Friday March 17th, 2006

Gasoline prices climb in Houston…Enron trial resumes on Monday with Arthur Andersen accountants…Continental prepares for expulsion of U.S. airlines in Venezuela… Texans have seen a second week in a row of climbing retail gasoline prices. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today shows regular self-serve gasoline averaging $2.34 per gallon statewide. That’s a […]

Gasoline prices climb in Houston…Enron trial resumes on Monday with Arthur Andersen accountants…Continental prepares for expulsion of U.S. airlines in Venezuela…

Texans have seen a second week in a row of climbing retail gasoline prices. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today shows regular self-serve gasoline averaging $2.34 per gallon statewide. That’s a seven-cent increase from last week. The retail price nationally is averaging $2.39 per gallon–up five cents. But here in Houston, prices are as high as $2.44 a gallon for self-serve regular gasoline. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau blames price speculation and the seasonal switch from winter to summer grades at refineries. She says those pressures countered the downward price pressure of recently increasing inventories of crude oil and gasoline.

The next four prosecution witnesses have been announced by the Enron Task Force for the fraud and conspiracy trial of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The trial has had a four-day recess to accommodate scheduling conflicts with upcoming prosecution witnesses. The next government witnesses on the stand will be several former Arthur Andersen accountants and former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan, who’s serving a five-year prison term on a related Enron case. Defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli.

“Well, Mr. Glisan is actively cooperating with the government, and he made a deal that he thought was very advantageous to him when he decided to take a plea of one count in return for the government dismissing many many other counts. And he is still subject to further prosecution if his testimony is not truthful in the eyes of the government.”

Petrocelli doesn’t mince words about Sherron Watkins, who testified that Ken Lay seemed to take her seriously as she raised concerns about accounting irregularities, and then was surprised to learn that Enron had researched the consequences of firing her just days after that meeting.

“I think comments of the sort Ms. Watkins has been making publicly are shameful, and the fact that she’s been profiting off the backs of people who suffered a great tragedy is more shameful. And I will say this much: when this trial is over, we will be seeking redress for the libelous comments that Ms. Watkins has been making about Mr. Skilling. That will end.”

First on the stand Monday morning is J.R. Sult, followed by Tom Bauer, Ron Barone and then Glisan. Prosecutors say they expect to wrap up their case by the last week of March. Then the defendants will have their turn. Both Lay and Skilling are expected to testify.

Continental Airlines says it will accommodate travel needs of passengers flying to and from Caracas if the Venezuela government suspends the operating rights of U.S. airlines on March 30th. Continental will also allow tickets to be exchanged without penalties and passengers will be able to get full refunds. No flights have been canceled yet. Negotiations continue between the National Institute of Civil Aviation and the FAA.

Kentucky state lawmakers want to make their state’s bid for the FutureGen experimental power plant more competitive to those of Texas and several other states. They want to streamline the permitting process for the prototype power plant in hopes of giving the state an edge in the competition to win the $1 billion project. The FutureGen Texas Advisory Board, meanwhile, submitted five sites to Governor Rick Perry for a shortlist of candidate host sites, including Baytown, Jewett, Odessa, Palestine and Pearsall. The FutureGen project is intended to create the world’s cleanest electric-generating plant. It would turn coal into a hydrogen-rich gas that would then be used to produce electricity or fuel pollution-free vehicles. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance issued a call for proposals last week. It’s an international consortium of coal producers and users partnered with the U.S. Energy Department to design and build the plant. The alliance will develop a list of possible construction sites by this summer.

Houston will be the first market for Arbitron’s Portable People Meter system this July to gauge radio listening habits, according to the Houston Business Journal. The firm is using the system as its radio rating service in the top 50 markets, and the top ten markets will go exclusively electronic by Fall 2008. A paper-and-pencil diary method had been used for audience estimates since 1965.

Officials from Australia’s immigration department will be spreading the word about its “careers down under” program next week in several public events. The program offers U.S. workers under 45 with professional and trade skills the opportunity to move their career to Australia. Employers from Australia will meet prospective employees face-to-face at the Intercontinental Hotel on Wednesday evening, March 22nd. Australia has been staging a worldwide push to attract more workers to help fill vacancies in engineering, accounting, health and certain trade skills in the mechanical and metal trades. They hope to attract an additional 20,000 migrants this year as part of the program.

Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties are two of the top 100 fastest-growing counties in the U.S., according to the Houston Business Journal. U.S. Census Bureau statistics ranked Fort Bend County as the 47th fastest-growing, and Montgomery County placed at 63rd. The ranking cover July 1st 2004 to July 1st, 2005.

The retail industry is hoping that a later Easter will translate into increased traffic–and business–this year. A survey conducted by BigResearch for the National Retail Federation estimates total Easter spending will hit $12.63 billion this year after totaling $9.6 billion in 2005. The survey also says the average shopper expects to spend nearly $122 on Easter, compared with $96.50 a year ago. Analysts say consumer spending on apparel should increase greatly over the previous year, when the holiday fell on March 27th–the earliest Easter in 16 years. More than 41 percent of consumers plan to purchase clothing for the upcoming holiday, compared with just 29 percent last Easter. Other spending will go for such things as food, candy, flowers, decorations and greeting cards.

Patterson-UTI Energy has determined no other company officials knowingly took part in alleged embezzlement blamed on a former CFO. The Snyder-based company today reports it’s finished its investigation related to ex-Chief Financial Officer Jonathan D. Nelson. The case involves the alleged embezzlement of nearly $78 million dollars from 1998 until late 2005. The company described the results of its embezzlement investigation in an amended financial report for 2004 filed today with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Nelson resigned in November and faces trial in May. The SEC has obtained an order freezing his assets.

Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. jumped by 14 this week. The updated total is 1,546. One year ago the rig count was 1,320. Texas gained eight rigs.

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