Friday AM September 22nd, 2006

Andy Fastow asks for leniency at upcoming sentencing...Gulf of Mexico oil rig helicopter pilots strike... Janitors, labor leaders and elected officials plan protest and march in downtown Houston... UT system ranks first in producing patents from biotechnology research...

Lawyers for former Enron finance chief Andy Fastow are asking U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt for leniency, according to the Washington Post, in advance of his sentencing next Tuesday. In court papers, Fastow's defense lawyers cite letters from teachers, friends and relatives who say that he has stepped up to take responsibility and expresses full remorse for his role in disguising financial problems at Enron. Fastow pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges in January 2004, agreeing to a ten-year maximum prison sentence in exchange for testifying against former Enron executives Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay. His attorneys say Fastow emerged as the public face of the Enron scandal, enduring "unprecedented public humiliation" in books, movies and congressional hearings. They say Fastow has spent the past two years helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, volunteering with Meals on Wheels and taught classes at his synagogue. Judge Hoyt has the option of sentencing Fastow to serve fewer than ten years in prison.


PHI helicopter pilots are on strike in a labor dispute with the largest provider of transportation services to oil and natural gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico. The Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 108, representing about 380 pilots at Lafayette, Louisiana-based PHI, has been unable to resolve differences over pay, benefits and overtime after two-and-a-half years of negotiations and mediation. The strike involved about a third of the pilots who transport energy workers in the Gulf, taking crews and equipment to offshore rigs and production platforms.


Janitors, labor leaders and elected officials plan a protest of poverty conditions on Saturday at the Hilton Americas-Downtown, followed by a march in downtown Houston. Nearly 1,000 workers and family members are expected to take part in the contract convention and march that ends at Lamar and Austin. They're drawing attention to what they term the nation's lowest wages and benefits of any major U.S. city. More than 5,300 janitors employed by the five largest cleaning contractors in Houston—ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors and Pritchard—are currently in negotiations over increased wages, more work hours and access to health care. Many Houston janitors work part-time for an average wage of $5.30 an hour--$106 a week—and receive no health or other benefits.


Houston-based ConocoPhillips joined Total and Eni in signing an agreement with Nigeria's state oil firm for a $2 billion natural gas plant in that country's southern oil region. The agreement regulates the building and running of a liquified natural gas plant at Brass in the Niger delta that will sell to North American and European markets. There are purchase agreements with six buyers covering the entire production of the plant's first two LNG-producing units.


The Labor Department says the number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits has posted the biggest increase since early August. The weekly increase of 7,000 claims puts them at a seasonally-adjusted level of 311,000. It could be taken as a fresh sign that the economy has moderated, in the face of high energy costs and a slowing housing market. The increase follows two weeks of modest declines in the number of reported claims. The four-week moving average, which is less volatile, is unchanged at 315,000 claims.


A forward-looking gauge of the economy is pointing to slower times. The Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators dropped two-tenths in August. It is intended to predict economic activity three to six months in the future. Today's report follows a similar decline in July and a slight increase for June. The business research group says the index has declined in five of the past eight months. Other signs of moderation abound. Indeed, just yesterday the Federal Reserve opted to leave interest rates unchanged. It marked the second straight meeting where the fed left monetary policy steady, after 17 straight rate hikes.


Mortgage interest rates have been on the decline lately. Freddie Mac says the survey finds the average for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 6.4 percent. That's down from 6.43 percent last week. The finance giant says 15-year-fixed mortgages averaged 6.06 percent, down from last week's 6.11 percent. For one-year treasury-indexed adjustable-rate mortgages, the average was 5.54 percent, down from 6.6 percent in the previous week. Freddie Mac's chief economist Frank Nothaft says mortgage rates have dipped amid signs of a slowing housing market and indications that inflation pressures are leveling off.


Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson says his company focuses on long-term investments rather than fluctuating fuel prices. Tillerson, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, made the comments during a visit to the Texas Energy Museum. He also paid a visit to an Exxon plant in Beaumont. Tillerson says recent falling prices at the pump reflect the price of crude oil, but such trends are tough to predict. He says successful companies take a longer view, the Beaumont Enterprise reports. Exxon Mobil first entered southeast Texas when it merged with Mobil Oil in 1999. The company has since constructed a $400 million electrical co-generating plant there. It also has possible plans for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Sabine Pass.


The University of Texas system is ranked first among more than 400 major research universities internationally in a study that analyzed the ability of universities to produce patents from their biotechnology research. The study from the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California measured the number and quality of biotechnology publications and ranked universities based on their ability to transfer the intellectual property into commercial applications. The Austin campus ranks 30th on the study's commercialization index.


Schlumberger says the Oil & Natural Gas Corporation has extended its contract with its WesternGeco for Q-Marine systems through 2008. Schlumberger says the extension means additional multiple high-resolution exploration and development seismic programs will be undertaken offshore India. Q is the WesternGeco proprietary suite of advanced seismic technologies for enhanced reservoir location, description and management.


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