Wednesday June 29th, 2005

Washington Mutual to develop San Antonio operations center...Ashland shareholders approve selling minority stake to Marathon Oil...ConocoPhillips considers stake in Lithuanian refinery...

Washington Mutual announced today that it will develop a new regional operations center in San Antonio that will mean an initial 2,200 jobs. Officials for the Seattle-based thrift say it expects to have a 4,200-member workforce at the center within seven years. The center will start with a call center at MCI's former offices on San Antonio's northern edge. Other operations will be added over time. Washington Mutual is the nation's largest savings and loan institution with 2,400 offices nationwide. It has 250 locations and 3,500 employees currently in Texas.

Ashland shareholders today approved selling the company's minority stake in Marathon Ashland Petroleum to partner Marathon Oil. It means the $3.7 billion cash and stock transaction has cleared its final hurdle. Ashland owns 38 percent of MAP, the nation's fifth-largest gasoline refiner and marketer. Houston-based Marathon owns the rest. The transaction is expected to close tomorrow. Shareholders meeting at Ashland's Covington headquarters in Kentucky voted overwhelmingly in support of the transaction.

Shareholders have approved the merger of Florida-based Seacor Holdings with Houston-based Seabulk International. The deal is valued at about $532 million. Seabulk International provides marine support and transportation services with its fleet of 144 vessels for the energy and chemical industries. Seacor operates a fleet of offshore support vessels servicing oil and gas exploration and development in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, west Africa, Asia, Latin America and other regions.

The mergers and acquisition environment looks good to 88 percent of Houston dealmakers, according to a mid-year survey by Thomson Financial and the Association for Corporate Growth. In Houston, some 67 percent of respondents think the M&A picture will improve further in the second half of the year.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips is considering buying a stake in Lithuania's Mazeikiu Nafta refinery. The unit is controlled by Russia's embattled Yukos. ConocoPhillips Chairman James Mulva today told reporters in Vilnius that it's possible the company, over some time, could acquire ownership interests in Mazeikiu Nafta. Yukos holds a nearly 54 percent stake in Mazeikiu Nafta, which is Lithuania's only refinery. The Lithuanian government holds the rest. The refinery, which includes a pipeline and offshore oil terminal, accounts for around ten percent of Lithuania's gross domestic product. Russian oil giant Lukoil, in which ConocoPhillips has a stake, has also expressed interest in buying stakes in the refinery from Yukos.

Texas A&M students will see a 12 percent increase in tuition this fall. A&M president Robert Gates announced the increase. Regents agreed in March to raise tuition $3 to $19 per credit hour, depending on what level of funding the legislature approved. With the increase, students will pay $137 per hour, up from $122.50. The university says $10 of the tuition increase will fund merit pay raises for faculty and staff--the rest will be used for operating expenses, such as increased gas and utility costs. The University of Texas and the University of Houston will each increase tuition by about five percent this fall. Prairie View A&M has imposed a higher increase of 20 percent--up $19 to $113 per semester hour.

The Center for Energy Economics is moving from the University of Houston to the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences. The move includes the center's director Michelle Michot Foss and her research team. Formerly known as the Institute for Energy, Law and Enterprise at the University of Houston, the center helps prepare energy industry managers and government policy makers for more competitive global energy markets.

The University of Houston says it has had a return of investment of more than 1,100 percent from its customer relationship management IT solutions over the past three years. Productivity savings exceed $2.3 million from the use of the Internet as a self-service channel, resulting in fewer phone calls to the university from current and prospective students.

Rice University is first in the United States in nanotechnology commercialization in 2005, according to Small Times magazine. Rice received 11 patents and spun off four start-ups in the nanotech area last year. Rice is also ranked number one in terms of overall strength of its patent portfolio. The school was issued 15 nanotechnology patents last year.

The interstate natural gas pipeline subsidiary of CenterPoint Energy has settled a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission investigation into its relationship with marketing affiliates and its record-keeping and reporting compliance. Centerpoint Energy Gas Transmission is paying a $270,000 fine.

Texas Genco is selling three Houston-area power plant sites and several generation units. They include the Deepwater site, located along the Houston Ship Channel in Pasadena; Webster, with frontage along Clear Creek; and H. O. Clarke in Houston. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas determined that the plants on those sites are not required for electric reliability. The sale will be through an auction process.

Kinder Morgan Energy Partners is buying a natural gas storage facility in Liberty County from Texas Genco in a $100 million deal. The Dayton storage facility ties into KMP's 5,800-mile Texas Intrastate Pipeline system. The Houston-based company owns or operates more than 25,000 miles of pipelines and 140 terminals.

El Paso Corporation's Southern Natural Gas unit has filed for a proposed $240 million Cypress Pipeline extension with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The project would expand the system from Savannah, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida.

Venezuela's national oil company has begun making $700 million in overdue oil payments to 22 foreign oil producing companies, according to the Miami Herald. Half of the payments for oil produced in the first quarter of 2005 will be in Venezuelan bolivars, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered Petroleos de Venezuela last month not to pay companies in dollars. Venezuela has been retroactively raising revenue taxes to 50 percent from 34 percent.

Pride International has signed a five-year contract with Petroleo Brasileiro of Brazil for $600 million in offshore work. Rigs should start in October. The agreement includes $230 million in contract extensions for Petrobras for two semisubmersibles.

ENGlobal Systems has a new $2 million contract from JGC Corporation of Yokohama, Japan. The Houston company will provide engineering, design, procurement, fabrication, control systems, installation and testing services for three buildings. The three remote instrument buildings will be shipped out of the Port of Houston to a large petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia.

Rowan Companies of Houston has been awarded a $65 million drilling contract for its Rowan Gorilla VII rig in the North Sea beginning in August. The rig is currently carrying out decommissioning activities in the North Sea through the end of July.

Houston-based DateScreen has developed software designed to work with existing online dating home pages to aid in conducting background checks. The company says more than 35 million people utilize online dating services.

The Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector warns of Thursday's deadline for 2004 property tax payments. Penalties of as much as 26.6 percent can be assessed on delinquent accounts on July 1st unless a six-month installment plan is established. Nearly 200,000 delinquent accounts will be turned over to tax attorneys for collection at the end of the week, prompting an additional penalty of 15 to 20 percent of the tax bill, plus an additional 18 percent penalty and interest. That could make the bill as much as 41.6 percent higher.

Bayshore Medical Center will begin offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy for chronic wounds at its Advanced Wound Care Center, according to the Houston Business Journal. Receiving 100 percent oxygen under pressure allows a higher concentration of oxygen to attach to red blood cells for transport to the wound site. The therapy is useful for diabetic lower extremity wounds, soft tissue infection, gangrene or radiation wounds.

Continental Airlines is inaugurating non-stop flights from its New York hub to Berlin beginning Thursday. The Houston-based air carrier now serves 24 European cities in 13 countries. The new route is part of Continental's international expansion that began in May and continues through November. Service has been added from Newark Liberty International Airport to Bristol, England; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Stockholm, Sweden; Hamburg, Germany and Beijing, China. Service to Delhi, India begins on November 1st.

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