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Wednesday August 17th, 2005

Investigating board recommends BP form independent panel to review refinery safety…Predator aircraft to be based at Ellington Field…Sales volume and average and median sales prices experience increases… A federal investigative board today urgently recommended that BP form an independent panel of experts to review safety at its five North American refineries. The urgent safety recommendation […]

Investigating board recommends BP form independent panel to review refinery safety…Predator aircraft to be based at Ellington Field…Sales volume and average and median sales prices experience increases…

A federal investigative board today urgently recommended that BP form an independent panel of experts to review safety at its five North American refineries. The urgent safety recommendation by the U. S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is the first it’s issued in its history. BP says it’ll comply with the federal request for formation of an independent panel. BP Group Chief Executive John Browne says the company will work with the panel and quickly enact any recommendations. The federal agency is investigating a March explosion and fire at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and caused 170 injuries. The board says numerous fires and other incidents at BP facilities since then prompted its call. The federal board wants the independent BP panel to spent 12 months reviewing safety management and culture issues within the company. BP will pay for the independent panel’s review, but the federal board will oversee its work. The federal board plans to release its preliminary findings related to the March explosion and fire on October 27th at a community meeting.

A dozen U. S. Predator aircraft will be based at Houston’s Ellington Field for use in homeland security and border patrols. Governor Rick Perry and U. S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay made the announcement in Houston today. Predators are unmanned aircraft that can carry missiles and can stay airborne for 24 hours. They can be operated by ground control or satellite. They can be used to locate targets and either fire their own Hellfire missiles or be followed up by other aircraft. John Cook with the Ellington Field Task Force says the announcement is good for the economy.

John Cook audio

Governor Perry says the 12 Predators at Ellington will be used to patrol such assets as the Southeast Texas ports and petrochemical complex and NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Perry says they’ll also be used to patrol the border with Mexico. Delay–who’s a Sugar Land Republican–says the aircraft would used to monitor illegal immigration. Perry says they’d also be used as a bargaining chip with the Independent Federal Base Closing Commission to keep the 147th Fighter Wing at Ellington.

Sales volume and average and median sales prices are experiencing increases on a year-over-year basis, according to the Houston Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service. Homes in the $400K range saw a 29.2 percent increase in sales when compared to last year. Total property sales for the month totaled 7,680–a ten percent increase over July 2004. Sales reached more than $1.4 billion–a 19.8 percent increase compared to last year’s $1.2 billion in July sales. Year-to-date total property sales reached 45,477–an increase of 8.1 percent over the same period of 2004. The median single-family sales price jumped 6.6 percent compared to the same month a year ago, now averaging $145,500–a record.

After getting a crash course on painkillers, Texas jurors will soon be asked to decide if Vioxx was the cause of a man’s death in 2001. First, lawyers for the drug’s maker, Merck, and the widow of a man who took the painkiller must finish closing arguments. Each side was allotted two and a-half hours to sum up their cases. The judge has warned jurors not to allow “bias, prejudice or sympathy” to play a part in their discussions. A civil verdict can be reached if ten of the 12 jurors agree. Carol Ernst filed suit when her husband died some eight months after he started taking Vioxx. Merck, the maker of Vioxx, pulled the painkiller last September when studies showed long-term use of Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attack or stroke. Ernst’s suit is the first of more than 4,200 Vioxx-related lawsuits to go to trial. The trial has drawn national attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers and stock analysts.

A former employee of the state’s electricity grid system pleaded guilty today in a misuse of funds case. The investigation involves accusations of contract money being funneled to bogus security companies. James Christopher Uranga of Round Rock pleaded guilty in Georgetown to three counts of organized criminal activity involving misapplication of funds. Uranga and five others were charged with devising a scheme inside the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT. His attorney says Uranga is no business whiz and wanted to do the right thing and plead guilty–once he realized his activities were criminal in nature. Three other counts against the former navy intelligence officer will be dropped. Sentencing is January 30th. Uranga, who’s free on bond, could get probation or up to 15 years in prison.

Gasoline futures are rising to near $2 a gallon on word that drivers’ strong demand for fuel cut into supplies last week. The Energy Department reports that the nation’s supply of gasoline fell a more-than-expected five million barrels. That puts inventories at 198 million barrels, or 12 percent below last year. Meanwhile, crude oil inventories grew by 300,000 barrels last week. Although that was a smaller build than expected, crude futures are falling more than a dollar, with a barrel of light crude now down below 65 dollars. Energy traders remain jittery over the possibility of further refinery disruptions in the United States, Iran’s nuclear showdown and in Ecuador, where protesters halted operations at a major oil pipeline in the Amazon Basin, demanding the state-owned petroleum company hire more locals and pay higher wages. The company says more than 50,000 barrels a day have been lost so far. That’s a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the global oil market but still enough to create jitters. Inflation data this week has demonstrated that the high cost of energy is pressuring people’s wallets. The government has reported that both retail and wholesale prices rose last month thanks to the high cost of gasoline.

The rising price of gasoline is fueling inflationary pressure. Just a day after reporting that consumer prices are on the rise, the Labor Department says the Producer Price Index spiked up one full percentage point in July. That reading was much hotter than expected and is the biggest advance since last October. The report on wholesale prices shows many of the same pressures seen in the half-point increase in consumer prices for last month. And in a sign that energy costs may be filtering down through the economy, the non-energy, non-food core rate of wholesale inflation rose by a worrisome four-tenths percent in July, the biggest increase since January.

If you think you’re paying a lot for gas, imagine having to tank up a school bus. As prices rise, districts around the country are bracing for budget woes. In Fredericksburg, where the entire fleet is just 50 buses, Superintendent Marc Williamson says officials planned for higher prices–but not this much higher. He says the district is already consider options like scrapping plans to replace a bus and buy gas with the money instead. But not everyone has a plan, yet. In Columbus, Ohio the budget for the coming year was drafted using the price the district paid for diesel last year. Now prices are about 30 percent higher. A district spokesman says a crunch is inevitable, but officials haven’t yet figured out how to adjust. The Columbus bus fleet includes 541 buses. The official says his district is hoping prices will come back down.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has joined the parade of carriers that are raising fares–due to rising cost of jet fuel. Fort Worth-based American Airlines this week increased surcharges on fares to and from most international destinations. The moves came on the heels of several carriers, including American, boosting fares on domestic travel late last week. American is now adding a $20 per round trip surcharge on most international flights and those to and from Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands. Southwest this week raised fares by $2 to $4 each way, depending on the distance of the flight. Company Spokesman Ed Stewart said the increase was modest and reasonable in light of what’s happening with fuel costs. The price per gallon of jet fuel has jumped about 60 percent from one year ago.

Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and San Diego, California-based Sempra Pipelines & Storage have signed an agreement to jointly develop a new $3 billion natural gas pipeline between the Rocky Mountain region to the upper Midwest and Eastern United States. The pipeline, to be 42 inches in diameter, would be capable of carrying two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day about 1,500 miles. Kinder Morgan spokesman Rick Rainey said the proposed pipeline addresses the geographic realities of where output and consumption are the strongest. The project will be staged into service beginning in the latter part of 2008 and continuing through 2009.

Oil exploration companies today made $285.2 million in high bids for offshore leases near Texas and far western Louisiana. Details come from the U. S. Minerals Management Service. The figure topped last year’s $171.4 million in high bids issued in the federal government’s annual sale of leases in the western Gulf of Mexico. Fifteen of the tracts that received bids are in water depths of 200 meters or less. Another 197 bids were targeted for ultra-deepwater tracts that are 800 meters and deeper. The western sale is the smaller of the two major offshore sales in the Gulf. In March, the much-larger central Gulf sale off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama attracted $354 million in high bids.

Anadarko Petroleum has signed an agreement with Chevron to participate in drilling four deepwater Gulf of Mexico drilling projects. The wells are slated to be completed by mid-year 2006.

Former heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman is moving from countertop grilling to something all his own–a signature line of health and fitness products. The Houston-area grillmaster hopes that his new George Foreman Enterprises expands on his previous business success with a range of consumer products. The company is a partnership between Foreman and publicly traded MM Companies. Foreman has already branded himself through his successful George foreman lean mean grilling machine. In the first four years of his association with grillmaker Salton Incorporated, Salton’s revenues shot from $77 million to more than $792 million. But Foreman thinks he can press further by making and marketing items bearing his name. He says he’s not yet ready to disclose what products he’ll make and where he’ll try to sell them. MM Companies Chairman and CEO Seymour Holtzman is also chairman of Casual Male Retail Group. Foreman became a spokesman for Casual Male Big and Tall in 2003 and launched a clothing line for the company.

Houston-based FC Holdings is buying the Bosque County Bank in Meridian and Lake Area National Bank in Trinity. The holding company now has three banks focusing on commercial customers, including one near Waco, near Huntsville and in San Antonio.

Wisconsin-based IT services company SilverTrain has opened a Houston office, with plans to add an additional 30 staff members. The new office on Post Oak will provide technology services in application development, SAP, business intelligence, disaster recovery and business continuity and information security.

The quarterly earnings of Hewlett-Packard, reported after the closing bell, topped Wall Street expectations. The PC and printer company has been watched closely because new CEO Mark Hurd has been leading a major restructuring. The Palo Alto, California-based company’s earnings, fell due to tax adjustments from the repatriation of more than $14 billion in foreign earnings. Excluding adjustments related to the cash repatriation, HP earned more than $1 billion. That’s compared with profit of $728 million in the year ago quarter. Sales rose ten percent. CEO Hurd says he is encouraged by the performance, saying the company is ”focused on driving further performance improvements.”

Brinker International expects to complete the sale of its 90-store Corner Bakery restaurant chain by year’s end. The Dallas-based company’s flagship chain is Chili’s Grill & Bar. Brinker offered details in a regulatory filing today. Brinker says it’s into a deal with an undisclosed purchaser for the sale of the chain. Spokesman Louis Adams declined to identify the purchaser or provide financial details of the transaction. He says the company is continually evaluating brands in its portfolio trying to get the right mix. Brinker’s also operates Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Maggiano’s Little Italy, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina and Rockfish Seafood Grill.

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