Business & Finance

ExxonMobil Corp. and Royal Dutch/Shell signed or are expected to sign natural gas deals with Qatar worth a combined $16 billion. ExxonMobil's agreement, valued at $12 billion, is for the supply of liquefied natural gas to the US market over a 25-year period, beginning as early as 2008. Royal Dutch/Shell's investment, which reports said could be finalized as soon as Monday, calls for the development of the world's largest plant to liquefy gas for export.

The government of France backed out of its commitment to last month's $575 million deal with US prosecutors in a case involving the alleged fraudulent purchase of a bankrupt California insurance company, reported. France agreed to the settlement because in the early 1990s it owned banking giant Crédit Lyonnais, which is accused of using deceit to buy the assets of Executive Life in violation of US law. Crédit Lyonnais has since been privatized. Finance Minister Francis Mer said France remains interested in reaching a settlement of the matter, but only if the terms are changed. He quoted federal prosecutors as saying "new evidence has come to light" that causes them to seek the extradition of certain French financial officials not covered in the original agreement.

In layoff news:

• Agricultural chemicals giant Monsanto will close its European plant-breeding and seed operations and implement a cost-cutting program in its herbicide business, resulting in the layoffs of 1,100 employees, the Financial Times reported. Monsanto said Wednesday that next year's earnings would be lower than expected.

• The world's largest record company, Universal Music, declined to comment on published reports that it is cutting another 800 jobs as part of a response to the decline in sales throughout the industry. One-quarter of the layoffs will affect employees in the company's US operations, the Financial Times said. Universal Music already has cut or "redeployed" 550 jobs this year, the newspaper said.

• FirstEnergy Corp., the utility at the center of last summer's massive electricity blackout affecting eight states and parts of Canada, said Wednesday it will cut almost 200 jobs. The bulk of them will come in its natural gas subsidiary.

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