Friday December 16th, 2005

Enron prosecutors want gag order in wake of Lay speech...Texas unemployment rate holds at 5.3 percent...Gasoline prices in Texas continue climbing for second straight week...

Prosecutors want a judge to muzzle out-of-court statements related to the fraud and conspiracy case against Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling. That's in the wake of Lay's public address to a Houston business group this week in which he lambasted government tactics in pursuing him. Enron Task Force director Sean Berkowitz says a gag order is appropriate because Lay had made public statements regarding the credibility of potential witnesses and commented on the motivation of government prosecutors. Lay's attorney Mike Ramsey said after Lay's speech to the Houston Forum on Tuesday that he hopes the judge isn't upset with Lay's decision to speak.

Mike Ramsey audio

Lay, Skilling and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey go on trial January 17th. The case emerged a nearly four-year Justice Department investigation of Enron's 2001 collapse. All three have pleaded not guilty. Last month, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake raised the possibility of a gag order in anticipation of heavy publicity stemming from the blockbuster trial. Prosecutors supported it, but the defense teams didn't--and Lake decided on December 1st to hold off on issuing such an order.

The monthly jobless report for Texas today shows the state's unemployment rate held steady at 5.3 percent in November. The unadjusted unemployment rate was 5.2 percent, up from 5.1 percent in October. But the Texas Workforce Commission says the state added more 17,000 jobs last month. It says those jobs were added in nearly every sector of the economy, with the biggest increases seen in business and professional services. Texas had added more than 136,000 jobs in the past year. Houston's rate is 5.9, after posting 5.7 last month.

Hurricane Rita drove up unemployment rates in Southeast Texas after it made landfall in late September. But people seemed to be finding work again last month. The jobless rate in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area jumped from 7.2 percent in September to 11.6 percent in October. It fell back to 8.6 percent in November. Almost 592,000 Texans remained actively looking for work in November. Initial claims for unemployment benefits topped 66,000--but was down more than 19 percent from November 2004.

The Texas petroleum economy continues on its three-year growth pattern. The Texas PetroIndex keeps tabs on some 20 oil and gas economic indicators. The index is at a record high reading of 190.1, with crude oil and natural gas prices continuing to be the driving force. Other economic indicators such as drilling permits, oil field employment and well completions have also increased. For 36 consecutive months, the index has beat the previous month, rising 18 percent this year.

The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States decreased by 20 this week to 1,463. Houston-based Baker Hughes reports today that 1,222 of the rigs operating nationwide are exploring for gas, while 237 are looking for oil. Four were listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count was 1,234. Texas lost 15 rigs. 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.

Gasoline prices at retail pumps across Texas continue to climb for a second straight week. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey released today finds gas prices have risen nearly ten cents per gallon in the past two weeks. The statewide average retail price of regular, self-serve unleaded gas tops $2.14 per gallon. That's seven cents over last week. The costliest gas is found in Dallas, where regular averaged almost $2.17 per gallon. That's up eight cents from last week. The cheapest gas is found in Corpus Christi, where regular averages almost $2.07 a gallon. That's up a dime. The national average is $2.19--or four cents higher than last week. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says to expect gas prices to continue to rise with the price of crude oil stuck near $60 a barrel.

Work crews continue to work to plug an old gas well that exploded before dawn today. Fires still burn around the blast site 60 miles west of Fort Worth. The predawn explosion left a huge crater and sparked fires as much as a mile away. Officials say the sound of the blast was heard for miles around, and the flash was seen as much as 100 miles away. Aerial video shows it left a huge crater and sparked brush fires up to a mile away. One worker at a nearby drilling rig was slightly injured in the explosion and no evacuations have been ordered in the rural, sparsely populated area. Authorities say the well blast happened before dawn near the intersection of U.S. highway 180 and State Route 16. That's about 12 miles west of Palo Pinto and 60 miles west of Fort Worth. Firefighters from numerous surrounding jurisdictions and state environmental officials have arrived at the scene. Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer says crews are trying to contain the flames to the crater while oil field contractors prepare to try to plug the burning well with mud.

Southern Union Company, a natural gas distributor, says it has agreed to buy Fort Worth-based Sid Richardson Energy Services, a privately held natural gas gathering and processing concern, along with a related energy marketing business. The price tag on the deal is put at $1.6 billion. The deal would expand Scranton-based Southern Union's pipeline network to more than 22,000 miles--from the Gulf of Mexico to the southwest, midwest and Canada. Sid Richardson has about 4,600 miles of natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines in the Permian Basin, and six active natural gas treating plants. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2006.

The Senate has approved nearly $8 billion in tax breaks for Gulf Coast businesses. The bill, however, doesn't allow gambling to be subsidized by taxpayer dollars. The package includes creating a special business zone to rebuild commerce and replace jobs in Gulf Coast communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Its central benefits increase write-offs for small business investments. There are also write-offs for other businesses purchasing equipment and new property. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott says it's about time. Frustrated with the slow process of getting the aid package through Congress, he banged the lectern and told his colleagues the Gulf Coast "cannot wait any longer."

Collections of Harris County hotel occupancy taxes are up 7.5 percent, despite being filled for weeks with evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, most of whom were exempt from hotel taxes. Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt says the taxes waived for the evacuees produced no losses.

Paul Bettencourt audio 1

Bettencourt says the figures speak well for the local economy.

Paul Bettencourt audio 2

The hotel occupancy tax is 17 percent in most areas of the county, with shares of the revenue going to the city, county, state and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

Bank One Center is losing its former namesake tenant next year, with the purchase of the 25-story 910 Travis building from Whitehall by Houston-based Hines and one of California's largest pension funds. Bank One was acquired by Chase in 2004. Burlington Resources will be vacating a Hines building at 717 Texas with its acquisition by ConocoPhillips. That property recently dropped its Calpine Center name because that tenant scaled back its space there.

Marathon Petroleum has contracted with California-based Fluor, which has a Houston office, to provide engineering design services in a $2.2 billion expansion of a refinery in Louisiana, according to the Houston Business Journal. Fluor will provide front-end engineering for new processing units, as well as utilities and off sites.

The Brownsville City Commission has approved new building standards meant to bolster homes against extreme winds and hurricanes. City Manager Charlie Cabler said the city wanted to ensure that builders and individuals building their own homes meet specific standards for wind resistance. To become certified, homes must use a system of connectors that redistribute wind pressure from the frame to the foundation. The change is expected to take effect in January.

Dell has recalled some notebook computer batteries because of the possibility of overheating and potential fire risk. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said today that the recall affects about 22,000 batteries in the United States. That includes batteries sold individually and with certain Dell laptop models between October 5th, 2004, and October 13th of this year. Dell confirmed the recall but says it won't have any material financial impact on the company, which is based in Round Rock. The commission says the recall was triggered by three reports of batteries overheating--causing damage to a tabletop, a desktop and personal items. No injuries have been reported. The individual batteries sold for between $99 and $179. Some batteries were sold with laptop models including the Latitude D410, Inspiron 510M and Dell Precision M20 mobile workstations. They're priced between $900 and $2,650.

A bumper crop of cotton requires good weather during the growing season, well-timed rainfall--and a little luck. Many growers in the south plains reported less rain than last year but it was more timely, coming in late July and August. A hot September matured the crop and near perfect harvesting conditions made the fiber stronger, longer and whiter--all of which add value for producers. The south plains wasn't the only West Texas region to fare well this year. Growers in 31 counties in the rolling plains of West Texas could reach the million-bale mark this year. That's up about 30,000 bales from last year. Conditions weren't as favorable near the South Texas coast and Central Texas, where drought stressed fields for a second straight year. Texas is the nation's leading cotton-producing state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Texas farmers expect to beat last year's cotton record of 7.78 million bales by at least five percent. Cotton is the state's top cash crop and makes up nine percent of Texas' agricultural cash receipts. This year's crop is expected to bring in an estimated $2.1 billion.

Southwest Airlines has long said it wasn't interested in serving Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport--but the low-cost carrier announced yesterday that it will sell seats on ATA Airlines flights between DFW and Chicago. The announcement was another small step in the escalating battle between Southwest and American Airlines to lure travelers to and from North Texas. Southwest says that beginning January 11th it will expand its so-called code-sharing agreement with ATA. It's already selling seats on ATA flights to various locations where Southwest doesn't fly. Southwest customers would be able to fly from Chicago's Midway Airport to DFW and earn Southwest mileage rewards. But the flying will be on ATA planes. Southwest customers could also fly to Chicago on ATA and then connect to other Southwest flights, all on a single ticket bought from Southwest. Southwest plans to start selling tickets January 3rd.

RadioShack warns it will miss its annual earnings forecast. The Fort Worth-based electronics retailer blames weaker-than-expected sales of wireless devices, batteries and related accessories.

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