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Thursday AM December 7th, 2006

Citgo expanding discounted heating oil program to America’s poor…Governor Perry endorses Mexican guest-worker program…2006 Texas Technology Showcase looks at how chemical or oil refining companies can develop more energy efficient processes… More American homes are getting discounted oil from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. The company’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, is expanding a program that’s part of […]

Citgo expanding discounted heating oil program to America’s poor…Governor Perry endorses Mexican guest-worker program…2006 Texas Technology Showcase looks at how chemical or oil refining companies can develop more energy efficient processes…

More American homes are getting discounted oil from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. The company’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, is expanding a program that’s part of a promise by Venezuela’s socialist leader to aid America’s poor. Citgo delivered discounted heating oil to a Baltimore woman. It’s the first of 15,000 needy households in Maryland that are slated to get more than three million gallons of discounted fuel. They’ll each get as much as 200 gallons, at a 40-percent discount. Citgo says it’s expanding the program beyond the northeast, to provide oil at the discounted rate to more than 400,000 households in 16 states. Last year, the program provided nearly 40 million gallons. This year, that number is expected to reach more than 100 million gallons. The U.S. is still the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. But relations between the two countries have been tense since Hugo Chavez took office. And critics of the program says it’s a way for Chavez to embarrass President Bush.

Governor Rick Perry said a guest-worker program is needed for Mexican immigrants working in the U.S. The newly re-elected Republican says federal officials should work toward providing I.D. cards for immigrant workers that allow them to freely cross the border. Perry says such a program should emphasize the “rule of law” and not reward those who break the law. The governor also said he disagrees with new state legislation to challenge the automatic citizenship of babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. That bill has been proposed by a fellow Republican–State Representative Leo Berman of Tyler. Perry says he thinks “any of those types of legislation that create divisions are bad.”

The two-day 2006 Texas Technology Showcase at the Galveston Island Convention Center is looking at ways companies processing chemicals or refining oil can develop more energy efficient processes. Terry Welch is with Dow Chemical, one of the gathering’s sponsors.

“The basic theme of this conference is providing the toolbox for energy efficiency. It’s called the Engineering Energy Toolbox, which brings practices, technology and management systems the best practice in the industry, focusing on how do we reduce energy across the state of Texas so that we become even more competitive and attract business development. Plant managers, energy managers, plant engineers that are attending the conference. We also have vendors and consultants who provide services. We’ve also had the Department of Energy, who is one of our sponsors, participate both as a plenary speaker as well as a panel speaker, showing their support for both the efforts of the Texas industry of the future as well as their long-term commitment to providing what is necessary for plants to get the incentives to continue to work on energy conservation.”

Welch says a lot depends on corporations keeping on top of rising energy costs.

“Competitiveness is very dependent on our ability from an energy standpoint, and you know for many, many years, we’ve been very much in a very good position from an energy standpoint, with low natural gas prices, with low crude oil prices. Now with the volatility, the rising energy costs, it’s refocused both the local Texas businesses and the multinationals like Dow to say, you know we can’t afford to lose this asset base that we have in the United States or in North America. So what can we do to diversify our energy portfolio but at the same time drive energy conservation? Because it’s through your cheapest energy increment, there. And by driving that, again, hit the bottom line, make us more competitive and keep these assets running, which creates both additional jobs, more growth and a secure–from a security standpoint–a more secure energy supply for the U.S.”

Participants include the Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Texas Industries of the Future program at the University of Texas at Austin Center for Energy and Environmental Resources, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The Port of Houston Authority will receive its first cargo vessel at the new $1.2 billion Bayport Container Terminal today, as the “Orca” is guided into port and into its berth by tugboats. It will be the first test of the new terminal’s docking operations. The ship will then travel to the older Barbours Cut Terminal to offload its cargo. Cargo will be offloaded at the new terminal beginning in January. The Bayport project, which also includes a new cruise terminal, began in June 2004. It will eventually have the capacity to handle seven container vessels and will have a 378-acre storage yard. San Antonio-based Zachry Construction is the primary contractor for the first phase of the project.

Two powerful Capitol Hill Democrats sharply question a move by the Federal Communications Commission chairman to “unrecuse” a fellow commissioner and allow him to vote on the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii wrote FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last night, expressing his “disappointment” in Martin allowing former lobbyist and current commissioner Robert McDowell to vote on the proposed merger. Michigan Congressman John Dingell sent a letter to the FCC’s general counsel to ask 15 pointed questions about past precedent of such recusals and other issues. The obvious dismay expressed by the two men takes on added significance since the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in November. When Congress reconvenes in January, Inouye will be chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Dingell will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Both committees oversee the activities of the FCC. The proposed $82 billion merger would fold Atlanta-based BellSouth into San Antonio-based AT&T and give AT&T sole control over Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless. Cingular is now an AT&T/BellSouth joint venture.

Green onions are now off the menu at all of America’s nearly 6,000 Taco Bells, because tests on some samples show signs of e-coli. The fast food chain says the results are preliminary, but appear to be positive for the bacteria that sickened at least three dozen people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Taco Bell had the test done by an independent lab, while state officials run their own tests. In a statement, the company’s president says the restaurant chain is pulling the green onions out of what he calls “an abundance of caution.” Some of the Taco Bells initially closed by the e-coli outbreak are open again, but nine others in the suburbs of Philadelphia are now shut. Health officials are still trying to nail down the source of the bacteria. They’ve been checking a New Jersey food distribution center that supplied some of the restaurants. An attorney for Temple-based owner McLane Company says the company’s trying to track the food sources back to determine a root cause by the process of elimination.

People in the southwest who drink Jamba Juice are getting a warning today. Jamba Juice company says smoothies containing strawberries might have been contaminated with a potentially deadly bacterium. The warning applies to smoothies sold at Jamba Juice stores in Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California from November 25th through December 1st. So far the company hasn’t received any reports of confirmed illnesses. The bacterium–listeria moncytogenes–can be deadly to young children, the elderly and others with weak immune systems. It can also cause miscarriage and stillbirths in pregnant women. Healthy people should watch for fevers, headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

Flying from here to there took a little longer during October. The Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report says the nation’s 20 largest airlines’ on-time flight rate dipped nearly ten percentage points compared with the same period a year ago. The overall on-time arrival rate averaged 72.2 percent in October, compared with 81.3 percent last year. In addition, the airlines canceled 1.9 percent of their scheduled domestic flights, slightly higher than in the year-ago period. Hawaiian Airlines has the best on-time rate at 91.6 percent, followed by Aloha Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Atlantic Southeast Airlines had the worst on-time rate at just 55 percent followed by Comair and its parent Delta.

Houston-based FMC Technologies has signed a $210 million contract with Statoil to supply subsea systems for the offshore Norwegian Gj?a project, according to the Houston Business Journal. FMC will supply 14 subsea trees, five template structures with manifolds, a topside control system and work-over systems, all manufactured at FMC’s facility in Kongsberg, Norway. First deliveries are scheduled to Statoil in July 2008.

Railroad cross-tie manufacturer TieTek has opened a production plant in Houston, according to the Houston Business Journal. TieTek will increase production of its composite cross-ties by 50 percent and will produce cross-ties and switch-ties as long as 22 feet. The three lines of production will consume 500 tons of recycled plastic and rubber from more than 15,000 used tires. TieTek is a subsidiary of Marshall-based North American Technologies Group.

Duke Energy President and Chief Executive Jim Rogers reiterated the company’s forecast of a four-to-six percent earnings growth over the next three years. Duke is set to spin off its natural gas division in January. Company executives will be back in New York Monday to discuss Spectra Energy Corporation with analysts and investors. The stand-alone company will be based in Houston. Rogers also told investors in New York the Charlotte, North Carolina-based utility remains on track to spend $9 billion over three years building power plants in the Carolinas and Indiana.

Exxon Mobil plans to explore for oil and natural gas in the Philippines for the first time. The Irving-based company is buying a 50 percent stake and leading the search in the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Borneo.

Italian airport restaurant operator Autogrill says it’s won a contract at El Paso International Airport that it estimates to be worth $105 million over 11 years. The contract starts January 1st. The world’s largest airport restaurant manager says it’ll manage 11 new food outlets in the airport’s main terminal. El Paso’s airport handles more than 3.4 million passengers a year and over 190,000 aircraft. Autogrill already operates in Texas at airports here in Houston and at Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Lubbock, Corpus Christi and Harlingen.

Private-equity groups Investcorp and Hicks Holdings have agreed to pay $730 million for a stake in freight-transportation handler Greatwide Logistics Services. London-based Investcorp will become the majority shareholder of suburban Dallas-based Greatwide. The exact percentage of its stake hasn’t been disclosed. Privately held Greatwide is the result of a patchwork of acquisitions. It says its trucking and warehouse customers include Wal-Mart, Target and food distributor Sysco. An Investcorp executive said Greatwide has annual revenue of $1.2 billion. It also manages about $10 billion in assets. Dallas-based Hicks Holdings is led by financier Tom Hicks and controls his real estate and sports investments, including the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. The sale by Greatwide’s current majority owner, Fenway Partners, is expected to close by year end. New York-based Fenway says it’s selling a “substantial portion” of its Greatwide holding but will keep a minority stake.

China has lifted restrictions on direct sales for rivals Amway and Mary Kay. The restrictions have been in place for eight years and limited the companies’ recruitment of distributors. Mary Kay is based in the Dallas suburb of Addison. Ada, Michigan-based Alticor is the parent company of Amway and operates a subsidiary known as Amway China in that country.

Asarco is seeking a four-month extension of its exclusive reorganization rights. The mining company is struggling to resolve problems with its labor force, debt load and environmental issues. The company said it wants until May 11th to submit a proposal to pay creditors and until July 11th to lobby for creditor support. That’s according to papers submitted to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Corpus Christi. At the time of its bankruptcy filing last year, Asarco listed more than $1 billion in debt. At the time bankruptcy proceedings started in August 2005, about 1,500 workers staged a strike. Employees didn’t return to work until last December causing production levels to lag. The labor settlement that ended the strike is about to expire and talks on a new agreement are at a crucial stage. If a judge were to turn down Asarco’s request, the company’s sole right to propose a plan would end on January 5th and its exclusive solicitation rights would expire on March 9th. A hearing on the issue has not been scheduled.

The global gap between rich and poor continues. A report from World Institute for Development Economics Research shows the richest two percent of adults still owns more than half of the world’s household wealth. In addition, as of 2000 the richest one percent of adults–most of them in Europe or the U.S.–owned 40 percent of global assets. However, there are some hopeful signs. One of the study’s author notes that China and India, which are developing rapidly, are gaining wealth. And in countries like Bangladesh, the spread of micro-credit institutions is helping people increase their personal wealth. Researchers define wealth as the value of physical and financial assets minus debts.

With the Christmas shopping season now going full bore, consumers are hitting the malls and Web sites in growing numbers. But the latest Principal Financial Well-Being Index finds just nine percent of workers and five percent of retirees indicate they plan to spend more money for gifts than they did last year. And, looking ahead to next year, growing numbers of people say they plan to be more disciplined in their spending. Thirty-seven percent say they plan to pay off credit card debt, and 33 percent indicate they’ll put a set amount of money into savings each month. Fifteen percent of retirees say they’ll reduce spending by a specific amount each month.

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