Friday October 7th, 2005

CSB sends investigators to site of Formosa Plastics explosion and fire in Point Comfort...Bureau of Economic Geology details proposed near-zero emissions power plant...Some 2,900 state workers receive layoff notices as state replaces customer service centers...

The U. S. Chemical Safety Board is dispatching investigators today to a Coastal Bend plastics plant hit by an explosion. The investigators will assess the damage at the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort and decide whether to launch a formal investigation. Eleven people were injured in the explosion--one of them seriously. Formosa officials say the cause of the blast is under investigation, but it happened in the Olefins Two unit where the building blocks of plastics are made. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says the explosion was in a propylene line. The federal board says it's already investigating an accident at a Formosa plant in Indiana in April 2004 that killed five workers and injured two others. Point Comfort, on the Texas coast, is 150 miles southeast of San Antonio.


Industry representatives recently heard details about the proposed 275-megawatt near-zero emissions fossil fuels power plant at a Bureau of Economic Geology public meeting here in Houston. The FutureGen Texas plant would create hydrogen from the coal gasification process utilized in making electricity, according to the Bureau's Jay Kipper.

Jay Kipper audio 1

Kipper says coal is plentiful, and will serve us well if it can be cleanly used. The Bureau of Economic Geology has been charged with coordinating the state's site-selection process.

Jay Kipper audio 2

The billion-dollar FutureGen Texas project is envisioned as a public-private sector partnership, and Kipper says it's an opportunity for industry and the environment to work together.


The House has narrowly approved an energy bill aimed at helping the oil industry make more gasoline. The vote was 212-to-210. Critics say the bill would allow the oil industry to avoid environmental regulations, and would do nothing to ease energy prices. Supporters say Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have made it clear the country needs more refineries. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton says refinery capacity ''hasn't kept pace'' with the need for gas. He drafted the bill in response to soaring gasoline prices after Katrina and Rita damaged a dozen refineries, cutting off 20 percent of the country's domestic gasoline supply. The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain.


Drilling rigs searching for oil and gas worldwide in September climbed 20 percent since the previous year, according to Houston-based Baker Hughes. The total number of rigs in the United States rose from 1,240 in the same month last year to 1,452 in September 2005.


In an effort to replace some customer service centers, the state issued layoff notices this week to about 2,900 state workers via e-mail. The layoffs are part of the state's plan to replace some customer service centers, where Texans apply for food stamps and health benefits, with call centers. The layoffs are effective on or after May 1st, but workers could be eligible for other state jobs or for jobs with the new call centers, which will be managed by private companies. David McCurley, executive director of the Texas Access Alliance, the contractor for the call center service, says the alliance will hire displaced state workers to fill 60 percent to 80 percent of the 2,500 jobs available.


Big Lots is closing 126 underperforming stores and all 41 of its free-standing furniture outlets. The Ohio-based company operates 20 stores in the Houston area, but most of the stores are in small or rural markets, mostly in the Midwest. A small number of stores in its strongest markets in the West and Southeast or its new markets in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest will close. Big Lots will continue to include furniture departments inside its stores.


Some workers are worrying about the future of the Pasadena Paper Company, which has not restarted its mill since shutting down for Hurricane Rita two weeks ago. International Steelworkers union officials told the Houston Chronicle the company is blaming high natural gas prices for the extended shutdown. The firm had meetings scheduled with employees today. Pasadena Paper maked coated paper used in bottle labels, book jackets and glossy magazines. The pulp and paper industry has lost more than 120 mills in the United States over the past 20 years, according to the American Forest & Paper Association, because of competition from China, South America and Europe.


A day-long job fair held at the George R. Brown Convention Center resulted in more than 7,500 registrations, according to the Mayor's Office. The Destination Occupation Job Fair featured some 200 employers. The job fair, designed to help Hurricanes Katrina and Rita victims but also open to all other job seekers, was held in conjunction with the Greater Houston Partnership.


Houston's Shell Windenergy says it reached an agreement to buy a West Virginia wind power project from Nedpower Mount Storm. Terms of the deal were not released today. The project is permitted for 200 wind towers. It's near another 166-turbine project proposed by U. S. Wind Force. Both projects would dwarf West Virginia's lone existing wind farm. Shell Windenergy owns a 50 percent stake in seven U. S. wind generation facilities, according to the State Public Service Commission. It's a subsidiary of oil company Royal Dutch Shell. If approved by regulators, the project would be Shell's first wind project east of the Mississippi. Citizens groups have protested wind projects in the state, arguing that the turbines would harm the environment in the scenic Allegheny Highlands.


Houston's office leasing market registered positive absorption for the sixth consecutive quarter, according to Grubb & Ellis. Although Houston's leasing market has seen an increase in demand from the dislocation of companies out of New Orleans, the impact is expected to be minimal because the Houston market has a glut of office space. An estimated 1.5 to three million square feet is expected to be leased on a short-term or month-to-month basis, out of some 30 million available square feet.


The Big Three automakers have filed suit against a Houston-based Marathon Oil subsidiary in a dispute over fuel that allegedly contaminated fuel sensors. General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler accuse Marathon Petroleum of bailing out of its agreement to pay $12 million to repair 12,000 vehicles damaged by gasoline distributed by the company at Kentucky car production plants in 2004. Marathon says the fuel met applicable standards.


A federal judge in Oklahoma City has sentenced the president of a Houston-based painting company to 16 months in prison. U. S. District Judge Joe Heaton also fined Drossos J. Tiliakos $10,000 for improperly disposing of old paint containing lead. He fined J&N International Coatings $20,000. The company was accused of dumping paint blasted from two Interstate 44 bridges in Oklahoma at a landfill not authorized to handle such waste. The company was also accused of paying bribes to an inspector to falsely indicate the company was complying with environmental rules. Inspector Michael Zacker of Oklahoma City pleaded guilty in a separate case to conspiring with Tiliakos and was sentenced last month to 12 months in federal prison. The company secretary-treasurer--30-year-old Nikoleta Tiliakos--pleaded guilty to concealing the bribes and was sentenced to two years probation and a $2,500 fine.


American Airlines may ground planes longer and try harder to pass rising fuel costs on to consumers. That's according to comments made by its chief executive, Gerard Arpey. The airline temporarily cut some flights from its daily schedule last week to save jet fuel. American's parent company expects to spend $5.25 billion on fuel this year. That's a 45 percent increase on top of last year's 43 percent jump. Arpey has praised a senate bill that would give airlines more time to make payments to their pension plans. He also rejected proposals to repeal a law that limits flights from Dallas Love Field to Texas and seven nearby states. He made the comments after addressing a business group near American's Fort Worth headquarters.

Continental Airlines has received tentative approval from the Department of Transportation to begin daily non-stop flights between the airline's hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Buenos Aires, Argentina. This will be Continental's ninth destination in South America and the 789th Latin American/Caribbean destination.


The top federal communications regulator wants the SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI mergers to be approved without no strings attached. A source tells the Associated Press that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is sending fellow commissioners plans outlining his reasons for seeking approval. The source was authorized to speak about the proposals only on the condition of anonymity because it remains an internal agency issue. If martin gets at least two of the three other commissioners to agree, the mergers could be approved at the commission's monthly meeting October 28th. The Justice Department also must approve the deals. San Antonio-based SBC's deal to acquire AT&T is valued at $16 billion. Verizon is offering $8.5 billion for MCI. SBC and Verizon already are the largest regional phone companies. The mergers would enhance their base of business customers and expand their national and international presence.


Halliburton is selling its Westport Technology Center in Houston to Intertek Caleb Brett, a division of a London-based testing and inspection company. Westport provides oil and gas exploration and production laboratory services.


Houston-based MetroCorp Bancshares has completed its $37.4 million acquisition of First United Bank in San Diego. The two branches of Frist United will retain their names.


The takeover by private equity firms of the Neiman Marcus Group has been completed. Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus acquired the company last May in a $5.1 billion deal.


Blockbuster shares climbed today after the Dallas-based movie rental company said its third-quarter results would put it in compliance with its borrowing contracts. Blockbuster received waivers on its debt covenants in the second quarter after its pre-tax earnings failed to meet the levels its debtors demanded. Without the waiver, Blockbuster would have had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars. Blockbuster's video rental business has been hurt by its decision to end late fees, which cut one of its revenue streams. It's also absorbing the cost of ramping up its online and in-store movie subscription service to compete with Netflix and large DVD retailers like Wal-Mart.


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