Tuesday AM September 11th, 2007

BP Texas City explosion civil trial and Oil-for-Food trial continue...Brazil-Texas Chamber of Commerce sponsors biofuels summit...Mexican tractor-trailers began operating in U.S. under NAFTA-mandated program...

A former manager of BP's Texas City plant--where 15 people died in a 2005 explosion--denies repairs were delayed because of concerns over profits. Dan Parus testified in a Galveston court that the production of profits did not control the company's schedule. Parus took the stand in the first civil trial stemming from the March 2005 blast that also injured more than 170 people. Parus also denied that budget concerns would prevent him from fixing units if they were seriously in disrepair. A review found the explosion occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons. About 1,350 of the thousands of lawsuits filed since the accident--have been settled.


Prosecutors told a New York jury that Texan Oscar Wyatt, Jr., was a greedy businessman who paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime--for contracts. But the defense portrayed Wyatt as a friend and adviser to U.S. presidents--and said he didn't break the law. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Miller told jurors that two former Iraqi oil officials will be among witnesses at Wyatt's conspiracy trial. Miller accused the 83-year-old defendant of secretly obtaining oil from Iraq in the 1990s after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War led to sanctions. The defense described Wyatt as a World War II hero who grew up poor. Wyatt, if convicted, could face more than 60 years in prison. The Oil-for-Food program was created to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.


Players in biofuels gathered to learn more about opportunities in Brazil at a summit sponsored by the Brazil-Texas Chamber of Commerce at the Houstonian. The group's executive director, Ricardo Peduzzi, says speakers have been talking about ethanol, trading and logistics, energy sustainability, economic development and the environment. Peduzzi says this is more of a chance to get on the same page, rather than a business deal-producing event.

"The audience are companies with interests in distributing biofuels, producing biofuels, financing the production and distribution of biofuels, companies involved in the building of the infrastructure for the distribution of biofuels, and folks in research and development. We're here really discussing the trend of the industry and of course this will generate investments in the United States, and in Brazil the purpose of the meeting is not necessarily one of generating investment, but actually discussing the stand of the industry today and where we're heading."

Peduzzi says Houston is particularly set up for doing business with South America.

"The mission of the chamber—the Brazil-Texas Chamber of Commerce—is to foster business and friendship, networking decision-makers. So this comes right into our mission, which is to bring thinkers and leaders together and build friends and develop business. The ultimate objective would be that folks would come out and say 'I'm very happy that I met so-and-so, because he can help me answer some questions'."

Peduzzi co-founded the Brazil-Texas Chamber of Commerce in 2002. He founded Peduzzi and Company to assist client-companies explore international alliances.


Two Mexican tractor-trailers have become the first trucks to operate deep in the United States under a NAFTA-mandated program that's been criticized on both sides of the border. The trucks crossed into the United States carrying steel construction materials to New York and South Carolina and will haul similar products from Arkansas and Alabama back across the border. The United States granted the permission Thursday as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In turn, Mexico granted authority to an El Paso company to travel throughout Mexico. Since 1982, Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate in the United States only within a 25-mile zone along the border. Unrestricted access was supposed to begin in 1995, but truckers and other groups on both sides of the border have objected to the program. In the U.S., several groups have argued that Mexican trucks don't meet safety and environmental standards and that there wouldn't be enough oversight of drivers crossing the border. In Mexico, truckers have argued that most Mexican companies are not ready for cross-border long-haul trips because the government has failed to help them modernize.

Some engineers compare the effect of allowing overweight trucks on a bridge to bending a paper clip: it eventually breaks. Still, officials say more than a half-million overweight trucks are being allowed to roll. They say it's taking a terrible toll on the nation's roads and bridges, which increases the possibility of tragedies similar to the Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed 13 people. The weight limit on nearly all interstate highways is 40 tons per truck. A government study shows that a truck of that size does as much road damage as 9,600 cars. Most states charge fees of up to $1,000 for overweight-load permits. But the amount of money taken in falls far short of the cost for fixing roads and bridges. Most states also provide truck drivers with a map of bridge weight limits, but there are questions about their accuracy. As one Colorado Transportation Department officials puts it: "there's definitely room for improvement.''


Some key OPEC nations say global oil markets are amply supplied with crude. That is a signal that the cartel is leaning toward maintaining its current output targets while weighing other members' calls for a modest increase. OPEC Secretary-General Abdalla Salem el-Badri says there is plenty of oil to meet world demand and no compelling reason to raise the group's official output quota. Oil ministers for Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela told reporters on the eve of Tuesday's meeting that the twelve-nation group feels little pressure to boost its official production quota. It stands at 25.8 million barrels a day.


Chief executive officers of small- and mid-sized businesses in Texas are concerned about the effect of recent financial market turmoil, according to the Houston Business Journal. A survey indicates the confidence of CEOs fell to 90.4 on the Vistage CEO Confidence Index from 100 in the previous quarter. About half believe falling home prices and most costly mortgages will have a negative effect on their businesses. But two-thirds believe the economy will not worsen any more this year.


The Federal Reserve says consumers were putting it on plastic at a faster rate in July. At the same time, growth in overall borrowing slowed a bit. The Fed says consumer credit rose at an annual rate of 3.7 percent, down from the level seen in June. Total consumer credit rose by $7.5 billion in July. There was a drop in borrowing in the category that includes auto loans. With home sales falling and home prices stagnant, home equity lines of credit have become less available. That has prompted some consumers to rely more on their credit cards to finance purchases.


Pressured by the troubled housing market and credit crunch, private analysts say the economy this year will see its worst growth in five years and should be a somewhat sluggish next year. The economists say the top risk is that the economy will lose its footing altogether and fall into a recession. The forecast from the National Association for Business Economics estimates growth of Gross Domestic Product at two percent for this year. The estimate was 2.2 percent in the group's previous survey, in May. If the prediction proves correct, growth would be the weakest since 2002.


The House and Senate have voted to increase college financial aid by cutting roughly $20 billion in government subsidies to banks. The bill would boost the maximum Pell grant, which goes to the poorest college students, from just over $4,300 to $5,400 by 2012. The president is expected to sign the legislation soon. The bill would cut interest rates on federally backed student loans to poor and middle-class students from nearly seven percent to less than 3.5 percent over the next four years. The bill also sets up a loan forgiveness program for college graduates who work for ten years in public service professions, such teaching or nursing.


Omni Hotels and Songy Partners have finalized the purchase of the old Sheraton Hotel in downtown Houston. They plan to spend as much as $130 million on the acquisition and renovation of the 28-story property on Polk. The property has been vacant since 1988, but is being renovated into a luxury hotel with 459 suites.


Houston-based Coral Energy Holding and Alberta, Canada-based Coral Energy Canada are changing their names to Shell Energy North America and Shell Energy North America (Canada). The name changes take effect on October 1st. Both companies will do business as Shell Energy North America. Shell became sole owner of Coral two years ago.


A bit of American history huddles next to old Highway 59, past the tractor dealers and the rice mills, just before a green sign that proclaims Wharton's population of 9,237. It's easy to miss. But it is there, just around the bend: a row of ten freshly painted, sand-colored tepees called the Tee Pee Motel. It's a throwback to the 1940s and '50s, when taking a drive was still in style and roadside businesses used gimmicky architecture--like a gas station that looked like an oil derrick--to lure customers. The Tee Pee Motel is one of just a handful of tepee-themed lodges left in the country. The Tee Pee Motel is at 4098 N. Highway 59, Wharton, about 50 miles west of Houston.


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