Wednesday PM February 21st, 2007

Austin judges order slower permitting process for proposed coal-fired power plants...Merck suspends lobbying campaign persuading state legislatures to require girls to be vaccinated against cervical cancer...Real estate sales in greater Houston area continue increasing...

A panel of administrative judges in Austin said that the state permitting process for six coal-fired plants to be built by Dallas-based TXU will move slower now. That's after Governor Rick Perry's order to fast-track the permitting was blocked by a state district judge on Tuesday. Administrative Judge Kerry Sullivan says the hearings before the State Office of Administrative Hearings would be pushed to June 27th to allow more time for all parties to fully prepare.

Perry spokesman Robert Black says "no one should be surprised that a single liberal Austin judge would rule against Perry's efforts to increase energy capacity in Texas." TXU spokeswoman Kim Morgan says every day of delay means that meeting the goal of providing newer, cleaner power generation is denied. TXU contends the coal plants will lower utility costs and help provide needed power—a point echoed by the Center for Energy and Economic Development in Amarillo. The group says Texas will need 63 percent more electricity by 2025.

Opponents to the coal plants hailed the slowed-down proceedings as a chance to assemble expert research and evidence as part of their case. Citizen groups opposed to the plants argue that Texas and Oklahoma residents were at a disadvantage because they lacked time to prepare for the high-stakes permit hearing.

Merck and Company has bowed to pressure from parents and medical groups. It's suspended its lobbying campaign to persuade state legislatures to require that adolescent girls get the company's new vaccine against cervical cancer as a requirement for school attendance. The drug maker has been criticized for quietly funding the campaign, through a third party, to require 11- and 12-year-old girls get the three-dose vaccine in order to attend school. Some had objected because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted disease which causes cervical cancer. Vaccines mandated for school attendance usually are for diseases easily spread through casual contact, such as measles and mumps.

Real estate sales in the greater Houston area continue increasing, according to Houston Association of Realtors Chairman Rob Cook.

"Well, the total property sales for January 2007 was 4,994, versus January 2006--4,618. That's an 8.1 percent increase over 2006. And total dollar volume was about $777,000 for 2006 and about $872,000 for 2007, which we had a 12.3 percent increase."

While other regions of the country have seen declining figures, the housing market in Houston remains healthy. Cook says impressive moderate gains keep Houston in a national "safe zone," compared to those cities which have seen occasional spikes.

El Paso Corporation says it expects a fourth-quarter loss of 25 cents per share and net income of 64 cents per share for fiscal year 2006. The Houston-based natural gas and energy products provider issued the projections at its annual analyst meeting. The company says the fourth quarter estimate included a loss of 17 cents per share from the sale of capacity on the Alliance Pipeline. It also includes a gain of a penny per share from the mark-to-market of derivatives used to hedge price risks. El Paso officials say they plan an aggressive drilling program in 2007, which will include an oil development project in Brazil. The company expects capital spending for 2007 to total about $1.7 billion.

It is apologizing and promises to do better. Now embattled JetBlue Airways is warning of a worsened financial outlook due in part to the service interruptions linked to the Valentine's Day ice storm. The carrier expects to post an operating loss for the quarter, also because of higher fuel prices. As it attempts to make nice with consumers, JetBlue today began taking out full-page ads featuring apologies in a number of east coast newspapers, with more to run elsewhere on Friday. Part of it reads, "we are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.'' The full-page ad running in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. also points readers to an online video apology from JetBlue's founder and CEO David Neeleman. He says on the video that what happened after last week's ice storm "will be an aberration'' and the airline's making "major changes'' so it doesn't happen again. Neeleman has also been appearing on television and online vowing changes, including a customer bill of rights that includes compensating people for delays.

Employees of a Texas panhandle refinery damaged in a fiery explosion have returned to work. But officials say it could be several weeks before a partial startup at the Valero McKee unit in Sunray, about 60 miles north of Amarillo. Friday's accident left more than one dozen workers seeking medical attention, including some who suffered burns. Valero has said it's believed the fire started in the propane de-asphalting unit, which processes residual fuel at very high temperatures. Tests by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality showed no impact off the site. Valero says the Department of Public Safety has started allowing access to the roadways near the refinery.

Tags: News


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