Thursday June 23rd, 2005

Twenty-two families unable to return home until August, when blown-out natural gas well is plugged…News report says BP paying millions to families of refinery blast victims…GE Indian unit reaching deal on restarting Dabhol Power Project… Almost two dozen residents near a blown-out natural gas well near Lake Houston may not be able to go home […]

Twenty-two families unable to return home until August, when blown-out natural gas well is plugged…News report says BP paying millions to families of refinery blast victims…GE Indian unit reaching deal on restarting Dabhol Power Project…

Almost two dozen residents near a blown-out natural gas well near Lake Houston may not be able to go home until August. That’s when authorities say they’ll be able to plug the well permanently. The well exploded June 1st and burned for almost two weeks before the walls of the drill hole collapsed and smothered the flames. The owner of the well–Louisiana Gas Development Corporation of Shreveport, Louisiana–initially reported 15 families were displaced by the emergency. Now, however, a company spokeswoman says that 52 families had to leave their homes. Thirty of the families have returned home after tests found no contamination of their water wells. But 22 families are still living in Houston-area hotels. Louisiana Gas Development is covering their expenses.

BP has agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars to each of the families of those killed in the Texas City refinery explosion, according to the Houston Chronicle. Fifteen people were killed in the March 23rd blast and more than 170 were injured. There have been allegations that managers at the refinery ignored safety concerns of union workers and others for years, then blamed low- and mid-level operators and supervisors. Attorneys representing the families of injured workers say several agreements have been signed and checks have already been issued in many cases.

The Supreme Court has ruled against homeowners who sued to stop city officials from seizing their properties for an office complex in Connecticut. The homeowners had argued that there had to be some clear public purpose–like the building of a school or a highway that have some clear public use. But by a five-to-four vote, the justices said a community that simply wanted to improve its tax base or bring in jobs could force out homeowners who stand in the way. The decision has huge implications across the country–where rapidly-growing areas face competing pressures of development versus property ownership rights. Cities will now have wide power to bulldoze homes for projects like shopping malls and hotel complexes in order to generate tax revenue. Dissenting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says the ruling hands “disproportionate influence and power” to the well-heeled in America. But Justice John Paul Stevens says local officials, not federal judges, know best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community. At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain if the land is for “public use.”

One Connecticut homeowner says “it’s a little shocking to believe you can lose your home in this country.” Bill von Winkle vows to stay where he is–even if the bulldozers show up. One lawyer warns that the ruling puts many homes and businesses ”up for grabs.” A lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which represented families trying to keep their property, says the poor and the middle class will be most vulnerable. Scott Bullock says the constitution and the country will suffer as a result. But the head of the National League of Cities stressed that the power must be used carefully by cities. And Don Bolut pointed out that owners must be compensated for property that is taken.

The Indian unit of U. S.-based General Electric said today it plans to reach a deal on restarting the Dabhol Power Project in western India. GE India President Scott Bayman says he expects a deal by the end of the month. The 2,200-megawatt power project has been idle in western India for four years. The Dabhol Project was shut down in June 2001. That’s because of a dispute over electricity tariffs between Enron, which owned the project at the time, and its only customer, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board. The dispute also halted construction of a second plant at the site. GE and U. S.-based Bechtel Group together own 85 percent of the project. The remaining stake is owned by the Maharashtra State Electricity Board.

Both median and average home sales prices reached all-time highs in May, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. Monthly home sales also reached a new record high, beating the previous record set in June 2004. Property sales totaled 7,690–an 18.6 percent increase over the same month last year. Properties sold reached a total of nearly $1.4 billion–a 22.7 percent increase over last year’s $1.1 billion in May sales. Year-to-date property sales reached 29,716–an increase of 7.7 percent over the first five months of 2004.

Exxon Mobil says it hasn’t ruled out international arbitration in a tax dispute with Venezuela. That’s even though the Irving-based international oil firm continues to seek a friendly solution to the dispute. Venezuela hiked the royalty for Exxon’s Cerro Negro heavy crude upgrading project and similar projects in Venezuela’s Orinoco tar belt to 16.6 percent last October. The royalty had been one percent. Venezuela is taking further steps to get more money from private oil operations, which pump about 40 percent of Venezuela’s crude. But Exxon Mobil contends the low royalty rate compensated for heavy investment in the project’s initial phases. It says it expects Venezuela to honor the original contact. Exxon Mobil is the world’s largest publicly traded oil company.

Exxon Mobil has agreed to cut its share of revenue from an Indonesia oilfield, ending a four-year dispute with the government that has jeopardized the OPEC nation’s status as a net oil exporter. The Irving-based company will get 6.75 percent of the revenue from the $2.6 billion dollar Cepu oil project, but as much as 13.5 percent should oil prices fall below $35 a barrel.

Just in time for summer, some major U. S. airlines are boosting their fares. They’re charging up to three percent more and blame the latest increase on higher fuel costs. If the fare hikes stick, customers of the largest carriers can expect to pay an additional $20 or more for domestic and international flights. American Airlines and United Airlines–the industry’s top two carriers–were the first to post higher fares. They were followed by Delta and U. S. Airways. Northwest says it’s studying the increases. Southwest says it has no plans for higher fares.

The University of Phoenix opens a new campus in Clear Lake next Monday, serving Baytown, Clear Lake, Deer Park, Friendswood, Galveston, La Porte, League City, Pasadena and Pearland. The university’s learning center on Space Center Boulevard between El Dorado and Bay Area Boulevard has 15 classrooms, and will offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration, management, information systems and health administration. This is the fourth Houston-area location for the University of Phoenix.

Houston-based Transocean says Petrobras’ board has approved rig contracts they say will produce revenue in the range of $985 million. There are new four-year contracts for four Petrobras rigs and a three-year contract for an additional unit. And Transocean’s rig “Deepwater Discovery” has been awarded a two-year contract by Total Upstream Nigeria Ltd. to provide drilling for an offshore development. Work begins in July 2006.

A California research company is launching Texas Technology magazine, targeting state and local government and education officials in Texas. The quarterly will be published in collaboration with Austin-based Texas Department of Information Resources, which coordinates IT projects for state agencies.

A law group is challenging incentives offered to Dell to build a plant in North Carolina. The suit by the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law challenges a $280 million package of tax breaks and subsidies offered the PC maker. Round Rock-based Dell demanded the incentives in exchange for locating a plant in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area. The incentives were agreed to by North Carolina, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina attorney general’s office declined comment. An attorney representing Dell said the case has less to do with the computer maker–than business incentives overall. Burley Mitchell also says the plaintiffs may disagree with the policy of the state or the local government offering economic incentives, but that doesn’t make it unconstitutional.

The consortium that won a $7 billion deal to build the first part of the trans-Texas corridor has inquired about using public money. Cintra-Zachry won the contract by promoting it would use private money, but the developer has written a letter to the Federal Highway Administration saying it is interested in applying for a $320 million low-interest loan. The Governor’s Office and the consortium say the deal didn’t prohibit using federal money. Only state money was mentioned. Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for the governor, says the inquiry involves a loan, not a grant. Some state leaders remain skeptical. Mike Sizemore, press secretary for Senator Ken Armbrister, says the deal was touted as using private funds. He says this is the first he’s heard of them essentially seeking tax money for the project.

Texas Children’s Hospital and the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Houston have joined forces to open a child-centered MD clinic in Houston. The clinic at the Texas Children’s campus will focus on children with neuromuscular conditions.

The Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation is donating $31.25 million to fund research at the Baylor College of Medicine, according to the Houston Business Journal. The gift is the largest single commitment from private philanthropy to support basic biomedical research in the college’s history. Some of the funds will help in the construction later this summer on a new research tower.

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