Monday AM August 28th, 2006

Executives upbeat about economy despite gas prices and sagging consumer confidence...Texas to bid for proposed wind turbine research and development facility...Texas motorists enjoy cheaper retail gasoline prices...

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey shows executives at consumer product companies remain upbeat about prospects for the economy despite rising gas prices and sagging consumer confidence. Of the 44 senior executives surveyed in late July, 84 percent believe the economy is growing, versus 75 percent in the previous quarter. Energy prices top the list of concerns, with 73 percent of those asked saying it's a major obstacle. Sixty-five percent said that in the last quarter. In other industries, only 54 percent of executives share that view. The University of Michigan's August survey showed the mood is changing among consumers with a larger-than-expected drop in future expectations and a sharp rise in inflation expectations.


Texas motorists continue to enjoy cheaper retail gasoline prices. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey finds retail prices for regular, self-serve gasoline is averaging $2.80 per gallon. That's eight cents per gallon less than the previous week. Nationally, the average price is $2.91 per gallon, seven cents less than a week ago. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the Labor Day holiday marks the end of the summer driving season. She says that will mean decreased demand that should keep prices down. AAA national spokesman Mantill Williams says with the summer driving season now behind us, we've probably passed the high point for gas. At the same time, he says he wouldn't rule out a future price spike, given the geopolitical situation and the energy infrastructure. Houston's average is down eight-and-a-half cents to about $2.77 per gallon. Gasoline averages three cents higher in Galveston. Corpus Christi has the lowest average retail price of $2.64 per gallon, and the state's biggest weekly price decrease of 11 cents per gallon. El Paso has the state's highest average gasoline price of $2. 89 per gallon, down a nickel.


Texas will bid for a proposed Department of Energy wind turbine research and development facility. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says applications are due by October 2nd. The National Renewable Energy Lab estimates the project would cost about $5 million. It will involve being able to test wind turbine blades reaching 230 feet. Patterson says Texas is well-suited for the facility with its ports, strong Gulf Coast winds and industrial know-how. The Port of Houston is among the sites that Texas may offer as a location for a national blade-testing facility for wind turbine manufacturers. Texas recently gained acclaim as the nation's top producer of wind energy.


The Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority will consider funding a $9.9 million share of a Houston Ship Channel dredging and maintenance project at its Monday afternoon public meeting. The commission will also consider construction contract amendments for work at Bayport. They will consider amending a tariff to include a $40 terminal use and security fee for each cargo container that passes through a PHA terminal without being loaded or unloaded. They are also considering whether freight handlers can assess a fuel surcharge as a percentage of the freight handlers' invoiced loading and unloading charges.


The conviction and sudden death of Enron founder Ken Lay aren't keeping his alma mater from trying to fill an endowed chair in his name. A jury in Houston in May convicted Lay on fraud and conspiracy counts. Lay died last month in Colorado--of heart trouble. A University of Pittsburgh game theorist--Andreas Blume—last week delivered a guest lecture as part of his interview for the Ken L. Lay Chair in Economics. The position was created by the 1998 donation of more than $1 million in Enron stock to the University of Missouri-Columbia. The company sold the stock before Enron went bankrupt. The fund now exceeds $1.8 million. Missouri has resisted calls that the Enron funds be returned or redirected toward more philanthropic purposes.


METRO has signed a joint agreement with NewQuest Properties for the construction and development of the Cypress Park & Ride transit facility near U.S. 290 at Skinner Road. The $16.3 million agreement includes a 1,500-space, four-level parking garage, exclusive bus service road and platform and loading areas. Construction is the first phase is scheduled for completion next summer. NewQuest will develop a commercial/retail center and 300-unit apartment complex in the second phase. METRO will then have 27 area Park & Ride lots.


Smokers won't be able to light up at the Lockheed Martin aeronautics play in Fort Worth, starting January 1st. The new ban--which even extends to the parking lot—covers all tobacco products. It's part of an effort to rein in rising healthcare expenses, which now cost the company about $800 million a year. Lockheed estimates that half that amount can be traced to workers' "personal lifestyle choices,'' including tobacco use. Although employees remain free to light up outside of work, the company is hoping that the new restrictions will push many smokers to quit. And it's offering workers and their families free access to programs aimed at helping them. Lockheed's ban follows moves by several other north Texas employers, including Bell Helicopter, to prohibit smoking as part of a broader health-promotion program. The parent of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas also plans to ban smoking in November from its Richardson headquarters, as well as offices throughout Texas and three other states.


TXU recently announced plans to build 11 coal-fired plants and pledged to reduce emissions. Dallas-based TXU didn't say how it would do that--prompting critics to challenge the company to prove it. Two state administrative law judges this week recommended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deny a permit for a two-unit plant in the Waco area. The Associated Press reports the debate is far from over, with both sides bracing for an upcoming commissioners meeting and hearings on proposals for other plants. TXU disputes the recommendation, saying its plans are environmentally and fiscally responsible. Company officials also say TXU will be moving forward on statewide expansion. Critics say TXU is rushing the plan without pursuing the most advanced technologies, including one that converts coal to gas and removes pollutants before the fuel is burned. TXU officials say that process remains unproven.


Don't expect any further laptop battery recalls. That's the word coming from federal regulators and companies involved. Consumers have had reason to be concerned, though. In the second major PC battery recall, Apple Computer announced that it wants consumers to return 1.8 million Mac laptop batteries. That's on the heels of the bigger recall mounted by Dell. Lithium-ion batteries used by Apple and Dell were all made at a Sony plant. They say the batteries can cause short-ciruits, overheating and even fire. As for risk of any future problems, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission says ''we really feel in our work with Sony that it's been contained.'' Other large computer companies, like Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and Lenovo, say they don't expect similar problems.


Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in U.S. fell by six--to reach 1,756. One year ago the rig count was 1,444. Texas lost 19 rigs.


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