Thursday January 12th, 2006

Enron judge ruling on several issues before trial begins…Royal Dutch Shell workers kidnapped in Nigeria…Houston housing market statistics healthier than national figures… A wealth of issues are before a Houston judge to rule on before the upcoming fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and his former CEO, Jeff Skilling. One is whether […]

Enron judge ruling on several issues before trial begins…Royal Dutch Shell workers kidnapped in Nigeria…Houston housing market statistics healthier than national figures…

A wealth of issues are before a Houston judge to rule on before the upcoming fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and his former CEO, Jeff Skilling. One is whether to include a chapter on Enron’s role in the California power crisis of 2000 and 2001. Lawyers on both sides have filed requests that U.S. District Judge Sim Lake limit evidence in the trial slated to begin in Houston on January 30th. The requests include one from the defense to prohibit prosecutors from presenting evidence related to allegations of illegal trading and market manipulation in California. That was when the state was plagued by rolling blackouts and skyrocketing power prices. But prosecutors say the two men are charged with conspiring to hide Enron’s wobbly financial condition through lies and omissions in public statements and regulatory filings. Those painted the company as healthy before it collapsed amid scandal in December 2001. The feds contend California market manipulation by Enron traders was part of that puzzle.

Gunmen have kidnapped four foreign oil workers in Nigeria, after storming an offshore oil platform run by Royal Dutch Shell. A Shell official says the workers were abducted from a supply boat tied up at the platform off the Southern Niger Delta. The British Embassy in Nigeria thinks a British citizen is among the captives. For years, local communities in Nigeria have been demanding a greater share of revenues from the oil being pumped from their land. Hostage-taking is relatively common and kidnapped workers typically have not been harmed. There have been two hostage incidents involving Shell workers on the same platform in the past year. Villagers have accused the company of reneging on development promises. Nigeria produces about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day.

The Houston housing market experienced trends that were better than the national figures in the final quarter of 2005, according to the Houston Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service. HAR says the last few months of the year saw tremendous activity in pricing and number of homes sold, as well as in the rental sector, in what it attributes to post-hurricane impact. Full-year 2005 total property sales reached 78,610–an increase of 8.9 percent over 2004. One in every 20 properties in the greater Houston area changed hands during the year. Properties sold in 2005 reached $14.1 billion in sales–an increase of 15 percent from the previous year. December sales were seven percent over December 2004 sales. Leases increased 50 percent in the fourth quarter, compared to the fourth quarter of 2004. HAR says the statistics seem to indicate that many of the people who sought shelter in and around Houston have decided to stay.

Foreclosures in Texas are up, according to Florida-based, which recorded 2,997 new foreclosures in December 2005. By comparison, 2,350 homes were being sold in November due to foreclosures. Year-end foreclosed properties in Texas were at 11,458–up from 9,928 in 2004. Foreclosure rates normally rise at the end of the year, with lending institutions closing their books on properties facing foreclosure.

FutureGen received nine proposals from regional councils in Texas, exceeding the state’s expectations and laying the foundation for a strong Texas submission in the national competition. FutureGen is the $1 billion Department of Energy initiative to design, build and operate a 275 megawatt energy facility that produces electricity and hydrogen from coal with near-zero emissions. FutureGen will be both a power plant and research facility, generating electricity, producing hydrogen and capturing and storing carbon dioxide for use in enhanced oil recovery. Submitting proposals for state review are: Alamo Area Council of Governments, Brazos Valley Council of Governments, Deep East Texas Council of Governments, East Texas Council of Governments, Heart of Texas Council of Governments, Houston-Galveston Council of Governments (which would place the plant at Baytown in Chambers County), Middle Rio Grande Development Council, Nortex Regional Planning Commission and the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission. FutureGen Texas staff will begin reviewing the submissions and conduct field verifications by visiting each qualified site in late January and early February. A short list of the most qualified sites is being developed for the FutureGen Texas Advisory board to make the state’s final site selection.

Gasoline production at the BP Texas City refinery rocked by a deadly explosion last year could resume in late March–months after initially forecast. Sonny Sanders of the United Steelworkers Union says BP officials told union members that gasoline production units won’t begin operating for about two more months. BP spokesman Neil Geary wouldn’t confirm a delay, but told the Galveston County Daily News that the scope of work needed to repair the refinery had changed. A March production startup would fall three months later than the deadline BP Chief Executive John Browne told investors in October. The refinery closed in late September for a plant overhaul prompted by the March explosion that killed 15 workers. The blast injured more than 170 people and rattled homes as far as five miles away.

The Houston City Council has authorized the financing and building of a 630-car underground parking garage across from the George R. Brown Convention Center, under the future site of a proposed downtown park. Two existing lots are being demolished when the proposed park is built. The council has set aside $21.5 million for the design and construction of the garage. The Houston Downtown Park Conservancy will solicit construction bids for the two-level garage this summer. The Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department will manage the garage, which is slated to be open in late 2007, along with the park opening.

The city has banned Stephens Construction Services from doing business with the city for two years for failing to complete work on a Clear Lake fire station, according to the Houston Chronicle. Stephens was awarded a $2.6 million contract in December 2004, but by March some Stephens subcontractors reported they were not being paid. The company completed 65 percent of the construction and was paid $729,000. XL Specialty Insurance Company took over the job at the end of October, and work should be completed this spring. Clear Lake firefighters have been operating out of a temporary structure since 1994.

The non-profitHouston Festival Foundation is searching for a new title sponsor for Houston’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Current sponsor Washington Mutual informed parade organizers that it will step down to pursue other marketing strategies. The parade relies heavily on corporate sponsors for building the floats and producing the event. There have been three title sponsors since the parade’s inception in 1949.

Enterprise Products Partners has announced a $28 million expansion of its Independence Hub platform and the transportation capacity of its Independence Trail Natural Gas Pipeline, according to the Houston Business Journal. The projects were first announced in November 2004 and the facilities, now under construction, are expected to be installed in 2006 and receive first production in 2007. The expansions are to accommodate expected natural gas production from three additional discoveries made in the area since the time the project was initially announced.

MI Swaco division MI Production Chemicals has acquired the Specialty Chemicals Operations of Canada’s Enerchem International. MI Production Chemicals provides engineered chemical solutions for problems in the production, processing and transportation of oil and gas. MI Swaco is a joint venture between smith International and Schlumberger Limited.

Schlumberger Information Solutions has been awarded a $9 million contract by Common Data Access Limited of Aberdeen, Scotland, for the management and development of the CDA Well DataStore. Schlumberger will deliver the new services from its European Service Center.

Houston-based wind farm developer Superior Renewable Energy has signed two 20-year power purchasing contracts totaling 120 megawatts, according to the Houston Business Journal. One agreement is for 94 megawatts for a project to be built in Guadalupe County and the second is for 31 megawatts in South Dakota. The two deals have a combined sales of $550 million over the life of the projects.

RadioShack today reaffirmed its 2005 earnings will miss its goal–even as it reported a total five percent sales rise in the fourth quarter. That includes four percent growth in same-store stores. The company says its earnings for the year will not reach its goal of $2.14 to $2.24 per share. Last month, the Fort Worth-based electronics retail chain said it was “unlikely” to meet its profit expectations for the year. RadioShack President and CEO David Edmondson credits the growth to strong sales in satellite radio, MP3 players, and digital imaging. He says sales also were were higher in low-margin non-wireless categories but fell in high-margin categories. The company said its wireless business was hurt at core stores by its transition from Verizon Wireless. RadioShack signed wireless deals with Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless in August.

The non-profit Asia Society Texas has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the Clayton Fund of Houston to help fund construction of Asia House project. Asia House is slated to open in 2010 in the Museum District. The Clayton fund was founded in 1947 by cotton merchant and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce William Clayton, the chief architect of the Marshall Plan.

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