Monday AM November 20th, 2006

Gas prices creep upward as Thanksgiving holidays approach...Russia's Lukoil to cede majority control of planned joint venture to state-controlled Gazprom...Texas Association of Manufacturers warns increased electricity costs could hamper Texas economy...

Retail gasoline prices have edged higher statewide after two weeks of mixed trends. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey shows retail gas prices statewide averaging $2.11 per gallon. That's up about three cents from the previous week. The national average is $2.23 per gallon--up two cents. Houston's average is up 3.6 cents to $2.04 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the expected increased demand for gasoline by Thanksgiving holiday travelers may be fueling the increase. The biggest price increase was found in the Galveston-Texas City area, where the average rose almost four cents to $2.06 per gallon. The most expensive gas prices are found in the Austin-San Marcos area, where they rose almost two cents to $2.17 per gallon. The cheapest gas prices in the survey are found in the Corpus Christi area, where they rose three cents to $2.03 per gallon.


Russia's largest oil producer Lukoil Holdings will cede majority control of a planned joint venture for new projects in Russia to state-controlled giant Gazprom. Lukoil's chief executive, Vagit Alekperov, says giving Gazprom the controlling stake won't mean Lukoil will lose control of its existing oil fields. But he says it appears the development could further strengthen the state's growing grip on the lucrative petroleum industry. President Vladimir Putin has strengthened state control over the oil industry during his time in office. Alfa Bank chief strategist Chris Weafer says giving Gazprom majority control over some new projects could expand Lukoil's horizons by placing the Kremlin's muscle behind its expansion plans. But he tells Dow Jones Newswires it could also mean consigning Lukoil investors--including Houston-based ConocoPhillips--to the back seat when making potentially significant strategic decisions. ConocoPhillips owns just under 20 percent of Lukoil shares.


The chairman of the Texas Association of Manufacturers warns that increased electricity costs could hamper the state's economy. Tony Bennett says Texas manufacturers pay more for electricity that competitors in other states.

"The other states are doing a better job of energy costs, on the energy costs side, and creating electricity more cheaply, and maybe we need to bring some of those sorts of plants to the state." Ed: "FutureGen, for example?" "FutureGen, clean coal, nuclear—France runs their entire nation on nuclear power, and they have, you know, they, they know how to build a nuclear plant, and we seem to have dropped that idea and maybe we need to pick it back up. We are in a crisis. The global competition from China, from South America, is so fierce. Many, many of our members have operations in other states and in other countries and so we know what the energy costs are in those respective states or countries. So Texas is not doing very well in that area, and we need to turn it around immediately."

Bennett spoke to manufacturers and energy officials at the trade association's first-ever energy summit in Houston. Former Public Utilities Commission Chairman Pat Wood, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Texas needs a balanced approach to power generation.

"We need the diversity, clearly. I mean I love wind, I love natural gas, but we, we have a lot of coal in this country. We are, you know, silly if we don't take advantage of it. But we've got to be smart enough to use it in the most environmentally acceptable way. And I found this when I was in the regulatory arena where my job was to kind of know a lot about everything—not a whole lot of depth sometimes, but just at least be abreast of what's going on. When you're busy running a business and making a P&L statement, you focus on your—and this is the world I'm in now—you focus on what you care about. You aren't worried about being kind of renaissance man for the world, you're focused on your P&L. So these guys may not have a realization for how important FutureGen would be for Texas. Or a real concept for the kind of coal issues or how easy it is to actually build wind, and that wind now doesn't need the subsidy. It actually is very cost-effective across the state. The needs for transmission, things like that. These are why conferences like this to me are very valuable, is they give people in about a day-and-a-half's time a tremendous amount of information that allows them to be more effective in their business."

Wood is now in the business of developing clean power generation and independent transmission. Electricity demand in Texas is expected to grow 12 percent in the next five years.


The state's unemployment rate remained steady at 4.8 percent in October. That's the report from the Texas Workforce Commission--even though it says the state added almost 28,000 non-agricultural jobs in October for the second-largest gain of the year. The commission says the jobless rate remained at its lowest level in five years. The number of working Texans rose to just over 11 million in October. But statewide unemployment also increased, with initial claims for unemployment benefits jumping nearly 17 percent in October to almost 55,000. Both the unemployment rate and job figures were adjusted for seasonal trends in hiring and firing, which most economists believe gives a better picture of the job market. Local jobless rates aren't adjusted. Midland, Amarillo and Austin had the lowest unemployment rates, while El Paso, Brownsville and the McAllen area had the highest jobless figures.


Toyota has begun building its revamped, full-size Tundra pickup at a 2.2 million-square-foot plant in San Antonio. Building the truck deep in the heart of Texas, where American pickups have crowded highways for decades, is seen as an effort to grab a larger share of a market long dominated by Chevrolet's Silverado, Ford's F-150 and Dodge's Ram. Beyond that, the $850 million investment affirms Toyota's plan to put itself in a position to unseat General Motors as the world's leading automaker. Toyota's move comes at a difficult time, though. Demand for full-size pickups has been shrinking as drivers shift to more fuel-efficient rides. Some 4,000 jobs have been created with the plant's opening.


The president of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas told a European banking conference that the European Central Banks' stances against inflation "should not be questioned in any way or form.'' In speaking at the conference in Frankfurt, Germany, Richard Fisher said both the Federal Reserve Bank and the European Central Bank have maintained a good track record of keeping prices contained since World War II. He credits staunch anti-inflationary practices and guidelines. The Fed has steadily raised interest rates in the past year to keep inflation at bay, with the rate now at 5.25 percent. That's been unchanged for three months. The European Central Bank has raised rates five times since December 2005, from two percent to 3.25 percent. It's expected to raise it again to 3.5 percent on December 7th. Fisher added that the dollar has been considered to be a hard dollar, or a strong currency, during the postwar years and is widely used globally.


The Securities and Exchange Commission is turning up the heat on Hewlett-Packard, elevating an informal inquiry of a boardroom effort to ferret out spies into a formal investigation. HP discloses the development in a routine SEC filing. But a company spokesman downplays the action, saying it's not seen as an escalation of the government's investigation and repeating a pledge of full cooperation. HP also acknowledges in the filing that it's the target of at least five shareholder lawsuits related to the probe and says it also has received a request for documents from the Federal Communications Commission. Hewlett-Packard reportedly used cloak-and-dagger tactics to identify board members who had leaked information to the media.


The French oil services firm Technip said it's won a contract with Shell Offshore to do the engineering, procurement and construction work on a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Financial terms weren't disclosed. The Perdido project is located in the Gulf, about 200 miles south of Freeport. First production from the field is expected around 2010, with the facility capable of handling 130,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. The Perdido Regional Host will be the fourteenth spar delivered by Technip. It's in a depth that's nearly half a mile deeper than any other spar. A spar is a partially submerged offshore drilling and production platform that's adapted to deepwater. Shell Offshore is a unit of Royal Dutch Shell.


Atmos Energy wants to replace miles of dangerous plastic pipe that a predecessor natural gas utility left under North Texas homes and businesses. Critics say the Dallas-based utility is now trying to unfairly bill customers by sneaking those costs into a rate hike. The Texas Railroad Commission ruled in 2004 that the company must pay for the new pipe, not its customers. But opponents say Atmos is using an accounting maneuver to mask those costs, which are reported to be $88 million. They say Atmos is hiding them in a rate case pending before a panel of administrative law judges in Austin. If state regulators approve the rates, the charge to customers would be about $9 million a year. That's about 50 cents a month on a typical heating bill. Atmos denies trying to hide the expenditures. According to evidence during the 2004 rate case, predecessor utility Lone Star Gas first learned about the pipe's problems in the early 1970s, but they remained in the ground. Five people have died and at leave five have been injured in fires and explosions associated with the pipe.


Vacations seem to be a thing of the past for a lot of workers. A new Hudson survey finds more than one-third of U.S. workers expect they won't be using all of their time off this year. In fact, 24 percent haven't taken any time off this year, and 14 percent say they haven't taken a vacation longer than a long weekend. The survey also says that when it comes to the holidays, many workers still don't get a chance to unwind. Half of employees say their company doesn't offer them any extra flexibility around the holidays in order to shop or make preparations. Approximately 54 percent also indicate their office is no more casual during the holidays than the rest of the year.


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