Friday August 5th, 2005

BP plans equipment update at Texas City refinery...U. S. ambassador to Qatar returns to visit hometown of Houston...Gasoline prices in Texas inches up again...

BP plans to replace the vent stacks--which was among the equipment cited in the deadly March explosion in Texas City--at all five of the company's U. S. refineries. BP officials announced yesterday it will replace three vent stacks by the end of the year at the Texas plant. The vent stacks take in vapors and vent them into the atmosphere when pressure builds in a unit. The stacks will be replaced with flares, a more modern technology that burns off the material, reducing the possibility that it could ignite. On March 23rd, vapor spewed out of a 50-year-old vent stack on a isomerization unit at the Texas City plant and ignited, killing 15 and injuring 170. An internal investigation found that if BP had replaced the stack, the incident would have been less severe. The report said the company had the opportunity to do so in 1995 and 2002.

Houstonian Chase Untermeyer has returned to visit his hometown briefly before returning to his post as U. S. ambassador to Qatar.

Ambassador Chase Untermeyer audio 1

Untermeyer spoke to the Houston World Affairs Council about the American relationship to Qatar.

Ambassador Chase Untermeyer audio 2

Ambassador Untermeyer says Qatar has been a long-time ally of the United States.

Ambassador Chase Untermeyer audio 3

Untermeyer previously served as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as a senior White House aide and director of the Voice of America for the first President Bush.

Some stores opened early today in Texas as shoppers take advantage of the sales tax-free weekend on numerous items. The annual Texas sales tax holiday runs through Sunday. The timing coincides with back-to-school shopping--but the tax-exempt holiday does not cover items such as school supplies or backpacks. The sales tax holiday generally applies to clothing that costs less than $100. Tax-free items include clothing, coats, pajamas, hosiery, certain shoes, socks, underwear, adult and baby diapers, work uniforms, gym suits and ties. State officials project about $47.4 million will be saved by consumers this weekend.

Gasoline prices at Texas pumps inched up again this week. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today finds the price of regular unleaded self-serve in Texas averaged $2.20 a gallon. That's up fractionally from last week and 42 cents above last year's average. Houston price averages are also at $2.20 a gallon. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says rebounding crude oil prices placed upward pressure on gasoline pump prices. She says motorists can expect to see these prices at least through the summer unless crude prices sag. The cheapest prices remain in the Corpus Christi area, where they averaged almost $2.13 a gallon. That's up three cents from last week. The costliest pump prices continue to be in the Dallas area, where they average $2.25 per gallon--up fractionally from last week. The national average rose fractionally to $2.29 per gallon. That's 41 cents above last year's average.

An aging gasoline pipeline from Texas to Arizona will be replaced. Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners says it'll replace the rest of its old 12-inch pipeline from El Paso to Tucson, Arizona with a modern 16-inch one. The cost is estimated at $130 million. That's on top of the $210 million Kinder Morgan expects to spend to install a new 12-inch pipeline from Tucson to Phoenix and 16-inch segments from El Paso to Tucson. The larger pipe will more than double the amount of gasoline transmitted to Arizona from refineries in Texas, New Mexico and the Gulf Coast. The projects are expected to be completed by summer 2007.

The second-quarter profit of National Oilwell Varco has nearly tripled from one year ago. Houston-based National Oilwell today reports the higher numbers reflect strong demand for the company's oil and gas drilling equipment and services. For the latest quarter, net income rose to $61.2 million. That compares to year-ago earnings of $21.4 million. The latest results included a charge of six cents a share from the company's recent merger with Varco International, and a charge of eight cents for a drilling facility for a customer in Kazakhstan.

Some lawmakers from Washington state are objecting to a plan by Southwest Airlines to leave Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Dallas-based Southwest wants to move its operations to a King County-run airport--Boeing Field. The congressional concerns are in a letter to King County executive Ron Sims. The letter says the plan could waste taxpayer dollars and threaten 3,800 jobs at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. The letter is from U. S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Congressmen Brian Baird, Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen and Adam Smith. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce says the Southwest plan bucks nearly two decades of airport traffic planning. Southwest last month said it wants to build a new $130 million terminal at Boeing Field and run up to 85 daily flights per day. Southwest currently offers 38 flights at Sea-Tac.

A former Merck scientist today bristled today when asked whether the company was considering the bottom line in rushing Vioxx to market. Dr. Alan Nies returned to the stand in the Angleton trial over a lawsuit brought by the widow of a Texan who died in 2001. Robert Ernst had taken Vioxx to ease pain in his hands. Nies insisted the New Jersey company wasn't in a race with Pfizer's Celebrex. He appeared to grow angry when questioned about his own written 1996 Vioxx product development plan. That document said Merck was concerned about a "significant negative impact'' on financial projections if Celebrex made it into medicine cabinets first. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last year when a study showed it could double risk of heart attacks or strokes if taken for 18 months or longer.

Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U. S. jumped by 24 this week--to reach 1,436. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,235. Texas gained four rigs this week.

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