Friday PM September 29th, 2006

Gasoline prices continue eighth week of decline...Schlumberger may add up to 500 local jobs annually...Houston companies still want business in Venezuela, according to Greater Houston Partnership event participants...

Gasoline prices in Texas are down for the eighth week in a row. AAA Texas today reports the price of gas has dropped 63 cents per gallon in the past month. The average price for regular, self-serve gas is $2.21 per gallon. That's down 12 cents from last week. AAA reports the lowest average price in Texas is Corpus Christi, at $2.05 per gallon. The highest price in the weekly survey is El Paso, where gasoline averages $2.41. A spokeswoman for AAA Texas says the large drop in the cost of crude oil is the main reason why the price of gasoline has declined. The national average price for gasoline tumbled 12 cents this week, to settle at $2.34 per gallon.

Schlumberger says it could add up to 500 local jobs annually for the next two or three years. That's according to the chairman and CEO of the French firm, which has about 5,000 Houston-area employees. The company also expects to spend more on product development and to contract with more Houston-area companies. Increased exploration has boosted sales for the company's seismic testing, drilling and measurement tools. Sales have been up 30 percent this year.

Despite concerns about geopolitics, Houston companies still want to do business in Venezuela, according to U.S. and Venezuelan business executives who attended a matchmaking event at the Greater Houston Partnership this week. Participants included a delegation from a dozen Venezuelan companies led by U.S. Commercial Service in Caracas. A senior commercial officer from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas warned of potential risks in Venezuela, including proposed reforms that are not pro-business and a reduction in U.S.-government-backed funding for small businesses. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently compared President Bush to Satan, rekindling the concerns of those already nervous about doing business in that oil-rich nation.

Exelon said today it has notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it will seek a license to build and operate a new nuclear plant in Texas. The company says it hasn't committed to build a reactor and said the decision would hinge on a permanent method of disposing of used fuel, public acceptance of a new nuclear plant, and assurances the project would be financially successful. If those conditions are met, Chicago-based Exelon says, filing a letter today with the NRC preserved its option to go ahead at an undetermined site in Texas.

The Senate today approved a bill to eventually end limits on long flights to and from Dallas Love Field. That came after a key critic removed his opposition to the bill. The Senate passed the bill without a vote, and the House was expected to take up the measure later today as Congress rushes toward its election-year adjournment. The bill would write into federal law a deal between American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others to lift the limits on long flights to and from Love Field after eight years but reduce the airport's size. Texas lawmakers were confident of House passage. But Senator Patrick Leahy--a Democrat from Vermont--had blocked the Senate from considering the bill. Leahy had opposed a provision that protected the deal from antitrust review. Today, however, Leahy said on the Senate floor that he had reached an agreement with the bill's sponsors and indicated he would remove his objections.

Computer maker Dell is widening the recall of Sony battery packs used in its systems to 4.2 million. That's an increase of 100,000 from the initial number. The batteries can short-circuit and have been blamed for causing some computers to overheat. In another announcement, Toshiba says it is recalling more than 800,000 batteries made by Sony for its laptops at Sony's request. It is the latest in the growing recall involving Sony-made batteries, bringing the total number of recalled batteries to about seven million worldwide. Round Rock-based Dell and the Consumer Product Safety Commission a few weeks ago announced the agency's largest-ever electronics recall involving laptop batteries.

The University of Texas is getting a new supercomputer as part of a project with Cornell and Arizona state. Officials announced UT has won a $59 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The new computer will be built by Sun Microsystems using 13,000 microprocessors made by Advanced Micro Devices. The system is expected to be joined to the Teragrid, a foundation-sponsored network of high-performance computers. The project is expected to be completed by the fall of 2008. Hundreds of researchers nationwide are expected to use the new supercomputer.

A new state law intended to collect taxes on the full retail value of used vehicles sold in private-party exchanges takes effect Sunday. The so-called "liar's affidavit'' law requires that buyers pay sales tax on 80 percent or more of a used vehicle's retail value--regardless of the actual purchase price. The law is meant to stop the two parties in a used-car deal from agreeing to lower the official sales price so the buyer pays less sales tax. The legislature passed the law this year. State officials expect it to generate $35 million annually. Private transactions make up about one-third of the state's used-car sales. The law covers cars, trucks, motorcycles, recreational vehicles and trailers. The law does not apply to used-vehicle sales at dealerships. Dealerships will continue to calculate taxes based on sales price.

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