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Tuesday August 23rd, 2005

Houston cutting air pollution inspections in budget crunch…Officials eye upcoming Base Closing and Realignment Commission votes…CB&I awarded storage tank contract for Canada’s first LNG import terminal… Houston has failed to renew a state contract that funded the majority of its air pollution inspection program. The city lost the contract after it failed to reach an […]


Houston cutting air pollution inspections in budget crunch…Officials eye upcoming Base Closing and Realignment Commission votes…CB&I awarded storage tank contract for Canada’s first LNG import terminal…

Houston has failed to renew a state contract that funded the majority of its air pollution inspection program. The city lost the contract after it failed to reach an agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had funded $1.5 million of Houston’s program to inspect pollution sources within the city limits, with Houston adding $750,000 to the budget. The failure to renew the contract with the state means the city budget for inspections will be cut by nearly 70 percent and force the city to fire or reassign its 28 inspectors. The contract negotiations failed after the state refused to renew an amendment the city wanted allowing it to enforce violations without the state’s consent. Inspectors had been conducting routine inspections at some 80 major industrial facilities, including refineries and chemical plants.

Texas lawmakers failed to reach agreement on revamping the way public schools are funded. So Governor Rick Perry is taking some executive action–ordering the State Education Commissioner to restrict how much Texas schools can spend outside of direct classroom expenses. Under the order, districts will be required to spend no more than 35 percent of their budgets on non-classroom expenses such as transportation, school lunches and administration. The limit will be phased in over several years in a program to be designed and implemented by Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley. Perry’s stops today on the issue included San Antonio, Edinburg and Corpus Christi. Perry yesterday unveiled details during appearances in Austin, Dallas and Houston.

Texas officials have worked the last four months to make their state’s military installations stand out among those around the country. Starting tomorrow, they’ll learn whether the work has paid off. The Base Closing and Realignment Commission votes on the closing or scaling down of 62 major military bases and hundreds of smaller bases. The votes will come in hearings scheduled for tomorrow through Saturday, which will be aired live on C-Span 2. The commission’s recommendations must go to President Bush by September 8th. Four Texas installations are on the Pentagon’s proposed closing list that’s up for vote. They are Red River and Lone Star Ammunition Plant in Texarkana, Naval Station Ingleside near Corpus Christi, and Brooks City Base in San Antonio. Fort Hood also could lose some troops to Fort Carson, Colorado. Ellington Field in Houston could lose its National Guard unit. Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls may send a medical mission to San Antonio and mechanical crews for the still-in-development joint strike fighter jet to Florida.

Corpus Christi Congressman Solomon Ortiz is making a last effort to save Naval Station Ingleside from the base closings chopping block. Ortiz dashed off a letter to Commission Chairman Anthony Principi, arguing that the commission’s voting format will hurt Ingleside. BRAC rules require that seven of nine commissioners must agree to take a base off the Pentagon’s closure list. Adding a base takes seven votes in favor. But in the case of Ingleside, two commissioners are recusing themselves to avoid conflicts of interest. That means five of seven commissioners will have to agree not to close Ingleside. Ortiz says that that punishes Ingleside, and he thinks only four votes should be needed to save it.

Comments from the head of BRAC cast doubt on prospects of more B1B bombers being moved to Texas. The Pentagon had proposed closing Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and consolidating its B1B fleet at Dyess Air Force Base, near Abilene. But in interviews with three news organizations late yesterday, Panel Chairman Anthony Principi voiced doubt about the cost savings that could be had by closing Ellsworth. The interview was aired today on C-Span. Principi said much of the savings the Pentagon estimated from closing Ellsworth would come from transferring military personnel. That personnel would be moved to other bases, which Principi said doesn’t amount to a cost savings. Also, he said it costs money to move the B1B’s to Dyess.

Carol Ernst says she knows she may never receive the $253.4 million verdict awarded to her in the nation’s first Vioxx-related trial. But she says the four-year legal battle and six-week trial were worth it. She told the Houston Chronicle she may not even be around to receive any award. Ernst says “it’s not something that’s definite or anything. If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” The 60-year-old Ernst says she’s not worried that she may not live to see the conclusion of her case against Merck, which says it will appeal the damage awarded to Ernst. The social worker and grandmother of four said her purpose was to keep others from going through the pain she suffered. Her 59-year-old husband, Robert, died suddenly after taking the drug for eight months.

The town of Katy now has a daily newspaper. The Katy Courier from Clarion Publishing began publication on August 9th with an initial press run of 20,000, using printing presses purchased from the New York Times. The newspaper has a staff of 26. There are three other papers in Katy, including the bi-weekly Katy Times, the weekly Katy News and the weekly Katy Sun.

CB&I has been awarded a $100 million contract for a storage tank project for Canada’s first liquified natural gas import terminal. The Nova Scotia facility will be owned and operated by Bear Head LNG Corporation, which is a subsidiary of The Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum. Bear Head LNG will produce natural gas for eastern Canada and the U. S. Northeast. CB&I maintains its North American headquarters in Houston.

Offshore Logistics has moved its corporate headquarters to West Sam Houston Parkway South here in Houston from Lafayette, Louisiana. Offshore Logistics employs about 3,300 worldwide, providing helicopter transportation services to the oil and gas industry. The company will continue to maintain a presence in Lafayette through its subsidiaries Air Logistics and Grasso Production Management.

General Electric is expanding its natural gas business by going offshore. GE plans to invest more than $100 million in a limited partnership with Houston-based FW Oil Exploration. They’re seeking to produce natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico. GE also will finance completion of a 48-mile pipeline system to transport 30 million cubic feet of gas per day from FW’s Fields in the south padre island area. Last month, GE and Canada’s largest institutional investor agreed to buy the Southern Star Central Natural Gas Pipeline System for $362 million. The line spans more than 6,000 miles in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas.

The Port of Houston Authority commission is entering into an inter-local agreement with the City of Houston for sharing video data and other related security information. The PHA has similar agreements with the U. S Coast Guard and the Texas Department of Transportation. The commission also adopted the National Incident Management System and its Incident Command System. Established in 2003 by Homeland Security presidential directive, the systems help ensure that all levels of government work together in responding to domestic incidents.

Direct Energy has launched two new plans targeting Houston electricity consumers wishing to purchase environmentally friendly products. Direct Energy joins Reliant Energy, Dallas-based TXU and Austin-based Green Mountain Energy in offering renewable energy. The Canadian company meets about a fourth of its current peak demand in the state from its own assets. They include power generations facilities near Austin and Mission and power purchased from the 120-megawatt AES Corporation wind farm near Abilene.

Valero Energy says it performed unanticipated maintenance to a unit at its Houston refinery on Monday afternoon. According to the incident report filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Valero employees spent a half-hour working on the blower in Complex One around 2 p.m., resulting in a temporary increase in particulate matter being released into the air. The refinery on the Houston Ship Channel is one of 14 refineries owned by Valero in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

Gas station owners are wrestling with a dilemma: how do they make sure people don’t steal gas without hurting profits from other parts of their business. Many stations have gone to a pay-first policy, but they say that cuts down browsing and buying in gas station stores, which is a big chunk of their income. Industry experts say gasoline theft cost retailers $237 million last year and this year may be much worse because of the higher prices. A spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores says “as the price of gas climbs, people’s values decline.” Meanwhile, police are still looking for a driver they say ran down and killed a station owner in Alabama, and made off with $52 worth of gas.

If you think it’s getting more expensive to send your kids to school, the schools won’t argue. Rising gas prices are hitting the pumps just as 25 million children are hitting the books again. And school systems are looking for money to pay for the gas that powers the buses that carry the children. Diesel fuel, which is used in most of those buses, is up about a dollar a gallon since last year. School districts are paying for it by taking funds out the classroom. They’re trimming bus routes, cutting field trips and raiding cash reserves. Some are even thinking about charging for bus service. And more students may be on those buses. Officials say rising gas prices might prevent some teenagers from driving to school.

The University of Houston System Board of Regents has approved a $969 million budget for fiscal year 2006–a 4.6 percent increase from the previous year’s $930 million. The budget increases student scholarship funds, expands full-time faculty hiring by four percent and finances construction projects. The budget covers the main campus, as well as UH-Clear Lake, UH-Victoria and UH-Downtown, which has experienced the greatest enrollment growth within the system.

Site development has begun for the Medical Commons of Pearland on FM 518 at County Road 90 near Highway 288, according to the Houston Business Journal. Two buildings will include an ambulatory surgery center, a diagnostic imaging center, an emergency and urgent care center, as well as medical offices. A formal groundbreaking is set for October 14th.

Officials reportedly are considering selling part of 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Austin American-Statesman reports State Parks and Wildlife commissioners tomorrow are expected to discuss–in private–the proposed sale of 45,000 acres. The first public discussion and a vote by the commission could come Thursday. Houston businessman John Poindexter has been negotiating with the Parks and Wildlife Department, but he declined further comment. Poindexter owns the exclusive Cibolo Creek Ranch Resort adjacent to the state park. Word of the talks has drew from former Parks Commissioner Bob Armstrong–who worked to have the state acquire the Big Bend property and protect it as a park. But Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Bob Cook says selling the odd-shaped park panhandle would help the state square up the boundaries and simplify management.

The Small Business Technology Institute and Intel are staging a nationwide contest called The World of Difference for small businesses, asking them to submit a vision statement describing how $100,000 in server-based IT software, hardware and services would transform their business. Small businesses with the highest-scoring vision statements are invited to develop a business case that explores the impact of adopting information technology within their business. Top-scoring business cases are selected to work with an Intel channel member to create a business proposal. Finalists will present their cases at the World of Difference Learning and Development Conference in early 2006. The deadline to register online is September 6th.

A joint venture between General Electric and Rolls-Royce has won a $2.4 billion contract to develop an engine for the military’s next-generation stealth jet fighter. The contract is the largest military developmental contract in about 20 years for GE’s Jet-Engine Division, which is based in the Cincinnati suburb of Evendale, Ohio. The deal was announced yesterday by the Defense Department under a Navy program administering development of Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth-built F-35 Joint Strike fighter.

British Airways today says it is close to a deal that would extend the contract and increase compensation of in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet. The U. S.-based caterer has set today as a deadline to reach an improved commercial deal with British Airways or face a bankruptcy filing. It is also holding separate talks with Britain’s Transport and General Workers’ Union over the sacking of more than 600 of its employees. Gate Gourmet is owned by the Fort Worth buyout firm Texas Pacific Group. The airline caterer prompted a wildcat strike at British Airways in London earlier this month by firing hundreds of its staff.

A federal agency seeking answers about the relationship between a major computer vendor and Dallas public school officials has frozen payments to the vendor. The agency has also warned that it may seek repayment of some of the $55 million paid to vendors since 1998. The Dallas Independent School District says it is preparing a response to a letter sent by Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Universal Service Administrative Company. The agency collects and disburses money for the E-Rate Technology-in-Schools Program. The money comes from taxes added to telephone bills. The agency made its request for information about practices outlined in an investigation by the Dallas Morning News, including a school computer official’s use of a fishing boat owned by the executives of the vendor, contributions by the company president to the campaign of a school board trustee and jobs given to relatives of DISD officials.

Home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports is now warning of a larger-than-planned second-quarter loss, citing a decline in customer traffic and a steep drop in sales. The Fort Worth-based company says August same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, are forecast to decrease 13 to 15 percent from the year before. And same-store sales for the second quarter are estimated to drop up to nine percent. Pier 1 says it cut prices during the period in order to make room for new merchandise.