Friday June 16th, 2006

FERC approves LNG projects at Sabine Pass...WesternGeco paying $19.6 million for visa fraud for foreign offshore workers...Texas unemployment rate remains unchanged at 5.1 percent...

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved projects to build or expand liquified natural gas terminals in Texas and Louisiana, New Jersey and Maryland. The plans were submitted by Houston-based Cheniere Energy and Sempra Energy, BP, and Dominion Resources, with regulators signing off on Cheniere's planned expansion of its Sabine Pass LNG terminal, currently under construction. Cheniere can now also begin construction of the $950 million Creole Trail LNG terminal in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, three miles from the Gulf of Mexico. FERC also approved plans for Sempra's new $800 million Port Arthur LNG terminal.

A Houston-based subsidiary of Schlumberger has agreed to pay $19.6 million for knowingly submitting fraudulent visa applications for foreign workers, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Department of Justice says WesternGeco is settling 421 instances of visa fraud between 2000 and 2004 for workers assigned to vessels operating in the Gulf of Mexico. The Justice Department says WesternGeco began to correct the illegal practice in 2005.

The Texas unemployment rate remained unchanged last month at 5.1 percent--despite nearly 15,000 in added jobs in May. The Texas Workforce Commission said today that state employers have now added more than 600,000 jobs since July 2003. Statewide, the unadjusted unemployment rate rose to 4.9 percent from 4.8 percent in April. The Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land region unemployment rate dropped to 5.0 in May, from April's 5.3 percent. Commission Chairwoman Diane Rath says jobs were added last month across many sectors of the market, with statewide employment rising 2.6 percent. Health and education added 5,100 positions in May. Trade, transportation and utilities gained 4,800 jobs--double its average May increase for the past five years. The leisure and hospitality trade added 2,600 positions. Construction grew by 1,900 jobs in May--a 5.4 percent gain. Construction, business and mining--which includes oil and gas drilling--have all grown more than 5.2 percent in the past year. Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 15 percent in May to 61,000.

The Texas Employee Confidence Index dropped to 58.4 in May, according to the Houston Business Journal, down 3.4 points from May. Some 21 percent of Texas workers believe the economy is getting stronger, and 22 percent believe more jobs are available. But 71 percent have confidence in the future of their employer-an increase of three points from April. The Texas Spherion Employment Report is a monthly survey by Harris Interactive.

Home Ownership: a Multicultural Event is set for Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center, with hourly home ownership education seminars presented in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. Some 70 exhibitors in the Expo represent a wide variety of real estate-related professionals. Experts will talk about all aspects of buying a home. H.O.M.E. is a partnership of the Asian American Real Estate Association, the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the City of Houston's Housing and Community Development Department, Real Estate Association Latinos and the Houston Association of Realtors.

Houston-based Landry's Restaurants will be operating the Tower of the Americas restaurant through 2019, with its re-opening slated for next Wednesday. The tower was opened in 1968 during San Antonio's Hemisfair, and it has received an $11 million makeover. Landry's chief executive Tilman Fertitta, a San Antonio native, says he went to the tower in 1968 when he was 16 during Hemisfair. As part of the deal to operate the tower, Landry's agreed to invest at least $9 million into upgrading the tower, and the city provided an additional $2.1 million for renovations.

The world's biggest cruise operator blames higher fuel prices for a decline in second-quarter profits. Carnival says profits were down two percent. For the quarter ending May 31st, Carnival reported net income of $380 million. The company says increased fuel costs reduced the quarter's profit by $74 million. Carnival's board has also approved another $1 billion stock repurchase plan.

More hurricane relief funds are on the way to the Lone Star State. U.S. Senator John Cornyn's office says more than $6.8 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is being sent to Texas for hurricane recovery. More than $4.7 million is being sent to Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas, which has locations in Beaumont and Orange. More than $2.1 million was earmarked for the city of San Antonio to cover the costs of housing Katrina evacuees during April.

The Commerce Department reports red-ink came in at $208.7 billion in the first quarter as the nation sold more industrial supplies and capital goods overseas. Analysts in a Dow Jones Newswires-CNBC survey had been looking for a deficit of $224 billion. In addition, the deficit for the final three months of last year was revised to $223.1 billion from the $224.9 billion reported initially. The current account balance is a tally of trade in goods and services, transfer payments and investment income. About 90 percent of the deficit is accounted for by the balance in goods and services.

Word is consumers are feeling a little better about the economy this month. Those who have seen it say the University of Michigan's mid-month Consumer Sentiment Index came in at 82.4 after a reading of 79.1 for last month. Analysts had been looking for a reading of 79. The mid-June Consumer Expectations Index reportedly rose a point--to 69.2, and the early reading on the Current Conditions Index for June is said to have shown an increase to 103.1 from 96.1. The University of Michigan report is released only to subscribers.

Houston-based Pharm-Olam International is opening offices in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina in September, according to the Houston Business Journal. The contract research organization has conducted trials in Latin America, and established an office in Mexico City in 2002. Pharm-Olam was founded in 1994, offering clinical research services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries. Services range from pre-clinical to Phase IV trials, including patient recruitment, feasibility studies, project management and monitoring.

Memorial Hermann opened a new community health center at Northwest Freeway and West 34th, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Neighborhood Health Center is designed to relieve emergency room overcrowding. Memorial Hermann's first center opened in 2003 in southwest Houston.

Congress is the next stop for the compromise over the flight-restricting Wright Amendment at Dallas Love Field. The mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth signed the pact yesterday involving Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines. The Wright Amendment was enacted decades ago to bolster then-fledgling DFW Airport, which is home to American. The new measure, in part, would allow through-ticketing at Love Dield. Currently, direct flights are restricted to nine nearby states. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison says the agreement would help the local economy and consumers--and she'll introduce it. Congressman Jeb Hensarling, who wants the Wright Amendment repealed, says the deal is a step forward. But Hensarling is disappointed with the proposed eight-year extension of flight restrictions.

Movie Tavern Partners has opened Deerbrook Movie Tavern on FM 1960 Bypass East, according to the Houston Business Journal. It's a six-screen first-run theater with a table in front of every seat, a commercial kitchen and full-service bar. It's the second of three planned Movie Tavern theaters in the Houston area. The first location on Richie Road is a seven-screen former AMC theater that opened in March, and the third will be in a former Home Depot location on Highway 249 just north of FM 1960.

Customers wanting live lobsters will have to look beyond Whole Foods Market. Officials with the Austin-based natural-foods grocery chain have decided to stop selling live lobsters and soft-shell crabs--on the grounds that it's inhumane. The grocer spent seven months studying live lobsters from ship to supermarket aisle, trying to determine if the creatures suffer along the way. Chief Executive John Mackey says they place as much emphasis on humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as they do on expectations for quality and flavor. Animal rights activities welcomed the decision. But other scientists and seafood industry officials say lobsters have primitive insect-like nervous systems and don't experience pain the way animals and humans do. Whole Foods will sell frozen raw and cooked lobster products.

Houstonians Deedee and Burt McMurtry have pledged an additional $32 million to Rice University, and will also make a contribution toward the construction of Rice's 10th residential college. Each undergraduate student is a member of one of nine residential colleges, each with its own dormitory, dining hall and public rooms. A faculty master lives in a house adjacent to each college. The McMurtrys have established two endowed professorships and two endowed scholarships at Rice.

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