Friday October 14th, 2005

Gasoline prices fall, with Houston's average down almost six cents a gallon...Valero Energy chief says U. S. must encourage higher domestic fuel production...Norwegian Cruise Line to debut two new vessels at weekend Barbours Cut ceremony...

Gasoline prices are falling across the state. The AAA Texas gas price survey released today shows the average price of self-serve regular gas at the pump fell by more than eight cents a gallon to $2.82 a gallon. That's still 95 cents higher than last year's average of $1.87. Houston's average is down almost six cents to $2.85. Dallas has the state's costliest gasoline with an average of $2.89--down eight cents from last week. San Antonio has the cheapest gas at almost $2.76 a gallon--down four cents from last week. But Corpus Christi saw the biggest gas price drop of almost 16 cents a gallon to $2.77. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the decline in gasoline demand because of the recent hurricanes and lower crude oil prices are pushing retail prices lower. However, she warns prices could rebound if demand recovers from the hurricanes faster than supplies do. The national average price for regular self-serve gasoline is about $2.84 per gallon. That's ten cents lower than last week.


The United States must do more to encourage higher domestic fuel production or face further increases in energy prices, according to Valero Energy chief Bill Greehey. He tells Reuters the government needs to encourage expansions to existing refineries by speeding up permitting instead of focusing on the construction of new plants. No new refineries have been built in the U. S. in more than 20 years. President Bush has offered tax incentives for building new refineries and proposed the use of abandoned military bases for siting the plants. Greehey says the White House should delay environmental fuel regulations set to take effect early next year. The Gasoline for America's Security Act has passed the House by two votes, designed to streamline the permitting process and requiring the government to bear the costs of any rule changes.


Wood Mackenzie says its assessment of the damaged pipeline infrastructure is contrary to the general feeling in the market that the overall gas pipeline infrastructure has been somewhat "spared" by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The energy consultant says in reality, there will be a slower recovery in supply returning to the market. The report says Hurricane Katrina already impacted large gas processing plants in the Gulf of Mexico, and Hurricane Rita affected many smaller, unique-purpose processing plants. Wood Mackenzie says the hurricanes affected all links of the energy chain in the Gulf--offshore production facilities, gathering lines, junction platforms, processing plants, dehydration plants, compressor stations and onshore pipelines. The entire supply chain can be affected if any one link is inoperable. Further hampering supply recovery are the strained resources needed to support offshore activities, such as barges, helicopters, divers, transport boats, onshore repair facilities and work force.


The Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force has ramped up efforts to move Hurricane Katrina victims out of Houston hotels and motels by opening a center to speed up the process for landlords who have apartments or homes to rent. The center on the second floor of the City Hall Annex has 17 contracts specialists to speed the application process. Landlords are asked to call the housing center in advance and make sure they bring all necessary documents, including original rent vouchers from tenants. An estimated 55,000 evacuees displaced by the two hurricanes were still living in area hotels and motels as of Friday, October 7th.

The American Red Cross reports that a total of 616,023 people are still living in 198,717 hotel rooms since Hurricane Katrina. The cost to house evacuees could be cut nearly in half by moving people out of hotels and into the over a million vacant apartments in the surrounding area, according to the National Multi Housing Council. The group says FEMA could place families in these units in a matter of days by working with local apartment associations and public housing authorities. The NMHC says housing policies implemented in Houston could and should be replicated nationwide.


The Downtown Entertainment District is pushing downtown bars and restaurants for watching the Houston Astros in the 2005 playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Venues taking part for the first home game of the series include St. Pete's Dancing Marlin, Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, Slainte Irish Pub, Frank's Pizza, 306 Main, El Centro, Bossa, Downtown Hunan and Whiskey Bar at Hotel Icon. Downtown clubs plan celebrations later in the evening. Patrons are encouraged to use the Validated Parking Program, offering more than 3,000 parking spaces in the Market Square Parking Garage on Milam and the Chase Parking Garage on Travis.


Norwegian Cruise Line is expanding its service from Houston's port with the arrival of the Norwegian Dream, a 1,732-passenger vessel, and the 2,002-passenger Norwegian Sun. Ceremonies to mark the launch of the two new vessels are set for Saturday and Sunday at the Port of Houston Authority's Barbours Cut Cruise Terminal.

The Port of Houston had planned to open a state-of-the-art cruise terminal in Bayport in two years. But the hurricanes that caused more than $70 billion in uninsured losses has port officials considering scaling back their plans, according to the Houston Chronicle. The construction price for the terminal is now 35 percent higher than what was estimated before the storms. Executive Director Tom Kornegay says the port will consider deferring nonessential parts of the proposed terminal. The high price of fuel and increased demand for building materials is being blamed.


Dealer Computer Services has agreed to pay $531,226 in overtime back wages to 277 current and former computer technicians and technical support employees in Houston and College Station. An investigation by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division says the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to properly pay overtime to salaried, non-exempt employees for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek.


BP says it will double production from its Wamsutter natural gas field in central Wyoming. The company says it will invest up to $2.2 billion in the expansion. A report from Standard & Poor's this week says pricing pressures that the hurricanes put on the country's natural gas system show the need to tap domestic energy sources outside the Gulf of Mexico. More than 68 percent of Gulf oil production and 56 percent of the natural gas output remain offline because of storm-related damage, according to the Minerals Management Service. The Energy Information Administration says that by December that figure will improve to only about 33 percent of oil and 20 percent of natural gas available.


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against an Austin-based gas company. Santanna Energy Services had said it won't deliver gas to 15,000 Northern Illinois customers at its pre-set fixed price. It cited unforeseen energy price increases it said made it impossible to sell gas at the previously promised rate. Madigan says consumers who signed up with Santanna were told they'd be locked in at a fixed rate. Her suit asks that Santanna fulfill its current contracts, but not be allowed to do other business in the state. It seeks 50,000 penalties for each violation of the law. Santanna says it's been candid about the need to change its pricing following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.


Houston-based Sterling Construction has been named low bidder on a $6.7 million, 14-month construction project in Seguin, according to the Houston Business Journal. The project, which begins in December, includes the construction of a drainage system, sanitary sewer and water distribution and hot mix asphalt pavement.


Camping World is opening a new Gold Medal Alliance SuperCenter this month at Southwest RV Center on the Katy Freeway. The Alliance program aligns RV dealers with Camping World's services and supplies.


The South Texas State Fair in Beaumont is being canceled in the wake of Rita. The announcement came today from the Young Men's Business League. Group president Don Thompson cited the devastating effects of Rita on Jefferson County and Southeast Texas. A statement says widespread financial difficulties being experienced by people in the area indicate the fair would not and should not be a top priority as individuals rebuild their lives. The group plans to resume the fair next October.


The issue of long-haul flights out of Dallas Love Field appears headed for a Senate subcommittee hearing next month. Southwest Airlines is lobbying for repeal of the Wright Amendment, which limits commercial flights from Love Field to Texas and seven nearby states. Congress imposed the limit to protect then-new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the primary hub of Fort Worth-based American Airlines, against competition from Love Field, Southwest's base. The Senate subcommittee hearing would not require lawmakers to make a decision on the amendment. But it will help Senators understand the complex issues surrounding the restrictions. The Dallas Morning News reported that the staff of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is trying to schedule witnesses for a mid-November hearing.


A shuttered television picture tube plant in northwest Ohio has a new Texas-based owner. The Dallas-based investment group DBI Partners plans to redevelop the giant LG Philips Displays facility and bring in several new tenants. It's not disclosing the purchase price. The plant in Ottawa, Ohio closed three years ago and took about 1,200 jobs out of the area. The plant that covers about 63 acres has sat empty ever since Philips moved its picture-tube production to Mexico.


The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States increased by one this week to 1,482. Houston-based Baker Hughes said today that of the rigs running nationwide, 1,262 were exploring for gas and 215 for oil. Five are listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count was 1,225. Baker Hughes has kept track of the count since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, during the height of the oil boom. Several record lows were set in 1999, bottoming out at 488. Of the major oil- and gas-producing states, Texas gained three rigs.


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