Tuesday AM September 26th, 2006

Fastow faces sentencing this morning...Baker Institute continues conference to investigate potential for biofuels...CB&I awarded $200 million contract for onshore LNG plant in Western Australia...

Enron's former chief financial officer will be sentenced this morning at 11 by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, after victims of Enron's collapse speak about how the company's downfall hurt them. In his plea agreement that resulted in testimony against former Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow agreed to a ten-year prison sentence, and Judge Hoyt cannot increase that sentence. Fastow pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy. His attorneys have asked the judge for leniency, pointing to his assistance to the government, his remorse and the torment he and his family have already faced. Although Fastow's complex schemes helped lead to the company's 2001 downfall, Rod Jordan, chairman of the Severed Enron Employee Coalition, says he hasn't heard from anybody who planned to speak at the sentencing. Under a two-year-old federal law that enhances the rights of victims of federal crimes, Judge Hoyt will allow Enron victims to speak at Fastow's sentencing. People will be able to sign up to speak in the morning before the sentencing. Enron crumbled into bankruptcy proceedings in December 2001. That came after years of accounting tricks could no longer hide billions in debt or make failing ventures appear profitable. The collapse wiped out thousands of jobs and more than $2 billion in pension plans.

The Baker Institute at Rice University is hosting the "Biomass to Chemicals and Fuels: Science, Technology and Public Policy" conference to investigate the potential for biofuels. The head of the Agricultural & Rural Strategy Group at the UK's Central Science Laboratory, Melvyn Askew, says there is concern in some quarters about using food to solve the world's fuel problems.

"That question is arising. Why should Brazil, which is perhaps not as well-fed as North America or northwest Europe, be growing bioethanol to be selling to someone in Sweden, for example, which is importing bioethanol from there, why should they be planning to do the same in Africa? And that question is not resolved. I think the question we really have is 'what are we trying to achieve?' And there are a whole range of things we need to achieve, but currently I suspect on your side of the water and the European Union's side of the water, we really haven't gotten all of our strategies quite together yet. We have a lot of strategies working independently, and not interrelated. And I thin when we start interrelating them, we really start to make progress."

Askew says bipartisan efforts to address energy security through revolutionary technologies are needed.

"We did a major project for seven years funded by the European Commission. It included also Israel, funded by themselves, Canada, who funded themselves, and to a degree, the U.S. And we characterized markets in those countries for everything except fuel—fuel was being dealt with by someone else at the time. And we looked at markets that were tens—well, hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars--and we looked at why these are not being developed. And nobody knew about them. We really, really need to get people to understand what's available, and with an institute like the one we're in this morning where you have education, you have the opportunity of joining the growing end through the processing to the end-user and market. And that's desperately, desperately needed. Once we have that, we're really flying."

The two-day conference is looking at energy security and research and development of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs needed to make biofuels a viable alternative to oil-based fuels.

Previously owned homes were selling last month at the slowest pace since early 2004. The National Association of Realtors says existing home sales slipped for a fifth straight month in August, dropping a-half percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.3 million units. The slowdown in sales weighed on home prices, with the median price of an existing home sold in August dropping to $225,000. That's down 1.7 percent from a year earlier, the first year-over-year price decline in more than 11 years.

U.S. retail gas prices dropped nearly 24 cents a gallon in the past two weeks, according to a national survey. It's the third consecutive decline since a mid-August peak. The Lundberg Survey says the national average for self-serve regular was about $2.42 on September 22nd, down from about $2.65 two weeks earlier. Gas prices peaked August 11th at just over $3 and have dropped about 60 cents since that time. The lowest average price in the survey was notched in Des Moines, Iowa: $2.07 a gallon for regular. The highest was in Honolulu, at $3.03.

Petrochemical interests started to bring together the communities of Southeast Texas and West Louisiana early last year. Hurricane Rita cemented that connection. Business leaders and politicians from both sides of the state line reaffirmed their partnership and common goals yesterday on the hurricane's first anniversary. They gathered at a business lunch at Sanderson's Restaurant and Bar. The steakhouse off U.S. Highway 69 is where 4,000 meals a day were cooked for first responders when Rita hit. Rita struck along the Texas-Louisiana border, killing at least 11 people in the two states. More than 100 died in the pre-storm evacuation of Houston, in accidents and exposure deaths.

Woodlands-based engineering and construction firm CB&I has been awarded a contract valued over $200 million by Woodside Energy, operator of the North West Shelf Venture onshore gas plant near Karratha, Western Australia, according to the Houston Business Journal. CB&I will be the mechanical erection contractor for construction of a fifth liquified natural gas production train, an expansion that will make it one of the single-largest LNG complexes in the Asia-Pacific region. Work is set to begin in October, with completion in the first quarter of 2008.

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