Friday PM March 23rd, 2007

Gasoline prices continue upward climb in Houston...State legislator wants OSHA-like agency to oversee refineries...Late Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley's Carbon Nanotechnologies merging with Unidym...

Retail gas prices were mixed this week at Texas pumps. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey shows regular-grade prices rose an average of two cents to $2.43 per gallon. Houston's average is also up over two cents to $2.41 a gallon. And national prices rose two cents to an average of $2.57 per gallon. But price increases were minimal in some markets. Prices actually fell a penny in Beaumont to $2.37 per gallon and three cents in Dallas to $2.43 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says future price trends will depend on how easily refiners make their switch to summer blends and how strong consumer demand is. The costliest gas in the Texas survey was in Amarillo, where regular grade rose five cents to $2.56 per gallon. The cheapest is in Corpus Christi, where it rose three cents to $2.36 per gallon.

A legislator wants to create a state agency akin to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to oversee high-risk worksites--like refineries. The bill by Representative Craig Eiland of Galveston was inspired by BP's Texas City refinery disaster. This is the second anniversary of the fiery accident that killed 15 people and left about 170 hurt. Eiland's measure--dubbed the "Remember the 15'' bill--is patterned after a similar law in California. The plan, in part, would empower the state to collect information from employers regarding the frequency of accidents and man-hour losses. The proposal also would create a task force to inspect high-risk worksites, including those making flammable or explosive products. The bill would require refineries and chemical manufacturing plants to provide 48 hours written notice before starting up or shutting down a unit. It also would bar companies from installing temporary employee housing within 1,000 feet of flammable or explosive materials.

Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies and Unidym are merging under the name Unidym. Carbon Nanotechnologies was founded in 2000 based on technology developed by Rice University chemistry professor and late Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley. CNI produces a variety of carbon nanotubes and has more than 100 patents and patent applications. Unidym will pursue licensing agreements for nanotube-based products such as targeted therapeutics, medical devices, field emission displays, batteries, sporting goods and composite materials.

The Houston Club building downtown has been sold by JP Morgan Chase to Houston-based Cameron Management. Renovations are planned that could include a hotel or offices and residential units, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Houston Club is a private dining venue with a fitness center and barbershop, with the club occupying four of the building's 18 floors.

The Foreign Trade Corporation of Costa Rica and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will sign an Economic Cooperation Agreement next Wednesday at the Hilton Americas. The initiative is designed to encourage business between Houston and Costa Rica.

The Business Software Alliance is offering Houston-area residents cash rewards of up to $200,000 for qualifying software piracy reports. Texas businesses have paid more than $13.5 million in penalties for unlicensed software since 1993. A 2006 study conducted for BSA found that in 2005, 21 percent of software in the United States was unlicensed. Confidential reports can be made on the BSA Web site.

A key Qantas Airways shareholder is refusing to accept a nearly $9 billion bid for the airline. The move throws into doubt one of Australia's biggest proposed takeovers. Qantas stock sank three percent on the news. The investment group making the bid immediately announced it's extending the deadline for shareholders to accept the offer by more than two weeks to April 20th and is considering options. Balanced Equity Management, an institutional fund which owns about four percent of Qantas, says it will not accept the bid led by an Australian bank and the Texas Pacific Group at the current price. The investment group needs to secure 90 percent of shares for the deal to move ahead.

A real estate trade group says sales of previously-owned homes rose 3.9 percent in February. It is the best showing in nearly three years. Sales rebounded as prices dropped. The National Association of Realtors also says the median price of a home sold last month dropped to nearly $213,000. That is down 1.3 percent from a year earlier. The February gain for existing home sales is the best since a similar increase in March 2004. The news comes amid concern for the troubled subprime mortgage industry, which provides loans to borrowers with tarnished credit or low incomes. Some analysts fear a housing market recovery could be slowed if borrowers are denied access to credit, and if foreclosures become more pronounced.

The Transportation Department is refusing to upgrade its computers with Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, citing concern over costs and compatibility issues. Chief Information Officer Dan Mintz imposed the "indefinite moratorium'' on upgrading desktop and laptop computers with the new operating system, Office 2007 and Internet Explorer 7 back in January. He says there's "no compelling technical or business case'' to upgrade to the new products and specific reasons not to upgrade. A memo issued by Mintz cites hardware, software and labor costs, compatibility issues with current applications and limited funding. He also wrote technology staff will be busy with the agency's move to a new headquarters.

The transportation department has issued a safety advisory for fliers traveling with batteries or battery-powered devices--the result of two recent fires on airplanes. The agency is advising air travelers to keep spare batteries in their original retail packaging and to wrap insulating tape around loose batteries to avoid contact with metal objects. Batteries, it says, should be packed in carry-on, not checked, luggage and protected from getting crushed or punctured. A preliminary investigation of a February 10th fire in an overhead baggage compartment on a JetBlue Airways flight indicated one or more loose batteries may have been the source.

The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States increased by five this week to 1,745. Houston-based Baker Hughes reports that of the rigs running nationwide, 1,459 are exploring for natural gas and 281 for oil. Five are listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count stood at 1,571. Texas and lost seven rigs. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, the height of the oil boom. The industry posted several record lows in 1999, bottoming out at 488.

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