Tuesday July 25th, 2006

Two Texas sites selected as finalists for FutureGen zero-emissions power plant prototype…BP and federal officials investigate contractor death at its Texas City refinery; three contract workers injured at ChevronPhillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant…Federal judge declines to throw out fraud and conspiracy convictions of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling… The U.S. Energy Department picked two Texas […]

Two Texas sites selected as finalists for FutureGen zero-emissions power plant prototype…BP and federal officials investigate contractor death at its Texas City refinery; three contract workers injured at ChevronPhillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant…Federal judge declines to throw out fraud and conspiracy convictions of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling…

The U.S. Energy Department picked two Texas sites today among four finalists for a $1 billion prototype of a clean-burning coal-fired power plant. Odessa and Jewett were picked as finalists for the FutureGen plant, along with two locations in Illinois. Chuck McDonald is with FutureGen Texas, the state’s site-submitting team.

“The Department of Energy FutureGen Industrial Alliance announced that they’re gonna go forward with a couple of sites in Illinois and two sites in Texas–one near Odessa in west Texas and one near Jewett, which is in the College Station/Waco area in east Texas. So for us, it’s a tremendous step forward. This is a billion-dollar project, and we’re thrilled that Texas is in the finals. They said today that they expect about a year from now–probably August of 2007–they’re gonna name a site and they’re gonna get to work on building this zero-emissions power plant.”

A final decision on the site is expected next year from the government-industry partnership building the plant, which is expected to start running by 2012. They were among the 12 sites under consideration.

“They will create energy by gasifying the coal, they will capture the emissions and take that CO2 and put it down in deep underground formations a mile down into the earth’s surface. So we were looking for geologic formations that will store that CO2 underground. What this means is affordable energy in an environmentally friendly fashion. And that’s why India and China are a part of this coalition. They burn a lot of coal there for electricity–very affordable–but we’ve got to find a way to do it in a fashion that does not have a negative impact on global climate concerns.”

Touted as the power plant of tomorrow, FutureGen involves technology that converts coal into highly enriched hydrogen gas that burns cleaner than coal.

“Well, you needed to have outstanding geologic formations in order to permanently sequester or store the CO2 in deep formations. Texas is very blessed–we’ve got great geology for this kind of CO2 sequestration. We’ve been injecting CO2 into subsurface formations in Texas for the last 30 years. We’ve done it safely and without incident. It’s done in the enhanced oil recovery process out in west Texas, so it’s a technology that we are familiar with in Texas and we’ve done a lot more of it than anyone else in the world, for that matter.”

Plans call for the 275-megawatt plant to capture most of its carbon dioxide emissions and inject them permanently into underground reservoirs. Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse” gas widely blamed for global warming.

The British oil company BP reported today its net second-quarter profit rose 30 percent as soaring world oil prices counterbalanced lower oil and gas output. Chief executive John Browne also announced that he would step down at the end of 2008. Lord Browne’s future has been the subject of intense speculation. He announced today he’d step down at the end of 2008–not when he turns 60 in February of that year, as many expected. BP posted a net profit of $7.3 billion for the three months ending June 30th. Revenue rose 24 percent to $73.5 billion. BP said the second quarter included a $500 million charge to settle claims arising from the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers in March 2005. It had already set aside $700 million for compensation related to the incident. BP also says it’ll add $1 billion to the $6 billion already earmarked over the next four years to improve U.S. refinery safety and repair and replace Alaska pipelines. The company also said its Thunder Horse oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico would begin production early next year, instead of the second half of this year. The platform is the largest in the Gulf and was left listing after Hurricane Dennis passed through in July 2004.

BP and federal officials are still investigating the Friday death of a contractor who was making safety improvements at its Texas City refinery. The Galveston County Medical Examiner identified the worker as 52-year-old Ronnie Graves of Ashford, Alabama. He was an employee of J.V. Piping. BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said Graves was inside the basket of a motorized lift when he became trapped between a beam and a control panel. Chappell says the use of such lifts has been suspended until each is inspected. A March 2005 explosion at the same plant killed 15 other contractors and led to a $21.4 million fine. That’s the largest fine ever given by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA found that BP had committed more than 300 willful or serious violations of federal health and safety regulations at the plant. Now, it’s launching another investigation at the nation’s third largest oil refinery while BP also makes an internal investigation into Graves’ death.

Three contract workers performing routine maintenance were injured at ChevronPhillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant. They were sprayed with steaming hot water. The employees of Zachry Construction Corporation were taken by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston with first- and second-degree burns. One man also had a broken leg. Their names were not released. The plant manager tells the Houston Chronicle that the workers were wearing fire protective clothing. The cause of the accident was under investigation. Normal operations continued at the plant.

A federal judge in Houston today declined to throw out the fraud and conspiracy convictions of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. A jury in May convicted Skilling and Enron founder Ken Lay of multiple counts. Both men planned to appeal, but Lay died July 5th of heart trouble while on vacation in Colorado. Skilling had claimed evidence presented at his four-month trial was insufficient. His appeals are expected to continue as Skilling faces sentencing October 23rd–and decades in prison.

Of interest to Texas–the leading cattle producer in the U.S.–Japan is preparing to approve a resumption of imports of American beef this week, despite a report of problems at some processing plants. Japan banned U.S. beef earlier this year amid concerns about Mad Cow disease. But Tokyo agreed in principle to resume imports last month, provided Japanese inspectors found no problems at U.S. plants. Experts are currently examining results from a recent Japanese inspection. A Japanese official has told the Associated Press that Japan has not decided what to do if any problems are found. Japan was a huge consumer of U.S. beef before 2003, when it imposed its first ban on U.S. beef imports over concerns about possible Mad Cow disease.

The Associated Press reports the Justice Department is raising antitrust questions and opposing a plan to phase out the Wright Amendment. The 1979 long haul-flight restricting measure applies to Dallas Love Field. A compromise was reached last month by the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, plus Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. Southwest calls Love Field home. American is based at DFW International Airport. The proposal–over eight years–would end the Wright Amendment, which was meant to bolster DFW Airport in its early days. The compromise also calls for reducing gates at Love Field from 32 to 20. Other airlines that want to serve Love Field have objected to the gate reduction. American spokesman Tim Wagner says the carrier disagrees with the conclusions of the Justice Department.

Plans for a secretive commercial space venture backed by founder Jeff Bezos gets a public review at a government hearing tonight in Van Horn. The Federal Aviation Administration is taking comment on a 229-page draft of an environmental report filed by the Bezos firm developing the venture. The FAA issues licenses and permits for projects like the West Texas Spaceport bankrolled by the Internet billionaire. Van Horn’s a remote west Texas town of about 3,000 residents about 120 miles east of El Paso. It’s the nearest population center to the isolated operation. The spaceport is planned for midway between Van Horn and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park, which includes some of the highest mountains in Texas, is about 50 miles to the north on the Texas-New Mexico border.

AT&T said today its second-quarter profit climbed 81 percent. The San Antonio-based phone company cites progress in integrating the operations of the former AT&T with SBC Communications. It also credits increased contributions from Cingular Wireless. AT&T–which is one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies–says its profit rose to $1.81 billion in the three months ended June 30th. Revenue surged 53 percent from last year’s quarter to $15.8 billion. The year-ago results didn’t include operations of the former AT&T. AT&T is set to buy Atlanta-based BellSouth later this year and take full control of their Cingular joint venture–of which it now holds a 60 percent stake.

Semiconductor maker Texas Instruments says that second-quarter operating profit rose on strong and broad-based sales of components for mobile phones and electronic devices. Including one-time items and proceeds from businesses it has sold, TI had net income of $2.9 billion in the April-June period, up from $628 million a year earlier. About $1.65 billion, however, came from selling a sensors business to private-equity groups. On an operating basis, TI–the biggest maker of chips for mobile phones–said it earned $739 million after excluding parts of the business it has sold.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe said its second-quarter profit jumped 28 percent as its trains were busy hauling coal and consumer goods across its track. The nation’s second-largest railroad says it earned $470 million in the April-June quarter. That includes a four cent per share benefit from lower tax rates. Revenue increased almost 18 percent to $3.7 billion, beating expectations of $3.65 billion. Railroads such as Fort Worth-based BNSF and market leader Union Pacific have benefited from the ability to raise prices to offset rising fuel costs. Strong demand for consumer goods, and troubles in the rival trucking industry have also helped the railroads. Chairman and Chief Executive Matthew K. Rose said the company saw record demand across its services. That’s as second-quarter freight revenue rose 18 percent to a record $3.59 billion.

The latest measure of consumer confidence from the Conference Board finds a modest improvement. That’s despite rising gasoline prices and interest rates. The business research group says its June index gained rose to a better-than-expected 106.5. That’s up a little more than a point from last month. Analysts had been looking for a slight decline. The group’s Lynn Franco says ”consumer confidence continues to hold steady.” Some 5,999 U.S. households are surveyed for the report.

More evidence of a cooling housing market as the National Association of Realtors reports sales of previously-owned homes fell in June for the eighth time in the past ten months. According to the real estate trade association, sales dropped 1.3 percent last month to an annual rate of 6.62 million houses, while prices edged up at the slowest pace in more than a decade. The median price of a home sold last month was 231,000–up nine-tenths percent from a year earlier and the smallest year-over-year price gain since May of 1995. At the same time, the inventory of unsold homes rose to a record 3.73 million houses–a supply of nearly seven months at the June sales pace. Analysts believe that the growing level of unsold homes will further depress prices in the months ahead.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar says the Bush administration hasn’t adequately prepared for a possible cutoff of oil sales from Venezuela. Lugar wrote to Secretary of State Condi Rice last week that such a cutoff could cause a spike in oil prices and hurt the U.S. economy. Lugar’s office released copies of the letter. Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest crude producer. President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly threatened to cut off oil shipments to the U.S. if it tries to oust him. Despite the rhetoric, the U.S. remains Venezuela’s top oil market. The U.S. buys a million-and-a-half barrels a day of Venezuelan oil and petroleum products. And Venezuela’s state oil company owns or partly owns nine refineries in the U.S. Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington calls the speculation “absurd.”

The National Science Foundation will establish a polymer science and engineering research center at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. It’s an initial five-year investment of about $19 million. Case must reapply in four years for the second five-year funding cycle. The University of Texas at Austin is among the other partner institutions in the venture. The center will work to integrate polymer science, involving plastics, and engineering with research in optics, laser physics, biomedical engineering and other scientific disciplines.

The first Dell store opened today in an upscale Dallas mall. Company officials insist they’re not abandoning the computer maker’s strategy of selling directly to customers over the phone and the Internet. The Dell Direct Store, and another to open later this year in West Nyack, New York, are aimed at consumers–rather than Dell’s core corporate customers. There will be no inventory at the retail sore at Northpark Center. Shoppers will place orders that will be shipped to their homes. In that sense, the store is an extension of the 160 kiosks that Round Rock-based Dell has been opening in shopping malls the past few years. The 3,000-square-foot store will let consumers see how each product performs different tasks–like playing movies, music or online gaming.

Online gambling company BetonSports says it’s fired its chief executive after his arrest in the United States on racketeering charges. The sports-betting Web site operator said it was terminating the contract of David Carruthers and removing him as a director because of his detention. A company statement says Carruthers is unable to perform his duties while he’s in U.S. government custody. The 48-year-old executive was arrested July 16th at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport while trying to make a connecting flight from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica. That’s where BetonSports is based. The company suspended trading of its shares two days later. Carruthers and ten others–including BetonSports’ founder–are charged in a 22-count indictment unsealed this week by federal prosecutors in St. Louis. The government says BetonSports fraudulently took bets from U.S. residents by phone and the Internet and failed to pay excise taxes.

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