Friday June 2nd, 2006

Gasoline prices slide for second consecutive week...Greater Houston Partnership to honor businesses, consular corps and congressional members at World Trade Gala...

Texas retail gasoline prices are down for a second straight week. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today shows regular, self-serve gasoline averaging $2.76 per gallon at pumps around the state. That's four cents less than last week. The national average is $2.85 per gallon--down about a penny from last week. But auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says price decreases "may be few and far between'' with the beginning of the summer driving season. She says the market remains concerned about the threat of the Atlantic hurricane season to Gulf Coast refineries. The survey found the costliest gas in the Houston area, where it averaged $2.86 per gallon. That's down three cents from last week. The cheapest gas was found in Corpus Christi, where the average price was $2.54 per gallon--down three cents from last week.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, already pumping oil at near-capacity, has decided not to change anything right now. OPEC today rejected suggestions by Venezuela to prop up prices with a production cut. The oil minister from Qatar told reporters of the decision after OPEC members finished a closed-door session that confirmed an earlier informal agreement not to alter current crude output. Venezuela had urged countries to consider a production cut, but many OPEC members have said they would not support such a move. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said earlier that there is an excess of oil on the world market and proposed a minimum price of $50 a barrel. He's raised that issue before but OPEC has yet to put in place. He said the price ceiling "would be infinity.''

Oil prices jumped by almost two dollars a barrel, as traders react to a report that eight foreigners working on a drilling rig off the coast of Nigeria had been kidnapped. That's re-igniting concerns about the stability of supplies flowing from the oil-rich African nation. Analysts say anxiety over Iran's nuclear ambitions continues to support crude futures. Data showing gasoline demand on the rise at the start of the summer driving season and a refinery snag in Texas also added strength to the rally.

Valero Energy says the dock at its Corpus Christi refinery "sustained significant damage'' after a lightning strike sent a wastewater storage tank ablaze. Thursday's lightning strike forced the company to reduce its output by 70,000 barrels per day. Corpus Christi Harbor remained closed today as officials worked to clean oil that overflowed from refinery wastewater tanks amid heavy rains and the fire. The marketing director of the Port of Corpus Christi says that the harbor is expected to re-open tomorrow morning. About 170,000 gallons of oil spilled from the Valero Energy and Citgo petroleum refineries early yesterday. That came after more than six inches of rain flooded the storage tanks. Fire officials say water used to extinguish the fire forced more oil into the harbor. The fire was extinguished by company emergency response personnel with the assistance of the refinery terminal fire company, the port fire boat, a nearby ship and area tugs. The company said in a statement e-mailed to reporters that it was unclear when full production would resume at the refinery. The refinery has processing capacity of 340,000 barrels per day.

The Greater Houston Partnership holds its annual black-tie World Trade Gala tomorrow at the InterContinental Hotel. GHP vice president of World Trade Keith Miceli says the gala is a salute to Houston-area companies, Houston's consular corps and the regional Congressional delegation for helping make Houston a gateway to the global market place.

"And it really is a celebration of the fact that Houston really is the gateway to the global marketplace. We celebrate, for one thing, the fact that we are number three in the country in terms of number of foreign consulates. We have 83, and we have over 50 of the consul generals attending. They clearly are a reflection of the importance of Houston to the global community. And we have a very strong delegation--you know, Kevin Brady was a real point man for the president on the ratification of CAFTA. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are real internationalists and represent us well in Washington."

Two companies will be presented with Export Excellence Awards and a third company will receive the International Excellence Award.

About a hundred people joined a picket on Wednesday in central Moscow in support of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, according to the Interfax news agency. Khodorkovsky is serving a prison term in the Chita region of Russia. He was convicted on tax and fraud charges and is serving an eight-year sentence, after a trial seen as punishment for his political ambitions. An Interfax correspondent reports that activists from the Young guard approached the picketers chanting calls to stop the picket. From another side another group of young people carrying the National Bolshevik flag came to support the protesters. Meanwhile, a bankruptcy supervisor at Yukos has a temporary injunction from a New York court banning the company from selling its assets as it goes into bankruptcy hearings. At June 27th hearings, the Moscow arbitration court will decide whether to liquidate the company or appoint managers to oversee its financial reorganization.

The Labor Department is telling of slowing job growth and a slight dip in the unemployment rate. Today's May jobs report shows employers boosted payrolls by just 75,000 jobs last month. That's the smallest increase since last October, when businesses were socked by Gulf Coast hurricanes. At the same time, the unemployment rate slipped one-tenth to 4.6 percent, the lowest level since the summer of 2001. The payrolls number and the unemployment rate are created from separate government surveys. Wage growth slowed, which is good news for those worried about inflation, not such good news for workers.

Orders to U.S. factories fell 1.8 percent in April. The Commerce Department says the drop in orders was led by weakness in commercial and military aircraft, both posting double-digit percentage declines. It's the biggest decline in three months. Excluding the volatile transportation category, orders rose two-tenths.

Houston-based CenterPoint Energy Gas Transmission is developing a 1,600-mile natural gas pipeline project with North Carolina-based Duke Energy Gas Transmission. The project will connect onshore gas supplies in north Texas with downstream markets in Pennsylvania, and could be in service by the fourth quarter of 2008.

A $70 million resort is planned by developer Randall Davis for the west side of Diamond Beach in Galveston, according to the Houston Chronicle. Construction could start by the end of the year on the seven-story, 250-unit residence at the western end of the Seawall at 105th Street. Davis is also building Emerald by the Sea, a 15-story condominium tower across from Stewart Beach at Broadway and Seawall.

Woodlands-based Hearthstone Assisted Living has sold its real estate to Nationwide Health Properties in a $431 million deal. Hearthstone operates 32 senior citizen living facilities. The operation has been sold to a group of Hearthstone executives, including Hearthstone's corporate office, computers and inventory. The ownership group signed a long-term lease with Nationwide to operate all the 22 Hearthstone and ten Carestone assisted living facilities that Nationwide purchased.

Dell says it'll add as many as 1,000 jobs in Tennessee and expand customer service operations. Dell CEO Kevin Rollins joined state and local leaders in making the announcement today at Dell's Nashville facility. Rollins said the announcement reconfirms Round Rock-based Dell's commitment to keeping Nashville and middle Tennessee as one of the company's primary operation sites. Along with the employment increase in Tennessee, Dell also announced that Tennessee Titan quarterback Vince Young would support an after-school program Dell helps sponsor in Nashville. Dell facilities in middle Tennessee include a manufacturing plant in Lebanon, Tennessee, that produces Dimension and Optiplex desktop computers. Operations also include a facility in Nashville that houses Dell's technical support call center and sales operations and a distribution center for customers in the eastern United States.

Franklin Bank has completed an offering of preferred stock, with shares now trading under the ticker symbol "FBK.PR" on the American Stock Exchange. Franklin's common stock continues to trade on the Nasdaq. The Houston-based bank holding company has 35 community banking offices in Texas, plus nine regional commercial lending offices and 54 mortgage loan production offices nationally.

Continental Airlines reports a record May load factor of 81 percent, which is 1.9 points above last year's May load factor. The Houston-based air carrier recorded a Department of Transportation on-time arrival rate of 74.1 percent and a mainline completion factor of 99.9 percent. Continental flew 7.6 billion revenue passenger miles in May, with a traffic increase of 14.6 percent and a capacity increase of 11.9 percent compared to the same month last year. May sales on the Continental Web site increased 52 percent over May 2005.

Southwest Airlines and its allies in Congress are resuming their effort to allow long-haul flights from Dallas Love Field. They say Dallas and Fort Worth had plenty of time but failed to negotiate a compromise over the future of air travel in north Texas. U.S. Representatives Jeb Hensarling and Sam Johnson said their June 1st deadline for a local deal had passed. They said that when Congress returns to work next week, they'll lobby House colleagues to support Hensarling's bill to eliminate flight restrictions at Love Field. An airline spokeswoman says Southwest lobbyists have already been talking to members of Congress. Fort Worth Mayor Michael J. Moncrief said he was disappointed by the developments. But he said he'll keep working on a deal that would protect jobs at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. DFW Airport and its main tenant, American Airlines, say adding long flights at Love Field will hurt service and kill jobs at DFW.

The Wellness Council of America has named The Methodist Hospital as one of two Texas organizations to receive a Gold Award for 2006. Methodist has been named as one of "America's Healthiest Companies" because of its health promotion efforts. The hospital offers a range of behavior modification and physical fitness programs meeting the needs and work schedules of its employees.

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