Friday May 12th, 2006

Venezuelan Congress majority control of key heavy oil projects...150 and 200 die in Nigerian pipeline blast...Judge at Enron trial to issue jury instructions; final arguments to begin...

The Venezuelan Congress urges the state to take majority control of key foreign-run heavy oil projects in its oil-rich Orinoco River Basin. The projects are now run by companies like Chevron and Irving-based Exxon Mobil. Such a move would bring all active oil-producing operations run by foreign companies in Venezuela effectively under state control. The Congress is dominated by supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has yet to publicly endorse the plan. The development comes as Venezuela and Bolivia both advance a series of nationalist measures to increase state control over their oil and gas sectors. The moves are aimed at extracting a greater share of profits at a time of soaring oil prices. But they've rattled investors, strained some diplomatic ties and become a big issue at a summit of Latin American and European leaders this week in Austria.


Nigerian television and a top police official say between 150 and 200 people died in a pipeline blast today 30 miles east of Nigeria's main city of Lagos. Nigeria's Channel Television reports the fiery explosion hit after villagers flocked to a rupture to scoop up gushing fuel. Poor people in the West African oil producing country often tap into pipelines to get fuel for cooking or resale. Periodic explosions cause mass deaths. The blast left dozens of charred corpses around the ruptured fuel pipeline. Rescue workers have dug a ditch near the blast site and the Lagos police commissioner says bodies will be given "a mass burial.'' Nigeria is Africa's leading oil producer, and is the world's seventh-biggest exporter and fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.


The judge said he will instruct jurors on Monday morning to consider whether Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay deliberately ignored accounting fraud as Enron collapsed into bankruptcy. The jury would not need to decide whether the two had direct knowledge of it--only that they should have been aware of it. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake also said he will permit defense lawyers to tell jurors during closing arguments that the government did not call "certain witnesses," but attorneys cannot speculate about what those missing witnesses might have said. The defense can't tell jurors whether any of those witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Judge Lake also said he will also allow the "reliance defense," if the two are found to have relied in good faith on the advice of accountants and lawyers that Enron's finances were accurately reported.

This is the 16th week of the trial, and Ken Lay's attorney Mike Ramsey is back in court, after missing several weeks due to a medical procedure.

"This is a case that is a very complex case, and it is a case that has got room in it for reasonable minds to disagree. In a civil case, it might be a toss-up. In a criminal case where reasonable doubt is the standard, we're ahead on points. We're ahead on style points, we're ahead on degree of difficulty. We should win this case if the jury pays attention to the charge."

Ramsey regrets missing so much testimony, as he spent time recuperating from having a stent implant.

"That's a pretty big regret, is not being here for half the trial that I was supposed to be lead counsel in. I would like to say that Mac Secrest and Bruce Collins and Chip Lewis did a yeoman job of picking up what I could not have picked up because of my condition. As far as the arguments are concerned, I'm looking forward to them. I think there will be plenty to say."

Skilling attorney Daniel Petrocelli expects to take three hours and 20 minutes of the six hours allotted for closing arguments by the defense. Two or more attorneys for Lay will take up the remaining time. Petrocelli said it's time for the jury to begin its work.

"This jury has not made up its mind either way. This jury intends to listen to the arguments and they will go in there and they will have a vigorous debate and discussion, and they will then make up their mind, and you canot ask for anything more than that."

Ken Lay again expressed sorrow at Enron's bankruptcy.

"I've always taken great pride--and pleasure, I guess--in trying to provide my employees good opportunities, good compensation, good retirement. Indeed, many of them have realized dreams they never even thought they had any chance of realizing. So it's really painful to see how much was lost by the employees and the retirees. And I feel bad about it, I just can't restore it right now."

Closing arguments begin after the judge's instructions.


Retail gasoline prices eased statewide for a second week in a row. That's according to the weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today. It shows regular self-serve gasoline is averaging $2.82 per gallon in Texas--down four cents from last week. The national average is $2.89 per gallon--down three cents from last week. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says prices at the pump have softened over the past few weeks as more supplies of the ethanol additive entered the market. Meanwhile, crude oil prices hovered around $70 a barrel. Rougeau says motorists may not see big price drops unless concerns about supplies ease. The most expensive gasoline was found in Galveston-Texas City, where regular prices averaged $2.90 per gallon--up a fraction of a cent. The cheapest gas was in Corpus Christi, where it fell nine cents per gallon to $2.66.


Chevron Technology Ventures has taken a 22 percent equity stake in Galveston Bay Biodiesel. The Houston-based company is constructing a $15 million biodiesel production and distribution facility on the north side of Galveston Island, across from Pelican Island, set for completion at the end of the year. Biodiesel is made from fat or vegetable oil through a chemical process which separates the glycerin from the fat or oil, creating biodiesel and glycerin. Interest in alternative fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol--made from corn and soft wood--has been driven by rising gas prices and the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which mandates an increase in renewable fuel usage to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 from four billion gallons this year. The facility will more than double the current production volume of biodiesel in the United States, according to California-based Chevron. There are 65 biodiesel plants nationwide, and 12 are in Texas, according to the National biodiesel Board, which says Houston-based TexaCom Resources plans to build a plant in Seabrook, and Earth BioFuels, Green Diesel and Natural Fuel and Energy have Houston-area plants in preconstruction.


Several cities around the country are suing Web-based travel clearinghouses such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. The cities claim the sites have failed to pay millions of dollars in hotel taxes. San Antonio filed a class-action lawsuit this week seeking to recover lost taxes. Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago have filed similar suits. The state of Texas, Dallas and Houston are considering their own actions. San Antonio believes online travel agencies negotiate room discounts from hotels and sell the rooms at a markup to consumers. The agencies only pay hotel taxes on the wholesale price. A lawyer for San Antonio estimates the city loses as much as $2 million annually in missed tax revenue. The city's suit names 16 online agencies. Spokespeople for several of the companies referred comment today to industry spokesman Art Sackler. He says government officials misunderstand the role and responsibility of the companies and the laws governing the transactions.


This week's merger of Houston-based Everyone's Internet with Dallas-based The Planet will further develop both brands, according to the firms. The Houston Business Journal reports the combined company will support more than 20,000 clients and 50,000 dedicated servers. EV1 was founded in 1998 by Robert and Roy Marsh III and Randy Williams, and has increased its Ev1servers.net (formerly Rackshack.net) Web-hosting business with the declining popularity of dial-up Internet.


A Texas company planning a new 36-inch natural gas pipeline through northern Arizona has agreed to abandon its original route. Residents of a housing development in Prescott Valley had complained about the planned route along their property lines. Texas-based Transwestern Pipeline has been scouting new routes for the 258-mile pipeline. It will connect a major northern Arizona gas pipeline with the Phoenix area.


Goya Foods is completing its move into a new facility on Brittmore in west Houston, which serves as the distribution hub. Goya has sold its former distribution plant on Westpark to AAA Furniture Wholesale for around $3.5 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. AAA Furniture distributes furniture to restaurants.


Flouro-Seal International is building a new facility at Stonegate Business Center, as it moves from Houston's Energy corridor to an area in Waller County near Katy, according to the Houston Business Journal. The new $3.5 million facility will serve as the company's headquarters, and will house research, development and manufacturing. Flouro-Seal treats plastic bottles for enhanced barrier properties at 11 U.S. manufacturing plants, as well as sites in Canada, England, France, Germany, Australia and Mexico.


Houston-based Wulfe & Company announced plans to develop a 21-acre mixed-use site in the Galleria area, according to the Houston Chronicle, for retail, office, hotel and condominiums. BLVD Place, at Post Oak and San Felipe, will open in 2009, with parts opening sooner. A flagship Whole Foods Market will anchor the complex. Several more mixed-use developments are planned for Houston, including Kirby at Westheimer, downtown, Memorial City and the former Central Ford site on Westheimer. Wulfe hopes to retain existing retailers, including Cafe Annie, Americas, Eatzi's and Hermes.


The Texas Nurses Association has awarded Ben Taub General Hospital and Quentin Mease Community Hospital their "Nurse-Friendly" designation. The two Houston hospitals are now among a group of only 20 in Texas to have earned the three-year designation. To achieve the designation, the hospitals had to submit to TNA's review process, which includes nurse survey confirmation that 12 elements of an ideal nursing environment exist.


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