Monday August 22nd, 2005

Chicago Bridge & Iron subpoenaed in SEC’s Halliburton probe…Gas prices rising as fuel consumption holds steady…Merck stocks slump following $253 million award in first Vioxx trial… Chicago Bridge and Iron has been subpoenaed in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of a Halliburton project. The Dutch-based engineering and construction company, which has a Central and […]

Chicago Bridge & Iron subpoenaed in SEC’s Halliburton probe…Gas prices rising as fuel consumption holds steady…Merck stocks slump following $253 million award in first Vioxx trial…

Chicago Bridge and Iron has been subpoenaed in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of a Halliburton project. The Dutch-based engineering and construction company, which has a Central and South America sales office in The Woodlands, was a subcontractor of Houston-based Halliburton on the Nigerian project. Chicago Bridge and Iron said in its Friday SEC filing that it’s cooperating with the request, but it didn’t provide further details about the subpoena. Halliburton’s foreign operations have been the focus of investigations by various regulatory agencies. The Justice Department and the SEC have been investigating alleged bribery of Nigerian officials relating to the construction of a natural-gas liquefaction plant at Bonny Island. Halliburton said it was under formal SEC investigation in June of 2004.

It costs more today to fill a gas tank than it did yesterday. AAA reports the average cost of regular unleaded is up more than a penny a gallon since Sunday. The daily fuel gauge report puts the price at $2.61 a gallon. The automotive group says that’s up more than thirty cents in a month. The hike is hitting transportation companies hard. In New Mexico, the head of the Santa Fe Shuttle says if gas hits $3.25 a gallon, he’ll have to go to state officials to seek a rate hike.

Record gas prices are forcing many Americans to be more cautious in their spending, but fuel consumption isn’t expected to plummet anytime soon. Economists think spending on other goods and services will suffer first, because many Americans have no choice but to drive to work or school. An expert at Indiana University says rising prices aren’t dragging down the economy that much. As he puts it, “the economy, instead of being really, really good, is just good.” Another IU professor says $3 gasoline may shock Americans but would be a good deal in Europe or Japan.

Crude oil prices ended with a slight gain. The price per barrel of crude for September delivery rose ten cents to settle at $65.45. That was off of the day’s highs. The September contract expires today.

Officials say Iraq’s oil exports were shut down today by a power outage that darkened parts of Central and Southern Iraq, including the country’s only functioning oil export terminals. Exports through the country’s other main route, the Northern Export Pipeline to Turkey, have repeatedly been halted by sabotage. Iraqi officials said sabotage was also responsible for today’s blackout, which prevented oil from being pumped into tankers waiting at berths.

A Baylor University professor says he envisions one day growing native Central Texas prairie grasses for fuel. It all depends on a federal research grant recently awarded to the university to make fuel-grade ethanol out of fiber using sources such as cornstalks, wood chips and straw. Faced with increasing gasoline prices, the $373,000 grant is part of an international effort to produce an economical alternative to fossil fuel. Corn ethanol is already used as an additive, but some critics say that growing and processing corn for alcohol uses more fuel than it saves. Environmental Studies Professor Peter Van Walsom, who is spearheading the Baylor project, says using fiber instead of grain could be more energy efficient.

The old saying “waste not, want not” may have a special meaning in these days of skyrocketing oil prices. Cow manure may offer relief for energy consumers. For years researchers have studied it as a fertilizer, but now they’re exploring it as an alternative fuel source. The Panda Group of Dallas plans to power a $120 million ethanol plant opening next year with cow manure and other waste. The company says using biomass will save the equivalent of 1,000 barrels of oil per day. And if there’s one thing Texas has a lot of, its biomass, especially of the cow patty sort. Cattle, dairy cows and hogs produce billions of pounds of manure in the state. One professor says “it’s almost too good not to use.”

Shares of drugmaker Merck are slumping. Today is the first full day of trading since a Brazoria County jury hit the company with a $253 million damage award in the first trial over the withdrawn painkiller Vioxx. Investors are apparently nervous about how much liability the company faces for the former arthritis drug. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last September after its own research showed the drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use. Previously, analysts had estimated Merck’s liability over Vioxx at up to $18 billion. But now some believe the total could be much more than that when all of the litigation is over. Merck won’t actually be on the hook for the total amount awarded in this case since it exceeds the Texas cap on punitive damages.

Texas has lost more money than it’s made on a billion-dollar electricity marketing program promoted as a way of raising money for Texas schools, according to a review of records by a newspaper. Under the State Power Program, the Texas General Land Office trades natural gas from public land to Reliant Energy for electricity. It then sells the electricity to public customers such as schools, cities and counties. Money made from state lands eventually goes to the state’s Permanent School Fund, a $19 billion account that gives funds to school districts. But the Galveston County Daily News found the program appears to be achieving a net loss for Texas because of tax exemptions enjoyed by Reliant, the power program’s sole contractor.

Seventeen high-tech leaders, entrepreneurs and researchers have been named to the advisory committee for the newly-created $200 million Emerging Technology Fund. Governor Rick Perry includes two Houston-area technology professionals, appointing Cogene Biotech Ventures President and CEO Dr. Thomas Caskey and Walter Ulrich, CEO of Mincron Software Systems. The committee will make recommendations on collaborations, investments, research grants and recruitment for the fund. The Emerging Technology Fund is meant to foster innovation, research and job creation in semiconductor manufacturing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, environmental sciences and advanced energy.

Royal Dutch Shell and Irving-based Exxon Mobil will no longer participate in Venezuela’s Mariscal Sucre Natural Gas Project. Details were announced by Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, who says Venezuela will begin to develop the project’s initial two fields on its own. Venezuela had been in talks with the two companies for the project–but had reached no agreement. The minister says the government will use its own resources instead. Shell in July was given a $130 million tax bill by the Venezuelan government in July. Since then the company has decided to challenge the claim. Meanwhile, the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela also plans to overhaul refineries and build three new ones as part of its investment plans.

A joint venture subsidiary of Plains All American Pipeline and Seattle-based Vulcan Capital is acquiring all of the equity of Energy Center Investments Corporation in a $250 million transaction, according to the Houston Business Journal. Energy Center Investments, which develops and operates underground natural gas storage facilities, is a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy.

The South Heart Coal subsidiary of Houston-based Great Northern Power Development has filed a construction permit application with the North Dakota Department of Health to build a 500 megawatt, lignite-fired electric generating plant and lignite mine near South Heart, North Dakota. South Heart estimates that 850 workers will be needed during the peak construction period, and about 200 permanent, full-time jobs will be created to operate the power plant and mine.

The U. S. airline caterer Gate Gourmet said today that its British operations could file for bankruptcy. Gate Gourmet is owned by Fort Worth-based Texas Pacific Group. It prompted a wildcat strike against British Airways at London’s Heathrow Airport earlier this month when it sacked 660 staff. Talks to resolve the dispute between Gate Gourmet and the Transport and General Workers Union broke down last week because the caterer refused to reinstate staff it dismissed. Gate Gourmet has set a deadline for tomorrow night a new commercial deal with British Airways–which is its biggest British client–or face the prospect of going out of business. BA is in separate talks with Gate Gourmet about improving the service it is providing.

Continental Airlines is beginning daily nonstop service between Newark Liberty International Airport and Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 17th. Ponce is Continental’s 26th Caribbean destination.

The Department of Public Safety is now accepting applications for state troopers, with the next recruit school starting on March 6th, 2006. The deadline for Texas residents is September 16th, and September 9th for out-of-state applicants, who must be U. S> citizens at least 20 years of age, and having completed 90 hours of college credit. Law enforcement, jailer or military experience may be used toward fulfilling the college requirement. Information is available online or by telephone toll-free at 1-866-TXTROOP.

ELinear Solutions has been awarded a $820,000 contract to implement a voice network for the City of College Station. ELinear provides communications, security and compliance solutions. The Houston firm landed a $1 million tech contract with The Methodist Hospital in June.

League City-based ERF Wireless has acquired Skyvue USA East Central Texas of Taylor, which specializes in providing wireless networks in rural areas. ERF Wireless provides wireless broadband products and services. As a result of the acquisition, ERF is forming a new subsidiary to focus primarily on enterprise-class broadband wireless applications.

Verizon Wireless will continue as official wireless provider for the Houston Texans. Verizon Wireless sponsors 13 professional football teams. This is the third year of collaboration with the Texans on events such as player appearances at Verizon Wireless store openings, the Texans Charity Golf Classic and HopeLine drives.

Five business leaders are being inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame at its fall 23rd annual induction dinner in Dallas. The Texas Business Hall of Fame recognizes the state’s business leaders who have made outstanding contributions in their field and in their communities. The 2005 inductees are: Walter E. Johnson, founder of Amegy Bank of Texas; Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys; Boone Pickens, founder of Mesa Petroleum Company ; C. Vincent Prothro (posthumously), founder of Dallas Semiconductor Corporation; and Tim D. Word, founder of the Dean Word Company. The ceremony dinner is set for November 15th at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel in Dallas.

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