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Tuesday June 13th, 2006

Enron Broadband executive files for re-trial…Houston-Galveston Area Council pushes for higher graduation rate…MMS accepts $582 million in petroleum exploration bids for Gulf of Mexico… The attorney for Kevin Howard has filed a request for a re-trial for the recently-convicted former Enron Internet division executive, according to the Houston Chronicle. He said jurors complained other panel […]

Enron Broadband executive files for re-trial…Houston-Galveston Area Council pushes for higher graduation rate…MMS accepts $582 million in petroleum exploration bids for Gulf of Mexico…

The attorney for Kevin Howard has filed a request for a re-trial for the recently-convicted former Enron Internet division executive, according to the Houston Chronicle. He said jurors complained other panel members pressured them into voting guilty. Two jurors and a pair of alternates said there was a vindictive atmosphere created by the trial of Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay on the same floor. Jurors found Howard, the former chief financial officer of Enron Broadband Services, guilty on all five counts in the indictment. Michael Krautz was acquitted. The government failed last year to win convictions against Howard, Krautz and three other former executives in a trial that ended with acquittals and non-decisions. Should U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore grant it, it would be Howard’s third time to be tried.

Employers plan to continuing hiring this summer at about the same pace as over the past couple of years. The latest survey by employment services firm Manpower finds 31 percent expect to add to their payrolls during the third quarter, while six percent say they’ll probably cut staff levels. Another 57 percent don’t think they’ll make any changes in their hiring pace, while six percent aren’t sure. Job hunting is likely to be better in some areas than in others. Employers in four sectors–transportation/public utilities, finance/insurance/real estate, services and public administration–say they may do more hiring. On the other hand, construction employers are less likely to add staff in the late summer months than they were in the spring.

The 55-member Gulf Coast Workforce Board of the Houston-Galveston Area Council says more students in the Houston area need to graduate, according to the Houston Chronicle, if the region is going to be competitive in an economy that is knowledge-based. The board allocates $170 million in job training and placement funds from the federal government in 13 area counties. The report uses publicly available economic data, ranging from job growth to median household income to the number of new businesses. Houston is singled out for having a higher proportion of its residents living in poverty, not speak English and not finishing college. Houston has a drop-out rate of 5.2 percent.

Texas business owners can now calculate exactly how the state’s revamped tax structure will affect their bottom lines. Comptroller and independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn today rolled out an Internet tax calculator on her Web site. She says the calculator will help show businesses “how much more in taxes they will pay to the state under Governor Rick Perry’s business tax increase.” Republican Perry is seeking re-election. Also running are Democrat Chris Bell and fellow independent Kinky Friedman. The legislature this year overhauled the loophole-riddled business tax in response to a Texas Supreme Court ruling that declared the school finance system unconstitutional. Perry’s office estimates that only 50,000 businesses that aren’t currently paying–will be required to pay under the new system.

The government says inflation pressures at the wholesale level eased a bit last month after two big increases. The Labor Department says the producer price index rose two-tenths of one percent, half the increases that analysts had predicted. That came despite a rise in gas prices. But the core rate of inflation, which factors out energy and food, rose three-tenths of one percent. That was a little more than expected. The core reading is expected to keep Federal Reserve policymakers on edge about inflation. Analysts will take careful look at tomorrow’s May consumer price data to gauge whether higher wholesale prices are being passed along to consumers. These latest numbers are expected to mean that fed policymakers will raise interests rates yet again when they meet later this month.

The government says retail sales posted a very small increase last month. The increase of just one-tenth of one percent, a little better than economists expected, suggests a weakening economy. The Commerce Department says demand for cars was down, along with furniture and building materials. When you factor out cars, retail sales were up one-half of one percent, though much of that strength came from a jump in gasoline prices. But the Commerce Department says April sales were much stronger than first thought. It says they were up eight-tenths of one percent instead of one-half of one percent as previously estimated.

The government says U.S. business inventories didn’t grow as fast as expected in April. The Commerce Department says inventories rose by four-tenths of one percent, down from the seven-tenths increase in April. Analysts were looking for an increase of six-tenths of one percent. The smaller than expected increase was the result of smaller stockpiles at automobile dealers and general merchandise stores.

The government says the federal deficit through May is running well below last year’s pace, helped by strong growth in revenues. The Treasury Department says the deficit totaled $227 billion through the first eight months of the budget year. That’s down 16.7 percent from the same period last year, when the red ink totaled $272.3 billion. The positive trend so far this year came about even though the deficit in May was up sharply from a year ago. It climbed to $42.8 billion, 20.9 percent higher than the deficit in May of 2005.

High bids approaching $582 million were accepted today by the federal government on 392 offshore leases in the central Gulf of Mexico for petroleum exploration. The Minerals Management Service, which manages offshore leases, said it rejected 12 bids totaling $6.3 million from the March sale because they did not meet fair market value. The tracts are located off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The agency said the sale indicated continued strong interest of both major and independent companies in the Gulf, not only in the deepwater regions but in the shallower shelf. That’s where easy-to-get-to deposits of natural gas were produced years ago. Armed with new technology–and pushed by high gas prices–companies are returning to explore deeper gas deposits. This year’s sale figure far exceeded last year’s auction when $342 million in winning bids were accepted for 403 tracts.

A major U.S. oil company is fueling the search for new energy sources. BP has awarded more than $1 million in grants and scholarships to encourage research into alternative, renewable energy sources. The funding will allow Houston-area students to build their own hydrogen fuel cell car, cook with solar power and care for an outdoor “eco-station.” It’s the first year of BP’s “A-Plus for Energy” education program, which recognizes teachers for innovative approaches to teaching students about energy and energy conservation. They will use the money for energy education projects and materials in their classrooms.

A state official says the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department may not receive full federal reimbursement to repair hurricane damage at state parks because the agency does not have flood insurance. Hurricane Rita caused $3.1 million in damage to 11 state parks when it blew ashore on September 24th. That’s according to Steve Whiston, infrastructure director for the Parks Department. The department had expected about 75 percent of repair costs to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Whiston said in a report that appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Web site yesterday. But because FEMA requires flood insurance as a condition for reimbursement, the parks system could be stuck with more than $2.2 million of the cost.

Dell chief executive Kevin Rollins today said the company is seeing early signs that its recent investments in customer service and support–are paying off. Rollins spoke at a Bear Stearns technology conference in New York, which was broadcast over the Internet. Rollins said the Round Rock-based computer maker is investing $100 million to regain its reputation of offering reliable customer support. Rollins says–since launching the initiative–Dell has added staff, cut hold times by half and retrained about 5,000 employees worldwide. He says Dell continues to retrain its support staff. The executive declined to say if Dell will expand its relationship with California-based chip maker Advanced Micro Devices. Rollins says the alliance with AMD won’t affect Dell’s relationship with Intel.

The U.S. Small Business Administration says today that small businesses in 39 Texas counties are eligible for low-interest loans meant to recoup losses from several natural disasters that occurred this year. Businesses in Oldham, Potter, Calhoun and Hamilton Counties may apply for the loans as drought conditions continue in the area. Armstrong County became eligible after wildfires swept through the area in March, the administration said. Cooke and Gillespie Counties qualify because of severe storms and freezing temperatures, respectively. Neighboring counties that also qualify for the small business loans, which could be as high as $1.5 million each, include: Carson, Deaf Smith, Hartley, Hutchinson, Moore, Randall, Briscoe, Donley, Gray, Randall, Swisher, Aransas, Bosque, Comanche, Coryell, Erath, Jackson, Lampasas, Matagorda, Mills, Refugio, Victoria, Denton, Grayson, Montague, Wise, Blanco, Kendall, Kerr, Kimble, Llano, Mason, as well as Quay county in New Mexico and Love County in Oklahoma.

Valero Energy says it is no longer pursuing refineries put up for sale by Lyondell-Citgo Refining in Houston and Vitol Group’s Newfoundland refinery. Valero’s CEO told European investors this week that the San Antonio firm will not overpay for acquisitions.

Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline is acquiring Pacific Energy Partners and its 4,500 miles of pipelines in a $1.8 billion deal. Plains All American uses its 15,000 miles of pipeline to transport crude oil, and Pacific transports crude, refined products and natural gas liquids. Plains All American has more than 2,000 employees.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez envisions building one of the longest pipelines in the world to ship natural gas to Brazil and Argentina–a project he said will create a million jobs. According to Venezuela’s state energy company, the first phase of the pipeline would run about 1,700 miles from the Venezuelan port of Guiria south to the Amazon River, then east to Fortaleza, Brazil. It would run through the Amazon jungle, crossing 50 rivers or tributaries as it passes by hundreds of Indigenous communities. The network would cover 6,200 miles. Construction would start in 2009 and finish in 2017. Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil have launched a $9.2 million study of the environmental impact and engineering issues.

Houston-based BPZ Energy plans offshore drilling operations as part of a $126 million gas-to-power project in Peru, according to the Houston Business Journal. The project involves the drilling of three wells and the re-completion of the existing shut-in gas well northwest of Peru, as well as the construction of a ten-mile gas pipeline for transporting the natural gas production to a planned 160-megawatt gas-fired power plant.

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria said today it’s happy with its U.S. representation and would focus on integrating its Texas purchases. That’s easing some analysts’ concerns of a further buying spree. Spain’s second-largest financial services company said late yesterday that it would pay about $2.16 billion for Texas Regional Bancshares. That’s the McAllen-based operator of Texas State Bank. It also said it would pay $480 million for State National Bancshares. The Fort Worth lender has branches in west Texas and New Mexico. BBVA says it expects to close the deals between the end of this year and the start of next. BBVA owns Mexico’s top bank, Bancomer. It channels around 40 percent of the $20 billion that Mexican immigrants living in the United States send home every year in remittances. BBVA will become the fourth-largest bank in Texas, with assets of $12.5 billion and 166 branches. Last year, the company bought Texas’ Laredo National Bank for $850 million.

The American Red Cross has teamed with Shell Oil and Motiva Enterprises to make multi-lingual disaster preparedness pamphlets for Gulf Coast area residents, distributed in Shell stations. The pamphlets–in English, Spanish and Vietnamese–explain what to do before, during and after a storm, with details on creating a family disaster plan and a disaster supply kit. Motiva is a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Refining.

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