Wednesday July 26th, 2006

Senate considers opening up more acreage in Gulf of Mexico for oil and natural gas exploration and production…Houston trade mission to China nets agreements, contacts…Justice Department raises antitrust questions in phasing out Wright Amendment… The U.S. Senate is poised to take up legislation that could open up millions of acres in the central Gulf of […]

Senate considers opening up more acreage in Gulf of Mexico for oil and natural gas exploration and production…Houston trade mission to China nets agreements, contacts…Justice Department raises antitrust questions in phasing out Wright Amendment…

The U.S. Senate is poised to take up legislation that could open up millions of acres in the central Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The bill also would funnel tens of millions of additional dollars in royalties to Texas and three other Gulf States–Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The states would get just over 37 percent of future royalties from oil or gas taken from federally controlled waters, compared to less than two percent today. Some Senators and the Bush administration have raised concerns that such legislation would be too big a drain on the U.S. treasury. But Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana argues that the four states have long been shortchanged and that the new federal money would go to restore coastal wetlands and improve hurricane protection.

Mayor Bill White announced the signing of a new formal agreement between the City of Houston and Beijing, capping a week-long trade mission to China. Mayor White says the relationships built between the cities means jobs and growth for Houston, as well. Miguel San Juan with the Greater Houston Partnership says the business development mission to China was a success, especially with the participation of Mayor White.

“And the interesting things is that obviously some of these companies are medium- and small-sized companies, and that is where having the mayor leading the delegation is of tremendous assistance from the standpoint that as the highest-ranking official within our community, he can open doors wherever he visits, not only with their counterparts, with his counterparts, but also with business communities abroad.”

The 60-member trade mission represented various industries and groups.

“It was a very good cross-mix of people. Obviously the arts were represented. There was also representation from ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, Air Liquide America, Vinson & Elkins, TSC Engineering Company, so again it was a good cross-mix of Houston companies that are doing business all over the world, but in this particular case, wanted to expand their opportunities in China with their counterparts.”

San Juan says the trade mission will lead to reciprocal visits from China.

“Obviously, as a result of this particular trip, we have extended a number of invitations, not only to the senior Chinese government officials, but also to the business groups that hosted us in the different cities. So we definitely anticipate there will be inbound traffic, if you will, and I anticipate also that we will have some delegations coming in as part of our celebration of China during the International Festival in April of next year.”

City Council member Ada Edwards signed an agreement with the Beijing government setting the stage for future information technology exchanges. Another agreement is for both cities to work together on exchanges and development in petrochemicals, medical, economic and education. Similar agreements were signed with two other cities. Houston will help sister city Dalian to develop an extensive air-cargo facility similar to Houston’s operation at Bush Intercontinental Airport.

A judge threw out a lawsuit aimed at blocking AT&T from giving phone records to the government for use in the war on terror. The federal judge in Chicago cited national security in the case involving San Antonio-based AT&T. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled in Chicago that the actions sought by the lawsuit would threaten national security. He said yesterday that even allowing the company to confirm or deny whether it’s disclosed large quantities of phone records to the feds could give U.S. adversaries valuable insight into the government’s intelligence activities, and turning over the records would “adversely affect our national security.” Federal attorneys argued that for AT&T to say whether it had provided phone records to the supersecret spy agency under the program would violate a law against divulging state secrets. Judge Kennelly ruled in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois on behalf of author Studs Terkel and other activists. Critics say their constitutional rights were violated because of a national security agency program of gathering phone company records illegally.

A federal judge says he won’t at this point take testimony in his review of government deals that allowed two telecom mergers last year. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington is reviewing competition issues. The deals involve the mergers of SBC Communications with AT&T, and Verizon Communications with MCI. The judge says it’s premature to hold evidentiary hearings. Instead, Sullivan will let all sides file more documents o justify whether the Justice Department’s antitrust division approval of the mergers is in the public interest. SBC Communications changed its name when it acquired AT&T in late 2005. The government has until August 7th to file materials in support of the consent decrees. Final briefs from all parties are due August 28th.

Many residents in the sparsely populated Culberson County in west Texas say that they’re excited about plans for a commercial space venture there. Those attending a federal hearing in Van Horn last night on the spaceport say they’re thrilled founder Jeff Bezos has chosen their remote area for a commercial space venture. The Federal Aviation Administration held the hearing in Van Horn, which is about 120 miles east of El Paso and the nearest population center to the isolated operation. The spaceport is being developed by the Internet billionaire’s company. Mayor Okey D. Lukas says the secretive venture under construction about 25 miles north of his town of about 3,000 people is the biggest thing to hit the county in his 23 years in office. The FAA hearing was to take public comment on a 229-page draft report of an environmental assessment of the project. The project is located on some 165,000 acres of property. The hearing drew about three dozen area residents, and none expressed any misgivings.

The FutureGen Alliance announced the four finalists for what it’s calling “the ultimate power plant” in no particular order. But there was an order to its site evaluations. Mattoon and Tuscola, Illinois along with two sites in Texas were named as finalists yesterday. The alliance scored each proposal based on several factors, including the quality of the land, access to transportation and water supplies. In its report, the alliance says Jewett, Texas came out on top, followed by Mattoon and an area near Odessa. But deciding the fourth finalist wasn’t as easy. A proposal from Effingham, Illinois, scored several points higher than Tuscola. But the configuration of Effingham’s site and railroad problems worried the developers enough to eliminate it. That moved fifth-ranked Tuscola into the final four.

The Associated Press reports the Justice Department is raising antitrust questions and opposing a plan to phase out the Wright Amendment. AP today cites a Justice Department memo on the 1979 long haul-flight restricting measure at 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. American spokesman Tim Wagner says the carrier disagrees with the conclusions of the Justice Department. Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart says the feds overlooked part of the deal that lets airlines sell one-stop tickets from Love Field to far-flung cities, called through-ticketing. Stewart says through-ticketing would help customers right away and bring about competition. Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief says he believes there’s nothing in the compromise that would prohibit competition at Love Field or DFW Airport.

Continental Airlines fired a pilot who testified positive for alcohol after being removed from an aircraft in Houston. Continental says the pilot initially was removed from duty after Sunday’s incident. The carrier says a co-worker riding an employee bus with the captain, bound for the airport terminal, smelled alcohol on the pilot’s breath–and reported it. Houston-based Continental says the captain tested above the legal limits for alcohol. Figures weren’t released. The carrier says the pilot had been scheduled for Flight 706 from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport to Tampa, Florida. Continental says the pilot was removed from the jet before passengers boarded. His name wasn’t immediately released.

Nearly 27,000 families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may not have federal aid for rent next month–unless they renew by Monday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the deadline affects evacuees in a long-term housing program. The program has cost FEMA at least $897 million in Texas since Katrina swamped the Gulf Coast last August. Katrina made landfall in September in southeast Texas. About 19,000 of the families facing Monday’s deadline are in Texas. Authorities say all but about 25,000 are in Houston, which has absorbed about 150,000 hurricane refugees since Katrina. FEMA officials say evacuees who miss the deadline can file after Monday to renew their assistance. But those may not be available in time to pay rent that’s typically due at the beginning of the month.

Special traffic lanes for prescreened U.S./Mexico commuters will open in Brownsville and Hidalgo next month. The so-called Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection Lanes is known as Sentri. The system is already in place in El Paso; Nogales, Arizona; and Calexico, Otay Mesa and San Diego, California. Participants must supply documents and undergo interviews to be added to a database indicating they’re considered a low-security risk for passage to and from Mexico. The program costs $129 per person, or up to $258 per family. Sentri-registered vehicles have a transponder that beams passenger information to U.S. inspectors as the vehicles approach a booth. A testing phase for the new lanes starts August 1st. The official opening is set for August 23rd.

ConocoPhillips said today that lofty oil prices fueled a 65 percent surge in the Houston-based oil company’s second-quarter net income. The nation’s third-largest integrated oil company earned $5.18 billion. Results far surpassed Wall Street expectations. Revenues rose 12.6 percent to $47.1 billion.

Kleenex and Huggies maker Kimberly-Clark said today its second-quarter profit fell as rising costs for energy and raw materials offset a four percent revenue increase. The Irving-based tissue and toilet paper maker said earnings fell 10.4 percent to $378 million in the quarter ended June 30th. Revenue rose 4.3 percent to $4.16 billion, slightly more than analysts had expected.

Hewlett Packard is buying Mercury Interactive for $4.5 billion. A maker of business management software, Mercury has been in turmoil since ousting its longtime chief executive and several other top managers last November. The company accused them of rigging stock option awards to increase their potential windfalls. The delisted pink-sheet company is facing possible civil enforcement proceedings over the timing of stock-options grants. Earlier this month, Mercury wiped out $525 million in previously reported profits to correct the accounting problems caused by the stock option controversy.

The price of copper has more than doubled in the past year and a Dallas-based utility is working with police to cut down on thefts. TXU Electric Delivery today announced a partnership with police and scrap yards to identify stolen copper–and catch the crooks. TXU lost $633,000 last year to copper theft. That figure doesn’t include power outages associated with the crime. Dallas police say a man was electrocuted July 16th while allegedly trying to steal copper wire from a utility pole. He was identified as Larry Dory. TXU plans to replacing stolen copper with copper weld. Copper weld is steel wire that’s covered with copper, has the same electrical properties–but is less valuable for scrap. The company also will upgrade its security. The unit of TXU Corporation serves about three million homes and businesses.

The Japanese government will officially approve resuming U.S. beef imports from selected meat processing plants tomorrow. That’s according to a Japanese agriculture ministry spokesman today. He says the approval will come after a strategy meeting of the ministry, where officials will debate when to start accepting beef shipments and other details. Japan imposed a ban on U.S. beef in January after a veal shipment was found to contain banned animal parts. A previous ban lasted two years from December 2003, when the first of three cases of Mad Cow disease was found in the American herd. One cow was born in Texas, the nation’s leading cattle producer. The selective move would ease a blanket ban imposed earlier this year over Mad Cow fears. Japanese inspectors toured 35 plants to find out whether they meet Japanese guidelines against Mad Cow disease.

A review finds at least $12 billion worth of contracts the government says went to small companies last year–didn’t. Those contracts instead went to the coffers of large companies like Microsoft and Rolls Royce. The report was released today in Washington by Democratic congressional investigators. Authorities say there were two basic problems: federal agencies miscoded thousands of contracts to big companies as small business awards, and many other companies that started small grew large or were purchased by corporate giants, but continued to get small business contracts. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez is asking the government accountability office and internal watchdogs government agencies to review contracting procedures. Records show Irving-based Exxon Mobil won a nearly $64,000 contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency and a $50,000 award from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. A spokesman says the company is investigating, but added that Exxon Mobil has thousands of annual transactions with the government.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has adopted new rules that’ll require companies to provide more details of executive pay and perks. The overhaul of benefit disclosure policy–the most substantial since 1992–was adopted unanimously. Under the new rules, public companies will have to furnish tables in annual filings showing the total annual compensation for their CEOs, chief financial officers and the next three highest-paid executives. In addition, most of the disclosures will have to be written in plain English. The SEC also is writing new rules on disclosure of the dating of options. At issue is a practice known as backdating, in which stock options are issued retroactively to coincide with low points in a company’s share price. Such a move can raise profits for recipients of the options when they sell their shares at higher market prices.

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