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Friday May5th, 2006

Enron trial winds down…Texas gasoline prices ease slightly after eight straight weeks of gains…Plans underway for KPMG’s 2006 Global Energy Conference… The end could be in sight for jurors at the Enron trial. The defense teams hope to rest their case Monday or Tuesday, followed by what prosecutors said would be up to ten rebuttal […]

Enron trial winds down…Texas gasoline prices ease slightly after eight straight weeks of gains…Plans underway for KPMG’s 2006 Global Energy Conference…

The end could be in sight for jurors at the Enron trial. The defense teams hope to rest their case Monday or Tuesday, followed by what prosecutors said would be up to ten rebuttal witnesses. Enron founder Ken Lay says things are winding down.

“Things are going well today, through this past week or two. We’re pleased, we’re moving quickly to get this, I mean, I think the jury’s ready to go, ready to get this thing done, and we’re going to try to do whatever, everything we can to wrap it up and turn it over to the jury.”

Lay said there’s still some work to be done.

“Oh, we still got some work to do, we still got some stuff to get done over the next few days. We’ve got closing arguments coming up, and we’ve got these bank charges to deal with, so we still got just a little bit of–shall we say–work to do, a little clean-up work here and there.”

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake let jurors go early yesterday, after scheduling problems prevented the remaining handful of defense witnesses from testifying. Lake told the jury hearing the fraud and conspiracy trial they could get the case by May 18th.

The government said it will not call former Enron chief accountant Rick Causey to the stand. Causey was indicted along with Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, but pleaded guilty in December rather than go to trial. The judge ruled that none of the David Duncan testimony can be read to the jury. The defense also said it’s not going to call Ken Rice, the former broadband CEO, back to the stand.

The fraud and conspiracy trial of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling gave Houston tour manager Sandra Lord the idea of “the Enron tour.” She’d load a bus with Enron junkies and show them all the hot spots in the saga of the company’s rise and fall. There’d be Skilling’s mansion and Lay’s high-rise in the city’s wealthy River Oaks neighborhood. There’d be the gleaming, now empty 50-story glass tower that once was Enron’s headquarters. A bar where Enron workers once hung out would be another stop–as would be an import store that used to be the now-defunct high-dollar thrift shop run by Lay’s wife, Linda. The media covering the Enron trials loved it–but the public couldn’t have been less interested. While the biggest fraud trial to emerge from the recent era of corporate scandals has gained national attention, ex-Enron employees and other Houstonians go about their usual lives.

Texas retail gasoline prices eased slightly this week after eight straight weeks of gains. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today shows regular, self-serve gasoline averaging $2.86 per gallon. That’s two cents off last week’s average. The national average is $2.92 per gallon, about a penny less than last week. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says high crude oil costs and concerns over gas supplies because of a switch from MTBE blends to ethanol blends have both eased slightly. She says motorists should see more price decreases in the short term, but long-term prospects are still uncertain. The lowest retail gasoline prices in Texas are found in Corpus Christi, where they’re averaging $2.75 per gallon. That’s down between seven and a half cents from last week. The costliest gas is in Dallas, where it’s averaging $2.94 per gallon, down a cent and a half.

The Offshore Technology Conference pulled 59,236 visitors this year at the Reliant complex–a 24-year high. The vice president of Venezuela’s national oil company said American politicians do not seem to grasp the critical state developing around the shrinking U.S. refining system. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez abruptly changed tax laws recently and abandoned terms from the 1990s, and Bolivia recently sent armed troops into that country’s natural gas fields to take them over. Bob Hinkel of Enventure Global Technology said the costs of going in deeper waters and drilling deeper into the ground will be high, but the potential payoff appears to be even greater. But he said spending on research and development for new technologies is falling, lagging behind the software, pharmaceutical, aerospace and automobile industries as a percentage of revenues.

The KPMG 2006 Global Energy Conference is set for May 23rd and 24th at the Intercontinental Hotel, and KPMG’s Bill Kimble says its for financial executives in the energy industry. Attendees include chief financial officers, controllers, internal audit directors, risk officers, C-E-O’s and investment and commercial bankers. This year’s conference features a special keynote speech.

“President Bush 41 is speaking. The unique part of his speech is we’ve asked him, and he’s agreed, to talk about his days in energy. And a lot of people don’t realize, Ed, that President Bush was very, very successful in energy, and matter of fact he was one of the first to focus on the Gulf of Mexico, and the fact that there’s deepwater opportunities out there. We specifically asked him that we wanted him to speak on his history in the energy industry because this was an energy conference. He is giving less speeches today, and he looked at the topic and said yeah, that’s a topic I’m interested in speaking in.”

Duke Energy C-E-O Fred Fowler will also speaking. Breakout sessions will cover accounting and regulatory updates, taxes, managing fraud risk, trading and hedging.

Texas has submitted proposals for two sites as potential hosts for a $1 billion, near-zero emissions coal-powered plant. The FutureGen project is an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Energy and a consortium of nine companies from the United States, China, United Kingdom and Australia. Texas has identified sites in Odessa and Jewett as choices for the project. A short list of the most qualified states is expected to be released by late summer.

The government reports payrolls expanded by 138,000 jobs last month, marking the smallest increase since last October. At the same time, the Labor Department says the unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent. The payrolls growth is weaker than expected, reflecting job losses in retailing. Manufacturers added the largest number of jobs in nearly two years. Financial firms, professional services, construction and other companies all boosted employment during the month. At the same time, wages are said to have risen 3.8 percent over the past year. That’s the biggest 12-month gain since August 2001. Today’s report will be added to the mix for consideration by the Federal Reserve, which is meeting next week. The widely held expectation has been that the Fed will hike rates again.

President Bush is calling the latest jobless figures “good news for the American people,” even though job creation has slowed. The president visited a Washington hardware store to highlight the report. Bush said it’s evidence the U.S. economy “is strong,” with the small business sector “doing well.” Bush bought a couple of chew toys for his dog Barney–and told reporters the news also makes clear why Congress should renew expiring tax cuts.

Cinemark USA has opened a 12-screen, all stadium-seating movie theater in Rosenberg on Vista Drive. Cinemark Rosenberg is offering online ticketing. There’s a 16-inch height difference between rows with four feet between rows. Cinemark operates 313 theaters and 3,398 screens in 34 states and in 13 countries.

An Iraq war and hurricane relief funding bill passed by the U.S. Senate includes about $1.5 billion for Texas. But the measure approved yesterday exceeds spending set by President Bush. The bill now goes to House-Senate negotiators. For Texas, the bill would mean: $650 million to help cover costs for students who will enroll in Texas schools in the fall; $30 million that colleges and universities can apply for to cover costs associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; $10 million for fire and emergency services and other law enforcement expenses incurred after Katrina evacuees arrived in Texas, $611 million in wildfire recovery assistance. Another measure would increase Federal Emergency Management Agency hurricane relief funding for Texas. FEMA reimburses 75 percent of the state’s damage claims and requires the state to pay 25 percent. A provision by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn would change the federal rate to 90 percent and the state rate to ten percent. That’s similar to what Louisiana received after Hurricane Rita. Another Cornyn measure provides $182 million in community development block grants for Texas.

El Paso Corporation said today its first-quarter earnings more than tripled from last year’s quarter. The Houston-based oil and gas company says its balance sheet was helped by gains from oil and gas hedging. It also says its year-ago results were hurt by one-time items. After preferred dividends, El Paso reports a profit of $346 million. Profit from continuing operations totaled $375 million. The latest quarter included gains of 14 cents per share from derivatives to hedge prices for natural gas and oil production. A year earlier, the company’s results included a loss from such derivatives. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had expected earnings of 27 cents per share. Revenue climbed 41 percent to $1.53 billion, helped by growth in El Paso’s pipeline, exploration and production, and marketing and trading operations. El Paso said it is on track to follow through on its 2006 goals, and has entered into hedging activities to help ensure that earnings will continue to improve in 2007.

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