Tuesday PM December 5th, 2006

Federal agency notes higher gasoline prices...Deloitte & Touche conference looks at expansion of access to energy supplies...Striking Valero Energy union workers at Aruba oil refinery return to work...

The government reports gas prices jumped just over a nickel in the past week. The Federal Energy Information Administration says that the average was $2.30 a gallon. Pump prices are now 15 cents higher than a year ago and roughly 75 cents a gallon lower since the start of August. West Coast motorists are getting socked hardest and the cheapest pump prices are in the Gulf Coast region.

Energy demand, supply and price were topics today at the 2006 Deloitte & Touche Oil & Gas Conference at the Hilton Americas. Deloitte's Richard Woodward says legislators have their hands full addressing issues that will affect domestic access to energy supplies.

"There's certainly a view that there are important issues around access both deepwater off the continental shelf as well as Anwar that need to be addressed to deal with the growing supply requirements of not just the U.S. but the global economy. You know, we're expecting to see a series of votes within Congress that address the issues around access because it's a very tightly, sort of balanced Congress both across the Senate and the House. It's going to be a lot of compromising that's going to be made and, but we expect some improvements."

Woodward says the environmental impact of drilling has technologically evolved, and that should be balanced in discussion about opening up new areas for drilling. He says geopolitical challenges to accessing oil and gas reserve are a top concern for the industry.

Union workers at Valero Energy's oil refinery in Aruba returned to work after ratifying a new five-year contract and ending a week-long strike. San Antonio-based Valero says 95 percent of the refinery's union workers voted for the contract. About 385 union workers went on strike November 28th. That's roughly half the work force at the 275,000-barrel-a-day refinery on the southern Caribbean island. The workers were seeking higher pay and benefits. Neither side disclosed details of the agreement. But Valero--which is the largest independent U.S. oil refiner--says workers will get a 47 percent increase in salary and benefits over the five-year contract period.

Houston-based Safe Renewables has acquired Austin Biofuels. Safe Renewables produces biodiesel from soy, cottonseed and canola oil, and from animal fats.

The director of operations for a Saudi company operating dining facilities for American troops in Iraq and Kuwait has been sentenced to 51 months in prison for his involvement in a kickback scheme. The Federal District Court for the Central District of Illinois sentenced Mohammad Shabbir Khan of Tamimi Global for paying kickbacks to an employee of KBR Services to secure two dining subcontracts worth $21.8 million. The judge also sentenced former KBR employee Stephen Lowell Seamans to a year in prison.

By one account, companies have been increasing their job cut plans as the end of year approaches. But the year so far has been better for workers. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says there were nearly 77,000 planned job cuts announced in November, a rise of 11 percent from the previous month. Even so, Challenger says the level of job cuts year-to-date is the lowest since 2000. The November level is 23 percent lower than a year earlier. Challenger says sectors seeing a rise in planned job cuts this year include the auto industry, food, chemicals, media and real estate. This Friday, the Labor Department releases the monthly jobless figures. Economists are looking for the jobless rate to come in at 4.5 percent.

A Federal Communications Commissioner expressed confidence today that he'll get up to speed quickly if called upon to join the agency's deadlocked review of AT&T's proposed purchase of BellSouth. But Commissioner Robert McDowell offers few clues to his viewpoint on the deal or the impasse. McDowell recused himself from the agency's review because he recently worked for an industry group that opposed the deal. He now says he saw last year's takeovers of the old AT&T by San Antonio-based SBC and of MCI by Verizon as a good template to follow. In the AT&T and Verizon deals, the companies sold off certain overlapping assets, including hundreds of phone and broadband lines serving hundreds of commercial buildings. With McDowell not participating in the review of San Antonio-based AT&T's plan to buy Atlanta-based BellSouth, the remaining four commissioners have split along party lines. Two Democrats push for more conditions to minimize what they see as a loss of competition that would hurt customers. On Friday, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin asked the commission's general counsel to see whether it would be in the public interest to authorize McDowell to join the review and break the tie. A decision is expected this week.

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