Monday AM October 23rd, 2006

Former Enron executive Jeff Skilling to be sentenced this morning...Gas prices averages continue in the $2 range...Texas unemployment reate falls slightly...

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling is to be sentenced this morning by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake for helping orchestrate one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history. Skilling was convicted in May of 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Skilling faces more than 20 years in prison if investor loss tied to his actions exceeds $80 million. He also faces more than $18 million in fines. Judge Lake is allowing Enron's victims to speak before the sentencing, as well as some who will speak on Skilling's behalf. Skilling has petitioned to remain free pending an appeal. Judge Lake tossed out the conviction of Enron founder Ken Lay last week on ten charges because he died before he could appeal.

Militants in Nigeria have freed seven foreign oil workers seized during an attack earlier this month on an Exxon Mobil compound. They were taken hostage October 3rd during a raid on a residential compound housing Exxon Mobil employees. An Exxon Mobil spokesman says Nigerian government officials informed the company over the weekend that all seven had been released.

Exxon Mobil is proposing to pay Alaska $20 million and give up 20,000 acres to settle its unmet obligations to develop a vast North Slope natural gas field. Alaska officials last year ruled that Exxon Mobil--the operator of the Point Thomson field--was in default for delaying the field's development by submitting a plan without benchmarks for tapping into its estimated eight trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. The state threatened to revoke the leases, but then stayed that decision while negotiating a fiscal contract with Irving-based Exxon Mobil and two other oil companies for a $25 billion natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. That negotiated contract fell through amid public and legislative worries that Alaska would be giving too much to the producers.

It's 11 weeks and counting in the Texas retail gas price losing streak. The weekly AAA Texas retail gas price survey finds the statewide average price for regular, self-serve gasoline is $2.10 per gallon. That's three cents off last week's average and 81 cents less than the record high of $2.92 per gallon on July 28th. The national average fell three cents to $2.22 per gallon. But auto club spokeswoman rose Rougeau notes that the speed of the price drop slowe. She says that might hint that gas prices are close to bottoming out. Corpus Christi has the cheapest gas of the Texas cities surveyed this week, with an average price of $2.02 per gallon. That's a penny less than the previous week. El Paso again has the most expensive retail gas prices, averaging $2.19 per gallon. That's six cents less than last week. Houston is averaging $2.02, down 3.3 cents.

The Texas unemployment rate fell slightly in September and for the second consecutive month. The Texas Workforce Commission reports that the jobless rate fell three-tenths of a percentage point to 4.8 percent. The rate was adjusted for seasonal trends in hiring and firing, which most economists believe gives a better picture of the job market. Texas added 15,200 jobs in September and 226,200 jobs over the last 12 months. That's a 2.3 percent growth rate over the year. Hiring remained strong in manufacturing with its second month-to-month increase since July, adding 3,400 jobs. Financial activities employment added of 3,300 jobs, continuing the industry's three-month streak of employment gains. Initial claims for unemployment compensation in September were down 30 percent from a year ago to about 4,700. Midland had the lowest unemployment rate, with a non-seasonally adjusted figure of 3.3 percent. The highest was El Paso at 6.8 percent. The Houston area unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, and July's revised figure is 5.1 percent.

The Public Utility Commission says it will investigate whether TXU Corporation manipulated the wholesale electricity market. The Dallas-based utility denies the allegations and says it stands firmly behind its record. The investigation stems from an annual review of the Texas market prepared by Potomac Economics, which referred to TXU's wholesale division only as "Company C.'' PUC spokesman Terry Hadley says they're looking at the issues brought up in the report regarding wholesale electricity market. Hadley says it's way too early to know where that's going to lead. TXU spokeswoman Lisa Singleton says the company is running its largest, most efficient plants at higher output levels than at any other time in history--while making our excess capacity available to the marketplace.

Representatives from the pipeline cleaning industry are talking about the widely available technologies to clean oil pipelines. Representatives from a handful of international pipeline maintenance companies came to a conference hosted by the Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation, BP and Houston-based ConocoPhillips. They talked recently in Anchorage, Alaska, about the different types of devices called "pigs'' that are sent through a pipeline to clean it out. All kinds of deposits can build up in a line, everything from sand, wax and scaly calcium carbonate, to salt water from oil extracted offshore. The material can slow the flow of oil down a pipe and can shield varieties of bacteria that corrode the metal. Gary Smith of Tomball-based Inline Services says companies should talk to a vendor about how clean the pipeline should be. He says they must "run the most aggressive pigs you can, as often as you can'' when corrosion appears. Corroded pipelines that weren't routinely cleaned have been blamed on leaks at the Prudhoe Bay oil field this summer which temporarily halved production.

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