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Tuesday October 11th, 2005

Governor praises technology growth in Texas at Houston Technology Center function…Exxon Mobil spending about $571 million for pollution controls at seven refineries, including two in Texas…Natural Gas Association confident that supplies will be sufficient this winter… Governor Rick Perry today praised recommendations to improve education, training and transportation to boost technology in Texas. Perry made […]

Governor praises technology growth in Texas at Houston Technology Center function…Exxon Mobil spending about $571 million for pollution controls at seven refineries, including two in Texas…Natural Gas Association confident that supplies will be sufficient this winter…

Governor Rick Perry today praised recommendations to improve education, training and transportation to boost technology in Texas. Perry made the comments at a Houston Technology Center function. He says technology innovation is the lifeblood of future economic growth.

Governor Perry helped create the Emerging Technology Program, allocating $200 million to improve research at Texas universities and assist small to mid-sized technology firms.

The governor outlined results of a review by some business leaders who make up Perry’s Industry Cluster Initiative Task Force.

Officials want to review and revise some regulatory policies–and to streamline the permitting process. The recommendations also include helping technology employers develop apprenticeship programs for secondary students.

Exxon Mobil says it will spend about $571 million for pollution controls at seven refineries. The settlement with Irving-based Exxon Mobil involves the U. S. government and three states. Exxon Mobil denies that it violated any laws or regulations. The company agreed to the settlement without the government filing suit so it could expand fuel production in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Illinois, Louisiana and Montana will share the civil penalties. The company also will pay fines totaling $8.7 million and spend $9.7 million to retrofit some buses, restore coastal habitats in Louisiana and sponsor other environmental projects around the refineries. Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Prem Nair says the settlement is in the best interest of the company and supports the continued trend of emission reductions at its refineries. The affected Exxon Mobil refineries are in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Billings, Montana; Chalmette and Joliet, Illinois; Torrance, California and in Baytown and Beaumont.

The U. S. Supreme Court today rejected an appeal from a Saudi Arabian oil concern in a fight with a Texas-based energy company. Saudi Basic Industries has been trying to overturn the bulk of a $417 million judgment it was ordered to pay Irving-based Exxon Mobil. The dispute involves a joint venture between the two that fell apart. The case was appealed from the Delaware Supreme Court, which had allowed the verdict to stand. Saudi Basic was found by a Delaware court to have secretly added a profit margin to products it supplied to a petrochemical venture between the two companies. Saudi Basic has already paid the judgment to Exxon Mobil.

A unit inside a South Texas plastics plant that exploded last week and injured 11 people is still burning. The flames prevent federal authorities from approaching. Investigators with the U. S. Chemical Safety Board were waiting for crews to extinguish the fire at the Olefins 2 unit of the Formosa Plastics plant. That’s according to agency spokeswoman Lindsey Heyl. The blaze has burned since Thursday. Building blocks of plastics are made in the building, which is in the middle of the 1,800-acre plant. The board has asked Formosa and the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to preserve key evidence. CSB investigators have interviewed witnesses, collected data and photographed around the scene. Formosa officials are also investigating. They’ve blamed the initial explosion and fire on a leak in a pressurized propylene line that was struck by a forklift driven by a contract worker. The CSB is already investigating a blast that killed five of Formosa’s workers in Illinois in 2004.

Shares of TXU climbed today on a report that the utility is considering spinning off its electric transmission business into a new public company. The report about Dallas-based TXU is in the New York Post. The Post reports that TXU has hired Lehman Brothers to start work on an initial public offering of TXU electric delivery. TXU spokesman Chris Schein says that’s just market rumors and speculation–and the company doesn’t comment on those. TXY will provide an update on its business review at an energy conference in November.

There should be enough natural gas to heat America’s homes this winter. The Natural Gas Association says it’s “confident” that supplies will be sufficient to meet the needs of its firm customers–those who have no alternative to gas. The AGA says that while Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit facilities hard, more are coming back on line each day. The Association also says natural gas customers can expect a significant increase in heating costs this winter. Last year’s winter heating bill was over $700 and AGA says it’s likely to top $1,000 this year. Government weather forecasters say this will be an “EC winter:” there’s an equal chance of it being colder than normal and an equal chance of it being warmer than normal.

Santanna Energy has told its 1,500 Northern Illinois customers that it won’t be able to supply natural gas at a previously fixed price. The Austin-based company sent letters to customers this month. It says rising energy prices have made it “commercially impracticable” to deliver natural gas at a fixed price. In sales materials dated July 10th, Santanna promised its natural gas prices wouldn’t go up for the next five years “no matter how high the price of gas goes in a volatile market.” But Santanna’s letters to customers say they’ll now be charged a fluctuating market rate. Company spokesman Bill Plunkett says its fixed-rate agreements with customers are verbal–not written–contracts. He says breaking them is a rare.

Huntsman Corporation has resumed production at two Texas and Louisiana plants closed last month as Hurricane Rita approached. Production has resumed at a titanium dioxide plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana and a butadiene plant in Port Neches. Company spokesman Don Olsen said the other three plants–all in Jefferson County–could be operational within the next several days. The Salt Lake City-based chemical manufacturing company has informed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality of its intention to restart those facilities.

More small and minority-owned businesses will be getting contracts for Hurricane Katrina cleanup work. Calling the amount now awarded too low, the Bush administration says the Federal Emergency Management Agency will set aside an allotment for disadvantaged businesses. It announced last week that millions of dollars in contracts handed out with little or no competition will be re-bid. Among them are $100 million contracts given to Shaw Group, Bechtel CH2M Hill and Fluor Corporation. All had had prior relationships with the government. The Commerce Department is setting up a new information center and Web site to help smaller, disadvantaged firms get information about how to make competitive bids for Katrina contracts. Just 1.5 percent of the $1.6 billion awarded by FEMA has gone to minority businesses. Five percent is normally required.

A makeshift grocery store under a tent in a parking lot in Silsbee, Texas allows people to buy items they’ve gone without due to Hurricane Rita. Rene Whittaker stood in a handicapped parking spot as she peered into a refrigerated dairy case offering ham, chicken legs, milk and juice. Whittaker says it’s the first time she’s had cold milk since Rita cut off power to much of the region September 24th. Brookshire Brothers grocery officials came up with the idea of putting up tent stores in parking lots of stores damaged by Rita. Each day trucks arrive full of supplies such as formula and diapers, charcoal, bread, soft drinks, milk, eggs and meat. The items are displayed in grocery carts under the tent. Items needing refrigeration are placed in soft drink display cases powered by generators. A mobile pharmacy also has been set up in Silsbee.

The planned SBC Communications purchase of AT&T is still awaiting government approval. But it already appears to be reducing competition in a way that may cost taxpayers. Before the acquisition was announced in January, SBC was gearing up to bid for a mammoth federal contract to provide agencies with a wide array of phone and data services. The so-called “Networx” deal could be worth more than $20 billion over ten years between the two winning bidders. But SBC quietly and abruptly pulled the plug on those plans shortly after agreeing to buy AT&T–which is a far more seasoned player in the government services market. Instead, SBC signed on as a subcontractor for AT&T’s bid to win the contract, leaving four contenders instead of five when the initial bids were due last week. The others are MCI, Sprint, Nextel and Qwest Communications International.

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