Monday AM August 18th, 2008

Houston summit assesses current energy situation…Texas Business Leaders Confidence Index looks for better third quarter than rest of nation…Some 47 per cent of RVers in Texas camping less often and closer to home…

A Congressman from the Houston area has organized an energy summit this morning, bringing together experts to assess America’s current energy situation. Congressman Kevin Brady has invited John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil and founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, as well as Amy Jaffe from the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy. Clay Sell with Hunt Oil, Fred Smith with the Institute for 21st Century Energy and Stuart Strife with Anadarko Petroleum round out the panel. The summit is being held this morning at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences & Technology at the Texas Medical Center on Holcombe.

Moscow’s influence over oil and natural gas reserves came to the forefront when it sent armored columns into neighboring Georgia. Georgia controls key pipelines that deliver crude from Central Asia. But so far, there is little evidence that the conflict has stemmed the slide in crude prices. With Russian troops still in control of strategic cities like Gori — the price for light, sweet crude for September delivery declined. Peter Zeihan with Austin-based geopolitical research firm Stratford, says the conflict highlighted how quickly Russia is able to gain control of the key pipelines in Georgia. Prices already had plenty of downward momentum following weeks of declines, making it harder for market bulls to spark a rally. Another factor is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline had been shut down before fighting broke out because of an apparently unrelated fire on a segment of the conduit in Turkey.

Houston’s economy should fare better than other major metro areas in the third quarter, according to the Texas Business Leaders Confidence Index. The quarterly survey, conducted by the Institute for Innovation, Creativity and Capital at the University of Texas at Austin and Compass Bank, indicates business leaders predict a continued slowdown. The index looks at hiring expectations, sales, profits and capital expenditures. Houston ranks first in the state, followed by San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. About 57 per cent of the 525 respondents say they’re trying to save as much as possible on energy costs and 41 per cent have cut back on business travel.

But in a new study by the Durham, North Carolina-based American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, chief financial officers and accountants believe the economy has entered into a recession. The Houston Business Journal reports about 62 per cent are pessimistic about the U.S. economic outlook over the next year—the third straight quarter they’ve predicted slow growth ahead.

Netflix resumed mailing DVDs over the weekend, having solved what it calls “severe technical issues.” Bloomberg News says the mail-order movie service resumed shipping from its 55 distribution centers on Friday after three days of delays caused by technical glitches. Affected customers are being given a 15 per cent credit on their next monthly bill. About 30 per cent of Netflix’s 8.4 million customers were affected.

Has Wal-Mart tried to pressure employees on their election views? That’s what the AFL-CIO and three other labor-rights groups want the Federal Election Commission to look into. They’ve asked the FEC to investigate whether the retailer unlawfully pressured its workers to vote against Democrats in November, because their party would help workers to unionize. The labor organizations base their complaint on a report from the Wall Street Journal. Wal-Mart has said it did discuss the employee free choice act with its employees, including what it sees as the negative impact of letting labor unionize workplaces without secret-ballot elections. But it also says it has not pushed its employees to vote against backers of the legislation.

Final paving and striping is scheduled for the main lanes of eastbound I-10/Katy Freeway, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The new I-10 eastbound lanes will consist of at least four continuous general purpose lanes, with as many as eight additional lanes at connector, entrance lane exit ramps. I-10/Katy Freeway HOV operations will close permanently next Monday, as contractors begin final paving and striping of the I-10 westbound main lanes and complete construction on the Katy Tollway/Managed lanes. The HOV closure has been timed with completion of the I-10 eastbound lanes.

Some 47 per cent of RVers in Texas are camping less often and closer to home as a result of rising fuel costs. Those are the findings of a recent online survey by the Texas Association of Campground Owners. Responses from some 576 users of recreational vehicles found that 53 per cent are camping as much as ever, but 32 per cent say they’re just doing it closer to home. About 90 per cent of visitors to the group’s Web site request a free copy of their 2008 Texas RV Travel & Camping Guide.

Hershey says it’s immediately increasing prices on its candy by an average of 11 percent because of rising commodities prices. The chocolate maker says that the increased prices on products will help offset “significant increases” in the cost of raw materials such as sugar, cocoa and peanuts, as well as the growing cost of fuel, utilities and transportation. Separately, the company also narrowed its 2008 earnings and revenue guidance because of the price hikes.

Everything from wood chips to chicken fat is being scrutinized as an alternative to traditional fuel since the price of oil still tops $100 per barrel. But when it comes to airplanes—finding the right mix poses a special challenge. Experts say the best bet right now for non-conventional fuel comes from South Africa. The country for years has powered its airline industry using a coal-based jet fuel blend developed by petrochemicals group Sasol. Boeing and Air New Zealand this year will test a biofuel made from the oil-rich seeds of the jatropha tree, a Mexican plant that grows in warm climates. Other synthetic fuel tests will follow on flights by Houston-based Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines. In February, Boeing partnered with Virgin Atlantic to test a flight that included a biofuel mixture of babassu, which comes from a palm tree in northern Brazil, and coconut oil.

A couple who bought 350 acres in rural Erath County to raise horses and enjoy the breathtaking sunsets—have a different view. Johnny and Tesa Whitley now see two dozen wind turbines. The 400-foot-tall turbines tower over trees atop ridges, some just a mile away. Some folks in several nearby towns, about 100 miles southwest of Dallas, are fighting to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. A spokesman told the Associated Press that FPL Energy has not decided whether to proceed with the project in Morgan Mill and Huckabay. Steve Stengel says officials are still studying the area’s wind and transmission lines and talking to landowners. Stengel declined to discuss the company’s lease terms and said people are required to sign confidentiality agreements because information in the contracts is proprietary. The Public Utility Commission has given preliminary approval to a plan to build transmission lines to carry wind-generated electricity from west Texas. Billionaire Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens recently unveiled his project to erect wind turbines across the midwest.

Some airlines have begun giving military personnel on official travel a pass on fees when they carry heavy bags stuffed with combat gear. Airtran, Delta Air Lines, and Northwest Airlines joined those who waive all or most of their baggage fees for active duty members on official travel. Earlier this week, Fort Worth-based American Airlines, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air began waiving their fee to check a third bag for active service members. American says fees for first and second checked bags have always been waived for active service members. Southwest doesn’t charge to check the first two bags. Many airlines struggling with the high cost of jet fuel implemented or increased baggage fees this year. The Pentagon reimburses service members for bag fees incurred during official travel, but not for personal travel.

The U.S. mint wants Americans to start getting serious about using dollar coins. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Austin, Texas, are among four cities that have been chosen to test new efforts to encourage their regular use. The others are Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Americans ignored the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars. Last year the mint started rolling out a series of dollar coins featuring all the U.S. presidents, in the order they served. The government wants more consumers spending dollar coins and more retailers giving them to customers as change. Mint officials say dollar coins are more durable than paper bills and have the potential to save the country millions of dollars annually in production costs. Countries in Europe use a coin for the Euro and Great Britain uses a coin for the pound.

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