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Wednesday May 31st, 2006

Jury convicts one and acquits another defendant in Enron broadband re-trial…Governor announces nearly $6 million in awards to four emerging technology companies…Ground is broken for Galveston Bay Biodiesel’s new plant… After six days of deliberations, jurors have convicted one of the former executives from Enron’s defunct broadband unit who was retried after his original case […]


Jury convicts one and acquits another defendant in Enron broadband re-trial…Governor announces nearly $6 million in awards to four emerging technology companies…Ground is broken for Galveston Bay Biodiesel’s new plant…

After six days of deliberations, jurors have convicted one of the former executives from Enron’s defunct broadband unit who was retried after his original case ended in a hung jury last year. Former broadband unit finance chief Kevin Howard was convicted while former in-house accountant Michael Krautz was acquitted of five counts of fraud, conspiracy and falsifying records. This is the first of three retrials of five former broadband executives. It comes after a month-long trial that took place next door to the fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and former chief executive Jeff Skilling. The government’s partial victory comes six days after another jury convicted Lay and Skilling of fraud, conspiracy and other charges. Through their verdict, the panel of eight women and four men sided with the government’s contention that Howard conspired to manufacture earnings for the failing broadband unit in late 2000 by selling an interest in future revenue of a video-on-demand venture that disintegrated a few months later. The defendants contend the deal was legitimate.

Ground has been broken for the Galveston Bay Biodiesel plant this afternoon on Old Port Industrial Road. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison joined Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas and other officials for the groundbreaking. Chevron’s Dan Paul said their biofuels business unit will operate within the Chevron Technology Ventures subsidiary.

“The biodiesel plant is is a particular project in which we’re an investor along with a number of other people, and the construction of a plant that will convert things like soybeans to high-quality biodiesel that’s being built here in Galveston, Texas. We’re also using this opportunity to announce that we have created a new organizational unit to pursue a larger set of business development and technology development opportunities in biofuels–ethanol and biodiesel.”

Paul says Chevron is committed to alternative fuels.

“This is part of a over-arching strategy Chevron has about increasing the diversity of fuel-making and the system to augment traditional fuel from refining. Biodiesel is clearly, I think, in our view, a component of that. We already today are a major purchaser of ethanol, and we blend about 300 million gallons a year into gasolines. But we see opportunities to expand our role across the full set of activities, from production, distribution, and as well as technology development.”

The facility will have the potential to produce more than double the amount of biodiesel produced in 2005, but Paul says that’s all relative.

“Biodiesel production in the United States is a pretty small number. It’s a very small fraction of the total diesel that’s used, and almost all biofuel plants including this one are quite small compared to traditional refineries. A plant that would produce, say, 5,000 barrels a day of biofuel is a fair-sized bioplant. It would be big for a biodiesel plant, but again, a major refinery will produce hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, so it’s a manufacturing structure that has a large number of smaller producing facilities.”

The Galveston Bay Biodiesel production and distribution facility is scheduled for completion later this year.

Governor Rick Perry announced nearly $6 million in awards to four emerging technology companies–the second announcements by Perry under the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. The fund is a $200 million initiative created last year by the Texas legislature to help early-stage businesses get their emerging technology innovations to the marketplace. The awards are going to two San Antonio firms, an Austin company and one in College Station. A 17-member advisory committee of high-tech leaders, entrepreneurs and research experts reviews potential projects and makes recommendations to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house.

A proposal to purchase pipeline operator Kinder Morgan for about $13 billion and take it private will more than likely be accepted by the company–but possibly at a higher price, according to analysts. The company’s chairman and CEO, Richard D. Kinder, has teamed up with senior managers and outside investors to buy Kinder Morgan. Kinder sent a letter to the Houston-based company’s board on Sunday offering to pay $100 a share for all outstanding shares, an 18.5 percent premium above Friday’s $84.41 closing price. The deal also includes the assumption of more than $8 billion in debt, bringing its total value to almost $22 billion.

Shareholders of Exxon Mobil–whose last chief executive retired with a lump-sum payment of $98 million–overwhelmingly rejected resolutions today to rein in compensation. But the shareholders cast an unusually high number of votes against incumbent directors. Chairman and chief executive Rex W Tillerson says some shareholders had sent a signal by withholding votes for board members who approved former CEO Lee R. Raymond’s widely publicized pay and stock package. In comments after his first shareholder meeting as CEO of the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, Tillerson says it’s up to Exxon Mobil directors to prevent him getting a Raymond-like package in a few years. He hasn’t asked them to limit his compensation, but he says “they know how to reach me.” Tillerson also says the company was sensitive to motorists’ complaints about high gasoline prices but that it can’t do anything about the situation. Like past Exxon Mobil meetings, today’s event attracted environmental protesters who accuse the company of funding groups that question the link between global warming and the burning of hydrocarbons such as oil and coal. However, most of the 13 shareholder resolutions–all opposed by the board–dealt with corporate-governance issues, including three on executive and director compensation. The company says none of the three got more than 12.9 percent support.

State officials say some gas stations will let motorists pump for free if their fuel tanks run low during a hurricane evacuation. The free fueling plan comes after thousands of cars were left abandoned on the side of highways during Hurricane Rita last year. More than three million people evacuated the Houston area and jammed roads for hours. Most stations along evacuation routes ran out of gas, making fuel availability a priority in the state’s revamped evacuation plan. A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety says motorists won’t be allowed to fill their tanks completely, and only vehicles with little fuel remaining will be given access to the free pumps. Drivers looking to top off will be sent to pay at other stations. The free gas will be available at stations located at 50-mile intervals on evacuation routes.

A Houston-area contractor has surrendered on charges that he collected more than $100,000 for storm repairs left unfinished near Slidell, Louisiana. Sheriff’s deputies in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana say Gary Holland was to repair a storm-damaged house near Slidell, but left town with the work half-finished. The 39-year-old Cypress, Texas man was booked in Covington, Louisiana on seven counts of theft over $500. He’s in the St. Tammany Parish jail with bail set at $100,000. Holland had been sought on a felony theft warrant for allegedly refusing to refund nearly $60,000 to the homeowner for the uncompleted work before vanishing May 12th. Authorities say subcontractors had completed about 40 percent of the work before two of them filed fraud complaints, alleging that Holland never paid them.

Houston-area employers lose almost four years of worker productivity each week due to traffic collisions, according to the Houston Business Journal. Auto insurer Progressive Corp. says Houston area motorists get in over 90,000 accidents each year–that’s about 1,700 wrecks a week, or 245 mishaps each day. About 40 percent of drivers involved in crashes spend four or more days managing the process of getting their vehicles repaired. Progressive is opening its third Houston-area service center on Ryewater Drive in southeast Houston. The company handles claims, arranges alternate transportation, finds repair shops and inspects repairs.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is awarding an $89.8 million grant to Texas. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced the grant today during a tour of the Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M University. The service is the base for the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center. Hutchison says the funds will provide additional tools, equipment and training to Texas emergency first-responders. The funding is part of the Homeland Security Grant Program and aims to bolster the nation’s ability to prevent, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks and major disasters.

Houston-based Endeavour International is buying all shares of Talisman Expro Ltd. in the United Kingdom for $414 million. Endeavour International was formed two years ago by executives from Anadarko and Ocean Energy, with four producing oil and natural gas assets in the North Sea.

Houston-based Ranger Steel has opened a new covered warehouse and sales office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, according to the Houston business Journal. The independent steel plate distributor operates a 23-acre distribution center at the Houston ship channel and a covered warehouse in New Orleans.

Houston begins two weeks of budget workshops on Tuesday, examining planned expenditures from each city department for the upcoming fiscal year 2007 budget. The proposed budget was presented to city officials on May 17th, but must still undergo public reviews by council members before the city’s fiscal year, which begins July 1st. The proposed budget includes $3 billion in expenditures, compared to last year’s $2.8 billion budget.

A new survey shows American workers are more confident about their job security than they were six months ago. Right Management says it found more than 80 percent of workers believe there’s little to no chance they could lose their job in the coming year, five percent more than answered that way six months ago. Only three out of ten expect unemployment to rise this year, down from 45 percent half a year ago. More than half think they may advance at their current company. Right Management also surveyed workers in 17 other countries. Germany scored lowest on the company’s career confidence index at 46 while Norway was the highest at 75.

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