hours.”

Traditions Hold As New Orleans Celebrates Mardi Gras February 28, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Main, US News.
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NEW ORLEANS (AP)–While some may question the appropriateness of having a raucous party in a city still devastated and in mourning six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials are unapologetic.

“Mardi Gras is part of our tradition,” Mayor Ray Nagin told NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday. “We’re celebrating our 150-year anniversary. It’s part of our DNA, if you will. And it’s a bittersweet occasion because there’s lots of people who still aren’t here, but it’s turned into a reunion of sorts.”

The pre-Lenten tradition, ingrained in city culture, is also a major tourist event that locals are hoping will help renew an economy that came to a halt after the storm and has been struggling back to life.

Along Bourbon Street, cheering revelers in purple and green beads were out before dawn, while workers with brooms and trash barrels swept up piles of debris in the streets.

Restaurants reported brisk business, but there are fewer restaurants: 506 of the pre-Katrina number of 1,882 restaurants were operating, according to the New Orleans Restaurant Association.

Hotel rooms were filled, but again, there are fewer – about 15,000 instead of the usual 25,000 – according to the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. And some of those are filled with construction workers and evacuees.

“Right now, you can walk right down the middle of Bourbon Street. Before, it was so crowded, it was almost an adventure trying to get across,” said Scott Escarra, the manager of Cafe Du Monde.

Although the number of celebrants was smaller than in past years, many local residents appeared to be joining out-of-towners in the French Quarter, said Mark Wilson, president of the French Quarter Business Association.

“There a lot of locals who have come out to support it. This year, I’ve seen families. In talking to some our members, the art galleries and some of those folks are doing pretty well,” Wilson said.

After a rainy Saturday forced postponement of some parades, fair weather brought signs of economic success on Sunday and Monday, but on a smaller scale.

Monday’s events included the arrival at the Mississippi River front of Rex, King of Carnival, followed by fireworks that capped a day of riverside concerts; and the annual Orpheus parade, a spectacle of fiber-optic lit floats led by native son Harry Connick Jr. and featuring actors Steven Seagal and Josh Hartnett as this year’s celebrity monarch.

To some of Katrina’s hardest-hit victims, the party seems in poor taste. From Houston, refugee Samuel Spears said footage from his hometown of bead-tossing and carousing tourists just made him more angry.

“With them putting on Mardi Gras, without still having not addressed the basic human needs in this city, why that’s just a slap in the face,” said Spears. “I can’t go home, but they can have a parade? That’s ridiculous.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, a Mardi Gras event at Hal & Mal’s Restaurant will feature a casket on which evacuees can write down their fears and painful memories of the Aug. 29 hurricane and “symbolically bury the past.”

“Burying Katrina is the theme, getting some closure, just putting it to rest for a minute,” said Michael Stanton, who is helping organize the event through Lutheran Episcopal Services. “It’ll be a semblance of home, but it’s not going to be New Orleans by any stretch of the imagination.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Says Tehran Against Nuclear Arms February 28, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Main, World News.
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TOKYO (AP)–Iran has a right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and is not committed building a nuclear weapon, Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday in Japan.

Manouchehr Mottaki met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and told reporters afterward that he asked for Japanese participation in Iran’s nuclear reactor program.

But he denied that Tehran wanted to build an atomic weapon.

“Iran also, like Japan, enjoys its right to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes,” Mottaki said after the talks. “We are against nuclear weapons.”

Mottaki, who arrived Monday in Japan, said a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that there was no proof that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at weapons production.

“They could not find evidence which shows that Iran has diverted from its peaceful purposes of nuclear activities in Iran,” he said.

“I think 50% of the case is quite clear: that is no evidence, no report, no document, no inspections show that any diversion is there,” Mottaki said. “We’re glad for that.”

The report, however, suggested that unless Iran drastically increased its cooperation with an IAEA probe, the agency would not be able to establish whether past clandestine activities were focused on making nuclear arms.

The report also said that Iran plans to start setting up thousands of uranium enriching centrifuges this year even as it negotiates with Russia on scrapping such domestic activity – a possible pathway to nuclear arms.

Mottaki also said that he asked Koizumi to encourage Japanese companies to participate in the establishment of 10 to 15 nuclear power plants in Iran.

Koizumi told Mottaki that Iran should win trust of the international community, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry official Takashi Kamada.

Mottaki said that Tehran will not stop uranium enrichment even if it accepts a Russian offer for a joint enrichment venture during an interview with Kyodo News agency.

He said that Iran has no intention of halting small-scale uranium enrichment activities for “research and development” purposes, Kyodo reported.

The Iranian met earlier in the day with Japanese Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai, who urged Iran to halt all uranium enrichment activities, national broadcaster NHK reported.

Mottaki responded that Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful, and added that the Russian proposal for a joint uranium enrichment venture would help build the international community’s trust, the report said.

The Iranian said that Tehran is currently looking into possible locations for the venture, NHK said. Trade ministry officials refused to comment on the report.

Japan, a major oil importer, says its firm relations with the United States, Europe and Iran put it in an ideal position to mediate the nuclear dispute.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso urged Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program in talks with Mottaki on Monday night, but the Iranian insisted that Tehran has a right to nuclear development.

National Intelligence Director Warns Of Chaos In Nigeria February 28, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Main, US News.
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WASHINGTON (AP)–National Intelligence Director John Negroponte warned Tuesday of possible “major turmoil and conflict” in Nigeria if President Olesegun Obasanjo seeks approval of a constitutional amendment permitting him to seek a third term in office.

Chaos in Nigeria, he said, could create instability elsewhere in the region.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Negroponte said the election is the most important on the African horizon, with the potential to reinforce a democratic trend away from military rule or produce a major disruption in a country already suffering from ethnic violence and corruption.

“Speculation that President Obasanjo will try to change the constitution so he can seek a third term in office is raising political tensions and, if proven true, threatens to unleash major turmoil and conflict,” he said.

Chaos in the country could lead to “disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments, major refugee flows, and instability elsewhere in West Africa.

Attacks by militants on oil facilities in Nigeria have led to a reduction of almost 500,000 barrels a day in oil production.