Friday July 15th, 2005

Enron settles disputes with California energy companies...Texas gasoline prices skyrocket to record levels as crude oil prices stays near $60 a barrel...Pumping efforts continue at Thunder Horse oil and natural gas platform...

Enron has agreed to financially settle disputes in the western U. S. energy markets. Enron says it will pay more than $1.5 billion to settle disputes over transactions that it gouged California and other western states during the 2000-2001 energy crisis, according to state officials. The settling parties include Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, the state of California and attorneys general of Oregon and Washington. Enron is granting some $875 million in unsecured bankruptcy claims against the former energy trader. The agreements include up to $47.3 million in receivables and cash collateral owed to Enron. Reuters reports that the governmental entities involved in the settlement will receive a civil penalty of $600 million from Enron Power Marketing. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer says the settlement will end market manipulation and price gouging claims against Enron. The agreement requires approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

A 16th person has pleaded guilty in a scheme to inflate Enron's earnings. The Justice Department says Christopher Calger, a former vice president in charge of the West Power Origination group of Enron North America, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The Connecticut resident has agreed to cooperate with the government.

Jurors in Houston deliberated more than six hours Thursday with no verdict in the conspiracy and fraud trial of five former Enron Broadband executives. The federal panel is slated to resume deliberations on Monday. All five defendants--Joseph Hirko, Scott Yeager, Rex Shelby, Kevin Howard and Michael Krautz--have taken the stand to deny wrongdoing. They're charged with conspiracy to commit wire and securities fraud. The five men stand accused of a pair of schemes that prosecutors said improperly inflated the value of Enron stock.

Texas gasoline prices skyrocketed to record levels this week as crude oil prices stayed near $60 a barrel. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today finds the price of regular unleaded self-serve in Texas averaging a record $2.23 a gallon. That's up a full ten cents over last week and up 43 cents from last year. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says disruptions in offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico from Hurricane Dennis added to the effect of higher crude prices. Even though the hurricane caused little or no damage, it prompted evacuations of oil platforms and other offshore production facilities. The cheapest prices remain in the Corpus Christi area, where they averaged almost $2.19 a gallon--up almost 15 cents from last week. The costliest pump prices continue to be in the Dallas area, where they average almost $2.26 per gallon--up almost 11 cents from last week. Houston's average is almost $2.23 a gallon--up over a dime from the previous week.ξ The national average held steady at $2.32 per gallon--also up ten cents.

Crude oil futures rose today on traders' concerns over possible hurricane dangers in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to oil exports from Mexico and Venezuela. Beyond such fears and constant worries about refining and transport capacities, analysts say the long-term market trend would remain bullish. That's because the growing sentiment that there is money to be made in oil was increasing the pool of investors. U. S. rigs in the Gulf of Mexico largely escaped the wrath of Hurricane Dennis and are likely to be out of the path of incoming Hurricane Emily. But worries today focus on the possibility of the storms limiting oil production and shipments from Mexico and Venezuela. Venezuelan authorities ordered several oil tankers in the key refining zone of Puerto la Cruz to remain in port, likely delaying exports. Analysts tracking Emily's path said it could hit the Cantarell oil field in Mexico, which could immediately wipe out 2.5 percent of the world's daily oil production.

Connecticut-based oil refiner Premcor is getting ready to close its headquarters and lay off some 225 workers--job cuts that would happen once it is acquired by San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corporation. Premcor has told Connecticut officials of the planned jobs cuts. By acquiring Premcor, Valero would pass Houston-based ConocoPhillips and Irving-based Exxon Mobil to become North America's largest refiner. Company officials expect the deal to close by the end of the year. Premcor is based in Greenwich, Connecticut and has refineries in Port Arthur, Memphis, Delaware City and Lima, Ohio.

The joint effort by BP, the U. S. Coast Guard and the U. S. Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service continues at the Thunder Horse oil and natural gas platform, which has been listing at a 20-degree angle in the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Dennis. The Coast Guard says pumping operations, which started Wednesday afternoon, continue at the platform, about 150 miles southeast of New Orleans. The platform has risen and is said to be stable. Thunder Horse was not due to start production until the end of the year, so it was not yet connected to the subsea oil wells. Efforts remain underway to understand the cause of the incident, which filled two of the platform's four pontoons with water.

In spite of heavy construction, there are positive signs in Houston's apartment market, according to O'Connor & Associates, which has released its latest Houston Apartment Performance Update. Demand continues to increase, with this quarter's 3,823 units absorbed bringing the 12-month total to 8,106 units--it's highest level in four years. Occupancy is also on the rise. Over the past few years, Houston has seen new construction at its highest level in two decades, even during falling occupancy, declining rental rates and negative absorption. In 2003, 53 new complexes with 11,659 units came on market; in 2004, 62 projects brought another 15,974 units online; so far this year, another 26 complexes with 6,506 units have been completed, and 43 more complexes with 9,942 units are under construction.

Landry's Restaurants has opened Downtown Aquarium Denver, which is similar to the restaurant and bar it has owned in downtown Houston since 2003. Landry's acquired Denver's Ocean Journey aquarium in March 2003 after the facility filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in April 2002. Landry's owner Tilman Fertitta says the main facility now includes a sting ray touch tank area, exhibits, a ballroom and more than one million gallons of exhibit space, including a 200,000-gallong tank full of marine species.

Dell shareholders today narrowly approved a measure requesting that the company treat stock options as expenses. Management with Round Rock-based Dell had opposed the measure. The executives called the matter moot--because they had planned to begin expensing stock options next year. The proposal was approved by just over half of the votes cast. A similar shareholder proposal was narrowly defeated last year. Dell Chief Financial Officer Jim Schneider says the company plans to implement the expensing in the first quarter next year. He reiterated Dell's opposition to the general concept of options expensing, but he said Dell will comply with new federal accounting rules mandating it. The meeting was low-key overall, with Dell management fielding only a handful of questions from shareholders.

Houston-based Continental Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines have both matched an increased cap on their most expensive fares. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines was the first to raise the cap on its most expensive fares by $100. It boosted the cap on one-way walk-up economy class fares to $599 from $499 and to $699 for First Class. Delta blamed persistently high fuel costs for its move yesterday--which came six months after Delta announced a ticket price overhaul designed to draw in more business travelers. The adjustment affects full-fare walk-up and some three-day advance purchases. United Airlines and Northwest Airlines also joined the move.

Continental begins new daily non-stop service on Saturday between Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Cali, Colombia--the airline's 67th destination in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Kroger says it has teamed with some other grocery and drug chains to file a federal lawsuit against VISA. It charges the credit-card issuer with price-fixing and restricting competition in the credit-card business. Kroger charges VISA has colluded with member banks to illegally fix prices on interchange fees, which credit card issuers like VISA and Mastercard charge merchants each time a customer pays with a credit card. Kroger also alleged that VISA set rules and restrictions that forbid merchants like Kroger from negotiating lower fees. Fees are a source of hefty profits for the credit card industry. Kroger says other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include grocery giant Ahold, Albertson's, Eckerd, Safeway and Walgreen.

The state attorney general's office announced today that it's reached agreement with AT&T in a dispute over recurring fees for long-distance phone service. In a release, Attorney General Greg Abbott says AT&T acknowledges overcharging thousands of residential customers more than $800,000 in monthly recurring fees. He says 75,000 customers were overcharged $3.95 per household bill. He adds that AT&T has already refunded or credited the payments back to consumers. The payments began in January 2004. The AG's office and the State Public Utility Commission also will each receive 195,000 from AT&T to cover legal fees and civil penalties. No comment yet from the phone company.

Xcel Energy said today it's filed suit against federal pollution regulators in a bid to exclude west Texas from the federal clean air interstate rule. According to a regulatory filing, the city of Amarillo and Occidental Permian Limited joined Excel in the lawsuit against the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. It requests reconsideration, along with Xcel subsidiary Southwestern Public Service Company. El Paso Electric Company also joined in the request for reconsideration. Minneapolis-based Xcel argues west Texas should be excluded from the clean air interstate rule because the area "doesn't contribute significantly'' to the air quality problems downwind. Emissions from plants located in the Texas panhandle are more than 600 miles away from cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Xcel contends the emissions must pass through Oklahoma and Kansas--and over power plants in those states that aren't subject to the rule--before reaching downwind cities the rule aims to protect. No comment yet from the EPA.

An item on the Associated Press radio news wire spotlights Houston as a destination. It says: In the sprawling expanse of the nation's fourth largest city, you don't need a bank account the size of Houston native Beyonce's to have a good time. There's lots of Texas-sized fun to be had for less than $20. But there are two things to know before you go. First, rent a car. That's the only logical way to navigate a metropolitan area larger than Rhode Island. Second, pack your shorts to combat the 90-plus degree summer temperatures coupled with stifling humidity. Museum choices abound in Houston--and it's easy to jump from place to place within the city's museum district, which is home to 15 museums within walking distance of one another. Many have free admission or tickets priced in the single digits. Also cheap to see is the Houston Zoo in Hermann Park--home to more than 3,000 animals, including Asian elephants and some crowd-pleasing sea lions. After a long day of museum-hopping, take a seat at the nearby, and free, Miller Outdoor Theatre and the city's acclaimed Theatre Under the Stars. Jump on a 95-foot-long boat at the Port of Houston and enjoy a free 90-minute cruise along the Houston Ship Channel. Catch some sun at Memorial Park, with its three-mile running course, golf course, tennis courts and swimming pools. See native plants, animals and insects at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, which is always free. About 20 miles east of downtown Houston is the San Jacinto monument, which commemorates the battle where Texas won its freedom from Mexico. On the same grounds is the century-old battleship Texas--which is the only remaining battleship to survive both world wars. Head downtown to Minute Maid Park to catch a Houston Astros game. Outfield upper deck tickets are just $5 for adults and $1 for kids. Get a breakfast burrito for about $2 at one of the hundreds of taco stands that dot the city. There are more than 58,000 hotel rooms in Houston so finding affordable lodging shouldn't be a problem. For help in planning a trip, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau--and pick up the space city savings book with discount coupons and two-for-one tickets to various attractions at the city hall visitors center.

Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U. S. jumped by ten this week--to reach 1,404. One year ago the rig count was 1,211. The Texas rig count is unchanged.

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