Monday PM January 8th, 2007

Gas prices about three cents higher than three weeks ago...Houston sets fifth consecutive new home construction record...Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America signs $375 million contract to manage research and development of new energy exploration and production technology...

Gas prices are, on average, almost three cents higher than they were three weeks ago. Analyst Trilby Lundberg says the national average for self-serve regular is $2.32 per gallon. Drivers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, can enjoy the nation's lowest gas prices, at $2.09 per gallon. Honolulu has the highest average price, at $2.84 per gallon. Lundberg's survey lists the national average for mid-grade gas at $2.43 a gallon, and premium fuel at $2.53.

Houston set a record for new home construction in 2006 for the fifth consecutive year, according to consulting firm Metrostudy. That goes against the national trend of a slowing real estate market. Some 50,000 new homes were built and sold last year in the Houston area. Metrostudy's Mike Inselmann told the Greater Houston Builder's Association that robust job growth due largely to recent high energy prices has created strong demand for homes. Used home sales also continue setting records, with more than 80,000 properties sold through the Multiple Listing Service, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.

Sugar Land-based Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America has signed a ten-year, $375 million contract to manage research and development of new technology for natural gas and oil exploration and production. The consortium has been negotiating this contract with the U.S. Department of Energy since it was selected as the program manager last May. It will award research contracts to universities, research institutions, national laboratories and industry partners. Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America is a non-profit national consortium with 90 members, including 19 research universities, five national laboratories and large and small energy producers in 21 states. The research program is funded from royalties that industry pays to produce oil and gas from federal lands.

General Electric has agreed to buy Houston oil services company Vetco Gray from a group of private equity funds for $1.9 billion. Vetco Gray provides drilling, completion and production equipment for oil and gas fields. It has 5,000 employees with key centers in Houston, Britain, Norway and Singapore. It's forecast to generate over $1.6 billion in sales in 2006. Its owners include the private equity funds Candover Partners, 3I Group and J.P. Morgan Partners. GE says completion of the transaction is subject to governmental and regulatory approval and is expected in early 2007.

Denver-based oil and gas producer Forest Oil says it's agreed to acquire Houston Exploration for $1.5 billion in cash and stock. The estimated share value of $52.47 is 7.8 percent above Houston Exploration's Friday closing price on the New York Stock Exchange. The combined company will have estimated proved reserves of about two trillion cubic feet of natural gas equivalents--about 70 percent of which will be natural gas, plus 520 million cubic feet of equivalent on a daily basis. The deal will strengthen Forest's North American asset base with about 3,200 extra drill sites. Houston Exploration sold most of its Gulf of Mexico assets to become a mostly onshore operator last year. The boards of both companies have approved the transaction, which still requires shareholder and regulatory approvals.

Four Houston companies have been named to Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list, with Methodist Hospital coming in ninth—up from last year's number 78 ranking. David Weekley Homes placed twelfth. EOG Resources is number 83 on the list and Men's Wearhouse made the list at number 90. Methodist also ranked sixth in the mid-sized category, second for the hiring of minorities and third for hiring of women. It was also named to the Houston Business Journal's "Best Places to Work 2006" list. Last year Methodist recognized soaring gasoline prices by sending employees a $250 gift card for use at Chevron stations.

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