Tuesday PM June 26th, 2007

Venezuela seizes control of ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil assets...Nearly 13,000 HISD teachers to get pay raises...Encysive Pharmaceuticals laying off most of its staff...

Venezuela's state oil company says it's seizing control of controlling stakes ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips have in oil projects in the South American country. That's after Irving-based ExxonMobil and Houston-based ConocoPhillips refused to sign deals by today's deadline to either agree to terms with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for minority stakes in state-run joint ventures—or give up on pumping Venezuelan heavy crude oil. Petroleos de Venezuela says the companies were alone among six major oil firms operating in the lucrative Orinoco River Basin not to reach deals. It says deals were reached with the other four--California-based Chevron, Britain's BP, France's Total and Norway's Statoil. ConocoPhillips is the third-largest U.S. oil company. Its Venezuelan projects account for about four percent of the company's daily global oil and gas production. Venezuelan oil minister Rafael Ramirez has said ConocoPhillips would be expelled from the country--if it continues to resist.

Nearly 13,000 teachers in the Houston Independent School District are getting a pay raise, with the school board's unanimous approval Monday afternoon of a $1.5 billion general fund budget for the district. The average pay raise is 5.7 percent, ranging from three percent to 12.7 percent. The budget also includes funding for 20 more police officers and $7.2 million for fine arts programs. Last year, HISD teachers received an average pay raise of 8.6 percent, and this year's raise means average teacher pay has increased 56 percent over nine years. Bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and other personnel will get a three per cent raise. Principals will see an average 4.3 percent increase, and school clerks, secretaries, aides and data workers will see an ave3rage 6.3 percent raise. Most central office staff will get a three percent raise.

Houston-based Encysive Pharmaceuticals says it is laying off most of its staff, following a decision by federal regulators to further delay approval of its blood pressure drug. Some 150 jobs are affected, or about 70 percent of its work force. The CEO has left the company, and Encysive's former COO has been promoted. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on June 15th for the third time refused to approve Encysive's drug Thelin. The drug has been approved for use in Canada, Australia and Europe, but U.S. regulators are questioning statistical data related to one part of the clinical trial.

A state study finds that 82 public pensions across Texas have unfunded liabilities totaling $23 billion. State Attorney General Greg Abbott released the study's report on Monday. Pension liabilities are the amounts that plan owes to retirees. Among the most serious is in the Judicial Retirement System of Texas. It has a liability of more than $5 million per active member. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas has a total unfunded liability of more that $13 billion--but lawmakers this year approved a measure to increase the state's contribution in the hope of making the fund more sound. Abbott tells the Texas Pension Review Board that an overhaul of pension oversight is needed--including more public transparency and curbing conflicts of interest on pension boards. Board Chairman Frederick Rowe says the recommendations would be used as a blueprint for improving oversight. Other unfunded liabilities include: the El Paso Firemen's Pension Fund, which has a liability of more than $200,000 per member; the Dallas Police and Fire and Pension System and the University Park Firemen's Relief and Retirement Fund. Each has a liability of $155,000 per member.

Salt Lake City-based chemical company Huntsman is being purchased by Netherlands-based Basell in a $9.6 billion deal. Huntsman has its administrative headquarters in The Woodlands. The merger creates one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Basell is owned by Access Industries based in the United States. Huntsman is part of the testing group behind the new wind technology testing center being built in Ingleside, Texas.

The Port of Houston Authority commission has approved a contract increase of almost $500,000 to redesign a third berth planned at the new Bayport container terminal, to accommodate larger-than-expected ships. Bayport's lead tenant, French firm CMA CGM, is bringing vessels of almost 1,000 feet in length, meaning the third berth must be larger than first planned. Additional dredging and moorings will also be needed.

A House panel is hearing concerns about the Securities and Exchange Commission. All five members are testifying about accusations they may be tilting toward business interests and away from investors. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts says he's not criticizing the agency but wants to provide a forum for concerns to be expressed. One issue expected to come up is the SEC Commissioners' recent vote siding with investors in a significant securities lawsuit pending in the Supreme Court. The Bush administration overrode the SEC by declining to side with investors in lawsuits against third parties that collude with companies engaging in fraudulent conduct. The hearing marks first time in more than a decade that all five members of the commission testified together.

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