Thursday PM February 14th, 2008

CERA report charts rise in power plant construction costs; investment challenges outlined for petroleum refining capacity...Sales of previously-owned homes falls nationwide; Houston shows slight increase in median home prices...Imperial Sugar refinery blast in Georgia claims eighth victim...

Petroleum refining capacity will face significant reconfiguration and investment challenges over the next 12 years, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Natural gas liquids, condensates and biofuels will be the dominant force in supply through 2020. Though some crude oil components, like extra-heavy oil, are expected to increase, overall crude supply will flatten after 2010. The report says the primary challenge will be increasing the refining industry's capacity to convert petroleum into its more in-demand products such as diesel and jet fuel and heating oil.

The cost of building power plants in the United States has risen 76 percent over the past three years, according to a report by CERA. That means a $1 billion project in 2000 would cost around $2.3 billion today. Nuclear plant costs account for about 52 percent of the price increases since 2000. The Power Capital Costs Index predicts that 80 to 110 gigawatts of new generation capacity will come online by 2012.

In a discussion about global energy risks at the CERA conference, one energy security consultant said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez doesn't have the tactical advantage he thinks he has. Nationalization of ExxonMobil's assets was among energy security concerns discussed in a panel discussion at the conference. Andy Webb-Vidal with Jane's Information Group says Venezuela's national oil production has slipped to 2.3 million barrels a day from 3.5 million barrels five years ago. Other panelists discussed security of foreign-run operations in Nigeria and Southeast Asia.

A real estate trade group says sales of previously-owned homes fell in 46 states in the fourth quarter of 2007. The National Association of Realtors says metropolitan areas had growing weakness. The report shows the breadth of the housing market's slump. South Dakota was the lone state with a sales increase. Existing home sales there rose 8.9 percent from the year-earlier quarter. Sales were flat in North Dakota. Figures were not available for Idaho, Indiana and New Hampshire. Median home prices fell in more than half of the 150 metropolitan areas surveyed, although Houston showed a small rise. The median price here is at $150,300 in the last quarter of 2007—up 1.1 percent compared to a year earlier, but down from the middle two quarters of 2007. Out of the 77 metro areas that experienced declines, 16 showed a double-digit percentage drop. The biggest price declines were in Lansing, Michigan, Sacramento, California and Jackson, Mississippi.

The Houston Association of Realtors has upgraded its Web site, adding new Virtual Earth mapping technology developed by Microsoft. Property searches can be accomplished based on proximity to schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, as well as businesses, supermarkets, restaurants and banks. Other new features and improved functionality have been added to the site, which averaged more than one billion hits last March.

A spokeswoman says a patient hospitalized at a burn center in Augusta, Georgia, after a sugar refinery explosion has died. Beth Frits says Michael Kelly Fields died early Thursday at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital. She says 14 people burned during the explosion a week ago at the Imperial Sugar company plant in Port Wentworth remain hospitalized in critical condition. Two others are in serious condition. The latest death brings to eight the number of people killed in the explosion. Seven people have been found dead in the rubble at the plant. One worker was still missing. Sugar dust is thought to be the cause of the February 7th blast. Emergency crews were able to snuff out the fire at the plant's main building Wednesday, but the blaze persists at the refinery's 80-foot silos. Local crews had to call in a specialized team with powerful equipment for help. The refinery is located on a 160-acre site on the Savannah River upstream from Savannah.

A federal judge in Tennessee has thrown out a long-running lawsuit that accused Tyson Foods of hiring illegal immigrants at plants in five states to depress wages. In an order issued late Wednesday--the judge granted the company's motion for a summary judgment in the 2002 damage suit. A Tyson attorney, Roger Dickson of Chattanooga, says the company is happy with the ruling. The attorney for four employees who sued, Howard Foster of Chicago, said he did not have time to comment. The lawsuit claimed that Tyson violated the Rico Act by knowingly hiring illegal immigrants who were willing to work for wages below those acceptable to Americans. The judge ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove that Tyson was "harboring or concealing illegal aliens" at eight plants, including one in center, Texas. The other plants were in Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia and Missouri.

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger says he expects 15,000 to 20,000 General Motors workers to take the company's latest round of early retirement and buyout offers. But he says the number is lower than what it would have been in better economic times. GM is offering buyout or early retirement packages to all 74,000 of its UAW-represented work force. Gettelfinger said Thursday that under a new contract reached with GM last year, all the workers will have to be replaced. Many will be paid about half the wages of current UAW workers.


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