Monday November 14th, 2005

Barge leaking oil off Louisiana coast after leaving Houston...Companies look at lunar commercial opportunities...FEMA reimburses City of Houston and Harris County for sheltering Hurricane Katrina evacuees...

Crews have been working to contain an oil spill about 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana after about 10,000 gallons leaked from a damaged barge. The Coast Guard is overseeing the cleanup, and a four-mile safety zone is in effect around the 441-foot vessel. The barge was carrying about 5 million gallons of a heavy petroleum product, and the damaged tank was holding about 300,000 gallons of oil. The barge left Houston shortly before midnight Thursday. It suffered a 30-foot by six-foot hole in its starboard bow after hitting debris. Crew members called the Coast Guard early Friday when they noticed the barge was listing south of Lake Charles. A spokesman for the New-York based company that owns the barge says the leak appears to be intermittent because the oil is thick and sticky. K-Sea Transportation spokesman Mike Hanson says the vessel is not expected to sink. The Coast Guard says the barge did not obstruct marine traffic and all area waterways remain open.


Lunar commercial opportunities were presented at the recent Space Resources Roundtable at the South Shore Harbor Resort and Conference Center. Unexplored lunar commercial opportunities were discussed at an executive roundtable comprised of aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Honeywell and Boeing. Jeff Feige from Transformational Space Corps, or T-Space, says his consortium is interested in upcoming space missions.

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Feige says there are several commercial opportunities on places like the moon.

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Feige says T-Space is interested in NASA's plan to return to the moon.

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Attendees at the Space Resources Roundtable included representatives from real estate, construction and venture capital worlds, but also people talking about opportunities in generating solar power, in mining and in robotics.


Sales tax revenue, while up statewide, shows lower numbers in November because of Hurricane Rita, according to Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. She says sales tax allocations to 73 Southeast Texas cities, counties, special purpose districts and one transit system dipped by $2.3 million compared to a year ago, or about four percent. Rita made landfall September 24th near Sabine Pass--knocking out electricity, damaging structures and swamping parts of Southeast Texas. Sales tax revenue in Harris County alone is down more than $355,000. Strayhorn says revenue is down even more in counties declared disaster areas after Rita, even though sales tax revenue is up across the state. Strayhorn says those areas could apply for an advance based on what their revenue was in November and December of 2004. State sales tax collections rose to nearly $1.4 billion in October, up 5.9 percent, compared to a year ago.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency is reimbursing $101 million to the City of Houston and Harris County for providing shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. FEMA earlier awarded $37.2 million to the city for interim housing of evacuees who relocated temporarily to Houston, covering rentals, furniture, household goods and contracted professional services for inspections and project management. FEMA also approved an additional $8.8 million public assistance grant to the state to reimburse the county for providing temporary shelter. And the agency has approved $2.4 million in public assistance grants to the Texas Building and Procurement Commission for a program providing transportation for evacuees.


Two Houston businesses accused of defrauding nearly 700 customers--mainly Hispanics--on immigration matters have been closed. Attorney General Greg Abbott today announced the default judgment against Elvia Diaz and her businesses, Diaz Income Tax and Centro Documental. Abbott says the operations provided unauthorized immigration-related consulting services. Abbott says Diaz has been ordered to pay nearly $1.6 million in restitution, fines, penalties and legal and court fees. The court judgment in Houston also bars Diaz from continuing to operate as a notary public. Abbott in February sued Diaz over alleged violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Former or current clients of Diaz who are interested in obtaining their files can contact the AG's office at: 1-800-252-8011.


A new research lab for bioterrorism opened Monday at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The $10.6 million Margaret Batts Tobin Laboratory Building will provide a 22,000-square-foot facility. There, researchers will study such diseases as anthrax, tularemia, cholera, lyme disease, desert valley fever and other parasitic and fungal diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified these diseases as potential bioterrorism agents. Fifteen university researchers make up the newly established South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. Earlier this year, the researchers were awarded $9 million in federal funding for bioterrorism research conducted in a smaller lab on campus.


Despite the financial problems many major airlines are experiencing, the skies could still be crowded during the coming holiday travel season. According to the Airline Quality Rating, which is compiled at Wichita State University, the airline industry is in a very competitive mode. Report co-author Dean Headley says holiday travel prices are higher than last year, but some good deals may be available at the last minute--especially for people who book online. Headley expects traffic volumes will compare with last year, when approximately 110 million people flew somewhere in the U.S. during November and December. And even with higher prices, he predicts this year will be the busiest holiday travel season since 2000.


Americans have given nearly as much to charities in the 11 weeks since Hurricane Katrina as they did in the entire two years after 9-11. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University says the hurricane total already has reached $2.65 billion. The group says within the next couple of weeks the total should surpass the $2.8 billion contributed after the attacks. The center's research director says this is "a staggering amount of money'' that shows the depths of people's generosity. Patrick Rooney says the giving is even more remarkable, coming just months after all the money donated for tsunami relief. Rooney says any charitable-giving fatigue should be relatively short-lived. He says United Way and other groups across the country may see a slow start to their annual campaigns, but they should recover by the end of the drives.


Woodlands-based TPI and New York City-based EquaTerra are merging, with the new company name to be made public in December. TPI is a sourcing advisory firm and EquaTerra is an advisory firm specializing in outsourcing and insourcing. The founders of EquaTerra broke off from TPI in October 2003 to enter the business outsourcing market, at that time basing operations in Houston. The new firm will maintain headquarters in The Woodlands.


Houston-based pipeline operator Kinder Morgan says the British Columbia Utilities Commission has approved its $5.6 billion acquisition of Terasen, the parent company of the Terasen Gas natural gas distribution companies. Terasen has some 875,000 natural gas customers in British Columbia. The transaction creates a North America energy transportation and distribution company with 40,000 miles of natural gas and petroleum transportation companies.


FMC Technologies has signed a $100 million agreement with Statoil to provide subsea separation boosting and injection systems for a North Sea field. Norway-based Statoil is attempting to improve the recovery factor of its Tordis Field.


Vaalco Energy has signed a production-sharing agreement with the Ministry of Mines, Energy, Petroleum and Hydraulic Resources of Gabon in West Africa. It's an onshore permit near fields already licensed to Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies and Total.


Woodlands-based biopharmaceutical firm Lexicon Genetics and New York-based Taconic Farms, which provides laboratory rodents, are collaborating for the marketing, distribution and licensing of Lexicon's knockout mice. Lexicon will make available more than 1,000 distinct lines of mice, each with a single gene knocked out, and Taconic will provide breeding services and licenses for these lines. The mice are used by pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms and researchers for drug pipeline and clinical development.


After approving a new contract by a 30-to-one ratio over the weekend, Asarco Copper workers could be back on the job as soon as tomorrow. Union officials met in Hayden, Arizona yesterday to count votes that were cast in the previous several days. United Steelworkers' chief negotiator Terry Bonds says 25 people voted against ratifying the agreement, while approximately 800 people were for ratification. Asarco's 1,500 production workers in seven unions went on strike in July. That was after contracts expired at three of the company's five facilities in Arizona and its Amarillo, Texas refinery. In August, the Tucson, Arizona-based subsidiary of the Mexican company Grupo Mexico filed for bankruptcy reorganization protection. A judge overseeing Asarco's bankruptcy will be asked to approve the agreement today. The agreement keeps wages and benefits at pre-strike levels through December 31st, 2006.


Dozens of former Braceros are recounting their tales of laboring in farm fields and work sites around the United States as part of a government labor program. During a gathering at the Chamizal National Memorial this weekend, the former guest workers told stories of living in poverty and earning just pennies a day. Researchers want to collect those oral histories. They say studying the Bracero program will provide insight into the history of work, immigration, race and gender relations. The Bracero program brought Mexicans to the United States as temporary workers to fill a labor shortage created by World War II. Braceros were expected to return to Mexico, but not all did. Some who did return to Mexico eventually came back to the U.S. Staff with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American history, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso are working on the project.


More than 30 horses in Purcell, Oklahoma have been impregnated with a cloned embryo produced by an Austin company called Via-Gen. The company specializes in cloning horses, cattle and pigs. The impregnated horses are due to deliver in February. The mares have been provided to Via-Gen by a Purcell-based company called Royal Vista Southwest. Via-Gen is cloning performance type horses for $150,000 for customers who want to continue their horse's genetic makeup. Currently, these do not include thoroughbred racing horses. The Jockey Club, which regulates the registration of thoroughbreds, won't allow any horse to be registered that's produced by any form of genetic manipulation. The first cloned horse in the United States was created this year by Texas A&M University.


The National Cancer Institute has awarded a $527,036 grant to the Baylor College of Medicine to fund cancer research, emphasizing detection and diagnosis research. The grant falls under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services.


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