Thursday AM March 8th, 2007

Energy executives optimistic, despite uncertainty of natural gas and oil prices...Reliant energy Services resolves pending indictment in San Francisco...Bahrain trade delegation from Bahrain headed by Crown Prince visits Houston...

The uncertainty of natural gas and oil prices is a top concern of energy executives, according to a survey by accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton. More than 80 oil and gas exploration and production companies responded to this poll, which found the industry is generally optimistic, even with apprehension about projecting increases in capital spending and drilling activities while near-future prices remain uncertain. Challenges mentioned in this fifth survey of upstream U.S. energy companies include highly volatile commodity prices, as well as recruiting and retaining talent and increasing geopolitical risk.


Reliant Energy Services has resolved its pending indictment in San Francisco with a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office. The company said the indictment relates to trading allegations on two days in June 2000, according to the Houston Business Journal. The government is dismissing the indictment as Reliant complies with terms of the agreement for two years, including paying a penalty of $22.2 million. The Houston-based firm must also maintain and continue to implement some compliance measures.


Eighteen states are collecting $53 million less than called for in minimum standards for emission fees under the federal Clean Air Act, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. The analysis identified the shortfall in pollution fees collected from 2002 to 2005, with $5.6 million collected from Texas industries. The group identifies that as 22 percent below the minimum level. The fees are collected by states to help pay for monitoring and enforcement efforts.


Freight railroads Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe have been awarded more than one-fourth of all the dollars granted from a state fund to pay for improving the Texas environment. Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific was awarded $94.6 million in grants and Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern was awarded $39.6 million through January 26th, according to information from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Both railroads got grants to buy locomotives that produce significantly less diesel exhaust and nitrogen oxide emissions than older models, and for other purposes. The Environmental Protection Agency says diesel exhaust is linked to cancer, and nitrogen oxide helps produce smog. Burlington Northern officials say they ordered 14 low-emission locomotives, and the state fund will pay 80 percent of the cost. The company plans to buy another 50 locomotives beginning later this year, for which the fund will pay half the cost, officials say. Through January 26th, businesses, transit agencies and other groups had received $406.8 million in grants from the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, according to the State Environmental Commission. Other railroads also received money from the fund. But Union Pacific and Burlington Northern accounted for the bulk of the fund's $155.3 million in grants for locomotives.


A delegation from Bahrain headed by his Highness Sheikh Salman Bin L Lamed Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, is visiting Houston through the weekend, as part of a trade mission from Bahrain. The delegation includes Ahmed Al Dailami, the Director of Marketing and Sales for Bahrain Investment Wharf—a University of Texas graduate. The visit if organized by the Bahrain Economic Development Board. American exports to Bahrain topped $450 million in 2006, and Bahraini exports to the U.S. increased by 72.9 per cent compared to the previous year.


A Louisiana firm is installing the first of 50 wind turbine platforms ten miles from Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico. Wind Energy Systems Technologies division Galveston Offshore Wind will place weather data-gathering instruments on a 300-foot tower, and plans to have its first wind turbine in place by September. The $240 million development will have 50 turbines generating 150 megawatts of peak output by 2010. Galveston Offshore Wind purchased a 30-year lease in the area, and is paying $10,000 a year for the first five years.


Enterprise Products Partners is forming a natural gas services and marketing business, according to the Houston Business Journal. The group will focus on producer wellhead services, facility fuel procurement and pipeline and storage capacity optimization.


About 89 percent of Houston-area chief financial officers expect no change in staffing over the next three months, according to the latest Robert Half Financial Hiring Index. The index indicates only eight percent of Houston CFOs expect to hire workers during the second quarter, with three percent expected to reduce their staffs. That's a predicted five percent net increase. The survey is based on the responses of 200 CFOs from a random sample of area companies with 20 or more employees.


The Federal Reserve says most parts of the nation enjoyed modest economic activity in the past month. However, the so-called beige book report adds that there were pockets of sluggishness as businesses continued to cope with problems in the housing and auto industries. The survey, taken before last week's global stock market plunge, is consistent with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's view that the central bank continues to foresee "moderate growth going forward.'' The latest data will be used at the Fed's next interest-rate-setting meeting on March 20th and 21st.


Federal regulators are questioning how oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is charged. This has some Alaska lawmakers saying the concerns could serve as a warning for a producer-owned natural gas pipeline. The company that manages the oil pipeline is owned largely by a consortium of BP, Houston-based ConocoPhillips and Irving-based ExxonMobil. But other oil companies say they're being charged too much to send their oil down the 800-mile pipeline. State lawmakers are paying close attention to a dispute over rates between the consortium, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, San Antonio-based Tesoro Corporation and The Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. The rates are known as tariffs. They cover transportation rates, terms and conditions for the service. Higher tariffs mean lower royalties for the state and higher costs for companies paying to use the pipeline. The issue comes as state lawmakers begin reviewing Governor Palin's plan called the Alaska Gasline Inducements Act, or AGIA. Alaska state lawmakers discussed the dispute in the State House's Resource Committee, but took no action.


Dallas-based Texas Instruments has placed on the National Association for Female Executives annual Top Companies for Female Executives list. NAFE celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. But the group says at America's largest companies, women comprise only 16 percent of corporate officers and 15 percent of board members. Only ten of 500 CEOs in America's largest companies are women.


Houston's Park and Recreation Department is hosting a job fair for summer employment opportunities on March 17th. The 8th annual Summer Job Fair at the Judson Robinson, Jr., Community Center on Hermann Drive will help staff city swimming pool positions, and also invites applicants for the Community Center and Summer Food Service assistant.


Continental Airlines tops the list of airlines in Fortune magazine's 2007 list of America's Most Admired Companies. The Houston-based air carrier ranked first in seven of eight categories, including quality of products and services, management, innovations and social responsibility. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines ranked second on the most-admired airlines list. Southwest placed fifth on the magazine's composite list of America's Most Admired Companies. The list and related stories appear in the March 19th issue of the publication.

Continental is beginning daily non-stop flights between its Newark hub and Mumbai, India beginning in October. The Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston says the new service will significantly reduce the time it takes to make this trip from Houston. Continental has operated non-stop service between Newark and Delhi since 2005.


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has received a $25 million donation from BP for expansion. The museum will dedicate a new entry pavilion to the British oil company. Bob Malone with Houston-based BP America says they're pleased to be able to support the world-class institution. The museum's new entrance, set to open next February, will be called the BP Grand Entrance. The entry will be topped by solar panels.


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