Monday AM April 16th, 2007

Madagascar Oil moves corporate headquarters to Houston...State sales tax collections jump in March...United States discusses liberalized air travel with China...

Madagascar Oil has moved its corporate headquarters from London to Houston. Madagascar Oil CEO Alex Archila comes to the company from Chevron Canada—a company familiar with extracting hydrocarbons from oil sands.

"Oil sands are essentially the accumulation of oil fairly much at the surface. In Madagascar, there are seeps underground. You can actually go and see a pool of oil as it drains, you know, from the underground into the surface. In the case of Madagascar and Canadian oil sands, what happened is movements of the plates of the earth and forces underneath broke the trap that had accumulated oil initially. So all this oil essentially escaped to the surface. So the oil was originally lighter oil, but once it gets to the surface, there are certain conditions of pressure and temperature by which bacteria attack the oil. And what stays resembles maybe shaving cream."

Archila says oil in Madagascar is literally scraped up and extracted from sand.

"Instead of producing the oil through oil wells, you know, the oil is so shallow that it's better to, you know, scrape the surface and get what we call the overburden—essentially dirt, mud, you know silts, vegetation—you remove that normally in Madagascar ten, twenty meters of overburden. And then you mine the sand impregnated with oil onto trucks—huge, enormous trucks!—essentially you boil it in hot water. And the effect of temperature and mechanical action separates the crude from the sand."

But the oil extracted in Madagascar is too heavy for most refineries.

"So what we are doing is we are evaluating the economic benefit of installing essentially a refinery in Madagascar to take the product from bitumen to what we call a synthetic crude oil—SCO. And that conversion will create a lighter product that will be palatable to most refineries in the world."

Archila says the company can find the expertise and partnerships it needs here in Houston for this kind of oil extraction. Madagascar Oil will probably expand to 20 or 25 employees in Houston within a year.

Sales tax revenue in Texas increased more than 11 percent year-over-year in March, according to State Comptroller Susan Combs. Texas received $1.53 billion in sales tax revenue in March—an increase of 11.9 percent compared with March 2006. Local sales tax revenues also continue growing, with the comptroller sending $404 million in April sales tax collections to cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts—a 9.7 percent increase over a year ago. Houston received a sales tax allocation of $35.7 million for April—a 13.5 percent increase over April 2006. So far this year, allocations to local governments are up 6.4 percent. State sales tax revenue for March, and April payments made to local governments represent sales that occurred in February.

Dallas-based Ashford Hospitality Trust has completed a $2.4 billion acquisition of 51 hotels, including the Hampton Inn Houston Galleria, from CNL Hotels and Resorts, according to the Houston Business Journal. The deal includes 24 full-service, upper-upscale hotels and 27 premium select-service hotels in 18 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. The Hampton Inn at the Galleria is a 176-room hotel.

The United States is discussing a deal with China to liberalize air travel. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says the government hopes for a framework "open skies'' agreement by May and a formal agreement by the end of this year. The number of airline flights between China and the United States is sharply limited by international agreement. That's despite rapidly rising tourist and business travel that has left aircraft packed. U.S. carriers lobbied aggressively for one new route that was awarded this year. It went to United Airlines, which used it to launch the first direct service between Beijing and Washington last month. Officials at Fort Worth-based American Airlines are hoping for more details on just how quickly routes might be added between the two countries. American was among the losers in the recent competition for Chinese roots, having bid unsuccessfully last year for a Dallas-Beijing route. Houston-based Continental Airlines also lost out in the Chinese route sweepstakes. It says it supports the government's efforts to liberalize air travel between the two countries.

Activists say army officials "surreptitiously'' approved a deal to ship chemical waste from Indiana to Texas. The army plans to truck waste from the destruction of the deadly VX nerve agent to Port Arthur for incineration. The director of the Kentucky-based chemical weapons working group says the army violated Congress' intent when it signed a $49 million contract to truck the waste to Port Arthur.

A development group is pitching plans for a theme park that would give people a chance to snow ski and ice skate in Fort Worth during the summer. Developers of the Coolzone Winterplex Park shared their vision for the $696 million project as they sought backing from investors. Charlie Aaron of the Bearfire Group, the project's developer, says the park will offer an alternative to typical roller coaster theme parks. Skiers and snowboarders would slide down a 25-story outdoor mountain on a slippery carpeted surface called Snowflex, which imitates the properties of snow. The 150-acre park would also feature ice skating and luge rides on a synthetic surface that requires no refrigeration. Mist-blowing fans would cool the area by about 20 degrees. Backers say they'll be ready to break ground when the financing is in place.

Are you tired of getting business e-mails with emoticons, those goofy little smiley faces, frowns or winks that some people insist on using as part of their punctuation? Well, so is Inc magazine editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan. And she's launched a campaign to banish them from corporate correspondence. Buchanan says it doesn't do a lot for a company's image when employees use what she calls "the sort of juvenile glyphs common in MySpace chats.'' Buchanan thinks it would make the point by substituting emoticons with long, wordy paragraphs, describing in detail what the displaced symbols look like and what they're meant to express.

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